Sunday, January 28, 2007

On the nature of Roland, and matters chivalric

Last week, I had two discussions with two different people revolving around the same issue: the sexual nature of the knight Roland in The Book of Lost Things. For those who have not read the book, Roland is a character encountered by the boy David in the strange land into which David passes following the death of his mother. Roland is trying to discover the truth of what has happened to his companion, Raphael, a portrait of whom he keeps in a locket around his neck.

And so, twice last week, the issue arose of whether or not Roland was gay. The first time it occurred was in reference to an online review that someone had read, in which I was apparently castigated for being immoral, promoting homosexuality, and all of the usual charges that are levelled by narrowminded individuals in these instances. The second time it arose was in the course of a newspaper interview, although it was far less confrontational and intolerant in tone, and the question was asked out of a sense of curiosity rather than anything more sinister: why did I make Roland gay?

The answer is, quite simply, that I didn't, but if you want to read him that way, then that's fine. One of the themes of The Book of Lost Things is that there is the potential for every reader to read a book differently according to the elements of his or her personal experiences that are brought to the act of reading. At no point in The Book of Lost Things is Roland described as being gay. The Crooked Man, in an effort to undermine David's relationship with Roland, implies that there was something more to Roland's relationship with Raphael than Roland is prepared to admit, but the Crooked Man equates Roland's feelings not with homosexuality, but with paedophilia, which is not the same thing at all. The Crooked Man acts out of a sense of malice, and nothing he says can be trusted or taken at face value.

In part, too, this is a reflection of David's own fears as a young man set adrift in a strange world and forced to trust men that he does not know (and always with the memory of the death of Billy Golding in his mind, a young boy of David's acquaintance whose naked body is found by railway tracks and who, it is suggested, has fallen prey to the worst kind of killer). It is also a reflection of a less enlightened time, perhaps, for it would be unfair to expect a child born in the 1930s to have the same understanding of such matters as a child born near the end of the 20th century.

Yet when I was writing the character of Roland, I left all such matters deliberately ambiguous, and to interpret Roland as gay is, while perfectly legitimate, also to ignore a type of affection between men that recurs frequently in a great deal of ancient and chivalric literature, and is picked up on in the work of later writers as well. In the work of Walt Whitman, for example, there is a strong belief in "manly attachment" and "the high towering love of comrades", an aspect of the kind of bond that arises between men who fight side by side but also the kind of affection that exists between close male friends. To quote Whitman, Roland views Raphael as the "sharer of my roving life", and the private details of such a relationship can be left to the sense and inclinations of the individuals involved. In other words, while it does not rule out a physical aspect, neither does it necessitate one.

Clearly, Whitman is harking back to a theme of early Greek chivalry, and much of the "Calamus" section of 'Leaves of Grass' is given over to comradeship between men. The legends of Achilles and Patroclus, and David and Jonathan, may well be touchstones. Ambiguities arise, almost inevitably. In Crete and Sparta, Dorian comradeship, or "masculine love" as it was termed, was a social institution, regulated by the state. Its roots lay in the promotion of a martial spirit, binding the men together with bonds of mutual affection. Mythical/historical figures such as Damon and Pythias and Oresetes and Pylades were comrades in arms and faithful to each other unto death, united in this tradition. The younger party would traditionally be known as the "hearer" or "admired", the older as the "inspirer" or "lover". The physical aspect, therefore, can't simply be ignored.

But Whitman was generally keen to reject what he once described as "morbid inferences". In The Book of Lost Things, Roland suspects that Raphael is dead, and he sets out not only to confirm this fact, but, I think, to observe the proper services for his beloved comrade. Again, to return to Whitman:

Vigil for comrade swiftly slain - vigil I will never forget, how as day brightened,
I rose from the chill ground, and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.

To take a story perhaps better known to many, the adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, it seems to me that something of this ideal survives in the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot. Lancelot's betrayal of Arthur through his feelings for Guinevere is complicated by his love for the King, a love that goes beyond simply the loyalty and affection that duty requires him to feel for his ruler. (Even Christ in the Bible acknowledges the reality of a non-physical bond of affection between men, as again and again we are reminded that John is the disciple that he loves above all others.)

What I am trying to say is that there is a complex historical and mythological underpinning for the character of Roland, but one that is not laboured in The Book of Lost Things. To simply label Roland as "gay" and to decide that his relationship with Raphael is a physical one is to oversimplify it. In the end, Roland is whatever the reader decides that he is. His purpose in the book is to demonstrate a depth of feeling that, although noble and admirable, is ultimately self-destructive. Just as David spends much of the novel seeking his dead mother, only to ultimately realise that he must come to terms with the loss of her if he is to survive and rebuild his life, so too Roland seeks Raphael, but appears resigned to his own fate as much as to his comrade's.

This week John read

Restless by William Boyd
Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol
Achtung Schweinehund by Harry Pearson

and listened to
Mosaic by Woven Hand
All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone by Explosions In The Sky
Yo-Yo Ma plays the Music of Ennio Morricone by Yo-Yo Ma and Ennio Morricone


The Home Office said...

I haven't read TBOLT yet (it's on the list), but I think the point you're making with Roland is significant: it doesn't matter whether he's gay. The lesson I think is valuable in this, is that in life it rarely matters whether someone is gay, and then it almost always only matters to a partner (or prospetive partner). Homophobes see nefarious influence in every aspect of homosexuality, when the reality is that homosexuals and heterosexuals have but one truly defining difference: whether they prefer mates of the same, or other, gender.

Mairi said...

This is a really well made point, have you ever thought about being a writer! I think the fact is that if Roland was searching for a lost female, we would assume that he loved her, and perhaps there is a sexual aspect to it, but that's not the sum total of the whole relationship. Why is it suddenly all about the physicality of a relationship when it's between two men? We live in a world of double standards, unpleasant but undeniable.

Tom Hyland said...

“The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book. Expurgation is an apology… “

Whitman said that because he believed in the spirit of the word. Truths are best laid out for all to see and for the individual to understand in whatever way he sees fit. I don’t see any of the passages from TBOLT as requiring expurgation. I see quite the opposite (and especially in light of a seeming minority honing in on possible homosexual origins for the characters of Roland and Raphael). There is nothing rude or suggestive in the descriptions of Roland and his mate. And besides, what difference does the sexual orientation of a character make unless that orientation applies directly to the theme of the story? The theme is loyalty and bonding between warriors. A reader may choose to search for meaning beyond the obvious. But that sort of expedition does not alter the basis of the story.

beautifulstars said...

I just finished this novel today, and was absolutely enchanted by it from cover to cover, as someone who loves the darker fairytales. I had an aquaintance who was searching for a book for an 'angry young man' who doesn't have a male figurehead, and I suggested the book. The reason is as follows: it is clear that David is uncertain as to his position with his father, and as to how to become a 'man.' Along his journey in the book he comes across many different types of 'men,' almost all who challenge or contribute to the idea of a 'man' he eventually embraces. Roland is one of those 'men' -- possibly he challenges it by being a strong gay man, and possibly he challenges it by being a man who is comfortable admitting his loyalty to another man.
What I did find realistic was the Crooked Man's equation of homosexuality with pedophaelia, because this equation has been made so many times in my life, and I liked the realistic but gentle way in which is was dispelled in the novel.

Thigi said...

Uhn, well one of the reasons why I love reading your books is because of this small part with the characters. I mean, mostly of time your maincharacter leads the story (coughs coughs, I know... this sounds stupid) but there are always those other characters, with a misty aura. I mean... those kind of characters from whom we discover little by little going further in the story, but not everything of them seems to be revieled at the end. It's up to the reader to use his/her imagination, interpretation to definie this character..
:D And of course it leads to some uhn, talks like that.
But I also think TBOLT is more like an open book, where everything can happen one way or the other way...
The balance of life.... XP

Ari said...

Thank you for taking the time to tell us more about the character of Roland. I just finished reading "The Book of Lost Things" (LOVED IT) and this is my first visit to your site. I didn't read Roland as "gay," I saw him, and the other characters in the world David enters, as archetypal. Each one of them represented some aspect of David's psyche that needed to be encountered in order for him to move forward. And yet, you're right that in ancient times the relationship between men and boys was very different.

At any rate, before I ramble on too much... fascinating story, I look forward to exploring your other books!

Ari (Baking and Books)

Anonymous said...

I probably did read Roland as gay, or at least thought it was a case of 'unrequited love' but as a gay man myself that probably says more about me than about the way you'd written it.

I thought the book was a revelation - so very different from your previous works, but still excellent.

Look forward to the next and to reading more on your blog - would like to hear more about how you go about picking a subject, researching, writing, what technology do you use etc? - just give us all your trade secrets!

John said...

That Roland may or may not be gay fits perfectly with the inversion of assumptions that TBOLT achieves at every turn.
Also , it's interestingto note that Rolands sexuality only becomes an "issue" when it is weaponized by the Crooked Man in order to foul what was a poetic and selfless connection with David.
J Moore

Dhruv said...

i'm happy that you left Roland's sexuality a matter of perception rather than labeling him as a gay man. It's obvious that Raphael is very important to Roland and he clearly loves him. But anything beyond what we know of their relationship really is, as roland said "no business of any man's". a few years ago my sister revealed to me that what i had believed was a close friendship between her and another girl was actually something more. when she told me this, i immediately recalled all her past relationships with boys and wondered whether they had been real. i wanted to ask if she identified herself as gay or bi, but i was stopped by the realization that it really doesn't matter at all. i'm comfortable being around her and her friend and anything that happens between the two is none of my business unless they choose otherwise. personally, i like to imagine that roland and raphael are lovers. if they're not, then Roland is just a guy who's a really good friend to another guy and somehow that seems dull to me. in any case, i really enjoyed TBOLT, you're an amazing writer and i have so much respect for you.

Julie said...

I felt that the relationship between Roland and Raphael was really quite beautiful and mysterious. I was very moved by the sequence when David overheard Roland speaking with love and longing to the locket with Raphael's portrait inside. I found myself thinking about the two knights long after I had finished reading the story and wishing that I knew more about them.

Miranda said...

To be honest, I wasn't all that surprised. I decided to see Roland as gay in the end as the book connoted to the idea so heavily.
As a writer myself however, I wondered whether you meant that Roland was actually gay. I understand that while Roland admitted to David that he loved Raphael and the Crooked Man said himself: "he looks at you at night; he thinks you're beautiful" to David, I found myself jumping to conclusions because the word 'love' goes past sexual desire. The Crooked Man is not to be trusted anyhow, and a man thinking of a boy no more than twelve as beautiful- in that sense- didn't sound like Roland.
Searching for answers on the internet, I found this and discovered I was right to think that Roland's sexuality was really perceptive. Very clever idea. Open ended, but a good way to ensure that no two readers view TBOLT the same way.