Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Anelida and Arcite and Zombies

Whitby Ruins in Distance
by KARL STEEL

Obviously, get excited about the new Postmedieval issue, first.

Sometime either before or after the appearance of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I had an idea for a novel by the same name. Let's say almost certainly after. In my version of PP&Z, no one fights zombies. No one needs to rewrite the novel. The plot remains intact: we still have Mr. Collins, the Bingleys, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, all Austen's panoply of human frailty and silliness and pride and prejudice; we still have Austen's plot and words. We have them all, until the beginning of Chapter XIX, the last, which would go like this:
Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters. With what delighted pride she afterwards visited Mrs. Bingley and talked of Mrs. Darcy may be guessed. I would I could say, for the sake of her family, indeed for the sake of us all, that the zombies had never come. But they did, and I write this, I suppose, as the last of our human race, soon to die, blessedly, by my own hand.
FINIS.
Here's a zombie novel as it should be done, without heroism, without hope, written with as full a picture as possible of what the universal catastrophe destroys. Zombie narratives tend to center on the survivors, but what about everyone else? They have lives, beautiful lives some of them, lives--like Elizabeth Bennett--full of wisdom and high feeling, full of the promise of a beautiful future, and then the zombies come, and it all goes dark.

I'll leave aside the obvious parallels with death (which, with the stupidity of a shuffling zombie, snuffs out the beautiful, wise, and hopeful) to observe that the coming of the zombies doesn't destroy the novel. Not even retroactively. The high feelings were there. They mattered. They matter, maybe, even after the zombies come. It's not a matter of saying, "Why should we care about Mr. Darcy's hurt feelings, when we know he's going to be dismembered by his own family?" After all, Pride & Prejudice 2, or maybe Pride & Prejudice 14, might have to end with Elizabeth's death, unless she's some monstrous immortal, unless this is Pride & Prejudice & Vampires.

Which it's not, thank goodness.

That's all a long wind-up to saying that I taught Chaucer's Anelida & Arcite (hereafter Anel) for the first time last night, which is to say, I read it for the first time recently, because I'm not (shhhh) much of a Chaucerian. Being more of a Chaucerian than I am, you know that Anel's often considered to be a failure, unfinished. I'm not so sure, because I think it might be--brilliantly!--structured like my own version of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

In words that may or may not be Chaucer's own, the last stanza runs as follows:
When that Anelida, this woful quene,
Hath of her hand y writen in this wise,
With face ded, betwixe pale and grene,
She fel a-swowe; and sith she gan to rise,
And unto Mars avoweth sacrifise
Withinne the temple, with a sorowful chere,
That shapen was as ye shal after here. (350-57)
[When Anelida, this woeful queen, had written [the preceding lament] in this manner in her own hand, with a dead face, between pale and green, she swooned; and then she arose and with a sorrowful visage vowed sacrifice to Mars at his temple, which was made as you shall hear below]
To Mars, of all gods! Mars, "which that through his furious cours of ire.../ throng her, now ther, among hem [Athens and Thebes] bothe, / That everych other slough, so were they wrothe" (Anel 49, 55-6; who through his furious wrathful course / forced his way now here, now there, among both Athens and Thebes, / so that everyone slew each other, as they were so wrathful). An Armenian princess living in Thebes, of all places, sacrifices to Mars, whose image Duke Theseus of Athens bears on his war banner. Theseus, who appears in the poem's opening, returning in triumph to Athens from Scythia, "in his baner large / The ymage of Mars" (Anel 30-31; on his large banner, the image of Mars), and who seems to disappear entirely from the narrative. Theseus, the bane of Creon, the widow's savior, Thebe's nemesis. It's clearer in Lydgate than it is in Chaucer:

He bete [Thebes] downe and the howsys brente,
The puple slough for al her crying loude,
Maad her wallys and her towrys proude
Rounde aboute, evene upon a rowe,
With the soyle to be lade ful lowe,
That nought was left but the soyle al bare. (The Siege of Thebes 4556-62)
[He beat Thebes down and burned the houses, and slew the people, despite their loud pleas, and made her walls and her surrounding proud towers, all in a row, to be knocked down entirely to the soil, so that nothing was left but bare soil] 
Theseus has not, then, disappeared entirely from Anelida & Arcite. He's as present as air. He awaits, creeping amid the story of Arcite's betrayal of Anelida and his subsequent yoking to a politic woman, over all Anelida's self-lacerating lament, over all this high desperation. Destruction awaits Arcite, who, at best, will be rescued "nat fully quyke, ne fully dede" (KnT I.1015; not entirely alive, nor fully dead) from a heap of Theban corpses, his city a wreck behind him. And destruction awaits Anelida, as we would have expected for an Armenian Princess, whose kingdom fell to the Mamelukes of Egypt in 1375 (for more on the trauma of this collapse, felt as far as England, see Carolyn P. Collette and Vincent J. DiMarco in SAC 23).

All this feeling, all this--if you're unsympathetic--self-pity, all this failure of Boethian values, betrayed by Arcite's lack of steadfastness and his doubleness, all this will be destroyed, as we must realize when Anelida reminds us when she vows sacrifice to Mars. Her sacrifice is a summons that reverses emotional foreground and historical background.

We end, in short, with the coming of the zombies.

This doesn't mean that Anelida's feelings don't matter. They do, but--or and--her agony will be ended by another agony, far more deadly than the disease of a bad romance that "craumpyssheth her lymes crokedly" (Anel 171 ; bends her limbs crookedly). Anelida's love is love in the time of zombies.

And, for us, amid the catastrophe of climate change and mass extinctions, we're also loving in zombie time. Our love matters. Our own familial pains matter. They do, I'm sure of it, even if we're about to be scoured away by a catastrophe so much bigger than, or so different from, any of our small griefs.

(apologies if someone's already made this argument. I couldn't know less about Anel criticism. Correct me in comments and I'll update the post accordingly)
(edit: late day update, corrected some of the Middle English typos and, by request, provided translations of the Middle English, because we're not all Middle English scholars out there)

2 comments:

lizz said...

I love this, and I can think of a zillion early modern texts about which we might make the same argument. In fact, perhaps Jacobean tragicomedy generally fits, and that opens up interesting possibilities for re-thinking the Stuart Era.

Also, I'm teaching Titus right now, and I always draw the connections between Titus's Rome, Shakespeare's late-Elizabethan England, and America in the second Bush term: definitely zombie time in all cases. I'm totes bringing this into class tomorrow night.

Karl Steel said...

Lizz, thanks a lot, and thanks for the connections to your drama. If you bring it in tonight, do let me know how it goes.