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A kingdom where the Artists hold sway?  Now this really is fantasy!

The Corners of Things


John Lewis


There is a country where a disappointed King lives. The King is a fat man and knows it. He smells like old butter. His features are soft and fleshy; his hands are flabby. There is an overall air of a bashful shambling mule. You can see that he thinks a King should be tall and thin, but what can he do - he has only the body of a sturdy abbot? What shames him above all is his lame left leg. Of little comfort is it to him to note that it is fashionable among the nobility to drag the leg when walking.

Sometimes when he visits the palace gallery, he looks at the portrait of a famous fat King of the past. There seems no sign in the famous King’s eye of unease at his large condition. Rather the viewer is assailed with a torrent of visual braggadocio - the manly strut of isosceles legs, the arms akimbo, the impudent stare, all speak of a man at peace with his central bulk. Perhaps he simply could not see his fatness. Perhaps the flatterers had persuaded him his frame was sweet and lissom. God pity a King that sees himself truly.

So you see this King is objective. His courtiers have never been quite able to believe this - they still paddle him as though he was a deluded bully, like other autocrats. He bears with this, for they know no better. But how is it, he wonders, that other monarchs swell themselves unremittingly on the selfish lies? Is there never a moment at midnight, when they stumble into an unlooked for silence and contemplate the emptiness? Is there never a moment when even a stupid vain King looks in the mirror and realises that after all he is only another man.? But then he reflects that even the poor man can find refuges of superiority in the mind's forest. Those little sunlit glades of bliss before the rain falls.

Alonso the court artist is thin, tall and dark. Imagine a fastidious animated cadaver stooping to admire the tangled weeds, but scowling at the sunflowers, and there you have this man of feeling. He knows his Majesty envies his leanness, demeanour and sensibility. When they talk about Art, he gloats on the see-saw of jealousy and respect revealed by the royal glances. Alonso does not confine himself to oils, watercolours, carbon and stone. He uses other materials as the spirit moves him. Once he sculpted a gigantic mole out of the rich moist loam from the palace kitchen garden. The courtiers guffawed when the worms wriggled out.  Another time, he captured the Royal Cook's likeness by squashing insects onto the canvas. The baffled Chef began prising away the chitinous carcases to see what lay beneath. Alonso, about to slap him, realised he preferred the staining left behind and instead shook the astonished man by the hand.

The King likes Alonso's curious items: they appeal to the darkness inside him that rages at the puzzle of things. Why do noses run in cold weather? Why does coffee smell better than it tastes? Why does a room insist on more than two corners? The King will say:

"It's geometry that matters above all. The shape is vital to what an object does. How poignant that the dissolution of a knot could lead to the death of a warrior. My grandfather's saddle slipped while he was riding by a river and he fell in and drowned."

"You are right, your Majesty. We must attend to the form of things. The man fits the woman and the spade divides the soil. The only real question is how difference came into the world. If only everything were the same, there would be no clutter."

The court artist will sigh, look around and shrug his shoulders. After all, it is not his fault the world is how it is.

Admiring how Alonso felt about the world, the King once tried to emulate him. He withdrew from the court and spent hours alone. First he concentrated on sculpture, producing studies of hedgehogs by moonlight. Then he progressed to painting and drawing, seeking to capture the flight of birds and the picnics of gypsies. One day he shyly invited Alonso to see his work. Alonso was circumspect. He did not want to offend a King; even an objective one.

"Good observation, your Majesty. I particularly adore the way you devote yourself to details. The line of this duck's mouth reminds me of my Lord Rudolpho's daughter when she detected the flavour of lime in last night's syllabub."

"Ah, but how do I know you are genuine? A King can never believe praise. His subjects will lie if they think it will benefit. What shall I do to reveal their true opinion? A King must always enjoy the best of material comfort, but what of his spiritual armchair?"

"Why not hold a competition, your Majesty? You could enter your work under an assumed name. Then if you won the competition, you would truly know that you had merit. You would have escaped the snare of sycophancy."

"What a good idea, Alonso," said the King.

So a proclamation travelled the kingdom. At the end of the month, there was to be an Art competition open to all people and any type of work. The prize would be one ton of silver. All entries had to be brought into the great hall of the palace for display. The hope was this would prevent any unduly large or immovable objects being entered. The entries would be exhibited for one week and then a winner would be chosen. The judges would be the Archbishop and the Lord Chancellor. Both were renowned for their incorruptibility and greed.

The entire country was seduced by the news of the competition. Young girls weaved the whiskers of their cats into true love-knots.  Little boys laid out the oblations of stray dogs into pleasing patterns. Industrious adults who had any talent, or thought they did, began to draw, paint and sculpt. The lazy and the untalented began to think of stealing or copying or getting others to do the work for them. Only the scoundrels and the tricksters considered passing off everyday objects as works of Art. 

From the opening day of the competition, a multitude of entries were carried to the great hall.  As each piece was admitted, the creator's name and address was recorded. Then a cross-referencing number was placed by the object, so that nobody could take advantage of a beautiful or famous name.

At first, occasional grubby individuals turned up claiming to be exhibits in their own right. Although their motives were suspected and they began to stink the hall out, they were admitted provided they did useful things besides being themselves: such as catching fleas or picking up litter or cleaning the windows. They scavenged off any exhibits foolish enough to use food as a constituent.  Their ablutions became manoeuvres imbued with deep significance. Then a group of seven vagabonds turned up and said they collectively constituted a work of Art. They gave the name of the artist as Desperation and his address as the End of the Tether. Grudgingly, Alonso decided they could be allowed in, whereupon they congratulated each other on having somewhere dry and warm to sleep for the next few days.  A number was stuck to the forehead of the tallest one and they were chained together. Soon all the homeless people of the kingdom turned up. Alonso instructed the doorkeepers to turn them away for they would have filled the space and left no room for anything else.

Some artists were resented since they tried to use bits of the other exhibits as supplements to their own creations. Sculptures in particular needed guarding in case a finger or something more vital was torn off.  Alonso threatened to ban them on the grounds of vandalism. Then there were artists whose work operated through the neglected senses. Lotabul, a blind monk from the nearby monastery, entered a flock of sheep whose wool he had soused in lavender oil and which he insisted were to be exhibited in a tent whose fabric was impervious to light. The idea was that the sheep would only be apprehended through the senses of sound, touch and smell. The piece was entitled:  "Against the tyranny of sight". From the beginning, this exhibit gave trouble: many of the sheep were stolen and those that remained were troubled by strangers in the night.

Some people came with dismantled works of Art which they intended to reassemble inside the hall. Alonso watched uneasily as a sardonic lawyer had a small troop of labourers carry in the elements of a house. It was rebuilt at the north end of the hall. A day later, a merchant returned from a voyage and found his house was missing and a writ for non-payment of legal fees lying in its place. Finding where home had gone, he took up residence on the off chance it might win the competition. Alonso upset him by explaining that in this event the prize would go to the lawyer, as he was the artist. Downhearted, the owner moved out but instructed his men to fire the advocate's house in the middle of the night, so that he might suffer for his Art.

Unknown to the King, special arrangements were made for his entry, which was delivered by a pliant envoy of a foreign country. Notice had already gone out to the doorkeepers as to the name and address the King's agent would give - Mr. Addlepate of Wonky Nose House, Crooked Shoulder Street. So, when these details were recognised, the number allocated to the King's painting was discreetly conveyed to the judges. Alonso knew of these arrangements but said nothing.

Not to arouse the King's suspicion, Alonso decided to submit his best sculpture. It was of a maiden scrutinising a toenail in the palm of her hand. He was especially proud of the girl's wrinkled nose. Late one morning he travelled on the wagon that took it to the hall.  Having supervised its placement he sauntered among the other exhibits. He bantered with the opportunist vagrants, throwing sovereigns to the ones with the best excuses for why they were Art. He dismissed everything else he saw as derivative or fawning. There was a predictable crop of busts and portraits of the King. There were even some of the two judges. Out of curiosity he decided to look at the piece that would win regardless of its merit and regardless of the superiority of his own offering. He approached the work with indifference, so that no one might suspect its importance.

The King's entry was an oil painting of a country scene. Alonso was shocked. It was beautiful. It filled his mind with the heat of his adolescence. He could not look away. For a little while, he moved among the figures in the painting, walked in the woods with them and joined their meal around the campfire. When he returned he felt foolish, for it was afternoon and he was standing in front of a rectangle of coarse fabric covered in splotches of paint. The tramps were jeering for they had taken his long stillness as a mockery of them. Leaving the hall, he went to a public garden and walked across the flowers. He could not leave off thinking.

The King's painting was a work of genius. It was even better than his sculpture. So surely it was fitting that it should win? But the King would not succeed because his piece was the best. He would only prevail because he was King. The artist felt compassion. For although Alonso had been born to peasants and had walked to school in his bare feet, all his progress had been due to his ability. Of that he could be sure: he had no belief in luck. He was superior to a King because he knew his true merit. But he would still lose the competition. And the result would be just and unjust at the same time. He laughed and went off to visit his favourite woman.

On the judging day there was a lively crowd in the hall. The judges, the Archbishop and the Lord Chancellor, had an armed escort so that they could walk about unmolested. The pickpockets enjoyed plenty and would have run off with some of the portable entries, but were prevented by the guards. The performing tramps gave up because the mob absorbed their antics in the general tomfoolery. The artists who were exhibiting dirty baths, untidy beds and the suchlike were distressed by yokels making proper use of them. The ones who were showing dead or alive animals were drawn into extended haggling by tanners, butchers or farmers. Those entrants who had explored the intriguing possibilities of light and space were plagued by children who mistook their work for play areas. The more enterprising of them resigned themselves to the misperception and charged admission. The house built on the lawyer's instruction was commandeered as a place where the judges could reach their verdict in relative isolation and tranquillity. This left the field clear for the ordinary works of Art.

At five o' clock the winner was announced. It was Mr. Addlepate, of course. A call went out for the man to step forward and claim his prize. But nobody came. There was an awkward silence as everyone waited for something to happen. Finally, a smile weakened the King's lips and he struggled up from the throne where he had been surveying the spectacle.

"I confess that I am 'Mr. Addlepate'. I went incognito for I feared otherwise I would triumph because of who I am. I cannot tell you how pleased I am to have won."

A roar went up. The King was a popular winner. Especially as free drink flowed for the rest of the day. Alonso passed among the rabble to hear what they said:

"Life ain't fair. The picture's rubbish. Everyone knew it was the King's."

"I like the picture and the King is a noble man."

"Where's my purse gone?"

These are an accurate sample of the kinds of things said. None of the common people saw the King's picture was a masterpiece. Alonso smiled to himself and left. Later he walked among the courtiers to see if well born men could recognise the picture's value. What did my Lord Rudolpho have to say?

"The poor poor King. He genuinely believed he had won by merit. Even a fool can see the picture is juvenile and badly wrought. What say you Alonso?"

"I think the picture has its own special quality," said Alonso.

"Well said Alonso! Always the diplomat. After all, we have our position to consider, don't we?"

The King came in and asked my Lord Rudolpho of the merit of his painting.

"Sire, your work was magnificent. That is why it won the competition."

Other courtiers joined in with their adulation. The King began to frown - the more praise that came his way, the more he doubted his talent. But he knew there was someone who would tell him the truth, whatever the consequences. Someone for whom the calling of Art dominated everything else, even the need for security and position. He beckoned Alonso towards him.

"I wish to speak with you privately, Alonso. Come to my library at ten." The King departed.

Shortly before ten, Alonso finished off a glass of red burgundy and headed towards the library. When he got there the King asked him to sit down and they faced each other with their knees almost touching. The King looked at Alonso as the pig looks at the slaughter man.

"What did you think of the painting Alonso?"

"Your Majesty, it is painful for me to say what I must, but you are an objective King, a very rare thing, and it has always been my duty to tell the truth, in life as well as in art. Your painting is mediocre, neither remarkable nor poor."

"I knew it. Then the contest was a charade?"

"Yes, it was fixed for you to win. I could do nothing about it. For a King's prestige matters more than his substance. Can men be ruled by someone who fails? No, once you had entered the competition, it was necessary for you to win, regardless of your picture's merit. The survival of the monarchy depended upon it."

"Does my work have no value at all, Alonso?"

"It does, your Majesty; but only as a warning not to stray from your duty. As a picture it has no value. We all have our paths in life and must stick to them. You were destined to be King and I was meant to be an artist. We must keep to our corners, whether great or small. We cannot frustrate Geometry. It is sad and it is true."

Alonso bowed and went away. As he skipped along the palace gallery towards his own chambers, he smiled at the paintings that hung on the walls. It was for all Artists that he had told his lie. If it ever came out that this King had produced a masterpiece then there would be no stopping the other monarchs. Every one of them would start painting and every one of them would be told they were generating gems. The currency of Art would be fatally undermined. It had been a matter of keeping the profession safe from outsiders. For this it was worth denying one glorious work. When he reached his room he poured himself another glass of Burgundy. 

Now the King wanders the gallery and looks wistfully at the pictures that he prefers. They prick his creative being but his feeling of duty compels him to let things be. Besides he would only produce mediocrities that would induce his courtiers to lie. Alonso feels quite safe. There is no chance of his Majesty ever picking up a brush and creating more masterpieces. He knows his proper place. And as for the marvel that he produced for the competition, this is kept in an obscure corner that no one ever visits. It gathers dust.

When the time is right, when both the King and he are dead, Alonso's memoirs will be published. These will reveal that the neglected painting was actually done by him at the bidding of the King. Only then will it be looked at anew by future fools and recognised as the wonder it truly is. And Alonso will have the credit. His name will live forever. He will be a King of Art. He smiles happily in his sleep, turns over and dislodges the cat at the foot of the bed.

A cat and her sorcerer, a beautiful dream weaver, an evil voodoo priest, a bunch of man-sized rats, an army of really big bugs, a crazed randy rabbit, some dwarves, dragons and angry three-toed sloths, New York City, the woods of Maine, the sands of Arabia and the mythic lands of Avalon all come together for the wildest most epic adventure you’ve ever read!!!!

The Sorcerer's Song and The Cat's Meow is an author's triumph and a reader's delight... What a wonderful, free-falling storytelling ride to get to the end of a fantasy that's about as close to purrfect as you can get.

M. Wayne Cunningham - ForeWord CLARION Reviews

A well-plotted story with vivid and riveting description of characters and settings, as well as an intense page turning battle, the book is a delight to read.

Tracy Roberts - Write Field Services

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