Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, October 20, 2020


"The Gods and Ritter Tanhuser" by Vernon Lee

What happens to gods that no longer have believers?  In the case of the Olympians, they his to the realms of nowhere, which is located beyond space and time, and enjoy an eternal existence free of the petty concerns of mankind.  There they live as ideas (albeit somehow retaining their physical constructs) and spend the ages discoursing on intellectual subjects.  Well, most of them do.  Aphrodite, however, has returned to Earth to live on a hilltop abode with the mortal Tanhuser, a High Dutch (German) man who considers himself a poet.  This arrangement had been going on very satisfactorily for Aphrodite for about a year, when Tanhuser becomes obsessed with entering a poetical contest to be held in Wartburg, the prize being a used gloved from the aged (and ugly) wife of a tyrant.  Aphrodite is distraught that a mere human would forsake her for a poetry competition.  Weeping, she flees back beyond space and time to the Olympians, where she describes her plight.

Despite being gods, the Olympians are remarkably human in their emotions.  Apollo, the god of poetry, volunteers to go to Earth and bring Tanhuser back to Aphrodite.  (Aphrodite, herself, is supposed too upset to step foot back on Earth).  Athena than volunteers to go with Apollo, in part because she does not trust him, fearing he would enter the competition himself.  Zeus, being Zeus, lays an unnecessary condition upon the adventure -- If Tanhuser utters Aphrodite's name three times, the goddess must forsake him and have nothing ever to do with him from then on.  This is the type of mythical catch that Zeus enjoys.promoting.

So Apollo and Athena travel to Earth to accompany Tanhuser (who resents the intrusion) to the competition; the gods take the form of a Greek grammarian (Apollo) and a Moorish necromancer (Athena) who are the last of Tanhuser's retainers who had survived a supposed "shipwreck" on the way back from Tanhuser's "heroic" adventures in the Holy Lands.  (A much better excuse, Tanhuser thinks, than spending a missing year shacking up with Aphrodite.)  Just before they reach Wartburg, Tanhuser speeds ahead, wearing a magic helmet of invisibility given him by Aphrodite, and leaving his two-god entourage in the distance.  By the time Apollo and Athena reach the gates of Wartburg, Tanhuser is nowhere to be found.  And Apollo and Athena find themselves in a country that speaks no Greek or Latin and where they do not speak German.  (Sigh)  Communications becomes a problem.

Apollo manages to meet the Mitred Abbess of Mulda, who is thrilled to be able to use her monastic Latin, an idiom that Apollo understands only vaguely (it is not classical Latin, is it?).  Aphrodite meets the Cardinal, a necromancer who has made a deal with the Devil to ultimately become Pontefex Maximus.  Tanhuser has his turn at the competition and unknowingly uses Aphrodite's Latin name three times in his poem.  This, per Zeus' dictate and an oath he made Aphrodite swear on the Waters of the Styx, puts the goddess permanently out of his reach.  It also violates a rule of the competition that (Tanhuser did not know) that does not allow mention of mythical figures; if this rule is violated three times, an angry mob will descend upon the violator, bind him to a chair, and dunk him into the moat where tadpoles will invade his body.  While Tanhuser is being taken off to his punishment, Apollo takes his turn at the competition.  The god picks up Tanhuser's broken harp (pretty much destroyed by the angry mob) and begins his "poem."  His fingers strum the air above the harp and images and sounds of nature appear; Apollo does not have to recite a thing -- the spellbound audience "feels" his piece through sight and emotion.  Apollo then assumes a godly form and arise to the sky.  Athena, having out-magicked the necromantic Cardinal, leaves him drooling and gap-jawed as she also flies through the air back to the Olympians.  The devil will never be able to honor his deal.

Much of this tale is presented in over-flowery language that heightens the satirical content.  All is fair game here for the author:  art, religion, love, politics, human foibles...

A witty and enjoyable fantasy by Violet Paget (1856-1935), who wrote under the pseudonym of "Vernon Lee."  Paget/Lee is now best known for her supernatural stories, including the classic "Oke of Okehurst;" she was also major literary figure whose essays on aesthetics, travel, and literary criticism were much appreciated in her time.  An avowed lesbian, she remained a very private person while also espousing progressive politics.  Paget scholar Phyllis Mannocchi notes, "She wrote on p[olitics and was very progressive for her time.  She was a supporter of women's suffrage, she was antivivisectionist and antiwar, and she belonged to a group investigating the psychology of sex."

"The Gods and Ritter Tanhuser" appeared in her 1927 collection For Maurice:  Five Unlikely Stories under the title "Tanhauser and the Gods."  It is available to read online at, the online arm of The Sybil -- A Journal of Vernon Lee Studies.


  1. I love when you come up with writers and stories I'm not familiar with!

  2. I've read one or two "Lee" stories over the years, but never delved into her background. Interesting stuff!

  3. Thanks, Jerry. Not familiar with this but I bet you could have guessed that.

  4. A new author to me, too, Jerry. A very interesting person.