A Leap in the Dark

by Jonathan Geltner

Part II: Luck (and Music)

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.
Bob Dylan

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
When the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38:4, 7

These days I catch it mostly out of doors, often at dawn. When I was younger I could get it as easily from books (even from the cover art of certain books), first from genre fantasy, and then from everything else that I read, including a lot of history and travel literature. If I hadn’t pursued a literary life, maybe that would still happen, but books have changed for me. The craftsman, however feeble his skill, pays a price for initiation into the craft. But it is not so with the Earth. Though my heart breaks for her fate under the human dominion, and I know in an informational way so much more about her now, the Earth still generously provides for me what she did on that long ago drive from Massachusetts to Ohio, when I first listened to The Hobbit: the feeling of wonder and desire that I call fantasy. In this aspect, at least, the Earth is inexhaustible.

Like all feeling, fantasy is bodily. Some cold spring morning, say, I step outside at first light, before the rest of my family is stirring, and there’s a wild splayed sky and a wind up, and my senses fire. The feeling of fantasy comes in the sky I see (which is framed in one part by the horizon, human or non-human, spires or treetops) and in the earth and vegetation I scent, in the air moving on my skin, on my tongue. I feel leaping within—the heart, or what in the New Testament’s Greek is called the bowels. Whatever we call it, it’s internal alchemy as the body primes itself… For what? For adventure. For the Quest. The Quest for what? For the world, to hold and behold and uphold the world as if for the first time; to feel that it is all alive, and I am all alive in it and belong in it, a part of it and apart from it just enough to be able to sense all this and say it somehow. When being in the world is like that, some have called the world Faerie or Elfland and life in it a quest: a movement meaningful in every stage.

Perhaps in this moment at dawn, or dawn-like moment—is it already happening or is it always only intimation, preparation?—I even hear something. For one must be called to the Quest. But what I hear is more than the dawn chorus or the wind in the trees—whirring in the needles or clacking bare boughs or the thick rustling of full-fledged summer—though it is that sound, too, and nothing else if not for that sound. But the sound is also a music beyond hearing: the horns of Elfland, to borrow a phrase from Lord Dunsany (who borrowed it from Tennyson). But usually one cannot visit Elfland, cannot get beyond (to borrow the other part of Dunsany’s pair) the fields we know. And do I want to get beyond the fields I know? Or would I rather really know them. That’s a biblical word, too, an older one: for the ancient Hebrews, knowing at its most intense was bodily.

In any case, I think the horns of Elfland is not quite it, haunting as that phrase may be. The music I catch, just beyond sound, is a more complex music than the braying of horns; it is fold upon fold like the landscape that beckons. And this eerie call makes me think there’s another, less clearly bodily sense at work in the moment of fantasy. We in the modern materialistic West don’t usually call it a sense, so I lack an exactly right word for it: memory is close—and the memory here would be made up to a great degree of many long cycling campaigns and backpacking expeditions I made when I was younger. But it’s not some reverie of an actual journey I plan to make or nostalgia for one long since taken, so I might better call it consciousness. A certain feeling for the world and the great Way and the fiery Life coursing through it. A feeling for pattern, and the pattern is moving.

Fantasy is the desire to be conscious of that moving pattern—fully conscious, in all your senses and faculties inward and outward. This is the kind of desire I want to speak about now, still a longing for thing and happening, perceived and experienced in a certain and tangible way. But I want to skirt the idea of a doubled world, Faerie-Earth, and the question it raises as to which world, or face of the world, is real or more real. It is one thing to long for dragons and elves—or angels and demons—however we imagine them. But how many really perceive such beings? In the talk of re-enchanting the world that I encounter, the emphasis often seems to fall on the re-enchantment rather than on the world. There is an idea abroad that if you can’t believe in fairies or green men or what have you, then you’re hopeless for re-enchantment, a poor puppet of scientism who will never taste the tiniest morsel of wonder.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but anyhow I want to sidestep all that, including the submerged question of just what believing in something actually means, because for me the business of re-enchantment is foremost about the world—the actual world we can all agree (I hope) that we live in, the World That Is, as Tolkien calls it in his creation myth. Except I am not talking just now about that or any other fictional version of the Earth, but about “this very unhappy earth” (as Tolkien wrote to his son away in the Second World War) where we are free to imagine elves and dragons, all of Faerie—and only then and thus make it so in what Tolkien called a further “effoliation,” or making to leaf, of reality.

But I start with the reality we know—the one we know we are laying waste as surely as any dragon could do. My greatest and most persistent desire is to behold and safeguard the sanctity and consciousness of the Earth and all her life. To turn back the forces of darkness which seek to sap reality of its realness and givenness and bleed the mystery and radiance from every last thing and gesture: that is what re-enchantment is for. Somehow or other I have always felt this, but a sense of the urgency of re-enchantment has only grown with me since I became a father. What I want my sons to know, more than anything, is a sense of wonder at the order and beauty of creation. The Greek word meaning both order and beauty is cosmos. I want my sons—and all of us—to live in a cosmos. I’m not looking for paradise or utopia. The Earth will always be very unhappy. Nevertheless the Earth can be the place of truest life, if we behold her—right now wherever we are, not in some deferred political future—and the firmament she is set amidst as a cosmos.

But how do you actually do that? Is it the kind of thing that can be done deliberately? I’m not sure, but I do know something strange and joyful, something for which we may be deeply grateful, and that is that stories of the secondary world of Faerie are uniquely well suited to aiding us in rediscovering the primary world as a cosmos. And why is that? Partly because of the geographical and historical quality of the ever-greater and beckoning that I tried to evoke in the first part of this essay, which we can translate to our real world. Stories of Faerie are a kind of training ground or preparation. And they are preparation in another way, which has more to do with the story and its narration, as distinct from its world. Fantasy, perhaps more freely than many other types of fiction, is apt to show what a cosmos most fully can be, namely a world where luck is real; that is, a world shot through with grace.

It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.

So the storyteller of The Hobbit tells us at a moment which has stood out to me since I first heard it in the radio drama, for there is something awesome about the omniscient narrative voice. It takes such omniscience—characteristically the storyteller’s—to peal back appearances and reveal the truth about luck: that in a created cosmos, i.e. one that bears some relation to what lies beyond itself, luck is grace (charis), the sudden turn that is a kind of joy (chara) and occasion for thanksgiving (eucharistia) because it is a piercing of the transcendent frame in order to perfect it, to bring the story to fruition. I’m talking not just about what the quoted sentence refers to, but the very fact that the storyteller gives us that sentence at all.

You can probably guess, even if you haven’t read the book in a while, where that sentence appears: in the fifth chapter, when Bilbo wakes in the goblin caves into which he has been abducted but where he has been subsequently lost by both the goblins and by his companions, the dwarves and Gandalf. He blindly gropes along the stony floor and discovers a ring, puts it in his pocket, and that is all the more we hear about it until later in the chapter, after we have met the character who will go on to fill what is arguably the most important role in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, who will accidentally (as it seems) complete the action of the main plot, and without whose malicious intervention on numerous prior occasions that plot could never reach its climax of triumphant error and failure.

Of course we may not know all that the first time we come to this moment in The Hobbit. Tolkien himself did not know it when he first wrote the book, and that sentence does not appear in the first edition. So why is it essential? Because this is the kind of moment in narration that is analogous to the action or momentary perceptibility of grace in the primary world, the intervention from beyond the frame of the world or the “web of story,” as Tolkien called it, reassuring us that indeed we are part of a story or, in the case of fiction, witness to the unfolding of a story, participants in that solemn and thrilling ritual that is the telling of a tale. It is not at all necessary for the narrator of The Hobbit to announce this most crucial of turning points. But in doing so (and there are many other instances of the same narrative technique throughout The Hobbit) the tale is made to meet the desire for cosmos.

Not just any cosmos, let’s be clear. Our desire is not only for order and beauty. It is for meaning. Order and beauty are meaningful, but so are suffering and darkness. What is meaning? It is a relation between two (or more) terms. To mean is a transitive verb. Nothing just means: something means something else. In order for the cosmos as a whole to be meaningful, it must stand in relation to something other than itself. Another way of putting this is to say that the cosmos (and so everything and every moment individually within it) is symbolic, for symbol is joining of the two sides. There are various ways of understanding the structure of meaning. One way, which prevailed in the Western imagination for a long time, is to say that it is musical, that there is a kind of musica unversalis. Another way to describe the structure of the relation that is meaning is to liken it to story. We are usually in the position of Bilbo; what we crave is the presence of a Storyteller. Even if we cannot ourselves ever know the full tale, or all the world in which it plays out (it is possible we would prefer not to know these things, or would prefer they not be knowable), it is enough and more than enough to know that the tale is whole and there is a teller of the tale. And no one fashions and tells a tale but for joy. So the kind of cosmos we desire is a created cosmos, one which points in every aspect dark or light to its Maker—or, with fiction as our analogue, to its Storyteller.

There is another very much desired and welcome presence in the particular story that first tuned my mind to such ideas, a curious figure who plays a role somewhere between that of a character and that of the narrator. He, too, is able to reveal the true nature of luck as grace:

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

These are almost the final words of The Hobbit, when Bilbo has uttered his surprise that the old songs foretelling the return of the dwarves to their mountain home and their treasure proved true. Gandalf is telling Bilbo that he is part of a larger story the full scope of which he cannot know. He is also telling him that he has fulfilled his role, and everything has in fact played out as it was meant to (intended by its teller); the story (or the road, as Bilbo sings) will go on, even if this character will now retire. But it’s worth thinking about what this character’s role has been, just what sort of chain of events Gandalf is, as it were, giving his benediction.

Bilbo, who has all along been called a burglar and whose luck has been a subject of much comment throughout the story, has had to cheat, deceive, betray, steal, fail, kill and risk his own life. It’s no surprise, then, that he meets this moment of grace—the revelation that all that darkness was part of a greater order, that it was meant to be—with joy: he smokes a pipe with Gandalf. That is how The Hobbit ends, which incidentally is how it begins, with Bilbo smoking a pipe on his doorstep. The simple things of the Earth, whether great or small, and the creaturely things we do, whether in terror or delight, are where thrill and joy are to be found for Tolkien. Not in epic struggle or vast wealth (Bilbo brings home out of Smaug’s hoard just two small chests, one of silver and one of gold), though these things have a way of coming up in stories anyhow. But they do not need to, and joyful storytelling—story that imparts through both event and narration the feeling that, however grim, all is as it must be and the possibility of compassion is never perfectly extinguished—can involve the foulest, the lowest, and darkest.

You can see that quite literally in the fifth chapter of The Hobbit, called “Riddles in the Dark.” I’ve already mentioned how it begins, with Bilbo pocketing the magical ring. He follows the tunnel where he wakes down into the very heart of the mountain, where it ends at a subterranean lake. There he meets Gollum, who would like to eat him. But what an ordered world this is! He now exists in a profoundly reduced state, but Gollum was once civilized, very like Bilbo. What do civilized men do? They haggle and strike deals. Bilbo and Gollum agree to play the riddling game. If Bilbo wins, Gollum has to show him the way out of the mountain, and if Gollum wins, he gets to eat Bilbo. The winner is whoever asks the first unanswered riddle, or the loser is whoever first fails to come up with a riddle.

(By the way, riddles were a real medieval literary genre at which the English excelled. Outside of tales they were not associated with such high stakes. In tales, though, it is interesting how riddles and other games of cleverness, guessing and chance can be important. This is true in comedy as well: think of the fatal question about the “airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow” in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, or the game of poisoned cups that the villain Vizzini plays with the hero Westley in The Princess Bride. Usually historical riddles describe elements of nature, common tools and other implements, creatures (sometimes fantastical), social types, and ordinary situations, in ornate poetic formulae.)

So they go back and forth, Gollum all the while more leering and menacing, smacking his lips and speculating to himself when Bilbo hesitates to answer or to come up with a riddle of his own about what Bilbo will be like to eat. Perhaps not the most sportsmanlike conduct, but not quite cheating either. The answers to the riddles are, in order (alternating, with Gollum asking the first, so you get a sense of the kinds of things on the mind of each): mountains; teeth; wind; sunshine on daisies; the dark; eggs; fish; a man eating fish and giving the bones to a cat; time. This last riddle, which it fell to Bilbo to answer, is where the moral ambiguity sets in. Bilbo cannot guess the answer and Gollum is hounding him to hurry up. Bilbo means to ask for more time, but all he manages to shout is “Time! Time!” The narrator says, “Bilbo was saved by pure chance. For that of course was the answer.”

Is that good luck? If it is, do we grant a certain value or meaning to luck? In sport we do, up to a point. We think of that kind of luck or chance as something one is free to “take.” It’s as if this kind of luck is woven into the fabric of reality as a kind of resource and you can’t really blame someone for making use of it. Innocent luck, we could call it, or dumb luck as it’s more usually known—tellingly, if we would think about it, for what is dumb cannot speak to us. And this is all luck or coincidence or chance ever is in a cosmos that—be it never so beautiful and well-ordered—stands in relation to nothing outside itself. In such a cosmos there is not Grace but only Fate (recall the root of Faerie in Fata), that blind force that is really just another name for How things happen to be. A human’s or a hobbit’s fate is simply the sum total of the chances he or she will have. There is no reason a created cosmos cannot also be thought of us overseen by or embodying Fate, for that kind of cosmos also has a thusness, a sense of holding together just so. But what else is there besides that structure, that necessity?

By now in the episode Bilbo is distraught, and he cannot think of a riddle to ask. He reaches into his pocket in desperate hope this will give him some idea, and feels the ring. He had forgotten that he’d found it and slipped it into his pocket. So he says out loud, “What have I got in my pocket?” The entire story of the One Ring hinges on this moment, this unwitting utterance. The moral order (and by the way where did it come from?) of Faerie breaks down now. By that I mean that neither Bilbo nor Gollum can now be in the right. That such a situation is possible—in Faerie or on Earth—is quite mysterious, but so it is. In fact, the Storyteller (of this our primary world, or of Faerie) seems to prefer such “no-win scenarios” (now I am alluding to another great fantasy, Star Trek), if only to prove that they are illusory, that in fact the greatest good—the Story—comes from just such moments. (The narrator of The Hobbit tells us as much in Rivendell: “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale…”)

Gollum thinks Bilbo is asking the next riddle with the question about the contents of his pocket, and rightly protests that it is not fair. Bilbo on that account allows him three guesses. Gollum takes four, and the superficial moral structure of reality (anyway of Faerie) vanishes for a little while, even as Bilbo mulls its fading echoes:

“Both wrong,” cried Bilbo, very much relieved; and he jumped at once to his feet, put his back to the nearest wall, and held out his little sword. He knew, of course, that the riddle game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all, that last question [i.e. Bilbo’s] had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.

I note the evocation of deep time even amidst such a suspenseful passage. Actually that deep time is part of what gives the moment so much weight. But the more immediate point is that in the present the moral code is obliterated. A state of nature will now prevail for some torturous minutes. Gollum goes back to his island to look for the magical ring that turns you invisible if you wear it, which he does not know Bilbo has found. He means to don it and assault Bilbo. The latter, naturally, beats a hasty retreat. Gollum gives chase, thinking Bilbo knows the secret way out the mountain’s “back door,” which in fact he does not. Gollum gains on Bilbo and when Bilbo trips he thinks all is lost and the vicious creature will get him. But in falling down—another lucky break—his finger slips the ring on, and so Gollum does not see him and instead passes him. Only in this way does Bilbo discover the magical property of the ring. Now Bilbo follows Gollum, realizing that the creature may inadvertently show him the way out.

And so he does. But Gollum is afraid to follow the tunnel that will lead him to the goblins’ guard room at the back door of the mountain, so he crouches down on the ground in front of it, agonizing over the danger—for he lacks the ring to protect him, the ring which has kept him alive for so long in the mountain, a living death. Bilbo is right behind him, still and quiet as can be, hardly daring to breathe. It is a moment of decision awful in its pause. It was awful for me every time I listened to it in the radio drama, and in fact it got worse as the years went by, as if by adolescence, when I finally put the tapes aside, every bleak stream in life had coalesced around this one moment.

Indeed, it is a thrilling passage of writing. Three things come together here—luck, compassion and narrative omniscience—which seem to me, whether individually or combined, to provide some insight into what we desire in stories of Faerie.

Bilbo … was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the most foul thing, put its eye out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.

No great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark. Straight over Gollum head he jumped, seven feet forward and three in the air; indeed, had he known it, he only just missed cracking his skull on the low arch of the passage.

Note how the narrator is able to move in a very short span from close third-person, actually free indirect discourse (where we get the actual thoughts of a character—in this case, Bilbo’s debate with himself about the justice of murdering Gollum), to the storyteller’s omniscience (Bilbo’s almost killing himself in his jump). The omniscience of the classic storyteller means precisely the ability to telescope the narrative distance (as it’s called) in that way. Without it, we could have no idea of Bilbo’s great good luck in surviving. Neither could we move into the character and perceive the sudden turn of compassion, the moment (though readers will not understand it until almost the end of The Lord of the Rings) that will prove to be the true heart of the Quest that closes Tolkien’s mythos. Setting that significance aside, in The Hobbit alone the compassionate turn and the leap in the dark are a sudden turn both joyous and grievous, just as Tolkien said, around the same time he wrote this book, in his essay on the stories of Faerie. The moral current of the tale resumes, deeper and purer than ever, and Faerie is a created cosmos once more, bestowed upon us and revealed in its sacred order by the Storyteller.

I have mentioned that the root of Faerie goes back to Latin Fata. That is interesting insofar as stories of Faerie strike me as suited to the transfiguration of Fate into Grace. But if you go a little deeper in etymology and look at what Fata itself means, you see it is a word for speaking, related to the Greek root that gives us prophecy. And this I like very much, because it gives me the image of Faerie speaking forth, calling us to the Quest, as I began this part of the essay by suggesting it does. In Tolkien’s version of the creation myth, called Ainulindalë (glossed as “the music of the Ainur”), we learn that the Earth in its stark elemental presence makes a kind of music or speech, calling to the favored sons and daughters of the Most High—human beings:

And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.

All the feeling of fantasy and love of this Earth are met together in that sentence. Tolkien was perhaps a quintessential Englishman of one kind not the least in his attitude toward the sea.—Quintessential for his era, I mean, the era of the Empire’s heyday, and it was a maritime empire. But remember, too, that Tolkien first came to England by the seaways, as a very young boy from South Africa.—Anyway I doubt anyone who did not love the sea could write such a sentence and lay it in the foundation of his mythical world. I should say: his mythical version of this world, England and all.

There are many things worth saying about the Ainulindalë. Here I only want to point out something about its style and something about music. I said above that the analogy to story is one way of figuring the structure of meaning, and the analogy to music is another. There is a particular property of music, the one that makes it like story, that leads me to say this.

Tolkien seems to have been fond of music, but I might say he rather fancied the idea of music than actual music. Certainly songs feature in his stories. For Tolkien, a philologist learned in the deeper strata of the literary deposit, song and poetry could never be far apart; and poetry fairly ran in the fantasist’s blood. But as for music and the idea of music in Tolkien’s stories of a created cosmic Faerie, I am not thinking of song and lyric but of Western art music, or classical music as it’s commonly called now. That music is of great complexity, and perhaps the chief feature of the complexity is what in musical language is called development. What is developed over the course of a piece of music of this kind is given various names: motif, subject, and theme being the most common and simple. In order to be fully conscious of a large work of Western art music, one must employ the memory, one must be able to look back—or listen back, I suppose—like the omniscient storyteller narrator, and perceive how the themes interweave and change through the course of the music, to leave the listener with a feeling that it always had to be so and yet it was made to be so and became that way with some excitement. One must be able to hear the grace of it at last.

Do that, and the great experience of music is recognition and transfiguration. When we arrive at the end of the music, we behold its beginnings in a new way—I would say in a new light if not for the sensory confusion. (Incidentally, the classical languages Tolkien grew up on work in a similar fashion: because of the freedom of word order in Greek and Latin and the propensity of its celebrated writers to work in long sentences, you have to be able to hold the beginning of a sentence in your mind until you get to its end in order to grasp the meaning.) The experience of music is the same again but different or, in a word—a word from musical terminology, in fact—recapitulation. The Greek word for this, which theologians will recognize, is anacephalaiosis.

It seems to me, from a literary point of view at least, that the Christian story is preeminently one of recapitulation. That is how the Christian Bible is structured, and it is how Christ’s role in cosmic redemption is understood by some. One could simply say that, in the Christian conception, recapitulation is the pattern of redemption. A new heaven and a new earth… It was sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body… The same again but different. In other words, the Christian conception and intuition of the history of the cosmos is essentially musical—at least as far as Western music of highest complexity was understood it in Tolkien’s time. It is a music that reached its apex in absolute form; that is, without words or verbal apparatus of any kind. This is the kind of music that Tolkien chose for his version of the creation myth.

Music beyond words; music beyond even hearing. I want to think about that, for it seems an image of the desire of Faerie. It is in any case some version of the apophatic frontier of storytelling. In the myth, Ilúvatar is God and the Ainur are his angels. Existence is created by the Ainur, first in imagination—or whatever is the angelic analogue of imagination—and then in actuality. Whereas the God of Genesis creates by speech, Ilúvatar and his Ainur create by music. Ilúvatar gave the first theme, and the Ainur “sang before him, and he was glad.” The Ainur are to develop his theme. Tolkien’s God has given them what he calls the “Flame Imperishable,” which is poorly translated by modern English creativity. They are able to come up with new ideas: they are able to behold potentiality. More than that, as they will discover to their shock, what they imagine or conceive in music will become actual. The Flame Imperishable is perhaps the figure in fiction of what Tolkien called the human power of subcreation. I leave it to those who enjoy debating metaphysics to debate it. But they’ve never created before, the Ainur. They just sprang into being, entities in the mind of Ilúvatar. He gives them a song and they sing; they do not know what it means; they are like characters in a story. (They are characters in a story.)

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

This is the language of analogy, the language of figuration. The technical name for the rhetorical trope is simile, rather than the related and more familiar term metaphor. But all language of analogy or figuration is of a piece. Figuration means … well, it means meaning. It means binding two more or less disparate things more or less firmly in relation. The weaker form, so to call it, of figurative language is simile. Sometimes the weaker is the more appropriate. It is the more appropriate here because we are not to imagine that Tolkien’s cosmic music is actually in some secret way the kind of choirs and orchestras we know on this Earth. It is only like (and so also ever more unlike) that kind of thing. All verbs and constructions of seeming and appearance are this weaker former of analogy. But the overall usage of music, or the idea of music, in Tolkien’s creation myth is metaphorical, the stronger form of figuration.

When the Ainur have been singing for some indefinite time (for time itself, as we know it anyway, has not been created yet), one of them, Melkor, rebels. He goes off into lonely parts of infinitude and introduces a discordant theme of his own invention: in fact, a rash braying as of horn-like music. A musical battle unfolds, with Ilúvatar and his loyal Ainur striving to correct or balance or subtly accommodate Malkor’s jarring, throbbing, simplistic music. But it is a real fray, and Melkor seems to hold his ground, so to speak. Several times the battle rages back-and-forth. At last Ilúvatar grows impatient and declares to the Ainur, including Melkor, that he will show them a vision—of what we would call actuality, the cosmos that all this fraught music will eventually bring into being—to prove that no one “can alter the music in my despite,” not even the mightiest, Melkor, who will discover that all his secret thoughts “are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.” Ilúvatar says “Behold your Music!” and what he shows then is nothing more or less—in the fiction—than this Earth.

The Ainur, these semi-divine beings, are astounded, but in this way they gain knowledge of almost all that ever will be. Almost. They gain knowledge, you could say, of the Fate of the world. But they cannot see its Grace; they do not fully grasp that Ilúvatar has given all this, light and dark, his benediction. I will let the last words of this essay be the words of the master fantasist—the finest words on freedom, sudden joy, and the beauty of Faerie or Earth that I know. Note a final time that the name for the narrative voice that can deliver this passage is the Storyteller, the one who knows even what the angels do no know:

Yet some things there are that they cannot see, neither alone nor taking counsel together; for to none but himself has Ilúvatar revealed all that he has in store, and in every age there come forth things that are new and have no foretelling, for they do not proceed from the past.

(Return to Part 1)

* * *

Jonathan Geltner serves as fiction editor at Orison Books and teaches at Adrian College. His translation of Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes is available from Angelico Press, and his novel Absolute Music is forthcoming from Slant Books, where he also writes regularly on fiction. He is currently at work on a collection of essays (from which this essay has been adapted) on the sense of place and the sacred, and a historical fantasy set in the fifth century B.C.E. Jonathan lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two sons.

This entry was posted in Inklings & Company, Mythopoeia and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to A Leap in the Dark

  1. brian says:

    Very rich and provocative essay, Jonathan. I find much to agree with and much to ponder. I wrestle with a lot of this in my own efforts at storytelling. The quest is elemental, at the heart of being human. Bernanos, who I like more than you, used to say “disenchantment is stupidity.” Certainly, the appeal of fantasy witnesses to the perduring spirit even in a debased, mechanical age run by Orcs. I think it more accurate, however, to say that the quest seeks the infinite, seeks God, and in finding God, one also discovers the secret of the earth. As a Christian, this is necessarily sacramental, incarnational, reaching towards an eschatological transformation of the flesh that can only be intimated perhaps in the music of silence.

    Like

    • Jonathan says:

      It’s a hard thing to talk about directly, this enchantment business. One either sounds like an idiot or madman, going on about fairies or whatever, or one sounds cliched, something about living in the moment and being present and feeling blessed or bliss etc etc. Language *about*… it’s like paraphrasing a poem. There’s less than no point. So what to do? Stories, I guess. That’s one way, the way I’m trying to point to here. Not actually pointing to enchantment, not writing about it, just trying to look at the longing for it and one way that longing works itself out, in this case in a particular story that was maybe the first such thing to mean something to me. But as the Zen people say, one must not confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon.

      A proposition that in recent years has unnerved me is that story itself is in some way losing its validity, even as religion had already done centuries ago (for many people—and the qualification would apply to the proposition about stories as well). In other words, if religion flees into story, what happens when story starts to break down? It is entirely possible to put too much weight on art. I think actually that Tolkien’s fantasy is an instance of exactly that happening. Certainly many people pay more attention to it, or its kindred (sub)creations, than they do to their ostensible religion. (I am the last person to cast any blame for that, since it accurately describes me.) Our own Fr Aidan, in a post from September of 2016 recommending the film The Island, made exactly that move: he said he prefers Rivendell to Trinity Lavra. Well I get that completely. I couldn’t come up with a better distillation of modern religious consciousness.

      Like

      • brian says:

        Trinity Lavra is ascesis. Rivendell whispers of the flourishing of being. You destroy the idols in order to participate in bliss. The latter is at least partially constituted by poiesis. The ambiguity of human subcreation is that it can either contribute to eschatological identity or derail into solipsistic delusion capable of inspiring infernal deeds. The withering of story as meaningful act can be discerned when story is reduced to moralism or a mere form of therapy that misses the ontological dimension in the gift of speech. It could even become will-to-power . . . the best story “wins” where victory is synonymous with triumph over one’s competitors in a zero sum game. There is sometimes a smarmy, NPR kind of celebration of telling a story as if were in itself arrival at authenticity or the empowering of the dispossessed or some such. It’s ersatz, a substitution of the imminent human making for the transcendence that the dyanamism of desire naturally seeks. The apophatic sensibility might say that story comes out of and points back towards a plenitude that is a silence of fullness rather than lack. A forgetting of that silence is the beginning of breakdown where myth is rationalized and then dismissed as inherently trivial.

        Like

        • Jonathan Geltner says:

          What I had in mind about the breakdown of story concerns story (or it might be better to say fiction) as such, prior to any valuation of a particular story and whether it is well told. I think you know this already, but I’ll write it out in case anyone else is curious…

          A contemporary writer who has dealt with the crisis in fiction in a way I have found moving is Karl Ove Knausgaard. His second book was a wonderful fiction, a transposition of biblical stories into a Norwegian setting and all about angels and, really, the whole idea of disenchantment. Then came a long period in which he wrote the autobiographical roman-fleuve that made him famous worldwide and which really is extremely compelling (though I say that as a man in his thirties with a young family, which is precisely Knausgaard in those books, so point of view bias etc); and then some other books also very good, if stylistically a little different, organized around the seasons and one about the art of Edvard Munch… all of this stuff was the product of a gifted writer and keenly observant man who desired and had always desired above all else to be a great writer of fiction. He could not write fiction, properly speaking. I find that fascinating. But here’s the thing: beginning during Covidtide, Knausgaard has apparently begun what will be a trilogy of proper fiction. It will be very interesting to see what those books are, if they are at all fantastical like the one earlier novel, or if they are realist but still fictional and not based so much on his own life. But the thing about story/fiction is that Knausgaard explicitly takes it on as a problem as something worn down by overuse and hollowed out by its own ubiquity in a hyper-literate and discursive era that is the present.

          The English writer Paul Kingsnorth is another who intrigues me. He recently completed a trilogy of fiction set over a span of 2000 years in England, from 1000 years ago to 1000 years in a dystopian transhumanist future. At the time he wrote those books, Kingsnorth was something of a spiritual seeker, to use the hackneyed phrase. His fiction is very much about the desacralization of the Earth and a concomitant breakdown of story — all ordering stories, finally, even the most basic mythical, archetypal or religious stories. While he was publishing those books, Kingsnorth published some others that detailed how he was slowly losing faith in literary writing of any kind, but particularly the kind he was drawn to — like Knausgaard, the telling of tales. It’s a moving body of work to read, one to which I can relate. Concomitant with Kingsnorth’s loss of faith in story was his abandonment of environmentalist activism. The two go hand-in-hand, it seems, faith in story to be… something, and faith in the intrinsic value and meaning of the Earth, the cosmos. But a surprising thing happened: Kingsnorth recently converted to Orthodox Christianity, apparently becoming baptized in the River Shannon, near where he lives in the West of Ireland.

          Another contemporary writer of fiction who has complicated the question of the ontological status of fiction and its role in our safeguarding of a sacred reality, is Gerald Murnane. He, too, became disillusioned with fiction for a long period, before launching back into it as brilliantly as ever. With Murnane it’s less clear what exactly led to his fifteen-year hiatus from fiction. But I know what solved it: his discovery, as he calls it, of the “country on the far side of fiction,” an idea he works out in the work he has done post-hiatus. I have chapters on him, Kingsnorth, and Knausgaard in the book from which I’ve adapted this essay. The book is really about the limits of story in the Anthropocene.

          Liked by 2 people

          • brian says:

            It’s not quite the same thing, Jonathan, but I am reminded of a course I took a long time ago now on menippean satire. There are certain cultural moments, probably always akin to Plato’s “fevered city” where there is relatively high degree of literacy and cultural legacy, when weariness sets in and the living flesh of story is burdened with a strong death instinct. High modernism might also be a contributor where the best it seems one can do is collect and allude with the vain hope that some revenant of more vigorous and tranquil ages will be passed on. I know David Jones thought his moment a time when the table was set to allow a certain vision, but he worried that few possessed the knowledge of the stories to make sense of it.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Jonathan says:

            Brian — or anyone — do you know if anything good has been written on Tolkien and Jones? I don’t know that either was aware of the other. But there must be something on the Anathemata and Tolkien’s legendarium, surely?

            Like

  2. Michael Robbins says:

    “a summer sound / Repeated in a summer without end / And sound alone. But it was more than that …”

    Like

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for making me reread that poem. He was a great fantasist in his way, Stevens was. It must have been all those walks in suburban Connecticut. You don’t have to be going somewhere epic to hear the call, just walking to work will do (or to buy mayonnaise, right? And French cheese? Dude was a bit of a gourmand).

      For those who don’t know and might enjoy reading it, Michael is quoting from Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West”. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43431/the-idea-of-order-at-key-west

      Like

  3. Jonathan says:

    A couple of stray thoughts that may be of interest somewhere along the line…

    The word fantasy comes from Greek words meaning to show or shine forth, to make shine, to appear. The same root is in theophany and epiphany. For the desert fathers, fantasiae were definitely not good — and here I think of a comment Alexandra made to the first part of this essay, about it being dangerous for most people to perceive fantastical beings. For those early Christians, a fantasy was like a hallucination, brought on by devils in an effort to tempt the ascetic. Jesus is maybe depicted being tempted this way in the Gospels when the devil takes him to the top of a high mountain and shows him the kingdoms of the world and suggests the power he could have over them. At least I think that’s more or less a fantastical temptation. It’s sort of visionary anyway. And traditionally Christianity has always been skeptical of visions, vetting them thoroughly, whether in official institutional policy or per the wisdom of revered saints and spiritual masters. So there’s that. By the time of Scottus Eriugena in the ninth century, fantasy was still pretty low-brow. What you really were after was to see creation as theophany. Fantasies were the fleeting appearances of things that distract from the theophany vision. As far as I’m able to trace it — though I haven’t made a proper study of this so please correct me if you know better — it’s not until Dante, such a modern in many ways, that fantasy takes on a sudden, staggering power. In fact, he is the first to use the phrase that will become the name of the genre we now say Tolkien wrote in, “high fantasy” — Twice Dante refers to “l’alta fantasia,” in Purgatorio XVII and in the last tercet of the whole Commedia: the entire poem ends when the poet’s high fantasy fails him.

    As for the invention of “secondary world” fantasy, that’s really pretty clear cut: Edmund Spenser did it at the end of the sixteenth century. His Fairy Land was this world, or a version of this world, or another world connected in places to this world. It was all these things at once, both this world and not. Prior to that, no matter how fantastical writing or stories might have been, whether or not their audiences really “believed in” any aspects of them, the conceit was always that they happened somewhere (possibly offworld) in the same universe as the storyteller and his or her audience. The various versions of Faërie that existed before Spenser were locatable on the same maps where you could find England and Ireland. This is a very specific type of fantasy that I’m talking about, distinguished more by this geographical-literary technique than by anything else. I don’t claim it’s better than anything else, and there is an argument to be made that it’s actually worse than other types, more confused to the detriment of our reception of reality; certainly Spenser’s peer Cervantes grappled with that possibility.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Grant says:

      There is I suppose the Arthurian stories (and the fantastical history of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth is fantastic read full of giants and such) and similar medieval romances, as well as earlier stories, and things like the Beowulf poem being structured as Christian fantasy (or at least a Christian reflection on their, in this case Northumbrian, recent pagan past), the forming and editing of the Icelandic sagas. So those might be earlier movements in fantasy though they did focus on setting stories in perceived history (but then so did their pagan ancestors).

      Like

      • Jonathan says:

        I think a fairly clear line can be drawn between the fantastical in literature, which is present in all literature and the myths and folklore of all cultures going back to prehistoric times, and indeed as Ursula Le Guin was wont to point out the mainstay of most such literary or pre-literary cultures—and fantasy as a modern Western literary genre. And fantasy as the latter is fairly easy to trace. The relevant distinction is in geography. Of course there are medieval precursors as far as atmosphere; character, and plot goes. And a lot of that, like the Matter of Britain, lives on and even thrives as fully as ever into the twentieth century (whether it has a future now I don’t know). The real question for me is what is the significance of that distinction. Myself, I waver between thinking there is some significance and thinking it’s trivial. If indeed there is something special (for good or ill — but of course it must always be both) about modern Western civilization, then insofar as literary fantasy is both a part of that and a reaction to it (Tolkien avowed as much) there is something special about modern fantasy literature, it has some important and no doubt multiple role to play as we move into the next phase of our civilization.

        Like

        • Grant says:

          Perhaps because the former took place within a community in which the supernatural nature of enchantment and similar agency was a matter of everyday life that had yet to hidden under other terms, and therefore though such stories were fantastical (even to it’s audience) it referenced or interplayed with their real world as they understood it and lived it, which was increasingly not the case as the place of enchantment was being redefined and altered,

          Like

  4. Grant says:

    I also personally not convinced we have seen a loss of enchantment and sacramental living so much as a misenchantment, a shifting to the boundless power of capital, the machine to create and form, all aspects of magical and religious impulses reformed towards the telos and enchantment of our current techno-enconomic vision and religion. On this I’d recommend Eugene McCarraher’s On the Enchantment of Mammon.

    Reading that you realise far from losing enchantment it fully remains, if now warped into a (at least from a Christian view) into something at least somewhat demonic (the warped vision of Morgoth, Sauron and Saruman). It is certainly dehumanising and the impulse that has wreaked such damage on our world.

    But I would advise reading the book for full case, I am finding it quite an enlightening and engaging read.

    On that basis in some ways we in the West are more credulous than ever, more superstitious then before, particularly because we refuse to call it enchantment but as an essential to the current Western version of Christendom (despite the removal of Christ and to some extent the replacement with Mammon, it remains, recommend Tom Holland’s Dominion for that case laid out) to pretend enchantment has been banished when it has just shifted it’s emphasis elsewhere.

    What fantasy can do is now help awaken us to where the true engagement with the world around us, and to help vision what is there and beyond, or at least begin to. Imagination can give us sight to see beyond what imprisons our mind and spirits and see a glimpse of truth to reframe our perspective and drive new ideas and actions and help recover in new (and possibly better ways) what is lost.

    It can be perilous but in this and other ways more necessary than ever.

    Like

    • Jonathan says:

      Great book to bring up here — certainly for the title at any rate! It’s been sitting around my house for months, but I haven’t cracked it open yet. I like the idea in general that we can’t live without enchantment, it’s in us and it’s got to go somewhere. David Foster Wallace in his commencement address at Kenyon College said there are no atheists really, everybody worships something. However, I don’t know how far enchantment in the sense it’s come up here overlaps with idolatry, which I feel may be what McCarraher’s book is really about. But maybe you could speak to that point? It could be useful to note that Tolkien uses “enchantment” specifically to refer to an effect of a work of art in his essay on fairy stories. He talks there about elvish enchantment, a kind of drama which is capable of doing, he says, what human fantasists wish they could do with their subcreations, i.e. create a complete “adopted belief” in the secondary world. If that is enchantment then three days out of four I would call it evil. It is far from what I believe a salutary use of fiction is. And there is a very strong love in Tolkien — Manlove claims this is a hallmark of the modern western genre of fantasy — love for the crafted thing, the well wrought, artefaction, as David Jones would say. Where does that fit in? Tolkien’s fantasy is wary of the enchantment of a dragon hoard, for sure. Is the dwarvish love of artefaction and the hobbitish love of, say, a good pipe or “elevensies,” a kind of gluttony or a kind of theophany? How do we tell the difference?

      Like

      • Grant says:

        Well I would say to get full sense of our continued enchanment (including a full look at the history from Protestant forms of enchanment, in line with economic aims, and the sense of the magical that marched in lock-step with rationalization, into the adoption of technocratic and managerial, consumer and managerial clerisy and so on) you actually do need to read the book. It’s not entirely and simply about idoltary, but rather how the sacramental imgaination and interaction didn’t disappear, never did, just found other outlets and expersions, and became the religion for want of a better word of our present times, the sacarmental universe of (mis)enchament we now live and move in. In Tolkienian terms it can often drift into ‘sorcery’, the will to dominate and of machines and control, manipulation and plundering of the natural world and persons.

        But you can get a taste of some themes of the book in say his lecture on the subject here:

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jonathan says:

          You know, it’s quite remarkable to me how many fans of genre fantasy either do not see or do not care that the “magic” — whether good or evil — of fantasy is almost always just technology by other means — “sorcery” indeed. Real magic is not shooting fireballs out of wands etc.

          Thanks for the link to the lecture. It’s come across my radar several times now, but sometimes one needs to be prompted several times to take proper note of something.

          Like

          • Grant says:

            The legacy of RPG games (both tabletop and computer) play much a role, in which magic becomes just a from of fantatical technology or science (in modern terms) without much enchantment sadly (and I’m a fan of RPG games, but I can see the thinking of those games, that have to make systems of all such things becoming clear in many more modern fantasy writers and even more in how fans relate to it).

            Like

          • Ives Digory says:

            It’s arguably a strength of the fantasy genre that it can move fluidly between what we might call real magic/the magic of wonder and magical technics. Miyazaki comes to mind here. But of course the balance of contemporary fantasy seems to lean so far toward the latter–so deep in the technocratic paradigm–as to lose the former, leaving hollow narratives with no share in Faerie, only the pretense.

            Like

          • M. Robbins says:

            Certainly there are many contemporary fantasy novelists who refute such sweeping judgments—Susanna Clarke, Garth Nix, Patrick Rothfuss, to name a few. To reduce the whole field to Harry Potter is to yield it to the lowest common denominator.

            Like

          • Jonathan says:

            There are lots of great contemporary fantasists. I enjoy those you mention and many others. I also enjoy Potter and having nothing against those books. I used to, and there are elements in the books I still dislike, but I’ve come round to them as a whole and think they do well some of the things we most want fantasy to do. Classic fantasy at any rate. It’s a time of flux, and fantasy is changing like many things else. The genre is intrinsically adaptive. Michael, have you read M John Harrison’s latest novel? I haven’t got to it yet, have heard awful things, some of which sound legitimately bad but others make me want to read it.

            Like

          • Michael Robbins says:

            Haven’t read MJH since Light, which underwhelmed me. Am most excited at present about Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book, which I have yet to begin but have heard great things about.

            Like

    • brian says:

      I write about this a bit in my own work. Descartes’ plain language is subversive, a technique of disenchantment. It seems to be closing off the world of Faerie, but in fact, it allows “misenchantment” where powers rule under the guise of abstraction and unattended due to our own forgetfulness.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ives Digory says:

    “A certain feeling for the world and the great Way and the fiery Life coursing through it. A feeling for pattern, and the pattern is moving.”

    This makes me think of Christopher Alexander. In The Nature of Order, he tried to empirically define something like what you call a “feeling for pattern,” and although I’m not entirely sure he or anyone else could succeed, it was a noble and insightful effort.

    Also, I’m rereading Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon right now, and he speaks of the ignis artifex which descends from the superlunary world (which Hugh calls, after Macrobius, elysium–echoes of Faerie?) and vivifies the elements below. Relevantly, as the Didascalicon is about the arts (broadly defined) which Hugh saw as intrinsically remedial for our nature, this hints at the participation of human artisans in the divine artisanship.

    I intend to reread your essay at least a couple times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Geltner says:

      Oh man, I haven’t read Christopher Alexander in forever. I should give him a look again. Great one to bring up when thinking of cosmos.

      I also haven’t read the Didascalicon in forever, and that is also great to bring up!

      Like

  6. Jonathan says:

    Sorry for the confusion, folks, I don’t know why my name and gravatar image changes depending on how I log in to comment. Maybe one of them is my Faërie-self… if only I knew which.

    Like

  7. Jonathan says:

    Let me extract M Robbins’ comment from deep in the thread above and extrapolate from it to ask which writers one might call fantasists people are reading these days. I hope my essay or subsequent comments haven’t suggested that fantasy is a done deal or that I think it reaches some sort of apex with Tolkien. His influence cannot be overstated, but language and literary forms are living, moving, evolving things. Fantasy is actually, in one aspect at least, a distinctly modern genre, even while it has roots that go back as far as can be traced and no doubt further.. I believe it has a crucial role to play now and in the near future of our culture, and it is playing that role. N K Jemisin, Josiah Bancroft, M John Harrison, Susanna Clarke — those are some important current writers of fantasy I pay attention to. Also, a lot of so-called literary writers now incorporate elements of the fantastic. The total disposition of the literary field is very different from what it was, say, fifteen years ago. The boundaries between fantasy and realism have in many places been tumbled like relics of some Cold War whose original rationale slips further and further into the incomprehensible.

    Still, there is something to be said for talking of fantasy versus some other types of prose literature. And the question of how much a type of writing can alter and remain that type is both a technical and a metaphysical question (and other sorts of question as well, such as those of readership and marketing). For my part, I have found — and tried to suggest in these essays — some of the essential desires which I think define fantasy insofar as fantasy is well suited to manifest those desires and meet them — I don’t say satisfy — in certain ways having to do with geography and the nature of fiction taken as the art of narration (NB: there are other ways to take fiction). But back to my original point, which was rather an opening feature: which contemporary fantasists are people reading?

    Like

    • Jonathan says:

      And curse all typos! opening *gesture*

      Like

    • Ives Digory says:

      For me: Susanna Clarke. Italo Calvino. Neil Gaiman. Yoshihiro Togashi (if he counts). The late Gene Wolfe and Ursula K. Le Guin. I do need to get around to reading more contemporary authors. Bancroft and Jemisin interest me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan says:

      I hardly know where to start when it comes to fiction that straddles the fast-disappearing border between “literary” and “fantasy” (and actually I already did above in mentioning Kingsnorth and Kanusgaard), but one title which comes to mind is Rivka Galchen’s new novel, coming out soon, called Everyone Knows Your Mother Is A Witch. I’ll be writing about that one, and about M John Harrison’s newest, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, at the Slant blog.

      Like

      • rephinia says:

        Juan Rulfo’s masterpiece Pedro Paramo could fit as well

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan says:

        Another work of literary fiction worth mentioning is Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy The Sea of Fertility. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year or so thinking about those books and have come to regard them as making up one of the great religious epics of modern literature in any language. Though not at all a secondary world type of fantasy, Mishima’s saga of 20th century Japan bears many of the hallmarks of fantasy as I’ve tried to sketch them in the essay: the sense of place and the longing for the transcendent, the sense of deep time, and the mysterious experience of the no-man’s land between lives (that is, lives of a single reincarnation) and between worldviews: Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism of course, and certain aspects of what we in the West rather vaguely call Hinduism. If you’re not familiar with the basic outline, it’s a rather incredible story of a reincarnation playing out over most of the 20th century in Japan, with some parts in Thailand and India. The story behind the writing is hard to keep out of mind: Mishima was a man of literally insane contradictions, or contradictory tendencies which drove him insane, and he penned the tetralogy in a fever of composition leading up to a sort of insurrection — practically a one-man insurrection launched by Mishima — the inevitable and I would almost say hoped for failure of which led him to commit seppuku, the ritual suicide of Japanese samurai culture. He left behind I believe the last two books of the tetralogy in manuscript, and he clearly wrote the whole thing with some presentiment of his own end. In other words, this is fiction very much at the limit of human experience. Perhaps somewhat tangential here, and yet there is something about the books, or several aspects of them including the beauty of the world (and the perils of that beauty), that seems related to the feeling I call fantasy.

        Like

        • Patrick Pape says:

          I’m familiar with him because of his influence on international bodybuilding, and obviously because of his rather famous felo de se, but not as much as an author. This is enough to get me to take it seriously. After reading about it briefly, its scope kind of reminds me of The Raj Quartet. Would you suggest a particular translation? Are there multiple translators?

          Like

          • Jonathan says:

            The Sea of Fertility is a little more straightforward than the Raj Quartet in some ways, the philosophy of narration more consistent and better fitted to the story, in my opinion. But that’s a very interesting comparison that hadn’t occurred to me. I haven’t read any translations but those available in the Vintage International editions of the novels, and I’m not aware of any others extant, but I haven’t looked into it. The first two books are translated by Michael Gallagher, the third by E Dale Saunders and Cecilia Segawa Seigle, and the final book — which I’m now realizing was the only one not published in Mishima’s lifetime: the date he provides at the end is also the date of his failed coup and seppuku — is translated by Edward G Seidensticker. Gallagher’s work reads more smoothly, so if he finished the series I’d get his translations, but like I say I don’t know that he did.

            Like

  8. brian says:

    Calvino is hit or miss for me. I like The Baron in the Trees. I’ve been fairly impressed with the small amount of China Mielville that I have read, I overdosed on Haruki Murakami, but at his best, not bad. I haven’t reread it recently, but years ago when I read John Crowley’s Little Big, I liked it a lot. Leena Krohn is good.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.