I believe there are two fundamental questions that drive my reflection to the middle-idylls of Idylls of the King.
Why does Tennyson allow Merlin to be subdued by Vivien, a temptress and trickster?
The middle-idylls being primarily relationship-driven, why do the denizens of Camelot and the surrounding area continue to pursue matches they know are impossible while at the same time ignore what appear to be good matches?
Unlike my previous reflection, I feel like the Pagan undertones in the middle-idylls are subdued to the point of being virtually nonexistent. This puzzled me at first: perhaps this was a line of thinking that Tennyson only by hap wrote in to The Coming of Arthur. At first glance, there are only minor references to the Pagan under-culture surrounding Camelot, and they tend to manifest as malevolent forces that threaten Camelot. For example, when we’re first introduced to Vivien toward the end of Balin and Balan, she says to her squire, “This fire of Heaven, / This old sun-worship, boy, will rise again, / And beat the cross to earth, and break the King, / And all his Table” (450-53, emphasis added). Here Vivien presents old sun-worship—Paganism in a phrase—as a force to overtake Christianity by “beat[ing] the cross to earth” which threatens to destroy Camelot. This alone gives me pause because I personally do not like to think of Paganism as a malevolent, destructive force—whether it’s directly present or an obscure undertone; however, the malevolent presentation by Vivien can be a matter of perspective. After all, Vivien has a point: Camelot is ideal in theory but is being slowly but surely corrupted in reality, perhaps deserving to be exposed for what it is becoming and consequently re-shaped. In this way, I see eye-to-eye with Vivien, especially when she says to Merlin, “In Love, if Love be Love, if Love be ours, / Faith and unfaith can ne’er be equal powers: / Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all” (152). Camelot’s façade failing (with the façade of Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship coming to light), Vivien’s actions may not be altogether malevolent—she’s pointing out the differences between what we see and what’s really going on. But that makes her seduction and subjugation of Merlin all the more complicated.
It may or may not be self-evident, but I take Merlin as the strongest Pagan presence in the Arthur narratives (along with Morgan le Fey and the Lady of the Lake in other narratives). It is so in Idylls of the King as well. At the beginning of Merlin and Vivien, Tennyson describes the setting:
A storm was coming, but the winds were still,
And in the wild woods of Broceliande,
Before an oak, so hollow, huge and old
It look’d a tower of ivied masonwork,
At Merlin’s feet the wily Vivien lay. (1-5)
The “wild woods” and “huge and old” oak tree invoke a sense of the ancient, the Pagan, while at the same time paralleling the appearance of ancient Merlin himself. “A storm was coming,” aptly foreshadows the dark age of Camelot, too. Yet the strongest pagan symbol in the narrative, one who is the master of his art, the seer, the sage, has his charm worked against him by the force in the narrative that wants paganism to destroy Camelot. How can a mere trickster overpower Merlin? This makes me think of a scenario where Shakespeare would have allowed Caliban to subdue Prospero. Preposterous! Perhaps. Might this because Merlin advocated a balance between the Pagan and the Christian, a balance that is failing? As the idylls reflect, the presence of the pagan in Arthur’s court seems to be vanishing (along with the ideals of knighthood and courtly love), so it makes sense that Merlin’s power would be waning as well, allowing him to be subdued by a stronger, more domineering pagan force like Vivien. Interesting that threats seem to be coming from outside of Camelot because the inside of Camelot is undoing itself.
Camelot seems to be possessed with the habit of chasing after ideals that are, in reality, impossible. One of the thick threads causing Camelot’s implosion is the failure of ideally matched relationships and the refusal of potential and realistic relationships. Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship is clearly the flagship failure. According to cultural codes, they are a good match both in terms of intellect and class. Guinevere refuses—for lack of a better word—that relationship because she has fallen for Lancelot, and Arthur turns a blind eye to this. Lancelot essentially has his pick of any woman, including the well-suited Elaine (but perhaps for her youth as he claims, yet an older man paired with a younger woman was by no means out of the ordinary for both antiquity and the Victorians); however, Lancelot refuses Elaine and all others, preferring to pine away for the one woman he knows he cannot be with. Elaine also passes on a good match, Gawain being a good match her for. Like Lancelot, she holds out for someone who she knows she cannot be with and, like Camelot is doomed to follow, dies of a broken and lonely heart. In this, the ideal begins to destroy itself through a deconstruction of its own ideal nature, just like questing for the Holy Grail, another ideal in the space of symbols, contributes to Camelot’s destruction as well.
Having read closely only Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Lanval, I feel my background in primary texts in the Arthurian Tradition is very weak, but I have read (and watched) a wide range of contemporary retellings of the Arthur legends. I’m also aware in how high a regard the figure of Arthur is kept in British culture (including its literary tradition). To the British, there are two seats of ideals higher than all others: the ideals of Christ and the ideals of Arthur. From this mindset, I make an immediate distinction between Christ and Arthur—not that Arthur is the Christ particularly of British legend per se but rather a Christ-like figure who serves as a sort of middle-ground between Christianity (re: Rome) and Celtic Paganism (re: Heathens). The majority of contemporary retellings of the Arthur legend position Arthur this way. Some pseudo-scholarly work even suggests that Merlyn [to adopt the Celtic spelling] was a member of the Order of Druids whose task was to teach Arthur to balance the values of the old with the new so the realm would not destroy itself. I say pseudo-scholarly because 1) I take anything published by Llewellyn Publications with a grain of salt—such that I would be, at this point, skeptical about citing The 21 Lessons of Merlyn and The Lost Books of Merlyn in any formal research project—and 2) Douglas Monroe’s books listed above are really works of fiction that attempt to pass themselves off as non-fiction, causing huge credibility issues for any scholarly purposes. Still, all of this is to take inventory of the things I think I know about Arthur and Merlyn and reflect upon them so I can have a better understanding of my initial perspectives in reading Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. I am also happy to give a nod to the fact that Tennyson apparently visited Cornwall and Ireland in 1848, “taking up again the idea of writing a long poem on the Arthurian legend” (7). Not surprisingly then, Tennyson’s take on The Coming of Arthur seems to be in alignment with the idea of Arthur being a middle-ground or a negotiation between Christianity and Celtic Paganism.
I see Tennyson immediately invoking this perspective on the Arthur legend throughout the first (full) poem, The Coming of Arthur , placing Arthur as a clear and present middle-ground between the old and the new. He writes, “And still from time to time the heathen host / Swarm’d overseas, and harried what was left. / And so there grew great tracts of wilderness, / Wherein the beast was ever more and more” (8-11). The beasts, the wild, and the untamed are frequently used to refer to the pagan, so while Tennyson may literally be invoking a sense of untamed land full of wild stags and boars, he’s symbolically pulling in that pagan resonance (another example of this is the popular legend of St. Pádraigh having banished the serpents from Ireland, a metaphor for his bringing of Christianity to Ireland). Tennyson presents Arthur further as a Christ-like figure through his mysterious and miraculous birth, but Merlyn’s hand in this miracle mixes the Judeo-Christian narrative with a pagan narrative. Later when Arthur receives Excalibur from The Lady of the Lake, Tennyson describes the sword as being “cross-hilted,” which invokes one of the most important symbols in Christianity (285)—but it is the Lady of the Lake, a pagan figure who “Hath power to walk the waters like our Lord” who gives it to him (293). Finally, there also seems to be a value system that attempts to reconcile Christianity and secular beliefs, done so in a way that is in and of itself a middle-ground. Perhaps one of the most famous features of the Arthur legend are the Knights of the Round Table. The “petty” kings before Arthur, we might assume, placed themselves always at the “head” of a rectangular table in order to highlight their role as leader, as authoritarian. Arthur’s round table is different though: just like when Guinevere cannot distinguish Arthur from the rest of his knights when she first sees him, the round table allows Arthur to be one among his council, to be one of the “people” rather than a pompous figurehead. This allows Arthur to gain respect and to lead by example and by deeds as opposed to by birthright (much like Christ). This equalization of power between king and knights is the perfect euphony between being the middle-ground in a practical role as well as a symbolic role. This juxtaposing and sometimes conflicting imagery illustrate the intermingling of Christianity and Paganism. This much seems clear. But to what end? I think this may have something to do with Tennyson’s time and audience.
Tennyson’s retelling of the Arthur legend may at least in part be a way for him to express the possibility (along with the difficulties) of reconciling the spiritual crises present throughout nineteenth century England. I can’t help but think that it’s not a coincidence that Tennyson began publishing early versions of Idylls in 1859, the same year of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The dates do not line up perfectly, so I realize I’m making the assumption that Tennyson was aware of what Darwin was doing well in advance of Darwin’s publication, but I believe scientific rather than religious worldviews were coming into prominence even before Darwin’s work. So while the Victorians were struggling to make sense in an increasingly scientific world, Tennyson taps into a culturally sacred narrative in order to help his audience reconcile these feelings of spiritual crisis.
For years I procrastinated on creating a home page for myself, and for the longest time, I could not quite articulate why. I’ve long had the technical knowledge to do it, and, being a photographer, I could have certainly borrowed concepts from that art form and muddled through site layout and design. Being a writer, coming up with all of the copy text in order to communicate what my home page was all about would be an easy task. Being a musician, I always thought it would be fun (and effective) to bring the web to life with sounds and music in a way that was tasteful, not distracting. The problem is really in my answers though: being, being, and being. And I still struggle with this.
Any time I’ve tried to come up with a home page for myself, I could seem to figure out what I wanted it to do in order to be representative of me and what I do. Do I want my home page to help me advertise my photography and sell services and prints? Yeah, I want that. Do I want my home page to help me advertise my music, to promote and to sell it? Yeah, I want that. Do I want my home page to advertise, to promote, and to share my writing? Yeah, I want that. What about having a portal for people to connect with me on social networks and YouTube? Yeah! I want that, too! So how do I come up with a single, professional website that can unite these various artforms and services into one focused front? This is where I begin to feel like a professional schizophrenic. Should I split these artistic personalities into distinct entities or attempt to integrate them into one web-personality?
The best answer I’ve come up with is the use of subdomains. I presently run my personal blog through blog.jeremiahhenry.com (as you can see), and I’ve had thoughts to expand on that idea and push my photography through photography.jeremiahhenry.com. If I ever want to move forward with the music side of things, I can always work with music.jeremiahhenry.com, and it wouldn’t be difficult to move any of these subdomains to a proper www.mydomainname.com if they really commercially took off.
How do we misplace the love we once had for ourselves? Now the love that Narcissus felt for himself—that we are so charismatic we are drawn only to ourselves, that no one other than ourselves is worthy of our affections—is not the type of self-love I speak of; rather, I’ve been thinking about the flavor of self-love that manifests itself as the little voice in our heads that says, “Let’s get up today and be awesome; let’s get up today and do something daring; let’s get up today and tell the people we love that we love them and that they should love us back because we are worthy of love.” Indeed, it’s the self-love we grant ourselves so that we may love others, for how can we love others if we do not first love ourselves?
I’m not sure how I lose mine from time to time, but there are definitely days or weeks where I would rather stay in bed than get up and have to struggle to convert the pains of loneliness into the joys of solitude, to find my inner charisma, to love myself. Most of us call this depression, something that ails 1 out of 10 American adults according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). In fact, type “how many Americans are af” into a basic Google search, and you’ll notice that the intellisense/auto-suggestion lists “How many Americans are affected by depression” at the top of the list of suggestions, prompting me to believe that of all of the possible options, depression is the most popular query that begins with “how many Americans are af___.” Considering the amount of adults such as myself who do not / have not sought psych services or have not been officially diagnosed, I’m sure 10% is a somewhat conservative estimate. I’m not sure why I haven’t taken advantage of the psych services department at my university, but I am sure of what I can do on my own that helps—and, by the way, by no means am I advocating this as a substitute for professional help, but—I pretend to be someone who I’m not.
This is how I begin to love myself again. When I’m in that lonely and depressed daze, I’m not myself, not the person I want to be, so I pretend to be the person I want to be. I pretend that my goal for the day was to get up and just be awesome (it helps to channel your inner Neil Patrick Harris while doing this). I pretend that I’m confident. I always put my best shirts on and walk from place to place with a smile on my face. I immerse myself in the façade of me and, slowly but surely, convert the façade into reality. Eventually I remember that we should always leave the house with our best shirts on; why save our best shirts for the moments when we expect to meet someone new, because we never know when those moments will come. Always wear your sexy underwear. Earn the eyes that fall on you when you get up to order another drink. Pretend you love to dance because you might, actually, love it. Trust me. You’ll notice a lot more glances and feel even better when you get them. Sometimes we have to pretend to be the person we’re not to rediscover who we are.
Pocket Muse Prompt: “Write about someone who is trying to be someone or something that they’re not.”
“I am trying not to be stuck in
my old ways. I am trying not to love my own pride and ignorance.”
-Frank Gaspar from “I See Men but They Look Like Trees Walking”
Shasta cola sufficed over the weeks when we were too poor to afford Dr. Pepper, but that didn’t matter when we sat on the front lawn under the eyes of Pegasus and Pisces hovering just above the horizon, the dimmed day an aquarium for the constellations. Beneath a barren mulberry tree, tucked away in the curve of our dirt road, Dad and I plugged a milk jug with Copperhead BBs. Three pumps was enough pressure to penetrate the plastic; three copper stars shot the pattern of Orion’s Belt just like the Milky Way, but one pump and one shot was just enough to tease the chickens.
I could see the BB match the arch of the earth—one pump stung the senses back into the hens, always sending them to flight, but they were bound to the earth. Offended by the bite of a BB on their ass, they found a way to restore their pride: necks pecking back and forth with staccato steps. And I thought this was not unlike the gangsters at school and the way Jim Callings walked as if snubbed by some random pellet, but those boys had different fathers: one too many beers and Jim would catch another swipe across his face. Those sore circles around his eyes reminded me of Saturn’s rings.
I did not know, back then, the immortal yet simple truths of Carl Sagan, that we all are made from the stuff of stars-we all are a way the cosmos can know itself. But I cannot go back to Jim and befriend him-my brother among the ether. I gaze up today and see the stars’ light from twenty years ago, and I remember the only thing I caught from my father were footballs rising and falling beneath the mulberry trees.
A friend of mine recently started a column on her blog where she’s responding to prompts from Monica Wood’s The Pocket Muse II: Endless Inspiration for Writers. The idea is simple yet novel: this is a book full of short writing prompts, images, tips, exercises, etc., so each writing activity provides the perfect prompt for a blog entry. Lee Herrick, who taught my lower division poetry class at Fresno City College, used a similar book for poetry prompts for his students, and I’d always thought that books like these could be endlessly valuable for prompting words and thoughts out of my fingertips. So I’m stealing Malyssa’s idea, only I’ll be using Wood’s first book, The [original] Pocket Muse.
Now I’m not sure how good of an idea it is to commit to a new writing project just before another semester of grad school and teaching begins, but this is why I’ve decided not to promise to readers or myself to do one post a day, one post a week, or whatever x action over every y frequency. Grad students and teaching associates know that this equation can quickly fall apart, and my goal is to have fun with this series, not have yet another source of stress. So I offer no promises, no deadlines, and no worries. Some of my responses may be just a sentence or two. Some may be a poem, an essay, or a scene. Some may be stream of consciousness without revision, some may be highly revised. No limits—no expectations. Just writing.
I’ll be tagging everything concerning this informal writing project as “Pocket Muse.”
This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. I have no idea how well it will catch on, but I’m hoping some local writers, not limited to existing personal friends of mine, will take interest in this. The idea is pretty simple, yet it could go a long way toward making the emerging voices of Fresno even stronger.
Aside from that, it feels really good to continue to utilize my web host. It’s been a while since I’ve worked with the phpBB system. Like wordpress, you’ve gotta love open source freeware.