Saturday, May 19, 2012

Arthur Rex

I've long been a fan of tales about King Arthur, and I've read everything from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and T.H. White's magnificent The Once and Future King, to Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. In high school I wrote a research paper about Tintagel, the castle on the coast of Cornwall considered to be the model for Camelot.

So I'm pleased to report that Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex is a worthy addition to the pantheon. With a dash of humor (for example, telling us that the original name of Camelot was Cameliard) he spells out the philosophical and humanistic implications of Arthur's bold experiment of the Round Table, in which there is no hierarchy, and men-at-arms forswear combat for its own sake, adopting instead the rules of chivalry, setting aside blood-feuds. They pledge their lives and honor to defending the weak and upholding right, fighting fairly and holding no grudges.

Spoiler alert (if you know nothing of King Arthur and his knights): Here is a passage near the end, in which Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine fight each other to the death. Gawaine, having learned that Launcelot, defending Guinevere's honor, slew all his brothers, feels he must fight him:
  "And if Sir Gawaine was victorious, he had no brothers left but the vile Mordred, and the Round Table was shattered forever. And perhaps the best thing he could do for his sons was to give them an example by dying nobly. Now this was the first time that Sir Gawaine had ever thought in this fashion, for he had loved his life in all its phases.
  "Whereas Sir Launcelot, who had always hated life and wanted to die, now that he was bleeding to death he began to think otherwise, for actually dying is not so romantic as is thinking about death when one is invincible, and Launcelot had never been in real danger before in his life. Therefore he began to see himself in a new light, and he came to think that his invincibility might be a myth, and that he had previously overwhelmed his enemies because they were half-conquered by the myth before they met him."

Thus, even in the tragic circumstance of these two great knights battling to destroy one another, Berger makes tongue-in-cheek observations that set one to nodding over that most human of tendencies - to change one's mind.

Near the end of the battle against his bastard son Mordred, in which all his knights but one perish, Arthur laments to the Lady of the Lake:
  "I would ask why you attended me only in the beginning of my reign and thereafter no more? And methinks you led Merlin away as well, leaving me altogether without magical counsel. Lady, I could have used some! For 'twas reality that brought me down, and I had no defense against it."
  "King Arthur," said the Lady of the Lake, who was gleaming in white samite, "the passions are not real, but rather fantastic. Thou couldst not have done better than thou didst."
  "Yet," said King Arthur, "was I wise to tolerate the friendship between Launcelot and Guinevere for so many years? I know that I thereby connived in a Christian sin."
  "Address me not in Christian sentiments," said the Lady of the Lake, "the which I find too coarse for fine kings. Thine obligation was to maintain power in as decent a way as would be yet the most effective, and a Camelot without Guinevere, a Round Table without Launcelot, were inconceivable, as would be an Arthur who put to death his best friend and his queen. All human beings must perform according to their nature."
  Now King Arthur did wonder at this speech, and he said, "Then the will is not free? And can we not choose to be either good or evil, but are selected for whichever?"
  "This is the wrong question," said the Lady of the Lake, "being political and not concerned with the truth. And do not chide me for abandoning thee, my dear Arthur, for I am here now..." 

By upholding the traditions of otherworldly magic and all-too-worldly temptation and struggle, Berger has written a fair and humorous accounting of a beloved tale. Read and enjoy!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Faulkner's "The Bear"

Faulkner's "The Bear"

This not-so-short story contains the major players, history, longing and roots of the American South: slavery with its corruption of slaveholders; war and its aftermaths; the Indian lineage which predated and outlasted slavery and yet vanished into the maw of modernity; and wilderness itself, shrunk and compromised by greed and settlement yet still potent, still the strongest of all forces and entities.

Isaac (Ike) McCaslin links these worlds, straddles them all. As a boy his spirit father is the solitary Indian Sam Fathers, obtained as a slave yet never answering to anyone except at will, who teaches him wood-lore then releases him into wilderness where his understanding surpasses all other white men's and black men's, matched only by Sam Fathers himself.

The bear itself is a totem, predator and prey, of wilderness. The men hunt it because conquest is in their nature. The bear eludes them because it is wild, and wildness is stronger than civilization. As a boy Ike encounters it only after he leaves his rifle back at the hunting camp, then finally abandons his compass and watch too - they meet only on the bear's terms.

As a man he argues the history of the South with his cousin McCaslin (Cass) Edmonds, his father in the ways of his white race though not his equal in understanding the guilt they bear toward those once enslaved. Even after 1865, that burden of bondage and debt owns the generations and governs their acts. The blood between races, both in spilling and begetting, holds them in tense inseparability, as does their labor: "...cotton - the two threads frail as truth and impalpable as equators yet cable-strong to bind for life them who made the cotton to the land their sweat fell on..." (p 279, Go Down, Moses; Vintage Books c 1942).

He spins in generality the upsurgence of the KKK to preserve "the Southern way of life"; in specifics he gives us Ike's white uncle who held for safekeeping the boy's inheritance till he'd turn 21, at which point Ike unwraps the silver cup filled with gold pieces to discover a snowfall of IOU's and a shiny tin coffeepot holding a few coppers, his fortune eroded by the old man's vices. The black son of this constellation refuses to touch the money left to him instead of paternity; the white son receives his - except that it's been squandered. Sam Fathers too, with his slave mother, has been betrayed by his father, to Carothers McCaslin (the white patriarch): "for both of whom he had swapped an underbred trotting gelding to old Ikkemotubbe, the Chickasaw chief from whom he had likewise bought the land..." (p. 249, ibid.). Belief in the greater value of money has trammeled the old deep patrimony of the land itself, the pride and dignity of those who toil (greater than those who reap the fruits), and the lineage that in Faulkner's world is one's true strength (and lacking it, fatal weakness).

The story completes its arc, back to the wilderness, burial site of Sam Fathers and Lion, the dog finally capable of cornering the patriarch of bears, the one so fearsome that only the foolishly brave fyce (terrier) and the huge impassive blue dog would hunt it to confrontation. Ike finds traces of the dog's burial but not Sam Fathers': ..."the knoll... was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again..." (p. 312, ibid.). This, not the works of man, is Faulkner's bedrock of faith.