Posts Tagged ‘The White Goddess’

After a brief interval of bad cold and general burnout, I return with one more thing to add to the topic of the Spiral Castle, and with one murky bit to clarify. The Newgrange tomb is so obviously round that it cannot very well be described as “four-cornered,” although now I think of it John Donne (who could be called Howl’s Moving Castle’s poet-in-residence) does manage to square the circle:

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go…

[From Divine Poems, Sonnet VII]

Although by Donne’s time, in the early Seventeenth Century, it was pretty much settled that we live on a spheroid planet, the metaphorical “four corners of the earth” still had legs by way of meaning every single nook and cranny thereof. And the image of the general Resurrection as the coming together of the long-decayed pieces and fragments of the dead is a powerful one.

(The science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer used Donne’s phrase To Your Scattered Bodies Go as the title for the first volume of his Riverworld series, about a realm of life after death, in 1971. And here’s another fish darting through the dark water: the phrase also puts me in mind of Sophie’s refusal to pull the scarecrow to pieces, as well as the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of two other characters in HMC.)

In any event, Graves has no problem with the seeming contradiction. It may or may not be helpful to mention that, throughout The White Goddess, Graves ties the ancient Greeks to the ancient British at several points, with ties both historical and poetical. Ariadne and the Labyrinth of Knossos, from which the hero Theseus returns alive, are similar enough to Arianrhod and her Spiral Castle as to make no nevermind. The four-corneredness may refer the pre-Grecian Bronze Age burial custom of placing the body in a crouching or fetal position and placing it in a squarish box called a kist; this practice later migrated to western Europe along with its practitioners. [TWG, p. 107]

Alternatively, it may refer to the arrangement of the passage-tomb within Newgrange and similar monuments:

The ground plan is the shape of a Celtic cross; one enters by a dolmen door at the base of the shaft. The shaft consists of a narrow passage, sixty feet long, through which one has to crawl on hands and knees. It leads it a small circular chamber, with a bee-hive corbelled vault twenty feet high; and there are three recesses which make the arms if the cross. [TWG, p. 102]

There is a further association of Arianrhod’s Spiral Castle with the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. It may have been the ancients’ belief that, while the bodies of the royal dead repose in the round passage-graves, their souls may have flown to the stars, to that chilly celestial place at the Back of the North Wind. [TWG, p. 103] This is worth exploring, but I’ll have to do it another time. I want to get to the point of today’s post:

Which is, that everything about Wizard Howl’s castle, before which Sophie now stands, is redolent of death.

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Spiral Castellations: the Newgrange megalithic passage tomb at Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Ireland.

One of the most enjoyable, suspenseful passages in Howl’s Moving Castle, both book and anime, is Sophie’s arrival at the Moving Castle, or rather the Moving Castle’s arrival at Sophie.

According to Jones’s epigraph to the novel, the title was suggested by a student who wanted her to write a story called The Moving Castle. How long it took the story and its castle to incubate after her subconscious “primordial sludge” went to work on the title I do not know; she may have written about it somewhere. I can make a good guess that Castle’s nearest nearest literary antecedent may be the mythical fortress Caer Sidi, to which Robert Graves devotes an entire chapter, “A Visit To Spiral Castle,” of The White Goddess.

(You can also find Spiral Castle in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. My list of books to reread is growing longer by the minute.)

Please bear in mind that Graves is using a 19th century translation, by Lady Charlotte Guest, of a 17th century retelling by Llywelyn Siôn, of a 14th century work attributed to Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Fuellt, which is possibly connected to a 9th century historical work by Nennius, about an actual 6th century bard named Taliesin. Poetry, legend, and myth lie deeply layered upon this material. In it Caer Sidi, “the revolving castle,” has an ominous connotation:

‘[E]xcept seven none have escaped from Caer Sidi.'[106] ‘…The castle that they entered — revolving, remote, royal, gloomy, lofty, cold, the abode of the Perfect Ones, with four corners, entered by a dark door on the shelving side of a hill — was the castle of death or the Tomb, the [same] Dark Tower to which Childe Roland came in the ballad.’ [107]

(Though he does not know who the seven lucky escapees were, Graves lists as possible candidates Theseus, Hercules, Amathaon, Arthur, Gwydion, Harpocrates, Kay, Owain, Daedalus, Orpheus, and Cuchulain. [106] Sophie’s in good company.)

Newgrange, pictured above, is an example of the ancient British castle of death. Tower-like, it is about 50 feet tall and sits on what looks from aerial photos like the highest ground in the district. And it can be said to revolve, not in the sense of spinning like a top, but over the stately course of an astronomical year: at the winter solstice the rising sun, shining through an opening over the entrance, illuminates the entire passage within for as long as 17 minutes.

The ancient spiral design, long associated with the Celts (although Newgrange predates the arrival of that culture), can be seen on the large “kerbstones” that surround the monument, and the restored facing of white quartz calls to mind “princess on the glass hill” stories. This ancient earthwork would seem to have entered our collective imagination, or else it takes its design from the same parts of that imagination.

The point is, though Howl’s castle doesn’t look like Newgrange, there is a definite vibe of fear and death emanating from it, a coldness. But Sophie, or so it seems, doesn’t even fear death at this point. Certainly not deathliness. She just wants to get in out of the cold.

So when that dark door opens, what is she going to find?

As you might expect, not what you might expect.

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As a side effect of blogging through Howl’s Moving Castle, I get that strange attraction that from time to time pulls me towards all things Welsh. To my regret I never learned to speak Cymraeg, though I did learn, in a class in ancient British and Germanic mythology, how to pronounce those sweet melodious names. (It’s merely a happy coincidence that my own dad was the professor.)

It added another layer to my interest when I finally got to read a 1955 essay by Tolkien, “English and Welsh,” which was impossible to get hold of before Lord of the Rings became a perma-seller and the Jackson films were so successful; this and other treasures such as JRRT’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters And The Critics” were collected and reissued in an affordable edition in 2006.

Tolkien makes a point that’s obvious enough now that I think of it, but of course I didn’t think of it before: with Welsh we have the closest surviving relative of the original British language. (Cornish, alas, is extinct; I’m not sure about the old language of Scotland. Gaelic evolved separately apart from the British “mainland” in Ireland.) English, derived from Anglo-Saxon, arrived later; English and Welsh are related members of the Indo-European language family, but they came from widely divergent branches.

I should add that all this about Welsh is pertinent to Howl’s Moving Castle, which if you have read it already you will know, but which you will not have got even a glimmer of if all you’ve experienced is the anime.

Anyway, you can open The White Goddess practically anywhere and discover all kinds of quoted Welsh goodness, with Graves merrily spinning away at all sorts of it-could-have-happeneds. The material is so cryptic, so fragmentary, and so old that it seems to invite just that.

Did Diana Wynne Jones have any of this in mind when she wrote HMC? I have no doubt of it. Between a love for Story, a splendid Oxford education, and a Welsh grandfather, she was bound to have internalized the matter of Wales. Those fish plop up out of the dark water and onto the pages of The Merlin Conspiracy in particular. In fact I’m willing to bet DWJ owned a copy of White Goddess, which along with Frazer’s The Golden Bough is a mythopoet’s dream. I had forgotten, until I recently reread Fire and Hemlock, that Tom Lynn sends Polly a copy of The Golden Bough just to try to get across to her the kind of horrible situation he’s in.

Which brings me fully around whatever circle this is. (It’s the week before Easter and my brain is consumed by music-think. Word-think, which is my usual mode, has been pushed aside and is not working too well. This will soon pass.)

Anyway, in Fire and Hemlock Tom, critiquing Polly’s fantasy novel, chides her that she’s letting Tolkien influence her in the wrong way: she imitating him blindly, in other words. If you want to explore Tolkienian themes, there is a better way. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Jones shows us how to do it right. And gives us a nice spin on some ancient Welsh themes as well.

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"The only fortune I can think of is a comfortable chair!"

(All my screencapping efforts have gone awry today.)

Sophie keeps on slogging up into the hills, briefly entertaining, then rejecting the notion of shouting some “nasty things” down at the shepherd who’d given her a wide berth as though she were a bad witch. “But that seemed a little unkind.” [33] Another of the lessons of growing old seems to be that some things are just not worth the uproar.

The hedgerows have ended, and there’s not much ahead but “heathery upland, with a lot of steepness beyond that covered with yellow, rattling grass.” [33] It’s getting late, it’s getting cold and windy, and she’s getting tired and sore.

She sits down to rest on an outcropping boulder off to one side of the road. It’s on a headland that commands a “magnificent view” of where she has just been:

There was most of the valley spread out beneath her in the setting sun, all fields and walls and hedges, the windings of the river, and the fine mansions of rich people glowing out from clumps of trees, right down to blue mountains in the far distance. Just below her was Market Chipping. Sophie could look down into its well-known streets. There was Market Square and Cesari’s. She could have tossed a stone down the chimney pots of the house next to the hat shop.

“How near it still is!” Sophie told her stick in dismay. “All that walking just to get above my own rooftop!”[33-34]

I find this passage wonderfully evocative, both visually and emotionally.

At this juncture I must call up another of my favorite crazy old books, in this case Robert Graves’s The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth. The White Goddess is the female principle, the double-sided axe of creation and destruction, life and death, etc. She is the source of all art and religion.

Since I first read it, TWG has become a controversial book; it has launched a thousand neo-pagan rites, and Graves has been both praised and vilified for single-handedly inventing/discovering a matriarchal prehistory for humankind. (In fact the idea has been kicking around in archaelogical circles since the 19th century, but what ‘proofs’ have been dug up — notably at the ancient city of Cätälhüyük, on the Anatolian plain in Turkey — have been ambiguous and debatable.)

At the same time Graves insists that, because the Muse/Goddess must be wooed and won, only men can be the true poets and artists. If you are a woman, you can never* win the White Goddess; you can only aspire to be the White Goddess — some guy’s Muse, in other words.

This technicality, however, has failed to stop myself, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Austen, and many, many others from Playing The Role of poet.

I find it helpful to think of The White Goddess as being like an entire ocean full of what DWJ calls “fish in dark water” — the flickering bits in the ooze at the bottom of the mind, comprising your unconscious, the world’s unconscious, and the sum totall of everything you’ve ever read or dreamed or imagined. Graves’s personal entry into this murky world was in attempting to solve several ancient Welsh riddling poems. Here he recollects a a passage in the poem Hanes Taliesin:

I have been in an uneasy chair
Above Caer Sidin,
And the whirling round without motion
Between three elements….

There is a stone seat at the top of Caer Idris, ‘the chair of Idris,’ where according to local legend, whoever spends the night is found in the morning either dead, mad, or a poet. [TWG, p. 91]

It’s beginning to look as though Sophie might indeed spend the night sitting on that seat; “now it no longer seemed so unimportant that she would be out on the hills during the night.” [34] If Robert Graves were there, he might assure her that she will not find herself dead, mad, or a poet by morning, because Caer Sidin, mentioned in the poem above, is quite near, and within Caer Sidin, which means revolving castle, a “perfect chair” awaits her.


*Sappho might be one exception to this rule.

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