Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces: A Myth RetoldIf you like ancient myths and the retelling of myths, I've got a book recommendation for you, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis. If you've only encountered Lewis through his Narnia series, you'll meet a different side of Lewis in Till We Have Faces.

The myth in question is the story of Cupid and Psyche. In the original tale, Psyche is the extraordinarily beautiful youngest daughter of a king. Unfortunately, Psyche's beauty leads men to worship her as a deity (forsaking the worship of Venus) and no one will propose marriage. The oracle of Apollo tells the king there is no hope for a mortal suitor and that he should leave Psyche on a mountainside. The king follows the oracle's suggestion. Venus has devised a punishment for Psyche and asks her son Cupid to afflict Psyche with desire for the most base and despicable men. When Cupid sees Psyche he falls in love with her and has the West-Wind carry her to a secret palace where they became lovers with Cupid visiting her each night but forbidding her to see his face. Psyche pleads with Cupid to allow her two older sisters to visit. Cupid relents and brings them to the palace where they enjoy its splendors. The sisters become jealous of Psyche for their husbands are mortal and their homes far less grand. They convince Psyche that her husband is something monstrous and that she should hide a lamp in her bedroom and look at him while he sleeps. Psyche does as they ask, but when she sees Cupid, a drop of oil falls from the lamp and wakes him. Enraged, Cupid rebukes her and vanishes. The two sisters die soon after as a result of Cupids interventions and Psyche is left to wander desolate and wretched. Venus later takes Psyche for a slave and gives her what Venus believes are impossible tasks. With help--from ants, an eagle, and voices--Psyche completes the four tasks. However, at the end of her fourth task, she gives in to curiosity and peeks inside a cask containing the beauty of Persephone. Psyche immediately loses consciousness, but Cupid comes to her, forgives her, and intercedes on her behalf to make her a goddess.

Lewis tells the story as a first person narrative by Orual, Psyche's beloved, elder half-sister. While Psyche enjoys unnatural beauty and a loving innocence, Orual suffers from unnatural ugliness. Orual's strength of character, intelligence, and physical prowess--she is a natural and gifted sword fighter--compensate for her facial deformity. Redival, the middle sister, enjoys some beauty but is shallow, vain, and weak. Orual tells her story--her autobiography--during the last days of her long and successful rule as queen of Glome. She claims that her story is an accusation of the gods, a testament to what they have done to and taken from her. Orual and her Greek tutor raise Psyche, whose mother died in childbirth. Their father, who has no sons, takes little interest in his daughters. The people of Glome worship a goddess named Ungit. In the midst of a series of natural calamities, including drought and disease, the chief priest of Ungit demands a human sacrifice to be given to the brute (some type of hideous beast) that lives on a nearby mountain. The lots point to Psyche. The king, who initially thought he was to be the sacrifice, is relieved and readily agrees to sacrifice his daughter. Orual is devastated by the loss and convinces a captain of the guard to take her up the mountain so that she can bury Psyche's remains. To her amazement, she finds Psyche alive, healthy, and happy, living in a secluded valley. Psyche tells Orual that she is now married to a god and lives in a palace. Orual, however, cannot see the palace and believes Psyche is mad or being tricked and that she must save her and take her away. The problem, as Orual sees it, is how to convince Psyche that she is being tricked. Days later, Orual returns to the mountain valley with an oil lamp and convinces Psyche to break her promise not to look at her lover's face. The god condemns Psyche to wander the earth weeping, destroys the palace and valley, and appears before Orual to rebuke her. Orual suspects that she will soon die but instead lives a long and successful though lonely life. Sounds of a woman weeping haunt her. She decides to wear a veil to hide her face and reinvents herself as the queen of Glome, burying Orual deep in her mind.

Orual tells the story of her spiritual development with a powerful and stark narrative voice. In what I thought was a stroke of metafictional genius, Orual travels outside of Glome on a "sightseeing trip" near the end of her reign. One evening she happens upon a small temple devoted to the worship of a new goddess named Psyche. She listens intently to the story the priest tells her about the goddess, which is the traditional myth. Orual attempts to learn more about Psyche and correct the priest's story but the man is obstinate. I won't spoil the rest of the story for you. It ends well. If you're interested in retelling myths or merely want a satisfying read, Till We Have Faces is well worth your time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Free Indirect Discourse

Here's a narrative technique that we've likely all seen in use without knowing that it has a name. Free indirect discourse (FID), also known as free indirect speech or free indirect style, is a third-person narrative technique that combines characteristics of third and first-person speech. Unlike standard indirect discourse, free indirect discourse dispenses with such introductory expressions as "he said" or "he thought" when conveying a character's thoughts. Using this technique writers can subtly and cleanly move from narrating action to delving into a character's thoughts as if in first-person narration, thus rendering indistinguishable the thoughts of narrator and character. This makes more sense when you see an example. Here are three cases from the Wikipedia entry on free indirect speech.

Quoted or direct speech:
     He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. "And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?" he asked.

Reported or normal indirect speech:
     He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.

Free indirect speech:
     He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?   

Unless you are reading carefully and looking for it, which in the case of these examples you are, it is easy not to notice the change to free indirect discourse in the third example.

Free indirect discourse has been in use in literature since at least the early nineteenth century. (Some scholars argue that Chaucer made use of it in The Canterbury Tales which would push back the date to the fourteenth century.) Critics often credit Jane Austen with refining the technique. Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Virginia Woolf are also known for exploiting free indirect discourse.

So why use this technique? It's a clean way to get into a character's head without distracting quotes and introductory phrases. In her essay "Free Indirect Discourse and the Clever Heroine of Emma", Louise Flavin hits on a more important reason, controlling the distance between reader and character.

While it is not possible to know if Austen was consciously aware of free indirect discourse as a stylistic device, there appears to be striking evidence that she understood its significance as a means of controlling the reader’s sense of distance from characters.

Let's end with a couple examples from Austen and Joyce:

She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging – not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk – and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement.

--Jane Austen, Emma

Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing room. He liked music but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something.

--James Joyce, "The Dead"

Monday, June 14, 2010

Echos of Tolkien?

The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain)I recently finished Lloyd Alexander's The High King. (Yes, I know it was published over forty years ago, but I have a long list of books to read.) The High King is the last novel in The Chronicles of Prydain series and won a well-deserved Newbery Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. More complicated than the previous novels, the plot covers a complex array of battles, betrayals, and alliances that draw in all the characters from the previous books, adding to The High King's sense of richness and depth. A number of Taran's friends also meet their ends along the way which adds a gritty sense of realism to the story. I'm not talking Thomas Hardy here, in which characters die in such tragic and heart-wrenching ways that you can only stand to read the story once--Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure come to mind, but life is filled with sad losses and The High King would lose much of its power if Taran's life did not also suffer losses. The theme of sacrifice, which figures prominently in the series, comes to the forefront at The High King's conclusion. With the defeat of Arawn, all those descended from the Sons of Don or with magical abilities must depart Prydain, including Dallben, who has raised Taran from a baby; Fflewddur Fflam, Taran's longtime friend; Gwydion, the reigning high king, and  Eilonwy, the girl Taran hopes to marry. Gwydion invites Taran and others to join them in the Summer Country, a place of immortality, as reward for their services. At first, Taran agrees to go but the call of unfulfilled promises and the work that must be done to rebuild Prydain after the wars with Arawn, compels Taran to follow the difficult road and stay in Prydain, giving up a never-ending life with his friends. Eilonwy also sacrifices, giving up her magical powers to stay with Taran. Dallben declares that Taran's decision to stay fulfills a prophecy and Taran is the foundling who has become the high king.

As I read the final chapters, I was struck by the many parallels to the conclusion of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. At the end of both works, a new king is crowned, Aragorn in LOTR and Taran in The High King. The world of each story enters a new age, the Fourth Age in LOTR and a post-magic time in The High King. An exodus to a land of immortality occurs, the elves sail to Undying Lands in LOTR and the people of magic sail to the Summer Country in The High King. Some are invited to join the exodus, Bilbo and Frodo in LOTR and Gurgi and Glew in The High King. A woman eligible to leave in the exodus chooses to stay and rule as queen with the new king, Arwen in LOTR and Eilonwy in The High King. The ending of Alexander's story is not contrived or forced. It has that sense of inevitability that all great stories have. I'm left wondering what to make of all these parallels. Alexander drew heavily on Welsh mythology for his stories. Tolkien relied on Norse and other traditions. Perhaps the answer lies in the parallels to be found in their respective sources or perhaps there was no better way to end the types of stories that Tolkien and Alexander were telling.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Word of the Week: Rankle

Sometimes you think you know what a word means then you read its etymology and gain a whole new perspective. That's what happened when I stumbled across the etymology for rankle. As commonly used today, it means to cause anger, irritation, or bitterness or to feel that way. Nothing very exciting there, but check out the word's family tree.  Rankle derives from the Middle English word ranclen, which means to fester; ranclen traces its roots to the Anglo-French word rancler, derived from the Old French draoncle and raoncle, meaning festering sore. The Old French roots came from the Medieval Latin dracunculus, a Latin diminutive of draco, meaning serpent or dragon. A festering ulcer from a snake or, worse yet, a dragon bite would rankle anyone. My understanding of this word has changed for the better. I have a new sense of the rankled and the one doing the rankling. Rankle is much more colorful than originally advertised.

Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On the Origin of Stories

Sorry for the lofty sounding title, but I could not resist that play on Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Readers often ask where the idea for a story came from, as if a story germinates from a single seed and grows into the beautiful flowering tree presented to the reader. For me at least, the process is not that neat and tidy. It's more like a mixed orchard with many different kinds of trees sprouting and growing and in some cases withering along the way to the final product. A great deal of pruning (maybe even hacking) takes place to shape the trees into a coherent whole.

Sometimes I can recall the idea that germinated that initial seedling. Sometimes I'm reluctant to voice that idea because it sounds less than impressive. For example, my story "Saul" began with two strangers in a room waiting for a train. The man asks the woman if she is a believer. If you're familiar with 80s pop music, you'll recognize the similarity to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." I worked forward from that encounter. Fortunately a lot of new trees with many Biblical references sprouted along the way and that initial source was thoroughly obscured to everyone but me. My story "Gethsemane," about a man who escapes from a hellish prison and then meets Jesus, also owes a debt to 80s pop. In this case the line "Can you help me" from Pink Floyd's "Hey You" provided the first seed. I started with a man calling to another for help and worked backwards. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich provided the seed for the prison.

So, if there are any other writers out there reading this, where do your ideas come from?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla"

Are you sick of the Twilight series? Tired of "nice" vampires who stumble into the moral center of a story? I suspect some writers are trying to put a fresh spin on the vampire story by telling the tale from the vampire's perspective or somehow portraying the vampire in a sympathetic manner. Nothing wrong with telling an old story in a new way, but vampires are inherently evil. They're parasites who live off the blood of their victims and usually kill their hosts in the process. They follow an alternate path to eternal life, albeit at a high cost. The question of how one becomes a vampire--a conscious choice or an act of outside aggression--raises the question of guilt and redemption, themes an author could explore in a vampire story.

So, if you're yearning for an insidious, evil villain, here's an old vampire story that you probably have not read. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novella "Carmilla" first appeared in the magazine The Dark Blue in serial form from December 1871 through March 1872 and later as part of his collection In a Glass Darkly (1872). "Carmilla," like the other stories from In a Glass Darkly, is presented as part of the case files of Dr. Martin Hesselius. Hesselius is a character in the story "Green Tea" but acts only as a framing device for the other tales. Laura, the narrator and protagonist of "Carmilla," lives with her father and two governesses in a schloss (castle) in Styria, an Austrian province near Hungary. Laura and her father are English expatriates. Her mother, a Styrian lady, died when Laura was an infant. Laura recalls that when she was six, she had a vision of a beautiful young woman in her bedchamber who lay beside her and bit her on the chest, although Laura's nurse found no wounds on her.  Laura is nineteen when the events of her narrative take place and leads a lonely, isolated life in the Austrian countryside. She is saddened to learn that Bertha Rheinfeldt, a young girl who was to visit her has mysteriously died. The letter that Laura and her father receive from General Spielsdorf, Bertha's uncle and guardian, is rambling and filled with grief.

The very evening that Laura learns of Bertha's death, a carriage accident occurs on the road that passes Laura's home. One of the occupants--a young girl named Carmilla--appears injured but not seriously. The girl's mother insists that she must continue on her urgent journey and a hasty arrangement is reached whereby Carmilla will stay under the care of Laura and her father until the mother can return for her in three months. Before she leaves, the mother states that Carmilla will reveal no details of her family or past and is of sound mind. Laura recognizes Carmilla as the woman from her dream. Carmilla responds with a story of a similar dream involving Laura. Carmilla evinces many strange habits, including apparent sleepwalking, and complains of incessant languor. The pair become close friends despite Carmilla's occasional romantic advances towards Laura.

Following the restoration of some old portraits, Laura discovers that the one depicting Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, dated 1698, exactly matches the countenance of Carmilla. (Note the anagram of the names.) Nightmares in which a cat-like beast climbs onto her bed and bites her chest before transforming into a woman that disappears through the closed door troubles Laura's nights. She becomes increasingly ill with a sort of wasting disease. Events reach the breaking point when General Spielsdorf arrives.

I won't spoil the ending. This story has colored many later portrayals of female vampires and influenced the work of Le Fanu's fellow Irishman Bram Stoker, predating Dracula by twenty-five years. The tale is narrated in a very nineteenth-century style but don't let that put you off. "Carmilla" is well worth a read.