Happy new year! Have you recovered yet from your inevitable hangover? If so, you may be glad to know that Wondrous Windows is now a year old. If you dig far back into the mist of time, you’ll see that the first post was in the first week of 2012. Now that it is 2013 (try to remember that when you next sign a form) the blog has been around for a whole year. That’s exciting. Probably. And so, to celebrate a year’s musings on very strange things, let us consider a very strange thing based on The Castle of Otranto (which was the subject of that very first post). Let us consider Manfred by Byron.
You’ve heard of Byron, I would hope. He was the crippled Romantic, the lady killer, the dude who slept with his sister (half sister – I guess that makes it better, right?). He supposedly convinced Coleridge to publish “Kubla Khan.” He wrote Don Juan and invented the Byronic hero. And that’s where we come in. Manfred is considered the most perfect expression of the Byronic hero, which is pretty much as follows: a brooding anti-hero who insists on his own way, no other person’s, and will do whatever it takes to achieve or maintain his independence. He broods because he is aware of the human condition, but cannot change it. You should be thinking of Elric of Melniboné right now. We’ll probably get to him sometime this year, actually.
So there’s the Byronic hero. And what about Manfred – the dude? Well, you’ll remember the Manfred from Otranto being a crazy old man who wants to sex up his future daughter-in-law because he wants more kids, or more male kids, and basically he’s having a Gothic mid-life crisis. What’ll happen to those kids at the club in thirty years? Hopefully they won’t all be running around, imprisoning people in giant helmets. People need those helmets for sporting events.
Byron’s Manfred isn’t that guy even a little. Byron was clearly aware of Otranto, but he’s taking the spirit of the character as he saw it, rather than the details.
Manfred in, well, Manfred is a sorcerer, who mourns forever the death of his sister, who was also his lover. This should make you think of Byron. And also Elric. Sort of. Manfred can control or summon spirits of air and water, though they do not necessarily love him for this. The spirit of a mountain river kinda tries to get him to kill himself. Which he would actually consider doing, but that would be giving in, or something. So he doesn’t.
Basically everything in nature has a spirit and Manfred has their phone number. As he wanders the mountains he lives in (in a sorcerer’s tower, no less), he is confronted by spirit after spirit, but never the one he wants to meet – his sister’s. A priest shows up at one point trying to convert him; he keeps the priest around just for someone to talk to who isn’t bound by a magical contract, but definitely doesn’t convert.
Then shit gets weird, and also real. Or unreal. In the middle of the night Manfred is dragged into a court to appear before someone who is basically the devil. Lots of spirits attend this court session, and they all yell at Manfred. I guess basically he’s being called on to pay up – he’s been using magic and that’s the devil’s purview (left hand path and all that jazz), so now it’s time to pay his side of the bargain? They ask Manfred to supplicate, basically – to kneel to the devil, to show fealty. Manfred refuses, and in doing so becomes the Byronic hero totally. He cannot be made to bow, as they try to do, because he has actually removed himself from the order of things. There is no god above him or devil below him, there is only, in his world, Manfred. He has become entirely alone, by his own will, because he chose to leave the chain of being behind him. He is not a subject of the same universe we are. His brooding is because he is alone (yes, indeed, forever alone); his sister was with him, but she’s dead.
So why the hell read it? Well, I guess I haven’t said, but this is a poem. I mean, it’s by Byron, you probably assumed. You would’ve been right to do so. So that’s a reason there. It’s a fantasy poem, and those are always nice. I wrote, long ago, about Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and now, finally, I’m doing a second whole fantasy poem. Hurray.
Also, as I think I indicated earlier, the Byronic hero is very important in the history of fantasy, and not just the work of Michael Moorcock. Fantasy has a lot of these figures, gained as writers turned away from the more traditional knights in armor characters and looked for something else. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are Byronic in some ways, as is Conan. Conan’s too barbarian-free-spirit-nature-boy to really seem Byronic most of the time, but he is also broody and tends to be alone because his capabilities set him apart. He looks around and sees soft nancy boys, in the way Elric looks around and sees people blessed with free will and Fafhrd sees people whose loves were not horribly murdered.
It’s a poem, so I suppose, here at the end, I should talk at least a little about the verse of the thing.
Manfred summons a witch to look upon, basically calling up a spirit to cleanse his visual pallet. She asks what’s up with him. He goes into his life story. He says
. . .From my youth upwards
My spirit walked not with the souls of men,
Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes;
The thirst of their ambition was not mine,
The aim of their existence was not mine;
My joys – my griefs – my passions – and my powers,
Made me a stranger; though I wore the form,
I had no sympathy with breathing flesh. . . (I.ii.50-57)
So he’s pretty clear that he’s not like other people, and that in turn other people were unlike him, and no sympathy was shared between the two. He can’t quite comprehend what other people are like. He goes on to use the imagery of clay to talk about the “breathing flesh.” He can’t even imagine life in the forms around him; he is strange even to life itself in some way, because of his brooding philosophy on life and the pleasures (and pains) he takes from it. You can also see some repetition; he’s a wizard, Harry. He can’t help but chant, even as he speaks.
And that’s Manfred. It’s pretty good. You should read it.