Magazine article The Spectator

Where the Abnormal Is Normal

Magazine article The Spectator

Where the Abnormal Is Normal

Article excerpt

The decayed, fifth-century Roman empire is threatened by Huns and Teutons. In this `Evening of the World', much is fearful and confused. Jehovah has officially ousted Jupiter, but Vulcan can readily become St Vulcan, patron of smiths, and Orpheus melt into Christ. The populace may hesitate between rival but flexible paganisms and stern one-party Christianity while the elite accept the best of all creeds, eventually to transcend them or adopt haughty cynicism.

The sight of pagan and Christian symbols brought together caused him to remember how John the Adept spoke movingly of his journeying in the World of Spirit, and how myth might yield truths which unsupported Reason could not attain. And he felt the complexity of the world, and asked himself whether any knowledge could be certain.

This is not, however, a Historical Novel, minutely documented to illuminate the Dark Ages, but is indeed Romance in the full sense of that multi-layered word. Addicts of John Buchan will quickly start up, for it begins with the grandson of Buchan's Prince of Mecca-like character, Sandy Arbuthnot, discovering a lengthy tall story, apparently written by the 13th-century 'wizard', Michael Scott, mathematician, astrologer, tutor to Emperor Frederick 11, Stupor Mundi, both resident in Dante's Inferno. Sandy indeed has meditated writing a book about Scott, though confusing the ruthlessly sane Frederick with some `mad Emperor Ferdinand'. At least one reminiscence of Buchan's The Three Hostages occurs here, though the aristocratic youth, Marcus, alleged son of Archangel Michael, is no Sandy. He is more a Parsifal, unsophisticated novice, wandering, questioning, pure. His adventures, superficially at least, are in fairy tale, where the abnormal is normal, Fate depends on riddles, tests, initiations, and language is bardic.

Artemesia would have been lovely as the dawn if she had not squinted; for she had hair the colour of burnished gold, a skin soft as rose petals and a mouth made for kissing; and her walk was as graceful as a lily.

Seeking understanding through joy and suffering, he undergoes the traditional routines of myth: the Waste Land, the wounded ruler awaiting a healer, the Holy Grail, Wandering Jew, Lamia, Wise Greybeards, fateful milk-white stag, Faithful Squire, Distant Princess, crucial coincidences. The Green Knight is a Yorkshire swigger and adventurer, whom Scott treats with the light causticism of Bernard Shaw on Englishmen. …

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