After a hiatus, weekly posts have returned on Saturdays. Today, I propose a modest theory about the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan ibn Sabbah, the leader of the Nizari Ismai’lis, which are more infamously known (however unfairly) as the Assassins.
I have discussed the Old Man of the Mountain in the past in the context of the famous Assassin’s Creed franchise. In this post, I try to understand how exactly Middle English readers would have understood the reference to the Old Man of the Mountain in The Book of John Mandeville. I propose in fact that they would have interpreted this account as a moral allegory not dissimilar to certain fairy tales in which the seductions of fairy land tempt the victim away from aspiring to heaven by presenting the victim with a garden of earthly delights.
Before I begin, here is the entire reference to Catholonabeus, which is Mandeville’s name for Hassan ibn Sabbah. This is a free translation from the text edited by Kohanski and Benson. (Catholonabeus is a Latinized corruption of a Syrian word meaning ‘killer.’)
In this land was a rich men that men called Catholonabeus, and he had a fair, strong castle. And he had made a good, strong wall all around the hill. Within was a fair garden in which were many fair trees bearing all manner of fruit that he could find. And he planted all manner of herbs of good smell. And there were many fair wells, and nearby were built many fair halls and chambers endowed with gold and azure. And he made birds and beasts that turned around via an engine within a clock and they sang as if they were alive. And he had in his gardens maidens of 15 years of age, the fairest that he could find, and male children of the same age, and they were clothed in gold and he said that they were angels. And he had made a conduit under the earth so that when he wanted he could sometimes run milk, sometimes wine, sometimes honey. And this place is called Paradise. And when any young bachelor of that country, knight or squire, came to find solace, [Catholonabeus] led him into his Paradise and showed him many wonderful things and his maidens and his wells and he also sounded his musical instruments in a high tower that could not be seen and said that they were angels of God and that here was Paradise that God granted to those who believed when He said thus: “I shall give you a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Marco Polo’s account of Hassan ibn Sabbah develops this point to say that all those who the Old Man of the Mountain seduced with his pleasure garden he also persuaded to carry out political murders. Their reward was re-entry into Paradise and for that, they were willing to do anything.
My initial impression of this account is that it is an Orientalist wonder tale, a European projection of fears about the Islamic ‘Other.’ Certainly the myth of a false paradise implies a degree of alterity to the man who built it. He cannot be said to be an entirely orthodox man and certainly not a Christian one. However, nowhere in Mandeville is Catholonabeus called a Saracen or a Muslim. And nowhere is his Paradise ever explicitly condemned as a false heaven. If anything, it almost seems as though the author celebrates the human ingenuity that could produce such a marvel in this world. The mechanical birds and magnificent the clock (which reminds me of a certain water-clock the caliph Harun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame gifted to none other than King Charlemagne) suggest a technological advancement far ahead of what was common in Europe at the time.
My second impression of this account is that it corresponds fairly closely the idea of a wainscot society in fantasy criticism. A “wainscot” refers to a society of fantastic beings that exists within the mundane world, although this society can only be accessed ‘through the cracks.’ For example, there might be fairies living in a house’s actual wood paneling, which is what a ‘wainscot’ is. Or, to return to Catholonabeus, a secret society of hedonistic pleasure seekers (and their servants) might exist concealed in the mountains and within a castle, as the artificial paradise appears to be. The fact that the servants are called ‘angels’ furthermore links them with the supernatural, although they may merely be false angels.
Angels are only a small step away from fairies. Now consider if this wainscot society situated in a wondrous garden of paradise formed a sort of Celtic Otherworld.
In Sir Orfeo, a Middle English verse romance, a knight ventures into a fairy Otherworld that resembles the New Jerusalem, for all the bright and precious stones that adorn the buildings. The New Jerusalem is “the proude court of Paradis” (376). It is an otherworldly, wondrous utopia like the artificial paradise, only Sir Orfeo’s is the real deal. Nonetheless, it might be said that a tradition of viewing Paradise as an Otherworld does exist in the medieval English literature. Why not an artificial paradise?
Celtic fairy lore mentions the perils of being caught dancing in fairy circles and the danger of losing oneself to the seductions of fairy land, the ‘perilous realm.’ Consider Catholonabeus as a kind of Oberon, only with the skill of La Belle Dame Sans Merci at seducing young men with the pleasures of his garden. The dangers a young man might face with the Old Man of the Mountain come remarkably close to the ones a knight might expect from a fairy.
Then recall the tradition of fairies as the puckish, arbitrary dispensers of harm or aid. Never anger a fairy, or there will be hell to pay. Keep giving them milk in a dish by the windowsill and they will be kind to you. But you just never know. A fairy might decide to play the trickster no matter what you try to do.
Although Mandeville strangely omits all mention of the Assassins from his account, if Catholonabeus controlled his Assassins rather like a fairy king, he would have been considered a dangerous man. Like a Mafia don, a fairy with the power to murder you should better be placated.
Although I let my fancy fly a little in my last paragraph, I believe there are nevertheless suggestive cues in the account of the Old Man of the Mountain to suggest that one kind of text that might have influenced how Middle English readers interpreted John Mandeville’s account is what I will loosely call the ‘fairy story’ or ‘fairy romance.’ Kings and squires venturing near a fairy mound had better pour wax in their ears not to hear the seductive siren music of the fairyland. In the same way, the same heroes might be well instructed to turn a deaf ear to anything Catholonabeus promises and to not be fooled by his hidden musical instruments that they are in the real Paradise.
But just in case anyone needs a convincer, think about this.
Fairy rings are known to grow bigger the deeper you enter them. Although they look small, as if they do not contain much space, once you enter one, they are bigger on the inside (rather like the inside of the Doctor’s TARDIS).
Hassan ibn Sabbah was lord of Alamut castle in Northern Iran. Unfortunately, this castle is much too small, narrow, and rocky to have housed a full scale garden of paradise. However, a certain vineyard does thrive on Alamut to this day. It was rumoured to have been planted by Hassan himself.
Although it is not much to look at, the vineyard is a slice of green life thriving in the otherwise spartan ruin of the Ismai’li castle.
Has anyone ever paused to see how big that vineyard is on the inside?
“But as a nation—continued he in his reveries—these Spaniards are all an odd set; the very word Spaniard has a curious, conspirator, Guy-Fawkish twang to it.” -Herman Melville, “Benito Cereno.”
“The imaginary is part of history.” -Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun.
“[A] good case could be made that the last unchallenged and most perniciously pervasive element in the whig view of modern English history is an unacknowledged tendency to privilege all things protestant while sedulously marginalizing all things catholic.” -Peter Locke with Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat.
It is finally November 5! Celebrate this day with your friends. Or if you want to stay indoors reading blogs…
The final part of the “Behind Guy Fawkes” series opens with the three epigraphs above. The first one, by Melville, is one I find humorous and relateable. It reveals that Protestant paranoia had a way of infusing itself even into nineteenth-century American culture.
Due to Jesuitophobia, the fear of Jesuit-led conspiracies that hit England after the Gunpowder Plot and inspired a literary genre of Jesuit slander, the English associated the Jesuits with Fawkes’ conspiracy. Since the English also associated any threat to their Protestant nation with the Spanish, it becomes intuitive for Herman Melville to associate the word “Spaniard” with Guy Fawkes–even though he was neither Spanish nor a Jesuit.
I have long imagined the word “Spaniard” to have exactly the kind of ‘twang’ Melville describes, although I may not have been always fully conscious of it. When I think of Guy Fawkes, Inigo Montoya is never far behind in my thoughts…
The other two epigraphs, the more serious ones, are also epigraphs to a fascinating book, Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy: Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England, by Arthur F. Marotti. Marotti challenges how history is received and created in England. He examines the “process in which real and fabricated historical ‘evidence’ and events are translated into a developing set of rhetorical codes and ideological fantasies” (2). What is striking is how Marotti avoids discussing fact in his book and focuses on how historical events are imagined or embellished, in order to serve ideological ends.
The unofficial motto of this blog is that “history is fantasy.” As a result, I thought Marotti’s insights quite fascinating. History is what we imagine, after all. The past only exists in our memory, and our imagination inevitably colours even that.
We pick up the story from last time: the Gunpowder Treason had fallen apart. England was in an uproar. But another battle was beginning: the war of the press.
Pamphlets, books, and sermons formed the blogosphere of early modern England. Then as now, political and religious factions battled it out to win the hearts and opinion of the population. Remember the terror that suffused the media after 9/11? That was what was happening in England, give or take, except instead of watching CNN or Fox, you would most likely hear a sermon from a preacher. England’s Most Wanted was the Pope—the Osama bin Laden of the day. And, if we continue this problematic analogy, the Jesuits were the Al-Qaeda.
Of course the world is not so simple, and I mean no slander on Jesuits of the time, much less the Jesuits of the present day. But black and white morality tends to appear whenever people are afraid of the “other.” When action is necessary to protect a nation, you don’t want to talk about your enemy in terms of “shades of grey.” You don’t want to let remorse slow you down, in doing what you believe must be done. Extreme fear in the state results in a superfluous amount of hatred that stimulates the masses—and produces an ideal moment for the king to step in and look good clearing up the situation. Morals become black and white when we think it is convenient for them to appear that way.
The Jesuits first came under suspicion in connection to the Gunpowder Plot when Thomas Bates, a servant to one of the conspirators, confessed that Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit, was in on the conspiracy. Garnet became one of the most loathed figures in England, and an example for many Protestants of why Jesuits should never be trusted.
Sir Edward Coke and the earl of Northampton wrote the propaganda masterpiece A True and Perfect Relation of the Proceedings at the several Arraignments of the Late Most barbarous Traitors in 1606. Right away, you can tell it is not true and perfect, since they say that it is true and perfect, instead of letting the evidence stand on its own. In this Relation, the Gunpowder Plot is called the “Jesuit treason,” reminding readers that Fawkes’ conspiracy was only the most recent in a long string of Jesuit-centred regicide attempts.
Throughout, Coke focuses on the ecclesiastical plotters, not those with secular motivations. He claims that Jesuits formed an international society of conspirators. For example, they were supposedly responsible for James Clement’s assassination of Henry III and, through the involvement of the Jesuit William Holt, Edmund of York’s plot to kill the Queen in 1594. Later, Juan de Mariam would say Jesuits were behind the deaths of Protestant leaders William of Orange and Henry IV, who was killed by radical Catholic François Ravaillac. Jesuits were also blamed for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Protestants in Paris, sparked by the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. (The massacre is more traditionally pinned on Catherine de’ Medici.)
Robert Cecil called the Jesuits “that generation of vipers” (47-48). The stereotype of a Jesuit ran as follows: he had the Pope in his belly, Machiavelli in his head, and Mercury’s wings on his feet. Not only could they think deviously in the Pope’s service, but they could be anywhere and travel from country to country with speed. This fear, spurred on by paranoia, turned the Jesuit into an evil supervillain.
In one colourful piece of libel, Thomas Dekker, playwright of the world-famous Shoemaker’s Holiday, says that Jacques Clement, a Jesuit, used black magic to conjure a devil in the likeness of a friar. One can only suppose that Dekker suffered from an unhealthy over-familiarity with Christopher Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, in which the titular blasphemer does just that.
But why all this hate against the Jesuits? To begin with, Jesuits understood themselves to be soldiers not only of God, but the Pope himself. Their presence in England was seen as a threatening encroachment of foreign power. The intellectual disciplines of the Jesuit priesthood were also seen as unsavoury. They moved in secret among the underground Catholics, masters of disguise and rhetoric, which they used to persuade Catholics to commit treason and even sacrifice their lives suicide-bomber style, for the sake of God. They were said to seal such pacts with the “superstitious” ritual of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Fact is difficult to separate from fantasy here, but it seems fair to assume that Jesuits were not half so Satanic as they were depicted as being.
What’s worse, from a Protestant standpoint, was the Jesuit practice of mental reservation and their doctrine of equivocation. Essentially, the doctrine of equivocation said, that it was not a sin to break or swear an oath that would force you to betray the cause of Catholicism. It also freed the conscience of Jesuits to give false confessions while under torture, if it meant saving the lives of their friends. Equivocation threatened the integrity of the oral bonds and oaths that held society together.
Henry Garnet defended himself by defending the doctrine of equivocation, papal disposition of power, the general innocence of Catholic recusants, and the innocence of Jesuits who played no part in conspiracies.
Northampton rebutted, claiming the Gunpowder Plot was devilry, that “the cursed snake who eats the dust of powder, now eats gunpowder with them [the conspirators]” (141). The Papacy’s temporal claims and its claiming of the right to depose kings corrupted the institution of the holy church and removed its legitimacy. So ran the Protestant argument.
A series of plates and engravings also served a widespread, if crude, propaganda. A typical plate shows Guy Fawkes holding his infamous lantern, about to ignite the powder, when the eye of God turns on him and casts him in a spotlight. The letter that detailed the conspiracy could also be seen being given to state authorities by an angel (or an eagle, in honour of Mounteagle).
John Milton’s In Quintus Novembris frames the Gunpowder Plot as a hellish conspiracy, following this rich tradition of writings. His poem depicts Satan, the hero of Paradise Lost, in envy of England, bothered by how it does not accept the yoke of Roman Catholicism (144). The Church at this time was called Babylon, or the Romish Babylonians, or even the Synagogue of Satan.
From a twenty-first century standpoint, of course, these epithets sound pathetically hilarious, “Romish Babylonians” sounding more like a sports team than anything else. However, the Church was much more powerful in the early seventeenth century, a force to contend with that had temporal interests.
The main tension point on the Protestant side came from its demand for liberty of conscience in all things, against the general opinion of Catholicism’s intolerability. The foreign authority of the Pope simply did not mix with the absolute authority of the English monarchy after the Restoration. The defence of the ‘ancient liberties’ of the English frequently trumped any desire for toleration through ‘liberty of conscience’—even though liberty of conscience was what Protestants had traditionally fought for, since the beginning of the Reformation. Robert Southwell and Robert Parsons both wrote directly about this irony.
In human psychology, to arrive at an individual identity, one must be able to separate the “self” from the “other.” When we can tell the difference between the outside and our interior, then we have an identity. The same is true in the growth of nationhood. It might be said, that England had to find a group to exclude, in order to create their identity as a Protestant nation.
The same phenomenon occurred in Spain in 1492: nationalism surged after the Reconquest was complete, Muslims forced from Catholic lands. Likewise, German nationalism soared under Hitler, when Jews were excluded from participating in the country. If you create and “in” group, you must exclude those who are “out”: observe this phenomenon on any high school lunch table. This does not mean, however, that the process of exclusion is unproblematic. The example of the Nazis is an obvious warning.
Catholics were excluded from the running of English society, for the longest time unable to hold public office or become heirs to the throne. That is now changing. Marotti seems to imply that it is also time to rethink how we frame the history of England. Finding voices that have been forced underground can be a subversive way to open up the questions history poses us.
No doubt if someone should tell Guy Fawkes’ story, and the general story of Catholicism in England, it would run much differently from what Protestant historians have written. History, as we understand it, depends much more on who writes history, than it does on what actually happened. Simply because we have received a historical tradition does not mean there is only one way to understand events. Take V for Vendetta, as an example. Questioning the claims of the fascistic government’s legitimacy, V was able to unmask the conspiracy that got it into power. For these, and many other reasons, Gunpowder Treason really should never be forgot.
How will you remember the fifth of November?
Buchanan, Brenda, David Cannadine, and Justin Champion, et al. Gunpowder Plots. London: Penguin, 2005.
Haynes, Alan. The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion. Dover: Alan Sutton, 1994.
Marotti, Arthur F. Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.
“But ‘The Gunpowder Plot’–there was a get-penny! I have presented that to an eighteen- or twenty-pence audience nine times in an afternoon. Your home-born projects prover ever the best; they are so easy and familiar. They put too much learning i’their things nowadays, and that, I fear, will be the spoil o’ this.”
-Leatherhead, Bartholomew Fair by Ben Johnson, Act 5 Scene 1
A get-penny was a bestselling performance–in this case a puppet show of the Gunpowder Plot, so as Johnson attests through this quote, the drama of the 5 November was as popular today as it was in the seventeenth century.
When James I took the throne, Catholics flocked across the channel from France to return to England, hoping for toleration in the form of a law similar to the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which granted toleration to French Huguenots. However, several things were to go wrong.
First, there was the Bye Plot, in which William Watson, a priest, planned to kidnap the king and hold him for ransom until he declared toleration law. Then the Main Plot, which followed, was led by certain high-ranking courtiers like Lord Cobham and Sir Walter Raleigh. It aimed to get rid of the Scottish King James and replace him with Lady Arabella Stewart. In 1604, due to Puritan Scottish advisers, the king began to harden in his stance towards Catholic toleration. 19 March 1604 marked the passing of recusancy laws that formed a continuation of Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic policies.
Robert Catesby was a main ringleader among the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. He belonged to a wealthy Catholic family from Warwickshire. His cousin, Francis Tresham, was also prepared to use physical violence to achieve his aim of initiating a regime change. Jack and Kit Wright were notable swordsmen who fought during Essex’s failed rebellion of 1601, which saw the disgruntled earl beheaded. These two men would have known Guy Fawkes from school at St. Peter’s,York. Fawkes himself was a veteran of the wars against the Dutch in the Netherlands. Thomas and Robert Wintour, relatives of Catesby, also owned Huddington Court, a priest refuge. Thomas’ uncle had been a priest. He’d been hanged, drawn, and quartered—presumably for treason—a gesture I doubt Thomas appreciated.
Wintour and Fawkes are both known to have travelled to Spain in order to seek support. The Spanish under King Philip III was making a peace treaty with the English. Sceptical that the treaty would force the English king to tolerate Catholics, the conspirators prepared for another, more violent means of having their way.
In winter 1604, Wintour met Catesby and Jack Wright in their house in Lambeth, which was a stone’s throw across the Thames from Westminster—their target. The Gunpowder plot was Catesby’s idea, and hardening their resolve, once Fawkes had crossed the Channel, they met at a house behind St. Clements in the Strand. There, Father John Gerard, a Jesuit, celebrated Mass. Jesuits in England at this time were not allowed to enter England as “secular” priests: Elizabeth I had banished them from England by decree 5 November 1602. After the Mass, the conspirators swore an oath. The John Gerard was most likely not present for the oath, although Protestants would associate the conspiracy with the Jesuit order for a long time.
Parliament opened 19 March 1604. On 24 May, Thomas Percy acquired a lease on a small house near the House of Lords, where they were to excavate a shaft from the cellars to the foundations of the House of Lords’ chamber, and then lay the powder in a stack of concealed barrels. The peace treaty with Spain was signed, and it included no mention of Catholic toleration. The situation worsened when the king appointed a committee to prevent Jesuits from subverting the king’s authority.
The plotters encountered many setbacks. Their house was requisitioned while they were digging the mine, which risked the exposure of the plot. A plague outbreak forced Parliament to prorogue until 3 October 1605. They hoped for Princess Elizabeth to survive the explosion—a female monarch, they felt, would be more easily manipulable. Apparently, they had forgotten how much they suffered under the last female monarch, the last Elizabeth.
Robert Wintour, Kit Wright, and John Grant (a notorious participant in the Essex rebellion and the brother-in-law of Robert Wintour), entered the conspiracy in March 1605. Soon, they discovered coal in storage in the Lords’ meeting house. This meant they could place powder directly under the House of Lords. Presumably, the coal would help the fires burn afterwards. On 3 October, Parliament was prorogued once more, until the fateful day of 5 November.
On 27 October, Catesby had reason to suspect the plot had been betrayed. He suspected Francis Tresham, for his connections to Mounteagle, but he denied it enough to convince the conspirators he was innocent. They pushed forward with their resolution. Thomas Percy met lord Northumberland in an attempt to see if he had heard about the conspiracy, but found that he was ignorant of it. The gunpowder was undisturbed, reported Fawkes.
Nonetheless, on Friday 1 November, the king read Mounteagle’s letter at Whitehall Palace. The next day, the Lord Chamberlain was ordered to search the palace at Westminster …
Fawkes enters the chamber with a slow match on 4 November. He comes face-to-face with the Lord Chamberlain. Imagine Guy’s surprise when the Chamberlain takes him to be a servant of the house. They are standing right in front of a pile of gunpowder barrels concealed only beneath a pile of brushwood and wooden sticks. Fawkes sighs in relief when the Chamberlain, satisfied, resumes his inspection of the rest of House of Lords.
The lie Fawkes uses to get out of that tight spot is not really a lie at all, but an omission of the truth: he said the sticks belonged to the tenant of the house, Thomas Percy, a respectable gentleman pensioner. However, Monteagle finds this suspicious. Why would Percy, a known Catholic, own a second house near Parliament when he has his own house in nearby London? The king has Sir Thomas Knyvet, a Justice of the Peace, an old friend of Robert Cecil, and one of the king’s privy chambermen, perform a more thorough search.
At midnight, they found Fawkes with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, red-handed. Fawkes claimed he was actually “John Johnson,” Percy’s servant, but I doubt it took much of a genius to know he was lying and thought of that name on the spot.
Fawkes had intended to light the fuse after hearing the king enter Parliament above, then escape across the Thames before the whole thing blew. Sir Everard Digby and his men were stationed in an inn called the Red Lion in Dunchurch, posing as hunters, awaiting Step 2, which Catsby would have initiated after arriving from London with the intent of initiating a Catholic uprising. However, when news of the arrest reached them, the assemble huntsmen lost heart, losing all sense of guidance and momentum.
Catesby, Ambrose Rockwood, and John Grant fled from Catholic safehouse to safehouse, avoiding the law. Once, they were wounded in an accidental gunpowder explosion, when they left damp powder too close to a fireplace. So grim was their situation that “Jack White suggested to Catesby that they should blow themselves up with the remaining powder” (Cannadine 28).
What followed at Holbeach was like a showdown in the Wild West. The sheriff of Worcestershire arrived with two hundred men and exchanged fire with the conspirators. The Wright brothers (not the inventors of the airplane, but the Catholics Jack and Kit Wright), were killed. Tom Percy and Rob Catesby were brought down by a single bullet. Catesby died after crawling back to his house and hugging onto a statue of the Virgin Mary. The survivors were rounded up and brought to the Tower.
Under torture, Fawkes confessed to the crime. He hated the Scots, many of whom were Puritans, and he hated the Scottish king James for assuming the English throne. The earl of Northumberland, whom the plotters were suspected of planning to use as a lord protector after Princess Elizabeth took the throne, was thrown in the Tower. On 27 January 1606 the surviving plotters were tried: Guy Fawkes, Tom and Robert Wintour, Sir Everard Digby, John Grant, Robery Keyes, Ambrose Rockwood, and Thomas Bates. They were executed over the course of several days.
Thomas Bates was the one who spoke of the involvements of three Catholic priests: Father John Gerard, Father Oswald Tesimond, and Father Henry Garnet, who was the only one in England at the time. Garnet was hanged, drawn, and quartered 28 March 1606.
On 5 November 1605, Londoners rang bells and lit bonfires in celebration of the deliverance of the kingdom from unthinkable treachery. In 1606, the day became a religious occasion and later in the century, effigies of the Pope were burned in public every 5 November. The tradition of burning effigies of “the guy,” meaning Guy Fawkes, would only arrive in the next century.
We can only imagine what would have happened had the plot succeeded. Chances are that the explosion would have set Westminister ablaze, inflicting destruction over a wide area. Hundreds or even thousands of people, including the bulk of the power structure of England, would have been annihilated spectacularly. Perhaps it was the consciousness of this conspiracy in history that inspired the string of similar conspiracies in twenty-first century popular culture: for example, the anti-mater bomb placed under St. Peter’s Basilica during the papal conclave in Angels and Demons, and the Nazi theatre explosion in Inglourious Basterds. Nothing like the Gunpowder Plot happened before 1605. And since then, nothing else has happened quite like it (except perhaps the failed attempt to crash a plane in the White House on 9/11).
Just as people today imagine what might have happened had the conspiracy succeeded, people back then tried, and imagined horrors. The paranoia stirred by the failed plot led to worse persecutions for Catholics. Collective fears also helped shape how the history of the plot was understood in posterity.
Next week: Jesuitophobia and the History of Catholic Conspiracies
Buchanan, Brenda, David Cannadine, and Justin Champion, et al. Gunpowder Plots. London: Penguin, 2005.
Haynes, Alan. The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion. Dover: Alan Sutton, 1994.
Marotti, Arthur F. Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.
Over the summer, I was debating what kind of new short story I should write, when I found myself gravitating towards the technical challenges and experimentalism that the Assassin’s Creed franchise might inspire in fiction. What really got me thinking was how to represent the experience of entering an Animus in fiction.
The Animus machine in Assassin’s Creed splices two consciousnesses. Tracing ancestral memories through a subject’s DNA–an intriguing bit of pseudoscience–an animus can make you re-experience the memories of distant ancestors. In the game, the modern-era protagonist Desmond Miles revisits worlds of Crusade-era Jerusalem as his distant ancestor Altair, then sees Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Ezio Auditore, before experiencing the American Revolution through the eyes of Connor, a Mohawk.
There are certain rules to the Animus. For example, the bleeding effect: too much time spent in the Animus can cause your visions of the past to appear, ghostlike, in the present. This can lead to madness, as it does with Subject 16 in the game. Also, it is (or should be) impossible to view later memories of an ancestor, if he or she conceives or bears the next child in the subject’s bloodline. The child’s DNA would contain the ancestral memories of both parents, but later memories of his or her parents would be lost, since chromosomes are obviously not given to children after conception. The possible conflicts inherent in this conundrum are not explored in the game. In fact, they are outright ignored in Revelations.
Thirdly, there is the entire concept of “synchronization.” In the game, Desmond’s DNA grants him access to certain early memories, but only through completing memory sequences can he uncover later, or even repressed, memories. Synchronization is an organic way to explain why Desmond must progress through a series of “levels” in the game. But is Desmond passive to Ezio’s memories, or does he engage actively with them? Most of the time, it seems that Desmond is only seeing through Ezio’s eyes what happens. However, if you kill a civilian, fail to complete a level, or die in the game, you “de-synchronize” with Ezio’s consciousness. Desmond has to repeat all the actions Ezio performed in real life. But he does them in a kind of liminal space between history and the player’s failures to “synchronize” perfectly. For example, when you die in the game, especially by doing something stupid like falling off the top of a church steeple, a common reaction is to sarcastically groan, “And so that’s how Ezio died…” and slam the controller on the ground. The skill of players–and Desmond himself–must coincide with Ezio, or all is lost.
All this to say, there is a nonlinear nexus where Ezio’s actions can coincide with Desmond’s or not, a kind of free, Matrix-like world created in the universe of artificial experience that the animus creates. This space not only causes us to ask, “Is this the real world, or just an illusion?” but even makes us ponder, “Is Ezio’s history real, or is the world created by the Animus itself, only an illusion, like a computer game?” (Perhaps Abstergo Industries, the all-powerful organization that invented the Animus, controls perceptions of the past in this way. THAT would make waves. A dilemma never addressed in the game.)
Now that those who may be unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed have an idea of how the Animus is supposed to work, let me address my initial question: how can literature represent the unique consciousness of a subject like Desmond in the Animus? Two minds vying for the same stream of consciousness make it a challenge to write well–even omitting the whole paradox of synchronization.
Before I get into my analysis, I must clarify that the challenge of the Animus POV extends much, much farther than the world of Assassin’s Creed and its novelizations (none of which use experimental language). One common science fiction and fantasy trope, to cite one example, involves aliens and other creatures who are able to share memories instantly with other organisms, at touch. I believe Vulcans and Na’vi fall under this category, neither of which are limited by the paradoxes of the Animus technology. Furthermore, a fantasist can imagine an infinite number of other ways in which memories can be stored inside inanimate objects and reproduced in the character’s consciousness when activated. I recall Harry Potter’s adventures in the pensieve, for example–not to mention Kimberly Ford’s flashes of Seer insight in Fionavar Tapestry. The great virtue of revisiting memories is that you can make characters re-experience backstory and elide much of the drawl of re-telling history.
My method of representing the Animus viewpoint is as follows: I wrote a story where I began with one consciousness that exists in normal circumstances, made it pass through a transitional phase through the Animus, and then found some way to represent the nexus of consciousnesses within the Animus itself. First person “I” and third person “he/she/it”: these pronouns each create a certain effect when used with either the present or past tense (I left out ‘you’ because the second person is too experimental and thus an unstable ground on which to test this already-experimental strategy). Perhaps it is best for Desmond’s consciousness to be distinct and separate from Ezio’s, which would be a clean, clear reading experience. If we want to experiment with synchronization, however, we might try to keep Desmond’s mind somehow in dialogue with Ezio’s viewpoint, like some kind of self-conscious narrator in Ezio’s story. A happy in-between may also be possible…
If you try to combine the first person with the third person perspective, then make both either present or past tense–and then repeat them again, to form the total number of possible combinations–then you end up with 16 possibilities. These combinations do not employ the synchronization paradox (that, later), but some have the benefit of clarity. I have included the list of aesthetic effects I observed below:
Desmond – Ezio
I am – I was: This combination causes Desmond’s viewpoint to become lost in an ancestor’s voice, who retells his story in the past tense, as though it has already happened. The voices are distinct, but the perspectives do not synchronize.
I am- I am: Smooth transition from POVs. Immediacy, in-the-moment. Subjective, so close to a direct experience. Desmond is perfectly synchronized to the second POV to the point where he seems to transform into Ezio and acquire his sense perceptions.
I am- He was : I found that this combination distanced Desmond from Ezio. Desmond ends up describing Ezio’s viewpoint after-the-fact, as though he left the animus and is now explaining what he saw. Or perhaps the narrative’s camera follows the ancestor over his shoulder.
I am- He is: Really postmodern effect. The character loses control of his own narrative, stops telling us his direct experience, and another unknown, possibly non-participant narrator begins telling his story from above.
I was-I was: This effect is like ‘normal’ literature. Desmond is simply revisiting a memory in his own past, in a flashback where he imagines himself revisiting his past experiences.
I was -I am: Decent synchronization effect, and a reasonably smooth transition. To my ears, at least, it did not feel so much that Desmond’s POV became Ezio’s or that Desmond’s POV was replaced by Ezio’s, but that Desmond was wearing the skin of Ezio for a while, as though he was playing his part, a bit like an actor. Not perfect synchronization, but does present an interesting effect that can absolutely work.
I was -He was: There is no direct synchronization, Desmond watching Ezio from a detached, almost God-like or narrative standpoint. Unless explained in the text, we do not necessarily understand their minds to be melded in one; he could simply be watching a video of Ezio moving.
I was – He is: Like ‘I am-he is,” the character loses control of the narration of his own story. However, the transition between past tense to present, which is a bit arbitrary, threw me off and sounded clunky. Not recommended.
He was – I was: Ezio ends up speaking about himself, but it runs a bit clunky. Not immersive: there are two viewpoints being juxtaposed.
He was – I am: Tense difference can be choppy, but it requires the ancestor to have a distinct, immediate voice.
He was – He was: Like normal literature. Desmond is simply reliving his past.
He was – He is: An interesting effect. The synchronization is such that it feels like though Desmond is playing Ezio’s role, (as in “I was-I am”) only it is told with more distance, so the effect of role-playing is reduced. Also, since the Ezio POV is so immediate, it is not necessarily true that it is presenting a linear narrative–only a series of immediate sensations and experiences. This can enable you to scramble the order of the ancestor’s story.
He is – I was: The effect of this is like a retelling in Ezio’s journal. It is strange to use to create the illusion of synchronization, but still viable as a technique. Desmond’s experience of Ezio seems second-hand.
He is – I am: Feels more synchronized than if past tense was used. Ezio ends up speaking about himself in a separate viewpoint, but a clever person might be able to make it clear Desmond is somehow integrated into Ezio’s consciousness, since the experience is in the present-tense with both characters.
He is – He was: Feels like Desmond is visiting his own memory. But the difference in tense makes it awkward, like a failed transition into a normal flashback.
He is – He is: Perhaps the easier, most viable, though one of the least experimental, of these options. The present tense makes it immediate and the consistent third person makes the transition smooth. It is almost as if Desmond has physically turned into Ezio. In fact, this point of view might be effective for metamorphosis stories. Unless we are reminded that Desmond’s own body is still lying in the animus, it will seem to be a complete transformation.
When Desmond and Ezio’s scenes are told from either the same tense or same person, it is generally more effective–although there are some interesting effects that can work where there is a difference. Now, there is one last problem: accurately describing the synchronization process–how Desmond’s mind might occasionally conflict with Ezio’s memory. One solution is to elide this dilemma entirely. After all, losing synchronization does not have to be a danger in a fictional world in the way it must be in the Assassin’s Creed video game. Your readers cannot “lose” a story, unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure. However, if I were to encounter this dilemma head-on, I might write something like this:
“Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. Connor felt angry today and Desmond could see why: the man in the blue coat standing near the bench on the other side was Haytham. I don’t have to see him yet, thought Desmond, and walked into an alleyway. His body was not sore, refreshed from Connor’s last fight, so he climbed onto the roof of the print shop when he spotted a piece of Ben Franklin’s almanac flying in the wind.”
Chasing the almanac page is literally a side-quest in the game, translated directly to the page, and threatens only to be a distraction, however. For a tighter narrative, either Desmond would have to search for something important that he would have motivation to find in 1781 New York, or he would go right towards activating the next memory, by speaking with Haytham.
“”Connor,” said Haytham. “You’re late.”
“I came as quickly as I could,” said Connor.
“Follow me. We have a matter at the brewery.”
Desmond remembered Rebecca and Shawn had found something in the Abstergo database about the Old Brewery. He followed Haytham, keeping an eye out as Connor made an angsty sound in his throat, at his father who cared nothing for him. Perhaps he and Connor had more in common than he’d thought–he’d been riled up against his own father, William Miles, earlier.”
If this style of writing satisfies, then my job is done. In conclusion, I have isolated five types of perspectives that can be written, which have resulted from this experiment:
-Split Synchronization (as above)
–Straightforward Transformation of Consciousness: “I am/I am, “he is/ he is,” and “I was/I was,” “he was, he was.”
–Remembrance of things past: “I was /I was” and “he was/ he was.”
–Non-linear/Timeless animus effect: “He was / He is,” “I was / I am.”
–Journal memories: “He is/ I was,” “I am/ he was” “He was / I was” “I was/ I was”
The following are some examples of these last four types, made essentially by taking the first paragraph of Desmond’s above story and changing the tense and person accordingly. Taste the effects like a subtle wine.
Transformation of Consciousness: “I am sitting down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clack over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surges up my spine. I close my eyes. When I open them, I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I am angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.”
Remembrance of things past: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes.
He was in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. He felt angry today: Haytham Kenway, his father, was standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looked restless, expectant.”
Non-linear, timeless Animus effect: “I sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up my spine as I closed my eyes.
I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I feel angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.
Rebecca’s voice in my ear tells me to prepare for step back in time. The cityscape vanishes into blue squares and formless shapes while the Animus knits the world back together. Suddenly it is 1776. I’m younger, staring at my father as he waits below the State House, whispering to Charles Lee. The Boston Massacre is about to begin.”
Journal memories: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys. The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes…
I was angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, was standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side of the market. He looked restless, expectant. What could I do, if the Templars have a chance of winning this war? Benjamin Church must pay for his crimes.”
Which passage most pleases the ear? I leave that up to you decide…
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
-Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana
Alessan’s mantra for his beleaguered nation, erased from history by the tyrant sorcerer Brandin of Ygrath, forms a central node in the theme of exile and memory in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. A novel set in the Peninsula of the Palm, a landmass that more or less corresponds to Italy, Tigana borrows much of its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance era of warring city-states.
Brandin’s court is like that of the Medici or the Borgia. Ygrath and Barbadior’s conquests can be compared to the expansion of the empires of Spain and France, which were drawn into Italy by unwise allies who wished for them to intervene in their internecine rivalries with city-states such as Florence, Venice, Genoa, and the Papal States. The allies paid for this by being overcome by kings and emperors much more powerful than their own states.
Famously, one man who advised against taking such action was Niccoló Machiavelli. He wrote The Prince—a notorious book, one of the first on pragmatic political science—to advise Lorenzo de’ Medici (grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent) on how to act wisely as the governor of Florence.
In his final chapter, he exhorts Lorenzo to liberate Italy from “the barbarians,” likely a reference to the foreign armies of France and Spain who have taken up permanent residence on Italian lands. It is my observation that Machiavelli’s ideal to for Italian unification—something never accomplished until the efforts of Garibaldi in the nineteenth century—stems from the same national pride as Alessan feels in Tigana.
Which led me to wonder. If Guy Gavriel Kay used Machiavelli in his research, then in what ways could a reading of The Prince enrich our understanding of the conflicts in Tigana? Or a more precise question: is how Machiavelli understands memory and history the same as how Tigana understands it, or is there a difference?
On the surface, Machiavelli’s world—in ways I have already described—greatly resembles the world of Tigana. Brandin himself is a Machiavellian figure, a real Prince interested in establishing his authority across the Peninsula by driving out his rival Alberico of Barbadior. He superficially agrees to the terms of a peace treaty, while scheming to destroy Barbadior the moment it becomes convenient to break the agreement. Alberico, of course, plans to do the same, in a kind of polarized Cold War scenario where only the province of Senzio (perhaps a surrogate for Venice) remains neutral.
Machiavelli has several things to say about memory in The Prince. Some advice that he gives to Lorenzo may as well have been given to Brandin. For example, read the following paragraph from Chapter 5 on “How you should govern cities or kingdoms that, before you acquired them, lived under their own laws”:
“Examples are provided by the Spartans and the Romans. The Spartans took Athens and Thebes, establishing oligarchies there. However, they lost them again. The Romans, in order to hold on to Capua, Carthage, and Numantia razed them and never lost them. They sought to govern Greece according to more or less the same policies as those used by Sparta, letting the Greek cities rule themselves and enforce their own laws, but the policy failed, so in the end they were obliged to demolish many cities in that territory in order to hold on to them. The simple truth is there is no reliable way of holding on to a city and the territory around it, short of demolishing the city itself.He who becomes the ruler of city that is used to living under its own laws and does not knock it down, must expect to be knocked down by it.Whenever it rebels, it will find strength in the language of liberty and will seek to restore its ancient constitution. Neither the passage of time nor good treatment will make its citizens forget their previous liberty.No matter what one does, and what precautions one takes, if one does not scatter and drive away the original inhabitants, one will not destroy the memory of liberty or the attraction of old institutions. As soon as there is a crisis, they will seek to restore them. That is what happened in Pisa after it had been enslaved by the Florentines for a hundred years” (17, my Italics).
Brandin, after conquering the province of Tigana after the Battle of the River Deisa, destroyed its main cities: Avalle of the Towers and the capital Tigana. Avalle, which was inspired by San Gimignano, once had many towers that stretched to the sky. But Brandin’s forces knocked them down, in order to ensure the city’s submission to his rule. Tigana itself (based on Florence, perhaps) was demolished as well, and renamed Lower Corte—Corte having been its bitterest enemy. Avalle was renamed Stevanien, after Brandin’s son, who was killed in battle. These policies seem to be directly inspired by Machiavelli’s advice to Princes in Chapter 5.
The tyrant’s spell adds an extra layer to the political-military strategy of Machiavelli: he uses magic to erase the very name of Tigana from memory and make its name unpronounceable. One particular difference from Machiavelli’s dry strategy and Brandin’s motive to demolish Avalle is that the Tiganese killed his son and he wanted revenge. This does not mean that Brandin acts on his emotions, however. He only knows where to direct his temper. Machiavelli advises on several occasions that a Prince should “lose his temper” deliberately under certain circumstances, such as when he is being lied to (105). The demolition of Avalle would have been one such well-advised occasion for Brandin to become angry.
Machiavelli may have also unknowingly given Brandin the idea to create his spell of obliteration, if the two had ever met in some other dimension. In Chapter 1 of The Prince, Machiavelli remarks how hereditary principalities—territories where it is traditional for a particular aristocratic family to inherit power—are by far the easiest to hold, compared to republics. “Because the state has belonged to his family from one generation to another, memories of how they came to power, and motives to overthrow them, have worn away,” he advises (7).
Brandin was not necessarily planning to share or to pass on his rule. But the implication of how enough time passing eventually legitimizes the rule of a Prince may have attracted to him. Since sorcerers can live to advanced age in Tigana‘s world, he plans to outlive all the Tiganese exiles, who alone carry the memory of their homeland. Once they die, Lower Corte would know no better than that Brandin is the right and honourable ruler of the land.
In addition to these specific remarks about the ability of a ruler to hold onto power by controlling memory, Machiavelli has an understanding of history’s usefulness in deciding policy. He constantly draws upon the patterns of the past in order to find examples that can advise rulers on present courses of action and on their future ambitions. The exploits of ancient Greeks and Romans—some real, others fictitious—are on par with those of other Renaissance Italian Princes, such as Cesare Borgia, Alexander VI, and Savanarola, as examples of what-to-do or what-not-to-do. He assumes the past serves as a map for the unknown.
Kay would use the metaphor of a mirror. “With bronze as a mirror one can correct one’s appearance; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a state; with good men as a mirror, one can distinguish right and wrong”: the epigraph from Under Heaven (by Li Shimin, Tang Emperor Taizong) can apply just as much to Machiavelli’s understanding of political history, as to how Kay invites us to understand history.
That being said, Machiavelli has his detractors, to say the least. Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and a friend of Machiavelli, questioned even the usefulness of bringing the past to bear upon the present, although the patterns might be there for anyone to observe. Who, after all, can say they have ever successfully predicted the future, simply by looking at the past? He also believed that all men, though subject to sin, were essentially good—which Machiavelli’s pessimistic yet pragmatic philosophy seems to deny. “This is how it has to be,” says Machiavelli, “for you will find men are always wicked, unless you give them no alternative but to be good” (73).
Which brings to mind another cynical philosopher and his ideas of history and morality—Friedrich Nietzsche. Notorious in the twentieth century for his belief in Social Darwinism, which inspired the racialist ideas of Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche argued in Geneology of Morals that men behave good because they were given no other alternative.
Like Machiavelli, Nietzsche believed that the autonomy of the sovereign was mutually exclusive with morality. He also believed that all morality developed out of primitive ideas of punishment—that morals were literally beaten into our forefathers, so that as we evolved, we came to obey the laws better. For example, the brutal uses of capital punishment in the past—strangulation, hanging, drawing and quartering, beheading—produced the more civil society we live in during the present day.
I seriously doubt his conclusion on that last point. Nietzsche’s perception is affected by his retrospective analysis. I believe modern “civilization,” as he calls it, emerged because we rejected the brutality and absolutism of the past, not that brutality shaped our modern civilization. However, the idea that morals come from the memory of punishment is interesting in relation to Tigana: the idea that memory is directly tied to pain:
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
When Alessan speaks these words, it could be said he engages in a (somewhat) Nietzschean understanding of memory—and by extension, perhaps of history and morality as well. He must recall the pain of his exile in order to force himself to remember his nation—and then take moral action.
Nietzsche and Machiavelli exist simultaneously in Tigana: memory (problematically) is both ingrained by pain and an intellectual tool with which to gaze into the past. The heroes of Tigana do not let their fear of punishment lead them to submit to tyrants, but they do wish to experience pain, if it preserves the memory of their homeland. And that experience of self-inflicted pain guides their self-defined morality, to do anything they can to liberate themselves from Brandin’s yoke.
But does morality itself suffer under Alessan’s model? If we can determine our own morality by deciding what to remember and forcing ourselves to remember it—carrying all the pain that memory can bring—can we be expected to reach rational decisions that respect our fellow human beings? Or could this kind of morality cause us to act according to our passions and, more importantly, our self-interest—one of the guiding human principles that Machiavelli (and notably, Thomas Hobbes) understands as the source of all human endeavour?
Just as Brandin is a tyrant, Alessan is literally a Prince. Brandin’s morality—if he has any—is almost driven entirely by the interests of himself as ruler, and those of his state. But behind this self-interest is the burning memory of Stevan’s death at the River Deisa. Prince Alessan, like Brandin, carries the Deisa in his memory, but for different reasons. His father Prince Valentin died in battle, leaving Alessan without a principality to call his own. Is Alessan simply motivated by jealousy for Brandin and his own interest in becoming ruler? Is his nationalist rhetoric only a facade?
Kay intentionally makes Brandin a foil of Alessan, adding good qualities to Brandin and evil qualities to Alessan. For example, Alessan must enslave Erlein di Senzio as his wizard servant, in order to for his master plan to work. Should a man so preoccupied with liberty be damned for making a slave of one man? (Perhaps someone ought to have asked the leaders of the American Revolution this same question, many of whom owned slaves.) Furthermore, Brandin, however ruthless, also has feelings. Dianora, his favourite woman in his saishan and a Tiganese herself, notices that he cared an enormous amount for his son and that he never forgave himself for sending him to fight in battle. She intends to kill Brandin to avenge her country, but finds herself loving the man she has schooled herself so long to hate—even saving him once from an assassin.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s George Seferis epigraph sums up his own beliefs in the ambiguity of holding onto memory:
“What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than necessary, it goes out; if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.”
A long enough memory can produce a desire in you to avenge all the wrongs ever done to your kind. Witness the damage that extensive memories wreck in Middle East daily. Even Nationalism, which seems a noble enough ideology until you remember the twentieth century, can go too far. Yet having no memory at all utterly robs you of any identity. I like imagining all the whitebread kids lost in the suburban USA being asked what their heritage is, and being unable to answer “English” or “Irish” or “Welsh” or “Scottish.” Assimilation into a melting pot can do as much to erase memory as Machiavellian attempts to snuff it out all at once.
Does Alessan remember correctly? Does Brandin? The answers are ambiguous, although most readers will probably side with Alessan. But it cannot be ignored that Alessan may have easily turned into the villain in Tigana. Nietzsche argued sovereigns were above morality. Yet, following one’s own painful memories might have caused Alessan to think himself above morality while rebelling against the sovereign Brandin, in an effort to fight fire with fire.
Tyrant and rebel: an age-old conflict. Each obeys no law and each is the antithesis of the other. Yet, they are, in so many ways, the same. Nietzsche believed the laws we live by were oppressive. Yet, he also (quite famously) saw a way to rebel against such authority. The creed of the Ismaili Assassins said, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Truths established by tyrants create a certain morality, so disbelieving in those truths frees one to perform any action suitable to overthrowing that power.
Does Alessan follow a similar creed, or does he too have a belief in truth, in morality? It would be worth a re-reading of Tigana to see just how much Alessan uses ends to justify means.
But turning away from Tigana now, other questions emerge. What are the dangers of the Assassins’ creed? If everything is permitted, do we have Hobbes’ State of Nature on our hands? Would followers of the creed then become self-interested, build up social contracts, and then begin punishing others when the contracts are breached, beginning the process of moral development all over again?
Let these questions stand as food for thought. It is not my place now to answer them, and I’ve rambled on enough as it is. But I believe it’s safe to say that memory can be a dangerous thing, especially when it forces us to disregard morality. Perhaps it depends on what we choose to store in our memory as well: if we keep hoarding pain, the fire of memory will grow so large it will consume us.
Feed the fire, but not to excess.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Selected Political Writings. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hacket, 1994. 5-80.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Morals as Fossilized Violence.” The Prince. Transl. Francis Golffing. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1977. 253-275.
Rudowski, Victor Anthony. The Prince: A Historical Critique. New York: Twayne, 1992. 12-17
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.
Though this novel is quite different from the other books I have reviewed, which tend to belong to the fantasy genre, I nonetheless was intrigued to read it, because of three things: the bizarre cover, the awards it has won, and descriptions I had heard about its graphic depiction of violence.
Actually, fantasy readers might like this book because it is a fine work of genre fiction: that is to say, the Western. Westerns follow many of the romance conventions that inspire fantasy novels. Just as Sir Lancelot rides into castles, performs deeds for the king, wins fame and fortune, and rides out, back on his quest for the Holy Grail, Charlie and Eli Sisters, the protagonists of DeWitt’s novel, have multiple side-adventures.
Their quest is to fulfill their contract for the mysterious man named the Commodore, by murdering the prospector Hermann Kermit Warm. But then they begin to question the moral nature of their violent and dangerous job…
The adventures the two Sisters brothers may appear to be random, but in midst of the grit and melancholy of the Old West, little insights into the human condition surface, glowing like pieces of gold dust in a mighty California river.
The story focuses on the relationship between the two brothers Charlie and Eli. Charlie’s the taller and skinnier one, who loves a drink from the bottle, and he’s quicker on the trigger finger than his younger brother Eli. Eli is short and fat, but tries a vegetarian diet, caring for his half-blinded, pathetic horse Tub, much to his brother’s irritation. He’s also one of the only men in the Old West who brushes his teeth. He’s the one with the way for words, who tell the story through his first person perspective.
(Here I find myself describing another Don Quixote/Sancho Panza duo of assassins! Oddly enough, the two villains in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere are also two assassins with a similar character dynamic.)
Since critics often draw attention to the quality of the violence in the story, I had expected there to be more of it. Nonetheless, perhaps that made it easier to read. The style of violence is compared to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is dryly understated, almost casual. Eli gives less attention to some scenes of violence than he does to a description of how he orders a salad. We learn that Charlie is not above threatening someone with his pistol to get what he wants, and I was left wondering several times about whether he would actually initiate a bloodbath, or just let the insults that had been hurled at him slide. I have experienced similar reactions watching Quentin Tarantino films. The violence is well written, but quite glory (a.k.a. not just employing sight, but smell and sound as well).
There are also chilling dialogue scenes, where the words of speech alone somehow convey great fear, or desperation. DeWitt is worth reading simply for the dialogue, and for the way he writes Eli’s thoughts with a sensitivity for eighteenth-century speech patterns. The two brothers’ speech is surprisingly formal, to the point where I thought it was almost like reading Tolkien’s dialogue in The Lord of the Rings, since it was at times so direct and simple.
This novel was my first Western, so if you haven’t been introduced to the genre, The Sisters Brothers may be a good place to start. Also, if you’re interested in finding out what all the buzz is about this American Western written by a Canadian, who won numerous awards for it, including the Rogers Writer’s Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award (not to mention being a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Man Booker Prize), then read this book, by all means.
Also, if you are a fantasy novel reader and wish to get into a new genre, or if you just want to learn about the tropes of the classic Western, then look no further that The Sisters Brothers. Read a book outside your normal stomping grounds, and open a new frontier, as crazy as the Wild West.