Sunday 30 June 2024

May-June Miscellany 2024

Naomi Mitchison,  The Corn King and Spring Queen

Can't say I was as taken by this as False Patrick, but still very good. It's an interesting comparison with (say) some of the character work of Rose Macaulay or the pre-occupations of some of C.S. Lewis's lesser known stuff. There's also probably a big wedge of Bloomsbury Group in there that I'm too uptight and square to properly grok. 

Comparisons aside, this thing is rich. Rich interior lives, rich in its extensive cast, generous in the scope of the plot, rich in description: it reads as the work of someone who has done things with their hands often enough to know about sewing or ploughing or hunting or dancing what have you - rather than the perspective of someone who only knows plate armour through a video game. 


Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars

I've had this for ages, but only just got round to reading it. Well worth it, and quite digestible. The photographic plates help. It's clearly a standout work in its field - Cf. what Wikipedia says as a general assessment - and I see why it was referenced in my university courses. 

Should you read it? Well, I think that if you're an Anglosphere type with an interest (academic or practical) in your history and culture, reading a few chapters from the first half would be very worthwhile - for religious ignorance reasons gestured at in some of my recent work. If you've read any proper history you can spot Duffy's focus and/or agenda, but that's not necessarily important. 


Lucan's Civil War or Pharsalia

Almost finished this at time of writing. Not one of the more prominent classical epics, but an interesting read all the same. Part of this is the subject matter: the clash of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great after the former crosses the Rubicon. Familiar territory, even fictionalised - but not in the conventions of the epic. The civil war angle is not neglected, and the tragedy of events is clear. Added to this is the fact that it is describing real battles and troop movements, and largely leaves out Divine intervention, makes it rather interesting to compare with Virgil or Homer.

All that said, there are some thoroughly sensational moments. A carefully described reading of the entrails in Book One, a consultation of a Thessalian witch, Cato's army harassed by snakes. Is this the B-Movie of Classical epics? (Probably not.)

Another consideration is that Lucan was writing in the early days of the Emperor Nero. There's some praise for his ancestor Julius, though however potent Caesar is, Pompey gets the more enduring praise. 

'Pharsalia', incidentally, is the name of a battle between Caesar and Pompey in northern Greece, in the region around the town of Pharsalus (now Farsala). So I suppose you could call Lucan's Civil War something like The Battle of Pharsal County (which sounds rather American) or The Clash of Farsalmark (for something faintly Nordic). 

I read the translation by Susan H. Braund, but I've been comparing material elsewhere - including the Early Modern rhyming version by Sir Arthur Gorges, which may be found here.


Celine and Julie go Boating, dir. Jacques Rivette, 1974

Have you ever wanted to see what would happen if someone took late-period Tim Powers and made it significantly more French? Well, here's a good place to start. The mix of a contemporary setting and a supernatural house is arresting and well-executed - once you've got into the groove of the film.


Metropolitan, dir. Whit Stillman, 1990

Utterly unseasonal, though I didn't know that when I picked it up. A curiously touching film, though this is in part perhaps the result of living in a young city while being less than aged myself. There's some interesting currents in it - and I suspect the use of the tune to Luther's hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott is no mistake.


The Mark of Zorro, dir. Rouben Mamoulian, 1940

Starring Tyrone Power. You don't need me to tell you this is good or influential and I won't try to comment on the sword fights. Other people can do that. 

What I think makes this worthy of note - and it's something I don't see discussed to the same degree - is the elements of disguise and secret identity. Don Diego Vega - the man they call Zorro - is deliberately concealing his motives and character, making himself into a ridiculous, useless fop. There are good reasons to do this, and Vega clearly has or had some frivolous facets to his character - but unlike Robin Hood concealing himself or the various versions of Bruce Wayne that have appeared on the screen, this is painful or costly in ways that aren't seen elsewhere. His father is openly contemptuous of him, his mother loves him but in a somewhat disinterested way, his old teacher barks at him and he must humiliate himself in front of his love interest and the villain. High literature this isn't, but the willingness to put a distinct social (psychological?) cost on his subterfuge gives this a bit more weight (Cf. Christian Bale getting to have his cake and eat it too as both playboy and vigilante).

Dr Syn dealt with this from time to time as well, though there things are complicated by the Vicar of Dymchurch's dark past. 


There's a poem of C.S. Lewis I encountered recently. It doesn't really apply to my post on Saturn, but it's certainly adjacent to the whole matter.

Anyway, from 'La Roi S'Amuse':

Jove gazed
On woven mazes
Of patterned movement as the atoms whirled.
His glance turned
Into dancing, burning
Colour-gods who rushed upon that sullen world,
Waking, re-making, exalting it anew –
Silver and purple, shrill-voiced yellow, turgid crimson, and virgin blue.

(Cue for music.)

It's a complex bit of rhyming, tricky to read aloud. Find the rest here


Sinjin - a new piece of work by Mateo Diaz Torres, who did Pilgrim. Again, available on Black and white artwork from a variety of artists.


A century ago, the Black Heron College performed an experiment into the nature of Death and caused a great disaster. The site of this catastrophe came to be known as The Saint John Forbidden Territory.   

A hundred by hundred yawning miles of sawgrass, palmetto hammock, winding river, and overrun industry—all reclaimed by the Dead. In the territory, the land forgets itself, geography flexing and twisting like a straining muscle, the progression of days stuttering and jumping like a broken zoetrope.  

You are a freelance exorcist, compelled or driven to enter the Territory. You wield the remnants of Death's instruments: arts and tools left over from Her now-unfinished work. It is your duty to carry on against the growing disaster. The depths spread, and the Dead stand against you.  Put them back in their graves.

No Appendix N provided, but I would agree with other reviewers in detecting the influence of Garth Nix's Old Kingdom books and Annihilation. Though the overgrown sprawling abandoned Louisiana buildings of season 1 of True Detective kept springing to mind. Southern Gothic abounds. 

The territory itself is a limited space that keeps changing. As a region, it's probably no bigger than a county - but, as above, it contorts. The fixed landmarks are the same, but the connecting elements will shift - as will the climate. There's something of Darkest Dungeon in this, in which an opulent and imperial mansion has an improbable number of rooms. Indeed, it would be interesting to have something like a quartet of Sinjin-esque regions one could enter.

Sinjin is worth your time - though there's something that caught my eye. The setting is '19th century pastiche not-Florida' - there's the implication of a state outside it, and several regions are mentioned, including the San Serafin of Torres's New Barbary setting. This has the side effect of making me think of what lies outside Sinjin. The organisations that send you into the territory are these slightly-too parallel groups of exorcists. 

Part of me itches for...well, A) a sketch of geopolitics and cultural shockwaves and B) asymmetry. To explain on the latter - the differences and clashes between groups and styles in the territory: professional and amateur, government and private, religious and secular, cautious and imprudent. But this is a very particular issue and should not put anyone else off.

1 comment:

  1. Pharsalia: The snake chapters are one of the finest and earliest fantasy-body-horror sequences, only outdone (and namechecked) by Dante. A Monster Manual before its time.
    Zorro: Suggests a division of hero cover-identities into "Bruces" and "Clarks"?