His Majesty’s Variable Portrait, Part 3



*shakes like a wet dog*: ok, where were we.  Ah yes.  Charles I; Dibben; Hardinge.

And Milton.  Also Milton.

Since the last blog-post, I have been running around after our (thankfully) stubborn, high-energy children, and trying in the interstices to revive some neglected reading-skills.  On account of the fact that this series is about the spec-fic afterlife of Charles the First, I figured I should go back and read Milton’s 1649 anti-tyrant tract Eikonoklastes: which, if you are interested in having a go at, you can find here.  “No problem, won’t take me long,” I thought.

*bemused laughter*

Here’s the thing about Eikonoklastes.  If you’re skimming it in grad school, amid so many other reading-assignments that thorough comprehension is a clear impossibility, you do the following.  You note Milton’s savage takedown of Charles I’s plagiarism from Sidney’s Arcadia.  You smile in a conspiratorial way at Milton’s use of quotations from Shakespeare’s Richard III.  And then you think “well, that’s the literary stuff taken care of, oh my God HOW many lines of Paradise Lost am I supposed to read by tomorrow?” and drop Eikonoklastes like a hot potato that you nevertheless kind of feel you’ve…eaten.  No more to see here, move along, IS THAT LACAN ON THE FREAKING SYLLABUS.  WHY.

However, it turns out, if you go back to this terrifyingly, urgently detailed political pamphlet years later thinking “oh, I kind of remember that, NBD,” you will be shocked by it.  And it will take you a long time to read.  Because Eikonoklastes, written in 1649 to counter the King’s own post-mortem “devotional” tract Eikon Basilike, is tasked with re-litigating the entire series of events that led up to Charles I’s execution or, in other words, Everything About The Civil Wars.  This re-litigatory purpose is why Eikonoklastes is organized under twenty-eight headings with highly specific but often incomplete titles like “VIII — Upon His Repulse at Hull, and the Fate of the Hothams”  or  “XVIII –Upon the Uxbridge Treaty, &c.”

“&c.” is important.  “&c.” does a lot of work in this tract, gesturing at the impossible number of events and ideas and speeches and written accounts in & about the Civil Wars that simply cannot be dealt with point for point, despite Milton’s best efforts.

The backstory here is that as Oliver Cromwell’s new Secretary for Foreign Languages,* Milton was assigned the work of rebutting Charles I’s (and probably William Juxon’s) Eikon Basilike, which was printed illegally — and copiously — as soon as the King was executed.**  So Milton wrote Eikonoklastes by going through Eikon Basilike and glossing and disputing the most egregious, politically volatile portions of the King’s propaganda tract: the ones that might tweak the public narrative to future Royalist advantage.   Some of the glossing and disputing could be done ad hominem, or ad tractatem — and Milton is at his gloriously pugnacious best during these sections, when he can “feel” his opponent under his fingers so to speak.  But other types of glossing and disputing were basically chronological, and pulled in a mess of contradictory accounts about: what happened when? who was responsible?  what were their motives?  …the sorts of disputed (and disputational) accounts that the nascent English news industry had been peppering the country with since the beginning of the wars.

In sum, Eikonoklastes was a difficult assignment to have come across your desk.  And the stakes were really, really high and the events involved were really super recent.  Eikonoklastes represented a claim-stake for the new regime.  It was a bristling, caustic statement of righteous corporate identity and corrective corporate memory, set against the King’s assertion of virtuous individual identity and his provision of a heart-tugging literary memento for his followers.  The tract was a hell of a thing to ask anyone to produce, especially given the amount of backlash it would clearly generate.  And Milton is kind of open about that. “It be an irksom labour,” he states at one point, “to write with industrie and judicious paines that which…shall be judg’d without industry or the paines of well judging.”

If that sentence even registered on my first reading, many years ago, I am sure I snickered at it.  Classic ‘no one is worthy of what I am doing’ Milton!  But now, reading again, I admit to being staggered by the “industrie and judicious paines” he did take.  Which is not to say I have to believe Milton’s casualty-statements when he’s talking about the Irish uprisings, or agree with him when he says that Parliament’s repeated treaty-proposals would have left Charles I some latitude for the continued exercise of the royal prerogative.  And I certainly don’t have to agree with him (fuck you, JM!) about the corrupting influence of women on the Caroline regime and on government in general.***  Eikonoklastes is not truth, it’s a polemic.  But wow does it present receipts.

What do the receipts say.  They say how hard, and how harrowing, it has been to deal with Charles I, and how full of rage Milton is at having to take a considerable amount of his own time to re-address a man who will “[talk] world without end” (Section XXI) about his personal righteousness, without at all noting the significant cases and complaints his subjects have painstakingly brought against him.  They limn the exhausting rhetoric, and the extremely local, unpredictable military victories and confusions and betrayals, that have characterized the course of the Civil Wars.  They throw into relief the erosion of peacetime understandings of property-law, and ethical conduct.  (The King has attempted to pawn the Crown Jewels; the King has publicly agreed to treaty-terms he has then privately disavowed.)  They reveal a writer, and a political thinker, who has over time been brought to a very dangerous —  an annihilative — state of mind.  That last thing may sound too extreme, but look: in Section XIX, “Upon the Various Events of the War,” Milton states:

Where the Parlament sitts, there inseparably sitts the King, there the Laws, there our Oaths, and whatsoever can be civil in Religion. They who fought for the Parlament, in the truest sense fought for all these; who fought for the King divided from his Parlament, fought for the shadow of a King against all these; and for things that were not, as if they were establisht.

(emphasis mine.)

Freaking brrrr, okay?  BRRRR.  You get in touch with a text as you read it, especially if you have to adjust and ‘translate’ and re-jigger your expectations of language for a while in order to start understanding what’s being said.  (If you are interested in this process, BTW, I recommend picking up a copy of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman, which I wrote brief essay about for Tin House last year.)  I was fairly attuned to Eikonoklastes by the time I got to Section XIX, at which point the underlined phrase “things that were not” DID IN FACT send a cold shiver down my spine.

Why?  See the KJV version of Jeremiah 31:15, a prophecy recalled in Matthew 2:18 after Herod’s slaughter of the infants.  “Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children…because they were not.” The phrase signifies the arrival of a set of terrible absences.

That plural past indicative, “were,” is merciless.  It goes back to eradicate, it goes back to un-make.  It pulls roots out of the earth so that the plant has never grown.  It means there is nothing left.

When you read Eikonoklastes, you get a sense of how far Milton felt he, and those he was loyal to, had been pushed.  You start to feel his fury and disdain and also an emptiness in the middle of them: a scorched circle, or a scaffold.  Did the monarch exist who could rule with Parliament?  Not now and perhaps not in the past either.  Maybe the stated principles of limited monarchy had never truly been agreed to in good faith.  But (and this is another source of fury in Eikonoklastes) very few people could be brought to recognize the bad-faith nature of the arrangement.

So, that was all extremely sobering.  And it gave me a whole new set of thoughts about Damian Dibben’s Tomorrow (2018) and Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows (2017), both of which feature Charles I as a character — to very different effect.

Dibben’s Tomorrow is a novel about an immortal dog.  “Champion” is the affectionate companion of an immortal man, who has extended both of their lives indefinitely through the practice of alchemy.  The book starts out well, with a frightening and macabre encounter on a beach in Denmark that foreshadows the arrival of the alchemist’s brother and deranged rival, Vilder.  But I found that Tomorrow soon staggered under its burden of undigested backstory, and the weight of the very long historical arc it had assigned itself.  Dibben has tried to string decades and centuries together using linguistic quirks and baroque visual descriptions as the through-line, instead of offering us well-realized characters and memorably differentiated historical eras.  And I wearied pretty quickly of the non-dogginess of the protagonist, who clings to the illusion of canine identity only via the skin of suspiciously omnivorous-looking teeth. So you will not be surprised to hear that, in my opinion, Charles I features mostly as window-dressing in Tomorrow: comes off, that is, as a mannequin with a label on its forehead reading SCENE: THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.   That said, I want to credit Dibben with including something important the other books in this series do not: he devotes significant time to Charles’s much-maligned Queen, Henrietta-Maria.

Reading Eikonoklastes, with its repeated condemnations of corrupting feminine influence, put Henrietta Maria back into focus for me.  She was one of the Parliamentarian’s chief obsessions and points of attack; the treacherous Queen, the belligerent Queen, the Catholic Queen who had led the King straight to the Pope’s pinfold.  And when Tomorrow arrives at the city of Oxford in the year 1643, Dibben quickly establishes Henrietta Maria as the dominant relevant figure in the world of his novel.  It is she, not Charles, who employs “Champion’s” master as her doctor; it is she who controls the money at court, and is most often visible.  Charles I appears as a hesitant fugitive, a broken and weak individual.  Here’s how he’s presented when the city of Oxford suddenly comes under attack:

[C]ourtiers…[rushed] to and fro in urgent conversation and the king appeared in battle garb, his face shot with fear.  He and the queen had a raw conversation before he departed, looking back one last time with gull’s eyes.  For hours after he’d gone, the queen strode back and forth, the hem of her gown hissing against the cobbles… (Tomorrow 239)

For all its descriptive oddities, this passage is responsive to the polemics of history.  It puts the Queen in the picture, where she does in fact belong.  But I don’t feel that Dibben is very well in control of his characterizations overall: for instance, during the extended 1649 execution scene in Tomorrow we get a version of Charles I that chimes in some respects with Poul Anderson’s “little body kept erect” (see part 1 of this series).

…a man stepped from the window of the hall onto the scaffold and shuffled forward.  He was slight but imperious: bearded, cloaked, grey hair curling about his shoulders. (Tomorrow 246)

It’s hard to say what the intended effect is here: clearly, given the earlier “face shot with fear” (?) and “gull’s eyes” (?) we are not supposed to romanticize a la Anderson, but on the other hand for a moment Dibben gives us a canonical image of the King, barring the “shuffle” that, I think, encapsulates a lot of what this author is doing with his material in general.  In sum, while the King’s execution becomes for “Champion” an image of humankind’s intermittent and alienating brutality, Dibben’s reading of the monarch is not at all clear: nor, relatedly, is our desired level of emotional engagement.

And that’s an interesting question, vis a vis Charles I.  What’s gained, what’s meant, by soliciting sympathy; or admiration; or understanding; or an alienation-response; or hatred; or ‘simple’ pity for the doomed monarch who led his supporters into a war that killed c. 80,000 people and set friend against friend?  Again, for me, Gilman’s control over the way we read her boy-Charles produces the most compelling, genuinely new narrative action around this historical figure that I’ve seen.  We can have pity for Gilman’s boy-prince, while still implicitly consenting to the execution of her King, because we have been led to place our faith and our feeling in different worlds than the one Charles I inhabits.  Real power resides in three places in Exit, Pursued by a Bear: in our world; in Faerie, with Oberon and Titania; and, perhaps primarily, in fiction and poetry.  This last is the empire-toppling force that Kit Marlowe wields as easily as a toothpick, and whose dictates we obey as those of Nemesis. We understand Gilman’s Charles as the prey of a set of artistic and supernatural contingencies which — because we delight in them — because they open up a set of alternative worlds and possibilities and ways of thinking about history — we are willing to buy at the price of his head.   But in the other books under discussion, Anderson’s and Dibben’s, and (soon) Hardinge’s, Charles is still linked to terrestrial power-structures we are encouraged to understand as genuine; as part of the real stakes of the narrative.  Because of this, the reader has to reckon with Charles I not as a pawn of Faerie and the English Renaissance stage, but as a figure who still relates to current authority-structures and the ways we understand and respond to them.  And that changes something about…I don’t know…our interpretative responsibilities, I think?

With that, here’s the rundown on the Anderson, Dibben and Hardinge novels as I understand them.  Anderson wants you to think of power as best administered by the mystickal patriarchy.  Dibben, TBH, doesn’t seem to know what he thinks.  And Hardinge — ah, Hardinge.  Hardinge thinks people in power can and should fuck. right. off.  Or, at the very least, that it is both fine and appropriate to feel that way about them, if you’re not a powerful person yourself.

I wrote an extended review of Hardinge’s Skinful of Shadows for Strange Horizons recently.  You can find it here if you’re interested.  One of the things I didn’t talk about in the review (because BEARS are GREAT and deserve ALL THE TIME) was the fact that I was initially confused and troubled by the way she portrayed Charles I.  The scene where he meets Hardinge’s narrator, Makepeace Fellmotte, represented a tremendous opportunity to display thematic, if not emotional, empathy for the doomed King.  And Hardinge stiffarmed the opportunity completely.  She blanked it.  I thought that was a little mean.  I was disturbed.  Here’s the scene:

…Makepeace dared to glance furtively at the King from under her lashes.

    He was a little man, as Lord Fellmotte had told Sir Anthony.  There was something stiff and careful about the way he moved.  In fact, he was stiff altogether, as if ready to bristle at the world for noticing his littleness.  His beard was elegant and pointed…His face was mournful, lined, and marked by a rigid uncertainty…

…Makepeace felt a little dizzy, but not with awe at the man before her.  It was as if History were walking at his heels like a vast, invisible hound.  It followed him, but he did not command it.  Perhaps he would tame it.  Or perhaps it would eat him.  (Skinful of Shadows 221-222)


First, let’s take a moment to appreciate Hardinge’s crisp prose.  Second, here’s what I mean by a setup that could allow the narrator to feel “thematic empathy” for the King. Makepeace, also, is shadowed by a vast invisible beast, in the form of the ghost-Bear that’s taken up residence inside of her.  It would be easy, wouldn’t it, for her to extrapolate from her own experience to the King’s; to have fellow-feeling for him?  But she doesn’t.  Not at all.  And, I guess the question is: is that okay?  It doesn’t feel okay, initially — or it didn’t to me.  Why not throw the King a bone, or…well, I guess that’s awkward…why not imagine the difficulty of his situation, condole over the fact that we all (by now) know which thing is going to happen?  He’s going to be eaten.  What would it cost Makepeace to consider his current experience in light of her own, and render it something that can be personally understood — or at least imagined — by her?

After really mulling this Charles I thing over, I now think about it in these terms.  Historical figures in Hardinge’s work are still connected to the present play of force and influence in the world.  And, as a point of principle, she refuses to burden her YA readers with the work of creating, and experiencing, empathy for people in positions of power.  No “prayers for the King.”  No “let us pray for our leaders.”  No “put yourself in Mom’s shoes for a minute,” even.  Nothing.  And I believe that’s stringently deliberate, I think it’s part of what she wants to model.

Know your own life, Hardinge tells her readers.  Take care of it, and the people who also care for it.  You do not owe powerful strangers even a small piece of your heart, or your mind: do not believe them if they say you do.  Live mindfully and lovingly and carefully with your Bears, and let the Hounds go about their own business.  It is not yours.

This seems wise, to me.

So endeth the Portraits of Charles the First.


*Please see Thomas Luxon’s Introduction to the Dartmouth online edition.

** Mind you, one of the challenges Milton faced was that the borderland between illegal and legal was highly fluid in 1649, both for printed material and…everything else.  The Rump Parliament had put forth a massive effort to bring Charles I into court, and try him for treason against the nation.  The King never recognized the legality of the court that convicted him on January 27.  He went to the scaffold convinced of the illegitimacy of his death-sentence, and passed that belief on to his many surviving supporters.  This was, obviously, dangerous for the new regime composed (I think) of the Rump Parliament and Cromwell’s New Model Army. (I am not a specialist in the Civil Wars…please excuse any classification errors.  I’m more than happy to get input as to timeline and terminology.)

*** In section XXI, “Upon [Charles I’s] letters taken and divulged,” Milton includes the [unprintable] line “to summ up all, they shewd him govern’d by a Woman.”  Aha, say no more!  unless &c.  &c.







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s