Monday, February 28, 2011

Glossing Tennyson: The Platypus Reads Part XC

  Then, ere that last weird battle in the west,

“The last weird battle in the west” or “the battle in the west” will become a recurring motif in both “The Passing of Arthur” and “To The Queen.”  Merlin has already predicted this battle in “Merlin and Vivian” where he gave it the ominous title of “world war.”  With Arthur’s Camelot serving as an allegory for Victoria’s England, these passages then become arrestingly prophetic as we remember the destruction of the Victorian achievement on the fields of France in World War I.  Beyond this, Arthur’s last battle takes place in the west, not the north as in Nennius, and thus plays into Tennyson’s seasonal and day imagery.  Throughout “The Idylls of the King” we find Tennyson playing with the seasons, the hours of the day, and time.  The whole work moves through the seasons from spring to winter.  Arthur wages twelve great battles and there are twelve idylls, one for each hour of the day (there are none for the hours of the night for, as Christ points out, no work can be done at night).  Many of the idylls do not follow a direct sequence of events, but rather flash forward and backward in time.  The whole effect is twofold.  One, it enhances the Tennyson’s central meditations on the rise and fall of Victorian society in particular and civilization in general.  Two, it reminds us that time and its passing are relative, not fixed, in so far as human events are concerned, especially on the supernatural level.  These things having been said, the Tennyson’s choice to set Arthur’s last battle in the west taps into the “day imagery.”  Arthur’s “day” is setting as he faces death and the destruction of the Round Table.   

There came on Arthur sleeping, Gawain killed
In Lancelot's war, the ghost of Gawain blown
Along a wandering wind, and past his ear
Went shrilling, 'Hollow, hollow all delight!

In the sequence that follows, Gawain’s ghost returns in a dream to foretell Arthur’s passing and the ruin of his realm.  Notice again the motif that Arthur “passes” rather than “dies.”  Gawain, according to Mallory, was wounded in single combat with Sir Lancelot while trying to avenge the death of his brother.  During the first assault on Modred’s troops, the wound reopened and Gawain perished.  Why Gawain’s ghost predicts Arthur’s passing is a bit of a mystery.  We may speculate that because he is Arthur’s kin he is allowed to speak to Arthur prophetically.  Like Hamlet’s ghost, however, there is a certain ambiguity to the figure of Gawain’s ghost.  The torments and bloody course of revenge that Hamlet’s ghost advocates seem much more appropriate for a damned spirit than one doing penance in Purgatory.  Likewise, the image of Gawain’s spirit being “blown along a wandering wind” sans delight seems to be a reference to the Circle of the Lustful in Dante’s “Inferno.”  This is also not the first time we have seen Gawain associated with Dante’s Circle of the Lustful.  In “The Holy Grail” Gawain wearies of the quest and takes up with a bevy of beautiful women.  A whirlwind comes and blows Gawain and his ladies all about. The tenor of his message is also devoid of hope and even seems to contain a certain element of schadenfreude.  All of this leads us to wonder what the ghost’s purpose is and whether Arthur should believe it or alter his course of action based on this visitation. 

Hail, King! tomorrow thou shalt pass away.
Farewell! there is an isle of rest for thee.
And I am blown along a wandering wind,
And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight.'
And fainter onward, like wild birds that change
Their season in the night and wail their way
From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream
Shrilled; but in going mingled with dim cries
Far in the moonlit haze among the hills,
As of some lonely city sacked by night,
When all is lost, and wife and child with wail
Pass to new lords; and Arthur woke and called,

What, then, is Tennyson doing with this section?  The ambiguity of the messenger aside, Arthur’s dream has odd parallels with the dream King Leodogran has in “The Coming of Arthur” where he sees a phantom king surrounded by unheeding figures that slay and pillage.  Perhaps Leodogran is granted a prophetic glimpse of Arthur’s ruin and ultimate “apotheosis.”  If so, it is interesting that this vision convinces Leodogran to give Arthur his daughter in marriage, thus unknowingly precipitating Camelot’s ruin and Arthur’s passing into mythic icon.  It is also interesting that the dream Leodogran has causes him put aside his doubts and change his course of action while Arthur’s dream enhances his doubts but does nothing to change his course of action. 

'Who spake? A dream. O light upon the wind,
Thine, Gawain, was the voice--are these dim cries
Thine? or doth all that haunts the waste and wild
Mourn, knowing it will go along with me?'

Arthur, unlike the young prince Hamlet, is old and wise enough to doubt such an ambiguous messenger.

   This heard the bold Sir Bedivere and spake:
'O me, my King, let pass whatever will,
Elves, and the harmless glamour of the field;
But in their stead thy name and glory cling
To all high places like a golden cloud
For ever: but as yet thou shalt not pass.

One wonders what the angels said to Christ in Gethsemane when they came and brought comfort to him.  Arthur, being only a type of Christ and not the reality does not receive angelic succor but is nevertheless comforted by the appearance of Bedivere.  Bedivere comforts Arthur with Arthur’s name; a reminder that the King’s good deeds have not been in vain.  This parallels with Arthur’s concern for Lancelot’s name in “Lancelot and Elaine.”  There, a dejected Lancelot finds his name and reputation a torment since they make his sin with Guinevere stand out all the worse.  We can also note a parallel with “Guinevere” where the novice in her story makes the elves and fair folk a sign of the blessedness of Arthur’s early reign.  Here, at the end of Arthur’s reign, the King worries that the fair folk may be signaling his ultimate defeat.  Bedivere, who, unlike the novice, remembers the events of “The Coming of Arthur,” will have nothing to do with such fictitious portents.  Bedivere’s strident tone in this portion of the poem matches with Peter’s rash assertions to follow Christ no matter what.  This is ironic, since Bedivere will later deny Arthur twice.

Light was Gawain in life, and light in death
Is Gawain, for the ghost is as the man;
And care not thou for dreams from him, but rise—

Bedivere also knows just what to do with Gawain’s ghost: ignore it.  Whether it is a true visitation or just a dream, Arthur’s duty remains the same.

I hear the steps of Modred in the west,

Notice that we have here again the link between the “west” and death or doom.

And with him many of thy people, and knights
Once thine, whom thou hast loved, but grosser grown
Than heathen, spitting at their vows and thee.
Right well in heart they know thee for the King.
Arise, go forth and conquer as of old.'

Bedivere sees the apostate knights as worse than the pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders since they side with barbarism having known civilization and paganism having known Christianity.  This can be linked with the devolution motif, as the Round Table was created to ennoble mankind by its good example and now is joining in corrupting mankind with its lust for power.  Arthur has already seen this lust eating up the younger knights in “The Last Tournament” and thus knows that there is no going back to the old days as Bedivere urges (“Arise, go forth and conquer as of old”).  This becomes apparent in his reply.

   Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
'Far other is this battle in the west
Whereto we move, than when we strove in youth,
And brake the petty kings, and fought with Rome,
Or thrust the heathen from the Roman wall,
And shook him through the north. Ill doom is mine
To war against my people and my knights.
The king who fights his people fights himself.
And they my knights, who loved me once, the stroke
That strikes them dead is as my death to me.

Bedivere is trying to hold onto the past and Arthur gently rebukes him for it.  Arthur’s reply is not as stern an admonishment as “get thee behind me Satan,” but the overall tenor is still there.  The nature of this battle, being a civil war, is such that there can be no such thing as a “glorious” victory.  Even if Arthur wins, it will be by killing off a great portion of his remaining knights and the realm will be left in a hopelessly weakened state.  Most of all, however, Bedivere is trying to convince Arthur that his impending crucifixion need not be a crucifixion and in this way continues in his role as Peter with Arthur as the Christ figure.  The mention of Rome is meant to be a parallel with “The Coming of Arthur” where the final test of Arthur’s new order is a war with Rome.  Rome will be mentioned again and forms a motif in this poem reminding us that Arthur’s civilization is going the way of all great civilizations.  This should have been evident from the beginning, and yet Bedivere is tempted to believe that somehow Camelot can be different.  Arthur rightly understands this sentiment for what it is, a temptation, and rejects it.

Yet let us hence, and find or feel a way
Through this blind haze, which ever since I saw
One lying in the dust at Almesbury,
Hath folded in the passes of the world.'

We see here again what the loss of Guinevere means both literally and symbolically for Arthur.  Without the Heart, Reason’s perception of the world becomes clouded.  The blind haze, continuing the motif from “Guinevere,” is also a reminder that Arthur is swiftly passing into the realm of myth and legend.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Glossing Tennyson: The Platypus Reads Part LXXXIX

I've just wrapped up Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" with my seniors.  As I have quite number of thoughts to share, I thought I would try something rather ambitious.  I am going to attempt over the next few posts to gloss final poem in the series "The Passing of Arthur."  We'll see how it goes.


That story which the bold Sir Bedivere,
First made and latest left of all the knights,
Told, when the man was no more than a voice
In the white winter of his age, to those
With whom he dwelt, new faces, other minds.

The opening of “The Passing of Arthur” stands in marked contrast with the previous idyll “Guinevere.”  In “Guinevere” we see both Arthur and the Queen passing into myth while the opening to “The Passing of Arthur” claims to be an eye-witness testimony.  In his role as the last eyewitness to great events that are rapidly passing into myth, Bedivere serves as a sort of John the Evangelist.  John sets down his account to save a historical Jesus from the myth-making of the Gnostic and pass on knowledge of the Christ to a generation of Christians who have no memory of the gospel events.  In the same way, Bedivere hopes to pass on an understanding of Arthur that can combat the saccharine fables of characters like the novice in “Guinevere.”  This desire will form the core of Bedivere’s Petrine temptation later in the poem when he must throw Excalibur back into the lake. 

   For on their march to westward, Bedivere,
Who slowly paced among the slumbering host,
Heard in his tent the moanings of the King:

Like Peter, James, and John, Bedivere as a member of Arthur’s “inner ring” is present at Arthur’s Gethsemane and so is able to record Arthur’s struggle with the destiny God has set before him.  Indeed, Bedivere takes on the role of all the Apostles, save Judas, throughout the poem.  Also worth noticing is that the army is moving westward.  “Going west” is a euphemism for death.

   'I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I marked Him in the flowering of His fields,

Arthur opens his Gethsemane monologue with an affirmation of God’s presence in the heavens and on the earth.  We may think of the Doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/Praise Him ye creatures here below/Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts/Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”  We may see this as confessional, but there is also an apologetic argument in shorthand here.  Arthur sees Order, as represented by the stars, and Beauty, as represented by the flowers, as evidence of the existence of God.  The existence of God of a Beautiful and Orderly God, however, poses a problem for Arthur in his particular circumstances.

But in His ways with men I find Him not.
I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.

Arthur states his problem and it is the problem of Job.  Arthur has chosen to lend his powers to the side of God and the result of it has been the overthrow of everything he has worked for.  The question Arthur is asking is: “why am I suffering if I am righteous?”  This question has to find resolution before Arthur can “drink from the cup.”  Interestingly, Arthur refused the quest of the Grail knowing that God was calling him to remain at his post.  Now the Grail comes to Arthur again in a much less glorious fashion.  This time, however, Arthur will be called upon to drink from it.  In this way, Arthur is a clearer Christ-type than even Galahad.

O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?

Given that Arthur is righteous and yet suffering, the temptation to form some sort of theodicy arises.  The first that presents itself to him, as Tennyson tells us in his own commentary, is that of Gnosticism.  By denying the omnipotence of the creating deity, Gnosticism tries to get god off the hook on the question of evil by positing that a weaker god made an imperfect world and so introduced evil that will in turn be “fixed” by the coming of a higher and more “spiritual” deity.  Given Arthur’s emphasis on the spiritual and cerebral, we can see why Gnosticism (or perhaps deism) would be a tempting alternative.   

Or else as if the world were wholly fair,
But that these eyes of men are dense and dim,
And have not power to see it as it is:
Perchance, because we see not to the close;--

The next theodicy that offers itself to Arthur is more subtle.  It is the Platonic option: that evil is merely a failure of human knowledge to apprehend the true Good.  This answer would flatter Arthur’s vanity by making his own knowledge of the Good the source of Camelot’s success and his followers’ lack of knowledge the source of its failure. 

For I, being simple, thought to work His will,
And have but stricken with the sword in vain;
And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend
Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm
Reels back into the beast, and is no more.

Arthur saves himself from both false theodicies through humility.  Quite simply, he asserts his own vanity and ignorance.  It is interesting that in the overthrow of his realm it is Arthur’s humility that saves him.  “Blessed are the humble for they shall inherit the earth.”  Though Camelot is overthrown, Arthur is the promised “once and future king.”  In the meantime, Arthur’s tentative answer to the problem of evil is the same as Job’s; he demurs in the face of a question too great for any mere creature to answer.  However, this answer fails to satisfy Arthur emotionally as his impassioned cry against the treason of Guinevere and Lancelot and the failure of his regime.  This reveals to us where Arthur’s real trouble with God lies: in the heart.  Arthur, as Camelot’s “head,” or reason, can handle merely intellectual problems.  Guinevere complains several times that Arthur is too cerebral and emotionally remote.  Cut off from Guinevere, Camelot’s “heart,” Arthur is laid bare to torments of the emotions.  Notice also the language Arthur uses to describe his overthrow: “all my realm/Reels back into the beast.”  This continues the evolution/devolution metaphor that begins in “The Coming of Arthur” where Arthur finds England perishing “between man and beast” and the beasts “rooting in the gardens of the king.”  For Tennyson, evolution transcends the merely biological and extends to the spiritual aspect of man as well (see Lewis use this idea in “Mere Christianity” in the chapters “Nice People or New Men” and “The New Men”).  The very fact that man is a spirit that can choose, however, means that moral devolution is as much a possibility as moral evolution.  This can be seen as an attempt on Tennyson’s part to critique the myth of Progress that was so prevalent in his day.  

My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death;
Nay--God my Christ--I pass but shall not die.'

In his anguish of spirit, Arthur echoes Jesus’ words on the cross.  Unlike Christ, however, Arthur as mere man cannot bear the weight of separation from God—but he does not need to.  Even as Arthur confesses his feeling of desertion he turns back to a reaffirmation of Christ.  This is the first time in this poem that Arthur invokes the second member of the Trinity.  The choice is significant.  Arthur does not have to bear the weight of a full separation from God because Christ has already born it for him.  Furthermore, Arthur is able to complete his theodicy in a way that galvanizes his emotions and allows him to accept the cup of suffering.  We may not be able to intellectually understand the problem of evil, but we can rest in the knowledge that God himself has experienced the full weight of evil and overcome it in the death and resurrection of Christ.  Even if the prophecies fail and Arthur goes to his death, he can still look forward to his own bodily resurrection.  Furthermore, his own prophetic words, spoken in a tripartite role as prophet-priest-king to Guinevere will be fulfilled on that day and a purified Guinevere will stand again at his side.  Camelot will also be fulfilled in the coming of the New Jerusalem.  Fortified with Faith and Hope, Arthur passes through his Gethsemane and goes on to face his crucifixion.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My Broken Wings: The Platypus Watches Trinity Blood


My questions were not all answered.  That's par for the course when dealing with anime.  Most anime is based on manga.  That means that an immense amount of plot and character development from a 24+ volume series must be condensed into 24 30 minute episodes.  In many cases, the anime is produced before the manga is even finished.  Thus, not having a satisfactory conclusion to an anime series is par for the course.  Most times, I accept this and shrug it off.  In the case of "Trinity Blood," however, I found its incomplete ending oddly fitting.  Let me explain.

"Trinity Blood" is chiefly about brokenness.  The ending song with its chorus of "my broken wings" gives it away.  The setting, a post-apocalyptic Europe, gives it away as well.  In fact, every one of the characters in the world of "Trinity Blood" is broken in some way.  We see a young Pope, broken by the political machinations of his older siblings.  We see a young nun broken by a cycle of revenge.  We see an older nun broken by the tension between her vows and her private feelings.  We see a young nobleman broken by the betrayal of his friend and mentor.  Most of all, we see Father Nightroad broken by the very nature of what he is: a vampire who must feed on other vampires.  Each of these characters is broken in a deep and perhaps irreparable way.  Like the three Crusniks who dominate the action (Able, Cain, and Seth), the people and the world we are introduced to in "Trinity Blood" is Fallen, cast out of Eden.  And yet...

And yet love and grace trickles down like tears into this fallen world and lifts up an ennobles the lives of its inhabitants, raising them, weaknesses and all, to something higher.  "Trinity Blood" with its embattled Vatican is a moving picture of the Church Militant: broken and torn, yet striving higher (often in spite of itself) in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

That's why I'm ok with the series' unfinished ending.  The fight has to go on.  The Eschaton hasn't come and the Church is still present in the midst of a broken and dying World and is still broken herself.  Deliverance is coming, but it's also important to confess that we are still waiting.  Until that day, we are left to fly with our broken wings.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Scribbling Through Tennyson: Whiteboard Platypus




*All Images Copyright James R. Harrington 2011

Teaching Tennyson My Way: Academic Platypus

I'm back in Tennyson --with seniors this time.  The higher grade level means that we can go even deeper than we did last year.  It also means that I feel more comfortable teaching it my way with free-wheeling associations galore.  I've brought up Kennedy's Camelot, Bob Dylan (The Times They Are a Changein'), Simon and Garfunkel (The Sound of Silence), The Band Perry (If I Die Young), Hellboy (The Wild Hunt, and The Storm), and "The Lord of The Rings."  Showing the students Mignola's re-telling of the story of Nimue and Merlin right when they were reading through Tennyson's "Merlin and Vivian" was priceless.  I also enjoy any chance I get to read passages from Tolkien out loud.  Fun times.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Methodological Models in Writing History: The Platypus Reads Part LXXXVIII

I always enjoy getting a pile of new books at Christmas and this past year has been no exception.  In the midst of the pile, were two books by two of my favorite historians: Jonathan D. Spence and Barry Strauss.

I first encountered Spence in grad school during a Historiography class.  We were looking at historical methodology and Spence's "Treason by the Book" was on the table.  It was a fascinating read; written like a novel and yet methodologically pure.  It even had a deftly inserted discussion of lexicographical transmission in early Ching China.  To boil down what impressed me: the book was both good art and good history.

I didn't encounter Barry Strauss until I had been out of grad school for a few years.  I was going through a Victor Davis-Hanson phase (oh whatever shall we do with the Xenophon of Selma?) and noticed that he had a buddy over at Cornell.  That, and a Harvard catalog, led me to pick up a copy of "The Trojan War" by Barry Strauss.  I found in Strauss what I also found in Spence: an attempt to write history that was methodologically pure and yet still and artistic and engaging read.

Moving back to this past Christmas then, I was eager to dig into Spence's "Death of Woman Wang" and Strauss' "Salamis."  Neither disappointed.  If you have a taste for history, I can recommend them both.  My only caveat: Strauss is a little more of a popular level read than Spence.

To sum up what I really like about these authors though, I have to say that they are both historians who understand "history" as "story." Historians bring order out of the chaos of past events and, in so doing, allow the great "Democracy of the Dead" to speak, however imperfectly, to the world of the living.  The problem with much recent historical writing, at least of the sort produced by the academic guild and not inspired amateurs, is that it denies the dead a compelling voice.  In fact, the voices of the dead are often muffled beneath layers of intentionally obscurantist prose designed to keep the secrets of past ages safely within the guild where they can be handled by "reverent" hands and not sullied with actual use by the unwashed masses.  Of course, in reaction to this, many amateur historians have cropped up who can turn the past into a ripping yarn, but lack the training and focus to make sure it is really the dead who get center stage and not the writer or his agenda.  At their best, Spence and Strauss avoid these two pitfalls and allow us moments of genuine contact with that great half of humanity that has gone before.