Need Called Knowledge Out

This blog post forms part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. This was my post on anger; this was his exploring the Myths and the Gifts that Gwyn receives, and this is Chris on Loss, which I will cite below.

Many stories take off at the point where a protagonist realises something about their place in the narrative. The variations are worth a quick look. The title of this post comes from the complex beginnings of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged discovers, little by little, the power of magic, and it is this particular sequence from LeGuin that for me embodies the best of these understandings of who these young heroes are – or might become. Will Stanton has a more dramatic set of encounters in the Dark is Rising; the growing menace that threatens Martha and the other children of a quiet Oxfordshire village in The Whispering Knights shows another way of introducing the dilemma at the heart of fantasy. Caspian, Eustace and Polly in various of the Narnia stories have similar vocational events; the children in Elidor fall into their task by accident and are all, in various ways, unwilling heroes. The two most famous (at the moment) are where Harry Potter is told that he’s a wizard and where Frodo takes up the task of destroying the Ring. Here, as a shortcut, is the film version of the Harry Potter interchange; likewise here is Frodo at the Council of Elrond. It is debatable whether this is the moment at which Frodo decides, of course, and there could be various readings of this. It would make an interesting task to take these narratives of self-realisation and tabulate them: gender (What happens when Lyra is given the alethiometer? Is this her “vocational event”? Is Lucy in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe the same in terms of “vocation” and belief [a theme repeated in Prince Caspian] as her brothers here? What about Susan?); does it come about by self-discovery or an external message; how does use of past histories explain the state the hero is entering (what does Miss Hepplewhite’s back story do to help the children along?); age of the young hero (nine? ten? thirteen?); pace of discovery, point of self-realisation…

Ah yes: the point at which the hero accepts the quest makes for an interesting point*. In Harry Potter, this is a surprise, almost comic, as the boy discovers (by being told) something about who he “really is” in the teeth of opposition from his oppressive family; in Lord of the Rings this is an unwelcome realisation on the part of Frodo Baggins – that his part in the story is not over, a culmination of a whole load of plot development, near-death adventure and background in-fill: while Harry is described as unhappy, abused and lost, with his inchoate powers hinting at him that there is more to come, Frodo (not a magician any more than his Sam) has learned of the peril of the Ring, the need to get it secretly away from the terrors that are seeking it, and has experienced its addictive and destructive power. Such is the pace of Rowling and Tolkien in a nutshell: Tolkien is creating his world, while Rowling throws us in medias res. In a story written with children in mind the choice for a sudden exposition is also connected to a desire to get on with the plot – so that when Gwyn is given the news he is (or may be) a magician in The Snow Spider it is abrupt like the news Hagrid gives Harry:

“‘Time to find out if you are a magician, Gwydion Gwyn!’ said Nain.

‘A magician?’ Gwyn inquired.

‘Time to remember your ancestors: Math, Lord of Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy!’

‘Who?’ ‘

The magicians, boy!”

and just in the same way as Harry Potter and Ged will take time to find their place in the world they are entering – one might argue that Ged struggles all his life, after his early (literally schoolboy) errors – Gwyn takes all three books of The Snow Spider to realise his power, his place in Nimmo’s grand continuum of myth and location.

Vocational Event: self-realisation. When a story takes off like this, somewhere along the line there is a task to take up, a burden to shoulder.

Frodo becomes the hero (and maybe even more so, Sam) by his involvement in the story, whereas Harry’s status goes before him. Gwyn, Ged and Will are an uncomfortable mixture of the two, which makes these stories have an undertow of Bildungsroman to them: their growth into their magic is what makes them interesting protagonists. While Will is looking for his place among the Old Ones as their mission reaches its conclusion, Ged is literally (and figuratively) at sea, looking, as the books progress, at the encircling gloom he has, in part, released. Gwyn, however, is a new creation of the mythic past – less an inheritor than (as I said before) “growing into an adult sensitivity, into understanding his family, into his power as a magician.” the demons he encounters are therefore not just the spirit of Efnisien but what Chris Lovegrove calls “the multiple human tragedies that always happen, now as ever -” the thousand natural shocks.

The need that calls out his knowledge is not just the immediate – to find Bethan his lost sister – but to stand in the breach of his family’s pain. As Chris explains it “Gwyn has to learn how to control his innate gifts as a magician in order to make good as many of the losses as he can.” He needs to contain, to hold, to heal. The symbolism of the gate not shut is subtle – but insistent throughout the first book of the trilogy, and the clumsiness of Gwyn’s attempts at healing recurs in the third.

Gwyn (or young reader of The Snow Spider), please note: no-one – apart, perhaps, from your imperfect parents – expects you to be perfect, and if Nain looks like she wants to rest the whole weight of the history of early medieval Wales on your shoulder, she, too, is over ambitious.

This is where the reader’s identification with a questing protagonist is key. We ride alongside Gringolet to earn, with Gawain, the true value of knighthood; we learn to deal with adults with Harry Potter, with belief and faith in Narnia: we negotiate family dynamics in a time of transitions with Roland in Elidor and in a time of pain and loss with Gwyn in The Snow Spider… Growing up in not without pain, struggle –

And as Will concludes in the final words of the Dark is Rising books “I think it’s time we were starting out…We’ve got a long way to go.”

*There are parallels here with many Biblical (and non-Biblical) narratives: the call of Abram/Abraham; the vocational encounter of Moses; the desert experience and Baptism of Jesus – the questioning about suffering of Siddhārtha Gautama, the call of St Francis, the Sword in the Stone… I might then want to explore the lines between the sacrificial journey of Abraham and Isaac, the journey to Calvary, and the sacrifice of Lubrin Dhu in Sun Horse Moon Horse… There isn’t really space in this post to do any exploration of these justice. But at least that thought gives me an excuse to finish with the view from Uffington.

Inner Tube at Mike’s House

One of the delights of using dictation software – and I use it increasingly to note down quotations – is the wild guesses it makes about words. Has it got used to me with place names such as Ludchurch or Uffington? I don’t know. As this blog post’s title suggests, it certainly wasn’t prepared for the dark and sacred depths of “the inner tomb at Maeshowe.” Maeshowe or Maes Howe, whose significance (detailed in very modern terms here) lies in its being, along with the rest of the complex archaeology of the area, such an astonishing “example of an architectural ensemble and archaeological landscape…” Even the dry report cannot escape a tone of wonder.

But I have to come clean and admit where I am: in my study in Headington, reading Kathleen Jamie’s splendid Surfacing. It has some spellbindingly great writing, and shares insights from all sorts of digging and wandering and wondering and loving from Sutherland (and back again) through the discarded bikes and tundra-preserved past of the Yup’ik and the eyes and spirals of the Noltland dig and the rummage through the layers of the author’s own life. Careful here, Nick, not to unearth too much: the book demands its own read.

But at least I can share a few things: all, this time, from the central section (as I read it) of Jamie’s visits to the Orkneys. It is full of lovely lines and images: If seals could watch Netflix, they would and I walked down to the shore, feeling like a child again, glad of hard to know there is still room in the world for a summers day and a cow called Daisy.

The author is shown a warehouse of finds:

Graeme opened one particular box to show me a slender implement reminiscent of those nibbled pens we used at school, to practise joined up handwriting. It could have come from his own school house.

“You see how the tip is stained dark?” He said. “We think it was used for tattooing…“

Hazel and Graeme showed me more beads, some made of animal teeth, and half-made beads, lots of beads. Thick pins of bone, as long as your hand, presumably used for fastening clothing…

For a moment, out of the twenty-first–century plastic boxes stacked in the gloomy Victorian store, they emerged a vision of people closed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle, young people prematurely old, as we would think now.

Jamie has already asked about Neolithic ghosts, concluding, maybe rather sadly, that Ghosts have a half-life, it seems, lingering just a few hundred years, till they too fade away. I am reminded of the ghostly Lord Kildonan whose haunting fades with the years in M R James’s Residence at Whitminster – only to reemerge some years later in a different form. It could be an allegory of sorts for the antiquarian. Here in the Victorian warehouse however, she seems able to conjure such spirits like Prospero as she speculates on the Neolithic settlers:

Different groups, with their different clothing and accents, tools and designs arriving here, but very soon after their arrival, there will be no one alive who could remember the journey. Doubtless there were stories. Origin stories. Contact with other peoples of the same ilk, who spoke the same language, at other settlements. Great ceremonial gatherings, informed by movements of sun and moon, risings and settings, alignments of stones. The midwinter sunrise shines down the passageway at Newgrange, the midwinter sunset illuminates the inner tomb at Maeshowe.

How did they know that, these kids of twenty or thirty years old, with their bone and stone tools?

I am reminded of the poem of Frances Horovitz Poem found at Chesters Museum, Hadrian’s Wall (from her Snow Light, Water Light, and found in this collection) which likewise looks at finds at contemplates a culture long gone. Starting with the confident To Jove, best and greatest she chants the museum labels – billhook, holdfast, trivet/latch lifter, nail lifter, snaffle bit… until she reaches the unknowns and uncertainties dedication partly obliterated/with human figure in rude relief… All a bit of a challenge for the dictation software, because they are outside the range of frequency to be picked up by the software: just not used enough? So I am back thinking of the Lost Words – but then, oddly, of the book that inspired so many daydreams when Maggie and I were first married, John SeymoursSelf Sufficiency. Such daydreams – and tonight is simply the Allotment AGM, and I am “doing the teas.”

One of the joys of the modern nature writers is that they will not only write of the sod lit hut by a seal-oil lamp but also of the welcome cuppa, not only a song about time and change but also about pub night and Wifi. The Inner Tube at Mike’s House would not be out of place. Kathleen Jamie is a writer whose poetic instinct draws us into her world of spirituality and history and topography; she is another of those writers, Rob Macfarlane, Peter Fiennes, Rob Cowen… travel writers, nature writers, topographers in what Robert Mac’s Cambridge page calls Geohumanities. A neat (and maybe not uncritical) review of Macfarlane and Jamie and the phenomenon of British nature writing appears here.

As an aside: the more I think of that term, the more I like it. It is Geohumanities (as a metonymy) that impells the glossaries in Landmarks; that makes connections (reliable or not) in Watkins’ The Old Straight Track, that watch the revelation of Yup’ik past in Surfacing… I am beginning to wonder whether it is a term that could be applied to fiction, too: to Peter Dickinson’s The Kin, or Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse Moon Horse. I don’t think I have an answer.

If all goes well, I will be taking time soon with my friend Mat on Uffington White Horse. In my hand I will have my (now signed!) copy of David MilesThe Land of the White Horse. On my ‘phone I will have a collection of poems about the place: Jon Stallworthy, G K Chesterton, and if I can find it in time, Kevin Crossley-Holland‘s poem which celebrates the Ridgeway – and of course Frances Horovitz. They all speak – in very different ways – of how landscape and language interrelate: Chesterton is full of a great battle that made England; Horovitz has a mystical white horse that she urges to strike fire to the earth from air. But behind all of this will be the repeated challenge of Kathleen Jamie that all the writers I’m lauding here are answering, as she asks again and again:

Why feel anything? Do you understand? Did you hear something move out of the corner of your eye? The path is at your feet, see?

Sword-grey sky, daffodil light

To do no more this morning than record this astonishing section from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Mark of the Horse Lord. The protagonist, newly made king of the peoples of what we might describe as Western Scotland, Red Phaedrus, img_2217
is out to catch the woman appointed as his wife. These are horse-people, as the book’s title suggests, and this rough “courtship” (here as in the Lantern Bearers Sutcliff does not shy away from the nature of marriage and being given in marriage and its impact on woman) is the bridgegroom’s chase after his bride. They are both mounted, and she has a head start as the groom’s party pursue her through the country of the Dál Riata.  Just look at this amazing use of colour and shade, and how Sutcliff anchors this in the landscape features – the whirlpool of the Old Woman, the mountain of Cruachan she has already introduced us to in map and in narrative.

The track was pulling up now, out of the great flats of Mhoin Mhor, and the quarry, striking away from it, was making north-eastward for the hills around Loch Abha head. And the wild hunt swept after her, hooves drumming through the blackened heather, skirting little tarns that reflected the sword-grey sky, startling the green plover from the pasture clearings. Far over to the west the clouds were breaking as they came up into the hills, and a bar of sodden daffodil light was broadening beyond the Island, casting an oily gleam over the wicked swirling water of the Old Woman, while away and northward, the high snows of Cruachan caught the westering beams and shone out sour-white against the storm-clouds dark behind.

Think Human and Think Literature

In among teaching, marking, and research, Mat Tobin has convened a really exciting evening panel conference (with me as whipper-in) and really to advertise this event as part of the Think Human festival at Oxford Brookes, I thought I’d post a brief reflection – and if you aren’t already aware of how to book in, or what the details are, this is the link to the details on Eventbrite.childrens literature conference (1)-1

The award-winning panel we will meet at the event – Daniel Hahn, with discussants Catherine Johnson, Beverley Naidoo and S F Said – will of course have their own things to say, and Jon Appleton will reflect on Jan Mark as well, to start us off. I may get a chance to reflect by blog on the issues they raise later. I won’t subvert the discussion by starting it now. Well, not much.

I wanted to take a step back and think – as this blog title puts it – about how Think Human seems to me just has to be something to do with story. Over Christmas Chris Lovegrove followed closely the Twitter conversation about Masefield’s Box of Delights and in his summing up on his blog suggested that there is “fictionalising of autobiographical elements” in Masefield. Do we – or if I’m not going to overgeneralise, do I – do the reverse when I read? Did I need in some sense to become Kay Harker, the orphaned hero, when I first read The Midnight Folk and its sequel with my mum and dad comfortably having a Middle Class cup of tea downstairs? Do I autobiographise (that’s a terrible word; I promise not to use it again) elements of fiction as I read?

In the MA module I participate in, I ask the students to look at a chapter (15, if you’re interested)  of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in which he writes

Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions.

(I must admit one reason for including this chapter in their discussion is MacIntyre’s example of the young man at the bus stop and the duck – but that’s by the way).

In life, MacIntyre suggests

We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making.

It would seem natural that, if we live this metaphor, we would try to discover patterns in our own narrative by looking at other people’s – fictional or actual. Empathy and even compassion are part of our participation in a story. It is interesting that MacIntyre’s own example includes this identification between storyteller and audience specifically in a drama/story context:

Each of us being a main character in his own drama … In my drama, perhaps,I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince…

I think it is fundamental to the conversation of drama, novel, even the everyday “You’ll never guess who I saw in town today…”  and perhaps it always has been. The hunter returns to the fire and tells us of the kill she or he has made, and we try and empathise ourselves into their account. Or they return and tell us of the deer that leapt past them into the undergrowth and how it lives and we think what it must be like to live like that, the choices it might make (and maybe how we might catch it) – and all of a sudden I am at one with Rob Cowan’s magnificent empathetic account of the deer in Common Ground. 4000 BCE or today.  The act of storytelling may have become more complex over millennia, but has an element of identification between telling and hearing: what one of the characters in Alan Garner’ Boneland pronounces as a ‘True Story,” a story in which we understand something more of ourselves, a story that makes us “think Human.”

But this is just my take: does everybody – writers, translators, readers – see it this way?  One of the main ideas of getting such major voices together was to urge people who come to Boxes of Delight to try and see what links there might be between how writers communicate. Are there common themes on how they approach their task? What is the importance of the values they communicate? Do they write for the child they once were; do they write with a specific audience in mind? 

See you on 11th Feb.?

 

 

Which Moomin Character?

A lot can be said – and has been said – about Tove Jansson’s relationships within the books and cartoon strips, and she does indeed present a child’s Hogarth of a world, where foibles and strengths are all on show, from Sniff’s immaturity to a similar self-centredness in the Muskrat, hiding in his mauvaise foi in a dismissive attitude. And all this in a landscape that (for me when I first read the books in Harlow [as it then was] “New Town”) enticing and alien: mountain streams with crocodiles, and observatories and impromptu woodland dances…  Part of me wondered if this was how Scandinavia really was, and maybe it took reading the Summer Book at Brookes for me to see how clever Jansson was about these ways marrying of reality and fantasy. Part of me wondered if those weird and engaging people were real too, whether I had some part of me in those stories.

Turn but a tweet and start a blog, to paraphrase Francis Thompson.  A discussion today on Twitter prompted me to offer reading about the Fillyjonk as an example of the joy of private, quiet reading.  Why, when discussing reading, did I suggest a Fillyjonk as the person I want to meet in my private reading? I was thinking of Tales from Moominvalley, I suppose, and she was the first person I could think of, a minor character rather than Moomin (see below) or from his immediate friends or family.  Showing off, I suppose, like Sniff…   A Fillyjonk is essentially an anxious person “dutiful to the point of tedium – not a character I immediately  identify with, although I can see what I was getting at, I suppose: a catastophizer who meets with a real disaster.   So who would I like to be?

  • I am too much of a home body to join the Hattifateners – whom I loved because I could draw them.
  • Bingummy and Thob taught me so much about language play – but I was an only child, in effect: that wasn’t the bizarre little twins.
  • The ghost in the Exploits, with a gentle side and a macabre turn of phrase?
  • The Hemulen Aunt? There have been times when, as an Early Years teacher, I have heard her voice come out from my mouth. And Edward the Booble’s grumpy tones. 
  • The Groke? Well, she was my avatar for our Virtual Learning Environment for quite some time. I wonder whether she sloped off when I changed it, leaving a trail of frost across the internet.

This isn’t the quiz that you can do.  I haven’t done it. Really, even when I first read Finn Family Moomintroll (and heard it on Jackanory in the mid-60s), I think I had it worked out, albeit dimly: Moomintroll pining after Snufkin. And so often I could characterise my relationships – certainly the ones that had me roaming morosely around as an undergraduate – as ones in which my inner Moomin longed and longed to be the adventurous and carefree Bohemian. Jansson may not be Maimonides, but the Moomins were a family when I was so perplexed I felt I had none, and “which Moomin character are you?” would have had only one answer.  And there were quite a lot of candidates for Snufkin…

But of course the joy and the cleverness of Jansson’s characters is that you can be more than one. Dutiful to the point of tedium like Mrs Fillyjonk; self-centred Sniff; fussy and obsessive like a Hemulen, full of unrealistic hopes like the little dog who wished he was a wolf  – and now? Well, Maggie is making cakes in the kitchen, and I am in my study pondering my youth.

Down in Yon Forest

This is a bit of a mish-mash, with all sorts of sources bunged together. I’d like to think of it as an enquiry into why Christmas a time of nostalgia but suspect it is a pile of stuff under a Christmas tree with no labels: sort through the pile and see what you can find. But why do we look back at Christmas? img_1806-1Why does the glorious The Friendly Beasts by Tomie de Paola have choristers and candles to sign/sing us to the stable? It is as if the validity of Christmas in some ways springs from this appeal to the past. Is it because Christianity has created a feast in which “history” is one of the most important guests?  I’m not sure. De Paola often has this sense of tradition, such as his retelling of Italian folk tales, the beautiful Clown of God, and representations of Bible stories – and the Night Before Christmas, which is our family’s standard version of the poem (follow this link to Jake Hayes who has some lovely photos of this version). There is some of that, certainly, right from St Luke’s dating of events and the genealogies he and St Matthew produce. Perhaps it is also because, in the partial extirpation of a pagan Yule, one of the things that remains is an echo that says “remember how it used to be…” – and could this be an attempt to return to a (mythical) Christmas of our own childhoods?  And then maybe in England that nostalgia includes a sorrowing for some good old days, a golden age around  1500 CE or maybe 1600, or 1800…  There is more than one ghost of Christmas past, I suspect, and maybe as well as our personal ones we carry ones for our society too, whether we acknowledge them or not.

It is not only Dickens that feels the weight of past Christmasses. Cole Hawlings who “does date from pagan times” in The Box of Delights sings the rescued Cathedral staff back to their Midnight Mass  where they are greeted by the monks from years past

…for on such a Christmas Eve what one of them would keep away?

and Tolly’s dream-like experience of Midnight Mass moves between his own twentieth century and the past of his family in the seventeenth. As I have just cited recently, Susan Cooper celebrates this looking back when celebrating the Solstice:

All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day…

What is the attraction of the past for this festival?

In the run-up to this Christmas I come back (again) to poets Thomas Merton and R S Thomas. Here are two poems that seem to me typical of their approach to Christmas. Merton first of all, surrounded by the traditions of his faith and practice like Duccio’s Maesta or Martini’s: All those hopes and fears of all the years gathered around the Virgin and Child:

Flocks feed by darkness with a noise whispers,
In the dry grass of pastures,
and lull the solemn night with their weak bells.

The little towns upon the rocky hills
Look down as meek as children:
Because they have seen come this holy time.

God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom is born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.

And O! Make holy music in the stars, you happy angels.
You shepherds, gather on the hill.
Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings
Are coming through the wintry trees;

While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries
Come after with our penances and prayers,
And lay them down in the sweet smelling hay
Beside the wise men’s golden jars.

Merton: Carol

and Thomas, well, Thomas is aware of the biting wind of doubt and silence in the Nada Nada Nada, Y En El Monte Nada of St John of the Cross. Here he captures a Christmas purity that I think is hard to beat:

The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.

Thomas: Nativity

RST is like this: grounded but bleak, with a now rather than a history in his poem. This is often his way, I think (although not always): a doubting impatience in the spiritual –

Will you continue to torment us?
If you are ubiquitous, why
not be here when we say : Now?

Thomas: Could Be

I have been a student of your love

and have not graduated. Setting
my own questions, I bungled
the examination…

Thomas: Incarnation

Merton,  however, pours out his love not only for the God he seeks in monastic profession but also in places for the life itself:

The sun that plays in the amazing church
Melts all the rigor of those cowls as grey as stone – Or in the evening gloom that clouds them through those tintless panes,
The choirs fall down in tidal waves
And thunder on the darkened forms in a white surf of Glorias.

Merton: St Ailred

I’m not sure I can answer my own question, to be honest: Christmas is a time of looking back, looking forward – and inwards too. For me, the tensions between the very grounded (and dark) spirituality of R S Thomas and the almost ecstatic exuberance of Thomas Merton is resolved in a medieval lyric:

This is the text:

Lully, lullay, lully, lullay,
The fawcon hath born my mak away.

He bare him up, he bare him down,
He bare him into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall
That was hangid with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede;
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And yn that bed ther lythe a knyght,
His woundes bledyng day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.

And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston :
Corpus Christi wretyn thereon.

It is known as a Christmas carol in a slightly altered version, where the moon shines bright on a saviour… born this night, but the earliest version seems to me to be a visit to the Sacrament where the Passion is clearly discerned.  Benjamin Britten’s version is here, but the version of Britten’s setting I know best and love is Jeff Buckley’s anguished countertenor.

But let’s go back a bit. Here I am, in the mid-70s, eighteen or nineteen years old, and opening my new Breviary for the first time, exploring what it has in it. It has an appendix of poems as well as hymns and in coming for the first time to the Corpus Christi carol I remember myself (a year or so before) back to a little gothic church in the hills above Guildford.

Lully lulley; lully lulley.

The fawcon hath born my mak away.

So why the falcon? And why the lullaby refrain? The idea of being suddenly snatched now makes me think of a sparrowhawk or peregrine, but I will let my C16th predecessor (who doubtless was more at home with such things as this MS/blog from the British Library suggest) have her/his way. In a near-sleep, dreamlike state, a soul is snatched away to a hall –

He bare hym up, he bare hym down;

He bare hym into an orchard brown.

…and in the hall in a wood (or Eden after the Fall, its trees bare), sees the truth of the link between Passion and Eucharist.

The trees surrounding the Franciscan Friary church (now Chilworth Abbey) could well be leafless in winter, and at any rate the “truth” of this matters less than what the image said to me in my late teens: a religious experience that was sudden and rooted in mediaeval imagery brought me (I am unsure who “my mak” is otherwise) to an altar, to the reserved sacrament on its bed. We might well be beyond the limits of medieval orthodoxy here, in the realm of the eternally bleeding Fisher King perhaps, as we look at the knight in bed and his attending virgin. The song remains sited for me in a small monastic/friary choir, all gothic and quiet. What strikes me some forty-odd years later is how powerful the medieval imagery is.

This seems to me to be important for a number of reasons, and at the moment, prominent in these for me is that whatever we make of this kind of medievalism it remains a touchstone of Christian – or perhaps Catholic Christian – piety. It allows us back into a time (or a mythology) where there was space for a rich visual and linguistic expression of religious practice. I might contest this, sometimes – a sort of liturgical Sealed Knot where historical re-enactment is what it’s all about – but I cannot deny its power. It allows me to read The Cloud of Unknowing, or Bl Julian of Norwich with a sense of continuity that draws on aesthetics as much as reason or ipsissima verba. It opens a door, as it were, to the MSS I love to read.

I sometimes wonder whether, somewhere along the line, I learned (probably wrongly) that this allowed me to say “I belonged;” I belonged to something big and beatific. Seeing it at Chilworth was therefore a step towards the belonging I felt for a time at Magdalen and then Ampleforth and then Blackfriars. And therefore for me Christmas might be some kind of looking backwards to see what Christmas means; to some extent, looking at might-have-beens.

Merlyn

I am reading T H White’s The Book of Merlyn again after a long break.

The paper trail is not edifying so maybe it needs acknowledging – at least, the messiness needs some acknowledging. It is a mess of the biographies of two men: William Mayne and T H White. There remain all sorts of issues about how we celebrate the creativity of people whose personal lives did not measure up to the standards we would wish. That is at least some acknowledgement…  

I came back to the Sword in the Stone again having read William Mayne’s The Worm in the Well, which echoes it. I asked when I’d read it if Mayne’s flaws deafen me to his message of reconciliation and renewal; I find myself asking over and over the same with T H White – something I was alerted to in Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. But for the purposes of this blog post (which will largely be quotation from the Book of Merlyn) I am going to set aside the author and look at the text.

I know I’ve written about the magic patriarch before, when Merlin, Merriman et al have come up from my reading (here, for example, where I mention White explicitly, and then here, for the “humanist rabbit pulled from a transcendental hat,” and most recently here) but Merlyn – note the spelling – is here at the moment because of T H White’s lost-and-found masterpiece and its subject. Setting aside the moving first sections, the re-encounter of Merlyn with his former pupil (now beaten and old and depressed) the substance of the story brings us to Badger’s sett, to, in effect, an Oxbridge Senior Common Room in the grand old style, the Combination Room, where Arthur is tasked by Merlyn and the animal committee to make sense  of the human condition, in the last night before Arthur’s final battle.

White’s construction of Merlyn’s prophetic powers is that he is living his life in the opposite direction to the rest of us. Merlyn has known the insanities of C20th totalitarian regimes (White wrote the book as part of his struggle about whether he should maintain his pacifism), refers affectionately (but not without criticism) to his friend Karl Marx, and gets muddled in trying to explain to Arthur that the whole story they are in is on a book – the book I am holding. img_1629The gentle, bookish comedy aside, this allows Merlyn the painful knowldege that Arthur is to die in battle the next day, and for White/Merlyn to comment on fascism and communism, and for King Arthur, lost and tired,  to ponder his path, as (with the the magician’s assistance) he visits ants, geese and takes advice from the donnish Badger and the Plain People of England in the shape of the Hedgehog… What makes Arthur Arthur? What makes a Human Homo Ferox rather than Homo Sapiens? Facing defeat of everything he thought he stood for, yet surrounded by his animal advisers and under the magic of the querulous Merlyn (beautifully depicted by Trevor Stubley), Arthur, the aged king, is exhausted:

There was a thing which he had been wanting to think about. His face, with the hooded eyes, ceased to be like the boy’s of long ago. He looked tired, and was the king: which made the others watch him seriously, with fear and sorrow.

They were good and kind he knew. They were people whose respect he valued. But their problem was not the human one…It was true indeed that man was ferocious, as the animals had said. They could say it abstractly, even with a certain didactic glee, but for him it was the concrete: it was for him to live among yahoos in flesh and blood. He was one of them himself, cruel and silly like them, and bound to them by the strange continuum of human consciousness…

One of them himself. Politics, ethics, where to belong and whether to resist: these are not abstractions for White (in exile in Ireland in 1942 as he writes), or for Arthur – or for us. As he writes, Tolkien’s Fellowship are paused at Balin’s tomb in Moria, Lewis’ protagonist in The Great Divorce is sent back to everyday life in Oxford rather than face the terrible sunrise of the parousia: it is a decade of loss and darkness and doubt. Life should have been sorted in the War to End Wars that ended in 1919 – and hadn’t been. Arthur continues to ponder:

…he had been working all his life. He knew he was not a clever man.… Just when he had given up, just when he had been weeping and defeated, just when the old ox had dropped in the traces, they had come again to prick him to his feet. They had come to teach a further lesson, And to send him on.

But he had never had a happiness of his own, never had him self: never since he was a little boy in the Forest Sauvage.… He wanted to have some life; to lie upon the Earth, and smell it: to look up into the sky like anthropos, and to lose himself in clouds. He knew suddenly that nobody, living upon the remotest, most barren crag in the ocean, could complain of a dull landscape so long as he would lift up his eyes.

And I know how he feels: to have some life seems to me to be a core desire – certainly for Arthur, whose life has, throughout the books, been so rarely his own.

Is this last part of this post a spoilier? I find it hard to say: the book has a moving ending, the various endings to the legends providing their own kind of speculative fiction.  The sleeping king of so many folktales? Avalon? Edinburgh? and White has to make his own move about his position on war and resistance. But before he does, he finds space for his own legend of Arthur Rex quondam et futurus:

I am inclined to believe that my beloved Arthur of the future is sitting at this very moment among his learned friends, in the Combination Room of the College of Life, and that they are thinking away in there for all they are worth, about the best means   to help our curious species: and I for one hope that some day, when not only England but the World has need of them, and when it is ready to listen to reason, if it ever is, they will issue from their rath in joy and power: and then, perhaps, they will give us happiness in the world once more and chivalry, and the old medieval blessing of certain simple people – who tried, at any rate, in their own way, to still the ancient brutal dream…

But defeating the barbarities of Attila or Sauron or Mordred remains only a hope, an aspiration, and I return (as ever) to Susan Cooper’s bleak but rousing Merriman:

You may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.

A different , maybe more grounded Merlin and a different hope to the poor hope of the exiled White.