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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Erec et Enide

In my last post I referred briefly to the medieval courtly romance "Erec et Enide," which I read this past year. I had intended to write a response to it on this blog some time ago, but never got around to doing so. Since I've brought it up, I might as well describe it in somewhat more detail, for those who were mystified by my brief reference to it yesterday.

Erec, the hero of the poem, is a young knight in King Arthur's court who becomes romantically involved with a poor (but "well-born") young woman, Enide, in the course of avenging an insult to Queen Guenevere. After defeating an arrogant knight in a tournament, Erec brings Enide back to the court and they are married. They have a rapturous wedding night and are clearly besotted with each other in every respect. Chretien emphasizes their complete equality, in social rank, in good looks, and in character. Their married life appears to be off to a good start--but their wedded bliss itself becomes a problem, because Erec has no further desire to do noble deeds and maintain his status as a valiant knight. This means that his vassals (he's a prince) don't win any glory (or booty) either, and they become restive. Enide realizes that she has ruined Erec's career, and she blames herself. Erec overhears her and becomes angry. (Chretien doesn't explain exactly why he is angry with her. Tennyson, in the Idylls of the King, has Erec--actually called Geraint in Tennyson's version--misunderstand Enide's words as a confession that she is in love with someone else. This is more plausible as a reason for his anger, but it is rather contrived and less psychologically subtle than Chretien's more mysterious version. I think it makes sense psychologically that Erec would make Enide the scapegoat for his own obsession with her, and that he would be provoked to do so by her obvious distress. He's sacrificed his career for her, so from his point of view the least she can do is be grateful. Footnote 27 of the online edition to which I've linked from the title of this post agrees with my interpretation, noting that the "jealousy" interpretation is found in the Mabinogion's version of the story. Since the hero of that version is called Geraint, that would seem to have been Tennyson's model, so I'm wrong in blaming Tennyson for what I find a less interesting spin on Erec's treatment of his wife.)

Erec rides off with Enide (much to her relief--she thinks he's going to abandon her at first) into the forest to have knightly adventures. Much of the rest of the poem consists of the usual knight-errant stuff--Erec fights off various marauding knights, evil giants, etc. But throughout these adventures, Enide repeatedly saves the day by warning Erec of approaching danger (against his explicit orders). This of course further wounds his pride--the point of the exercise is for him to demonstrate that marriage has not lessened his prowess in any way, and being dependent on his wife's scouting abilities spoils the whole thing.

At one point, Erec and Enide find hospitality with an apparently friendly count, who becomes enamored of Enide and offers to marry her and make her the lady of all his domains. Enide, of course, rejects his advances, even though he's being much nicer to her than Erec. The count then threatens to kill Erec if she doesn't give in to him, so Enide pretends to agree to his advances, asking him to come back later and overpower Erec. Then she warns Erec of the count's plans and they ride off together. The count comes after them with a large army, and once again Enide disobeys her husband and warns him that they are being pursued. Erec kills the count's foremost warrior and knocks the count off his horse, wounding him badly. The count comes to his senses (morally speaking) at this point, and praises Enide's cunning as well as her honor: "The lady who outwitted me is very honourable, prudent, and courteous."

Erec doesn't repent quite so quickly--it takes several more adventures before he can bring himself to "forgive" Enide for her criticism of him (i.e., her lament that she was causing him to lose his knightly honor). At the same time, he promises to return their relationship to that of lover and lady, in which the lady gives commands (in contrast to his imperious, indeed tyrannical behavior to her throughout their adventures): "From this time on for evermore, I offer myself to do your will just as I used to do before." Erec and Enide's trials thus end with Enide's complete triumph. Through her modest and loyal behavior, but also through her quick wits and her willingness to disobey her "lord" when necessary for his own good (though always with great reluctance), she has regained Erec's favor and put both him and her various would-be suitors to shame.

The poem doesn't end here. Erec and Enide have one final adventure, the "Joy of the Court." On his way back to King Arthur, they come to a castle where a knight named Mabonagrain waits in a garden with a beautiful lady. The knight challenges all who come into the garden to single combat, and up to this point he has defeated them all, killing them and putting their heads on poles. Erec, of course, defeats Mabonagrain after a suitably ferocious duel (bringing about the "Joy of the Court"). It turns out that the lady is a cousin of Enide's, who has made her lover promise to stay with her in the garden and kill every knight who came against him until a knight came who was able to defeat him. Mabonagrain and his lady have had a clandestine relationship--rather than asking for social sanction for their love they eloped from her father's court. Enide, in contrast, pointedly describes her relationship with Erec as a respectable courtship having the full approval of her family: "Fair cousin, he married me in such a way that my father knew all about it, and my mother was greatly pleased. All our relatives knew it and rejoiced over it, as they should do. Even the Count [Enide's uncle and the other woman's father] was glad. For he is so good a knight that better cannot be found, and he does not need to prove his honour and knighthood, and he is of very gentle birth: I do not think that any can be his equal. He loves me much, and I love him more, and our love cannot be greater. Never yet could I withhold my love from him, nor should I do so. For is not my lord the son of a king? For did he not take me when I was poor and naked? Through him has such honour come to me that never was any such vouchsafed to a poor helpless girl."

Mabonagrain and his lady are a foil to Erec and Enide. Their enclosed garden, complete with the rotting heads of good knights, is an image of romantic love turned in on itself, destructive both to the lovers and to their society (hence the rapturous "Joy" that follows Erec's defeat of Mabonagrain). "Erec and Enide" is a story about the social ramifications of erotic love. Erec's winning of Enide is only the beginning--the real conflict in the story is not between Erec and his various opponents in battle but between the couple's romantic relationship and Erec's social duties as a knight and a prince. Erec and Enide are model lovers because they are able to achieve happiness with each other without being false to their social duties.

If I've given the impression that Chretien is Jane Austen in chain mail, it's because that's the impression I received from reading the poem. I didn't expect it to read quite so much like a nineteenth-century novel. The experience has, I'm afraid, destroyed my already sagging confidence in the accuracy of Lewis's _Allegory of Love_ as an interpretation of medieval romance literature, and it's vastly increased my appreciation for the sophistication and wisdom of medieval culture.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Narnia in the Spotlight, Part 2

A more interesting critique of Narnia than Toynbee's (not focused on the movie, BTW) is the article "Prisoner of Narnia" by Adam Gopnik. Gopnik is himself a children's writer (his books sound interesting and I'd like to read one of them). He appreciates Lewis's imagination, but he clearly resents the fact that Lewis insisted on trying to "imprison" his marvellous fantasies within the "straitened and punitive morality of organized worship." The power of Lewis's fantasy, Gopnik argues, is that his imagination liberated him (if only partially) from his self-chosen dogmatic prison. Fantasy, in Gopnik's view, should exist in its own right. It is harmed rather than helped by being associated with any actual system of belief. It is an escape for Christians just as much as for materialists, since in Gopnik's reading Christianity is intrinsically hostile to myth and imagination.

Gopnik supports his claim by invoking none other than Lewis himself, in the _Allegory of Love_. Lewis argues that the writers of Renaissance romantic epics--Ariosto, Tasso, and Edmund Spenser--could exploit pagan mythology for imaginative purposes because it had been "disinfected of belief." Gopnik sees this as a brilliant insight into the nature of imaginative writing, an insight belied by Lewis's later attempt to "reinfect" his mythopoeitic imagination with Christian belief.

It's an ingenious argument, and I'd have to reread _Allegory_ in order to respond to it adequately. I read it more than ten years ago, and it shaped my views of medieval courtly love literature until quite recently. But the more actual medieval literature I read, the more I think that _Allegory_ is nearly as wrong-headed as it is brilliant. For instance, Lewis says that courtly love was intrinsically adulterous, incompatible with marriage (i.e., married people cannot possibly be courtly lovers of each other), and anti-Christian. Perhaps that's true in some original "ideal type" sense. But I'm not sure even about that. Erec and Eneide, the first known courtly romance of Chretien de Troyes (one of the earliest and greatest masters of the genre) is a romance about how courtly love relates to marriage. The hero and heroine fall in love and marry in the first part of the poem. Being married to one's lady does turn out to have some problems for a courtly lover--most notably that since you can stay in bed with her all day you have less incentive to do noble deeds in her honor. And later on Eneide's loyalty to her husband is tested when she encounters an amorous count who offers her the kind of courtly homage that Erec no longer gives her. But the conflict between courtly love and marriage is precisely what refutes Lewis's thesis. The two things are not kept in separate compartments. One does not drive out the other. The problem of the poem is how to relate them to each other successfully. And the far more Lewisian (though still not adulterous) courtly love couple who appear at the end of the story are presented as a dysfunctional foil to the (ultimately) successful relationship of Erec and Eneide.

True, Erec and Eneide is a very early courtly romance, but that's the point. Lewis says that the attempt to reconcile courtly love with marriage came much later, and if I remember correctly he attributes it to Protestantism (though I think he acknowledges that it's prefigured in Chaucer--at least I hope he does). But what we find in Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale," or even in Spenser, is not radically different (it seems to me) from what we find in Chretien.

I'm not sure that Lewis's argument about Renaissance mythological poetry fares much better. After all, the pagan gods were invoked in a very similar way throughout medieval literature. (Erwin Panovsky--at least I think that's who it was--in an article I once read on Renaissance art made the point that what was new in the Renaissance was the combination of pagan themes and classical style; both of these things had occurred separately at various points throughout the Middle Ages.) How does poetry "spread its wings" less freely in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" than in Tasso or Ariosto? And Spenser's use of pagan mythology is wound together with a copious use of Christian imagery. Lewis argues that since Spenser is a Protestant, this use of Catholic imagery is equally part of the "machinery" and is not related to Spenser's actual beliefs. But I don't think it's that simple. Protestant though Spenser was, he is clearly drawing on a tradition of Christian chivalry that he thinks has a very real relevance for Elizabethan courtiers. And I'd argue that the same is true of his use of pagan imagery. Spenser doesn't worship pagan gods, but he does believe in the realities symbolized by the "Garden of Adonis" in book 3 of the Faerie Queene. (Lewis, I should add, does not suggest otherwise.)

Insofar as the Renaissance writers do use pagan imagery purely for its own sake with no relationship to what they actually believe, I think that it weakens their art. I tend to agree with Tolkien to some extent that there is something very flimsy and superficial about much of the mythological machinery in Renaissance poetry (and still more so in the 17th and 18th centuries). Where Renaissance mythological writing is strongest--as in Spenser--it is strong precisely because it is trying to bring pagan and Christian (and, in Spenser, Catholic and Protestant) visions of life together rather than keeping them in separate compartments.

All of this is to say that insofar as Lewis and Gopnik agree, Lewis is wrong. And he was wrong on a lot of points in the Allegory of Love precisely because he was only recently converted and still suffered from his pre-conversion habit of keeping truth and imagination separate. (I'm not just talking about Christian truth here, but reality of all sorts. Lewis admitted after his experience with Joy, for instance, that he had been wrong in the "Allegory" when he treated courtly love as a purely literary construct. Gopnik makes a great deal of Joy's impact on Lewis. But part of that impact was the final erasure of the schizophrenia which Gopnik rejoices to discover in _Allegory_.) This was the subject of Lewis's "Great War" with Owen Barfield in the 1920s. Gopnik is absolutely right in suggesting that for Lewis Christianity was an escape from that separation. But Lewis was not guilty of "bad conscience" in trying to bring truth and imagination back together. Rather, he was struggling toward imaginative maturity--that complete fusion of intellect and intuition which his youthful atheism had made impossible.

Owen Barfield's criticism of Lewis is far more insightful than Gopnik's, I think. Barfield claimed that Lewis refused to discuss the subject matter of the "Great War" after his conversion and showed signs of great emotional distress when Barfield tried to bring the matter up. Certainly the relationship of imagination and truth continued to be a sore spot for Lewis. Insofar as the _Chronicles_ are too didactic (and naturally, as a Christian, I find this to be the case far less often than Gopnik does), it's because Lewis had not yet fully achieved that maturity. Few of us ever do. But _Till We Have Faces_ (didactic as it is) comes even closer than _Narnia_, I think. And there's reason to think that Lewis was still struggling with the issue at the end of his life.

Among the papers found after Lewis's death was the beginning of a novel set after the fall of Troy. Lewis took as his starting point a Greek tradition that the "real" Helen had never gone to Troy at all. Rather, a simulacrum of her had suffered and aged through the long years of the siege, while the real woman remained in Egypt, magically preserved in all her beauty to be reclaimed by her husband after the war. Lewis's manuscript ends with Menelaus face to face with the dilemma: which is the real Helen? The faded, middle-aged woman whom he found at Troy, or the radiant vision presented to him by the Egyptian priests?

This is the dilemma that we all face, not only in religion but in love, in work, in every aspect of our lives. Gopnik makes a great deal of the contrast between the magical world of Lewis's imagination and the humdrum reality of Christian church life. (To people like myself who came to Anglicanism from low-church evangelicalism, Gopnik's apparent contempt for Anglicanism as a source for imagination and beauty seems extremely odd. But Gopnik may be on target here as regards Lewis; Lewis showed little appreciation for liturgy and usually describes his experiences of church-going as more of a cross to be borne than anything else.) But the local church is important precisely because it is here that the magical world we encounter in imagination invades the world of our daily lives. In bread and wine, in hymns sung by creaky voices, in uncomfortable pews and sermons of varying quality, in the reading of a Scripture that took shape over centuries in the gritty heart of sordid human history--it is then that I hear the gulls crying over Cair Paravel, and feel on my face the air of Narnia on a midwinter night. (These are two of the moments Gopnik singles out as particularly beautiful in the _Chronicles_.)

Gopnik's division between imagination and mundane reality is poisonous. It is the easy way out, a way made increasingly easy by the proliferation of technological shortcuts to the world of imagination. Sex and religion and adventure--they are all only a click away. To bring our deepest longings into the world of daily life is a constant struggle--precisely the struggle to "keep one's belief going" which Gopnik observes and mocks in Lewis's letters. It is, as Steve Taylor remarked (paraphrasing Flannery O'Connor), "harder to believe than not to." The easy way is to "toss away the cloak that you should have mended." But this is not only true for Christians. It is true for every relationship, every achievement, every genuinely human act. To be human is to bring image and reality together. That is what we were made for, hanging in agony between heaven and earth, between angels and beasts. Lewis continues to be relevant, continues to delight and enrage, because he was a bold and articulate modern spokesman for this classical view of human nature--a view at once truly pagan and truly Christian.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Narnia in the Spotlight, Part 1

It's been a long while since I've blogged, as happens from time to time. I keep intending to blog more regularly, but it's probably best not to make promises!

I have been meaning to post a review of the Narnia movie for a while. By now most folks have said their say, and there' s little to add. There were certainly things one could object to, but the main effect the movie had on me was to remind me just how central Narnia has been to my life and to the way I view the world. The Chronicles of Narnia have done a lot to keep me a Christian. My concept of God is shaped in large measure by Aslan. And my uneasiness with most conventional political positions in contemporary society derives in part from my intuition that a really healthy culture would look a lot like Narnia. In the absence of an Old Narnian Party, I generally find myself saying "a pox on all your houses."

One of the most amusing (though also irritating) aspects of the attention Narnia has been getting in the media is the response from secularist critics, mostly British, who are clearly outraged by the fact that anyone still takes Lewis seriously. What these critics lack in numbers they make up for in shrillness--and, it must be said, in the ability to articulate their views in a pungent manner. Probably the most notorious of these reviews is the one by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian. The vitriol of British secularism often baffles me. Secular Americans express paranoia about the "Christian right," but generally seem to have less sheer hatred of religion itself. I can't think of an American to match Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, or Christopher Hitchens (though Hitchens comes closest since he's lived in the U.S. for years). British secularists wax eloquent about the historical evils of Christianity, and certainly there's plenty in European history to cause them to do so. But after all, this stuff happened hundreds of years ago, and much that is nasty has occurred since for which Christianity is not (at least not primarily) responsible. The atrocities of the 20th century were driven for the most part by secular ideologies (though there are people who try to tell the story differently). The real villain of modern European history has been the secular state, not the Church. Yet somehow British public opinion seems to have become convinced that religion is responsible for everything bad in Western culture from Constantine to Margaret Thatcher. And since British intellectuals are, on the whole, less restricted by canons of courtesy and political correctness than their American counterparts, they pull no punches in saying this. I find the outspokenness of British secularists admirable. But the cogency of what they have to say doesn't match the vigor and (I believe) honesty with which they say it.

Toynbee is sickened by the idea of sacrifice. Well not really. It's OK for Arthurian heroes and people in prisoner-of-war camps to give up their lives for others. But not for Jesus. We didn't ask him to. What that really means is that, in Toynbee's view, we don't need salvation. Jesus performed an unwanted service. The Church has been dinning into our heads that we should be frightfully grateful for being saved, when there is nothing to be saved from. She doesn't say this, but this appears to be the gist of her remarks about the evil nuns who tormented her mother by saying that not eating greens drove nails into Jesus' body. Edmund, she says, is made "to blame for everything."

I think here we see the reason why British secular intellectuals are so obsessed with the evils of Christianity, even though (as they proudly proclaim) the influence of Christianity seems to be diminishing rapidly in Britain. If the evils of past and present can be blamed on a sinister, unnatural institution that has warped people's minds, then we don't need to look within. Making Christianity a scapegoat for social evils is a brilliantly self-affirming practice. We are bad because we have been warped by Christianity (and other, related institutions of the Bad Old Days, such as the monarchy), which means that we are not inherently bad, and so don't need Christianity.

It would be easy to speculate about the historical roots of this attitude--the Tudor monarchy's brilliant move in blaming the Catholic Church (especially the religious orders) for the injustices of early modern society, creating in the process a more docile national church that would do what it wanted; Lockean empiricism with its fantasy of the "tabula rasa" morphing into the Enlightenment dream of the naturally virtuous human being corrupted by culture and tradition (given vivid and heart-warming life by 19th-century writers such as Dickens); or simply the strong cultural and political tradition in Britain of freedom as the art of being left alone. The British may be deferential to authority, but in my experience (I'm technically British myself but have lived in the U.S. since I was six, so my experience doesn't amount to a great deal) they don't trust it much. (This attitude was, in fact, shared by Lewis. One of the most grotesquely false notes of Toynbee's criticism of Narnia is her characterization of it as a "neo-fascist" society where authority is worshiped for its own sake. But more on that in a later post.) As Pullman shows so dramatically in His Dark Materials, Christianity is, or can be seen as, ultimate Authority. Toynbee is, it seems, angry with Christianity because it won't leave her alone. It tells her she needs a salvation for which she feels no need. It lays unwanted claim upon her life.

I don't mean this as a dismissive ad hominem. Toynbee presumably thinks she has good reasons for supposing Christianity false. That being the case, she's quite justified in being angry with its claims. But what's interesting is the way Toynbee and other opponents of Christianity make the claims themselves seem self-refuting. Toynbee objects that the notion of Christ taking on our sins is "repugnant." Presumably she thinks this because she doesn't accept the idea of sin, or because she thinks there is a better way of dealing with it. But she doesn't say that. (Nor does she have to, I hasten to add. I find her comments distasteful, but not unfair. Her review doesn't claim to be an argument against Christianity.) Apparently, in her world, the non-existence of sin can be taken for granted. But for those of us who find the concept of sin convincing as a description of the evil that we find (to our horror) existing within as well as around us, the idea of being saved from sin is anything but "repugnant."

My Christian name is Edwin, one of those wonderful Anglo-Saxon names revived by the Victorians but not particularly in fashion these days (I inherited it from my grandfather, who was named after his uncle). People have frequently called me "Edmund" by mistake. So I have a tendency to identify myself with Edmund. (I'm somewhat like him in personality too--if I were a great king I'd be a lot more likely to be called "the Just" than "the Magnificent.") And this, of course, is what Lewis wanted us to do (something the secular critics find brazenly manipulative). The treachery and cowardice and snivelling hunger for power that characterizes the "unconverted" Edmund is within us all. How we respond to Narnia depends, in large measure, on whether we are able to believe that.