[Last semester my colleague Matt Sangster challenged me to list my top ten fantasy titles (or, to be precise, my top ten works of fantasy literature written in the English language in the twentieth century). I’ve tried this exercise before, and the list has radically changed each time I’ve compiled it in my head. Call this a snapshot, then, of my preferences at the time of asking (October 2016). If he’d asked me the same question this month the list would have been quite different…]
Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist (1926)
The oddest of fairy tales, in which the bourgeois citizens of a prosperous town express their fear of sex, death, the working classes, unruly women and disobedient children, by banishing all talk of such things from polite society. They also banish a hallucinogenic drug called Fairy Fruit. Forbidden things (which also include the priesthood and the aristocracy) are confined to a place they call ‘Fairyland’, beyond the country’s borders. Inevitably the borders can’t be policed, and all efforts at containing illegal people and objects fail. Gorgeous descriptions, extravagant names, and a murder mystery complete the picture. A snapshot of English life in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (c. 1940, published 1966)
Written in a language like no other, this bizarre trip into the tormented interior of 1930s Ireland – which is a miniature working model of 1930s Europe – is so packed with invention, so chock-full of gags, so musical in its rhythms and so disturbing in its vision of the way the world ticks that there’s no describing it. The nameless narrator finds himself caught up in the clockwork mechanisms of the universe. Although from one point of view his experiences are hell, they are punctuated by moments of such heartbreaking beauty and hilarity that the book is like a piece of shot silk, as dark or light as your mood at the time of reading. Boxes within boxes have never seemed so explosively complicated. Bicycles have never seemed so erotic.
Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast (1950)
An architectural fantasy, whose chief character is a labyrinthine castle governed by rituals whose origins and purpose have been lost in the dusty corridors of time. At first the castle’s denizens are as isolated from each other as the castle is from the outside world. Gradually they come together in the face of the threat posed by Steerpike, an ambitious former kitchen boy who seeks to transform the building into a totalitarian state, or a playground, or a madhouse, depending on his mood. A matchless commentary on the various forms of dictatorship, internal and external, that dominated the middle years of the twentieth century.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-5)
I love this for the subtlety of the transition from the world of the hobbits – the comfortable Shire – to the world of the ancient epic heroes; for the effortless interplay between telling details (mushrooms, pocket handkerchiefs, Longbottom Leaf, stewed rabbit) and the sweep of a grand narrative; for the sense of increasing danger it generates from the first chapter; for Tolkien’s obvious delight in bringing the remote past into vibrant life. The book perfectly captures the precariousness of the mid-twentieth century, in which war and imperialist expansionism threatened to obliterate the past altogether.
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
A perfectly constructed story, about a boy whose abusive and lonely childhood gives him a problem with women that almost turns him into a monster. The world he lives in, made up of islands, encourages an isolationism in its inhabitants that only adds to his loneliness. The dragons here are the best in fiction, with the possible exception of Tolkien’s Smaug. Le Guin’s delight in the sea that both separates and links her islands is as palpable as her fascination with the social and political causes of psychological damage, and the strange roads that lead to healing.
Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
Lessing called this an experiment in autobiography, and it’s the perfect example of how fantasy can force us to rethink the terms by which we understand the world we live in. A city is undergoing radical changes, a breakdown in the social order which the protagonist observes uneasily through the window of her ground floor apartment. The causes of the breakdown are unclear, but it’s implied that they have their roots in the breakdown of relationships between men, women and children in the domestic environment, which the protagonist also sees played out in a kind of looking-glass world on the other side of her living room wall. The style has a magnificent awkwardness that admirably conveys the difficulty of making sense of things, and the inadequacy of conventional forms of expression as a means of doing so. The ending is as ambiguous as it is exhilarating.
Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980)
The best collection of fantastic stories of the twentieth century. Though many of these are science fiction rather than fantasy, Wolfe’s refusal to authorize any single version of the strange events he presents us with invests the whole collection with a magical atmosphere, as if we are witnessing successive acts in a ghost circus. You’ll have to read these stories again and again in an effort to work out what happens in them, and each reading will give you a different answer. Just like living through the 60s and 70s, those decades of change when the stories were written.
John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)
Another architectural fantasy, set in a house whose many facades make it seem like several houses occupying the same space. Over three or four generations, an American family struggles to come to terms with its close relationship with a supernatural community of half-seen beings – perhaps the fairies – who have made their homes in the house’s environs. The fairies become a metaphor for the many forms of estrangement and misunderstanding that afflict the small community called the family, as well as the larger communities of the city, the nation and the world. Re-reading it now I think of it as the ultimate threnody for the political and social possibilities of the 60s and 70s. The prose sings.
Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock (1984)
A children’s book for grown ups. A neglected young girl makes friends with a man who seems in thrall to the mysterious head of an extensive and powerful family. The girl and the man tell each other stories and the stories come true in unexpected ways. Based on two old Scottish ballads, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, this novel is remarkable for the way it traces the changing relationship between girl and man until both are adults and equals. It is also an extended commentary on the complex relationship between the life of the imagination and ‘real life’ – whatever that is – and how the former changes as we change, adapting itself to our needs at different stages of our development. And it has much to say about our false assumptions concerning the natures of adulthood and childishness.
China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000)
A disgraced scientist sets himself up as the champion of justice and the saviour of a city. In fact he is the one who put the city in danger by releasing the Slake Moths, monstrous yet strangely attractive insects that feed on the dreams and memories of men and women, leaving them helpless, barely sentient. A brilliant meditation on the problem of mounting an effective resistance to global capitalism in an age when everything you eat, wear, study, think and dream is in some sense an integral part of the capitalist machine. Full of astounding composite creatures (cactus-people, insect-people, machine-people) whose awkward hybridity confirms the fact that we are all of us bizarre from other people’s perspectives, and that we are all of us to some extent implicated in other people’s atrocities (which means we are also honour bound to work against them).
No, please – sit down. This place gets so crowded at this time of day, and I always feel a little embarrassed to be tucked away here in the corner with my small black coffee when everyone else is doing justice to the substantial and expensive lunches on the menu. The staff are kind about it, of course – they always make me feel most welcome – but I can see they notice. There’s plenty of room at the table. Be my guest.
Oh dear oh dear. Would you mind? I must just help my poor old friend at the next table, who has dropped his cup again. Coffee all over his nice clean trousers. Could you pass me some of those napkins? Thanks so much. Really, the poor old fellow shouldn’t be out on his own – but he insists on maintaining his independence, even at the cost of his personal dignity. And who can blame him? It’s quite touching to see him struggle to maintain control over his bodily functions, especially in view of his – well – what can only be called his steepdecline over the last few months. That’s better, he’s drier now and looks more cheerful. Of course, he nearly always looks cheerful nowadays; that’s one of the better side effects of a decaying mind. Last August, though – you should have seen him only last August. Sharp as a razor, sparkling as cut glass. People used to come here almost every morning to consult him on affairs of real importance – not just your ordinary mugginses but community leaders, company directors, sometimes even (better whisper it) members of the cabinet…
And now – well – look at him. The poor old boy can barely focus on his spoon as it lifts a precarious portion of soup to his drooling lips. Do I sound heartless? Believe me, I’m speaking from the bottom of my heart; his condition affects me deeply. He’s been a friend of mind for over sixty years, and here he is –
I beg your pardon? You can’t believe I’ve even been alive for sixty years? You flatter me, my dear. I’m seventy-nine.
Yes, yes, you heard me correctly. Seventy-nine years and eleven months, to be precise. It’ll soon be my birthday. I’m effectively an octogenarian. It’s kind of you to say so; people often tell me I look younger than my age, though I’m never completely sure if they’re being serious. Of course, my friend over there, he’s only three weeks older than I am – I know, I know, it’s hard to believe we’re the same generation – but just a few months ago you’d have said he was decades younger than me, not decades my senior. It’s true, it’s true. At sixty he looked like a man in his mid-thirties. At seventy he looked no older than forty-five. His neck was firm, his hands unwrinkled, his eyes flashed as he shot you down with spontaneous wisecracks, or delivered his verdict on current affairs in elegant sentences and exquisitely crafted paragraphs… You say I’m well preserved, but only last August you’d have said he was my younger brother, perhaps even my son. And now, I say again: look at him! It’s a warning to us all. Don’t get complacent. Time tarries for no man – and no woman either, if you don’t mind my saying so. Do forgive my bluntness. I get so philosophical when I think about what happened to my friend.
What did happen, I hear you ask in your quiet voice. Did he fall ill? Well no, not ill exactly. He ate something that disagreed with him. I find that ironic. After all, if you listen to a dietician just about everything we eat disagrees with us in one way or another. Every morsel we place in our mouths is wearing us down, grinding away our teeth, eating at our organs, consuming our digestive tracts, laying waste to our wastepipes, so to speak – I mean our rectal passages… Again, I apologize for speaking bluntly, but I know what I’m talking about – know it better, indeed, than anyone else. What happened to him wasn’t unexpected, at least not to me. But dramatic, yes. Far more dramatic, indeed, than I had dared to hope…
I can see from your expression that you’d like to know more. My hints have intrigued you. Well, you’ve got a hearty sandwich to consume in the next few minutes, so if you’re sure I’m not intruding on your lunch break – I’ll tell you what happened to my poor old friend with the tremulous hands, the wattled neck, the mottled skin and the bleary vision. (Did you notice his hair, by the way? Only in August he had hair right down to his shoulders – it put this mane of mine to shame, I can assure you. And now, he should really be wearing a wig to cover up those clumps of shriveled vegetation that so egregiously fail to conceal his flaking scalp…)
Let me see, now. Where to begin? Tell me, my dear; have you heard of the Elixir of Youth? Of course you’ve heard of it – I’m sorry, my question must have sounded patronizing – and of course you’ve never believed in its existence. No more have I. Oh ho! You’re not the first to assume I must have found it, the Well at the World’s End, the Fountain of Eternal Replenishment, the Restorative Fruit from the Tree of Life. But no, I haven’t. To arrest the process of decay one needs three things: a measure of luck, a great deal of effort (eat well, live well, take plenty of exercise), and excellent genes. There are no other ways to hold back old age, and never will be, if you ask me. But I mention the Elixir of Youth for a very good reason, and will return to it in time.
My old friend there – now he was someone you’d have said had found it, if you’d seen him in August. He used to joke about it, you know – tempting fate, I tended to think in my superstitious way. ‘I can’t help it,’ he would tell strangers in his forceful voice (do you hear how it whistles now as he calls for a drink of water to help him swallow the final crumbs of his frugal meal?). ‘I just can’t help it,’ he would bellow. ‘Everything I eat makes me stronger and younger. Everything I drink revives my flesh. My grandmother was the same, and her mother before her. They both of them lived to a hundred and twelve. I expect I’ll outlast them, God willing’ (he was always throwing in those religious references, though he wasn’t a believer). ‘Come back in forty years and I’ll be sitting here at this table, as I am now, regaling the company with stories of the days when we used to drink coffee instead of kale and grapefruit smoothies. Here, feel my biceps. Impressive, no, for a man over sixty? What would you say if I told you I was over seventy? Surprised? I’m surprised myself. But I can’t help it – can I, Freddy? I’m simply the youngest octogenarian in the world.’ He exaggerated his age, of course, for dramatic effect, but he didn’t need to – he really was a wonder of nature.
That’s my name, Freddy. You’re Patricia? Pleased to meet you. It’s such a pleasure to meet a young woman with a good attention span, who isn’t always fiddling with her smartphone in the middle of a conversation.
No, no, of course I don’t mind if you answer that text. Finished? Jolly good. Now then: where was I?
Oh yes: the decline. Well, I have to say I thought he was asking for it with all his boasting about the lifespan of his family, his own good health, the astonishing weights he lifted daily in the gym. Tempting Providence, I thought, though like him I’m not religious. Almost as if he was daring the world to prove him wrong. Well, what could I do but take up the challenge? After all, he himself acknowledged me as his closest rival. The second youngest octogenarian on the planet, he would call me, and he’d buy me coffee from time to time – full fat lattes with plenty of sugar, though he knew I always drink mine black. But then, he wanted me to put on weight, just as he has now, poor devil (just look at that belly).
So I took it up. The challenge, I mean. I took up the challenge, and I took up chemistry. Not conventional chemistry, of course – GlaxoSmithKline and all that jazz. What I wanted was a nice quick fix for one small problem: the Fountain of Youth which he seemed to have tapped. I needed something to combat his natural fortitude. I needed – well, I’ll be blunt, since I’ve been blunt before. I needed a spell. Nothing else would do. I wanted fast results, and quite specific ones, and nothing in the way of regular science quite fitted the bill. A spell, my dear. By my age you don’t discount such things. Or rather, perhaps, you’re prepared to try them out because you’ve nothing to lose, not if you’re an unbeliever and you’ve witnessed the failings of conventional chemistry too many times in your life to number. Why not? After all, what’s a spell but a wish expressed in substances and gestures as well as in words? We all wish for things, I think, and every now and then we’re lucky enough to see a wish come true.
I found one, of course. A spell. Where else but on the internet – isn’t that where we find everything these days? The Dark Net, of course, not the Light One, if there’s any such thing. Not just any old Dark Net, either. This one needs to be accessed using HTMLs you can only obtain from certain individuals not to be named in respectable company. How do I know such individuals? I didn’t at the time – my life up till that point had been a relatively clean one – but I knew full well how to get in touch. How does Marlowe put it?
For when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
We fly in hope to get his glorious soul;
Nor will we come, unless he use such means
Whereby he is in danger to be damned.
Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring
Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,
And pray devoutly to the Prince of Hell.
Isn’t Kit sublime? I want to cry every time I speak those lines. And I’m not even a believer! I can attest, though, to the efficacy of the method. You don’t do your abjuring out loud, of course, if you want a cyber solution; you do it on Google. But it works. My old friend there is proof of that.
One way or another, then, I got my spell. I can tell you what was in it if you like. Have you finished your meal? I ask, because – well, some of the contents were a little disgusting. Bitter aloes was the least of them. The central nervous system of a traumatized orphan. A migrant’s tearducts. Infected blood. Bile, spleen, a dysfunctional liver, a malignant tumour – all of them human, I’m sorry to say. Lots of saturated fat, mixed with glucose, fructose – any kind of sugar, the more the merrier. Petrol. Ash. Bat’s wings, of course, Pipistrellus pipistrellus being the preferred variety, the bird of evening as the Romans called it. Eye of newt. Those last two items can be found in all the most efficacious spells, and I have to tell you the eye of newt was by far the hardest thing to get hold of – everything else is readily available on the world wide web, but you have no idea how rare a great crested newt is these days, or how fiercely the conservationists protect them. A pinch of salt – no, make that a fistful. There’s more, of course, but you get the picture. Hardly palatable, you’ll agree; and of course it took me months to get it all together.
There were words, too, as there always are, but you can’t have those – I don’t want to get you into trouble, not at your age. (At my age, on the other hand, trouble should be actively sought out. Keeps you young, so my seniors tell me.) And then of course I had to get the timing right. Leave the noxious mixture to brew for several weeks, chanting charms over it at appointed times, when the planets were properly aligned etc. – wearisome stuff. Consult the usual star charts to ascertain the optimum moment to administer the concoction. And then…
Then came the difficult part, or so you’d imagine. How to make him drink the potion? Funnily enough, that was the simplest thing of all. I just had to tell him everyone was doing it – that the tincture I’d cooked up was the dernier cri in holistic wellness therapy – and he took it like a man. After all, he’d been inured to foul concoctions for many decades; you don’t get a physique of the sort he had without downing vitamins and proteins by the bucketful, mostly in the foulest form imaginable. He made a wry face as he tossed it down, but he kept it down, as I’d known he would, and even managed to drink a mug of green tea afterwards to wash away the aftertaste. Impressive.
The effects didn’t begin to show for over a week – I was on tenterhooks till I finally spotted the first telltale change in his complexion. He must have been as strong as an ox. I knew that, of course, but I’m sure you’ll agree that knowing something isn’t the same as seeing it empirically demonstrated. When he came in here looking yellow – well, I was in clover. I settled down, then, to watch the changes day by day as they swarmed across him like a plague of locusts across healthy farmland. An outbreak of boils, which made him waddle like a pregnant duck. Scurf and scabies, which quickly led to hair loss. Sudden tooth decay, so that between one week and the next he’d gone from a full set of gleaming gnashers without one filling to a full set of dentures, which didn’t properly fit his mouth (the shape of his jaw was in constant flux). A case of palsy in the hands, whose cause could never be traced. Wasting of the muscles. Chronic indigestion. Distortion of the bones; incontinence; a number of strokes. His conversation changed, becoming a litany of complaints which drove away even his oldest friends – apart from myself, to whom they were music, a driveling ode to the success of my necromantic efforts. Then he more or less stopped talking altogether. It was too painful at first, what with all those abscesses, and later on he simply forgot how to govern his tongue. These days he can only manage the simplest requests for a glass of water or a bowl of soup, and to be honest we can only understand him because we know his habits.
Must you go? Have I driven you off? Of course not, it’s just that your lunch break is almost over, you need to get back, your time is precious as mine is not. Well well, it’s been a pleasure to meet you, and I say it sincerely – I who say very little sincerely (there is so much enjoyment to be had from pulling the leg of an attractive stranger). Remember, I’m here every morning with my small black coffee; I’d be pleased to tell you more about my friend’s career and its unfortunate end. Or if you prefer I can tell you about my other friend, the one who gave me the spell and helped me work it. Don’t worry, my dear, you’d never find him in this café. He prefers the swanky places near Piccadilly Circus and Holland Park; he has expensive tastes. Just visiting, were you? Off home tomorrow? Never mind. But before you go, let me say one more thing. I think you’ll find it useful.
A young woman of your age doesn’t think about ageing, or if you do, you think of it as far away, a distant prospect, the tiniest blot on life’s horizon. As you get older, though, I assure you it starts to loom. Every time you look in the mirror it looms larger. You start to cast envious glances at other people, guessing their ages, making notes on the stealthy meddling of Father Time with their faces and bodies as compared with yours. There will come a day, I guarantee, when you start to think: how can I look younger? Can I afford to dress like a twenty-year-old any more, or will it simply bring out the grotesque disparity between my sense of style and the wrinkled, bespeckled texture of my skin? That woman there – she’s older than me, yet she looks much younger. How does she do it? What’s her secret? Will she tell me honestly, or will she fob me off with a bit of folklore, a fat red herring, a downright lie?
There will come a moment, believe me, when you’ll even start to find yourself half believing that it may exist: the Elixir of Youth. Wishful thinking, of course – but as I said, we all wish for things, and now and then we’re lucky enough to see a wish come true.
My advice to you is this: the Elixir of Youth is a waste of time. There’s no such thing. Forget it. You could waste years in search of it, and one day you may even find that you’ve sold your soul for it, given up your happiness – what there is of it left – for a piece of nonsense in a crystal flask which does nothing at all but give you stomach cramps or a temporary, painful high, swiftly followed by half a year’s worth of deep depression. Believe me, I know this from bitter experience. It doesn’t work. Put it out of your mind.
But there’s something else, in my view, that’s much, much better. One day, in a few decades, you’ll remember our meeting and what I said as you left the café, determined never to darken its door again (what a horrible man! What a dreadful story!). You’ll remember that I told you how to get hold of it, and who to call on when you want to find it. You’ll start to believe what I’m telling you now: that it’s the only potion worth possessing, the only spell worth seeking out. And you’ll go looking for it, as I did, with beating heart and a welcome warmth spreading through the normally chilly joints of your hands and feet. You’ll go wandering through the mazes of the Dark Dark Net until it comes to you at last, in one form or another, with the ghastly inevitability of death itself.
What am I talking about, you ask? Oh, I think you know.
The Elixir of Age, young woman. The Elixir of Age.
For some time now I’ve been thinking about writing a book about English comic fiction and the Reformation – no doubt one of those many lost books that will never get finished. It’s an odd combination, certainly: a religious crisis that provoked violent conflict throughout Europe and a mode of writing that tends to get lost in literary history, largely because it’s thought of as light, a form of ‘popular’ and often crude entertainment that has nothing significant to tell us about the culture that produced it. James Simpson’s brilliant volume of the Oxford English Literary History, for instance (1350-1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution), has no comic fiction in it at all, and there has never been a monograph on early modern comic fiction in English. What has comic prose fiction to do with religious and political controversy? Very little, this neglect seems to say. But my view is that it has a great deal to tell us about reformation of one sort or another, and here I’m going to try to show this through a peculiarly rich case study.
The comic is about obliqueness: disrupting patterns of expectation, twisting familiar narratives, social customs and verbal conventions out of shape, taking people by surprise in such a way as to shock them into laughter. It depends for its effects on the assumption that there is a direction in which things usually go: a social or cultural pattern or norm that gets transgressed by the comic incident or comment, though in such a way as not to disturb the reader too radically. For this reason the comic, like satire, is sometimes taken to be a basically conservative medium; the status quo gets asserted rather than undermined by comic disruption. Even when the laughter it induces is uncomfortable or nervous, the fact that we laugh at all confirms that the object of our laughter is not serious – that in the end it has no power to alter things. If it did, we wouldn’t laugh at it; we would weep, gasp, rage, or shout. The medieval church’s ready accommodation of carnival periods into its religious cycle attests to laughter’s power of containing the emotions it releases, and to the inevitability of the return to sober normality after the period of laughter is over.
Not all laughter, though, is so easily contained by the authorities. All three of the writers I want to write about here share a tendency to cross the line between the comic and the unacceptably transgressive, the forbidden, even the treacherous. There’s a time and a place for laughter, the Bible tells us, and even if fools have a degree of licence or legal protection there are subjects even a fool doesn’t breach with impunity. One of the most famous fools in history, Scoggin – who became the hero of his own collection of comic stories which went on being published into the eighteenth century – got himself sentenced to death by the king he served, and only saved himself by asking to be allowed to choose the tree from which he would be hanged – a choice he of course never made. All three of my writers were famous for their humour; and all three fell foul of the authorities of church and state, two dying for the doctrinal positions they took up in the early years of the Lutheran controversy, while the third lived largely in exile, and had his works placed on the papal index of prohibited books after his death. These writers didn’t get into trouble specifically for their humour; but their comic writings do have something to tell us about how and why they crossed the nebulous borders between the permissible and the illicit, and perhaps also about why each of them ended up on different sides of the religious conflict. Their eventual differences are all the more remarkable because the three of them started out with such similar convictions. What, then, does their comic fiction tell us about the different directions in which these convictions took them?
From the early days of their friendship the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the English lawyer Thomas More, and More’s brother-in-law, the printer John Rastell, shared a very humanist passion for social and ecclesiastical reform achieved through letters: above all, through the process of making words perspicuous; of clarifying their meanings with the help of translation, etymology (tracing the history of words) and exegesis or explanatory commentary. Erasmus sought a return to the first principles of Christianity through a return to correct texts – especially, of course, accurate texts of the Bible. For him, the accurate use of words and grammar, in translations of the scriptures but also in the secular scripture of classical literature, could lead to a reformation of society and the Church. His quest for perspicuous or lucid wisdom expressed itself in the successive editions of his Adagia: collections of proverbs or adages drawn from ancient Greek and Latin authors, which he saw as embedded in and indeed springing from a collective popular culture, since many have close affinities with old Dutch sayings he had known since childhood. His aim was to reintroduce the sort of lucid wisdom expressed in these proverbs into a church and secular government that had lost sight of the common people, and so of Christ’s original message, which embraced the powerless and disenfranchised.
Erasmus’ friends Thomas More and John Rastell shared his view of the redemptive power of words properly used in grammar, rhetoric and reasoning; but their focus at the beginning of their careers was on the secular letter of the law. More famously depicted in Utopia a land where the law is reduced to a few simple precepts understood by all citizens, in token of the common responsibility for government which is the founding principle of his invented society. John Rastell sought to realize this vision in his own country, England, by printing the first translations of English law into the English language, thus removing the mystique that had woven itself around legal processes by virtue of the erudite language in which they were couched. Rastell’s translations proved so popular that they went on being reprinted into the eighteenth century; and the global success of More’s Utopia is well known. But it’s also well known that the dreams of these humanists were just that: idealistic dreams, which never stood a chance of achieving a proper reformation of church and state in any country. We know this now, of course, with the advantage of hindsight; and it’s clear that all three writers knew it then, since they chose to convey their dreams, in part at least, through comic fiction. But I would suggest that they knew it in different degrees. Rastell really seems to have thought he could effect some sort of change in English society, since he converted to Protestantism in old age and set about furthering the cause with all his resources – in fact, he bankrupted himself in the end as he worked to establish radical Protestantism in England. Erasmus, too, truly believed that he could change the world with his words – or rather with God’s words freshly presented to readers alongside his commentaries – though he had few illusions about how radical the change must be or how hard to effect. More, on the other hand, knew full well that his utopianism was utopian; that however ‘good’ it was, it existed nowhere, and that there was little hope that any of its precepts would be accepted in Europe any time soon. As I said, with the advantage of hindsight it could be said that these writers’ comic fictions represent these positions with startling accuracy. It’s time, then, to turn to those fictions to see if they bear out this contention.
The theme of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly is inversion. The goddess Folly distinguishes a vast variety of foolishnesses as she argues for her own centrality to human experience, first by showing how she dominates each individual’s life from birth to death, then by schematically illustrating the foolishness of each estate or class in European society, with special emphasis on the people who regard themselves as least ridiculous, the ruling classes of church and state. But two special kinds of folly are pitted against each other throughout her discourse. The first is the folly of simplicity, which states openly and plainly in the most lucid words what is and what (in Christian terms) should be – and hence attracts derision from the powerful, who have a vested interest in keeping things obscure an incomprehensible. The second is the folly of sophistication, which aims to complicate the simple tenets of Christianity through verbal obfuscation in the interests of underpropping tyranny. As Folly’s mock sermon unfolds, we learn that the dominant folly of sophisticated people is the pretence of following Christ’s simple philosophy, as Erasmus calls it elsewhere, while actually following the fool-osophy of self-interest – which means that what’s called folly by the world is in God’s eyes wisdom, and vice versa. Folly’s constant switching between these two brands of folly produces a vertiginous effect on the reader, so that we find ourselves constantly wrong-footed, repeatedly enmeshed in one folly or another until the sermon’s final section, when the ecstatic foolishness of Christ’s followers emerges triumphant as the one stance worth cultivating. Erasmus’s constant comic violation of the reader’s expectations in this discourse leaves us without stability except in Christ, whose perspicuousness or simplicity of phrase and purpose is confirmed at last as the only certain ground in a world turned inside out by the Fall. The radically disturbing effect of the sermon preached by Erasmus’s Folly, with all its comic volatility, was confirmed by the condemnations to which it became subject; including, of course, the famous statement by More, at the height of the Lutheran controversy, that he would rather have it burnt with his own Utopia than add its fuel to the mounting flames of religious revolution.
It’s ironic that the celebration of simplicity should have been so central to a text that delights in its own complexity, its cunning play of one form of absurd behaviour against another. One might say the same for Erasmus’s Adagia, where simple proverbs open out like boxes to disclose the wealth of ideas they can accommodate. But in the Fallen world we have lived in since the exile of Adam and Eve from the first utopia, Eden, the relationship between simplicity and sophistication has been drastically reversed or inverted, so Erasmus believed. As a result, the simple playfulness of verbal punning (like the pun of his book’s title) has been transformed by unscrupulous authorities into self-serving trickery, lies and fraud. This is best illustrated by comparing two of the metaphors he uses in The Praise of Folly. The first is the ‘Silenus of Alcibiades’, a grotesque statue that opens up like a container to reveal the figure of a god concealed inside. Erasmus sees words themselves, when properly used, as such a container, and he repeatedly returns in his pedagogic writings to the idea of words and phrases as boxes that can be endlessly unpacked. The other metaphor, which is the reverse of the Silenus, is the theatre, where a resplendent show conceals the physical and moral turpitude or sickness of the actors. A prince resembles an actor, Folly tells us, when he seems ‘bothe riche, and a great lorde’ but has ‘no good qualitees of the mynde’; and she pursues this analogy by imagining ‘one at a solemne stage plaie’ who decides ‘to plucke of the plaiers garmentes, whiles they were saiyng of theyr partes, and so disciphre unto the lokers on, the true and native faces of the plaiers’. Under these conditions ‘who before plaied the woman, shoulde than appeare to be a man: who seemed a youth, should shew his hore heares: who countrefaited the kynge, shulde tourne to a rascall, and who plaied god almightie, shulde become a cobler as he was before’ (37-8). The person who removes the players’ costumes in mid-performance exposes the absurd illusion that allows the play to function, just as the analyst who exposes the disparity between a prince’s splendid appearance and his sordid personality reveals the absurd illusion that sustains monarchic authority in contemporary Europe.
At the same time, the costume remover exposes his own folly by his actions. Doesn’t such a man ‘marre all the mattier,’ Folly asks, ‘and well deserve for a madman to be pelted out of the place with stones’? Elsewhere she describes the pagan gods as looking down on the unruly ‘Theatre’ of the world and laughing at all mortals without exception. To see oneself as planted somehow outside this universal theatre – as spectator rather than actor – is delusional; so that the critic who strips the actors of their costumes discloses his own inability to see that he is one of them. Even those few men or women who glimpse the truth make themselves foolish by their efforts to describe it: ‘thei doo speake certaine thynges not hangyng one with an other, nor after any earthly facion, but rather dooe put foorth a voice they wote never what, much lesse to be understode of others’. In the process they too become actors: clowns or fools who entertain the rest of the world with their incoherent jabbering. The quest for the simplicity of truth, then, is as much a form of folly in the fallen world as the sophistication that seeks to conceal the true nature of things for personal advantage. No one is free from Folly’s influence; so it hardly seems surprising that Erasmus never took a hard line in the reformation struggles that broke out after his book was published. He was not arrogant enough to suppose he was exceptional; and The Praise of Folly illustrates this wittily self-conscious humility on every page. His book is utopian in that the ideal Christian exists nowhere – that is, he or she is an exile in a world that has dedicated itself to something very different from the Christian ideal. The hope Folly’s sermon offers us is that ideal Christianity nevertheless exists, not just in Heaven but hidden away in the nooks and crannies and strange containers of the human mind, and of the mind’s preferred mode of communication, the art of words.
More’s most celebrated work, Utopia, adopts a different perspective. If Erasmus is concerned with inversions and reversals, More dwells on separations, dividing his text into two parts as if to confirm the eternal division between the knotty complexities of Tudor England, as described in the first book, and the rationality of the communist state described in the second. The man who brings news of Utopia to Europe is Raphael Hythloday, the angelic messenger (as his Christian name suggests) who is also a purveyor of nonsense (as his surname indicates). Hythloday tells More that he lived in Utopia for several years, and that he would never have left it except to spread word of its achievements – to serve as a secular evangelist for the ideal society. Yet Hythloday refuses to offer his services to kings for fear of being contaminated by the corruption of courts. As a result, news of Utopia is confined to More’s comic fiction, which can be dismissed by kings and their advisors as a toy, a tissue of impossibilities fit only for leisure-time perusal by the small band of erudite readers who know Greek and Latin. This superior attitude of kings and the aristocracy towards Utopia exactly mirrors the superior attitude of the discoverer of Utopia, Raphael Hythloday, who sees himself as self-evidently more intelligent than any adviser currently serving a European prince. And More’s persona in the book seems to share this superior attitude, to judge, at least, by his use of the theatrical metaphor, which is so very different from the use of it made by Folly.
In an effort to persuade Hythloday that philosophers should serve as counsellors to kings, More makes a famous distinction between the philosopher who gives the same advice to every audience and the philosopher who adapts his words to the needs and whims of each recipient. The former, More contends, may be compared to the man who interrupts one theatrical performance with another, obtruding a solemn speech from a Senecan tragedy into the buzz and burley of a Plautine comedy so that he ‘must needs mar and pervert the play that is in hand, though the stuff that you bring be much better’. In the same way, when serving in a prince’s court one must not ‘labour to drive into their heads new and strange information which you know well shall be nothing regarded with them that be of clean contrary minds. But you must with a crafty wile and a subtle train study and endeavour yourself, as much as in you lieth, to handle the matter wittily and handsomely for the purpose; and that which you cannot turn to good, so to order it that it be not very bad’. Throughout this account More assumes, like Hythloday, that the philosopher – he himself – is wiser than the men he deals with, and guileful enough to insinuate part of his advice into ‘contrary minds’ through a clever performance. Hythloday points out that such a performance runs the risk of propping up corrupt regimes, since how can one persuade a monarch to do anything except by flattery? But even this objection continues to imply a sharp distinction between the principled humanist counselor and the ignorant men he seeks to influence. This distinction corresponds to the difference between the carefully rationalized order of Utopia, described in the second book, and the chaotic social and legal practices of Europe; and the narrative concludes with the acknowledgment that it is unlikely Europe will ever be influenced by even the best Utopian ideas: ‘so must I needs confess and grant that many things be in the Utopian weal public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope for’. Hythloday and More cannot agree on the philosopher’s role in a modern state; but they do agree that in the end no modern state will accommodate any good principles he may put forward, however ingeniously. Utopia, then, anticipates More’s final performance at the court of Henry VIII, when he played out his own dissent from the king’s agenda by cracking jokes on his way to the tragic scaffold. The book’s ostensible topic is communism, but its effect is to reinforce the isolation of the tiny community of humanist thinkers from everyone else in Europe.
More was inclined to preserve this isolation as far as possible; an ambition that runs counter to his famous pleasure in taking part in stage performances and cracking jokes. In his works More often expresses particular anxiety about the new medium of print and its capacity for slipping out of the author’s control, putting sensitive political and religious ideas in the hands of the malicious or the uninformed. His persona Morus, for instance, tells Peter Gillis that he is unsure whether to print Utopia:
For the natures of men be so diverse, the phantasies of some so wayward, their minds so unkind, their judgments so corrupt, that they which lead a merry and jocund life, following their own sensual pleasures and carnal lusts, may seem to be in a much better state or case than they that vex and unquiet themselves with cares and study for the putting forth and publishing to others, which others will disdainfully, scornfully, and unkindly accept the same.
Where his brother-in-law the printer John Rastell tends to note with amazement the multitude of alternative points of view in the commonwealth, and the enthusiasm with which they’re being disseminated in print, More is concerned that many of these different points of view proceed from ‘corrupt judgments’ – a phrase that testifies to his lifelong concern with religious and political orthodoxy. Merriment, in this passage, is both a private affair and in this case a corrupt one, since the ‘merry and jocund life’ he represents as easier than a hard-working one dedicates itself exclusively to ‘sensual pleasures and carnal lusts’. At the same time, More has no time for people who don’t appreciate a good joke (and merriness and jocundity are both words associated with jokes and funny stories). The worst reader of his book, he insists, would be ‘One [who] is so sour, so crabbed, and so unpleasant, that he can away with no mirth or sport’, or ‘so narrow between the shoulders, that he can bear no jests or taunts’. The clash between these two positions – both in favour of and antagonistic to jokes and merry-making – is what makes More such a fascinating figure, despite his later propensity for torturing and burning people who didn’t agree with his religious position.
As I’ve mentioned already, More limited the number of hostile or perverse readings of Utopia by printing it in Latin, and in later life he famously expressed the view that it should be burned along with the Praise of Folly rather than set forth in English, for fear of corrupting the ‘wayward phantasies’ of its unlearned readers even further than they had been already. Merry-making became an increasingly serious matter as the religious controversies of the 1520s got under way. More’s most significant intervention in the Lutheran controversy, the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, places most of its ‘merry tales’ or funny stories in the mouth of a youthful ‘Messenger’ with whom More disputes concerning Luther’s doctrines. At one point, More warns the young man against the comic anti-clerical anecdotes that were so popular in the period – and to which More himself had contributed more than once – because they lay undue emphasis on laughable members of the clergy rather than on those who set good examples. The Dialogue Concerning Heresies also presents itself as a testament to the dangers of the printing press. More worries about printing it because it contains eloquent accounts of so many of the heresies he seeks to refute. He decides to do so, in the end, because of the fear that the Messenger may misrepresent More’s arguments, printing them in a version that gives greater weight to the young man’s own ‘corrupt judgment’ as a Lutheran sympathizer than to the authoritative judgment of the church as articulated by the older man. By the time of his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, which he wrote in prison under the shadow of execution, More was even more ambivalent about the value of wit at a time of religious controversy. The first book alludes to two biblical texts on the delicate problem of comic timing: ‘Woe may you be that laugh now, for you shall wail and weep’, ‘There is time of weeping and there is time of laughing’. More goes so far as to assert that in both passages Christ ‘setteth the weeping time before; for that is the time of this wretched world, and the laughing time shall come after in heaven’. By this reasoning, well-timed mirth can only occur after death. Fortunately in the second book of the Dialogue More chooses to ignore this perception and tells a string of funny stories designed to lift the reader’s mood. But there’s an indication in much of his work that the merry tales he tells, and the kind of merry-making in which he participates, is an essentially private affair that can only be safely enjoyed by the learned and their carefully vetted employees. Part of what makes the Messenger in the Dialogue Concerning Heresy susceptible to Lutheran influences is his impatience with learning, despite his evident intelligence; and More is inclined to put this position down to sheer laziness, asserting that the Lutheran insistence on an unmediated reading of the Bible arises from the fact that he is simply too lazy to read the commentaries of the Church Fathers. For More, both printing and laughter can get out of hand, and he circumscribes his enterprises in both areas with warnings and provisos.
Utopia itself is isolated from the rest of the world, both geographically and conceptually speaking. More tells Peter Giles in the letter at the beginning that he only managed to write it in snatches: ‘I therefore do win and get only that time which I steal from meat and sleep’. We eventually reach Raphael Hythloday’s account of Utopia through a thicket of debates about England: the effects of enclosure, the punishment of criminals, the value of advising monarchs, the operation of the law, all these things get in the way of the perfect commonwealth and no consensus is reached about them. Utopia, on the other hand, is one universal consensus. Nothing is hidden there, all thoughts and ideas are open, the laws are readily comprehensible to all citizens, there even seems to be general agreement about which books are most interesting – and the Utopian taste in books corresponds very closely with More’s (they love the Greek satirist Lucian, for instance, whose work More translated into Latin with his friend Erasmus). At the same time, the consensus is reached by a remorseless logic that protects itself with threats of violence; as Hythloday’s narrative goes on, in Ralph Robinson’s translation, the word ‘death’ gets repeated with alarming frequency, as the agreements among the Utopians are defended against those who might object to them with the ultimate sanction of capital punishment. If you don’t agree with our logic, the implication is, no matter how we talk and explain and reason, you must die. It would seem that reaching consensus is a costly business. Meanwhile, the lack of consensus between the Utopians and the rest of the world means that communication between them is not only difficult but more or less impossible. The famous story of the ambassadors from a neighbouring country who bedeck themselves in gold to impress the Utopians and instead find themselves to be objects of derision – Utopians only dress children and fools in gold, since it’s a useless metal for any practical purposes – suggests that the opposite values held by outsiders and Utopian insiders make dialogue profoundly problematic. A similar verbal impasse is suggested when Hythloday tells his listeners ironically that the Utopian logicians – scholars of logic or reason – are much inferior to European ones, since ‘they have not devised one of all those rules of restrictions, amplifications, and suppositions, very wittily invented in the small logicals (logical textbooks) which her our children in every place do learn’. Utopian logic is simple and readily comprehensible to all, and this makes it incomprehensible to non-Utopian specialists in logic. The basic values of this society in terms of gold – the staple content of European treasuries – and the use of reason are entirely different; which means that only a few eccentric Europeans who can appreciate their point of view are able to talk to the Utopians at all.
It’s not surprising, then, that while the Utopians have welcomed and absorbed a great deal of knowledge from the outside world, the rest of the world has learned nothing from Utopia. They inhabit different conceptual spheres, speak different languages, cleave to different values, which explains the shutting down of possibilities with which the second part concludes, when More speaks of the ‘many things […] in the Utopian weal-public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope for’. Laughter separates the Utopians from ourselves – the derision of the Utopians for the foreign ambassadors, the derision of foreign logicians for Utopian logic. Perhaps More’s simultaneous approval and disapproval of jokes and humour springs from this: that there are different kinds of laughter, some of which draws people together, others of which drive a wedge between them, and the difficult business of knowing the difference between them is a matter of life and death.
John Rastell’s comic fiction is almost unknown in the twenty-first century; it’s utopian in the sense that it’s nowhere now, but I also want to suggest that it’s utopian in the political sense, aiming to establish an egalitarian commonwealth in the land of its publication. It can be found in a small collection called A Hundred Merry Tales, which he published in 1526 and was still well enough known in Shakespeare’s time to earn a mention in Much Ado About Nothing. If More’s and Erasmus’s fictions crossed borders throughout Europe, Rastell’s collection is stubbornly English: it’s the first collection of comic fiction to locate itself firmly in England through the names and places it contains, and it doesn’t seem to have won fame outside its country of origin. Unlike the works of Erasmus and More it is anonymous; Rastell’s authorship can only be deduced from internal evidence, mainly its similarity to his excellent play The Four Elements. And it doesn’t claim any kind of authority, either through the humanist credentials of its author (since the writer is unnamed) or by the ease of scholarly reference that characterizes More’s and Erasmus’s writings. The men and women whose adventures Rastell relates come from all classes, trades and callings, so that the few critics who have written about his book tend to treat it as a sociological document, an anthology of popular anecdotes that were common currency in Rastell’s lifetime. The book stems, in fact, from an acceptance of popular or collective wisdom which is yet more radical, by implication, than Erasmus’s Adagia. And it also displays a determination to add a few grains to this collective wisdom. A couple of examples will give a flavour of its contents.
In tale 52, a ‘rude and unlerned’ young man is instructed by his priest to learn the Lord’s Prayer, and asks his friend to teach it to him in exchange for something more valuable: ‘a songe of Robyn Hode that shall be worth xx of it’. The humour here arises from the incompatible value systems held by the church and the ‘rude’ young man: in Tudor culture stories of Robin Hood were used as synonyms for worthlessness, because of their popularity, their simplicity, their self-conscious opposition to the ‘high’ matter of chivalric romance. But Rastell’s tale doesn’t pass judgment on the young man’s valuation of such songs and stories. In the course of getting to the punchline we are given a detailed ‘exposicyon’ of the ‘vii peticyons’ contained in the Lord’s Prayer; and the moral of the story merely makes mention of what we have learned while we were reading it: ‘By thys tale ye may lerne to knowe the effecte of the holy prayer of the Pater noster’. One could add that the tale instructs the clergy in their duty to their parishioners, since the young man has not reaped much benefit from clerical tuition. The worth of the Lord’s Prayer has been declared to the reader of this story by way of a reference to Robin Hood, and these two very different forms of discourse work together to a worthwhile end.
The same could be said, in fact, of all the ‘merry tales’ in Rastell’s collection. The story of the pater noster occurs in a part of the book that is given over to religious instruction. Embedded among the comic narratives, this sequence of four stories – from 52 to 55 – explain certain key texts of the Christian liturgy: the pater noster, the Ave Maria, the creed and the ten commandments. The sequence might remind us that many medieval collections of merry tales claim to have been assembled for the use of the clergy, who liked to inject comic anecdotes into their sermons. But it also confirms Rastell’s commitment to the project of making knowledge common. Tale 53, for instance, the story of a friar who preaches in rhyme, sets the good intentions of the preacher against the snobbery of the courtiers in his congregation. The friar explains the Ave Maria, the narrator tells us, ‘in suche fonde ryme, that dyvers and many gentlemen of the court that were there began to smyle and laughe’, whereupon the friar rebukes them for mocking a man who seeks to ‘preche to you the worde of God’. The tale ends with a moral that seems to side with the courtiers: ‘the most holyest matter that is, by fond pronuncyacion and otterauns, may be marryd nor shall not edyfye to the audyence’. But this conclusion is followed by a second moral or summary: ‘by thys tale they that be unlearnyd in the laten tonge may knowe the sentence of the Ave Maria’. For the courtiers, then, the sermon was marred by the manner of its ‘otterauns’ or delivery; but for the unlearned it was rendered more effective by being conveyed in memorable verse. The courtiers in the tale are clearly uninterested in the edification of the unlearned; and it seems that many priests share their indifference, since the friar’s lesson is only necessary to his non-courtly hearers because they have not been properly taught by previous preachers. A reformist perspective can be detected in this story, making it consistent with Rastell’s lifelong concern for making things common: from his translations of the English law for the use of all readers, to his publication of the first popular history of England, The Pastime of People, in 1530, to his conversion to reformed religion a year or so later, won over by its commitment to making the scriptures available to all Christians.
Rastell’s philosophy may again be best summed up by his attitude to theatre. Tale 54, on the ‘artycles of the Crede’, urges its readers to go to Coventry ‘for a more […] suffycyent auctoryte’ of its doctrines, where ‘ye shall se them all playe in Corpus Cristi playe’. Rastell was a member of the Coventry Gild of Corpus Christi, so it’s pleasing to hear him ascribe ‘auctoryte’ to his gild’s productions of the popular religious plays known as mysteries. Tale 3 tells the story of a man called John Adroyns who played the devil in a Suffolk mystery play; his failure to remove his costume after a performance leads to a succession of terrifying encounters, which culminate with a gentleman coming to the door of his house with a chaplain, armed with holy water, to prevent the supposed devil from collecting his immortal soul. In this tale, an illusion or fantasy begins in ‘feare’ and ends in ‘myrthe and dysporte’, as everyone finally disentangles the confusions that caused such chaos. So too in tale 16, a thieving miller and his accomplice get mistaken for a ghost and a devil, in the process becoming inadvertent actors like John Adroyns and spreading havoc throughout the community. Here, too, the moral or exegesis alludes to the defusing of tensions and the pointlessness of paranoia: ‘it is foly for any man to fere a thing to moche, tyll that he se some profe or cause’. In these last two cases, entire communities are deceived by accident, a situation that is resolved by a collective agreement as to the interpretation of events which restores ‘myrthe and dysporte’ without resort to clerical intervention. No social class or religious order is exempt from folly; and the ease with which a collective resolution is reached reflects the optimistic outlook that led the ageing Rastell to adopt the Lutheran confession, and to devote the remainder of his days – along with his printing press and the whole of his fortune – to the furtherance of the Lutheran cause in England.
Rastell was jailed in 1536 for arguing against the payment of tithes to the church, and died in prison without a trial; an ironic ending for a man who had devoted so much time to making the law accessible to ordinary people. He is not remembered as a martyr; but even this oblivion is not inappropriate for a man who repeatedly insisted that his objective was not self-promotion but to benefit the English commonwealth, working quietly behind the scenes for its reformation. All three of our writers claimed to serve the commonwealth, and did so in part through the common currency of laughter; but only Rastell chose to do so in the common language, which perhaps explains why he was so susceptible to conversion. The other texts we’ve discussed today – Erasmus’s Praise of Folly and More’s Utopia – were first translated into English in the radical religious climate of the reign of Edward VI. Protestant readers of these texts would have received them in a very different light from their early Catholic readers. And it’s this difference, I would contend – the variety of readings to which these texts have been subjected, so that they are very far from the restricted documents More wanted to them to be – that makes the story of English comic fiction and reformation so well worth telling.