PAUL DOHERTY: MASTER OF HIS CRAFT

These days, I’ve been reading The Last of Days, the latest novel by the English writer of historical detective fiction, Paul Doherty. Right near the top of the list of my favourite contemporary writers, Doherty is dauntingly prolific. The Last of Days is in fact his 100th novel. While the main focus of his body of work has been the middle ages, Doherty has ventured into other periods, principally ancient Egypt, but also ancient Rome, for example. For my own tastes, I find Doherty’s medieval novels more engaging, mainly because they are set in a world that in its lineaments is recognizably the ancestor to our own, but at the same time startlingly dissimilar. Like an old family photograph album, where a physical feature or quirk leaps out familiarly across the generations, his painstakingly detailed rendering of Europe, particularly England, in the Middle Ages evokes moments of poignant recognition leavened by a sharp sense of alien strangeness.

The breadth and range of Doherty’s achievement are all the more staggering, when one realizes that he has accomplished all this, while working full-time as Headmaster of an award-winning secondary school near London. On top of all this, with a doctorate in history from Oxford, he is no mean scholar.

The Last of Days chronicles the final days of Henry VIII through the lens of a journal kept by his jester, Will Somers. Like so much of Doherty’s work, it is vividly descriptive and has a haunting, liminal quality that captures the Middle Ages as a rich phantasmagoria of the senses, where the secular and the spiritual are juxtaposed in a starkly compelling tableau of contrasts: beauty and ugliness, light and darkness, opulence and squalor. There is good and there is evil woven together deftly into the narrative with a kind of Dickensian exuberance of humours that manages with a finely tuned skill to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration and caricature.

The uniquely attractive hallmark of Doherty’s world is that, while it is larger than life, it is always deeply grounded in the real, always alive to the “freshness deep down things,” to use a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins. On one level, this is rather ironic, given that his novels have their full, unflinching share of murder and mayhem, bloodshed, and political intrigue. On another level, there is no irony, because Doherty deftly weaves the problem of evil into the context of a larger tapestry. As in Dickens, the reader is never taxed with a sense of deep or oppressive gloom.  Always there is light seeping into Doherty’s fictional settings, suffusing them with an ambient glow, because in the end, it is evident, he acknowledges that this fragile, various, enigmatically poignant thing we call life is what the philosophers would describe as “ontologically good,” which is to say an absolute good in and of itself.

Like Romantic English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Xanadu, the realm of Kubla Khan, Doherty’s historical settings have all the earmarks of a uniquely imagined fantasy world, remote and dream-like, but a world that at the same time bears a haunting resemblance to our own.

 

In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien refers to a humility and freshness of vision that he calls Mooreeffoc, borrowing this insight from that master of visionary, mystical observation, G.K. Chesterton. “Mooreeffoc” is simply the word “Coffee-room,” once a commonplace shop sign in most English towns, seen from the inside through a glass door. As a metaphor, it points to a transformative shift of perspective, an epiphany, that allows us to shed our blinders and see the world anew with eyes of wonder.

 

As Tolkien goes on to say, “The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits.”

 

A uniquely accomplished practitioner of his craft, Doherty deserves a much wider audience than I suspect he enjoys, and I anticipate each newly published novel of his as a rare treat, a kind of passport affording me free passage into the realm of Mooreefoc, a land of the fantastic whose wonders and beguilements shed light, as does all great art, on perennial aspects of the human condition.

TOLKIEN AND WORDSWORTH AND NOSTALGIA

Among the great English poets, Wordsworth has always been one of my favourites. I think it’s because he strikes some of the same chords as Tolkien does. On the face of it, they make for strange bedfellows, and, in many respects, they are. Wordsworth is a poet of inwardness, so much so that he has been described by at least one critic as pre-Freudian for the subtle, modern ways that he delves into the complex workings of the human psyche. In rather stark contrast, Tolkien presents a vivid narrative tableau that is rather sharply focused on outward action. And yet, despite this radical difference of approach, there are great psychological affinities between these two towering figures of English literature in the modern era.

 

I say “modern” here advisedly. Even though they pre-date Tolkien by more than a century, Wordsworth and his friend, the poet and critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, are considered to have inaugurated the revolution in literary sensibilities that heralded our own age, when, in 1798, they jointly published Lyrical Ballads, a collection that included some of the greatest and most memorable poems in all of English literature—poems like Wordsworth’s deeply evocative “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a richly enigmatic work, modern in its ambiguity and full of gothic atmospherics.

 

There is no small measure of irony here in the linking of Tolkien and Wordsworth, given that Tolkien was a kind of literary throwback, a staunch mediaevalist who viewed even Shakespeare with misgiving and whose own work harks back to pre-Renaissance literary forms of epic and romance.

 

Wordsworth is often called the poet of memory, and “Tintern Abbey” is a meditative exploration of this faculty, which is so closely linked to the temporal framework of our lives and is perhaps the most poignant dimension of our humanness. In 1804 Wordsworth composed “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” also known as his Great Ode. It’s the poem that Margaret Thatcher had read at her funeral and is quite probably Wordsworth’s signature work. In it he plumbs the depths of the concept of memory, accounting for human nostalgia, our aching desire for an ultimate homecoming, in a startling way that is suggestive more of Plato than Christ. The poem resounds with unforgettable phrases that have passed into our common store of cultural reference points. To explain the radical, underlying sense of unease that attaches to our human journey, Wordsworth implies that our souls were pre-existent and says that, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting… trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy.”

 

You do not have to be a Platonist, believing in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, to appreciate the deep truths that Wordsworth is exploring here. Even Wordsworth himself may simply have been using this concept as a metaphorical vehicle to give point and emphasis to the sense of dislocation and unease inherent in human life.

 

Tolkien, I believe, was an explorer in this same realm of nostalgia and drank from the same fountainhead of profound human longing. In Tolkien’s case, however, he transposes the insight he shares with Wordsworth into a framework of deep narrative, using the quasi-historical and philological scaffolding of Middle Earth to achieve the same evocative sense of ultimate realities that lie outside the austere, often stifling, routine of our daily lives.

 

In his classic essay on fairy stories, Tolkien says that these ancient tales are noteworthy for the appeal of antiquity that they possess even more so than their beauty and horror. He speaks of them as being marked by “distance and a great abyss of time, not measurable even by twe tusend Johr.” I’ve always been struck by Tolkien’s beautifully suggestive use of the phrase twe tusend Johr here and the clever way it reinforces his argument and casts a light on his own great masterpiece. A direct borrowing from “The Juniper Tree”, one of two tales in the Pomeranian dialect collected by the Brothers Grimm, the phrase means “two thousand years” and is immediately understandable to anybody with even just a smattering of German. However, it is not standard German and leaps to the eye at first as something familiar, yet strange. In this way, the phrase mirrors Tolkien’s own magisterial artistic transformation of the words, images, and phrases he drew from his wide knowledge of the old dialects of the Saxons, Norsemen, and Celts, in order to build a world that “trails clouds of glory,” while still remaining a world that is recognizable as our own.

 

Beyond this, I believe that there is a kind of paradox of the “near, yet far” inherent in the timeless appeal of Tolkien’s “distance and a great abyss of time.” It’s a paradox that lies at the heart of nostalgia and is one, indeed, that he balances with the assurance of a master. What I mean is that he bridges the “distance and a great abyss of time” by establishing the intimate homeliness of the shire, a place that engages the reader on familiar ground and serves as a point of entry to the vast, heroic spaces of Middle Earth