Thursday, August 31, 2017

Keeping Up Appearances

No, this post isn’t about one of my favorite TV shows. It’s just that most of my reading for August involved plots that turned on appearances and especially the difference between appearance and reality.

Phineas Redux is the fourth book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, a group of six novels centering on characters with positions in Parliament and the Ministry. Its constant inspection of the tension between duty to party, duty to truth, and duty to country ceratinly read like a commentary on current news. But what stood out to me even more was a theme of the appearance of faithlessness. Phineas appears to be faithless to his party near the beginning of the book. A few chapters in, Adelaide Palliser and Gerard Maule appear to abandon their love for one another. And about halfway through, Phineas appears to have murdered Mr. Bonteen.

Yes, he only appears to have killed the president of the Trade Board. I’m not giving anything away in saying he didn’t actually commit the deed. Like Hitchcock in Dial M for Murder, Trollope has a talent for revealing endings at the beginning of a story and then filling the path to those endings with suspense. I suppose I could say that Trollope himself gives an appearance of faithlessness to his readers by showing his hand. But (and here’s another almost certainly original analogy) as Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent showed, sometimes a joke is funnier when the punchline comes first.

In a year of reading Arthurian sources, I caught up on Chrétien de Troyes just about the time Phineas was standing trial. Among Chrétien’s late twelfth-century contributions to the legends were Camelot, the Holy Grail (which he identified merely as a “holy object”), and Lancelot: in other words, about half of what immediately springs to mind at the mention of everyone’s favorite King of all Britain. (In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, Arthur comes into the world with Merlin and Excalibur at his side. Wace added the Round Table to the recipe in 1155.)

Lancelot enters the world in a wonderful story in which he is known as the Knight of the Cart. The tale begins with Lancelot, having lost his mount, accepting a ride on a cart. Today’s reader learns two things very quickly: (1) riding a cart is the most shameful act any knight could ever commit, and (2) news of cart-riding travels very fast in Chrétien’s chivalric Britain. Everywhere he goes, everyone sees Lancelot as a disgrace to all that is good and decent, and yet he’s just doing whatever it takes to track down the kidnapped Guenevere. Appearances can be so deceiving!

When Lancelot finds his queen, he tears out the bars to her cell with his bare hands. Because the battle of appearance and reality is the theme of the story, he later restores the bars and leaves her in the cell in order to performs some deeds that will make the rescue perfect. But he has left the blood of his raw hands on the bed clothes, which doesn’t look so good for Guenevere.

Later in the story, the tables have turned: Guenevere is in Camelot and Lancelot is a prisoner. Lance hears of a tournament back home and convinces a serving girl who brings his daily food to let him out of his cell just long enough to compete. The poor girl points out that if he fights under his own colors and escutcheon, everyone will know that she has betrayed her master. So to protect her, Lancelot leaves for the weekend and jousts in disguise. Guenevere susses him out, though. As the Lady of the Tournament, she secretly bids the mysterious stranger to do his worst one day, and, honor bound to obey, he loses every match. The next day she instructs him to do his best, and sure enough, he wins every match. Only Lancelot could have the prowess to control his success so exactly.

By the date of this post, it appears as if I wrote and published it in August. But it is actually December as I type. The semester is almost over, and I’ll have more time to catch up on blogging in the next three weeks. So now it’s beginning to appear as if I will finish my minimal plan of one post for each month of 2017.

No comments:

Post a Comment