(David Lodge. Small World [New York: Penguin Books, 1984])
In David Lodge's Small World the characters frequently discuss Arthurian
matters, including Jessie Weston's theory of Grail origins; the reader
only gradually becomes aware that Small World is itself a "Grail Novel."
One of the central characters is the patriarch of the literary
establishment, an elderly and impotent man named, significantly, Arthur
Kingfisher. Eventually his infirmity is cured during a New York meeting
of the Modern Language Association, when a character named Persse asks the
to Text Listing
ersse enquired about [Miss Maiden's] scholarly interests.
"I suppose you would call me a folklorist," she said. "I was a
pupil of Jessie Weston's. What is your own line of research?"
"I did my Master's thesis on Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot."
"Then you are no doubt familiar with Miss Weston's book, From
Ritual to Romance, on which Mr. Eliot drew for much of his imagery and
allusion in The Waste Land?"
"Indeed I am," said Persse.
"She argued," Miss Maiden continued, not at all deterred by this
answer, "that the quest for the Holy Grail, associated with the Arthurian
knights, was only superficially a Christian legend, and that its true
meaning was to be sought in pagan fertility r itual. If Mr. Eliot had
taken her discoveries to heart, we might have been spared the maudlin
religiosity of his later poetry."
"Well," said Persse placatingly, "I suppose everyone is looking
for his own Grail. For Eliot it was religious faith, but for another it
might be fame, or the love of a good woman."
"Would you mind passing the gravy?" said the Oxford medievalist.
"It all comes down to sex, in the end," Miss Maiden declared
firmly. "The life force endlessly renewing itself." She fixed the gravy
boat in the Oxford medievalist's hand with a beady eye. "The Grail cup,
for instance, is a female symbol of great anti quity and universal
occurrence." (The Oxford medievalist seemed to have second thoughts about
helping himself to gravy.) "And the Grail spear, supposed to be the one
that pierced the side of Christ, is obviously phallic. The Waste Land is
really all ab out Eliot's fears of impotence and sterility."
"I've heard that theory before," said Persse, "but I feel it's too
"I quite agree," said the Oxford medievalist. "This business of
phallic symbolism is a lot of rot." He stabbed the air with his knife to
emphasize the point. (11-12)
"I thought Puss and Boots was a French fairy tale."
"Pooh, pooh, you musn't be so literal-minded," said Miss Maiden,
tapping him reprovingly with her rolled-up programme. "Jessie Weston
describes a mumming play performed near Rugby in Warwickshire, of which
the dramatis personae are Father Christmas, St. George, a Turkish Knight,
the Knight's mother Moll Finney, a Doctor, Humpty Jack, Beelzebub and
Big-Head-and-Little-Wit. What would you make of that?"
"Nothing very much, I'm afraid."
"It's easy!" Miss Maiden cried triumphantly. "St. George kills
the knight, the mother grieves, the Doctor brings him back to life. It
symbolizes the death and rebirth of the crops in winter and summer. It
all comes back to the same thing in the end: the life-force endlessly
renewing itself. Robin Hood, you know, is connected to the Green Man of
medieval legend who was originally a tree-god or nature spirit."
"But what about this show?"
"Well, the gouty King is obviously the Fisher King ruling over a
sterile land, and the miller's son is the hero who restores its fertility
through the magic agency of Puss in Boots, and is rewarded with the hand
of the King's daughter."
"So Puss in Boots is equivalent to the Grail?" Persse said
Miss Maiden was not discomposed. "Certainly. Boots are phallic,
and you are no doubt familiar with the vulgar expression 'pussy'?"
"Yes, I have heard it occasionally," said Persse weakly.
"It is a very ancient and widely distributed metaphor, I assure
you. So you see the character of Puss in Boots represents the same
combination of male and female principles as the cup and spear in the
"Amazing," said Persse. "It makes you wonder that they allow
children to see these pantomimes...." (36)
In a penthouse suite from whose exterior windows the bums and
whores and drug addicts are quite invisible, and even the biggest
automobiles on the Loop look like crawling bugs, a man lies, naked, on his
back, at the center of a large circular bed. His a rms and legs are
stretched out in the form of an X, so that he resembles a famous drawing
by Leonardo, except that his body is thin and scraggy, an old man's body,
tanned but blotchy, the chest hair grizzled, the legs bony and slightly
bowed, the feet cal loused and horny. The man's head, however, is still
handsome: long and narrow, with a hooked nose and a mane of white hair.
The eyes, if they were open, would be seen to be dark brown, almost black.
On the bedside table is a pile of magazines, academi c quarterlies, some
of which have fallen, or been thrown, to the floor. They have titles like
Diacritics, Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, Poetics and Theory of
Literature, Metacriticism. They are packed with articles set in close
lines of small print, with many footnotes in even smaller print, and long
lists of references. They contain no pictures. But who needs pictures
when he has a living breathing centrefold all his own?
Kneeling on the bed beside the man, in the space between his left
arm and his left leg, is a shapely young Oriental woman, with long,
straight, shining black hair falling down over her golden-hued body. Her
only garment is a tiny cache-sexe of black silk. She is massaging the
man's scrawny limbs and torso with a lightly perfumed mineral oil, paying
particular attention to his long, thin, circumcised penis. It does not
respond to this treatment, flopping about in the young woman's nimble
fingers like an uncooked chippolata.
This is Arthur Kingfisher, doyen of the international community of
literary theorists, Emeritus Professor of Columbia and Zurich
Universities, the only man in academic history to have occupied two chairs
simultaneously in different continents (commuting by jet twice a week to
spend Mondays to Wednesdays in Switzerland and Thursdays to Sundays in New
York), now retired but still active in the world of scholarship, as
attender of conferences, advisory editor to academic journals, consultant
to university presses. A man whose life is a concise history of modern
criticism: born (as Arthur Klingelfischer) into the intellectual ferment
of Vienna at the turn of the century, he studied with Shklovsky in Moscow
in the Revolutionary period, and with I.A. Richards in Cambridge in the
late twenties, collaborated with Jakobson in Prague in the thirties, and
emigrated to the United States in 1939 to become a leading figure in the
New Criticism in the forties and fifties, then had his early work
translated from the German by the Parisian critics of the sixties, and was
hailed as a pioneer of structuralism. A man who has received more
honorary degrees than he can remember, and who has at home, at his house
on Long Island, a whole room full of the (largely unread) books and
offprints sent to him by disciples and admirers in the world of
scholarship. And this is Song-Mi Lee, who came ten years ago from Korea
on a Ford Foundation fellowship to sit at Arthur Kingfisher's feet as a
research student, and stayed to become his secretary, companion,
amanuensis, masseuse and bedfellow, her life wholly dedicated to
protecting the great man against the importunities of the academic world
and soothing his despair at no longer being able to achieve an erection or
an original thought. Most men of his age would have resigned themselves
to at least the first of these impotencies, but Arthur Kingfisher had
always led a very active sex life and regarded it as vitally connected, in
some deep and mysterious way, with his intellectual creativity. (93-94)
Persse was aware of himself, as if he were quite another person,
getting to his feet and stepping into the aisle and up to a microphone
placed directly under the platform. "I have a question for all the
members of the panel," he said. Von Turpitz glare d at him and turned to
Kingfisher. "Is this man entitled to speak?" he demanded. "He is not
wearing an identification badge." Arthur Kingfisher brushed the objection
aside with a wave of his hand. "What's your question, young man?" he
"I would like to ask each of the speakers," said Persse, "What
follows if everybody agrees with you?" He turned and went back to his
Arthur Kingfisher looked up and down the table to invite a reply.
The panel members however avoided his eye. They glanced instead at each
other, with grimaces and gesticulations expressive of bafflement and
suspicion. "What follows is the Revolution," Fulvia Morgana was heard to
mutter; Philip Swallow, "Is this some sort of trick question?" and von
Turpitz, "It is a fool's question." A buzz of excited conversation rose
from the audience, which Arthur Kingfisher silenced with an amplified tap
of his p encil. He leaned forward in his seat and fixed Persse with a
beady eye. "The members of the forum don't seem to understand your
question, sir. Could you re-phrase it?"
Persse got to his feet again and padded back to the microphone in
a huge, expectant silence. "What I mean is," he said, "What do you do if
everybody agrees with you?"
"Ah." Arthur Kingfisher flashed a sudden smile that was like
sunshine breaking through cloud. His long, olive-complexioned face, worn
by study down to the fine bone, peered over the edge of the table at
Persse with a keen regard. "That is a very good question. A very
in-ter-est-ing question. I do not remember that question being asked
before." He nodded to himself. "You imply, of course, that what matters
in the field of critical practice is not truth but difference. If
everybody were convinced by your arguments, they would have to do the
same as you and then there would be no satisfaction in doing it. To win
is to lose the game. Am I right?"
"It sounds plausible," said Persse from the floor. "I don't have
an answer myself, just the question."
"And a very good question too," chuckled Arthur Kingfisher.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, our time is up."
The room erupted with a storm of applause and excited
conversation. People jumped to their feet and began arguing with each
other, and those at the back stood on their chairs to get a glimpse of the
young man who had asked the question that had confound ed the contenders
for the UNESCO Chair and roused Arthur Kingfisher from his long lethargy.
"Who is he?" was the question now on every tongue. Persse, blushing,
dazed, astonished at his own temerity, put his head down and made for the
exit. The crowd a t the doors parted respectfully to let him through,
though some conferees patted his back and shoulders as he passed--gentle,
almost timid pats, more like touching for luck, or for a cure, than
That afternoon there was a brief but astonishing change in the
Manhattan weather, unprecedented in the city's meteorological history. The
icy wind that had been blowing straight from the Arctic down the
skyscraper canyons, numbing the faces and freezing the fingers of
pedestrians and streetvendors, suddenly dropped, and turned around into
the gentlest warm southern breeze. The clouds disappeared and the sun
came out. The temperature shot up. The hardpacked dirty snow piled high
at the edge of the sid ewalks began to thaw and trickle into the gutters.
In Central Park squirrels came out of hibernation and lovers held hands
without the impediment of gloves. There was a rush on sunglasses at
Bloomingdales. People waiting in line for buses smiled at eac h other,
and cab-drivers gave way to private cars at intersections. Members of the
MLA Convention leaving the Hilton to walk to the Americana, cringing in
anticipation of the cold blast on the other side of the revolving doors,
sniffed the warm, limpid a ir incredulously, threw open their parkas,
unwound their scarves and snatched off their woolly hats. Fifty-nine
different people consciously misquoted T.S. Eliot's "East Coker",
declaiming "What is the late December doing/With the disturbance of the
spri ng?" in the hearing of the Americana's bell captain, to his
In Arthur Kingfisher's suite at the Hilton, whither he repaired
with Song-Mi Lee to rest after the forum, the central heating was
stifling. "I'm going to open the goddam window," he said. Song-Mi Lee
was doubtful. "We'll freeze," she said.
"No, it's a lovely day. Look--there are people on the sidewalk
down there without topcoats." He struggled with the window fastenings:
they were stiff, because seldom used, but eventually he got a pane open.
Sweet fresh air gently bellowed the net drapes. Arthur Kingfisher took
deep breaths down into his lungs. "Hey, how d'you like this? The air is
like wine. Come over here and breathe." Song-Mi came to his side and he
put his arm round her. "You know something? It's like the halcyon days."
"What are they, Arthur?"
"A period of calm weather in the middle of winter. The ancients
used to call them the halcyon days, when the kingfisher was supposed to
hatch its eggs. Remember Milton--'The birds sit brooding on the calmed
wave'? The bird was a kingfisher. That's what 'halcyon' means in Greek,
Song-Mi: kingfisher. The halcyon days were kingfisher days. My days.
Our days." Song-Mi leaned her head against his shoulder and made a small,
inarticulate noise of happiness and agreement. He was suddenly filled
with an inexpressible tenderness towards her. He took her in his arms and
kissed her, pressing her supple slender body against his own.
"Hey," he whispered as their lips parted. "Can you feel what I feel?"
With tears in her eyes, Song-Mi smiled and nodded. (319-321)