My mother read my first novel, Elmet, a few weeks before it was published. I had told her about it some months previously, but not before I had more or less finished it and had it ready to send off in pursuit of a publisher. I gave her a very vague summary of the characters and plot but I put off for as long as possible the moment of putting the novel into her hands and allowing her to read it. ‘There will be a lot of editing between now and its publication,’ I said to her. ‘It will become a very different sort of novel between now and then. You may as well wait until it is entirely complete.’ I think I was more concerned about my mother’s reaction than anyone else’s. I was sure that she would not care for it at all. Too violent; too gloomy; too weird. When she was, finally, allowed to read it she said little in the way of liking or disliking. Her beady eyes had noted a few spelling mistakes and inconsistencies, which were hastily put to rights, but other than that she just re-stated how proud she was of my achievement. Then she said something else. ‘He’s my brother, isn’t he? He is based on my brother, John.’
The thought had not occurred to me but, in many respects, she was right. I had created a character, known in the novel simply as ‘Daddy’, larger than life, stitched together from every exaggerated anti-hero I had ever read, seen, heard. Huge, brooding, invincible. The ‘every-giant’, hatched from mythos. In fact, I had written about my uncle: a man I had met only once but who seemed to loom large within the mythos of our own family, stories of whom I had heard and repeated and apparently digested and regurgitated.
I met my Uncle John once, possibly twice. I was four, or maybe five. I had gone with my family to the Scottish island where he then lived. My parents had rented a holiday home there for the week. My Uncle John drove up outside the house and wound down the window of the car. His young niece was presented to him and he greeted her – me – and then continued to speak to my mother, his half-sister, fourteen years his junior. As far as I remember, that was it. That was my only first-hand encounter with this man, so forgive me if some of the details I will now relate about him are spurious, inconsistent or misinformed. I have only that single, hurried meeting and dozens of incomplete stories.
As far as I know, he was born to my maternal grandmother when she was nineteen. His father, a young man from a wealthy Scottish family, killed himself while his son was in utero. He was brought up by my great-grandparents but – as they say – he ‘went off the rails’. For a while he was an officer in a Gurkha regiment, then an all-purpose heavy in 1960s Soho, then he became involved with gangs in Manchester. He had lots of girlfriends. He drove lots of fast cars. He owned champion greyhounds that he raced at the track. He went to prison at least once. My mum is unclear on what he was finally caught for but it was possibly for hijacking a lorry load of cigarettes. Perhaps. We think. He left prison and, if I have gathered correctly from my father’s ruminations (we are not a family of narrative clarity but of whispers and snatched understandings), Uncle John then joined a group of mercenaries and fought for someone or other in a war somewhere in central Africa. I don’t know where exactly. I don’t particularly want details of this gruesome episode. I imagine that it was inglorious. The story then goes that, following this experience, he was scarred and went to live a life of poverty and self-sufficiency on a Scottish island. I won’t say which: I may still have cousins there for all I know, and this is not my story to tell.
Certain tales from this period prevail. He tickled trout. He was a sharp-shot and used his rifle to cull deer for the local farmers. According to my father, Uncle John would go off into the forest with nothing but a knife and would return with a deer slung over his shoulder. When I was very young I remember being told that my uncle had had an accident with a chainsaw and had accidentally sawn off most of his leg. What occurred exactly remains unclear but this gory episode caught the imagination of his young niece, and I remember my terror as I tried to imagine exactly what happened to him out in the woods. Blood and flesh and mechanised blades.
He died nearly twenty years ago following a long illness. He was buried on a headland in an unmarked grave. My mother and the rest of the funeral party walked behind a tractor and trailer that pulled his coffin along a dirt track.
When I was very young I remember being told that my uncle had had an accident with a chainsaw and had accidentally sawn off most of his leg
The things my Uncle John may or may not have got up to will probably remain unclear. The events of his life could, perhaps, form a novel of their own, though I imagine it would all seem rather far-fetched. The extent to which he, and stories about him, informed my creation when I was writing Elmet – with its bare-knuckle boxer who lives off the land with his hands and his wits – is something over which I will continue to mull. Either way, he is a figure that loomed large in my childhood: half-real, half-fiction.
My uncle, however, was not the only morally dubious action man to have informed my writing. Men like him – or the version of him that I constructed from these stories – are plentiful in fiction. They are the stuff upon which many a myth is founded. I grew up watching Westerns: a genre replete with this sort of character. I watched Sunday-afternoon Westerns with strutting sheriffs, card-counting dames and sharp-shooting bandits, starring John Wayne or similar. I watched Clint Eastwood’s contributions to the genre – which were probably far too mature for me – like A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; The Outlaw Josey Wales; and his later reflection on the genre and his role within it, Unforgiven, in which an aging tough-guy who has found temporary redemption in family, honest work and sobriety, is drawn back into his old life to aid a collective of wronged sex-workers. In Westerns, the ethics of the protagonist’s behaviour are often in doubt, but his machismo is abundantly clear. There can be ambiguity of all kinds, but never in terms of gender. The figure of a lone man carving out his own path in the world – strong, brave, determined, probably a bit of a shit – is familiar within these narratives. All manner of sins can be forgiven so long as he exhibits these masculine qualities and so long as he wins the day, or else dies heroically.
The subject of my PhD, medieval history and literature, contains similar characters. Indeed, scholars have argued that the questing knights of King Arthur’s court are the precursors to the ranging cowboys, brigands and frontiersmen who travel into the ‘unknown’ American West in search of pasture, gold and bison. The hegemonic Christian identity of the knight is replaced by the hegemonic white identity of the cowboy. There is also a reliance on his dominion over beasts and outward paraphernalia. Man and horse are fused; one cannot exist without the other. Moreover, if a knight loses his armour, we know that he is in danger; if a cowboy loses his hat, he’ll swiftly have a bullet shot through his heart.
There are certainly aspects of Daddy that align with these tropes. He exhibits everything that is seen as good about this type of masculinity: he is strong, he is brave, he is resourceful, he is reassuring, he is steadfast. And like the heroes from Westerns or the knights from medieval romance he has a quest – to build a home for his children – and an obsession with wilderness and land-ownership. He also exhibits the less appealing aspects of masculinity. Or, rather, one aspect in particular: violence. For his children, he may be a knight, but his world is not always one of chivalry and honour. There are moments when a different kind of strength is called for: one that is brutal, visceral, and unyielding.
The kind of power Daddy wields can be that of the hero or the villain. However, I am interested in archetypes that go on to break the mould. I am interested in stock characters wrought from clichés that they ultimately subvert. The recent film Hell or High Water, a modern take on the Western genre, toys with ideas about male violence and brotherly loyalty in suggestive ways. The lead character, Toby, played by Chris Pine, seems a reluctant accomplice to his brother Tanner’s spate of bank robberies – a softer, more sympathetic foil to Tanner’s wild displays of aggression. Ultimately, however, Toby emerges as the steely, calculating mind behind the operation, who, like Daddy in Elmet, is willing to break all kinds of codes to ensure the survival of his family.
The figure of a lone man carving out his own path in the world – strong, brave, determined, probably a bit of a shit – is familiar within these narratives
When I think about Elmet now, though, I wonder if it is not Daddy who is the cowboy, but rather his daughter, Cathy. I always wanted her to emerge as the true hero of the piece, or rather the anti-hero. She is quiet and, for the majority of the novel, we don’t hear much from her. Daddy, on the other hand, seems starkly familiar. He, surely, must be the centre of our attention. But that is not how things pan out. The plans made by men unravel as Cathy breaks through to the forefront of the story and of our imagination. She takes hold of the narrative. It becomes hers. Which makes me think again. If Cathy is the knight in shining armour (with all the ambiguity that entails), who, or what, is Daddy? He is something else. He is, perhaps, a different kind of masculine archetype.
It is worth reflecting on the many representations of masculinity we find in literature that glorifies or condemns extreme strength. I think about Daddy’s physicality: an improbable exaggeration. He is a giant. Such figures, men of superhuman strength, of unnatural stature, and even magical force, populate the stories of many countries, and hold a particularly powerful place in our imagination. The Mountain and the Hound – brothers bound together in animal violence – endure a magnetic conflict in Game of Thrones. The younger of the two, the Hound, bears the scar of his brother’s sadistic childhood betrayal, while the Mountain, in the later seasons of the show, becomes a literal man-monster, resurrected after a fatal altercation and crudely patched together by a wily scientist. The origins of such characters reach back, again, into the poetry of the Middle Ages.
One of the better-known pieces of Middle English literature is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The author is unknown, but he or she is also believed to have composed other significant medieval poems such as Pearl, a lyrical meditation on faith and artifice. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, steeped in the fantastical histories of King Arthur and Camelot, is written in beautiful alliterative verse, in a dialect of northern England and the poem is rich in the detail of land and landscape. On New Year’s Eve, the knights of Camelot are visited by a giant wielding an axe, who is entirely green in appearance. He challenges one of the knights to strike him down, with the promise that the blow will be revisited upon the knight who takes up the challenge in a year and day. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge and cuts off the head of the green giant, only to watch as the giant gets up without faltering and picks up his head from the ground, repeats his promise, and departs.
Such figures, men of superhuman strength, of even magical force… hold a particularly powerful place in our imagination
There have been other giants beheaded by much smaller foes. Goliath, of course, is the most famous in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Goliath is the champion of an enemy army. Every day he asks for someone to challenge him from the forces of King Saul, until of course David goes out to meet him armed only with a sling and five carefully selected stones from a nearby stream. The story goes that David slays the giant with a well-aimed rock to the head, and he then decapitates him with his own sword.
It is, of course, a tale of skill over brawn. It is also a victory of one kind of masculinity over another: the strategic mind so often attributed to the modern ‘man of reason’ overcomes the sheer power of the mythical giant. Goliath, like the Green Knight, is defined by his magnitude. It is his body that marks him out, and his body that draws him towards his inevitable demise. We complain, quite rightly, about female characters that are presented only as bodies. But here is a figure that is defined and confounded by his flesh. The giant is called into being as someone against whom the hero can test his strength. But who is the giant? Who is Goliath? Who is the Green Knight? Where does he come from? What are his passions and interests? What does he think and feel? He is nothing but a mass of violent energy and muscle, which will inevitably be hacked apart, whether the description of this process is visceral or restrained.
Fiona Mozley’s Unbound book choice is Girl With a Gun: A Teenage Freedom Fighter in Iran