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All of my life, and it has not been a short one, I have been interested in what is called by students of literature the matter of Britain, and its best known segment, the stories and legends of King Arthur. I cannot remember my first exposure to the stories of the Round Table, but it was either by means of Andrew Lang’s Tales of King Arthur with the wonderful Art Nouveau illustrations by H.J. Ford, or the Walt Disney animated movie The Sword In The Stone. I am leaning to the first, because The Sword In The Stone came out in 1963, when I was trembling on the brink of adolescence, and I already knew that Merlin was a darker and more powerful figure than Disney’s avuncular buffoon. The movie version of Camelot came out about this time as well.
In the years that followed, I devoured T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, puzzled my way through Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Mort D’Arthur, and discovered that even John Steinbeck had set his pick into the Arthurian trench. The result was his last work of fiction; The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Since the 1970s, there have been several other works of Arthurian fiction that I have enjoyed as well; Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and the sequels, Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon cycle, Nikolai Tolstoi’s The Coming Of The King.
What attracts me to the stories of Arthur and his knights is the matter of the Grail. The Grail lifts the whole Matter of Britain out of the realm of Story and into the realm of myth and metaphysics. It is interesting to me that Malory devoted most of Le Mort D’Arthur to the achievement of the Grail. The adulterous love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot doesn’t appear to have much occupied him, although since Tennyson and the Victorians, the love story has been center stage, and the Grail forgotten. The Grail stories, though, are where the real mythopoetic power of the Arthurian material resides.
Charles Williams dealt with the stories of Arthur in two volumes of poetry, possession which I have just recently come into after an extended search. He deals almost exclusively with the Grail, and with the mystical aspects of the Arthurian stories. I would like to do a read-through of his poetry, although it is famously difficult. I am not a Williams scholar. I can’t go to the Kilby collection and dig up old letters of his, and there is a lot of introductory material to get out of the way first.
But I have been promising myself that I would do this, and it’s high time I started to do something worthwhile with this moribund blog anyway.
Tolkien proposed to the love of his life, Edith Bratt, as soon as he was legally able to do so; at midnight on his 21st birthday. They married three years later and remained married until her death in 1971. They had four children. Looking for references to sex in Tolkien’s Legendarium is a tedious task for those accustomed to modern salaciousness. The Elves and Men in his narratives are monogamous and well-behaved, seeking glory on the battlefield rather than in the boudoir.
CS Lewis was a celibate academic until late in life. My suspicion is that “Jack” Lewis had something of a thing for the ‘Bad Girl’. It surfaces from time to time in his fiction (most transparently in The Magician’s Nephew), and I certainly think Joy Davidson scratched that itch admirably.
Owen Barfield married the beautiful and gracious Maud Douie. They had two children of their own and fostered a third. His devotion to Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy was a thorn in her side throughout their lives together. Barfield is interesting in that he contemplates sex in his philosophical works at a time when the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and the 70s was just beginning to gather momentum, and he already had the advantage of a long memory and could discern it in seminis in the works of Swinburne and Lawrence.
Charles Williams, among the Inklings, is the most interested in developing a theology of sex, erotic love, and marriage. According to many, he is not a pristine fountain from which to draw water; his own marriage was troubled, he had dalliances with younger women who were drawn to his circle, and he held some heterodox opinions about the role of sex in the Early Church.
Nevertheless, Williams remains almost alone among Christian thinkers in investigating erotic desire from a theological perspective. This essay of his I lifted from a copyrighted sources which I believe is either out of print or so obscurely marketed as to amount to the same thing. I reproduce it here for the benefit of Williams fans and other people who may find it useful. It pulls together several strands in his thinking; the hermetical or occult, the Poetical, and the Christian. It is a remarkable essay and a true tour-de-force.
THE INDEX OF THE BODY
From the ‘Dublin Review,’ July 1942
IN the Prelude (book viii, 11.279-81) Wordsworth wrote:
the human form
To me became an index of delight,
Of grace and honour, power and worthiness.
The most important word there is index. There are moments in all poetry when the reader has to ask himself whether a word used by the poet is accurate not only for the poet’s universe but for the reader’s own. It is a secondary decision, since the first must be only of the poetic value, but it is sometimes important. That is so here; the word index, pressed to its literal meaning, is a word which demands attention, and afterwards assent or dissent.
It is true that Wordsworth himself did not develop the idea; he is speaking generally, and in other passages his genius suggests that the index is to a volume written in a strange language. This is no weakness in Wordsworth; it was, on one side, his particular business. Thus the image of the Leech-Gatherer in Resolution and Independence is drawn at least as inhuman as human; so is the Soldier in Book IV of the Prelude who is the cause of such terror, and the other wanderers; the woman with the pitcher, and even Lucy Gray, are of the same kind. They are on the borders of two worlds, which almost pass and repass into each other. Wordsworth, of all the Romantics, came nearest to defining and mapping that border-land.
There are, of course, also his more exclusively human figures- Michael, for instance, in the poem of that name. Here the human form suggests to him the grandeur of the moral virtues; it is the suffering and labouring spirit of man which he sees. That may have been what he had chiefly in mind in the passage I have quoted: man as ‘a solitary object and sublime’, but man also ‘with the most common; husband, father’, who
suffered with the rest
From vice and folly, wretchedness and fear.
But the passage is capable of another reading, and one which proposes to us a real, if less usual, sequence. It is that reading which I wish now to discuss, and the word index is the beginning. The question proposed is whether we shall take that word seriously as a statement of the relation of the human form to.’grace and honour, power and worthiness’. The human form meant, to Wordsworth, the shape of the shepherd seen among the hills. There it was high and distant. It was a whole being significant of a greater whole-which is, in some sense, the definition of objects seen romantically. But the lines might be applied to the same shape, seen near at hand and analytically. They might refer to the body itself; it is that which can be considered as an index.
What then would be meant by the word? Nothing but itself. An index is a list of various subjects, with reference to those places where, in the text of the volume, they are treated at greater length. But, at least, the words naming the subjects are the same; and a really good index will give some idea of the particular kind of treatment offered on the separate pages. Some such idea, Wordsworth’s lines suggest, the body and even the members of the body may give of the delight, grace, honour, power, and worthiness of man’s structure. The structure of the body is an index to the structure of a greater whole.
I am anxious not to use words which seem too much to separate the physical structure from the whole. The fact of death, and the ensuing separation of ‘body’ and ‘soul’, lead us to consider them too much as separate identities conjoined. But I hope it is not unorthodox to say that body and soul are one identity, and that all our inevitable but unfortunate verbal distinctions are therefore something less than true. Death has been regarded by the Christian Church as an outrage-a necessary outrage, perhaps, but still an outrage. It has been held to be an improper and grotesque schism in a single identity-to which submission, but not consent, is to be offered; a thing, like sin, that ought not to be and yet is. The distress of our Lord in His Passion may perhaps not improperly be supposed to be due to His contemplation of this all but inconceivable schism in His own sacred and single identity. If our manhoods were from the first meant indivisibly, how much more His!
It is one of the intellectual results of the Fall that our language has always to speak in terms of the Fall; and that we cannot help our language does not make it any more true. The epigrams of saints, doctors, and poets, are the nearest we can go to the recovery of that ancient validity, our unfallen speech. To treat the body as an index is to assume that, as in an index the verbal element-the word given-is the same as in the whole text, so in the physical structure of the greater index the element-the quality given-is the same as in the whole structure. Another poet, Patmore, put the thing in a similar light when he wrote that
from the graced decorum of the hair,
Ev’n to the tingling sweet
Soles of the simple earth-confiding feet
And from the inmost heart
Outwards unto the thin
Silk curtains of the skin,
Every least part
‘The spheres’ there are likely to mean, first, the outer heavens. This idea is practically that of the microcosm and the macrocosm: the idea that a man is a small replica of the universe. Man was ‘the workshop of all things’, ‘a little world’, mundus minor exemplum majoris mundi ordine, filius totius mundi. It is a very ancient idea; it was held before Christianity and has been held during Christianity; it was common to Christians, Jews, and Mohammedans; and, for all I know, the scientific hypothesis of evolution bears a relation to the union of the two. Into that, however, I am not learned enough to go. The idea went through many changes, but its general principle remained constant: that man was the rational epitome of the universe. It led, of course, to many absurdities, and (if you choose like any other idea) to some evils. Some writers catalogued painstakingly the more obvious fantasies: hair was the grass or the forests; bones were mountains; the sun was the eyes, and so on. Astrology, if not based on it, at least found the idea convenient; however we may reject that ancient study, it had at least this philosophic principle mixed up with it-that each man, being unique, was a unique image of the universe, that the spatially greater affected the spatially lesser, and the calculable influences of the stars were only calculable because each man represented and reproduced the whole. Astrology then was a high and learned science; it was forbidden for good reasons, but it was not fatalistic. It did not say ‘this will certainly happen’; it said: ‘Given these stellar and individual relations, this result is likely.’ But the will of God and the wills of men were allowed much freedom to interfere with the result. Sapiens dominabitur astris. The paragraphs in our papers today bear as much resemblance to the science as texts lifted up on boards outside churches do to the whole dogmas of the Church. The paragraphs are, I allow, more likely to harm; the texts, on the whole, are innocuous.
Beside, or rather along with, this study went the patterns of other occult schools. The word ‘occult’ has come into general use, and is convenient, if no moral sense is given it simply as itself. It deals with hidden things, and their investigation. But in this case we are concerned not so much with the pretended operations of those occult schools as with a certain imagination of relation in the universe, and that only to pass beyond it. The signs of the Zodiac were, according to some students, related to the parts of the physical body. The particular attributions varied, and all were in many respects arbitrary. But some of them were extremely suggestive; they may be allowed at least a kind of authentic poetic vision. Thus, in one pattern, the house of the Water-carrier was referred to the eyes; the house of the Twins to the arms and hands; the house of the Scorpion to the privy parts and the sexual organs; and the house of the Balances to the buttocks.
It will be clear that these four attributions at least had a great significance. It will be clear also that in such a poetic (so to call it) imagination, we are dealing with a kind of macrocosmic-rnicrocosmic union of a more serious and more profitable kind than the mere exposition by a debased astrology of chances in a man’s personal life. It may be invention, but if so, it is great invention; the houses of the Zodiac, with their special influences ruling in special divisions of the spatial universe, may be but the fables of astronomy; it must be admitted that few certain facts support them. But they are not unworthy fables. They direct attention to the principles at work both in the spatial heavens and in the structure of man’s body. Aquarius is for water, clarity, vision; Gemini are for a plural motion, activity, and achievement; Libra is for that true strength of balance on which the structure of man depends.
With this suggestion, we are on the point of deserting the spatial heavens for something else. The like regions of the spheres, of which Patmore spoke, here begin to be transferred to the spiritual heavens. ‘As above, so below’ ran the old maxim, but even that dichotomy is doubtful. The houses of the Zodiac, in this, do but confuse the issue, except in so far as they, like the whole universe, exhibit the mystery by which spirit becomes flesh, without losing spirit. Perhaps the best verbal example is in the common use of the word ‘heart’. Even in our common speech the word is ambiguous. To call Hitler heartless means that he seems to be without the common principle of compassion. It is said that Tertullian (but I have not found the reference) said that ‘the supreme principle of intelligence and vitality’, ‘the sovereign faculty’ of man, resided ‘where the Egyptians taught- Namque bomini sanguis circumcordialis est sensus, the sense of man is in the blood around the heart’. At least the pulsating organ presents, for man, his proper physical rhythm in the whole mundus minor exemplum majoris mundi ordine. As our meaning – physical life or compassionate life – so the word heart. Compassion is the union of man with his fellows, as is the blood. The permitted devotion to the Sacred Heart is to the source of both. The physical heart is, in this sense, an ‘index’ to both. Gerard Hopkins wrote, of the Blessed Virgin:
If I have understood
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The death dance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
The visionary forms of the occult schools are but dreams of the Divine Body. All these brief allusions show that there have been some traditions of significance-poetic, occult, religious. Christians, however, may be permitted to press the significance more closely; they may be allowed to ask whether the body is not indeed a living epigram of virtue. There have been doctors who held that Christ would not have become incarnate if man had not sinned; there have been doctors who held that He would. Either way, it is clear that the Sacred Body was itself virtue. The same qualities that made His adorable soul made His adorable flesh. If the devotion to the Sacred Heart does not, in itself, imply something of the sort, I do not know what it does imply. The virtues are both spiritual and physical – or rather they are expressed in those two categories. This is recognized in what are regarded as the more ‘noble’ members in the body-the heart, the eyes. But it is not so often recognized as a truth underlying all the members-the stomach, the buttocks. That is partly because we have too long equated the body as such with the ‘flesh’ of St. Paul. But ‘flesh’ is no more that than (as Mgr. Knox pointed out recently in the Tablet) it is ‘sex’. The body was holily created, is holily redeemed, and is to be holily raised from the dead. It is, in fact, for all our difficulties with it, less fallen, merely in itself, than the soul in which the quality of the will is held to reside; for it was a sin of the will which degraded us. ‘The evidence of things not seen’ is in the body seen as this epigram; nay, in some sense, even ‘the substance of things hoped for’, for what part it has in that substance remains to it unspoiled.
It is in this sense then that the body is indeed an ‘index’ to delight, power, and the rest. ‘Who conceives’, wrote Prior,
‘Who conceives, what bards devise,
That heaven is placed in Celia’s eyes?’
Well, no; not so simply as that. But Celia’s eyes are a part of the body which (said Patmore, who was orthodox enough)
And sweet replies to some like region of the spheres.
And those spheres are not merely the old spatial macro cosmic heavens, but the deep heaven of our inner being. The discernment of pure goodwill, of (let it be said for a moment) pure love in Celia’s eyes, at some high moment of radiant interchange or indeed at any other moment, is no less part of the heavenly vision (so tiny and remote as it may be) because it is a physical as well as a spiritual vision. The word ‘sacramental’ has perhaps here served us a little less than well; it has, in popular usage, suggested rather the spiritual using the physical than a common-say, a single-operation.
Eyes then are compacted power; they are an index of vision; they see and refer us to greater seeing. Nor has the stomach a less noble office. It digests food; that is, in its own particular method, it deals with the nourishment offered by the universe. It is a physical formula of that health which destroys certain elements-the bacteria which harmfully approach us. By it we learn to consume; by it therefore to be, in turn, consumed. So even with those poor despised things, the buttocks. There is no seated figure, no image of any seated figure, which does not rely on them for its strength and balance. They are at the bottom of the sober dignity of judges; the grace of a throned woman; the hierarchical session of the Pope himself reposes on them: into even greater images and phrases we need not now go.
It will be thought I labour the obvious; and I will not go through the physical structure suggesting and propounding identities. The point will have been sufficiently made if the sense of that structure being heavenly not by a mere likeness but in its own proper nature is achieved. It is a point not so much of doctrine as of imagination. That imagination is at once individual and social. The temples of the Holy Ghost are constructed all on one plan: and our duties to our material fellows are duties to structures of beatitude. The relation of the Incarnation to our own mode of generation is blessedly veiled. But its relation to those other identities of power is not at all doubtful. It is not only physical structures we neglect or damage by our social evils; it is living indexes of life. The Virtues exist in all of them materially, but it is the Virtues which so exist. Christ, in some sense, derived His flesh from them, for He derived it from His Mother, and she from her ancestors, and they from all mankind.
The Sacred Body is the plan upon which physical human creation was built, for it is the centre of physical human creation. The great dreams of the human form as including the whole universe are in this less than the truth. As His, so ours; the body, in this sense of an index, is also a pattern. We carry about with us an operative synthesis of the Virtues; and it may be held that when we fall in love (for example), we fall in love precisely with the operative synthesis.
Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eye;
In every gesture dignity and love;
Is much more a definite statement of fact than we had supposed; footsteps are astonishing movements of grace. That we cannot properly direct and control our sensations and emotions is not surprising; but the greatness of man is written even in his incapacity, and when he sins he sins because of a vision which, even though clouded, is great and ultimate. As every heresy is a truth pushed disproportionately, so with every sin; at least, with every physical sin. But, however in those states of ‘falling in love’ the vision of a patterned universe is revealed to us, the revelation vanishes, and we are left to study it slowly, heavily, and painfully. All that the present essay attempts to do is to present a point of view which has behind it, one way and another, a great tradition-a tradition which, for Christians, directs particular attention to the Sacred Body as the Archtype of all bodies. In this sense the Eucharist exposes also its value. The ‘index’ of our bodies, the incarnate qualities of the moral universe, receive the Archtype of all moralities truly incarnated; and not only the pattern in the soul and will but the pattern in the body is renewed. Or, better, in that unity which we, under the influence of our Greek culture, divide into soul and body. ‘Socrates’, Dr. William Ellis writes, ‘invented the concept which permeates every part of modern thinking, the concept of the twofold nature of man, of man as a union of the active, or spiritual, with the inactive, or corporeal; the concept, in short, of the organism as a dead carcass activated by a living ghost. Even if we repudiate this idea, we are still half-dominated by it, so deeply does it underlie our pattern of culture.’ I am far from suggesting that this is the proper Christian view. But there is, I think, no doubt that it is not far from the popular Christian view. The fuss that has been made about Browning’s line (not that that was Browning’s fault)-‘nor soul helps flesh more now than flesh helps souI’-shows that. It was repeated almost as a new revelation, though indeed the Lady Julian had said almost the same thing centuries before. We have to overcome that lazy habit of the imagination-the outrage of death notwithstanding. We experience, physically, in its proper mode, the Kingdom of God: the imperial structure of the body carries its own high doctrines-of vision, of digestion of mysteries, of balance, of movement, of operation. ‘That soul’, said Dante in the Convivio, ‘which embraces all these powers [the rational, the sensitive, and the vegetative] is the most perfect of all the rest.’ The rational, or self-conscious, power is indeed the noblest, but we must ask from it a complete self-consciousness, and not a self-consciousness in schism.
It was suggested that the stress of this imagination may be an incentive to our social revolution. For if the body of our neighbor is compact of these heavenly qualities, incarnated influences, then we are indeed neglecting the actual Kingdom of God in neglecting it. It is the living type of the Arch-typal. We have not merely to obey a remote moral law in feeding and succouring and sheltering it. It is the ‘index’ of power; tear away the index, and we are left without the power; tear away the index, and we are left without the delight. Let the whole to which that index witnesses be as immense as any volume of truth may be, and still the value of that small substance remains. Every student of a learned work uses the index attentively. A good index can indeed be studied in itself. To study the body so is to increase our preparation for the whole great text.
Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”
Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.
“But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”
The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”
A while back, blogger with similar interests to mine posted that Christians ought not, and Orthodox Christians most definitely should not, read fantasy literature:
Fantasy… is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.
On the surface, I have to say that I agree with her. “Man’s imaginations are wicked from his youth”, Genesis says. I made an offhand comment about fifteen years ago to a friend on the ‘darkening’ of the fantasy genre; most of the material that was coming out at that time seemed to be concerned with the demonic, and with the infernal side of occultic powers. There didn’t seem to be any celestial counterweight and a lot of fantasy material seemed to be moving from the Tolkienesque to the “gritty”, “realistic” outlook. The best of it was pagan/stoic and the worst of it was flatly demonic. Once the pornification of Western society got underway in earnest, wrought in great part by the Internet, fantasy literature followed suit, and now you can’t turn a page without some sexual practice that would have shocked a jury forty years ago described in painstaking detail between orcs and elves.
It is not fantasy material exclusively that as fallen prey to this; romances are saucier and kinkier; simple murder no longer suffices to carry a detective novel, you need cannibalism or torture. The problem is that there is no longer any intermediary between the head, the eyes, and the loins. Lewis’ Men Without Chests have arrived, and they are worse than any glittering vampire or werewolf out of the latest potboiler. There is in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of the Hungry Ghost (ཡི་དྭགས), an entity with overdeveloped mouth and stomach, but with a neck and chest too thin to allow for the passage of food. This parcel of decayed human energy lives in constant torment as its enormous stomach demands input from its hypertrophied mouth, but there is nothing in between that can mediate the transfer. We have starved the sentiments for so long that we may be said to exist in a state of spiritual diabetes. We devour and devour all manner of stories; fantasies, romances, novels, but we seem incapable to extract even the minutest nutrition from any on them, We are like those who lack a vital digestive enzyme.
Forty years ago, Father Seraphim Rose also noticed this strange deficiency in young pilgrims coming to his California monastery for spiritual guidance:
[There is a] problem [which] lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable
Father Seraphim went on to say that what was needed in this situation was a “Dushevni diet”, one that would nourish the middle soul, the Chest, in Lewis’ vocabulary. The idea of the “Dushevni diet” is to allow the soul to learn those responses to an object which those objects ought naturally to invoke, or which a well-trained soul should naturally feel. Lewis himself, in The Abolition Of Man, uses the example of Samuel Johnson’s observation that
That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the
ruins of Iona.
with the caveat that the man whose patriotism does not swell at Marathon or whose piety is not warmed at Iona will inevitably complain that because his [lack of] patriotism and his [lack of] piety are neither strengthened nor fortified at either Marathon or Iona, it must follow the idea of these places doing either is a subjective fantasy, and that his feelings of tedium and his desire to find an inn where he can grab a beer and watch the soccer matches are just as valid as all that sentimental nonsense about brave ancient Athenian citizen-warriors or Celtic monks standing waist deep in freezing water chanting the Psalms. I’m sorry, but those thoughts are the grandfathers to the complaints of overweight women that they are equally as desirable to as wide an array of men as their slender sisters. That just is not so. Value is as objective as anything measured by the positive sciences. It is just that the instrument used to measure it is not a scale, or a measuring stick, or a pipette, but rather the human soul itself. If that soul is faulty or unbalanced, it will perforce register a different value for the object than will the purer soul.
Until this point, I have said nothing that Fr. Seraphim and Dr. Lewis have not said before me, and much more eloquently. However, as far as an Orthodox Christian who enjoys and appreciates the fantasy genre as I do, I would like to make the following observations:
First of all, salvation is offered to us through What Is, not through what we would like it to be. The very first time I saw an Orthodox icon of Christ, I was struck by the Greek legend Ὁ ὮΝ, “That Which IS”, in the nimbus of his halo. In itself, this would appear to be reason enough to exclude anything of a fantastic nature from Fr. Seraphim’s “dushevni diet”, and with the vast majority of modern fantasy, I would be in complete agreement with myself. There is a lot of brutality, a lot of anxiety, a lot of lasciviousness, and a complete lack of transcendence in most fantasy material these days, both Western and Eastern. I include Eastern fantastic literature because Japanese and Korean manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are occupy the same literary niche for young people of my son’s generation that The Lord Of The Rings and the Narnia books occupied for me when I was younger.
But there is an important point I would like to make: For all the popularity of the ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and China Mieville, we would do well to remember that they are considered ‘realistic’ because of one important point; their narratives unwind in created worlds that resemble our own in one essential way; they are closed worlds where even magic is technological in nature. It obeys ‘rules’ that cannot be broken, which can be observed and mastered, and using techniques which can be perfected through experimentation and practice. There is no help coming from beyond the circle of the invented world. Self-interest rules all things, and the struggle of omnes contra omnes continues apace. In the hands of the aforementioned authors, this “realistic” approach to fantasy has produced some engaging yarns. They are gifted writers, and, interestingly, Mr. Mieville has produced a story which points beyond itself in a way I’m not certain the author didn’t intend.
In The City And The City, Mr. Mieville has created two separate cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma. The two cities occupy the same physical space, and may even share buildings and streets. Each ‘city’ has its own airport and port district. Citizens of each city can dimly glimpse, at times, residents of the other city or the outlines of buildings. However, to admit to this is to commit Breach, risking arrest and incarceration. Citizens of both cities have been strictly trained since earliest childhood to disregard all evidence of the other city. The narrative of Mr. Mieville’s book unwinds as a policeman in the less wealthy city, Beszel, is investigating a murder of a young woman which implicates a well-connected functionary in the corresponding, wealthier city of Ul Quoma. His distress increases as he realizes that the world in which he grew up believing does not correspond to the world as it actually is.
In the same way, there is something fantastic about the life we live in our sanitized, corporatized, modern world. We fly across the landscape like Djinn in metal boxes. We know the thoughts of others at multiplied hundreds of leagues. We hear no animals bawl out their agonies when their time comes to keep us nourished. In addition, a constant barrage of intellectual static that attempts to convince us that This Truncated World Is The Real World, that nothing exists outside of what can be measured, monetarized, and manipulated. If you want to maintain little fantasy religious worlds or little counter-cultural worlds within strict boundaries of a “religious” or “intentional” community, you are by all means free to do so (We are not tyrants, after all, is another song that is sung constantly). If you try to smuggle anything out from behind those well-guarded frontiers, though, you will find yourself committing Breach and arousing the ire of the Gatekeepers. In this way, something like The Lord Of The Rings, or even Spirited Away, can serve to cast doubt on the Official Narrative. Spiritual forces and proper human sentiment can be experienced as liberating and empowering, and in this way, the Real World, The Only One That Truly Is, that which is signalled by the Greek letters in the halo, can be made more real than this dreary official fantasy in which we find ourselves.
100 Books I Want To Read Before I Die – Part One
1. Ulysses by James Joyce.
My son wants to read this, and has prepared himself by reading the Odyssey first, although I told him he would be better off reading Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. This novel is kind of the Modernist Tai-Shan, more venerated than assayed, and I think I’d like to accompany my son in his ascent.
2. Ægypt by John Crowley
I could have cheated and made this four books. Crowley has teased away a portion of the post-modern DNA better than any other writer. He needs to be better known. In a way, he appears to be continuing the work begun by Charles Williams 75 years ago in his novels, incorporating hermetic themes into the literary conversation but without promoting the diabolical element.
Another of my son’s suggestions. I’ve started this book. It is as cold, as bright, and as spare as an icicle on a cold, sunny day. It is supposed to be the centerpiece of Japanese literature. A novel written as haiku, and as descrete as the food in a bento box.
4. Book Of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe
Another cheat. I have actually read the first volume of this, The Shadow Of The Torturer, and it deserves another read, in concert with its companions.
5. November 1916 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I will forgo the dubious pleasures of reading Proust. If I have to read a book of over 1000 pages in which nothing actually happens, I would prefer it to be this one which would help me understand the twilight of the Christian Empire and the Russian Revolution.
6. Blindness by Jose Saramago
Portuguese is a language to get drunk on. I believe there is some sort of Celtic substrate obtaining in Portuguese that isn’t so apparent in Castilian that accounts for the sheer enchantment of this language. Having puzzled my way through Os Fidalgos da Casa Mourisca by Júlio Dinis, and enjoying it thoroughly, maybe I could tackle it in the original.
7. 2666 – by Roberto Bolaños
Yet another suggestion from my son. Bolaños is everything a South American writer should be; subversive, transgressive, political, tongue-in-cheek, and eclectic in his epistemology. This is his magnum opus. It also about the deeply disturbing ongoing holocaust of young women in Ciudad Juarez, an incident that draws several modern fault lines together; feminism, oligarchic capitalism, Free Trade, machismo vs marianismo.
8. The Fourth Ecumenical Council – All of the literature leading up to and culminating in it; the Letter of St Cyril to John of Antioch, the Condemnation of Dioscorus, the Acts of the Council, The Tome of St. Leo. The Chalcedonian Definition answers more questions than we have yet put to it.
9. English People – by Owen Barfield
10. Poetic Diction – by Owen Barfield
11. Saving The Appearances – by Owen Barfield
I am ashamed to say I haven’t read that much Barfield. His books are not available in libraries that are accessible to me, and I have little money with which to purchase them. I so badly need to find out just what he is saying.
12. The Magic Mountain – by Thomas Mann
The period between 1912 and 1925 has a particular fascination for me. maybe this is the reason I enjoy Boardwalk Empire so much on HBO. The Great War of 1914-1918 as the beginning of the Great European Self-Immolation and the period of deep disillusionment immediately following are approaching their centenaries, so even more urgent to understand this period of intellectual history.
The few tastes I have had hitherto have only awakened my appetite for this world-class poet.
14. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Indianapolis moves from agrarian polis to outpost of Empire.
15. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
I love Southern literature, and I’ve read Walker Percy, Flannery O’ Connor, and Robert Penn Warren. I need at least one Faulkner. I’m told this is the one.
16. Jurgen by James Branch Cabell
I don’t want to read the entire Biography of Manuel, but somewhere in my future I hope there is a wood-fire-warmed, stuffy, bookcase-lined room with great bay windows overlooking a snowy street where I can devour this book. I’ve read about 1/4 of it already.
17. A Critique Of Pure Reason along with “What Is The Enlightenment?” by Immanuel Kant
I need to be awakened from my dogmatic slumbers.
18. Personal Knowledge and
19. The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi
After invoking Polanyi for 12 years to buttress my arguments on the Internet, it’s high time I actually read something by him.
The struggle between the Revolution and the Reaction is fascinating to me. The Crimean War was Phase Two as Napoleon’s nephew embroiled France and Britain in an international imbroglio over the Holy Places in the Middle East.
21. The parts of the Bible I haven’t read yet.
When I became Orthodox, my Bible got bigger. I haven’t kept up with it. I need to read Ecclesiasticus, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Maccabees, Judit, Tobit, 2nd 3rd and 4th Esdras, the additions to Esther, Daniel, and the Prayer Of Manasseh
22. Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Sigh, the world I am leaving to my children… I figure if I read this,maybe I won’t have to read anything by David Foster Wallace, who probably says the exact same thing, just in a far less entertaining way. Anyway, any woman who admits that if you live by the Wonderbra, you will die by the Wonderbra deserves a little of my attention.
23. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I have heard that this novel contains the DNA of the United States of America in all of its batshit-crazy, Manichean glory. I hope this is true. I have also heard that it is, if not unreadable, at least unfinishable. I hope this is not true.
24. The Long Day Wanes – by Anthony Burgess
I loved Clockwork Orange, Honey For The Bears, The Wanting Seed, and Earthly Powers. If I have to give too much attention to any one writer, it may as well be Burgess.
25. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.
The literary legacy of Charles Williams lept forward 40 years and settled in John Crowley and Tim Powers.
It is depressing how quickly writers, even very good ones, can be forgotten once the public eye moves off of them. I am now in my seventh decade, and I remember reading very good, very engaging books in my adolescence by authors who are seldom mentioned these days. Equally amazing to me are the authors who endure, and whose popularity continues. For example, I read JD Salinger’s Frannie And Zooey early in my high school days, but I thought the works of his near-contemporaries John Hershey (Too Far To Walk) and William Goldman (Boys And Girls Together) superior as studies of alienation. I haven’t met anyone under 55 who has even heard of those two writers.
Thomas Pynchon will be with us forever, as will Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Other writers who seem to have legs are Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike, but Peter De Vries, Mary McCarthy, Louis Auchincloss, and even Ray Bradbury are disappearing from the catalogue. Gore Vidal preens himself and offers frequent fussy comment on the social scene, but who remembers Alfred Chester? It is though there is only one niche in the literary ecology for a particular kind of author, and Vidal grabbed it to Chester’s despite, as did Updike to De Vries, Vonnegut to Bradbury, and Walker Percy to Richard Yates.
Moving from canonical, mainstream literature to imaginative literature, no one can call Jack Vance a forgotten writer. For one thing, he is still alive, and for another, he is enjoying something of a boomlet in popularity due to his being lionized by popular genre authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. I was fortunate to find his Lyonesse trilogy on audio book. Having already been introduced to Jack Vance in my extreme boyhood through The Languages of Pao and The Dragon Masters, the Arthurian-tinged trilogy, composed of Suldrun’s Garden, published in 1983, The Green Pearl, in 1987, and Madouc , in 1991, was a delight to stumble upon.
It won’t change your life, but as entertainment and as an exercise in that kind of fantasy set in our own world, it is highly recommended. The central conceit is somewhat similar to Robert E Howard’s, but set in late antiquity, about the time of the waning of the Western Empire and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of Rome. Nevertheless, the martial technology is late Middle Ages, with trebuchets and plate armor. Vance follows in hallowed footsteps here. All the Arthurian writers followed the same convention, until recently when Mary Stewart and Stephen Lawhead created more chronistically appropriate Arthur stories.
The Arthurian connection is tenuous. Vance imagines a large Ireland-sized island in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, Hybras, with a cluster of smaller islands around it. The idea is that these islands have since disappeared, Atlantis-like, under the waves, leaving behind only a smattering of irreconcilable legends and a few place names; Hy-Brasil, Avallone, Lyonesse, and Ys. There are petty kings; beautiful, sad princesses; wizards benign and malicious; knights noble and dastardly. There is also a lot of Realpolitik and spycraft, which fortunately seldom gets in the way of the rollicking adventures.
The Lyonesse trilogy is kind of sad. As another reader/reviewer points out, all of the adventures and intrigues of the characters are pointless, since the Elder Isles are doomed to disappear eventually under the waves. For some reason, I thought it would add a touch of poignancy to the narrative, but it didn’t. For all of the playfulness and light-heartedness of Vance’s prose, something just didn’t quite click. The magic (and there are a number of wizards fair and fell in this series, not to mention fairies, ogres and boggarts), struck me as being very prosaic. Vance is, alas, a modernist in a postmodern world.
All in all all, it read like a copy of a greater original. It wasn’t at all like Tales Of The Dying Earth, by the same writer.
As I said, no one can accuse Jack Vance of being a forgotten writer, but just under the surface of his prose lurks one of the most unfairly forgotten writers of the 20th century. Working from a stray comment about the Lyonesse books on GoodReads, I was able to uncover the original of which they were the copy. The writer was James Branch Cabell, an American writer of fantastic literature from Richmond Virginia, who enjoyed a period of great popularity in the immediate postwar period. To my surprise, I was able to find a copy of his complete works at a nearby college library. They certainly appeared to be the works of a prominent and successful writer; gilt-spined and lavishly illustrated.
I took one book down and opened it, Jurgen; A Comedy Of Justice, reputed to be Cabell’s masterpiece. Three hours later I shut it, enthralled with where Cabell was able to transport me.
Cabell will never be one of my favorite writers. He is snarky, something I deeply dislike. Cabell shares this trait with other writers such as Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Thomas Pynchon, all whom are good writers (Pynchon is great, like Sopohocles-great) but just not personally my cup of tea. Alan Dean Foster, who wrote The Last Starfighter and most of the original Star Wars trilogy as well, wrote a forgettable but very sexy little romance called Glory Lane, that gets snark just about right.
Cabell, in what I read of Jurgen, takes snark to realms of high art. The protagonist, a middle-aged pawnbroker, has his youth restored and, of course, sets out to do what any right-thinking man in his postion would do; seduce all the beautiful young women he can. On the way, he encounters a number of creatures magical, infernal, celestial, or any combination thereof. Since Jurgen, the protagonist, is irreverent and quite superficial, there is a lot of snark, but somehow, Cabell uses it to break your heart. It looks as though Jurgen is going be schooled by his second youth in the lasting virtues. I will have to finish this book, at least.
Reading what I have of Cabell’s writing career, I am surprised that he is almost completely unheard of by the legions of Tolkien, Rowling, and Gaiman fans. He continued writing in the same vein until his death in the 1950’s, in increasing obscurity. Serendipitously and coincidentally, the critical examination of Cabell’s work which I also found in the same section in the university library, was written by another once-popular writer; Hugh Walpole, who is also almost entirely forgotten today.
“It is submerged now, and as irrecoverable as Lyonesse” – Evelyn Waugh referring to Oxford in Brideshead Revisited
The National Public Radio folks have decided to ask their listener base to help them select the greatest works of imaginative fiction. Their list contains a lot of surprises, but the finalists were selected by the ubiquitous expert panel, and they are inviting fantasy and science fiction fans to vote on which of these 200 or so works are their favorites.
Here is the list. My choices are in bold:
The Acts Of Caine Series, by Matthew Woodring Stover
The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks
Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
Armor, by John Steakley
The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson
Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard
Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Black Company Series, by Glen Cook
The Black Jewels Series, by Anne Bishop
The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Bridge Of Birds, by Barry Hughart
The Callahan’s Series, by Spider Robinson
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut
The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
The Change Series, by S.M. Stirling
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Children Of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson
The City And The City, by China Mieville
City And The Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
The Coldfire Trilogy, by C.S. Friedman
The Commonwealth Saga, by Peter F. Hamilton
The Company Wars, by C.J. Cherryh
The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
Contact, by Carl Sagan
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison
The Deed of Paksennarion Trilogy, by Elizabeth Moon
The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester
The Deverry Cycle, by Katharine Kerr
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Don’t Bite The Sun, by Tanith Lee
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
Earth, by David Brin
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
The Eisenhorn Omnibus, by Dan Abnett
The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Eon, by Greg Bear
The Eyes Of The Dragon, by Stephen King
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Faded Sun Trilogy, by C.J. Cherryh
Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser Series, by Fritz Leiber
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
The Foreigner Series, by C.J. Cherryh
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
The Gaea Trilogy, by John Varley
The Gap Series, by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Gate To Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
The Gormenghast Triology, by Mervyn Peake
Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, by Haruki Murakami
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hollows Series, by Kim Harrison
House Of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Incarnations Of Immortality Series, by Piers Anthony
The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
Kraken, by China Mieville
The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
Last Call, by Tim Powers
The Last Coin, by James P. Blaylock
The Last Herald Mage Trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
The Lensman Series, by E.E. Smith
The Liaden Universe Series, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
The Lies Of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler
Little, Big, by John Crowley
The Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg
Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
The Manifold Trilogy, by Stephen Baxter
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Memory And Dream, by Charles de Lint
Memory, Sorrow, And Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams
Mindkiller, by Spider Robinson
The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov
The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, by Robert J. Sawyer
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
The Newsflesh Triology, by Mira Grant
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton
Novels Of The Company, by Kage Baker
Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
On Basilisk Station, by David Weber
The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
The Otherland Tetralogy, by Tad Williams
The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
Parable Of The Sower, by Octavia Butler
The Passage, by Justin Cronin
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest
The Pride Of Chanur, by C.J. Cherryh
The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy, by R. Scott Bakker
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Riverworld Series, by Philip Jose Farmer
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Saga Of Pliocene Exile, by Julian May
The Saga Of Recluce, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
The Sarantine Mosaic Series, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
The Scar, by China Mieville
The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
The Shattered Chain Trilogy, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia McKillip
A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner
The Stand, by Stephen King
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stations Of The Tide, by Michael Swanwick
Steel Beach, by John Varley
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
The Swordspoint Trilogy, by Ellen Kushner
The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card
The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik
The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
Tigana , by Guy Gavriel Kay
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
To Say Nothing Of The Dog, by Connie Willis
The Troy Trilogy, by David Gemmell
Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
The Uplift Saga, by David Brin
The Valdemar Series, by Mercedes Lackey
VALIS, by Philip K. Dick
Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout/Philip Jose Farmer
The Vlad Taltos Series, by Steven Brust
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Vurt Trilogy, by Jeff Noon
The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
Watchmen, by Alan Moore
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
World War Z, by Max Brooks
The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Edison
The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon
1632, by Eric Flint
1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
I was glad to see both Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen and Gaiman’s Sandman series in such august company. Both Earth Abides (Stewart) and Lord of Light (Zelazny) are close to perfect works of science-fiction. Unfortunately, Stewart never wrote another book, and Zelazny fell off precipitously after LOL. Amber wasn’t nearly as good.
I am not surprised that A Voyage To Arcturus didn’t make it onto this list. It is very poorly written and hard to parse, but it does have a sticking power that many better works lack. I was surprised to see that nothing by Lord Dunsany made the cut, nor was James Cabell represented, nor George Macdonald, nor Jack Vance. In the mean time, you can amuse yourselves identifying the pictures off to the right.
Marija Gimbutas (1921 – 1994) is a name all of you should know. Fleeing the Nazi occupation of her native Lithuania in 1944, she settled in Southern California, eventually becoming a full professor of anthropology at UCLA.
Dr. Gimbutas first attained prominence in the field of Indo-European studies by identifying a Neolithic culture of the Russian steppes, the Kurgan culture of appr. 4000 BC, as the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the ancestral language of the majority of European and Indian languages spoken today. The Kurgans were a militaristic, patriarchal, and technologically obsessed society which, in various waves, dominated and submerged what she called “Old Europe”, a uniform (!?!?) Neolthic culture which was pacific, aesthetic, matriarchal, and meticulous about ecological relations to the natural world.
Dr. Gimbutas’ theory of Indo-European procedence is not entirely accepted by scholars in archeology or linguistics. It remains a “fruitful” hypothesis, meaning, I suppose, one that can still be invoked to apply for grants and to lend legitimacy to articles published in scholarly journals. The jury is still out as to whether the Kurgans were indeed the linguistic great-grandfathers of Homer, the writers of the Vedas, Virgil, and the bards of the Cattle Raid on Cooley.
Nevertheless, outside the more rigorous climes of official academe, her ideas took fruit in a series of novels written by one of her ex-students, Jean Auel, who had a good run of success with her “Earth’s Children” series, beginning with “The Clan of the Cave Bear”, which was made into a decent film starring Darryl Hannah.
The Earth’s Children series degenerated swiftly from the original book, which was quite good from both a literary and imaginative perspective, into a predictable set of romances between the protaganist Ayla and a series of broad-chested, long-haired, sensitive Neolithic swains who followed her across Old Europe in obedience to the Great Goddess, whom they worshipped and who Ayla symbolized.
I never finished the second book, although I have been meaning to. Whatever made the first book special is definitely lacking in the second. At any rate, Ms. Auel made Dr. Gimbutas’ speculations plausible to a host of moderns looking for a reason why their lives weren’t working so well.
Gimbutean fiction is quite a lively sub-genre these days, with plucky, Goddess-honoring heroines standing shoulder to shoulder with brave, shining-eyed, long-locked heroes against the awful Horse People and their ferocious, oppressive Sky-God (Guess Who?).
The mythology is quite potent, which is why its not going to go away because it doesn’t have any basis in verifiable history. Christians, as usual, had their seismic triggers posted elsewhere and didn’t see Dr. Gimbutas coming up behind them.
The title is from DH Lawrence – oh, the things you find on the Internet:
Some considerable time ago, I commented on something that I had gleaned from a reading of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods; that is, that America was a poor place for mythology, that we lacked the deep psychic topsoil that nourished our European forebears. I remember reading somewhere about a Finnish poet who lived in a house where his family had lived and farmed for the past 900 years. I can only the imagine the poetry that would emerge from such an intimate congress between soil and DNA.
America has poets, quite good ones, but the American story has yet to be told, really. Some works have come damned close: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, The Magnificent Ambersons, On The Road, these spring to mind immediately as coming close to American mythopoeia. But DH Lawrence seems to intimate that we still have to atone for our sins:
When you are actually in America, America hurts, because it has a powerful disintegrative influence upon the white psyche. It is full of grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men, like some Eumenides, until the white men give up their absolute whiteness. America is tense with latent violence and resistance. The very common sense of white Americans has a tinge of helplessness in it, and deep fear of what might be if they were not common-sensical.
[W]hen one comes to America, one finds that there is always a certain slightly devilish resistance in the American landscape, and a certain slightly bitter resistance in the white man’s heart. Hawthorne gives this. But Cooper glosses it over. The American landscape has never been at one with the white man. Never. And white men have probably never felt so bitter anywhere, as here in America, where the very landscape, in its very beauty, seems a bit devilish and grinning, opposed to us.
Moralists have always wondered helplessly why Poe’s ‘morbid’ tales need have been written. They need to be written because old things need to die and disintegrate, because the old white psyche has to be gradually broken down before anything else can come to pass.
So there you have it; the strength of the hills is not in us because they are not yet our hills, except by legal fiction [I use this term consciously]. America bestrides the earth like a colossus, and appears immeasurably strong – the last superpower and all of that, but the strength is the waning strength of modernism and abstraction. I fear this strength will fail in the crucible, that it will be a brittle strength.
I wonder how this strength compares with the imaginative fecundity of Latin American letters, where the fantastic and the real rub cheek to jowl (and not only imaginative fecundity – it doesn’t take any prescience to predict what are the comparative futures of two societies where the average age of one is 38 and increasing, and the average age of the other is 22 and dropping). The dominant myth of Iberian America is one of mixture and synthesis, whereas the predominant myth north of the Rio Grande is replacement and surveying.
Note – My knowledge of South African history is next to nil. I have been informed that when the first European settlers, the ancestors of the Voortrekkers, arrived in the Cape Colony, the land was empty. The Bantu had not yet arrived. Nobody took South Africa away from anybody. Everybody just collided, sort of. Steve, if you can add anything to this, I would be extremely grateful.
I have finally worked my way through the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s series The Book Of The New Sun, The Shadow Of The Torturer, and I have to say that I am thoroughly intimidated. His prose is as tightly packed with information as a DNA strand, and it took me about twice as long to finish as I thought it
would. I had to reference backwards and forwards in the book continually, and read several passages multiple times before I felt as though I had a handle on what Wolfe was trying to say.
The plot was unusually thin considering the considerable wordcraft that went into the book; others have commented at length about Wolfe’s portmanteaus, so I won’t go into them here. It is sufficient to say that anyone who knows a smattering of Latin and Greek, and a little medieval French as well, will not be baffled by any of Wolfe’s idiosyncratic vocabulary. My favorite by far was Wolfe’s elegant euphemism for ‘executioner`, “carnifex”, that is, someone who turns a living body into just so much meat.
The novel is a bildungsroman, the story of a young man growing up and making his way in the world. If I have any criticism of this work, it is that Severian appears to mature too quickly in the two days between when he is exiled from the Torturers’ Guild and when he arrives at the city wall with Dorcas in tow.
Of course, Wolfe packs a lot into those two days; the discovery of sex, a duel to the death, a lecture on light and relativity, and a visit to the distant past (our own era?). Still, this isn’t enough to explain the change in Severian from an uncertain and hesitant boy to the confident man he becomes by the end of the novel.
I have heard, on the other hand, that Severian, the novel’s protagonist, is not a trustworthy narrator, that he is propagandizing, relating a self-aggrandizing version of the story of his rise from obscurity to Autarch.
Somebody said somewhere, I don’t remember who or where, that all writers should have ceased to write after Finnegan’s Wake, or Light In August, or Gravity’s Rainbow. The same sort of thing is said about Gene Wolfe. Now, I haven’t read anything yet by Joyce, Faulkner, or Pynchon (they are on my to-get-to list), but it is obvious that there has been plenty of writing since the publication of those masterworks.
But I understand the sentiment. Anybody writing in the urban fantasy/science fiction is going to find that Gene Wolfe has set the bar very high indeed.