The Gridding Sword and the Wandering Wood

“Go, Michael, of celestial armies prince
. . . lead forth to battle these my sons
Invincible . . .
Equal in number to that godless crew
Rebellious; them with fire and hostile arms
Fearless assault, and, to the brow of Heaven
Pursuing, drive them out . . .

John Milton, Paradise Lost, book vi

If the Orthosphere has a patron saint, it is surely the archangel Michael, for his image has always graced our banner and his sword has always inspired our words.  It was by Saint Michael’s “gridding sword” that “Satan first knew pain,” and although our adversaries have been the merest flunkies of Hell, we hope our words have made them likewise smart.

By “gridding sword” Milton meant a piercing sword, for to grid once meant to cut or skewer with a weapon. As Milton tells it, Satan’s physical wound was not lasting, for “ethereal substance” is “not long divisible,” but the psychological effect of being grid was tremendous.  That wound made Satan see that the Rebellion was going to be harder than he thought.  He reeled,

“Gnashing for anguish, and despite, and shame,
To find himself not matchless and his pride
Humbled by such rebuke, so far beneath
His confidence to equal God in power.”

The moment “Satan first knew pain,” he knew he could not usurp God’s throne by frontal attack or main force.  Michael’s gridding blow showed him that the rebel angels must henceforth fight as partisans, and that the War in Heaven must henceforth be fought as a guerilla war of ambush, intrigue and sabotage.  After that stroke, the devils went underground and began to fight by what Milton called “devilish machination.”

The aim of devilish machination is to lead men and women astray, to draw them into error.  The root of the word error is the Latin erronem, which literally means to stray from the path and wander lost in the wood.  In fact, Milton used the word in this literal sense of wandering when he described the rivers of Paradise as flowing “with mazy error under pendent shades.”  But in a theological context, error is synonymous with the wandering bewilderment of sin

Thus when St. Peter warns the faithful to beware of “being led away with the error of the wicked,” the danger is not simply one of intellectual miscalculation.  The wicked are those who have wandered from the path, and those who consent to be led by those who have wandered from the path will soon find themselves lost, wandering, and very likely wicked, too.  To be led into error is to be led into wandering, and this is the “devilish machination” with which the guerilla war of ambush, intrigue and sabotage is now fought.  This is the war that began once Satan felt the humbling touch of Michael’s gridding sword.

Saint Michael, Luca Giordano (c. 1663)

The Orthosphere exists because we are all pilgrims, the hills are full of Satan’s partisans, and they have sabotaged our way.  They have pulled down signs, taken out bridges, tumbled down landslides, and opened false detours that will lead us down into error.  We of the Orthosphere try to map the most conspicuous hazards.  Our map is not perfect, but it is better than following your nose

* * * * *

Here is something to add to our map.  It is a great myth of man teetering on the brink of error, taken from Edmund Spencer’s epic Faerie Queen (1590).  It begins with the Red Cross Knight and his lady, Una, riding out on a quest they have been set by Gloriana, queen of Faery land.

A thunderstorm breaks and the pair seek shelter in a wood, in which they become lost and wander with increasing bewilderment.  They have abandoned their quest, deviated from their way, and entered into error. Indeed, when they come upon the entrance to a cave, Una exclaims:

“This is the wandering wood, this Error’s den,
A monster vile, whom God and man does hate.”

Una and the Red Cross Knight, George Frederic Watts (c. 1875)

Wise and discerning words that the Red Cross knight would have done well to heed.  But he is rash and certain that there is nothing that he should fear in the wandering wood, least of all some piddling Error.

“But, full of fire and greedy hardiment,
The youthful knight could not for ought be staid;
But forth into the darksome hole he went,
And looked in: his glistering armor made
A little glooming light, much like a shade;
By which he saw the ugly monster plain,
Half serpent horribly displayed,
But th’other half did woman’s shape retain,
Most loathsome, filthy, foul, and full of vile disdain.”

Readers of C. S. Lewis’s Silver Chair will recognize this as the prototype of the Queen of Underworld, female in one aspect and serpent in another. Half of Error has a woman’s shape because a woman’s shape beguiles.  Error is seductive and men are positively drawn towards Error

The Red Cross Knight, John Singleton Copley (1793)

“And as she lay upon the dirty ground,
Her huge long tail her den all overspread,
Yet was in knots and many boughtes [bends] upwound,
Pointed with mortal sting. Of her there bred
A thousand young ones, which she daily fed,
Sucking upon her poison dugs; each one
Of sundry shapes, yet all ill-favored:
Soon as that uncouth [unfamiliar] light upon them shown,
Into her mouth they crept, and sudden all were gone.”

Error is not only seductive, but also prolific, meaning that error leads on to error.  And since error is nothing but another word for sin, we might say that sin is prolific, sin leading on to sin.  But the image of mother Error taking her spawn into her mouth deepens this image of fecundity because it shows us that there is an original sin, a root of all evil, and that no one can vanquish the litter if they will not vanquish the dam.  And that dam is not going down without a fight!

“Their dam upstart out of her den effraide [afraid]
And rushed forth, hurling her hideous tail
About her cursed head; whose folds displayed
Were stretched not forth at length without entrail [folds].
She looked about, and seeing one in mail,
Armed to point, sought back to turn again;
For light she hated as the deadly bale,
Ay wont in desert darkness to remain,
Where plain none might her see, nor she see any plain.”

Error coils herself like a snake prepared to strike because Error hates discovery and has a fierce will to survive.  I am inclined to think that her female aspect shrinks to a mere vestige in the darkness of her den, but that, like Lewis’s Queen of Underworld, it cloaks her entirely when she roams abroad.  But be that as it may, the lesson to be taken from these lines is the tenacity of error.  It does not, as so many believe, simply retire in shame when it is brought to light.  Error fights back!

Which when the valiant elf perceived, he leapt
As lion fierce upon the flying prey,
And with his trenchant blade her boldly kept
From turning back, and forced her to stay:
Therewith enraged she loudly gan to bray,
And turning fierce her speckled tail advanced,
Threatening her angry sting, him to dismay;
Who naught aghast, his mighty hand enhaunst [lifted]:
The stroke down from her head unto her shoulder glanced.

As the “angry sting” of Error is located at the end opposite to her feminine charms, I think we may take it as representing the punitive powers that Error so often commands.  As we see in our own day, those who throw light on ugly errors must expect to be “dismayed” by the “angry sting” of unemployment, or even physical assault.  We can only hope that men in that plight will follow the example of the Red Cross Knight (and St. Michael) and land a mighty blow with their gridding sword.

Much daunted with that dint her sense was dazed;
Yet kindling rage herself she gathered round,
And all at once her beastly body raised
With double forces high above the ground
Tho [then], wrapping up her wreathed stern around,
Leapt fierce upon his shield, and her huge train [tail]
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stir he strove in vain.
God help the man so wrapped in Error’s endless train [snare]

Here we learn that those who do battle with Error must not hold back or pull their punches, for a glancing blow merely enrages the beast.  Until the Red Cross Knight struck that glancing blow, Error might have been content to cow him with roars and menacing jabs of her deadly tail.  But because he was neither dismayed or daunted, she has now resolved to kill him.  As I said before, error is tenacious and filled with a fierce will to live.  It does not vanish before daylight, or run up the white flag after the first volley of an attack.

“His lady, sad to see his sore constraint,
Cried out, ‘Now, now, sir knight, shew what ye be;
Add faith unto your force, and be not faint;
Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee.’
That when he heard, in great perplexity,
His gall did grate for grief and high disdain;
And, knitting all his force, got one hand free,
Wherewith he gripped her gorge with so great pain,
That soon to lose her wicked bands did her constrain.”

No man can fight Error with his own strength alone, and those who do will soon enough be crushed in her coils.  To prevail, he must augment his strength with love and faith.  In the case of the Red Knight, he is fortified by his love for Una, who will certainly be Error’s next victim if he fails; but the general principle is that those who love nothing cannot hate Error enough.  It is a curious thing, but a man is more readily reconciled to his own destruction than to the destruction of that which he loves.  And then there is the faith that God, the gods, or fate is on his side. You cannot defeat Error unless you believe that the Order of Being hates Error just as much as you do.

Therewith she spewed out of her filthy maw
A flood of poison horrible and black,
Full of great lumps of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunk of vilely, that it forced him slack
His grasping hold, and from her turn him back:
Her vomit full of books and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toads, which eyes did lack,
And creeping sought way in the weedy grass:
Her filthy parbreake [spew, vomit] all the place defiled has.

When seduction, threats and persecution fail, Error resorts to “vomit.”  Her vomit is defamation, obloquy and abuse.  It issues in a flood of libelous books and papers, in an army of stupid and slandering “frogs and toads.”  Error’s vomit is what we nowadays call a “smear campaign,” and the victim of a smear campaign will often, like the Red Cross Knight, grow weak with nausea.  [I have cut out several lines here.]

Thus ill bested [situated], and fearful more of shame
Than of the certain peril he stood in,
Half furious unto his foe he came,
Resolved in mind all suddenly to win,
Or soon to lose, before he once would lin [quit];
And stroke at her with more than manly force,
That from her body, full of filthy sin,
He raft [severed] her hateful head without remorse:
A stream of coal-black blood forth gushed from her course [corpse]

It is Error’s gross offenses against his personal honor that bring the Red Cross Knight to at last resolve to kill the beastly snake or die trying.  Like anyone who takes on an error, it is only after he has fought it (and therefore bears its welts and stripes) that he understands just how monstrous and hateful the error really is.  If you do not believe me, I suggest that you call out a lie.  It may look nasty enough from a distance, but that will not be half so nasty as it will look after you poke it with a stick.

“Her scattered brood, soon as their parent dear
They saw so rudely falling to the ground,
Groaning full deadly all with troublous fear
Gathered themselves about her body round,
Weening [expecting] their wonted entrance to have found
At her wide moth; but being there withstood,
They flocked all about her bleeding wound,
And sucked up their dying mother’s blood;
Making her death their life, and eke [also] her hurt their good.”

The minions of Error have no love for Error, only for the benefits they derive from her.  They have what we call an instrumental view of truth, accepting any “truth” that pays their bills and fills their rice bowls. When Error is mighty, they are happy to sleep in her mouth.  When she has fallen, they are happy to batten on her corpse for one last meal.

That detestable sight him much amazed,
To see th’ unkindly imps, of heaven accursed,
Devour their dam; on whom while so he gazed,
Having all satisfied their bloody thirst,
Their bellies swoll’n he saw with fullness burst
And bowels gushing forth: well worthy end
Of such, as drunk her life, the which them nursed!
Now needeth him no longer labor spend,
His foes have slain themselves, with whom he should content.

As I said, you cannot vanquish the litter if you will not vanquish the dam.  But if you cut the head off of a Big Lie, the little lies will perish on their own.

38 thoughts on “The Gridding Sword and the Wandering Wood

  1. Pingback: The Gridding Sword and the Wandering Wood | Reaction Times

  2. ‘ When seduction, threats and persecution fail, Error resorts to “vomit.” Her vomit is defamation, obloquy and abuse. It issues in a flood of libelous books and papers, in an army of stupid and slandering “frogs and toads.” Error’s vomit is what we nowadays call a “smear campaign”. ‘

    Thus do climate alarmists abuse skeptics.

    • Nothing cures the illusion of rationalism quicker than adopting an unpopular opinion. It is eye-opening to see how swiftly rational debate turns into abuse, and persuasion becomes invective.

  3. Of course, it could be argued that in entering the monster’s cave (her home where she was peacably feeding her children) and setting about her with his sword, the Red Cross Knight was behaving just like Hillary Clinton et al in Libya and Syria.

    • One could make that argument, if one were Hillary Clinton, for instance. The myth tells us how Error will respond to exposure, not what Error is. For that we must look to other sources.

      • Err… The argument does not necessarily imply a favourable judgement on the behaviour of le Chevalier de la Croix Rouge, far less ‘Hillary Clinton et al’.

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  5. JMSmith, good work. I have enjoyed that.

    I have written an article about a point that needs to be acknowledged with regard to fighting evil, but I was also reading more about what Orthosphere is and I think you might be underselling yourself in a sense. Let me know what you think. I assume you intend to transcend the modern Faustian intellectual role of memorizer and reiterator, which is why I bother.

      • Thank you, I appreciate that. I live in Prague. I have high hopes for your project, mr. Smith. BTW, will you accept reading recommendations from me? Just two brief books that I think are the best examples of what Christianity could be to the future.

        Of course, if you’d rather argue about embryos and guns, I completely understand.

    • “Když jsem se to dozvěděl, hořce jsem se smál,
      Faust uniká, neboť ďábel je homosexuál.”

      [‘When I learned this I laughed bitterly,
      Faust escapes, for the devil is gay.’]

      I use ‘gay’ because (I think) it better contrasts the bitter laughter in the poem and the pride you so rightly identify in your later comment: “Evil is evil, because it is sterile, and proudly so.”

      • That line also caught my eye. I had never before heard the proposition that the Devil is a homosexual, and my first thought was that angels are not sexual beings. But then I remembered the claim the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are angels, and that they copulated with the “daughters of men” and made a breed of “giants in the earth.”

      • Homosexuality is a form of self-love, of loving the same as oneself, of mirror image love. It is not fruitful because it does not extend towards the other, without which there can be no fruit. The Devil is the ultimate manifestation of self-love.

      • ” neboť ” fascinates me.
        I imagine a Yorkshireman might translate the second line of the couplet as:
        “Faust escapes, nay but the devil is gay.”

      • ‘…without which there can be no fruit.’
        This is something that Tolkien saw.
        Morgoth cannot create – only distort.

      • That is not the part to find relish in.

        The worst seduction towards pride is to find pride in others.

        I have never heard a Christian claim that homosexuality is wrong, simply because gays cannot have kids. They would simply “fair enough” you, yet I think it is precisely the disregard towards the foundational things that is beyond the current crisis.

        Further, there are various kinds of sterility.

        Look, I am not enjoying this at all, but I am reaching out with a simple message to people that I feel can get it – do not become just another circlejerk guys! Please.

      • I think you mean ‘”behind (or underlying) the current crisis”.

        “…there are various kinds of sterility”. Indeed there are, but not all are sterile by design or choice.

        “…do not become just another circlejerk guys”.
        So, what would you have us be? Passive receptors of your priapic flood?

        See how easily the use of insulting sexual imagery can be turned back upon you?

        This is a conversational site – and good conversations can be many-sided and multi-layered, but not univocal.

      • The more Mephistopheles appreciates the angels, the more he hates his fallen state and the worse his torment at not being what he once was and cannot be again.

  6. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 03/24/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  7. I think you mean ‘”behind (or underlying) the current crisis”.

    “…there are various kinds of sterility”. Indeed there are, but not all are sterile by design or choice.

    “…do not become just another circlejerk guys”.
    So, what would you have us be? Passive receptors of your priapic flood?

    See how easily the use of insulting sexual imagery can be turned back upon you?

    This is a conversational site – and good conversations can be many-sided and multi-layered, but not univocal.

    • I would like you to be a seeker of the limits of your understanding, frankly. No, better – I am searching for such people, that is all.

      If I caused offense, I offer my sincere apologies.

  8. You surprised me. I expected you to stick with Milton, since his depiction of Sin is practically identical to Spencer’s depiction of Error. That said, I think the transition more fruitful.

    Which I think is the point, in an esoteric way: what the modern labels as merely ‘Error’ is in fact nothing less than ‘Sin’.

    • The Greek word usually translated as ‘sin’ is ‘hamartia’, which signifies ‘missing tha mark’ or ‘error’. Thus Spenser and Milton are not that far apart on this point.

    • The argument from evil says the presence of evil disproves the existence of a good and omnipotent God. A classic answer to this argument is that evil (or the prospect of evil) stimulates the intellect, will, and physical strength of a man. In a world without evil, men would be reduced to swine. This seems to concur with your story of the cook in his kitchen. His virtue as a cook is drawn out as he skillfully avoids all the evils that could befall him. Now he is producing the good in that kitchen, but evil (or the prospect of evil) is a necessary condition of him producing that good. He cooks, and does so well and efficiently, because he imagines the hunger his children will feel if he does not.

      • I think that focusing on scarcity is best. Scarcity -> Value -> Meaning

        People fall into desperation because of a lack of meaning, not for scarcity and injury. Also, we will happily sacrifice our bodies for our stories, but never vice versa. Narrative control, Mr. Smith.

        If the cook cooks because of his children, he isn’t really cooking. Do you remember the bricklaying scene from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where Ivan enjoys the sight of a newly built wall, even though he is fully aware of the circumstances?

        You might remember that the author returns to this scene in Gulag archipelago because this scene irks the critic, who doesn’t live by the sweat of his brow, but by taking apart great works of others.

        And if you believe that Solzhenitsyn is right and the world is truly laid in front of us for the purpose of the ascent of the soul, you get a certain picture where evil has a particular place. But that’s it, you either believe this, or you don’t. I am quite sure that no further argument is possible here, as this is a value expression.

        Anyways, look. I am not a philosopher. I consider myself a librarian gone rogue. Do you have time to read two books you almost certainly haven’t and quite possibly should?

      • I don’t see why cooking for one’s children couldn’t be part of a story. In fact, its was until recently part of the basic human story. I understand the idea of cooking (or anything else) as an existential gesture of defiance in the face of the abyss, but the fact that there is an abyss to be defied suggests the story is already broken. The Christian pilgrim fears that he might fall into the abyss, and so fail to make his way home to heaven. The existentialist has already fallen into the abyss, and is trying to make himself at home there.

      • I have walked that thing to the other side. The trick is to pay attention to what is important.

        The most important thing being, that this understanding of knowledge and gestures and whatnot, the understanding of a person as a unit separate from the world is a heuristics, a shortcut, a tool.

        When there is devotion, this is not present. I like devotion.

        Ask the questions, please.

      • ‘…we will happily sacrifice our bodies for our stories, but never vice versa’.
        The history of forced mass conversion suggests otherwise. When offered the choice: “Convert or die!” – many have been persuaded.

      • “If the cook cooks because of his children, he isn’t really cooking.”
        Cooking for others is still cooking.

      • “Do you remember the bricklaying scene from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where Ivan enjoys the sight of a newly built wall, even though he is fully aware of the circumstances?”
        Lt Colonel Nicholson loved his beautiful Bridge on the River Kwai. He still blew it up when the time came.

      • “Then what did they -truly- believe?
        And is it that different from what they believe after the conversion?”
        Why ask me?

  9. 1
    Oldřich: “Do you have time to read two books
    you almost certainly haven’t and quite possibly should?”

    Oldřich: “Do you have time to read two books you almost certainly haven’t
    and quite possibly should?”

    Ecclesiastes 12:12 “…of making many books there is no end;
    and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”


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