Posts Tagged ‘Princess Mononoke’

Good King Wenceslas

December 9, 2011

My single favorite Christmas album is an old cassette tape given to me years ago by the friend who goes by “Marquee Movies” on this blog. Back during the years when I was attending Shirone Lutheran Church in Japan, I would often teach during the day on Christmas Eve (Christmas is just a plain old workday in Japan), then drive the twenty or so miles from the university to the little Lutheran church. Now, normally that drive wouldn’t take long; but Christmas Eve is a strangely special time in Japan. For whatever reasons, the Eve (not the day itself) has become, in Japanese pop culture, a time when two things happen: 1.) young couples go on hugely lavish dates to magnificent hotels or the upmost upscale restaurants they (usually the guy) can possibly afford; it’s the one night of the year when money is expected to pour out of wallets like Niagara Falls. And 2.) husbands come straight home from work so that the family can have a fancy dinner together (which is supposed to include Kentucky Fried Chicken among all the other feast items — expensive sushi platters, wine, cheese, caviar, etc. ) — and for dessert, there’s Christmas cake.

Stores take orders for Christmas cakes months in advance. If you haven’t ordered yours well ahead of time and try to search for one on Christmas Eve Day, you may be out of luck — the shelves in bakeries, department stores, and ice-cream shops are looking pretty barren. The cake can be of any flavor; it’s generally decorated beautifully. The point is, it’s CAKE — it’s what MUST be eaten on Christmas Eve, along with Kentucky Fried Chicken. (My students were always shocked and greatly amused to learn that these customs did not come from the U.S.A., since they firmly believed they were doing what all Americans do on Christmas Eve.)

Anyway, my point is that city streets and the roads to the suburbs are gridlocked with traffic starting in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Cars creep along, bumper to bumper. So my twenty-mile trip to Shirone Lutheran Church could easily take three or four hours on Christmas Eve. Enter that wonderful tape Marquee Movies gave me! I would settle in, thinking the joyful thoughts of Christmas (church service and trombone-playing ahead, followed by a Christmas cake party at church, followed by a late-night feast with friends, followed by presents — and all in celebration of the birth of the Savior, Who provides a point to everything). I would settle into this long, long car ride. The car was a little island of warmth in the cold and dark. Sometimes snow would be falling outside, drifting large and soft and feathery into the bare rice fields. Sometimes the moon would be glimmering on the Shinano River, which paralleled my road. I would inch my way to church, immersed in the best Christmas music that Marquee Movies could assemble. And my favorite among the selections was a carol that had fascinated me since childhood:

“Good King Wenceslas.”

The funny thing about it is that it’s become a good, solid carol, firmly entrenched in the canon, but it doesn’t mention the Nativity. It seems to be associated with Christmas because the song’s story takes place on the feast day of St. Stephen, December 26th. If you’re willing to trust my Internet research, the tune is of Finnish origin, from the mid-1500s, and the text was written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853.

Wenceslas was King of Bohemia in the 10th century — a martyred Catholic king, assassinated by his brother Boleslaw (whose name, I can’t help noticing, is just like “Coleslaw,” but with a “B”–it definitely sounds like Monty Python material). Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic, and his saint’s day is September 28th.

Bear with me, and I’ll include the words for you here. I hope they’ll carry you back to your childhood, as they always do for me:

 

Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight

Gath’ring winter fuel.

 

“Hither, page, and stand by me,

If thou know’st it, telling

Yonder peasant, who is he?

Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence,

Underneath the mountain,

Right against the forest fence,

By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

 

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine;

Bring me pine logs hither.

Thou and I will see him dine

When we bear them thither.”

Page and monarch forth they went,

Forth they went together

Through the rude wind’s wild lament

And the bitter weather.

 

“Sire, the night is darker now

And the wind blows stronger;

Fails my heart, I know not how,

I can go no longer.”

“Mark my footsteps, good my page;

Tread thou in them boldly;

Thou shalt find the winter’s rage

Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

 

In his master’s steps he trod

Where the snow lay dinted;

Heat was in the very sod

Which the Saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure

Wealth or rank possessing:

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing.”

 

That gives me gooseflesh even now! Christmas carols just don’t get any better than that. I love it for the way it gives us a glimpse beyond the walls of this world. In the ancient stories and songs, Saints are essentially magical people. They can perform miraculous feats . . . banish dragons (Saint Columba sent the Loch Ness Monster packing!) . . . and in this case, melt the snow underfoot and warm up the ground for us poor little pages who stumble after them in awe. I know that sort of happening appears in many tales. It reminds me most recently of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke; in that film, the Shishigami, the most sacred Wild creature/god of the forest, leaves hoof-prints in which flowers sprout up.

Back in our carol, I love the pure impulsive charity of this king who spies a wretched peasant and leaps out of the castle to go and help him. Sure, there’s a lot outside the borders of the song that cynics will be quick to note: what about all the other peasants out in the cold? And what about all the other cold nights of the year? Does the saintly king have a plan for improving the lot of his people, or is he just full of self-indulgent good cheer because it’s the feast of Stephen, and tomorrow it will be business as usual? “Pay your taxes, poor man!”

Clearly, the carol is focused elsewhere, showing us something better, something beyond our winter’s cold. It may not reference the Nativity, but there is Gospel here. I’m sure scholars have written about it more eloquently in the going-on two centuries that this carol has been around, but Wenceslas displays some Christ-like qualities here. He doesn’t send the army. He goes himself; the King becomes the bringer of help, down in the snow, out in the cold. He ministers to the one in need; he “fills the hungry with good things” by preparing a banquet, the best that there is. And more, he blesses and comforts those who serve him. “Walk in my footprints. I’ll press down the snow and I’ll heat the ground for you.” Why does Wenceslas choose to take only that page along on the mission? If they’re carrying food and firewood, wouldn’t a team of servants be in order? How about a carriage? How about all the king’s horses and all the king’s men? But Wenceslas chooses to make the trek with one faithful page. Interesting, huh? He doesn’t fault the page for his limitations, either — doesn’t mind that the page points out he’s about to collapse. Wenceslas simply says, “Come on. I’ll enable you to do this.”

My other favorite part of this carol is the explanation of where the peasant lives: a good league hence, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain. That is evocative and atmospheric. It’s a Breughel or a Bosch painting. The peasant doesn’t live up on Route 8 across from the McDonald’s. This is a quieter, greener, greyer land, a country of shadows, dappled light, scudding clouds, and mystery.

I doubt it’s a very good thing in this kingdom to live “right against the forest fence” — on the doorstep of wolves, robbers, and evil spirits. The peasant lives there because he’s poor. (I had a discussion with a local friend about this on Monday: my interpretation is that there’s no man-made fence; “forest fence” means “the edge of the forest; the barrier that is the forest.” Do you agree with me? I grew up looking across the field at a “forest fence,” which seemed a green cliff, the boundary of another world.) The landscape is marked with such wondrous things as the fountains of saints — crosses and cairns, stones, pools, and boscages, each with its own legend.

What remains in this world of Wenceslas of Bohemia, in addition to a handful of facts in dusty tomes, is a song that is still played each year as the winter solstice approaches. The portrait that carol gives us is most likely anything but an accurate historical account; nevertheless, it preserves some enduring truths. Compassion is a quality to be sought after and practiced. We are empowered with a light and warmth that radiate from beyond this world; and in the best of our actions, we are in turn blessed.

That, and there’s a fantastically cool landscape of the imagination out there, hinted at in our old legends and songs, always ready to be tapped by the storytellers and celebrated by those who love them!

So that’s my Christmas carol story. A good discussion this month might be: What are your favorite Christmas songs, and why? Do you have any memories to share with appreciative listeners? — memories, perhaps, of great times spent listening to them, and/or what they meant to you? Any Christmas thoughts/stories/memories in general are most welcome!

Something Like a Dragon

June 19, 2009

By grace, 2,015 words written on the new book today! Whenever I throw word counts around, it’s not my intention to boast. And sheer numbers of words, of course, mean nothing: enough monkeys with enough typewriters could bang out an enormous number of words. I mean only 1.) to demonstrate that there is forward progress, and 2.) to establish credentials. What gives me the right to hold up my head and talk about writing as if I know something is not the things I’ve published: it’s the fact that, today, I’ve been walking the walk, with my fingers on the keys, choosing certain phrases over certain other phrases, figuring out how to get a little more of the story out of the excavation site without damaging it too severely. So the book is on track and moving ahead nicely. (Or, as Spock says in the recent excellent film: “Thrusters on full.”) Soli Deo gloria! [The story is told that J.S. Bach wrote that phrase on every manuscript when he composed music: Soli Deo gloria -- Glory to God alone.]

That “excavation” theory of writing is set forth clearly by Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I think he’s exactly right. How about this [my own variation]? — “Writing is bagging the smoke.” It’s attempting to throw a curtain around the misty shape that coalesces — just for a moment — within your reach. If you can get the curtain around it, you can preserve it (or at least its shadow) in a fixed form for yourself and others to enjoy. If you can’t, it’s gone again, because it’s always drifting, always changing, like the clouds in a summer sky. Ooo, I like that! (This cloud motion theory explains why, if you would tackle the same idea at different times of your life, you’d get significantly different stories.) Though you may not believe it, I am still on topic here. . . .

So it’s high time we talked about that dragon! To refresh your memory, and so that you don’t have to go back to a previous post to see the poem in question, here again is “Glory Day.” (The term “Glory Day” refers to the Fourth of July, which for me has always been a symbol of the height of summer . . . the time of freedom and imagination, the season “better-than-which-it-does-not-get.” I wrote this poem at some point during my college years. Specifically, I remember that I wrote it on a 5th of July, the day after Glory Day, sitting on a folding chair facing north across the field between my house and Chris’s house, in the shade of the maple trees at the northeast corner of our yard, with the barn directly behind me. The barn is gone now, but most of those trees are still there.)

“Glory Day”

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.

 

That’s sort of a sonnet: it has 14 lines. But look at the strange rhyme scheme: ABBABBA ACDCDAA. In a departure from normal sonneting (sonneteering?), I compressed the part before the break and expanded the part after the break. See the overlapping effect in what’s normally the first eight lines (now seven)? — ABBAABBA has become ABBABBA. With that overlap, and by carrying that A-rhyme through as I did, I was trying to emphasize unity, that all these elements of the poem are inextricably woven together (“seamless throughout,” like that garment the soldiers didn’t want to tear but cast lots for instead).

In other words, the dead cat is the dragon. The beans, the heat waves, the maple shadows, the creeper, the tracks of time-snails: all these are the dragon, and they are the thunder, and the thunder is the cat, and the dragon is the image of the invisible wind mirrored in the beans that sway. All these things are part of growing up on a farm, where death and life are bound up together; where life bursts from the soil every spring . . . where fragile green things grow from the cracks of old dead fence-posts . . . where everything goes to sleep in the winter, blanketed with snow . . . and where there’s always the smell of something dead wafting from behind some hedgerow (“In ahind yon oul fail dyke / I wot there lies a new slain knight. . . .”) Moreover, it’s all bound up in “Glory Day,” the A-rhyme, the phrase found in the title and in the first and final lines of the poem. “Glory” is freedom and celebration and fireworks in the sky; it’s wonder and youth and being alive, learning and growing; but it’s also a word lodged in the Beyond, isn’t it? Believers in Christ live in “the hope of glory.” We speak of “the glory to be revealed in us.” . . . “We have beheld His glory.” . . . “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” . . . We often set “glory” as the condition opposed to the here and now: there are those of us alive now, and there are “the saints in glory.” So it’s a loaded word — and, I hope, a loaded poem.

Thank you to everyone who put forth a theory as to what the “something like a dragon” is! I appreciated them all, and every one of them was a good answer. A couple of you “went public” and gave us your ideas in official comments; a couple more slipped them to me by e-mail. Your theories about the dragon included:

a rumbling train, the sounds of its progress echoing the thunder;

a row of hills undulating in the distance;

a river, stream, or the Flatbranch Creek;

and even the “raccoon lugging a knapsack” from Maxine Kumin’s “The Presence”!

One might also say a tractor — a solitary tractor crawling across the distance in the vastness of a field can take on a mystical aspect. All these answers are good, and all can be right together.

As for me, I wasn’t thinking as literally as you all were. For me, the dragon isn’t necessarily anything physical or material. It’s more an abstract concept, suggested by those amazing and unsettling shadows the wind leaves in grain fields, which motif I’ve used again and again in my writing. [From my poem The Horror in the Wind: "The wind in shapes / and shadows masks / the dreadful footfalls of the gods." And from "Seawall": "Across the slopes, the wind stirs the green asili stems in vast wandering arcs, as if unseen creatures larger than dragons are playing there."] Jesus mentions this phenomenon, too, doesn’t He, when He’s talking to Nicodemus?

The dragon-like thing crawls south. For me, south is the direction “toward warmth, toward imagination, toward enchantment.” South is the “good” direction. At that time in my life, “north” meant college and cold, hard work and the big city; “south” meant home and freedom.[Treebeard has the line in the LOTR movies about how he's always enjoyed walking south, because it always feels like he's walking downhill. I hear you, 'Beard!]

My intention in this poem, then, is that on the day when all these elements are present: the green, the tree shadows, the dead cat needing to be buried, the heat waves, the passage of time, the thunder — on this day, the wonder and terror and joy and grandeur almost manifest themselves in a tangible shape. That thing crawling south is wonder itself. It’s the shape of something that has no shape; it’s the expression of something that cannot be expressed. (Heh, heh! Sounds like I’m talking about Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith!) All you can do is get the general idea.

Whew! That’s more than anyone ever wanted to know about “Glory Day”!

I was thinking about this use of a dragon to represent something abstract and larger, and it occurred to me that animals — in particular, big animals — are sometimes used this way. It seems to be an ancient and fundamental device.

I need to quote again from my story “A Tale of Silences,” which appeared in Cicada, January/February 2006. This tale is set in a mountain village in Japan in 1970, about 25 years after the war. The main character is an old man named Jii who has lived all his life in the village, which is now slated for obliteration through the construction of a new dam which will flood the area. The story tells of Jii’s last year in the village.

One night, he is awakened in total darkness by strange sounds, and he realizes a bear has gotten into his house and into the very room where he’s been sleeping. For a long time he lies there, not daring to move, and eventually the bear (for reasons unknown) goes away. Jii ponders what this encounter has meant. Here’s the excerpt:

As Jii sawed, chopped, and bundled sticks, he watched the forest, wondering if his bear would return. At times he was sure he could feel eyes upon him, peering from the underbrush. Once he thought he heard husky breathing nearby, but it might have been a breeze in the pine branches. And once, just as a broken limb he’d sawed off dropped into the decomposing leaves, he saw a bear on the next ridge. It was black against the dull sky and huge, bigger than any he’d ever seen. Slowly its head turned in his direction. When the eyes found him, Jii was somehow sure this had been the bear in his house. It gazed at him for a long time, then ambled into the trees.

Later, at dusk, the bamboo swayed in the wind. Sipping hot tea, Jii watched from the window. He envisioned human figures coming and going among the grove’s shifting shadows: himself and Fusa, sometimes middle-aged, sometimes young, once hand-in-hand for the first time. . . .

Paler each day, the sun sought to warm the land by showering more and more thin light, the last of its summer store. It sparkled from the few sere leaves, blazed on the streams, and suffused morning mists like a golden forgetfulness. Jii felt an urgency in the clamoring light; soon all the bears would go into their dens. Before they began their long sleep, and all the land with them, something must be done. Some secret, Jii began to think, must lie hidden near at hand, some riddle of dying leaf or unturned stone that, if solved, would bring peace and clarity. He became convinced that the bear had come to call him out before the valley was lost, to awaken him from his den in the deep years, to lead him to an answer for which he did not quite grasp the question. All he knew, as surely as he knew the sun sank earlier each evening behind the purple height, was that time was running out.

Later, Jii again encounters the bear up close:

The great bear had come — the mountain’s nushi. As if sunlight were shining on his back, Jii felt a comfort, his fear melting away. The terror of the nushi’s first visit was gone, but still Jii could not turn around. A sense of his own insubstantiality kept him unmoving, as if to stir in the nushi’s presence might cause him to dissolve in light. He lowered his head, filled at once with weariness and a peace he had not known since childhood — the earliest days and nights of consciousness, the only time in mortal life that one rests completely. Sinking to the floor before the nushi’s gigantic paws, Jii slept.

Do not fear, said a voice to him in his dreams.

This Japanese concept of a particular area’s nushi  or “lord” — the guardian and master of a certain mountain, forest, or river — has to some degree been introduced to western audiences through the film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) by Hayao Miyazaki, in which the Shinto gods of the forested mountain take the forms of gigantic animals.

It’s interesting, this manifestation of things powerful and divine in the forms of animals. . . .

In Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder, I recall that one of those haunting, enthralling black-and-white pictures shows a pathless forest, and the hind parts of some huge, bear-like animal just visible as the creature passes behind a tree. I don’t have access to my copy of the book right now — anyone out there with a copy, can you confirm this memory? I was intrigued by how the artist chose to depict only part of the animal — and not the head.

In my own first, unpublished novel The Threshold of Twilight, I included a great Well called Twilintarn, which was a point where worlds intersected. Some tremendous, powerful Presence moved over the water there — the Keeper of Twilintarn — so terrible that to see it directly was death, as some unfortunate villains found out. From the glimpses we get of the Keeper, it seems to be a four-footed animal, though of colossal proportions.

In that same book, there is a wild Stag running through the fantasy world: a noble animal which is the embodiment of our own world, this one in which we live. Yes: in that world, our world runs around as a wild Stag. If the Huntsman with his black arrows kills the Stag, our world will perish. And already as the story begins, the Stag is wounded, its steps faltering.

How about Melville’s Moby-Dick? Isn’t the white whale really more than a whale? Doesn’t it represent something bigger?

Lurking in the shadows behind the Old Testament are Leviathan and Behemoth. Both halves of the world have their dragons, some good, some bad. Looming large in my childhood was King Kong: an animal of gigantic size, ruling his lost island of wonder. It’s not a stretch to say that Kong is a symbol of what is wild, free, beautiful, and should not be touched by humankind.

And then there’s Aslan, a lion and the Lord. There are humans and humanoids in Narnia; C.S. Lewis might easily have given his Christ figure a human shape, but he did not.

Back to that picture from The Book of Wonder, of the great beast moving among the trees, and only its hindquarters visible. . . . Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by the passage in Exodus 33, in which Moses has asked to see God’s glory. God reminds Moses that no one may see God’s face and live, but He offers this alternative:

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

I quoted here from the New International Version. I checked four or five different translations of the passage. A couple say God’s “back”; one said “from behind”; and two used the phrase I remember hearing/reading as a child: God’s “back parts.” As a wide-eyed child thinking of this encounter, I always imagined that “back parts” sounded more like part of a quadruped than a human figure. (Yet God has a “hand,” too, that He puts over Moses’s eyes.) It’s pointless to read too much into “back parts,” which is only a translation. [Hey, you guys who have studied Hebrew -- I know there are at least two of you! -- This would be an excellent time to help us out!]

But what is clear is that Moses had a “Glory Day” experience here! We can’t see the face of God . . . or that of the Keeper of Twilintarn. Jii’s bear comes to him in the pitch blackness. We can’t see the wind, but we see its shadow in the grain, and we feel its power. We can’t clearly see what crawls south, but we know it’s something like a dragon, anyway! We behold God’s glory, and we press on toward glory. And we write, attempting to throw the sheet over the ghost.

Grrooinnkkk! Hey, it’s Midsummer’s Eve this week! There may be Good Folk dancing in your garden! When the Eve falls precisely is a matter of which you prefer and when the weather is best: I’d place it on Saturday night or Sunday night if you prefer the solstice, or Wednesday night if you want to go with the eve of the birth of St. John the Baptist.

Grrooiinnkk again: Are you ready for this? My agent has given me the green light to make this announcement. Through the outstanding work of my amazingly incredible agent, we have found a publisher for The Star Shard as a book! Though some details are still being worked out, and more revision is coming, Houghton Mifflin has graciously agreed to give the book a home.

So it’s truly a happy Midsummer’s Eve, and Soli Deo gloria!


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