Several years ago, I wrote an experimental short story: the assassination of Julius Caesar told from the perspective of his blood. I’m still quite proud of it, and I thought I’d share it with you here. A nice short story that de-familiarizes the familiar, it was originally published online at the SPACE website, an arts-sciences program based at Dawson College in Montreal, Quebec. They have some pretty amazing arts-science fusion articles, poetry, and lab reports. It’s worth checking out.
“Bloody Caesar” was the name SPACE gave to this story, but my original title was “The Ides of March.” Call it what you will; I’m not great with titles. Call it by both, in fact, if you like the retro double-title thing.
Bloody Caesar; or The Ides of March
Rome’s flowing blood pulses through veins.
Into the heart, out of it, into the heart, out into the fingers.
Thud thud. Thud thud.
Haemoglobin captures oxygen from the lungs, oxygen of the spring air. Blood cells shoot back and forth, get sucked into heart valves and blown out again into an arm, into a leg, into the nose, into the foot. Cells carry carbon dioxide back from the extremities and into the lungs to be exhaled. The heart is relaxed and pushes the blood cells throughout the body, energizing the leg muscles that make the organism walk.
The legs move in a different way, pinching the veins in the calf and heel. Slowly the organism descends stairs and the blood pumps faster. Up into the throat now, and into the head. The blood grows hot. The tongue wags. The oxygen of the Senate’s air enters the blood afresh to cool it, yet the temperature rises. The blood cannot smell the Senate air, but the organism knows where it is: in the heart of an Empire at its height.
Suddenly, the glands emit a torrent of adrenaline as the eyes dart to the side. The heart accelerates, until the rhythm mimics that of galloping horse. Arms loosen and the legs run. Oxygen is blown into the muscles like a hurricane to incinerate glucose and produce energy. But the blood cells feed the muscles like water bearers attempting to fill a pond in the desert. A shadow hangs over the organism. The heart beats at its peak.
Thud thud thud thud.
Rippling sonic waves tear through the blood stream. Almost instantly, a full penetration as a pointed pugio slashes sinew. Hot blood pours from the neck and splashes on cold marble. Blood flows and the coagulation process begins, though there can be no hope to patch the wound.
The organism reels.
A thud in the back and marble stairs pinch the blood flow as the organism reclines. The arm moves forward to block the face as cells feed the gluttonous muscles. Another penetration. A stab. Blood snakes down from the arm and wrists. A ripple of waves ebbs the blood.
Further penetrations mutilate the chest, the shoulders, the abdomen. Blood flows from veins and arteries until it becomes a scarce resource. A few seconds reprieve the wounds, but hold no consolation for the organism.
Another sonic wave moves through the blood. Once again, the cells hear nothing, but the ears hear everything. Et tu, Brute?
A pugio slips through the ribcage and kills the heart as the organism bleeds its last.
Being forced through the automatic doors of a Walmart one evening last winter with my family, I decided to deconstruct the experience of the torture that is globalized shopping by paying close attention to the most potent, yet misunderstood of the five senses.
I hope you enjoy this post, as a break from my usual three- or four page-long ruminations on books and history. Sorry, if you find that the sterile colour scheme in the above photo clashes with my parchment paper background, which suggests the wonderful vanilla smell of old books … but I do this for the sake of poetry. After all, a few verses can help you notice things you’ve ignored before. All good art should renew one’s perspective of the mundane.
“What Walmart Smells Like” appeared in a McGill University campus journal The Veg last April. I am very proud of it, my first published poem.
I wrote most of the images, including others that did not make the cut, on a piece of packing cardboard I found lying in an aisle under a shelf at a Walmart store. I loved playing with the conflict inherent in trying to actually smell anything distinct in the vacuous space of the warehouse that Walmart really is. Vacuous in many senses, though here I focus on smell. Scents triggers memories and memories are our identity. What that could imply, I leave for you to figure out.
“What Walmart Smells Like”
A lonely coldness,
an empty chill.
Your aunt’s strawberry scented candles. Your mom’s cookie dough.
When Guy Gavriel Kay wrote his byzantine historical fantasy Sailing to Sarantium, he was stealing a title from a famous poem by William Butler Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium.” After reading the novel last June, I took a close look at Yeats’ poem to search for the items that might be said to have inspired Kay’s depiction of Sarantium and the prominent themes of his novel
The following is essentially a slightly edited and modernized re-post from my earlier author site, which has fallen into disuse. I thought my explorations of Kay’s source material was fruitful and I now wish to revisit it and share my findings, old and recent, with you.
First, allow me to provide a quick review of Sailing to Sarantium, which is the first novel in the Sarantine Mosaic, a series of two books that includes Sailing‘s sequel Lord of Emperors.
Caius Crispus, or Crispin, is an dissatisfied artisan working on a mosaic for a royal tomb in Varenna using mediocre teserrae pieces which lack for colour, when his master Martinian receives a letter by imperial post. He has been summoned to work on the great mosaic being planned for the Sanctuary to Holy Jad in Sarantium. Crispin takes on his master’s name and ‘sails’ to the Queen of Cities, Sarantium, and ultimately the court of Valerius II. In actual fact, he travels on foot, encountering many strange people and horrors along the way. When finally he arrives to perform his artwork, his destiny becomes intertwined with the men and women who rule the empire and kingdoms that make up his world.
In my mind, Kay’s work should be as well known for its portrayal of artist figures as for its spectacular fusion of history and fantasy. There is a great list of such figures now: Alessan from Tigana, the bards of A Song for Arbonne, Ammar ibn Khairan the poet-diplomat from the Lions of Al-Rassan, Sima Zian the Ninth Dynasty poet from Under Heaven, and the most recent one, River of Stars‘ poet-calligraphist Lin Shan. In Sailing, Crispin’s calling is that of a mosaicist. Exploring the process of creative inspiration, Sailing also raises the question of whether the execution of an artwork can be said to be idiosyncratic to the individual artist, or if it is always the result of the culture and civilization in which that artist lives. To some extent, this is a question relevant to all of Kay’s artists.
Crispin’s quest begins with him in a depression, which he channels into anger through his vivid, imaginative insults to which he subjects his apprentices. His wife has died. His daughters are dead too, take by the plague. He has given up living for anything, awash in a world that feels indifferent to him, a leaf in the wind of impermanence. Art becomes part of his search for stability.
Art and permanence (read: immortality) are also key themes in W.B. Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” Kay has admitted that Yeats inspired his portrayal of Sarantium, which is based on the Byzantine empire under the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. But to what extent do both literary works invoke the other through shared themes and imagery? The answer surprised me: there were more ways than even I had thought to find.
Here is a transcript of the poem:
“Sailing to Byzantium”
THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Yeats describes Byzantium as a city of youth and art, a place where you can go to forget “whatever is begotten, born, and dies” (ln. 6). It is the original “no country for old men” (1). I can imagine that Crispin would be comforted in his existential crisis in such an ageless land, although Kay’s portrayal of Sarantium is not quite so idealized as Yeats’ depiction of Byzantium.
A significant stanza regarding Kay’s depiction of the Sarantine court is the following:
“O sages standing in God’s holy fire
as in the gold mosaic of a wall,
come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
and be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
and fastened to a dying animal
it knows not what it is; and gather me
into the artifice of eternity” (17-24).
After reading these lines, my mouth dropped. Even leaving the beauty of Yeats’ verse aside, which is difficult, there were so many subtle reflections of Kay’s universe in these lines. The gold mosaic is a clear reference to the mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Byzantium, the analogue for Kay’s Sanctuary to Holy Jad. The effect of the “holy fire, pern[ing] in a gyre” describes the all-around overwhelming effect that religious art, especially when thrown onto a 360 degree dome, can have on a spectator. It reminds me of the scene where Crispus sees the more rugged depiction of Jad in a provincial sanctuary, and is blown off his feet in awe, so that he can only lie down on his back gazing up at the sublime beauty of the artwork.
“Consume my heart away” was the other phrase that immediately called to mind a particularly gruesome scene in Sailing. In the haunted Aldwood forest, a mysterious beast called the zubir devours prey sent to it as a sacrifice. It rips open the rib cage and devours all the internal organs, including the heart, so that the torso is completely hollowed out. Kay literalizes a metaphor that Yeats’ speaker uses to express his longing for immortality—an intense irony, if there was ever one. Yet, after glimpsing the zubir, Crispin becomes so deeply affected by his close brush with death that he becomes more susceptible to the inspiration he needs to create his mosaic, his “artifice of eternity,” which he hopes will win him immortal fame.
My Norton Anthology of English Literature quotes Yeats as having written the following about his poem: “The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of the whole people.” (My italics)
I said before that Sailing is about the tension between the individual artist and role society plays on his artwork. Kay challenges Yeats’ assumption about the impersonality of art. Crispin designs an intensely personal mosaic for the dome of Jad’s sanctuary. His personality is inevitably displayed in the passion and desire he puts into his creation. He does cater to his society, by trying to avoid depicting heretical images and adhering to what Valerius wants emphasized in the artwork. However, Crispin’s personality and his own beliefs end up colouring the final product in subtle ways that might be overlooked by most observers—including censors.
Yeats says that writing the poem and escaping to Byzantium was his way “to warm myself back to life” after an illness (Norton Anthology). Crispin’s character arc is similar, if depression is his illness. He gains the desire not only to live, but to leave his imprint on the world. Yeats and Crispin both have the same driving desire as poets.
“Sailing to Byzantium” forms a pair with Yeats’ other poem “Byzantium,” where further parallels may be gleaned:
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
Right away, it can be seen that the “moonlit dome” that “disdains / all that man is, / all mere complexities, / the fury and the mire of human veins” has resonance, because it is under the dome in the Sarantine sanctuary that Crispin becomes inspired to live without fear of death (ln. 5-8). Furthermore, the opening nighttime imagery resonates strongly with Lord of Emperors, in which many events happen in the space of single night—a romantic hour, if there was ever one.
The enigmatic character in Yeats’s poem, the “image, man or shade, / shade more than man, more image than shade” (9-10), made me recall the zubir, or even Linon, the mechanical bird embedded with the soul of a human girl. Although the beast and the girl are not men per se, both are “superhuman” and can be called “death-in-life and life-in-death” (16). The zubir is a living incarnation of death itself, while Linon’s soul exists in a liminal state of life. It need hardly be mentioned, of course, that Kay uses Yeats’ line “miracle, bird or golden handiwork, / more miracle than bird or handiwork” to refer to Linon as well: he uses the very line as an epigraph in his book.
Valerius II is known as the “Night Emperor” in Sailing, because he is restless at night, always leaving lights on in his window and wandering the moonlit halls of his palace, planning his stratagems to deal with the power-hungry court he must hold together. Yeats draws attention to this special appellation, which Valerius shares with the real-life Byzantine Emperor Justinian, when he describes the emperor: “At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit / flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit, / nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame” (25-27).
On the flame imagery: though the following is a majorspoil alert [Do NOT read ahead if you have not read BOTH books of the Sarantine Mosaic], I cannot help but imagine that the “agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve,” which can be interpreted as a reference to the ‘fire’ of guilt, since it does not physically wound, inspired the crime Valerius abetted in the prologue to Sailing, when he first wins the throne. He burns a competitor to death with Greek fire. Perhaps the same fire imagery inspired the way in which the victim and his relatives repay Valerius in Lord of Emperors …
Lastly, “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” (40) should carry mountains of resonance with readers familiar with Sailing. In Sarantium, dolphins are heretical to depict in art because they are associated with an older style of worship that is considered unorthodox under Valerius II: the worship of Jad’s son, Heladikos. This pagan god drove his chariot, which was the sun, before dying tragically, in a myth the calls to mind the story of Phaeton. Heladikos is understood among Sarantine heretics to still be carrying the sun through the underworld, suggesting that Heladikos is a symbol of the unconscious, repressed aspects of a society’s psyche. Since dolphins inhabit the seas and occasionally leap out of the water, the old religion draws the link between dolphins and Heladikos, and adds the belief that dolphins ferry the souls of the dead to the underworld.
Undoubtedly, I have only skimmed the surface of the nuances between both poems and the novel. I hope you have found my explorations and speculations illuminating. I will leave it to other readers of Yeats and Kay to tease out any additional layers of meaning between Sailing and its source material. It has been a fascinating exercise for me, and I hope readers of Sailing return to Yeats after finishing the book in order to discover (or re-discover) a remarkable twentieth-century poet.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 4th ed. Vol 2.
When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone gained unprecedented popularity, the world at large was introduced to a “new” concept: a hidden magical society that lived parallel to the everyday world, but scarcely—if ever—interacting with it. The idea of hidden societies, however, is not a new one.
Many fantasy novels of all types include hidden societies. These have been termed “wainscot societies” in John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy, or “wainscots” for short. You may have wainscots in your house: the name also refers to fancy paneling, which is often used to decorate walls. Mice and rats are reportedly notorious for borrowing into wainscotting, to make their own homes inside the walls and cracks. These hidden “wainscots” are analogous to the hidden structure of mouse homes.
Including the wizarding world of Harry Potter, there are 10 wainscots in fantasy literature that I have identified as being either the very famous or very defining. The Top 10 list is probably less than perfect, mind you, and I confess I have not read most of these books. However, I do feel that most of the authors are well-known enough for the list to have some legitimacy. They are in alphabetical order:
1. The Borrowers
Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers is clearly and distinctly a wainscot society. In this children’s tale, a family of tiny people live within the floorboards of a house in England and must borrow items from the big people who live parallel lives along with them. A great success, this book developed into a 5-book series. The novel was adapted into a 1997 film I remember seeing way back in elementary school.
2. Cthulhu Cult
Cthulhu is an ancient god supposedly dormant in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, who will one day rise and bring about an apocalypse. The creation of H.P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu drives humans mad upon sight, even if they only see a depiction of him in a statue. Furthermore, his telepathic energy affects human around the world on the unconscious level, filling them with terror. The religious societies of people who worship Cthulhu can be considered a wainscot—one you are better off not finding.
“Faery” was used by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe a place, not a magical creature. In literature, fairies are always hidden and when a human ventures into the kingdom of faery, they enter into a dangerous, supernatural world where time runs differently from normal. While Lisa Goldsteins’ Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon is not the only story to use faery, I still think it is a defining use of faery as a wainscot—especially in a historical fantasy novel.
In Strange Devices, the Faery Queen enters the court of Queen Elizabeth I in search of her son, King Arthur. Historical reality and the supernatural world are crosshatched here, so that it is not clear whether “our” world or the world of Faery is the “dominant” one.
Faerie also appears in John Crowley’s novel Little, Big, in which Smoky Barnable, the protagonist, encounters a similar crosshatched world, in which he encounters fairy tale creatures invented by his future father-in-law. Although traditional stories about faery were at first simple encounters with invisible realities, more modern stories include complex interactions between our world and the other.
4. King Horrabin’s beggars
Much of the work of Tim Powers contains wainscots, especially in the form of hidden societies of sorcerers living in the historical past. The Anubis Gates (1983) is his most well known story, based on a millionaire’s botched time-traveling plan to send a group of wealthy people to 1810 to attend a lecture of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of the characters, Professor Brenden Doyle, falls in with the clan of murderous beggars led by King Horrabin, a clown sorcerer. The domain of the king’s kingdom runs parallel with the mundane world.
The tiny people from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels do not quite form their own wainscot. Although the Lilliputians are diminutive people, the existence of whom normal people are ignorant, they live completely apart from human beings. T.H. White, however, turned them into a wainscot in Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946). The home of the Liliputians, two hundred years after Gulliver, is on Repose, an island in the middle of an lake on the estate of Malplaquet, an English house in Northamptonshire. The island is difficult to access and their city hidden within brambles, providing an effective place for this wainscot to hide.
6. London Below
Neil Gaiman’s stories contain many wainscots indeed. The hidden world of deities in American Gods and Anansi Boys is prominent (and similar of the wainscot of divinities in the Percy Jackson series), but Gaiman conjures no milieu more fully a wainscot than London Below in Neverwhere (1996). Beggars and thieves live unobserved in the sewers and abandoned tube stations of London, forming a feudal-based society that revolves around the markets, where various items normally considered trash are traded for other items, or favours. A clan of rat-speakers, a group of beggars who can speak to rats, is a wainscot within a wainscot—to say nothing of the rats themselves, which form their own society.
Terry Pratchett’s Nomes series—Truckers (1989), Diggers (1990), and Wings (1990)—involves a group of small people who come from another world. They struggle to survive among humans, but make a return journey towards home once they learn about their origins—from a thing known as the “Thing.” The series consists, of course, of typical Terry Pratchett humour.
8. The Pendragons
C.S. Lewis speculates about the survival of the descendents of Arthur Pendragon in his 1945 novel That Hideous Strength. The final volume of his Space Trilogy,a science fiction series with theological undertones, Lewis’ novel takes place mostly on earth. His series protagonist, Dr. Elwin Ransom, learns he is the heir of King Arthur and thus “Pendragon” (or king) of Logres, King Arthur’s ancient kingdom. In the Space Trilogy world, Pendragons live in secret in Britain and have risen up in times of crisis to protect their country from evil, without letting everyday people learn of their existence.
Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld contains a secret society of Londoners who live on the city’s rooftops. Robert Linden and Rose Leonard, two outsiders, get drawn into into that world, as the roof-dwellers enter a war over their leadership. I would not be surprised if Neil Gaiman had been inspired by Fowler in his depiction of London Below, especially in the character of the roof-dweller Old Bailey. Roofworld proves that wainscots are not only in walls, or underground, but above our heads as well.
10. The Wizarding World
Last but not least, the world of Harry Potter, meticulously imagined by world-famous author J.K. Rowling, has to be the most famous of all wainscots. Harry first enters the wizarding world through the back wall of the Leaky Cauldron, which opens to Diagon Alley, where he goes shopping for school supplies. Hogwarts, a school for witches and wizards—along with the rest of the magical universe—is not visible to Muggles (normal people). Strict laws protect any exposure of the wizarding world to Muggle eyewitnesses. Of course, you probably already knew all this.
Wikipedia, Goodreads, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute.