Actually, I think I must have read at least some of it before, because a few of the essays are familiar – i.e. all the ones on Spenser. Others go over similar territory to The Discarded Image and Studies in Words (both books I like a lot, however Tolkien may have sniffed at the latter). As ever, though, I love the casual abundance of his knowledge, in which ‘realms and islands are as plates dropped from his pocket’:
"Only a careless student will render the line from Pearl ‘Fro spot my spyryt per sprang in space’ [can’t figure out how to do a thorn in LJ] (61) as ‘From that place my spirit sprang in space’. The conscientious man would have found out what in space really meant (in a space of time, presently). To be sure, the correction of this error even on the philological level will be most fruitful; the pupil who learns that space usually meant a temporal rather than a local extension and that space as a concrete (the abyss, the vacuity in which all material objects exist) cannot be traced earlier than Milton, will have learned something worth knowing—especially about Milton. But a far greater light dawns upon him when he comes to realize that this modern meaning of space could not have existed in the fourteenth century because the thing did not exist for the human mind."
What’s not to love in passages like that? And, since I’ve got to reread Paradise Lost this month, it’s enticing too.
Other essays, like the one on Layamon’s Brut [I can’t do yogh either] and Sawles Warde, show him in full-on scholarly mode, talking of books I’ve never read or more than half forgotten, and making me want to read them, goddamit! (He has nothing but contempt for Geoffrey of Monmouth, by the way.)
Ah, but his arguments engage me even more than his knowledge. Sometimes they’re so far remote from my own views that I lose patience: some of what he has to say about women falls into this category. Far more often I find that, even when we’re turning in opposite directions, our teeth lock productively. (This is a cog metaphor! Why do we see so few of them?) The prize of this volume, for me, is ‘De Audiendis Poetis’, which contains a really interesting account of the appeal of fantasy literature (or poems about ‘ferlies’, as he puts it); and the ways in which certain other kinds of reading – anthropological or psychological, for example – can ‘soften up’ readers’ sensibilities so as to make them more open to significance in that literature (a literature against which CSL saw ‘gigantic inhibitions’ as having built up in his own time). But he also, sceptically, suggests that while it is a good thing to feel the wonder of the literature of ferlies, the fact that a reading of The Golden Bough has opened your eyes to it does not make the GB’s anthropological aetiology true. And moreover, he has something rather provocative to say about the approach to ferly literature such a reading may encourage. I’m still thinking about whether or not I agree with it, but here’s the core passage:
"But the very thing which perhaps makes such beliefs so acceptable to some (the surmises we can all enjoy) is just what awakes my scepticism. What we are doing when we thus feel excitement, wonder, and even awe at the idea of such hidden depths behind myths or romances seems to me far too like what goes on in the myths and romances themselves. I do not mean like it in being untrue; I mean like it in quality. We are wandering in a tangled forest of anthropology as the knights wander in a literal forest. We are going down to dark ancient things like Orpheus or Aeneas. We have to depend on cryptic signs, are confronted with what would be meaningless unless The Golden Bough (or Merlin or a hermit) explained it. Above all, anything may turn out to be far more important than it looks. I enjoy this, but the enjoyment is suspiciously like that I get from the myths and romances themselves. Jung’s theory of myth is as exciting as a good myth and in the same way. Mr Speir’s analysis of a romance is for me itself romantic. But I have an idea that the true analysis of a thing ought not to be so like the thing itself."
But why not? That’s my first reaction, but I’ll admit he’s given me pause here. And also, of course, despite his reputation as a fusty conservative, this kind of interest in reader response is part of what makes CSL a truly avant garde critic. And in passing, he throws out, “anything may turn out to be far more important than it looks”. Is that particularly characteristic of fantasy literature? Questions, questions, realms and islands, from CSL’s tobacco-stained pocket.