Sunday, January 13, 2008
Favorite Books:"The Tempered Blade in the Fantastic Silken Sheath"
Just to warn you: this is a long entry. A looooong entry. I do go on. I'm not sure why I wanted to write out what is essentially a book report, but it's been sitting with me for a few weeks, and wouldn't go away. Don't feel like you have to read it, I won't be offended. Come back when I'm babbling more succinctly about something else.
Rosemary Sutcliff is a children’s writer who had a significant influence on me as a kid. I don’t know if she’s now better known on this side of the pond, but the only reason I discovered her books was because we spent a year in London when I was ten. She introduced me to the Irish epic, Cuchulain and the heros of the Red Branch, and to the folk tales of Finn MacCool and the Fianna. She also wrote historical novels about Roman Britain. Many of them won literary awards and big kudos from historians for their detailed and uncannily accurate portraits of the time period. Sutcliff’s portrait of the Celtic world and it inhabitants definitely shaped mine. She was the first to admit that if the choice lay between telling a good story or being historically accurate, she would choose the story every time, so there is no doubt her characters (and thus my image) are at times romanticized. Other influences have interceded over the years, along with more rigorously historical reading and a fair amount of time in Ireland, but Sutcliff’s (with a little help from Yeats) passionate, mystic warrior/poet still lives at the root of my imagination.
When I went back to her books as an adult though, I began to wonder if she had influenced my imagination in other, more surprising ways. Her books stand up to adult scrutiny well; things are never sugar-coated though at times they may be left out. The characters are finely drawn, the stories exciting and well-told, and she’s unafraid to delve into difficult, even tragic terrain. Because so many of her characters are soldiers, warriors or gladiators, there is a lot of fighting, but also a lot of male bonding. Often the significant relationship in the story is between two men. When she’s retelling epics or traditional stories, this could easily be explained as her remaining true to the originals. Cuchulain really does love Ferdia, which is why their battle to the death is so horrifying. Many epics and traditional stories are full of what one of my Shakespeare teachers called “the passionate male friendship.” Arthur and Lancelot, Romeo and Mercutio, Frodo and Sam, if we want another example of a modern spin on the tradition, great love is expressed between these pairs without shame or embarrassment, because, well, there is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Their cultures had a place for these passionate yet sexless bonds.
But... then I looked at one of her books more closely. The Mark of the Horse Lord may be my favorite of all her books (though I recently discovered that there are probably about thirty more than I knew about; I’m very excited). The premise is this; Phaedrus is a half-Celt, half-Greek gladiator who manages to win his freedom at the beginning of the book. He meets a Celtic Prince, Midir, whom he resembles to a startling degree, and for reasons I won’t go into here, agrees to impersonate him, claim Midir’s throne, and depose his usurping aunt. Basically the Prince and the Pauper story, in other words, though Sutcliff manages to make it more plausible. The connection between the two men is passionate, confusing and important to them both, but clearly not romantic or sexual.
Naturally to be able to impersonate him, Phadreus has to learn everything about Midir, so they hole up for a month so Midir can tell his entire history, complete with detailed descriptions of all the people in his life. Midir is quizzing Phadreus at one point:
“‘Conory?’ said Midir’s voice behind him.
‘Conory was –is my cousin, born in the same summer to Iorwen, my father’s younger sister. I know him by his one eye set higher than the other, and a brown fleck in the apple of it.’ There were other things he knew about Conory, a great many other things, including some that Midir had never told him. But he did not recite them now. They had had to be learned, but though the arena years had hardened him to most things, he still disliked trampling more often than need be in another man’s private territory.” (p. 41)
Okay, sure there’s no reason to assume the big unspoken secret between Conory and Midir is sexual in nature. Maybe they murdered a man together, were never caught, and now are the only ones who know the truth. Maybe one of them offended taboo in some way, and the other covered it up.
But come on. I mean, really.
I read this when I was ten, did I mention that? Sure the whole thing probably went over my head at the time, but, like, wow.
But wait, it gets better. You haven’t met Conory yet.
“And then behind the rest, with some kind of great fur collar round his neck, he saw a man holding back, taking his time, watching him out of eyes that seemed, even in the gloom beyond the torchlight, to be oddly set— one a little higher than the other...
Their gaze met, and Phaedrus saw in that intant that the fur collar had eyes too. A striped-grey-and-dark thing with eyes like green moons. The young man made a sound to it, and the thing rippled and arched itself into swift, sinuous life, became a wildcat, poised and swaying for an instant on his shoulder and leapt lightly to the floor, and advanced beside him with proudly upreared tail, as he came forward to take his place among the rest.
For an instant, as they came face to face, and the wildcat crouched at his foot, Phaedrus thought that this could not, after all, be the cousin born in the same summer, who had helped Midir to wash the blood from his back after that long-ago beating. Not this wasp-wasted creature with hair bleached to the silken paleness of ripe barley, who wore a wildcat for a collar, and went prinked out like a dancing-girl with crystal drops in his ears and his slender wrists chiming with bracelets of beads strung on gold wires! But one of the man’s eyes was certainly set higher than the other; and on the bright hazel iris was a brown fleck the shape of an arrow-head.
For a long moment they stood confronting each other, and Phaedrus knew that this was indeed the danger moment. He saw a flicker of doubt in the odd-set eyes, quickly veiled and something tensed in his stomach, waiting for what would happen next, while the men around him looked on.
The young man said, ‘Midir.’ Just the one word, and his hands came out. Phaedrus, with an unpleasant consciousness of the wildcat crouched with laid-back ears on the floor, followed his lead so instantly that the onlookers could scarcely have said which made the first move. But next instant their arms were round each other in a quick, hard embrace that looked like the reunion of long-parted brothers, but had actually nothing in it but a kind of testing, an enquiry, like the first grip of a wrestling-bout... ‘Conory— you have changed!’ It was the only thing that Phaedrus could think of to say, and it seemed safe.
‘Have I?’ Conory said. ‘So have you, Midir. So—have—you,’ and the doubt was still in his eyes; indeed, it had strengthened, Phaedrus thought, but it would not be there for anyone but himself to see. At any rate — not yet. What game was he playing? Or was he playing any game at all? Had he, Phaedrus, only imagined that flicker of doubt? It was gone now. Unless it was only veiled once more...
With Conory’s grip on his shoulders, he discovered that there was more strength in those slender wrists than anyone could have expected. He made another discovery, too. He did not know, looking into those oddly set eyes that were so silkily bright, whether he and Conory were going to be heart-friends or the bitterest of enemies, but he knew that it must be one or the other; something between them was too strong to end in mere indifference.” (pp. 64-65)
Good stuff, no? Let me share another view of Conory from another member of his tribe.
“Phaedrus took the mead-horn, grinning... ‘I was taking a look at (Conory).’
And an older man leaned across to him from the other side. ‘A good long look, then. Aye well, he’s worth looking at, and he knows it,’ he snorted, but there was a hint of admiration in the snort. ‘Ever since he came to manhood he’s been one that the women watch— aye, and men too, and there’s times I think he makes a sport of seeing just how far he can go. He only has to come out one day with his cloak caught in a particular fold, or a woman’s ear-ring in one ear, and the next day half the young braves of the tribe are doing the same. If he cut off a finger-tip tonight, the other half would lack a finger-tip tomorrow. Fools!” (p. 71)
There’s more, but I'll stop there. Oh, don’t get too excited; it is a children’s book, this is as explicit as anything gets. And again, this innuendo about Conory and his relationship with Midir doesn’t have to be sexual... but I repeat, come on.
The Celts, like lots of ancient cultures, were pretty relaxed about sexuality; bisexuality was probably the norm in more places than not. People like Conory would have existed, it's just surprising to find one in a children's book published in 1965. I can’t help but wonder how it got through editing. I wish I could write her a letter to ask how conscious Sutcliff was of this possible interpretation, but she died in 1992.
After rediscovering Conory though, I realized that while he may be the first, he wasn’t the only figure of this kind I read about as a kid. Sutcliff's subject matter and writing style proved to be a great introduction to the books of Mary Renault. Perhaps more than any other writer, Renault shaped my earliest dreams of what love between men could be. At her best, her writing is compelling, layered, witty, wise yet forgiving of human nature. I have talked about another her books before, and may talk about others later, but after rereading Horse Lord, I specifically sought outThe King Must Die. I remembered meeting another Conory, several in fact, here too.
This book is a marvelous retelling of the Theseus myth, specifically his time in the Labyrinth of Crete. Making use of what was then recent archeological discoveries (Knossos, and the labyrinth, had just been discovered), Renault pictured the Athenian tribute as dancers in the sacred bull dance. Theseus and the other Athenians have just been brought to the practice court of the bull dancers, where they meet the de facto leader. (Theseus is talking.)
“He was slight, smaller than I... he stood poised on the balls of his feet, like a dancer, then took a step back and looked us over. I had never seen such a youth as this. At first sight he could have been a mountebank. But his heavy gold necklaces, his arm-rings of jeweler’s work, the gems on his glittering belt and loin-guard, were not gilded shams; he was wearing a princes’s ransom. His light-brown hair hung down in long curled tresses, groomed as sleek as a girl’s and his eyes ere painted. But with all this frippery, he was like a young panther, lean and spare and hard. A thick red scar, like a long burn, curved round the ribs on his right side... He raised his brows again, and then walked round us, staring at each in turn. Many had stared at us that day; but this one saw us. I felt as if a fine sharp blade pricked me over, searching for flaws.” (p. 241)
We learn that this fellow (simply called the Corinthian because he is the only still living) is a superstar, one of the best bull-leapers in the court, rivaling even the old legendary figures. Theseus finds out what this means the first time he’s allowed to witness the bull dance.
...[T]he Corinthian ran round [the bull] to face him, and held out both arms; the circling [of the other dancers] stopped.
He ran smoothly up to the sullen, bull. It was the leap I had seen often in the Bull court. But that was a shadow; now, he had a living things to dance with. He grasped the horns, and swung up between them, going with the bull; then he soared free. The beast was too stupid to back and wait for him. It trotted on, when it felt him gone. He turned in the air, a curve as lovely as a bent bow’s, and on the broad back his slim feet touched down together; then they sprang up again. He seemed not to leap, but to hang above the bull, like a dragonfly over the reeds, while it ran out from under him. Then he came down to earth, feet still together, and lightly touched the catcher’s hands with his, like a civility; he had no need of steadying.... I stretched in secret my right hand earthwards, and whispered under all the noise, ‘Father Poseidon! Make me a bull-leaper!’” (p. 244)
Unlike Sutcliff, Renault is writing for adults, so she is free to let us know some men sleep with men in this world. Men who never sleep with men are the odd-balls, as Theseus comes to learn. Everyone in the Bull Court dresses like the Corinthian too. Theseus is portrayed as a back country prince; sexist, homophobic (to use modern terms as short-hand) with a bit of Napoleonic complex, he has his eyes opened in many ways in Crete, including how he sees women and 'Nancy boys'(though remaining a ‘man for women’ all his life), and is soon just as bejeweled and coiffed as anyone else.
But the Corinthian isn’t the only figure of this kind in the book. As Theseus begins to plot the downfall of the royal house, he is soon allied with some nobles from the ancient (Minyan) houses. Alektryon is a member of the guard, and a formidable warrior. One night he has a message for Theseus.
“But the next night, after supper, I heard laughter at the doors of the Bull court, and the chink of gold. It is not cheap, to buy your way in there after dark. In came Alektryon, swift and glittering, his kilt stitched with plaques of pearl and his hair stuck with jasmine. He had a necklace of striped sardonyx, and a rolled kid belt covered with leaf gold. He strode among the dancers, flirting with this youth or that, talking of the odds, and the newest bull, like any young blood who follows the ring. But I saw his seeking eyes, and went toward him.
‘Theseus!’ he said, making eyes at me and tossing back his hair. ‘I vow you are of all men, the most fickle. You have forgotten my feast and eaten in the Bull Court! You have crystal for a heart. Well, I will forgive you still, if you come now for the music. But hurry; the wine is poured out already.’
I begged his pardon and said I would come. ‘The wine is poured’ was a signal agreed on between us, for something that could not wait.
We went out into the Great Court, which, since it was still early, was full of lamplight, and of people with torches passing to and fro. He caught my eye, then leaned upon a column in a Cretan pose. As someone passed he said, ‘How can you be so cruel?’ and fingered my necklace and drew me near. The he said softly, ‘Minos has sent for you. The way is marked as before. You must go alone.’
He spoke as if he had learned it off. But I had never had word from the King, except from the Goddess. I stared, trying to read him. His Cretan looks, his finery, his foppish ways, all made him doubtful to me, once I began to doubt. I knew nothing of his standing among the warriors. My eyes met his. He took my by the arm, a grip tender to look at but strong and hard. ‘I have a token for you. Watch out, and take it like a love gift.’...as someone came past us [he said], ‘Wear it, my dear, and think of me’... He slipped it on my hand. Under his warning eye I smiled, turning it this way and that. I had seen it once before. So I leaned on his shoulder, as I had seen youths do in Crete, and whispered, ‘It is enough. What does he want?’ He put his arm around my waist and said, ‘He did not tell. It is something heavy.’ Then he looked past my shoulder and murmured swiftly, ‘One of Asterion’s people. We mustn’t look too well together. Quick, give me the slip.’ I shrugged him coyly off me, and went away. Though I felt a fool, I had no more doubts of him.” (pp. 324-5)
I read this book probably around age twelve, maybe thirteen.
I’m not sure what to call this figure I’m describing. The title of this entry is how Phaedrus comes to see Conory, and it’s a good summation of what I find compelling about him. That flashy, unapologetic androgyny, combined with surprising strength and formidable skills (even if only for acrobatics) was all part of it. I loved the idea of someone being feminine and dangerous, if anything dangerous in part because of his effeminacy. Not the most Quakerly of thoughts, of course, but I was in junior high at the time, as close to lord of the flies I ever hope to come. Don’t worry, I wasn’t actually bullied much. I had gotten very good at being invisible, so mostly people just ignored me. This creature though, he didn’t hide, he didn’t avoid people’s attention, he demanded it, knowing he deserved it, he was a delight to the eye, and could take care of himself if there was any trouble.
What would I have done if I had met such a person in real life? I would have fled screaming the other direction. I would have had nothing to do with this guy when I was a teenager, and was well into college before he wouldn’t have freaked me out. The men who came closest to this image at the time either seemed ridiculous (Elton John, Liberace), or scary (Bowie). (I never saw Mick Jagger this way for some reason.) Nor was there any way on God’s little green earth I was going to BE this person. I’d managed to win the two fights I couldn’t avoid (scuffles, really), but my invisibility policy was working even better, why mess with a good thing? I think I wanted to be him though, flashy, eye-catching, powerful, and dangerous.
By high school Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, Michael Jackson, and their imitators were on the scene. None of them scared me (though I thought most of them ridiculous), and I could even enjoy their music without repercussions. Androgyny was talked about more. I know their very existence still freaked a lot of people out, but I never saw any of them as having that dangerous power I found so compelling. Annie Lennox and Prince occasionally got close. All of them did help get me more comfortable with the gentler, less threatening face of this image, and that was good.
In college I finally met the great-granddaddy of these guys, Dionysus in Euripides The Bacchae. I had just come out months before, so this was my first time meeting the figure when I was free to enjoy him. Sure, I think he overdoes it with poor stupid Pentheus, but I still loved his combination of feminine sensuality and panther-like ferocity. Here was this creature turned force of nature, a natural and universal impulse we deny at our peril. Though I’ve never gotten to play him in The Bacchae, over the years he’s danced in and out of my life; some of the solo performing I’ve done has been in his guise as Bromios, and once or twice I’ve gotten to play Dionysian-like characters in other plays. Seeing as how this is the second entry I’ve written touching on androgyny, he’s clearly still a potent figure in my life, even if we’re not in touch presently. It was fun realizing where and when I actually met him.