Monday, 28 July 2014

Childe Roland and The Broken King

Just who is Childe Roland? His name is imbued with mystery. The liquid “ls” and hard dentals suggest movement, a march to the beat of a slow-moving army.

There is a picture of him, by Edward Burne-Jones, in which he is encased in armour and defiantly holding his horn. He appears for the briefest of moments in King Lear; Robert Browning wrote a whole poem about him, which ends with the stirring lines: “And yet / Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, / And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.” There is a  folk story, in which Roland’s sister, Burd Ellen, gets snatched away by the King of Elfland after going round a church backwards; Roland follows his brothers to that strange, other place, and manages to get her back.

He is a character made from many things: shifting, and yet dauntless. When Childe Roland comes to the Dark Tower, in Browning’s poem, what is it that he finds there? When Edgar, disguised as the madman Poor Tom, sings his snatch of a song, he takes Lear off the heath, off stage, into the darkness. Roland is always on a journey, into the unknown. For a character that’s so elusive, he has a great deal of power.

Whoever he is, whatever his origins, and wherever he’s going, he is the direct inspiration for my new book, The Broken King. Roland was a paladin of Charlemagne, historically speaking (though barely attested), who fought bravely for his king. He becomes transformed into a figure of fantasy in the Chanson de Roland, where he is given a horn with which to summon the emperor, and a sword that was brought by an angel.

Thus he pops up in Ariosto’s romantic epic, Orlando Furioso, which is about him, or an idea of him. Here his sword once belonged to Hector of Troy (and perhaps the process he is undergoing, from knight to legend, is the same that Hector, Achilles, Aeneas and Odysseus underwent.) In this long poem he falls in love with Angelica and loses his wits – only to have them restored to him by a knight who’s found them on the moon.

He passes on through the centuries. Surely it is he who is the subject of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, ageless, vital, still on his (and then her) quest for meaning? His journey has in the twentieth century sparked many other works: Alan Garner’s Elidor; Stephen King’s Dark Tower series; Francis King used it for the title of a 1946 novel, To the Dark Tower. Roland’s is a quest that seems to have at the same time both no meaning, and all the meaning in the universe.

When I was smaller, I imagined that “Childe” Roland was a child. Having heard snatches of his story, or stories, I pictured myself as Roland, embarking upon endless strange and terrible quests. Much later I learned that “Childe” was in fact another word for “Knight”; and so it struck me, still later on, that there is no reason why a child could not be a knight.

Children’s books are about becoming an adult, and facing up to strange and terrible things: why couldn’t my new hero be a version of Roland, setting out on a journey which threatened more dangers than he could ever imagine? What lurks in the Dark Tower is endlessly fascinating: not least because it stands for so much of our own dark imaginings; and, perhaps more importantly, it prefigures all our deaths. In Browning, it’s possible that that is what the Dark Tower is: the end of a struggle; the acceptance of the end. And yet Roland is strong in the face of it.

My hero, in twenty-first century Britain, couldn’t actually be called Roland – he’s Simon, though Roland is his middle name. The folk story was the germ of the book’s plot: I changed it so that Simon becomes the cause of his sister’s disappearance. Along the way he picks up a horn and a sword, both of which have magical properties. Having been an ordinary boy, he becomes, in effect, a knight.

His quest is to save his sister from the Broken King. But it’s also the quest that Roland performs, to the dark tower, into nothingness, into the depths of meaning and reality and existence themselves. It’s the journey that children make when they struggle from childhood into adulthood; and one that takes place, always, onwards and onwards, at the steady pace of Childe Roland’s very name, in the backs of our adult minds.

One day we will face the dark tower, if it is death. And who knows what we will find when we put the horn to our lips, and blow?








Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Medea at the National Theatre: review for PORT

Helen McCrory as Medea
Medea is on at the National Theatre: I've reviewed it for PORT magazine. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Thor as Woman: Gender and gods?

Marvel Comics have announced, to much chatter, that they are going to recast the god Thor as a woman. They have stressed that the new Thor will not be a "She-Thor," or a "Thorita," but Thor him- or rather her-self.

Reactions have so far been mixed. I began to wonder: is gender such an important, indeed essential part of a god or goddess? Let us try some thought experiments. The goddess Aphrodite, for example, is the goddess of generation, passionate love, the sea. She is invoked in those aspects. Lucretius (who doesn't believe in her) calls upon her at the beginning of his De Rerum Natura  as the "alma" - nourishing - mother. It is important that she is a mother, as the things that flow from that are feminine. If you replaced it with Pater Aphroditus, you would have an entirely different set of affairs.

Some gods are resolutely tied up with gender. Juno is the goddess of child-birth, for example; it would seem contrary to endow a male god with her attributes. Others are ambiguous. Dionysus is a god who has long hair like a woman, and who hangs around with women. He is a feminine man: not, importantly, a masculine woman. Artemis, though very definitely feminine, does things that are largely considered male - hunting; she would not be the same if she were a man who did things considered to be feminine. Athena has the attributes of a warrior, and of wisdom. Compare her to Ares - he is just war, pure and simple

Thor is an elemental god, a god of thunder and lightning, and a smith god. He has aspects of Zeus and of Hephaestus; Tacitus thought of him as Hercules. What happens if you switch genders with these gods and all the stories that are told about them? The scene in the Iliad, where Thetis supplicates Zeus, works because Thetis is a mother concerned about her son; switch Zeus into a mother too, and the dynamic shifts. Thor as woman suddenly has a whole new set of attributes, relationships with her wives, her brothers, her father Odin.

There is a lot to be said for playing with mythology. It is there to be tinkered with, there to be recast in different forms, and to have variegated lights thrown on it. That is why it is still alive, and why it still speaks to us, and why we always return to it. There is no reason why Marvel should not introduce a female aspect of Thor.  But to say that Thor is a woman is to displace something fundamental about myth and its sources: in fact to disregard them entirely, for the sake of a marketing exercise.  The power of myth lies in certain unchanging elements: to change those is to deflate it entirely.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Literary Review summer children's book round up 2014

Chairete, (yes, I've just been to Greece): Here are the books reviewed in my summer round up of children's books for Literary Review.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones,
Tale of a Tail by Margaret Mahy,
The Box of Red Brocade by Catherine Fisher,
The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett,
Poppy by Mary Hooper
The Blood List by Sarah Naughton,
The Night Raid by Caroline Lawrence,
Brilliant by Roddy Doyle,
Never Ending by Martyn Bedford,
The Ultimate Truth by Kevin Brooks,
Echo Boy by Matt Haig.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Titus Andronicus and J G Ballard, for PORT

Afternoon: I've written a short piece on the connection between Titus Andronicus and J G Ballard, for PORT magazine. Read it here.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Review of THE BROKEN KING in the Financial Times

Some nice news: Suzi Feay reviewed THE BROKEN KING in The Financial Times a couple of weekends ago, which someone pointed out to me. Luckily a friend had kept hold of a copy. It's not available online yet, but it's a subtle and intelligent review: ""[Womack] does conjure an eerie poetry of the subconscious, a kind of Alice in Terrorland," she says, which is exactly what I was going for.

Friday, 13 June 2014