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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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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Precious, my precious

“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”

Gollum

The strength of a book, sometimes even its worth, lies often in its resonances, like the echoes in a cavernous space rebounding back to the caller. It’s a poor work, I feel, that gives nothing back to its reader. In my immature youth I avoided much fiction in the mistaken belief that it would unduly cramp any creative impulses I aspired to; I now see that a great work of fiction frequently borrows freely from its predecessors while transforming and transfiguring the material, and that wider reading of fiction then may well have been to my advantage.

In my continuing read of The Lord of the Rings for my series Talking Tolkien I have been revisiting the Council of Elrond chapter in which the back history of the One Ring is openly shared and discussed. At one point Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur is quoted as unwittingly but significantly describing the Ring as “precious”, a description which we may recall was Gollum’s own name for his “birthday present,” taken violently from his cousin. Isildur wrote:

“But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

Isildur, quoted in ‘The Council of Elrond’

And I recall some apparently unrelated reading I did some years ago and more recently which amplified the resonances set up during another of my rereads of LOTR, resonances which, with your usual kind indulgences, I’d now like to share.

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The fanboys versus the critic

Rarely has a review of mine generated so much commentary or so many viewings; and even more rarely has so much bile been directed to it and, by extension, to me. That review I entitled ‘Unreadable nonsense‘, a critique of a pseudohistorical publication pretending to have identified not just one but two candidates for King Arthur.

It provoked a range of responses, from readers agreeing with my assessments through to commentators prepared to politely disagree, and on to fanatical supporters of the book’s authors, many of whom share a common inability to answer criticism with any degree of logic. It is the comments from this third cohort I want to discuss here because they seem to me to exemplify the irrational side of some individuals, the type who believe that being contrary indicates a valid antiestablishment position, regardless of how nonsensical the taking that position is.

Note, roughly half of the sixty-plus comments on that post are my answers, and the antagonistic comments number just a handful.

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May 9th be with you

WordPress Free Photo Library

May the Fourth be with you! Everyone understands the joke now — even those who take it very seriously — so of course I don’t need to explain it. But isn’t every day a special day? Of course it is, and there’s a plethora of sites that tell you when National This Day or International That Day takes place. From these I discover that in the US (where else?) today, 9th May, is National Odd Sock Memorial Day, as well as National Butterscotch Brownie Day. Several countries this year also celebrate Mother’s Day on this day, though the UK follows an early religious tradition by marking it on the fourth Sunday of Lent, usually somewhere around the third week of March, around the spring equinox and the Feast of the Annunciation.

I wondered what other serious (as opposed to flippant) events were commemorated on this day. Some are literary, of course, such as the Peter Pan author, J M Barrie being born on 9th May 1860, and others are quirky, for example Colonel Thomas Blood attempting to steal Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671 — 350 years ago on this date (before the change of calendar) — before being captured. His 1680 epitaph is a wonderful piece of doggerel:

Here lies the man who boldly hath run through
More villainies than England ever knew;
And ne’er to any friend he had was true.
Here let him then by all unpitied lie,
And let’s rejoice his time was come to die.

No doubt we can think of some other colourful characters who deserve a similar eulogy. However, in the spirit of positivity I want to focus on three anniversaries or commemorative days this Sunday, beginning with an event that took place exactly eighty years ago.

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Smiling villains

The Lady under the control of Comus: William Blake, 1801

“O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”
—Hamlet: Act I, Scene 5

I began with Comus, Milton’s 1634 masque, the touchstone of which I identified as chastity ensnared. Its horrifying story of a young woman trapped by a villain — smiling or otherwise — the likely victim of perdition through seduction is distressingly all too familiar these days. In Milton’s drama she puts up a spirited defence, but if it weren’t for the intervention of her brothers and a third party she may have indeed been lost; rescue, tragically, is all too rarely at hand in real life.

Many tales where the female is menaced by a male figure are still seen as inferring that it’s the woman who’s the instigator of her own victimhood, the architect of her own misfortunes. Like mythical Pandora or Psyche, who succumb to what’s often referred to as ‘transgressive curiosity’, they may stray where they shouldn’t, open storage containers, shine lights in dark corners, enter locked rooms or go widdershins. The astonishing message appears to be that it’s their own fault that they find trouble by, for instance, dressing provocatively, walking alone, or just being a woman.

But not all narratives take this line; whether implicitly or explicitly they pin the blame fully on the predator, the male — and more often than not it is a male — who perversely sees women as deserving abuse, rape or death. Many scholars have discussed this aspect and in what follows I shall allude to some of them (because, of course, my argument is in no way original). I want then to take up a couple or more threads: the implication that women bring misfortune on themselves; the intervention of one or more rescuers; and instances when sisters are actually doing it for themselves.

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Present tensed

Text to image: https://experiments.runwayml.com/generative_engine/

Do you remember those gauche reports you or your fellow pupils may have written about a school trip or what you did during the holidays? You know, the kind that went First we did this and then I did that and then my friend said this and then…? One thing followed by another with no real sense of direction or purpose and an absolute anticlimax when it all comes to an end: And then we went home.

That’s the feeling I have about some novels, accounts that leave me frustrated and tense, like those seemingly never-ending dreams from which you emerge restless, as if from some randomly edited student movie, thinking What was that all about?

Those narratives nearly all have one thing in common, a factor which leads me to put them aside pro tem or maybe in aeternum. That common factor is the historic present tense. And that’s exactly what it makes me: tense.

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The Walrus said

Andrew Morton Books, Lion Yard, Brecon

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things…

But mostly books

We all know how this year has gone — what can I usefully add to what has already been said, and experienced, and suffered by so many? — so let me here consider positive things, like reading and stuff.

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The spirit of Christmas

Signed and sent Christmas postcard

Within a rustic framework sits a family consisting of a couple, their children (two with their spouses) and grandchildren, with the adults toasting the viewer.

The youngsters are tucking into the food and drink with a will, but the family aren’t forgetting their charitable duties: in the adjacent side panels individuals who are hungry and destitute are being attended to by the servants and given food and warm clothing.

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Bohemian rhapsody

Prague. Photo by Julius Silver, Pexels

“Prague is one of the most interesting towns in Europe. Its stones are saturated with history and romance; its every suburb must have been a battlefield. It is the town that conceived the Reformation and hatched the Thirty Years’ War. But half Prague’s troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.”
— Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel”

Prague. Not a city I’ve ever been to but it wears a kind of aura as the capital of the Czech Republic — a country right in the physical centre of Europe and an apt symbol of the heart of the continent — and is thus a place I feel I ought to visit.

Being set centrally in what is deemed Mitteleuropa—nestled within Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria—Prague has also been at the crossroads of movements of people, with a turbulent and troublesome history, and yet historically it seems to retain a mystical attraction for freethinkers and revolutionaries.

And of course as the main city of ancient Bohemia it has a huge cultural capital in fictional terms, as I have discovered from recent, current and future reads.

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Errant

Bastardised shop sign from Hereford (?)

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
— from An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope.

You may have noticed I’ve become a little bit obsessive in recent months: loads of books read — blog posts appearing every two days — reviews getting longer and wordier — strident statements occasionally appearing… If you’d wondered (if indeed you’ve happened to notice) then I think the time has come for a little bit of self-reflection on my part and an attempt at an explanation.

I think this flurry of activity comes as much from displacement activity as it does from genuine bookish pleasure. The reasons for that displacement aren’t hard to divine: the pandemic for one, which affects everyone; the crisis arising from global heating, which should be concerning everyone; and the nightmare political situation in too many countries which, closely bound up with the first two reasons, has divided everyone almost as much as any physical wall.

And because of all this I’ve alighted on the usually sage sayings of Alexander Pope.

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The force of destiny

Fantasy is a Marmite®™* genre for many readers: though there is often a middle ground of those who can take or leave it, there are plenty for whom it is anathema and others who regard it as the only true reflection of their hopes, dreams and, occasionally, nightmares. I myself enjoy many manifestations of the genre but not all appeal to me, by any means.

I often wonder what the sticking point might be for those who are anti-fantasy. Not enough realism? Magic too arbitrary or illogical? Aimed mainly at children or the childish? Too full of clichés? Or is there a deeper root that irks the sceptical?

Much of so-called Epic or High Fantasy is predicated on a sense of Fate or Destiny, with prophecies about someone (a Chosen One, if you like) who will bring about changes to a world order. The term Chosen One was used humorously of Harry Potter, but Lyra’s prophesied role in the worlds of His Dark Materials was specifically hidden from her.

But the whole notion of Fate is a controversial one involving whether free will truly exists, or if there is a Being who has their hands on the controls. I don’t intend to get into the philosophy behind the arguments — it’s beyond my wit, let alone my remit here — except to say that bloody wars have been fought over this very issue.

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The wisdom of wizards

Cardiff Waterstones wizard by Chris Riddell

For in dreams we enter a world that is entirely our own. Let them swim in the deepest ocean or glide over the highest cloud.
— Dumbledore

Harry Potter turns 40 today (he was born on 31st July 1980, fifteen years to the day after his creator) so I thought I would offer you a few choice words from just three of the best known fictional wizards in modern times.

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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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