Blog

Troilus & Cressida: Time, Empire, & Feminism

Anton Lesser and Suzanne Burden star in the 1981 BBC adaptation of Troilus & Cressida.

Images courtesy of the BBC Shakespeare Collection

This is for Philippa Semper: an inspirational teacher whose lessons will never be confined to time’s oblivion, but will resonate on and on. 

Introduction

Shakespeare’s power partly resides in his ubiquity. He is a living embodiment of ‘all things to all people’. It is very difficult to ascertain Shakespeare’s own views from his plays because for every philosophical position put forward in dramatic monologue, another character, or even the same one, will often produce a position to counter it. As a result, Shakespeare has been interpreted and re-interpreted throughout history in a variety of different lenses, from Marxism to Fascism, from religious to anti-religious, from optimist to nihilist. This kind of ubiquity has at times worked against him, especially when we consider the phenomenon of what popular literary criticism refer to as his “problem plays”; plays that allegedly lack cohesion, or an ultimate “point”. However, we are increasingly coming to understand, with the scholarship of William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity being a case in point, that the ambiguity is, perhaps, precisely Shakespeare’s point.

Arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic play is Troilus & Cressida. Set during the Trojan war, and following events parallel in timeline to those of Homer’s Iliad, it cannot truly be called a History, as the events transpire in an age of ‘mythology’. Though the play is wrought with tragic and bleak overtones, neither Troilus nor Cressida actually die at the end of the play, which makes it hard to pin as tragedy. Lastly, though the play is full of comedy, mostly in the form of vicious satire, cynicism, and irony, it lacks the uplifting quality that defines Shakespeare’s other comedies such as Twelfth Night.

Troilus & Cressida has never been regarded as one of Shakespeare’s great plays. At least, certainly not by public audiences. But I think I am coming to the conclusion it is my favourite of all his work, precisely because it might be regarded as an “anti-play”, a deconstruction of his own dramatic tropes and heroic narrative. It is Shakespeare’s riposte to Homer, to Virgil, to Dante, to Marlowe, and what a riposte it is. As a writing coach, I believe there is an extraordinary amount we can learn from this confusing and ambiguous masterpiece. My analysis will, hopefully, shed some insight into why this play might be accounted among Shakespeare’s best work, and how we can learn to shape our own narratives using his techniques.

The title of this “essay”, if it can be called that, is Time, Empire, & Feminism. I intend to address these three core themes and how they interrelate.

Injurious Time

Kenneth Haigh (Achilles) & John Shrapnel (Hector) in the BBC adaptation of Troilus & Cressida (1981)

Perhaps the most explicit theme of Troilus & Cressida is time. Not only are there three key speeches pertaining to the nature of time, but the play is full to the brim of foreshadowing and anxieties about the future, from Cassandra’s baleful prophesying, to Ulysses’ taunts to Hector about the future of Troy.

The first key speech comes from Agamemnon (Leader of the Greek Armies, King of Kings, as it were). He bemoans the current state of military affairs in the Greek camp, saying that despite all they have done, and all the lives that have been lost: “after seven years’ siege yet Troy walls stand” (1.3.462). Seven years have gone by and nothing has really been achieved. In addition, the Greek camp is rotting from the inside. The soldiers are mutinous. Morale is low. There is little hope of progress. It is Ulysses that proposes a solution to shake things up and get their best men on the front lines again. He outlines that the problem is the disruption of the traditional hierarchy. In the past, this has been interpreted as Shakespeare advocating for “degree” and hierarchy, but given Ulysses is a proven-liar, and as deceitful as they come, rather it seems he is saying what he believes Agamemnon wants to hear. This is also a theme of Troilus & Cressida.

Nestor, the ancient advisor to Agamemnon, says that: “Most wisely hath Ulysses here discover’d / The fever whereof all our power is sick.” (1.3.591-592). However, I think this is incorrect, a lack of insight on Nestor’s part. The real problem is not the lack of respect for hierarchy, but rather time itself. Too much time has passed for anyone to care very much about Menelaus’ marriage to Helen (her betrayal being the cause of the whole war to begin with). Time naturally disintegrates and corrupts.

We see this confirmed in the second speech of the play, which comes from Ulysses in reply to Achilles. Achilles is upset that Agamemnon and the other commanders are no longer showing his respect. Ironically, Ulysses moves in to comfort Achilles, a premeditated tactic; Ulysses is the one to instigate the demotion of Achilles in the first place. Ulysses wants to get Achilles fighting again, and so he deploys a hearty dose of reverse psychology, inviting the commanders to send the message that we don’t need you.. Achilles laments, asking: “Are my deeds forgot?” (3.3.2020). Ulysses replies: “Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, / wherein he puts alms for oblivion, / a great-sized monster of ingratitudes;” (3.3.2021-2023).

In other words, time causes us to forget good deeds. None of our important actions matter, because in the long run, time will cause them to be forgotten. This commentary operates on a multitude of levels. Shakespeare is, in some ways, beginning to deconstruct the classical heroic literature. Ulysses is saying that Achilles’ good deeds will be forgotten. But the reverse is surely also true. We forget the bad deeds, and end up mythologising and deifying people who actually were not “good” or appropriate role models in any sense. The ending of Troilus & Cressida features a shocking twist, in which Achilles turns out not the be the warrior portrayed in Homer’s Iliad. In fact, at the end of the play, Achilles doesn’t defeat Hector in glorious single combat. Rather, whilst Hector is unarmed and without his armour, Achilles ambushes him, and gets his squad of thuggish Myrmidons to brutally murder him while he is weaponless and defenceless. There is no honour or glory in the act. Ulysses’ speech on time prepares us for this, because he invites us to consider what has been lost to time, and to question our heroes and whether we misremember them.

There is certainly a dialogue here with Shakespeare’s contemporary and role-model Marlowe going on. Marlowe’s most famous line of poetry was: “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burned the topless towers of Ilium” (Dr Faustus). It is a description of Helen of Troy, allegedly the most beautiful woman in the world. Marlowe also was made famous in his day for his two-part epic Tamburlaine The Great, a heroic narrative of a conqueror. Shakespeare’s own interpretation of war is very different. It is ugly, the province of liars and thugs. Here, he challenges Marlowe’s version of the heroic narrative and Trojan story. But it is not merely contemporaneous commentary. Shakespeare’s deconstruction of war was modernistic before modernism had even been dreamt of. In a strange way, like Cassandra, he foresaw the horrors and dishonour of modern warfare before it’d become a reality.

Ulysses’ speech also serves to foreshadow the fate of Cressida and Troilus, our central protagonists (or are they? Even this seems to be challenged to an extent). Troilus and Cressida have admired each other from afar for quite some time before the play even begins (again, we play with time in unusual ways, flaunting the “unity” of the Ancient Greeks). However, after some back and forth using the quixotic Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, as a messenger, they arrange a meet-up. If you are expecting a romantic encounter in the vein of Romeo & Juliet, you are in for a surprise. Cressida and Troilus’ encounter is overtly sexual. And while Troilus professes truth and beauty, it’s clear that the two intend to spend less time talking and more time in the bedroom. The language between the two is alive with sexual punnery, to the extent that the characters even remark upon their own euphemisms. Cressida asks Troilus to “Come you again into my chamber”. (4.2.2329) then realises what she has said: “You smile and mock me, as if I meant naughtily.” (4.2.2330). Apart from showing us that some things really do never change, Shakespeare is subtly beginning to challenge the idea of true romantic love.

It is a final irony that Cressida foreshadows her own infidelity by saying that if she is unfaithful, it will be remembered until “When time is old and hath forgot itself,” (3.2.1836). This is an oxymoronical paradox that frighteningly goes one step further than Ulysses’ speech, saying that not only can time make all things forget, but can forget itself. Does one sense that perhaps Cressida wants to be remembered? It seems to me that she experiences a kind of existential terror contemplating forgetfulness, and therefore seeks to immortalise herself through the despicable nature of her actions.

It’s intriguing that Cressida, after their first sexual liaison, is the one to ask: “Are you a-weary of me?” (4.2.2295), which Troilus firmly denies. However, this might well have been psychological projection on Cressida’s part. Troilus and Cressida are, tragically parted. The Greeks trade back a Trojan prisoner, and Cressida, who was born Greek, must be exchanged. No sooner have the lovers finally consummated their feelings, than they must be pulled apart. The timing is off, once again. They wasted time eyeing each other from afar, and now they have run out of time.

It’s here we get the third significant speech on time, by Troilus. It is, to my mind, perhaps one of the most agonising speeches ever rendered in the English language: “injurious time now with a robber’s haste/ Crams his rich thievery up, he knows not how: / As many farewells as be stars in heaven, /With distinct breath and consign’d kisses to them, / He fumbles up into a lose adieu, / And scants us with a single famish’d kiss, / Distasted with the salt of broken tears” (4.4.2472-2478). Here, time is portrayed as unjust (injurious) and a thief (a robber’s haste). Time is literally stealing from them: love, life, happiness. Shakespeare then, in true self-style, takes the simile one step further. The robber also steals their “farewells”. In other words, they do not even have time to say a proper goodbye. In exchange, he offers them a “famish’d kiss / distasted with the salt of broken tears”. By creating the neologism “distasted”, Shakespeare makes us taste the salty bitterness of the tears. This is also a classic example of one of Shakespeare’s mixed metaphors that a modern editor wouldn’t tolerate, but it is the mixed nature of the metaphor that grants it its power. Tears cannot be broken, of course, because they’re liquid. But, the fact the tears are “broken” suggests on a deeper spiritual level that they are not working. They are in some way dishonest or non-operational, meaning the grief is insincere and meaningless. Not only is the kiss “famished”, deficient and not fully satisfying, but it tastes bitter because of false tears. This is echoed by Pandarus’ comment: “Where are my tears?” (4.4.2483). He wonders why he cannot cry that the lovers are parted and that his own niece is going to be taken the Greek camp. The entire scene is cynical. Nothing is truly felt. Shakespeare may indeed be commenting on the nature of performance and acting in general, too.

Cressida has many extended monologues in this scene (Act IV Scene 4) that connote her grief at parting from Troilus. She also blames him repeatedly for not loving her by allowing them to part. Troilus is in a very difficult position, because the order has come directly from his own father, Priam, and his brothers, so to go against it would be to fight against his own blood. As I said before, Cressida seems to be projecting here, because no sooner is she out of Troilus’ sight, than she finds herself enjoying the sexual attentions of Patroclus (taking not one, not two, but three kisses from him) and then later Diomedes. She makes the same sexual pun to Diomedes as she did to Troilus: “Prithee, come” (5.2.3174). Cressida is inconstant. Troilus believes that it is time that has made her so: “never did young man fancy / With so eternal and so fix’d a soul” (5.2.3239-3240). In other words, Troilus regards himself as a constant and fixed point, therefore Cressida must have changed over time. However, it has been barely a day since they last saw each other. It is more likely that Cressida has always been superficial. She even warns him of it herself upon their first meeting. Troilus fails to listen to her. The theme of men not listening to women in Troilus & Cressida is something we’ll return to in Feminism.

Interestingly, it is Ulysses that reveals Cressida’s unfaithfulness to Troilus, and upon witnessing her unfaithfulness, Troilus proclaims that they must stay so that he can: “make a recordation to my soul / Of every syllable that here was spoke” (5.2.3188-3189). He wants to remember everything that Diomedes and Cressida said to one another. This is in direct contrast to Ulysses’ statement that time obliterates all memory.

Time is the great enemy in Troilus & Cressida. Or is it? Agamemnon blames time for the corruption of his men. Ulysses blames time for the forgetfulness of the generals. Troilus blames time for corrupting his Cressida. But ultimately, time doesn’t cause any of this. In fact, it is human frailty that causes all of these. Time is constant. Humans are inconstant. Time is the touchstone that equivocates and brings all of the dark deeds and secrets to light. Time, ironically, is not injurious at all. It is the fairest agent in the play.

End of Empires

Upon re-watching Troilus & Cressida I couldn’t help but think how startlingly it pertains to our own times. Most significantly, the political state of Britain. It is not my intention to turn this into a political monologue, but merely to observe how our times are not unprecedented, and in many ways, Shakespeare foresaw them in his own time.

Troilus & Cressida is, on the surface, about a war between two factions. One of the factions, the Greeks, have been stolen from. We shall return to this idea of “stealing” and “property” in the segment on Feminism, as I do believe that it is not Shakespeare’s intention to imply that women are property, but actually to challenge this abhorrent traditionally held notion in several striking ways. But on a basic level, Helen and Cressida have been stolen from the Greeks. Therefore, the Greeks have gone to war with Troy to win them back.

The Greeks are internally divided. They are in the midst of a crisis of leadership. Achilles will not fight, so who will rally their men? One is reminded, by the scheming of Agamemnon, Nestor, and Ulysses, of our own political machinations and smear-campaigns; the fragile leadership of the last few years seems exemplified in the posing Greeks. Achilles, essentially, is a diva. He isn’t getting enough attention, so he won’t fight. Agamemnon is incompetent and unimaginative, eager to abdicate responsibility to the bigger brain on the playground. Nestor is obsessed with the priority of his age. Menelaus is a loser, and no one cares what he thinks. They spend more time thinking about ways to snub each other than they do to solve the problem introduced by Agamemnon at the start of the play: that Troy’s walls still stand.

What is the central quandary of the Trojan generals? In Act II, Scene 2, Priam, Hector, Aeneas, Paris, Troilus, Cassandra and Helen are all gathered, debating whether to return Helen or continue to defend her. The room is split, with Troilus and Paris vote to continue to defend Helen, for the sake of honour. Whereas Hector and Priam are of the opinion that too much has been lost already, and that she should leave. Now, you can probably already see where I’m going with this. Their debate is strikingly reminiscent of the Remain / Leave narratives of modern times. The Leavers view the past seven years as a terribly heavy investment and that they should cut their losses by returning her. The Remainers are convinced that they should stand upon principle, whatever the cost and whatever the future might hold. What was the point in taking Helen in the first place if not to keep her? So, the room is divided, and the debate wages pointlessly on, until finally Hector is persuaded, using the honour argument, that they should keep Helen. His decision sways everyone else.

Of course, it is the wrong decision (I make no inference here about Brexit, merely within the context of Shakespeare’s play, it is clearly the wrong decision for Hector personally, and for the nation of Troy). As a result of this decision, Hector is killed, and, though this is not covered within the scope of the play, Troy is ransacked and burned to the ground. We know Troy’s fate because of numerous portrayals in classical literature (pretty much everyone in the West knows of the Trojan Horse, even today). The most famous portrayal of this fall might well be Virgil’s in his epic, The Aeneid; the opening chapters depict the heroic Aeneas saving the last survivors of Troy in order to flee and found a new country: Rome. It is worth me mentioning at this point that Aeneas is possibly the only person in the entirety of Troilus & Cressida whom Shakespeare portrays in a good light. Aeneas seems to be the only person who is authentically who he is. He deals with people fairly, and even covers for Troilus when he discovers Troilus and Cressida in bed together, despite the fact that the two are on opposite sides of the war, and he has no reason to defend Troilus’ reputation and honour. He stays away from politics, and focuses on making the best of a bad situation: defending his people.

This favourable portrayal is possibly due to the fact that Aeneas, as mythologically the “first Roman”, is someone whom Shakespeare feels indebted to, given that his chief inspirations were the writings of Ovid and the Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Terence. Shakespeare may well be paying a literary debt here by sparing Aeneas from his otherwise ubiquitous character-assassinations (Ulysses is a liar and cheat, Ajax is an imbecile, Achilles is a diva and coward, Menelaus is a cuck, Troilus is naive, Pandarus is a pander, Priam is doddery and senile, Hector is arrogant).

But to return to Troy’s fall, we see this foreshadowed numerous times. Ulysses taunts Hector, saying that:

“Sir, I foretold you then what would ensue:
My prophecy is but half his journey yet;
For yonder walls, that pertly front your town,
Yond towers, whose wanton tops do buss the clouds,
Must kiss their own feet.” (4.5.2841-2845)

Ulysses says that he has prophesied the towers will fall. There is a ghost of Marlowe’s mighty line here: the “topless towers” are echoed in “Yond towers, who wanton tops do buss the clouds”. There are several meanings to unpack. Shakespeare here rebukes Marlowe. His towers are described as “wanton”. In other words, they are phallic. They represent male arrogance, and imply Troy is a seat of sexual deviancy, which, from what we’ve seen, it is. They are not “topless” but “buss the clouds”. Like Babel, they attack the seat of the gods, which is in classical literature represented symbolically by the sky above us. If the towers are like Babel, it is inevitable they will fall. And here, I think we reach Shakespeare’s true insight. He understood that all empires must end. All towers, no matter how tall, must one day be brought down. In the West we believe that our empire will somehow remain eternally, but four-hundred years ago Shakespeare understood the truth that we deny: that one day even the greatest civilisations must end. All that’s required is time.

If you have any doubt about this, simply consider the image of the towers falling. The towers of our empire have already literally fallen, just as Ulysses predicted they would. The image he uses of “kissing their own feet” is a kind of profane act. To kiss someone’s feet is to honour and humble yourself before them. But to kiss your own feet is to humble yourself before yourself. It is a self-reflective act of collapsing inward. And, it must be observed, that all empires collapse from within before they collapse from without. Shakespeare’s Troy is a perfect example of this. Pandarus sleeps with young boys. Cressida and Troilus engage in extra-marital sexual liaisons, as do Helen and Paris. There is an air of corruption and iniquity that pervades every scene of the play.

We are left with a haunting image at the end of Troilus & Cressida that encapsulates this moral collapse: Pandarus wandering through the streets, dying of venereal disease. Rather than try to find a way to die nobly and in peace, Pandarus instead proclaims he will “bequeath” his “diseases” to find “eases”. In other words, he will sleep with as many people as possible to feel better and ease the pain, regardless of whether it passes on his STD. It is a repulsive and bleak image to end on. So, we see, collapse of empire is inevitable. Troy preceded Rome. Rome preceded Britain. Britain preceded America. The empire ends, something is salvaged from the ruins, and the cycle repeats.

Feminism

Helen (Ann Pennington) says nothing at Trojan Court. But perhaps she has a plan, as later interactions with Paris reveal.

It’s worth me noting at the start of this section that I am aware that, as a man, it is perhaps not my place to make statements about what feminism is or isn’t, nor is that my intention. However, it is impossible when viewing Troilus & Cressida not to see a pretty overt commentary on the nature of gender roles, and this commentary forms a core part of the play’s meaning and power. I’m sure that many other female scholars can take (or may have already taken) an even deeper look into what is really going on in this play. I’d invite any female writers to critique or counter my work, but I hope this will form a useful starting point in terms of broad strokes.

Throughout Troilus & Cressida there is a narrative of ownership. During the scene in Act II, Scene 2, Helen is spoken about as though she is property. Though she is present in the room, she utters not one word. The men do the talking for her, deciding what to do with her. Return her, or keep her. Throughout the play, the idea of women as property is returned to. It is returned to so often that it almost seems to be like the men have a kind of obsession or deeper anxiety about the issue. In fact, were Shakespeare an out and out misogynist, which some scholars have claimed he is, I’m not sure he would have mentioned the idea of women as property as often as he does – it would instead be implicit. Clearly, then, it is intentional and thematic. He is drawing our attention to something important.

Cressida “belongs” to Troilus, but no sooner does he “possess” her, than she is returned to the Greek camp. When Troilus witnesses her infidelity, he says: “This she? no, this is Diomed’s Cressida” (5.2.3211). In other words, this isn’t her, this is the version of her that belongs to Diomedes. The reality is, however, that Cressida doesn’t belong to anyone. When Cressida wishes to give Diomedes her scarf, she then decides to take it back. He then insists and takes it from her by force (she says he “snatches” it from her). She then says: “Well, well, ’tis done, ’tis past: and yet it is not; / I will not keep my word.” (5.2.3163-3164). In other words, he can have the scarf, but he doesn’t have her. Diomedes is obsessed with the origin of the scarf. He wants to know “whose it was” (5.2.3153). Like a man purchasing a car, he wants to know its sales history. Her sales history. Who owned you before?

When the men realise that they don’t own the women in this play, they quite literally go insane. Troilus suffers a complete psychological break with reality. First, he denies that he ever saw Cressida. This is psychosis 101. “Was Cressid here?” (5.2.3197). Even though Ulysses assures him she was, Troilus won’t believe him: “She was not, sure” (5.2.3199). Next, he enters a state of complete doubt and paralysis. Like Schroedinger, he proposes that: “this is, and is not, Cressid” (5.2.3220). He cannot resolve the dichotomy in his head. He believed her to be one person, to belong to him, so when she acts counter to that, it shatters his worldview. Finally, Troilus transfers blame to Diomedes: “as much as I do Cressid love, / So much by weight hate I her Diomed” (5.2.3241-3242). This is preposterous, but all-too-believable. He cannot deal with the fact that Cressida has chosen another over him, cannot give her agency in the matter, so he blames the man / rival lover. In short, Shakespeare shows the fragility of male ego. Four hundreds years before #maleegosofragile, Shakespeare portrayed the instability of male psyche.

We see a deeper exploration of gender roles in the character of Pandarus. Pandarus describes Cressida as “such a woman!” (1.2.407). Yet, this is deeply ironic, as he embodies far more of the stereotypical negative traits of women that Cressida. I should say, for the record, that I do not believe women innately possess these traits nor wish to encourage negative stereotypes. I merely mean to observe that negative stereotypes about women exist, and Shakespeare, in a stroke of irony, transfers these traits to Pandarus, a man, in order to deconstruct our traditional views of gender roles. Pandarus likes to sleep with young men, for a start. He is a gossip. In the scene where Cressida and himself watch the Trojan procession, he defames the character of virtually every member of the royal household, including Paris (he describes him as “dirt”) and even Hector himself. The only two he spares are Aeneas (again, spared the satire) and Troilus, which is for the specific reason that he is trying to set up a match between the two. Pandarus is a gossip, and a match-maker, two traits often associated with women.

He is also two-faced. We derive the verb to pander from Pandarus’ name. He is synonymous with the art of telling people what they want to hear. Men are always accusing women of being two-faced, yet Pandarus is worst for this. In Act III, Scene 1, he calls Helen “Sweet Queen” when he has spent the majority of the play dissing her in front of anyone who will listen, including her own servants. It is interesting that we learn later that Cressida already “loves” Troilus, or at least is attracted to him, though she affects disinterest in front of Pandarus. Yet, Pandarus seems to have her sussed, as he sings Troilus’ praises to the heavens: again, exactly what she wants to hear. Later, however, in a private aside to the audience when observing the infatuation of Paris and Helen, Pandarus vituperously remarks: “Is this the generation of love? hot blood, hot / thoughts, and hot deeds? Why, they are vipers” (3.1.1617-1618). He compares the lovers to vipers, quite in contrast to his unctuous praises of a few moments ago. We can also read more deeply in this. When he says “generation”, the term seems to refer to a broader selection of people than just Paris and Helen. He is also referring to Troilus and Cressida, then. Despite all his affections, he regards them as snakes. Ironically, it is Pandarus who is the snake, whispering in Cressida’s ear about Troilus’ glory in order to set the two up.

For what purpose does he set them up? This is a classic example of Shakespeare’s missing motives. Or rather, not missing, but not emphatically stated. Perhaps the most famous example of this would be Iago’s motivations in Othello, which remain mysterious even after he is subjected to torture. Pandarus, similarly, seems to have very little personal motivation for securing a liaison between the lovers. I would argue it is possibly his own vicarious sexual gratification. He earlier remarks that: “I could live and die i’ the / eyes of Troilus” (1.2.392). The eyes are repeatedly used in Troilus & Cressida as a signifier of sexual desire. After Cressida betrays Troilus, she says: “Minds sway’d by eyes are full of turpitude” (5.2.3181). Turpitude is a synonym for transgression, suggesting sexual perversion. There is strong evidence of Pandarus’ homosexual leanings toward Troilus, then. But also, possibly, toward his own niece. Earlier, he watches their foreplay and observes Troilus’ kissing technique (with disdain). Following Troilus and Cressida’ first sexual hook-up, he enters their bedroom asking: “hast not slept to-night? would he not, a naughty / man, let it sleep?” (4.2.2324-2325). He wants to know the juicy details of their liaison. In fact, his dialogue seems more fitting for a pimp than an uncle.

Pandarus asks Cressida: “Do you know a man if you see him?” (1.2.217). He is questioning her judgement of a “real man”, and trying to infer she is expressing the wrong preference. However, this is also Shakespeare making us question gender. Do we truly “know a man” from sight alone? Pandarus seems a man, but in fact he is more typically feminine than any other character in the play (again, I do not believe that these stereotypes are true, merely than Shakespeare chooses to transfer what were believed as feminine traits onto a man). Cressida seems a woman, but in fact not only is she being played by a male actor on stage (at least in Shakespeare’s day), but she is also typically masculine in her sexual aggression, her conquest of multiple sexual partners, and her lack of remorse for betraying her lover. Cressida really is more of a “man”, in the ugly stereotypical sense, than Troilus. We see this in the fact of her original unwillingness to show her affection to Troilus or Pandarus. Men are notorious for feigning a lack of interest in women in order to appear more attractive by virtue of inaccessibility; playing hard to get, as it were. Cressida does the same: “Then though my heart’s content firm love doth bear, / Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.” (1.2.446-447).

In fact, Cressida “wish’d myself a man, Or that we women had men’s privilege” (3.2.1777-1778). Cressida recognises the gender inequality and wishes it were rectified. But it also hints that she herself identifies in some way as male. The example of such “privilege” she gives is the fact that men have the right of “speaking first” (3.2.1779). It is interesting, then, that up until this point in the play, the women have all spoken second. Except one: Cassandra. Cassandra is, in the classical sources Shakespeare draws from, a prophet. However, due to her relationship with Apollo, she is cursed to never be believed. Cassandra is the only woman to speak first in a scene before the reversal takes place. Where Helen remains silent throughout the Trojan debate in Act II Scene 2, Cassandra speaks and declares that if Helen is not returned, disaster will befall Troy. We, as an audience, know she is right, because we know the story of Troy. However, Cassandra is dismissed by the men and described as “mad” by Troilus. I do not think that these are a series of coincidences. Shakespeare is highlighting the problem of men refusing to let women take control, and refusing to listen to them when they speak.

An even more powerful example of this is in the fate of Hector. In Act 5 Scene 3, Hector is warned by two women that if he goes out to fight, he will certainly die. Andromache, his wife, is the first to warn him. Interestingly, she does speak first in this scene – with the first line of dialogue. The tables of gender priority have turned by the end of the play. She says: “Unarm, unarm, and do not fight to-day” (5.3.3279). The next to warn Hector is Cassandra. Cassandra is Hector’s sister, so there is even a blood-tie here. At one moment, it seems he might be swayed, but then Troilus enters, hot for battle because of his humiliation at the hands of Diomedes and Cressida. Hector listens to Troilus, even though it’s clear Troilus is not in his right mind. Troilus even threatens to kill Hector if he should stand in his way of going to battle. But Hector prioritises the male judgement over the female.

This taps into another stereotype that I believe Shakespeare is challenging: that women are irrational. Troilus, here, is the irrational one, acting purely on emotion without logic. It is Cassandra and Andromache who argue from a perspective of logic: Hector is a rallying point for Trojans, a tactical genius, as well as an inspirational leader and figurehead (Cassandra calls him the “crutch” of Troy). If he dies, too much is lost. They shouldn’t risk him, even if honour is at stake. Hector doesn’t care. He goes out anyway. He dies and Troy is doomed.

Troilus & Cressida is in many ways a study in the consequences of what happens when men do not listen to women, and when men try to objectify and “possess” women. The answer is: total collapse and calamity, both physical and psychological.

Conclusion

Troilus & Cressida is perhaps Shakespeare’s least admired play, after Titus Andronicus. It is rarely performed. However, I would argue that if it is not his best play, it is certainly his most modern. He deconstructs heroism, romantic love, gender roles, and notions of empire. He gives voice to women, and then shows us the harrowing consequences of ignoring them. He puts lies in the mouths of oligarchs, and then shows their empires crashing down around them. He shows us that regardless of human capacity for self-deceit, time will be the great arbiter of all our sins. Troilus claims that his name will become synonymous with truth. Cressida, with falsity. The play should not then be called Troilus & Cressida, but rather, Truth & Deception. It is tragic – and perhaps a little Shakespearean – that the import and power of these themes has, as Ulysses predicted, been forgotten within the oblivion of time.

With special thanks to Jonathan Bates.

Blog

The Cathedral of the Deep Part 3: The Gothic Ending

And we’re back! Like a slippery thing from the grave, the Cathedral of the Deep series returns for its third installment. Thank you to everyone who sent me kind messages about these talks; it was wonderful to hear how the classes had benefited writers and helped them finish stories they were struggling with, or given them ideas for new stories!

To recap, in parts one and two of this talk, we looked at how we can define Gothic, and how to write a Gothic opening, respectively. We covered the four key elements of Gothic: mood, architecture, religion, and lyricism. We also looked at opening lines, and how they work in relation to the rest of a piece. We also looked at the five act structure.

Today, we will specifically be looking at endings, which is the fifth act of the five act structure: catharsis. Catharsis is something that is quite difficult to grasp without a concrete definition. The Oxford dictionary defines it as: “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” The secondary definition is “purgation”. I think the word “release” is most helpful here. Catharsis is the moment of “release” at the end of a film, poem, story, piece of music, whatever the medium is. We have experienced something terrible, something that has taken a hold of us, and then are freed from it, often through tears.

Now, in order to talk about catharsis and endings, I’m going to need to talk about plot, so inevitably I’m going to be spoiling certain shows, books, and stories. There’s no way around it. So, steel yourselves friends! Spoilers are coming!

LOSS & GAIN

Before we can talk about catharsis, we need to talk more broadly about how endings work. I’m going to give you one of my best-ever pieces of advice for ending a story – any story. It’s from Tristine Rainer’s book Your Life As Story, where she says: the definition of a climax is that something is lost so something can be gained. It should be noted that this doesn’t have to be literal. For example, in a Romantic Comedy, a character’s pride might die so that they can become a better person and their love might live. In Fantasy novels and films, often one of the heroes must make a sacrifice and give their own life so that others might live and return home after their adventures to a joyful and healed world. To use a Gothic example: Dracula is the epitome of this. The heroic American Quincy P. Morris perishes in the final assault on Dracula, giving his life so that the curse of Dracula might be abated. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff must lose his sight (the distractions and corruption of appearances and social ideals) in order to truly find love with the one who is right for him: Catherine.

It is vitally important that the ending has both something lost and something gained. Often, when endings “don’t work”, it’s because the balance is wrong. Nothing is lost, but the heroes all manage to save the day without a single consequence. There’s no threat, there’s no significance, there’s no reality. Or, the other way, where everything is lost, and the gain is so minimal that it is meaningless. Increasingly, with the advent of modernist ideologies and criticism of heroic narrative, films are looking to the “hopeless ending”. The recent horror movie Hereditary is one such example, although there is arguably a small nugget of “gain” in that the daughter, Charlie, realises her true purpose in the world. However, in my view it does not land with the sledgehammer of emotional resonance for this reason: The balance is wrong.

There is a phrase I hear a lot among my fellows which is: “The movie earned that ending”. I like it a lot, because it exactly encapsulates this ending theory: you have to pay a price to gain something.

Exercise 1.1

So, when you are thinking about your short story, or whatever project it is (and it even works for music – though they call it “counterpoint”, and it is to do with the relationship between harmony and disharmony), ask yourself this important question: what is lost so what can be gained?

Create a table, with two columns, one entitled “loss” and the other “gain” and make a full list of everything in your narrative that is lost and gained. Now ask yourself whether the balance is right. If you are going for a bleaker, darker story: then more needs to be lost. If you are going for a more up-beat story, then more needs to be gained.

FRAMES & STAGES

So, now that we know this foundation, how can we take this one step further and use this to elicit emotional release? Killing off a beloved character is not a guarantee of emotion by any stretch. Think of how poorly the fifth Harry Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix, rendered the death of Sirius Black in contrast with the books. In the novel, I felt his death (which is the cathartic moment of that book) like a stab wound to the chest. In the films, it was laughable, a side-note. There are many reasons, some technical and some broad, about why the execution was flawed, but the primary one is that the balance was not framed right. Gothic endings, indeed any ending, needs what I call a frame. This is the window through which you are seeing the ending, it is the lens you have placed over your cinematic camera as well as the positioning of the camera itself.

If you imagine the events of your story as transpiring in a mysterious other world, which can only be glimpsed through a window, the window and its frame is how this vision of another world is presented to you. Through another window, things might look quite different. This applies, of course, to the whole story, in one sense, but it is specifically relevant to the end. The other way I think of this is not as a frame but as a stage. If your ending was being performed dramatically (for some of you reading this it may be literally true) then how would it be staged? What type of stage would it be set on? I will be looking at these stages and frames, particularly ones relevant to Gothic, and talking about how they work.

This is not to suggest that this list compiles every ending known to human kind or possible. Of course, there are variations, anomalies, and infinite complexity within (and without) of the framework, but these will certainly help you get started and thinking about your ending. When you have mastered how these work, you can then subvert them for your own end.

THE MIRROR

In True Detective’s iconic first season, there are many complex losses and gains. The killer, in one sense, is lost, which gains closure for many characters and us as followers of the investigation. Rust’s nihilism is lost, which gains a newfound spirituality and hope. The resentment between Rust and his partner Marty is lost – they forgive one another – so their friendship might live. The list goes on, which is why it is so powerful. The moment of catharsis is achieved by having the seemingly invincible, inscrutable, unshakeable Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) finally break down with the realisation that there is a life after death and his daughter is waiting for him there with “nothing but that love” – in other words, she has forgiven him. He expects enmity and blames himself for her death – it is what’s haunted him his whole life – but the realisation of this love, something positive after the seemingly endless bleakness of his world, breaks him. In watching his release of emotion, we as an audience are triggered, and our buried emotions are released. This frame is what I call the mirror. We witness the moment of catharsis and are moved ourselves. Rust’s loss of hopelessness, by realising there is hope in life after death, is directly tied in to the moment of cathartic narrative and emotional release, which is why it works so beautifully.

Shakespeare often uses the mirror. For example, the ending of Hamlet (which I consider a Gothic play) shows us Hamlet’s death in the arms of his one true friend, possibly even lover depending on interpretation, Horatio. Horatio’s profound grief, and the sense of someone truly magnificent needlessly lost, is what moves us to tears. Hamlet himself is seemingly at peace: “The rest is silence”, but it is Horatio’s sorrow: “Goodnight sweet prince” which rouses such catastrophic emotion within us. Horatio is the everyman whom we can relate to. As audience members, we recognise ourselves in him. He tries to guide Hamlet and curb his madness, frustrated by his irrationality and procrastination. In showing us a broken Horatio, we see the mirror of ourselves, our sense of hopelessness. The gain at the end of Hamlet is, of course, diplomatic unity and the avenging of his father, but there is also a tragically small gain in that we feel Hamlet can finally know peace from his own raging thoughts.

THE SECRET

This is a subtle, subtle frame that is very difficult to pull off. The most successful example of it of recent years is the film Calvary, which starred Brendan Gleeson. This masterful film, which depicts the final days of a priest who is told, in the confession box, he will be killed in seven days, is one of the most profoundly moving I have seen in a long time (it might even be my favourite film). This film is very low budget, carried by its brilliant actors and poetic script, which probes the nature of sin, suffering, detachment, and, of course, God. Increasingly, one feels the despair of being a person of God in our modern world, which is so without values or dignity. Yet, the brilliance of the film is the courage the humble priest shows in the face of such mind-breaking adversity, and his compassion even for those that spit at him. There is also an element of who-dunnit, about it, as we try to work out who the killer might be.

The ending of the film is deceptively powerful. The priest, after contemplating running away, decides to meet his fate as Christ did. He confronts the killer on the beach, and is shot dead. Following his death, there is a slow reel of all the people in the village whom the priest has interacted with. We see that the adulterers are still committing adultery, the money launderers still stealing, the world unchanged. The final scene is the priest’s daughter, about to speak to her father’s killer (who is now in prison), weeping as she remembers her fathers words, which are that “forgiveness is underrated”. You might, quite rightly, be asking, what in the name of Hell is gained here? The priest dies, the killer is arrested, nobody learns anything. Except, that is what we learn as an audience. We are witnesses to something momentous and awe-inspiring: an act of sacrifice for people who do not actually care. This is the “unsung hero” narrative. The hero has saved everyone, but nobody knows or cares. He has saved them, died for them as Christ did, despite their ingratitude. That is the breathtaking nobility of the film. The priest loses his life, so that we might gain an understanding of what true human courage is. I call this frame the secret, because it is almost as if the story has shared a secret with the audience, something not even the characters can see.

A good example from the literary world is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. In this book, the hero Jake Epping travels back through time in order to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Eventually, he realises it is impossible to accomplish this without un-seaming the universe. The problem is that he has fallen in love with a high school teacher, Sadie, in that previous timeline, but he must give up that love to fix the world. There is a terrible, heart-rending scene at the end of the book where Jake goes to visit Sadie in his own current (and now fixed) timeline; Sadie is in her 80s and has no memory of Jake, but she experiences a strange sensation that she might know him. The two share a dance. It is an incredible scene that reduced me to floods of tears when I first read it, and it is this powerful because we sense just how much is lost: the future they should have, by rights, shared together. It is also heart-rending because no one can ever know what Jake has been through and how much he has given up to, quite literally, save the world. This is the secret. Only we, the Constant Readers, and perhaps Jake, are privy to all the facts of the case that means we can experience this cathartic moment.

THE TRANSFERENCE / THE CURSE

This is in some ways similar to the secret except that the knowledge/ revelation is passed from one character in the story to another. One of the most iconic and easiest examples of this is: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The poem details an encounter between a young and naive wedding guest and the eponymous mariner. The mariner, cursed to wander the land forever telling his bleak, harrowing tale, accosts the wedding guest and tells him his story. At the end of the story, it tells us that the wedding guest goes to bed and “a sadder and a wiser man / he rose the morrow morn”. In other words, though the mariner is still cursed to repeat his tale, the wedding guest has learned from the experience, and the transference of knowledge has had a positive effect. This is highly cathartic, as we realise that someone else’s suffering is another’s learning, and that while the mariner is doomed and a “fixed point”, others can still avoid his tragic fate.

Another great example of this is Frankenstein. I mentioned in part two of the Cathedral of the Deep that Frankenstein uses a framed narrative, couching Victor Frankenstein’s bitter tale within the journals of a seafarer in the Artic, the “Genevese” noble. It is the Genevese noble who is changed by hearing the tale of Frankenstein, and who goes forward into their life with a new sense of perspective.

It is also possible to subvert this ending by making the transference a “curse” that is passed on to the next generation. This is a classic 80s horror cinematic trope. Evil is seemingly defeated, but in actuality, the curse is merely transferred on to the next person. This can be cathartic as well (catharsis can come from downer endings too). For example, the ending of something like Kubrick’s The Shining, which shows us Jack Torrance has “always been here” at the hotel, is a cathartic moment, because it implies some deeper history behind the psychological breakdown. Is the entire film, in fact, from the perspective of Danny Torrance, who is feeling the dirty secrets of the hotel through his psychic sensitivity? Or did Jack Torrance have some undisclosed history at the hotel which is glimpsed at the end? Is Jack the subject of some kind of curse – transferred to him by the other dark spirits that speak to him when he is in captivity in the store room? There are no straight answers (although perhaps Mr King thinks differently!), but it is certainly that final shot that completes the film and draws together the dissonant elements into a well of emotion and release.

THE CRUX / SCALES

This frame works particularly well for short stories and movies, but not so well for novels or longer cinematic forms (such as a television series). This essentially is when you build to a climactic moment, a crux, where everything hangs in the balance, and then you end at that moment. This might sound like you are cheating the reader / audience of an ending, but in actual fact, if you have set up enough of the dominoes, the reader will have already drawn their own conclusions on how it is going to turn out, and it is in feeling this sense of climax, of everything weighed (hence the scales), that they feel the emotion. The reason it does not work with long forms is that when you, as a reader, have invested so much time, you cannot leave it to chance. Too much uncertainty here will break the story’s spell and create anger and discord. But for short forms, the ambiguity, what some coaches call “negative capability”, will work in your favour.

So, let’s look at an example. John Carpenter’s The Thing ends on what some people consider a cliff-hanger, but I consider it a perfect example of a crux or scales ending. At the conclusion of the film, there are two survivors, Childs (Keith David) and MacReady (Kurt Russel), sitting in the snow, watching their facility, and any hope of getting out of the Arctic wastes, burn to the ground. They have the following exchange:

Childs: Fire’s got the temperature up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.

MacReady: Neither will we.

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Childs: If you’re worried about me…

MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.

Childs: Well, what do we do?

MacReady: Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while… see what happens?

As a viewer, we realise there are two possibilities: either the Thing is dead and they are both going to die out in the cold, or one of them is the Thing, and everything is in jeopardy, because it means at some point the Thing will be dug up and the cycle will start again. There is no definitive answer as to what the reality of the situation is (and it has been hotly debated for years), but that is not the point. The film ends on this ominous, bleak note. Yet, there is an immense catharsis in this. We realise at this moment what the movie is really about, which is paranoia. If we look past the shape-shifting body-horror elements, we can see that this is a movie about suspecting those close to us, being unsure of everything we know, and how doubt can tear apart even the strongest and most disciplined people.

Another famous example, though perhaps less Gothic, is the 60s movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. At the end, we do not really see what happens to the pair, we are left on a moment of heroic confrontation, where they stand up together to impossible odds. It is left to our imaginations exactly how that showdown goes down, although we can be fairly certain both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid are slain. If they had showed us the conclusion, a slow motion shot of them being gunned down, it would have been piteous and melodramatic. By holding back, leaving us on the crux moment where everything hangs in the balance, we feel the emotion of it all the more powerfully. This technique taps into the power of human imagination too. Our own version of what happens when that door bursts open will actually always be better than anything they could show us.

 

X

So, those are four frames which you can use to elicit catharsis for your Gothic ending, along with a foundation of loss & gain to weight it and make it land, to “earn” it. To recap, we have: the mirror, where you show the reader a mirror of themselves, the secret, where something is accomplished beyond the knowledge of the characters, the transference, where tragic knowledge is passed on, and the crux, where we end at a moment of climactic confrontation. There are many more frames, but I have gone on long enough, so these are perhaps best reserved for another essay

Exercise 1.2

Choose one frame and re-write your story through this prism. How does it change things? Do you need to add characters or take away certain scenes? Has it improved the overall emotional resonance of the scene?

X

Thank you so much for coming this far. I hope that this class has been of use to you. We’ve now reached the end of Part 3. I really enjoyed writing up these notes from my seminar, and I hope they are of use to you in some way. Thanks very much for taking the time to read it, it means a lot to me. In the future, there may be further classes, with more frames and techniques, depending on interest. If you do want more, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter.

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!

Blog

Good Writers Turn Weaknesses Into Strengths

So often we talk about what good writers do well. Or what bad writers do badly. Or to perhaps be more even-handed: what makes good or bad pieces of writing what they are. We rarely talk about the sometimes chronic weaknesses even the greatest writers exhibit or how they turn these seemingly inhibitive habits or traits into some of the strongest aspects of their work. I think this is one of the most fascinating topics, and examining it can help us less well-known writers improve dramatically. Half of becoming good at anything, after all, is learning how to play to your strengths, and fight the battle on your terms. If you were facing off against someone in a boxing match, and they had an incredibly swift jab, it would be a mistake to try and punch faster than them. Rather, you might find another way around, perhaps maintaining a good distance so their jabs are useless, or else waiting for the jab to come before making any kind of offensive manoeuvre so you can catch it with a parry. The same applies to writing. Whilst we can always work on and improve our weaknesses, sometimes it is also pertinent to steer the writing away from areas we might struggle with.

Let’s start with the one-and-only Stephen King.

Stephen King, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, is perhaps the greatest Horror writer alive today, and one of the most successful novelists of all time. His trademark is his compulsive un-put-downable prose style that drags you into its undercurrent like a vindictive ocean. However, despite King’s penchant for thrilling narrative and terrifying scenes, he is surprisingly indirect when it comes to unfolding his story. In fact, he loves to meander, sometimes going into literally hundreds of pages of sidebar for the sake of setting up his characters. For example, in 11.22.63, it is almost 250 pages, a third of the book, before we get to the main thrust of the narrative, in which our time-travelling protagonist meets the beautiful school-teacher Sadie back in the 60s. Imagine any other romantic novel in which the love interest was introduced so late… In The Stand, similarly, it is something like 600 pages before we even have all the heroes gathered in Boulder in order to prepare for the confrontation with Randall Flagg. Part of this is King’s self-professed discovery writing, feeling his way into the story by remaining emotionally true to his characters rather than planning his narrative arcs out at length. Another part of this, at least in my opinion, is that he is simply in love with his characters and cares more about their everyday humdrum than you might expect from a writer of fantasy.

You’d think that this tendency to get sidetracked, especially for a writer of genre fiction that necessitates a degree of plot and pace, would be career-crippling, but on the contrary, King has made it into a strength in many ways. Firstly, he uses these sidebars to build tension, which is essential for any Horror writer. He plants a seed of something sinister in our minds, then meanders off onto another topic: perhaps a mechanic fixing a car, or a kid playing with a paper boat in the rain, leaving us with this slowly growing dread as we sense something brooding out of the corner of our eye, something the ‘camera lens’ of the narrative refuses to focus on. Secondly, he uses it to deepen his characters so that we care. King said that horror is “rooted in sympathy” and so by taking his time to set up the people in his story and drawing us into their worlds, he makes the Horror, the tragedy, the tension all so much realer when we get to it. All good Horror movies, in fact almost any movie with real high-stakes storytelling, has to have that set up, that golden period before everything goes wrong. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best examples of this. Think how much time we spend in the Shire at the start of the book and films, how disproportionate it might seem in comparison with all the other important stuff that comes later and is so key to the narrative. But, without that time in the Shire and all the details of Bilbo’s birthday and this ludicrously pleasant and peaceful way of life, we cannot understand what is at stake, and even deeper, what Frodo must lose at the end.

Awareness is key. King is aware of what his genre requires and aware of his own style and his preferred way of writing it. What he’s done is found a way to draw the two together. He has made discovery writing and a habit of fleshing out seemingly mundane scenes into the perfect tool for creating intense horror.

Let’s look at another writer with a very different kind of weakness.

J. R. R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth and its many languages, acclaimed Oxford scholar, author of The Lord of the Rings and numerous other best-selling works, has been accused time and again of simplistic storytelling. Michael Moorcook wrote a devastating essay on the topic in which he accused The Lord of the Rings as being no more stylistically worthy than Winnie the Pooh. It is perhaps for this reason that The Lord of the Rings has never been academically acclaimed, despite its enduring popularity, its mythological dimensions, and its undeniable power. Only now is The Lord of the Rings being studied at Universities in the UK but I would argue it is the very simplicity of Tolkien’s language that proves the driving strength of his narrative, and that gives it the incredible emotional payoff. Tolkien, it must be remembered, was an extraordinarily academic person, an expert in languages. He had an immense vocabulary at his disposal, however, he chose deliberately to write in a childlike, innocent way, forgoing long Latinate words that many of his Modernist contemporaries favoured and instead using the humbler Anglo-Saxon words as his foundation. What emerges is a prose-style that is unlike any other, and quite simply heartbreaking in its innocence.

Naivety is something publishers often reject upcoming writers about (I’ve been rejected for it myself) and the success of gritty stories such as Martin’s Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire as the book series is called) reinforces this view that we want more violence, more sex, more horror, more realism. Tolkien, however, defies the idea that readers/viewers want gratuity, turning what might appear to be naivety into an astonishing purity, something so intertwined with the narrative that the story would literally have been impossible to tell without it. Think, for a moment, what The Lord of the Rings might have been like if halfway through we were treated to a graphic sexual scene between Aragorn and Arwen because “that’s what couples do”? Actually, it’s probably not wise for me to ask this question of the internet; invariably this has already been pictured at great length in some dark corner of the web… but you see what I’m saying about how that kind of grittiness would destroy the beauty and myth of their relationship?

The final scene at the Grey Havens is so moving because of the elegiac simplicity of the prose, as well as the simplicity of the story itself. Frodo and Sam’s relationship is heartwarmingly true, truer than almost any other friendship in the history of fiction, and so to see it ended, when seemingly nothing should now stand in the way of them growing old together, is almost unbearably sad. But then there is also hope, hope that Frodo might finally find rest. The Christian message at the end is pretty unmissable – and is another reason The Lord of the Rings comes under fire from the likes of Moorcock – but Tolkien here exposes, at least to my mind, a profound truth: regardless of what our rational beliefs are, any sane person desires that catharsis, that hope for something beyond death, beyond parting with loved ones, beyond the sorrow of the world, beyond pain and grief. People of extraordinarly widely ranging beliefs are still moved by what George R. R. Martin called the “bittersweet” ending of LOTR, and I think its because Tolkien taps in to how desperately we crave this better world, even if we think it’s fantasy.

Tolkien was no stranger to grittiness. He fought in World War I and returned home with trench-fever and shellshock, taking nearly a year to recover. He lived through World War II also. He was one of the last British soldiers ever to ride a horse into battle (and now you see why those cavalry scenes are so well done). He knew about grittiness, and there are moments where we get hints of it, such as when Frodo and Sam sit on the “blasted heath”, within view of Mordor, listening to the sound of fatal drumming in the distance. Does this sound like a soldier waiting on the hill, listening to bombs dropping in the distance? Less can be more, and Tolkien certainly makes it so. Tolkien’s prose has far broader appeal in some ways because it is less graphic. We populate the battle scenes with our own sense of what fighting looks like (although with the advent of the films we now most likely visualise these scenes). We populate the romance with our own degree of intimacy. And we feel the story at the deep level of a childhood fable, one that sticks with us and shapes us for all time.

Whereas King uses his “weakness” to enhance the effects he’s trying to achieve and work within his genre, Tolkien used his “weakness” to resonate on a deeper emotional level.

I’m now going to go back even further back in time and talk about the legendary poet John Milton.

This weakness, I believe, did not so much derive from the writing itself but from his personal circumstances.

Milton wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost published in 1667, depicting the war in heaven and the fall of human kind at the hands of Satan, who is, bizarrely, the hero of the narrative (or one of them). Milton is sort of going out of vogue at the moment. His writing could be described as a polar opposite to Tolkien: Latinate, extravagant, borderline bombastic. His language is difficult to access for those who have not read Greek and Roman literature, and he re-tells a Christian story in a very explicitly Christian way. Or so it seems. I actually believe the perception of Milton as a “stuffy academic” is completely false, because Paradise Lost ripples with sensual subversion, scenes of haunting sexual and violent intensity, and problematic morality. For one thing, Satan is a figure of empathy in the story, one who heroically defies the tyrannical God, using every ounce of his cunning to subvert the natural course of the universe and bring humanity to its knees. Is this the work of someone enamored of the status-quo? Methinks not.

As it stands, I do not believe that Milton’s taste for high-styling and complex writing was his weakness at all, though some would argue this was the case. Instead, I would argue it was something simpler and more overt: Milton was blind. Partway through writing Paradise Lost, he lost his sight. At the key moment, when he most needed vision, he was unable to see. For most writers, this would have proved a fatal blow. How could you compose poetry without the ability to see the text in front of you, or, to look out into the natural world and draw inspiration? But Milton found the strength to go on, and, helped by his daughter who transcribed his spoken composition, he finished the work. In the below extract from Book III of Paradise Lost, we see how Milton breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader about the absence of his sight and calling on God and the angels to give him a different kind of sight, an inner vision. Effectively, he kindles his own imagination, knowing that he can no longer draw on the world around him in the same way:

Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature’s works to mee expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

In this astonishingly moving extract we see quite clearly how Milton turned his disadvantage into an advantage. He dispensed with the real and conjured pure imaginative thought. I think it’s fairly safe to say, like it or not, that he succeeded. Paradise Lost is one of the most richly vivid, visual, image-laden pieces of writing ever produced.

So, there you have it. Three writers who, in very different ways, turned their very weaknesses into astonishing triumphs of power and imagination.

Let’s open it up! What weaknesses do you think certain writers have and how do they overcome them? Let’s keep it respectful, peaceful and interesting; looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Au revoir,

Like what you read here? Why not follow @josephwordsmith for more updates and content. You can check out The Mindflayer’s publishing venture 13Dark on Facebook or Twitter. For his books, go to Amazon.

 

Blog

NEKYIA Nominated for Guardian’s “Not The Booker Prize”

Hello everyone,

It’s been a while.

Life, or rather, “the things we do to survive so we can do the things we love”, gets in the way.

But, we keep on fighting, keep on creating, because at a fundamental level we are called and it is what we were always meant to do. And though it’s hard, and months and years can go by without it ever seeming there will be a break for us, once in a while, there is. Patience really is a virtue, and even though it has its own special colloquialism, it’s still underrated.

Recently, I got a break. It’s more symbolic than anything else, but it meant a lot to me. The wonderful editors at Storgy Magazine have nominated my novel NEKYIA for the Guardian’s “Not the Booker Prize“, an award that runs in part parody and part tribute to the Man Booker, accepting weird, wacky and wonderful recommendations via “online democracy”. It’s a really exciting thing to be a part of, even if there are legions of keyboard warriors also participating and jockeying through the crowds to tear down young writers’ confidence levels. I highly recommend you chip in your suggestions before Friday the 28th. It’s always good to support the work you love. Who knows, an unknown author you love might actually get through. That’s the beauty of democracy.

To celebrate this nomination – I’m offering 30% off the price of the NEKYIA paperback. You can get it now for just under £15 quid. Considering it’s a 700 page tome, 170,000 words, the culmination of 5 years work, and printed on that super-duper parchment paper you know you love, I’d say that’s pretty good value. It also makes a handy doorstep when you’re done reading it. So, if you feel up to it, go and give it a read. It’s been nominated for a Guardian prize after all!

To round off, I’d like to direct your attention to a couple of other awesome things.

Firstly, Storgy are running a kickstarter campaign for their Exit Earth short story anthology. They’re already 50% funded after only a few days, and have raised £3,000. It’s no wonder, their theme is so timely, so pertinent to what’s going on, but also timeless. There are some incredible rewards on offer, including T-shirts, tote-bags, notebooks and of course copies of the anthology itself, which looks like it’s going to be a sheer, bloody masterpiece. Not one to miss.

Secondly, you can check out a whole bunch of FREE short stories by me at Storgy. In June, they published “Night Drive”, a tense horror-noir thriller, and you can read it online HERE. For the video-game lovers amongst you, I recently published my thoughts of the ending of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls series, with in-depth analysis of what the last secret interpretation of the series is. Check it out at GameSpew HERE.

Lastly, 13Dark is growing and growing. Our IndieGoGo campaign continues to be InDemand, meaning we’ve still got backs coming in even after the campaign has finished. You can get your hands on the first issue, which includes BEAUTIFUL artwork by Shawn Langley and three incredible stories by Samuel Parr, Tice Cin and Ross Jeffery. Right now, a competition is running too, which means anyone who backs before 29th July gets entered into a competition to win FREE writing coaching with me, including a 1-hour Skype. This is normally worth £80.00, so it’s really an amazing opportunity.

Okay, that’s me done on the updates! I hope you’re all well. Let me know what beautiful work you’ve discovered in the comments and what books you’d nominate for the “Not The Booker” prize!

Peace and love,

@josephwordsmith