I’ve now read almost all of John Crowley’s novels, all but Four Freedoms, as well as his collection of short fiction, Novelties and Souvenirs. I think he’s a truly great writer. He is purely original — none of his books like another, or like anything else I’ve read, even those in the Aegypt tetralogy, which are obviously linked. His prose is astonishingly beautiful, soft and rich, a woven tapestry of smoke and heather and gold and water rather than a sharp, cutting crystal. I’ve never read one of his novels I didn’t think stood head and shoulders above its kind, and sometimes they have been so meaningful to me that they were difficult to blog about. If I had just a modicum less decorum, I’d probably follow him around the country in one o’ they Ford vans.
This summer, I read Otherwise, which is a collection of Crowley’s first three novels, written in the 1970s. The first one in the collection is The Deep, which is quite a short novel at 166 pages long, though it is so packed with ideas, images, philosophy, and action that I didn’t notice its length until just now. It describes a sort of late-medieval world — kings and queens who have been locked in war for generations, horses, artisans, priestly orders, Endwives who care for the wounded and dead after battles — that rests on a flat disc, supported by a pillar that goes down into the Deep. The sun and moon and stars orbit the disc, and there are murmurs of Leviathan, who may swim below.
The politics of the world are (intentionally, I think) confusing. One side is Red and the other is Black, like a card game, though there are also hints of chess, which equally has kings and queens and knights. The names alone make it difficult to keep track of what’s happening: the list of principal characters for the Reds reads,
Red Senlin’s Son (later King)
Sennred, Red Senlin’s younger son
Old Redhand, his father
Younger Redhand, his brother
Caredd, his wife
and there’s also a Learned Redhand, but he’s part of the Grays, who are a sort of priestly society which dispenses justice and wisdom to the warring factions. The Blacks are named similarly. (And guess how many of these characters are alive at the end of the novel.)
There’s a description, early on, of Gray scholars doing some sort of archaeological work, using delicate brushes to uncover a painted picture on the floor of their cloister.
Crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude, of joy or pain he couldn’t tell, for of course they all smiled with teeth. Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance.
And of course this is the truth: this world has a war to establish a king and then another war to prove legitimacy of the king, who dies in war, so another war must follow.
Into this terrible circle dance comes a Visitor, who is not of this disc world. There’s been an accident to the ship he arrived in, so he doesn’t know who he is or what the purpose of his visit may be, and while he waits to heal and discover the truth about himself, he observes the world around him. He’s a watcher, a recorder, a secretary — but by asking leaders to explain their motivations and actions, he makes them thoughtful and uneasy. He himself grows to understand and even love the people he knows, and when he leaves them to find the end of the world and ask Leviathan what he was made for, he changes the pattern of the dance.
I finished this novel profoundly confused. I hadn’t had an easy time keeping track of the characters, and the fusion of the medieval world and the futuristic Visitor (and the particular vision of God offered by Leviathan, all in one conversation at the end) seemed odd and lumpy to me. As usual, the prose is stunning, and the book is the only thing like it I’ve ever read or heard of. But I didn’t feel satisfied.
Then, as I was looking for reviews that might enlighten me, I found something online that said that Crowley had been inspired by the Wars of the Roses. All of a sudden, everything lit up in my mind. This book, of course, is not some sort of allegory of that terrible war of politics and battle and assassination, where you can make a one-to-one match of all of the characters. But the Red and the Black translate to the Red and the White roses of York and Lancaster. The names are all Henry, Richard, Edward/Edmund, and Margaret (unless you are Perkin Warbeck, Lambert Simnel, or John of Gaunt, but let’s not go there), difficult to keep track of. Strong kings, queens, knights, pretenders, locked in war for generations. And then the dance changes, and suddenly we’re in the house of Tudor, not Plantagenet.
With a new way to think about it, and something to compare it to, The Deep shifted in my mind from an odd, confusing piece to something far more weirdly realistic. Cut the Wars of the Roses out of time and place, put it on a disc, and how would it appear? What if we had asked some great entity to allow us to go back to a simpler time? Would we simply repeat our errors, not realizing that “simple” and “human nature” don’t go together? Once again, I found myself full of admiration for Crowley’s work, even so early in his career.