Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Use and Role of Mythology in John Fowles’ The Ebony Tower

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The Ebony Tower by John Fowles is a fanciful and mystical excursion into the realm of myth and illusion. Indeed, it is built on two levels the realistic and the mythological one. The realistic is concerned with the events that take place here and now � David Williams’ visit to the isolated place of Henry Breasley. However its mythological counterpart can or actually should be seen between the lines. Only by understanding that there are more than just allusions to legends, one must perceive that what is universal in the world and in the man is demonstrated through this mythological level. Namely it constitutes in the concept that everything in this world is repeated and also connected with something that has happened before.

Already the title, The Ebony Tower, indicates this notion of mythology; also the epigraph alludes to mythology; the source of the mood, setting, and theme are mythological; each character in the story has its own mythical corresponding person; in addition to all the previous examples also the setting of the story is knit with other allusions to the mythological plane.

The title, The Ebony Tower, condemns the vices of Romanticists who considered art as something for only small audiences and intellectuals, which was superior and inaccessible for the common people, for whom the modern artists on the contrary to the Romanticists aimed their art. The “ivory tower” itself is a myth � an imaginative and utopian place that the Modernists dream of. It is a concept that art is superior and so much above real life and common things that the artist is forced to enclose himself somewhere extremely pure and separate from reality, which is called the “ivory tower” where artists can dedicate their whole life solely to art. To say it as simply as possible - the expression “ivory tower” suggests a place where people can escape practical concerns of the world. On the realistic level on the contrary the notion the “ebony tower” indicates that there is no such thing as art for only the chosen ones but art is for everyone � art is for the people.

The epigraph of the novella

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� …Et par forez longues et lees

Par leus estranges et sauvages

Et passa mainz felons passages

Et maint peril et maint destroit

Tant qu’il vint au santier tot droit…�

is taken from a medieval French author Chr�tien de Troyes and indicates the figurative associations of the story. It speaks of the perils of a long voyage into the mysterious, wild places of a forest, and whether the seeker finds that he has been looking for. This allegory reflects David’s ordeals and whether he achieves them or not. David has to go through three ordeals, as usually in legends, fairy-tales or myths � the hero has to accomplish something in order to prove to be worthy of the offered price. He survives two ordeals � the first one is the argument on art with Breasley and the second the swim with Diana and Anne. He endures the first trial mostly because of Diana who tells him that Breasley hates abstract art, which is the main theme for David who is concerned with optical art, eclecticism, and architectonic quality. It is not only Diana that saves him, but his own courage to stand up to his beliefs, which is also one thing that Breasley admires. David feels pleased with himself because “what had happened after dinner had been, rather in the medieval context, a kind of ordeal. Very evidently he had passed the test; which left him wondering how much, besides the direct advice, he owed to the Mouse.” The second ordeal, swimming naked with the girls, was to see whether he is ashamed of his body or not and if he is too conventional or not. Namely the Mouse said that Breasley had “[…] a kind of magic. The way he can… dissolve things in you. Make them not seem to matter. Like this learning not to be ashamed of one’s body. And to be ashamed of one’s conventions […] exceptions don’t prove rules, they’re just exceptions to rules.” He outlives this one too because in swimming with the girls he proves to be unconventional and not ashamed of his body. Unfortunately he fails to pass the third one. The attraction between David and Diana is obvious and they both feel some kind of magic temptation to give in to their desires. Although David “was a crypto-husband long before he married”, and a devoted father to his two children, he decides to commit adultery but at the last minute changes his mind. He was determined to abandon the safety of his marriage and the certainties of his future and elope with Diana but something in his mind prevented him to do that. Even though he asks Diana to sleep with him, she feels that his heart is not in it and rejects his offer. Thus he does not succeed in the third ordeal and will not get the offered price, which is Diana and her love for him.

Mythology is also present in the medieval romance “Eliduc” by Marie de France, which connects the source of the mood, the theme. The author uses it quite directly when Henry Breasley is telling this story to David Williams, and moreover figuratively. Namely, Fowles refers to its imagery throughout the book, for example in the last part of the book when David is driving to the airport and runs over a weasel. In the “Eliduc”, there was the incident with one weasel that was brought back to life with a red flower that the other one brought. Subsequently Eliduc’s beloved, learning that he has a wife, collapses as if dead and is revived by the red flower that Eliduc’s wife had seen a weasel to revive his dead mate with.

Each character in the story has its own mythical corresponding person. David Williams is the knight-errant coming to Co�tminais to carry out his duty. This responsibility is to write an introduction of his host Henry Breasley, who in the mythological level is the scoundrel of the fairy-tale, the one who stands between the sleeping beauty and the knight-errant and prevents them from gaining the eternal happiness. But instead of performing the given task he falls in love with Diana, the so-called sleeping princess of this fairy-tale and discovers himself in the situation where he has to rescue her from the spell cast on her by Co�tminais and the old artist himself. Diana is under the spell of Henry because she feels that he needs her so much that he is incapable of creating art without her � she feels responsible for him and his art. David fails to save her from Breasley and turns out to be a parody of a proper knight-errant because he is acting out of egocentricity and is not heroic enough to fight for his true love.

The place of action of the story is linked also with other allusions to the mythological plane. While David arrives at Co�tminais, he feels as if he has plunged “straight into the legend”, into an afternoon of “the wicked old faun”, which is an allusion to Henry Breasley. He feels as if time has not the ordinary meaning i.e. that time seems to have stopped there, and yesterday and tomorrow turn into myths. David notices that the life at Co�tminais is “primitive, atavistic, and time-escaped” and realises that only this kind of setting is perfect for the unusual relationship between its occupants; a relationship that as “a contemporary arrangement, a m�nage de trois of beautiful young inhibited people […] would very probably fail.” Being itself a magical and unusual place, it allows also its inhabitants to behave unconventionally. Indeed, it would be abnormal not to do so. Co�tminais is not at all what David had imagined it to be � “in fact it had more the appearance of a once substantial farm; nothing very aristocratic about the façade of pale ochre plaster broadly latticed by reddish beams and counter pointed by dark brown shutters. […] But the ensemble had charm; old and compact, a warm face of character, a good solid feel. He had simply anticipated something else”. The author has intentionally created this idealistic, evocative, and profound milieu to highlight the contrast between the “real” and the “invented”, or between “what is real and what should be”.

To encapsulate all the things discussed earlier, the use of mythology in John Fowles’ The Ebony Tower is to display what is unanimous in the world and in the man and that all the events in this Universe are linked with each other and the history never stops to repeat itself. Besides the universal concept, the use of mythology also adds a poetic dimension, which furthermore emphasises the deep concern with history. Myth is essentially a story which affects the way people live. It can be any story and not necessarily unhistorical. In itself a story, which becomes a myth can be true or false, historical or unhistorical, fact or fiction. What is important is not the story itself but the function that it serves in the life of an individual, a group or a whole society. Mythologies are created out of numerous disjointed myths found in society generally. By weaving these unrelated myths, a sense of continuity with the past is created and through the use of myths, the book is able to create an apparent sense of complete harmony in human beings between “what is real and what should be” as Fowles himself has said.

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