Homer bequeaths to posterity one of the earliest visions of a wasteland, anticipating T. S. Eliot by three millennia. Eliot, incidentally, acknowledges his debt to Homer by allusions to him in the fabric of his foundationally modern, but also highly anti-modern, poem. Now in Odyssey, Book IX, his Phaeacian hosts having guessed his identity, Odysseus honors the guest’s role under hospitality by telling his story in full. He relates the unpublished details of his post-Trojan voyages thus far. After the finale at Troy, Odysseus sailed his fleet of twelve ships on a piratical raid against the Ciconians, the rashness of which cost him dearly (some seventy dead); he dragged his men away from the narcotic forgetfulness of Lotus Land; and then, after contrary weather drove him off course, he entered the natural harbor of an uninhabited island lying opposite what would prove to be the insular domain of those anthropophagous troglodytes, the Cyclopes. Odysseus describes to King Alcinous and Queen Arete the fatness of the unpeopled skerry, where he went ashore to revictual his armada. “Covered with trees,” as Odysseus says, “on it innumerable wild goats breed; no tread of man disturbs them; none comes here to follow hounds, to toil through woods and climb the crests of hills.” (Palmer’s translation) Odysseus adds that “the island is not held for flocks or tillage, but all unsown, untilled, it evermore is bare of men and feeds the bleating goats.” As though to convey his dismay in the unfulfillment of it, Odysseus emphasizes that: “Here are meadows on the banks of the grey sea, moist, with soft soil; here vines could never die; here is smooth ploughing-land; a very heavy crop, and always well in season, might be reaped, for the undersoil is rich.” Homer depicts Ithaca, by contrast, as a hard-scrabble economy.
Joseph M. W. Turner (1775 – 1851): Ulysses deriding Polyphemus (1829)
I. To the modern sensibility, informed by Eliot’s stark imagery of slum-like destitution, and that in turn by the blighting of the land in the medieval Grail romances, Homer’s representation (“just at the harbor’s head a spring of sparkling water flows from beneath a cave”) hardly constitutes a wasteland, where one expects to find bleak desiccation, “no water but only rock,” in an atmosphere of paralyzing fatigue. Goat-Isle will likely strike a modern reader as an idyll of un-trodden shores, far from the madding crowd, where with a few amenities he might enjoy a vacation. Homer gives it to his hero to put in words the unspoken scandal of the place. Cyclops-Isle lies opposite Goat-Isle. Odysseus understandably holds a low opinion of the Cyclopean ethos– to call it that – which he assesses, in retrospect, with anthropological forthrightness. Among the Cyclopes, “a rude and lawless folk… no assemblies meet,” as Odysseus reports; and “they have no stable laws,” he says, but “each gives the law to his own wife and children, and for each other they have little care.” The Cyclopes hunt and gather; they herd flocks, but they know nothing of agriculture, barter, or commerce. They possess “no red-cheeked ships, nor are there shipwrights who might build the well-benched ships to do them service, sailing to foreign cities, as usually men cross the sea in ships to one another.” Had not Cyclops-Isle released, through its prodigious fertility, its denizens from labor, and therefore also from invention, they might have crossed the short distance to Goat-Isle to redeem it from its unused state. Goat-Isle qualifies as a wasteland in the sense that its resources, which cry out for exploitation, perpetually go to waste.
The wastage motif appears in another situation in Odyssey that has a complex, in part etymological, relation to the tale of the two islands both fallow in their way. The famously differentiated Cyclops, with whom Odysseus and a number of his men blunder into a bloody contretemps, bears the name of Polyphemus. The first element, poly, means “many,” as in the derogatory phrase hoi polloi; the second element, phemus, means “voice,” cognate with the Latin fanum. In their combination the two elements attribute to the cannibal-giant a vocal power of many voices, a bellowing fee-fi-fo-fum to intimidate the faint-at-heart or even the stalwart. In Ithaca, during the sixteenth year of the master’s absence, the suitors inveigled their way uninvited into his house and have squatted threateningly in his megaron for four long years. In Odyssey, Book I, Athena, by request of Zeus, pays a visit in disguise to the hero’s household and family. She sees what Telemachus, the trepid, twenty-year-old son of Odysseus, sees. “Here she found the haughty suitors,” Homer tells; and “they were amusing themselves with games of draughts before the palace door, seated on hides of oxen which they themselves had slain.” Amidst their hubbub, “Their pages and busy squires were near; some mixing wine and water in the bowls, others with porous sponges washing laying tables, while others still carved them abundant meat.” The suitors – who have flagrantly violated the rule of hospitality, which mandates but also requires an invitation – have produced none of what they consume. They have slain the household’s cattle and goats; they quaff down the household’s vintages, and they take their leisure and their sleep on the household’s hides and couches. They handle themselves in a predatory and thievish way. Telemachus, experiencing the nemesis inherent in the outrage, tells the visiting goddess: “These things are all their care – the harp, the song – and easy care when, making no amends, they eat the substance of a man whose white bones are now rotting in the rain, if lying on land, or in the sea the waters roll them round.”
The two situations mirror and complement one another. The cannibal-giant of Cyclops-Isle preens and threatens with his voice of many voices, his utterances reverberating in his cave; the suitors, a many-voiced mob, offend the premises by their loudness and vulgarity, which echo from the walls. The potential productivity of Goat-Isle finds no hand ready to realize it; the hard work of Ithaca, realized as wine, oil, bread, and meat disappears in the gluttony of criminal gullets. According to the metaphor of Telemachus, the mob’s behavior slips over into the cannibalistic. In their obscene indulgence, the suitors “eat the substance” of Odysseus. They make of his estate, with its beautiful Bronze-Age organization, a chaos and a wasteland. The Anglo-Saxon epithet wastrel characterizes the suitors perfectly. Surveying the “drinking bout,” Athena wants to know, “What company is this?” She says to her host: “It surely is no festival at common cost,” for “so rude they seem, and wanton, feasting about the hall.” To behold such wantonness must make “indignant,” as the Daughter of Zeus observes, any “man of sense.” Wastage, under Homeric ethics, galls the rational principle. Not by coincidence the chief thug among the suitors bears the name of Antinous, the main element, nous, meaning “reason” and the prefix, anti, functioning as a radical negation. Careful readers of Odyssey learn that the suitors originate in the neighboring villas whose owners dodged Agamemnon’s summons to go with him to Troy. Antinous and his followers are the spoiled sons of the shirkers; they have dedicated their youth, heeding no future, to parasitical spoilage. Their parasitism, moreover, threatens to metastasize. When he calls the assembly in Odyssey, Book II, Telemachus reminds his neighbors that whereas today, the suitors eat him out of house and home; tomorrow, they will descend on the next most vulnerable.
Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898): The Suitors (1859)
Homer wrote, on the basis of a long-enduring oral tradition, in the Archaic Period, a time of civilizational resurgence in the Greek world. Between the events that Homer celebrated and the event of his composing his two epoi, something like a wasting of the land overtook the Late Bronze Age world of the Eastern Mediterranean. Archaeologists call this the Catastrophe and date it circa 1100 BC when the great palace-cities of the Greek Mainland and Anatolia succumbed to rapacious plundering, pitiless incendiarism, the toppling of their walls, and in most cases, subsequent complete abandonment. The level of material culture in the affected areas dropped back to something like that of the Upper Neolithic. The population fell severely. Scholarship debates the cause, but a likely theory points to a human factor: Piratical raiders known in Egyptian records as the Sea Peoples and invaders by land out of the North as recorded in the Linear B tablets from Pylos. The Gothic and Hunnish depredations that accompanied the breakdown of Roman civilization in the West in the Fifth Century resemble the destructive turbulence of some sixteen hundred years earlier. While the phrase Dark Age has come under criticism, and with justification, a retreat of high civilization – the failure of the Imperial infrastructure, for example, and a decline of literacy – remains undeniable. The medieval motif of the wasteland has its roots in the perception of people near in time to the Fifth Century disintegration that things had fallen apart, that the center no longer held, and that mere anarchy had been loosed upon the world.
The medieval motif of the wasteland links itself powerfully to the plight of Post-Roman Britain and to the Myth of King Arthur. An early evocation of a land laid waste comes in a sermon by Gildas (ca. 500 – 570), known as Sapiens, a Sixth-Century British cleric, perhaps a monk, who laments the degraded state of his nation and traces the causality of its dire misfortune. De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae or The Destruction and Conquest of Britain tends to annoy its commentators. A remark from Geoffrey Ashe’s study, The Discovery of King Arthur (1985), typifies the reaction. Ashe assesses Gildas as “primarily a preacher” and of the most irascible sort; and De Excidio, from the viewpoint of the modern researcher, as “infuriating… because [Gildas] has so much sermonizing in it instead of the history we would value.” Nevertheless, along with the with the Ninth-Century Historia Brittonum by Nennius, also a cleric, De Excidio furnishes scholarship with a fairly rich summary of events at once decipherable and plausible, especially when it takes its place in a context of other, more fragmentary sources. The Twelfth-Century author Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095 – 1155), in whose History of the Kings of Britain the name of Arthur first emerges, relied heavily on both Gildas and Nennius. Geoffrey heaped praise on the former, calling De Excidio “brilliant.” Motifs from Homer’s depiction of wastage reappear in De Excidio in a medieval Christian framework. Gildas never employs the phrase wasteland, or what would have been its Latin equivalent, but when the coinage finally surfaces in La matière de Bretagne it owes no little to the representation of ravagement in his account.
In Odyssey, Homer puts Polyphemus and the suitors in violation of the law that structures his story: Xenia, “stranger law,” or hospitality. Zeus obliges householders to admit respectable strangers, following a ritual of silent request and spoken invitation, to their homes. Xenia makes sense. Whoever admits a stranger across his threshold today will likely in future stand on someone else’s threshold requesting admission. The host must refresh the guest and lodge him, but the guest must not overstay his visit nor in any way behave demandingly. The always tense but sublimely civilized balance of the host-guest relationship stands in Odyssey for social order as generally conceived. When Polyphemus traps Odysseus and his men in his cave and begins to devour them – he has violated hospitality grossly. When the suitors enter Odysseus’ palace without permission and overstay their visit – they too have violated hospitality grossly. It is in both cases nemesis, an offense against the gods. In the introductory pages of De Excidio, Gildas cites rebellion against the laws of God and betrayal as the twin roots of Britain’s particular unhappiness. He asks, “For what can there be, or be committed, more disgraceful or more unrighteous in human affairs, than to refuse to show fear to God or affection to one’s own countrymen, and… to cast off all regard to reason, human and divine, and in contempt of heaven and earth to be guided by one’s own sensual inventions?” (Giles’ translation) Their own leaders betrayed the British people when, without consulting them, they permitted the entry of unassimilable strangers who, in their sense of entitlement, aimed at taking for themselves the wealth in place rather than contributing to the commonwealth.
From John Cassell’s Illustrated History of Great Britain, V. I (1857): Hengist & Horsa
II. De Excidio endows prime villainy on an early Post-Roman king whom Gildas names as Gurthrigern, but whom later writers, including Geoffrey, refer to as Vortigern. In the prelude to Vortigern’s perfidy, in 387, a governor of Britain, Magnus Maximus, deserted the island to pursue his ambition of unseating the current emperor. He took the whole force of the British legions with him. The Scots and Picts saw their opportunity. Britain “groaned in amazement for many years under the cruelty of two foreign nations,” as Gildas writes. A partial restoration of the British barracks lasted only a short while. In 410, the emperor Honorius abandoned Britain; whereupon the “ravening wolves… wafted both by the strength of oarsmen and the blowing wind, break through the boundaries and spread slaughter on every side.” In a particularly indelectable figure, Gildas writes that the raiders “appeared like worms which in the heat of the mid-day come forth from their holes.” The defense, where it rallied, partook in corruption. Thus, “Kings were anointed, not according to God’s ordinance, but as they showed themselves more cruel than the rest.” Vortigern, one such, thought to fortify himself by hiring Saxon mercenaries, ostensibly to fend off their own, but secretly to aid him in his tyrannical ambition. “Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country,” Gildas opines; “nothing was ever so unlucky.” The mercenaries turned on their master. They swept the towns and fields. “In the midst of streets,” Gildas writes, “lay the tops of lofty towers… the stones of high walls, holy altars, [and] fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood.”
A recent BBC documentary on King Arthur’s Britain (2017) disputes the medieval claim of a violent Saxon advent, but it relies on dubious, because politically slanted, archaeology. According to the documentarians, those hailing from Frisian shores, De Excidio’s “ravening wolves,” brought not the biting sword, but a sweet kumbaya. The Saxon arrivistes chivalrously wooed the British colleens, civilly took them as wives, and raised white picket-fences around their cottages. Thinking backwards and pattern-wise from the Viking advent among the Saxons themselves three hundred years later – no sweet kumbaya – one inclines to skepticism of the skeptics. If calamity had not befallen Britain, how would the painful memories recorded by Gildas have originated? Persons named by Gildas such as Magnus Maximus, Constantine III, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and even Vortigern certainly existed, which means that Gildas, whatever his confusion, operates on a historical basis. The chaos that Gildas depicts runs consistently with the known facts about the breakup of the Imperium elsewhere in the West. Globalism, currently regnant, extols the mass-movement of people from the Third World to the First World: Thus, for Globalism, as promoted by the BBC, no Völkerwanderung can be a bad thing – even when the wanderers give rise ancestrally to today’s most put-upon and reviled class. Wanderers never lay waste the land. No land can therefore ever have been laid waste by predatory migrants. Trespass? What’s that? Modernity explicitly rejects Gildas’ assumption that wickedness reaches a pitch when people lose faith in the divine and men no longer feel affection for kith and kin.
Geoffrey’s History, like Gildas’ Excidio, puts on display no thematic wasteland, but Geoffrey contributes by prolepsis to the complexity of the figure, when it finally emerges in explicit form. The History in fact offers several iterations of a land laid waste because its story-line takes the pattern of repeated invasions of Albion’s isle by the Saxons and repeated repulsions of them by the Britons until at last the Saxons prevail over the Britons. Again in the History, as in De Excidio, motifs from Homer’s representation of wastage reappear; and one particular episode even suggests that Geoffrey might have had knowledge of the Odyssey. Vortigern, whose historical activity the documentation places in the middle of the Fifth Century, plays a prominent, nefarious role in the History. Geoffrey reviles him. In Part VI of the History, Geoffrey has Ambrosius Aurelianus tell the Duke of Gloucester how Vortigern “betrayed my father Constantine, who had freed him and his country from the invading Picts.” (Thorpe’s translation) After that, says Ambrosius, Vortigern “betrayed my brother Constans,” and indeed murdered him by poison; whereupon “he imported pagans to mix with the local population.” The Heathens, after Vortigern had illegitimately opened the gate for them, “laid waste a fertile country, destroyed the holy churches, and virtually obliterated Christianity from one sea to the other.” As Aurelius traveled through the counties, Geoffrey writes, “he grieved to see how desolate they were, but most of all to find the churches razed to the ground.”
Peter Bruegel the Elder (1525 – 1569): The Triumph of Death (1562)
In Part VII of the History, the wasting of the land reveals itself in the desecration of churches and shrines and in the murder or exile of the believers and their clergy. Geoffrey adds that the rapacity of foreign occupation owes something to the delinquency of those who lived sans souci before the troubles arose. After a period of peace, but facing a resurgent threat, Arthur’s ally the Duke of Cornwall warns knighthood of something that has happened before: “When… men are no longer using their weapons, but are instead playing at dice, burning up their strength with women and indulging in other gratifications of that sort, then without doubt their bravery, honor, courage and good name all become tainted with cowardice.” The picture of the suitors the Odyssey comes to mind. They lodge in Odysseus’ palace because communal vigilance and political authority have wasted away. Telemachus reminds his neighbors that they have ignored the mischief as though it could not touch them. One kind of shrinking-away thus engenders another. In Part VIII of the History, Geoffrey chronicles the reign of the post-Arthurian Malgo, who not only “became ruler of the entire island,” but also “in a series of bloodthirsty wars… subjected to his authority the six neighboring Islands of the Ocean.” Malgo “became hateful to God, for he was given to the vice of homosexuality.” After Malgo, as one character says, the British people “have never known a prince who could restore them to their former dignity.”
In Part VII of the History, when Arthur plans to make war on Rome, he crosses the channel. Before he can move his army into the Isle de France, however, he must rid Mont-Saint-Michel and its environs of a pestilential giant, “monstrous [in] size,” who “had emerged from certain regions in Spain.” In this episode, which seems to draw elements from Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus, the giant’s rapacious sallies have made orderly existence impossible in the tidal island’s vicinity, profaning the very sand and sea by their obscenity. Geoffrey writes how the giant “had snatched Helena, the niece of Duke Hoel, from the hands of her guardians and had fled with her to the top of what is now called the Mont-Saint-Michel.” Attempts to rescue the girl have failed, for “whether they attacked [the giant] by sea or by land… he either sank their ships with huge rocks or else killed them with a variety of weapons.” In an added detail, “those whom he captured… he ate while they were still half alive.” Arthur makes a night-foray accompanied by Bedevere. They see two fires on separate mountaintops. Arthur will investigate main islet, Bedevere the other. Bedevere hears a scream. He finds at the summit, “an old woman… weeping.” Bedevere learns from the woman, the “nurse” of Helena, that the giant kidnapped the pair and would have raped the niece. Before he could consummate his wickedness, Helena’s fear truncated her life. The giant then assuaged his “bestial desire” by raping the nurse. Arthur arrives to learn of the sad tidings. He and Bedevere return to Mont-Saint-Michel, where they find the “inhuman monster” eating spitted swine, “his face smeared with clotted… blood.” Arthur attacks the colossus, manages to blind it, and succeeds in splitting its skull with a downward stroke. He takes the head as a trophy but does not quite go galumphing back. The wasteland-relevant particulars of the episode, which exceeds in length any other single episode in the History, deserve attention.
Geoffrey’s Giant Interlude represents wastage as a cannibalistic reversion. Cannibalism and rape, in Geoffrey’s image, impose themselves in ensemble. Recall that Homer’s suitors, who resemble Polyphemus, a cannibal, harbor rapine intentions towards Penelope. In his previous descriptions of marauding, Geoffrey implies rape but never makes it explicit. In the Giant Interlude woman-taking falls into place as part and parcel of trespass, a modus operandi of savages, and one of the signs of a miasmatic desert. The two hilltop fires make sense contextually: The flames are holocaustic, sacrificial. Not that Geoffrey knew of it, but the Beowulf epic makes itself pertinent. To avert Grendel’s depredations, the Spear Danes “vowed sacrifices.” (Gordon’s translation) It did no good, for “they knew not the Lord, the judge of deeds… nor in truth could they praise the Protector of the heavens, the Ruler of glory.” The Beowulf poet finds in his pagan personae redeeming virtues, but he wants to underscore their gross idea of how to supplicate deity. The History’s Vortigern, an abettor of Wotanolators, attempts to sacrifice the boy Merlin in a similar act of magical prophylaxis. Geoffrey’s Sachsenanschlacht stands on historical foundations, but what of the giant, that piece of seeming folklore? Pay heed to his origin – Spain. Geoffrey tells of events in the late 400s and early 500s, but he wrote in the 1100s. The intervening Eighth-Century Umayyad incursion into Spain, and from there into France, parallels manywise the Saxon incursion into Britain. The Moorish arrivistes, for example, chivalrously wooed the Spanish señoritas, civilly took them as wives, and raised white picket-fences around their cottages. That Geoffrey conflates the two kumbayas, blending them fantastically, is not beyond plausibility.
Jean Francois Rafaelli (1850 – 1924): Wasteland (ca. 1920)
The thematic wasteland arises when Gallic writers adopt Arthur as theirs and conjure forth La matière. Chrétien de Troyes (1130 – 1191), who drew on Geoffrey, generally tells a sweeter, more courtly tale than does his source and inspiration, but he can also invoke misery and peril. Chrétien adds important features to the wasteland motif. Early in Perceval, anticipating the modern literary trope of the zone, the eponymous hero’s mother explains to him the causes of their impoverished and isolated condition. First, she says, “Your father… was wounded through his thighs and his body maimed in this manner”; then, “the nobles were wrongfully impoverished, disinherited, and cast into exile”; and finally, “their lands were laid waste and the poor people abused.” Retainers carried le père to “his manor… in the wild forest.” (Kibler’s translation) Elsewhere in his poem, Chrétien recounts how Perceval in his wanderings comes across a castle in a depopulated tract. Its mistress, the nubile Blancheflor, asks Perceval to rescue her from the attentions of Clamadeu, as mediated by his seneschal Anguingeron, both of whom Perceval subdues. Blancheflor tells Perceval that Clamadeu has scattered or killed the other knights of the region. Blancheflor’s castle, like Perceval’s father’s manor, stands isolated in the champagne sauvage of an unfiefdom. The maimed king, the disinherited nobles, and the mistreated commoners signify the destruction of hierarchy, which raw appetite has toppled. The royal lesion would suspend genealogical continuity. In the wasteland as zone demonic forces strive against the action of Grace, casting a shadow over the land that impresses the few holdouts as darkness without end.
Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) comments that in the Thirteenth-Century Quest of the Holy Grail, the wasteland motif has largely contracted into the figure of the maimed king. The wasteland motif is, despite Weston’s assertion, present in that text. In a “Waste Forest,” for example, Lancelot and Perceval seek refuge in a chapel, “abandoned and ruinous,” near “a stone cross which stood on a lonely heath at the parting of two ways.” (Matarasso’s translation) A wounded knight, whom the Quest author identifies as the “Fisher King,” comes carried in a litter to the shrine. He prays God before the cross, “shall my suffering never be abated”; inquires after the “Holy Vessel” that will alleviate his agony; and passes inside through the chapel door. Later, Lancelot witnesses the healing apparition of the Grail before the stricken man. Later still, resuming the saddle, he overhears an indicting voice. It invokes his adultery with Queen Guinevere and orders him, “Get thee hence, for the stench of thy presence fouls this place.” In one of the adventures involving Perceval’s sister, she willingly, but fatally, gives her blood to cure a noble lady who has fallen victim to leprosy and whose restoration signifies the restored integrity of her realm. The images intercommunicate. The maimed king received his wound because he once sinned in ritual discourtesy to the Grail. Lancelot’s wound, while not physical, nevertheless festers obnoxiously and makes him persona non grata in sacred places. Before he may properly seek the Grail, he must undertake to purify his tainted soul. The cause of the noble lady’s disfigurement goes unrevealed, but the cure, the sister’s Christ-like act of self-sacrifice, gives back to the people the undisfigured figure of their sovereignty. The characters in the Quest differ from those in Geoffrey’s History in that they have risen to self-awareness. They understand vae desolatione as not exclusively a worldly but more so as a spiritual problem.
Part two is available here.