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.
Before jazz became what it is today, before it was mainstream, Buddy Bolden blew his cornet in the streets of New Orleans. No recording of his music survives. A famous musician in his time, his genius and the threat of vanishing into silence tormented him. The quest Michael Ondaatje undertook in 1976 to discover the genius of this unheard-of jazz legend involved meticulous historical research, but also–inevitably–a certain amount of fantasy. The result is a novel that runs like a dream sequence, filled with erotic moments that are violent, frenzied, and at other times, romantic.
By erotic, I mean the entire novel is a slow uncovering. Every sentence has a perceptive, tender, yet improvised quality. You might know Ondaatje as the author of The English Patient, which was turned a movie. Written nearly twenty years before The English Patient, Coming Through Slaughter is the novel of a more rogue Ondaatje, who helped, along with other poets such as Robert Kroetsch, develop the literary movement of postmodernism in Canada.
You might say Coming Through Slaughteris jazz. I have already mentioned its improvised quality. This is not, however, a novel printed off a first draft, but a meticulously crafted set of poetic scenes. You should expect nothing less from Ondaatje, whose reputation as one of Canada’s greatest writers is an acknowledged fact. I tried to catch Ondaatje committing the poetic treason of writing a single cliché, but I failed to locate even one. Every phrase he says is original. Both Ondaatje and Bolden’s art is the result of a genius instinct.
Buddy Bolden’s quarter of New Orleans, Storyville, “had some 2000 prostitutes, seventy professional gamblers, and thirty piano players.” His jazz synthesizes all the sounds around this lively area of town, where he works in a barber shop by day and plays sweet jazz by night. In a similar way, Ondaatje’s prose-poetry seems to be taken directly from life–from its most tender, private moments, and its most public, eccentric displays of passion.
But how can Ondaatje write so much about Buddy Bolden given the lack of historical records about his music? Necessity compels him to create a partly fictitious character out of Bolden–though perhaps not as fictitious as Count Almasy in The English Patient. Ondaatje caused some controversy with his best-known work of historical fiction, for depicting the character of the count, who really existed, in ways that clearly went against historical evidence. Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the topic of historical characters being used in works of fiction at some length in “Home and Away.” Some poetic invention of the past is necessary in order to create the stories we treasure as a society and a nation. England would not have Shakespeare’s Richard III, Kay paraphrases Ondaatje as saying, if not for poetic license with historical characters. I would add that Canada would never have Ondaatje, if a certain amount of historical fantasy were impossible to ‘get away’ with.
Bolden becomes Ondaatje’s vehicle to explore his ideal of poetic genius, which he found in the figure of the outlaw, or the artist ‘on the edge’. Going outside the novel for a minute, I would like to quote a passage from “White Dwarfs,” a poem by Ondaatje that expressed his perfect hero: “Why do I like most / among my heroes those / that sail to that perfect edge / where there is no social fuel?” Ondaatje is fascinated by the outlaw, especially in his early work (see The Collected Works of Billy the Kid), and Bolden, while not a criminal precisely, is still on the edge, a lonely figure. He must come through slaughter–encounter mortality and his own imperfection–to reach that perfect edge, where beyond there is only silence.
Trapped in relationships with two different women, Bolden runs away from his wife, but later returns home, a changed man–more quiet, not his gossipy old self. But the silence is only a buildup to the defining moment of his history as an artist. He blows his cornet in a parade down a New Orleans street and, after a moment of musical ecstasy, loses his mind, vanishing among the stars.
Just as the poem “White Dwarfs” proposes that the meaning of language is found in silence, so is the significance of Bolden’s life found in his silence–the absence of his music. This blankness enables Ondaatje–along with his reader–to search for Bolden’s music, if such an ephemeral thing as music can ever truly be found, or artistic perfection ever attained.
Just as jazz is all about the silences you leave between the notes, so is Coming Through Slaughter all about the absence of Bolden. It is even about the physical white space on the page. Each scene is followed by white space, where, if we linger, we are left to imagine the untold. White space becomes the perfect mirror onto which we project our own fantasies of what Bolden and the other characters do between scenes. On one particular page, only the lyrics to a song, or poem appear: “Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky” (57). And that is all we need.
Ondaatje dares to go places other authors don’t ever go. His tale of Bolden’s life and death confirms his interest in transgression. Bolden’s story is like that of Icarus: he flew too high, too close to the sun where no one could catch him, on the wings of his own genius, and plummeted to his slaughter in the ocean. And like Doctor Faustus, Bolden even made a deal with the devil, according to his Christian critics: he dared to mix sacred hymns with blues, a music very earthly and secular. What came out of that has become to be known as “jazz.”
Ondaatje finds a wholly original way to express this Icaro-Faustian transgression: Bolden was always so short, he writes, that he couldn’t reach the blades of the fan in his barber shop. But later, after his fall, the following passage appears alone with itself on a page: “Bolden’s hand going up into the air / in agony. His brain driving it up into the path of the circling fan. / The last movement happens forever and ever in his memory” (138). Bolden’s artistic pride has caused him to reach out so far that he hurts himself, like he would if his fingers struck the blades of a fan.
I must now mourn Buddy Bolden using the words Christopher Marlowe’s chorus used to mourn Doctor Faustus at the end of his famous play: “cut is the branch that would have grown full straight / and burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bow.” Transgression is the only way to achieve artistic innovation, yet there is always a price to pay for it.
I think Coming Through Slaughter makes excellent reading, especially if you are on a bus heading to a Jazz Festival concert in downtown Montreal. You can also read it before attending a summer festival in your hometown. Even if you don’t like jazz, if you are an artist, or appreciative of good art, then this novel is worth a read. All art deals with blank space, whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, or even architecture. For the historical fantasy novelist, blanks spaces that show up in the historical record are also the perfect place to stage a work of imaginative, even fantastic, fiction. In a way, this is what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.
Which is why I leave you off, with this proposal: in addition to being antithetical, anti-real, and even heretical, historical fantasy, as we may see it through the lens of Michael Ondaatje’s oeuvre, is also jazz. The two syncopated rhythms of realistic history and fantastic mythology–one a linear, regular, pattern, the other free-flying and circular–give historical fantasy an edge. And nowhere is this phenomenon better explored than in Coming Through Slaughter.
Today is a special day in the life of a blogger: the day his baby turns one. Although I once had another blog that I updated infrequently, this has been my first serious attempt to blog. Was this year a success? In celebration of this great anniversary, let my reminisce a retrospective over the marking events of this year. And when I am finished being nostalgic, let me look to where the blog stands now and to where it might fly in the future.
I began The Vinciolo Journal exactly a year ago today with a post promising content of a literary and historical variety. If I had a target audience, I was not conscious of targeting one, which was probably a fault. For the record, I now state that my ideal reader is, like me, in his twenties (or thirties), a university student or graduate, and an avid reader of fantasy novels, particularly historical fantasy. Basically, I set out to write for someone like myself, who has interests similar to mine.
I thought it would be brilliant to keeping writing these long posts, much longer than the 600 or so words that are normal to bloggers, in the interest of presenting researched information on historical subjects that interested me. I was not going to be one of those self-absorbed critics spitting out polarizing doggerel. Although I enjoyed doing research, however, my posts soon became very long and I began to realize that my audience–many of whom began to follow after my first few successful posts in April and May–did not have the necessary attention spans.
After publishing my post on my Honours thesis, which is still in my top-ten posts at 66 hits (receiving some of my first serious comments), I began to write book reviews. I focused on historical fantasy novels currently in my library, but did not limit myself to that genre. These reviews covered most of my summer campaign. Highlights of my reading experience include Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and the Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, which I covered in a series of three posts (I, II, III), one for each book. Such was the regularity of these book review posts that I temporarily re-branded myself as a book review blog. I was even asked to review William Harlan’s Antioch.
At the end of the summer, I returned to the triple-feature format for a dip into Scottish history with my posts on the lead up, action, and aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. This battle had featured prominently in two book I reviewed: one from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and the second being No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. I enjoyed writing the post series, adopting a trademark pictures-and-text style to ease the lengthier treatment of historical subject matter. Readers would return to these, but they would not be as famous as my posts on Masyaf castle or Christopher Marlowe.
When my final semester began at McGill, I swore to pick up the pace. I could publish one post every two weeks like it was nothing, sometimes including an extra post before the fortnight. As such, I challenged myself to put a Friday article online every week until Christmas. I succeeded by cleverly scheduling a three-parter on Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to post during the most stressful period of my semester. I managed to post a few poems that were published in student literary journals, which began to draw people back to my site.
It was a long haul, but we made it! I have nearly 4,000 views so far and 116 followers, which includes WordPress, Facebook, Tumblr (http://www.tumblr.com/blog/thevinciolojournal), and Twitter (@matthewrettino). My following is a modest achievement, but I count my real victory in the devoted hours I spend posting top-quality content. Whatever followers I have will continue to receive more of the same posts: historical overviews, book reviews, essays, and every once in a while a poem. I actually intend to post quite a few more book reviews: Canadian poetry books, literary fiction, and, of course, fantasy novels. This Friday, for example, I will be reviewing a classic: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This blog has always been about historical fantasy in one way or another, attempting to find answers to the ways in which historical narratives are shaped by our desires and “fantasies.” History is written by the victors, we often say, but it is also true that history is written by anyone with an interest in it. Even victims include their distortions. I do not always so seriously probe these hard, philosophical ideas, but I do engage with them in an on-and-off basis within my posts. I hope to explore these ideas a little more explicitly in the future.
At the bottom line, though, what I really want is to have fun. Fun with a bit of intellectual stimulation thrown in. I hope to publish more poetry, more artwork. I have an entire other talent related to the visual arts in which I am passionate, if unschooled. (See the bottom of the page for one example.)
This is the purpose of my blog, but I have yet to finally explain the title. Why is it called “The Vinciolo Journal”?
To answer this question, I must explain my novel-in-progress. I have already written its roughest draft, though I am rewriting many of the scenes, in preparation for line editing. One day I may self-publish this book as physical copy or an e-book, but I cannot promise a specific time when, or if, this will be possible. The premise is as follows:
Intelligence, or The Stars Move Still is about Marco Vinciolo, the son of a Venetian alchemist, who has ambitions of becoming his family’s Maestro, a master alchemist. His father, Jacopo, was blinded in an accident, setting the future of the small family–which he runs almost like a mafia–into uncertainty. Then things get worse. A family friend exiles himself from Venice the day that the heretic Giordano Bruno is arrested by the Inquisition (26 May 1592). The Vinciolo family is warned to flee Venice, when the authorities charge Jacopo not only with heresy, but treason, supposing he was involved in a plot to assassinate Philip Hapsburg, the King of Spain. Marco must flee his pursuers, protect his disabled father, and fight for his and his family’s innocence, while uncovering the roots of the conspiracy, which have literally earth-shattering consequences.
No, not figuratively earth-shattering. Literally earth-shattering. How? You’ll have to read my book to find out.
The blog is, of course, based on the name of Marco’s family, specifically a reference to the precious journal of alchemical lore that the Vinciolos have kept in safe storage for a hundred years. Legends tell that Marco’s ancestor Marconni Vinciolo not only created the Philosopher’s Stone, but even wrote down the recipe for it between the Journal’s covers.
Perhaps this means my blog has a Philosopher’s Stone buried somewhere within it. Perhaps it is a reflection of my desire to create a mythic counterpart to my father’s side of the family, which is Italian (from a village near Naples). Whatever the true meaning, just remember that my novel is a historical fantasy, one of the main tags for my blog.
Here’s to a fresh start in the New Year. Who knows what untold wonders might await us now?
The Vinciolo Journal turns 1 year old January 5th, two days after J.R.R. Tolkien’s Birthday, so in celebration of both events, I am making a series of Tolkien-related posts. This is the first of several … 7 ways Saruman resembles Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer and geographer John Dee.
In comparing these two figures (the visual similarities are themselves suggestive), I am in no way trying to slander John Dee or imply that he was a maniacal, power-crazed wizard. He was a humble, lonely man–as lonely as any man favoured of the Queen could possibly be, although his intellectual influence had enormous implications, not least with regard to the colonization of the New World. However, there are so many similarities between these two magicians that it cannot be easily ignored.
So, without further ado, here is my list:
1. Physical resemblance to Christopher Lee
Not only is John Dee a magician, but he looks like a wizard himself–and Christophe Lee portrayed the wizard Saruman with exquisite tact in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The flat gaze and the white beard are the chief forms of resemblance between the actor and wizard. Although Dee’s hair is not as long Lee’s Saruman, his hair may still be white, provided he is not bald beneath the black bonnet he’s wearing in his portrait. Set Saruman in black robes and attach a starched ruff around his throat and, after a haircut, you basically have John Dee.
2. Crystal balls
Saruman has his palantír while John Dee has his shewstone. Both are crystal balls they use for magically surveying the land. Made by Fëanor, greatest of the Noldor and maker of the Silmarils, the palantír stones were mostly lost in Middle Earth, except for a few. The stone seen in the film is at Orthanc in Isengard, the same stone Saruman uses to communicate with Sauron and keep track of the progress of the Fellowship of the Ring. There is another stone in that the steward of Gondor controls at Minas Tirith. As for the shewstone, or “seeing stone,” of John Dee, it is displayed currently at the British Museum. You can see it if you like. Rumour has it that it is a sacred Aztec polished obsidian stone taken from Mexico during the Spanish conquest.
3. Spoke with ‘angels’
The warning Gandalf gave Saruman about the palantír, that “you never know who else might be watching,” is also applicable to Dee’s shewstone. Both crystal balls give you the power to speak with spirits–but also for the spirits to talk to you. Dee and Edward Kelley used the shewstone to communicate with angels, who gave Dee revelations from the world of the dead. Supposedly, the angelic language Dee developed called Enochian came as a result from such spiritual meetings.
In a similar way, Saruman uses his palantír to speak with a fallen ‘angel,’ Sauron. Indeed, The Silmarillion reveals that Sauron is a god-like or at least angelic being. He is one of the Maiar, the spirits who serve the Valar, though one who became corrupted by evil in his service to the Great Enemy Morgoth. When Saruman begins to peer into his palantír in search of knowledge, he discovers the Ring of Power, which he comes to desire for himself. However, he becomes twisted, desiring power above all else. In the end, he betrays the forces of the West and captures Gandalf in his tower, committing “the treason of Isengard.”
4. Consorted with a necromancer
This one was implied in #3. Edward Kelley was a necromancer who communed with angels and the dead. On the other hand, Saruman communicates with “the Necromancer,” which is a name given to the vague, evil presence that lurks in the shadows of Mirkwood in The Hobbit and later is revealed to be Sauron himself. Supposedly, Sauron was into demon summoning and raising the dead back to life at this time, instead of leading orcs to war against Gondor.
5. Polymath Wizards
Saruman and John Dee were both wizards of great learning and were capable (or thought they were capable) of using magic. Furthermore, both wizards possessed plenty of non-magical knowledge. Dee was a mathematician, cartographer, and mechanic, once in his younger years designing a bird with artificial wings that could fly. Saruman was something of a chemist as well, designing the gunpowder which his uruk-hai use to demolish the walls of Helm’s Deep.
6. Spy Network
Astonishingly, both John Dee and Saruman had spy networks. Frodo and company must worry about spies from the White Wizard as much as they worry about Sauron’s own Black Riders. In addition to the ruffians Sauron employs to infiltrate and scourge the Shire in The Return of the King, he has a swarm of crows called Crebain, which he uses to spy on the Fellowship. John Dee’s spy network consisted of a network of foreign agents abroad, many probably on the lookout for Catholics plotting in France to return to England and kill the Queen. He may also have used spirits and the magic of his shewstone to spy on enemies abroad.
7. Similarity to John Faust
At last, Saruman and John Dee are both so attracted by mysterious power that they make deals with the devil they later severely regret. They have what I call a Faust complex. Doctor John Faust was a historical scholar in Germany who is said to have made a deal with the devil, whom he summons at a crossroads at midnight in a necromantic ritual, in order to attain forbidden knowledge of magic. In the end, after squandering his time, Faust is dragged to hell by demons. His story has been adopted innumerable times: Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and Faust Parts I and II by Goethe being the two chief examples. The Godfather is another takeoff on this archetypical story: Michael Corleone makes a “deal with the devil” to enter the mob and then remains locked in, becoming supremely powerful at the price of his soul.
Saruman’s deal with Sauron is a similar complex. “There is only one Lord of the Rings,” warns Gandalf, “and he does not share power.” Saruman learns how to breed uruk-hai from Sauron and plans to ravage Middle-Earth for his new master, planning to find the One Ring for himself and become master of all. But in the end, his designs fall flat. When nature rebels and the Ents take over Isengard, a powerless Saruman is force to flee to the Shire, where he avenges himself by desolating the land. Finally (spoilers here), his longtime servant Gríma Wormtongue stabs him in the back, frustrated by his own master’s cruelty.
John Dee’s Faustian narrative is a little less extreme. Of course, his story is not fantasy, but historical. Nonetheless, Dee makes a deal with Edward Kelley to speak with angels and becomes mystified. Actually, scholars now believe Kelley created an elaborate hoax: Dee never spoke to angels directly, but through Kelley, who they supposedly possessed. Kelley may well have faked the whole thing, however. Upon his return to England, he became unable to acquire aristocratic patronage, probably because many could not see the value in his knowledge, or because they were frightened by his connections to the occult. When he died, it was of natural causes and in poverty. Real life often doesn’t follow the contours of archetypical plots. Nonetheless, Dee’s gradual isolation and loneliness as a result of his ties to the occult might have seemed damnation enough to him.
Is it even possible to canonize all the things I have learned in my three and a half years studying literature at Canada’s best university to 10 items? I believe my critics will be able to deconstruct the bejesus out of this list. They’d probably base their argument on how I privilege my subjectivity over those of the “other,” namely the other people in my classes. But authors must never write for their critics. Besides, to restate everything I learned would be a heresy of paraphrase.
Lit-crit puns aside, I thought that at this point in my academic career, a retrospective analysis of what I have learned is up to order. Alas, in writing down what I learn, there is so much I must omit. Writing is an erasure as much as an act of creation. An erasure of the blank page. An erasure of infinite possibility–a terrifying possibility we can’t help but whittle down to a finite reality.
Here we go.
1. Writing is murder.
When I first came across this pronouncement, I thought my Canadian poetry teacher was using a gruesome metaphor for shock value. But ask yourself, “What gets killed when I write?” Aside from the trees that were chopped down to make the paper you’re wasting, you silence voices when you write, even as you create one. Whose voices? Those of the spirits of the dead who call after you from the whiteness of the page.
Every time you write something down, you exclude so much more. This is true even of the structure of language itself: “warm” only means “warm” because it does not mean “cool.” When you write “warm,” you murder “cool.” Still think it’s a funny metaphor? Then think about this: “male” only means “male” because it doesn’t mean “female.” So what happens when you write “male,” or write from a male voice? You murder the female. Patriarchy explained.
2. Cadence comes before meaning.
Two things here. First, what is cadence? Please read Denis Lee’s essay “Cadence, Country, Silence,” a staple essay on Canadian literature and an existential reflection/confession on what it means to be a Canadian poet–and a writer in general. Cadence means the rhythm, the music, the beat that lives inside of you. It is a different sensation for everyone. You feel it in your gut, in the ticks you feel when writing at your desk. It also suffuses place. The cadence on your home street has a particular rhythm to it. In a similar way, words, if spoken in different places, have certain nuances to them that only cadence can describe. For example, “city” means something in the United States, but something quite different in Canada, and even more different in the U.K. or Turkey. Boston, Ottawa, London, or Istanbul? The trick is to write with your proper cadence–the music that is genuine to you.
Editors searching through the slush pile know within thirty seconds or even less whether an author is good. They know before they even understand the meaning of the words they are reading. This is important: cadence comes before meaning. If an editor feels that the cadence of a writer is genuine, then they already know they are good. The content itself is secondary. Being true to yourself comes before what you have to say.
3. Texts are physical and unstable.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has two texts: an A-text and a B-text. Any critic might refer to either or both of them, but the play itself never exists absolutely as any one text. This makes Doctor Faustus an unstable text. But Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which is seventeen cantos long, went through infinitely more censorship and revisions over the course of its composition history. Wordsworth kept adding to and editing his Prelude over his lifetime, as he slid into the conservatism of his later years, producing multiple texts that chart the poem’s corresponding change. These poems are unstable. You cannot read one text and expect its absolute authority. Rather, you must read them in the knowledge that they have been chosen by textual editors.
One of the reasons for textual instability is textual materiality. Books are books. They are physical. They have hard covers against which you can hit your head in frustration as you cram for your final exam. They are burnable. They suffer water damage and texts get damaged–which is a real problem when dealing with rare medieval manuscripts. Different books make it easier or harder to read in certain ways. For example, a “perfect bind” airport paperback novel is meant to be read once and even thrown away (if you’re callous), whereas a hardcover, stitch-binding copy of Shakespeare’s collected works is meant to be read over and over again.
4. Form matters.
Sonnets are not just 14-line poems in iambic pentameter that rhyme ababcdcdefefgg. They contain the whispers of Petrarchan love poetry within their lines, something that can be difficult to escape. For some poets and critics, sonnets symbolize a conservative tradition in poetry that revolves around the almighty iambic line, which must be rebelled against at all costs! Even a short story has a form. It is no accident that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories–which are among the first examples of the form in literary history–revolve around an obsessive image: short stories, being short, cannot encompass more than one deeply symbolic image. (Not that this is the law today, but for nineteenth-century experimenters, it was true.) Form influences how you read literature. Form is tough. Form is political. Form is unavoidable.
5. Things happen and are done in texts.
When working on a paper for my Romantic literature class, I struggled to come up with a thesis about Frankenstein and the sublime. The course lecturer suggested, “It always helps to think in terms of what the sublime is doing in the story.” The way she phrased this sounded strange to my ears. Is there agency in texts apart from the author’s? Can the idea of the sublime itself be doing something in a story? The answer was, “Of course!” I ended up writing a fine paper about how Mary Shelley critiques the sublime as a female Romantic writer who has some distance from male Romantic aesthetic. I might have also said that the sublime was working in the story to critique conventional Romanticism. Ideas play in a text even if the author does not will it…
6. Authorial intention can be irrelevant.
A common objection in High School English classrooms is, “What if Shakespeare didn’t really mean that?” Exasperated by the complexity of Billy Shakes’ lingo, they throw their hands up in the air and choose not to believe in complexity at all. But ANYONE who has tried to write a piece of creative work, if they have put any thought into writing at all, knows that Shakespeare intended to write what he wrote (censorship, his actors’ poor memory at recollecting the text, and contemporary editing aside). When you take the time to think enough about writing, crafting your language to an advanced level, you better believe you are intending every word that you write.
However, the High School student does hint at an important point. Sometimes, a professor or teacher will create a complex argument to argue something about Shakespeare and it will seem abstract. Even a seasoned English student will doubt that Shakespeare ever really intended his listeners to understand his plays in that way. But the student would be wise not to stumble into the intentional fallacy. The author may have intended one interpretation of his text, or sometimes none in particular. Does that mean a reader can’t make more out of the author’s work than even the author saw in it? Absolutely not! Critics can explore every range of possible meaning in a text.
7. You can analyze anything.
Don’t just think because courses revolve around the “big names” of literature–the literary canon–that you cannot study the authors you love. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Byron, Browning, James, Eliot … hopefully a literature class will teach you to appreciate the greats, the saints of the religion of English literature. But why not overturn the canon and speak of an non-canonical author? I wrote my Honours thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay, who I had discovered by accident years ago and began reading for pleasure long before I started at McGill. I have now read his completed works. In literary theory, no novel, short story, poem, or play is off bounds.
Guy Gavriel Kay
8. Topic sentences should be able to read as an independent “phantom” paragraph, or abstract.
I learned this in my first semester.
“I’ll just give you a few statistics,” President Barack Obama said in a speech Wednesday in Washington, D.C. One of the people watching Obama’s speech was Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who is intimately familiar with such studies. “The part about democracy is relevant,” Putnam said. “The data show that not only is there declining trust in government, there is declining trust in other people”; although it wasn’t exclusive to them, this shift was “concentrated among these poor kids, the kids who have been left out,” Putnam said. These young people […] were becoming “extremely alienated from democratic politics.”
The above paragraph is the first part of a New Yorker article–but it is a phantom. It does not exist as a unity. Rather, it is a composite, formed of the topic sentences of the first few paragraphs of the article “Economic Inequality: a Matter of Trust?” by Amy Davidson. If you are able to write a cohesive-sounding paragraph using the topic sentences of the paragraphs in your essay, then you have a well-structured essay.
9. English teaches you a skill more than knowledge.
When I began at McGill, I wanted to know more about literature. I wanted teachers to lecture on. But towards the later portion of my degree, I had fewer and fewer lectures. Students participated more in class; we all had our different ideas and were prepared to defend them. At a given point in my second or third year, teachers became supervisors and weren’t imparting knowledge of literature onto us so directly. We became independent researchers and thinkers. We learned the rules of the game of English literature and then were able to play that game on our own–even break the rules.
If a professor tells you what a poet means in his or her poem, then be aware that theirs is not the final word. They have a theory and it might be sound and true. But English teaches you how to criticize and think for yourself. In the end, the program taught me to be confident in my ability to read and think independently. That is a skill.
Not to mention, with instant web-based communication so available, errors and misspellings emerge with frequency (some intentional, others not). English degrees can give you a skill much sought-after in the shrinking pool of people who actually know how to spell. There may yet be hope for the lot of us.
10. Reading poetry must affect you.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT! Academia can be a vampire. Sucking the joy out of experiencing poetry and literature since the early twentieth century. Just because you exercise your faculty of critical thinking when reading poetry must NEVER prevent you from enjoying it in a visceral, existential, and sensuous way.
Mark Twain said a “classic” is a book we always wanted to have read, but never want to read. Now I actually want to read some of the classics: Byron and Marlowe in particular. Reconnecting to the fundamental experience of reading literature for enjoyment is the task they don’t–and can’t–tell you how to do in school.
Never stop loving it because you studied it. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in High Schools, where students are forced to write essays on books they should, above all, be enjoying. Only through enjoyment and pleasure can you commit a text to real memory, a memory that will follow you the rest of your life, a memory with personal value.
Poetry must affect you and it must continue to affect you. Frustrated with the insufficiency of our learning, we must, as does Goethe’s Faust, turn from the vanity of academia and reconnect to literature through fundamental experience.
“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.
“War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On earth, a century ago, in the year 2020, they outlawed our books.” -Edgar Allen Poe, in Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”
Edgar Allan Poe fights rocket men on a Mars mission to annihilate everything fantastic or non-realistic, in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles.” Bradbury’s short story stands with Fahrenheit 451 as a grim chronicle of a dystopian world where imagination is prohibited, even to the point of it being considered a mental disorder. In these worlds, fantasy—the ability to imagine realities other than the “consensus”—is outlawed, exiled, and, ultimately, considered heretical.
One fascinating question arises out of how Bradbury saw the role of fantasy literature in this future world. Is fantasy heretical? More specifically, does the literary mode or genre we refer to commonly as “fantasy” hold any innate capacity to oppose the dominant, orthodox “consensus” understanding of truth and reality? If there is such a capacity, what does it mean fantasy-as-heresy can do? And if it is not true that fantasy is heretical, why is it not?
“Fantasy itself is heretical. It denies what everyone knows to be the truth. And, if you’re lucky, the untruth shall make you free.” These words may sound counter-intuitive, even a little Nietzsche-esque, but they are part of Brian Attebery‘s argument for fantasy’s subversive potential in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy” (11).
Since it accepts the non-real, fantasy can say that “reality is a social contract, easily avoided” (10). Indeed, most fantasy novels contain an element of escape from the humdrum of modern-day, middle-class North American life (or whatever is your current milieu). While fantasy can slip into “escapism,” what escape does for readers is break the jail cell bars which contain us within the accepted reality that we accede to ever day. It demonstrates that out world is “a fluke, a localized and temporary aberration” (10). I like to think of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane saying that the world we know as our own is only the icing on a much larger and much deeper cake, lying just under the surface of things.
The slightly more dangerous and “most profound political statement that fantasy can make is to let the Other become a self” (10). Fantasists write from the point of view of aliens, animals, and other fantastic creatures—and analogously, other human cultures right here on earth. In fantasy, “the past threatens to break into the present, colonies become capitals, and the natural world takes revenge on civilization” (10).
The way fantasy novels do this is clearly evident. Epic fantasy, for starters, is almost completely based on the ways in which the past interferes with the present, and novels such as Ysabelby Guy Gavriel Kay do this in a twentieth-century our-world setting. And how subversive would the Ents of Fangorn be, if they waged a crusade against Amazon rainforest deforestation? In our globally-warmed world, the whole Mayan apocalypse craze was partially a result of our fear of nature’s vendetta against our race, and that surely inspired a few fantasy stories. On the subject of decolonization, I need go no further than Kay’s other novel Tigana in order to indicate a subversive book: a tale of rebels who overthrow the yoke of foreign domination in order to restore their nation’s identity. This belongs not only to the mythic history of the USA and France, but also to Ireland, Wales, Quebec, the Basque regions in Spain, and Communist East Europe.
Choose any binary: man/woman, dark/light, subject/object, self/society, victor/victim, man/nature, past/present, self/other: fantasy gains its subversive, heretical edge by showing us the “other,” by presenting both sides of the coin, and thus challenging us, whether we choose heads or tails. Even when an author such as C.S. Lewis attempts to reinforce a worldview—Christian orthodoxy—Attebury argues that the fantastic frame “resists any kind of orthodoxy” (11). Fantasy has infinite possibilities, which makes any limitations upon those possibilities (the “rules” of the secondary world) contrast with what lies beyond those boundaries, letting us question what set those limitations in the first place.
Why is Aslan a lion, we might ask, and not, say, a dragon? Lewis’ choice reveals Aslan’s significance as a symbol for the “Lion of Judah,” Jesus Christ. At the same time as Christian orthodoxy is reinforced, the fantastic elements in Narnia—such as witches, centaurs, and giants—recall a more pagan world, the other side of the coin. Even a fascistic fantasy that reinforces a certain ideology or orthodoxy will be subverted, argues Attebery, because the possibility of asking, “What else?” remains. There will always be another side, an “other” that the fantasy implies exists.
Since fantasy brings down the orthodox, it is intrinsically heterodox, which is a fancy way of saying “heretical.” Attebery is not alone in drawing conclusions like this. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion observes a similar phenomenon. For her, fantasy (defined more as a left-wing absurdist type of literature than post-Tolkien generic fantasy, which she viewed as too conservative and conventional) is a literature of desire that can thwart dominant understandings of reality.
Which brings us back to Edgar Allan Poe in his Martian exile. The dominant orthodoxy of the rocket men eventually triumphs over Poe, when the captain burns the pages of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Land of Oz, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the last copies in the universe. Bradbury’s short story gains its power from the binary contrast between the world of the imagination and the world of science and progress that the rocket men represent. Even though the rocket men triumph and they see that “there’s no one here at all” in the now-emptiness of Mars, the fantastic remains in the unconscious. One man who sees the fall of the city of Oz must report for psychoanalysis. Although orthodoxy might presume to establish itself over all the universe, the fantastic remains in the mind, as an “other” understanding of reality, a heterodoxy.
Imagining other worlds and other heterodox realities is not, of course, a phenomenon limited to fantastic fiction. Any heretic who opposes orthodoxy must have an imagination. In fact, we can further explore how imagining other worlds can be subversive by looking at one sixteenth-century heretic: Giordano Bruno.
Bruno is best known for championing a Copernican understanding of the universe. While this was not precisely the reason for his condemnation as a heretic, it nonetheless presented an alternate understanding of the universe’s order. Humans were no longer the center of the universe after Copernicus’ theories gained acceptance. The “self” had become an “other.” Interestingly, Attebery writes that we can understand fantasy as “the meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10) The whole Copernican debate was also fueled by the very tension between empiricism and the traditional church teachings.
One of the actual reasons that Bruno was burned was that he asserted that Jesus could not have been God: since God, as he saw it, was infinite, it was impossible for infinity to become incarnate in a finite, human form. In my personal opinion, this leaves out the following possibility: in the infinite possibilities of the universe, such a thing could perhaps be possible. Nonetheless, Bruno was also one of the first to champion the idea that there might exist other worlds (such as Mars!) beyond our own, that the universe did not end, but stretched on to infinity. Implicitly, (the following is also my own thought) there are infinite possibilities to reality, no matter how fantastic they might seem to us. Whatever exists in our imagination could exist (we do hope!) somewhere out there.
Giordano Bruno’s was the core of all heresies. By asserting that the universe was infinite and that human beings were not at the center, he challenged the dominant “consensus” reality of his day. An infinite universe has no boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Implying there are worlds and things that lie outside of any explanation orthodoxy can provide necessarily undercuts that orthodoxy. Furthermore, implying that there are infinite things outside those boundaries can render those boundaries insignificant. Bruno’s beliefs not only made him a heretic for denying Christ’s divinity, but his teaching of infinity also denied the very legitimacy of the word “heretic.”
Fantasy, like Bruno’s infinite universe, has endless possibilities. It can therefore subvert any distinction made to divide the universe into binaries, whatever they might be. Furthermore, Bruno’s philosophy suggests that everything is in the universe, whether or not you believe it is real. Science, the orthodoxy of today, does not believe in dragons or the Emerald City of Oz. But Bruno’s philosophy can imply that these places do exist, if not on Mars, then somewhere in the infinite.
So the universe contains everything that can fit under one’s distinctions, as well as everything that exists outside of it. White swans and black swans in equal measure. Your best dreams, and your worst nightmares.
Going back to our original question, I can now confirm that fantasy is intrinsically heretical. However, this does not mean that all fantasy novels go “against the system” or challenge our most profoundly held beliefs. What it does mean is that the element of fantasy, when placed even in a conservative fantasy novel, implicitly subverts the worldview put forward in its story, by opening up the possibilities of the novel to infinity.
Some fantasy literature (we can all imagine the names of a few culprits) has become so codified that board games such as Dungeons and Dragons suggest formulas for crafting genre narratives using a nearly automatized technique. Elves, half-elves, barbarians, bards, and paladins run amok fighting goblins, orcs, and trolls. What particularly scandalizes me about formula dictating a work of fantasy is that—however fun playing a game might be—the story runs counter to everything fantasy stands for.
Fantasy is for imagining other things, new things, things not yet imagined, or things that break the mold of the orthodoxies to which we all implicitly hold. The elves and orcs, which began as an imaginative escape from our boring everyday twentieth- or twenty-first-century life, have become the new prison for our imagination.
Fantasy abhors a prison. It is free spirit. Formulaic genre literature undoes itself when we recognize the boundlessness of the fantastic and ask, “Why is this land populated exclusively by elves, dwarves, humans, and orcs? Why not other things we can imagine?”
In fantasy as in infinity, everything is possible. The creed of the Assassins comes to mind: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Since everything in fantasy is permitted, it implies that what we assume to be true about the genre—and what we assume to be true about the universe—is not always so. Fantasy, a free radical, undoes whatever boundary lines the orthodox assumptions of society can set in its path.
In conclusion, I can confirm that fantasy itself is heretical. If it finds itself in a novel set by boundaries (and every work of fiction must have boundaries to exist), it breaks them. We may not intend this as authors. We may not pick up on it, as readers. But as soon as the windows to infinity are opened, the boundaries of the world we construct—either in the narrative of a story, or in the world in which we live—become exposed, and they are revealed for what they often are: arbitrary limitations. Faced with infinity, it becomes our duty to react. Do we stand by our current structures, definitions, and beliefs, or do we find some way of opening our mind to what we do not understand?
The tricky part of answering this question is that no matter what our answer is, we will always, at least implicitly, be forming a new orthodoxy in our minds—perhaps one more expansive, but still with its limits. A human mind cannot completely encompass infinity. Doctor Faustus tried that and failed miserably. However, if we are careful, fantasy is still a good thing: it’s work is never done, and in this world, the ability to help us press the boundaries of our imagination is a continual need.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Latham and Robert A. Collins. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995. 1-13.
Bradbury, Ray. “The Exiles.” Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales With an Introduction by the Author. New York: HaperCollins, 2003.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.
On 30 May 1593, Christopher Marlowe, illustrious author of such plays as Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Tamburlaine, walked into the Deptford house of the widow Eleanor Bull. There, he encountered three men: Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, and Nicholas Skeres. Marlowe never left the place alive: a knife wound in the eye dispatched him presently to the afterlife.
The question that has been buggering Elizabethan historians is, why?
The assassination of Marlowe has spawned countless hypotheses, many conspiratorial. What they teach in high schools is that Marlowe was murdered in a bar fight. However, closer analysis of events suggests that Marlowe’s death may have had to do with a little more than simply an excessive bar tab.
Historians such as A. D. Wraight in his book In Search of Christopher Marlowe andCurtis C. Breight in Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era have investigated the mystery behind one of literature’s greatest dramatists.
First, the witnesses.
The three men called to the witness box during the trial were all gentlemen. Robert Poley was a secret agent of some repute in the service of Queen Elizabeth. Nicholas Skeres served as a court messenger and was likely also an agent, having played a major part in the disclosure of the Babington Plot, which led to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. Ingram Frizer was a retainer in the service of Sir Thomas Walsingham II, before becoming joined to his son, also named Thomas, who was Marlowe’s patron. It was Ingram knife that was found lodged in Marlowe’s skull.
The evening seems to have begun pleasantly enough. They had dinner and walked in the garden, making business conversation. After their 6:00 supper, the coroner Willian Banby remarks that Ingram and Marlowe became involved in an inflamed argument “about the payment of the sum of pence, that is, le recknynge” (qtd. in Wreight 293).
Marlowe, lying on a bed in the room where they had supped, then drew a dagger and rushed at Ingram, whose back was against him as he sat at the table and the other men. Marlowe struck two wounds in Ingram’s head, an inch long and a quarter inch deep.
Ingram struggled against Marlowe to save his own life and, in the fight, reclaimed the dagger. The wound he inflicted in Marlowe’s right eye went in two inches, supposedly killing Marlowe instantly.
Mr. Banby’s story proves that Ingram acted “in the defense and saving of his own life” (293). Queen Elizabeth eventually pardoned Igram for his crime.
However, Wraight notes how unsatisfactory the testimony has been to scholars, ever since Dr. Hotson’s observation that Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres may have lied to save the life of Ingram Frizer. What, after all, could explain how Marlowe, with the advantage of surprise, only managed to inflict two cuts to Ingram’s skull? Did Skeres and Poley merely stand back and watch? There is even medical evidence that says “a knife thrust two inches in depth into the brain would not result in instantaneous death, or necessarily death at all”! (296)
Furthermore, upon his release from prison, Frizier immediately re-entered the Walsinghams’ employment. Such forgiveness on the part of patrons was exceptional; other men, whether servants or gentlemen, found no such forgiveness after becoming prisoners of the state.
Marlowe was also supposed to appear before the Privy Council—he may or may not have actually done so—on 20 May 1593, ten days before his death. The charges he was supposed to answer for included blasphemy. He later made his fatal journey to Deptford. The connection, or absence of connection, between his murder and these charges has never been proved.
Naturally, such anecdotes give rise to all kinds of theories.
Perhaps the juiciest theory is advanced by Dr. S. A. Tannenbaum, who claims that Sir Walter Raleigh had Marlowe silenced out of fear that he would confess to the atheism of those involved in the fabled School of Night. A face-saving gesture by a Machiavellian hermeticist.
A secret society speculated to have existed, the School of Night was centred around Raleigh and consisted of scientists, courtiers, and poets such as George Chapman, Thomas Harriot, and Marlowe. However, all other evidence seems to acquit Raleigh of conspiracy to commit murder. His noble personality and his lack of caring about his public image, Wraight says, suggests he would not stoop to whacking Marlowe, or using him as a scapegoat.
But could the assassination still have had a political motive?
There is convincing evidence to support the theory that Marlowe was a spy. In 1587, the Privy Council awarded Marlowe an MA from the University of Cambridge as a reward for serving his country in certain secret affairs. Waight says he might have been a spy since 1585. Later on, reports of Marlowe’s shady dealings include an attempt to falsify coinage in Flanders in 1592, where he was briefly arrested. He was suspected of siding with Catholics, but may have been attempting to penetrate the group associated with the Catholic plotter William Stanley as a double agent.
Might he have fallen in with Catholics again, shortly before his death?
Perhaps Marlowe’s patron Thomas Walsingham involved the trio of secret agents in a great conspiracy to eliminate the poet, and have each other pardoned according to a pre-arranged giving of false testimony. Or, we may imagine with a smile Marlowe’s hasty burial in the Deptford parish church as evidence that Walsingham had his agents replace Marlowe’s body with another corpse! Of course, Marlowe would have had to disappear, if he was going to write Shakespeare’s plays in total secrecy…
These conspiracy theories have a way of fogging the real evidence. Elizabethan England’s witch hunts, Puritan hearsay, and paranoia about Catholics, atheists, and “Machievels” played their part to create a paranoid society. Curtis C. Breight describes how Sir William Cecil, the Secretary of State, maintained a police state reminiscent of the McCarthy era, if the use of twentieth-century anachronism can be forgiven.
Similarities between both eras of Elizabethan espionage (including that of our present Queen) have also been drawn: James Bond’s MI6 origins had their origins under Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil’s intelligence networks. When spies are behind every corner, you have to careful what you say about your political or religious beliefs. And Queen Elizabeth, as ahead of the Church of England, represented both State and Church.
Cecilian England gives rise to one final theory about Christopher Marlowe’s death, one that may be as incredible as the others. It says that Cecil gave the order, because of Marlowe’s Catholic sympathies.
At the time, England was supporting the French king Henri IV against the radical Catholic League. The war was unpopular, necessitating the use of Protestant propaganda. Christopher Marlowe wrote a play called The Massacre at Paris, which told the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. On 23 August 1572, King Charles IX ordered the assassination of Huguenot (French Protestant) leaders in Paris, resulting in the deaths of anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000 souls. However, some scholars have argued that the play, told from the perspective of the Catholic Duke of Guise and Catherine de Medici, who act as Machiavellian characters, depicts the Protestants as no better than their Catholic foes.
Might it be likely that Marlowe was considered too much of a intellectual rebel?
Perhaps. We may never know, after all, what really happened to Christopher Marlowe after that supper in Deptford. What historians do confirm is that history is arguable. Whether we might personally believe in the conspiracies, or adopt a more grounded understanding of what happened, we each construct a narrative of events that may or may not represent the true course of history.
If one thing is certain about Marlowe’s death, it is that his disappearance has spawned many stories to fill the void of his absence. It is only human nature, after all, to find meaning to the unexplainable.