Friday, January 19, 2018

Captain Quiros by James McAuley

Captain Quiros
Each year in the break immediately after Christmas, I read an epic poem. It's a small personal tradition that I've kept up for the last eight years since first starting this blog, but it's been a good way of keeping in touch with one of my favourite forms of storytelling.

Until the rise of the modern realist novel, epic poetry was one of the most prestigious and beloved forms of narrative literature. Starting in classical Greece and Rome with works like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, epic poetry continued throughout the medieval age and enjoyed a resurgence with the Renaissance before quietly giving way to the novel. Along the way, epic poems gained a number of distinct tropes. They often involved the foundation of a noble house or formative events from the history of a nation. They blended fantasy with real-life events, made references to other epic poems, and began with an invocation to the poet's Muse (which in Christian epics always meant the Holy Spirit).

Above all, they were a form of myth-making. An epic poem took the history and heritage of a people, and elevated it to the status of myth. It then became something that could be looked back to with pride, as a reminder of the ideals that birthed and inspired them.

(Obviously, this kind of exercise is not always a good idea, especially when the history and heritage in question is fabricated from lies and half-truths as a way to pardon and whitewash evil. But more about my other recent holiday read next time.)

I give this quick introduction to epic poetry because it's no longer as mainstream as it once was, despite the fact that people still occasionally write it (GK Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse is a good example of a more recent epic poem). And also because it explains what I found so special about James McAuley's Captain Quiros. Australia, you see, was not settled by Europeans until 1788. The day of the epic was already long past when the modern Commonwealth of Australia began to be formed. I have read possibly dozens of epics in my life, all of them commemorating other people's history. Reading an epic poem by an Australian poet about events in Australia's history was a completely new and uniquely moving experience.

The island in Vanuatu where Quiros landed, still named Espiritu Santo

A Myth for Australia

The irony is that nobody in this poem sets foot on Australian soil once, but McAuley doesn't let that stop him. He chooses to focus on something that happened before the discovery of the continental landmass: the origin of Australia's name. Before the discovery and mapping of Australia or Antarctica, and as early as ancient times, scholars agreed that given the great landmasses in the northern hemisphere, there must logically also be some great landmasses in the southern hemisphere, which they called Terra Australis or the Southland.

Late in 1605, the devout Portugese explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros set out from Peru on a mission to discover the Southland. His three ships crossed the Pacific Ocean and ultimately made landfall on a large island in what is today Vanuatu. Quiros believed he'd found the Southland, and he named it Australia del Espiritu Santo - the Southland of the Holy Spirit. Idealistically, Quiros named his new settlement Nova Jerusalema - New Jerusalem - and instituted a chivalric order, the Knights of the Holy Ghost, to go along with it. Within weeks, however, the colony had to be abandoned. Quiros always desired to return and prove that he had in fact discovered the Southland, but he would never be taken seriously again.

This is the story behind James McAuley's epic of Australia. Part One of the poem deals with Quiros's first expedition under Mendana to the Solomon Islands. As pilot, Quiros is unable to prevent the dissolution of the Mendana expedition as a result of mutiny and ill-treatment of the local natives. Part Two, which kicks off with an amazing Proem, deals with the expedition to Vanuatu and the foundation of New Jerusalem. And finally, in Part Three, the disappointed and dying Quiros is comforted by a vision of the future of his Southland of the Holy Spirit.

I really appreciated McAuley's treatment of the subject matter. He is well and truly mythmaking here, especially in Part Three. He doesn't try to make Quiros into an Achilles, or the Spanish expedition into lantern-jawed heroes. Captain Quiros could only ever have been a tale of the clash between ideals and human sin, so that's the story McAuley tells. He is very matter-of-fact about his hero's weaknesses as well as the ill-deeds of the Spanish explorers. His portrait of the native islanders is both respectful and sensitive, treating them more as noble than savages; we see the difference between those who have never heard the truth but are willing to receive it, and those who have the truth but have hardened their hearts against it. It's not by any stretch of the imagination a romantic story - in fact it's an extremely grounded story - and yet that just gives Part Three all the more visionary power. Nobody is surprised when good people accomplish good things. It's when somehow God works in our weaknesses, failures, and sins to produce good things that we are overwhelmed with awe and thankfulness. And that's how James McAuley weaves a myth for Australia.

Bird of paradise
Signs and symbols

Unusually, McAuley leaves the traditional invocation of the Muse for Part Two of his epic, to introduce the expedition to Vanuatu. But when it comes, it's magnificent.
O for the gift of tongues and prophecy!
For these heroic mysteries require
The voice of Elders chanting solemnly
Over a sea of glass mingled with fire,
While all creation bears the underpart.
Let the resources of our fictive art
Thrill to such tones, burning with new desire.
To chart in verse the voyage that I took
In youth and hope to seek the Great South Land;
To shut the sounding Ocean in a book
By verbal spells; charm to an ampersand
Each curling seahorse; teach rough waves the dance
Of formal metre - might one not sooner chance
To draw out huge Leviathan with a hook?

It's fitting in multiple ways that McAuley calls for "the gift of tongues and prophecy". These are gifts of the Holy Spirit, the muse of Christian art; not only that, but the poem is all about the Holy Spirit working in history, and the naming of Australia as the Southland of the Holy Spirit; not only that, but the Holy Spirit crops up again and again throughout McAuley's oevre, usually linked with birds, especially the bird of paradise, and with Australia. For example, To the Holy Spirit, from a 1956 collection, which begins:
Leaving your fragrant rest on the summit of morning calm,
Descend, Bird of Paradise, from the high mountain;
And, plumed with glowing iris along each curving wire,
Visit in time our regions of eucalypt and palm.
Another symbol that cropped up a couple of times in the poem was the star Aldebaran, called a "prophetic star" at the end, and so likewise linked to the Holy Spirit. McAuley's very first published collection of poetry was titled Under Aldebaran, and one day I hope to come across someone who can explain more fully what this imagery meant to him. Unfortunately, McAuley's work has been so shrouded in silence since his death in 1976 that it's very difficult to find any in-depth discussion of his poetry.

Eschatology and History

James McAuley's myth of Australia inhabits the sharp cleft between the ugliness that is and the nobility that ought to be. It's a tension I know well: Pendragon's Heir is all about the same thing. But to have this applied to Australian history brings it all just a bit more sharply into focus.

Not that I would have given Quiros the same answer as McAuley gives him. As Quiros sails home in defeat, his dream of the Southland of the Holy Spirit in ashes, McAuley imagines him turning to a dying priest for encouragement: "Where was the fault, that we have merited/No more than this from heaven?" The priest replies at length:
Not ours to bring to birth
That final Realm; nor shall our labours build
Out of the rubble of this fallen earth
The New Jerusalem.
If by enthusiasm we should confuse
This dispensation with the next, we abuse
The wisdom of our Faith, and cheat our prayers.
Quiros's attempt to found the New Jerusalem and call down the power of the Holy Spirit on Australia was well-intentioned, but it left out one important consideration: the will of God. God doesn't work according to human schedule, and we don't bring in the kingdom by sheer hustle and bustle. So far, so good. However, I do think I would probably disagree with McAuley in some respects. He speaks of Eternity coming upon us unawares, as if the coming of the kingdom is a sudden thing. Naturally the consummation of history and the perfection of the kingdom will be sudden, but Scripture speaks of the stone growing slowly to a mountain that covers the whole earth, or leaven working systematically through the dough. It is God working in the church according to his secret counsels that brings about the growth of the kingdom, not human schedules, but desiring and hoping to build the kingdom on the earth, and doing it God's way, through service and sacrifice for the weak and the needy, is truly possible.

This said, I loved reading an epic poem about my own country that gave so much expression to what I've often thought or felt about it. The final canto especially, The Last Vision, powerfully expressed both the sins and the virtues in Australian history.
Mingled the seed grown in the new-turned ground:
The quickening Word, the cactus of delusion,
Straight stalks of courage, indolently wound
With flowering folly, all in gay profusion.
In Captain Quiros, James McAuley puts his finger on everything that I'm sad about in Australian history. This is a deeply bittersweet epic, but as an exercise in mythmaking for a post-Enlightenment nation, it's wonderful work. I never quite understood the power of national epic until I read this book, and I'm so glad to have discovered this one.

Find Captain Quiros on the Australian Poetry Library.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Beta reading announcement

Hello, readers, friends, and countrymen.

Over the Christmas and New Year holidays, I did a lot of thinking and studying about my writing and business, and also about some of the ways I've been spending my time. I came to a decision that I wanted to tell you all about.

It's a guinea pig with a book! Get it? Get it?
 Beta reading has always been something I've wanted to do for my friends. Coaching, critiquing, and teaching is to me an incredibly important way that I can build into the life of someone who may one day far excel me as an author. As RJ Rushdoony once said, "The world was not empty when we were born into it, and we are not supposed to leave it poorer because we have been here." I know I can make the world a richer place by sharing what I've learned about my art, and that's been my vision in beta reading for my friends.


In 2017 I did somewhere in the vicinity of 375,000 words' worth of beta reading for friends. On top of that, it transpires that a Suzannah Rowntree Beta Reading Experience is probably not a lot like the beta reading you'd normally get. It's more on the level of a manuscript critique or a development edit, because I'm afraid I take the whole beta reading thing way too seriously. It involves hours and hours' worth of work and thought on top of existing commitments. It involves spending time distilling pages' worth of notes into a lengthy feedback email or for major works, 2-3 hours on the phone. And it draws on everything I've learned over years of teaching myself the writing craft.

I often try to dial it back to something a bit more chill. It hasn't worked. I don't seem to have a setting for "chill".

As I've met more budding authors, grown in my own craft, and gained more of a community online, the demands on my time through beta reading have become more frequent and the quality of my feedback has become much higher. Meanwhile other financially profitable avenues have been opening up to me through my writing. My time is becoming more valuable and more rare. Taking these considerations and advice from my parents into account, I have decided that I need to start calling what I do by its real name - manuscript critique - and charging a fee for it.

From now on, if you'd like me to critique your story, it's going to cost you AU$5 per 1,000 words. This is below what a professional would charge you. If it's a chilled-out, friendly beta read you're after, then there are dozens of people you know personally who can give you that. I can't give you that, but I can give you something a lot more challenging and a lot more informative. I'm sorry I'm having to start charging for it, but I know that if I do, I'll have the opportunity to go on doing it.

If you have any questions about this, please don't hesitate to shoot me an email. In the meantime, happy New Year! I'm looking forward to a busy and productive 2018 and will be back next week with another review!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Best of 2017

Is it too late to put together my 2017 In Books? Nah. It's never too late.

This year I once again failed to read as many books as I did last year - the final tally is 110, down from 114 last year and 119 the year before. I'm tempted to feel a little bit despondent about this, but on second thoughts, let's not. After all, I did both achieve and exceed my base goal of 104 books, or two books per week. Plus, the time I didn't spend reading was spent with friends and family, or just giving my brain some time to relax. I don't feel anywhere near as mentally tired as I did this time last year, I didn't drive myself as hard, and I'm feeling ever so much better.

Best Re-Reads of 2017

I only re-read 9 books this year, but I'll pick my top 5 as usual.

The Mating Season by PG Wodehouse - I read this aloud with my sisters (we have a once-a-week readaloud time) and we laughed until we cried. The scene with the village talent show/variety concert in particular will be deeply cathartic to anyone who has had to suffer through a similar event!

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare - I don't know why more people don't love this play. It's the original British screwball farce and I loved it even more as an adult than I did as a teen.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey - In case you missed it, this book was directly responsible for kickstarting my first novel, Pendragon's Heir. It's a completely unique whodunit which I found similarly inspiring the second time around.

The High Crusade by Poul Anderson - This was my pick for 2016's Fiction of the Year and I loved it so much that I almost immediately started re-reading it, this time aloud with my sisters. In this zany space-opera/comedy, starfaring aliens invade medieval England and are somewhat surprised when the local knights fight back. This utterly joyous book combines some of my favourite things: medieval people, aliens, giant explosions, and unquenchable hope. Oh yes, and so far all my siblings love it as much as I do.

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow by Allen French - This is a rather obscure boy's adventure story written about 100 years ago, and it's jam-packed with feuds, ghosts, duels, shipwrecks, and an ending that will put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye. Oh! And did I mention, it's written in the style of medieval Icelandic sagas? Why yes, this book is awesome.

Non-fiction of the Year

I read 22 non-fiction books this year, just one-fifth of my total intake, but each of the books I read was well worth it. I loved Tom Wolfe's hilarious and trenchant critique of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, which explains a lot. In Crusader research, I took in several tomes including military history and primary source documents, but I want to single out two books which have put important puzzle pieces in place for me. Jonathan Riley-Smith's book The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading explains why the First Crusade elicited such an enthusiastic response - it wasn't a desire for land or wealth, and it couldn't possibly have been a ploy to get rid of surplus younger sons. Rather, it was the idea that ordinary people could serve and please God in their ordinary occupations - as knights, for instance - rather than having to become monks. Then, Christopher MacEvitt's book The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance filled in the all-important details about Crusader relations with indigenous Greek, Syriac, and Armenian Christians. Not to paint too rosy a picture, but this book blew apart claims I've heard that the local Christians reacted to the Frankish incursions with suspicion and hostility.

But my pick for Non-fiction of the Year is actually a writing manual.

I've been recommending John Truby's book The Anatomy of Story to everyone since I read it. First off, I should mention that I don't agree with Truby on everything, especially plotting, but everything he says about theme and characterisation is pure gold. This book is the heavy-hitter when it comes to creating thematic resonance and unity in your story. If you happen to be a writer, this is one of the must-have books. So many writing manuals will mess you around with scratch-the-surface techniques that don't actually help if you don't understand the core of what you're doing. This book explains techniques that you'll realise you've always seen everywhere. Definitely get this one.

Fiction of the Year

I feel a tiny bit disappointed about the fiction I read last year compared to the year before. Once you discount re-reads, there isn't a lot left that I absolutely loved. I enjoyed reading some classics by Sir Walter Scott and Anthony Trollope, but they weren't exactly epoch-making (although my current Trollope read is hilarious and delightful and I can't wait to share it with you when I finally finish it!). I read two highly well-regarded literary novels this year - Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Leif Enger's Peace Like a River - but they both ended with a resolution which I found unsatisfying. I was very happy to discover a new guilty-pleasure read in Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, which has been wonderful light fun, however.

Oddly enough, the standouts for me have been mostly poetry. The Icelandic Elder Edda, GK Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse, the medieval chanson de geste The Song of the Cid, James McAuley's Captain Quiros, and (of course) Shakespeare's cycle of history plays are the things that got my creative wheels turning this year. 

I'm going to nominate Shakespeare's Richard III as my Fiction of the Year, but really, that honour should go to the entire cycle of plays from Richard II onward. Henry V is the one most people would probably pick from the history plays - definitely it's a more mature, subtle, and ambiguous work, with some unforgettable and hair-raising writing in it. But, I'm a Richard III girl. Not only does the play cap off a series full of juicy melodramatic backstabbery - but it does probably contain my very favourite ethical set-up found anywhere in fiction. I refer to the situation morally grey characters find themselves in when divine justice suddenly gets into gear and starts dispensing VENGEANCE. This play is Judgement Day for the Yorks and Lancasters, and it's delicious.

2017 in Writing

Last year was unusually full for me, and I didn't get as much writing done as I hoped. In the first half of the year I spent a lot of time planning the next stage for Outremer, and in the second half we had a lot of houseguests, and both these things took away from my writing time. However, I worked hard, released two novellas (Death Be Not Proud and Ten Thousand Thorns) and I definitely hope to release The City Beyond the Glass and Outremer: A Wind From the Wilderness in 2018, DV.

Two exciting writing-related things happened for me this year. First, I got published in Faith for All of Life magazine. This is a Big Deal for me because we subscribed to that magazine when I was growing up and I used to read every issue with avidity. My most recent article - and I'll probably wind up writing more for them - is about how writing Outremer caused me to do some deep soul-searching on my attitude toward Muslims. You can read it here.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, I got to meet the lovely and hilarious WR Gingell in Tasmania, and she very kindly gave me some coaching on how to market my books as a self-published author. Wendee has been a constant encouragement and inspiration to me...and her books have been a welcome source of laughter! Since meeting Wendee, my flatlining sales have revived, and I made more money in the last four months of 2017 than in the whole of 2016. That's good news because it means I can move on with Outremer and other projects in confidence that I'll be able to fund them and bring them to the readers who are going to love them best.

Which brings me to something important: thank you all. Thank you for reading my books or commenting on my blog or sending me emails or leaving reviews on Amazon or just being a friend. You're the reason why I'm here. I hope your 2018 is as good as I'm sure mine will be.


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