Tristan and Iseult, by Rosemary Sutcliff

51RqtVco3hL.jpg

Wiki characterises this as ‘a children’s novel’, which feels odd to me. It’s somewhat simplistic and it’s a novella, but it’s not really terribly child-friendly? Like, I wouldn’t call The Stranger a kid’s book because the prose is stripped back. This Tristan and Iseult isn’t so obviously child-inappropriate as that, but neither can I see the youth clamouring for it. I suppose it feels possibly YA or New Adult in that the protagonists are youngish for much of the action? It’s not precisely clear how old they are by the story’s end/their deaths (Arthuriana spoilers). But sometimes we say a thing is ‘for children’ when what we mean is simply that it’s not long or deeply complex (which is, obviously, a bit crap as a generic description).
 
This was a light, pleasant read, but it’s a bit overshadowed by the skill and beauty of TH White’s psychological approach and prose. It does behove writers and critics to ask themselves what a contribution aims to do differently, to expand on, to rethink in a subfield that includes Once and Future King, because you’re never not going to have that signal reworking in mind. White does cut the Tristan arc to keep Lancelot and Guinevere’s story-line neat (as-is, Malory crams in two confusing, conflicting major Iseults, and Sutcliff follows suit), to make it work as a piece of psychological realism/a moral question. Thus Sutcliff is giving something to modern Arthuriana reworking here by even attempting this tale. Yet I sort of wish she’d thrown herself into the project more? I’ve not yet read anything else by her, I just felt a sense of limitation here. Nothing in this reworking really took me.
 
That may be related to how uninterested this novel is in charm as an affect. You don’t get a sense of it from the characters or their doomed love, from the world or moments in the text, or in the relationship it’s trying to stage with its readers. This, along with the story’s unalleviated central concerns–doomed, unhappy love and sad, crunching betrayals that ruin male-male relationships and lives, also makes it hard to think of this as a children’s book. Tristan and Iseult is a blue-gray sort of story, cold and sparsely populated, shot through and sometimes illuminated by the strange copper-blood-purple red of Iseult’s often-referenced hair. It picks up a little on the feeling of some patches of Malory, and slightly anticipates Ishiguro’s Buried Giant. There’s some magic here, but of a constrained variety. The dwarf’s star-gazing could be a kind of Hild-like careful processing. There’s a dragon, but it might be any really threatening mundane animal–its effects are near-identical to those of a series of human conflicts over Iseult of the White Hands/territory.
 
There were quite good elements. That hair, and a time Tristan feels deeply disgusted with Iseult and himself for living a lie and betraying King Marc, and Marc himself, who does honestly love them both. But that itself was frustrating, because (and a friend joked this impulse was very MZB, and fair cop) you did just want them to work out some amenable arrangement, het or queer, nephew/uncle or no, and halt the slow, pointless death-waltz of the oncoming plot. 
 
I often get irked when people even joke that complicated relationships should be resolved, melted down, into the crucible of a threesome, because it seems a stupid way to think about relationship issues and plots, intent on liquidating productive or necessary tensions via artificial means. A threesome could and should have all the tensions of its constituent relationships. But there are some tensions that call for resolutions between characters on grounds of greater and more life-altering intimacy than heteronormative plot structures are prepared to allow. There are also ‘marriage plot’ problems that strike you as more of the moment of their writing than trans-temporal, describing the period they depict and speaking to the present reader. With more embedded social and psychological writing, Sutcliffe might have sold me on the painful irresolubility of the characters’ situation by walking me through it. As is, I’m just ‘why not both?’ing. Or rather, the problem is that Iseult doesn’t love Marc–that’s the central imbalance here. But then I know very little about their relationship, from her perspective. I don’t know the dimensions of their marriage, and what possibilities it affords. 
 
I like and respect that Iseult of Cornwall née Ireland’s an intelligent but difficult woman, who makes Iseult of the White Hands roll her eyes with good reason at the concussion (‘I loved him mooooost’ ‘well idk about that bitch, but he loved YOU more, so sure, be First Wife’). Sutcliff’s decision to eschew the ‘doomed to love one another by fate/an accident with a magical cup’ impetus feels like a good one, but it cuts down on another wonder-element of the text and really, how different was her treatment for having made this change? She wants an irresistible, quick-setting, not deeply motivated pull between these characters (who have reason to be drawn to one another, she just doesn’t end up illustrating this process all that much) and she gets it, cup or no. Sometimes the Olde Timey Celtic dialogue feels odd and lumpy, which is all the odder because there’s little dialogue in the book. I don’t know how self-consistent this dialogue feels, and I wonder what sources she’s drawing from here. The first half works better for me than the second, which meanders a bit. This is somewhat consistent with the source material, but then she’s shaping this telling, so I do hold her a bit accountable.
 
A solid, middle of the road sort of book, but I’m not sure there’s a reader who’ll LOVE it. At least it doesn’t feel as awful, forced and unnecessary as all the on-trend ‘my publisher made me do it’ fairy tale retellings glutting the market.
Advertisements

Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift

This is the first instalment of my new Strange Horizons column. “Kirk Drift” is a long-read essay on Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, popular memory, gender politics, radical nostalgia and the unicorn dog.

horakova_elaan.jpg

Section 1: What a lousy party!

Good parties diverge widely; all bad parties are bad in the same way. I am trapped at a dull dinner following a dull talk: part of a series of dinners and talks that grad students organise, unpaid (though at considerable expense to themselves—experience! exposure!), to provide free content for the dull grad program I will soon leave. The Thai food is good. The man sitting across from me and a little down the way, a bellicose bore of vague continental origin, is execrable. He is somehow attached to a mild woman who is actually supposed to be here: a shy, seemingly blameless new grad student who perpetually smiles apologetically on his behalf, in an attempt to excuse whatever he’s just said. One immediately understands that she spends half her life with that worry in her eyes, that Joker-set to her mouth, and that general air of begging your pardon for offences she hadn’t even had the pleasure of committing. There is always such a woman at bad parties. She has always either found herself entrapped by a clone of this man, or soon will.

We reach the point of no return when the omnijerk (really I suspect there’s just one vast eldritch horror sitting in another dimension that extrudes its thousand tentacles into our own, and that each one of This Guy is merely an insignificant manifestation of the beast: they couldn’t all be so boring in precisely the same way by chance, surely) decides to voice some Dinner Party Opinions on original-series Star Trek. God knows why. It’s not five seconds before he’s on ‘Kirk and the green women’. He’s mocking the retrosexist trope, but smiling a little weirdly while doing it. His own insufficiently private enjoyment is peeking out, like a semi-erection on his face. A sort of Mad Men effect: saying, “isn’t it awful” and going for the low-hanging critical fruit while simultaneously rolling around in that aesthetic and idea of masculinity. Camp, but no homo!

Read the full essay here.

“Take Care of Him. He Bites.”: Dogs in David Copperfield

by Molly Katz and Erin Horáková

David Copperfield’s idyllic childhood is marked by the absence of dogs. He is brought into the world by Dr. Chillip, “the meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men…he hadn’t a word to throw at a dog. He couldn’t have thrown a word at a mad dog” (Dickens 18; ch. 1). His home explicitly has “a great dog-kennel in a corner, without any dog”, in a garden that is “a very preserve of butterflies” (Dickens 24; ch. 2). This husbandless household is safe, somewhat insulated from class (the servant Peggotty and David’s mother Clara socialise affectionately and co-rule the house), loving and female.

Read the full post here.

Hive (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

Hive-Board-Games.jpg

Everyone in board gaming goes on about how high-quality X’s of Whatever’s cardboard bits are, but Hive doesn’t fuck around: it has thick, pleasing Bakelite tiles that stack nicely in the (admittedly shoddy) plastic insert. (My edition does, at least: I know there are some wood ones going as well.) The insect-etching colours aren’t my fav, but overall: noice.

I can overlook the accompanying weird, 90s plastic tile-bag that looks like a soccer ball or a Bop-It accessory. It’s a good thing to include though, for portability’s sake. I just wish it wasn’t quite so Toys R Us.

The game mechanic involves simple strategy. This will explain the rules, though you don’t really need to know them to follow along. Suffice it to say, it’s a bit chessy. Not like the expansive, tactical/logistic chess midgame, more like the tight, ‘move in for the kill’ endgame. Which isn’t my favourite part of chess, really? If I sat down and did endgame puzzles I’d get better I guess, but it wouldn’t be *fun*, exactly. It’s this chessy quality that makes my girlfriend, who is very good at all kinds of the trad Euro games Hive doesn’t really feel like–games that certainly involve thinking and some planning–really dislike Hive. She’s not super-practiced at the ‘causal chain’ thinking chess demands (which might be a native leaning or a learned skill, or both). If you don’t enjoy or have a knack for that, if you’re really more a Eurogames person than someone who could really go for a round of checkers when the mood takes them, there’s a chance Hive won’t do it for you.

Neither of us find Hive that fun–and not just because of the win-imbalance. For me, there’s not enough to do in this game. If I wanted this sort of strategy experience I’d play chess (or I would if bloody anyone in the house wanted to play chess with me*), or maybe like, Chinese Checkers? That’s the sort of game this feels like, and it is interesting to see someone developing games along those lines, even if the result isn’t really for me. The rounds are quick, which was both a bonus and a sign that the game wouldn’t hold my interest. If they weren’t quick, it’d probably be due to analysis paralysis. I feel like if I really learned Hive I could potentially develop strategies etc., but I’m not grabbed enough for that. Hive doesn’t have chess’s complexity, glam lore or variants to draw you in.

VERDICT: We traded it on for ‘Hey! That’s my fish!’ I was not involved in this decision. We’ll see, mate. We’ll see.

* I don’t miss chess in a ‘casual game once in a while’ way, though? Either I’m in a period and situation where I’m playing 5 games a day with people around me or I’m not. I don’t really want the online experience or a game once a month. I don’t NEED chess, either. I think that part of my brain gets, for the most part, satisfied by Eurogaming. But it’s odd–I do feel I have a certain quality of itchy, compulsive thinking these hobbies answer in a way my chiefest pursuits (reading, watching, writing, cooking) don’t, really. I sometimes get the vague sense that it’s ‘healthy’ for me personally to do some gaming, that it gives me a feeling of Having Done Something which is not to be dismissed when you have depression and honestly often don’t. Accomplishment breeds accomplishment.** Maybe.

** I have always thought this and then I ran smack into mad, manic-depressive Dickens saying exactly the same thing in a letter and thought ‘oh christ,’ so I’m er, more aware it may be self-justifying bullshit, at this point.