Wednesday, March 26, 2014

History, fiction, revelance

It's interesting, if disconcerting, to find oneself living in a state of Australia under an administration which seems intent on resurrecting regressive notions in criminal law that were part of the eighteenth century background to The Raven's Seal, or even my new work.

A writer is always on the hunt for new ideas, but this shows me that ideas of crime, law and punishment are always in flux, and that historical attitudes can find currency, and relevance, today. Hence historical fiction is not always about the dead past but instead a dialog between past and present, the character of ourselves as we were and as we are now. Sometimes, the past in fiction illuminates, as we glimpse of ourselves in the historical mist.

For example, the eighteenth century of The Raven's Seal was a period of great economic growth and upheaval: in many ways the foundation and apex of modern capitalism. But the cost of this growth was massive and growing inequality, a broad process of dispossession – an issue more than familiar to us today. In this case, as the few gain extraordinary wealth and the many lose prosperity and stability, I wanted to ask who the real criminals were: where was the invisible hand moving like a pick-pocket's, who could guide it, and who really grew wealthy at the expense of others? This mystery persists with us today, although the causes and policies that contribute to it are not particularly opaque, only the solution. What stands out from the eighteenth century experience is that though the markets are a game, they are by no means a neutral game: those who get to set the rules come to disproportionately reap the prizes, and at the same time label their play by the illusory name "fairness". In the case of The Raven's Seal, the codes of crime and punishment, privilege and service, were part of these rules.

We still live with the legacy and attitudes of the deep eighteenth century. In A Hangman for Ghosts, I'm interested in the "System" as a notion and a mystery, and the system of penal transportation which transplanted whole blocks of the "criminal classes" from one land to another. The task is to weave the story of crime and discovery around it. But as a character notes in The Raven's Seal, if you want to find who's guilty, first ask: "who profits?".

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Slow reading The Lord of the Rings, part 4

A change of scene for reading. A long vacation in New Zealand has given me the chance to advance through Book Five and the battle for Gondor and Minas Tirith. Landscape has a powerful influence of reading: no one who has lived in sight of or visited the Southern Alps of New Zealand can help but see them as the Misty Mountains. Every turn of the road presents a vista of Eriador or The Shire. The vineyards of Malborough are surely those of the Pelennor Fields. All these sights and memories rise in the imagination as I read in New Zealand.

But today I'm thinking about a particular incident: the journey of Aragorn and the Grey Company through the Paths of the Dead. I've thought and read before that Aragorn's journey in the Paths is similar to Gandalf's battle in the deeps of the world against the Balrog, a struggle through death towards rebirth. And so, to some extent, it is. But the Paths of the Dead are not Moria, and this is a journey that Aragorn chooses. To me, the Paths represent the accumulated weight of the past, the legacy and the debts that Aragorn must accept if he is to give up the freedom of Strider to become the King, returned. But just as all forests in Middle-earth are not idyllic but dark and threatening, so the past is sometimes fraught with memory, failure and fear. This is what Aragorn, alone, must bargain with and resolve.

But there is a price to pay, and the character of Aragorn seems to me to become flatter and more remote as the book proceeds. While acting as warrior-king and healer, we glimpse less of his inner life. He becomes less the character and more the symbol.

This is partly in contrast to Theoden, whose death is all the more shocking and moving because we understand the human complexity and vulnerability within the king.

But one thing is clear: although he drew on heroic modes of expression, Tolkien had no illusions about the battlefield. For all that his characters accomplish in war, the instances of blindness, disorientation and sheer terror are what stand out in this reading.