Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Three of Swords

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Three of Swords: Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist by Fritz Leiber.

This omnibus volume contains the first three books of the series of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The individual books are themselves collections, though, made up of individual stories not all written or first published in the sequence of internal chronology with which they are presented. Still, there are general plot advancements peculiar to each book. In Swords and Deviltry we are supplied with the youthful origins of the two separate heroes, their meeting, their orientation to the city of Lankhmar, and the loss of their first loves. Swords Against Death accounts for the period in which they acquire their sorcerous patrons, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes. Swords in the Mist mainly supplies the novella “Adept’s Gambit” (1947), which puts Fafhrd and the Mouser in the classical Near East, adventuring out from Tyre in search of a sorcerer who has cursed them.

The earliest component stories in the whole omnibus are “The Bleak Shore” (1940) and “The Howling Tower” (1941), first published in Unknown Fantasy Fiction. These make Fahfrd and the Mouser less than a decade junior to Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and part of the original generation of sword and sorcery in American pulp adventure fiction. The flavor of these is quite distinct from that of the Conan stories, though. The Conan prose is generally high tempo narrative in a fairly transparent contemporary style, although framed by the imaginary ancient canon of the Nemedian Chronicles. (Moorcock’s Elric stories pick up this mode intact.) But Leiber presents us with a more orally-oriented storytelling, invoking rumor, riddle, and enigma. His heroes are accomplished rogues, not destined for high histories, despite their daring achievements.

Besides style, the main difference between a Conan story and a Fafhrd and the Mouser one is that Conan–companions, lovers, and lackeys notwithstanding–is a loner with a sovereign destiny. Whereas the Mouser and Fafhrd are an indissoluble duo, even when they are at odds with one another, and the fate of each is bound up with the other. Neither is dominant; each saves the other’s bacon with equal frequency as vice versa. Their ultimate bond to one another is really the fantasy cornerstone of their heroics.

The three component collections pull together the various stories according to internal narrative chronology, and insert brief bridging stories to solidify the continuity where needed. Thus, in 1968 Leiber started doing for his own pulp sword-and-sorcery heroes what Lin Carter and L. Sprague deCamp had begun doing to Howard’s Conan a year earlier. This effort, with its patent commercial motivation (and doubtless some genuine appetite to systematize and canonize the stories) is still uneven when done by the author, though better than the posthumous treatment the Conan stories received. The table of contents gives wonderful glosses on each of the stories, such as this:

“Once again blackness, spirit of night, with the Grey Mouser (one who strikes a balance between black and white) and russet-headed Fafhrd battling it. The well-known dangers of stealing the eye of an idol, whether the idol be doll-tiny or mountain-huge. Ice, snows, volcanoes, lava–and seven most deadly killers.” (ix)

My favorite stories in this volume were “Claws from the Night” (1951), “Bazaar of the Bizarre” (1963), and most especially “Lean Times in Lankhmar” (1959). All of these transpire in the city that forms the geographic focus of the series. Although a majority of the stories take place in distant countries and wildernesses, the best ones are set in “Lankhmar the Imperishable, City of the Black Toga,” where the two renowned swordsmen, whether they like it or not, are at home. [via]

The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories by Doris Lessing.

There is a huge variety among the thirteen stories in this 1972 collection. Many have to do with aging, maturation, and/or death, and there is often a high degree of psychological acuity in the telling. Two stories touch on the theater and its culture, one is a sfnal parable in which space aliens try to warn San Franciscans about an impending cataclysm, another is a set of espionage vignettes, and a couple are centered on public parks. Their central characters are of diverse ages, classes, races, and genders. Really, about the only thing that ties all of these stories together is a consistently high quality of prose, and a leisured sort of storytelling pace. Many, perhaps most, end without any sense of finality or significant closure. I don’t often read “literary” short stories of this kind, but I’m glad to have read these. [via]

Christianity, Platonism, and the Tarot of Marseille

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Christianity, Platonism, and the Tarot of Marseille: A Very Brief Introduction [PDF] by TeenyTinyTarot.

Here is another free TeenyTinyTarot pamplet that consists mostly of long block quotes from the Meditations on the Tarot. Despite the title, there is no particularly Christian doctrine presented, nor any reference to the history of Christianity. Nor does it engage Platonism, beyond the most generic of dualist metaphysical notions and the name-dropping of Plotinus and of Plato’s Phaedrus. Another curious instance of name-dropping is that of the Traditionalist Sufi Martin Lings, where some specific writing by Lings is apparently at issue, but it is not specified. The text in the current pamphlet has been taken from conversation pendant to a class presented by the anonymous author, a context which helps account for the missing connections and details.

The back cover of the pamphlet has its most interesting content: a little “game” called “Playing the Fool,” where the Trumps are shuffled and then put back in sequence. Although “It is considered by some very auspicious when The Fool doesn’t turn up until the last play of the game,” that’s just a matter of a one-in-twenty-two chance (or perhaps physical clairvoyance), so it’s really not much of a game. It is a slight improvement on a similar exercise called “Joy to the World” published on the TeenyTinyTarot website. [via]

A Commentary on the Mutus Liber

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Commentary on the Mutus Liber by Adam McLean.

In keeping with its title, the Mutus Liber consists of fifteen (or thirteen, depending on the edition) mostly wordless plates, without any body text. All of these are reproduced in this Adam McLean volume, with a four-page introduction on the history of the images, the original 1676 French copyright filing, McLean’s detailed descriptions facing the plates, and his thirty-page commentary following them.

The commentary purports to be exploratory rather than authoritative. It emphasizes the irreducible polysemy of alchemical instruction, and points to parallel procedures with physical substances, components of the soul, and spiritual realities. McLean devotes a lot of attention to “etheric energies” corresponding to the Aristotelian elements, but it appears that these are still at the “physical” (or para-physical) level. For physical procedures, McLean often references the work of Armand Barbault in The Gold of a Thousand Mornings (1969, English translation 1975), who seems to have attempted the full process depicted in the Mutus Liber.

The original plates seem to be entirely free of Christian symbolism. The title plate includes three encrypted bible references to Genesis and Deuteronomy, along with an image of Jacob’s ladder, but all the remaining religio-literary symbolism seems to be classical, with key appearances by Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn, Mercury, and Hercules. The operators depicted are a male alchemist and his soror mystica, who is a full collaborator in the work, acting as much or more than her partner. Only in Plate XIV do we see another figure in the laboratory who seems to be their child: a startling development that receives surprisingly little attention from McLean. There is plenty of grist here for the mill of contemplation, and–one presumes–operation as well. [via]

The House of Rumour

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott.

The House of Rumour is a sprawling novel featuring Aleister Crowley’s role in the British interrogation of Rudolf Hess as a sort of psycho-social asymptote. It’s sort of galling to me that it took five years for me to get wind of this 2012 book, especially considering that the author had previously written another novel with Crowley as a character, The Devil’s Paintbrush. In fact, this more recent one touches on so many and varied of my peculiar interests, that I think it may have the greatest number of different subject tags ever applied to a single novel in my personal library catalog.

The plot spans the 20th century, with cults, sci-fi writers, occultists, spies, aliens, Nazis, Trotskyists, musicians, transsexuals, and all manner of paranoids and conspirators. The twenty-two chapters include over a dozen narrators and central characters, but they are all linked into an integrated manifold plot that is as much obscured as it is revealed by their separate subjectivities. It uses a number of historical figures as characters, but author Jake Arnott has done his homework, and the whole thing keeps its plausibility very well. Time after time, people and things in this novel that seemed so neat that they must be fictional turn out to be positive historical fact.

The literary style here is perhaps most comparable to that of David Mitchell. There’s a fair amount of metafictional intricacy, and not just when Arnott seems to vicariously boost the book he’s writing, remarking that, “Using the Major Arcana as a structure looks like a gimmick at first, but in the end the Tarot bestows an ominous gravity on the narrative” (179). He’s referring not only to the book in which the sentence appears, but more overtly to Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, an actual novel from 1946 accurately described. And the then it is paralleled again within the story by The Quantum Arcana of Arnold Jakubowsi, an imaginary 1966 novel written by one of Arnott’s principal characters (339).

Arnott’s trumps mostly have the titles used in Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, except for “The Female Pope” and “Judgement.” They are also in the customary Golden Dawn sequence, except that Death and the Devil have been swapped. But the plot is not linear, and the chapters are not in chronological order. It’s like looking at a moving scene through a spyglass only gradually being brought into focus, and with key elements at the edges of the visual field. I’m not entirely sure that this book wouldn’t read just as clearly and effectively if one were to shuffle a pack of trumps and read the chapters in the order of a random draw. It might even be feasible and fun to create a “Choose Your Own Adventure” apparatus for this book, allowing a reader choices at the end of each chapter, to follow their own curiosity into the different corners of the story, pursuing the traces of characters and themes.

The narrative voices of the individual chapters are highly varied, yet the prose is very lucid throughout. The trick is not to understand what it says, but what it portends. That’s an experience I value as a reader, and if your tastes are like mine, you’ll enjoy the hell out of this book.

Londoner Arnott has been very successful with getting his fiction adapted to TV in the UK, and this book was well-received critically. It sure could make a terrific series over one or two seasons. [via]

The Cult of the Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Cult of the Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess by Judith M Hadley.

This dissertation-based monograph on Asherah and the asherahs in ancient Hebrew religion is very much addressed to specialists. Author Hadley does a thorough job of surveying prior research and entering into dialogue with it in a way that was doubtless gratifying to her degree supervisor(s) at Cambridge, but is likely to be taxing for any general reader. Her primary focus is on the inscriptional data from Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet ‘Arjud, supplemented by thorough surveys of other relevant archaeological finds. The discussion assumes a reader’s familiarity with techniques of ancient Hebrew paleography and philology.

Some reading frustration is occasioned by comparisons to visual evidence that is cited but not reproduced in the book. I understand that it may not have been possible to obtain publishing rights to the relevant images, but I feel like most of those references to absent graphics could have been relegated to notes, to keep that opacity out of the main text. What’s more, the in-line citation style occasionally makes the text virtually unreadable as exposition; in those cases it’s just a block of references.

None of which is to deny that I got some useful information from this book that I hadn’t yet encountered elsewhere. I was especially interested in the likely origins of Asherah in the Ammonite goddess Ashratu(m). In contrast to the impression I took from the contemporaneous study Only One God?, Hadley is more ambivalent about Hebrew consciousness of Asherah as a goddess during the Monarchical period, preferring the beneficence of an asherah temple artifact as the explanation for “Yahweh and his Asherah” in the debated inscriptions.

The four-page “Conclusion” is very clear, and for the non-specialist with some prior awareness of Asherah scholarship, it sufficiently communicates most of the useful evaluations that are worked out in great detail in the body of the book. [via]

A Metaphysical Reading of the Tarot Suits

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Metaphysical Reading of the Tarot Suits by TeenyTinyTarot.

This anonymous pamphlet was included gratis with an order of cards from the TeenyTinyTarot website. It seems to be composed as more mystical “bait” to reorient those whose interest in Tarot has originally consisted of vulgar divination. Most of it is dedicated to an identification of the four lesser suits with the parts of the soul, using accessible generic language, without e.g. the technical jargon of qabalistic psychology. It is illustrated with parallel images from the CBD Tarot de Marsaille and the RWS (“Rider-Waite Style”) decks.

For me, the most interesting content was a couple of paragraph-long quotes (one on the Fool and the other on the Sun) from the anonymous (but of different authorship from the pamphlet) Meditations on the Tarot. The present author offers a disclaimer that “the Anonymous Author of Meditations on the Tarot cannot be appealed to as the authority for (or even the primary inspiration behind) this approach to the tarot suits,” but the AAoMotT is evidently taken here as a chief authority on the tarot generally, and is also quoted as applying the formula of Tetragrammaton to the four suits, after the manner that is familiar to modern Hermetic occultists, and consistent with the exposition earlier in the pamphlet.