Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Abraham Lincoln meets Thomas Covenant

Thanks to the amazing Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin I have now read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address for the first time. It's interesting to reflect that something that's so much a part of American cultural memory - of their rhetorical toolkit - has passed me by as a Brit up to now.

There's some variety in the surviving texts, but this is the one on the Lincoln Memorial. Since it's short enough for students to memorise it, it's short enough to reproduce in full below.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Great, isn't it?

Now, I'm probably not the first person to have read that and then seen echoes of the Address in other writing, such is its influence. I may be the first however to have found Lincoln in US writer's Stephen Donaldson's 70's fantasy series The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

Now, one of the early things I wrote on this blog was on the Covenant Chronicles - suffice to say that I find them interesting (influential, even) while at the same time deeply flawed and in certain respects repulsive. So me and these books have a degree of personal history.

But it was only when reading the Address that I recognised where some of Donaldson's linguistic tics and philosophy might well come from.

Quotes from the Chronicles such as "It is the duty of the living to give meaning to the sacrifices of the dead" and "So that beauty and truth should not pass utterly from the Earth.” are echoes of Lincoln in fantasy masquerade.

It's easy to position the Chronicles as an response to/critique of Tolkien, after the success of the Lord Of The Rings. But what I hadn't appreciated up to this point is how - just like Tolkien, ironically - inescapably American that response is in its mythology and the traditions it draws upon.

That moment when a whole new reading of a book you thought you were familiar with opens up?


Oh - and if you want to read what I wrote about Covenant back in 2011, here it is in a glorious four part essay. I must have had a lot of time on my hands back then.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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