‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

These Books Were Made For Walking, And That's Just What They'll Do



There's a lot of walking around in Fantasy, and I wonder why.

Which is to say: I'm wondering in what sense walking figures as something essential to Fantasy as a mode, after the manner of such generic conventions as systems of magic, dragons and fantastical creatures, medievalised or otherwise historically-determined social logics and so on. Must we have our characters perambulate if we want a proper Fantasy novel? Let's say: part of the joy of Fantasy is the worldbuilding (maps! varieties of landscapes and peoples and locales!) and having your main characters meander about your built-world is the best narrative strategy for showing it off. Fans tacitly acknowledge this when they talk, not entirely derisively, of a ‘Cook’s Tour’ of Fantasyland.

Plus walking is (for many people, if not all) a pleasure, and a pleasure with pre-industrial bona fides, appropriate to the valorisation of the pre-industrial that is often what Fantasy entails. So maybe walking is integral to the mode: or if not walking, then at least riding horses, or sailing sailing-ships, or something similar that puts the characters into pre-industrial motion.

Then again (there’s always a then again) I’m not so sure.

Put it this way: sometimes we walk because we need to get somewhere specific, and sometimes we walk just because we want to walk. Which of these two kinds is the Fantasy walk?

Consider Romanticism. Wordsworth and Coleridge (and others) loved walking for the sake of walking. The Prelude is an epic of walking, and the important thing is always the walk, not the destination—when Wordsworth crosses the Alps it’s the crossing that is the locus poeticus, not the destination (where even was he going? Somewhere in Italy presumably? The poem doesn’t say). As Anne Wallace argues in her Walking, Literature and English Culture (Clarendon 1994) Wordsworth's poetic was a radically pedestrian and peripatetic one; he literally composed his verse by walking it out, and if he didn't have a longer walk in mind he would walk round and round his Grasmere garden, using the rhythm of his feet on the ground to help generate the poetic lines in his head, only afterwards coming inside to write them out. When Seamus Heaney said ‘Wordsworth at his best, no less than at his worst, is a pedestrian poet’ he was only half joking.

But there’s another model of ‘the walk’: pilgrimage. This is an activity with a peculiar resonance nowadays—because if you need to get somewhere specific, someplace far off, for secular reasons nowadays you’d probably take a train, or drive, or fly, or otherwise technologically facilitate your progress. If you have to get somewhere both specific and far away and you elect to walk it will surely be because you have some more than merely secular reason. This might be the traditional pilgrim’s sense that you have travel under your own power to a holy site to be, yourself, holy: to Mecca, to Jerusalem, to Canterbury. But it might be less traditionally specific. Frodo has to go to Mount Doom: he’s not going because the mountain is holy (quite the reverse), but he has to go for magical world-saving reasons that are more than merely mundane business. And, it seems, he has to walk there—the old gag about ‘why doesn’t he hitch a ride on an eagle, then Lord of the Rings could be over by page 25!’ is funny because it so patently misses the point of Tolkien’s text.

All this has its resonance for thoughts I’ve been having about Fantasy as a mode, which thoughts are presently scattered about this blog, a few other places and disposed ungainlily in an ongoing email conversation I’m having with a friend. Some day, if I’m spared, we might find it worthwhile, he and I, pulling these scattered pieces together into something more coherent. For now, I’ll lay my finger on three things that has emerged from our ponderings, to do with the agument that the roots of the late 20th-century boom in commercial Fantasy go back before Tolkien (and Howard, and Fritz Lieber) into the nineteenth-century, and three linked cultural phenomena in particular: (a) the huge resurgence in Victorian/Edwardian interest in medievalism, and Arthurianism in particular; (b) the vast popular culture reach of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and (c) Wagner.

Setting that third aside for a moment (is there much walking around in Wagner’s Ring? I’m not sure there is, actually) I'll pull something out of the Bunyan post linked there by way of moving my argument in this post onward a little. So: Pilgrim's Progress is, as we would now say, a Fantasy: a world full of danger, magic and monsters, through which an ordinary middling protagonist must pass. But because the book is an allegory (a word Tolkien pointedly denied had any applicability to Lord of the Rings) it is necessarily a doubled novel: its fantastical surface story is one text, and its implicit buried real-life story a second. The man called in the novel Christian in this spiritual realm is presumably called something quite different in our material realm: John, say. Paul. George. Adam who knows. It looks odd in the novel that Christian simply abandons his wife and four children to go on his pilgrimage, never to return (scripturally, of course, Christ enjoins his faithful to abandon their earthly duties and follow him, to “let the dead bury their dead” as he puts it). But we have to presume that this abandonment only happens, as it were, in the spiritual realm; that in the material realm he continues living with his family and materially-supporting them as was his duty. The point is, Bunyan's story is not focused on that material life. It is allegorising the spiritual separation that must grow between a husband who has been born again and a wife who hasn't, even if they're still living in the same house.
Indeed, we must assume that this peripatetic narrative describes the actual life of a man called John (or whatever) who himself has most likely never travelled anywhere—who stays all his life in the same town or village where he was born, as almost everybody did in the seventeenth-century. Indeed it's really quite important that the “actual” person Bunyan is writing about doesn't travel, even though his allegorical avatar, Christian, does. That's because one of the things Bunyan is striving for is a clear separation between his story and the (as he saw it) wicked old Catholic rituals of literal pilgrimages. To distinguish between his book and all those dodgy medieval Catholic allegorical romances. As Alec Ryrie argues in his book Protestants: the Radicals who Made the Modern World (2017), Protestants like Bunyan had a complicated relationship to the idea of pilgrimage: on the one hand a Catholic and suspect notion, on the other one that expressed their sense of faith as a journey—‘Protestantism was and is a religion of progress, of restless, relentless advance towards holiness, not of stagnation’ [132-33] is how Ryrie puts it. Bunyan is not saying Christians have actually to schlep to Canterbury, or Rheims, or Jerusalem, the way a Muslim actually must travel to Mecca. He is saying that Christians must undergo spiritual pilgrimages, journeys of faith.
Perhaps all the walking-around Fantasy characters engage in is less specifically pilgrimmy in terms of destination, and more the externalisation in terms of story and worldbuilding of a more fundamental, Protestant-y dynamic: progress, not stagnation.

I've had another thought, recently, that relates to this, and to Fantasy as a whole, and it comes out of my re-reading The Faerie Queene. I decided to read the whole thing right through, rather than rely on my piecemeal acquaintance, picked up here and there over the years with this or that episode. To see how it reads as Fantasy.

This time through, one thing in particular has been striking me: an as-it-were larger, plot-structuring thing. The world of the Faiery Queene is, very obviously, divided between goodies and baddies. The former tend to roam around, and the latter tend to be stuck in one place. Good walks (or rides), Evil is homebound. Even limiting ourselves to Book 1 (which is where I am, at the moment): the virtuous Redcrosse Knight, having been led astray by the wicked Duessa, is locked-up in the castle (the chateau, the house) of the wicked giant Orgoglio. Una happens to meet Prince Arthur, riding around the countryside, and he it is who attacks Orgoglio's house, defeats the giant and frees Arthur



The houses of Fairie Queene don't exclusively belong to wicked creatures like Orgoglio, of course. Indeed, even continuing to limit ourselves to Book 1, Una and Arthur bring the Redcrosse Knight to recuperate from his wounds in the House of Holiness, enjoying the hospitality of the House's ruler Caelia and her three daughters. But, on my re-read, I'm struck by how mobile virtue is, and how settled and lair-bound evil.

There's a particular reason this strikes me as odd, since Renaissance British attitudes to vagrancy were, by modern standards extraordinarily harsh. People (that is, common people, folk like thee and me) were supposed to stay where they were. The 1572 Vagabonds Act was a codification of, and by no means any kind of departure from, preceding Elizabethan Poor Laws; and by those laws beggars had to be licensed by the justice of the peace of the parishes to which they belonged (which is to say: where they were born). Unlicensed vagabonds were to be whipped and burned through the ear. Common folk who travelled from town to town could not do so as masterless men: merchants had to belong to a guild, and actors to a company sponsored by a nobleman (as Shakespeare's was: the Lord Chamberlain's Men). Lacking such patronage actors were regarded, legally, as sturdy beggars—an illegal category (those who were well-enough to work could not, legally, beg)—and whipped to the parish boundary. The other type of Renaissance wanderer, or tramp, was the outlaw, and the way to handle them was by hanging them by the neck until dead.

Virtue, in this larger discourse, was a home; a homestead, a place where you belonged and where you should stay. Robert Cleaver famously declared: ‘the household is as it were a little commonwealth’. Moving about, on the other hand, was deeply suspect, and in ideologically multivalent ways. Linda Woodbridge's Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature (University of Illinois Press, 2001) explores the various ways in which vagrants and wanderers were demonised: as shiftless, placeless rogues ‘wily, sexually promiscuous and inherently anarchic ... fomenters of widespread social rebellion’. Interestingly  Woodbridge's second chapter shows how Protestant writers like Martin Luther and Simon Fish associated vagrants with the Catholicism they despised. Nor was it just the Prots: ‘For writers like Juan Luis Vives, Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas Elyot, the vagrant poor are “less than human”.’

The world of Faerie Queen presents a striking photographic negative of this world-logic, and commercial Fantasy (descended in part, if a little tortuously, from Spenser) does too. In Generic Fantasyland today, though the setting is medieval or Renaissance, you, an ordinary hobbit, or a humble pig-herd, or a simple villager, get to roam and explore, to wander and travel and see the wonders of the world. In Spenser's fairyland some of the evil the knights encounter are wild and loose beings, it is true, haunting the woods and making the roads unsafe for honest travellers (until they are slain); and some characters, like Duessa herself, are encountered out in the open. But, like Giant Despair in Bunyan, evil is as often as not holed up in fastnesses and fortresses. And although there is nothing unusual in a Renaissance nobleman, like Redcrosse or Arthur, travelling whereso'er they choose (benefits of nobility, of course) the more usual type in today's Fantasy is the nondescript, the commoner, the Scott-style ‘ordinary individual’ who can act, in the larger logic of the story, as a mediator between remarkable characters encountered on the way.

Is this noteworthy, do we think? I mean: as a reflection on the pedestrianism of commercial Fantasy? Hmm.

7 comments:

  1. But, on my re-read, I'm struck by how mobile virtue is, and how settled and lair-bound evil.

    This is an important thought, it seems to me, especially in light of what you go on to say about vagrancy. This seems to be a situation (one of many, IMO) in which the logic of the Christian life runs against the grain of the emergent nation-state. One of the themes of Scott’s Seeing Like a State is that keeping people in a fixed location is one of the chief means by which the state makes them legible. The vagrant, the person with “no visible means of support,” is intrinsically suspect. Almost all habitual walkers have stories about being stopped by police simply because they were walking in an area where people typically either stay put or travel by car. And cars, with their license plates, are legible in ways that ordinary mortals on foot are not.

    And in time of war or serious conflict it’s not just wicked regimes that think this way. By the laws of Gondor, Faramir is supposed to kill Frodo and Sam and Gollum because they are traveling in the land without the explicit permission of the Steward. Some analogue to this is why pilgrims like Chaucer’s travel in groups and with ecclesiastical personages present to authorize them.

    And yet pilgrimage is not just an acceptable activity for Christians but in many respects the master metaphor of the Christian life. The Christian is homo viator, a wayfarer; to be a wayfarer is a mark of Christian hope, because those who aren’t wayfaring, those who are fixed in place, suffer from a deficiency of hope, either because they think they have arrived and therefore are guilty of praesumptio, or becasuse they think there is nowhere to go and therefore exhibit desperatio. (The Giant Despair in Bunyan has a castle, a keep — just as Sauron has a “fastness” in Mordor.)

    A lot to consider here!

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  2. In Spenser's fairyland some of the evil the knights encounter are wild and loose beings, it is true, haunting the woods and making the roads unsafe for honest travellers (until they are slain); and some characters, like Duessa herself, are encountered out in the open. But, like Giant Despair in Bunyan, evil is as often as not holed up in fastnesses and fortresses.

    Two different kinds of danger, I think, tethered to place in different ways. The "wild and loose" may move about fairly freely, but only within a narrow compass - they haunt those woods or that stretch of road. As such they're less an active principle of evil, more a personification of the wilderness. In Tolkien the trolls are very much this second kind of thing, although Shelob arguably has elements of both.

    And although there is nothing unusual in a Renaissance nobleman, like Redcrosse or Arthur, travelling whereso'er they choose (benefits of nobility, of course) the more usual type in today's Fantasy is the nondescript, the commoner, the Scott-style ‘ordinary individual’

    The question then is where that starts. Bluntly, did anyone before Tolkien give a hobbity commoner the starring role in a quest-ish narrative? (I think I'm right in saying that Scott's protagonists are accidental pilgrims.) If this reversal does originate with Tolkien, of course, there's no mystery about where we are and what he was doing; he even spelled it out through the medium of Gandalf.

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    1. Jeanie Deans, in The Heart of Midlothian (1818), is a commoner who stars in a long, non-accidental walking quest. She's as tough as a hobbit.

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  3. This is a fascinating discussion of something near and dear to my heart. (Spenser and Tolkien are perhaps my two favorite writers.) Typically I'd just read and enjoy, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts and observations in response to this excellent post (and its comments).

    I'm not sure I agree that evil is static in the Faerie Queene. Its central antagonists — Archimago, Duessa, the Blatant Beast — roam all about, as you say. In fact, I think that's the point. It's often hard to tell the difference between an evil and a virtuous character in Faerieland. Even some of those lair-bound villains — Despair, say, offering suicide as merciful rest — cloak their malice as charity.

    But I think you're absolutely right that virtue must be mobile for Spenser. So why does a civil servant on the make, and a humanist steeped in the best policies for reducing itinerant poverty, allegorize virtue in a way that mirrors vagrancy? I wish I knew. (It makes more sense for Bunyan, who WAS a vagrant, or tinker, accused by authorities of leaving his calling.) But I'm beginning to think it has something to do with the development of vagrancy (and heresy) legislation during the late medieval and early modern periods, how bodies and texts began to merge in the semiotics of the state. A body — badged, licensed, scarred, earmarked, branded — needed to be a legible text. But this actually promoted disguise, forgery, and fraudulence among vagrants. Efforts to stabilize the process of reading the poor actually made it more difficult.

    I think Spenser saw in the vagrant a useful emblem for his own allegorical and fabulist project. Spenser's poetics are suffused in disguise. When he addresses his Shepheardes Calendar, he writes "Go, little Calendar, thou hast a free Passport," assigning it the same license given to arrested vagrants who have been sent back to their parish. It's an admission that there is something fraudulent about the whole project. The poet and Archimago (and Merlin) are close cousins in fakery but with different motives. So we need to read carefully, and the way we read a vagrant body or text often reveals our prior commitments. Are we charitable or suspicious, even malicious? Do we offer a person alms or a whipping? Do we grant freedom to move or place him in the stocks?

    As for Tolkien, I've always thought that virtue is fairly static in the Lord of the Rings, aside from a few characters like Boromir who are racked by ambivalence. But your post makes me wonder if Tolkien wants to take fuller advantage of wandering at the narratological level than I realized. Is it not just a quest but part picaresque? Hobbits wandering about like Lazarillo de Tormes at the mercy of strangers, encountering villains sometimes and good, hospitable folk? There is something revelatory about the Fellowship’s itinerancy (mendicant Franciscans once they’re donned in grey cloaks): Eomer and Faramir (and Treebeard and others) have to decide what to do with these obscure travelers, even if it means a rejection of state policy. Meanwhile, Mordor attempts to read the identity of Frodo and Sam by way of their clothes, “tokens” and “marks” signifying a seditious conspiracy. In Mordor's eyes Gandalf is a wanderer “hatching plots,” and back home in Sharkey's Shire there is a proliferation of shirrifs and justices of the peace, whose central role in their early days was to suppress vagrancy.

    Speaking of wandering, so have I. Many thanks for your thought-provoking post!

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