Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Book of Other Worlds: Childe Rowland (1976).

For some strange reason, it's just been easy for me to compare the two.  For the longest time now, both J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen King have occupied the same, easy shelf-space in my mind.  The main reason for this seems to be because of how similar they appear, at least as far as my own reading is concerned.  I'm not sure this is a common reaction for most fans of either writer.  However, I do wonder how often this might occur for those Tolkien geeks who are also fans of the Horror genre.  It's just that, for me, I've always been able to see the ways in which Tolkien has impacted King's work to the point where there can be times (especially in his best work) where King almost seems to be copying the old Oxford professor without even trying.  

It's a constant feature of his writing that is perhaps best on display in books like Salem's Lot, The Shining, and It.  When those books reach their peak moments, it's as if King has found a way to turn any given narrative passage of the typical American Gothic setting (such a dry and barren farmer's field, or the inside of a haunted dwelling, or even just a surveyors description of an entire town, or a single corner street in that same setting) into the kind of description that sometimes mirrors, or even rivals any possible segment of Middle Earth and its environs.  I  suppose a better way to put it would be that King has found a way of taking the usual description reserved for Tolkien's Blakean backdrop, and found a way to make it apply to the average, modern suburban American main street.  

Like I say, though, I'm probably going to have to always be in the minority on this reaction.  Even if that's the  case, then I can't say I mind all that much.  Nor do I care to retract that statement.  One of the main reasons why is because I'm sure those readers who do know at least something of what I'm talking about can go through their favorite books in the King canon, and point to any number of passages that would help support this idea.  In the second place, the real good news is that we don't have to just sit around, theorizing in a vacuum.  It turns out the author himself has managed to oblige us on this point.  He does so with the help of a simple essay entitled "On Being Nineteen: (And a Few Other Things)".  If you've never heard of, or even read the piece before, then it's not going to surprise me.  It only appeared in print once a long time ago, and hasn't really been seen since.  In fact, I don't think they include it anymore in the current reprints of the series in which it originally formed a (to me) vital part.

The "Nineteen" essay was originally published to serve as an author's introduction for a 2003 reissue of the first four books in The Dark Tower series.  That's the place where King described a great deal (if perhaps not all) of his relationship to the Bard of Middle Earth.  "Hobbits were big when I was nineteen", he tells us.  "There were probably half-a-dozen Merrys and Pippins slogging through the mud at Max Yasgur's farm during the Great Woodstock Music Festival, twice as many Frodos, and hippie Gandalfs without number.  J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Ring was madly popular in those days, and while I never made it to Woodstock (say sorry), I suppose I was at least a halfling-hippie.  Enough of one, at any rate, to have read the books and fallen in love with them.  The Dark Tower books, like most long fantasy tales written by men and women of my generation (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson, and The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks, are just two of many), were born out of Tolkien's.

"But although I read the books in 1966 and 1967, I held off writing.  I responded (and with rather touching whole-heartedness) to the sweep of Tolkien's imagination - to the ambition of his story - but I wanted to write my own kind of story, and had I started then, I would have written his.  That, as the late Tricky Dick Nixon was fond of saying, would have been wrong.  Thanks to Mr. Tolkien, the twentieth century had all the elves and wizards it needed.  In 1967, I didn't have any idea what my kind of story might be, but that didn't matter; I felt positive I'd know it when it passed me on the street (ix-x)".   

If nothing else, the existence of these words can serve to establish a number of important facts.  (1) King has been familiar with the work of Tolkien for quite a long time now, even before the advent of the 21st century.  (2) He also acknowledges that the writings of Middle Earth have had quite an impact on his mind, in particular his imagination.  I don't think it's going too far to say that the reaction King got out of the books is pretty the same as that of the entire Woodstock generation of his era.  Besides, all he's doing in the paragraphs above is little more than highlighting a very important historical fact.  It really was during the 1960s that Tolkien's popularity began to take off in a big way.  A lot of it was down to being in the right place at the right time, and a sense of resonant values. The Flower Children of that decade found a sense of common cause with those books.  And I think the real curious part is that their sense of identification was never really misplaced.  What Tolkien and the 60s shared in common was an unapologetic Romantic streak, one that could probably trace its lineage all the way back to the poetry of William Blake, another scribe who found his popularity soaring during those heady years.

It was this shared sense of Romanticism that catapulted Tolkien and his books toward an international stardom that hasn't really gone away since then.  And King was right there when it first happened.  Much like his peers of that time, it's not too much of a leap to say that King found himself caught up in that Romantic ethos, along with everybody else.  He dug it enough, anyway, to get the notion into his head that he ought to try and match a story such as The Lord of the Rings, one that would be just as big, and yet in his own voice.  The question was just what that kind of story would be.  Tolkien supplied the first spark of inspiration, and yet something more was needed.  According to King, that something more came in the form of an old, semi-low-budget Italian film import. 

"Then, in an almost completely empty movie theater (the Bijou, in Bangor, Maine, if it matters), I saw a film directed by Sergio Leone.  It was called The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and before the film was even half over, I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien's sense of quest and magic but set against Leone's almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop.  If you've only seen this gonzo Western on your television screen, you don't understand what I'm talking about - cry your pardon, but it's true.  On a movie screen, projected through the correct Panavision lenses, TG, TB, & TU is an epic to rival Ben-Hur.  Clint Eastwood appears roughly eighteen feet tall, with each wiry jut of stubble on his cheeks looking roughly the size of a young redwood tree.  The grooves bracketing Lee Van Cleef's mouth are as deep as canyons, and there could be a thinny (see Wizard and Glass) at the bottom of each one.  The desert settings appear to stretch at least out as far as the orbit of the planet Neptune.  And the barrel of each gun looks to be roughly as large as the Holland Tunnel.


"What I wanted even more than the setting was that feeling of epic, apocalyptic size.  The fact that Leone knew jack shit about American geography (according to one of the characters, Chicago is somewhere in the vicinity of Phoenix, Arizona) added to the film's sense of magnificent dislocation.  And in my enthusiasm - the sort only a young person can muster, I think - I wanted to write not just a long book, but the longest popular novel in history.  I didn't succeed in doing that, but I feel I had a decent trip (xiii)".  This is how we got the story known as the Dark Tower series.  The whole thing seems to have been one long strange trip for King.  He claims it all got started in 1966-67, and it didn't stop until roughly 2012.  At least that's as far as his memory could take him at the time he wrote those words.  The catch is that it's not the whole story.  There's still one element, or missing piece of the puzzle, that King has sort of unintentionally neglected.  That's the exact bit of reading he did that seems to have given him the final ingredient needed to set the gears of his imagination into full drive.

This final piece of the puzzle comes in the form of an old, forgotten poem, and it's author.  According to Bev Vincent's book, The Road to the Dark Tower, "Stephen King isn't the first person to write about a man named Roland whose goal was to find and perhaps conquer a mysterious Dark Tower.  He was inspired by the feel of Robert Browning's somewhat obtuse "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", written in Paris on January 2, 1852, during the denouement of Napoleon's coup d'etat.  The poem, which King had been assigned in a class covering the earlier Romantic poets, combines romance and existentialism, atypical of Browning's other work and ahead of its time in its Weltschmerz (281)".

Vincent then goes on to make a very interesting observation.  "Browning, in turn, borrowed his title from a line in Shakespeare's King Lear uttered by Edgar during his mad ravings while disguised as Poor Tom: "Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came, His word was so still - Fie, foh, and fom/I smell the blood of a British man"...Tom was likely referring to an old Scottish ballad titled "Childe Rowland and Burd Ellen (ibid)".  So what we've been describing and uncovering this whole time amounts to little more than a line of literary descent.  We've been following the circuitous paths and byways of the initial inspirations that King used in constructing the longest story out of his career.  It's the kind of exercise that won't matter to anyone else except English Majors, and King fans.  My only excuse for doing this is because I like stories, and I have a natural curiosity to know where they come from.  If there's a chance that it can help us learn a bit more about King, Browning, the history of the Dark Tower narrative, and what it all means, then it's just the kind of opportunity that I, as a book geek, just can't turn down.

With that said, even those who are be willing to follow me down this particular rabbit hole might look on the whole idea with a more than decent amount of skepticism.  Their question might be whether there is really anything left to know about King's infamous book series, even in terms of its sources?  My answer to this is that there could be at least one avenue that has been left unexplored, and Vincent just told us what it is.  In the passage quoted above, he makes mention of an old ballad known as Childe Rowland.  It's treated as something to be noted in passing, and not given any consideration beyond that point.  I'm starting to wonder if that might have been a mistake, however.  Part of the reason for saying this is because I had a chance to read the actual legend itself.  I came across it in a children's anthology of stories, known as The Hamish Hamilton Book of Other Worlds, edited by Roger Lancelyn Green.  


It's a collection whose purpose is to look at a very specific fictional trope.  A good term of description might be to call it the Other World narrative, or any work of fiction dealing with journeys through through a fantasy reality that is different from, yet somehow connected, or related to ours.  What's interesting is to discover that one of the entries in this collection happened to be the very same legend that Vincent believes might have acted as a direct source for Shakespeare, and later on as an indirect one for both Robert Browning, and Stephen King.  I guess this makes it something of a lucky find.  At least I found it interesting enough to crack open the spine of Green's ancient anthology (the copyright page lists its initial date of publication as 1976 in Great Britain) and see what it has to say.  Who knows?  We might just get lucky and learn a thing or two about, King, Browning, Roland, and the Tower that have often gone overlooked.  "All things serve the Beam", after all.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Green Knight (2021).

It's difficult to know where to begin on this one.  There are a number of reasons for that.  Part of it is down the seeming inscrutability of the material under the microscope.  The other lies in the specific type of story we have to deal with.  A better way of putting might be described as the problem of source materials.  The last thing I want to do is turn this into a dry-as-dust- academic study.  I tend to pride myself on making complex literary matters both interesting and graspable for a very large audience.  The real challenge (or one of them, at least) seems to lie in those cases where there really is a lot of material to talk about, so that often you don't know what's the right place to start from.  Right now, I think the best vantage point in which to get our bearings would be to take a survey of the literary landscape before us.  Perhaps that will help us gain something like a usable compass bearing.  A quick enough scan of the territory reveals a familiar setting before our eyes.  It's a field of green underneath, and blue or gray above.  It's also an enchanted forest with a mysterious castle at its heart, or else its the blasted waste land of some long, forgotten field of battle.  The territory seems familiar enough, right down to the knights in shining armor, and the hidden creatures peering at us from the darkness of the trees.  We've been here before.

It could just be that the legends of King Arthur and his Knights present a very special challenge to modern audiences.  I wrote just a moment ago that we've already been through this particular secondary world.  In sense, I guess that statement is true enough.  Or is it?  I mean I don't know about you, it's just that when it comes to Camelot, I've sort of grown up learning all the familiar signposts and benchmarks.  When I was kid, my parents got my one of those quaint, old, clam-shell video cassette copies of The Sword and the Stone, one day.  I can't even recall if it was for a birthday or something like it.  I just know that was my first introduction to the greatest mythical monarch of the British Isles.  Except, or course, we never truly see him in that role for the entirety of the Disney film.  He's only just learning to wear the crown by the time the credits role.  It's also where I first learned about Merlin, the greatest wizard and magical practitioner of all time, as well as the future kingdom itself.

I suppose it's the closest thing anyone will have in terms of a fair to going on decent enough first introduction to the mythos, for better or worse.  From there, what little I've gathered about Arthuriana over the years has been haphazard and slip-shod, probably just like everyone else.  I learned about the Holy Grail, first from Steven Spielberg, and then from Monty Python.  In time I came to know about Malory and Mordred and Morgan Le Fay, and the rise and fall of a great empire, like a hero is supposed to do (or so it's claimed, I have a doubt or two about certain aspects of that trope).  Beyond this, however, I'm not sure that I know any more than anyone else in the audience.  It is just possible that I may have described the constant irony of the Camelot mythos.  It's become one of those ill-defined standbys.  A constant background presence which remains largely unexplored except for the most familiar halls and passageways.  What makes it seem more familiar than it is has to be the fact that it is able to stick in the memory from an early age.  It's enough to lull one into a false sense of security.  You think it's all an open book, when in truth you've barely read little more than a page or two in a much larger story.  I suppose that's just the way it has to be for most folks.  However, I'm not sure it's helpful for a getting a read on a film like The Green Knight.

In the introduction to a Young Adult compendium of the legends, Roger Lancelyn Green provides us with the first hints as to why the terrain of this particular secondary world is more wide, vast, and sometimes a lot more treacherous than we think we know.  "The story of King Arthur and the adventures of his knights have been told so very many times that there seems at first sight little excuse for retelling them yet again.  But, setting aside poetical versions of a variety of the legends made by such poets as Dryden, Morris, Tennyson, Swinburne, and Charles Williams, scarcely any writer in English has done more than condense the narrative of Sir Thomas Malory, cutting and simplifying according to the age of his audience, but always following him with more or less exactitude.  Moreover, it has recently been shown that Malory himself did not write his Book of King Arthur as a single narrative, but merely as a collection of quite separate stories, based on a variety of old French romances.  There is a certain coherence, but no fixed plan (xi)".


It sort of gets worse when you find out about the adventures of a lot of other knights that you really don't know about.  Most of us these days have a sort of passing familiarity with characters like Lancelot, and Galahad.  However, who on earth is Sir Gareth of the Kitchens?  All I know is I'll swear I didn't make that up.  We've heard of figures like Sir Bedivere, yet what is it he did, exactly?  What of Tristan and Isolde?  Who were they?  Here's an even better question.  Who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?  It isn't until this point is reached that you begin to realize you've maybe stumbled a bit deeper into the forest than you probably meant to go.  Once you step past the well trodden paths, it seems, the risk of getting lost is a bit too easy.  The simple fact is the myth of Arthur and his world is probably deeper and steeper than our current level of pop-cultural awareness can allow.  I think it's this last fact which helps explain the type of reception that's greeted David Lowery's 2021 adaptation of one of the most obscurely famous of the legends of Camelot.  It's sort of all most of us can do to even bother asking the most important question.  Is the story that Lowery has to tell any good?