Monday, November 23, 2015

Names in SFF #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver

Here be spoilers.
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June and July flowers;
I sing of youth, of love too, and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white:
I write of groves and twilight, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the Fairie King. 
-- Robert Herrick
I guess what I'll do is this. I'll send the British Royal Legion a donation, along with a note explaining why there's no way I could wear a red poppy, and that's a shame because I'd quite like to. And I'll ask them to please, please team up with the white poppy people (they're called the Peace Pledge Union apparently), and both sell both kinds of poppy. Because if two charitable organizations (I'll say) who both agree we ought to support veterans, commemorate all those who have lost their life in war, work constantly toward peace, and never glamorize, romanticize, or celebrate war, if they can't get along and work together for a good cause, then what chance do any of us have?

Or just swap, one year. You sell red and I'll sell white, kind of thing. There are some economic obstacles. One brand is worth a lot more than the other. Hmm. Got to think it through.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There is a kind of garden growing through the names of Between Two Thorns (2013), the first novel of Emma Newman's Split Worlds urban fantasy trilogy. You know: a serene spread of plant color, neatly bedded to belie its rooty intrigues for nutrients and choked struggle for sun.

We need a little background here. Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver ran away from Nether to Mundanus in hope of leading a normal life. But now she's been found, forcibly returned to Nether, and betrothed to William Reticulata-Iris without so much as a by-your-sepal. And if you think that's unceremonious, get this: Nether society is itself agitated, what with the arrival of the Alba-Rosa family in Aquae Sulis, a city supposed to be free of Rosa influence, and the mysterious disappearance of the Master of Ceremonies, the very person Aquae Sulis desperately needs to keep the peace at a time like this.

A Master of Ceremonies is (as Mundanus-dweller Joseph Moser put it around the turn of the Nineteenth Century) obliged to at least:
[...] introduce regularity into large assemblies, to keep order, to repress the ebullitions of passion, to banish, if possible, that contraction or thrusting out of the lips which Shakespear calls duckface selfie; to prevent violent suffusions or flushings in the female countenance; to keep the ladies from tossing, and their noses from turning up, when precedence, partners, and people that nobody knows, with a hundred other serious circumstances, excite those emotions. He has also annexed to his office something clerical, it being his business to join hands: but he goes still farther, he frequently procures partners, who sometimes under his banners enlist for life [...]
OK yeah it's "pouting" not "duckface selfie." Sorry.

It's not precisely clear what the Nether Master of Ceremonies does, but he does seem to be more of a big deal than his Mundanus namesake. He emanates an aura of authority, security, and law and order, perhaps more in a Confucian harmony-through-cultivating-virtue kind of way than either a despot or a highest court of appeal kind of way.

Meanwhile, back in Mundanus, sinister and bloody events are unfolding ... but I don't think we don't need to get into that gargoyle stuff now: that's enough background.

So let's stay with Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, who has a fancy-pants name, as befits the highborn Fae-touched, although often she's just plain "Cathy."

In a moment, I'll think about why double-barrel names are so fancy-pants. But for now, what might that name remind of, at first blush? Rhoeas could suggest a corrupted rose, perhaps an English rose, and the word papa is discernible as an ominous gardener or florist looming over her. Maybe it would be easy to tease and wind up Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver by calling her Catherine the Corrupt and Papa-Averse English Rose?

But rose may also be a little misleading here: really rhoeas is just "red" from the Greek and papaver is the Latin word for "poppy," perhaps from the root pap, to swell, and/or pappa, food or milk. And in fact Rhoeas-Papaver is, unmistakably, a re-working of Papaver rhoeas, which is the taxon of the common poppy, aka the corn poppy, the corn rose, Flanders poppy, or the remembrance poppy.

I say "unmistakably," because Between Two Thorns has a pretty systematic naming convention for its Fae-touched characters. Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver is one of the Fae-touched, from one of the Great Families that populate the Nether, an interstitial worldlet betwixt Mundanus, where you and I live, and Exilium, where the powerful pixies live. For somewhat nebulous reasons, the fairies are actually supposed to be exiled to Exilium, although this containment strategy seems to be having mixed success.

Anyway, all the Fae-touched go by the about-faced technical terms for flowers. Every Great Family is superintended by one of these terrifyingly potent and trans-moral patrons -- or perhaps, less kindly, puppeteers -- and you can tell immediately which family goes with which fairy, simply by their name.

Lady Rose is the patron of the Alba-Rosas and Gallica-Rosas.

Lord Iris is the patron of the Reticulata-Irises.

And so on.

This is the main way in which names work in Between Two Thorns. These relatively legible power relationships re-create an archaic connection between name and status, the sort of thing a good edition of a Nineteenth-Century novel might include in the footnotes, making seemingly pointless conversations suddenly light up with connoted cut-and-thrust. Such names also vouchsafe a sort of pre-liberal sense of being utterly embedded in the fate of your lineage. To keep this sense sharp, the rising and falling fortunes of kin become transposed, in Between Two Thorns, into the favors and furies of the pixie patrons.

In other words, to be a Rhoeas-Papaver is to be connected to the fate of your family -- okay, whatever, we get that -- but it is also to be inescapably, suffocatingly connected to the wonderworkings and the whims of Lord Poppy. A concrete agent, not a vague abstraction like "the fate of your family." Someone from the Great Families, particularly a woman from the Great Families, does not write her own history. She is trapped in fate. "Of Flowers, so much has been said and sung, that it were impossible to write any thing new," as Francis S. Osgood writes in The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry.

Fairy is probably from fāta, the Fates. And as it happens, the personality of Lord Poppy -- if personality is the right word? -- recalls the more louche and unpredictable of Neil Gaiman's Endless, or possibly Loki at his most jaded and frivolous, or perhaps the Ancient Greek pantheon at their squabbliest and most squee-tastic-est, just as they're really getting stuck in around Troy. I want to go further: there is also a sense that Poppy's capacity for boredom is the radical unknowability of fairy, imperfectly translated into something mortal minds can deal with. Lord Poppy is, like Fortuna, the the vicissitudes and vagaries of what's coming, personified and given an uncomfortably intimate grin.

What first strikes us as fairyland's "radical unknowability," of course, might be developed into a critique of our customary modes of knowledge, and perhaps eventually an expansion of their limits. At the same time, even this early talk of constructive criticism in hope of an upgrade, and thereafter to increased technical capacity and newly conquered territories, feels inimical to any fairy way of knowing. That is, perhaps even to talk of different ways of knowing is already only a metaphor for whatever it is fairyland demands of us. One might compare Michael Marder's Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013). I have added words like fairies: 
Because fairies do not appear, they bestow on us the problem of representing them both in the theoretical sense of representation faithful to their ontology and in the strictly political sense of representation as delegation, claiming the right to speak as though bewitched by fairies. Perhaps to encounter fairyland without distorting it through the mangles of mortal hyper-familiarity, it becomes necessary to take up some trick, cheap glamor, or changeling substitition. By means of this clinaman, whose status is that of thievery, or of the forged or deliberately misleading, our encounters with fairies are temporarily jogged from their justifiable trajectories. Because the absence of visitation by fairies does not proclude their spatial, material self-expression: it only poses additional hurdles to the ethical treatment of fairyland. 
If ethics, understood à la Levinas, is the relation to the other, then it must be rooted in the ontology of fairy life, heteronomously defined by a striving to alterity. The heteronomous decorum of fairyland, or more precisely, the heteronomous decorum of the Seelie Court, is therefore a kind of homecoming, a harkening of ethical discourse back to the domain of life wherein it originated. On the one hand, the open-endedness, or the essential incompletion, of wish-granting and of other fairy functions subtracts fairies from the logic of actualization they have been often called upon to illustrate. On the other hand, the infinite possibilities of fairyland correspond to its countless ends.
Honestly though, brushes with fairy can be stressy.

To a lesser extent, the same flowerbed of names, Rhoeas-Papaver, Californica-Papaver, Alba-Rosa, Gallica-Rosa, Reticulata-Iris, and so on, also advertizes horizontal associations: the Rhoeas-Papavers and the Californica-Papavers are not only tied by a common fairy patron, but also likely more closely-related to each other than the Rhoeas-Papavers and the Alba-Roses, for instance. Such blood ties are more understandable, since they involve only mortal power-differentials, rather than fealty to something nebulous and numinous. But these blood ties are also ambiguous and flexible in their own little ways. Close names connote close histories, but tell us little about what those histories are. Are the various Papavers more likely to be allies and kissing cousins? Or is whatever forked the dynasty in the first place still lodged there, wedging the lines apart?
He looked down at the wedding ring. “That’s one of the things that happened whilst you were missing.”
“Lucy Californica-Papaver.”
“A Californica? I don’t understand.”
“It was to end the feud.”
Then there's Catherine. 

The name Catherine is at once queenly and unassuming. Catherine is a name ready for any weather, ready to boom at bad guys down two barrels -- or wielding some suitably grand identifier by the ligature of an "of" or a "the" like a cat-'o'-nine-tails -- yet ready too to grin and turn out nuances of cheerful competence as Cathy, of glamor and rubby intimacy as Kitty, or of wayfaring and subtlety as Cat. The name may even go all mousy, by some mysterious dialectics of cats and mice, although always the mousiness of a brave mouse, always the mouse of a Mouse-cat-teer, of a mouse that is probably really just a mini-cat. Remember Katherina Minola, the titular shrew of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Catherine is a name at home among crenels or taking tea. Shirley Jackson's Mary Katherine "Merrikat" Blackwood has always lived in the castle. There are Jane Austen's Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey and Catherine "Kitty" Bennett from Pride and Prejudice -- women with whom Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver has some context in common, being like them stuffed into impractical pouffiness and somewhat aggressed by fairylands. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has Catherine Earnshaw and she has Cathy. It seems remarkable, an oversight, even an outrage, that there is no Catherine Pevensie. It is the name of a midfielder, a captain. It is is a name that holds the centre, it contains the letters "c-e-n-t-r-e" and in English it is an intuitive core to a cloud of cognates, the Karens and Katyas, Caitlins and Catrinas, the Ecaterinas et cetera.

Catherine comes from the Greek Αικατερινη, "Aikaterine," to which is grafted the Greek καθαρος, "katharos," meaning "pure," as in cathartic as purifying. One intriguing source for Aikaterine are five nymphs, the Ἑκατεριδες, "Hekaterides," or their dad Ἑκατερος, "Hekateros," whose name roughly connotes "each of two" or perhaps "with both hands." There is some intricate finger-related stuff there, but for the sake of Between Two Thorns, in which places in the Nether are anchored in Mundanus, so that London is mirrored by Londinium, Bath by Aquae Sulis, it is mostly the doubling that is interesting. Another intriguing derivation is from the Greek αικια, "aikia," meaning unfair, unreasonable, unjust, an insult, an outrage, an affront, suffering, torture.

Like the purr of a cat, the purity of a Catherine is a throaty sound, ribbed and knurled with harmonics and overtones. I'm not being funny, but the term pure is mixed in its meanings: what counts as pure alters according to context and purpose, so that there can be no pure pure. The heroin which comes to you from a poppy may be pure as regards adulterants, but impure as regards consumer ethics. In economics and finance, in particular, pure profit must be calculated by consulting a recipe with several ingredients. In Scotland pure is an intensifier hospitable to anything and everything: and though ma heid's pure mince the day, I wonder if there's even a little connotation of "ex nihilosine causa, just because" about the Scottish pure, like "just totally" or like the South African sommer. Collocations like "vengeance, pure and simple," or "pure chaos" or "pure mayhem," or "pure outrage" or "pure rage," -- one of the few instances of the word in the novel is in "pure fury" -- all bring to mind complexity, obscurity and cloudedness, like the conflating, concealing and co-mingling dust clouds of cartoon punch-ups.

Tanners used to use an infusion of pigeon, hen or dog poop called pure or puer to strip away fur. Papas on the topic of daughters' purity are often full of shit, as we can see as a piece of it escapes Polonius: "Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl!" Brothers are not much better:
"Look, when I went up to Cambridge, you didn't think Father trusted the chaperone and the minder, did you? He put a curse on me, to make sure I didn't lose my market value." 
"Catherine! What a way to speak of your own purity." 
"Oh, please. I'm not stupid, that's what it comes down to, isn't it? Have to guarantee the goods are pure and unsullied when selling them off to the highest bidder."
Do unicorns count frotting? I wonder if the later novels reveal anything about the no-doubt hugely heteronormative fae algorithm glowing within Will Reticulata-Iris and his father's virginity-detecting gizmo.

Exercise: how would you program such a thing, pixies? I see most of you have gone for, "If she believes she is a virgin," which is a solid B+. Who handed this one in, with the tech-tree diagram? It hasn't got a name on. And whose is this, stating "And the commoditie be valued as chast within the market, it is the Opal's duety but to giue confydence to mens' iudgement"? You lot are weird.

Above all, no matter what the regime of measurement and control, pure and innocent are far from synonymous. Innocence conveys untried and untested. Purity equivocates between the purity of isolation and the purity of homeostasis: between being sheltered, and being experienced but incorruptible. Our sense of this distinction may be confused by a certain kind of strong innocence, which filters evil at the outermost fringes of experience: such innocents may come through trials not only uncorrupted but in a certain sense untried. Sometimes this filtering is something we can do for or to each other.

Roses may also be symbols of purity, especially through their association with the Virgin Mary. William Blake wanders through worlds of purity, of innocence, and of experience, in search perhaps of other worlds, in his Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the fruitfully resilient poem of corruption "The Sick Rose." The fairy lord Harold Bloom even more-or-less manages to make the rose into the corrupting factor, a worm-tease possessed of a "jealous lust," although he's being a bit contrarian. What I find odd is that there appear to be two worms in the picture:

You can try out "innocence and experience" as the plaintext of Blake's "rose and flying invisible worm" respectively. I sort of think that, whatever else is going on in that poem, Blake is proposing airborne microorganisms as a vector of plant blight. I think that all the ingredients were available to him: the notion of human diseases carried by infinitesimal spores; the notion that insects were responsible for plant disease; the homunculi and animalculae of preformationism; the scattering of panspermism.

If rose customarily denotes earthly beauty and fragility, mortality, corruptibility, and inevitable decay, it is also a word which can intimate recovery, return, or even resurrection, in its five red petals' correspondence to five wounds on Christ's body, and in the faith "that He was buried, that He rose again on the third day."

In the Child Ballad 166A, the rose that is thoroughly trampled and rooted out by a wild boar, representative of the House of York, is a hardy plant that finds its way back:

Wend away, messenger, with might and maine;
Itt’s hard to know who a man may trust;
I hope the rose shall flourish againe,
And haue all things att his owne lust.

Then Sir Rice ap Thomas drawes Wales with him;
A worthy sight itt was to see,
How the Welchmen rose wholy with him,
And shogged them to Shrewsburye.

I like that: "How the Welchmen rose wholy with him." Just one more thing about roses. Listen to this creep fucking neg:

There is something of the rose about Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver. The poppies of Between Two Thorns are pepped up, glamorous poppies. "In Mundanus the red poppy was scentless, but in Exilium it smelt divine." In a way, they are a bit like red roses without all the hokiness of red roses. They are stealth red roses.

I've talked too much about roses. I've talked a bit about poppies, and I'll talk a lot more about them soon. But it's worth emphasizing that her name is not Catherine Rose, or Catherine Poppy, or Catherine Papaver Rhoeas. Her name is Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver. What difference does that make?

Rhoeas-Papaver. Stare at it long enough, it starts to look like an articulated lorry trying collidingly to reverse into a space -- reverse, as in the swappage of "Papaver" and "Rhoeas" to make "Rhoeas-Papaver"; reverse as in the word reverse, a word almost audible among the incessant pa! pa! of the heavy duty vehicle reversing alarm -- but the really important bit isn't that swappage, it's the hyphen.

Double-barreled surnames have long been an affable compromise between class-based domination and gender-based domination: if a chap married up, he couldn't very well lose his name, but he wouldn't want to throw away a boon like his wife's (father's) name. Alternatively, a chap with only daughters, the poor chap, might have insisted no chaps should marry those daughters unless these chaps agreed to double-barrel, thereby carrying on his horrible illustrious name. Double-barreling also became an affectation of the upwardly mobile middle classes, particularly in Victorian Britain as the law around name-changes became clearer and more forgiving.

So double-barreling usually suggests aristocracy, although perhaps -- with the current spate of couples who double-barrel out of an urge to merge non-hierarchically -- it is on the verge of losing that association.

(That, and the coming bloodbath. Anyway, we'll see!)

What is interesting about the Rhoeas-Papaver double-barrel is that it suggests a marriage, some time in the past, between, let's say, Goodman Joseph Rhoeas and Mistress Josephine Papaver. Now, I'm not saying that the novel wants us to think that this has literally taken place within its story-world. I'm speaking strictly non-canon now. But the suggestion is there -- because that is how double-barrelling normally works -- even if it's a suggestion that eventually gets obliterated by seething bolts of worldbuilding.

Yet the name's unmistakable meaning -- if we simply flip it to Papaver rhoeas -- suggests an altogether different taxonomy, and an altogether different history. That is a history whose dominant event is the split, not the merger. Papaver is the genus, and Papaver rhoeas is the species: the common poppy. A rhoeas is not a rhoeas is not a rhoeas: taxonomically, a rhoeas always implies and is contained by its genus. My imaginary couple, Joseph Rhoeas and Josephine Papaver, are impossible: they can't have met, because they are just different ways of slicing the same evolutionary story.

You can say the same thing about Catherine's fiance, William Reticulata-Iris: although his name suggests some past union of the Reticulatas and the Irises, the Iris reticulata is the netted iris, a plant with its own evolutionary history. It's not something you get every time you cross a net with an iris. Taxonomy is not just synchronic nomenclature, not just a snapshot of distinguishing features at the present moment: taxonomy has a relationship, albeit a fraught one, with phylogeny; in other words, it conveys, in an uncluttered and imperfect and highly reductive way, the ramified structures of cladogenesis and anagenesis, it hints at the reproduction and reshuffling and flow and drift of genetic material, clumped more-or-less into organisms, stretching back millennia.

There are a lot of ways we could go from here. In imagining the reconciliation of this contradiction, an image of supreme nominocracy, rule by names, could be teased out: as if the Rhoeas and the Papaver families had to unite on the social plane, because they had already emerged co-evally on the biological plane. That might be a particularly intriguing incarnation of the fateful power so often welded into names in fantasy narratives. I'm not sure.

But can we bring it back to those poppies? On the one hand, Rhoeas-Papaver seems to be the outcome of Rhoeas plus Papaver; on the other, it seems to be the outcome of the evolution of Papaver rhoeas and other Papaver species in different directions from some likely common ancestor. In other words, the name Rhoeas-Papaver expresses a struggle about different ways of reading the past, or of rendering the past legible in the first place. In other words, it expresses a struggle about remembrance.

The semiotics of the lapel poppy are disastrously, dishearteningly jumbled and impure. We wear red remembrance poppies to honor and commemorate those who have died in war. We remember all those who have died in all wars, but particularly we remember the servicemen and women of Britain and of the countries of the former British Empire who have died since 1914. We honor those whose acts incarnate a kind of courage whatever bravery or fear or otherwise may have filled their hearts, and many of whom died.


Perhaps Remembrance Sunday should have a tidge more War Awareness Day to it. Commemorate is a funny word. The closest synonym is remember, and of course remember is equivocal. Most people don't recall, for instance, fighting in World War II. Some people recall hanging out with somebody who did. Maybe hanging out with them on Remembrance Sunday. A sense of strengthened continuity with ancestral suffering springs up around Remembrance Sunday. Suddenly personal reflective nostalgia gets ambiguously blurred with restorative nostalgia violently fixated on a mythical golden age. And/or (usually or) personal reflective nostalgia gets ambiguously blurred with a righteous fixation on reparations, or some form of restorative justice, or at least accurate, appropriately publicized history.

From the little I know about my ancestors, I suspect they were usually committing the massacres.

And a sense of humble prayer hangs over Remembrance Sunday. Specifically, the sense of a performance before the divine that is oddly evacuated of meaning, because even though you attach significance to its symbols, whatever significance you attach is subsumed in what the Almighty knows those words to really mean.

This year, the Royal British Legion suggests, "Take a photo of yourself with a poppy held to your lips," visually reflecting, of course, the paltry two minute silence. It should be two days. But it is also, I think, a subtle borrowing of a semiotic idiom associated with pacifist, radical and/or Leftist protest.

The quality of silence itself has changed in recent years -- silence now exists visually on Twitter, for instance -- and this year, it seems like the British Legion is experimenting with adapting to more recent versions of silence. In particular, the poppy-to-your-lips campaign feels like an allusion to activist art and protest which seeks to draw attention to oppressive silencing. Asylum seekers have sewn their lips together, for instance. The undercurrent of this campaign can't be anything but: we will not be silenced!

And that in turn implies: "It's those Guardianistas, those authoritarian metropolitan elites, those ivory tower trustafarians, those Political Correctness fetishists, those head-in-the-clouds attention-seeking crusties, those foreigners (like, idk, Greeks) or spawn-of-foreigners with their weird perspectives, who are trying to silence the poppy and everything it stands for. They are the appropriators, they are the revisionists, and they have the cheek to call me that! But they're the ones trying to erase the sacrifice of our parents and grandparents. Try telling them a simple fact about Britain's sacrifice standing up to the Nazis, and they'll derail the conversation, with something about Britain and British colony's 1% killed against the Soviet Union's 12%-13%. Or even worse, something about British colonial administrators shipping grain out of India and outlawing relief efforts during the late 19th century famines that killed more people than either world war. It's not that it's not true or anything: it's just, that's not what this is about. They can barge in with their agendas the rest of the year, but not November: not while we're mourning."

By the way. The presence of Maharaj Kumari Rani Nucifera-Nelumbo in Between Two Thorns is a little mysterious. Her appearance is a status coup for the Alba-Rosas, of course. "The Albas brought an Indian princess to impress the Censor into letting them in." And I suspect it may be of some intertextual importance, setting up the character for the sequels, or perhaps calling back to some of the earlier Split Worlds short fiction. Nevertheless she dangles a little, conspicuously enough that I almost want to say her real function in the novel is to raise in a more explicit way the theme of empire.

Yet ... having a pop at the poppy still feels like a trap.

That is, to articulate the despoiled symbolism of the red poppy, which does not mean what it officially means, feels like walking into a trap.

That flash of red is the red of red-bait. That is the flapping red corner of the matador's cape. Without constant vigilance and creativity, the voice which leaves your lips will default to the voice of the Left as the Left is imagined by the Right. You become your own stereotype. Almost anything that you don't "agree" with is something that "offends" you and something that you want to "ban." You are a strain of paranoid, sneering and sniveling refusenik, crossbred out of Vyvyan and Neil from the 1980s sitcom The Young Ones. You think you are the only one who sees what a hard world this is, and you can't help but ruin the few things about it that are good. You pretend to care about everyone to conceal your inability to care for those closest to you. You trample the poppy because your flower is the narcissus. At the very best, you have no tactics or common sense either: even if you're not really authoritarian, you'll come across that way (meta: you'll come across as someone who will come across as authoritarian), you'll alienate the people you need by your side. Also, you're a bad Kantian, because the maxim you're acting on isn't universalizeable: when somebody (militaristic racists for instance) appropriate a symbol, do you just go ahead and surrender it to them? Where would it end, hmm?

What is the title of Between Two Thorns about? Any between-ness immediately suggests Nether, suspended between Mundanus and Exilium, but I don't think it's about that. I wonder if the Alba-Rosas and the Gallica-Rosas can each lay claim to one of the title's thorns. Alba-Rosa and Gallica-Rosa suggest respectively the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster (or Gallic rose). Perhaps Between Two Thorns -- or at least, the Nether version to which it is tethered -- re-stages the War of the Roses as the War of the Poppies, red and white.

Civil war in England!

There is, of course, another remembrance poppy. The white poppy.

The white poppy was introduced by the Women's Co-operative Guild in 1933, about ten years after the red poppy, and is now mostly sold by the Peace Pledge Union. The motto of the Peace Pledge Union is, "War is a crime against humanity. I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war." I've never worn one. Maybe I'll start, even though -- well, I don't know. It also feels a little bit like the semiotics of the white poppy are, "Debate me bro!"

Turns out there are purple poppies to remember animals killed at war! But not in a big way.

And in Between Two Thorns this is the story: neither side is the good guys. The Gallica-Rosas seem to be good guys, but they're actually in league with the bad guys. Pretending to feud between themselves, they conspire to attack on two flanks: the Alba-Rosas with arrogance and aggression, the Gallica-Rosas with persuasion and seduction.

Can you see where that might be going, with respect to poppies? Maybe?

And yet, that just seems like such a smug, dialectic-er-than-thou, academic Marxist bro thing to say: that the white poppies are the problem as much as the red poppies! Like, oh my God. Who can really believe such a thing? Believe that there is no special or unusual hypocrisy, or complicity, in wearing the symbol whose non-appearance on a lapel is most energetically criticized and policed by the same people who want to violently repel people who are fleeing from war?

Of course, I know lots of people don't care half a hoot if I wear a red poppy or not, but the ones who care the most -- who in a certain way care much more than the Royal British Legion actually care -- are definitely the ones who are happy with refugees drowning. On balance, they're happy with that. Starting wars is fine and dandy, so long as it's Over There.

Surely that must count for something? I think those guys are wrong about drowning refugees, should they nevertheless be my self-appointed sartorial go-to guys?

The earliest known stem-word of rose is, funnily enough, the Parthian wâr.

And can I really believe -- oh, I'm not sure how to put this -- can I really believe that there is no special or unusual hypocrisy, or complicity, in commemorating the sacrifice of those who fought fascism by using literally the closest thing these isles have to a living fascist symbol?

Perhaps not that close, but closer than anything else. Top of the leaderboard. The swastika is too niche and anyway it's German af. St George's Cross is never noticeable by its lack, the way the red poppy is. All those eagles with lightning beaks and whatever are too frikkin awesome to be properly fascist. The poppy is the closest thing there is. And of course it is still entirely justifiable to wear a red poppy, 110% justifiable, I could justify it for you right now. But I don't want to. But I could. But I really don't want to.

Given all that, why would the white poppies be problematic, as much as the red? Because ... I forget. I am ensorcelled into forgetfulness by all this remembrance. Poppy may also suggest poppet or puppet. The Fae-touched are referred to, rather dismissively, as puppets by the Arbiters and Sorcerers, those charged with defending Mundanus from the fairies of Exilium.

Puppetry and pageantry. Well, the white poppy might be a problem because -- even though it forswears it, as much as the red poppy forswears its racist militarism -- the white poppy represents the hectoring arrogance of the Left, our incapacity to accommodate meanings other than our own.

No, that's not quite right! The white poppy represents the Left's inability to set that something free, to set free that red spark, or whatever it is, that red spark of something so necessary and so good, that goes swimming around somewhere inside the red poppy, that goes trickling around inside all its solemnity, and sorrow, and joy in community, and sense of history, and sense of kinship, and sense of place, and resistance to being told what things mean, and all those memories of childhood, or of a lost grandparent or parent or brother or sister, and all that willingness to link your sorrows to larger sorrows, and the ferocity of your love to a larger ferocity and a larger love, and all that pride, and defiance, and nationalism, and patriotism, and jingoism, and er xenophobia, and er justifiable national security concerns, and er racism, and er fascism-ish er empire-ish genocide-ish. Can't blame us, but can't not blame us, for not seizing that strange red spark. The Left's inability to encounter racism in its most triumphant of all outfits, the one it wears when it drowns vermin while dictating exactly the expression you should adopt while you watch it drown vermin, the Left's inability to encounter that and be all like, Wait, I mustn't blow this. We have stuff in common. We can figure this out.

No, that's not quite right! The point would be, I suppose, that the very practice of contesting the meaning of the red poppy -- "It's you being racist," "No, it's me thinking about my granddad" -- ends up being a kind of pageantry whose sum total effect is a kind of nil, that is to say, a kind of default to the status quo, which is a preference for mass murder, over the risk of slight loss to personal material advantage or slight adjustment to personal worldviews.

But can I really believe that? Do I really believe that those who ostentatiously support pacifism, and those who ostentatiously support whatever multifarious and muddled but broadly nationalist referent the red poppy is about ... that these two factions are in practical terms in league with each other, working to sustain and strengthen imperialist and capitalist patterns of domination, oppression and mass murder ... only they're too hazy-headed to recognize it?




Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, is responsible for associations of ensorcelled slumbers and fey reveries. From poppies (mostly the seed pods) you get opium, from opium you get morphine, codeine and (with a synthetic sprinkling of two acetyl groups) heroin. The opium poppy might be a reminder of imperialism: the British Empire used to grow opium and sell it to China, and when China tried to kick the habit, Britain invaded. I believe David Cameron was asked not to wear a poppy during some Sino-diplomatic shenanigans, but he did anyway? China lost a few chaps in World War II too, so no doubt they forgave him. Nowadays Afghanistan is totally blanketed with poppies.

Does Cathy have a poppy held up to her lips?

It could be helpful to think about the story that Between Two Thorns is not. It's not the story of an ordinary girl who -- after first brushes with fairy, and a confesh to her BFF that she might be going maaaad! -- enters an enchanted alternate world, a world filled with fairies, wishes, curses, and danger, a world where little is as it seems, a world that exists on top of and set somehow also alongside the mundane world, a world which reflects and estranges the mundane world, and which in certain weird ways satirizes and clarifies it.

It is not the story of this girl discovering that the society of this enchanted alternate world, despite its marvels, is trapped in the past, and is, in particular, way sexist. It is not even the story of an ordinary girl finding out that she is not so ordinary after all, for fey blood rushes in her arteries, nor the story of how this not-so-ordinary girl's secret tyrant extended family tries to embroil her in their fairy affairs, and their (un)seelie sexism, insisting that she wear stupid clothes, speak in florid circumlocutions, fulfill her destiny and marry a fairy dickhead.

It is not about this not-so-ordinary-girl's klutzy early attempts to fit in, nor her masochistic micro-ecstasies when she does fit in, nor her outbursts and decisions to be true to herself, nor her wit and fury poured in the pointy ear of pixie patriarchy, nor her thought-provoking encounters with her oppressed and repressed fairy sisters, nor the virality of her simple, unpretentious everyday feminism. It is not the story of the eventual transformations and syntheses and compromises and reconciliations, which promise that even though fairyland cannot be beyond the remit of the modern liberal West, loosening the laces on those whaleboned-in ribs does not have to mean total disenchantment: it is not the story of ultimately, through courage and a strong personal brand, having it both ways.

Why not? That sounds awesome!

Because it is something more uncomfortable than that. Sometimes, when you're in two minds about a story, homing in on the thing that is discomfiting you or failing to satisfy you, and taking it seriously as itself, rather than a crushed version of whatever you want it to be, can set off chain reactions throughout your experience

First, because there are three worlds, not two.

Second, because this is not a portal fantasy. It is a petal fantasy. Cathy is not the us-among-the-aliens, not the ingénue enveloped by strangeness, not the alchemical additive that catalyzes worldbuilding into storytelling. If anyone fulfills that role, it's the mortal bloke Sam, for whom Cathy plays Mr Exposition.

Cathy has always known fairyland. She is a fish-out-of-water not on dry land, but there in the sea.

But ... I don't know, actually I'll think I'll leave it there. A few loose threads, but this thing is long enough as it is.

One last loose thread. I suppose I'll write to the British Legion every year, and to the other ones as well. They seem to be the ones best-placed to do something about it all. If the Royal British Legion would consent to sell the white poppy alongside the red ... well. And in the meanwhile I'll wear the white, or nothing, and if it does spark off any little chitchat, try to wear my wokeness lightly, and laugh it off, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha. ha.

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