The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: “Jesus loves you.”

Posted on: February 10, 2008

“But he isn’t in love with you.” – Garret in “Love is a Thing…”

I started Tao Lin’s Bed: Stories this morning because I needed a burst of some contemporary fiction that wouldn’t annoy me. You know how I feel about Hall but Sobert’s weird, self-involved, circular, constant commentary on his own every move, word and thought is getting on top of my nerves.

After finishing “Love is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists”, the first story in the collection, I decided that this is kind of post-911 fiction I prefer. If you set a tale in Manhattan and mention terrorists you automatically get dropped into that category, right? I haven’t tried any of the other stuff out there and only hold interest in Mohsin Hamid’s latest (which I didn’t know belonged to that category until the reviews came out) but, for the most part, they sound either dull or trite. Mostly dull.

Lin, on the other hand, had me chuckling from page one.

This was the month that people began to suspect that terrorists had infiltrated Middle America, set up underground tunnels in the rural areas, like gophers. During any moment, it was feared, a terrorist might tunnel up into your house and replace your dog with something that resembled your dog but was actually a bomb. This was a new era in terrorism. The terrorists were now quicker, wittier, and more streetwise. They spoke the vernacular, and claimed to be philosophically sound. They would whisper into the wind something mordant and culturally damning about McDonald’s, Jesus, and America — and then, if they wanted to, if the situation eschatologically called for it, they would slice your face off with a KFC spork.

Other ways the terrorists might be out to get you?

  • Pipes: Entire terrorist families are hiding within the walls of your house, scrambling up pipes ready to…errr…ruin your plumbing without warning. That sounds familiar.
  • Free cruise: They could attach “outboard motors” to Manhattan island and take the inhabitants on a free world cruise with virgin piña coladas and, I’m assuming, indoctrination classes.

That and the vibrant anti war supporters — whose most profound statement so far has been, “Fuck war, fuck, war” — are side trimmings for the main story which centres on Garret and Kristy, a college aged couple who live in Brooklyn and aren’t having the time of their lives, partly because Kristy is always late for everything. I didn’t really know what to make of it and I expect that will be my reaction to a lot of Lin’s stories, but I don’t mind being stumped as along as I think I’m getting something out of it.

*****

As I read more of the Idylls I discover that it’s potentially a little more interesting than fun chivalric tales espousing a predominantly Christian and patriarchal perspective (although there’s a lot of that). The things that make this so may not count much for others if they have more than a passing knowledge of the Arthurian myths. All of my knowledge has been gained through Hollywood and a couple of fantasy authors, one of whom had used it in such a way that was actually closer to the myths literary sources than I thought.

As I read the two poems about Geraint and Enid I noticed a sprinkling of Welsh mythological references here and there, thanks to Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Their presence struck me as odd, particularly since it seemed to limited to their story, and it added to the epic’s crazy mishmash of Christian and pagan elements. I figured that the couple had some specific ties to Wales that Tennyson was acknowledging.

It turns out that the whole darn Arthurian myth came out of Welsh mythology. Wtf? I thought it had something to do with the French? It appears that Arthur’s incredibly jumbled literary history started from when Christian monks wrote down his story from a variety of different sources and was swollen “by the confluence of rivers of romantic Euro-drivel“. It’s a bit difficult to decipher from internet resources how the tales truly differ (websites one after the other present it in such different ways) and I don’t know that I’m intrigued enough to borrow a hefty academic text to wade through. I’ve decided to simply enjoy the bizarre product.

There were also sombre elements at work that stood out prominently amongst the more fantastical elements. Two of Arthur’s knights, so far, have been depressed to the point of contemplating and courting suicide and in both cases Tennyson wrote of their situations with pathos rather than just romantic flourish.

Edyrn, son of Nodd, is the dastardly figure in “The Marriage of Geraint” who harboured affections for his cousin Enid which she did not return. Rejected and hurt he turns the entire town against her family, stealing most of their fortune and encouraging the residents to loot the rest. Geraint comes to save the day as Edyrn had the fortune of offending Queen Guinevere via her maid, who, in a friendly manner, tried to discover Edyrn’s identity from his rude and ugly dwarf servant. (Poor dwarfs. They rarely catch a break in these sort of tales.) As any Don Quixote reader should know the victor always orders the defeated foe to return to the offended lady to seek pardon (and stuff) and so Edyrn willingly does as, if there’s anything he understands it’s brute strength.

Naturally, he converts into a good God-fearing knight and dies in battle, so one is tempted to write him off. But he returns in returns in part two, “Geraint and Enid“, to tell Enid and therefore the reader what happened to him when he went to Camelot. As is characteristic of Tennyson (and needful in a poem, perhaps) he did not spend a lot of words on the matter but it was enough to provoke my sympathy and to bring in a darkness that, for a modern reader, is more general than Camelot’s inevitable doom because its apogee was wholly idealised and symbolic anyway.

But once you came,–and with your own true eyes
Beheld the man you loved (I speak as one
Speaks of a service done him) overthrow
My proud self, and my purpose three years old,
And set his foot upon me, and give me life.
There was I broken down; there was I saved:
Though thence I rode all-shamed, hating the life
He gave me, meaning to be rid of it.
And all the penance the Queen laid upon me
Was but to rest awhile within her court;
Where first as sullen as a beast new-caged,
And waiting to be treated like a wolf,
Because I knew my deeds were known, I found,
Instead of scornful pity or pure scorn,
Such fine reserve and noble reticence,
Manners so kind, yet stately, such a grace
Of tenderest courtesy, that I began
To glance behind me at my former life,
And find that it had been the wolf’s indeed

Enyrd’s frank acknowledgement of his past madness, as he called it, and present contentment is delivered in a matter-of-fact manner that made his situation more poignant and sympathetic. I was not so much focused on the lesson parcelled up in the Queen’s Christ-like, forgiving attitude but on Enyrd’s understandable shame and wretchedness in the face of such magnanimity. The chance to get to hear his side of things also gives his glorious death, as predicted in the previous poem, more resonance and saps some of its eye rolling cheesiness.

The next Roundtable Poem, “Balin and Balan“, features another suicidal knight, Balin “the Savage”. He had been exiled for 3 years from Camelot for killing a dude who had badmouthed him. You mess with Balin in a bad mood at your peril. Unlike Enyrd, Balin is less a predatory sparrow-hark — Enyrd’s nickname in his town — and more of a violent depressive fuck up, which I found to be pretty modern too. No evil fairies cursed him at birth or anything like that, Balin just seemed to suffer from a chemical imbalance that plagued him since birth and which grew into a paranoia; it’s a rare day, during his bad periods, when he doesn’t think everyone except his brother has a problem with him. (That bit of info, revealed by Balan, invites speculation that Balin’s first victim’s worst crime could have been looking at Balin a little too hard.)

Unfortunately for Balin there are no pills in Camelot. In its stead Tennyson offers weak-willed women. After a judicious test in which Arthur, disguised, defeats both brothers in single combat — a scene which Tennyson short changed two (two!) lines to the whole thing — he accepts both into Camelot and Balan to the Order of the Roundtable. Balin is resolved to cure himself of his self-destructive behaviour and “learn what Arthur meant by courtesy,/ Manhood, and knighthood”. Tennyson loves to set up terribly ironic situations so he has Balin look to Lancelot and Guinevere’s wonderfully devoted but entirely chaste relationship which inspires Lancelot to perform all kinds of magnificent deeds. Surely Guinevere, “the sunshine that hath given the man/A growth, a name that branches o’er the rest,/And strength against all odds, and what the King/So prizes–overprizes–gentleness” was the fitting symbol which he could use as a calming, restorative influence. In lieu of having a similar relationship with her he requests that she and the King only allow him to put her heraldry on his shield in place of the more savage one he sported.

One can’t help but think that Camelot, for all its glory, was populated with a lot of stupid men. They worship and place all their hope and ideals in men and women who are then raised to an impossible height from which they inevitably fall. (Arthur has yet to reveal any flaws but my theory is that he’s precursor of that alien the Raelians like to talk about. More on that later.) Balian is excused, for obvious reasons, but to me the whole lot of were just a set of blasphemous idol worshippers who God couldn’t wait to screw with. What does it mean when the eeeeeevil Vivien in the next poem is the one who offers the most sensible commentary on their hierarchy?

“This Arthur pure!
Great Nature through the flesh herself hath made
Gives him the lie! There is no being pure,
My cherub; saith not Holy Writ the same?”

Makes sense to me. More on Balin and the awesomeness of “Merlin and Vivien” later. Maybe. I might nap first and who knows how long that could take.

12 Responses to "Sunday Salon: “Jesus loves you.”"

Oh how I loved Arthurian romance when I was a teenager! I never went into the careful background reading you are doing, imani, but I did love the stories. I own a copy of Chretien de Troyes medieval French version of the myths, but I have to confess, and I hope you don’t think the worse of me for it, that my heart was won by Mary Stewart’s trilogy.

I was the same too, although with Tennyson’s specifically — I found the tv stuff too cheesy. I never did any background reading then either.😉 (I don’t think it would have occurred to me.) And of course I won’t think the worst of you.😉 You seem to forget that I was carrying around contemporary romances along with the Tennyson which deprives me of any superior position.

For me it’s the children/teenage literature that reflects the Arthurian legends. There’s all the 1970/80s stuff like the Susan Cooper and of course the wonderful ‘Box of Delights’ from much earlier, but there is also Philip Reeve’s new book, Here Lies Arthur’ which offers a very different take on the stories but still a most intriguing one.

I’ve read the Susan Cooper Dark is Rising series (isn’t it terrible what they did in the movie?) and, of course, I didn’t recognise that placing the Arthurian legends more prominently in a Welsh context was, in a way, bringing it closer to its roots.

I shall have a look at the Reeves.

Are you rereading Electric Michelangleo? Is it better the second time around. I wanted to love that book so much I often think about attempting to reread it.

Better? Ha! I’m just more circumspect now having learnt from previous experience what nonsense Hall can get up to.

Oh my God, I HAVE to check Lin out. That passage had me rolling and thinking of some folks I could pass it along to! I shy away from post-9/11 fiction, too, but that was wonderfully different.

I could have given you a lot more. I’m finding it difficult to pinpoint what Lin is doing that I find so good, besides going for absurd which isn’t very specific, but if you want your brain to be tapped slightly out of position (or wouldn’t mind it or are simply curious) I’d definitely suggest picking it up.

Imani, you might want to look at the stories in the Welsh Mabinogian–they are quite fresh and give a different characterization to Arthur (a young warrior who leads the rebellion against the invading Saxons) that is more in line with the “truthful” version (imho). The French appropriated the Arthurian legend hundreds of years later (i.e. after the oral traditions that began ca. 400 A.D.–the Mabinogian itself is a medieval text that records these stories). Chrétien de Troyes added things (including Lancelot and Guinevere) to bolster the current fashion of courtly love. But I don’t entirely blame him–the French court basically demanded that he do it.

Incidentally, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles are based on the Mabinogian as well.

Aha, that explains why I associated the stories with the French. I remember reading that Tolkien was rather dismissive of that element in the Arthurian myths, and that played a (probably minor) role in his urge to create a thoroughly British mythology.

And that’s how Lancelot and Guinny appeared. I saw what book you recommended on your blog about the Arthurian stuff — duly noted. Thanks for commenting!

Yup. And Malory tried to reclaim it from the French (in writing Le Morte D’Arthur) and Tennyson took his cues from Malory. The various versions of the mythologized Arthur tend to say more about the respective cultures and eras in which they appear than they do Arthur–but it’s really interesting to study. My personal favorite (and what got me into Arthurian and Celtic mythology as a kid) is Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle.

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