Sunday, March 29, 2020

St. George and the Witches (1938).

Nobody knows him and he's a total weirdo.  That sums up the whole plight and nature of J.W. Dunne's entire reputation.  He exists on the fringes of pop-culture as the guy who once theorized about something to do with dreams and time travel.  Other than that he's not what's trending, so who cares?  Then again, it is always possible to point out that its the basic nature of trends to be fleeting and momentary.  You could almost say its their basic nature to cancel themselves out.  On the other hand, the weirdo has managed to hang around since the 1920s.  What does that say about staying power?  If nothing else, it means there's an aura of fascination surrounding Dunne that he's never quite been able to shake off.

The main reason for this has to do with his 1927 book, An Experiment with Time.  He used it to expound a theory about the nature of chronological progression and its relation to dreams.  His basic idea was that sometimes dreams can help us to realize that time is not something like a solid, immovable force.  Instead, its more like a spiral enfolding on itself.  If that last sentence made little to zero sense, then take a number and get in line.  Guys like Dunne always have that effect on ordinary people.  It's like a natural necessity given the way modern life is lived.  The minute an anomaly like Dunne's book shows up, the inescapable result is that its like there's really nowhere for it to go.  In works of fiction, there is usually a reason given for why this should be.  The usual trope explanation is that the irruption of the unnatural into the natural tends to upset things too much for the health of society, or something like that.

Either way, in real life terms, An Experiment with Time remains Dunne's main claim to fame.  It's very nature consigns it to sort of the fringe level of publication.  Its easy to imagine an artist like Alan Moore having a copy of it lying around somewhere in his bookshelf.  If this were a work of fiction or more like a folktale, then the typical plot trajectory for this sort of narrative would have Dunne simply leave his text, and then vanish off the map as mysteriously as he came.  It's telling of the difference between myth and real life that Dunne's exploits were a bit more multi-faceted than the neatness of any fictional narrative.  After he finished his Time book, he penned several related volumes in which he tried to expand on his meaning for popular audiences. 

There even seems to have been a brief span of time when his ideas gained a certain kind of popularity in literary circles.  Guys like W.B. Yeats showed an occasional interest in Dunne's ideas.  And I'm convinced his concepts lie behind a lot of the work of J.B. Priestly.  I suppose that's not too shabby for an unassuming aircraft engineer with strange dreams.  However the record shows that Dunne was capable of finding ways to make things odd, and therefore just a bit more interesting.  He didn't just pen off-kilter non-fiction works on theoretical physics.  He also took the time to publish books meant to entertain children.  Dunne has at least two titles to his name in this particular genre field.  The first was a tome with the curious name of The Jumping Lions of Borneo.  The second is the book under discussion today, An Experiment with St. George, or as it is known under its American publication, St. George and the Witches.

I ran across the whole thing almost by accident.  I think it was the result of just googling the guy out of sheer curiosity, and there it was, listed among his bibliography.  A bit more searching revealed that somehow the St. George text has managed to find a digital re-release as of this writing.  I don't how that's possible, considering its a book that has been lost to obscurity for all intents and purposes.  In a way, it forms the perfect sense of contradictory logic of Dunne's career.  It's a book that has vanished through the cracks, and has been lost to memory.  So here it is, for a new generation to discover. If its a contradiction, then somehow that never got in the way of the book's fortunes.  Se la Vie, I suppose.  Either that or its just further proof I was born and raised in one great, big, surrealist painting.  What I do know for certain is that I felt I had to go the extra mile and track down an actual physical copy of Dunne's book.  Somehow there was one single edition left intact in all of Britain, and now its stored away in my library (current location, Ancient Babylonia (or was it Alexandria?  I keep getting those places mixed up).  The upshot is that I had to fork over a great wad of cash to get my hands on it.  So it was delivered.  I read it.  The result is as follows.

The Story.

You all know the legend of St. George, don't you?  Once upon a time a knight rescued a fair damsel in distress from a dragon.  That was supposed to be the end of the whole affair, and all George was looking forward to once the dust settled was the simple life of the newly minted husband.  The damsel's name was Cleodolinda, and to say that she and her father, the King, were in the knight's debt for his services is a bit like saying that a fish needs the ocean in order to survive.  Perhaps it should be stressed however that none of it would have gone as far as it did if the Saint and the Princess hadn't first resolved whether or not such a relationship would truly work out for either of them.  Some people just get lucky that way, it seems.  Either that or both were really willing to put in all the effort a good marriage requires.

Everything was fine until the King decided to show and tell George all about the Kingdom's methods of dragon-hunting.  It was a long-established custom in the land, amounting to something like a medieval form of pest control.  The way it works is that a battalion of battle elephants are used to drive the scaly buggers out of their hiding places in the forest, and into the waiting arms of a group of the King's best archers, who let fly and then stand back as the scales hit the ground.  It was the first time George had ever heard of the sport, and he was quite keen to take part in it.  The trouble wasn't the hunt itself, so much as the part where a shrieking wild woman came racing out of the woods along with all the mouth-breathers.  It didn't really help that she wasn't so much running as gliding through the air like an impossible, rag covered bird.

She was a witch, of course.  There's very little else she could have been.  The curious thing was that no one in the Kingdom had seen such activity in a very long while, even before His Majesty's time.  Then again, in St. George's day, impossibilities for were a lot more dime-a-dozen, and this didn't seem to be any exception to the rule.  Before Linda, George, and the King know what's happened, several of the army's best archers have been routed, the witch has vanished back into the thickets, and one brave war elephant has become a statue.  It soon becomes apparent that she was also not alone, and it will soon take George all of his resources if he wants to triumph over a threat straight out of ancient myth.

Myth and Modernism: Dunne's Mythical Method for Refashioning Old Legends.

J.W. Dunne chose a very interesting time in which to write this book.  A good way to get a general kind of idea about that period is to realize that just a year earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien was lucky enough to publish a tome with the curious title of The Hobbit.  In addition to this, other authors in the same genre, if not always the same vein were starting to pick up their pens and flex their creative muscles.  Four years earlier Pamela Travers released a book known as Mary Poppins while across the pond, a man named Theodore "Seuss" Giesel began a series of rhymed verses that came out as To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.  It would be the first in a long line of books that would revolutionize how titles for really young adults were written.  All of which is to say that Dunne first began work on his own idea during a period which could mark the beginning of an explosion of children's literature.  A lot of the titles from that epoch are now household names.  Dunne just had the misfortune to fall by the wayside, at least until now.

One of the pleasures of looking back at moments like this are that it allows you to realize that there was something in the artistic zeitgeist of the time that could draw a number of creative talents together into separate yet united creative endeavors.  Up till now, I had no idea that the author of An Experiment with Time was a part of this same process.  If I had to look for a word that would describe what Dunne was up to with St. George and the Witches, then it would have to be something like an exercise in the Mythical Method.  That phrase is not mine, by the way.  It was used by the poet T.S. Eliot. 

From what I can tell, this Method can be used in a number of ways.  The way writers like Eliot used it was to take bits and pieces of ancient myth and use them as a juxtaposition, or foil to the nature and actions of modern life.  Another way to use this same Method is to go straight to the ancient myths themselves, and find the proper means or modes of artistic expression that would make them appealing and viable to modern audiences.  This style of approach is best typified by guys like Tolkien, who plundered the minor hints, and fragments contained in old Norse Literature to fashion the world of Middle Earth.  If anything, I'm willing to argue that Modernism's Mythical Method, when read properly, can provide a useful critical framework for examining a lot of the best fiction published and released during the 20s and 40s.  I also think this framework can help us understand the way John Dunne writes his own modern take on an ancient fairy tale.

I think it makes sense to view Dunne as writing in more or less the same tradition as Modernists like Joyce and Eliot because his book features a lot of the same concerns with Myth and the various modern applications it can have.  The way this method is utilized in his story is that the author will first take a slice of folklore, and then introduce plot elements that gives the dialogue, description, and action a certain flavor that makes it all familiar to modern ears.  The reader can find moments in the plot where the narrative takes on a discernible 20th century analytical cast.  There are moments where the heroes find themselves confronted with an obstacle that requires them to use their brains, rather than relying on mere strength of force.  The trick is that Dunne, as both a physicist and aeronautics engineer is using these moments to demonstrate his own meticulous, critical-thinking skills.  The results are somewhat humorous in the way the characters approach the nature of Dunne's secondary world.

A good example of this is when the King delves into the scientific minutia of the creation of dragons.  “The information I am going to give you,” began the King, “I had direct from my own astrologer royal, Sir Marmaduke Melchior, who is probably the most learned man in the whole country of Libya.  Fire-breathing dragons, he told me, are rare for the simple reason that they come from volcanoes.  Each of these burning mountains has within its glowing heart one fire-dragon.  Now, when a volcano becomes burnt out, or ‘extinct,’ its dragon leaves it.  The creature’s preliminary stirrings start, occasionally, a serious earthquake.  Thereafter it emerges and seeks for a hotter place.  Of course, it never finds one, and it dies in about a fortnight; but, during that period, it does, usually, an immense amount of damage (28-9)".

Besides this, Dunne is lucky enough to be something of a natural wit in his own write, as witnessed in the very opening paragraph of the  story.  "When St. George, mounted upon his great war horse, rode toward the dragon, the Princess Cleodolinda closed her eyes. Then she opened them again; because she felt that she simply must have one more look at this knight before he was turned into a cinder. She wanted to remember his face. The fact that she, probably, would be chewed up by the dragon two minutes later seemed merely to make it more important that she should get that face fixed quite clearly in her mind. She was a brave girl, or she would not—you will remember—have been there at all (13)".

Besides these surface elements, Dunne also shows his work in the great amount of learning that helps to drive his narrative forward.  I suppose a good way of saying it is that the writer proves himself to be something of a competent antiquary.  This comes from not just the author's awareness of the nature of his characters.  I think he's up to more than that with this book.  My reasons for saying this is because I'm convinced there are elements in or about the story itself that offer a greater amount of literary rewards and insight the more the reader knows about the legends that inform Dunne's text.  Let's start with the main title character as an example.  He is not an original creation of the author.  Instead, a lot of Dunne's material comes from the twin worlds of legend and anthropology.  It has to be remembered that Dunne is an author who needs to use a pre-established myth as the basis for everything that follows in his narrative.  This means that a lot of the action the reader encounters is in some ways dictated by all the strands of folklore that pre-date the authors attempt at tackling the material.  As a result, certain narrative conventions and tropes have to be kept in mind in order to make the story come off well.  This also applies to any possible symbolic meaning that tends to attach itself to traditional hero figures.  In the case of Dunne's hero, the result is that its often surprising just how literate the writer was in his use of the folklore.

St. George is one of those figures who could be said to have several fathers.  Limiting our focus to just the fictional character of legend, it is surprising to discover that his current popular incarnation was the result of several ingredients that have been added to the cauldron of story over several millennia or historical epochs.  If we look at the character as an archetype that recurs or surfaces time and again throughout history, then it can be something of an eye-opener to chart his progress through the ages.  I have read speculations that the legend of the serpent slaying knight could have its earliest, traceable origin as a piece of ancient Greek iconography known as the Thracian Horseman.  Like many legends, this archetype was able to wear many faces.  It is just possible that one of them was as half of the mythological duo known as the Dioscuri, or astronomical Gemini, Castor and Pollux.

From there, as best I can tell, the fall of the Greco-Roman world somehow did not mean that such mythological concepts fell into disuse or disrepute.  Instead, figures like Castor and Pollux found themselves re-purposed for the new, emerging European civilizations that followed in the wake of Rome.  The next time we run across the image of twin horsemen is when they are found carved into a medieval icon depicting a pair of Saints.  One of them is named Christopher, the other is called George.  This is the first appearance of the archetype as the now familiar Saint of legend, as far as I  have been able to find or discover.  Somewhere along the way, St. Christopher drops out of the act, and George found himself continuing on as a solo performer in his own story (web).  If I had to give a reason for why any of this has happened, then the best I can do here is to suggest that some creative ideas are just plain hard to kill.  Another part of it might be that it's often a mistake to throw away a good idea.

All of this history (fragmentary as it is by necessity) brings us to Dunne's utilization of the myth.  The George presented in his novel is very much in keeping with the figure from traditional narrative.  The biggest component Dunne was able to add was to give the figure a somewhat analytical, problem-solving oriented nature.  Much like his current author, George in this story comes off as a soldier who also possesses something like the mind of an engineer.  When he comes for the dragon, he doesn't just charge in blindly like the usual knight of old.  Instead, he throws everyone off by planning out his strategy in advance, and approaching the dragon in a more indirect and somewhat out-there way that seems like it can't possibly work, and then somehow is able to come off due to what the knight explains as simple commonsense.  The whole effect gives the character a new, yet compatible quirky side to his personality.  He's no longer an ageless figure of legend.  Instead, he's a flesh and blood guy who knows when to take risks, yet who can never bring himself to rush in blindly, all the while knowing the value of being quick on the draw.

If Dunne's own outlook has found its way into the myth, then I was surprised to discover just how well he as able to incorporate a lot of the traditional narrative elements in his story.  I'm not giving anything away when I point out that the name of the Princess George marries at the beginning has her name taken straight from the original legend.  It also doesn't hurt that Cleodolinda finds a chance to rescue her husband's life, and later forms part of the final assault the heroes make at the story's finale.

There is also a supporting character in the book known as Thomas.  He's the one figure in the novel that begins to jump out at me for thematic reasons the more I think it over.  His profession is gardening.  It's tempting to jump from that character note to wonder if there's any connection to a certain Mr. Samwise.  However, Dunne's book was published sometime before Tolkien even got started on the "New Hobbit".  Also, this gardener is bit more worldly-wise in a number of ways.  For instance, his father was something of the local expert on witchcraft and wizardry.  Dunne lays this all out in a brief exchange of dialogue in the middle of the action.  "When witches or warlocks are killed," explained Thomas, "their spells cease to work, and those who have been metamorphosed regain their natural shape."  "Met a what?" asked Cleodolinda.  "Greek," said her father shortly,..."Greek, meaning 'changed in outward form.'  But how came you, Thomas, to understand Greek?"  "One of my father's books of witch-lore was written in Greek," replied the man, "and he taught me to read it (91-2)". 

There are several complex things going on in this simple and economic set of passages that are worth unpacking, as I think it "might" be a clue to the gardener's symbolic significance..  The first is that, from a surface standpoint, the character of Thomas is singled out as the brainiac out of all the main characters.  Aside from establishing a kind of group dynamic that has gone on to become familiar through constant repetition in literature and other media (Donatello of the Ninja Turtles and Hermione Granger seem to be the most recognizable examples of this trope at the moment), Dunne also goes the extra mile of making him a knight at one point.  It's a turning point in the gardener's career which sort of catches him off guard, yet it also jumped out at me.  The passage reads as follows:

"The King smote him lightly on the shoulder with the flat of his blade.  "Rise. Sir Thomas Gardener!," he roared.  Six hundred voices yelled acclaim; for the tale of the night's adventures had gone the round of the palace.  St. George grabbed the blushing Knight with his free arm, dragged him to the dais, and planted him, finally, betwixt Cleodolinda and himself.  "Fall to, brother," he commanded, "for a knight must be able to eat well and drink well, as well as to think well and be faithful (132-33)".

Looking back on that passage, I think it was the use of the term "brother" that set the gears in my head going.  It made me wonder if I hadn't stumbled upon a bit of significance in the story at large, one that had to do with the basic nature of the St. George legend.  I think the term itself was a formal usage dating back to the Middle Ages.  It was the way knights were supposed to address each other on certain ceremonial occasions.  However, when used in connection with a character like George, it automatically reminds one of the fact that the figure or archetype also used to be a part of the Gemini myth.  I said a few passages above that the figure of George used to be paired with another knight, or else a brotherly figure, as in the iteration of Castor and Pollux.  It's paying attention to minor details like these that can sometimes have the bonus of adding up to a greater thematic significance.  In addition to finding a place for other figures from the legend in his book, there are certain elements in the novel that make me wonder if Dunne was also aware of George's connection to the Gemini myth.  In particular I can't help asking if Dunne's anthropological knowledge is enough that he more or less found an unintentional way to reunite both Pollux and Castor after all these years under other names and guises.   

A lot of this textual richness might be understandable once you factor in the the kind of mindset  Dunne was in as he wrote the whole thing.  The writer claims in a prologue that the story came from the demands of his children to hear their dad tell them a story.  One of them suggested they here something about the dragon-slaying Saint.  Dunne confesses he didn't know what they were talking about.  His children seemed to have to prod the story out of him.  If that's the case, then the author was following a by now familiar pattern when it comes to creative writing.  Rather than having anything fully planned out, he seemed content for the most part to just wait and let the voices in his imagination start to speak.  I think the best label for this method of approach is to call it the Romantic, as opposed to a more Formalist, style of writing.  I wouldn't use this probable fact as a slight against the book, on the grounds that some of the best stuff ever written has emerged from this type of creative process.

All I have to stress is that even if it was written on the fly, that doesn't mean there's no inspiration to be had.  I'm even willing to go so far as to say that in some cases an author can get lucky enough to discover all the ideas he needs in order for the story to work and function the way it's supposed to.  I can't shake the conviction that while Dunne was trying to find the story in order to entertain his family, archetypes and images that are associated with myths like those of the Gemini were uncovered at just the right moment.  My main conviction for this goes back to the figure of the Gardener.  He's the brains where George is the bruiser.  Yet the knight comes to think of him as a brother, and even learns to utilize the knowledge he's given by the former.  The two figures are ultimately paired in the story in much the same way that George used to be part of dual performing act.  Even earlier than this, the act was known as Castor and Pollux.  It's these interesting levels of thematic and historical association that lead me to at least wonder if Dunne was able to find a way to use the archetype, or series of archetypal images, responsible for all these differing, yet similar artistic products in a way that carried on and extended this tradition (for lack of a better word) in his own novel.

Beyond this, there are also signs and hints in the text itself that Dunne was a reasonably well-read kind of guy.  He must have been enough of a reader, at any rate, to have a surprising and useful level of background knowledge about the St. George myth itself.  The evidence for this can be found in the way Dunne uses both the story's actors and stage scenery.  The names of certain characters, like that of the Princess, are taken or borrowed right out of past re-tellings of the legend.  While the Libyan countryside where Dunne lays his scene is also appropriate to the original source material.  For a very long time now, whenever people care to think at all of the fight with the dragon, we tend to see it as this kind of medieval tableau, whether characters and background are all European or British.  The truth however, is that the legend acquired its now familiar form in the near North-East of the African continent.  None of this is apparent on the surface of the novel.  It's only when the reader gets curious enough to look up the source material that it becomes apparent just how much Dunne has read up on the original wellspring in order to pepper the text with a lot of important details that help carry the audience along.

Dunne's Experiment with St. George.

There are two other elements in the story to talk about.  Both are related to each other to the point where they form a whole made up of two parts.  One is the recurring image of a volcano erupting.  The other has to do with a little girl the main characters meet in their battle.  Here the critic runs into the issue of knowing just how much to talk about without giving away spoilers.  What can be said is that the presence of of these two elements leaves me convinced that they are a connected pointer to the experiments that put Dunne's name somewhere on the margins of the map, like one of those charming species of sea-serpent on a Renaissance atlas under the legend: Here Be Monsters.  Besides the writing of children's books, Dunne was a highly regarded figure in the early world of aircraft design and engineering.  In fact it was his main source of income throughout his life.  The evidence indicates that he could have gone on designing the wings of planes all his days and considered it a happy and fulfilling life.  He could have crowned himself a king in that simple space, except that he had strange dreams.

The nature of these dreams were odd in the sense that they had the curious habit of never staying put in his head.  In terms of content, his dreams often appeared unremarkable.  They usually tended to focus on what amounted to a series of snapshot images, or flashes of brief moments.  The first one he noted was the image of his beside clock breaking and coming to a stop.  The position of the arms on the clock were retained in his waking memory.  Later the next day, when his clock ceased to function, he discovered to his astonishment that the arms pointed at the exact same time in his dream.  It was an odd bit of symmetry between mind and reality.  However, Dunne was content to leave it alone.  The trouble is his dreams never seemed willing to grant him the same courtesy.  For most of his life, Dunne would find himself visited by very specific images and narratives in his sleep, only to wake up and find the imaginary somehow fulfilling itself in the real world.  

The greatest example of this phenomenon also seems to have been the one that haunted him for the rest of his life.  The dream, or series of them, started with Dunne stranded in the middle of the ground of a smoldering volcano.  He didn't have to look around much to realize that the whole thing was about to erupt.  The next image or dream showcased him arguing with a series of public officials that a rescue effort must be made to clear all the inhabitants off an island before the volcano erupted.  The dreams ended there and at first nothing happened to make Dunne believe anything was out of the ordinary.  Then he read a newspaper account of the eruption of Mt. Pelee, in the Saint-Martin island region.  There was a brief window of time in which a healthy evacuation could have been made.  However no one was around who could ever have known such a thing could occur.  

It seems to have been this experience with the dream eruptions made manifest that galvanized 
Dunne to try and make sense of his own dreams.  He came to some rather odd conclusions about the whole affair, and I'm still not sure of the right way to put it, or even that I understand all the logic behind it.  The best summation I can find is not mine.  It was laid out by Prof. Gennady Barabtarlo in his book Insomniac Dreams.  "Dunne...concludes that dreams generally are composed of "images of past experience and images of future experience blended together in approximately equal proportions."  His prime argument is that the world is stretched out in time but we have a curiously distorted notion of it, "a view with the 'future' part unaccountably missing, cut off from the growing 'past' part by a traveling 'present moment,'" a habitual fallacy owing to a purely mentally imposed barrier which existed only when we were awake (12)".

It's difficult to know both where to begin and what to make of all that.  The best I can say is its easy enough to see why such ideas are not part of the common currency.  There are two other things that also can't be denied here.  Whatever one makes of Dunne and his experiment, there's no denying he was convinced by his own experiences.  The second undeniable fact is that it haunted him in some vague way.  The brief scants of biography present the reader with a man who is still living the good life.  Everything is normal enough, except for those continuous dream experiences, and the theories derived from them.  There is no indication of any real troubling or traumatic aspects in regards to either the author or his family.  Instead the best metaphor that sums up Dunne's remaining years is that of a neat, respectable suburban household with everything in its place, and this weird science experiment tucked away in the garage.  There are no signs of unhealthy obsession.  Instead the reader, like Dunne, is left with a lingering sense of fascination.  Either that or they have no choice except to be just plain weirded out.

The point is that these experiences, however one chooses to look at them, left an effect upon the author.  Therefore its not too much of a surprise to find the image of an erupting volcano and a possible time slip involved in what is otherwise a pretty straight-forward Fantasy novel.  I said at the beginning that the original English title of the story was An Experiment with St. George.  It's the nature of the title that made me want to pause and see if there's anything to figure out.  There are two crucial elements from Dunne's time experiences that factor into the novel.  Yet they are so unobtrusive that it's difficult to tell if they're just there as set decoration, or if the writer was trying to point readers in a further direction that I'm unable to make out.  When George and Linda meet a certain young girl in their travels, it is her intervention that makes them choose one fork in their future, and not another.  If Dunne thought to use this story element as a partial illustration of his ideas, then I can't tell whether he's succeeded or not.  The good news is that they help to move the narrative along, rather than to hinder it.
 
Conclusion: A Fascinating Page from an Earlier Time.

There are other things going on in J.W. Dunne's children's book besides hidden theoretical physics, along the occurrence (or is it recurrence?) of old myths in new faces.  The good news is that a lot of these other elements go together to to form a yarn that's overall pretty darn good.  One of the aspects of Dunne's book that will jump out at the audience right away is just how well poised a sense of humor the author possesses.  In sprinkling his levity on the story, Dunne seems to know where his own happy medium lies.  It keeps cropping up here and there as the reader turns the pages.  Yet I can't recall a moment when it ever became in any way distracting.  Instead, it came off with a sense of proper balance.  The humor was there as needed, yet it was never the real main point for the most part.  This is something Dunne appears to have intuited, as this style of light entertainment works best when its carried off in an incidental manner, and that's the touch the writer was able to give it. 

The result is a novel with a somewhat unique sense of ironic detachment. It's able to have a joke at the character's expense, while somehow managing to avoid any sense of scorn or outright derision of the type that nowadays has become the norm in a lot modern works (Matt Groening's Disenchanted being the current best example for this sort of approach).  Instead, we are treated to moments when the heroes must spring into action, and the only weapons that can save them are so incongruous that you have to laugh even as the cast is forced to take the whole thing dead serious.  "Cleodolinda nodded, and turning, accepted the javelin from her husband with a little smile of gratitude.  St. George made the big fish knife whistle in the air, and then, noting that the King had no weapon of silver, handed the utensil to him.  "More suited to your style than to mine, sire," by way of excuse; and, turning to the table, he collected swiftly a handful of little silver fruit knives.  The man Thomas took the fish fork (83)". 


At other times, Dunne is able to find a way let this humorous element humanize the characters while also bringing a smile to your face.  "She didn't complete her sentence; but St. George could feel her trembling, and he understood.  She would have died sooner than admit it; but she was a little nervous about fire-breathing dragons.  All said and done, it was only a few days ago that she had been tied to a tree and inspected by one while it estimated the precise degree of roasting she would require before becoming palatable.  It takes a little time to recover from an experience of that kind (96)".  It is possible for some to complain over passages like this.  However the good news is Dunne pre-empts all that by having the Princess save the whole crew yet again a few paragraphs later.

On the whole, the book has a lot to recommend itself to others.  Dunne's novel holds a unique place in that it serves as a snapshot of a time when guys like Tolkien were starting to take the genre by the horns and steer it into the mainstream.  I think it can be said that ultimately the good Professor did lovers of the fantastic everywhere a favor.  The only downside was something of an accidental by-product in that talents like that of Dunne tend to get overlooked and fall through the cracks.  This is a shame, although I also kind of hope its not an inevitability.  Books like St. George and the Witches deserve their day in the spotlight.  It gives genre fans a taste of something new just when they might start to reach the point where they think there's nothing left to read.  While newcomers could be lucky enough to use it as just the right gateway text into the exploration of all the other vistas.  Again, this can all be helped by Dunne's style and skill the with narrative.

The general feel of the novel is that of a straight-forward fantasy adventure with just enough of a quiet, yet genuine sense of humor.  We are not quite in the realm of Fractured Fairy Tales, though the reader is perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of The Princess Bride territory.  I almost wonder if future storytellers would do well to take a leaf from Dunne's pages.  We've grown used to drinking our sword and sorcery dark and straight-up, no sugar or cream.  The thing is I wonder if we're nearing a point where audience fatigue might necessitate the switch to a more self-aware and parodist approach to this kind of material.  In other words, what if you could take the approach of films like Guardians of the Galaxy, and apply it in a Fantasy, as opposed to a Sci-Fi setting.  The Bride movie already showed it is possible.  The trick seems to be finding the right balance between laughs and playing it straight.  Such an approach is also good for a healthy dose of satire (as opposed to propaganda) and something like actual food for thought.  It is just possible that J.W. Dunne's St. George and the Witches can be a good place to start.

4 comments:

  1. I'm afraid my kids are making it impossible for me to concentrate on this post right now as much as I'd like, as it all sounds very fascinating. (Great, great pics in this one.)

    This dude definitely sounds cool. I'm very intrigued. I'm going to add both the St. George and time one to my queue right now. I hope to circle back to this in the future having read them both.

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    1. Hey man, far as I'm concerned, it's better to take care of family first. Just make sure you're keeping yourself healthy as well.

      Cheers!

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  2. (1) Unsurprisingly, I have never heard of Dunne.

    (2) "His basic idea was that sometimes dreams can help us to realize that time is not something like a solid, immovable force. Instead, its more like a spiral enfolding on itself. If that last sentence made little to zero sense, then take a number and get in line." -- It ... kind of made sense to me? I'm not sure I agree with it, though. I'd be more apt to believe that time itself IS an immovable force, but that our perception of time is not. I've had dreams that were so vivid that they feel like actual memories. Which, in some ways, they are; all perception takes place in the mind, so in that sense, "actual" experiences and dreams are on a sort of equal footing. That being the case, memories could be said to represent a form of time travel.

    (3) "What I do know for certain is that I felt I had to go the extra mile and track down an actual physical copy of Dunne's book." -- An urge I know well, and applaud.

    (4) Somebody needs to bring back the name Cleodolinda.

    (5) "It was the first time George had ever heard of the sport, and he was quite keen to take part in it." -- Imagine a world in which dragons are so prevalent that there could be an entire sport based around hunting them that one could plausibly not even know exists! What a wild thought.

    (6) "It also doesn't hurt that Cleodolinda finds a chance to rescue her husband's life, and later forms part of the final assault the heroes make at the story's finale." -- That seems surprisingly forward-thinking for the era!

    (7) What I'm getting as the basics of Dunne's feelings about dreams is that they come from a rich pool of human experience that might include multiple realities. In "Dark Tower" terms, to use a common reference point, this might mean that when Roland dreams, he's dreaming a complex stew composed of not only standard-issue dreams, but the experiences of former/future lives. The implication of this in Dunne's work would be that such experiences do indeed exist in some sort of static reality, all mixed up in a single moment. But we can only occasionally access them, and typically only through unconscious processes. Am I close?

    (8) Sounds like an interesting book. Good post!

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    1. (2) From what I understand of him (and there are still some passages I can't wrap my head around) Dunne views time as somehow a part of natural perception, whatever that means. One "possible" implication of such a premise is that in some way humans are responsible in part for the time they experience.

      That's a double-edged statement in Dunne's terminology, in one sense it's true enough in terms of how anyone conducts their life. However, once you expand upon the meaning of the words...

      ...Yeah, like I say, it gets weird fast. still surprisingly fun, though.

      (3) One good thing about the physical copy I own is that I can say is that the English illustrations are a lot better than the Americans.

      (5) Well, I dunno. It just sounds like something that could be more trouble than its worth considering the hazards that could be involved.

      (6) I don't know whether that was Dunne's own thought on the matter, or if it was just the direction his imagination took. Either way, I know it doesn't hurt his reputation.

      (7) That is surprisingly close to Dunne's thought. He talks about the need for Observer's, in order to make his ideas work. In order to perceive a different level or aspect of time, Dunne argues that are level of observation must be higher than normal. Dreaming, according to him is a way to break down this barrier, where the observer is able to stand somewhat above time, in a limited sense.

      Curiously enough, that's not the part that is way out there. Dunne goes on to claim the need for infinite observers, for reasons I'm not sure I'm clear about to this day. However, it does sound at least somewhat like the Tower concept. Though I don't know if Stephen King has ever read, or even heard of Dunne. So its probably just coincidence.

      For the longest time, I've had my own way of thinking about as, not a Tower, but more like this big, branching tree, with little doors or avenues representing the potential pathways a life can take. As you make your way up the tree, each choice you make closes off certain doors, one after another. That's as far as I got on my own, really. Dunne's on a whole other level, really.

      To quote from "Yellow Submarine", "He's far out there. Always was." Though perhaps that's not always a bad thing.

      ChrisC

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