Merlin: "Great legends were made here."
Arthur: "With you as the hero?"
Merlin: "Of course."
The Last Legion
Arthur and his knights are referred to as the Matter of Britain, and Charlemagne, with his men and their stories, is called the Matter of France. What they have in common are that they are populated with heroic men (grown into something like gods with the passage and distance of great time), and that they are beautifully limned illustrations in the long and on-going epic tale which is the Matter of Earth.
...whatever the size or anthropomorphisms of the dragon, it is not the dragon - never the dragon - that fascinates. The dragon draws the edge of the shadow of truth the tale tells, but it is the man who is most fantastical.
When we read Chesterton's account of King Alfred (standing here in stead of Arthur) in The Ballad of the White Horse, or of Charlemagne and Roland, we are not so fixated on the overwhelming Saxons or the invading, seemingly unstoppable Muslim armies as we are on the staunch demeanour of the heroes - afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. When something so obviously fantastical as Bard the Guardsman stands forth in the midst of rack and ruin and fires off one arrow of faith we are struck, not by the thundering pressure of air and the sparks floating on the wind with the imminence of the dragon, but by the sudden shining beauty of the simple Man.
This is the Matter of Earth: the story of man's war to win himself back from beneath the dragon's foot and to set his foot on the neck of the dragon. We have all read the story of our Champion, our Arthur, our Charlemagne, our Christ. We aren't struck so much by the conspiring groups of men and angels gathering about our Lord throughout the story, searching, waiting for an opportune time at which point they would strike him down. Our attention is held by the Man Himself, a Man acquainted with grief, a Man of passion, a Man of tenderness, a Man in whose hands was healing and in whose tongue was a biting sword. We are astonished, not by the supernatural characters, not by the odds, not by the circumstances that surround him - we are astonished, among all this, to find, very simply, a Man.
When I read Anna's post on uninteresting things and uninterested people I told her at once that I must write a companion post to it. Over a month later, I am doing so now. I want to bring it home to you, with as smart and clear a ring as I can strike with my own martel, that all you find fantastic in the genre fantasy is but the setting and the backdrop, the stage design, for the really fantastic figure: man. What is more astonishing in Chesterton's story of Alfred than the stinging rebuke: "But upon you is fallen the shadow - and not upon the Name; for though we scatter and though we fly, and you hang over us like the sky, you are more tired of victory than we are tired of shame"? What is more astonishing in the story of the man and the dragon than that the man puts his heel on the neck of the dragon and cracks it? We read a story in which a man is overcome by death - that most inexorable of enemies - and death itself is overcome by him, and we are not surprised on death's part, but on the part of the man.
Anna is right: the genre of fantasy lacks much of its power because it often leans on the broken reed of imaginary creatures, forgetting that the real spotlight is on the unimaginably fantastic figure of man. That mind so quick and cunning, that psyche so capable of both power and compassion, a will of dominion and tenderness, a creative spirit like that of our God, quickly outshines the wit of the brightest Sphinx, outstrips the splendour of the fairest Bird of Paradise. The gleam was in the feat of Hercules, not in the golden skin of the apples.
Which is why Plenilune, as I half-lamented, half-crowed, is so full of show-stealers. The point is not so much the fantastic backdrop of its world (nor the world of Adamantine, nor that of Gingerune), but the feet of the humans in those stories, beautiful feet upon the mountains, coming down with a blow to rock the worlds to their cores. The point is not to throw some relatable characters in amongst a strange, alien world, but to bring the surprisingly alien spirit of man out in stark relief and to show you that this is where the real fantasy lies, this is the true source of life's wonderment, this is the Matter of Earth.
do you remember when we went
under a dragon moon,
and 'mid volcanic tints of night
walked where they fought the unknown fight
and saw black trees on the battle-height,
black thorn on Ethandune?