Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Penda's Dream


To say that Penda's Fen is overrated would be a criminal understatement. Just google it and you'll get a taster of the extruded verbiage. (BFI's take on the play actually comes up before Wikipedia's.) On the other hand, David Rudkin's 1974 television play is certainly worth watching. It's also worth thinking about and (witness one's own effort!) worth writing about.

Dramatically and thematically it is a failure. But it is a heroic, indeed romantic failure. It titillates aesthetically, intellectually, theologically, poetically, musically (almost to excess), politically, historically, romantically and (of course!) sexually. It manages to maintain a consistent tone throughout, and yet it skips, nay gambols quite happily from one television genre to another - one moment a gay coming-of-age drama, one moment a neo-socialist social realist critique of modern living, one moment a whimsical paean to old England... and at other times fairly blundering into symbolism, magical realism, surrealism, allegorical fantasy and "folk horror" (albeit to a much more limited extent than some of its fans would have you think when they compare it to The Wicker Man and/or Children of the Stones - because actually it's not very much like them at all).

Its dramatic failure is arguably more forgivable than its thematic one.* Cardboard characters and a lack of any real plot have always been seen as acceptable in a play about "ideas". But Penda's Fen rather pushes that envelope. For example we never find out why Stephen is unpopular at school, with his teachers or his peers - beyond some vague stereotypical hooey (which by 1973 was already ten years out of date) about the school being a rugby and CCF-type establishment (albeit one with ancient Greek slogans in the gym) whereas Stephen likes romantic music and theology. Later on we have a brief late night Doctor Who-style close encounter down in the eponymous fen between a group of unfortunate teenagers and some sort of fucked-up military experiment involving radiation. But then the incident is never mentioned again. Stephen himself has visions, but it's beyond the wit of the writer to let us know why. Are they genuinely supernatural, or the product of the character's own mental disturbance, or just expressions of his own imagination? (It's a comparatively minor quibble, but still one that leaves a sense of the story's being clever but somewhat underwritten.†) Worse still, it would be a perfectly satisfying moral for the story to have that a young man's intellectual quest for authenticity should ultimately be less important to him than (a) self-discovery and (b) loyalty to his loved ones (i.e. to his adopted parents and to the country he has learned to call home). But Penda's Fen's young man flunks self-discovery and then also flunks coming to terms with his new moral environment. He finds out that he's adopted not through his own efforts but because his adopted parents tell him he is on his eighteenth birthday, and then he shows no interest in who his real parents were. And having failed in his personal quest for racial and moral purity, he implicitly embraces impurity ('be secret, child, be strange – dark, true, impure, dissonant'††), and we end with a slightly  ambiguous final shot of the boy returning to his adopted home and (presumably) the love of his adopted parents - but at the end of a dramatic work whose tone is nowhere near sufficiently subtle to make us feel that such ambiguity is either appropriate or satisfying.

All of which, of course, makes even less sense on a thematic or symbolic level! At the beginning of the play Stephen is listening to The Dream of Gerontius. We hear that the music was by "devout Catholic" Sir Edward Elgar, but not that Elgar ended up going from being a "devout" Catholic to being a "lapsed" Catholic, or indeed that the libretto for Dream was by infamous gay Catholic convert Cardinal Newman.††† And then we hear nothing of Catholicism again. Meanwhile, Stephen also knows that Manichaeism is a heresy, and then under the guidance of his vicar father learns to reject its "light and darkness" view of the world in favour of a less "pure", or perhaps just less puritanical, more down-to-earth and even "pagan" version of Christianity - perhaps even the patriotic peasant piety of St Joan of Arc (who was canonised by the Catholic Church in 1920). But how exactly is any of this "subversive", either by modern standards or indeed those of 1974?†††† And did socialists digging in vegetable gardens seem radical (except in a literal sense) in the early '70s? Jeremy Corbyn probably thinks his allotment is radical even nowadays, but by the late '70s such things were the preserve of Tom and Barbara Good and one's own semi-suburban Tory-voting grandparents. Worst of all is poor Penda himself, appearing at the end like a pantomime king (and looking like one too - another dramatic screw-up!). Rudkin could have played an interesting thematic game pitting modern day political militarism (and xenophobia - because why not?) against a deep patriotism of a pre-Conquest old England. Such a perfectly respectable left-wing Penda's Fen fan as Michael Wood would have been quite comfortable with that sort of take. But Rudkin bottles it (and one wonders why) and just leaves off with a vague notion that a pagan king can in some improbable way represent the ordinary common man versus the nasty post-imperialist British Establishment. (On a meta level of course it's no more improbable than a classically educated BBC playwright imagining that he's taking the side of the common man against nasty establishment types like, er, Mary Whitehouse. Γνώθι σεαυτόν indeed!)

One would of course like to concede that that's the whole point. Surely romanticism isn't really supposed to "make sense" in a rational way? Dreams are weird. That's why we like them. Arguably that's why we have them. Penda's Fen is about a young man who has dreams, and it is itself dream-like. So what for example is the symbolic significance of a waking nightmare horror sequence where Stephen sees little kiddies getting their hands chopped off? Does this express some latent fear of paganism? After all, with the exception of a brief Fuseli-type nightmare sequence it is indeed the only scene that comes anywhere near to genuine horror. Or is it supposed to symbolize the brutally debilitating nature of British education - because children have to be spiritually mutilated to make them "fit in"? Or is it both? The meaning is not made clear. But the point perhaps is that Penda's Fen is a post-modern and impressionistic work - and "pagan" also in the sense of being non-didactic. As with other cult shows of the late '60s and early '70s (because The Prisoner springs to mind) the viewer is expected to make of it what he will.

And that of course makes me wonder why up until now it's only been the cultural Left who have made Penda's Fen their own when there's plenty in it to interest traditionalists, and gay traditionalists especially. It's very attractively shot, and the camerawork holds up well even today. And beneath its pseudo-socialist cynicism about modern British patriotism and protestant Christianity it has a deep romanticism about land and race and religion, all suffused with a quivering, sparkling, boyish sexuality that is quite beautiful. In the end it's far from perfect, but in and of itself it's a wholesome reminder that even without perfection or purity what we have is worth having.

And it's worth holding on to.


*Again though, it is also arguable that it falls between these two stools. Like its main character, the play doesn't quite know what it wants to be.
†Which I'd have thought to most of us just means... lazy? (There's oneiric, and then there's just onanistic.)
††I mean puh-lease! Penda the pederast we could have done without! And telling gay people that they should be "secret" is something I'm quite comfortable with. But by 1974 it must have come across as a bit rum.
†††There were more of them in the Victorian-Edwardian era than most people realise. (Before there was homophobia there was Romophobia.)
††††Let's face it, there's something fundamentally silly about a classicist like Rudkin imagining to himself that he's a subversive. My own view has for a long time been that Protestantism had its roots in Lollardy which had its roots in Catharism which had its roots in Manichean Gnosticism (which itself had roots in eastern dualistic religions such as Zoroastrianism). The reason puritanism and its ideological descendants, from abolitionism to suffragism to teetotalism, seem so Manichean is because they are.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Ember Wednesday

An Ymber Day Tart, cooked by following a medieval English recipe from the book Forme of Cury, a Middle English cook book stored in John Rylands Library. The recipe was originally made for King Richard II

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Ash Wednesday


Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
Arboribusque comae;
Mutat terra vices et decrescentia ripas
Flumina praetereunt;

Gratia cum Nymphis geminisque sororibus audet
Ducere nuda choros.
Immortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum
Quae rapit hora diem.

Frigora mitescunt Zephyris, ver proterit aestas
Interitura, simul
Pomifer autumnus fruges effuderit, et mox
Bruma recurrit iners.

Damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae;
Nos ubi decidimus,
Quo pius Aeneas, quo dives Tullus et Ancus,
Pulvis et umbra sumus.

Quis scit an adiciant hodiernae crastina summae
Tempora di superi?
Cuncta manus avidas fugient heredis, amico
Quae dederis animo.

Cum semel occideris et de te splendida Minos
Fecerit arbitria,
Non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
Restituet pietas;

Infernis neque enim tenebris Diana pudicum
Liberat Hippolytum,
Nec Lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro
Vincula Pirithoo.


'The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.

'The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

'Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

'But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams;
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

'Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

'When thou descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

'Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.'

[Horace, Odes IV, vii (trans. A E Housman)]

'Pulvis et umbra sumus We are dust and shadows' is an oddly Thomistic note for the western world's favourite poet to strike in what is possibly his most striking poem. It always seems particularly appropriate though at this time of year. The picture, of course, is Poussin's superbly mysterious 'A Dance to the Music of Time'.

Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

The Epiphany: What has Wayland to do with Christ?


In his masterfully entertaining book The Third Reich: A New History, Michael Burleigh in his chapter on Nazism and Christianity, apropos specifically of the Third Reich government's attempts to "Nazify" Christmas, mentions almost en passant one particularly unsuccessful endeavour which was to try and identify the Magi with Slagfid, Eigil and Wieland.

It is, of course, easy to scoff. To paraphrase St Alcuin of York, what has Wayland to do with Christ? But what is even stranger than identifying England's most famous arms manufacturer and his two brothers with the Three Kings who went to Bethlehem is that the bright spark who came up with the idea probably got it from one of the finest treasures of Old England currently held in the British Museum - to wit, the Franks Casket*.

No one really knows what it was for, and part of the mystery is down to not just the deliberately cryptic inscriptions in the runes around its edges but also the extraordinary variety of the scenes on its different sides - historical, legendary, mythical, devotional, and, indeed, just plain unidentifiable.

On the front panel, as it happens, we have two scenes. On the left-hand side we have Wayland, who is busy turning the skull of the young son of his captor, King Niðhad, into a dinky drinking goblet, which he will then use to drug and "date rape" the King's daughter. (He's a northern European demigod. It's what they do,) At the same time, Wayland's brother Egil can be seen putting their escape plan into action, gathering swans' feathers with which they will make wings so that they can fly back to the realm of the gods where they belong.

By way of a bit of background, just as Loki is the north European Prometheus (the fire-god, bound in the Underworld for treachery), Wayland is almost certainly both the north European Vulcan (his name, and that he is a crippled smith - though it's possible that blacksmiths were often crippled deliberately in order to stop them from either fighting and getting killed or running away and/or joining the enemy) and the north European Daedalus (the builder of a labyrinth prison), and Egil is quite possibly the north European Icarus (the Wayland-Daedalus connexion, the island escape strategy, and of course the name, again).

But Wayland is also the son of Wade, who is the north European St Christopher. And on the other side of the same panel on the Franks Casket we have the Three Kings themselves, visiting the Baby Jesus.

Is it really so improbable that that long-forgotten master carver may have imagined some relationship between the two stories after all?

*It's Anglo-Saxon, and hence the runes are Old English. Contrary to what one might think, it's called the Franks Casket not because it used to belong to the Franks but because it was discovered by a man called Franks - albeit in a French antique-shop.