In Iris Murdoch's fantasy novel, questions of truth and justice

February 20, 1994|By Rebecca Boylan

Title: "The Green Knight"

Author: Iris Murdoch

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 472 pages, $23.95

As an author of 24 novels and several works of philosophy and drama, and as a winner of the Booker Prize, a dame of the Order of the British Empire and a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford, Iris Murdoch has a hard act to follow when completing a new work. But she rises magnificently to the occasion in her newest novel. In "The Green Knight," she successfully weaves black comedy throughout a world in which fantasy provides more of an explanation for than an escape from reality.

The setting is contemporary London. Ms. Murdoch turns her characters inside out in a search for the complexities about ourselves we will understand only if we are uninhibited enough to accept our fantasies as the core of reality. She is once again in control of a compelling story after offering two novels, "The Message to the Planet" and "The Book and the Brotherhood," in which cumbersome ideas drowned any engaging characters or action.

At the center of "The Green Knight" are two adult brothers. Lucas, the dark genius and embittered adopted son, tries to murder Clement, the handsome, creative scholar and kind, longed-for biological son. Their lives are interwoven with Louise, the Madonna mother, and her three beautiful and gifted daughters: Aleph, Sefton and Moy.

Others in the cast include Harvey, surrogate son and brother to Louise and family, and Bellamy, whose spiritual search leads him to shed all earthly comforts in his mad attempt to enter the monastic life.

Enter Peter, be he angel, devil or ordinary man. He comes upon the two brothers in the park, just as Lucas lifts the baseball bat to strike his unknowing brother. Peter takes the blow instead and is presumed dead. Lucas is in the midst of a cold, remorseless confession to his brother, when Peter enters the room and, in fact, the lives of all the characters.

Now the novel's real mysterious turmoil begins. Who is Peter? Is he after justice, revenge, redemption for Lucas, or friendship to heal his own loneliness -- or all of these? Nobody seems able to understand either Peter or their own feelings toward him -- that is, except for Bellamy, the aspiring monk, who now sees how he can devote his essence to both healing and revering another.

Ms. Murdoch's literary references (the Bible, Shakespeare, the medieval "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," to name a few) help her argue certain positions and then counter them so that one gets the luxurious satisfaction of the fullness of examining these positions.

As in all of Ms. Murdoch's creations, the process of thought supersedes any ends reached. Questions she probes in this novel include: Is it up to heaven or humanity to render justice? Can one human save another in attempting to serve justice through punishment? Should justice always be sought or can truth leading to justice destroy us?

After she wrestles with some of humanity's greatest concerns, though, Ms. Murdoch writes a fairy-tale ending that is too winsome to afford satisfaction. As a master craftsman, Ms. Murdoch realizes the need for at least a hopeful ending to a comic novel, but here she treats her fantasy too lightly and carelessly.

Up until this ending, which finds all the characters pairing up in some fashion, her fantastic world has been tempered with stark reality. A birthday celebration finds everyone hiding fears and depression behind surreal masks that symbolize private agonies frustrating relationships with one another. The characters' homes never seem to have enough light or heat, except for Peter's, when he invites them all to a grand party during which he almost magically cures or saves them.

Ms. Murdoch would have been more consistent had she built her ending around the introspection of Clement, who finally decides that to be human means to "go on blindly and secretly jumbling all these things together and making no sense of them as long I live." Therein lies the truth of Iris Murdoch's comic philosophy: We will always be aware and strong enough to endure the struggle, but this struggle will not lead us to self-satisfying ends in this world.

Ms. Boylan is a writer who lives in Bethesda.

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