True Myth in Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi


Nampa, ID. One of my greatest literary joys began after another had ended. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke had already placed her in my cluster of favorite Fantasy authors. But on a winter night with not much else to do, I slid her second novel, Piranesi, off my bookshelf and began to read.

I could write at length about the joys of reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. That epic Fantasy is a powerhouse of worldbuilding with tongue-in-cheek footnotes like an ironic The Silmarillion scattered across the bottom of The Lord of the Rings. The characters are oh-so-very human, set during the Napoleonic Wars, with imagery of fae and ancient magic to linger in the imagination late into the evening. I love that book.

Piranesi is in another league entirely.

Published sixteen years after her first novel, her second can be read in one or two sittings. Across the cover is an image of a faun playing a flute and dancing on a pillar above the waves. The story begins with two quotes. The first from C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, and the second seemingly from an obscure academic interview. This is only one of many subtleties that blur the line between fiction and reality, most of which I will do my best to leave intact, because that night I began Piranesi I knew nothing about the story.

If you want to share in my experience, stop here. Then come back and read, because C.S. Lewis is not the most influential Inkling in this book (though there are plenty of intriguing references to Uncle Andrew) and I want to offer some insights into this more intimate connection between Clarke and the oft-forgotten Inkling, Owen Barfield.

Let’s begin with Clarke’s vision of primeval man wandering throughout the House. The setting is otherworldly, isn’t it? Those marble statues in the towering walls, the waves crashing over the floor, clouds among the ceiling vaults. This is not otherworldly in a “space and aliens” sense. This is a world so foreign to modern experience we might as well be walking the wood between the worlds. It is an ancient otherworldliness. Pre-pre-historic. So old it touches the metaphysical.

And we’re in the head of a person so innocent it might be difficult for us to sympathize with his lack of awareness concerning the Other, the only other person we meet in the early chapters of the book. The Other is clearly manipulating Piranesi—what our protagonist is called, though it isn’t his name, and is an illusion to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian architect and artist who made prints of impossible and inescapable prisons—but Piranesi lacks an awareness of the manipulation, going so far as to praise the Other’s virtues! And when we realize that the Other has been using a smartphone? Not only is he using Piranesi, he is also hiding from him the reality of our modern day world.

Most portal fantasies, like The Chronicles of Narnia, rely on the modern stumbling into the ancient. But in Piranesi, the perspective is flipped, and we see from the point of view of the ancient the invasion of the modern. In Piranesi, the invasion is not in a Tolkienian sense of machinery and mechanism coming to dominate the countryside, but in a much more subtle, epistemological sense. Modern ideas creep into Piranesi’s mind.

These are the reasons why I say that to read Piranesi is to taste myth. We are submerged in his innocent and ancient mind from the outset of the story, and it is jarring to our modern sensibilities. Words are capitalized that we would never capitalize ourselves. This is a common trope in Fantasy novels, to capitalize the names of another world’s magic. But Piranesi is so close to nature—in this case, the nature of that strange land he calls the House—that these are his magics. The Western Wall, the Statue of a Woman carrying a Beehive, the Biscuit-Box Man. Like magic, the House is not only his outer, but his inner world. He participates in the tides as much as they happen to him.

Early in the story the Other is afraid that the tides will sweep him away. Given this has happened to the character in the past, I don’t blame him. But Piranesi is unconcerned, and, as the story is collected from his personal journals, writes in his innocent, matter of fact voice: “He does not understand the Tides.” The House is as much a part of him as he is of the House. He can rattle off the numerics he’s given to the halls and vestibules, and he understands the movements of the water in such a way he can, almost perfectly, predict where they will crash or fall still. His mind is less concerned with evaluating itself than understanding what is going on in the world around him—understanding, not in an abstract sense, but in experience. The Halls are his inner world, because he remembers them, and thinks by navigating them, thinks by the poetic meaning found in the halls.

The statues in the walls of the Halls are capitalized too, such as an Angel caught on a Rose-bush, the Statue of a Gorilla, and the Horned Giants. Each of these statues have meaning to him. They encapsulate ideas to Piranesi, which we would separate out, or deem superstitious.

But as modern ideas intrude, the capitals fade away, and his mind turns inwards, evaluating itself and recovering something he forgot. Barfield is apt here: “He awoke to contemplate, as it were, what he had written in his sleep.” Literally. As realization dawns on him that he has forgotten much of who he was before he came to the Halls, he scours old and torn out pages of his own journals to re-learn his identity. The amnesia of Piranesi, and his identity—how he got into this otherworld—is the central movement of the narrative. He had forgotten our modern world, forgotten even himself. And in this forgetting he returns to a pre-pre ancient state of man in this pre-pre ancient place. He finds meaning outside of himself, outside of his own identity, and finds it instead in the Halls and Statues. Finds meaning in the world, not in his mind.

But once he realizes his amnesia, and is overcome with concern over who he was, he cares less about the Halls. Rather, he cares more about his place in them. His mind, once again, turns inwards. Identity becomes the most prominent point of meaning. Innocence is lost. The capitals fade. Paradise, his relationship to the Halls, falls. Perhaps it would be more apt to say he falls away from Paradise, but, in the end, these two things are not so different. His connection to the Halls slips, and his mind is more concerned with self than other.

In Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction, the Inkling articulates both this primeval way of thinking, and the loss of it. One of the concerns of Poetic Diction is the difference between poetry and prose, and why the ancients are more poetic, and moderns more prosaic. Not poetic and prosaic in the form of the writing (putting lines in verse, having rhyme and rhythm, etc.), but, rather, in the spirit of the writing. What does this mean?

Well, it’s complicated (the Inkling wrote a whole book about it!) but, in relationship with Piranesi, poetry vs. prose has to do with our connection to reality. Where we find meaning. Both poetry and prose (which is connected to logic) are concerned with meaning. But prose/logic is trying to get meaning out of the world. Poetry pours meaning into the world.

Logic identifies patterns, extrapolates them, and names them with terms. Poetry makes meaning through metaphor.

Let me explain Barfield with my own example.

Take for instance the color blue.

There is no such thing as blue. It is a trait of something else. There is the blue sky, or the blue water bottle. Blue is a pattern that has been identified, and then abstracted out of the particular. It is narrower than sky, because sky contains within it much more than the trait blue, but less grounded in reality because, in reality, blue never comes alone. Logic identifies patterns, and then abstracts the results from reality. Barfield says that logic and prose are primarily about separation. Cutting meaning apart, dissecting the truth of things out of the world.

Poetry, on the other hand, is not about these logical abstractions, but experience. Poetry uses metaphor to recombine the meaning parsed out by logic. Not metaphor as in the lesser metaphors (e.g., stars for eyes), but Barfield gives as example powerful metaphors like the Greek myth of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. Yes, it seems he is saying all myth in essence is metaphor. Recall that myths are not allegories, which are ideas submerged in a story, but, instead, are stories from which ideas radiate. They are deeper than bones, stronger than wine. Myths teach not from abstractions, like logic, but from experience, like reality. Barfield puts it like this: “The distinction between true and false metaphor corresponds to the distinction between Myth and Allegory, allegory being a more or less conscious hypostatization of ideas, followed by a synthesis of them, and myth the true child of Meaning, begotten on imagination.” False metaphor takes complex ideas, puts them in a line, and tells us what to think. In his words, an allegory. (And we thought Tolkien hated those!) True metaphor is Meaning, begotten on our imagination. There is a lot to be learned from this, and many more adept in Barfield than myself have written at length, but, for the sake of space, I will provide C.S. Lewis’s description of Myth, which, I think, will draw us closer to his close, lifelong friend Barfield’s understanding.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “What flows into you from the myth is not truth, but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level… It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.”

Myth is both. When we are reading a Myth, like The Iliad or The Eddas or The Silmarillion, we are submerged in an experience. We are crawling with Sam and Frodo across the plains of Mordor. Because it is an experience, like reality, we can abstract ideas (or truths) out of the Myth. We might learn a little about friendship, not because Tolkien wrote an essay on friendship, but because he showed us Samwise.

Now, Owen Barfield highlights humanity’s progression from the earlier poetic stage (which was coming to an end as men learned to write, he claims) to a prosaic one dominated by logic. And he does this by tracing the definition of words. We live in a logical age, not a poetic one. We find abstractions like blue more real than myth. In this, we are like Barfield’s description of the modern man: “Overburdened with self-consciousness, lonely, insulated from Reality by his shadowy, abstract thoughts, and ever on the verge of the awful maelstrom of his own fantastic dreams.”

Here, the modern man described is personified in Piranesi as the Other. Lonely? Always Piranesi finds the Other alone, and when we learn of his life in our modern world he is lonely indeed. Insulated? He knows nothing of the Halls. Pays them no mind. Instead, he’s on his phone. Shadowy, abstract thoughts with fantastic dreams? He has grand images of power, personal success, and the desire to find some great and terrible secret out in the Halls which will unlock all of this for himself… and he has no idea what that secret may be.

We taste myth when we read Piranesi, because in the story, like in Barfield’s exploration of how the meaning of words changes over time, we are taken out of our modern sensibilities (if only for a moment) and thrust into an ancient mode of thinking. As the story continues and the modern thoughts intrude, Piranesi emerges out of the poetic into the logic. He is concerned with his identity in himself, and not in the world out there. But does he stay in the fallen state?

Well, no. Like Barfield’s predictions of the future of human understanding, Piranesi finds himself ultimately a new person, both ancient and modern, who thinks using poetry and logic.

To spoil the ending… (turn away, then come back!) he visits between the Halls and our modern world. He can go from one to the other. He is neither his former self, nor Piranesi, but someone new. Someone both ancient and modern, poetic and logical. Someone who fulfills Barfield’s very own predictions of the future of human understanding.

Image Credit.


  1. Jeff:

    Enjoyed the article. I see that you’re a Greenleaf man. I’m neck-deep in greenleaf connections myself. Next time I’m in Greenleaf, let’s get together and yak about Barfield and Charles Williams.


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