Saturday, March 26, 2022
Once in a stately passion I cried with desperate grief
In the Screwtape Letters, C.S Lewis famously depicts a devil trying and failing to tempt a Christian convert to turn away from his faith.
Lewis really believed in the Devil: but I don't think he really believed in Screwtape. I don't think he thought that actual spiritual beings literally tried to persuade young men not to go on nice country walks (because real innocent pleasures would make them less inclined to waste time with their vulgar and snobby friends). I don't think he literally believed that bad angels corresponded with one another about whether it would be better to direct a particular young man towards extreme pacifism or extreme patriotism (because zealous attachment to any secular cause is likely to impede simple day-to-day obedience to God). I don't think that many theologians, even conservative ones, visualise Satan in those terms. Screwtape is a literary device, allowing Lewis to talk wittily and delightfully about the psychology of sin.
Lewis didn't think that he was clever enough or pious enough to write a mirror Screwtape from the angel's point of view. But in Surprised by Joy he visualises a personal God intervening directly to secure the conversion of a particular human being.
Of course he really believes in God. But does he really believe in the God of Surprised by Joy?
Lewis visualises God as an adversary or an opponent, and he describes the final stages of his conversion as a series of chess moves, culminating in Check (when he started to believe that there was a god) and Checkmate (when he accepted that the God of philosophy was the same as the God of religion).
"My Adversary began to make his final moves...The first Move annihilated what remained of the New Look...The next Move was intellectual and consolidated the first Move...God closed in on me....My adversary waived the point..."
Lewis said that medieval allegory had been a way of representing very subtle psychological states in vivid and concrete terms. The single moment at which a man falls in love might be portrayed as a hero creeping over the wall of a garden and stealing a rose; a second's hesitation between slapping your enemy and turning the other cheek, as a jousting tournament between two champions called Meekness and Wrath. "How a clever man kept searching for final and clinching proofs of the non-existence of God, realised there weren't any, and became a believer" can certainly be imagined as "God forcing a man's chess king into checkmate." Other people have depicted the same experience as a journey, a voyage, or a quest. The experience suggests the metaphor: but your choice of metaphor must affect how you describe the experience. It might even inform which events you think come into the story and which have nothing to do with it.
Is Lewis using a teaching-metaphor to help us see how finding a particular book of fairy tales on a particular day; deciding to re-read a particular Greek tragedy when he wasn't particularly studying it; and coming across a complicated argument about perception in an obscure philosophical text book all led up to the moment when he had to admit that God was God? Or does he really think that God was specially active in those particular events?
If you believe in God, then it is not at all unreasonable to think in terms of God intending to convert C.S Lewis. Lewis talks interestingly about the idea of Special Providence in his book on Miracles. Undoubtedly very many people were praying on D-Day; and a lot of people think that the weather on June 6th was so perfect for the Allied plan that it must have been directly caused by God. Well, yes, says Lewis; but only in so far as every other bit of weather, like every other event in the universe, is directly caused by God. We just happen to be able to see it a little bit more clearly at that point. He applies a similar line of thought to the actual Miracles of Jesus: in one sense Jesus turning water into wine at Cana is no more miraculous than God turning water into wine every day in every vineyard in France.
Lewis certainly says that finding a second-hand copy of George MacDonald's Phantastes at a particular station book shop on a particular day was at one level a piece of random good luck or good fortune, and at another the result of a "superabundance of mercy". He came to see it as a crucial move in the divine game, putting him into Check for the first time. Devin Brown in his biography presses the point rather harder than Lewis himself does. Such a spiritually significant find could not have been a matter of mere chance:
"Did Jack happen on the book by hazard on that frosty March evening in 1916, as he claimed in his letter to Arthur...Looking back the adult Lewis suggest that this event in his life was more like part of the careful strategy of a chess player than a random accident....Who put the book in his way and in doing so put Jack's plan to be a strict materialist in check? Not chance or hazard, as Jack first thought, but a strategic opponent whose every move was made with intention -- the intention to help and avail."
I remember reading about a very old man in the 1970s who displayed his unused ticket for the Titanic in his home, alongside a Bible quote about God rescuing people from the storm. Good for him: I am sure that is what missing the boat must have felt like. But that kind of implies that the thousand people who caught Titanic were directly drowned by God. Which might be true. If you believe in God, you have to say that at some level it is true. But unless all the victims were noticeably evil and all the survivors were noticeably saintly, you have to file it under Inscrutable.
Was Lewis's finding Phantastes a special kind of event: or should we say that God decides every piece of reading matter on every train journey? Was it part of the Divine Plan that I should pick up a copy of Private Eye before my day trip to Bath Spa? If the truest biography of C.S Lewis is nothing more or less than an account of how God checkmated him, does it follow that a true biography of Isembard Kingdom Brunell or Gracie Fields or Zayn Malik would tell the (doubtless equally fascinating) story of how they (so far as I know) evaded God's gambits and stalemated him?
Or is C.S Lewis a special case? Not everyone is told by a burning bush that they have to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. Not everyone gets approached by the Angel Gabriel and asked to become the Mother of God. So perhaps not everyone finds a copy of a Victorian fantasy novel on a bookstall which forces them to understand the Hegelian Absolute in terms of a personal Deity. Should we perhaps take an instrumental view of Lewis's conversion: God specially wanted him, because he specially wanted there to be some intellectual rigorous Thought For the Day broadcasts on the Wartime Home Service.
Some evangelicals really do think this way. I can recall being told that God had arranged grants and bursaries for foreign students to study in the UK in order that the Christian Union should get a shot at converting them -- because they were by definition going to be the leaders and captains of industry in their own countries when they got home.
I do wonder whether Devin Brown, and indeed Douglas Gresham, are inclined to see Lewis in this way: not as an important Christian intellectual, but as a full-on Prophet. Certainly Brown's biography is inclined to over-praise the subject. The Inklings produced "some of the best writing of the century -- some would say of any century." During the Second World War his radio broadcasts made Lewis's "the most widely recognised voice after Churchill's". (Really? More widely recognised than Uncle Mac, Arthur Askey, Vera Lynne, Tommy Handley, Lord Haw-Haw?). If Lewis really was this important, and if he was really so determined not to be converted, then we can see why God kept dropping books of poetry into his lap at opportune moments.We might have to reimagine Surprised by Joy as a retelling of the book of Jonah, with a copy of Space, Time and Deity standing in for the gigantic fish.
I don't buy it as a piece of theology. I think "God arranged for me to find a copy of Phantastes in a second hand bookshop, and thus put me in spiritual Check" has to be taken to mean "In retrospect, reading this book was a crucial moment in my journey to faith." Lewis might have said that it was like crossing a bridge, or like a light coming on, or like scales falling from his eyes. But he chose to say it was like a devastatingly clever move in an intellectual game.
Lewis was an apologist: he is quite open about the fact that he sometimes selects arguments because they give him a tactical advantage over his opponent. He is very aware that the centrality of Joy in his book opens him up to the charge that his faith is a matter of wish fulfilment. So he choses to emphasise that, from an intellectual standpoint, he did not want to believe in God, and worked very hard to avoid doing so.
I very much enjoy Ian Mills and Laura Robinson's podcast about New Testament scholarship. I particularly enjoyed the one about Wrede's interpretation of Mark's Gospel. (Wrede came up with the theory of the Secret Messiah, but that's not important right now.) They said that hardly any modern critic would fully accept Wrede's theory. But, they said, it was still a landmark in scholarship, because it moved the question on from "Why did it happen that way?" to "Why did Saint Mark choose to tell it that way?"
"Why did C.S. Lewis's conversion happen this way?" is a perfectly good question. "Why did C.S Lewis choose to tell the story of his conversion in this way?" is one we ought to be prepared to ask.
Lewis married a lady named Joy. And Brown points out that the ceremony to welcome a new Fellow to the Magdalene college involved all the other academics shaking hands with him and saying "I wish you joy". Of course they didn't mean joy in the same sense, but it's a pleasing connection. Joy is what Lewis was surprised by; Joy is what the story of his life is about.
Let's take him at his word. He experienced Joy through his brother's toy garden, and through a few lines of Longfellow and the title of an opera by Wagner, and then through George MacDonald and William Morris and lots of poets we probably have not heard of. He did not exactly say "Because I wish for there to be a God, God must exist." But he did find that the experience of Joy sent him down a path that led him to believe that there was a Mind behind the universe. The existence of Joy was powerful evidence that God existed: at any rate, that human beings were not "just" clouds of atoms.
But couldn't the aesthetic experience have led him in a quite different direction? Might someone else not have argued like this:
"I have an experience that I might call Joy, or transcendence, or merely Spirituality. This Transcendence or Spirituality is the core of religion: the most real thing there is. Some people experience it when they sit very quietly and respect everyone in the room; other people experience it when they sit cross-legged and recite a mantra; I experienced it through my big brother's miniature garden. I think that when you pay attention to it, you are paying attention to the most important thing in the universe. And I think that if you do attend to it, and attend to other people who are attending to it, you will become better and happier people, and the world would become a better and happier place. In our tradition, we call it God. Our religious mythology is a way of talking about that Transcendence: of making maps of the God territory. Other people might well call it something else. Some of us think that when we are experiencing the God/Joy/Spirit thing, we are actually in touch with something outside of the normal world of Time and Space. Some people think we are talking about something inside ourselves. Some people don't think it matters."
I think that this is how many Quakers and Hindus would argue; I think it is probably what Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung believed. It may be the kind of thing that the Bishop of Woolworths had in mind when he said that God was within us rather than outside us.
Lewis says that he experienced Joy. And he says that Joy was a longing for something outside the universe -- and can therefore be taken as evidence that there must be an outside for humans to long for. Is a biographer not entitled to ask "Was the experience really what he said it was? And is Lewis's understanding of the experience the only way in which that experience can be understood?"
The fictional student at the end of Shadowlands tells Jack that he has read about being in love, but hasn't ever really been in love, so doesn't have the personal experience. The rather corny implication is that until Lewis met Joy Davidman, the expert in love poetry had never experienced the thing itself. Lewis never said "We read to know that we are not alone" (that's a line from the film) but the real Lewis certainly drew a distinction between intellectual knowledge and first hand experience.
Douglas Gresham, understandably, doesn't like it when people who never knew his step-father purport to be experts in his life. His complaint about even factually accurate works of scholarship is that "Jack is not in them". Devin Brown, says that "If you are looking for Lewis, the best place to find him is at the Kilns" --- the cottage he lived in for thirty years, which is now a Christian retreat centre.
"Everyone I have talked to who has visited has found that a genuine sense of Lewis fills the rooms and the lovely garden as well."
"A genuine sense of Lewis." Of course, one can feel someone's presence in a building, particularly if it is laid out more or less as they left it. Everyone who visits the terrible annex near the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam is deeply moved. I myself have written about visiting 151 Menlove Avenue in Liverpool. It was certainly possible to imagine John Lennon in that tiny bedroom, fantasising about the Bridget Bardot poster on the ceiling and listening to the Goon Show on an old-fashioned radio. Imagining him in that way made me feel closer to the man who wrote all those great songs. But was I in any real sense, close to John Lennon? Could I honestly say that Lennon was in some way present in that very ordinary little bedroom?
People go on pilgrimages: sometimes because they think that touching a thing which a holy person has touched has supernatural powers; but often because seeing the river Jordan or lake Galilee helps them imagine Jesus as he was in his earthly life. And "imagining Jesus" brings them closer to Jesus in a spiritual sense, or feels as if it does. It may even spark joy. So of course you might imagine or feel or get a sense of the presence of C.S Lewis when sitting on his old pew or sleeping in his old bedroom. But is this imaginative buzz spiritually significant? Some Muslims, not illogically, think that venerating places where Mohammed happens to have lived comes close to idolatry and have actually destroyed some of the ancient sites associated with him.
Lewis talks about encountering the personalities of dead historical figures by reading books about them. There are historical figures who we know to be real, but who we don't have any sense of as human beings: people like Henry II and Alexander the Great. But there are also fictional people who we know to have been made up, who we nevertheless feel that we have got to know personally: people like David Copperfield and Hamlet. But there are only three people of whom we feel we have both knowledge-of and knowledge-by-acquaintance: Doctor Johnson, Socrates and the historical Jesus. We feel we know them because of the way Boswell, Plato and St Mark wrote about them.
Those of us who are interested in C.S Lewis would very much like Douglas Gresham to play the role of Boswell: to take up his pen and write down everything that he remembered about him. Not what a holy man he was an how great a writer he was: we kind of take that for granted. But the trivial information which is what we call a personality: what he said that morning when he stubbed his toe on the corner of his bed; that funny joke that Warnie made that Jack didn't quite get; the conversation he had with the postman who kept bringing letters to the wrong house. Lewis, after all, said that the essence of a place, real or imaginary, is in its atmosphere: the cumulative effect of lots of tiny details. The Londoness of London and the Donegality of Donegal.
And that, to me, is what is left out of these hagiographical books. Any sense of the Lewisness of Lewis.
I don't think that story is going to be told. I think that Lewis the writer and thinker; Lewis the witty poet who could put a difficult idea just so; Lewis the insufferable old Tory and Lewis the pedantic tutor is going to vanish. Some hundreds of people claim to have had posthumous visions of Our Lady, and zillions of people pray to her every day. But the first century teenager with a particular colour of hair and a particular shoe size who sang particular lullabies and baked a particular kind of challah is entirely lost to history.
Theologically, that is as it should be. But I wish we could rescue the C.S Lewis of history from the incense of sanctification before it is too late.
Friday, March 25, 2022
When C.S Lewis was a pupil at one of the many very nasty prep schools that were dotted around England in the Edwardian era he started to take religion seriously. He started to say his prayers and read his bible and obey his conscience. But he soon gave it up and became a schoolboy skeptic. He was, he said, "In that state of mind in which a boy thinks it extremely telling to call God Jahveh and Jesus Yeshua".
There were two reasons, he says, for his loss of faith. He was studying the Greek and Roman classics at school, and becoming fascinated with Norse mythology on his own time. All his tutors and peers took it absolutely for granted that Zeus and Thor were at best pretty stories made up by poets or at worst wicked deceptions forced on the credulous by priests. So why he asked, should it just so happen that, while all the other gods were rubbish, that God worshipped by white English people was the literal truth?
The second reason was this: Young Lewis understood that words without thoughts never to heaven go: so he tried, very hard, to concentrate on his prayers; to believe what he was saying; and not to let his mind wander. This meant that praying could take hours and hours: every time he got to the Amen, a little voice would tell him that he hadn't been doing it properly and ought to start again.
A.N Wilson -- in what with all its flaws is still the only grown-up biography of C.S Lewis -- is inclined to believe the first explanation but not the second. The first is the kind of thing that might occur to a very clever school boy; the second is too much the kind of thing that a middle aged moralist might project back into his boyhood.
Devin Brown does not have much time for that kind of skepticism. His book, A Life Observed is subtitled a Spiritual Biography of C.S Lewis. It carries a recommendation and an introduction by no less a person than Douglas Gresham.
"There is a kind of biography that claims to understand Lewis's life better than Lewis himself did" writes Brown "There is a kind of biography that looks at what Lewis tells us in his autobiography and, following the biographer's own set of presuppositions, claims to understand Lewis's life in a way that Lewis himself could not. This is not that kind of biography."
"Before leaving this stage in Lewis's life we might again look, as we did earlier, at a biographer who claims to know Lewis better than he knew himself.... As we noted earlier, there is a type of biography that takes the details Lewis gives us about his own life, and using a secular lens, claims to be able to see through them to what really lies behind them in a way that Lewis himself could not. There is a type of biography that sees this practice as its proper foundation and purpose. This is not that kind of biography."
So: the right kind of biographer is one who leaves his presuppositions at the door, and presents value-free facts about his subject without skepticism or interpretation. This sounds like what C.S Lewis might have called dryasdust scholarship: the kind of thing which tells you that a biscuit tin is a container for cookies (p21) and that when Lewis talks about queuing in rationing-era England, he means waiting in a line (p118). But Devin Brown does not really approve of that kind of biography either:
"There is a kind of C.S Lewis biography which is lengthy and definitive. In it, readers find our when Lewis's great great grand-father was born and what Richard Lewis, for that was his name, did for a living. This is not that kind of biography."
He was born in 1775 and was a farmer. His son Joseph was a methodist minister, and his son Richard was a boiler maker. Lewis's own father, Albert, was a lawyer. It's not that hard.
Douglas Gresham in his introduction says that books of that kind are too dry:
"The pages crackle with facts, faces, places, dates and history. Some of them are very good books about Jack, but -- here's the rub -- Jack is not in them."
We will come back to what it means for a person to be "in" a book.
So, in one sense a biography should not really be interested in the authors life at all. What we should really be interested in is the subject's real and ongoing existence, in heaven (or, presumably, and depending who you are writing about, in hell):
"This book is different" writes Douglas again "It is the story of Jack's real and true life -- not the mere flash of the firefly in the infinite darkness of time that is our momentary life in this world, but the one he left this world to begin -- and how he came to attain it."
"What Winston Churchill is doing in Heaven" or "How John Lennon is getting on in Purgatory" would be rather odd books. I suppose you could fill several volumes with the officially recognised activities of the Virgin Mary in the millennia since her Assumption. One of the four most important biographers in human history said that if he included everything that his Subject did, the whole world could not contain all the books that would be written. But for Brown and Gresham writing about the subject's real, spiritual life seems simply to mean writing about how the subject's heavenly existence intersected with their material one.
"My goal" (writes Brown) "is to focus closely on the story of Lewis's spiritual journey and his search for the object of that mysterious longing that he called Joy."
So: the best kind of biography is the spiritual biography, the one which pays attention to the subject's faith and inner life and ignores nearly everything else. Very conveniently, C.S Lewis has already written this kind of autobiography: Surprised by Joy.
The thrust of Lewis's book is that he came to faith through a highly subjective experience which he calls Joy. Brown glosses this as: "an unsatisfied desire which was more desirable than any other kind of satisfaction" which pointed to "something which hovered just beyond what his consciousness could grasp--- something unattainable but wonderful."
Lewis doesn't quite say that what he was longing for was straightforwardly God; and he doesn't quite resort to the kind of syllogism sometimes attributed to him by very clever schoolboy skeptics.
The Proof From Joy
Mr C.S Lewis would like God to exist
Therefore, God exists.
But he does indeed say that "in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else". And unless we are writing that sort of biography, we have to take him at his word.
So a biography of C.S. Lewis can really only be a retelling of Surprised by Joy; and that's what Devin Brown gives us: a pretty uncontroversial summary of the book, with a few sidelong glances into the admittedly obscure Pilgrim's Regress; and a canter through Lewis's post-conversion life -- Inkling, Tolkien, BBC, Narnia, marriage, bereavement.
But Surprised by Joy is a very strange book. A.N Wilson praises it as a piece of unintentional comedy. Lewis sets out to explain how he came back to faith in early middle-age and omits from the book anything which is not relevant to that story. Fair enough. Writing is all about selecting material. No-one tries to put every incident and every fact into their book. (Well, no-one apart from Karl Ove Knausgaard.) But can we take it on trust that Lewis knows what events were relevant to his conversion and which were irrelevant? He says that the endless physical abuse at the hands of a literally psychopathic schoolteacher did him "in the long run...little harm." Surely we are permitted to reply "Says who?" (Can Lewis be unaware that "it never did me any harm" is a shocking cliche in talking about that kind of thing?) He spends a lot of time painting a picture of his eccentric Irish father, and then kills him off in a half a sentence because his death "does not really come into the story which I am telling", to which, again, one feels the need to say "Oh yeah?" Even his experiences in the First World War "have little to do with this story." Really?
A detailed, critical, close-reading of Surprised by Joy from a sympathetic theological perspective would be well worth attempting. In fact, if I knew anything about research grants and footnotes I might have a go at writing it myself. My Masters thesis was called What Chaucer Didn't Write. (It was about spurious additions to the Canterbury Tales: medieval fan-fiction.) "What C.S Lewis Didn't Say" might be a very good title.
We could start by talking about omissions which Lewis himself draws attention to. The thing that happened at Prep school that was even worse than the psychotic beatings. The World War I experiences that are not worth talking about, except as a joke. The enormous emotional episode which everyone (including Brown) assumes has something to do with Mrs Moore, his semi adoptive mother.
And the demon-possessed man. I think the demon-possessed man is probably quite important.
But we could also spend many a happy hour tracking down all the people he name checks. Maybe John Garth or someone could identify the Irishman called Johnson who would have been a life-long friend if he hadn't died in the trenches? It's an odd approach. Lewis's story, he tells us, is about nothing apart from the experience of Joy, and written for the benefit of strangers who know him only from his books. But he spends a lot of time telling us the names of the dead old men he's not going to tell us about. At times, Surprised By Joy feels more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a spiritual autobiography.
"The worst is that I must leave undescribed many men whom I love and to whom I am deeply in debt: G. H. Stevenson and E. F. Carritt, my tutors, the Fark (but who could paint him anyway?), and five great Magdalen men who enlarged my very idea of what a learned life should be - P. V. M. Benecke, C. C. J. Webb, J. A. Smith, F. E. Brightman, and C. T. Onions."
Another possible title for the book would be Who The Fark?
I'd also want to look up the texts of the many poems Lewis he quotes and alludes to. The Greek quotes and the literary allusions make me suspect that Surprised by Joy is really directed at his academic colleagues, not his thousands of radio-listeners -- unless, I suppose, he is disingenuously presenting an oblique argument from authority to the plebs. I have heard of Trollop, Conan-Doyle and Beatrix Potter, but struggle with Lummuck, Trahern and W.W. Jacobs. After finishing Yeats, Lewis plunged into Maeterlinck and Bergonson, which is nice to know. And what, for goodness sake, is a Votary of the Blue Flower?
One of the key moments in the story is when he is leafing through a volume of Longfellow's poems and accidentally stumbles on the line:
"I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead——"
Lewis says that the line struck him completely out of context.
"I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it."
"It is safe to say that not many Lewis fans will be moved in the same way that Lewis was by these lines" says Brown, although he thinks they might have been moved by the rallying cry "Narnia and the North!" in the Horse and His Boy in a similar way.
But I think that I can see what it means to experience a weird stab of joy from a line of poetry you don't understand. If words didn't carry force regardless of context, poetry would be an impossibility. Lin Carter, the disciple and populariser of Bob Howard, includes Robert Browning's Childe Rowland in a 1969 anthology of fantasy stories. The poem, he says, is based on one single line ("Childe Rowland to the dark tower came") from King Lear: "but the line, it seems, haunted Browning as the poem he built out of that nagging ghost has haunted me."
Lewis made a bit of a thing out of not understanding T.S Eliot. I hope someone told him that "like a patient etherised upon a table" strikes some people the way "Balder the Beautiful is dead" struck him. Poetry communicates without being understood, as the fellow says. The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of his face.
Lewis says that it was the phrase, and not the imagery or the argument of the Balder poem which triggered him. Tegner’s Drapa is Longfellow's 1850 translation of an 1820 Swedish poem based on the poetic Edda. It is quite striking: and the fact that it is a translation I think gives it a slightly alien, unearthly air:
They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre.
A ring upon his finger,
And whispered in his ear.
Some time later, he says that the phrase "Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods" set him off on one, even though he had no idea who Siegfried was and what Gotterdamerung meant. But of course, Wagner's epic ends with the cremation of Siegfried and the suicide of Brünnhilde. Isn't it slightly suspicious that Lewis was desperately moved by two isolated lines of poetry both of which came out of poems about funeral pyres? Two poems which both involve rings, and in which the cremation of a dead hero precipitates the end of the gods?
In the Poetic Edda, Wotan whispers the word "rebirth" into Balder's ear. This seems to signify an endless cycle of death and rebirth. The gods of Asgard will be destroyed in the battle of Ragnorak, but from the the ashes New Gods will arise and the story will start all over again. But for Tegner it means that the new, more cuddly religion of Christianity is going to replace the savagery of the Norse world.
The law of force is dead!
The law of love prevails!
Thor, the thunderer,
Shall rule the earth no more,
No more, with threats,
Challenge the meek Christ.
Lewis was deeply interested in the idea of pagan precursors to Christ; and in the idea that Christianity not only replaced what was evil about paganism, but also preserved what was good in it. This was, indeed, how he resolved the problem that had occurred to that very clever little boy: it wasn't that Christianity happened to be true; and that Balder happened to be false: Balder and John Barleycorn and Osiris were prefigurations of the death and resurrection of Jesus: good dreams. This is why he remarked (to the horror of some evangelicals) that it would probably have been okay, as a Christian, to say a prayer to Apollo the healer at Delphi.
Longfellow's line opened Lewis up to Joy; Joy opened Lewis up to God and then to Christianity. But the lines cone from a poem which contain -- prefigure -- a lot of the idea which would be absolutely central to C.S Lewis is a mature thinker.
Isn't it at least possible that what affected him was not the lines, but the myth: that he is remembering the intellectual and emotional response to the whole poem and locating those feelings in the first three lines?
Isn't this the sort of thing which, when reading books about the lives of famous dead writers, we have a right to think about?
Or does even asking the question mark us out as the Wrong Kind of Biographer?
Wednesday, March 09, 2022
Sunday, March 06, 2022
When I was first reading Spider-Man -- at about the age of seven or eight -- I took it very seriously....
If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The ‘Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to the Incarnation. - C.S Lewis
When I was first reading Spider-Man -- around the age of seven or eight -- I took it all very seriously. Spider-Man was better than all the other comics in the world because Peter Parker had realistic problems: but for his sake I wanted all those problems to go away. I could see that his problems were the results of his double life. I understood that if he told Aunt May that he was Spider-Man the shock would probably kill her. So I started to think of ways around the problem.
My plan was that Spider-Man could ask his friend Doctor Strange to throw up some kind of protective magical cordon around Aunt May's house, so that when Peter Parker revealed his true identity to the world, the information would somehow be filtered out. May wouldn't know who Spider-Man was, but everyone else would.
If God can do anything, He could in principle arrange things so that whenever someone is about to hit someone else over the head with a bludgeon, the bludgeon turns into a piece of floppy spaghetti; and whenever anyone is going to insult someone, the words turn into something nice before they reach the victim's ears. I wonder if Doctor Strange can make two hills without a valley between them?
It is quite pleasing to know that the custodians of the Marvel Cinematic Universe think the way I did when I was in Miss Bugden's class. Jonah Jameson has revealed Peter Parker's true identity to the world and pretty much ruined his life. But Peter Parker has an appropriate deus ex machina on hand. He goes to Doctor Strange, and like the eight year old he is, says "Make that didn't happen."
Doctor Strange casts a spell: Peter messes it up: and lots of people from lots of parallel worlds start materialising in Peter's universe. But the "other universes" are not other universes of the "What If Flash Thompson had been bitten by the radio-active Spider?" variety. It is self-evident to us -- though it cannot possibly be so to Peter Parker (or, indeed, to Peter Parker or Peter Parker) -- that they are the mortal remains of different, failed attempts to tell the story of Spider-Man.
One thinks, almost, of Monty Python's Meaning of Life. "The Supporting Film Has Invaded the Main Feature!"
It was fun to see Willem Dafoe putting toothmarks in the scenery; and it was fun to see what fifteen years' improvement of CGI can do with The Arms of Doctor Octopus. We had all heard the rumours about Maguire and Garfield popping up in the new movie; but I had honestly not expected anything more than the tiniest slither of a cameo. When Andrew "Amazing" Garfield saunters onto the screen, this fan-boy is not ashamed to say that he had a bloody big grin on his face.
One Spider-Man good. Three Spider-Mans, three times as good. Infinite Spider-Mans, infinitely good.
Er...can we think about this for a moment?
It is nice to kind of draw a line under the previous movies. It is nice to be told, semi-officially that even though the movies were canned, the characters carried on. It is nice to think that Spider-Man and Spider-Man are continuing to exist, in their own worlds, not in the kind of a no-space that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves in when Shakespeare forgets about them. We put up with some very bad Star Trek movies because it was comforting to think that Admiral Kirk (Retired) and Captain Spock (Retired) were still out in space somewhere exploring strange new worlds. Part of the animus against The Force Awakens was that it forbad us from imagining that a long time ago in some galaxy somewhere Han and Luke were still shouting "Yee-Hi!" on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon, and would be, forever and ever.
Peter B Parker is a creatively different take on our Peter: what would happen if he became disillusioned and stopped being a hero. Peni Parker is someone's creative reinterpretation of the character: what would Spider-Man have been like if they'd been a character in a Japanese comic book. "What if Spider-Man had been a character in a 2002 movie directed by Sam Ramai?" is not a very interesting question. "What if people had liked Spider-Man 3 more, and there had been a Spider-Man 4, 5 and 6" is unanswerable and unanswered.
So what we have is not so much a story but a piece of cinema criticism. The differences between the different versions of the character are flagged up; and there is a slightly half-hearted attempt to work out what, if anything, they have in common. Garfield and Holland affect to be surprised that Maguire can shoot his own web. (They, like the comic book character, shoot their web from a gadget.) They compare and contrast their villains. Spider-Maguire and Spider-Garfield have never heard of the Avengers and are surprised that Spider-Holland is a team player.
Would Spider-Maguire have done such a good job at being a Jesus figure in a universe where there were dozens and dozens of other super-people? How would Spider-Holland have fared if the most wonderful thing about superheroes was that he was the only one? No Cap from Brooklyn, no Steven Strange, no snazzy Iron Man armour? The Avengers/Justice League cross-over had Captain America being surprised at how shiny the DC Universe was, and Batman being surprised at how grim the Marvel Universe was, but those kinds of questions don't get addressed here.
It is vaguely poignant to hear Garfield referring to Gwen as "my Em-Jay" because we know that the different Spider-Men have extracted different elements from different comic books. To me, that highlights a weird diminution of the character. Superman is "Superman and Lois and Jimmy and Perry". Holmes is "Holmes and Watson and Mrs Hudson". Spider-Man is "Spidey and Flash and Gwen May and M-J and Jonah"; the suggestion that he has mixed bag of lovers and friends and you can pick any three and still have the same character feels somehow indecent. Perhaps the Three could have some how found themselves in a static, 2D universe drawn by Steve Ditko and discovered that the comic book version is the real version of which they are all Platonic shadows. When the Fantastic Four went to the afterlife and met God, the deity bore a striking resemblance to Jack Kirby. Of course he did.
It all makes the Marvel Universe feel more contingent and arbitrary; it makes M.C.U.P.P feel less like a character, more like a conjecture. Here is our current guess as to who Spider-Man is, but don't worry, if you don't like him, there will be an infinite number of alternative possibilities along in a minute. It is now pretty much impossible to imagine anyone other than Robert Downey Jr playing Tony Stark; Chris's Evans and Hemsworth embody the patriotic one and the Viking one so perfectly that the comic book characters have largely fallen in line with the movies. If we are not careful, Tom Holland will become merely one link in an infinite chain of not quite successful Spider-Men.
Lex Barker succeeded Johnny Wiesmuller and Roger Moore succeeded Sean Connery and we pretended not to notice the difference. I think I liked it better like that.
We were asked to believe that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had all-out Box Three made-up history secondary reality. It achieved that by saying that these movies; these -- oh god, is it really? -- 27 movies and no others form one single text. Now the text has no boundaries. If Doctor Octopus can hop over from another universe there is no particular reason why Doctor Who or Frankenstien or Conan the Barbarian shouldn't as well.
The first five episodes of the Disney What If... series deal in counterfactual hypotheticals. The final two treat the MultiVerse as a thing; make the Watcher a protagonist, and drag the alternate world versions of Thor, Sharon Carter, Black Panther and the buddies out of their continuities into a massively OTT fight with a Thanos-Ultron composite. It is quite fun, in its own way.
When Disney bought Marvel, there was some mild sniggering about whether Goofy was going to have to join the X-Men. One feels that we are now only one stroke of the pen away from Luke Skywalker vs Thanos. And that really would feel like fan fiction. I read a piece of fan fic once entitled "What if Darth Vader were Herald of Galactus". It wasn't very good.
Uncle Ben is not reinstated: but -- MAJOR SPOILER -- Aunt May dies, and the dead Aunt May tells Peter that with great power... I expect you know what she tells him that great power comes with. The backstory can be different and the costume can be different and the web-shooters can be different and the dead lover can be different but the thing that has to be the same across all universes is power and responsibility. Which is a valid take: Captain America is the Patriotic Hero and Daredevil is the Blind Justice Hero and Reed Richards is the Science Hero but Spider-Man is the Responsibility Hero.
With great power comes great responsibility is, not coincidentally, the part of the story which most clearly has Stan Lee's (as opposed to Steve Ditko's) finger prints on it.
We know that the movie rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four have reverted to Marvel. The question "How would these characters fit into the now-established mythos?" is very interesting to me. The F.F were Marvel's First Family: they were the first comic book of Stan Lee's Marvel Age; and the Marvel Universe's pre-eminent good-guys. Neither of these things would be true if they were Johnny-and-Ben-come latelies who sprang up in a world where Captain America makes educational videos and there is an Avengers musical on broadway. And anyway, there is a certain old-fashioned-ness about them. The stuffy scientist; his beautiful wife, her hot-headed kid brother and his bruiser of a best mate. It smacks of Flash Gordon. Could these characters be reimagined in the way Nick Fury was reimagined -- to the extent that we forget that any other version ever existed? Or should we just leave them out of the Grand Narrative and have one more go at making a stand-alone film which doesn't suck?
I think the best thing would be to go retro. To set Fantastic Four Mark III in a 1950s version of the MCU; after the freezing of Captain America but before the paging of Captain Marvel. They get to fight aliens, help with the space race and defeat the commies without Nick Fury interfering, and if Reed is a bit patronising, he's just reflecting the social attitudes of his time.
But there is a real fear that while Doctor Strange is flitting about his magical multiverse of madness he will stumble on a world where Chris Evans is, confusingly, a young lad who keeps bursting into flame as opposed to a steroid pumped super-solider; and bring him back to the main universe for a visit. Presumably an octogenarian Prof X can be wheeled on once he's done filming series three of Picard.
Or, worse, perhaps the whole Multiverse will fragment, and it will turn out that Cap and Iron Man and Thor and the Eternals and the Black and Moon Knights are all stuck in their own continuities and don't interact with any of the others. Which would very much get us right back where we started.
I am not against worlds where Flash Thompson became Spider-Man and Odin never adopted Loki. I am not against worlds where Rome never fell, Hitler won the war, and there is a different shaped gear-stick on the mini-metro. I am not against universes where Captain Kirk is a fascist, although I admit that I lost track of the damn Mirror Universe midway through Deep Space Nine. But once we start talking about the Peter Cushing Doctor Who having a one-night-only team up with Bat-Mite and the Brady Bunch, I think I may make my excuses and leave.
I guess I like world building, and I know that some people think that world building is a dirty word. I guess I think meta-stories are fun. I admit that I want to know how Baby Yoda escaped from Anakin's massacre of the younglings. I like talking about space ships and aliens as if I were talking about Prime Ministers and battleships. Everyone tells me that Brian Herbert's Dune novels are barely worth the paper they are written on, but I have a hankering to have a look at one of them because I want more of that universe. I spend so much time reading good books and listening to folk music and writing drivel like this is that I don't watch as much TV as I would like to: but the big question in my life is whether the next universe to immerse myself in should be the Expanse or Foundation. Discovery and Picard I take for granted.
A story in which Galactus came to Nick Fury and Peter Parker's earth in the 1950s and Reed Richard fended him off (and how the history of that has been suppressed) would be terrific fun. A portal which allows Buzz Lightyear to meet up with Captain America and the Human Torch, not so much.
If every film ever made is part of the Marvel Universe then the Marvel Universe is not a Universe but just a some movies. If you move everything from Box Four to Box Three, then Box Three becomes indistinguishable from Box Four. Cerebus didn't really meet Dave Sim: Dave Sim just drew a picture of himself, meeting Cerebus, on a piece of paper. And then he drew a picture of himself drawing a picture of himself. Reality remained intact. If everything is real, then everything is fictional. If all stories are true, then everything is a story. This is an imaginary story, but aren't they all.
That's all I have to say about the multiverse.
The metaverse, so far as I can tell, is a big zoom meeting with VR goggles.
Friday, March 04, 2022
In Spider-Man: No Way Home the Peter Parker of the Marvel Cinematic Universe encounters Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin. And Sandman and Electro. And the Lizard. And possibly someone else so lacklustre that I have already forgotten them. And then he encounters two other heroes named Spider-Man. They are presented as characters from elsewhere in the multiverse. But everyone knows what they really are: characters from elsewhere in the franchise. Characters from other movies.
If the Peter Parker of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can meet the Peter Parkers from the previous films, does it follow that the Peter Parkers from the previous films have acquired a new kind of fictional reality? Or does it follow that the M.C.U.P.P is just a character in a movie?
In the beginning, there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe. There was the X-Men (2000), a very good film about a team of super-powerful beings. There was the Fantastic Four (2005), a not very good film about a team of super-powerful beings. (There was another attempt to make the Fantastic Four in 2015, which was also not very good.) There was Hulk (2003), a weird, art-house interpretation of a big green superpowerful being, directed by Ang Lee. (You wouldn't like me when I'm Ang Lee.)
There was no suggestion of a shared universe. Indeed, one of the things which made sense about the X-Men was that Mutants were presented as the only super-powerful beings on earth: not merely a sub-class of superdude. It hadn't crossed anyone's mind that the unique selling point of Marvel Comics might also be the unique selling point of Marvel Movies.
The first Spider-Man movie, imaginatively called Spider-Man, came out in 2002 and said pretty much everything that there was to say about the character. The second -- given the equally imaginative title Spider-Man 2 -- said it all again, only in a rather more depressing tone of voice. Spider-Man 3, the one with the black costume, went down so well that they had to rebooted the franchise, meaning that mainstream audiences had to go through the whole not-saving-Uncle-Ben's-life thing for the second time in ten years. Andrew Garfield was less nerdy than Toby Maguire, but got more of a chance to do Spider-Man's sarcastic repartee. His second film was even more depressing than Toby Maguire's. It tried to end on an upbeat note -- Parker comes to terms with the death-of-Gwen and resumed the hero trade -- but the second spider-cycle lurched to a halt after only two movies.
Superheroes last forever, but not so young actors. Ten years is a long time for an actor to stay in one role; but three movies is not very much screen time in which to represent decades and decades of Spider-Man comics.
Sometime around 2008, the penny dropped. It may have helped that Iron Man was a character who people outside the insular world of comics had not heard of, and that the first Iron Man movie was very good indeed. It also helped that the big paradigm shift happened in a post cred and could be ignored if you wanted to. Samuel L Jackson turned up at the end of Iron Man 1 to tell Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative; and Tony Stark and Nick Fury both turn up at the end of The Incredible Hulk; and Iron Man 2 ends with the discovery of Thor's hammer. Comic book fans jumped up and down with anticipation; and mainstream audiences were tentatively introduced to the idea that the heroes of Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor could all come crashing together in a huge Avengers shaped mash up. It worked so well that "trying to create another franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe" has become the holy grail of commercial cinema. Snyder wants to do it to the Justice League; Russell Davies wants to do it to Doctor Who; She Who Must Not Be Named want to do it to Harry Potter. Only Star Wars has come anywhere near it; and Star Wars was a universe before it was a series of films.
Tom Holland swung into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Avengers: Civil War (2016); the third reboot in fourteen years. There had obviously been some serious soul-searching about how to put Spider-Man into the vast Marvel Universe Phase Three meta-movie. If you are trying to sum up who Spider-Man is "He's a super-hero...but he's still in High School" is not a bad way of doing it. That was, after all, the essence of the Ultimate Spider-Man reboot.
Indeed, quite a lot of the Miles Morales characterisation bled over into this new Peter Parker. In the comic book, Ned Leeds is, in order, a Bugle reporter, Peter's rival for the affections of Betty, a supervillain and dead. His namesake in the M.C.U is a close friend and contemporary of Peter Parker who bears more than a passing resemblance to Miles Morales' close friend and contemporary, Gank Lee. Peter's red haired lover is Michelle, not Mary Jane, but she is sometimes called EmJay to confuse us.
Maguire and Garfield began their stories as high-school students but rapidly grew-up; Holland is coded as "young" throughout his tenure, and the M.C.U Spider-Movies are presented as High School rom-coms. The first one, Homecoming, is focussed on old reliable, the High School Prom.
It would have been unkind to make audiences sit through Spider-Man's entire twist-ending morality play of an origin story for a third time, and the arrival of Peter Parker as a red, blue and webby fait accompli was a great cinematic moment. But the apparent excision of Uncle Ben from the mythos raised a few eyebrows. (And by raised eyebrows I mean "Waa-waa-waa #notmyspider you raped my childhood.") To a great extent, Tony Stark took over the mentor role, gifting Parker with a bells-and-whistles Iron Man inspired Spider-Costume. The first movie was more focussed on Parker learning to drive his Iron-Spider-Man costume than on his actual Spider-Powers. I couldn't blame it for this: Kid Iron Man is by no means a bad premise for a story. The idea of a character with a powerful set of super-heroic hardware that he hasn't learned how to drive put me in mind of the criminally underrated 1991 Rocketeer movie. But some people understandably thought that it wasn't quite the Spider-Man they had known and loved.
The previous five movies had promiscuously burned their way through Spider-Man's back catalogue of villains: the Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, Venom and even the Rhino, leaving Tom Holland to face off against barely recognisable versions of the Vulture and Mysterio. One way or the other, the Goblin and the Octopus, at least, were going to have to be brought into the continuity. Spidey without Doc Ock is like Sherlock Holmes without the Daleks.
The obvious casting choice to play Doctor Octopus was Alfred Molina, who had memorably appeared in Spider-Man 2 in the role of....Doctor Octopus. And since the audience had already accepted Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin -- and since no one does barking mad insane like William Dafoe -- why not get William Dafoe to reprise his role as the Green Goblin as well. (He, that is to say the Green Goblin, was dead the last time we saw him, but that can be got round. No-one dies forever
except Bucky.) In fact, why not go for a full on supervillain reunion? But if you haven't bothered to tell the audience how Peter Parker came to be swinging around new York on a thread; why waste their time on a series of Just So stories for what are definitely not going to be called the Sinister Six. ("How Doctor Octopus got his arms." "How the the Goblin got his gob.") Why not take them for granted too? Why not, in fact, take "bring Doctor Octopus into the Marvel Cinematic Universe" literally?
I don't know whether it was the success of Into the Spider-Verse that made the franchise masters decide that the time was right for there to be multiple live action Spider-People. With the Thanos Saga out of the way, the Marvel Universe had to go somewhere, and replacing the big purple guy with Kang the Conquerer or Galactus would feel like more of the same. (They are also big and purple, come to think of it.) So a sideways move into What Iffery may have been a conscious change of direction for Marvel Universe Phase Seven, Eight and Nine.
But then comes the fatal step. There had been a half-warmed plan to have Tobey Maguire voice Peter B. Parker in Into The Spiderverse. If there are other world's with Alfred Molina's Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe's Goblin living on them; then the idea of the Three Spiders becomes overwhelming.
From 2000 to about 2008, the Marvel Movies were Just Stories: each series locked off in its own separate world. From 2008 to 2022, every movie was connected with every other movie. No Way Home appears to offer us the opportunity to have our cake and eat it. Toby Maguire's Spider-Man is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he is not not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, either. It is one thing to imagine how Admiral Thrawn, or Mara Jade, or Jaxxon the Giant Green Bounty Hunter Rabbit might be written into the primary Star Wars universe as characters. It is a very different thing to say "Itchy and Lumpy have crossed over into the Mandalorian from a parallel universe where the special effects aren't as good and people burst out singing for no readily apparent reason.
There is a nice scene in a No Direction Home involving a blind lawyer. The blind lawyer did come from a different part of the franchise; but he did not come from a different universe. The Netfux TV shows regarded themselves as taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Characters are aware that New York has been invaded by aliens; there is a reference to a big green monster; and Luke Cage is described as being like a black Captain America. (This was before Captain America was black.) The brief cameo by Matt Murdoch confirms that the movies regard the TV shows as "canon".
Daredevil appearing, however tangentially, in Spider-Man is fun, because it opens the possibility, however remote, that Spider-Man and Daredevil could meet up and go on an adventure together. But from the fan point of view, it's importance is that it give us permission to suppose that Daredevil and Jessica Jones and Iron Fist and Luke Cage and the Punisher all happened in the same world as Far From Home and Endgame. It expands the great story; it pastes new material into the meta-text.
A story involving Spider-Man and Daredevil could be a lot of fun because they both live in the same city; fight the same kinds of villains; but have a different approach. Peter Parker vs the Hand would be interesting because at one level he would be out of his depth -- he's a kid, they're born again Ninja -- and from another point of view they are small fry to someone who helped defeat Thanos. But even if that never happens, Daredevil, and all those TV shows, have been afforded Secondary Reality.
Also it's cool and made me smile.
But the appearance of Charlie Cox is a different kind of thing to the appearances of Andrew Garfield or Toby Maguire.
When the voice of David Hyde Pierce appeared opposite the voice of Kelsey Gramer in a 1997 episode of the Simpsons, the story was entitled "The Brother From Another Series" -- an in-joke on at least three levels. When Evan Peters turns up as Quicksilver in WandaVision, we are presumed to know that he played the character in the X-Men series, even though the same character is played by Aaron Johnson in the Avengers. (The story works fine if you don't know that.) The arrival of Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin is a metajoke on the same level. From Peter's point of view, these are just villains from some weird other universe. From our point of view they are Villains From a Different Franchise.
NOTE: Tom Holland is the young man who plays Spider-Man in the Marvel Universe. Tom Hollander is the older man who plays the vicar in the remarkable Rev. I think there is probably a multi-universe crossover to be written in which Tom Holland and Tom Hollander come face to face with Tom Hollandest.
Sunday, February 27, 2022
I would have been perfectly happy for Ultimate Spider-Man to have remained a story. I would have been perfectly happy for it to have remained in its own, hermitically sealed conceptual space with no wormholes or passages connecting it to any other Spider-Man, living or dead. Ultimate Spider-Man was obviously and utterly dependent on the Ditko/Romita/Lee comic books; retelling them, riffing on them, creating a new thing out of them; a story about a story. A meeting between the Brian Bendis Spider-Man and the Stan Lee Spider-Man would have felt like a category mistake: like Pooh winking at the audience and the little boy from the Princess Bride being taught fencing by Inigo Montaya.
It's not so much "comparing apples with oranges" as "thinking you can take a cubist pastel rendering of a bowl of oranges and make marmalade with it".
A Picasso is as good a thing as a jar of Golden Shred. Maybe even better. And you could imagine Picasso taking his still-life fruit bowl and using it as the first frame of a comic strip about nude marmalade making. But what you'd have at the end is still a picture of a jar of marmalade. In a square jar, very probably. You can't spread it on your toast. Although you can draw a picture of yourself spreading it on a piece of toast. You can even draw a picture of yourself drawing the picture.
This is not a pipe. And this is not a pipe. And even this is not a pipe is not a pipe....
Help. I am stuck in an infinite
Ultimate Spider-Man took the old Spider-Man stories -- in truth, took fan memory of the old Spider-Man stories -- and asked "How would we tell those stories if we were telling them for the first time today?" -- where today meant "On or about the turn of the Millennium." So, Peter Parker -- married twenty-something going on thirty something -- reverts to being 15. Aunt May, permanently at death's door now looks old enough to be his Mother's sister, i.e, not very. While Peter Parker works as a freelance crime photographer the Ultimate version works part time for J.J.J as a web-designer. Ho-ho. The magic pixie dust which infected the Spider which empowered the high school student was genetic modification rather than radioactivity; and it was part of a deliberate experiment by Norman Osborn. The powers that be, in the shape of Nick Fury, take an interest in the young, amateur superhero from the beginning. He ends up dating Kitty Pryde. Several of these ideas were borrowed for the 2002 Spider-Man movie.
But, obviously, the story was not being told for the first time; and vanishingly few readers were reading it for the first time. It generated meaning and significance through intertextuality. It relied on our memories of those older, primary, and some of us still thought, real comic books. When someone called Gwen turns up, we readers have an inkling that she may come to a bad end. When Peter and MJ make out for the first time, she exclaims "Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot" and everyone in reader-land smiles wryly.
Probably. It doesn't matter if they don't: the story makes sense anyway.
If we were still talking about fan fiction, which thank Galactus we are not, we would ask whether "fan- fiction" ever meant anything more than "a story about another story". We could then wonder out loud if all stories are about other stories; and if it therefore follows that everything is fan-fiction, even if when isn't.
Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four were never quite so good. The X-book was only superficially distinguishable from the mainstream X-books, and the F.F book was a perfectly good science fiction story which didn't have a great deal to do with the source-text. But the Ultimates, a team consisting of (stop me if you've heard this before) Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and Ant Man was enjoyably extreme, and exerted considerable influence over the cinematic Avengers. Before Ultimates, Nick Fury was a cigar smoking white guy from New York; after Ultimates, he was irrevocably Samuel L Jackson. But Ultimate Captain America was a gung-ho nutcase, and all the more fun because of it. ("Surrender? Do you think this A on my helmet stands for FRANCE?")
Around the time of the one hundred and fiftieth issue of Ultimate Spider-Man, writer Bendis had the bright idea of killing Peter Parker and replacing him with a new spider-enhanced teenager. It was a clever, back-to-basics move. Ultimate Spider-Man started out trying to be more like Spider-Man than Spider-Man: dropping decades of clones, dead relatives and resurrected super-villains, and taking us back to a contemporary character who we nevertheless still recognise as Stan and Steve's 1960s ubernerd. But a decade of Ultimate stories (none of which were dreams or imaginary tales) left us with a Peter Parker who was equally recognisable as the original Spidey.
That's how stories work. Either stuff happens, or else nothing happens. Either the hero changes, or he stays the same. Umberto Eco, yes that Umberto Eco, thought this was where the whole idea of Imaginary Stories came from: a way of allowing Superman to both change and not change at the same time.
The Death of Spider-Man gave Peter Parker closure; and wound us back to the core idea of Spider-Man. A very young lad; still in high school, lumbered with powers he never chose, doing his best to be a superhero but screwing up all the time. The new incumbent, Milers Morales, came from an Hispanic background, which made racists very cross indeed.
For me, this stuff worked because Ultimate Spider-Man was, well, an Imaginary Tale. If the Marvel Universe Spider-Man, as created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were to have been killed off -- well, it might make a good story, but you would know -- absolutely know -- that next month or next year or possibly the year after, the original character would be restored to life and everything would carry on as before. No-one dies forever
except Bucky. Ultimate Peter Parker could drop dead because, ultimately, he's not real and it doesn't matter. This brought a playful naughtiness into the proceedings, as if the writers were saying "Let's see if we can get away with doing things to these characters that we could never do to them in real life." When New York gets flooded due to the evil actions of Magneto, Spider-Man stays behind to help survivors. When J.Jonah Jameson witnesses this, he realises he's been wrong all these years, and becomes as obsessed with boosting Spidey as a hero as he had been in denigrating him as a menace.
But Ultimate Spider-Man could not remain a story.
In 2012, a perfectly nice story called "Spider-Men" happened, with the Miles Morales version of the character dimension-hopping and meeting up with the original Peter Parker. At that moment, we had to stop thinking of Ultimate Spider-Man as "a story about a story" and start thinking of it as "a different part of the multiverse".
Fans sometimes refer to the Marvel Universe by Alan Moore's 616 designation; although this terminology is reportedly not much liked inside the camp. According to this nomenclature, the Ultimate Universe is apparently Earth-1610. Some of the other worlds have been given phone numbers: the world in which Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four is apparently Earth-772.
And in 2015, Marvel succumbed to the inevitable. It did what DC had done thirty years earlier. It rebooted the universe. Earth-616 and Earth-1610 crashed together, destroying both, and creating a new setting, an amalgamation of their respective good parts. Miles Morales ended up in the same universe as Peter Parker. This was probably a bad idea. But it led, indirectly, to the Best Spider-Man movie and very probably the best superhero movie.
Into the Spider-Verse had one huge advantage over the three live-action essays. The common herd had never heard of Miles Morales: there was no baggage. The movie had to sell Miles Morales to a general audience as a character. It couldn't rely on our familiarity with the tale. On the other hand, there was no danger of anyone saying "Oh, god, not that Uncle Ben thing, again, again." Sam Raimi's Peter Parker had to some extent been the very famous and archetypal Peter Parker with his own theme tune and tee-shirt. Miles Morales was just some kid.
Which was the original point of Spider-Man: the Hero Who Could Be You.
The movie had to sell non-comic book audiences on the idea that there could be more than one Spider-Man; and many critics must have been perplexed by the hoodie-wearing-hero on some of the posters. In the comic books, Miles' extra-dimensional origins were a matter of narrative necessity: he was a character from a discontinued line of comic books. In the animated movie, his status as "the Spider-Man from another universe" became his unique selling point. The movie persuades us that there could be two different Spider-Men by offering us eight. But it also spends an inordinate amount of time just showing us Miles being Miles; his parents, his uncle, his graffiti, his awkward first day at the gifted school. He starts out as a viewpoint character in a universe where Spider-Man is real. We are offered a quite shameless piece of wish fulfilment -- fan-boy meets hero -- and follows it up with a cruel tragedy -- fan boys sees hero die. "Fan-boy tries to take hero's place" and "Fan-boy is not very good it at" follow quite naturally. We are still processing all this when we work out that the dead Spider-Man, the red-haired Spider-Man is not our Spider-Man. He is, if anything, Ultimate Spider-Man, with a young, understanding Auntie and a Spider-Cave full of Spider-Suits. At which point the idea of the Spider-verse is made explicit: the other Peter Parker, our Peter Parker, appears in Miles-world.
Except it isn't the Peter Parker we know. It's an overweight, drop-out Peter B Parker who has quit Spidering.
At which point, all bets are off, and we are given lady Spider-Gwens, manga Spider-Droids and a very silly black and white film noir Spider-Rorschach. And yet the focus of the film remains resolutely on the character of Miles Morales: how he gains the confidence to be a hero in his own right. By the time all the other Spiders go back to their correct times and places we have accepted that different universes have their own web-spinner, and Miles has got as much right to take up the mantel as anyone else.
The different versions of Spider-Man are not presented as What Ifs... There is no single moment of choice which could have resulted in Miles Morales turning into an anthropomorphic pig. They aren't Imaginary Stories either -- they have autonomous reality and make sense on their own terms. There isn't much sense that the same Being appears in different forms in different times and place. No-one has read the Spider With A Thousand Faces. Miles Morales is not an avatar of the Eternal Spider. There just happen to be different Spider-Men who are similar in some ways and different in others.
I think that even the most the casual film goer can see that Spider-Ham and Spider-Man Noir (at least) are literary takes on the character: different ways of telling the story. Not "Peter Parker as he could have turned out if things had been different" but "Spider-Man as he might have been imagined in a 1930s pulp novella" and "Spider-Man as he might have been imagined in a 1950s Warner Brothers Toon".
Peter Porker is not a cartoon character. Or, at any rate, he is a cartoon character; but he comes from a different universe which functions according to cartoon logic. Spider-Man-Noire is not a character from a black and white movie. He comes from universe where colour literally does not exist. Characters who are logically "just stories" are autonomous beings who can interact with the flesh and blood Miles. But then Miles himself started out being "just a story" and might have remained so. "All stories are true" is now a logic according to which the universe functions.
Peter Porker looks like a cartoon. But despite a lot of metafictional pyrotechnics in the actual animation, Morales himself never feels like a comic book character. He feels like a young lad in the real world who is finding out what great power comes with.
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