Wednesday, 2 May 2012

David Rudkin: Penda's Fen, The Ash Tree and Artemis 81


Artemis 81 - The eternal struggle
Rudkin’s stories are steeped in a rich blend of mythology and religion, from which he creates his own hybrid mixtures. It’s a Blakean synthesis which digs down to discover the common roots of different belief systems, to trace the divine ground which Aldous Huxley attempted to outline in his book on the mystical traditions of the world’s religions, The Perennial Philosophy. He’s also concerned with rediscovering a more authentic form of religion, one which will embrace difference and accord more honestly with human psychology, and which will provide the moral and spiritual basis for a new kind of dissidence; One which will oppose the crushing systems of control and power associated with a purely materialistic worldview with an alternative set of values. The struggles in the plays, on both an individual, political and spiritual level, are represented through archetypal figures projected beyond the ‘ordinary’ characters. This magnifies their human struggles, elevating them to the level at which universal and eternal forces are played out, the clash of angels and demons. In Artemis 81, the angel Helith shows Gideon a medieval wall painting in a Danish church depicting and angel and a demon facing off against each other, a red dragon standing between them, representing the raw, primal power they would seek either to unleash or keep in abeyance. Gideon also glimpses the true nature of the events unfolding around him, and its connection with the state of his own divided self, in the stained glass of an old English church, and through a single diamond pane within it – seeing through a glass clearly. This is an unending conflict which has been waged down the ages, an ongoing duel between the binary Manichean forces of light and darkness, life and death, creation and destruction, love and hate, Eros and Thanatos, with each attempting to gain pre-eminence in the world and in the human spirit. They are part of a single, unified whole, essentially indivisible. If one is destroyed, the whole will perish. This notion also links in with the Taoist concept of the balance of opposites, and the dynamic flux which sees each go through periods of dominance and recession. The darkness contains the seeds of light, and vice-versa. On the bleak shores of Wastwater in the Lake District, where the container driver from the ferry parked and settled down to wait for his lonely death, Gideon finds a single small blue flower growing. There are more on the borders of the melting snow in the Dartmoor farmyard to which another of the ferry passengers returned before plunging into the deep waters at the bottom of an old quarry. Small indicators of nascent hope in an otherwise dark time.

Artemis 81 - The blue flower
The figure of the child of light occurs in several of Rudkin’s plays, most prominently in the Sons of Light. Stephen in Penda’s Fen is also potentially such a figure. His father, the Church of England vicar, explains the nature of the Manichean struggle and of the sons of light to him. ‘The Manicheans…believed that light was a vulnerable spark in man, under constant attack from the forces of darkness. They hoped for some great Son of Light Himself to come, to vanquish darkness and set light free’. Near the beginning of the story, Stephen looks up to see the inscription Fiat Lux written on the ceiling around a skylight – let there be light. As he becomes aware of he homosexuality and of his mixed parentage, he comes to realise that he contains opposites, a self which reflects the manifold diversity of being on an individual, national and universal level – a glorious impurity. He encounters the ‘mother and father of England’, the conservative Christian couple featured in a newspaper article condemning a television programme of ‘investigative theology’ entitled ‘Who Was Jesus?’, on the ridge of the Malverns during the climactic visionary trial which marks his coming of age. ‘Such a light in his eyes’, the man proclaims. ‘It is He. It is He. He has the light’. ‘You have to come with us’, the mother pleadingly insists. ‘You are our Child of Light. You have to be born in us. Then you become pure Light’. But Stephen, who in a school debate had held the couple up as an ideal of conservative dissent, now firmly rejects the role into which they would cast him, and the power they would have him exercise in their cause. ‘No’, he cries. ‘I am nothing pure. My race is mixed, my sex is mixed, I am woman and man, and light with darkness, mixed, mixed. I am nothing special, nothing pure. I am mud and flame’. King Penda, the last Pagan ruler of England, having cast out the would be mother and father of the nation, who would destroy Stephen rather than have him reject their values, offers a different view of his sacred nature and destiny. He gives him his blessing, placing his hand on his bowed head, and says ‘Stephen be secret, child be strange: dark, true, impure and dissonant. Cherish our flame. Our dawn shall come’. No fire of revelation consuming the world in violent revolution, but a slow transformation effected over the years, beginning in the resolution of the conflict within one young man’s divided self.

Stephen’s father talks of Paganism in relation to the Joan of Arc story, to demonstrate the way in which religion and national myths of heroism and martyrdom meld, and are remodelled and adapted according to the needs and purposes of the times. ‘What was she?’ he wonders. ‘There is some evidence she might even have not been Christian. But that she practised what is called the old religion. The primitive religion of the villages and fields’. When Stephen makes the reflexive, doctrinaire assumption that this equates with devil worship, his father quietly points out to him that ‘when a church, any church, goes to war against an older god, she has to call the older god the ‘devil’’. Looking out over the Worcestershire landscape, with the Malverns in the background, he goes on to think about King Penda, ‘last of his kind, last Pagan king in England, fighting his last battle against the new machine’. The spirit of place infects him, the evening atmosphere spurring his imagination, and he wonders ‘what mystery of this land went down with him forever? What…wisdom? When Penda fell, what dark old Son of Light went out?’

Artemis 81 - The Goddess awakes
Religion is a powerful and constant force in Rudkin’s work, but it also takes on perverted and poisonous forms, particularly in a modern context, in which the world is increasingly desacralised and technology regiments people’s lives. In Artemis 81, the Goddess Artemis is re-awakened in her primitive, half-formed incarnation as Magog and used for malign ends. She becomes an embodiment of the death impulse, of the drive towards division and destruction on an individual and social level. With Asrael as her dark high priest, she becomes the figurehead for a technocratic world in which people have become isolated from one another and from a sense of the sacred. It is in a latterday Frankensteinian laboratory that Asrael synthesises the poison which will spread a plague of physical and spiritual sickness throughout the land, the likes of which Gideon experiences in the dark metropolis into which he and Helith pass over. In Penda’s Fen, the radical playwright William Arne suggests that the technocratic underworld which he believes is being constructed under the fen is a way of appropriating and perverting the old sacred sense of place. ‘Again and again everywhere you will find these sick laboratories built on or beneath such haunted sites’, he argues. ‘As though thereby to bottle the primal genie of the earth; and to pervert him’.

The Ash Tree - unholy birth
King Penda and the mother and father of England represent the opposing archetypal forces in Penda’s Fen. A similar division between Pagan forces and a repressive Christianity is found in The Ash Tree, in the opposition between Mistress Mothersole and the Puritan witchfinders. MR James’ choice of the symbolically resonant name points to a further opposition between the male nature of the Puritan ethos of the time and the matriarchal aspect of the old religion which it was intent on destroying. The idea of the revenant spirit of the witch giving birth to monstrous parasitic spiders suggests a certain revulsion on James’ part at the idea of the sacralisation of the female, and of the natural world (here represented by the titular tree). In the story, the two generations of the Fells both die in bed, and the descriptions of their demise both have a certain (presumably unconsciously) suggestive element. Of Sir Matthew he writes ‘the Body was very much Disorder’d as it laid in the Bed, being twisted after so extream a sort as gave too probable Conjecture that my worthy Friend and Patron had expir’d in great Pain and Agony’. Of Sir Richard: ‘it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to and for with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest’. Rudkin makes sure that we comprehend in full the underlying impulses behind James’ revulsion. Mistress Mothersole’s skeleton, when unearthed, squats in the earth with its legs splayed apart. It’s an image of birth and death combined, a literalised delivery of a curse in the form of an anti-life form. Through using birth as a means of revenge, the sacred is profaned. The perverse and destructive darkness at the heart of the Puritan witchhunting religion is passed on like the infection left on the surface of Sir Matthew’s blackened skin, which burns the fingers of his fiancé when she touches him. Rudkin initially portrays the old religion in a positive light, with Mistress Mothersole as an attractive and friendly young woman. But it is infected by the Puritan persecution, awakening its own seeds of dark perversity. In the end, Mistress Mothersole’s withered corpse looks like an ancient and malevolent icon, like the half-formed mass of the Magog figure in Artemis 81.

Penda's Fen - The mother and father of England approach
The opposing forces in Artemis 81 are clearly delineated from the outset. The angels of light and darkness approach from the opposite ends of the spit of sand dividing lake from ocean, and from either side of the screen. One is dressed in white, with fair hair, the other in black, with dark hair. One speaks with a light, lilting voice, the other with a reptilian hiss. There’s an almost comic strip clarity to the division. The fact that Helith (the angel of light) refers to his opposite as ‘brother’ indicates that these are two halves of a whole, however, currently at an apogee of divergence. They are echoed by the twin moons descending in the sky. Helith’s plea that his brother should not wake the statue which stands by the single tree suggests that at some other time they might share some commonality of purpose. But they are now completely at odds with each other, a divided self. The dark angel, Asrael, awakes their mother, bringing the old religion back to life. As in The Ash Tree, it will take a perverted form, anti-life and instinctively destructive. A Thanatos-like force, exerting a mesmeric gravitational attraction towards Death. In Penda’s Fen, the mother and father of a rigidly conservative Christian England appear in Stephen’s dream presiding over a castrating ritual in which blandly happy men, women and children walk with eager passivity to a chopping block, where there hands are cut off by a smiling man with a meat cleaver. For Stephen, an organist, this would of course mean the death of his means of creative expression, and his exploration of his self and its relation to the world through music. In his climactic encounter with the menacingly approaching figures of the mother and father, climbing towards him on the ridge of the Malverns with arms outstretched, they quickly turn against him and become malign. They are the unprepossessing embodiments of a religion which has become ossified and dead, concerned only with enforcing its own narrow and fearful worldview. As such, they are dangerous, their fear infectious, and King Penda destroys them in a flash of fire and smoke. He identifies them as the ‘true dark enemies of England. Sick Father and Mother, who would have us children for ever’. The new angels will be those filled with the fire of sacred disobedience. Giving Stephen his blessing, Penda passes on his guardianship of the spirit of the land: ‘the flame is in your hands’, he tells him. ‘We trust in you: our sacred demon of ungovernableness. Cherish the flame, we shall rest easy’.

Religion is seen by Rudkin as a conduit for primal forces, which are expressed in varying forms over the years. The playwright William Arne in Penda’s Fen speculates that ‘the spire of a church acts as an aerial, attracting around it the old elemental forces of light and darkness in combat’. Each current version of religion reinterprets the older forms and recasts their stories and sacred figures to conform to its own worldview, but there is a certain ground remaining constant beneath the detail of the surface contours. The scholar whom Gideon encounters in the Oxford library talks of the numerous guises in which Artemis has been found over the centuries, transforming through incarnations as Mary, Morgan le Fay and, behind them all, the primal form of Magog. He enthusiastically outlines her different aspects, as Diana of the Ephesians, ‘wild and cruel’, ‘a tower headed mother’, and the Moon, which ‘hatches each new creature into being’. These aspects embrace seemingly contradictory qualities, representing ‘virginity, castration, pregnancy’ and, as we see, a terrible potential for destructive hatred, an anti-life force which is the direct opposite to that impulse which leads to birth and creation. In Penda’s Fen, Stephen’s father contemplates the development of religious beliefs in his ‘blasphemous’ attempts to get to the roots of Christianity and resurrect its original spirit. He describes Jesus as being ‘only one of many Sons of Light. In an unending succession of them, in an unending battle, to save man’s spark of light’. Stephen uncovers his unpublished manuscript ‘The Buried Jesus’, which attempts to revive Christ as a radical and challenging figure for the modern age. He also has a book called The Lost Gods of England, itself a polemical work, written by Brian Branston and published in 1957, which studied the old beliefs and culture of the Anglo-Saxon country. Its last chapter is provocatively titled Balder into Christ, and charts a localised evolution and progression of belief systems and the continuity in their visual expression. Branston brings his book to a conclusion with an argument that Christianity as experienced by the Old English was a continuation of the cult of ‘Mother Earth, Frig, Freya, Freya and Balder’ (variants of the mother and the son, or the Goddess and the ‘bleeding god’), with the concomittant winter birth and the death and resurrection of spring, and the sense of divine presence immanent in the landscape and its seasonally changing nature. Parts of the last paragraph could be taken from one of Stephen’s father’s speeches: ‘The modern Christ has been crucified on the wheels of industry created by science’, writes Branston, ‘and his body buried under a slagheap from whose smoky and infertile clinker no growth comes, no resurrection can be expected. What the Northmen were unable to achieve in their Ragnarok, namely to keep under the god of fertility, we moderns, children of Science and the Industrial Revolution, have succeeded in doing’. Stephen’s father tells him ‘we crucify him over and over’, and points to the church in which he conducts services, adding ‘over and over in that church, I crucify Him’. In the church, towards the end, when Stephen plays the organ and approaches the wrenching, dissonant chord which accompanies the glimpse of God’s face in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Rudkin’s playscript (it doesn’t occur in the version as filmed) has the fearful statue of the crucified Christ speak to him. ‘Unbury me’, it implores him. ‘Free me from this tree’.

Penda's Fen - Aisle rift
Both Artemis 81 and Penda’s Fen feature climactic scenes set in churches. In Penda’s Fen, Stephen sits alone playing the organ in his father’s church. His increasingly wild improvisation builds up to a dissonant crescendo which creates a rift cracking apart the stones of the aisle behind him. It is a projection of the fissures opening up in his psyche, and in his previously rigid and narrow worldview, and prefigures his moment of apotheosis on the Malverns. Three churches feature in Artemis 81. There’s the church which adjoins von Drachenfels’ house, where Gwen and Gideon go to meet him, after Gwen has made his acquaintance on the ferry from Denmark, and where Gideon has his dream revelation, pointing him towards self-knowledge and an awareness of the awakening of the Goddess. There is the cathedral in the dark metropolis, in which Gideon attempts to save the ‘Hitchcock blonde’, looking helplessly on as she plummets to her death. A cathedral which is a monument to powerlessness and despair. Finally, there is the abbey in which von Drachenfels plays his final organ improvisation, and from the galleries of which Gideon must prevent the statue of Magog from cracking open and releasing its poison into the world, learning to fall in the process. In The Ash Tree, too, the terrible events which befall Sir Matthew are precipitated by the unearthing of Mistress Mothersole’s grave in order to expand the church and add on a private pew. In each case, the disruption of the church buildings, the shaking of their foundations, and the staging of dramatic events within their aged stones signifies a moment of crisis in the nature of the beliefs to which they stand as a monument.

To be concluded...


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