Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Tales from the Churchyard

Think of William Golding, and you probably think of Lord of the Flies. Recently I’ve got hold of a couple of his other books and this one – The Spire – should hit the spot for the medievalists out there. And in fact, for anyone who enjoys a bit of hubris, nemesis and good old fashioned lust.

Dean Jocelin is granted a vision by God and becomes determined that his church should be graced by the tallest spire for miles around. The only problem, master builder Roger Mason tells him, is that the church was built on the cheap, years ago, and lacks proper foundations. Jocelin will not let such petty concerns get in the way of his divine mission and orders the builders to go ahead regardless.

One of the features that makes Lord of the Flies such a compelling read is the sense of impending doom that Golding constructs – we know it’s only a matter of time before these schoolboys and their island society becomes savage and violent. He does something very similar in The Spire, as the reader knows from the start that this extraordinary project cannot end well.

This is partly because Jocelin occupies an awkward space somewhere between religious fervour and hubristic arrogance - his motives are never made entirely clear, which torments Jocelin himself and builds the tension for the reader. The odd rumble of thunder or minor earthquake further destabilise him and us, and Jocelin’s divine inspiration begins to look a lot like a very personal mania.

Jocelin is also tormented by a growing lust for the young wife of his crippled servant, Pangall. In one of the most memorable passages of the novel, Goody Pangall’s flame-red hair spills out from under her cowl and across Jocelin’s thoughts - and prayers - like blood. The implication, presumably, is that somewhere beneath Jocelin’s heavenly project there are far more earthly concerns at work. There are even one or two phallocentric jokes thrown in to push the reader a little further towards this conclusion.

As the spire nears completion, Jocelin’s mental condition deteriorates. He takes to hitching up his robes and climbing up the scaffolding, admiring the flight of the birds and the sensation of the spire shifting and stretching in the breeze. The spire’s internal columns make a whining sound as they move, which comes to terrify the workmen and plague Jocelin wherever he goes.

The rest, as they say, is history. The spire is built, and totters perilously. Jocelin is simultaneously reinforced by faith and plagued by doubt, and the paving stones beneath his feet grow warm with the fires of hell.

Jocelin ends the novel a broken man. He becomes a wanderer and a beggar, seeking the long-gone builder, Roger Mason, for some kind of forgiveness for the actions which endangered the lives of so many men. Throughout the novel, Jocelin is caught between the divine and the human – in motives, in desires – and he ends up with a faith inverted, seeking redemption from a coarse man who trusts only in bricks and mortar.

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