Thursday, July 26, 2007

Dr. Thursday's Thursday Post

A Resounding Thwack with a Wooden Stick

There has been a lot of discussion recently about wands and wizards, about fairy tales and magic, about Chesterton and Harry Potter, about the uses of magic and fantasy and fiction.

Despite a very strong urge to delve into this topic, and a wish to write or at least to read a "Little Summa on the Story", some years ago my mother told me that I have other things to do. So I must proceed to do them.

But without violating my mother's directives, I want to help you, my dear cousins, to have a greater understanding of our dear Uncle Gilbert, and in my writing today I shall touch on a very strange and little-known piece of fantasy fiction which he delighted in.

It does serve as input to the larger discussion on fantasy, for after I read the book I shall consider today, I wondered whether it may have provided the source of the fist-fight of Ransom with the demonic being in Lewis's Perelandra

But that is not the mystery I refer to. Click here to discover more about magic.
I mean, simply, the mystery of Punch and Judy.

Punch? Whozzat?

Punch is a wooden hand puppet with a big nose, who appears in a popular street theater show - he does very little more than beat his wife, beat his baby, beat his dog, beat a physician, beat the policeman, beat the judge, beat the jailer, and beat the devil.

There are over 100 mentions of the name "Punch" in GKC's works, though a fair number of these refer to the famous magazine, and not to the famous street puppet. Like a number of other terms in GKC, "Punch" is something one feels one might understand - until one tries to explain what it is. It is a kind of miniature theater with hand-puppets, a form of street entertainment, which presented the same little show again and again, to cheers and delight of both children and adults. I am not going to give the complete details here - that is why I ordered the book! Nor am I going to try to explain it, or explain it away.

[Note: if you have ever seen the musical "Scrooge", there is a scene where Scrroge demands payment from a P&J puppetmaster... the ONLY time I am aware of ever having actually seen it!]

But "Punch" was something which GKC often took as a "given" - something known, as fundamental a reference to his readers as phrases like "Beam me up Scotty" or "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" and such are to us today. We "know" Dorothy Gale and Darth Vader; GKC "knew" Punch:
Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. He did not always manage to make his characters men, but he always managed, at the least, to make them gods. They are creatures like Punch or Father Christmas. They live statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves.
[GKC Charles Dickens CW15:87-8]
Or consider this curious commentary on America:
America is a serious parody. America is an exaggeration not more comic, but more solemn, than its original. We are all acquainted with the ordinary notion of a caricature, in which certain features are treated more largely, but more lightly. Thus, let us say, a King is given an outrageously large crown, and he becomes a pantomime King. But we must try and imagine the reversal of this process: we must conceive, not something heavy taken lightly, but something originally light taken heavily and hugely. It is not that the King becomes a comic character by the enlargement of his crown; it is actually that Punch becomes a serious character by the further elongation of his nose. Ordinary people treat their institutions as jokes. American people treat jokes as institutions. Englishmen make a picture absurd by expanding it into a hoarding. America makes a sketch eternal by expanding it into a fresco.
[GKC, ILN Aug 15 1908 CW28:159]
(Oooh, an "English" term to examine! A "hoarding" is a fence of boards around a building used during erection or repairs, often used for posting bills; hence a billboard-like poster.)

I mentioned our infernal Enemy as being a main character in the saga of Punch and Judy. You may wonder why this is so - and wonder where P&J fits into the larger discussion of fantasy and fiction... but as you may expect, Chesterton already has an explanation:
Nothing so stamps the soul of Christendom as the strange subconscious gaiety which can make farces out of tragedies, which can turn instruments of torture into toys. So in the Catholic dramas the Devil was always the comic character; so in the great Protestant drama of Punch and Judy, the gallows and the coffin are the last and best of the jokes.
[GKC "The Fading Fireworks" in Alarms and Discursions]
I have no space to elaborate on this; there are numerous cross-references to be made here - OK, just two: he calls attention to the fact that the representations of Christian martyrs usually contain tokens of their torture... It is summarised in GKC's powerful epigram "The Cross cannot be defeated, for it is Defeat." [The Ball and the Cross] The other is the second-most-famous of all GKC quotes, to wit: "Satan fell by force of gravity." [Orthodoxy CW1:326]

But, as GKC liked to say how much more is the deeper mystery of these puppets which are made of wood! We hear the ancient chant from Good Friday:
Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit.
That is:
Behold, the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.
Remember that mundus = "world" is the usual translation for the Greek KOSMOS. We hear this same thought expressed even more powerfully in the Preface for the Holy Cross: "The Tree of Man's defeat has become his Tree of Victory!"

But we are speaking of Punch - or, I should say, GKC is:
I did like the toy theatre even when I knew it was a toy theatre. I did like the cardboard figures, even when I found they were of cardboard. The white light of wonder that shone on the whole business was not any sort of trick; indeed the things that now shine most in my memory were many of them mere technical accessories; such as the parallel sticks of white wood that held the scenery in place; a white wood that is still strangely mixed in my imaginative instincts with all the holy trade of the Carpenter. It was the same with any number of other games or pretences in which I took delight; as in the puppet-show of Punch and Judy. I not only knew that the figures were made of wood, but I wanted them to be made of wood. I could not imagine such a resounding thwack being given except by a wooden stick on a wooden head. But I took the sort of pleasure that a primitive man might have taken in a primitive craft, in seeing that they were carved and painted into a startling and grimacing caricature of humanity. I was pleased that the piece of wood was a face; but I was also pleased that the face was a piece of wood. That did not mean that the drama of wood, like the other drama of cardboard, did not reveal to me real ideas and imaginations, and give me glorious glimpses into the possibilities of existence.
[GKC Autobiography CW16:54-55]

For more on this wonderful English icon which so delighted our Uncle Chesterton, see Punch and Judy: A Short History with the Original Dialogue available from Dover Publications.

1 comment:

  1. I'm 55 and English, and think that I'm of the last generation who took Punch and Judy shows for granted: that is, while never, to my recollection, ever having seen a live Punch and Judy show, everything about it has been familiar from my earliest childhood. My children have vaguely heard of such shows, but know nothing much about them. The change in cultural icons is one of the saddest causes and effects of the generation gap.


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