Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Review: The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch

I know I did the "I'm bored" post earlier, and it's certainly true that with the start of the latest term, I have more to do these days, but... it's just not filling the hours. Usually, at the end of winter term, I buy some blockbuster video game that occupies my time in the summer months. But there just isn't anything that appeals to me at the moment. And the TV season's wrapping up, so no help there. What do I do with my time?

What? Fill it with outdoor activities and social engagements? Honestly, do you even read this blog?

We'll save that alternative (AKA "normal person" response) for plan B. At the moment, the solution is books, books, and more texts. Hence the reason I managed to read 300+ pages in the short time since the last book review.

Last time, I talked at great length about the significance of the path that leads a person to a book. I came across Green Knight as part of the research I'm doing for a story I want to write on Sir Gawain, of the Knights of the Round Table fame. Murdoch, apparently, is a writer recognized enough to be considered "scholarly," as her book was one of the first things to poop up in the university library records. The connection to Arthurian legend is fairly tangential here, but it was still worth reading.

Murdoch is similar to Weldon in tone: there's a slight "fable" quality to her writing, and a definite British sensibility. The focus is not quite so much on gender issues; it's really more on character. It's certainly not on plot--without giving too much away, the plot of the novel is that A mysterious stranger stops a potential fratricide, receives a life-threatening blow for his trouble, and insists he is accepted into the brothers' family as part of the reparation. Before it's through, we've essentially reached almost Dickensian levels of coincidence.

The draw to the book is the strong set of characters Murdoch creates. Strong in the sense that they're extremely interesting, not in the sense that they personally have any strength, as the males particularly are one step away from being basket cases. Here's a list of the primary characters: there's Louise, the solid, unprepossessing mother, dominated by the three girls she's raising on her own; her best friend, the wild and flamboyant Joan; her daughters: Aleph, the eldest; Sefton, the middle child, obsessed with history; Moy, the youngest and much concerned with art and animals. Also starring is Harvey, Joan's son, who's coping with his feelings towards his pseudo-sisters; Tessa, a social worker/friend of the family who hangs around the periphery; Bellamy, a friend of the family, who's toying with the idea of giving up all his possessions and joining a monastery; Anax, Bellamy's dog, entrusted to Moy when Bellamy gave up his possessions; Clement, another friend of the family, who is in love with Louise, but slept with Joan; his elder, adopted brother Lucas, who is aloft and solitary. And finally, there is Peter Mir, the titular Green Knight. And, to just go with the cliche, after he enters the lives of these characters, they will never be the same.

As I said, it's a book where the plot exists only to bring about new reactions to the characters, and that's far better than the opposite case some books use, where the characters are just cogs for the plot. On that level, the book is very compelling: it deals credibly both with the middle age encounters facing the older set of characters, and the coming-of-age stories with the younger set. It also features some of the most moving canine scenes I can recall outside of a Herriot book. The latter parts of the book are marred by a series of increasingly eye-brow raising "shock" revelations, many of which don't quite work because of Murdoch's choice of narration--thanks to the limited third person perspective, we've been inside these characters' heads, and know they weren't harbouring secrects like this--or we should have known. There is also an annoying embracing of the "everybody marries" syndrome that so plagued the 17th century comedies. Have we learned nothing?

The bottom line though is that these characters seem real without seeming boring, which is largely what I look for in my fiction. At 476 pages, Green Knight is a worthwhile read--though if it shed the last 50 or so, I wouldn't have shed any tears.

Later Days.


Paul said...

I love Murdoch's novels for the characters and the comical situations they fall into. I also love the references to history, mythology, and philosophy, most of which I suspect fly past me unawares.

Person of Consequence said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I like how Murdoch strikes the right tone with her mythological references: it's not too close as to be obsessive, yet not too far as to be just a token reference.

Rereading the post, I also see a spelling error that's now two years old. Perhaps Ryan, in a more recent post, has a point. There is only one "o" in pop, and a misspelling in that case is really unfortunate.