Why I Love Mordred in the Arthurian Legend

I have loved the legends of King Arthur since I was a small child watching The Sword in the Stone, and eventually reading the full novel of The Once and Future King, but it wasn’t until high school that I really began to understand the sheer extent of the tapestry of Arthurian canon. The complexity of the legends can be mind-boggling, even as some of the renditions and individual stories are very basic and simple, even sweet. The work that really set me on the journey of becoming an Arthuriana enthusiast and scholar was Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, in particular the author’s experiments with viewpoint. I had never realized that viewpoint could be such a pivotal concept in retellings of the legend, and I immediately set out to devour all versions of the legend I could find, the more different the better.

The first “different” version I read was, of course, the direct follow-up to the Merlin Trilogy, Mary Stewart’s own novel The Wicked Day, which retells much of the last book in the trilogy from Mordred’s viewpoint, before adding events to the end which go beyond the scope of The Last Enchantment, the last novel in the trilogy. From that point on, I was fascinated with the character of Mordred, and his history in the Arthurian canon.

At Bryn Mawr College, I took a course on the legends of Arthur. One of the big assignments was a large paper on a character, chosen from the list, and we were to research the canonical history of that character, his or her first appearances, later development through the different Arthurian sources, and the way she or he is interpreted by modern fiction. The professor, after discussing the expectations with the class, asked how many of us had already picked our character; most of us had. She asked how many were planning to write about Morgan. Almost a third of the seventy-five or so students in the class raised their hands. This being Bryn Mawr, this was not tremendously surprising. She then asked, curiously, if anyone was planning to write about Mordred. My hand shot up at the back of the room. I was the only one. The professor laughed. “Ah yes,” she said. “The Mordred people. There’s one in every class. Good to know which one you are. You guys keep us honest.”

That comment struck me, as did the assumption that a bunch of scholars discussing the Arthurian legend would need someone to keep them honest. As it turned out, the prediction was quite correct, and I learned why: the sources, from medieval to modern, generally espouse a certain moral code, and take for granted certain concepts. One of Mordred’s roles in the legend, and therefore one of my roles in the class, was to constantly call those concepts into question, often playing devil’s advocate (I don’t normally do this, but for some reason this class really brought it out in me). It made people angry with me, just as it made people angry with Mordred in the legend. Fortunately, in a modern liberal arts college, there was a much greater expectation of open-mindedness than would be found in a medieval court.

One can tell so much about the purpose of any piece of Arthuriana by watching how Mordred is portrayed. The reason for this is that Mordred is key to how Arthur himself is portrayed: they are nemeses. In the same way that Batman would not be as brilliant without the presence of the Joker to oppose him, or Superman without Lex Luthor, the list goes on, Arthur needs his Mordred for contrast. The difference between this pair and those others, though, is that Mordred can be just about anything the author wants — which means that Mordred becomes a vehicle for making Arthur anything the author wants. It is very revealing of the portrayal of Arthur, to view his opposite, or sometimes just a foil, or even just a tragic circumstance, in Mordred.

When I first read Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day, and read up on the character, much of the critique I saw of the novel mentioned her “new” take on the character. This seemed odd to me, as Stewart specifically mentions in her author’s notes that Mordred was not originally a villain. He is barely a footnote in the first source in which he is mentioned (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), and we cannot even tell on which side he fought in the battle of Camlann. When I did my research in college, I discovered there are numerous other old sources which have a complex or even sympathetic portrayal of the character. I think my favorite is the Alliterative Morte Arthur, which portrays Mordred as fighting against Arthur for reasons he believes valid, and refusing to back down from his own honor and convictions. The two are set against each other in a conflict that cannot be resolved except through death, and everyone, including both Arthur and Mordred, recognizes the tragic waste. The moment that gave me chills, though, was when I read about Mordred, having just killed Gawain, weeping over the body, realizing that at this point there is no going back even if they should find some way to resolve all of their other issues, and fully understanding the waste of all the brilliant men and ideas that will perish in the battle. This, from a piece written in the late 1300’s. The idea of a sympathetic character in Mordred is definitely not “new.” If anything, the sneering madman of The Once and Future King is the new interpretation. Even Thomas Malory portrays him as bitter and treacherous, but sane and practical.

If you read my earlier post about Game of Thrones and why I love Jaime Lannister, it should come as no surprise that I love Mordred to pieces, and for many of the same reasons. I love characters who call everyone’s assumptions into question. I love complex characters.

Mordred may be one of the most complex characters in all of literature. This comes in part from the sheer number of versions: the evil wizard counterpart to Merlin; the disgruntled brat prince; the smooth-talking madman; the dangerously charismatic and treacherous rebel leader; the misguided and bitter youth; the abused boy manipulated by his vindictive mother; the terrified knight caught up in a destiny he cannot escape; the politician who makes hard decisions; the nobleman who is a victim of circumstance; the leader of a resistance against a regime that has outgrown its usefulness to its kingdom. These are just a few of the thousands of versions of this character that now exist. There’s even gay erotica about Mordred (it was brilliant Arthuriana, actually).

Fun piece of trivia: If you watch Monty Python’s Quest for The Holy Grail, it is possible to determine the identify of Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. He is Mordred. The proof is two-fold, beyond the fact that Mordred does not in fact appear in the film: 1) He is a baby in the image, and Mordred is the youngest of Arthur’s knights in most of the Grail legends. 2) He is wrapped in swaddling that is green, with embroidered dragons. Green signifies Lothian, the realm of Arthur’s sister; the dragon signifies Arthur himself. The child of Arthur and his sister? Mordred. QED. The Python crew has confirmed this analysis.

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House Words and Bannermen in A Song of Ice and Fire

So this was suggested by the comments on my last post, plus another idea that had been marinating in my brain, and the two combined and grew teeth and started chewing on me in the middle of the night. Result: my second post on A Song of Ice and Fire. There won’t be too many of these, I promise, but neither will this be the last.

First, I have to give some credit to my source: I spent a ridiculously long time clicking links starting from the “House Words” article at A Wiki of Ice and Fire. They have a somewhat terrifyingly complete alphabetic listing of House Words by House. I have reorganized them by banner allegiance, below, with analysis.

The reason for this exercise was the question asked in the comments to my other post, roughly, “What is the effect of House Words on our moral views of a given House?” I had also been thinking of a different – but related – question: how do a Lord’s associations with certain bannermen affect the reader’s views of his House’s morals? And I thought, why not combine the two? And here we are.

Keep in mind as we go through this list, that there are many Houses not listed here. They are those whose Words have not been listed in the books, the appendices, or any related media, or for that matter any interviews with GRRM, which were apparently the sources for a couple of these. So, for example, I don’t think we are meant to assume that House Greyjoy only has one vassal House.

Also, with one exception, clearly marked, each minor House is listed only under the Great House whom they serve when they first actively appear in the series. Unless the first action they are seen to take in the series is betraying their rulers and switching sides, they are listed with their original allegiances.

House Martell – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. Bannermen: House Allyrion – No Foe May Pass. House Fowler – Let Me Soar. House Jordayne – Let It Be Written. House Yronwood – We Guard the Way.

House Martell’s legacy of independence, which is the main thing readers and viewers hear about Dorne other than its wine for quite some time into the series, is strongly portrayed in the House Words of both its ruling House and those of Martell’s bannermen. The small number of them whose Words are actually given makes this easier to keep consistent, but consistent it certainly is. Audience members will find their views on House Martell bolstered by the bannermen, I think, whatever those views might be. If one is sympathetic to Dorne’s views and aims, the bannermen are sufficiently in line with those to be affirming. If one assumes that Dorne is a danger and a threat to Westeros and needs to be subjugated, the bannermen certainly lend credence to that as well. In terms of character, we don’t get much in the way of information about the bannermen of Dorne other than this.

House Tyrell – Growing Strong. Bannermen: House Ambrose – Never Resting. House Ashford – Our Sun Shines Bright. House Beesbury – Beware Our Sting (Vassals Via Hightower). House Bulwer – Death Before Disgrace (Vassals Via Hightower). House Footly – Tread Lightly Here. House Fossoway of Cider Hall – A Taste of Glory. House Graceford – Work Her Will. House Hastwyck – None So Dutiful. House Hightower – We Light the Way. House Merryweather – Behold Our Bounty. House Oakheart – Our Roots Go Deep. House Tarly – First in Battle.

That’s… a lot of sweetness and light and nature metaphors and awful puns. Excuse me while I go vomit in a corner… Back now, and ready to put aside my dislike of House Tyrell’s Words (I actually quite like the people in it, with the exception of Loras and even he’s growing on me a bit) for the sake of analysis. The nature metaphors and the almost idyllic quality of so many of these Houses’ Words are a beautifully subtle way of bringing home the message that Tyrell is just full of bountiful resources. They may not shit gold, but they’ve laid in stocks for the Long Winter, and a few years in, they’ll outlast everyone else. And so will all of their bannermen! What a great deal, if you swear loyalty! Doesn’t that just make them useful allies and dangerous enemies, though… and all while seeming so sweet about the whole thing. In addition to being advertising, though, it’s also a lovely bit of snide and superiority, actually, which is borne out in the characters’ interactions with just about everybody, but which is easy to overlook if you aren’t watching for it – or if you really want to see the best in people (in which case, I feel bad for you as a reader of this series, I really do). Again, we don’t get much on their bannermen beyond this.

House Arryn – As High as Honor. Bannermen: House Royce – We Remember. House Wydman – Right Conquers Might. House Waxley – Light in Darkness.

Well that’s mighty morally upright of you, House Arryn. And traditional. One gets the impression that these are people with some kind of legacy to uphold. The Eyrie would make a great lighthouse, and it makes just as good a metaphor. In all seriousness, I think we can see why Lysa Arryn fixated so much on “The seed is strong,” when surrounded by these bits of propaganda. There’s a whole other analysis to be done of House Words there: the effect they might have on a person growing up around them, or on a person with severe mental illness (which Lysa certainly is) who is constantly surrounded by them. House Words are indoctrination in its finest form, and this is a brilliant example of how that can play out.

House Baratheon – Ours Is the Fury. Bannermen: House Buckwell – Pride and Purpose. House Caron – No Song So Sweet. House Follard – None so Wise. House Grandison – Rouse Me Not. House Lonmouth – The Choice Is Yours. House Penrose – Set Down Our Deeds. House Stokeworth – Proud to Be Faithful. House Swygert – Truth Conquers. House Toyne – Fly High, Fly Far. House Trant – So End Our Foes. House Velaryon – The Old, the True, the Brave. House Wensington – Sound the Charge. House Wendwater – For All Seasons.

House Baratheon’s Words have always interested me: Ours Is the Fury. This is very much a battle-oriented phrase, and brings to mind the (somewhat tragic) fact that the audience only gets to meet Robert Baratheon years after the Rebellion is over and his years of greatness have passed. Based on what we hear, he must really have been amazing back then, possibly he and Stannis both (remember that Stannis supposedly took Storm’s End and Dragonstone, which were previously considered impregnable). We don’t get to see House Baratheon in its most comfortable milieu: war. The House Words of not only Baratheon but all of its bannermen speak to this, and are a fairly consistent reminder, not to put too fine a point on it, Do Not Fuck with Us or You Will Not Be Happy with the Result (I hereby propose these as alternative House Words for Baratheon). One gets the impression that House Baratheon has always been around, will always be around, and it’s pointless to try and get rid of them. Which is probably a good impression for the Words of a warlike House to give, really. In terms of bannermen, there are only a handful of characters from these minor Houses, and they aren’t directly associated with the Baratheons. I didn’t know until I looked it up that House Trant were their vassals, for example.

House Stark – Winter is Coming. Bannermen:. House Bolton – Our Blades Are Sharp. House Cerwyn – Honed and Ready (Vassals via Bolton). House Flint of Widow’s Watch – Ever Vigilant (Vassals via Bolton). House Hornwood – Righteous in Wrath (Vassals via Bolton). House Karstark – The Sun of Winter. House Mormont – Here We Stand. House Tallhart – Proud and Free (Vassals via Bolton).

As much as I dislike the Starks, I really, really hope they have more bannermen than are listed here, and that those bannermen have direct loyalty. If not, the Boltons are actually intermediary lords to more than half the Starks’ bannermen. I would like to think that the Starks are not quite so stupid as to let that come to pass (if I’m wrong, they deserve what’s coming to them, if Westeros has a version of Darwin). Also, the Boltons are scary, and are shockingly unexpected bannermen for the Starks, especially after how the Starks are portrayed from Ned’s perspective. With that kind of cold dispassion and countenance for torture, one would expect them to work for the Lannisters.

The Stark Words are grim, but some of the most compelling in the series, and have a variety of meanings. They speak to the hardness of the North, and the inevitability of death, and the necessity of preparation for disaster, and all sorts of pragmatic things… which makes it particularly interesting that the Starks are the House who most consistently have their heads in the clouds when it comes to pragmatism. It also reminds us of the House’s ancient bonds with the Night’s Watch, which show up in some of their vassals’ Words as well. They give us the impression of the Starks that the Starks like to give of themselves to others, which is why this was one of the examples that started off my thinking on this topic to begin with.

House Greyjoy – We Do Not Sow. Bannermen: House Codd – Though All Men Do Despise Us.

Given that Greyjoy is one of the Great Houses, I think we can take this as proof that there are more Houses than are known as having House Words, even if some of the missing names from the list weren’t enough.

One of my favorite moments in the series is the point when Theon Greyjoy goes home for the first time in years, after spending time among the Starks, and is looked at by pretty much everyone as having “gone soft.” Up until this point, the Starks have been the “hard Northerners,” Westeros’ prime example of harshness and living with the wildness of the surrounding elements, and suddenly this is called into question. Up until this point, when Theon has bragged about his homeland and its harshness, the reader has been left to assume that he is lying or at least exaggerating, and the reader has been left to be wrong. Their House Words are delightfully chilling. Those of their sole bannermen to have House Words of their own? Remind us that this lifestyle can really, really suck. If one reacts to the Starks’ Words with “Well, that’s grim,” one can legitimately react to the Greyjoys’ with “Well, that’s even more grim.”

House Lannister – Hear Me Roar! Bannermen: House Crakehall – None so Fierce. House Marbrand – Burning Bright. House Peckledon – Unflinching. House Plumm – Come Try Me. House Sarsfield – True to the Mark. House Serrett – I Have No Rival. House Swyft – Awake! Awake!. House Westerling – Honor, not Honors.

House Lannister is my favorite, with the possible exception of Martell; I’ve made no secret of this. But I admit, their House Words are really, really silly. Fortunately, the whole family seems to know it, and every time the Words are quoted it’s with tongue lodged firmly in cheek, which makes me like them even more. (This also explains, now that I think about it, why they say “A Lannister always pays his debts” so often, in an attempt to make everyone forget their actual Words.) Their bannermen all have House Words which are pretentiously fierce (except possibly Peckledon, who scored big time on “cool and to the point” by sounding more like Martell than Lannister), but maybe a little less fierce and a little less pretentious – okay, a lot less pretentious – than their ruling House. The Lannisters were the first, in contrast with the Starks and the Boltons, to make me think about the bannermen and how they make us think about the whole House. Specifically, the Lannisters employ the Cleganes, who sadly appear not to have any Words of their own (I nominate “Kill, Kill, Kill”), who are the first truly distasteful bannermen to whom the audience is introduced. This, in my opinion, is a masterful piece of writing on Martin’s part, as he rapidly manipulates our opinions of the Lannisters as a whole, if we’re not extra careful. I covered this in my previous post, so I won’t do too much more on it here.

House Tully – Family, Duty, Honor. Bannermen: House Mallister – Above the Rest. House Mooton – Wisdom and Strength. House Piper – Brave and Beautiful. House Smallwood – From These Beginnings (Vassals via Vance). House Wode – Touch Me Not (later to Baelish, creepy).

With the exception of Wode, which I will deal with in a minute, these are all extremely self-satisfied, which is the impression I’ve always had of the Tullys as well. The Tullys’ House Words, and their order, were the other set that prompted this analysis in the first place, because of the questions of situational morality and resulting issues of moral relativism that they evoke. This is one of my favorite examples of a set of House Words that indicate a set of priorities which may or may not be a good idea in any given scenario, and may or may not have any moral standing whatsoever. “Family first” sounds nice, but as House Tyrell does such a lovely job of showing, what sounds nice isn’t necessarily so, and vice versa.

So let’s talk about House Wode for a second. This one just struck me because it’s one of the few Houses to completely change hands involuntarily over the course of the series. There are some Houses who betray their ruling Lords and switch sides, but this is one which is conquered and forced to change sides. They go from House Tully to House Baelish, and with that set of House Words. Am I the only one thinking sympathetically about Sansa Stark here?

House Targaryen – Fire and Blood

Ah, House Targaryen, last but not least, and with no bannermen of their own anymore. I tried to find a comprehensive list of which Houses had fought for them during Robert’s Rebellion, but couldn’t find one. Even with the House removed from power in Westeros, their Words definitely remind us of the old legend of House Targaryen, that whenever a baby is born, the gods toss a coin in the air, with greatness on one side and madness on the other. This set of Words could apply to either. One can see them applying to Daenerys at her best, or Aerys at his worst. One can hate them, one can fear them, one can love them, one can worship them… the one thing one can’t really do is ignore them. This is another of those sets, though, that I wonder what it would do to a child, growing up with it.

So what’s your point?

Well, I definitely found the first thing I was looking for: evidence in one direction or another to answer for myself a single question: if one groups all the Houses by banner allegiance, is it clear whether the author deliberately grouped sets of House Words? I think there’s a definitive “Yes” here. The sets are just too consistent to think otherwise, and the series as a whole is too precisely written to assume it’s anything approaching accidental. My second question was: if it was deliberate, is it part of how the author has subtly manipulated our views of each House? I think, again, Yes, in ways I hadn’t even realized until I wrote this.

Okay, we knew he was a good writer. So what’s your point?

Does this change the way we should see the Houses? Not necessarily. But one of the things this series – in both its versions – is so good for, is increasing our own self-awareness as audience members. If nothing else, compiling this has helped me with that. And maybe it was a little ridiculous to spend about four hours in the middle of the night putting this together. (Maybe I have a bit of a fangirl problem here.) But it sure got my brain working, in a way that just reading the books, or just watching the show, didn’t, even though those do engage my brain to a degree that most fiction just doesn’t. And for that alone, the effort was worth it to me. And if it sparks some thought or discussion somewhere, even more so.

“Bad Guys” and “Worse Guys” in Game of Thrones

DISTURBING CONTENT ADVISORY: If you haven’t seen Game of Thrones or read Song of Ice and Fire, both contain large amounts of sexually disturbing and violent material, which will be under discussion in this post and probably in any comments as well.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post will discuss both the HBO series and the original books by George R.R. Martin. This post and the comments will likely be rife with spoilers for both.

These two related works – the HBO hit Game of Thrones and the George R.R. Martin fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire – are wonderful fodder for those who, like me, tend to prefer complex characters over simple ones. In my experience, at least, villains are often painted with greater nuance than heroes, as if the author assume that we will automatically “sign on” with the causes of the “good guys,” but they have to explain the reasoning of the “bad guys” to us. The result, to me, is that villains are almost always more interesting, more attractive, and more sympathetic than heroes in speculative fiction genres.

George R.R. Martin seems to have circumvented the problem by foregoing heroes altogether, at least in the “present day” of his world. There may be heroes of the past, but even they are turning up more ambiguous than one usually finds in epic fantasy. The real brilliance of this move, though, lies in the fact that the author managed to manipulate the majority of his audience into thinking that wasn’t his intention for the entirety of the first book (a feat which the showrunners of the televised version replicated with season one on HBO).

I have had a very frustrating repeated experience when discussing these two works with people. Allow me to describe it here. And please note, this has happened even with people who normally are able to discuss literature and film with me in a rational manner. It’s pretty quick to describe. At some point, someone asks the question, “Who is your favorite character?” And I answer, honestly, “Jaime Lannister.” At this point, the conversation goes one of two ways. If the person has read or viewed past a certain point, they say, “Ah, after he lost his hand, you started liking him.” And I protest, “No, he’s been my favorite since the beginning.” At which point we get the same result as if the person hasn’t seen Jaime lose his hand at all, which is that the person promptly explodes with “You’re a horrible person!” Not “I disagree,” not “He’s a horrible person, how could you like him,” but “You’re a horrible person.”

You see, Jaime became my favorite character in the books the instant he was introduced simultaneously as “The Lion of Lannister” and “the Kingslayer,” when he first enters the feasting hall at Winterfell. Before he threw Bran out of a window, before it became apparent that he was sleeping with his sister – not that either of those was inconsistent with the portrait painted in that first snapshot. It became apparent then that this was going to be the character who would be the standard-bearer for moral neutrality and complexity, which has certainly been borne out in later revelations and events. Most readers noticed the other two events much more, due to their spectacular nature, and when I ask people why they don’t like Jaime, those are always the items they bring up. Then they bring up the issue of him having murdered his king, which is of course far more complex than the title of “Kingslayer” would grant.

So let’s talk about that particular event for a bit, because there’s one piece of information that almost everyone overlooks, and is never brought up in conjunction with it in either the show or the books. Jaime makes the snap decision to murder the Mad King Aerys, to prevent him from immolating the capital and everyone in it. Not the job of the Kingsguard, certainly, quite the opposite, but one has to wonder what the world would look like today if one of Hitler’s bodyguards had done the same thing. Would we condemn them? Probably, since we would have no way of knowing what might have been. But let’s get to that missing piece, which wouldn’t have been the case for that hypothetical German: Jaime was only seventeen years old when he made the decision to take that action and never explain his reasoning to anyone, to prevent a panic and instead take everyone’s judgment on himself.

Let’s get to the judgment side of things now. In the first book and first season, Jaime appears to be squarely on the side of the “villains,” along with the vast majority of the cast. The lines are drawn clearly, Starks versus Lannisters, good versus evil, straightforward versus backstabbing, swordsmen versus poisoners (not that this was true either, of course, but it was so easy to believe), you name it. In my opinion, Eddard Stark was the worst thing to happen to Westeros since Aerys. He’s a lousy King’s Hand, and a hypocrite who takes far too much pleasure and comfort in passing moral judgment on others to be a reasonable administrator in a complex world. (This opinion is just about as popular as loving Jaime.) He has his own moral compass, to be sure, but it isn’t what he claims it is. He works for his own honor, his own ideas of right and wrong, and places those above the good of the realm… while claiming that his greatest motivation is service to the Crown. Eddard Stark, in this, is as treacherous as the Lannisters could ever be. Robert Baratheon’s own good, the realm’s own good, were never Ned’s priorities.

The Lannisters are far better rulers. Not that this makes them “good.” Or even “good rulers.” They certainly aren’t that either. And Joffrey is a special case – there’s a reason he was possibly the most hated character on TV, and that there’s an online campaign to erect a statue of him in New Zealand for the sole purpose of publicly tearing it down in celebration. But the rest aren’t anywhere near the sadistic psychopaths that Joffrey turned out to be. Cold, calculating, manipulative, broken: these are all apt descriptions. But those aren’t necessarily all bad qualities in a ruler, which after all is the end prize of the titular “game of thrones.”

The concept of “house words” is also used beautifully to manipulate our ideas of morality in this fantasy world. An apt example is House Tully, with their words of “Family, Duty, Honor.” There’s a great scene in the show reminding us that to members of this family, it should always be “family first,” and this is portrayed as a positive quality. In a family member, it probably is – but not in the ruler of a country.

At their hearts, none of these characters are perfect rulers. None of them may even be good rulers. Quite a few might make competent rulers. But the moral rules and the logistical rules don’t necessarily match up… which is probably a good thing, since there are no “good guys” to be found, only “bad guys” and “worse guys.”

Fetishized Books and Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

DISTURBING CONTENT ADVISORY: This is a post about the practice of covering books in human skin, and some of the disturbing ways that has been viewed by its practitioners.

There were numerous articles in the news recently highlighting a scientific finding at Harvard that one of the books in the university’s collection is covered in human skin. There were three books that might have fit this description, and two were disproved. The third, however, is a genuine example of the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy: covering books in leather made from humans.

In particular, I was struck by the article in the Washington Post. The author ends her article with the line, “The real thing that we might all wish had been fake.” This, of course, assumes that everyone reading the article agrees with her in wishing that books were never covered in human skin.

Okay, sure, it’s a little creepy at first instinct, but as a friend of mine pointed out, becoming a book after death is not such a bad fate, and is actually one quite a few people would aspire to. And the woman whose skin went into the book was not killed for it – she died of illness.

What is universally icky, though, is the inscription, which fetishizes her skin down to its very pores, along with fetishizing the book itself. The strangeness of this, combined with the more-than-vaguely necrophiliac feel of this sentiment, seems to get to pretty much everyone.

Thinking about it, I realized there’s a movie director who captures this beautifully, in one of the most stunning films I’ve ever experienced. That director is Peter Greenaway, who seems, based on his work, to have a genuine fetish for the written word. I don’t mean the content; I refer here to the actual physicality of books and writing. This shows up in both Prospero’s Books, one of my favorite films of all time starring John Gielgud, and a far less disturbing example for those who want to experience Greenaway’s style, and in The Pillow Book, which features multiple characters who paint calligraphy on each other’s skin as an exploration of sexuality. It begins with the sweet concept of a father writing blessings in calligraphy on his daughter’s face as a birthday ritual. It becomes slightly twisted as she equates writing with love, and is willing to subject herself to what she perceives as degrading levels of fetishization to receive it. Eventually, this turns gruesome, and there is a slow poisoning scene which is disturbingly visually beautiful, done so that the writing on a person’s skin will be preserved as a manuscript, all with breathtaking French music in the background. The movie is both ethereal and obscene, both to extremes.

While, in both the movie and in the case of the Harvard manuscript, the lack of consent on the part of the fetishized person is disgusting (oddly, there’s more sexual consent in the film, even in the murder scene), the film captures the writing fetish in such intimate fashion that it becomes comprehensible to the viewer. A fetish for books doesn’t seem so alien after all. It may not be your thing, but if you’re looking to make some sense out of this particular news bit, and are prepared for some psychological drama, you may want to try the film.