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.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant (UK cover)Although there’s said to be a giant buried beneath a plain the elderly couple Axl and Beatrice cross early in their quest to join their son in another village, the ‘buried giant’ Ishiguro’s novel’s title refers to is metaphorical, not literal: it is the violence and atrocities of a recent past in which Christian Britons under ‘the great and beloved Arthur, now many years in heaven’ subdued the pagan Saxons, and which resulted in the two peoples now living together in apparent peace. But this is also a land under a strange curse: a mist of forgetfulness has fallen on its people, and many of them have almost no recollection of those terrible events. Axl and Beatrice have uneasy feelings about unremembered difficulties in their own long marriage, too, and can’t quite recall even what their son looks like, though they’ve set out to find him, always sure he’s only a village away in the pre-hedgerow English wilds. On their way, they encounter several figures who bring them back to a realisation of what the land has been through, including the aged Sir Gawain (long charged with killing the dragon Querig, whose breath some say is the cause of the land’s forgetfulness), and the young saxon warrior Wistan, who has his own reasons for travelling from his people’s native fenlands to complete the task Sir Gawain is tarrying over. Rumour has it the local lord Brennus has found a way to tame a dragon so it can be used in a genocidal war he intends to make against the local Saxon people, a rumour the militant Saxons of Wistan’s country believe because they, unlike Axl and Beatrice, remember the betrayal and slaughter of innocents that ended the recent wars.

This is not new thematic territory for Ishiguro, whose past novels — A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, and The Remains of the Day — explored the idea of buried, terrible secrets scattered among the recollections of seemingly blameless, otherwise unremarkable lives, particularly (with those latter two) in relation to the events of the Second World War. An article on The Guardian goes into why Ishiguro chose to set his latest assault on this theme in a fantasticated Dark Ages England:

‘[Ishiguro] said The Buried Giant’s fantasy setting served as a neutral environment to explore the idea of collective memory and how societies heal after atrocities by forgetting the past. He revealed that he considered Bosnia, America and post-second world war Japan and France as potential settings, but worried that sort of a recent historical scenario would make the story too political. “I always feel the pull of the metaphorical landscape, I am not a straightforward realist,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, I am trying to make a universal statement.”’

Unfortunately, Ishiguro found himself stepping on an unanticipated Buried Giant of his own, no way near as terrible as past war crimes or genocide, but still incendiary to some of the more Saxon (pagan, angry, armed with tech) areas of the internet: the 20th century’s culture war between genre and the literary establishment, now long decided (the genre side won, though there are diehards who remain unaware of the fact) because the internet undermined the cultural elite’s ivory strongholds (literary magazines, print reviews, the major publishers). What was once a ghetto within the world of publishing is more mainstream now than the mainstream itself. But some survivors of the conflict — Ursula Le Guin being one — still smart when they hear someone protesting, ‘It’s not fantasy’ or ‘It’s not SF’, and rattle their sabres. I don’t think Ishiguro intended to distance himself from the genre, but he evidently didn’t walk as carefully as he needed to over this particular unquiet burial mound.

Buried Giant 02Is the book fantasy? Undoubtedly. As well as the dragon Querig, there are ogres, pixies, and some sort of undead peeled-looking dog-thing met in an underground escape-passage. These aren’t treated exactly as a genre writer would treat them, keen to point out how they’ve re-thought and revitalised standard tropes. Ishiguro handles them almost too lightly for the fantasy reader in me (though in a way that recalls Gene Wolfe). His ogres are almost never glimpsed fully or alive — the first appearance of one in the book, outside rumour, is of a severed lump of featureless flesh, at first mistaken for a head, later realised to be a sliced-off piece of shoulder, while another is seen dying at the bottom of a pit, covered in the remains of a torn-apart poisoned goat(!). The pixies are the most intriguing. They get one brief appearance:

“A sound made him turn, and he saw at the other end of the boat, still bathed in orange light, the old woman slumped against the bow with pixies – too many to count – swarming over her. At first glance she looked contented, as if being smothered in affection, while the small, scrawny creatures ran through her rags and over her face and shoulders. And now there came more and more out of the river, climbing over the rim of the boat.”

I’d like to know more about those pixies, but unlike your true fantasy author, I doubt Ishiguro intends The Buried Giant to be the first in a series, so that’s all we’re getting. The dragon, meanwhile — which I was quite prepared to accept was going to be wholly projected superstition — turns out to be an actual dragon, but like the creature met at the end of Le Guin’s Threshold, or Mayne’s A Game of Dark, one whose monstrousness only serves to emphasise the genuinely human element of the evil or wrongness that dominates The Buried Giant’s Britain, rather than being a full, Smaug-like evil in its own right.

The Buried Giant 03I found The Buried Giant patchy. Moments really worked for me. The way, for instance, the warrior Wistan sees a monastery the travellers visit as the re-purposed Saxon stronghold it is, down to the way various parts of it exist for no other reason than to trap and kill the enemy in the largest possible numbers. Occasionally, though — as with the last Ishiguro novel I read, and the one that put me off reading him, When We Were Orphans — I found the world and characters almost ludicrously unconvincing, as when Sir Gawain (in a slightly age-addled reverie, it has to be said), recalls helping a woman get revenge for the death of her husband. A battle is raging (or is just over), yet Gawain puts her on his horse, rides straight to the man she wants to kill, despatches the three other soldiers with him, and all without any sign of any other enemies, even though the man she wants to face is presumably important enough to be in some sort of encampment. And then another important character just wanders in. It’s more like the sort of abbreviated battle scene you get in Shakespeare, but at least there you accept the lack of realism because it’s being staged. Here, I just couldn’t help wishing Ishiguro had concentrated a bit on making it more realistically convincing, despite being fantasy. But then there’s the occasional bit of writing which surely even Le Guin would agree passes her Poughkeepsie test. There’s no denying this particular warrior is of Elfland (even though a Saxon):

‘The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbours’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging. And even as they move on, our armies will grow larger, swollen by anger and thirst for vengeance.’

It’s not a plot-driven book, but a theme-driven one, and as usual with such books, I find they may dissatisfy along the way, but they usually end well. The final chapter, in which the lesser buried secrets of Axl and Beatrice’s marriage are brought out and put to the test by a boatman who can only be the Ferryman himself, is both moving and meaningful. Elsewhere shot through with moments that work and some that don’t quite, I’d say The Buried Giant is not as good as it could have been were it a full-blown fantasy (which has often dealt with similar themes to Ishiguro’s — the Harry Potter series, for instance, in its later novels, deals with the past atrocities of Voldemort’s first spree and the way people try to forget this ever happened, and how this allows a new, fascistic magical government to gain power), but it didn’t leave me unsatisfied at the end.

Mills & Barsoom

It’s always been a problem, what to do with young men, bundles of sex and violence that they are. Each age has to come up with new ways of channelling their youthful energies, or face the consequences. The Middle Ages, all too aware of the dangers of having a bunch of steel-plated, lusty young knights roaming the countryside, developed a pair of social codes: chivalry, which said that only a fight between equals was truly honourable (so, no bashing peasants just for the hell of it), and courtly love, which said that the purest expression of a knight’s devotion was to dedicate himself to the service of a (preferably married, certainly chaste) woman, whom he could worship from afar, obey her every command, and pine for. The fiction of the times is full of honourable knights and sighingly tragic longing. Lancelot was the ideal, and though nowadays he’s most known for his massive failure to merely worship from afar, Malory, at least, was convinced of his virtue, saying that anyone who didn’t believe in it was corrupted by the cynicism of the times:

“…nowadays men cannot love seven nights but they must have all their desires… But the old love was not so; for men and women could love together seven years, and no lecherous lusts were betwixt them, and then was love truth and faithfulness. And so in like wise was used such love in King Arthur’s days.”

A Princess of Mars - Bruce Penngington cover

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is a direct descendent of the same school of fiction. I first read it when I was 19 or 20, and perhaps because it was so short and so very readable, quickly moved on to its sequels, which proved just as moreish. (I think I got as far as The Master Mind of Mars (6th in the series), or perhaps even Synthetic Men of Mars (9th) — things get a bit blurry after the first three. It’s the uber-cliffhanging ending of the second, Gods of Mars, which has stuck with me.) Even while caught up in them — and they really did have that read-it-in-a-single-sitting compulsion — I knew they were basically an endless series of riffs on a single formula. The thing was, the formula was so primal, it worked even though I was aware of it.

A Princess of Mars - Michael Whelan cover

It’s the romantic male daydream of rescuing a beautiful princess, either from death or a fate-worse-than, again and again and again, raised by the power of its exotic setting (one of Dejah Thoris’s would-be ravishers, Tal Hajus, is “the most hideous beast I had ever set eyes upon… like some huge devil-fish”), and delivered at such a breathless pace, the narrative barely gives you time to recover from one iteration before it lands you in the lap of the next. The hero, John Carter, goes from death-defying extreme to death-defying extreme, at one point having his flying machine shot down to crash in the middle of warring hordes of savage Tharks (six-limbed, twelve-foot-tall green Martians who think the death agonies of their enemies the funniest thing going), only to find himself fighting next to (and saving the life of) the one Thark on all the planet who knows him. The plot has enough holes to sink a heavier vessel (why does Carter, having just freed Kandos Kan in Zodanga, instead of going on to free his beloved Dejah Thoris in the same city, elect to fly all the way to the distant city of Helium, a place he’s never been to before and in which he will not be recognised, in order to get help?), and I felt, on this re-read, some of Carter’s actions were more barbaric than heroic (to rescue Dejah Thoris from being wed to the warlike Zodangan prince, Carter assembles a horde of Green Martians to massacre and imprison the whole city, many of whose inhabitants, it has been pointed out, are against the actions of their leader) but the whole thing stays buoyant through sheer narrative pace as it zings from one romantic peril to the next. Like a shark, it survives only because it keeps moving. But this shark moves fast.

A Princess of Mars - Frank Frazetta cover

It’s not just physical peril, though, that stands between John Carter and the beautiful Martian princess Dejah Thoris (she lays eggs, don’t you know). The exotic setting allows Burroughs to put problematic cultural barriers between the two of them, from Dejah Thoris taking insult at the culturally-ignorant Carter’s unintentional faux pas at the beginning, to her later telling him that, having promised her hand in marriage to the hated Sab Than because she thought Carter dead, honour dictates not only that she cannot go back on her word, but that, should Carter kill Sab Than, she and Carter will never be able to marry.

It’s courtly love all over again.

(Apparently there’s a film out, or something.)