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The news that Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman were collaborating on a short film called Death And Me , and that the film had just recently moved out of  limbo and into active production sparked a controversy in our family as to which actress should portray Gaiman’s perky little Goth-girl Grim Reaper:

I always thought that Selma Blair would be the perfect choice.  She’s dark-haired, slender, puckishly beautiful, and has experience in the fantasy/horror genre (Scream 2, Hellboy).   My children were aghast.  “Dad, you do know she’s almost forty, don’t you?”  It was to no avail that I tried to point out that Gaiman’s fictional character was a good deal older than forty.  Indeed, forty centuries would probably be a better measure.   It didn’t matter.  Death should have no wrinkles.

My son wanted to see Thora Birch (Ghost World, American Beauty) take on the part.  Miss Birch is an impressive actress and I think she could bring both what my son calls “indie cred” and old-fashioned sex appeal to the part,  but a large part of Death’s cachet is her appearance of waifish vulnerability.  Miss Birch can certainly do vulnerable, but waifish she is not.

My daughter stood up for current Disney Channel queen Demi Lovato.  Demi is dark, slender and very pretty, but she doesn’t have a hint of mystery about her.   I was surprised that she didn’t mention  fellow Disney protegée Selena Gomez.  Selena has the same coloring as Miss Lovato, but she looks more like she could have a mysterious side.  Of course, here we are talking about very young women with no track record outside the tightly programmed Disney teen market environment, but then former “Diz kids” like Reese Witherspoon and Hayden Panetierre have emerged from that environment and have established themselves well in the larger world.

Finally, this past week, I was able to catch a movie I had been wanting to see for some time; 500 Days Of Summer. The movie didn’t really live up to its hype.  As a chronicle of post-modern relationships among the angsty twenty-something Belle and Sebastian set, I have seen better, but I thought the female lead, Zooey Deschanel, despite the obvious Glass family reference, deserved to be on any short list to play Gaiman’s heroine.

Anybody else with me?

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I recently had the opportunity to re-sample a bit of Charles Williams’ Arthurian poetry, thanks to the inclusion by Google Books of a volume of criticism that, fortuitously, includes the poems and forgoes the criticism.  The “Prelude” from Taliessin Through Logres is a particularly powerful piece of work.  I don’t know much about the mechanics of poetry; drilling in iambs, trochees, and anapests had percolated their way out of the public school curriculum by the time I arrived to ninth grade English, and I am much the poorer for it.

Nevertheless, the poetry is splendid for reading aloud, at least as splendid as anything by Yates or Eliot.   The problem comes when you try to puzzle out what the poems are about. I am almost certainly in over my head here.  Williams is a difficult writer even when he’s trying to be straightforward.  He uses a private theological language in his essays with terms like “under the Mercy”, “Web of Exchange”, or most famously, “the doctrine of co-inherence”.

I think that Williams’ Taliessin poems are all about coinherence, about mediation, and  about the emergence of history from mythology.  The Arthurian figures are counters, I think, for Williams, who uses them in a dialectic for which the grammar has been given us already by Malory.  The subject matter of the Arthurian poems is the calling forth of Logres by the Emperor, the attempt and failure by Arthur to realize  Camelot-in-Carbonek, and of the decline into Britain.   It is like his commentary on the Tarot card of the Tower, where every human endeavor, even the most noble, partakes of the Shadow and contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Another theme that I notice:  Williams is concerned about the matter of Europe; Europe as Christendom, Europe as the sacramental body:

the poetry is filled with that sort of imagery.  For example, he sings that milk rose in the breasts of Gaul, (Western) man suckled there and his bones hardened.  When I first read that line, it unpacked for me as the transition from a way of knowing during the so-called Dark Ages, also known as the Age of Saints, of whom the last who embodied this particular way of knowing would be the enigmatic figure of John Scotus Erigena.  Then came the schoolmen, “the milk rose in the breasts of Gaul” in the teaching of Abelard, Albert Magnus, and Anselm.  “Man drank, and his bones grew hard.”

Perhaps I can find a scan of Williams’ scandalous [for the 1930s] frontpiece to Taliessin Through Logres. It is the figure of a naked woman with her navel in Jerusalem, her privates in Rome, and her arms and head in England.   There is a lot, a lot, of astrological imagery in the Taliessin cycle and the correspondence of the superlunary body to the Index of the Body.  As I have said before, Christendom is the greatest matter of myth we have, and it may be the only enduring myth.


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The beast ran in the wood
that had lost the man’s mind;
on a path harder than death
spectral shapes stood

Charles Williams “Taliessin Through Logres”

At one time, I wondered whether there had been any unbroken tradition of cult or practice between the pre-Christian peoples of Europe and the burgeoning pagan/earth-based religion community that we see emerging today.   European paganism persisted longer in the regions bordering the southeastern Baltic than in any other region of Europe, that is Pomerania, Prussia, Lithuania, and Latvia.  Strangely,the languages spoken in these areas are very conservative linguistically as well, and are studied by linguists because of the archaic features they preserve that other related languages have long since dropped.  In addition to this, I had heard that Lithuanians were never as fervent in their Catholicism as, say, the Poles.

For all these reasons, I thought perhaps, just perhaps, in Lithuania there may have existed a living community of pagans who had maintained their ancestral faith down to the present day.  Checking through the Internet, though, I found a very familiar pattern; whatever pagan material had survived in Lithuania survived mostly as a constellation of folk practices or “superstitions” the content of which had been forgotten by the people practicing them.  Even in Lithuania, which had maintained its traditional paganism into the time of John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer, Christianity had completely displaced traditional paganism.

However, in the 19th century, at the height of the Romantic movement, a literary and cultural movement called Romulva was initiated to restore traditional Lithuanian paganism.  It has had a modicum of success, but the majority of Lithuanians remain Catholic.  This movement coincided with a resurgence of interest in traditional paganism (Wagner, Swineburne, etc) in other Christian European countries.

How did Christianity displace paganism so completely?  A lot of historians point to the pressure of belonging to the wider Mediterranean/Roman world.  That makes sense for the early Germanic incursors into the western parts of the Roman world, but it makes very little sense for the pagan Saxons and Slavs, most of whom were evangelized by Irish and Anglo-Saxon monastics unaffiliated with any “Roman” power, even the Merovingians who often actively opposed them.

St Boniface chops down Thor's Oak

As an Orthodox  Christian I want to say that paganism was displaced because it was replaced by a superior spiritual force.  Paganism has a very pragmatic and empirical side.   It worked for the pagans.  Pre-schism Christianity had an equally pragmatic and empirical side.  The hagiography of that era is full of what we could call “power encounters” between the old ways and the rising power of Christ, such as the battle between Saint Patrick and the pagan king Laoghaire on the hill of Slane.  Bede is full of this sort of story, and I am more disposed to believe Bede as a journalist than as a propagandist.

If paganism was the veneration of the “elemental spirits” of the world, then the Church was right in replacing the cultus of the pagan gods with the veneration of Christian saints.   Mankind was “coming into its own” under the tutelage of the Church, and the elemental spirits were being put out of a job.   The saints were taking it over.  In a way, secular scientism could be seen as an outgrowth of this development.

That leaves the explanation of the emergence of modern neo-paganism, even amidst the triumph of its successor secular materialism, as a rebuke to a denatured, splintered Christianity that has lost its spiritual mojo.

CURRENTLY READING

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams