Cano arma virumque, says Virgil–”I sing of arms and the man.” But today, I sing of arms and The Gurg.
Did you read those Lloyd Alexander books growing up–The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The High King, and others? I didn’t. They emitted an ugly glow in my elementary-school library: high fantasy. I liked Jane Langton, but I didn’t like the pictures of men on horses. Moved on from that!
But a few years ago, I was in a friend’s apartment alone for a few hours, and I did what I usually do: browsed her children’s books shelf. I think I had started the MFA at Vermont College by then (it’s the finest grad school in all the land) so I was into reading classics that I’d missed. And what did you know? The books weren’t so geeky after all. In fact, they were kind of fun, although the fun was frequently interrupted by this really annoying creature sidekick named Gurgi.
Gurgi. Even his name is cloying. I’ll quote The American Spectator’s obituary of Lloyd Alexander here:
“With a scent that has “the distressing odor of a wet wolfhound” — [he] is also a creature with a simple mind, prone to talking in silly rhymes such as “crunchings and munchings” for food and “seekings and peekings” for reconnaissance. Not only that, but Gurgi is first described [as]…”not a quarter as fierce as he should like to be, and more a nuisance than anything else.”
But when the wife picked up a copy of The High King in the used bookstore the other night, I remembered Gurgi with a kind of fondness, and I didn’t know why. I don’t usually have that experience; when I first dislike something–a character, a joke, a TV show–I often continue to dislike it. Was it just that, in retrospect, i liked his rhymes? Or something more? I got a little clue when she read me this passage from the final pages:
Fflewddur gave a low whistle. “Who owns these secrets is truly master of Prydain. Taran, old friend, the proudest cantrev lord will be at your beck and call, begging for anything you choose to grant him.”
“And Gurgi found it!” shouted Gurgi, springing into the air and whirling madly about. “Yes, oh yes! Bold, clever, faithful, valiant Gurgi always finds things! Once he found a lost piggy and once he found evil black cauldron! Now he finds mighty secrets for kindly master!”
Is Gurgi maybe the horrible, annoying part of one’s subconscious–maybe even the writer’s subconscious? The stupid, over-emotional segment that eggs you on, saying, “This book I’m writing is awesome! I should already have a star on the walk of fame!” and then the part that tears its hair out in despair saying, “I stink! I only wrote a good book once, but it will never happen again.” I’m sure Lloyd Alexander had something rather different in mind, but note that Gurgi found The Book in the end. Maybe he felt some gratitude toward The Gurg–the id–after all.
And maybe I’m soo stretching. Maybe I just like the annoying rhymes. In any case, I will try to bear in mind, as I struggle through revision, that even The Gurg can find The Book and may make you Master of Prydain.