Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mirrored stories...

A few days ago I mentioned that the boy of the forest in The Story of the Grail could have been, for a brief moment, Abelard and Heloise's son Astrolabe. There's a glimmer of something that appears in certain scenes that resonates with the kind of love that exists only between parent and child, where Astrolabe's name is inseparable and permanently etched.

Astrolabe's presence is made more prominent when the scenes of the two knights in the story are mirrored, one against the other; a scene with Perceval is matched to a similar scene with Gawain as the prominent knight. From this perspective, the two scenes are both similar and in many ways opposite to each other, but in combination they become multi-faceted—like a gemstone.

Mirroring is a story writer's technique that Chrétien de Troyes was particularly gifted in projecting. Sometimes he wrote two separate stories to be read in tandem. In The Story of the Grail the mirroring occurs scene by scene and they don't necessarily occur in the same order within the two knights' exploits.

While Perceval is battling hardships at Belrepeire, Gawain is surrounded by abundance in Escavalon. When the two knights arrive in the same scene they are like best friends and engage in a celebration. While Perceval is wandering aimlessly and not pursuing his destiny, Gawain encounters the Evil Maiden possessed by the devil...who follows him everywhere he goes.

At the end of the story, Gawain learns that the queen of the Wondrous Palace is actually his mother who died twenty years before. In real life, Heloise had died twenty years before this tale was written. The scene that most closely resembles the Wondrous Palace within Perceval's adventures is his encounter with the wounded Fisher King at the nobleman's majestic manor house. When we know that Gawain has found his deceased mother in his scene, it allows for the possibility that Perceval was meeting his deceased father at the manor house...who had been wounded between the thighs, just like Abelard had been in real life. This ever so subtle glimmer that Astrolabe is among the knight's many identities only occurs in the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the story.

However...there is always another way to gaze upon scenes in this tale. Imagine rotating the tale ever so slightly and seeing it from a different angle. When Perceval arrives at the Fisher King's manor house and gets situated in the grand hall, a squire enters with a sword and delivers it to the Fisher King who examines it in detail. Then the nobleman hands the sword to Perceval, saying, "This sword, dear brother, was destined for you and none other." Only later in the tale does Perceval find out that this sword doesn't hold up in life and death battles...it flies to pieces. It is the kind of sword that only a dialectic warrior would carry; a knight whose words provide the edge that wins a different kind of battle.

In real life and according to Abelard's own words in the story of his misfortunes his father bestowed upon him the opportunity to pursue battles of the mind in disputation and take as his armory, logical reasoning. Abelard left his home in Le Pallet as a youth to follow his passion. Now with a little imagination we can further combine the multiple aspects of the scene and see that Perceval is a little bit of the father and the son...all in the same moment.

Enter the 20th century. Almost exactly eight hundred years after The Story of the Grail premiered Winston Groom wrote the novel Forrest Gump. If cussing doesn't offend you, the novel is laugh-out-loud funny but there's a layer underneath the laughs that captures a glimpse of real life that is brutally honest. It shines a light on how our exploits on earth might appear to someone up above looking down upon us and observing our actions while having an inside line to the intentions behind them. We're seen killing each other over dirt, dressing like turds and vegetables for money, betting everything we have on a thrown match, basically doing anything for a buck including skewing peoples' perceptions of reality to grab a headline, without regard to who is hurt or suffers as a consequence. In the novel, Lt. Dan is the saving grace who seems to grasp the possibility that there is meaning behind the madness.

As Groom's portrayal draws to a close, Forrest is seen taking a look in the mirror while commenting that he's getting on in life. He's has wrinkles and gray hair and not nearly as much energy as he used to have. The shrimp company was his first honest living and has provided more than he and Bubba ever dreamed it would. But Forrest starts thinking that life is just "spinnin in place." Things are "slippin by." There's something missing and he supposes that Jenny Curran has something to do with it. But there isn't anything that anybody can do about it.

One day Forrest decides that he has to get away. Mama starts weeping and bawling and wringing her handkerchief while Mister Tribble says he completely understands.

"Why don't we jus tell everbody you are taking a long vacation, Forrest," he say. "An of course your share of the bidness will be here, whenever you want it."

So Forrest and Sue the orangutan get in a little row boat and travel up to Bayou La Batre and then to the bus station in Mobile. When the lady in the ticket window asks where they're headed, Forrest can't decide so the lady suggests they go to Savannah. And that's what they do.

Who should they find there, but Lt. Dan who's shining shoes from under a garbage bag and living on the street. Forrest starts performing as a one-man band as Dan polishes shoes and Sue collects quarters in a cup. One day they get their picture in the newspaper under the headline "Derelicts Loitering in Public Park." Not long after, while Forrest is playing the song "Ridin on the City of New Orleans" a little boy comes up to him and the next thing you know Forrest glances across the crowd and sees Jenny standing there.

Jenny is married. Forrest is introduced to the little boy who has the same name as him, and who happens to be named after his daddy. While Forrest and Jenny talk and catch up with each others' lives, Forrest senses something...a heartbeat between them. Jenny is on the verge of tears, but she doesn't let herself cry. She just keeps saying "I can't believe it all." According to the novel, Jenny leans over to kiss Forrest on his forehead. Her lips are trembling as she says "Idiots. Who ain't an idiot?"

Forrest calls Mister Tribble and makes sure that eighty percent of the shrimp company's earnings find their way to Jenny and little Forrest. Meanwhile, he starts to wonder if it would be possible to fix things up between them and after a whole night of thinking he decides that things are probably best the way they are. "Little Forrest doesn't need a peabrain for a daddy." In a turn of the page, Forrest, Sue, and Dan are packed for traveling and are last seen in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

As Winston Groom brought his novel to a close, Forrest is looking up to the stars, taking in the whole sky above him...contemplating and talking to nobody in particular, "...don't you think I ain't rememberin it all. I still got dreams like anybody else, an ever so often, I am thinkin' about how things might of been."

Eight years later Forrest Gump came to life on the big screen. The screenplay written by Eric Roth was a mirrored reflection of the novel: similar, opposite, and providing that multi-faceted quality that neither could achieve individually. And who said that nothing could be done about fixing Forrest and Jenny up?

While Forrest, in the novel, claimed his son deserved more than a peabrain for a daddy, in the movie Forrest keeps repeating that he and Jenny go together like peas and carrots.

Forrest Gump, the movie, begins where the novel left off, a few steps backward, and provides a more realistic view. The movie begins with Forrest sitting at the bus stop in Savannah. Sue the orangutan is captured in the child's book Curious George. Forrest is looking back upon his life and remembering it all. In the movie, his daddy isn't dead...mama tells the school principal that daddy's on vacation. In the movie, Forrest doesn't cuss anywhere near as much. The movie trades laughs for sincerity.

Lt. Dan has become the cynical one, but still manages to provide a bit of wisdom. He complains about the chaplains at the VA hospital: "Jesus this and Jesus that. Have I found Jesus? They even had a priest come and talk to me. He said God is listening, but I still have to help myself...."

Jenny is still singing in the movie, but her nice melodic love song from the novel that was called "Give it to Me Hard and Fast" is replaced with songs with lyrics that suggest the answers are blowing in the wind and that we should smile on our brother while trying to love one another, right now.

In the novel, Forrest thinks the awful pink sky makes faces look like death. In the movie, the sunrise across the desert makes it impossible to tell where heaven ends or earth begins. And it’s beautiful.

In the novel, Mama is working for the shrimp company as the last page is turned. In the movie, Mama dies. Jenny and Forrest acknowledge they love each other and finally get married. And then Jenny dies.

Forrest stands by the oak tree and talks to Jenny's grave, "Mama always said dyin' was a part of life."

"I sure wish it wasn't"

When I think about all the ways that Forrest Gump could be mirrored against The Story of the Grail, the novel by itself teaches us how to find similarities between what initially appear as vastly different stories with different casts of characters among totally new settings. The movie captures Chrétien’s writing strategies by repeating words and phrases two and three times: "Our house has been in Mama's family since her grandpa's grandpa's grandpa had come across the ocean about a thousand years ago…."


While the motion picture reveals Chrétien’s strategies with words, the novel reveals the final move necessary to bring closure to The Story of the Grail through action. And the scene that captures it is when Forrest is a player in the championship game at the "Grandmaster's Invitational Chess Tournament." Grand Master Ivan Petrokivitch, a.k.a. Honest Ivan, is his competitor. During the match Forrest uses a few moves he learned in the jungle from Big Sam that "weren't in the book," one of which uses the queen as bait, while trying to get Honest Ivan to risk his knight to take her.

If I remember how Winston Groom told this, it went something like this:
When the moment arrived for the last move, the crowd got so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. Forrest was so excited and nervous he thought he would bust. Honest Ivan moved his piece to square eight two or three times, but then always moved it back to square five. When it looked like he was going to make a different move while the piece was hovering over square eight, Forrest was holding his breath while his heart was beating so hard he could feel it. The room was as quiet as a tomb and suddenly Forrest "cut a humongous baked-bean fart that sounded like someone was rippin a bedsheet in half." At that moment, Honest Ivan dropped his piece on square eight and then flailed his hands in the air and cried, "Uggh!" as he fanned the space around him and tried to plug his nose. Forrest turned red in the face. But then he looked at the chessboard and saw that Honest Ivan's piece was perfectly set on square eight. In a series of swift moves he snapped up the piece with his knight, grabbed two of Ivan's pawns, then his queen, and finally the king and captured the moment with one word: "Checkmate!"


Honest Ivan wasn't too pleased about the way things turned out and filed a formal complaint against Forrest. The guy in charge of the tournament started thumbing thru the rule book to determine if a transgression had occurred. Mr. Tribble claimed it was an involuntary thing, everyone breaks wind from time to time. The tournament director said, "I don't know, I think on the face of it I'm going to have to disqualify him." But after giving it a little more consideration he was willing to give Forrest another chance. And then Sue came swinging into the ballroom on a chandelier.

Feather photo by Jim Champion, http://www.flickr.com Permission has been granted to use photo, it does not include endorsement of the content of this blog.

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