Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Classical Mythological Christmas: Slover's Christmas Chronicles

Aficionados of the reception of Classical Mythology can do no better in their Christmas reading than to read the engaging little novel by Tim Slover, The Christmas Chronicles: the legend of Santa Claus (Bantam 2010).  Slover, whose brilliant musical stageplay A Joyful Noise deserves to be part of everybody's Christmas and Easter celebration, has actually outdone himself in his mythological usage of the Lapithocentauromachy within his endearing treatment of how two newlyweds came eventually to be the father and mother of Christmas.

Smack in the middle of the narrative Slover inserts one of the more effective mythological allusions a
mythologist will ever witness. The mythological usage enlarges the character of Anna, Klaus the carpenter's zesty bride. Among other characterizing strokes, Slover uses mythological shorthand to render Anna as a character of passionate action. The novel's first-person narrator defines what Anna brings to her new marriage in terms of her perspective on the binary oppositions inherent between mythological opponents Lapiths and Centaurs. Anna's actions at one moment in the novel touch upon an overt usage of the myth, which allows the reader to see her more clearly as a character of decision.

Newlywed Klaus and Anna are lolling of an evening snug in their bed. "Anna was embroidering a scene of the bloody and drunken battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths onto a coverlet she had just stitched, and Klaus was polishing off the last of her rabbit stew with sugared almonds." (Chronicles, 61) However blissful their circumstances, Klaus is unhappy. His abiding discontent needs to be shared, and he finally tells his bride about his arch enemy Rolf Eckhof (now one of Christmas literature's most memorable creations). Without their knowing, Eckhof's existence had caused an unsettling effect on their world. Thus, in her embroidery, Anna "had just come to the part of the battle where a Centaur was smashing a well-aimed hoof into the eye of a Lapith, all purple and red and black threads, and it was hard to leave off there, but she did." With the explication of his nemesis Klaus introduces discord into Anna's world. Later in the novel Eckhof will devise her death; but the loving union of Klaus and Anna, opposite goods equaling more together, will abide beyond mortality.

Centaur vs. Lapith on a metope from the Parthenon,
one of the Elgin Marbles owned by the British Museum.
"Lapithocentauromachy" is a sesquipedalian term given to the brawl that ensued when the wedding feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia turned ugly. In short: "The Centaur guests at the wedding feast grabbed the bride, and the groom had to lead family and friends to the rescue," and ever since, says Antinous to Odysseus, "there has been conflict between centaurs and men." (Odyssey 21.303; Shewring, trans.) Pirithous saw his wedding day descend into unimaginable social chaos. For, centaurs are essentially civilization's fringe-dwellers, ever capable of ascending toward upmost civility or plunging toward appalling bestiality. Like individual Jekylls-and-Hydes, centaurs' misbehavior "strikes at the most basic rules of human society, the rules of marriage." (Beard & Henderson, Classics: a very short introduction, 84). But there is in them also potential for good. For instance, a Pholus or a Chiron; neoclassically, C.S. Lewis' Mr. Apollinax stands ever ready as pedagogue for rearing the next generation's greatest hero; at their worst, Nessus rapes Heracles' bride, and his kin bludgeon the Lapith Caeneus with uprooted fir-trunks and boulders. Spurred by a little wine centaurs revert to nothing less than unbridled roughhousing such as they let loose at Pirithous' wedding feast.

In Slover's novel Klaus dealt before his marriage with growing turmoil caused by Rolf Eckhof's dastardly opposition, and he learns empirically how to counter his adversary's incremental assaults on the good will of Christmas. Now, days before their newlywed Christmas, Klaus is stumped as to countering Eckhof's evil. "'I cannot think of a way!' Nor could Anna, at first. But then her eye lighted on the scattered skeins of thread [the elements of her Lapithocentauromachy], and she clapped her clever hands together, because suddenly she knew the answer." (Chronicles, 63) That answer: Anna was to join forces as helpmeet with Klaus's abundant good will against Rolf Eckhof, the embodiment of cosmic darkness.

Along such lines, the Greeks thought productively with the centaur myth. Archaic and Classical Greek artists frequently depicted Lapiths mixing it up with Centaurs. The metopes from the Parthenon are best known now; but the Fran├žois Vase, the west pediment of the Zeus Temple at Olympia, the frieze at Bassae's Apollo Soterios Temple, Micon's picture in the Athenian Theseum, and numerous vases famously manifest the theme. Centaurs indeed "were good to think with," especially because the exist largely as binary opposites to mankind, creatures who might become humane or the beasts we might become. The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs became the battleground for the opposite natures of centaurs and men.

The most colorful of written Lapithocentauromachies is Ovid's (Met. 12.210-535) — key for Ovid's literary programme is telling a love-story with the greater epic framework. This narrative foregrounds gruesome violence, ala Homeric aristeiai, such that Ovid apparently rivals Homer himself in narrative skill. All told, though, Ovid claims himself ever unequal to epic and manifests always propensity toward love-stories, his real knack. Thus, amid the hugger-mugger at Pirithous' wedding Ovid cherishes most dearly the parting of the centauress Hylonome and her slaughtered mate Cyllarus (lines 393-428), a tender scene that warrants Ovid's most careful anti-epic attention. Since even centaurs can love, and love truly, true love can humanize or, better, divinize mortal creatures.

In front of this rich mythological background, Tim Slover turns Anna toward the Lapithocentauro-machy. But to what end? The classical bipolarity of nature vs. culture is reengendered in Slover's pitting the archly evil Eckhof against the noble Klaus. Inasmuch as that rivalry had achieved new darkness, Christmas is not forfeited to Klaus' falling in love. Klaus thrives against Eckhof for many years. His bride, herself achieving new intuition by virtue of their marriage, comprehends the power of the adversary, an epic opposition of unending dimensions, and she manifests that awareness unwittingly in her handiwork. On a more tender level, though, Slover's application of the Lapithocentauromachy infuses Ovidian overtones into the tale, suggesting through the myth that truest love is created when opposites join in marriage. When one takes time and looks beyond the melee of conflicting worlds, the tenderness of Hylonome and Cyllarus remains.

— M
NB: This piece was written by me in 2011 for the ClCv 241 course and is drawn out of mothballs for the Mythmatters Blog this season.

Piero di Cosimo's disturbing painting of the Lapithocentauromachy, National Gallery, London, NG4890 = OGCMA0903NOTPirithousWedding_PierodiCosimo, deserves more attention. And David Backhouse's untitled sculpture depicting a lovely centauress with centaur in dance, at Whiteley's on Queensway until 2010 = OGCMA0905NOTPirithoutWedding_Backhouse, has sadly gone missing. Any information on its current whereabouts would be much appreciated!

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