As I have mentioned before, I was active in the A Song of Ice and Fire fandom long before Game of Thrones burst onto the screen. One of my more fun memories of the pre-show era is participating in the various ASOIAF limerick threads that were doing the rounds at the time.
In the interests of posterity, here is a selection of my efforts, mostly written during 2006-2009, plus a few 2011-2012. Be warned, many of them are very filthy, as befits a limerick.
The Mad King was quite dismayed
When protests re-Chelsted were made
Said the King most despotic,
“His screams were erotic,
And there’s no funeral cost to be paid!”
There once was a Lord Rickard Stark
Whose prospects were really quite dark
The King cooked the poor fellow
Like an armoured marshmallow
And strangled his son for a lark.
Honour did not get Lord Stark far
With his nicked head covered in dark tar
But though there was reason
‘Twas lesser treason
Than Ser Arys Oakheart or Darkstar.
There once was a man named Lord Stannis
Whose letter gave Cersei much menace
Said Petyr, “Be cool,
Claim his wife’s shagged a fool:
Much smarter than trying to ban this!”
The names of the brothers Clegane
Are indeed a formidable twain.
But, please, could you tell me
Would they better young Selmy,
Daemon Blackfyre or Ser Arthur Dayne?
The case of the chaste was most base
The pace of the case was a race
If there’s reason for Moon Tea
The treason will soon see
The face of poor Mace in disgrace.
Alas that the traitorous eunuch
Dressed in furs and expensive silk tunic
Had cause to exclaim
“Lost my balls to a flame
And a wizard who chanted spells runic.”
To the North it was quite part and parcel
That the Starks controlled Winterfell castle
Till the ruling small kid
Was deposed by a squid
Now considered a treacherous arsehole.
‘Tis said that young Ramsay was vile
And that Reek was a weird necrophile
Resentment still lingers
Over poor Hornwood’s fingers
But don’t those two bastards have style?
If the sight of young Samwell’s pink mast
Renders all of the readers aghast
Should young Samwell step in
As the North’s secret weapon
Where he streaks past the Others and fast?
King Joffrey was one giant blooper
King Robert was in all in a stupor
And poor sad King Aerys
Ran away with the fairies
Would not a republic be super?
The Kingsguard of Robert was poor
With just Jaime and Selmy of yore
Hark now to this lean yield:
There’s Oakheart and Greenfield
And Trant, and Ser Boros, and Moore.
Old Ser Gerold’s on memory lane
With the guards of the previous reign:
If you could Martell parry
There’s still Whent and Jon Darry
And Selmy and Jaime and Dayne.
As a “traitor” Lord Snow was a con
On orders from Halfhand was Jon
Though it can’t be denied
He enjoyed the inside
Of a red-headed lass with naught on.
In his quest for the Westeros throne
So seldom was Renly alone
He held a peach flourishingy
And ate it so nourishingly
That Loras later spat out the stone.
Lord Tywin was stern to behold
Even his friends found him cold.
This harshest of rulers
Imprisoned two jewellers
For asking “your lordship shits gold?”
King Joffrey with evident malice
Was slain by the wine in his chalice
But though Cersei was whining
There was silver lining:
It saved poor young Marge from Joff’s phallus.
A crowd in a candle-lit room
Would listen to tales of the Doom
Till Baelor the farter
Made each man a martyr:
His fart made the whole room go BOOM.
“How goes it with Gregor Clegane?”
Quoth the Queen to Qyburn insane.
“Alas, my dear Queen,
I have altered his spleen,
But he makes do with only one brain!”
A debate that kept maesters immersed
Was the one of which Targ was the worst
Some argued for Aenys
Or Maegor the Heinous
(Revisionists: Aegon the First.)
[In reply to an anti-Aegon IV limerick]
‘Tis nought but the most vile slander
And borders on black propaganda!
Poor Aegon was wronged
And for justice he longed
(Though he liked a depraved one-night-stander.)
[Referring to Viserys II]
Viserys is tagged as a miser
But few men as Hand have been wiser
(Though if you’re a King
Unless poison’s your thing
You might want another adviser.)
[In reply to a limerick about Cersei tripping over Ser Pounce and falling down the stairs]
One applauds such a theory whereby
The sick rules of karma apply:
With the favours she gives
By a pussy she lives,
And then, via pussy, she’d die.
[Referring to the High Sparrow]
If that old theocratic fanatic
Triumphs in terms most emphatic
He’ll still face the “Red” boys
And Seaweeded Greyjoys
In a dispute both dull and dogmatic.
King Baelor, the master debator:
“The Storm God is quite the Sea-hater.
Do you think it not odd
That the Many-Faced God
Must then be a schizoid creator?”
Abstaining was such a hard slog:
Poor Baelor was sick as a dog,
So, deprived of his sisters,
The King gave himself blisters
Piously flogging his log.
Wrote Daeron in hand very tricky
Before he met fate very sticky:
“I’ve hungered for Dorne
Since the day I was born;
Now it’s vini and vidi and vici!”
One feels the icy sensation
That the Others delay their invasion.
They’ve had thousands of years
With swords, spiders, and spears:
All lost, thanks to procrastination.
Cersei and Jaime were “curious”,
Their mother exceedingly furious,
So she threatened the twain
And warned “Not again!”
In such volumes as proved most injurious.
At the sight of sweet Gilly Sam’s hard
Beneath his great cushions of lard.
Whilst he guzzles a drink
His ship-mast so pink
Leaves the minds of the readers all scarred.
There once was a laddie named Daemon
Whose Daddy one must pin the blame on.
“My bastard’s legit!”
Quoth the corpulent git,
And then for the throne it was game on.
Riding his dragon of dread
Aegon would oft plan ahead:
The Kingdoms? He’d conquer.
His sister? He’d bonk her.
And Balerion would be well fed.
Viserys the First wasn’t harsh
He’s sort of the Targ’s Bowen Marsh.
Among those who went beardless
There’s this one piece of weirdness:
He’s the only Targ King with moustache.
In planning a cannibal feast
Lord Manderly’s skill never ceased
He discovered that Frey
Makes delicious entrée
(When served up in pastry at least)
The end of this long-running series
Will feature both Jon and Daenerys
But as to which year,
I have no idea
When we’ll find out the truth of our theories.
As a bonus, here’s a Shakespearean-style sonnet of mine. It was written at the same time as the early limericks, and is ostensibly what Varys would write if he were in love with Cersei Lannister…
With reddest lips and breasts as large as mine
And hair as gold as gleam of Tywin’s shit,
My lady fair, I lust for thee and thine,
My ardour, dormant long, has been relit.
Oh come and let me taste thy lion’s tongue
While Gregor, dead and cold, doth stand close by
And all the sweetest melodies are sung
By Qyburn’s torture victims as they die.
Forget thy brother Jaime’s golden hair,
My little birds will chirp in harmony,
There never was a eunuch quite so fair:
I only ask that thou shouldst moan with me.
And if thou cruelly turn and spurn mine eyes
Perhaps I should adopt my “Myrish guise”.
A Breath Through Silver, my 9,000-word sword and sorcery piece, is getting a second lease on life. Originally published back in July 2017 by Sword and Sorcery Magazine, it is no longer available there, and has spent some time in the purgatory of the Bonus Stories section as a stop-gap. Now, much like its antagonist, it has risen from the dead, and will soon feature in serialised form at Bewildering Stories.
The reprinted story will also be a revised one, now 9,300 words. It fixes some issues with the earlier version.
My struggles last month with deciphering 400 year-old Gothic font has reminded me of a perennial complaint people have had about this blog: the bloody thing is too difficult to read. Well, I’ve finally managed to sort this out, or at least alleviated this to some degree.
Yes, it’s taken a while. Mea Culpa. I was hesitant about tinkering with such things, lest I accidentally delete the blog material via changing the Theme, which would have been disastrous. Silly, silly me… the root of the problem actually dates back four years, to when I initially set up this blog. I was interested very much in the aesthetics of the site, and never thought about, you know, readability (my own eyesight is pretty good, so it never occurred to me that others might struggle). Once I realised the problem, the spectre of accidental deletion induced procrastination… which just shows that I really am a foolish fellow when it comes to web design. Changing and enlarging font doesn’t delete anything, of course. I’m just an idiot for having such fears.
Anyway, I sincerely hope the new state of affairs is easier on the eyes. Please let me know if I’ve somehow made things worse, which I very probably have…
The Vandals are back, it seems. Only this time, they are living in New Zealand, and are in charge of our National Library. Lovely.
More specifically, the National Library of New Zealand is planning a cull of its Overseas Published Collection. Some 600,000 out of 710,000 items are for the chop, apparently, supposedly to make way for more New Zealand and Pacific items.
As a bit of background, the National Library’s job is to store New Zealand-published books, manuscripts, and so forth. In 1939, they established the Overseas Published Collection, “to give New Zealanders access to books they might otherwise not have been able to access.” And now, in 2020, they’re basically axing that, because they want to save space when they move the collection out of its existing home.
Ugh. As David Larsen notes, the vast majority of these culled books are well out of print, and it is entirely possible that some of them might not actually be available anywhere else in the world. The National Library itself is ill-equipped to determine which items are of importance to researchers in specialised fields.
Now, in terms of what will happen to the culled books, it seems other public libraries get first dibs… though they don’t have the ability to take over all of these irreplaceable books, nor a legal mandate to keep them. Others will go to charities and community groups, and others, well, let me just quote the briefing paper given to the Internal Affairs Minister, who has to sign off on this:
Note that due to evidence of low demand and the age of the material, secure destruction of removed items is the most likely outcome.
Yes, really. It’s not 2020 at the National Library of New Zealand, it’s Rome, A.D. 455. The cheerful little YouTube video they’ve put out doesn’t mention the likelihood of destruction at all:
I’m now visualising the Vandal armies reassuring Roman citizens not to worry… the sacking and destruction is about “bringing joy to someone else’s life.”
Luckily, the National Library’s decisions are subject to judicial review, so someone in Wellington needs to get off their arse and seek a High Court injunction. On the other hand, expressions of interest in individual books closed on 13th January, 2020, so time is clearly ticking if we are to stop this.
(And for those of us who are otherwise forced to watch helplessly, the least we can do is go to the National Library’s YouTube channel and down-vote that blasted video. It’s petty, but, honestly, it’s a decent way to send them a message).
“In the twilight of autumn [the ship] sailed out of Mithlond, until the seas of of the Bent World fell away beneath it, and the winds of the round sky troubled it no more, and borne upon the high airs above the mists of the world it passed into the Ancient West, and an end was come for the Eldar of story and of song.”
Christopher Tolkien, last son of J.R.R. Tolkien, has passed away, aged 95.
I won’t say it is unexpected – the man was 95, after all – but there is the melancholy sense that one of our last surviving connections with the Tolkienian mythos is gone. We as readers owe Christopher so much. It was he who turned sixty years’ worth of his father’s First Age manuscripts into the published Silmarillion of 1977, then spent the following four decades assembling and editing the various other materials for the reading public. Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin, and other volumes are the product of his labours. Without him, and his editorial efforts, we would have so little understanding of the enormity of his father’s literary achievement. Without him, and his protective attitude towards the works, the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien might have been cheapened.
Christopher had his own life, of course – as an academic, and as a veteran of the Second World War, but it is in the literary sphere that his work will endure the longest, and all without ever producing any fiction under his own name.
Farewell, Christopher. And thank you.
Addendum: Someone has written an alternate history, speculating on what could have happened had Christopher Tolkien been a sell-out, rather than a scholar. Fortunately, such a world never came to pass.
Addendum II: An article on Christopher’s role in drawing the maps of Middle-earth.
Last year, I worked my way through the Complete Works of Shakespeare, plus Apocrypha. This month I’ve tackled something a bit less intimidating: the Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe. It’s less intimidating because rather than dealing with dozens upon dozens of plays, Marlowe left behind just seven (double-counting Tamburlaine). Plus three poems, plus a couple of translations of ancient Roman texts. The reason for this comparative scarcity? Simple. Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl in 1593, when still in his 20s.
Live fast, die young, and all that, and honestly, Marlowe’s body of work is very different from Shakespeare’s, and not just because you can read the lot of it in a weekend. Billy strikes me as the guy who sits in the corner, watching you, getting inside your mind. He’s a cynical, pragmatic weather-vane with a talent for plagiarism, and a fondness for dirty jokes. Marlowe, by contrast, comes across as the guy who likes to dance a bit too close to the edge, pushing unsafe ideas, and seeing how much he could get away with. He’s not interested in character depth or psychology… but he is interested in the raw power of writing, with all that entails.
Put it this way: Marlowe not only delights in having villain protagonists, he has so much fun with them, it almost borders on Do Not Do This Cool Thing. His solution to getting away with this? Have the character come to an end almost as entertaining as they are, and make sure they take time out from their villainy to tweak the nose of the Catholic Church. Seriously. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew, a homosexual, a German university lecturer who has just sold his soul to Satan, or even (gasp) a Frenchman, Marlowe will make you likeable to his (Protestant) late Elizabethan audience by making you anti-Catholic. It’s the all-purpose Marlovian shield…
Shakespeare, of course, rarely does this. It’s there in King John, where our Basil Fawlty-esque monarch is portrayed as the victim of clerical machinations, but King John itself is pretty much stolen from the anonymous/apocryphal Troublesome Reign of King John, so chances are, Shakespeare was just re-working existing material. A Shakespearean villain protagonist like Macbeth or Richard III normally does not take time out to make fun of Catholicism in the way that Marlovian protagonists do, though, quite apart from speculating about Billy’s religious inclinations, I’d suggest that Shakespeare didn’t need that sort of cover. Our Billy played it safe, even as Kit was living dangerously, both off the page and on it.
So without further ado, my specific thoughts on Marlowe’s material. I stole the dates from Wikipedia.
I. The Plays
(i) Dido, Queen of Carthage (c. 1586)
The first, and least adventurous of the plays, this one is literally just a dramatisation of the relevant sections of Virgil’s Aeneid. It may have been co-written by Thomas Nashe, and unusually for a Marlowe play, it actually has an active female character (Marlowe is much, much worse than Shakespeare in this department). What it does have, of course, is that trademark Marlovian horror-ending for the protagonist… Dido, as per Virgil, burns herself alive on a pyre, once Aeneas leaves her. For obvious chronological reasons, there isn’t any explicit anti-Catholic stuff, though given that Aeneas was the legendary forefather of Rome, a play focused on the tragic victim of a proto-Roman makes for an interesting choice of subject for Marlowe.
(ii) Tamburlaine Part I (c. 1587) and Part II (c. 1587-1588)
I’ve mentioned the two Tamburlaine plays previously, in my look at the Shakespeare Apocrypha. They’re very much my favourite Marlovian pieces, and are, quite frankly, outrageous, so far as pushing the envelope goes. Recall that Tamburlaine, also known as Timur the Lame, was one of history’s nastier conquerors. And, sure enough, in his fictional depiction, Marlowe goes to town in portraying the protagonist as a blood-drenched maniac. But Tamburlaine is not simply Richard III from the Steppes – he’s a Richard III from the Steppes who is made absolutely invincible, and has so much fun steam-rolling his way through all opposition that you really want to cheer for him. There is something quite neat about a Scythian shepherd boy who grows up to use the Emperor of the Turks as a foot-stool, and Marlowe never lets us forget our protagonist’s humble origins. I’d also point out that Marlowe (in contrast to his posh-boy portrayal in Upstart Crow) was himself the son of a shoe-maker…
The obligatory Catholic-bashing is, of course, there. In this case, the (implicitly Catholic) Hungarian leadership agrees a truce with Tamburlaine, and then promptly betray him like hypocritical shit-weasels, because everyone knows Good Christians can’t do deals with the Muslims. Not that the betrayal actually does them any good. What brings Tamburlaine down is something much stranger. You see, burning and pillaging his way across the known world has given him an inflated idea of himself… so he burns the Koran and blasphemes the Prophet Mohammed. He’s then mysteriously struck down with a hideous illness, and dies. People who criticise the play for being anti-Islamic really need to remember what happens to Tamburlaine after he burns the Koran… and that Marlowe was a sixteenth century Englishman. Allah smites blasphemers, Kit?
(iii) The Jew of Malta (c. 1589)
I went into this one under the misguided notion that The Jew of Malta was basically a more anti-semitic version of The Merchant of Venice. Having now read it for myself, I think I am safe in saying it’s actually a good deal more complicated than that, and there have probably been entire university dissertations done on comparing and contrasting these two plays.
Let’s just say up-front that both The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice are indeed anti-semitic works when evaluated through a modern lens. Of course they are – they’re four hundred years old, written at a time when Jews were still officially banned from England (they wouldn’t be allowed back in until Oliver Cromwell). The question is how Shakespeare and Marlowe, both being excellent writers, deal with this:
It rather goes without saying that Marlowe makes sure to include anti-Catholic stuff. When a Friar considers Barabas’ poisoned daughter, he takes time out to comment that it was a shame she died a virgin (note that she was in the process of becoming a Nun). But don’t worry, our Mad Jewish Rampage will soon take care of this horny cleric, rather like how a villain in a cheap slasher film will take out the annoying (and horny) teenagers.
(Now there’s an idea… Barabas as a Renaissance Freddy Krueger?)
(iv) Doctor Faustus (c. 1590)
The one everyone’s heard of, and probably the most famous piece of Elizabethan drama not written by Shakespeare. It’s also the only Marlovian play I’ve ever acted in, as part of a Dunedin Medieval Society pantomime and puppet adaptation a few years ago (I played Sloth, by the way. The Deadly Sin, not the three-toed variety).
In contrast to Goethe’s later, and better, version, Marlowe’s Faust is really a straight-forward morality play. Don’t sell out to Satan, children, even if he is offering power and sex, and you’re bored by your current teaching job. Your immortal soul isn’t worth it, even if you think (like Faust, and allegedly like Marlowe himself) there is no such thing.
Well, yes. The image of our protagonist being dragged off to the fires of Hell is fun and memorable, but because this is Christopher Marlowe, he can’t resist the temptation to make his anti-hero cool along the way. And, again, because this is Christopher Marlowe, his notion of coolness involves making a short trip to Rome to make fun of the Pope. For an Elizabethan audience in the 1590s, this would be rather like having someone in 1940 sell their soul to Satan, then use the power to travel to Berlin to screw with Hitler. Sure, the protagonist’s just done something horrible, and he doesn’t believe in an immortal soul, which is pretty damned risque when you live in a regime like Elizabethan England that tortures people for not following the party line… but, in Marlowe’s world, someone who screws with the Pope can’t be all bad, right?
(v) Edward II (c. 1592)
We’ve had a woman, an Asiatic warlord, a Jew, and a guy who sells his soul to the Devil. Time for Marlowe to give us a homosexual protagonist. And, sure enough, he does. Edward II is one of those plays that really make you wonder whether the Elizabethan censors were asleep at their desks… we have a gay, and pretty sympathetic, King, who, to compound the sixteenth century edginess, gets overthrown by overt villains and murdered on-stage via having a red-hot poker inserted up his rear-end. And we know Marlowe intended us to feel sympathy for Edward because he mocks and abuses the Bishop of Coventry.
Edward II also, conveniently, invites another compare and contrast with Shakespeare. This time it’s Richard II. Shakespeare’s Richard II is high art – it’s honestly the most intelligent of his history plays, even if it gets obscured by the more low-brow and fun Richard III. Shakespeare uses his play to wax poetic and philosophical on the nature of power. Marlowe… well, it’s Marlowe, so he doesn’t do that. His overthrown monarch is overtly a victim, and dies horribly (even Richard II gets to fight back). Meanwhile, young Edward III manages to overthrow his evil mother and her lover in what amounts to a happy ending… but the new young King is left vulnerable, and there is the sense that much is unresolved.
(vi) The Massacre at Paris (c. 1593)
This is Marlowe’s least user-friendly play, primarily because the original script is missing, and what we have appears to be a stitched-together version written out by an actor from memory. There are no Act breaks, just a bunch of scenes strung together. It’s also, as you may have guessed, a dramatisation of what for Marlowe was a comparatively recent event – the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, though it also deals with the ensuing French political shenanigans up until Henry IV.
Somewhat curiously, given that this is an Elizabethan English play, the French monarchy is not actually portrayed negatively. Rather, the root of the problem is those evil (and very Catholic) Guises, with all their evil Papist scheming. Against this, we have the likes of Henry of Navarre, who winds up as Henry IV… and he is, of course, a good Protestant who speaks highly of Queen Elizabeth. Marlowe does not show Henry’s later conversion to Catholicism, nor the famous line “Paris is worth a mass.” He’s an Elizabethan dramatist, not an historian.
(vii) Lust’s Dominion (c. 1600?)
It wouldn’t be A Phuulish Fellow without a description of apocryphal works. Lust’s Dominion is Marlovian Apocrypha – initially attributed to Kit, but now considered to be the work of Thomas Dekker. The fact that the play uses source material from 1599 is rather a give-away, considering Marlowe’s death in 1593.
That said, given that Marlowe likes to serve up “unusual” villain protagonists/anti-heroes… I can see some Marlowe-esque aspects in the piece. Most notably there’s the envelope-pushing. The anti-hero (it’s a revenge tragedy) is black, plays everyone around him like a fiddle, and gets at least one very memorable line:
Think you my conscience and my soul is so, Black faces may have hearts as white as snow. And ’tis a general rule in moral rules, The whitest faces have the blackest souls.
Eleazar, as a schemer, is actually being insincere about his innocence, but it is an interesting meta-commentary on sixteenth century dramatic conventions.
Oh, and Lust’s Dominion also has a strong erotic element – most characters (apart from our anti-hero) can only think with their wild, irrational, animal passions. Including a Church Cardinal. Somewhere, the ghost of Christopher Marlowe is smiling.
II. The Poems
(i) The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (pre-1593)
This is a short, pastoral love poem. Famous, and you can read it in less than a minute. It’s also notable for starting its only little poetic sub-genre – Marlowe’s initial poem is strongly idealistic about Love, to a degree that others disagreed with. Sir Walter Raleigh, cynical bastard that he was, wrote a reply that pokes holes in Marlowe’s idealism, and soon others got in on the conversation too. As late as the twentieth century, William Carlos Williams was having his twenty cents worth on the subject.
(ii) Hero and Leander (c. 1593)
This one’s much, much longer. And unfinished, but we’ll get to that.
At a time when Shakespeare was producing lengthy narrative poems like Venus and Adonis, Marlowe was writing his own Classical Myth poem, this time a re-telling of the story of Hero and Leander. As with Venus and Adonis, there’s a strong erotic element to the piece – the focus here being on Leander (successfully) persuading Hero the Priestess to abandon her virginity. The poem also tends to get brought up in discussions of Marlowe’s own sexuality, as though art were inherently biographical (it isn’t, but I disgress); Leander in the poems earns this description:
Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,For in his looks were all that men desire,
One of Marlowe’s biographers, A.L. Rowse, suggests that Marlowe was modelling Leander off the Earl of Southampton… in which case one really wonders whether there was a poet in England at the time who didn’t secretly want to get into Southampton’s tights.
Hero and Leander is rather more awkwardly written than Venus and Adonis, though whether you want to put that down to Marlowe being an inferior poet to Shakespeare (I think he was, but there’s no shame in being inferior to Billy), or the fact that it was left unfinished by Marlowe’s early death is up for discussion. Two other poets then took up the task of completing the work – George Chapman, whose effort is traditionally considered the official continuation, and printed accordingly, and Henry Petowe’s much weaker and sillier effort. Petowe actually gives the thing a happy ending, which just feels wrong.
(iii) On the Death of Sir Roger Manwood (1593)
Marlowe’s most obscure poem (and his only original piece of Latin poetry) is a eulogy for Sir Roger Manwood. There’s something vaguely funny about the context of this one, considering that Manwood was the judge who let Marlowe off an earlier criminal charge (Marlowe being Marlowe had killed a man in a duel). The moral clearly is, if you want to be immortalised by great writers… let them get away with the occasional street-killing.
III. The Translations
In addition to his original creative works, Marlowe also produced a couple of translations from Latin into English: Ovid’s Elegies (Books I-III), and Lucan’s Pharsalia (Book I). In both cases, these were the first English translations of those ancient Roman texts. Stephen Orgel’s Penguin Classics edition argues that the Ovid translation can be seen as Marlowe’s equivalent of the Sonnets. I think that’s taking things a bit far, not least because the Sonnets were original, and this isn’t, though the subject matter is very definitely about Love, so there is the thematic element at work. As for Lucan, the piece is an horrific extended description of Civil War… the fact that Marlowe was drawn to it says a fair bit about the psychology of Elizabethan England. Beneath the veneer of stability always lurked the potential for calamity.
So yeah. The works of Christopher Marlowe. Less intimidating a read than William Shakespeare, at least in terms of quantity of works (I’ve literally just described the entire Marlovian corpus in this single blog post), and very different from Billy in terms of style. It’d be wrong to consider his stuff the sixteenth century version of cheesy action movies, though there is an element of that… maybe cheesy action movies that often convey a lot of socially risque material? Marlowe was certainly a powerful and dangerous writer, and what, exactly, he’d have come up with had he lived longer is one of the great what-ifs of English Literature. As it is, he got caught a bit too close to the edge.
Most of you probably know the modern fantasy genre didn’t start with J.R.R. Tolkien. Sure, he popularised and defined it… but he didn’t start it. Who did then? Well, here’s the thing. It really depends on what you mean by fantasy. Depending on how you define your frame of reference, there are multiple candidates. In fact, to steal a line from Overly Sarcastic Productions, sorting out exactly where the modern fantasy genre started is rather like playing a game of Cluedo:
Et cetera. And once one starts including children’s stories (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and fantasy-tinged horror (The Picture of Dorian Gray), the possibilities skyrocket. The real problem, of course, is that there was no such thing as a distinct fantasy genre (outside fairy tales and traveller’s tales) in the minds of publishers and readers at this point, so by definition you must categorise works based off criteria that didn’t exist when the author wrote their story. The creation of a new genre must, by paradoxical necessity, be anachronistic.
Or not, as the case may be. Modern fantasy – depending on the starting point – was arguably birthed as a conscious revival of late medieval romance… a dead genre returning centuries later in a new form. J.K. Rowling’s strange revival of the obsolete British Boarding School story was not the first piece of genre necromancy, and it turns out that a very solid candidate for the creator of modern fantasy is a certain William Morris, with The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896). Adult stories, set in a non-allegorical imaginary world, fused with supernatural elements… Morris loved himself some Malory.
Morris himself was a fascinating person. An energetic Victorian creative, he despised the soulless nature of modern mass production, and dedicated himself to reviving and honing the skills of traditional craftsmanship. Furniture, textiles… you name it, he did it himself. He and his wife were associated, too, with the Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement, with his wife often acting as a model for Dante Rossetti.
On top of this, Morris was also a committed revolutionary socialist, though his vision was less conventional nineteenth century Marxism, and more fourteenth century John Ball (“when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”). The utopian vision Morris presents in News from Nowhere (1890) is actually pretty similar to The Shire, and indeed I like to think of Tolkien as a sort of Tory Catholic version of Morris (I suspect the notion of using the abandoned Houses of Parliament to store manure would have amused our Oxford Don). Oh, and Morris taught himself Icelandic in order to translate the Sagas into English, and Tolkien did see Morris’ poetry and prose as an early inspiration for his own writing efforts, so there is that too.
Anyway, I have just finished a read of The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End, so I am in the fortunate position of being able to offer a review of those two books. That which lurks at the very dawn of fantasy, ere the coming of the cliches…
(i) The Wood Beyond the World
Let’s be honest – the first modern fantasy novel is not a stunning piece of work. It’s an episodic series of adventures, written in Morris’ uniquely clunky archaic prose. The prose, unfortunately, is a take-it-or-leave-it matter with Morris, as it does not become any easier, and it really makes you appreciate the likes of Tolkien and E.R. Eddison for having the skill to make archaic prose pleasurable. Morris isn’t as bad as William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), but that’s a very low bar. On the bright side, The Wood Beyond the World is significantly shorter than The Well at the World’s End, so I would strongly recommend starting with this one, flaws notwithstanding.
Leaving aside the prose, the plot isn’t great (things get a bit too convenient at points, especially in how the villain is dealt with), and the protagonist (Walter, a merchant’s son) is a straight Everyman. Why, yes, modern fantasy started out by putting very ordinary people in very extraordinary situations. But buried within the book are some truly interesting things:
First off, there are the influences. C.S. Lewis clearly found a fair bit of inspiration in The Wood Beyond the World, and not just for his wood between the worlds. The villain here was a clear influence for Jadis the White Witch, complete with a malevolent dwarf servant, while Walter the Everyman ends up a King, though not a prophesied one. Secondly, in rather un-Narnian fashion, the book is not afraid to tackle sex and nudity. I have noted before that the earlier genre was not as fuddy-duddy as is commonly thought, and Morris just confirms this. He is also willing to write active female characters, to a degree where the most active characters in the book are the women. Walter may be a bit on the passive side though…
(ii) The Well at the World’s End
The Well at the World’s End is, in practically every way, a superior work to The Wood Beyond the World. There’s just one problem, namely that Morris’ prose remains every bit as clunky as before (though you rather get used to it after a while), and this book is long. As in 228,000 words – according to Lin Carter, who wrote the Introduction to my edition, The Well at the World’s End was the longest fantasy novel until the publication of The Lord of the Rings. This is why I recommend The Wood Beyond the World first, since it gives you time to acclimatise to Morris’ awkward style before you hit this hefty tome.
The Well at the World’s End is sprawling, and often episodic, and I would advise checking out Wikipedia’s synopsis to assist with plot comprehension (keeping track of things is not helped by Morris’ naming conventions for women. He loves referring to multiple characters in similar fashion). For myself, I was genuinely surprised at how dark the story is. Sure, it starts off as a fluffy fairy tale, with Ralph, the fourth son of the King of Upmeads, going adventuring for the sake of adventuring, but then we get the likes of this:
So Ralph went in company with some of the sergeants and others, and looked at this and that about the town without hindrance, save that the guard would not suffer them to pass further than the bailey of the Castle. And for the said bailey, forsooth, they had but little stomach; for they saw thence, on the slopes of the Castle-hill, tokens of the cruel justice of the said lord; for there were men and women there, yea, and babes also, hanging on gibbets and thrust through with sharp pales, and when they asked of folk why these had suffered, they but looked at them as if astonished, and passed on without a word.
Don’t get me wrong – The Well at the World’s End is not grimdark. It’s at heart the work of a romantic idealist, but Morris is not afraid to show violence and the uglier side of his world. As Carter’s Introduction argues, this is what distinguishes Morris from the earlier dreamworlds of MacDonald — one can get oneself killed on the way to Utterbol. Also, there’s a fair bit more sex and nudity than you’d expect from a Victorian author (Ralph gets to sleep with a couple of women, one of whom he marries), as well as female character agency:
When they had broken their fast Ralph went to saddle the horses, and coming back found Ursula binding up her long hair, and she smiled on him and said: “Now we are for the road I must be an armed knight again: forsooth I unbound my hair e’en now and let my surcoat hang loose about me in token that thou wottest my secret. Soothly, my friend, it irks me that now we have met after a long while, I must needs be clad thus graceless. But need drave me to it, and withal the occasion that was given to me to steal this gay armour from a lad at Utterbol, the nephew of the lord; who like his eme was half my lover, half my tyrant. Of all which I will tell thee hereafter, and what wise I must needs steer betwixt stripes and kisses these last days. But now let us arm and to horse. Yet first lo you, here are some tools that in thine hands shall keep us from sheer famine: as for me I am no archer; and forsooth no man-at-arms save in seeming.”
Interestingly, C.S. Lewis loved this one, to the point where his gushing praise is used as the cover blurb for my edition, while as for J.R.R. Tolkien… there are a couple of odd little names the pop up (‘Gandolf’ and ‘Silverfax the horse’) that make one smile, even if one realises that Tolkien got the name Gandalf from the Poetic Edda, not Morris. Morris’ Gandolf is actually a villain, for what it is worth.
For me, the biggest takeaway from the book was the extremely powerful and haunting image of the Dry Tree. This was apparently a common piece of symbolism in the medieval works Morris so loved, being a straightforward representation of existence without God. Christianity is implied in The Well at the World’s End, via references to saints and monks, but it remains very much in the background, and the exact symbolism of the Dry Tree in Morris’ work – and how it contrasts with the life-giving properties of the titular Well – is really up to the reader’s interpretation. Given Morris’ own views, there are a number of possibilities.
(And, of course, the motif of a dead tree shows up in Tolkien too…).
So are The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End worth reading? In one sense, no. Morris was an inferior writer to other pre-Tolkien fantasists such as Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison, and his prose ensures that these works remain opaque to modern readers. Morris, like MacDonald, is arguably more interesting for who he influenced than for his works themselves (Tolkien and Lewis – Last of the Pre-Raphaelites?). On the other hand, Morris is not actually a bad author – despite his missteps, there is much to admire here, especially in his handling of female characters, and when he wants to, he can produce a memorable image with the best of them. Quite apart from the Dry Tree, Ralph and Ursula crossing the (cooled) lava-sea sticks in my mind.
Also, remember that this is where modern fantasy got going. I think those interested in the genre owe it to themselves to at least give him a go, even if neither (public domain) work is going to be adapted any time soon. Just make sure you start with the shorter work first.
It seems Daenerys Targaryen isn’t the only person riding dragons to war these days. Joseph Loconte at National Review has just put out a piece – ostensibly about J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary treatment of dragons – that is really an attempt to co-opt Tolkien into a wider agenda of manufactured bellicosity and jingoism. Some of us remember back sixteen or seventeen years, to the last time an inhabitant of the White House had a cunning plan to intervene in the Middle-East… it’s all very familiar. In fact, it is almost like this new article is less about analysing Tolkien, and more about (mis-)using him for a real-world political agenda.
Cynical, me? Never…
The dragons with whom he had an acquaintance “loved to possess beautiful things.” Greed and hatred motivated them. “And how can you withstand a dragon’s flame, and his venom, and his terrible will and malice, and his great strength?”
It probably was not lost on the children present that Tolkien’s mythical dragons sounded a lot like the people who inhabited the real world. The adults might have discerned a more ominous message.
Curiously, there are actually only four dragons in Germanic myth – Fafnir (slain by Sigurd), Jormungand (the Midgard Serpent), Nidhogg (chewer of Yggdrasil’s roots), and the unnamed dragon in Beowulf. Of these, Jormungand and Nidhogg exist on a cosmic scale outside mortal ken, so that leaves Fafnir and the Beowulf dragon as in any way on our level. Fafnir is originally one of three brothers, but runs off with cursed treasure, and turns into a dragon as a result. He spends his days guarding the aforementioned treasure, until Sigurd (egged on by Regin) stabs him in a surprise attack. The Beowulf dragon, by contrast, is always a dragon. It too is quite happy to sleep on its treasure hoard, until some poor sap steals a cup, whereupon it proceeds to go ballistic at the surrounding countryside. Beowulf and Wiglaf eventually take it down, an effort that kills the former.
Now, despite the best efforts of Loconte to squeeze his square agenda into this particular round hole, neither dragon is a particularly good fit for Hitler or Stalin. At least from Britain’s standpoint. The Fafnir comparison only works if you are one of those far-right nutters who believes that the Jews were secretly plotting to use Britain to take out the Nazis, and despite my distaste for Loconte’s article, I am not going to accuse him of believing that. The Beowulf dragon also fails as an analogy because the dragon isn’t trying to take over the world. It is quite happy where it is, until the cup incident. Sure, there is the implicit theme of the poem that man is mortal, and that one must remain brave even the face of inevitable doom, but more pragmatically, there is also the message that interfering with dragons (and their treasure) is a dangerous business. No-one is forcing anyone to steal the cup, whereas fighting Adolf was decidedly non-optional.
Tolkien’s analysis went deeper still. Drawing on the epic English poem, Beowulf, he said that the English people had a special insight into the moral significance of dragons. In the poem, Beowulf defeats the demon Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fearsome dragon — but at the cost of his own life. Tolkien was fascinated by such tales, with their portrayal of the persistence of wickedness, the danger of pride, and the value of heroic sacrifice for a noble cause. “One might say that the chief morals that such stories teach, or rather awake in one’s mind, are all shining in this story,” he told his audience.
Oh, Tolkien found the Northern Theory of Courage fascinating. The notion that fighting on for doomed causes is the true mark of bravery – it is much easier to fight if you think you’re going to win, while fighting and losing does not in itself mean refutation. But fascination does not mean blind acceptance – Tolkien was actually critical of the Northern Theory of Courage, especially in how it overlaps with despair (Eowyn and Fingolfin), how it ignores the needs of the common people (Gandalf’s hint to Theoden), or in how it slips into pride and desire for fame.
(In the case of Beowulf, the heroism of the protagonist is framed by something much darker. Man is mortal, the monsters will eventually triumph, and Beowulf’s funeral is accompanied by dark musings on the future of his people. To his credit, Loconte does actually allude to all of this. The fundamental problem with the article is that it conflates heroic sacrifices in the context of an existential crisis with sending others to die in the latest imperial adventure).
These were not popular themes in a post-war England awash in pacifism and moral cynicism. In 1933, for example, students at the Oxford Union Society had famously approved the motion “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country.” A veteran of the Battle of the Somme during the First World War, Tolkien nevertheless rejected the disillusionment that seized the minds of many in his generation. He loved England and its cultural achievements without glorifying war or exalting nationalism.
It’s all very easy in a post-Second World War world to laugh at those silly Oxford students. But fifteen years after the horrors of the Western Front, pacifism was, frankly, not out of place – and, in any case, the Second World War represented a political failure, with the ghosts of Versailles, the (mis-)handling of the Depression, et cetera. Blaming the pacifists – who were anything but moral cynics – is to ignore the real culprits. Adolf Hitler was not built in a day, so to speak.
Loconte is correct that Tolkien was not a pacifist. It is, however, wrong to consider him an anti-pacifist. Peter Jackson may have the malevolent Wormtongue condemning war-mongering, but Tolkien himself serves up the (sympathetic) portrayal of Tom Bombadil, a figure of true neutrality. As per Letters, Tolkien’s Bombadil represents a point of view – and while Tolkien himself personally does not hold that view, he at least understands it. Tom is never berated for being soft on Sauron.
(There is also the fact that the War of the Ring is actually less important than a pair of very ordinary people being able to reject power and show mercy. Tolkien’s most famous work does, indeed, feature an heroic sacrifice for a noble cause… but it ain’t a warrior against a dragon. Or, rather, warriors don’t necessarily use weapons, and the dragons aren’t necessarily flesh and blood).
In the perpetual fight against dragons, Tolkien suggested, modern weapons would not be decisive; something else was required. “Dragons can only be defeated by brave men — usually alone,” he said. “Sometimes a faithful friend may help, but it’s rare: Friends have a way of deserting you when a dragon comes.” Politically speaking, those words would become something of a prophecy: After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, triggering World War II, Britain’s chief military ally — France — abandoned its treaty obligations and signed a peace agreement with Germany.
Tolkien is, of course, referring to Beowulf’s companions (except Wiglaf) deserting him in his hour of need. Because the dragon – as representative of an existential crisis, of an external threat from the world of monsters – is an exploration of how an individual deals with such things. It’s a test of character, whereby our brave man confronts his own inevitable defeat, and makes his choice. Again, individual choice, whether to fight the dragon or to resist the Ring – no-one else is going to do it for you.
But it’s back to shoehorning in Second World War allusions, because Loconte misapplies Tolkien’s point in the name of his political agenda. First off, France did honour its treaty obligations vis-a-vis Poland, and the 1940 surrender was more about the fact that France had actually fought… and lost. Secondly, if we are talking about the desertion of friends, I might note Britain and France’s 1938 treatment of Czechoslovakia at Munich. Loconte notes Munich, but not the culpable parties. Probably because that image of the Anglosphere isn’t quite what Loconte is after, one suspects…
(History note: Neville Chamberlain gets a seriously bad rap. He knew full well that Munich was not Peace In Our Time, and the first thing he did when he got back to Britain was to gear up for a war he knew was coming. Munich was pragmatic, from Britain’s point of view. It’s just that from Czechoslovakia’s, it was as good a case of self-serving “friends” running away as one could find).
But Tolkien disliked allegory. The truth is that the catastrophic rise of fascism and communism merely confirmed his insights into the human condition: the nearly irresistible appeal of the demagogue, the schemes for a utopian future, the insatiable will to power. “For the dragon bears witness to the power and danger and malice that men find in the world,” he said. “And he bears witness also to the wit and the courage and finally to the luck (or grace) that men have shown in their adventures — not all men, and only a few men greatly.”
However dark the modern world might appear, Tolkien could never give up on the older concepts of virtue, valor, duty, sacrifice, and grace. As he told his audience: “Dragons are the final test of heroes.” If Tolkien is right, then what does that say about us? The lust to possess and subjugate is as strong and widespread as ever; dragons continue to roam the Earth. We seem to have a terribly difficult time, however, finding authentic heroes to fight them.
Yes, Loconte, we get it. You’ve dressed up fascism and communism as pantomime dragons, with a timing that alludes to the Middle-East without saying anything explicit. But fighting the dragon isn’t about fighting utopian demagogues. It’s not that specific. It’s about confronting an existential threat – a real one, not the latest skirmish on the other side of the planet – with only yourself and your moral choices. Beowulf fought a dragon, yes, but at the metaphorical level so did Frodo Baggins, and not through force of arms. Tolkien understood the themes of ancient Germanic verse better than most, yet serves up heroes who aren’t about to jump into the next imperial war – or throw others into it, as the case may be.
The Australian bushfires are having an interesting effect on the New Zealand sky. New Year’s Day in this part of the world has been dark, damp, and with a sky of a peculiar hue. This was near a friend’s house at midday today, and bearing in mind that it is the middle of summer here…
And Otago Harbour earlier this morning:
Mind you, after the sweltering heat of 2018 and 2019, this weird, non-existent, summer is actually pretty pleasant if you don’t mind the sense that there is something eldritch going on.
Addendum: Here’s a satellite photo, taken about 4 p.m. (New Zealand time), on 1st January:
Spot the smoke cloud.
Completed reads for 2019:
Quite a successful year of reading, all things considered. Not only did I manage the Complete Works of Shakespeare in 2019 (including re-reads), I also read the Shakespeare Apocrypha, so far as I was able to do so, and now have also read the entire Platonic corpus, including Apocrypha. And the entire first of the four cycles of Irish myth. I guess I have completest tendencies.
The sheer quantity of texts read is a bit difficult to compare with previous years, since here a significant number of (often fairly short) works were read in a stand-alone format, online. In cases where the works formed a physical anthology, I have listed the anthology, rather than the individual works themselves – the monthly breakdowns feature more details.
|Collected A Song of… on And Now My Watch Has Ended: Re…|
|A Breath Through Sil… on A Breath Through Silver…|
|A Breath Through Sil… on A Breath Through Silver…|
|strda221 on A Struggle for Legibility: Mak…|
|pwmiles on A Struggle for Legibility: Mak…|
|Collected A Song of… on And Now My Watch Has Ended: Re…|
|A Breath Through Sil… on A Breath Through Silver…|
|A Breath Through Sil… on A Breath Through Silver…|
|strda221 on A Struggle for Legibility: Mak…|
|pwmiles on A Struggle for Legibility: Mak…|