sovay: (I Claudius)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2013-10-11 02:14 am

But at least it's a relief to hear of a master-race that isn't blond

I am curious now to read Evangeline Walton's Witch House (1945), because She Walks in Darkness (2013) was my first encounter with her non-Mabinogion fiction and I cannot tell if it is representative or not. It's a slim thriller, very definitely a Gothic—I don't imagine there's any genealogical connection, but I was reminded of Mary Stewart's My Brother Michael (1959) with its murky secrets and echoes of wartime, ghostly ruins and rumors of lost treasure, and vengeance. Everything is charged, threatening. The supernatural might erupt at any moment, like the dead from their broken tombs or Mania from her underworld. It's a historical novel only by virtue of having been written in the 1960's and set in 1950. (The work the narrator's new husband is doing at the Villa Carenni was "begun five years ago, just after World War II ended.") There are weird political undercurrents—I am not sure what to make of the anti-Communism, except that I thought at first it was meant to tell us something about the narrator and then I had to conclude it was telling me something about the author. I am not sure what to make of her handling of the Etruscans, either, except that it's both the strength of the novel and its strangest element.

Walton's Etruscans are an exotic, cruel, elegant people, exquisitely decadent as Melnibonéans: "I'd say their tastes were rather birdlke. They ate insects dissolved in honey, and did everything to music—from kneading the dough for their bread to flogging their slaves . . . a typical late Etruscan tomb, built when the Rasenna's power was fading and their once blissful belief in an afterlife had turned into a nightmare, perhaps because they thought their gods were punishing them for some known crime . . . The early Rasenna went dancing into battle. No race ever had a more fiery lust for life, but by teaching them to expect bliss after death, their priest-kings made them fearless warriors. Later, in their decline, when they had lost hope and desired only to drowse pleasantly toward death, then priests who were no longer kings had to make death terrible." Their art is full of pitiless beauty and fantastic horror, their tortures as perpetuated by their ancestry-proud Italian descendants ingenious. The life and the loveliness and the humanity of their work comes late in the book and almost as a surprise: "There was nothing evil: all must have dated back to the days when the Twelve Cities of the Rasenna were still young and happy." Admittedly, we may not be meant to accept this characterization uncritically; much of it is attributed to a character who reveres the Etruscans as the survivors of destroyed Atlantis, holding themselves apart as masters and bestowers of civilization until their own curdling delicacy and the barbarism of their neighbors dragged them down. Then again, as the last of a fearsomely learned, closely bred, domineering aristocratic family with roots in Volterra since it was Velathri, Prince Mino Carenni is our representative of the Etruscans in the present day, recapitulating in himself the splendor and decay of his ancestors: "Prince Mino was a great scholar, but a little mad. The Carenni family was just a little too old, I think . . ."

(Paul di Filippo in his foreword imagines the character played by Vincent Price, but I saw Peter Cushing at once: "A gray-haired man sat at a folding table on which was an oil lamp strong enough to give his work full light. He was writing, his fine aquiline face set in lines of concentration. The beautiful fabric of his pinstripe gray suit looked as if he had just dressed to welcome an honored guest in his elegant drawing room," later "a tall lean man with white hair and piercing black eyes. His profile, stern and finely chiseled, might have been cut out of an ancient frieze; it had none of the softness of living flesh." Courteous, inflexible, a gracious and dispassionate host with a "cold, cultured voice," the prince comes alive when he speaks with dreadful certainty of his heritage and what it both confers on him and compels him to do. "The face of that last high priest who buried himself with his threatened temple and its treasures never can have looked more dedicated, more terrible, in its all-sacrificing exaltation." I've seen that icy fanaticism on Cushing; it looks good on him. I disagree also with di Filippo that Jack Nicholson would have been good casting for the dark, dazzling Floriano, who might be a Gothic hero and might not, but I'm not sure who I'd choose. Louis Jourdan feels too obvious, also it might be nice to have someone actually Italian in the movie. Maybe someone who worked with Pasolini.)

It's a very Roman portrayal, cut with mid-century fantasy (the Atlantean stuff, shading into full New Age), and I cannot tell how much Walton felt it to be true of her "Mysterious Etruscans" and how much it just served the atmosphere she wanted to build of ancient dread and crumbling aristocracy and things of such awful purity, they are best left to their gods and not even the most worshipful or well-intentioned attempts of humanity. The effect on me was a weird kind of double vision: I recognized the style and in some cases the specifics of the artifacts she writes about, cinerary urns with portrait faces, paintings of red and white dancers as in the Tomb of the Lionesses, Tuchulcha with fistfuls of snakes and the mirror-motif of winged Eos (Thesan) carrying off Kephalos (or Tithonos: Tinthun), but I found her Etruscans themselves more recognizable as refugees from a high fantastic Atlantis—Valyria, Númenor. I suppose that's the sort of thing that happens when the Romans keep talking about your religion (when they're not impugning your morals) while your own language survives mostly in loanwords, inscriptions, and twelve hundred words of partly translated linen, but still.

I am trying to think now of other treatments of the Etruscans in fiction, speculative or not. Irritatingly, the first example that's coming to mind is Mary Gentle's alt-historical Ilario: The Lion's Eye (2006), where they basically replace Jews ("I would have known that next time there were rumours of Etruscans poisoning wells, or Etruscan merchants cheating their Christian customers, or the city fathers needing a scapegoat and the Inquisition needing bodies for burning—" Speaking of Jewish erasure). The protagonist in Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia (2008), speaking with the future shade of Vergil, associates his ethnicity with his skills as a poet, vates: "I knew that word of course: foreteller, soothsayer. It went with his being part Etruscan . . ." I gave an unwanted gift of divination along with an Etruscan name to a character in a short story of mine because it was the last thing he needed. I bounced off Mika Waltari's The Etruscan (1956) in high school. And there's Orcus' moon Vanth, but for purposes of literature I am not sure that counts.

That can't be it. Recommendations?
rinue: (Default)

[personal profile] rinue 2013-10-11 02:39 pm (UTC)(link)
Ciro has been working on an Etruscan fantasy story for easily a year and a half. Took a lot of research. From what I understand, a lot of the problem he had was that most of the sources were old, and they tended to be full of some blinkers-on gender assumptions that made a lot of the conclusions questionable (as well as short on basic day-in-the-life details, because household and social stuff is girl stuff).

[identity profile] 2013-10-11 03:08 pm (UTC)(link)
It was a real pleasure to reread that story of yours. Lovely.

[identity profile] 2013-10-11 10:54 pm (UTC)(link)
I would *love* for you to do that.

[identity profile] 2013-10-11 04:00 pm (UTC)(link)
This sounds amazing! Totally the sort of thing I would have imprinted on, when I was younger. Cruel poet-priest-kings, dancing into battle, with Cushingesque faces.;)

[identity profile] 2013-10-15 05:09 pm (UTC)(link)
*blink* Tanith Lee did medieval Jewish mysticism? How did I miss that?
zdenka: A woman touching open books, with loose pages blowing around her (books)

[personal profile] zdenka 2013-10-11 04:15 pm (UTC)(link)
Concerning Evangeline Walton's non-Mabinogion fiction: I read a novel of hers about Hippolyta and Theseus when I was in college, but it wasn't very good and I gave it away. (The internet tells me it's called The Sword is Forged, but I don't remember much about it.) I do still like her Mabinogion novels, but it's possible her layers of random mysticism bother me less with ancient Welsh people because I haven't studied their culture, so I notice less when she's being nonsensical.
zdenka: A woman touching open books, with loose pages blowing around her (books)

[personal profile] zdenka 2013-10-12 03:59 am (UTC)(link)
All right. Since I've anti-recommended it, I can rest secure in the knowledge that it's Not My Fault.

I think I read one of the Cynthia stories? If I'm remembering the right thing, then I quite liked it. I did use to read the Sword & Sorceress anthologies, though I never collected the full set.

Okay, I'm glad it was an enjoyable read. I like Etruscans (from what little I know of them), and I like Numenoreans, but there are so many ways that combining things can go wrong. (And the next thing you know you've got monkey-ponies.) I'm glad that wasn't the case here.

[identity profile] 2013-10-11 10:02 pm (UTC)(link)
Outdated in terms of modern scholarship though it might be, I'll have to read this book at some point, I think. My first thought, reading your description, is that her Etruscans sound almost like an evil verson of standard-issue late-20th/early 21st century Anglophone* fantasy novel "Celts," what with the musical everything and lust for life and dancing into battle.

...exquisitely decadent as Melnibonéans...

Great line, this.

...Mary Gentle's alt-historical Ilario: The Lion's Eye (2006), where they basically replace Jews...

Good grief, that's unpleasant.

It's always good to be reminded of "The Mirror of Venus." Excellent story, and if you ever find yourself writing more in that 'verse I'd love to see it.

*It occurs to me that I should look into what, if anything, Francophone popular literature has produced in that vein. Irish-language literature seems sadly lacking in the straight-ahead fantastic, although there is some horror, a lot of thrillers and detective novels, and a fair number of historicals set in the 18th century and onward. If I were able I'd write us a corrective to the Lord Madog the Space Celt type of thing--it'd need translated to English to have any impact on the audience most needing it, but it would be more satisfying in Irish.
Edited 2013-10-11 22:10 (UTC)

[identity profile] 2013-10-12 12:01 am (UTC)(link)
Well, there is Wild Ride (, but I'm not at all sure I'd recommend it to you.

[identity profile] 2013-10-12 12:18 am (UTC)(link)
Such disclaimers belong at the top. I probably should've phrased my own near-certainty of your objection/horror more strongly.