Friday, June 8, 2018

The Arthurian Romances of Chretien de Troyes

It finally happened.

I finally got around to reading Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian romances.

Everyone has been telling me how delightful Chretien is, and I've always believed them. Getting my hands on a copy of the book took me a while, and by the time I did, I was struggling deeply with Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and trying to figure out what I thought of it. My first novel, Pendragon's Heir, was the result of that struggle. Looking back, I think I have to conclude that Pendragon's Heir had to be about Malory: it didn't have space for anything else. So Chretien was postponed until I began preparing to write a novel set in the 1180s.

The four Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes are Erec et Enide, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot.

Erec et Enide seems to be an expansion of the Welsh story of Gereint and Enid. Erec meets and wins Enide during a quest on which he seeks to avenge an insult to Queen Guinevere. They happily marry and retire to Erec's father's kingdom, where Erec spends all his time relaxing in his wife's bower. Tongues wag, saying that Erec has gone soft, and when he overhears Enide complaining about this, he gets up in high dudgeon and rides out in search of adventures, taking his wife with him but threatening her not to speak to him. Though distressed by Erec's treatment, Enide remains loyal to him throughout all the adventures that follow, eventually proving that she loves him.

Cliges roams across Europe from Britain to Constantinople, telling the story of how Alexander, the son of the Greek emperor, travels to Britain where he falls in love with a sister of Sir Gawain's and wins her hand while helping Arthur put down a baron's rebellion. Their son, Cliges, is done out of the imperial throne by his uncle, who eventually travels to Germany to marry the daughter of the German emperor. The lady and Cliges fall for each other, though, and she comes up with a zany Romeo-and-Juliet scheme to switch husbands, which works only slightly better than it did in Shakespeare.

Yvain is another of the stories that also crops up in the Welsh Mabinogion, though like Erec et Enide, it's expanded. Yvain travels to a magical fountain where throwing a bowlful of water against a stone will cause a destructive storm in the surrounding countryside. The local count turns up to joust with him, and Yvain mortally wounds the man and then pursues him to his castle, where he is trapped and witnesses the death of the count and falls in love at first sight with the countess.

Lancelot tells how Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by a lovestruck knight and taken to a magical kingdom which nobody can ever leave, accessible only by two bridges, one of which is deep underwater and the other of which is a sword. ("There never was such a bad bridge"). Along the way, Lancelot finds himself obliged to incur significant knightly disgrace in order to prove his love for the Queen.

Did I mention that these stories are every bit as delightful as I had been told? To open Chretien is to step into a world of courtesy, adventure, love, and generosity. "Love would have it, and so would I, that I should be sensible and modest and kind and approachable to all for the sake of one I love..." A king reflects that "he ought rather to desire and long for his son's honour" than keep him at home. A knight refuses to ask for his beloved's hand in marriage because he "prefers to suffer without her rather than to win her against her will". And Our Lord is "the very honey and sweet savour of pity". If you know medieval literature at all, you know the kind of thing I mean; and if you don't, you've missed the most sweet and sensitive literature in the world.

The four stories were written between 1170 and 1180, probably commissioned by his employer Marie of France, the Countess of Champagne (the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine). Eleanor, Marie, and several others are central figures in the creation of the courtly love tradition of the high-to-late Middle Ages. According to Andreas Capellanus, these women set up a "Court of Love" in Poitiers, designed to adjudicate lovers' quarrels and make rulings on questions of romantic love. Whether Capellanus was correct or not, it definitely seems that the courtly love tradition came to prominence in twelfth century courts under the patronage of powerful and wealthy women. This is an obvious influence on Chretien's work, which I'll speak about in a bit. But according to the great medieval historian Richard Southern, there's another, less evident influence shown in the Arthurian romances.

The Personal Quest

In The Making of Europe, his great work on intellectual and cultural development through the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Southern ends with a fascinating chapter on epic poetry, the literature that characterised the start of his period, as contrasted with romance, the literary form that characterised the end of it. According to Southern, the two or three centuries leading up to Chretien's romances saw a definite change in several areas: it saw increased roles for individualism, sentiment and emotions, and logic. He contrasts this with the communality, practicality, and fatalism of pagan-influenced epic:
Briefly, we find less talk of life as an exercise in endurance, and of death in a hopeless cause; and we hear more of life as a seeking and a journeying. Men begin to order their experience more consciously in accordance with a plan: they think of themselves less as stationary objects of attack by spiritual foes, and more as pilgrims and seekers.
Southern believes that the primary influence in this development was Christian spirituality of the Benedictine and Cistercian tradition.
...the monastic life - or for that matter the Christian life in any form - could never be merely 'heroic' in its quality. That fatal struggle of man against superior forces, that meaninglessness of fate, and the purely resigned, defensive and heroic attitude of man in the face of fate could not, on a Christian view, be the whole story. As Europe became Christianised the epic was bound to decline, for it left out the personal and secret tie between man and God.
Epics in the pagan tradition, not just Homer and Virgil but also, even yet, Beowulf and The Song of Roland, were based on an understanding of man as ultimately passive in the face of an impersonal, transcendent fate. But Christianity gave both man and God a new role. God was personal, had reached into history, and could be understood and known. He acted according to his own laws, and his laws could be understood and applied through revelation and logic. Since God was intelligible, personal, and immanent, then man could respond in an intelligent, individual, and personal way to him.

St Anselm, himself a Benedictine monk, developed a concept of eager and active internal searching for God. Southern explains: "We enter here into an inner world of movement and struggle, in which attack has taken the place of resistance as the predominant method. The same attitude is apparent in St Anselm's famous programme of enquiry: Fides quaerens intellectum, 'Faith seeking understanding'."

As this attitude toward the spiritual life circulated in the monasteries, it percolated into the rest of the world as well. The Cistercians applied themselves to the intellectual pursuit of divine Love, and in the secular romantic literature, legendary knights applied themselves in much the same way to the pursuit of romantic love.

Logic and Emotion

As the personal, intelligible, and immanent concept of the Christian God became more ingrained in society, the result was a twofold flowering of the faculties of logic and emotion. In Reformed churches at least, logic and emotion are often pitted against each other like enemies, with logic seen as being good and emotion as dangerous at best and evil at worst. In truth, both logic and emotion are presented in Scripture as good gifts of God, both to be submitted to the revelation of Scripture.

Both logic and emotion are necessitated by Christian theology. If God is personal, intelligible, and immanent, then individual people can have personal relationships with him. They can both understand him and feel loyalty to him. They can both adore him and dispute with him. You cannot have one without the other. If God loses his personality, he loses his intelligibility as well.

Certainly, Southern notes that with the development of faith as a passionate quest for God, there appeared simultaneously with "a systematic and impersonal body of law and theological teaching": "It seems as if legalism was most pervasive when law was most difficult to come by." Further:
It was indeed one of the characteristics of our period that the connexion between thought and feeling, between emotional intensity and the formal structure of thought, was close: it was only in the later Middle Ages that the intellectual structure seems too weak for the feelings which produced the somewhat hectic piety of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
My own theory as to the reason for the intellectual weakness of the later Middle Ages is that Scripture was less accessible to the church, causing both logic and emotion to become untethered from their guiding principle. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, Scripture seems to have had a far greater influence on the culture, and as theology better embraced the true incarnation of Christ into a feeble human body, it caused a greater feeling of compassionate tenderness.

In earlier centuries, for example, Christ's suffering on the Cross was depicted in more heroic terms, as in The Dream of the Rood, in which Christ is depicted as a young warrior full of power. Southern goes into great theological detail as to why this was so, but I'll just skip to the part where theological developments resulted in greater pity and compassion for the sufferings of Christ. Similarly, where earlier art had depicted the Virgin and Christ as ageless and detached celestial beings, a more theologically rigorous understanding of Christ's incarnation into feeble human flesh resulted in art that more often depicted a young human mother playing with or feeding her helpless little baby, a subject for tenderness and pity. And this led in turn to a new tenderness and respect for all women and children.

Right doctrine resulted in right feeling. Orthodox logic prompted orthodox emotion. And the result was felt not just inside but also outside the cloister. Chretien's romances revel in the strong emotions of their characters. He goes on about them for paragraphs, reasoning, explaining, and feeling. His stories dig deep into psychological realism, inviting you to empathise with the characters' emotions in a way that previous literature didn't. Like the best fantasists, Chretien uses fantastical events to emphasise reality. His knights may be in love out of all reason, but they cannot be late for their twelve o'clock trial by combat.

Women and the Feminine Perspective

Last year, I reviewed the late chanson de geste The Song of the Cid and spent some time discussing its treatment of women, which shows a significant development from earlier literature. That development is even more evident in Chretien.

In the twelfth century we find noble women occupying a very high status in society. While parents often exploited their children for matrimonial and dynastic purposes, and while the nobility definitely exploited lower social strata, noble women often acted as legal and social equals with their men. As in all civilised Christian societies, they were not expected to fight (although occasionally they both could and did), but in the crusader states in the twelfth century, this apparently didn't hold them back. Military capacity was very important, putting pressure on heiresses to marry capable warriors for the good of their people, but the constant fighting meant the men had a low life expectancy. Women like Melisende of Jerusalem and her sisters, or Maria Comnena, Eschiva of Bures, or Stephanie of Milly outlived multiple husbands and provided stability and continuity to their society. They inherited and ruled fiefs and kingdoms, engaged in politics, and ran successful coups against their husbands or vassals. One Muslim historian expressed his surprise and disgust that a Frankish woman, walking in the street, might stop to converse with a man who was not her husband; that the husband would stop and wait quietly for her to finish talking; and that he might even go off and do his own business, leaving his wife to chat.

So much for the historical record. When it comes to Chretien, it's more difficult to say whether the image of women promoted in the romances reflects ideal or reality. It's pretty safe to say, however, that he must have been influenced by the wishes of the powerful women who patronised him and commissioned his work. And it's fascinating to watch him describe and develop his female characters. Chretien's ladies are all "fair and charming," of course, but they are also intelligent:
Fair, indeed, she is; but yet greater far than her beauty, is her intelligence. God never created any one so discreet and of such open heart.
Women are valued not just for their looks, but also for their character and conversation:
Then she took me to sit down in the prettiest little field, shut in by a wall all round about. There I found her so elegant, so fair of speech and so well informed, of such pleasing manners and character, that it was a delight to be there, and I could have wished never to be compelled to move.
But this is only the beginning. Chretien uses Enide and his other heroines as viewpoint characters, delving into their thoughts, worries, and motivations. They have friendships with each other, giving gifts or undertaking quests on behalf of each other. They rule over cities and pass judgement on those who offend them. Knights offer them service and meekly submit both to their whims and to their wisdom. And oh, they retain the right to mingle freely and sociably with men without being accused of leading them on:
Such persons may properly be rated as fools for thinking that a lady is in love with them just because she is courteous and speaks to some unfortunate fellow, and makes him happy and caresses him.
Chretien's romances are full of the feminine perspective. For instance, in Cliges he spends much time describing the pangs of unrequited love felt by the damsel Soredamors. Western lit is, of course, full of men complaining about women who don't return their feelings. The feminine perspective is not entirely absent, but it is kind of rare. It's almost entirely missing in the heroic tradition of earlier epic. The Song of Roland is marvellous and I love it, but it depicts a world in which masculine relationships are by far the most important thing: the one or two female characters barely appear. The Song of the Cid shows a wonderful development of Christian respect towards women, but it doesn't make them living characters like Chretien does.

Why Malory Is Still Better

The Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes were affected by theological developments and demonstrated an unusually high view of women, but the picture isn't all rosy.

In Chretien, the knights are focused on love. This had an analogue in the religious life: it was divine love for which the Benedictine and Cistercian monks were seeking. Like monks, Chretien's heroes must get away from even the good society of court for the character-building hardship and suffering of the quest. They are focused on high transcendent ideals, which they pursue as individuals. In Roland, "pagans are wrong and Christians are right," but in Chretien, there is no such collective morality. Just as in individual spiritual experience, the enemy may be anywhere.

Yet, as Southern points out, Chretien's stories about the heart's monastic journeying, seeking, and suffering in pursuit of love are not about the love of God, but romantic love: "The real internal religion of the heart was untouched by Christianity." Love is Chretien's deity, the sins his characters commit are sins against romantic love, and in Cliges one character is said to be "martyred" for love. The Christian religious observances don't go very deep, and indeed at one point Gawain is very cynical about it:
"But a man may give another counsel, which he would not take himself, just as the preachers, who are deceitful rascals, and preach and proclaim the right but who do not follow it themselves."
The knights and ladies of Chretien's world have a strong ethic of courtesy and service, but the deity at its heart is secular, not divine love, and there is no awareness that divine love may require some alteration in the carrying on of one's romantic affairs. The result is some of the worst aspects of Chretien's stories. Enide puts up with her husband's outrageous ill-treatment and enables his selfish behaviour because she makes her romantic love for him her highest ideal. Fenice in Cliges gives a truly hopeless exposition of Paul's teachings on purity which must be seen to be believed. Guinevere and Lancelot have their affair, but Chretien seems oblivious to the possibility that they have both betrayed Arthur - the important thing is that they have been true to love.

For all his gentility and sensitivity, Chretien doesn't dig deep. Not like Thomas Malory did later, in Le Morte D'Arthur. At the beginning of this review, I mentioned struggling deeply with Malory when I first read him. It's hard to say whether I would have been as scandalised at fifteen by Chretien as I was by Malory. Chretien wraps up his adulterous romances in a wispy sense of purity, while Malory is more blunt and satirical about sex. Where Chretien seems idealistic, Malory often seems jaded. Where Chretien constructs shiny, delicate confections of emotion to inhabit a faux religion of courtly love, Malory shows the bankruptcy of courtly love in the lust to which it gives birth, and the death and destruction that follows. By comparison to Chretien, Malory is blunt and rude. He shocked me as a teen, and it took much thinking and wrestling to come to grips with his message. But as much more palatable and pleasant as Chretien is by comparison, he also cuts less deep.

To quote Southern one last time:
There is in Chretien none of the melancholy, none of the sense of the sinfulness of the heart, which we sometimes find in Malory. Chretien probes the heart, but it is the enamelled heart of the twelfth-century secular world, not yet made tender by the penetration of strong religious feeling.
Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances are wonderful reading. I ought to have read them long ago - but I'm not sorry that I took the time to understand Malory first. Looking back, I think the Morte has far more to say.

I read the Arthurian Romances in an old translation by W Wistar Comfort, available at Project Gutenberg and Librivox. You can also find newer translations on Amazon and the Book Depository.

Have you read Chretien's Arthurian romances? Which translation do you recommend?

Friday, May 18, 2018

King John by William Shakespeare

It's been nearly a year since I started my journey through Shakespeare's history plays, and today I have the pleasure of completing this journey with a review of King John. To recap, the history plays (which I affectionately refer to as the English History Theatrical Universe) come as two linked quadrilogies with two standalones. King John is one of the standalones, taking place six generations before Richard II.

Today, the reign of John Plantagenet is famous for two things: Robin Hood and the Magna Carta. You will not hear a whisper of either thing in this play. Historically, "the greatest knight" William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, fought on John's behalf and ultimately conquered the rebel barons. You will not see much of him either, and he does not appear in anything that resembles his historical role.

The plot revolves around Arthur Plantagenet, John's nephew via his elder brother Geoffrey. As the son of an older brother, the eight-year-old Arthur is a prior heir to the English crown, and his mother Constance has forged an alliance with the French king to put him on the throne which his uncle has claimed. When John manages to shake Arthur's French support and captures the boy himself, he decides to have the young prince murdered. But rumours of Arthur's death horrify the English nobles into abandoning John and supporting Prince Louis of France's claim on the throne instead.

Like many of Shakespeare's less-known plays, King John has some real shortcomings. Many of these characters are very bad at decision-making. Prince Arthur is not only too stupid to live, but he's also insufferably precious. In hindsight, I realise that everything I know about this play comes from Victorian popular culture, and it's no surprise to learn that the play was incredibly popular in the nineteenth century. The Victorians loved a good medieval pageant, especially one with a touching and angelic mother character, and the scene in which Arthur pleads with his jailer not to put out his eyes was a huge hit for them. Reader, I had trouble keeping a straight face.
ARTHUR. Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
HUBERT. Young boy, I must.
ARTHUR. And will you?
HUBERT. And I will.
ARTHUR. Have you the heart? When your head did but ache,
    I knit my handkerchief about your brows-
    The best I had, a princess wrought it me-
    And I did never ask it you again;
    And with my hand at midnight held your head;
    And, like the watchful minutes to the hour,
    Still and anon cheer'd up the heavy time,
    Saying 'What lack you?' and 'Where lies your grief?'
    Or 'What good love may I perform for you?'
    Many a poor man's son would have lyen still,
    And ne'er have spoke a loving word to you;
    But you at your sick service had a prince.
    Nay, you may think my love was crafty love,
    And call it cunning. Do, an if you will.
    If heaven be pleas'd that you must use me ill,
    Why, then you must. Will you put out mine eyes,
    These eyes that never did nor never shall
    So much as frown on you?
Arthur is only the worst of this play's shortcomings. Granted, I was listening to a cast recording in which he was obviously played by a teenager with a broken voice, and his screams made him sound like Bluebottle from the Goon Show, so that probably had a deleterious effect as well. Let's just say he's a rich vein of unintended black comedy.

On the other hand, there are some genuinely good things about this play. I'll let no less a person than George Orwell explain it:
Recently I saw Shakespeare's King John acted — the first time I had seen it, because it is a play which isn't acted very often. When I had read it as a boy it seemed to me archaic, something dug out of a history book and not having anything to do with our own time. Well, when I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and doublecrossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date.
Despite its painfully sentimental take on Arthur, King John is actually a fairly cynical play. In Act One, two brothers come before the king in a dispute over the inheritance. The elder brother has got the property, but the younger brother alleges him to be a bastard son of Richard Coeur-de-Lion. Cheerfully, the elder brother admits that this may be so, but he's still going to keep the property. He only gives it up once the king and his mother offer him a prime place at the English court, a knighthood, and recognition as the late king's bastard. Almost everyone involved in this transaction acts purely based on power and self-interest. As the play continues, it becomes clear that all the political snarls and conundrums are being solved not based on ethical issues like right and wrong, but power and self-interest. The French, for instance, emerge onto the stage vowing left and right to restore justice by supporting Arthur's claim to the throne. However, the instant John puts a politically advantageous marriage on the table, they drop Arthur like a hot scone. Later, Louis the Dauphin abandons his principled stance for peace the minute he realises that his marriage has given him a potential claim on the English throne. Over and again in this play, powerful characters cheerfully betray and exploit the cause of justice, the widow and the orphan, for the sake of gain.

The Bastard has a long, snarky speech pointing this out:
Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!
John, to stop Arthur's tide in the whole,
Hath willingly departed with a part;
And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,
Whom zeal and charity brought to the field
As God's own soldier, rounded in the ear
With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,
That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,
That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,
Who having no external thing to lose
But the word 'maid,' cheats the poor maid of that;
That smooth-fac'd gentleman, tickling commodity,
Commodity, the bias of the world-
The world, who of itself is peised well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent-
And this same bias, this commodity,
This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word,
Clapp'd on the outward eye of fickle France,
Hath drawn him from his own determin'd aid,
From a resolv'd and honourable war,
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.
And why rail I on this commodity?
But for because he hath not woo'd me yet;
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand
When his fair angels would salute my palm,
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
Obviously, the Bastard has no more moral authority than the powerful ones he serves. Indeed, he warns on a couple of occasions that ordinary people will look to the powerful for an example of behaviour. Indeed, at one low point, he uses this to argue John into a more confident and kingly frame of mind.

The Bastard is a fascinating character, perhaps the kind that could only occur in a weak play: in a better play, he would be less dominant because he would appear against a stronger backdrop. As it is, he is almost an entire cast in himself. He is the Greek Chorus who comments on everything that happens at the close of each act. He is the comic relief who keeps the audience laughing. As a man of low status who looks to the powerful for indications how to behave, he's an emblem of everything that is rotten in England. As the son and living image of the dead Coeur-de-Lion, he becomes Richard I's voice from beyond the grave - John's canniest general and his boldest advisor. In a better play, he might not have to wear so many different hats. I'm not sure it works well to give so many meaningful roles to him, but you can't help admiring his character for pulling it off with such flair.

Sadly, although I do think the theme of moral compromise for the sake of gain is the play's major theme, it gets forgotten about by the end of the play, and the Bastard delivers a closing platitude to the effect that England will stand strong against external invasion so long as there's domestic strength and unity. The problem is that that strength and unity is only achieved when John's rebellious barons learn that Louis plans to betray them once he wins the war. In other words, the unity and strength that is gained comes about only when John's barons ignore his usurpation and murder for the sake of their own necks.

I do believe that one of the factors at play here is the Renaissance Tudor and Stuart concept of the divine right of kings. This is apparent in the fact that the Magna Carta is not important to Shakespeare's account of events at all. John's barons, instead of being major players in the story, act simply as supporters to one claimant king or another when historically they were powerbrokers and conquerors with significant authority and agency of their own: William Marshal, for instance, is here just a rather faceless member of the baronage rather than the highly-respected potentate who put down the rebel barons after John's death. Louis' invasion of England is shown as his own unilateral act, something that spurs the barons' rebellion, rather than a result of it. For the Elizabethans, the kings are the ones with agency in history on account of their divine right. Anyone lesser is just a follower.

While the divine right doctrine did have deep roots in the medieval period, in 1215 or so, true feudalism as characterised by powerful autonomous barons had not yet broken down into the centralised monarchy of the later middle ages. Even so, the divine right of kings never really got going until the influence and power of the church was broken in the Reformation and Henry VIII used his headship of the church to destroy any influence it might have had to oppose and balance monarchical power. (It's interesting that Shakespeare has a little Protestant moment showing the momentarily heroic John standing up against papal authority).

Shakespeare always had a complex relationship to the divine right of kings. He seems to have been most critical of it in Richard II, but in King John, I think the concept underlies one of the play's most curious inconsistencies. While alive, Prince Arthur is treated as the vessel of divine right. And in the aftermath of his death, this becomes more obvious:
PEMBROKE. O death, made proud with pure and princely beauty!
    The earth had not a hole to hide this deed.
SALISBURY. Murder, as hating what himself hath done,
    Doth lay it open to urge on revenge.
BIGOT. Or, when he doom'd this beauty to a grave,
    Found it too precious-princely for a grave.
SALISBURY. Sir Richard, what think you? Have you beheld,
    Or have you read or heard, or could you think?
    Or do you almost think, although you see,
    That you do see? Could thought, without this object,
    Form such another? This is the very top,
    The height, the crest, or crest unto the crest,
    Of murder's arms; this is the bloodiest shame,
    The wildest savagery, the vilest stroke,
    That ever wall-ey'd wrath or staring rage
    Presented to the tears of soft remorse.
PEMBROKE. All murders past do stand excus'd in this;
    And this, so sole and so unmatchable,
    Shall give a holiness, a purity,
    To the yet unbegotten sin of times,
    And prove a deadly bloodshed but a jest,
    Exampled by this heinous spectacle.

Note that the nobles don't remark on Arthur's young age: they do remark on the fact that he is "princely". That is what makes his death so much worse than anyone else's. That is what makes his wicked uncle a villain. And yet, his death also legitimises John's reign. If kingship is based on blood rather than merit, then even the Wickedest of Uncles can gain a true and honest claim to the throne simply by ordering a hit on his nephew. And indeed, following Arthur's death, it's as if John's wickedness disappears. Now, suddenly, he's the legitimate king and the nobles will rally around him and his son against those wicked Frenchmen.

King John is a deeply divided play, therefore, and at least part of this might be because of a cognitive dissonance in Shakespeare himself. On the one hand, he condemns those who debase ethics, merit, and justice for the sake of personal and political gain. But, on the other hand, his treatment of John suggests that the divine right of royal blood can and indeed should overcome those same questions of ethics, merit, and justice: gain does not make right, might does not make right...but blood, somehow, does.

You can find King John on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or as a cast recording on Youtube.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K Jerome

For years, I've loved Jerome K Jerome's comedic classic Three Men in a Boat - one of the few books in the English language funny enough to give PG Wodehouse anything like competition. I had never, however, read its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel (a bummel being defined thus:)
“A ‘Bummel’,” I explained, “I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started.  Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days.  But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand.  We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way.  We have been much interested, and often a little tired.  But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”
I've just finished a rather gruelling three months' work on some very demanding projects, including yet another rewrite of A Wind from the Wilderness, this one being, DV, the final major draft. Writing a 100,000-word novel in two months is exhausting work, and as I struggled my way through the final week or two, I decided that I really needed something light and funny to read.

So I cracked open Three Men on the Bummel.

J, Harris, and George decide to take another holiday, this time cycling through Germany. Since J and Harris are now respectably married with children, getting away from their wives proves to be a ticklish and costly business, but pretty soon the three companions are on the road in Germany, navigating all the intricacies of foreign travel, from accidentally asking for kisses in cushion-shops to being chased around Prague by statues.

Everyone who had mentioned this book to me had added a warning not to expect the same level of humour as in Three Men in a Boat, so I didn't have very high expectations. That didn't stop me laughing myself silly on a whole number of occasions, and I think that anything in this book is every bit as funny as anything in the previous one. If something is lacking, it's probably the central image of the river, which gives the previous book a greater sense of cohesion. Highlights include the comments on the discomfort of bicycle travel and the German respect for authority (more on this in a moment), and the wonderful passage that describes trying to sleep in a house with lots of children:
On this Wednesday morning, George, it seems, clamoured to get up at a quarter-past five, and persuaded them to let him teach them cycling tricks round the cucumber frames on Harris’s new wheel.  Even Mrs. Harris, however, did not blame George on this occasion; she felt intuitively the idea could not have been entirely his.
I thought only my friends' children behaved like this, and yet there we are in 1900 or so and respectable middle-class London children are doing exactly the same sorts of thing.
Yes, 1900: this book must have been written about 15 years before the outbreak of war. In that light, Three Men on the Bummel becomes something rather more than Jerome K Jerome might have suspected: it's an impression - a funny impression, broadly generalised and hyperbolised for comic effect, naturally - but still a valid impression of Germany on the eve of a half-century of war and conquest. Jerome stereotypes the Germans as hopelessly law-abiding and respectful of authority to the point that any young Englishman thirsting to break the law without repercussions should travel there to enjoy raising a mild kind of hell - let us say heckraising:
Now, in Germany, on the other hand, trouble is to be had for the asking.  There are many things in Germany that you must not do that are quite easy to do.  To any young Englishman yearning to get himself into a scrape, and finding himself hampered in his own country, I would advise a single ticket to Germany; a return, lasting as it does only a month, might prove a waste.
In the Police Guide of the Fatherland he will find set forth a list of the things the doing of which will bring to him interest and excitement.  In Germany you must not hang your bed out of window.  He might begin with that.  By waving his bed out of window he could get into trouble before he had his breakfast.  At home he might hang himself out of window, and nobody would mind much, provided he did not obstruct anybody’s ancient lights or break away and injure any passer underneath.
And Germany provides opportunities for transgression to people of every age and walk in life:
Not that the German child is neglected by a paternal Government.  In German parks and public gardens special places (Spielplätze) are provided for him, each one supplied with a heap of sand.  There he can play to his heart’s content at making mud pies and building sand castles.  To the German child a pie made of any other mud than this would appear an immoral pie.  It would give to him no satisfaction: his soul would revolt against it.
“That pie,” he would say to himself, “was not, as it should have been, made of Government mud specially set apart for the purpose; it was nor manufactured in the place planned and maintained by the Government for the making of mud pies.  It can bring no real blessing with it; it is a lawless pie.”  And until his father had paid the proper fine, and he had received his proper licking, his conscience would continue to trouble him.
No doubt this is a stereotype, but it's not without a core of truth. The modern compulsory state school system was pioneered in Prussia and Austria for the avowed purpose of raising obedient soldiers who would obey orders without question.
The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer. The policeman directs him where in the street to walk, and how fast to walk. At the end of each bridge stands a policeman to tell the German how to cross it. Were there no policeman there, he would probably sit down and wait till the river had passed by. At the railway station the policeman locks him up in the waiting-room, where he can do no harm to himself. When the proper time arrives, he fetches him out and hands him over to the guard of the train, who is only a policeman in another uniform. The guard tells him where to sit in the train, and when to get out, and sees that he does get out. In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well.
Jerome K Jerome sees nothing particularly sinister in this, maybe because he's writing fourteen years before this started to shake Europe, more likely because he knows he's exaggerating for the sake of fun. Still, there's one genuinely insightful comment here:
Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continues, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.
Granted, this is not exactly rocket science. There are only two ways to define authority. One is that the office itself legitimates anything the office-holder may do, and the other is that the office-holder's conformity to a law above himself is what legitimates him (the rule of law). Anyone who adheres to the idea that it's the office which confers authority, not the office-holder's willingness to uphold the law, binds himself to total obedience to the office-holder no matter what the office-holder may command. A person who believes in rule by office and permit will be amiable and well-behaved for exactly as long as his officials submit themselves to the rule of a higher law and a higher standard of right and wrong - but the minute those officials lose their moral compass, they will lead their obedient subjects to perdition. That is why the rule of a transcendent moral law is necessary.
How much of what Jerome wrote about the Germans is exaggeration and stereotype, and how much of it is accurate? That's something that could probably bear some discussion. (And I should probably assure you all that I don't see Germany as a sort of international villain - not only have they done some amazing things to demonstrate their repentance for the Holocaust, I'm also inclined to think that they were not the bad guys in World War I). That said, I do remember discussing the German educational system with some German tourists a few years ago and being awed by how uncritical they were of a level of government control that would be unthinkable, even in Australia. 
Three Men on the Bummel is not just a comedic classic on the same level as Three Men in a Boat, it's also an unexpectedly thought-provoking discussion of law and authority in a country that would, for better or worse, help sponsor two of the most destructive wars in history. If you haven't read it, or if you're a stranger to Jerome K Jerome's wonderful brand of comedy, you definitely should!

You can find Three Men on the Bummel at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

And don't forget to check out my review of
Three Men in a Boat!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Castafiore: An appreciation

So, the other day I was in the grip of my periodic Bianca Castafiore appreciation, and when I asked on Twitter if anyone else on the planet felt the same way, well...

Yikes, you people. I am not alone. That makes me so happy.



The Adventures of Tintin is a wonderful series of Belgio-French graphic novels which I’ve written about elsewhere, probably most famous now for its film adaptation by Stephen Spielberg in 2010. I pretty much cut my teeth on Tintin (and Asterix), and as a kid, I loved the series’ sole recurring female character, Bianca Castafiore. As an adult, I still love her. If you only know her from the Spielberg film, you’re kind of missing out.

Bianca Castafiore...where to begin? Well, as an internationally-famous opera singer (whose only hit seems to be The Jewel Song from Faust), Castafiore first turns up in King Ottokar's Sceptre helping our hero, Tintin, by giving him a lift through some mildly fascistic army checkpoints in a small Eastern European country. As the series progresses, this flamboyant, larger-than-life middle-aged diva continues to recur, mostly as a running gag. Tintin’s sidekick, the crusty old Captain Haddock, can’t stand her; she makes the most of this by flirting outrageously with him while mispronouncing his name. In The Castafiore Emerald she takes a leading role, unveiling new shallows of ditzy self-absorption. No wonder some Tintin readers can't stand her.

I love her.


She's a beaky blonde with a Wagnerian bosom, but even at my youngest and princessyest I was mesmerised by Castafiore's fashion sense, her jewels, and her ability to get the upper hand in every situation, even her own trial by a kangaroo court in a totalitarian banana republic. (Solution: belt The Jewel Song until the court is cleared. Then hurl badly-cooked pasta at the jail warden on a daily basis). These days, I find her even better, if possible. This post is my long-deferred attempt to explain why.

If there was one phrase to describe Bianca Castafiore, it would be "subversively feminine." She breaks pretty much every rule. She's not particularly young, not particularly beautiful, not particularly clever, and (it must be admitted) not particularly angelic. Even as a child I could identify with that, and I identify with it a lot more these days. Yes, despite existing completely outside the usual mold for female supporting characters in boys' adventure stories, Castafiore is one hundred percent feminine awesome. Neither young nor beautiful? Fascist dictators still swam to her dressing-room with champagne after her performances to spill state secrets, and that's not counting the megalomaniacal tycoons and absent-minded professors she charms. Ditzy? Quite, but that would be to overlook her solid streak of old-fashioned cunning: even if you overlook the fact that she's a world-famous diva who makes millions in a job at which she's clearly excellent (if you like opera), you have to be impressed by how she uses her femininity as a weapon, including scolding wilting, abject men for cruelty to "a poor weak woman". And insensitive? As a bulldog, but watch carefully and you'll realise that nearly every time she shows up in person (her voice is ubiquitous), she winds up saving the day.



Vintage fiction has one way of seeing women, and contemporary fiction has another. In vintage fiction, women are often helpless, sweet, young, and pretty. Castafiore shattered that by being middle-aged, rich, and cunning. In contemporary fiction, women are more often tough, hard-bitten feminist role models, and Castafiore doesn't find much purchase here either: she's a ditz, she's a flirt, and she's a fashionista.

This isn't to say that there aren't some tremendously feminine characters in contemporary storytelling, or that vintage fiction couldn't give us strong female characters. But Castafiore is everything a woman isn't supposed to be, whether you look to the 2010s or the 1950s. And she gets away with it, because deep down inside, although she maybe isn't the kind of woman we hope to be, she's the kind of woman we suspect we really are.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

I once started reading The Thin Man, years ago, before getting distracted and leaving it aside. The film, of course, is a favourite, a perfect blend of film noir with domestic comedy in which the dark, sour tone of the storyworld is kept at bay with the crackling, affectionate snarkery between its two main characters.

Unfortunately, the book is nowhere near as cozy.

I knew to expect this from having read Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, which devotes a chapter to Hammett's long-term mistress, Lillian Hellman. Intellectuals is by way of being a hall of infamy, and neither Hellman nor Hammett come off very well in it.
Hammett was a very serious case of alcoholism. The success [The Maltese Falcon] enjoyed was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to him; it brought him money and credit and meant he had little need to work. He was not a natural writer and seems to have found the creative act extraordinarily daunting. He did, after many efforts, finish The Thin Man (1934) which brought him even more money and fame, but after that he wrote nothing at all. He would hole up in a hotel with a crate of Johnnie Walker Red Label and drink himself into sickness. Alcohol brought about moral collapse in a man who seems to have had, at times, strong principles.
Johnson goes on to discuss Hammett's sporadic neglect of his estranged wife and children, who depended on him for support, his financial difficulties despite having made over two million dollars from his writing, his regular use of prostitutes, and the abuse and violence towards women ("Shortly after he met Hellman, he hit her on the jaw at a party and knocked her down"). Intellectuals is never a pleasant read, but its thesis is that knowing something of the seamy personal lives of influential people goes a long way to helping us interpret their works.

The Thin Man, which is dedicated to Lillian Hellman, is not a pleasant read either. Like the much better movie, it revolves around the efforts of Nick Charles, a retired private detective now enjoying a hard-drinking Christmas holiday in New York with Nora, his smart and wealthy young wife. As a private detective, Charles once handled a case for Clyde Wynant, the titular Thin Man, an eccentric and reclusive inventor. When Wynant disappears, his secretary is found murdered, and his daughter appeals to Nick for help in finding him. Who killed Julia Wolf? What secret is Wynant's ex-wife trying to hide? And will Nick ever succeed in convincing the entire population of New York that he's not working on the case?

The Thin Man is written as tersely as an Icelandic saga (which you'd better believe is jolly terse), but it focuses on dialogue rather than narrative. Something about this very understated, dialogue-heavy style makes it very difficult to recall much of the plot, which is complex. Then, the book is very dark. Despite being made before the Hays Code was introduced, the film brightens up the story considerably. For instance, in the film, young Dorothy Wynant wants to find her father because she's about to get married. In the book, she's depressed by her unbearable home life, thinks she might be going insane, has a destructive fling with a married man, and is looking for her father out of sheer desperation.

Another interesting, though subtle difference between book and film is the character of Nora herself. In the film, Nora is very much an equal partner to Nick in the investigation, and the whole secret of the film's charm is how the leads interact, their evident affection for each other masked by snark and slang. Some of their most memorable exchanges turn out to have been written for the film. Nora is much less important in the book, and though she's still a smart, attractive character, she seems less competent, and the relationship between her and Nick seems far less close-knit. The result is that in the film, while Nick and Nora were an island of boozy sanity in a dark world, in the book, they seem very much part of that same world. (In this, it reminded me of the difference between the film and book versions of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day).

One character, however, is far more vivid in the book, and that's Wynant's ex-wife, Mimi Jorgensen. I hadn't realised until I read the book that Mimi is the traditional hard-boiled femme fatale for this particular story. She's by turns violent, seductive, and sweet, but she's never, ever, honest. There's a fascinating description of her:
"The chief thing," I advised them, "is not to let her tire you out. When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another, and so on. Most people - even women - get discouraged after you've caught them in the third or fourth straight lie and fall back on either the truth or silence, but not Mimi. She keeps trying and you've got to be careful or you'll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you're tired of disbelieving her."
The "even women" crack may be somewhat revealing of how Hammett felt about women in general. Listen to this Paul Johnson quote:
It is a curious fact that the devastation caused by lies, particularly female lies, fascinated both Hellmann and Hammett; the lies of the woman are the threads which link together the brilliant complexities of The Maltese Falcon. When drunk, Hammett lied like any other alcoholic; when sober, he tended to be a stickler for exactitude, even if it was highly inconvenient. While he was around, he tended to exercise some restraint on Hellman's fantasies. She, by contrast, was both obsessed by lies and perpetrated them.
I note that this particular chapter of Intellectuals is titled "Lies, Damned Lies and Lillian Hellman" and chronicles many of them. It might be interesting to wonder if by dedicating The Thin Man to Hellman, Hammett was memorialising the way he felt about her by casting her as the smart love interest for its alcoholic ex-detective hero, or as the congenital liar whose obfuscations drive much of the plot, or both - or neither. But that's all speculation and only Hammett could tell us the truth of that.

I didn't particularly enjoy The Thin Man. It was too dialogue-heavy and complex, too dark and embittered, to make a pleasant read. And it was too insubstantial to make a challenging read. The movie is much more pleasant and a good deal wittier, but there's one thing I can definitely say for the novel: it makes a Gatsby-esque case for not romanticising the past. The movie is a charming fantasy, but the novel is probably a lot closer to the real thing, and it certainly does a better picture of showing you exactly what kind of person its author really was.

You can find The Thin Man on Amazon or the Book Depository.

The film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy is a lot of fun, and you should definitely watch it!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

Wow, where to start. OK, how about this: sometimes you read a book, and it meets you exactly where you are. It enunciates everything you've been thinking about and expresses everything you've been feeling. Gaudy Night 2018 was that for me.

Gaudy Night 2008, however, was not. I'm not actually entirely sure it was in 2008 that I read this book first, but it can't have been any later. I didn't appreciate or sympathise with the book at all that first time, with the result that I spent a lot of time giving Dorothy Sayers the sidelong squint-eye. Well, better late than never, right?

This is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, but it focuses on, and tells the story from the perspective of, Harriet Vane, the woman Peter has (at this point in the novels' continuity) been pursuing stubbornly for five years. A successful mystery writer and sometime assistant to Peter in his investigations, Harriet is an alumnus of Shrewsbury, an Oxford women's college (fictional, of course). When someone starts sending threatening letters to the staff and students of Shrewsbury and vandalising the grounds, the professors worry that any scandal might injure Shrewsbury's reputation and women's education in general. So they ask former student Harriet to investigate.

With Peter on a Foreign Office mission to Europe, Harriet has only her own wits and resources to call on. As the situation in Shrewsbury threatens to become fatal, Harriet senses that the time has come to make a final decision regarding Peter Wimsey. But nagging questions persist. Should a professional woman take on personal responsibilities? Can the life of the heart coexist with the life of the intellect? Is vocation and calling more important than marriage and family? Will marriage to Peter destroy her as an individual, or can it truly be a union of equals?

A lot of this went over my head when I first read the book. In 2018, though, I'm reminded what a different person I am now. These days, I'm roughly the same age as Harriet Vane. Like Harriet, I'm somewhat of an intellectual. Like Harriet, I'm an author (though not as successful!). And like Harriet, I've come to realise that for a woman--and perhaps for everyone--being single means being single-minded in the pursuit of a calling. (Yes, this identification with Harriet is very new to me. She gave me the irrits as a teen).

The whole book is very tightly-knitted in terms of theme, and the theme has to do with women and calling. Gaudy Night is a book populated with professional women in a way that very few books are, especially those written in the 1930s. There's something, by the way, that feels fresh and faintly subversive (or perhaps I should say superversive) about how Sayers depicts these women. They may spend hours discussing philosophy and ethics, but are equally at home debating a dress or a hat.

But all of them are busy trying to find that elusive "work/life balance". Early in the book, Harriet meets an old fellow-student who has married a farmer and spends her life helping him farm.
What damned waste! was all Harriet could say to herself. All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn far better. The thing had its compensations, she supposed. She asked the question bluntly. 
Worth it? said Mrs Bendick. Oh yes, it was certainly worth it. The job was worth doing. One was serving the land. And that, she managed to convey, was a service harsh and austere indeed, but a finer thing than spinning words on paper. 
"I'm quite prepared to admit that," said Harriet. "A plough-share is a nobler object than a razor. But if your natural talent is for barbering, wouldn't it be better to be a barber, and a good barber--and use the profits (if you like) to speed the plough? However grand the job may be, is it your job?"
In Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers insists that women, as much as men, may have specific callings. I know why I might have found this hard to swallow as a teen. Genesis 2:18 describes the first woman as designed to be "a helper fit" or "suitable" or "meet" for the first man. From this, Christians have accurately deducted that wives are intended by God to assist their husbands in their callings. But in doing so, many have erroneously concluded that calling is not important for women as it is for men. A man may be called to anything, but a woman is only called to help whatever man is most important in her life at the moment. The result may be a refusal to treat women as individual members of the kingdom of God.

There are a couple of problems with this, and Sayers pinpoints them unerringly in this book.

First, and most powerfully, men can be wrong or even wicked. Ethics must always trump personal loyalty. One does not stand by one's man, right or wrong. A woman must have a strong sense of personal principle, which means that she cannot be defined by her relationships to other sinners.

Second, women are quite as capable as men of important cultural work, whether as intellectuals or as farmers or mechanics or as family women. As a Christian, Sayers would of course have been aware that the dominion/cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 was given to mankind as a whole, not specifically to men. Dominion work--the work of cultivating and tending the resources of the earth and its inhabitants--is something which each individual in the kingdom of God is called to. It's an ethical question as well as a practical one, and I think Sayers shows keen insight in linking professional integrity with basic ethics.

This dominion work, while it obviously includes family, is not limited to family. Indeed, the two may in certain cases come into conflict. Jesus specifically told us to be ready to give up family for his sake in Matthew 19:29. And if we have a robust view of individual calling in the kingdom of God, then we'll see that it has to extend to women as well as to men. Bojidar Marinov's comments on Proverbs 31 are excellent:
The woman described here has a purpose for her life, an individual purpose that is only hers and no one else’s. She is not described as a passive participant in a collective; not even her family is described as a collective where she participates in some collective actions. Under some well-meaning but misplaced views of the family and the relationships within the family, some modern commentators are trying to present her as acting under the constant direction and supervision of her husband, as his errand boy or servant. But the text describes an independently-minded, self-motivated woman on a mission, an individual, personal, actively and aggressively pursued mission within a covenantal framework, not just simple obedience to someone else’s commands.

From this perspective, Harriet's question becomes increasingly urgent: "However grand the job may be, is it your job?" Sayers isn't, of course, denigrating either marriage or Genesis 2:18, which is one of the truly refreshing things about this book. While Mrs Bendick is an example of a woman whose individuality has been "devoured" by her husband's calling, Harriet refers to her friend Phoebe's marriage as something else: a "collaboration". More examples abound. An overworked student, Miss Newland, is warned to get away from her work and find rest and companionship. A don, Miss de Vine, explains how she once broke her engagement after realising that she was more invested in her academic career than in her fiance. Another faculty member, Miss Hillyard, bitterly reproaches a married secretary for being unable to keep her mind on her job, and the secretary, Mrs Goodwin, ultimately agrees with her, giving up her job so that she can focus on the needs of her sickly young son. And obviously, this book is the book in which Harriet finally realises that she can find an equal match with Peter Wimsey--which becomes evident when despite his worry for her personal safety, he assists rather than hinders her investigations.

There's a very good reason why Harriet finally accepts Peter's proposal while they're walking home from a concert. They have been listening to counterpoint music, and Wimsey makes the metaphor explicit. Marriage should be counterpoint, not harmony. It should be two individuals with different, but complementary callings, who find that they are more productive together than they are apart. And if you can't find someone who you will be more productive with, then perhaps you're called to be alone. It isn't wrong to be someone's helper, but it is wrong to ignore questions of fitness and suitability.

Another of the refreshing things about Gaudy Night is the fact that Sayers steadfastly resists to limit this question, of intellect/principle/profession versus heart/loyalty/family, to women. In one of the most important scenes in the book, Harriet and Peter have a long conversation with the Shrewsbury College faculty about exactly these questions. Their discussion revolves around a hypothetical man. The fact is, men also have family responsibilities that may interfere with their callings. They may feel called to do something which doesn't provide enough income to feed a family or which interferes with private life in some other way. The question, then, is so much bigger than feminism. It's the question of calling versus relationship, work versus life.

Of course, the two shouldn't be disentangled and pitted against each other. The dominion mandate makes no wide difference between working the earth and populating the earth. Somehow, most of us are supposed to do both. Both work and relationships are to be ruled by ethics. But the dominion mandate was given in a perfect world, a world without death, a world of limitless time.

As I was thinking it over after staying up late to finish Gaudy Night, I couldn't help thinking of JRR Tolkien's wonderful, heartbreaking Leaf by Niggle, which attacks the very same questions, only without the question of gender, and with more attention to the question of time and mortality. The reason why the question of calling versus family has any urgency at all is because of death. We aren't just cursed with pain in labour (of both kinds)--we're cursed with a very limited time in which to get anything done. But that should also remind us of our hope. Ultimately, those who submit themselves to the grace and ethics of God know they can look forward to an eternity of uncursed work and uncursed relationships. We can't get it all done in this life. But we can try, and we can wait eagerly for the life to come.

Needless to say, I couldn't possibly recommend Gaudy Night enough. I'm afraid that this has been less a review of the novel itself than an extended discussion of the thoughts I had while reading it, but I hope that whether you're reading it for the first or the manyeth time, you'll be inspired to push this one to the top of your reading list.

You can find Gaudy Night on Amazon or the Book Depository.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dune by Frank Herbert

A few months ago I was meditating upon the fact that while many of my favourite novels are fantasy, most of my favourite films are science fiction, when I realised that part of the reason for this might be that I haven't actually read a lot of science fiction. 
So I decided that was 2018 would be The Year I Dug Into Sci-Fi. Or specifically, my favourite subgenre of science fiction: space opera. You know space opera, of course, from Star Wars - TV Tropes summarises it like this:
Space Opera refers to works set in a spacefaring civilization, usually, though not always, set in the future, specifically the far future. Technology is ubiquitous and secondary to the story. Space opera has an epic character to it: the universe is big, there are usually many sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigue. The action will range part of a solar system, at least, and possibly a whole galaxy or more than one. It frequently takes place in a Standard Sci Fi Setting. It has a romantic element which distinguishes it from most Hard Science Fiction: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring scenery, and insanely gorgeous men and women. 
Historically, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations. Planetary Romance was more or less Heroic Fantasy In Space. [...] 
Expect to see a dashing hero cavorting around in a Cool Starship, Green Skinned Space Babes, Crystal Spires and Togas civilizations full of Space Elves, Wave Motion Guns capable of dealing an Earth-Shattering Kaboom on a daily basis, and an evil Galactic Empire with a Standard Sci-Fi Fleet, including an entire universe full of beat-up mechanical objects capable of being resurrected with Percussive Maintenance.
Space opera is often rather light on the science part of science fiction, though it doesn't have to be - John C Wright's Golden Age trilogy is a good bit harder than Star Wars. What space opera always should be, is awesome. Peirce Brown's Red Rising trilogy, especially the two later books, are another excellent example of the genre. I had loved these books, so I decided to hunt up a few more, and finally decided to read Frank Herbert's 1966 space opera/plantetary romance classic, Dune.

The deadly desert planet Arrakis is the galaxy's only source of melange, an addictive spice which grants the user undefined mental enhancement. When the Padishah Emperor grants the planet as a fief to Duke Leto Atriedes, however, it doesn't take the duke long to figure out that this is actually part of a complicated plot by the planet's previous lord, Baron Harkonnen, to destroy House Atreides once and for all. With the whole galaxy stacked against his family, young Paul Atreides realises that his only hope of survival lies in the desert, with the secretive, nomadic Fremen people...

I don't know why I left this book so long, although in hindsight reading it now was a good choice. The main star of Dune is not plot, characters, nor theme: it's the setting (or worldbuilding, as the term is in speculative fiction). Most of the book takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis, which is almost a character in its own right, and Herbert constructs his fictional cultures from a fascinating web of elements taken from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Islamic and even Jewish culture, with just a pinch of ancient Rome for good measure. Obviously, all this means much more to me now, after three years researching the medieval history of the Near East. 

Additionally, this level of worldbuilding - the politics, the ecology, the backstory - is something that usually takes a good deal of exposition to bring readers up to date. And there is a lot of exposition in this book. One of the things that astonished me was how brilliantly Herbert handled it, using one simple trick: suspense. Early on in the story, we learn the baddies' plot in full. Meanwhile, the Atreides are going about their business with no cloud on the horizon, while the reader is on tenterhooks for the backstabbing to start. But perhaps the most stunning example of this technique comes in one chapter which is basically an extended lecture on ecology. Herbert takes something that would otherwise be rather dry and uninteresting, and he puts us on the edge of our seats for it. How? Well, the person giving the lecture is a hallucination, and the person listening to the lecture is lost in the desert, aware that he is lying directly on top of something that could blow up any minute. It wasn't just a dramatic moment within the story - it was a brilliant and even audacious move on the part of the author himself.

Another of the unique aspects of this book was its female characters, especially Paul's mother Jessica. As I was reading the book, I was thinking, "When was the last time I read a story about a boy and his mother having adventures?" And then, "When was the last time I read a story about a pregnant woman fighting a nomad chief and winning?" Lady Jessica was unusually prominent in this story, especially for a book published in 1966. Even for today, she was an awesome character - level-headed, practical, and three-dimensional. It wasn't just that she got to have adventures: it was that Herbert treated her with every bit as much respect and attention to detail as he treated his male characters. While CS Lewis's Orual from Till We Have Faces will probably always be my favourite example of men writing women well, Herbert's Lady Jessica was excellent too. 

It's surprising, then, to see how, well, badly the women in this story are treated. Both Jessica and another prominent female character are smart, competent women who remain the concubines of powerful men who decide not to marry them because it's possible that in the future, there may be an opportunity for a more advantageous political marriage. It made the book rather depressing to see these excellent female characters voluntarily accepting less than they deserved.

In fact, this whole book has something of a downer ending. It's not one of those series where the individual books work well as standalones; this is clearly just the first instalments of a much bigger story, which is by no means over yet. So the ending is not very conclusive to begin with. I think the depressing aspect of the book has more to do with its theme.


Paul Atreides, our protagonist, turns out to be the fulfillment of not one but two prophecies. The Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood with awesome Jedi powers (it didn't take long to figure out that Star Wars borrows heavily from Dune, which is so much fun) have been overseeing an extensive breeding program for centuries in order to produce the Kwisatz Haderach - a man with all the Bene Gesserit abilities, but without their blind spot. Meanwhile, the Fremen desert dwellers are waiting for the Lisan-al-Gaib who will transform their wild desert planet to a garden paradise. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Paul Atreides may be both. With advanced mental powers including the ability to see present, past, and future, Paul is the galaxy's smartest individual and well on the way to becoming the most powerful. 

But his messianic status is far from being a good thing. First, he can't change the future no matter what he tries to do. Despite every attempt, he still realises that in the future his followers will kill and destroy their way across the galaxy in his name. Second, despite the partial insight given by his powers, he still doesn't know everything and when he can't see what's about to happen, he's paralysed by the unaccustomed uncertainty. Third, he quickly discovers that being a messiah is murder on personal relationships and the people around him. As messiah, Paul has worshippers, but not friends. "Will I lose Gurney, too? Paul wondered. The way I lost Stilgar - losing a friend to gain a creature?" It's the same dilemma Jessica faces - she can use the Voice, a sort of Jedi mind trick, to force the people she loves to obey her - but then they will no longer be the people she loves and who love her. They will be her slaves. 

The theme of Dune therefore has to do with the dangers of deification. And while the message is presented in a pessimistic way, I think it's actually a very important one. Humans aren't God, and any assumption of divinity will only bring destruction. And here's where I could dig into theology and talk about how it makes all the difference to have God become man as opposed to man becoming God - but instead I'll just point you to RJ Rushdoony's excellent book The Foundations of Social Order.

Frank Herbert's Dune is a terrific science fiction adventure with much to think about, which takes a uniquely tragic look at the old "Chosen One" trope. Recommended for teens and up.

I haven't seen any film adaptations of Dune, but I'm pretty excited to hear that Denis Villeneuve is going to direct a movie shortly. Villeneuve has done some terrific work recently and if anyone can bring Arrakis to life, it's him.

Find Dune at Amazon or The Book Depository.

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