Catherynne Valente's Under in the Mere re-imagines the characters of Arthurian legend, fusing a modern storytelling sensibility with a poesy drawn from the days when words were also spells. Thus, it is possible for her Lancelot to say:
The grail was her waist in my hands, and now the cup will never pass to me, except that I touched its rim when I spilled a son into a needled womb, except that I lit with the tongue of that red-haired girl the twelfth star in the crown of heaven. (p. 56)
But to understand what such lines mean requires a drowning in the text. To this we are urged. In the first story of the suite, the Lady of the Lake invites us to: "Lean in, lean in" (p. 10). Do so, and you'll drown. This is a seductive book, as haunting as a whale song, but its appreciation requires one to have a taste for water.
Under in the Mere has eleven chapters, a series of first-person accounts from four major and seven minor characters in the Arthur legend. The book's language—allusive, meditative, and elevated—often attains the level of a prose-poem. Valente's passages reminded me of D. H. Lawrence in their physicality and rhythm. For example, when Mordred says:
"I will not be king. I know that. Secrets aren't kings. Genealogies are meant to be worn on one's chest, not held under the tongue like a communion wafer. I wait for it to melt and it stays hard and sharp against my mouth." (p. 120)
Three simple sentences, two compound-complex sentences and one complex sentence. In forty-four carefully chosen words, Valente balances Mordred's logical complicity in holding his tongue with a communion wafer, while simultaneously insinuating that the secret of his incestuous origins is a sacrament. Water represents forgiveness in this book, and because Arthur's original sin can't be dissolved, even in the universal solvent, Mordred must unjustly bear its weight. She does this sort of thing often and makes it look easy, but it isn't.
Four of the stories will stay with me. How is it to be the brother of Christendom's greatest Rex? Valente's Kay tells you how. How is it to be an arm in a lake, reduced to doubt and bone, to know grazing touch but not its consequences? Valente's Lady of the Lake tells you how. How is it to be a secret, to know one will never be Rex, for "secrets aren't kings"? Valente's Mordred tells you how. And how is it to be the last of the knights, to watch the sword turn thrice in the dying sun towards the waiting hand? Valente's Bedivere tells you how. In T. H. White's The Once and Future King, Merlin has the Wart, the young Arthur, assume the forms of a fish, hawk, ant, goose, and a badger, so that he may learn what not to do. In this collection of tales, Valente give us a similar immersive opportunity to understand why the legend's characters chose to do what they did.
But sometimes their explanations do them a disservice. Part of the problem is that occasionally Valente's style runs away with the spoon, as in the weepy Lancelot chapter, where Lancelot insists on saying things like: "She spat on my hands, and my bones broke like a gate in the wind, and the moon rolled out of my mouth" (p. 53). Not to worry though. It rolls back in at the end of the chapter. For Dagonet, it's snowdrops that fall out of his mouth (p. 40), and for Galahad it's the Atlantic that rolls out (p. 106).
The other problem is that there's far too much woe. The accounts of Lancelot and Mordred have the scripted sincerity of celebrity apologia. Every story, without exception, is tinged with self-pity. It's as if every character's thigh, not just that of Sir Pellinore, bears the Dolorous stroke. The characters exhibit their wounds all too willingly, and are as self-righteously aggrieved as bankers at bailout hearings. Though the allusive, elevated style works for most of the stories, especially those of Bedivere and Dagonet, it doesn't work for the tale of Balin and Balan, the inseparable brothers who are tricked into fighting and killing each other. The brothers are twits, I suspect, not capable of the sophistication Valente gives them. I can't help thinking that a treatment along the lines of Chris Farley and David Spade in Tommy Boy would've worked better.
Facetiousness aside, this does point to a basic problem with the book. When all the stories are told in the same elevated style, it dissolves the strong distinctions that make the legend's original characters so memorable. "A lake has so many voices, you know," the Lady of the Lake reminds us (p. 9). Yes, but here, they all tend to speak in an alphabet of sighs.
Of course, Valente has an uphill task because, like me, most readers will have their own strong childhood impressions of these characters. Valente's brilliantly characterized Kay is not my Lord Kay. Hers is a robot who follows its king's instructions to the letter even as it dreams of escaping the grip of code altogether, whereas my Lord Kay is a beloved older brother who grew up to be tired. My Morgan le Fay is the White Witch of C. S. Lewis's Narnia, whereas James and Jeremy Owen draw Valente's Morgan le Fay in shades of black and white and make her look like Alanis Morissette. So on and so forth.
But crosstalk or not, Valente's book made me re-appreciate the fact that the Arthurian legend is about a philosophical struggle. Authors have interpreted this struggle in varying ways. For Charles Williams, it was the struggle between Celtic Longres and Britain. For T. H. White, it was the struggle of might against the right of might. For Tolkien, it was the struggle to keep mythos in civilization, and for C. S. Lewis—the Dick Cheney of the mythologists—the important thing was that the struggle stay a struggle and not turn into a negotiation. For Valente, the struggle seems to be about the irony of free will in a world run by a story. This is clearest in the eighth story when Galahad, steadily losing in a Jacobean wrestle with the Lord, muses:
"But still, I will not come to you, will not succumb to the destiny you have written for me. This is not a quest, but a battle, and my will is as strong as yours." (p. 94)
Dagonet, the King's Fool and Galahad's alter ego in the volume, has no such illusions. He's born, he says, from the bone-lacquered center tile of Camelot's court floor, and be it ever so beautiful, coruscant with stars and constellations, roses and crocuses, virgins and sheaves of wheat, and be it ever so beautiful, Dagonet knows that:
" . . . in the end, the floor cannot be unwalked upon. It is not asked if it would prefer a surcease of shoes. . . . It will sing, because it was made for singing, and because the feet would have their song." (p. 48)
To be the feet or the floor, that is the struggle. Quests and questions may connect the two, but in the end, Valente seems to say, there shall be no peace unless we submit, as Galahad does in the end:
"You know that the end of the quest is silence, only the quest is the sound and dancing and galloping towards . . . And the sea swallowed my voice." (p. 109)
Galahad merges into the Sea. It's a somewhat Hindu resolution to Galahad's very Christian quest for justice, and I'm not sure it's one he would have preferred. The other characters also move against their preferences. Lord Kay prefers not to be his younger brother's vassal. Balin and Balan prefer not to kill each other. Lancelot prefers not to lust for Guinevere. The Green Knight prefers his wife were faithful. The Lady of the Lake would prefer, no doubt, to get out of the damn tub. But in the end, they submit to their destinies, submit to inevitability, perhaps transcending their submission in the manner of little Jack Horner who said to his mother when forced to sit in a corner: "I may be sitting, but I'm still standing inside." Or so I prefer to believe.
The philosophical ideas in the book are complemented by the esoteric aspects of the book's structure. Each chapter is accompanied by a Tarot illustration by James and Jeremy Owen. The eleven Tarot cards, if Wikipedia is to be believed, represent a subset of the twenty-two in the Major Arcana. The cards, in chapter-sequence, are: The Star, The Wheel Of Fortune, Death, The Fool, The Hanged Man, The Lovers, The Hierophant, The Hermit, The Tower, The World, Judgment. Since the cards have a different sequence in the Arcana—for example, The Star is the seventeenth card in the Major Arcana, but it's the first one in the book—the net effect is that of a random drawing of cards along with their associated stories or readings. Of course, it only appears to be random. The stories are told, in sequence, by the Lady of the Lake, Lord Kay, the Green Knight, Dagonet, Lancelot, Balin and Balan, Pellinore, Galahad, Mordred, Bedivere, and Morgan le Fay. The mirror symmetry in this sequence is obvious: Lady of the Lake and Morgan Le Fay; Kay and Bedivere; Dagonet and Galahad; Lancelot and Pellinore . . . The randomness is illusory.
Indeed, randomness is the one virtue alien to the book's worldview. Readers who like Easter egg hunts will find much to exclaim over, especially in the interplay between the missing cards and their implicit representations in the book. For example, Justice—the eighth card in the Major Arcana—is not explicitly represented in this collection. However, the eighth tale deals with Galahad's quest, one that questions the justice of being created to live as a character in a story. Perhaps this book has a sister-volume, consisting of the eleven cards Valente did not draw: The Magician, Justice, The Juggler, Strength, The Emperor . . . Or consider the fact that the book only has eleven chapters, eleven Houses as it were. In Astrology, the twelfth house is the House of Pisces, "the twelfth star in the crown of heaven" (p. 56), the drowning house, and signifies the unconscious. This stuff is pure Jungian Viagra.
Valente's book may be ruled by Pisces, but her inspiration is rooted in a fire lit in her childhood. In the acknowledgment, Valente thanks her father who had placed in her young hands a copy of Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur And His Noble Knights, and thus sparked "a permanent obsession." It was an inspiration well lit. Some half a millennium since Sir Thomas Malory published his great work, we may place our hand on Catherynne M. Valente's fine volume and still feel the heat from that distant fire.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From The Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet is out now from Zubaan Books.