Teaching "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens and noticing this time around an excellent example of mythopoeic speculation. Bernard Batto in his great analysis of the book of Exodus, "Slaying the Dragon" defines mythopoeic speculation as,
The conscious, reflected application of older myths and mythic elements to new situations...the process by which new myths are created or old myths are extended to include new dimensions.
This human process of recreation occurs in each generation of artists (ours included) who draw from the old in order to create the new, and thus continue to comment on the eternity of the human spirit. Egyptians used to call this the sowing of the seed and represented the process by taking crucial artifacts from an older monument and burying them in the foundations of a new monument. In our own time mythopoeic speculation can be seen most readily in the repetition of movies such as "Seven Samurai", "Magnificent Seven" and "Bug's Life" the plot of each mirroring the one before it. Dickens' great story is no different. He is drawing from the second of the two great pillars of British culture which are the King James Bible and the Arthurian cycle. His story of Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham and Magwich is really the story of Percival ("Peredur" in the Mabinogion), the third knight in the quest to achieve the holy grail.
|Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Percival|
First, the situation of both characters is very similar. According to the Mabinogion, Percival's father was a knight killed in a vendetta whose mother fled to the wilderness with her little boy. He was raised, therefore, totally cut off from the "civilized" world of the court - a country bumpkin, or hayseed, if you will, but full of the zeal and energy of that rustic world.
he was slain, and six of his sons likewise. Now the name of his seventh son was Peredur, and he was the youngest of them. And he was not of an age to go to wars and encounters, otherwise he might have been slain as well as his father and brothers. His mother was a scheming and thoughtful woman, and she was very solicitous concerning this her only son and his possessions. So she took counsel with herself to leave the inhabited country, and to flee to the deserts and unfrequented wildernesses.Similarly, Pip's father and mother died in his infancy and he has grown up in the marsh country, raised by his sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery. Dickens makes Joe very rustic; uneducated, good hearted, well meaning but clumsy and plain. The marsh is remote, wild, isolated, a scene well depicted in the BBC version of the story.
It is as far from the court of "Camelot" as possible. Dickens' trope on the image, though, is that this rustic background is nothing to be ashamed of but is full of, what Dickens saw as, country virtues. It is only a source of shame when compared to the gentile and dandified world of city life.
Pip comes into direct contact with this city life in the person of Estella. Percival encounters "city life" when he first sees a cadre of knights pass by. This vision is later reinforced in the vision of the grail. Both characters, though, are brought out of their lowly condition by a vision of beauty. In Percival is kindled a desire to become a member of the court,
"Mother," said Peredur, "what are those yonder?" "They are angels, my son," said she. "By my faith," said Peredur, "I will go and become an angel with them."a desire he immediately tries to fulfill by leaving home, defeating a a knight, and traveling to Camelot clad in the defeated knight's armor. Percival then enters, like many other knights, on the grail quest. In the Arthurian cycle, however, the grail is closely associated with the image of the feminine. The shape of the cup, the attraction toward the beautiful, the gentling effect the grail has, all point to a connection between the grail cup and the belle dame image of chivalric lore. Percival encounters his belle dame in the pageant of the grail castle;
Thereupon, behold five maidens came from the chamber into the hall. And Peredur was certain that he had never seen another of so fair an aspect as the chief of the maidens. And she had an old garment of satin upon her, which had once been handsome, but was then so tattered, that her skin could be seen through it. And whiter was her skin than the bloom of crystal, and her hair and her two eyebrows were blacker than jet, and on her cheeks were two red spots, redder than whatever is reddest. And the maiden welcomed Peredur, and put her arms about his neck, and made him sit down beside her.The grail is also associated with the cup of the last supper and the crucifixion of Christ (it is both the cup used to initiate the Mass and the cup that catches the blood of Christ on the cross) but its connection to the feminine raises an intriguing Medieval comment on the nature of sexual desire as it relates to salvation; a governing of desire toward its proper end and a putting of oneself at the service of beauty in order to channel desire toward selflessness.
Percival's seeking and eventual attaining of the grail are, then, both salvific and romantic; romance as a way toward salvation. This is most readily apparent in the story of Percival and the temptress by the shore. Percival's desires for women are still misplaced - he has to recognize women as fellow sufferers and not the source of but merely vessels of beauty; the grail itself is not the goal but what the grail holds or represents.
In a very similar way, Pip begins by desiring Estella (his "star") but is confused as to why he desires the young debutante. She treats him haughtily and with disdain, as though she were royalty. Pip even has a conversation with his friend, Biddy (a character similar to Elaine in the story of Arthur, though Elaine is Lancelot's wife), in which he reveals to her his confusion of Estella.
"Biddy," said I, after binding her to secrecy, "I want to be a gentleman."The fact that Pip is either trying to gain Estella or spite her indicates a misplacement of his motivation; he is not motivated out of real life or equality to her but is motivated for selfish reasons. Thus she becomes the temptress by the shore - a temptress that he can only defeat by remembering death and calling on the "cross" of reality. In other words, Pip has to have an awakening to the hollowness and emptiness, the vanity, of the material world - a world gained for him by the suffering of Magwich and confirmed in its brutal inhumanity by the character of Drummle - lest he become a damned soul and fail at the grail quest.
"O, I wouldn't, if I was you!" she returned. "I don't think it would answer."
"Biddy," said I, with some severity, "I have particular reasons for wanting to be a gentleman."
"You know best, Pip; but don't you think you are happier as you are?"
"Biddy," I exclaimed, impatiently, "I am not at all happy as I am. I am disgusted with my calling and with my life. I have never taken to either, since I was bound. Don't be absurd."
...Biddy turned her face suddenly towards mine, and looked far more attentively at me than she had looked at the sailing ships....
"Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over?" Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.
"I don't know," I moodily answered.
"Because, if it is to spite her," Biddy pursued, "I should think—but you know best—that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think—but you know best—she was not worth gaining over."
Exactly what I myself had thought, many times. Exactly what was perfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poor dazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into which the best and wisest of men fall every day?
(GE: Chapter XVII)
Yet Pip suffers from the same flaw as Percival; neither character asks the right questions. When Percival first encounters the knights he asks about all the trappings, armor, weapons, banners of the knights, all the outward signs of glory and honor, but not about what constitutes authentic heroism and self-sacrifice, real glory and honor.
"What is this?" demanded Peredur, concerning the saddle. "It is a saddle," said Owain. Then he asked about all the accoutrements which he saw upon the men, and the horses, and the arms, and what they were for, and how they were used. And Owain shewed him all these things fully, and told him what use was made of them.Percival is entranced by the illusion of the material and does not ask questions that might bring him beyond that temporal world. His mother exacerbates the problem when she tells him, upon his leaving home, not to ask too many questions. Thus, when Perival is later in the grail castle, he does not ask about the pageant of the grail that passes before him. Because he does not so do he is incapable of healing the Fisher King, a king who has a wound in his vital parts (his groin) that cannot be healed by natural causes. As Matthew Annis points out,
...the Fisher King originates (as a literary character) in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval. The reader first encounters the Fisher King when Perceval meets a fisherman who offers Perceval lodging. In his castle, the fisherman reveals himself to be a king who is weak and bedridden, and yet has such an abundance of wealth that he can provide his guest a grand feast. During the feast, Perceval witnesses a Grail Procession but fails to ask his host any questions pertaining to what he sees. As a result, all the inhabitants of the castle disappear the next morning (Chrétien de Troyes 32-37).This story has found numerous incarnations in Western literature. Annis notes in the same article that
There are many different versions of the story of the Fisher King, and the character is not represented uniformly in every text. In the medieval period, Chrétien de Troyes' Percival makes him a completely ambiguous figure, while Wolfram von Eschenbach provides him an elaborate background in his Parzival. The Vulgate Cycle expands the Fisher King into multiple Maimed Kings, each suffering from some type of wound; yet Thomas Malory virtually ignores the Fisher King in his Morte Darthur. Modern texts treat the Fisher King less as a character and more as a motif: T. S. Eliot incorporates the motif of the Fisher King into the desolated modern city and its people in his poem, The Waste Land; in other modern texts, the Fisher King is embodied in a Vietnam War veteran, children in search of their fathers' identities, and the baseball coach of a team on a hopeless losing streak. The Fisher King also appears in various films, from Eric Rohmer's adaptation of Chrétien's Perceval to Terry Gilliam's buddy comedy, The Fisher King. In every version of the story, though, the Fisher King is completely helpless and depends on another to alleviate his suffering.The wounding of the Fisher King parallels the wounding of Miss Havisham. Just as he is wounded in that part most vital to manliness, the genitals, from which a man draws his power as a man and effects the world in a procreative way, so too Miss Havisham in the novel has been wounded in the heart. She has been jilted at her wedding by an unscrupulous man and carries with her a wound in the seat of emotion from which women draw their intuitive power and ability to receive love. In medieval literature, the seat of power for men is dynamic, procreative, inseminating, sexual power; the seat of power for women is the intuitive, receptive, emotional heart (an image that only begins to take shape in medieval romantic literature as heretofore the kidneys, not the heart, were the seat of emotions). Havisham, like the Fisher King, cannot be healed by normal means but must have a supernatural healing - a healing by the fire of the holy spirit - to cure her of her bitter entombment in a false material world.
But Pip can no more cure her than Percival can cure the Fisher King. Pip refuses to ask questions such as why Miss Havisham suffers as she does, whether Estella's disdain is the right way to treat someone, whether his world with Joe Gargery ought to be sufficient, or later where his own money comes from or what the proper human attitude toward other humans ought to be. As a boy he does not help Miss Havisham ought of love but out of duty, fear, and later the expectation of receiving good fortune. Later, Pip takes for granted that the wealth he receives is from Miss Havisham and even that it is due to him so that he can become a gentleman. His cavalier attitude toward material goods, unquestioning of their origins, positions him to become a man similarly heartless to the Drummle character. Like Percival he is tempted by the "woman by the shore", the false lady, to succumb to the illusion of the material world.
Finally, both achieve the grail in the same way. In the midst of temptation Percival looks on the cruciform image of his sword and he remembers a dying girl he once loved. Howard Pyle relates the story in his "The Story of The Grail and the Passing of Arthur":
Then, by and by, the lady grew very fond toward Sir Percival, and she put her arms about his shoulders and held him very close to her. With this the wine swam still more powerfully in Sir Percival's head, and he knew not very well what he said or did. And he said, "Lady, tell me — what is this, and why am I here?" To this she answered, "Percival, thou glorious knight! this is the pavilion of Love, and I am the spirit of Venus who inhabits it. So yield thou to that spirit and take thou the joy of thy life whiles thou mayst."
Therewith she reached her arms again to Sir Percival and he reached his arms toward her and he took her into his arms. And kissed the lady. Sir Percival kissed her upon the lips and the fire from her lips passed into his heart and set his soul aflame.
Then, in that moment, he knew not why, he suddenly bethought him of that fair lady whom he had met in the tent when first he went forth as a knight, clad in his armor of wicker-work.And he thought of how he had kissed her that time; and he thought of how he had beheld her in that cold and windy room of the castle, lying dead and white before him ; and he thought of how he had beheld the Spear and the Grail that time in the castle. Then it was as though a wind of ice struck across the flame of his passion, and he cried out thrice in a loud voice, "God! God! God! What is this I would do, and why should I sin in this wise?" And therewith he drew upon his forehead the sign of the cross.
Then in an instant the lady who sat beside him shrieked very loud and shrill, and all about him was confusion and turbulence. And Percival looked, and behold! it was not a strange and beautiful lady who sat beside him like a wonderful goddess, but it was the Enchantress Vivien, clad in red and bedecked with her jewels. For it was she who had thus planned the undoing of Sir Percival by causing him to sin.
This memento moris, a recalling of death, jolts him back into the cold light of day such that he rejects the temptress (the belle dame sans merci, or false lady) and prays for help from Mary (the belle dame, or true lady). Immediately the temptress disappears and Percival is left on a barren shore, but he is joined by the other two knights, Bors and Galahad, who are close to succeeding at the grail quest and together the three go one to achieve the grail together. In much the same way Pip has to grapple with the harsh revelation that his wealth has been due to the sweat and blood of a convict, Magwich, who loves him as a son. Then he has to see his beloved Estella married to the brutish Drummle (the false knight) and undergo a painful marriage of abuse and loneliness which chastens her. Both experiences are harsh encounters with death, but they are necessary for young Pip to realize the truth about his situation. Only by accepting Magwich does he come to love the man as a father and selfless try to get Magwich free of imprisonment. Only by seeing his lady, Estella, stripped from him and shackled to a brute of a man does Pip come to see not only what he has lost but what is truly important to him.
Through the experience of memento moris Pip ascends to a higher plane of human understanding, trading in the false lady for the true. Though at the end of the novel he doesn't wed Estella (contrary to the lovely ending of the BBC production) he meets her at the end as a fellow human being and sufferer along the way. Since she is no longer the source of desire and beauty (the great expectation), Pip is able to show her compassion and friendship. Like Percival, Pip's expectations have ascended beyond the realm of the material world toward a real apotheosis of spiritual understanding. Thus, just as Percival leaves the realm of the grail and returns to die in the civil war of Camelot, Pip can part from Estella with blessings as a fellow human being and return to the toil of the world.
The story of Percival and of Pip seems at first as a tale of tragedy and to some degree it is so. Nevertheless, it is a powerful tale about the nature of our human condition, love, desire and attainment of sanctity. Tragedy is a necessary part of sanctity and sorrow and loss are vital to our waking up to expectations greater than we could ever imagine. Only such expectations can promise real happiness, real honor, real humanity and the fulfillment of such expectations comes not from the material wealth and beauty of the grail but from the holy wine, the blood of Christ, poured out for suffering humanity.