Armed With Madness by Mary Butts

Man Ray cover to the Penguin Classics edition

Mary Butts’s second novel (published in 1928, and so before her first novel had its UK first edition), went under a number of working titles, including “In the Wood”, “People Among Trees”, “The Egg and the Cup”, “Landscape with Birds”, “Bees Under the Roof”, and even “The Waste Land”, before settling on Armed With Madness — which comes from a quote, “Armed with madness, I go on a long voyage”, though the quote seems to be from Butts herself. Of these titles, “The Waste Land” is the most intriguing, because like Eliot’s poem (already out by the time Butts began her novel, so she probably wasn’t serious about using it), Armed With Madness combines Modernistic concerns about the spiritual wasteland of the post-First World War 20th century with a powerful symbol of redemption and healing, the Holy Grail.

The story begins in the country house (“in which they could not afford to live”) of the Taverner siblings in Cornwall. Drusilla, known to everyone as Scylla, “ash-fair and tree-tall”, “sometimes a witch, and sometimes a bitch”, is the older, and Felix (to whom, we’re told, “love and death were one”, though entirely unconvincingly) is the younger. With them is a painter called Ross (who is mostly ignored throughout the rest of the narrative), and, soon, an American, Dudley Carston, who comes for the weekend. As he arrives, Felix is out visiting a local pair of similarly artistic souls living, like the Taverners, “in a chaos of elegant poverty”, the painter and sculptor Clarence Lake, and his companion Picus Tracy. (Whose name, meaning “woodpecker”, apparently has all sorts of mythological connections, tying him to “Zeus the Woodpecker”, though they are lost on me.) While there, Picus gets Felix to help him clear out the well at his cottage property, as it has run dry and hedgehogs have a tendency to fall into it in their search for water. Hauling the dead creatures out with a fishing spear, Felix finds a jade cup with “Keltic twiddles… round the rim”. He, Picus, and Clarence come to the Taverners and everyone gathers round the dining table to look at the cup.

Their modern defences are up. This “Keltic” cup, fished out of a well with a spear — “Good old Freud”, someone says — of course can’t be the Holy Grail. They talk about Tennyson, Wagner, and the “Keltic Twilight”, of which these proto-Modernists are all highly disapproving (“those awful pre-Raphaelite pictures”, “I hate the Keltic Twilight… Responsible for the world’s worst art”). But they can’t help feeling something — or perhaps trying not to long for something.

The next day, the cup is gone. After a long search, Carston finds it in his room, where he knows it wasn’t, and accuses everyone of playing a trick on him. He leaves in a huff, and in a nearby village bumps into Picus’s father, a disapproving patriarch who’s come in search of his son for stealing an item from his collection of antiquities, a jade cup he claims to have been a “poison-cup” from India (jade having the power to reveal poison), and after that a “spitting-cup” for a tubercular lady. (Both, notably, images of unhealthiness.) Carston begins to feel that the cup turning up in his room wasn’t the only trick played on him.

But there’s no doubt this is a world desperately in need of the Holy Grail:

“There was something wrong with all of them, or with their world. A moment missed, a moment to come. Or not coming. Or either or both. Shove it off on the war; but that did not help.”

Scylla, Felix, and friends, are distinctly jaded: “We know between us pretty well all there is to know.” And Scylla at one point lays out the age’s malaise:

“If the materialists’ universe is true… we are a set of blind factors in a machine. And no passion has any validity… They are just little tricks of the machine… If you stick to the facts as we have them, life is a horror and an insult.”

They have the feeling, these no-longer-bright young things, of having run through the gamut:

“…we tried the bad to see if it might be good. But the new lot aren’t interested. Don’t give a button for the good any more.”

And Carston, tricked though he has been, feels this, at least, to be genuine:

“They strike me as people who have loved and suffered a great deal. That purifies.”

But whereas King Arthur’s knights split up to search for the Grail, it’s when this “Grail” appears that these “knights” split up. After Carston’s exit, Felix goes to Paris — and this is an interesting sequence, as we move from the tatty poverty of a run-down country house in Cornwall (dead hedgehogs and all) to the vibrancy of roaring 20s Paris, where, overwhelmed by his return to glitz and glamour, parties and young folk, Felix at first struggles to connect. Scylla goes to visit an old girlfriend in London, only to find her married and exceptionally conventional. (Butts gets playful here, presenting part of their conversation as an opera libretto.) Picus goes to weep on his mother’s grave. She, we learn, killed herself after discovering her husband, Picus’s father, was having an affair, with the “tubercular lady” to whom Picus’s father gave the jade cup, giving that “Holy Grail” even more of a Freudian significance for this young man. Clarence, meanwhile, goes back to the dry-welled cottage to try to forget about his longing for Picus, but soon descends into dangerous madness.

Mary Butts by Jean Cocteau, who illustrated a limited edition of Armed With Madness

And this, I think, is the key to the book’s title. The actual Grail knights — those who succeeded, anyway — were armed with righteousness and purity, but Butts’s “knights”, Scylla & co., have madness as their only resort. They have a self-conscious inability to relate to the Grail (real or not) as a symbol of transcendence and healing, but only as a symbol of reductive Freudian unconscious processes. They just don’t exist in a world where they can handle the Holy Grail’s holiness. So, it doesn’t matter if the cup (which is later revealed to actually be a “Keltic cup”, not the poison-cup and spitting-cup Picus’s father pretends it is) is the real Grail or not, or whether even if not real it still might offer some symbolic connection to a transcendent reality. To these jaded young things, there’s no possibility of transcendence except (perhaps) through art, (temporarily) through the disorientation of drink and drugs, or through fruitless and dangerous madness.

And so, they go through the pangs of loneliness, jealousy, longing, and so on, which ought to be the start of their healing journeys, only they have no way to go on from there, no transcendent state to aspire to.

The Grail myth becomes less important in the second half of the novel. Instead, the presiding image is of arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian, which is something Ted Hughes identified as a key figure throughout T S Eliot’s work, too (in his essay, “The Poetic Self”, in Winter Pollen).

Butts’ style, which I found driven by a sort of impatience with language in her first novel, is now clipped, dismissive, languid, broken — again, jaded — meaning the whole thing is quite laconic, exactly the sort of language her decadent, over-experienced, no-longer-bright young things use with one another. The result is that Armed With Madness really feels like it’s presenting something of the reality of its times. The heady, overwhelming glamour of Paris, and the too-sudden descents into sordid poverty and petty jealousy that run alongside it, all feel authentic. At the same time, Butts is aware of the malaise of her age:

“But notice what is happening now people have become used to the idea. Any little boy in a Paris bar, who never heard of physics knows. Everyone gets the age’s temper.”

To me, the characters are, as with her first novel, unequal to their self-dramatising pronouncements, but the novel itself feels like a far more on-the-ground and authentic document of its age than, say, Eliot’s highly intellectualised Waste Land, even though both draw from the same sources (Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, to which Butts adds A E Waite, Arthur Machen, and Jane Harrison). But both books share a theme of how the modern age doesn’t know how to deal with sacredness, and so loses out on awe, transcendence, and the deeper sort of healing it so desperately needs.

Butts’s next novel was a sequel of sorts to this one — or it features some of the same characters, anyway — though it doesn’t seem to have continued with the Grail theme. The Death of Felicity Taverner (1932) seems to be about land-developers seeking to despoil the Cornish countryside, and doesn’t tempt me quite as much as this novel did.

It’s also harder to get hold of. Armed With Madness seems to have been the only one of Butts’s novels to have had a paperback edition (in 2001 from Penguin Classics). I would like to try some of her short stories, if I can find them in a cheap enough edition. But Armed With Madness seems to be generally considered her best novel, and I suspect it might be more rewarding on a second go.

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Camelot 3000

Camelot 3000 issue 1, art by Brian Bolland

I remember this series feeling really special when it came out in the early 1980s. But it was meant to feel special. Camelot 3000 was DC Comics’ first “maxi-series”, a 12-issue story printed on higher-than-normal quality “Baxter” paper (which also resulted in stronger colours, I seem to recall), intended to be sold solely through specialist comic shops. This last point meant it wasn’t subject to the Comics Code Authority’s stamp of approval, so could contain, as writer Mike W Barr says in his introduction to the Deluxe Edition, “a transsexual knight, lesbianism, incest and various other Code-breaking plot points” — though nothing as graphic as that might make it sound to modern ears.

It’s set in a technologically advanced future which has recovered from nuclear war to, somehow, return to pretty much the 1980s’ version of world political power-balance, with a communist China and Russia in uneasy relations with a caricature cowboy President of the USA, and a psychopath dictator in charge of the African country of Rakmaburg. Aliens from the tenth planet are invading Earth, and have taken over England, while the rest of the world struggles to work out what to do. Tom Prentice, an archaeological student working at Glastonbury, accidentally reawakens the Once and Future King whilst fleeing aliens, and Arthur immediately grasps the situation: England, and the world, need him once more.

His first step is to free a grumpy Merlin (the series’ best character) from Stonehenge, then recover Excalibur (whose lake resting place is currently inside a nuclear power plant). Merlin then awakens six of Arthur’s knights from their current reincarnations: Sir Lancelot is Jules Futrelle, the world’s richest man (who has a handy castle-like home in orbit round Earth, all ready to become this future’s new Camelot); Guinevere is Commander Joan Acton, head of the Earth’s defence forces; Sir Kay is a minor criminal; Sir Galahad a dishonoured samurai; Sir Gawain a black South African family man; Sir Tristan, meanwhile, has been reincarnated as a woman, Amber March, and is awakened to her/his true identity just before she’s about to be married; finally, Sir Percival is reawakened the moment before he’s turned into a “Neo-Man”, a super-strong, near-invincible dumb giant, used by this future’s governments for law enforcement, created from criminals as a punishment for their crimes.

When it’s revealed, later in the series, that one of the crimes that can get you turned into a Neo-Man is “dissent”, it underlines how generic this book’s vision of the year 3000 is. It’s presented as a future version of the 1980s, but it’s also post-nuclear, technologically advanced, and overpopulated, and it’s also, evidently, from this need to punish “dissenters”, dystopian, though it’s never made clear how or why it is dystopian, aside from the selfishness of its leaders. The future, in Camelot 3000, has laser guns and flying cars, a hint of dystopia, a hint of post-nuclear holocaust, a hint of looming population crisis, a hint of satire, as well as a lack of the sort of technology that would actually help the characters (Tom Prentice’s laser burns can only be healed by the Holy Grail, Sir Tristan’s desire to be turned into a man can only be achieved through sorcery, not surgery). All in all, this future feels a little bit like the sort you’d find in 2000A.D., though more Mega-City Lite than the full Dredd.

The setting, though, isn’t the point. This generic future is there to be a background against which we see a sword-wielding King Arthur and his reincarnated knights fight insectoid aliens and a vengeful Morgan Le Fay. One of the things I remember liking most about the series was the knights’ individual struggles between their current incarnations and their mythic “real” identities. (In this way it could be said to tie in, though very lightly, with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.) Writer Mike W Barr updates some aspects of the original Arthurian myths with modern, or futuristic, equivalents. For instance, Tristan and Isolde’s love in the original is frustrated by the fact that Isolde is promised to another man and Tristan has been charged on his knightly honour to bring her to him; in Camelot 3000 that frustration comes from Tristan’s being a woman. (And many modern reviews pat the series condescendingly on the head in a “nice try” manner for addressing such outside-the-gender-norm issues without today’s nuances, but I remember this being a really surprising and original-feeling plotline at the time.) Meanwhile, Sir Percival was, in the original myths, the most perfect and innocent of Arthur’s knights; in Camelot 3000, he’s perfect and innocent because he’s been turned into a dumb, giant Neo-Man.

Some things, though, don’t change, and everyone has a doomed acceptance of the inevitable adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere, though it nearly tears New Camelot apart before it can face the alien threat. But ultimately, Camelot 3000 isn’t about the constrictive patterns of myth (as with The Owl Service), it’s about King Arthur and his knights being a symbol of hope in a future very much in need of it. So, the reliving of past mistakes provides interesting storylines, but ultimately the series is about our heroes’ triumphs despite their flaws, not the dark undertow of a bleak mythic destiny.

Camelot 3000 was intended to come out monthly, and did, for the first nine issues, after which it slowed down. In his introduction, Mike Barr says he warned DC they should stockpile issues before launching the series, knowing penciller Brian Bolland wouldn’t be able to stick to a monthly schedule, but they ignored him. As a result, although the first issue came out in December 1982, the last (with almost a year between it and issue 11) came out in April 1985.

It’s a fun series, feeling a little 2000AD-ish in places with its touches of anarchic satire, but no way near as dark as 1980s comics would become. Brian Bolland’s art remains one of the main selling points, though he’s not inking his own work, and it looks a little cruder than we tend to get from him now (particularly in the last issue, making me wonder if it was perhaps a little squeezed in between other projects). And I like the idea of how King Arthur’s return is handled. According to Barr, this was the first story to address the actual return of the Once and Future King — though Merlin pops up all the time in 1970s and 1980s UK kids’ TV; and one series at least, Raven (1977), is about a reincarnation of King Arthur, though not of the swords-versus-aliens type.

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From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston

From Ritual to Romance, published in 1920, is perhaps most well known today for being the first work T S Eliot lists in his “Notes on The Waste Land”, where he says that Weston’s book suggested “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism” of his poem. Eliot, of course, later said these notes were a publisher’s requirement to bulk out the book publication of The Waste Land, which has led some to dismiss them entirely, or to see them as one more layer of obfuscation around the poem, and Eliot himself later said he regretted sending so many readers “on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail”. But From Ritual to Romance, which aims to trace a link between medieval Holy Grail romances and the earliest fertility rituals, certainly had its influence on what the poem says and how it says it. As Eliot wrote in 1957 (quoted here):

“I was certainly not concerned with the validity of her thesis, but with the value of the imagery as a spring-board!”

Sir Gawain approaching the Grail Castle, illustration by Caroline Watts

Weston’s book makes no bones about its own debts. It’s firmly in the tradition of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a work of syncretist anthropology that first came out in 2 volumes in 1890 (and had expanded to 12 volumes by 1915), causing both scandal (for its treatment of Christ’s story as just another myth) and literary influence. Both Weston’s and Frazer’s books have their basis in the idea that “vegetation rituals” — “a symbolic representation of the death and re-birth of the year” — by which ancient peoples sought to ensure the fertility of their crop lands, are the foundation for later religious practices — though it becomes clear from Weston’s book that for her, at least, the fertility sought through such “vegetation rituals” extends not only to the fertility of the soil but human fertility and, later, a sort of spiritual fertility through union with “the supreme Spiritual Source of Life”.

Central to the Grail quest is the idea of a king and a land that are ailing. The king and his land are one. As one sickens, so does the other; to heal one is to heal the other. Weston traces this idea back to “the prehistoric heroes of the Aryan race” (a phrase which immediately highlights a huge cultural gap between Weston and the reader of today), from the Rig-Veda and Babylonian Ritual to the Ancient Greek cult of Adonis. At this point, she says, the belief surrounding such “vegetation rituals” can be seen as having two sides, the exoteric and the esoteric, the public ritual and the secret Mystery cult:

“…and with this change the role of the principal actors became of heightened significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately fulfilled by the administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation of Body and Soul became of cardinal importance for the Drama, the Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer…”

Weston says: “the original use of the ‘Tarot’ would seem to have been, not to foretell the Future in general, but to predict the rise and fall of the waters which brought fertility to the land…”

Ultimately, she sees in the Grail story a continuity between Ancient Attis-Adonis & Mithraic cults and early Christianity, an “essential harmony… between the Old Faith and the New”, which somehow survived the point at which Christianity, on becoming dominant in the West, sought to distance itself from past beliefs by declaring any similarities to be the mockeries and snares of the Devil. This essence of ancient-to-medieval continuity “lingered on; openly, in Folk practice, in Fast and Feast, whereby the well-being of the land might be assured; secretly, in cave or mountain-fastness, or island isolation, where those who craved for a more sensible (not necessarily sensuous) contact with the unseen Spiritual forces of Life than the orthodox development of Christianity afforded, might, and did, find satisfaction.” Weston sees, in the essence of the Grail romances, a “Christianized Mystery” — an esoteric heart to what is, to most, a purely exoteric religion.

Weston sees surviving Grail romances, though, as being mostly written by people ignorant of their deeper meaning. To Chrétien de Troyes (who died in 1185), for instance, she says, “the story was romance, pure and simple. There was still a certain element of awe connected with Grail, and Grail Feast, but of the real meaning and origin of the incidents he had, I am convinced, no idea whatever.” Traditional folk-tale themes get thrown in with the relics of ancient rituals, and “We have here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance, the doors of the Temple are closed behind us.” Weston even suggests the severance might have been deliberate:

“The remodelling is so radical that it seems most reasonable to conclude that it was purposeful, that the original author of the Queste had a very clear idea of the real nature of the Grail, and was bent upon a complete restatement in terms of current orthodoxy.”

In speculating on how these ancient rituals passed into medieval romances, Weston suggests an intriguing possibility, worthy of a modern-day weird tale, which might have occurred in a Christian land where remnants of the pagan past could still be found in crumbling mountain temples or island retreats, and which might be chanced upon by some lone, wandering knight:

“The earliest version of the Grail story… relates the visit of a wandering knight to one of these hidden temples; his successful passing of the test into the lower grade of Life initiation, his failure to attain to the highest degree.”

There’s an obvious similarity between Eliot’s Waste Land and Weston’s book. Both are reacting to how new ideas had undermined religious belief and, along with that, the sense of a deeper meaning in life. But whereas Eliot’s poem is all about the loss of faith, and takes on a highly fragmented form, Weston seems assured of renewing the sense of meaning in modern life by deepening the roots of her culture’s religious life beyond Christianity and further into the ancient past. Her approach is all about seeing the whole, rather than the parts. (She criticises earlier commenters on the Grail stories for concentrating on the meaning of only one particular element at a time — the Cup, or the Lance, for instance — without seeing each as part of a necessary whole.) Towards the end of her book, Weston breaks out in what sounds like a moment of passionate and genuine belief:

“…the Grail is a living force, it will never die; it may indeed sink out of sight, and, for centuries even, disappear from the field of literature, but it will rise to the surface again, and become once more a theme of vital inspiration even as, after slumbering from the days of Malory, it woke to new life in the nineteenth century, making its fresh appeal through the genius of Tennyson and Wagner.”

I’m sure Weston’s methods don’t stand up to modern academic standards but, like the seed of ancient ritual she herself finds in medieval Grail romances, there remains in her book the kernel of a poetic ideal, a link between ancient human beliefs and modern needs. And, while we may think it’s nothing but magical thinking that led previous cultures to think that, by performing their “vegetation rituals”, they could take an active part in renewing the land’s fertility, today it’s become essential that we take part in what was, before, a natural process, if only to undo the damage we’ve done to the Earth’s ability to support life. Perhaps the Grail is needed today more than ever.

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