Speaking in Tongues: Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire

Speaking in Tongues: Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire

Voice of the FireTypically in these blog posts, I write about some work of fantasy, science fiction, or horror; of fantastika. I’m not sure whether the book I want to write about this time round can be described as any of those things. It’s not always, in fact, easy to distinguish what is fantastic and what is not. Does the distinction lie in what the writer has in mind, or in how the reader interprets the text? If a man who believes himself to be a magician writes about magic, is that fantasy or mimetic fiction? The author describes the world as the author understands it. The reader, reading, then sees the world as the author does: so writing is perhaps inherently magical, a possession. All words are magic words. All stories are true.

“All stories are true”: that’s a quote from Alan Moore, writer of classic comics like Watchmen, V For Vendetta, and From Hell. Writer also of a prose novel called Voice of the Fire. Except technically it’s not a novel, unless really it is. Moore’s Voice tells twelve tales set in his home city of Northumberland, stretching across six millennia. Each in a different era, each a different first-person narrator. Language and style shift with the passing years. But imagery and motifs bind the thing together. Repeated actions echo across centuries. Spirits, or things like spirits, are perceived; also ghosts of times past or to come. Moments of inspiration, fires in the heads, reveal distorted visions like shadows cast against the far side of a movie screen. Stories are told, all one, but sure interpretation eludes the consciousness of the Platonic audience, sitting in the dark and throwing cold popcorn between their jaws. One must resignedly surrender linearity, rationality, understanding, and submit to the flashes of language that rush on and double back, making a lattice of meaning too large to hold in consciousness.

If the book works. I go back and forth on whether the thing succeeds as well as it might. But even to wonder is perhaps a sign of success. It is a maddening work of language: change caught in language, language as agent of change, change worked on language over time.

Voice of the FireThe first of what the cover proclaims to be “dark midwinter tales from the heart of England” (a good enough description) is “Hob’s Hog,” set 4000 years before the birth of Christ, as hunter-gatherers give way to early agricultural communities; a half-witted nomad has a strange encounter with a horned shaman accompanied by a child, ending in an act of sacrifice that resonates through the book. Fifteen hundred years later, “The Cremation Fields” follows a psychopath trying to pass herself off as a wizard’s daughter. Sometime after the year 43 AD, a man “In the Drownings” recalls his lost wife and child. In 290, a Roman investigates forgery in “The Head of Diocletian.” “November Saints,” in 1064, tells the story of the recovery of the body of a saint, and the true story of his death, as remembered by a woman who was not present. About the year 1100, an aging, bitter knight reveals the secret of the Templars in “Limping to Jerusalem.” Two heads on spikes converse in 1607 in “Confessions of a Mask.” A lecherous judge in 1618 recalls Elizabethan magus Doctor Dee and his “Angel Language” before coming to a bad end. Two witches, “Partners in Knitting,” are burnt at the stake in 1705. In 1841, the mad poet John Clare tells his tale in “The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall”. In 1931, an affable man brain-damaged in World War One tells  us of his life and crimes in “I Travel in Suspenders”. And in 1995, a magician and writer wanders Northampton, searching for a conclusion to the novel we are reading, meditating on local geography and the architecture of areas like the one called “Phipps’ Fire Escape”.

The characters of these tales, then, are figures of the margin. Wizards and killers and madmen and hermits. Mad misanthropic bastards. Friendships are rare. Families are absent, never started,  lost through violence, or, sometimes, inconveniences to be put up with — though wives proliferate, double up, sequential and tragic as in “In the Drownings” or simultaneous and darkly comic as in “I Travel in Suspenders” (reading fiction as biography is a bad habit, but I couldn’t help but recall the perhaps-coincidental fact that Moore himself lived for a time with two women in a polygamous relationship). At any rate, there are failures of communication to every hand. These stories are largely monologues. There is, though, usually some exterior action, typically slight, paralleling internal sequences of memories or reflections. The structures of the tales are precise: external and internal reach their climactic points at once, fusing then and now, past and present.

But they’re not intellectual reminiscences alone. There is an emphasis on the bodily all through the stories, on the physical. On sex and snot and sucking chest wounds, on the mass and weight of the human form, and on the hurts so often done to it throughout time. Bodies become part of the recurring images of the book. A foot, or limp; severed heads; a tooth or stone fallen into the mouth.

WatchmenThis physical sense is linked to geography; one visionary is tattooed with a depiction of the land, skin becomes place. Architecture acquires symbolic meaning. Churches proliferate. A three-cornered hunting-lodge expresses trinitarian ideas. All of this is brought home, explained only in part, by the writer’s reflections in the final chapter. The conclusion becomes a map of the rest of the book, a partial key. Northampton’s shape has defined the shape of the book.

To read Moore’s depiction of his hometown, it’s a frightening place, defined by violence. Violence reaching back before recorded history, back to a sacrifice that becomes myth, becomes mostly forgotten, but echoes on through the following years. That’s the flip side of violence here: sacrifice, the making sacred. Fire burns, but sanctifies.

The voice of the fire changes you; is transformative. This is a book of changes. Dead metaphors come alive, animated by flame like a corpse shifting on a pyre. Magic and language come to be the same thing. Sometimes, that thing is not easy to understand.

Here is a quote from the first chapter, written from the point of view of a mentally retarded boy six-thousand years ago, after a girl has taught him about singing and poetry:

Glean I on how it is that one may say of thing, yet thing is not, and more, on all a man may do with gleanings like to this, they is that big. Glean I on how a long queer saying may is like to path, as man may journey world all bout. Girl, she is put that many queer big gleanings in I’s belly as there is no quiet in I. Turns I this way and that on dry-grass, and now is I want for make a piss.

It’s a radically simplified language. No tenses other than the present. Few nouns, few adjectives, so what’s used takes on many shades of meaning. ‘Glean’ is thought and memory; the boy thinks how one may speak of a thing that is not so, and then thinks about what can be done with such ideas. Poetry, “a long queer saying,” is like a path; the word is the world, and the boy feels this in his gut. And responds by making a thing out of his body. But travelers must be wary. Again and again in this book, voyagers come to bad ends, another ongoing motif.

For this boy, the world is a place of constant surprising change. He lacks the language to articulate both transformation and constancy. Clouds are “sky-beasts” that surprise him by shifting from one thing to another. What appear to be rutting pigs from a distance turn into logs: he doesn’t realise he was mistaken, that the logs were always logs. Or perhaps in this early landscape, things really are that fluid; another character will inadvertently remind us that the boy speaking here lived at about the same date that Archbishop Ussher imagined that the universe was created: in the beginning was the Word. The development of language to articulate the visible world, and all its changes.

That first chapter is legendary in certain circles for the difficulty of its language. Later chapters are less demanding, but just as meaningful. Here is a witch in the process of burning:

Beneath the base of every flame there is a still, clear absence; a mysterious gap between the death of substance the birth of light, with time itself suspended in this void of transformation, this pause between two elements. I understand it now, that there has only ever been one fire, that blazed before the world began and shall not be put out until the world is done. I see my fellows in the flame, the unborn and the dead. I see the gash-necked little boy. I see the ragged man that sits within a skull of blazing iron. I almost know them, almost have a sense of what they mean, like letters in a barbarous alphabet.

In the middle of her own sacrifice, she sees the meaning of fire. She steps outside of time, and meets the characters before and after her. The passage talks about transformation, the moment between substance and sacrifice; that’s exactly where she is. That’s what the book’s about. One thing becoming another, and how that may be described. What the fire said; the fire that has always been lit. It’s the fire of vision, of imagination.

V For VendettaIt is a terrible power. The boy of the first story fears the changes language brings, inevitable as history, fears metaphor and simile, the magical transformation of one thing to another. For him, it is wrongness. But read the text as a whole and you find it succeeds because its images are consistently right, right in rhythm, right in the pattens they make across time and pages. Things change, but recur, the same and different.

It’s not entirely perfect. The voices Moore performs here (summoning spirits, shaman-like, the latest in the lineage of visionaries he depicts) are not each one as fully realised as every other, not all as naturally shaped to their eras. Two stories are set in Jacobean times, but neither exults in properly Jacobean language, feeling more like texts from fifty or a hundred years later. Some things are apparently incorrect. A woman in the eleventh century refers to ‘cartomancers,’ something like two hundred years before playing cards were introduced to Europe. There are evidently good reasons to doubt that the witch-burning Moore writes of ever happened. And the theory of language that guides his development of prehistoric speech may be based on an exploded myth — elsewhere Moore’s spoken of the Hopi language not having a concept of time, something a linguist once believed, which apparently is not true.

But these errors in a way prove another of Moore’s points. As he tells us in his own voice, speaking through the mask of his own face:

Although at times unnerving, this was always the intention, this erasing of a line dividing the incontrovertible from the invented. History, unendingly revised and reinterpreted, is seen upon examination as merely a different class of fiction; becomes hazardous if viewed as having any innate truth beyond this. Still, it is a fiction that we must inhabit. Lacking any territory that is not subjective, we can only live upon the map. All that remains in question is whose map we choose, whether we live within the world’s insistent texts or else replace them with a stronger language of our own.

We live in fictions; but all stories are true. All readings as well. The misreading of history makes something new in the world. Harold Bloom developed a theory decades ago that writers gain strength by misreading their predecessors; by taking from their work what is apparently the wrong thing. By revising and reinterpreting. By inhabiting strange worlds in familiar places. So Moore, here, inhabiting Northumberland and its imagined history just as we all inhabit our own fictions, our own understanding of the world.

His stories here are about moments of transcendence. One thing becoming another. Substance to flame. Acts of sacrifice and pain resonate through time, becoming myth. Wizards are the land, indistinguishable from their art. The road is language, song. Conceptually, the map is the territory; the territory as we experience it is only a map painted on the insides of our skulls.

The book’s implicit argument is that to be sacrificed in fire is greater than being left to rot. Fire is vision, art, magic, and it is rebellion; it is the firebrand. And, besides magical inspiration, the fire is the fire of the forge. An early wizard has a son who forsakes magic to become a smith. And, as all images circle back into each other, fire is history. In the last chapter, the cunningly-unnamed writer-narrator tells us:

History is a heat, a slow fire with the planet just now coming to the boil, our culture passing from a fluid to a vaporous state amid the violent and chaotic seethings of the phase transition. Here, in the rising steam, a process moves towards its point of crisis, interrupted only by a break for the commercials.

This is not standard history, not a tale of great men and kings. Nor a history of peoples, Roman and Celt and Anglo-Saxon and Norman. This is not so fixed. It is history determined by folktale and myth. Monstrous black dogs called Shagfoals haunt the story, and we are told they “live near crossroads, or at bridges, where things have a choice to them and where the veil between what is and what is not grows worn and threadbare, rending easily.” So this is a history of choices. More: the choice is between is and is not, what we accept and what we make when the border between these things grows frayed. A character, struggling to explain how being given a head wound affected his sense of the world, describes the world as a kind of rough draft; he goes on to tell lies, confusing even himself with the amount of untruths he tells. Caught up in his own fictions.

From HellThe book seems a work of magic in itself. “Only restore the songline,” the final wizard reflects, “and the fabric of the world shall mend about it.” The book, the elegant precision of language, rebuilds the city of Northampton from the roots up. It’s a working that creates an ideal city, tells a tale of history and geography. Is it fantasy or realism? There is no distinction. We live in fictions. Everything’s a fantasy. All stories are true.

Made stranger and more dense, the hapless reader’s caught, mazed. The language you think you know is set aflame. Torched into a profounder tongue. Sentences shattered to fragments, the violence releases meaning, unsuspected embryonic thoughts wrenched into the world by this bloody C-section. Magic is forcefully worked: one thing turned into another. Known into unknown. Unknowable into language. Abra, as they say, cadabra.

How do you follow a book like this? Moore’s currently working on his second novel, Jerusalem. It’s scheduled for publication in autumn of 2013; reports suggest it’ll be 750,000 words long (about the length of two volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire put together), be set entirely in an area of a few city blocks in Moore’s home of Northampton, and, according to Moore, disprove the existence of death. It’ll be concerned with time, different chapters set in different eras; like Voice of the Fire, it seems. What transformations will we see in it? How different will it be? Voice of the Fire‘s a strong book that, in its ellipses, promises more. Now that we shall have. What spirits shall we see? What work shall it accomplish?

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Sarah Avery

Jerusalem sounds both like exactly the kind of book Moore would write, and like a publishing industry professional’s joke about what kind of book is unpublishable in the current climate. I want to see it succeed widely–hooray for book biodiversity!

I think I need to read Voice of the Fire, which is dismaying, because having kids has made it very hard for me to read scenes in which Bad Things happen to children.

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