In a 1971 interview about his brilliant first novel The Magus, John Fowles admitted that he was obsessed by “the basic idea of a secret world, whose penetration involved ordeal and whose final reward was self-knowledge.” This passage from Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking 1949 study The Hero With a Thousand Faces could have been written with a Fowles protagonist in mind:
Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals.
Fiction is a modern form of mythology, a remnant of a primordially ingrained storytelling instinct predating science and psychology. Digging under the surface of a character can turn up illuminating archetypal correspondences. There are dangers in applying structuralist archetypes to storytelling of course; as Hollywood continually demonstrates, over-relying on them can lead to a deadening formulaic approach. Writers would do well to heed Fowles’ own advice: “Follow the accident, fear the fixed plan—that is the rule.”
Having said that, I thought it would be illuminating to trace the Hero’s Journey of a Fowles protagonist in the hopes of arriving at better understanding of what a great storyteller can teach us us about character and plot. To accomplish this, I chose to look at the author’s delightful novella, The Ebony Tower. This is a longer post than usual, and if you want to get the most out of it, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Ebony Tower. This is one novella you won’t regret reading.
Ordeal One: Crossing the Threshold
The first ordeal flows from aspiring painter and art critic David Williams’ initial dramatic need to meet the renowned artist Breasley for an interview, and involves simply crossing over from the normal world into the enchanted domain:
Somewhere close in the trees behind him a bird gave a curious trisyllabic call, like a badly played tin flute.
The birdsong is a hint that the protagonist is setting off on an archetypal myth-adventure, a specific enactment of Campbell’s generalized “Road of Trials.” The gate is locked; David abandons his car and proceeds, as in a dream, experiencing a shiver of fear at the sound of a barking guard dog. He taps on the massive main door; there is no response, so he pushes it open and literally traverses the threshold.
Inside he is rewarded by the first glimpse of Breasley’s impressive art collection—especially the artist’s own paintings—and the titillating shock of a group of naked girls tanning on the back lawn. David is discomfited by his reception, or lack of it; and when the girl he will come to know as the Mouse approaches him with notable coldness and shows him to his room he is thrown off balance. She is most alluring—“bizarrely modest and handmaidenly after that first glimpse” —but seems to harbor a vague dislike for him.
After he enters the estate the tension in the story is carefully ratcheted up as we meet each of the secondary players: the Mouse, Breasley, the Freak. Another motivation emerges for David, one that is crucial to the story’s forward motion: he becomes curious about the sexual dynamics of Coetminais, and about the character of the two girls:
In some nagging way their presence irritated David. They must be after something, exploiting the old man’s weakness. They were like a screen. He sensed a secret they did not want him to know.
The protagonist’s curiosity, because we experience the story from his point of view, becomes our own. This rhetorical trick is crucial to maintaining our interest in the narrative. Along with David we form initial impressions of each of the other characters, only to have them later proven wrong.
Ordeal Two: Dragon at the Dinner Table
There are flashes of primal temper from Breasley—as when he abuses the Freak for not listening to David’s pedantic explanation of painting techniques—which help to sustain the story’s underlying dramatic tension. But the protagonist’s first full-scale confrontation with the old artist, comprising his second major ordeal, doesn’t come until about a third of the way into the novella. The confrontation is not unexpected. David has been warned about the “reefs” one must navigate in order to reach the old man’s “inner lagoon.” And he is conscious of Breasley’s strong distaste for abstract art; he and the Mouse talk about it before the fateful dinner on David’s first night at Coetminais:
“Don’t worry. He’ll probably be satisfied with one or two mean digs. Which you needn’t rise to.”
At the dinner table Breasley challenges him on the question of abstract art; David tries to resist taking the bait, but cannot. There is a confrontation in which is becomes clear that David is mistaken to seek refuge in abstraction, because what he gives up in exchange for his comfortable distance on the world is his capacity for deep human feeling. Breasley’s succinct verdict will hang in the background for the rest of the novella:
“Don’t hate, can’t love. Can’t love, can’t paint.”
In this ordeal, to use Campbell’s terms, David confronts the “ogre aspects of the father”—meaning Breasley. By enduring the confrontation and emerging from it—though not unscathed—David descends further down the slope to self-discovery. Campbell calls this phase of the adventure “Atonement with the Father”:
It is in this ordeal that the hero may derive hope and assurance from the helpful female figure, by whose magic (pollen charms or power of intercession) he is protected through all the frightening experiences of the father’s ego-shattering initiation.
By the end of the scene, when she gently shepherds the drunken old hellion up to bed, it’s clear to the reader if not to David himself that he’s become romantically interested in this Ariadne, the Mouse.
Yes, among other things, The Ebony Tower is a love story. The reader becomes invested in the chemistry between David and the Mouse, and the question of what will become of them provides yet another source of narrative tension: Will they get together? Is their sparking love doomed from the outset or not? Will they at least kiss, or make love?
Ordeal Three: The Inner Sanctum
David Williams’ third ordeal comes at the lake, at the hands of the two sexy muses. Breasley announces the girls’ habit of skinny-dipping, and the protagonist’s dilemma—beginning with his quandary about whether to strip himself—comprises the trial. The first and less formidable barrier is the Freak’s: he still can’t figure her out except that he senses a lingering resentment toward him. The Mouse seems more dangerous:
He watched her body when she turned to pass something, when he knew the direction of his eyes would not be caught. They talked banally enough; and once again the ghost of infidelity stalked through David’s mind—not any consideration of its actuality, but if he hadn’t been married . . .
After a long hesitation, David finally feels comfortable enough to take off his clothes. When he swims naked with the two girls he passes the test, gaining the confidence of both:
It must have been something to do with their nakedness, the sun and the water and low voices, the silent lostness of the lake behind; but he felt drawn on into a closer and closer mesh with these three unknown lives, as if he had known them much longer, or the lives he did know had somehow mysteriously faded and receded during these last twenty-four hours.
The protagonist’s internal struggle during this ordeal is illustrated by this fine sample of disembodied interiority as David meditates on the Mouse’s naked body:
. . . just that one was tempted. One might, if one wasn’t what one was; and if it were offered—that is, it was a safe impossibility and a very remote probability away.
A neat illustration of David’s essential dilemma: Is one indeed what one is? And is infidelity a “safe impossibility” or a “very remote probability”? The reader must await the final climactic ordeal to find out.
Ordeal Four: Appointment with the Anima, and Epiphany
Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge. —Aristotle
The ultimate failure of the protagonist’s journey, the high personal stakes involved, and the pain of his eventual self-recognition are all foreshadowed well in advance of the final ordeal. In the kitchen after the lovely hours at the lake the “gels” cook David a pastry with the blackberries they’d picked on the way home, “as if to atone for something emasculating in the situation, something unfair.”
He has one more talk with Breasley, during which the old artist advises him to abandon abstraction: “Just paint. That’s my advice. Leave the clever talk to the poor sods who can’t.”
David smiles and looks down guiltily. His character won’t allow him to follow the old artist’s advice, though he is beginning to see the truth in it. Addressing the Mouse, David may as well be addressing himself:
“It seems to me that this remarkable honesty you have about yourself is a kind of danger. You know. There’s something to be said for instinct.”
And his perception of the physical world—the fine artist’s sensibility mentioned in the previous post—serves as a catalyst for an important insight:
There was a deep nocturnal silence, both inside the house and out; as if they were alone in it, and in the world. He felt he had traveled much farther than expected, into the haunted and unpredicted; and yet in some strange way it seemed always immanent. It had had to come, it had had causes, too small, too manifold to have been detected in the past or analyzed now.
The Freak kicks off Ordeal Four by going to bed, leaving David alone with the Mouse. At the orchard gate in a moment of heedless passion they kiss, and David faces his crucial choice: whether or not to allow events to continue to their natural consummation. This moment is the protagonist’s climactic appointment with his anima or, as Campbell terms it, with his “Queen Goddess of the World”:
Whatever in the world has lured, whatever has seemed to promise joy, has been premonitory of her existence . . . for she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection; the soul’s assurance that, at the conclusion of its exile in a world of organized inadequacies, the bliss that was once known will be known again . . .
And yet, David pushes the Mouse away. At this moment our hero’s hoped-for schuss down the slope of freedom is consigned to failure, because it would go against the grain of his character to continue: his decency, his cautious morality, his logic, and his “fear of challenge.
On the way back to the house David changes his mind and asks the Mouse to sleep with him, a turnaround that’s also very much in character. His underlying need for self-realization combines a yearning to succumb to experience, to his wild side, for his “artistic soul’s sake” —and a longing for the wholeness that can only come from union with the female projection of himself. So he decides to take the plunge into full-scale infidelity. Yet his decision remains true to character, because it is a delayed, intellectual choice. It isn’t spur-of-the-moment. He’s thought about it too long.
David’s “fatal indecision” has involved a struggle between his deepest needs and the fears attending them; his fear of risk (closely allied with his need for normality, morality, and abstraction) has initially, and fatally, prevailed. The Mouse refuses to go to bed with him. He prostrates himself, sacrificing his prized dignity, and still she refuses. For David, is a moment of profound crisis:
He turned into his room and stood in its blackness in a rage of lost chance; made out his faint shape there in the gilt-framed mirror. A ghost, a no-man . . . It was metaphysical, something beyond the girl; an anguish, a being bereft of a freedom whose true nature he had only just seen. For the first time in his life he knew more than the fact of being; but the passion to exist.
David’s epiphany is an Aristotelian Recognition: he sees what he’s been missing all this time. He is tortured by the knowledge that it will always be beyond his grasp. He’ll never possess the “old green freedom” that Breasley embodies. He’ll never experience the self-actualization that would come from union with the Mouse, his other, female self who is on the path to true existence. He will never, that is, along with his entire doomed generation in Fowles’ view, be capable of creating great art:
Turning away from nature and reality had atrociously distorted the relationship between painter and audience; now one painted for intellects and theories. Not people, and worst of all, not for oneself . . . what had really been set in motion by this jettisoning of the human body and its natural physical perceptions was a vicious spiral, a vortex, a drain to nothingness . . .
If one were to attempt to distill the plot of The Ebony Tower into a single sentence, it would go something like this: David Williams enters the magic realm of Coetminais and encounters four major ordeals at the hands of an old artist and his muses, which, by working on the fracture line inherent in his character, cause an avalanche of self-discovery.
In other words, plot is character; character is plot. Plot without character would be playing with toy soldiers, easy to deploy but stiff and lifeless. Character without plot would be a toad set loose in a playpen, amusing for a time, but ultimately aimless and grotesque. They are inextricably linked, and both serve the same exacting god: Narrative.
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