Archive for July, 2007

Girl Green as Elderflower

For my entry on this novel, I had planned to cut and paste from the 2500 word conference paper I gave last week. I realised pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to work. This realisation brought home just how differently I write for different audiences. A conference paper is different from a thesis chapter, and not only in length, just as a conference paper for a medievalist audience differs from a paper for a postcolonial studies audience, even if I am actually talking about the same thing (in the former, I have to explain why I’m talking about Australia, and in the latter, the Middle Ages). In a blog post I don’t have to defend anything. Do I. What I like about blogging about novels, is that I can be as personal and effusive and anecdotal and cursory as I like. It’s fun.

I really love Randolph Stow’s Girl Green as Elderflower (1980). I love the title – the weight and balance of the words, the way they swing off each other. Stow is a pretty amazing poet, so it’s not surprising that he can come up with good titles. I love the structure of the novel, the way the medieval stories are embedded in the modern narrative, and the complex ways in which they reflect each other. And I love Stow’s prose, the seemingly effortless way he catches Suffolk voices.

Girl Green as Elderflower tells the story of the convalescence of Crispin Clare, as he recuperates in Suffolk from a traumatic experience – malaria and attempted suicide – in the Trobriant Islands. Stow himself had had a similar experience. As Clare slowly regains his health, he translates and rewrites 12th century Latin stories. These include the story of a fantastic sprite who was abandoned by her mother at birth and brought up by a witch, and longs for freedom, friendship, and her own family. He goes on to tell the story of the green children, as related by both Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh. According to these twelfth century sources, the two green children were discovered in Suffolk or East Anglia, and were taken in by locals. Initially refusing to eat anything, the children eventually feast happily on green beans, before growing accustomed to ordinary food and slowly losing their green colour. The boy eventually dies, but the girl grows up to be wanton and lascivious. When asked where they come from, they reply that they come from the ‘land of St Martin’, where ‘all dwellers and things of that region were tinged with a green colour, and that they perceived no sun, but enjoyed a certain brightness such as happens after sunset.’ In Stow’s novel, the green girl explains: ‘We are people of the land of the antipodes’ (p. 127).

Being now out of the sun the children gazed up at the knight, the most imposing man in the room, wide-eyed, and the beauty of their eyes amazed him like some stone never seen before. They were not of one unmixed green, but flecked or lined with different greens, and in each child’s eyes there was a different promise; for in the boy’s there was, as it were, a misting of blue, while in the girl’s was a haze of pale bird-breast brown.
Nor were their skins all of a single colour, but as there is variation with us (whose arms, for example, are darker above than below), so the skins of the green children verged in some places on the fairness of ladies. Noticing this, the knight thought first of the green of leeks, where that green meets white. But his second thought was of green elderbuds, at the point where they are transfigured into bloom (p.
118).

Clare’s own alienation and displacement as an antipodean exile are reflected in the lives of the green children. Oh, there is so much to say about this book, and it will all go in my thesis. The medieval stories Clare tells are tragic, but the way they fit together, and refract the characters of his everyday life, is extraordinarily beautiful. Through the stories he tells, the strangeness of the Middle Ages enables Clare to face with courage the strangeness of the modern world.

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July 19, 2007 at 10:00 am 6 comments

The Wreath

Yet another take on the Middle Ages. Noticing a theme yet? Sigrid Undset won the Noble Prize for her portrayals of the Norwegian Middle Ages in novels such as this one. And it is lovely. It is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to read the other two. I forgot to order them, though, so wait I must.

In some ways this is straightforward historical romance fiction. Young girl grows up on remote farm in medieval Norway, falls in love with a bit of a rogue, and accordingly compromises her chastity, which leads to a number of awkward situations. But the beautiful depictions of the places and seasons, the portrayals of the tensions in the society (between Christianity and Paganism, for example), and most of all, the finely drawn, heartfelt but often pained relationships, make this novel something special.

When I think about novels set in or drawing on the Middle Ages, I start by asking why? Why was the Middle Ages deemed necessary for this story? What does this particular representation of the Middle Ages reveal about the desires and assumptions of the author? I guess a fairly obvious question is how accurately is the Middle Ages represented, but this question is not always the most interesting one. In this case, I think Undset did a lot of careful research, and integrated it into the story sparingly but lovingly, though not being an expert on fourteenth-century Norway, I can’t say for sure. Using a medieval setting can often serve nationalistic purposes (especially for countries which have medieval pasts). Perhaps there is a bit of this here. But my instinct says its main purpose is different.

I think Undset turned to the Middle Ages because it offered a template for a society with rich kinship systems, formal relationships and obligations, especially for women. It is these constraints, together with the threads of nature and religion, that shape the novel. While Kristin’s illicit love affair drives the plot, her relationship with her father and with a wandering monk, and her parents’ relationship, are actually the most interesting elements. Expectation, disappointment, affection, desire and loss are brought into painful relief in brief, intimate moments scattered throughout the narrative. Kristin’s mother, Rangfrid, prays for her family at night: ‘As her body gradually grew stiff with the cold, she set out once more on one of her familiar night journeys, trying to break a path to a peaceful home for her heart.’

Kristin’s childhood vision of purity and brilliance proves difficult to sustain, but her first glimpse of a stained glass window remains one of the most beautiful scenes in the novel:

On the grey stone wall above her, Kristin saw strange, flickering specks of light, red as blood and yellow as ale, blue and brown and green. She wanted to look behind her, but the monk whispered, ‘Don’t turn around.’ When they stood together high up on the planks, he gently turned her around, and Kristin saw a sight so glorious that it almost took her breath away.
Directly opposite her, on the south wall of the nave, stood a picture that glowed as if it had been made from nothing but glittering gemstones. The multicoloured specks of light on the wall came from rays emanating from the picture itself; she and the monk were standing in the midst of its radiance. Her hands were red, as if she had dipped them in wine; the monk’s face seemed to be completely gilded, and from his dark cowl the colours of the picture were dimly reflected. She gave him a questioning glance, but he merely nodded and smiled.
It was like standing at a great distance and looking into heaven.

July 19, 2007 at 9:57 am 1 comment

News From Nowhere

Okay, time to catch up on the books I’ve been reading while my life has been in chaos. There’s always time for reading. In the end, News From Nowhere (1890) by William Morris is really quite enchanting. It’s utopian fiction, which I assumed predestined it to be fairly boring. Bad news is more exciting than good news, after all, especially where fiction is concerned. And there are boring passages, and places where it drags. But its vision of a future England as a heightened, perfected, communist style Fourteenth Century is actually very charming. Of course Morris is best known for his designs and soft furnishings, and there is plenty of emphasis in this novel on the value of handcraft and beauty. In this world, there is a surplus of wealth and time, so ordinary items like pipes can be intricately carved and encrusted with jewels, and then given away to whoever wants them. But there are sources of tension and plot-development, after all.

Firstly, there is the strangeness of this wonderful land, and the difficulty the narrator has in fitting in – he tries to pay for things, for example. And then there is the question of how the revolution took place, how England was able to regain its picturesque past. And finally, there is the fear that dogs the narrator that he will not be able to stay there, that the beautiful world will fade away, becoming no more than a dream.

I’ve been thinking lately about portrayals of the Middle Ages as childlike, and actually this is one of them. The characters of this neo-fourteenth-century utopian England have a childlike simplicity and delight in the natural world which the nineteenth-century narrator finds strange. The children are not locked in schools or any systems of formal education, but are allowed to develop naturally, according to their interests and curiosity. And the narrator is astonished to find a grand eating hall decorated by depictions of scenes from fairytales:

I smiled, and said: ‘Well, I scarcely expected to find record of the Seven Swans and the King of the Golden Mountain and Faithful Henry, and such curious pleasant imaginations as Jacob Grimm got together from the childhood of the world, barely lingering even in his time: I should have thought you would have forgotten such childishness by this time.’

The old man smiled, and said nothing; but Dick turned rather red, and broke out:

‘What do you mean, guest? I think them very beautiful, I mean not only the pictures, but the stories; and when we were children we used to imagine them going on in every wood-end, by the bight of every stream: every house in the fields was the Fairyland King’s house to us…’ (p. 130)

Later, the old man describes this new epoch as ‘the second childhood of the world’ (p. 162). It’s worth noting that in Morris’s vision, Leeds and Manchester have completely disappeared – no place for dark Satanic mills here!

July 15, 2007 at 9:25 am 2 comments

Rain Poems

because rain is on my mind…

Rain Prayer

Rain splashes, blesses
this alien garden this

walled green square these
tumbling flowers and pillars

and vines. It plinks splosh-drink
in the fishpond, wet

grey mist turns paving stones
to glass. I will stand,

let wet anoint me
among heavy leaves, let

weightlessness teach me
to float, passive,

tingling, exposed, loved
by the small cold kisses of air.

First Rain

for Liz WD

All afternoon
rain clamours happily
on the sky-light and the tin –
it wants to get in.
Green-earth rain-smell hurries
through the open door.
The garden trembles,
the ground gasps,
it wants to get in –
that feeling almost aching knowing
something will be resolved,
some cadence closed and opening
in one breath,
some door to everywhere –
it wants to get in.

But since the illness
(that beast who’s eating
your freedom, your muscles,
and half your mind)
all you want
is to walk again.
To sit yourself up,
to think clear thoughts
and speak words that make sense,
to wash the dishes again,
and do all these things even
without needing
to sleep
(like you are now)
when the blurred world
becomes safe and dark
when faltering thoughts
drift
and untangle
(incomprehensible still, but fluid).

The bed is kind and carries you
and the rain
is far away but closer than breathing
when it gets in.

July 6, 2007 at 10:50 am 3 comments


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