Queens walk in the dusk
Thomas Burnett Swann, 1977
What an unusual book!
Thomas Burnett Swann was a critic, a poet and a writer of fantasy. He used classic mythology and history in his stories, and Queen walks in the dusk, while the first of the Latium Trilogy dealing with the origin of Rome, was in fact is last book, published posthumously – Swann died in 1976.
Swann’s name had been on my radar for ages – mentioned in articles and essays, sometimes compared to Jack Vance for his prose. That’s high praise indeed, and reason enough to check this guy out. It was a while now I wanted to read his books, and I decided to start from this one. And I was impressed, baffled, and utterly fascinated.
Queens walk in the dusk is a retelling of the story of Dido and Aeneas. I understand that to English-speaking readers, the story is familiar, if at all, through Henry Purcell’s opera, but to us in Italy, it is part of the school curriculum, and as such we know it well, and hate it (because we often hate what is imposed on us by school programs).
So there is this sense of deja-vu, in the story Swann is telling us.
But the strangeness and the charm of this book is not in the story itself – that is good, mind you – but in the style.
The world in which the story is set is the one of the ancient Greeks and Romans – a world peopled with monsters and gods that enter the everyday lives of the inhabitants, a world in which you can hold a conversation with a ship’s spirit. The sense of wonder of this state of affairs lays not in the extraordinary, but in its commonplace status. This is a wonderful world because everywhere is magic, and power. It is also quite cosmopolitan, the characters being aware not only of the various kingdoms and peoples of the Mediterranean, but also of far-away India (we visit an elephant town in Africa in which Ganesha is worshiped by the elephant population).
And the story is told in such a world in a way that reminds one of the ancient epics – not for its bombast, but for its straightforward manner in which wonders and magic are presented, and for its economy.
Dido loves Glaucus. He is killed by her brother Pygmalion.
She flees Thyre, stealing half the fleet, and builds Carthage.
Aeneas flees the burning Troy and seven years later lands on the coast of Carthage.
All this, in thirty, forty pages. Not a word is wasted, and yet at the same time the language is rich, with a tempo that recalls a ballad or an oral tradition more than a book, a modern novel.
The thoughts and the actions of the characters are thoughts and actions from the ancient world, guided and informed by different mores, and a different morality. This makes some situations particularly grating – Ascanius, Aeneas’ ten-years-old son is appalling in his role as a sex-obsessed smartass who tries in the bluntest of ways to get his dad a woman to replace his dead mother. But the character is historically realistic and true to the version in the Aeneid – and let’s admit it, we hated the little runt even in Virgil’s original, back in high school.
And yet, for all of these classically-derived elements, Queens walk in the dusk is a thoroughly modern tale, and one that gives us characters with complex and fully-developed psychologies.
The final result is strange, but highly entertaining and quite good.
I will read more of Thomas Burnett Swann’s novels, and I fully understand why, while many seem to have forgotten him, those that remember his work cherish it and consider it a classic.
(WAIT! What happened to Book #2?!
Apparently, WordPress decided to lose the programmed post – I will reload it in a few days. Sorry for the inconvenience)