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