John Wick, Francis Crawford, and proper joint-care

Because of all the Keanu-love that’s been flooding the Internet lately, my husband and I decided to finally start watching the John Wick movies.  We settled in with the first one last night, after the kids were in bed, and proceeded to spend c. 90 minutes “relaxing,” aka trying to keep our bodies relatively composed — no yelling, no shadow-boxing — while Reeves’s character slogged through a Brief Compendium of Murder, Domestic and Generall.

Once again I was struck by the sheer joylessness that arrives along with firearms, in American films.  Fuck, everyone seems to think, breaking out their pistols and long-rifles and silencers and magazines, needs mustThere’s also plenty of hand-to-hand, which I’ll come back to.  Interesting things were done with interior space.  Wick has to kill people in claustrophobic quarters that present themselves, opportunistically, as assistant-assassins (wow, that guy did not see that banister coming!) or malign agents (wow, Wick did not think to check that window!)  When he’s not in a dangerous interior that’s coffinlike along at least one dimension and probably contains either a ledge or a swimming-pool, he inhabits a dangerous exterior scaled to shipping containers and helipads, but not God forbid stairs and sidewalks.  The only way to make your way, in a world like this, is to become an armored vehicle that bleeds.

John Wick bleeds plenty, as of course do his victims.  But we don’t spend very much time with any of them, so what we notice most is Reeves’s dripping progress through the film.  The sanguination begins with the slow red leak John Wick springs when he’s attacked by Eastern European thuglets at the beginning of the movie, and ends with a highly unsatisfactory self-administered field-dressing for a self-inflicted stab-wound — an emblem representative of the Work Entire if I ever saw one.  We’re supposed to think hydrogen peroxide and metal sutures must be an okay answer to a three-inch-deep wound, I guess [narrator’s voice:  it was not okay] because the next thing John Wick does is adopt a replacement puppy.  This is a gesture clearly meant to staple up the audience’s feelings so that we, like Wick, can stagger home and sleep.

I liked the film’s intentional focus on damage done, on the inelegance of the work that killers-for-hire undertake and the way they must learn to patch themselves together physically long after they’ve given up any examination of their own past trauma or current motivations.  This isn’t a James Bond film, where sex and high living and murder exist along the same continuum and are mutually infected with the same glamour.  In the first John Wick movie at least, everyone thinks murder should occupy a different silo from all other forms of human activity, and that it’s regrettable and ugly when it leaks out.  Hence the rigid “no business on the premises” rule of the assassins’ hotel that occupies much of the Flatiron building in Manhattan; hence the awkward policeman arriving to check on John Wick’s suburban home-turned-abattoir at the beginning of the movie, who only reluctantly peeks around the door at the bodies in the corridor.  I mean, none of these ‘containment’ techniques are effective…we all know that…and we know, watching John Wick, that a society which prefers to employ local social relationships and conventions to do the work of peacekeeping and lawgiving is a society at least willing to entertain a general disregard for human life.  Maybe these movies are so popular because it’s a relief to have that displayed right in front of us, filed under escapism.  Or, aha, Action.

Now: martial arts, imagination, & longevity.

I did a lot of Aikido for many years, and practiced Kung Fu for about two, before our third child announced himself and I finally had to give up training for reasons of schedule and psychology.  One side-effect of this history is that I love watching hand-to-hand combat and falling technique in movies.  I even like watching them in football ! although nothing else about the game has ever stuck and the NFL’s semi-military nationalistic pageantry gives me the heebie-jeebies (sorry, honey.)  It’s wild to watch 250-300 pound players perform careful, force-absorbing breakfalls on the field in order to protect their joints which are, let’s face it, a large part of their professional livelihood.  I enjoy seeing that part.  I like it when folks take care of themselves, on purpose.

Martial arts, and football, require practitioners to engage in a constant high-stakes game of alternating risk and retrenchment when it comes to their own bodies.  If you don’t extend yourself and play all out sometimes, you won’t get the attention from your teammates and fellow practitioners that allows you to learn and improve your skills.  If you constantly play with everything you’ve got without adding supportive measures like diet, rest, and self-pacing (plus medical advice!) you’re going to cause early degenerative damage to your body at best.  Luck is involved too of course.  Career-ending injuries happen in the scrum of the game, or during a crowded seminar or an adrenaline-fueled public martial arts demonstration.  Mistakes of all varieties occur.  I was once at a packed Aikido seminar where two practitioners collided during the warmup, and one went directly to the ER with an orbital fracture.  The warmup.  Anyway.

Accidents aside, I’m now in the phase of my phased-out martial arts career where I hear what the people who’ve been doing it for a truly long time are experiencing in their bodies.  One of my Aikido friends had a hip-replacement when he was about fifty, and a replacement hip-replacement a few years later when the shank of the artificial joint snapped.  (yeah.  ouch.)  His wife my dear friend Julie, also a longtime Aikidoka…like, from the seventies in NYC baby…just had to get the same operation this past month and is currently rehabbing at home.  When I checked in on her she said, “did you hear?”: yet another friend, a pillar of my years in graduate school and one of the nicest and toughest guys I know, is reluctantly queuing up to get the diagnosis, worn out hip, and start thinking about the procedure.  He’s about sixty, and I have zero doubt that he’s c. five years behind the hip-replacement curve due both to stubbornness and an unhealthily high tolerance for pain.

All this is to say nothing of the osteoarthritis, the painful toes and knees and fingers, their cartilage long since scrubbed out through a combination of strange pressures and overuse.  Or the dislocated shoulder that “popped right back in” but still hurts on rainy days, the now-vocal hyperextended elbows, the painful wrists subjected for too long to routine, extreme compression in goose-neck locks and submission holds.  I have some of these, and I was not all-in by any means.  I was a semi-recreational Aikidoka.  A quarter-pro.  Which brings me back to John Wick, and thence believe it or not to Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford of Lymond.

One of the things I think about when I watch a movie like John Wick, is what it’s going to feel like to be John Wick if he survives.  If, gasp, he AGES.  Probably…not good.  Just from this one movie we’re talking painful and recurrent internal adhesions from poorly-doctored stab-wounds and bullet-wounds; a lot of permanent trauma to joints both big and small; and serious probable upper-back issues due to repeated full-body impact on hard surfaces.  And as we all know, a.) there’s backstory, probably ex-military, which can’t have been low-mileage and b.) he has at least three more movies to get through.

But movies like John Wick are not about long-term survival.  They seem to be — that’s what we’re technically rooting for, we think we’re rooting for his life — but they are utterly disinterested in what it would mean for Reeves’s character to have an existence apart from the one in which he tears other people apart and is, in turn, torn by them.  He has a weaponized past and a weaponized present, but no imagined future, so there’s no need to think about things like is he going to need a wheelchair in ten years or, since he is clearly being set up for chronic, crippling pain, should we be worried about opioid addiction?  And, I mean, I understand that this is an assassin-movie.  It’s playing by the rules of the genre.  Fine.  But I want to understand where my interest in the genre ends.  And it seems to end at the point where we like, or cheer, or appreciate the fact that John Wick can’t imagine any kind of sustained ongoingness for himself, and therefore won’t take any actually careful individual steps to support that.  Oh, he’ll liberate a puppy all right.  But will he go see a doctor?  He will not.  Don’t tell me this is badass.  Badass, as far as I’m concerned, is the sensation you get when you try to sit down using a rapidly-deteriorating femur-head.

Yes.  I don’t like; I object to; fictional glorification of the kind of despair-fueled male physical virtuosity and “endurance” that leads to long-term chronic unmanageable male pain.  This is, also, a beef I have with Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.  If you’ve read the series, and if you’ve engaged with the fandom at all, you know that the books consist in significant part of Francis Crawford of Lymond slowly flaying and mutilating himself for the public good, over the course of six volumes.  You also know that this backloaded horror-show is considered to be well-justified by the happy ending.  What do you think it feels like to be an ageing Francis Crawford?  Why did we need to watch him do that to himself?  And why do we still, against all evidence, believe the story ends well?














a strange little poem

this one, which I wrote two years ago and (believe it or not) edited a lot, ended up in a lovely journal with fabulous production values: Rust & Moth.   Woo!  Vanitas, vanitatis: it’s nice to see my name up there in fancy, legible font.

The poem was experimental, which always frightens me.  You could laugh so hard at a 15-word poem with an 11-word title that name-checks a French philosopher of phenomenology and alludes to vaguely Zen sources.  And, I mean, who am I to deny people that laugh — if they’re even interested enough to read the poem in the first place!  This little arrangement of words does, though, reflect an actual past experience of psychological relief I wouldn’t have had access to unless I’d a.) done some awkward Zazen, here and there, and b.) on a couple of occasions thought seriously, or at least with acceptance and interest, about phenomenology.

David M. Perry writes about this intersection of what he terms “cutting-edge humanities” and individual biography in a terrific recent article for Pacific Standard, which you can read here.

Defending theory and philosophy is awkward for me: that is, it feels awkward to me.  I have always been suspicious of them, not in a principled way but rather on account of they seemed like territory it would be easy to get lost in.  But when you are lost, when life overwhelms you, there’s nothing quite so helpful and reassuring as the memory of beginning to understand something that was once terrifying and strange.  Reading theory and philosophy is good practice for trying to find your way back to emotional peace.  These disciplines are real tools, which can offer real-life assistance.  When nothing else seems to make sense, sometimes your past difficult, infuriating, exhilarating reading-practice will say:  “you seem at sea.  Here’s a rope and an anchor.  Don’t you remember making these?  You made them with me.”


A further note anent bears

Still muddling around in the debatable lands between Proper Academic Criticism and Something Else.  It’s an activity that involves Improperly falling into Interesting Research-Sloughs, and pulling my boots out with a wet pop several weeks later.

I do find things this way, sometimes.  I’m proud of my nurse-bear discovery, from this May 2018 review for Strange Horizons, and that I wrote about the “therapeutic imaginary” of hibernation with bears, or in the keeping of bears: “the dream of safe, companionate, reparative sleep.”

So my ears pricked up this weekend when my Mom started reading Kevin Cornell’s Lucy Fell Down the Mountain to one of my children.

Poor Lucy.  She gets no help from competent people, or helpful animals, as she careens downslope.  I think the idea is that we’re not supposed to teach kids to expect magical rescues?  or…basic assistance?  Study your parkour, kiddo, because even rock-climbing requires accessories — unless you’re Alex Honnold — and survival must not depend on accessories.  (Sorry, REI.)

I don’t know.  I was confused by the book, TBH, and only half-listening because it was a very hectic weekend and I believe I was chasing a toddler in and out of rooms etc.   But I super did note the fact that on her way to the bottom of the mountain, Lucy briefly sojourns in a cave full of sleepy bears.  She asks them if she can stay — she cries! — she says (approx.) “I have had a hard day and I’ve been falling a long time and I have nowhere else to go,” and the bears say this.

“When we feel like that, we make a pile.”   i.e., we snuggle together and we go to sleep together.

Then, they kick her out.

I’m still turning it over.  Again, I think it’s probably a “Lucy against the world” kind of thing, a “Lucy left to her own devices and able to manage with them (don’t need no stinkin’ bear-nurses)” thing.  It’s certainly a children’s book that’s decided to break with YA/fantasy literary conventions about bears taking care of young women, and teaching young women how to take care of themselves in the process.  I kind of hate it?  but I’m a grumpy reader.  Bearish even.  Gr.




Image: Yathin S Krishnappa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Some accounting

Oh good grief, it’s OCTOBER.

I’m supposed to be working on a book review…  But, wow, I sure meant to write more in this blog before now.  TBH, Charles I kinda wore me out — and we had some family excitement at the start of September when our oldest got a concussion (mild, thankfully) on the second day of school.

Then there’s the political environment.  Muriel Rukeyser reminds us it’s not the first time.  If you haven’t read her “Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)” I commend it to you.  I was led to it by the writer and activist Alyssa Harad, whose Twitter-feed I follow, and whose Sunday #FlowerReport is a weekly reminder to look up and look out, refusing to forget beauty during these tumultuous months and years.

So, some weeks — protesting.  A friend and I went down to Boston City Hall on Oct.  1, to voice our opposition to the Kavanaugh confirmation along with a few hundred other folx.  We got to see an InfoWars fan up close…he was wearing dark glasses of course.  “Aah, the light!”

There are a lot of safety marshals at these events now — trained volunteers in reflective vests, working to keep the peace.  The police, quite a few of them, stood back in a half-circle on City Hall Plaza between the protesters and the street.  We are all trying to figure out how it goes, at present.

Right after Trump was elected, I went to an anti-fascist march in Cambridge that turned out a wild cross-section of people; disability activists, environmentalists, actual antifa with black bandanas over their mouths, suburban moms like me.  The protest started at the Harvard Kennedy School, where someone…lord, was it Bannon?…was speaking (HKS WHY) and from there went out and stopped traffic in a few places, circled back around Memorial Drive, and so dispersed.  The rain was bucketing down, the gutters were running high, and the police had the job of re-directing traffic away from the march and making sure protesters didn’t step in potholes.  Some of them were really pissed at us.  I remember hearing one policeman say, during a lull in the chanting: “They still don’t get it.  They really don’t get it.” And not, like, in a nice tone of voice: he was frustrated and scornful.  But they redirected traffic, they stopped us from stepping in flooded potholes.  This is the uneasy waltz we’re doing for now.  Like everyone else, I have no idea how things will be after the midterms.

Relatedly: VOTE.

Welp.  Writing.  So, TBH, I went a bit dark over the late summer and into September.  Had some self-care/mental health stuff to take care of, which is happening, with lots of help and support from my husband and friends and a really good therapist.  Also meds, now, which is probably belated (see: my twenties) but better late than never.  If anyone reading this is struggling, as I was, please know that it’s OK to ask yourself: how am I doing and what do I need?  I hope, even if your poor brain is telling you there’s no chance you will ever “get better,” that you can walk yourself…even mechanically, step by step… to a location, a person, a helpline, whose job and purpose and vocation is to offer assistance for the very, very human and widespread sadness; or fear; or self-hatred; or anxiety; or all-of-the-above that you’re feeling.  We are not in this alone.  You are loved, and you will be able to know that again one day.


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Unsurprisingly, maybe, my recent poetry has been a wee bit more ‘oh fuck it all, goddamnit’ than previous entries.  Here’s an angry piece on Louis C.K. that Poets Reading the News published in August.  I mean, I stand by it.

A few other things are forthcoming, including one poem that’s super experimental (for me), and two entries in The Emma Press’s pending collection The Head That Wears The Crown.  Which, if you like — which is to say, if you know any kids who will tolerate poetry and find British history entertaining — you can now pre-order!  I have no idea if my kids will sit still long enough to hear Mom’s verses.  Maybe if there are pictures!






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.







His Majesty’s Variable Portrait, part 2



TW: this blog-entry discusses fictional representations of murder, sexual abuse, and pedophilia.

All right.  Buckle your seatbelts.  A little background on Greer Gilman’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear (Small Beer Press, 2014).   It’s her second Ben Jonson novella, the first being Cry Murder! in a Small Voice, which won a Shirley Jackson Award for dark fantasy in 2013.  And these novellas are dark, no question.  They are also rich, and strange.  In the first, which spans the years 1603 to 1606, boy-players from the London theater-companies are being stalked by a mysterious evil ‘patron’ who commissions sadistic private performances that culminate in rape and murder.  But they have an unlikely champion: the playwright Ben Jonson takes a protective interest in the vulnerable youths he sometimes instructs in Latin.  For him the boy-players are pupils, collaborators, fellow theater-gossips, and surrogate sons.  When he learns they are being preyed on, he sets out to learn the killer’s identity and end his brutal games.  Exit, Pursued by a Bear picks up after a lapse of five years, in 1611.  It begins as Jonson, now a fairly well-established poet within the Jacobean regime, is attempting to endure a winter collaboration with the King’s Surveyor, Inigo Jones.

Ben has written a masque, Oberon, The Fairy Prince, for performance at court during the Twelfth Night theater-season.  It will be presented to King James, but it has been developed and conceptually managed by the King’s heir, Prince Henry, who stars as Oberon.  In a way the masque is Henry’s “graduation” piece, though what he is graduating to will be…unexpected.   He is seventeen, on the brink of his majority, and uniquely ambitious: so Oberon must prove the perfect vehicle for a demonstration of his personal capacities.  If it succeeds, and the Prince is pleased, favor will follow; if the masque fails, lucrative future commissions will be lost by those responsible.   Both Jonson and Inigo Jones are highly conscious of these facts.   While Jonson has provided the theatrical text, Jones is the designer and producer of the masque’s special effects.  This might seem the lesser of the two artistic roles, but these are extremely special effects — Italianate, new, show-stealing.  Henry has, figuratively, asked for the moon in asking for this masque; Jones aims to literally provide it, and thereby achieve precedence over Jonson.  The power-play seems likely to work, judging from the way rehearsals are going.

     One and two.  And with a sweep of arms, a solemn music.  Now: ascent.  The Moon herself, as Peter Quince had dreamed, upsailing through the hall turned heavens, high and disposedly.  Her light indwelt in her, cast living shadows on the wall: a greater faerie than was painted, sawn, or stitched.
     O marvellous.
     Mere awe.  And then as if the wonder were a white stone cast into a pool, [the viewers’] stillness broke into a thousand waverings and ripples of delight.
     [Inigo Jones] in his cockscomb of a velvet cap upswept a pointing finger — marginalia to the revelation.  “And look you, there is art.”
     Eclipsed, thought Ben.  The spirits come when he does call for them.  (Exit, 2)

But Jones and Jonson, preoccupied by professional rivalry and personal dislike, have little idea that the vainglorious conceit of The Masque of Oberon  — as dictated by Prince Henry — is about to get everyone into a deal of trouble with Faerie.  There’s a real Oberon you see.  And a real Titania.  And they are faerily, royally, good and pissed off by this impending mortal mock of their immortal monarchy.  At least (we can infer) they think Henry is pretty.  Nevertheless, the insult must be repaid.

In fierce anger, and opportunistic lust, Titania resolves to steal King James’s heir for her own purposes.  Her agent will be the undead poet Kit Marlowe, who is in any case restless in the fake shepherds’ paradise Oberon and Titania stuck him in after his body’s death.  In the following exchange, Titania rehearses her grievances to him, and extends the chance of a conditional, bodiless return to the mortal world:

      “…I would have that princeling in my train.”
     And in your bed as toy.  So then will Oberon, thought Kit.  There’s play in that.  And said:  “Will I fetch you this paragon?  This pearl of chastity?  And how?”
     “There is presented at this court a masque of Oberon: whom [Henry] enacts.”
     “O perilous!”
     “Absurd.”  Titania laughed, in a great froth of white blossom.  “The part is written chastely — for Diana in Apollo’s cloak.  [Oberon] as Ganymede, a beardless boy — O, ’tis the rarest mockery of him!”  Maliciously:  “He will be vexed.”  (10)

Dead Kit understands, much better than the living Jonson or Jones, the danger the English Court has invited by attempting to mimic the Faerie Court.  Unwitting, King James and Henry have made an enemy, and wheeled that enemy’s troops directly up to an unattended gate.  The play is, indeed, the thing; what’s caught will not be limited to the king’s conscience.  “I will make of [Jonson’s] Troy wall a downfall for the English realm,” says Marlowe, and sets off to abduct the Prince of Wales via the Prince’s own debut theater-production.

But how exactly to do it.  Which tools to use.  And this is where Charles, eventually-to-be Charles I, comes in.  Charles has watched, raptly, the preparations for his brother’s masque.  A younger, more awkward child, the obvious “spare” to Henry’s “heir,” he is torn between desire to please Henry — and win his love — and the desire to have beautiful things of his own.   Gilman shows us this dynamic when Charles comes to visit the set of Oberon at the end of the opening rehearsal:

     A pale and pointed boy; a puny, hirpling boy in grey-blue and vermilion silk…Charles, the younger prince, the Duke of York… [He] had caught sight of the fairy palace, and was gazing up in admiration.  He walked toward it.  He wielded his body with great care, Ben saw, as a child might a pen: a thing to be practiced. His great rosettes hid shoes of brass and leather.  Brazen-shod: like a puny Achaean. [1]
     All butter now, the Surveyor stood before his market-stall of wonders.  “A triumph, your Grace.  For a prince.”
     “I am not he.”  A silence.  “My brother Wales will ride as Oberon.”  (7)

This is a lonely child with a strong aesthetic sense, and longings toward his own designs.  A child ripe for cultivation by someone who can convince him of their special interest in him.  And here, precisely in the nick, is that someone: a someone, we should remember, who made his career in theater by writing extravagantly of the fall of kings.

Far in the night when the boy waked, Kit was standing next his bed: a stranger reading, a flicker of the dying fire in his hair.  Amber in shadow….[he] held a finger to his lips.  “They sleep.”  As he had cast them, groom and guardians.  “As you do.”
     Very still.  “What art thou?”
     “A candle at your bedside.”  Kit closed the book, his finger in his place.
     “God keep your Grace” — but he did not say which god — “I am sent to watch you, lest you wake and see bugbears.”  (17)

So — a quick note here about Gilman’s humor.  It’s NOIR.  It’s hard to imagine a worse bugbear for an eleven-year-old child than the ghost of an anarchic, amoral pedophile poet who’s been sent to kidnap that child’s older brother, and of course “bugbear” is phonetically just a step down the hall from “bugger.”  Grownup readers of Exit will be alert to the many layers of danger, and threatening verbal play, in the extended encounter between Charles and Marlowe that makes up the rest of this scene.  Charles, however, is quickly charmed.  He falls into the Scots dialect of his early childhood (“Nay, bide.  I wad talk with thee.”) and begins to discuss his hopes and thoughts with the friendly, quick-smiling stranger at his bedside.  They speak particularly of the coming masque, in which Charles will play a minor supporting role.  As Marlowe comes to understand more about Prince Charles’s complicated feelings toward Prince Henry — which veer between jealousy, anger, love, and self-lacerating admiration — he starts to see how he can use the Duke of York to knock the Prince of Wales out of Whitehall and into Titania’s lap.  And the moment he understands how to do that, the poet is surprised by a vision of the future:

     Now, even now, between his thought and speaking, Kit was thunder-cleft, possessed with prophecy: the lighting of his vision ecstasy.  A dagger to the eye.
     He saw a scaffold, high above a crowd.  Saw the axe fall, saw the blood leap from the neck. — O gods.  The downfall of a king. And then the afterstroke.  This–child?  The tyrant?…Aye, he will be, if his brother — vanishes.  Stopped.  Might be...Visions lie.  And yet he saw this still: the distant figure, kneeling in his shirt.  As in a glass, he thought.  As on a stage — and laughed.  The boy looked quickly up.  O brave!  A tragedy.  If I cannot write a play in ink, I will in blood.  (21)

DID YOU SEE WHAT GILMAN DID THERE?  The point at which the Faerie plot is set in motion, and both princes’ fate is sealed (despite all Ben Jonson can do…he tries!) is the moment the restless, underemployed Kit Marlowe realizes he can compose this particular timeline as a play of murdered kings.  And you’ll note how brilliantly, how remorselessly, Gilman reveals the utter pitilessness of her Marlowe.  She’s invested time, and drawn on deep reserves of craft, to create this vulnerable, manipulable Charles: a child exposed to the undead poet’s analytical glance in every way.  At one point during their midnight conversation Marlowe even eyes Charles speculatively, imagining — and then dismissing — the idea of bedding him:

     The boy was kneeling up now, in his plaited nightgown, and his cap.  Kit looked him up and down, but swiftly, sidelong…  A curdle of cream.  Would do for some lickspoon paiderastos, but Kit’s tooth was for more poignant meats. (19)

The boy is young, troubled, hungry for kindness.  In establishing that for himself, Marlowe has also shown it to the reader.  But he cares far, far less about it than we do.  Once Kit realizes Charles can provide matter for a Marlovian plot, the present-day prince is fodder for the future’s headsman.  As quick as that.  As quick as an axe.

So.  Just to sum up some differences between Gilman’s Exit, and Anderson’s Midsummer Tempest.  Gilman’s dark-fantasy version of the Royal Martyr excludes the post-mortem, near-contemporary propaganda of the Interregnum: the fable of Charles as a perfect knight and ruler wronged by an ungrateful populace.  Instead, with way less regard for our comfort and way more regard for our ability to navigate complex viewpoints and emotions, Gilman shows us the passionate, awkward, unmercifully-educated child who becomes the monarch his first executioner — Marlowe — first sees:  “a distant figure, kneeling in his shirt.”  If you find any of what I’ve described here impressive — and I haven’t even gotten into the highly inter-texual practice Gilman uses, or the way that Shakespeare breathes all through both the language and plot of both novellas (rather to Jonson’s irritation) — I do ! very much! recommend investing the time to read Cry, Murder! and Exit, Pursued.


[1] Charles is known to have worn corrective footgear when he first came to London, c. 1605-6.  He probably would have outgrown the need by 1611, but probably also would not have forgotten about the shoes by then: perhaps not ever.

His Majesty’s Variable Portrait: King Charles I and speculative fiction, part 1.

The titles I’m planning to discuss are:  Poul Anderson, A Midsummer Tempest (1984), Greer Gilman, Exit, Pursued by a Bear (novella, 2014), Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows (2017), Damian Dibben, Tomorrow (2018).  If this were a Proper Scholarly Article I’d dig in deeper and close the gap between the Anderson book — which I read as a teenager — and the more recent volumes of speculative fiction.  All of the books include glimpses, and divergent readings, of the Royal Martyr at different stages in his career.
     Anderson’s novel, which begins with the 1644 Battle of Marston Moor, styles itself “romantic[ally] reactionary,” (p. 317) and is sort of a het-up and accessible riff on Keith Roberts’s 1968 alt-hist PavaneMidsummer Tempest is very concerned to establish the gentleness and righteousness of the true monarch of England, who is furthermore associated with the virile gentleness and righteousness of Royalist men in general, and in particular the book’s main male character, Prince Rupert of the Rhine.  Relatedly: re-reading the book was a very weird experience.  When I originally encountered A Midsummer Tempest at c. 16 years old, I was susceptible to this sort of structuring, and I am SUPER NOT ANYMORE.  For instance, the novel’s denouement — which involves the militarily decisive return of Olde Magickal England, enabling a history-defying Royalist victory at (naturally) Mystickal Glastonbury Tor — now makes it SUPER EASY to peg the entire thing as a work of nationalistic essentialism.  Sigh.   In keeping with that essentialism:  traditionally-minded aristocratic men are extremely the way to go in this novel.  Like, they are sexy and correct, they have beautiful manners, they never fuck each other, and they win.  The way King Charles is depicted is part of this construction, but I’m gonna proceed to his ‘portrait’ via the first ‘portrait’ in the book, that of Prince Rupert, and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about:
Rupert stood six feet four in height, with breadth in an athlete’s proportion.  Bared, the prince’s black locks fell past a weather-beaten face to his shoulders.  He did not…follow the Cavalier fashion in beards but went clean-shaven.  That made him look older than he was, the sternness…clear to see. [note; I reflexively had to edit that sentence.]  Otherwise his countenance was brown eyes beneath level brows, straight high-bridged nose, full mouth, cleft chin.  A tinge of Dutch accent roughened his speech.  (10-11).

So dreamy, right?  As they say about cars:  check the details.  Full mouth!  “an athlete’s proportion.  Bared” ! Like, I have no idea if Poul Anderson ever made fun of romance novelists, but if he did, one of them should have taped this paragraph to his forehead.  Furthermore, observe what happens when the nubile 17-year-old niece of Rupert’s Parliamentarian captor arrives on the scene: not knowing of course that brooding full-mouthed Dutch-accent-man is waiting in wings.

[Mistress Jennifer]…ran across the gravel onto the lawn.  A lilac bush stood man-high, [Jesus, really?] still wet from the heavy dew which had followed the stormy weather of the past few days.  She seized its blossoms to her [HOLY CRAP WHAT EDITOR ALLOWS THIS?!   I SEE YOU, REGAN-ERA EDITOR], buried herself in purple and fragrance.
Her maidservant [OF COURSE], who had left the carriage more sedately, hurried after.  “Mistress Jennifer!” she called.  “Take care! You’ll drench your gown –” She stopped.  “Oh dear, the thing is done.”  (26-27.)

Okay, let’s jump in here.  There’s “the thing, done” that relates to fluid.  He’s definitely going to deflower her.  You heard it from the lilacs first.  Also, Rupert is so sexy and correct that women throw water over their torsos willy-nilly whenever he’s in the district, and assume their natural destiny as Wet-Bodice-Contest participants.  That’s what it’s like being an aristocratic man who knows the right way to do things.  Rupert can’t help it; he can only try to protect these poor women from themselves, up to a point.

     When Charles I arrives on the scene, he basically functions as a talisman; a magical object that reminds you (when you are the excellent Rupert) what you’re supposed to be about.  You can think of Charles, in Midsummer Tempest, as a cameo or a travel-size memory-stimulating image…in a way, Poul Anderson is very much in touch with the Royalist or opposition-culture of the Interregnum, which bolstered and meditated on its loyalties using heavily-glossed, portable and emblematic images of Charles I as a stimulus to thought.  (There’s an amazing book by Lois Potter called Secret Rites and Secret Writing: Royalist Literature 1641-1660 (Cambridge University Press, 1989) that will lay that all out for you if you’re interested.)  Anderson reproduces this strategy:
[Charles] stood like a miniature, or like a much larger man seen through the wrong end of a telescope, in front his captains and councilors.  They were grim and begrimed…Charles was no less gaunt and sunken-eyed.  But his little body kept erect; dust seemed almost an ornament upon combed hair, trim beard, lace and plum velvet of Cavalier garb; and the bandage across his brow might well have been a crown.  (292)

This “miniature…erect” (or correct, or straight) monarch is the household god of Rupert’s six-foot-four erect and virile correctness.  That’s Charles’s role in this book.  As I’ve said, this kind of imagery and characterization is very much in keeping with seventeenth-century pro-monarchical Interregnum propaganda: both the written material, and the iconography. In other words, Anderson’s take is not tremendously imaginative in fact, which is…surprising, in a book whose back-cover copy reads “this is not…any [world] that you know.” I guess one takeaway is that defeated seventeenth-century Royalists were bloody terrific at PR, and their product continues to sell to interested parties.  A less conservative author than Anderson would be interested in troubling everything about the circuit that runs between Rupert and his emblematic King, locking power and all acceptable moral influence into the patriarchy, and excluding useless people like women, who are probably too busy showering in their work-clothes to bother with governance anyway.  How could they refrain under the circumstances?

Next:  the 2014 Gilman novella Exit, Pursued by a Bear.  I sort of wanted to save it for last, because it is far and away the best speculative treatment of Charles I I’ve ever read.   But I suppose let’s be orderly and take things by publication-year.  I should state that Greer is a friend, and I was a late-stage ms. reader for Exit, which is set during the winter season at King James I’s court in 1611 and 1613 (and everywhere, and nowhere:  “Bohemia,” the stars.)  Heaven knows I’m not the only one to admire it.  You can read the scholar and publisher Kate MacDonald’s thoughts on this work, and Greer’s earlier Jonsonian magical murder-noir novella Cry Murder! in a Small Voice here.