I hope I’ve pretty well established that I love Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, my favorite historical fiction. But I confess that every time I’ve read them there’s been one element that I have not loved and that is the very strong role played by astrology, and especially by the Dame de Doubtance.
However, last night I had one of those flashes of insight that made me suddenly see the question in a whole new light. I’m currently reading two different books on the history of science. With the kids I’m reading The Mystery of the Periodic Table by Benjamin D. Wiker, a brief history of chemistry that begins with the ancient Greeks and continues with the medieval alchemists before if gets to what is more recognizably modern chemistry. What’s interesting to me with this book is that it doesn’t scoff at the blunders made by the ancient atomists and alchemists. It recognizes that they too were rational thinkers trying to understand their physical universe to the best of their abilities based on the tools and knowledge that were available to them. Interestingly, alchemy plays a small role in one of the Lymond books and though it didn’t bother me as much as the astrology, it also seemed a little silly to me. But looking back, through Wiker’s eyes I am invited to see the alchemy not as silly dabbling in the occult but as a (mostly) honest attempt at science. Ok, maybe not so honest on the part of Johnny Bullo, but I think Sybilla while not taken in by the gypsy is truly interested in the alchemical arts as a branch of human inquiry.
The other book I’m reading is Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers. I’m only on the first chapter, which is about time, and while I’m annoyed at some of the petty swiping at religion and especially at Christianity and Catholicism— he really just doesn’t understand how Christians se the world, it seems— I’m also romanced by the grand sweep of Boorstin’s imagination. In the chapter about time, ostensibly about the discovery of the clock, he begins in ancient Babylon and Egypt, looking at the ways the earliest civilizations marked the passage of time, first by the moon and the sun and how they created calendars to track the seasons and how they attempted to reconcile the discrepancies between the solar and lunar cycles. But what arrested me was what he says about the development of astrology:
The theory of correspondences became astrology, which sought new links between space and time, between the movements of physical bodies and the unfolding of all human experience. The growth of science would depend on man’s willingness to believe the improbably, to cross the dictates of common sense. With astrology man made his first great scientific leap into a scheme for describing how unseen forces from the greatest distance, from the very depths of the heavens, shaped everyday trivia. The heavens, then, were the laboratory of mankind’s first science…
Astrology in the middle ages and in the Renaissance was much closer to astronomy and science than it is today. So when Dunnett’s characters fiddle with horoscopes and charts it looks to me like they are being merely superstitious but perhaps what she means me to see is that they are groping towards a science, but like people lost in a maze who know they are going in the right direction, still get caught in what turns out to be a blind alley. That’s the catch I only know that it is a blind alley because of my 21st century perspective, but to Lymond and Dee and the Dame de Doubtance, is it so clear that this science of the stars or the science of alchemy are really blind alleys?
It seems to me now that Dunnett intends to immerse her readers in the world of Renaissance Europe and that means that we see the world the way they do. It’s very similar to the technique that Guy Gavriel Kay uses when the ghosts appear in his novels River of Stars and Under Heaven. About the ghosts Kay says (though I can’t find the quote I was remembering somehow, I found where he says it in a couple of different ways) that in his novels ghosts are real so that the reader sees the world the way the inhabitants believe it to be. Fantasy removes the gap between us here and them then, removes the smug incredulity that separates us from the past.
I argue that if I make the world of the novel be as my characters believe it to be, I can help readers (today’s readers) shake some of the smug superiority that sometimes sneaks into our reading about past behaviours and beliefs. You know: ‘Isn’t it quaint? People used to think that …’
When we read of characters in a book fearing demons, magic talismans tossed in the grave of someone newly-dead, the way a stolen horse could destroy a funeral and create an enraged ghost, this ‘modern’ wryness gets in the way of our respect for them. It isn’t insurmountable, and different readers will experience this to different degrees, but I see it as worth wrestling with, as a novelist.
I also like working with the fantastic in exploring history for another reason. It is way too easy for us today to be smug and complacent about our values, our insights, how much more we know than the poor fools of yesterday. I want to give value and resonance to what people believed. So if ghosts or fox-women (or faeries in the forest, in an earlier book) were part of the worldview of my characters, I will show that in the books, to try to help modern readers better see that world view. Using fantasy is a gateway to doing that.
I know that Kay is a huge fan of Dunnett’s novels and that he is something of a student of her work, patterning his novels after hers in some ways, so I feel like I’m on the right track here, digging deeper into what Kay is doing and what Dunnett is doing. So if I follow Kay’s reasoning and apply it to Dunnett, I’d say that in the Lymond books (and in the Niccolo books too) the characters believe in astrology because people in that time and place did. And the anachronism would be to write the world is if astrology weren’t real. Instead, Dunnett bridges that gap and shows us the world as it was and although her novels most definitely are not fantasy, they are, perhaps partaking in what Kay refers to wryly as “magical realism. In the journal entry I quote above he continues:
Yesterday, in the New York Review of Books, I am reading a review of a major bio of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and encounter this sentence:
“Martin [the biographer] helpfully defines magic realism as a story in which the world is as the characters believe it to be … without any indication from the author that this world-view is quaint, folkloric or superstitious.
Well, damn. This amuses on so many levels. For one thing, it is ridiculously close to quotes I’ve given in interviews or speeches for seven years or so now, even to word choices. For another, I have also long been saying (including an interview just last week) that when literary figures of a certain generation or style want to like a book that employs the fantastic, they’ll label it … magical realism.
I think this echoing is cool, interesting, and useful. I like seeing the thesis offered by others. In a matter like this it is comforting and reassuring to not be (or no longer be) on a soapbox alone.
There’s lots of room on the soapbox as the genre borders blur.
I’m not sure if I’m explaining very well the sudden stroke of insight that I had, the moment when in a flash I suddenly saw the astrology in Lymond not through my own eyes, but through his, Lymond’s; but if I haven’t got it now I probably never will and I need to sleep.