Icons and eye cons

2nd-century CE funeral portrait of a Roman Egyptian officer wearing a gold wreath (detail). Faiyum, Egypt

Wandering among Words 10: Pupil

What’s the link between a celebrity and a chrysalis, between a student and a pet, and between a marionette and a metaphorical apple? And, indeed, what are the links between them all?

Let’s take a closer look at this; and for looking we need an eye, and something to look at. So I shall start with the notion of the icon, and then range widely between observers and the observed. And where better to start than with one of the funerary portraits from Faiyum in Egypt, a painting done from life to be placed with the mummified body after death?

Here then is an exemplar of the Greek word eikon, meaning a likeness, image, or portrait; and like many portrait icons from later Christian traditions the subject gazes frankly out at the viewer with dark, dilated pupils. The look is almost mesmerising, reminding one of the proverb that the eyes are the window to one’s soul. Or, as Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, “The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.”

We try to judge character from such icons, don’t we; but even though these days ‘icon’ usually has one of two popular meanings — a digital symbol used on social media, or an object or indeed celebrity judged to have ‘iconic status’ — both of course are visually presented, requiring the eye of the observer to appreciate them.

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Inquisitive journeys

The Prospect of Glasenbury Abby

Stukeley Illustrated:
William Stukeley’s Rediscovery of Britain’s Ancient Sites
.
Compiled by Neil Mortimer.
Green Magic 2003

Doctor, antiquarian, archaeological fieldworker, interpretative artist, Fellow of the Royal Society and inspirer of modern druidry — William Stukeley (1687-1765) was all these things, almost a personification of the Age of Enlightenment. Neil Mortimer reminds us that his “multifarious interests” included antiquities, astronomy, architecture, natural history, botany, geography, music, history and theology, leading him to make extensive tours around Britain over some fifteen years, resulting in the publication of the first illustrated edition of his Itinerarium Curiosum, or ‘An Inquisitive Journey’.

The author here gives us rather more than a mere potted history of this long-lived scholar. Though in later years he was regarded as somewhat dotty, a fellow antiquarian was to pen this appreciation of him:

“There was in him such a mixture of simplicity, drollery, absurdity, ingenuity, superstition and antiquarianism, that he afforded me that kind of well-seasoned repast, which the French call an Ambigu, I suppose from a compound of things never meant to meet together.”

William Warburton

But Mortimer’s intention in this volume was not to offer us a detailed biography but instead to provide a selection of examples of Stukeley’s draughtsmanship, from general prospects to ground plans, from bird’s eye views to imaginative reconstructions, from meticulous illustrations recording small finds to bust portraits of friends, vandals … and himself. The more than a hundred engravings presented give a good overview of Stukeley’s accomplishments and represent a fine tribute to the man.

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Stopping places

Tree of Life stained glass window design after Louis Tiffany

In my series Talking Tolkien I’ve looked at several motifs that have occurred to me so far during my sixth read of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve discussed the place of allegory, Tolkien’s use of colour, morality in the trilogy, and the One Ring. I’ve also looked at the significance of locations, in particular crossing places and portals.

I now want to consider stopping places, those places where Frodo and his companions, and certain others, stay for a time during the course of The Fellowship of the Ring. In a there-and-back journey such as the hobbits undertake there will be many rests taken, in the open, in overnight camps or rough shelters, but temporary stops are not what I want to discuss; instead I shall compare and contrast the places designed for respite, rest and recuperation between Hobbiton and the Rauros Falls, where the fellowship breaks up.

These locations will by and large feature habitations, whether in buildings or in woodland settings. Some will prove extremely dangerous, and the travellers will often only survive by the skin of their teeth; but in the main the places of safety will be shown to be where several days may be spent and plans laid almost ignoring the urgency of the mission.

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Death in that remark

Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: setting sun (symphony in grey and black). Amgueddfa Cymru, my photo.

Heartstones
by Ruth Rendell.
Arena Novella, Arrow Books 1988 (1987)

“There is death in that remark, the sound of death.”

Antigone’s response to Creon, in Sophocles’ play, as translated by Elvira.

Psychologically as well as intellectually this novella is as satisfying as it is perplexing. Written by one of the doyennes of crime fiction, Heartstones has intimations of unnatural deaths but without a sleuth leading the reader through to a revelatory conclusion.

To me Heartstones is a modern-day equivalent of a Classical Greek tragedy, one that’s transposed to an anonymous cathedral town (probably near the south coast of England) and played out with a limited cast, and sundry bystanders as chorus. With passing references and quotes from Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea there’s no doubt the author wanted us to make this particular connection, but Greek drama isn’t the only echo we are meant to hear: almost everything seems to have a symbolic significance, from the title to the house the fated family live in, and on to the stories told about the building.

At a little under eighty pages there’s a lot packed into this volume, but we ponder the genres Rendell hints at — crime fiction, Gothick romance, ghost story, horror tale, psychological thriller — particularly when the novella begins and ends with references to poison.

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Classics Club Spin 27

© C A Lovegrove

The Classics Club people are in a spin again: by 18th July we’re invited to number off twenty titles on our personal lists of fifty classics, so that whatever random digit comes up we aim to read the corresponding book by 22nd August.

As it happens, I have ‘only’ 13 titles remaining on my list and therefore I’ve had to arbitrarily allocate repeat titles for the last seven. I’ve used wherever possible simple criteria for my choices with this septet: (1) children’s classics (2) shortish classics. Heck, I don’t want to make it hard for myself!

  1. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon
  2. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
  3. Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
  4. George Eliot: Middlemarch
  5. Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game
  6. Charles Kingsley: Hypatia
  7. Rudyard Kipling: Kim
  8. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories
  9. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
  10. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  11. Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast
  12. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  13. Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto
  14. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
  15. Rudyard Kipling: Kim
  16. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  17. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  18. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
  19. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon
  20. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories

I’m sort of hoping Middlemarch or Gormenghast will get picked as I desperately need a proverbial kick up the pants to return to one of these stalled titles. But we’ll see what pans out.

In the meantime I’ve been steadily deleting ephemeral posts that are long in the tooth — previous Classics spins, irrelevant observations, reblogged posts — so it’s possible that you may find the odd link to them no longer works. Apologies. This one too will almost certainly self-destruct soon after it ceases to be relevant.


Update

No 6 it is: Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia.

To try to understand

Octavia E Butler in 2004

Kindred by Octavia E Butler.
Foreword by Ayòbámi Adébáyò.
Headline, 2018 (1979).

Dana Jackson finds herself called back to early nineteenth-century Maryland from 1970s California on her 26th birthday, and it keeps happening again and again over the next few days and weeks. She soon realises it’s because she has to save her ancestor Rufus Weylin from dying—whether by drowning, a fire, a beating, or an attempt to commit suicide—before he has a chance to continue his bloodline and for her to exist.

But Dana, in a mixed marriage with Kevin a decade after agitation for Civil Rights had initiated change in American society, has a culture shock to endure: Maryland was a slave state, and Dana’s arrival on the Weylin plantation as an independent educated black woman is not a welcome development for the white owners, Tom and Margaret Weylin, Rufus’s parents.

What counts as a few weeks in 1976 equates to several months and even years as Dana (and, for a long spell, Kevin too) gets marooned in a period dangerous for slaves, freed blacks and white sympathisers alike. All the while Dana has to forge a tricky relationship with her ancestor Rufus, a red-haired five-year-old, and later a man in his twenties, who isn’t always kind to her despite being (unbeknown to him) her kindred.

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Archipelagos and islets

Burgh Island, Devon. © C A Lovegrove

Sharp-eyed followers of my posts will have realised I have a thing about maps, real as well as fictional, and any that are a kind of halfway house too. In addition they may have noted that a few of my reviews have been as much about islands as they’ve been about lands.

In fact I even considered what I might include as my Desert Island Books, should I ever be cast ashore on a sea-girt piece of earth with a climate which didn’t rot the binding, curl the pages, or fade the print.

I was curious about which islands I’d actually visited on this blog, and which if any I’d be happy to be a castaway on. So here is a rapid tour of a selection of some of them, some of which you may have sojourned on yourselves, and I shall end with an attempt to settle on my ideal. (Links will mostly take you to my reviews.)

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“Africa is not fiction.”

WordPress Free Photo Library

Africa’s Tarnished Name
by Chinua Achebe.
Penguin Modern Classics 28. 2018 (2009)

Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that?

‘Africa Is People’ (1998)

Chinua Achebe is regarded as a giant not just of African but of world literature, yet it has taken me a while to read anything by him. Being an academic as well as a man of letters his is a legacy of factual writings as well as of fiction and so for me provides a legitimate way into his body of work.

This volume in Penguin’s Modern Classics is a selection of essays and speeches taken from a collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child, published in 2011, two years before his death. The four pieces range in date from 1989 to 2008, and I propose discussing them in chronological order rather than the order published here. This way I hope to get a sense of any common themes spread over a score of years as well as any changes of emphasis.

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#Narniathon21 notice

Narniathon21 design based on a Pauline Baynes image

A little earlier than promised comes this announcement for a Narniathon, following the polls I conducted on this post.

As of the first week of July, the overwhelming majority of those who replied were in favour of a readalong of the Chronicles of Narnia. Not only that but almost all of you wanted to start at the end of 2021, rather than next year.

And finally, few were in favour of reading the series in chronological order, some didn’t mind, but most were for publication order. So here’s the beginning of a plan!

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Extraterrestrial parasites

The Possessors
by John Christopher.
Sphere Books 1978 (1965)

The Possessors had a long memory, but not long enough to encompass their origins.

With this opening sentence Sam Youd, writing as John Christopher, establishes that this is speculative fiction. But for all its SF credentials, The Possessors is grounded in human relationships and idiosyncrasies, exposing how a disparate group of individuals isolated in a skiing chalet cope with personal demons and with each other when the chips are down.

With its setting in the Swiss Alps near the fictional village of Nidenhaut we are at times reminded of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; but when an avalanche cuts the chalet off from the village the group quickly have to develop a siege mentality as, one by one, the residents start to become other, forming a threat to those left and, ultimately, humankind. Are they changed because of a physical trauma, a psychological weakness, an unknown virus or, as the two locals fear, possession by devils?

Make no mistake, the author is misdirecting us with the title, for this novel is not really about the Possessors: it’s about the possessed.

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Through the portal

© C A Lovegrove

I’m in the Mines of Moria for the sixth time — literature-wise rather than literally — just after crossing the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and I thought this might be a good moment to consider the function of Middle-earth’s portals which Tolkien introduces us to, not just in The Lord of the Rings but also The Hobbit.

In this short (?) essay I’d like to particularly consider the doors and gates leading into and out of the ground — entrances and exits such the door at Bag End, the Side-Door to Erebor the Lonely Mountain, and the Doors of Durin on the west of the Misty Mountains. There will be other examples which will rate mentions but readers will recall certain of these hold great significance for the journeys undertaken by hobbits.

I also want to consider a few motifs that Tolkien borrowed from elsewhere to fashion his underground portals and how they may have influenced him. Hopefully I will identify the keys to help unlock the mysteries of these barriers, but in doing so I give fair warning: spoilers lie ahead.

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Many avenues to explore

hemlock

Fire and Hemlock
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Mammoth 1990 (1985)

Fire and Hemlock is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text.

The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young woman, are purloined and brought into the 20th century, along with a heady mix of The Golden Bough and a whole host of other plots and characters.

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Midway point

We’re almost halfway through the twenty-first year of the 21st century, a good point I think to take stock of my reading. Goodreads tells me I’ve read forty books of my modest goal of sixty-six titles this year, and I’ve reviewed them all here as well as on Goodreads.

Regular visitors here will know that I have broad tastes, though that doesn’t mean I don’t have favourite genres. To help me occasionally burst out of my comfort bubble I take on reading prompts as various as specific countries or more generally European countries, also non-fiction and crime fiction, graphic novels and science fiction.

While many of the titles read overlap a couple or so categories, there will be categories that I could, maybe should, visit more. I wonder what they may be?

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Circles within circles

Porquerolles (credit: Bourrichon)

My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon.
Translated by Nigel Ryan (1956).
Penguin Red Classic 2006 (1949)

The bells were still sending their circles of sound into the air.

Chapter 8

A petty crook has been shouting his mouth off about mon ami Maigret in a  popular hotel bar on one of the Îles d’Or off the southern French coast. The next day he is dead, shot first and his body mashed. Chief Inspector Maigret, shadowed by a colleague from Scotland Yard, is despatched to Porquerolles to investigate, leaving a drizzly late spring Paris for a balmy Mediterranean island.

Feeling his investigative style cramped by the English detective observing his famous methods Maigret finds himself additionally seduced by the sounds, smells and sights that assail his senses. Can he make progress in solving the mystery of who on the island would want Marcellin dead, and why?

As is familiar from many Maigret stories Simenon gets the reader to figuratively sit on the detective’s shoulder, sharing his thoughts and overhearing his quickfire questioning; the reader also has time to get caught up in descriptions of locale and prevailing atmospheres before Maigret’s final suspect or suspects are fingered.

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The necessary passion

Le Guin’s endpapers map of Orsenya in The Complete Orsinia

The Complete Orsinia:
Malafrena | Stories and songs
by Ursula K Le Guin,
edited by Brian Attebery.
Library of America 2016.

I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to be that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.

Introduction, ‘The Complete Orsinia’

A land-locked country somewhere in Europe. Known as Orsenya to its inhabitants and as Orsinia to the outside world. A land with its own language, culture and history but not so dissimilar to those of its neighbours. Yet beyond the writings of its only chronicler little is known about it. Although that chronicler is sadly no longer with us, she has nevertheless provided us with glimpses into lives lived at various points in its history; a few lives are those of the powerful but most are of ordinary people, though that’s not to say they’re not extraordinary in their own ways.

Containing Orsinian Tales (1976) and Malafrena (1979) you might, if you already have copies of both, wonder what the advantage of acquiring this compendium could be. Well, apart from the convenience of having the two titles in one volume there are the additions: two extra short stories published subsequently, in 1979 and 1990, and three short Orsinian songs, plus supporting material. That material — Le Guin’s 2015 introduction, an extensive chronology of the author’s life up to 2014 (she was to die in early 2018) and notes by the editor on the texts — renders this one-volume edition well worth the outlay.

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