The Paper Grail
by James P. Blaylock.
This note originally appeared in Last Homely Hearth #11, Fall, 1992
some reflections on the September 1992 Rivendell Group discussion topic,
by David Lenander
If our Mythopoeic Fantasy Award went to the book most clearly following on the fiction of Tolkien, Lewis or Williams, this book would have blown away most of the other preliminary nominees, and all of the actual finalists. Like at least The Last Coin (I’ve not read Blaylock’s other books), this is as much a Charles Williams novel by another writer as is Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. In fact, one of the things that would have irritated me some years ago is precisely the same thing that originally irritated me about Greater Trumps, and perhaps some other Williams novels. That’s the underuse of the magical talisman. I’m so interested by the idea of the talisman (in this case a paper that can be folded into many different pictures/shapes, in the case of the Williams’ book, a deck of cards) that I want to see a good many more examples of the shapes or cards and the powers that they represent.
Of course the actual use of the trumps or the shapes is rather beside the point, which is more concerned with the danger to humans of the lust for power, or the right kind of behavior when in possession of a power that ought not be used for profane or selfish ends. Another story that comes to mind in this context is Tom Reamy’s “San Diego Lightfoot Sue.” When I reread The Greater Trumps, after years of change and growth on my part, I was able to appreciate it, and its transcendent message of faith, its vision of holiness. Hm. That’s what’s missing here. Blaylock isn’t nearly so sure of his faith, or his characters’ faith, or what is truly holy. He is pretty clear on what is evil and petty, though, and the portrayal of the evil witch, Mrs. Lamey, is most reminiscent of the Inklings. Blaylock is more of a comic novelist than Williams, and his stories are in many ways better told, better characterized, and perhaps even better plotted. He stays closer to the material world, and doesn’t move into the next as easily or quickly as would Williams. The realism of his stories, the pettinesses, follies and foibles of ordinary life, the sharply observed and pointedly described details of daily existence far surpass what Williams attempts, to the point that these details become something of their own justification as narrative art. This is just as well, since as I suggested above, Blaylock seems incapable of aspiring to Williams’ eschatological confidence or his mystical vision.
I found this book to be a much easier book to read than Blaylock’s previous book, The Last Coin, because it has a much more sympathetic protagonist. Unlike that of Coin, who while not basically evil, was uncomfortably selfish and venal, an antihero who was yet an Everyman, our hero in this go-round is a much pleasanter fellow to spend a couple of hours with. Something of a klutz, Howard has enough compensating strengths and knowledge, to say nothing of his basic virtue, to be a real hero by the end. The irritating character of the previous protagonist is revisited here in the figure of Uncle Roy (imagine Uncle Roy as the protagonist if you’ve not read The Last Coin, and want a shorthand explanation of the comparison I’m making). The Last Coin really stood out for being so irritating, and I came to respect its character. I’m not sure that I’ll remember this one so distinctly in a few months. It seems to me that as a comic novel it’s better done, but I wonder if I just wasn’t open to reading the last book as a comic novel. With the protagonist as essentially a comic figure, maybe it was actually a funnier book? I’ll have to reread it. As mythopoeic fantasies the books are about equal; as a work of art fiction, Grail strikes me as less distinctive or original and therefore, perhaps, less impressive.
I’m really impressed by the way that the heros and Mrs. Lamey are painted in shades of gray. At times I wondered if the good guys were the good guys or the bad guys, and Mrs. Lamey has a number of sympathetic traits. Though her evil character is established in chapter 2, I was extremely puzzled when she turned out to be a diligent and serious gardener, surely gardening is a good thing? Of course, Blaylock very cleverly undercut any positive Earth Mother images, and made her seem all the more perverted with her bizarre and disgusting horticultural techniques (hortitorture?). Yet, he leaves her with some small saving grace at the end, kinder words from her intended victims than she deserved, or probably would’ve had from most writers. The final salvation of Stoat is also gratifying, more grace than Lewis allowed Susan Pevensie. This digging in the dirt of real, daily life, with unemployment, money trouble, etc. is what Realism in art was all about in writers like Zola, but the transcendent light on it is exactly what Williams brought to realism, according to T.S. Eliot, and exactly what he was attempting in such writing as The Cocktail Party. Few writers have followed in that tradition, and fewer with such success as Blaylock in books like these. Under the foolishness of Howard is Everyman, under the cockeyed actions and words of Uncle Roy and Jimmers and even Sylvia are saints and angels, who guide and lead Everyman past the dangers that surround him.
So why doesn’t Blaylock spell out the good versus evil axis a bit more clearly, as would have CSL or Chuck or TSE, or perhaps even Leonard Wibberly? I suspect because he’s not nearly so sure of himself, as I’ve suggested above. But perhaps because he doesn’t want to hit his readers over the head, and there are plenty of clues along the way to read for anyone who wants to read the book in this direction. Both Williams and Eliot were on record as wanting to produce novels/plays that could simply be enjoyed as light entertainment, with the other content available for those readers who cared for it. Or maybe because it’s unfashionable to be overtly religious in novels of today, unless, perhaps, you’re Orson Scott Card. Or maybe because he doesn’t want to turn into Card? Or could it actually be inartistic, given today’s sophistication on the part of writer and reader?
Despite all this, I rather wish that some of the Fisher-King stuff could have been tied up together a bit more. The PRB/Guild of St. George/Ruskin/Lewis Carroll strand ought to have been connected to the Inklings, if you ask me. I can’t believe that Williams/Lewis aren’t influential in the writing of this book, much more so than Ruskin-Rossetti-Morris & Co., and it would have been easy to bring in Lewis & Williams via the MacDonald link, and made the Inklings themselves a cell in the Guild or (tying to their ficitions) the Companions in the Coinherince/Companions of Logres. Heck, he could easily have slipped in a mention of the NICE as one of Mrs. Lamey’s companies!
What happens at the end on the beach, anyhow? If Sylvia’s working of the paper grail was ineffectual, was it because only Howard could work it? Had his working of the facsimile had effect after all, perhaps by some sort of sympathetic magic? Or is it somehow the magical staff that invoked this storm? And what is that, anyhow? The transformed Lance of Grail legend that is generally paired with it? Some portion of the True Cross? A scion of the holy and magical tree that Joseph of A. grew upon moving to England? The hidden connection to Tolkien’s fiction here? How does that ghost machine fit in here? Why didn’t Blaylock co-write this novel, at about six times the length, with his good friend Tim Powers? (Then we would have had all these explanations, but probably at the expense of what I’ve just been praising as its strengths).
More questions: What about the ghosts in the wrecked car? And those humpty dumpties! Well, remember what he said to Alice. I would like to have had more of the loose ends tied, but I’m not sure that this could have been done in the book without destroying much of the pace, and the realistic haphazardness of the story-most loose ends in real life are never tied up. Besides, nothing stops you from tying them yourself. But I don’t know why that paper weight is better off in the forest. Can anyone else hypothesize? I think that the gluers and organic food are the opposite of Mrs. Lamey’s rigid order, but then I’m not bothered by them. As I’ve suggested above, I’d have rather liked having the Ruskin connection made a bit more firmly to our present-day crusaders, but the machine obviously exists (as a narrative device) to help provide some of that connection. One point of this kind of book is to bring the Fisher-King and grail stuff to immediacy by setting it in a real place, in our time. I think that this retelling is effective for many reasons, how does it compare to other fictional uses?.