Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: Howard Pyle's "The Garden Behind the Moon"

How does one recommend a children's book about death? For, that is the subject of Howard Pyle's The Garden Behind the Moon. The question of how to explain mortality to a child is hardly an easy one, nor a task, I imagine, many parents relish, and yet, it's a necessary one. That being said, The Garden Behind the Moon is not the sort of book a child psychologist would be likely to recommend. It's too complex, too dense with layered meaning upon meaning. It seems to me that the fact of death has been too absolutely spurned from our modern life - few people die at home, among their families, and the loss of young people is regarded as a bizarre anomaly, as though modern medicine were capable of solving any health problem, which it is not. The assumptions that good health is normal, rather than desirable, and that a long life is natural, rather than determined by factors as variable as genetics, access to healthcare, and sheer luck, were not shared with us by the Victorians. Nor were such assumptions shared by Pyle, though in his case, any illusions he may have held in that regard must have been ruthlessly shattered when his young son died suddenly, while he and his wife were out of the country. Six years later, in 1895, Pyle published The Garden Behind the Moon, an allegory about the children that leave us while they are young. The Victorian cult around the child, innocent, angelic, vulnerable to death, and blessed above grown people, has left us few artifacts more powerfully persuasive than Pyle's novel. 

The book, in exquisitely simple language, tells the story of David, a "moon-calf" who is teased and bullied by the other children because he is quiet and thoughtful, more interested in the imaginings of his mind than the mundane realities of life in his small village. He learns to walk the Moon-Path to the Moon-Garden after he meets with the Moon-Angel and it is there, behind the moon, that David is tested by an adventure that brings him to manhood, conquering the Iron Man and retrieving the Wonder Box and the Know-All Book it contains. The book is heartbreakingly wistful, permeated with a sense of deep loss, but David himself does not ever seem to feel that loss. In fact, he's rather passive for a hero. Even as a man, he remains beholden to older figures, whether it is Hans (the cobbler who shares his belief in the Moon-Garden), the Man-in-the-Moon, the beloved teacher who cares for the children who live in splendid happiness in the Moon-Garden, or the Moon-Angel himself.

The Moon-Angel is an angel of death, but also of renewal, and we witness him explicitly leading the souls of the dead to a shining white city, in an absolutely devastating scene David witnesses through the magical Moon-Window - a slave-woman dies on the ship carrying her to the market with her infant in her lap and she is thrown into the water, and her living baby, after her. The Moon-Angel goes to the bottom of the river to carry them up to the city and there is rejoicing, "for there is as much joy and gladness over one poor black woman who enters into that place as there is over the whitest empress who ever walked the earth of Christendom." This scene is crucial to the story, for it reveals one of the deepest facets of the book's philosophy: everyone's death matters and everyone's entrance into heaven is a joyous occasion, no matter a person's race, age, or gender. Everyone is vulnerable to death, men, women, and especially children, and even the monster David must face to complete his quest and become a man. Though the blunt wording (and the underlying assumption that most, wrongly, believe black lives matter less, if it all) shows the book's age - 120 years old as of this writing - the sentiment, that all people, of all races, deserve to be loved and celebrated makes the book feel surprisingly modern, especially when compared to other children's books of the era, such as E. Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet, with its blatantly racist island of savages. The Moon-Angel loves all alike.

Though the symbology is Christian, the book rejects a strictly Christian perspective for one steeped in an erudite mythologized pantheism, much in consonance with Rudolf Steiner's theosophy, and influenced by medieval and chivalric ideologies, Greco-Roman myth, and the rather chilly sensuality of the Art Deco movement. The story of Adam and Eve is reconfigured; there is no tempting serpent, knowledge is obtained by the reading of the Know-All Book, and the expulsion from the Garden is the result of fear of suffering, rather than punishment. This is a Christianity that insists on forgiveness and rewards the brave pursuit of knowledge.

If the book has a flaw it is that Pyle is unable to be as cruel to his hero as perhaps he ought. David grows into a strong man of courage and completes his quest, winning the hand of the woman he loves from the time they are both children, but he himself never alters except in body. It becomes impossible by the end of the story to fully comprehend which is the realm of the living and which of the dead, which constitutes reality and which fantasy, whether David is alive, dead, or passed into some odd twilight stage betwixt the two. Perhaps Pyle was unable to face the death of David, when he had no choice but to face the death of his own son.

From the perspective of gender, the book is old-fashioned, but not as prejudiced as many of its contemporaries. There are three positive older male figures - Hans the cobbler, the Man-in-the-Moon, and the Moon-Angel - and three positive female figures - the teacher in the Garden, the old woman with the red petticoat (who explains the quest to David), and the Iron Man's cook, without whom David would not survive his quest. Thus, David looks up to both men and women. His love, Phyllis, is an ideal, and undeveloped, and yet, I see no reason why the gender of the two couldn't be reversed: one could simply change the names to Davida and Philip and the same story could be told, though in a pleasingly transgressive form, without alteration. The story is allegorical, though deeply complex and at times ambiguous to the point of obscurity, and David does not really have to represent an explicitly male protagonist. 

Pyle is probably best known as an illustrator, rather than a writer, and a good edition should by rights include his ten full-page illustrations and the decorative headers for each chapter. The illustrations are unabashedly romantic, but drawn with a careful attention to realistic detail and texture. Here is a favorite example:

This beautiful book is unlikely to appeal to most children, but then, Pyle seems to recognize that. The book is for children like David, the moon-calf, children who don't make friends easily, children who dare to try to step onto a moonbeam and escape to the lands beyond our meager realities. For such a child, and especially for a such a child who has felt a deep loss, The Garden Behind the Moon is a rare and wonderful gem.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Some Feminist Musings on Guinevere

Guinevere, Arthur's queen and Lancelot's lover, lady of Camelot, can't catch a break. Whether in literature or film, she is almost never portrayed with the sympathy granted to either of the heroic men in her life. (I have used the spelling favored by each auther in discussing these characters. I favor Guinevere myself, but the name has been spelled in perhaps half a dozen different ways and this is the case with many, many characters of Arthurian legend.)

In Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Guinevere is kidnapped by Sir Maleagant, but when he discovers that Lancelot is on his way to rescue the queen, he begs her forgiveness and mercy, which she grants. Lancelot, in a righteous rage, wishes to kill Maleagant during the rescue, but is prevented by Guinevere. However, when Maleagant rightly suspects that the queen has gone to bed with Lancelot, she convinces her champion to fight her former kidnapper. This combat, the outcome of which decides whose cause is right, is the product of Guinevere's choosing, rather than Lancelot. In Malory's framing of this episode, Guinevere comes in for the most censure. Her vengeance is calculated, in contrast to the Lancelot's fury. Maleagant is, of course, right - the queen has committed adultery with her champion - but both men are depicted as victims of Guinevere's machinations, despite the fact that Maleagant abducted her and only ceded her because he was afraid and Lancelot is at least equally guilty of the adultery of which she's been accused. It's ridiculous to hold Guinevere most worthy of blame, unless she, as a woman, is being held to a more stringent moral code of conduct.

This episode, rarely included in cinematic adaptations of the Arthurian legends, is one of the most brutal in Marion Zimmer Bradley's gynocentric re-imagining. In this telling, Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar, in the Welsh spelling Bradley employs) is brutally raped by Maleagrant, intending to sire a child and therefore compel Arthur to cast her off. This is a key turning point for gwenhwyfar in Bradley's telling. The heroine, Morgaine, warns her not to be fooled by Maleagrant and Gwenhwyfar is thus framed as being foolhardy and rather stupid, in keeping with her character up to that point. After the rape, she gives herself free license to commit adultery with Lancelot, reasoning that if God will not protect her when she prays for his help in resisting a loathed sin, she may as well commit the sins she wants to commit. There are a number of issues with Bradley's text - after Bradley's death, her daughter came forward, alleging that she had been sexually abused by her mother throughout her childhood, and this accusation puts a number of sexually charged scenes in a different light - but I feel particularly troubled by how poorly Gwenhwyfar is treated. In a book that explores with such sensitivity and nuance the often demonized characters of Morgaine and Morgause, even granting Lancelot's poor love-struck Elaine a certain degree of agency, Gwenhwyfar's rough dismissal strikes me as tone-deaf. While the three other heroines (as well as Nimue) use witchcraft to attain their ends and cause men to fall in love with them, sleep with them, or otherwise do their bidding, Gwenhwyfar is herself subject to love. She is resented by Morgaine because Morgaine loves Arthur and by Elaine because Elaine loves Lancelot. In other words, Gwenhwyfar is the victim of unfortunately catty jealousy and slut-shaming.

In the end though, Guinevere is most often reviled for failing to produce Arthur's heir. The "blame" - that is, if one is willing to assign blame for infertility - has to be hers because we know that Arthur is not infertile and neither is Lancelot. Arthur has a son, Mordred, by his half-sister Morgause (or Morgan, depending on the source) and Lancelot has a son, Galahad, by Elaine. Thus, Guinevere, despite engaging in multiple sexual relationships with fertile men, never gets pregnant. In the Medieval and Renaissance worlds, in which childlessness could be publicly ascribed to God's disapproval, infertility can indeed be a significant signifier of a woman's wickedness, but in the relative sexual liberation and the drastic fragmentation of the Christian moral system in the wake of the scientific revolution, industrialization, and numerous civil rights movements, why should we, still, blame Guinevere?

Though T. H. White was not terribly adept at writing female characters in The Once and Future King, ironically he seems to better understand the complexities of any moral judgement on Guinevere, though this is always tempered by a strictly gendered perspective that assumes that women exist primarily in relation to men. On the one hand, he writes that "she had all the proper qualities for a man-eater"; on the other, he very sensibly points out that the two men "whom she apparently devoured, lived full lives, and accomplished things of their own." The difficulty at which White arrives is this: he explicitly recognizes Guenever as what he calls "a real person," that is, a complex character that didn't always act in one, single consistent way and this stymies him because she's a woman and he is accustomed to assuming a person as explicitly male. This in and of itself is a remarkable step for a writer that blithely dismisses crying women as "repulsive" and angry women as "revolting." White also recognizes that Guenever's childlessness is at the heart of her trouble and he even goes so far as to feel pity for her condition as a woman. While Arthur and Lancelot busy themselves with warfare, adventures, the administration of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail, Guenever is stuck, bored to death, at home and "unless she felt like a little spinning or embroidery, there was no occupation - except Lancelot." White's compassion for Guenever prevents him from indulging in the moral condemnation of Malory or the haughty dismissal of Zimmer Bradley.

White's compassion for Guenever also puzzles him and he makes an exception for her as an extraordinary woman with little in common with others of her sex. This is evident in what he writes about love in the Middle Ages. "In those days people loved each other for their lives, without the conveniences of the divorce court and the psychiatrist. They had a God in heaven and a goddess on earth - and, since people who devote themselves to goddesses must exercise some caution about the ones to whom they are devoted, they neither chose them by the passing standards of the flesh alone, nor abandoned it lightly when the bruckle thing began to fail." It never occurs to White that a lover may be female as well as male. The lover devotes himself to a goddess, the goddess to being beloved. His romanticism remains stubbornly phallocentric.

I would hope that modern feminist readers would have greater compassion for the character of Guinevere. Her thorniness, her moral courage, her refusal to give up what she wanted most, the sad fact of her infertility, her passionate love, and her unflinching tussles with duty - these qualities should endear her to feminists. But perhaps the fact that she is so relatable makes her less desirable as a feminist heroine. She isn't an aspirational figure because her life ends in tragedy and the ruination of everything to which she, her husband, and her lover had devoted themselves. Even so, if we reject such a character on the basis of her failure, which of us would not equally deserve rejection?