Saturday, January 10, 2009
The Mezentian Gate
by E.R. Eddison
High Fantasy remains an intriguing though problematic genre. The incredible subterranean influence it exerts upon post-September 11th mass culture has for the most part been neglected. What to make of this move towards a fantastic vision of the antiquated? Perhaps we could benefit from an analytical appraisal of early practitioners of High Fantasy and the related genre of Weird Fiction, writers such as William Morris, Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison. These writers, who looked back with such yearning towards a past that often existed solely within their imaginations, can also allow us a vision of the future, particularly when viewed through a contemporary literary and social context.
In recent years, we have seen a shift, particularly in major studio cinema, away from science fiction and towards fantasy and other worlds of the antiquated and quasi-medieval. The spectacular success of “Lord of the Rings,” the Harry Potter series, and other fantasy blockbusters attest to this. Susan Napier, in her book-length discussion of Japanese animation, “Anime,” suggests that “…it seems safe to say that the last decade of the twentieth century ushered in an increasing disaffection with technology…it seems less able to provide the satisfying future that utopian science fiction used to promise. Problems such as environmental degradation, economic downturns, and war appear increasingly intractable, with science seeming to suggest little in the way of overall solutions.” Does this desire for a fantastic origin point signify an attempt to reassess foundations or to retreat into an idealized version of the past? Revitalization can, after all, often veer dangerously close to a sentimental nostalgia.
E.R. Eddison served as a high-ranking civil servant for the British government and his grandiose fantastic epics, modeled on the “golden age” of 16th and 17th century English literature, in many ways search for exactly such a past as fantasized in those works. I have already discussed Eddison’s most famous novel, “The Worm Ouroboros,” in a previous post. That book’s archaic, faux-Shakespearean prose celebrates a glorious bygone language, while Eddison’s stern characterizations of his heroes did the same for the tradition of chivalry. In reference to “The Worm Ouroboros,” I remarked that one got the impression Eddison found writing to almost be a form of parlor entertainment – a mental and aesthetic dalliance. This is even more apparent in the large-scale fantastic epic that would occupy the remainder of Eddison’s life – the Zimiamvian trilogy. Yet at the same time, we see, through Eddison’s obsessive touches, a genuine cosmology of an imagined world order.
“The Mezentian Gate,” the last book written in the trilogy, is also the first within the story’s chronology. Though left unfinished at the time of the author’s death, his extensive notes provide a comprehensive outline that alloww the reader to experience the novel as a smooth, continuous whole. This obsessive exactitude of Eddison extends to detailed genealogies, both of the Parrys and the Royal House of Finiswold, as well as a map in the back of the book, all providing a much richer “world-building” than is necessary for the plot itself. It should be noted Eddison helped pioneer the inclusion of these supplemental texts, a tactic that has since become de rigueur for fantastic literature. Open up any TOR paperback and you’ll find the direct descendents of Eddison’s cartological fancy.
The trilogy takes place in Zimiamvia, an imaginary continent consisting of Finiswold to the north, Meszria to the south, and with the state of Rerek in the middle. These three kingdoms are, over the course of “The Mezentian Gate,” united through political intrigue and conflict, by King Mezentius. Mezentius, epitomizes and transcends his humanity - he is actually a manifestation of the godhead. I discussed Eddison’s somewhat worrisome entitling of the privileged individual, usually the aristocrat, within “The Worm Ouroboros.” “The Mezentian Gate” develops a much more thorough, literal expansion of this, as identity is shown to be an outward extension of the godhead’s perfection. These reverberations thus move downward, from an ineffable unity, followed by bifurcation and then further division. Much of Eddison’s philosophy is espoused through the Lord Vandermast. The elderly alchemist often instructs the other characters that “Reality and perfection are the same thing,” - reality tends to blur with artifice, which also has its capacity for perfection.
The events of “The Mezentian Gate” overlap with the novel directly preceding it, “A Fish Dinner in Memison,” though both books describe that eponymous banquet. This dinner is the crux of the trilogy, both in terms of plot and in lieu of Eddison’s philosophy, which takes precedent over the narrative. The first volume of the trilogy (and last chronologically), “Mistress of Mistresses,” concerns the political intrigue and plotting amongst the various generals and aristocrats of the three kingdoms in the wake of King Mezentius’ death, which in some ways reverberates out from the events of the above-mentioned dinner as well. The trilogy is composed, as was “The Worm Ouroboros,” of successive waves - both echoes and returns.
Imagination as a creative force, not simply in terms of aesthetics, but also in a broader biological sense, is examined throughout the novel and the banquet scene in particular. Eddison’s aristocratic extensions of the godhead, Mezentius and his wife as well as his son and his lover, convene upon Memison, where the lady Fiorinda, a manifestation of Aphrodite, asks Kind Mezentius “If we were Gods, what manner of world would we choose to make?” Curiously enough, the world Mezentius chooses to make, as he crafts a clockwork world from a luminous sphere, is our very own. This is interesting, as the novel’s “Praeludium” takes place on Earth, where Lessingham (from the introduction to “The Worm Ouroboros”) and his lover imagine Zimiamvia. Lessingham and his lover, we learn, are mirrors of Mezentius and Fiorinda. This is also complicated by the presence later in the novel of another character named Lessingham, native to Zimiamvia, who is a manifestation of similar forces as Mezentius, while not being a perfect mirror. Through this rigorous connectivity, Eddison suggests a holistic vision of history, rejecting chance and the arbitrary. As Lord Vandermast says, “If it be truth… it can in no hand be evil; according to the principle of theoric, Quanto est, tanto bonum, which is as much as to say that completeness of reality and completeness of goodness are, sub specie aeteritatis, the same.” Eddison, therefore, suggests a cosmic totality somewhere between fatalism and a necessary “rightness.”
The duality so prevalent in Eddison further suggests, if not pre-divination, than a divination to history – the “right” thing doesn’t so much happen, as the thing is “right” precisely because it happens. The very state of existence, occurrence itself, is therefore divine - it is privileged. An interrogation of the validity of a reality is not an issue, since it is numerous. Eddison also suggests authenticity of reality, that is, an origin point of reality, is not conceivable. Rather, the world-view introduced in “The Worm Ouroboros” and here expanded in The Zimiamvian Trilogy is Gnostic. We find a world of mirrors - instead of a world propped up to a mirror, there are mirrors propped up to mirrors, endlessly multiplying themselves throughout an ecstatic existence.
Eddison, then, is using a vision of a medieval world to espouse his (call it by any other name) Gnosticism. But does Eddison simply utilize this setting as a canvas for a discussion of history and being, or is the landscape itself a manner of message? The power-plays and princely struggles of the book mirror the upheaval in Europe at the time of the novel’s composition, in the midst of the Great War that devoured the first half of the 20th century, a world of “…nightmarish unreality and transience…” The book also seeks to offer an alternative to just such tumult, in the divine Pax Mezentiana which stretches across the novel - a glorious period of peace and learning, that is, a stability so lacking in our world at that time. Though King Mezentius’ wise reign, guided by a divine light, is in some regards an antidote to the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini, on the other hand, does Eddison’s vision of the privileged individual predisposed to rule over the masses share many corollaries with fascism? “The Mezentian Gate,” and the entirety of Eddison’s work within the field of High Fantasy, can then be seen as a marriage of Eddison’s concept of a glorious English past with the very real rumblings that were simultaneously obliterating Imperial England and envisioning a new landscape, post-Albion. This fictive England remains though, within the intriguing and frustrating novels of E.R. Eddison, within an imagined space -posited as real simply on account of it being imagined.