This week I got profiled as a creative-to-watch with Graphite Publications. It’s a big honour. Thank you to Willow Loveday Little, Graphite’s creative editor, for the opportunity to tell the world what I’m all about. And to my sister, Sam Rettino, for some amazing shots.
In my profile, I talk about my love for fantasy and history, my upcoming short story “The Goddess in Him” (NewMyths.com, September 2020), and my typical writing process. Check it out!
In “The Thousand Revolutions of Kronstadt,” Futurographer Anatoly Yuryevich Kolchunov steals aboard a battleship during a historical revolt led by the sailors of Kronstadt against the abuses of the Russian revolution. There, strapped into the Chronosthesic engine, he searches all possible futures for a destiny in which the revolution does not devour its children. Is there a future in which the sailors survive Petrograd’s brutal suppression of their revolt and live to save the revolution’s ideals? Or is there no escape? Pablo Valcárcel’s story explores these questions and more.
Matthew Rettino is a speculative fiction writer and freelance editor based in Montreal, QC. He manages Archaeologies of the Weird.
MR: Personally, I find it fascinating that this story exposes a tension between doctrinaire Marxist teleology–the idea of the inevitable, global communist revolution–and a multiplicity of different futures. What gave you the idea to write about futurography in the context of the Russian Civil War? What attraction did this novum and this historical event have for you creatively?
PV: One of the most fascinating elements from Marxism, and specifically historical materialism, is that it aspires to follow a scientific approach to understand (and to some extent, predict) historical developments. In that sense, futurography (a scientific and predictive mapping of the future) and Marxism pair surprisingly well.
I feel that although there are many stories that explore alternate history and time travel in the context of the great conflicts of the twentieth century (Man in the High Castle comes to mind), there’s a missed opportunity when it comes to time travel from the Soviet perspective. Perhaps it’s because we tend to think of technological developments as politically agnostic, while in truth, they’re always coloured to some extent by society’s political views.
I also feel that the Soviet Revolution and the following Russian Civil War are one of the most fascinating periods of human history. It could be argued that never before, or ever since, has there been an attempt at reinventing society on such a massive scale. It is, despite the tragedy of its failures and shadows, in many ways the perfect setting to explore utopianism and societal transformation. One can’t help but wonder: What if they had actually gotten it right? How different could the twentieth century have been if post-revolutionary Russia had become the beacon of freedoms it aspired to be?
MR: The action of the story moves from Kronstadt, Russia to Barcelona, Spain. When the hero appears in Spain, where you live, the nation is in the thrall of the Spanish Civil War. Was there anything personal for you in setting part of this story in Spain during this time?
PV: As a Spaniard, the Spanish Civil War always ends up being a personal and weighty matter. Although, as far as I know, Barcelona isn’t really connected to my family history (perhaps that helped me to be able to keep some emotional distance from that element of the piece).
The main reason for me to choose Barcelona as a backdrop for one of the episodes in the story was that it was, at that time, a successful anarchist revolution. A revolution that ended up being violently suppressed by the Bolshevik Communist factions of the Spanish Republic (again, just like in Kronstadt). It is plausible that a survivor from the purges who followed the Kronstadt uprising could have ended up among kindred spirits in the Barcelona of 1937, only to suffer again the same fate.
I’m also a huge fan of George Orwell’s classic “Homage to Catalonia” and I’ve always wanted to write something set in the revolutions that took place in Aragon and Catalonia during that period.
MR: The Chronosthesic engine enables Anatoly to see the future, but he must do so by living through thousands of his potential deaths, which act as “cartographic milestones” for charting the future. Can you talk a little about what inspired you to create this unique constraint for time travel? Was death always a part of it? How did this influence your approach to writing the story?
PV: Time travel as a form of consciousness projection isn’t, of course, a new idea, but when combined with the constraints of one’s mortality, it created a unique playing field. Not only is there a widespread belief in the clarity of our final moments, but from a practical standpoint, there was some sense of trying to cartograph the rough shape of a moving space by analysing the endpoints of some of its key vectors.
Nevertheless, possibly another key element of subconscious inspiration were the lyrics of the German band Rome for their song “The Chronicles of Kronstadt.” Often, my short stories emerge from developing further the nebulous imagery that forms in my mind from particularly inspiring lyrics.
In terms of its influence when writing the story, it offered both unique advantages and challenges. Advantages because I could explore different ideas or scenarios of competing timelines simultaneously. Challenges as well, because it was hard to compress these fleeting vistas into short snippets of information that felt both comprehensible and emotionally meaningful at the same time. I think that in the end, I was lucky enough to find a formula that allowed me to achieve a bit of both and hint at an even larger scope with the poetic use of repetition.
MR: Towards the end of the story, Anatoly remarks that “life is no longer to be postponed; it now must be lived.” Notably, you’ve also written the story in present tense. What made you decide to write your story this way? More philosophically, was this decision connected to Anatoly’s realization that a hyperfocus on future promises can be detrimental to seizing the moment?
PV: Again, credit where credit is due: I think that the theme of the story and Anatoly’s epiphany came from one of my favourite passages in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
As for the point of view chosen for the story, the present tense offers an immediacy and urgency that fit very well with the revolutionary rhetoric that was part of the character’s narrative.
I think that the relationship between the point of view and Anatoly’s epiphany was something that emerged only after many rewrites, but as you said, it does provide a satisfying pairing between the ethics and aesthetics of the piece.
When is it best to remember? When is it best to forget?
Sit with this question.
Ask yourself what memories in your life are worth keeping. Some memories we treasure for sentimental reasons, while some were part of our education, part of what made us into who we are today. But some memories are better worth forgetting.
Some memories we just want to forget because we find them embarrassing. However, there are some memories that, more profoundly, hold us back from realizing our fullest potential as human beings.
It is possible to be enslaved to the past. That’s the insight Nietzsche arrives at in his essay “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” Living historically can be life-giving and can lend us towards tremendous insight into our life and times. But living with too much awareness of how our actions have repercussions can paralyze us into inaction.
I recently wrote an essay on this topic entitled “The Virtue of Forgetting: On Memory and Oblivion.” In it, I discuss how presentations made at Concordia University’s 2019 Liberal Arts Spring Colloquium last February treated the topics of memory and forgetting. The presentations ranged from Roman history, the works of Anton Chekov, and African Diaspora art. I reinterpreted the presentations in light of Nietzsche’s article, which was assigned to the audience as a reading for the Thomas More Institute’s interactive panel discussion that closed the colloquium.
Representation matters. It’s a movement, it’s the #ownvoices hashtag, and it’s been pushing institutions like the book publishing industry and Hollywood to find more diverse creators and to cast more diverse characters and actors in the stories we love.
Much has already been said on the matter, but I’d like to add my two cents by highlighting how changes in representation have transformed genres in the past and have the power to transform them now.
Oddly enough, it is in European romance where this observation of historical change can be observed. This could be seen as ironic. After all, fantasy is a stereotypically eurocentric genre, where the tropes of European romance stand for the very antithesis of diversity in the genre.
However, the story of medieval romance’s history of development is a tale of the transformative power of representation. Why? Because genres evolve to reflect changes in societies.
As a Master’s student, I read Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, a book that adopts a historical approach towards reading the unconscious political messages embedded in literature. A famous line from Jameson’s book is the mantra, “Always historicize.”
The Political Unconscious, a theoretically complex text, contains a great insight into why fantasy and adventure fiction is burdened with the baggage of morally stultifying good versus evil binaries, in which otherness is equated with evil.
In our present climate of xenophobia, writing against the tendency of society to demonize those whom it considers other is a moral choice. For more of my thoughts on this subject, read the first post in this series.
For now, suffice it to say that fantasy’s history of colour-coded good-versus-evil binaries owes itself largely to its medieval taproot texts. But how did medieval romance itself evolve?
In his “Magical Narratives” chapter, Jameson goes into detail about how medieval romance evolved from the older form of the chanson de geste. While romance is the predecessor of fantasy fiction and adventure stories, the chanson de geste, or “song of great deeds,” is the predecessor of romance.
Chanson de geste is a literary genre in which knights and their battlefield kill scores were set to verse. The genre’s morality was absolutely black and white, with Christians labelled as “us” and Muslims as “them.” There is none of the subtle complexity of “good” and “evil” that there is in Tolkien’s nuanced juxtapositions of Gollum as an aspect of Frodo, and Shelob as an aspect Galadriel.
In chanson de geste, you’re either on the side of the Christians, or you’re already dead.
In other words, this old, somewhat quaint genre of medieval literature is closely connected with one of the worst, most violence xenophobic attacks in recent years. That should give us all pause.
The battles scenes in chanson de geste are bloodbaths fought against impossible odds. In fact, they’re reminiscent of Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s 300, a comic book and movie appropriated by the alt-right. What’s important to remember here is not only that modern Nazis look towards these medieval texts for inspiration but also that they contain an ideological structure that colonizes our mentality and insinuates itself into the genres we consume.
The good and evil binary is so prevalent within our culture that it is almost impossible to think beyond it. However, we have to think beyond it to dismantle the harmful ideological structures that lie in the stories we love.
The Case of the Unmasked Black Knight
I once read a chanson de geste, “The Song of Roland,” in my first year of college.
From memory, I remember it is far more concerned with whether Roland’s sword cleaved this or that “Saracen” in twain than it is in parsing out the morality of a genocide. Morality here is absolute, a binary choice between good and evil, which corresponds respectively to Christianity and Islam with no room allowed for coexistence.
The chanson de geste is so absurd, this black-and-white morality even determines physics; the sheer righteousness of Archbishop Turpin keeps him alive and fighting vigorously despite his many arrow wounds. It would be funny in a Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight sketch kind of way, if the over-the-top violence were not so repetitive and, frankly, dull.
Thankfully, a shift occurred when chivalric romances like the tales of King Arthur evolved from the chanson de geste. In fact, a remarkable thing occurred: the “bad” characters (Muslim knights, anonymous Christian knights in black armour) became more human.
This can be explained because the social class of knights, who were chivalric romance’s main audience, had consolidated itself across Europe. Europe was no longer a paranoid society where you couldn’t trust your neighbour. If you were a noble, your neighbour was just another wealthy noble, perhaps bound to the same king. You shared more in common with him than any differences you might have, even if you found yourselves on opposite sides of the battlefield.
What happened next, Fredric Jameson describes best. There arose
“what can only be called a contradiction between the older positional notion of good and evil, perpetuated by the chanson de geste, and this emergent class solidarity. Romance in its original strong form may then be understood as an imaginary “solution” to this real contradiction, a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil (that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference), when what is responsible for his being so characterized is quite simply the identity of his own conduct with mine, the which—points of honor, challenges, tests of strength—he reflects as in a mirror image.
[…] This moment, in which the antagonist ceases to be a villain, distinguishes the romance narrative from those of chanson de geste“
(Jameson, Unconscious, 118-9).
At this moment in medieval history, class solidarity was signaled by a change in literary production: knights were no longer locked in absolute good versus evil combats. The villain is unmasked after he yields, and on the other side of that mask is revealed not a demon’s face but that of another knight, a member of the hero’s community.
The solidarity of the feudal nobility resulted in a rise of communal consciousness. According to Jameson, this solidarity is what triggered the rise of medieval romance, which later evolved into the modern novel.
Without this solidarity, there would have been no willingness to be empathetic and humanize the enemy and thus no drive towards psychological complexity. Without that willingness to empathize, we would not have the realism we so value in our storytelling today.
Now, I’m not saying medieval romance became less Islamophobic. It is true that Muslim knights in European romance would frequently convert to Christianity after being defeated by the hero, thus eliminating their difference. What I am saying, however, is that group solidarity determines who gets seen as an “us” in the stories we tell.
In the case of the medieval romance, Muslim knights could now be included within the same social class as Christian knights–though peasants were excluded. While it became more inclusive in some ways, in other ways it maintained exclusions.
Everyone wants to see themselves in stories. This doesn’t mean that everyone has always been given the chance to be a hero, however. Yet, when we include different kinds of people in our community, the literature our society produces must change to reflect its new audience.
This principle, according to Jameson, is a major part of what happened to bring about the rise of European romance. It’s also how a widening middle-class audience influenced the development of the novel. People wanted to read about everyday life in a way that more closely reflected their own. This is known as humanity’s need for mimesis, the capacity of literature to reflect one’s own reality.
If the history of literary genres show us one thing, then I guess it’s that literature is highly narcissistic.
Beat the Drums of Peace
The modern age is globalized and this brings people from all corners of the world closer together. This material change in our historical circumstances is reflected in our literature as it becomes more diverse. As publishers and movie produces make different kinds of people welcome within their creator communities, they foster a sense of shared belonging and solidarity. The “other” becomes an “us.”
Now, Jameson’s argument does not so much say that writing differently will somehow change society. His argument is that material changes and class solidarity serve as the primary impetus of literary change. However, it is not untrue that writing the other can encourage solidarity. Accompanied by changes in media industries, telling stories that resist the dehumanization of others can bring about social change.
When governments beat the drums of war, however, we encounter opposition to this utopian goal: the atavistic battle songs of the chanson de geste. War drums and ethical binaries encourage the idiotic thought that some human beings embody “evil” while others are “good.” This reduces “the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off” (Ursula K. Le Guin, “Afterword,” A Wizard of Earthsea (2012 ed.)).
Under the sound of those drumbeats, our literature stands to lose the complexity of psychological realism, the result of hundreds of years of literary development. The intelligence of our literature stands to be reduced to the moral binaries of chanson de geste.
To beat the drums of peace, as storytellers we must encourage solidarity between members of different classes of society. We need to create selves out of others, integrate those who have been othered into an “us.” We must use our powers of empathy to show that “they” are human beings and no different from you or I. And we must do this at the level of the industry, as well as the level of narrative representation.
If we storytellers can accomplish this and inspire true change in who gets to be represented as an “us” in our books, video games, and movies, then we are on the cusp of radical change in the genres we write about. The stupid binaries of the chanson de geste are not dead literature; they have colonized our minds and infected how we think about our fellow human beings. The good and evil binary reaches out like an atavistic spectre of the past to haunt our present.
Our work as writers is to resist that atavism. We must take a position and continue the work of humanizing the other.
N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.
It’s been a journey and a process. I may be slowly beginning to recognize names and references to Indian history, but I’m a long way from knowing it as well as European history.
The process of acquiring this knowledge has been challenging. While my stereotypes of European history make the general course of European history easier to remember, I only have a few points of reference for Indian history. For example, I have a stereotypical image of what Venice might have been like in the Renaissance, or Paris in the nineteenth century. But I can’t say the same for ancient Pataliputra or Taxila. The closest I get is Delhi and Agra under the Mughals.
While my unfamiliarity with Indian history has begun to change as my knowledge increases, sometimes I still feel like a clueless tourist, even though I’ve come to recognize names like Chandragupta Maurya and Muhammad of Ghor.
I’m still oblivious to
the unspoken associations between events, the episodes that give colour to dry
historical chronicles. I feel as if I’m missing out on some crucial context. But,
knowing that I’m a visitor to these lands, I try to take it all in stride.
City of the Shrieking Tomb by Patrick Rogers provides a bit of colour—even if those colours are dark, crimson, and rotten. This horror tale takes the reader to a tiny pocket of India that has generally not made it into the history books. Reading it made me feel as if I was seeing something that, as a tourist, I was not meant to see. In fact, it was as if I’d been expressly forbidden from seeing it.
There is a dearth of
information on the internet about the village of Humayunpur in Karnataka, the
setting of this atmospheric horror novel. Google searches for Humayanpur do not
turn it up (at least not that I could find), although there is a Humayunpur in the
Safdarjung Enclave in New Delhi. There is no Wikipedia page for Sultan Humayun
Karabakh either, the tyrant of the village whose tomb at night shrieks with the
cries of the doomed.
However, this lack of knowledge may not be surprising, considering the exceptionally forbidding atmosphere that clouds the village, and the villagers’ suspicion towards outsiders who might spread knowledge of the curse to the outside world.
City of the Shrieking Tomb follows the footsteps of Rick, a clumsy, dense westerner with a camera. He is, in fact, a professional photographer who finds himself stranded one day at a bus depot in Karnataka. Rick feels like the only foreigner in all the city of Gulbarga. Exhausted from the heat, desperate for a bus to Bihar, and wanting nothing more than to watch Hindi-dubbed SpongeBob SquarePants at his air conditioned hotel in Hyderabad, he is frustrated and tired, ready to give up his quest to take pictures of Islamic architecture for a photography book.
There’s a certain
bewildered clumsiness to the photographer that is both endearing and relatable
to anyone who has ever been a tourist. Although I’m only an armchair tourist in
India, I imagine, based on my experiences of travel in other countries, that I
would have shared something of his bewilderment and exhaustion. Being immersed
in a country with a culture and language that is not your own can be a
soon meets Awaz, a doctor who takes pity on him. He tells him he can reach Bihar
if he takes a rickety bus towards his village of Humayunpur. There, the bus breaks
down, and Awaz decides to host the photographer in his own home, to the mild
protests of his wife.
Humayunpur turns out to be a village situated in the midst of an ancient fort. Spectacular Mughal-era tombs and mosques mark the village as a picturesque destination—everything the photographer ever dreamed of. This includes the immense tomb of the sultan, the dome of which is broken in half, a casualty of a tumultuous battle.
That night, Rick first
hears the shrieks coming from the tomb. He slowly realizes—very, very slowly, I
might add—that there is more to Humayunpur than meets the eye. Determined to put
Humayunpur on the map, Rick resists Awaz’s repeated demands not to take any
pictures of the ruins. Little does Rick know that he is walking into a story more
ancient and terrible than he can conceive.
Rick’s stubbornness seems typical of western tourists, or at least typical of certain stereotypes. He is repeatedly described as “dense” by Narcissus, the village historian who never misses an opportunity to tease him about it. As the story develops, Rick’s greed for photographs brings him into conflict with the villagers, who resent his invasive presence. However, this does not stop Rick from wanting to visit the tomb of Sultan Humayun Karabakh himself—a decision that determines his ultimate, grizzly fate.
This novel’s strength
is in how it shines light on a little-known aspect of Indian history: the rebellion
of Yusuf Karabakh against Sultan Humayun Karabakh at the bequest of the Sultan’s
wife. It builds suspense and, although it can be difficult to judge these things,
it seems to me as if the author has had first-hand experience of India.
It was also enjoyable,
for me at least, to watch Rick fumble like an (albeit sympathetic) idiot, right
into the death trap that we expect him to stumble into all along. Horror readers
who read horror for the joy of it will find nothing amiss. I wanted to yell at
Rick to “get outta Dodge,” as Narcissus puts it, even though I knew full well
The novel’s main
weakness is that the characters are rather one-note. Rick is always the
stubborn, foreign photographer; Awaz is the helpful but worried local whose
refrain is “No photos!”; Narcissus dumps information about the historical
backstory of Sultan Humayun and the Black Flower Goddess and keeps reminding
Rick just how “dense” he really is.
It would have been
nice to see these characters adopting different roles in the story and
expressing themselves in different ways. As a result, the story tends to drag
on at times, even though it is quite short at only 120 pages. That being said,
if you are willing to put up with the one-notedness of the characters, you will
be satisfied by the knockout ending.
David Demchuk, who attended Montreal’s Blue Metropolis festival earlier this year, is the author of a Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated collection of horror short stories, The Bone Mother. This was quite an accomplishment for a horror writer, especially since writers of horror fiction are so often excluded from the literary mainstream. The Bone Mother, set in the interwar period in Eastern Europe, is inspired by Slavic folklore and the stunning and slightly disquieting photographic archive of Romanian photographer Costică Ascinte.
I won’t say much else about it here except that the book itself seemed to dovetail nicely with my Master’s thesis, which investigated, in part, what the difference between magic realism and fantasy set in the primary world is, if there exists a difference at all. Demchuk’s novel does serve to blur the lines, but at the Blue Metropolis, he was adamant in insisting The Bone Mother is not magic realism but straight-up horror.
The Flaw in the Stone, Cynthea Masson’s second novel in her Alchemists’ Council trilogy, explores the occult origins of the Rebel Branch’s revolution against the Alchemists’ Council. In a world where manuscript scholarship is the key to harmonizing the universe’s dimensions, the balance of power is about to be thrown off kilter.
Genevre, an outside world scribe currently inhabiting Flaw dimension, unlocks a forbidden text that will give the rebels an advantage over Council dimension for the first time in thousands of years. Seizing the opportunity, the High Azoth of the Rebel Branch, Dracaen, plans to use the long-forgotten alchemical formula to destroy the Lapis, the source of the Alchemists’ Council’s power. However, when his obsession becomes tyrannical, Cedar and Saule form a risky plan to unite rebels and alchemists, while preserving both free will and interdimensional balance. In choosing to switch allegiances, however, they risk the destruction of both worlds.
The story takes place over hundreds of years and across multiple dimensions without losing its intrigue. It carries the reader from the dark caverns of Flaw dimension to the bright gardens of Council dimension, as well as the outside-world protectorates of Vienna, Qingdao, and Santa Fe. Some scribes aligned with the alchemists become rebels, while some rebels become alchemists.
The complex allegiances are complicated further because The Flaw in the Stone develops several protagonists instead of focusing on one, as the first novel of the series did. The downside to having so many characters is less focus. However, the ethically complex problem of free will brings unity to the novel, since it is explored in different ways. Since any changes made to the Lapis in Council dimension affect all dimensions, the alchemists essentially control humanity and the outside world. Dracaen conscripts Melia and Jinjing to assist him in his plan to overthrow the Council in the name of preserving humanity’s freedom. However, in doing so, he compels both women to undergo an emotionally devastating alchemical ritual that will give the Rebel branch the upper hand. This leads them to question whether their commitment to Dracaen’s rebellion was really worth the cost.
Dracaen forces Melia to conceive an alchemical child, an entity of such power that he believes it will help the rebels destroy the Lapis. Melia feels “like a mere vessel, like a human alembic whose sole purpose was to incubate and then deliver a miracle child” (146). Her anxiety reveals not only her fear of pregnancy but her anger at being objectified. The power dynamic inherent in Dracaen’s relationship with Melia recalls recent public discussions about consent. This forced incubation, committed in the name of freedom, ironically makes Dracaen as tyrannical as the most dogmatic Council-dimension alchemists.
Historical allusions add poignancy to the Rebel branch’s revolt. Since changes to the Lapis affect the outside world, the Rebel branch’s attempt to eliminate it in 1914 more or less causes the First World War. In one memorable scene, Saule, Genevre, and Jinjing hide out in the Qingdao protectorate as the Japanese bombard the city, an allusion to the 1914 Siege of Tsingtao (Qingdao). Other historical events are alluded to implicitly. One attempt to eliminate the Flaw is said to have been “responsible for the Mongol Conquests” (188). Also, it is no coincidence that the novel begins in 1848, when a wave of social uprisings swept across Europe. Though this historical allusion is not explicitly developed, the date adds poignancy to the rebels’ struggle–perhaps an ironic poignancy, given that outside world events are only reflections of the harmony within Council dimension. Does this reduce the free agency of the human beings who participated in these events?
Masson’s scholarly knowledge of alchemical manuscripts lends the world she has constructed a certain authenticity. For example, she bases Ilex and Melia’s mutual conjunction upon the alchemical concept of the Rebis, a man and woman combined into a single individual. Her training as a medievalist comes across in her writing style, which is formal and academic.
The Flaw in the Stone fills in many of the unanswered questions readers are left with at the end of The Alchemists’ Council. In a pleasant surprise, the novel’s timeline continues into the twenty-first century, bringing the action up to date with the end of the first book and setting up the final book of the trilogy.
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Steadily, I am reading through T.E. Lawrence’s military memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I had to ask myself, “What are these seven pillars of wisdom anyway?” Nowhere in the text does he ever mention these seven pillars. What were they and what could they possibly mean?
My quest lead me down an interesting path of discovery, into the Bible and the works of Robert Graves, whose nonfiction book The White Goddess will have interest to readers of fantasy literature, since it is a source text behind much of the druid and bardic lore that went into making classic Celtic fantasy, and, I imagine, still goes into more recent fantasy as well.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a detailed, factual account of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s stint as liaison officer between the British forces and the Arabs in the Eastern theatre of the First World War. Arab officers rebelled against their Turkish commanders in order to declare open revolt against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and win their national independence from their mismanaging provincial oppressors stationed in Damascus. Lawrence–better known as Lawrence of Arabia–fought a manoeuvre war with the Arab commanders, rallying disparate tribes of nomads to fight as a united nation.
In this memoir, poetic observations of the harsh, magnificent landscape accompany an account of the day-to-day marches across the land to outflank and outmanoeuvre the Turks. Lawrence instructs the rebels to lay charges and detonate explosive gel under the train tracks that ferry supplies to the Turkish garrisons and towns. Moments of still peace and contemplation of strategy accompany moments of sudden violence, all described with the highest literary sensibility. It reads like an epic fantasy novel in its length and description of Lawrence’s extensive journeys, but the content is cold, hard fact written in a masterful style.
The twenty-first century is an age that that has not only seen a revival of an independent, but brutally medieval caliphate, but also one that has seen the struggle of multiple Middle Eastern peoples for national independence, such as the Kurds, who continue to fight ISIL. Some Kurds even fight the Turks from whom they desire to wrest independence–much to their chagrin. Such struggles have diversified and grown infinitely more complicated since 1917, but the struggles happening today may be traced to that much-rued Paris treaty signed after the conclusion of the Great War.
But enough historical background. Down to business. The most well-known reference to the seven pillars of Wisdom is in the Bible:
Wisdom has built her house, / she has hewn her seven pillars. (Proverbs 9.1)
The purpose of the reference is to characterize the persona of Wisdom as a woman who has prepared a feast. Only the wise are invited to this banquet; the foolish are unworthy.
This reference makes sense in relation to the jewels of profundity spread throughout the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence becomes immersed in the Arab viewpoint on the war, on religion, and on life itself, picking up on the wisdom of the Bedouin and Howeitat elders:
“Why are the Westerners always wanting all?” provokingly said Auda. “Behind our few stars we can see God, who is not behind your millions. […] If the end of wisdom is to add star to star our foolishness is pleasing.” (289)
While this captures something of the dynamic between Eastern and Western ways of thinking, what do seven pillars have to do with this wisdom?
Wikipedia makes clear that Seven Pillars of Wisdom was the title for a previous book Lawrence had been planning to publish before the war broke out. It was to be a scholarly work about the seven greatest cities of the Middle East: Cairo, Smyrna, Constantinople, Beyrout (Beirut), Aleppo, Damascus, and Medina. This manuscript never saw the light of publication. Lawrence destroyed it. To worsen matters, he would also lose his first manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1919, at Reading train station. Just in time for Christmas. It has never been recovered and would have been 250,000 words in length. And I thought losing a USB key was rough.
In the memoir that eventually saw publication–painfully rewritten by a shellshocked Lawrence overwhelmed by the demands of his own celebrity status as a war hero–the author makes reference to these seven cities, either in one way or another. Damascus, for instance, was the centre of Turkish control over the Arab Middle East and one of the Arab Revolt’s main targets. Even today, age-old Damascus is the capital of war-ravaged Syria and the headquarters of Bashar al-Assad. Owing to the new focus of his book, Lawrence skims over any further significance he may have attached to these seven cities.
Now, while I acknowledge the poetic value of calling the seven cities “pillars of wisdom,” the phrase does strike me as unconventional. Why was Lawrence so insistent on this title for his memoir? Did the seven pillars of Wisdom carry some other kind of meaning?
To provide an answer to this question–or the beginnings of an answer–it might be pointed out that the seven pillars of Wisdom are also mentioned in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.
Graves was a renowned war poet, just as Lawrence was a wartime writer. Their connection and sharing of ideas deserves to be excavated deeply by scholars. Perhaps they already have written studies of which I’m unaware.
Graves reviewed Lawrence’s memoir and edited the poem that opens Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The poem is “To. S.A.” and may have been addressed to Selim Ahmad, a young Syrian boy. It is written in such a way that it could address the Arab nation as a whole:
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me […] (ln. 1-4)
Freedom is a word seven letters long. Each letter represents one pillar in Wisdom’s house. Thus, Freedom is a kind of wisdom, or perhaps it is wisdom that makes you free.
Although I am not certain how Robert Graves edited this poem, he may have left the mark of his own ideas upon it, either directly in the editing process or by influencing Lawrence in other ways, such as through their correspondence. Since Lawrence was a bookish man as well as a soldier, he might have read Graves’s poetry and nonfiction works himself. Whatever the case, Lawrence’s poetic use of the seven pillars motif and his correspondence with Graves cannot be entirely coincidental. Not when Chapter 15 of The White Goddess is entitled “The Seven Pillars.”
Any deeper connection between Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The White Goddess evades me. I’m going to call the connection suggestive and leave it at that. But in case you were curious about what Graves does say in “The Seven Pillars,” let us hear it:
the seven pillars of Wisdom are identified by Hebrew mystics with the seven days of the Creation, with the seven days of the week. (259)
But since this is a book about ancient druid rituals and Welsh bards, a miscellaneous trove of Celtic lore, Graves finds a correlation with Irish tree symbolism.
The seven sacred trees of the Irish grove are “birch, willow, holly, hazel, oak, apple and alder” (259). Each tree corresponds to a day of the week and a deity of the classical pantheon. Alder corresponds to Saturn (Saturday), apple to Venus (Friday), oak to Jupiter (Thursday), willow to the Moon, or Circe (Monday), holly to Mars (Tuesday), birch to the Sun (Sunday). The seventh tree, hazel, corresponds to Mercury and its day falls in the middle of the week, on Wednesday. Wednesday in English is named after Odin (Woden), the Norse god of wisdom, which means his sacred tree, the ash, may be substituted for Mercury’s hazel. Not accidentally, Mercury is also a god of wisdom. Hence, you have the seven pillars of wisdom. You might imagine each tree in Wisdom’s house being carved from one of each type of wood–provided Irish trees could grow in ancient Israel.
Is there any connection between these gods, the days of the week, the planets, the sacred trees, and the seven greatest cities of the Middle East? The numerical symbolism is certainly striking and suggestive. What it means is anyone’s guess.
To conclude, it is interesting to casually note that Graves provides a classical Latin message hidden within the acronym of the first letters of the sacred Irish trees. Perhaps this will give us our final hint about the connection of Graves to Lawrence of Arabia. “Benignissime, Solo Tibi Cordis Devotionem Quotidianam Facio.” In English, this reads, “Most Gracious One to Thee alone I make a daily devotion of my heart” (260).
A line that Lawrence could well have spoken to his dear Selim, as a message to the Arab people.
Thank you, llamaladysg, for providing T.E. Lawrence’s original poem:
Most of Robert Grave’s changes were in the third stanza. This is the original version as written by T. E. Lawrence. I much prefer this one.
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.
Death was my servant on the road, till we were near
and saw you waiting:
When you smiled, and in sorrowful envy he outran me
and took you apart:
Into his quietness.
So our love’s earning was your cast-off body,
to be held one moment
Before earth’s soft hands would explore all your face
and the blind worms transmute
Your failing substance.
Men prayed me to set my work, the inviolate house,
In memory of you:
But for fit monument I shattered it unfinished, and now
the little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
In the marred shadow
Of your gift.
The third stanza in the version that Robert Graves edited runs as follows.
“Love, the way-weary, groped to your body, our brief wage
ours for the moment
Before earth’s soft hand explored your shape, and the blind
worms grew fat upon
While I agree that the first lines of the third stanza in Lawrence’s original poem flow more easily, I agree with Graves’s call to concretize Lawrence’s original verb, “transmuting,” into the more vivid verb clause, “grew fat upon.”
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?
He spoke in a small presentation room called Broadway I in the Saratoga Hilton at Saratoga Springs, NY, introducing for the first time the central concept behind his new novel. It was Guy Gavriel Kay giving the origin story behind Children of the Earth and Sky, due for release this Spring, and I was among the privileged few to hear him read from his new novel–the most anyone has ever learned about his latest historical fantasy.
This was only one of the many highlights over the weekend, but it was the highlight to which I had most been looking forward. I may not own Guy Kay’s complete works, but I have read them all and that includes not just Fionavar Tapestry and all of his historical fantasies, but his poetry volume Beyond this Dark House as well.
Before going into the details of his new novel that were revealed during his reading, let me at first attempt to describe my experience of what went down during the first few days (Thursday and Friday) of the World Fantasy Convention. There were many panels and big-name, even venerable, authors of both fantasy and science fiction–as well as authors of horror and weird tales, and their editors, publishers, and even some literary agents.
I arrived late Thursday evening, but I was on time to attend three plays by Lord Dunsany. The tone of the these plays was British-mannered and satirical and included play where a thief gone to heaven strives to break the lock of the pearly gates–but finds only the stars of the firmament on the other side.
I was rooming at the convention with a celebrity, as I discovered, although to me he was just a normal guy I was able to connect with in order to share a room: Usman T. Malik is an author of weird fiction and very popular in Pakistan, the first from his country to win a Bram Stoker Award. His story “Resurrection Points” was published in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. II, which was one of the many books I bought at the convention.
Upon first entering the convention, we were handed canvas bags loaded with 4-5 free books. Already this was more books than I had anticipated bringing home, but then again, I had yet to learn the ways of World Fantasy. These books included an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of soon-to-be-released novel The Alchemist’s Council by Cynthia Masson, which I will strive to write a review for before its release date.
The funky thing about this book is that it was published by ECW Publications, to which I have a connection. Robert Lecker, who was my professor throughout several classes on Canadian literature at McGill and for whom I am now employed as a research assistant, was an ex-editor at ECW when it was a magazine called Essays in Canadian Writing. Nowadays, although they kept the copyrighted acronym, the publishers changed the meaning of ECW to Entertainment Culture Writing and are now publishing fantasy and science fiction, among other genres including non-fiction and literary fiction. While I knew Lecker had been with ECW, I was not aware they were publishing in my genre and I was quite surprised to see them at Saratoga!
Thursday night I chilled at the Canadian SF party, listening to David Hartwell, editor of Tor’s Years Best anthologies, talk informally about how a lot of authors nowadays are being taught how to write publishable material, but rare is the writer who can write with voice and rise to greatness. Guy Kay was circulating about the room as I listened, but I missed my chance to speak with him right then. The next day, Friday, I had a better opportunity to do this.
Friday, I attended two panels before walking into Guy Kay’s reading and learning the long-kept secret of the subject of his latest novel.
One of these panels was “Ur-Fantasies: It all Started With…” and it was composed of Tod McCoy, a Seattle-area small press publisher, Roderick Killheffer, a reviewer and publisher for 25 years, Michael Dirda, a reviewer for the New York Review of Books and who was a medievalist in grad school, Rosemary Claire Smith, who was written for Analog using her experience as an archaeologist, and Barbara Chepaitis, a novelist and the panel’s moderator. What were the first, original fantasy texts? Do they stretch back to The Epic of Gilgamesh or even earlier? Michael Dirda talked about his discovery of the Icelandic sagas as a sort of Ur-fantasy; he called them and I paraphrase, “spaghetti westerns on ice.” Barbara Chepaitis called Scheherazade’s storytelling in The Arabian Nights “the first civil disobedience” since Scheherazade’s tales, designed to always end on a hook, keep interesting the king, thus delaying his plan to execute her in order to ensure her marital fidelity. Telling stories, she saves the kingdom from the murderous rampage of the king, who has already killed hundreds of previous wives. Chepaitis also provocatively mentioned the Iroquois Peacemaker’s Epic, which recounts the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy by chief Hiawatha, as a counterpoint to fantasy epics that tend to constantly revolve around warfare.
“Scale in Epic Fantasy–Tensions between the Epic and the Intimate” involved Chris Gerwel, Ilana C. Meyer, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Glen Cook, with Joshua Palmatier as moderator. How can one write an epic fantasy that also treats intimate moments of human relationships? How do you balance character interaction with the wider lens of a Risk board of military conquests? The market expectation, Palmatier opened, is for vast, sprawling epics. But readers relate to more intimate moments. Striking this balance, I must note, is something Guy Gavriel Kay is excellent in doing.
A good example of pace and scale failing was the example of the Peter Jackson Hobbit films, the panel proposed: Tolkien’s story is intensely focused on Bilbo’s psychology and relationship with the dwarves, while Jackson erred in making the 3-part film too epic in scope. Glen Cook told us that he knows pace more intuitively and that it is his habit to write his entire novel by hand, then type it on a computer and go through 2-3 drafts in that way. Ilana C. Meyer suggested the helpful screenwriter’s trick for writing any scene: “in late, out early.” Chris Girwell suggested that first person voice is an excellent way of filtering a wider, epic world through a single character’s perspective. The panel also seemed to agree that multiple third-person POVS can be useful for presenting the perspectives of diverse people positioned in all walks of life, enabling an author to present a wider sense of events than a single perspective can.
Following this panel, I made a dash to catch the beginning of Guy Gavriel Kay’s reading. The following is a paraphrase of the story Guy Kay told us.
The story behind the creation of Children of the Earth and Sky began eight or nine years ago when Kay was touring Croatia with an editor friend while heading for a librarian conference. They were making for the coast and the editor suggested he write about the Uskoks. Kay explained how upon hearing the name, he promptly asked his editor, “What?” in a “suave and urbane fashion,” he assured us. But he really had never yet heard of this culture of Dalmatian coastal pirates operative during the Renaissance. These Uskoks raided the borderlands of the Ottoman, Venetian and Holy Roman Empires in the Adriatic Sea. They regarded themselves as heroes, “warriors of the border.”
What this growing interest in the Uskoks produced is a novel set in the generation following the fall of Sarantium, which in terms of Kay’s ‘quarter-turn of the fantastic’ world-building corresponds to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Which means we have a novel set in the Renaissance that contains a significant section set in a city state evocative of Venice, with other locales to be revealed in the Spring.
I was slightly disappointed that Kay wasn’t turning towards North America for his inspiration this time around, which was my grand theory, but I felt a growing excitement for his new concept. The cover, which contains an ocean, a backdrop of a map, and a fleur-de-lys, along with a title evocative of Plains Indian mythology, suggested a novel set in New France, however inconsistent that would be with the Plains Indians. Kay had employed Plains culture in Fionavar Tapestry. My theory may have been a long shot in retrospect, but it’s easy to get excited about the actual concept Kay has now chosen: pirates!
Emphatically–and this is interesting in relation to the earlier panel on scale in epic fantasy–Kay describes his new novel as not being about kings, emperors, and courtiers, but about people who are powerless, unimportant. Children of the Earth and Sky revolves around five protagonists from various milieus who struggle to cope with what history sends their way. Illuminating the lives of secondary characters is something Kay has almost always been interested in and which truly showed itself in his two latest Chinese novels, Under Heaven and River of Stars. However, Children of the Earth and Sky will be different in how it focuses on unimportant and disempowered characters.
I heard Kay read the tense opening scene of one of these characters’ stories. This involved a painter who produces a scandalous portrait of a countessa and lives to regret it. You could feel Kay’s strong love of art history expressed in how he weaved sexual tension into the drama of a artist’s struggle, providing insight into the secret behind this painter’s work, a canvas that depicts a woman’s knowing smile. Leonardo Da Vinci he is not, however: he soon finds himself in hot water. The dramatic pauses and practiced pacing of Kay’s reading combined to create a highly professional performance that promised only good things to come with the Spring release.
The epigraphs to the new novel are borrowed from poem No. XXX in Look, Stranger! by W.H. Auden (“We swayed forward on the dangerous flood of history…”) and from the poem “Parable” by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Louise Glück.
I, for one, am going to try to apply to Penguin for an ARC and be among the first to review it. If I am successful, I will write a review informed by my knowledge of Kay’s entire oeuvre, having previously written a 50-page Honours thesis devoted to his works. As such, you can trust it will be a well-informed review.
Next week look out for an account of the second half of my experience at the World Fantasy Convention, in which I interview Charles de Lint!