Our Message in a Bottle Bimonthly Special concludes with my review of Nick Bantock’s Morning Star Trilogy.
As I have always said, books come to you for a reason – and at a time when you are ready for it. I believe that the way through which these books traveled before they finally landed on mine hands is worth mentioning.
By some weird and unforeseen mishap, I almost did not receive this trilogy despite my having ordered it via Amazon early January. I am grateful though to Marla from Evermore bookstore for rectifying the mistake and for sending me these books in time for this review. It is because of this unanticipated turn of events that GatheringBooks will be giving away the Griffin and Sabine trilogy plus The Gryphon in time for our 1st year anniversary this June-July courtesy of Evermore. But, wait.. I am getting ahead of myself. On to my review.
I read the Morning Star trilogy with a measure of trepidation primarily because Fats’ extremely comprehensive review of Sabine’s Notebook and the Golden Mean (as could be seen here) noted that while the artwork remains breathtaking and awe-inspring, these books do not measure up to the Griffin and Sabine trilogy. I agree and disagree.
While on the one hand, it may not hold your attention captive like the first three books – the Morning Star trilogy has a cryptic, poetically-surreal, and an intellectually enchanting quality to it that drew my soul and makes me listen now to Raga Piloo by Ravi Shankar and Menuhin as I write [hoping to finish this before the day ends]. The way that each letter and postcard remains meticulously and lovingly packaged reinforce the authenticity and its being genuine – a novelty that is in keeping with the first three books.
Much thought – bordering on dreamlike state, attention to detail, and outpouring of affective and intellectual energies have been devoted to these three books, it seems strange that I find very few reviews about these books on the internet (except for this truly comprehensive academic treatise on Nick Bantock’s books as published in a journal – click here to be taken to Therese Meyer’s article). I, on the other hand, would endeavor to write this review unimpeded by other sources save the glorious paintings and artwork found in the pages of the book (all pictures are taken by me from the books that I own – copyrighted by the author/illustrator/maker Nick Bantock)
And what rough beast… slouches … to be born. The last postcard found in The Golden Mean gives the impression that Sabine and Griffin had a child (I think it was Mary who left this comment in Fats’ initial review of Griffin and Sabine as could be found here - a review that has generated a great many comments from so many likeminded individuals, such a joy). The postcard was addressed to a Matthew Sedon who as we shall see in The Gryphon is an archaeologist working on an important excavation in Alexandria, Egypt. Whether or not the portrait of the child is indeed the offspring of our starcrossed lovers, I shall leave for you to discover.
Emblematic Union of Archaeology and Archaic Zoology. In the first book of the Morning Star Trilogy, we meet Isabella, the archaic zoologist major who is in the process of finishing her thesis (also with a shadow-sight and the open soul of Sabine) – and her lover Matthew Sedon, the social scientist who has a great respect for empiricism, facts, and figures (not unlike our Griffin).
The couple’s intellectual pursuits could be clearly seen in the letters that they write to each other:
I’ve been trying to make the most of the sunshine before classes start again and I put my moleskin on and burrow back into the library’s depths. This last year’s going to be tough. I can already feel the muscles in my brain tightening in anticipation. – Isabella to Matthew
Don’t fret about the coming year. You know the intensity of your commitment – and so do your professors. Who else in your class is already halfway through their thesis?
The masks were a disappointment. They were early Nubian, but the hieroglyphs on the concave had been cut at a later date. The trip wasn’t wasted though – I made a few good contacts. – Matthew to Isabella
I suppose part of the disappointment of the avid readers lies in the fact that these two characters did not have the fragile and vulnerable quality that Griffin and Sabine – in their continual attempts to find each other – possessed. While Matthew did not know how to make heads-or-tails of Sabine’s postcards and letters, he was not as helpless, agonized or tortured like Griffin. It’s a love story strangely woven to another love story with cosmic consequences and Ariadne’s silver-gold thread tying everything together. As the series Fringe phrases it in one of their latest episodes, it’s a “quantum metaphysical entanglement/involvement” of sorts – sure beats saying “in a relationship” or “it’s complicated” on Facebook when asked about your relationship status, despite its being a mouthful.
Fusion of Griffin and Sabine’s artwork. In the letters sent by Sabine to Matthew and the postcards given by Griffin to Isabella, the fusion of their art works is clearly evident – it’s very subtle but it’s there nonetheless:
Griffin’s letters to Isabella are also written in Sabine’s handwriting. They seem to have taken on the role of these young lovers’ guardians, not unlike the strange Samurai in the Griffin and Sabine trilogy, their fairy spirits providing direction, guidance, and revelations that only lead to more and more questions.
In Sabine’s desire to “guide” Matthew and Isabella, she shared with them the entire wooden box containing all 65 cards and letters between her and Griffin. While Matthew remains unfailingly skeptical about the whole thing (“Did you write it in your own? And did you invent Griffin, or is he is in some part real? Why did you pick me to read your story?”). He is even more unwilling to believe anything that is coming from a woman who’s postal address is from some unknown place called Paolo.
And so while Matthew adamantly claims “I have no intention of being drawn into your intrigue” – he also could not help but ask Sabine “a place either exists or it doesn’t. Where are you?” I love the way that Sabine responds to these queries:
… consider this: nothing is what it seems. You have attempted to find Paolo, and because you can not locate it, you query its existence. Certainly it doesn’t appear in any atlas or encyclopedia, and yet you write me here and I respond. So obviously I am reliably where I’m supposed to be. – Sabine to Matthew
Isabella with the shadow-sight sees the truth buried beneath the outlandish declarations of properties of Mercury, power of insight, dark angels and black muses:
Should you take it seriously? Without question. I don’t believe this is an elaborate trick, or the ravings of a lunatic. There’s too much detail and anyway you are right: it echoes so many of the images from my waking dreams. I can even detect connections between the mythological animalization in their paintings, and my thesis on archaic zoology. These people see what I see and i want their help to understand what’s happening to me. – Isabella’s postcard to Matthew
References to Thoth, Mercury and Alchemical Connections. The mythological quality of these books is intricately woven into the narrative and speaks of a truth buried along with the burning of the great library at Alexandria “which had stood for centuries as a beacon of knowledge at the crossroads between east and west.”
In contrast to the materialistic conception of alchemy of turning lead into gold, Griffin explains to Isabella that this refers more to “a philosophy of balance and harmony” whereby the loss of the library and the alchemical works found therein had “thrust the cradle of civilization into a downward spiral from which it has never fully recovered.” We are also regaled with references to Thoth, the Egyptian god.
In this article written by Caroline Seawright, we see that Thoth is believed to be the wisest of all Egyptian gods – depicted as the baboon and ibis god of the moon. He is also believed to be a scribe of the gods, thus he kept a great library of scrolls. Moreover he is said to be associated with anything connected to speech, literature, arts, learning. He, too, was a measurer and recorder of time.
Despite the many questions that the lovers Isabella and Matthew have in their hearts, Isabella’s strength and faith remained steadfast for the both of them – notwithstanding (and maybe even because of) Matthew’s to-be-expected skepticism, distrust, and futile gestures of dismissal. This is compounded by strange people approaching them threateningly in the streets and break-ins in their homes. Despite all this, separated by geographical boundaries – one in Alexandria and the other pursuing her studies in France, Isabella implores Matthew to open his heart’s eye to see how everything seem to be connected in some loosely-woven fabric:
Matt, there’s a rightness in all of this that I cannot describe. I keep thinking of a word from New Guinea – mokita. It means “A truth everybody knows but nobody speaks.” I think we are being asked to name a mokita. It is dawning upon me, that our love has barely begun and I am in awe. - Isabella to Matthew
In the final postcard found in the Gryphon, Sabine writes another one of her mysterious messages to the dazed and confused Matthew:
I understand all of this must be frightening and you want to pull away, protect yourself and Isabella, but that is not possible. Matthew, you already are me. – Sabine to Matthew
In this volume where “the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin & Sabine unfolds” we see how Matthew’s archaeological digs, Isabella’s waking dreams, and the malevolent forces that seek to destroy their sight to ashes – are actually linked to a grand design that is their love.
Cosmic Infidelities. I can not help but laugh as I read through the first few letters sent by Matthew and Isabella to each other. As Matthew becomes more drawn to Sabine whom he feels connected to, he fears that he is being unfaithful to his lover, Isabella. Reminds me of questions my fellow book lovers and I once posed to each other when we discussed Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being in our now-defunct book club of sorts when we were in our early 20s. Which is worse: physical infidelity or emotional infidelity? Who will you choose between your bestfriend or your lover? In this trilogy, this question is overshadowed by the possibility of a “cosmic infidelity!” How cool is that?
Here we see Matthew confessing to Isabella:
From the moment she first wrote to me, the voice became more insistent, and I started to develop a clarity of purpose.
If I’m not imagining this and I am connected to her, can you still love me? - Matthew to Isabella
This surreal (and illicit?) connection between Sabine and Matthew is what heightened the latter’s powers of intuition and has even enabled him to draw as if his hands had a life of their own.
It was such a relief to see how Isabella perceived this link with some equanimity and ‘sardonic humor.’
What can I say about your relationship with Sabine that doesn’t appear trite? It ought to seem more bizarre, yet it doesn’t. And of course it hasn’t changed the way I feel about you… even if we are in a menage a trois! – Isabella’s response to Matthew
Waking Visions Voiced thru Paints and Poetry. In this volume, we also see Isabella’s waking dreams becoming clearer – while she is uncertain about what they all mean and seeks Griffin’s guidance, she senses herself becoming stronger – her primal being and instinctive knowledge of who she is – becoming more solidified with her animal growls, decisiveness, and grace in the face of real danger. Here is an illustration of one of her visions as shared with Griffin Moss:
Dusk. My hands are bound and I am standing on one leg. Around my knees fireflies swirl. The sky is bruised purple and saffron. A distant hilltop cracks open like a hatching egg and from it emerges a teak-skinned baboon. The wing-footed creature glides down the spiral path to where I’m standing. Under his left arm nestles a globe. When he reaches me, he passes right through my body as though I were not there, and I’m left not knowing whether I should follow him or climb the hill from where he came. Am I meant to go back or forward? – Isabella’s vision shared with Griffin
Thoth and Wisdom. Alexandria provides us with even more information about the Egyptian god Thoth through Griffin’s letters to Isabella. But before we go to this, I like how Griffin responded to Isabella’s query whether or not she would need to move back or forward.
…you know by now that understanding diminishes when a flux of images are reduced to a single interpretation. Should you follow Thoth or take the path to his mother’s stomach?
Have you considered travelling both ways at once? It’s not as foolish as it sounds.
All our lives we have been taught to select between opposites, yet the task is impossible because everything incorporates its reverse. Whichever option we choose, the other remains – it cannot be wiped away by rejection. – Griffin’s response to Isabella
Let me wax academic here for a moment and cite from one of my favorite psychologists and researchers of all time, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his discussion on eminence and creativity, he discusses continually the concept of complexity and complex beings - he postulates that it is this comfort with dualities and polarities, and the capacity to balance the continuum of extremes and opposites which essentially is at the heart of creativity and provides this capacity for eminence – reason why I love working and collaborating with artists and doing arts-based research. This is evident in one’s tolerance for and comfort in being neither one nor the other yet still completely defined by what is. Total congruence. It’s intense.
Griffin provides Isabella with greater information about Thoth in one of his letters (the envelope was beautifully decorated in this fashion):
Thoth the mysterious, Thoth the unknown, is the counselor, the multiplier of time, the magical arts and their images, lord of language and cryptic wisdom. He was Ra’s right hand man, and while Ra took care of the sun, Thoth was responsible for the moon. In Alexandria, Thoth the scribe was guardian of the great library. And as the city is both Greek and Egyptian, it is only natural that Thoth and Hermes should overlap and have equal respect there. – Griffin to Isabella
It is not surprising, then that Matthew’s archaeological digs in the heart of Alexandria brings him closer and closer to Thoth. In one of his postcards to Isabella he shared that his research team has stumbled across something truly spectacular:
When we cleared the stairwell we came upon a sealed door, whose frame bore a pair of cartouches. The first cartouche (in hieroglyphs) declared the chamber to be the personal library of hermes, while the second (in Greek) stated that it was the scroll room of Thoth. – Matthew to Isabella
Matthew has also written to Sabine asking for information about what they discovered in the Hermes-Thoth chamber, Sabine being the expert navigator of mythology and the wonders of the unfathomable:
We had hoped that we would be looking at an interior full of hundreds of scrolls. Instead, the chamber contained only one item. Though I can hardly describe it as a disappointment. In the center of the floor was a statue the likes of which I’ve never seen: a white alabaster lion and a black schist baboon stood back to back, joined like Siamese twins at head and hips. On the crown of their double faced head rested a single golden orb. The piece was utterly beguiling. – Matthew to Sabine
The Sphinx and the Gryphon – Fusion of Egypt and Greece. More and more, the reader is drawn deeper into the heart of mythology, symbolism, circumnavigation of the soul through cryptic signposts and postcards that are beyond what we know to be real – it would be easy to dismiss the books as nothing but “esoteric fog” and “metaphysical nonsense” – yet despite yourself, you are compelled to read on and find realities wriggling to the surface, demanding to be released and seen.
Sabine’s response to Matthew’s question begs further questions with her sharing of a folklore that has been passed from one generation to the next. She implores Matthew to open himself up to something beyond himself and that this willingness might have implications for the world as we perceive it to be. This quote has moved me considerably:
As Griffin has already hinted, in each of us there are two worlds – the practical and the mythological. It is so easy to narrow one’s view to the practical and lose sight of that second world where the celestials dwell and love is conceived.
You have felt Isabella’s heat and the experience unnerved you. What if I were to tell you that your fears are back to front, that your failure to let go and fully embrace Isabella is the thing most likely to destroy you and possibly many others too? That your coming together is an essential part of a grand design? Would your fear be any less and would you see that you had been chosen to help the sun rise? – Sabine to Matthew
I don’t know about you but if I were to receive something like this thru postal mail, I’d go crazy too. The words, though, ring true: our continual attempts to silence the larger than life being in us, the mythological, the grand beauty and deity within our soul struggling to be set free – trapped by routine, schedules, neat-looking charts and figures and color-coded emails and planners. Anything to keep genuine warmth and actual being in its raw form to surface – confined in niceties, polite howareyous, and chaste kisses that mean nothing, emotions (be it loud laughter or painful tears) in check. If anything, it reminds me to find that inner being within and celebrate and rejoice in its presence.
As Victor Frolatti’s malevolent forces also begin to grow stronger, we see Isabella freeing herself from the confines of who she is expected to be as defined by societal sensibilities, and embracing her primal being and everything that she would become. Isabella also makes mention of the sphinx in her postcard to Matthew as she shares her professor’s research with her lover:
Prof. Lacourt’s paper revolves around a theory that the sphinx at Giza was originally a massive monument to a lion god that was constructed well before the Kingdoms. And that over a few thousand years, sand covered its body till only the upper portion was left exposed. Pharaoh Khafre had his likeness carved directly into the lion’s head and only later when a flood of the Nile washed away the sand was the sphinx revealed to have the body of a lion and the (slightly undersized) head of man. – Isabella’s postcard to Matthew
As I was also searching for images of the gryphon, I was taken to this website (lekia.webs) that collected quite a number of beautiful gryphon images as could be seen below:
Very beautiful, isn’t it. This one shows another image of a gryphon that I particularly like, again from the same website:
The book undeniably becomes more cryptic and more challenging to follow, especially if one is unaware of the mythology, the folktales, the classic knowledge that it is trying to unearth through a seemingly-innocuous lovestory, but its quiet (albeit slight) nudge in one’s soul to inspire, to empower, to release one’s inner being is there – if you’re ready for it. The letters that Isabella and Matthew also become even more explicit, each testing the waters, sinking deeper and deeper with each postcard, their souls laid bare with every word spoken, each letter sent. While this growing intimacy would undoubtedly threaten others or destroy them completely (I know – been there, done that), it also has the promise of being all that it is.
the Morning Star
The Samoon has Spoken. Lover in Transit. The last book in the trilogy begins with Griffin’s postcard to Isabella telling her that “The Samoon has spoken and you should prepare to depart for Alexandria.” Apparently, a samoon means sandstorm. This reminds me of Sabine’s words to Griffin, the forever cited: “Foolish man, you do not dismiss a muse at whim.” There is that certitude here that defies denial. These are Griffin’s instructions to Isabella:
Move fluidly by earth or water and stop to listen to the wind as it whispers your whereabouts. When I ran from Sabine and journeyed to the islands, the more I hurried across the sky, the more dislocated I became. By insulating myself from the elements, I failed my innate need to know exactly where I was. I would arrive, step into the landscape, and feel my body slip into confusion. A gentler pace will give you time to evolve. By keeping low to the ground you will also make yourself less conspicuous to Frolatti’s dark angels. Savour the path and enjoy the sun. – Griffin to Isabella
While in the Griffin and Sabine trilogy, we see Griffin traveling the world to discover who he is – running away from Sabine – here, we see Isabella wading through the shores of her mind, running through the fields on the back of Minnaloushe the cat, and flying through the sandy wind to be with Matthew Sedon.
Morning Star Defined – an Elite of the Sensitive. As Matthew receives more knowledge and insight from Sabine (others spoken in riddles while some are specific detailed directions on what to do), she also acknowledges that her hold on Matthew would be less powerful to give space for the coming of Isabella.
As Frolatti desperately tries to keep the lovers apart, sensing a cataclysmic connection would be charged across the universe with Matthew and Isabella’s union, Matthew discovers the Morning Star in the priceless statue that they have unearthed in the tombs of Alexandria:
I was about to leave, when on impulse I switched off my torch and ran my hand over the sculpture’s schist and alabaster surface. I immediately detected something – the half of the sphere that balanced on the baboon’s head was warm and smooth while the half above the lion was icy and pitted with what felt like tiny moonlike craters. – Matthew to Sabine
Sabine explained that Matthew has touched the Morning Star. She describes it as such:
… the symbol of half-sun half-moon was applied to two states of existence held together within one body. Later that wedding of opposites was taken to represent a desire to awaken and break free from the lonely sleep of the conscious mind. The Morning Star signals the way to a passage between the separate halves of our own being. It is one thing to locate the passage and quite another to pass through it.
Yes, more “esoteric fog” as others may like to put it. Doesn’t detract from its power though. She also emboldened Matthew by telling him that he is part of an elite:
Not of power, position and wealth, but an elite of the sensitive, the considerate and the tenacious. Its members are to be discovered in all castes, and throughout all ages, and among them there is a shared understanding. They represent a tradition of struggle against cruelty and unrelenting chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few gain notoriety. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, their consideration is without frills, their tenacity is not braggartly but has the power to truly endure, and above all they can accept the irony of their own fate. - from Sabine’s two paged letter to Matthew
As I read this “elite of the sensitive”, I am taken back to Isabella’s postcard to Matthew where she describes the changes that her body is going through as it becomes even stronger akin to “quicksilver” in its fusion of flexibility and strength. Truth be told, I am reminded of my academic leanings with Dabrowski’s sensual overexcitability (a trait found among the highly gifted and talented, and creatives) as I read through Isabella’s words:
With the window flung open to the streets of Genoa I float in the lotus pond of my bedspread. A stone tablet rests across my belly, covered in flowers. Reaching to pluck a morsel, I’m enamoured to find that my fingers have narrowed into slender amber talons, I hook a blossom and lower it to my lips, marveling as a clover-sweet mustiness honeycombs across my tongue. Afterflavor shoots around my mouth and my whole body reverberates. I gulp down great mouthfuls of pond water that taste more exquisite than anything I could have imagined. These sensations have continued beyond that waking dream. My mouth has developed an intelligence of its own – everything has savor, not just herbs and spices, but even this evening’s pasta imparted to me the history of its birthplace in the wheat fields of Sicily. – Isabella to Matthew
Battling One’s Own Demons. As Isabella travels amidst battalion of birds on shrieking collision, hanging on tight to Minnaloushe’s fur, Matthew battles invisible adversaries in the air. Yet the beauty of this is that the more he fights these unseen forces, the stronger his commitment to Isabella becomes:
And in the morning light, I swore to the heavens that NO angel or shade of fate was ever going to take you from me. – Matthew to Isabella.
Whether or not they find each other, I shall leave for you to discover.
A Visual Commentary and Analysis (with an Afterword)
Logic and Rationality as the Antithesis: Beyond the Surreal. I have always been attracted to surreal images, the fantastical, the strange, the odd. These images do not fail to deliver:
What I find special about these three books (and the Griffin and Sabine Trilogy) is its subtle claim of Rationality being the Antithesis, and the surreal and otherworldly as Sparkling Truths that break free from one’s dreams – manifesting itself through sculptures, shades and paints, and lovely narrative.
Animal Energies and Primal Truths textured in moleskins, cougar bites, and lithe lion strides. There are also quite a number of postcards and envelope artwork that celebrate the muscles rippling through the cougar as it walks through the desert, the lion and its quietly-trapped fury, the wisdom of the baboon as could be seen in the images below:
The Beauty that is the Middle East. I also enjoyed how the Middle East was portrayed through the visual smorgasbord that is the Morning Star trilogy. Here are some lovely images that brought me back to the time when I was in Bahrain in 2009.
Holding Back for emotional survival and Freefalling. Perhaps what makes these books compelling (apart from the artwork as I have highlighted above) is this willingness (grudgingly shown by both men – Griffin and Matthew) to take the risk (one may even call it foolhardy) to expose one’s vulnerability to .. fully live and realize one’s essence. As Isabella has put it:
That’s where I’ve spent most of my life, caught in a mausoleum of self-imposed doubt. Now I feel free of restriction. Each morning I go down to the beach and race the Pserian tide-line knowing myself for what I’ve become. I am a sentient animal running wildly towards the fire that blazes atop the Pharos lighthouse.
A fresh wind is coming from the south-east bringing with it your scent. The hint of your presence sears my blood. The small gray clouds that specked the horizon have been blown away and the air is clear. The Old Winter Palace awaits me.
I love you Matthew Sedon. - Isabella to Matthew
Rarely do we see such willingness to embrace one’s choices, regardless of the outcome. Instead of gleefully embracing such intensity, Matthew shies away from it – gravitating towards it and scared of what this gravitational pull could mean:
The stronger you grow the more I seem to want you. You say you believe I’ll respond to your love and I will. But now I understand the self-doubt Griffin must have endured when he knew he was to meet with Sabine. He was troubled by the idea that he wouldn’t be a match for her soul. You and I are so like them. Love, Matthew
We live in a world that accounts for every move we make – each smile given may have a meaning – we dance around the issue of intimacy, apprehensive to share the enormity and honesty of one’s love because it is unseemly – power struggles volleyed back and forth as one masks one’s insecurities with aloofness, dismissive gestures, and long periods of silence. Never letting go of our security blankets because they represent safety and predictability. Out of fear, we build walls that enclose our beings – and call them homes.
We begin with Sabine’s “You do not dismiss a muse at whim.” We also end with Sabine’s message to Matthew:
It’s pointless to be any less than all you can be.