In Iris Murdoch'sThe Green Knight (1993) three sisters and their mother live, like exotic birds in a hot-house aviary, in a “four-storey terrace in a modest street” near Brook Green, Hammersmith. They have adopted a dog, Anax, who sets out on a quintessentially Murdochian metaphorical-spiritual journey.
Our walk, beginning at Brook Green, follows his journey from Hammersmith to the edges of Regent’s Park.
Embedded in rich humorous plots about relationships and human psychology, Iris Murdoch’s central subject is the search for the divine. The Murdochian divine is as unspeakable as a zen koan, as unknowable as the mystic cloud. We can partly approach it but never find it, and the story is the search, or the failure to begin or to complete the search.
In The Green Knight, Bellamy James’ search for the divine involves (or so he thinks) becoming a monk. Before entering the monastery he must find a new home for his dearly loved and loving dog Anax.
Bellamy gives Anax to his friends in Hammersmith. Whilst Anax is fond of his new family, they are not the ultimate object of his love. Only Bellamy is that, and one day, choosing his moment, Anax runs off to look for Bellamy, braving all the dangers and temptations of London along the way.
His odyssey is a wonderful account of the hero’s journey in search of the divine, full of detail and humour, and a marvellous evocation of London, the landscape of the journey. First, consider Anax’s (humanity’s) spiritual state of mind:
“Sometimes he pretended to be happy, sometimes, quite accidentally he was happy… (note the key Murdochian word ‘accidental’) He did not reflect upon any reason why he had been deprived of the one he loved … He felt only the painful unnatural severance … and that it was for him .. to seek his Lord … If only he could run towards the beloved he would be with him, nothing more was needed than that flinging of himself into the great void of that dreadful absence….” (In just the same way, Bellamy thinks about fleeing to the monastery).
Anax escapes through a door left carelessly open (“just for a second he hesitated, some craven atom in his being held him back”: that craven atom is at the crux of all the Iris Murdoch novels – that pull of mediocrity).
Here is our walk in the steps of a seeker, where we notice what Anax notices – the crowds, the waterfowl, the buildings, the weather ….
“He ran so fast that people turned and stared after him … but (Anax) was guided. … he passed through the little streets behind Olympia and down to Hammersmith Road, where it joined Kensington High Street… Here he had to stop running, because he was tired, and because of the dense moving forest of people’s legs.
Cannily he turned away into a quiet road which was parallel to the High Street and loped along. He crossed Kensington Church Street, waiting for the lights to change. … He reached his first main objective, Kensington Gardens, and was now beside the Round Pond, where he stopped to drink the muddy water.
"He had had no breakfast and was feeling hungry. A mob of waterbirds … were jostling and fighting in the shallow water for pieces of bread which some children were throwing… a crust carelessly thrown fell near Anax and he snapped it up, just forestalling a pigeon.
"… A little way away some dogs were playing and he paused with them … and pretended to play too, but his heart was not in it… Nearby some gardeners were burning leaves…and the smell mingled with the chill fog … Anax paused in the longer grass and stood quite still. Suddenly the spirit that directed him seemed to fail. He walked on moving his long grey muzzle slowly to and fro.”
We reach Marylebone Road where Anax “crossed confidently at the traffic lights at Lisson Grove. He did not … go up Lisson Grove, but set off ‘across country’ passing Marylebone Station and Dorset Square and entering into a complex of small streets.”
“… here his daemon began to fail. Perhaps his loss of certainty was simply due to exhaustion … his high heart was daunted….. at a sack of rubbish he was confronted by a mouse… The mouse …regarded Anax. Anax felt pity for the mouse, or something more like affinity, respect. … He felt such a strange feeling, as if he had lost his identity and become part of some immense world being. He ran on quickly, then walked … where railings enclosed the front gardens of big houses. …
“he received an unmistakable communication, the smell of food. … there had been laid a bowl containing a mixture of meat fragments …Anax set about the bowl (but)… was interrupted by a large black and white cat … dangerous (it) leapt towards him … its white teeth, its red tongue, its open throat …
"Anax had leapt too, … streaking for the open gate… Anax was now completely lost … Darkness was falling, …..he did not know where he had come from, he felt no motive to go on, yet was unable and unwilling to stop. … He feared everything…”
Here Anax – or the seeker on a mystical path – experiences the “dark night of the soul”. The confidently-chosen formulas for enlightenment turn out not to work.
We follow Anax’s journey from Dorset Square across Gloucester Place and along Melcombe Street:
“Desperately he ran through streets of bright shops, stared at, knocking against legs, uttering a little whining sound. He ran on into darker emptier streets where there were big houses and many trees. He felt his heart breaking … in the thick foggy air.”
From here we can turn left onto Baker Street, cross the Outer Circle and end our walk in Regent’s Park, whose wide green expanses may seem a kind of heaven after the busy streets.
But the park is not part of Anax’s story: “A man … was coming towards him. Anax lifted his head … something very strange was happening …The man stopped. There was a faint gentle reassuring smell … The man leaned down and stroked him … ‘Haven’t I seen you before? … you must be lost .. poor fellow, I’ll look after you …’”
The man - Peter Mir - takes Anax home becoming thus a magic figure for Anax. And as for the great divine beyond … well that, for the moment, is forgotten in the relief of ordinary succor and friendship, as it usually is in day-to-day life.
Walking the route of Anax’s journey (page 182 – 191, of Iris Murdoch's The Green Knight) we relive both the comic adventures of the dog and the stages of a spiritual life: hope and desire, instinct, distraction, fatigue, loss of direction and identity, one-ness with the cosmic (seeing the mouse), facing demons (the cat), final hopelessness and then if the seeker is lucky, a kind of salvation through pleasure (the rescue figure).
In Iris Murdoch, characters are rescued by the sane, intelligent, artistic, generous good life – the life for instance of a novelist and scholar living among like-minded people in a free country, doing “small good things and harming no one” (as Charles Arrowby recommends in The Sea The Sea).
Just so, Iris Murdoch must have walked the streets of London herself, seeing her characters come alive in the landscape of “the sacred and profane” -- both of these being everywhere in the “dear city” and the “poor, poor planet”, beaming their separate attractions.
See other Iris Murdoch walks:
Iris Murdoch walks by Barbara Julian