Wednesday, January 22, 2014
There is a dramatic principle, relevant for all writers of narrative whether fiction or non-fiction, known as “Chekhov’s Shotgun”. It might be known as the Law of Narrative Parsimony. The great Russian playwright and master of the short story wrote various versions of the principle, which can be summarized thus: “If in the first act you have hung a shotgun on the wall, then make sure it goes off in the following act. Otherwise don't put it there.” Chekhov said nothing of camels, though he might have.
Every reader will resonate with the idea and will bring to mind its effective use by an admired writer. One of my favorites is a very telling example in Chaucer’s ribald bedroom farce, the “Reeve’s Tale”. This is a “Biter Bit” story in which an unscrupulous miller defrauds two Cambridge undergraduates, and is repaid with interest when the students take sexual recompense from his daughter and wife. In describing the sleeping arrangements in the miller’s house, the narrator mentions an infant’s cradle at the foot of the marital bed:
The cradle at hir beddes feet is set,
To rokken, and to yeve the child to sowke.
I encourage you to read the Reeve’s Tale for yourself, but I can tell you that this casually mentioned cradle is actually a shotgun, and it does go off in the next act.
This leads me, perhaps not exactly inexorably, to Hieronymus and the Janjeweed. It is admittedly hard to keep up with these things, but only a couple of genocides ago, in Darfur, there was a particularly nasty lot of thugs called the Janjeweed—janjeweed being an Arabic word meaning roughly “cavalry” or “mounted gunmen”. The Janjeweed created havoc and performed atrocities throughout the villages of the South Sudan. One of their specialties was burning people—dead or alive. Alive for a while, that is. Some of the janjeweed were horsemen, but the most feared, apparently, were mounted on camels. I had not sufficiently imagined the camel as an engine of war, but it must be a terrifying one.
Next, Hieronymus. Hieronymus is the Latin proper name rendered in English as Jerome, one of the greatest of the doctors of the early Church and the translator of the Vulgate (the standard Latin bible of the Middle Ages.) But why render his name in English? If you’ve got it, flaunt it. You wouldn’t talk about the great painter "Jerome Bosch", would you? Well, one of my next major projects will involve the literature of early Christian monasticism, and to this literature Hieronymus made important contributions, especially in three “biographies” of early monastic saints—Paul of Thebes, Hilarion, and Malchus.
I had not read the Life of Malchus for at least forty-five years, and I had forgotten what a great story it is, and how beautifully shaped by its author. The narrator (Hieronymus) in old age tells us that he in his youth heard the story from the lips of Malchus himself—speaking as an old man about events of his youth. So if the story is not quite a manuscript found in a cave, its events could already be a century old as we hear them.
As a youth Malchus fled his parents’ importunities that he marry to become a monk; but he later made the big mistake of taking a furlough from the monastic life in order to go back and visit his home. He had the bad luck in transit to be captured and enslaved by the Janjeweed. Hieronymus doesn’t call them that. He calls them “Ishmaelites” and “Saracens,” but they are ferocious anti-Christians who arrive in a raiding party mounted on horses and camels.
Chekhov himself could not have done a better job with the plotting of the rest of the Life of Malchus. His new master compels the monk-slave to marry another captive, but Malchus is spared suicide when his spouse surprises him by abjuring sex with an ascetic fervor equal to his own. He still longs for his lost monastery, of course, and one day, observing the cooperative industry of the tiny residents of an anthill, and combining equal parts of entomology and scriptural exegesis (“Go to the ant, thou sluggard!”),* Malchus and his chaste partner flee from their captors into the unforgiving desert.
There are several marvelous details of their escape, but for economy’s sake we must take up the story at the point of Chekhov’s shotgun—or in this instance, Chekhov’s camels. Toward the end of the third day of flight the runaways are horrified to see—still distant but moving rapidly toward them—the forms of two war camels. Their incensed master, accompanied by one of his slave-warriors, has followed them. Scott himself cannot have been filled with greater dread, and Malchus and his monachal missus take refuge in a convenient cave. The fortuitous cave is the good news. The bad news is that it is already occupied—by a lioness protecting her cub!
Hieronymus and pal
Some of the early Christians had difficulties with lions when they met up with them in the Colosseum; but the desert monks tended to get on with them much better. Jerome himself seems to have gone nowhere without his special leonine companion. So you know what happens next. The lioness leaves the fugitive slaves untouched but kills their two pursuers, one after the other, when they enter the grotto intending mayhem. The lioness then calmly exits carrying her cub.
The runaways are still in a tough spot, stranded as they are on foot in the trackless desert. Only when they exit the cave do they comprehend the full bounty of Providence. “When we came out into the light of day we saw the two camels--the kind called dromedaries [i.e., “racers”] because of their great speed…” Happily mounted on these now ownerless fleet beasts, they are able to arrive only two days later at a Roman fort. There the quartermaster is happy to pay them good money for their valuable steeds—just enough to defray the costs of setting up two new separate but affiliated his-and-her hermitages.
*Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest, (Proverbs, 6:6-8)