Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tolkien and The Pearl Author


Here we are at the beginning of Christopher Tolkien's quest to publish everything his father had written. Unlike the obsessive collections of unfinished stories and notes, however, this one features pieces that appear to be untouched and readable, if not drafts definitely meant for public eyes.

None of these translations are in a "modern style," or perhaps I should say that they aren't dumbed down as most popular presentations tend to be. They are in the language of a brilliant professor of linguistics who was hesitant to replace a perfectly good medieval word with an inaccurate, newer one. Happily, there's a decent glossary in the back for those of us who are a bit more uneducated.

The big draw here is probably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, being an Authurian tale that is usually given a quick gloss-over along with Chaucer in high school. Joseph Campbell also tended to cover it in his many books on heroic mythology. So, no surprises here as to the story, which leaves one free to just enjoy the language.

Tolkien does his best to adhere to the original alliteration and verse scheme, here and in the other two poems. There's a technical essay at the end of the book that explains his method versus the Pearl author's, but the lines themselves are self-evident in their structure. There's a bit of archaic reversal of our modern noun-verb-adjective word order whenever the syllablic accent count demands, but most of the challenge comes from the usage of technical terms for armor and such.


Being over-familiar with the story, the real surprise for me upon reading this close translation was the inclusion of a long passage giving the symbolic interpretations of the pentacle on Gaiwan's shield. The points are compared to the knight's five faultless senses, his unfailing five fingers, and the five wound of Christ, among other things. Usually in these stories, we're expected to understand the allegorical mapping of events onto reality in an instinctive fashion, as above so below and all that. To be given such a precise amount of information reveals how important this particular symbol seems to be for the author, or perhaps for the sect that he belongs to.

The Pearl is the more difficult poem, and the more satisfying to work through. At it's heart is a dream-time dialectic between a father and his deceased, innocent pearl of a daughter about Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard, as given in Mark. The father (and narrator), even through his grief, expresses the worldly view that earning one's way is the proper and moral structure of things. His missed daughter has to point out that if that were true, then she would not have "earned" the right to live in the city of God. Grace wins out over judgement.

Before he wakes up, the narrator also give a long description of New Jerusalem, after Revelation, using lots of technical terms for precious jewels. There are probably all sorts of extra meanings for each level of the city given, defined by different types of gems used; unlike the pentacle passage however, we're not given any kind of decoding. Another type of communication lost to us moderns.

The Sir Orfeo poem is an odd transposition of Orpheus to the fairy world of Breton. It's a simple story, and a simple rhyming scheme. It's also not very satisfying to read after conquering the complexities of Gawain and The Pearl. I found it interesting that Faerie is presented as the land of the dead rather than Hel, and that Orfeo has a bit of a Ulysses-in-disguise homecoming, but there isn't much else in the way of story to recommend this over Virgil's older version. I imagine Christopher Tolkien meant it to be a sort of relieving bit of fluff to fill out the book, but it just comes off as something his father worked on in his spare time the way you or I would do a crossword puzzle.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Lovecraft's Dream Quest of Nostalgia and Chastity

Haven't had much internet time lately, so it's time for a bit of catch-up with my attempt to read All The Lovecraft. Spoilers ahoy and all that. 


"These things you saw, Randolph Carter, when your nurse first wheeled you out in the springtime, and they will be the last things you will ever see with eyes of memory and of love."
And that's how "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" ends. All along Carter only had to think on his beloved childhood memories to find the magical part of the dreaming that earth's gods have crashed and taken over for party purposes. It's fairly annoying, but not altogether surprising. Fantastic literature is infested with nostalgic visions of childhood spouted by author avatars who hate the modern world.

For me, the worst offender in this category was Jack Finney, whose Time and Again I threw across the room in frustration, after reading a few chapters of nonsense about how much better life was in the 19th century. I find this sort of worship of previous eras offensive in "realistic" authors such as Jean Shepard, also, but it seems somehow worse in a genre that promises a bit more thinking involved in it's presentation. We're told over and over again that the great solution to modern problems is to regress into childhood and visit the Hundred Acre Wood.

There's a worse, doubled regression to the Dream Quest. We not only have Lovecraft going on about the Salem of his childhood, but the common areas of the dreaming presented to us are given in Orientalist terms. Slant-eyed turbaned traders and dark-skinned slaves ride galleys across the oceans and space itself. The only thing more repugnant than "swarthy" people to Randolph Carter are the rubbery, tickling and sometime vagina dentata sporting monsters.

Which brings me to the core of this juvenile view of fantasy. There's a built-in implication that imagination and play are traits of children and not adults. Which is ridiculous. Mature adults DO play and imagine things, but differently from when they were younger, and usually about sex. Lovecraft, however, never allows himself to write about physical pleasure, but refers to it obliquely in horrific tones, as something done by barbaric or swarthy people.

This isn't something only in his writing. That tradition was already set in Victorian literature in the form of Stoker's Dracula and Machen's The Great God Pan. But it's something that is still stuck inside of genre fiction. What is Twilight's Edward Cullen after all but a modern version of a Lovecraft narrator, horrified at the modern world and avoiding sex? What is Star Wars if not a modern version of the Orientalist dreamland, with slaves and rubbery alien races, and a notable lack of women?

If there's a key to the success of this modern Hollywood style of fantasy storytelling, it's somewhere in the mis-conception that we have to become childlike in order to dream and feel wonder. Lovecraft may be the proto-type of the real American dreamer: someone who doesn't want to deal with the challenges of adult interaction, but only wants to pet dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Alan Moore's Providence and re-reading Lovecraft


Every now and then I find myself accidentally in lockstep with a general trend. Partly due to my tarot card work, and partly due to being relatively poor and relying on Project Gutenberg for much of my reading, I read Robert Chambers' The King in Yellow right before the television show True Detective spurred the Goodreads crowd to dig through it looking for clues. After that, I've been making my way through a complete Lovecraft anthology, getting a bit mired down in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.


Most writers use dreams to give the reader a ridiculously obvious allegory of whatever problem the character is dealing with. In the introduction to Tolkien's translation of the medieval poem Pearl, it's pointed out that without the commonality of first-person narrative that we have today, using the dream-as-vision to illustrate an explicit allegory was a convention of the time. Unfortunately, we still seem to be stuck with this old literary tool, which has become a terrible cliche.
"Tales of the past required their grave authorities, and tales of new things at least an eyewitness, the author. This was one of the reasons for the popularity of visions: they allowed marvels to be placed within the real world, linking them with a person, a place, a time, while providing them with an explanation in the phantasies of sleep, and a defence against critics in the notorious deception of dreams." (J.R.R. Tokien & E.V. Gordon)
Lovecraft was a man of science with a deep need for fantasy, searching for a way to reconcile these two parts of his personality. He also appears to have been a skilled dreamer, able to take back entire sections of geographical dreaming with him to the waking world. His dream stories aren't allegories for anything, but actual attempts to translate the feelings and experiences into the real world. To my teenage self, who was starting to realize that most people can't remember what they did while they were asleep, Lovecraft was the voice of a fellow traveler in the dark.

As an adult, however, I can see the joins in the structural form. As a descriptive piece about a series of dreams, it's a fine and unusual piece of literature. As a novella, it seems a bit of a failure that drags on from mood to mood. This may be a result of reading it nestled chronologically among the other stories, where he expresses similar levels of weirdness without the length. Even with that in mind, there's still no getting around the distasteful trend of Lovecraft to portray villainous races of swarthy or turbaned others.

This was also a problem with reading Robert Chambers, but to a lesser extent. The pseudo-scientific attribution of racial characteristics doesn't seem to have become a trope of popular writing by his time (H.G. Wells was still warning against the arbitrary, bible-based division of race in his History of the World). The "other" in Chambers seems to be more of a function of the development of nationalism, which was still a relatively recent idea. And one that would lead to World War I, as he would write about in The King in Yellow.

Which brings me to Providence, in which Alan Moore is strongly grounding this world as springing from the fictions of Chambers and Lovecraft (what, no Bierce?). We are shown the suicide booths and told about the predictions of war from The King in Yellow. And we spend some time with the characters from Lovecraft's "Cool Air." But we're presented these things through Moore's, and hopefully the reader's, modern, humanistic point of view. I was especially touched by the reclaiming of the "slatternly" landlady who speaks in a terrible Spanish accent as a loving companion of the cold Doctor Munoz.

I'm also excited to see Moore setting a theme of privacy and hiding as being central to American culture in some way. The desire to not talk about things and lock everything (and everyone) behind closed doors has often been a hindrance to social progress, and lately has become a weird obsession with the public media. It's also a common theme to Lovecraftian fiction. The indescribable horrors often seem to just be darker skinned people who speak other languages or women who enjoy having sex. As I've said before, as a modern reader, I often find myself on the side of the monsters. Moore may be implying that the Chambers-Lovecraft fictional world is the world of middle-class America, acting as if under constant siege by alien intelligences and locking its doors against the tentacles of foreign ideas.