What are the Seven Pillars of Wisdom?

Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence

Steadily, I am reading through T.E. Lawrence’s military memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I had to ask myself, “What are these seven pillars of wisdom anyway?” Nowhere in the text does he ever mention these seven pillars. What were they and what could they possibly mean?

My quest lead me down an interesting path of discovery, into the Bible and the works of Robert Graves, whose nonfiction book The White Goddess will have interest to readers of fantasy literature, since it is a source text behind much of the druid and bardic lore that went into making classic Celtic fantasy, and, I imagine, still goes into more recent fantasy as well.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a detailed, factual account of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s stint as liaison officer between the British forces and the Arabs in the Eastern theatre of the First World War. Arab officers rebelled against their Turkish commanders in order to declare open revolt against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and win their national independence from their mismanaging provincial oppressors stationed in Damascus. Lawrence–better known as Lawrence of Arabia–fought a manoeuvre war with the Arab commanders, rallying disparate tribes of nomads to fight as a united nation.

In this memoir, poetic observations of the harsh, magnificent landscape accompany an account of the day-to-day marches across the land to outflank and outmanoeuvre the Turks. Lawrence instructs the rebels to lay charges and detonate explosive gel under the train tracks that ferry supplies to the Turkish garrisons and towns. Moments of still peace and contemplation of strategy accompany moments of sudden violence, all described with the highest literary sensibility. It reads like an epic fantasy novel in its length and description of Lawrence’s extensive journeys, but the content is cold, hard fact written in a masterful style.

The twenty-first century is an age that that has not only seen a revival of an independent, but brutally medieval caliphate, but also one that has seen the struggle of multiple Middle Eastern peoples for national independence, such as the Kurds, who continue to fight ISIL. Some Kurds even fight the Turks from whom they desire to wrest independence–much to their chagrin. Such struggles have diversified and grown infinitely more complicated since 1917, but the struggles happening today may be traced to that much-rued Paris treaty signed after the conclusion of the Great War.

But enough historical background. Down to business. The most well-known reference to the seven pillars of Wisdom is in the Bible:

Wisdom has built her house, / she has hewn her seven pillars. (Proverbs 9.1)

The purpose of the reference is to characterize the persona of Wisdom as a woman who has prepared a feast. Only the wise are invited to this banquet; the foolish are unworthy.

This reference makes sense in relation to the jewels of profundity spread throughout the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence becomes immersed in the Arab viewpoint on the war, on religion, and on life itself, picking up on the wisdom of the Bedouin and Howeitat elders:

“Why are the Westerners always wanting all?” provokingly said Auda. “Behind our few stars we can see God, who is not behind your millions. […] If the end of wisdom is to add star to star our foolishness is pleasing.” (289)

While this captures something of the dynamic between Eastern and Western ways of thinking, what do seven pillars have to do with this wisdom?

Wikipedia makes clear that Seven Pillars of Wisdom was the title for a previous book Lawrence had been planning to publish before the war broke out. It was to be a scholarly work about the seven greatest cities of the Middle East: Cairo, Smyrna, Constantinople, Beyrout (Beirut), Aleppo, Damascus, and Medina. This manuscript never saw the light of publication. Lawrence destroyed it. To worsen matters, he would also lose his first manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1919, at Reading train station. Just in time for Christmas. It has never been recovered and would have been 250,000 words in length. And I thought losing a USB key was rough.

In the memoir that eventually saw publication–painfully rewritten by a shellshocked Lawrence overwhelmed by the demands of his own celebrity status as a war hero–the author makes reference to these seven cities, either in one way or another. Damascus, for instance, was the centre of Turkish control over the Arab Middle East and one of the Arab Revolt’s main targets. Even today, age-old Damascus is the capital of war-ravaged Syria and the headquarters of Bashar al-Assad. Owing to the new focus of his book, Lawrence skims over any further significance he may have attached to these seven cities.

Now, while I acknowledge the poetic value of calling the seven cities “pillars of wisdom,” the phrase does strike me as unconventional. Why was Lawrence so insistent on this title for his memoir? Did the seven pillars of Wisdom carry some other kind of meaning?

To provide an answer to this question–or the beginnings of an answer–it might be pointed out that the seven pillars of Wisdom are also mentioned in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.

Graves was a renowned war poet, just as Lawrence was a wartime writer. Their connection and sharing of ideas deserves to be excavated deeply by scholars. Perhaps they already have written studies of which I’m unaware.

Graves reviewed Lawrence’s memoir and edited the poem that opens Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The poem is “To. S.A.” and may have been addressed to Selim Ahmad, a young Syrian boy. It is written in such a way that it could address the Arab nation as a whole:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands

and wrote my will across the sky in stars

To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,

that your eyes might be shining for me […]  (ln. 1-4)

Freedom is a word seven letters long. Each letter represents one pillar in Wisdom’s house. Thus, Freedom is a kind of wisdom, or perhaps it is wisdom that makes you free.

Although I am not certain how Robert Graves edited this poem, he may have left the mark of his own ideas upon it, either directly in the editing process or by influencing Lawrence in other ways, such as through their correspondence. Since Lawrence was a bookish man as well as a soldier, he might have read Graves’s poetry and nonfiction works himself. Whatever the case, Lawrence’s poetic use of the seven pillars motif and his correspondence with Graves cannot be entirely coincidental. Not when Chapter 15 of The White Goddess is entitled “The Seven Pillars.”

Any deeper connection between Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The White Goddess evades me. I’m going to call the connection suggestive and leave it at that. But in case you were curious about what Graves does say in “The Seven Pillars,” let us hear it:

the seven pillars of Wisdom are identified by Hebrew mystics with the seven days of the Creation, with the seven days of the week. (259)

But since this is a book about ancient druid rituals and Welsh bards, a miscellaneous trove of Celtic lore, Graves finds a correlation with Irish tree symbolism.

The seven sacred trees of the Irish grove are “birch, willow, holly, hazel, oak, apple and alder” (259). Each tree corresponds to a day of the week and a deity of the classical pantheon. Alder corresponds to Saturn (Saturday), apple to Venus (Friday), oak to Jupiter (Thursday), willow to the Moon, or Circe (Monday), holly to Mars (Tuesday), birch to the Sun (Sunday). The seventh tree, hazel, corresponds to Mercury and its day falls in the middle of the week, on Wednesday. Wednesday in English is named after Odin (Woden), the Norse god of wisdom, which means his sacred tree, the ash, may be substituted for Mercury’s hazel. Not accidentally, Mercury is also a god of wisdom. Hence, you have the seven pillars of wisdom. You might imagine each tree in Wisdom’s house being carved from one of each type of wood–provided Irish trees could grow in ancient Israel.

Is there any connection between these gods, the days of the week, the planets, the sacred trees, and the seven greatest cities of the Middle East? The numerical symbolism is certainly striking and suggestive. What it means is anyone’s guess.

To conclude, it is interesting to casually note that Graves provides a classical Latin message hidden within the acronym of the first letters of the sacred Irish trees. Perhaps this will give us our final hint about the connection of Graves to Lawrence of Arabia.  “Benignissime, Solo Tibi Cordis Devotionem Quotidianam Facio.” In English, this reads, “Most Gracious One to Thee alone I make a daily devotion of my heart” (260).

A line that Lawrence could well have spoken to his dear Selim, as a message to the Arab people.

 

Appendix:

 

Thank you, llamaladysg, for providing T.E. Lawrence’s original poem:

Most of Robert Grave’s changes were in the third stanza. This is the original version as written by T. E. Lawrence. I much prefer this one.

To S.A.

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.

Death was my servant on the road, till we were near
and saw you waiting:
When you smiled, and in sorrowful envy he outran me
and took you apart:
Into his quietness.

So our love’s earning was your cast-off body,
to be held one moment
Before earth’s soft hands would explore all your face
and the blind worms transmute
Your failing substance.

Men prayed me to set my work, the inviolate house,
In memory of you:
But for fit monument I shattered it unfinished, and now
the little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
In the marred shadow
Of your gift.

The third stanza in the version that Robert Graves edited runs as follows.

“Love, the way-weary, groped to your body, our brief wage

ours for the moment

Before earth’s soft hand explored your shape, and the blind

worms grew fat upon

Your substance.”

While I agree that the first lines of the third stanza in Lawrence’s original poem flow more easily, I agree with Graves’s call to concretize Lawrence’s original verb, “transmuting,” into the more vivid verb clause, “grew fat upon.”

20150610_182531
The tooling on the hard cover of Seven Pillars of Wisdom reads “the sword also means cleanness and death.”

If you liked this post, you might also like:

How T.E. Lawrence Came to Many-Pillared Iram

Could the Artificial Paradise of the Assassins be a Fairy Otherworld?

 

Works Cited

The Bible. New Revised Standard Version.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. London: Faber & Faber, 1988.

Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph. 1926. London: Penguin, 1962.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6 February 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Pillars_of_Wisdom.

 

 

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MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part II: Race, Raciness, and the Fifty Shades of Charles Williams

20150802_125245For this post I apologize immediately for the title and would like to state that most (the greater half anyway) of this post will be concerned with how Tolkien treats race in his fiction–not how Charles Williams is racy. The lurid revelations about Charles Williams, ‘The Oddest Inkling,’ that have now come forth were just impossible a) to ignore and b) to avoid association with the infamous erotica novel. I mean, what’s the problem with the world today? First, if you’re Canadian, you have the Gian Ghomeshi scandal, then of course there’s Bill Cosby … now even the lurid deeds of obscure Christian mythopoeic poets are at last coming to light.

Saturday morning was the Scholar Guest of Honour speech. John D. Ratecliff is an Inklings scholar and this MythCon’s Scholar Guest of Honour. With his softspoken Texas accent, he began to lecture on “The Lost Letter.” He discussed the problematic friendship between C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams while contextualizing the textual history of some of Williams’s works in relation to some Modernists, including T.S. Eliot who wrote an incomplete essay on Williams’s drama. He also presented us with a great photo of Williams posing with none other than William Butler Yeats (see below).

Ratecliff during his archival spelunking recovered a typescript of Williams’s thought-to-be-destroyed commentary–a necessary document for the comprehension of William’s work because, of all people, even Eliot, as highly allusive, illusive, and difficult a poet as he is, called Williams’s poetry ‘obscure’! The problem for a long time was that C.S. Lewis was known to have burned away this key commentary, rather brutally altering his friend’s literary legacy.

Williams’s obscure poetry in the Arthuriad is highly mythical and difficult to interpret, although it is fairly evident that his character Taliesin is, more or less, a biographical representation of himself, with other characters occasionally representing people he knew nom-a-clef style. Williams in some ways was like more ‘mainstream’ Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis, in that he wrote about mythic themes from a religious perspective. But Charles was an odd duck: a member of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a christianized version of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as practicing ritual magician and an occultist.

He also thought sexual arousal could stimulate poetic inspiration.

Just as Taliesin in one part of Williams’s Arthuriad reaches over the bound, fully naked body of Morgeuse, before sitting down, lyre in hand, to compose great poetry, so did Williams–in actual, real life–have the custom of fondling a woman’s breast before stopping just short of consummation. He could then return to his ink and pad filled with erotic energy to scribble off another verse.

“I made her the victim of Love’s laws,” the poem goes. “The queen of Orkney, the queen Morgeuse!”

Tolkien got his inspiration from ‘the refracted light’ that enters humanity from heaven to make us subcreators within God’s creation. Lewis got inspiration from Christian joy. And now we all know what Williams was up to.

What an exemplary Christian mythopoeic writer! But his dirty mind only gets stranger. Ratecliff also distributed copies of a map of Europe called Williams’s “gynecomorphic map,” showing locations from his Arthuriad. If your Greek is up to snuff, you’ll realize that this map showed Europe as the form of a woman (gynaika)–undressed, naturally. Furthermore her body parts correspond to various cities and culturally-significant locations in Williams’s story. Byzantium is situated at the navel, London at the lips, Rome at the hands. The rest was not PG. Let us say Jerusalem in a mystic, or sorta disgusting, way was located in the crotch area, while Southern France–do I really have to specify?–her breasts (due to the ‘nourishing’ quality of the universities in that part of the world, I’m told), while, rather racistly, Ispahan, an obscure Islamic city below the Caspian Sea, took up the fecal rear. Caucasus made up the rest of the gluteus for some unknown reason.

Oh, yeah, there’s one more thing: the giant swarming tentacles at the woman’s feet do not designate Cthulhu but P’o-lu, the court of a fictitious, headless emperor. Although these appear south of Arabia, P’o-lu is supposedly in Java.

So anyway, the moral is that Williams is unanthologizable, unteachable, and such an obscure cockney that you must read him, like you read Hemingway, in a drunken stupor. And I thought modernist poetry was difficult!

Williams's map from the Arthuriad
Williams’s map from the Arthuriad

Time to leave behind all the other shades of Charles Williams and turn to some other, interesting topics.

Stepanie K. Brownell and Sara D. Rivera gave a wondrous talk on a work I had heard about before, but never really thought about reading, although they totally sold me on it. I’m slowly making my way through the novel right now. Their presentation was “‘Out of Far Harad’: Myth and ‘Mirror’ in The Lord of the Rings and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Knowing nothing of this novel except that it’s title sounded vaguely familiar, I went to the presentation a bit late, but I was blown away by the subject matter. Oscar Wao wants to be the Dominican Tolkien–he’s a black, fat Caribbean nerd boy totally into magna, DND, and genre fiction. He goes on a sort of quest to the Dominican Republic after experiencing a dream vision of a mongoose, where he seeks answers to the fuku (in English, the curse), that has blighted his family and his people ever since the days of slavery and especially since the days of the dictator Trujillo, who the narrator explicitly compares to none other than Sauron himself.

Oscar Wao is the postcolonial/diasporic novel meets geekness, and I had no idea these worlds have ever joined in a single novel until now. I knew Caribbean fantasy/science fiction to be existent, having read a little Nalo Hopkinson and read criticism about her work, but this is about science fiction and fantasy as much as it was about colonialism and race.

The novel offers a postcolonial critique of Tolkien and his project. Tolkien attempted to write a ‘myth for England’ but what about the Dominican Republic, which is much more desperately in need of narration, having been subject to various tyrants and colonizers in its history? As an imperial subject, DR needs narration.

Oscar falls out with his idol, Tolkien, when he cannot reconcile the man he sees in the mirror with the figures represented in LOTR. One passage reads “out of Far Harad, black men like half-trolls…” While Oscar naturally identifies with the Elves and Men and Hobbits of Middle Earth like any other reader, when he comes to this passage he realizes that there is no place for heroism in Middle Earth for those of his skin colour.

Junot Diaz, the author of Oscar Wao, wanted to give readers–especially black readers–a mirror so they can see their own race represented in fiction without feeling that it is a monstrous one. “If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves?” (178), he writes.

This novel straddles a grey area between magical realism and fantasy, although as far as I’ve gotten in my reading, it is a quirky but still an essentially realistic story. It’s epigraphs are from Derek Walcott and Stan Lee–a peculiar mix that represents the book’s themes.

While I continue my readings for my MA Thesis, which is partly about analyzing fantasy as a global form, I can’t help but think about this novel and how works of fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, are receive and interpreted by readers and other authors in nations such as DR. Does the transference of forms from Europe to the ‘periphery’ and the Third World carry a progressive or a detrimental effect towards local literature and national self-image? This talk raised a whole lot of questions that seem to me vital about getting a full picture of what fantasy is doing worldwide.

Once again the issue of race emerged–and specifically, Tolkien’s ideas of race–with Roger Echo-Hawk’s presentation “Ya Hoi! Tolkien’s Mongol-type Orcs.” Here Echo-Hawk, a Native scholar and author of Tolkien in Pawnee Land, argued that Tolkien borrowed descriptions of Mongoloid skulls when describing his orcs. He related this argument to the discourse of eugenics that was ripe around the time Tolkien was writing–the creation of an ideal human race through selective breeding. I can personally contest to this discourse being ‘in the air’ at the time because I noticed several book ads during my searches through early issues of Canadian Forum during my RAship. Supposedly it was guaranteed that ancestry and genes carried the destiny of a society. There were supposedly four ‘races’ in Europe: Mediterranean, Alpine, Tutonic, and Celtic, with the Negoroid and Mongolian types on other continents.

Although Tolkien was aware of Huxley’s arguments about such racial ideas being unscientific, he still approached race from a Eurocentric sense of mission to the ‘lesser’ races. Tolkien would come to begrudge Hitler’s perversion of the idea of the great Northern racial spirit. In fact, in a 1938 letter Tolkien called such racial theories a “holy pernicious and unscientific doctrine.”

Echo-Hawk continued by referencing an Encyclopaedia Brittanica description of the Mongoloid race and finding close correspondence between its specific description of Mongoloids and Tolkien’s descriptions of the “slant-eyed” orcs. Orcs had “sallow” skin–in other words, the yellow skin corresponding to East/Central Asian ancestry. Furthermore his “squint-eyed Southerner” in the Inn at Bree had nothing to do with Clint Eastwood, but rather invokes the same Mongoloid race as a trait of evil.

Another observant bit of scholarship on Echo-Hawk’s part was proposing that Tolkien was aware of the discovery of a negroid Malay skeleton during the war, which may also have influenced his depiction of orcs. Tolkien kept tabs on the Eastern theater during WWII, a note about a Japanese attack on Malaya having been found behind one of his exam papers. Did he note Malay because he had been paying attention to the discovery? Unfortunately, we may never know. What we do know is that Tolkien’s attitude to race was not entirely straightforward and that his placing of importance on race as a stable entity unfortunately reifies–or stultifies–societies into distinct groups characterized by absolute difference.

To close off the day, I attended a discussion panel on Rudyard Kipling, whose short fiction occasionally ventures into the fantastic, but whose journalistic representations of India still define how people–even Indians themselves–see India today. There were no terribly fascinating theories discussed, but it was an opportunity to hear some things about this complex colonial author. Although his novels like The White Man’s Burden is usually seen as trite, jingoistic, and complicit with imperialism, he presents an honest and surprisingly deep picture of Indian society that frequently find sympathy with the locals instead of representatives of the British government.

The panel mentioned how Kipling’s prose actually scans, like poetry. I almost wanted to quote Ondaatje’s The English Patient, where the patient tells Hana, “Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do.” Another author who writes as carefully as Kipling is Kenneth Morris, whose fantasy short fiction was collected in a volume called The Dragon Path–he even wrote fiction inspired by Beethoven.

Fantasy authors who refer to Kipling and acknowledge their debt to him include Poul Anderson and Tim Powers, whose novel Declare refers to The Great Game. C.S. Lewis in Selected Literary Essays also has an essay on Kipling in which he calls him the “Poet of the Inner Ring,” which is code for male friendship.

And … that’s about all I could pack in to this post. That Saturday was packed full of lectures. In another week, I will be publishing my Sunday notes, including a brief report on my presentation.

Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats
Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats

MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part I: On Satyrs, Derrida, and Names of Power

20150802_125245

Every Friday over the next couple of weeks I will be posting notes that I made during this year’s Mythopoeic Conference at the Hotel Elegante in Colorado Springs, CO. I presented a paper there on Charles de Lint and had the occasion to reacquaint myself with the much of the same gang from the last MythCon in Norton, MA. Although these posts are somewhat belated because the conference happened between July 31 and August 3 2015, I think the beginning of the semester–the last hurrah before I really have to hunker down and right my MA thesis–serves as a decent occasion to publish some of the interesting ideas that circulated at the conference.

This was the first trip I made this deep into the US of A without any family contacts to boot. It was also my first time flying alone. I flew in via Atlanta–I was most unexpectedly in the South!–and arrived the day before at the conference in one piece. I got some rest and the next day made my way to the first talk of the weekend. The conference theme was on the Arthurian Mythos–anything related to King Arthur and his knights–from Malory to (Grahame) Chapman.

Joe Christopher presented “A Narnian Study and a Lewisian (and Tolkienian) Note: ‘Two Satyrs’ and ‘Passing References in a Modern Arthurian Novel.'” The gist of the talk was a specific study by one of the conference’s veterans. There are (at least) two depictions of satyrs in C.S. Lewis: Mr. Tumnus, who is called a ‘fawn,’ and another in a poem called “The Satyr” from Spirits in Bondage. Satyrs are remarkable fantastic creatures in how they combine a human face and posture with a bestial goat’s body. The human aspect represents the intellectual faculties, while the goat parts, the more basic drives and instincts–food, sex, bacchanalian revelry.

This man-beast dichotomy is enriched in Lewis since the two satyrs were written at very different times in his life: Mr. Tumnus when he was a converted middle-aged Christian and the Satyr when he was an adolescent atheist. Lewis desexualizes the image of the satyr by the time he writes The Chronicles of Narnia, turning a creature who might be described as a sexual predator into the sedate hospitable, umbrella-toting Christmas shopper, Mr. Tumnus. Naturally this lends a creepy background to Mr. Tumnus inviting little lost Lucy Pevensey into his home upon her first visit to Narnia.

Christopher also went off on a slight tangent to describe an interesting recent book, The Search for Camlann (2013), which integrates Welsh politics into the story of an archaeologist’s search for the battlefield where Arthur made his last stand against Mordred. Entertainingly enough, the protagonist discovers the mythic source text behind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which is usually understood to be non-existent, part of the gigantic lie Monmouth told in order to present Wales in a flattering way to the Norman conquerors.

After this stimulating discussion, I sat down for Andrew Hallam’s “Messianicity and Weak Force in The Lord of the Rings” in which Jacques Derrida served as a surprisingly apt theorist for the discussion of Tolkien’s masterwork. Both academics, for example, were into languages–inventing them and deconstructing them–and if only, if only they could have spoken to each other over tea … well, Andrew and I pretty well agreed they would hate each other’s guts, one being atheist and the other a devout Catholic.

The way Derrida tied into Tolkien was through the French deconstructionist’s writings on faith. To paraphrase, Derrida said one should never give in to the temptation of thinking that one knows what knowledge is. In other words, it is an error to think that knowledge is always certain. Faith is necessary in order to trust in knowledge, but there is always the potential, in what we know, for uncertainty. Messianicity for Derrida must furthermore be wholly unexpected, unanticipated, arriving to change the world from a wildly different direction than ever foreseen.

Jesus Christ was expected to be a powerful ruler who would deliver the Jews from Rome, but he came to be born in a small manger. In a similar way, the One Ring winds up the hands of a Hobbit–wholly unexpected by the rulers of Gondor, much to Boromir’s sad and tragic disappointment. Because Frodo’s Messianicity was so unexpected, Boromir believes he himself ought to have found the Ring, a misunderstanding that leads to his death and the breaking of the Fellowship.

Following this discussion, Janet Brennan Croft gave a talk on “The Name of the Ring: Or There and Back Again,” which although it sounds like it could frankly have been about anything Ring-related, was essentially an analysis of the Ring’s legend through Northrop Frye. Another pleasant surprise was that Croft referred to my old Chaucer TA who I’ve known since my first year of Undergraduate Studies: Benjamin Baroötes, who was working on the thesis she referred to while he was at McGill teaching me. I distinctly remember hearing him talk about it with me and the class and mentioning that his work with philology and medieval literature had certain tie-ins to Tolkien Studies. It was good to hear a familiar name come up!

In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye describes four types of poetic language: the metaphoric, the metonymic (allegory), the demotic, and, finally, the recurso. These Frye borrowed from earlier studies by Giambattista Vico. In the first stage, the name of a thing IS the thing, in the second it is an aspect of the thing, while in the third the name merely describes the thing–a decreasing order of correspondence between word and thing. At the recurso, the cycle begins again: a return to myth and metaphor, the recognition that matter is actually an illusion of energy.

In The Lord of the Rings, these stages of poetic language corresponds to the naming of everything from weapons to the names of the evil forces of Middle-Earth. Melkor, the greatest of evil force in Tolkien’s Legendarium, imparts his own power to his creatures. When he is renamed Morgoth, he loses his ability ‘to rise in height,’ which ‘Melkor’ translates to. In short, his power is metaphoric, until his fall. Sauron, his servant, merely imparts a piece of his being into the One Ring–a metonymic exchange of power. Saruman–who joins Sauron’s forces and is thus one level under him in the hierarchy of evil–represents the demotic stage. Given his language of compromise and his knowledge of science and wizardry–discourses defined by their descriptive styles–he is a far cry from the cosmic force of annihilation that is Melkor.

What makes this scheme especially interesting, in my opinion, is how Frye claims that poetry must create the first phase of language during the domination of the later phases. Since the scientific revolution, the demotic phase has dominated language. But poetry can still remind us about the power of pure metaphor. Occasionally, phrases that partake of two simultaneous eras of language may exist in the same phrase or in the same poem. For example, when Bilbo names his sword upon killing a spider in Mirkwood, he invokes the language of the metonymic phase of sword-naming, proper to an older age of heroism, while choosing a name that represents his own simple, demotic language: “I will call you Sting.”

I found Frye’s theories lend themselves easily to The Lord of the Rings and it got me thinking about how Fredric Jameson interprets these phases of poetry from his historical materialist (Marxist) perspective. Perhaps the later phases of poetry are signs of civilization’s increasing alienation from its environment and its mode of economic production, since it might also be said the rise of capitalism combined with scientific development produced the domination of demotic language. This idea of mine is still a half-formed thought, but Jameson does critique Frye in The Political Unconscious–perhaps I should give it a second read-through….

Stay tuned next week for the next installment of my MythCon 46 notes!

 

Are there Canadian Dragons?

Are there Canadian dragons? And if there are, what are they like? Canada is far too young a country to have ever had a population that naively believed in dragons of the European variety. By the time Europeans settled the land, dragons were known to be myths, creatures of the imagination. Besides, leathery wings and smoking nostrils seem quite out of their element in moose and beaver territory. Once upon a time, Canada may have been home to dinosaurs and, upon the arrival of the first Americans across the Bering Strait, the megafauna, such as woolly mammoths, but ultimately the cold seasons are far too adverse to the breeding of reptiles–of any species, real or imagined.

There are monsters and demons particular to Canada, found in First Nations and early settler folklore. Nightmares such as the windigo, who was said to devour travelers who strayed too far into the bush. But dragons belong to another ecology than the vast boreal forests of the Canadian North, which so fits the particular flavour of horror associated with the windigo.

Modern times have only further driven away the dragons, as cities and other human habitations have tamed the wilderness to such an extent that even the windigo has become obsolete. Let alone the flying lizards of legend. Today a Google search for ‘Canadian dragon’ gives you pictures of dragon boats, roller-coasters, and Kevin O’Leary.

All this is not to say, however, that dragons have never been imagined in Canada. Only to say that the imagining of dragons encounters resistance. While dragons appear in the novels of many Canadian fantasy authors–I’m thinking of the dragon in The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay especially–two Canadian poets have drawn portraits of dragons: Michael Ondaatje in The Dainty Monsters and Gwendolyn MacEwen in The Shadow-Maker.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje’s most famous for writing The English Patient, but before he hit mainstream success, he was an experimental novelist and poet. His later poetry, in Secular Love, becomes increasingly autobiographical and confessional, but his first book of poems is The Dainty Monsters, a bestiary of poems published and printed by Coach House Press.

In “Dragon,” Ondaatje draws the fantastic beast as the quintessential ‘dainty monster.’ “I have been seeing dragons again,” claims its speaker, implying that he might be hallucinating, that he shouldn’t be seeing them, but he is. The initial image is almost a code that says ‘This is how dragons are in Canada’: while canoeing in a lake the speaker sees a dragon “hunched over a beaver dam.” Far from the fire-breathing terror of villages and castles, this dragon “clutched a body like a badly held cocktail.” This is a dragon who is drunk and should go home.

Dragons are usually challenged by knights in shining armour who try to rescue princesses from their dens. But Ondaatje’s dainty dragon gets “tangled in our badminton net.” The only thing left of this dragon’s fiery breath, his greatest weapon, is “an extinct burning inside” as the speaker’s four badminton buddies and their “excited spaniel surrounded him.” This is a dragon entirely emasculated and surrounded by the artificial world that humans have built up around themselves. Rather than ravaging humanity, the dragon, representing the unknown dangers of nature, has now, in a world where nature is no longer the Other but tamed, become thing about as harmful as, say, a deer.

In Rat Jelly‘s poem “The Ceremony: A Dragon, a Hero, and a Lady, by Uccello,” Ondaatje returns to the dragon myth from the angle of an ekphrasis on the painting of Saint George and the Dragon by Uccello. His poem evokes the dynamism of the famous painting, which depicts Saint George, the Patron Saint of England, lancing a dragon through the eye. The landscape of the painting is somewhere between an artificial courtyard and a natural setting by a cave.

uccello

“A boy-knight shafts the dragon’s eye / –the animal with a  spine of claws” writes Ondaatje. “The horse’s legs are bent like lightening. / The boy is perfect in his angle.” The painting is in movement but captures the perfect moment of the dragon’s death, an arrangement artificially staged like a ceremony. This poem reflects Ondaatje’s interest in the dialectic between order and the natural world that characterizes his Henri Rousseau poems, such as “Henry Rousseau and Friends,” and, I believe, anticipates his interest in the movement and caught motion, which becomes a principle aesthetic concern in “‘The gate in his head.'”

Gwendolyn MacEwen
Gwendolyn MacEwen

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Canadian dragon is not especially Canadian, but rather appears at first to take after the European kind like Ondaatje’s second dragon poem. But on second thought, her dragon might be Near Eastern–not Chinese, but Mesopotamian. Fascinated by all things exotic, MacEwen’s interest was in Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of chaos who took the form of a dragon and whose body, after her death at the hands of Marduk, was used to create the heaven and earth. Although this myth doesn’t appear per se in her poem “The Taming of the Dragon” in The Shadow-Maker, the theme of chaos becoming order remains a primary concern.

MacEwen’s dragon has become dainty. “Once the monster’s jaws unfolded fire / but now how harmless are his claws / and all his teeth are capped with gold.”  He’s even become a vegetarian: “between his teeth / are bits of flowers, for he’s sworn off flesh; he seems so glad and foolish.” Rather than positioning the dragon in modern-day Canadian spaces like Ondaatje does, MacEwen places him in the mental space of myth itself. The speaker, whom one can read as a creative poet-figure, mourns the loss of the dragon not because it is a noble creature, but because she mourns “how I used to stand / stricken white in his dreadful breath.” Her speaker needs a relationship with death in order to attain purity. White is the colour of purity and the albedo, the stage of purification in the alchemical process. Dragon’s breath, which is fire, is the agent by which she can achieve the albedo. But now that chaos has been tamed, she has lost the danger that provides the impetus to creativity.

The tamed dragon wears a wreath around his neck and “seems so glad and foolish” now that he has been rewarded with what could be laurels–the traditional symbol for poetic acclaim. MacEwen’s dragon shows how creativity, which thrives on danger and looming death, dies when it is tamed with praise and recognition.

Ondaatje and MacEwen adopt an attitude towards the dragon as an extinct animal, both finding within the monster a symbol  for how the chaos and danger of previous medieval worlds have become order and tameness in our modernity. Canada is an inhospitable land for dragons, according to these poets, partly because it is and only has been modern. Differing from mainstream urban fantasy authors who find no trouble in writing dragons into the modern world, these poets reflect on why it is so difficult and jarring to imagine such monsters invading our comfortable, dainty lives. Yet imagine dragons they do.

What is gained by even trying to imagine such a connection to a mythic past in our seemingly unmythical and unhistorical world, which resists dragons so totally? Is it nostalgia? A desire to live among symbols? This is one of the great questions mythic writing and fantasy ask.

In “A Toronto Home for Birds and Manticores” Ondaatje’s speaker briefly expresses a desire for some kind of connection to myth–that a mythic past might emerge as a result of an archaeology not of dirt but of snow: “When snows have melted / how dull to find just grass and dog shit. / Why not the polemic bones of centaurs.” The question of “Why not?” is what Ondaatje asks himself in “Dragon,” but all he finds is an answer to the ‘not.’ MacEwen attempts to mythologize the city of Toronto in her Noman books, but as the title suggests, living a mythic reality in Canada is an alienating struggle.

MacEwen in “The Thin Garden” suggests that these great myths cannot be found in Canada, but must be found outside: “No traveller comes here from innocence / but for that myth the snow cannot provide, / and all our histories lie outside.” For MacEwen, this ‘outside’ was Egypt and Mesopotamia. She suggests what many fantasy authors–even ones willing to let dragons live in the modern day–have found to be true in Canada: the myths can only be imported from elsewhere–such as from the Middle East, or, I add, England and Europe–for want of an established native mythology. Of course, there are Native American myths aplenty, but for European-descended writers, there are those who claim that using First Nations myths is an act of cultural appropriation, a discouraging quandary.

In conclusion, we can say that there are Canadian dragons, but, in the imaginations of the poets examined in this post, once those dragons fly across the pond, they live within our climate of long winter seasons in a state of severe, disabling culture shock.

Photo Credit:

Uccello: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_George_and_the_Dragon_by_Paolo_Uccello_%28London%29_01.jpg

 

 

“Index”: an HTMElegy

CKUT 23 Dec 2015

On CKUT (McGill Campus Radio) this week on Monday and at the launch for the Veg magazine yesterday, I read some magical poems I composed recently. One was inspired by Gwendolyn MacEwen and John Dee, the other was an elimination of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the last was a pantoum, a fabulously musical poetic form if there ever was one. I hope I did it justice.

I also told audiences about a certain poem called “Index” that has been published in the Veg. I wrote this poem in Notepad and tried to pun on and play with HTML format tags, in order to produce two texts in a single poem: one written directly by me, the other intended by me, but actually put together by a web browser. Click on the link below to view the .pdf:

“Index: an HTMElegy

The radio show aired at 11:00 am Monday 23 2015. If I’m not mistaken, you should be able to find my reading in the archives here.

By the way, here’s a quick bonus HTMElegy that was not published in the Veg:

“Andy”

HTMElegies 1, Andy HTMElegies 2, Andy

Joseph Boyden on his Identity and Origins

Joseph Boyden
Joseph Boyden

Monday at the D.B. Clarke Theatre in the Hall Building on Concordia University campus, Joseph Boyden talked about his identity and origins–both as a writer and a man of mixed Irish-Ojibwe blood. He was accompanied by renowned conversationalist Kate Sterns and Globe and Mail book reviewer Jared Bland,

“Who are you?” opened Sterns, a direct question to start off the evening.

Boyden’s most recent novel, The Orenda, won CBC’s Canada Reads competition. It was up against such worthy contenders as Cockroach by Rawi Hage and Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. His novel Through Black Spruce won the Giller Prize. The Orenda also made the longlists for the Giller and Governor General’s Literary Awards. In addition to this recognition, Boyden is an activist for indigenous rights, in recent times taking a particular focus on the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

He wrote poetry before fiction. He confided to me that his unpublished poems were imagistic, reflecting the highly visual scenes that are so powerful in his novels. Much of his older poetry was also song lyrics. In fact, he used to tour with the punk rock band Bazooka Joe as a roadie, in rebellion against the social conformity of suburban Ontario.

“I didn’t want to be a writer,” said Boyden. “As a teen, I wanted to be a singer, but I was so bad even punk bands wouldn’t take me.”

Boyden began to write short stories and longer forms after entering an MFA program. He expressed having a certain anxiety leaving poetry behind. “I was scared of novels; I was scared of fiction,” he said.

One day, he hopped on a motorcycle on an epic road trip from Toronto down to the University of New Orleans, which a professor had told him had an excellent MFA program in Creative Writing. He would have gone to Concordia, he said, ” But my motorcycle didn’t have snow tires.”

He showed up to the program with what he thought would become the greatest novel since Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, without having written any short fiction yet. He was in his mid-20s. His original title for this motorcycle road-trip novel was The Tree of the Lost. Then he came up with an even better title: Motorcycle Boy.

Sterns and Bland spent some time rubbing in the fact that this embarrassing first novel of Boyden’s was now public knowledge. There is something about young male writers, Sterns said, who want to write quest or adventure novels about the glory of there being nothing but the open road. I would personally have to agree.

My first unpublished novel, Battles of Rofp, also had a quest narrative and an embarrassing title (that no one could pronounce without curling their tongue and spitting into their upper lip). There is something quintessentially adolescent about such novels–about reading them and writing them. There is such glory and naivety about first novels, especially when a writer skips writing short fiction and goes right for the full-length epic. I smiled knowingly and nostalgically at Boyden’s honesty. Wow, if the author of Motorcycle Boy could come to win the Giller, maybe the author of Battles of Rofp can too, in  time, I thought.

Boyden described how his novel was received by his workshop group in New Orleans. His peers sounded like they were politely tiptoeing around more brutal criticisms, as workshopers tend to do. “[They told me,] ‘You paragraph really well and I’m glad you used 12 point font,'” he said.

His harshest critic “in a Lutheran German kind of way” but also his most constructive one, was none other than his future wife, Amanda. “She clarified for me what it meant to be serious,” said Boyden. He cut his long hair, and she encouraged him to write short stories. One of his first successful ones required him to look back into his childhood in Geogrian Bay.

“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” came from this mining of life experience, a story about childhood and growing up on a reserve. Since he was passionate about his subject matter–even more passionate than he was about motorcycles–and because he knew all about it, his workshop responded with positive affirmations. “They loved it,” he said.

“Shawanagan Bingo Queen” was later published. In fact, it was the first story I ever read of Boyden’s, since it’s featured in Robert Lecker’s anthology Open Country, which I bought for a survey class on Canadian literature during my first semester at McGill.

Writing opened new paths for Boyden and his family and friends to recognize the legitimacy of their Ojibwe cultural heritage. “It was also so exciting because I was exploring something my friends didn’t talk about,” he said. “It was a part of me I thought others wouldn’t give a care about.”

A cultural rejuvenation swept over his family as a result of his short stories and novels. One of the most touching stories is that of his mother. “She did her first Pow-wow at the age of 80,” Boyden said.

Recently, Boyden edited a limited edition chapbook that is also available as an ebook–it is called Kwe, meaning ‘woman’ in Ojibwe. He was contacted for the job and had a week to solicit authors for unpublished material that pertained to the social problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women, (although the topic wasn’t mandatory). Boyden did not expect big things, but within a week he had received submissions from authors across Canada including the inestimable Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. Proceeds from Kwe go to Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters campaign.

When discussing The Orenda, Boyden wondered whether people would care about what happened in the mid 1600s, what with Samuel de Champlain’s settling of Quebec, the Jesuit martyrs, and the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) wars. But, as it turns out, it was a period in Canada that is highly relevant to the political, social, and environmental issues of the twenty-first century. “This speaks to everything we’re going through right now, whether it’s war, whether it’s immigration,” he said. “I trust my gut when it tells me to go back to the 1600s.”

What’s next for Boyden? Out of all things, who could expect a ballet? That’s right. No; he does not have to dance. Or sing in that punk rock style of his. The production is being staged in relation to the other initiatives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is trying to acquire documentation and testimonies of those who suffered in Residential Schools. Tina Keeper, a Cree activist, has asked him to write a story for the ballet.

It goes to show that Boyden’s philosophy is never to turn down an unfamiliar challenge. Advising any young writers in the audience, he said, “Figure out screenwriting, figure out playwrighting.” Writers who seek to earn a living are more and more turning towards other forms of storytelling, including television.

The biggest of Boyden’s challenges is also one of Canada’s biggest challenges: to change the way we think about and discuss First Nations issues in Canada. Even if The Orenda cannot change social problems directly, it can expose its audience to a healthier perspective on First Nations identity, instead of letting Canadians succumb to the poisonous us/them divisions that characterize the political rhetoric of the present government.

Joseph Boyden: Ojibwe activist, Canadian novelist and short story writer, ex-punk roadie, ballet writer. He has been many things and will be many more. Waiting in line to have my book signed, I hear him explain the eagle feather tattoos on his forearm to another fan. The feathers are cut at the nib to suggest a writer’s plume. On his right arm, there is a tattoo of a band that displays his Native heritage, on his left, a Celtic design of an animal that might have been dog, bear, or dragon. His Irish side.

I walk up and shake his hand.

My signed copy of The Orenda.
My signed copy of The Orenda.

5 Reasons Why Christopher Marlowe is an Elizabethan Hipster Poet

Bonus: Reason #6 is he already has the requisite mustache. All he needs are the glasses.
Bonus: He grew hipster moustaches literally centuries before they were trendy.

Elizabethan England’s most celebrated poet and playwright, in underground kind of way, was Christopher Marlowe, although he was soon eclipsed by Mr. Will Shakespeare, whose popular plays would define the mainstream for centuries to come. It was the 90s. The 1590s to be precise. Marlowe was at the height of his powers, writing the politically subversive and experimental poetry that would come to define his generation. Doctor Faustus, for instance, would stand the test of centuries as a profound representation of Renaissance humanism.

Many have tried to label Marlowe. Attaining his MA at Cambridge, he was a member of a generation of college wits. The civil service was not large enough to accommodate the young poets of London, so they turned to more edgy professions, like poetry.

Poet, playwright, spy, homosexual, Catholic, atheist: even if the labels didn’t make any sense, they stuck. Marlowe’s response? Haters gonna hate.

Here are five reasons why Marlowe was basically a hipster:

1. He avoided all labels.

Although Edward II depicts the homosexual relationship between a king and his favourite courtier (fun fact: Edward II is Longshanks’ son in Braveheart), Marlowe cannot be outed of the closet based on textual evidence alone. In a similar way, scholars have argued about whether Doctor Faustus celebrates or a condemns Renaissance humanism and the pursuit of scientific knowledge–they have to settle on seeing the play as expressing a paradox. Neither can they determine with absolute certainty whether he was an atheist, or for that matter, a closet Catholic. You can’t pin Marlowe down or place him in any particular intellectual camp–being classified would make him way too mainstream.

2. He was over-educated and underemployed.

Sound familiar? Like a certain generation of young, college- and university-aged people today (such as yours truly), he had no money unless he sought patronage. Furthermore, his education in classical literature went nowhere towards finding him a job. He couldn’t just be a cobbler like his father, Mr. John Marlowe. Way too mainstream. Instead, the only way Marlowe was able to get his MA was by serving in Her Majesty’s Secret Service–such as it existed back then. Marlowe was sent to France to spy on Catholics for Elizabeth I, or at least that’s what scholars have argued. If only that was all you had to do today: become James Bond for a while and then bang! your degree is conferred, your tuition paid. (I’ll stop dreaming about it now.)

3. He was into retro.

Marlowe painstakingly tried to bring back the first-century Roman poet Ovid. Although he was not alone in reviving interest in Ovid’s poetry, most people came to know Ovid only in grammar school textbooks. Marlowe remixed a collection of Ovid’s poems, the Elegies, by translating them into English verse. Then he brought Ovid to popular audiences by writing highly pretentious  allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses into his plays. I don’t suppose you’d understand the reference, but…

4. He was unappreciated as an artist for centuries.

Marlowe’s art was so ahead of his time that his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers devalued him as only a necessary precursor to the Bard–John the Baptist to Shakespeare’s Christ. Well, the Romantics reappraised him after almost 200 years and his works, which explore tyranny and the dark side of politics, had new resonance in the twentieth century. Like Vincent Van Gogh, the archetypical unappreciated artist, the genius in Marlowe only became relevant after his death.

5. He wrote in blank verse before it was cool.

Rhymes were way too fashionable. Not to mention, they were just distasteful. I mean really. His contemporaries were infatuated with couplets, Spenserian stanzas, and rime royal. Marlowe was one of the first to realize that rhymes were overrated. Iambic pentameter blank verse in English, so characteristic of Shakespeare’s great dramatic speeches, was actually pioneered by his more underground predecessor. Unfortunately, Shakespeare is given all the cred for this. What everyone should come to realize is that Marlowe was not some kind of mindless trend follower; he started one of the greatest poetic trends in English literature, thank you very much.