The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

The Western Canon by Harold BloomPublished in 1994, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon is a celebration of great literature. It has achieved a certain notoriety for Bloom’s taking a stance against what he saw as the unwanted politicisation of literary criticism (‘the School of Resentment’ as he calls it, being deliberately provocative), when for him the key to all ‘deep reading’ is the experience of the individual, alone with a book. ‘Such a reader,’ he says, ‘does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence.’ But the real core of the book is Bloom’s attempt to, as he puts it, ‘confront greatness directly’. Doing this, he necessarily talks about ‘the canon’ — his particular Valhalla of great works from Western literature — but whether you agree with his choices or not is beside the point. It’s the conclusions he draws, or the aspects he celebrates, that are the reason to read The Western Canon. My own experience certainly chimes with his:

‘When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfilment of expectations.’

As well as the standard reasons you’d expect for a work to be considered great — ‘mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction’ — Bloom adds another, ‘strangeness’:

‘…a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.’

Bloom_ShakespeareWildest of Bloom’s many wild ideas is that the way we’ve come to see ourselves as human beings has been, at least in part, formed by the representations of human beings in our greatest literature. For him, Shakespeare is the greatest of the greats, and the most influential on human nature itself. His pronouncement that ‘The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realises that the accurate stance towards them is one of awe’, may sound overblown, but frankly, it’s nice to be in the presence of someone who allows themselves a little bombast when talking about what they love. ‘Shakespearean drama,’ Bloom writes, ‘seems at once utterly familiar and yet too rich to absorb all at once.’ And whether you agree or you don’t — or whether such statements could ever be lived up to by any work by any writer — I certainly find them inspiring, both as a reader as a writer. And that’s one of the things I like about this book: it makes me want to read better, to read ‘deeper’ or ‘stronger’, as he puts it. Bloom’s model as a reader (and critic) is Dr Johnson, who is, he says, ‘everything a wise critic should be: he directly confronts greatness with a total response, to which he brings his complete self.’

Reading properly, then, makes you both human and whole.

Bloom’s canon is no mere dusty list. It is, rather, an eternal battlefield on which current works must fight it out with the greats of the past to win a place: ‘a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.’ Bloom’s judgements and summaries of writers and their works have a wonderful strangeness of their own, being utterly unverifiable but always illuminating, intriguing, and provocative, like the literary criticism version of Zen koans. ‘Shakespeare,’ he says, ‘is the inventor of psychoanalysis; Freud, its codifier.’ Or, to put it another way: ‘Hamlet did not have an Oedipus complex, but Freud certainly had a Hamlet complex and perhaps psychoanalysis is a Shakespeare complex.’ Later he says, ‘Freud, slyly following Shakespeare, gave us our map of the mind; Kafka intimated to us that we could not hope to use it to save ourselves, even from ourselves.’

Agon by Harold BloomThe thing that brought me to Bloom’s book was when someone told me he’d included David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in his long list of canonical works (a list required of him by his publishers, apparently, rather than being something he set out to compile). In an earlier book, Agon (from 1982), Bloom devotes a chapter to sketching out a ‘theory of literary fantasy’, which he then applies, in some detail, to Lindsay’s novel (as well as offering an explanation of sorts for his one venture into fiction, his — dull, in my opinion — attempt at a Lindsay-esque novel, The Flight to Lucifer). This ‘theory of literary fantasy’ is short, but I’ve always found it to apply whenever I pause to test it on a work of fantasy I’m reading. Rather than an all-encompassing theory, it’s an attempt to understand a peculiar aspect of fantastic literature: why, when given the freedom to invent anything, and therefore to potentially indulge oneself in nothing but power-fantasies and pleasurable daydreams, great fantasy literature ends up confronting genuinely difficult and meaningful themes — in other words, what rescues truly good fantasy from the accusation of escapism:

‘What promises to be the least anxious of literary modes becomes much the most anxious… The cosmos of fantasy, of the pleasure/pain principle, is revealed in the shape of a nightmare, and not of hallucinatory wish-fulfilment.’

Fantasy, for Bloom, is the ‘compounding of Narcissism and Prometheanism’ (which sounds like a neat counterpart to Brian Aldiss’s definition of SF as ‘hubris clobbered by Nemesis’). It certainly applies to the best of the fantasy books I’ve reviewed on this site — think of, for instance, Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold, where two characters seek to escape from their daily lives in a fantasy world, only find themselves on a quest to face something even more dangerous and difficult; or a similar situation in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, where an escape from a difficult home life is illuminated by a parallel quest to destroy a truly disgusting dragon.

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Harold Bloom, photograph by Jeanne Bloom

Bloom’s The Western Canon has persuaded me to read a few of his choice of great books (among them, appropriately, Jane Austen’s Persuasion), though by no means all of them. But always, dipping into it, I’m revitalised as a reader. My canon is not, and will never be, Bloom’s (I’d put Peake’s Gormenghast books in there for sure, as well as Le Guin’s first two Earthsea books), but I can’t help but agree with him about the core purpose of reading, and of writing about what one reads:

‘Aesthetic criticism returns us to the autonomy of imaginative literature and the sovereignty of the solitary soul, the reader not as a person in society but as the deep self, our ultimate inwardness.’

‘Our ultimate inwardness’ — the thing I, for one, certainly search for between the covers of a book.


Modern Fantasy by C N Manlove

‘Modern fantasy has a very large readership, and already enjoys considerable academic repute, particularly in America: it is surprising that as yet no serious study of the subject has appeared.’

Modern Fantasy by C N ManloveThus writes Colin Manlove in the preface to his 1975 offering, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, the first book of academic criticism about fantasy literature (as opposed to books by insiders — Moorcock and Le Guin, for instance) that I read. In it, Manlove looks at the works of five fantasists: Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, George MacDonald’s fairy tales, C S Lewis’s Perelandra, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Mervyn Peake’s Titus books. The treatment of each work is in-depth, looking (briefly) at the author’s life, their stated intentions for their work, and then at how well they realise those intentions.

Each time, Manlove concludes the work to be a failure.

With Peake, for instance, he’s not convinced by Titus’s desire to escape Gormenghast. He says there’s no evidence in the text that having his every spare moment taken up by age-old meaningless ritual has a detrimental effect on the young boy. As this repugnance for Gormenghast’s constant ceremonies and rituals is, really, a fundamental element not just of Titus’s character, but of the three books’ basic worldview, Manlove fails to be convinced by the trilogy.

With Tolkien, he finds three points to criticise. First, that there’s a ‘continued presence of a biased fortune’ in the plot, meaning that ‘it is not mortal will but luck which is the architect of success, the struggles with the evil forces become unreal, mere posturings in a rigged bout.’ Second, that ‘Tolkien has realised [Mordor and Sauron] far more vividly than anything he gives us to oppose them. What we have is… an imaginative imbalance: good is supposed to overcome evil, but since it is less real to us, its victory does not convince.’ And third, that ‘there is no real pain in the laments’ — that the air of melancholy created by the passing of the great ages of elvish magic is no genuine loss, but is, instead, ‘a loss so bejewelled that it is a pleasure to contemplate’.

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

With all of these points, for both Peake and Tolkien, I find myself wondering just where Manlove is coming from. To me, Gormenghast’s ritual — and, specifically, its effect on young Titus — is so much the sharp end of all that shadowy edifice’s oppressiveness, that to say there’s no evidence for Titus’s dislike of it seems to be missing the massive, and fundamental, weight of Gormenghast itself. (Also, I’d say that Titus is the least interesting character in the books, and to judge them a failure because of Titus’s character would be similar to judging, say, The Tempest a failure because of the limp character of its male lead Ferdinand — ignoring the splendours of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban.) To Peake, a free spirit if ever there was one, the need for freedom was perhaps too fundamental to be stated; nevertheless, oppression saturates Gormenghast’s shadowy gloom and soaks every word of those two fabulous books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, to the point that every word is, surely, the ‘evidence’ Manlove finds lacking.

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

With Tolkien, I have to say Manlove’s first point may be a genuine criticism, it just never occurred to me while reading the books. (Or watching either Jackson’s films, or Bakshi’s.) Manlove says there are too many narrow escapes from danger for us to believe in them — despite acknowledging that the narrow escape from danger (what Tolkien termed the ‘Eucatastrophe’) was fundamental to the fairy-tale effect Tolkien was after. But does anyone starting to read The Lord of the Rings really doubt the One Ring will be destroyed, at the end? So, we have to accept that, throughout the three books, all we’ll ever have is the illusion of peril, otherwise the quest will fail. And it’s the very narrowness of the escapes from danger that, surely, provide that illusion. It certainly worked for me.

The point about evil in Tolkien’s work is simply bizarre. Manlove argues that ‘Sauron is more real than anything else in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien has chosen never to present him directly.’ Which surely goes against Manlove’s requirement for ‘textual evidence’ (as in the arguments against Peake). It’s also odd considering most people’s objections being that Tolkien doesn’t do evil very well, precisely because Sauron never appears (Leiber, quoted in Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance: ‘he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards’). I’d say Sauron can’t appear because he’s pure evil, which can’t convincingly be embodied, and it’s a good thing Tolkien didn’t try. Against this, the forces of ‘good’, which Manlove finds unconvincing, are partly ‘good’ because they’re so diverse — because they allow individuals to be individuals, with no single, fixed idea, no ‘One Ring to rule them’, no single figure to embody their various ideals. It’s this very multiplicity — they’re a ragtag many against a totalitarian one — that makes their stand against Sauron all the more difficult.

The Fellowship of the RingManlove’s criticism of the elegiac air of Tolkien’s trilogy comes down to the fact that the elves aren’t dying off, but are merely leaving Middle Earth for other shores. However, they are still leaving our world, and this is perhaps the basis for the feeling of loss in The Lord of the Rings: it’s an elegy for the fact that our world isn’t the world of wonder and magic that we find in fairy tales. Tolkien can’t kill off his elves, because they’re immortal — they will always live, because they live in our imaginations — but still, they aren’t here, with us, and we don’t live in a magical world. This, though, is a poetic fact, something that I find in the books, rather than something Tolkien writes about, and so is, therefore, something ‘serious’ academic criticism can’t address, however vital a part of the reading of the trilogy it is, to me.

I’ve always been interested in the polarising effect fantasy has on people. Some get it, and enjoy it, others not only don’t enjoy it but feel the need to attack it. They can’t just say, ‘It’s not for me,’ they have to say, ‘Of course, it’s rubbish,’ or, at best, ‘Yes, but it’s for kids.’ I still never fail to be amazed to find people writing entire ‘serious’ books on a subject that, at a deep level, they clearly despise. I wouldn’t say this applies to Manlove, who went on to write several more books about fantasy, including The Fantasy Literature of England (1999) and The Fantasy Literature of EnglandFrom Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England (2003), which are less critical (perhaps because they’re overviews of subjects, rather than in-depth looks, and both are very useful for the sheer breadth of their coverage) — but there’s a feeling of inevitability to his conclusion that ‘not one of the people we have looked at sustains his original vision’. Why? I didn’t understand it at the time I first read Modern Fantasy (in the mid-90s, after finding it in our local library), but have since come to think there’s something fundamental missing from the academic criticism of the time, in its approach to fantasy. By writing a ‘serious’ book on fantasy, Manlove is, of course, criticising using the standards and methods he’d use when approaching ‘serious’ literature (as it was once called): by looking at the various elements like plot, characterisation and style — all vital elements — and finding that the work failed in each of these departments. But I think fantasy criticism requires consideration of another basic element, something that’s to be found in all art, but is so much more evident in the fantastic: I’d call it imagination, or perhaps invention, but perhaps ‘wonder’ is the best word for it, here. Great fantasy has, at its heart, a sort of poetry that’s not grounded in character, or plot, or style — it’s what those elements are grounded in. To ‘get’ fantasy, you have to get the wonder, and that is something you can’t get by taking a critical, analytical perspective. You have to give yourself over to it, and then it either works or it doesn’t. With Peake, it’s Gormenghast — the whole gloom-shadowed, oppressive grotesquery of it, and the way it embodies itself in the various characters who inhabit it; with Tolkien, it’s the majesty of the quest, the heroism of the struggle (not the ultimate success, but how harrowing the journey is), and the whole legend-soaked background of Middle Earth, with its melancholy air of fading elvish magic. These are the central points from which all appreciation of these works must come. To me, both of these works work, and any criticism can only ask why they work. Which isn’t to say that all fantasy works, but I think if you’re not open to that key quality of fantasy, you’re just never going to get the works that do. Certainly, diving straight down into details, as Manlove does, is fatal — it’s the old idea of dissecting a frog to find out which part makes it alive. All you end up with is dead, messy frog parts, and no answers; then you start convincing yourself the frog was never really alive in the first place. Poor frog.


Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake

Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake “To the reader who has followed Titus through the two earlier books Titus Alone administers a profound jolt, and many have not liked it,” writes Malcolm Yorke in My Eyes Mint Gold, his biography of Mervyn Peake. It was warnings such as this that put me off reading the third of Peake’s Titus books back when I read the first two, and which prepared me, on finally getting round to it, not to be disappointed by it not being a Gormenghast book. But, as it is a Titus book, it is at least haunted by Gormenghast, even if the world Titus moves through, and the prose style we get to experience it through, aren’t Gormenghastian, but something less grandiose and Gothic, less solid, and of that much less character, too. At times, it reads like a sort of mannered absurdism, full of details that ought to add up to character and style but without any of the substance that would make them work.

Perhaps the trouble is that Titus, though the figure around whom the whole series revolves, isn’t one of Peake’s more interesting characters. He exists, at first, to be oppressed by Gormenghast, then to defy it and escape from it. But because his identity is so tied up with that vast shadow-haunted castle, once he’s away from it, what is he? This is something Titus himself has to confront, as he finds himself, in Titus Alone, so far from his home that no-one has ever heard of it, and most don’t believe such a place even exists:

“Did you run away, young man?”

“I rode away,” said Titus.

“From… Gormenghast?”

“Yes, your Worship.”

“Leaving your mother…?”


“And your father…?”

“No, not my father…”

“Ah… is he dead, my boy?”

“Yes, your Worship. He was eaten by owls.”

The Magistrate raised an eyebrow and began to write upon a piece of paper.

Finding himself in a very un-Gormenghastian land of motorcars and helicopters, tall glass buildings and needle-like aeroplanes, Titus is arrested for having no identity. “So my papers are out of order, are they?” he says. “So is my brain and heart.”

MuzzlehatchUnfortunately, this lack of identity makes for him being a very weak character to hang a novel on. In the Gormenghast books, relief would be found in other characters, or in Gormenghast itself, but here there’s not much weight to the world Titus finds himself in, and we only get a small handful of characters who have any real character at all. Perhaps there’s only one. And that would be fine, because the whole of “Boy in Darkness” is sustained by the eerie presence of the Lamb alone, but here the one new character of interest, Muzzlehatch, exists mainly to stride in and out of the plot at key points, rescuing Titus when Titus needs rescuing, then to disappear, because Muzzlehatch, “Barbaric to the eye, his silhouette more like something of ropes and bones,” a man “so ragged and yet, at the same time, so like a king”, whose “every movement was a kind of stab in the bosom of the orthodox world” is a kind of hero of indifference, a hero of individuality and self-containment, something Titus aspires to, but fails to achieve until the very final paragraph of the novel. Till then, Muzzlehatch must exist as a heroic example, but one who therefore can’t take centre place in a novel which is all about the attempt to solve the problem Muzzlehatch has already solved — the problem of knowing who you are, of being self-contained — not what Titus is, a ghost of his own past, simultaneously longing for, and trying to deny his need for, Gormenghast. “Give me some proof of me!” Titus cries, at one point. Yet Gormenghast, his once-home, is the only proof of Titus.

I said in my Mewsings on the second Titus book that it didn’t hit its stride, and really get back into the immersive feel of the first book, till about 250 pages in. This is excusable in a book with another 250 pages to go. For me, Titus Alone didn’t hit its stride till the 200 page mark, which might sound like an improvement till you realise Titus Alone is only 260 pages long, leading me to think it might have been better as a novella like “Boy in Darkness” — short, but focused on a single episode. And, if it weren’t for the need to build up the characters that feature in that final episode, it would surely be possible to read just those final 60 pages on their own, because they comprise the only real set-piece of any weight in the book, and almost all of its meaning.

Peake’s at his best with set pieces. His style is all about elaboration, about building up his characters from quirky little cartoons to full-blown human beings, and building up his settings in all their Gothic cobwebbed glory, and then bringing it all together in grand, climactic moments. In Titus Alone, there’s nothing for his elaborations to adhere to till the final scene, where Cheeta, the scientist’s daughter who’s intent on ruining Titus’s mind, builds a mockery of Gormenghast and brings him to it, to parade in front of him grotesque creations meant to represent his mother, his dead sister, his dead father, and the other inhabitants of a world she has only heard about through Titus’s mutterings whilst in a fever.

Titus Alone, by Mervyn PeakeThe thing that makes the world of Titus Alone most different from that of Gormenghast is that, whilst Gormenghast seemed at most to be a post-World War II world, and that only as a distant echo, Titus Alone is resolutely in the atomic age. Cheeta’s father, described in the book as “the greatest scientist in the world” was in fact, in Peake’s original manuscript (according to John Batchelor’s book on Peake), described as “the greatest deathray scientist in the world” — something which makes a lot more sense of why his factory, and his daughter, should be the focus for the book’s idea of evil. Scientists in Titus Alone are purveyors of death, and inventors of devices for mass killing, and the world of Titus Alone, though slightly futuristic with its tall glass buildings and needle-like aircraft (and its over-leisured middle classes who spend so much time at over-crowded cocktail parties), is a diminished world:

“Once there were islands all a-sprout with palms: and coral reefs and sands as white as milk. What is there now but a vast shambles of the heart? Filth, squalor, and a world of little men.”

Titus Alone isn’t in the same league as the two Gormenghast books, or even the much shorter “Boy in Darkness”, and for most of it, I found myself wondering if I’d get anything out of the reading at all. But the final 60 pages were good — not quite Gormenghast good, but certainly good enough, and unlike the early parts of the book, they tied in enough with the story of Titus’s leaving Gormenghast to make them seem a worthwhile continuation, completing the arc of Titus’s development into manhood that began, in the second book, with the sudden death of “the Thing”, then his decision to leave Gormenghast, to the moment in the final paragraph of Titus Alone where he finds, finally, the link to his past that properly enables him to absorb it, and escape it.