Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (1943)

As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful?

This is the second in C.S. Lewis’s theological science fiction trilogy, which consists of:

  • Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
  • Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) (1943)
  • That Hideous Strength (1945)

A recap of Out of The Silent Planet

In the first novel the Cambridge philologist, Ransom, was kidnapped by the physicist Weston and his partner Devine, and flown in their space ship all the way to Mars. Escaping from his captors Ransom discovers that Mars is inhabited by three very different but intelligent life forms who have forged a peaceful working relationship – the Pfifltriggi, the Hrossa, and the Sorns.

Elwin (it’s only in this second book that we learn his first name) Ransom learns the language of Mars, Hressa-Hlab – learns fellowship from the otter-like hrossa, hears wisdom from the tall willow sorns and is taken to the sanctuary of the master spirit or oyarsa who rules Mars which, he learns, is called Malacandra in the local language.

He learns:

  • That what humans take to be the empty space between planets is in fact teeming with spirits the human eye can barely detect, named eldila, in fact space should really be called ‘Deep Heaven’.
  • That each planet in the solar system (or ‘Field of Arbol’) is ruled by a kind of tutelary spirit and that these spirits which can communicate across space.
  • But that some kind of primeval disaster afflicted earth way back in its history, so that its spirit became wicked, or ‘bent’ as the hnau (intelligent creatures) of Mars put it. Hence earth’s name in their culture is Thulcandra, which means ‘the silent planet’.
  • Earth has been ‘enemy’-occupied territory, since before history began (Ch 15)
  • Movement in and out of the silent planet was banned eons ago, to prevent the rest of the solar system from becoming ‘infected’ with its wickedness.

It is symptomatic of Lewis’s goal of sacramentalising the universe that he says we must learn to refer to space not as space – it is not empty space – it is teeming with mystical life forms and replenishing energy – but as ‘Deep Heaven’.

Behind and above the eldila and each planet’s oyarsa appears to be the highest power, which they all refer to as Maleldil. It isn’t made totally explicit, but I think we are meant to take this to mean ‘God’.

When Weston and Devine force their way into the sanctuary of the tutelary spirit, Oyarsa, he tells them he will send them back to earth. Ransom is given the choice whether to stay or to go, and reluctantly agrees to return with them.

All the way, on what turns out to be a gruelling journey, the humans are watched over by eldila who will, Oyarsa tells them, decompose/destroy their space ship within minutes of its safe arrival – to prevent their ever returning.

The space ship just about makes it back to earth, despite running low on food, water, oxygen and flying so close to the sun that Ransom fears the three men’s sight will be permanently damaged. Ransom clambers out of the ship’s manhole cover-type hatch into good old, pouring English rain and stumbles to the nearest pub (the ship has, of course, landed in rural England) where he asks for a pint of good old English beer!

Lewis in the postscript

But of all the strange things that happened in Out of The Silent Planet, for me the strangest was the postscript in which it is revealed that the narrator all along has been named ‘Lewis’, that this ‘Lewis’ is a friend of Ransom’s, and that he has agreed to write up this account of Ransom’s adventures, changing his (Ransom’s) name, and simplifying other matters, in order to make a viable publishable book. Something Ransom politely objects to in a letter from him which is included right at the end of the text and tuts a bit at the simplifications required to lay the tale before the public.

Perelandra

Anyway, if you hadn’t read book one it hardly matters, since almost all of this material is recapped in the mind of the narrator of book two – once again, the first-person narrator, ‘Lewis’ – as he walks through the gathering darkness towards Ransom’s remote college, where Ransom has invited him to come and meet him.

The opening chapter of book two provides a handy summary of all the important points from book one.

But as he walks towards the cottage, Lewis finds himself experiencing a mounting sense of terror, as well as all kinds of hysterical fears – of the dark itself, and a sudden fear that Ransom is maybe not on the side of the angels, but has been recruited by the Dark Side of the universe to wreak harm on earth. By the time Lewis arrives at the cottage, he feels almost hysterical, as if every forward step is having to be fought for.

He lets himself into the cottage where Ransom (who had been away) soon joins him and cheerily explains that, yes, the house is under attack by dark forces, by ‘bent’ terrestrial eldila who had placed all those terrifying thoughts in Lewis’s mind to stop them meeting. That explains the vivid fears Lewis has shared with us readers.

And he also explains that the big, coffin-sized object in the hallway of his cottage is some kind of extra-terrestrial transport device. Because it turns out that Oyarsa has been in contact and told him (Ransom) that he is going to be sent on a mission to Venus, or Perelandra as it’s known by the hnau.

Why? Ransom is not sure but thinks it’s because the dark archon, the bent oyarsa of Thulcandra, is planning some kind of attack on Venus. Obviously not in person, since he cannot pass beyond the orbit of the moon without being repulsed by the other oyarsa and eldila (as explained earlier). So he must be planning to use some other means – and Ransom is being sent to thwart him.

Ransom and Lewis then carry the coffin-shaped object, made of ice-cold white material, out into the garden, Ransom strips naked, climbs into it, Lewis places the lid on top, and – it vanishes.

The book is set, remember, during the Second World War (in chapter 15 we learn it is 1942), a dark time for Lewis and his readers.

A little over a year passes, with all the threats and alarms of war briefly referred to, and then Lewis receives a message from Oyarsa (he doesn’t dwell on how) and hurries down to Ransom’s cottage, accompanied by a mutual friend who is a doctor.

They stand in Ransom’s overgrown garden as a casket-shaped thing is briefly silhouetted against the sun, then glides down at their feet. They open the lid to discover Ransom nude and covered in what appear to be red flower petals, but:

glowing with health and rounded with muscle and seemingly ten years younger. In the old days he had been beginning to show a few grey hairs; but now the beard which swept his chest was pure gold

The canny reader instantly suspects that, whatever tribulations Ransom might have gone through on his year-long trip into space, Lewis is going to emphasise the fundamental justness, beauty and healthiness of the universe. Although we have no inkling of just how much he is going to do that.

Ransom lands and finds the Lady

Ransom awakens to find the coffin-spaceship disintegrating and throwing him into an enormous sea amid vast waves as big as mountains, and a multi-coloured sky. The waves tower as high as alps then plunge again, but the sea is warm and the sky is the colour of gold. Eventually he sees a huge mat-like material going past on the water, swims towards it, clambers ‘ashore’, and falls asleep.

When he awakes he is in a kind of wonderland of beauty, sweet scents, delicious colours, wonderful food.

The world had no size now. Its boundaries were the length and breadth of his own body and the little patch of soft fragrance which made his hammock, swaying ever more and more gently. Night covered him like a blanket and kept all loneliness from him. The blackness might have been his own room. Sleep came like a fruit which falls into the hand almost before you have touched the stem.

When he awakes, he finds the mat is big, big enough to contain woods and clearings, it lies flat on the sea, and it is – a form of paradise.

Over his head there hung from a hairy tube-like branch a great spherical object, almost transparent, and shining. It held an area of reflected light in it and at one place a suggestion of rainbow colouring. So this was the explanation of the glass-like appearance in the wood. And looking round he perceived innumerable shimmering globes of the same kind in every direction. He began to examine the nearest one attentively. At first he thought it was moving, then he thought it was not. Moved by a natural impulse he put out his hand to touch it. Immediately his head, face, and shoulders were drenched with what seemed (in that warm world) an ice-cold shower bath, and his nostrils filled with a sharp, shrill, exquisite scent that somehow brought to his mind the verse in Pope, ‘die of a rose in aromatic pain.’ Such was the refreshment that he seemed to himself to have been, till now, but half awake. When he opened his eyes – which had closed involuntarily at the shock of moisture – all the colours about him seemed richer and the dimness of that world seemed clarified. A re-enchantment fell upon him.

In fact Ransom quickly learns that it really is paradise, for on another ‘island’ floating nearby he sees a human form which, when the ‘islands’ drift closer, he realises is a full-grown naked woman coloured green.

They wave at each other, Ransom takes a risk and plunges into the sea to swim over to her island and…

Realises he really is in the garden of Eden. This woman is wonderfully simple, innocent, trusting and pure. The animals lovingly follow her. She has no ‘home’, there is no village or settlement, there are no ‘others’. Ransom quickly feels himself to be a blunt, ugly creature intruding into a world of prelapsarian harmony. Every single one of his questions prompts her to pause and think and he quickly realises that she is so innocent and unspoiled that even the assumptions behind his questions are new and puzzling to her, He realises he must be careful, chaste, polite, restrained in what he tells her about the otherworlds he knows (earth and Mars).

The only other one of her type she knows is ‘the King’, and she says she will take Ransom to meet him. The King is on the land of green pillars, which she points out. Ransom had glimpsed these, amid the floating islands, and now has it confirmed to him that it is dry land, marked by a set of enormous green columns towering into the air.

The lady calls dolphin-like creatures to the edge of their island and invites Ransom to climb astride one, as she does. The dolphins carry them to the island. They walk around it, Ransom delighting to be on good solid ground again. But then they see a black shape bobbing closer through the waves. It seems to be spherical in shape. Ransom has a bad feeling. It looks exactly like the spherical, steel and glass spaceship in which he, Weston and Devine flew to Malacandra in the first book. Is this the form the ‘attack’ is to take?

Yes. For indeed Weston comes towards the island rowing a little collapsible canoe. Up the beach he clambers and pulls a gun on Ransom, confirming the latter’s worst fears. However, the Lady has not, of course, seen a gun before. Lewis has painted such a convincing portrait of her complete innocence that we believe it when she simply walks away from the two strangers, down to the beach and takes a dolphin off the island.

Now, during the lengthy conversations she and Ransom have had, she has let slip that Maleldil has given her everything she needs for a sweet life, but on one condition, with one rule to be obeyed – that she must not spend the night on the island, she must not sleep on solid ground.

Ransom (being a fallen human) is curious to find out why not. ‘Because it is His will,’ she replies, simply. All else is allowed, everything is free. But to show her obedience to her maker, to make that obedience light and free, there is just this one rule.

This explains why, with night coming on, the Green Lady had hastened down to the shore, quickly whistled up some dolphins (she is followed everywhere by admiring animals) and ridden off. Leaving Ransom to confront Weston.

Ransom and Weston’s theological argument

And to find himself forced into an absurd theological argument. Here on the shore of an island among mountainous seas on a strange planet thirty million miles from home, he finds himself listening to a mad rhodomontade from Weston.

Perelandra was written at exactly the same time as Lewis was giving a series of BBC radio talks about religion (1941-44) which were gathered together into his most popular work of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity.

In his popular Christian works, Lewis not only defended Christian belief and put forward various (light and accessible) ‘philosophical’ arguments for Christianity, but also listed and attacked various ‘modern heresies’, i.e. types of contemporary belief which, he thought, were not only un-Christian, but tended towards man’s unhappiness, if not the active promotion of evil.

It is fairly obvious that the pro-Christian arguments and anti-‘heresy’ arguments which Lewis was working out at this period spill over into Perelandra. Or, probably more likely, he developed the arguments and counter-arguments, and then decided which would be appropriate for radio presentation and which would work best in a fictional setting. And also which could be shown in a fictional setting, namely the peace and harmony of all beings on a prelapsarian planet.

Anyway, it is obvious that Weston is made to represent what Lewis took to be the central strand of contemporary scientific and philosophical thought which he thought had brought the world to the disaster in which it found itself, had led to the rise of Fascism and Stalinism, and the plunging of the whole world into war.

Back in the first book, Weston had stood before the oyarsa of Malacandra and given a long speech declaring it was man’s destiny to colonise the other planets of the solar system and then reach out into space. The implication -that ‘man’ would liquidate or take control of all the inhabitants of all the other planets of the solar system and elsewhere – was clearly depicted as totalitarian if not fascist, a symptom of the disease afflicting the world it was written in (1937-38).

Now Weston shows that he has adapted his beliefs and made them bigger. Previously he had talked about mankind. Now he claims that organic life is driven by a ‘Spirit’, which drove evolution from the very beginning, finding expression in higher and higher beings, a theory known as ‘Creative Evolution’, and very popular among the scientifically minded, among democrats and socialists, who reject orthodox religion, but still wish to find some kind of purpose or forward goal in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Ransom asks whether this ‘spirit’ is good or evil, but Weston sweeps the distinction aside, saying Ransom is too shackled by traditional religious dualisms. The spirit may take ‘good’ or ‘bad’ forms, it’s irrelevant, the thing is its forward, upward momentum, from triumph to triumph (echoing the triumphal rhetoric of the totalitarian states).

And he, Weston, now knows that he has been chosen as the vessel of the Spirit of Man, to take it to the next level. How? He hears the Spirit speaking to him, whispering the secrets of the universe. It helped him create the space ship, it helped bring him here.

Now a notable thing about C.S. Lewis’s Christianity is that he took it literally with a kind of bluff, hearty good sense – he took the stories of Jesus the man casting out devils, raising the dead, performing miracles, as literal truths – much to the mock of his ‘sophisticated’ fellow dons at Oxford – but it was an attitude which rang a bell among a less sophisticated public.

Because Lewis’s very bluntness and literalness does simplify and clarify the Christian message.

Thus Lewis believed in a literal Devil who tempted people. Whereas sophisticated Oxford theologians argued for the devil and hell being allegories or symbols or psychological states, Lewis saw them as literal persons who you could meet and who could talk to you, persuade you, or possess you.

Thus the point of this scene is to show how Weston’s belief in the inexorable triumph of some amoral ‘Spirit of Man’ is not only a mistaken belief which results in shockingly immoral behaviour (Weston quite happily admits he would sell England to Nazi Germany if the spirit told him), but is the result of literal possession by an evil spirit.

It is really impressed on Ransom, that whole schools of modern thought might be heresies in the most literal sense – that they are inspired by the Devil.

That opposite mode of thought which he had often mocked and called in mockery The Empirical Bogey, came surging into his mind – the great myth of our century with its gases and galaxies, its light years and evolutions, its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder. Always till now he had belittled it, had treated with a certain disdain its flat superlatives, its clownish amazement that different things should be of different sizes, its glib munificence of ciphers.

In case there was any doubt about Weston’s possession, Lewis makes it perfectly clear at the end of the scene when, as a result of Ransom’s persistent rejection of Weston’s arguments, the latter works himself up into a frenzy and then collapses and – for a moment – Ransom can see the helpless mortal man writhing in the grip of its evil demon and trying to escape.

‘Idiot,’ said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. ‘Idiot,’ he repeated. ‘Can you understand nothing? Will you always try to press everything back into the miserable framework of your old jargon about self and self-sacrifice? That is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call that Force into me completely. . . .’

Then horrible things began happening. A spasm like that preceding a deadly vomit twisted Weston’s face out of recognition. As it passed, for one second something like the old Weston reappeared – the old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, ‘Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them…’ and instantly his whole body spun round as if he had been hit by a revolver-bullet and he fell to the earth, and was there rolling at Ransom’s feet, slavering and chattering and tearing up the moss by handfuls.

If it is like a scene from The Exorcist this is because Lewis did believe in literal devils and did believe they could literally possess people, as Weston is here, quite clearly, possessed. His ‘wrong’ beliefs about the self-importance of Man, his denial of anything, any God or Moral Law beyond man, set him down the road to becoming the mortal instrument of spirits set on evil.

The result of this conversation, and Weston’s collapse, is that Ransom spends the rest of the novel completely aware that the thing he is facing is not human.

The thing sat down close to the Lady’s head on the far side of her from Ransom. If you could call it sitting down. The body did not reach its squatting position by the normal movements of a man: it was more as if some external force manoeuvred it into the right position and then let it drop. It was impossible to point to any particular motion which was definitely non-human. Ransom had the sense of watching an imitation of living motions which had been very well studied and was technically correct: but somehow it lacked the master touch. And he was chilled with an inarticulate, night-nursery horror of the thing he had to deal with – the managed corpse, the bogey, the Un-man.

The garden of Eden

What if earth  had once also been a paradise? What if that is why the sights and smells and sounds of Perelandra seem not only sweet to Lewis, but deep, as if they recalled ancestral experiences from the origins of his race?

It was strange to be filled with homesickness for places where his sojourn had been so brief and which were, by any objective standard, so alien to all our race. Or were they? The cord of longing which drew him to the invisible isle seemed to him at that moment to have been fastened long, long before his coming to Perelandra, long before the earliest times that memory could recover in his childhood, before his birth, before the birth of man himself, before the origins of time. It was sharp, sweet, wild, and holy, all in one, and in any world where men’s nerves have ceased to obey their central desires would doubtless have been aphrodisiac too, but not in Perelandra.

What if the ancients myths and legends, recorded in the old books, are not – as sophisticated modern atheist philosophy has it – the childish stories made up by illiterate inhabitants of the Dark Ages, but the opposite? Memories of people and values from an earlier time, when humans were closer to some prelapsarian truth, whose memories lingered on after the spiritual disaster which overtook mankind?

He remembered his old suspicion that what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other. He wondered also whether the King and Queen of Perelandra, though doubtless the first human pair of this planet, might on the physical side have a marine ancestry. And if so, what then of the man-like things before men in our own world? Must they in truth have been the wistful brutalities whose pictures we see in popular books on evolution? Or were the old myths truer than the modern myths? Had there in truth been a time when satyrs danced in the Italian woods?

The books are not only an excuse for fantasy – fantasy mountains, flora and fauna, animals, skies and so on, that you might get in Wells and other sci-fi fantasists – but fantasy underpinned by Lewis’s feel for both theology and ancient literature and myth.

From without, most certainly from without, but not by the sense of hearing, festal revelry and dance and splendour poured into him – no sound, yet in such fashion that it could not be remembered or thought of except as music. It was like having a new sense. It was like being present when the morning stars sang together.

Throughout the book the reader is given numerous extended descriptions of the sheer joyousness of the this second Venusian paradise, less in ideas that in countless detailed physical sensations – Lewis very powerfully conveys the idea that Perelandra amounts to a kind of holiday from the normal sensations of the body.

He was riding the foamless swell of an ocean, fresh and cool after the fierce temperatures of Heaven, but warm by earthly standards – as warm as a shallow bay with sandy bottom in a sub-tropical climate. As he rushed smoothly up the great convex hillside of the next wave he got a mouthful of the water. It was hardly at all flavoured with salt; it was drinkable – like fresh water and only, by an infinitesimal degree, less insipid. Though he had not been aware of thirst till now, his drink gave him a quite astonishing pleasure. It was almost like meeting Pleasure itself for the first time.

The very names of green and gold, which he used perforce in describing the scene, are too harsh for the tenderness, the muted iridescence, of that warm, maternal, delicately gorgeous world. It was mild to look upon as evening, warm like summer noon, gentle and winning like early dawn. It was altogether pleasurable

Eden is full of pleasure:

He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed. It could not be classified. He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing. ‘Not like that’ was all he could ever say to such inquiries.

And blissful physical sensations:

He was approaching a forest of little trees whose trunks were only about two and a half feet high; but from the top of each trunk there grew long streamers which did not rise in the air but flowed in the wind downhill and parallel to the ground. Thus, when he went in among them, he found himself wading knee deep and more in a continually rippling sea of them–a sea which presently tossed all about him as far as his eye could reach. It was blue in colour, but far lighter than the blue of the turf–almost a Cambridge blue at the centre of each streamer, but dying away at their tasselled and feathery edges into a delicacy of bluish grey which it would take the subtlest effects of smoke and cloud to rival in our world. The soft, almost impalpable, caresses of the long thin leaves on his flesh, the low, singing, rustling, whispering music, and the frolic movement all about him, began to set his heart beating with that almost formidable sense of delight which he had felt before in Perelandra.

So in Lewis’s theology, pleasure, bliss and joy are not the temptations. Not crediting God with creating everything is the temptation. We will enjoy bliss such as we have never known – but it is all contingent on a right and proper and correct acknowledgement that God made us, that we are the creation, that the creation should endlessly acknowledge the Creator for the gift of existence in all its wonder.

The beautiful setting, the lovely sky, the lapping waters, the docile creatures and the innocently dignified Lady – all make a luminous background against which Weston’s narrow-minded, egotistical, godless philosophy and pointlessly cruel behaviour, stand out all the more as wicked and squalid.

Temptation

Ransom takes a dolphin out to an island where he arrives in darkness, goes ashore and sleeps. When he wakens it is still dark and he overhears Weston tempting the Lady.

Maleldil’s prohibition of sleeping on the island has clearly taken the place of eating the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in this paradise.

Meaningless in itself, it is a marker of the creature’s obedience to the Creator. Ransom feels sick as he listens to Weston’s subtle argument that sleeping on the island will make the Lady wise, make her more woman, will earn the King’s respect, why should she always know less and be subservient to him? And so on. The Lady resists his arguments. Good triumphs. Ransom falls asleep again.

When he wakes again it is to find some of the frog-like creatures he had observed among the Lady’s animal followers maimed and mutilated. To his horror he follows a string of their writhing bodies, each one ripped open along the spine, until he finds Weston at work, torturing one of them. When Weston looks up from his work, Ransom for the first time realises what a devil looks like.

The smile was not bitter, nor raging, nor, in an ordinary sense, sinister; it was not even mocking. It seemed to summon Ransom, with a horrible naïveté of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world and no dispute could ever have occurred about them. It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence. It was beyond vice as the Lady was beyond virtue.

The days begin to blur into one another. Over and over Ransom wakes to hear Weston keep up his unending siege of the Lady’s obedience. Forced to sit by most of the time, as he has to wait for the Lady to ask his opinion, Ransom (and we the reader) witness the prolonged battery of arguments launched from every side with which the un-Man assails the Lady.

It is a sort of tour de force in which Lewis imagines just what the Devil said to Eve in the Garden of Eden, how he overcame her innocence, how he persuaded her that Maleldil had not banned her sleeping on the island in order to ban it as such, but so that she could grow in maturity and confidence, so that she could show both Maleldil and the King that she was no longer a child. Yes both of them would be pleased if she disobeys the ban.’

These and hundreds of other monotonously similar lies Ransom has to listen to again and again, And he is horrified to see it working. Ransom observes the Lady, under Weston’s ceaseless corrupting barrage, for the first time adopting a rather theatrical manner, no longer unself-consciously laughing and speaking but slowly becoming aware of herself, and beginning to pose. Weston gives her a hand mirror which initially surprises here, and then he uses to emphasise her importance, her supremacy, as First Woman to play to her flattery.

Always the weakest point of people is shown to be their egotism – their sense of self. Always their strongest point (in Lewis’s vision) is their sense of something outside themselves, something greater, more powerful, to which they owe gratitude and obedience.

The decision

Eventually there are several pages describing Ransom’s agonised realisation that sitting by and watching primal innocence be corrupted isn’t enough. He has had no communication from Oyarsa, none of the eldila have told him what to expect or what to do.

Again, this is part of Lewis’s strategy in these fiction books and in his apologetics: he makes the very powerful point that it is up to us. In a roundabout sort of way this chimes with the contemporary message of the Continental Existentialists (apart from the obvious fact that they were mostly atheists) – but they both lead to the same conclusion – it is up to us to fight evil, often with little or no help from outside.

Everyone must make their decision and everyone defines themselves by their decisions. We are free to make or unmake ourselves, says Lewis, as clearly as his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre.

So Ransom has had no outside help from the moment he arrived. Now, after days of agonising, he decides that there is no alternative – he must kill Weston. Yes, it’s immoral, yes maybe he will damn himself – but he cannot stand by and allow the alternative – the corruption and damnation of an entire planet. And at this point he does hear a voice in his head. ‘It is no coincidence’, the voice tells him, ‘that his name is Ransom: he must be the price paid for the preservation of this world’.

The chase

This leads into what turns out to be a very prolonged and gruelling chase sequence.

1. Ransom gets up, goes and finds Weston and, without any warning, attacks him. They claw, scratch, bite, kick and punch each other. Eventually, the struggle breaks off as Weston staggers through forest down to the shore and straddles a dolphin fish and is away, Ransom pursuing. Day and night, night and day, falling asleep, nearly falling off, confronting the strange mute faces of the mermen beneath the waves, Ransom rides the dolphin-like creature in pursuit of the equally dazed and wounded Weston.

2. A day comes when Weston’s fish is exhausted and he stops running, turns and paddles it over beside Ransom. ‘Please,’ he wheedles, and then goes into another long, tempting speech, pretending that he is Weston and the devil has fled. Except he isn’t and it hasn’t. Only slowly does it reveal its devilish intent. Weston’s wheedling slowly turns into a grand vision of the horror and pointlessness of life, we only live briefly and then are pushed out of the bright atmosphere of the world into the darkness beneath it, squealing in pain and fear. It doesn’t matter whether there is a God or not, all that matters is escaping the darkness, the void, the horror… at which point Ransom realises ‘it’ is still a devil, and realises he has been given an insight into what it means to be a devil, self-excluded from the grace of God.

3. The devil grabs Ransom’s arm and then lunges across from his dolphin, tackles his body, wrapping himself round Ransom’s waist and thighs and dragging him down, down under water. This leads to a nightmareish struggle in the cold depths of the sea, when you wonder if they will both drown and go to the underworld (anything is possible). But instead Ransom awakes to find he is in some kind of shingly beach in the pitch darkness. He finds Weston’s body and strangles him to death and breaks his ribs for good measure, and then collapses exhausted. Hours later, Ransom awakes and begins to explore the ‘beach’ only to discover that it is a cave; by some chance he and Weston in their death-embrace have been washed into a cave, maybe deep under the waterline in some cliff. He tentatively tries easing down into the water but it is breaking against the sides with such violence, in the dark it is impossible to gauge and he has no way of knowing how much of a swim, and in which direction it would be, to reach ‘open water’ and make it back to the surface.

Instead Ransom sets off to explore the innards of the cave and see if he can escape that way, in a passage of nightmare intensity, bumping into walls, pulling himself up onto ledges, inching along in pitch darkness, stubbing his toes, scratching every inch of his exposed naked body, always climbing, with no idea where he is going or if there is any hope.

It is a Pilgrim’s Progress. It isn’t made explicit but it is a Christian soul climbing up out of pitch darkness driven only by faith.

Only after a prolonged and increasingly hallucinatory climb does Ransom finally see a sliver of light up above, and walk up along a sloping stretch of rock to discover a fissure of light high above him.

He has to build a platform from loose rocks and jump up into the crevice, clinging on by his fingertips, then inching his way, his back against one wall, his knees and feet against the other, painfully upwards to emerge in a huge wide cavern illuminated by the light from a sheer drop at one end. He goes over to it and discovers it drops sheer, hundreds maybe thousands of yards down into raw moiling fire.

As he turns from the blinding light back to the cavern, Ransom sees Weston, as in a dream, as in a nightmare, pull himself slowly up out of the fissure and stumble towards him. Half-mad, hallucinating, delirious, Ransom grips the nearest sizeable rock, says, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,’ runs at Weston and smashes his face in, smashing it literally to a pulp.

Then drags the mashed-face corpse over to the ledge and tips it over to plummet down down into the fiery lava beneath. Surely, finally, he has finished his task.

Days of climbing follow in a delirium of pain and exhaustion. Finally crossing some cave, Ransom slips and falls into a fast-moving stream which sluices him out of a rock face and into a pool outside, on a mountainside, under the golden sky of Perelandra where he lies for days, drinking the stream water and reaching his hand up for sweet fruit, delirious, unconscious of the days and nights, slowly healing in body and mind.

Eventually, after days, healed and ready to walk, the eldila appear, fragments of light in the daytime, silently conveying to him that he must set off for the happy valley, there beyond the hills.

The coronation

Ransom walks a long way, up hill, down dale, knowing he must seek the hidden valley, climbing high before finally descending to the most beautiful place he has seen in either of the two planets, Malacandra or Perelandra.

Here drawn up in front of a natural temple he encounters the oyarsa of the planet,and then witnesses an enormous horde of friendly animals attending the King and the Lady as they land at the beach and slowly progress up to the temple.

There follows an extraordinary extended coronation scene in which the Lady and the King are transformed into Tor and Tinidil, and receive stewardship of the planet and everything on it from the oyarsa. In extended speeches Ransom is told that the King and the Lady have learned about evil but not by doing it, as Adam and Eve did; but by resisting it.

In this grand theatrical Ransom played a crucial part, allowing the Lady to learn just enough of the bad to be able to resist it, before disposing of the evil in a way no creature of Perelandra could have, without sullying itself. Only a fallen man could deal with another fallen man. Ransom receives the fathomless gratitude of the King and the Lady. And in this, like Judas, Weston played a preconceived role.

‘Little did that dark mind know the errand on which he really came to Perelandra!’

After the theology is explained there is a tremendous passage of three or four pages made up of twenty paragraphs, each of which is a hymn to Maleldil, ending with the repeated phrase, ‘Blessed be He!’

‘All things are by Him and for Him. He utters Himself also for His own delight and sees that He is good. He is His own begotten and what proceeds from Him is Himself. Blessed be He!’

The prophecy

With no interruption, the King washes and laves Ransom’s battered body (in an obvious echo of the New Testament) even the gash on his heel where Weston bit him, and which stubbornly refuses to heal. Then lays him in the ice-cold white coffin which lies before them, of the same type which Ransom travelled there in, seals the coffin and Ransom is gone.

But not before he has made this final prophecy, a prophecy about the Final Battle for the soul of earth, or Thulcandra, a prophecy which obviously set the book up for its sequel, and the final novel in the trilogy, The Hideous Strength.

We shall fall upon your moon, wherein there is a secret evil, and which is as the shield of the Dark Lord of Thulcandra – scarred with many a blow. We shall break her. Her light shall be put out. Her fragments shall fall into your world and the seas and the smoke shall arise so that the dwellers in Thulcandra will no longer see the light of Arbol. And as Maleldil Himself draws near, the evil things in your world shall show themselves stripped of disguise so that plagues and horrors shall cover your lands and seas. But in the end all shall be cleansed, and even the memory of your Black Oyarsa blotted out, and your world shall be fair and sweet and reunited to the field of Arbol and its true name shall be heard again.


The Discarded Image

In my review of Out of The Silent Planet I mentioned the way that most of Lewis’s books, after his conversion to Christianity in 1931, were driven by the urge to explain and proselytise for his Christian belief. Perelandra is even more overtly Christian, or rather all the ideas are based on Christian theology.

The openly Christian works of apologetics like Mere Christianity; the popular comic books like The Screwtape Letters, the famous series of Narnia books, and this, his science fiction trilogy, are all powered and underpinned by Christian belief, in various levels of explicitness, from High Theology about the Fall through to incidental insights about human nature – how we are less when we are selfish and self-centred, and more when we turn outwards and acknowledge others.

But to focus on the Christian element is to ignore the other, very large, possibly larger, part of Lewis’s imagination, which was shaped by his deep and scholarly knowledge of ancient, medieval and Renaissance literature, knowledge which underpins the fantastical and beautiful sumptuousness of much of his imagery, and his sense of the stateliness and courtesy of the pure, of spirits and kings.

I myself did a very old-fashioned English Literature degree for which I had to learn Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, and in preparation for which it was assumed that I would have read all of the Bible, Homer, the Aeneid, Ovid and Horace.

In studying Gawayne and the Green Knight or Chaucer or The Faerie Queen by Spenser, I found Lewis’s literary criticism of these works invaluable, not only for his detailed knowledge of individual facts or symbols – but for his matchless feel for the values of long-lost cultures.

Lewis’s final book was a scholarly work – The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature – a deliberately brief, almost note-form summary of the sources of much of the imagery and belief system of medieval and renaissance literature. It lays out very clearly and usefully key aspects of ancient and medieval cosmology, explaining their sources in a handful of seminal works, mostly from the ancient world, explaining (in the words of Wikipedia), ‘the structure of the medieval universe, the nature of its inhabitants, the notion of a finite universe, ordered and maintained by a celestial hierarchy, and the ideas of nature.’

My point is that Lewis was absolutely drenched in the imagery and thought of the classical and medieval world, and in my view it is this – just as much as his Christian faith – which gives his fictional books their special feel – a really deep feel for older values, for ancient symbolism and allegory, it explains why the image from Narnia of children placing chains of flowers round the neck of a peaceful lion feels not just fanciful, but somehow profound.

That isn’t an image from anywhere in the Bible. But it is the kind of heraldic image anyone familiar with medieval texts, poems, marginalia or tapestries would appreciate. It is this – a kind of mood of the medieval world somehow reborn across time and space, more than explicit Christian theology – which I kept being reminded of as I read Perelandra.

At Ransom’s waking something happened to him which perhaps never happens to a man until he is out of his own world: he saw reality, and thought it was a dream. He opened his eyes and saw a strange heraldically coloured tree loaded with yellow fruits and silver leaves. Round the base of the indigo stem was coiled a small dragon covered with scales of red gold. He recognised the garden of the Hesperides at once.

Lewis actually uses the word ‘heraldic’ several times to convey the sense of dignified, richly felt, medieval symbolism which he is striving to create.

She had stood up amidst a throng of beasts and birds as a tall sapling stands among bushes – big pigeon-coloured birds and flame-coloured birds, and dragons, and beaver-like creatures about the size of rats, and heraldic-looking fish in the sea at her feet. Or had he imagined that? Was this the beginning of the hallucinations he had feared? Or another myth coming out into the world of fact…

They made the circle of the plateau methodically. Behind them lay the group of islands from which they had set out that morning. Seen from this altitude it was larger even than Ransom had supposed. The richness of its colours – its orange, its silver, its purple and (to his surprise) its glossy blacks – made it seem almost heraldic.

The heavens had vanished, and the surface of the sea; but far, far below him in the heart of the vacancy through which he appeared to be travelling, strange bursting star shells and writhing streaks of a bluish-green luminosity appeared. At first they were very remote, but soon, as far as he could judge, they were nearer. A whole world of phosphorescent creatures seemed to be at play not far from the surface – coiling eels and darting things in complete armour, and then heraldically fantastic shapes to which the sea-horse of our own waters would be commonplace

When his imagination looks for the beautiful, it is not to the imagery of the Bible, but to medieval imagery which Lewis turns, imagery forged of the strange union between popular folk tales and legends, the high art of Norman courtly chivalry, and the myths and strange arcane beliefs of the ancient world.

It is the formal beauty, the poise, the ceremoniousness, the tremendous feeling of correctness about this medieval imagery which gives Lewis’s fictional books – the Narnia books and this science fiction trilogy – part of their powerful imaginative impact.

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir (1500) Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir (1500) Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

Note the animals in this famous medieval tapestry. Note the incorporation of animals, both regal (lion and unicorn) and sweetly domestic (dog, rabbits, foxes, lambs). All of creation, not just human beings are incorporated in Lewis’s vision – and this, again, reflects his medieval imagination, where animals peep out from the corner of tapestries or intrude into Chaucerian stories.

The comedy of Oxford dons

Although we are transported to other planets and subject to heady worlds of theological and courtly seriousness, Lewis lightens his sci-fi trilogy with an occasional sense of humour, particularly when it comes to taking the mickey out of his own world of stuffy and pedantic Oxford dons. Right in the middle of discussing the future of the world, they will be brought up short by a pedantic quibble about a point of grammar.

‘And you think you will find Hressa-Hlab, or Old Solar, spoken on Venus?’
‘Yes. I shall arrive knowing the language. It saves a lot of trouble – though, as a philologist I find it rather disappointing.’

Similarly, once he finds himself in the pitch black cave under the sea, initially convinced it is simply night-time and he must wait for the dawn, Ransom sets out to pass the time thus:

He recited all that he could remember of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Æneid, the Chanson de Roland, Paradise Lost, the Kalevala, the Hunting of the Snark, and a rhyme about Germanic sound-laws which he had composed as a freshman.

Once Ransom has finally decided to kill Weston, once he is in the black cave astride the enemy’s chest, squeezing its throat with both hands, he finds himself, to his own surprise, shouting a line out of The Battle of Maldon. I studied the Battle of Maldon at university and I have reviewed it for this blog. I would dearly love to know which line Ransom shouted out.

And it is typical of the hyper-scholar, that Ransom declares, towards the end, that, comparing the experience of being on the two planets, Mars and Venus –

Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre.

Surprised by joy

But the final memory and impression of reading the book is Lewis’s wonderful, delicious, intoxicating depictions of Eden, what bliss it would be, how it would feed all the senses without glutting or tiring them: how it would be made perfectly for men and women to delight in.

Two things account for the popularity of Lewis’s popular Christian books. One is that they are simple. He turned complicated theology or philosophy into the language of Daily Mail editorials, into terms understandable by almost anyone, but without any sense of being patronising. He just sets out at a popular level and then keeps on.

But just as important, I think, was his immense capacity for conjuring up images, motifs, descriptions, settings, words and phrases to convey an immense, bountiful, overflowing happiness.

I’ve met and debated theology with Christians who have had bad experiences in their lives – rape, abuse, suicide of parents – and they all testified to the importance of Lewis’s writings in helping them find a meaning and a purpose in their lives, in leading them through darkness to greater faith. Helped by its promise that even the most horrific experiences can be transcended because of the beauty and love of the world God has prepared for us.

In a thousand different images, this is the confidence, the faith in beauty and bliss, the confidence and optimism, which all Lewis’s books radiate and which helps account for their enduring appeal.

But he said ‘Hush’ to his mind at this stage, for the mere pleasure of breathing in the fragrance which now began to steal towards him from the blackness ahead. Warm and sweet, and every moment sweeter and purer, and every moment stronger and more filled with all delights, it came to him. He knew well what it was. He would know it henceforward out of the whole universe – the night-breath of a floating island in the star Venus.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (1908)

‘We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession.’
(A policeman, talking to the novel’s protagonist, Gabriel Syme)

Chesterton’s paper-thin characters

Having just read four novels by H.G. Wells I am well aware that one of their shortcomings is the way the humans in them are often pawns in scenarios or plotlines designed to convey Wells’s social, technological and political ideas.

At least I thought so until I read these two novels of Chesterton’s. Wells’s characters have Shakespearian depth compared to Chesterton’s.

Chesterton’s characters are names attached to attitudes, or positions, and a great deal of the interchanges between these entities are really the cut and thrust of opposing ideas in a debating society.

I find Wells’s characters endearing because, by comparison, they do have real back stories and histories – for example, Wells goes to maybe silly lengths to give a realistic depth to his character Bert Smallways. He builds up our sense of Bert’s agility with mechanics and engines, at repairing bicycle and motor bikes, a skill which comes in handy later in his adventures in the novel, The War In the Air.

Chesterton’s characters, by contrast, are almost all the same. They all give clever speeches. They are all fond of paradoxes. And very fond of generalising about human nature, about God, the kind of ‘soft’ theologising you get in Graham Greene. But whereas Greene does it (at length) in his novels solely to make the reader feel suicidal by blackening human nature at every opportunity…

Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.

We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.

In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

… Chesterton does it solely to make the reader chortle with the recognition of a clever paradox. The introductions to The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Man Who Was Thursday confidently extract from them certain ‘messages’ and ‘meanings’; but the experience of actually reading them is nowhere near as clear-cut and simple. I found them both to be murky and difficult books: I sensed that a ‘message’ was being propounded, I just couldn’t work out what it was.

Chesterton’s characters are, in fact, so featureless and interchangeable that they often interchange. The Man Who Was Thursday is not so much a novel and more a fantasy entirely concerned with false identities and secret sides, and characters who flip, in a moment, from being on the side of darkness to being on the side of light – or vice-versa.

The plot

The novel is set in the present-day, Edwardian era, where we find two poets in the garden of an artist’s colony in a fictional new model town, named Saffron Park.

Mr Lucian Gregory, the red-haired poet, is holding court. All the young ladies of the town flock to admire him and his daringly ‘anarchistic’ sentiments. On this evening he is confronted by another poet, flaxen-haired Mr Gabriel Syme, who politely doubts his commitment.

Gregory argues that poetry is anarchy and breaking the rules. This makes the young ladies swoon with excitement. Syme counters that poetry is law and gives as an example the wonderful poetry of the London Underground, were you have a map and know exactly which station is coming next on any journey. Law and logic and certainty are the only poetry.

Angered, Gregory is waiting for him outside the ground of his house at the end of the little party, and in a feverish conversation reveals that he really is an anarchist and makes Syme swear not to tell anyone. At which Syme reveals that he is really a policeman, but that Gregory must swear to tell no-one. They both swear to keep each other’s secrets. You see how Chesterton’s taste for symmetry and paradox overcomes any attempt at ‘realism’.

Gregory promptly takes Syme along to a pub which contains a secret table which – in a James Bond manoeuvre – at the touch of secret button descends down through the floor to a basement below the pub.

This is the meeting place of the most dangerous Anarchists Club in London. Syme takes this all with upper-class sang-froid. He is told he is attending a meeting to decide who will become the next leader of this ‘chapter’. There are seven anarchist groups, each ruled by someone given the codename of a day of the week. Head of the entire Anarchist Movement is a mysterious man named Sunday.

As it happens the man named ‘Thursday’, who was leader of this section, recently passed away and tonight they are voting for his successor. Everyone expects Gregory to be elected Thursday, but he is suddenly overcome by worry that, making them all sound too dangerous will prompt Syme to denounce them all to his police colleagues. So Gregory makes a surprisingly tame speech, which is met with disappointment. At which Syme leaps to his feet and makes a startlingly violent speech, denouncing Gregory’s pacifism, and he is elected by an overwhelming majority. Humorous paradox, and ironic reversal.

Syme is made the new ‘Thursday’ and led off down a secret passage which opens onto the Thames where a steam boat is waiting, leaving Gregory seething with anger and impotence. It is, to say the least, odd to the modern reader that Gregory keeps his promise not to expose his rival, but the entire novel is odd, and is really a psychological fantasia more than a ‘novel’. If you try applying realistic criteria you will get nowhere.

The man who was Sunday

Thursday is met by ‘the secretary’, a posh man with a disfigured face who takes him through the streets to Leicester Square where the Anarchists are holding a meeting on a balcony overlooking the tourists. Sunday has a theory that if you loudly announce to everyone that you are an anarchist no-one will believe you. Thus they make their plans to blow up kings and emperors in the open air while waiters come and go bringing drinks and dishes, tut-tutting and laughing at those funny old anarchists, who do like their little jokes.

Syme is greeted as the new Thursday and introduced to Monday, Tuesday etc. After a survey of the other anarchists, Sunday calls them back inside to a locked room, and here he announces that one among them is a traitor!! This is a scene I’ve seen in so many James Bond and other spy adventure movies, I wonder if it originated with Chesterton. Probably not, in which case I wonder if an origin can be found, or whether it’s as old as story-telling.

Anyway, Sunday ratchets up the tension with furious denunciations of the spy, and Syme is just about to stand up and confess that it is he when, to his amazement, a scraggy-haired Polish anarchist does just that – stands up and confesses to being a policeman, throwing his blue police card onto the table. Sunday is incomprehensibly magnanimous, and asks him to go now and promise not to tell their plans to anyone (!).

Then he gets down to organising an assassination outrage against a politician visiting Paris, after which the group break up and go their separate ways. There is then a pretty convincing sequence where Syme wanders along to a Soho restaurant… only to find the so-called Professor among the other anarchists, has followed him,. He gets up, walks through Covent Garden and stops in a pub… only to find the Professor sitting at a table, Syme storms out and runs along to St Pauls, shimmering as night falls and with it a shower of snow and hears, in the snowdrift quietness… the sound of the Professor pottering along behind him. Gripped by a kind of panic fear Syme runs on through the black London streets, down to the docks and ducks into a rough pub. Where the Professor walks through the door straight after him.

Sequences like this fully justify the novel’s sub-title, ‘A Nightmare’. There is something fully nightmareish, something creepily uncanny, about this unstoppable pursuit.

Anyway, the Professor now confronts Syme, asking whether he is a policeman, which Syme furiously denies. ‘Shame,’ replies the Professor’, because I am,’ and he tosses onto the table the same type of blue police identity card that the Pole had done earlier, at the same time ripping off the mask which makes him look like a senile old man, to reveal a fresh-faced young chap! So now Syme knows that three of the seven dangerous anarchists sitting round the meeting table off Leicester Square… were in fact policemen!

Double identities, symmetries and paradox!!

This has taken us up to chapter 8 of 15. To cut a long story what happens is that Symes and the Professor then track down the other three members of the group and discover, one by one, that they are all policemen masquerading as anarchists.

Unmasking the last one requires the assembled policemen to catch the ferry to France and track down the assassin sent to blow up a leading politician in Paris, the last of the unmasked anarchists, a French aristocrat named the Marquis de Saint Eustache.

This turns into a really compelling and weird fantasia of a sequence as our man Syme, ends up fighting an elaborately staged duel with the Marquis, under the misapprehension that he is truly a baddy. During the duel (with fencing swords) Syme repeatedly sticks his point into the Marquis with no apparent result. Exactly as in a nightmare where, whatever you do to stop it, the monster keeps getting back up.

The answer, revealed at the climax of the contest, is that the Marquis is wearing an early type of bullet-proof vest.

Anyway, the Marquis has no sooner revealed that he, like all the others, is in fact a policeman than the train, which everyone thought he was aiming to catch to Paris to carry out his terrorist outrage – pulls into the nearby station. To the horror of the assembled anarchists-now-revealed-as-policemen, a great crowd of anarchists swarm out of it, all wearing Keystone Cops-style black masks over the tops of their faces, and led by none other than the ‘secretary’ who had led Syme from the Embankment to the anarchist meeting in Leicester Square.

The chase is on! Our chaps run through woods with the gang of black-masked figures gaining on them. They arrive at a farm the marquis knows, where the kindly old owner lends them horses. But the anarchists are gaining on them. They are horrified to hear the sounds of horse galloping after them and to recognise the kindly old man among them. He is one of the Enemy. They gallop onto another house where a friend of the Marquis’s lends them cars and off they zoom. But one breaks down and they hear… motor cars chasing them, look up and see the friend among them. The whole world is against them.

This nightmare sense becomes overwhelming when they arrive at a fishing village on the coast and… the entire place rises up against them, into a mob, joined by the horse riders and the car drivers, an enormous crowd of black-masked anarchists and villagers and fishermen who surround them and chase them down onto a pier, further and further out till they reach the end and have nowhere to turn.

No wonder this chapter is titled ‘The Earth In Anarchy’. Apparently, Chesterton wrote the book during a bout of severe depression. It was partly the impact of the great wave of anarchist, socialist, positivist, nihilist thinking which swept over Europe in the 1890s and 1900s. All these trends were materialist, denying the existence of a ‘soul’ or God, insisting on the purely material view of life as constant struggle unmediated by any kind of transcendent values.

As a devout Anglican, Chesterton found this a great assault on his values and all the things he loved in life. The Man Who Was Thursday is thus a kind of ecstasy of horror, a vision of a world borne down in a great black tide of nihilism. As he explained: ‘It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date.’

At this, its hysterical climax, Syme rebels and runs straight at the crowd and the ‘secretary’ who is leading them, and accuses them of being filthy anarchists who deny the beauty of order of life.

At which point the ‘secretary’ steps back, tears off his mask and announces ‘I arrest you in the name of the law.’ ‘The law?’ screams Syme. ‘But you’re anarchists.’ ‘No you’re the anarchists,’ says the secretary. ‘I am a policeman and these are my deputies, and we have dressed up as anarchists as a disguise, to try and mix in with you.’

The crowd which has been chasing them all this time was doing so because they had been told they were dangerous anarchists. But they aren’t anarchists at all. The entire thing has been a mistake and a misunderstanding.

‘There is some mistake,’ [the Secretary] said. ‘Mr. Syme, I hardly think you understand your position. I arrest you in the name of the law.’
‘Of the law?’ said Syme, and dropped his stick.
‘Certainly!’ said the Secretary. ‘I am a detective from Scotland Yard,’ and he took a small blue card from his pocket.
‘And what do you suppose we are?’ asked the Professor, and threw up his arms.
‘You,’ said the Secretary stiffly, ‘are, as I know for a fact, members of the Supreme Anarchist Council. Disguised as one of you, I – ‘
Dr. Bull tossed his sword into the sea.
‘There never was any Supreme Anarchist Council,’ he said. ‘We were all a lot of silly policemen looking at each other. And all these nice people who have been peppering us with shot thought we were the dynamiters. I knew I couldn’t be wrong about the mob,’ he said, beaming over the enormous multitude, which stretched away to the distance on both sides. ‘Vulgar people are never mad. I’m vulgar myself, and I know. I am now going on shore to stand a drink to everybody here.’

Note this last little speech. Bull is one of the anarchists-who-is-really-a-policeman and here he expresses one of Chesterton’s shibboleths. It is the intellectuals who we should be worried about, the intellectuals who are promoting anarchy and socialism and nihilism, the intellectuals who are attacking everything good and sweet and clean. By contrast, the so-called common people have never lost touch with the real values of life, with country lanes and Anglican churches and pints of good old English ale.

Who is Sunday?

So all the six anarchists named after days of the week, who are now all revealed to be policemen in disguise, catch the ferry and train back to London and all troop off to Leicester Square to confront big black-suited Sunday, who is still eating on the balcony overlooking the square. To be honest I didn’t understand the ending at all. Here is the Wikipedia summary:

Sunday reveals that setting them against each other was all part of his Master Plan. In a surreal conclusion, Sunday is unmasked as only seeming to be terrible; in fact, he is a force of good like the detectives. Sunday is unable to give an answer to the question of why he caused so much trouble and pain for the detectives.

Gregory, the only real anarchist, seems to challenge the good council. His accusation is that they, as rulers, have never suffered like Gregory and their other subjects and so their power is illegitimate. Syme refutes the accusation immediately, because of the terrors inflicted by Sunday on the rest of the council.

So the crux of the thing seems to be that Gregory – spokesman for the real anarchists – says that the opinions of Syme and all the rest are not valid because they have never suffered. Only Gregory and his kind have suffered, and their terrorism is justified by their suffering.

But Symes denies this. He and others like him have suffered. The anarchists don’t have a monopoly of suffering. Syme shouts:

‘No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, “We also have suffered.”‘

And then… it all turns out to be a dream! Syme awakens and is walking along a country lane in a little epiphany of the kind of values, images and ideas which Chesterton values: the countryside, tradition, good fellowship and leads up to a vision of one of the pretty young women he had started the novel chatting to in the garden in Saffron Park.

As [Syme] gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’

* * *

When men in books awake from a vision, they commonly find themselves in some place in which they might have fallen asleep; they yawn in a chair, or lift themselves with bruised limbs from a field. Syme’s experience was something much more psychologically strange if there was indeed anything unreal, in the earthly sense, about the things he had gone through.

For while he could always remember afterwards that he had swooned before the face of Sunday, he could not remember having ever come to at all. He could only remember that gradually and naturally he knew that he was and had been walking along a country lane with an easy and conversational companion. That companion had been a part of his recent drama; it was the red-haired poet Gregory. They were walking like old friends, and were in the middle of a conversation about some triviality. But Syme could only feel an unnatural buoyancy in his body and a crystal simplicity in his mind that seemed to be superior to everything that he said or did. He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.

Dawn was breaking over everything in colours at once clear and timid; as if Nature made a first attempt at yellow and a first attempt at rose. A breeze blew so clean and sweet, that one could not think that it blew from the sky; it blew rather through some hole in the sky.

Syme felt a simple surprise when he saw rising all round him on both sides of the road the red, irregular buildings of Saffron Park. He had no idea that he had walked so near London. He walked by instinct along one white road, on which early birds hopped and sang, and found himself outside a fenced garden. There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.

Sunday’s parting question as the nightmare collapses – ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’ is the question Jesus asks St. James and St. John in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, vs 38–39. It is a challenge to Syme and maybe to the reader, asking whether they have the ‘commitment’ to follow in Jesus’ footsteps… Maybe this makes sense to a Christian but within the context of the novel it is difficult to… pin down, to really understand.

Metaphysical landscapes

At its most intense – in the sequence where Syme is followed by the spooky Professor across London, and in the delirious chase scene across the French countryside – The Man Who Was Thursday becomes a really effective spine-chiller.

And throughout there is an otherworldly sensibility at work, Chesterton’s is a mind which doesn’t flow toward the concrete but naturally leads him off into rather apocalyptic theological and symbolical landscapes. Here he is summing up Syme’s first impression of the other anarchists sitting round the conference table.

Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again.

Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something – say a tree – that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself – a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.

‘An ultimate horizon, visions from the verge.’ That is where a lot of Chesterton’s imagination is always tending. He is always moving from the actual towards the metaphysical, but the metaphysical with an Edwardian twist. The strangeness of some of these visions reminds me of the weird otherworldly landscapes conjured up in C.S. Lewis’s great science fiction trilogy, or even in Wyndham Lewis’s very peculiar theological science fiction novel, The Childermass.

London landscapes

However, the parts of the book I liked most were when Chesterton’s natural taste for the fantastical is tied, anchored, embedded in naturalistic descriptions of Edwardian London. For example, on the tugboat journey from the secret basement where Syme is elected ‘Thursday’ to a mooring at the Embankment near Charing Cross, where he first meets the ‘Secretary’ and is escorted to Leicester Square.

Over the whole landscape lay a luminous and unnatural discoloration, as of that disastrous twilight which Milton spoke of as shed by the sun in eclipse; so that Syme fell easily into his first thought, that he was actually on some other and emptier planet, which circled round some sadder star.

But the more he felt this glittering desolation in the moonlit land, the more his own chivalric folly glowed in the night like a great fire. Even the common things he carried with him – the food and the brandy and the loaded pistol [which he has brought from the anarchists meeting] – took on exactly that concrete and material poetry which a child feels when he takes a gun upon a journey or a bun with him to bed.

The sword-stick and the brandy-flask, though in themselves only the tools of morbid conspirators, became the expressions of his own more healthy romance. The sword-stick became almost the sword of chivalry, and the brandy the wine of the stirrup-cup. For even the most dehumanised modern fantasies depend on some older and simpler figure; the adventures may be mad, but the adventurer must be sane. The dragon without St. George would not even be grotesque.

So this inhuman landscape was only imaginative by the presence of a man really human. To Syme’s exaggerative mind the bright, bleak houses and terraces by the Thames looked as empty as the mountains of the moon. But even the moon is only poetical because there is a man in the moon.

The tug was worked by two men, and with much toil went comparatively slowly. The clear moon that had lit up Chiswick had gone down by the time that they passed Battersea, and when they came under the enormous bulk of Westminster day had already begun to break. It broke like the splitting of great bars of lead, showing bars of silver; and these had brightened like white fire when the tug, changing its onward course, turned inward to a large landing stage rather beyond Charing Cross.

The great stones of the Embankment seemed equally dark and gigantic as Syme looked up at them. They were big and black against the huge white dawn. They made him feel that he was landing on the colossal steps of some Egyptian palace; and, indeed, the thing suited his mood, for he was, in his own mind, mounting to attack the solid thrones of horrible and heathen kings. He leapt out of the boat on to one slimy step, and stood, a dark and slender figure, amid the enormous masonry. The two men in the tug put her off again and turned up stream. They had never spoken a word.

Chesterton’s point in the middle of the passage is a conservative, Christian one, that even the little things in our life are illuminated and somehow redeemed by repeating older, more noble ‘figures’ and archetypes. Maybe. Maybe not. But there is no denying the majesty of his description of day breaking like the splitting of great bars of lead, nor the power of his description of Syme leaping onto the slimy steps of a quay, a slender figure dwarfed by the enormous stones of the Embankment.

For Chesterton that physical description is the basis for his theological points; but for me the physical description is the metaphysical. The depiction of the actual world around us – whether in well-chosen phrases or in lines of pen or charcoal – are, for me, the height of artistic achievement.

The seven days of the week

Monday He was the Secretary of the Council, and his twisted smile was regarded with more terror than anything, except the President’s horrible, happy laughter. But now that Syme had more space and light to observe him, there were other touches. His fine face was so emaciated, that Syme thought it must be wasted with some disease; yet somehow the very distress of his dark eyes denied this. It was no physical ill that troubled him. His eyes were alive with intellectual torture, as if pure thought was pain.

The man’s name, it seemed, was Gogol; he was a Pole, and in this circle of days he was called Tuesday. His soul and speech were incurably tragic; he could not force himself to play the prosperous and frivolous part demanded of him by President Sunday… Gogol, or Tuesday, had his simplicity well symbolised by a dress designed upon the division of the waters, a dress that separated upon his forehead and fell to his feet, grey and silver, like a sheet of rain

Wednesday, a certain Marquis de St. Eustache, a sufficiently characteristic figure. The first few glances found nothing unusual about him, except that he was the only man at table who wore the fashionable clothes as if they were really his own. He had a black French beard cut square and a black English frock-coat cut even squarer. But Syme, sensitive to such things, felt somehow that the man carried a rich atmosphere with him, a rich atmosphere that suffocated. It reminded one irrationally of drowsy odours and of dying lamps in the darker poems of Byron and Poe. With this went a sense of his being clad, not in lighter colours, but in softer materials; his black seemed richer and warmer than the black shades about him, as if it were compounded of profound colour. His black coat looked as if it were only black by being too dense a purple. His black beard looked as if it were only black by being too deep a blue. And in the gloom and thickness of the beard his dark red mouth showed sensual and scornful. Whatever he was he was not a Frenchman; he might be a Jew; he might be something deeper yet in the dark heart of the East. In the bright coloured Persian tiles and pictures showing tyrants hunting, you may see just those almond eyes, those blue-black beards, those cruel, crimson lips.

Next a very old man, Professor de Worms, who still kept the chair of Friday, though every day it was expected that his death would leave it empty. Save for his intellect, he was in the last dissolution of senile decay. His face was as grey as his long grey beard, his forehead was lifted and fixed finally in a furrow of mild despair. In no other case, not even that of Gogol, did the bridegroom brilliancy of the morning dress express a more painful contrast. For the red flower in his button-hole showed up against a face that was literally discoloured like lead; the whole hideous effect was as if some drunken dandies had put their clothes upon a corpse. When he rose or sat down, which was with long labour and peril, something worse was expressed than mere weakness, something indefinably connected with the horror of the whole scene. It did not express decrepitude merely, but corruption. Another hateful fancy crossed Syme’s quivering mind. He could not help thinking that whenever the man moved a leg or arm might fall off.

Right at the end sat the man called Saturday, the simplest and the most baffling of all. He was a short, square man with a dark, square face clean-shaven, a medical practitioner going by the name of Bull. He had that combination of savoir-faire with a sort of well-groomed coarseness which is not uncommon in young doctors. He carried his fine clothes with confidence rather than ease, and he mostly wore a set smile. There was nothing whatever odd about him, except that he wore a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles. It may have been merely a crescendo of nervous fancy that had gone before, but those black discs were dreadful to Syme; they reminded him of half-remembered ugly tales, of some story about pennies being put on the eyes of the dead. Syme’s eye always caught the black glasses and the blind grin. Had the dying Professor worn them, or even the pale Secretary, they would have been appropriate. But on the younger and grosser man they seemed only an enigma. They took away the key of the face. You could not tell what his smile or his gravity meant. Partly from this, and partly because he had a vulgar virility wanting in most of the others it seemed to Syme that he might be the wickedest of all those wicked men. Syme even had the thought that his eyes might be covered up because they were too frightful to see.

Sunday At the nearest end of the balcony, blocking up a great part of the perspective, was the back of a great mountain of a man. When Syme had seen him, his first thought was that the weight of him must break down the balcony of stone. His vastness did not lie only in the fact that he was abnormally tall and quite incredibly fat. This man was planned enormously in his original proportions, like a statue carved deliberately as colossal. His head, crowned with white hair, as seen from behind looked bigger than a head ought to be. The ears that stood out from it looked larger than human ears. He was enlarged terribly to scale; and this sense of size was so staggering, that when Syme saw him all the other figures seemed quite suddenly to dwindle and become dwarfish.


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The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’ in his day. He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles, literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, and regularly dramatised for TV or radio – followed by the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and this one.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill, which the king reviews, under the critical pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’, as a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism, so-called because quite a few of their reviews start with reference to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon. If you make a big effort to project your mind back into the literary world of 1904, this is just about funny.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were popular in his day, skewering not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all kinds of other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on. Chesterton mocks them all by carrying their prophetic arguments to extremes.

Having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton then demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. This is simply to set his novel in the far distant remote year of 1984, and assert the simple fact that, contrary to all their predictions… nothing whatsoever has changed! All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

In effect, the people, the uneducated, uninterested masses, have listened to the Great Prophets, read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives. They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, like the members of a jury.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, and red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After much inconsequential Latin fieriness, he walks proudly off into the night never to be met again.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point, and is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new king of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around, wandering up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with his honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and … and so when Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still king and still the joker. One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development he’s managing built up from Hammersmith through Notting Hill and beyond. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on, all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens: the Provost of Notting Hill arrives – and at a stroke reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly serious! He speaks medieval language as if he means it. He speaks of ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises it is the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. Now Adam Wayne, aged 19, announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. Above all he takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence perfectly understandable to the modern reader, Wayne canvases opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour, from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers (I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air) to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours.)

Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

The Pump Street argument

The Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal ask King Auberon for a meeting to insist that their planned new thoroughfare carve its way up from Hammersmith and through Notting Hill, specifically through a few buildings in Pump Street. Led by Buck they offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He wanted fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when it really does get out of hand. He hears sounds of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates the gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, the apparition of a god-like figure, blazoned with light – Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker, who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into Buck closing up his shop and tells him what has happened. Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of the four boroughs and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks, turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness and, knowing their home turf, launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal, where he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then is concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – when real eye witnesses, Barker and Buck, stumble in.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. ‘When duty calls’… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill. But meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king thinks not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender. Buck and his entourage burst out laughing. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army standing, as it is, in the valley below. Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

It is twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence. The king is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. The king notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago, now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the fact that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance.

He bumps into Barker who is just explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out, a local telling our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. The Hillers start singing a martial song of victory and this pushes Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps into the fray. Other passersby turn out to be from other boroughs and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war. Soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about everything, about society, class, technology, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink our prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which overwhelmingly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

It is clear that Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, quickly relinquishing all contact with reality. At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character, and repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it, until in pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but symbolic of what, exactly? I read in the introduction that Chesterton has been criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. Critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. the book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns. No fool glamorise that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising them, it has its cake and eats it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to by a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story. And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that[Pg 292] men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

It takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his amusement and then forgot about it.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean—an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great—a great war or a love-story. And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crushing symbolism) and one voice is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other of Wayne. ‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. That’s what happens here. Somehow,the very fact that it was all a joke makes it all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, until this moment, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god. When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace. But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend. Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological assumptions which underly them are so often challenging to understand or sympathise with.

But the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind. Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Anomie was clearly a common feeling among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind, and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton. The sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long blank streets.

Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young, published as long ago as 1850.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

Much of the wickedness of men comes from sheer boredom.


Related links

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

Related links

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson (1992)

There is something to be said for inhabiting the gloomy corners of yourself; there are surprises to be gleaned there, jewels of the soul that only those willing to mine underground will ever find. (p.153)

This is an extraordinarily imaginative, powerful and original novel – quite a stunning bravura performance and mind-blowing conception. Its dense 340 pages describe the adventures of Cain, the Biblical son of Adam and Eve who murders his brother Abel, in a richly rhetorical, biblically heavy and sometimes impenetrable style.

The narrative alternates between third person descriptions of the young earth and the teeming mysterious creation, and Cain’s first person narrative – well after the murder – when he has become an outcast among men detailing, in particular, his experiences in the cosmopolitan and confusing city of Babel.

Jacobson’s natural prose style tends to the rhetorical and pontificatory. In this ancient, elevated subject matter it finds its natural home, raising itself to a permanent orotundity, incorporating Biblical phraseology, high-flown rhetorical tropes and repetitions, with extended meditations on membership of the First Family, of the nature of the jealous God, the passions of angels, the devious hero worship of the sectaries of Babel, and so on.

But, at moments, the book showcases something completely new in his work – an extraordinary visionary quality in the descriptions of the new-minted earth and heavens, still sparkling with freshness, unstable and experimental, of weird creatures, strange astronomical phenomena, of angels and mythical beasts, rendered in the style of a hallucinatory science fiction.

And then, all smiles, the skies opened and poured down shafts of rosy light; beams, in every sense of the word – great grinning girders of lambency in whose brilliant refractions the merest specks of dirt shone magnified like jewels hung around one gorgeous universal neck. The earth jolted, rocked once, then fell upon its axle. Stopped in its tracks, the engorged sun bounced as weightless as a bubble, pricking its circumference against mountains, leaking redness. (p.143)

It is an astonishing, visionary, strange and disturbing book.

The plot

There are two storylines. In one Cain in the first person reminisces about coping with his parents, the first humans, who are strange, puzzled, innocent, confused. His father does conjuring tricks and imitations  of the first animals, crand gets cross with God that he’s not allowed to have sex with Eve while she is still unclean from giving birth to Abel. Cain spends a lot of time naming all the new and puzzling things.

Eve, set apart in her impurity, is distant, remote. They are visited by two scruffy angels and Cain sees close up how badly designed they are, their great wings chafing against their arms. The biggest of them, Semyaza, returns to try and ravish Eve but, as he carries her screaming into the sky, the Almighty does his thing and suddenly the weakened angel falls to the ground, depositing Eve and shrinking away into dust.

These events are interwoven with the second storyline, a third-person account of Cain’s sojourn in Babel. He meets Naaman, his daughter Zilpah, Sisobk the Scryer, Preplen the satirical poet. Cain is now a performer, a lecturer, who addresses theatres full of fans and oglers keen to hear his story and the long-winded conclusions he draws from it. Cain has periodic conversations with Preplen who takes the mickey. Skinny Zilpah tails him and, in a memorable scene, in his bedroom, adopts a doggy position for him, pulling her buttocks apart to reveal her swart orifice, emitting its sour arable flavour (p.171), inveigling her way into his bed, pleading to be his slave and dog.

And Sisobk the Scryer appears to be the gateway to yet a third timeline: for he has visions and foresees biblical events far in the future: in one thread Moses and Aaron impose seemingly endless new divine regulations on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness until they rebel under the leadership of Korah at which God opens a crack in the earth into which the rebels fall screaming. Then Sisobk skips forward to the birth of Esau and Jacob from the womb of Rebekah, giving rise to lengthy and inconsequential meditations on the meaning of this Stone Age story.

Cain kills Abel

In the end Cain is overcome by Abel’s goody-goodiness, snaps and murders him, punching him to the ground then kicking his prone body, then covering his corpse in dust and rubble and stone until only his lifeless face remains. He is retelling and reliving the moment to the audience in the theatre in Babel, and abruptly we cut back to them, embarrassed by what they’ve hear, by the nakedness of Cain’s story, and the performance stops while they visit the rest room or order a refreshing sherbert. Cain stands dazed at the memory of what he did.

During this pause Naaman sidles up to him and – wishing to sever Cain’s unhealthy connection with his submissive daughter – says he’s heard about the murderer’s ambition of building a tower, here in Babel. Well Naaman just happens to know one which has been started, and can supply a troop of builders.

A lot of the warm puzzlement and ingenuity, the enthusiasm at the start of the book, the life, has drained out of the book by now. More and more characters are described as sad, melancholy, and the story feels abandoned. At some point it began to feel to me like a bleak modern allegory, like Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

After Cain has murdered his brother and is sitting pointlessly, abandoned, derelict, cradling his dead body  there is a powerful sequence when a talking raven asks him what he has done and then offers to dig a grave for him. It reminded me of the set of harsh modern myths Ted Hughes wove around the figure of his trickster bird, the crow. Harsh, dry, barren. For all its gorgeous rhetoric the lingering aftertaste of the book is of dust and ashes.

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)


A Jacobson stylistics

The Very Model of a Man is a powerful and bizarre creation but quite hard going in places. Even when I understood the events of the plot, they seemed strangely inconsequential compared to the tremendous wall of prose which Jacobson deploys, which far swamps the ostensible subject matter and drowns any ‘moral’ or ‘philosophical’ content which the book may be intended to have.

Most of the enjoyment, for me, came from analysing the techniques Jacobson uses to generate his magniloquent style. Almost all of the book is written in a high, ornate and ritualised poetic prose which few modern authors would dare or could achieve.

Repetition of clauses

As the German proverb has it, All Dinge sind drei, buses come in threes and so do clauses from orators who wish to grandstand and impress with the sonority of their rhetoric. These sets of three clauses, or phrases, occur liberally throughout the book; these are just from one page:

  • It wasn’t always a joy to him to be pierced by their mineral blue-green eyes, to be irradiated by the gold-filled tusks they showed in laughter always laughter, to be dazzled by the electric frizz of orange hair which many of them left uncovered.. (p.35)
  • They were brilliant, they were stellar, they were a moving mosaic of light… (p.35)
  • … a grandeur of feature, a weight of expression, an extravagance of facial swoops and circumflections. (p.35)

Using three booming clauses make it sound like you’ve said something deep and moving. Throw in a rhetorical question or a sweeping generalisation and you are moving into Cicero and Churchill territory:

  • Was this not proof of the generosity of their minds, the receptivity of their intelligences, the breadth and scope of their sympathies? (p.37)
  • He sees, for the first time, that it is artificially enlarged, the lobe distended, weighed down by a hanging ball of lead, the porch to the cavity itself gaping obscenely with the promise of infinite attention, infinite indulgence, infinite receptivity. (p.40)
  • Blind, blind, every woman in the hour of her adoration. Blind to reason. Blind to refusal. Blind to herself. (p.41)
  • He needed to speak further to his wife, repeat his performance for her, watch the dagger flashing in her glance. (p.82)
  • The other outdoor venues – the market squares where the prophets and pranksters gather, the parks and river banks that are popular with acrobats and near-sighted poetesses, the temple steps favoured by the little brown fairy-tellers from beyond the Indus… (p.114)
  • A slight woman confirms all his worst fears about existence. A slight woman proves the nugatoriness of things. A slight woman proves there is no hereafter. (p.171)
  • There he would be, up before any of us, already in the dirt, already rigid, already crying. (p.180)
  • All I knew of death was in his voice. It was without music, without colour, without desire. (p.251)
  • [God is] an indefatigable Proscriber. A rigorous Segregationalist. And a most fastidious Picker at food. (p.256)
  • It was up to me in other words. There was no order, no promise, no prediction. (p.260)

At some point repetition bursts the bounds of the threesome and just goes for it, the sophisticated rhetorician rejoicing in the fecundity of his proliferating periods.

  • Babel was thus ultimately the centre of every story, the haven to which all exiles dreamed of returning, the goal of every traveller, the reward of every virtue, the pattern for every striving, the paradise by whose loss every sinner calculated his deprivation and every criminal his fall. (p.38)
  • In Adam’s case a blow to the heart and to the soul, a stab in the back, a poisoning of the central nervous system, a torture to the mind, a suffocation and a braining and a garrotting… (p.54)

Eventually, if pressed in this direction, the prose spills over from numbered clauses to become a list and lists have a pleasure all of their own, conveying a sense of giddy profusion, the abundance of creation or, at least, of the author’s limitless lexicon.

In the cities of Shinar a shuri is assumed to be capable of discharging the simultaneous duties of daughter, sister, mother, companion, interpreter of dreams, reader of palms and minds and foreheads, laundress, seamstress, manicurist, pedicurist, defiled virgin, chaste harlot, contortionist, singer, dancer, looker, listener, linguist, mute, physician for all ailments of body or soul. (p.39)

Rhetorical questions

There are hundreds of these liberally scattered throughout the book, they are a fundamental building block of the style.

  • Who can go on dining on the gruel of fact once they have tasted the rich meats of uncertainty? (p.61)
  • Who would dare adjudicate between two such liberties taken with the name and justice-mechanism of the Almighty? (p.73)
  • How could I possibly have been ignorant of what was taking place? What kind of a son would I have been to my mother had I not seized every opportunity to observe her in her finest hour, captor and mistress of her Creator’s heart? (p.85)
  • [Eve] had always been weak before the power of art? What woman is not? Which of them is proof against a little culture laced with compliment? A song, a dance, a pretty turn of wit, for which she might conceivably be credited with the inspiration? (p.88)
  • You find me too sophistical in this matter? You would have a spade called a spade and greed and grudging given their proper names? (p.90)
  • When God smelled the smoke of Abel’s sacrifice, spread wide his nostrils to accommodate every pungent wisp and curl of it, do you think I fretted over the bounty He was sure to extend my brother in return? Do you think there were any cubits of inhospitable crawling scrub or homers of rotting straw to be handed over, that I could not bear to be without? (p.91)
  • Where would gods be without the devotion of women? (p.96)
  • Does it surprise you that I could feel concern for my brother’s safety, when it was I who at the very hour of his birth had passed a death sentence on him? It shouldn’t. Who can you possibly care more for than a person whose continuing existence depends largely on yourself? (p.104)
  • What else is a First Cause to do to spice up the tedium of predestined effect? (p.131)

The dense profusion of rhetorical questions suggests at least two sources. 1. Jacobson was a university teacher for a long time and asking rhetorical questions of your students is a basic pedagogic technique.

What else makes envy the most excruciating of the passions if not the dread of discovering your utter redundancy in the world’s business? (p.90)

2. The book is about Jewish history, Jewish teaching and Jewish hermeneutics. It powerfully suggests something particularly disputatious in a tradition so cluttered with hundreds of minute stipulations, all of which must be weighed and considered, and discussed and debated, never really reaching a conclusion.

Should he remove his clothing and then recite the ordinance, or should he recite the ordinance and then remove his clothing? (p.75)

Years ago I read the entire Old Testament and some books about Judaism and Paul Johnson’s epic history of the Jews, my conclusion was that it is a tradition designed to prompt endless questioning and debate about its plethora of prohibitions. The joy, the pleasure, is not necessarily in reaching any conclusion – because there are no conclusions – but in the learning and wisdom and intricacy and subtle humour of the argumentation.

Thou shalt? How did the grammar of that work? Was it an order? A prediction? A promise? Was the kingdom of sin being dangled before me as an enticement, a reward if I did such and such? Or had it been given to me, there and then, with no strings attached? (p.260)

However, there are risks. For a start, the addiction to questions sometimes topples over into questionable territory, posing posers which, on closer examination, don’t make too much sense.

What father does not want to hear his daughter confess an ugly and, if possible, unrequited infatuation? What father does not nurse the furtive ambition of having the old jealous dread – the humiliation of rivalry, the vicarious ignominy of rejection – realised just once? (p.265)

Not every statement which can be put into the grammatical form of a question deserves answering. And so isn’t there a risk that after the first hundred or so questions, the reader starts caring less and less about the answers?

Who would settle for being merely the apple of his mother’s eye, when he could be the arrow in her side, the thorn in her flesh, the pestilence in her blood? (p.283)

That the average reader, requiring some substantial points of narrative to cling onto, to orientate himself by, might eventually come to feel he is adrift in a never-ending surf of inquisition? That – on the 217th question, worn down by this cornucopia of quizzicality – the harassed target of these questions might simply reply: ‘I don’t know. You’re the bloody author. You tell me.’

Word play

Related to the joy of questions is a mindset which enjoys puns and quibbles over meaning. The simplest form is a thesaurus-like repetition of synonyms, or near-synonyms, which jostle a definition, cajole and cosset a concept, towards its unclear centre:

  • My father’s incautiousness, or absent-mindedness, or inability simply to feign knowledge when he lacked it… (p.47)
  • … the place we fled from: the fertile valley, our teeming cradle, omphalos, hell, home. (p.52)
  • The teeming land sent up more monsters in an afternoon than I could have catalogued in a year, but its store of validating commendation was exhaustible, finite, dwindling. (p.56)
  • his apostasy, disloyalty, defection (p.123)
  • The word is invariably grotesque to him now – overblown, foolish, laughable. (p.123)
  • He is as particular about his floor as he is about his appearance. Traveller’s scruples. Fugitive’s fastidiousness. (p.213)

Chiasmus and inversion. Jacobson is fond of using sentences which rework clauses, reword them, invert word orders or use the same word orders to extend or modify the concept.

  • They see into each other; she with pity threatening to be love, he with disinclination determined to be hate. (p.112)
  • He would like to lie down for a while. Rest his feet. Close his eyes. And try not to imagine all the ways he has inadvertently amused Naaman. To say nothing of inadvertently unamusing Naaman’s daughter. (p.113)
  • Had Moses been an early Freud – as Freud surely was, for the purposes of another sort of Jewish deliverance, a later Moses… (p.119)
  • He would not want to swear that he has heard what he has heard. But then again he would not want to swear that he has not… If he is unsure what he’s sure of, he is at least sure of what he isn’t. (p.325)

The narrator frequently uses homophonous words, multiples of words which sound around a notion, slinking and sliding around a concept’s slippery centre.

That’s the way to leave; that’s the way to turn your back on home. Fly like a stone out of a sling. Not slink, as he had. Not slope. Not sneak. Not snake. (p.270)

The pedantic correction

A variation on this is a professorial fussiness which insists on correcting itself, making a song and dance about its fossicking and finicketying, about how subtle and refined its perceptions are, a habit of self-adjustment which gives a (spurious) sense of precision to the narrator’s meditations. But not necessarily to the reader’s enlightenment.

  • And so saying – so intuning – … (p.111)
  • It could almost be said that although he hasn’t met her he has talked to her, for she regularly, no, she religiously, attends his recitals… (p.112)
  • His audience was exactly as Naaman had predicted it… with the exception – that’s to say, with the inclusion – of Naaman’s own daughter. (p.115)
  • ‘I intend – that’s too grand a verb – I think, only of a tower.’ (p.125)
  • And the someone else in question – the someone else I do not hesitate to put in question – (p.144)
  • All right, my mother said, let us suppose. But first what am I to suppose is the purpose of this supposition? (p.146)
  • I was man enough. Man enough to think I was man enough, anyway. (p.149)
  • He is in love with his own vagrancy. Would be in love with his own vagrancy. (p.153)
  • He isn’t a cause of Cain’s spongy fungoid blight – he is Cain’s spongy fungoid blight. (p.153)
  • He didn’t love her. He didn’t, that’s to say, discretely love her. (p.155)
  • She stopped what she was doing – what she was undoing – (p.178)
  • Over a shallow stream that we could wade across in three strides my father had thrown – no, had erected – a bridge… (p.178)
  • I do not believe it is his beauty that inspires this heaving love in me. That imposes this heavy love on me. (p.184)
  • He is in the womb of Rebekah… no… no… he is the womb of Rebekah. (p.217)
  • In the case of the last motive – no, I must return to my original word: the last prompting I have attributed to him. (p.245)
  • Which is a claim I am at least prepared to make for the disgust I felt – no, the digust I mensurated – (p.251)
  • An expression of the finest, most unadulterated angelic distaste passed over his features. Passed? No. (p.254)
  • He looked surprised that I needed to ask. No, not surprised – how could any of us surprise him? – sickened. (p.255)
  • She cannot conceal her shame. Or rather, she cannot conceal her awkwardness, and that is a cause of shame. (p.263)

The author is aware of this pedantic fossicking, the habit of never letting one word do when you can turn it over, examine it and try out several synonyms, as if searching for ever-diminishing, finer distinctions. He has the characters address it. In a late section of the book, when the character Sisobk the Scryer appears to have a convoluted dialogue with a roomful of rabbis, the narrator specifically attributes it to the Jewish tradition of learned exegesis, explication, which is described as ‘bookish and biblical’, characterised by a’passion for exegesis prevailing over all other passions’, making it:

Scholiastic. Disputatious. Talmudical. (p.272)

Learnèd tags

The verbal mannerisms of a pompous professor litter the discourse, as if it is an old-fashioned scholarly article.

There is an argument that says… A word of caution here… There is a rumour in circulation that… Accounts vary as to how long… It is sometimes said that… Who would dare adjudicate between… It could almost be said that…. so to speak… It may be a fact that… It could be said… I have a theory to explain… not to beat about the bush… in short… Suffice it to say… I have heard it said… It could be argued…

On a less high-falutin’ plane, he also uses more everyday phrases to give an air of adjudication and authority, using tags which sometimes remind me of civil service pomposity and at others veer closer to classic football manager rhetoric.

as chance would have it… in so far as he can be said to possess… as it were… it could be argued… to wit… if the truth is told… come to that… that’s to say… it goes without saying… when all is said and done…

Learnèd vocabulary

The text evinces a steady enjoyment of words as objects in themselves, as rare and precious as Biblical unguents:

  • ossicle – The ossicles are three bones in either middle ear that are among the smallest bones in the human body.
  • verrucose – Covered with warts or wartlike projections.
  • bacillophobic – An abnormal and persistent fear of bacilli (bacteria).
  • collops – a small slice of meat, especially a small rasher of bacon.
  • venereous – Relating to sexual desire or sexual intercourse; Addicted to sexual pleasure; lustful
  • frit – the mixture of silica and fluxes which is fused at high temperature to make glass.
  • sciolist – One who exhibits only superficial knowledge; a self-proclaimed expert with little real understanding.
  • feldspar – an abundant rock-forming mineral typically occurring as colourless or pale-coloured crystals and consisting of aluminosilicates of potassium, sodium, and calcium.
  • slub – a lump or thick place in yarn or thread.
  • squab – In culinary terminology, squab is a young domestic pigeon, typically under four weeks old or its meat.
  • epiphytic – A plant, such as a tropical orchid or a staghorn fern, that grows on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients.
  • funebral – belonging to a funeral, fr. funus funeral. Pertaining to a funeral or funerals; funeral; funereal.
  • alacrious – Brisk; joyously active; lively.
  • hin – A unit of liquid measure used by the ancient Hebrews, equal to about five litres.
  • mendicaments – a substance used for medical treatment.
  • nigrescent – The process of becoming black or dark. Blackness or darkness, as of complexion.
  • allopathic – a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated. The opposite of homeopahic.
  • coccygeal – a small triangular bone forming the lower extremity of the spinal column in humans, consisting of four ankylosed rudimentary vertebrae.
  • tenuity – lack of solidity or substance; thinness.
  • ensorcelled – enchanted, fascinated.
  • homer – an ancient Hebrew unit of capacity equal to about 10.5 or later 11.5 bushels or 100 US gallons.
  • foison – a plentiful supply or yield.
  • sacrarium – the sanctuary of a church. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a piscina; (in the ancient Roman world) a shrine, in particular the room in a house containing the penates.
  • fugacy – banishment.

Generalisations

Paradoxical generalisations infest the text like weeds. Jacobson is like a mordant Oscar Wilde, Wilde without the lightness or wit, Wilde with blood in his mouth and slub in his heart.

  • You have to be verbal to be disgusted. (p.51)
  • Words are power, and power has no truck with sensibilities. (p.51)
  • Ridicule is the jealous man’s salvation, the breath of all our being. (p.85)
  • Treachery stokes its own fires. It needs no circumstances or pretexts or motives. Motivelessness is the very thing it thrives on. (p.100)
  • What we call infatuation is nothing other than being mesmerised by the realisation that we can juggle violence. (p.105)
  • All obsessional behaviour this side of madness must make a concession to normality somewhere. (p.107)
  • Despair drives men to believe that riches and salvation are incompatible; and so, sometimes, does repletion. But seldom hope; and never hope in its infancy. (p.119)
  • As with mortals, so with gods: we lose ourselves in ill-definition and crave elucidation – heroic elucidation if we can find it – of who we are. (p.142)
  • Barring exceptional circumstances, there are only two reasons why a man of marriageable age remains a bachelor: either he doesn’t love women at all, or he loves them too much. (p.154)
  • A serious man talks to no-one but himself. (p.185)
  • The more a thing grows, the smaller its capacity to amuse itself. (p.189)
  • Mothers, of course, are always sad. (p.209)

There are scores of sweeping generalisations like this, part of the book’s discourse-creating machinery – but I don’t think there’s a single sententious sentiment which, upon reflection I don’t think is bogus. They sound high and mighty but – like a lot of the text – in the morning have melted and gone like snow.

Rhetoric instead of character

All this goes partly to explain why it’s difficult to remember much of what goes on in a Jacobson novel. In the texture of the prose there is an never-ending display of rhetorical fireworks, but events, actions ‘in the real world’? Which are structured into a sequence which creates a ‘plot’? Harder to discern. Often invisible, buried beneath the magnificent tapestry of rhetoric.

Teachers of creative writing say that character in a novel is revealed by dialogue and action but there is little of either in a Jacobson novel. Not much gets in the way of the ceaseless enchanter’s weaving of the ornate narratorial prosody. The 23-page chapter Cain Expatiates describes Cain’s feelings as he spies on his mother, Eve, nursing baby Abel and being wooed – sort of – impressed, and shown off to by a surprisingly anthropomorphic God. Cain expatiates exactly describes the scene, because in the entire long meditation on what it means for the Creator to be so attracted to one of his muddy creations, we get a beguiling and bewitching 20 pages of Cain’s elaborately rhetorical thoughts – and not a word from Eve. She does and says nothing. At one point Cain describes her character – ‘she was brittle, obstinate, unadaptable, impervious’ (p.93) and I realised, once these fine words had stopped dazzling me – that I had no idea what they meant, was not even sure, in fact, if they mean anything.

And so for all its gorgeous tapestries of words, for all its peculiar and intense inhabitation of Cain’s tortured consciousness and its imaginatively weird descriptions of the First Family, for all the appearance of scrupulous moral and psychological investigation created by the professorial tags and scholarly discriminations – for all its bizarre Talmudical reincarnations –  after I put the book down, the ornate baroque music of the prose rang on in my head for a while, humming and reverberating but… the plot, the meaning, the message of it all, whatever the book was actually about – evaporated from my memory like dew in the desert.

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)


Credit

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson by Howard Jacobson was published in 1992 by Viking Books. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

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Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator on an extended sojourn in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
1992 The Very Model of a Man – An extraordinary achievement, a bizarre and rhetorical imagining into the mind of Cain – son of Adam and Eve and murderer of his brother Abel – as he tortuously remembers the events leading up to the first fratricide, and spends his days as an outcast in the corrupt and cosmopolitan city of Babel.
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –

Aspects of Paradise Lost

Theology

Does PL succeed in justifying the ways of God to man?
A: No. The whole argument hangs on three or four very debatable points:

  • Whether you accept the assertion, repeated over and over by God, the Son, the angels and the narrator – that worship from created beings is only meaningful if it is freely given i.e. created beings have to be free – and that freedom involves the freedom to do wrong and well as right. To which one replies: a) couldn’t God have created a world in which there was no evil? Hence, no temptation? Lost of freedom and choices: just nothing Evil. b) couldn’t God have intervened at various points to prevent the tragedy? The obvious answer is, Yes.
  • Whether you accept the assertion that all mankind deserves to be punished for something done before they were born. Obviously not.
  • Whether God could have forgiven them there and then and said, I’ll give you a second chance. Why not?
  • (All this is accepting the hard-to-understand but much-repeated point that merely because God foresees something, does not make it pre-ordained. Let’s accept that.)
  • (And accepting the strange idea that God makes a universe knowing it will be wrecked – why?)

The solution to the entire problem with Milton’s theology is to realise that Christianity is not designed to tell a logical story of the creation: Christianity has devised a myth which explains the current state of mankind, society and people. For those who buy into the myth it has tremendous psychological power – but it is a myth, created retroactively to make sense of the status quo – if you examine the same myth as if it were a logical story explaining the origin of the universe then it becomes highly questionable, because you are essentially saying that God created an imperfect world – and there’s no way out of the paradoxes that throws up – because the Christian response – that, no, God created a perfect world and we, humanity, screwed it up, works if you relate that myth to your own personal life story which will inevitably involve screw-ups and failings (that’s what the whole myth is designed to do). But fails as a stand-alone account of the creation of the whole world, viewed in the abstract. Thus Milton tries heroically, epically, but fails to justify the ways of God to man. God’s ways seem harsh, cruel and arbitrary.

If it succeeded, why isn’t part of the syllabus at any Catholic or Protestant seminary school? Because, by taking the story so literally, Milton lets the cat out of the bag.

Architecture

Does the poem lay out its pretty well-known story in a suitable way?
I think Milton succeeds admirably in taking the well-known story and adapting it for the traditional methodology of epics i.e. starting in media res and telling key events in flashback – just as Odysseus tells all his exotic adventures in flashback, or Aeneas tells the people of Carthage his story ditto, thus Raphael tells the origins of the rebellion and the War in heaven and the Creation of the universe in flashback; and just as Aeneas is vouchsafed a vision of the futurity of Rome, so Adam is given a vision of the future of humanity. Top marks.

However, it is a major flaw that the poem tails off as it drags on – that Raphael’s account of the Creation or Michael’s prophecy are boring. Why? Because we’ve read them before, described much more snappily, in the Bible.

Style

Does Milton’s style help or hinder one’s reading? Is it answerable to the subject matter?
Although the essence of Milton’s style remains the same throughout (the Latinate grammar, the odd use of syntax, Latinate vocabulary) no-once can doubt that the poem goes off. The best books are the first four. Why? Several reasons:

  • In Hell Milton is free-est to invent episodes; thereafter he is more constrained by the Biblical account. Thus in Book X it is a breath of fresh air when Satan encounters Sin and Death again, making their way up to the Universe.
  • Milton seems to have put more effort into fully imagining these early books: one simple indicator is that they are packed with epic similes – whereas the long books of Raphael’s are almost barren of similes – making you realise how refreshing they had been, to add variety to the style and rhythm.
  • If books VI, VII, X, XI and XII are boring because they have to retell large chunks of Genesis without using similes, other sections of books V and so on are just as boring because they have to convey long gobbets of Christian theology. Long stretches are not much more than versified pamphlets.

Epic poem

Does PL succeed as an epic poem in the tradition of Homer, Virgil, Camoes, Tasso?
A: Yes.

Aesthetics

Taken all in all, is Paradise Lost a success?
A: A limited one, or Yes, with reservations. These reservations stem from:

  • The failure of the theology to allay big doubts about God, its fundamental aim.
  • The failure of the later books to maintain the imaginative force and novel subject matter of the earlier ones.
  • The consequent flattening or failure of the style, which becomes pedestrian and boring for long stretches.

It seems to me axiomatic that Milton was a devout Christian who wrote the poem with the explicit aim of justifying the ways of God to men. The facts are the following: the first four or so books are the best. ‘Best’ means they are most enjoyable to read because containing the highest proportion of vivid and memorable language.

From Book V onwards the poem becomes more stodgy – the Raphael books: his account of the origins of the devil rebellion i.e. Satan’s revolt against the Son up till Abdiel standing up against the rebels (V), the actual War in Heaven (VI), the creation of the universe and of Man – all this feels already-read (VII), and then Raphael’s deliberately vague description of the Universe; then Adam’s memories of waking & meeting God (VIII).

The whole of Book IX is an account, told in real time, of Eve leaving Adam, then being seduced by the serpent to eat the fruit, then persuading Adam to eat it. This ought to be the dramatic centrepiece of the poem but is the dullest – we know what’s going to happen so there’s no drama – instead there is lengthy and hard-to-follow argumentation between snake and Eve – she eats – and then between Eve and Adam – he eats – they make love – then feel guilt and shame.

Given a choice, which would you rather read – bks 1,2 & 3 – or bks 9,10,11?

Book X where the Son quickly judges the pair is only enlivened by the great scenes of Sin and Death building a path up to the earth.

Book XI where Michael lays out the future of the human race is dull.

Milton’s style

Debate ranges over Milton’s style, at one end people say it’s recognisably English phrasing and syntax – at the other Dr Johnson & co say it’s written in a style heavily influenced by Latin, and unlike any English ever spoken. I’m at the Dr Johnson end, but then most poetry is unlike the language actually spoken by citizens. The question is not the disputed source or origin of Milton’s style. It’s whether it works.

Christopher Ricks’ book shows in minute detail that Milton’s style is highly considered, carefully wrought, and meaningful i.e. for long stretches it does work.

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Milton’s Satan and the Classical World

The whole debate about whether Satan is the ‘hereo’ of Paradise Lost is wrong-headed. It is based on three premises:

  1. The poetry is most vivid when describing Satan – hence Blake’s claim that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.”
  2. Satan is the protagonist of the plot, moving the action along while the other characters – God, Son, Adam – are in various ways passive recipients of actions.
  3. Satan fits neatly into Milton’s classical frames of reference and discourse i.e. Satan is dynamic like a character in a Greek play, he is described using multitudes of epic similes, themselves generally taken from pagan examples etc.

1. The devil scenes are more vivid because Milton has more freedom to invent and write freely than in the Bible-based scenes where he has to stick very closely to what he thought of as a literal version of history. But it is a delusive attractiveness. Satan quite clearly shrinks and mangles in size and scope as the poem continues and as his superficial attractiveness is reduced to bestiality.

2. Satan is without doubt the main engine of the plot – but this implies no superiority. Everything Milton stands, his whole theology denies and rejects the claim.

3. The identity of Satan with everything classical and pagan is one of the ways Milton condemns him. Milton takes every opportunity to make it absolutely clear that he considers his epic superior to the classic ones because he deals with Christian virtues of justice and forgiveness.

Ways Milton denigrates the Classical world

1. He explicitly says so:

… Sad task, yet argument
Not less but more heroic than the wrath
Of stern Achilles on his foe pursued
Thrice fugitive about Troy wall; or rage
Of Turnus for Lavinia disespoused…
…the better fortitude
Of patience and heroic martyrdom
Usung…” (IX 14-17, 31-3)

2. As a learnèd humanist Milton’s mind adverts continually to analogies from the pagan ancient world but he continually undercuts them to emphasise that they are feigned – NOT TRUE – unlike his Christian analogies taken from the Bible.

At every turn Milton critiques and criticises the very techniques and references he is so learnedly, so deftly, copying from the ancient world.

There is a steady stream of examples of the way Milton downplays, undermines, undercuts his own classical analogies – with its basis in militarism and paganism – in order to foreground his preferred Christian values of fortitude and martyrdom. Remember: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’

Examples

  • Pandemonium is described in classical terms – using all the terminology of the Pantheon or Parthenon. It is a palace of devils. Compare and contrast with the unfeigned simplicity of Adam and Eve’s rural bower and of their simple morning worship.
  • When Satan puffs himself up to persuade Eve to eat the apple he is explicitly compared to an orator from the ancient world, pulling every trick in the rhetorician’s book – and clearly judged bad and immoral for doing so.
  • When Satan addresses the devils in his palace, reporting on his adventure – he couches his story in all the self-aggrandisement of a Great Hero; and yet what is the result of all this ‘heroism’ – he and all his audience are turned by God into hissing reptiles.

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