Sunday, January 29, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: To Conclude

This concludes my rambling collection of thoughts on Malory. I read him this time with a determination to make some kind of sense of him, and I think I did. I enjoyed Le Morte D'Arthur much better this time than I had before. I think I understand what he was trying to say, and why he was trying to say it.
I still don't like Sir Tristram at all, and if I should ever meet Queen Guenever in the street I will shake her till her teeth rattle. Sir Launcelot still tries my patience. I am still quite put out about the character assassination of Sir Gawain. But at least now I feel like I understand.
Although parts of this book had me grinding my teeth in frustration, I loved other parts. The early stories of the Round Table, especially Book III, Book IV, Book VI, and Book VII, were most enjoyable. The Grail Quest, Books XIII to XVII, is hands down my favourite part of the whole epic, a world I can understand although I may not agree with all the theology—evocative, dreamlike, with layers of meaning and characters I don't feel like hitting over the head. Finally, the last books, especially Books XX and XXI, complete the grand tragedy; there is a reason why the whole work is named after the topic of the last few chapters. The cumulative force of the whole Morte builds up and crashes down in those last books.
While parts of it still irritated me, Le Morte D'Arthur is justly famous as the great English epic of Arthur and contains more to enjoy than it does to irritate. I recommend it to anyone who's interested in the Matter of Britain or the medievals.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: Miscellanea

As a book, the Morte is worth reading. Like other historical literature, to read it is to immerse oneself in another time. It was written near the height of English literature, back in the days when, if you cut a malapert knave or a scurvy villain, he would bleed distinguished, graceful prose. Malory's is as graceful and distinguished as the next man's. As I read it, I kept pausing to enjoy the fact that he has a special word for shards of armour carved off during a fight (“cantels”), that every damosel or gentlewoman or anyone is “fair” (and there's a sixty-year-old damosel), Joshua of the Old Testament has become “the good knight Duke Joshua,” and Sir Meliot addresses himself to the “Fair Lord of Heaven.”
There are lovely little turns of phrase everywhere. One forest is called “the Forest of Adventure.” Another is described as “a little leaved wood.” And when the Grail appears, “there was such a savour as all the spicery in the world has been there.” There's also the moment—but I'll let CS Lewis explain it:
...the exquisite episode of Sir Urry, where Launcelot at the very summit of earthly (and hardly earthly) glory 'wepte as he had bene a chylde that had bene betyn.' Why, unless he remembered a higher glory and 'pined his loss'?
Speaking of CS Lewis, many notes and moments in Malory were familiar—I had come across them before, in the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis's aim in the Narnia books was to evoke the flavour of medievalism, and reading Malory this time around I was able to locate some of his sources.
In Book IV chapter 6 King Arthur goes hunting with King Uriens and Sir Accolon, and follows a hart so closely that they leave all their attendants behind and kill their horses—an echo of which comes at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the White Stag leads the four Kings and Queens of Narnia a great chase “till the horses of all the courtiers were tired out and these four were still following.” For both parties, a strange adventure results. In chapter 14 of Book IV, Morgan le Fay turns herself and her people into stones to evade capture, as the White Witch does in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In Book V, chapter 8 Arthur kills a giant by cutting his feet from under him, then cutting off his head, the same way Peter kills Sopespian in Prince Caspian. In The Horse and His Boy King Edmund, considering what to do with Rabadash, suggests that “any of us could swap off his head” in battle, an expression I have only come across there and in Book VI, chapter 17 of the Morte. Finally and most obviously, the knights of the Morte repeatedly state their intention to “take the adventure that God will send me,” as in Book XVIII chapter 9, an expression that crops up in The Silver Chair: “And then, let us descend into the city and take the adventure that is sent us.” If these echoes of Malory were unintentional, they were certainly the product of a mind really steeped in the atmosphere of medievalism.
I could go on much longer about the Morte and what I found there. I shan't, but I shall mention just one more thing. During the Quest of the Grail, the knights on the quest continually run into little adventures, or see visions, which the next passing holy man will interpret. For example, at one point Sir Bors lodges with a lady who asks him to fight her rival's champion for the land which is rightfully hers. Sir Bors defeats the champion and returns the lady's land to her. The next man of God interprets it as follows:
“And that ye fought with the champion for the lady, this it betokeneth: for when ye took the battle for the lady, by her shall ye understand the new law of Jesu Christ and Holy Church; and by the other lady ye shall understand the old law and the fiend, which all day warreth against Holy Church, therefore ye did your battle with right. For ye be Jesu Christ's knights, therefore ye ought to be defenders of Holy Church.”
Note the very interesting link the holy man draws between the old covenant and the devil. Food for thought, there—is Malory identifying the Jews with the devil? On the other hand, there's also the interesting way “the old law and the fiend” is constantly represented by a woman, sometimes in scarlet, sometimes seated on a beast. Evidence for medievals identifying Jerusalem with the scarlet woman of Revelation? But that is a whole new conversation, and I'm getting off track.
What I love about this arrangement—adventure-allegory followed by interpretation—is the fact that the knights are given interpretations of the the events in their own lives. In most allegories, the characters themselves never have the allegory explained to them, although Bunyan does something similar to this in the Interpreter's House. Again, here in Malory we have something like what I enjoyed in Charles Williams and Elizabeth Goudge—a sense of the eternal ramifications of temporal actions. In Ascent to Love, Peter Leithart tells how the medievals interpreted the Scriptures according to four modes of meaning: first, the literal, second, the allegorical, third, the anagogical, and third, the tropological. You will pardon me if I don't explain these further here; I don't feel I have a good enough grip on how this worked to explain it. However, Leithart shows how the medievals wrote their own stories to be interpreted through this grid and Le Morte D'Arthur raises the curtain, so to speak, on this process: the literal, historical adventures of the knights also have allegorical meanings, and probably anagogical and tropological meaning as well. This produces quite an interesting effect: it is suggested to the reader that his own life and experience also contains deeper, allegorical meanings beyond the bare surface of literal fact.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: The Peak That Failed to Reach Heaven

Charles Williams argued in The Figure of Arthur that the Grail Quest was the backbone, the whole point, of the Matter of Britain. The Holy Grail is a symbol of divine grace, as administered through the sacrament of communion. The Grail contains the true blood of Christ and a vision of it is given to the Round Table at Pentecost. All of them then set out to experience it more fully. This becomes a test for them: if they pass the test, they will come at last to the Grail and be allowed to take communion from it. Only the holy will attain it, and three knights do find it: Sir Bors, Sir Percival, and Sir Launcelot's son Sir Galahad, the Grail Knight.
I suppose I always assumed that the Grail Quest was achieved. That it was a happy ending. Sometimes I would wonder how, if that was the case, Logres failed and fell anyway. But I didn't understand till I read Malory what was actually going on in the Grail Quest.
The Quest wasn't just for three knights; it was for all of them. The Quest was for the whole Round Table. And the Round Table failed. That was why it fell.
Sir Percival is one of the three knights who does achieve the Quest. Of him Malory says:
And as the tale telleth, he was one of the men of the world at that time which most believed in Our Lord Jesu Christ, for in those days there were but few folks that believed in God perfectly. For in those days the son spared not the father no more than a stranger.
A few pages later, Sir Percival explains himself as follows:
“Damosel,” said Sir Percival, “I serve the best man of the world, and in his service he will not suffer me to die, for who that knocketh shall enter, and who that asketh shall have, and who seeketh him he hideth him not.”
These short passages, especially the first, go a long way to explaining the Morte. Sir Percival, who is pure, courteous, and a true knight to his Lord, is an anomaly. As Sir Gawain's vision of the bulls shows (Book XVI, chapters 1 and 3), the three knights of the Grail Quest are the only knights of the Table who remain faithful to its original purpose and to the oath of the Table. The Round Table is not supposed to be a picture of virtue at all.
And suddenly, everything falls into place. This is no nostalgic picture of righteousness. This is no one brief, shining moment called Camelot. It is one of the greatest literary visions of sic transit gloria mundi that I have ever come across. The picture is one of men called to high things, of their failure, and of their destruction as a result of their failure.
In this sense, Sir Launcelot is the embodiment of the Round Table. Like them, he represents the best of the secular world—the peak of its glory. Like them, it is from him that the Grail Knight comes: only the best of the secular world is good enough to enter the sacred world. Like them, he comes close to attaining the Grail, but loses it in the end.
Of course, it is only from the best of the secular world that the Grail Knights can come. But the Round Table as a body falls short of the sacred world. That is why it is destroyed. CS Lewis confirms this conclusion in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature:
The human tragedy becomes all the more impressive if we see it against the background of the Grail, and the failure of the Quest becomes all the more impressive if it is felt thus reverberating through all the human relationships of the Arthurian world. No one wants the Grail to overthrow the Round Table directly, by a fiat of spiritual magic. What we want is to see the Round Table sibi relictus, falling back from the peak that failed to reach heaven and so abandoned to those tendencies within it which must work its destruction. And that is what we are shown.

And now I realised why I had been so confused and irritated by Malory before. I had the story upside-down. I thought it was about the noble, pure, and good Round Table going about righting wrongs; so why were the knights always doing the wrong thing? Malory was clearly trying to write a morality tale; so why was everyone so immoral? At last I realised that the story really does have a moral compass--it's just that not everyone who I thought was meant to be a hero, is. The knights are bad because they're meant to be. The Round Table is a glorious failure.
There's an immense, cohesive story going on underneath the Morte D'Arthur. From the first seeds of Camelot's fall, sown in Arthur's youth, to the gradual degeneration of the Table, the failure of the Grail Quest, and the final stages where the Table—and the marriage of Arthur and Guenever--becomes too rotten to hold together, the tragedy is guaranteed.
That is the meaning of Le Morte D'Arthur.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: Courtesy

The story of Sir Tristram and La Beale Isoud takes up a good third of the Morte. As I slogged through the endless tournaments, feuds, jealousies, and adventures of Tristram, Palomides, Lamorak, and the rest, I kept wondering why such a large part of the book was devoted to these ancillary characters. Sir Tristram has nothing to do with the foundation of Logres; he grows up in Cornwall and only comes to the Round Table later in life. He has nothing to do with the Grail Quest and by the time of the fall of Logres he is dead. So why spend a third of the book on him?
I may be over-analysing Malory here. The Morte is full of inconsistencies and editorial oversights. People and places are mentioned, never to be explained or heard from again; in two cases, knights who were main characters vanish from the plot and it is casually mentioned later that they were murdered. There is not a huge amount of literary cohesion here.
However, whether intentionally or not, the Tristram/Mark/Isoud story forms a fascinating contrast to the Launcelot/Arthur/Guenever story. In fact while the L/A/G triangle makes its appearance early on in the Morte, it sneaks up on the reader gradually and it's only during the T/M/I story that the reader realises its importance. It simmers gently in the background, while in the foreground Tristram and Isoud battle hopelessly for their impossible love, facing King Mark's wrath and treachery.
Sir Tristram and Sir Launcelot are the two greatest knights of the world. Both of them are nearly invincible in battle and both are paragons of courtesy. Sir Tristram, however, has faults that Sir Launcelot doesn't. For example, Sir Tristram, in what can only be called a fit of absent-mindedness, marries someone who is not La Beale Isoud, incurring the displeasure not only of Isoud but also of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenever, who consider this an almost unforgiveable affront to love. Quelle scandale!
The most obvious difference between the Cornwall and the Camelot love triangles, however, is—surprisingly--the difference between King Mark and King Arthur. Mark is treacherous, villainous, believes the worst of the lovers (which is perfectly correct) and persecutes them. On the other hand, Arthur is noble, just, believes the best of the lovers, and remains a kind lord to them. Unlike Mark, Arthur insists on believing, for as long as possible, that Guenever is no more than an inspiration to Sir Launcelot. The husband's duty to believe his wife faithful to him (even when she flagrantly isn't) is seen as just as important as the lovers' duty to be faithful to each other.
This seems completely crazy to me, but in the context of medieval ideals, it begins to make sense. Because King Mark is constantly chasing his wife or Sir Tristram, he seems a ridiculous cuckold. But because King Arthur is too noble-minded to suspect such a thing of Launcelot and Guenever, he remains noble, elevated, and tragic rather than ridiculous. As long as he never suspects, he remains admirable.
The upshot? While King Mark's villainous behaviour almost excuses Tristram and Isoud, King Arthur's behaviour heaps coals of fire on the heads of Guenever and Launcelot. For the secular knight, courtesy is the highest attainable virtue. He may not be holy enough to achieve the Grail, but at least he is never-failingly polite, meek, and humble. In Malory, you need not be invincible or chaste to be a good knight; but you do need to be courteous. CS Lewis (in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature) sums it up like this:
It all depends on what is meant by nobility. The predominant ethical tone of Malory's work is certainly not the bourgeois, still less the proletarian, morality of our own day. And, on its own showing, it is not the Christian rule of life; all the chief characters end as penitents. It is aristocratic. It does not forbid homicide provided it is done in clean battle. It does not demand chastity, though it highly honours lifelong fidelity to the chosen mistress. Though it admires mercy it allows private war and the vendetta. And it has no respect at all for property or for laws as such. It is distinguished from heroic morality by its insistence on humility. It can be very accurately called nobility if the noble is defined as the opposite of the vulgar. It does not condemn all whom we would now call 'criminals'; its displeasure is primarily for the cad. It is magnificently summed up in Sir Ector's final lament, which, so far as we know, is Malory's own invention: 'Thou was the mekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foe that ever put spere in the rest.' There is the real, and indispensable, contribution of chivalry to ethics.
By taking advantage of King Arthur's courtesy, Sir Launcelot commits one of his few blunders and contributes to the fall of Logres. Had Sir Launcelot remained pure and depended on the Queen for no more than inspiration, he would have been able to adhere to the strictest rules of courtesy and answer the call of the sacred world in the Grail Quest. But he failed.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: Malory, Morals, and Manners

There are three major themes twined into the plot of the Morte, three medieval concepts that hold the key to the confusing moral tangle. They are, first: the Thomistic tension between the sacred and the secular, in which the sacred sphere is seen as a world removed and superior from the secular world which holds its own secondary virtues; second: the ideal of courtly love, the impossible or forbidden love of a knight for a lady which holds lasting interest only because it is secret; third: the chivalric ideal of courtesy as the highest secular virtue.
The morality of love in Malory can only be comprehended in the context of what the medievals believed about love. Their views on the subject were strongly influenced by the sacred/secular divide as explained by Thomas Aquinas. As I understand it, in the same way that the sacred world—the Church, the priesthood, philosophy—was somehow better than the secular world of kingdoms, families, and manual work, so to the mind of the medieval Catholic, virginity was better than marriage.
The Reformation assaulted the sacred/secular divide with all its might. Medievals like Malory could speak of Sir Launcelot “serving God daily and nightly” during the Grail Quest, meaning to be in prayer and fasting and suggesting that other occupations did not serve God; the Reformers told knights, merchants, craftsmen, and farmers that they too had vocations no less important and no less holy than those of churchmen. In the same way that the Reformers rescued mundane work, they also rescued marriage. To Malory, marriage is a middle way between pure virginity and guilty adultery. It is chastity reluctantly subordinated to the good of fruitfulness. It is fornication reluctantly legitimised (see Malory, Book XVII, chapter 5 for a good allegory of his views).
Add to this viewpoint the courtly love ideal. Courtly love celebrates an impossible love—often an illicit love. Because the love is hopeless, the lover's main attitude is one of tortured, pining grief. The love feeds on obstacles—if they all vanished away, so would all the romance of the thing. Peter Leithart says, “What keeps the passion passionate is that it is not consummated, or that it is consummated rarely and secretly” (Ascent to Love, p 35). The obstacles also provide a distance between the lovers which enables them to thoroughly idealise each other. In addition the ultimate loyalty of the lover is to his lady: it must be lifelong and exclusive of all other loyalties. Worship is given to the lady rather than to God, and the lady becomes the inspiration of the lover to all noble deeds. So in Malory, Sir Palomides is spurred to do the greatest feats of arms in his life at a tournament where he knows La Beale Isoud, whom he loves but can never love him, is watching; also Isoud and Tristram reprove the clownish knight Sir Dinadan, saying that only lovers can truly achieve greatness.
One of the most important themes of courtly love was the tension between worship of the lady and worship of God. Poets like Giacomo da Lentini in “Io m'aggio posto” tried to reconcile the two, hoping to get to heaven, but only as long as the lady also got there. The undercurrent to the courtly love ideal of Malory's time was the knowledge that the lover's love of the lady was pulling him away from his love of God. Since courtly love was incompatible with service of God, it could never pass from the secular to the sacred sphere.
The poet Dante and the other poets of the later courtly love movement, the stilnovisti or “new stylists,” resolved this tension by characterising the beloved as a manifestation of Divine Love and the pathway to God: the lady reveals Christ.
But for Malory, the lady remains opposed to Christ. She is a secular goddess, the inspiration for Sir Launcelot's and Sir Tristram's virtues of courtesy, nobleness, gentleness, and strength in battle. She raises them to higher things. However, she can only raise them within the secular world. If a man is to achieve the immeasurably higher and nobler sacred world, he must turn his back on the lady and serve God instead. Plot details suggest that there may be a way to have both, to solve that tension, but only by loving the lady without consummation, purely.
With that groundwork laid, the morality of the Morte becomes understandable. For Sir Launcelot, Sir Tristram, and other knights, the sin is not so much loving a married woman but making love to her. Malory suggests that Sir Launcelot should have allowed the love of Guenever to spur him on to glorious deeds without allowing that love to become gross and earthly. Sir Percival, the naïve young knight who will go on to achieve the Grail, rebukes King Mark for being jealous of Sir Tristram:
“Ah, fie for shame […] Are ye not uncle unto Sir Tristram, and he your nephew? Ye should never think that so noble a knight as Sir Tristram is, that he would do himself so great a villainy as to hold his uncle's wife; howbeit,” said Sir Percival, “he may love your queen sinless, because she is called one of the fairest ladies of the world.”
Sir Percival can be reasonably assumed to be articulating the viewpoint of the sacred sphere. A pure love, Malory suggests, could be consistent with serving God, with being in the sacred sphere. Even Sir Galahad, the perfect sacred knight (as Sir Launcelot is the best secular knight) hints at a courtly-love relationship with Sir Percival's sister:
“Damosel,” said Galahad, “ye have done so much that I shall be your knight all the days of my life.”
For Malory, the difference between perfect and sinful love is not marital status. The difference is whether the love is consummated or not, and whether it is faithful or not. This is why adulterous love is not seen as particularly bad. It is good to love a lady purely, whether she's married or not; it is a shame if the love is “sinful,” whether you are married to her or not. If you are married to her, then at least you have the Church's sanction for it and the good purpose of producing children. If you aren't married to her, then at least she is your ideal of love, raising you to be the best that the secular world has to offer. The true sin would be in having a paramour, but not loving her faithfully.
Notice that there is a double standard in operation between the sacred and the secular world. Although the sacred world is best, the secular world has its own worthiness: courtesy, inspiring love, preservation of honour through revenge and feuding.
Those planted in the secular world have fewer expectations. But even for Malory, that isn't enough. The sacred world is calling, and cannot be ignored.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: The Problem

Given this plot, what's the problem? The problem has to do with the underlying themes, assumptions, and morals of the story. Without a cohesive theme to hold the book together, it becomes a tedious shaggy dog story, a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The problem is that Malory seems to be morally schizophrenic. Is there a theme at all? Does any of this have any point?
In Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur, things are far more comprehensible. King Arthur and his knights are the good guys, who go around rescuing damsels. Sir Launcelot might be in love with the Queen, but it's not like they do anything about it. Evil Sir Mordred (he gets it from his mother Morgan le Fay) makes it look as though they are, and then it's death and destruction.
The problem with the sanitised version is that the tragedy at the end has little basis in the characters' previous actions—the retribution is disproportionate. In Malory's version, on the other hand, there would be a good explanation—Launcelot and Guenever are guilty as sin—if it wasn't that he seems to praise their love instead of condemning it.
This is what I objected to when I first read the book, and what I wrestled with this time: The Round Table is no noble company of good knights. Sir Launcelot really does look good by comparison to some of them. Sir Gawain—my favourite character from the Green version, which incorporated the heroic stories of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, and Parsifal—has in Malory become a treacherous, murderous villain (although toward the end of the book his character is somewhat rehabilitated). His brothers are little better, even Sir Gareth, the closest thing in the book to a Boy Scout. Meanwhile La Beale Isoud and Guenever become friends-- “It's so hard, cheating on your husband with his most trusted knight! Only you can understand my pain!”
So far, so revolting. Admittedly not so bad as the Orlando Furioso. But you see, the Furioso never pretended to high moral ground. But Malory does. After pages and pages of the Round Table being treacherous and lecherous, the Holy Grail intrudes on their lives and they all rush off to find it--but suddenly, they're not good enough; the Holy Grail can only be achieved by the truly pure. Sir Launcelot is even brought to see the error of his ways and repents in literal sackcloth. But it doesn't stick: even he slips back into evil after the Quest.
This, then, was the thing that repulsed me about Malory. First, he depicted a Round Table riddled with vice. Then, to add insult to injury, he can't seem to figure out whether this is really such a bad thing or not. Early in his career, Sir Launcelot seems shocked at the idea of taking a paramour:
“...and as for to say to take my pleasance with paramours, that will I refuse in principle for dread of God; for knights that be adventurous or lecherous shall not be happy ne fortunate unto the wars, for either they shall be overcome with a simpler knight than they be themselves, other else they shall be unhap and their cursedness slay better men than they be themselves. And so who that useth paramours shall be unhappy, and all thing is unhappy that is about them.”
The reader is not advised how or when Sir Launcelot changes his mind about this: it eventually becomes obvious that he and Guenever are more than platonic lovers. But he's still the best knight in the realm. Then the Grail Quest happens, and he repents. Then it ends, and he's caught in Guenever's room, and the following puzzling exchanges take place:
“Truly,” said the queen, “I would and it might please God that they would take me and slay me, and suffer you to escape.”
“That shall never be,” said Sir Launcelot. “God defend me from such a shame, but Jesu be thou my shield and mine armour!”
Nice prayer, for an adulterer. So just what exactly is going on in Malory? How can knights like this be described as “good”? Does anyone really know what's going on? Is there a transcendant standard at all? Is this what it feels like to be an agnostic?
As it turns out, there really is a standard and a system of morality in Malory, one that supports the book's theme. There are two reasons why it is hard to figure out. The first is that the morality of Malory is very much based on some medieval concepts that have become foreign to the twenty-first century. The second is an idiosyncrasy of Malory's style, where he very rarely comments on the characters' actions, to praise or condemn them. The only clues we have come either in the biased comments of other characters within the story itself—or in the actual plot: who is rewarded and who is punished for his actions. The best way to understand the book is to read it as a whole. You cannot dissect it: the plot must be considered as a whole and not until the last page is it possible to say with any certainty what the author meant.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: Characters and plot

Just in case your knowledge of Arthurian myth is sketchy or non-existent, this is of course the story of Arthur, the Once and Future King of Britain in a legendary and anachronistic version of the fifth century AD. Skip this if you know the legend well, or if you'd rather not be spoiled for the plot ending.
Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, begets him in secret and then dies, plunging Britain into civil war for fifteen years. Merlin the enchanter then produces a sword struck deep into a stone; it can only be retrieved by the true-born king of Britain. Arthur does this, but his claim as supreme king is challenged by many minor kings, and more civil war ensues until finally guided by the wisdom of Merlin he emerges as High King.
Arthur's early years are marked by sin and foolishness—the sin of begetting Mordred on his own sister Morgawse, followed by a foolish duel with King Pellinore in which he breaks the sword from the stone.
“But ye have done a thing late that God is displeased with you, for ye have lain by your sister, and on her ye have gotten a child that shall destroy you and all the knights of your realm.... Marvel not,” said Merlin, “for it is God's will your body to be punished for your foul deeds.”
Merlin then leads him to the Lady of the Lake, and Arthur takes the sword Excalibur, with its marvellous girdle, from a hand reaching out of the lake.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Feature Week: Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

The Arthurian legends, also known as the Matter of Britain, are certainly among the world's most well-known, influential, and important myths. They were very popular all the way through the Middle Ages and remain just as well-known as ever today, probably thanks to the Victorian medievalist revival.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Poet and the Lunatics by GK Chesterton

Another of GK Chesterton's slim volumes of iconoclastic detective stories, The Poet and the Lunatics is a kind of companion to The Paradoxes of Mr Pond, The Club of Queer Trades, Four Faultless Felons, and the Father Brown books.
To be drastically reductive, Mr Pond's purpose was to display the startling paradoxes of life; Basil Grant of the Queer Trades generally spent his time illustrating the fact that facts are a terrible basis upon which to draw conclusions; the Four Felons had each committed what appeared to be, but were in fact not crimes; Father Brown stood for the advantage that poetry and religion give to the student of human nature. Gabriel Gale, the hero of The Poet and the Lunatics, demonstrates the true nature of madness. Many think that Gale is mad when in fact he shows only an ability to grasp truth allusively and a quixotic urge to take every opportunity that presents itself. Given a chance to play on a swing, or to stare at a bowl of goldfish in the sunlight, or to make a wildly chivalrous oath to a madman, or to scale a ladder into a strange house, Gale will do it without thinking twice.
That is, of course, the hallmark of the really sane man—to see, to enjoy. This book is in a way the dramatisation of the chapter of Orthodoxy, “The Maniac,” in which Chesterton took the cross as a symbol of sanity and the neverending, inexorable, inescapable circle as a symbol of madness. The cross is a good symbol of sanity because it is two intersecting lines; in the mathematical sense, lines are infinite, like the cross is. But the circle! The circle is the realm of logic that spirals relentlessly in on itself. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason; he is the man who has lost everything else, and has persuaded himself that he is the King of England.
Or, to quote Chesterton putting it another way, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
Gabriel Gale is the man who has his head in the heavens, and not the heavens in his head, and consequently sorts out eight very unusual crimes in this slim volume. All the trademark Chestertonian themes and idiosyncrasies are here. Once again I'm reminded of Chesterton's excellence at painting colours with his words: to the imagination, his books are a blazing mass of colours: gold and green against deep purple, or the vivid blue of a peacock against the green grass of a suburban lawn.
Meanwhile, the stories involve the detection—and I use the word in its vaguest sense, as one who might detect a smell or a glimmer of light—of a variety of crimes, some of them before they happen. In one short story, “The Crime of Gabriel Gale,” however, the criminal appears to be the poet himself.
I won't give away the details, but I found this particular story a fascinating reply to the old “problem of pain,” as CS Lewis called it.
And I believe profoundly that there was no other remedy. Anything in the nature of soothing or quieting him would only have made him yet more secretive and yet more swollen-headed. As for humouring him, it's the very worst thing to do with people who are losing their sense of humour.”

Only one thing can save the soul in question—and it isn't therapy. A wish to summon our pleasures at our pleasure is wildly destructive:
All [mankind's] fun is in having a gift or a present; which the child, with profound understanding, values because it is 'a surprise'. But surprise implies that a thing came from outside ourselves; and gratitude that it comes from someone other than ourselves. It is thrust through the letter-box; it is thrown in at the window; it is thrown over the wall. Those limits are the lines of the very plan of human pleasure.”

And thus, pain:
There is no cure for that nightmare of omnipotence except pain; because that is the thing a man knows he would not tolerate if he could really control it. A man must be in some place from which he would certainly escape if he could, if he is really to realize that all things do not come from within.”

The poem Invictus ends with the lines: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Reminds me of the story about the monkey in the bog who tried to pull himself out by the whiskers.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

“Not one of my best efforts,” Sayers said, but surely one of the most entertaining.

Dorothy Sayers, a friend and contemporary of CS Lewis, was one of those early-twentieth-century academics that appears to have been good at everything. Her most enduring works include translations of the Divine Comedy and The Song of Roland; essays including The Lost Tools of Learning, a famous argument for classical education; The Man Born to be King, a cycle of radio plays on the life of Christ; the famous Guiness Beer Toucan advertisement; and, perhaps most enjoyably, the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories.

To most people, including (to their downfall) most criminals, Lord Peter appears to be a rich idiot with no day job, fastidious tastes, and a Jeeves-like valet. In fact he has a quiet reputation as a brilliant detective. When a copywriter at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd (an advertising agency) falls to his death, foul play is suspected and Lord Peter agrees to go and work there for as long as it takes to unravel the mystery. By day he is Death Bredon, impoverished distant relative of the Wimsey family and inventor of the famous Whiffle Your Way Around Britain advertising campaign. By night he is the mysterious harlequin frequenting the wild parties of cocaine-addled socialite Dian de Mommerie, a friend of the deceased. What’s behind the death at Pym’s? Who else is involved?

Murder Must Advertise shows Dorothy L Sayers at her most entertaining, full of wit and fun and social satire (the Wimsey/Bunter relationship to begin with is intentionally Wodehouseian). She may have thought it inconsequential, but with a body of Wimsey novels including the more serious The Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night, and The Five Red Herrings, there’s plenty of latitude for a little froth. Unless you want to start with the first Wimsey novel, Whose Body?, this one is a great place to start.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Here I am at last—I've finished Le Morte D'Arthur, and I'm sorry I've been away so long! This post will not be about Le Morte D'Arthur—not because I have nothing to say, but because I have so much to say that I have decided instead to have an Arthurian-themed Feature Week later on this month.
Instead, I'm going to review a play. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand first appeared in 1897 and was immediately wildly successful in both the French-speaking and the English-speaking world. It's ever-so-loosely based on a historical poet-soldier. Cyrano de Bergerac is a Gascon cadet in a regiment composed almost entirely of Gascon noblemen, a poet, and a great swordsman. The only sorrow in his life is his enormous nose, which he is sure makes it impossible for any woman to love him—certainly not his childhood playmate, the lovely and intelligent Roxanne. Alas! Roxanne loves good-looking but simple-minded Christian de Neuvillette, who has just joined Cyrano's regiment. Determined that Roxanne shall be happy, Cyrano offers his services to Christian: with love-letters written by Cyrano, Christian will woo Roxanne.
It's a somewhat simple and farcical plot, but Rostand turns it into an epic, comic, witty, and unabashedly romantic melodrama. It's full of swashbuckling and wordplay. In an age when other playwrights were exploring the depressing depths of realism, Rostand gives his hero a two-page-long speech exploring alternate insults for his nose preparatory to fighting a duel over it:
Thoughtful: 'You ought to put an awning over it, to keep its colour from fading in the sun.'
Pedantic: 'Sir, only the animal that Aristophanes calls the hippocampelephantocamelos could have had so much flesh and bone below its forehead.'
Flippant: 'That tusk must be convenient to hang your hat on.'
Grandiloquent: 'No wind but the mighty Arctic blast, majestic nose, could ever give you a cold from one end to the other!'
In an age when Bernard Shaw was writing cynical tracts like Man and Superman, Rostand revels in romanticism:
I sing, dream, laugh, and go where I please, alone and free. My eyes see clearly and my voice is strong. I'm quarrelsome or benign as it suits my pleasure, always ready to fight a duel or write a poem at the drop of a hat. I dream of flying to the moon but give no thought to fame or fortune. I write only what comes out of myself, and I make it my modest rule to be satisfied with whatever flowers, fruit, or even leaves I gather, as long as they're from my own garden.
There's nothing that's small or mean about this play. Cyrano is generous, but so is Christian when he begins to suspect that Roxanne may have fallen in love with the writer rather than the bearer of the letters. Even the villain, De Guiche, is capable of gallantry at a pinch. The final act may go on a little long, and be sad, but no really romantic story ends happily.
There isn't a great lot of deep philosophical substance to Cyrano de Bergerac. But then, there isn't supposed to be. Cyrano de Bergerac is a good time, a brilliantly well-written play, a story that is happy and heartening not because it everything ends happily but because it is as generous and expansive as its hero.
This review is of the English translation by Lowell Bair.
I have seen the 1990 French-language film Cyrano de Bergerac starring Gerard Depardieu, an excellent adaptation capturing the energy and romanticism of the original. Highly enjoyable for teens and up.
Gutenberg etext (translation by Gladys Thomas and Mary F Guillemard)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Best of 2011

Apologies for my silence over the last few weeks! Once again I have taken some time off blogging to work through a medieval epic; this time Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. I'll let you know how that goes!
This year I read 75 books—more than the previous two years (and I have no records for years before that). Of those 75, I extract here a list of the best books I read—all the following are very highly recommended. Italics mark re-reads.


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