Saturday, August 21, 2010

Just Read: The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch


The Green Knight
Her most emotionally gripping novel yet... built around Manichaean juxtapositions of good and evil, love and power, celebration and passion, light and dark.

- Michiko Kaluntani, The New York Times
Did you get that? This novel isn't just built around juxtapositions of good and evil, etc..., it's built around Manichaean juxtapositions. I had to look that up so I'll save you the trouble. (From wikipedia)
Manichaean theology taught a dualistic view of good and evil. A key belief in Manichaeism is that the powerful, though not omnipotent good power (God) was opposed by the semi-eternal evil power (Satan). This addresses a theoretical part of the problem of evil by denying the omnipotence of God and postulating two opposite powers. Humanity, the world and the soul are seen as the byproduct of the battle between God's proxy, Primal Man, and Satan. The human person is seen as a battleground for these powers: the soul defines the person, but it is under the influence of both light and dark. This contention plays out over the world as well as the human body—neither the Earth nor the flesh were seen as intrinsically evil, but rather possessed portions of both light and dark.
If you haven't guessed it by now, this wasn't light reading. I did like it but I did not love it. It took some work to get into and it was more of a 'chick' novel than I normally read. It's clear that Iris Murdoch was very smart and it is amazing that this is her last novel before succumbing to Alzheimer's.

As for the story, the Library Journal describes it:
...a Byzantine plot that weaves around nine characters. Peter Mir, the "Green Knight" of the title, is nearly killed when he intervenes to protect Clement Graffe from being murdered by Graffe's half-brother, Lucas. Mir mysteriously reappears and demands reparation from Lucas, provoking various responses from the two brothers and their circle of friends: Harvey Blacket; Bellamy Jones; the three Anderson sisters, Aleph, Sefton, and Moy; and their mother, Louise.
Though the novel is set in modern London I had the sense of the story unfolding as frames on a medieval multi-panel painting. Murdoch describes the people and their dress in detail but for the most part leaves the back drops sparsely filled. Inner monologues and discussion between the characters fill the pages. It isn't till the amazing last chapter that there's a real sense of the natural world around the characters.

The novel initially parallels Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but ultimately it diverges for it's own purposes. It's interesting that the characters themselves are even aware of this parallel and even more so that they are aware of their archetypical roles within the novel. Though mostly realistic there are  fantasy elements within the novel. These elements are particularly interesting because Murdoch skillfully describes them from the stand point of an unreliable observer so no suspension of disbelief is necessary yet their mythical weight and portent remains.

I like being challenged by a novel and this novel did that.  The philosophical foundation and ambiguity made it a very thought provoking read. I'm very impressed with Murdoch and I will seek out more of her novels.
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