On Monday I’ll be going to listen to Kim Stanley Robinson when he speaks in the Glasgow University Chapel. In doing so I’ll be fulfilling one of my dreams as a graduate student. I was a passionate fan of Robinson’s books in the 1980s, especially his debut novel The Wild Shore (1984), set in a post-Apocalyptic America which has been effectively segregated from the world after an act of calamitous military aggression, and his haunting trilogy Icehenge (1984), made up of three novellas containing three distinct perspectives on a gigantic monument located at the North Pole of Pluto. I was excited by his story collection The Planet on the Table (1986), bowled over by its experimentalism and variousness; puzzled and delighted by The Memory of Whiteness (1985), in which a religious cult called the Grays tracks the movements of a celebrated blind musician as he tours the solar system with his hi-tech orchestra: a story that combines physics, music and space opera with a stylistic exuberance that still resonates in my memory.
In 1989 I wrote a review of one of Robinson’s books, in a short-lived magazine called StarRoots edited by my friend the musician and writer-artist Warren Scott-Morrow (aka Martin O’Cuthbert). I re-read the review today, and was surprised to find that it was of The Gold Coast (1988), the sequel to The Wild Shore and the second book in his Orange County trilogy (now known as the Three Californias trilogy – perhaps that was always its name). In my head the review had been of Pacific Edge (1990), the third book in that trilogy, probably because I liked that book far more: it remains for me the seminal example of how to invent an ecotopia, and an image from it – a hyper-modern sailing ship cutting through the waves of the Pacific, symbolic of the slower, quieter means of travel that need to be cultivated if ecocatastrophe is to be averted or reversed – still flashes into my mind whenever I think about the possibilities of a better tomorrow. I bought a mountain bike soon after reading Pacific Edge, and was always pleased that it was a Marin Muirwoods, designed and built on the West Coast and so potentially related to the mountain bike on which the protagonist of Robinson’s novel spends much of his time.
But in fact my review was of The Gold Coast, the second and bleakest in the trilogy, which depicts a near-future California riddled with corporate corruption, chained and bound by its freeways, utterly complicit with escalating global militarism – a miniature working model of capitalism in action as championed by the Republicans under the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. It’s a clumsy review, especially in its opening, which signals the fact that at the time (and ever since) I was obsessed with fantasy rather than science fiction, and hence with the past rather than the future – to the extent that my prose style was often contaminated with the Romantic flourishes of not very elevated high fantasy. My favourite SF writer was Ursula Le Guin, mainly because I thought of her SF as practically fantasy since I had come to her through the Earthsea books, and my enjoyment of Robinson can be measured by the fact that I thought him a potential successor to the woman who for me was the greatest living writer. His writing had an element of the magical in it, as embodied in the mysterious Grays in The Memory of Whiteness, and I was thrilled when he published a weird-ish fantasy novella called A Short Sharp Shock in 1990.
Another aspect of the clumsiness of my review is the absence from it of any mention of the indigenous inhabitants of the West Coast. This is ironic, given that Le Guin had recently published her own West Coast utopia, Always Coming Home (1985), modelled in part on the way of living of certain indigenous peoples such as the Yahi, about whose culture (now extinct) her mother had written a book, Ishi in Two Worlds (1961). My account of Robinson’s book is in fact largely unconscious of the questions of race and gender that have come to dominate my thinking in the decades since.
All the same, I’m going to place it on this blog as a kind of time capsule from the 1980s. It seems appropriate to do so because at the time of writing this was the kind of future the world was looking at, the kind of future it has in fact made for itself: something bleakly and appallingly different from the parallel futures represented in the first and last books of the Three Californias trilogy. In The Wild Shore America has ‘regressed’, thanks to its segregation, to a frontier world which is beautiful as well as mournfully conscious of lost possibilities in the past. In Pacific Edge those possibilities have been joyfully seized to create a world which coexists in conscious and careful harmony with the needs of the environment. In The Gold Coast the world is bent on self-destruction. We’re still faced with the question of which of these futures we wish to have; and it’s still clear that the course we’re bound on is the last. Let’s hope COP26, for which my home city Glasgow is preparing as I type, provides the impetus for changing that course at last, after all these decades.
The triumphal progress of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels has produced a new wonder: the Gold Coast, set in Orange County a few years from now, the Autopia of suburban Los Angeles. Then, as now, the freeways rule, travelled by cars that follow tracks preprogrammed into their computers, as do most of their owners. For the novel’s protagonist Jim McPherson, Orange County represents ‘the end of history, its purest product’, the termination of man’s westward progress where the past has begun to pile up on itself as freeway is elevated above freeway, mall above mall. Robinson’s first novel, The Wild Shore, isolated California in political quarantine from the rest of the world; in The Gold Coast Los Angeles has become the world, and Jim finds Californian landscapes and burgers replicated in miniature throughout Europe. Somehow Robinson convinces us that to learn about Orange County is to discover ourselves.
Jim’s problems are an astonishingly accurate rendition of everyone’s problems, give immediacy by the present-tense narrative; he expresses them in clumsy phrases which contrast strongly with the stylistic exuberance of Robinson’s previous novel, The Memory of Whiteness. The Gold Coast traces Jim’s efforts to forge order from his emotional and ideological confusion. He writes poems which he then juggles into incoherence by randomly rearranging their lines with his computer; he engages in political activity which involves blowing up arms factories at night, an empty expression of his need to ‘do something’; and most satisfactorily for him, he writes a history of Orange County to explain how the web of freeways and malls came into being, a past-tense narrative that provides a lyrical counterpoint to his botched present-tense dealings with friends and family, an affirmation of the land’s enduring identity.
Other characters pursue their own quests for coherence. One of Jim’s friends is a paramedic who clears human debris from the freeways and so confronts the stripped bone beneath the tanned Californian flesh. Another is famous for parties where designer drugs impose a superficial stability on the riot of the emotions. Despite all the layers of concrete, of economic and political systems, at the core of the novel’s interwoven narratives lies the crude functioning of the human organism. Jim’s engineer father, who is engaged in advanced research for the Defence Industry (its red tape brilliantly evoked in a tangle of abbreviations), finds his most successful project hamstrung by a private squabble among the Air Force top brass. Jim’s idealistic sabotage turns out to be a cover for a stranger’s profitable drug-running. As always in Robinson’s work ideals are complicated by personal misunderstandings. In this The Gold Coast resembles The Wild Shore, and it proclaims this affinity. Underneath the concrete Orange County retains traces of the tiny community of the earlier work, as Jim shows his friends when they dig up the remains of an elementary school at the beginning of the book, in an act recalling the boys’ attempt to exhume twentieth-century affluence in The Wild Shore. The personification of the endlessly revitalised past in The Wild Shore, old Tom Barnard, reemerges in The Gold Coast as Jim’s indestructible Uncle Tom, still telling his stories despite being bedridden.
But a comparison with Robinson’s first work only underlines the new novel’s greatness. This is a mature and courageous celebration of a land’s influence on its people; of broken but enduring idealism and friendship; and on the crudest level of the body itself, as it surfs the night waves or hikes the mountains that have escaped the depredations of real estate. Robinson has emerged from his rewritings of future history to challenge us more forcefully by rewriting the present.
In darkness, Nashe tells us in The Terrors of the Night (1594), mortals are more vulnerable to the machinations of the devil than they ever are by daylight.Dreams and night visions weave Satan’s most cunning ‘nets of temptation’ (p. 210), and after sunset one’s eyes turn into magnifying glasses, so that ‘each mote… they make a monster, and every slight glimmering a giant’ (p. 239), multiplying the viewer’s proneness to delinquency and despair.For the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, on the other hand – as represented by pamphleteers like Stephen Gosson, Phillip Stubbes and William Rankins – it’s drama rather than dreams that constitutes the Devil’s weapon of choice in the unceasing siege he lays to the human mind and spirit.Plays, they claim, constitute an elaborate imaginative trap whereby Satan lulls the citizens of London into a false sense of security, then ambushes their souls through the unguarded portals of the senses.So when in about 1595 Shakespeare wrote a comedy called A Midsummer Night’s Dream and crammed it full of spirits, damned or otherwise, he was playing a witty game with the fears of Gosson and his fellow thespiphobes.What I shall argue here is that the game he played in the Dream was already in full swing among the pamphlets and printers’ shops of 1590s London, and that the appearance of Robin Goodfellow in the woods of Athens would instantly have alerted his first audiences to Shakespeare’s participation in it.
Puck’s presence in the Dream has long been something of a puzzle – whether acknowledged as such or simply ignored.Classical creatures had found their way into the English landscape often enough in Elizabethan culture before Shakespeare started writing: the transformed Philomene had warbled in English woods in Gascoigne’s verse satire The Steel Glass (1576), Neptune had terrorized Humberside in John Lyly’s play Gallathea (c. 1588), the sea-god Glaucus had moped by the banks of the Thames in Thomas Lodge’s poem Scilla’s Metamorphosis (1589).But Shakespeare’s transplanting of Robin Goodfellow to some woods near Athens was the first time (to my knowledge) that a figure from English folk legend had been relocated to the Mediterranean, and the implications of that relocation have not yet, I think, been fully worked out.For one thing, as a peculiarly northern forest-dweller Robin may have had some effect on the relationship between night and day in his new, more southerly setting.Nashe reminds us in The Terrors of the Night that nights are longer in the north, and especially in Iceland, where witches and wizards are plentiful and possess an enviable power over local weather-conditions (p. 223).The Dream transplants those northern nights to Greece, curtailing daylight hours and extending the shortest night in the year to giant proportions.Four days and four nights are supposed to have passed between the first and last scenes of the comedy, whereas the audience experiences only two – and has no idea which of those two is the midsummer night of the title.Robin Goodfellow seems the obvious person to blame for this hypertrophied period of darkness, since he is associated in folk tradition with night, dreams, trickery and Devilish magic.Moreover, he had an unusually high profile in print during the early 1590s, featuring everywhere as a spirit who transcends the normal boundaries of space, time, life and death.It’s only by recovering this profile that we can hope to understand his function in Shakespeare’s ancient Greek extravaganza.
2. Puck in Print
For the Elizabethans, Robin possessed a strange double nature, as the embodiment both of English Catholic superstition in the past and of an innocent native cheerfulness that had been lost with the advent of continental sophistication in the present.Reginald Scot paints him in the former light in The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), where he features as a bugbear whose ability to terrorize night-wandering papists has been stripped from him by Protestant rationalism: ‘Robin goodfellowe ceaseth now to be much feared, and poperie is sufficientlie discovered’ (sig. B2v).The poet William Warner concurs with Scot. His Robin is a spirit who appears like an incubus to sleeping mortals, and in the fourteenth book of Warner’s digressive epic Albion’s England (published in 1606) Robin sits naked on the face of a dormant shepherd and laments the good old days of Mary’s reign, when English Catholics everywhere believed in him: ‘Was then a merrie world with us when Mary wore the Crowne, / And holy-water-sprinkle was beleevd to put us downe’.But Warner’s Robin is also a blunt teller of unwelcome truths to Protestants.He goes on to utter a satirical invective against the various forms of hypocrisy prevalent in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, thus revealing himself to have as much of the satyr as of the demon about him.
This is hardly surprising, since by the time Warner painted this picture of him in 1606 Robin had long been associated with satire as well as with drama, dreams and devils.Robin’s conversion into a satirist is in fact inextricably bound up with his theatrical associations.In a pamphlet of 1590 called Tarlton’s News out of Purgatory the ghost of the late great comic actor Richard Tarlton appears to the anonymous author in a dream, and sooths his terror at this visitation by reassuring him that he is no devil, but a homely spirit like the noted goblin: ‘thinke mee to bee one of those Familiares Lares that were rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence, as Hob Thrust, Robin Goodfellowe and such like spirites (as they terme them of the buttry) famozed in everie olde wives Chronicle for their mad merry pranckes’ (p. 2).As a substitute Robin, Tarlton links himself with Catholicism – but a Catholicism defused of the terrors of damnation with which it had been charged by Protestant dogma.When the author asks the dead clown’s ghost how it has managed to visit the land of the living, given the Calvinist belief that ‘the soules of them which are departed… never returne into the world againe till the generall resurrection’ (pp. 2-3), Tarlton contemptuously dismisses Calvinist doctrine as unhealthily dualistic.His spirit, like the spirit of Hamlet’s father, inhabits Purgatory, the third alternative to heaven and hell, vouched for by the great poet ‘Dant’ as well as by ‘our forefathers’ and ‘holy Bishops of Rome’ (p. 3) – hence its ability to return now and then to the earth’s surface. In this way the clown blithely sweeps aside decades of religious conflict; and he goes on to tell a string of stories under the aegis of a non-judgemental version of the afterlife which permits the free flow of merry tales between this world and the next, regardless of theology.His stories may stink of sulphur but they are ‘rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence’; and in telling them he dismisses out of hand the didactic goody-goodies who saw all such stories – on stage or on the page – as works of Satan.
Tarlton’s News was ‘published’, according to its title-page, by an ‘old Companion’ of Tarlton’s, Robin Goodfellow – the spirit with which the ghost of Tarlton links itself.It seems fitting, then, that when an anonymous ‘Cobbler’ wrote a story-collection of his own (The Cobbler of Canterbury (1590)), and prefaced it with a light-hearted attack on the shortcomings of Tarlton’s News, Robin Goodfellow should have penned a response to the cobbler’s preface, which was printed immediately after it in the first edition.Here the goblin takes the cobbler’s objections to his publication as a sign of the times, when respect for good manners has been utterly eroded since the happy days when he was ‘so merry a spirit of the Butterie’, helping maids to grind malt and getting a ‘messe of Creame’ for his labour (sig. A4r).The inhospitable spirit of Elizabethan England has driven Robin to a self-imposed exile in Purgatory along with his old friend Tarlton.It has also made him devilishly vindictive, though not frighteningly so: he promises to ‘haunt’ the cobbler ‘in his sleepe, and after his olde merrie humour, so to playe the knave with the Cobler, that hee shall repent hee medled so farre beyond his latchet’ (sig. A4r).Damnation and hauntings have here been reduced to pretexts for comic squabbling and trickery, quite bereft of the fear with which the established churches sought to invest them.
At this point in our story the immensely popular writer of romances and comedies Robert Greene gets mixed up with Puck’s Elizabethan biography.Evidently a rumour went round that Greene had written The Cobbler of Canterbury, and to deny this rumour Greene wrote a pamphlet called Greene’s Vision (1592) in which he is visited in his sleep by the ghosts of Chaucer and Gower, who debate the merits and demerits of Greene’s prolific scribblings.At the end of the dispute the spirit of King Solomon appears and elicits a promise from Greene that he will from henceforth devote himself to theology; and perhaps for this reason Greene did not publish the pamphlet in his lifetime, reluctant to commit himself to such a career-changing volte-face until he had exhausted the profitable vein of fiction he was still working at the end of his life.When it did appear, the pamphlet reintroduced the fear of hell into the dialogue between pamphleteers, since it opened with a section where Greene articulates his‘trouble of minde’ in distinctly Faustian terms: ‘can the hideous mountaines hide me, can wealth redeeme sinne, can beautie countervaile my faults, or the whole world counterpoyse the balance of mine offences?’Greene’s fellow pamphleteer Barnaby Rich pounced on this hint at Greene’s posthumous fate, and described him in Greene’s News both from Heaven and Hell (1593) as wandering between Heaven and Hell in search of the happy third location, Purgatory, where he can escape damnation while retaining all the venial faults that made him so attractive a writer in his lifetime.(On his journey he meets Dick Tarlton, who has now become Lucifer’s resident satirist-entertainer.)The devil finally expels Greene’s ghost from hell at the request of the cony-catchers he exposed in his final pamphlets; and at this point Greene is transformed into a particularly aggressive incarnation of our old friend Robin Goodfellow, a spirit who troubles the nocturnal wanderings of living sinners.‘I woulde therefore wish my friendes,’ he declares, ‘to beware howe they walke late a nights, for I will bee the maddest Gobline, that ever used to walke in the moonshine’ (sig. H3r), haunting the sleep of women and persuading them to cuckold their husbands, infecting men of all occupations with the spirit of avarice so that they will do anything to amass wealth for their heirs, and urging lawyers, courtiers and clergymen to persevere in the corrupt practices already rife in their professions.Robin has resumed his mantle as a night-dwelling satirist; but by now he trails in his wake the ghosts of clowns and popular authors, whose activities had been denounced as devilish by the theatre- and fiction-haters along with Robin himself.The implication here as elsewhere is that the target of the moralists has been badly misjudged, and that they have wasted their energies in denouncing fictions and the makers of fictions, when in fact these are far more effective and energetic in attacking social abuses than they are.
For all his residence in a fictitious Catholic Purgatory, then, Robin Goodfellow was seen as mostly harmless by Shakespeare’s predecessors in popular print.Indeed, he was represented as the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sharing with the common people of England the burden of an inequitable social and legal system, and endowed with gifts that enable him to expose these inequities.In the anonymous pamphlet Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift (1593) he joins forces with the honest narrator Tell-troth to denounce the operations of jealousy or envy at every level of the English commonwealth.Here he is characterised as ‘Robin good-fellow… who never did worse harme, then correct manners, and made diligent maides’ (sig. A2r), a kind of incorruptible agent for the discovery of hidden vices, who ‘could go invisible from his infancy’, is ‘subject to no inferiour power whatsoever’, and has ‘a generall priviledge to search every corner, and enter every castell to a good purpose’ (sig. A2r-A2v).Robin’s affiliation with hell is explained as a consequence of this privilege, which means he can visit even the infernal regions without becoming contaminated by them, and use what he sees and hears there ‘to a good purpose’.The insistence on his independence of all authority apart from nature’s is intriguing: it is the most explicit statement so far that Robin has become a figure for the legendary liberty of imaginative writers, a liberty invoked by the ghost of the executed poet Collingbourne in William Baldwin’s hugely influential collection of political poems, The Mirror for Magistrates (1559, 1563, etc.).
Behind all these vision-pamphlets, in fact, the Mirror looms as a monumental presence, containing as it does the richest collection of posthumous first-person narratives in the English language.Its versified stories of the decline and fall of great men and women throughout English history are narrated by the spirits of the dead, and its representation of the past is repeatedly linked to political and social abuses still current in the present.Interestingly, too, it features a representation by a protestant poet of a Hell that is based on classical accounts of Hades (as it is in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589) and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift) and which is also explicitly linked to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.This representation of Hell occurs in the celebrated ‘Induction’ to Thomas Sackville’s tragedy of the Duke of Buckingham, and is followed by a discussion of Purgatory among the protestant writers who have gathered to hear the narrative.The Induction’s Hell, complains one writer, ‘savoreth so much of Purgatory… that the ignorant maye thereby be deceyved’ (fol. 137r) – presumably into thinking that Purgatory really exists.But the chief editor of the Mirror, the printer-poet William Baldwin, disagrees.In his poem, says Baldwin, Sackville has depicted not Hell or Purgatory but the grave, ‘wherin the dead bodies of al sortes of people do rest till tyme of the resurrection.And in this sence is Hel taken often in the scriptures, and in the writynges of learned christians’ (fol. 137r).A second listener goes further.What does it matter if Sackville’s Hell resembles Purgatory, he says, since ‘it is a Poesie and no divinitye, and it is lawfull for poetes to fayne what they lyst, so it be appertinent to the matter’?True enough, Baldwin replies, but such liberty has not always been accorded to poets; and he proceeds to read out the tragedy of Collingbourne, who was executed for writing satirical verse in the reign of Richard III, and whose ghost warns all poets to beware of speaking the truth about tyrants in an age that has grown ‘so fell and fearce / That vicious actes may not be toucht in verse’, and when ‘The Muses freedome, graunted them of olde, / Is barde, aye reasons treasons hye are helde’ (fol. 138r).The tragedy closes with the heartfelt wish from its listeners that the warning it contains ‘may take suche place with the Magistrates, that they maye ratifie our olde freedome’ to speak openly in verse (fol. 146v).Restoring this liberty will work for the ruling classes as much as for the common people in whose name the poet speaks, since rulers need to know what their subjects think of them if they are to defend themselves from popular insurrection and eventual dethronement.
The audience of Collingbourne’s tragedy speak with the heartfelt hopefulness of Protestants who have lived through persecution under a Catholic monarch and who hope for something better under her successor.The first print-run of The Mirror for Magistrates was suppressed in the reign of Mary Tudor, and the 1563 edition from which I have been quoting couches its plea for poetic liberty in terms that are wittily designed to shock both radical protestants and Catholics alike – invoking the concept of Purgatory while at the same time dismissing it as a poetic fabrication – as if to test the Elizabethan reader’s capacity for greater tolerance.The references to Purgatory in the pamphlets of the 1590s seem to take up this notion of Purgatory as emblematic of the poet’s exemption from political or religious persecution, as does their frequent invocation of that figment of the superstitious Catholic imagination Robin Goodfellow.Robin is a spirit of the buttery – that is, the bar or pub – rather than of the infernal regions, and his location in Purgatory indicates his temporary immunity from knee-jerk moral judgments based on over-rigid notions of right and wrong.
In the spirit of the other pamphlets we have touched on, Henry Chettle’s Kind-Heart’s Dream (1593) deploys its revenants to argue against simplistic views of the theatre and popular print.Robin does not figure in it (though it addresses itself to ‘Gentlemen and good-fellowes’, sig. B1r), but the ghosts of both Tarlton and Robert Greene are summoned up, the latter appealing to Pierce Penniless – a pseudonym of Thomas Nashe – to defend his memory against the posthumous slanders of Gabriel Harvey, and the former defending the stage against its detractors while acknowledging the shortcomings of the modern theatre.‘Mirth in seasonable time taken,’ the ghost of Tarlton avers, ‘is not forbidden by the austerest Sapients.But indeed there is a time of mirth, and a time of mourning.Which time having been by the Magistrates wisely observed, as well for the suppressing of Playes, as other pleasures: so likewise a time may come, when honest recreation shall have his former libertie’ (sig. C4r).The latter sentence so closely echoes the discussion of Collingbourne’s tragedy in the Mirror that it is hard not to read it as a reminder of William Baldwin’s hope that liberty of speech will be restored to poets at last – even if only at the latter end of Elizabeth’s reign.Greene and Tarlton, poets and players are ‘good fellows’ in two Elizabethan senses: good drinking companions (Kind-heart sees their apparitions while dozing in a tavern) and morally upright citizens who tackle vice wherever they see it.And both wish the same punishment on all moralistic ‘maligners of honest mirth’: that is, ‘continuall melancholy’ (sig. C2v).
In Nashe’s Terrors of the Night – a pamphlet where spirits and devils are reduced to the size of dust particles so that ‘not a room in any man’s house but is pestered and close-packed with them’ (p. 212) – Don Lucifer himself, ‘their grand Capitano’, is described as having taken on the form of a ‘puritan’ with an aversion to shows and ceremonies of all kinds (p. 230).In doing so he has ceased to be the cheerful entertainer he was of yore, when he ‘was wont to jest and sport with country people, and play the Goodfellow amongst kitchen-wenches’ (p. 231).As a result of this transformation ‘there is no goodness in him but miserableness and covetousness’; he has shifted his allegiance to the camp of the theatre-haters and laughter-loathers, and the world is a poorer place.Here again Robin represents a form of night mischief that is finally harmless, despite its devilish associations, and those who set themselves against it condemn both themselves and others to an unalleviated depression, the condition for which laughter was prescribed by early modern physicians.
Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow is the heir to all these Robins, Greenes, Tarltons and merry Devils.Like his precursors he frequents the sleeping places of mortals, shaping what are in effect their dreams (all the lovers concur in retrospectively perceiving the business in the wood as dreamlike).Like the Robin of Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift he can make himself invisible at will and go with impunity wherever he wishes in the globe or, presumably, out of it.Tell-Troth’s Robin has the licence accorded to fools (and sometimes poets) to meddle with the doings of all classes, and Shakespeare’s Puck takes the role of Oberon’s fool, making and discovering fools wherever he turns up.The merry tricks he plays are mentioned often in the pamphlets, and became the subject of a jest-book in the seventeenth century, Robin Goodfellow his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1628), filled with stories like the ones he tells the fairy on his first appearance in Act Two.And his connection with fairies is taken for granted by nearly all the pamphleteers, as it is by Shakespeare.Nashe, for instance, associates Robin with ‘elves, fairies, hobgoblins of our latter age’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210); and it is striking that Puck’s fairy friends in Shakespeare’s play have the capacity to shrink themselves to the size of Nashe’s mote-like devils.Even Puck’s fondness for hemp, for stamping and for bellowing ‘Ho ho ho!’ is shared with the Robin of The Cobler of Caunterburie, whose catchphrase when provoked is ‘What Hemp and Hampe, here will I never more grinde nor stampe’ (sig. A4v).Clearly Shakespeare was deeply immersed in the recent literary as well as folkloric history of his ‘merry wanderer of the night’ (2.1.43), and knew how well the ground had been prepared for the rapprochement between popular superstition and sophisticated comedy by his precursors among the Elizabethan pamphleteers.
Shakespeare’s artfully managed rapprochement between popular superstition and romance, too, was prepared for by the pamphleteers we’ve glanced at.Robin’s interest in lovers is first established in Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift, where he condemns greedy fathers for seeking to wed their daughters to wealthy men against their will, and catalogues the many forms of jealousy and fallings-out between sweethearts which occupy the central scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Tell-Troth ends with a general blessing bestowed by Robin on young lovers, which foreshadows Oberon’s blessing of Theseus’s household at the end of the Dream:
Their dalliaunce shall bee rewarded with darlings, whose sweete favoured faces, shall be continuall pledges of their faithfull kindnesse… Their encrease shalbe multiplied, their substance doubled and trebled till it come to aboundance… They shall adde so great a blessing to their store as time shall not take away the memory of them, nor fame suffer their antiquitye ever to die… Thus shall loves followers be thrise happy, and thus Robin goodfellowes well-willers, in imitating his care bee manifolde blessed (sig. F4v-F5r).
Oberon too promises that the issue created in the ‘bride beds’ of Theseus, Hippolyta and the rest will be ‘fortunate’, free from the ‘blots of nature’s hand’, and that the ‘couples three’ who engendered them will ‘Ever true in loving be’ (5.1.394-411); and Puck follows up this promise with a heartfelt appeal to his well-willers among the audience.Shakespeare’s Puck shares, too, with Tell-Troth’s Robin a particular concern for the well-being of amorous women, as he shows when he mistakenly dismisses Lysander as ‘this lack-love, this kill-courtesy’ for his apparent spurning of Hermia (2.2.83).The goblin, then, was associated with the defence of romance as well as of the stage at the point when Shakespeare introduced him into his Athenian love story.He was also already seen as a link between English and classical myth, one of the Lares Familiares or household spirits transformed into an impudent English imp who lives in a classical-Purgatorial Hades, well before Shakespeare gave him a new home in the woods of ancient Greece; and a half-demonic champion of laughter with a heart of gold, well before Shakespeare gave him the capacity both to laugh at and pity the mortal fools he spies on.
The combination of mischief-making with benevolence is shared by Shakespeare’s goblin with his namesakes in Tarlton’s News, The Cobbler of Canterbury and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift.In Shakespeare’s play, it is Oberon who speaks most openly about this fusion of qualities, when he invokes the link between himself, his fellow spirits and the devil at the end of the third act, telling Robin to ‘overcast the night’ with ‘fog as black as Acheron’ (3.2.355-7) – one of the rivers in the classical underworld – and encouraging him to mimic the voices of Demetrius and Lysander as devils are said to mimic men’s voices in Nashe’s Terrors of the Night (3.2.360-3).But when Robin tells him that this must be done swiftly before dawn sends ‘damned spirits’ back to their ‘wormy beds’ (no hint of Purgatory here), Oberon replies by dissociating himself and Robin utterly from souls who have ‘themselves exiled from light’.‘We are spirits of another sort’, he claims, and goes on to describe his delight in dallying with the morning sunshine like Apollo, the classical god of learning (3.2.378-93); and this assertion of benevolence is reinforced at the point when the fairies and Puck extend their benison to the sleeping lovers in the play’s last scene.If plays resemble dreams, in this play they are evidently dreams that bring peace and health to those who experience them.
Having said this, the terror of damnation with which the theatre-haters had infected the playhouse is by no means absent from Shakespeare’s comedy.When Robin Goodfellow turns ‘actor’, for instance, after witnessing the amateur theatrics of the craftsmen (3.1.75), he throws them into a superstitious panic by assuming a range of terrible forms: ‘Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn’ (3.1.106).But the devilry he practises is finally harmless, like the merry pranks played by the demonic Vices of an earlier dramatic tradition, or the antics of the devilish satyr-spirits in the pamphlets of the 1590s.And if it is both harmless and health-giving, the theatre-haters who saw it only as monstrous stand condemned for crude thinking, moral cowardice, and a lack of generosity.After all, the craftsmen welcomed Bottom back into their midst when they saw he was no monster (4.2); whereas the theatre-haters at their most extreme could find no place in a civil commonwealth for comedy.
It is hardly surprising, then, if in the last lines of the play Robin himself should turn defender of the theatre, like Tarlton in Kind-Heart’s Dream.Theseus lays the groundwork for this defence earlier in the scene when he teaches his contemptuous master of the revels Philostrate the proper way to respond to well-meant drama.‘Never anything can be amiss,’ he says, ‘When simpleness and duty tender it’ (5.1.82-3); and he goes on to explain how best to read incompetent performances where the actors stumble over their lines and fall silent, overawed by the grandeur of their audience.‘Trust me, sweet,’ he tells Titania,
Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome,
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity (5.1.99-105).
For Theseus, a courteous audience participates in a performance, reading into it the good will they would hope to find in all the works of the imagination.A little later he characterizes this process of generous reading as a kind of amendment or emendation: ‘The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them’ (5.1.210-1).It’s the word ‘amend’ that Puck takes up in his epilogue; a word that had long been associated with readerly generosity by Elizabethan readers.Presenting their books to a potentially hostile public, some authors prefaced them with a gnomic challenge to their critics: ‘commend it, or amend it’; speak well of a work of art if you can’t improve on it.Robin Goodfellow presents his audience with a more genial offer from the playwright and actors who have entertained them.‘If we shadows have offended,’ he begins, ‘Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here, / While these visions did appear’ (5.1.414-7).For Nashe, visions seen in sleep, like Robin, are mostly harmless; they seldom have prophetic significance, and in most cases signify little more than the quality or otherwise of the last meal you have eaten.Robin’s dream, too, is no more than a ‘weak and idle theme’, and its idleness is not threatening (5.1.418).If it is pardoned, the players will ‘mend’ or improve their performance next time; if they escape the hissing of envious serpents among their spectators they ‘will make amends ere long’; and finally, generosity from their audience will strengthen the bond of imaginative friendship or amity among the citizens and their entertainers: ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends’ (5.1.421-9).The theatre-haters insisted that the playwrights had failed to amend or reform their plays despite endless promises of amendment.Robin makes the process of amendment a general one, healing rifts and bridging gaps between friendly co-habitants of the linked spaces of playhouse and city, and exorcising the demons that had been introduced into those spaces by the serpentine hissing of ungenerous prudes.
3.Robin Goodfellow and Bottom’s Dream
It’s perhaps worth mentioning one more way in which Shakespeare’s Robin both evokes and counters the anti-theatrical prejudice through interference with sleep.His decision to replace Bottom’s head with the head of an ass, then obtrude him into the presence of the sleeping Titania, in whose arms he is afterwards lulled asleep to the strains of seductive music, is another knowing reference to the Tudor controversy over the beneficence or devilishness of drama.As early as the 1540s, the schoolmaster-playwright John Redford introduced a scene into his moral interlude Wit and Science in which the schoolboy-hero Wit is danced into a state of exhaustion by a seductive female Vice, then lulled to drowsiness in her arms.As he dozes, the Vice’s son Ignorance places his fool’s cap on Wit’s shoulders: a cap no doubt endowed with the usual pair of ass’s ears.On waking, it is some time before Wit becomes aware of his transformation; and if ever Shakespeare saw a performance of Wit and Science or one of its variants, it seems unlikely he would have forgotten the peals of laughter that greeted Wit’s puzzlement at the reaction of those around him to his changed appearance.
The Vice who seduced Wit into this compromising somnolence was called Idleness, a term often used by the theatre-haters to designate the unproductive activities of players.Her rival in the play is a Virtue called Honest Recreation – and again, this is the virtue defenders of the theatre liked to champion, insisting on the necessity for relaxing and instructive entertainment in the midst of one’s daily labour, and claiming that the theatre could provide such entertainment more fully than any other art-form.Redford’s Honest Recreation has nothing but contempt for Idleness; but any attack of hers on the Vice is pre-empted by the Vice herself, who launches a devastating verbal assault on Honest Recreation that anticipates in its wording the polemic of the theatre-haters in the 1570s and 80s.Honest Recreation, says Idleness, is nothing but a fake, a common player or mummer who uses the mask of virtue to cover her vices:
The dyvyll and hys dam can not devyse
More devlyshnes then by the doth ryse
Under the name of Honest Recreacion:
She, lo, bryngth in her abhominacion!
Mark her dawnsyng, her masking and mummyng.
Where more concupiscence then ther cummyng? 
Honest Recreation retaliates with an eloquent humanistic defence of leisure-time activities as a source of intellectual refreshment; but her thunder has been stolen, her name forever muddied, and she retires defeated as soon as she has said her piece, leaving Wit firmly entwined in the embrace of her demonic counterpart Idleness.And here he was to be found, again and again, throughout the rest of the sixteenth century.Two more versions of the story of Wit and Science were staged in the 1560s and 70s (The Marriage of Wit and Science and Francis Merbury’s The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom), each of which replayed the scene where Wit gets saddled with a fool’s cap in his sleep.In the early 1580s a version of the play was acted called The Play of Playes and Pastimes, which responded to Stephen Gosson’s attack on the theatre by depicting Life lulled asleep by Honest Recreation herself – not by her vicious substitute – then entertained with Comedy when she wakes.20And Redford’s play was reworked at least three more times in the following decade: once in The Cobbler’s Prophecy (c. 1590), a comedy by the celebrated clown Robert Wilson, where the god Mars is lulled asleep by Venus until startled into action by a comic cobbler; once in Anthony Munday’s Sir Thomas More (c. 1593), where More takes part in a performance of The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom; and once in the Inns of Court entertainment The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, whose entire plot is ultimately derived from Redford’s.Shakespeare helped to revise Sir Thomas More for performance, perhaps in the early 1600s.It seems beyond the bounds of possibility that he should not have known the plot, at least, of Wit and Science, and its affiliation with the theatrical controversy.And read as another reworking of this plot, Bottom’s transformation tells us a good deal about his creator’s attitude to the theatre at this stage in his career.
Bottom the weaver is an actor – albeit a very bad one.His designation as one of the ‘rude mechanicals’ – the phrase Robin applies to them (3.2.9) – associates him with the standard insult levelled at actors and non-university playwrights by two of the so-called University Wits of the 1580s, Greene and Nashe, both of whom saw acting as a ‘mechanical’ art, a non-intellectual exercise well suited to the offspring of craftsmen and tradesmen who practised it.So when Puck invests Bottom with the head of an ass it seems no more than he deserves, as an upstart crow who plans to raise his presumptuous voice in the presence of royalty against all the principles of classical decorum.
Yet the weaver responds to his predicament with astonishing dignity. He refuses to be frightened by the insults levelled at him (he tells his fellow craftsmen that in accusing him of monstrosity they are merely exposing themselves as ‘ass-heads’ or fools, 3.1.111), and sings to keep up his courage.His song acts like that of a mermaid or Siren on Titania’s senses; she becomes ‘enamoured of his note’ (3.1.131), much as audiences were said by the theatre-haters to be roused to lustful paroxysms by the melodic blandishments of the stage.Yet when she declares her love for him he remains both rational and scrupulously courteous.‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that’, he tells her, and later denies her statement that he is ‘as wise as he is beautiful’ – he lays claim only to the pragmatic ‘wit’ he needs to ‘get out of this wood’ (3.1.135-42).This practical or mechanical intelligence manifests itself, too, in his philosophy: ‘reason and love,’ he says, ‘keep little company together nowadays – the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends’ (3.1.136-9).For him, the love that matters is the love that binds communities, the love between neighbours which he has clearly provoked among his own neighbours, the fellow craftsmen and actors who mourn his absence at the end of Act Four, just before he is miraculously restored to them.Bottom is a fool only in that he voices popular wisdom, fails to take advantage of Titania’s infatuation for selfish ends, and refuses to modify his behaviour in the presence of power, as a sycophantic courtier would have done.His deportment to Titania’s fairy servants is impeccable; and when Titania tells them to ‘Tie up my love’s tongue; bring him silently’ (3.1.191), it is not an injunction to restrain the ribaldry of an unruly clown, as it would have been in a Redfordian moral interlude, nor yet an act of ritual humiliation, as it would have been in a play by Robert Wilson, but a means of subduing him to her desire – a desire that is ultimately harmless, to herself, to him, and to their Elizabethan audience.
The harmlessness of the piece of supernatural theatre Bottom finds himself caught up in is strongly asserted by Puck in the following scene.When he describes the weaver’s transformation to Oberon, Robin laughs at the unnecessary terror of Bottom’s companions when faced with his metamorphosis: ‘Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears thus strong, / Made senseless things begin to do them wrong’ (3.2.27-8).Later, unreasoning terror is mentioned again by Theseus, whose analysis of the workings of ‘strong imagination’ includes the transformation of inanimate harmless objects by panic: ‘in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush supposed a bear!’ (5.1.18-22).Even the craftsmen are aware of the ease with which terror can be aroused by harmless things: they seek to defuse any fear that might be generated by their own theatrical performance by drawing attention to its theatricality, so that the lion in their play gives an elaborate and wholly unnecessary explanation of the principle of dramatic illusion to its courtly spectators.Both the craftsmen’s very reasonable fear of Bottom, and their less reasonable fear that the ladies in their audience will fear them, are profoundly funny; and the implication is that the fear of the theatre evinced by its critics is not much less so.
Malice is simply absent from Robin’s actions, as it is from those of the well-intentioned craftsmen.When Oberon rebukes him for administering the love-juice to the wrong lover, for instance, the goblin repeatedly insists that he ‘mistook’, although he is delighted by the outcome of his errors.Once his cruel but harmless ‘sport’ is over, it assumes the status of ‘a dream and fruitless vision’ (3.2.371) for the Athenian lovers who were its victims; and Titania’s fleeting affair with Bottom – something mistaken on her part, not maliciously intended – also ends by being dismissed as ‘the fierce vexation of a dream’ (4.1.68).Like Titania and the lovers, audiences will leave the theatre without having been adversely affected by what they saw there; restored to what Robin calls ‘True delight’ (3.2.455) – responsible pleasure, something the theatre-haters don’t seem able to imagine – in the things and people that are dear to them, they will return to waking life with nothing but an enhanced sense of its fragile beauty and comic unreasonableness.And having left the stage, they will be no more tempted to engage in any over-critical analysis of their ‘most rare’ theatrical ‘vision’ than they would to analyse a dream after a feast (4.1.202).If they sought to do so, they would show themselves to be asses, transformed to fools by the spectacle they have witnessed, just as those who take exception to satire transform themselves into satire’s targets by their over-sensitive response to its gibes.
This, at least, is what Bottom implies when he wakes from the dramatic role of Titania’s lover in Act 4 scene 1.‘I have had a most rare vision,’ he says, and ‘Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream’ (4.1.202-4).But he couches this observation in the language of theology, adding a somewhat jumbled but instantly recognizable version of Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was’ (4.1.207-10).As we’ve seen, Robin Goodfellow and Dick Tarlton were not afraid to get themselves mixed up with theology, despite the bloody history of religious controversy throughout sixteenth-century Europe.At the bottom of Bottom’s theatrical dream there may be a serious point about the working of the imagination at all levels of society.After all, real dreams could, Nashe tells us, be heaven-sent ‘visions’ containing genuine prophecies, even if the bulk of them were nothing but outlets for the superfluous matter engendered by the human digestive system.Prophecies could provoke social change, insurrection, maybe even revolution; visions could start religions or spark off heresies; that’s why there was such careful legislation in England against men’s claims to be visionaries or prophets throughout the Tudor period.Bottom awakes these controversial matters even as he dismisses them, just as Robin Goodfellow and his fairy companions evoke the demonic associations of drama even as they dismiss them.The magic of the theatre, and its status as the space where human dreams and nightmares can be realized as nowhere else, remain as potent at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they were at the beginning.And it’s partly thanks to Shakespeare’s clever predecessors, with all the goblins, ghosts, and visions they invoked on stage and printed page, that this is so.The time has come to wake them from their long sleep, set them loose among us once again, and listen carefully to what they have to tell us.
See Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions, in The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 209-210.All references to The Terrors of the Night are taken from this edition.An early version of this paper was given at the World Shakespeare Congress, Brisbane 2006, in a panel on early modern sleep organized by Garrett Sullivan and Evelyn Tribble.I am very grateful to all the participants in the panel, especially Jeffrey Marsten and Rebecca Totaro.
I have discussed the anti-theatrical prejudice in my book, Shakespeare and Comedy (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005), pp. 5-24 etc.See also Jonas Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), and Laura Levine, Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-Theatricality, 1579-1642 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
My reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this paper develops my discussion of it in Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 141-154.I am also indebted to Peter Holland’s introduction to his edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), and his essay ‘“The Interpretation of Dreams” in the Renaissance’, Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare, ed. Peter Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).See also Derek Alwes, ‘Elizabethan Dreaming: Fictional Dreams from Gascoigne to Lodge’, in Framing Elizabethan Fictions: Contemporary Approaches to Early Modern Narrative Prose, ed. Constance C. Relihan (Kent, Ohio and London: Kent State University Press, 1996), 153-67.
Accounts of Robin Goodfellow can be found in Katharine Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959) (see index); Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies (London: Lane, 1976), entries for Puck and Robin Goodfellow; Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London: Allen Lane, 2000), ch. 5; and Winfried Schleiner, ‘Imaginative Sources for Shakespeare’s Puck’, Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985), 65-8
Albions England (1612), Anglistica and Americana (Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1971), p. 368.The first four books of Warner’s epic were published in 1588; the 14th book, containing ‘A Tale of Robin-goodfellow’, first appeared in the 1606 edition.See my ‘Myths Exploited: The Metamorphoses of Ovid in Early Elizabethan England’, Shakespeare’s Ovid, ed. A. B. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 27-8.
For a fuller discussion of this text see my ‘Robert Greene and the Uses of Time’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Kirk Melnikoff and Edward Gieskes (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), ch. 8, pp.182-7.
The Life and Complete Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 15 vols. (London and Aylesbury: privately printed, 1881-3), vol. 12, p. 207.
For a detailed discussion of the place of the tragedy of Collingbourne in The Mirror for Magistrates see Andrew Hadfield, Literature, Politics and National Identity: Reformation to Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chapter 3.All references are to the 1563 edition.
For a print history of The Mirror for Magistrates see the introduction to Lily B. Campbell’s edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938).
For a recent account of Gabriel Harvey’s posthumous attack on Robert Greene and Nashe’s response, see Ronald A. Tumelson II, ‘Robert Greene, “Author of Playes”’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Melnikoff and Gieskes, ch. 5.
For the health-giving properties of laughter see my ‘The Afterlife of Andrew Borde’, Studies in Philology vol. 100 no. 4 (Fall 2003), pp. 463-92.
The Cobbler’s Robin opens his epistle with ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’, the phrase Shakespeare’s Robin uses at 3.2.421.Shakespeare’s Robin alludes to hemp at 3.1.72, and describes himself stamping to terrify Peter Quince and his fellow craftsmen at 3.2.25.
Nashe associates him with the Lares or ‘household Gods’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210), and Warner calls Robin a ‘breechlesse Larr’ in Albions England, p. 367.See also Tarlton’s News Out of Purgatory, p. 2, quoted above.
Nashe mentions the devil’s power of mimicry several times in The Terrors of the Night, but cf. ‘Those that catch birds imitate their voices; so will he imitate the voices of God’s vengeance, to bring us like birds into the net of eternal damnation’ (p. 211).
Stephen Gosson takes this stance in his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582).See Arthur F. Kinney, Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1974), introduction.
For the phrase ‘Commend it, or amend it’ see e.g. the title-page of John Lyly’s Euphues and his England (1580).
‘From the unequal and repugnant mixture of contrarious meats… many of our mystic cogitations proceed; and even as fire maketh iron like itself, so the fiery inflammations of our liver or stomach transform our imaginations to their analogy and likeness’.Nashe, Terrors of the Night, p. 233.
For the theatre-haters’ rejection of the playwrights’ claims to have reformed their work, see my Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 11-12.
John Redford, Wit and Science, in Tudor Interludes, ed. Peter Happé (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), pp.181-219, p. 196.
For a summary of the plot of The Play of Plays, which demonstrates its indebtedness to the plot of Wit and Science, see Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Salzburg: Universitaet Salzburg, 1974), pp. 181-3.
See Nashe’s statement that ‘everie mechanicall mate’ aspires to the status of a rhetorician because of the example set by ‘vainglorious tragoedians’; epistle ‘To the Gentlemen Students of both Universities’, printed with Greene’s romance Menaphon (1589), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 6, p. 9.See also Greene’s romance Francescos Fortunes (1590), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 8, p. 132, where the players’ art is described as ‘a kind of mechanical labour’.
The little man who sweeps the roads
Once dropped a penny down a grille.
At that appalling tragedy
He sat and wept, and sits there still
And rocks his body back and forth
While tears like small abandoned loads
Well out between his fingertips
And wash the litter off the roads.
King Sam spent all his money in a vain attempt to wheedle
A dehydrated camel through the eyepiece of a needle.
Eventually, dying at the age of eighty-seven
In a poor but pious hermitage, the monarch went to heaven.
When the villagers began the long toil up the mountainside they carried their houses on their backs like hermit crabs. Hampers, boxes, handbags, cupboards, tables and chairs seemed to have developed spindly legs and a taste for exercise, reeling along from bend to bend of the well-worn path as their owners struggled to outpace the bandits of Bist and Flumm, with their well-known thirst for gold and blood and delicate china. Half-way up the first steep slope the bandits caught them – as Granny Small had said they would – and at once the villagers let fall their burdens to protect their bodies. Chairs, kettles and mattresses rolled away down the spongy slope to fetch up against rocks or tumble into the burn. Soon the burn’s irregular staircase of ice-rimmed pools began to sprout long wavering strings of pale pink weed wherever the villagers’ blood spilled into it in rivulets and gobbets.
They had driven off the first attack and were about to retrieve their bundles when the old man called out: ‘Let them lie. It’s not often you get the excuse to throw out old rubbish. There’ll be better things on the other side of the mountain!’ So they left their kettles and mattresses littering the hillside, to act as an informal open-air reception room for sheep and wrens, and resumed their climb. But the little girl had already guessed that the old man had not been talking about pots and pans. In the attack he had received an ugly gash in the side from a bandit’s curtle-axe, and his feeble attempt to ward it off had resulted only in the smashing of the last of the Rebus violins. For a little while after that the old man had sat on a pile of sheep-droppings with blood and water soaking his trousers and let a tear roll down each cheek in tribute to the instrument. The little girl thought they must be carefully regulated tears, since he had always said you should allow two tears for every sad occasion: one for sorrow at your loss, the other for joy at the gift of life that allowed you to weep despite your losses.
He left the violin on the slope along with his favourite whisky glass – now smashed – and the mortal remains of Granny Small. The oldest woman in the village had died as she said she would, not of a curtle-axe wound but of a heart attack brought on by trying to brain a bandit with a lump of granite. For a long time as they climbed her thin shrill voice kept chattering on at them to hurry up; they were quite relieved when it died away, drifting off like a cricket’s chorus on a mountain breeze.
At one point the little girl and the old man took a rest on a tumbledown wall and looked back the way they had come. A feather of smoke unfurled from the village by the lake and the little girl fancied she could smell the scent of wood-ash on the wind. ‘Well, at least the houses are getting fumigated,’ the old man said; but the little girl was already shedding a good many more than the two small tears he recommended. They just kept welling out of her head like a burn from the side of a rain-drenched mountain. She finally stopped crying from sheer surprise that her head could be so full of water.
A little higher up they reached a stretch of level ground where the mountain path lost all definition in the sheep-cropped turf. At once the fog dropped down on them with what might have been a silent shout of laughter. Within seconds droplets formed in the girl’s brown hair and gleamed like eyes in the old man’s bristling eyebrows. Hills and mountain-ranges of fog rushed past at enormous speed, driven on by a wind that cut their flesh to the bone. The villagers forgot their fear that the bandits would follow them; instead they trembled because the ground beneath their feet was getting narrower, and the crags dropped into nothingness on either side. The wind tried to pluck them from the mountainside like an oystercatcher pecking at the shell of a stubborn mussel.
The little girl trembled with the rest but for a different reason. She was afraid of the Beast that lived among the mountains and left stories like bloody limbs littering the slopes for miles around. The old man patted her cheek and assured her that the Beast was far too large to bother with prey as insignificant as little girls. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘it’s fast asleep. Can’t you hear it snoring like the waves on a far-off shore?’ The little girl nodded but kept looking behind her uneasily. She could hear the waves on the shore whenever the wind dropped, but they sounded nothing at all like a monster snoring.
All the same, she was glad of the old man’s aimless prattle as he leaned on her shoulder. Although his weight was sometimes painful, she felt as though he were pulling her up the mountain instead of the other way round. ‘All my life I’ve wanted to visit these mountains,’ he panted. ‘It took an attack of bandits to get me up, and it’ll take a band of angels to get me down.’ By the time they reached the bottom of a slope of scree that swept up before them like a frozen wave into a foggy void, the rest of the villagers had disappeared. ‘You’re my guardian angel,’ the old man said, but it was he who pointed out where the little girl should set her feet. He seemed so sure of the way that it came as no surprise when they found themselves at the mouth of a cave, peering into the darkness to make sure there were no Beasts inside. At last they crawled through the narrow entrance, and at once the shriek of the wind dropped down to a whisper, as suddenly as if a door had shut behind them. From then on they only heard it from time to time, wailing disconsolately outside as if bereft of prey.
The cave seemed to run deep into the mountainside. At every movement echoes scuttled off and vanished into the stone entrails of the earth. But the roof was so low that the old man had crawled only a few yards before his head struck rock and he collapsed. He lay on his back as he had fallen, his head propped against the wall, his hands palm upwards by his sides. Every so often a breath escaped him in a little feather of smoke. The little girl curled up in the crook of his arm and busied herself with trying to forget about the Beast. Together they waited for night to enter the cave.
After a while the old man noticed that there was another old man lying beside him, whose breath likewise came in little feathers of smoke. He wore a tail-coat with fraying cuffs and a dirty white tie, and his face was as pale as his shirt-front except for a hint of yellow in the cheeks. The old man saw at once that the stranger was as sick as himself. He gave a chuckle at their shared predicament, then winced at the pain in his injured side.
‘We make a fine pair, I must say,’ he observed.
‘Eh?’ said the stranger, contorting his body to see who had spoken. ‘What’s that? Who’s there?’
‘Can’t you see me?’ asked the old man.
‘Indeed not,’ said the stranger. ‘You’re too strong, too alive. You’ll have to be a good deal closer to death’s door than that before I can see you.’
‘Is this better?’ asked the old man, moving a little closer to death’s door.
‘Yes, much,’ said the stranger, and twisted round to look at him closely. He had very bright eyes in deep sockets, as though he hadn’t eaten for a hundred and fifty-seven years and would stop at nothing for a scrap to feed on.
‘What’s that at your elbow, all wrapped up?’ he asked, nodding at the bundle.
‘It’s the ghost of my violin,’ replied the old man. ‘A genuine Rebus. I was clumsy enough to break it in a recent scuffle.’
‘That’s not all you broke, is it?’ the stranger said with a glance at the old man’s wound and a nasty grin. To his own surprise the old man felt insulted that such a sorry specimen should criticize the state of his body. It had served him for many years and he suddenly had a nostalgic affection for its failing organs. But before he could retort the stranger gave a sudden groan and started to writhe like an angry snake. It seemed he was trying to raise himself on one elbow.
‘So you’re a musician?’ the stranger gasped when at last he succeeded. ‘What a stroke of luck! I’ve been waiting for one of those for many years. You see, I too am a musician. My name is Colossus Retch. I expect you’ve heard of me.’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Retch,’ said the old man. ‘We don’t hear much about modern music in the village by the lake. It’ll be different, I expect, when we reach the other side of the mountain.’
‘That’s DOCTOR Retch,’ the stranger snapped, ‘and my music is NOT modern.’
The old man didn’t hear him, because the little girl had sat up at the sound of voices and asked him who he was talking to. He said no-one and gave her a smile, which she put away at once and kept in a secret place for the rest of her life. She gave him a dazzling smile of her own in return, then took out an old linen handkerchief and started to wipe the blood from his forehead with gentle strokes.
The gentle movement drove everything else out of the old man’s mind. He had just managed to doze off when something buzzed in his ear and woke him up. It sounded like ‘A temporary pause’.
‘I beg your pardon?’ he murmured.
‘Nothing,’ said the little girl, still wiping.
‘I said, O tempora, O mors,’ the stranger said. He too had sat up and was looking much more sprightly. From nowhere he produced a large earthenware jug and poured himself a cup of something that emitted huge gushes of steam. A spicy fragrance filled the cave. Even the little girl felt the warmth invade her nostrils, steal down the back of her throat and invade her lungs, whence it spread throughout her body. The old man’s mouth began to water, and went on watering till he feared he would begin to drool.
‘Sorry I can’t let you have any,’ said the stranger. ‘This is Spirituous Liquor, strictly forbidden to anyone under the age of death.’ He sat back with an exaggerated sigh of contentment which brought back all the old man’s initial loathing of him. For a while all that could be heard were his appreciative slurps and the rumbling of the old man’s belly.
After some time Colossus Retch began to speak again. ‘Let me tell you about myself,’ he suggested. ‘Or at least about my posthumous self. You wouldn’t care to hear the details of my earthly life. Decidedly sordid, I’m afraid!’
He took another sip of the liquor. As he did so the old man saw his teeth flash in one of those grins that seemed to signal some private amusement, forever barred to the uninitiated such as the old man and the little girl. All at once the old man felt certain that if he let the stranger continue he would find himself trapped, forced to repeat some mechanical motion over and over again in the eerie solitude of the mountains. He opened his mouth in an attempt to protest, but his tongue remained frozen to the roof of his mouth as if rendered useless by some numbing potion or poisonous gas.
‘For a hundred and fifty-seven years,’ the stranger said, ‘I have had the honour of being the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. I see your eyes light up in recognition –’ (they had done nothing of the kind) ‘– as well they might. The Mountain Orchestra, you exclaim, that melodious muster of master musicians, that band of lonely virtuosi collectively conjoined in their determination to subdue the chaos of this savage world with the staves of harmony! Believe it or not, before my time they were no more harmonious than a roomful of angry gibbons. Some of them couldn’t read music, some of them held their instruments upside down, not one of them could tie a bow tie without assistance or fasten a cufflink. But with time and patience and liberal lashings of raw talent I managed to shape them against all odds into a passable resemblance of a real live orchestra. The Mountain Orchestra, my friend, was shaped from my posthumous blood and sweat and tears, I say this without exaggeration. You may congratulate me if you like.’ And the stranger blew his nose on the filthy sleeve of his tail-coat.
At this point a gust of wind blundered into the cave and buffeted its way from wall to wall. A burst of music seemed to be released each time it struck a surface. The old man shivered and turned towards the entrance, laying his hand on the head of the girl which had slowly drooped until it was resting on his knee. Outside, the fog still glowed with a greenish light as it always does for an hour or so after the sun has set. With a start the old man saw that the Mountain Orchestra had taken its seats in the void beyond: rank on rank of see-through musicians fading away into the foggy distance. Each musician had indistinct features, but they held their heads at a certain angle that conveyed a sense of implacable resolution in the teeth of adversity. Each musician was smartly attired in evening dress made of mist and cobwebs.
The old man found his voice again. ‘Do you have repertoire?’ he asked weakly.
The stranger gave a modest cough. ‘We do indeed,’ he answered. ‘A repertoire curated by myself in response to the special needs and challenges of our orchestral purpose. Most of what we play is music,’ he went on, nodding his head as he warmed to his subject, ‘although alas it has not always been recognised as such. Winds, fogs, planetary movements, ghost sonatas; anything insubstantial really. Water music is a speciality; our performances of burns, brooks, becks, and the ripples on highland lochans are justly celebrated. You may know the Incoming Tide by Moonlight? An old composition of my own, I’m happy to say. But my time with the Mountain Orchestra draws to a close. I am looking beyond, so to speak, to new horizons and fresh challenges: spiritual compositions for the most part, though I may try my hand at nullity, loss and irremediable absence. And here you are, a fiddler emerging out of the fog as if by Divine Decree, perfectly qualified to fill the vacancy. How would you like to be my successor? How would you like, my friend, to lead the Mountain Orchestra in my place? Does the prospect thrill you?’
While he discussed his music the stranger’s face had taken on a wistful air. The lines of suffering scored on his brow had disappeared and his large eyes swam like mountain pools in the wake of a storm. But now he leaned forward with disconcerting suddenness and resumed his expression of wolfish hunger. His teeth and eyes were almost too bright to look at. The old man would have recoiled if he had been able to move his body as well as his head.
‘Well now,’ he said in alarm. ‘I’ll need to know a good deal more about the job before I accept it. What’s the pay like? Who do we play for? What are the perks?’
‘The pay,’ the stranger repeated scornfully. ‘The perks. Let me see. A weekly wage in pain and frustration, a lamentable lack of understanding from the general public, all the Spirituous Liquor you can drink and a captive audience. Will that do?’
‘I’ve known worse deals,’ the old man observed. ‘A captive audience, you say. Who are they?’
‘I’d have thought you’d know all about that, since you’re such an expert on the Beast,’ the stranger said. ‘The audience is here. You’re in one of its ears.’
The old man gave a start which woke the girl from a dream about animated furniture. He soothed her by stroking her hair while every nerve in his body strained to detect some other sign of life inside the cave. The stranger’s voice droned on regardless.
‘Yours will be one of the highest and loneliest destinies in the profession. Night and day, year in and year out, the Mountain Orchestra delivers performances of genius to no other audience than the Beast of the Martoc Mountains. As you know, the Beast has lain dormant under these mountains for many centuries. Your job will be to make sure it goes on sleeping undisturbed.’
‘I haven’t accepted yet,’ the old man interposed. ‘It doesn’t sound like much of a challenge to me. You mean to say that the Mountain Orchestra acts as a kind of musical rattle to keep an oversized baby quiet?’
‘That’s not what I mean at all,’ snarled the impresario. ‘You clearly haven’t grasped the seriousness of the situation. Once not so long ago the Beast almost woke up; it opened one eye and breathed out through one of its nostrils. That was what brought about the Age of Ash. It happened because my predecessor’s fingers got so numb he dropped the baton in Loch Tothel. I trust you’re not prone to numbness in the fingers? He spent seven hours trying to fish it out with a piece of string tied round a stone. Eventually it was brought to him by the Tothel Carp, but by then the damage was done. Not a living thing was left on the surface of the earth within five hundred miles of the Martoc Mountains: nothing but ash and bone and a few charred twigs. When he saw what he’d done my predecessor went mad and impaled himself on Cardothen Crag. You can still hear his shrieks when the wind blows north-north-west.’
The old man listened, but he could no longer hear the wind. He could not even hear the little girl’s breathing or feel her warmth against his ribs. Unobtrusively the stranger’s voice had carried him onto another plane of existence. The painful squeaks and wails as the Mountain Orchestra tuned their instruments made the stone floor beneath his fingertips vibrate.
‘My own posthumous career has been more successful,’ observed the stranger, and his eyes took on the wistful expression they held when he talked about his art. ‘I began my reign as conductor with a simple funeral march for all the lost souls. You know the sort of thing, a lot of cold stars and blowing dust, nothing too complex for my newly-trained musicians. Little by little we progressed to something more complex: a green bud here or there pushing out of the ashes, a solitary bird sitting on a dead branch. Cellos and bassoons hinted at stirrings in the earth as it quickened towards new life. Piccolos monitored the movements of approaching rainclouds. I’ll never forget the moment when we launched into a fully-fledged allegro maestoso to celebrate the rebirth of Spring. Since then – well, to tell the truth I’ve never recaptured that moment of glory. The triumphal march of returning life was the overture, as I see it now, for my career’s decline and fall. We’ve had our ups and downs since then, wrong notes, fluffed passages, entire compositions played out of tune or back to front. And I’ve been getting very tired in recent years. I’m sorry for what happened to your lakeside village; I fell asleep at about the seventeen millionth bar of the Peace Pavane and the Beast must have twitched in its sleep. I woke up in the cave this morning, so stiff I couldn’t move a muscle. Fortunately the Mountain Orchestra has filled the gap with some courageous improvisation, despite their lack of experience in such matters. Nevertheless, I think the time has come when I must cede my baton to my successor. And here you are, ready and waiting to step onto the podium at the moment of need. The question is: will you take up the challenge?’
The stranger’s voice had got steadily fainter as he talked. When the old man looked at him again he saw to his horror that his legs had vanished from the knees downwards and his eyes had lost their light. He seemed to be gazing at some scene beyond the cave wall. The old man watched and listened intently, hoping for some clue as to what that scene might be. All he could see, however, was darkness, all he could hear the flutter of his heart, the steady breathing of the little girl, the murmur of the blood-tide in his eardrums. Or was it the clatter of cutlery on silver plates and the murmur of voices against a background of gentle music, somewhere deep in the heart of the mountain? For a moment he could not tell.
‘Wait, wait!’ he cried in panic. ‘I’m not qualified at all! I’m only a humble violinist! Shouldn’t the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra be a celebrated musician like yourself?’
The stranger gave a ghost of his nasty grin. ‘Don’t kid yourself,’ he said. ‘I was no celebrated musician in my lifetime. I hung around at street corners turning the handle of a barrel organ and leering horribly at passers by. They would pay to make me stop leering. Sordid, I tell you! No, the Beast can’t tell an orchestra from a one man band. There’s nothing to worry about. Conducting’s easy; it’s merely a question of bobbing up and down with a little white stick to keep the musicians awake. Anything more is just a matter of pride. Start with something nice and simple like the grass growing, daylight filtering into the cave, or fish asleep in a forgotten pool at the mountain’s roots. You’ll have moved on to thunderstorms and the dawn chorus before you know it. And how about throwing in a violin fantasia from time to time seeing you’re a fiddle player? Everyone loves the screech of the highest note on a G string.’ And he leered again, even as his body was disappearing right up to his lapels.
‘Wait, wait!’ the old man cried again. ‘How can I be sure the Beast will stay asleep? And who are you anyway? How do I know you’re telling the truth?’
‘You can’t; you don’t,’ said the former conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. ‘And now goodbye. I’m due a hundred and fifty-seven years’ back payment of Eternal Reward.’ With that he vanished completely. For a moment it was as if a curtain of rock had been twitched aside. A colourful ball of jazz music bounced through the cave and out into the night, followed by a rich smell of roast meat and a mechanical canary. For the last time the old man called out, ‘Wait!’, but the cry only emphasized its own futility. He did not doubt that Dr Colossus Retch had already taken his first mouthful of everlasting soup.
‘It’s all right, I’m not going anywhere,’ said the little girl, waking up at the sound of his voice and taking his right hand. ‘But it’s so cold in here I think we’ll die.’
In the feeble light of a mountain dawn, the old man tried to examine her cheeks and pale cracked lips for signs of hypothermia, but soon he found that his aching eyes would not focus on her face. In fact he could see the front row of the Mountain Orchestra through her chest. She was fading from his sight, and other things in the cave were becoming visible. A carpet of luminous weeds decorated the floor, a curious chair stood in one corner, and Granny Small, about the size of a shrimp, was peering at him from a nook in the ceiling. He noticed a slender white stick on the carpet by his violin and flexed his right hand, ready to pick it up. Even as he rejoiced in the flow of blood to the fingertips he was aware that for the little girl they remained as cold and still as granite.
‘You won’t die, my dear,’ he told her, making a determined effort to use his tongue instead of his mind. ‘But I must go. I’ve just been offered a job with the Mountain Orchestra; an important job which begins at once; I really can’t say no. You’ll be musician for the village now. You’ll be magnificent.’
‘Me?’ cried the little girl. ‘But I’m not good enough! I don’t play anything!’
‘You’ve got your voice,’ the old man pointed out, ‘and you know all the songs. Will you sing to me now?’
The little girl couldn’t hear what he said, but she decided to sing for him anyway, partly because she thought he would like it, partly to see if her voice would do instead of a violin, and partly to stop herself thinking about the Beast, which had started to prey on her thoughts again as soon as she woke. That was how she pictured the scene years later: herself kneeling by the old man’s side with his hand in hers, music trailing out of her mouth in a silver thread as long and strong as a piece of twine spun by Granny Small. As the thread got longer it grew in size, bouncing off the walls deep down inside the tunnel at the back of the cave, lengthening and thickening until it became a clashing chain of notes, both sweet and harsh, as though the mountain itself were singing. After a while she stopped because the sound had started to scare her, but it continued to ring in the caves of her ears for a long time after.
The old man stood up with a sigh and stretched till his backbone cracked. Then he strode to the mouth of the cave with determined strides. He found he was wearing the stranger’s tail-coat with the fraying cuffs and the musty smell. It was too small for him, but now he remembered it hadn’t fit the stranger either. Underneath he still wore his own shirt, stiff with sweat and blood. ‘They could at least have provided a clean white shirt-front,’ he told himself irritably.
Before going out he took one look behind him to make sure he had left some suitable remains to keep the little girl company. He was shocked at how ill the corpse looked. The little girl had dropped off back to sleep in the crook of its arm.
With some difficulty he clambered up on his rostrum; each leg seemed to sink through each step to the height of his knee. By the time he reached the top he was submerged in fog to hip level and still sinking; at this rate, he thought, he would vanish into the abyss before he’d had a chance to lift the baton for the very first time. But then a flurry of clapping broke out among the violins, taken up with ghostly enthusiasm by the rest of the players. He rose a little, then rose some more when the cellists cheered. The old man graced them with a small, stiff bow, and when he straightened found that his feet were firmly planted on the boards of the rostrum. He struck the top with his little white stick to test its solidity. It gave out a satisfying clack, and the musicians’ eyes opened wide in anticipation. He smiled encouragingly – for his own sake as much as for theirs – and raised the baton.
‘Now then, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’
The little girl didn’t notice that the old man had died until the villagers found her curled up beside him the following morning. They buried him under a pile of rocks near the mouth of the cave. Then they walked on over the mountain, carrying the little girl with them on a worn-out armchair and accompanied all the way by a wicked wind. They found many things on the other side: things Granny Small had led them to expect and things she hadn’t mentioned; wanderings in woods and rests by rivers; cities full of noise and pain and the bright clean city where they made their home. By that time the little girl had grown up into a tall strong woman and her voice had grown to the size and strength of the mountain voice she had heard in the cave when she sang to the old man. Old and young men vied for her hand, and a musician won it.
But years later the woman wandered out into the city gardens and up onto the ramparts. As the fog rose out of the woods her mind wandered away to the distant mountains. She had often told the story of the old man’s death, sometimes taking out the smile he had given her, polishing it on her skirt and passing it round among her listeners. With the passing time she embroidered the story as he would have done himself. She insisted that he was still making music in the mountains, conducting a ghostly assembly of musicians called the Mountain Orchestra, who played till their bones ached and their insubstantial heads rang to make sure that the Beast stayed fast asleep. She said that if you listened hard enough you could sometimes hear soaring above the strains of the mountain wind and the chattering burns the silver thread of melody spun by the last of the Rebus violins. She prayed that the old man was not prone to numbness in the fingers.
One thing she had recently added to the story. Was it not possible, she would ask, that with time and the Orchestra’s diligent playing the nature of the Beast would begin to change? That the baroque musical architecture which she knew the old man favoured would enter its skull and impose a gentler structure on its savagery? Was it foolish to hope that next time the Beast stirred in its sleep it wouldn’t reduce the forests and villages to ash, but would instead murmur one of the Mountain Orchestra’s melodies back at them, as the mountain had done on the night she sang the old man out of this life and into the next?
The night laid cold dark hands on the woman’s face, and she let a carefully regulated tear roll down each cheek. One for sorrow, one for joy.
[This post was inspired by a series of workshops called the What If Consortium, organised by the writers Helen Marshall and Kim Wilkins of the University of Queensland and involving scholars and writers from all over the world. The aim of the project is to explore the concept of Story Thinking, which uses creative writing methods drawn from speculative fiction to help transdisciplinary teams imagine and find solutions for complex problems collaboratively and effectively. In preparation for the workshops I read some of Helen’s work, for which she has won (among other things) a World Fantasy Award. I quickly found that her novel The Migration might be read as offering a fine example of Story Thinking in action. The post is intended as a contribution to the cogitations of the What If Consortium; and it’s also intended to form part of a case for fantasy as a genre that can contribute as much to real-world problem solving as science fiction can, despite the tendency to forget about it when the affordances of speculative fiction are under discussion. Or is ‘solving’ the right word? I prefer ‘resolution’, I think, which pays attention to the dialogic processes which are an essential feature of collaborative enterprises, and gestures towards music as a model rather than mathematics. Any good conference, classroom discussion, workshop series or in-depth conversation should have a close affinity with a concert, though I have to admit there’s not much about music in what follows…
Please be warned that there are numerous spoilers in this post.]
Oxford is the birthplace of fantasy. Charles Dodgson wrote his Alice books there, surreal dream worlds that helped define the distinctive art of the twentieth century. Tolkien and Lewis met there and formed the Inklings, a reading and talking group which played midwife to the most influential fantasies of modern times: The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956). These books were written by scholars and reflect their interests, from Dodgson’s fascination with sophistry and riddles to Tolkien’s delight in ancient Northern European cultures, whose material and literary remains survive only in serendipitous fragments – including riddles – and which he painstakingly embeds in a rich new context, making them whole in the ultimate fulfilment of a scholar’s dreams. Scholarship sits lightly on the pages of these seminal fantasies: in the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of the messengers Hatta and Haigha, in the prefatory matter to The Fellowship of the Ring, in the textbooks used by the tutor Doctor Cornelius to instruct the future monarch Prince Caspian of Narnia in behaviour fit for a king. Oxford, where Dodgson, Tolkien and Lewis lived, is a city redolent of magic as well as of scholarship, with bizarre grotesques sprouting from its towers and spires and turrets, hidden gardens revealing themselves through the keyholes of old locked doors, a thousand waterways teeming with wildlife forming a maze in and around its streets, which get regularly flooded in periods of bad weather. It has urban myths aplenty, from the Underground Cathedral of Saint Giles, which can be entered via the steps to a Victorian toilet near the Martyrs’ Memorial, to the rumoured discovery of well-dressed skeletons in an underground brook near Christ Church Meadows. And the city spawns new myths weekly – at least, it was still doing so when I last visited in 2019.
No wonder, then, if Oxford has continued to generate beguiling fantasies since Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien set off on their final journeys to another world. Many of these fantasies touch on themes which Tolkien and Lewis chose to ignore: the past understood as a deadly curse relating to toxic masculinity, as in Joan Aiken’s The Shadow Guests (1980); colonialism in Oxford’s museums, as partly acknowledged by Penelope Lively in The House in Norham Gardens (1974); the exclusion of women from much of the university’s history, and the careful replication of the British class system in Oxford’s colleges, as mimicked in the alternative Oxford of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995). It was a stroke of genius, then, for Helen Marshall to set her weird novel The Migration in the city where modern fantasy had its birth, as she charts the progression of what could well be the death of fantasy. In The Migration all the elements I’ve listed combine to create a peculiarly modern narrative: from medieval scholarship (here a historian’s investigations into the science of the Black Death) to riddles (what is the mysterious ailment that is killing young people all over the world?) to myths, legends and fantastic stories, as the ailment sparks off wild rumours only marginally less bizarre than its possibly ancient causes and modern symptoms. Set all these elements against the backdrop of a world which is falling apart because of the climate catastrophe and you have a potent reinvention of Oxford fantasy, a love-letter to Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien which is also a rallying cry for a revolutionary new way of seeing the world, and an urgent warning to take collective action before it’s too late, if it isn’t already.
Marshall’s Oxford is seen through the eyes of a teenage stranger. For Sophie Perella from Toronto, the buildings, history and habits of Oxford are just as strange as the strange events breaking out all over the globe. She shares her foreignness with the boy Cosmo in Aiken’s The Shadow Guests, who is from Australia but whose name proclaims him a citizen of the planet; with the Ugandan scholar John Sempebwa in Lively’s The House in Norham Gardens, who mournfully teaches fourteen-year-old Oxford girl Clare Mayfield two or three things about British colonial history; with the young Greek refugee Anna in Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic (2016), whose first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war makes 1920s Oxford look like a different universe – until she learns it harbours horrors of its own. Oxford for them is already weird before weird things start happening to them. Apart from anything else, they are young and Oxford is old, an embodiment of the piled-up generations which helped to construct the dangerous world they now inhabit. Sophie’s youthfulness in Marshall’s book is constantly reaffirmed by the fact that it’s written in the present tense, a tense never used for fiction by Lewis, Tolkien or Carroll, a tense that stresses the unpredictable nature of the story we’re reading. Past tense tells us that someone at least comes out of the story alive, that what happened is safely over, done and dusted, gone but not forgotten. Present tense tells us that the narrative voice could be the voice of the dead, speaking perhaps out of the ruins not only of their own life but of the whole cultural system that produced them. It implies that what we’re reading about is going on right here and now, even as we read. It’s also the preferred tense of Young Adult fiction. For the young, almost anything they come across is a surprise, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes shocking. Present tense ensures that we, like the young, have no idea what will happen next or how it will end.
Death is present from the opening pages of Marshall’s novel, and with it a sense that the nature of death is one of the many things in the world we don’t have a grip on. In a brief prologue, Sophie recognises the domination of her life by death when she recalls her games of playing dead as a very young child. Sophie tells us she played these games ‘before I knew what dead meant – what it really meant’, she adds (p. 1); but the rest of the book is dedicated to erasing any certainties we might have had as to what really means. The word’s meaning remains elusive throughout the prologue. ‘By the time I was older,’ Sophie tells us, ‘I understood more of the way the world worked, but it still wasn’t real dead I was playing at. It was something else. Something mysterious and terrifying. Like kissing a boy for the first time’ (p. 2). When her younger sister Kira joins in the games of playing dead, Sophie finds it deeply uncomfortable to see her sprawled out lifeless beside her and tickles the child till she moves and giggles, breaking the spell. In this way the comfort of a faux recovery eases the terror of perceiving death as a final ending. But by the end of the prologue, death has got caught up with the idea of memory – traces in the mind of what came before – which itself threatens to lose its function, as Sophie’s recollections of her life in Toronto begin to fade in another enactment of the dying process. The prologue ends with a plaintive acknowledgement of open-endedness. As an older child, Sophie tells us, she thought of death as ‘the feeling of rest after a long journey’ (p. 8). But her journey from Toronto to Oxford did not bring her rest. As a result of what happened next, she goes on, she now thinks of death as a ‘doorway’ and doesn’t wish to know what’s on the other side (p. 8). Portals to Narnia can be read as doorways to death, as the many doorways in The Last Battle (1956) disturbingly drive home. The prologue informs us that Sophia’s doorway leads nowhere so comforting or stable as a land of instructive lions, articulate beavers and walking trees.
From the beginning, then, Marshall’s book announces its preoccupation with questions about which Lewis and Tolkien had strong convictions: with the destination, for example, of the individual human identity after the death of the body; or with the problem of how far the past impinges on the present, to what extent its traces retain some semblance of life, how far they remain entangled in and relevant to the struggles of the living. These questions acquire a personal urgency for Sophie when her sister Kira falls ill. The girl suffers from an unknown condition which is rapidly spreading, jumping from child to child, from youth to youth across the world with unnerving speed, like a coronavirus that singles out the young instead of the old (the novel was written, of course, before the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic). It’s this condition, called JI2, that sends Sophie’s family from Toronto to Oxford, where cutting-edge research is being carried out on treatments for it (the temptation to mention AstraZeneca is irresistible). Sophie, then, heads to Oxford in a quest for answers; but what she finds is only more questions, about the past as well as the present. The treatment, as it turns out, is not effective – at least, not effective in certain crucial respects. Sophie’s world has no more certainties in it, and none of its occupants has much in the way of faith: in religion, in their fellow humans, or indeed in science, which has claimed in the past to find sure means to avert disaster. All conventional terms and familiar concepts have been destabilized, and the city of Oxford itself is vulnerable, its network of waterways rendered treacherous by the increasing frequency of deadly storms and torrential rain.
The clash of past and present is everywhere in Sophie’s new life in Oxford. Cut off from the past – her father stayed behind in Toronto, as did her best friend Jaina – Sophie has to rebuild her network of relationships almost from scratch, beginning with Aunt Irene, an Oxford historian with whom she and her family are staying. Irene’s specialism in history is death: the Black Death, to be precise, which swept through the world in the Fourteenth Century, wiping out populations on a scale unequalled since. And Irene’s research has direct relevance to the new pandemic of youth. Traces of the same hormone have been found in the corpses of the Black Death’s victims and the victims of JI2. Could the fourteenth-century plague and JI2 have something in common? Certainly both have called into question previous certainties, faiths, and social structures; and as Sophie begins to assist her aunt with her research, she soon finds herself empathising with the terrified victims of the earlier infestation. Whether or not there is a scientific link between her time and that one, JI2 represents for Sophie a reawakening of the fourteenth-century plague, just as the calamitous weather of the twenty-first century represents a reawakening of nature in retributive fury at the accumulated centuries of human abuse. Even the weather of the fourteenth century, we learn, was correspondingly calamitous, and its extreme events may have triggered (so Sophie speculates) some momentous change in human DNA, as they have again.
Aunt Irene’s college embodies (and in this book about changing bodies the word is apt) the collision of old and new to perfection. Anachronistically known as New College it is in fact very old, having been founded in the fourteenth century when the plague was at its height. Dedicated to the meeting of young and old – undergraduates seeking instruction from established scholars – it is also the explosive meeting point for the past pandemic and its modern equivalent. ‘Did you know,’ Aunt Irene asks Sophie, as if the teenager could somehow have acquired an older woman’s knowledge through her traumatic experiences of disease and migration, ‘Did you know that most of the quads in the College used to be burial pits for plague victims?’ (p. 47). There are, in fact, as Sophie realises, ‘bodies underneath us right now’, telling a story of an old calamity that might unlock the secrets of the new one. It’s from a base in New College that the young people of Oxford rise up in protest against the social restrictions that are being increasingly imposed on them as the pandemic spreads. At one point in the novel Sophie follows the New College students to a party in a graveyard, in defiance of the curfew. The graveyard belongs to a little chapel known as Saint Bartlemas, in East Oxford, where New College students often sought solace when the Black Death was raging, hoping for bodily regeneration through the intervention of the relics there, which included a piece of Saint Bartholomew’s skin (the saint was martyred by being flayed). At this chapel, where the students and scholars gathered annually in medieval times on May Day and Ascension Day, occurs a key moment in the conflict between the infected young and their censorious elders: a chaotic fight between police and undergraduates sparked off by an act of police violence. Several students die in the fight and one policeman. Later, it’s the records of one of the undergraduates who died that confirm for Sophie exactly what is happening to the diseased. A sympathetic doctor hands her the dead boy’s medical records, and Sophie’s reading of this archival document links up with her part-time researches for Aunt Irene to bring past and present fully alive with unprecedented clarity. Aunt Irene’s investigations into the Black Death and the deaths of modern university students place that ancient institution, New College, at the epicentre of the revolutions and evolutions of the twenty-first century.
But Marshall’s Oxford is a site of industrial as well as intellectual labour. There have been long-standing tensions between Town and Gown – between local inhabitants and the intellectuals who gravitate to the University from all over the world – and these tensions are invariably understood in terms of class. Sophie herself occupies a space between the two populations. She attends a private school for girls and lives in the house of an academic, but the boy she falls in love with is a local boy from a half-derelict working-class estate, whose previous girlfriend – also local, also working-class – was an Oxford student who died of JI2. Sophie’s ties to the Town have a geographical, emotional and architectural centre, just like her ties to the Gown or university. Her first trip with her academic Aunt is not to a medieval site – though there are plenty such visits at later points in the book – but to the neighbourhood of the former cement works at Shipton on Cherwell, where stands ‘a tower, at least a hundred feet tall, jutting into the sky’ (p. 13): the cement works chimney. Kira mistakes this at first for a castle, having been prepared by her mother back home in Toronto to expect an England full of castles. Aunt Irene promises to take her to see a proper castle – the one at nearby Warwick – but the cement works chimney has more in the way of history than any decaying military fortification. It’s an integral part, for instance, of Irene’s own past – the place where she met a man who was perhaps her lover, ‘a quarry engineer who sometimes did freelance work assessing dig sites for the School of Archaeology’ (p. 14). This half-forgotten love story invokes the many points of convergence between Town and Gown in Oxford’s history, their symbiotic relationship despite the tensions between them. And it invokes for Sophie the disruption of her personal history by the onset of the pandemic. In Toronto she had always assumed that her future would involve a university education. Uprooted from Canada at a time when the world is waking up to a new Black Death, accompanied by unprecedented storms and temperature changes, such comfortable expectations have quickly come to seem beyond the pale. As a result, the ruins of the cement works look more like the pictures she is painting in her mind of the world’s future, stripped of its human population, quickly reclaimed by vegetation, its soundscape dominated by the calls of birds – like the ‘fantastic noise’ made by a flock of starlings that suddenly materialises near the abandoned factory, twisting itself into ‘complicated patterns and ghostly shapes’ as if to sketch out an unreadable prediction of things to come (and the incident clearly invokes the Roman habit of reading omens in the flights of birds) (p. 16). But its resemblance to a ruined castle means that the chimney is also tied to the past, or to an imagined alternative past which is always invading the present in fantastic stories, as doors open into it from wardrobes or pictures, or figures from it come striding or stumbling into the modern landscape, as in the work of Susan Cooper. And it is a brave and impetuous act by Sophie herself that brings the chimney back to life, rendering it urgently relevant despite its derelict condition.
It’s to the chimney that Sophie decides to bring the corpse of her sister after she has died of JI2 – stealing her from the hospital mortuary and smuggling her out of the city in her Aunt’s requisitioned Renault. It’s in the chimney that the body undergoes a wonderfully unsettling metamorphosis, reminiscent at first of the pupa stage in an insect’s development. It’s at the chimney that Sophie gets to know the Town boy, Bryan, an amateur engineer who becomes her lover, just as an older engineer became Irene’s; and it’s there that she learns to let the transmuted Kira go, to stop trying to keep her as the child she once was, the child she is no longer. The chimney even becomes a kind of chute or birth canal leading from this life to the next, as the resurrected, changed and now airborne Kira batters her way like a giant moth towards the circle of light at its distant apex. Finally, the chimney is the place where Sophie and Bryan plot together to acquire for themselves the secret of flight, building a powered paraglider or paramotor with which they hope to make contact with the freshly-fledged dead, the youthful angels of the climate apocalypse, Kira among them. The chimney, then, like New College, is a brooding and birthing place where the future can be germinated from the seeds of now.
It’s the place, too, where the impossible happens, taking over from New College as the central site of Oxford fantasy. This new version of the impossible is forged from the kinds of technical ingredients largely ignored by the scholarly Inklings: a petrol engine, a foam seat fitted with recycled seatbelts, the ‘giant steel circle of welded pipes’ which forms the paramotor’s frame (p. 318) – a witty homage to Tolkien’s One Ring, with the chimney as its Barad-dûr. The paramotor becomes Sophie’s obsession, just as the Ring becomes Frodo’s, and a similar aura of destructiveness clings to it, reinforced by the fact that it’s powered by fossil fuels. But it’s also an emblem of something like hope out of despair. Aunt Irene considers this kind of hope – the hope of an afterlife, the hope of a new phase of evolution that might involve some kind of resurrection from the dead – as no more than ‘magical thinking’ (p. 304), an anachronistic state of mind which might have been suitable for the fourteenth-century victims of the Black Death, because of the different ‘conceptual schema’ by which they lived (p. 303), but has lost its validity since the Millennium. Sophie and Bryan, however, who grew up with an easy familiarity with the miracles of science and technology, see magical thinking as a blueprint for action. Bugs undergo astonishing changes every day, resurrecting themselves from the tomb of the chrysalis or pupa. The laws of physics keep being rewritten, as the impossible proves possible in each successive generation. Technology shows itself capable of replicating some of the bizarrest actions of the natural world – such as the flying technique of the bumble bee, as imitated by ‘Herr Cederberg’ in the short story by Karin Tidbeck. And the cement works chimney might just be the channel or conduit which will take human thought and action, if not science and technology, to a whole new level.
Marshall’s book, then, has something interesting to say about the impulse to indulge ourselves in fantasy and the fantastic, the art of the impossible. What happens to Sophie in Oxford has been prepared for in her mind by her self-immersion in often old-fashioned fantasy texts. Her idea of England is shaped in Toronto by her reading of books posted to her by the Oxford-based scholar Aunt Irene: The Ladybird Book of British History, for instance (p. 3), or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (1965-77), which deals with modern children (modern, that is, in the 60s and 70s) who are precipitated into a sudden clash between old and new, the ordinary world and a magical otherworld, for enormous stakes (p. 3). Cooper wrote The Dark Is Rising in America, although she was born and raised in Britain, so the series represents the intersection between cultures that will feature throughout Marshall’s book. Sophie also reads The Chrysalids (1955) at school in Canada, a book about a post-apocalyptic America written by the British author John Wyndham, whose title hints at insectile metamorphoses of the kind that are happening again in Sophie’s England (p. 28). A few pages later we learn more about Sophie’s reading. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), which describes a woman’s breakdown in fantastic terms and anticipates the breakdown of Sophie’s mother at one point in the novel (which is in fact a breaking down and reconstruction of her assumptions, her ‘schemata’ as Aunt Irene might call them) (p. 30). Harry Potter, whose schooldays anticipate the bizarre educational experiences of the students of New College, including their cultural war against the older generation and its police. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), comforting in a way The Migration refuses to be, though Marshall’s book freely acknowledges the necessity of comfort reading and therapeutic storytelling (p. 39). Fairy tales about appalling family crises such as Hansel and Gretel (p. 40). Peter Pan (book version, 1911), about a boy who learns to fly exactly as Kira and Sophie do (p. 160). I’ve already hinted at the presence in the novel of the Narnia books (that reference to death as a portal in the prologue), and one element of those books features prominently in it: animals (in this case bugs or birds) who share their thoughts with human beings. The novel swarms, in fact, with fantasy references, and in each case the fantasy in question has direct application to Sophie’s situation, preparing her for the wonders and horrors of the world of now. Fantasy provides her with schemata for a time of radical, painful or appalling change, despite or perhaps precisely because of its roots in the past.
One of the great moments in Marshall’s novel occurs at the point when Sophie confronts her Aunt Irene with some searching questions about her attitude to history and its bearing on the present. Sophie is almost certain that the young people such as her sister who have died of JI2 live on after death as themselves in some discernible way. Aunt Irene has spent her life studying a Medieval civilisation that believed the same thing; but for her it is ‘dangerous… to think in that way’, since ‘magical thinking’ means ‘you might do something stupid’ (p. 303), such as throwing away your only chance at adult life in a suicidal leap of faith simply because you believe that something better might come after. Aunt Irene sustains her argument with scientific discourse, as she insists that Sophie’s hopes for her sister are ill-founded:
The structure of the human brain is delicate. It can’t survive the kind of trauma those bodies are going through. So whatever lives on, even if it’s biologically alive, it isn’t the same. Don’t you think I want to believe as well that something continues on? But that’s false hope, Sophie. It’s a trick. (p. 303)
Her case against a belief in resurrection is much the same as the case an atheist might make against the delusions of a passionate believer. Yet it also echoes the arguments of the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis when he expostulated against the visions of human evolution propounded by the visionary science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon. In Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and The Star Maker (1937), Lewis contended – books which describe the future history of humanity, covering thousands and even millions of years – the human body, mind and social order undergo changes so extreme that the new life forms these books describe can no longer accurately be called human. They have lost (Lewis thought) their soul. The fact that the same reasoning can be applied both by a believer and an unbeliever suggests that the territory each occupies is not as alien as one might think. In both cases, resistance to radical ideas and the different schemata that inform them can be a screen for deeply-rooted conservatism born of timidity: fear of difference, fear of revolution, fear of extreme corporeal change.
But Sophie has scientific reasoning on her side too. ‘That’s not how history works, though, is it?’ she argues (p. 304). ‘We don’t get to put things back to how they should be because it makes life easier to understand’. In any case, she adds, the past was as full of traumatic incidents as the present: ‘There isn’t safety in the way things were’. The Black Death is proof enough of that, or the massacres and migrations that have featured throughout human history. ‘So what if there’s an answer here,’ she concludes, ‘something radical and new’ about the changes undergone by the new plague’s victims? Aunt Irene’s response to this unsettling suggestion may itself be conditioned by biology rather than reason. ‘Her eyes slide away from mine,’ Sophie observes; ‘For a moment I felt she almost grasped my line of thought but now she’s shifting away, her mind rejecting what I told her, antibodies pushing out a foreign bacterium’ (p. 305). The older woman is protecting herself against the unfamiliar, as people often do, not yet ready to ‘let it break through [her] defences, […] find a way to use it’. At the same time, Irene is a reader of fantasy and the fantastic, with Susan Cooper and John Wyndham on her shelves at home. She has not yet learned to accommodate the new, but that does not mean she never will. Like Sophie herself, Aunt Irene has been prepared for radical change by the kind of fiction she enjoys in her spare time.
Sophie’s scientific reasoning is akin to faith. As she prepares for her first desperate flight in the paramotor, the young woman recognises her half-baked plan to make some sort of contact in the sky with the newly-evolved survivors of JI2 as the definitive act of a true believer: ‘It is the only chance I have to see Kira again, even if it is a long shot. A leap of faith. I don’t know what comes next but I have to try’ (p. 319). She is spurred by the fact that she herself has now contracted JI2, which means she is already affiliated or committed to the metamorphosis her sister underwent before her. As the plague began to spread, the older generation started to think of the young as in some sense a different species, threatening the precious cultural inheritance they had hoped to pass down to their children and grandchildren; threatening, in fact, the survival of the world they thought they knew. For Sophie, by contrast, the infected young may carry the seeds of knowledge of the time to come, a wisdom she yearns for, as her name suggests. And sure enough, her desperate flight into the eye of a storm helps her gain that knowledge. In a lyrical passage, she finds Kira’s memories in her head along with her own, as well as Kira’s premonitions of the drowned world of the future, the world that will inevitably follow the melting of the polar icecaps and the onset of extreme weather incidents. It is a world for which the metamorphosed young will be fully adapted. The resurrected, airborne Kira ‘has been made for the storm – not just to survive, but to flourish in it. […] And the earth is passing away from me, the earth has hatched me. It’s hatched both of us. I can feel her closer now’ (p. 361). Myth enthusiasts may detect a reference here to the egg that hatched the twins Castor and Pollux and their sister Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen is a paradox, like the victims of JI2; she both brought about the fall of Troy and bequeathed to future generations the magnificent story of that fall, the ‘terrible beauty’ described by Yeats, somehow liberating as well as tragic. Sophie’s leap of faith is both terrible and beautiful, committing her body, like that of her sister, to the next ‘gyre’ or cycle of the world’s existence.
The book ends as it began, with the act of playing dead; but in the final chapter Sophie’s childhood games are relayed to us through the memories of her mother, now newly recovered from the breakdown brought on by her younger daughter’s death. Like Sophie, Char has always been haunted by the potential link between playing dead and ‘actual’ death. Each time she found the child Sophie acting out her own mortality, a ‘terrible fear would come over me that this time, maybe it wasn’t just playing, maybe it was real’ (p. 379). But in this final chapter, Sophie’s death is no game. The paramotor (a trivial object designed for pleasure – a means of playing with death) has crashed to the ground on its maiden flight and broken her body, and Sophie herself is about to undergo the post-mortem metamorphosis of all JI2 victims. Fantasy has been revealed once again as mental preparation for traumas to come.
But for Marshall, fantasy is more than this; especially experimental fantasy, of the sort that refuses to tread the path of slavish imitation – like The Lord of the Rings, whose familiarity sometimes makes us lose sight of just how original Tolkien’s text was at the time of writing. Sophie herself embodies such experimental fantasy, having had an ‘aura of unpredictability’ since birth, in her mother’s eyes, arriving ten weeks before her due date with bluish skin, yet surviving against all odds in an incubator and emerging stronger for the ordeal. Unpredictable fantasy – the sort whose ending you cannot guess when you start reading – can help us understand and resist brutality of various kinds, as is hinted at in the name of the doctor who wishes to take Sophie’s corpse for experimental treatment in his lab (he is ‘Lane Ballard’, a clear allusion to the dark visions of the future hatched by the former trainee doctor, J. G. Ballard, in his so-called ‘space fiction’). But experimental fantasy also enables us to confront the impossible, inhabit it, make it our home. Magical thinking gave Char hope in her early days as a mother, as she waited to find out if her premature baby would emerge from the incubator dead or alive. ‘“Live,” I whispered as I looked at you behind the glass, “please, live”’ (p. 383). But, she adds in the present as she breathes the same words while waiting to see if her broken daughter will live or die, ‘it doesn’t always work like that, does it? Only in fairy tales does it work like that’. Baby Sophie obeyed the logic of fairy tales in her childhood – the ‘magical thinking’ they encourage; but the laws of chance, Char thinks, make it unlikely this will happen again.
Sure enough, teenage Sophie doesn’t live; or rather, she ‘really’ dies. But fairy tales can be as unpredictable as any other kind of fiction, especially if you turn to non-European storytelling traditions. An Egyptian fairy tale known to Char, which Sophie used to read to Kira, tells of a heron who rebuilt the world after the Deluge, the universal flood which is also described in the Old Testament and classical legend. This tale told by a child to her sister offers a model for seeing a way out of the climate crisis: a way that involves stepping sideways from one form of life – the dominant form of our time, the life of human beings under late capitalism – into another whose schemata are unfamiliar to us, as unfamiliar as the notion of a heron as the world’s creator. Sophie and Kira take that sideways step or leap, with trepidation and excitement. In tracing their transition to another schema, Marshall’s book refashions Oxford, the birthplace of the fantastic, as the birthplace of a new fantastic, better suited to our needs at a time of accelerated global change. Readers of all generations can learn from this refashioning.
 Marshall alludes obliquely to both these myths in her novel. I leave it to you to spot the references!
[I’m deep in the marking season, so haven’t had time to finish the blog post I was working on this month. Instead I’m putting up an essay from a few years ago, adding to the discussions of Irish fantasy you can find elsewhere on this blog. The essay was published in Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), pp. 136-51, expertly edited by Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan and John McCourt. A Russian translation by Shasha Martynova is also available here, edited for Gorky by Maxim Nemtsov.
You can find more on James Stephens here, and on Flann O’Brien here.]
In this essay I shall argue that Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1940) is (among other things) a radical reimagining of one of the best-loved Irish novels of the twentieth century: James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912). In reworking Stephens’s quirky nationalist fantasy for a later generation, O’Brien arranges elements of the earlier novel into strange new forms adapted to the grim new social and political realities of the 1930s. Stephens conceived his book as an imaginative act of resistance against the unholy alliance of the church and the British state, pitting mutually supportive poverty against the reactionary self-interest of the middle classes, the passionate body against the cultural and religious authorities who sought to suppress it, and predicting a brilliant future for an independent, egalitarian, quasi-pagan Irish nation. O’Brien reconceives the novel as an elaborate trap, in which Ireland, its people and its landscape wholeheartedly participate in the worldwide trend towards totalitarian authoritarianism and its inevitable outcome: self-destruction. The chief components of both novels are a pastoral, often lyric vision of the Irish countryside, a clutch of self-educated philosophers, a man condemned to death and some eccentric but threatening policemen. How and why such similar elements should have been recombined to produce such radically different texts, each of which issues an equally scathing assessment of the condition of Ireland at its own particular point in history, is the subject of this essay.
O’Brien’s debt to Stephens has often been noted. In 1966 an anonymous essayist argued in the Times Literary Supplement that O’Brien owed more to the ‘tradition of modern Irish fantasy and romance in which the definitive figure is James Stephens’ than to Joycean modernism (though there seems no good reason to choose between these debts, since Joyce and Stephens were friends). Thirty years later, Keith Hopper pointed out that Sergeant Pluck is ‘a fictional composition of […] features borrowed from other texts (most notably James Stephens’s policemen in The Crock of Gold)’; while Carol Taaffe has recently contended that the ‘nearest predecessor to O’Nolan’s fantasy was James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold’. None of these commentators took their perceptions much further; but the sheer frequency with which O’Brien’s debt to Stephens has been affirmed suggests that a close comparison is overdue. And Taaffe’s comments in particular open up a number of fruitful avenues of inquiry.
For Taaffe, The Third Policeman is a ‘resolutely apolitical piece of nonsense’ (my emphasis), which reflects O’Brien’s ambiguous attitude to de Valera’s Ireland, caught between anger at and complicity with its oppressive paternalism towards its citizens. It seems to me, though, that O’Brien’s evident fascination with The Crock of Gold could be read as the key to a decidedly political reading of The Third Policeman, which reinforces Shelly Brivic’s contention that an ‘insurrectionary attitude’ lurks beneath the surface of O’Brien’s masterpiece. Neither The Crock of Gold nor James Stephens could be described as in any sense ‘apolitical’, embroiled as they were in the ferment of nationalist activism that preceded the outbreak of the First World War. O’Brien’s decision, then, to redraft Stephens’s book in the context of the nationalist ferment that preceded the Second can itself be seen as a political act. That the political outlooks in question are so different can be ascribed to the different class backgrounds of the two writers, as well as to the times in which they wrote. And these differences emerge most clearly in the contrasting imaginative economies of their novels.
Stephens saw himself as having been shaped by the economic conditions of his upbringing. In a fragment of autobiography he represents his early life in terms of a series of transitions from one social milieu to another:
The Dublin I was born to was poor and Protestant and athletic. While very young I extended my range and entered a Dublin that was poor and Catholic and Gaelic – a very wonderworld. Then as a young writer I further extended to a Dublin that was poor and artistic and political. Then I made a Dublin for myself, my Dublin.
The recurring note throughout these transitions is one of poverty. Stephens was educated at the Meath Industrial School for Protestant Boys, for which he qualified by getting himself arrested for begging at the age of six. He left school at sixteen to work for a pittance as a solicitor’s clerk, a life from which he was precariously set free by the success of his writing. Brian O’Nolan, by contrast, came from a Catholic middle-class background, took a Master’s degree in Irish literature at University College Dublin, and followed his father into the Civil Service. His father’s early death left O’Nolan to support eleven siblings, but thanks to O’Nolan’s salary the family never experienced poverty. At the same time, as a native Irish speaker O’Nolan was intensely conscious of the quasi-mythical link that had been forged by scholars and patriots between economic deprivation and the Irish language. The association formed the basis of his satire An Béal Bocht (1941), where the purest Irish is spoken by starving peasants who are kept artificially segregated from modernity, by government decree, in a fantastic Gaeltacht. Stephens and O’Nolan, then, had radically different experiences of poverty, but shared an intense awareness of the economic basis of relations between classes, between nations, between an author and his readers; and this awareness manifests itself on every page of their strangely linked masterpieces.
The dominant economy of The Crock of Gold is a romanticized version of the economics of the working classes, underpinned by the custom of gift exchange among the travellers who throng its rural highways. Men and women in Stephens’s Ireland are always sharing bread, as well as advice and information, with random strangers they meet on the road. At one point the protagonist, an elderly Philosopher, generously shares his one small cake with seven large labourers, male and female, and is rewarded with the ‘larger part’ of a food parcel belonging to one of them. Later, when he is hungry again, he meets a young boy who tells him ‘I am bringing you your dinner’ and spontaneously hands over another food parcel. The generosity of strangers extends to the courtesies they exchange, verbal equivalents of the material gifts that sustain them on their travels. Having finished the meal donated to him by the boy the Philosopher tells his benefactor, ‘I want nothing more in the world […] except to talk with you’, and the two quickly discover there is ‘not so much difference’ between a child and an old man. And each of these chance encounters – with the boy and with the labourers – concludes with the Philosopher giving the strangers important messages from the Irish god Angus Óg, which serve to bind together the community of the poor in a single purpose: the democratization of the reawakened Irish nation.
The Third Policeman, by contrast, is dominated by the economics of the middle classes, based on individual self-advancement, a paranoid concern to protect what they take to be their private property (though in this book property is for the most part theft and the concept of ownership problematic), and a penchant for aggressive competition in all their dealings. The verbal courtesies they exchange are as elaborate as those of Stephens’s travellers, but serve the function of a robber’s mask as they seek to con conversationalists out of their possessions and even their lives. When the unnamed first person narrator meets a ‘poorly dressed’ stranger on the road his first reaction is to check that his wallet is safe, after which he decides to ‘talk to him genially and civilly’ in the hope of coaxing information out of him. The stranger’s courteous replies to the narrator’s civility (‘More power to yourself’) lead inexorably to a threat of murder (‘Even if you have no money […] I will take your little life’), which is only averted by the discovery that both men possess an unusual feature in common – each has a wooden left leg. Shortly afterwards the friendly welcome the narrator receives at the local police station rapidly transforms itself into another death threat, when he is arrested and condemned to be hanged for a crime of which there is no evidence that he is guilty.
In O’Brien’s world, too, information is guarded jealously as a source of power, not shared as it is in Stephens’s Ireland. Policeman Pluck’s second and third rules of wisdom – the only rules he follows that have nothing to do with bicycles – are ‘Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any’ and ‘Turn everything you hear to your own advantage’. Meanwhile the driving motive for the narrator’s journey is a quest for gold to finance his pet project: the private printing of his otherwise unpublishable book on the unhinged philosopher de Selby, containing information of no conceivable value to anyone but a few scholarly authorities on the man himself – and to its author, of course, who hopes to join their exalted ranks by virtue of his volume. O’Brien’s inversion of Stephens’s economy could not be more complete, and the competition between individuals and social classes that underpins it – in contrast to the communal interests that dominate The Crock of Gold – can be summed up in the narrator’s contempt, as a would-be scholar, for the intellects of the men he meets (‘I decided now that he was a simple man and that I would have no difficulty in dealing with him exactly as I desired’), as he kills and lies his way towards the cashbox he requires to fund his project.
Stephens composed The Crock of Gold in a ferment of political and personal optimism. The year of its publication, 1912, saw the publication of the other two books that made his name: a quasi-realist novel, The Charwoman’s Daughter, and the poetry collection that cemented his reputation as one of the finest Irish poets of his generation, The Hill of Vision. The immediate success of these volumes prompted him to give up his job as a clerk, acquire an agent, and set off to seek his fortune in Paris. His plans for the future, as the title of his poetry collection suggests, were ambitious. He shared the vision of an independent socialist Ireland with his friends and fellow poets Thomas MacDonagh and Patrick Pearce, both of whom died in the Easter Rising; and he dreamed of giving a suitable literary form to this vision by writing a multi-volume epic based on the Ulster Cycle, a work worthy of the richly creative and egalitarian society he expected Ireland to become. But the Free State turned out very different from the Ireland he had imagined, and he completed only fragments of this project. It is therefore his two celebrated prose works of 1912, along with his early lyrics, that best articulate his youthful ambitions for his country.
O’Nolan seems to have been thinking about Stephens a good deal around the time when he was writing The Third Policeman. In 1938 he wrote to the older novelist asking permission to translate The Crock of Gold into Irish; and as Taaffe points out, if this permission had been forthcoming the translation ‘would have been his next project after At Swim-Two-Birds’ – would have taken the place, in fact, of The Third Policeman in the chronology of O’Nolan’s major works. Stephens’s refusal denied twentieth-century Irish literature what might have been one of its collaborative masterpieces; but it also enabled his fiction to undergo some unexpected mutations in the crucible of O’Nolan’s imagination. In 1941, for instance, The Crock of Gold cropped up in Cruiskeen Lawn as one of the prized items on offer to wealthy customers of the Myles na cGopaleen ‘book handling’ service. In the de luxe version of this service, Myles’s team of so-called ‘master handlers’ undertake to upgrade your private book collection (for a suitable fee) by padding it out with classic volumes, their title pages inscribed with ‘forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work’, including an expression of esteem from ‘Your old friend, James Stephens’. Stephens’s influence may also be detected ‘in the erudite dialogues of the Pooka and the Good Fairy’ in At Swim-Two-Birds, as Taaffe points out, which recall the dialogues between the Philosopher and his brother in The Crock of Gold; and in the many bar-room rhetoricians of Cruiskeen Lawn, who resemble the sponging old gentleman-philosopher in Stephens’s story collection Here Are Ladies (1913). It can be traced in O’Brien’s description of Sergeant Pluck, whose ‘violent red moustache […] shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal’, evoking the red moustache of the equally huge policeman in The Charwoman’s Daughter, which ‘stood out above his lip like wire’ so that ‘One expected it to crackle when he touched it’. Even the famous multiple personae O’Nolan adopted might remind us of Stephens’s many pen-names, from Tiny Tim to the Leprechaun, James Esse, Jacques and Seumas Beg.
In 1940, O’Nolan accomplished his most extended act of translation from the work of Stephens: The Third Policeman, which translates The Crock of Gold into terms directly applicable to the global situation at the beginning of a second Great War and at the end of the depression. The fact that this is a translation of a sort emerges most clearly in the plot of each novel, which links capitalist economics to the crime of murder. In both books the desire for capital leads to violence; but the route from cash to aggression is quite different in each case, and the relationship between capital, violence and Ireland differs too, in ways that summarize the different worlds in which the authors found themselves.
The plot of The Crock of Gold involves a stock of money, the crock of the title; but the coins it contains play only a marginal role in the lives of their owners. The Leprechauns of Gort na Cloca Mora have accumulated the cash as insurance against the greed of mortal men. As one of them explains, ‘a Leprecaun [sic] has to have a crock of gold so that if he’s captured by men folk he may be able to ransom himself’. Their traditional work as shoemakers, by contrast, participates in a non-monetary economy: it is remunerated in kind by mortals through the strict preservation of certain customs, such as leaving out a pan of milk for them on Tuesdays, removing one’s hat when faced with a dust-twirl, and observing a pact of non-aggression against their special bird, the robin redbreast. The Leprechauns, then, inhabit a world where one economy is pitted against another, where the competitive thirst for accumulated capital which makes the crock necessary is set against a strategy of mutual co-operation within the working class community; and the climax of the novel sees an escalation of the conflict between these two economies, with very nearly fatal consequences for Stephens’s Philosopher.
The representatives of the capitalist economy in the novel are the policemen, called in by the Leprechauns in the course of a feud with one of their neighbours, Meehawl MacMurrachu, who stole their crock of gold on the Philosopher’s advice. In revenge, the Leprechauns frame the Philosopher for the murder of his brother; and the men who come to arrest him bring with them an alien set of values, characterised by a rigid sense of hierarchy and a propensity for violence. Where the rural people in the book’s community – mortals, gods and fairies alike – portion out their food and drink with scrupulous fairness, the policemen divide what they have according to rank, with the sergeant drinking whiskey and his subordinates milk. Where the Philosopher bases his wisdom on the behaviour of birds, beasts and insects, on the assumption that all creatures were created equal – an attitude the book endorses by recording the thoughts of donkeys, cows and spiders – the policemen treat dumb animals with brutality, as if to confirm the brutal nature of their own social function. We hear of a policeman’s pet jackdaw whose tongue was split with a coin to make it talk, and which was accidentally trampled to death by its owner’s mother; of a dog that got kicked for counting too long; and of a cat that ate her kittens, about which Policeman Shawn informs us: ‘I killed it myself one day with a hammer for I couldn’t stand the smell it made, so I couldn’t’. Soon after saying this, Policeman Shawn treats one of the Leprechauns with equal aggression. ‘Tell me where the money is or I’ll twist your neck off’, he warns, driven half mad by his lust for fairy gold; and later, ‘Tell me where the money is or I’ll kill you’. The brutality of Stephens’s policemen is connected with money in an endless cycle of cause and effect. And when the Philosopher arrives at their barracks he discovers that the citizens they police, as represented by the prisoners in the cell, have been trapped in a similar cycle, body and mind.
Both prisoners were driven to crime by unfair dismissal from jobs in the city. The first was sacked for non-attendance owing to illness, the second summarily dismissed because of his age. Both men experience unemployment as a brutalising loss of identity, expressed in their exclusion from the system of verbal exchanges that define a community. When the Philosopher first enters the cell, neither man returns his greeting – the only time in the book when a courteous gesture is not reciprocated. The prisoners tell their stories in the dark without giving their names, so it is unclear which man is speaking. And the stories they tell identify inarticulacy as the first symptom of their exclusion from social and economic significance. The sickness of one prisoner manifests itself in an inability to write out words (like Stephens he is a clerk): ‘The end of a word seemed […] like the conclusion of an event – it was a surprising, isolated, individual thing, having no reference to anything else in the world’. Here, the loss of a coherent written language is the cause of his dismissal from his job, while its effect is that speech too fails him. He stops talking to his wife, and eventually leaves his family without a word of explanation or farewell. For the second prisoner, too, the loss of his job is quickly followed by a loss of articulacy: ‘I did not allow my mind to think, but now and again a word swooped from immense distances through my brain, swinging like a comet across a sky and jarring terribly when it struck: “Sacked” was one word, “Old” was another word’. When their income is taken away, each prisoner suffers the concomitant removal of the verbal grammar that binds one term to another, and of the social grammar that links one man to his neighbour or to his sense of his own identity in the past.
In the end, it is the improbable intervention of the fairies, gods and heroes of old Ireland that frees these prisoners from the cycle of economic and social exclusion to which they have been condemned. The hosts of the Shee rise up under the leadership of Angus Óg to liberate the Irish workers in a pagan insurrection. And the most striking characteristic of the insurrectionists is their unity-in-diversity, their ability to reconcile individualism with collectivism, exuberance with organisation, as expressed in a universal language:
For these people, though many, were one. Each spoke to the other as to himself, without reservation or subterfuge. They moved freely each in his personal whim, and they moved also with the unity of one being: for when they shouted to the Mother of the gods they shouted with one voice, and they bowed to her as one man bows. Through the many minds there went also one mind, correcting, commanding, so that in a moment the interchangeable and fluid became locked, and organic with a simultaneous understanding, a collective action – which was freedom.
Stephens here represents the host of Angus Óg as practising a form of instantaneous communication, whereby they understand each other completely without discarding what makes them distinctive: precisely the obverse of the prisoners’ isolation and anonymity. And this language aspires to be uttered beyond the confines of Stephens’s narrative. The chapter in which the insurrection takes place is the only one with its own title, ‘The Happy March’, as if to ensure that its contents can be detached from the novel and deployed as the imaginative blueprint, or at least the incidental music, for an actual Irish insurrection of the kind that took place in 1916. Stephens’s book, in other words, opens up at the end, offering its contents as common currency to the Irish people in a generously inclusive gesture of the kind with which it is filled, in an attempt to liberate them by example from the prison of their colonised minds.
O’Brien’s novel, by contrast, affirms the continued entrapment of the Irish people. It reverses the class positions of the police and the novel’s protagonist – the first-person narrator – forcing the reader to take the point of view of a petit bourgeois social climber, instead of that selfless if somewhat arrogant servant of the community, Stephens’s Philosopher. In contrast to the courteous and curious Philosopher, O’Brien’s narrator feels only disdain for those he thinks of as his social inferiors – including the police. He too is a philosopher, but a parasitic one who seeks to accumulate cultural capital by publishing a wholly derivative volume, an index to the works of the incoherent savant de Selby. And de Selby himself is the polar opposite of Stephens’s genial pedant: a solipsist who refuses to engage in dialogue with other thinkers, and who sees human existence not as a single organic entity but as a series of disconnected moments (‘a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief’), each as detached from adjacent moments as he is from the rest of the human species. Where Stephens’s Philosopher draws on the collective wisdom of beasts, children and ordinary people to develop his theories, de Selby rejects any form of consensus: he ‘would question the most obvious realities and object even to things scientifically demonstrated’. And his works conduct their readers not to enlightenment but bloodshed. In the last of many footnotes on de Selby in the novel we see one of his commentators set out with bombs and guns to kill his German rival because they disagree on how the great man’s writings are to be interpreted. The link between this philosophy of exclusivity and obfuscation and the rise of Nazism is confirmed in an earlier footnote, where de Selby claims to be able to ‘state the physiological “group” of any person merely from a brief study of the letters of his name’ and avers that ‘Certain “groups” [are] universally “repugnant” to other “groups”’. One race or family, then, gets segregated from another in de Selby’s thinking, just as one moment in time gets divorced from the next; so it is hardly surprising if the narrator of O’Brien’s novel, as the great man’s acolyte, finds himself increasingly alienated from other people in the course of the narrative, baffled by their discourse, convinced that his private interests are opposed to theirs, and prepared to kill to assert his own intellectual and economic superiority to those around him.
Where Stephens locates his genial Philosopher in a gift exchange economy, O’Brien ensures that his narrator-philosopher is acutely conscious that he lives in a cutthroat capitalist environment. He knows (as does the reader) exactly how his research on de Selby is funded – through the farm and the failing pub he inherits from his parents – and how the income from these combined resources is not enough to fund the publication of his Index. He imagines the contents of the cashbox for which he kills old Mathers not as gold but as ‘Ten thousand pounds’ worth of negotiable securities’ such as stocks and bonds; so that for all his claim to be absorbed in matters of the mind he knows the market intimately. And he plans to use these assets not for some collective benefit but to enhance his financial and social worth as an individual, despite the fact that neither the cashbox nor the book he has written is his own: the cashbox belongs to Mathers and the book is made up of quotations from other writers, since in it ‘the views of all known commentators on every aspect of the savant and his work had been collated’. The only forms of interaction with the community he undertakes, in fact, are competitive, and even his conversation entails a constant jockeying for position, a quest for the upper hand that merely sinks him deeper and deeper into a self-imposed confinement of body and mind.
In O’Brien’s novel, as in Stephens’s, philosophers set out on journeys across an unspecified Irish landscape made up of rolling hills and bogland and populated by labourers, policemen, beasts and fantastical beings. But where Stephens’s Philosopher, true to his convictions, travels in order to put right the wrong he did when he gave poor advice to Meehawl MacMurrachu, O’Brien’s travels for personal profit. Where Stephens’s Philosopher encounters many women on his journey and engages in conversations with them about male-female companionship, O’Brien’s encounters only men, the closest he comes to female companionship being with an exquisitely-proportioned bicycle (designed for a man, with a cross bar), which he thinks of as utterly compliant – the ultimate patriarchal fantasy. Where Stephens’s Philosopher draws abundant conclusions from his experiences on his travels, changing his opinions on many subjects as he walks, O’Brien’s narrator constantly fantasizes about people and objects, and has a tendency to forget everything that has just happened. ‘If that watch of mine were found you would be welcome to it,’ he tells his departing soul at one point, to which his soul answers dryly, ‘But you have no watch’. This forgetfulness means he is incapable of reaping enlightenment from his adventures. In any case, with every step he moves further into a world powered by strange machines whose fabrication and functions defy analysis – such as the light boxes constructed by Policeman MacCruiskeen, or the mysterious engines tended by the police beneath the ground – and which therefore fail to illustrate any universal laws.
On his journey to put right his mistake in misadvising Meehawl, Stephens’s Philosopher makes his way into caves where gods dwell. In the first cave he encounters the Greek god Pan, in the second Angus Óg, the Celtic god of youth; and each deity presents him with something of value. Pan gives him a pleasure in his senses, Angus makes him his messenger to mortals, investing him with a sociability he did not possess before, a consciousness of and a keen interest in his place in the wider community. O’Brien’s philosopher, too, enters spaces like caves: an underground ‘eternity’ and a secret policeman’s barracks in a house’s walls; but in each he finds only policemen, personifications of an inescapable authority which is repudiated by the gods of Stephens, who ask only that mortals choose between them. Stephens’s Philosopher has to negotiate terrifying darkness and discomfort to reach Angus’s cave: ‘He could not see an inch in front, and so he went with his hands outstretched like a blind man who stumbles painfully along’. O’Brien’s narrator is similarly afflicted as he approaches the entrance to the underground eternity: ‘I […] followed the noisy Sergeant with blind faith till my strength was nearly gone, so that I reeled forward instead of walking and was defenceless against the brutality of the boughs’. But in each of the cave-like spaces the narrator enters, the underground ‘eternity’ and the secret barracks, he discovers truths about himself which he never acknowledges – in marked contrast to Stephens’s protagonist, who not only recognizes the worth of what the gods show him but seeks to share this recognition with strangers on his way home.
What O’Brien’s narrator discovers in his two ‘caves’ is his own anonymity, which arises from his myopic obsession with accumulating financial and cultural capital. When he enters eternity in the wake of Sergeant Pluck he converts everything he sees into financial terms – in contrast with Stephens’s Philosopher, who converts what he sees into topics of conversation and quirky aphorisms. For the narrator, eternity is a giant cashbox full of ‘safe-deposits such as banks have’, ‘expensive-looking cabinets’ and ‘American cash registers’. When he finds he can get what he wants there, he can only think of ordering a ‘solid block of gold weighing half a ton’, which he afterwards exchanges for a more practical quantity of valuables: ‘fifty cubes of solid gold each weighing one pound’ and ‘precious stones to the value of £200,000’. As he warms to the task of exploiting his miraculous environment, the narrator acquires the accessories of the ultimate capitalist icon, a futuristic Hollywood gangster robbing a bank vault. Along with the valuables he orders a blue serge suit and a weapon capable of killing ‘any man or any million men who try at any time to take my life’, thus transforming himself into a feeble imitation of James Cagney – its feebleness confirmed by the fact that he forgets to ask for a bag to hold his loot (Sergeant Pluck obligingly gets him one ‘worth at least fifty guineas in the open market’). This excursion into cinematic fantasy confirms the link between his capitalist values and an early death; Cagney always dies young in his gangster movies. It confirms too the groundlessness of the narrator’s sense of superiority to the rustic police. No Hollywood gangster of the 30s or 40s was permitted to profit from his crimes, and it comes as no surprise when the policemen spring their trap, informing him that he cannot take any of his precious commodities back to the world above. And it also links him, almost incidentally, to the atrocities of global conflict. The weapon he orders can kill a million men as easily as one. The narrator’s glib way with numbers, in other words, permits him to gloss mass murder as self-preservation, yoking the capitalist mentality he represents to the outbreak of the Second World War.
The second point in the novel where the narrator shows his true petitbourgeois colours comes at the end, when he finally meets the mysterious third policeman of the title. On learning that the cashbox he is looking for contains the substance omnium – the building-material from which anything and everything in the universe may be constructed – and on finding that Policeman Fox has confirmed his ownership of the box and its contents, the narrator launches into an extended series of fantasies about what he will do with it. While dismissing the pettiness of Policeman Fox’s deployment of the omnium (he uses it to make strawberry jam and to decorate his barracks), the narrator dreams of exploiting it to resolve the various more or less petty problems that have arisen in his own narrative, as related in the novel. And while each of his plans begin by sounding benevolent – giving John Divney ‘ten million pounds’ to make him go away, presenting ‘every poor labourer in the world’ with a golden bicycle – when he turns to thoughts of revenge on Sergeant Pluck his dreams mutate into nightmares. Once again his thoughts revert to the underground eternity, where his hopes of enriching himself were raised and dashed, and he proceeds to convert this mysterious space in his imagination from an Aladdin’s cave to a sadist’s cellar, with ‘millions of diseased and decayed monsters clawing the inside latches of the ovens to open them and escape’ and ‘rats with horns walking upside down along the ceiling pipes trailing their leprous tails on the policemen’s heads’. His grandiose projects are as limited as Policeman Fox’s little ones, and infinitely more damaging, since they are dedicated only to arranging time and space to his own private satisfaction.
Ironically, the narrator’s desire to differentiate himself from the other characters serves only to render him more anonymous – a tissue of financial and filmic clichés of the kind Myles na gCopaleen mocked in Cruiskeen Lawn. Many of Stephens’s characters, too, are anonymous, in that they are nameless. But while the namelessness of his two prisoners confirms their exclusion from social discourse, the namelessness of other people in The Crock of Gold (the Philosopher, the Thin Woman, the Leprechauns, the women, men and children met on the road) identifies them as representative: quasi-allegorical symbols of a vibrant nation that is moving towards a new collective identity. The namelessness of the narrator in The Third Policeman confirms instead his biddable nature, his tendency to mutate into the person with whom he is currently in conversation, effectively losing himself in the process, to disastrous effect. When working on de Selby the narrator imbibes the selfish, irascible, and amoral personality traits of his subject – with the result that he becomes capable of murder. So, too, he becomes indistinguishable from his devious friend John Divney, locked together with him in a horrifying pastiche of Ciceronian amity whereby each is the other’s self, sharing bed and board while steadily winding each other up into an intense mutual hatred. When speaking to Martin Finnucane the narrator becomes the sworn brother of this one-legged murderer, without noticing the moral implications of their casual bonding. And when conversing with Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen he adopts their stylistic eccentricities in his narrative as well as in his conversation. Helplessly driven by the impulses of his chameleon disposition, the narrator mingles his personality with those of everyone else he meets, as if to confirm the tendency of Ireland and Europe in the 1930s to follow disastrous models and totalitarian authorities, large and small, with slavish admiration.
The narrator’s namelessness, then, is that of Stephens’s prisoners rather than his representative types. Unlike the prisoners, he is not excluded from conversation; but his most honest and satisfactory conversations are with himself, or rather with his soul, who has a name, Joe, and who is always on the verge of leaving him. Joe’s disembodied voice, speaking to the narrator in the gloom of old Mathers’s house as the narrator confronts the ghost of the man he murdered, might remind us of the disembodied voices of the prisoners who speak to the Philosopher out of the dark of the cell. In that episode the Philosopher, too, found himself unsure of his identity for the first time in his experience as the boundaries of his mind began to dissolve: ‘The creatures of the dark invaded him, fantastic terrors were thronging on every side: they came from the darkness into his eyes and beyond into himself, so that his mind as well as his fancy was captured, and he knew he was, indeed, in gaol’. This sense of the encroaching dissolution or erasure of the self resonates throughout The Third Policemen, especially in moments of darkness: the stormy dawn before the narrator’s hanging, for example, or the terrible moment when he wakes from sleep to find himself blind, before recalling that his eyes were bound by Policeman McCruiskeen before he nodded off. The flip side of the narrator’s desire to distinguish himself from others is the fear of losing his identity altogether; a fear substantiated on the last page of the novel, where he finds himself recommencing all his adventures – having forgotten them first, as is his wont – in the company of one of his many doubles in the narrative, John Divney, as if there were no difference between him and his friend.
Most striking of O’Brien’s inversions of The Crock of Gold is what he does to the body. As an athlete – he was a gymnast – Stephens sought in all his work to liberate the body from the constraints imposed on it by the churches, Catholic and Protestant alike. Meehawl MacMurrachu’s daughter Caitilin spends most of the novel in a state of edenic nakedness, and although the Philosopher begins by disapproving he quickly reasons himself into acquiescence with her choice. ‘If a person does not desire to be […] protected who will quarrel with an honourable liberty?’ he asks himself; ‘Decency is not clothing but Mind’. Soon afterwards he finds himself exulting for the first time in the energy of his own body: ‘Years had toppled from his shoulders. He left one pound of solid matter behind at every stride. His very skin grew flexuous, and he found a pleasure in taking long steps such as he could not have accounted for by thought’. O’Brien’s characters, too, are defined by their bodies; but in the policemen’s case these are grotesquely, massively physical, always on the verge of heart attacks or seizures, brought on by their relentless consuming of candy and jam as well as excessive quantities of the stirabout that sustained the rural poor in The Crock of Gold. The narrator, on the other hand, is small and skinny, like the Philosopher; but where the Philosopher’s emaciated frame testified to his hunger – the quality that brings the working classes together in solidarity when they share their meals – the narrator’s thinness and feeble appetite demonstrates his radical disconnection from people and things. The policemen’s delight in food serves only to awake his snobbish disgust, whether at the effect their greed has on their monstrous bodies or at their inability to extend their imaginations beyond the narrow confines of the relative merits of different sweeties, the tastiness of stirabout, or the possibility of making strawberry jam out of the most powerful substance in the universe.
All of O’Brien’s bodies are ill-constructed machines, whose capacity to harbour sympathy or affection has been compromised by the discoveries of science. Sergeant Pluck’s atomic theory depicts the world as a concatenation of samenesses, an arrangement of particles which merely get rearranged when a person dies, so that executing an acquaintance is no more problematic than devouring a bowlful of porridge. The narrator’s leg is a symptom of this loss of affect in O’Brien’s universe. At one point he is afraid its woodenness is spreading through his torso, just as the atoms of bicycles spread into the bottoms of their riders. In The Crock of Gold, the goat-god Pan’s half-bestial body insists on the animal sensuality which is part of our heritage as human beings, and which enjoins us to delight in the sentient donkeys, cows, and flies with whom the Philosopher comes in contact. But in The Third Policeman, John Divney’s innocent, cow-like eyes conceal a vicious disposition, and human beings have more in common with machines than animals. The Parish policed by Sergeant Pluck is populated with half-human, half-bicycle cyborgs, though none of these hybrids are as bereft of fellow-feeling as the narrator, who has become fused with de Selby’s books, his mind stocked, like de Selby’s pages, with useless inventions of no conceivable benefit to anyone but the ego of the inventor and his adoring commentators. As a result of this fusion, the narrator’s substantial funds of pity are reserved for himself, and he sheds abundant tears over his own predicament. The only close relationship he forges (if one discounts his friendship with Joe, who is an aspect of himself) is with a bicycle, which he converts into a fantasy of female acquiescence, a willing, voiceless servant that mechanically submits to his every whim. Stephens’s collaborative Ireland has been left far behind, a vision that has been outpaced by the speed of scientific and technological progress, hurtling the world towards conflict.
Nowhere is the difference between the books more evident than in their endings. O’Brien’s version of Stephens’s ‘The Happy March’ involves an apparent liberation, in which the nameless narrator sails off into the night astride the Sergeant’s bicycle, a metal goddess in total harmony with her environment: ‘all the time she was under me in a flawless racing onwards, touching the road with the lightest touches, surefooted, straight and faultless, each of her metal bars like spear-shafts superbly cast by angels’. Together man and bicycle liberate themselves first from Sergeant Pluck’s barracks, then from the smaller police station presided over by Policeman Fox; and in the final section they even free Divney from the constraints of his grotesque mortal body, as if in imitation of Angus Óg’s liberation of the Irish workers in The Crock of Gold (‘Come away! come away! from the loom and the desk, from the shop where the carcasses are hung, from the place where raiment is sold and the place where it is sewn in darkness’). But this chain of liberations is an illusion. Unlike the Philosopher, the narrator and John Divney are guilty of the crimes for which they were incarcerated, and both are dead rather than exuberantly alive by the end of the novel, trapped for all time in the cyclical jail of their forward momentum. As a result, where Stephens ends his book not so much with a march – happy or otherwise – as with a dance (‘they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods’),The Third Policeman ends with the narrator and Divney ‘marching’ in unison into Sergeant Pluck’s police station – the place from which the narrator ‘escaped’ only pages before. Their mechanical, quasi-military return to the barracks aligns the novel as a whole with those ‘adventure books’ mentioned by the narrator in his conversations with Policeman Fox ‘in which every extravagance was mechanical and lethal and solely concerned with bringing about somebody’s death in the most elaborate way imaginable’. It would hardly have escaped O’Brien’s readers that Europe in 1940 could have been described in similar terms.
The comparison of the ‘metal bars’ of Sergeant Pluck’s winsome bicycle to the ‘spear-shafts superbly cast by angels’ recalls the spears flung down by stars in Blake’s revolutionary poem The Tyger, from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. James Stephens was a self-professed Blakean visionary, who sought in his poetry to adapt the Londoner’s proto-socialist vision to the needs of an Irish insurrection (Insurrections was the title of his first collection). Brian O’Nolan, on the other hand, was a Swiftian satirist, for whom experience had long blotted out the possibility of recapturing or even celebrating innocence. But it is the memory of innocence, I would like to suggest – the beautifully crafted innocence of The Crock of Gold – that gives The Third Policeman its astonishing vitality and poignancy. The two books should be read in tandem.
Anon. ‘Tall Talk.’ The Times Literary Supplement, September 7 1967. 793.
Brivic, Shelly. ‘The Third Policeman as Lacanian Deity: O’Brien’s Critique of Language and Subjectivity.’ New Hibernia Review, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 2012). 112-132.
Coyle, John. ‘Flann O’Brien in the Devil Era.’ No Country for Old Men: Fresh Perspectives on Irish Literature, ed. Paddy Lyons and Alison O’Malley-Younger. London: Peter Lang, 2009). 69-85.
Cronin, Anthony. No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien. London: Grafton, 1989.
Frankenberg, Lloyd (ed.). James, Seumas and Jacques: Unpublished Writings of James Stephens. London: Macmillan and co., 1964.
Hopper, Keith. Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist. Cork: Cork University Press, 1995.
Jeffares, A. Norman. ‘Introduction.’ The Poems of James Stephens, ed. Shirley Stevens Mulligan. Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Ltd., 2006. xi-xxxiv.
McFate, Patricia (ed.). Uncollected Prose of James Stephens. 2 vols. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1983.
Maslen, R. W. ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman.’ New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006). 84-104.
O’Brien, Flann. The Best of Myles: A Selection from ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’. London etc.: Paladin, 1990.
——————–. The Third Policeman. The Complete Novels, introd. Keith Donohue. New York etc.: Everyman’s Library, 2007. 219-406.
Pyle, Hilary. James Stephens: His Work and an Account of his Life. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.
Stephens, James. Here Are Ladies. London: Macmillan, 1914 (f.p. October 1913).
——————–. The Charwoman’s Daughter. London: Macmillan and Co., 1912.
——————–. The Crock of Gold. London: Macmillan and Co., 1928 (f.p. 1912).
Taaffe, Carol. Ireland Through the Looking Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate. Cork: Cork University Press, 2008.
 Warm thanks to Paul Fagan for detailed and incisive comments on the first draft of this essay, and to the participants in the Second International Flann O’Brien Conference in Rome, 2013, for their questions and suggestions.
 ‘Tall Talk’, The Times Literary Supplement, September 7 1967, p. 793. On Stephens’s relationship with Joyce see Hilary Pyle, James Stephens: His Work and an Account of his Life, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), pp. 114-5; the detailed account in Lloyd Frankenberg (ed.), James, Seumas and Jacques: Unpublished Writings of James Stephens (London: Macmillan and co., 1964), pp. xxiii-xxx; and Stephens’s own broadcasts on Joyce in the same book, pp. 147-62.
 Keith Hopper, Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), p. 126.
 Carol Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate (Cork: Cork University Press, 2008), p. 80.
 Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass, p. 65. For O’Nolan’s attitude to de Valera see also John Coyle, ‘Flann O’Brien in the Devil Era’, Paddy Lyons and Alison O’Malley-Younger (eds.), No Country for Old Men: Fresh Perspectives on Irish Literature (London: Peter Lang, 2009), pp. 69-85.
 Shelly Brivic, ‘The Third Policeman as Lacanian Deity: O’Brien’s Critique of Language and Subjectivity’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 112-132, p. 114.
 The best picture of Stephens’s politics is painted in the political essays reprinted in Patricia McFate (ed.), Uncollected Prose of James Stephens, 2 vols. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1983), vol. 1.
 See Pyle, James Stephens, Part One: Dublin – 1880-1925, pp. 3-107. See also A. Norman Jeffares, ‘Introduction’, The Poems of James Stephens, ed. Shirley Stevens Mulligan (Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Ltd., 2006), pp. xi-xxxiv.
 Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass, p. 80.
 See Flann O’Brien, The Best of Myles: A Selection from ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ (London etc.: Paladin, 1990), pp. 17-24.
 Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass, p. 80.
 Stephens, ‘There is a Tavern in the Town’, Here Are Ladies (London: Macmillan, 1914, f.p. October 1913), pp. 277-349.
 It is worth noting that one of de Selby’s commentators, le Fournier, seems to assign the philosopher a portion of blame for the outbreak of the First World War. See O’Brien, Complete Works, p. 246, note 4. For a fuller account of violence in The Third Policeman see my ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006), pp. 84-104.
 For Ciceronian amity see Cicero, ‘Laelius de amicitia’, Cicero in Twenty-Eight Volumes, vol. 20, De senectute, de amicitia, de divinatione, trans. W. A. Falconer, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and London: Heinemann, 1971), xxi. 80: ‘est enim is qui est tamquam alter idem’; ‘for he is, as it were, another self’.
I was recently reading a book about Adam: Oliver Langmead’s Birds of Paradise (2021), which presents the Father of Humankind as a scarred giant bearing the wounds of many generations, stalking the world in quest of surviving fragments of the fabulous Garden of Eden. Each item from the Garden – bird, beast or flower – has the quality of a Platonic ideal, and this quality is signaled with capitals: the first magpie is Magpie, the first rose is Rose, the first crab is Crab and so on, each being the Crabbiest, the Rosiest or the most Magpieish being in existence. The book is full of the delight of first discoveries, as piece by piece the fragments restore to Adam the sensation of his initial encounter with Rose, Magpie, Crab, Fox, Butterfly and the rest, in the early days of the world’s creation. It’s a fully worked-out model of Tolkien’s notion of Recovery, whereby fantasy (or fairy story, as Tolkien calls it in his famous essay) restores to its readers the exhilarating strangeness of the common creatures and plants that inhabit our world, as if we were encountering them for the first time. There has never been a time when Recovery has been more urgent, and Langmead gives it to us here in lavish profusion, inviting us to learn afresh how wonder-filled the planet is, or has been, in these days of its decline and possible fall.
The book reminded me of another act of Recovery around the time when Tolkien wrote his essay on Fairy Stories, which he delivered as the Andrew Lang lecture in St Andrews University in March 1939, in the dark days before the outbreak of the Second World War. The 1930s saw the great sculptor Jacob Epstein turn his attention to the things that made the world, recreating in a series of three-dimensional artworks the delights of creation, the surprise of the new, in defiance of the dictatorships that worked to denigrate, smother, damage or destroy the oddly lovely and the beautifully strange. As a Jew in the 1930s, Epstein had borne witness many times to the distortion and damage that could be inflicted on things of beauty for ideological reasons, and on people and cultures whose achievements lay at the heart of civilizations, but whose contributions were being systematically erased from the records by sneering pseudo-historians. He had seen his own things of beauty – his most ambitious sculptures – subjected to ridicule, outrage and defacement for their bold exposure of things that were meant to remain unseen in civilized countries: homoerotic desire, as embodied in the Tomb of Oscar Wilde; adolescent exuberance in the monument to W. H. Hudson, which featured the writer’s most famous creation, a native Venezuelan girl called Rima; key moments in the life of the human body, from procreation to inelegant old age, in the eighteen spectacular nude sculptures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand. The desiring sphinx on Wilde’s tomb was fitted with a symbolic figleaf by the Parisian authorities; Rima was tarred and feathered and defaced with swastikas; while the statues on the BMA building were mutilated in 1937, supposedly in the interests of health and safety (the stone had started to decay), but also because of long-term hostility to their open display of human nudity on a prominent public building. Epstein himself had been repeatedly subjected to anti-Semitic abuse, suggesting that hostility to his art was in many cases prompted by racism. He carefully listed the different kinds of verbal and physical damage inflicted on his sculptures in his autobiography, Let There Be Sculpture (1940). But he also gave that book a title which insisted on his continuing commitment, against all odds, to the act of creation, as incapsulated in the words of Genesis 1:3: Let there be light.
Epstein’s choice of title linked his autobiography – and hence his life – to his recent series of sculptures celebrating the early days of the world’s creation as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. The first of these was a monumental statue titled Genesis, first exhibited in 1931. The image showed a pregnant woman, leaning backwards to display her swollen belly, and touching it with her hands in a gesture of tender pride, puzzlement, protectiveness and pleasure. The woman’s legs seem to be embedded in earth or stone, there is power in her thighs, hips, stomach and hands – which seem to draw strength from the stone below her – and her face resembles an African sculpture, such as the famous Great Bieri bought by Epstein in the 1920s from the Parisian art dealer Paul Guillaume. The name of Epstein’s sculpture, Genesis, implies that it represents Eve, and that the infant in her belly was the first child ever conceived. When it appeared in the Leicester Galleries the statue was vilified by many reviewers, largely because of its African features. The Daily Express described the woman as having ‘the vapid horrible stare of the idiot’, while the Daily Mail called her ‘a simian-like creature whose face suggests, if anything, the missing link’, and poured scorn on the sculptor’s ideas of beauty, which grow ‘every year more peculiar’. Ironically, the Mail’s reference to the so-called missing link – a hypothetical common ancestor of humans and the great apes – touched on one of the points of the sculpture: to bring alive the link between the living and the dead, the people of the present and those who came before, stretching all the way back to the common origins of humankind on the African continent. Eve’s seeming emergence from the soil makes nonsense of the petty nationalisms and racial theories which draw hierarchical distinctions between one branch of humanity and another. The decision to model the face on a religious artifact of the Fang people of Equatorial Guinea, who honour their ancestors, seemed to the sculptor wholly appropriate for this purpose. Epstein’s interest in kinship between all peoples stemmed, he suggests in his book, from his childhood in the multicultural East Side of New York, where ‘swarms of Russians, Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Chinese lived as much in the streets as in the crowded tenements’, and where he made friends – to the shock of his respectable parents – ‘with negroes and anarchists’. His critics had a narrower and nastier set of affiliations.
To some British observers, the project of associating the modern citizens of the United Kingdom with the people of sub-Saharan Africa was at best maliciously wrong-headed, at worst politically explosive, unsettling as it did the assumption that there was a natural racial and cultural hegemony which served to justify British imperialism. In The Daily Mirror a poet calling himself ‘Merry-Andrew’ – the early modern term for a professional clown – took Epstein to task for working so hard in his recent sculptures ‘To prove you and I are related to negroes’, in ‘flat contradiction of all that’s in Genesis’. The poet, meanwhile, chose to identify Epstein as a relative of the great physicist Albert Einstein, presumably because of a perceived resemblance between their names. Like Einstein, Epstein has ‘Invented a theory about Relativity / Called Art for the Artless’, and his work can only be understood by certain intellectuals such as G.B.S. – the Irish socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw – who was one of the sculptor’s staunchest defenders. The Mail made the link with Einstein, too, suggesting that for his next project Epstein take on the theme of the Theory of Relativity, because since very few people understand it, the artist will thereby find himself ‘safe from criticism’. A few years later, a Catholic reviewer of Epstein’s sculpture of the crucified Christ, Consummatum Est (‘It is finished’), again suggested that the two men were indistinguishable, both in name and in their common willingness to traduce plain common sense: ‘What is all this about Mr Epstein or Mr Einstein or whoever it is? I know one invented Relativity and the other Rima, only I never remember which is which. Probably because I can’t make head or tail of either’. The characterization of both as comically foreign-sounding violators of the safe certainties that provided the foundation of British culture mark them out as amusing but potentially dangerous internationalists, scornful of the values that elevated Britain above its continental neighbours. The barely concealed anti-Semitism of this 1937 article is rendered more disturbing by the fact that the writer must have known very well that Einstein had been driven out of Germany by Nazi death threats four years earlier (Epstein made his bust of Einstein during the physicist’s short stay in Britain on the way to the United States). Jokes about Epstein’s and Einstein’s shared interest in disrupting time (and Epstein did say in his autobiography that with Genesis, ‘At one blow, generations of sculptors and sculpture are shattered and sent flying into the limbo of triviality’) had by this point in European history taken on a distinctly menacing air.
Epstein returned to the theme of creation at the end of the 30s. In 1938 he made a bronze sculpture of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, as if in acknowledgement of the dreadful turn taken by global events since he first depicted the Mother of Mankind. In the same year he sculpted The Burial of Abel, which like Consummatum Est could be interpreted as a response to the Spanish Civil War, a tribute to the republican idealists whose lives had been cut short by the fascist enemies of democracy. Epstein described Consummatum Est, which shows a prone Christ showing the wounds in his hands to the sky, as a post-apocalyptic vision of bombardment, his equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica: ‘I imagine a waste world; argosies from the air have bombed the humans out of existence, and perished themselves, so that no human thing is left alive’; and The Burial of Abel inhabits a similar wasteland at an earlier stage in its degeneration, with two tortured figures mourning over the limp corpse of a third. In these three sculptures – Adam and Eve, The Burial of Abel, Consummatum Est – the promise for the future Epstein represented in his Genesis, with its burden of vibrant new life, has been replaced with images of exile and destruction; the first beginning had been superseded by foreshadowings of the final end, when all humanity will say with Christ the words consummatum est, ‘It is finished’. But in the same year as his statue of the expulsion from Eden, Epstein produced his most ambitious sculpture yet: the titanic Adam that provides Let There Be Sculpture with its frontispiece. And this sculpture signaled a major change of mood, returning to the exuberant defiance of its partner, Genesis, but in a far more militant tone.
As with Genesis, creation not destruction is Adam’s theme. Once again the power of the body, with both hands held upturned against its ribs, one giant leg thrust forward and the other backwards, like an arch and a pillar or buttress in a Gothic building, was complemented by the masklike face, reminiscent of Fang sculpture, here half obscured by being lifted to the sky. Once again the figure paid homage to the medium from which it was carved, ‘a block of alabaster’, in its shape, colour, texture and proportions. Once again fertility was offensively visible in the sculpture’s anatomy, Adam’s half-engorged phallus providing a flamboyant counterpart to Eve’s pregnant belly. And once more the statue triumphed over time, pointing backwards towards the African origins of humankind in its stylized face, pointing forward to an African future (as Eve’s infant did) through the forward motion of its giant legs, bearing the face and body towards new horizons. In his book Epstein spoke of the sculpture as if it were a machine – ‘a dynamo where a tremendous energy is generated’ – and as if it overthrew nationalism by its mere existence: ‘I feel […] that generations spoke through me, and the inner urge that took shape here was a universal one’ [my emphasis]. Observers agreed. The sculptor reports that one Australian observer said, ‘It is as if a people had done this work and not just an individual’; and a New Yorker went one step further: ‘Adam is as if it were not made by a man, but by mankind’. The Scottish artist William McCance went further still, and claimed that the statue was in a sense the product of the stone itself:
[Epstein] has too great a respect for his block of stone to distort it in order to make it look like flesh. He has that kind of humility which respects innate differences of nature; an artist, not a dictator.
His recognition of the right of the stone to retain its nature throughout the process of carving sets the artist up as the antithesis of dictatorship, a teller of inconvenient truths as against a purveyor of nationalist dreams. Adam’s raised face was interpreted by one critic as a gesture of aspiration and spiritual yearning. But the face of the statue Consummatum Est was raised skyward too, and Epstein saw in that a response to blanket bombing on a global scale. Adam’s turn to the sky could be read as speaking calm defiance out of the wasteland. And the wasteland for him is palpably fertile. He is aroused, and the upturned hands raised to the level of his ribs may make us think of Eve, his partner and workmate. God fashioned Eve, we’re told, from Adam’s rib; but Epstein’s statue makes us think the first man might have done it himself, in a fierce continuation of the divine gesture that brought Adam himself into fruitful being, in triumphant repudiation of the related concepts of isolation and uniqueness. Adam insists on having a companion in his primordial garden. Bombs may fall, but the shared existence of Epstein’s Adam and Eve – their shared generative power bracketing the calamitous decade of the 1930s – guarantees that life goes on, and that its energies are unstoppable, as well as impossible to obscure with nationalist figleaves.
It’s at this point in the story that the writer-artist Mervyn Peake comes into the picture. Peake and Epstein had first met in 1931, when the sculptor visited an exhibition put on by Peake and two other young artists at the Chat Noir café, a significant landmark in London’s gay scene between the wars. They don’t seem to have met again until some years later, but there’s no doubt they had a certain amount in common. Peake shared a number of Epstein’s artistic and political interests: a lifelong fascination with the human body; a delight in unusual bodily and facial proportions, which sometimes led to his being accused of favouring the grotesque; anarchist friends (as James Gifford has demonstrated); a religious bent that remained detached from institutional practices, which Peake expressed in one poem against religious bigotry (‘How Foreign to the Spirit’s Early Beauty’, 1937), and another poem on Christ as the forceful ‘Jewish man’, whom he imagines shorn of the trappings of Catholic ceremony and ornament (‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to a Sapless Bole’, 1939). Peake is known to have been an admirer of W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, since Rima inspired the wild girl called ‘the Thing’ in Gormenghast, and one wonders whether Epstein’s Hudson memorial, with its depiction of Rima surrounded by jungle birds, might have sparked off the younger artist’s interest in the writer. Finally, Peake liked to acknowledge, as Epstein did, the lingering presence of past artistic practices in his own modern works of art. In the fine essay that precedes his book The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949) he speaks of the ‘authority’ of a good drawing, ‘which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born[e] rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain’, and secondly in the ‘individual note’ that marks it out from other products of its time, setting the artist against the monotony of current conventions. Peake’s conviction of art’s capacity to challenge time in these two distinct ways chimes perfectly with Epstein’s desire to work in the tradition of Michelangelo, Rodin and the anonymous sculptor of the Great Bieri while resolutely treading his own path, unaffiliated to contemporary movements.
Peake, too, was disinclined to attach himself to contemporary movements. He had a marked interest in Spanish art, as the passage from The Drawings of Mervyn Peake suggests; El Greco, Velazquez, Goya and Picasso were major landmarks along the stream that winds back to a cave in Spain, each of which he referenced often in his writings and drawings, as did Epstein. Peake also appreciated Jewish art, as he showed when he paid a visit with his wife Maeve Gilmore – herself a gifted artist – to the studio of Emmanuel Mané-Katz in Paris in 1937. Mané-Katz wasn’t at home, but some of his work was visible through the window. Peake’s short poem about the visit is packed with references to the threatening context in which Mané-Katz was practising his profession. The day is oppressively hot, and makes Peake think of ‘the end of all the world / When no-one knows or cares if hell or heaven / Or nothingness cries trump upon tomorrow’, while the period the couple hope to spend with the artist is imagined as taking up ‘An hour of a painter’s nervous time’ [my emphasis]. Even the piratical ferocity of the canvas they glimpse through the studio window seems to be ominously cut off from its surroundings: ‘Upon a shadow’d easel there upreared / A silent canvas with its breast on fire / While all around it silence grew…’ Mané-Katz was best known at this point in his career for his vibrant depictions of everyday life in the Jewish community, and the idea of a painting of, say, a Hassidic wedding or a party of Jewish musicians being hemmed in by mounting silence offers a powerful commentary on the situation faced by Jewish artists at a time when Fascism, Stalinism and Nazism were tightening their grip on Europe.
Peake’s account of his visit to Mané-Katz’s Paris studio, unpublished in his lifetime, was one of only two poems in which he mentions contemporary artists. The other is a poem he wrote immediately after seeing Epstein’s Adam, which was published in the letter pages of the magazine Picture Post. The editor of Picture Post, Stefan Lorant, was a Hungarian Jewish filmmaker and photojournalist under whose editorship the magazine reported extensively on the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. Lorant followed Einstein to the United States in 1940, well aware that a German invasion of Britain – which at the time seemed imminent – would condemn him to death. In this context, Peake’s passionate verse defence of Epstein against his detractors may be read as political, placing the poet shoulder to shoulder with anti-Nazi agitators like Lorant. It’s worth bearing in mind that an earlier poem by Peake, a sonnet on ‘El Greco’ published in January 1938, transforms one of the most famous paintings of the Graeco-Hispanic visionary painter into a meditation on the sort of mass bombing carried out in Guernica, in a gesture that closely corresponds to Epstein’s transformation of Christ into a bomb victim in Consummatum Est. Peake is often described as apolitical; but the anti-Nazi interventions in his verse tell another story, as do his close ties to anarchism, as convincingly identified by James Gifford.
Peake’s poem ‘Epstein’s Adam’ is worth giving in full:
I have seen this day
A shape that shall outlive our transient clay
A virile contour when the world
Renews its crust
With our decayed and horizontal dust.
When this our perilous
Bright blood and bone,
Our hectic inches and the singing tone
Of throats and fingers are for ever gone,
And our sons’ sons shall have forgotten us,
This shape that I have seen shall journey on
Erect along the winding corridors
Of the future years –
A craving of cold stone! A vertical
Symbol of man’s perpetual
Dumb cry for light
Among the tangled Edens of our night;
A flowering fact;
A towering dawn of alabaster, hack’d
Into the yearn of Adam. His flat face
Lies parallel to the eternal skies,
His chiselled chest
Swells like a straining sail that holds a tempest
Captive within the rigging of his ribs –
Stone pistons of his arms – the architecture
Of surging thighs, deliver
A power and a magnificence
As brooks no question; this tremendous stance
Be-damns the bloodless mocker with his smug
And petty vision. Epstein fought
His burning tyrant for the shape he sought
And emptied a stone splendour from his heart.
There is a breed at large who have forgotten
That it is sap that drives the frozen tree
Into an April spasm; that it is blood
That drives the man; and that eternity
Is glimpsed through passion in a sudden light
That blinds the fickle processes of thought,
Thus in my sight
From those charged rhythms, suddenly
Adam broke free
And surged into my darkness, and made bright
The spirit’s deathless hankering
Within man’s body, that proud, tortured thing.
Peake’s poem confirms the sculptor’s conviction that his figure of Adam breaks free from conventional perceptions of time – a conviction ironically shared by the critics who mockingly aligned Epstein with Einstein, the architect of relativity. For Peake, however, the direction of travel of Epstein’s figure is unremittingly forward. The opening of the poem represents the sculpture as a figurative message from the present to the distant future, a shape that ‘shall outlive our transient clay’; outlive the flesh, that is, which was made from ‘the dust of the ground’ by God, according to Genesis, and whose ‘transient’ nature has been demonstrated in the 1930s by the impact on it of mechanized warfare. These lines remind the reader that they are made of the same substance as their progenitor, but that their death, which may be imminent, will shortly renew the earth’s crust ‘with our decayed and horizontal dust’, in stark contrast to the permanent stone sculpture. The second sentence of the poem underscores this sense of fleshly transience in the phrase ‘perilous / Bright blood and bone’, where the term ‘perilous’ and the brightness of blood remind us how often these usually hidden features of the human body have been brutally exposed by conflict in recent decades, as graphically described in (for instance) David Jones’s epic poem about war in the trenches, In Parenthesis (1937). ‘Hectic inches’ in line 9 makes living men seem minuscule as well as feverishly active (hectic is often used to describe the heightened colouring of fever victims), while the ‘singing tone’ produced by ‘throats and fingers’ can only be achieved by the living, and only then under special circumstances – when the mood and conditions make music possible. Bodily transience is made doubly transient by forgetfulness, and in this poem it seems inevitable that ‘our sons’ sons’ will soon have forgotten our very existence. Present generations having been erased like this in the first eleven lines of the poem, it’s for Peake to consider in the next section what sort of message to the future Adam embodies, as the sole survivor from the perilous present day.
In this poem, Epstein’s sculpture speaks first and foremost of masculinity. It has ‘a virile contour’ and line 11 mentions ‘our sons’ sons’ rather than our granddaughters. Its outlasting of living human beings stands in stark contrast to the fate of the many men who died in recent wars, often in far-off places that mattered personally to Peake such as Spain and China (where he was born). Adam’s ability to outlive Peake’s and Epstein’s contemporaries identifies him with a positive, creative version of masculinity as against a negative, destructive kind; he ‘journeys on / Erect along the winding corridors / Of future years’ like a discoverer, not a warrior, and articulates craving rather than hostility or revenge, becoming as he goes ‘A vertical / Symbol of man’s perpetual / Dumb cry for light’ as against darkness, a ‘flowering fact’ rather than a dream of conquest, a ‘towering dawn’ as against a heroic sunset. Violence is present in his makeup; in him an alabaster block has been ‘hack’d / Into the yearn of Adam’, and the idea might remind us of the sculptors Braigon and Rantel in Titus Groan, whose mortal combat over the woman they love, Keda, is fought out with the knives they use when sculpting wood and described as if they were chiselling each other’s bodies instead of stabbing each other to death. Peake’s understanding of Epstein’s Adam, however, is as an ebullient sign of life wrested from a time of death, as expressed in the statement that his cry for light emerges from ‘Among the tangled Edens of our night’. The notion of positive, creative masculinity emerging from destruction, darkness and death is enacted in the way Peake’s description of Adam’s figure emerges only after eleven lines describing man’s mortality, and the way the poem is structured around longer lines emerging out of shorter ones. Epstein’s Adam is for Peake a message of hope for creative men like himself or his editor Stefan Lorent, who were on the verge of being hurled against their will into the tangled night of war, a war fought over competing versions of Eden – some of which have no Jews in them, in spite of the fact that Eden itself is a Jewish concept.
Adam’s creativity is one of action, associated with travel, industry and construction as much as with sculpture. His ‘flat face’, which ‘lies parallel to the eternal skies’ in a statement of equality or at least equivalence to his maker, tops a body made up of elements of strenuous physical achievement: a chest which ‘Swells like a straining sail that holds a tempest / Captive within the rigging of his ribs’, arms like pistons, legs like architecture. And in generating this emblem of potent creativity, the sculptor had to fight, Peake tells us, like Braigon and Rantel; though the lines in which the poet describes this struggle make it sound as though Epstein had to fight himself: ‘Epstein fought / His burning tyrant for the shape he sought / And emptied a stone splendour from his heart’ (my emphases). ‘His burning tyrant’ might refer to the sculptor’s lifelong compulsion to create, which he speaks of often in Let There Be Sculpture, while the phrase ‘emptied a stone splendour from his heart’ suggests ejaculation as much as artistic self-expression. The lines capture the way Adam’s upturned hands press forcefully against his own ribs – protectors of his heart – as if in combat or in ecstasy; but they also invoke Epstein’s next and most famous colossal sculpture, Jacob and the Angel (1940), which depicts the grandson of Abraham supported as if in exhaustion by a muscular angel, their posture closer to that of postcoital lovers than the night-long wrestlers of the biblical account. Epstein’s sculptures in stone transform violent combat into sensual intimacy, and so overcome the tyranny of conflict that threatened to overwhelm the world in his lifetime. Peake’s poem does something similar, identifying Adam’s liberation from constraint (‘Adam broke free’) as a gesture like that of the artist, as described in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake: ‘the creation of a work of art. The smashing of another window-pane’.
Set against this strenuously creative, transgressive masculinity in the poem is the emasculated ‘bloodless mocker with his smug / And petty vision’. The line might invoke for art lovers the most famous mockers of all – the people who mocked Christ on the way to his crucifixion at Calvary, as vividly recalled in Peake’s own poem ‘Thunder the Christ of it’ – and makes of the artist a Christ figure, the offspring of the divine creator who seeks to redeem creation by renewing it, investing it with fresh purpose and energy. Epstein represented Christ, as we’ve seen, in his most direct response to the rise of fascism, and was roundly mocked for it. Peake’s artists and heroes are repeatedly assailed by mockers: Steerpike is the ultimate mocker, mimicking the dignitaries and servants of Gormenghast and parodying in quick succession a romantic adventurer, a clown, a lover, an efficient medical assistant, a stern functionary and so on – always with that characteristic bloodlessness of his, a refusal to allow his current role to take possession of his body, or more specifically his emotions, the aspects of him governed by his heart. Adam is his polar opposite: representative of the capacity of nature to awake the seeming dead to impossible life, as a tree awakens after a hard winter; committed to seek the ‘sudden light’ when he sees it, irrespective of the rules and expectations that govern other people; unconcerned by the ‘fickle processes of thought’ that instruct the thinker to change direction regularly in pursuit of the best advantage for any given set of circumstances. His monumental body speaks to the capacity of human life to overcome death as arboreal life overcomes the February frosts. Born from stone, he has stone’s endurance in the face of destructive forces, and can frame or capture light in the planes and angles of his body, limbs and head. He is a progenitor of that stupendous structure Gormenghast Castle, though not ruled by ritual as the castle is; in this respect he’s more of a Titus Groan, that ‘proud, tortured thing’. Titus had stone in his heart and mind; other inhabitants of Gormenghast – Flay, Sourdust, Lady Gertrude, the Grey Scrubbers – were practically made of stone. Adam marks that stone as a bastion of defiance against the Nazis, a proclamation of the capacity of material things to resist attempts to reshape them into structures inimical to their properties.
Viewed from the point of view of the twenty-first century, Peake’s description of Adam’s stone form tramping down unpopulated corridors in a deserted castle, carrying with him pain and love, seems perfectly matched to the actual fate of Epstein’s sculpture. In the year it was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in London – where Peake held exhibitions, too – Adam was bought by a gold miner Charles Stafford, who leased it out to Lawrence Wright, a Blackpool showman. As Jonathan Lee Cronshaw puts it, ‘Adam was exhibited as a sideshow and was later sold to Louis Tussaud’s waxworks [again, in Blackpool,] as a permanent exhibit, to be joined later by Consummatum Est, Jacoband the Angel and Genesis’.Adam remained in Blackpool for many decades, before being bought by Lord Harewood and displayed in a major retrospective exhibition of Epstein’s work in Edinburgh in 1961. Peake could have seen the sculpture he loved for a second time when he lived in Blackpool as an unhappy conscript between 1940 and 1942. Adam seems to have been displayed there as a kind of pornographic peep-show, with a film from 1939 showing women giggling and fainting at the sight of his enormous genitals. Peake, meanwhile, managed to transmute him into raw material for his own strange masterpiece carved in stone. Much of the first draft of Titus Groan was written in Blackpool, within a few streets of the place where Adam was ignominiously stowed, in his own version of Gormenghast’s Hall of the Bright Carvings, where great sculptures carved in wood reside in perpetuity, unvisited by anything but the settling dust.
In response to Peake’s poem, Epstein invited him and Maeve to dine at his house, where they met the sculptor’s wife, the Scotswoman Peggy Epstein. Peggy has been described as ‘an over-life-size woman with deep red hair’, who resembled Countess Gertrude in the Titus books, or so Maeve thought. One wonders if Epstein himself may have had some hand in ensuring that the most prominent form of art in those books isn’t Peake’s own medium of painting and drawing but sculpture.
The theme for Folklore Thursday this week is the folklore of our local places; and it coincides with the installation of three stained glass windows in the bay window of our flat in Glasgow’s West End. The windows are a family effort. My wife Kirsty thought of them, asked the makers of our windows if they were possible and made suggestions for details they might include. My grown-up children, Boo and Grace, designed two of the windows while I designed the third. And they represent local folklore in two ways: first because they reference Glasgow’s folklore by incorporating themes from a poem that’s become the city’s emblem; and secondly because they contain references to family folklore, that is, knowledge that only our family have and which we will read in the windows every time we look at them. It struck me, when I noticed Folklore Thursday’s theme, that the windows had something interesting to say about it, so I decided to write a blog post about them.
The poem, as all Glaswegians know, goes something like this:
Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam.
It refers to a series of miracles worked by Kentigern, patron saint of Glasgow, who acquired the name Mungo when he was ordained a priest at the Monastery of St Serf in the gorgeous town of Culross on the Firth of Forth. The bird was a robin, a pet of Mungo’s mentor, St Serf, which was killed by one of the young man’s fellow priests in training, who promptly laid the blame for its death on Mungo. Mungo took the bird in his hands and prayed, whereupon the robin came to life and flew to its master, chirping sweetly. The tree is usually depicted as an oak tree, though according to Glasgow City Council’s website it was originally a hazel. Mungo was left in charge of the fire in the monastery’s refectory or dining room, but he fell asleep and it went out – put out, it seems, by those malicious fellow seminarians. When he woke up Mungo took a bunch of hazel twigs in his hands, prayed over them until they burst into flames, and used them to rekindle the fire. The bell, it would seem, is just a bell, though it may have been given to St Mungo by the Pope. But the fish has a longer story. To quote the City Council’s website:
The fish with a ring in its mouth is a salmon and the ring was a present from Hydderch Hael, King of Cadzow, to his Queen Languoreth.
The Queen gave the ring to a knight and the King, suspecting an intrigue, took it from him while he slept during a hunting party and threw it into the River Clyde. On returning home, the King demanded the ring and threatened Languoreth with death if she could not produce it. The Queen appealed to the knight who, of course, could not help and then confessed to St Mungo who sent one of his monks to fish in the river, instructing him to bring back the first fish caught. This was done and St Mungo extracted the ring from its mouth. The scene is represented on the counter seal of Bishop Wyschard, made about 1271.
The story of the fish, with its link to the Clyde, presumably dates from St Mungo’s time in Glasgow, where he founded a church on the site now occupied by the Cathedral. The site of the city was chosen by a couple of oxen pulling a cart containing the corpse of a holy man named Fergus; Mungo instructed the obedient beasts to take the body wherever God told them to, and they duly made their way to the proper location. All this happened in the sixth century, but the stories of St Mungo are commemorated in the city’s crest, which it acquired in the nineteenth century.
Each of the windows in the bay window contains elements of St Mungo’s legend: a bird, a fish – though not with a ring in its mouth – a tree, a bell – and in Gracie’s window you can see all four. But these emblems share space with elements of family lore which only we four would recognise. Boo, for instance, tells me he was inspired by ‘the Kelvin walkway and urban wildlife/fay’ – the walkway being the path beside the River Kelvin which has been thronged with walkers since the first lockdown. For his bird he chose the heron we see so often at the weir near the ruins of the old Flint Mill, while the dark green strips on either side of the main picture contain dark creatures which may or may not be shadowy West End foxes, of the kind that used to live in the gloomy spaces under Hillhead Primary School on Gibson Street. The steeple in the distance invokes the steeples on the Great Western Road, one of which – the steeple of George Gilbert Scott’s Episcopalian Cathedral of St Mary – you can see from our bay window, though the one in the picture looks more like the steeple of Lansdowne Parish Church, now Webster’s Theatre and Bar, where Boo once worked in the Box Office. Boo also thought of the University steeple when he discussed it with me; and the rural landscape invoked for me our many trips to the hilly country north of the city. There’s a frog in a pane in the bottom left hand corner and a toad in the bottom right; Boo is always picking up frogs and toads, most recently I think in the wildlife garden at Glasgow Uni. The sun and the moon share the sky with the heron, and to me the sun looks like the shell of a whelk, of the kind Boo was always gathering on the seashore as a child. But the heron dominates, because the heron is ours, a personal family friend who stands on guard at the side of the weir, hoping no doubt to snap up one of the salmon you used to see leaping up it in spring – though I haven’t seen the salmon leaping for several years, and can only hope the tall grey knight isn’t going hungry.
My window, which is on the left as you face the bay from outside, has a robin in it as if in deference to Mungo. But it was Kirsty who asked me to put it there, because in our family robins have come to represent lost loved ones, who come back in the form of a bird to keep an eye on the children and friends they left behind. The bell is the bell of St Patrick, and as I was painting it I thought of the time not long after I first came to Glasgow when I cycled along the Forth and Clyde Canal till I came to a place whose name I didn’t know. Fortunately I met an old woman on the towpath and was able to ask her where I was; and she answered, like an old woman in a fairy tale, ‘You’re in Old Kilpatrick. You’ll always remember the name because it’s where St Patrick was born’. She was right, too: I’ve always remembered the name, and the association with St Patrick, and the old woman, and that bike ride in fine weather. The decorations round the edges of the window are based on the Book of Kells, which may or may not have been made on Iona; and as I drew them into the picture I remembered another picture I drew and painted long ago for a family friend, which showed St Patrick sitting under an old Irish cross with his favourite wolfhound lying beside him. That picture too had decorative themes from the Book of Kells, and the wolfhound in it was modeled on our dog Gelert, the largest and sweetest-natured dog I’ve known. The hill in the background is Dumgoyne in the Campsie Fells, up which I once walked carrying Boo in a backpack. And the strange yellow creature in the tree is a cat-bird fairy demon. I know you’ve heard about them, and now you know exactly what they look like, and where to look for them next time you’re standing by a twisted oak.
Gracie’s picture is the most allusive of all. It shows a flying fish, of course; and she chose this kind of fish to commemorate a family holiday in Mallorca, when we saw the miraculous airborne creatures skimming across the waves ahead of the boat that was taking us to a swimming spot in a secluded part of the island, where much smaller, sea-bound fishes nibbled our toes. The fish is surrounded by water because this is Gracie’s favourite element, and also the element of her Zodiac sign, Scorpio. Hidden in the middle panel at the bottom is the Angelic tune symbol from Cassandra Clare’s Shadow Hunter universe, of which the Mortal Instruments book series is one. Grace is a manic reader of thick tomes and enormous book series, and Cassandra Clare and Leigh Bardugo are just two of the writers she’s obsessed with. St Mungo’s signs are all over the place in her window, from the rings at the four corners – four of them plain, four of them with jewels – to the oak trees in the side panels, the bells and the stylised wings of birds. Oak trees, by the way, are personal things to us as well as to Glasgow; outside our window stand the only oak trees planted in the street, the last to get their leaves in spring, the last to lose them in autumn. When their leaves come out in a few weeks’ time you’ll be able to see real oak leaves dancing behind the painted ones.
I suppose the point I’m making in this post is that folklore of a quite specific kind is present in all cohabiting communities, and that we all have objects and pictures that evoke for us things that no one else could ever guess at. What we read, where we’ve been, the things that have happened to us, weave themselves together into stories which get told and retold down the years, until they get lost among fresh skeins of story woven by new generations. Old stories reappear among the new ones, as St Mungo’s does in our pictures, and lend continuity to the narratives we’re part of. And for us, the window painters, fantastic stories (fairy tales, the novels of Cassandra Clare, invented supernatural fauna, the lives of Celtic saints) infuse our local landscape with light, so that we see the fantastic through it, and the tiny details of tree and bird, fish and water, grow magical as a result, capable of coming to life in strange new ways at different times of the day or night.
The greatest miracle of our windows, though, is how they were constructed by a master craftsman using our paintings as a map or blueprint. That’s something only we and the glazier can really appreciate: the amount of trouble he took to select the right textures for the glass he was using in each panel, the thought he gave to the question of how to translate the texture of pen and ink or brushstroke to the glass’s surface, the little inventive touches like a piece of red glass stuck on behind to make the robin’s red breast, the oak leaves created by scraping away the paint from the side panels in Boo’s window. We got the measurements for the middle window slightly wrong, and the glazier had to find ways to make Gracie’s design fit the space precisely. His name is Colin Stevenson, of Stevenson Stained Glass, and he worked on the windows in the evenings from December to late March, after the working day was supposed to be over. The love he put into this process has made itself part of the story they tell, and we’ll think of it every time we look at them.
That’s our contribution to Folklore Thursday’s theme for 25 March 2021, folklore of local places.
[I wrote this essay for a Festschrift in honour of my DPhil supervisor, Professor Helen Cooper, Medieval into Renaissance: Essays for Helen Cooper, ed. Andrew King and Matthew Woodcock (Woodbridge and Rochester, NY: D S Brewer, 2016); you can find it on pp. 35-54. I place it here in Helen’s honour, with infinite thanks for her patience, scholarship, good humour and support through the difficult years of writing a doctorate.]
One of Helen Cooper’s finest essays concerns the function of magic that doesn’t work in medieval and Renaissance romance. Bringing together her impish sense of humour, her astonishing range of reading and her infectious delight in tracing the mutations of genre in response to cultural change, the essay is a scholarly tour de force, perhaps the most memorable chapter in her celebrated monograph The English Romance in Time. It is particularly suggestive where it draws attention to the moments in medieval romance when the presence of magic serves to focus the reader’s attention on some peculiarly human quality: on selfless love, for instance, as when the imperiled teenage lovers Floris and Blancheflour compete over which of them will bestow on the other the magic ring which is said to preserve its owner’s life; or on stubborn courage, as when an anonymous lover in a tale by Marie de France refuses to drink the magic potion that would help him carry his beloved up a mountain, an act of heroic obstinacy that kills them both. The chapter is not about a ‘meme’, Cooper explains – an idea or theme that survives from generation to generation, mutating in response to the changing pressures of the time. Instead it concerns what she calls a ‘meme that got out of hand’, that of the magical object. All too easily magic can get boring, operating in too predictable a fashion, providing too easy an escape route from a tricky situation. The magic that doesn’t work revitalizes the magical narrative by introducing a crucial element of surprise, disorder, or emotional crisis; and as such it resists replication, since the whole point of it (when well used) is to unsettle the romance reader’s expectations.
I would like to consider in this essay another recurring theme that has given us some of the most striking passages in medieval and Renaissance romance: that of armour that doesn’t work. For a modern reader, armour is the ultimate emblem of chivalric romance, especially the full plate armour of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as fetishized in the paintings of John William Waterhouse, John Boorman’s film Excalibur, or the BBC TV series Merlin. For the late medieval reader, too, armour or harness that worked was romance incarnate. Someone in the fifteenth or sixteenth century wearing splendid harness instantly displayed his gender, his status, his affiliations (if he wore a coat armour, or if the steel itself bore heraldic devices), and his physical attributes (think of Henry VIII’s expanding girth as recorded in his successive sizes of battle dress). Armour stood for the chivalric code; praying over it was an integral part of a squire’s induction into knighthood. What you wore in the Middle Ages was, in theory, who you were; and fine armour was at the very apex of the sartorial pyramid.
For all these reasons – because it is so instantly readable in so many ways – armour can be a boring object in romance, especially when its bearer is vying for the position of Number One Knight, so to speak, in the chivalric standings. Under these conditions the armour bearer is like a machine, whose limited functions are always predictable and whose victory always assured. The ultimate example of an armour-bearing machine is of course Sir Galahad, who gallops through the landscape of Malory’s ‘Tale of the Sankgreal’ fulfilling prophesies left and right without any emotional engagement with the men and women he encounters. Galahad is the embodiment of spiritual commitment; he has no personality or history, and when all his deeds have been accomplished his soul is carried up to Heaven by a team of adoring angels, leaving little physical trace behind on the earth he barely touched. In some ways, then, he is the worthy forebear of Spenser’s mechanical man Talus, the metallic dispenser of justice in Book V of The Faerie Queene who signals the poet’s uncomfortable commitment to the Tudor project of subjugating Ireland by force. Talus’s status as what can anachronistically be termed a self-propelled suit of armour conveniently sets him apart from human beings in such a way as to make that project seem (barely) defensible, since though devised by men it is executed by an agent without a soul. Nevertheless, the iron man’s association with the animated statues of Virgilius the Sorcerer or Cornelius Agrippa confirms his ambiguity as a representation of justice. Virgilius derived his power from the devil and Marlowe assumed, in Doctor Faustus, that Agrippa too was in cahoots with the fiend. Given that Talus is simply an allegorical machine, unsullied by magic, he can in theory be employed by Spenser’s knight of justice, Sir Artegal, without tainting his employer with infernal associations. But the memory of other moving statues would have been hard to shake off for an early modern reader. And there remains the fact that Talus is impossible to like, with his remorseless efficiency, his predictable reactions to every situation, and his utter indifference to the Christian quality of mercy.
This problem of the perfect knight as a soulless machine is brilliantly addressed by Italo Calvino in The Non-existent Knight (Il cavaliere inesistente, 1959), his sparkling tribute to Ariosto and Cervantes. The book’s protagonist, a full-body harness that comes to life by an act of sheer will power, makes himself universally unpopular with his fellow paladins by his rigid adherence to the rules of military and chivalric good conduct. As the book proceeds, however, the knight’s increasing sensitivity to other people’s views of him makes him increasingly likeable, and his posse of followers – the fool Gurduloo, the idealistic female warrior Bradamante, the confused young squire Raimbaud – endow him by proxy with the flesh and emotions he lacks. He becomes the focus of their dreams and passions, the anchor of their identities, no longer merely a metal container for the regulations by which these dreams are rendered manageable by the authorities. Armour requires the flesh to make it move, both emotionally and physically speaking; and codes of conduct, however impractical, give direction to the undirected yearnings of the flesh. Calvino’s story beautifully captures the awkward symbiosis between the organic and the inorganic which is the late medieval and early modern knight.
Flesh, then, is the essential adjunct to the carapace of protective steel, as late Victorian painters such as Waterhouse acknowledged when they surrounded their gleaming knights with voluptuous temptresses. Men, of course, can display their fleshly qualities in romance by defeating powerful opponents without the benefit of armour; this is the homosocial equivalent of the amorous encounters, chaste or unchaste, with which romance women have been traditionally associated. A fine example of such an unarmed hero is the young Sir Perceval de Gallys in the Middle English metrical romance, whose lack of armour serves at first merely to underline his lack of education in chivalry. Wearing only goatskins, young Perceval’s first heroic act is to transfix his father’s killer, a fully armoured knight, with a light Scottish throwing-spear, when the man is foolish enough to raise his visor. But Perceval is an adolescent at the time, and every reader knows from the old stories that he will soon acquire some armour and join his fellow knights at the Table Round. For Perceval, the acquisition of his harness from the slaughtered body of his enemy makes it an emblem of his power and skill, a natural extension of the unusual muscularity of his right arm and torso, his easy mastery over the objects and people he meets on his travels. But I am concerned in this essay with the knights whose harness proves useless in one way or another after its acquisition; either because the adventure they are on cannot be achieved with the help of steel, or because they are caught without armour through trickery, neglect or betrayal, or because their armour provides inadequate protection – or even because their harness itself is a kind of trap. For these heroes, armour is a difficult affair, never at hand when you need it, not fulfilling its prescribed function when you have it, brittle, permeable or imprisoning rather than impervious, encumbering rather than enabling. And in the adventures they take part in, armour often becomes intriguing in its own right, for a variety of unpredictable reasons.
One twentieth-century embodiment of this difficult relationship to armour is King Pellinore in T. H. White’s novel The Sword in the Stone (1938). Pellinore is an errant knight who is perpetually engaged in the rather pointless pursuit of a friendly creature called the Questing Beast. When the future King Arthur, here known as the Wart, first encounters Pellinore, the boy quickly learns a great deal about the inconvenience of closed helmets for those who wear spectacles (the lenses get ‘completely fogged’), and of armour generally. As the knight explains:
All this beastly amour takes hours to put on. When it is on it’s either frying or freezing, and it gets rusty. You have to sit up all night polishing the stuff. Oh, how Ay do wish Ay had a nice house of my own to live in, a house with beds in it and real pillows and sheets. […] [T]hen Ay would […] throw all this beastly armour out of the window, and let the beastly Beast go and chase itself, that Ay would.
In this passage King Pellinore is a kind of human snail, whose metal shell serves as an uncomfortable substitute for the nice warm house he yearns for. His armour has little value as a means of defence, since the Questing Beast is far too friendly to attack him. Instead it tends to erase the distinction between its bearer and the animal world through which he wanders, exaggerating the limitations of the King’s body by fogging up his spectacles and fraying his temper to the extent that he keeps referring to his equipment as beastly. When the Questing Beast turns up a page or so later, the King’s animal passions get further excited and he promptly forgets the allure of sheets in the thrill of the chase. An unsuccessful fusion of animal unruliness and rigid artifice, of chaos and convention, White’s knight is a direct descendant of Carroll’s White Knight and Cervantes’s Quixote, both of whom are always damaging their elderly bodies precisely because they insist on wearing protective steel. For all three, the harness they wear underscores the limitations of the flesh it encases, as well as the eccentric relationship between that flesh and the code of conduct that the harness represents.
In this as in other ways, armour that doesn’t work has a similar function to magic that doesn’t work, as Cooper describes it. If full plate armour is a kind of meme in late chivalric romance – like the meme of the magic object – then the armour that doesn’t work is designed to circumvent the narrative problems posed by that meme; an ‘anti-meme’, in other words. The romance hero is nearly always one of the greatest fighters of his time, and in full armour his fighting prowess must necessarily render him as indestructible as the owner of an effective charm or talisman – and hence as dull, in terms of the narrative possibilities to which he gives rise. For such a knight to retain his stature as a combatant while engaging in properly perilous adventures, he must be stripped of his protective exoskeleton, deprived of the tools of his trade by one means or other – or those tools must be turned against him, like King Pellinore’s fog-inducing helmet. And the effect of this process of stripping down, deprivation or armorial recalcitrance is to draw attention to the fragile humanness of the romance’s male protagonist.
This may be the central difference between the magic that doesn’t work and the armour that doesn’t work. Cooper’s examples of non-functional magic (and she includes under this rubric magic that might well work but isn’t used, just as the present essay includes functional armour that gets left aside at crucial moments) often serve to demonstrate the spectacularly exceptional nature of the people who fail to use it. It is the exceptional strength of Floris and Blancheflour’s love that prompts a sympathetic king to urge their captor, the Admiral or Emir of Babylon, to spare them. In Marie de France’s tale, it is the refusal of the lover to drink the magic potion that exhibits the exceptional potency of his love, since love alone gives him strength to achieve what no other man has managed by carrying his lady unassisted up a mountain. Armour that doesn’t work, by contrast, tends to underscore the vulnerability of the person it fails, or who fails to wear it. For this reason it becomes one of the defining themes of the late chivalric tradition, when the best writers (Chaucer, Malory, Shakespeare) chose to produce ‘works designed to question their own generic assumptions’ in response to the ‘strong self-consciousness of a genre now passing into its fourth century’, as Cooper reminds us.
These comments on late chivalric romance come from the final chapter of The English Romance in Time, ‘Unhappy Endings’, and armour that doesn’t work is strongly represented here among the romances that choose to resist the genre’s assumption that all its narratives must end well. But like magic that doesn’t work, non-functional armour can be comic too. Inevitably it is Chaucer who provides the best examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of this ‘anti-meme’ (Cooper was always pointing out to me in tutorials that Chaucer provides the best examples of almost anything before the late sixteenth century). In The Canterbury Tales, Sir Thopas exhibits his own and his narrator’s ignorance of the romance tradition by getting caught without his armour when he meets a giant. Any medieval reader would have known that an errant knight should be wearing armour when he seeks adventure, and that if he happens not to be wearing it he should defeat his antagonist regardless, as Perceval beats the Red Knight dressed only in goatskins. But for Chaucer’s narcissistic protagonist, wearing the wrong clothes for any given deed is inexcusable; he must hurry home to arm himself before he can even think of engaging in combat. When he does so, it is in an elaborate metal and fabric confection which again violates romance conventions, both by its placement in the wrong part of the narrative (he should have armed himself at the beginning) and by the sheer weight of clichés that cluster round it (his coat armour is ‘whit as is a lilye flour’, his fine cypress spear ‘bodeth werre, and nothyng pees’, and so on). The belatedness of Sir Thopas’s arming also confirms his inverted understanding of the chivalric code, which has already been signaled by his plan to marry an elven queen because no mortal woman is worthy of him. After reading this poem it is hard to imagine anyone taking another metrical romance entirely seriously.
At the tragic end of the spectrum, ‘The Knight’s Tale’ provides an example of a yet more radical inversion of the proper order of the chivalric romance narrative and the code to which it theoretically adheres; and it does so largely through the difficult relationship it sketches out between a man and his armour. Like a true romance hero, the protagonist Arcite defeats his friend and rival Palamon in combat, and the tournament in which he achieves this is stuffed to bursting with allusions to armour: from the frantic ‘devisynge of harneys’ that precedes the fighting (line 2496) to King Theseus’s prohibition of certain weapons from the contest itself (‘ne polax, ne short knyf […] Ne short swerd, for to stoke with poynt bitynge’, lines 2544-6). As it turns out, however, neither harness nor prohibition offers much protection to the contestants. ‘The helmes they tohewen and toshrede,’ the poet tells us with unnerving relish; ‘Out brest the blood with stierne stremes rede;/ With myghty maces the bones they tobreste’, and it is by the merest chance that no one dies in the melee (lines 2609-2611). When the tournament is over, Arcite takes off his helmet to salute the woman who inspired his triumph; and at once his horse falls over and fatally crushes him. The calamitous effect of this fall on Arcite’s flesh is described in lurid detail, as if to stress the limitations of his strong young body: ‘The pipes of his longes gonne to swelle,/ And every lacerte [muscle] in his brest adoun/ Is shent with venym and corrupcion’ (p. 44, lines 2752-2754). In this narrative, then, armour and the rules that govern its use represent men’s feeble attempt to take control in a world full of insidious poisons, from the venom of corrupted wounds to the contagion of desire, from the disease of jealousy that sets the knights at odds to the poisonous rivalry of the gods who sponsor each combatant. Theseus does his best to re-impose a sense of order after Arcite’s accident, declaring the tournament a draw and delivering a speech that affirms the continuing stability of creation. But Arcite’s death was not in fact accidental. It was engineered by Venus (or rather by Saturn acting on her behalf), and intended to benefit Palamon, her devoted acolyte. Arcite, by contrast, was an acolyte of Mars, the god of war, who also happens to be Venus’s lover. So the pantheon of pagan gods would seem to be as violently competitive as the knights they sponsor, and as capable of circumventing regulations and breaking alliances. The armour that doesn’t work here serves to point up the limitations of the structures that bind us: above all the kind of structure represented by traditional stories and comforting fictions, the imaginative armour with which we defend to ourselves such slippery concepts as honour and friendship.
The works of Malory, too, offer fine examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of non-functioning armour. On the tragic side, there is the tale of the brothers Balin and Balan, who hack each other to death because each is wearing unfamiliar harness. The final section of ‘The Knight with the Two Swords’ begins with Balin accepting a shield from a stranger knight in place of his own, whereupon a mysterious damsel warns him that ‘ye have put yourself in grete daunger, for by your sheld ye shold have ben knowen’ (p. 56, lines 22-4). His brother meets him shortly afterwards wearing unmarked red armour, and in the fight that follows both men dismantle each other plate by plate until ‘their hawberkes [were] unnailed, that naked they were on every syde’ (p. 57, lines 12-13). Mortally wounded, Balan crawls to his brother and takes off his helmet; but he cannot recognize him at first because of the damage he himself inflicted in the battle: he ‘myght not knowe hym by the vysage, it was so ful hewen and bledde’ (p. 57, lines 22-3). As Cooper has argued, part of the power of this denouement springs from the fact that it forms part of a larger narrative with which the medieval reader was well acquainted – the Arthurian cycle – while the knights themselves have no idea what forces drive their fate. Throughout his adventures, the invincible Balin is helplessly propelled by the machinery of story, unwittingly setting up riddles, problems and conundrums that will only be resolved long after his death by the machine-man Galahad. The armour that destroys him, then, embodies his entrapment in structures he cannot understand because of his limited vision – the restricted view you get from inside a closed helmet (think of Pellinore’s spectacles). The fact that he cannot recognize his brother, and that his brother cannot recognize him, sums up his condition as an ignorant tool of dispassionate supernatural forces – as represented at Balin’s burial by the sorcerer Merlin, who laughs sardonically as he makes further predictions about the tragic fate of Balin’s sword.
Malory’s Lancelot, meanwhile, furnishes us with examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of the armour that doesn’t work. Of all the knights in Malory’s pantheon apart from Galahad, Lancelot stands in greatest danger of becoming boring, since he is the best knight in the world and we know in advance the likely outcome of every battle – and hence of every narrative – in which he is involved. For this reason Malory is careful to vary the scenes he selects for inclusion in the parts of his work he devotes to Lancelot; and an inordinate number of these episodes involve non-functional armour. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’ the hero is forced to don another man’s armour if he wants adventures; wearing his own means he is avoided like the plague. But some of his best adventures occur when he wears no armour at all. On one occasion, for instance, he finds a pavilion in the forest, lavishly prepared for the reception of a guest. In many romances such a discovery would signal the presence of the supernatural: the pavilion would belong to a fairy or enchantress, as in Sir Launfal, and Lancelot would have to deploy all his knightly self-control to resist the seductions of its owner. It seems only natural, then, to the reader, that on finding the tent he should remove his armour, lie down in the bed and go to sleep; this is what you do in enchanted pavilions. Later, the knight who owns the pavilion comes home and gets into bed. Finding Lancelot between his sheets and assuming him to be his lover, he ‘toke hym in his armys and began to kysse hym’, scratching the sleeping hero with his ‘rough berde’ (p. 153, lines 27-8). This leads to a brief, fierce swordfight between the two warriors – presumably naked – during which Lancelot wounds the stranger ‘sore nyghe unto the deth’ (p. 153, line 33). At this point, the men pause to explain themselves to each other. Lancelot then takes the stranger indoors to tend his injuries, and the knight’s lady arrives. The lady is naturally inclined to blame Lancelot for her husband’s injuries; but she soon comes up with a means for him to make amends. He must use his influence at court, she insists, to procure her man a place at the Round Table. In this way Lancelot’s nakedness leaves him exposed to the lady’s judicial expertise, to the extent that he must set aside the usual procedure for admitting knights to that exclusive company and offer a seat at the Round Table to an unproven stranger. What began as an encounter with potential enchantment ends not with a dazzling display of unmatchable swordsmanship but with an out-of-court settlement, a legal compromise; and in this way the episode exposes the absurdity both of chivalric convention and of the narrative traditions Lancelot lives by.
Later in the same book, Lancelot is tricked into removing his armour and climbing a tree to rescue a lady’s falcon. Once he is safely in his breeches and astride a branch, the lady’s husband leaps out of a bush ‘all armed’ (p. 169, line 44), and explains that this was all a plot to get Lancelot into a state of undress so as to enable him to be summarily dispatched. Lancelot disarms the knight with a stick and kills him with his own weapon; but the episode neatly illustrates one of the perils of being a romance hero, which is that the landscape gradually fills up with people who hold a grudge against you, and whose only hope of besting you is by trickery. As a hero you can only trust that your own wiles, or the wiles of some well-disposed passing damsel, will permit you to escape from the tricks to which these grudgers are prepared to resort. And in the last two books of Malory’s work, a deadly web composed of grudges and trickery binds together all the major episodes that feature armour that doesn’t work.
Lancelot’s relationship with armour in these last two books becomes increasingly difficult, as if to emphasize the increasing difficulty of reconciling his duty to King Arthur with his devotion to Arthur’s wife. In the tale of the Fair Maid of Astolat, Lancelot plays his old trick of borrowing armour in order to participate in a tournament. But the armour fails him – he is pierced through the side by his cousin Bors while wearing it; and during his long period of convalescence, necessarily unclothed, his body attracts the devotion of his nurse, the Maid of the title. The borrowed armour has meanwhile got him into trouble with Guinevere, since to complete the disguise he wore a token on his helmet, a red sleeve lent him by the Maid. The sleeve misleads the Queen into thinking he has transferred his affections to another woman, while encouraging the Maid to believe he might eventually fall in love with her. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, Lancelot’s appropriation of Sir Kay’s armour had no serious consequences; it was a game, as were the fights he undertook while bearing it. In the last two books, games turn to earnest, and borrowing armour becomes a problem, which interweaves itself with the personal and political problems that accumulate around the adulterous couple.
Armour is yet more problematic in ‘The Knight of the Cart’. The villain here is a kind of anti-Lancelot, Sir Melliagaunt, who shares his alter ego’s obsession with Guinevere but none of the chivalric qualities by which he justifies that adulterous passion. The difference between the two men can be summed up by their attitudes to armour. Melliagaunt captures the Queen while she is out a-maying with some unarmed knights, who are seriously wounded trying to defend her against the villain’s armed retainers. Lancelot sets out to rescue her, but his horse is shot dead by Melliagaunt’s archers, and as a result his armour ceases to assist him and becomes a burden. He cannot get at the archers because it weighs him down, and when he tries to continue his journey he finds himself ‘sore acombird of hys armoure, hys shylde, and hys speare’ (p. 653, lines 41-2). Worse still, when he finally arrives at Melliagaunt’s castle – travelling in the requisitioned transport of the title like a prisoner carted off to punishment – the villain refuses to fight him, throwing himself on Guinevere’s mercy. The Queen grants him her protection, and as a result all Lancelot’s skills, as embodied in his harness, are rendered useless. At the end of the first part of this story, Lancelot has been reduced to a state of helpless jealousy, all his efforts to act as the conventional romance hero having been thwarted either by his enemy or by his lover, neither of whom play by the rules a knight’s harness represents. There could be no more devastating exposure of the many chinks in Lancelot’s emotional and physical defences.
Next Melliagaunt succeeds in underscoring the moral link between himself and Lancelot, thus breaking down any clear distinctions that might have been signalled by their different attitudes to armour. The night after arriving at Melliagaunt’s castle, Lancelot disarms himself and slips into Guinevere’s bed, leaving blood on her sheets from a minor injury to his hand. Melliagaunt finds the blood, and accuses Guinevere of infidelity with one of the unarmed knights who were wounded defending her. Lancelot’s discarding of his harness here endangers his knightly colleagues, and he seeks to make up for this lapse by resorting to the chivalric rules of engagement by which he has always lived: rules that require full body armour for their fulfillment. He challenges the villain to trial by combat, as if Lancelot remained the impregnable entity he has always been thanks to his hitherto unquestioned identity as a top romance hero. But God is the ultimate judge in any such trial, ensuring that the fighter with the best cause will emerge triumphant; and in this case, the hero is saddled with a cause which is decidedly questionable. Guinevere has indeed committed adultery, as Melliagaunt asserts, and Lancelot is forced to equivocate in order to place himself on the side of justice. He therefore challenges his alter ego on the basis, not that Guinevere has not been unfaithful but that she has not sleptwith any of the knights who were wounded in her defence. This is a blatant prevarication, and its problematic moral status is reflected in the peculiar nature of the trial itself. After a brief bout of hand-to-hand fighting, Melliagaunt surrenders tamely to Lancelot, and chivalry dictates that his opponent must accept his surrender. But Guinevere signals to the hero that her accuser must die, and if Lancelot is to obey her he must once again find a way to circumvent the rules of the judicial game. He persuades Melliagaunt to fight on by offering to disarm his own head and left side to make the contest more even; and he kills the villain, of course, despite this handicap. But the half-armoured state in which he does so confirms his morally compromised position, his susceptibility to the corruption his opponent embraces. And the disarming of his body on the left side in particular, where the heart is, may be taken to demonstrate the extent to which the desires of that body are undermining his role as a knight. The whole adventure, in fact, foreshadows the part that will be played by armour in the final book, which tells how Lancelot’s adultery with Guinevere brings about the dissolution of the Round Table and the fall of Arthur.
In this last book, the ‘Morte Arthur’, it is the lack of armour that takes centre stage rather than its failure. When Lancelot is finally caught in flagrante delicto in Guinevere’s bedroom, he blames his resulting predicament on his unarmed state: ‘Alas,’ he complains, ‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad that I shulde be thus shamefully slayne, for lake of myne armour’ (p. 676, lines 24-5). The sentence recalls the wording of his earlier complaint when trapped up a tree in the story of the falcon: ‘Alas […] that ever a knyght sholde dey wepynles!’ (p. 170, line 17). But on that occasion Lancelot could have been taken as a representative ‘knyght’, the equivalent of any romance hero trapped by treachery. In Guinevere’s room, by contrast, his situation is unique: he considers it only in the context of his private misfortunes (‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad’), and sees the situation as ‘shameful’ to himself, not to those who have trapped him. The contrast between the two laments underscores his increasing alienation both from honour or worship and from his fellow knights. He succeeds, of course, in escaping; but he does so by killing one of his comrades of the Round Table, Sir Colgrevaunce, then donning his armour and fighting his way to freedom. The echo here of the many past occasions on which Lancelot borrowed armour serves only to underscore the extent to which what was once a game has become a disaster. And a lack of armour plays a yet more tragic role in the events that unfold in the wake of this episode.
Another knight killed at the door of the Queen’s chamber is Sir Agravain, brother of Gawain, Lancelot’s best friend. It is a measure of Lancelot’s worth that Gawain does not resent his killing. Indeed, Malory fills these late books with loyal friends who refuse to begrudge the hero his unfortunate propensity for causing the deaths of those who love him: the faithful horse in ‘The Knight of the Cart’ which is shot full of arrows by Sir Melliagaunt’s archers, yet continues to follow its master with its guts hanging out; the Maid of Astolat, who dies for love of Lancelot, and her brother Lavayne, who understands why she chose to do so: ‘for sythen I saw first my lorde sir Launcelot I cowde never departe frome hym’ (p. 639, lines 13-14). Gawain’s younger brother Gareth is another of these paragons of loyalty, who never forgets that Lancelot was the man who made him knight. He switches to Lancelot’s side in ‘The Great Tournament’ and fights against his brothers on his mentor’s behalf; and when Arthur orders him to accompany Guinevere on her final journey to execution as an adulteress, he refuses to wear his ‘harneyse of warre’ as a token of solidarity with her absent lover (p. 683, line 41). Inevitably Lancelot rides to her rescue; and inevitably Gareth is killed with his brother Gaheris in the confusion, ‘for they were unarmed and unwares’ (p. 684, line 26). At this point in the story Lancelot is once again the most efficient of killing machines, as he was before things got complicated. But his repeated compromising of the chivalric code means that his mechanical efficiency is no longer simple. Instead of being deployed in the service of some good cause, his force gets visited on the vulnerable flesh of the men he loves. Even Guinevere suffers from its effects, since the enmity brought about by Gareth’s death – the falling out it occasions between Gawain and Lancelot – is responsible both for her husband’s downfall and for her penitent demise.
Lancelot himself claims it is the brothers’ missing armour that was responsible for their deaths. ‘God wolde,’ he says at one point, that Gareth and Gaheris ‘had ben armed […] for than had they ben on lyve’ (p. 695, lines 41-2). He duly offers to make reparation by forgoing his warrior status, as embodied in his harness, and walking from end to end of the kingdom ‘in my shearte’, founding religious houses along the way to sing masses for the dead men’s souls (p. 696, line 14). But Gawain, too, has by this stage become machine-like – welded, so to speak, into his martial persona. War against Lancelot is the only reparation he will accept. And since everyone knows by now that Lancelot will be victorious in any conflict, the reader sees at once that this mechanical insistence on revenge will usher in the end of Arthur’s reign. Malory has reversed the machinery of the romance narrative so that it destroys its most efficient components, the iron-clad knights; and it is the armour that doesn’t work which is largely responsible for changing the function of the armour that does, from protective covering to engine of (self) destruction.
Interestingly, what brings about this major change in the function of armour is a change in the form of Malory’s evolving Arthurian narrative. Many of his earlier works consist of a succession of largely disconnected episodes, such as ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, with its errant structure neatly but loosely bound together by certain recurrent themes: the tricks Lancelot has to play to get a fight, the tricks played on him to render him vulnerable. But the episodes in the later ‘Book of Launcelot and Guinevere’ are woven together by tangled chains of cause and effect. The consequences of each episode get played out in the next; and the final book, the ‘Morte Arthur’ itself, is more tightly woven still, with each tale emerging organically from its predecessor. It is as if armour can only remain impervious in episodic narratives. Where one adventure has few links to the next, the simplicity of armour’s function as an emblem of the knightly ideal can be sustained, or can readily be recovered when that function has been compromised. But where competing allegiances – to friend and lover, to King and Queen, to knightly honour and a jealous mistress – get carried over from one episode to the next, armour too becomes permeable. In Malory’s interlinked narratives, harness loses its singular purpose and becomes instead, in its uneasy relationship with the flesh it covers (or fails to cover), an increasingly sophisticated device for undermining its bearer’s pretensions to honour, for exposing the fissures and flaws in his logic, the anarchic passions he seeks to hide or suppress.
The most sophisticated medieval study of the armour that doesn’t work is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and here too it is the structure of the narrative that renders that armour problematic, as it accumulates associations through the successive sections or ‘fits’ of the poem. In the opening scene at Arthur’s court, where the mysterious Green Knight invites one of the king’s champions to strike off his head with an axe, the poet makes much of the stranger’s unarmed status: ‘Whe[th]er hade he no helme ne hawbergh nau[th]er,/ Ne no pysan ne no plate [th]at pented to armes’. The Green Knight’s armourlessness is notable because he possesses a body so eminently suited to martial exploits (‘Hit semed as no mon my[gh]t/ Under his dynttez dry[gh]e’), and because the giant axe he carries underscores the violent nature of the strange game he proposes. The relationship between flesh and steel, then, is implicitly foregrounded from the moment he rides into the court; and when Sir Gawain takes up his challenge, the blow he aims at the Green Knight’s neck constitutes perhaps the most graphic encounter between flesh and steel in English literature: ‘[th]e scharp of [th]e schalk schyndered [th]e bones,/ And schrank [th]ur[gh] [th]e schyire grece, and schade hit in twynne,/ [Th]at [th]e bit of [th]e broun stel bot on [th]e grounde’ (lines 424-6). And flesh and steel continue to dominate the poem. The Green Knight survives the blow, by supernatural means, and leaves the court; Gawain sets off to find him the following year, as the game dictates; and his journey begins, as in all proper romances (though not that of Sir Thopas), with a ritual arming, described in loving detail as the knight’s servants assemble his harness piece by piece around his torso, limbs and head. But even as this physical armour is assembled the reader is aware that it will prove useless, since the encounter Gawain has agreed to entails exposing his own ‘naked’ neck to the Green Knight’s axe. And that approaching moment of nakedness is recalled again and again throughout Gawain’s journey.
It is invoked in the physical rigours of his passage through wintry landscape, during which armour provides no protection against the cold: ‘Ner slayn wyth [th]e slete he sleped in his yrnes/ Mo ny[gh]tez [th]en innoghe in naked rokkez’ (my emphasis) (lines 729-30). It is recalled, too, in the Christmas game Gawain plays while staying at Bertilak’s castle. Each day Bertilak goes hunting while his guest remains at home, and at the end of the day they agree to exchange whatever they have obtained in their respective activities. This second contest, like the Green Knight’s, involves the conspicuous juxtaposition of flesh and steel: the lavish descriptions of Bertilak’s wife, who seeks to seduce her guest in her husband’s absence, being interlaced with passages that describe the mangling and butchering of animal flesh with steel on Bertilak’s hunting expeditions. And as the game goes on, the final encounter between flesh and steel at the Green Knight’s chapel draws steadily closer, until it hardly seems surprising when on his final day at the castle Gawain succumbs – not to the lady’s seduction, but to her offer of additional armour. The armour, however, is not metal, since we already know that metal is useless. Instead she offers him a girdle, whose virtue, she claims, is to protect its wearer so that ‘no ha[th]el vnder heuen tohewe hym [th]at my[gh]t,/ For he my[gh]t not be slayn for sly[gh]t vpon er[th]e’ (lines 1853-4). Gawain accepts the gift and does not declare it to Bertilak that evening, thus violating the terms of the game they have been playing; and next morning he ties it on over his harness like an extra layer of proofing. He never, however, wholly trusts in its protection – witness the flinch he gives when the Green Knight raises his axe. After all, the green girdle represents the love of the body, which is intimately connected through food, drink, desire and clothing with the beasts and growing plants in the world around it; and flesh is frail as grass, as the Bible reminds us. The body’s frailty could not be better suggested than by the contrast between the soft silk girdle and the iron plates it binds, or between the fatty tissue of a man’s exposed neck and the steel blade that nicks it. The girdle confirms Gawain’s humanity, and as such it serves a similar purpose to the armour that doesn’t work which he is wearing, and which he knows full well will do him no good when he meets his enemy.
In tying on the girdle over his harness, as Cooper points out in The English Romance in Time, Gawain compromises the symbolic function of that armour in an effort to supplement its function as protection. This symbolic function is indicated by the device he wears on his coat armour: a pentangle that stands for five interlinked virtues, each virtue possessing five aspects, together making up the combined qualities to which a knight is expected to aspire. In tying on the girdle, Cooper points out, Gawain obscures the ‘endeles knot’ of the pentangle with a lace which has two distinct ends (‘pendauntez’, line 2038) and which is also tied in a ‘knot’ (line 2376). As a man who knows he has an end – the death that awaits all mortals – Gawain shares with his readers the wish to defer it for as long as possible. He is not made of metal, and metal in any case has been inescapably connected with mortality throughout the poem. Most commentators agree with the Green Knight that Gawain’s love of life, as embodied in the girdle, makes him more, not less, attractive.
Gawain’s useless armour, which gets trumped by a band of green silk, foreshadows the many varieties of non-functioning armour in the sixteenth century. Spenser, whose iron man Talus embodied the grimmer connotations of fully functional armour, opens The Faerie Queene with the portrait of a young knight whose ancient armour does not quite suit him, as if to alert us to the complex relationship between physical, spiritual and political struggle that the poem explores. In the first stanza we read about the ‘cruell markes of many a bloody fielde’ with which Redcrosse’s arms are covered, together with the paradox that ‘armes till that time did he never wield’; and Redcrosse certainly does not find it easy to acclimatize himself to his antique equipment. At the half way point of the first book we find him cavorting with the sorceress Duessa, ‘Pourd out in loosnesse on the grassy grownd’ (I.vii.6), just at the moment when a ferocious giant happens by. Sir Thopas, too, met a giant when he was unarmed, but unlike Chaucer’s hero Redcrosse never gets time to dress for the occasion. ‘Ere he could his armour on him dight’ the knight finds himself the giant’s prisoner (I.vii.8), and has to be rescued by a better-furnished hero, Prince Arthur, whose worth is signaled by his ‘glitterand armour’ (I.vii.29). This hero, too, has something in common with Sir Thopas – he serves a fairy queen – but fortunately his excellent dress sense is better matched by his prowess and he slays the giant with ease (Sir Thopas never even gets close to his). The whole of Spenser’s poem, in fact, is populated by people whose outward garb bears a difficult relationship with their inward qualities, or lack of them, and by the time the reader meets Redcrosse’s rescuer Arthur she has become well used to scrutinizing the verbal and emblematic context of each character’s first appearance in the poem before passing judgement on them.
Even after his rescue by Arthur, who ought to have furnished him with a good example of a knight whose inward qualities match his harness, Redcrosse’s armour remains a problem to him. His climactic fight sees him face a dragon whose scales resemble a ‘plated cote of stele’ (I.xi.9), and whose weaponry (the fire he breathes, his claws, the stings in his tail) render armour a hindrance rather than a help to his antagonist. Finding himself ‘seard’ through his metal covering (I.xi.26), Redcrosse seeks to remove it and unlace his helmet. Soon afterwards the monster pierces his shoulder with its stings, then grips his shield so fiercely he is forced to cut off its claw, which remains attached to the shield, much to the knight’s annoyance. In his ‘Letter to Ralegh’ Spenser explains that the ancient armour Redcrosse wears is the armour of Christ described by Saint Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18; but its emblematic associations (the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation) keep breaking down in this encounter, and the steel has to be reinforced with further injections of allegory – water from the well of life, balm from the tree of life – whose exact significance (baptism? Eucharist?) has never quite been settled. The intense pain Redcrosse endures in his battle with an enemy who is as well armoured as himself tends to overwhelm the allegorical function of his harness, and only the spiritual remedies applied to his scorched and damaged flesh can restore him to his symbolic identity as the champion of holiness.
Lorna Hutson has written brilliantly about how the feats of physical combat that had been central to medieval romance were displaced in many Tudor romances by verbal combat, in which the hero displays his prowess through eloquence rather than force. It is for this reason, perhaps – the widespread emphasis on debate, and in particular the orator’s skill in arguing on both sides of any given question – that there are so many examples of armour that doesn’t work throughout the period: from the armour borne by Parthenia in Sidney’s New Arcadia, which she dons not to avenge her dead husband but to share his fate; to the borrowed armour worn by the hero to hide his identity in Robert Greene’s Gwydonius, which means that he nearly kills his own father in the romance’s climactic fight; or the poisoned helmet put on by Duke Brachiano in John Webster’s tragedy The White Devil. In each of these cases the tools of defence are transformed into agents of destruction – much as Redcrosse’s armour becomes a furnace when he fights the dragon. The analogy with the way a skilful orator could deploy the same material to argue against a cause he had just been defending is irresistible.
The most sophisticated post-medieval treatment of this anti-meme occurs in Shakespeare’s most knotty play, Troilus and Cressida. Like TheFaerie Queene the play can be read as a response to Chaucer, though it also recalls the other English-language versions of the Trojan War that had circulated since the Middle Ages. By the sixteenth century Troy was best known, perhaps, as the focus of a conflict about which radically different accounts had been written, some biased towards the Greek perspective, others towards the Trojan. Debate, then, and many forms of falsification were inseparably attached to the Trojan myth, as we learn from the early fifteenth-century romance TheDestruction of Troy: ‘sum poyetis full prist [th]at put hom [th]erto/ With fablis and falshed fayned [th]ere speche,/ And made more of [th]at mater [th]an hom maister were’. And armour was the theme of one of the most celebrated debates of the conflict: the quarrel between Ulysses and Ajax over which of them should inherit the arms of Achilles, as described by Ovid in the thirteenth book of the Metamorphoses. Ulysses won those arms with his crafty tongue, a result that led to the suicide of Ajax; and in the process Ajax’s claim that Ulysses was dedicated to undermining his Greek comrades as much as his Trojan enemies was lent a large measure of credibility.
Shakespeare’s play is full of similar debates, between purported friends as well as deadly enemies. The Trojans squabble over whether they should continue to keep Helen from the Greeks; the Greeks contend over whether she is worth fighting for, and over how to maintain discipline in the ranks of the pan-Hellenic army. Caught up in these controversies, armour finally loses the chivalric connotations it possessed in romance, becoming instead a potent weapon in the war of words, fought out in a period of stalemate between the Greeks and Trojans when other forms of fighting have been temporarily suspended. Shakespeare punctuates this, one of his most verbally inventive plays, with allusions to armour, and these become increasingly contaminated by the anxieties and inconsistencies of the armour-bearers as the play wears on.
The performance opens with a ‘Prologue arm’d’, who delivers his speech clad in protective steel. His appearance may have resembled that of the actors illustrated in Henry Peacham’s near-contemporary sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus: a peculiar fusion of ancient and modern costume, with Elizabethan vambraces and legharness tacked on to Graeco-Roman cuirasses. The Prologue’s harness is, however, no sign of heroism, as it was for Shakespeare’s Henry V when he wore it at Agincourt. Instead it betrays his lack of ‘confidence’ in the play itself, an uncertainty that stems in part from his ignorance about which side the audience will favour in this particular version of the Trojan war: ‘Like, or find fault,’ he tells us, ‘do as your pleasures are:/ Now good, or bad, ’tis but the chance of war’ (Prologue, 30-1). In these lines, as in the play that follows, values have become contingent, the quality of ‘goodness’ being assigned to whichever side emerges victorious from the conflict, while ‘badness’ is used to brand their defeated enemies regardless of any merits they might have had. Under such circumstances, armour is a political weapon, a means of gaining the upper hand in the confusion of battle. Its links with knightly honour have been severed, and with them the romance presumption that a common code of conduct binds together the men who sport it.
The first scene of the play confirms the central part that will be played by armour in the action that follows. Angered, we learn, by a recent defeat at the hands of Ajax, the Trojan hero Hector has ‘chid’ his wife that morning and ‘struck his armourer’ before going to battle (1.2.6). His chiding of Andromache, taken together with the blow against a nameless technician, points to the culture of violence that underpins the Trojan claim to be waging war for the best of reasons: in defence of honour and the women they love. Helen may be the official cause of the Trojan War, but she is in reality no more than an excuse to engage in the testosterone-fueled grapplings that define a young man’s standing in a warrior culture. To drive the point home, Shakespeare later makes Hector use Andromache as an excuse for a return match against Ajax, offering to engage in single combat with any Greek who refuses to acknowledge her as ‘a lady wiser, fairer, truer,/ Than ever Greek did couple in his arms’ (1.3.274-5). The terms of this challenge effectively explode the Trojan claim that Helen is worth fighting for (if Hector is right, she is neither as ‘fair’ nor as ‘true’ as his Trojan wife). This fact, however, is mentioned by nobody; and this is because everyone knows full well that the claim for Andromache’s pre-eminence among women has been swiftly cooked up for the single purpose of restoring Hector’s pre-eminence among fighting men. The real motive for the single combat is made clear when Hector enters the Greek camp, as enemies on both sides eye up each others’ muscles and embrace with more than soldierly enthusiasm. Men are far more interested in their own masculinity than in the women they claim as prizes; and this fact is reflected in the tendency of that most masculine of costumes, armour, to get caught up in the rampant infidelities of its bearers.
Ulysses, for instance, deploys armour prominently in his bid to set his fellow Greeks against each other, while ostensibly inciting them to honourable action. When he informs the Greek commanders that Achilles and Patroclus have been undermining their authority among their men, he reinforces the claim by re-enacting one of the scenes Patroclus is supposed to have acted for Achilles’s pleasure: a mocking imitation of the aged warrior Nestor ‘Arming to answer in a night alarm’, where the coughing and spitting old man ‘with a palsy fumbling on his gorget/ Shake[s] in and out the rivet’ (1.3.171-5). Whether or not Ulysses is telling the truth about Patroclus, his performance in front of Nestor of Nestor’s own ineptitude with his armour is clearly more subversive of the old man’s authority than any performance that may have taken place in Achilles’s tent. Later, when Ulysses urges Achilles himself to return to military action after an extended hiatus, he tells him that only ‘Perseverance’ will maintain his heroic status in the public eye: ‘to have done is to hang/ Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail/ In monumental mockery’ (3.3.150-3). In saying so, Ulysses encourages Achilles to break his promise to the Trojan princess Polyxena, whom he loves, and who has made him swear he will not harm her fellow citizens. This is, then, another treacherous invocation of armour on Ulysses’ part. And when Achilles’s ‘rusty mail’ does indeed go to war, first enclosing the body of Patroclus (who dies in it), then on Achilles’s own body as he seeks revenge for Patroclus’s death, it is more a monument to his serial faithlessness than to his valour. Achilles has betrayed Polyxena with his male lover Patroclus, betrayed the Greeks by making a promise to Polyxena, and betrayed Polyxena by going to war and breaking his promise. When he finally fights Hector in Act Five, the Greek hero is out of condition and unused to wearing armour or carrying weapons (‘my arms are out of use’, 5.6.16), and it is this that leads him to his final act of betrayal: to have the ‘unarm’d’ Hector slain by his men-at-arms, the Myrmidons, instead of fighting him hand to hand (5.8.9).
Hector, meanwhile, has a passion for armour that amounts to infidelity, not only to his wife Andromache but to the values he purports to be defending. In the central scene of the play, Act 3 scene 1 – our only extended encounter with Helen, the woman whose ‘worth’ is cited by both Greeks and Trojans as justification for their conflict – Paris exhorts his purloined lover to encourage Hector to keep fighting by indulging in a little erotic dalliance with his equipment:
Sweet Helen, I must woo you
To help unarm our Hector. His stubborn buckles,
With these your white enchanting fingers touch’d,
Shall more obey than to the edge of steel
Or force of Greekish sinews: you shall do more
Than all the island kings – disarm great Hector. (3.1.145-50)
Paris’s request links the act of disarming with a whole sequence of infidelities: Helen’s to her husband Menelaus; his own to Helen in encouraging her to seduce his brother; and Hector’s to Andromache in being aroused by Helen’s ‘white enchanting fingers’. Later, it is Hector’s armour that points up his forgetfulness of the value he earlier attached to his wife Andromache. When she begs him ‘Unarm, unarm, and do not fight today’ (5.3.3) – convinced by many omens that he will die if he ignores her warning – he threatens to ‘offend’ her, for the second time in the play, if she does not lay off (5.3.4). It seems appropriate, then, that armour should also prove his undoing. His last act of war is to pursue a weaponless soldier because he admires his harness (‘I like thy armour well’, 5.6.28). This is another mark of Hector’s inconsistency; he earlier told Troilus that he would never kill a helpless enemy because of his commitment to the rules of ‘fair play’. When he kills the fleeing soldier for the sake of his outer covering he describes him as a ‘putrefied core’ concealed in ‘goodly armour’ (5.8.1-2); and it is not entirely clear here whether he means that all mortal flesh is effectively putrid or that this soldier in particular was diseased, perhaps with syphilis, another mark of infidelity. There is certainly something rotten about Achilles’s actions when he catches Hector ‘unarm’d’ beside the victim’s body. The Greek hero orders his Myrmidons to kill him, which is bad enough; but he then dresses up the unequal contest in a garb of ‘fair play’, by ordering them to spread the word that Achilles killed the Trojan champion in equal combat: ‘On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain/ “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain”’ (5.8.13-14). In this scene the audience sees history being written; and it looks very much like a scam, fronted by the ‘goodly armour’ that conceals the cross-infected rottenness of the flesh within.
Shakespeare’s play completes the process of conceptually disengaging armour from its bearer and investing it with a grotesque life of its own; a process that had been steadily at work over the preceding two centuries. There are other manifestations of this process, some contemporary with this one, which would be worth holding up as exemplary representations of the complex relationship between human flesh and the rigid social, cultural and moral carapaces we don in a vain attempt to contain and define it. The most notable of these is the armour of Quixote. The inadequacy of this ancestral iron shell (most notably the various home-made helmets with which he seeks to complete it) reflects the weakness of the bearer’s ageing brain; but it also embodies his infectious delight in the imaginative glamour bestowed on the world by a romance sensibility, and his determination to invest the world with that glamour whatever the cost to his unguarded head. What is evident, however, is that armour that doesn’t work deserves the same close attention Cooper gave to non-functional magic; and that it has enabled equally startling transformations, down the years, of the romance tradition. It is time to polish up the rusty mail.
 Cooper, Romance, ch. 3: ‘Magic that doesn’t work’.
 My knowledge of medieval armour depends largely on two sources: Claude Blair’s European Armour circa 1066 to circa 1700 (London, 1958); and the kindness of Dr Ralph Moffat, Curator of European Arms and Armour at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Warm thanks to Ralph for showing me round the museum’s remarkable collection and providing me with an invaluable reading list.
 ‘And so suddeynly departed hys soule to Jesu Cryste, and a grete multitude of angels bare hit up to hevyn evyn in the sight of hys two felowis’: Sir Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford, 1977), p. 607, lines 6-8. All references are to this edition.
 See [Anon.], Virgilius (Antwerp, 1518), sigs. A5v-A6v; Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, eds. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester and New York, 1993), A-Text, I. i. 102-168. For Agrippa’s moving statues, see Three Books of Occult Philosophy Written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, trans. J.F. (London, 1651), pp. 77-8.
 Spenser, Faerie Queene, I.i.1. All references are to this edition.
 See The Usurer’s Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London, 1994).
Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. French and Hale, p. 811, lines 33-5.
 The sketch is reproduced in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al., 2nd edn. (London, 2008), p. 89.
 All references to Troilus and Cressida are taken from Kenneth Palmer’s edition for the Arden Shakespeare (London, 1982).
 My thanks to Matthew Woodcock for his comments on this essay. He asked me a number of excellent questions I have no space to answer here, among them ‘do you have a sense of when the “armour that doesn’t work” anti-meme develops’? The fact that Beowulf is the first example I can think of (the episode in which the hero’s specially-forged iron shield fails him in his fight against the dragon, of course, but more interestingly the whole notion that Beowulf has never managed to fight with weapons because they have always failed him) suggests to me that it is as old as armour itself.
I knew Alasdair Gray. During his lifetime I was always aware that typing those words would one day come to seem momentous, like saying I knew William Blake or Ursula Le Guin. The seed of this momentousness was sown the moment I arrived in Glasgow and read his fantastic novel Lanark as a guide to the city. There could be no better guide, since it covers everything: Glasgow’s architecture and inhabitants, its place in the British Empire and hence the world, its place in the spiritual universe, the quality of its light, the various kinds of illnesses it suffers from (turning into a salamander being the least of them), and the fact that living there made one complicit with the conditions that cause its ills – as well as with the glories and wonders it is full of. Not long after my arrival at the University of Glasgow in 1992 I found myself teaching the novel of his I love most, Poor Things, which is about a woman who may or may not have been cobbled together, Frankenstein style, by an eccentric surgeon. The book made Glasgow into Frankenstein’s creature, and Scotland too, and the British Empire, and the world. Local things became universal in Gray’s writing, more explicitly than in the work of anyone else I can think of except James Joyce, and this made me proud to be a citizen of the city he lived in.
I met him through a mutual friend, the critic and poet Philip Hobsbaum, founder of a series of influential writer’s groups in Belfast, London and Glasgow. Alasdair was a regular visitor to his house in Oban Drive, and on one occasion he bought a drawing made by my daughter, who was in Primary School at the time. He paid her a pound for it, I think, and said it was an investment for the future, since she was bound to become a famous artist, and he could then sell it for a vast profit. In one gesture, the man summed himself up: a lifelong agitator for decent wages for artists and other workers; a visionary who was always looking to the future, not least in the way he pictured Scotland as an independent socialist republic; a warm and gentle human being who respected and spoke to everyone, though he also seemed profoundly shy. I say ‘seemed’ because his shyness didn’t make him shy away from (for example) public speaking at demonstrations or conversations with strangers, at least in my experience. That said, I didn’t speak to him as often or for as long as I would have liked to. I always felt I shouldn’t take up too many minutes of his astonishingly creative time.
One story I heard from the Hobsbaums, among many others, concerned Alasdair’s creation of one of his finest murals in the front room of Philip’s wife Rosemary, who then lived in West Prince’s Street, a slightly shabby address in Glasgow’s West End. Alasdair had been enjoying himself one evening, to the extent that he cut himself somehow without noticing and left a smear of blood on the living room wall. He liked the shape made by the blood, which resembled the body of a whale, and later came back with his paints and started to sketch out a gigantic mural depicting one of his favourite characters, the reluctant prophet Jonah who was swallowed by one of the great leviathans of the sea. He painted and painted for weeks until the mural was complete. A few years later, Rosemary sold the flat and moved somewhere else, and the new owner wallpapered over the mural. I can’t say I altogether blame them, because it did take up the whole of one wall of the main room in a small apartment, and it was hard to appreciate the picture as a whole because the room was too small to stand back from the painting far enough to see it entire. A few years after that another new owner removed the wallpaper and found the mural underneath, badly damaged by glue. She got in touch with Alasdair to say she’d found it, and Alasdair agreed to come and restore it, entirely free of charge. When the restoration was finished the owner made the painting available to be seen by the public for Doors Open Day, the date in September when the public are invited into private buildings throughout the UK to which they do not normally have access. I saw it then, was blown away by it, and was delighted when it found its way into that beautiful volume Alasdair Gray: A Life in Pictures (I’d give you the page number but the book is in my office at work, inaccessible because of the lockdown). Alasdair fought all his life to achieve fair play for workers, including artists like himself, but his generosity was boundless, and he could spend many hours of his precious time making art for little or nothing, as a gift, a promise, an uninvited prophetic vision.
A few years after meeting him I was lucky enough to work with Alasdair when he came to work at the University of Glasgow as Professor of Creative Writing. Actually the Professorship was another Frankenstein’s creature, having been cobbled together from three entities: the novelist James Kelman, the poet Tom Leonard, and Gray. They had grand designs, which the university was not in the end able to fulfil. One of them was to buy the former church on University Avenue which is now the Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre, and turn the building into a state-of-the-art centre for creative writing, equipped with the latest IT technology, film studios, performing spaces, etc. etc., and attended by around 20 hand-picked students every year, the best and brightest of applicants to the MLitt programme, as it was then. I don’t think the vision was altogether serious, in that nobody thought it could really happen, but it was an authentic representation of the place the arts should occupy in a healthy society from the Professors’ point of view. The most memorable moment of the Professors’ brief tenure as a trio, from my own point of view, was an Away Day in a certain Scottish rural village, organised by the then Head of English Literature, Susan Castillo, to make plans for the future of creative writing at Glasgow. It was attended by my friends Willy Maley and Adam Piette as well as Susan, and the three professors stayed with us in the big hotel that dominates the village. At one point during the proceedings we found ourselves in the village pub. The conversation carried on far into the night in front of the fire, with round after round arriving at the table and the visions of possible futures getting more elaborate and ambitious with every passing hour. I think the doors were locked at one point, but I can’t be sure. We reeled back to the hotel by starlight, and when I woke up in the morning the whole thing seemed to have been a dream; but it was one of those dreams you had in Alasdair’s company – and in Jim’s and Tom’s too – which contained the seeds of political action driven by the engine of the imagination. In Alasdair’s company you too had visions, and carried them home with you to nourish after your time with him was over.
I also remember Jim, Tom and Alasdair reading to students during an occupation. If you approached them to support you in what they considered an important cause they were always available, always committed, always able to find a way to use their art on your behalf.
On two occasions I myself approached Alasdair to ask his opinion of other writer-artists whose work I liked, and thought he might like too. The first was Alfred Kubin, the Austrian printmaker, illustrator and novelist, whose book The Other Side I’ve loved since being introduced to it by one of my university tutors, Christopher Butler. Alasdair took it away, read it carefully, and wrote me a note about it in his unique and beautiful handwriting. He didn’t like the novel, which seemed to him to be about a man who created a perfect replica of a town in the Austro-Hungarian empire for no better reason than a kind of misplaced nostalgia; the illustrations, too, he considered blurrily impressionistic, without style or focus. These are my words, not his; I still have the note, but that too is locked away in my office; when I can get back in there I’ll type it out in full below. The point is that he didn’t think much of art that didn’t engage with politics. An artist should be committed, the three professors told us often, and by that they meant as much committed to social transformation as to their art. Alasdair’s understanding of commitment was pretty broad, I think, but didn’t embrace the construction of what amounted to an imaginary theme-park for the perpetuation of inequalities.
The second time I approached him for comment on a writer-artist was when I went to look for him at the Òran Mór – the former church, now entertainment venue, where for many years he could be found working on his biggest and most ambitious mural – to ask if he would provide me with a quotation for the cover of my edition of the Collected Poems of Mervyn Peake. I found him at the bar, asked him my question, and watched him consider it carefully for several minutes. Eventually he gave his answer. No, he said, he couldn’t possibly provide an encomium for a writer-artist who did not dedicate his work to a worthwhile cause. And having issued this declaration of his own integrity – perhaps with slight reluctance – he suddenly burst into verse. He was quoting verbatim, from memory, a poem from Peake’s first novel, Titus Groan. I think this was the stanza, with its chorus:
In dark alcoves I have lingered
Conscious of dead dynasties.
I have lingered in blue cellars
And in hollow trunks of trees.
Many a traveller by moonlight
Passing by a winding stair
Or a cold and crumbling archway
Has been shocked to find me there.
I have longed for thee, my Only,
Hark! The footsteps of the Groan!
Lingering is so very lonely
When one lingers all alone.
Gray, it seemed, loved Mervyn Peake – or at least liked his work enough to memorize a poem from it (Edwin Morgan liked it too). I was enchanted, both by the refusal and by the revelation, and have never forgotten the experience of listening to Alasdair’s voice rising over the hubbub of conversation at the bar as he intoned the words he considered too frivolous to be written about, but by no means too frivolous to be internalised, to be made part of himself. From such contradictions geniuses are made.
Those are my words about Alasdair Gray, written on the inaugural Gray Day, when his friends and fans gather together to remember a remarkable creator – or maker, the word he would rather use. My memories may be faulty, but they’re mine, for what they’re worth, and you’re welcome to them.