Thursday, March 18, 2010

Doc's Errant Saga... and the Moon?

Some of you are wondering what "Quayment" is, and what that has to do with Chesterton.

Quayment is not from Chesterton's writing, but from the Saga of a far lesser writer. Quayment is simply the name of my fictional town by the bay, somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean. It is the great American book town, vaguely deriving from the real-world book town called Stillwater, Minnesota. In Quayment you will find the famous "Weaver's Books" housed in the former "Psephic Church of God" high up on the north hill, not far from the huge Catholic church of St. Ambrose. Over on the south side you will find another dozen bookstores, including such famous names as "Bastian's" (run by Bastian Bux, and formerly known as "Coriander's"), "Leary's", (formerly in Philadelphia) and "the Haunted Bookshop", owned by Roger and Helen Mifflin (formerly in Brooklyn). Quayment is not the only town in my Saga - there are others, such as "North Belloc", the twin-city to "Harley" which are a two hour drive north from Quayment, and "Stirling" another two hours further in the mineral-rich hills of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Why do I bother telling you all this chatter, which may strike you rather like knowing the location of Hobbiton relative to Minas Tirith? Because I was reading my Latin dictionary the other day and learned a new word, which seemed to fit in so well with my work - and with our current discussion - that I had to tell you at least a little more about my Saga.

But first, a word from our Uncle Gilbert - an aphoristic phrase which (like so many others) I have previously overlooked:
...morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies...
[GKC "A Defence of Detective Stories" in The Defendant]
I found this because I was curious about the context of the very next line, the concluding line from that essay, but I will give you the entire concluding paragraph for you to ponder:
There is, however, another good work that is done by detective stories. While it is the constant tendency of the Old Adam to rebel against so universal and automatic a thing as civilization, to preach departure and rebellion, the romance of police activity keeps in some sense before the mind the fact that civilization itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions. By dealing with the unsleeping sentinels who guard the outposts of society, it tends to remind us that we live in an armed camp, making war with a chaotic world, and that the criminals, the children of chaos, are nothing but the traitors within our gates. When the detective in a police romance stands alone, and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists of a thieves' kitchen, it does certainly serve to make us remember that it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure; while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves. The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies. It reminds us that the whole noiseless and unnoticeable police management by which we are ruled and protected is only a successful knight-errantry.
Now, the fun of the matter is the word I was hunting was "errant". I was curious to see if GKC always used it in the context "knight-errant" (or its variants), and for the most part it seems that he indeed used it that way. I happened to look up "errant" in the dictionary, and found it comes from the Latin verb errare, to wander, stray, rove. (Hence it is a Greco-Latin pun to say the planets are errors, hee hee.) But the knights were not "in error" - the Laws of Chivalry always put obedience to the Church first. No, the knights were simply wandering, and wandering in search of adventure. This was not a vain way of life in the days of chivalry, as if a knight was a bored suburbanite out for a night on the town. It was more like the famous image of the modern miniature knight called the Boy Scout: always patrolling and alert, on the watch for an opportunity to do a good deed.

Now, of course those of you who recognized my imaginary town of North Belloc as the location for my stories about "Joe the Control Room Guy" who works the night shift at a certain little cable TV company, watching the WATCHERs (ah, now you begin to see? Yes, I am a Juvenal Delinquent!) and ready to respond to problems as they arise - well, you may begin to see some link to GKC's "unsleeping sentinels" - or, if you like, to the five wise virgins [Mt 25:1-13] and to our Lord's warning to "watch and pray" [Mt 26:41]... but all this is just part of the hint. You see, the word I wanted to hunt for wasn't "errant" but "saga" - as in story. I expected "saga" to link to "sage" (as in "wise", not as in the herb), but found that "saga" is from a Norse root for an epic narrative, whereas "sage" is from the Latin sagax, meaning "having keen senses" and hence "acute, clever".

Now for the excitement. Just a little further down the page [See P.S. at end for a comment about this] I found the word sagum of the second declension... which means its plural must be saga!

Indeed. But what does sagum (plural saga) mean?

Ah. According to Cassell's it means a mantle of coarse wool worn by slaves, also the plaid of the Celts; But especially of soldiers, a military cloak. Hence symbolical of war, as the toga was symbolic of peace. saga sumere or ad saga ire - literally "to put on sagums" or "to go to the sagums" were idiomatic for "to take up arms, prepare for war".

And there you have it, my dear readers. I was not wrong to call my story a Saga, for it is about war. For it keeps the Church central, as it was put central by God the Engineer and Story-Teller:
while it [the Church] is local enough for poetry and larger than any other philosophy, it is also a challenge and a fight. While it is deliberately broadened to embrace every aspect of truth, it is still stiffly embattled against every mode of error. It gets every kind of man to fight for it, it gets every kind of weapon to fight with, it widens its knowledge of the things that are fought for and against with every art of curiosity or sympathy; but it never forgets that it is fighting. It proclaims peace on earth and never forgets why there was war in heaven.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:315]
It is the mystical union of the technical - or perhaps I ought to say the scientific - with the artistic. It's a little town where young men grow up to do heroic deeds - it is Nazareth or Roma or Hobbiton - or even Quayment, USA - but it is still about war. "Think ye, that I am come to give peace on earth?" [Luke 12:51] Therefore, let us arm ourselves, and not with peacock feathers, the plumes of hell's proud victory [see "The Red Town" in Alarms and Discursions or "The House of the Peacock" in The Poet and the Lunatics] - but let us take a hint from their thousand eyes: let us be watchful and pray.

For behold - if you go out around sunset tonight and look west, you shall see the crescent Paschal moon, already waxing towards its plenitude, which shall come after the Vernal Equinox, the first full moon of Spring. A Saga of the Moon may seem like sheer lunacy - but it is not lunacy, not at all. The sign is given. Let us prepare!

P.S. Regarding the link from sagax to sagum: this delightful serendipitous encounter of words (and hence ideas) by mere physical proximity is one reason why I like books so much. Another is that I can throw them across the room when I disagree. Or, as the poet writes about our Mr. Ahlquist:

"Dale says it's tactile books that most prefer."
Also, I should say that I did have more to tell you about "error" and "errant" - but the poetic links here were too delightful. We'll get to it eventually, please God.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm...I was thinking I should start a Shakespeare for Seminarians with As you Like It, but now I shall start with Hamlet. Thank you, Dr. Thursday!


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