Thursday, October 2, 2014

Plenilune - Author Interview

Since I've been making excited noises about it ever since I got the chance to read the book a few months ago, Plenilune should need little introduction at this point. The short story: this is a thrilling, lush, and romantic planetary fantasy from Jennifer Freitag, who if this book and her debut novel The Shadow Things is any indication, will be an author to watch.

With less than three weeks until Plenilune officially releases on October 20th, the release fun is beginning! On Monday 6th comes the cover release, which you'll be able to see here or at Jennifer Freitag's blog, The Penslayer. I'll also be posting my own review here at Vintage Novels, to the accompaniment of much readerly squeeing. And last but not least, an author interview, posted herewith, in which I get the opportunity to ask Jennifer to reveal all her writing secrets...

Jennifer, hello and a warm welcome back to Vintage Novels. As you know, I loved every minute of Plenilune. Where did the first seeds of the idea for this novel come from? 

The necessity for this story—I call it a necessity—came when I mentioned, perfectly innocently, at the end of my first draft of Adamantine, that the main character’s cousin (Margaret) seemed to have undergone a change in more or less a twelvemonth. At the time it was a dumbish piece of writing: I suppose I didn’t want to resurrect the raw, haggard cousin which had occupied the early pages of Adamantine’s manuscript, I wanted someone easier to work with in the limited time that I had. But then I began to wonder: if something did happen to Margaret, what was it?

Other than horses (because, let’s face it, I’m a girl), I have undergone an obsession over two things: Rome, and the English Civil War. While the atmosphere of Plenilune is decidedly Teutonic (for no reason I can determine, other than that it came that way), aspects of both these youthful obsessions definitely impacted my novel. You will come across casual cameos of both to varying degrees, and I am not sorry at all.

If you want to know where the actual plot of Plenilune came from, I must warn you to always ask me at the outset of a novel: by the time I have finished writing a story, it has been so long and so much water has gone under the bridge, I cannot for the life of me remember the early seeds of my plots. It is a sad but recurring fact. I can’t tell you how I came up with Plenilune. I can simply no longer remember.

I’ve noticed a few other advance readers comparing Plenilune to CS Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy. Obviously both books are similar in genre (planetary fantasy) but are there other commonalities or influences going on here? Some touches of allegory, for instance?

Unfortunately, people must relate Plenilune and Lewis’ Trilogy because there are so few planetary fantasies in popular circulation, but really they are very unlike in tone. Readers of Plenilune might find more connection between my novel and something like Lewis’ excellent non-fiction work The Discarded Image, which explores the medieval view of the universe. The Trilogy is not divorced from this hierarchy of the universe as posed by ancient and medieval philosophers, but it is definitely more of an accepted and influential concept among Plenilunar thought than it is in the Trilogy.

Now for a writer-workshop question: When I interviewed you for The Shadow Things, you mentioned “the poignancy of and the emotional importance in detail”. This is something you do amazingly well in Plenilune. How does detail intensify emotional reactions? Can you give examples of what kind of detail you might specifically try to include in different scenes? 

I have difficulty putting this concept into words, so I will borrow someone else’s line. “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”

That last part, working off the resonance, is where the poignancy comes in. You cannot take in the scope of terror or joy, it is simply too much to write down, and often it is simply more than we can contain when we experience them. So you hone in on one small aspect, something that holds a wealth of meaning, such as the child’s socks in the road. You take in that one small thing, but you are immediately hit with the importance of it, like waves of sound trembling through a gong—only, in this case, the hammer is a sequence and the sound is emotion.

It would be hard to give examples of my use of this without picking up lines of text from my manuscripts and plopping them in here. I don’t invent these circumstances outside of their organic stories. The trick is somehow knowing which details, noticed in the moment by the character, will equally convey emotion and empathy to the reader. Sometimes these connections are intuitively obvious, sometimes you have to almost write the reader as much as you write the character.

Note: (I apologize, this is a long answer.) Between Rosemary Sutcliff, who really taught me how to write, and the opening battle sequence in the film “Gladiator,” I learned the significance of practically arresting the movement of reality, of slowing it until things seem both numb and terribly clear. I have experienced this sort of thing, but I was taught it mentally and visually through Sutcliff’s literature and Ridley Scott’s cinematography.

Besides the lush writing and thrilling melodrama, my favourite thing about Plenilune was Margaret and her character arc, from someone who is very powerless to someone who is “terrible as an army with banners”. It can be so hard to write a female character who is feminine without being useless, and courageous without being annoying. Can you share some thoughts on how to get this balance right? 

I think the balance lies in knowing what people are like. Margaret is someone who is struggling hard to be something more in life, something better, but discovers when push comes to shove that she hasn’t actually got the skills required to stand on her own. The desire remains, and through the mutual nurturing of necessity and the school of hard knocks, and actually seeing a strength worth emulating, she grows into her ideals. “Strong women” is also not an issue that ever needed arguing in Plenilune: it is tacitly understood that a great woman is one who is both powerful in genius and tender in temperament.

There is also a need to recognize that these balances will look different in different women, and may not always rub others the right way. My “strong female character” of an upcoming Plenilunar installment can be so “terrible as an army with banners” that it can grate for other characters, and come across as almost more masculine than a woman ought to be, but she is a woman, and the reader is not left without a picture of the fragile side of the weaker vessel.

“Balance, Daniel-san!”

Who was your favourite character? What did you like most about writing him or her? 

I think, in reading the book, my favourite character will probably be apparent. I won’t say outright who it is, so that nothing is spoiled for the reader, but I think it was the constant wheeling harmony of paradoxes in the character which I particularly loved. The sensation of motion, like rings around a planet, was never still, it was always humming, and there was always a sense of a thunderstorm building and waiting to let loose. The complete absence of any compartmentalization in the character’s brain allowed for a more cohesive picture of Plenilune and life than the main character and reader might have got from a more orthodox individual. The sense I got from Chesterton that “here we have battle and blazing eyes, and chance and honour and high surprise” was never lacking in this character, and I loved it.

I loved (and thoroughly agreed with) your explanation for the use of magic in Plenilune, but I wasn’t expecting the friendly dragon. I guess I’m most accustomed to the idea of dragons being the enemy, as they often (but not exclusively, eg Ps 148:7) are in Scripture. What imagery did you draw upon for your dragon? 

This aspect of Plenilune is less Teutonic and more Eastern. The being in question is not an actual dragon (whatever dragons were, I do believe they existed as physical creatures): what you see is only the formal projection of it upon the five human senses on which we rely so heavily. (In this, you will meet a concept shared by Lewis’ Trilogy.) But because I did not want to rely only on the five basic sensations of the physical body, I chose a more Eastern picture, which is a little less reptile and a little more mystery, often seeming to defy the laws of the natural universe as if they were beneath it. In giving the reader a visual picture of the character, I wanted also to conBeowulf...

vey to the sixth sense that something was not quite right about the picture, the picture was not all there was. As for why I chose a dragon at all, by now the reason is swamped under years of working on this project. But perhaps the answer lies somewhere in my highschool

I was fascinated by the existence of formal Christianity on Plenilune, plus classic Thulcandran works like the Divine Comedy, and that quote from Hugh Latimer. It all raises the question of how Earth has influenced Plenilune’s culture in the past. Are we going to see some of that backstory in future books, or can you give us some hints now? 

The fact that you recognized that quote by Latimer makes you ten times more awesome than before.

Ours is a mutual appreciation.

I was afraid someone would ask me this question—when Skander pulls The Tempest off a bookshelf, where did that come from?—because I have yet to discover the answer. My best answer for you is that, in light of the medieval structure of the universe, Earth, while not at the top, is still the most important world and everything looks toward it. How that communication is kept up, I don’t yet know, but I know that it vitally shapes the philosophical backdrop of Plenilune.

Would you tell us about your plans to write more Plenilune books? And I beg your pardon if the question is a little cruel, but have you any kind of ETA on the next book? Plenilune comes out on October 20th, and I imagine people will start begging for the next book on October 21st... 

My plans include at least nine other titles. My current work in progress, Talldogs, is the third installment in the series. Ethandune, which is number two, will not be coming out next year for certain, as a good deal of it needs expanding and tweaking (I wrote the first draft in two months!), and I will probably not get to that until after I finish my Talldogs draft. I am sorry that it takes me so long to finish and turn these titles around, but you will thank me when the finished product is not too shabby by half!

Thanks so much for talking to us, Jennifer! I, for one, loved Plenilune and can’t wait to discuss it with everyone else once it lands on October 20th. All the best! 

Thank you, Suzannah! It has been a pleasure wrestling with these fantastic questions.

Jennifer Freitag blogs at The Penslayer. Plenilune releases on October 20th, but you can add it on Goodreads and read other advance reader reviews right now--which I urge you to do!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Bookshelf Challenge

So, late is better than never, right? I was nominated for the Bookshelf Challenge by Meagan Briggs of The Empty Inkwell.

The Rules for the Bookshelf Tag: 

Answer the following questions about books, and then tag five other bloggers. You can answer the questions any way you want, whether it’s on your blog, in a video, or a combination of the two. Then remember to let whoever tagged you know when your post is up so they can read it.

1) Is there a book that you really want to read but haven’t because you know that it’ll make you cry?

I expect to cry over John J Dwyer's Robert E Lee, and after tearfully chewing through his War Between the States and Stonewall, I was definitely ready to take a break, but the main reason books get put off for me is because I am crazy busy.

2) Pick one book that helped introduce you to a new genre. 

John C Wright's The Golden Age introduced me to super-super-space-opera. It twisted my mind into pretzels and was highly enjoyable. Advisory: John C Wright is only recommended to mature readers.

3) Find a book that you want to reread. 

Just one? Persuasion by Jane Austen. From memory, one of my favourite Austens.

4) Is there a book series you read but wish that you hadn’t?

There are a number, actually, but today I'll just admit to Francine Rivers's Mark of the Lion trilogy. To be fair, Mrs Rivers writes a gripping story with oodles of melodrama, fun historical detail, and an evident desire to please the Lord. All that aside, the books are about the most pressure-cooker-y romance novels I've ever read. While recently I've been coming to firmer convictions on what kind of romance is appropriate (hint: you can have my copy of Much Ado About Nothing when you pry it from my cold dead hands), there's still a line between appropriate and inappropriate. The Mark of the Lion is a sanctified bodice ripper. There, I said it.

5) If your house were burning down and all of your family and pets were safe, which book would you go back inside to save? 

Pendragon's Heir, because losing ten years' work would be horrible. If I had any more time, I'd add my Kobo and my treasured copy of Charles Williams's Taliessin Through Logres/The Region of the Summer Stars, because replacing it would be so difficult.

6) Is there one book on your bookshelf that brings back fond memories?

Perelandra. I have a lot of memories, good and bad, of reading that book.

7) Find a book that has inspired you the most. 

Angels in the Architecture, Douglas Wilson and Douglas Jones. It more or less explains me.

8) Do you have any autographed books?

Rural Australia doesn't grant the opportunity to meet famous authors all that much. Given that, I'm kind of surprised how many I have. Signed first editions of the 100 Cupboards series by ND Wilson, if you're counting authors I haven't met. Otherwise, George Grant kindly autographed a copy of The Micah Mandate for a very star-struck Australian traveller last year, and Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin signed a copy of It's (Not That) Complicated for me around the same time. More recently, I became the proud owner of an autographed copy of Tasmanian author-illustrators Steve and Marion Isham's latest picture book Where The Platypus Sleeps.

9) Find the book that you have owned the longest.

Oh. Wow. I wouldn't have a clue. There are books on my shelf that my parents have given me from the library we had growing up, and books that came from my grandparents' shelves, so maybe the absolutely-fallen-apart Pilgrim's Progress?

10) Is there a book by an author that you never imagined you would read or enjoy?

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. After being traumatised at an early age by Oliver Twist, I was surprised to enjoy that one.

The bloggers I now nominate are:

Schuyler M of My Lady Bibliophile
Elisabeth Grace Foley of The Second Sentence
Joy C of Fulness of Joy

and anyone else who wants to join in. Let me know if you do! Cheers!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Comus by John Milton

It may surprise you to know that I've never been a great fan of John Milton's. I've tried, and failed, twice, to get all the way through Paradise Lost, and was rather put off to discover that Milton embraced the Arian heresy, seeing Christ as the first-created being rather than the eternal God Himself. However, a spot of heresy doesn't usually prevent me from enjoying a legitimately good book, and when I recently decided on a whim to read Comus, I was astonished how much I enjoyed the thing.

Comus is a masque, maybe the first I've read. The masque was a presentation quite similar to a play, popular through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Comus was written. One of the differences between a masque and a play was that a masque was a very courtly form of entertainment in which it was not unheard-of (as it would have been in the playhouses) for noblemen and noblewomen to take roles or participate in the songs and dances.

Into the Wood

Comus is the story of a young Lady and her two brothers lost in "the blind mazes of [a] tangled wood." I have to admit that it was this specific line which induced me to read the masque. Why? I'll go somewhat off-topic and explain. If that line makes you think of Mirkwood, Narnia, or perhaps As You Like It's Forest of Arden or any King Arthur story at all, then congratulations--you are aware of a venerable literary trope with deep roots in the chivalric/romantic tradition. As Charles Williams observed in The Figure of Beatrice,
The image of a wood has appeared often enough in English verse. It has indeed appeared so often that it has gathered a good deal of verse into itself; so that it has become a great forest where, with long leagues of changing green between them, strange episodes of poetry have taken place. Thus in one part there are lovers of a midsummer night, or by day a duke and his followers, and in another men behind branches so that the wood seems moving, and in another a girl separated from her two lordly young brothers, and in another a poet listening to a nightingale but rather dreaming richly of the grand art than there exploring it, and there are other inhabitants, belonging even more closely to the wood, dryads, fairies, an enchanter's rout. The forest itself has different names in different tongues--Westermain, Arden, Birnam, Broceliande; and in places there are separate trees named, such as that on the outskirts against which a young Northern poet saw a spectral wanderer leaning, or, in the unexplored centre of which only rumours reach even poetry, Igdrasil of one myth, or the Trees of Knowledge and Life of another. So that indeed the whole earth seems to become this one enormous forest, and our longest and most stable civilisations are only clearings in the midst of it.
And that puts it in a nutshell, complete with a reference to Comus itself. To continue, the Lady is separated from her brothers and in looking for them, is captured by the enchanter Comus, who as the story goes, is the son of Bacchus and Circe from Greek myth, a minor deity of wine and lust. Comus attempts to talk the Lady into forsaking her morals, and the Lady, though unable to escape and waiting for rescue, continues to refute all of Comus's arguments.

Although the play is quite a short one, it's so jam-packed with thought-provoking goodness that I could spend a long time discussing it. There are a few very fun aspects of this story that I'd love to bring to your attention...

Pagan Imagery in a Christian Story

First, given the time period, it should come as no surprise to us that we find a good bit of imagery lifted from pagan myth here in this story by a man who, despite being a heretic, was a Christian heretic writing for a Christian audience in a Christian tradition. I've written before about how Milton, Spenser, CS Lewis, and other authors in this tradition justified such borrowing--short story, it's all in Augustine and The City of God--but it was fun to see Milton's take on the same kind of story. At one point, his pagan god argues to the Lady:
If all the world  
Should, in a pet of temperance, feed on pulse,
Drink the clear stream, and nothing wear but frieze,  
The All-giver would be unthanked, would be unpraised,  
Not half his riches known, and yet despised.
The milieu, in other words, does include gods and river-nymphs with powers of their own, but these creatures are imagined no less as subjects (whether obedient or rebellious) of the same God.

I'm not sure if I'd write a story the same way, but when reading classic Christian literature like Comus, it can be helpful to remember that the presence of a few lowercase pagan-derived gods should not be taken as evidence of impiety on the author's part. As we see from this passage, even though it comes from the mouth of the villain, a clear distinction is drawn between God Himself and the created "gods" which, although they may have delegated power, take it for granted that all worship and glory belong to the High God.

Reason and Temperance

As you might infer from the fact that the villain is a god of wine and lust, the whole theme of the poem revolves around the virtue of temperance, which as I mentioned in my review of Book II of The Faerie Queene, was defined at this period in history as right behaviour in the physical world (analogous to and of course inseparable from holiness, which is right spiritual conduct). The war is waged in learned debate; anyone who hasn't been living under a rock his whole life will be unsurprised to find how little the arguments of people like Comus have changed in the last 380 years. Still, all the things he says are hollow sophistry; the Lady's counterarguments, by contrast, are both rational and devastating.
Were it a draught for Juno when she banquets,  
I would not taste thy treasonous offer. None
But such as are good men can give good things;  
And that which is not good is not delicious  
To a well-governed and wise appetite.
One thing we might have a little more difficulty recognising is the poem's emphasis on the trained palate. After 250 years of Enlightenment humanism worshipping at the altar of the sweet innate goodness of humanity, all of us have the "follow your heart" mantra in our bones. To Milton, however, the natural appetites tend toward evil, making training, self-government, and discipline both necessary and beneficial. This is what CS Lewis talked about in The Abolition of Man--well-trained affections.

Another of the benefits of a well-governed character: discipline in the face of danger, fear, or apprehension.
Peace, brother: be not over-exquisite  
To cast the fashion of uncertain evils;  
For, grant they be so, while they rest unknown,  
What need a man forestall his date of grief,  
And run to meet what he would most avoid?  
Or, if they be but false alarms of fear,  
How bitter is such self-delusion!

Feminine Authority

This was one of my favourite things about this poem--as you'll be unsurprised to hear. I found the Lady an incredibly inspiring role model. She has complete calm and unassailable logic under pressure, combined with a total lack of feminist girl-power nonsense. 

To begin with, when her brothers discover that the Lady has been kidnapped by someone who's up to no good, one comforts the other like this:
I do not think my sister so to seek,
Or so unprincipled in virtue’s book,  
And the sweet peace that goodness bosoms ever,  
As that the single want of light and noise
(Not being in danger, as I trust she is not)
Could stir the constant mood of her calm thoughts,
And put them into misbecoming plight.
Modern feminists will try to persuade you, surprisingly often, that women of previous years were regarded as little better than infants, expected to scream and faint at the least sign of danger. But the Lady's Brothers, though understandably concerned for her safety, are sure that she has the strength of mind to meet dangers with courage. As the plot demonstrates, they're quite right.

Despite her courage, however, the Lady is quite in earnest a prisoner of Comus, unable to free herself; she is no omnicompetent action girl. On the other hand, the fact that the Lady is in dire need of a rescuer does not mean that she is without freewill or moral agency. Although physically she is in Comus's power, she is mentally and spiritually capable of resisting him: she is neither hoodwinked by his sophistries, nor enticed by his blandishments.

In other words, Comus's Lady doesn't take the easy way out--she doesn't use duress and coercion as an excuse for wrongdoing. I really think this is a huge error made by a lot of our contemporaries: to assume that every woman in a difficult situation, under any kind of pressure or abuse, is somehow a spotless victim, robbed of all moral agency, and helpless to exercise her own reason, will, and responsibilities. I don't debate that this must be difficult to do; but sometimes it just is difficult to do the right thing. We have to do it anyway. And I don't know about you, but I find that requirement far more empowering than the notion that I could have no moral agency in a moment of coercion or duress.

In Praise of Sensational Plots

Lately I have come to meditate on the fact that the difference between a great book and a terrible book does not lie in how interesting, or sensational, or preposterous, the plot is. Down with the idea that a book, to be truly great, must be as dull as dishwater. Even a potboiler full of romance, war, and melodrama is capable of greatness if written with discipline and virtue--and give me that any day, rather than a book which never dares to be either profound or preposterous. In Comus, Milton couches serious philosophy in a melodramatic tale of villainy versus chastity, and it's delightful. Compare that with the spy story I read recently about a genius art restorer superspy wending his respectable bourgeois way across Europe looking for stolen art. I think at one point he even drove a Volvo. And he didn't face the prospect of losing his immortal soul, not once. Pshaw, even Jane Austen wrote plots with higher stakes than that.

Empty-Vaulted Night

Comus was, to conclude, delightful all the way through. I can't finish without saying something about the writing. This may come as news, but Milton could turn a pretty phrase. Here, luxuriate in this:

Can any mortal mixture of earth’s mould
Breathe such divine enchanting ravishment?  
Sure something holy lodges in that breast,  
And with these raptures moves the vocal air
To testify his hidden residence.  
How sweetly did they float upon the wings
Of silence, through the empty-vaulted night,  

At every fall smoothing the raven down  
Of darkness till it smiled!

Find Comus on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Pendragon's Heir: Snippets

In case you missed it, a few weeks ago I announced my upcoming novel, Pendragon's Heir. At the moment I'm halfway through a stiff edit of the book, an exciting thing to be doing as always!

And so for this update I'd like to post some snippets to introduce you to some of my characters...

She stared at the featureless iron and felt more keenly than ever the distance between them. Now. Now was the time to say what might be the last words he would ever hear from her.
  “Fight,” she said at last. “Win.”

“Nerys. It’s been fourteen years and you haven’t aged.”
  “No.” Nerys settled back on her footstool, her shoulders falling, her chin lifting. For a moment the veil rose: Blanche sensed a dignity so awful and majestic that she almost expected the footstool to splinter into diamond shards beneath its burden.
  “I am ageless.”

The strange knight spoke, his voice echoing inside the iron helm. “Do you seek death, boy?”
  Perceval grinned. “I’ve yanked his beard once or twice. I can do it again.”

Simon Corbin
“Ah, but even now you fail to understand me. What if it were not the villain doing these dastardly deeds, but your colleague, or your commander?”
  Perceval looked up with quick displeasure. “What do you mean?”
  “I mean,” he said, “that by your own showing, the greatest threat to heaven comes from within the ranks of the angels themselves. Before you can prove to me that heroes can defeat villains with nothing but the purest chivalric ideals, you must convince me that heroes do exist, and that villains are not a fanciful tale for children. You must tell me, sir, if you dare, that you are incorruptible, and that your colleagues and commanders are as pure as you. Your health.”
  And Mr Corbin took a sip of wine.

Sir Gawain, whetting his sword, looked up. “We know the Lady Nimue can be trusted.”
  “Why are you defending her? You know better than any of us what harm comes when Elves meddle with men, however good their intentions.”
  Silence fell, as breathless as the space between lightning and thunder. Perceval saw the others slowly straightening to look at the Knight of Orkney.
  No thunder came. Instead Gawain said quietly, “Yes. I know it.”

Blanchefleur swallowed. Moistened dry lips. “He? Who’s he?”
  Sudden silence fell upon the steeple. At last Morgan’s voice slid out from beneath the table with the calm and sinuous grace of a serpent. “Oh, I would tell you. I am willing to tell you. I am waiting to tell you.”

“I ask your pardon for falling so silent at the Table today when you told me of your birth. It meant no disdain. Only I can imagine no harder thing befalling a man, than to be cast off by his father.”
  “I knew you thought no ill of me,” said Galahad. “And of your kindness, think no ill of him either. So far as the matter lies between him and me, we have killed and buried it.”
  And again, although he searched for it, Perceval saw no trace of bitterness in Galahad’s eyes.

“You were penitent, then,” Blanchefleur said, struggling not to show her loathing. But Elaine’s mouth tightened with resentment: in the flickering candlelight, Blanchefleur saw for the first time that there were deep stubborn lines scored from nose to mouth.
  “Never! I was like the Lady Eve, cast out of my home for a sin Fate demanded of me.”

Arthur and Guinevere
...The gilded knight snatched the cup from the Queen’s hand even while he spoke.
  And flung the wine in her face.
  “A fig for the Table,” the ruffian was shouting, with a laugh, over the uproar of shouts and falling chairs. Perceval saw the King say a word, and a lean grey shadow leaped from under his chair. The gilded knight vaulted to his horse as the hound sprang with bared teeth and straining red maw for his heels. Then the warhorse neighed and lashed out a hoof. The dog scrabbled uselessly across the floor: another heartbeat, and the gilded knight was gone with the drumming of hooves.
  Above it all the Queen of Britain stood still, wine dripping off her face, her mouth pressed shut in a white and wordless fury which swept impersonally across Perceval and all the people gathered in the hall before alighting on the King.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Fall of Arthur by JRR Tolkien

Over the fifty years since his father's death, Christopher Tolkien has made an immense body of work--some finished, some unfinished, some edited into a finished-ish form--available to the public, all of it painstakingly distilled from JRR Tolkien's papers. Without him, there would be no Silmarillion, no Unfinished Tales, and no Lays of Beleriand--none of which I can imagine living without! In more recent years, the Tolkiens have continued strong with the publication of The Children of Hurin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur, and a recent prose translation of Beowulf.

While reviews of Hurin and Sigurd will need to wait for another day (both are excellent books, and I thoroughly enjoyed both JRR Tolkien's Sigurd poem and Christopher Tolkien's scholarly and learned commentary, which is a great introduction to the Volsung legend's history and variations), I'm excited to bring you a somewhat thematically appropriate review of one of the latest Tolkiens, The Fall of Arthur.

I have to say I never expected this to come to light. Tolkien, who wished to construct (in his Silmarillion) a myth for England, found the Matter of Britain inadequate to his purposes. The presence of a Christian backdrop to the Arthur legends dissatisfied him, not because he had any enmity with Christendom (on the contrary, he was always a devoted son of the church) but because his interest in myth was how it prefigured, rather than wove into, redemptive history. And so he pushed aside the Matter of Britain and attempted to construct a mythopoeic legend that embodied but did not occur against the backdrop of Christendom.

So I assumed that Tolkien never had any use for the Arthurian legends. I was wrong.

The Poem

Another reason to assume that Tolkien would not have been particularly interested in Arthurian legend is that he was proudly and very eald-fashionedly English, in the sense of Anglo-Saxon, in his tastes, and there has always been something rather un-English, something definitely and distinctively Welsh-with-French-glosses, about the Matter of Britain. Insofar as Saxons ever do appear in the myths or retellings of the Arthur legends, they're the bad guys, fought off by the heroic Welsh or Roman Arthur. Of all the medieval Arthurian legends, a good deal are in Latin, French, and even German, by comparison to the few authors--Brut, Wace, Layamon, and Malory--who wrote in English (and Malory is always adding, "as the French book telleth" to his tale). The exception seems to be an intensely English, and largely overlooked pair of Middle English alliterative poems that hark back, stylistically, to Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse like Beowulf or--if you've read The Lord of the Rings at all, the Rohir poetry (which itself is occasionally cribbed from original Anglo-Saxon poems like The Wanderer)--"Where now is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?/Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?"

One of these old-fashioned Middle-English alliterative poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a rattling good yarn, was translated into modern English by JRR Tolkien and published during his lifetime. The other, known commonly as "the alliterative Morte," is less well-known to history since it has more in common with the pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmouth than with the more courtly and congenial French romances of Chretien de Troyes. Lots of fellows being split from the nave to the chaps, and not so much courtly knight-errantry in the twisted woods.

Which brings us to Tolkien's Fall of Arthur, a fragment little more than 4 cantos long, written alliteratively in the style of these Middle-English poems and apparently based on the alliterative Morte with a few influences from the French romances, such as the addition of the guilty love of Lancelot and Guinever.

Why It's Awesome

Please. It's JRR Tolkien writing an epic verse retelling of the Arthur myth, taking a good deal of inspiration from obscure sources and adding his own neat twists. Imagine one of your favourite authors writing fanfiction for one of your favourite books. That's what makes The Fall of Arthur a treat for fans of both Tolkien and Arthur.

The plot includes some fresh and refreshing differences to the usual story: I particularly loved what Tolkien did with Gawain. The writing is, as always, meticulous and staggering:

On Benwick's beaches breakers pounding
ground gigantic grumbling boulders
with ogre anger.

In addition, there are repetitions and chiasms in the structure of the poem that give it an odd and mesmerising power. But it's the characters that I most admired.

The poem focuses--indeed, it only has time to focus--on five major characters: Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred, Gawain, and Lancelot. With Tolkien's pen, they each come to life--or something much larger. Gawain, always my favourite of the knights, gets better treatment here than from any other writer since, well, since the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Greatest was Gawain, whose glory waxed
as times darkened, true and dauntless,
among knights peerless ever anew proven,
defence and fortress of a falling world.
As in last sortie from leaguered city
so Gawain led them.

But I was most astonished by Tolkien's treatment of two of my least favourite characters from the legends, Guinever and Lancelot. His description of Lancelot's plight is wonderfully, surprisingly moving--and according to Tolkien's notes for the unfinished remainder to the poem, it would have culminated in a completely original (and rather Wandereresquely Anglo-Saxon) end to Lancelot's story. But in the poem as it stands, it's his Guinever who steals the show. In most versions of the legend, you don't get much of a look into the inner motivations of any of the characters, least of all hers. But in Tolkien's hands, in a few deft lines, we glimpse someone cold and calculating and somehow, despite all this, glorious--a woman we admire even as we condemn her:

Dear she loved him
with love unyielding, lady ruthless,
fair as fay-woman and fell-minded
in the world walking for the woe of men.

In most tellings of the Arthur legends, you always feel like smacking someone over the head. Not in this one: Tolkien has pruned, simplified, tweaked, and adjusted the raw materials of the legend into pure nobility and splendour. Add to all this one final thing to love: my favourite author writing a story set against the backdrop of Christendom: of Lancelot's fathers it is said in an early draft that they

to the western world wandering journeyed,
Christendom bearing, kingdoms founding,
walls uprearing against the wild peoples.

The only thing that's not awesome about The Fall of Arthur? The fact that it ends almost before it's gotten underway. A tragedy!

The Commentary

Accompanying the poem fragment are plenteous notes, and also three essays by Christopher Tolkien examining first, the poem's place in the larger Arthurian tradition (very interesting to Arthur nerds), second, the poem's relation to Tolkien's larger mythos (very interesting to Tolkien nerds, especially considering the remarkable link between the Arthurian Avalon and Middle-Earth's Tol Eressea/Avallone), and third, some commentary on the history of the composition of the poem (very distressing to authors who can't slap down glorious epic alliterative verse more or less on command). Finally, there's a brief essay on Old English alliterative verse, a sort of whirlwind tour of the artform. All these are very interesting, if not quite as informative as the commentary on Sigurd and Gudrun.

Sadly, The Fall of Arthur will probably only appeal to that niche audience with an intersecting interest in Tolkien, Arthurian legend, and Old English alliterative verse. But if any of these things appeals to you, you're going to love The Fall of Arthur.

Find The Fall of Arthur on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Matter of Brittany by Dorothy L Sayers

One of the things I do from time to time is light out and spend a few weeks (even, sometimes, months) staying with friends to help out in times of need. That's what I'm up to for the next 3 weeks, and I don't mind, actually, since it gives me the excuse to post one of my current favourite poems!

I never knew Dorothy Sayers wrote poetry until I went trawling through the University of Rochester's Camelot Project, an extremely useful resource on Arthurian legend. (If you're wondering what such a webpage would be useful for, the short answer is: I'm writing a novel).  Here I found two poems by Sayers from a book of poems published in 1916, both inspired by Arthurian myth and both extremely evocative. This is the one I liked best.

The Matter of Brittany

Draw to the fire, and let us weave a web
Of sounds and splendours intertwined
Of warriors riding two by two
In silken surcoats stiched with blue,
To seek and strive the whole world through
For a scarlet fruit with silver rind;
Of unsteered ships that drift for miles on miles
Amid the creeks of myriad magic isles
Over enchanted seas, that leave at ebb
A beach of glittering gold behind.

Hark! how the rain is rippling over the roofs
And knocking hard on the window-pane!
It rattles down the gutter-spout
And beats the laurel-leaves about;
So let us tell of a kempy stout
With bells upon his bridle-rein —
How, as he rode beneath the chattering boughs,
He clashed the iron visor over his brows,
Hearing upon his heel the hurried hoofs
Of Breunor, Breuse or Agravaine.

Of names like dusky jewels wedged in gold
The tale shall cherish goodly store,
 Of Lionel and Lamorak
And of Sir Lancelot du Lak,
And him that bore upon his back
Arms for the Lady Lyonor;
Persant, Perimones and Pertolepe,
And Arthur laid in Avalon asleep,
Dinas and Dinadan and Bors the bold,
And many a mighty warrior more.

And grimly crouched in every woodland way
A dragon with his emerald eyes
Shall sit and blink on passing knights;
In the deep dells, old eremites,
Victors once of a thousand fights,
Shall sing their masses at sunrise;
And weary men shall stumble unaware
On damsels dancing in a garden fair,
And there, like Meraugis of Portlesguez,
Dance, cheated of their memories.

To towns where we shall feast at Pentecost,
Carlion or Kynke Kenadon,
Each day shall come a faery dame,
Or else a giant with eyes of flame
Shall bid to the beheading game
Knights that the king sets store upon;
And some shall find, at hour of day's decline,
The house beside the fountain and the pine,
And learning much of marvel from their host,
Shall hasten greatly to begone.

Some, by the help of charm├Ęd steeds shall – just –
Leap through the whirling barriers
That guard about the pleasant bower
Where every moment is an hour,
And with an elfin paramour
Drowse and dream for a hundred years,
But setting foot again on Middle Earth,
Or tasting wheaten bread in hour of dearth,
Shall crumble to a little cloud of dust
Blown by the wind across the furze.

Or sometimes through the arches of the wood
The sad Good Friday bells will ring
Loud in the ear of Percivale,
Through many a year of ban and bale
Yet questing after the Sangraal
For comfort of the Fisher King;
And suddenly across a vault of stars
Shall drive a network of enchanted spars,
And Lancelot and Galahad the good
Behold the ship of hallowing.

And first of all I'll tell the tale to you,
And you shall tell the next to me:
How gentle Enid made complaint
While riding with her lord Geraint,
 Or how the merry Irish Saint
Went ever westward oversea;
While your dim shadow moving on the wall
Might be Sir Tristram's, as he harped in hall
Before Iseult of Ireland, always true,
Or white Iseult of Brittany.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Anon, Sir, Anon by Rachel Heffington

I'm so glad for the opportunity I had to run Home Educated Authors Week earlier this winter (or, for those of you who don't live Downunder, earlier this summer). One of the reasons for this is all the amazing new authors I have discovered through the folks I reviewed. Another is the fact that some of these authors are busy little bees and have been hard at work to bring you more good stories.

Jennifer Freitag, with her upcoming magnumopus Plenilune, is a case in point. Another is the sparkling Rachel Heffington with her upcoming novel Anon, Sir, Anon. Rachel was kind enough to send me an advance review copy of this cozy and hilarious murder mystery, which is scheduled for publication on the 5th of November--yes, rather appropriately, Guy Fawkes' Day.
The 12:55 out of Darlington brought more than Orville Farnham's niece; murder was passenger.

In coming to Whistlecreig, Genevieve Langley expected to find an ailing uncle in need of gentle care. In reality, her charge is a cantankerous Shakespearean actor with a penchant for fencing and an affinity for placing impossible bets.

When a body shows up in a field near Whistlecreig Manor and Vivi is the only one to recognize the victim, she is unceremoniously baptized into the art of crime-solving: a field in which first impressions are seldom lasting and personal interest knocks at the front door.

Set against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog, Anon, Sir, Anon cuts a cozy path to a chilling crime.
Anon, Sir, Anon is Rachel Heffington's second novel. I've also had the pleasure of reading Fly Away Home (read my review here) and her novella The Windy Side of Care, both of which were lots of fun. 

Anon, Sir, Anon knocks those two out of the park.
The whole fish in its crispy, salted jacket stared at her with a glassy eye and Genevieve thought it looked at Whistlecreig and its inhabitants in a spirit of judgement and lemon-juice.
"I incline to concur," she whispered.
"To whom are you speaking?" Farnham asked.
Genevieve snapped straight. "To my fish, if you must know."  
This little murder mystery bears all the things I've come to expect from Rachel's books: crackling wit, gloriously well-crafted prose, and quirky, lovable characters. On top of that, the plot was more tightly woven and credible, the character interactions flowed better, and the writing--though I was reading a version which had not yet been polished by an editor--is patently more colourful and compelling than in her other works. In addition, there's a streak of something a little darker in this book. From the plight of the victim, to the identity of the killer, Rachel Heffington proves herself ready to make hard authorial decisions.

It's not that the book isn't fun. I was chuckling and reading passages out loud to my family the whole way through, and at the end I felt as though I'd been snuggling in a warm fluffy comfort read for a few wonderful hours. But this book proves that fluffy and laugh-out-loud funny doesn't necessarily mean insubstantial. I loved that the emotional centre of the book is not Vivi's relationship with the dashing young man she meets on the platform at Whistlecreig--but her relationship with her odd and brilliant uncle, Orville Farnham. I'm a firm believer that relationships are the key to characters, inside the cover of a book or out, and I'm actually in awe of how emotionally satisfying I found Vivi's relationship with her uncle--satisfying enough to bear the weight of a plot much weightier than this one.
Her uncle's arm was a warm thing to clasp as they made their way through the tangle of passages and Genevieve thought what a sad fact it was that gentlemen no longer "elbow" their ladies as Farnham had so bluntly put it; there was a certain peaceable respect in the gesture that made her feel like royalty as they hurried through the echoing hall and into another cell of firelight.
Farnham himself was, of course, a duck of a character. Had he been in a PG Wodehouse novel sharing the stage with Stiffy Byng, she would probably have called him "a woolly baa-lamb", thereby offending him deeply and eliciting some mordant Shakespearian quotation.

Finally, I really loved the understated and taken-for-granted Christianity of the characters. It's rare to find a contemporary Christian novel which doesn't descend into preachiness. Of course, Anon, Sir, Anon is not in that rather weird genre, but I loved to see the sprawling magnificence of the Christian worldview peeking out at the corners--here a quote from Spurgeon, there a reference to "the difference between stepping into a church under construction and a cathedral that had stood six hundred years, steeped in worship." There is a sheer homeliness to such detail that enhances, rather than detracts from, the coziness and comfortableness of the book: God's in His heaven, all's right with the world.

Anon, Sir, Anon isn't published yet. But it contains everything I like best about good vintage mysteries like Ethel Lina White's Some Must Watch or the sweeter Agatha Christie novels. I highly recommend it. 

Keep up to date on Anon, Sir, Anon by following Rachel Heffington on her blog. And: remember, remember, the fifth of November.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...