A post to Internet Monk December 2, 2019

 

Big Big Train, a progressive rock band from England, recently produced their twelfth studio album The Grand Tour. I have been a fan of Big Big Train since their The Underfall Yard in 2009. The song “Victorian Brickwork” is a masterpiece of autumnal beauty, perfectly suited for this time of year.

What I find intriguing about Big Big Train is their unapologetically positive stance towards the achievements of European civilization. English Electric was a paean to the Industrial Revolution and the sweat of working men [mostly] that made it possible. The Grand Tour opens the horizons to include England-As-Part-Of-Europe and the achievements of Continental art and science, from the mosaics of Theodora and Justinian in Ravenna, to the sketchbooks of Da Vinci in Florence, to a production of “The Tempest” translated into Hungarian (I think).

No caveats. No side-spectrum apologies for colonialism or environmental decay. Yet, there was nothing overtly triumphalistic about their music. It was as though they had issued their CDs in response to a question I asked here years ago, and to which I never received a satisfactory response:

Do White people get to bring anything to the Diversity Party apart from contrition?

Big Big Train would be a good place to start.

Now, the reason I mention the racial/cultural element is that it appears that what you guys find ‘celestial’ and ‘transcendent’ is the same sort of material that I do; Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Tallis’ Spem In Alium, Arvo Pärt – pretty White material actually. Now, I love Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, but ” ‘Round Midnight” lights up a different part of my sensorium than do Tchaikovsky’s “Hymn of the Seraphim” or de Victoria’s “O Magnum Mysterium”.


Originally published on his blog The Archdruid Report 4/23/2014

 

I have been wondering for some time now how to talk about the weirdly autumnal note that sounds so often and so clearly in America these days. Through the babble and clatter, the seven or eight television screens yelling from the walls of every restaurant you pass and all the rest of it, there comes a tone and a mood that reminds me of wind among bare branches and dry leaves crackling underfoot: as though even the people who insist most loudly that it’s all onward and upward from here don’t believe it any more, and those for whom the old optimism stopped being more than a soothing shibboleth a long time ago are hunching their shoulders, shutting their eyes tight, and hoping that things can still hold together for just a little while longer.

It’s not just that American politicians and pundits are insisting at the top of their lungs that the United States can threaten Russia with natural gas surpluses that don’t exist, though that’s admittedly a very bad sign all by itself. It’s that this orgy of self-congratulatory nonsense appears in the news right next to reports that oil and gas companies are slashing their investments in the fracking technology and shale leases that were supposed to produce those imaginary surpluses, having lost a great deal of money pursuing the shale oil mirage, while Russia and Iran  pursue a trade deal that will make US sanctions against Iran all but irrelevant, and China is quietly making arrangements to conduct its trade with Europe in yuan rather than dollars. Strong nations in control of their own destinies, it’s fair to note, don’t respond to challenges on this scale by plunging their heads quite so enthusiastically into the sands of self-deception.

To shift temporal metaphors a bit, the long day of national delusion that dawned back in 1980, when Ronald Reagan famously and fatuously proclaimed “it’s morning in America,” is drawing on rapidly toward dusk, and most Americans are hopelessly unprepared for the coming of night. They’re unprepared in practical terms, that is, for an era in which the five per cent of us who live in the United States will no longer dispose of Image result for eye of sauron

a quarter of the world’s energy supply and a third of its raw materials and industrial products, and in which what currently counts as a normal American lifestyle will soon be no more than a fading memory for the vast majority. They’re just as unprepared, though, for the psychological and emotional costs of that shattering transformation—not least because the change isn’t being imposed on them at random by an indifferent universe, but comes as the inevitable consequence of their own collective choices in decades not that long past.

The hard fact that most people in this country are trying not to remember is this: in the years right after Reagan’s election, a vast number of Americans enthusiastically turned their backs on the promising steps toward sustainability that had been taken in the previous decade, abandoned the ideals they’d been praising to the skies up to that time, and cashed in their grandchildrens’ future so that they didn’t have to give up the extravagance and waste that defined their familiar and comfortable lifestyles. As a direct result, the nonrenewable resources that might have supported the transition to a sustainable future went instead to fuel one last orgy of wretched excess. Now, though, the party is over, the bill is due, and the consequences of that disastrous decision have become a massive though almost wholly unmentionable factor in our nation’s culture and collective psychology.

A great many of the more disturbing features of contemporary American life, I’m convinced, can’t be understood unless America’s thirty-year vacation from reality is taken into account. A sixth of the US population is currently on antidepressant medications, and since maybe half of Americans can’t afford to get medication at all, the total number of Americans who are clinically depressed is likely a good deal higher than prescription figures suggest. The sort of bizarre delusions that used to count as evidence of serious mental illness—baroque conspiracy theories thickly frosted with shrill claims of persecution, fantasies of imminent mass death as punishment for humanity’s sins, and so on—have become part of the common currency of American folk belief. For that matter, what does our pop culture’s frankly necrophiliac obsession with vampires amount to but an attempt, thinly veiled in the most transparent of symbolism, to insist that it really is okay to victimize future generations for centuries down the line in order to prolong one’s own existence?

Mythic and legends such as this can be remarkably subtle barometers of the collective psyche. The transformation that turned the vampire from just another spooky Eastern European folktale into a massive pop culture presence in industrial North America has quite a bit to say about the unspoken ideas and emotions moving through the crawlspaces of our collective life. In the same way, it’s anything but an accident that the myth of the heroic quest has become so pervasive a presence in the modern industrial world that Joseph Campbell could simply label it “the monomyth,” the basic form of myth as such. In any sense other than a wholly parochial one, of course, he was quite wrong—the wild diversity of the world’s mythic stories can’t be forced into any one narrative pattern—but if we look only at popular culture in the modern industrial world, he’s almost right.

The story of the callow nobody who answers the call to adventure, goes off into the unknown, accomplishes some grand task, and returns transformed, to transform his surroundings in turn, is firmly welded into place in the imagination of our age. You’ll find it at the center of J.R.R. Tolkien’s great works of fantasy, in the most forgettable products of the modern entertainment industry, and everything in between and all around. Yet there’s a curious blind spot in all this: we hear plenty about those who answer the call to adventure, and nothing at all about those who refuse it. Those latter don’t offer much of a plot engine for an adventure story, granted, but such a tale could make for a gripping psychological study—and one that has some uncomfortably familiar features.

With that in mind, with an apology in the direction of Tolkien’s ghost, and with another to those of my readers who aren’t lifelong Tolkien buffs with a head full of Middle-earth trivia—yes, I used to sign school yearbooks in fluent Elvish—I’d like to suggest a brief visit to an alternate Middle-earth: one in which Frodo Baggins, facing the final crisis of the Third Age and the need to leave behind everything he knew and loved in order to take the Ring to Mount Doom, crumpled instead, with a cry of “I can’t, Gandalf, I just can’t.” Perhaps you’ll join me in a quiet corner of The Green Dragon, the best inn in Bywater, take a mug of ale from the buxom hobbit barmaid, and talk about old Frodo, who lived until recently just up the road and across the bridge in Hobbiton.

You’ve heard about the magic ring he had, the one that he inherited from his uncle Bilbo, the one that Gandalf the wizard wanted him to go off and destroy? That was thirty years ago, and most folk in the Shire have heard rumors about it by now. Yes, it’s quite true; Frodo was supposed to leave the Shire and go off on an adventure, as Bilbo did before him, and couldn’t bring himself to do it. He had plenty of reasons to stay home, to be sure. He was tolerably well off and quite comfortable, all his friends and connections were here, and the journey would have been difficult and dangerous. Nor was there any certainty of success—quite the contrary, it’s entirely possible that he might have perished somewhere in the wild lands, or been caught by the Dark Lord’s servants, or what have you.

So he refused, and when Gandalf tried to talk to him about it, he threw the old wizard out of Bag End and slammed the round green door in his face. Have you ever seen someone in a fight who knows that he’s in the wrong, and knows that everyone else knows it, and that knowledge just makes him even more angry and stubborn? That was Frodo just then. Friends of mine watched the whole thing, or as much of it as could be seen from the garden outside, and it was not a pleasant spectacle.

It’s what happened thereafter, though, that bears recalling. I’m quite sure that if Frodo had shown the least sign of leaving the Shire and going on the quest, Sauron would have sent Black Riders after him in a fine hurry, and there’s no telling what else might have come boiling up out of Mordor. It’s by no means impossible that the Dark Lord might have panicked, and launched a hasty, ill-advised assault on Gondor right away. For all I know, that may have been what Gandalf had in mind, tricking the Dark Lord into overreacting before he’d gathered his full strength, and before Gondor and Rohan had been thoroughly weakened from within.

Still, once Sauron’s spies brought him word that Frodo had refused to embark on the quest, the Dark Lord knew that he had a good deal less to fear, and that he could afford to take his time. Ever since then, there have been plenty of servants of Mordor in and around the Shire, and a Black Rider or two keeping watch nearby, but nothing obvious or direct, nothing that might rouse whatever courage Frodo might have had left or convince him that he had to flee for his life. Sauron was willing to be patient—patient and cruel. I’m quite sure he knew perfectly well what the rest of Frodo’s life would be like.

So Gandalf went away, and Frodo stayed in Bag End, and for years thereafter it seemed as though the whole business had been no more than a mistake. The news that came up the Greenway from the southern lands was no worse than before; Gondor still stood firm, and though there was said to be some kind of trouble in Rohan, well, that was only to be expected now and then. Frodo even took to joking about how gullible he’d been to believe all those alarmist claims that Gandalf had made. Sauron was still safely cooped up in Mordor, and all seemed right with Middle-earth.

Of course part of that was simply that Frodo had gotten even wealthier and more comfortable than he’d been before. He patched up his relationship with the Sackville-Bagginses, and he invested a good deal of his money in Sandyman’s mill in Hobbiton, which paid off handsomely. He no longer spent time with many of his younger friends by then, partly because they had their own opinions about what he should have done, and partly because he had business connections with some of the wealthiest hobbits in the Shire, and wanted to build on those. He no longer took long walks around the Shire, as he’d done before, and he gave up visiting elves and dwarves when he stopped speaking to Gandalf.

But of course the rumors and news from the southern lands slowly but surely turned to the worse, as the Dark Lord gathered his power and tightened his grip on the western lands a little at a time. I recall when Rohan fell to Saruman’s goblin armies. That was a shock for a great many folk, here in the Shire and elsewhere. Soon thereafter, though, Frodo was claiming that after all, Saruman wasn’t Sauron, and Rohan wasn’t that important, and for all anyone knew, the wizard and the Dark Lord might well end up at each other’s throats and spare the rest of us.

Still, it was around that time that Frodo stopped joking about Gandalf’s warnings, and got angry if anyone mentioned them in his hearing. It was around that same time, too, that he started insisting loudly and often that someone would surely stop Sauron. One day it was the elves: after all, they had three rings of power, and could surely overwhelm the forces of Mordor if they chose to. Another day, the dwarves would do it, or Saruman, or the men of Gondor, or the Valar in the uttermost West. There were so many alternatives! His friends very quickly learned to nod and agree with him, for he would lose his temper and start shouting at them if they disagreed or even asked questions.

When Lorien was destroyed, that was another shock. It was after that, as I recall, that Frodo started hinting darkly that the elves didn’t seem to be doing anything with their three rings of power to stop Sauron, and maybe they weren’t as opposed to him as they claimed. He came up with any number of theories about this or that elvish conspiracy. The first troubles were starting to affect the Shire by then, of course, and his investments were beginning to lose money; it was probably inevitable that he would start claiming that the conspiracy was aimed in part against hobbits, against the Shire, or against him in particular—especially the latter. They wanted his ring, of course. That played a larger and larger role in his talk as the years passed.

I don’t recall hearing of any particular change in his thinking when word came that Minas Tirith had been taken by the Dark Lord’s armies, but it wasn’t much later that a great many elves came hurrying along the East Road through the Shire, and a few months after that, word came that Rivendell had fallen. That was not merely a shock, but a blow; Frodo had grown up hearing his uncle’s stories about Rivendell and the elves and half-elves who lived there. There was a time after that news came that some of us briefly wondered if old Frodo might actually find it in himself to do the thing he’d refused to do all those years before.

But of course he did nothing of the kind, not even when the troubles here in the Shire began to bite more and more deeply, when goblins started raiding the borders of the North Farthing and the Buckland had to be abandoned to the Old Forest. No, he started insisting to anyone who would listen that Middle-earth was doomed, that there was no hope left in elves or dying Númenor, that Sauron’s final victory would surely come before—oh, I forget what the date was; it was some year or other not too far from now. He spent hours reading through books of lore, making long lists of reasons why the Dark Lord’s triumph was surely at hand. Why did he do that? Why, for the same reason that drove him to each of his other excuses in turn: to prove to himself that his decision to refuse the quest hadn’t been the terrible mistake he knew perfectly well it had been.

And then, of course, the Ring betrayed him, as it betrayed Gollum and Isildur before him. He came home late at night, after drinking himself half under the table at the Ivy Bush, and discovered that the Ring was nowhere to be found. After searching Bag End in a frantic state, he ran out the door and down the road toward Bywater shouting “My precious! My precious!” He was weeping and running blindly in the night, and when he got to the bridge he stumbled; over he went into the water, and that was the end of him. They found his body in a weir downstream the next morning.

The worst of it is that right up to the end, right up to the hour the Ring left him, he still could have embarked on the quest. It would have been a different journey, and quite possibly a harder one. With Rivendell gone, he would have had to go west rather than east, across the Far Downs to Cirdan at the Grey Havens, where you’ll find most of the high-elves who still remain in Middle-earth. From there, with such companions as might have joined him, he would have had to go north and then eastward through Arnor, past the ruins of Annuminas and Lake Evendim, to the dales of the Misty Mountains, and then across by one of the northern passes: a hard and risky journey, but by no means impossible, for with no more need to hinder travel between Rivendell and Lorien, the Dark Lord’s watch on the mountains has grown slack.

Beyond the mountains, the wood-elves still dwell in the northern reaches of Mirkwood, along with refugees from Lorien and the last of the Beornings. He could have gotten shelter and help there, and boats to travel down the River Running into the heart of Wilderland. From there his way would have led by foot to the poorly guarded northern borders of Mordor—when has Sauron ever had to face a threat from that quarter? So you see that it could have been done. It could still be done, if someone were willing to do it. Even though so much of what could have been saved thirty years ago has been lost, even though Minas Tirith, Edoras, Lorien and Rivendell have fallen and the line of the kings of Gondor is no more, it would still be worth doing; there would still be many things that could be saved.

Nor would such a journey have to be made alone. Though Aragorn son of Arathorn was slain in the last defense of Rivendell, there are still Rangers to be found in Cirdan’s realm and the old lands of Arnor; there are elf-warriors who hope to avenge the blood shed at Rivendell, and dwarves from the Blue Mountains who have their own ancient grudges against the Dark Lord. The last free Rohirrim retreated to Minhiriath after Éomer fell at Helm’s Deep, and still war against King Grima, while Gondor west of the river Gilrain clings to a tenuous independence and would rise up against Sauron at need. Would those and the elves of Lindon be enough? No one can say; there are no certainties in this business, except for the one Frodo chose—the certainty that doing nothing will guarantee Sauron’s victory.

And there might even still be a wizard to join such a quest. In fact, there would certainly be one—the very last of them, as far as I know. Gandalf perished when Lorien fell, I am sorry to say, and as for Saruman, the last anyone saw of him, he was screaming in terror as two Ringwraiths dragged him through the door of the Dark Tower; his double-dealing was never likely to bring him to a good end. The chief of the Ringwraiths rules in Isengard now. Still, there was a third in these western lands: fool and bird-tamer, Saruman called him, having never quite managed to notice that knowledge of the ways of nature and the friendship of birds and beasts might have considerable value in the last need of Middle-earth. Radagast is his name; yes, that would be me.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, you are old Frodo’s youngest cousin, are you not? Very nearly the only one of his relatives with enough of the wild Tookish blood in you to matter, or so I am told. It was just a month ago that you and two of your friends were walking in the woods, and you spoke with quite a bit of anger about how the older generation of hobbits had decided to huddle in their holes until the darkness falls—those were your very words, I believe. How did I know that? Why, a little bird told me—a wren, to be precise, a very clever and helpful little fellow, who runs errands for me from time to time when I visit this part of Middle-earth. If you meant what you said then, there is still hope.

And the Ring? No, it was not lost, or not for long. It slipped from its chain and fell from old Frodo’s pocket as he stumbled home that last night, and a field mouse spotted it. I had briefed all the animals and birds around Hobbiton, of course, and so she knew what to do; she dragged the Ring into thick grass, and when dawn came, caught the attention of a jay, who took it and hid it high up in a tree. I had to trade quite a collection of sparkling things for it! But here it is, in this envelope, waiting for someone to take up the quest that Frodo refused. The choice is yours, my dear hobbit. What will you do?


Originally posted on his blog The Archdruid Report 4/21/2014

Myths, according to the philosopher Sallust, are things that never happened but always are. With a few modifications, the same rule applies to the enduring narratives of every culture, the stories that find a new audience in every generation as long as their parent cultures last. Stories of that stature don’t need to chronicle events that actually took place to have something profoundly relevant to say, and the heroic quest I used last week to frame a satire on the embarrassingly unheroic behavior of many of industrial civilization’s more privileged inmates is no exception to that rule.

That’s true of hero tales generally, of course. The thegns and ceorls who sat spellbound in an Anglo-Saxon meadhall while a scop chanted the deeds of Beowulf to the sound of a six-stringed lyre didn’t have to face the prospect of wrestling with cannibalistic ogres or battling fire-breathing dragons, and were doubtless well aware of that fact. If they believed that terrible creatures of a kind no longer found once existed in the legendary past, why, so do we—the difference in our case is merely that we call our monsters “dinosaurs,” and insist that our paleontologist-storytellers be prepared to show us the bones.

The audience in the meadhall never wondered whether Beowulf was a historical figure in the same sense as their own great-grandparents. Since history and legend hadn’t yet separated out in the thinking of the time, Beowulf and those great-grandparents occupied exactly the same status, that of people in the past about whom stories were told. Further than that it was unnecessary to go, since what mattered to them about Beowulf was not whether he lived but how he lived. The tale’s original audience, it’s worth recalling, got up the next morning to face the challenges of life in dark age Britain, in which defending their community against savage violence was a commonplace event; having the example of Beowulf’s courage and loyalty in mind must have made that harsh reality a little easier to face.

The same point can be made about the hero tale I borrowed and rewrote in last week’s post, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Frodo Baggins was no Beowulf, which was of course exactly the point, since Tolkien was writing for a different audience in a different age. The experience of being wrenched out of a peaceful community and sent on a long march toward horror and death was one that Tolkien faced as a young man in the First World War, and watched his sons face in the Second. That’s what gave Tolkien’s tale its appeal: his hobbits were ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges, like so many people in the bitter years of the early twentieth century.

The contrast between Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings is precisely that between the beginning and the zenith of a civilization. Beowulf, like his audience, was born into an age of chaos and violence, and there was never any question of what he was supposed to do about it; the only detail that had to be settled was how many of the horrors of his time he would overcome before one of them finally killed him. Frodo Baggins, like his audience, was born into a world that was mostly at peace, but found itself faced with a resurgence of a nightmare that everyone in his community thought had been laid to rest for good. In Frodo’s case, the question of what he was going to do about the crisis of his age was what mattered most—and of course that’s why I was able to stand Tolkien’s narrative on its head last week, by tracing out what would have happened if Frodo’s answer had been different.

Give it a few more centuries, and it’s a safe bet that the stories that matter will be back on Beowulf’s side of the equation, as the process of decline and fall now under way leads into an era of dissolution and rebirth that we might as well call by the time-honored label “dark age.” For the time being, though, most of us are still on Frodo’s side of things, trying to come to terms with the appalling realization that the world we know is coming apart and it’s up to us to do something about it.

That said, there’s a crucial difference between the situation faced by Frodo Baggins and his friends in Middle-earth, and the situation faced by those of us who have awakened to the crisis of our time here and now. Tolkien was a profoundly conservative thinker and writer, in the full sense of that word. The plot engine of his works of adult fiction, The Silmarillion just as much as The Lord of the Rings, was always the struggle to hold onto the last scraps of a glorious past, and his powers of evil want to make Middle-earth modern, efficient and up-to-date by annihilating the past and replacing it with a cutting-edge industrial landscape of slagheaps and smokestacks. It’s thus no accident that Saruman’s speech to Gandalf in book two, chapter two of The Fellowship of the Ring is a parody of the modern rhetoric of progress, or that The Return of the King ends with a Luddite revolt against Sharkey’s attempted industrialization of the Shire; Tolkien was a keen and acerbic observer of twentieth-century England, and wove much of his own political thought into his stories.

The victory won by Tolkien’s protagonists in The Lord of the Rings, accordingly, amounted to restoring Middle-Earth as far as possible to the condition it was in before the War of the Ring, with the clock turned back a bit further here and there—for example, the reestablishment of the monarchy in Gondor—and a keen sense of loss surrounding those changes that couldn’t be undone. That was a reasonable goal in Tolkien’s imagined setting, and it’s understandable that so many people want to achieve the same thing here and now: to preserve some semblance of industrial civilization in the teeth of the rising spiral of crises that are already beginning to tear it apart.

I can sympathize with their desire. It’s become fashionable in many circles to ignore the achievements of the industrial age and focus purely on its failures, or to fixate on the places where it fell short of the frankly Utopian hopes that clustered around its rise. If the Enlightenment turned out to be far more of a mixed blessing than its more enthusiastic prophets liked to imagine, and if so many achievements of science and technology turned into sources of immense misery once they were whored out in the service of greed and political power, the same can be said of most human things: “If it has passed from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin,” Tolkien commented of a not dissimilar trajectory, “that was of old the fate of Arda marred.” Still, the window of opportunity through which modern industrial civilization might have been able to escape its unwelcome destiny has long since slammed shut.

That’s one of the things I meant to suggest in last week’s post by sketching out a Middle-earth already ravaged by the Dark Lord, in which most of the heroes of Tolkien’s trilogy were dead and most of the things they fought to save had already been lost. Even with those changes, though, Tolkien’s narrative no longer fits the crisis of our age as well as it did a few decades back. Our Ring of Power was the fantastic glut of energy we got from fossil fuels; we could have renounced it, as Tolkien’s characters renounced the One Ring, before we’d burnt enough to destabilize the climate and locked ourselves into a set of economic arrangements with no future…but that’s not what happened, of course.

We didn’t make that collective choice when it still could have made a difference: when peak oil was still decades in the future, anthropogenic climate change hadn’t yet begun to destabilize the planet’s ice sheets and weather patterns, and the variables that define the crisis of our age—depletion rates, CO2 concentrations, global population, and the rest of them—were a good deal less overwhelming than they’ve now become. As The Limits to Growth pointed out more than four decades ago, any effort to extract industrial civilization from the trap it made for itself had to get under way long before the jaws of that trap began to bite, because the rising economic burden inflicted by the ongoing depletion of nonrenewable resources and the impacts of pollution and ecosystem degradation were eating away at the surplus wealth needed to meet the costs of the transition to sustainability.

That prediction has now become our reality. Grandiose visions of vast renewable-energy buildouts and geoengineering projects on a global scale, of the kind being hawked so ebulliently these days by the prophets of eternal business as usual, fit awkwardly with the reality that a great many industrial nations can no longer afford to maintain basic infrastructures or to keep large and growing fractions of their populations from sliding into desperate poverty. The choice that I discussed in last week’s post, reduced to its hard economic bones, was whether we were going to put what remained of our stock of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources into maintaining our current standard of living for a while longer, or whether we were going to put it into building a livable world for our grandchildren.

Image result for Ronald Reagan

The great majority of us chose the first option, and insisting at the top of our lungs that of course we could have both did nothing to keep the second from slipping away into the realm of might-have-beens. The political will to make the changes and accept the sacrifices that would be required to do anything else went missing in action in the 1980s and hasn’t been seen since. That’s the trap that was hidden in the crisis of our age: while the costs of transition were still small enough that we could have met them without major sacrifice, the consequences of inaction were still far enough in the future that most people could pretend they weren’t there; by the time the consequences were hard to ignore, the costs of transition had become too great for most people to accept—and not too long after that, they had become too great to be met at all. .

As a commentary on our current situation, in other words, the story of the heroic quest has passed its pull date. As I noted years ago, insisting that the world must always follow a single narrative is a fertile source of misunderstanding and misery. Consider the popular insistence that the world can grow its way out of problems caused by growth—as though you could treat the consequences of chronic alcoholism by drinking even more heavily! What gives that frankly idiotic claim the appeal it has is that it draws on one of the standard stories of our age, the Horatio Alger story of the person who overcame long odds to make a success of himself. That does happen sometimes, which is why it’s a popular story; the lie creeps in when the claim gets made that this is always what happens.

When people insist, as so many of them do, that of course we’ll overcome the limits to growth and every other obstacle to our allegedly preordained destiny out there among the stars, all that means is that they have a single story wedged into their imagination so tightly that mere reality can’t shake it loose. The same thing’s true of all the other credos I’ve discussed in recent posts, from “they’ll think of something” through “it’s all somebody else’s fault” right on up to “we’re all going to be extinct soon anyway so it doesn’t matter any more.” Choose any thoughtstopper you like from your randomly generated Peak Oil Denial Bingo card, and behind it lies a single story, repeating itself monotonously over and over in the heads of those who can’t imagine the world unfolding in any other way.

The insistence that it’s not too late, that there must still be time to keep industrial civilization from crashing into ruin if only we all come together to make one great effort, and that there’s any reason to think that we can and will all come together, is another example. The narrative behind that claim has a profound appeal to people nowadays, which is why stories that feature it—again, Tolkien’s trilogy comes to mind—are as popular as they are. It’s deeply consoling to be told that there’s still one last chance to escape the harsh future that’s already taking shape around us. It seems almost cruel to point out that whether a belief appeals to our emotions has no bearing on whether or not it’s true.

The suggestion that I’ve been making since this blog first began eight years ago is that we’re long past the point at which modern industrial civilization might still have been rescued from the consequences of its own mistakes. If that’s the case, it’s no longer useful to put the very limited resources we have left into trying to stop the inevitable, and it’s even less useful to wallow in wishful thinking about how splendid it would be if the few of us who recognize the predicament we’re in were to be joined by enough other people to make a difference. If anything of value is to get through the harsh decades and centuries ahead of us, if anything worth saving is to be rescued from the wreck of our civilization, there’s plenty of work to do, and daydreaming about mass movements that aren’t happening and grand projects we can no longer afford simply wastes what little time we still have left.

That’s why I’ve tried to suggest in previous posts here that it’s time to set aside some of our more familiar stories and try reframing the crisis of our age in less shopworn ways. There are plenty of viable options—plenty, that is, of narratives that talk about what happens when the last hope of rescue has gone whistling down the wind and it’s time to figure out what can be saved in the midst of disaster—but the one that keeps coming back to my mind is one I learned and, ironically, dismissed as uninteresting quite a few decades ago, in the early years of my esoteric studies: the old legend of the fall of Atlantis.

It’s probably necessary to note here that whether Atlantis existed as a historical reality is not the point. While it’s interesting to speculate about whether human societies more advanced than current theory suggests might have flourished in the late Ice Age and then drowned beneath rising seas, those speculations are as irrelevant here as trying to fit Grendel and his mother into the family tree of the Hominidae, say, or discussing how plate tectonics could have produced the improbable mountain ranges of Middle-earth. Whatever else it might or might not have been, Atlantis is a story, one that has a potent presence in our collective imagination. Like Beowulf or The Lord of the Rings, the Atlantis story is about the confrontation with evil, but where Beowulf comes at the beginning of a civilization and Frodo Baggins marks its zenith, the Atlantis story illuminates its end.

Mind you, the version of the story of Atlantis I learned, in common with most of the versions in circulation in occult schools in those days, had three details that you won’t find in Plato’s account, or in most of the rehashes that have been churned out by the rejected-knowledge industry over the last century or so. First, according to that version, Atlantis didn’t sink all at once; rather, there were three inundations separated by long intervals. Second, the sinking of Atlantis wasn’t a natural disaster; it was the direct result of the clueless actions of the Atlanteans, who brought destruction on themselves by their misuse of advanced technology.

The third detail, though, is the one that matters here. According to the mimeographed lessons I studied back in the day, as it became clear that Atlantean technology had the potential to bring about terrifying blowback, the Atlanteans divided into two factions: the Children of the Law of One, who took the warnings seriously and tried to get the rest of Atlantean society to do so, and the Servants of the Dark Face, who dismissed the whole issue—I don’t know for a fact that these latter went around saying “I’m sure the priests of the Sun Temple will think of something,” “orichalcum will always be with us,” “the ice age wasn’t ended by an ice shortage,” and the like, but it seems likely. Those of my readers who haven’t spent the last forty years hiding at the bottom of the sea will know instantly which of these factions spoke for the majority and which was marginalized and derided as a bunch of doomers.

According to the story, when the First Inundation hit and a big chunk of Atlantis ended up permanently beneath the sea, the shock managed to convince a lot of Atlanteans that the Children of the Law of One had a point, and for a while there was an organized effort to stop doing the things that were causing the blowback. As the immediate memories of the Inundation faded, though, people convinced themselves that the flooding had just been one of those things, and went back to their old habits. When the Second Inundation followed and all of Atlantis sank but the two big islands of Ruta and Daitya, though, the same pattern didn’t repeat itself; the Children of the Law of One were marginalized even further, and the Servants of the Dark Face became even more of a majority, because nobody wanted to admit the role their own actions had had in causing the catastrophe. Again, those of my readers who have been paying attention for the last forty years know this story inside and out.

It’s what happened next, though, that matters most. In the years between the Second Inundation and the Third and last one, so the story goes, Atlantis was for all practical purposes a madhouse with the inmates in charge. Everybody knew what was going to happen and nobody wanted to deal with the implications of that knowledge, and the strain expressed itself in orgiastic excess, bizarre belief systems, and a rising spiral of political conflict ending in civil war—anything you care to name, as long as it didn’t address the fact that Atlantis was destroying itself and that nearly all the Atlanteans were enthusiastic participants in the activities driving the destruction. That was when the Children of the Law of One looked at one another and, so to speak, cashed out their accounts at the First National Bank of Atlantis, invested the proceeds in shipping, and sailed off to distant lands to become the seedbearers of the new age of the world.

That’s the story that speaks to me just now—enough so that I’ve more than once considered writing a fantasy novel about the fall of Atlantis as a way of talking about the crisis of our age. Of course that story doesn’t speak to everyone, and the belief systems that insist either that everything is fine or that nothing can be done anyway have no shortage of enthusiasts. If these belief systems turn out to be as delusional as they look, though, what then? The future that very few people are willing to consider or prepare for is the one that history shows us is the common destiny of every other failed civilization: the long, bitter, ragged road of decline and fall into a dark age, from which future civilizations will eventually be born. If that’s the future ahead of us, as I believe it is, the necessary preparations need to be made now, if the best achievements of our age are to be carried into the future when the time of the seedbearers arrives.

 


…I often find myself among non-observant people. They don’t speak religious language or have religious habits. Most are just ordinary Midwestern folks who have lived in nominally Christian, common sense realistic environments and who have spent their years working, raising families, and dealing with the ordinary stuff of life.

This drives me a little bit crazy, since I am of two minds about it. On one hand, I feel perfectly OK just letting the Blodgetts live their Blodgett-y lives without pestering them too much about the demands of Jesus. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Even once you get outside the Heartland and into Diversity World®, you find that practitioners of other religions have pretty much the same laissez-faire attitude about religion that the Christians have. It’s all well and good in its place, honoring the demands of tribe and culture and all that, but business and its demands are primary. After all, bills have to be paid and the kids need to be clothed and educated. There is a devout Sunni Muslim I have a business relationship with. Of all the people I know, he is the closest to someone who practices his religion because he wants to cultivate a relationship with God. And I prefer Shi’a Islam to Sunni.

Yet at the same time, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection aren’t really necessary if your goal in life is to live in a realistic, common-sense environment where the maximization of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is the primary goal. Even you, CM, have to admit that most of your non-religious contacts have been living off of borrowed capital, spending the last few coppers, as Solzhenitsyn put it, of the gold coins laid down by their ancestors. Their children and grandchildren won’t be living the same way. Man was meant to be divine, not mediocre, and Screwtape wins when man embraces mediocrity even if he refuses outright wickedness.

I agree with you that the problem is that the scaffolding currently supporting our threadbare Christendom does not allow for the insertion of Jesus into human strengths and goodness. Revivalism really did a tune on that, especially with its insistence that you have to acknowledge yourself to be a pretty horrible person to be able to avail yourself of Jesus and the Church. Jesus started getting a reputation as a safe harbor for last-gaspers. As one person told me, ‘there has to be a place where you can meet Jesus other than at the end of your rope.’


Richard Beck found that the elimination of the Devil, “that ancient and arrogant spirit” according to a prayer I repeat every evening,  gelded progressive Christianity and left it insipid and flavorless. That the oh-so-clever modern world should leave off believing in the Devil is no surprise; we live in an age that abhors fecundity and wants to geld everything, yet somehow ten years ago, Beck found that there is something in evil that does not reduce in our analyses. So, we are forced to reimagine him. Beck does a great job, by the way, and is far more courageous in his imagination than the collection of progressive fundamentalists that comment on his blog.

For some reason, God saw a cosmos with a Devil preferable to one without, and somehow there is bound up in the idea of the Devil the concept of Freedom. Barfield’s discussion on the progressive Liberation of the Logos comes into play here; the austrolopithecine mother cooing to her infant on the darking savannah already contained in her DNA, that ballet of nitrates demanding and surrendering electrons, all of our vaunted human wisdom; Gilgamesh, Jeremiah, Plato, Lucretius, Newton, Faraday, and Hawking. But it wasn’t free.

art_0409_1-lg_2Of all the people on this board, I have less sympathy for the classical liberal concept of Freedom than most. When I saw a piece of artwork by an acolyte of Richard Rohr that illustrating an article here about three weeks ago, I knew immediately that my sympathies lay with the figures on the top half of the drawing more than they did with those on the bottom. Instinctively I felt the figures on the bottom couldn’t be trusted with that freedom, and that they would use that freedom to do ridiculous, objectionable, and banal things. Worse than that, I would be expected to rejoice in them and be thought defective if I couldn’t.

It is beginning to dawn on me, just beginning because the idea beats against the tide of a lifetime of egotism and elitism, that maybe what God wants us to do with the freedom we find in Christ is not to voluntarily and joyfully recreate ex corde the top half of the illustration, but to take some risks and fail, sometimes spectacularly, in the service of an end whose glory we cannot yet even imagine.


0o66f5darvx21There is a film on Netflix that presents itself quickly if you enter “Christian” into the search function.   The name of the film is Come Sunday and it tells the story of a  prominent African-American Pentecostal pastor, Carlton Pearson, who began to doubt the existence of Hell.  Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Rev. Pearson, and Martin Sheen does a sympathetic portrayal of Oral Robers, Rev. Pearson’s mentor and ministerial overseer.

The movie concentrates on the difficulty Rev. Pearson faced from his parishoners and peers when he began to dounbt the existence of Hell, but there is a significant subplot where Rev. Pearson is engaging Reggie, the gay parishoner organ player in his church who is suffering from complications to the AIDS virus.   Although the question is never explicitly addressed as to whether he considers his homosexuality something that in itself alienates him from God, or whether he was promiscuous, Reggie suffers from great shame.  In a very moving scene close to the end of the film, Rev. Pearson embraces Reggie, who is begging him to help him to ‘get saved’, and tells Reggie that he is deeply and profoundly loved, just as he is, and that he is already ‘saved’.

However, earlier in the movie, there is a scene in which Rev. Pearson confronts Reggie over some misdeed that is, once again, not specifically named in the script.  ‘Just because there’s no hell doesn’t mean you can live any way you please,’ Rev. Pearson admonishes his tearful  parishoner.  That line gave me pause.  Previously I thought that the whole idea of the apokatastasis was to allow people to do just that; to live any way they want without fear of eternal reprisal on the part of God.

Slowly, it began to dawn on me that the word used in the book of Acts for apokatastasis, the only time it is used in the entire New Testament, that word is restoration.  There is no room in the Kingdom of God for sin, not because sin doesn’t fit God’s idea of decor but because sin mars the image of God and requires, yes, precisely, restoration.  So whatever we think of the afterlife, it must also include some element of this restoration.  You can’t live any old way you want and participate in the universal restoration.  It just doesn’t fit.

There is an interesting scene about two thirds of the way through the film.  Rev. Pearson is put on trial by a group of other African-American pastors who grill him about his belief in the non-existence of Hell.  Rev. Pearson turns the tables on them and begins grilling them about whether there was anyone they currently believed was in Hell that they wouldn’t want to see released.  One bishop admits that his unrepentant father was in Hell, and had been there now for fifteen years. The father was a piece of work; an abusive cheating manipulator who had obviously left deep scars on his son, the bishop.  When Rev. Pearson asks if there wasn’t some way he wouldn’t want to have his daddy released from Hell, the bishop displays his deep conflictedness; he loves his father in the abstract but he doesn’t want any part of him unless there is some ontological change in his father.  Until then, the bishop is just fine with his father continuing to suffer.  ‘Hell is where he belongs,’ the bishop admits.

The existence of Hell has something to do with both forgiveness and repentance, and really, it seems to me that the one is only the mirror image of the other.  I’d like to take this up in the future.


The idea of Universal Reconciliation, the apokatastasis; that all created intelligences will eventually be reconciled to their Creator, has always been a minority opinion in Christianity.  There are many reasons why this would so.

One of the most objectionable reasons to disbelieve in Universal Reconciliation is that a lot of Christians are as angry as the punishing God they profess to believe in.  I have to admit that I still am in a lot of ways.  There is something in me that wants to be vindicated, that wants to be shown to be right, and sending people to Hell is a remarkably final way to end all metaphysical and theological argument.  However,  I always saw Hell and conscious punishment as something of a design flaw.  Back in the dreary Internet theological arena of the early 00s, hell was kind of the final entry in a schematic drawing on any number of theological arguments.  ‘Oh, you don’t believe in Limited Atonement?  Well, when you’ve been Baking in the Lake for 500,000 years, you’ll rethink your position!’

chaptersAnother objectionable argument against the Universal Reconciliation is the one based on Free Will, i.e. that God needs to allow eternal conscious torment in order to maintain an abstract freedom that is never absolute under the best of circumstances.  Our vaunted freedom is hedged about on every side with a terrible finitude, not the least of which is our own ignorance.

Yet there are some objections I have to Universal reconciliation as well;  it doesn’t take into account the real possibility that some people could hate God, love, and being so much that they could resist Him and it indefinitely.  That these people are some of the most damaged among us is not something I want to deal with right now.

Orthodoxy dispenses with Original Sin, so we don’t go to Hell because we deserve it for sullying God’s honor or some other such nonsense (sorry Anselm).  Hell draws me because there is something in me that responds to it, that recognizes it as my soul’s True Home, and after struggling with my sin for almost seven decades now and finding it as recalcitrant as ever, I realize that this is indeed a very real possibility.

Also, there is very strong indication in the Tradition that physicality is necessary for repentance, that it gives friction to the soul.  After that physicality is lost, the friction is lost and the dis-corporeal intelligence, like a driver hitting a patch of ice,  continues on the trajectory it was pursuing when it was forcibly unbodied, never to be reoriented.  For this reason, the fallen angels are never shriven, and can never return.

In the future, I’d like to explore different ways of looking at the apokatastasis.  I’m not a scholar, so I won’t be adding a lot of patristics, and probably not even a lot of Scripture.  There are plenty of places you can go for that.  Here, I just want to think out loud for a bit.

The graphic is from Blankets, a graphic novel by Craig Thompson.  It is very, very good.


A sudden flash of lightning illuminated the far northern colony of Toltara, catching the listless Workers by surprise and sending them scurrying for shelter.  The first gusts of the incoming storm blew up dust devils in the plaza below, but Queen Arsenya’s stiff, inflexible state gown did not yield to them.   She craned her neck for a glimpse of the road leading south.

“Ellhué’s not coming,” said the Queen, tapping her lacquered talons nervously on the marble railing of the balcony.

“Five Orcish Nymphs will die in the arena tomorrow, my Queen”, replied Bellimont, her Lord Consort. “I doubt Ellhué wants to be one of them.”   He regretted what he said as soon as the words left his mouth.  The Queen’s eyes narrowed and she bared her canines, never a good sign.  Another bolt of lightning forked through the leaden sky, followed almost immediately by the boom of thunder.  The wind rose again with the promise of rain.

“Hsst!  Silence!” she commanded him, her eyes flashing to match the pyrotechnics in the sky.   “You’re the only Drone who cares a vole’s hindquarters about the rule change.  The others are excited about it, the brutes.”  The Queen straightened her back, rising to her full height.  Orcs instinctively obeyed size and height, and Arsenya of Antarissa was the tallest Queen in the Commonwealth.  “For a Drone, you’ve shown far too much concern about Ellhué’s upbringing.  Everyone comments on it.”

What the Queen said was the unvarnished truth.  His solicitude for Antarissa’s oldest Nymph was an open scandal in the Commonwealth.  Orcish Drones were supposed to drink, hunt, shoot, quarrel with other Drones, and, of course, fertilize the Queen when she required.  It was not a hard job, and most Drones were content to do just that.  Lord Bellimont departed from expectations.  Not only did he take an active role in the administration of Antarissa, but he was also scoured the Commonwealth for tutors for the Nymphs of the household.

Lord Bellimont’s heart jumped as he heard the scrape of wooden wheels against the cobbled pavement.  Two coaches turned a corner into the main plaza of Toltara.  The first one creaked into place before the palace entrance, the coachworker jumping down to care for the horses.  The second, laden with greatchests and other accoutrements of travel, clattered along until it halted in front of an unloading dock.

The Queen sent a brace of Workers to attend to the newcomers, but Lord Bellimont outran them.  As soon as the door to the passenger compartment opened from the inside, he helped a young Orcish Nymph step down.  She was lithe and athletic, and tall for a Nymph.  Bald as befitted a potential Queen, she was dressed for travel rather than for court.  Her skin was darker than the olive complexion common to Orcs from the broad central plains, and her tusks were dainty. At twenty-eight, she had yet to seek a throne in the arena.

“Bell!” the Nymph shouted, and gave him a greeting peck on the cheek.  “Good old faithful Bellimont!” She handed him her handbag and turned her attention to the Queen.  “By the Lady, Mother, you look like a statue in that state gown”   Behind her a younger orc-girl stepped out of the compartment.  Apart from her cinnamon complexion, the two could have been hatched from the same egg.  They had the same almond-colored eyes, and the same generous mouth.  Queen Arsenya’s eyes widened.

“Ellhué!  You brought little Tuana with you?” the Queen asked.

“She wouldn’t stay behind!  With this new Temple decree requiring Nymphs to fight to the death, she begged to accompany me, Mother,” Ellhué replied, drawing the younger Nymph into the embrace.

“I couldn’t stand it if something happened to Ellhué, and I wasn’t here,” said Tuana, gazing up at the Queen.

“Thank the Lady Tuana came along, Mother,” said Ellhué, looping her arm through her mother’s. Although the Queen towered head, shoulders and ribs over the Nymph, the state dress impeded her movement, and the two walked together comfortably.  “Now that the Temple bids us kill each other in the arena, like so many fighting she-bears, it would have been a melancholy ride without Tuana’s merry company.”

The rain, which had been threatening all afternoon, finally broke over their heads in torrents.  Lord Bellimont bellowed at the Workers to escort the Queen and the two Nymphs towards the door where a warm rectangle of light glowed against the violent weather.

Silhouetted in the doorway was a gravid young Orc Queen, her stiff state robe seriously stretched by her swollen egg-sack.

“Manira!” shouted Ellhué.  “What are you doing here in your condition?”   It was the first time either Ellhué or Tuana had seen the former Antarissan Nymph since she had won the throne of the icy, far southern port colony of Ferrol nine months ago.

“Relax, Ellhué,” the newly minted Queen reassured her.  “I’ll be back in Ferrol weeks before this brood arrives. Phew! This northern weather suffocates me.  How does anyone stand it?”  The gravid young Queen turned to Arsenya, who still overtopped her by half a head. “Mother, will there be a chance to discuss Commonwealth action against the White Queen?  I know I can count on Antarissa, but…”

Before Queen Arsenya could finish, the two Nymphs grabbed the younger Queen by either arm and dragged her down the hall, giggling with delight.  Lord Bellimont couldn’t help noticing that Ellhué’s laughter, although genuine, was more guarded.  He punched his palm with his fist.  What was he to do?

A decree had come from the Temple that future arena contests would revert to the ancient rules, barbaric rules that all decent Orcs believed were behind them.  Formerly, Ellhué’s candidacy for the throne of Toltara would have been a welcome interruption in court life.  If she won, it would have been another feather in the cap of Antarissa.  The defeated Nymphs would become generals, guildmistresses, or priestesses, and life would go on.

But to fight to the death? To risk her life?  A life that had been so carefully tended?

“Lady’s teats, Mané, being a Queen really suits you”, declared Tuana, who couldn’t keep her hands away from Queen Manira’s protruding egg-sac and swollen breasts.  This mild blasphemy earned the young Nymph a slap on the back of the head from her mother.

“Being a Queen is wonderful!” replied Manira. “First of all, you’re taller than everybody else, so they obey you instantly.  Then there’s the egging.  O Lady, how can I describe egging?”  She lay her palms flat over her swollen abdomen and smiled knowingly.  “It’s like being filled with sunshine, or lightning”, she corrected herself as another peal illuminated the heavens outside the palace.  “All this life inside me.”

“I wish I was going into the arena tomorrow instead of Ellhué”, Tuana declared.  “I can’t wait to be a Queen!”  She put her head against Manira’s bump, embracing the gravid Queen around the waist. “Lady’s teats!  I’m so full of unripe eggs I could burst open like a melon.  All I can think about is egging and being seeded.”

“The rules have changed, Tua,” Ellhué reminded her solemnly.  “The contest is a lot more serious now, and you’re only fifteen.”

“I’m glad the Temple changed the rules,” Tuana said, a little too loudly.  “I’d kill all those other Nymphs.  Mother had to when she Queened, didn’t you, Mother?  That’s why she’s so tall and strong, and lays so many eggs at one time.”

“The circumstances were different then, dear,” Arsenya explained.  “Manira didn’t have to kill anyone when she became Queen of Ferrol, and look how tall she is.”

Yes, thought Bellimont darkly.  They hated us and wanted us dead.  They wanted to get rid of the Abomination in their midst, but you prevailed and saved both of us.  Attendants brought out the Nymphs’ formal gowns, softer and more flowing versions of the blue and white Antarissan state gown, tailored for their immature figures.  The Nymphs dragged the new Queen of Ferrol into their chambers to help them change.

“So, the last of Donaugh’s challengers has finally arrived, has she?” said a voice behind the Antarissan party.

Queen-Dowager Synisse of Toltara extended a powdered hand for Arsenya and Bellimont to kiss.   “No other consorts except for poor old Bellimont here?  Ah, Arsenya, always the traditionalist.” An older Drone, stout and going to bald, huffed up to her side, accompanied by a solidly built Nymph already Queen-tall. “I’m sure you remember Anhwan and the Nymph Gonaugh”, she added.  “Gonaugh will be competing for my crown tomorrow.”

Lord Bellimont acknowledged their hostess with a slight nod, but did not kiss the proffered hand.  All the decadence of the Orcish Commonwealth was on display in this one squat figure.  How early she had come to her Dowagerhood at forty-six.  The Queen of Antarissa was only three years younger than Synisse, but the contrast between them was remarkable.  Arsenya still had the tight, firm silhouette of a much younger Queen.  Her eggings were copious, and his heart still jumped when she included him with the younger and lustier Drones.

He hated to admit it, but there was wisdom in the Temple’s reinstatement of the old ways.  It was hard wisdom, cruel wisdom, but the truth of it slumbered deep in Orcish hearts.  Arsenya was living proof.  Mighty Queens arose out of the shed blood of their foes, not out of the cake-and-berry parties Orcish arena rituals had become.

If only there were some way he could shield Ellhué from that.

“Is he one of your original consorts, Synisse?” asked Arsenya.  Consorts were released from service to a Queen as she went into Dowagerhood.  For some reason, this one stayed behind.

Queen-Dowager Synesse allowed the veiled insult to pass.  The thunder continued to boom outside the palace, shaking the glazings. Synisse of Toltara was never a conscientious Queen.  She drank to excess, she overate, she never exercised, and she disported herself with Drones half her age.  When her Dowagerhood came upon her prematurely, Synisse thickened, wrinkled, and shrank overnight. Her layings had been paltry for a decade, and Toltara, despite its outward splendor, was seriously underpopulated. As they walked, Synisse extolled Gonaugh’s martial virtues.  “She’s been training for over a year.  The Temple’s decree took us all by surprise, Arsenya, but I believe Gonaugh is ready.”  Arsenya looked down at Gonaugh, who could not meet her eye.

As they entered the banquet hall, the schism between Antarissa and the rest of the colonies became more apparent.  There were more than three dozen Queens present, but their state gowns were shabby and ill-maintained.  Only Antarissa’s glistened with new gems.  Synisse had a Worker conduct Arsenya and Bellimont to their table. The other Queens, and the Drones and Workers following their example, stepped back as they walked by.  There were polite greetings, but no real welcome.

“The White Queen will eat their colonies like so many mince-tortes”, Arsenya whispered.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if half of this Orcish rabble was already in her pocket.”  The White Queen had already devastated six southern colonies, and rumor put her advance battalions within a week of Ferrol.  “They’re jealous”, she concluded.  “There isn’t a one of them that lays more than fifty score a year.  As if mere distance will keep the White Queen at bay forever.”

It’s not jealousy, Bellimont ruminated.  It’s a death wish.   Queens collected antiquities, rare birds, beasts, Drones.  They sought their own pleasures and took no thought for the Workers, whose hives slowly emptied.  Outside of Antarissa, a full nursery was unheard of.  There weren’t enough Workers to till the fields, care for the meat-stock, or repair the buildings, let alone bring new lands under cultivation.  As soon as you crossed the Antarissan border, all of that changed.  Industry abounded.  Overall-ed young Workers dunged the fields.  Builders fitted stones into roads and bridges. Soldiers drilled in the camps.

The cornets blew, announcing the arrival of the Nymphs to the banquet.  A door opened, but not a single Nymph emerged.  The chatter of the banquet guests turned nervous, when suddenly Gonaugh, wearing the gold-and-green of Toltara, torn in several places, flew out the door running pell-mell towards the dais where the Queens were seated.  On her heels came Tuana, just as tall but not so stocky, clothed in the Antarissan blue-and-white.  Halfway to the royal platform she threw herself at the Toltaran and tackled her around the legs.  The door disgorged a score or more Nymphs who surrounded the struggling pair, screaming and shrieking.  Ellhué, also clad in the Antarissan colors, followed at a distance, accompanied by a young Drone.

Tuana was riding the Toltaran, pummeling her fiercely with her fists.  Two other Nymphs threw themselves at Tuana, and were paid swift punches to the face.  A third Nymph, who was stanching a flow of blood from her nose, tried kicking Tuana.  The Antarissan grabbed her assailant’s leg in mid-kick, give it a twist, and flung her on her back.  Ellhué and the Drone managed to pull Tuana off the hapless Toltaran and through the circle of screaming nymphs to safety.  Tuana was sputtering curses and insults.

“You daughters of syphilitic mole-rats!  By the Lady’s cunt, Ellhué will cut you all to ribbons tomorrow!”  It took all of Ellhué’s strength to keep Tuana from throwing herself back on the other Nymphs, who were being assisted back to their quarters by other guards and attendants.

Lord Bellimont waded into the tangle of Nymphs and guards.  He put his hand on Ellhué’s shoulder and turned her towards him.  “What caused this, Ellhué?” he asked.

“She was defending my honor, Lord Bellimont”, replied Ellhué.  “Mine, and Mother’s.  Gonaugh, that’s the Toltaran, claimed Mother lay with you before her Queening, and that I was an Abomination.”  Ellhué was clenching and unclenching her fists.

“Then the Nymph Gonaugh accused the Nymph Ellhué of wanting to do the same thing with me”, said the young Drone apologetically, “and that we would make another abomination.  That’s when the Nymph Tuana jumped on Nymph Gonaugh.  I assure you, Lord Consort Bellimont, I had no such intention.”

“That’s true, Mother”, added Ellhué.  “We were just talking.  Rostum’s going to apprentice himself to Iolanth the master builder next year.”

It was an hour and a half before the Nymphs, properly chastised, filed chastely out the same door and took their places at the raised table set for them.  It was an hour and a half in which Lord Bellimont was able to formulate a plan, and in the other hour and a half before they were dismissed he was able to solidify it.

Around midnight, a feverishly vivid dream disturbed Lord Bellimont’s sleep.  He saw Queen Arsenya standing alone on the pinnacle of a mountain.  The wind blew from the South.  Other Queens stood around the Antarissan Queen, but on low hills.  Ferrol arose in the far South, with Manira perched on the summit.  In the North, Toltara rose, but Lord Bellimont could not see the Queen standing on the summit.  Her face was hidden, turned to the North.   Toltara reached Antarissa’s level and surpassed it.

Other peaks arose, and each of them carried an Antarissan Nymph.  Bellimont saw Arsenya, surrounded by Antarissan Nymphs become great Queens, and her glory was very great.  Then water flowed into the plain from the South.  It covered the hills and their light was extinguished. The waters continued to rise, threatening the mountains where the Antarissan Queens were standing.

The Queens from the hills swam furiously to reach the peaks where the Antarissan Queens are still above water, but it was of no avail.  The Queens sank beneath the waves and vanished.

Lord Bellimont saw with a particular clarity that the waters kept rising until one by one the mountains went dark as the waves swept over them.  The waves threatened Queen Arsenya’s mountain. Only Toltara and her Queen were still clear of the rising waters.   When the tide overwhelmed Queen Arsenya’s peak, she cried out and threw heself into the still rising water.  The Toltaran Queen turned and shouted, throwing herself into the water as well.

Eventually, the water covered Toltara’s mountain as well.  Out of the South came a single ship.  It sailed closer.  Ellhué, clearly Ellhué, was its only passenger.  The ship passed into the North, and vanished.  There was only the Ocean.

Lord Bellimont awoke with a start.  His bedrobe was drenched with sweat and he was trembling.  After stripping off his damp nightclothes, he lit a candle.  As he pulled on his breeches and fastened the stays on his camiset, his mind cleared, and he realized what he needed to do.  A knock came at the door.

“Who’s there?” he answered.  The Nymph Ellhué stepped inside, fully dressed in travel leathers, breeches and boots.  She carried a cloak in her right hand and a satchel in her left.  “Ellhué!” he shouted in surprise.

“Lord Bellimont,” she whispered.   “I’m sorry to make you bear this burden. I can’t face Mother with this, and I can’t fight in the arena tomorrow.  I’m not a coward, but I can’t fight knowing that even if I win, I’ll bring shame on Mother.”  She lowered her head and sobbed.  “And you”, she added.

The Lord Consort fastened the last button and tied his cravat.  He walked to her and put his arm around her shoulder.  “Ellhué, dearest, I just woke up from a most terrible dream.  I’m, well,  also convinced you must leave.  In fact, if you hadn’t come in just now, I was going to come to you.”

Ellhué’s expressive almond-colored eyes got even wider.  She lay her cloak and satchel on the couch next to her, and was stared intently at Lord Bellimont.

“Twenty-nine years ago I was traded to the old Queen,” Lord Bellimont told her.  “Argha had little use for a tuskless boy, so I had nothing to do.  The only Nymph in the household was your mother, and she was barely fourteen years old.  We became friends.  She was lonely, and I was barely a Drone, awaiting my first call.”

“I tremble to think about it now, but I became besotted with your mother. She was a flat-chested, narrow-hipped Nymph, but she rode like a centaur, handled a bow like one of the great archers of legend, and sang like a bard. I worshipped her.  Inevitably, my first call was not with the old Queen, but with your mother,”

“The rumors are true then,” Ellhué said, blushing.  “I am an Abomination.”

“Wait,” he pleaded. “The old Queen Argha died of a sudden fever and your mother posted for the old Queen’s throne despite her age.”  Lord Bellimont lowered his head.  “Your mother did not believe she would prevail against the older, stronger Nymphs in the lists.  To my shame, I tried to get her to run away with me.  Instead, she allowed me one last tryst.”

“Against all expectations, your mother vanquished her competitors.  She had to kill all seven of them.  Not one dared yield to an Abomination,” the Lord Consort continued. “So, your mother Queened hard, very hard.  She grew from a Nymph much smaller than you to her present height right in the arena with my seed still roiling in her egg-sac.  Four days later, she produced the finest, roundest, Nymph egg anyone had ever seen.  We hid it until the rest of her first brood arrived, then we allowed everyone to believe it was the product of her Queening Night.”

“That egg was you, Ellhué, fertilized by my seed, unmixed.  There has never been any doubt in my mind or that of the Queen that you are my daughter, Ellhué. Mine alone.”

Ellhué blanched to hear the word used by a Drone.  It sounded like a blasphemy.

Lord Bellimont rose to his feet and embraced the sniffling Nymph.  “I will hear nothing of Abominations, dearest Ellhué.  It’s true that Drones are put to death for doing what I and your mother did, but your mother’s size and fertility silenced our critics. Despite fierce opposition, I was made Lord Consort at seventeen.  You are no Abomination.  You are the best of us, Ellhué; kind, fierce, and as true as a sunrise, but outside Antarissa, yes, you are an Abomination, and not fit to be a true Queen.  That is why I’ve decided to ask Tuana to take your place in the arena tomorrow.”

As if summoned, the younger Nymph stepped into the Lord Consort’s room.  “Ellhué’s already asked me to replace her in the arena, and I’m as happy as a bee in sugar water that you approve.”

“What did you hear?” Bellimont asked the younger Nymph.

“Everything,” responded Tuana with the hint of a smirk.

“Leave,” he said to Ellhué, grasping her hands in his huge mitts. “Go north, not south.  There is a colony of hermits on the very northernmost cape, just outside the jungle.  You will be safe there.”  Lord Bellimont handed her a small purse containing some coins.

Ellhué walked into the Lord Consort’s embrace and he kissed her on the forehead.  “Go,” he said. “Remember those who love you, for love is stronger than fear.”

Then Ellhué turned to Tuana, and wept on her shoulder.  “Goodbye, father, sister”, she sobbed.  She opened the door, and vanished into the darkened hallway.

“The Queen is going to kill us,” remarked Tuana to Lord Bellimont after the sound of Ellhué’s footsteps died in the hallway.  “Well, you anyway.  I’ll be a Queen by tomorrow afternoon.”

The next morning, Bellimont and the Queen decided to watch the contest from ground level among the more prominent Workers rather than from the box set apart for royal guests.  There was no excitement in watching glimmering minatures at such a distance, so they stood at the edge of the field where only a low wall separated them the arena proper.  

A cornet blew to begin the contest, and the frightened Nymphs circled the arena, each keeping an eye on the other.  The Nymph in the Antarissan colors kept her back to the arena wall, sword and shield in either hand. “Smart girl,” whispered Bellimont under his breath.  “Make them come to you.”

The Antarissan feigned a stumble, to see she could draw an unwary adversary in her direction.  Gonaugh was swinging an axe in great arcs against the shield of a smaller Nymph visibly wilting under the blows.

The ploy was successful.  A compact, quick little Nymph, obviously from one of the northern colonies came towards her with a spear.  The Antarissan waited until she thrust, then bounded aside and slashed the girl in the chest with her sword, cutting her breastplate and scoring a large scratch from nipple to navel.  Her blood gushed through the leather onto the already wet sand, clotting it.

Letting the Northerner think she was pushing her back, the Antarissan Nymph retreated until she felt the wall at her back.  When her opponent began probing blindly with the spear, she danced out of the way and rained sword blows down on the girl’s arms, shoulders, and face. At last, the poor girl thrust too deeply into a place where the Antarissan no longer was, and  loked up to find her only inches from her face.  The Antarissan thrust her sword through her competitor’s lip just under the bridghe of the nose.  The northerner’s head exploded like a bloody balloon, and the Antarissan grew visibly before the crowd’s astonished eyes.

“It’s the blood”, whispered Arsenya to the Lord Consort.  “It does something to you.  I felt so much life rushing into me when those other Nymphs spilled their blood on me.  It was like I’d never be tired again.  Ellhué drew first blood.  That’s good.  Now she’ll be bigger and harder to beat.”

The Toltaran Nymph also dispatched another Nymph, and was charging around the arena bellowing challenges to all and sundry.  Her biceps were the size of two roasted peafowl and rudimentary breasts were forming on her chest.  The other two Nymphs gave her a wide berth.

The Nymph in the blue and white parried a blow from a challenger who hoped to catch her from behind.  The Antarissan smashed the boss of the shield into her adversary’s face, driving her into the arena wall.  The challenger stumbled and  the Antarissan buried her sword in her throat, releasing a geyser of blood from her carotid.

The crowd howled with delight.  The Antarissan had now unsnapped her leather breastplate and greaves, having outgrown them.

“That’s very good”, Arsenya explained.  “All that blood will feed Ellhué like a Twentyfeast dinner.  She’ll get huge.  Oh, but here comes Synisse’s brat.”

The Antarissan had her back turned on the massive Gonaugh, who saw an opportunity to deal  her most dangerous rival a single crippling  blow.  The Antarissan ducked just in time, as the Toltaran’s axe whistled over the top of her head.  She managed to prick the inside of Gonaugh’s thigh, but then pivotted to meet the last Nymph who had come up on her left.

   This challenger was crouched into a defensive stance, guarding her core with the shield and denying entry with the sword.  The Antarissan, unaccustomed to her increased stature,  attempted to slash at her opponent’s legs, while also keeping Gonaugh at bay, and was rewarded by a glancing cut across the scalp.  

Arsenya stood to her feet.  The Nymph she thought was Ellhué dispatched the dexterous Nymph with a daring series of feints that ended with Antarissan steel severing her thigh.  The crowd went mad.  “Ellhué!  Ellhué!  Ellhué!” went up the shout from ten thousand throats.  The Antarissan grew visibly much larger and stronger, feeding on the energy released by the dextrous Nymph’s blood.

Now the contest had narrowed to just Antarissa and Toltara.  Gonaugh had only one victory under her belt, and was now deeply overmatched by the Queen-sized Antarissan, who had dispatched the other three Nymphs.

Howling with rage, the Toltaran flew into the Antarissan Princess with great windmilling swings of her axe, disregarding  the Antarissan’s short sword as a bull might disregard a fly.  The Antarissan scored her adversary’s arms and chest, but was unable to land a killing blow.

“Gonaugh’s strategy is to land a killing blow with that axe, and depend on victory to heal her”, Arsenya whispered to Lord Bellimont.  “It’s the only chance she has.  Where did Ellhué learn to fight like that?  She’s fighting like a devil!  Look at the size of her!”

Gonaugh’s axe bit deeply into the Antarissan’s sword arm,  not quite severing it.  The crowd gasped.  Bellimont could see Gonaugh haul back for a swing to the Antarissan’s head that would have ended the contest, but the blue clad Nymph slammed her shield powerfully into Gonaugh’s midsection just below the rib cage.

Gonaugh’s arms fell nervelessly to her side and she vomited profusely all over the Antarissan.  The Antarissan Nymph followed up with more blows to the liver, growing larger and more menacing with each connection, until poor Gonaugh folded under her, visibly shrinking.  Finally, the Antarissan lifted her shrunken adversary overhead, the wound on her sword arm completely healed. She broke the Toltaran’s back over one mighty knee, and snapped her neck with her ham-sized hands.

The stretcher carriers came running out to carry Gonaugh’s broken body from the arena, and  the Antarissan ripped off her armor and stood erect.  Covered in blood, and Gonaugh’s vomit, she was visibly Queening.  Her waist narrowed and her hips flared.  Her entire body lengthened and thickened, and her breasts rounded and filled.

“Ellhué!  Ellhué!  Ellhué!” the crowd cheered.  The victor found her sword and lifted it skyward, her head thrown back in a shout of triumph unheard over the tumult of the crowd. Her now formidable tusks and canines glistened in the mid-morning sunlight.

The stadium exploded with noise and movement.  Even the Workers abandoned their seats and pressed forward onto the field to hail their new Queen.  The excited crowd paid no heed to rank or position. The weight of their collective bodies carried even the towering Queen and the massive Lord Consort along as the current of a rain-swollen river carries a log.

Being shorter by a head and a neck than the Queen, Bellimont found himself privy to a half a hundred wagers being settled somewhere in the vicinity of his midsection.  Coins were knocked into the dust and quickly recovered as the streaming Toltarans jostled for position near the small aperture that led to the arena.

Suddenly Bellimont smelled something he hadn’t smelled in nearly thirty years, the maddening musk of a bloodied, victorious Queen filling with eggs for the first time.  Other Drones were already abandoning their positions and throwing themselves into the arena, even the ridiculous Anhwan.

Arsenya lay her hand gently on his shoulder. “Don’t pretend that was Ellhué, not Tuana,” she said.  Her tone was one she would use on a male grub caught stealing apples.  I have one question, though.”

“Y-yes, my Queen”, replied Bellimont.  He was trembling again, although this time not with fear.

“We’ve known all her life that Ellhué is your daughter, and yours alone.  Why would you not want her to become a Queen, as I did?”

“I only ever wanted her here, with us, my Queen”, he replied,  tears stinging his eyes  “Now, I’ll never have that.”

 


Williams’ Arthuriad, however, differs from Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth in the same way that his novels do.  Whereas Tolkien and Lewis created secondary worlds for their characters in which their adventures unfold, Williams uses this primary world, and he emphasizes this from the very first lines of the book;

Recalcitrant tribes heard ;

orthodox wisdom sprang in Caucasia and Thule ;  

the glory of the Emperor stretched to the ends of the world.

Charles Williams differed from his friends and colleagues CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien in thatcharlesandsebastian he did not create a mythology whole-cloth as they did; Lewis with his stories of The  Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien with his tales of Middle-Earth.  What Williams did was to adapt a pre-existing mythos to his purposes; that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.   It is not that Lewis and Tolkien didn’t have plenty of source material from which they drew their fantasies.  Lewis, according to his autobiography Surprised by Joy, wrote a number of animal-stories when he was younger under the influence of Rudyard Kipling and Beatrix Potter.  Tolkien stitched together a lot of Norse and Anglo-Saxon material for his Middle-Earth, and those who know those sources better than I claim that there is little that is original in his work.The Arthuriad is going to be about Europe, or rather Britain-In-Europe, or Britain as a part of Europe.  Once, while I was enjoying the 1982 Granada TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, I made a remark about, as an American, how English the whole series struck me.  Indeed, Anthony Andrews’ and Jeremy Iron’s Sebastian and Charles were kind of a baptism for me into what I have come to think of as Deep England.  A very perceptive friend parsed it differently.  He said that the milieu of Brideshead Revisited was England, indeed, but it was that submerged and subjugated Catholic England that  Waugh depicted in his novel, the flavor of which came across so strongly in the TV adaptation.  It was about the survival of ancient and life-giving folkways in a hostile and unforgiving environment.

I think that what Williams is attempting here is something even more ambitious.  His cycle of poems is going to be treating England as a part of Christendom, through the language of myth.  It surprises me that in the (in)famous frontpiece of Taliessin Through Logres, where the body of a naked woman is superimposed on a map of Europe, that part of Charles WilliamsEurope which eventually became Protestant does not figure prominently.  Williams never treated non-conformist Protestants with contempt in his fiction; his depiction of the communion service in The Place Of The Lion is one of my favorite scenes in his whole corpus, but the flavor of the Arthurian poems is strongly that of Christendom united, certainly before the Protestant Reformation and almost as if the Chalcedonian and Orthodox-Catholic schisms had never taken place.

This is as it should be.  Arthur, inasmuch as he can be fixed in history at all, is a pre-schism figure and shrouded in Druidic shadows.  History is compressed.  The rise of Islam, and its conquest of Constantinople are shoe-horned, for poetic purposes as yet undivined by me, into this cycle of poetry, and the Emperor is given a suzerainty in the West that he never had  .

HOWEVER, for some reason, the woman’s right elbow bends at Cordoba, from whence Aristotelian thought gained purchase in the late Middle Ages, and from that Occam’s Nominalism, Protestantism, and secularism.  Williams’ poetic language seems much more Neoplatonic to me;

Carbonek, Camelot, Caucasia

were gates and containers, intermediations of light ;

geography breathing geometry, the double fledged Logos

Maybe that last line is a jazz-handed reference to the Chalcedonian Definition, I don’t know, and maybe Williams will be treating the rise of Scholasticism and Aristotelianism elsewhere (The milk rises in the breasts of Gaul, trigonometrical milk of doctrine.  Man sucks it ; his joints harden).  I don’t know.  I am not an English literature student, nor a theologian, and Williams’ poetry is heavy sledding.  I don’t think his poetry is the equal of Blake’s but it seems much more certain in its referents.  Maybe too certain.

 


It has been a couple of weeks since my long-awaited [used] copy of Taliessin Through Logres – The Region Of the Summer Stars – Arthurian Torso arrived from the used bookstore in Michigan  from which I ordered it.  It was a surprisingly good copy, well worth what I paid for it.  The edition is, I believe, pretty well known; Eerdman’s published it in 1974 and I could have picked it up for $7.95 at that time.  It’s odd, but I remember seeing it in a Christian bookstore forty years ago, and shuffling through t408832he pages.  I was familiar with CS Lewis and I had heard that Charles Williams was a friend of his.  Having puzzled my way through Many Mansions, I had already had a taste of Williams and wanted more.  The dense and deeply self-referential poetry of Williams’ Arthuriad completely defeated my casual perusal and I put the book back on the shelf.

Not too many copies of the Eerdman’s volume were published.  Maybe my recently acquired  book was the same one I held in my hands forty years ago.  Stranger things have been known to happen.

My eye was caught by a phrase that began an essay “The Coming Of The King” in the explanatory work by Charles Williams, The Figure of Arthur, which was included in the volume I purchased:

 By the twelfth century the outline of the new metaphysical civilization in Europe was taking shape

and I knew that my reading of Williams was going to be different from that of a Western Christian.  For me, the twelfth century marks an ending, not a beginning.  The “new metaphysical civilization” that arose after the sundering of Latin Christendom is for me already  a seminal apostasy, a long fading rather than a new quickening. The ruthless imposition of continental feudalism over the conciliar Anglo-Saxon polity, the suppression of the variegated local liturgies in favor of the Roman rite, to choose only two examples, speak to me more of

Union is breached; the imams stand in Sophia
Good Is God, the muzzein
calls, but lost is the light on the hills of Caucasia
glory of the Emperor, glory of substantial Being.

 As I begin to attempt to dovetail Williams’ mythology of Camelot-as-the City with my own dreams of the pre-schism eucharistic Commonwealth [however vaguely or however imprecisely that Commonwealth may have existed or not in history], I find three great burning ideas stand out to me.

  1. The Arthurian corpus, I believe, is Charles Williams’ great clearinghouse for all of his literary and theological output.  The themes that Williams touches upon in all of his writings; The Web of Exchange, Co-inherence, The Vision of the City, the Way of the Affirmation of Images and the Way of the Denial of Images, are all present here and elevated from concept to archetype, or at least as far as William201007_SFenech_taliesins’ poetic abilities are able to carry them.
  2. Charles Williams was not a Roman Catholic but an Anglican.  This is important.  Forged in Tudor politics during an uncertain time, Anglicanism as a faith has had a more elliptical orbit than other Christian bodies.  There have been times during its career when Anglicanism has wobbled close enough to Orthodoxy for the broad majority to thrive within something of a celestial “temperate zone”. I don’t want to go to far into this, but it appears to me that Charles Williams’ and CS Lewis’ time was just about optimal.
  3. Williams had the keen intuition to use the pre-Schism figure of Arthur [and the barely-historical figure of Taliessin] to anchor his romance of Christendom.  The period of time between Theodosius and Alfred the Great is an interesting time.  I always thought of pre-literate man as somewhat childlike, and high Roman culture was always more unstable in Britain than anywhere else in the Western Empire.  The fall, when it finally came, was almost total, and there was enough “wiggle room” for the collective mythopoetic imagination to begin to accrete material around a minor Brythonic warlord with a shallow gloss of Romanitas, much as an oyster around a grain of sand, until the pearl of legend emerged.

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