Thursday, September 30, 2021

Retelling stories: The song of Achilles, by Madeline Millar.

Looking aslant at how other people retell famous stories  #2.  It's what Eliot called workshop criticism. Not so much 'reviewing' in this case as using some one else's work to critique your own and hopefully avoiding what another critic called 'a veiled self-indictment'. 

Eliot's presence is not mere name dropping; The Song of Achilles evokes Eliot's 'Mr. Pound's hell is a hell for other people.' which was his criticism of Pound's Hell Cantos.

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller.

I suspect that this book and Barker's 'The Silence of the Girls' (see previous post) prove that retelling some stories kills them.

Stripped to its bare bones, The Iliad is the story of two brutal thugs fighting over a brutalised girl in the tenth year of a brutal war that has been watched over by Gods who would look immature in a kindergarten. The poem works because of what it does with that material, and at least in translation, seems fully aware of both the terror and attraction of war, the complexity of its characters, and the terrible human cost of 'heroism'. Heroic poetry might pretend to be realistic reporting from the front line, but it never was. Even Homer notes his heroes belonged to a past which dwarfs his present. 

I don't pretend to know The Iliad that well. I only read the whole thing recently when I was doing research for A Presentment of Englishry and realised the characters in the Brut would have the stories from the Iliad and the Aeneid in their bones.  

I'd always assumed Achilles and Patroclus were lovers but that didn't stop Achilles from using Briseis as his mattress. He's not nice or likeable in any way; he's terrifying in the extremes of his behaviour.  And while Patroclus, who I thought was the older of the two, showed some compassion for his wounded comrades, one of the most memorable images in all its gallery of graphic slaughter is this one:


Patroclus rising beside him stabbed his right jawbone

ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard

he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot rail

hoisted, dragged the Trojan out as an angler perched

on a jutting rock ledge drags some fish from the sea

some noble catch, with line and glittering bronze hook.

So with a spear Patroclus gaffed him off his car,

his mouth gaping round the glittering point

and flipped him down facefirst

dead as he fell, his life breath blown away. (trans Robert Fagles)


Visualise that image. 

Or in Christopher Logue's version:

As easily as later men/ Disengage a sardine from a tin.

which is so good. 

Retell the Iliad, or any famous or well-known story, and the original characters and their actions are going to be ghosting in the background.   

‘The Song of Achilles’ seems to be split in two. In the first half Thetis and Chiron are memorable creations and Miller evokes the god shadowed world of palace culture, even if at times the narrator seems to see his own culture from the outside.   


The first half sets up an intriguing tension its source. In Book 16 of the poem, Patroclus will fight heroically and die trying to scale the walls of Troy, alone. He's so successful he's only stopped by Apollo. If he doesn’t learn how to fight, how will he slaughter so many Trojans, including Zeus’ son? How will he narrate his own death; will the story go on from there? Is he already dead and telling the story in retrospect? Who is he telling this story to? Why is he telling the story? The tension created by these questions are part of the strength of the first half of the book.


Then the narrative moves to Troy and it’s as though we’re suddenly in a version of the Hunger Games or Divergent. The Trojan war sounds like an fun adventure, inconvenient at times but mostly picnics and swims and burgeoning relationships, with happy kind hearted work healing  the wounded and sick. If you can ignore the nasty people in your team, it’s all very nice. 

Thetis spoils things a bit as the disproving adult but our sympathies are not with her. It's not entirely clear why she disproves of Patroclus, or why Achilles loves him. Or in what particular way Achilles is admirable or loveable as a person? Agamemnon is once again reduced to a cardboard cut out no army would follow.   

The only thing that matters is that Achilles doesn’t kill Hector, because if he does, Achilles will die soon after and that would make Patroclus sad. It doesn't seem a good reason to make a war last ten years. It seems almost intolerably selfish. 


As the quote above suggests, ‘Homer’ never flinched from the nastiness of combat. Deaths tend to be detailed and rarely if ever anonymous. There was nothing nice about the Trojan war.


But this story doesn’t just flinch, it looks away. 


The war takes place ‘over there’. To make Patroclus and Achilles into fictional heroes for current fashions, so much of the story has to be reworked. Put a modern sensibility down in the Trojan war, the war would be intolerable. The killing is up close and personal, women are treated as sex toys. The heroes of the poem would be dysfunctional in modern society. Make the Trojan war tolerable for a modern reader, and you do strange things to the war. 


Even when Patroclus is slaughtering Trojans in his final day, (having only killed one person, by accident, in the whole book) it’s not really him that’s doing it. He might be killing Trojan after Trojan (with one exception they are anonymous) but he avoids responsibility. He’s just getting carried away; maybe it’s the armour that’s doing it. He's a nice boy really and gaffing someone off a cart and laughing at someone's death throes is not our boy. Achilles kills huge numbers but they are a test of his skill and anonymous. He kills with the indifference of a WW1 machine gunner cutting down faceless rows of enemy soldiers at a distance. Day after day.


The reworking of Briseis is probably the strangest shift in the story. Taking away the nastiness of the original allows our heroes to be kind and considerate, and allows Patroclus to have a friend in the camp and a potential wife. They have picnics together while everyone else is off fighting. You know you’ve entered a weird version of the story when Patroclus and Achilles are ’saving’ captured Trojan women. They give them their own tent, teach them Greek, and some find husbands eventually amongst the Greeks and that’s nice for them, isn’t it. 


Briseis has a crush on P. But P is faithful to A. And then you read: ‘Achilles stayed away. He knew they [the captured women] had seen him killing their brothers, lovers and fathers. Some things could not be forgiven’. (219) Why would he want their forgiveness? Or care? He is happy for Greeks to die en masse to make a point about his honour, or to kill anonymous Trojans en masse cos that’s his day job, but he doesn’t want to hurt the feelings of some captive women? What kind of disconnected person is he? 


P’s ‘saving of Briseis’ after she has been seized by Agamemnon is very strange. He tells Agamemnon that if he has sex with her, Achilles will be justified in killing him. And in fact it's a set up and this is Achilles’ plan. And...I almost gave up. But I didn’t. 

The famous 'Rage of Achilles' now reads like the peevishness of a spoilt adolescent, who runs to his mummy when things aren't going his way. The scene with Priam, which is one of the reasons you read the Iliad, is not that important to our narrator. Despite the constant reminder that he is 'half God', Achilles, stripped of his outrageous extravagance, becomes...? 


Our heroes are like well-behaved adolescents on a school camp. The war is a picnic interrupted by messy injuries to other people. Diomedes and Ajax and the others are brutal. But they are other. There are rapes in the camp. But they are committed by others.  The death of Briseis and the fall of Troy are brought about by Achilles' twelve year old son who is a card board cut out of a nasty piece of work. Bad people do the bad things. Hell is a place for other people.

And at the end the lovers die happily ever after and are reunited in Hades. Which if it's anything like the place Odysseus visits later on, isn't really the happy ending it pretends to be.

Overall, there's a tension in the story between the realised god haunted world of Ancient Greece, and the modern sensibility of the one dimensional central characters during the war. The tension splits the book in two halves. 

I wonder if this is symptomatic of a contemporary trend in treating the distant past. It seems to belong with the idea that Vikings were sexy. And perhaps any kind of moral ambiguity or complexity isn't possible in fiction any more. 

This isn't meant to be a review of The Song of Achilles. It's a fantasy novel with a pre fabricated setting. And if you like adolescent fantasy novels, this is a well-written one. But I wonder if anything is gained by setting your fantasy in the distant past if you're going to transport modern characters and modern sensibilities back into that setting, because so much gets lost.


Monday, September 20, 2021

History and Fiction in Laȝamon's Brut 2/3



(for 'History' see previous post)


So Laȝamon isn’t writing modern History. That’s not really surprising. ‘History’ was split decisively from ‘fiction’ over a century ago, but ‘written fiction’ is just as artificial a construct as ‘history’.


Everyone tells stories from the time they can talk. But ‘fiction’ is conventional. And the rules governing it are as artificially made and as historically contingent as the rules governing the writing of ‘history’.


A modern fictional character is a proper noun, with a cluster of attributes and actions. In modern fiction the attributes and actions should be motivated and consistent. Would-be novelists are advised to ‘know their characters’, to work out ‘the back story’, to creat lists of likes and dislikes, even if these won’t appear in the novel.  Apparent inconsistency is risky but permissible, if the narrative explains the inconsistency. 

One of the underlying fictions of both history and fiction is that humans are rational and their actions are coherent, motivated and understandable by a third party. 


Which brings us back to Vortigern as Laȝamon presents him. 


Laȝamon makes no attempt to supply Vortigern with motivation. He flashes onto the screen as a fully-fledged power hungry villain . He’s ready to do anything to get it. That I could cope with. His past, what makes him who he is, is a blank. I can cope with that too though I find myself shading it in as I go along. 


But once he’s in power the story becomes difficult. There’s nothing unusual in his willingness to hire Germanic mercenaries. This was standard Imperial practice. 


But then we come to the story of Thongcaester and how Hengist the mercenary tricks Vortigern into giving him land. 

When Hengist asks for land, initially, sensibly, Vortigern refuses the request, knowing his people will object if he gives land to the pagan Hengist. Hengist then asks Vortigern to grant him as much land as can be covered by a bull’s hide and oblivious to what’s coming, Vortigern agrees. When he’s found his ideal spot, Hengist has the bull’s hide cut into a single unbroken thong which allows him to map out a large plot of land where he builds Thongcaester.


At which point you’d expect any real, hard-headed military leader to have said, listen here, chummy, that’s not what I meant and you know it. But our man doesn’t. He just accepts it. It feels like the narrative has been conscripted by one of the Clever Hans type folk tales you find in the Grimm’s collections. 


Hengist now sends for his wife and daughter. The wife is never mentioned again. But the daughter is trouble. We are now asked to believe that having allowed himself to be cheated out of land, Vortigern is going to jeopardise everything he’s worked for, to get his hands on a pretty girl. I don’t buy it. I see no reason why the leader of a group of mercenaries wouldn’t marry his daughter to his boss as part of family politics. But such a business transaction should have been hedged around with conditions. Blind Freddy can see that making your servant your father in law shifts the power balance in a dangerous direction. 


Nor does it make sense that Vortigern doesn’t insist she convert to Christianity first. It’s not as though he’d be waiting for her to take a theological degree. We’re asked to believe that he’s so besotted with her that he can’t wait to get her into bed and therefore skips the whole Christian marriage ceremony, although he must know it will annoy his British subjects and alienate the Church, which will not (then or now) accept the union as binding. He also gives away Kent as her bride price which is also guaranteed to infuriate both its current owner and his supporters. 

I want to know how the original audience responded to this. 

And that will take us to the observation that something odd is happening in these stories with implications that go far beyond my interest in this narrative.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Vortigern: history, fiction and the strange relationship between the imagined and the known. 1/3

Part one of three.


I’ve finished the first draft of the story of Vortigern. And I’m still nagging away at what I can learn by trying to rewrite a medieval story. I’ve tracked the story of Vortigern and how it changes from Gildas, via Nennius to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace, to Laȝamon. (see previous posts on Vortigern)

Chapter one of my ‘versioning’ appeared in Long Poem Magazine, chapter two, three and four in the Brazen Head. 

To make the story work as a modern narrative, I’ve had to make changes. It’s the reasons for these that intrigue me.

But the more I do this, the more I’m beginning to believe that while there are obvious differences between the middle ages and now, if you strip away the technology, sometimes the differences are not as profound as they first seem.  

Take the twin ideas of ‘History’ and ‘Fiction’. It’s obvious twelfth century writers didn’t treat these ideas the same way we do. But then, who is the ‘we’ in that sentence. 

‘History’ revisited.

Laȝamon’s version of history, like all the other Medieval writers in my list, is a record of individuals and their actions. The Picts attack Britain because Vortigern betrayed them. Roman Britain falls because Vortigern can’t control his lust for Hengist’s daughter. 

A modern Historian might explain the fifth century in terms of ideology and economics, as the inevitable result of internal and external pressures working on a weakened western empire. They will debate migrations, elite take overs, continuity vs change etc. They are unlikely to look to the actions of a single individual for explanations.

Which brings home the nature of ‘History’ as a modern discipline. For all its basis in facts and evidence, it is still an attempt to narrate the past, but to narrate it in order to know it in a peculiar way. If it ever succeeds, ‘it’ will ‘know’ the fifth century in a way no one living in it ever did. Firstly because the fractured, localised experience of life in the fifth century cannot compete with the Historian’s overview. The written materials that do survive were written by people who could only write what they knew and what they knew was limited. 

Secondly, modern technology can measure time to a Zepto second: That's a decimal point followed by 20 zeroes and a 1, and it looks like this: 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 001. It’s unlikely that anyone is aware of time passing in such small increments. A modern ‘History’ of the fifth Century in Britain often seems to be based on the assumption that the past can be known with such objective precision. We have DNA testing, increasingly sophisticated dating techniques etc.etc. which leads to an increasing unwillingness to accept anything unless ‘scientifically proven’. And in extreme cases the strange attitude that says since there’s no evidence for roaming war bands in the archeological evidence there were no roaming war bands. 

But just as you can’t remember a zeptosecond that occurred last week, people living through the fifth century responded to what they thought they knew, not to the objective ‘truth’ of the situation. Modern 'history' may well prove them all to be deluded, and their writers were mistaken, exaggerating, or lying but that won't help us understand them. 

And before we dismiss Laȝamon’s approach as ‘medieval’ it would be instructive to compare his treatment of Vortigern with journalistic treatments of the recent Trump Presidency, or of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, or even Scott Morrison. (I’m not going to do that, reading about these gentlemen is depressing enough without spending more time thinking about them than necessary.)  

Power, politics and current events are presented by the modern news media in terms of personalities. The systems that made a Mr. Trump or Mr. Johnson inevitable are rarely discussed. Their personality, actions, words are. Laȝamon and his audience would be completely at home. 

And (#2) before we dismiss the medieval writer for his willingness to include the obviously fantastical or irrational, some of the vociferous responses to the Government’s attempts to get everyone vaccinated against Covid might qualify the idea that we are living in a more rational age.

For most people ‘History’ as a discipline is something they brushed against at school. It’s not the way they think about the present or the past. 

And watching the state governments respond to the threat of Covid-19 in Australia, I’m not convinced that the actions and choices of the individual players aren’t capable of affecting history. 

In the next post, Fiction medieval and modern. 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

'The Silence of the Girls' by Pat Barker. A review of sorts.

Looking at how other people retell old stories.


Sometimes it’s impossible to read the blurb on a book without wondering if you’ve read the same book as the gushing reviewers.  


This book is a mess and I don’t understand why it’s received so much praise.


if you’re going to retell the most famous story in European literature, from the perspective of a minor but significant character, the end result should at least give us an insight into that character, and reposition the story so the reader sees it differently. Whether intentional or not, it’s going to offer a critical reading of the original text. All the other retellings, critiques and rearrangements of this story from Herodutus onwards are ghosting in the background and should be holding the writer and critic to account.


How dim witted would you be in the 21st century, if you read the Iliad and didn’t realise it’s a brutal story set in a brutal world where brutal men do brutal things? And perhaps more problematic, how badly would you misread the poem if you thought it isn’t aware of this or thought it presented Achilles as a two dimensional marvel comic hero? 


Retelling the story from the perspective of Briseis creates its own technical problems. Much of the Iliad happens where she can’t see it. An Iliad without Hector. While we must sympathise with her situation, that’s not the same as finding her character interesting or believable. A modern sensibility imported into the past simply proves how intolerable the past would be for a modern sensibility: the harder task, to evoke an ancient mindset, done honestly, would present an intolerable character. Barker’s Briseis is not quite one or the other. 


Rather than retell the story entirely from Briseis' POV, Barker has her cake and eats it by switching the POV, from first person limited to third person omniscient. This seems to defeat the purpose and flips the narrative to a dull retelling. 


Christopher Logue’s great insight into this poem was that the characters are not modern players in fancy dress. There’s nothing remotely modern or romantic about the story. Barker wavers. 


The writing has been applauded, but the way the men are represented as a cross between the rugby team after too many beers and a parody of 1970s bovver boys is two dimensional. The dialogue is leaden. The moments of high drama in the story, the speeches, debates, insults, are flat. This doesn’t seem like  deliberate deflation of the heroic. 


It also feels as if the reader is being invited to participate in an insane debate.


Which is worse, to be forced to fight and be hacked to death by Achilles or forced to have sex with him? To kiss the hand of your son’s killer, as Priam does, begging for his son’s body, or to be forced to do ‘what countless women before me have been forced to do? I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.’ 

Is there a point in establishing a hierarchy of awfulness? When neither seems like a choice anyone would make if they could avoid it? In a sane world, no one would have to suffer either fate. The story world of the Iliad is not sane by modern standards.


There’s also an unpleasant ghost of a love story drifting the book. By the end she’s fond of Achilles and sad he’s dead. I suspect the original might have thought this; he was the best a bad situation could offer. But it seems to soften the outrage. The need for uplift at the end in a popular book dilutes the real horror of the situation, which is stated in B's summing up at the same time it’s being qualified. 


And despite the attempt to tell this story from her point of view, this is still, as both narrator and author recognise, the story of Achilles. But it has nothing new to say about him.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Translating 'The Mabinogion'. The story teller's strengths and weaknesses

Plodding onwards, now in Ystoria Gereint Uab Erbin,  I am still in awe of the story teller’s skill. 

He walks such a fine line between a minimalist narration that would be the envy of Raymond Carver and notes for a story he hasn’t written.  


Here’s the incident that kick starts the story ‘Gerient Son of Erbin’. The quotes are taken from Sioned Davies' impressive translation.

A forester has approached Arthur at the feast, and after the formal greetings:


‘Tell us your news’ said Arthur.

‘I will Lord,’ he said. ‘A stag have I seen in the forest and I have never seen anything like it.’

‘What is it about it for you never to have seen anything like it?’ said Arthur

‘It is pure white, lord, and it does not walk with any other animal out of arrogance and pride because it is so majestic. And it is to ask you advice lord, that have I come. What is your advice in the matter?”

‘I shall do the most appropriate thing,’ said Arthur, ‘and go and hunt it tomorrow at dawn; and let everyone in the lodgings know that, and Rhyferys (who was a chief hunstman of Arhtur’s) and Elifri (who was the chief squire) and everyone else’.


The speech isn’t ‘described’. The same verb is used every time. The speaker is identified, but how he (or she in other instances) speaks is left to the audience. ‘Tell us your news’ said Arthur. Bluntly? In a resigned tone? In an authoritarian manner? 

It’s up to you. 


At times there is no need to indicate who is being spoken to. ‘Let everyone know’ is obviously not addressed to the forester. But ‘Arthur turned to his court officials and said’ would be redundant. 


There’s no description of what’s happening in the background during the conversation either. Nor is there any description of Arthur’s reaction, but I think you can hear him lean forward, suddenly paying attention at ‘I have never seen anything like it’. And you can hear the courtiers nearby voicing their approval when after ‘the most appropriate thing’ Arthur says ‘I will go and hunt it’. 


The style invites the audience in and asks it to participate, but also gives it the freedom to make it its own. 


I like this very much. It reminds me of the best of the traditional ballads, where everything that isn’t essential has been stripped out. You could argue that it produces too much ambiguity? Is Arthur bored or annoyed or excited? And the answer is probably that it’s not as important as what he says. You could argue that the style is the product of an exterior world, and we live in one that likes to pretend it has access to intention, character and emotion. And a great deal of modern fiction is based on the convention that the writer not only can but in some ways is obliged to tell you what the character/s is/are thinking. But it’s one of literary fictions more dubious charactersitics.


I'm at the editing end of the current writing project.  The next part of A Presentment of Englishry is almost finished. I’m weighing up how much I can cut out. I’d like to follow the medieval method, but I suspect most modern audiences would not be happy with such a minimalist approach. 


On the other hand. 


I’m not so enamoured by the story-teller’s habit of describing what people are wearing. This happens to a greater or lesser extent across all the stories I’ve translated so far, and I’m beginning to assume there will be curly auburn hair, tunics and surcoats, brocaded silk and boots of Cordovan leather. 



The Forester who speaks above is described as:


A tall auburn haired lad, wearing a tunic and surcoat of ribbed brocaded silk, and a gold hilted sword  around his neck, and two low boots of Spanish leather about his feet.


60 lines later, Gereint is described on his first appearance in almost identical terms, when he’s seen by Gwenhwyuar and her maid as they are trying to catch up with Arthur and the hunt. 


A young bare-legged, auburn-haired noble squire with a gold hilted sword on his thigh, wearing a tunic and surcoat of brocaded silk with two low boots of Spanish leather on his feet and a mantle of blue purple over that with a golden apple in each corner.   


You’d be forgiven for thinking the story has just got interesting and the forester is riding after Gwenhwyuar. Instead it’s an encounter with one of the story teller’s limitations. 


But they tend not to outweigh his strengths.