Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Fragments of Fantasy

Some years ago I was one of the speakers at a workshop called ‘Reconstructing & Adapting Ancient Greek Fragmentary Tragedy: Methodologies & Challenges for Classicists and Theatre Practitioners’, held under the aegis of the Centre for the Reception of Greece and Rome of the Department of Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London; funded by the Classical Association and organised by Andriana Domouzi. It was a fascinating day. My contribution was to talk about three Euripidean plays I restored: Hypsipyle, Phaethon and Telephus. What’s that, you ask? What do I mean, restored? Well: eighteen complete Euripidean plays have survived from antiquity to the modern age, but the old boy actually wrote ninety or more plays in his long life. Of the seventy-plus that have not survived some have disappeared completely (such that we only have their titles), where others have survived in fragmentary form.

Such fragments as we have come from various places. Mostly what we have are lines or short passages from the plays that were quoted by other, later authors, usually to illustrate a metrical pattern or perhaps an unusual word. We also have a number of actual tattered bits of papyrus dug out of the sand at Oxyrhynchus or elswhere, in various states of decay, and with various bits of various plays on them. Other evidence includes summaries of play plots, adaptations into Latin, illustrations on pots and so on.

The amount of material we have varies: for the Hypsipyle we have 600 lines (not in one lump of course: a passage here, another there and lots of stray and fugitive lines from who knows where), which is probably almost a third of the whole. With the Phaethon and Telephus we have less — although with the latter we have another kind of source: because Aristophanes mocked and parodied Euripides’ Telephus in various of his plays, especially Acharnians (425 BC) and Thesmaphoriazusae (411 BC). The Telephus is about a Mysian king who, having been injured by Achilles with a wound that continues to fester, is told by an oracle that ‘the one that wounded you will heal you’; so he travels, in rags, to Argos to seek a cure (in the event, filings from Achilles’ spear, sprinkled on his wound, make him all better). But Aristophanes thought it was outrageous and incompatible with the dignity of royal authority to show a king on stage in rags, and he repeatedly attacked Euripides for doing so. The ways in which he parodied the Telephus tell us, I think, a lot about the Telephus. That, at any rate, is what I decided when I wrote my reconstruction.

Why did I undertake such a labour, you ask? Well: I’ll tell you. My first degree, back in the depths of the last century, was English/Classics and it was on that course that I first really encountered and fell in love with Attic tragedy. I went on to do a PhD on Browning and the Classics. That thesis, and later research, involved quite a lot of detailed work on RB’s translation of the Agamemnon, as well as his versions of the Herakles and the Alkestis. More than this, Browning (like Shelley, Arnold and Swinburne) was intrigued by the surviving fragments of Greek tragedy, and began a reconstruction of his own: perhaps a speculative version of Euripides’s Hippolytos Stephanophoros (Ἱππόλυτος στεφανοφόρος, ‘Hippolytus Crown-wearer’) although in the event all he produced was a prologue, published in 1842 as ‘Artemis Prologizes’.

My fascination with the fragmentary dramas has stayed with me, and the reason why that’s so raises interesting (for me at least) questions about my larger aesthetic fascinations, as a writer and a critic. At any rate, I wrote my English reconstructions of Hypsipyle, Phaethon and Telephus. These were set to be published by a London-based small press a decade and a bit ago, but the company went bust and I haven’t done anything else with them — I should go back to them, actually.

So, that’s what I talked about at the colloquium. Although to be honest, I didn’t really talk about my own dabblings in reconstruction. Instead I tried, in the time allotted me, to make a more ambitious point about the fragmentary as such. If I’d had more time I would have made the point broader still: because at the moment I am pulling together a critical history of Fantasy as a mode, and I find myself interested by the way that all fits into this picture.

So, with my right hand I write crticism and academic scholarship and so on, most of which has to do with the Romantic and Victorian periods (my job title at Royal Holloway, University of London, is ‘Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture’). I do view the contemporary age as in crucial ways ‘post-Romantic’, in that I think Romanticism revolutionised literature and culture in ways that still shape things today. There are various (big) ways in which this is true, I think; but for now my interest is in the way Romanticism valorised the fragment as such. I’d say we’re still living with the consequences of that conceptual and aesthetic celebration.

This is a very large topic, and I’m going to risk distorting it by rattling through at speed. But very broadly: there was no particular cult of the fragment before the German Romantics, but from them, and Schlegel in particular, a fascination with the fragmentary spread to English Romanticism. This had, amongst other things, to do with the invention of archaeology in more-or-less its modern form in the later eighteenth-century, and the habit wealthy Grand Tourists got into of bringing partly-broken statuary and the like back from Greece and Italy to ornament their stately homes. But it was Schlegel who created a conceptual armature for the celebration of fragments as such. Here’s Allen Speight:

The fragment is among the most characteristic figures of the Romantic movement. The fragment as employed by Schlegel and the Romantics is distinctive in both its form (as a collection of pieces by several different authors) and its purpose. For Schlegel, a fragment as a particular has a certain unity (“[a] fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog,” Athenaeumsfragment 206), but remains nonetheless fragmentary in the perspective it opens up and in its opposition to other fragments. Its “unity” thus reflects Schlegel’s view of the whole of things not as a totality but rather as a “chaotic universality” of infinite opposing stances.

If a literary form like the fragment opens up the question of the relation between finite and infinite, so do the literary modes of allegory, wit and irony — allegory as a finite opening toward the infinite (“every allegory means God”), wit as the “fragmentary geniality” or “selective flashing” in which a unity can momentarily be seen, and irony as their synthesis. Although impressed with the Socratic notion of irony (playful and serious, frank and deeply hidden, it is the freest of all licenses, since through it one rises above one’s own self, Schlegel says in Lyceumfragment 108), Schlegel nonetheless employs it in a way perhaps more reminiscent of the oscillations of Fichtean selfhood. Irony is at once, as he says in Lyceumfragment 37, self-creation, self-limitation, and self-destruction.

This is, at root, religious move, and connected to the invention of the modern category of the Sublime by Burke, Kant and others (this same Sublime runs right through into later science fiction, as our much prized ‘sense of wonder’: the total perspective vortex of awe, wonder and terror that the sheer scale of the cosmos evokes in us). God is infinite, immortal, whereas we are finite and mortal. This entire world in which we live, big though it is, is only a fragment of the divine totality and harmony, and though our finite brains cannot apprehend actual infinity we can, as it were, get a glimpse out of the corner of our eye. So: fragments, by not pretending to unity and harmony, are not only more honest, they actually generate more intense affect than do well-wrought-urns, because they gesture at their implicit greater greatnesses, with (often) the added pathos of that greatness having been lost. It’s Shelley’s traveller from an antique land in ‘Ozymandias’. It’s Fuseli’s The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments (1780):

From this it’s a short step to the deliberate prefabrication of fragmentary forms as art. Schlegel famously said ‘the works of the ancients have become fragments; the works of the moderns are fragments at their inception’. It’s why the craze for architectural follies swept England and France: constructing the pre-ruined tower of a castle that never existed on your country estate was so much more en vogue than building a complete and finished structure.

This is the climate in which Coleridge publishes ‘Kubla Khan’ — a poem that personally I consider one of the most finished and perfect in the language (I mean: have you read it?) but nonetheless a poem published as a fragment, with a lengthy prefatory note spinning Coleridge’s whole Porlockian story as to why it’s allegedly unfinished. It’s why he was happy to publish the unfinished ‘Christabel’, or why the Prelude (a mere shard of the mega-epical Recluse Wordsworth originally planned) stands as one of the signature masterpieces of the age. This feeds through into High Modernism (a much more fundamentally Romantic literary movement than is often realised, I think) as the apotheosis of the fragment: Eliot’s Waste Land assembled out of orts and scraps, quotations and original lines: ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins — why then Ile fit you’: — fit as the fragmented consciousness of the epileptic, but also fit as the jigsaw-puzzle assemblage of the myriad broken bits and pieces into a mosaic. See also: Joyce & Pound, Picasso & Braque, montage & mass-reproduction, Art of & Noise (this last example bringing ‘postmodernism’ into the mix: similarly enamoured of the brittle joys of shinily tesselated surfaces comprised of a bricolage of quotation, allusion and fragmented sensibility).

Saying all this is not saying anything very new. Thomas McFarland’s Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin: Wordsworth, Coleridge, the Modalities of Fragmentation eloquently explored this subject all the way back in the 1980s, and though some more recent studies have had various issues with McFarland’s influential book (Marjorie Levinson’s more recent The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form is very good, for instance) the consensus remains that the fragment is the characteristic form of Romantic and post-Romantic art.

And to move back towards the question of the classics, it has real-world consequences too. Go into any museum, and you’ll see artefacts from the ancient world presented to punters as fragments: ridiculously so, really. There’s no way that a face with its nose sheared off (say) can look anything other than lamentable, and such a ruin certainly doesn’t convey what the original sculptor was trying to get at. But museum directors will under no circumstances repair the broken fragments of statuary in their collections, let alone paint them in their original colours. The organiser of the symposium at which I presented went on to submit her PhD — on fragmentary Euripidean plays. She passed, I’m pleased to say, but her examiners insisted she remove any and all speculation, no matter how expertly informed, about how the plots of the complete plays might go. Only the pure and absolutely unvarnished fragments themselves were allowed to stand. We can make a fetish of our fragments.

This brings me to my left-hand, the one that does the non-academic writing: science fiction and fantasy and imaginative engagement. The hand that took this fragmentary project by Anthony Burgess and completed it. The hand that yearns one day to complete Coleridge’s unfinished Opus Maximum, or confect a complete, 24-canto Don Juan or an alt-historical ‘Kubla Khan’ in which the Man From Porlock never called. That hand.

To be clear: I have no beef with the Romantic, Modern or Postmodern fragment. On the contrary, art produced under its aegis remains my favourite art. I could recite pretty much the whole of The Waste Land by heart, for instance. But nonetheless my creative allegience belongs not to High Modernism and its literary-experimental high culture descendants, but on the contrary to the derided pulp shadow of that High Modernist tradition. Let’s take for example Tolkien, for the simple reason that I love him. For all the problems with his writing, all the limitations of his representation of women, the racial cast to his imagination, his small-c (and large-C) Conservatism, I love him. I read him obsessively as a kid, and have re-read the Lord of the Rings every year through my life. He was my gateway drug into Fantasy and therefore SF.

Now one way we might want to take Tolkien is as anti-matter to the matter of High Modernism. As Jenny Turner notes, Joyce wrote one short, accessible and widely-read book (Portrait of the Artist), one much longer and more challenging novel about language and myth that featured some of the same characters (Ulysses) and one mad giant unreadable book (Finnegans Wake). Tolkien, of course — The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1954–5) and The Silmarillion (1977) — did the same. But Joyce became the cornerstone of the academy’s sense of what the novel in the 20th-Century means, and Tolkien, still largely academically neglected, became instead the favourite of the general non-academic reader, as per Tom Shippey’s polemical, and wonderful, study: Tolkien: the Author of the Century. In many ways Tolkien, and the pulp-SF inheritors of H G Wells, shadow the trajectory of Joyce, and the high-art inheritors of the tradition of Henry James, through this period.

And that’s peculiarly relevant to the broader argument I’m trying to pull together for this blog-post. Because the core fact about Tolkien, really the starting-point from which everything he wrote and imagined derived (even more fundamental than his deep philological passion for inventing languages) was his stated desire to reconstruct a mythology for England.

He felt the need to do this because, in Tom Shippey’s words, ‘England is the most de-mythologised nation on Earth’. Where the Greeks still have access to a more-or-less coherent sense of their body of ancient myths and religions, where the old Japanese myths and legends can still inform Japanese life and sense of self, where Native American or African ancient rituals and stories are still alive — and so on around the world — the aboriginal body of myth and religious practice of the English are barely recuperable (this state of affairs is a little less extreme for the Welsh, Scots and Irish). This has two causes: one, the Norman Invasion and the subsequent ruthlessness with which the invaders suppressed native culture in the service of maintaining their own stranglehold on power; and, two, the later Puritan revolution when, with Taliban-like single-mindedness, Cromwell’s regime went about the country extirpating as much of the old, pagan culture as they could (Tolkien added a third purgation to this narrative: the Industrial Revolution. But I’m not sure I agree with him on this. Mass industrialisation certainly had a deracinating effect on British culture and society, but my sense is that at this time people were more, not less, likely to revert to ancestral stories: and there was no focused attempt to destroy the ancient culture in the 19th-century — on the contrary this century saw the florescence of antiquarianism that began to search systematically into our lost past).

All we have left of our ‘original’ pre-Roman, pre-Norman culture and mythology are fragments. Sometimes these fragments snake their way into new forms. Arthurian myth and legend is all very fine and wonderful, but it is French, not English (Lancelot du Lac; check-out the surname) imported by the conquerors and written down for the benefit of an aristocratic audience of the ruling caste. But something of the ancient aboriginal myths of England surely inform the oral (rather than written) and peasant (not aristocratic) stories of Robin Hood, a kind of avatar of the Green Man of the Woods. Although the fuller understanding of what that character meant to the pre-conquest English is hard to pin-down. Why are there so many pubs across England called The Green Man? The people drinking in them couldn’t tell you, although there is, presumably, something with quite deep roots in the collective-alcoholic-sacramental folk-history of this country that explains it.

Similarly, if we go back to our pre-conquest literature to try and understand the older picture we’re faced with the fact that, though some Anglo Saxon literature has come down to us whole, lots hasn’t, and much of this latter makes little sense because its context has been destroyed.

Tolkien found these shards extraordinarily compelling, and he accreted his own stories about those orphaned references. For example: Eärendil the Mariner who in The Silmarillion sails his magic boat across the sky with a shining Silmaril upon his brow. He derives from the lines Tolkien found, orphaned from their larger Old English mythic or cultic context, in the Exeter Book:

éala éarendel engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended …

‘Hail Earendel! Brightest angel sent to man throughout middle-earth …’ Who’s this dude and what’s his story? We just don’t know. Tolkien took his expert’s sense of what Earendel probably meant to the pre-conquest English, and fleshed out a story that makes him the son of men and of elves (‘Aiya Eärendil, elenion ancalima!’, ‘Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!’) that ties in to his larger mythography of magic jewels and the battle against evil. And, in a larger sense, the whole of Tolkien’s legendarium is this: the restoration of a full mythic, cultural and narrative context for the bits and pieces or orphaned Anglo-Saxon that so moved him.

This is part of a much larger project for Tolkien. He saw the world as broken, and his interest was in trying to making it whole again. He believed healing is possible (specifically, he believed healing is possible through Christ, because his Catholic faith was a central part of who he was) and he wrote his fantasy to explore that conviction. This is the core thing that separates his art, and therefore the promiscuous body of commercial fantasy written in imitation of his art, from the High Modernist stream. And it’s this that brings me back to Greek tragedy, and the reason why it so captured my spirit back when I was young: an individual broken, in my various unexceptional if painful ways, as I was and am; living in a society fragmented in a larger and more dangerous manner as we all are. The thought that healing might be possible evidently spoke to me profoundly, as it continues to do.

Because that’s the thing about Greek tragedy: it almost always establishes a breach in order to heal the breach. Telephus is a play about a wounded king dressed in rags. Compare it with, let’s say, King Lear: also a play about a wounded king dressed in rags. The difference is that the whole point of the Telephus is that the king is healed, and so the world is; where the point about Shakespeare’s towering but remorseless masterpiece is that neither of those things can happen — the king’s wits are permanently shattered when his pride crashes against the anvil of a world that won’t bend to it — the kingdom is divided into pieces — Gloster’s eyes are pulled out — and so on, and on. Euripides’ play ends with a numinous wonder of the god himself, appearing on stage to seal the reconciliation; Shakespeare’s ends with the few survivors unable even to speak what they ought to say, and trudging off in misery.

What’s sometimes forgotten about Attic tragedy is that it was an integral part of a collective religious festival, a ritual by which the whole polis (except women, slaves and foreigners; but let’s not get into that at the moment) came together to work vicariously through the way trauma is superceded by reconciliation, all presided over by the deity Dionysis, god of drama and also wine, that intoxicating and therefore sacramental quantity. Aeschylus’s Agamemnon is a play about a rupture violently inflicted on the worlds of marriage, family and polis; but it is a mistake to treat this one drama in isolation, since the larger point of the Oresteia is tracing how, with what difficulties and compromises, the rupture is healed, and the terrors of the cosmos converted to kindly ones.

The Attic tragedy we have is fragmented in multiple ways: passages, singed and worn and pulled from the ground at Oxyrhnchus, lacking the rest of their play; individual plays missing the rest of their trilogies; drama missing the religious and political (versions of the same thing for ancient Greeks) contexts of ritualised communal coming-together. And we should not leave them, like those dead-eyed bleached-bone-coloured broken statues in the British Museum; we should restore them, give them back their wholeness and colour, as an act of devotion of the imagination.

To speak for myself, briefly, finally: Romantic and post-Romantic art has profoundly shaped who I am. I love Coleridge and his forms of ruin; I love High Modernism and postmodern irony. The three plays I picked out to restore were one early-ish, one mid-career and one late, but they also speak to this point of the fragment as such, the Schlegelian valorisation of it and the magic by which it can be healed. The Phaethon reaches back to the Romantic period in quite a specific way: since it was in 1820 that a papyrus containing almost all of the play’s first choral ode was dug out of the desert sands, one of the first major finds of its kind — Goethe was so excited by this that he immediately translated the fragment (he went on to write something more complete on the subject). The Telephus, as I’ve been saying, is a play about a king with an unhealable wond who is magically healed by the weapon that injured him; and the Hypsipyle, which draws on a whole range of mythic sources, from Jason and the Argonauts to the Seven Against Thebes, tangles men and war, the death of a child (killed by a serpent at a holy spring) and the threatened death of an innocent old woman, to bring them all at the end into a sacred and harmonious conclusion, with Dionysis himself, theatre’s own god, appearing as the play’s deus ex machina to compel the order with which the play ends.

This is where, if I had patience, I’d move the argument into a new direction. Because my hunch is, and the case is, I think, there to be made, that 20th- and 21st-century Fantasy picks up on this Tolkienian (and we might say: this Attic) project of finding ways to heal. That Fantasy as a genre is in some sense about the tiny torn up pieces of our world as the ground out of which some manner of wholeness can, magically, be created. But that would be a lengthy argument and this post is lengthy enough. Whole sight, as the man once said, or all the rest is desolation.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.