Myths and therapy

Morgan le Fay

Brendan McMahon:
The Princess Who Ate People:
the Psychology of Celtic Myths
Heart of Albion Press 2006

First, I have to say this is a wonderful title for a book, encouraging the reader to delve inside the covers. The author here looks primarily at Irish and Welsh mythical narratives with his psychotherapist’s eye, seeking for ways in which these old tales can help modern patients make sense of their own dilemmas and help restore integrity and identity.

Though Irish tales dominate his study, native British stories put in an appearance, including some Welsh Arthurian narratives. The commentary is critical of aspects of classic Freudian analysis, and here I wish McMahon’s concluding chapter, which encapsulates his approach, had begun the book.

Some stimulating ideas are here, therefore, even for those unsympathetic with Freudian theory, so I will only mention a couple of niggles. First up are the typos – I can’t believe that there wasn’t time to proofread the text before publishing – and secondly, I was disappointed that the striking cover by Ian Brown was not really as representative of Mis, the Irish princess of the title, as I expected.

The final word must go to the author: “The fact is that the psychological complexity of the tales, with their rich interplay between the internal, interpersonal and social worlds, debars any simple reductionist interpretation, Freudian or otherwise.” Amen to that, I say.


Repost of a review first published online 25th March 2013, and before that in the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in 2006

Quandarification

I’m still in a state of ‘quandarification’. (Is there such a word? Well, there is now!) At the start of the year, when the word pandemic was something most of us associated with ancient history, I made a resolution to reduce book acquisition in the noble pursuit of tsundoku reduction.

Anybody afflicted by tsundoku will know that bittersweet feeling of guilt and pleasure with accumulations of unread books, but in a bid to support local business during lockdown I broke my resolve at the end of March.

Now, halfway through this crazy year, I think it may as good an opportunity as any for a quick bookwise review, and to also check on that quandarification.

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Unreadable nonsense

Wilson with the Arthur II stone, and Blackett with the Arthur I stone

Adrian Gilbert, Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett:
The Holy Kingdom
Bantam Press 1998

I scarcely know where to start with reviewing this work except to say that it is one of the most misguided books produced by a mainstream publisher that I have ever come across.

With sensationalist claims (the publishers go for the hyperbolic “explosive” and “astounding”) the authors, calling themselves historians, purport to overturn orthodoxy: they claim there were not one but two kings named Arthur — one the son of the imperial pretender Magnus Maximus and the other his sixth-century descendant from Glamorgan — whose careers were conflated to produce the single King Arthur of legend.

They not only identify the supposed burial sites of both Arthurs, they then go on to justify the title of their book with madcap theories about holy dynasties and the quest for the grail; sadly it’s all puerile balderdash.

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“Hyr piteous tale”

Joan Aiken:
Midwinter Nightingale
Red Fox 2005 (2003)

The joint penultimate instalment in the series known as the Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale is as imaginative as any of the preceding novels, giving us a chance to marvel at Joan Aiken’s inventiveness whilst also regretting her apparent rush to complete her final two novels before she prematurely left us in early 2004.

As if to anticipate that sense of mortality there are some rather perfunctory deaths towards the end, but also the leaving of a couple of threads dangling to be resolved in the concluding volume, The Witch of Clatteringshaws.

If the resulting dish here is at times rather indigestible it’s because she’s tried to throw in extra red herrings into the usual range of exotic ingredients and McGuffins; on the other hand it’s hard not to admire the sheer panache that has her principal protagonists having to cope with idiosyncratic sheep, werewolves, incompetent invaders, extreme weather and an increasingly disunited kingdom.

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The scribbling itch

Virginia Woolf’s tidied up writing lodge at Monk’s House in East Sussex

Virginia Woolf:
A Room of One’s Own
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929)

But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’

Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.

Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.

What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.

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Angels, dæmons & witches

Francesco Maria Sforza (‘Il Duchetto’), by Marco d’Oggiono (d 1530). Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Among the many concepts Philip Pullman has introduced into his fantasy trilogies His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust — alethiometers, armoured bears, the subtle knife, Dust itself — one has particularly enamoured itself to fans from the very first page of Northern Lights.

I’m referring of course to dæmons, the figures with an animal shape that are integral parts of all humans in Lyra’s world.

As part of my ongoing discussion of the second title in His Dark Materials — The Subtle Knife — I want to offer a few thoughts on dæmons, but also muse a bit about two other entities which feature prominently; I refer of course to angels and witches.

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Classics updated

When so-called non-essential shops open

Classics date, don’t they? The archaic language can obscure meaning, contemporary references often require intensive research to make sense, and social customs can seem more irritating than quaint.

Time then to bring them bang up to date, to make them relevant to the period we live in. Here are some title rewrites suited to a time of crisis. I invite you to reimagine the texts for yourselves but, please, there’s no need to share your full adaptations here.

As before, I offer suitable cover designs for Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics courtesy of this online app where you may wish to avail yourselves of endless hours of amusement or, indeed, frustration.

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Allegorical narratives

Maria Sachiko Cecire: Re-Enchanted.
The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century
University of Minnesota Press 2019

Described on the back cover blurb as a new genealogy for medievalist fantasy Maria Sachiko Cecire’s study is important for recalibrating — in literature, in other media, in philosophical outlooks — the assumptions of many of us admirers of this genre. Focusing on five areas, namely childhood reading, the Oxford University English syllabus, the fabricated enchantment of Christmas, so-called ’empires of the mind’, and developments in the 21st century, Cecire takes apart the foundations of 20th-century fantasy, examines them, finds what’s wanting but then also points out what remains of real worth.

She starts with her own childhood realisation that, as an American of Japanese-Italian descent she “would never grow up to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fairy-tale princess”; she later learnt that her experience of “racialized self-alienation [was] far from unique.” Re-Enchanted thus became a project searching for the origins of Anglo-American fantasy and, as she puts it, “its special relationship to ideas about childhood, modernity, and the raced, gendered self.”

I can’t emphasise how important this study is in helping not just academics but also a wider public to understand how white European medievalist fantasies adopted an imperialist and colonialist stance, one which has held sway for too long — but one which may yet have the capacity to evolve and change to suit 21st-century sensibilities, particularly where race and gender and culture are concerned. Tempting though it may be to quote extensively from the text (Cecire makes her points both succinctly and in depth, paradoxical though that may seem) I shall try to resist the urge — while simultaneously hoping my paraphrasing doesn’t misrepresent her argument.

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A desk of one’s own

Image credit: thegraphicsfairy.com

We are full of contradictions, are we not? Diligent one moment, listless the next; viewing life with equanimity yesterday, choleric today; thinking seven impossible things before breakfast but still insisting there is only one right way to boil an egg.

I’m a contrary type. To give just one example among many, the one which is the topic for this post: I’m normally a fairly tidy person — everything in its place — meaning I delight in uncluttered rooms, streets free of litter, political positions clearly stated. Dust and debris and detritus offend me; I’m pernickety about recycling in the correct containers; chaotic emotions confuse me.

That’s all well and good … until it comes to books. More specifically the spaces where books accumulate when they’re being used, such as desks and bedside tables. And then the contrariness kicks in, and tidiness goes metaphorically out the window.

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Is your journey really necessary?

Lundy Island

Repost, first published 17th December 2015: part of a series of reposts which I may schedule once a month or more

During World War II the British government tried to discourage travel at Christmas time with the slogan “Is your journey really necessary?”[1] But, as popular culture, psychology, history and of course literature all tell us, journeys are as necessary to human beings as love, food and shelter.

Time was that any reality or talent show featuring wannabe celebrities would feature the phrase “I/you/we’ve been on a journey,” implying that the individuals concerned had somehow grown or matured due to the experience regardless whether or not they had actually changed location.[2] The Journey has however always been a metaphor, sometimes characterised as a tripartite image schema: ‘source-path-goal’.[3] Though not all elements need be present whenever the metaphor is employed, the sense of beginning-middle-end is nearly always implicit, with the journey – the ‘path’ – as the central core. In this the metaphor encapsulates the Aristotelian definition of narrative plot as a ‘whole’: “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Aristotle asserted in Chapter VII of The Poetics, a principle that can be applied not just to tragedy (as Aristotle did) but to most narrative structure.[4]

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Æsahættr

Jacob wrestling with the angel by Delacroix (detail)

I promised I would return to some of the themes I alluded to in my review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Even more than with Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I feel that Pullman has interwoven literary and visual motifs into his narrative though most of the time we are deeply concerned with the characters involved and the excitement of a pacey plot.

But I’d like to emphasise that what follows is mostly speculation on my part, a personal response to what has struck me most during this reread and not necessarily what the author had originally intended. As has been pointed out to me by another more scholarly blogger, this is a manifestation of what academics call reader response theory: proposed by Stanley Fish, the controversial theory suggests that meaning isn’t inherent in the text but in the reader’s own mind, the text being only like a blank screen onto which the reader projects whatever pops into their mind.

Make yourself comfortable then, as the movie’s about to start.

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A thief in the night

‘Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter’ (Holbein’s Dance of Death / The Astrologer)

Edgar Allan Poe: The Masque of the Red Death (1842)
in Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Everyman 1975 (1908)

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and horror of blood.

Of Poe’s many Gothick tales this is one of the foremost and famous, and it unsurprisingly stuck in my mind more than the others I read many years ago. And why, especially when there’s so little to the plot?

Essentially Prince Prospero holes up in a castle with a load of his friends and plenty of provisions, leaving the populace outside to die from a horrible plague — after half a year he throws a masked ball in a suite of rooms — yet Death still manages to enter the castle, regardless of quarantine.

Given the coronavirus crisis it seemed an appropriate time to read this short story, especially as I forgot to mention it in a previous post about literary treatments of contagion until another blogger’s comment brought it back to mind.

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Kept as they would dogs

Penguin Classics generator, https://nullk.github.io/penguin.html

‘Kings, ministers, aristocrats, the rich in general, kept the people in poverty and subjection; they kept them as they kept dogs, to fight and hunt for their service.’
— Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard

A statue has been pulled down in Bristol, my former hometown and, as is usually the case with events that capture news headlines, a number of narratives have been put forward to account for this symbolic act.

These narratives serve different agendas, many of them totally opposed, though some occupy a sort of No Man’s Land.

As I have a personal, even an emotional, investment in the city that witnessed this incident, I’d like to add my own narrative into the mix in the hopes that it may throw some light on the matter, but not add to the fuel.

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My brother’s keeper

Charlotte Brontë: The Story of Willie Ellin (1853)
in Unfinished Novels
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

This will be less in the nature of a review and more in the manner of a musing as I look over Charlotte Brontë’s several attempts at either rewriting or beginning a novel in the handful of years before her untimely death.

As I contemplate these five fragments called The Story of Willie Ellin I wonder at their cohesiveness or lack of it, their relationship to the then as yet unpublished The Professor, and their parallels with themes in Shirley, a novel which had already appeared in 1849.

And finally I discuss how Charlotte’s obsessions with sibling relationships and fairytale seem to coalesce in her various writings, as seems to be revealed in what remains of Willie Ellin’s tale.

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Dark matters

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife
Scholastic 2001 (1997)

What were these mysteries? Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others? (Chapter 4)

The sequel to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is as much a roller-coaster of emotions as it is a cauldron of ideas. After Lyra Bevilacqua discovers that nothing is as she thought it was and ends the first volume walking into another world in the sky, we find ourselves at the start of The Subtle Knife in our own world, with a fatherless boy anxious for the safety of his mother.

The contrast in scene-setting between the two novels was shocking to me when I first read this: Will Parry’s sense of isolation arising from awareness of his mother’s vulnerability has burdened him with a responsibility that shouldn’t be given to anyone his age; and when intruders break into his Winchester home and one — after being pushed — trips over the cat and falls to his death, Will is forced to go on the run. Having previously left his mother safe with his former piano-teacher, he arrives in Oxford; here he sees an odd square patch in the air, a window into another world.

And so it is that he finds himself in Cittàgazze, an oddly deserted Mediterranean-type town with a few children running loose, and where he comes face to face with Lyra and her daemon.

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