Today, I looked like this:
Except when I looked like this:
I spent the entire day revising a hundred and twenty pages of academic prose (including endnotes). Which is probably why my brain no longer seems to be working. I thought about what to write tonight, and could not come up with anything at all.
And then I thought, why not write about one of my favorite stories of all time? It’s John Crowley’s “Missolonghi 1824,” which I have in a collection called Novelties and Souvenirs. It’s a story in which the main character is Lord Byron. I read the story many years ago and then somehow lost track of it. The problem was, for some reason I thought it was by Isak Dinesen, which to my mind is actually a compliment. I would love someone to mistake one of my stories for one of Dinesen’s. She also wrote a story about Byron. I don’t remember the name of her story – I would have to look it up, and honestly I don’t have the energy. It’s actually not as good as Crowley’s, although I think Dinesen is one of the best storytellers ever. In Dinesen’s story, someone tells Byron, close to his death, that he has created one of the best stories ever told. Byron asks what it is, naming various possibilities, and is told that no, it’s not a story he has actually written, but the life of Lord Byron. Or am I making this up? I haven’t read that story for years, so perhaps I’m getting it wrong.
But I finally found “Missolonghi 1824” again, and was very glad to have done so. Now I give it to friends who I think will appreciate it – they have to be the sort of people to whom I would give very fine things, the finest things, and trust them with it. Whom I would trust with a glass vase once owned by the Medicis, or my personal airplane, or a heart. If they understand and appreciate it, I know they’re the right sort.
I’m going to tell you about the story, so if you haven’t read it, go and read it now. I don’t want to spoil it for you.
It starts by introducing us to an English nobleman who is dying. (At Missolonghi in 1824, of course. That’s how we know it’s Byron, who is never named in the story.) He has a companion, a young Greek boy. And he tells that boy a story of how, years ago, he came to Greece for the first time and felt at home there. He says,
“As soon as I set my foot on these shores, I knew I had come home. I was no citizen of England gone abroad. No: this was my land, my clime, my air. I went upon Hymettus and heard the bees. I climbed up to the Acropolis (which Lord Elgin was just conspiring to despoil; he wanted to bring the statues to England, to teach the English sculpture – the English being as capable of sculpture as you, my dear, are of skating). I stood within the grove sacred to Apollo at Claros: except there is no grove there now, it is nothing but dust. You, Loukas, and your fathers have cut down all the trees, and burned them, out of spite or for firewood I know not. I stood in the blowing dust and sun, and I thought: I am come two thousand years too late.”
He was haunted by this sense of belatedness, of having missed things: Homer and Pindar and Sappho.
He went at last into Arcadia. There, at evening, he came to a village. The villagers had captured something that day. Byron asked to see what it was, wanted to intervene, perhaps save it. The village priest tried to dissuade him, talked about a wild man who spoke but was not understood. At night, after having bought many rounds of drinks for the village men, Byron was able to go see for himself. And he saw.
“You know the eyes of your ancestors, Loukas, the eyes pictured on vases and on the ancientest of statues: those enormous almond-shaped eyes, outlined in black, black-pupiled too, and staring, overflowing with some life other than this world’s. Those were his eyes, Greek eyes that no Greek ever had; white at the long corners, with great onyx centers.
“He blinked again, and moved within his cage – his captors had made it too small to stand in, and he must have suffered dreadfully in it – and drew up his legs. He struggled to get some ease, and one foot slid between the bars below, and nearly touched my knee where I knelt in the dust. And then I knew why it was that he spoke but was not understood.”
He put his face to the bars of the cage, and started to say the only lines he remembered in the language this creature must have known: “Sing, Muse, that man of many resources, who traveled far and wide,” the first lines of the Odyssey. And the creature, hairy, with cloven hooves and horns on its head, understood.
Byron thought, “I have not missed it after all: it awaited me here to find.”
And then he cut the ropes that held the door of the cage closed, and Crowley gives us some of the most beautiful lines in the story: “The moon had risen, and he came forth into its light. He was no taller than a boy of eight, and yet how he drew the night to him, as though it were a thing with a piece missing until he stepped out into it, and now was whole.”
I am telling you pieces of the story, but there is so much more. For instance, there are these lines, so beautiful: “No gift was given me, no promise made me. It was like freeing an otter from a fish trap. And that, most strangely, was what gave me joy in it. The difference, child, between the true gods and the imaginary ones is this: that the true gods are not less real than yourself.”
Years ago, inspired by this story, I wrote one myself called “Catherine and the Satyr.” It’s not one of my best stories, and in comparison with Crowley’s, to which I would give five stars, I would probably give it one. (Talk about the anxiety of influence!) The problem with my story is that, while Crowley’s is about the characters, mine is about ideas – about the end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of Romanticism. It’s probably not a good idea to write a story that is about ideas rather than characters. But I won’t make excuses for myself. Sometimes stories work well, and sometimes they work less well.
But what I wanted to end with, really, were three things.
First, my favorite line in the entire story, and one of my favorite lines in literature ever: “But without love, without its wild possibility, he could no longer defend himself against the void: against his black certainty that life mattered not a whit, was a brief compendium of folly and suffering, not worth the stakes.” I think love does that, saves you from the void. Even the knowledge of it, knowing that it is there, saves you.
Second, an idea about fantasy: I never believed the notion that science fiction was about a “sense of wonder.” But I do think that fantasy is about a “sense of longing.” People accuse fantasy of being nostalgic, and sometimes it is, but what we see in this story is a sense of longing for something more than our modern age can provide, for a magic that no longer exists in the world. The story tells us that it still may, in remote corners of it. Fantasy is about that – our sense of longing for more than we have, for a magic that we seem to have lost or never had. At least it is for me.
And third: I really, really want to go to Greece.
I love John Crowley and that story as well. It is my fondest fantasy that some day I will write a novel as beautiful, convoluted and shattering as Little, Big. Thank you for reminding me of this amazing story. I’m off to dig out my copy and re-read it.
I bought and published that story, in ASIMOV’S. It’s a good one.
John Crowley touches the really deep things, sometimes. I haven’t read this story, but now I’m going to go and find it.
Science fiction can be about a sense of longing too…there are more things to long for than magic.
I think it’s absolutely right that SF can also be about a sense of longing.
And Gardner, I had no idea that story originally appeared in Asimov’s. How absolutely cool! And thank you for publishing it so that I got to read it, years later. 🙂
The idea of love saving you from the void is very powerful. And the coda, “even the knowledge of it … saves you,” makes the idea even more powerful.
Hi Susan! I absolutely believe that. I had a conversation about this issue once with a friend of mine, and I said that it’s as though we’re all in free-fall (traveling through space on a swiftly tilting planet, to quote Conrad Aiken). Love gives a sense that there’s a floor beneath us, or if not a floor, then at least a hand to hold while we’re falling through the darkness. It’s a kind of magic, the real and true kind.
I think that’s partly what I was getting at in an earlier blog post I wrote called “Thoughts on Love.” And I think it takes a writer like Crowley, who understands Byron so well, to present him as so human, as being at exactly that place at the end of his life, having exactly that insight. I think that’s why I love Crowley: he shows me so much about what it means to be a human being, to confront what we all confront (that void, the darkness).
(But since I’m not Crowley, what comes to my mind as I write this is the considerably less eloquent thought that love is the best defense against shoggoths. Well, what else would you expect to find in a void?) 🙂
Inspiring post! I will look for the story by Crowley and also read your story. I agree with you that fantasy is about longing (and I would have to say that science fiction is also about longing). One of Charles de Lint’s characters in Memory and Dream said this about fantasy stories: “…I knew I was writing about me again, about the hollow places inside me, and I finally understood that stories could never fill them. I get letters from people telling me how much they enjoy my stories, how much the stories have helped them, allowing them to see the hope that’s still out there in that big old world where most of us spend our days. They know there’s no such thing as magic, but they also know that the magic in the stories is standing in for the magic people carry inside themselves.”
That slim little collection of Crowley’s is one of the most impressive volumes of prose fiction ever published in English. I stand (well, or sit, reading) in awe of his best work.
I’ve only started reading your blog recently, but every post has been wonderful — rich with insight, compelling in honesty and intimacy (where needed), provocative of worthwhile thinking. This one certainly enjoys all those virtues.
I love Crowley too, and I think you stated some of the reasons beautifully. There aren’t many writers working today (are there any?) with his combination of understanding the desperate central challenges of human existence and the power of expressing it in sheer jaw-droppingly gorgeous prose?
And as for the shoggoths, I think they’re a perfect stand-in for all of the terrible truths of existence. HPL provided us with a rich and evocative shorthand vocabulary for the terror of the cosmos.
Finally, I think your sense that fantasy might be defined (in a sense) by its “sense of longing” opens up tremendously interesting avenues for further thought. It’s reminiscent of some ideas John Clute floated a few Readercons back, in attempting to distinguish fantasy from horror (and from science fiction) as different responses to the dawning of widespread awareness of the truths of life as we’re assuming them here — responses to the realization that there is a void, and it’s full of shoggoths.
Perhaps I’ll write something myself on the subject, or maybe we can pursue it in future conversations.
“I knew I was writing about me again, about the hollow places inside me, and I finally understood that stories could never fill them.”
I like this, although honestly, for me, I think stories do fill those spaces? At least partly. I think they’re filled by work and love. But that’s my having read Victor Frankl recently coming through . . .
“There aren’t many writers working today (are there any?) with his combination of understanding the desperate central challenges of human existence and the power of expressing it in sheer jaw-droppingly gorgeous prose?”
Oh, I so agree! And his understanding of those human problems is what differentiates him from so many other writers, I think. What makes him not a good writer, but a great writer.
The “sense of longing” issue might actually make a good Readercon panel?
Absolutely. I think that would be really good.
Here’s something related that I came across in an article about 30- and 40-something guys getting back into Dungeons & Dragons:
(Full article here.)
I think the answer to that is a resounding “yes”. I think it’s pretty clear that such a feeling was operating in Tolkien (and in all of the Inklings), who yearned first for a lost (and somewhat imaginary) pre-industrial England and then, after WWI, for the lost pre-modern age in general. If so, then this nostalgia for the never-had (and maybe never-was) is unquestionably a foundational element in fantasy literature.
And I think it’s also a forward-looking longing, to a future that could still be. So fantasy isn’t entirely nostalgic. It’s also utopian (however you define utopia).
I was greatly disturbed by Missolonghi in 1824 by Crowley’s cavalier treatment of Byron’s pedophilia and attempts to seduce the boy in the story. This is not a historical document but rather a work of fiction and thus it should not have been treating this vile practice in such a off-hand manner. It is almost as if the author is giving posthumous approval to Byron’s actions by his distinct lack of condemning prose.