In Defense of Woundedness, of Failure, and of Frodo: A Personal Reflection with Tolkien’s Letters

[ALERT: If you are not familiar with the end of The Lord of the Rings, do not continue…]

It is that time of year again, my favorite time—the season that runs from Hobbit Day (22 September) to Christmas—when I always long to return to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps I will in January. Right now, so much is going on—in work, in current reading, novel revisions, my newborn little niece, and simply Life—that I want to choose my timing carefully. But whether it is that autumnal something in the air, or perhaps the prospect of soon resuming (likely in December) the little local mythopoeic reading group that has been on hold due to Covid, or meditating on the nature of friendships near and far, including once-inseparable friends I haven’t seen in a long time, I don’t know—but for whatever reason, the subject of friendship, of the beauty hidden in human (and hobbit) failure, and of Frodo, has been haunting my thoughts persistently. I was reminded of this again at church on Sunday, as we meditated on the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

I first read The Lord of the Rings in my teens. (Of course, life has never been the same since!) Aragorn was my first love from that book; gradually, my heart was given more and more to Sam, and then Frodo. That’s one of the magical things about Tolkien: all the characters are given their due; every character has an integral role to play in the fulfillment of the story’s quest, and it couldn’t have been accomplished without the whole of the Fellowship and those whose assistance and friendship they gain. Each reader (or viewer) perhaps has a different favorite character; each reader may have a different favorite depending on the season of the reader’s life. It might be Gandalf one year, and Eowyn the next; it might be Aragorn at first, and Sam at last. And that’s all to the good.

Not to name names, but another beloved magical series—which I will nonetheless always treasure in many ways—somewhat disappointed me at its concluding book, partly because it didn’t quite manage this bit of magic in the end, brilliantly set up as I thought it had been. My favorite character was given a sendoff unworthy of him and of what I thought the author had clued us in to in previous books. Other beloved ensemble characters were taken down a peg, perhaps to lift up the heroism of the central character, as though it were a zero-sum game. It’s not that the series was ended wrong, or badly; the most central ethos of it was lovely. Only that, given all that had been set up in the previous books, it could have been even more powerful. (Though I had read all of the lead-up books in this series multiple times before the final book was published, I have read the final book only once, and have struggled to go back to the series since.)

It seems to me that some of the stories that stay with us the most, haunting us like friendly spirits, are those whose climax and finale are both surprising, and yet, somehow, inevitable. A finale which you perhaps couldn’t have guessed ahead of time—not exactly—and yet, when it happens, it is so unaccountably fulfilling that you know it couldn’t possibly have ended any other way; as though it had been ordained by the great Storyteller at the very foundation of Story itself. There is a deeper magic in it, to borrow a Lewisian idea. A novel I read years ago concludes with the words, Surprise me; and in the context of the novel, nothing could be more surprising or more perfect—just like in most of the great stories. It doesn’t mean a plot twist necessarily; only the perfect and paradoxical fulfillment of all that had been set up before. I always think of story endings in that way, daring them to “surprise me.” Irony is, if they surprise me at first, they will continue to surprise me with new insights on each reread, and forever.

Beautiful Friendships

It’s a bit of a joke in our family how much I love friendship/buddy stories—bromances. My favorite opera is Don Carlos (or Don Carlo, in the Italian), and I’d like to say it is for the incomparable music. But honestly, it probably has the edge because it is a bromance. Recently we were having a movie night with one of my brothers who was visiting from out of town and were trying to decide what to watch. Wanting to introduce us to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but knowing my very mixed (at best) feelings about Tarantino, he argued, “But Rach, it’s a bromance!” Well, of course, he had me at that—and it was.

Pieta…

The Lord of the Rings is a feast of bromances, the possibilities endless—Merry and Pippin, Aragorn and Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli—but none are stronger nor more poignant than that of Frodo and Sam. Sam is the consummate faithful friend, like Rodrigo to Carlo. In Don Carlo(s), Rodrigo is by far my favorite character: he is both loyal, brave, his sights set on both relieving Carlo of his melancholy, Wertheresque personal trauma and struggles, as well as giving aid to the people of Flanders who are suffering under heavy-handed rule. Rodrigo—differing a bit from the Schiller original which paints him as a somewhat greyer character—is both the unquestionable hero of the story, and also the one I want to be, given the choice. (I used to joke about making a t-shirt that reads, I want to be Rodrigo when I grow up.)

In The Lord of the Rings however, there is no either-or, and the true heroism is less easy to define. All the characters have their moment; all of our central Fellowship are heroes in their own unique ways. Sam is certainly the type of unsung hero that Tolkien modeled after the “batmen” of World War I, those brave and loyal attendants who were assigned to officers as an aide. Sam is certainly the character I want to be; though not as clearly my favorite vis-à-vis Frodo as Rodrigo to Carlo; rather, I want to be him because I so dearly love Frodo. Like Aragorn’s near-whisper in the Peter Jackson film, a cry of soldiering on when they believe all hope has been lost, “for Frodo.” We’ll keep fighting, though there is no apparent hope left, to honor Frodo’s sacrifice.

Surely there is hardly a braver moment than when Sam believes his master dead and takes the Ring himself, with only one final glimpse of beauty to go by. “And for a moment he lifted up the Phial and looked down at his master, and the light burned gently now with the soft radiance of the evening-star in summer, and in that light Frodo’s face was fair of hue again, pale but beautiful with an elvish beauty, as of one who has long passed the shadows. And with the bitter comfort of that last sight Sam turned and hid the light and stumbled on into the growing dark” (“The Choices of Master Samwise,” The Two Towers).

“beautiful with an elvish beauty…”

Sam is, rightfully, the favorite character of so many; many say that he’s “the true hero” of LotR. Tolkien himself probably wouldn’t disagree; I feel there even may be some acknowledgement of this in one of his letters, but I’ll have to revisit the entirety of them to be sure. What an earlier letter on the subject does state, though, is that he believed, at least earlier on, that “Sam is the most closely drawn character”; that Frodo is less interesting because “he has to be highminded” (December 1944). I don’t disagree either with the Sam-as-the-true-hero idea entirely; yet it always gives me a strange pang when I read or hear those words. If I have anything remotely Sam-like in me, perhaps it is in that instinct to protect Frodo, and to be heartbroken about his master’s woundedness.

The Failure of Frodo

One of the many things that interests me on this subject—and I want to reread the letters in their entirety to see if I am remembering correctly—is whether or not Tolkien’s view of Frodo begins to morph with the years. I think it does. Not so much to change as to deepen. Tolkien’s defense of Frodo, beginning with an attack on his character by a severe critic of our Ring-bearer in the mid-1950s, is repeated several times, becoming more and more fully explored in depth as the years progress. But more on that shortly.

When I was very young and The Lord of the Rings was still relatively new to me, I almost didn’t see the obvious: how exactly the Ring was cast into the fire at long last, and why it ended so perfectly and so sadly. Or rather, I saw it, but couldn’t yet fully comprehend the implications of it. (It is why, I personally believe, Lewis wrote, “here is a book that will break your heart.”) Frodo hadn’t, indeed, after so much suffering, heroically doffed the Ring to toss it into the fiery furnace and rid the world of evil. It wasn’t Frodo’s great will and superhuman strength that won the day, but something far more hidden, in the ordinary paths of the journey and the choices he had made all along: the mercy and the pure-hearted endurance of long suffering leading up to it. This mercy allowed the character who had both helped and hindered them, Gollum, to tear it away from Frodo—to save Frodo from himself.

The important thing was that Frodo had set out to do it in the first place, and endured. We might say it allowed the workings of grace to enter in, and a Power stronger than all of the Fellowship combined could then take over. Tolkien put it this way in September 1954: “It is the Pity of Bilbo and later Frodo that ultimately allows the Quest to be achieved.” And later, defending Frodo in 1956, Tolkien wrote in a drafted letter: “He [Frodo] (and the Cause) were saved—by Mercy: by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury.” Even our dear Sam couldn’t go so far as this, and Tolkien’s letters makes clear where Sam’s lovably dogged loyalty has its own Achilles heel, when discussing the things that moved him most personally in the story: “For myself, I was prob. most moved by Sam’s disquisition on the seamless web of story, and by the scene when Frodo goes to sleep on his breast, and the tragedy of Gollum who at that moment came within a hair of repentance—but for one rough word from Sam” (January 1945). Yet perhaps even that bit of folly was worked to the good, in the end.

But I didn’t see all of this yet; so, early on, I had attended a lecture at our local library on the subject of The Lord of the Rings. I can’t recall what the specific argument or gist of the lecture was, nor almost anything of what he said, perhaps because I left with two harsh words ringing in my ears like a death knell: “Frodo failed.” (What? What are you talking about?) I recall feeling utterly bereft and heartbroken, as though someone had just disparaged a dear friend whose bravery was so close to my heart and whose sufferings had been overlooked. I remember leaving the lecture so disheartened that I started crying soon after. Perhaps I was even a little angry at Tolkien for ending it in that way? Or perhaps something was calling out to me, beset by my own failures and/or fear of impending failure—who knows? But it took a long time to reconcile this strange idea—the idea of his failure—with my certainty of the great beauty of Frodo’s sacrifice, and victory.

Why did Tolkien write it that way? Why couldn’t Frodo have just been the unequivocal hero? What is shown again and again through the progression of the novels is that Frodo is clearly more immune to the power of the Ring (until its power has grown in relation to its proximity to Mordor, and Frodo’s own strength systematically and progressively depleted in the struggle) than anyone else—perhaps only Tom Bombadil excepted. (One who took it arguably too lightly—not that I would Dare challenge Blessed Tom B!) Frodo had kept it “secret” and “safe” for years without using it. (If I’m not mistaken, seventeen years pass in the book, whereas it is condensed in the movie.) He had asked multiple people to take it from him. Even our beloved Sam is tempted almost right away during his short stint as Ring-bearer, and feels the physical and moral weight of it bearing down on him.

So, if Frodo didn’t have the strength to withstand it when the Ring’s power was at its zenith, after a journey that must have felt like a “long defeat”—Tolkien’s own words about the world’s history—who could?

The answer: No one.

Ultimately, it was time, rereading, and Tolkien’s Letters—the latter I cannot possibly recommend strongly enough—that helped me to reconcile all these things. And even to grapple with the beautiful but often heartbreakingly-sad world we live in. My battered copy of the Letters is filled with many underlinings and marginal notes and enthusiastic teenage exclamation points (okay, so I still do that and may never grow up). Tolkien is not only a genius and a marvelous letter writer and linguistic nerd, but he is a mystic. So many of his letters—particularly some of those to his sons, Christopher and Michael—demonstrate this so luminously. In them we find his fascinations explored in more depth, as well as his faith, and even his fears. On the fear of publication, for example, he puts into words what any creative person can relate to: “I have exposed my heart to be shot at” (December 1953).

And, sure enough, Tolkien found himself in the position of defending Frodo against an angry critic of LotR, who had bitingly declared that Frodo was a scoundrel and a traitor; that he should have been hung rather than honored. (Tolkien was to write in a letter of July 1956, on persons of this mindset: “It seems sad and strange that, in this evil time when daily people of good will are tortured, ‘brainwashed’, and broken, anyone could be so fiercely simpleminded and selfrighteous.”)

Tolkien does not beat about the bush, but says clearly: “No, Frodo ‘failed’. It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us” (July 1956). In other words, Frodo took upon himself, out of love for his friends and the Shire, what only God himself could hope to do with success, and he went as far, and further, than it was humanly—or hobbitly—possible to go. What Tolkien reflected on in answer to the charge against Frodo, was the too-often neglected implication of those words in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Tolkien writes (italics mine): “A petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning. There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power. In which case (as I believe) salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected: the general sanctity (and humility and mercy) of the sacrificial person.

Further than that, Tolkien says in a letter of the same month: “We must be ourselves extravagantly generous, if we are to hope for the extravagant generosity which the slightest easing of, or escape from, the consequences of our own follies and errors represents. And that mercy does sometimes occur in this life.” And again: “I think you will see that not only was it quite impossible for him to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at its point of maximum power, but that this failure was adumbrated from far back. He was honoured because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do.”

In another letter he phrases it a little differently, and with a bang (italics mine): “Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever present Person who is never absent and never named’.”

“I am wounded…wounded; it will never really heal.”

Ultimately, as Tolkien writes, “there cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall—all stories are ultimately about the fall” (late-1951). (Perhaps a person of faith can only respond not with hope of human victory, but with a greater one, and say with the Exultet, “O happy fault…”)

Frodo has basically given up his whole life, during the journey and after, for his friends, yet he doesn’t get to enjoy the fruits of victory. Ostensibly, it is the wound from the Morgul-blade, never fully healed, which prevents Frodo from remaining in the Shire and living any kind of a “normal” life; a life with his close hobbit friends, or with a Rosie Cotton of his own, and with little ones. Yet the Morgul-blade isn’t the real, insurmountable wound that he carries: more likely, it is the woundedness of failure. Of what he perceives to have been his own failure. Tolkien writes, in February 1956: “I think that ‘victors’ never can enjoy ‘victory’—not in the terms that they envisaged; and in so far as they fought for something to be enjoyed by themselves (whether acquisition or mere preservation) the less satisfactory will ‘victory’ seem.”

Perhaps our perceived failures are the only means by which we learn humility, and give credit where credit is due: to the Writer of the Story, without whom victory would be, quite literally, impossible. “Frodo undertook his quest out of love,” writes Tolkien in September of 1963, “to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task…I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been—say, by being strangled by Gollum, or crushed by a falling rock.”

Tolkien then goes on in the same letter to consider Frodo’s somewhat obscure frame of mind post-Mount Doom: “He appears at first to have had no sense of guilt; he was restored to sanity and peace. But then he thought that he had given his life in sacrifice: he expected to die very soon. But he did not, and one can observe the disquiet growing in him. Arwen was the first to observe the signs, and gave him her jewel for comfort, and thought of a way of healing him. Slowly he fades ‘out of the picture’, saying and doing less and less. I think it is clear on reflection to an attentive reader that when his dark times came upon him…he was conscious of being ‘wounded’…”

“I am wounded…”

In the chapter The Grey Havens at the end of The Return of the King, Sam begins to weep when he realizes what Frodo means to do—to leave the Shire—and protests that he hoped Frodo would have been able to enjoy it for many years to come. “I thought so too, once,” Frodo answers. “But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.” Those heartbreakingly telling little clues: I tried; it has been saved—one can almost hear in the “but not for me” instead: “but not by me.” His own beauty is hidden; the mercy that saved himself and the world, he hardly dares give to himself.

Perhaps we too keep too little hope or mercy for ourselves. Frodo was innocent, and heroic, in failure; we aren’t always so. Sometimes it is something beyond our control, and sometimes our failures are fully intended and willed, or at least preventable. Often, it is something of both. Perhaps that is why we love Sam so dearly; because we could all use a Sam—one who stands by us, no matter what; one who knows us through and through, and sticks by us anyway. Frodo, though his soul is almost “beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear,” in some ways he hits too close to home (Romeo and Juliet, I.v). Sam’s courage and path is clear: he must go where his master goes, and there is no wavering. Frodo’s burden, on the other hand, is so immensely solitary, fighting shadows and his own demons and the very presence of Evil itself in the world, bound as he is on a (humanly/hobbitly speaking) hopeless quest. And we would all like to be the unequivocal hero, and go home mentally and spiritually unfettered, to Rosie Cotton and Bag End, at the end.

But ultimately, victory is not ours. We press on, notwithstanding, for the sake of our friends and for what we love.

So, I suppose, difficult as it is for me to acknowledge a favorite character in The Lord of the Rings, I really know in my heart who it is. If I want to be Sam, it is for the same reason that the Fellowship fights on even when hope has fled in the midst of almost-certain defeat: it is for my own hero and for my love of all that is beautiful in the world. It is for Frodo.

Mark Your Calendars, because “Two Magicians Shall Appear in England…”

…and those Magicians are Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke.

(Surely there are author-magicians, just as Clarke tells us there are gentleman-magicians?) I nearly jumped out of my seat to see that they would be getting together to discuss Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi, on September 2, via 5X15’s online platform, and you can register here.

Having recently finished Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass on The Art of Storytelling, and being a huge fan of his writing and his exquisite audio narrations, I can’t think of a better duo to discuss the wild, almost heartbreakingly beautiful, melancholy magic that is Piranesi.

Gaiman and Clarke are the inheritors to Tolkien, Lewis, and the Inklings if anyone in this world or any other could be called so. Gaiman called Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell “the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.”

From what I’ve observed, Clarke doesn’t often engage in these kinds of public discussions, nor is she as active and visible on social media, so this is a fantastic opportunity for anyone who follows her to hear two phenomenal authors discussing one of the most beautiful books of our time. (I wrote some initial reflections on Piranesi here, though they might be better as post-reading discussion prompts.) She is one of the very few authors for whom, if a midnight new-book party occurred like the midnight showing of a new Star Wars film, I would stand in line the whole day; have multiple copies of her books on and hand them out like the Good News; reread each like my life and sanity depend on it. Perhaps they do.

Current Delights and Distractions in Genre Fiction

Well, I have promised the start of a long Dickens reading marathon, beginning with his earliest published serial novel, but I confess that my current novel-in-progress, and a couple in gestation, have led me down the rabbit hole of genre reading. (But I almost always have some Dickens reading or listening in the works anyway, and I have indeed restarted Pickwick, which always “illumines the gloom” of daily life!)

 

The Gothic…

My own work-in-revision-process is what I’d call a modern-gothic ~ and I’ve been told it’s essentially “a modern gothic romance,” but don’t ask me why I keep resisting the R-word ~ so of course I’ve been reading some congruous works. Most recently, Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway, which, although not one I’ll necessarily return to for a reread, was a diverting way to spend a few lamplit evenings, with all of the du Maurieresque gothic tropes I enjoy: the unexpected inheritance, the down-and-out young heroine, the creepy estate, the twisted family secrets, the coastal setting. My main source of disappointment was that, for such a lonely heroine, there was not a stronger developing relationship to cling to as it went on. I’m not talking a romantic relationship, or not necessarily. (She needed a real friend…someone, anyone!) And honestly, it’s often the lack of a strong relationship that will keep me from picking up something again, as hopeless a rereader as I am.

 

The Mystery…

And, of course, I have to return to the mystery genre. (Two of my secondary characters in the current WIP have a backstory that involves a murder investigation, but do I really need that excuse? No way.) I’m hooked on Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and recently finished  the audiobooks of The Likeness and Faithful Place (Nos. two and three in the series) and have just begun the fourth, Broken Harbor. (This will have to be a separate post of its own…)

 

YA Fantasy/Alternate History…

But I’ve also been prepping to go down the path of YA fiction in my future writing, whether or not I decide to take that turn in the revision process of my current WIP (in spite of some congruent elements). One way or another, at least 2 of my upcoming projects are absolutely made for a YA audience. So I’ve been getting distracted by the Grishaverse trilogy starting with Shadow and Bone, finishing it about a day and a half after starting, in spite of my writing and class commitments, in anticipation of the Netflix series premiering on April 23rd. It’s a page-turning, bingeworthy read. (And this Darkling…oh my. I do love a good baddie!) Naturally, I have the second and third books now, ready to start.

But really, the fact that all these genres have interest for me in my mad writing ventures, is incidental; it’s honestly nothing more than an excuse to get back to reading my guilty pleasures, especially now that my work schedule is more forgiving.

More soon. Happy reading!

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi: Some Initial Reflections

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” ~ Piranesi, pg. 5

I warn the reader that, although I will try not to give overt spoilers—except to name a certain character, a name which we learn part way through the book—it is impossible not to discuss Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi without risking that the very ideas brought up might constitute spoilers in some way. So, perhaps these reflections are better saved for a post-reading discussion. (And I use the words “discuss” and “reflections” because I cannot possibly review a book by Clarke. One simply follows her along the mysterious paths that she lights for us.)

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

In that spirit, imagine a House—rather, a vast and ancient Temple, or many together, filled with every sort of Statue, Plinth, Apse, Hall and Vestibule, with enormous Windows letting in the light of the Sun, Moon, and Stars—of seemingly endless proportions spanning outward in the directions of the compass, made of three levels. The first, the “Lower Halls,” is the “Domain of the Tides,” and ocean waters are trapped and surging there, as well as all forms of sea life. The “Upper Halls” are the “Domain of the Clouds”–the heavens. Between them, hearkening to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, are the “Middle Halls,” which are “the Domain of birds and of men. The Beautiful Orderliness of the House is what gives us Life” (6-7).

The lone inhabitant of the House—if we don’t count the mysterious “Other” who appears for a meeting on Tuesdays and Fridays, nor the bones of the thirteen Dead—is a man called Piranesi, though he suspects that this is not his real name. We come to know the House through his eyes, recorded in these journal entries as he meticulously keeps track of and cares for the objects in the crumbling halls and tries to survive by his wits and the opportunities the House provides—mostly fish and seaweed for nourishment, and the occasional “multivitamins” provided by the Other.

Photo by Simon King on Unsplash

The event around which this year’s calendar of entries revolves is the appearance of an albatross in the South-Western Halls. Piranesi sacrifices his own comfort and his very material for kindling to make sure that the albatross and his mate have a comfortable place to rest: “But what is a few days of feeling cold compared to a new albatross in the World?” (32) Of course, a live albatross is a good omen to sailors, a sign of a wind picking up, wind that will soon set a becalmed ship in motion.

This Other gathers data from, and about, this Piranesi who is living a solitary existence in the mysterious Halls, and engages him to venture further up and further in, to use a Lewis reference. Piranesi collects data for the Other, whose aim is to harness a Secret Knowledge that he believes was possessed by the ancients, and long forgotten. The Other himself remains always other—he is analyzing from the outside, he is unoriginal, he has no care or concern for the House itself. In fact, he avoids it as much as possible; according to him, the longer a time one spends in this House, the more one is likely to go “mad.” The Other calls this world a “labyrinth” rather than a House—in contrast to Piranesi’s evident love for it—wherein he baffles over how to call upon some powerful force in order to access the Knowledge, for at heart he believes that “there isn’t anything powerful. There isn’t even anything alive. Just endless dreary rooms all the same, full of decaying figures covered with bird shit” (47).

There is an innocence, a reverence, in Piranesi, shown even by his frequent capitalizing of the first letter of many names of things and ideas, hearkening back to the Romantic Poets. He cares for the Houses’ Dead, although as far as he is aware he has never known them, arranging their bones and keeping them in their right place, and bringing them offerings of food and flowers. He speaks to the birds, the Moon, and the Stars. (The Other has no love for birds—an obvious sign of disapproval in a Clarkean world, I believe.) Piranesi is part of the world; an active participant. We soon come to learn that Piranesi’s is a vastly different approach to exploration and to “science,” if you will—or magic—to that of the Other. Whereas the Other is interested in harnessing the “Secret Knowledge” and using it to bend the will of “lesser minds” to his own, Piranesi sees his task in a different light: “As a scientist and an explorer I have a duty to bear witness to the Splendours of the World” (6).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Piranesi comes in time to realize that the Other is not as he seems, nor that he himself is exactly as he thought himself to be. This is part of the puzzle of the story: how did Piranesi end up in this labyrinthine world, a world echoing the etchings of the “Imaginary Prisons” of the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi? There are hints that the “normal” world, such as we know it, of modern day cell phones (the “shining device” of the Other) and cars and diesel and tarmacs, exists somewhere close at hand, like a shell surrounding the mysterious House, though Piranesi himself is hardly aware of it, and can hardly conceive the idea that more than sixteen or so exist in the World.

Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances

It is the simple, intelligent, and enthusiastic wonder of the narrator that drives the story forward. We are instantly on his side. There is along with his notable reverence also a dogged self-sufficiency, and an almost heartbreaking loneliness—a loneliness he is only half-aware of, as he doesn’t seem to know what he is missing when he speaks to the Dead for his sole company, or runs into the arms of one of the Statues, as though it intended to comfort him. But there is much to envy: his stance towards the World – or the House, “since the two are for all practical purposes identical” (11-12), is one of connection, wonder and reverence, of friendly communion with it and all creatures and things in it. “When night fell, I listened to the Songs that the Moon and Stars were singing and I sang with them” (70-71). Here there is an echo of Owen Barfield’s “original participation” in his mind-bending and important work, Saving the Appearances, which this novel has made me want to return to after many years. In so many ways, have we, too, become “the Other” from our own world, from Nature, from the Heavens, from our own Dead and recollections of the past? Perhaps, even from ourselves? There is a negative aspect to this “evolution of consciousness” that comes with so-called “progress.”

As the mystery of the novel unfolds, and unfolds at a taut, compelling pace, we soon learn that the name of the mysterious “Other” is Valentine Ketterley, and it is more than hinted at that he is a descendant of the same “uncle” Andrew Ketterley, the antagonistic “magician” in the prequel to Lewis’ Narnia books. (I say prequel, but I’m of the opinion that one should read them as originally published, and not read the prequel first – however, I am happy to debate this!) An overt reference to The Magician’s Nephew is in the first of the two quotes that comprise Piranesi’s epigraph: “I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on.” And it is no coincidence that Piranesi’s favorite Statue in the House is a Faun; Piranesi even “dreamt of him once; he was standing in a snowy forest and speaking to a female child” (16). I couldn’t help delight also in various other hommages to the Inklings and related persons, slipped in unobtrusively: journal index references to Barfield and Steiner; the publisher of Laurence Arne-Sayles’ books being Allen and Unwin, the publishers of J.R.R. Tolkien. (Yes, I even looked up the names of Arne-Sayles’ works, so convinced was I that I just might find them in the labyrinths of Google data.)

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

I wondered going into this reading whether or not it was in the same “world” as that of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I feel that though there are no characters who overlap, as we are in two very different time periods, I can venture an emphatic yes. There is magic here, too, and strange paths to be trod, “on the other side of the rain”; and a sense of the Secret Knowledge now lost. And as in Strange and Norrell, there is a connection between magic and traveling upon the ancient paths with madness.

But as to the madness: perhaps the motive of one’s actions is key, and the position one has towards the House, and “Knowledge”–if such a thing exists in the way Ketterley is seeking for it. Perhaps the severity of the madness that is supposed to ensue is in direct correlation to the approach of inflexibility and domination one takes in venturing along these roads. One can show reverence, wonder, gratitude, love and friendship; or one can see knowledge and the world and one’s fellow beings as if from the outside, an I-It rather than I-Thou stance. The Other studies Piranesi like a rat in a maze, and Piranesi is merely useful to him.

The Wood Between the Worlds, “The Magician’s Nephew”

I read this book twice in quick succession, because it was all I could do at first to get a foothold in this world. I started with the audiobook, read beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and when I was about halfway through it, restarted it in hardcopy—while still continuing the audiobook at a separate time—fearing I had missed crucial information at the beginning.
Now, it seems to me that it can be read on any number of levels: the House is truly another World; the House is the World; the House is the soul, like Teresa of Avila’s “interior castle.” If the House is the World, we might compare the allegory to one that C.S. Lewis was fascinated by: Plato’s allegory of the cave. Its prisoners mistake the shadows they see on the wall for the real. Lewis uses this in The Silver Chair. The Other might be likened to the Emerald Witch, who tries to convince her prisoners that what is seen in the underground is the real: “When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale…”

And yet…and yet, the House is beautiful. One might say it gives us, in its “Mercies,” the idea of something beyond it, which its beauty represents:

One day I rose early, and went to the Forty-Third Vestibule. The Halls that I passed through were grey and dim, with just a suggestion of Light in the Windows—the idea of Light, more than Light itself” (28).

In the Ninth Vestibule there is the Statue of a Gardener digging and in the Nineteenth South-Eastern Hall there is a Statue of a different Gardener pruning a Rose Bush. It is from these things that I deduce the idea of a garden. I do not believe this happens by accident. This is how the House places new ideas gently and naturally into the Minds of Men. This is how the House increases my understanding” (121).

This aspect of it is also Lewisian; of one thing giving us an “inkling,” so to speak, of another greater reality. Such was perhaps the feeling he related in Surprised by Joy when, as a small boy in Belfast, Lewis glimpsed what he later considered to be “the first beauty I ever knew”: seeing his brother Warnie’s toy garden that he had created on the lid of a biscuit box. (Is it a coincidence that one of the House’s Dead is known as the “Biscuit-Box Man”?) “As long as I live,” continues Lewis, “my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.”

The World might be the House and the House the World. If so, I wonder, who among the novel’s characters is really “mad,” in the end?

As stated at the beginning, I don’t think I could ever “review” a book by Susanna Clarke, neither now nor later, neither in this world nor any other. To think of “reviewing” or “critiquing” in the traditional sense makes me laugh–to think of discussing the merits of her book or its shortcomings, comparing it in its success to other authors. It would never do, anyway, as one can only refer to the Inklings for anything like a just comparison. In her, the Inklings live on.

No, in my mind she can only be followed, as one would a magician, to strange paths and Other Worlds. The magic is in her words as she compels us to participate, and to wonder. I think of her in something of the way our protagonist thinks of Raphael, “represented by a statue in an antechamber that lies between the forty-fifth and the sixty-second northern halls. This statue shows a figure walking forward, holding a lantern [….] one gets the sense of a huge darkness surrounding her; above all I get the sense that she is alone, perhaps by choice or perhaps because no one else was courageous enough to follow her into the darkness” (242). And where in this world or any other is she taking us? Does it matter entirely, if you trust the Guide? Perhaps I’d venture to say, as Childermass said of the two magicians who were to restore Magic to England—and by implication, to the World: “Wherever magicians used to go. Behind the sky. On the other side of the rain.”