This is the first of a series of lectures that Nelson McKeeby gave at a midwestern art college where I grew up about biomythography and the identity of the artist.
In the district of Tunbridge Wells, located inside of Brenchley Parish (or Matfield St Luke if you are a Church of England stalwart) in County Kent, Rochester Diocese there stands a majestic house called Weirleigh. Or if you prefer a more rational location that lacks in romance but which makes your compass and protractor happy, you can use the geographic coordinates of Latitude: 51.1597 Longitude: 0.3788, a few kilometers from the famous zero longitude line. This house for an avid hitchhiker is not that bad to reach, being just down a pleasant road from the Matfield crossroads. It is constructed of red and blond bricks, and was where Siegfried Sassoon grew up and is either presentable and cosy or a little confining depending in your social class. For anyone of the middle class it is a mansion. For the upper class it is large enough for a distaff scion of the family tree and not much more.
Siegfried was raised in the clutches of two cultural matrixes with startlingly different outlooks on life. His father’s family were Imperial Jews who lived and worked in the far corners of the British Empire. His mother was an artistic Thornycroft whose marriage to Siegfried's father caused him to be cut off from the Sassoon fortune. Siegfried himself was born into manorial country life of the British well-to-do, despite lacking the finances to really pull it off.
If his relative poverty, his income early in life was only a hundred times that of a working person, was an issue it was glossed over in his own writings. His father divorced his mother then died when Siegfried was young, and Siegfried became a country squire.
The role of squire was that of congenial artistic uselessness. He attended school for history but did not graduate, it was not expected of him nor required. He found lodgings near his mother, then threw his life into Cricket, writing private verse, and and visiting the homes of friends for dinner parties or shooting. Extremely intelligent and athletic, he was also unfocused and had no real pressures placed on him.
This is the first life of Siegfried Sassoon.
A book vender in Mattsfield was offering a small stack of books called, “The Complete Sassoon” on a rainy and wind tossed day. The books consisted of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Sherston's Progress, The Old Century, The Weald of Youth, and Siegfried's Journey. Taking my pack down the lane and finding a lay by I considered the books, and would keep on considering them a decade later.
You see, the first three books are a memoir of a member of the British upper class who lives an idle life, then goes to war and returns troubled and broken. The story revolves around a man named Sherston. The second series has an identical premise although the main character struggles with homosexuality and is named after the author, Siegfried, although the stories and incidents are somewhat different. When I was reading them though I discovered I had stumbled on something I would later call biomythography, and I had an example of both traditional biomyth and a memoir that was written in the more normal style of the art, each following the same person through the same life events and developed from the same diaries.
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man follows the mundane life of a British aristocrat before the Great War, finding its charm in the relation between the main character and his aunt, a biomythic representation for Siegfried’s mother. Young Sherston has no goals and no direction, but his life is a series of vignettes where he gains a genteel view of life. In the compelling portrait of Aunt and Nephew is the key to the book’s appeal as we can read Siegfried’s own love for his mother showing through each page.
After reading the first book in one rainy day under a poncho shivering by a picket of thick hedges, I found friends to stay with and took the next day to read . Memoirs of an Infantry Officer was a darker fair as the plucky, innocent kid is shorn of his delusions on the battlefield. The Sherston character is shy beyond measure and scared to fail, but also heroic and an archetype of the British upper class who fights in the trenches because there is no other honorable alternative. Even as he sees the big lies told by his government he stays by his principals winning fane as a hero of his class and the war. When he is wounded and sent home he confronts his doubts and refuses to fight, after which he is declared shell shocked and sent to a hospital, one of the most famous events in the real Sassoon’s life.
The final book is called a progress because it follows the Sherston’s life after his attitude to the war had changed. The military does not want his antiwar rationale to be shared so he is sent to hospital where a kind doctor spends hours trying to help him construct his feelings of the conflict into a single working gestalt, while Sherston watches soldiers rehabilitated only to be sent back to the front. Declared functional he returns to the Army to make a go at continued service. At the end of the book though he is shot through the head and returned forever damaged to England.
The trilogy has fictional elements but they are used to define the story and deaden the emotional impact of the events on the author without eliminating the effectiveness on the audience. To understand Sassoon though would require that I examine biomyth in its most extreme form.
J.R.R. Tolkien was of Sassoon’s generation but of the educated and poverty struck version. Generally culturally unable to pursue trades, their class occupied positions in education and government. Tolkien went into his studies and when the Great War started applied for and accepted a position in a program that allowed him to delay military service to complete his degree. Tolkien was trained after college as ab iffier and entered the war at its height in 1916. After fighting for more than a year in the worst conditions he was invalided home just weeks before his battalion was wiped out. Tolkien came home broken and sick to a newly industrialized country that had changed in short order from the green and gentle place he had been born to, but with a new appreciation for the rough manners of the soldiers he had to command.
The Lord of the Rings would become his biomythography. For me this can be seen by the final speech of Frodo as he prepares to leave Middle Earth:
“Where are you going, Master?' cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening.
'To the Havens, Sam,' said Frodo.
'And I can't come.'
'No, Sam. Not yet, anyway, not further than the
Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.'
'But,' said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, 'I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.'
'So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me (bold added by narrator). It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger, and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part in the Story goes on.
This for me biomythography is to take a non-fictional story and to purposefully add a layer of myth. This can be done to shield the writer from the trauma of too closely retelling emotionally dangerous narratives, to add a layer of meta understanding to complex subjects whose main idea is hard to summarize, or to provide a hypernarrative that allows the subject to compare on contrast reality with fiction. In the case of Sassoon and the Sherston sequence the changes are minimal and serve to allow the author to claim fictional subject matter. In the case of Tolkien, a fictional fantasy story takes on new meaning when considered as a biomythic memoir, allowing one to delve the hidden feelings of someone who would put his own voice into a character saying, “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”
Although chat groups often position biomythography as a recent function of literature, the mode of thinking can be found littered throughout fantasy and science fiction literature. Perhaps the most famous book to attempt biomythography is
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The book opens in the Second World War during the Battle of the Bulge where three soldiers, cut off from their disintegrated division, are working their way back to friendly lines when they are captured. And that is the last relatively linear and easily understood part of the book. In fact, one of the three soldiers is Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut’s alter ego, a hapless soldier, who is about to become the sole survivor of the terrible firebombing of Dresden.
Slaughter-House Five represents the starting point with a kernel of truth, but that this truth then is explored in a kaleidoscope of increasingly mythical events. The “reality of the real” is tested as the horrible firebombing is compared and contrasted with his banal existence after the war and final analysis that in the end, the war kills him, as an assassin hired by a former soldier shoots him with a laser beam.