Growing old is a sorcery, a transformation.
It’s liminal: the gateway to other worlds, other mysteries.
To grow old is to learn what Merlin knew, what Prospero discovered.
There are powers that come with age: powers of far-seeing; powers to forgive, powers to avenge; powers of release, powers to persist.
Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014), a collection of nine tales, builds on Hag-Seed (2007), her re-working of Shakespeare’s tale The Tempest, to explore aging through the tropes of fantasy, myth and folklore.
She’s particularly concerned with sexual karma (aging people reconnecting with past lovers); entrapment; with how we ‘write’ our personal mythologies; with how the act of writing exerts its magic, its power; and with contemporary ‘folklore’ – genre writing in popular culture, whether fantasy, horror, or crime.
The last tale, ‘Torching the Dusties’, is to my mind the crowning glory: who are “the aged,” in contemporary culture? What do they represent, for us? What do they embody?
The weakest tale, on the face of it, is ‘Lusus Naturae’ (Latin for “freak of nature”), which at first seems rote – I wrote a similar tale myself, aged 22. But this is a collection, where each tale is a facet of every other, casting light and shadow, and with its Frankenstein references, fire-fuelled mob rampages, ‘Torching the Dusties’ is the obvious counterpoint to ‘Lusus Naturae’:
“When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end”.
These tales are so rich in mythic reference a tale by tale deconstruction would overflow a mere blog’s confines. But, as befits a collection titled Stone Mattress, the most obvious references are to Sleeping Beauty and its kin: the lover preserved, or preserved in fantasy; the lover’s kiss; the awakening. Atwood introduces ambiguities. The murderous who needs her “beauty sleep”. Who are the innocents, who the monsters? Who casts the spell, and when are spells benign?
Related, the trope of imprisonment: the lover spellbound, or cursed – the lover contained. A “stone mattress”, after all, is a stromatolite:
The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome. It was the very same blue-algae that created the oxygen they are now breathing. Isn’t that astonishing?
A stromatolite, a stone mattress, is analogous to the archetypal experiences men and women have enjoyed and endured since the dawn of time. It is the very air we breathe. It is our hearts, pumping, hardening. In the tale ‘Stone Mattress,’ the old folks on a cruise ship dance to Hearts of Stone.
The first three tales – ‘Alphinland’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Dark Lady’ – are a trilogy, concerning what at first presents as a dyad (Constance and Ewan) but transforms into the archetypal triangle (Constance/Gavin/Jorrie). Constance, who as “C.W. Starr” is the author of a massively successfully decades-long fantasy series set in her imagined world, Alphinland, is now a widow but was once the muse and lover of the poet Gavin, the Gawain of her youth.
Gavin has aged into a vain and cantankerous mediocrity, but Constance’s myth of Gavin lives on in Alphinland, asleep, a Sleeping Beauty, in a hidden cask – much as her husband Ewan lives on in a chest in her attic, embodied by his old clothes. (By the way – Gavin is contained within a wine cask, evoking the Duke of Clarence’s death as depicted in Shakespeare’s Richard III – drowned in a vat of Malmsey sweet wine. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest a Shakespeare reference here, given Atwood referred to Shakespeare’s Richard III in Hag-Seed, and given Hag-Seed explored containment, fantasy and the deep sleeps of enchantment in its retelling of The Tempest.)
Constance conjures a number of devices for metaphorical imprisonment: in her mind are filing cabinets; her mind is a memory palace.
Jorrie is the Dark Lady who came between Constance and Gavin, transformed in Alphinland into the Scarlet Sorceress of Ruptous (rupture, rapturous), “walled up in a stone beehive”, where “every day at twelve noon sharp, [she] is stung by a hundred emerald and indigo bees. Their stings are like white-hot needles combined with red-hot chili sauce, and the pain is beyond excruciating” – ‘Alphinland’.
Another standout is the title tale, ‘Stone Mattress’: an enchantress enacts a primordial (literally, primal) revenge on the male mortal who wronged her.
I’m a long time, life-long, aficionado of the fantasy genre. As I keep bleating, my attempted MA thesis was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Literature. I’m also a carer for an octogenarian mother, a daughter who held her father across his last hours through till his death. For me, a big part of the pleasure in reading Stone Mattress is how Atwood shifts her representation of various characters between their archetypes, their counterparts in myth – Nimue, Vivian, Bluebeard, Jessica Rabbit – and their actuality; between their spirit, as undying archetypes, and their material reality, as bodies experiencing decay.
A raven flies, overhead. Can it tell? Is it waiting? She looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman – because, face it, she is an old woman now – on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.
– ‘Stone Mattress’
Sometimes the trajectory is from youth straight to decay, as in the tale within the tale in ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ (where a female Sleeping Beauty is wakened by a monster), and ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ (another Sleeping Beauty – but who is the beauty, who the witch or monster?). Other times it ‘magically’ reverses: in ‘Torching the Dusties,’ a slightly ridiculous older man turns into a dignified, honorable Sir Lancelot; a cynical male pulp fiction writer is awakened by the touch of his princess (‘The Dead Hand Loves You’).
In the tale ‘Stone Mattress’, a ‘prince’ is ‘awakened’ in the rudest terms by a girl he turned into a monster, and a male Sleeping Beauty awakened by a touch fails to recognize the princess, or even the girl, seeing only the monster:
They say dead people can’t see their own reflections, and it was true; I could not see myself. I saw something, but that was not myself: it looked nothing like the kind and pretty girl I knew myself to be, at heart.
– ‘Lusus Naturae’
Underlying Stone Mattress is the problem of recognition: seeing through the spells, the glamours, recognizing people for who, for what, they are.
In ‘Revenant’ (which means, ‘The Dreamer’)
[…] Maria’s just a nice, ordinary high school girl making a few bucks, dime a dozen, nothing special. Hardly a nymphet, hardly the beckoning sapsucker from “Death In Venice.” […] Still, he likes the idea of Maria as the Angel of Death. He’s about due for one of those. He’d rather see an angel in his dying moment than nothing at all.
In ‘Stone Mattress’
Verna’s heart is beating more rapidly. If he recognizes me spontaneously, I won’t kill him, she thinks. If I tell him who I am and he recognizes me and then apologizes, I still won’t kill him. That’s two more escape chances than he gave her.
In ‘Dark Lady’
“She doesn’t recognize me!” Jorrie whispers. […] Who would recognize you, thinks Tin, with that layer of stucco and dragon scales on your face? […]
She [Constance] knows exactly who Jorrie is: despite the gold flakes and the bronze powder, she must have known from the first minute.
When Constance recognizes the truth of Jorrie, the two sorceresses experience a shared moment of truth. They have the opportunity to release each other.
“We live in two places,” says Constance. “There isn’t any past in Alphinland. There isn’t any time. But there’s time here, where we are now. We still have a little time left.”
There always was “an alternate vision stashed in Constance’s inner filing cabinet, in which Constance and [Jorrie] recognized each other […] with cries of delight, and went for a coffee, and had a big bray over Gavin and his poems and his yen for blow jobs. But that never happened. ” – ‘Alphinland’.
Even as Constance and Jorrie in ‘Dark Lady’ work through their karma, the spells that have bound them, a younger writer watches, recognizing this as her moment of power:
She’s embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes.
Because that’s what happens to old people. They either turn to dust, or they turn into myth.