The Long View: Lucifer's Court

This is John J. Reilly’s masterful summary of not only esoteric fascism, but of the curious historical phenomenon of the Albigensians. John wraps up everything he wrote over a number of years on the subject into a cohesive whole.


Lucifer’s Court:
A Heretic’s Journey in
Search of the Light Bringers

By Otto Rahn

Translated by Christopher Jones
German Original Published 1937
Translation 2008, Inner Traditions International
242 Pages, US$16.95
ISBN 978-159477197-2

Reviewed by John J. Reilly

This review originally appeared
on the website of
The Southern Literary Messenger.

Introduction

This book and its companion volume,Crusade against the Grail (1), are about as close as we can get to an “authoritative” statement of the esoteric dimension of the Nazi regime in Germany. The publication of the Crusade book in 1933 persuaded SS leader Heinrich Himmler to invite its author, Otto Rahn (1904-1939), to work for the SS as a folklorist. As the book under review here also does in part, that work developed the thesis that the doctrines of the medieval Cathars of Provence were encoded into Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century version of the Grail legend. Rahn later became a member of the Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”(2)) bureau of the SS, in whose employ he finished Lucifer’s Court. It is generally conceded that Rahn’s death by exposure during a winter hike in 1939 was a suicide forced upon him by the SS, because of rumors of homosexuality, or of Jewish ancestry, or both. Nonetheless, Himmler thought highly enough of this book to order a special edition of 5,000 leather-bound copies to be printed during the war; for distribution, presumably, to select SS personnel.

Esoteric Fascism

Both of Rahn’s books have been translated from German into English for the first time by Christopher Jones. These editions include acknowledgements of support and assistance from figures prominent in what has been called the “the esoteric Right” or “esoteric fascism”(3). We may note that the title of the original, Luzifers Hofgesind, might more literally be translated as “Lucifer’s Courtiers,” and in fact some references in English to the German version have used that expression, or “The Courtiers of Lucifer.” This edition has Lucifer’s Court, the translator explains, because translations into other languages use some such title. A minor point: the original subtitle, at least in the German edition I have been able to locate, is “eine Riese zu Europas guten Geistern,” which is “a journey to Europe’s Good Spirits.” The English subtitle of this edition suits the content better, but the author did not think of it.

One cannot discuss this book today without at least mentioning the 1989 Steven Spielberg film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The overall story in that film was a quest for the Holy Grail, but finding the Grail required first finding the “Grail Diary” of a cranky old archeologist, in which he had recorded his researches. Lucifer’s Court is a journal rather than a diary, but it does bear a superficial resemblance to the missing document in Spielberg’s film. This book is an account of the travels of a man looking for traditions about the Holy Grail; and sometimes, we may reasonably suspect, for an actual object, understood in Rahn’s case as the legendary treasure of the Cathars. (We will get to the Cathars below, after we have given the devil his due.)

The differences from the film are even more interesting, of course. The Grail for Rahn, to the extent that he considers it a physical object, is the German Grail, the Stone that fell from Heaven in Parzival, rather than the cup associated with Jesus in the Anglo-French Grail stories. The film was devoid of references to the Cathar sect, as indeed was everyone else’s understanding of the Grail legend until the middle of the nineteenth century. Also unlike the film, the book is virulently, relentlessly, jumping-up-and-down anti-Christian. It is particularly anti-Catholic, so much so as to reduce the antisemitic implications of its rejection of Yahweh to a mere subtext. In Crusade against the Grail, Rahn seemed content to accept the Cathars’ view of themselves as the true Christians (a view that Hitler seemed to share, if we may believe Otto Wagener’s Memoirs of a Confidant). In this work, Rahn has become more radical. If the Cathars considered themselves Christians at all, then they were mistaken. Lucifer, properly understood, is the hero of the story.

The sections of the book, all undated and very brief, are headed by place names; the author tells us what he saw or felt or did at each location. The sections are arranged in three groups. The first deals with the author’s visits to cities in France, chiefly sites associated the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade that destroyed them. The second group includes trips to northern Italy, Switzerland, and southern Germany. The third begins in the author’s native Hesse in Germany and then moves in stages on a trip that leads across the North Atlantic to Iceland. The organizing principle appears to be that the medieval drama of the Grail was played out in the South, but the meaning and perhaps the origin of the Grail is to be found in the furthest North. The North is key for Rahn, both as a symbol and as a source of historical influence from pre-historic times.

Early in the book, in a passage written in Paris, the author cites the verses from Isaiah 14 that are traditionally said to refer to the fall of Satan from Heaven:

How have you fallen from the heavens, O glowing morning star; been cut down to the ground O conqueror of Nations?

For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north...

For Rahn, Isaiah speaks for the great enemy: for Yahweh, the spiritual tyrant of the past 2,000 years, whose prophet here gloats over the discomfiture of a would-be liberator. The liberator, the model for all insurgents, is the Morning Star, called in Latin “Lucifer,” which means “Light Bearer.” We are told explicitly that Lucifer is Apollyon, the Angel of the Pit in Revelation 9:7-11. His adherents are scattered throughout history and in many countries. Among them, Rahn held, was Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), the German mystical writer, whose Aurora is quoted by Rahn as an example of the positive to which Isaiah is the negative:

Look, I will tell you a secret: The time has come for the groom to crown his bride; guess where the crown lies? Toward midnight, because the light is clear in the darkness...

Midnight here, we are given to understand, means “Land of the Midnight Sun,” which Rahn intends to visit. There, and throughout his travels, he hopes to find historical and legendary evidence of the activities of Lucifer’s courtiers:

In this way, I am hoping my readers will appreciate the story of those who sought justice regardless of the Mosaic twelve commandments and from their own sense of justice and duty; those who, rather than ever arrogantly expecting assistance from Mount Sinai, went to a “mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north,” in order to bring solace to their kind; those who placed knowledge above faith and existence above the light; and, not least, those who recognized that Yahweh could never, ever be their divinity and Jesus of Nazareth could never, ever be their salvation. In Lucifer’s house there are many dwellings. Many paths and bridges lead to him.

There are mysteries in that passage, not the least of which is that the Decalogue seems to have sprouted two new commandments. Actually, there are mysteries intentional and otherwise throughout the whole book. Rahn often quotes slabs of text without citation, a deficit that his editors do not always supply. There are questionable specific points. As the translator notes, Rahn’s grasp of mythology was not above criticism. The Argonauts, for instance, whose adventures in Rahn’s imagination seem to have occurred largely in the North Atlantic, are said to have gotten their name from the town “Argos,” rather than from the name of their ship. More serious is the question of whether and to what degree Rahn’s thesis is supposed to relate to history at all.

Parzival

Rahn clearly does take very seriously the argument of the French occult writer Joséphin Péladan that the Cathars of Provence were the real matter of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and that the Grail was a secret or object they were protecting. In Lucifer’s Court, Rahn develops this theory in the section “Carcassonne.” Rahn’s initial identification is of the perfectly real 13th-century French poet, Guiot of Provins, with “Kyot of Provence,” the otherwise unknown source to whom Wolfram attributes his information. Provins is a small region to the southeast of Paris, while Provence is a major region in the south of France. This is the kind of wordplay that Wolfram loved, but it is very far from proof that Wolfram was doing more than making good-natured fun of a contemporary’s name, much less that he was recording an esoteric history of events in Provence. As Richard Barber notes in his sober study, The Holy Grail (4), the parallels between the notables of medieval Provence and the characters in Parzival just are not that close. Neither do Rahn’s etymologies help. “Parzival,” the knight of the Grail Quest, is said to mean “cut well” in Occitan, the language of the troubadours of southern France. Rahn, or at least this translation, does not trouble to mention that “Percival” is the original. In any case, he equates this with the name of a Provencal nobleman, “Trencavel,” whose alleged origin (trenca vel) is supposed to mean the same thing. This is not a very telling equation; it grows less so when we consider that the usual etymology of “Percival” is “pierce the valley.”

There are similar problems with Rahn’s understanding of the Cathar heresy as a whole. Catharism is actually a blanket term for a range of sects and beliefs which had some currency throughout Europe. The Cathars of southern France were called “Albigensians,” after the city of Albi. Rahn does not make these distinctions, and since he is concerned with Cathars elsewhere, particularly in Germany, we will use that term.

The Cathars

Catharism is one of those doctrines we know only from the accounts of its enemies, so reconstructing its actual content has always been difficult. (For the incautious, Theodore Roszak’s novel, Flicker (5), may not be too far off the mark.) The Cathars seem to have been Manicheans, in the sense their theology was like that of the third-century Zoroastrian would-be prophet, Mani, though they may not have knowingly looked to him for inspiration. Manicheanism is a kind of dualism, holding that there are independently existing good and evil principles. In the Cathar version, this world, the world of matter, is evil, and Yahweh of the Old Testament is its god. In some versions of this kind of speculation, the Creator was an inferior entity, sometimes called the Demiurge, and his Creation was defective. It is not clear how much of this the Cathars believed, but none of it would have been original with them: the Christian heretic Marcion had jettisoned the Old Testament as the work of the devil in the second century. For him, the New Testament, or part of it, is the revelation of a good, alien God. This God did not create the world. His messenger was Jesus, according to Marcion, though as we have seen, Rahn thought otherwise.

The Cathars seemed to have believed that Jesus was never really material, and that he was never crucified. They further rejected the Church hierarchy and its system of sacraments. They had a sacrament of their own called the consolamentum. Those who received it became perfecti, Latin for “Perfect Ones” (Cathar is Greek for “pure.”) Most Cathars received it on their deathbed; those who took it earlier became clergy. Perfecti pledged to vegetarianism, and not to take life, and to celibacy. Birth was an evil, since the entrapment of human souls in matter was one of the things Catharism was supposed to help remedy. The Cathars seem to have believed in a cycle of reincarnation which, like the Buddhists, they sought to escape. Ordinary believers, who had not yet become perfecti, could and did function normally in medieval society. Among them was the bulk of the aristocracy of Provence; hence Rome’s campaigns, first of evangelization, and then of crusade against the Cathar strongholds.

To this account of possible Cathar doctrines Rahn adds and subtracts with perfect freedom. Cathar anti-natalism and horror of matter disappear entirely: rather, in his account, it is the followers of Yahweh who are hostile to the natural world. There are ancient doctrines which make a hero of Lucifer, or at any rate, of Satan: Rahn mentions more than once the old notion that Lucifer is simply in exile from Heaven, and will return in due course. In the section entitled “On a Southern German Road,” Rahn sets out a vision, or a profound meditation, in which he is instructed in the role of Lucifer as an intermediary, or role model, by a Cathar named Bertrand of Foix. It is not at all clear that the Cathars ever thought any such thing, however. We may note that, after the meditation, he camps with a group of Hitler Youth; they are Courtiers of Lucifer, too.

Rahn’s investigations into Catharism tend to merge into other interests. Rahn was a member of the völkisch wing of the Nazi movement, along with Himmler and Himmler’s personal wizard, Karl-Maria Willigut (also known as “Weisthor”). Rahn followed up references to what in English-language folklore studies is sometimes called “the fairy faith.” He describes how medieval heroes gained immortality by finding the mountaintop rose-garden paradise of Laurin, King of the Dwarfs, a notion he conflates with the mountaintop paradises of Asgard and Olympus, and with that northern mountaintop to which Isaiah says Yahweh is so keen to restrict access. The Courtiers of Lucifer in the West may have been nominally Christian, but they actually hoped to go after death to the “bosom of Arthur,” like Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Shakespeare was in on the secret, too, it seems.

As for the Grail, Rahn’s accounts of it vary as much as the descriptions of legend. Parzival introduced the idea that the Grail Stone had been brought to Earth by angels of ambiguous allegiance. In later developments of the story, the Grail is a jewel that fell from the crown of Lucifer. Rahn likes that expression and uses it repeatedly. As many commentators on Rahn have noted, stones do sometimes fall from the sky. There has been considerable speculation that Rahn may have been seeking, or actually helped recover, a meteoric Cathar relic on his spelunking expeditions to the south of France. However, in the section of this book under “Halberstadt,” he views what is apparently an actual meteoric stone. Called the Teufelstein, the devil allegedly threw it at the local cathedral when it was under construction, in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the cathedral’s completion. All Rahn says is that “Christians will believe anything.” It is not over reading the text, perhaps, to infer that he is signaling the reader not to make the Grail-meteor connection.

Ultima Thule

By and by, in fact, we learn that maybe we should not take the connection between historical Catharism and Luciferian liberation too literally, either. Rahn mentions a Persian tradition about a holy stone that parallels Parzival’s Grail story in essential ways. In fact, he suggests that “grail” may be derived from the Persian word for the stone, “ghral” (6). The same illumination came to two groups of Aryan peoples, one in Western Europe and the other in the Near East. The familiar Grail story is just one manifestation of it. The quest of the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece is, in some ways, the same story. This illumination is connected with the recollection of a time when the far north was warm and hospitable, and a healthy sort of mankind lived in harmony with nature. The name “Hyperborea” comes up. By Rahn’s own account, his wanderings were always destined to end in Ultimate Thule.

History as Myth

The point has never been the recovery of an empirically verifiable historical tradition. Rather, to use a term that Rahn (or this translation) does not use, Rahn realizes that he has been seeking to clarify an archetype. Or perhaps that term is too easy. In the section under “Runkel an Lahn,” Rahn presents a vision in which the divine is generated by the struggle between life and death. By rising above their individuality and embracing this struggle, heroes can hope to attain a genuine immortality by entering the mythical realm. Readers may be reminded of Julius Evola’s description in Revolt against the Modern World of the mutual permeability of chronological and mythological time (7). The difference is that Evola’s criticism of Nazi mysticism as stultifyingly chthonic seems to apply to Rahn’s ideas: the völkisch worldview is oriented toward the folk soul, rather than to eternity. The fate of the hero is less like apotheosis and more like psychic mulch.

Don Quixote

The Cathars may have been dualists, but Rahn’s ideas are not essentially dualistic. Dualism involves two universal principles in conflict. Rahn’s mythological version of history, in contrast, is a struggle between folk souls, actualized as a struggle between their gods. As it happens, there are just two such entities, Yahweh and Lucifer, that interest Rahn. They represent the Jewish and German (or Aryan) peoples and the struggle between them. However, one might point out that there is no particular reason why there should not be more than two, or more than one. This cosmic struggle is a historical accident; different only in scale, perhaps, from a fight occasioned by a chance encounter between dinosaurs. (8)

A long section of the book is an excerpt from Don Quixote, the story of the old knight whose mind was so addled by reading romances of medieval chivalry that he could no longer tell the difference between the stories and reality. Rahn identifies with Quixote, but not in the sense that either was really deluded. Rather, the stories that entranced Quixote, like the völkisch mythology that absorbed Rahn, are more real than the events of the everyday world. The events of the everyday world, both in the past and in the present, gain their meaning to the extent that they reflect the myths. Legends communicate a higher truth than does sober history.

All these points come together, indeed perhaps the whole tale of the Third Reich and the occult comes together, in the section “Reykholt,” a place in Iceland. Rahn takes care to emphasize his disappointment with Ultimate Thule, the place to which he believed the remnants of ancient Nordic culture fled to escape the Christian infection, and perhaps the last piece of a primordial world that existed before all known history. Iceland as Rahn encountered it, however, was treeless; at the summer solstice, it was not so much nightless as shadowless. Reykjavik the capital was a town of corrugated-iron roofs and concrete walls. The locals were friendly enough, but there seemed nothing to connect this shabby country with the world of the Eddas, Elder or Younger.

Rahn does manage to do some hiking, apparently with another German, who may also have been another SS man: the circumstances and purpose of Rahn’s visit are not described. The two climb a cliff and settle down to admire the view. The companion delivers a lecture.

Much of this discourse expands on the relationship we have just considered between myth and history. Where something divine or celestial strikes the Earth, we are told, a horde may turn into a people. Culture is the striving of the Earth to reach Heaven. Heaven and Earth meet at the point of sacrifice. In a healthy world, the sacrifice is perpetual, a relationship of balanced flow between high and low that unites man and nature. The story of the world since the triumph of Christianity, however, is the story of the consequences of the interruption of that flow. The myths of northern Europe reflect the coming of the current dark age; they also foreshadow its ending.

The twilight of the gods was at the same time the dissolution of tribal loyalty to the gods, heroes, and the almighty forces of nature...In place of mythical divine wisdom, a ritual mechanical intellect has assumed its place in the ‘me’-addicted world of things...The mythical world of prehistory also saw its destruction in the final battle of the gods...Odin was eaten by a wolf...We should remember that Rome’s mother was a she-wolf...Odin’s son, the silent Widmar, killed the wolf in yet another act of revenge. As it says in the Edda, Baldr returned and announced to mankind the divine mystery of the earth and the cosmos: ‘On Gimil’s heights, I saw a room brighter than the sun and decked in gold. Worthy lords must live there...’ What is that strength from above that conquers the power of death and hatred? Who can awaken a very lonely mankind after the twilight of the ‘me’-addiction, so that we can rebuild society in selfless service, taking care not to destroy freedom, but to heal it?

Revolution

Readers will note that, like the Evolan version of Tradition with which it shares many points, this is essentially a revolutionary project. (9) Despite Rahn’s devotion to European history and mythology, one cannot help but notice that the center of almost every place he visits is a church; a church he hates, either for its architecture, or its history, or the presumed greed of its incumbent clergy. When the myth is the reality, then the visible sticks and stones, and flesh and bones, become not just expendable but intolerable.

I have been studying the Third Reich and the occult for 30 years. This book pretty much sums the subject up.


Notes:

(1) Crusade against the Grail is reviewed here.

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(2) The nature of the Ahnenerbe is described in Heather Pringle's The Master Plan, reviewed here.

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(3) Postwar esoteric fascism is the subject of the essay, After the Third Age.

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(4) The Holy Grail is reviewed here.

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(5) Flicker is reviewed here.

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(6) Rahn's contemporary, Charles Williams, wrote a book about a Persian stone with Grail-like properties. A review is here.

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(7) The relevant section of Revolt against the Modern World is quoted here.

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(8) Readers may wish to compare Rahn's vision of competing folk souls with the views of the neo-Nazi ideologue, Francis Parker Yockey, in Yockey's Imperium (reviewed here) and the practice of Aeonic Magic by Traditional Satanists (described here).

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(9) For an overview of Tradition, see Mark Sedgwick's Against the Modern World, reviewed here.

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Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

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Gemini Warrior Book Review

Matthew White and Jason McCrae are oddly similar. Other than being five years apart in age, they could be twins. Living in Serenity City, they easily could have never crossed paths with one another. Except that a mysterious woman needs test subjects who are as similar as possible to one another….

Gemini Warrior: Gemini Man book 1 by J. D. Cowan Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Gemini Warrior: Gemini Man book 1
by J. D. Cowan
Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Once they pass the “test”, Matthew and Jason find themselves trapped in another world, prisoners of their erstwhile employer. And she is only just getting started with making them do things they don’t want to do. Fortunately for them, passing that test means they have possession of an artifact of great power, the Gemini Bracelets.

Castor and Pollux are not amused by your shenanigans

Castor and Pollux are not amused by your shenanigans

Every volume in the Heroes Unleashed series has been very different. Gemini Warrior surprised me by being an isekai, although since I follow the author’s blog, I feel like I shouldn’t have been. Cowan often writes of adventure stories, and isekai in particular. Also, I should say that his series of posts on the history of science fiction as a genre has been an inspiration to my book reviews, changing how I see everything.

In line with Cowan’s argument that the heart of adventure fiction is wonder, Gemini Warrior is a pulpy, desperate quest, where Matthew and Jason try to escape the world of Tyndarus, master their powers, and defeat the wicked. Along the way they might have to learn how to trust one another, narrowly escape death, and somehow find time to get romantically involved.

What it isn’t is a thinkpiece about Tyndarian society, or the character of Matthew and Jason. The other two volumes I’ve reviewed in the Heroes Unleashed universe are like that, and I think they are done well, but I appreciate that Cowan can write a story in a different mode in the same universe, and make it fun.

An only mildly inaccurate portrayal of the object of power in Tyndarus

An only mildly inaccurate portrayal of the object of power in Tyndarus

We do get to see what Tyndarus is like. I am fascinated by the religion of the inhabitants of Tyndarus, its sacramental character, and the frankly Eucharistic object of power that Matthew and Jason contest with the woman who brought them to this world. It is not that there isn’t a great backstory, it just takes a back seat to the immediate problem that lizard men and evil sorcerers are trying kill them.

We also experience the character of our protagonists. If anything, Matthew and Jason are fairly typical young men, in that they are vaguely disappointing by not amounting to much or doing anything worthwhile with their lives. They are both callow youths, unremarkable except for the mysterious similarity that got them into this mess in the first place.

This is of course standard for an adventure story of this sort, but at the same time everything is set up just so, such that subsequent volumes will give us new wonders, and new adventures. By pulpy, I do not mean the opposite of well-crafted. I am also interested to see where Cowan takes the story, since Matthew and Jason don’t seem to be Primes. Maybe everything will all make sense later, but insofar as they were granted powers by an artifact, they seem quite different than Primes, who just wake up one day different than they were before.

Overall, I enjoyed Gemini Warriors. I am happy to see books of this style written, and I look forward to seeing where the adventure takes us next!

I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books in the Heroes Unleashed series

by Morgon Newquist
Heroes Fall: Serenity City book 1

by Cheah Kit Sun
Hollow City: Song of Karma book 1

The Path of the Martyrs Book Review

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732  By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732

By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363367

The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe
by Ed West
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published June 26, 2018 by Galaxy's Edge
ASIN B07F2M73XV

How could I not review a history book that starts off with the Battle of Tours? I only picked Charles de Steuben’s painting of the battle for my site banner.

West has written the kind of book I would give to a teen-aged boy that I think would end up being quite interested in history for its own sake, but needs an introduction to the subject that is neither stuffy nor boring. Perhaps the young man in question has heard bits and pieces of the chansons de geste through popular culture, perhaps knows of Beowulf or the Song of Roland, and is curious to know what really happened.

Quite a bit happened in the seventh and eighth centuries in France, and most of what did happen is not only epochal, but rather exciting, scandalous even. This is the spirit that West captures in his book. In order to capture the breath and scale of what was going on in the world, West does make some detours in both time and space. While this makes the narrative skip around a bit, I think the context it provides is crucial in understanding, for example, exactly why it was so surprising that the unlettered Franks stopped the advance of the Umayyad Caliphate in 732.

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak  By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak

By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5780989

West also has the time point out less romantic facts like it was the Catholic Basques who killed Roland, Lord of the Breton marches in Roncesvalles, rather than the Muslims, and to highlight the rather unecumenical stance of St. Boniface when he chopped down Donar’s Oak. We get to see history, not legend nor hagiography here.

I read this on Kindle, and I found the footnotes were well-implemented, but I did find a number of typos. This sort of thing seems to be common in short little ebooks of this type, and the meaning is always clear from context, so it doesn’t bother me much. Ed West’s short little history book is pithy, irreverent, and above all, fun. I think you could spend 99 cents in many worse ways.

My other book reviews

The Song of Roland Book Review

Pater Europae

Pater Europae

Translation by W. S. Merwin, Notes, Glossary, and Select Bibliography by M. A. Clermont-Ferrand
The Modern Library, 2001
137 pages
ISBN 978-0375757112

The Song of Roland is a classic of Western literature, part of the mythology surrounding Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire. Probably composed in this form sometime in the 11th century, the Song of Roland was hugely popular for a very long time, and it informed what it meant to be a Christian knight during the High Middle Ages.

While the Song of Roland contains the fanciful embellishments common to all epic poetry [the superhero movie of medieval Europeans], the core of the story seems to have been transmitted substantially intact: the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, led by Hruodland, captain of the Breton Marches, was ambushed and killed to a man in Roncesvalles Pass in 778. The only things resembling a historical record of this come from a brief passage in a revised edition of the Life of Charles the Great, and a coin bearing the names "Carlus" and "Rodlan".

However, something noteworthy seems to have happened in that mountain pass, given that the story appears to have been already popular by the time it was written down. With the evidence thin on the ground, barring the discovery of any heretofore unknown manuscripts, a heroic folk memory is likely to be all we have.

My own interest in the Song of Roland has been developing slowly for fifteen years. I had heard of the book before then, but it was the game Halo that really sparked my interest. There is a tradition in science fiction and videogames of drawing upon the deep wells of classical literature and mythology. Probably because both are popular art forms that speak to our souls, and anything old enough to truly be classical usually has to also be popular, or to have been popular for a long enough time to survive accidents of history.

Cortana

Cortana

Roland and the other paladins of Charlemagne carried named swords, weapons of unusual power granted as boons to worthy warriors. These swords, among them DurendalJoyeuse, and Curtana, all featured in the epics that grew up around the character of Roland. Real swords that still exist are known by these names, usually used as part of the mythology of legitimacy that surrounds kings of ancient lineage. It is at least possible that some of these objects might actually date to the periods in question, although many of them lack the supernatural qualities the epics describe.

Ogier the Dane

Ogier the Dane

The statue that appears in the sidebar of my own website, Ogier the Dane, or Holger Danske, came out this same milieu. It is conceivable that Ogier actually lived in the eighth century, and that he was a servant or vassal of Charlemagne, although it is also possible that he is simply a figment of our collective imagination. In the epics, Ogier carried Curtana, a sword with the tip broken off, to symbolize mercy. Since it is the tip of a European style sword that is truly dangerous, this random bit of chivalric legend has appealed to me for a long time.

The more I learn about the myths and legends like the Song of Roland, the better I like them. Random bits of history, technology, and theology I learn tend to accrete to them in ways that make them more plausible as bits and pieces of real events passed down over many generations. Stories are never just stories.

My other book reviews

The Song of Roland
Modern Library

Last Call Book Review

The one-eyed Jack

The one-eyed Jack

Last Call
by Tim Powers
Perennial 2003
$15.95; 535 pages
ISBN 038072846X

Last Call is one of my all time favorite books. I can return to this book again and again, and find something different in it each time. According to LibraryThing, the last time I read this book was in May of 2011, almost exactly six years ago. Which probably explains why I find the father/son relationships of the book so gripping now.

But I get ahead of myself. Tim Powers is a long time favorite author, and this was one of the first books of his I ever read. I am amazed that I persisted, because on first read, the book is bizarre. Who is the Fisher King? Why does Bugsy Siegel feature so prominently? Why does everyone keep quoting T. S. Eliot? What about the fractals and chaos theory? How does this all fit in with poker?

That very first reading, I was very, very confused. But I was also deeply intrigued. I immediately read the book again, and I tried to put the pieces together into a coherent whole. I didn't get there, but I started looking into the mythology of the Fisher King, and the historical events referenced in the book. I learned about the history of playing cards, and how they related to the Tarot. I tried to read The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

That last proved too dense and esoteric even for me. But I persisted. Last Call is the first book of a trilogy by Tim Powers, and reading the other two books did actually help fill some of what is going on, but I think Last Call is by far the best of the three. I got quite a bit of help from the collected works of John J. Reilly, who while not a Tim Powers fan, was conversant with Jung, comparative mythology, and the Fisher King.

I learned that all of the things about Bugsy Siegel actually happened. When I first read Last Call, I wasn't familiar with Powers' secret history style of writing, but his fastidious research paid off in hooking me forever. I learned about the Arthurian legend of the wounded King who ate nothing but fish and represented the health of the land and its people, and how this figures into the legitimacy of the Emperor who rules the Earth.  I learned of the way in which the Tarot cards had morphed into the playing cards we use today. Finally I understood why early Protestants were so opposed to card games. I was intrigued by the sacramental imagination of Powers, who made the Eucharist real to me.

Last Call is part of the reason I mostly read fiction. Many people otherwise like me mostly read non-fiction, but I find that I learn the most about the world from fiction. This is probably a function of the kind of fiction I read. And probably the kind of person I am. Last Call is also the reason I deeply distrust Tarot cards, and all forms of fortune-telling and gambling. It just isn't worth the risk.

Also, Las Vegas will never, ever be the same to me after reading this book. I've never really been the kind of person who enjoyed the spectacle and excess of Vegas, but now that I've seen Las Vegas as the fortress of a bad King and a shrine and sacrifice to the gods of chaos and randomness, I really don't like it. Which is unfair to the people who work and live there, but what has been read cannot now be un-read.

A nuclear weapon test from Las Vegas

A nuclear weapon test from Las Vegas

Returning to where I started, this time through the aspect of the book that was foremost in my mind was Scott Crane and his fathers, both real and adoptive. Fatherhood: real, adoptive, and mystical, is central to Last Call. The King is in a sense a father to us all, and thus the character of the King matters in the same manner as a father's does. Powers sets this up in the prologue, where we meet five-year-old Scott on a fun outing with his real father. They eat breakfast at the Flamingo, and flatten pennies on the railroad tracks. Scott worships his father, as most five-year-olds do.

Cronus

Cronus

Then we learn exactly what Georges is willing to do for power. What he has already done to Scott's older brother Richard. For just a moment, Georges finds his resolve wavering. To his own surprise, he actually loves his son. But he sets his face against his weakness, and proceeds.

Only the rebellion of Georges' wife saves Scott before Leon can consummate the ritual. Which Georges should have seen coming, because his life is an archetype. Scott is thus set up to displace his father in a re-enactment of mythology. The epilogue is a refrain of the prologue, and very bittersweet.

Sci-fi or fantasy novels that have mythological themes are not difficult to find. What makes Last Call remarkable is Powers' ability to make Georges Leon and Scott Crane seem like real people, while still instantiating a type. They seem real to me, rather than characters in a book. Each one, their loves and loss and failings, is like a person. That human verisimilitude is what balances out the craziness of a world where Tarot cards can kill you.

Powers has a fierce love of particular places, specifically Los Angeles and the areas nearby. Since I live across the Mojave desert from LA, and I have family there, I have driven across the Mojave more times than I would like to. 

The highway was a straight line in the twilight, a tenuous line between the dark horizon so far ahead and the red horizon so far behind. The old Suburban barreled along steadily, squeaking and rocking but showing low temperature and a full tank of gas in the green radiance of its gauges. On either side of the highway the desert was pale sand, studded as far as the eye could see with widely spaced low markers that looked like, but couldn't have been, sprinkler heads.

This is exactly what the inhuman vastnesses of the Mojave feel like. I've been to LA and Vegas often enough to validate Powers' descriptions of them. Suspension of disbelief is a lot easier when you've been to all of the places in a book and find the descriptions spot-on. I imagine Tim and his wife Serena taking trips on the I-15 to get it just right.

I am a bit late this year, but I may make this a regular feature of my celebration of Easter. Much like Tolkien, and more inventively than Blish, Holy Week, the week of Passover and Easter, is at the center of the chronology of Last Call.  This week represents an ending and a beginning, and certain things can only happen during this time. Classical allusions are one thing, but to interleave them with Christian sacraments and eschatology and make it look easy is quite another. 

Tim Powers is the only author I know who can do all these things well. And Last Call is one of his best. Read it.

My other book reviews

The Long View: The Holy Roman Empire

The idea of the King holds great power in the West, even when actual kings and queens largely do not. For us Westerners, what the Emperor means comes from Rome through Charlemagne and Otto I. There is a mythical undercurrent however, that is far older.


The Holy Roman Empire
By Friedrich Heer
German Original 1967
English Translation 1968
(By Janet Sondheimer)
Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers
309 pages, Various Editions & Prices

 

The Empire was not a state, but a system of dispensing justice.

We find that lucid formula near the end of this sprawling book by Friedrich Heer (1916 – 1983), the great Austrian authority on intellectual history. The formula is welcome, since there has always been some mystery about what the Holy Roman Empire was, as well as about what it was supposed to be. However, just as the formula comes late in the book, so it best applies only to the final phase of the empire, when the emperors were preoccupied with the defense of their solid Habsburg possessions in Austria and Hungry, and the empire was a sort of German United Nations that functioned through the Perpetual Diet of Regensburg and through the imperial courts. Even in the 18th century, however, the empire never lost its connection to the days when the emperors were priest-kings, who reflected an even more primordial past.

And indeed, just as there is some mystery about what the empire was, so there is some mystery about how to characterize this book. Heer's work is like a good film adaptation of a complicated adventure romance: it is filled with lyrical language and splendid images (wonderful graphics in this book, by the way), but it is really an illustration of the story rather than a retelling of it. A full history of the Holy Roman Empire would be almost a political and intellectual history of Europe. This “History of the Holy Roman Empire” is set out chronologically, and most of it is a narrative of the reigns of the emperors, but the effect is almost of a cycle of prose poems.

There are key dates and events in the political history of the thousand-year empire, naturally. The Roman imperial title was revived, or created, for Charlemagne in 800, and survived the rapid disintegration of his empire. Eventually it passed to Otto I, who was crowned in 962, which in many ways was the real beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. It was a largely, but not exclusively, German league of princes, bishops, and municipalities. All were under the authority, if never quite the control, of a nominally elective king. The fundamental constitutional text of the empire was the Golden Bull, issued by Charles IV in 1356. Among other things, the Bull fixed at seven the number of imperial electors, the college of lay and ecclesiastical lords who elected the emperor; their number eventually rose to nine. In 1555, at the end of the reign of Charles V, the first round of the wars of religion ended in the long truce of the Peace of Augsburg. Through a combination of malice and stupidity, the truce collapsed into the Thirty Years' War in the next century. The war (wars, really) ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which made it possible for Catholics and Protestants to co-exist in the empire. The cost was a broad and precise definition of the rights of the German principalities that prevented the formation of a national German state. The empire was dissolved, under pressure from Napoleon, by the Emperor Francis I in 1806. Heer repeatedly assures us that the dissolution was beyond the emperor's power, and illegal; he's probably right.

The difficulty with telling the story of the Holy Roman Empire is that all the verbs and adverbs are attached in every generation to different nouns. The empire's center of gravity was generally in Germany, or Austria, but sometimes the emperors identified more with their possessions in Burgundy or the Netherlands, or in Bohemia. Charles V, the first ruler on whose domains the sun never set, was as Spanish as he was Burgundian or Austrian (though the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire were coincident only in Charles's person). The hold of Charles's family, the Habsburgs, on the imperial office was almost secure in the last few centuries of the empire. The various branches of the Habsburgs perfected the art of being everywhere present and nowhere a foreigner. The fact of being cosmopolitan did not make the Austrian Habsburgs chiefly concerned with protecting their most cosmopolitan title, however. They cared for the empire, just as they cared for their other possessions. At the end, though, they could let it go without diminishing their house's real power or influence.

Nonetheless, the empire does have a history, because there were constants. Heer tells us that the Ottonian conception of the empire characterized it to some degree until the very end:

“What could be finer, what more right and proper, than a Holy Empire conceived as a great federative league, based on trust rather than subjection, composed of friends from within and without (at their head the Pope, both as bishop of Rome and the king's friend), the whole under the leadership of the Emperor-king?”

Despite the empire's protean geography, there were some basics that all emperors struggled to retain. They all protected the jurisdiction of the imperial courts, for instance, and they all tried to secure communications through imperial territory. There was a small number of imperial rights they insisted on keeping, and to a remarkable extent they succeeded.

Political theory is relevant to the study of the empire, obviously, but the empire stays in our minds because it is where all those emperors in European fairy tales come from. Heer does not cease to remind us that the symbols and the functions of the emperors go back 5,000 years, to the first city-states with their eagle emblems and god-kings. The emperor was in some sense a universal ruler, in dignity if not in fact. His archetypical claim to deference had nothing to do with his power.

They emperors always did certain things. They hunted. They cured by touch, at least reputedly. They protected the Church. They made peace. More precisely, they had the duty to give peace. Also, the emperors, and the empire as a whole, were the restrainers of Antichrist. (Curiously, Heer does not cite II Thessalonians 2:7.) The German emperors played this role when they defeated a Magyar invasion of the West in 955 at the Battle of Lech, and thereby created the sense of “Germanness.” They played the same role six centuries later, when they were the only European rulers to offer serious, systematic, and ultimately successful resistance to the Turkish jihad aimed at central Europe. According to persistent myth, when the Emperor of the Last Days lays down his crown at Jerusalem after finally defeating Babylon, then the Antichrist will appear.

Sometimes, of course, the emperor was Antichrist, at least in the opinion of the pope. The tension between holy empire and holy church, both claiming divine sanction, runs right through the history of the West. Heer points out that the largely successful campaign by the popes of the 12th and 13th centuries to desacralize the empire was the basis of every other claim of right that would ever be made against the state. It also meant that the Church, the City of God, would eventually become just another political body: society as well as the state was ultimately desacralized.

Interesting as the medieval material is, Heer's book is most valuable for its treatment of the period after the Treaty of Westphalia. He points out that the empire's only “native style” was the baroque. Baroque art, politics, and philosophy were employed by the empire (and also by the Catholic Church) to preserve the world of images that the Reformation had begun to destroy.

The high baroque was a “festival culture,” colorful and profligate. Underneath the gilt and gemütlichkeit, however, there was an unshakeable foreboding. In Heer's telling, the good humor of Mozart's empire was an expression of the understanding that life is based on sacrifice, on self-sacrifice, which was to be carried out with style and without complaint. The music, the painting, and the overwrought architecture all reflected this. The result has never been to everyone's taste. Had Heer lived longer, he might not have been surprised that post-Habsburg Eastern European cities became the locales of choice for horror films.

Even in its final, Enlightenment era, the intellectuals of the empire expressed as philosophy something of that Great Chain of Being that was directly intuited by the medieval mind:

“The picture of the world presented by Leibnitz, his outlook on the world and the entire body of his religious and philosophical thinking, whether he knew it or not, is a eulogy of the Holy Roman Empire: his universe is one of a pre-established harmony, sustained by a regulated but voluntary harmony of the 'monads' (an expression he borrowed from Theresa of Avila). Just as in the Holy Roman Empire – as Leibnitz saw it – the princes, the imperial towns and all the other groups and individuals who were centered on the Emperor were supposed to work together in free and orderly fashion, so did faith and reason, God and man, nature and the supernatural, the smallest objects and the greatest, work together in the cosmos.”

The end of the empire as a political entity was overdetermined. Among the specific causes that Heer points out, I might mention just two. One was the theft of Silesia by Frederick the Great from the Habsburgs. The province was not that important to Austria, but it gave Prussia (which was founded by the Imperial Elector of Brandenburg, by the way) the human resources to carry out the long-term project of hegemony in Germany. More important was the fact that the emperors themselves were turning their backs on old Europe.

The greater cause of the empire's end was internal. Before the beginning of the age of mass revolution, the Enlightenment encouraged revolution from above. The 18th century was full of reforming despots, among the most radical of whom was the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. He expropriated Church property and regulated the clergy in a way that the French Revolution would only imitate. He expanded the rights of religious minorities within his own territories. He attempted to elevate the peasantry, especially in backward Hungry, from serfs to freeholders. He promoted education and manufactures. And when he died in 1790, he realized that he had largely failed.

In every age the empire had its patriots, figures of the caliber of Dante and Goethe. Such people were also intense local patriots, with deep attachments to cities and small states. The universal patriotism of the empire complemented these native loyalties, because the empire was not a country, but an idea. Indeed, there is a sense in which the mere death of the political empire has in no way diminished its importance, or its hold on men's hearts:

“The crisis of the Empire and the crisis of the Church were terrifying to live through. In twelfth-century Germany and Italy the painful experience stimulated thinking men to attempt a philosophy and theology of world history. These writers, as they reflect on progress and decay, consciously or unconsciously hold up for us a mirror to the history of their epoch, the epoch which saw the rise and decline of the Empire and the rise of the Church...Underground eddies of this historical thinking reached Friedrich Hegel as he in turn reflected on world history in the last days of the Holy Roman Empire, and they re-emerge (some of them clearly identifiable) in his philosophy.”

One could easily extend that chain of influence to people like Francis Fukuyama, and to 21st century transnationalism and neoconservatism. The empire has its patriots still.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Holy Roman Empire
By Friedrich Heer

Myths have Daimonic Power

 The daimonic force of great myths and legends

From The Notion Club Papers by JRR Tolkien – in Sauron Defeated, Volume IX of the History of Middle Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien.

Page 228, Ramer speaking:

“I don’t think you realize, I don’t think any of us realize, the force, the daimonic force that the great myths and legends have.

“From the profundity of the emotions and perceptions that begot them, and from the multiplication of them in many minds – and each mind, mark you, an engine of obscured but unmeasured energy.

“They are like an explosive: it may slowly yield a steady warmth to living minds, but if suddenly detonated, it might go off with a crash: yes, might produce a disturbance in the real primary world.”

...

One current myth with daimonic force are the ‘trickster’ stories (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickster) , which underlie much popular culture – myths concerning a protagonist who is amoral, un-idealistic, selfish, hedonistic. Someone who breaks the rules, not for higher or transcendent goals, but for their own benefit. 

Thieves and fences, serial seducers, bon viveurs, escapists, bounty hunters, skivers and sturdy beggars, druggies and drunks, guns for hire, rock stars and rappers, wide boys, liars, blaggers and charm merchants.
...

This myth (or rather, the many myths and stories featuring this archetypal figure) has such force because these protagonists are (we imagine) living by id not super-ego, by instinct not training; and thereby in touch with ‘life’ –that connection so painfully missing in the world of the bureaucratic state which we inhabit. 

...

Yes, myth does have daimonic force, easily powerful enough to destroy anything; and the only force which can restrain destructive myth is creative myth. 

h/t bgc