Why Tantalus?

Corny as it may sound, I have always wanted to be a writer. As a teenager I dreamt of writing a great work of philosophy, the definitive once and for all answer to the big questions about the meaning of life. 

Needless to say I didn’t get very far.

In my late teens and early twenties I did actually manage to write a book. I suppose it was a kind of novel. I sent it to a number of publishers and literary agents. Most replied with standard rejection slips. Of the two or three whose letters suggested they’d actually looked at the manuscript, at least briefly, before consigning it to the bin, one stands out in particular. Parts of the book were interesting, they said, but it was pretentious in the wrong kind of way.

I’ve been trying to figure out the right way of being pretentious ever since!

While I was doing my PhD, I started publishing the occasional academic article, and began to think once more about writing some sort of a book dealing with the big questions. I was accumulating lots of material, but wasn’t sure what to do with it all.

At about the same time, I also took part in a religious TV documentary series called The Monastery.

This impacted my life in a number of ways, one of which being that I was invited to write a few articles in the press and in due course was contacted by a couple of publishers. Before I knew it I was talking to four different people about four different projects, and I still had a PhD to finish. I approached an agent for advice, and together we settled on an idea that eventually became my first book: Tantalus and the Pelican.

In brief, it’s a book about the religious life that includes elements of history of monasticism, the practice of spiritual discipline, and how all of that might be relevant to the rest of us. It is also a book that tells the story of my own spiritual journey, with a particular emphasis on my encounters with various monastic communities. 

People often ask me about the title – hopefully because they think it sounds intriguing. But it wasn’t planned like that. The title just occurred to me as a pleasing combination of words, which I only analysed retrospectively. And all of that, moreover, was long before I started to write the book itself. Luckily, most of the reviewers got it about right. Tantalus, from whose name we get our English word ‘tantalise’, was the character in Greek mythology punished for his all-too-human vanity by being confined to a pool of water in Tartarus – deepest pit of the underworld – where every time he bends down to quench his thirst the waters recede, and every time he reaches up to pluck the grapes overhanging the pool, a gust of wind blows them out of reach. It’s one of those stories so deeply embedded in our history and language that it has literally become part of who we are. Like Tantalus, we too are condemned to seek the satisfaction of desires that cannot be fulfilled, to pursue goals that cannot be attained, and to suffer torments that cannot be relieved. Tantalus is thus meant to be taken as a symbol of the existential frustration that characterises the problem of being human.

Stories are the basis of every worldview, religious and non-religious ones alike. For Christians, however, even the world itself was until relatively recently understood as a story. Described as the ‘book of nature’ – a physical expression of the word of God – the material world and everything in it was regarded as part of a grand cosmic narrative, to be read as having some sort of theological significance. In the middle-ages, books known as ‘Bestiaries’, which contained descriptions of various animals, plants and minerals – both real and imaginary – together with an explanation of their symbolic meaning, became hugely popular. Most of these Bestiaries were based on a second-century Alexandrian text known as the Physiologus, itself derived from classical authorities such as Aristotle and Herodotus.

It was from such texts that the medieval world derived its sometimes fanciful knowledge of exotic species – including the pelican. This was described as a bird that lives in Egypt, either in the desert or the waters of Nile, where it eats fish and baby crocodiles. As the pelican chicks grow up, they inadvertently scratch their parents with their beaks, causing the mother pelican to strike back in anger, accidentally killing her offspring. Three days later, filled with remorse, the mother pecks at her own breast, and the drops of blood falling on her chicks brings them back to life.

The pelican thus became a popular Christian symbol, representing the sacrificial love of Christ giving new life to a fallen world. Images of pelicans – whether carved in wood and stone, or depicted in stained glass windows – can be found in many churches to this day. The pelican was also a symbol of the desert monks, who followed a path of self-sacrifice in order to be closer to God. So the title reflects many of the themes of the book, not least the story of a personal journey from frustration and despair towards redemption and freedom. 

And that theme of a journey also explains why the cover depicts a map.

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