Sunday, 30 March 2008

Silver on the Tree

He accepted everything that came into his mind, without thought or question, as if he were moving through a dream. But a deeper part of him knew that he was not dreaming. He was crystal-clear awake, in a Midwinter Day that had been waiting for him to wake into it since the day he had been born, and, he somehow knew, for centuries before that.
Thus Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising: Will Stanton has woken into a dream, with all of the sudden shifts of place and inexplicable certainties that a dream has, but a dream that is more real --- closer to the truth, about the world and about himself --- than what he has taken to be his waking life.

For it is Will's eleventh birthday, and he is finally, truly awake: seventh son of a seventh son, he has woken into his powers as an Old One, an immortal warrior of the Light, fated by birth to take his part in the Law-bound struggle with the Dark. He is the last of the Old Ones, completing the Circle, and is bound to play the central role in the final struggle between the powers: the Dark, seeking to swallow up human agency by means of its own weakness; and the Light, fighting to preserve the world free, and at last give it back to man. It is a frozen, oddly static kind of struggle --- no-one gets killed, at least not directly --- but the stakes are high, the Dark truly terrible, and the Law and the High Magic within which all is bound are merciless; and even the Light can be cruel. "This is a cold battle we are in", says Merriman Lyon, Will's mentor, first of the Old Ones, the historical Merlin, "and in it we must sometimes do cold things."

It is a humourless vision of the world: not lacking in joy, perhaps, but excluding all play. "In this our magic," Merriman scolds Will after a heedless act, "every smallest word has a weight and a meaning. Every word that I say to you --- or that any other Old One may say." From that point onwards, Will accepts his responsibility without complaint, and (for the most part) without regret. It's a measure of the writing's power that you still believe him as a pre-teen boy: a boy with normal tastes and habits who can nonetheless step, at a moment's notice, into a vast timeless struggle where everything is freighted with significance. The contrast with the Earthsea books, written around the same time and themselves pretty serious, is signal: "a mage", Le Guin says, "is a trickster", and the (original three) books are full of delight in the lesser enchantments. The exultation and danger of the great spells, and the concern with Equilibrium, are visibly continuous with the ordinary pleasures and risks of life. But, of course, the mages of Earthsea are mortal men. It's to Cooper's credit that she doesn't just tell us, she shows us that Will and Merriman and the others are "not properly human".

The Old Ones are a triumph; Will's compatriots Simon, Jane, and Barney are another matter. They are drawn well enough, and believable in their way, but there is something Enid Blyton-ish about the Drew children, and it jars with the high seriousness of the books. You really do not miss them in The Grey King; in Silver on the Tree they are a positive intrusion. And in the Trewissick scenes, where they are joined by the (otherwise unexceptionable) red setter Rufus, the dread spectre of Timmy the Dog does rather haunt the proceedings.

The books have other flaws. They are quest stories: searches for a grail (Over Sea, Under Stone), for six Signs of Power (The Dark is Rising), and for a vital, lost piece of parchment (Greenwitch); the winning of a harp, to wake immortal warriors (The Grey King); and a vertiginous race across space and time to final confrontation with the Dark (Silver on the Tree). Few real decisions are ever made, although one scarcely notices this, as one event follows another, fulfilling old prophecies in the long waking dream. Our real world intrudes --- and it does feel like an intrusion --- in the final book; and the ending is rushed. (Let the reader understand: why did there have to be a boat? Why, why, why?) As with any story where the characters slip about in time, there are plot holes through which one could drive a truck. And so on; and so forth.

They are children's books. Written for older, serious, literate children, who can cope with long sentences and complex clause structures. They are Celtic. They are pagan, although pleasingly free of anti-Christian posturing. And they are assured: what sells them in the end is their almost-unfailing assurance of tone, their conviction that the dream is real. One of the few times that assurance slips, the narrator makes a defensive comment on the childishness of the two prophetic rhymes that summarize the action. She need not have bothered, for here is the last verse of the simpler poem, which is surely effective enough:
Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold;
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Easter for grownups ...

... courtesy of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury: here's his sermon for Easter Day. On facing the inevitability of death:
Maturity lies in accepting the truth - and then making the most of every moment of sensation so that our response is as deep and wholehearted as may be. 'This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou must leave ere long', as Shakespeare has it at the end of one of his most memorable sonnets (no.73).

Yet here comes the Easter gospel, apparently determined to upset this stoical maturity and to promise us just that eternal life we are urged to leave behind as a childish fantasy. Death will be 'overcome', 'swallowed up in victory'. (I Cor 15.54) Is the Christian gospel just a version of that popular but problematic passage sometimes read at funerals, beginning 'Death is nothing at all' and talking of it as just 'slipping into the next room'?

That's not quite the tone of what St Paul or any of the other New Testament writers is saying - nor of some of the ancient hymns and prayers of the Church in this season ...

Monday, 24 March 2008

Kermode on Vermes on the Resurrection

In the current London Review of Books, just in time for Easter, the critic Frank Kermode reviews Geza Vermes' book "The Resurrection". Sadly, it's not in the publicly-accessible section, so if you're a non-subscriber you'll need to content yourself with snippets, or shell out for the full article. (Or maybe just subscribe: the LRB is an excellent read.) The article, and apparently the book, is an example of informed, reasonable scepticism concerning Christian claims: the sort of thing local author John Dickson was calling for in Friday's Herald.

Of course, one has always been able to find literate discussions in journals like the LRB ... but popular discourse lately has been dire. When I was an undergraduate, one ran into lots of on-campus criticism of Christianity that was complacently ignorant: rather like on-campus talk on some other subjects. One expects people to grow out of such posturing, but it seems some folk never did; and in recent years it has become acceptable, for whatever reason, to dismiss the Christian faith in ill-informed and wholesale terms.

By contrast to this, both Vermes and Kermode are concerned to take the New Testament seriously; this is not to say that they "agree" with it, or with Christianity more generally. Vermes, writes Kermode, is interested in
the inconsistencies, the flaws in testimony, the narrative faults, of the New Testament record, treated as evidence, however flawed, of something that happened. As he remarks, he feels his responsibility to be judicial in character; his main business will be to see whether the stories told by the witnesses stand up in court [... for the] Christian creeds emphasise the presence in their accounts of an undoubtedly historical character, Pontius Pilate [... whereas in] a different sort of narrative he might not have a proper name but be simply the Governor, the Procurator or the like, and we should not need to be told as much as we are about him ...
They go on to disagree on what to make of the Pilate material in John's Gospel, as well one might.

Christian scholarship and advocacy should likewise know what it is talking about, acknowledge other competent interpreters, and avoid claiming too much. For a Herald article, Dickson's piece was very good in this way, and was even willing to take some small swings at his own side. Too often in this town, there seems instead to be a "not in front of the children" attitude about public statements: an idea that one must avoid saying anything that might dismay or confuse the humble believer; an anxiety about always staying on-message. Statements and articles of this kind (some of which can be found on the Sydney Anglican website) either leave me cold, or leave me infuriated ... and since I'm conservative enough that I believe the Nicene Creed, it's not as though this is a question of orthodoxy.

So if Dickson's piece reflects a renewed willingness for conservative Christians here to talk on something other than our own, zealously guarded home turf --- a willingness to communicate --- then three cheers for it.

[Thanks to The Blogging Parson for pointing out the Dickson article.]

Sunday, 23 March 2008

(2) the o-furo

Number 2 of "Ten things I love about Japan".

Taking a bath in Japan is a pretty big deal. As you might expect in a country blessed with hot springs, there is a whole culture and way of bathing, and in ordinary (and entirely modern) homes you will find a bath quite unlike the ones we use in the West: short, very deep --- one can sit in the o-furo immersed up to the neck --- and with a recirculator that can maintain or modify the temperature of the water for as long as you please. Think of a hot spa, without bubbles, built for one person ... or for two people who know each other very, very well.

Let's get something straight: the bath is not for washing in. No, no, no, no, no. When you get into the bath, you should already be clean. (A shower is supplied for this purpose, perhaps with a small stool to sit on if you prefer: the Japanese use the European-style showers where the head is attached to a long flexible hose.) The bath is for taking your ease; it is a small version of the onsen, the public baths (artificial, or at hot springs) for social soaking. Foreigners tend to think the Japanese are uptight, but this is at best a partial picture: the Japanese take relaxation very, very seriously.

Soap may be out of the question, but beer is another story. So are snack foods. I myself am partial to a certain kind of prawn chip, common in Japan, shaped like a twist of rope the size of a child's finger. Colleagues offered me a plate of these chips at a party once, asking if I liked them; I praised them as the ideal accompaniment for beer, when sitting in the o-furo and drinking. The younger Japanese standing around smiled, nodded, and broke out into polite applause: in this taste, if in nothing else, I had gone native.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Saturday. Adelaide. Pärt. Miserere. ABC.

For those in Australia, or with access to ABC Classic FM on the web:

A programme by the Adelaide Chamber Singers will be broadcast live from St Peter's Cathedral in Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival, this Saturday from 11:00 pm Sydney time. The first work is Arvo Pärt's extraordinary setting of the Miserere, previously discussed on this blog.