The greatest height of heroism to which an individual, like a people, can attain is to know how to face ridicule; better still, to know how to make oneself ridiculous and not to shrink from the ridicule.
— Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life
Since my blog is the place where I write about things I want to think about, my lucky readers get to glimpse some writerly musings in the next few posts. Today let's begin with Keftu, my protagonist.
Keftu is of a sanguine temperament. He would never write a post like this, unlike melancholic-phlegmatic me! He's also a bit of a fool, as my other characters remind him from time to time. He owes a lot to Percival, the bumpkin-turned-quest-knight whose innocence and stupidity allow him to be used by God. Whether Keftu is useful to the abscondent gods of Enoch remains to be seen, of course.
Like Daedalus, he makes his own wings, but he really has more in common with Icarus. My depiction of him with only one wing on the back cover of Dragonfly is meant to suggest Paul Klee's The Hero with the Wing, which depicts a tragicomic figure who has injured himself in his idiotic attempts to fly.
Quite a few other figures from fable, myth, history, and romance are present in Keftu's DNA, both positively and negatively. He is Gilgamesh (seeker after immortality), Cain (wanderer) and Abel (sacrifice-offerer), Noah (ark pilot), Nimrod (mighty hunter), Abraham (visionary) and Jacob (dream-traveler), Moses (seer of the burning bush), Tobias (vanquisher of demons), and Christ (harrower of hell). He is Prometheus (fire-giver), Hermes (argus-slayer), Theseus (maze-runner), Perseus (gorgon's head-bearer), Bellerophon (steed-tamer and chimera-slayer), Heracles (monster fighter), Orpheus (singer of the dead), and Odysseus (trickster). He is Solon the Lawgiver and Pompey the Great. He is Beowulf and Siegfried. He is the Continental Op and Gilbert Gosseyn. He is Batman, Superman, and Luke Skywalker.
In addition to all of this, I consider Keftu an ironic antitype of Frodo Baggins. Frodo's quest is more or less handed to him. You know where he's going from the first chapters of The Lord of the Rings. The drama lies in the spiritual cost of his continued adherence to this goal. But what if he'd been driven out of the Shire – driven into the arms of the quest, so to speak – without ever having heard of Gandalf, Sauron, or the One Ring? Gandalf is busy elsewhere, with no time to spare for Hobbits; Sauron himself couldn't care less about them; there never was a Ring to wrap incarnate evil up in a neat little package. Frodo has no high destiny but, cut off from his past, finds himself unable to live without one, and therefore invents it for himself. Nevertheless, not a day goes by in which he doesn't look into the abyss and think: what if I'm only deluding myself?
Who in our time hasn't experienced this anxiety? I've gone through phases when I imagined myself acting on a divine mandate. I'll bet that just about everyone, even thoroughgoing materialists, try to see some kind of pattern or logic in the events of their lives. It's part of being human. But, for me, it's always been undercut by a nagging doubt that I'm just talking to myself. After many colorful disappointments, I've come to decide that, if there is a divine agency guiding us to some appointed end, then its action is dark and mysterious, not a voice booming on a mountaintop. It's something that acts from outside time, and therefore in a way that's not really comprehensible to us, and is much less concerned with "geography" than we are.
I attempt to capture some of this in my description of Keftu's songlines, which I adapt from the worldview of the Indigenous Australians, combining it with the mnemonic palace of Sephaura inspired by the method of loci developed by Simonides of Ceos. Keftu's greatness, if he has any greatness, lies in that he knows that he does not know. But his world is littered with grand failures, with persons, human and otherwise, who think they know but do not.
One such is Vaustus, whose character is a composite of several pastors and missionaries I encountered back in my wild college days. The episode that lost him his leg actually happened to someone I knew, except that my friend was unsuccessful in his amputation, which he attempted, naked, with a handsaw in a stranger's open garage. (There, doesn't that make you want to read my book?) But we were all a bit like that.
You'd think that a person, when faced with the cosmic contradiction to the divine mandate they've claimed as a guide for their personal actions, would be forced to admit that they've been acting under a delusion. But you'd be wrong. Their entire ego and worldview are wrapped up in a particular vision of themselves. So, instead, they go a little bit crazy. They revise the past, reinterpret the prophecy, attempt to see what isn't there. Every time this happens, they go a little bit crazier. Deliberately short-circuiting your ability to see reality isn't good for your psychic integrity.
My point is, life is a frightening, painful, messed-up experience ending in death. We all desperately want it to have some kind of meaning. A quest fantasy is comforting because it seems to present life as a logical progression of events with a clear and definite end. But real life isn't like that. Attempts to live like it is only result in madness and despair, or else boundless fatuity and narcissism. Sword-and-sorcery, as opposed to epic fantasy, seems to take what we might call the cynical view. At any rate, it's not particularly concerned with overarching narratives. That's what I like about it.
Come to think of it, though, that could be applied to Frodo's journey. At no point is he altogether certain of his means. The goal is never really in question, but all responsibility is laid on his shoulders. Even Gandalf and Elrond refuse to advise him. And, in the end, he fails! Or would have failed, had not Gollum intervened. In fact, you could argue that, far from being Winnie-the-Pooh for adults, The Lord of the Rings is way more cynical (or mature) than the Elric Saga. So I find that my characterization of Frodo's quest doesn't do justice to the text, though it does describe your cookie-cutter mass market quest fantasy.
Still, it's true that Keftu has no Gandalf, as is pointed out in the passage quoted at the top of Fletcher Vredenburgh's kind review of my most recent novel. He's on his own in a way that Frodo never was. He has no goal but what he sets himself.