Sunday, February 6, 2011

save the raven

Turning over a book next to the washing machine I discover Stephen R. Lawhead's In the Hall of the Dragon King. It opens like this:

The new snow lay deep and undisturbed beneath the silver light of a dawning sky. Overhead, a raven surveyed a silent landscape as its black wings feathered the thin, cold air. The bird's rasping call was the only sound to be heard for miles, breaking the frozen solitude in irregular staccato. All around, the land lay asleep in the depths of winter.

Every bear, every fox, hare, and squirrel was warm in its rustic nest. Cattle and horses stood contentedly in their stalls, heads drooping in slumber, or quietly munching the first of the day's provender … The village, clustered close about the mighty walls of Askelon Castle, slept in pristine splendor, a princess safe in the arms of her protector.

All though the land nothing moved, nothing stirred, save the raven wheeling slowly overhead.

A tic, I noticed once, while I was convening a writers' group, a habit in some writers, to reassure the reader with diminutive and kindly words -- such an author will go out of their way to tell us that everything is small, tidy, quiet, warm, peaceful -- little is the word they like to use -- as if the audience might be frightened by anything large, rowdy, noisy -- and as if an author's duty is to issue comfort, to coddle -- and perhaps this is shyness, self-consciousness, panic, uncertainty,* a push and a pull between a writer's desire for exposure and a desire to stay silent and private -- fearing a reaction -- as if, sweetly, earnestly, they believe their words are so electrifying that they can't write about cattle in a stall without the reader rearing backwards, shocked -- "Cattle! Cattle! In a stall! Never!" -- "Yes, well," says the author, curling up and retreating with modest blushes, "they're not very exciting cattle and they won't hurt you -- look -- they're lovely and contented -- nice and warm -- and the nest of neighbour fox is pleasantly rustic; it's all very scenic, and the village is the cleanest village you've ever seen, pristine, you see, very swept and germless -- don't take this too seriously … it's not as frightening as you think … very tame very friendly cattle … they eat sugar."

A different book sees the houses clustering around the hips of Askelon Castle and retorts:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of those hovels laid hold of the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock.

(The writing starting at a single point, a seed, the castle, the word itself, "Gormenghast," from which the whole book grows, beginning there and groping outward, growing branches, details of twigs and rootlets, the progress of an organism; and the castle itself, the object, has an organic rather than sharply architectural shape.) Lawhead has a narrative motive for his contenteds and pristines, of course: he is pitting his sleepy landscape against the raven, foreboding and doomful, "breaking" everything, and making the world messy and disordered, "irregular," rather than actually dangerous, a domesticated view of evil as a breed of mucky puppy; and the medieval fantasy village sounds more like a tidy family room than anything else. But I enjoy descriptive preambles. They're the decompression chambers of novels; they let the air out of your mind and fill it with new air, this unknotting of self-consciousness a storyteller's device, a way of trying to detatch the reader from the critical mindset that might say, "This is only fiction, this is invented, this is trivial, this means nothing." Here is the gossipy start of the story, but slow, slower than gossip, soothing, serious, cajoling, saying, "See this, the importance of this thing we are about to do together is that I make you look …" and behind the hand, mutely, "but I will be your eyes, your only eyes, and as you read this preamble I will substitute my eyes for yours -- and I, who can never read this book, because I was the one who wrote it, and the relationship between the two of us, book and author, is not the relationship of a reader to a printed page -- I will try to become you, I wish I could be you, I wrote this book in order to be you, who is visiting it ignorantly for the first time -- O reader! --" an attempt that is never successful.

* or a battle against propriety. "I was brought up to believe that it was wrong to push one's ideas on other people," frets the author. "But isn't that what I'm doing, writing like this? Telling them to believe in snow and castles, is this rude? Will they hate me? I should dial it down a bit."

My favourite preambles, off the top of my head: Radcliffe's Udolpho, Stead's The People With the Dogs, Manzoni's The Betrothed, and John Crowley's Little, Big, which starts like this:

On a certain day in June, 19--, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn't ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

ZMKC in the comments suggests the first chapter of Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native, which I will link to now, because it's terrific.

The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind. And ultimately, to the commonest tourist, spots like Iceland may become what the vineyards and myrtle gardens of South Europe are to him now; and Heidelberg and Baden be passed unheeded as he hastens from the Alps to the sand dunes of Scheveningen.

The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to wander on Egdon--he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend. Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like this.

It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man's nature--neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities ...


  1. I don't think Gormenghast and that other thing are comparable though - it's like looking at Midsomer Murders within the context of King Lear. And Midsomer Murders type entetainments do deal more in coziness than anything else. It's the scenic cuteness viewers/readers are tuning in/turning the page for. I realised that when I once recorded a Midsomer Murders and found, when I discovered the end was missing on the tape, that I didn't care at all. I'd got what I wanted - flowery hanging baskets, people riding about on bicycles with wicker baskets et cetera et cetera.
    Re preambles, I haven't read Return of the Native in decades, but I seem to remember that that had a wonderful almost cinematic preamble, starting with the novelistic equivalent of a long shot over Egdon Heath, slowly moving in to a single figure in the landscape. I haven't got a copy of the book, so I can't check, but I recall liking it very much.

  2. I agree, they're not comparable. Peake absolutely wipes and scrubs the floor with him. It was the contrast between those two sets of houses around their two castles that hit me when I read that first page of Dragon King -- one set so shiny-neat, one so ramshackle and dark -- in fact the shadowed irregularity that Lawhead gives to his evil raven, Peake gives to his whole setting, and the pristine snowy polish in Peake goes to Steerpike, who gets to fill the role of a dynamic villain, Milton's Satan.

    (I'm only guessing that the Lawhead raven is evil, because I haven't read past that point in the book, but I'm going on the assumption that it's probably a spy for the wicked Whoever, who probably wants to rule the world, or the kingdom, or destroy everything with an army of the undead, or of dragons, or eat the princess. I might be wrong. Maybe it just symbolises Villainy and Dirt and Trouble.)

    I'm looking up Return of the Native on Project Gutenberg. Oh nice. "Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor. The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread ..."

  3. It's better even than I remember.