People of the Sea

GOE, and catche a falling starre…Teach me to heare Mermen singing

I think that the first mer-character I really remember was a mer-boy who either rescues Rupert the Bear or who is rescued by the smartly-dressed ursine adventurer. Looking at various stories in which the merboy figures, I can’t say for certain which it was – I remember the putto-like character, the rocky shore, a sea-serpent…. All rather untamed, compared with the donkeys-and-pier seaside I knew in Cleethorpes, but somewhat like bits of Dorset. For me at the time, seaside was not a place of uncanny encounters, but I did recognise that such meetings, on a chilly shore, make for a great read. Katharine Briggs has some good stories of Merrows and seal-people scattered through her books but she does warn that

The mermaids are perhaps of the most ambivalent character. The very sight of them at sea is death to sailors, and it is their habit to decoy people under water, but at times they are benevolent …

K M Briggs: “Forgotten gods and Nature Spirits” in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.

Human fear of drowning and perhaps a fear of the disruption to a society of a sort of seductive sexuality make the mermaid seem a dangerous creature. Note, however, that Briggs refers here to maids, to dangerous aquatic females – but she is aware, too, of male people of the sea.

While thinking of Mermen, it is worth turning to Walter Map, whose work De Nugis Curialium contains the story of Nicholas Pipe, described as

A true man with no hint of the inhuman in any of his limbs and with no defect in any of his five senses, he had been given, beyond his humanity, the aptitudes of a fish.

Illusions and Resurrections
selected from Walter Map’s De nugis curialium
translated and adapted by M. T. Anderson

but tellingly also less than a human and united with the fishes. (see this edition for all sorts of name-dropping, snarky comments and so on from Walter Map – and occasional folktales and horror stories). It strikes me that what Pipe is, is a creature, like many supernatural creatures, able to move between the accepted world and the unknown. In the book People of the Sea a seal inland worries islanders that it might be something more than a seal. That ambiguity is the stuff of the uncanny.

People of the Sea requires a bit of explanation. I’d seen merpeople in Narnia, read the Little Mermaid with its chilling message about hopeless love, and then was bought David Thomson’s rich and bleak The People of the Sea one Christmas in the early 80s. Here Thomson recounts the classic Selchie Tale of the seal-woman who raises a land family (in this case under duress) before returning to the sea. It’s a haunting tale that gets a beautiful modern retelling in the film Song of the Sea (Trailer here), and a different exploration around sibling bereavement in Brahmachari and Ray’s Corey’s Rock. (NB, I have explored Corey’s Rock before: link here). There are versions of Selchie tales of all sorts, told in almost orientalised contexts in David Thomson’s book, attesting to the power of these ambiguous creatures, and relationships between land people and magic sea people – and earthly seals too, hunted with respect but not sentimentality.

And the latest voices and images to attest to that power belong to Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew. Again drowning is a key dramatic element, and the story draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid – or perhaps the Disney version*. No Prince to be rescued here, but a scruffy-but-nice Fisherman called Ernest; no manipulative Sea-Witch, but a jealous ruler, Pelagios, Nen’s father, a gloriously imperious, almost gilded merman straight from an eighteenth-century fireplace.

The characters are “between worlds” (a phrase I picked up from the BBC series on the influence of Irish music and this piece by Michael O’Suilleabhain), like the unicorn Findhorn in Alan Garner’s magnificent and threatening fantasy Elidor (a great blog report here). Findhorn walks in high places and yet meets his end in the lap of a virgin not in a glorious, flowery tapestry but on a demolition site in 60s Manchester. Nen, in sharp contrast, lives in deep places, but finds fulfilment in the gaze of a lonely fisherman on a coast of rocks and cottages, and his father begins to wonder whether the two worlds are as different as he had thought.

Just as I like the way James Mayhew depicts the anguished hauteur of Pelagios – and while I promised not to think of Disney, it does match, if not exceed, the wrath of Triton in The Little Mermaid – the eye contact between the merman Nen and his lonely fisherman Ernest is also charmingly warm. The images stand in opposition to each other. The sighing ocean and the violent waves, are calmed by the merman’s song tender and brimming with courage – and Pelagios’ doubts over the human world abate like the storm, so that Nen and his (a little word but worth noting) fisherman are on a rock laughing and dreaming about the future.

It is here that the despair of Andersen is passed over, and the subtexts of abuse and grief from the Selchie stories of the Gaelic islands are rewritten. More tales could be told – maybe should be told – about Nen and Ernest as they grow and share their lives. We are not in the world of the uncanny – or with John Donne in the world of fantastic improbability as in the headquote – but in a world of acceptance.

*[And as an aside, I have to say that, tempting though it might be to read this (and write about Ian and James’ book) as a queering of Disney, I’m largely going to leave Uncle Walt to others.]

Waking Early

There is, of course, the wonderful poem by Mary Oliver, praising the chance warming of the earth by the sun that I cited in the post Texts for Difficult Times: to ease us with warm touching,/ to hold us in the great hands of light… and when I woke at 04:40, (far too) early today I could have wished I’d had learned the poem.

And in the opening scene of Anouilh’s Antigone, the eponymous protagonist almost deceives us into thinking she has just been out exploring the glories of the early dawn:

Dans les champs, c’était tout mouillée, et cela attendait. Tout attendait. Je faisais un bruit énorme toute seule sur la route et j’étais gênée parce que je savais bien que ce n’était pas moi qu’on attendait…

It was cold – sandals, t-shirt, trousers weren’t quite enough. And damp, with mud from the May rains, with dew in the long grass. And oddly noisy. Antigone might have been aware of the noise she made, but I was aware of passing traffic, the waste disposal truck in the Old Road Campus and all the other hums and buzzes the buildings make. And then, in the shadow of the dip towards the brook, the sound of birds and water.

There really are few things as precious as the quiet morning where the running water and the songbirds are an obbligato to the experience. Is this because they signify food and water somewhere deep in my brain? I am struck by the question that looks bigger and bigger the more I look at it: why do we find these things beautiful?

Antigone is right: this wasn’t a show waiting for me to take my seat, and while we might take delight that the happy birds are singing their Te Deums (the reference is first to Mrs Oldknow, but I think Lucy Boston is referring to this Maytime hymn), their cries are for territory, for food, for sex.

Oh, but hang on a minute: does that mean that birds being birds isn’t exactly what they should be doing? And if you see any sort of purpose or numinous element to a dawn chorus, does it need to be imposed on the birds actually supplying the music? Mary Oliver, Gerard Manley Hopkins (maybe) have it right: to glory in these things, simply to see

…all around us

this country

of original fire

Mary Oliver: Humpbacks

On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Binsey Poplars

might involve us using these as image, symbol, metaphor – but the thisness of the birds and the brook really doesn’t need me to be there. Mary Oliver is almost brutal in her version of this message:

…there is still

somewhere deep within you

a beast shouting that the earth

is exactly what it wanted –

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly,

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

Mary Oliver: Morning Poem

And from a theological standpoint, I can’t impose on the crows, the woodpecker, the thrushes my human-shaped pieties. The Te Deum of a bird is to be a bird. So to end here is Roger Deakin’s account of his own waking early, and hearing the birds around his Suffolk house:

It is actually quite noisy with birdsong here, all concentrated into a mile of hedgerows – full, wide, dense hedges like the ramparts of a castle. A kind of maze of them surrounds the little friend, and the birds love them for making nests. So there is great competition amongst all the birds for space, for a few square yards of territory, and do they sing longer and louder and more lustily… And for a bird the most important aspect of household management is singing. Perching as high up as you can and singing for as long and as hard as you can.

Roger Deakin’s “Notes from Walnut Tree Farm:” May

Do I Deserve Sicily?

Quoniam placuerunt servis tuis lapides ejus

It is hugely tempting to fill a blog that I’ve given headings like this with photos of holidays and trips I have had. Ruins I have visited, cities I have met and loved. Let me get some out of the way.

It may give the impression I have seen all sorts of wonders all round the world but I am not really very well travelled: unlike my dad whose Moominpappa-like Misspent Youth included trips in the Merchant Navy to Japan, South Africa and all sorts of places, my furthest trips have been to the Gambia for work, and holidays in Europe. And yet for some people this is a lot of travelling: my Mum saw France, but no further, and for some, finance or responsibilities or fear of flying put journeys out of reach. For nearly twenty years – as a young dad – I didn’t have a current passport.

So when I see the suggestion that people need or deserve a holiday abroad I can’t help but baulk at the idea. It’s not the air miles and pollution, although that does worry me increasingly (and I do like trains anyway: waking up on the train to Provence to see a field of sunflowers was as amazing, in its way, as the romance of Paris in the early morning after the Nuit Blanche trip on ferry and train from Victoria in the 70s). No, it’s not even the “Bali or Brighton” divide: I think its the notion of deserving something or needing it being confused with wanting something very badly or having your expectations denied. “You can’t have that wish” is something we find alien to our mindset – although in a not-so-distant-past it is a recurring response to Little Bear‘s wishes.

So I’ve wandered (rather aimlessly) through some of the literature on desert – starting from the ideas of “deserving degrees” – and came across this, very much off my usual track:

It may simply be the folly of the gods, to make us act out for one another, for their amusement, when ultimately little is accomplished…Whether in our conjugal relations, our political systems, our commercial interactions, even in our cultivation of art and science, there is illusion and deception

Kevin Hoover in Copp, D., & Sobel, D. (2000). What We Owe to Each Other

And perhaps that “acting out” is really the key to the problem. As George MacDonald puts it – or rather how C S Lewis in the mouth of MacDonald puts it:

There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names—Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self- Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.’

C S Lewis, The Great Divorce

In other words, we are keen to say we need and deserve in order to grandstand our desires; we would choose unhappiness as a lever to get what we want. It is caricatured in the anonymous ditty

Madam Dill

Is very ill

And nothing will improve her.

Until she sees

The Tuileries

And waddles through the Louvre.

But often it is an illusion. This isn’t about help when someone is physically or mentally ill, but I think we have to see that Madam Dill does not need her trip to Paris any more than this pundit or that feels anything more serious than serious disappointment when they cannot get to their favourite quaiside taverna. I may (to come to my subtitle) love the very stones of Villeneuve lez Avignon and be sad not to see them, but we deceive ourselves by thinking that this disappointment is something the cosmos has engineered to rob us of our rights. We might find some balm by visiting our places of significance, from the pub for a pint onwards, but I suspect that in many cases this is not the same as desiring them fervently. Lockdown in COVID times has heightened some of my needs and wishes to almost silly levels, and I do really miss my friends, my family, some amazing places I had planned to see this year – but I have to recognise that somewhere in my “I want it very badly” is just “I’ll scream and scream and scream until I’m sick” – and while the lack makes me sad, I am not likely in all honesty to be able to say “I deserve…”

Firth of Forth

So to conclude, and maybe to cheer me up, are some places of significance – I won’t embarrass anyone by putting people – that I do want to see really badly at the moment. Here is the Firth of Forth, all flat sands and rock pools and Eiders, a place (and people) I associate with freedom and quiet and love.

Or – and these last two are no surprise if you have followed my journeys at all – that I have to include as places that mean a lot to me, the Tors in the Cheshire borderlands, and that Monreale-like face in the rocks at Ludchurch.

Family, Friendship and Loss

‘There is no family any longer.’

Except, Tove Jansson will tell us in a roundabout way, there is – but this is not where she starts from. As Jake Hayes’ fantastic exploration of the book will tell us, Moominvalley in November “is a story about unfulfilled desires.’ And what we find is a different kind of family, where familial fit – the way a community wraps its skills and needs around one another – is re-explored, without most of the familiar main characters of the Moomin stories. But Snufkin is here, irresolute and disturbed.

One of the saddest sections in any of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books is where Snufkin, on his way for the autumn, remembers he hasn’t left his usual letter for his friend Moomintroll.

I forgot my goodbye letter, I didn’t have time. But all the letters I write are the same: I’ll be back in April, keep well. I’m going away , but I’ll be back in the spring, look after yourself. He knows anyway.

Tove Jansson: Moominvalley in November: ‘Snufkin.’

He knows anyway: the heart leaps at that comforting assurance, the two friends knowing that the other is secure in their friendship. And then Jansson pulls the rug out from under my feet:

And Snufkin forgot about Moomintroll as easily as that.

Way back, in what to me seems the sunnier autumn of Finn Family Moomintroll (the first of the books I had read), we had already seen Snufkin leaving before the end, to explore

all the strange places [he] longed for and would go to quite alone.

Tove Jansson: Finn Family Moomintroll

And he will enjoy being quite alone. His solitude is part of his complexity, as is his detachment. I live all over the place, Snufkin says when introduces himself in Comet in Moominland; my hands are free, because I don’t have to carry a suitcase. And along with garnets or any other precious things (apart from hat and mouth-organ) he carries little, physically or emotionally. Not for Snufkin any regret, the hopes for kindness at a distance. All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails playing on his mouth organ, he is off, answering the call he felt in the night of the storm on the Hattifatteners’ Island.

In the relationship between Moomin and his friend Jansson does a spectacular thing: she shows an unequal friendship, a love that Moomintroll feels and cannot really articulate, a friendship Snufkin picks up and puts down easily.

Moomintroll was left alone on the bridge. He watched Snufkin grow smaller and smaller, and at last disappear among the silver poplars and the plum trees. But after a while he heard the mouth organ playing All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails and then he knew that his friend was happy. He waited while the music grew fainter and fainter, till at last it was quite quiet, and then he trotted back through the dewy garden…

‘Are you crying?’ asked Bob.

‘N-no,’ said Moomintroll, ‘it’s only that Snufkin has gone away.’

Jansson gives us a simple, hesitant denial: it is the pain of absence that shows us the depth of Moomintroll’s feelings. What began in Comet in Moominland with Snufkin jumping up and down [shouting] Fancy that! What fun! Coming all this way to see me! leads to Moomintroll in Finn Family Moomintroll toasting his friend with a wish for a good pitch for his tent and a light heart, but sad for himself, as Moominmamma wisely notices.

But when Snufkin, in the much later Moominvalley in November, ponders his relationship with the family, Jansson gives us further revelations. Snufkin, significantly in search of some creative completion, has returned to the Moomin valley to find assorted hangers-on have come too, looking for hospitality and companionship – locality and peace as Auden puts it – and while he is not pleased, the new arrangement at least gives him pause for thought:

And how different they are from the Moomin family. They were a nuisance too, they wanted to talk. They were all over the place, but with them you could at least be on your own. How did they behave, actually? Snufkin wondered in surprise. How is it possible I could have been with them all those long summers without ever noticing that they let me be alone?

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November, ch 11.

Moomintroll has all sorts of people he depends on and who depend on him: the annoying-little-brother-figure of Sniff; the prototype for Miss Piggy in the Snork Maiden; his father (who has taught me so much about being a father that I am sat upstairs in my study writing); the rarely flappable and always wondrous Moominmamma. But only one Snufkin: there is a beautiful, slow-burn depiction of Moomin’s close friendship with the wanderer, that comes to a half-spoken resolution in November.

In some ways, with the Moomin family following the mid-life crisis of Moominpappa, figuratively and literally at sea (my blog post here), Moominvalley in November is another of Jansson’s meditations on family, but this time, it is Snufkin’s turn to learn. He leaves the valley and his friend Moomintroll with hardly a second glance, but finds himself blocked artistically, and makes his way back – only to find that the annoying, noisy, emotionally engaged Moomins have been replaced by a cast of disfunctional who-are-we-and-what-are-we-doing? characters. But they are a rewriting of the Moominhouse community; another sort of family. Just as Moomintroll on the island in Moominpappa At Sea is struggling with the frustration of his growing into adulthood, here Snufkin is wrestling with similar Angst, questioning what family means to him. On this reading (nth of n times) it seems to me that it is the irritation and pain as much as the joy that suffuses all the Moomin books that makes them so real.

It is his interaction towards the end of the book with little-boy-lost Toft* which marks the turning point in Snufkin’s understanding: when Toft, wrapped in his own fears, seeks reassurance, Snufkin has to step up, making (we should note) two cups of tea, two sandwiches:

‘It’s me,’ Toft whispered. He went inside the tent, where he’d never been before. It smelt nice inside-of pipe-tobacco and earth. Beside the sleeping-bag was a candle on a sugar box and the floor was covered with wood shavings.

‘It’s going to be a wooden spoon,’ Snufkin said. ‘Were you frightened by something?’

‘There is no family any longer,’ answered Toft. ‘They’ve deceived me.’

‘I don’t believe that,’ said Snufkin. ‘Perhaps they just want to be in peace for a while.’ He picked up his thermos flask and fill two mugs with tea. ‘There’s the sugar,’ he said. ‘They’re sure to come home some time.’

‘Sometime!’ exclaimed Toft. ‘She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!’

Snufkin shrugged his shoulders. He made two sandwiches and said: ‘I wonder what it is that the Moominmamma cares about…’

It will lead Snufkin to resolve his own creative block and liberate the anxious Fillyjonk, and by experiencing a different mode of community, Snufkin comes to realise, uncomfortably, what it is he appreciates about the Moomins. However he will not be there to greet them when they return: he has his music and has learned his lesson, but does not cease from being a snufkin. Transformation is not a magic reinvention, but a genuine change: not a Hobgoblin’s Hat change – the kind I was always hoping for for me – but something deeper that allows Snufkin to stay true to himself. At least this time, less careless with his friendship, he remembers to write to Moomintroll.

*

Real is an odd term. This is a world created by an author whose artistic talent is way beyond me, whose life in boats, on islands, in Scandinavian high culture is just as strange – but it is a world that becomes alive because we are invited (gently, subtly) into an emotional world we can understand. The little dog who longs to run with the wolves – until his wish starts to become true; the array of confusions we encounter in ourselves and others; peculiar friends and relations and their foibles and stamp collections; wrong decisions and adventures we hardly chose; how I met your mother; memories, regrets, death and rebirth… Huggably tubby trolls (and irritatingly fussy Fillyjonks, amenable ghosts, and Hattifatteners and the rest) standing for an array of characters we recognise and can see ourselves in.

*Jake connects this insightfully with Tove Jansson’s own loss of her mother. This adds powerfully, for me, to Toft’s break in understanding: Snufkin says “They’re sure to come home,” and Toft responds, “She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!

Mindful of Hardships

Swa cwæð eardstapa,

earfeþa gemyndig

So spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships

I’ve been here before, bemoaning the state we’re in. So spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships. It is an amazing bit of poetry, and way outside my discipline to comment on the poet’s meaning or even, truth be told, to get through it without a parallel text (this is the one I’m using) and a dictionary/thesaurus. As the world gets bleaker, I find my thinking informed by the voices of poets condemning what we might think of as alienation, sin-sickness, the prophetic Leonard Cohen telling us to “say the mea culpa which you probably forgot,” Shirley Collins’ moving images of powerlessness, locked in ice.

And yet today has gone well. Yes, for me at least, friends have made a difference. It shows me how fragile my feelings are, but on the first day back in the Bodleian (and admittedly only getting my new reader’s card) and noting that my last day of “proper” research was up on the Downs on a blowy March day, things have gone well.

Most of them. The desolation of the Wanderer was not really in my brief, but made my own annoyances seem petty – but the actual devastation of England by those with grubby paws, and people’s disquiet (partly exacerbated by the ways in which so much emnity is washing around) made it seem rather apt. Early morning sleeplessness is of no use, nor is a way of thinking that is rough and sorrowful. Physical affection is barred us; we have each become the wineleas guma, friendless man.

Swa þes middangeard

ealra dogra gehwam

dreoseð ond fealleð

So this Middle-earth, a bit each day droops and decays.

And so I felt I was back in a low mood about the state of things at the present: precious and venerable woodland desecrated, MPs snidily threatening that people who help the poor cannot expect help from Government themselves, MPs’ pay rises and subsidised food while children even in this locality go hungry… But the one thing that has always given me a small shred of comfort has been the notion that my response has to be one I own fully: not a bandwagon (however righteous) or sense of despair (however justified). And this is where we need kind-ness, that feeling of people belonging, of my belonging and the duty of care that brings*.

And then Richard Powers, he of The Overstory, had a short essay in the paper yesterday. He is not overly hopeful about the American election and suggests that whatever the outcome

It will take decades to heal the deep wounds.

Richard Powers, How do we become a serious people again?

…but then suggests lines I had not read from Walt Whitman. The poem from which they are taken is a longer plea for a United America, but these lines brought me back to a plea from earlier blogs:

OVER the carnage rose prophetic a voice,

Be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet,

Those who love each other shall become invincible,

Walt Whitman, Over the Carnage, Leaves of Grass

and continues

The most dauntless and rude shall touch face to face lightly,

The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,

The continuance of Equality shall be comrades

(Were you looking to be held together by lawyers?

Or by an agreement on a paper? or by arms?

Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere.)

So Whitman was there before me (this is not really a surprise) in a plea for affection, friendship, fellow-feeling triumphing over institution and when earlier I asked about the human aspect of wholeness, “When This Is All Over” what will wellbeing be like? and maybe more urgently how might we get there, the personal is what we are left with, and knowing one another as of the same kind, kind-ness, compassion, is the place we start.

*I have to acknowledge, especially since I was amazed and delighted to see that this has received a bit more attention than I usually get, the thinking and personal warmth of my colleague Jon Reid whose work around compassion has illuminated so much of my own reflection.

No More Dreams

“Go in obedience and you will find love. You will have no more dreams. Have children instead.”

C S Lewis’ Christ-like hero Elwin Ransom, Pendragon of the mystical Logres, virginal (Lewis’ own term) channel of the celestial powers, Doctor of the University of Cambridge, dismisses Jane Studdock, the main female character of his Fantasy/Sci-Fi That Hideous Strength with these words. She gives up her power as a Seer to descend the ladder of humility (Lewis’ own image) to become a dutiful Christian wife. In the final paragraphs we know she will enter into a more generous (I think this is a word Lewis could appreciate, but I am at a loss) relationship with her wayward husband Mark: her impulse is to realise she will start by tidying up before the sex.

My first readings of this novel* saw Lewis explore – as in Perelandra, its predecessor- the gendering of mythological/angelic creatures, and the imperious Venus leading Mark to his own understanding of the new relationship seemed key to the finale. I got that.

Later readings caused me some disquiet. Is this really Lewis setting out a theology of marriage? Does Christianity for Jane have to entail submission to her husband because of some inherent maleness in Divinity? Not helped, perhaps, by the ‘of their time’ references to Mark and Jane’s troubled sexual relations (C S Lewis is not D H Lawrence), we are in a rather coy world of Jane needing to submit and Mark appreciating the stupidity of his importunity. I don’t necessarily need to have much more detail, but it is clear their times together has not been fulfilling in some way. Lewis is entitled to his authorial choices; it’s just that we have to acknowledge that if we are not at Wragby, then we are not On Chesil Beach either. The time of love-making (or whatever we call it) immediately after the end of That Hideous Strength is somehow for Lewis’ characters going to be more successful – successful because Mark and Jane will come together with a view of their relationship much more conformable to the reciprocity of St Paul’s vision in Colossians: wives be subject; husbands love your wives and be not bitter; children obey; fathers provoke not, &c.

But it would be a cheap trick to confine Lewis’ thinking about sexuality and the Great Dance of Being (his image) to the bumpy start to one young academic couple starting married life He may use them as exemplars, but his myth of gender is more fully explored in Perelandra, Lewis’ Eden-Myth, second in the trilogy. Limited still we might see it – written in the 40s, after all – he is at least open to a bigger picture than the who-does-what minutiae of Jane and Mark – or even the feelings of Elwin Ransom, the virginal and attractive Cambridge don whose adventures with the ancient gods pull all three books together.

In the final section of this second book, a sort of grand opera Finale, Ransom is witness to the establishment of the rule of the “humans” in Perelandra, in the presence of the tutelary spirits of Malacadra-Mars and Perelandra-Venus, the warrior and the lover. He explores a binary M/F sexuality while dividing masculine from male, feminine from female (and this will sit at odds with the depiction of the cruel, cigar-smoking Lesbian in That Hideous Strength), which fits this in his overall intention: to wed traditional Graeco-Roman mythologies with his world view:

Malacandra seemed … to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance… But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings.

and it is with this insight that Ransom (and with him, Lewis) understands

…why mythology was what it was – gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.

And so with his gods sorted (sort of), Lewis pulls out all the stops, his prose full of beauty, of awe and wonder and celestial power, his own quasi-scriptural voice pouring out: but is it only in myth that he can confront the realities of gender and sexuality?

This recognition of the mess of human understanding is key, and Alister McGrath ends his essay on Lewis in Curtis and Keys’ Women and C S Lewis with something of a plea for clemency:

Yet there is a more compassionate and more realistic way of understanding Lewis – as someone trapped within the social norms and conventions of a bygone age in British culture.

We are all condemned to live in a specific historical context, which we struggle to transcend.

McGrath “On Tolkien, the Inklings and Lewis’ Blindness to Gender.”

As an aside Lewis’ old Oxford College (and my own) has just elected its first woman President.

Lewis turns finally (before Ransom’s return to Earth) to the Adam and Eve of this new-founded society on Perelandra-Venus, Paradise in its two Persons, Paradise walking hand-in-hand. Lewis glories in the both the wonder of the woman’s breasts, a splendour of virility [sic] and richness of womanhood unknown on Earth, and the feeling trembling on the lips and sparkling in the eyes, the might of the man’s shoulders.

He writes here with what seems to me to be more conviction than he does in his hinting at the post-wedding courtship of a young male academic and his (it seems to me) oppressed wife. Certainly

All this is a roundabout way of highlighting the contrasts in the sexual politics of Earthsea. Ged’s ordinariness at the end of Tehanu is part of this, but it is worth noting the sequence of events: the destructive High Fantasy episodes in The Farthest Shore (I knew I would return to this) have left Ged weak and wounded. He is already at the end of his power in The Farthest Shore, enduring, and longing to avoid, some pain with a restlessness…greater than his strength, which soon gave out. As it turns out (at this stage at least) in facing death Ged is no longer the thing that we have defined him by: a man full of magic, archmage. It is his liberation by Tenar, whom he liberated in The Tombs of Atuan, that allows the two to come together in companionship and love, in physical affection and sex – and in the ordinary life of farming. Vocation – Rise – Fall – and then… Then, a restitution of life in the work of herding and in the house of someone who loves him. If, like me, readers had not seen the sequence of books as an elaborate Princesse Lointaine narrative resolving after long years and painful crises, there is at least a sense of completion.

The Finder, in LeGuin’s next text, Tales from Earthsea, picks up the story – or revisits it by asking why Le Guin’s great mages are celibate anyway, and what is the sociology of the mage world, and where this comes from. It is a story bursting with themes of oppression and resistance, with quotable quotes relevant to any reading of the news at the moment (The great and the mighty go their way uncheckedThe lords of war despise scholars and schoolmasters), as well as insights into a more personal spiritual life (We must keep to the center. And wait…).

“My master Highdrake said that wizards who make love unmake their power”

And do they? It would seem not: but they lose their status. Celibacy in Earthsea is a construct of power, and in various ways it is the setting aside of power that allows people to be something more (?better?) than powerful: it allows them to be loving, to be good. I come back again and again to images of pomp from secular and religious occasions and how the set, pious expression seems deliberately enclosed, distant, even disdainful. Cardinals in Cappa Magna; Presidents almost pouting to look grand: they look to me stiff necked and cruel: Gilbertian Mikados. Tenar was freed by Ged in the Tombs of Atuan from her awe-inspiring, dread-full charge as the priestess, the devoured one (shades, to refer maybe more charitably to C S Lewis, of Orual, his brilliantly drawn narrator/protagonist in Till We Have Faces), celebrating empty rites over the dark labyrinth. Ged was freed from the weight of death and of power by Tenar, by warmth, love, and a final setting aside of the burdens of his magic and his status.

The moving story in The Finder – the high-fantasy novella at the start of Tales from Earthsea – has a touching Male-Female relationship at its turning point, where avoidance and coyness become a sexual relationship and a lasting love. In the shorter story that follows, we deal with the simple idea that some people just don’t feel cut out for life as a mage: young Diamond comes home (to the disappointment of his wizard-tutor), picks up with Darkrose, his old girlfriend, and (to the disappointment of his father) goes off as a singer. Ordinary might also mean disappointing the visions grown-ups have for you – but you might end up being happy. There are other ways to unmake or set aside your power.

We see more of Ged in the book The Other Wind, no longer a mage – as the old order changes – but one with experience and knowledge. Tenar in this final book is in ascendance, advising the king, facing the dragons – and the role of women and power is explored further.

And it is Tenar’s wisdom with Tehanu her adopted daughter that in some ways brings this long arc back to earth:

“Ah you dragons,” Tenar said.

It was spoken lightly but it was not lightly said…

“I don’t know what I am, mother,” [Tehanu] whispered in her voice that was seldom more than a whisper.

“I do,” Tenar said. And her heart beat heavier and harder than before.

Le Guin: The Other Wind.

When she returns to Ged he is watering the cabbages like an extra from Voltaire’s Candide, and they share a glass of good red wine. Breaking the world to make it whole sums all the Earthsea revolution (not {but this is another story} unlike the twin volumes of the Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments).

“Well, I’m back,” she said – to paraphrase.

Ursula K Le Guin The Other Wind:
Endpaper (extract)

*I should note that Piers Torday and Neil Gaiman have commented with more thoughtfulness and authority that I can on his portrayal of girls and women in Narnia. In a piece looking wholly at Lewis I would have explored their ideas, and given Alister McGrath’s interesting essay more than a passing mention. For the record, Michael Ward’s work on Jane Studdock is very clear sighted and less defensive. It was a chance comment of mine that Perry Nodelman picked up that started me thinking about LeGuin’s Earthsea as a whole.

Jeremiads

A Snowflake Writes?

It is a wet Saturday evening as I start to write. That’s not to say that damp days are always a bad thing, but tonight as I look out the world looks gloomy. Somehow the continued botches of our current government around schools and safety in this time of potential illness are the worst, filling me with dread for what is to come: popularism that does not even have efficiency on its side, last-minute patches on policy: adhocracy as someone described it to me.

This sat with an increasing but largely unacknowledged personal malaise – sleeplessness, irritability, all sorts of stuff I should have seen as part of a tide of – what? Anxiety and a feeling that I was alone and unloveable. The moan of the irrational snowflake? The weariness that attaches itself to people just fed up of so many things going wrong: plague after plague: the boils and lice of 2020. The weariness of isolation so perfectly caught by Shirley Collins in her haunting Locked in Ice – the fearful guarantee that I’d be run aground. Not so much a snowflake, then, but a blizzard.

There is sometimes a temptation to see the present hard times as very limited “over by Christmas” – but it is worth remembering that the concertina effect of some historical reflection sees Henry VIII’s destruction as a short blip, or the Vikings who came and were violent and then set up the Danelaw in a few episodes, or even further back, the siege of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon as soon over: a blizzard soon past, when in fact they lasted years, with effects still felt in culture and outlook. The malaise we suffer spiritually will not, I fear, pass any quicker than the physical illness. And that makes me sad, to say the least.

But if we’re going Biblical, the gloom of the prophet Jeremiah is worth considering here. In Ch 8 his poetic/prohetic voice depicts a rudderless land where hopes have withered.

When I would comfort myself against sorrow, my heart is faint in me.

Dolor meus super dolorem in me cor meum maerens.

Jeremiah 8: 18 (KJV/Vulgate)

In the line adopted (to tragi-comic effect) by Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit the prophet bemoans

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Transiit messis finita est aestas et nos salvati non sumus.

Jeremiah 8:20 (KJV/Vulgate)

Why isn’t it (define “it,” of course) sorted by now? All those utopias we wanted by the autumn: where are they? Why can I not track this package, of all the packages I ordered?

Of course the reason it’s not here is the complex relationships to all the solutions people want: ecojustice; social liberation; touch; an end to greedy politicians squirrelling away money and holding power by sweaty lies. The recent protest against vaccinations and masks is enough to show how divided we all are, how mistrust in all sorts of causes and solutions is deeply eating into what passes for society. Mistrust, selfishness and what seems like no way out: we seem in a quicksand of grime, and so when C S Lewis’ saintly hero Ransom is explaining to Merlin how the world has changed since the time of Arthur, he describes modern society vividly:

…maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands.

C S Lewis, That Hideous Strength

But Lewis’ near-apocalyptic, celestial intervention will not do, even for a Christian reading a Christian apologist. We are back to that other Merlin, Cooper’s Merriman Lyon and his charge that it is up to us. The writer of the Apocalypse – as I read it, full of an impotent rage as persecution strikes the early Church – looks for a world where a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1) will replace the turmoil of the present. He is looking to external agents for a big show-down, when I think we need to look closer to home, as I have said in a previous blog post – to compassion, to peace-making.

We feel we are on the edge of time, as individuals we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is so close. In this kind of situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.

Thich Nhat Hahn: Being Peace

I got so far in my thinking about the lessons I took from Jeremiah and from Thich Nhat Hahn and I ask: what might my response be to the current crises – these interlocking disasters of various kinds – which despite the noises and wishes I see in my corner of Twitter will not go away quickly: what do I do as Jeremiah is persecuted and the city falls, and the Babylonian exile begins? The Shirley Collins song summed it up: a little Ghost Ship on the Beaufort Sea: where the ice goes, I go.

And then the ice breaks, just a bit. Enough. It starts with a sunnier day, the warm, open expression of gratitude from a dear friend, and then Maggie and I started sharing Helen Macdonald’s new collection of essays, Vesper Flights (some of which I had already heard on the BBC). She laments the loss of a meadow from her childhood and hopes for its restoration in a new building development:

The pull on my heart is also the pain of knowing that this is possible, but that it is very unlikely. Centuries of habitat loss and the slow attenuation of our lived, everyday knowledge of the natural world make it harder and harder to have faith that the way things are going can ever be reversed.

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights. Tekels Park

Never reversed. Yes, I can see that, almost taste it sometimes. Yet just as I’ve cited the idea of 3 Ways of compassionfor self; for others; from others – there is also something of an answer in these first pages:

Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those who are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights. Introduction.

Sacra Iuventus

Alcuin has to join those writers I have discussed before – Walafrid Strabo, Paulinus, Ausonius – as worthy of particular mention at this time, and I just want to explore briefly some of the phrases in the poem called Cella Alcuini, in the little collection that came to me recently. I’ve found the Latin text and a translation here, but not before I stumbled through it with (as the first photo shows) a fat Latin dictionary.

The poem starts as a kind of monastic eclogue: Alcuin rejoices in his “cella,” his enclosure, where the apples are ripe, the lilies and little roses bloom. Everything in the garden really is lovely.

But the tone changes. The transitory nature of this comfortable life is underlined; poetry is gone, the boys are no longer singing. It is different from Horace (another Flaccus: Alcuin is not unaware of his predecessor) in that the Horatian ode Eheu fugaces seems to me to be about approaching Death, whereas Alcuin, leaning on his staff sees his youth departing but another vocation pressing (Ian Chadwick, by the way, has a good exposition of Horace here; perhaps a drier blog, but with the full text and translation is to be found here from John Derbyshire). His youth departing: an unintentional double meaning here? I think it is not unreasonable to see Cella as mourning not so much the arrival of wrinkles as the departure of a way of life or a a much loved younger companion. The tone changes – and I am unsure about whether the awkwardness of this is purposeful or not. When seems clear to me in that second half is that the post-Horatian praise of Alcuin’s dwelling – not a “cell” as commonly understood, but a compound, a settlement – is interrupted by the more passionate writing.

Two images stand out for me:

Quae campis cervos agitabat sacra iuventus

Incumbit fessus nunc baculo senior

And

Nos miseri cur te fugitivum mundus amamus

Alcuin is missing the mundus, the physicality of his garden, of the sacra iuventus out in the fields, even of his religious life – ces voix d’enfants chantants dans la coupole from Verlaine and Eliot. There are other points of reference, but I’m reminded of the “sacred days” of Ray Davis and Kirsty McColl, and Days (another link for me might be Sainte-Colombe’s Tombeau Les Regrets, but this isn’t the place to explore all these thems in every genre): Alcuin’s regrets are a spur to something else…

I am struck by the image of an old man and his stick (an abbatial staff?) looking back at the lads chasing deer: it is so vivid I cannot help but think it is “drawn from the life” in some way: Alcuin’s memory of his own youth or an experience with his students. How, then, do I want to translate that phrase sacra iuventus? What is sacra? My initial thought was to see this use of “sacred” as akin to the idea of the precious freedom of childhood, an early exploring of the ideas that emerge in the Romantic and post-Romantic period in poets and educationalists alike.

Maybe that innocence and excitement is there in germ, but I think I want to explore briefly is how sacer is used where Alcuin would have seen it most: the liturgical texts, where a sacrifice makes something sacred. Is that what Alcuin is suggesting? The boy chasing the deer is one consecrated to God? A youthful cleric? Or does iuventus stand for a gang of lads from the school in York? That would work: the holy youth (singular or plural) chase[s] the deer, the older man leans on his staff – tired: a suggestion that the dedication of the young has past. Ah, except that the rest of the poem suggests that it is in old age we turn to something more demanding, more transcendent: that play between cur…fugitivum…amamus and Christum nos semper amemus then becomes key: why do we love you, fleeting world? Fly, fly: let us always love Christ… A pious thought.

And yet I come back to “those endless days, those sacred days.” Is the old Alcuin leaning on his staff and looking at the energy of a long-gone youth and seeing it as having its own unattainable glory? Can he discern with Larkin and Marvell and Yeats and the rest that what he partakes of is only their scrap of history? Does his wistfulness suggest he protests too much when he needs to repurpose his love (amor and amemus dominate these last lines of the poem)? Or is he suggesting in his own way that

What will survive of us is love

Philip Larkin: An Arundel Tomb

Religio

Perhaps I should simply amend my blog post(s) on Spirituality and Belonging (such as this most recent or this from not-so-long before) but that would confuse the things I was trying to say. This might stand, in grand language, as an autoethnographic codicil to these ideas. The grand language just isn’t necessary, of course: this is just a couple of thoughts and two links.

Link One: I was struck this morning reading Michael Sadgrove’s reflection on his blog on a missed “last sermon,” as he turns seventy around the date of his anniversary of ordination, where his challenge is worded with typical thoughtfulness:

I’m especially thinking of the ‘heart-work’ that begins when we realise that the most basic question we can ever ask ourselves is, what does life expect of us? Or if you like, what does God ask of us? What is the work of God in the world and what is my part in it? How do I go on responding to God and to life before I die, become the best self I am capable of being? It’s a question that, like the Hound of Heaven, pursues us down the years, though we don’t always face it in our busy working lives.

Michael Sadgrove: A Last Post. http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com/2020/06/a-last-post.html

and then there was this, Link Two. In an extraordinary piece of homiletic poetry, John Farrell preached at Blackfriars this morning, we are invited to see our religion as anchored in history, for we do not belong to an angelic Church where the angels sing their Sanctus; it is made up of people. Here is the link to his full sermon; I can’t do it justice.

Can we see these two as connected?

John Southworth

This where it gets personal. Yesterday was the feast day in Westminster of St John Southworth a priest who risked his life in C17th London on two accounts: by flouting laws that forbade his working as a priest in an England hostile to Roman Catholicism; by working among the sick in a London sick with the plague. And yes, I know he looks like Christopher Lee in this picture.

His metaphorical presence in “my” family was an important factor – my grandma was a Southworth – in determining a number of key choices for me, both religious and secular. This is why I chose the title of this blog post (and for once will reference Wikipedia for an exposition of the term). We all make our choices about where we stand, where we belong; this is not something specific to the kind of signed-on-the-dotted-line which makes membership, conformity and belonging more or less synonyms.

But here I come back to Michael Sadgrove’s questions, relevant, it seems to me, both within a Christian framework and in other ways of looking. The “heart-work” he talks about for older people (like him; like me) is a process of lived reflection, involving being more present to the here and now: family, friendships, the pleasures of nature and art, the cycles of times and seasons, the goodness of ordinary things. He also suggests welcoming the perspectives we gain later in life when when we can look back and recognise patterns and connections that have run through our personal histories. And this is where I would add something in. I would suggest it is a peculiarly Catholic insight, were it not that the writer was Dean of Durham, successor to the Priors and Benedictine community: time to set my RC exceptionalism aside. However, I am reminded – partly by John Farrell‘s sermon – of an important part of Belonging: and that is belonging to a culture and its histories.

Plural histories, or a single interlocking and messy history: over my shoulder are not only heroes like John Southworth, but intolerance, anti-Semitism, Avignon, a Rome that picked up the very marginalised people the Empire had killed and used them for its own ends. It is very true to say – as Michael Sadgrove underlines in his quoting Kierkegaard – that ‘Life must be lived forwards but understood backwards.’ I understand where I am by looking back at all these insofar as I can. And this is where his final point is so relevant as we all wade through the morass of cultural inheritance: a challenge to radical compassion, becoming more attentive to ambiguity, darkness and suffering.

Guiding Principles, Graduating Students

Very much a Brookes Blog this, albeit entirely unofficial, but inspired partly by the surfacing of the annual Cthulhu of Nursery Graduations, something I’ve railed at before. What is graduation about? And this year, what takes its place? I know some places have gone entirely virtual, while others are looking at postponement.

If I had my way I’d be standing in my cap and gown at a lectern reading names. People I know well, or people I have at least taught, and sometimes people I haven’t taught, would file past me, and I would try and balance the tricky bit of reading their names and giving them a little smile before they launch off across the platform to where the Vice-Chancellor would be all smiles and shake hands somewhere in the middle of a platform. I am missing some notable students this year – and I was especially looking forward to the award of a doctorate to my friend and mentor, Dr Julie Fisher. I would inevitably get some names wrong despite the prompt card, and as Reader have no time to play the “Have they ever worn those heels before?” games of spotting ten foot tall women and suited men unused to shoes without trainer grips tottering or tripping along. 55 mins pretty much every time, depending on the guest speaker. 

Ah yes, the guest speaker. A notable, hopefully someone the graduands will recognise and, if not, at least someone who can speak about what graduation means. The ones who find it hardest to win the crowd haven’t really understood the cohort they are addressing and think “education” in the School of Education means teachers or teachers-in-the-making; some of the best warm the audience up with something light hearted and then hit them with something that is so inspirational you wonder why you even tried for three or so years when someone so talented has lifted the spirits of “your” students in 15 minutes. There are speakers who have that gift, and have thought and prepared and picked the right phrase or poem or saying and everyone leaves on a cloud. 

I don’t think this cohort will get this experience, not this year – or maybe not right at the end of all that hard work, at any rate. Up in my little study, I could put my kit on but it wouldn’t be the same. I could make a hash of the names, too – but we would be missing the ceremony. So what does a ceremony do? I’ve asked this question before, and I wonder about the ceremonial that accompanies what is, in effect, a representation of an older set of rituals that are about being allowed to do something after a ceremony that you were not allowed beforehand. Marriages are like that in many cultures, permission to be or join (or start) a family, and graduations similarly reflect the older view that a degree is a license to teach, permission to go out and replicate the educational project of which the student has been the recipient. 

In the post-1992 Universities – and perhaps in all UK Universities except the most ancient – the ceremony itself is not in any way the conferment of that license, even for people training to be teachers, although it echoes it; it is more accurate to be viewed as a ritual representation of a lot of work. Work by administrators (from admissions to room bookings) feeds into work by lecturers (teaching) which feeds into work by students (reading, experience: learning); more work by students (producing assessable work) feeds into work by lecturers (marking), which then translates into the filtration system of exam boards (or committees, or whatever) which are in turn reported to complex administration systems (involving humans and computers). These systems are checked and rechecked and a result is determined, and the student gets their BA, BSc, MA, whatever. If you want a sense of the complexity and the life-changing, hectic nature of this, try reading this paragraph in one breath. 

And then the ceremony. Lots of clapping, lots of little speeches, a queue to meet a University leader for a handshake or other greeting. Pre-ceremony there has been dressing up; post-ceremony there is a bit of a party: photos, meeting relatives. Parallels with weddings are again pretty obvious. 

At Brookes we talk about graduands (people ready to be given a degree) and graduates (people who have been moved up a step by being awarded their qualification), although actually a student “has their degree” when the results are published. What are we saying the student now has?  Graduates are connected to their degree by the learning outcomes of the degree that they have undertaken; they are connected to the University by the way that degree has been dovetailed into the organisation’s aims, visions, hopes and fears. I sometimes think we don’t talk enough about these broader aspirations: they become, if we’re not careful, a way of selling the University more than a way of looking at the time the student has spent with us – and, in this context it is worth remembering that that these aims are a way of thinking not so much about what the students have done so much as what the graduates can now do: not a million miles away from the old license to teach idea. What does the University now think you (graduates) can do?

Brookes has a set of what might be thought of as “family values” by which it couches its Guiding Principles as ideas which “shape the character of our graduates” thus:

Generosity of spirit: the principles say the University has positive working practices…built on the various ways we give time and attention. 

Connectedness: where the heart of staff and student experience is the deep rotts of Brookes history and the city in which it is situated

Confidence: in the ability of the student body. 

Enterprising creativity: time at University should be a sustainable and life-changing route for student participants and support them as they graduate. 

…and so let me just note that this implies that graduates will have been given time and attention, with compassion at the heart of the relationships and confidence in the ability of the student body, to be flexible and creative as they leave their study time at Brookes. And this is where I have a problem.

Things like Student Satisfaction Surveys function like Trip Advisor: Have you had a good time? or Were they nice to you? All very well in their way – some might argue key to how an organisation sees its work and improves. But they also put the onus on the organisation to talk in terms of what it’s doing or done: Were the towels clean? and Was the Reception Area easy to find? Perhaps we could turn this around a bit, not to shift blame or to avoid those things that in a really difficult time need to be looked at with a keen eye, but to look at whether guiding principles have behind them a spirituality that they seek to impart to students. It’s not necessarily a spirituality of transcendence, unless we thing of that as being part of something bigger than ourselves, but it is about connecting and compassion, and by this being able to make sense of our lives. It’s then not enough to think about whether staff were available when students wanted them, or what a University could do better, but what a graduand might do to look at themselves:

Enterprising creativity: Can I think flexibly and in an adult way, using the skills I have practised to make the world better? We are going to need this so badly: economic and political crises, ecological pressures… Am I set to be compliant and get my own job done, or can I see myself as something bigger, something needing my energy?

Confidence: Do I know at least something of my own abilities, and can I build a community around me of people who trust me and whom I can trust? When my confidence fails me, or when society looks unsafe, can I find ways to inspire myself and others?

Connectedness: Is compassion at the heart of my experiences and the decisions I make? Can I see how people different from me are still people with yesterdays and tomorrows to face? Are my choices about me and the here-and-now or do they look around to see wider implications?

Generosity of spirit: How do I give time and attention to people around me? People close to me, people I work with? People in the shops or on the bus? This year above all years do I have an eye for the marginalised, the sick?

If as I said before a graduation ceremony is about belonging – and this year we can’t say we belong in quite the same obvious and physical way – then we might ponder how we belong.

And I might suggest we belong in Brookes by being the embodiment of these principles. It’s not so much about having a license to teach, or any of the other things that we might be empowered do so with our MAs or BAs or wot not – but about how the “family values” are translated in our own lives.