Saturday, December 1, 2007

Endymion Spring

Matthew Skelton, Endymion Spring, 2006.

Endymion Spring weaves together the story of North American children visiting Oxford with their mother, a visiting scholar, with the first-person narrative of Endymion Spring, a fifteenth-century apprentice to Johann Gutenberg. I found Endymion Spring's narrative fascinating; with Gutenberg, Faust, and dragons, you basically cannot go wrong.

Although I mostly loved the fifteenth-century sections of the book, the main adventure occurs in the 21st century, a narrative that I found far less satisfying.

The 21st-century narrative is most notable for its "OMG OMG I <3 Oxford!!1!" aesthetic. The novel opens with, "What sort of book is this?", staging an encounter with an inscrutable text that rings a lot of Oxford School bells. Endymion Spring reveals the qualified nature of these encounters; the chosen child is a special kind of reader, but for Blake, the protagonist of Endymion Spring, the ability to read the text depends on being the chosen child. (This is also true of Will in The Dark is rising).

And in fact, in this case, Blake's being the chosen child depends, not on any personal merit, but on his maleness.

Blake is "just an ordinary boy who [i]sn't particularly good at reading," while his younger sister Duck is an excellent reader and an assiduous worker. But Blake's being the chosen child is repeatedly staged as a triumph over his sister:

"I can't find any riddles," she said. "I've been through it hundreds of times. I've held it up to the light; I've considered using lemon juice to reveal any secret messages; I've even tried spilling ink on it; but nothing works. Ink doesn't stick to the paper. The words are invisible. How do you read it?

She looked up at him and, for the first time in his life, he realized that she actually needed to learn something from him.

At last, it is Blake who is the good reader -- but through no merit of his own.

In fact, it seems to be a direct result of sexism! Blake is chosen by Endymion Spring's book because "Endymion Spring was a boy just like you," as Professor Jolyon Fall explains to Blake.

"...Printers' devils were often young apprentices -- boys, even --who worked in the earliest print rooms in Europe in the fifteenth century. They were trainees, learning the art of printing books when it was still considered a Black Art."

"What about girls?" Duck challenged him quickly.

"I'm afraid I don't know of any, said Jolyon good-naturedly.

"You mean Endymion Spring was a boy like me?" piped in Blake with renewed enthusiasm, feeling an instant kinship to that mysterious figure all those hundreds of years ago.

The word "boy" keeps cropping up in this passage, even to be contrasted with "girl," such that, even though Blake muses that he and Endymion are "bonded by age," it is clearly their shared boyhood that makes them kin. If anyone is really like Endymion, it is Duck, whose yellow raincoat resembles Endymion's yellow habit, whose frequent inscrutable silence mirrors Endymion's voicelessness, and whose facility with letters mirrors Endymion's.

In the end, Duck can be smart and resourceful and hard-working, but she is just a girl, and girls can't be the chosen ones, because that's just how it is. Girl apprentices? "I'm afraid I don't know of any."

If writers like Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman have worked to deform and revise the Oxford School paradigm, Skelton is firmly committed to bringing back Tolkien-era values, or maybe even more reactionary ones.

For Skelton, this means fetishizing the book to the point of actually suggesting that the digitization of library collections is a destructive act meant to eradicate libraries. Apparently Skelton believes that access to library collections should be limited to those who have the resources to travel, and either that having all and sundry paw over original manuscripts and first editions would somehow benefit libraries, or that only a select few should be doing research in the first place. He even takes a quiet moment to denigrate email.

It also means putting women in their place; they think they can be scholars, but they can't. Blake's mother, Juliet, is repeatedly vilified for not
spending her working days with her children, even though she is in Oxford to access the Bodleian collections for a limited time. The novel never gives a convincing explanation of why the children are in Oxford with their mother in the first place, instead of at home in Canada with their father, who is unemployed.

Apparently, no matter what a woman's job is, even if she's the sole earner in the family, her failure to engage in childcare all day, every day makes her a bad mother and a bad person. Juliet is also criticized for having too much career ambition, while their dreamy (I repeat: unemployed) father is, as Jolyon explains, the truer and better scholar. Bright, ambitious Duck is similarly put in her place by her lack of penis.

In Skelton's calculus, there's an ineffable something you need in order to be a good scholar, something that doesn't have to do with hard work or intelligence. You have to be the Chosen One, and ain't it funny, the Chosen One is always male.

Endymion Spring thereby reproduces the sexist paradigm of assessing female intellectuals that Gilbert and Gubar identify in The Madwoman in the Attic: real, original intellectual achievement is figured as masculine, "not only inappropriate but actually alien to women" (8). As nineteenth-century critic Rufus Griswold put it,

[t]he most exquisite susceptibility of the spirit, and the capacity to mirror in dazzling variety the effects which circumstances or surrounding minds work upon it, may be accompanied by no power to originate, nor even, in any proper sense, to reproduce. (9)

Female achievement is constructed as constitutively unoriginal.

This is essentially Jolyon's assessment of Juliet:

She was a capable, clever and highly motivated student. [...] I am not sure that she loved books, but she analyzed what was in them very well. Still, without that passion, she was never, I fear, my best student. [...] No, that distinction ... goes to your father. [...] Oh yes, your father had a most remarkable imagination. Not always accurate, mind, but blessed with an insight I have rarely seen.

Juliet's a good worker, but she doesn't have "imagination," Griswold's "power to originate"; only Christopher has it, and that's because he's "blessed."

Unsurprisingly, both Juliet and Duck are believers in the usefulness of email, while only Blake has the testosterone/insight to realize that if, with the help of email, his mother actually gets work done more efficiently, the Apocalypse will ensue.

Also, Skelton offers a tip to husbands: if your wife is in the same town as an ex-boyfriend, she is not to be trusted. You should show up unannounced, claim her as your property, and put an end to the affair that they are doubtlessly having.

After all, as we ultimately learn, if Blake's parents were to divorce, it would be a cosmic catastrophe, since the codex tells Blake that "Should Winter (Blake's father, Christopher Winters) from Summer (Juliet Somers) irrevocably part/ The Whole of the Book will fall quickly apart."

Guess the gender of the villain.

For Skelton, preserving what's interesting and venerable about Oxford means insisting on the primacy of book media to the exclusion of all else (manuscripts rather than print, in fact, since the Gutenberg narrative is really just an excuse for weaving a tale about a unique and powerful codex) and on the inferiority of women. In fact, the intrusion of women into the world of Oxford seems curiously interwoven with the intrusion of electronic media, which is giving me all kinds of Donna Harawayesque thoughts.

My final comment on Endymion Spring is that, stylistically, it is none of the wittiest. The novel is filled with lurid metaphors: "Stacks of oversized hardbacks grew like primitive rock formations." "Little lamps with brass stands and red shades, like toadstools, sprung up at intervals, emitting weak coronas of light." "He held it up to the light, where it immediately absorbed the glow of the fire and turned red like a sunset -- a blood-soaked battlefield." The obligatory cryptic verses scan poorly and the obligatory fake Middle English is unconvincing.

Endymion Spring does some fascinating myth-making around the Faust figure, but Skelton spends so much time tripping over himself to make this the most Oxfordy of Oxford fantasies that he derails his own vision.

I hope to post soon on Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord (2000).


I've used boldface instead of block quotations due to an irritating bug in Blogger. Yes, using boldface for block quotations is hideously ugly. I am starting to turn fond thoughts to Wordpress.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.


Barbara said...

Thanks, Natalie. I just came back from camping where I had taken Endymion Spring for a little light fantasy reading and found it just plain bad. Sexism and computerism aside, it has so many inconsistencies (leave a chair, return to a desk) that I doubt it ever really saw an editor. There's not a chapter that would make it by my writer's group unaltered.

Anonymous said...

actually, you are wrong, actually, the book has a girl, Coster's granddaughter, the 6-years-old girl who saw the dragon and the why Coster had the skin