“do you make monsters of everyone you admire?”

lookingdown

I’ve almost choked during several episodes of The Crown. This is less than ideal, because I watch it while running increasingly longer distances for my upcoming marathon, with the result that it serves me better, oxygen-wise, not to dwell on each episode upon its finish, lest I become unable to complete my prescribed distance.

But season one’s episode nine, “Assassins,” isn’t something I can avoid dwelling upon. I thought I would be overcome by all the vignettes, in earlier episodes, of Elizabeth with her father. Of the increased easing of his speech problem around her, and the care she takes of him, even as a child. Married to someone whose own parents were rather shit about his stutter, I go into full tail-lashing leopard mode whenever media seeks to portray people with speech problems, and the care they took with this undid me. Not even just with Elizabeth, either, but when Margaret, coaxing him to sing (which, in my experience, does allow the stutter to seep into the background), gestures for him to look around, to the crowd whose presence ought to typically tie his tongue, and keep going…gah. Gah. I wiped furiously at my face in the gym at the time, pretending it was sweat.

But even so, Episode 9 is just…

I don’t suppose there’s any embroidery I can add to it that will make it novel, this fascination with, or at least desire for, guidance, in things there aren’t people left anymore in which to guide me. There’s no new story here. My swooning for the previous episode, focusing on the Queen Mother’s quest for something meaningful in the empty adult life remaining to her after her husband’s demise, was at least as much about longing for an elderly mother capable of such thoughts — melancholy though they were — as it was about guidance.

But this one, with the painting of Churchill. Their conversations, him and Sutherland. The pond. That magnificent cross-cutting at the end, splicing as it does what a relationship is and was and could be, if it survives, and how half that pair (both pairs) sees more in the other than the other will ever see in themselves. What age gives that, and also what it takes away. And then the text, even. That last little thorn. Sharp an unexpected.

I’m being vague because this is an hour of your time worthy of watching, unsullied by  some internet fool’s blow-by-blow.

I am also absurdly smitten with the relationship between Elizabeth and Churchill. I am not old enough yet, or maybe I just don’t know enough people younger than me yet, to have felt…out-seen. By my peers, certainly, by my elders, of course. But I assume — I gather — there is a certain unbalance in feeling to have been known at some deeper level than one anyone desired, by someone whose age says, by common and naive knowledge, that they should not be able to see so deeply. Not yet, and not into you. To see the tangled mess therein, and allow for it, and continue on with that knowledge in your eyes, visible for the observed to become aware of. That’s why Churchill cries.

And it is why he destroys what he does.

pond

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all the best texts

When you’ve got to make a grocery run during Critical Role, I can totally keep you in the loop…

the advantages of 15 year olds

I love that this has been included:

This is the sort of question characters are usually too wise to ask aloud, in Guy Gavriel Kay’s books. This isn’t a bad thing. Those young enough to think of it, in his books, are wise enough to keep the thought to themselves, and I appreciate that. Not all young people are blind to the pitfalls that honesty opens up beneath them. Nor do the very, very young ask such questions, in some gooey pastiche of innocence. Using kid characters as such shills for earnestness is hokey and a little self-righteous, and is thankfully beneath GGK.

But Ned, here, at 15, under duress, bothers to ask. Immediately regrets it, but bothers to ask. And I like that he was allowed to do so. He avoids both seeming like a stupid adult or like a poster-child of innocence — because he’s wedged in that miserable space between the two. Being a teenager is absolutely wretched. But it allows you, in fiction if not in life, to be ephemerally honest, with yourself and with others. And the ephemeral nature of that honesty only serves to heighten its power, and draw attention to its fragility.

fayth

At Distant Worlds, they sang Hymn of the Fayth, synced to the cutscene. Less than a week before my mother’s funeral, I started crying, as I supposed I might have. I thought I could at least keep it together until Zanarkand — the song for which I attended in the first place. It’s not as though I hadn’t watched this cutscene of the Sending before, many times.

I kept thinking of Yuna as a provider of a service, though. Someone who was good at what she did. Yes, there was the morbid self-sacrificing part of it later, but first and foremost her job — what she travelled her world doing — was to give comfort. To give those people sobbing at the water’s edge, staring at the wrapped bundles of what had been their loved ones bobbing beneath the waves, the impression that there was some scrap of final goodness to be gained from all this. Because a summoner was there, and could release the souls of their loved ones to a peace they, those remaining, hadn’t been able to grant them in mortal life. A gift they couldn’t give.

The betrayal, the lie she is told, cuts the player deeply, sure, for the tax on the characters you by then love. But for Yuna as a provider of this service — someone who at great physical and emotional cost has travelled the countryside releasing the spirits of the dead to what she thought — what the people clutching at her skirts believed — was rest, to discover this falsehood is vicious. Her one job, the one thing she was good at, and had studied for years to learn to do, turned out to be a lie. Not only was she being used, but she had been, without her knowledge or consent, using others. Hundreds of them. And all those people who looked at her through tears before her service, and who probably looked at her through tears after, too, but who through their snot expressed sore, aching gratitude — to discover that rather than peace, what you had been doing that whole time had been “releasing” those souls to feed a kind of machine…how bitter. How cruelly undermining of everything you thought you had to bring to the world.

And I found myself crying, there in that theater full of shrill fangirls and too-tall guys who reeked of cheap weed, because I remembered my mother saying, for years, that she’d done what she’d done — studied what she had, lived where she did, around the world — to provide a service. A very specific, medical service to people who needed it. She was good at it. Everyone who keeps throwing her past at me, thinking their sudden ambush of memories helps me, has made this clear. She was good at what she did.

It wasn’t a lie…the wounds she healed stayed that way, and the muscles she coaxed back into functioning continued to grasp and grip and turn and manipulate objects in this world. Her speciality was hands — the most devastating thing for craftsmen to lose, yes, but even laypeople, as I learned one year, can have so much they love taken away through the loss of their hands. Even the ability to clutch at the people they love.

What she healed stayed healed, but there was no return favor. She fell apart and stayed that way. I thought of the Hymn of the Fayth as the man whose faith I did not share read words seeded throughout books and movies as words that give peace. Well, no — he didn’t read them. His finger marked a page in a closed book, but he didn’t need to read them because he’d memorized them already. This was his job. To stand here in the blazing sun for ten minute segments in front of strangers either crying or holding rigidly, desperately still in order not to. To stand there and speak words that bring people in stories peace. Close-up shots, and piano solos, and laid-down flowers and peace.

It was this that I appreciated, more than any particular affinity for the Bible passages he trotted out. The fact that this was his job. That he was a provider of this service, and went to bed at night feeling as though — one assumes; he was younger than me but not by enough to still lie to himself about his worth — the strangers he saw in streams that day had been served. In some way. He didn’t try to chum it up as small-town ministers I’d met in the past had done — he did not pretend, in speech or in manner, to have been my friend, or my mother’s. He was a stranger, doing his job. A kind of healer, rehabilitating us to grasp and grip and manipulate objects in this, the world-that-remains, even if we don’t much wish to. He’d do it for the next group gathering on the hill behind us. And the next, and the next. And then he’d go home and feel that work had been done.

And I want, very much, for him never to feel that it was all a lie, or that he’d been used or using people. The passages he kept quoting are just scraps of stories, even though they aren’t the stories that are dear to me. In the hands of others — the organized bodies who archive them and form policies based too much upon them, for example — they are weapons, and wretched. But in the gloved hands of a stranger on a sunny hill, they’re just tools used to do a job. Or to try to. I can’t resent him for that effort.

Nor could I summon shame — I checked — when, looking right or left or anywhere except at the tiny box in front of me that held what had been my mother — I kept hearing the choir singing Hymn of the Fayth three thousand miles away, and seeing shining streaks of soul-stuff visibly releasing those gathered from a loss their knees were pebbled and bruised under the weight of bearing.

to juan at the winter solstice

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

–Robert Graves

stories, not whelks

thorntonviaduct

I’m reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, again stemming from that CBC article where Guy Gavriel Kay listed his favorite books, and it’s a pleasant reversal of perspective on the kinds of books I filled my childhood with. From Stephen R. Lawhead’s Byzantium to Morgan Llylwellyn’s Bard and Druids, I was very much enamored of a Celtic history I (and for that matter historians) barely understood. To the point where I, for the first time I remember, openly argued against the content we were being fed in fifth grade–a slideshow accompanied by a cassette tape painting the druid of Britain as deranged heretics, and the Romans as good Christians and proto-Americans. For a kid who loved school and dreaded getting in trouble or challenging a beloved teacher on content, that was terrifying. But I was furious on the behalf of the heroes I read about in every free moment.

Well, Sutcliff roots us in the opposite camp, but she does it very gently. Marcus Flavius Aquila had dreams, once, and the camaraderie of a Roman legion, but these are shattered by an injury sustained fighting the Picts, and the whole first third of the book is him coming to terms with this, laying aside his bitterness (or trying to) and altogether growing as a person. There are so many moments she could have made him lesser — lusting after the neighbor girl, for example, or resenting his uncle for surviving into old age when his father did not. But she doesn’t do that. He is much wiser and gentler than his 20-something years should render him.

(With a publication date of 1954, I wonder if this was a legacy of the war, and the different way trainees were made, or unmade, then. I know my fair share of veterans now, and they don’t tend to weather so well the unmaking of their military selves, after their service. You get taken apart and rebuilt as a part of a group, all the while being told this is the best and only thing worth doing…and then you’re released with two weeks of, essentially, resume and cover letter-writing advice, with absolutely no effort to address the loss of your selfhood beyond “don’t beat your wife” and “try not to drink too much.” Whereas, coming out of WW2, my grandfather was a much quieter and, I gather, wiser, more inwardly-turned person, but that’s conceivably because he lost his entire team during an event right at war’s end, and lied to everyone about where he was for decades because he couldn’t bear the telling of it.)

Anyway, Marcus goes north across Hadrian’s Wall during the beginning of Rome’s long decline. And that’s always an attraction, too — writing about some much-heralded people or point in history as it is already retreating from its epoch. This colors Marcus’s own humility. He accepts his lame leg as he accepts the abandoned forts and empty garrisons strung out across what is now Scotland: with pain, but the realization that there is nothing he can do to bring it back. The most he can hope for is the restoration of his father’s legacy. And because of the historical tidbits given to us in the foreword to the book, we have hope that even this might be revealed to him as an…empty goal? Or a misplaced one. He has grown up in a culture that gathers this image of father-as-hero to its breast and values it above all else. But it may be that he lets the object of his quest go, handing it off to those who can glean from it far more comfort than he can. Because the eagle won’t bring his father back. Which is, I think, what he really wants. He has almost figured that out.

Quite often when I sing the praises of these books, I am asked by those who prefer historical nonfiction, epic treatises on past days, why I don’t just read their kinds of books. And I mean…this is why. Above and beyond the past being a malleable thing, at the mercy of those with the money and means to document it (and erase those documents that displease them), there is the fact that learning what came or might have come before isn’t enough, for me. There have to be people learning to be people, too. Better people, maybe.

The fact that such changes tend to be relegated to the realm of fiction is hardly a knock on me. It’s a knock on, uh. Either people who guarded their inner selves too closely, failing to reveal in their memoirs or interviews the magic that most moved them in their lives…or it’s a knock on those same people, for never having been moved. History doesn’t have to be a dry record of events. The people that set those events in motion were, one assumes, impassioned and moved on some level by love. Of country, of people, hell even of self. But if you cannot bring yourself to show that in your historical record, through shyness or pride or simple lack of source material…then I am not going to have a great deal of interest in your historical record. Because that’s all it is: the shell of what might have been, empty and echoing with the people who inhabited that past, who made it.

I’d rather read a ‘might have been’ animated by real, changeable, impassioned people, than a ‘definitely was’ built on shipping logs and battle reports. Because while each are arguably fiction, only the one is populated by actual characters.

 

Thirty years ago, when Valentia was a Roman province in more than name, before Agricola’s work had all been undone by meddling from the Senate, Trinomontium had been a busy fort. A double Cohort had drilled in the wide forum and slept in the barrack rows; there had been many horses in the stables, cavalry manoeuvres on the gentle southern slope below the ramparts, with the riders crested with tossing yellow plumes, the usual baths and wine-shops and the turf bothies of the women’s quarters; and over all, the crested sentries marching to and fro. But now the wild had flowed in again; grass covered the cobbles of the streets, the timber roofs had fallen in, and the red sandstone walls stood gaunt and empty to the sky. The wells were choked with the debris of thirty autumns, and an elder-tree had taken root in one corner of the roofless shrine where once had stood the Cohort’s Standard and its gods, and had thrust a jagged gap in the wall to make room for itself. In all that desolation the only living creature that Marcus and Esca found as they wandered through it in the heavy stillness of the summer evening was a lizard basking on a fallen block of stone, which darted off like a whip-lash at their approach. Looking down at the stone, Marcus saw roughly carved on it the charging boar of the Twentieth Legion. Somehow the sight of it brought the desolation home to him very sharply.

“If ever the Legions come north again, they will have a fine building job on their hands,” he said.”