‘Time Present and Time Past’: Winter Reading for St. Lucy’s Day

trees

In this post, I’m putting together some winter reading recommendations. A lot of these are either children’s books, or about children’s books – which I suspect isn’t coincidental.

The obvious thing to read for St. Lucy’s day is John Donne’s ‘Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day’, which is here. The poem was written while England still used the Old Calendar (the calendar some Orthodox Christians still use, in which Christmas day is January 7th), and so St Lucy’s Day, the 13th of December, is also the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, which is now relocated to December 21st. This slippage of time captures something else about this season, which is the role that nostalgia for the past and anticipation for the future play.

In Christian theology – and particularly medieval theology – the liturgical calendar is all about observing a moving programme of repetitions that are both cylic, and teleological, focussed on an end and a goal. Advent is like this: both a progression towards Christmas, and a repeating cycle year on year. In medieval liturgy, Advent foreshadows Lent, as a time of fasting and penitence, but it is also a time of excitement, building up to the celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas. So, the stories I’ve picked catch some of this sense of nostalgia and anticipation, of ‘once’ and ‘in the future,’ that characterises medieval Advent. 

The other day I picked up Helen MacDonald’s non-fiction book H is for Hawk, which is partly an account of her struggle to come to terms with her dad’s death, partly a description of what it’s like to train a Goshawk while working as a twenty-first century lecturer living in Cambridge, and partly a reading of T. H. White’s medieval-influenced book The Goshawk. I’m enjoying this book, which is full of lovely, spare descriptions of fen landscapes as seen through the eyes of a hawk, which (as MacDonald observes elsewhere), sees not three colours but four, including ultraviolet light:

“Stuart pulls off the road onto a farm track to the west of the city. The evening is warm, but there’s a torn-paper whiteness behind the sun that speaks of frost to come. I unhood the hawk. Her pale eyes stare out across the hillside of stubble and chalky till, at slopes cut with hedgerows crisped at their edge into shot-silk taffeta. She sees skeletal teasels and fencewires. Larks calling overhead. A discarded twelve-gauge shotgun cartridge by my feet. Red.”

It’s beautiful writing.

fr

There’s one point where MacDonald comments on White’s re-writing of Malory’s Morte Darthur (The Sword in the Stone), noting that while Malory described Merlin’s fate of imprisonment in a cave under a hill, it was White, not Malory, who gave Merlin the tragic foreknowledge of that fate. It’s not so, or at least not to my reading of the Morte. Malory has Merlin explain to Arthur (who has yet to marry Guinevere but has already set in motion the tragic events that will result in his own battle with his son Mordred):

“‘it is gods wyll youre body to be punysshed for your fowle dedes. But I may wel be sory,’ said Merlyn, ‘for I shalle dye a shameful deth to be put in the erthe quyck and ye shall dye a worshipful deth.”

This is all we really hear of Arthur’s death, since – famously – the narrative leaves uncertain whether the Arthur of the last chapters is fatally wounded or whether he will come again, “rex quondam, rexque futurus”: sometime king, and king to be. Merlin’s fate, on the other hand, comes surprisingly early in Malory’s narrative, given how large the character looms in other stories of Arthur. Tricked by his lover Nimue, Merlin is trapped in a cave in the roots of a hawthorn bush, buried alive.

frost

The cadences of Malory’s prose are constantly indebted to the Vulgate Bible (which echoes behind the King James version we are more likely to know today) and to the liturgy; when he describes how it is rumoured that Arthur is not dead but “he will come again,” I think we are supposed to catch the echo of the liturgy of Christ (another king who is dead-but-not-dead), who “will come again, to judge the quick and the dead”.

Merlin’s foreknowledge is – like the image of Arthur sleeping in Avalon, his beginning and ending summed up in that uncertain pairing of ‘sometime’ and in time ‘to come’ – tragic because nothing, neither foreknowledge nor the knowledge of the cyclic nature of time, can lessen the human experience of finality.

Susan Cooper, author of the phenomenally brilliant children’s book series The Dark is Rising, plays with this same idea of time folded over and cyclic, of Arthur’s return and Merlin’s entrapment. Her second book focuses on Will, a boy growing up in a large country family in the 1970s, who gradually discovers the presence of shadowy forces of good and evil from centuries past are hovering on the edges of his own reality. In this narrative, Merlin features as a present-day character as well as a legend from the past, whose once-time servant Haukin is driven to betray him through terror, and whom Will meets as a half-mad beggar stumbling through snowy woods. This is an echo of the medieval poet Langland’s character of Haukyn, a labourer in a torn and tattered coat who is excluded from the central character’s light-filled visions of the Christ-knight who will come to save the world. Cooper’s world is filled with anticipation and nostalgia – from Will’s anticipation of the snow he hopes will fall on his birthday (the shortest day, the 21st of December), to the nostalgic image of carol singing in which Will sees the present world fall away and imagines the carols of an earlier Christmas gathering.

Another wintery read is Alan Garner’s eerie and atmospheric description of the journey he took to write his novel ThursbitchHis journey crosses the Pennine landscape and involves a wintery encounter with a half-buried eighteenth-century memorial stone on a lonely hillside. This stone leads him to a local legend of a man found dead on a snowy hillside with the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow beside him, and on from that to what he believes to be the real location for the fictional Green Chapel of the fourteenth-century Christmas poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This mapping of the worlds of long-ago fiction onto real geography is beautifully spooky, as if we could see the ghosts of the past if we were only able to be in the right place.

te

A Christmas story that makes use of this sense of time and place is The Children of Green Knowe, in which a lonely motherless boy, Tolly, goes to stay with his great-grandmother in a twelfth-century house for Christmas, where he slips through time to meet a family of children from the reign of Charles II. In the 1980s a TV series was made of it, set in the real house at Hemingford Grey, which is of course of the kind of quality you’d expect for 1986, but which makes you wish they’d remake it.

Lucy M. Boston, like Cooper, makes beautifully evocative use of weather, and where Cooper  brings to life the smell of the air before a snow fall and the restless flurrying of rooks in the treetops, Boston describes a Christmas of heavy flooding in the fens, with water cutting off the house from everything around it, with thunder and lightning that gives way to deep snow and the singing of the carol Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.

The story isn’t purely Christmassy though, or at least not purely celebratory. Listening to a carol sung in the next room and four hundred years ago, Tolly’s grandmother gives a perfect response to why Christmas carols can be sad:

‘It is lovely, only it is such a long time ago. I don’t know why that should be sad, but sometimes it seems so.’ 

christmas

More Recommendations for Advent

Not all of these are time-travel stories, and they are not all set at Christmas (though A Traveller in Time culminates with a brilliantly plangent Christmas scene). But they all seem to me to fit the bill for nostalgia, anticipation, and a sense of time passing.

Alison Uttley, A Traveller in Time
Dorothy Sayers, Nine Tailors
Antonia Forest, End of Term (Kingscote)
Rosemary Sutcliff, Knight’s Fee and The Armourer’s House
Anya Seton, Katharine.

Please add yours in the comments.

The best ever version of the Christmas story itself, by the way, is Jan Pienkowski’s silhouette illustrations to an abridged synthesis from the King James Bible (abridged syntheses of the Bible are very medieval).

Note

The pictures are mine. As with everything else on this blog, please don’t use without permission. Thanks!

How we explain misogyny in fiction: Malory’s Morte Darthur and Game of Thrones

I spent this past weekend at the Romance in Medieval Britain conference in Bristol, which was one of the nicest conferences I’ve ever attended. We listened to a lot of serious academic papers. But we also did the less serious stuff, including an obligatory moan about the number of mind-numbingly bad articles that seek to validate Game of Thrones with spurious parallels to medieval England*.

George R. R. Martin in happier times. From Robert de Boron's prose Merlin.

George R. R. Martin in happier times. From Robert de Boron’s prose Merlin.

I have been struggling with this issue. I enjoy GoT. I don’t enjoy the standard terminology for explaining away the misogynistic dodgy bits. ‘Sexposition’ casts the nastiest scenes as  mere narrative devices (albeit an unpleasant ones). The term takes agency out of the picture. We’re supposed to place the messy situation where we sympathise with characters whom we know to be propping up Westeros’s thriving brothel culture beyond the reach of analysis. That’s comfortable, but it’s also reductive and silencing.

Yet, an increasing number of people who seem to feel that it’s terribly important to explain away the misogyny in a rigorous, real-world way. The most inane arguments are a straight draw between ‘well, it was all, like, violent and nasty in history too ….’ or ‘but they’re Strong Women so it’s less upsetting seeing them raped/murdered/treated like objects‘.

I’m never quite sure how to respond to this last one, except to gawp a little bit at the levels of (unintentional, I am aware) offensiveness in that argument. What bothers me about these articles isn’t that they’re dubious history or dodgy feminism (though they’re often both), but that they’re trying so hard to insist that we need to be educated in the real, concrete, intellectual arguments in favour of GoT. If you don’t get it, well, you’re just less subtle, less sophisticated.

The parallels between GoT and medieval romance are actually pretty striking, much more so than between the TV show and the Wars of the Roses. We have an icestuous brother and sister … their murderous, throne-stealing offspring … dead warriors who come eerily back to life**… a lot of in-fighting between rival kings … prominent bastard children … lots of men called Sir this and that who carry complicated pictorial banners … oh, and dragons. Yep, full house. And that’s just Malory’s Morte Darthur.

Morally ambiguous and Not Dead Yet: that's pretty much King Arthur.

Morally ambiguous and Not Dead Yet: that’s pretty much King Arthur.

The Morte, if you don’t know it, is a long, rambling, chaotic series of Arthurian stories, mostly translated and partly composed by a prisoner of war at the end of the fifteenth century, and printed by Caxton a little later. The story, like Game of Thrones, starts out looking like traditional fantasy epic: lots of complicated family trees and awkward exposition dialogue, a rape presented as sex, and set-piece battles I skip over feeling vaguely guilty. It veers towards Raymond E. Feist on a bad day.

But, much like GoT, it does get better.  Malory has a thing for delivering revelations with a casual, heartless speed that somehow underlines their poignancy. There’s a scene where Balin, the hero of the early part of the story (spoiler: he dies. Everybody dies) runs through a castle fighting his enemy King Pellam. As he lands a blow on the king, the castle collapses around them and they lie crushed in the rubble for three days:

“And then came Merlin there, and took up Balin, and gave him a good horse, for his own was dead, and told him to ride out of that country. ‘I would have my damosel,’ said Balin. ‘Look,’ said Merlin, ‘where she lieth dead’.” 

'Lo here she lieth dead': Philippa Chaucer's tomb effigy (from Jonathan Hsy's site) http://home.gwu.edu/~jhsy/chaucer-ppp-pch.html)

‘Look where she lieth dead.’ The woman in this effigy is actually Philippa Chaucer, and the picture is from Jonathan Hsy’s information-packed site on Chaucer, Gower, and late-medieval literature.

It’s at this point that Balin finds out that his sword blow has not only wounded his enemy and caused the castle to fall, but has also reverberated through the surrounding country, killing the people, and ultimately setting in motion the search for the Holy Grail, which carried the blood of Christ, to heal the striken king again.

Angel bearing the Grail before the king. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Fr. 1453, f. 283.

Angel bearing the Grail before the king. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Fr. 1453, f. 283.

This is all beautifully written – and you really need to read it or buy the audio tape (there is one), because it’s great. But you notice that the woman, Balin’s lover, is just so much collateral damage, killed horribly as a result of something even Balin did not intend to set in motion. It doesn’t stop there: Malory’s Guinevere is morally ambiguous at best, and narrowly escapes being burnt alive only to die almost forgotten in a nunnery. Her opposite number (think Caitlyn Stark to Guinevere’s Cersei Lannister … ish …) is Elaine, who acts out every misogynist twit’s favourite cautionary tale that never, ever happened.

Attitudes towards sexual violence in the Morte are, again, disturbingly close to what we see in Game of Thrones. Malory makes rape an essential element of his fiction, which you can’t avoid any more than the ‘sexposition’ of the TV show. For example, there’s the giant rapist of Mont St Michel, who serves as an example of brute force against whom Arthur can show off his strength, landing a blow that “swappis his genytrottys in sondir” (cleaves his genitals apart) and disembowels him. The word ‘genytrottys’ is picked out in gory red on the page, the colour usually reserved for proper names. But Malory doesn’t leave this as a simple issue: rape is a fact of life in the Morte, responsible for the conceptions of both Arthur and (arguably) Lancelot’s son Galahad. The moral status of rapists is ambiguous, and the grey area around the act itself is about a mile wide. 

Now, some would argue this is just a failure to understand historical context. In medieval England, the meanings of the word ‘rape’ include abduction, and even, it’s been suggested, the abduction of a perfectly willing woman against the will of her male relatives. Both Malory and Chaucer were accused of this crime in real life, which makes their prominent stories of Arthurian rape more than a little bit difficult – triggering, even – for students to talk about in class.

This is something that was never acknowledged when I was studying these texts for the first time. In fact, to my shame, I only really thought about how to make it an explicit issue in my teaching when I was preparing for next term’s workshop on tragedy, and came across Liz Gloyn’s insightful post. She writes about how she deals with teaching rape narratives in Classical Literature to classes which, as she points out, are statistically almost certain to contain rape survivors. This made me realize that, while most books I read on Malory and rape are quick to point out the historical differences that allow us to avoid the uncomfortable thought that this author might have been a rapist in the modern sense, they seldom dwell on the other side of the issue. We are in exactly the same situation as modern media, quick to pre-empt the tide (yes, this is sarcasm) of false rape allegations but slow to acknowledge the commonness of the crime.

There’s a worrying situation where people who feel uncomfortable with certain texts or certain authors don’t speak up for fear of sounding like philistines. I’d like to think that most people who write about the sexism in GoT, and most people who work on historical fictions of sexual violence, are aware that these fictional texts can be triggering. But it’s not the fiction that needs explaining away, with neat terms like ‘sexposition’ or with the claim that it’s really a history lesson. What we need to tackle are the expectations around the fiction, that stress historical ‘reality’ or ‘authenticity’ but fall silent before acknowledging the reality of readers’ experiences that form a less comfortable context.

Notes

* Yes, I do know that’s what George R. R. Martin says. No, I don’t think that makes him right.

** Ok, I admit: I’m thinking of Malory’s Sir Colgrevaunce of Gore, and we’ve never been sure if he’s actually dead, or just a continuity error. But I’m sure there are zombies kicking around somewhere, too.