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Review: Jo Walton and The Blood of Kings
Fantasy literature is the orphaned offspring of Romanticism. Open any fantasy novel and you will find themes and subject matter which once were the very mainstream of literature, but which have now been relegated to the backwaters of genre.
Fantasy literature is marked by a fascination with mythology, folk tale, and fable. Its standard setting is an idealized medieval world; its standard set of monsters and otherworldly beings is drawn from Norse and Celtic myth; its standard themes of quest and adventure are straight out of medieval romance. It is, in short, quite out of step with currents of modernist and postmodernist thinking in which antiheroes replace heroes, subjective fragmentation replaces narrative, and irony is privileged over myth.
Against such a background, fantasy literature is pointedly anachronistic. Yet such anachronism was once the height of fashion. The roots of fantasy as a genre can be found in such works as William Morris' "The Well at the World's End." But William Morris' interest in folk tale, myth, fable, and all things medieval came straight out of the Romantic period in the early 19th Century, when writers as diverse as Sir Walter Scott and the brothers Grimm set out to reclaim a treasury of forgotten lore from musty manuscripts and half-remembered folk tales. Ultimately Romanticism was a reaction to the mechanistic world view of the Enlightenment, a protest against views which left no place for meaning, imagination, or spirituality. And at its best, fantasy literature continues this protest, reminding us in imagined worlds what we too easily forget: that people matter, that there are such things as goodness and beauty, and a difference between heroes and villains.
It is thus no accident that the author of the poems on the Dark Planet: Poetry (Formerly: Blood of Kings) website is rooted firmly in the soil of fantasy. Jo Walton is a professional writer of modules for fantasy role playing games, and her first fantasy novel, The King's Peace will be published in early 2001. And her poems have all the virtues of great fantasy literature: they are rooted firmly in myth and legend yet have the immediacy and impact of compelling personal narrative. Since Walton also has a poet's gift for evocative phrasing, and writes fluently in a variety of meters, the result is a poetry collection well worth reading. Her work is of particular interest to readers of "Forgotten Ground Regained" because many of her poems are written in four-beat accentual verse reminescent of Old English meter.
Range of Topics and Meter
Jo Walton's poetry, posted on her Blood of Kings (now Dark Planet: Poetry) website, comprises twenty-six poems, many of them mid length narrative works, drawing on themes from Greco-Roman and Celtic mythology, medieval romance, and historical situations ranging from the fall of Carthage to the Saxon conquest of Britain. There are also a few lyric poems of a more personal nature. The poems are written in a variety of meters, including iambic pentameter, trochaic tetrameter, and four-beat accentual verse.
There is really no way to give a good picture of the range of subject matters and rhythms encompassed in the poems except by way of samples. The collection starts with a short free verse fragment entitled, "Here is a small piece of my soul." After that the poems increase in length and deal more and more with the intersection of history with life philosophy. Though that sounds rather dry. The poems aren't. They can be divided into several thematic sections.
The first section expresses Walton's personal philosophy rather directly.
In The Destruction of Woking Walton imagines what would happen if all the commuters on a subway train were suddenly to wake up and realize just how artificial and constraining their life really is, and what might happen
If we dare to get things started
Britannia is not exactly an environmentalist poem, at least not in the sense in which environmentalists want to keep the land pristine and free of human impact; its basic conceit is that the land, Britannia, is calling for her lovers to value her:
As our vital love is thrusting
The ethos it expresses is one which places a high value on nature, but nature used, enjoyed, respected and valued as an intimate part of everyday life.
There is Comfort in the Knowledge ... examines the shortness of human life and how one can maintain a sense of personal significance against a universe whose scale is measured in light years and eons:
This is comfort: face it bravely.
Each of these poems is written in trochaic tetrameter, the same meter as Hiawatha, and a measure whose effect is incantatory, a rhythm that forces itself upon the ear. Walton uses this effectively in large parts of these poems, though certain passages falter and lose their way rhythmically. A passage like the following, for example, is very hard to hear as trochaic tetrameter; the trochaic reading requires too many accents on weak function words:
But now where are all my lovers?
The next two poems, Civitas and Pax Romana, deal with the fall of Rome. Civitas is in a loose accentual rhythm that varies between trimeter and tetrameter. Pax Romana is strict iambic pentameter. A third poem, Sophoniba, also deals with Roman historical themes. Sophoniba, a Carthaginian princess, was married to an African king to win their support against Rome: when Rome conquered Carthage, she was a captive of war, and found herself torn between hopes for life, and her iron determination not to give Rome the satisfaction of displaying her in their Triumph. This is the first narrative poem in the collection, and one of her best. It is written in iambic tetrameter without rhyme (sometimes trending toward accentual rather than strict iambic patterns), a rhythm which goes very well with the mounting tension as Sophoniba decides her fate:
Swifter than swallows streak across
Walton makes very effective though occasional use of alliteration to point the rhythm in lines like "that hangs on her dead husband's belt" where the alliteration on h reinforces the iambic rhythm which might otherwise falter here.
The next poem, In Death's Dark Halls, a Dog Howls, is the first of several poems set in the world of Greco-Roman mythology. Along with the poem Electra to Orestes, it is something of a metrical experiment. The meter can best be described as "heptasyllabic tetrameter": That is, Walton restricts herself to lines of seven syllables, but each line typically contains four accented syllables. Each line is divided into two half-lines divided by a caesura: the first half-line contains four syllables, the second three. The effect resembles Old English alliterative meter, especially since Walton makes heavy, though nonstructural use of alliteration.
There is only one rhythm which fits four stresses into seven syllables without bringing stressed syllables into contact: the pattern / x / x / x /, technically termed catalectic iambic tetrameter. Walton uses this rhythm in some parts of her poem, but she allows practically any arrangement of accented and unaccented syllables, giving the form something of the rhythmic flexibility of alliterative meter.
However, it is very hard to stick to a form with precisely seven syllables and four accents per line. It is extremely easy to revert to a simple iambic tetrameter, on the one hand, with eight syllables, or on the other hand, to create lines with only three clearly accented syllables. I tend to view eight syllable lines as a break in the meter. Lines with only three stresses can, however, be used to good effect. Once a four beat pattern has been established, it is easy for the ear to fill in a fourth, unheard beat, a break in the natural rhythm. Such breaks can be very effective at turning points in the flow of the narrative. The opening of the poem illustrates all of these points very well:
Proserpina, torn between
The opening lines are rhythmically regular: beat, offbeat, beat, offbeat, beat, offbeat, beat:
/ x / x / x /
The pattern breaks when we read:
x / x /
But the missing beat is combined with a break in the narrative, so it works rhythmically to emphasize the surprise that Proserpina is weeping and the break from the initial description to focus on Proserpina.
Similarly at the next break in the poem. In the lines
x / x / / x /
we can treat the first line as four accents (with a bit of strain reflecting the implied uncertainty) but "each footfall on marble" cannot be construed as more than three beats. But once more, there is a break in the rhythm, with the pause taking the place of the absent fourth beat.
What is more, the rhythmic flexibility of the form allows Walton to use clashing stresses to heighten the tension as Proserpina considers her choice:
/ x / x x / /
Phrases like "half place", "life, up above", "life's realm", "green living" gain an added emphasis because we must take both stressed syllables as metrically strong. This added emphasis helps to highlight the poignancy of Proserpina's choice, whether to live in Hades with him whom she loves, or to return to the living world without him.
In Death's Dark Halls, A Dog Howls does not quite succeed in its metrical experiment. The story is powerful, and the meter reinforces it through most of the opening and conclusion. In the center of the poem, however, the rhythm falters. A good example is when Ceres, Proserpina's mother, enters the scene:
Ceres shoes snap on marble
The problem is that Walton has not stayed true to the principles of her meter. A line like
angry and proud, her daughter
has seven syllables, but only three accented syllables, and we cannot supply a pause that would take the place of the fourth beat. Simultaneously, a line like
in this dark hole, no matter what
she marches in, ready for war
is also an eight syllable line, best read as iambic tetrameter with one trochaic substitution. In addition, Walton gives in to the temptation to use fractured syntax to keep close to the meter (No weapons shown, save being here ... "The girl back, my daughter please, returned now") which make the dialog seem artificial. The net effect is that much of the middle section of the poem loses most of its rhythmic force and some of its narrative effectiveness.
Overall, though, the poem works very effectively as a story, and has passages of great poetic power, especially the opening and closing sections, where Walton keeps most effectively to her Old English-like rhythm. While she does not use alliteration structurally, it appears often enough that it effectively reinforces the rhythm and gives the poem the flavor of Anglo-Saxon verse. Anglo-Saxon verse on classical themes. An interesting combination.
The three poems, Before the Broken Walls of Troy 1, 2 and 3 are vivid descriptions of the scene of fallen Troy from the viewpoint of the victims. Two of them are in accentual verse; the third is in iambic pentameter. They are the start of a long run of poems set to mythic themes:
The Conception of Cuchulain
Most of them are written in accentual verse in lines of four beats, though Ayfa's Song and North Wind are written in shorter lines of two or three stresses. They all have Walton's characteristic strengths: effective characterization, terse but evocative phrasing, imagery which makes it easy to put oneself in the narrator's place. In the same group conceptually, though later in the collection, is Thirty Sword (a knight's pledge of fealty, cast in blank verse.)
The next set of poems are more personal. The Muse Comes Back describes the experience of writing:
I am a mirror, made of bronze
Yet open handed, open hearted I
And Unheard Sonnets brings us back full circle to questions of life and how it is best lived.
Heard melodies are sweet enough for me
One of the benefits of the Internet is that it has become possible for authors to disseminate their work, and for readers to enjoy it, even when that work is not "commercially feasible". Of course, their is a down side to this new freedom: the mass of junk poetry on the web is enough to drown the most indefatigable soul. But then we come to the bright side. The freedom of the Internet means that we are not restricted to works that cater to the biases of the current age.
Jo Walton's poetry is not always perfect. Some of her poems could use further work on technical grounds. But it is powerful, evocative, full of personal insight and of far greater value in my opinion than much of the material that is published in poetry journals and praised by a small circle of fellow practitioners. Yet it is unlikely to find approval in fashionable journals or to be praised by postmodern literary critics, because it is anachronistic in the way that fantasy literature is anachronistic: it dares to tell tales in which goodness, beauty, and courage are taken at face value, and in which joys and wonders are part of life.