Percy Bysshe Shelley: Imagination of an Atheist

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I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things…

– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni

Mont Blanc gives us the Shelley who’d recently been kicked out of Oxford along with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg for publishing the scandalous pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism (1811). On a road trip in France he’d stopped off at the Hotel in Chamonix and Montanvert and caused another grand episode in scandal back in his homeworld of England when he signed the register “Democrat, Philanthropist, and Atheist”. Egalitarian, lover of human kind, and defiant unbeliever: a son of the ‘radical enlightenment’ (Johnathan Israel). A poet of that revolutionary process, which effectively overthrew all justification for monarchy, aristocracy, and ecclesiastical power, as well as man’s dominance over woman, theological dominance of education, and slavery.

The notion that the Mind itself would become the site of the Sublime which Longinus once described as consisting “in a certain loftiness and excellence of language, and that it is by this, and this only, that the greatest poets and prose-writers have gained eminence, and won themselves a lasting place in the Temple of Fame”.1 This notion of loftiness and excellence of language would come under the rhetoric of eloquence in later ages, a high-style that would lift up and register the hyperbolic and metaphoric over the literal and mundane, the symbolic and mental icons and images over the realist embellishments of naturalism. Freud would subsume it under the concept of the Uncanny.

Yet, during the age of the Romantic Philosophers and Poets the notion of eloquence would align itself with naturalism and imagination against Enlightenment Reason. Burke would separate the sublime and the beautiful saying they are mutually exclusive. Burke suggested ugliness as an aesthetic quality rather than beauty (a Platonism staple) in its capacity to instill feelings of intense emotion, ultimately creating a pleasurable experience. Burke would emphasize the effects rather than the causes of the Sublime, emphasizing the physical pain and pleasure effected not upon the mind but upon the passions of the body. This would revise once again that age old battle between materialism and idealism with a difference, that now the battle would take place in the human Mind itself rather than on its objects; an effect of the object upon the mind’s passions rather than as cause of an Idea constructed by the Mind. For two hundred years we’ve been playing out this battle in ever more darkening confrontations until the very power of Mind itself and the Subjective

Consciousness that once was the glory of Romantic Imagination has vanished into the recesses of the neurosciences and speculative philosophies of our own dire era. If I go back to Shelley its because he above all worked through many of the dilemmas of our own era, with its skeptical and ironic deconstructions as well as its atheistic tonalities of Gap and the Real. It was the British Romantics rather than the German Romantics that provided a difference that makes a difference. The work of Goethe, Novalis, Heine, Hölderlin followed a different path than that of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and their heirs. This is not the place to trace and compare the two worlds. Rather I want to take up the singular work of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

One difference comes quickly; that between Coleridge and Shelley. Coleridge, a bookish traveler, had lifted a statement from the poetess Sophie Christiane Friederike Brun and used it in his own, saying, “Who would be, who could be an Atheist in this valley of wonders!” Coleridge who would abandon his pagan youth of poetry for the mantle of Christian priest and critic tries unsuccessfully to ironizes Shelley’s atheistic impulse. He was speaking of Mont Blanc. Shelley on the other had actually travelled to this location, so was speaking of what he’d actually seen with his embodied and material eyes. This marking of the Hotel’s register was a pointed attack on the kind of poetry that seemed unoriginal and marked by a complacent and sentimental quality rather than the freedom from the past that Shelley’s sublime was seeking to convey.2 Jaeger on whom I rely for this aligns Shelley’s vision with what Jonathan Israel in his voluminous history of the Enlightenment termed the ‘radical enlightenment’. Here Shelley opposed his mentor William Godwin by relying on a poetics that believed the “only way to grasp mental revolution is through the mediation of the outward scene” (Jaeger).

One remembers Wordsworth in the 1805 edition of the Prelude saying:

Imagination – lifting up itself
Before the eye and progress of my song
Like an unfathered vapour, here that power,
In all the might of its endowments, came
Athwart me! I was lost as in a cloud,     
Halted without a struggle to break through;
And now, recovering, to my soul I say ‘I recognize thy glory.’
In such strength Of usurpation, in such visitings
Of awful promise, when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shown to us
The invisible world, does greatness make abode,
There harbours whether we be young or old.
Our destiny, our nature, and our home,
Is with infinitude, and only there…3

In the above the natural scene all but disappears before the power of the Mind and Imagination as if to say the world is nothing, infinitude is all. Against such vaporous wanderings in the invisible Shelley would have us rather see in the natural world itself the reflection of Mind and Imagination rather than to either annihilate the world or to cut ourselves away from the world in some solipsistic inner-world of experience.

Jaeger brings up another point that before actual atheism appeared in the tracts and pamphlets of apologists it was first a construction of refutation among detractors who used the argument of atheism to refute not those who disbelieved in God but rather as straw man to further their own apology for God’s existence. Ultimately it would be Descartes on geometric method, designed and implemented to combat the very habit of scholastic disputatio that had constructed atheism as a rhetorical position. One could further say that it was from Descartes that the divide between scientific consensus as centered in the institution was contested with the securing of knowledge coming under the banner of cognition and the cognitive rather than dogmatic institutionalism. It was also in this era that religion itself came under the naturalists eye as if it were one more thing among things to be scrutinized, tabulated, compared, and analyzed; as if it were a natural object in the world with a history and a multifarious existence and plurality.

Jager will cite David Berman’s authoritative History of Atheism in Britain where the notion of atheism became available because the frame of religion and its background had shifted allowing the two to be separated and critically appraised for the first time since the Greeks and Romans. Whereas in the age of the Church the notion of beliefs was invisible, a part of the very fabric of one’s existence in the world, now the notion arose that people began to understand themselves as agents who have beliefs. Beliefs were objects one had and could be thought and reasoned about; one could distance oneself from one’s beliefs and think through one’s relations to these once firmly held notions. As Jager says:

Concerned with policing thoughts and boundaries, doctrinal belief gradually disinvested in the social whole and withdrew from the network of activity, practice, community, and routine where religious thoughts had been embedded. Largely the product of a zealously reform-minded Christianity, this process of disenchantment ushers us into the modern secular age. (ibid.)

As William Blake would remark on this turn of events in which the Epicurean Freethinker’s arose out of the very frame of Christian apology as a negation that took on the aura of a new secular belief system bounded by Reason and Imagination.

In The Necessity of Atheism Shelley’s borrowings, references, and allusions offer a crash course in free-thinking radicalism completely in line with the narrative of atheism as intellectual heroism. He’ll cite Michael Scrivener’s Radical Shelley and Martin Priestman’s Romantic Atheism which martial the influx of Lucretian metaphysical materialism from the Renaissance onward as the leitmotif underlying the radical enlightenment project that came late for Shelley. Jaeger sees in Shelley’s inscription of “Democrat, Philanthropist, Atheist” the radical enlightenments stance of egalitarianism, love of humankind, and the occupation of atheism in the realms of State and Society displacing the ancient régime and religion. “What if atheism were not about cognitively held beliefs or nonbeliefs but about postures, arrangements, dispositions, embodied techniques, or disciplined actions?” asks Jager. In other words what if atheism was a way of life, an active form of life rather than like dogma a set of beliefs one could dispute or qualify? What if atheism were one’s mode of being in the world not some carefully reasoned belief system one adhered too and preached on Sunday to a congregation?

In fact Jager will use the analogy of Occupy to describe Shelley’s use of atheism in his poem of Mont Blanc:

But if the “occupation” of atheism is instead about how one organizes one’s  time, then a different set of concepts comes into focus. For occupations, understood temporally, involve the entire self in the organization of experience. And they centrally concern what one does with one’s body—how it is trained, organized, and adjusted, what experiences it pursues and cultivates, what experiences it forecloses on—and what potentials it activates. (ibid.)

The notion that atheism occupies one’s time, space, life as a mode of being in the world rather than a set of beliefs of concepts in one’s mind presents a notion of embodied action rather than Idea. Rather than an idealism of the Idea Jager is implying that Shelley’s was a poetry of event and action, of the enactments of bodies in the world rather than mental reflections in the Mind. As Jager tells us the point Shelley was making is to picture what it might be like to be a part of an “embodied collective, a communal voice louder than the sum of its individual parts”. This is closer to those materialists like Badiou and Zizek who seek the a collective subjectivation. As Badiou remarks there is only one political subject. This is the subject that demonstrates the Real of fraternity. In other words, a true political subject is someone who identifies with the collective “we” of a truth-procedure which posits equality. This subject is not so much opposed by a reactionary subject, as opposed by the inertia of an existing regime. A political subject thinks collectively. It cannot stop thinking collectively for long enough to name or define what it is doing. (Alain Badiou and Politics)

Of course such an unthinking collective subject seems a contrary construction of Badiou’s materialist subjectivist discipline rather than a natural object in the world. Almost as if Badiou had constructed such an object as an example of his Platonic matheme much as Descartes once announced the cogito whose evaluations of res extensa or outer-sense and the inner-sense of res cogitans would form a dualistic and embattled system. Badiou seeks a stable concept that can like set-theoretic form an embattled line against the big Other of either God or Nature. Shelley would not worry about either, but would enter a dialogue of the unknown that wavered and oscillated in the Void between; neither harboring one or the other as a ballast against themselves.

One remembers Shelley’s third section of the Mont Blanc where he describes the wilderness as having an inhuman voice:

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with Nature reconcil’d;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

Here the poet tells us that it is the outer form of the mountain itself as natural process, voice, and utterance which repeals those religious and disputational “codes of fraud and woe” that few understand, but that the wise and great and good seem to decode through careful perusal and critique, as well as empower through the passionate and informed potential of the body’s own embodied life in action and being. Shelley’s was a naturalist’s atheism – part skeptic, part materialist-idealist that took the outer form of things as symbol and icon of the truth revealed not as Idea but as being in its multiplicity as both potential and possible action and event.

Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing
Its destin’d path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shatter’d stand; the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaim’d.

Here the emptiness of existence, the blankness of things, Mont Blanc follows Lucretius in registering the entropic decay of everything into that final tomb beyond which nothing moves, and all is loss. Before the power of this impersonal universe of death and necessity nothing triumphs, not even men:

The race
Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream,
And their place is not known…

And, yet, in this darkness at the unknown limits of time and thought something exists, a power: “The secret Strength of things / Which governs thought…”. Is this ‘Strength of things’ that of Will or Mind? Is Shelley of the camp of Nietzsche and Bataille, or of those who impose the Idea from German Romantic philosophers on through phenomenology and beyond?

In our time the battle between materialism and idealism seems to situate itself over the gap between Mind and the Real. Where as Idealism seeks to suture the Idea onto the Real whether in subjective, naturalist, or objective Idealisms; materialism seeks to maintain the gap, crack, or blank space between reality and the Real perturbing or disturbing thought just there where things get stuck, obstructed from reflecting either their potential or their active truth. Is this war between perspectival motions in philosophy a Mobius strip that returns upon itself like the Mind upon Mont Blanc?

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?

 


 

  1. Longinus (2009-10-04). On the Sublime (Kindle Locations 282-283). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
  2. Colin Jaeger. Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age ( University of Pennsylvania Press (November 6, 2014))
  3. Wordsworth, William (2004-09-30). The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850) (Penguin Classics) (p. 240). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.

Wynterhaven: Scene Three

 

The twice-born are of another order of being; they’ve faced the powers of the dead and lived.

– Sayings of the Tograh

Grimsilkan Ulfwyn gazed beyond the portico window on the north-facing of his strategy room high atop Brangwyn Tower. In the distance jutting above the snow-bound mountains of the Caerdwyn Tor he saw two stormhawks dancing in the afternoon sun. He felt as old as the gray-stone tower his grandsyre built two-generations before. His face was streaked with battle-scars and deep-cut ridges, muscular and dense, – “a stoic bastard” as his old counselor Tieg Thorngris would say, seemed almost frozen like the white and treacherous landscape beyond the castle walls. His once black beard was now full of snow-streaks, and his piercing cobalt-blue eyes seemed impervious and almost indifferent to the bitter winds sifting through the stone tower. He seemed more like one of those fierce stormhawk’s, ready to take flight at any moment, diving into the frozen worlds before him, ready to hunt prey and enjoy the blood-lust of the kill, than he was to remain here in human form lost in heavy thought.

“Snowfall is in the offing,” he said out loud to no one in particular.

“Aye, it’ll be higher than the flood-gates within a moon-passage.” Kag Romjik said.

“Why do they grow up so fast, Kag?”

“It’s the way of things. No changing Wyrd.”

Grimsilkan turned, looking at the old man, wanting to argue, but knowing it would do no good, make no difference.Kag is right”, he thought to himself: “Wyrd has us all in its clutches, we’re all part of the great pattern, mere threads on the Weavers loomcraft wheel, all part of the Mystruin Tapestry shaped and shaping all things known and unknown. My son and heir will have to face the “fearing” the same as I did long ago. Wyrd will have her way even in death if need be. Nothing I do or say will change that.”

Ermengard stepped into the room at that moment. Several of the men who’d been arguing over maps and diagrams, charts and artifacts spread across a carved oaken slab stopped and bowed as the Lady of the Castle entered with her small entourage of maidens. Her forest green eyes flashing she gracefully slipped across the hard stone floor more like a Istarian Jarlcat than the Queen of Mystruin Castle. Dressed in the shocking red and black ceremonial garb she’d designed for the coming Ceremonial of Changing, she’d knotted her ravenborn hair, letting it slip down through an intricte inlay of gold and silver tulai-circlets, looping through her bodice in the prescribed manner of her station in the hierarchy of Consiliators. If nothing else she was a stickler for the formalities of caste and rank. 

The scattered assemblage of men made a call to arms standing back as she headed directly toward her lord and husband. She hated this old tower, the chilling winds, the dank presence of the world outside with its never-ending snow and ice. Coming from the Summerlands of Droveanii far to the south and east she’d been married off by her Syre, the High-King Alain Transval as part of a political ploy to gain a hold over the dark lords of the Mystruin.

She looked upon her husband’s dire, hawk-like visage,  which after all these years and wars still seemed in its rugged way, handsome, saying: “Why the long face, my lord? Tonight you see your son through the Changing. This is a happy time, why such sadness?”

He looked at her with icy-bladed eyes, his lips tensing, and said: “You know very well this is only the beginning. Is he ready? Will he survive?”

His fierceness and bitterness were understandable, she’d never loved him the way he’d wanted, never shown the deep feelings he’d expected. Their marriage meant nothing to her more than thralldom, an enslavement to a man she’d never love; and, yet, she honored her Syre and the traditions of her people, holding forth the forms of the ancestral legacy, allowing the show of love, if not love itself. As for her son by him, she’d faced these fears long ago with her brothers, and knew the customs of her people better than this man did. She would now face it with her eldest, as he took up the challenge, faced the bitter truth of his own life, learned from the darkness all that could be learned.

That her eldest born, Tancred, had come of age, and was to become an Othering, a creature of the Mystruin waeorld was part of that ancient pact with the drakenkyn made so many ages ago. Yet, she knew something her husband and lord did not, she’d seen the ending. There was more than one way to enter the Mystruin Vale. Women had their ways, secretive ways that men would never be privy of, nor would they even understand.

She gazed directly into his steel-blue eyes saying, “Your son is of the drakenborn. He will survive.”

The tension in the room was so thick a cough would have ignited a war.

Then it all changed. Grimsilkan felt a calm come over him, knowing that she spoke truth. He laughed then and said, “Then let us be gone from this cold blasted tower. My son is to be born again tonight by blood and fire. Let us give him the send off he deserves. If my son is to die, let us feast on his dark flesh, else he will feed on ours.”

 ***

– Steven Craig Hickman ©2014 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

Wynterhaven – Grasping the Conceptual Framework

 

History as taught by the Consolatory is both vague and outdated. It is in need of a radical revision in the light of what is occurring, in more sophisticated areas of knowledge, whose shadowyrd shapings started changing a hundred declans ago. The ancient discipline of history is in decay and disrepute, and has not changed its basic premises for millennia. This is an embarrassing situation for those few of us tasked with finding answers in these dark times. The historians of old tried to isolate it and demarcate the truth as if that would explain the infinite variations across the vast voids of the Consilience. It didn’t and it want. Instead as we’ve seen in the past declan what is needed is a dynamic interaction with the timelines, an entry into the record itself, a retrieval of the information lost within its dark and labyrinthine recesses, discover in its forlorn and forgotten mythologies the veritable traces of our nightmare heritage. To do this is the stated goal of the Perilous Quest.

– Magister Cyb, On the History of the Consilience: A Lecture for Prospective Novitiates

– Steven Craig Hickman ©2014 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.


In the sense of bringing both science fiction and fantasy together rather than following the path of Medieval lore and redoubling what has already been so well done by hundreds and thousands of fantasists already. I’m seeking to break the barriers between genres and to fold both old sci-fi and fantasy elements into a new mold; or, not so new… following in Frank Herbert’s footsteps with Dune, but in a completely different tale having no Messiah, but rather the efforts of many in solving the problems facing what I’m calling the “Consilience” – a nod to Edward O. Wilson’s work of that name which unsuccessfully sought to bring all the sciences under a unified umbrella, a goal that many before have also tried. In our time we’ve been through the Science Wars in which the concept of Science per se has been whittled down to the more polymorphic term “the sciences”. Philosophers love to battle over such things… lol

Fantasy may seem to some as an escapist fiction, utopian and hopeful. But is this true? Most fantasy in one form or another deals with the grim facts of life as it is, and yet makes us think about these facts in ways other than the old sense of realist fiction. Are the Icelandic Sagas fantasy in an escapist sense. No. They are grittier and more realist than most so called realists fiction. Myth and legend deal in facts that are left out of the one-sided phenomenalism of our Enlightenment heritage. Saga, romance literature and poetry, and now our age of fantasy deal in the noumenal / phenonmenal divide, of the hedgerows of existence, the between zones where mind, nature, and reality intermingle in a no-man’s zone of wildness and strangeness just beyond the purview of our safe worlds of commerce and hack-a-day-lives. The lands of fairy are the realms where things do not play by our codified rules and regulations of thought, concept, and morality. It is a land beyond that is no longer locked down to human need or poverty. It is. That is all we can say of it. It is the inhuman without and within us. It is the perilous realm just this side of the abyss. 

Secular Philosophers seem to relish arguing over anything that hinges on older forms of theological thought forms, as if they could replace it with inventions of their own. The human mind is what it is, we are limited beings; yet, within the limits of our biological make up is infinite variation of thought and life. For two-hundred years scholars of the secular cast have tried their best to root out the mythological mind and demythologize every aspect of our thought and education. They failed miserably. Now more than ever people seek in the myths, legends, folk-tales, and the realms of fairy the answers that so to speak Secularism and the Enlightenment failed to produce. So here we are at the beginning of a new millennia seeking the same old answers humans have been asking for thousands of years. Who are we? What is our purpose? Fantasy is the realm where such things free float across all time and value systems seeking those answers in a way that does not hinge on the author’s own belief systems.

Having spent years reading both the Romantic poets and the Romantic or Enlightenment philosophers (Kant, Schelling, Ficht, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) and their progeny in our own century I start with the assumption that since Kant we’ve closed off the realm of the unknown and not directly accessible realm of the noumena; and, have blindly forced ourselves to study only the phenomenal world as exposed by our concepts and senses. Many are now awakening and wondering why we closed off that other realm of the noumena and its strangeness. Why did we close the mind down into a smaller sphere of thought rather than discovering indirectly and by other means the realms left behind.

Of course we didn’t. From the age of the Romantics on there was always an underground force of intellectuals, writers, fantasists, mythographers, seekers of mysteries etc. who kept the noumenal realms alive and within the purview of thought and imagination. I grew up in a world where fantasy was frowned on. If you were caught reading fantasy you were considered a sissy, etc. I’ve always remembered that time of youth and been disappointed that I never truly had a chance to enjoy all those books by Andrew Lang, the Grim Brothers, Burton’s 1001 Night Tales, etc. But when I grew up I entered them and discovered treasures of mind and heart I’d of never know about if I’d of kept the old thoughts of youth and its taboos in place. I’m glad I didn’t.

For me Time and our understanding of it seems the great issue of our age. Time is what shapes our notions of causality, of our linear or synchronic and our dynamic or diachronic/dialectical views of events and history. Rather than a disquisition on the Occasionalists (Malebranche) or Process Philosophy (Alfred North Whitehead), or even the Speculative Realists of our age (Brassier, Grant, Meillassoux, and Harman) I’ll just add that at the heart of my work is this sense of time as a hyperobject, as my friend Timothy Morton calls it:

Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. Indeed, for reasons given in this study, hyperobjects end the possibility of transcendental leaps “outside” physical reality. Hyperobjects force us to acknowledge the immanence of thinking to the physical. But this does not mean that we are “embedded” in a “lifeworld.”

– Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World

In my studies of Gnosticism and Gnosis over the years I sought to understand why the Catholic Church despised these heretics so much that in every instance that it cropped up from the Age of Constantine onward the heretics were slaughtered to the man, woman, and child. The last instance of this being the communities in Southern France during the reign of Pope Innocent III. Readings from the scholar Ioan P. Couliano, Umberto Eco, and now with the work of such as Pagels, Erhmann, Davies, Fiedler, Chilton, etc. one begins to weave a tale and understand something about these peaceful peoples. Both in the age of early Christianity and the times of forgetting and madness in the Middle-Ages and the demise of hundreds of thousands of people in villages, cities, and whole regions…

It was in this age of the troubadours, Courts of Love, Crusades, Templars, etc. that our notions of history, poetry, nobility (noblisse oblige), sharing and partnership between aristocrats and commoners was breaking down barriers. So many wonderful things were happening in this time period. What did we lose? Lately I’ve been reading a work on Ermengard of Narbonne. A Queen who lived a long and empowered life and was one of the strongest women and rulers of her age. So many women of that time were leaders. Beyond envy and gold why did the Catholic Church and its minions in Northern France decide to commit genocide against a whole world? In some ways the work I’m dealing with will work with much the same questions in a sub-creation in Tolkien’s sense yet not restricted by the religious or moral vision he imposed on aspects of his overall vision.

Thinking of such vitalist philosophers as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Franco Berardi (Bifo) I’m tempted to see certain patterns on the dark horizon of thought that lead toward brightness. For Deleuze and Guattari there appeared to be certain lines-of-flight out of our current timelines, ways of escaping the overpowering burden of history in which we seem foredoomed to decay and endless cycles of repetition of the same story of human destruction (in Freud’s sense of thanatopic culture). Berardi saw it as an escape from history and civilization as we know it. Nick Land sees our age as an invasion from the future of a sort of hyperobject that is accelerating us toward oblivion or apocalypse and an increasing rate. Environmentalists seem to see a great climate catastrophe happen all around us that most of us are as yet little concerned with because it has yet to affect our actual lives in the present moment. These are all the types of ideas I’m invested in and will explore not in some abstract philosophical way, but through actual characters confronting such things in flesh and blood real time. A way of allowing the clash of cultures, ideologies, and moments of violence and love that we all go through. 

As I write mainly background information in my sense of world-building, laying the background and foreground elements of the story: grapple with the immediate story itself, the characters, the tensions and motions of the real lives of the people that interest me this other more abstract layer will play out in a sort of Herman Hesse Glass-Bead Game realm of scholars, runemages, monks, etc. as the above segment iterates. I want be adding much more to my site, but will throw a few tidbits along the way as I work through this process over the next couple years. I see it as involving that amount of time to finish the first work. More than likely I’ll just meditate from time to time on this knowledge base, get some of my ideas out. Knock a few stones in the head. Lots of work ahead. Yet, to me its both interesting and a lot of just plain old fun to build this little by little. 🙂

  

The Art of Faërie: A Short History of Romance Literature

 

 

One of the interesting facts I’ve been uncovering as I study the scholars of the history and literature of Romance is this intermingling of oral and written culture as it slowly evolved out of a hunger both of the elite courts of various countries, and the loosening of the Catholic Church’s hold on the older accumulation of scribes, clerks, and knowledge workers of the several libraries scattered around Europe. The Celtic peoples had an aversion to writing, and the great cycles of the Welsh, Irish, and Scottish were held in guarded secrecy within their respective languages. Not until the epic cycle of Tristan and Iseult was finally written down in the 12th Century (a founding text in Romance Literature) did the world of the Celtic Lands of myth and romance become more and more open in the exchange of information that began with traveling tellers of tales, and the court poets.

We know that the earliest transformations out of Latin into Old French were becoming available mainly due to the Angevin court of Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine in England, where Anglo-Norman and Old French held sway as the language of the elite and powerful. From those early beginnings the world of Continental Europe began in earnest transcribing many of the older Latin works such as Romande Thèbes, the Roman d’Eneas, and Benoîtde Sainte-Maure’s Romande Troie were imaginative retellings of Classical epics with distinctive additions: descriptions of extra- ordinary objects, deeper analyses of sentimental affairs, as well as narratorial interventions. Wace’s Romande Brut (c. 1155) adapted Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) into a popular vernacular history that disseminated not only the myth of Britain’s historical link to Troy through Brutus, Aeneas’s grandson, but also the legend of King Arthur, whose Round Table is first mentioned in this romance. Most of these tales telling the “matter of Rome” and the “matter of Britain” were written in rhyming pairs of eight-syllable verses. The lively style of the Old French octosyllabic couplet soon became the preferred mode for clerks who would tell tales of love and adventure to aristocratic audiences in the francophone circles of England and France.1

Chrétien de Troyes in his Erec et Enide was the first of the great romancers whose work set fire across the Continent of his age for Arthurian literature and poetry. In his tales of Lancelot and Perceval the notions of noble love and chivalric prowess opened a door between worlds so to speak. Courts around Europe of that age would begin to emulate the world of romance and refine their own secular and religious worlds as these new translations and adaptations of the French prose romances entered the whole of Europe. From this would spring the age of the traveling minnesingers, troubadours, and trouvères: the poets of romance and chivalry.

Early verse romances were composed in writing but intended for public reading, and they often display their author’s sense of both literary aesthetics and oral performance. Drawing their material from a broad range of sources that included oral folktales, vernacular epics and saints’ lives, courtly lyrics, classical Latin literature and contemporary chronicles, romance authors self-consciously blended ancient and contemporary stories into new shapes, created characters who appealed to the sentimental, moral, and political concerns of their audience, and drew attention to their own art as they did so. (Ibid, 4)

In the Occitanian lands of what is now Southern France or Languedoc the culture of the elites would be inclusive of the common people within its world-view. It allowed anyone to become a knight and poet of the court through the Courts of Love. It also opened up the age of freedom from the rule of the Catholic Church and spawned a differing value system based not on authority and the hidden structures of ritual and Latinate verbiage that ruled the Catholic codes of aristocratic enclaves. Instead a new culture began in Albi which would ultimately spark the ire of Pope Innocent III to genocide of a living culture and its people. Yet, for the two hundred years of its independence it would become the model for poetry and romance throughout the ages.

Shakespeare’s adoption of romance motifs, and in the reframing of courtly love plots in Marguerite de Navarre or Madame de Lafayette, in the nineteenth- century Arthurian revival, or in twentieth-century recasting of medieval romance themes in fiction and film, the ethical questions as well as the idealizing spirit of romance have endured. Contemporary critics have viewed romance as a mode that attempts to embellish social reality and escape from history, as one that explores the sacred mysteries of birth, death, and the quest for identity with secular optimism, or as one that sets up a binary opposition between good and evil to protect an elite society from the “Other.”  It is commonplace to set the genre of medieval romance against its literary descendant, the modern novel, whose realism and discursive complexity are contrasted with the fantasy and ideological directness of its fictional forebears.(6)

1. Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance Literature. (p. 3) (Cambridge, 2000)