Wednesday, 3 October 2012

In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 1)

This story is in the form of a piece of fake journalism by a non-existent writer about a fictional person from within a fantasy world. It's written as a single eight or nine thousand word piece but I've broken it up into four pieces for the blog. This time I've kept the illustrations as simple, rough, freehand pencil sketches with all the attendant glaring errors in perspective and light sourcing partly for the atmosphere but mostly because I wanted to get it done quickly.

Ian Martin (the actual writer for real)

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In Search of Macsen Fallo (Part 1)

by Elin Mynach
12th of Ash, Rigantona 12

I first encountered the work of Macsen Fallo as a child, and I am rather ashamed to say that it was the more lurid passages of his prose that initially attracted me. And I use the word "attracted" deliberately, because scornful of sentimentality though he may have been, Fallo was a master of seduction, using his rough words to caress, woo and ultimately manipulate his readers. In the end, it was his very success in this craft that may have proven his downfall.

To many readers of this esteemed journal, it may seem shocking, indeed scandalous, that a girl barely on the cusp of adolescence should have access to such literature -- and as I hope to show, Fallo's work, in addition to its often sensational nature, is literary in more than plainly literal terms -- but you must understand that childhoods like mine are far from the average, albeit still all too common, in this grand, majestic, ever rotting, yet constantly growing hive of a city.

Growing up among the backstreets of the Caerafon slums, I witnessed humanity in its basest, most desperate forms. And yes, I myself was tempted -- I will not be so self-regarding as to say forced -- into certain criminal acts, before I was saved by the merciful grace of our Goddess. It was among these streets that certain pamphlets and serials circulated, telling tales that would scandalise any of our great nation's more refined and civilised households, and it was among these periodicals that the name Macsen Fallo was first spied by my younger self.

It was a story called Autumn of Blood, and it told the story of an infantry troop based in Joyahon during the war. Caught up in a Lunaean offensive, our own Imperial Army's confused attempts at a counter-offensive, and an unexpectedly early onset of the rainy season, the group initially stumbles from disastrous engagement with the enemy to disease and near starvation in the jungle.

Part of what made it such a remarkable story was that the perennial enemy of such war tales, the accursed, fanatical Lunaean, was barely depicted at all. Indeed, the villain of the piece was the troop's lieutenant, a merchant's son named Gwythyr Brynmor, who continually leads his men on the most daring and dangerous of raids, taking them on forced marches over the most uncompromising terrain, all in service of his own ambitions.

That Brynmor's character was a transparent yet tremendously unflattering representation of General Gwydion Brutus, later made Earl ap Penllew in recognition of his military accomplishments, was apparent to all. Indeed, an editorial piece in this very journal, from the year Lir 44 makes reference to this very story. For those whose memories do not stretch back that far, I shall quote from it here:

...and while none at this periodical would be so ungracious as to question the military achievements of General Brutus, or the glory that he has heaped upon our great empire, still it would be most profoundly unpatriotic of us, were we to allow those achievements to make us blind against the immense human sacrifice with which our nation's glory has been bought.
    While we hear grand pronouncements from our generals about The Glorious Fields of Brankadeh, there are those among the less educated orders who are referring to the same battle as General Brutus' Abbatoir. Indeed, one satire, recently emerged from one of the less reputable printing houses west of the river, presents a most critical counterpoint to the official reports and has found not inconsiderable popularity among the uncouth masses.
    This story, called, and I hope my readers will forgive me for recounting the title on these pages, The Autumn of Blood, while undoubtedly a work of treasonous intent, is a clear critick of not only General Brutus' methods, but also his character. While we on the pages of Y Cleddyf deplore such personal attacks on our brave soldiers, it seems to us that the appearance of satires such as these asks questions of the methods by which the military hierarchy is working to achieve victory in this war.

The battlefield at Brankadeh showing the results of repeated bombardments. The structures depicted in the background are likely part of the ancient Sul Temple, miraculously undamaged by the cannon shells and fire.

Firstly, I must declare myself very much surprised upon spying reference to Fallo's story as far back as Lir 44. That he wrote and published such a piece with the war still an ongoing concern demonstrates that Fallo was a man possessed of strong convictions, and yet I think the writer of the above editorial misses something of Fallo's intention.

It is perhaps natural that when we read, we interpret the author's words as though written for us and us alone, and it is my belief that that the Cleddyf editorial falls victim to this error. The writer, an educated man, clearly of good social standing, is shocked by Fallo's words and thus interprets them as an attempt to shock.

Fallo's audience, however, was not primarily composed of members of the educated classes, but of low paid slum dwellers, waifs and strays like myself, where we were lucky enough to be able to read, and members of the rank and file imperial soldiery. This audience was not shocked by the portrayal of Brynmor. On the contrary, we all recognised him, and people like him, as an everyday fixture in our lives: the cruel overseer, the abusive kidsman, the self-serving commanding officer.

At this point, it is perhaps instructive to return to the story of Autumn of Blood and see where Fallo takes it.

Horribly lost after weeks of torments at the hands of the dreaded Lunaean, of disease, and under the ravages of nature, the troop comes upon a hitherto unknown enemy fort. Scouting the enemy's defences, the troop learns that they are less than a day's march from their own front lines, and for the first time in as long as they can remember, the men begin to feel hope. Brynmor, on the other hand, notes that the Lunaean defences are poorly manned and undersupplied, and concocts a plan to take the fort. Of the sixteen or so men remaining, he calculates, perhaps as many as two thirds will survive, and he will be a hero.

The night before the planned attack, one of the men cuts Brynmor's throat with a bayonet. None of the men confesses to the deed, and the story never tells us who was responsible. The Troop Sergeant, a man named Gwilt, leads the men back to Sarffi lines, where chaos reigns.

Their battalion no longer exists in any form that they recognise, having been wiped out and restocked with fresh recruits twice since the troop became lost, and the army itself is a maelstrom of conflicting orders. Gwilt desperately tries to untangle the chain of command, but instead is merely sent from command post to command post, ricocheting from one to the other like a billiard ball. One day, a clerk arrives at the troop's encampment and asks, "Are you Lieutenant Brynmor?" After a moment, Gwilt replies, "Yes."

Uncertain of what to do with this unexpectedly returned troop, and finding itself suddenly embarrassingly overmanned, the new battalion commander gives Gwilt a medal and sends the troop on a new and even more dangerous mission into the jungle, in the hope of losing them once and for all this time. Gwilt, however, has learned from his predecessor's errors, and instead leads the troop on what an educated man of class would no doubt describe as an orgy of looting, pillage and carousing. The story concludes with two soldiers, enlisted men of Gwilt's troop and minor characters throughout, sitting on a ragged hilltop at dusk, alone but for a handful of goats, passing a bottle of wine between them as a battle rages below. The men argue drunkenly over which side is ours and which theirs, and in the end, both turn their backs on the field of war and make their way back to their comrades in a nearby village.

It is understandable that the Cleddyf editorial neglects to mention this latter portion of the story, for the simple reason that it no doubt defied the writer's ability to analyse. To him it might perhaps have seemed a cautionary tale against the depths to which good men will sink when failed by their leadership. However, to the minds of Fallo's true readers, his message is clear. He is advocating mutiny.

What appears as no more than wonton debauchery in the eyes of men of education and breeding, is little different to what Caerafon slum folk might experience on the night of the Festival of the Dead. Fallo employs rough language, and does not flinch from depicting violence and brutality among the soldiers -- I have heard accounts of enough rapes and murders, both on the streets of Caerafon and behind the locked bedroom doors of well-to-do families, to know that such things are a reality of life among all classes -- but it is clear that what he is depicting is in general intended to gratify his audience, not warn them.

As I intimated at the beginning of this piece, it was the more lurid descriptions contained in this story to which I was first attracted. However, let us not be so coy as to deny that we all retain a small weakness for the scandalous, romantic and horrifying. Indeed, the legends of our dear Goddess' Holy Martyrs are rich in events that would have satisfied the most dedicated readers of popular serials of my childhood such as The Dread Pirate Gethin Claw, Adventures of Lightning Cadell, or Diabolical Mysteries of Caer Gwaed. And on this level alone, it must be acknowledged that Macsen Fallo stood out from the above tales as a master of his craft, with an instinctive, almost devilish ability to tap into his readers' basest desires and feelings.

What made him such an intriguing and, in the eyes of the governing classes at least, dangerous writer, is the way that he employed that craft to publicly tear at the edifices of respect and deference that our nation has built around our generals, our politicians, and even our most exalted imperial family.

Some of his works are more subtle, and indeed circumspect in how they disguise the victims of their satire, and there remains to this day some debate in alternative literary circles as to the real target of The Cursed Treasure of Yuna Mette -- in this writer's opinion Fallo's true masterwork. On the other hand, tales such as The Horned Crown are even in these more tolerant times thrilling in their audacity. 

To be continued...

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