‘A Receipt for a Novel’, by Mary Alcock

I enjoy celebrating women’s voices on World Poetry Day, as they are so often forgotten. A few years ago I recorded Aemelia’ Lanyer’s fiery ‘Eve’s Apology’; this time, I’m going for something a bit more lighthearted. ‘A Receipt for a Novel’, by Mary Alcock satirises the tropes and conventions familiar to readers of her time in gothic novels. Many of them are still with us, and her wry humour can provide delight even today.

Alcock was a poet, essayist, and philanthropist. She died at just 57, and her neice, Joanna Hughes, collected her works after her death. Her work received little critical attention, although I hope you’ll agree that this poem reveals a lively and engaged wit.

I’ve provided both a recording and the text below:

A Receipt For Writing A Novel

by Mary Alcock

Would you a favrite novel make,
Try hard your readers heart to break
For who is pleasd, if not tormented?
(Novels for that were first invented.)
Gainst nature, reason, sense, combine
To carry on your bold design,
And those ingredients I shall mention,
Compounded with your own invention,
Im sure will answer my intention.

Of love take first in due proportion
It serves to keep the heart in motion:
Of jealousy a powerful zest,
Of all tormenting passions best;
Of horror mix a copious share,
And duels you must never spare;
Hysteric fits at least a score,
Or if you find occasion, more;
But fainting fits you need not measure,
The fair ones have them at their pleasure;
Of sighs and groans take no account,
But throw them in to vast amount;
A frantic fever you may add,
Most authors make their lovers mad.

Rack well your heros nerves and heart,
and let your heroine take her part;
Her fine blue eyes were made to weep,
Nor should she ever taste of sleep;
Ply her with terrors day or night,
And keep her always in a fright,
But in a carriage when you get her,
Be sure you fairly overset her;
If she will break her boneswhy let her:
Again, if eer she walks abroad,
Of course you bring some wicked lord,
Who with three ruffians snaps his prey,
And to the castle speeds away;
There close confind in haunted tower,
You leave your captive in his power,
Till dead with horror and dismay,
She scales the walls and flies away.

Now you contrive the lovers meeting,
To set your readers heart a beating.
But ere theyve had a moments leisure,
Be sure to interrupt their pleasure;
Provide yourself with fresh alarms
To tear em from each others arms;
No matter by what fate theyre parted,
So that you keep them broken-hearted.

A cruel father some prepare
To drag her by her flaxen hair;
Some raise a storm, and some a ghost,
Take either, which may please you most.
But this with care you must observe,
That when youve wound up every nerve
With expectation, hope and fear,
Hero and heroine must disappear.

Now to rest the writers brain,
Any story that gives pain,
You now throw in no matter what,
However foreign to the plot,
So it but serves to swell the book,
You foist it in with desperate hook
A masquerade, a murderd peer,
His throat just cut from ear to ear
A rake turnd hermita fond maid
Run mad, by some false loon betrayd
These stores supply your writers pen,
And write them oer and oer again,
And readers likewise may be found
To circulate them round and round.

Now at your fables close devise
Some grand event to give surprise
Suppose your hero knows no mother
Suppose he proves the heroines brother
This at one stroke dissolves each tie,
Far as from east to west they fly;
At length when every woes expended,
And your last chapters nearly ended,
Clear the mistake, and introduce
Some tattling nurse to cut the noose,
The spell is brokeagain they meet
Expiring at each others feet;
Their friends lie breathless on the floor
You drop your pen; you can no more
And ere your reader can recover,
Theyre married and your historys over.

I wrote a poem today


I went to tea
with my heroes today,
Eagerly awaiting
what they would say.

Lucy the Brave
and Susan the fair –
Daenerys, Khaleesi
Unburnt, was there.

Susan to the
Khaleesi said:
“Your brother, I hear
you burnt his head.”

Queen Lucy frowned,
“A little harsh, I think.
We forgave our brother
such terrible things”

Daeserys shrugged.
“I killed him not,
but Drogo’s crown,
he found it hot.”

Cersei snorted.
“The crown was yours!”
“I know, but still–”
“Male poison pours…”

Rapunzel frowns
“I don’t agree
My prince, he risked
his life for me.”

“And then what?”
she said, “He takes you to bed
That nary you worry
your fine little head.”

“The head from whence
your locks did flow,”
she sighs, “They cut
off mine, you know.”

Alanna the Lioness
raises her mane
“I cut off my own,
and I’d do it again!”

“I believe the point,”
said Susan, thinking,
“Is that you did it for you,
and not for your king.”

“King,” Susan laughs,
High king,” she says.
“But not a high queen,”
adds the Lioness.

“Not even a queen,
not anymore”
Susan replies
eyes to the floor.

“A queen, but a girl
forever,” Lucy says,
“Forever alone
And forever unwed.”

who had sat quiet, immobile,
Pours her own tea,
then addresses the table:

“Ladies, when you say ‘queen’
I think twice
What really you mean
Is Sacrifice.”

Eve’s Apology: A Reading for International Poetry Day

The Dream of Pilate's Wife, by Alphonse François

The Dream of Pilate’s Wife, by Alphonse François

It’s International Poetry Day! What better day to celebrate the poetry of one of the women I celebrated on International Women’s Day? Aemelia Lanyer – first female poet to be published in the English language.

Click below for a reading of her ‘Eve’s Apology’, read by me. ‘Eve’s Apology’ (here meaning ‘defence’, rather than ‘sorry about that’) is an extract from the epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. It’s from the bit where Pilate’s wife is trying to persuade him to pardon Jesus, and Pilate thinks he can just wash his hands of the matter and put it all on the crowd. And Pilate’s wife is, like, ‘You men are always shitting on women because Eve ate the apple in the garden of Eden and then everything sucked, but bitch? We’ve suffered enough. And, frankly, it wasn’t our fault, anyway, ’cause Adam never told Eve what God said about not eating from that tree. And now you’re gonna do this, even though God sent me this dream about how crappy an idea this is? And I’ve told you my dream, so if you think you can wash your hands on this, then LOL, because men won’t have shit on women after this.’

It’s basically a massive smackdown, and you gotta listen to it to really feel the way it builds.

Read more about Aemelia Lanyer in my post for International Women’s Day.

(If you enjoy this reading, please consider putting a little something in the tip jar – it’s helps me to add a little extra to this blog.)

A question about poetry…

I’ve learnt a lot about fiction publishing, over the years, but not so much poetry. I was runner-up for the Berkshire Poetry Prize a teenager, but that’s about it. I write poetry so infrequently that I only rarely think about trying to get it published.

But I think some of my poems are pretty good (some not so much, but that’s why no one gets to look in my poetry folder without my permission), and then I… don’t know what to do with them, really. I don’t write them to just sit on a folder in my computer, but that’s all most of them do.

I wrote a poem today. I think it’s pretty good. It’s punchy, political, personal. And I was like, well… what do I do with this, now? I looked around the web a bit. I’m so used to only looking for places that pay pro or semi-pro rates for speculative fiction, I’m basically clueless when it comes to anything else. What I’ve gathered is that, a) there are a lot of poetry magazines out there, b) a lot of them don’t pay, c) most of them still want snail-mail submissions (o_O), d) I have no clue how well respected any of them are or aren’t.

In short, although I know a few poets and follow some blogs and Twitter accounts of you guys, I know diddly squat about how you do what you do. I know I do not produce the quantity of work any of you do, and I know I am not in the league of the most successful poet I know, who has had her own anthologies published. I know some of you publish poems on your blogs. I know one person has turned his blog into a book. And I know that is not going to happen for me.

So, the question is: do you have any advice? You know, for someone who will always be more of a fiction writer than a poet, but who doesn’t want to just dismiss her poetry.

I feel like, for most of my adult years, I have assumed that I wasn’t good enough, in some sense. I’m not sure how, or quite when that happened. I have read some of my poetry in public, but not since my undergrad days, I don’t think. It’s weird, this lack of confidence, when in all other areas, my writing is the one thing I remain confident about and undaunted of. When did I become the sort of person who writes poetry only for a forgotten folder on her laptop?

Should I just set it free on the Internet? Part of me wants to, but a) that’s a death knell to future publishing of that work, and b) poetry is pretty personal – there’s a rawness to baring of emotions that I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with just putting on a blog. There’s something about putting it out there in a defined venue – one designed for poems to be displayed in – which is separate enough to make it OK.

When I was runner up in that poetry prize I was invited to a ‘poetry and pimms’ event, to read my poem. And I was allowed to take a guest. For some reason, it ended up being my granddad. It was excruciating. My poem was highly personal – about bullying – it was the last thing I wanted anyone in my family to hear, let alone my Granddad – I’m sure it wasn’t the sort of pleasant subject matter he expected from going to hear his granddaughter read her poetry. Maybe that had something to do with me not wanting to share my poetry, although I have done a few times, since.

The idea of turning my poetry out on this blog, for instance, gives me the heebie jeebies. But the idea of not sharing something I think is current and relevant to others just… makes me feel sad. Why did I write it, then? Except that I felt compelled to.

So, poets in the feed, how do you publish? Do you just put it online? How do you decide what to put online, and what to try to submit elsewhere? Where do you submit? Does payment signify anything in the poetry world? Or should I just accept that most places only publish poetry for the love?

I’d be really grateful for any thoughts you’d like to share.

International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #2 – Aemelia Lanyer

*Possible* portrait of Aemelia Lanyer, according to Tony Haygarth

*Possible* portrait of Aemelia Lanyer, according to Tony Haygarth

Aemilia Lanyer (1569–1645): Poet

My second inspirational woman is Aemelia Lanyer (also called Emilia Lanier), 17th Century poet and first woman to be published as a poet in the English language. (Yeah, we’ve jumped a few thousand years, this is not in any kind of historical order.)

What’s more, her poetry pulls no punches. Her most famous work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, is a daring account of the life of Christ, in which Jesus is depicted in feminine terms and mankind, but not womankind, is scathingly condemned for his death, most particularly in the section most often referenced:

‘Eve’s Apology’

Till now your indiscretion sets us free,
And makes our former fault much lesse appeare;
Our Mother Eve, who tasted of the Tree,
Giving to Adam what shee held most deare,
Was simply good, and had no powre to see,
The after-comming harme did not appeare:
The subtile Serpent that our Sex betraide,
Before our fall so sure a plot had laide.

That undiscerning Ignorance perceav’d
No guile, or craft that was by him intended;
For had she knowne, of what we were bereav’d,
To his request she had not condiscended.
But she (poore soule) by cunning was deceav’d,
No hurt therein her harmelesse Heart intended:
For she alleadg’d Gods word, which he denies,
That they should die, but even as Gods, be wise.

But surely Adam can not be excusde,
Her fault though great, yet hee was most too blame;
What Weaknesse offerd, Strength might have refusde,
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame:
Although the Serpents craft had her abusde,
Gods holy word ought all his actions frame,
For he was Lord and King of all the earth,
Before poore Eve had either life or breath.

Who being fram’d by Gods eternall hand,
The perfect’st man that ever breath’d on earth;
And from Gods mouth receiv’d that strait command,
The breach whereof he knew was present death:
Yea having powre to rule both Sea and Land,
Yet with one Apple wonne to loose that breath
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

And then to lay the fault on Patience backe,
That we (poore women) must endure it all;
We know right well he did discretion lacke,
Beeing not perswaded thereunto at all;
If Eve did erre, it was for knowledge sake,
The fruit beeing faire perswaded him to fall:
No subtill Serpents falshood did betray him,
If he would eate it, who had powre to stay him?

Not Eve, whose fault was onely too much love,
Which made her give this present to her Deare,
That what shee tasted, he likewise might prove,
Whereby his knowledge might become more cleare;
He never sought her weakenesse to reprove,
With those sharpe words, which he of God did heare:
Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke
From Eves faire hand, as from a learned Booke.

If any Evill did in her remaine,
Beeing made of him, he was the ground of all;
If one of many Worlds could lay a staine
Upon our Sexe, and worke so great a fall
To wretched Man, by Satans subtill traine;
What will so fowle a fault amongst you all?
Her weakenesse did the Serpents words obay;
But you in malice Gods deare Sonne betray.

Whom, if unjustly you condemne to die,
Her sinne was small, to what you doe commit;
All mortall sinnes that doe for vengeance crie,
Are not to be compared unto it:
If many worlds would altogether trie,
By all their sinnes the wrath of God to get;
This sinne of yours, surmounts them all as farre
As doth the Sunne, another little starre.

Then let us have our Libertie againe,
And challendge to your selves no Sov’raigntie;
You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weake woman simply did offend,
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

To which (poore soules) we never gave consent,
Witnesse thy wife (O Pilate) speakes for all;
Who did but dreame, and yet a message sent,
That thou should’st have nothing to doe at all
With that just man; which, if thy heart relent,
Why wilt thou be a reprobate with Saul?
To seeke the death of him that is so good,
For thy soules health to shed his dearest blood.

This is a finely crafted poem, it’s even meter and rhyme structure designed to evoke a sense of reasoned, rational discourse, it’s argument using the very charges laid against women as weapons to condemn men. Men blame women for all the sin in the world because of Eve’s original sin, but, Lanyer argues, Eve’s sin was committed in ignorance; Pilot, meanwhile, has been warned not to condemn the son of God to death, and he ignores that message. So how can men get away with punishing women for Eve’s offense, still (which, Lanyer argues, was really Adam’s fault, to begin with – one cannot be blamed for committing a sin when one does not know the action to be wrong)?

Make no mistake, this poem is dripping with bitterness, but it restrains its anger into this strict structure to say:

    If one weake woman simply did offend,
This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.

When we do remember the great women of history, we tend to focus on the Joan of Arcs, the Queen Elizabeths – women who are praised for leading men. But we should not overlook our great female writers and poets. Being a woman and a poet in the 17th century was a thankless enterprise. One Aemelia was only able to conduct thanks to her patron:  Lady Anne Clifford. And Lady Anne’s life was no walk in the park, either. Anne and her mother, Margaret, supported Aemelia at their estate, Cooke-ham, for which they engaged in a long and painful battle for inheritance against Lady Anne’s uncle and his son. The battle was ultimately won when the male claimants died, but not before Anne and Aemelia had been evicted from the estate – an event commemorated in Lanyer’s heart-breaking country house poem: ‘The Description of Cooke-ham‘. Which begins:

Farewell (sweet Cooke-ham) where I first obtained
Grace from that grace where perfect grace remained;
And where the muses gave their full consent,
I should have power the virtuous to content;
Where princely palace willed me to indite,
The sacred story of the soul’s delight.
Farewell (sweet place) where virtue then did rest,
And all delights did harbor in her breast;
Never shall my sad eyes again behold
Those pleasures which my thoughts did then unfold.
Yet you (great Lady) Mistress of that place,
From whose desires did spring this work of grace;
Vouchsafe to think upon those pleasures past,
As fleeting worldly joys that could not last,

I must confess, I kinda ship Aemelia Lanyer/Lady Anne. Whether it was platonic, or something more, there was clearly deep love and sisterhood, holding to one another and creating a little haven in a world embattled against them. I’m getting teary just thinking about them.

So, this is a woman our children should be reading alongside the umpteen millionth Shakespeare play we forced them through. I’d studied four (and we did Macbeth three separate times and Hamlet twice) by the time I was sixteen, and nobody gave me something like this? Something that might really mean something to me and get my blood boiling? Something that might challenge assumed ideas of male supremacy in the minds of young boys who don’t even know why they think the negative things they do about girls?

Yeah, most people don’t know about Aemelia Lanyer. But they should. Remember her, pouring her heart out with emotion and relentless logic at a time when no other woman dared to call herself a poet.

I remember you, Aemelia. I cannot imagine the strength you must have struggled to find every day, but I admire it.



Sometimes I want to be like ‘GUYS – make a logo-link-awesome-thing for people to use on their blogs when they promote and/or review you without worrying that you might feel they’re stealing your art’, but then I realised I don’t have one of those things, so who am I to talk? Anyway: imagine there’s an awesome banner that expresses the supreme amusement Myths RETOLD provides here.

I wanted to get back into blogging gently. I’m bubbling underneath with, like a review of all ten seasons of Smallville, Superman, some books I’ve been reading… all sorts, but I just had a killer week and am not yet recovered from my anaemia, so I’m starting with something fun.

Myths RETOLD is like the epitome of neo-geekery – that kind of ecclectic mix of niche interests, passion, inventiveness, a scholarly approach to history, a literary approach to swearing, new-tech-loving, sub-culture creating geekery that the Internet has allowed to explode and shape our culture not by defining it, but expanding it.

The creator goes by the name of ‘Ovid’, and his ‘WHO WRITES THIS SHIT?!‘ section devolves from esoteric facts about himself to a rant about birds in poetic free-form. He responded to someone else’s attempt to find a way to credit him as follows:

Just do your thing, man. Read that shit like there is no tomorrow. You can just tell people about the site, and maybe about that sweet dude named Ovid who runs the site.

He goes by @tachaberdash on Twitter and frostyobsitnic on YouTube, where he appears to be a young man (usually naked – or at least, naked from the chest up – and wearing a hat) literally yelling myths at the Internet. Alas, profit appears to have trumped his wish for anonymity, however, and his book, Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes: A No-Bullshit Guide to World Mythology is attributed to Cory O’Brien. (I’d be reviewing that, but I don’t own it, yet.)

Anyway, Cory yells myths at the Internet. Or rather: he writes awesome, refreshing, and often insightful free-form poetry retellings of myths and legends in the language of our times – complete with all-caps, internet-slang, and pop-culture references. His ‘SMORGASBORD OF MYTHOLOGY‘ goes from ‘AESOP’S FABLES!‘ to ‘ZOROASTRIAN!‘, and he has recently started retelling the ‘SILMARILION!’ on Wednesdays.

I can’t remember which poem I was first linked to which started my exploration of this site, but I think he had me at ‘Tam Lin is Really Good at Rape?’. For those unfamiliar with the tale, there’s an awesome ballad about a kick-ass lady who deliberately goes out to this place where she knows this guy called Tam Lin hangs out, apparently either stealing women’s ‘mantles’ or their ‘maidenheads’, she has the sex with him and gets pregnant, but it turns out he’s an enchanted knight in thrall to the Faerie Queen, and will die unless Janet saves him, WHICH SHE DOES. This is how Cory describes Janet’s motives:

i mean here’s what I don’t get
you’re going into the woods
knowing full well that there is a dude there who will steal your shawl
and if he can’t find the shawl he is going to rape you instead
so your brilliant defensive strategy is to HIDE THE SHAWL RIGHT NEXT TO YOUR VAG
thus virtually assuring hours and hours of molesting action
oh nevermind
i totally get it now

The retellings are one part exuberant enjoyment to one part wry mocking, revelling in the inconsistencies, bizarre twists, and lost meanings, whilst also cutting straight to both the intended meanings and unintended ones that read oddly to modern eyes. It’s a delight to sample myths with which you are familiar and see how Cory recasts them, but it’s also brilliant to be able to enjoy myths from other cultures as Cory loots the legends of the world and bares them all to his wit.

It’s not without flaw. Whilst his no-holds-barred critique of the rape-culture of mythology is wlecome, there’s also a fair amount of slut-shaming, too. His interpretation of Tam Lin straddles an uncomfortable line between celebrating Janet’s free-love approach to sex and directly shaming her by labelling her as a ‘(SLUT)’. And whilst I’m glad he hasn’t limited himself to classical mythology and the myths of Anglo-American culture as if it were the only culture, I don’t know if his looting of world mythology might be taken as cultural appropriation by some. I’m conscious that my cultural history must be very similar to his (he’s white American) and I may share blindspots. Certainly, it seems a little ignorant to groop all ‘AFRICAN!‘ myths under the same heading, and there is a worry that mocking someone else’s culture in this manner could well be offensive.

I don’t know. It seems it would also be offensive to leave out other cultures. I enjoy the chance to expand my cultural horizons and myths themselves tend to stem from an oral culture of telling, retelling, and remolding, with some stories spreading across cultures and around the world – the ‘Cinderella’ story has countless variations and can be found in Chinese, Ancient Greek and Egyptian, Korean, Vietnamese, Arabian versions, and many more in addition to the modern European versions popularised by the Brothers Grimm. I’ve often felt that internet culture is moving back towards a free-interpretation style of fiction which has been artificially stulted by the printing press and copyright law – isn’t Myths RETOLD merely a continuation of this development?

I don’t know. My jury’s out. But overall I can’t help but admire and enjoy the skill and wit that has been applied to retelling these tales, and I want to celebrate it. What’s more, how wonderful is it that this has become an internet success story – yelling myths at the Internet for free has enabled this guy to launch a book. You can still enjoy hundreds of retold myths online, but you can also support him by buying a physical object. I like that, and I recommend it to you.

[Exciting post-script:] I felt you guys should know that Mr O’Brien/Ovid/tacherberdash/frostyobsitnic made possibly the classiest response I have ever had to a review anywhere. You guys should totally go here and read it.

Old Poetry

Some of you will have read my hilariously bad teenage fiction, The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate – I’ll be the first to hold up my hand and say I’ve written some real tripe in the past. Especially the poetry. I haven’t written much poetry, and of what I have even I would say that at least half of it is awful. But I find it almost impossible to get emotional distance on it. And I’ve never found critique groups all that helpful for it. People either say they like it or they don’t.

I did come runner-up in a poetry competition once, but I’ve never really regarded it as my forte. I write novels and short stories because I can’t not do those things and I think about them all the time. Poetry… once in a blue moon inspiration strikes and I write something. It’s either awful or it isn’t.

Whilst looking for one of my better pieces to quote on Tumblr, I stumbled across some poems I wrote the last time I felt the call to poetry (quite some years ago now). I was very depressed at the time – much more so than I am now – and most of the subject matter is pretty angsty, some of it laughably so. But some of it actually looks quite good. Like I was working through something and capturing something relevant.

But I don’t know if it’s actually good. I wonder if it’s worth putting some of it online, but it’s deeply personal – do I want other people reading it if it’s not actually good?

Should I post it here? Should I consider submitting it somewhere and await my rejections? I’ve never done more than enter the odd competition, with poetry. All I know from my poet friends is that it’s a tough market.

What are your thoughts, people? Do you write poetry? What do you do with it? how do you self-assess whether it’s any good. Is it enough to find that, seven years on, you still like it? Do you only write poetry for the innards of your word processing machine? Have you been published? If so, where and how did you go about it? I’m curious…

Meditations on death

Spoiler Warning: some spoilers for The Dark Tower vols 1&2, Buffy, Season 6, and Fool’s Fate. I have tried to be restrained, but some things were unavoidable.

Good, all right, I’ll drown, he thought, listening to the roar of the sea. Let me drown.
– Roland in Stephen King (1989: 2), The Dark Tower, Volume 2: The Drawing of the Three

‘”Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. […] And I was warm… and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete […] I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. Everything here is… hard, and bright, and violent […] this is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that…”‘
– Buffy in ‘After Life’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Espenson (2001)

‘”It was such a good dream. I dreamed that we both died here and it was all over. There was nothing more we could do, and everyone agreed that we had tried and it wasn’t really our fault. They spoke kindly of us.”‘
– The Fool in Robin Hobb (2003: 437), Fool’s Fate

‘O that this too too [solid] flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!’
– Hamlet in William Shakespeare (1996), Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’
– King (1995), The Dark Tower, Volume 1: The Gunslinger

I went for a bath after my run today but was unable to find the book I had been reading. I searched half-heartedly for a bit, but my eye kept being drawn to my bookshelves – to books I had already read and reread. The favourite ones that spend their time waiting for me to decide that there has been just enough time passed that I might read them again without finding that I know every word by heart. And my gaze snagged on possibly my most dearly beloved of all the books – the one I ration to myself with the most treasured care: volume 2 of The Dark Tower, The Drawing of the Three.

Long-term readers of this blog will be aware of the deep and complex feelings I have for the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Sometimes I feel like a small part of my mind will always be alternating between trying to puzzle out why it affected me so, or holding it at arm’s length, mentally swooning on a couch and crying with all melodrama: ‘It is too much! The wound is still too raw – ask me in another year!’ It’s a level of emotion that I feel uncomfortable expressing. Like someone who has left the ‘get a room’ line behind and is just full-out having sex on the couch whilst other people look on uncomfortably and wonder if it would be worse to say something now or let you get it out of your system and then pretend it never happened. But I’m kinda repressed in that stereotypically British way. I know other people feel fully confident and able to launch in unabashed squee about their most beloved artifacts of affection without fear that others will laugh in their faces. I want to be like that. But I’m not. So I end up putting these awkward caveats out there when I want to talk about The Dark Tower. It may seem to an outsider (i.e. one outside of my head) that I am being a bit over-zealous. If so, I apologise. I just don’t know how to talk about it in mixed company (i.e. Dark Tower converts and those who have yet to adore it/have never seen what all the fuss is about).

Anyway, as I was preparing for my bath my eye kept snagging on this particularly special book and I found myself thinking… ‘You know what? I think maybe it is time again’. And so I picked it up and I ran my bath and I settled down amongst the bubbles, and I read… Within a few short sentences I felt the old feelings beginning to stir again. I had recently finished The Wind Through the Key Hole – King’s supplementary volume ‘4.5’ of The Dark Tower, which I will review in full eventually, but for now will simply remark that it was not the equal of its litter-mates. Almost instantly my pulse quickened, the old excitement and recognition building, saying ‘Yes! Yes! It wasn’t mere hyperbole – this is a better book, the prose is as astonishingly tight and evocative as I remember – Oh! I have missed you!’ But more than this: I had not gone four paragraphs before I hit a sentence that opened up to me yet another layer of nuance, meaning, connections that I had not consciously seen before. For of anything, this is a book of connections, building meaning from references that pluck on our minds and our associations, our deep, shared, psychological rhythms and the cultural artifacts that draw the lines – the supporting beams of our psyches – between them.

Which is lovely, and all, but I’d just settled down for a bath with a favourite book, and now my mind was racing down the connections, seeing new webs and maps of shared themes, mentally composing a blog post I could not sit down to write until after I had washed my hair. I laid down the book, did what I needed to do as quickly as possible, and climbed out of the bath to beginning chasing down quotes.

The line that tripped off this frustrated wave of mental activity was this: ‘Good, all right, I’ll drown, he thought, listening to the roar of the sea. Let me drown.‘. It’s an odd line for the first page of your book – a melancholy line, a line of endings – and odder still for a force of nature like Roland of Gilead to think. Odd or masterful. Roland is dreaming as he lies on the beach at the ‘point of pointless ending’ (King, 1989: 2). He has just sacrificed his symbolic son and symbol of hope in quest of the Dark Tower, having passed through an underworld of tunnels under the mountains that might be likened to Hades, or Hell, or Moria*. A change of landscape can mark emotional transition, and he had come out on the other side of the mountain tunnels, following the night that lasts ten years, to lie here, as water (always symbolic of emotion) roils around him, washing ever closer towards his precious gunbelts – dealers of death, but also his way of life. And here he lies on the edge of consciousness, dreaming that it is not Jake who has ‘drowned’ (the man in black had read the gunslinger his fortune before apparently dying himself, and the card of the Sailor had symbolised Jake ‘He drowns, gunslinger… and no one throws him a line‘) but himself. And he thinks of this: ‘Good, all right, I’ll drown‘.

It’s an opening thick with death metaphor and potential of rebirth, but the rebirth is not presented as a gift. No, here, death is suggested as the release. It is seductive, appealing, absolving. Death is forgiveness from transgression and freedom from responsibility. In his dream, Roland can take the sacrifice upon himself and absolve himself of Jake’s death, but he can also shirk the responsibility of his all-consuming quest for the Tower. It’s a peculiarly selfish dream, given that he has already sacrificed Jake, and therefore the burden of responsibility has been added to by the price of making that death worth it.

So much great fiction – so many truly great moments in literature – has centred around this thought. It’s what makes Buffy’s description of what she calls heaven so achingly powerful: death to her was freedom from pain and responsibility. It was knowing that everyone else was alright, and she didn’t have to protect them anymore. So it is also conceived of in the Fool’s dream from Fool’s Fate. The Fool and Fitz are struggling to survive in the ice-tunnels in a glacier that once housed a city and now forms the living tomb to a dragon whose ‘rebirth’ would enable a whole species to be revived. The symbolism of location and themes is strikingly similar to the underground station in The Dark Tower, only here the metaphor is overladen with ice where the gunslinger’s world is one of dry, dusty, radioactive deserts and barren beaches. Ice is a killer, and it is killing the Fool, who is tempted by the lethargy induced by his slowing metabolism, but it is also a preserver, lowering the metabolism of the dragon so that it has survived in a fantasy equivalent of cryogenic stasis. Moreover, prophecy hangs over this scene, too: the ‘Fool’s Fate’ of the title is the Fool’s own prediction of his death in such a place. It is a death he thinks is necessary, but also fears. The death he dreams of is a different one – not the one he has predicted, one where he simply sits down and gives up; a kinder death, but one he knows he should fight against because he believes that dying in the correct way will bring about a better world. A terrible sort of responsibility, and in the face of that, it does seem like just sitting down and dying might be a good dream, if only: ‘There was nothing more we could do, and everyone agreed that we had tried and it wasn’t really our fault’.

This theme of death as a release from the anguish of responsibility is central to Hamlet, as well. Interestingly, the quotation as I have taken it above is disputed. Some argue that it should read ‘Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh should melt’ (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene ii). I have always held with ‘solid’ because it more accurately reflected the emotion of desiring to dissolve one’s physical self and melt away, emphasising the ‘solid’ implacable impossibility of such a wish, and thus how bitter the emotion is that such release is impossible. It also makes sense from the point of view that Hamlet has not really ‘sinned’ at this point. He might accuse Gertrude of being ‘sullied’ (whether you think he is right to do so or not, that emotion is clearly present) and when he speaks of ‘things rank and gross in nature'(ibid.) possessing the ‘garden’ in which he must persist, one feels he is accusing Claudius of corruption and a pollution of Denmark in contrast to the purity of Hamlet’s own father. But at this stage he has no cause to cast doubt upon his own actions. In fact, he is rather self-righteous in professing that he alone seems to be adequately grieving for his father. On the other hand, the wish to cleanse oneself with self-destruction certainly fits a theme. Tellingly, in his most famous soliloquy, which more consummately concerns suicide and the release of death he remarks:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep –
To sleep: perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make,
With a bare bodkin; who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards [of us all]
– Shakespeare (1997), Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

‘And thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’. It’s an odd twist on the emotion we’ve seen so strongly evinced in the other texts mentioned above: conscience is what makes Buffy continue to fight despite her despair at being torn from heaven; conscience is what makes the Fool and Fitz press on, even though the Fool believes he walks to a much more terrible death than what the ice alone could offer; conscience is what spurs the gunslinger to wakefulness to fight to save his life and his bullets from the waves and from the lobstrosity that is crawling up the beach towards him. Surely it is conscience that makes a man bear the whips and scorns of time, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Ah, but, Hamlet speculates, would we not all give ourselves into that good night (as Dylan Thomas would say), that ‘sleep of death’ if we did not fear what might come after? If ‘the Everlasting [God] had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter’ (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene ii)?

The answer seems to be ‘no’ – or at least, many of us would not. Our heroes do not. Roland’s beliefs about the after life seem jaded at best. Buffy explicitly states that: ‘I don’t understand about theology or dimensions, or … any of it, really … but I think I was in heaven’. It is her friends’ fear that she might have gone to ‘an untold Hell dimension‘ (Xander in ‘Once More with Feeling’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon 2001) that pulled her back to life. Buffy sacrificed herself not knowing what would come next, and it was that sacrifice that was honoured and rewarded with ‘heaven’. Truly, it is not death that she fears, she fears life. Her heroic act in Season 6 is to go on living. The Fool is not typically heroic. He fears death, but he would accept a good death, freed from responsibility.

One of the interesting things about science fiction and fantasy is that these genres allow us to explore our emotions on the other side of death – to attempt a mapping of the undiscovered country. Buffy comes back from a death knowing that death, for her, was easier than life. Roland and the Fool are provided with prophecies concerning death, and Fitz has experienced a sort of death and resurrection. The unique experiences of the Fool and Fitz allow Fitz to comment: ‘”See how pleasant it can be, to have died? Once you’ve died, no one expects you to be a king. Or a prophet.”‘ (Hobb, 2003: 647) and for the Fool to respond: ‘”Years later, when I came to see you at your cottage, I thought, ‘surely he will be healed by now. Surely he will have recovered.’ […] But you had not. You had just… stopped. In some ways. Oh, you were older and wiser, I suppose. But you had not made any move on your own to reach out to life again.”‘ Admittedly this latter is not literally a comment on Fitz’ death and ressurrection, but rather that his magic-enabled actions to remove the worst pains from his memories, and his willful turning away from the responsibilities of life, have been damaging.

There is a wrestling, here – in Hamlet, in Buffy, in Fool’s Fate, in The Dark Tower – with the death wish, and a sort of romance of death, as well as the fear of it. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but also to be fought against. There is honour in facing your struggles, but again and again the question is raised as to whether this ‘honour’ is worth the sacrifice of living the pains of life. There’s something darkly humourous in how The Gunslinger‘s famous first line encapsulates this:

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’
– King (1995: 1)

The man in black is frequently identified with death or presented as an omen of death. His attire resembles that of a priest, and Jake describes how the man in black was the last thing he saw before dying for the first time, and how Walter used Jake’s death as a gateway over to Roland’s world, like the ferryman over the river Styx, taking the dead to the underworld. Yet the gunslinger is himself a purveyor of death. This dealer of death actively pursues the personification of death across a dead landscape and death flees before him. It marks an ironic comment on how all of us are racing towards our graves in a battle we can never win. Every step taken in the struggle for survival brings us closer to the grave. Roland may (or may not) be fighting to save the world, but ultimately the tower that is his goal is dark in the same way that Walter, the man he pursues in the first volume, is darkly clothed. His quest to save the worlds leaves a wave of destruction in its wake. Roland suffers under the weight of the death he deals as well as his responsibility. They are intertwined. Every life he takes in the name of his goal is a promise that the goal will be worth it and it will be reached. And at the start of The Drawing of the Three, where my thoughts on this matter began, he has come to a point of pointless ending. The point where the world seems to drop away and you might step into the waves, you might lie back down and let the lobstrosity do its work, you might accept the sleep of death. And the story of this book is Roland’s tortured climb back out of the metaphorical Moria – the black chasm, or ‘black hole’ as depression is sometimes called for its apparent inescapability.

Roland is emotionally deadened at the start of The Gunslinger, but Jake reawakened a rusty paternal affection. In allowing him to die those flutters of emotions have been crushed. In order to return to his quest, Roland must find a way to revive these reawakened feelings without allowing them to destroy him. Within two pages his potency as a dealer of death, as a quester for The Dark Tower, is dramatically reduced. His bullets and guns are wetted – many of the bullets will never fire again. And, shockingly, he loses two fingers and most of a toe to a lobstrosity. When I first read this it was my first encounter with such shocking and permanent injury to a protagonist. I kept expecting him to get his fingers back. It’s powerful. Moreover, the lobstrosity is possessed of a powerful poison, which is already working in his blood stream by the time he reaches the first door to our world via which he will draw his ‘three’. The rest of the book is the story of an emotionally and physically damaged man learning to lean upon and help other people at least as emotionally and physically damaged as himself: Eddie, the heroin addict; Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker/Susannah Dean, the black lady in a wheelchair with multiple personality disorder; and even Jake himself, in a way.

Not that Roland ever becomes a ‘soft’ man. There’s a grim and delightful humour in one character’s likening him to the Terminator, as an unemotional dealer of death. But pulling yourself out of the mines of Moria doesn’t mean a complete personality overhaul. It’s a fascinating journey through different kinds of recovery, bringing drops of water to the stark desert of Roland’s life. Above all it underlines the difficulty and pain involved in turning away from death and ‘choosing life’ (the opening monologue from Trainspotting, ‘Choose Life’ (John Hodge, 1996), can be seen as setting a frame for exploring this, also).

There is a ‘romance’ of the western, and it is a romance of death. But this romance, this fascination, is not limited to any one genre. It has a strong and complex hold on all our lives. Which is why it can hit so deep when a truly powerful piece of art hits out with something that seems to encapsulate the complexities and contradictions of our emotions on the subject. Strange that I both saw, and didn’t see this in The Dark Tower before. But, for me, that is the mark of truly great art: its rich complexities work on your emotions to powerful effect without your even having to know how such feelings were brought about.

*Random note prompted by the Wikipedia article on Moria linked to above, because it gave me chills. Wiki notes that: ‘Moria (Sindarin for “Black Chasm”) was the name given by the Eldar to an enormous underground complex in north-western Middle-earth, comprising a vast network of tunnels, chambers, mines and huge halls or ‘mansions’, that ran under and ultimately through the Misty Mountains… It has been suggested that Tolkien — an ardent Catholic — may have used this name as a reference to the mountains of Moriah, where (according to the book of Genesis) Abraham was to sacrifice his son, Isaac. However, Tolkien categorically denied such derivations.’ Anyway, ‘north-western’ initially caught my eye because I thought that the mega electronics and robotics coporation in The Dark Tower was called ‘North Western Positronics’ – it’s not, it’s called North Central Positronics; I am a bad fangirl. However, although no map ever appears in The Dark Tower books, there are indications that the great station and the tunnels than lead there are located in the north-west of Mid World. The second, and more interesting, thing that caught my attention was the biblical reference. Although Tolkein may have denied it, I don’t think King could have been unaware, given that this is the scene for Roland’s sacrifice of Jake. I have suggested elsewhere that these mountains referenced Moria; I think this evidence makes the reference pretty clear.

Espenson, Jane (2001) ‘After Life’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3
Hobb, Robin (2003), Fool’s Fate, London: Harper Collins
Hodge, John (1996), Trainspotting
King, Stephen (1995), The Dark Tower, Volume 1: The Gunslinger, London: Warner Books
King, Stephen (1989), The Dark Tower, Volume 2: The Drawing of the Three, London: Sphere
Shakespeare, William, (1997) Hamlet, in The Riverside Shakespeare, Second Edition, G Blakemore Evans et al (eds), Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
Thomas, Dylan (1996), ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ (pp. 1465-6), The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition, Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stalwarthy (eds), London: W. W. Norton & Company

Poetry in Fantasy

So, this is a divisive thing. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about random poetical interludes in fantasy writings. The use in fantasy is no surprise, really. Much early fiction we know about was poetical. That’s how you got your story remembered. The metre helped your verse steep in a performer’s brain, back when people hadn’t moved to see that writing could be used for fiction as well as accounting. And even when fiction became a genre divorced from both the performative and poetical aspect, if one wrote epic, one could not help but think of Homer, Virgil, and (later) Milton. Not to mention the folk music in which the fantastical continued to breathe in the shared consciousness to preserve aspects of celtic culture, and other magical tales: fairies, druids, dragons and other lore*. (See, for example, the Ballad of Tam Lin, which inspired Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock.)

Verse is embedded in fantasy.

However, I don’t know about you, but I can’t write poetry for toffee. And neither can many much more successful fantasy authors. I have no fixed opinion on Tolkien’s verse, but at least half the people I know who call themselves fans readily confess to skipping the ‘song bits’. (I can’t bring myself to skip any of it, personally, but I can’t deny it wasn’t the main draw on the books.) I’ve heard the same about Watership Down, but I have to say, on rereading, I found the rabbit epics both captivating and spine-chilling. (But then, that is a book very carefully and subtly tied to the Homeric root.)

In the average fantasy, though, what is your opinion? Love? Hate? One can’t blame an author if they aren’t a natural poet, but then, why try if you know you suck? And yet…

And yet some poems of fantasy and SF poetry genuinely catch me. Take but one piece from Anne McCaffrey’s song-rich Pern books:

Drummer, beat, and piper, blow,
Harper, strike, and soldier, go.
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes.

I know this rhythm is yanked from some famous poem, but I can’t for the life of me think what it is**. I just know that if I start out intoning the original I usually end up wanting to finish with the one from Pern. And that’s OK – every poet is a thief. Churchill stole rhythms from classic literature to create some of the most powerful and iconic speeches in history, and I think that’s a good thing.

Or take John Brunner. I remain in profound awe of his achievement in Stand on Zanzibar, not least the folk poems and dirty limericks that add colour to the ‘Tracking with Close-ups’. Oddly, on a random flipping through of this rather lengthy book I only found the dirty ones about the woman who attacked the super-computer, go figure (e.g. one of 5 poems given in ‘Tracking with Close-ups’ 17):

The case of Teresa’s instructive-
It shows how extremely seductive
A shiggy can be
If her an-atom-ee
Is first rendered super-conductive

I also find Pamela Belle’s sparsely but powerfully used poetry profoundly moving. Take this, describing Sar D’yenyi, and giving us a first, personal glimpse into Ansaryon’s heart, as he quotes it:

Though skies may fall, and put an end to dawning:
Though seas run dry, and fiery mountains roar:
I once saw Sar D’yenyi in the morning,
And my heart is filled with joy for ever more.


Some fantasy poetry sucks bottom, I think most people would agree to that, but some of it is profoundly beautiful, moving, and effective. Do you have a favourite bit? Is there some fragment of made-up epic you want to hear the rest of? These are just some of my favourite SF&F fragments, what are yours?

*Of necessity I realise I’m giving a woefully brief and hopelessly anglocentric account.

** I remembered. Try this on for size:
Double, double, toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes…

Oh, wait now, I’ve done it again…