Picture a cold, damp hut, surrounded by mischievous crows, on the banks of a swollen river, against the backdrop of a smoky, nineteenth-century city awash in crime lifted straight out of a penny dreadful. Add this to the miserable squalor: that the resident of said hut, one Robin Sparrows, serves as office clerk to a predatory law firm whose motto, Lupi pastores erunt, means ‘the wolves shall shepherd them.’ Not exactly the image of a virtuous law practice, although its clerks do command a respect of their own. It is this dank, putrid, and, yes, miserable world that Mister Sparrows must navigate in order to solve a case that will carry him everywhere from the slimiest sewers to the poshest neighborhoods.
Claudon is the capital city of Albion and a metropolis of a far-stretching empire–quite like London in its Victorian heyday. News of distant wars from the colonies stirs its population into patriotic fervor, the singing of anthems and ballads, and hero worship. One such hero, Captain Dearing, will present a gift to the ambassador of Crocodon, a set of graven images, to help ease tensions following the Crocodile War. Against this backdrop, Sparrows must deliver a mysterious package to the infamous blackguard Kermit J. Tarnish.
The Scoundrel of the Empire, the Shame of His Majesty’s Redcoats, Tarnish committed the unpardonable crime of kidnapping the Crocodon princess. Sparrows’s mission is a top secret delivery to Tarnish’s dark prison cell, but to apply Murphy’s law, not everything goes according to plan.
Dickensian in its squalor and cartoonish humour, each chapter titled with the “In which” of a nineteenth-century novel, The Miseries of Mister Sparrows cannot help but make the reader laugh at its quirky characters and the–need I say miserable?–circumstances into which Mr. Sparrows constantly stumbles headlong. There is some intentional slapstick to the humour at the same time as you feel Mr. Sparrows’s cold plight seep into your bones. Matthew Timmins boldly sets out to pastiche the humour of P.G. Wodehouse, a task at which few have succeeded. Since I myself have never read Wodehouse, I will leave it to the discerning leader to judge his success. However, the playful nineteenth-century style he opens his novel with remains consistent until the end, a real accomplishment that lends a great texture to the novel.
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.
Canada has been celebrating the discovery of Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated ship, the Erebus, since early September. Along with the Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, this ship carried Franklin and his crew on their fatal quest for the Northwest Passage, which lasted three years (1845-1848). For most of that time, Franklin was stranded, a prisoner of the arctic ice. When finally his ships sank, the crew was forced to go overland on foot. They all eventually met their end, through cold and starvation.
This latest–and first successful–search for Franklin’s Lost Expedition was the last of six made since 2008, according to Tom Spears from Postmedia (“Shipwreck”). But many other expeditions to recover the ships were undertaken during the twentieth and nineteenth centuries–including that of Knud Rasmussen who visited the region from 1921-1924. He was also the first European to cross the Passage by dogsled.
So, you may ask, What does all this have to do with a mythopoeic Canadian poet who was active during the ’60s and ’70s and is now regrettably out-of-print?
Gwendolyn MacEwen’s volume of poetry Afterworlds contains a narrative long poem based on Rasmussen’s search for the Franklin Expedition, entitled “Terror and Erebus.” It takes the form of a fictional dialogue between Rasmussen and Franklin, the historical past conversing–or failing to converse–with the narrative present. Rasmussen follows the explorer through the same unforgiving landscape, his only advantage being the comforts of more advanced technology. Decades and Franklin’s watery grave separate them from each other, but the present nonetheless strives to connect to the past.
MacEwen also deals with history in King of Egypt, King of Dreams, The T.E. Lawrence Poems, and, to a lesser extent, Julian the Magician. “Terror and Erebus” is a fusion of history and fantasy–that is to say, her own mystical reflections projected onto the past. She balances her historical, documentary subject matter with her impeccable poetic sensibility. The Arctic landscape becomes a wasteland where the self loses itself, faced with the harshness of the cosmos. These are some, at times, terrifying verses. The staggered lines recall the jagged fjords of ice that Captain Franklin would have had to traverse on his miserable voyage, his existential journey. Now, with the discovery of the Terror, it is a timely moment to reflect on Franklin’s terror at finding himself in this frigid, blank landscape.
MacEwen’s long poem opens with the following mood-setting lines:
King William Island . . . latitude unmentionable.
But I’m not the first here.
They preceded me, they marked the way
………………. .with bones
White as this ice is, whiter maybe,
The white of death,
………………..of purity” (41).
Rasmussen attempts to interpret the signs that mark the trail of the expedition. He has the impression that Franklin “created the Passage / By willing it to be” (42). Furthermore, Franklin’s quest is interpreted as his search for “a passage from imagination to reality” (42). In this respect, “Terror and Erebus” explores the dividing line between reality and fantasy in way that can be compared to Julian’s illusion-spinning in Julian the Magician.
Franklin responds to Rasmussen, or at least it seems that way. His voice never really does reach Rasmussen, although the reader can see how Franklin ‘responds’ to Rasmussen’s speech, in a way. “I brought them here, a hundred and twenty-nine men, / Led them into this bottleneck, / This white asylum,” remarks Franklin. “My ships, the Terror, the Erebus / Are learning the meaning of their / names” (43). Erebus is a personification of darkness, a god born from Chaos in Greek mythology. The irony of the ship’s name is appropriate; the ship is surrounded desperately by endless white, but the history Rasmussen is trying to unravel is full of darkness.
MacEwen’s interests in dualities, psychology, and archetypes appear throughout the poem, adding depth to the existential situation in which Franklin and Rasmussen both find themselves alone. Although Franklin did not necessarily think these thoughts, they are all a part of the poet’s reflection on his subjection to the landscape. Franklin asks the captain of the Terror:
“Crozier, what laws govern
This final tug of war
between life and death,
the human polarities?
……………….. The ice
Is its own argument” (46).
After a harsh winter, Franklin abandons his ships struck in an ice flow that is “drifting south / Itself, like a ship” (47). He does so “in a kind of horrible birth, / a forced expulsion / From those two wombs” (47). Later, punning off Crozier’s name, which refers to a bishop’s staff containing a cross, the overland march becomes a walk towards crucifixion on Good Friday, “April 21, 1848” in the log (48).
The geography of the Arctic is alien, and the metaphysical truths Franklin believes in hold no more reality when he has sailed beyond Ultima Thule:
“Whoever said that Hell was darkness?
What fool said that light was good
………………..and darkness evil?
In extremes all things reverse themselves” (49).
One of the most memorable images, in my reading, is of the ivory visors Rasmussen remarks upon, the kind with narrow slits that Inuit wear to keep away the snow glare. Existentially overwhelmed in the sheer vastness of the Arctic, the expedition can only protect their naked eyes with “those ridiculous / instruments / That keep the cosmos out” (50).
With no food to eat, the Franklin expedition may have resorted to cannibalism. MacEwen depicts this horrific likelihood with a series of startling images:
“the snow turns red, there are sounds
………………..of men puking, and sounds
Of knives scraping bone.
They are eating
………………..one of their dead” (50).
Now that the expedition has fallen so far beyond what is considered human and reasonable, Rasmussen remarks, “Now Crozier, now you’ve come / To the end of science” (52). Wishing for their salvation is futile. Crozier asks, “What magnet do I know of / That will pull us south?” (53)
Franklin’s crew were all doomed. Scarce traces of the expedition survived, though there was one cairn containing a message supposedly left behind by the survivors. Part of what enabled the 2014 expedition to finally discover the Erebus at the bottom of the sea, however, was the testimony of Inuit oral history. Rasmussen uncovers this testimony in the poem from the Inuit Qaqortingneq, who says, “I remember the day / When our fathers found a ship” (54). The Inuit, like Rasmussen, are faced with a mystery: what to make of the strange, foreign ship they find captured in the ice floe. Unfamiliar with European technologies, “they went aboard the great ship / As though into another world / Understanding nothing” (54).
The poem concludes with a return to Rasmussen’s conviction that Franklin, though he failed to find it, was nonetheless utterly convinced of the Northwest Passage’s existence. In the end, there is a difference between this absolute certainty and the fact that we “cannot know […] where the passage lies /Between conjecture and reality” (57). Frankin had deduced that the Northwest Passage did exist, yet he died trying to find it. Certainty is not the same as discovering the reality behind that certainty. That was the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, and it is also what makes uncovering the past so difficult–indeed, it is essentially impossible.
In our day, light has been shone onto the Erebus, the god of darkness’s ship. Our knowledge of Franklin’s tragedy will become fuller in due time. Just as Rasmussen attempts to recover the Terror and Erebus , our age can look back upon MacEwen’s “Terror and Erebus,” and her potent reflections on the sacrifices involved in exploration.
MacEwen, Gwendolyn. “Erebus and Terror.” Afterworlds. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. 41-57.
Spears, Tom. “Shipwreck identified as Franklin’s flagship.” Montreal Gazette. 2 Oct. 2014. A2
What if dragons and their riders formed their own corps of soldiers adjacent to the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? You get Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, the first novel of which, His Majesty’s Dragon, I have just finished reading on my Kobo.
William Laurence, a Royal Navy captain engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, captures a French ship bearing unusual cargo: a dragon’s egg. When it hatches, the creature accepts Laurence as his master, changing the captain’s life forever. Laurence names the dragon Temeraire, thinking of the name of a British ship. ‘Temeraire’ means ‘bold,’ ‘reckless,’ ‘dauntless,’ and is the sort of name a navy man without experience in the Aerial Corps would bestow.
Here you see the real originality of Novik’s world: Temeraire is named after a ship, hinting that dragons take the place of ships in this alternate nineteenth-century universe. Lawrence does not become the sole, independent rider of a dragon but the captain of a dragonback crew. Temeraire truly becomes one of His Majesty’s dragons, flying alongside His Majesty’s ships, which are trying to prevent the transports for Napoleon’s army from crossing the Channel.
Laurence initially loathes the idea of becoming a member of the Aerial Corps. However, he sees that he has no choice but to join, given his profound sense of duty. It means he must forsake his promising Navy career. He will also never be able to enjoy social functions, since those in the Corps live in isolation due to the nature of their duty and are even looked upon as social outcasts. Lawrence must furthermore lose the hand of a woman he has never formally courted.
But as Temeraire grows in size from a hatchling, so does Laurence’s bond with him. Soon he learns to favour the company of his dragon over that of human society. He learns to accept his lot as Corps captain.
Mix Master and Commander with Eragon and you might think you have a good idea of Novik’s concept for this historical fantasy world. But the truth is more complicated than that; dragons are an analogue for warships and function alongside the Navy. This element of fantasy shows how similar an exchange of broadsides in a naval engagement is to dragon fire.
I was uncertain what to expect wading into His Majesty’s Dragon, but I was pleasantly surprised. The prose style alone is remarkable; Novik uses polite semicolons to render her dialogue and style into the period cadence. Temeraire is about as polite in his speech as dragons come; he is the sort of dragon to whom you could read an Isaac Newton treatise over a cup of earl grey. Temeraire is also special for another reason, an unusual feature of his that makes him feel different from other dragons. But that I leave readers to discover.
The first chapters of His Majesty’s Dragon set off at a roaring start. It was a pleasure to not only learn about the biological aspects of dragons and their military uses, but the social consequences of humans who associate themselves with the creatures. Although the middle sags, when Laurence and Temeraire must train for war and get to know about life in the Corps, it picks up at the end and introduces the sequel around a promising premise. I was personally hoping that premise would get addressed in His Majesty’s Dragon, but I suppose I would have to buy Throne of Jade to find how it plays out.
Alex Fratarcangeli, the protagonist of Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species, works on a Ph.D. proposal that could change literary academics: he chooses to analyze literary texts in the light of Darwinism. As its title suggests, the novel is about Alex’s relationship to the life of Darwin and his seminal The Origin of Species. On the road, he lives through various failed romantic relationships and tries to learn what it means to be a father. This journey culminates in the production of a Ph.D. proposal that I believe to be both fascinating and potentially revolutionary, if academia takes these ideas seriously. In Ricci’s fictitious 1980s Montreal setting, academia does not.
Having achieved an MA in Victorian Studies, Alex pursues his Doctorate and is assigned Jiri Novak as his supervisor, a man with a troubled past. He has an idea about what he wants to explore, but he struggles to come up with the revelation that will tie his thesis together: kind of like the way I am currently searching for my Master’s research essay topic. Not even Jiri, however, can deny the simplicity and revolutionary potential in Alex’s work, even if the institution of academia finds Darwinism a tough pill to swallow.
What emerges is the argument that narrative is older than humankind. As Darwin’s discoveries about evolution once put humans in their not-so-special place in the animal kingdom, so does Alex’s thesis put all of literature in perspective with biology. To paraphrase Ricci, narrative is not the hallmark of human self-consciousness, but a path to it, a journey in itself.
The masked booby of the Galapagos presents its mate with a series of gifts that indicate the male’s desire to give the female a life of happiness. This, and interactions like it across the animal kingdom, prove that “happily ever after” is a story that goes beyond the human.
Bringing this understanding in light of my own research, I am astounded to think that Tolkien’s transcendent vision of the fairy tale’s happy ending, eucatastrophe, should be part of some biological imperative. No doubt Tolkien, who believed in the Christian resonance of eucatastrophe, would find Alex’s thesis radical.
Darwinism is often described as leading to the rise atheism in the nineteenth-century, a slaying of the ultimate Father–who was also Tolkien’s Father. Without God, what becomes of transcendence? Must narrative itself become arbitrary, without an overriding scheme? Is storytelling a denial of Darwinian competition and randomness in how it attempts to map order onto an orderless world? Is storytelling itself a fantasy of an order that no longer exists?
Of course, we see fantasies that have tragic endings. I need hardly mention Game of Thrones. But there is also the branch of historical fantasy, which blends Tolkien’s eucatastrophe with historical probability, often placing a moment of refuge, instead of an outright happy ending, amid a larger historical catastrophe, such as war and famine. When you consider Clute’s five points of the fantasy novel structure (wrongness, thinning, recognition, healing, eucatastrophe), and all that description of florid, healthy natural habitats in Thomas Convenant, you are left with the sense that this structure is tied to ecosystem. Fantasy magic is related to the “health of the land.” Is this a memory of how narrative, like the structure of life itself, is “primal beyond reckoning?” (Ricci 400).
Could it be that eucatastrophic literary fantasy is a leftover from a protohuman mating ritual?
Suddenly, why so many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels–I’m thinking of The Lions of Al-Rassan above all–end with romantic couplings at the end becomes clearer than glass: eucatastrophe is itself a promise of sexual fulfillment. It is a fulfillment that often occurs despite the catastrophes of history. And in its promise of happily ever after, what the characters offer their beloveds is refuge: from the trials of history, the world, all the forces of eat-or-be-eaten.
What Darwinism implies about fantasy as a mode is a whole other ball of wax. Perhaps fantasy itself has a rather obvious sexual origin. “Happily ever after” may itself be the fantasy that spawned all fantasies, making fantasy itself older than mankind.
In fantasy literature, as in other forms of narrative, animal instinct lies at the foundation stone. When reflecting on how physical bodies of ancestral creatures came to influence the bodies of texts, Alex reflects, “Somewhere in literature’s dark beginnings there had to be real blood on the page, there had to be real bodies being sacrificed or being saved” (82). Even in the midst of his Darwinist reverie, the religious connotations in this line is intriguing. I believe it reminds the reader that Christ’s death–a body sacrificed so humanity may be saved–spawned a body of text. Perhaps in the even more distant past of the Bible, there were animal bodies whose narratives human beings inherited. Such creatures may have given us the greatest love story of all, the greatest eucatastrophe–according to Tolkien, the Resurrection.
Yet this “blood on the page” has a more eerie connotation: Doctor Faustus and his deal with the devil for knowledge. Perhaps Alex’s devotion to Darwinist ideas are his signature on a satanic contract. A hubristic scholar, Alex is beset by frustrations on all sides. He has sold his soul to academia and blames his partner Liz’s abortion on getting a paper published in Canadian Studies. Perhaps the Chernobyl disaster, referenced often throughout the book, is as metaphor for mess of his life. But if Darwin killed God, then Satan is dead as well, and Alex only serves to entrap himself in a cycle of guilt marked by a fateful trip to the Galapagos islands.
Alex “had always seen Darwinism as just another of the grand schemes for making sense of the world–like Marxism, say, or Freudianism, or New Criticism–that proved all was right with it” (297), but his opinion soon changes as he begins to see the undirected life of Darwinian evolution for what it is. Soon he is offered a chance, perhaps, at redemption, when he learns he has borne a son to his Swedish girlfriend.
Eventually it is Alex’s research into sociobiology that sets his thesis in presentable order: “It was all total anathema to the literary purists insofar as they even deigned to notice anything reactionary–it was just biological determinism writ large, they said, the worst sort of regression, a heartbeat away from social Darwinism and eugenics–but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true” (398).
This theory goes against “everyone,” claims Jiri, his supervisor. “The Marxists, the feminists, the deconstructionists, everything that’s happened in the past twenty years” (409). Just as Darwin unhorsed the theism of his time, Alex threatens to overturn the other structures of significance literary theorists have built for themselves over the years, proving that literature is at base biological.
“I suppose it’s like Derrida,” Alex explains at an earlier point in the book. “This idea that there’s a whole structure in our minds that controls how we think. Except that instead of language or binary opposite or something like that, it’s genetic” (75).
If the radical theory of literary criticism contained within Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species ever builds steam within the real world of academia, I have a feeling it could change the landscape. Alex is one fictitious character against a conservative institution, but his theory is simplifying, like all great theories, including Darwin’s, are. Time will tell the extent of the consequences of evolutionism, Darwinism, and sociobiology on the field of literary studies. Personally, I cannot wait to see the effects of the ideas on fantasy literature.
What do you get when you combine Tolkien and the Western? Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
Meet Roland, the last gunslinger. He’s Aragorn meets John Wayne. A solitary man “wandering but not lost,” he carries two six-shooters that were once his father’s pistols. His single quest, which he pursues with an instinctual audacity, is summarized in the iconic first line of the novel. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Every single sentence seeps with the brooding, gritty mood of the Western genre and with the unforgiving cadence of a landscape that has, we are continually reminded, “moved on.” The desert is the “apotheosis of all deserts,” a world reminiscent of the American Southwest. In fact, it takes place in the future, a post-apocalyptic world that shares certain features with King’s other epics, such as The Stand, Salem’s Lot, and It.
We follow Roland as he runs among the ruins of a technologically advanced civilization identical to the twentieth-century USA. Most gadgets have ceased to work and people have fallen into a semi-feudal, semi-frontier society of small settlements. Petroleum, for example, is so valuable that one man becomes a Delphic oracle by inhaling fumes at a gas station.
The story follows Roland as he encounters a dweller in the wilderness named Brown and his talking raven Zoltan. Forming a brief but tense friendship, he tells them both the story of his journey to Tull, where he falls in love with a woman named Allie and has an adventure with the fire-and-brimstone preacher Sylvia Pittson. But the man in black has passed through town and his spells have laid a trap. As Roland tells his story, you find out that he is an ambiguous figure with a capacity for both heroism and merciless violence.
His real challenge comes later, when he meets Jake, a boy from New York. He takes Jake as his own ward as he pursues the man in black over the mountains at the end of the desert. In the end, however, his bond with the boy will come in conflict with his destiny, pushing Roland’s moral endurance to the limit.
This novel has entranced me ever since I read a Gunslinger novella years ago “The Little Sisters of Eluria.” I had no context to the narrative, but I immediately took to the crazy, gritty story of zombies and cannibal nuns. It further drew me on after I learned where King got the title for his series: a song from Shakespeare’s King Lear sung by Edgar, who is posing as a madman at the time.
“Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man.”
Just as the “child” Rowland (“child” or “childe” refers to a squire who has yet to be knighted) pursues the Dark Tower, so does the last gunslinger. But he isn’t British: he’s definitely American. And he is no longer a “child,” but a man. In fact, Roland at one point recalls his own rite of passage ceremony, in which he duels Cort, his training master in Gilead, Roland’s now-vanished hometown. Another work of literature featuring Roland is Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Stephen King’s series, however, remains the longest sustained treatment of Roland’s quest. (Of course, he is not a gunslinger in Browning, but a knight errant.)
A third factor that drew me to read The Gunslinger was how it was inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Sergio Leone’s movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In his understated introduction to the expanded edition, Stephen King describes how he knew he was going to get Norse mythology wrong if he wrote an epic too similar to Tolkien. So he borrowed from a genre with similar epic potential, a genre that forms the central mythos of American identity: the Western.
I would have to agree that King wrote a more honest Tolkienesque epic fantasy novel using the Western. Books like The Sword of Shannara slave too closely to the plots of the “father of modern fantasy” so as to seem derivative or worse: a simple copy. Tolkien borrowed from Norse and Celtic mythology because that was the mythology of his homeland, Great Britain. King borrowed from the Western mythology of his own country, the United States.
I once wrote a website (with bad links) that presented an academic argument proposing that the genre of modern fantasy was born of an Americanization of British myths into the framework of the “American monomyth.” Essentially, this monomyth is like the stereotypical Western plot: an paradisaical community is threatened by an outside force, the ordinary law can do nothing to stop it, then a hero emerges from within the community, or occasionally from the outside, and stops evil in a final battle or shootout. The story ends with him riding into the sunset. I would not say that King follows this formula precisely, but the way in which The Gunslinger was conceived reminded me of my old observations of the fantasy genre.
Shining through the baggage I brought to it, The Gunslinger left me thirsty for more. The most powerful, resonating aspect of this story is how the mood almost seems to dictate the plot. The world has moved on is the novel’s refrain and the story moves on too. Things are always going to get worse, but Roland’s resolve to encounter the man in black remains a force of constant momentum. A fair word of warning: this novel ends only at the beginning of the series, with a revelation as to the true shape of Roland’s quest, which he at first pursues rather blindly. These facts about the Dark Tower he discovers only at a terrible cost to himself and those few whom he loves.
Dracula is an aristocratic vampire who lurks in a Transylvanian castle, emerging only at night from his casket in an abandoned chapel to stalk the living with unholy horror. He is suave, seductive, can transform into a bat, but is best know for his penetrating incisors, which he uses to suck the blood out of helpless maidens.
The legend of Dracula has seen myriad incarnations, from Tod Browning’s Dracula in which the iconic Bela Lugosi plays the Count to retellings in cartoon versions such as Looney Tunes and The Simpsons. However, it seems that no one incarnation of the Dracula story is consistent with any of the others. Each adaptation recreates the legend anew, including new plot twists, insights into Dracula’s character, and the victims who fall prey to him. But what, then, was the original horror that inspired these retellings?
Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
You might have first been exposed to this original version—as I was—in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie of the same title. Keanu Reeves plays real estate solicitor Jonathan Harker, who visits Dracula while on a business trip. The Count is seeking to buy a house in London, but entraps Jonathan against his will in his castle, where he gradually comes an awareness that the count is “Un-dead,” a being called nosferatu, or Vampire.
In his novel, Bram Stoker opens with the same sequence. Jonathan narrates his story in a personal journal kept in shorthand as he rides on the Orient Express to Transylvania. At first, he does not know why the local peasants give him a crucifix and make warding signs against the evil eye in his presence—as a nineteenth-century man of a scientific age and a member of the Church of England, he has learned to shun superstition. However, the old Catholic rites of Eastern Europe later come in mighty handy, given the power of crucifixes to ward off evil spirits.
The first four chapters are so iconic, that to me they really are the story of Dracula, which we have come to know and love. That is, they show the classic plot that has trickled down to us through the media.
The tale then enters the everyday world of the friendship between two women: Mina Murray and Lucy Westerna. Mina is waiting anxiously to hear back from Jonathan, whose correspondence has stopped. She and Jonathan are planning to be engaged. Meanwhile, three suitors compete for Lucy’s hand in marriage: they are Sir Arthur Holmwood, next in line for the title of his father Lord Godalming, Dr. John Seward, who runs a lunatic asylum, and Mr. Quincey Morris, a Texan gentleman.
After opening like a lightning bolt, the story winds down to the pace of an old movie, slowly rebuilding the suspense. Things get strange when the Demeter, a ship from the Black Sea, crashes into the beach at Whitby without a crew, the captain reduced to a skeletal corpse with his hands tied to the wheel. A bottle containing an addendum to the ship’s log dangles from the corpse’s hands. After reading the captain’s account, we learn that an eerie mist haunted the ship during its passage, various members of the crew disappearing overnight without a trace.
Shortly afterwards, Lucy begins to sleepwalk. When she leaves her bed one night, Mina traces her to a graveyard. There she sees a strange, thin man kissing Lucy’s throat in the darkness. Lucy becomes sick afterwards, growing paler and paler by the day, until Dr. Seward sends a wire to his old Danish professor Abraham Van Helsing, an expert in obscure diseases.
Together, Dr. Seward and Van Helsing work together to find the root of Lucy’s illness and protect her from evil. Unable to discover how she keeps losing blood, they finally discover two small bite marks in her throat, which she had been trying to hide. Perhaps they were made by a dog.
As yet, none of the characters have an inkling that a vampire is amongst them, though Van Helsing is suspicious. However, hints appear here and there that Dracula has come to London. Once Jonathan arrives home with his journal around the middle of the book, Van Helsing puts one and two together. The various characters’ journals, telegrams, and letters—which tell their story—become crucial when the original documents are put together, forming a coherent narrative that at last convinces Mina and Dr. Seward that supernatural evil is afoot.
Van Helsing and Lucy’s suitors then team up to defeat the dark forces of the Un-dead, fighting in a chivalrous battle for the sake of the woman they each love. Leonard Wolf likens the Dracula story the legend of St. George and the Dragon. It is an apt analogy. In a quintessentially English manner, the vampire hunters unite in the defense of the women they love, like knights in shining armour. Mina helps out where she can in acquiring information on the Count, while the men assume the duty and active role of hunting the evil spirits. Alas, the female vampire killer is a product of another century.
There are several discoveries awaiting a reader of Dracula. Aside from the main plot, I had many pleasures in uncovering characters who are often skimmed over in retellings, or erased. For example, there is the sane lunatic Mr. Renfield who worships Dracula in Dr. Seward’s asylum, although at first Seward thinks he is merely zoöphagus, in that he likes to eat live animals, such as flies, spiders, and even birds.
Stoker establishes many of the tropes of later vampire tales. For example, the connection between vampirism and female sexuality is strong. Female vampires tend to be associated with “wanton” sexuality and adultery, as opposed to Lucy and Mina’s purer femininity, which inspires Harker and the others to fight.
Also, Stoker establishes many of the visual/sound effects movie producers would use in later years. This includes the enlarging of a vampire’s mouth into a rectangular shape before it bites, the “hissing cat” sound they make when agitated, and the Count’s ability to climb castle walls. It’s somewhat heartening to know these images were conceived in a world before Hollywood.
On my reading experience of Dracula, I would remind readers that is a product of the nineteenth century. This is certainly not Twilight. I, for one, loved the nineteenth-century diction and style, but I am aware that this style might not be for all. If you like Lord Byron, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Charles Dickens, then you will find that Dracula is written with a similar taste. Expect paragraphs of Van Helsing’s expositional dialogue, for example, and characters describing how they feel through speech.
Furthermore, do not expect the guts-and-gore style of modern suspense. Van Helsing is an old doctor, not Hugh Jackman with an automatic stake-shooting crossbow. As such, the “action” scenes are sparse. However, in what “action” scenes there are, the prose kept me tethered to the story and fixated on what was happening. The spaces between served to augment the suspense and sense of dread—not diminish it. Dracula is more of a haunting presence throughout the story than a character in himself, as he must be.
In conclusion, I still wonder how Dracula was received in 1897. Did people open its covers expecting the same kind of story we expect today? I doubt so, since there has been more than a century of theatre, movie, and TV adaptations of the story that are floating in our subconscious as we read. It seems so hard to imagine reading Dracula without any prior expectations or biases towards the Count and his legend—a difficulty that attests to how deeply Stoker’s legend has taken root in our culture.
Nonetheless, if you are willing to get as close as possible to the original experience of Dracula, then only Bram Stoker’s novel will be able to satisfy your lust.
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
-Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana
Alessan’s mantra for his beleaguered nation, erased from history by the tyrant sorcerer Brandin of Ygrath, forms a central node in the theme of exile and memory in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. A novel set in the Peninsula of the Palm, a landmass that more or less corresponds to Italy, Tigana borrows much of its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance era of warring city-states.
Brandin’s court is like that of the Medici or the Borgia. Ygrath and Barbadior’s conquests can be compared to the expansion of the empires of Spain and France, which were drawn into Italy by unwise allies who wished for them to intervene in their internecine rivalries with city-states such as Florence, Venice, Genoa, and the Papal States. The allies paid for this by being overcome by kings and emperors much more powerful than their own states.
Famously, one man who advised against taking such action was Niccoló Machiavelli. He wrote The Prince—a notorious book, one of the first on pragmatic political science—to advise Lorenzo de’ Medici (grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent) on how to act wisely as the governor of Florence.
In his final chapter, he exhorts Lorenzo to liberate Italy from “the barbarians,” likely a reference to the foreign armies of France and Spain who have taken up permanent residence on Italian lands. It is my observation that Machiavelli’s ideal to for Italian unification—something never accomplished until the efforts of Garibaldi in the nineteenth century—stems from the same national pride as Alessan feels in Tigana.
Which led me to wonder. If Guy Gavriel Kay used Machiavelli in his research, then in what ways could a reading of The Prince enrich our understanding of the conflicts in Tigana? Or a more precise question: is how Machiavelli understands memory and history the same as how Tigana understands it, or is there a difference?
On the surface, Machiavelli’s world—in ways I have already described—greatly resembles the world of Tigana. Brandin himself is a Machiavellian figure, a real Prince interested in establishing his authority across the Peninsula by driving out his rival Alberico of Barbadior. He superficially agrees to the terms of a peace treaty, while scheming to destroy Barbadior the moment it becomes convenient to break the agreement. Alberico, of course, plans to do the same, in a kind of polarized Cold War scenario where only the province of Senzio (perhaps a surrogate for Venice) remains neutral.
Machiavelli has several things to say about memory in The Prince. Some advice that he gives to Lorenzo may as well have been given to Brandin. For example, read the following paragraph from Chapter 5 on “How you should govern cities or kingdoms that, before you acquired them, lived under their own laws”:
“Examples are provided by the Spartans and the Romans. The Spartans took Athens and Thebes, establishing oligarchies there. However, they lost them again. The Romans, in order to hold on to Capua, Carthage, and Numantia razed them and never lost them. They sought to govern Greece according to more or less the same policies as those used by Sparta, letting the Greek cities rule themselves and enforce their own laws, but the policy failed, so in the end they were obliged to demolish many cities in that territory in order to hold on to them. The simple truth is there is no reliable way of holding on to a city and the territory around it, short of demolishing the city itself.He who becomes the ruler of city that is used to living under its own laws and does not knock it down, must expect to be knocked down by it.Whenever it rebels, it will find strength in the language of liberty and will seek to restore its ancient constitution. Neither the passage of time nor good treatment will make its citizens forget their previous liberty.No matter what one does, and what precautions one takes, if one does not scatter and drive away the original inhabitants, one will not destroy the memory of liberty or the attraction of old institutions. As soon as there is a crisis, they will seek to restore them. That is what happened in Pisa after it had been enslaved by the Florentines for a hundred years” (17, my Italics).
Brandin, after conquering the province of Tigana after the Battle of the River Deisa, destroyed its main cities: Avalle of the Towers and the capital Tigana. Avalle, which was inspired by San Gimignano, once had many towers that stretched to the sky. But Brandin’s forces knocked them down, in order to ensure the city’s submission to his rule. Tigana itself (based on Florence, perhaps) was demolished as well, and renamed Lower Corte—Corte having been its bitterest enemy. Avalle was renamed Stevanien, after Brandin’s son, who was killed in battle. These policies seem to be directly inspired by Machiavelli’s advice to Princes in Chapter 5.
The tyrant’s spell adds an extra layer to the political-military strategy of Machiavelli: he uses magic to erase the very name of Tigana from memory and make its name unpronounceable. One particular difference from Machiavelli’s dry strategy and Brandin’s motive to demolish Avalle is that the Tiganese killed his son and he wanted revenge. This does not mean that Brandin acts on his emotions, however. He only knows where to direct his temper. Machiavelli advises on several occasions that a Prince should “lose his temper” deliberately under certain circumstances, such as when he is being lied to (105). The demolition of Avalle would have been one such well-advised occasion for Brandin to become angry.
Machiavelli may have also unknowingly given Brandin the idea to create his spell of obliteration, if the two had ever met in some other dimension. In Chapter 1 of The Prince, Machiavelli remarks how hereditary principalities—territories where it is traditional for a particular aristocratic family to inherit power—are by far the easiest to hold, compared to republics. “Because the state has belonged to his family from one generation to another, memories of how they came to power, and motives to overthrow them, have worn away,” he advises (7).
Brandin was not necessarily planning to share or to pass on his rule. But the implication of how enough time passing eventually legitimizes the rule of a Prince may have attracted to him. Since sorcerers can live to advanced age in Tigana‘s world, he plans to outlive all the Tiganese exiles, who alone carry the memory of their homeland. Once they die, Lower Corte would know no better than that Brandin is the right and honourable ruler of the land.
In addition to these specific remarks about the ability of a ruler to hold onto power by controlling memory, Machiavelli has an understanding of history’s usefulness in deciding policy. He constantly draws upon the patterns of the past in order to find examples that can advise rulers on present courses of action and on their future ambitions. The exploits of ancient Greeks and Romans—some real, others fictitious—are on par with those of other Renaissance Italian Princes, such as Cesare Borgia, Alexander VI, and Savanarola, as examples of what-to-do or what-not-to-do. He assumes the past serves as a map for the unknown.
Kay would use the metaphor of a mirror. “With bronze as a mirror one can correct one’s appearance; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a state; with good men as a mirror, one can distinguish right and wrong”: the epigraph from Under Heaven (by Li Shimin, Tang Emperor Taizong) can apply just as much to Machiavelli’s understanding of political history, as to how Kay invites us to understand history.
That being said, Machiavelli has his detractors, to say the least. Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and a friend of Machiavelli, questioned even the usefulness of bringing the past to bear upon the present, although the patterns might be there for anyone to observe. Who, after all, can say they have ever successfully predicted the future, simply by looking at the past? He also believed that all men, though subject to sin, were essentially good—which Machiavelli’s pessimistic yet pragmatic philosophy seems to deny. “This is how it has to be,” says Machiavelli, “for you will find men are always wicked, unless you give them no alternative but to be good” (73).
Which brings to mind another cynical philosopher and his ideas of history and morality—Friedrich Nietzsche. Notorious in the twentieth century for his belief in Social Darwinism, which inspired the racialist ideas of Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche argued in Geneology of Morals that men behave good because they were given no other alternative.
Like Machiavelli, Nietzsche believed that the autonomy of the sovereign was mutually exclusive with morality. He also believed that all morality developed out of primitive ideas of punishment—that morals were literally beaten into our forefathers, so that as we evolved, we came to obey the laws better. For example, the brutal uses of capital punishment in the past—strangulation, hanging, drawing and quartering, beheading—produced the more civil society we live in during the present day.
I seriously doubt his conclusion on that last point. Nietzsche’s perception is affected by his retrospective analysis. I believe modern “civilization,” as he calls it, emerged because we rejected the brutality and absolutism of the past, not that brutality shaped our modern civilization. However, the idea that morals come from the memory of punishment is interesting in relation to Tigana: the idea that memory is directly tied to pain:
“Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.”
When Alessan speaks these words, it could be said he engages in a (somewhat) Nietzschean understanding of memory—and by extension, perhaps of history and morality as well. He must recall the pain of his exile in order to force himself to remember his nation—and then take moral action.
Nietzsche and Machiavelli exist simultaneously in Tigana: memory (problematically) is both ingrained by pain and an intellectual tool with which to gaze into the past. The heroes of Tigana do not let their fear of punishment lead them to submit to tyrants, but they do wish to experience pain, if it preserves the memory of their homeland. And that experience of self-inflicted pain guides their self-defined morality, to do anything they can to liberate themselves from Brandin’s yoke.
But does morality itself suffer under Alessan’s model? If we can determine our own morality by deciding what to remember and forcing ourselves to remember it—carrying all the pain that memory can bring—can we be expected to reach rational decisions that respect our fellow human beings? Or could this kind of morality cause us to act according to our passions and, more importantly, our self-interest—one of the guiding human principles that Machiavelli (and notably, Thomas Hobbes) understands as the source of all human endeavour?
Just as Brandin is a tyrant, Alessan is literally a Prince. Brandin’s morality—if he has any—is almost driven entirely by the interests of himself as ruler, and those of his state. But behind this self-interest is the burning memory of Stevan’s death at the River Deisa. Prince Alessan, like Brandin, carries the Deisa in his memory, but for different reasons. His father Prince Valentin died in battle, leaving Alessan without a principality to call his own. Is Alessan simply motivated by jealousy for Brandin and his own interest in becoming ruler? Is his nationalist rhetoric only a facade?
Kay intentionally makes Brandin a foil of Alessan, adding good qualities to Brandin and evil qualities to Alessan. For example, Alessan must enslave Erlein di Senzio as his wizard servant, in order to for his master plan to work. Should a man so preoccupied with liberty be damned for making a slave of one man? (Perhaps someone ought to have asked the leaders of the American Revolution this same question, many of whom owned slaves.) Furthermore, Brandin, however ruthless, also has feelings. Dianora, his favourite woman in his saishan and a Tiganese herself, notices that he cared an enormous amount for his son and that he never forgave himself for sending him to fight in battle. She intends to kill Brandin to avenge her country, but finds herself loving the man she has schooled herself so long to hate—even saving him once from an assassin.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s George Seferis epigraph sums up his own beliefs in the ambiguity of holding onto memory:
“What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than necessary, it goes out; if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly.”
A long enough memory can produce a desire in you to avenge all the wrongs ever done to your kind. Witness the damage that extensive memories wreck in Middle East daily. Even Nationalism, which seems a noble enough ideology until you remember the twentieth century, can go too far. Yet having no memory at all utterly robs you of any identity. I like imagining all the whitebread kids lost in the suburban USA being asked what their heritage is, and being unable to answer “English” or “Irish” or “Welsh” or “Scottish.” Assimilation into a melting pot can do as much to erase memory as Machiavellian attempts to snuff it out all at once.
Does Alessan remember correctly? Does Brandin? The answers are ambiguous, although most readers will probably side with Alessan. But it cannot be ignored that Alessan may have easily turned into the villain in Tigana. Nietzsche argued sovereigns were above morality. Yet, following one’s own painful memories might have caused Alessan to think himself above morality while rebelling against the sovereign Brandin, in an effort to fight fire with fire.
Tyrant and rebel: an age-old conflict. Each obeys no law and each is the antithesis of the other. Yet, they are, in so many ways, the same. Nietzsche believed the laws we live by were oppressive. Yet, he also (quite famously) saw a way to rebel against such authority. The creed of the Ismaili Assassins said, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Truths established by tyrants create a certain morality, so disbelieving in those truths frees one to perform any action suitable to overthrowing that power.
Does Alessan follow a similar creed, or does he too have a belief in truth, in morality? It would be worth a re-reading of Tigana to see just how much Alessan uses ends to justify means.
But turning away from Tigana now, other questions emerge. What are the dangers of the Assassins’ creed? If everything is permitted, do we have Hobbes’ State of Nature on our hands? Would followers of the creed then become self-interested, build up social contracts, and then begin punishing others when the contracts are breached, beginning the process of moral development all over again?
Let these questions stand as food for thought. It is not my place now to answer them, and I’ve rambled on enough as it is. But I believe it’s safe to say that memory can be a dangerous thing, especially when it forces us to disregard morality. Perhaps it depends on what we choose to store in our memory as well: if we keep hoarding pain, the fire of memory will grow so large it will consume us.
Feed the fire, but not to excess.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Selected Political Writings. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hacket, 1994. 5-80.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Morals as Fossilized Violence.” The Prince. Transl. Francis Golffing. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1977. 253-275.
Rudowski, Victor Anthony. The Prince: A Historical Critique. New York: Twayne, 1992. 12-17
Though this novel is quite different from the other books I have reviewed, which tend to belong to the fantasy genre, I nonetheless was intrigued to read it, because of three things: the bizarre cover, the awards it has won, and descriptions I had heard about its graphic depiction of violence.
Actually, fantasy readers might like this book because it is a fine work of genre fiction: that is to say, the Western. Westerns follow many of the romance conventions that inspire fantasy novels. Just as Sir Lancelot rides into castles, performs deeds for the king, wins fame and fortune, and rides out, back on his quest for the Holy Grail, Charlie and Eli Sisters, the protagonists of DeWitt’s novel, have multiple side-adventures.
Their quest is to fulfill their contract for the mysterious man named the Commodore, by murdering the prospector Hermann Kermit Warm. But then they begin to question the moral nature of their violent and dangerous job…
The adventures the two Sisters brothers may appear to be random, but in midst of the grit and melancholy of the Old West, little insights into the human condition surface, glowing like pieces of gold dust in a mighty California river.
The story focuses on the relationship between the two brothers Charlie and Eli. Charlie’s the taller and skinnier one, who loves a drink from the bottle, and he’s quicker on the trigger finger than his younger brother Eli. Eli is short and fat, but tries a vegetarian diet, caring for his half-blinded, pathetic horse Tub, much to his brother’s irritation. He’s also one of the only men in the Old West who brushes his teeth. He’s the one with the way for words, who tell the story through his first person perspective.
(Here I find myself describing another Don Quixote/Sancho Panza duo of assassins! Oddly enough, the two villains in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere are also two assassins with a similar character dynamic.)
Since critics often draw attention to the quality of the violence in the story, I had expected there to be more of it. Nonetheless, perhaps that made it easier to read. The style of violence is compared to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is dryly understated, almost casual. Eli gives less attention to some scenes of violence than he does to a description of how he orders a salad. We learn that Charlie is not above threatening someone with his pistol to get what he wants, and I was left wondering several times about whether he would actually initiate a bloodbath, or just let the insults that had been hurled at him slide. I have experienced similar reactions watching Quentin Tarantino films. The violence is well written, but quite glory (a.k.a. not just employing sight, but smell and sound as well).
There are also chilling dialogue scenes, where the words of speech alone somehow convey great fear, or desperation. DeWitt is worth reading simply for the dialogue, and for the way he writes Eli’s thoughts with a sensitivity for eighteenth-century speech patterns. The two brothers’ speech is surprisingly formal, to the point where I thought it was almost like reading Tolkien’s dialogue in The Lord of the Rings, since it was at times so direct and simple.
This novel was my first Western, so if you haven’t been introduced to the genre, The Sisters Brothers may be a good place to start. Also, if you’re interested in finding out what all the buzz is about this American Western written by a Canadian, who won numerous awards for it, including the Rogers Writer’s Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award (not to mention being a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Man Booker Prize), then read this book, by all means.
Also, if you are a fantasy novel reader and wish to get into a new genre, or if you just want to learn about the tropes of the classic Western, then look no further that The Sisters Brothers. Read a book outside your normal stomping grounds, and open a new frontier, as crazy as the Wild West.