Stuck With Ourselves – “The Corner That Held Them” – Chapter 5

Sir Ralph arrives in Brocton in pursuit of hawks.

What he receives while there, and his realization after, is what we all face everyday when we wake up in the morning.

Duncan Trussell in his gargantuan five hour podcast with Joe Rogan says as such when he talks about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. When they wake up, they probably do not want to go to their jobs.

They take pills most likely and at most one of them works out. But by and large they are stuck not only being a person, but being a representative of what politics is as orchestrated by two countries. One is a politics of eternity, the other is, thankfully, more provisional.

In chapter five, “The Lay of Mamillion,” Sir Ralph is presented with a lyric, read by a widow and written by her late husband. It is incomplete, but still the epic is a sizable work. After a squabble about the inferiority of the vernacular compared to Latin, they sit together as she reads the story aloud. The story is of Mamillion, a giant who rides from place to place, a Forrest Gump of the ancient world. His trials and tribulations excite and startle Sir Ralph, to the point where he finds himself looking back at his own life and wondering where, exactly, he went wrong.

Where had his ambition gone? His companions at Brocton, upon hearing that the convent at Oby is near many reeds, suggests basket weaving as another way to make money. Sir Ralph laments that he wishes he could be as productive as nature dictates each season. “Attentive as a lover.” There will be no basket weaving under his watch.

He is a pudgy priest who is no priest, so comfortable donning the robes because of how surprisingly little it asks of him. He bounces from hobby to hobby, without even the contentment of sound dialog at his disposal. His time among the “rich” of Brocton (or the heavily indebted, from their perspective), gives him doubt over whether he could ever stimulate the simple nuns into anything beyond boredom. The whole reason Sir Ralph left in the first place was because of a prolonged and embittered struggle between the nuns, ended only when Dame Salome tried to levitate and broke her leg.

In fiction, Mamillion gets to be the center of the world, and the closest thing to an end of his story has him wielding a golden sword. His author’s death ensures eternal life for Mamillion, for his story will never be concluded. He is always authentically available.

The irony of Sir Ralph’s quandary is that he is fiction too. Warner’s rendition of him is in fictional plainness, and though we might view his quest for hawks and for his new hobby as a metaphor that could be analyzed with the most stringent New Criticism, Sir Ralph is unwilling to concede that his life is romantic under any category.

Perhaps Sylvia Townsend Warner is appearing in her work directly, suggesting that her disappointment in the world is in its unwillingness to see the ordinary as anything but. Her lamentations are easy enough to understand. Any fiction writer must continue under the weight of such great classics. Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. How anyone can hope to compete with a past who has them beat simply because they are dead (or written in a dead language) feels like a rigged game. Warner’s communist leanings show their threads: is there not a romance in plainness?

Still we must give Sir Ralph the benefit of the doubt. We have read enough to know that he survived starvation and the plague, and went from a drunken mess to a contemplative priest. Though he was no priest in name, he has taken to the calling better than some.

For the first time, chapter five stays firmly in one place and time. 1360. And in that intervening visit to Brocton, Sir Ralph discovers the fact that perhaps they view Ralph as Mamillion after all, even if he does not:

Perhaps he had misled them, mentioning during that first meal the countries he had visited, the notabilities he had seen; yet even the nuns at Oby, those simple ladies, had known such talk to be the ordinary brag of the penniless travelling student, and took it for no more than it was worth. Brocton swallowed it whole. He marvelled at the unworldliness of these worldlings, till he remembered that far away in the past he had seen the same thing.

Only those who know of the travails of living in a body, one that is prone to idleness and idolatry, can one see the limitations of the world as it is presented. Here the unseen benefits of conservative nuns are finally given a chance in the novel. Strip away much of the beauty that fools us and one can see the human condition far more readily.

Being stuck with ourselves does not have to be a bad thing.

Only through exposure to other lives is one able to see the value in one’s own. Had Sir Ralph not gone to Brocton, he would not have understood the great wealth that he resided in. Instead he would have always envied the trinkets that the rich claim made their lives for the better.

The moral of the story: see different lives, and then come back to your own.

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