Friday 17 May 2024

Corn King and Spring Queen

Zofia Stryjenska

"After that the King began to wake, coming quietly out of the drowning, dim awareness of some shapeless disaster, over the threshold of dreams into full and sharp consciousness of everything. For half an hour he would face it with no physical stirring, no tears. he could not, perhaps, have spoken. Then, as his body overcame his mind, the thing he saw would waver and blur and rock out into blackness again, and for another space of time he was unconscious and gathering strength against the next awakening."


I Really Liked This Book

I recently finished 'The Corn King and the Spring Queen' by Naomi Mitchison, a longish book which took me a long time, and boy, was it pretty great. Five star book for sure. And an actual five stars, not just a relative to experience five stars that I give out for some reads.

Like a lot of very long, very deep, rich books, it ends up being about everything, a mirror to the world and psyche of the writer as well as of its imagined events. 

The two books this reminded me of were 'Black Lamb, Grey Falcon', by Rebecca West, and 'A Tale of Bali' by Vicki Baum. All of these books are about the ancient and reawakened borders of one kind of morality interacting with another. But I will go into troubling depth about this in the final part of the essay.


"There was much that Panteus was in a way too happy to understand fully; he was country bred and he had not the scepticism about appearances that comes more naturally to someone who had been brought up in a complicated place with pictures and literature. All the same, if ever the thing should happen which would wake him fully to life and show him that everything could not possibly be done either simply of happily, then he might be able to think."

Zofia Stryjenska

What Happens in the Book?

The story is set towards the latter end of the Hellenistic Age, just before the rise of Rome, (the first Punic War takes place in the storied afterword). It opens in the town of Marob; a fictional settlement on the shores of the Black Sea with a culture imagined, or interpolated by Maomi Mitcheson based on general record and archaeology of the area, circa 1930 (she roamed across the Mediterranean, Black Sea and Russia for five years during the writing of the book, but more on that later).

Marob is a recreated Scythian-'type' society with some strong Hellenic inflections. Its culture is considered 'barbaric' by Hellenes but discoveries over the course of the story suggest a deeper older commonality

It’s important to talk about culture because the book is partly about cultures. Where they come from, what they mean and how and why they are maintained. If we think of this essay as a tool to affect the mind, and of an epic tale to be a tool to affect the heart, then one aspect of 'Corn King' is about human social cultures being tools to interface with the soul; both managing and expressing the deep unseen engines of that buried thing.

Marob is what I will call a 'Sacrifice' Culture. They have a deep sequence of largely organic rituals, yearlong, which tend to be more bottom-up than top-down. Marob is built around the growing of Corn and its faith/ritual cycle is all built into the seasons, weather, harvest and growth. But it is also an expression of the unstated moods, tensions, desires, factions, hungers and fears of the community. Everyone 'of Marob' takes part in these festivals, dances, sacrifices and acts of worship. They are so built into the psyche and spirit of the place that its inhabitants would not really recognise these things as 'culture' or a thing they do separately. To those of Marob rituals are the substance of their lives not objects in it.

Marob has a Corn King. The Corn King is chosen, or made, when the old Corn King is sacrificed. They eat part of the old King and become the new King. The new King is given near-total license over the community to fulfil whatever desire they wish. (Though in truth this is constrained in a way through ritual, social expectation and other forms of unstated power*). The Corn King rules until they are no longer virile and powerful, then they are sacrificed and fed to the new Corn King. 

(*It’s also possible for a Corn King to 'fail' at being the Corn King, to get the rituals wrong, to fail to intuit, manage and reflect the psyche of the community, to make political mistakes or piss everyone off too much, and to be deposed, in which case it is decided they were no longer a right king, and a new one is made.)

While the Corn King usually rules till their sacrificial death, there is also a Spring Queen; the female part of the ritual and religious dyad, who performs a complimentary role and has similar powers, but who can be replaced more easily and less lethally from year to year and who does not need to be sacrificed.

Erif Der is a teenage witch and daughter of Harn Der, a powerful man in Marob. Tarrik is the current Corn King. Erif is recruited by her father to seduce Tarrik into becoming the Spring Queen, and then to “magic” and trick him into failing as Corn King, so he can be replaced by one of Harn Ders choosing, making him the effective ruler of the tribe and town.

Erif Der begins this process but during it, starts to actually fall in love with Tarrik. Tarrik is broadly aware of the conspiracy but goes along with it, also falling for Erif.

Both Erif and Tarik are highly perceptive and intelligent people, and Tarrik in particular is brave, subtle, cunning but also deeply chaotic, impulsive, charismatic, tricky and perhaps disordered. He is aware Erif is 'magiking' him but is broadly along for the ride, either because he is very far sighted or because he just likes to roll the dice like that, (probably both).

Both Erif and Tarrik are struggling psychologically, spiritually and morally with their place in the society and faith of Marob, and in Erifs’ case, also with her impossible dual role of daughter of a conspirator and of Spring Queen.

We actually come in half way through this dynastic conspiracy story, because another completely different story is going to smash into it in the night, in the form of a ship crashing into a sandbar outside Marobs harbour; Tarrik and his young men dash off to bravely rescue those onboard the ship, (later some will be ransomed, some distaff-enslaved, some probably-brutally enslaved and others just let go). The last person off the ship is a Greek Philosopher; Sphaeros.

Sphaeros brings two extremely dangerous things to Marob; the Philosophy of Stoicism and the story of a brave Spartan King trying to rescue his culture from decadence, inequality and failure, and to enact a kind of social revolution, returning Sparta to its old roots and purging wealth, ownership, decadence and foreign influence. (This is the historical Cleomenes III, who did in fact attempt just this.)

These are both extremely attractive to Tarrik, even more so after Sphaeros saves his life from a curse or spell made by Erif during the annual bull-running. Tarrik escapes from the problem of his beloved wife/possible assassin, by announcing that he will be haring off on an adventure to Sparta to meet with this revolutionary King and presumably do heroic deeds over there for a while.

From this point on the story is about two places and things; the spiritual challenge of Marob, and the fate of the revolution of Cleomenes. Erif and Tarrik follow and rescue each other, seperate and re-unite, change and grow, face physical, moral, magical and intellectual challenges and the whole thing ends in the extremely cool and decadent Alexandria of Ptolemy Philopater, another God-King, this time way more of the Epstein’s Island type.

And if you want to know how it ends you can look up the story of Cleomenes III.

The afterword cuts a generation ahead to the children of Tarrik and Erif Der as they meet with and free a Spartan Slave of the galleys who gives them a brief potted history of the rise of Rome and the fate of the ideas of the revolution in general.

Evgeny Kray


"They had come to a kind of peace and understanding, based on not saying or being aware of a great deal about one another, a pattern of exclusions which made for great courteousness, tenderness even, and which went easily with the life they must both lead at this time of year when there was so much to do. Yet it was essentially temporary, a breathing space in which they could just continue to live without facing one another, until the child was born."

Naomi Mitcheson

I had no idea why I was reading this book, then I looked up Naomi Mitcheson and realised; she’s the sister of JBS Haldane! I must have read about here while looking into JBS and then ordered the book and then forgotten I had.

JBS Haldane some of you may remember as the extremely clever Geneticist, subject of his own somewhat wild experiments, rare Chemical Weapons enthusiast, science populace, low key eugenicist and communist traitor.

Born of the same womb, one good way to describe Naomi Mitcheson is 'What if JBS Haldane had a soul'. She combines Haldanes ferocious intelligence and deep grasp of history with a subtle and perceptual emotional sense and generally not being a semi-autistic half-soul. The range of people who are both extremely brilliant and are also skilled at living life is small and she is in it.

Naomi Mitcheson by Wyndham Lewis

Over the years of writing 'Corn King' she had a marriage, a lover, two children, lost one, and wandered around the Mediterranean and black sea collecting evidence and information for her sorcerous generation of a past epoch.

The depth of the scholarship shows, but a merely clever writer could do that. The resurrection and recreation of a lost world would require a merely brilliant writer. The depth, perception, accuracy, wit, subtlety and the very deep awareness and understanding of a human life as it is lived, and of the thoughts and feelings of all the people involved in living it, requires more. There are probably many perceptive writers but generally they are boring while Mitcheson is not. Added to this the epic range, the historic spread with all its battles, dramas, plots, decadent courts, magic, strange rituals and so on. 

For the simple range of things she could do and ability to do them Mitcheson might be amongst the most skilled writers I have read. 

Flauberts 'Sallambo' is as good in terms of its prose, invention vividness, savagery and excitement, but its characters are (appropriately) inner savages as well, living in an alien mode, abstracted from their own emotions as we would see it. Mitchesons characters have all the strange otherness of those who have grown under a foreign system of belief, but manage to bridge the gap between us and them, they live and breathe and give us strange windows into their half-alien souls , and her characters manage to live the whole of life in equal vividness. Especially the women and especially Erif Der who, by the end is the main character and probably also a Mitcheson self-insert. Like Mitcheson Erif Der has a child but loses one and it’s difficult to believe the events of Mitchesons life didn't affect the character.

Mitcheson lived a lot of lives. In her castigated story/memoir of life on the borderlands of communism in the 1920’s and 1930’s ‘We Have Been Warned’ its said she had to create two self-insert characters to fit in all the varied stuff she did. Born a child of peers and nobles she lived through the entirety of the 20th Century and died just after its end. She was an advisor to a South African tribe? A proof reader for Lord of the Rings? Helped start the Eugenics society but left if over political differences? Was on Orwells watch-these-commies list? How to find Mitcheson in the intellectual life of 20th Century Britian? Throw a rock in the bushes apparently, you will probably hit her. Woman was a real-life Jennie Sparks. 

It’s the range and the depth of real-life human experience that shines from her work. Most Philosophers are mildly disappointing people and learn little from their lives as-lived, being creatures of thought. Mitcheson is the opposite

Z Stryjenska

“The baby lay in front of the fire on a blanket: he was awake and staring, first at his own fist and then at the bright, steady flaming of the logs. His eyes were blotted and brimming with flames. His fat legs bent and unbent in a steady kicking; they thumped softly on the blanket; when they stayed still one of Tarrik’s hounds would stretch across and lick the toes. …….  

Bye and by he began to give little panting, eager cries of desire for food and the warmth and tenderness that went with it. Erif’s breasts answered to the noise with a pleasant hardening, a faint ache waiting to be assuaged. Their tips turned upward and outward, and the centre of the nipple itself grew velvet soft and tender and prepared for the softness of the baby. She unpinned her dress and picked him up and snuggled down over him on to a heap of cushions. He moved his blind, silly mouth from side to side eagerly. For a moment she teased him, withholding herself; then, as she felt the milk in her springing towards him, she let him settle, thrusting her breast deep into the hollow of his mouth, that seized on her with a rhythmic throb of acceptance, deep sucking of lips and tongue and cheeks. Cheated, her other breast let its milk drip in a large bluish-white drops on to his legs, then softened and sagged and waited. For a time he was all mouth, then his free arm began to waver and clutch, sometimes her face, sometimes a finger, sometimes grabbing the breast with violent, untender little soft claws. She laughed and caught his eye, and the sucking lips began to curve upward in spite of themselves. He et go suddenly to laugh, and her breast, released, spirted milk over his face.”


Magic in 'Corn King' occupies a psycho-spiritual space very close to that in Baums 'A Tale of Bali'. It is real in the minds of the characters and since the story is told through them, it is real enough. Yet magic does nothing necessarily supernatural or physically impossible from the readers point of view. (Though there are certainly a number of edge-cases and some very unusual, though not impossible, events.)

Erif Der and some other women in Marob believe themselves to be Witches and to have certain magical powers. Everyone else in Marob also believes this and so certain of the powers work. Tarrik is a half-Greek by descent and so both he and Erif believe that her magic can't really affect his Greek side.

Zofia Stryjenska Magic of the Slavs

"On the last day she came in sight of the house under the elms, and brisked up the pony. She rode down through shallows, knocking up clouds of sweet golden pollen; fat shining leaves were unfolding out of the mud. But between her and Yellow Bull's farm was a brown mile of floods. Westwards the sun dropped towards red reflections. She rode a few yards through the water, splashing, and suspected it was nowhere deep, but she grew nervous and the pony, feeling it through her, refused to go on. She felt shaken and sick. At last she did what she had not meant to do. She crouched in the brim of the flood among the muddied grass stems and stirred the water into ripples, talking to it all the time; the ripples went off towards the island with the elms. She sat in the saddle and waited. Before it was quite dark two of Essro's servants rowed over in a flat-bottomed boat. Erif stepped in and the tied the pony behind.'Essro sent you at once,' she said contentedly, glad to think of the fire and dry bed waiting for her. But the men frowned at one another. 'We saw you - didn't we?' said the elder of the two."

With the people of Marob Erif can interrogate, cause shallow wounds to stop bleeding, form magic circles others cannot cross, but even outside Marob, in the general Greek world, people are still magic-conscious enough that her powers can have some affect. At Delphi she and her brother save an annoying philosopher from a baying Mob;

"'They'll be back in no time! Oh Erif, can't you leave things alone!'

She said: 'I can make a circle, Berris, I know I can. Look at the knife!' There was blood on the tip of it, from someone - but the rest of Tarrik's knife was glowing as it had not since it was in Greece.

'Then that's all right,' said Berris. 'Make a line while I get the ban away behind it.' If she said she could she would be able. 

She made it with the knife and the green shells and a few shaken blood drops. The first people who came back to finish off their atheist and whoever else there might be, found her ending it. She went along it again, to strengthen it. Then she invited them to come. But instead they all ran to fetch a priest and show him what was being done in Apollo's own ground."

The full depiction of the Oracle at Delphi is pleasingly touristy, with a mixture of deep Greek history (at that time), present at the site, but also the effects of being essentially a religious/tourist preferred location, with the logistics and accommodations of a tourist town in the ancient world, mixed with an active temple complex and a class of clever Priests set to facilitate the oracle, who we never see and who's prophecy at first seems like gimcrack fortune cookie stuff but which actually comes true in the books last part, perhaps guided by the deep psychologies of the character and maybe with a bit of actual magic.

Whether any of the magic represents what we would call actually supernatural events is open for argument. Blades and wooden charms 'glow' at times but these may be in the eyes of the beholder. There are a handful of rare and unusual events like premonitions of danger and snakes acting strangely, which suggest but don't confirm actual-magic.

Probably much more important is that there is no 'magic' as we would see it in the story. The world of the characters is impregnated with what we would call supernatural powers but to them are largely expressions of reality, be it the cycle of the seasons, the great engine of ritual, the moral exchange of sacrifice, the well-wishing or evil eye of practitioners or any of a flowing wash of things which easily cross the boundaries between what we would call real and unreal.

Towards the end Erif Der collaborates in a happenstance miracle; finding a woman who had been her enemy in an Egyptian temple, unseen she hears the woman asking the Goddess for the curse on her to be lifted. Erif retrieves a dagger this woman would recognise from their shared life in Marob previously, takes it to the temple and asks the priestesses to single out this woman, take her aside and tell her the Goddess has heard her and given this, then to perform a ritual in which the curse is 'cut' with the dagger.

This works pretty well, with the mysterious appearance of this forgotten dagger and the cutting ceremony having the required affect, the woman now believes the curse has been lifted by divine power and goes away happy. Erif has also forgiven this woman and taken back the harm she meant her. This is trickery, but when discussing the matter with the Priestesses of the Temple, not 'true' trickery but an arrangement of fate into which the women have fitted themselves. As much the work of the Goddess as if she had done it Herself, which, for them, she did.

The Magic, Rituals and powers everywhere spin like a flywheel between the hunger of human souls for order and meaning, regularity, sanity and an escape from chaos, on one side, and the relentless semi-random cycles of nature, and cruel or indifferent cracklings of fate and power on the other. Imagine a mill-wheel set in, not just one river running below it, but a second, utterly different and alien river, of some strange material, running upside down above it. The wheel dips into both rivers, each running strange directions with irregular surges and droughts, and somehow has to even out and make sense of the movement of these two near-random, crazy and mutually indifferent flows. That wheel is the culture of belief in 'Corn King', and though it is all different in the different cultures presented, these cultures are clearly shown as having either similar roots or deep connections.

The Magic and Ritual, and the way it forms the substance of organic order and meaning for the people of Marob and others to act in, though it be savage to us, works exactly as it does  in Baums 'Tale of Bali'. Erif Der would immediately understand the cults and rituals of Bali as being like her own and a Balinese practitioner or priest would easily grasp the rituals of Marob and the Gods of Egypt.


Z Stryjenska

"The Chief always gave several feasts at the beginning of winter. Everyone liked them. People told stories and sang and played games and laughed a great deal; they were probably very happy, but hardly any of them thought about that; they did not think about happiness was. Only, it was stupid to be sad and not laugh. If for some reason you could not begin laughing at once when everyone else did, if you were feeling winter or death or pain, it was a good thing to go to a feast and have plenty to eat and drink, and hear funny stories and remember and tell others, and see a lot of lights and girls and coloured things to make the blood run quicker. If you had not got enough food in your own house to last over winter, someone else in Marob would be sure to give it to you. If your wife died, court and marry another. If your child died, make yourself another. It was no use trying to interfere with the seasons, with the life of the year. Some lived and some died. As well expect your wheat to be all grain and no chaff!"



These people are savages, they sacrifice animals, enslave shipwreck victims, murder slaves on a whim. They are irregular, impassioned and unpredictable. There are laws in Marob but not written ones and while everything the High Status Characters do makes sense according to unwritten ritual law and to the deeps of their own psyches that lie beyond it, they would still be some chaotic and frightening people to meet in real life.

In modern terms all of these characters are evil, especially Tarrik and Erif Der, but not within the world of the tale. 

Death, terror, sacrifice and secret power are at the heart of their world. Deeds done against equals, or near-equals, can matter. Erif Der unexpectedly cuts her father’s throat during a Spring Ceremony, (somewhat justified as he killed her child previously). One of the first major acts we see Tarrik perform is the murder of a shady Greek artist where he gets the man drunk and then persuades, tricks and pressures him into demonstrating Greek diving in a swamp at night. The Greek knows he is doomed but he is dealing with the Corn King of Marob, who has power and license over the flesh of everyone in town and, sadly, and hoping for a miracle, leaps into the swap and is lost.

When Tarrik has what we would call a mental breakdown or loss of faith and starts running wild he kills slaves without comment but only randomly assaults some townspeople. While this is far from ideal, it is accepted as part of his right and pattern of rulership. In 'Corn King' people quite like, or if not like, they quite expect to be somewhat terrified by their rulers now and again, and expect them to have wild tastes and impulsive desires. Tarriks heroic leadership during the midnight shipwreck is as much as part and parcel of his role as his technical license over every unmarried women in town. His culture expects him to regularly do heroic and charismatic things and, for the most part, he wants to and can do such things, from intuitively grasping the right words and actions during a ritual to riding off to defend the town from raiders. At the end of it all they will kill him and his son will eat him.

Erif Der is less directly murderous but she does cut the throat of a slave girl she mistakenly thinks is plotting against Tarrik, and this leads to the death of another somewhat innocent man who witnesses the scene and fears her vengeance. When she returns to the place of the Spring Queen her women are shocked but not astounded,

"When she got to the Chief's house the women had to carry her in; they took off her clothes and bathed her, hushed and horrified. She longed for complete darkness and quiet; she gasped and lay very still, contracted and faintly shivering. pains of one sort and another went flitting about her, but these her women could not see. They only saw that the Spring Queen too had, like the Corn King, perhaps had to give herself a sacrifice."

Yet, in this system/psyche that requires blood, there is something like a murky half-justice, or at least, balance. The mind and memory of the community seems to soak in all these reciprocal acts of terror and if too many are performed, or performed against the wrong people, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, then there must be some form of balancing. This will come about, not through any particular single act but almost from the deep emergent belief of the community that it will happen. As well as that the mind and soul of the guilty or excessive party will collaborate in this dark balancing.


"Reality and beauty had been taken out of past and present, and the substitute was this dull, hopeless pain; he saw nothing else in the future. Berris Der looked at the world and found it evil, and promised himself to return its evil with his own. He looked at his statue and got some momentary satisfaction; that was a slap on the mouth for the kind and hopeful people who thought everything must come right in the end if only one waited patiently! He had made a portrait of what there really was at the end. But did anyone seriously hope? Yes, probably always the quite young. And the saved. He would have to make something worse before he could get at them. he would, some day. Once, a very short time ago, Berris Der had been innocent - not hurting, not wanting to hurt. Now he knew the innocence had dropped off him. He did want to hurt."



A key strand and eventually the dominant one of 'Corn King' is Sparta, and the attempted social revolution of Cleomenes III. Cleomenes finds Sparta riddled with sensuality, corruption, wealth and weakness and wants to transform Spartan society to something more like that of its noble past.

What this means, for fictional Cleomenes, real historical Cleomenes, for Mitcheson and for us are all probably somewhat different things. The real historical revolution would perhaps have been a combination, difficult for us to parse, of hyper-conservatism; returning to the ancient rules and ancient practices of eating the black broth together and suffering the disciplines together), and some kind of Spartan renaissance/jubilee in which the high are pulled down, land redistributed and new citizens made.

Mitcheson was a commie sympathiser, at least up until the mid 1930's, and she wrote this book while she was roving around the Med, the Baltic the Black Sea and Russia during that period. She had a lot of deep and complex feelings about Revolution and pours them all into the revolution of Cleomenes which is noble, self-absorbed, brave, ruthless, immoral, fundamentally good, is about returning Sparta to the past, and is about making slaves citizens, and about stripping the wealthy of their gold, and about making the King supreme over all, and bringing equality between the people, and ends up kind of being the Last Supper somehow? There is a lot going on. Everything that could be good or bad about a Revolution is there somewhere in the Revolution of Cleomenes and is felt to be so.

I mean there was a lot going on in Europe in the late 1920's and 1930's, a lot going on with Mitcheson and there is a lot going in in this book. It’s clearly not just a reflection of the Communist revolution in Russia but it definitely has something of the holy glow of Final Equity you get from early Communism-enjoyers.

AND (I was going to put this in a separate section but as I come to think about it I think this is part of the same thing), Cleomenes kind of ends up as a proto-Jesus figure?

There are rumblings of tectonic Christianity under the surface of 'Corn King'. All through the book different people face deep spiritual conflicts between the bones and tendons of their societies and some distant other thing they can't quite put a face or name to, but something or way of being that would change their spiritual and moral circumstances. And bits and pieces of the Christian Story, both good and bad, keep erupting like pimples through the face of its events. 

Tarrik is 'killed' (captured by raiders), then escapes and returns in secret, taking a place in the upcoming Harvest Play, (the same on in which Erif Der sacrificed her father for real and so 'poisoned' the society). At the climax his 'character' returns to life and he takes off his mask to reveal the actual Corn King has actually returned to live for real. A Resurrection he performs partly due to his impish nature, partly to seal his safety and the sense in Marob of him being the 'True' Corn King, and in part perhaps as an intuitive leap to heal the society of the poison, grief and shame it feels over Erif Ders true-sacrifice.

Eventually Cleomenes and his few remaining loyalists turn up in Egypt after the revolution fails and, after screwing up a coup there, they commit ritual suicide. Then the body of Cleomenes is degraded and put on ritual display, and then a magic snake turns up to hover over his body like a crown or spirit and the people of Alexandria start paying homage, or worshipping at the feet of the sacrificed man they refused to help earlier. 

Later Berris Der, Erifs Brother, makes a series of paintings for his Love of the last moments of Cleomenes, which turn out a LOT like the 'Last Supper', (I guess in the reality of 'Corn King' this arrangement of figures left an echo in Greek and Roman painting which Leonardo then copied). Then these paintings are taken to Sparta and kept secretly as symbols of the revolution.

Erif Der helps a young woman and her child escape the vengeance of Tarrik when he is having a crazy, they disappear into the swamp following a secret road in echoes of Herod and of Moses.

There is probably a lot more I forgot. Echoes and presentiments of the New Testament are scattered through the book and only a few of them are probably deliberate. We can read this in-fiction as some new form of morality or new story trying to take shape and birth itself through the structures of the world at that time. As a book, this may simply be Mitcheson so deep in the mythos that she unconsciously echoes and brings forth pretty much everything she has learned and been taught from her own (Edwardian) youth, which as it turns out the commie atheist actually had a pretty strong Christian cultural base.

The meanings of this can be turned like hanging mirrors so I will leave that to you but this 'pre-birth' of Christian morality does link 'Corn King' at one end of time, to Wests 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon', at the other end of the chronology. But more on that below.


"Therykion bent nearer: 'I am not sure if I can explain it. I think - there is a kind of beauty which is utterly lost in living and being rational and making plans and having material hopes: even for ones country, even for the New Times, even for Sparta. I think that is what is at the back of what Zeno and Iambulos say when they write down their dreams of what a state should be. You will not get this beauty for yourself by dying. I know you are right to say that even if we die looking on those hills, they will fade out for ever at the moment of death. But I think that your people and your revolution will get the beauty. I think your dying will put a bloom on them, Kleomenes.'

The King stayed very still. 'You think my blood can buy something, Therykion, that my life and my work and my reaon will not be able to buy?'

'Yes,' said Therykion.”


Wheel vs Word, round two baby!

What kept reoccurring to me as I read it was that, along with two other very rich and capacious books written by women around the 1930's and 1940's, it was about the moral and spiritual challenge of the Araya, a challenge partially resolved by the end of World War Two, but with shards and shadows of its moral and intellectual origins essentially put on ice for 70 years since then and only now re-emerging.

Why is this book like the other two? 'Black Lamb' by West, and 'Tale' by Baum?

The obvious first; they are all capacious books dealing with history, written by women in the inter-war years. The links between 'Corn King' and 'Black Lamb' seem more geographical to begin with. 'Corn King' is set in a triangle between the shores of the Black Sea, Greece and Egypt. People have to sail past Byzantium a few times, though it doesn't play a role in the story. 'Black Lamb' is set in the Balkans, just north of Byzantium, only a little way out of the range of 'Corn King' and its depiction of somewhat tribal mountain people carries echoes of Marob. I think in 'Black Lamb' West even runs into an actual mountain Macedonian who speaks in an archaic patten and the Macedonians intervention in the Spartan war is essential in 'Corn King'. That character could easily have been a descendant of those Macedonians depicted in 'Corn King'. They are so archaic they felt like an actual character from that book.

Shield of Philip of Macedon

The obvious links to Baums 'Bali' are those of Ritual, faith and selfhood. Baum depicts Bali from within as a society, (here growing rice, not corn), deeply interwoven and expressed through ritual, which interrelates both to the management of land and agriculture, and to more cosmic concerns. Bali is also a Sacrifice Culture, mainly of farm animals and food offerings, though sometimes of eyes, and wives. 

The deeper relationship is that these books are all about the boundaries of the Indic or Aryan, or Indo-European world, and its conflicts with the Abrahamic, or Monotheistic or Christian or 'Civilised' world.

This takes us back to the time of writing, and to the sleeping giant of Indo-European studies.

In the early 20th Century it became pretty widely obvious that a lot of European, Persian, and Indic cultures had some kind of common shared root. This was demonstrated through artefacts, symbols, language and similarities of mythos. The Nazis really ran with this one and made the 'Arya' and their favourite Sun Wheel symbol the axis of their racial cult, an original and savage 'master race' of which the derivations were lesser.

'Corn King', 'Bali' and 'Black Lamb' were all written during this period of ethnography. 'Corn King' itself is about a range of Mediterranean and Back Sea cultures with interrelated God-concepts and rituals, and the sacrifice cult of Marob, with its male/female sex/fertility/death rituals seeming pretty Indo-European. ‘Bali’ ‘is part of the furthest eastward extent of this Indo/Aryan culture; the chariot riders come down into India, crash its artistic culture for 500 years, get absorbed as Brahmins, change the culture and add their own principals and mythos, then eventually this Indic culture expands across the ocean, hitting the islands of South East Asia, forming part of the substrate there, before shrinking or being pushed back by Abrahamic cultures like Islam, then later Western Christianity. Bali itself being something of a refugium for those folkways and beliefs. The wife burning in Bali is a reflection of the Suttee of India, which is probably an import from the Indo-Europeans, considering wife/slave burning shows up in the mysterious proto-Vikings encountered by Ibn Fadlan in his ‘Lands of Darkness’. Ultimately the cults of Bali are 'Civilised' via gunfire and mass suicide by the Christian Dutch, the distant genetic cousins of those who created the ideas which shaped Bali.

'Black Lamb' is a more contempered book for its period, covering the years directly before World War Two and written during that war. In 'Black Lamb' the sides have switched places. That book valorises the Serbs and Balkan Christianity generally and the 'Enemy' if there is one in that book, is either the Turks or the Fascist future. The Fascists of course, are play-acting as reborn Aryan/Indo-Europeans, the main characters of both 'Bali' and 'Corn King'. The principal of sacrifice and the dark and bloody nature of that Primeval world-view, gives the title to Rebecca Wests book; the Grey Falcon symbolising the doom of the Serbs at Kosovo, (and for all she knows, the West itself during the writing of the book), and the Black Lamb literally being a sacrificed animal, for in the depths of the Balkans she finds a rank bloodstained altar rock where the locals continue to carry out the old sacrifices, about 1,200 years after the same sacrifices described in 'Corn King'.

So all of these are about the conflict and relationship between two general world-views, showing its heart or axis of change in 'Corn King', its furthest geographic extent in 'Bali' and its ancient survival and possible nightmare-zombie rebirth in 'Black Lamb', where the Sun Wheels the characters of 'Corn King' and 'Bali' would both recognise, have returned in a dark(er) form. 

In each case these are opposed by what we would broadly call something like the Christian/Monotheist/Civilised/Universalist world-view, in 'Corn King' this is represented initially by Sphaeros and then by a range of characters and situations reaching for spiritual growth across the book, in 'Bali' the brutal and murderous but technically correct, (about the wife-burning at least), Dutch are its carriers and in 'Black Lamb' we have West, her poor Greek Jewish friend, (who could also easily have been a character in 'Corn King') married to his evil Fascist German wife, and ancient Serb Christian nobility, (as West would see it), vs rising fascism.

Well, to spoil the climax of that story; the Nazis lost, and in the lee of that defeat, any study of the 'Indo-European' question was dumped right in the deep-freeze. No-one in Germany wanted to talk about ancient racial or cultural origins and European origins were slid to the back of the file, covered over with decades of near-noble academic interpolation of 'pots are not people' and ideas of cultural exchange and transformation rather than a world of guys bonking each other on the head. 

No-one ever said the Indo-European thing was false, it was just de-emphasised, confined to language and mythos studies, with fragments of archaeology and investigation pricking at the matter here and there but never really being forcefully combined. No-one really wants to be the one to let the Sun-Wheels out.

But here they come regardless. unfortunately we can read genes. And we can now read the genes of the long-dead, drawn from bones and teeth, with incredible depth and accuracy, and with modern computing and programming, we can organise and compare these huge genomes in vast numbers and across vast ranges, building libraries and maps of ancient movements. We can scrape the bones from the floors of tombs and rebuild family trees two thousand years old and more. And the long and the short of it is that, perhaps unfortunately, pots are people.

The phrase 'pots are not people' was used by archologists to remind historians that, just because an old pot style was dropped and an entirely new one spread across the same area in the past, that doesn't mean necessarily that everyone got bonked on the head and “replaced”. They could have just had a fashion for new pots. Happens all the time.

Unfortunately in late stone age and Bronze/Iron age Europe, especially regarding the spread of the Indo-Europeans/Yamnaya/Aryans, the pots are actually people and in fact everyone got bonked on the head, except sometimes the fertile women, and 'replaced'. In short, the picture of ancient Europe and the origins of its people is enough to give Hitler a massive boner.

The full picture is complex, and has a lot more loops and interrelationships, and is still often obscure, but in terms of the deep passions of man, it doesn't really matter what the exact truth is, it matters what you can say, and you can now say that the Northern European people had (VERY broadly), a general common ancestor tribe or race, and that they were really into Sun Wheels and 'replacing' populations.

So this old European nightmare of blood and soil is stirring, distantly, beneath the earth again. You can't really hear it yet as it exists divided up across academic reports and little-read books, with everything re-named; 'Yamnaya' and 'Indo-European' rather than 'Aryan', 'Population replacement event' rather than 'they killed everything they didn't rape'. But probably this will very gradually seep into culture, despite the best efforts of a lot of people to pretend it isn't happening.

This is why I find some hope in what I call this 'Indic Trilogy'. I look around the modern scene to find minds or ideas that can be brought to bear on this awakening and bloody ghost, and find generally nothing. The liberals hide from it and ban it if they can, the Geneticists uncover it while re-naming and academicizing everything in the hopes they can abstract it into non-existence, the Conservatives are either too stupid to think about it or looking forward to it, or Catholics.

But this great moral conflict has already been fought once and big minds have dealt with it in depth, in the glory and beauty and attractions of a culture of sacrifice and the rule of power and what in the mind or spirit might oppose it and try to escape and transform it. So I find some cold hope in this trilogy of books and I would recommend you read them.

Extra Stuff

There is a whole bunch of stuff and themes I was just too tired to dig into with ‘Corn King’.

Art – The Book starts and ends with art and artists. Berris Der, the brother of Erif Der, and his complex artistic journey almost makes him a third protagonist. If you want to dive into the mind and perceptions of a brilliant part-Greek, Part Scythian artist dealing with the cultures of the ancient world and his own reflections and comprehension of them in art, here you go. 

Sex – Free Love baby! There is a fair amount of sex in this book and it is generally very adult in theme, in both of the ways in which that word can be used. i.e. its got some horny explicit stuff and some very real and complex psychological and emotional depth. Sex is deeply integrated into this most-human of books 

Aristocracy – Mitcheson was the child of the High Born on both sides and, possibly without her realising it, this awareness of what it means to be a child of the nobility, what it means to be clearly and self-evidently part of the aristocracy, the simple relentless confidence, the ability to walk into a Kings or a God-Kings court and simply expect to be listened to, the ability to travel freely without the sheen of fear that covers the poor, once-poor or less confident. Its characters are a ‘natural aristocracy’ and so was Mitcheson, though she might not have liked that idea.

Thursday 25 April 2024


 I stumbled, addled, into my local semi-rural game store in search of off-brand Contrast paint to finish up Ionus Cryptborn, and while wandering around, I saw the strangest thing;

A single box, in the spot where the newly-arrived, single-type or just oddly specific boxes are set, guarding the door like a cyclops.

Unless you know about game stores, even quite well-supplied ones, you won't have a clear idea of just how singular and unlike anything else there this was.

Wargames are usually either Historical, part of some well known Paracosm like Star Wars, Marvel or 40k, generic genre entries, (i.e. Chthulu-like or Western-like), or one of a few Paracosm not well known outside wargames but reasonably so within; Malifaux, Warmachine/Hordes, etc.

I am pretty well up on my wargames and I had absolutely no idea what this was. What’s a 'Quar'? Why are they at war? Why are they using 'Rhyfles'? This looks like decade-long Fantasy Heartbreaker paracosm created by some guy in a basement where they eventually find it as they clear out his house after death and he becomes a Local Legend and gets a small Wikipedia page.

And that nearly is what this is, except Joshua Qualtieri isn't dead and has been running a small Quar-based business in America for quite some time, selling Quar he cast with the spinny bits of a washing machine he took apart a while ago, and working hard to make Quar, his childhood Anteater Ralph Bashki/Jim Henson WW1.5 dieselpunk peudo-european paracosm pals, a thing, using every medium he can get his hands on;

There was, and may still be, a Quar-based VR Real Time Strategy game…

I have no idea if this went anywhere.

And now Atlantic Wargames have produced a plastic injection moulded Quar Wars boxed set strategy game. From what I can tell, Atlantic focused largely on Historical wargames. More recently they have begun producing some pretty-good generic fantasy sets like mythic skeletons and goblin hordes, and a range of dark-future Sci-Fi sets for their skirmish game 'Death Fields'. A standard route for a wargames company in the U.K. is to semi-parasitize off Games Workshop by producing stuff that is nominally different but in-effect can be used for GW games. Its a soft route to a kind of medium success with some strong limitations.

But now cometh.. the Quar! A boxed set with an Indie vibe that might remind some of you of early OSR books.

The box has cartoon standee scenery printed into its base, so you can cut it out and play with it.

And hidden revolutionary and royalist slogans in the folds.

And the initiative cards are this custom print of perhaps-grieving tender leaves.

What are Quar?

Cute, slightly muppet-looking Anteater-people living on the continent of Alwyd, (which *might* be on the other side of the globe from the place where Ralph Bashkis 'Wizards' is set?).

They have a roughly 1910'/1920's level of technology, a bunch of nations and have been locked in various forms of war for a long time.

So like, Jim Henson Anteaters plus post-Westphalia Europe?

The Quar are very cute and they fight in very sad wars. They look like muppets or 70s animation but use guns with specifically worked out calibres and individual design ethos' for each different nation and group.

They have specifically sculpted Baguette bags, that is tiny 28mm knapsacks with tiny French style baguettes sticking out of them that you can glue onto your tiny Quar so they don't need to enter a rhyfle skirmish without their lunch, and they exist in an exhaustively worked-out paracosm with highly-complex and interrelated Great-Power style international and intranational relations.

Quar look like they were drawn by a child, (because they were; Joshua Qualteri, age = small), and a key plot point might be, for instance, a royalist kingdom bankrupted by war taking out huge loans from a semi-independent city state to keep its economy afloat but thereby being drawn into colonial adventures that provoke a classic "war on two fronts".

Also they write sad letters to their families about the nature of industrial warfare. The letters are in the rulebooks;

Is this an extremely crunchy war simulation or more of a Vibes game?


The two factions in the starter box have distinct Squad formations and loadouts based on their available and preferred technology. The Royalist and traditionalist Coftryans have squads broken down into larger groups, soldiers armed with accurate long range repeating rhyfles with a single LMG per squad. (These are also the guys with the Baguette bags). The more 'modern' radical Crusader faction are broken down into three man teams, each with two short range assault rhyfles backed up with a single larger Heavy Rhyfle.

Very clearly, if you are the kind of person who wants to min/max a squad or army, then you are fucking basic and are not welcome here. You will arrange your Coftryan forces in a manner typical for their standard organisation because that is what Coftryans would do. Its all there, in the very extensive lore. Their baguette bags are hand-sewn because they are a deeply traditionalist faction who believe in the Old Quar ways. I mean if you are fucking with the squad formation why are you playing Coftryans in the first place? Or even playing 'This Quars War'?

So, really, this is actually an historical wargame, just for a history of another world that not that many people actually know.

Who is this for?

I have no idea who 'This Quars War' is for. Well, me obviously. But how many of 'me' are there? I only know of one.

The unique tonality of this light, gentle sad and whimsical species from a magic world (with no magic or fantastic elements at all), and this very very deep pseudohistorical lore and quite crunchy somewhat odd ruleset, which has a lot of depth, simulation and quirks, but is very obviously set up to be a granular simulation roleplay competition between friends rather than the the kind of crunchy explicit wargame to be played between near strangers with no particular context to the battle where the crunch goes to removing any possible source of disagreement or misinterpretation.

I mean, there are people who might want to roleplay cute anteater people, and people who might want to roleplay the cute anteater people in a very too-real horrors of industrial warfare situation. These are your Hippies.

And there are people who might want a very crunchy but also pretty open wargame you can play at 28mm, 15mm or 6mm with a general simulation of battlefield tactics and perhaps might want to re-fight the historic 'Battle for Gate 13' during the Crusader/Coftryr conflict of 1781, (if that were a real thing that actually happened in real life). These are your Grogs.

And there are people who might really like diving into an extremely deep and specific Paracosm set in an alternate world with an alternate featherless biped doing complex international relations, cultural change, revolutionary war and industry, just for the pleasure of the details. These are your Patricks.

This is a very nutty, particular and original thing and if you didn't already know about it and are finding out here you probably already have a good idea if this is the kind of thing you are into.

A bunch of the PDF's are free on the website here and the 28mm hard plastic boxed set is available online in a bunch of places.

(I did not get paid for this and I do not take money for recommending this stuff. I am forwarding it in this case because I sense a distant kindred spirit and I feel like someone need to be the person to tell you about this stuff and today that person is me. Also me writing this makes that boxed set a business expense.)

Here is a longish interview with Joshua Qualteri;

Quar will either be the hot new thing or the utterly strange and forgotten old thing that you can dig out and show to the grandkids and explain how you knew about it long ago in the before times.

Monday 15 April 2024

A Review of 'A Tale of Bali' by Vicky Baum

really liked this book but the five stars I give it are based on my experience, and that is influenced strongly by my recent reading of 'The Theatre State' by Geertz', which I found interesting but deeply frustrating. 

 What Geertz failed to Analyse, Baum describes. 

 I imagine that one of the main aims for this book was building enough of a complex emotional, moral, spiritual and social world that when reaching the final part of the book, the great massacre, in which the radja of Badoeng leads a huge crowd of his people directly onto massed Dutch guns in a great ritual suicide, the reader could both see and intuit both why so many people would be willing to commit frentic mass suicide for a dream, and why they might not do so. 

To do that she must build an image of the social and spiritual life of Bali in a few hundred pages, which I think she does pretty well.

Where do I even begin? Bali is full of flowers, trees, wildlife, people, farm animals, its just full. The place is packed. There is nowhere to go where you are not dealing with some complex arrangement of living things. True in many places perhaps but it seems in Bali you feel it more. Someone could probably write an essay on just the use of flowers in, this book alone. 

The farmer, Pak has a bunch of Hibiscus flowers. Its pretty common for men in a certain mood to place an Hibiscus flower behind one ear. Pak is having an affair with the daughter of a local landowner and so is mainlining those flowers, meaning the hibiscus bush in his own compound is laid bare. This is something everyone can see and tells them something particular about Pak, even if they don’t know about the affair. 

This combination of beauty, cultural ritual & signalling, flora & fauna, plus a dude being horny, is perhaps emblematic of the small rituals, behaviours and interactions with life that form almost a substrate, or a half-tongue of this book and the culture it is trying to talk about. Bali, at least in comparison to the temperate north west Europe where I live, feels like a kind of jewel box of life, or a bulging treasure chest of ecosocality.  There are few walls, no, there are many walls, but few completely enclosed spaces. People seem to do much of their living in these part-open shelters within walled compounds but within the compound, though everyone and everything has their and its own place, everything wanders. 

Privacy and secrecy in Bali seem to be almost more social modes than actual hard states, for everything that is not meant to be seen, someone sees it, so the matter is really about whether people will communicate about it, pass on the information. There are trees, forests, shrines, everywhere, as there are people everywhere. So anything can be hidden a little and nothing can be well hidden. 


"Beyond the western courtyards, where most of the slaves lived and kept their poultry and pigs, rose a wall, and beyond this wall the stir and noise of the puri suddenly ceased. It bounded a ruinous part of it where no one lived and no one ever went. Creepers and shrubs had overgrown the tumble-down buildings and dragged them to the ground in their embrace. The chief building of this forgotten courtyard was surrounded by a ditch, but the bridge had given way and sunk into the water. The demons who guarded the entrance were nothing now but moss-covered blocks of stone. Wild bees made their homes in the trees and huge butterflies hovered undisturbed above the flowers. Mosquitoes hung in dense clouds over the stagnant water and the smell of decay mingled with the penetrating scent of salicanta flowers.” 


Raka - the Chad; 

"But after a while his attention wandered and he looked again at Raka, whom he found particularly pleasing. A black head-dress whose edges had a pattern in gold was wound about his glossy hair; he wore a kain of dark wine-red in which a silver thread gleamed here and there, and a lion-cloth of brown silk encircled his remarkably slender hips and reached to his chest. He was not adorned with hibiscus flowers as the lord and most of the other men were; instead he had a single orchid in the middle of his forehead, which by its shape and the way it crept out beneath his head-dress suggested an animal rather than a flower. This scorpion-like orchid was indefinably in keeping with Raka's fine, arched nostrils and oblique eyes and long eye-lashes. The sensuous outline of his lips made him seem to be always smiling in a half-mocking mysterious way." 


Raka in ‘Tale’ is the emblematic example of beloved Balinese manhood. I would say he is the ‘Chad’ of the community, the star football player, the vector of everyone’s hopes and desires. The very beautiful, very charming, expert dancer beloved by all and welcome anywhere. In some ways Raka is what it’s like to be “truly Balinese”, in the same way that being Taylor Swift is what it’s like to be “truly American”. He gives us a view, not from the very top of its hierarchies, but from the very centre of its culture. He is the man who the culture has made and who it is made for. A magnificent man happy to play a magnificent role, a hand within a glove, (until things go wrong in the latter parts of the book).

Alit - the mid Radja 

(too many books and opium) 

"There was only one place on this morning of noise and excitement where silence reigned, and that was the house of the old lord of Pametjutan. The old man had passed the night in great pain and now lay exhausted on his couch, propped up with many kapok cushions at his back. The two balains of Badoeng and Taman Sari has been in attendance. They had massaged him and given him narcotics and now the prince felt easier. He pulled at his opium pipe and his head grew clearer and threw off the fevered haze of the night. Alit, the young lord, his nephew, whom he had adopted, squatted beside him and his usually limp face had a remarkable expression of concentration, of exertion, of perhaps preoccupation. He, too, was smoking opium to clear his head for the hard thinking this critical hour required. Unconsciously he let his fingers run up and down the vertebrae of Oka's spine. The boy crouched at his feet and his warm smooth skin had a warming effect on his master. 

"We are agreed then, father,' Alit said, 'we cannot submit to the shameless demands of the Dutch. They are only seeking an excuse to humble us. If we give way to them this time, they will find some new reason for oppressing us. They are proud , although they have no caste, and they have no manners. They do not seem to understand with whom they are dealing. Because a few lords have turned renegades and traitors they think they can cow us all. They will see that they are deceived about Badoeng." 

The old lord looked at the younger one before he spoke. 

"I am old and tired and sickness has made the fighting blood in me slothful and often clouds my thoughts. But you are young and you must oppose your heart and your forehead to the white men. I have watched you grow up and I was not sure that you would hold to the way of our fathers. Sometimes you seemed to me to think more as a Hrahman than as a Ksatira. I am glad that you would have not forgotten your kris for your books." 

 "I have discoursed' Alit replied, ' in long prayers with our forefathers. My friend, the pendata of Taman Sari, has spent many days and nights with me and helped me to find the way. The old books, my father, are as string as the kris, and even stronger when they are understood rightly. I have learnt one thing from them - that I am nothing. I, Alit, the lord of Badoeng. I am only a link in the chain, one single bamboo pole in the whole bridge. I must hand on what I have received from my mighty forefathers. I am not free and it is not permitted to me to act by my own choice. I cannot give away or throw away or sell my inheritance and I must stand firm there where my birth has set me. That is what I have read in the books." 


Alit, the friend, lets say, very close friend of Raka, and by his descent and culture, literal lord of all, or most, he surveys. A somewhat physically unprepossessing man, like most Balinese aristocracy of the time, doing waaaaaaaay too much opium, and facing the incursions and slowly tightening claims of the Dutch, and of the outside world generally. 

 Alit does occupy the top of the hierarchy, and while not a perfect expression of his cultures higher qualities like Raka, he knows a lot more about it. (All that time spent with the Palm Leaf texts). He knows the dream of his culture, the background invisible part of any society that its hard to intuit without living in it for a good long time, and maybe without being born in it. 

He is not just an aristocrat, in the same way that, in Tuchmans ‘A Distant Mirror’ the Sire de Coucy was not just a soldier, or even just a knight, and like Alit, at the end of his book, de Coucy commits something that looks a lot like ritual suicide by-foe, for equally deep and obscure reasons of honour and selfhood. 

 A lot of this relates to the Indic tradition still present in Bali. Alits sense of himself of simply fulfilling a role in an inevitable process which will result in him entering heaven would make sense to Arjuna being advised by Krishna in his chariot, just as the general three-part structure of Balinese society would make sense to the steppe invaders of India, who, by a very long chain of circumstance, also gave Europe the same three-part society, and perhaps germinated de Coucy’s final doom-and-honour death charge, a long way away and many years separate from Alit. 

Pak – the everyman 

Pak is probably the most interesting, frustrating character in the book. An image of the Balinese everyman. He is kind of slightly stupid but at least knows that he is. He is hard working, loves his fields, is trying to save up enough to have his mothers bones cremated, has lost sexual interest in his (probably more intelligent) wife Pluglug, has vague dreams of somehow becoming more, and is sexually obsessed with the daughter of one of his landowners. 

A not-that-good, but not very bad man who loves his family, generally, plays his part in the gamelan orchestra (always being sent here and there), the rice hydraulic cult, the village meetings, as a somewhat competent household leader, a son, a father, a slightly crap husband, the guy dreaming and doing most of the heavy plough work, (always kind to his cow, it’s a tragedy when she gets sick and dies). 

A man, in Balinese terms, who could go from the borders of poverty to the borders of low wealth in the course of a year, and does. If there is one thing Pak can do relatively well, its work, (and play his role in a crazed plethora of community organisations and cults), and he does a lot of work; 

Paks new house; 

"'I am employed in building the house for a second wife and her house has to be a finer one than my main house,' he said in one breath, for he had thought out this piece of eloquence beforehand. He could not possibly have hit on a better way of informing Wajan of his designs on Sarna and respecting the proprieties at the same time. 

'I heard something about it.' The old man remarked. "I wish you joy and peace in your house.' 

'I have been looking round for trees for the timbers of my new house. Nobody has such fine ones as you and I wanted to ask whether you would sell me six durian trees and four palm trees from your northern plantation. 

'Why not?' Wajan said. He would reckon the price and perhaps he would let him have them, although he had really intended them for fruit. Pak in his reply again laid stress on his desire to build a fine house, and repeated that Wajan's trees would suit him better than any in the village. But when Wajan asked for six hundred kepengs a tree, Paks heart sank and he gasped for air. he could not pay this price, and yet he did not wish to appear a poor man in the eyes of his future father-in-law. 

He offered to pay half down and to work for the rest in Wajans sawahs. 

When at last the deal was concluded, Wajan sent his youngest son up a palm tree and offered Pak the milk of a young coco-nut as an honoured guest and Pak walked home on air, swollen with pride and satisfaction. 

Next day he went with his axe, accompanied by several of his friends, to fell the first four palms. he did as his father had taught him. He embraced the trunk of each palm. 'Palm tree, my mother,' he said, 'I must fell you not because I wish to kill you, but because I need posts for my house. Forgive me, dear palm, and allow me to cleave your trunk with my axe." 

And when they felled the trees and their crowns sank to earth with a loud rustling, Pak felt the strength of ten men in him, for he caught sight of Sarna hiding in the plantation watching him work; and nothing makes a man so happy as when the right woman admires him as he works. 

While the trees were left to dry, he went out to cut bamboo stems for the roof, and he was fortunate in having a bamboo thicket on the edge of his sawahs; so he did not have to buy them. The bamboos grew cool and tall, shading the stream that ran beneath them, and Pak had good weather for cutting them and shortening them to the right length. He also mowed alang-alang grass for the thatch; it grew tall in his uncles pasture, almost up to his chest. It hissed and whispered as it fell to his sickle and lay in swathes and was dry in two days and ready to be tied in bundles. 

He spoke to Krkek, who sent him men to help him build the roof, and he paid them with rice from his well-filled barns. ...... For now he had the walls to finish and the door to fix, besides working in Wajans sawahs to pay for the trees. 

He also spent a lot of time cock-fighting, for he felt happy and successful and could bet with a good courage. His white cock did, in fact, win three time, and in this way Pak procured seven hundred of the three thousand kepangs he owed Wajan. 

And he went to the beach collecting coral, which contained a lot of chalk, and carried it in baskets to the lime-kiln in Sanoer and gave the lime-burner six ripe coco-nuts for burning him beautiful white lime to wash the walls of his house with. 

Also he took his copra to the Chinese, Njo Tok Suey, and got two thousand two hundred kepangs for it. It was a poor price, but it helped towards the expenses that still lay before him." 


The Srawah

Pak has a great  fighting bird of near magical potency and through this we see the dreams of his small soul burn. The whole chapter about Paks fighting cock and how much it means to him is magnificent. People who do not get the cock chapter cannot be my homie; 


"He scarcely knew himself afterwards how it happened. he had arrogantly refused various matches, which for one reason or another did not appeal to him, and then when the keeper of the lord's cocks held the red one out to him he did not dare say no. 

He looked at the Srawah and he saw that he wanted to fight the red one and conquer him. 

Terror and courage laid hold on him at once. And he accepted combat. 

It was the same red cock that had killed the punggawa's white one, before whom Pak had beaten a retreat that day. he had been jeered at and mocked. His cock was a good one - as good as any lords cock. He took on the match and won. 

Pak never forgot his excitement as the clamour broke out behind him and the men jumped to their feet and the bets got bigger and it dawned on him that this was the match of the day. When he released his cock for its battle with the lord's his arteries were so full of throbbing blood that he felt as if his chest would burst. 

He staked twenty-five ringits himself - a fortune. Thousands of ringits were laid against his cock, money enough to buy a whole kingdom. There stood his Srawh, white with his black down-feathers and he himself was but a man of low caste. many of the lords of Bali with all their households betted against him- but the smith had put a hundred ringits on the Srawah. 

When the fight began and the clamour ceased on the instant, Pak felt that his heart had stopped, to beat no more. There were five rounds in the fight, for neither cock could wound the other. Five times the coco-nut shell sank and five times the gong went for the next round. Five times Pak carried his cock into the corner, talked to him, bathed him, breathed his strength into him, encouraged and implored him to fight, to conquer, not to leave him in the lurch. The ring was strewn with feathers white and red. Some of the lords jumped down from their platform and crouched on the ground to get a better view. The lord of Badoeng crouched beside Pak, the peasant, and shouted for excitement. Pak could hear himself shouting too. 

In the sixth round the Srawah killed the red cock. Pak was bathed in sweat when he bore his cock away. He had to be careful not to drop the ringits he had won. He nearly cut himself as he untied the spurs, his hands shook so. His cocks heart beat so violently that he feared he might after all collapse and die of a burst heart, merely from the excitement of the fight and his victory. 

My cock has beaten the raja's, he told himself. My cock has beaten the radja's, my cock has beaten the radja's. He bought him a rice cake and sat down beside his basket on the grass. My cock has beaten the radja's."


The End

But in the end, what happens? 

‘A fine cock, the anak Agung said. He bent down and lifted the bird from the grass with his own hands, ran his fingers through his plumage and felt his weight. The cock crowed, flapped his wings and struggled. The anak Agung held his feet and counted the rings on his middle claw. “A genuine Srawah,” he said with awe. 

Pak nodded. “I have been offered a hundred ringits for him,” he said. It was more than he could do to keep it in. 

“The lord has taken a fancy to your cock. He does you the honour to accept him,” the anak Agung Bima said. 

He beckoned to a man and gave him the bird to take away. Pak was left with the empty basket by the side of the road. His gullet was bitter as on the day when the eyes of his brother Meru were put out.’ 


As well as taking his Srawah by right, the radja had also ritually blinded Paks brother, a sculptor, who can now no longer sculpt or help much in the fields. 

This was for probably having an affair with one of the Radjas wives, though the stated reason was for ‘looking’ too covetously upon her. Obviously Alit had to do this because he has to defend his honour and if he lets some guy sleep with one of his wives then his honour, and authority, and role, and the stability it brings, is lessened. 

Alit isn’t that interested in most of his wives, he was busy with Raka during the wedding and so had them marry his kris knife instead, which was ritually the same thing. 


As the Dutch claims close in, Alit conclusively decides to defy them, not to pay any fine, though several groups offer to help or to pay for him, and to resist with force, which leads to the great ending, where everyone is summoned first to fight for the Radja, then, (the second summoning is explicitly optional), to die with him in a Glorious Sacrifice. 

‘”A rumour has come to me on the wind that the punggawa is a friend to the Dutch and is in their pay as the gusti Njoman is. Perhaps he is a traitor as the other is. Who has told you that his advice was is right?” the old man asked obstinately. 

Pak folded his hands and replied; “The radja put out the eyes of my brother, your son. He has taken my best cock from me. I will not fight for the radja.” 

“We are all the lord’s servants,” the old man replied. “My father served him and I, too, and you. The sawahs whence our rice comes belong to the radja. We belong to the radja. When he sends out the holy kris to summon us, we must go.” 

 When the old man had said this he spat out his betel-juice and looked straight in front of him. An oppressive silence weighed on the rest. The cocks crowed from the back of the yard. The women in the kitchen had never kept so quiet. The old man got up and crossed the yard and disappeared behind the rice barn. After a while they saw him coming back again; he had a lance in his hand and his kris in his girdle. He stopped in front of his three sons and looked at them all in turn. Meru raised his face to his father, for he could feel his eyes resting on his head. 

Pak folded his hands and asked in the ceremonious style used to a superior: “Whither does my father mean to go?” 

“To join the radja’s warriors,” the old man answered. “Peace rest with you.” 

They bowed themselves with hands clasped and looked after him as he left the yard by the narrow gate. Pak felt as desolate as he used to feel when a child if darkness overtook him out in the pastures with the buffaloes.” 


Honestly I’m with Pak on this one. He is a man of no caste and the entire caste system is based on people fulfilling their role. He has been told his whole life that his role is farming and that he absolutely is not allowed the privileges of a fighting caste, then he is told to fight, and not just to fight but to fight with no hope of success in what is at least in part an obscure matter of honour for his lord. 

He has a shitload of dependants to take care of; mid guy that he is, he is still the core economic engine and main legal and cultural protection for all of them. 

If he goes off to die then who is going to look after his blind brother and two wives, and children, and who will plough the sawas? Even without resentment he has a pretty good argument for not getting himself killed. 

 Though of course it was resentment that broke the deadlock in this instance; THEY TOOK HIS SRAWAH, (and also blinded his brother).