Monday, August 22, 2011


{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Le Morte D'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory:
So that knight, Sir Pellinore, rode after Sir Tristram and required him of jousts. Then Sir Tristram smote him down and wounded him through the shoulder, and so he passed on his way. And on the next day following Sir Tristram met with pursuivants, and they told him that there was made a great cry of tournament between King Carados of Scotland the King of North Wales, and either should joust against other at the Castle of Maidens; and these pursuivants sought all the country after the good knights. . . . Then Sir Sagramore le Desirous rode after Sir Tristram, and made him to joust with him, and there Sir Tristram smote down Sir Sagramore le Desirous from his horse, and made his way.
As a belated birthday present, some friends took me and rocketlass to Medieval Times this weekend. Braving the Slough of Expressway and venturing into the uncharted Swamps of Suburbia, we hit upon Castle Schaumburg and, once there, enjoyed a throughly pleasant, if fundamentally ridiculous, evening of falconry, horse ballet, stage combat, and, yes, jousting.

I had read a bit of Malory that day in preparation, but I found myself thinking less of his endless catalog of combats than of Dorothy Dunnett. One of the most effective ways--to this untrained history dillettante--that Dunnett unmoors readers a bit from our own era is through her depiction of the deadly sporting contests in which her characters engage. Nearly every novel has one, and they range from the familiar (a fox hunt) to the somewhat familiar but ridiculously dangerous (a proto-polo, a castle-top game of soccer) to the absolutely ridiculous (a footrace across the moving oars of a galley, a drunken chase across city rooftops). In most of the games, at least one contestant dies, and the loss is essentially shrugged off: no one is blamed or held to account. Life, Dunnett convinces us, was cheaper then; people mourned their own as powerfully as we do today, but that sense of loss wasn't extended to strangers.

I also found myself thinking about Robert Massie's Peter the Great, because, along with weaponry, Medieval Times has a collection of medieval instruments. While they're presented (and presumably received by the majority of the patrons) as relatively uncharged artifacts of long-gone days, they're nonetheless horrifying and disturbing, their sick ingenuity a reminder that torture always goes beyond its (perceived) instrumentality and becomes its own end. In Peter the Great's reign, torture was commonplace, the regular response to murmurs of conspiracy, and Peter regularly required nobles to prove their loyalty by taking part in the torture and execution of the accused. Massie makes a fairly convincing case that Peter was by no means unusually cruel by the standards of his day, but that doesn't make even his occasional acts of "mercy" much more palatable: frequently, on seeing a conspirator broken on the wheel, Peter would order his sufferings ended through immediate beheading. That the beheadings were often conducted by inexperienced headsmen and thus became in themselves a form of torture only adds to the train of horrors.

Which brings me back to Malory. When I first read Malory, at age ten or so, having sought him out in our public library, I was amazed by the fact that it's just a litany of knights meeting in the woods, clouting each other a bit, and then traveling on. There's little discernible narrative movement relative to the book's bulk, and very little sense of progress or achievement. As a pre-teen, I was confused and ultimately bored; as an adult, I see it as more interesting, if more wearying: good does not vanquish evil; rather, the two keep knocking each other about, and wherever good wanders, evil is there to challenge it. The cycle continues without end, as long as the knights exist.

And that brings to mind, of all things, the Incredible Hulk. I remember as a teen reading a long run of Hulk comics from, say, the mid-1970s through the mid-'80s, and it seemed as if every issue told this exact story: Bruce Banner wakes up somewhere in torn clothes, without any memory of where he is or how he got there. He staggers about for a bit like a man trying to shake a hangover, and then he runs into some supervillain . . . who makes him angry. He hulks out, stomps the supervillian, and then bounds away to parts unknown, his uncomprehending Hulk brain unable to understand how he got into the fight or what he should do now that it's over. The issue would end, and between issues the Hulk would calm down and return to his Banner form, and the cycle would continue.

I swear, it seemed like that was what happened, month after month after month, unbroken, for approximately a decade. As a kid, I liked the Hulk enough to want to keep reading, but even then I thought it was bizarre: what Marvel Comics had done for the concept of superheroes was to allow them a continuing story and the possibility of change; this was almost a direct refutation of the breakthrough.

Looking back, however, I like those issues. Oh, I won't pretend to believe that they took that form out of some grand design; I suspect laziness and lack of creativity were the reasons for the Hulk's stagnation. But if all superheroes and their battles are in some way metaphorical, I like seeing the Hulk's lost decade as a successful metaphor: Bruce Banner is forever trapped in bad patterns of behavior, reacting in the same way to the same triggers, not knowing how to change for the better; evil and destruction erupt into life again and again, never to be eternally vanquished.

And now that I've brought this post so far from Medieval Times and its jousting, dueling knights: what better to turn to now than Melville House's five new entries in their Art of the Novella series . . . all titled The Duel? I think that's got to be next.

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