Friday, March 31, 2006

Ash-Wednesday III

by T.S. Eliot

At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man's mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs's fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
            but speak the word only.

* * *

All right, I'm finally continuing with this. It's about my fourth attempt to post this section; something always happens with the computer, or I'm interrupted, or something.

At first I had a vague idea that the stairs were some kind of reference to St. John of the Cross, but I searched through all his poems, and the only mention of stairs I could find was from "Dark Night of the Soul," and it did not seem particularly related.

The speaker has completed the stage of self-emptying, and now he begins an ascent toward faith. The devil tries to lure him away, sometimes by giving him the wrong hope, and sometimes by tempting him to despair. It is interesting that we begin with the second stair -- maybe during his stage in the desert, he made progress on the first stair without knowing it. I'm not sure what the "same shape" is. Perhaps himself.

As he progresses further, active resistance by the devil ends, but he is left with the difficulty of his situation. It is hard to travel upwards; it is not pleasant to be alone with himself.

When he reaches the third stair, he faced with something new: a vision of beauty. Maybe this is a preview of the "garden" he is striving to reach -- but more likely it is a distraction. He is tempted to stop, to hear Pan playing his pipes and see the lady with brown hair . . . but he continues upward, without either the hope or the despair the devil tempted him with, but finding some strength.

The prayer ending this is both humble and hopeful: he knows his own unworthiness, but he also knows there is healing for him. By now he has made a lot of progress from "I do not hope to turn again." He has turned again and is climbing.

Ash-Wednesday I

Ash-Wednesday IV

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Okay, I give in.

I'm doing what I never, ever do: posting non-literary stuff on my blog. I figure, once in a blue moon, it won't hurt anything. I bet Alfred the Great posted blogthings too. (Well, maybe.)

Which Twentieth Century Pope Are You?

You are Pope Pius XII. You're efficient and dedicated, but not very approachable.
Take this quiz!

Quizilla |

| Make A Quiz | More Quizzes | Grab Code

True? I'm not so sure . . .

Your Blogging Type is Confident and Insightful

You've got a ton of brain power, and you leverage it into brilliant blog.
Both creative and logical, you come up with amazing ideas and insights.
A total perfectionist, you find yourself revising and rewriting posts a lot of the time.
You blog for yourself - and you don't care how popular (or unpopular) your blog is!

This is at least how I try to blog!

What Your Face Says

At first glance, people see you as warm and well-balanced.

Overall, your true self is passionate and physical.

With friends, you seem dramatic, lively, and quick to react.

In love, you seem gentle and sensitive.

In stressful situations, you seem sad and helpless.

Oddly, true or not, this is what people tend to think of me. I guess people do form impressions based on my face.

All right, party's over. Back to the next section of Ash-Wednesday tomorrow, if I can manage it.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Galway Shawl


In Oranmore in the County Galway
One pleasant evening in the month of May
I spied a damsel she was young and handsome
Her beauty fairly took my breath away.

She wore no diamonds or costly jewels,
No paint no powder, no none at all;
She wore a bonnet with a ribbon on it,
And around her shoulders was the Galway shawl.

As we kept on walking, she kept on talking,
Till her father’s cottage came into view.
Said she "Come in, sir, and meet my father,
And for to please him play "The Foggy Dew."

I played "The Blackbird" and "The Stack of Barley,"
"Rodney’s Glory" and "The Foggy Dew."
She sang each note like an Irish linnet,
And the tears flowed in her eyes of blue.

'Twas early, early, all in the morning,
I hit the road for old Donegal.
Said she, "Goodbye, sir," as she cried and kissed me,
And my heart remained with the Galway shawl.

* * *

In honour of St. Patrick's Day, I'm just posting my favourite among the new songs I learned last night. At our celebration there was enough singing and dancing to make people hoarse and lame. I loved every minute! I just wished I could have kept going all night . . .

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Media vita

Gregorian chant

Media vita in morte sumus:
quem quaerimus adjutorem nisi te Domine?
Qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris.

In the midst of life we are in death:
from whom shall we ask help if not from thee, Lord?
Who for our sins art justly angry.

Sancte Deus, sancte fortis,
sancte misericors Salvator,
amarae morti ne tradas nos.

Holy God, holy strong one,
holy, merciful Savior,
do not hand us over to bitter death.

In te speraverunt patres nostri,
speraverunt et liberasti eos.

In thee our fathers hoped,
they hoped and you freed them.

Ad te clamaverunt patres nostri,
clamaverunt et non sunt confusi.

To thee our fathers cried,
they cried and they were not disturbed.

* * *

For once, a translation that is entirely my own! I didn't like the others out there, and this is very easy Latin.

This is a favourite piece our schola here at Christendom sings during Lent. I've been listening for two Lents and finally figured out enough of it to look it up on Google. The first line is the most powerful: "In the midst of life we are in death." And it's the truth. Every moment is either spiritual death or a death to self. We cannot bear fruit without dying in the furrow; and if we refuse to die in the furrow our souls will die. On another level, we are always surrounded by death. It is something we are constantly faced with, and the only way to understand and face it is to cry out to God.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ash-Wednesday, II

by T.S. Eliot

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

* * *

Commentary on This Red Rock. I didn't understand this section much at all, so I asked John to read it. "I understand what he's trying to say," he said, but even after he explained it, I still didn't really get it. So I made him write an "exegesis" of it and put it up so I could link to it. It can be found here.

Part I of the poem is posted and picked apart here.

Part III

The Mouse and the Infanta

by Sheila

[Note: John made me write this for a competition. His competing story is here. You don't have to read all of it (it's huge on here, isn't it?), but if you do read it, read John's too and vote for your favourite in the comment box.]

This is the story of something that happened a long time ago in Spain. A great many exciting stories happen in Spain—in fact they happen there all the time—but this is one that I don’t think anyone outside of Spain has heard before. You may not believe it happened. But it did, and if you don’t believe me, it is probably because you have read the wrong sort of history. The best things that happened in Spain had nothing to do with Columbus or Franco, but with El Cid and King Alfonso and princes like the prince in this story.

Once upon a time there was a Prince living in Spain. His name was Orlando, and he was the son of the king of Aragon. In those days, there was no King of Spain, but only one in Aragon, and one in Castile, and one in Navarre, and so forth. Prince Orlando was one of the best princes Aragon had ever seen. He had killed nearly as many Saracens as his namesake, the great Roland, and had written poetry nearly as nice as San Juan de la Cruz did, some years after. He could fence and fight and ride and sing and speak Latin and do everything else a prince needs to be able to do.

Our prince had been betrothed when he was six years old to the infanta of Navarre (that is what they call their princess), who was at that time in her cradle, having just been christened with the charming name of Leonora. When she grew up she had dark brown hair and green eyes, and was dazzlingly beautiful, charmingly pretty, and undeniably lovely. Orlando had an oil painting of her in his room. He kept a candelabra burning before it so that, in case he should wake in the night, he had only to open his eyes and see her beautiful face, and it reassured him so that he could go back to dreaming of her. I forgot to mention that he was in love with her. But he was, of course.

He wrote letters to her every time a messenger could be spared, in which he called her amada mía, and mi corazón, and mi paloma, and mi vida, and a great many other romantic things. (I don’t like to translate his names for her, because they might sound silly in English, but in Spanish it is quite all right and no one ever complains that you sound overdone.) Leonora wrote back saying that the world was beautiful, and what the weather was like, and what she spent her time doing, and how much she wanted to come see him. Orlando read them and wondered if she loved him, because she never said so outright. Still, he kept them beneath her portrait and read them over again on rainy days. Meanwhile, Leonora read his letters and wondered why he never mentioned what he was doing all the time, and worried that he might not like her letters because he never mentioned anything she said in them. Still, she kept his letters under her pillow, along with a locket of his black hair, and kissed them fairly often.

All this is very well. But it is high time to get to the story, which starts when Leonora was seventeen and a half years old, and Orlando was twenty-three and a little more which he did not bother to count.

Orlando was sitting in his chamber, reading his ladylove’s last letter. He had read it fourteen times already (the mails were very infrequent, due to Saracens and other inconveniences common in medieval Spain), but he read it again, because he liked to read something of hers before he went out riding, so he would have something to think about. This is what she had written:

Very dear one,

I turned seventeen and a half today. Is that not exciting? I have never been seventeen and a half before. It is only six months before the day Uncle says is the earliest he could think of my being married. I think it makes him anxious, for he frowns when I mention it. I think he does not want to see me go away.

Leonora’s “uncle” was actually her father’s advisor. Leonora’s father and mother were both dead, and so “Uncle” was managing the kingdom until Leonora grew up and married Orlando. Then Orlando would be king of Navarre as well as future king of Aragon. The letter continued,

I have finished nearly all of my education. I am nearly as clever as Padre now.

Padre was Leonora’s tutor, whose full name was something long and Greek. He was a monk of great knowledge and erudition and study, along with a little bit of cleverness.

I know more Greek than Uncle does, but he knows a great many other things that Padre will not teach me about. Uncle reads great books of people named Agrippa and Paracelsus, but Padre says they are not for infantas to read. I am trying to read Aristotle now, but he is hard to understand, and that Moor who tries to explain him only makes him more complicated.

The Moor was Averroës, whom you really ought to have learned about in school.

I feel very accomplished today. One’s half birthday is a good time to look at oneself and see how one has grown. I have grown very old in seventeen and a half years.

I hope they will let me marry you the very day I am eighteen. Do you think that will happen? They never let me travel because they are afraid of Saracens, but I do think you might be able to come in time for that day, if you are not too busy. No one has been making any wedding plans, though. Am I the only one who is excited to be nearly eighteen?

I pray for you to the Virgin every night. She says you are all right. Are you? Tell me how you are if you write to me. I want to hear how you are doing. Meantime I think of you very much.

Your own,
+ Leonora

Orlando folded the letter up again very carefully and put it in the pile of letters before her picture. Then he went outside to go riding.

When he got to the stables, he found that his own horse, whose name was Oöcephalus, had a sore hoof. The groom was giving the horse mash and putting a poultice on the foot. “Too bad you are lame today, my friend,” said Orlando, patting the horse’s neck. “You and I were to go riding in the hills. Take care of that hoof, so you and I can go out next time.” Then he passed on and out into the corral. There was a great big white horse wandering about the yard, not tied up. The prince was not familiar with him, so he spent some time talking to the horse and watching him before he decided to take him out. He decided not to bother the groom—the poultice on that sore hoof was much more important business, and dangerous horses were never allowed in the royal stables. So he saddled up the stallion himself.

“For a stallion, you are unusually friendly,” he commented as he led the horse out of the yard. “What shall I call you?”

“Epophthalmiontes,” replied the horse quietly.

Orlando did not hear, because he was too busy trying out names. “White Wave? Snowflake? Big Puffy White Cloud?” (This does not sound quite so silly in Spanish: nothing does.)

“Epophthalmiontes will do fine,” said the horse again.

Orlando stopped with one foot half into the stirrup. “Did someone say something?” He glanced around and saw no one.

“Yes, I did,” said the horse.

The prince glanced wildly around again. “I’m hearing things,” he said to himself, and swung into the saddle.

“You are hearing things because I am saying things,” said the horse. “This is tiresome!” he added to himself. “I spent so much time trying to avoid detection by not speaking, and now that I do speak no one will listen!”

Orlando started to hear the voice again. “I am listening,” he said. “Who are you?”

“I told you. My name is Epophthalmiontes.” Meeting nothing but silence, he added, “The horse. The one you are sitting on.”

The prince strove to recover his wits from the sudden blow of intense startlement. Fortunately, his training in court etiquette came to his rescue. He dismounted hastily, bowed to the horse, removed his hat, and said, “I am Orlando, Prince of Aragon, at your service.” There are very few to whom a Prince needs to say “at your service,” but faced with a talking horse, it seemed wise to take all precautions.

“I am Epophthalmiontes, Dominican monk,” said the horse grumpily, not adding “at your service.” Which was allowed, because monks are never required to be polite to princes. They only do it if they particularly want to. And this monk did not seem to be in the mood to be polite at all.

“Very pleased to meet you, padre,” said the prince politely. “Might I ask—er—how your—em—regrettable . . . ” He tried again. “Padre, you don’t look quite . . . ah . . . ”

The monk interrupted to help. “You want to know why I’m a horse.”

“If it isn’t too impertinent a question to ask . . . ”

“I was transformed. Magically. Or alchemically, if you prefer. It’s all one to me. I always knew Iago was up to some mischief with all that alchemy he was dabbling in.” He sighed and shook his long mane disconsolately. “It wouldn’t have been so terrible if it hadn’t been such an interruption in what I was doing. I was looking for a student of mine who had gone missing. There was a potion by the bed, but no sign of my student. I traced the potion to Iago, but he caught me going through his papers and potions, and he transmuted me. I suspect Leonora must have been transmuted too, though I can’t guess—”

“Leonora?” the prince exclaimed, trembling and turning pale. This is not a sign of weakness: you would have done it too, had you found out the lady of your dreams might be a horse, or something even less romantic. And that was only a best-case scenario: she might be dead. “Leonora, the infanta of Navarre? Leonora, of the dark brown hair and emerald eyes? Leonora, my betrothed and the one hope of my heart?”

“Yes, Leonora,” said the monk impatiently. “Didn’t I mention that already? I came all this way to find you and tell you she was in danger.”

“You only just now mentioned that part,” said the prince, ceasing to tremble but remaining quite pale. A firmness was coming into his face that would have worried anyone who knew him: it meant he was about to do something desperate.

A half hour later he was hanging saddlebags onto the horse’s, that is, the monk’s, back. “We might get there by tomorrow evening if we ride hard,” he said as he fastened a large sack of provisions onto the saddle.

“If we ride hard?” inquired the monk querulously. “You mean if you ride hard, and I am ridden hard. I assure you, it is much more comfortable to ride than to be ridden. Do you really need that many supplies?” he added as another bag was fastened on, this one containing a short bow, a quiver, several daggers, and a shield.

“Don’t worry, padre, that’s all there is,” the prince answered, swinging into the saddle. “I only brought the bare necessities.”

A muffled “ooph” was the monk’s only reply.

The strength of the prince’s love put a spur to him, and it took him great forebearance not to put a spur to the monk himself. The horse simply could not go fast enough to suit Orlando’s feelings. All the same, a lone horseman can travel quickly, and Navarre and Aragon are not far apart. By sunset on the following evening, Orlando and Epophthalmiontes stood in the valley beneath the royal castle of Navarre.

The swift decision that had brought him to the hill’s foot forsook Orlando for a moment. It occurred to him that he could not storm the front gates of the castle with only a sword (which was strapped on his belt), a shield, a bow and arrows, and three daggers. Even if he could, he wasn’t certain it would do much good for a princess who was turned into the-Good-God-knew-what.

“Father,” said the prince slowly, “more information on the situation might be helpful.”

“If it is so helpful, I find it ironic that you should wait until now to ask for it,” replied the monk. “I told you all I know: Leonora disappeared, I went looking for her, and I got to be a horse for my trouble.” He flicked his tail in irritation.

“What is he like, this man who . . . transmuted you?”

“Iago? He is the late king’s advisor, and Leonora’s regent, for the time being.”

“Ah, that Iago. Strange . . . Leonora never mentioned anything against him.”

“He keeps away from her, mostly. If he doesn’t, I see that he does. Not a good influence for a young girl, I say. Besides, the older she gets, the more difficult he gets. After all, once she marries you, the kingdom won’t be in his hands anymore.”

“Hm,” said Orlando. “Maybe that’s why he wants to get rid of her.”

“But if she dies, the kingdom goes to her cousin, the Duke of Tafalla. Either way, he can’t keep the kingdom.”

Orlando rubbed his chin meditatively. “But if he married her, the kingdom would be his forever.”

The monk recoiled in surprise—a comical gesture in a horse. “But he couldn’t do that, the baseborn . . . ” The following words were muttered in Greek. Epophthalmiontes always tried not to swear, but when he couldn’t help it he had a habit of swearing in Greek, and sometimes even Arabic, although his superior greatly disapproved of that one.

“I thought he was the son of a lord,” objected the prince in surprise.

“But Leonora is a princess! He is far unworthy of her. Besides, the kingdom would never accept it if he broke her betrothal to you while you lived and held to it.”

“Or while she lived,” the prince said thoughtfully. “I think . . . I think he wants her ‘missing,’ so he can give out that she’s dead. He would expect me to forget her and marry the princess of Catalonia. Once I’ve done that, he can ‘find’ the princess and marry her with the people’s approval.”

The monk scraped a hoof in the dusty ground. “You may be right. Those may be his plans. But he will never do it, not while I’m living to say something about it!”

“Or while I draw breath,” said the prince.

In the end it did not turn out to be a problem to get into the castle. Epophthalmiontes knew of a kitchen entrance used by servants, and the only thing needed was to wait for the right moment when the door was open and no one was in the scullery. The right moment turned out to be the next morning.

Orlando stole in alone. The monk remained outside, because a horse walking through the halls of a castle is rarely seen as proper, and might have attracted questions.

The prince spent the better part of the morning exploring the castle. There were a great many hallways and rooms, occurring quite unpredictably, and to make things more difficult, servants and courtiers kept coming through so that he had to keep hiding in alcoves, behind tapestries, and under tables.

Finally he found Leonora’s chamber. It was not hard to tell it was hers: it was very large, and full of feminine decorations. It also sported a large oil painting of himself. Orlando regarded this a moment. He found it slightly disturbing.

He examined the room for any clues of the cause of the princess’s departure. All her things were in order. Her dressing table had combs and brushes on it neatly in rows. A strand of dark brown hair was on one of the brushes, and he extracted this and kissed it reverently before putting it in his pocket. He moved on to see if her bed had been slept in. If it had, it had been made since: the covers were neatly pulled up over the pillow. The pillow bulged up high, and looking underneath the prince found an enormous mound of letters in his own handwriting. That was strange to him; he didn’t want to read what he had written, so he replaced the pillow and pulled the covers over it again. There was a roundish indentation on the coverlet covered with brown cat hair, which Orlando brushed off. “I didn’t know she had a cat,” he murmured to himself.

There was nothing helpful in the princess’s room at all, so he decided to inspect Iago’s chambers. After all, the monk had gone there, and last night, while they were hiding, watching for the kitchen door to open, he had finally thought to mention that he thought some of the papers there might be important. Apparently Iago fancied himself an alchemist, and he took careful notes of all his many experiments, “for posterity.” Perhaps he had written there what he had done with Leonora. Perhaps he had even written down some formula for turning her back!
With these thoughts in mind, he found his way into the regent’s chambers. Unfortunately our prince did not always think so much as he should have when he was excited. This might be why he forgot what had happened to the last person who wandered into the alchemist’s den uninvited.

He was sifting through an enormous stack of papers when the door began to creak open. Orlando glanced around wildly, but there was nowhere to hide. So he drew his sword and prepared to face the foe.

Through the door came the proper owner of the stack of papers and the chamber. He was tallish, darkish, and moderately handsome, and sported a black chin beard. His age was not quite easy to tell, but he had a small amount of grey at his temples which betrayed him as at least middle-aged. Orlando instinctively knew who it was, perhaps because he looked slightly sinister, and perhaps because no one else walks into a room quite like its owner does.

“What are you doing here?” hissed Iago.

Orlando could not answer that question, so he asked one of his own. “Where’s Leonora?”
Iago gave a sinister smile. “Safe—oh, quite safe. You needn’t worry, sir . . . or is it, perhaps, Prince Orlando?” The prince glared, but he had never before pretended not to be a prince and wasn’t going to start now. He stood up very straight, sword still in hand. “I see that you are,” continued the sorcerer. “A pleasure.”

“You must bring her back!” Orlando proclaimed.

“Must I? Why don’t I send you to be with her?” The sorcerer raised his arms and began an incantation in Latin. Orlando rushed at him with his sword, but before he had reached him, the last words of the spell had already been said: “fieri (here Iago smirked to himself) musculus.”
The sword fell from the prince’s hand. Suddenly he felt that he was falling, falling quickly towards the floor. His fall stopped a few inches from the floor. Then the transformation began: his nose stretched out, bringing his face with it into a cone shape; his eyes shifted to the sides of his head; his hands became wrinkled and sprouting tiny claws; white fur grew all over him in place of his fine princely clothes; and a bare tail finished the look. He was, in short, a mouse.

“Go look for your ladylove!” chortled the mage. “And when you have found her—well, I hope you find her as much to your liking as she finds you to hers.” He laughed a long, sinister laugh, and the prince scooted away under the wainscoting, leaving his enormous sword abandoned on the ground.

. . .

Being a mouse wasn’t so bad, really—not in a palace. There were good things to eat in nearly every room. Of course, there were some inconveniences to the situation—Orlando had trouble keeping track of his tail, for instance—but altogether, he didn’t mind the situation, except that it hindered him in his search for the princess. The castle, large before, now seemed a vast open country, impossible to search entirely.

There also was the question of what he would do when he found her. It seemed she had been turned into a mouse as well. But what could a pair of mice do to transform themselves back and be reunited again?

The prince decided to return to Leonora’s chamber, for the present. For one thing, he knew where it was and how to get there, more than could be said for most other places in the castle. For another, he thought he might be able to see something he had missed now that he was small. But his main reason was that it was her room, and therefore both enjoyable to him, and possibly somewhere she would go, if in trouble.

Unfortunately there was no food left out there: it was kept immaculately clean. But the prince had found a crust of bread left in the lady-in-waiting’s room next door, and was not hungry yet. He scurried about the room, looking in awe at the enormous furniture that had seemed on a normal scale that morning.

He had just curled up inside one of Leonora’s dainty shoes for a nice evening nap when his acute mouse ears picked up a stealthy tread. Instantly he knew that it was a cat—one very close. Now he remembered that there had been cat hair on the bed. It was too late now: by the time you hear a cat coming it is already too late, if you are a mouse.

Still, it is automatic for the mouse to try to run anyway, and this is what Orlando did. He scrambled out of the shoe and skittered across the floor, tiny claws scraping on the stone. The cat, a sleek chocolate-coloured animal, darted after him as quick as lightning. A real mouse would have had a hole to escape into, but Orlando hadn’t anywhere to go, so it wasn’t long before he was cornered. The cat crouched down with the prince between her paws. He trembled slightly and closed his eyes, waiting for the feel of sharp teeth on his neck and praying for forgiveness for all his sins—and for some help to come to Leonora without him.

But the bite did not come. Nervously Orlando opened one eye and looked up at the great beast towering over him. He had heard they liked to play with their prey. This was unfortunate, because he would have much preferred to die quickly and get it over with. But a prince must accept misfortune, and this he did.

Still the cat remained motionless. At last she gave a little sigh, and, to the prince’s great wonderment, began to speak.

“Alas!” cried the chocolate-coloured cat, in great distress. “To what great depths have I been brought, I, who would never hurt a fly, who feared the smallest mouse, to be forced to devour this tiny beast to survive! O mala fortuna!” She seemed to be quite a well-educated talking cat. “That a princess such as I could suffer such a harsh fate!”

“Leonora?” asked the prince, greatly startled.

The cat sat back on her haunches and opened her big green eyes wide. She seemed too taken aback to speak for a moment. If she had not been a cat, she might have fainted, but cats cannot faint. Therefore she was forced to recover herself. “That is my name,” she said, in a cautious tone, “or it was, once.”

“Leonora—my angel—” began the prince awkwardly. He had had many dreams of their first meeting, but he had presumed on a great many things, such as a prior introduction or at least a resemblance to his painting for her to recognize him by. But, having none of these, he had to try as best he could. “I was once a prince, once—oh, how blessed was my fortune—destined to marry the loveliest princess in Spain. I heard from her faithful tutor that she was in danger, and I came as swiftly as I could, but I fell into the same danger she did, and have been transformed as you see me. I was not—I was not always a mouse. I was Orlando, and you, my emerald, my Leonora, were my betrothed.”

They both stared at one another a moment. Obviously embracing was called for here, or at the very least a kiss on the lady’s hand, but in their present state neither could manage either one. It was a moment too deep for words, until each gradually realized that nothing but words was available. Leonora was the first to speak. “Orlando, is it really you?”

“Yes, my dove, my orange-blossom. I came as soon as I heard you were in danger. Padre Epophthalmiontes came to me.”

He told her his whole story. When it was finished she sat very straight and curled her tail around her feet. “I could not have believed that Uncle would do such a thing. He is cross, sometimes, but I always thought he had my best interests at heart.”

“You always think the best of everyone, my water-lily. I am sorry not everyone deserves it. It seems to me that anyone who knew you, my star, would try to deserve your good opinion.”
She lowered her whiskers modestly. Then she thought for a moment. “But how did Padre speak to you? I cannot speak to anyone, except to myself. And you.”

Orlando blinked. “I think—I hope—that is a spell he placed on you alone. Your tutor could speak quite easily. And I think I could speak. Let me try it.”

Before she could stop him, the prince scurried out into the hall. A maid was passing by, carrying an armful of linens. “Your pardon, miss,” he began. The maid looked to see where the voice was coming from. When she saw, she let out a tremendous shriek and fled, leaving a cloud of linen slowly settling to the ground behind her.

Orlando slipped back through the door and returned to the feet of his princess. Her whiskers were twitching. “You are very funny, my betrothed,” she said, in a voice full of suppressed laughter. “I did not know that you were funny.”

“Neither did I,” said the prince, laughing. “I didn’t know she would do that. But it was funny, wasn’t it, my little lotus-blossom?” Then he became serious. “So I can speak. I do not know, but I think that means there can be some remedy.”

“Oh, tell me,” she said with excitement, crouching on her haunches and putting her face down close to his.

This posture made him quite nervous, because the mouse part of him could not think of anything but the fact that this was a cat, a real cat, a cat at close quarters, which could devour him in three bites. On the other hand, the prince part of him was saying that this was his beloved, his intended, his dear one, whom he had been longing to be close to most of his life. So he hadn’t the heart to make her stand a little farther away. Instead he just thought slowly and laboriously, trying not to be distracted.

“Alchemy is the work of the devil. I think your tutor told me that. That means that we have only to go to the bishop, ask for a blessing or an exorcism or something, and we will be cured.”
“Do you truly think so?”

“I do, my heart. The only trouble will be reaching the church without danger. You might be hindered by a hound or another beast, and I would be in danger from every creature that passed. Is it not across the courtyard, so that we have to pass across the open to reach it?”

“Yes, it is,” said the infanta reflectively. “But you may be safe . . . if you pass along the top of the wall that separates the chicken yard from the rest of the courtyard. It is attached on one side to the keep and on the other to the chapel.”

“Very good,” said the prince, “but how will I get up there?”

“Padre can lift you up, if we can get him in here.”

“You are all resourcefulness, my honey-cake!” he exclaimed. “And he may be able to come in when the gates open at dawn, if he follows one of the wagons that come in in the daytime.”

After making some more plans, they adjourned their council to sneak into the larder to get some food. Orlando, by making use of both his wits and agility, managed to cut down a smoked fish for the infanta. She ate it eagerly, and the prince watched her with some relief that it wasn’t him. For himself, he had four grains of corn and felt quite satisfied. Then they slipped out of the scullery door to find Epophthalmiontes.

At first Orlando was afraid he had gone. But, after some calling, he emerged from a cluster of pines. Leonora found she could speak to him because he was also enchanted, and he tempered his gruffness slightly to greet her with some affection.

They told him their plan, and he listened attentively. “It’s foolhardy,” he said. “Of course if you could present yourself to the bishop, he would be able to cure you, but there is no way we would all cross the courtyard safely. Even assuming we do reach the church, they’ll never let animals inside. Even assuming we did make it inside, they would not listen to us. And they would never believe that we are who we say we are. Furthermore, Iago might be in the church, and he would convince the bishop that we were a fraud, a trick of a ventriloquist and trained animals. Furthermore—”

“All right, padre,” said the prince. “What would you suggest?”

The monk paused a moment. Then he told them.

“What?” said the princess.

“That seems even more difficult and dangerous, padre,” said the prince.

“But it will work,” said Epophthalmiontes.

The two young people thought a moment. “I suppose . . . ” said Leonora.

“If we’re lucky . . . ” said Orlando.

“It will work,” said the monk. “Rest now, and we will attempt it in the morning.”

. . .

The next morning they all met together in the same place. The monk stood by a tree, which Leonora gracefully scaled and lighted on his back. Orlando had more trouble. In the end, Epophthalmiontes had to crouch down on his knees so that the prince could scoot out on the lowest branch of the tree and carefully drop onto Leonora’s shoulders. Carefully the horse rose to his feet. “Steady now,” he said softly. “No claws, your highness!”

Slowly they made their way to the front of the castle, swaying precariously. Every moment Orlando expected to fall. Finally they reached the main gate. It stood open, and the road passed through it. “This is it,” said the monk. “In we go. No one fall!” Steadily he walked through the gate.

Instantly they had the attention of everyone in the courtyard. There stood a large white stallion, with a chocolate-coloured cat riding on his back, with a small white mouse on her back. This was the moment of trial: fifty yards, and they would be at the church door. All they had to do was prevent the people from interfering, calling the guards, locking the church doors, or anything else they might think of. This is where the monk’s main plan came into play.

“Repent!” he cried in a stentorian tone as he continued his slow, careful walk toward the church doors. “Repent and do penance! This sign has been sent you as a sign of an evil in your midst. The smallest rides on the back of the greatest. The mouse is a sign for the regent, who rules you though without royal blood. The cat is a sign for the people, who are ridden by their ruler without mercy. The horse is a sign of the Church, which serves all of you, but is given no thought and no consideration in your lives!”

The church doors were ten yards away. The people watched anxiously for what would happen next. No one knew what to do, because no one had seen a sign the likes of this before. Suddenly a man cried out, “They’re going into the church!”

The people moved toward the church doors, but hesitated, still uncertain what to do. Epophthalmiontes continued speaking. “We go to the church as a sign for you, that what we do you must also do. Go to church, not only today but often.” The monk’s head was already within the doors.

“Fetch the bishop!” some cried, and others, “Fetch the regent!” By providence, or perhaps because Iago was not a frequent massgoer, the bishop was much closer. He was within the church praying. At the sound of the ruckus from outside, he moved toward the door of the church. The bishop and the animals reached each other in the vestibule.

“Your Grace,” said the monk, “I come on a number of errands. First, because I, Epophthalmiontes, have failed in my duty and let my young charge fall into danger. Second, because I did not celebrate the early Mass last Sunday as Your Grace commanded me to do, due to having been transformed into a horse. Third, because Your Grace ought to know that the current regent is an evil alchemist, and that the infanta yet lives. Fourth, because all three of us are under enchantment, and hoped that Your Grace might free us from it.”

The bishop stared at them, with his eyes wide. He was a very holy bishop, but in all his days of visions and fighting devils he had never seen anything of the sort. Still, he recognized the good monk’s voice. Carefully he lifted Orlando off Leonora’s shoulders and held him in his hand. Then he scooped Leonora off the horse’s back and set her on the floor. Leading the way, he brought them all into the church. The crowd followed, watching with interest.

The bishop made them stand in a row at the foot of the altar while he went and fetched holy water. All it took was a small sprinkling on each of them, and they instantly regained their forms. Leonora and Orlando fell into each other’s arms and said very many nice things to each other which you might find silly, but which I assure you made perfect sense at the time.

When he was again able to pay attention to anything else, Orlando turned to Epophthalmiontes. “Padre—did you only suggest that plan so that you could get in a free sermon?”

The monk reddened. He was a rather plump monk, with a white robe and a white fringe of hair around his tonsure. “Not exactly . . . I also thought it was the best plan . . . and it did work . . .”
“I thought so,” said the prince, and went back to whispering pleasant things in the ear of the radiant infanta.

They all came out of the church to the cheers of the multitude. Iago caught sight of what was going on through the window, but it was too late: the guards were sent to fetch him and lock him in the lowest dungeon, where he reflected on the evil of his ways and received an instructive sermon from Epophthalmiontes every day. Orlando and Leonora were married by the bishop at the earliest possible convenience, and lived happily ever after.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

To an Athlete Dying Young

by A.E. Housman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.

* * *

For those who haven't heard, Fiddleback has had its final thread snipped by Atropos. It has shuffled off its mortal coil. It is, in the words of my Greek professor, tethnêkoton. (Did I get that right?) Its metabolic processes are of value only to historians. It has ceased to be! The mortal remains are still available for viewing at its old address, but all vital functions have ceased.

To all Fiddlers and Fiddleback fans: it was fun. Thanks everyone -- it was Fiddleback that introduced me to the blogosphere at all, and I had a wonderful experience blogging with all of you. A year and a half is far too short a time to blog with such excellent and admirable hobbits. Let's not be strangers.

Still it's like in this poem. No one wanted Fiddleback to wear its honours out. Fr. Sibley described ending a blog as like ending a good TV series before it gets boring. Nearly all of the Fiddlers had their own blogs and were slowing down in posting, and when we did post we were running out of new things to say. The Cow Pope had grazed out all the laughs he could, and talking breakfast could only last so long.

Meanwhile, Fiddleback's esteemed administrator has moved on to greener pastures. No, he's not dead, nor dropped off the face of the blogosphere: he has moved to his own blog, This Red Rock (an Eliot reference, of course). Go check it out.

Ash-Wednesday I

by T.S. Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

* * *

All right, this time I think I really did bite off more than I can chew. But how could I resist posting this poem today? However, I must warn you that I understand very little of it, and so can say little. Even Meredith doesn't understand it all.

This is just Part I; I plan to post the rest during the course of Lent.

The beginning is despairing. The speaker does not hope to "turn again," to be converted. However, he does seem to acknowledge that it is what he should hope. Line 4 is from a Shakespeare sonnet, number 29, which can be found here: "When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes . . . " This is more or less the state of this poem's speaker. He has more or less reached the bottom. He is no longer reaching for higher things, because he thinks he will never reach them. He does not even mourn because he feels it will be useless.

Knowledge also evades him. I like to read the third and fourth lines of the second section, "Because I do not think -- because I know I shall not know," as if he is interrupting himself. What can he not know? "The infirm glory of the positive hour," that is, that momentary joy one gets when suddenly struck with positive truth -- when everything is absolutely clear. It never lasts long; it must be followed by faith in dark times. But, having no faith, the speaker is forced to give up any hope for those moments of sight as well. He knows that somewhere is a garden with a spring (the same desire for water we find in The Waste Land), but he stands without it, denied entrance because he cannot find faith or experience conversion.

The next section is hard; I don't think I really understand it. My guess is that he is reflecting on the temporality of his moments of light. At some time he saw the light, at some place, and now it is gone. He accepts this. In the same way as he does not mourn, he actually rejoices -- not because there is anything upon which to rejoice. He has to construct something for himself, because true joy is not available to him. He renounces God, His voice and His face; he has placed them in the past and moved on to rejoicing at new things, things he has constructed himself.

The next section is my favourite in this selection. The speaker does pray, not for faith, not for enlightenment, but for mercy. Right now I am reading Crime and Punishment, and Raskolnikov has just asked Marmeladov's little daughter to pray God to forgive "his servant Rodion." Even though Raskolnikov does not pray himself, even though he does not seek to be holy, he wants to be forgiven. This is the same state as the speaker in this poem. He wants to stop tormenting himself with "these matters," his thoughts that entrap him in a circle. He prays that what he has done, his sins, he will not do again, and that he will not be judged too harshly. It is a humble prayer, but a beginning.

The part about the wings is more reinforcement of the speaker's helplessness, hearkening back to the first section's "Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?" Since his flapping around is not getting him anywhere, he wants to be allowed to "sit still," to stop his useless efforts. Still, he wants to care -- and yet not to care. He does not want to forget the place he is in and the "garden" where he wants to be, and yet if he cares too much he is afraid he will only "beat the air," continuing trapped in the impotent circles of his thought.

The prayer ending the first part is for forgiveness, all the speaker is truly praying for. I'm not sure what the repetition omitting the word "sinners" means -- perhaps the speaker's hope that he will not always be a sinner?

* * *

Ash-Wednesday Series:
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI