The Ecofantasies of Mary Fairclough, Part 2: The Blue Tree (1960)

[This is the second of two blog posts on a genuinely lost writer-artist, Mary Fairclough, who seems to me to be a genuinely major practitioner. You can find the first blog-post here. The book described in this, the second part, could hardly be more relevant to our situation at this particular moment in the twenty-first century.]

Fairclough’s dustjacket for The Blue Tree, illustrating the ancient Iranian art of wrestling.

After finishing Little Dog and the Rainmakers, Mary Fairclough waited more than a decade before publishing her next novel. In the intervening years the Cold War tightened its grip on the world, and the United Nations found its ideals of international cooperation and respect for human rights on the verge of obliteration. As a result, perhaps, The Blue Tree is a much more complex book than its predecessors, and this may account for its disappearance from the collective memory of readers and book historians. Socialist-internationalist politics and a powerful green undercurrent tie it to its predecessors, Miskoo the Lucky and Little Dog and the Rainmakers. Its interwoven plot, however, featuring a vast array of characters from different classes, cultures and religions, marks a radical advance in literary technique, while its focus on a single setting – a small local space that gradually emerges as having economic, ecological and spiritual ties with every corner of the continent that holds it – sets it apart from the tales of long journeys at the centre of Fairclough’s earlier fictions. Journeys are still present, of course, but each one begins and ends in a small city-state on a plain surrounded by mountains. Fairclough’s mother urged her to ‘Do your best in your own little corner’, and Fairclough responded many years later with the crucial question, ‘where does one’s own corner end?’, not overturning but radically building on her mother’s philosophy.[1] The local is always and everywhere also the global, her words suggest, and The Blue Tree – a fiction for the United Nations, if ever there was one, though without any formal ties to that organization – provides the perfect illustration of her point.

It’s hard to say what age-group The Blue Tree is aimed at. Fairclough published it with her own illustrations, and this may have marked it out for many as a book for children. It contains Djinns and sorceresses, protective amulets and magical curses, and these too may have confirmed it as a fairy tale for younger readers. But it can also be read as a book that challenges the paradigm of adult fantasy set by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which had been published a few years previously, in 1954-5, but had not yet gained the level of global popularity it would achieve in the 1960s. Fairclough’s book is set not in Europe but Western Asia – specifically Mesopotamia, the ‘Land of the Two Rivers’ as it’s known in Greek and Arabic (p. 7) – a place where a rich diversity of peoples and cultures converge, exchange ideas and live together in cooperative interdependence. It concerns, not a journey across a little-known landscape, but a city seeking to throw off the shackles of oppression; not a picked band of questers, chosen by an unelected Council of the Wise for a secret mission, but a network of friends from different classes and cultures drawn together by similar needs, whose mutual affection helps them turn the tide of tyranny and fashion a brief but brilliant Golden Age for their interlinked communities. The outcome of the book hinges on, not a single grand gesture that liberates the world from the threat of spiritual annihilation – casting the Ring into the Crack of Doom – but the continuous, exhausting, satisfying process of maintaining a small society in good order, as far as possible under the historical circumstances. A Ring is present in Fairclough’s novel, but it’s a Ring that once belonged to a just, wise ruler, not a despot, and for most of the book it’s assumed to have been lost, an apt metaphor for the fragility of just governance in a world where powerful people see the powerless as animals, and animals as commodities without rights or feelings. In addition, Fairclough’s Ring is not singular; it is one of multiple tokens and talismans which bind one community to another in a network of trust and affection – as against the bonds of fear and sorcery that bind the subservient rings in Tolkien’s text to the One Ring that controls them. Like Tolkien’s, Fairclough’s novel is exquisitely plotted, with a design like the richest of Persian carpets (though Fairclough’s illustrations call to mind miniatures, not rugs). And it draws attention at every point to the complementarity of art, politics and the natural world: a subject clearly close to Fairclough’s heart throughout her lifetime. In this, it serves as a perfect summary of the qualities that define her as an artist ahead of her time.

Anonymous miniature, 1431: Majnun in the desert with wild animals, from The Hermitage, St Petersburg. Click for details.

The book is divided into three parts. The first and longest (Chapter 2; I count Chapter 1 as a prologue) tells the tale of the Wazir Barmek, a shepherd from the mountains who finds himself unexpectedly appointed first minister to the new Sultan of Kashkot, an imaginary city-state somewhere in the north of the so-called ‘island’ between the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates.[2] The Sultan is an indolent young man called Khalid, Barmek’s best friend since childhood, who has himself been elevated from mountain shepherd to head of state with equal suddenness. Abruptly transplanted by the hand of God from his upland village to the city, from herding sheep to herding people, Barmek is forced to seek support from as many people in Kashkot as he can manage to make his friends: from the merchant Ali Houssain, to whom he once sold fleeces, to Hafiz, the Librarian of the Royal Palace; from Daresh, the Captain of the Sultan’s Royal Guard, to the bandit-rebel Khalidad; from the young dam engineer Farhad to the misanthropic caravan-master Austa Muthanna. His efforts to create a more or less equitable society are opposed by the Sultan’s wife, a sorceress who uses magic to pervert the city and its occupants into tools in her scheme to install her dead father Douban, the former Wazir, as Kashkot’s absolute ruler. Her machinations come to a climax with the transformation of Barmek into a Ram and his banishment from the city. The Wazir’s disappearance leaves her with unchallenged control over the Sultan, whose lazy self-indulgence plunges the city-state into tyranny as the Sultaness tightens her grip on its unfortunate people.

The second part, shorter than the first (Chapters 3-7), tells the story of various individuals who find themselves in exile from Kashkot before and after Barmek’s transformation. Chief among them is Zeid, the young Prince of Kashkot, who flees the city to escape the Sultaness’s schemes to sacrifice him in a bid to restore her father to life through sorcery; and Barmek’s young daughter Saffiya, who flees from the Sultaness’s machinations with her mother, guiding her to safety in Barmek’s old home in the mountains before setting off on a lonely quest to find the lost Wazir. The paths of these two young exiles eventually lead them back to Kashkot, and it’s there that the third and final section of the book takes place (Chapter 8), as the various threads of the narrative combine to bring about the restoration of Barmek to human form, the fall of the Sultan and Sultaness, and the installation of Zeid and Saffiya as joint rulers of the city. Their placement on the Sultan’s throne marks the transformation of Kashkot into a kind of Utopia; but as with Fairclough’s other stories this effect is achieved only after a book-long struggle, and its stability is not guaranteed. By that stage in the novel we have learned too much about the historical forces ranged against all Utopias to believe that any one of them can last for ever.

My summary describes what could be called the human aspect of Fairclough’s plot; but running through the book is a second thematic strand, devoted to the troubled relationship between humans and animals. Fairclough’s Mesopotamia is dependent on beasts of many kinds, from the sheep tended by mountain shepherds like Barmek to the donkeys, mules and camels that make up the caravans that traverse the great trade routes across the whole of Asia. At the same time, many of the Mesopotamians despise the nonhuman creatures they rely on, especially the dogs who guard their sheep and homes from the depredations of wolves both real and metaphorical. There is a similar disdain among many of Kashkot’s citizens for the lower orders of human beings who keep their homes and businesses running. Like other city-states in medieval times, Kashkot relies on slaves as well as beasts for its essential needs, and treats enslaved humans with as little dignity as dogs, mules and donkeys.

The same attitude prevails among the inhabitants of the spiritual realm that forms the third thematic strand in Fairclough’s novel. The lower orders of spirits are enslaved and treated like beasts by their more powerful superiors, with some notable exceptions such as the legendary sorcerer King Solomon, who might have served as a model of decent governance were it not for his failure to abolish the practice of slavery altogether. The presence of enslaved people and abused animals throughout Fairclough’s narrative gives it a darker tone than either of her previous works of fiction, and ties it more closely, perhaps, to the dark times it was written in.

The Lord of the Rings, First Edition.

The Lord of the Rings draws largely on European sources, from Beowulf to the Icelandic sagas, from the romances of William Morris to the quirky fantastic narratives of the first half of the twentieth century. The Blue Tree takes inspiration from a very different set of texts. These include The Thousand and One Nights, the Persian epic the Shahnameh, and the work of the great Iranian poets, such as Sa’adi – whose uncompromising advice to rulers is effectively embodied in the words and deeds of the Wazir Barmek – or Nizami, whose epic treatment of the legendary lover Majnun is mentioned in relation to the Wazir’s forced separation from his wife and daughter (p. 109). The Thousand and One Nights provides a model for the book’s interwoven narratives and themes, which run through each of its three sections, while the Shahnameh appears in the text as ‘The Book of Kings’, which is slowly being embellished with sumptuous illustrations under the direction of Hafiz, the royal librarian. The folktales of the incomparable Mullah Nasruddin may well have fed into Fairclough’s confection, relying as they so often do on Nasruddin’s friendly proximity to animals, especially his beloved donkey, which he is said to have ridden backwards while dispensing witty words of wisdom. Animals feature prominently in Iranian art and literature, from miniatures depicting the insane lover Majnun being protected by wild beasts to rugs like the Wagner Garden Carpet in Glasgow. All but two of Fairclough’s thirteen illustrations for her novel – a frontispiece in colour, the rest black and white – feature animals or mythical creatures as well as humans, thereby pointing up the three narrative strains – human, beast and mythic – that run through the text.[3]

The Wagner Garden Carpet, from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow. Click for details.

Another source is the many legends of King Solomon, as collected in St John Seymour’s Tales of King Solomon (1924) and elsewhere. Solomon’s legend was perhaps best known to British readers of Fairclough’s generation from its presence in H. Ryder Haggard’s bestselling novel King Solomon’s Mines (1885). One can detect Haggard’s influence on The Blue Tree in the presence both of a hidden kingdom next to Kashkot – the tiny realm of Lamissar, ‘a warm, sleepy valley ringed round with high mountains, whose people mined rubies while their lords practised magic’[4] – and of a powerful sorceress with power over life and death, who is referred to not by her name but as ‘the Daughter of Douban’, just as Ayisha in Haggard’s She (1887) is known for the most part only as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Fairclough’s novel, however, comes across as a critique of Haggard rather than a homage to him. At the beginning, the mountain kingdom of Lamissar is joined with the city on the plain, Kashkot, through marriage, as the Lamissar-born sorceress, the Daughter of Douban, weds Barmek’s boyhood friend Khalid, the new Sultan of Kashkot. Lamissar, then, never exists in a state of mysterious seclusion, unlike Haggard’s Kukuanaland; it is tied to the world by multiple strands or channels, some of them literal, such as the canal that carries water from a waterfall in Lamissar to the Kashkot Plain. In addition, the Lamissar sorceress’s bid to become She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is successfully resisted, not by a pair of upper-class British adventurers, but by a diverse collection of rebels from all classes and cultures united by their friendship for Barmek. Instead of a colonial quest into a hidden kingdom at the heart of the colonised territories, Fairclough’s story concerns (among other things) certain residents of that hidden kingdom, who then become residents of the neighbouring city and exert their influence over it. Besides the scheming Daughter of Douban, these include her fellow Lamissar native Abu Misimir, a ‘serene and efficient’ steward who becomes one of Barmek’s closest friends and imparts to him the magic talisman, the Blue Tree of the title, which protects him against the sorceress’s machinations. The mines of Lamissar serve not to enrich its rulers, or some white adventurers who penetrate its secrets, but to meet the needs of the people of both kingdoms under Barmek’s wise governance. Fairclough’s anti-lost-world romance is a work of social inclusiveness and multiculturalism rather than a bid to romanticize the exploits of British colonists.

Indeed, the only mention of European people in the book is as a distant crusading menace. In the second part of the novel, male members of a nomadic Bedouin tribe, the Beni Hillal, set off to combat that menace in support of the legendary commander, Salah-ed-Din or Saladin (p. 152); and at this point their adoptive son, Prince Zeid, returns to Kashkot to fulfil his destiny, symbolically turning his face away from Europe and towards the complex ecology of Asia. Kashkot, then, represents the polar opposite of a colonial narrative, and its exclusion of English or even European elements affirms Fairclough’s repudiation of the imperialist aspects of her British heritage.

In support of this anti-imperialist agenda, it’s worth noting that The Blue Tree embraces an unparalleled richness of different cultures, none of which gains precedence over the rest. These cultures are encountered not one by one, as they are in Tolkien’s there-and-back-again narrative journey, but as interacting with one another at each stage of Fairclough’s novel, and as coming together to spark off a popular insurrection in its third and final section. Within Kashkot’s territory there are the tall, proud folk of the mountains among whom Barmek grew up, cut off from Kashkot by snows throughout the winter months and fiercely independent in their characteristics and customs; the people of Lamissar, whose Zoroastrian heritage survives in the magic they secretly practise; and the Gamru Khel, small, tough men and women who wear knives even in bed, and who subsist in the poorest part of Kashkot’s demesnes by mining and working iron. Representatives of each of these peoples live in the city, alongside Jewish merchants – represented by the wise and empathic Ben Ephraim – and folk from distant lands – like the so-called ‘Black Pearl’, whose African tribe is known for producing ‘very great warriors’ (p. 103). All Kashkot’s inhabitants, including the enslaved Lamissar steward Abu Misimir, Kalidad the leader of the Gamru Khel, Ben Ephraim the Jew and the African Black Pearl, are drawn into the network of friendship that surrounds Barmek. Beyond Kashkot’s borders we meet the nomadic Mongols, waiting patiently for the moment when they will rise up to build the greatest empire in the world; the intellectuals of Ispahan, a city ‘seething with scholars, mad for learning, [and] drunk with argument’ (p. 45); the Children of Han in distant China, represented by the Chinese engineer who teaches the young Kashkot nobleman Farhad how to build canals; the Beni Hillal Bedouins, with whom young Prince Zeid finds shelter in exile; and the Mongolian shaman, Kamut-Shann the Merry, whose reputation for wisdom and magic extends from the Arctic north ‘where the white falcons breed’ to the ‘roof of the world’ – the Himalayas – and beyond, into ‘Hindostan’ (p. 179). All these people, too, find a place in Barmek’s story, sometimes at two or three removes. The Beni Hillal tribe, for example, are connected to Barmek through their rescue and raising of Prince Zeid, who ends by marrying Safiya, the Wazir’s daughter. The Children of Han are linked to Barmek by inspiring Farhad to build his canals – Farhad being the Wazir’s young protégé and friend. Little Dog learned in his quest how four different human peoples in North America were interconnected, and how they interacted in diverse ways with beasts and the land. The Blue Tree incorporates multiple cultures and communities into its portrait of a single city, refusing to privilege any one perspective, in direct defiance of the British imperialist tradition.

 

Many of Fairclough’s cultures have a special relationship with particular animals. Barmek’s mountain people, for instance, are shepherds, and so have a high regard for dogs: ‘although the Prophet (may Allah bless him!) did not like them,’ Barmek observes, ‘I have known many excellent dogs’ (p. 39). The Mongolian herdsmen privilege their horses above most humans. The Beni Hillal favour camels, and pass on their affection for these unruly beasts to their adoptive child, young Prince Zeid. Unusually close relationships with animals feature prominently in another text from Fairclough’s time associated with Solomon: Konrad Lorenz’s bestselling book Er redete mit dem Vieh, den Vögeln und den Fischen (1949), translated into English in 1952 as King Solomon’s Ring. The book’s English title references the Ring or Seal of Solomon, which certain legends identify as the source of his magic powers, while others affirm it gave him the power to communicate with animals. Lorenz’s book describes his own attempts to communicate with birds and beasts while developing the theories of animal psychology that eventually led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize. Fairclough’s interest in Grey Owl could well have led her to read King Solomon’s Ring as a natural follow-up to Belaney’s account of his relationships with Canadian beavers (she could not have known, in the 1950s, of Lorenz’s membership of the Nazi party, nor of his early linkage of his theories to the pseudo-science of eugenics). The Ring of Solomon features in The Blue Tree, though more as a source of magic than as a means of translating animal languages. Unlike Miskoo the Lucky or Little Dog and the Rainmakers there are no talking animals in Fairclough’s last novel; communication with beasts is achieved only by careful and sympathetic observation, of the kind Lorenz advocated. But Fairclough’s Ring does represent a covenant or agreement between a monarch and his people, a promise on the part of the king to protect his subjects – among whom he numbers animals and spirits as well as human beings – from oppression by the powerful. And her story of the Ring, and of that other protective talisman, The Blue Tree, features human-animal relations throughout its length. The topic is not foregrounded as it is in Fairclough’s other narratives, but emerges in the end as a crucial theme – perhaps the central theme – of this work of art.

The novel opens with a reimagining of the story of Solomon’s Ring (Chapter 1, which serves as a prologue). King Solomon, here named as Hazrat Suleman, is flying around his kingdom on his magic carpet, which also carries representatives of his various subjects: humans, animals, birds and spirits. At each corner of his carpet stands one of these representatives – the Prince of Men, the Prince of Demons, the Prince of Beasts and the Prince of Birds – keeping it ‘steady’ and the world in equilibrium (p. 7). Suleman’s generous understanding of the term ‘subject’ arises from the fact that in his lifetime the world is bigger than it is today, ‘with room in it for other races besides the race of men’ (p. 7). Indeed, the first use of Suleman’s Ring we witness – the only use, in fact – is to protect a nonhuman being, a Djinn from the island of Zanzibar, off Africa, who is being pursued by a malevolent Peri or female spirit, who wishes to enslave him. The Djinn is not Suleman’s subject, but he is a jeweller of great skill, a manufacturer of works of art in metal like the Ring on Suleman’s finger; and the King, we are told, has great sympathy for artists under duress, being a ‘fine architect’ himself who has been forced to make ugly buildings at the behest of his many wives (p. 8). The Peri, on the other hand, has terrible taste in jewels – her bracelets and bangles make Suleman ‘wince’ when he sees them (p. 10) – and no interest in artistic or personal freedoms, since she wishes the Djinn to fashion jewels exclusively for her. Suleman agrees to protect the Djinn by sealing him up in a mountain cave for a thousand years, using his Ring as a magic key. By the end of this time, he hopes, the Peri will have ‘found another jeweller and forgotten you’ (p. 8). Unfortunately, however, the King reckons without two things: that he may lose the Ring, which he needs to release the Djinn, and that the Peri may have a long and vindictive memory. The occurrence of both these eventualities triggers Fairclough’s plot. But before saying more, we need to dwell for a moment on that opening fable.

Fairclough, King Suleman’s Magic Carpet. Note the four representatives of Suleman’s subjects standing by the king, and the Djinn in the foreground clinging to the edge of the carpet.

The tale of the loss of Suleman’s Ring is a parable of multicultural open-mindedness pitted against capitalistic self-centredness and greed. The focus of this opening story – an artist threatened with slavery –  sets the problem of making good art in a troubled and unequal world at the heart of the novel that follows. Suleman understands the artist-jeweller’s problem as his own responsibility, regardless of boundaries between nations, races, classes or indeed species. He does his best to resolve it, suitably enough with a work of art he possesses, the Ring: using jewellery to save a jeweller, so to speak. Not long afterwards, however, he loses the Ring that will release the imprisoned artist, an incident based on Arabic sources (according to one legend, Solomon’s Ring was stolen from him by the demon Asmodeus, who ruled in Solomon’s place for forty days while the King wandered the earth in rags, before being restored to his throne by the Ring’s recovery). As a result, the Djinn finds himself alone and in darkness for over a thousand years; an apt metaphor for the condition of art under oppressive regimes. Such art and its practitioners do not cease to exist; they are merely locked away and rendered inaccessible, waiting for the moment when conditions are right for their release. Suleman, too, is lost in this period, since he dies not long after he imprisons the Djinn, and with him dies the art of equitable governance. With him, too, dies the sense of the world as something more than the province of human beings, as well as the sense of one’s responsibilities as extending beyond the interests of one’s nation, city, species, class, or self. Fairclough’s book addresses all these losses and the attempt to recover them; and as an artist, she represents that recovery in terms of art.

Like the term ‘subject’ in Suleman’s lifetime, which has a wider compass than ours, Fairclough’s understanding of the term ‘art’ extends far beyond the work of self-identified ‘artists’. Among the craftspeople she celebrates in her novel are the Librarian, who spends his life working on a true history of his times to counter the sanitised official version; a canal engineer, who seeks to construct a water system to irrigate the Plain of Kashkot and bring much-needed water to the city; the Captain of the Guard and one of his guardsmen, who specialise in the arts of combat, including wrestling; a caravan master who is also an adept in the art of travel; two women (Barmek’s wife and mother) who practise the art of running a household; and many more. As Wazir of Kashkot, Barmek becomes patron and enabler of all these forms of art, showing as much appreciation for, say, the art of training horses or the art of wrestling as he does for the telling of tales and the weaving of carpets.[5]

Fairclough’s painting of Keynsham in Keynsham Library. My thanks to Tim Whyte, Keynsham Library Manager, for taking the photo. Click for details.

Fairclough’s own appreciation of the arts extended well beyond the conventional province of the art school graduate. A substantial painting she produced for Keynsham Library – which can still be seen there – embraces a range of specialist activities, from music and spinning to chocolate-making and playing with a ball. There is a portrait of the composer Handel, who is said to have gifted Keynsham church with a peal of bells in exchange for its organ; a cinema showing Walt Disney’s great animated feature, Bambi (1942); a workman manufacturing the brassware for which Keynsham was once famous; a huntsman on horseback chasing deer; a chocolate maker at Fry’s factory in Keynsham; a footballer and a cricket player; a soldier arm-in-arm with a dragon, which could represent the Keynsham Mummer’s play of Saint George, in which the saint is killed by a soldier called Slasher (although there is no Dragon in this version of George’s story);[6] a blacksmith shoeing a horse; and many industrial workers and farm labourers. All these people could be described as artists in their own practices, and Fairclough’s enshrining of them in a work of art unites them all under art’s umbrella, celebrating their craftsmanship just as Barmek celebrates and supports the craftsmanship of Kashkot’s diverse citizens.

Along the bottom of Fairclough’s Keynsham painting runs a series of animal paintings (badger, stoats, fox, rabbits, squirrel and otter), as if to confirm nonhuman beings as the roots or foundations of human life. Animals are scattered through the painting, too, including sheep in a field and on a boat. The sheep may remind us that the foundations of the Wazir Barmek’s success as a ruler lie in his skills as a mountain shepherd, an intermediary between humans and beasts. In his home village he is not a leader, but rather ‘one of those reliable people to whom other people leave all the work’ (p. 13), especially the work of looking after his indolent friend Khalid, the care of the community’s flocks, and selling fleeces in the Kashkot market. He knows the vagaries of the seasons, moving his flocks from high ground to low as winter turns to spring.  He knows the practical needs of his people: as he transports his fleeces to market he keeps going over the shopping list his community has given him, which includes salt, coffee, rice, and ‘a fine copper coffee-pot for my mother’ (p. 13). And he knows the needs of the mules that carry the fleeces. When a cheeky melon-seller pops his load of melons onto the lead mule’s back, hoping to cadge a free ride, Barmek tells him to transfer the melons to another beast because ‘This mule is loaded heavily enough’ (p. 15). When he reaches Kashkot and finds it buzzing with excitement at the prospect of the selection of a new Sultan after the death of the old one, Barmek again thinks first of his mules – ‘a string of restive mules […] not used to crowds’ (p. 16) – and makes sure they are soothed and watered while Khalid rushes off to enjoy the spectacle. Fairclough’s attention to the detail of Barmek’s work with animals tells us at once about the man’s personality; he takes less care for himself than for the needs of the people and creatures who depend on him, and his particular care for animals identifies him as humane as well as well-organised, two qualities that prove essential for his political career.

Fairclough: Barmek watches from a distance at the ceremony of the choosing of the Sultan. Note the drummers on black camels and the white horse bearing Khaled, the new Sultan. Click for details.

As I’ve already suggested, animals permeate The Blue Tree, and while this may not be obvious at once to Fairclough’s readers, Barmek proves unusually attentive to their presence. For instance, Barmek’s perception of the ceremony for selecting the new Sultan is entirely mediated through his response to the nonhuman beings involved. He notes how there is a horse at the centre of the ceremonial parade, and how ‘so glorious was the horse […] that although its bridle was purple and its headband set with rubies, yet they looked cheap upon it’ (p. 17). He notes too that the leading actor in the selection process – a Hawk whose choice of Sultan must by tradition be respected by Kashkot’s citizens – is a ‘slim small streak of a bird, white and lovely as the horse’ (p. 17). When the Hawk turns its head towards him, he promptly bows as though ‘to a small and terrible king’. Barmek’s values, the scene suggests, are based on his personal judgment of living creatures, not on conventional human priorities or hierarchies, and the creatures and people he values respond to Barmek’s qualities as he responds to theirs.

For Barmek, animals are foundational to his working life as well as to the political life of the city. His recognition of their importance is reflected in his treatment of them, just as his treatment of people reflects his recognition that every one of them forms an integral part of the community he belongs to; for instance, he has a fountain in the city constructed so that animals as well as people can drink from its waters (p. 110). His acknowledgement of the kinship between beasts and humans stems from the fact that he sees himself as no more than equal to the animals that serve him. His job as the new Wazir, the chief minister and effective ruler of the city (p. 20), represents a great sacrifice on his part – he would much rather go back to his life in the mountains, with sheep, mules and dogs; and this makes him effectively the Sultan’s indentured servant for the term of the Sultan’s life. In the end, in fact, it makes him the Sultan’s slave, since he is increasingly treated as a slave by the Sultaness, who first deprives him of wife and daughter by sending them into exile using her sorcery, then transforms Barmek himself into a speechless Ram. As a result, Barmek has a high regard for his fellow servants – who include animals like the Hawk, the white horse, and a ferocious stallion known as Blood-for-Breakfast (p. 98) – and for the enslaved human people who become his friends.

The new Sultan, Khaled, fights with the Wazir Douban, as he seeks to consolidate his hold on the throne. Note the vultures overhead, which Fairclough discusses in detail on p. 31.

Indeed, the Wazir ‘reads’ human beings as animals repeatedly. For him the Captain of the Guard, Daresh, resembles a dog, who worries at problems ‘like a dog with a burr in his tail’ (p. 22). So does the steward Abu Misimir, though he also has characteristics of a sheep (p. 39). Barmek’s friend the Khan of the Southern Marches has a close physical likeness to the eagles he hunts with (p. 51). The loyal guardsman Dhiab first recalls a dog (p. 60) and later a mule (p. 70); the Keeper of the Royal Treasury calls to mind a ‘tortoise in a cave’ (p. 66); Barmek’s wife Najla resembles ‘a duck on a swift current’ as she rides to her wedding (p. 82); and the warrior-brigand Kalidad has the reflexes of a feral cat (p. 91). All these people are Barmek’s allies, but his enemies too have nonhuman qualities. The carpet-seller Ibrahim, whose lack of talent as a maker of carpets leads him to despise and betray more talented people out of envy and self-interest, resembles a crow: one of those ‘crows that follow many ploughs, the makers of patch-work, taking an idea here and a colour there, a form of words, another man’s methods, and striving to make a new thing without power to create’ (p. 112). The analogy ties him to the unscrupulous crow Kahgahgengs in Little Dog and the Rainmakers, who thieves from his fellow animals and endangers children’s lives for his own amusement. The Daughter of Douban, meanwhile, shifts her animal nature as it suits her, sometimes recalling a ‘wicked cat’ (p. 36), at others a bat (p. 104), and ending her days as a bird in a cage (p. 105), suitably enough for a person who has specialised in caging others. Like Ibrahim, however, she most closely resembles Kahgahgengs the self-serving crow. When she contrives to send Barmek’s family into exile, Barmek forces her to observe them every day through her magic powers, like the wicked Queen in Snow White (1937), reporting back to him on their wellbeing, though she cannot tell him where they are or what they are doing (pp. 104-5; p. 167). In the same way, the Jossakeed of Lost Lake in Little Dog forced Kahgahgengs to keep an eye on Little Dog’s progress across the continent in search of rain, reporting every day on his wellbeing, though the crow too could not say where the boy was or what he was up to. As with Ibrahim, the Sorceress’s willingness to make other people her instruments ends by condemning her to becoming an instrument herself, a fate all the more terrible for her in that she has no concept of self-sacrifice for the common good, unlike Barmek and his friends.

Barmek, on the other hand, is concerned with the wellbeing of the whole community, not just himself and his family, and repeatedly finds common ground with his fellow citizens. At one key point in the novel, for instance, he makes friends with a dishevelled young man who resembles ‘a trapped, half-starved animal’ (p. 42) of the kind he might have encountered in the mountains. The Wazir is drawn to this young man when he sees a model the boy is making out of mud in the palace garden, which he recognises at once as a model of Kashkot and its territories, with a non-existent canal running through the middle. Barmek can ‘read’ the model, so to speak, thanks to his shepherd’s training (‘Every hillman has an eye for country, and having once seen a place can recognise it again, even from a different direction’, p. 42), just as he can ‘read’ the young man’s character thanks to his shepherd’s instinctive sympathy for ill-treated beasts. He ‘tames’ the wild young man, whose name is Farhad, by kindness, ‘moving and talking quietly as if he were dealing with a frightened animal’ (p. 43); and in the process learns that Farhad’s father was put to death by the former Wazir, after which the boy and his brothers sought to avenge themselves ‘like wolves on the world that had killed him’ (p. 47). For their insurrection against the corrupt old Sultan and his wicked minister, Farhad’s brothers were executed, while Farhad was made a slave for Douban’s amusement. The wolf analogy links him to the young warrior Steals-in-the-Snow in Little Dog, who likewise seeks revenge for the death of his family. Steals-in-the-Snow and his older brothers resemble ‘gaunt […] winter wolves’ or ‘lone wolves who have been turned out of the pack’ (Little Dog, pp. 92 and 100), and all of them meet a violent end. Farhad, on the other hand, finds safe haven with Barmek: he is embraced by the new Wazir, restored to freedom and given a useful job. In recompense, Barmek finds in Farhad an expert engineer, whose plan to supply Kashkot with fresh, clean water transforms the city and its environs, bringing new birds and crops to the area formerly known as the ‘Waste of Kashkot’ and ensuring that the Wazir can install his lifesaving fountains in the city streets. Barmek’s sensitivity to beasts and beast-like people, in other words, helps revolutionize Kashkot’s ecology, making it a byword for good land management in twelfth-century Asia.

Barmek’s future wife, Najla daughter of Daresh, watches as Barmek and Farhad ride by on their horses. Najla drops snow on Barmek’s head to draw his attention.

Before joining his brothers’ rebellion, Farhad learned his engineering skills in Ispahan (now Isfahan), an Iranian city ‘seething with scholars [and] drunk with argument’ (p. 45). Here he met a Chinese engineer, with whom he travelled for three years through Mesopotamia, studying the ancient canal systems that criss-cross the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The young man, then, embodies the pan-Asian connections between different human cultures that enable Kashkot to flourish. Another of Barmek’s unlikely friends, the caravan master Austa Muthanna, embodies the pan-Asian connections between human beings and animals. Indeed, animals are responsible for all pan-Asian connections, providing as they do the locomotive energy for the caravans that link Kashkot to Samarkand, Charchan and China (p. 72). Farhad and his Chinese teacher must join caravans to travel safely through Mesopotamia; the merchants of Kashkot, including Ben Ephraim, rely on caravans to send their goods to distant clients; and Austa Muthanna is the most trustworthy caravan master the merchants know of. He is hard on the human ‘riff-raff’ who travel with his caravans, but looks after his animals with the tenderness of a father, and ‘never, never, has he been known to lose one bale of merchandise entrusted to him’, Barmek learns (p. 73). Between them, Farhad and Austa Muthanna confirm Kashkot’s reliance both on its wider Asian context for its prosperity, and on its nonhuman associates to maintain ties with its distant collaborators.

But Austa Muthanna also confirms how far this urban civilization has gone from the easy interdependence between humans and beasts that characterised Fairclough’s first two works of fiction. Animals ‘afflicted of Allah and men’, such as dogs and donkeys, flock to Muthanna in their droves whenever he visits Kashkot, their injuries bearing witness to the violence with which they are handled (p. 72). Barmek sees the caravan master tending to their wounds and speaking to the ‘wolfish’ dogs of Kashkot ‘as to his friends, or his children, his voice rising and falling in a soothing growl’ (p. 75). This makes Muthanna the sole remaining custodian of the ability to communicate with animals that seemed to be common to all humans in Miskoo the Lucky and Little Dog. Muthanna’s own body testifies to equal ill-treatment at some undisclosed period in his past: ‘His face was […] evilly scarred, with one eyelid drooping, a long crooked nose and a bitter mouth’ (p. 75), and the only human associate he can bear is a disabled henchman whose face recalls that of a ‘wistful monkey’ (p. 75), making him ‘as like to an animal as might be’ (p. 76). Muthanna’s disgust for all other human company suggests that the abuse of beasts (and unfortunate human beings) is prevalent across the continent, every part of which he has visited in his travels. The Daughter of Douban’s propensity for diminishing people, as she sees it, by treating them as she treats animals – which is what made Farhad ‘wolfish’ – and the Peri’s delight in making them actual animals through her magic, would seem to be symptomatic of a wider breakdown in relations between human peoples and their nonhuman neighbours, of the kind Grey Owl exposed in the Canadian wilderness.

Barmek, looking out of the window, yearns for the mountains. Beside him is one of the Peri’s magic carpets, which will shortly change him into a Ram.

As one might expect, Barmek’s own understanding of animals allows him to gain the respect and trust of the misanthropic caravan master, and with it some of the insights he has gained from his travels. Being a close and impartial observer of the ebb and flow of the natural world, Muthanna lays claim to the role of a historical commentator like the Royal Librarian, Hafiz, who writes an accurate account of his times in secret while simultaneously preparing a doctored version for the eyes of his tyrannical master, Sultan Khalid. Muthanna is able to speak with authority from a number of positions unavailable to a scholar confined to his library: ‘as the Caravan-master, responsible for lives and merchandise; as the traveller whose eyes are open for the use of a lively and open mind; and as that sometimes terrible thing, the historian who sees the inescapable pattern reaching from the past into the future’ (p. 108). His most striking insights come from an inspection of the condition of the Asian grasslands, on which nomadic horse-herders graze their beasts and whose health or sickness determines their movements. ‘A great, torn, patched green cloak lies over the earth from the Land of the Bright Emperor to the lands of the Feranghis [the European foreigners]’ he tells Barmek, ‘the cloak of the grass’ (p. 108). ‘Out on the cloak of the grass,’ he goes on,

moving with the seasons, were villages, colonies, townships of felt-covered yurts, each owning some Khan as leader to whose war-banner they would rally. And round each cluster of yurts were the herds, the unbelievable herds of the horses, and where the grazing was, there the herds must go. […] For it is the grass, look you, nothing but the grass. Neither love of wealth nor hatred of their enemies will move those hordes, but grass for their horses. They ride into Bokhara and Samarkand, they sell hawks in learned Ispahan, and what do they see? Land that is wasted, for there are cities and gardens on it instead of grass. (pp. 108-9)

One day, Muthanna warns, the dwellers in yurts will decide to clear away these urban centres to make new grazing grounds for their animals; and on that day ‘Bokhara shall become a mud-heap and Thaikan a salt-lick and Ispahan a pile of skulls’ (p. 109). When Barmek thanks him for this warning, Muthanna laughs his laugh ‘like the scream of a peacock’ (p. 106) and reassures him this will not happen for generations. He has told Barmek the story only to comfort him with the thought that after his death the city he ruled will be swept aside, helplessly subject to the changing climate and its consequences. Muthanna has noted the sadness in Barmek’s face, born from the loss of his wife and daughter, and wishes to help him as best he can – including with a bag of pearls, which later supports the poor of Kashkot through a harsh winter, and the gift of another Ring, a ‘great carved emerald’ as green as the grasslands, which the Wazir keeps as a token of their friendship (p. 106). Barmek’s post-loss bitterness chimes with Muthanna’s, but both men find comfort in the knowledge that in the other they have found ‘faith and compassion and courage’ in a human being, and not solely ‘among the four-footed and the winged’ (p. 110). At this late moment in the first section of the novel, Barmek has come to recognise that such qualities are rare among humans and to treasure them all the more wherever he finds them.

The child Prince Zeid rides on a donkey as part of Austa Muthanna’s caravan. A dervish who was once King Suleman walks beside him and Muthanna can be seen in the distance.

The Daughter of Douban, meanwhile, deploys her magic skills not to complement the natural order but to supplant it. She aims to resuscitate her father, killed – or placed in a magical state of suspended animation – by Barmek’s arrow in the course of the fighting that followed Khalid’s selection as Sultan. After she marries Khalid, as part of her plot to install Douban on the Kashkot throne, her first work of enchantment is to make roses grow from pots in winter, their fragrance serving to confuse the senses of those who are exposed to it for any extended period:

from each briar sprang sprays of small green leaves, from each spray a stalk of golden buds, and each golden bud opened into a white velvety rose with a golden centre; and from the last rose to open flew a golden bee and lit on all the other nineteen briars in turn, so that each of them split and budded and blossomed, and the whole Palace was filled with their scent (p. 52).

These roses, the Sorceress claims, will bloom every day while Khalid lives, counting out the days till she can replace him with her resurrected father. They emit the scent of death, not life, and on the day of Khalid’s assassination their corrupting nature becomes apparent as they wither and stink while continuing to grow, ‘filling the Hall, reaching, spreading’, in mimicry of the Sultaness’s relentless quest for power (p. 191). Her second act of enchantment after her marriage is to fashion a Figure of wax and pierce it with pins, thereby wracking Barmek’s body with pain and making him lose a wrestling match in front of the assembled courtiers (p. 60). As a consequence of this incident, Barmek’s friend Abu Misimir gives into his keeping the talisman known as the Blue Tree, which protects him for the rest of his time as Wazir from the worst effects of the Sultaness’s sorcery (p. 64). The talisman confirms Barmek as the Daughter of Douban’s polar opposite, just as his possession of Muthanna’s green Ring identifies him as an ally of the so-called ‘Watcher of Grass’ (p. 108). By the end of the first section of Fairclough’s narrative, the opposing factions have been established and the stakes they play for have been identified. These are nothing less than opposing ways of relating to the environment, which the Sultaness would exploit for her own advantage, while the Wazir would render it hospitable for all his subjects, human and nonhuman alike. The next two sections of the novel trace the complex processes by which the Wazir’s vision emerges victorious from the conflict.

The child Saffiya leads her amnesiac mother towards the house of Barmek’s mother. One of the few pictures in the book with no animals in it.

Human-animal relationships are key to this unlikely victory. The Wazir’s transformation into a Ram is effected by the wicked Peri, as she seeks to impose her will on the children of men in open mockery of the equitable government of Hazrat Suleman, by turning people into what she sees as the nearest equivalent animal. But the Daughter of Douban and the Peri are clearly allies from the start, their green-painted eyes and pleasure in self-adornment and self-serving magics linking them long before we learn, in the third section of the novel, that they count each other as ‘kindred spirits’ (p. 168). Suleman, meanwhile, passes on his wisdom as ruler to Barmek (p. 38), who thereby becomes his successor in the art of just governance. This means that Barmek’s removal from power serves the interests of both Peri and Sultaness. His bestial transformation forms part of a larger scheme on the Peri’s part to transform representatives of four ‘races’ of men into beasts, in formal pastiche of the four strange beings that sat at the corners of Suleman’s carpet – the Prince of Men, the Prince of Demons, the Prince of Beasts and the Prince of Birds. She effects the transformations with her own form of magic carpet, commissioned from the crow-like carpet-weaver Ibrahim: four carpets, to be exact, each sporting a pattern as hideous as that of her jewels, with a closed eye at the centre (to signify the shutting down of the senses and the mind) and a swarm of black and red beetles all around (to signify the Peri’s perception of human beings as no better than insects). With these magic carpets the Peri hopes to entrap in animal form four individuals from the major human religions: the Christian monarch Richard the Lionheart; an anonymous man from Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist imperial China; a member of Suleman’s own Jewish nation; and of course the Muslim Wazir. Her plans go awry in several ways. Instead of Richard, the Sultan’s lost son Prince Zeid is accidentally transformed, Barmek goes missing after his transformation, and one of the carpets is seized by the Mongolian shaman Kamut-Shann. But the metamorphoses of Barmek into a Ram, Prince Zeid into a Camel and Ben Ephraim into a Monkey provide perfect working models of the demeaning philosophy of the Peri and the Sultaness, both of whom see their fellow human and nonhuman creatures as animated objects to be exploited for gain. In this they resemble the post-war profiteer and murderer Harry Lime, memorably played by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s movie The Third Man (1949), who sees his fellow men as no better than the insects they resemble when viewed from the summit of a Viennese Ferris wheel.

Ranged against these potent demeaners of living creatures are the individuals who cherish beings of other species.  Suleman, Barmek and Austa Muthanna are three of these, along with that lover of eagles, hawks and horses, the Khan of the Southern Marches. But the younger generation, too, includes its share of animal lovers. Prince Zeid, for instance, as a child on the run from the Sultaness, takes an injured donkey to Muthanna for treatment, thereby endearing himself to the caravan master as far as any human can. Muthanna responds by smuggling him out of Kashkot with his beasts of burden, but is later tempted to sell him in Baghdad for a bag of pearls – the same pearls he later presents to Barmek in partial compensation for his betrayal of Prince Zeid. The boy, meanwhile, is rescued from slavery by Muthanna’s beastlike henchman, Ahmed, who spirits him away to be adopted by the Bedouins; and it’s among the Bedouins that Zeid develops a deep knowledge of and affection for camels. Indeed, his love of camels leads to his transformation, as he seeks to lighten the load of a beast which is carrying one of the Peri’s magic carpets (p. 154). The carpet’s magic is unleashed as soon as he touches it, and Zeid becomes, for a while, one of the camels he loves, before being freed from camel form by a young woman who can see ‘human’ qualities in animals. Zeid’s narrative, in other words, is determined as much by his own and other people’s humaneness towards beasts as by the willingness of other humans to show humanity to a lost child – that is, to see themselves in him and to see him as one of themselves.

Prince Zeid after being raised as a Bedouin. One of his beloved camels can be seen in the background, as well as his adoptive sister.

The woman who restores Prince Zeid to human form is Saffiya, Barmek’s daughter. Saffiya shares with her father a lifelong affinity with nonhuman creatures, especially dogs. Driven from Kashkot with her mother Najla by the Sultaness, she finds her way to a haven in the mountains, where three dogs appoint themselves guardians for Najla, whose memory has been suppressed by the Sorceress’s magic. The three dog-guardians are joined in their task by the doglike wrestler-guardsman Dhiab, who was also banished from Kashkot by the Sultaness; and with these four highly qualified sentinels watching her mother, Saffiya feels free to set off alone to seek Zeid, with whom she forged an unbreakable bond in early childhood. In her wanderings she makes friends with a colony of Bats, the ‘leather-winged children of the night’ (p. 157), who first liberate her from the fortress of an assassin master, Hasan-i-Sabbah, then escort her to the cave where the Djinn is imprisoned – another nonhuman being with whom she bonds. One year later, the same Bats inform her of the transformation of Prince Zeid, which can only be reversed by someone who can recognise the victim and ‘without hesitation declare their love for him’ (p. 158); in other words, by someone capable of seeing beyond the surface ‘ugliness’ of a beast. The Bats lead Saffiya from the cave to a valley dominated by the statue of a human-nonhuman hybrid, a lama or sphinx that represents a dead monarch who combines the human virtues with the virtues of the beasts with which he is melded. The image unites ‘the powerful lion’s body, the great bird’s lifting wings, and the serene watching head of a man’ (p. 159), recalling the four Princes on Suleman’s carpet who took the shapes of a human, a more-than-human being, an eagle and a lion. The statue, then, could stand for Suleman, the dead king who still has a hand in human affairs; and it could also stand for Saffiya’s father Barmek, Suleman’s living representative. Studying the statue, Saffiya sees in it characteristics of the lost Wazir; and moments later she recognizes a passing Ram as Barmek himself, though she cannot make him human because that is a task for her mother. Soon afterwards, however, she recognizes a Camel as Prince Zeid, the young man she has been looking for; and she is able to humanize him at once. Like Zeid’s, then, her story is driven by her capacity to embrace human-nonhuman relations as an integral part of what makes her herself. In this, the second section of Fairclough’s narrative (Chapters 3 to 7), bats, camels, donkeys, lions, dogs and eagles combine with the efforts of human beings to bring Zeid and Saffiya together. And in the third and final section (Chapter 8), revolution itself becomes a matter of collaboration between human and nonhuman entities, making common cause against the forces of oppression.

The third section is also dominated by climate catastrophe, which here as in Little Dog and the Rainmakers has potentially disastrous consequences for humans and animals alike. Hafiz the Librarian remarks on the rainfall in every entry of his clandestine annals of this late period in the Sultan’s reign. He notes, too, the Sultan’s failure to respond to the dangers this rainfall embodies – the greatest danger being that the dam constructed by Farhad to feed his canals will burst and overwhelm the city. Farhad orders raw materials from distant lands to help shore up the structure, but the materials are commandeered for the Sultan’s purposes, and anyone who resists his orders to repurpose them gets tortured or killed. As a result, parallel with the mounting floodwaters runs the mounting resentment of the people, to which we are given access through the eyes and feelings of Barmek’s friends. One after the other these friends conclude that the Sultan himself must be killed: the Librarian Hafiz, whose knowledge of the Book of Kings is supplemented by eavesdropping on the dire goings-on in the royal palace; the Lamissari merchant Ali Houssain, who keeps tabs on the city’s failing economy; Farhad the canal engineer and former rebel; Kalidad, the chieftain of those knife-wielding ironworkers, the Gamru Khel; the blacksmith Mushtaq the Ironmaster, who is one of his relatives; and the caravan master Austa Muthanna, who finds himself caring for Kashkot because of the good Wazir, now lost, who once ruled it wisely. Each of these people except Hafiz have been linked in the past to some form of hostility against Kashkot’s rulers – and as a historian, Hafiz is intensely conscious of the causes and effects of this kind of hostility. While Barmek held power, the Wazir succeeded in uniting them in communal work on behalf of their fellow citizens; but in his absence they begin to realign themselves (still on behalf of their fellow citizens) as enemies of the Sultan. Flood and rebellion, then, threaten the land like aspects of each other; and Austa Muthanna links this sense of an imminent dual catastrophe to a second approaching crisis caused by the climate: the prophesied attack of the Mongol hordes, as their horses consume the resources of Asia’s grasslands and they begin to look elsewhere for pasturage. Muthanna is concerned that Kashkot will be destroyed alongside grander cities – Samarkand and Isfahan – in that human deluge; but the concern he feels for the little city state brings it hope even as he expresses it, in the shape of Muthanna’s one close human friend, whom we only meet in this final section, as he pours out to her his fears for Barmek’s kingdom.

Austa Muthanna with the shaman Kamut-Shann, whose animal guests include a fox cub and a fawn. Surrounding them are the horses which will change the course of world history.

That human is the Mongolian shaman Kamut-Shann the Merry. We first meet Kamut-Shann at her yurt in the company of an abandoned fawn and a wolf-cub – natural enemies united under her aegis, like the scriptural lion and lamb. Her appearance in the narrative signals the confluence of all the many narrative strands Fairclough has so far kept in play; in each case, these strands reach a point of crisis in this third section, and Kamut-Shann the Merry represents the hope that they may be resolved and their many characters and communities reconciled, as the wolf and fawn have been reconciled in the shade of her yurt. As a Mongol, Kamut-Shann is well aware of the imminent rising of the Mongol hordes, and she makes no promises that she can fend them off from Kashkot: after all, she tells Muthanna, ‘shall one woman and a [shamanic] drum turn aside the armies of Jenghis Khan?’ (p. 180). But she willingly gives her aid in the smaller conflict with the Sultan, the Sultaness, and their supernatural patroness, the Peri, and with Muthanna she begins the long journey from the grasslands where her yurt is pitched to the plain where the city stands. On the way they pick up members of Barmek’s household – Abu Misimir and the Black Pearl, Saffiya and her lover Prince Zeid – as well as a ‘small shimmering cloud’ of migrant butterflies, which spontaneously joins the growing pilgrimage in homage to the shaman (p. 186). The resolution of political crisis, Fairclough implies, cannot be achieved without reconciliation with the natural world, whose delicacy and energy is perfectly captured in the ‘small shimmering cloud’. And it cannot be achieved, she also implies, without paying attention to the politics of the household. Kamut-Shann’s nomadic existence – transferring her yurt from place to place, while her fame extends from polar regions to the Himalayas – makes the local global, while the presence in her household of wild animals as well as people extends the definition of the home far beyond the walls that enclose its traditional occupants. Kamut-Shann, in fact, embodies the ever-changing interface between humans, animals, the climate and the land, and her appearance at the point of crisis signifies the resurgence in Fairclough’s text of utopian possibility; a possibility based on a more inclusive philosophy than even Barmek embodied in the book’s first section.

Together, Muthanna and the shaman, Barmek’s family and his friends converge on Kashkot, bringing with them the potential for a Tolkienesque eucatastrophe – the sudden turn from certain disaster to unexpected joy, as expressed in Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. At this very moment, other strands of Fairclough’s narrative converge. First, the Captain of the Guards, Daresh – the first friend Barmek made in the palace after his appointment as Wazir – makes up his mind that his loyalty is to the people rather than the Sultan, and stabs Khaled to death at the foot of his throne. At the same moment, the small, fierce people known as the Gamru Khel – as famous for fighting as for working iron – attack the city, aiming to bring down the oppressor. At the same moment the climate crisis comes to a head. Farhad’s dam bursts its boundaries, unleashing its waters on the Plain of Kashkot. Daresh and the royal Guard, mounted on their horses, head for the dam; so too do the Gamru Khel. In a gesture of collective self-sacrifice Daresh, the Guard and their horses hurl themselves at the gap in the dam, staunching it with their dying bodies, while the Gamru Khel use their skills as engineers to consolidate the temporary repair. Self-sacrifice and artistry or craftsmanship combine to save the city, just as self-sacrifice and ritual artistry ended the drought in Little Dog.

So much for the human strand that plays its part in this final section (though the horses of the Guard play a crucial role in this strand, too). The animal strand follows, as Austa Muthanna enters Kashkot – riding, like the palace Guard, on a beloved horse – to deal with the Sultaness. He has been sent on ahead by Kamut-Shann to marshal the natural world as it exists within the city walls against the city’s oppressor. At his invitation, the despised dogs of Kashkot descend on the palace ‘like flood water’ to drag the Sultaness from her private chambers to the public square (p. 192), where she is caged like an abused animal in full view of the citizens and beasts she has persecuted. The day of her defeat becomes known as the Day of the Dogs, reversing the centuries of marginalization and abuse that have been visited on them by inscribing their species into the annals of history. Her reduction to the level at which she measured both beasts and disempowered humans coincides with the restoration of the final victim of the Peri’s magic to human form, as the merchant Ben Ephraim is recognised and embraced – despite the monkey shape into which the Peri changed him – by his nephew. Meanwhile the shaman, when she arrives, subjects the Daughter of Douban to the magic of the Peri’s carpets, allowing the sorcery which has so far served the Sultaness so well to transform her into the humiliating shape of a goose. Trapped by her own strategies in the shape of a being she has always considered base, the Sultaness is given her freedom by Kamut-Shann, liberated to fly wherever she wishes after leaving the city. But her own philosophy, which drives clear wedges between human and nonhuman, ruler and oppressed, ensures that she will never enjoy that freedom, unless by some revolutionary upheaval in her mind she can reconcile herself to a new, inclusive way of thinking.

Najla recognises her husband Barmek in the shape of a Ram. Her now elderly guard dogs can be seen in the foreground, while the one-eyed Guardsman Dhiab watches from above.

Meanwhile, the animal strand of the narrative comes full circle as the white Hawk flies twice to select a new Sultan to replace the old one, in obedience to the ritual function it fulfilled in the early pages of Fairclough’s novel. Before the revolution began, readers saw it land on the chest of the newly-restored Barmek (p. 166), whose wife Najla had earlier recognised him in the shape of a Ram, expressed her love for him, and dissolved the spell that held him, confirming as she did so that she had fully recovered her memory. We learn a few pages later that the Hawk left the palace when Muthanna set fire to it on the Day of the Dogs (p. 193). Barmek, in other words, plays no direct part in the revolution that brings down the Daughter of Douban – though the revolution might never have taken place without the friendships and alliances he forged. His principal gesture, in fact, is a repudiation of involvement in politics, as he gives up the position of Sultan bestowed on him by the Hawk and instead sends the bird flying towards Prince Zeid, the last Sultan’s son (p. 197). Zeid’s face is so like Khalid’s that at first Barmek takes him for Khalid himself, before realising that he is young and uncorrupted – a Khalid as he might have been under different circumstances. The Hawk, then, ends the book by correcting the false course it took in the opening pages, settling on Zeid and inaugurating a new era for Kashkot, an era in which Saffiya replaces the Daughter of Douban as Sultaness; an era when the Sultan is guided by his wife’s empathy for both human and nonhuman creatures. A bird and some dogs, along with the horses that carry Barmek, Mouthanna and the Guard, usher in Kashkot’s new era, just as a horse and a Hawk ushered in the old one.

The supernatural strand of the narrative, meanwhile, arrives at a state of eucatastrophe before ever Muthanna or Barmek reaches the city. Before entering Kashkot, Kamut-Shann stages a final showdown with the Peri, summoning the spirit to her with a whistle like the ones shepherds use to call their dogs (p. 186). There follows a fight between Peri and shaman (p. 187), a duel of magic that evokes the duel between Merlin and Madam Mim in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938), or the Wizard Howl’s duel with the Witch of the Waste in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle (1986). Fairclough’s duel, however, is between two female practitioners of magic, not a male wizard and a female witch, a form of combat which invariably ends in the death of the woman. It is fought out in the form of beasts and other forces of nature – ‘waves of the sea, […] two fishes in a stream, two ants in the grass, two hawks in the sky’ (p. 187) – before the shaman brings it to an end by striking her opponent in the form of a thunderbolt, destroying her utterly. The Peri’s destruction unleashes a shower of tasteless jewellery, including the Ring she purloined many years before from Suleman; resurrected as an ascetic wandering Dervish, the King has been searching for this Ring for more than twenty years, and all the time it has been hidden up the Peri’s sleeve, reduced to an object as worthless and impotent as her bangles. With the Ring’s help the King is able at last to release the Djinn, though the prisoner has in fact been free to leave his cave for many years, ever since the waterfall that veiled its entrance was diverted from its course to feed Kashkot’s canals (pp. 155-6). The Djinn may yet refuse to leave, Kamut-Shann points out, from ingrained habit (p. 188); as the Daughter of Douban showed in her form as a goose, freedom is as much a state of mind as a physical condition.

Saffiya and Prince Zeid confront a small green beetle, next to the statue of a lama or sphinx.

The freedom state of mind can be summed up by a look at the beetles in Fairclough’s text. As we’ve seen, beetles feature prominently in the Peri’s malicious acts of magic, swarming out of each magic carpet she sends to an intended victim as if to convey the Peri’s contempt for bug-like mortals. But beetles also feature in a benevolent act of sorcery worked by Barmek’s mother, who provides Najla and Saffiya with magic necklaces to protect them from the Sultaness’s malice. Part of the process of making the necklaces involves throwing six beetles to six passing bats, who discard ‘bright shards’ of beetle shell as they consume them, which the Widow Zora then incorporates into the necklaces (p. 138). Long afterwards, a colony of Bats notices the necklace Saffiya wears, and stop her as she is about to jump from the window of a fortress to escape the attentions of its owner, the assassin Hasan-i-Sabbah. ‘We perceive,’ two of the Bats point out in chorus, ‘that you wear round your neck a blue thread bearing the shards of Beetles. You are therefore under our protection’ (p. 146); and they proceed to guide her to the Djinn’s cave, where Hasan cannot find her. A year later, just after she has rescued Prince Zeid from camel form, Saffiya sees the Prince looking fearful when he spots a passing beetle, associating the harmless insect with the magic that changed him. She at once scoops up the beetle and shows it to him, confronting his fear with a close-up view of the creature that terrifies him, but which most people barely notice. It is ‘Little and green as Paradise,’ she points out, ‘the same as the ones whose shards I wear around my neck’ (p. 160). Those shards, she adds, made the Bats befriend and free her. Meanwhile the beetle on her hand has feelings and an agenda of its own: ‘The beetle with an inquiring wave of its feelers, crawled from one hand to the other, and suddenly brisk, scuttled up a finger; finding nowhere to go, it snapped its wings open and zoomed upwards’. Zeid sums up the incident by wondering: ‘Do all fears become so small [and] without harm when one faces them?’ Close attention to any living creature, it would seem, confounds all attempts to make it Other – either as an instrument of oppression, a tiny monster, or nourishment for passing Bats. This series of encounters with representative specimens of Coleoptera, the largest of animal orders (comprising about a quarter of all known species) despite the tininess of its members, charts a progression from the warped perspective of the Sultaness to the loving attention applied to the natural world by the curious child, the naturalist or the artist.

The progression is a kind of magic, and sets itself up in opposition to the necromantic powers of wicked Sultanesses and other oppressors, embracing anarchistic equality between all beings instead of feudalism or any other form of hierarchy. Kamut-Shann describes this form of magic in conversation with Muthanna: ‘There is magic of the open sun and the grass growing, as well as of the darkened room and the reluctant dead’ (p. 186), she tells him, and adds that one day ‘men will grow out of the second, but it will be sorrow to them if they forget the first, for the one can fight the other and save them from the dark’. She goes on to illustrate the point by defeating the Peri, in a struggle that also illustrates the wholesome effects of living in collusion with the natural world. Kamut-Shann derives her power from this collusion, as she explains just before the duel: ‘I am she who drums in the spring, and the grouse drum also, and the wild geese fly up from the south. I am she who whistles in the autumn and the ptarmigan whistle and the fur of the ermine turns white and they play in the snow. I am the Friend of the Mares’ (p. 187). Her self-description does not elevate her above the land and its animal inhabitants, or the seasons they respond to; she claims no agency over the spring, merely that her drumming echoes the springtime drumming of the grouse and the geese’s wings, her whistling the whistling of the ptarmigan in autumn, and her transformative powers the power of the ermine as it changes colour to prepare for winter. Intimacy with nature’s transformations bestows a power superior to anything available to self-serving, solitary sorcerers – the collective, empathetic power that propels the Kashkot revolution.

The Captain of the Guards, Daresh, abandons the game of chess he was playing with the librarian Hafiz, having made up his mind to kill the Sultan.

In the course of the duel, Suleman’s Ring is restored to him, but its restoration has little impact on the narrative. As we’ve seen, the talisman is not even needed by this time to free the Djinn, whose prison has been unlocked by an accident of history rather than by any individual act of heroism or mercy. Other items of personal jewellery prove far more effective than the Ring in Fairclough’s narrative, but not one of them is effective by itself. The Blue Tree, for example – the protective talisman given to Barmek by Abu Misimir (p. 41) – works for many years to shield him from the Sultaness’s magic, but cannot shield him from the magic of the Peri. The Black Pearl gives Saffiya another amulet to shield her in exile from the dangers of the road, a so-called ‘Safety’ that takes the modest form of a black berry ‘worn on a string round her neck, which her mother gave her out of Africa’ (p. 103). But the Safety cannot rescue the girl from Hasan-i-Sabbah’s fortress; for this she needs the necklace of beetle shards given her by Barmek’s mother – as well as a ring given her by Hasan-i-Sabbah himself, which she keeps ‘to remember him by’ (p. 146), and which ensures the master of assassins does not send killers after her or her father in revenge for her escape. Hasan-i-Sabbah’s ring, too, loses its point once Saffiya has been reunited with Prince Zeid, so she buries it ceremoniously at the foot of the sphinx. The green ring given to Barmek by Austa Muthanna has no magic in it at all, but betokens a friendship between them which helps set off the Kashkot revolution; so it could be said to hold the promise of power through collective action, though Fairclough does not mention it again when the revolution happens. The pearls that Muthanna seeks to obtain by selling Prince Zeid into slavery turn out to have been intended as a present for Kamut-Shann (p. 180), but they never fulfil that purpose; instead they provide a seemingly miraculous delivery from hunger for the poor of Kashkot, when Muthanna gives them to Barmek in compensation for his wicked intentions towards the Prince. The silver headpiece made for Saffiya by the Djinn during her year-long stay in his cave has no function at all except to express his appreciation of her beauty (p. 158). Each of these items of jewellery serves as part of an organic network of friendships, intimacies and alliances, forming a great tree with many roots and branches which may well be what Fairclough is referring to in the title she gave her novel – the wholesome counterpart of the corrupting web of magic roses planted by the Daughter of Douban in the royal palace.

Each of these items of jewellery, too, can be seen as an expression of the function of good art. Most of the items I have listed are either kept hidden by their owners, in recognition of the need for secret relationships and clandestine promises to sustain communities in times of oppression, or accorded little value in the marketplace; in fact none of them even enters the marketplace apart from the pearls, which Muthanna sees as having been blemished by their role in his efforts to sell a young child into slavery. Their value derives instead from the people who present them as gifts: a descendant of great warriors, the Black Pearl, who is herself named after a jewel; a defender of abused animals, Austa Muthanna; a loyal household servant, Abu Misimir; a wise mother-in-law, mother and grandmother; an imprisoned craftsman, grateful for an unexpected friendship; and so on. As works of art they participate actively in the unfolding lives of their possessors, much as decorative illustrations participate in the unfolding of Fairclough’s interweaving plots. Fairclough’s novel itself, as a work of art, presents itself to its readers as an active intervention in their lives, offering hope for a new dream of the United Nations which enshrines the rights of the natural world alongside the rights of human beings of every class and culture. Jewellery in general, as an embodiment of craftsmanship, takes a central role in her narrative, not any single jewel such as Suleman’s Ring or Abu Misimir’s Tree.

The best way of understanding Fairclough’s book, in terms of her philosophy of art as I’ve just described it, is through its representations of the books in the royal library, the books written and embellished by Hafiz, the royal librarian. The finest of these books, in Hafiz’s opinion, is the Book of Kings, and this can be taken as a kind of miniature working model for the fictional city of Kashkot, Fairclough’s major achievement in fantastic world-building. Seeing Hafiz’s illustrated copy of the Book of Kings for the first time, Barmek is overwhelmed, describing it as a potent work of enchantment. ‘I think there is here a miracle,’ Barmek observes:

That you should be able to show an ignorant man such as I, not just people and horses, rocks and flowers, but – but the idea of these things together, making a new thing. For it seems to me that these pictures are not – not just the images of things in heaven and earth, such as the Prophet (on whom be the Blessing) forbade us to make, but something new in the world, something with its own laws. (p. 24)

This ‘new thing […] in the world’ is what the Wazir seeks to establish in Kashkot during his time as Wazir; though he only sees it fully embodied in the new Kashkot that rises from the ashes of the revolution, after he has given up the role of Wazir and returned to being a shepherd in the mountains (p. 200). Fairclough gestures towards this new Kashkot at the end of the book, but we never see it in any detail; after all, Utopia means nowhere, and has not yet been described to anyone’s perfect satisfaction.

If Utopia were to be described it would need a new form of writing, incorporating visual aids as well as words, much as Hafiz’s Book of Kings incorporates miniatures as aids to the understanding of its text. Hafiz finds it hard enough to record the utopian episode of the Kashkot Revolution, also known as the Day of the Dogs, in his history of the city. ‘How shall I describe these days?’ he asks himself:

In the simplest and purest words; in the most exquisite script, the ink powdered with gold-dust (I have a little left); leaving ample space and margin for adornment; all that is obvious. But – but what words, out of all the many upon the tongues of men? (p. 189).

The answer is given him by a young man who happens to have been recently selected as the new Sultan. This man directs him to write in a way that is ‘quite simple’; to give honour to the simple, ordinary people who collectively preserved Kashkot from inundation and tyranny; and to refrain from addressing the young man himself with unnecessary honorifics (‘could you not, sometimes, say to me simply, O Zeid?’, p. 191). History, then, is ideally written in collaboration, just as historical acts are collaboratively accomplished. History can never be utopian, since it remains bound by problematic conventions handed down from earlier epochs. The young man remains a Sultan, for all his dismissal of honorifics, and he neglects to mention the role of animals in the Day of the Dogs (though the name of that day implies that they will in fact get an honorable mention), or the role of a woman in defeating the Peri. But history can afford glimpses of possible utopias; and fiction too can afford these glimpses, as can works of visual art such as miniatures, jewellery, paintings, and woven carpets.

Works of art of this kind deserve to be treasured. Let’s treasure the remarkable art of Mary Fairclough.

Barmek wrestles with the Guardsman Dhiab. Barmek is the man with the red beard, who is clearly winning. Note the lions woven into the carpet, and the four officials, one at each corner, recalling the four beings on Suleman’s magic carpet.

APPENDIX

The Sons of Adam are limbs of each other
Having been created of one essence.
When the calamity of time afflicts one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others
Thou art unworthy to be called by the name of a man.

From Sa’adi, Gulistan (The Rose Garden) (1258), translated by Edward Rehatsek. The stanza is woven into a carpet gifted to the United Nations in 2005 by Mohammad Seirafian of Isfahan, which can be seen in the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

The carpet woven with the words of Sa’adi, on display at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

NOTES

[1] See my previous blog post, The Ecofantasies of Mary Fairclough, Part 1, note 2.

[2] Another name for Mesopotamia in Arabic is Al-jazira, meaning island or peninsula.

[3] Another likely influence is a novel by Betty Bouthoul (Betty Vera Helfenbein), Le Grand Maître des Assassins (1936), which introduced the European world to the legendary Master of Assassins Hasan-i-Sabbah, whose motto is ‘rien n’est vrai, tout est permis’ – nothing is true, everything is permitted, a phrase popularised by William S. Boroughs and the Assassin’s Creed video games. Hasan features in the second part of Fairclough’s novel when Safiya briefly becomes a houri in his Garden of Paradise, before escaping from his fortress with the help of some Bats (pp. 142-147).

[4] Fairclough, The Blue Tree (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., 1960), p. 11. All quotations are from this edition.

[5] Fairclough refers to wrestling as an art on p. 52 (‘There was one art, much loved in Kashkot’), and graces the dustcover of her novel with a picture of Barmek wrestling with his friend the Sultan. In this way she effectively joins the art of wrestling to the art of the miniature maker. She refers to wrestling in metaphors throughout the novel, in fact, making it an integral part of her fiction; see e.g. p. 157, ‘A wrestler’s shoulder may touch the ground once and twice, yet the last throw be his’. For a summary of Iranian wrestling in relation to politics and religion see Anon, ‘Wrestling in Iran: From Mysticism to Politics’, here [https://fanack.com/culture/sports-and-politics/wrestling-in-iran/]. Elsewhere, Barmek’s personal support of both craftspeople and artists is specifically mentioned: ‘There were in those days many artists and great craftsmen in Kashkot, for the Wazir revered them’ (p. 112).

[6] You can read the Christmas Play of Keynsham here.

The Ecofantasies of Mary Fairclough, Part 1: Miskoo the Lucky (1947) and Little Dog and the Rainmakers (1949).

[This is the first of two blog posts on a genuinely lost writer-artist, Mary Fairclough, who seems to me to be a genuinely major practitioner. The follow-up blog-post can be found here. I am grateful to the following for making it possible: Beth Whalley, Development Officer for the Sustainable Communities Directorate, Bath and North East Somerset Council; Tim Whyte, Keynsham Library Manager; and Richard Dyson, Chairman of the Keynsham and Saltford Local History Society. I feel as if I’ve forged a permanent link with Keynsham by embarking on this little project of recovery and hope.]

Mary Fairclough, Traveller Woman.

All lovers of bookshops have the same dream: to stumble across a book you didn’t know existed and find that it’s something special. For me, second-hand books have a particular fascination. An unknown book may light up a period of history – often, in my case, nineteenth- or twentieth-century history – and slightly redraw the map of the past you held in your head. A recent visit to the legendary Bookshop in Wigtown, which I’ve known since it was owned by the equally legendary John Carter, long before Wigtown was crowned Scotland’s Book Town, yielded a treasure: Mary Fairclough’s West Asian fantasy novel The Blue Tree (1960). I very nearly didn’t pick it up, distracted by more familiar titles on nearby shelves. Luckily, though, I glanced at a couple of rave reviews online before moving on (thank you Academe and L Mart!), and added it to my pile on the strength of these, though I hadn’t any great expectation of having the readers’ ravings confirmed when I started to read.

My copy of The Blue Tree, cover picture by Fairclough.

They were more than confirmed. I was utterly bowled over. The book changed the shape of my knowledge of fantasy in the mid-twentieth century, and introduced me to one of the finest author-illustrators of the period. I don’t know much about Mary Fairclough, but everything I do know adds to my respect for her.[1] It’s clearly time she was brought back into focus, not least because she is one of the great writers of eco-fantasy at a time well before the green movement began to gather momentum. My preliminary research suggests that she was a lifetime socialist, that her perspective was international, that she cared as much for beasts as for people (indeed she often refers to animals as people), and that she was infinitely curious about cultures and places not her own. They also suggest that she lived all her life in a small town near Bristol – Keynsham – where she co-founded the Keynsham and Saltford Local History Society; so she clearly had intensely local interests as well as international ones. I have no idea if she travelled in body, but a talk she gave in April 1989, at the age of 75, makes it clear that she travelled in mind. She cites the words of her mother, Rose Fairclough: ‘Do your best in your own little corner’, and asks the question: ‘where does one’s own corner end?’ The implied answer is nowhere. Fairclough’s talk also cites the words of La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibárruri, hero of the Spanish Civil War: ‘Better die on your feet than live on your knees’. For Fairclough these words invoke her time as a Bristol art student in the Depression, when locals from all over the world made their way to Spain to fight alongside Dolores in defence of Spain’s Republican government against the Falangist fascists. Fairclough may not have fought in Spain, but her whole career was spent making the international local by embracing other people’s local spaces and struggles as her own through the medium of her art.

Mary Fairclough, Native American Woman with Horses.

I’m not sure I can think of any other writer or artist who did this with such consistency. In the course of her seemingly secluded life – she never married, she never moved from Keynsham, where her grandfather owned a dye mill and her father worked as a clerk for the tobacco firm Wills and Co. – she made pictures of Roma women, Indigenous people of America, cattle drovers on the road to the Indian city of Varanasi/Benares, Malaysian schoolchildren, and a Japanese politician – and these are only the subjects I’ve stumbled across on random websites. She wrote and illustrated three books, the first featuring a friendship between an Inuit child and a Sámi family, the second a series of encounters between four different Indigenous American peoples, the third an invented country in Western Asia during the Golden Age of Islam, which serves as an imaginary meeting point for a dazzling diversity of global religions and communities. Each picture and each book gives evidence of careful research into the culture depicted; Fairclough clearly took considerable pains to adapt both her verbal and visual styles to her chosen material. At the same time, she does what she can to avoid falling into the pitfalls of a colonialist perspective. Each of her books involves little or no contact between the chosen culture and the peoples of Europe – indeed, her Native American novel takes place before first contact – thus imaginatively shutting out the dominant culture whose language she uses. Each makes use of terms from the chosen community’s language, forcing the British or American reader to learn and perhaps afterwards to seek further knowledge of the ideas, actions and customs these terms embody. No non-Indigenous reader has the right to judge if she succeeds in her aim of resisting colonialism; but the aim, I think, is clear, and confirms Fairclough as a key British practitioner of a fantasy that is truly international in its perspective – the very obverse of the Anglocentrism of much post-Tolkienian fantastic fiction in the Twentieth Century.

Mary Fairclough, illustration for The Road to Benares.

Her ecological concerns come across in the 1989 talk I mentioned earlier, a lunchtime address to the Rotary Club of Keynsham with the title ‘The Environment’.[2] The talk is as much concerned with phraseology as it is with ecopolitics. It begins with a rejection of the cant term ‘Doom and Gloom’, which was currently being used by reactionary politicians to dismiss the concerns of green campaigners: ‘It’s the sort of phrase that’s invaluable in elections if you can suggest that your opponent is indulging in it – rhythmic, catchy, sticks like a burr and somehow belittles the subject’. She goes on to point out the anxiety caused to politicians and voters when vague promises to address green issues confront calls to genuine action, because this involves ‘spending money – losing money – it will touch our sacred pockets’. Time, she insists, is running out, and compares the urgent need to address current concerns (she lists ‘Acid Rain, the Ozone Layer, the Rain Forests, the Greenhouse Effect’ among them, deliberately using the key ‘buzzwords’ of the contemporary green movement whose familiarity could be seen as making them seem less ‘real’) with the same urgency she had felt, along with other young people, to confront the rise of fascism in the 1930s. And she underlines the sense of time running out by bringing environmental concerns back home to Keynsham. She describes how Keynsham has been increasingly damaged in her lifetime as its population expanded. Without idealizing the past (the ‘orderly beauty’ of the village in her childhood was, she knows, based on the prevalence of ‘cheap labour’, just as the democratic system of ancient Athens was based on a tacit acceptance of slavery) she laments the loss of the care and beauty once manifested everywhere, adapting the lyrics of Pete Seeger’s anti-war song (1955), ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’, to the context of Keynsham’s lost treescape: ‘Where are all the orchards gone? Gone to car-parks, every one’. Change, she acknowledges, is essential to all living things, and ‘Being a living Place we had a necessity to change’, but it should be for something better, not for something worse, as has happened all too often to the architecture of Keynsham’s High Street:

[W]e have destroyed and continue to destroy small, unimportant but comely things, odd windows, doors – an entrance to an old stableyard that was still perfectly adequate when the stable became a garage, but it was demolished and the new entrance is an eyesore by any standard. (p. 33)

I love that phrase ‘small, unimportant but comely things’; the word ‘comely’ has a fine dignity, not overstating an object’s claim to be beautiful but insisting on its suitability for the needs and desires of its users. The same term could, I think, be used to describe the emphasis on attractive objects, places and customs in all three of her works of fiction. ‘Cumulatively,’ the talk goes on, ‘these things are part of the Environment of a small town and we should be wise to preserve them until we can put something better in their place’ (p. 34). Her talk, then, moves from the macro-economics of global climate change to the micro-economics of small-town geography, and similar sweeping conceptual or physical movements from the large to the small, and conversely from the small to the global, can be found throughout her writing. In Miskoo the Lucky (1947) a young boy makes his way across the polar regions from Canada or Greenland to Scandinavia and back again, without much idea of where he is going, but forging lasting emotional connections between these far-distant places as he goes. Little Dog and the Rainmakers (1949) sees a young Indigenous boy travel southwards through North America from Canada to New Mexico in search of a solution to a climate catastrophe that threatens all the continent’s inhabitants, human and nonhuman alike. And The Blue Tree takes a snapshot of inter-relations between all the countries and ecosystems in medieval Asia as it paints a picture of a tiny city-state, a kind of utopia. The success of all these endeavours depends not on parties or politicians but on inter-personal relationships, though these are solidly based on the material needs of the communities among which they take place. And The Blue Tree culminates in a collective effort by the whole city-state to avert yet another climate-driven catastrophe, the bursting of a dam. Like the books she wrote and illustrated, Fairclough’s 1989 talk is couched in simple, witty and slightly world-weary language (she adds at the end, since it is a lunchtime speech, ‘Gentlemen I hope I haven’t given you indigestion’, p. 33), but betrays a complex political consciousness, and a philosophy of the local as the global that had much to teach the listening ‘Gentlemen’, if they were able to hear it.

Mary Fairclough, Corn Stacks, 1937.

Interestingly, for someone who showed such respect in her work for other people and cultures, Fairclough’s interest in ecopolitics may have had links to a famous fake: a man who appropriated colonised cultures for his own purposes, albeit (from his own point of view) for the best of reasons. The author Grey Owl, who claimed Apache and Scottish ancestry, was in fact an Englishman from Hastings named Archibald Stansfeld Belaney. His books, films and broadcasts made him something of a global superstar in the 1930s; my grandmother owned a number of his books. Belaney spent many years working as a trapper in the forests of Canada, and his account of his conversion from trapper to conservationist, Pilgrims of the Wild (1935), ascribes his change of heart to the concerns of his second wife Anahareo, a Mohawk Iroquois who made him understand the destruction men of his trade were doing to the Canadian ecosystem. He also credits four beavers he raised with accelerating his conversion, dubbing himself, Anahareo and the animals the ‘Beaver People’ to stress the kinship between them. ‘The Beaver People’ became the title of the first film to feature Grey Owl (1928), and Pilgrims of the Wild could well have influenced Fairclough’s practice of calling animals ‘people’ in her books. Most of Belaney’s books became international bestsellers, their sales boosted by his hugely popular lecture tours as Grey Owl in Canada and Britain. Richard and David Attenborough were two of his early admirers; Richard made a movie about his life in 1999, with Pierce Brosnan playing Belaney. Fairclough seems to have been another. In the year of his inaugural tour of Britain, 1935, she made a black-and-white linocut print of ‘Grey Owl’ in his persona as an adopted Ojibwe, and two of her colour linocuts from the same period (‘Woman with Three Horses’ and ‘Bark Canoe’) draw on similar First Nations subject matter. As I’ve indicated, her fascination with the Indigenous people of North America endured; in 1949 she published her children’s novel Little Dog and the Rainmakers, whose action opens with a people who seem to be based on the Ojibwe, judging by the words and customs she describes, and goes on to draw on the languages and customs of Indigenous peoples elsewhere on the American continent. Her fascination with Indigenous communities is also present in her first self-authored picture book, Miskoo the Lucky (1947), which tells of the young Inuit boy who gets swept away by an iceberg, is rescued by some of his animal friends, and finds his way to Sápmi (formerly known to the British as Lapland), where he learns to live as an active member of a Sámi family. Each of these books has what might be called a green agenda, and throws light on the similar agenda that underlies Fairclough’s masterpiece, The Blue Tree. And the context of Miskoo the Lucky also suggests that her green sensibilities were honed by the experience of living through the Second World War.

Mary Fairclough, Grey Owl, 1935.

 

Making Your Luck in Miskoo the Lucky (1947)

In his final book, my late colleague Stephen Prickett – author of a seminal monograph on Victorian Fantasy – mentions Miskoo the Lucky as an example of the very different fates that befall different exemplars of fiction for children. ‘Who now remembers,’ Prickett asks, ‘Mary Fairclough’s Miskoo the Lucky, a beautifully illustrated book published to great critical acclaim in 1947?’.[3] Prickett clearly remembered it – perhaps he was given a copy as a child (my own copy was given to a boy by his father in 1948) – but he is right about the acclaim that greeted its publication, and he is right too about its subsequent disappearance from the collective memory. Fairclough’s picture book won the children’s section of the inaugural United Nations Literary Competition – with prize money of £10,000 – which was sponsored by the publishers Hutchinson’s in 1947. The existence of this competition seems to have dropped out of history along with the names of its winners, if its absence from the internet can be taken as evidence; I’d love to know more about it. The UN was founded in 1945, only two years before the book’s publication, with the objective of preventing future wars by maintaining ‘international peace and security’, developing ‘friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’, and achieving ‘international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion’, to quote from its first Charter (p. 3).[4] The judges of the UN Literary Competition seem to have recognised that Fairclough’s picture book spoke to these objectives; but Fairclough also introduced into the mix certain key green concepts that were absent from the UN Charter. For Fairclough, equal rights extended from human beings to their fellow creatures, and the need for ‘self-determination’ and ‘cooperation’ embraced ecosystems that take no account of national boundaries.

Mary Fairclough, Miskoo the Lucky (1947).

Miskoo the Lucky shares with the work of Grey Owl the conviction that a human life well lived needs to take full account of the needs of the nonhuman peoples who share our space. The little boy, Miskoo, acquires his nickname, ‘the Lucky’, after playing with a pair of polar bear cubs and meeting their mother; as the narrator observes wryly, ‘If you live in a country where there are Bears, and you get on well with Bears, you are lucky’ (p. 7), and Miskoo’s parents agree when he gets home that ‘he was very lucky indeed not to have been chewed up’ (p. 11). Miskoo’s good relations with bears builds on his good relations with his family’s dogs, who must be included in any account of his family, the narrator insists, because they pull the sledge on which the Inuit depend for transport in winter. The mother polar bear in turn makes little distinction between her own cubs and the cubs of an Inuit mother: she tells off Miskoo for ‘Wearing holes in those fine red Kamiks [i.e. traditional sealskin boots] your poor Ma must have spent no end of time on’ (p. 10). Later Miskoo’s knack of making friends with animals saves his life, when he gets himself stranded on a small iceberg and must rely on a series of beasts to push him ashore: first a seal called Arrk, then Worrug the Walrus, and finally a whale called Beluga, who carries Miskoo, Arrk and Worrug to the coast of Lapland (as Arrk calls it), where Miskoo spends some time with Aark’s family at the foot of a cliff. Taking leave of Miskoo, Beluga gives the boy some advice that might have come straight out of the books of Grey Owl:

‘You might remember one thing […] if you really want to be g[r]ateful. Your people eat whale-meat, which comes from my brothers and sisters; and they carve things out of tusks, which they get from Worrug’s brothers and sisters, and make clothes out of skins from Arrk’s brothers and sisters. Well, that’s all right. I eat Plankton, the little tiny creatures in the sea, and Worrug and Arrk eats [sic] fish […] Everything […] has to eat something, and usually somebody, and as I say, it’s all right, BUT NEVER TAKE MORE THAN YOU NEED.’ (pp. 31-32)

Miskoo takes this advice to heart. After scaling a cliff and tramping through a wood to reach a human family, he refuses their offer of more to eat than he really needs, mindful of the promise he made to Beluga (p. 62). Fairclough drives home the whale’s words about eating and being eaten on this occasion, too, with characteristic directness; the food on offer is a stew made from the ‘forty-second cousin’ of Kakil, a reindeer belonging to the Sámi family who cooked it (p. 62). The interrelatedness of human life with the many beings who share its space could hardly have been pointed up with greater honesty.

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo and his family, with wolves in background, dogs in foreground.

As a former trapper, Fairclough’s ecological mentor Grey Owl/Belaney came to recognise the damage being done to the wilderness he loved by the fur trade, and to regret his own part in the massacres of beaver populations in pursuit of needless profit, which left tracts of Canada’s wilderness bereft of the national animal. In Miskoo the Lucky the role of the predator who takes more than they need is assumed not by trappers but by wolves, the one animal species with which Miskoo’s father warns him not to make friends. ‘Wolves aren’t really animals,’ his father insists, ‘they’re just Bad Luck on four feet, with a lot of teeth’ (p. 14); and the picture that accompanies his words shows the wolves as disembodied heads menacing the Inuit family’s igloo, their severance from their bodies suggesting the severance of the wolves from the ecosystem that embraces all the Arctic’s other inhabitants. Later in the book, Miskoo and his new Sámi friend, a girl called Gullmag, are attacked by wolves while gathering wood, and are rescued by the animals they have befriended: a fox called Yipyap, a pair of reindeer (one of whom is Kakil), and an owl called Nyktia. Wolves, of course, have had a terrible press in fable and fiction, but their position in this book is carefully considered, in an artistic sense at least. Fairclough’s illustrations emphasize both the difference and the close resemblance between the wolves and those family members known as dogs. Gullmag’s family, which includes the reindeer, also includes an elderly dog called Yokk, too old to do anything much except guard against wolves at night. Yokk and the wolves are represented in Fairclough’s pictures in more or less identical ways, the sole exception being that her wolves have empty eyes, as if bereft of emotion and thought. The wolves’ destructive instincts can even turn against each other: when attacked by the owl and the reindeer they soon attack their fellow wolves, leaving only three of the pack alive; this makes them the obverse of a family like Miskoo’s or Gullmag’s, which survives on cooperation. Yet the wolves are the dogs’ alter-egos, and so also the alter-egos of those human beings who depend on dogs, since humans and dogs in this book are effectively kin. Distinctions between one category of animal and another are hard to make; the dog Yokk dislikes the fox Yipyap, who is a friend of Gullmag’s, because he sees him solely in terms of his kinship with wolves (he is ‘third cousin to a wolf’, as Yokk explains, p. 82), glossing over his own much closer kinship with the same species. Being part of a family and being its enemy is a matter not of blood but of behaviour, and it’s implied that a person can slip with disconcerting ease from the first category into the second, simply by ignoring the advice of Miskoo’s whale.

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo, Gullmag and Yokk watching a waterfall; Miskoo and Yokk rescue Gullmag.

In this story, then, a person makes their own luck, and making things in the proper way is part of that luck-making process: using animal parts only for what is needed, killing only as much as the body requires – whether for food, clothes or shelter – and eating only as much as will satisfy the stomach. Being ‘Bad Luck on four legs with a lot of teeth’ – the description of wolves first uttered by Miskoo’s father and later repeated by Gullmag’s uncle (p. 90) – is a matter of always making the wrong decisions, decisions based on greed. Like her mentor Grey Owl/Belaney, Fairclough clearly saw Indigenous ways of living as models for living well or luckily; and she fills her book with careful pictures of Indigenous practices based on a symbiotic relationship with the environment: the construction of an Inuit igloo from blocks of snow; the drying of fish on whalebone frames; cooking, eating and playing a drum in a Sámi ‘kawta’ or tent; lassoing a reindeer, milking it, making cheese from its milk, and curing the hide of its ‘forty-second cousin’ with birch bark; building a Sámi winter shelter. Grey Owl’s books, too, are full of drawings and photographs showing scenes and activities he presumed to be unfamiliar to his non-Indigenous readers in Canada and Britain. His drawings in Pilgrims of the Wild show two people paddling a birchbark canoe, storytelling in an Indigenous camp, various methods of trapping beaver, dragging sledges through a snowy forest, a beaver building its house.[5] Fairclough’s illustrations supplement her words by means of a visual narrative, equal in status with her prose; many of her pages show multiple actions on a single page, like a comic strip, and nearly all of them show interactions between human beings and animals, such as the series of illustrations of Miskoo climbing a cliff, in which he is supervised and encouraged by a gull called Waveglider (pp. 42-45). Together, complementary words and images reinforce her message of cooperation and equality between peoples, both human and nonhuman – a message that clearly appealed to the judges of the UN Literary Competition.

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo and Gullmag making things.

She goes further than the United Nations, however, in choosing as her focus two peoples who pay no attention to the boundaries between modern nations. The story ends with any such physical boundaries conclusively demolished, as its two families adopt a new way of life which involves seasonal travel to each other’s homelands. When winter makes it possible to travel overseas on a sleigh drawn by reindeer, Gullmag and her uncle take Miskoo home to his family, where old Yokk makes friends with Miskoo’s dogs, the reindeers make friends with Miskoo’s old friend the musk-ox, and Gullmag and her uncle become acquainted with Miskoo’s parents. And when the time comes to part again, the two families make every effort to ensure they will meet again:

Then they all said ‘Good-Bye’ rather sadly; but it wasn’t really good-bye for very long; for next Spring Miskoo’s Mother built herself an umiak, a boat a bit like the lost kayak, but big enough to take the whole family, dogs and all, and every Summer after that they all paddled down to Lapland for a holiday. And every Winter that it froze hard enough the others would come up over the ice to Farther-North-Still. (p. 110)

The new understanding between the two families, then, remakes the map of the world. Barriers are no longer marked by official borders but by the constantly changing contours of the pack ice, as it expands and contracts with the changing seasons. Hidden in Fairclough’s text is the quiet suggestion that the very existence of geographically demarcated Nations might need to be jettisoned if the dream of cooperation is to become a reality. And this is an idea she takes much further in her next two works of fiction.

Miskoo returns home to his family with the help of Gullmag and her Uncle Yorgen.

 

Sacrifice and Self-Interest in Little Dog and the Rainmakers (1949)

Miskoo the Lucky is presumably aimed at readers of around Miskoo’s age, five or six. Fairclough’s second book, Little Dog and the Rainmakers, has a target readership of perhaps nine or ten, and this gives it scope to elaborate Fairclough’s philosophy as represented in her prizewinning picture book. It is divided not into chapters but into four parts named after the four peoples among whom the child protagonist, Little Dog, lives: the Forest People, the Plains People, the Desert People and the Canyon People. Superficially these names apply to the Indigenous human peoples who inhabit four different environments in North America; but nonhuman peoples too are included in each category, most obviously the first – the Forest People – since Little Dog’s people acknowledge as equals the many other creatures that roam the wilderness where they live. Among these, we learn, are a family of Beavers, introduced to us at the beginning of the story on equal terms with Little Dog’s human family: the two families live at each end of ‘a very long, deep lake […] like a long shining mirror’, and each is guided by its own Chief, Ahmeek the Beaver and Hole-in-the-Sky the man (p. 6). A little later Fairclough refers to the former family as the ‘Beaver People’ in open homage to Grey Owl (p. 10); the homage is confirmed by Fairclough’s later assertion that they have ‘hands’ instead of paws (p. 33), an observation Grey Owl makes in Pilgrims of the Wild.[6] The forest also harbours Muskrats, Moose, Otters, Chipmunks, Crows, Bears and a great many more, their kinship with their human neighbours being cemented by the custom of Little Dog’s people of selecting (or having selected for them) a spirit animal as their personal totem at the point when they reach adulthood. Each of the other three Peoples on the continent embraces nonhuman creatures as well as humans. The Plains People are made up of Cougars, Horses and Buffalo as well as human tribes such as the Crow, the Dakota, the Osage and the Mandan; the Desert People include Antelopes, Rattlesnakes, Coyotes, Lobos (wolves) and Pack-Rats; and the Canyon People count Horses, Bears and Spirits or Salimapiyas along with humans among their number. As in Miskoo, the use of preliminary capitals elevates each nonhuman descriptor to the status of a human proper name.

My copy of Little Dog and the Rainmakers.

In the first part of the novel, the child protagonist Little Dog – whose name affirms his bond with animals, which is reinforced by his ability to understand their languages – undergoes a ritual solitary fasting and becomes a man, albeit a very small and young one. The process of becoming an adult among his people involves acquiring an animal totem, and while Little Dog hopes for something large and splendid, such as the Chief Moose, Mus-wa, he is instead awarded a creature more appropriate to his size: the Chief of the Chipmunks, known as the Great Big Chipmunk, who is still small enough to sit on Little Dog’s head. The names of our hero and his totem remind us that size is relative, and so too, it seems, is the question of which community one belongs to. An animal totem must accept its human charge as well as being accepted, and the Great Big Chipmunk’s acceptance is quickly followed by Little Dog’s induction into the full community of the animals, since he is at once invited to attend the Animal Council. The Council, we learn, has been called to assemble at the very same time as the Human Council, to discuss a problem that affects both communities equally: a cataclysmic drought. And when Little Dog volunteers to try to end this drought by seeking out a far-off human people who can make it rain – the Rainmakers of the title – his totem volunteers too, ensuring that the mission is a joint one between the human and animal communities. Great Big Chipmunk is not Little Dog’s sidekick or servant but his equal partner, and when they are later joined by another animal called Little Horse he too becomes an equal partner. Miskoo’s bond with animals is taken one step further in this book by the fact that Little Dog is accompanied on every step of his journey by animal companions, and by the human protagonist’s awareness that they form part of his own identity; without them he would not be Little Dog.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Animal Council.

The resolution of the climate disaster in this book, then, requires close cooperation between beasts and humans, and a willingness on the part of both communities to sacrifice their individual interests for the sake of everyone on the continent. The whole book demonstrates how such cooperation and sacrifice might work in practice. Little Dog is selected to seek out the Rainmakers by the Animal Council, which is advised by a human Jossakeed or shaman, the Jossakeed of Lost Lake (a Grey Owl substitute who has abandoned human companionship for a life among the beasts). The boy carries with him a bag of magical gifts for the far-off Rainmakers, all of which are provided by animals. The bag is intended to be exchanged for the gift of rain, but in the course of his travels Little Dog keeps encountering other people who need help from the magic gifts, and these people may be human or animal – Little Dog makes no distinction between them. One magic arrow made from a porcupine quill helps him rescue Little Horse from a puma; another saves the lives of two buffalo calves from marauding lobos; the enchanted stink of a skunk prevents the entire Buffalo nation from stampeding over a cliff to certain death; and a magic snakeskin cures a young human warrior who is dying from a venomous snake bite. In each case, Little Dog’s act of mercy brings him much-needed assistance on his arduous journey to the land of the Rainmakers. By the time he reaches that land, the bag is almost empty – but he would not have made it at all without giving up the gifts, and in any case it turns out that what the Rainmakers need from him is not a bag full of magic objects but the willing sacrifice of Little Dog himself in exchange for the gift of rain. The world Fairclough offers us is founded not on the accumulation of expensive possessions but the willing surrender of one’s own interests for the needs of the collective – a surrender predicated on the recognition that both sets of interests are finally the same.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and Little Horse ride with the buffalo. As usual, Great Big Chipmunk is on Little Dog’s head.

At each stage of his journey, Little Dog gets to witness the devastating effects of drought on animal cultures as well as human ones. The Great Plains contain both Dakota people, who migrate for miles in search of water, and vast herds of Buffalo who range from one dwindling water source to another, and who know full well that many of their number will die before the boy can procure the rain. The Desert harbours both the human community of the Secret Water, who jealously guard the resources of their hideout for themselves, and herds of pronghorn antelope who can only drink from the shrinking oases at risk of their lives. In both locations corpses and bones tell the tale of the many people of both kinds who have died of thirst. Meanwhile, at the end of the journey Little Dog finds that the water-rich Rainmaker people freely share their land with huge herds of horses, and their rainmaking skills with all who need them, human and animal alike, even at the risk of over-watering their own fields and orchards. Through these encounters Little Dog comes to an understanding that the needs of one community are best served by providing for the needs of all, and that self-interest to the exclusion of the interests of others must always prove self-destructive in the end.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and Little Horse ride with the pronghorn antelope.

At the same time, Little Dog keeps meeting people who have a very different philosophy. In his home country of the forests, the crow called Kahgahgengs is known as the Thief, always stealing food from others instead of finding it for himself (p. 23), always ready to torment the dying or to lead young children – such as Little Dog – into needless danger, presumably in hope of feeding on their corpses. Kahgahgengs is punished for his selfishness by being forced to serve others through the magic of the Jossakeed of Lost Lake; for the whole of Little Dog’s absence on his journey he must stay with the shaman of the human village and report the boy’s progress to him, remaining at his task until either Little Dog gets safely home again or ‘it is known that he is dead’ (p. 39). An equally self-centred and damaging person haunts the Mandan village where Little Dog stays when he is crossing the Great Plains. This is a ‘false Jossakeed’ known as Turtle (p. 70), who exploits the drought to terrorize the Mandan, stirring up hatred between them and other human peoples of the Plains and exiling joy and pleasure from the Mandan lodges. His defining characteristics are humourlessness, a love of violence (his leggings are ‘solidly fringed with scalps’, p. 64), self-interest – reflected in the protective shell of the creature his name invokes – and a facility for spreading fear wherever he goes. The oldest Jossakeed of the Mandan compares this sower of hate with a bird of ill omen like Kahgahgengs. ‘Many times,’ he reminds a gathering of his tribe,

‘have the birds of sorrow flown over this people; many times have we driven them away from us. Now they come thick again about our heads, as our corn dies in the dry ground, the river runs low, and the buffalo are far away. But this time […] the evil birds build their nests in our lodges.’ (p. 67)

Sure enough, the false Jossakeed carries a spear ‘tufted with crow-feathers’ (p. 64), confirming his kinship with Kahgahgengs. And the true shaman deals with him far more mercilessly than the Jossakeed of Lost Lake dealt with the crow: his warrior grandson drags Turtle outside the stockade, leaving him in a condition where the ‘buzzards are the only people who will trouble about [him] now’ (p. 71).

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and Little Horse approach the dwellings of the Mangan People.

The most intriguing of the self-serving peoples in the novel is a community which is never graced with a name, who inhabit a hidden valley in the desert because they have alienated all the other peoples who live nearby.[7] From Little Dog’s first encounter with this people they are associated with wolves, who in Miskoo were widely considered ‘Bad Luck on four feet’; and the transference of this concept from wolves to humans makes much better sense in Little Dog’s universe. Crossing the desert on the way to the Rainmakers’ mountain home, Little Dog comes across a young man dying from a snakebite, whose older brothers sit helplessly by, ‘as grim-looking as winter wolves’ in the face of their helplessness (p. 92). Little Dog wins their friendship by curing the sick man with the magic snakeskin from his pouch, but he quickly learns they have few other friends, having stolen ‘far more horses […] than so small a band could possibly need’ (p. 98), killed people ‘for the fun of it’ (p. 100), and kidnapped women, including a woman of the Rainmaker people. Stealing horses is a kind of game for many human peoples of the Plains, but the people of the Secret Water have taken the game to excess, violating the principle laid down by Beluga in Miskoo, ‘NEVER TAKE MORE THAN YOU NEED’. As a result they are ‘like lone wolves who have been turned out of the pack’ (p. 100) – a better characterization of a universal enemy than Miskoo’s blanket condemnation of wolves in general.[8] In Little Dog, however, even lone wolves can be looked on with compassion. The child protagonist genuinely likes the brash boy-warrior whose life he saves, and notices that his older brothers like Steals-in-the-Snow too, acting towards him ‘rather as a mother wolf with only one cub might’ (p. 97). When the young warrior falls victim to a retaliatory raid by the Rainmakers, Little Dog mourns him much as Huck Finn mourns his equally brash friend Buck when the boy gets shot in a family feud. The echo may well be a conscious one: in both cases the victim plunges into water at the fatal moment, and in both cases the child who witnesses the victim’s death – Little Dog or Huck – is haunted by posttraumatic flashbacks for a long time afterwards.[9] The young warrior’s plunge into the Secret Water his people have been keeping to themselves is particularly symbolic in the context of a drought. His disappearance into its depths, fighting furiously with his enemies, and his later re-emergence from it only to set out on a doomed quest to avenge the deaths of his brothers at the hands of the Rainmakers, underlines his total isolation from a world that has come together in a collective bid to bring the rain. Steals-in-the-Snow is as much a lone wolf in death as he was in life.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and the Secret Water People.

If crows and wolves are set apart from other people by their bad habits of taking more than they need and killing for fun, there is a smaller menace in Fairclough’s book which deserves to be set alongside them. A little later in their desert crossing Little Dog and his friends come across a Pack-Rat living in an abandoned human pueblo on top of a mesa (a table-shaped mountain); and the Rat, they learn, is obsessed with collecting objects he does not need. Among these objects are precious things that may have been stolen from human corpses; but the Pack-Rat steals something far more valuable from the companions, which is a quiver-full of magic corn that was given them by the Josakeed of Lost Lake to help them on their journey. The Pack-Rat maintains that this act of petty thievery is no more than a fair exchange – what he calls a ‘trade’ – since he leaves a few bits and pieces from his own collection in place of the corn; but his trick very nearly proves fatal for Little Dog and his friends. The last leg of their desert crossing turns out to be much harder and longer than expected, and without the magic corn starvation and thirst come close to killing them before it is over. Fairclough’s self-centred rodent foreshadows a time when the American continent will be wholly subjected to the dubious rules of trade, and when those rules will be stretched to breaking point in the interests of private gain, like the rules of the game of horse-thieving as played by the wolflike people of the Secret Water. In Little Dog, the Pack-Rat Pikawee is an exception among the many peoples who work together to end the drought; but adult readers may well suspect that he stands for the packs of capitalistic rats who later came to run the country at the expense of their fellow Americans.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and his companions struggle through the desert after their corn has been stolen by Pikawee.

Diametrically opposed to the self-centred loners in the book – the lone Wolves, Crows and Pack-Rats – is the three-person band known as the Rainseekers, who sacrifice themselves for the collective. When Little Dog volunteers to travel across the continent to the Rainmakers he does so in a spirit of adventure rather than sacrifice: he is excited at the prospect of the journey, and ‘it would be FUN,’ he thinks, ‘to see that Rain-Dance!’ (p. 36). But Mus-Wah the Moose, who once saved Little Dog’s life, sees the journey in sacrificial terms: if successful, Mus-Wah thinks, the quest will wipe out the boy’s debt to himself, since he will have saved both the Moose Chief and all his people from certain death (p. 40). Little Horse, meanwhile, when they meet him, has already been nominated as a sacrifice by the Mandan people, having been driven out of the community with all their fears and misdemeanours symbolically loaded on his back like the scapegoat of the ancient Jews, in a last despairing bid to end the drought. Little Horse feels guilty, as a result, for being rescued from the claws of a puma, until Little Dog persuades him that he will make a better sacrifice of himself by helping the travellers reach the Rainmakers (p. 50). Little Dog helps Little Horse by using one of the magic gifts he carries in his bag, gifts intended to be offered to the Rainmakers in exchange for rain. Each time this happens in the book – each time a gift designed to help the collective gets used instead to save an individual life – could be considered a sacrificial act, since it jeopardizes Little Dog’s larger mission. The rightness of these smaller sacrifices, however, is confirmed at the end of his journey by the Rainmakers themselves, who take these little sacrifices as good reason to show generosity on their own part: ‘You did well to use the other gifts as you did,’ one of them reassures him, ‘and, Little Dog, as you helped others so we will try to help you’ (p. 138). Their judgement is endorsed by the fact that the only gift left at the end of the journey – one of the three magic quills put into the bag by Kahgi the Porcupine – plays a central role in the Rain-Dance ceremony. Ahool, the Spirit or Kachina of the Sun, uses the quill as an arrow shot from his bow towards the north, taking Little Dog and his two companions with it as well as the life-supporting rain, and so accomplishing the most crucial act of sacrifice in the whole adventure. Reciprocal gestures – gifts freely given, often to the detriment of the giver, which elicit equally generous gifts from the recipient – structure Little Dog’s journey from start to finish. This sets the shared values of the Rainseekers, the Rainmakers and the communities that rely on their mutual understanding directly at odds with the values of the ‘thieves’.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Council of the Rainmakers.

The last and greatest sacrifice made by Little Dog is to offer his life in exchange for rain. Appropriately enough, this turns out to be a reciprocal gesture. The Rainmakers explain that once they have summoned the rain someone needs to volunteer to draw it away from their land, wearing a Kachina mask to mark them out as one of the Great Spirits and hence worthy to be followed; otherwise the rain will bring only destruction to the fertile southern farms (‘the beans [will] be washed from the ground, […] the corn [..] beaten down into the mud’, and the people will starve, p. 147), while the rain-starved lands of the north will remain in drought. Whoever undertakes this dangerous northward journey may not survive. At once Little Dog’s two best friends among the Rainmakers, Green Corn Woman and Root Digger, volunteer for the role. But they are interrupted by the Great Big Chipmunk, the only one of the three travelling companions who has not yet explicitly sacrificed himself. Green Corn Woman and Root Digger, he points out, are needed by their people. He, on the other hand, is a Totem, and hence already part of the spirit world; he does not think that posing as a Kachina or Spirit will kill him. In any case he is happy to undertake the journey north, bringing water to the continent, since that was always his intention: ‘Little Dog and I were sent here to fetch the Rain,’ he sums up, ‘and fetch it we will, if it drowns us!’ The speech balances the much shorter speech made by Little Dog near the start of the book, when he volunteered for the journey south at the Animal Council on the shores of Lost Lake. The Chipmunk’s speech takes place at a Council too, a human one in this case. Both the southward journey and the fulfilment of its object, then, are the result of collective decision making, and the collective includes both human and nonhuman people. The same sense of collective solidarity is expressed in the preparations made for the northward journey, as it was in the preparations for the journey south, which chiefly involved collecting magic items to put in Little Dog’s bag to trade with the Rainmakers. For the northward journey Little Dog is ritually dressed as a Puebloan person, while the Great Big Chipmunk is fitted with a Puebloan mask to symbolise his status as a Kachina or Great Spirit. At the same time they are enjoined to fix their minds on the places they know where the rain is needed: the Great Plains where the boy and the Chipmunk met Little Horse; the forests of Little Dog’s northern homeland (p. 158). They prepare for the sacrifice as perfect amalgams of the peoples who are helping them and the peoples who need their help, a completed circle that embraces all the inhabitants of the continent. Fairclough was at heart a designer, and her orchestration of the final journey accomplishes the design of her narrative aesthetically as well as morally, like the symbolic patterns made in different coloured sands that decorate the floor of the kiva or sacred underground room where the Rainmakers’ Council took place (p. 146).

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Rainmaking Ceremony.

At the climax of the Rainmaking ceremony, when Ahool the Sun Kachina shoots the magic porcupine quill from his bow towards the north, the companions magically follow the arrow through the air in a movement that retraces and justifies every step of their southward journey. As they go, they catch glimpses of the various friends, human and nonhuman, who helped them on their way: the dying Buffalo on the prairies, the lodges of the Mandans, two young Cougars who helped them pass the Great Red-Pipe-Stone Quarry, a Bear who showed them the way across the river that separates the forests from the plains. Fairclough does not forget anyone of importance who gave the companions assistance, and in mentioning every helper she includes them all in the final gesture of fulfilment and mutual friendship. As a model for collective living, the last few pages of Little Dog and the Rainmakers can hardly be bettered, and mark the book as essential reading for young and old at a time of climate catastrophe like our own.

Mary Fairclough: Alders

Fairclough’s meticulous use of available scholarship on the indigenous peoples of the north American forests, the Great Plains and the Pueblos is reflected everywhere in her representations of the way they live: in her words, in her black-and-white ink drawings, and in the colourful, intricate linocuts interleaved with the verbal narrative. She is clearly fascinated in this book, as she was in Miskoo, by the material and spiritual processes by which people make conscious use of the lands they inhabit. This is evident in her account of the rites of passage to the status of warrior undergone by Little Dog and his older brother, in her description of the ceremonies of the Animal Council, in her account of another Council in an earth lodge of the Mandan, and in her evident enjoyment of Puebloan rituals of all kinds. Her explanation for the relative elaborateness of Puebloan ritual is deeply affectionate: the Pueblo People, she tells us,

living quietly on their high mesas, or down in their deep canyons, thinking as much of growing crops as of hunting animals, and only fighting if they really had to, had given a lot of time and attention to ceremonies, from beautiful elaborate ones for rain and corn-planting and so on, down to small kindly ones for making guests feel at home. They hated anyone to feel awkward or embarrassed. (pp. 136-137)

The combination of engagement, respect, affection and extensive research suggested by Fairclough’s verbal and pictorial narrative seems to me to embody a number of practices recommended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward in their celebrated handbook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Seattle, WA: Aqueduct Press, 2005). This handbook draws on Shawl and Ward’s experience of teaching a course with the same title, and aims to consider ‘what works (and what doesn’t) when writing about characters of races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, religions, nationalities, and other traits and features different from your own’ (p. 4). As suggested by Shawl and Ward, Fairclough has clearly read, viewed and thought a good deal in an effort to achieve ‘authenticity’, as she understands it. She also claims to have listened to Native Americans – ‘I heard an Indian say once that only careless people have adventures when travelling’, she tells us (p. 40) – although one wonders whether the ‘Indian’ she mentions was in fact the interloper Grey Owl, addressing spectators on one of his lecture tours of Britain. In addition, her narrator stands respectfully outside the various cultures she describes (‘I heard an Indian say’) – something Nisi Shawl considers a useful strategy when writing about characters different from yourself: ‘When at all plausible, the best point of view from which to recount a transcultural tale is one that in some way mimics the tale-teller’s position vis-à-vis the culture: that of an alien’ (p. 89). If nothing else, Fairclough’s fascination with and desire to be respectful of the four Indigenous cultures she depicts shine through in every sentence. Her book, like the original charter of the United Nations, is based on the principle of cooperation between peoples, and that cooperation extends to Fairclough’s honouring of each distinct community she represents – even that of the outcasts of the desert, the lone wolves whose courageous cub, Steals-in-the-Snow, is mourned and honoured in his death by Little Dog.

Mary Fairclough: Glamorous Night

As with Miskoo the Lucky, however, nations do not exist in Little Dog’s world as they do in the world of the United Nations, as tracts of land arbitrarily divided by borders whose contours cannot be seen except on a map. Little Dog is given a map at one point by one of the Mandan men, but it doesn’t indicate any borders; it’s solely designed to help him find his way from waterhole to waterhole as he crosses the desert. In any case, the map is burned to ashes when the People of the Secret Water are attacked by the Puebloan Rainmakers; so he does not have it for much of the journey it was made for, crossing the desert. Fairclough’s American continent is divided not into geographically demarcated nations but into ecosystems: forests, deserts, mountains, plains; and the inhabitants of these four ecosystems are united by a great deal more than what divides them.

Mary Fairclough: Heavy Horses

In fact, space itself doesn’t operate in Fairclough’s first two books as it does in the world of her mostly Anglo readers. Both Miskoo the Lucky and Little Dog and the Rainmakers introduce their readers to systems of communication that overcome both spatial and cultural distance, as more modern forms of communication in her time – radio, telegraph, film, television – simply cannot. One such system is the presence in each book of a messenger with wings, a bird that can oversee and inform distant people of the progress of the protagonist on his epic journey. Miskoo’s journey from his homeland to the land of the Sámi is observed by Nyctia the great Snow Owl, and she makes sure that his family knows he is safe and well so that they will not fret during the short Arctic summer he spends with his new friends. Little Dog’s journey, too, is observed by a friendly bird, Kiniou the great War-Eagle, Chief of all Birds. It is also observed by Little Dog’s enemy, Kahgahgengs the Crow, who is forced by the Jossakeed of Lost Lake to report regularly and truthfully on Little Dog’s progress to the Jossakeed of Little Dog’s people, Man-Whose-Dreams-Are-True. This second communications system confirms the spiritual ties that bind the shamans of all peoples on the North American continent. The Jossakeed of Lost Lake is not known to Man-Whose-Dreams-Are-True, but they share the same understanding of natural magic, and this allows them to speak to each other wordlessly, even at a distance. The old Jossakeed of the Mangan People knows the Jossakeed of Long Lake from a meeting long ago, and willingly helps Little Dog to fulfil the mission which his fellow shaman set in motion. The shaman of the Puebloan People, who is also the Chief of the Desert People – Many Drums Speaking – specializes in making music that brings different peoples together, physically as well as emotionally, which is the supreme form of communication or ‘speaking’, as his name suggests. Even the shaman of the outcast People of the Secret Water, their singer and storyteller, tells the same stories as other shamans, though he uses different names. ‘All over the world’, the narrator tells us, ‘different people have different ideas about these things’ (p. 102); but ‘these things’ remain the same, and can be understood by those who listen carefully, no matter which people they belong to. Shamans of all Peoples speak the same language, tell the same stories, perform the same kinds of magic, and share the same understandings, and this mutual sharing across space and time far outstrips the dream of the United Nations in its potential for bringing people from diverse communities into cooperative syncopation.

Mary Fairclough: Janet in Red

Little Dog and the Rainmakers, then, is a United Nations book, like Miskoo the Lucky; indeed, it was published by the same publishers – Hutchinson’s – and its dustjacket includes an advertisement for the earlier book, reminding readers that it was ‘Hutchinson’s £10,000 United Nations Literary Competition Prize Winner’. Both books, however, go well beyond the United Nations in their inclusiveness, embracing entire ecosystems and discarding all artificial borders in their embracement of cooperation. The Blue Tree has a very different tone, but its inclusiveness is just as generous and striking. Its differences from and similarities with the other books will be the subject of the post that follows.

[The follow-up blog post can be found here.]

Little Dog and the Rainmakers, dustjacket, rear view

NOTES

[1] For example, she wrote the book for an opera, John Barleycorn, with music composed by Bruce Montgomery – aka the crime writer and science fiction afficionado Edmund Crispin…

[2] The full text of her talk can be found here.

[3] I found the quotation here.

[4] The 1945 edition of the UN Charter can be found here.

[5] His most lavishly illustrated book is a novel for children, The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People (1935), which again contains both drawings and photos. It can be found here.

[6] See Pilgrims of the Wild, chapter 2: ‘Their hands—one can call them nothing else—were nearly as effective as our own more perfect members would be, in the uses they were put to. They could pick up very small objects with them, manipulate sticks and stones, strike, push, and heave with them and they had a very firm grasp which it was difficult to disengage. When peeling a stick they used them both to twist the stem with supple wrist movements, while the teeth rapidly whittled off the succulent bark as it went by, much after the fashion of a lathe.’ Pilgrims can be found online at Project Gutenberg, here.

[7] It’s worth noting that they are not ‘the desert people’, who are called upon by the Rainmakers to help with the spell for summoning rain; the nameless people of the Secret Water occupy the desert by default, having been expelled from their original communities, whatever they were, for violating the rules of communal living as explained by Beluga. The name of Little Dog’s friend from the Secret Water people, Steals-in-the-Snow, suggests that they come from a much less arid setting than a desert.

[8] Elsewhere in the book we meet more community-minded representatives of lupine society, such as the Chief of the Wolves, a ‘grey slant-eyed shadow’ who licks the hand of Little Dog’s mother as they wait together for her son’s return (p. 171).

[9] See Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (London and New York: Everyman, 1977), p. 283: ‘I wished I hadn’t ever come ashore that night, to see such things. I ain’t ever going to get shut of them – lots of times I dream about them.’ Compare Little Dog, p. 113: ‘the Very Big Chipmunk was still glum, and Little Dog began remembering things again’.

Macbeth: A Scottish Play?

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve been depositing them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the fourth, written before the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014.]

Henry Fuseli, Study for the Three Witches in Macbeth.

How Scottish is Macbeth? The answer, of course, is not at all. It’s a play written by an Englishman, performed in England, to an audience the bulk of whom would have been Englishmen – and Southerners at that. But the play is also evidence of Shakespeare’s intense interest in Scottish history; hardly surprising given his status as chief playwright for a company newly christened the King’s Men, patronized by King James VI of Scotland who had assumed the Scottish throne in 1603. And it’s evidence, too, of just how unsettling the rapprochement between these two nations, which had for centuries shared little but a  border and an intense mutual hatred, must have been for everyone involved.

Macbeth is about the near impossibility of holding a single kingdom together, or even of defining its limits: an impossibility that manifests itself in the dreadful trouble the play’s characters have in holding themselves together – that is, in keeping body and soul in one piece, or in reconciling their convictions with their actions, or in saying what they think. The threatened dismemberment of Scotland and its inhabitants in the play neatly parallels the religious, regional and factional divisions that had split the northern kingdom throughout the sixteenth century. And the Scottish royal family had felt the effects of these internal conflicts for generations before they were exacerbated by the Reformation. As Sir Charles Piggott pointed out to the English Parliament in 1606 – the year Macbeth was written and performed – the Scots ‘have not suffered above two kings to die in their beds, these 200 years’. The Stuarts had been subjected to a seemingly endless series of assassinations and massacres, more often at the hands of their own subjects than those of their English neighbours.

Fifteenth-century map of Scotland, drawn by the English spy John Hardyng. Note that it is cut off from England by the sea.

Ancient Scotland was no better, as Shakespeare would have seen as he browsed through Holinshed’s chronicle seeking plots for James’s entertainment. The kings who reigned before and after the eleventh-century monarch Macbeth met their ends in appallingly inventive ways: by poison, witchcraft, or (in one case) an elaborate trap involving a golden apple and hidden crossbows, whose quarrels were launched at Kenneth II ‘with great force and violence’ when the apple was touched. And the Scots had a habit of importing their violent ways into the neighbouring kingdom. The last Scottish monarch before James – his mother, Mary Queen of Scots – was accused of murdering James’s father (which led to her exile in England), then hatching a series of plots against her cousin Elizabeth I (which led to her execution). James himself had twice been kidnapped, in 1582 and 1600; and his experience of near shipwreck en route to collect his wife Anne of Denmark in 1587 left him certain that he had narrowly avoided murder by witchcraft. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, whereby disaffected Catholics planned to destroy James and the English Parliament in one devastating explosion, may have convinced some Englishmen that the Scots had transplanted their own particular version of political hell into English soil along with their monarch.

A whiff of sulphur accompanied the stench of gunpowder. Scotland seems to have been associated in England with the supernatural: partly perhaps because of the spooky ballads that spread through England from north of the Border (think of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer), and partly because of James VI’s own treatise on magic and witchcraft, Daemonologie (1597 and 1603), which insisted on the dangers they posed as fiercely as the Englishman Reginald Scot had insisted on their non-existence in his The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584).  The witches in Macbeth, whose agency is so hotly disputed (did they drive Macbeth to murder, or did they merely redirect a murderous tendency he already possessed?), cater for both the English and Scottish views of witchcraft. They introduce the theme of double-talk or equivocation – saying one thing and meaning another, or convincing yourself through chop-logic that it’s permissible to do the unforgivable – that pervades the play. For them, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, and their delight in reversing moral polarities infects Macbeth’s language, so that he can persuade himself that in a world where ‘nothing is but what is not’ he might get away with regicide. The witches’ later prophecies – that Macbeth cannot be killed by a man born of woman, that he will be safe till Burnam Wood comes to Dunsinane – are classic examples of equivocation: they sound impossible, yet prove accurate because of unforeseeable circumstances (Macbeth’s killer was born by Caesarean section; the wood is uprooted to be used as camouflage by the English army). The witches’ double-speak reflects both the treachery associated with Scotland by the English, and the merging of two cultures and two languages under James, which transformed the English court into a hotbed of mutual misunderstandings.

Marcus Gheeraerts, illustration from Holinshed’s Chronicle (1577) showing Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches.

The Scottish King’s inheritance of England had been anticipated for years, as the English panicked over the ageing Elizabeth’s refusal to name an heir. That period of anxiety has its aftershocks in Macbeth. Problems of succession had often been solved in Scotland by spates of blood-letting – as when Kenneth II murdered the heir to the throne, Prince Malcolm, to ensure that his own son wore the crown. Shakespeare’s Macbeth re-enacts all the atrocities perpetrated by Scots through history against inconvenient heirs. His massacre of MacDuff’s children stands in for his desire to massacre Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbane, Banquo’s heir Fleance, and with them the whole line of monarchs that descended from Banquo to James. Each time he thinks he has the kingdom and its succession under control a new child emerges to taunt him. Young Fleance escapes from the scene of his father’s murder, and his escape leaves Macbeth ‘bound in / To saucy doubts and fears’. Later the witches summon up two infant spirits to taunt Macbeth with the fact that his children will not succeed him. At the end of the play, a Scottish prince, Malcolm, defeats Macbeth at the head of an English army composed largely of ‘unrough youths’ – adolescents who have not yet started shaving. Children die at Macbeth’s hands only to be resurrected like a succession of vengeful ‘newborn babes / Striding the blast’.

The reign of the ‘boy Malcolm’ promises fresh new possibilities for the kingdoms that have combined to put him on the throne. The new king promises to make himself ‘even with’ his helpers of all ranks, thus anticipating a fair and equal partnership between Scottish ruler and subject, and between the erstwhile enemy nations. But the bloody head of Macbeth, dangling like a chunk of Scotland’s history from the fist of his killer MacDuff, undermines Malcolm’s self-assurance with a second promise: that the Stuart dynasty will continue to encounter more than its share of rebels and regicides – including, as we now know, the parliamentary decapitators of James’s son. Accompanied by omens like this, it’s no wonder that a hundred years would pass before the union of England and Scotland would be finally ratified.

Henry Fuseli, Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches.

[For more on Macbeth see my post ‘Wonders of the Northlands: Hamlet and Macbeth’, here.]

 

 

 

Birdcage

[I wrote this story in the mid-1990s, for a workshop run by the late, great Aonghas MacNeacail when he was Writer in Residence at the University of Glasgow. It shows its age in the colour of the buses; in Glasgow now they are no longer orange. In the alternative Glasgow of this story, of course, they may still be.]

The central station of this northern city is built to resemble a harbour. The trains dock at the platforms like huge sea-monsters, gleaming fishes and breaching whales, electric eels and diesel-driven walruses which balefully study the land with great glass eyes. The concourse is awash with passengers who eddy here and there in brightly-coloured schools drawn back and forth by the immeasurable tides. On either side of the concourse ticket offices, supermarket outlets and coffee shops are housed in wooden buildings whose elegantly curved facades mimic the flanks of nineteenth-century merchant vessels riding at anchor. In the old days the shed was filled with the fog of steam, but now the air in the station seems crystal clear, like the air of the city it serves, and the stationary ships at the station are the only ships you’ll see apart from the hulks on the river which have been turned into casinos, restaurants and wedding venues.

The young man who sat on a suitcase in the middle of the concourse sighed and screwed up the paper he had been writing on. ‘Too fussy,’ he muttered. ‘There must be a way of catching a city in words that doesn’t involved turning it into the scenario for a second rate musical.’ He pocketed his notebook, picked up his suitcase and wandered out into the rain. This is why he failed to see the Flying Pict pull in at Platform One and a man get out carrying the future of the city in a violin case made of scratched black leather.

The tall thin man stood still for a moment on the platform. He was so tall and thin that the passers-by, who were mostly short, darted furtive glances at him as they hurried towards the concourse. His head was remarkable: flattened on top with a crest of black hair which spread out behind in a spiky ruff. He peered about with quick jerky movements as if he were spearing the air with his pointed nose. When he began to stalk after the other passengers dust rose from his shabby black coat and with every step his trouser-cuffs lifted to expose a length of yellow sock. The roof of the shed seemed to fascinate him. This was noticeable because to look at it he had to tilt his head sideways, as if his eyes weren’t mobile enough in their sockets to look upwards without assistance from his crane-like neck. His inspection of the roof had an odd effect on the passers-by. An urge to look up likewise possessed the people closest to the stranger, spreading outwards from them to their more distant neighbours like ripples on water. Some resisted the urge by setting their jaws and hurrying on, determined not to be tricked into showing interest. Others gave way to the impulse and raised their eyes. Each of these saw something different: a cage of girders, a metal cobweb, a harbourful of tilted glass sails. The ones who looked up collided with the ones who didn’t, muttered apologies and hurried on, looking foolish. One young woman bumped into the stranger himself. For an instant her gaze was filled with bright black eyes, a pointed nose, a crest of spiky hair. In that instant she noticed that his skin was raw and yellow as if it had been freshly plucked. The stranger said in a harsh voice, ‘I peck your pardon,’ but the woman only squawked and ran. She never travelled by train, had only taken the short cut through the station to escape the rain, and swore to herself she wouldn’t take it again if she could help it. You never knew what queer birds you might meet on the concourse.

Towards the station entrance stands a defused brass shell of the kind fired from naval guns in the Second World War. The rows of names on a brass plaque behind it betrays its function as a war memorial, but it also functions as a useful meeting place, an island amid the eddying crowds, and two men stood by it now with the bored but watchful expressions of professional loiterers. They both wore mackintoshes and unlit cigarettes hung from their long lean jaws. When they noticed the disturbance caused by the stranger they swung their heads in his direction and drawled to each other out of the corners of their mouths.

‘Would you look at that, Jeek. Walking this way, bold as brass. Must be – what, seven, eight feet tall?’

The younger man surreptitiously lifted his sleeve to look at a note he had written in biro on his forearm. ‘Black hair, yellow skin, dressed in black, carrying a bag. Fits the description, Bill.’

‘Jeek,’ said the older man, who was balding and wore his hair cropped short so the baldness wouldn’t show. ‘Jeek, you’re thinking again. Leave the thinking to me. Of course he fits the description. That’s because he’s the fella we’re here to meet.’

Jeek turned up the collar on his mackintosh to show that thinking was the very last thing on his mind. ‘What do we do, then, Bill? Do we grab him now?’

‘Jeek,’ said the older man with weary patience, ‘when I want your suggestions I’ll ask for them. Look around you, Jeek. What do you see?’

Jeek took the cigarette from his mouth and stared around him, trying to look haughty but succeeding only in looking haunted. ‘Eh – nothing, Bill. Nothing much, that is.’

‘People, Jeek,’ said the older man. ‘The place is full of people. We cannae grab him here, can we?’

‘Do we – do we follow him then, Bill?’ Jeek asked hopefully.

‘No, Jeek. I’ll follow him. You follow me. And try not to look so much like a fucking bent copper.’

At this point the stranger stalked past them and nodded amicably. ‘Coot evenink,’ he said, and continued his inspection of the roof. The two men froze into parodic statues of nonchalance, Bill suddenly absorbed in examining his jaw in the polished surface of the naval shell, Jeek thrusting his hands into his mackintosh pockets and growling like a dog. As soon as the stranger had passed they sprang into action. With hurried glances to left and right, as if calling the world to witness their anonymity, they trotted after their quarry. In his haste Jeek barged against an old woman who had come to look at the shell, as was her custom, and reminisce loudly about the war to anyone who cared to listen. ‘Well really,’ she shrilled after him. ‘There’s no respect among young people these days. Nobody behaved like that in the war, let me tell you. Manners counted for something then.’

By this time the stranger had stepped out into the porch of the station and was cocking one bright black eye at the ornate metalwork that framed the roof that guarded the station entrance from the elements. ‘Splen-tit,’ he cried, and plunged between two black taxis that had just roared into life at the taxi rank.

‘He’s headed up Slope Street,’ Bill bayed to Jeek as they narrowly avoided having their shins broken by one of the taxis. ‘Jesus he’s fast.’

And so began a game of tag up and down the streets of the northern city: an ungainly dance whose only rules were that the three dancers must avoid contact with each other at all costs. Either the stranger knew the streets like a native and was trying to shake off his pursuers, or else he was merely insane and his pirouettes and gyrations were the random products of a tortured brain. A little way up Slope Street he spun and seemed to be staring in ecstasy at a spot just above his mackintoshed followers’ heads. ‘Preathtakink,’ he trilled, and glancing round Bill saw that he was gazing at the massive corner tower of the Central Hotel, a mock-medieval chateau which dominated the north-west face of the station. Having vented his admiration, the stranger whipped round again and swooped up the incline of Slope Street, only to fling himself into the path of an orange bus a few blocks further on. The bus let out a screech of indignation and Bill gave a startled bark.

‘He’s nuts, I tell you! Where’s he headed now?’

The two men splashed impatiently in the gutter, looking for an opening in the traffic. When they finally stumbled into St Vitus Street they found the stranger performing a jerky triumphal jig in front of the building known as the Birdcage: a tall art-nouveau structure with many curved, barred windows that stoops over St Vitus Street as if it is melting. ‘Vot light! Vot crace!’ called the stranger to a group of little boys who had stopped under some scaffolding for a smoke. Then he was off again, waving one ungainly arm at the monolithic façade of a bank which looked as if it was aspiring to become the base of a Chicago skyscraper. ‘It traws your eye to the sky, sir, tuss it not?’ he cawed to an elderly tramp, who snarled in an unexpectedly pompous voice, ‘Go away! I don’t have any change!’ But by the time the tramp had shaken his torn umbrella at the stranger’s back, and almost been carried off into the sky himself by a sudden gust of rain-sodden wind, the tall thin man was already hopping down Renfield Street and pointing at the Casa di Vetro, which now houses a supermarket. It is modelled on a Venetian palazzo, but its slender columns, high arched bays and ornately decorated eaves are made of cast iron, a graceful marriage of Victorian engineering and Mediterranean exuberance, as the stranger did not fail to inform a woman who was pushing a shopping trolley towards the doorway on Eireachdail Street where she would spend the night.

The stranger stared for several minutes at the way the reflective windows of the Casa di Vitro mirrored the upper storeys of the neo-Gothic buildings that faced it and the racing clouds above their steeply-pitched roofs. Jeek and Bill were able to catch their breath, which was short and noisy from all the cigarettes their professional loitering forced them to consume. They noticed that when the stranger was still he was unnervingly immobile, as if his internal organs had ceased to move along with his limbs. They found themselves mesmerised by this stillness, so that when he suddenly sprang to life again and galloped eastwards towards Maskull Street it took them several seconds to react. Bill cursed as he set off after him. ‘If he’d packed a piece,’ he gasped to no one in particular, ‘and if he’d wanted to, he could have picked us off like bunny rabbits.’ The scenarios that presented themselves to Bill’s imagination were invariably savage.

They caught up with him on Maskull Street, craning his neck to get a better view of the pagoda-like structure that balanced on the highest point of the former office of a city newspaper. ‘Zere is another city, my frients,’ the stranger was explaining to a startled woman dressed in what looked like a lampshade, ‘up zere, apove your hets.’ The woman staggered off on high heels towards the relative safety of Argle street, with its crowds of shoppers, and for the first time Bill and Jeek found themselves alone in the street with the stranger. Maskull Street narrowed at this end to a kind of funnel, and just before it began to narrow, there was an opening on the left that led to an unlit cobbled alley. ‘We’ve got him now,’ Bill hissed to Jeek. ‘You take the right arm, I’ll take the left. We’ll have a nice chat with our long-legged chum in this wee side-street.’ With intense concentration the two men advanced on the exultant stranger from either side, their jaws thrust forward, their ears laid back. Bill was clenching and unclenching his gloved hands, which were as thick and clumsy as the paws of a bear. He had a mad gleam in his eye, and Jeek knew that this was one of the rare moments he had been living for through all those months – maybe years – of loitering. But before they could reach out to grasp the stranger’s elbows, the stranger took a long step backwards and wrapped his long, skinny arms around their shoulders, pinning them to his chest in a grip of impossible and terrible power.

Jeek found his nose pressed up against the stranger’s shabby coat. His nostrils were filled with a rank smell that reminded him of the time when his mother had made him pluck a well-hung pheasant on the kitchen table. His eyes filled with tears and he began to choke.

‘My frients,’ the stranger whispered in an intimate croak. ‘I luff ziss city already. I vill make it my home. Putt I vill need somevhere to liff. Somevhere high up, viz pig vindows and a coot few. Do you haff any suchestions?’

Jeek thought he was going to suffocate, and the pressure on his shoulders made his bones creak. He began to struggle and strike feebly at the stranger’s side. He could hear Bill struggling more violently somewhere close by. Fear seized him: this was a monster, only a fiend in human form could have such dreadful strength. With a sudden wrench he freed himself from the stranger’s embrace and stumbled aside. At the same time Bill broke loose, letting out a volley of colourful curses. He was fumbling for something under his mackintosh; his face was purple. The stranger paid no attention. He merely spread wide his arms, with the violin case dangling from one hand, and proceeded to leap and twirl like an ungainly ballerina.

‘You see, I haff such plans,’ he crowed. ‘Such clorious plans. Ziss place iss ripe for transformation. For example, ziss old puilding,’ and he struck the wall of the abandoned office. ‘It iss empty! It shoult be full off life ant noise! Consider ze soarink imachination that coult conceive off such a puilding, that coult erect it stone by stone ant top it off viz a pacoda, yes a pacoda so high up, so far from ze dirt ant sqvallor of ze street! It is ass if ze architect so long ago foresaw my arrifal ant ze gifts I voult pring! I vill make zis city great, I tell you. Greater zan it hass effer been!’

‘For God’s sake, no!’ howled Jeek, and it was not clear even to him whether he was shouting at the stranger or at Bill, who had pulled out something black and gleaming and was pointing it with trembling hands at the stranger’s head. Curses continued to stream out of Bill’s mouth like brightly-coloured ribbons. ‘Bill, Bill!’ wailed Jeek. ‘Don’t do it, man! Ye’re mad!’

‘Did I ask for your opinion, Jeek?’ Bill shouted back. ‘Can’t ye see he’s tanked up to the eyeballs wi some kind of junk the likes of which we’ve never seen? What do you think he’s got in that bag of his? He’ll make this city great, all right; but not before I’ve plastered his brains all over it.’ As he spoke he shifted his eyes momentarily from the stranger, the better to fix his young accomplice with a withering stare. In that instant the two men found themselves alone in Maskull Street. ‘You stupid ape!’ roared Bill. ‘You let him escape again!’

Before Jeek could answer back, Bill had rushed down the funnel into the buzz of Argle Street. Jeek followed more slowly, shaken by his recent ordeal and hampered by the weight of the rain that had soaked his mackintosh. He stopped at the mouth of Maskull Street, looking into the busy thoroughfare, and watched in horror as several things happened in quick succession.

The stranger was bounding down the middle of Argle Street, dodging the traffic with nonchalant ease. His black coat flapped behind him, his violin case swung wildly from his right hand, and his yellow socks flashed at the throngs of astonished shoppers who had stopped to stare as he bounded by. The oddest thing about him was that his enormous feet never touched the ground; they kicked and thrust at the empty air two or three centimetres above the gleaming tarmac. After him ran Bill, with heavy thumping strides, his shoulders hunched, right arm extended, right hand clutching the gun. Bill’s arm jerked, there was an explosion, and the stranger gave a mighty leap that carried him high over the wet black roof of a passing taxi.

A second later Jeek heard the obscene and unmistakable crunch that a heavy vehicle makes when it hits a man.

His first thought was that the stranger’s leap had carried him into the taxi’s path, but an orange bus obscured his view and he couldn’t tell. Shoppers began to scream in an almost matter-of-fact fashion, as if it was their duty as honest citizens, and the screams were taken up by other shoppers closer to Jeek who had no more idea than he did of what had just happened. He saw a man and woman look at each other inquiringly, pucker up their foreheads and start to scream with the perfect timing of opera singers. Jeek hurried along the pavement to where the screams were loudest, and saw that another orange bus had come to a standstill and that shoppers were now converging on it, again with an oddly businesslike air. A pair of scuffed black cowboy boots stuck out from under the bus. They belonged to Bill.

Something shiny lay in the gutter. Jeek picked it up. It was a life-size replica of a colt revolver, of the kind that Gary Cooper carried in ‘High Noon’. The stink of gunpowder still hung about the hammer: Bill had adapted the replica to fire blanks. Weighing the toy gun in his hand Jeek looked up and down the street. The stranger had disappeared: vanished into thin air. The young man had a fleeting vision of those nightmarishly thin and powerful limbs dwindling down to the width of a line drawn in ink on paper, then winking out altogether, leaving only a shadow behind. The rain plastered his hair over his eyes and dripped off the barrel of the revolver. Shoppers had begun to stare and point at him; those closest to him backed away, their mouths shaping little black O’s in their white faces. Men and women in official black with chequered hatbands forged their way towards him from left and right.

‘I saw him, officer,’ called a fat man in a yellow plastic anorak. ‘He gunned him down like an animal.’

Jeek contemplated brandishing the gun and making his escape after firing off a few rounds into the air; but that was exactly what Bill would have done. Suddenly the city felt heavy with menace. The dark clouds scudding overhead, the darkening concrete and stone of the sodden buildings, the merciless rain, the glare of headlamps which turned the raindrops into tiny flashing knives, the black of the tarmac that glistened like an underground river: the street had become a trap into which the dancing stranger had led them. Jeek dropped the revolver, lifted his face to the rain and began to howl.

‘Something about the devil coming to town,’ the fat man confided later to an anaemic policewoman. ‘Turned my blood to ice, I can tell you. Sounded just like a sad lost dog. I swear I won’t sleep a wink tonight.’

The policewoman wrote down his words very carefully in her notebook. Normally she would have taken little trouble to record such nonsense; but as she had pushed through the crowd towards the young gunman she too had seen and heard something remarkable. Perhaps it was merely some trick of the light, a hallucination brought on by the rain and the passing headlights; but she could swear she had seen over the young man’s head a dense black cloud in the shape of a bird, bigger than any she’d ever seen, maybe five or six metres from wingtip to wingtip; and before it vanished she could have sworn she had heard it laugh.

*****

The stranger stood in the topmost window of the Birdsnest. The window was curved like a Halloween lantern, and when it opened, the curve of the frame and the curves of the panes made the shape of a bird in flight. Dark shapes and lights mingled and moved on the streets below, which looked more than ever like rivers in motion as the rainwater splashed and spread across their smooth black surfaces.

When the stranger raised his eyes he met the eyes of an almost naked statue on the building opposite, the statue of a man who stooped beneath the weight of a sandstone portico incongruously perched on an upper storey far above any door it might have embellished – yet another of the pointless decorative features that encrusted the higher levels of buildings in this once prosperous city. The stone man glowered balefully at the stranger as if humiliated by the attention he was receiving. Leave me alone, his glower implied. I prefer to work unseen, as I always have.

The stranger nodded as if in agreement, turned his back on the street and went into the room. It was bare of furnishings. The Birdcage had stood for years now with advertising hoardings plastered all over it, urging passers-by to rent office space in its oddly shaped apartments, but nobody had accepted its invitations. Not, at least, till now. With a smooth single movement the stranger stalked to the middle of the room, knelt down on the wooden boards by his violin case and reached for the buckles with his long thin hands. The case sprang open. Inside, neatly packed in straw, lay six large eggs, glowing a mottled pale blue in the light of the streetlamps. The markings on the eggs made them look like pebbles from some distant beach, smoothed by tides for countless millennia. For the stranger they seemed to tremble with possibility.

‘Fery soon now, my little treshurs,’ the stranger murmured, smoothing their surfaces each in turn with feather-light fingers. ‘Fery soon you vill choin me in ziss place of empty nests. Togezzer ve vill fill zem, yes? And zen… and zen…’

Outside, the stone man continued to glower across the street at the open window, his shoulders bowed under the weight of the useless portico. It would be wrong to describe his work as loitering, but it was clear from his every curve that he had been doing it for many years. His glower had a world-weary look, as of one who refuses to be surprised by strangers no matter how tall, no matter how eccentric their movements, no matter how grandiose their plans. He would be watching, it seemed to say, till the moment came when he must spring into action.

It was hard to gauge what kind of action he had in mind.

 

Mollie Hunter, A Stranger Came Ashore (1975)

[In August I visited Shetland, making Scalloway my base and adding to the rich tally of remarkable islands and island systems we’ve encountered over the years: the Inner Hebrides, Rathlin, Sark, Stradbroke, Gont, the Dream Archipelago and many more. My soundtrack was the fiddle music of Shetlander Kevin Henderson, my verse the work of Shetland-based poet Jen Hadfield, and my fiction the fantasy novels of Inverness-shire resident and Shetland devotee Maureen McIlwraith, known to her many admirers as Mollie Hunter. This post is the outcome of that trip.]

The Seal Wife by Hans Pauli Olsen. Kalsoy, Faroe Islands.

For me the word ‘selkie’ has always referred to seals who can slough off their skins and transform themselves into people: beings entirely distinct from ordinary folk like you or me. In Shetland, by contrast, the term refers to seals of any kind; the potential for transformation is part and parcel of what makes them seals. Mollie Hunter’s celebrated children’s book A Stranger Came Ashore (1975), which is set in Shetland, contains selkies of both kinds: a seal which can shed its skin and become a man, and seals which remain implacably themselves, marine mammals with mass and fur and teeth of their own, fiercely resistant to being tampered with by humans of any stamp. It’s this interplay between two ingredients – the solidity, weight and texture of everyday things and the indecipherable strangeness of wild beasts and supernatural entities, inhabitants of elements we can only ever skim the surface of – that makes Hunter’s book so potent. It’s a novel for middle-grade readers written in short, well-crafted chapters told in plain English, but the collisions between competing worlds it delineates (between sea and land, between the material and the supernatural, truth and fiction, childhood and adulthood, life and death) make it a work of great complexity as well as a gripping narrative. I’d like here to unpick some of its complexity.

In the middle of the book – chapter nine of eighteen – a young human boy named Robbie Henderson, a Shetlander, heads down to the voe (a ‘long sea inlet’, as the Museum of Shetland glosses the term). Here he hopes to fulfil an ambition of his: picking up a baby seal. His grandfather, Old Da, has always warned him off such foolishness, conscious that selkie pups are born with a head full of pointy teeth well suited to defending themselves against the indignities posed by curious boys.[1] But by this point in the story Old Da is dead, and Robbie feels free at last to put his ambition to the test, despite his deep respect for his grandfather’s words of wisdom. Old Da is the source of young Robbie’s store of island stories, including stories about the shapeshifters known to non-Shetlanders as selkies; but the boy doesn’t let this hold him back from seizing one of the pups and testing its weight in his arms and hands. It’s the pup’s unexpected heaviness – all that protective blubber concealed beneath a deceptively soft-looking surface of white fur – together with the strength of its small front claws and the heat it radiates – which makes it clear to him soon afterwards that the stranger of the title shares the nature of these singing, swimming creatures of sea and shore. The stranger has a seal’s mass in his body, a seal’s heat in his flesh and a seal’s strength in his hands, and for all his charm – because of his charm, in fact – is far more dangerous than any seal to the little fishing community in which he appears one stormy night. The fiddle music he plays is the music sung by a mother seal to her pup; his love of music in general is shared by the seals who gather round men’s boats whenever they sing; his large dark eyes are a seal’s eyes, and his agility on shore is a seal’s agility at sea. At the same time, his desire for Robbie’s older sister, Elspeth, is the desire of a predatory man, and his methods of seducing her – with gold and compliments and smiles – are innately human. Hunter weaves together the familiar and the strange, the human and the nonhuman, the fantastic and the intensely real, so that one element in each case gains strength, substance and emotional heft from another, nowhere more strikingly than in this central chapter. In doing so she demonstrates the processes by which folk knowledge constructs itself from the disparate materials available to any given culture.

The interplay of the real and the supernatural at each point in the narrative is governed by the changing human influences that dominate Robbie’s life. Consistent presences throughout the story are his mother and father, but they are distanced from him by the difficult work they do and the practical everyday needs by which they are motivated. Their influence is overshadowed by that of three other adults, who compete for Robbie’s attention in three successive stages of the novel. Old Da dominates the first third of the story, but falls ill and dies in chapter six, exactly one third of the way through Hunter’s eighteen chapters. At this point the menacing stranger, Finn Learson, becomes the dominant presence in Robbie’s life, and the boy’s suspicion of him – which he once shared with his grandfather – now threatens to isolate him from the rest of the island community, as Finn charms his way into its hearts and minds. Chapter twelve, however, marks another change, as the gloomy schoolmaster Yarl Corbie assumes the role of Robbie’s chief ally and Finn’s chief antagonist. Chapter twelve also marks the point when Robbie starts to take action on his own account, enlisting Yarl Corbie in his struggle against Finn and playing a central role in Finn’s defeat. The last six chapters of the novel, in other words – from twelve to eighteen – represent a new stage in Robbie’s development as well as in the novel’s structure. But Hunter is careful to stress the foundational role played in this development by Old Da’s stories from the first six chapters, which continue to resonate with his grandson as the boy grows to adulthood and becomes a storyteller and traveller himself. The storyteller Old Da, the man of learning Yarl Corbie, and even the menacing traveller Finn Learson, each helps to shape Robbie as a man, so that no one stage of Robbie’s three-part adventure ends up entirely suppressing or displacing the rest. Their threefold influence makes of Robbie himself a kind of selkie – a creature who inhabits more than one element; and Hunter implies, I think, that every human being could be said to participate in this selkie nature.

The three parts also trace Robbie’s changing relationship to belief in the supernatural. In the first six chapters, he is unsure whether or not to believe his grandfather’s tales about the Selkie Folk, and unsure too whether Old Da himself believes that Finn Learson is one of them. His uncertainty extends into the second six chapters, but in chapter ten – one of the two chapters that stand at the centre of the novel, the other being chapter eleven, in which he cuddles the seal pup – he becomes convinced of Finn’s identity, not just as a Selkie Man but as the Great Selkie himself, the malicious wizard-king of the sea. The last third of the novel sees his suspicions shared at last by one of his fellow islanders – Yarl Corbie, the schoolmaster – which permits Robbie to focus his energies on working with his new ally to stop Finn from abducting Elspeth. The trajectory of scepticism leading to conviction leading to action fits perfectly within the framework of the novel, whether one thinks of it as being divided into three parts or two halves or both. Conviction occurs in those central chapters, nine and ten, and the final six chapters – the final third of the narrative – is simply packed with incidents that draw on Shetland folklore, not just as a set of picturesque customs but as practical magic worked against the potentially malignant beings who share the Shetland archipelago with its human occupants. The narrative has the meticulous construction of a tune played by one of the legendary Shetland fiddlers; so it comes as no surprise to find that Robbie’s father plays the fiddle, or that fiddle music plays a crucial role in the action of the last six chapters.

The three-part structure of Hunter’s novel is no accident. All the fantasy books of hers I’ve read are constructed in multiples of three. The Bodach (1970)later reprinted as The Walking Stones – has nine chapters, and begins with the arrival of no fewer than three mysterious strangers in an isolated highland glen, all of them called Rory. The Haunted Mountain (1972) also has nine chapters. Her later Shetland novel, The Mermaid Summer (1988), has twelve, or four times three, and helpfully explains the significance of the many multiples of three that structure its narrative: as the Howdy or wise woman puts it, ‘three is the number […] that is at the root of all magic’.[2] The halfway point of each novel, too, involves a major shift in the plot, as it does in A Stranger. The chapters of The Mermaid Summer are divided into two groups of six, and it’s exactly half way through – at the end of the sixth chapter – that the ‘mermaid summer’ itself begins, this being the point at which the central figure in the novel, Anna the fisherman’s daughter, turns twelve. The same break occurs in The Haunted Mountain, where young Fergus MacAllister reaches his twelfth birthday in the middle chapter of nine, which divides the book into two neat halves, the first half dominated by his father’s feud against the fairies or sidhe (pronounced shee), the second half dominated by Fergus’s attempt to rescue his father from the sidhe’s dominion. In fact the main action of all Hunter’s fantasies takes place when the protagonist – Anna, Robbie, Donald Campbell in The Walking Stones, Fergus in The Haunted Mountain – reaches the age of twelve. Hunter is an admirer of well-executed work of all kinds, from the fiddle music of A Stranger Came Ashore to the crafts represented by the nine gifts sent by Eric Anderson to his grandchildren in The Mermaid Summer: a shawl, a compass, a brooch, a necklace, a conch shell, a piece of silk, a silver mirror, a knife and a comb, three times three gifts in all, the last three of which play a crucial part in the struggle waged by Anna and her brother Jon against the mermaid who threatens their grandfather’s life. Each of her novels is a work of craftsmanship, and their numerical composition serves as a clue to the meticulous artistry that went into them.

Each of these novels also inhabits two elements, like the selkies. These are the everyday element we live in – the world of hard work, of ploughing and fishing and cooking and making and mending with limited resources – and the magical ‘Otherworld’, that is, ‘the world of seal-men, kelpies, urisks, and all the other creatures of Highland legend’.[3] Kelpies occur in Hunter’s early novel The Kelpie’s Necklace (1964), urisks (creatures half man half goat) in both that and The Haunted Mountain, and selkies, of course, in A Stranger Came Ashore. The central child character in each novel also occupies two elements, like Robbie; caught between childhood and adulthood, thanks to their age, they also occupy a space between pragmatic modern materialism and belief in the supernatural. And in each case this latter belief is instilled in them by an older mentor like Old Da: the Bodach or old man in The Walking Stones, who practises magic as well as telling stories about it; the Skeelie Woman in The Haunted Mountain, whose knowledge of the sidhe Fergus learns to respect; the Howdy or wise woman in The Mermaid Summer, along with the Oldest Fisherman, her male equivalent. Hunter’s narratives are designed to impart a double vision to their young readers, acknowledging the inevitable changes that come to communities as time goes by while urging them to preserve old knowledge in the face of those changes.

The starkest confrontation between old and new takes place in The Walking Stones, in which young Donald Campbell and his parents are all too delighted to move from their traditional but-and-ben cottage in the glen to a modern townhouse with central heating, and to give up their lives as shepherds for easier work in the new pine forests being planted on the hillsides around their new home.[4] At the end of the novel Donald returns from an encounter with strange and ancient magic – endowed with magic powers himself – to take his place in the world as a thoroughly modern boy, as fascinated by the engineering of dams and reservoirs as by the mysteries of the walking stones of the novel’s title. There’s little sentimentality about the past in Hunter’s work; the old creatures of the Otherworld are often malevolent, and the sidhe of The Haunted Mountain, the mermaid of The Mermaid Summer and the Great Selkie of A Stranger are each of them terrifying forces which must be disempowered if ordinary working human beings are to take control of their lives and livelihoods. It’s worth noting, too, that each of these supernatural beings is associated with hereditary royalty. Finn Learson claims to have a royal palace and great riches, the mermaid seeks to be queen of her people, at least in terms of her appearance, while the sidhe are clearly aristocratic, their fine clothes and lavish lifestyles setting them apart from their human neighbours, who scrape a strenous living from the poor soil of the Cairngorm valleys.[5] At the same time, the young protagonists’ involvement in old stories brings them that much closer to the seas and shores and mountain landscapes among which they live, encouraging an equal, intimate partnership with these spaces which may well be lost in the strictly hierarchical business of planning and building dams (which happens in The Walking Stones) or in the bustle of migration (which happens at the end of The Haunted Mountain). Selkie folk, mermaids, fairies and trows (the Shetland version of the sidhe) manifest in their bodies the fusion of humanity with the local ecosystem. Half seal half human, half fish half woman, human-seeming adults the size (Hunter tells us) of the twelve-year-old local children who love to roam across the hills,[6] they are wholly at home in the land- and seascape in a way no adult human could replicate, inviting us to dream of and yearn for a similarly intimate involvement with mountains, waves, wild animals, and the changing seasons and weather.

There’s a binary quality, too, about Hunter’s prose style in her fantastic novels, which present themselves both as oral narratives and printed texts. This is especially true, I think, of A Stranger Came to Shore. The list of chapters with which the book begins – like all the novels I’ve mentioned, apart from The Mermaid Summer ­– and the headings with which each chapter opens, seem to me specific to the printed narrative, whose identical page numbering across multiple copies makes such contents pages possible. But the informal, singsong language in which it is written associates it with oral storytelling, of the kind that’s best exemplified in print by the ‘silkie stories’ of the Argyll-based traveller Duncan Williamson, as transcribed by his wife, the folklorist Linda Williamson.[7] And the interweaving of print and the spoken word can be detected in A Stranger from the very first page.

In its opening paragraphs, Hunter makes cunning play of the novel’s status as a publication, the product of a time when oral storytelling has been devalued and largely discontinued. ‘It was a while ago,’ she writes,

in the days when they used to tell stories about creatures called the Selkie Folk.

A stranger came ashore to an island at that time – a man who gave his name as Finn Learson – and there was a mystery about him which had to do with these selkie creatures. Or so some people say, anyway; but to be exact about all this, you must first of all know that the Selkie Folk are the seals that live in the waters around the Shetland Islands. Also, the Shetlands themselves lie in the stormy seas to the north of Britain, and it was on a night of very fierce storm that it all began. (p. 9)

The opening of that first sentence, ‘It was a while ago’, gives the impression of taking up a story that has been spoken about and promised before the novel’s opening. The imprecision of that sentence – ‘a while ago’ – invokes the famously imprecise fairy tale formula ‘Once upon a time’, linking the narrative to a wider stock of stories of which this is only one example. That this stock belongs to a community, not to a single storyteller, is confirmed by the phrase some people say; there are plenty of people, it seems, who have opinions on the tale we’re about to hear, so many that they can be divided into competing groups. What follows, then, is implied to be common knowledge, with a known geographical setting (Shetland) and certain known details, such as the name Finn Learson.[8] Implied too, however, in this opening passage, is the presence of a specific speaker and a specific listener or group of listeners who are probably strangers to the speaker, since the speaker knows the story she’s about to tell, while the listeners (‘you’) need to be apprised of certain facts before the tale begins.

At the same time, the practice of oral storytelling is implied in this passage to be under threat. The past tense of the phrase ‘when they used to tell stories about creatures called the Selkie Folk’, and the fact that the term ‘Selkie Folk’ needs explaining, cut off the story from the time and place of its publication. This makes the nature of Finn Learson a matter for conjecture rather than certainty, a man with a ‘mystery’ about him which only ‘some people’ will be willing to attach to seals. So even as the story gets linked to oral storytelling, the oral tradition is slipping into the past, and must be shored up with ascertained facts: the location of Shetland, the little village of Black Ness where the events took place, and the name of the story’s protagonist, Robbie Henderson, whose identity and age are known to his community, even if what happened to him is not so certain. At the time when the tale is set Robbie was ‘a lad of twelve years old, according to all accounts’ (p. 9, my emphasis). Only ‘some people’ connect Finn Learson with the seals, but everyone in Black Ness, it seems, is in agreement on Robbie Henderson, and it’s from this springboard of historical precision (which we need, it seems, in order ‘to be exact about all this’ [my emphasis]) that the tale takes its starting point – in direct contravention of the folktale spirit of ‘a while ago’ or ‘once upon a time’.

The narrator, then, straddles a boundary between the tellers of folktales, like Old Da, and the historian, who deals as far as she can in ‘exactness’ and attested facts. And the first third of the novel – which concerns Old Da and his relationship with Robbie – continues to straddle this boundary with real dexterity, immersing us in Robbie’s thoughts and feelings while at the same time distancing us from the context he inhabits, its folk beliefs and practices. We learn in the first chapter, for example, that the old man’s head ‘was simply full of the superstitions of those days’ (p. 10, my emphasis), a statement that once again distances his period from our own. These ‘superstitions’ mean that when he sees a solitary peat standing upright and still burning in a near-extinguished fire on a cottage hearth he identifies it at once as a sign or portent, ‘something which seemed to him the true cause of [the family dog’s] uneasiness’ (p. 10, my emphasis). Hunter is careful to stress, with the phrase ‘which seemed to him’, that some people even then might not have shared Old Da’s perspective, and the term ‘superstitions’ also suggests a certain scepticism on the writer’s own part about his beliefs or half-beliefs. Yet the event for which the upright peat may stand, in Old Da’s opinion – the arrival of a stranger in the family home – does indeed come to pass, and lends its title to the novel as a whole. The structure of the novel, too, tends to endorse Old Da’s perspective, even if its title refrains from wholly endorsing it (since the ‘stranger’ is simply that – a stranger, not necessarily a selkie) and the reader is invited to consider the evidence both for and against the stranger’s supernatural status throughout the novel. For instance, the first chapter shows both how Robbie’s father is right in assuming that there has been a ‘shipwreck in the voe’ (p. 10) and that the stranger may have come from it (p. 11), while also planting seeds of doubt as to whether or not he is really a survivor from the wreck: ‘it’s a miracle he managed to get ashore,’ as Old Da points out, ‘for it would take the Selkie Folk themselves to stay alive in such a sea’ (p. 13). The same chapter makes it clear that Robbie leans towards his grandfather’s point of view, since he takes careful note of the old man’s comment (p. 15), while at the same time Robbie’s own ‘very noticing kind of mind’ (p. 15) picks up additional clues about the stranger’s personality, above all the disconcerting nature of his smile, which seems to corroborate Old Da’s suspicions. A smile may of course be disconcerting without there being anything supernatural about it; but the stranger’s smile serves to ward off awkward questions about the wreck, to provide a silent commentary on the stranger’s acknowledgment that he has been ‘very lucky’, and to hint at something left unsaid – a lacuna which leaves Robbie feeling ‘uncomfortable’ though ‘he had no time to think why this should have been so’ (p. 15). Robbie, like the reader at this early stage in the narrative, hangs suspended between a supernatural and a natural explanation of the stranger’s identity, underlining the fact that there will frequently be more than one way of understanding the tale that follows.[9]

As the narrative goes on, Old Da’s bond with Robbie itself serves to raise questions as to the old man’s reliability. Robbie, after all, is a boy of twelve, poised on the threshold between childhood and adolescence. Children are expected to listen to stories, the stories told them are not expected to be always factual, and Old Da as the purveyor of these stories finds himself marginalised in the adult world, poised like his grandson on the threshold between one sort of life and another – in the old man’s case, between his earlier life as an active adult member of the fishing community and a second childhood of tale-telling, perpetuating quasi-outmoded folk customs, and light work within the limits of his waning strength. According to Robbie’s parents, the bond between the boy and Old Da poses something of a threat to the boy’s transition to maturity. ‘Old Da was a great talker’, Hunter tells us in chapter four,

and although they were […] glad enough of his stories around the fire in the winter time, Janet and Peter were inclined to complain that Robbie took all this kind of talk too seriously. “Letting his imagination run away with him”, they called it; which was a foolish habit, in their opinion, and therefore one which should be checked before it got too strong a grip on him. (pp. 28-9)

Similarly, Old Da’s hold upon the boy devalues the old man’s stories, which themselves become tainted with foolishness thanks to their fostering of Robbie’s ‘foolish habit’. Knowing the difference between the fantastic and the real is for Robbie’s parents a sign of maturity, and they are confident that they themselves have made this transition successfully (although as the novel goes on it becomes clear that they have retained some of Old Da’s ‘superstitions’, as we shall see). Hunter’s narrator, meanwhile, maintains her balanced stance between perspectives. Being too imaginative, she tells us, is ‘in their opinion’ a foolish habit, and opinion may not always have much to do with careful reasoning. Old Da’s opinion about the peat in chapter one, for instance, was linked to outworn ‘superstition’, and at the end of chapter one he chooses to keep his ‘own idea’ about Finn Learson to himself (p. 33), presumably conscious that it will be dismissed as unfounded ‘opinion’ unless he backs it up with stronger evidence than he has. Robbie, meanwhile, has his own opinions on Finn Learson, but these ‘swithered and swayed’ in response to unfolding events and the boy’s conflicting emotions (p. 29). For Hunter’s narrator, then, practical people and imaginative woolgatherers are equally vulnerable to opinions based on prejudice or conjecture, and the question of which kind of thinking is most useful tends to get muddied by the fact that both may work very well as an explanation of certain stories – including Hunter’s.

Sea cliffs with nesting birds, near Sumburgh Head, Mainland, Shetland

Robbie spends much of his time in Old Da’s company, and chapter five, ‘The Selkie Summer’, neatly summarizes the mixture of practical learning and folkloric wisdom their companionship imparts to the boy.[10] Old Da supervises Robbie as he scales the island cliffs in search of eggs; identifies mosses for him, to be used in making dyes; and shows him how to feather his oars (that is, to acquire ‘the trick of holding the boat so steady in one place that [the seals] lost all fear of it’, p. 37). Meanwhile he entertains him by telling him ‘one story after another’ (p. 36): concerning the trows or ‘creatures of the Otherworld which is not human’ (p. 36), who live in mounds all over Shetland and work their magic only at night; tales of the Selkie Folk who gather on lonely beaches and cast off their skins to dance (p. 37); and the story of the Great Selkie himself, who roofs his undersea palace with the golden hair of the mortal girls he persuades to join him in the deep, girls who invariably drown in a vain attempt to make their way back to their former homes above the waves (p. 39). Robbie is sometimes sceptical about these stories (‘I don’t believe that,’ he objects at one point, p. 39) and sometimes credulous, and his suspension between these two states marks him out again as a kind of selkie in his own right, a creature of two elements. After all, as Old Da tells him, in ‘real life’ the seal pups undergo a metamorphosis almost as remarkable as the change from seal to human. They have a lengthy childhood (‘believe it or not, these same pups are all four weeks old before they even start learning to swim’), yet ‘they still grow up’, he points out, ‘to be the most travelled of any sea creatures’ (p. 39). Old Da’s stories may seem foolish, but they are no more wonderful than the facts of the natural world in which they are set, and Robbie’s interest in supernatural wonders is only enhanced by his interest in the natural world in which he grows up.

Later in the book, Finn Learson similarly bridges the gap of wonder between ‘real life’ and the supernatural, as he tells stories of his own travels in the second six-chapter section of the book:

‘Once, on the shores of Greenland,’ he told Robbie, ‘a man came at me with a knife to kill me – see, I bear the mark of his knife to this very day, in this long white scar of the healed wound on my shoulder…’

Then on he went, spinning many another tale of strange adventure in far countries. (p. 63)

It’s at this stage in the novel that Robbie begins to study navigation at school, eager to fit himself for similar ‘adventures in far countries’; and this yearning is clearly fuelled by what Old Da told him about the far-travelled seals, as well as by Finn Learson’s tales, since it at once inspires him to seek a more limited kind of adventure by going off to hold the seal pup in chapter nine. When Robbie grows up in the final chapter of the novel he becomes as famous for his seafaring as for his extravagant stories, including the story of Finn Learson; and someone who knows him observes, as they might have observed of Old Da or Finn Learson himself, that ‘nobody can ever tell how much of Robbie Henderson’s stories are true, and how much of them are made up’ (p. 134). As with Old Da or Finn Learson, however, there is material evidence to back up Robbie’s tales; and his account is corroborated by people who knew the mysterious stranger as well as he did, such as his sister Elspeth and her fiancé Nicol Anderson (pp. 134-5). At every point of Hunter’s novel, in other words, the observable facts of bodily scars, or animal behaviour, or animal-human relations, help to underprop a supernatural reading of her tale as well as they justify a wholly natural reading of its component elements. Facts themselves can be selkie-like in their ability to lend themselves to utterly different interpretations, depending on the inclination of their interpreters.

Garage roofed with a boat, Lerwick, Shetland

Old Da’s death – which takes place, as I said, in chapter six, exactly a third of the way through the novel – brings the collision between imaginative stories and ‘real life’ to a fitting climax. In the old man’s final illness he summons Robbie to his side, desperate to tell him something important about Finn Learson before it’s too late. Robbie later concludes that Old Da believes the stranger to be the Great Selkie, come ashore to beguile a new victim to take to his palace beneath the waves: and that this victim is none other than Robbie’s sister Elspeth, with her ‘sandy-gold hair’ (p. 14). This, at least, is what the boy deduces from the breathless hints the old man gives him: ‘It has to do with the gold, Robbie, and dancing, and the crystal palace under the sea’ (p. 43) – a palace roofed with the golden hair of the Great Selkie’s female victims. Old Da also tries to tell his grandson about a similar episode that happened in the past, when another predatory stranger came ashore and brought about a tragedy, but runs out of breath before he can explain. Robbie’s mother Jean comes in as the old man struggles to describe this earlier incident, and at once assumes that Robbie has been pestering him for another idle tale: ‘What’s this, Robbie? Have you no heart at all that you can let your poor Old Da waste his last breath on stories for you?’ (p. 44). For Jean these tales remain foolish fantasies, whereas for Robbie they are crucial pieces of new evidence in forming his own opinion of Finn Learson. But whatever Old Da failed to say with his ‘last breath’ might just as easily have been guessed at by a realist like Jean as by a fantasist like her son; the difference being that Jean does not give herself a chance to do the guessing. Old Da might be warning the boy against a sexual predator, using terms he knows a child will understand; or he might be seeking to link Finn Learson to the lore about the Selkie King, which is how Robbie understands the fragments he lets drop. Or of course he might be doing both, since the Selkie King is first and foremost a sexual predator. If the old man’s head is dwelling on stories at the time of his death, this could be a consequence of his fever, or it could be because he thinks them important, or it could be both. The narrator is careful to withhold her judgement, while providing the reader with evidence to sustain all these perspectives.

Hunter’s withholding of judgement has a crucial role to play in the final scene of chapter six. On the day of the old man’s death Robbie finds himself suddenly alone with Finn, who approaches him to ask what his grandfather said about him when the two of them were alone together. Finn’s approach fills the boy with nameless dread – ‘a fear he could not understand or explain’ (p. 47) – although Hunter is careful to stress the stranger’s relative size and power (he stands ‘dark and tall against the sun’) and the stark contrast between his young, handsome face and the hardness Robbie detects in his ‘dark eyes’, both of which supply reason enough for apprehension in themselves. At this point all the supernatural possibilities represented by Finn’s appearance (does his unusual height hint at his status as an undersea king? Are his eyes dark because they are a seal’s eyes?) seem to vanish from the boy’s mind, leaving him with a simple practical question: ‘What did he have to fear from Finn Learson?’ One of Old Da’s phrases provides a kind of answer – ‘Don’t trust him, Robbie. Don’t trust him’ (p. 47) – but the reasons for distrust remain unclear. The only things that are certain at this stage is that the boy can’t be sure of the stranger’s nature or motives, that Finn has the physical capacity to damage Robbie, and that Robbie has only Old Da’s stories to go on, none of which has been specifically linked to Finn. In telling Finn Learson, then, that ‘my Old Da told me nothing’, the boy is speaking no more than the truth – though he is also telling a half-truth, since his suspicions of Finn are rooted in the foolish nothings Old Da did tell him. The storyteller may have died, but his stories live on, and can be applied – emotionally, if not rationally – to real-life situations, perhaps to the benefit of the listener. There may be something in their nothings, after all, even if they are merely works of the fantastic imagination.

The middle six chapters testify once more to the fine craftsmanship of Hunter’s novel. In the first three of the six (chapters seven, eight and nine) the stranger succeeds in integrating himself fully into Black Ness society, while in the last three (chapters ten, eleven and twelve) Robbie finds himself increasingly isolated from it, seeking and failing to convince Elspeth’s fiancé Nicol Anderson and Elspeth herself that the stranger is the Selkie King, before finding common cause with another loner, the schoolmaster Yarl Corbie. As I’ve already pointed out, the middle two chapters of the six – also the middle two chapters of the novel – see Robbie himself confirmed in his belief that Finn Learson is indeed the Great Selkie, marking a fundamental shift in the dynamics of the novel; from this point onward all Robbie’s efforts will be bent on frustrating Finn’s attempts to seduce Elspeth. In the first of these two central chapters Robbie sets out in his boat with the aim of holding a seal-pup; and having held one, he moves on to another voe to count their numbers. When he accidentally falls from his boat, Finn Learson rescues him, and in the midst of the rescue the boy notes how closely the stranger’s body resembles the seal’s:

There was warmth like a furnace heat in the body pressed against his own, and the hand gripping him had fingertips that probed like steel into his flesh […] – yet how could that be? How could there be selkie warmth in a man’s body, and selkie strength in a man’s hands? (p. 70).

Having encountered both seal and man, Robbie quickly concludes that both beings can be contained in a single body – that of Finn Learson; this is now his ‘truth’ (p. 72), and for him all doubts have been put to rest. In the second central chapter, chapter ten, Robbie lays out in full the evidence for Finn’s double identity as he seeks to persuade the fisherman Nicol Anderson to accept this ‘truth’. The evidence includes the stranger’s careful prevarication over whether or not he was a sailor from the shipwreck on the night of his arrival (p. 74); the ‘selkie music’ he played on Robbie’s father’s fiddle at night (p. 74); a gold coin he offered as payment to Robbie’s parents for putting him up – a coin that could only have come from a ‘sunken treasure ship’; omens on the day of Old Da’s funeral (p. 75); Finn’s quasi-miraculous evasion of the naval Press Gang (p. 78); the way Finn’s body feels (p. 77); Finn’s love of deep water (p. 77). The accumulated evidence, each element of which has been shared with the reader as they occurred, reinforces Robbie’s conviction that Finn is the Great Selkie; but for Nicol they amount to no more than a verbal game: ‘You’re talking in riddles, boy,’ the fisherman declares (p. 73). Even as Robbie makes up his mind about the stranger, we are reminded that every element of his argument is susceptible to alternative interpretations. Riddles are games of obfuscation, transforming something ordinary into something deeply strange – a fish, for instance, into an undead mail-clad ghoul, time into an all-devouring monster, an egg into a treasure box.[11] Old Da’s stories, too, could be read as riddles, with simple but important lessons hidden inside them; and Hunter’s narrative too has a riddling quality, its key moments haunted by puzzles, paradoxes and doubts.

For instance, even as Robbie makes up his mind that Finn is a malevolent selkie and his personal enemy, the middle six chapters of the novel see a strange bond begin to grow between boy and stranger. It is first forged by Robbie’s suspicions that Finn is the only person who shares his knowledge of the supernatural ‘Otherworld’ that could be taken to explain Finn’s actions. But the bond is intensified by the fact that Finn is in many ways an attractive figure. He is tall, strong and handsome. He is ingenious in his ability to endear himself both to the local minister, who dismisses local folk customs as ‘superstitious nonsense’ (p. 51), and to Robbie’s family, who sustain those same folk customs by incorporating them into Old Da’s funeral. He is physically powerful, too. Finn evades the brutal Press Gang of the British Navy – formed to forcefully recruit seamen during the Napoleonic wars – with the laughing, athletic nonchalance of a folk hero, saving Robbie’s father and his fishing crew in the process (pp. 56-59). Later he saves Robbie’s life with heroic flair, diving into the waters of the voe from a ledge on a high cliff and heaving the boy into his boat with the strength of an animal or a god (p. 70). He is eloquent, proving more than capable of taking over the role of community storyteller after Old Da’s death. Up to this point in the book Finn has been mostly silent; afterwards he becomes both talkative and sociable, boosting Robbie’s interest in navigation with his stories of ‘strange adventures in far countries’ (p. 63) and thus filling the gap left in the boy’s life by his mentor’s demise. Finally, he is something of a riddlemaster. When asked by Nicol Anderson to decipher a riddle which is said to be unanswerable by anyone but a Shetlander, ‘What head is it that wears no hair?’ – he answers it at once, since he has lived closer to the answer than anyone on dry land: ‘There is no hair on the head of a fish; and so that is the reading of your riddle – the fish!’ (p. 32). Finn’s success makes him a riddle, too, as Robbie himself points out: ‘There’s no one outside the islands has ever managed to read that riddle[.] […] And so how did he guess the answer?’ (p. 33). Finn is both a stranger and a local, both an outsider to the fishing community and a native of the deep water in which it plies its trade. Robbie works out his own answer in the middle two chapters, even as he works out that Finn is not as admirable as his many qualities make him seem.

George Morland, The Press Gang

For Robbie, all these qualities merely serve as the perfect cover for Finn’s plans for abducting Elspeth. In addition, they mean that Robbie’s family and friends cannot condone the boy’s mounting hostility to the stranger – above all because he is indebted to that stranger in the deepest way imaginable. ‘You should think shame,’ Nicol Anderson tells him at one point, ‘for even wanting to speak against a man who has just saved your life’ (p. 73). Meanwhile, Robbie’s own double vision of Finn as both hero and villain – as a replacement for Old Da, as a substitute for Robbie’s often absent father, as a role model for the boy’s dreams of becoming a worldwide traveller, and as a menace to his older sister – confirms the stranger’s dual identity as man and seal.

The six middle chapters, then, serve as a kind of two-way gate in Hunter’s novel. They look backwards to Old Da’s stories, as one by one they are implied to have solid foundations in reality, and they look forward to Robbie’s eventual showdown with Finn Learson, and to the time of greater scepticism which the reader inhabits. The Roman god of gates and doorways was two-faced Janus, who lent his name to the first month of the New Year; and the novel builds up to a January climax in its last six chapters. Robbie has his final showdown with Finn at the Up Helly Aa fire festival – traditionally held on 29 January, 24 days after Aald Yule (the Shetland Christmas) on 5 January. So it’s appropriate that Robbie should be joined in his January showdown by another two-faced enigma, the schoolmaster of Black Ness, Yarl Corbie. In the last six chapters of the book, Yarl Corbie comes to stand for the fundamentally double nature of the islands Robbie inhabits, a doubleness that makes the islanders well capable of tackling the double-natured stranger who threatens their children.

That double nature was already clear enough from the middle six chapters, in which the most sceptical of the islanders – the ones most resistant to the notion that Finn Learson might be a supernatural being – nevertheless manifested their commitment to a supernatural perspective through their actions. Robbie’s father and mother, who half disapprove of Old Da’s influence on Robbie, nevertheless incorporate old superstitions into his funeral ceremony: the ritual burning of his bedding and the discovery of traces of the future in the resultant ashes (pp. 49-52). The formally-educated minister scoffs at these rituals, but neither Robbie’s parents nor his equally sceptical sister are prepared to dismiss them; indeed, Elspeth faints when she finds that the footprints which appear in the ashes perfectly match her own shoe size, which traditionally means that she will be the next in line to die. Nicol Anderson refuses to accept Robbie’s claim that Finn is King of the Selkies (pp. 75-78); but later he reluctantly agrees to incorporate certain magical elements into his ritual performance at Up Helly Aa, despite his conviction that they will be ineffectual and therefore pointless (pp. 103-105). Robbie’s sister Elspeth, meanwhile, rejects her brother’s suspicions of Finn not so much out of scepticism as out of a desire to retain her own more positive perspective on the stranger’s supernatural powers. When the ashes of Old Da’s bedding seemed to suggest that she would die, Finn insisted that they predicted something different: that Elspeth ‘will live to wed the man of [her] choice, and […] will be rich when you wed’ (p. 52). In chapter eleven the young woman embraces this rival vision of the future, which she associates – as Finn intended – with Finn himself: ‘if I marry Finn Learson, I’ll be a lady with servants, and live in a great house like a palace, with walls of crystal and a golden roof’ (p. 82). Her scepticism, then, is highly selective: she accepts a stranger’s prophecy, but refuses to believe that this same prophecy aligns with one of Old Da’s stories, which foretells that if she marries a rich husband she will perish. The community that resists Robbie’s warnings nevertheless contrives to inhabit the double space – touched everywhere by traces of the supernatural – which they claim to have left behind them.

The schoolmaster embodies this double space in both his appearance and his name. Dressed in a gown, which represents his formal academic accomplishments, he resembles a raven, a bird of ill omen among the Shetlanders which is closely linked with a very different kind of knowledge: the marginalised folk knowledge of the island wizards. His birdlike appearance matches his nickname, Yarl Corbie, which is the Shetland term for the ominous raven (Jarl or Lord of the Crows). The schoolmaster’s double knowledge is quickly revealed in his own sensitivity to the meaning of names; with a teacher’s instincts he helps Robbie to understand that Finn Learson’s name, too, betrays his supernatural identity:

Finn, Lear’s son – that is the proper sound of the name, for the Great Selkie is the son of the sea-god, Lear. As for “Finn”, that is simply an old word for “magician”. And so there you have the full measure of the bold way that name told everyone exactly who he is – the Magician, who is also Lear’s son, the Great Selkie.’ (p. 88)

This explanation draws on the academic field of philology – the study of words and the way their forms and meanings have changed through history. Tolkien famously described himself as a philologist, and for Corbie, as for Tolkien, this branch of learning yokes the present with the deep past, the material with the supernatural, since words have folk meanings and ancient belief systems embedded in them. By virtue of his academic training as well as his folk knowledge Corbie at once understood the meaning of Finn’s name when he first heard it, as the other inhabitants of Black Ness did not. For the schoolmaster, then, formal learning and folk knowledge are closely linked, and both have intimate links with the material world, as Yarl Corbie’s physical appearance links him to his mastery of two very different knowledge systems.

Yarl Corbie’s character, like his learning, is ambiguous or double. He is a menacing as well as a useful ally, both because stern schoolmasters naturally seem menacing to their pupils and because of his association with the ominous raven.  When first approaching him for help, Robbie is put off by the island rumour that Corbie is a wizard as well as by the fact that ‘deep, deep down in his blood there lived the Shetlander’s ancient fear of the raven and its croaking cry of death’ (p. 85). Robbie’s fears are borne out at once; when he tells Yarl Corbie of his suspicions about Finn Learson, the schoolmaster quickly turns violent, lifting a knife as if to strike at the boy before plunging it into his desk so that it stands ‘quivering in the wood’ (p. 91). The blow is not meant for Robbie; Corbie picked up the knife as he told the story of another encounter with the Great Selkie, when the Seal King stole a man’s fiancée from him (she was ‘never seen alive again’), after which the man tracked him down to Greenland and stabbed him there ‘with a blow that was meant to kill’ (p. 90). At the climax of this tale the schoolmaster rose to his feet, ‘his face suddenly all twisted with rage’ (p. 90), and struck with the knife; but his action is meant only to emphasize his own active role in the tale he told: ‘this is the knife that made the wound,’ he declares, ‘and I am the man who struck the blow!’ (p. 91). At the same time, the action confirms the potential threat posed by Corbie himself, so that when the schoolmaster later tells Robbie not to breathe a word about their meeting, his warning that any disobedience will be punished rings disturbingly true: ‘That had better be a promise […] or I will be revenged on you also!’ (p. 94). Corbie represents the boy’s best hope of defeating Finn; but he also represents the boy’s worst fears of the mysterious forces that haunt the Shetland landscape, such as the trows that bedevil his walk to school on dark winter mornings – fears that skew his perception of the schoolmaster who awaits him at the end of those dark walks (p. 85).

Corbie, then, comes across as a double of Finn Learson. His association with ravens makes him as much of a mysterious force as the troublesome stranger. Finn threatens Robbie just as Corbie does, warning him to steer clear of the place where he rescued him from drowning (‘keep out of this geo in future, do you hear? It’s high time you learned to leave deep waters to those who can swim in them’, p. 72). Like Finn, Corbie is a traveller – he has been at least as far as Greenland with the whaling ships. Like Finn, he is a wielder of magic; the schoolmaster soon confirms the islanders’ view of him as a wizard – with a book of magic written entirely in mirror writing – and it’s also Corbie who points out that ‘Finn’ means ‘wizard’ in Shetland lore.[12] Like Finn, Corbie shares an uneasy bond with Robbie. And like Finn, he is capable of changing shape, both in Robbie’s imagination and in real life. When he first enters Hunter’s narrative he is described like this:

There, as usual, sat Yarl Corbie hunched at his desk with his gown drooping like black wings from his bony shoulders. There was his dark and beaky face, seeming all bones and hollows in the candlelight. There was the glittering eye with its knowing stare. (p. 86)

At this point the resemblance between the schoolmaster and a raven is metaphorical (with a pun, in the word ‘beaky’, on the old slang term for schoolmaster, ‘beak’). But before the end of the novel the metaphor has been made concrete, with the schoolmaster changing into a raven to make his attack on the Selkie King (p. 131). In the section of the book dominated by Corbie, what was earlier merely implied becomes materially present, what was imagined becomes embodied, what was spoken of becomes enacted; and certain material objects confirm this new phase of embodiment of folk knowledge in Hunter’s text.

The knife Corbie wields is one of these objects. It provides a material link between the schoolmaster and the stranger, by way of the story Finn told Robbie in chapter nine about how he came by one of his scars: ‘Once, on the shores of Greenland, a man came at me with a knife to kill me – see, I bear the mark of his knife to this very day, in this long white scar of the healed wound in my shoulder’ (p. 63). This is the same story, of course, as the story Corbie tells Robbie in chapter twelve, about his attack on the Great Selkie on the Greenland coast; and both stories gain traction from the presence in Hunter’s narrative of both knife and scar, providing physical ‘evidence’ in support of oral tales – giving historical and archaeological exactness to folkloric narratives. Thanks to the knife and the scar, the material and the supernatural come closer than ever at this point in the novel; and the wielder of the knife, Yarl Corbie – himself a native of the islands – serves to cement the bond between the supernatural and the natural in island culture, thereby confirming the islanders’ power to confront and defeat the selkie threat to their homes and families.

The same is true of another object wielded by Corbie: the book of magic in which he finds the spell which he later uses to defeat Finn Learson. Robbie first sees the book in chapter fifteen, recognising it for what it is thanks to Old Da’s stories:

A book lay open on the table, a big book with pages so yellow in colour that he guessed it must be very old.

Moreover, these yellowish pages were covered with writing that was all back-to-front – mirror-writing, in fact, and he remembered Old Da had told him this was the kind of writing wizards used for their spells! (p. 107)

Through this new object, Old Da’s stories are again given material support, as they were by the knife and the scar. The book of magic also shows how Hunter’s novel itself taps into a literary tradition that challenges official knowledge as strongly as any oral tradition does. Before Robbie sees the book, the schoolmaster has already confirmed that his natural enemy on the island is the minister of the local church or kirk, the embodiment of official knowledge, itself embodied in the Bible – the Holy Book. ‘You heard the way he raged against superstition on the day of your Old Da’s funeral,’ Corbie reminds his pupil; ‘And so what do you think he would do if he heard I was indeed practising the unholy arts that people say I do practise?’ (p. 94). The book of magic finally confirms Corbie’s claim to be a practitioner of the ‘unholy arts’; and the term ‘indeed’ – that is, in truth, in action – dispels the hesitations and uncertainties with which supernatural things, such as magic and selkies, have been hedged in since the opening sentences of Hunter’s novel. At this point in the story we are given the strongest indication yet that there are other ‘truths’ besides the official ‘truth’: a magic book which provides the knowledge that changes the shape of Hunter’s book through the efficacy of the spell it supplies to its wizardly reader. And by the time we encounter the book of magic, another object has dispelled all Robbie’s remaining hesitations over Finn’s identity.

That object is Finn’s discarded sealskin, which Robbie concludes must have been hidden in the cave at the voe where the stranger saved him from drowning, and from which Finn afterwards warned him to stay away. In Duncan Williamson’s oral tales about the Selkie Folk they wear their sealskins even when in human form, as long coats that cover them up from neck to heel, made of a substance which feels like fur but is not fur.[13] A better-known tradition, followed here by Hunter, says that Selkies hide their skins when they leave the sea, and that whoever finds those skins will have power over their owners. The moment when Robbie and Corbie find Finn’s sealskin – in chapter thirteen – marks the moment when conjecture, wayward imaginings and superstition finally find themselves made substantial, embodied, or realised, in the sense in which Tolkien uses it in his essay On Fairy Stories; that is, ‘made real’.[14] Hunter is careful to make this moment memorable, indeed almost tangible:

The sealskin was there, lying spread right out to cover a wide rock shelf a few feet from the floor of the cave. The fur of it was the colour of Finn Learson’s hair – dark, almost black, streaked with silvery grey – and it shone so richly that it seemed to turn the whole pool of candlelight into gleaming black and glittering silver.

Yarl Corbie and Robbie stood staring at it, both of them struck quite dumb at the sight. The empty sockets of the head on the selkie skin stared back at them, and after a few moments of this, Robbie found he could no longer face the eeriness of that empty stare. He turned his head away, and the movement broke the spell of silence in the cave. (pp. 97-98)

The passage forges links both to the narrative we have been reading, by way of the reference to the colour of Finn’s hair, and between Finn Learson and his human enemies, by way of the stare they exchange with the empty eye sockets of his sealskin. It concludes, too, with the notion that silence itself – being empty of sound – has a supernatural quality, weaving a ‘spell’ to mesmerize mortals subjected to it; in other words, that we are all of us bound by spells many times a day. A moment later, Corbie symbolically takes this eery object into his power by making it ordinary: ‘Then, much to Robbie’s horror, he reached up and pulled the skin down from the shelf as casually as he would have pulled a blanket off a bed’ (p. 98). In the process he draws the supernatural into the everyday, confirming the interrelationship between them which has been implied but not confirmed throughout the novel up to this point. And the gesture effectively grants power to the ordinary, the familiar, the known. Up till now, most of the power in the book has been wielded by the strange, and by the threatening stranger who chiefly embodies it. From this point onwards, the strange is made captive by the familiar, which contains the strange – or binds it – by means of a series of riddles whose answers cannot be parsed or ‘read’ by the stranger, unlike the riddle of the fish. Shetland takes possession of Finn Learson, bringing him comprehensively ashore, where his power is diminished. And Shetland itself becomes a selkie as a result.

The first riddle by which Finn Learson gets bound is conceived by his rival wizard, Corbie. Describing the place where he intends to secrete Finn’s sealskin, Corbie refers to it in terms that sound like a verbal game:

‘Nowhere on sea,’ said Yarl Corbie […] ‘because that is the first place Finn Learson would search for it. Nowhere on land, because that is the second place he would search. We will hide it in a place that belongs neither to the sea nor to the land, a place that is open to every eye, but secret from all; a place which Finn Learson may enter as a man, yet which he cannot leave again except as the Great Selkie.’ (p. 100)

The place in question is a hole in the turf at the top of the cliffs above the voe where they found the sealskin. The sea has cut a tunnel through the rock of the cliffs to a cave directly underneath the hole, and the skin, we later learn, has been stowed in that tunnel. Hole and tunnel could, then, be described as belonging to neither land nor sea, and their inaccessibility makes them secret to all, though the mouth of the hole is ‘open to every eye’. The double nature of the location makes it selkie-like, and thus a suitable site for foiling a selkie. And by the time we are introduced to it in the narrative, we have encountered a number of other riddling double spaces peculiar to the mortal inhabitants of the islands, all of which, crucially, are strange or unfamiliar to the Selkie Folk, those immortal denizens of the ocean.

Display showing Shetland guising customs at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle

The most potent of these riddling double spaces is the folk custom of ‘guising’, which is practised by Shetlanders at Hallowe’en, Christmas, New Year and Up Helly Aa. In Hunter’s version of the practise, the guisers are men dressed up as women, in ‘long petticoats made of straw, with tall, pointed hats of straw, white shirts, and everything all covered with bunches of coloured ribbons’ (p. 102). Their identities are hidden behind ‘white handkerchiefs tied like masks over their faces’ (p. 101), and they are led by a man called the Skuddler, who takes them from house to house throughout the community, dancing wildly to fiddle music and bringing symbolic blessings to all the families who let them in. Old Da, we learn, has explained to Robbie that there is an ‘ancient magic’ behind this guising (p. 101):

They are supposed to be earth-spirits – the spirits of corn, and fruit, and flowers – and the Skuddler himself is the god of the earth commanding them to dance in honour of all the good things he has created […] The dressing-up was a sort of spell. The dancing was another part of the spell, and the whole thing made a magic that turned them into the creatures they were supposed to be – the earth-god and his spirits…’ (pp. 116-117)

The guisers, then, are both actors playing their parts and somehow also the things they play; they resemble both men and women, both mortals and the immortals they invoke. Finn’s ignorance of these land-bound folk customs (he asks many questions about them, but Robbie refuses to tell him what he knows) conceals from him some of the many meanings behind the Skuddler and his crew, especially their link to the earth-god who is the rival of Finn’s father and patron, Lear, the god of the sea. As a result Finn cannot ‘read’ or solve this non-verbal riddle, and knows nothing about the advantage the Skuddler will have over him if he fights him above the waterline, on land that is sacred to the earth-god, as against water, the province of Lear. Finn also cannot guess the identity of the man who plays the Skuddler; Robbie persuades Nicol Anderson to take on the role, so that the Skuddler will gain yet greater strength from the fisherman’s determination to wrest his fiancée from the stranger’s grip, while Robbie himself is given strength by his knowledge of the Skuddler’s dual identity as both god and man. In the chapters dedicated to guising – chapters sixteen and seventeen – Finn is rendered not more powerful but weaker by his status as a stranger, and the borderline between sea and shore proves crucial in his defeat, despite his own seemingly double nature as a creature of both shore and sea.

In the first half of the novel, Finn was the master riddler, keeping to himself the secret of his own identity and easily solving the riddling secrets of his human hosts. In this final six-chapter section it is the humans who are master riddlers. Even children have their riddles, as Robbie finds when he follows the guisers from house to house at Up Helly Aa. Yarl Corbie has told the boy to keep his eyes on Elspeth to prevent Finn from spiriting her away to his maritime home; but at one house Robbie loses sight of her, trapped by boys of his own age into staying behind to answer a riddle as his sister disappears into the night:

Wingle wangle, like a tangle,
If I was even, I’d reach to Heaven.

Luckily Robbie thinks of the answer before he loses track of Elspeth altogether, suddenly remembering her footprint in the ashes at Old Da’s funeral and shouting ‘Smoke!’ before following her out into the darkness. The boys’ riddle invokes another element besides earth over which the stranger has no power – the element of fire; and both fire and air seem to strengthen the guisers’ performance as they dance wildly across the island. Dancing with them are the Northern Lights, known in Shetland as the Merry Dancers (p. 118): ‘the light seemed sometimes to roll in great green waves over the sky, and sometimes it was like long searchlights of green shooting brilliantly out from a huge and starless black dome’. Finn may be lord of sea and shore, but the islanders’ lives are bound to sea, shore, fire and sky, making them twice as many-sided as the Selkie King – twice as rich as him too, perhaps, despite their relative poverty and the harshness of their lives.

Sea and shore: Mousa, Shetland

Finn does his best, of course, to retain his shifty double nature and the power it gives him in the last six chapters. Several times Robbie directly confronts the stranger’s shiftiness: first when he spots him staring at Elspeth hungrily, and Finn’s human mask slips a little: ‘For a moment […] the young and handsome appearance of his face would slip aside like a mask, and another face would look at Elspeth – a watchful, old, and cunning face that held her fascinated’ (p. 110). The mask slips again when Finn is fighting the Skuddler – played by Nicol Anderson – and finds himself forced above the high water mark in the course of the struggle. When this happens the Skuddler seems to tower over him, as if possessed by the spirit of the earth god, while Finn’s identity as the ancient son of the sea-god Lear comes to the fore: ‘The skin of his face was withering, falling away to wrinkles. His hands were becoming an old man’s hands […] The youthful lines of his body were sagging into something twisted, and evil, and very, very old’ (p. 126). And the mask slips for the final time when Robbie leads the triumphant stranger to the edge of the hole where his skin is hidden, and sees ‘at last the true face of Finn the Magician’ (p. 129):

The face hovered over him, and it was not old, or young, nor yet anything in between, but simply a shifting blur of features that changed with every nightmare moment of his stare at it. It was no face at all, in fact, and yet somehow it was still every face that had ever haunted his deepest fears and his darkest dreams. (pp. 129-130)

In the first two thirds of the book, as we’ve seen, Finn showed himself capable of being all things to all people: a good churchman to the minister, a hero to Robbie’s family, a dream lover to Elspeth, a fine dancer, an eloquent storyteller, a rebel against the unjust naval authorities and a strong and capable pair of working hands to the community of Black Ness. Robbie’s terror in this passage makes it seem as though Finn’s power is greater than ever; but there is a difference in the boy’s attitude in the last third of the narrative. Despite his fear he now knows for sure that he is looking at ‘the true face of Finn the Magician’; Finn’s concealment is over, his riddle solved, his identity exposed for all to see. The hesitation over whether or not he is meant to be a truly supernatural figure has been dispelled, from the narrator’s prose as well as from Robbie’s mind. This renders his true face vulnerable as well as visible; it’s a single, identifiable target, despite its changefulness; so it seems only right that Yarl Corbie should direct his attack at Finn’s exposed face when he manifests himself for the first time as the raven whose name he bears.

More specifically, Corbie directs his attack at Finn’s eyes, which are ‘the one thing about the nightmare that did not change’, remaining the ‘great dark eyes’ of a bull seal through all his facial shifts (p. 130). These eyes have always seemed to Robbie to see everything, which explains the mocking smile Finn so often wears. But by this final chapter of the novel we know that this seeming total vision is an illusion, like Finn’s humanity itself. The stranger had no idea that Yarl Corbie was a wizard or that Robbie was in collusion with the schoolmaster. For a long time he was ignorant that Nicol Anderson was playing the Skuddler. He doesn’t know the location of his sealskin. His vision, in other words, has failed him. When the Raven-Corbie, then, strikes at his eyes, blinding one of them, he confirms this failure of vision, physically depriving the Great Selkie of the dual perspectives that made him powerful – those of sea and land, seal and human – and hence by extension of one of the two elements over which Finn sought control. From this point on, it seems, Finn Learson is confined to his seal form, unable or unwilling to resume his form as a man.

This may be because he can no longer take the form of a handsome stranger – or so Yarl Corbie suggests to Robbie. The extinguishing of Finn’s eye not only affects his own ability to see, but changes too the human view of him. Beforehand, the stranger’s good looks served as one of his most potent weapons, seducing everyone he talks to, especially the women he aims to lure to his undersea home. But as a one-eyed man, Yarl Corbie insists, he will be less attractive: ‘never again will he be able to come ashore in the shape of a handsome young man’ (p. 133). And he will also always be known for who he is, whatever shape he assumes. Wounded and unbalanced by the ferocity of Corbie’s attack, he falls into the hole where his sealskin is hidden and resumes his form as a selkie; and from this point on, his occasional returns to the shores of Shetland can be identified from people’s sightings of a one-eyed seal:

There was one further thing which struck the people of Black Ness then. All of them had noticed a bull seal which haunted the voe from time to time – a huge, old fellow which had only one eye, and which had certainly not been known to come to the voe before the night of Finn Learson’s disappearance.

The seal version of Finn Learson can now be distinguished from all other selkies by its injury, just as the human version of Finn no longer conforms to ableist conventions of human beauty. Finn Learson has been set apart, just as Finn’s seduction of Yarl Corbie’s fiancée turned the schoolmaster into a pariah and a master of ‘forbidden’ lore. No longer a tall dark handsome stranger, he is also in effect no longer a selkie, having lost the power to mingle with human or seal communities unnoticed as he did before.

The Shetland community, by contrast, has been rendered stronger by Robbie’s adventure, its members confirmed in their dual identity as having one foot in the real and orderly, the other in the magical, the marginal, the strange, the shifty. Thanks to their folklore, their specialist skills as fiddlers, dancers, sailors and homemakers, and their intimate knowledge of the windswept place they have made their home, they can face up to any challenge that gets thrown against them, from official press gangs to the Kings of the Seal People.

Yarl Corbie used the old folk customs of the islands to overthrow Finn Learson. In the process those customs were shown to embrace the whole community, as the Skuddler and his men danced wildly from cottage to cottage throughout Black Ness. They were accompanied in their dancing by the fiddle that has come to symbolize Shetland art for the rest of the world, thanks to the seemingly supernatural skills of the Shetland fiddlers. And the victory over the stranger ensures that these customs and skills get handed down to a new generation. In the final chapter we learn that as Robbie grows up his account of Finn Learson becomes a communal possession, like the stories of Old Da. Some people don’t believe it; others, like the former sceptics Nicol and Elspeth, support it with first-hand testimony; but it belongs to all his listeners, believers and unbelievers. Of the children he tells it to, some say they don’t believe it, others embrace it with enthusiasm; but the borderland between belief and scepticism we now know to be profoundly permeable. So long as the stories are alive – and in this book alone they pass down through multiple generations from Old Da to his great-great-grandchildren – the possibility of their being useful remains. They suffuse the Shetland landscape with enchantment; they draw Shetlanders together on Winter evenings; and thanks to Mollie Hunter’s novel, they make of us strangers honorary members of the Shetland community, for a while at least, listening to their stories and hearing their music as we gather round an imagined fire. The hybridity of the Great Selkie affirms the hybridity of humankind, and of the people and animals we share the world with. We all have great need of Hunter’s double vision at this time of climate catastrophe, and A Stranger Came Ashore imparts it to us, wherever in this fragile world we happen to live.

Mollie Hunter

  NOTES

[1] Seals are born with teeth; see https://a-z-animals.com/blog/seal-teeth/ for an account of their dental features!

[2] Mollie Hunter, The Mermaid Summer (London: Lions, 1990), p. 119.

[3] Mollie Hunter, The Walking Stones (London: Magnet Books, 1986), p. 43.

[4] A Stranger Came Ashore explains the Scots term but-and-ben as follows: ‘this is the way Shetland houses were built in those days, with only a living room called the but end, and a sleeping room called the ben end’ (‘but’ = outside/here, ‘ben’ = inside). Mollie Hunter, A Stranger Came Ashore (Edinburgh: Kelpies, 2005), p. 13.

[5] In The Mermaid Summer it’s one of the children who meet the mermaid, Anna, who compares the mermaid to a queen: presenting her with a fine green dress, Anna tells he ‘it’s beautiful enough for a queen to wear’ (p. 92). The comparison may come from the mermaid’s efforts to make herself the fairest mermaid of all, like the wicked Queen in Snow White. For the fine clothes of the Sidhe see The Haunted Mountain: ‘they all wore the same kind of fine clothes made of silk, with ornaments of gold and shoes of fine, soft leather’. Mollie Hunter, The Haunted Mountain (London: Lions, 1983), p. 31.

[6] ‘They were small, certainly – about the height of a twelve-year-old boy, they say – and they were beautiful; but they were a lordly race, and terrible when angered.’ The Haunted Mountain, p. 10.

[7] See Duncan Williamson, Land of the Seal People (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2010).

[8] The setting of such a story should not, however, be too precisely located, as Duncan Williamson insists: ‘now the thing about the silkie stories when you hear them told the teller never gives the name of the island because it’s too close to the people; in case they say you might be telling a lie, this never happened in our island. So they always say in a little island in the Hebrides, and this began long ago’ (Land of the Seal People, p. 24). Hunter follows this practice; for instance the Shetland village in A Stranger Came Ashore, known by the generic name of Black Ness, is located on ‘one of the islands’ (p. 9), but we never learn which one.

[9] This part of my discussion draws on Tzvetan Todorov’s notion of uncertainty or hesitation as explained in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1975). See especially p. 25:

Which brings us to the very heart of the fantastic. In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires [and we might add ‘selkies’ here], there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and [the] laws of the world remain what they are; or else the event has indeed really taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us. Either the devil is an illusion, an imaginary being; or else he really exists, precisely like other living beings – with this reservation, that we encounter him infrequently.

The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvellous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.

[10] Note the similarity between this chapter title and the title of Hunter’s later Shetland novel The Mermaid Summer. Both invoke the precariousness of folk beliefs in the supernatural by setting them in the context of the famously evanescent period of summer in childhood. Robbie’s story, however, extends from winter to winter, with ‘The Selkie Summer’ in between.

[11] These examples come from Tolkien’s The Hobbit (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), pp. 68-74. See also Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which argues that ‘“the riddle” is a trope for reading itself’, and is especially prevalent in the ‘ironic’ genres of fantasy and science fiction (pp. 5-6).

[12] The Scalloway Museum suggests instead that the term refers to a race of wizard-like beings, the ‘finn folk’, who ‘can turn themselves into a human, animal, bird or fish, and can even make themselves invisible’, who have ‘a close relationship to the sea’, resent human incursions into their fishing grounds, and love amber. This is not quite Hunter’s version of the Finn.

[13] See e.g. Williamson, Land of the Sea People, pp. 35, 47, 120, 158-9, 170, 175-6, 180 etc.

[14] See e.g. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 53: ‘At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realised sub-creative art, which (however it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician’ [my emphasis].

Dickinson’s Dragon: William Croft Dickinson, Borrobil (1944)

Pauline Baynes’s illustrated cover, 1964

Way back in 2017 I wrote a post about William Croft Dickinson’s wonderful children’s fantasy novel Borrobil (1944), making a case for its rootedness in Scottish legend and folklore and in the context of the Second World War. This post is by way of a supplement to what I wrote then; but it can also be read by itself, I hope, by anyone interested in dragons, or Scottish fantasy, or both.

In Dickinson’s novel, two children – Donald and Jean – dance through a stone circle on Beltane Eve, a major pagan festival, and find themselves in an early version of Scotland (though the land is never named), where magic is rife and adventures abound. Here they meet Borrobil, ‘the best good magician who has lived in these parts ever since the rule of King Diarmid’, who conducts them safely through various perils and strange places, dispensing poetry, stories and riddles along the way.[1] Borrobil is a fusion of Tom Bombadil, Gandalf and one of the dwarves from The Hobbit (1937), but he is also very much himself, and the worthy creation of a Professor who had much in common with a more famous Professor who invented a string of fantasies in the mid-twentieth century. The novel has had a small but enthusiastic readership ever since its first publication, and found a new audience after it was published by Puffin Books in the 1960s with a cover by Pauline Baynes, illustrator of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s best-loved fantasy texts. It’s no longer in print, but it really should be.

First edition, illustrated by John Morton-Sale. Morton-Sale’s illustrations were retained in the Puffin edition, apart from those in colour.

William Croft Dickinson was born in Leicester, in the East Midlands not far from Tolkien’s hometown of Birmingham.[2] Like Tolkien he served in the First World War – being awarded the Military Cross for his service with the Machine Gun Corps – and afterwards completed his degree at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, graduating in 1920. After distinguishing himself as an editor of early modern texts, he was appointed Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh. He took up his chair the year before Borrobil came out, in 1943, and held it for twenty years until his death in 1963. As a historian, Dickinson is best known for his work on late medieval and early modern history, but he also wrote a lively monograph on Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (London etc.: Thomas Nelson, 1961); and it’s here that he elaborated his theories concerning the impact of the Scottish landscape on the trajectory of Scottish history. These theories get imaginative treatment in his three fantasy novels featuring Donald and Jean – Borrobil, The Eildon Tree (1947) and The Flag from the Isles (1951) – and a memorable episode in Borrobil provides a fine illustration of the relationship between landscape and story in that novel.

One of the many adventures witnessed by the children in Dickinson’s narrative (and they often only witness adventures rather than taking active part in them) concerns a wingless dragon with deadly breath, which terrorizes the nameless countryside of the novel until it is finally defeated by a brave warrior named Morac, wielding a lance which is tipped with fire. The episode clearly has much in common with the struggle between Bard, Bilbo and the Dwarves and the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, but one main difference lies in Dickinson’s account of the episode’s impact on specific features of the local landscape. Every element of Dickinson’s dragon narrative has its socio-geographical consequences, and Borrobil’s version of Lake-town, as one of those consequences, provides an interesting contrast with Tolkien’s community on the Long Lake.

John Morton-Sale’s version of Dickinson’s Dragon, closely followed by Baynes in her cover illustration

Like Lake-town, Dickinson’s ‘village’ is built on a seeming island in a lake – though in fact it is no island but a human artefact:

Thick wooden logs had been driven down through the water, and other logs had been fastened across them to make one big wooden platform holding a village right in the centre of the lake. And all the houses of the village were built of wood, their walls being fastened to the logs that rose upright from the water. (p. 42)

This description is a reasonably accurate picture of the kind of structure known as a crannog, uniquely found in Scotland and Ireland, although most crannogs are now thought to have held only one or two buildings rather than several, like the reconstructed crannog at Loch Tay. It’s also very close to Tolkien’s description of Lake-town, although Lake-town is a more grandiose affair – decidedly a town rather than a village. ‘A great bridge made of wood,’ Tolkien tells us, ‘ran out to where on huge piles made of forest trees was built a busy wooden town, not a town of elves but of Men, who still dared to dwell here under the shadow of the distant dragon-mountain’.[3] Tolkien’s structure was not built as defence against the dragon; it has been existence since the days ‘when Dale in the North was rich and prosperous’, long before Smaug came to the district (p. 198). The reason for its lake location is never given, unless it is to take advantage of the best available highways of ancient times – lakes and navigable rivers – which could just as easily be exploited by a shore-dwelling people such as the Wood-elves of Mirkwood. But Lake-town has clearly become a defensive stronghold since the dragon’s arrival. Its human founders are described as ‘daring’ for choosing to remain there after Dale’s destruction, and the thinking behind their daring emerges when the dragon is roused by Bilbo and the Dwarves after long quiescence. Under orders from Bard the Bowman, the lake-dwellers rush at once to destroy the bridge that leads to the town, and on seeing that the bridge has gone Smaug is briefly dismayed, since the place is now wholly surrounded by water ‘too deep and dark and cool for his liking’ (p. 253). Water is of course the direct antithesis of Smaug’s element, fire, and the lake makes it easy to fill every watertight vessel in town and to make sure the ‘thatched roofs and wooden beam-ends’ have been ‘drenched with water’ before his arrival (p. 254). But as protection against Smaug, Lake-town is nonetheless badly flawed. Tolkien’s dragon can fly and breathe out flames, which means that after shaking off his discomposure he can sweep across the lake without a second thought and burn the wooden buildings down to the surface. His flight exposes his vulnerable underparts to Bard’s arrows, but the town, too, is exposed to his flames by its aqueous setting, and dragon and Lake-town come to an end at the very same moment, each undone by its own built-in weaknesses.

Tolkien’s own illustration of Lake-Town

The dragon in Borrobil, by contrast, is of the wingless Scottish kind sometimes known as a beithir.[4] It cannot fly, and shares with Smaug an aversion to water, which restricts its movements as Smaug’s are not restricted by the demolition of the ‘great bridge’. As Borrobil explains:

Over all the king’s land the dragon reigns. But once, one man fleeing from it, took to a boat and rowed out into the middle of this lake. Then did he discover to his joy that across the water the dragon could not follow him. Round and round the edge of the lake went the dragon; round and round it went until it became dizzy and all curled up in so many knots that the man escaped even while it was trying to untie itself again. And when the wise men in the castle heard of that, at once they decided to build an island in the very centre of the lake so that the people might have a place of safety in which to live. (p. 43)

Dickinson’s crannog, then, is the product of empirical observation, and quickly leads to the king abandoning his castle and moving to the village on the lake for his own safety as well as his people’s. Dickinson’s Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 goes into some detail on the tactical reasons for the siting of Scotland’s castles and fortified towns – to guard major passes between hills, to overlook the waters of Scotland’s coasts which were used as thoroughfares in the absence of roads – and the king’s decision to abandon his stone fortress makes perfect sense in the context of this tactical analysis.[5]

Dickinson’s dragon, too, has very different breath from Smaug’s, though it is just as deadly. Its ‘green and poisonous breath’ (p. 49) is capable of melting ordinary weapons such as swords, though not magic armour (p. 39); and it also seems to have attractive powers, like the breath of panthers in medieval legend, which drew prey to their jaws with its irresistible fragrance. As Borrobil explains again, ‘Those who come within range of [the dragon’s] breath are lost, for they are drawn down its throat. Its breath reaches out and seizes them even as a frog will catch flies with its tongue’ (p. 32). A wooden village, then, built on a platform well out of reach of this dragon’s breath, is a much safer bet than a similar village in the neighbourhood of Smaug. To be fair, Tolkien informs us that the dwellers in his crannog have become complacent, lulled to inattention by the long years when Smaug remained inactive and hence semi-mythical; this is why they are ill prepared when the dragon wakes up and comes to visit. In his world, the memories of Men are short – though the memories of Dwarves and Elves are much longer – so that ‘some of the younger people in the town openly doubted the existence of any dragon in the mountain’ (p. 201). But since one of the purported purposes of post-Smaug Lake-town is as a defence against a flying, fire-breathing worm, the complacency in question is clearly egregious. The buildings on the wooden platform in the middle of Esgaroth, the Long Lake, have no protection from the monster of the Lonely Mountain, and it is only the strenuous efforts of Bard the Bowman that saves their occupants from destruction.

In The Hobbit, Smaug has an unpleasant effect on the landscape around the Lonely Mountain. As the Dwarves approach, they note this effect in everything they see:

The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair. There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished. They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the waning of the year. (p. 210)

In Borrobil, however, Morac’s fight against the dragon takes place at a very different time of year – Beltane, or May 1st in modern terminology, which marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The whole novel revolves around the changing of the seasons, from dark to light, from cold to warmth, from infertility to fertility, and its optimistic tone – the cycle of seasonal change is here always inevitable – is well suited to the needs of a wartime readership. The landscape where the dragon dwells is here green and fertile, though perfectly suited to a pitched battle between the monster and any champion who is up for the challenge:

The cluster of low hills formed a ring round a stretch of smooth turf in the hollow beneath. To Jean it looked as though they were standing on the rim of a large bowl with a bottom of green grass. But the men who had come from the island to watch the fight […] were standing only on one side of the ‘bowl’. At the other side, resting on the grass, was a large yellow head, with two wicked eyes. […] For a time, Donald found it impossible to move his eyes from that awful head. Then, as he looked, he saw that the dragon had wound its long yellowy body round and round one of the hills on the other side of the ‘bowl’. It reminded him of a tug-of-war he had once seen in which the last man of each side had wound the rope round and round his waist before poising himself to act as an anchor for his side. (p. 48).

This convenient arena, Borrobil suggests, has been devised or chosen specifically to ensure a champion can find the dragon once every seven years, as prophesied by an ancient seer when the dragon first hatched. And the landscape remains after the dragon has been defeated, marked for ever by the encounter. In its death throes, we learn, the dragon changes the shape of the hill around which it had been coiled: ‘all round the hill Donald could see sharp ridges in the grass where the dragon had tightened its body in that last convulsive movement when he had thought the hill would crack’ (p. 57). Such terracing or ridging of hillsides is a common geological feature, and Donald knows this fact, as well as the cause of the ridging on this particular hill: ‘“Now I know what makes those ridges on the sides of hills,” he said to himself; but what a lot of dragons must have been killed all over the country in the days gone by”’. For Dickinson, legend as well as military and economic strategy is embedded in Scotland’s landscape, and Donald’s reflection populates the Scottish hill country with mythical monsters and heroic warriors able to defeat them.

1846 map of Linton, Linton Hill, which you can see here, is also known as Wormiston.

As it happens, Dickinson’s dragon can be located quite specifically on the map of modern Scotland. The cunning method by which it is defeated, we learn, was tailored to the particular problem of the dragon’s deadly breath, which has always in the past overcome any champion who managed to get close enough to pierce its hide with sword or spear. With the advice of a wise man called Giric, the champion Morac attaches a peat ‘dipped in strongest pitch’ to the point of his lance. ‘Setting this alight,’ Borrobil tells the children,

He drove it, as you saw, deep down the dragon’s throat. The blazing pitch with its smoke and smell overcame the poisonous vapour of the dragon’s breath; Morac could drive down his lance and still live. More than that, the blazing pitch with running fire ran down the dragon’s throat, deep into its vital parts, making doubly fatal the lance’s wound. (p. 52).

Satisfyingly, the land itself by this means conspires to destroy the dragon, since peat must be cut from bogs or wetlands and pitch too can occur naturally in the soil, as well as being distilled from wood. And Morac’s fiery lance connects Dickinson’s dragon to another Scottish monster, the Linton Worm, whose story comes from the parish of Linton in Roxburghshire. Here’s the account of the worm given in The Lore of Scotland, edited by Jennifer Westwood and Sophia Kingshill, based on a more detailed account given by William Henderson in 1866. This dragon

lived in a den east of Linton Hill. The worm used to slay the cattle with its poisonous breath, and would sometimes emerge and coil around a nearby eminence still known in Henderson’s time as Wormington or Wormiston. At last Somerville, Laird of Lariston, a brave and reckless man, volunteered to kill the beast. Having failed in one attack with ordinary weapons, he came up with a brilliant device, ‘as the Linton cottagers testify to this day’. To the end of his lance he attached a small wheel, and on this he fixed a peat soaked in pitch. Setting fire to the peat, he thrust the lance down the worm’s throat, suffocating the monster with the fumes of burning pitch. So violent were its death throes that the contractions of its coils left a permanent impression on the sides of Linton or ‘Wormiston’ Hill.[6]

The name of the hill at Linton, like its contours, was changed by the dragon’s presence there, and the same is true of the hill transformed by Dickinson’s dragon, which is known as ‘the Worm’s Hill’ both before and after its physical transformation (pp. 48 and 56).[7] Somerville’s exploit gave him control over the landscape he fought for: ‘this is really the point of the story,’ we are told, ‘a charter myth concocted by the Somerville family to account for their ownership of the manor of Linton’;[8] the family crest was a green wyvern or heraldic dragon perched on a golden wheel, and the Somerville stone above the lintel of Linton Church shows a knight attacking two monsters with a lance (though neither of them looks much like a dragon), and the legend could well have been fabricated from these pre-existing elements.[9] Dickinson’s Morac, too, takes possession of the land he fights for, though his reward is more symbolically loaded; Borrobil calls it the ‘three-fold prize’ (p. 40), which comprises ‘The king’s daughter, half the kingdom, and the magic sword Greysteel’, a sword embedded in a yew tree (p. 41). If the Somervilles spread the story to enhance their claims to some real estate, Dickinson takes pains to link his to ancient concepts of fertility and regeneration, embodying these in the fairy tale tropes of a princess, a kingdom, and a tree whose living trunk makes a pleasing alternative to the lifeless mass of King Arthur’s famous stone.

Dickinson’s story, too, has much more than a local geographical reach. After killing his monster, Morac’s quest to fetch the king’s daughter, Finella, takes him northwards across the Scottish mainland to the broch where she has been placed for safety while the dragon ravaged her father’s kingdom. His journey takes him and his companions – including Jean and Donald – from the hills and crannogs of the Borders, where Linton is located, to the brochs of the north, which are themselves caught up in a topographically-determined struggle against Viking longships and the amphibious Blue Men who inhabit the Minch – the sea that divides mainland Scotland from the islands of Lewis and Harris. Morac’s adviser Giric, meanwhile, is linked to the stone-lined souterrains or earth houses found throughout Scotland from Wigtownshire to Caithness. Dickinson’s dragon, in other words – along with the various actions connected to it – provides the focal point for a complete cartography of ancient Caledonia, effectively unifying the land through narrative as it was never unified in political practice.

The broch to which Finella is sent for her safety, illustrated by John Morton-Sale

In his book Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 Dickinson makes a persuasive case for the argument that ‘The history of the Scottish people has been influenced in many ways by geography – not only by the physical structure of Scotland itself, but also by Scotland’s position in relation to neighbouring countries’ (p. 1). For him the most significant geographical characteristic of Scotland is that it forms ‘the northern part of one island’, and that for many centuries the border country between the two parts was fiercely contested, meaning that northern culture was largely conditioned by ‘warfare and strife’ (p. 3). Morac’s fight with the dragon, if we associate it with Linton, takes place in this border country, not far from Roxburgh Castle, one of the fortifications that guard the major passes through the hills between England and Scotland (it was at Roxburgh that James II was killed in a bid to win back the castle from the English). The second key characteristic of Scotland’s geography is its division into ‘high land and low land’ (p. 4), with most of the fertile low land concentrated in the ‘Midland Valley’ now better known as Central Scotland. Morac’s journey to fetch Finella traverses the highlands, where he and his friends defeat the evil magician Black Sulig, making good use of restricted thoroughfares through the thick highland forests and narrow passes between the mountains. The land of the Men of Orc, which lies beyond the mountains, is culturally and politically distinct from Morac’s southern kingdom, like the north-western Highlands and Islands as described in Scotland from Earliest Times, an area ‘walled in by mountains and high hills, with deep indentations of the coast, with far-penetrating sea lochs, and with many off-shore islands’ (p. 9), where ‘communications by water [are] easier than communications by land’. This makes it vulnerable to the Men of the Long Ships, Scotland’s Scandinavian neighbours, and the depredations on local vessels of the sea-dwelling Blue Men. At each stage of the narrative, the geography of its various settings plays a crucial role in both generating crises and resolving them, like a miniature working model of Dickinson’s thesis in his monograph.

Fortunately, the good magician Borrobil and his friend Giric know their way through all these different kinds of country. A polymath of the diverse Scottish land- and seascapes, Borrobil tells the children when he first meets them: ‘I know every path of the wood. I know the rabbit’s path, the hare’s path, the fox’s path, the wolf’s path. I know the eagle’s way and the way of the dragons that fly’ (p. 31). And this knowledge of paths gives Borrobil and Giric an edge in every encounter that takes place in the book, from the fight with the dragon onwards. When the sorcerer Black Sulig obscures the path through the highland forest with a magic fog – giving him an opportunity to snatch away the children in hope of ransom – Borrobil finds and liberates his captives with impressive ease, and as he leads them away from Sulig’s castle and back to Morac he ‘seemed to know which way to turn, which track to follow and which to avoid’ (p. 75). When Sulig seeks to prevent their escape by sending a message to his monstrous ally, the Giant Grugol, Borrobil knows exactly which route the messenger-dwarf must take and where he must be ambushed: ‘There is only one path the dwarf can take now […] and that is the path leading to the giant’s cave’ (p. 80). He also knows exactly where the Giant Grugol will hide to waylay Morac, behind a standing stone that must be reached by a ‘narrow mountain pass […] so narrow that there were only two ways to go – to go on, or to go back’. (p. 91). When he needs a horse, Borrobil knows exactly where the nearest fairy knoll can be found and how to behave once he has entered it so that his wish for a horse will be granted. He also knows how to ‘keep the path’ through the subterranean darkness of the fairy kingdom (p. 114). Later, when Jean is kidnapped by two Men of the Long Ships – who take her through a ‘narrow pass’ very similar to the mountain pass where Morac’s company encountered the Giant Grugol (p. 136) – the narrowness of the way enables Giric to play a trick on her captors using his shoes; he leaves one shoe ‘in the way’ of the men (p. 139), who discard it as useless, then the other shoe further on (p. 140), which tempts one of them to run back along the track to fetch the first, thus separating them and enabling Giric to fight them individually. Finally, Borrobil knows ‘the Blue Men’s ways’ (p. 149), which enables Morac’s company to sail safely back from Orc to the lowland kingdom they started out from. In several of these cases the knowledge of ‘ways’ – meaning roads or paths – is the same as knowing ‘ways’ – meaning customs and habits; so that each episode effectively confirms Dickinson’s conviction that the shape of the land (or sea) helps to shape the behaviour of its inhabitants.

Death of the Giant Grugol, by John Morton-Sale

All the ways or paths I’ve just listed could be seen as extensions of a single way at the beginning of the novel: the narrow lane that takes the children to the mysterious wood on Beltane Eve, where they dance through the stone circle – ignorant of the ways or customs attached to Beltane – and encounter Borrobil. The link with the lane is pointed up when Donald and Jean find themselves in the narrow mountain pass on the way to the place where the giant is waiting: ‘Were they always to be shut in like this on every journey? Was every journey to be like that first journey of all, the journey to the wood?’ (p. 91). When Jean is kidnapped by the Men of the Long Boats she remembers the mountain pass, and this effectively links the kidnapping, too, to the narrow lane. The description of the lane provides Dickinson with one of his most memorable passages, and is worth quoting at length:

They climbed the third stile and found themselves in a narrow lane that led up the hill towards the wood. Now was the real beginning of their adventure. The lane twisted and turned, this way and that. Soon it was so narrow that Donald had to walk ahead with Jean following. On either side of them the hedgerows became thicker and thicker; and as they thickened so they began to bend over the lane, meeting one another overhead and forming a dark ceiling above two dark walls. Scarcely any moonlight came through. The lane was steep, narrow and dark. Before long Jean noticed that it was silent, too. In the undergrowth on either side there were no rustling or squeaking noises such as she had always heard in the evening hedgerows. All was quiet and still. Even their own footsteps made no sound. They seemed to be walking in soft shoes along a dark passage that had no ending; and no beginning either, for as they looked behind them they could see nothing but a wall of blackness that cut them off from the way they had come. Both were a little frightening. (p. 13)

Soon after this passage the lane acquires a mind of its own. At first it seems to be trying to prevent the children from reaching the wood at the top of the hill, then suddenly becomes ‘just as determined to help them when they were on the point of giving in and turning back’ (p. 14). As an exercise in building up atmosphere this is as impressive, I think, as anything in the Narnia books or even in Tolkien; and the notion of being stranded in darkness, unable to see forwards or backwards, past or future, unable to do anything except advance or retreat, beset on every side with menace, conjures up the moment of its writing – in the middle of the Second World War – with extraordinary potency. Any child reader of the time might have thought of the blackouts that accompanied every wartime air raid, quite apart from the symbolic significance of a road with no choices as to direction and no certainty as to destination. The children find themselves in a similar passage many times in the novel that follows; not least when trying to leave the fairy knoll, a process which involves a ‘strange journey in inky blackness, their only guide the white fire burning in the heart of the Moonstone’ (a magical object that recalls the Arkenstone found by Bilbo in the dragon’s lair). On each occasion Jean and Donald find themselves helped by benevolent forces – allies and objects they find on the way. One ally is the warrior-counsellor Giric, who spends his winters in an underground house that resembles a ‘long low passage in which he had to bend down as he walked, and which was completely lined with slabs of stone’ (p. 33). This ‘tunnel’, as Jean calls it, doesn’t go anywhere; it is a shelter, ‘safe from the wolves and other dangers of the black days’ and thus effectively domesticates the menacing approach to the wooded hill, much as Bilbo’s hobbit hole ‘means comfort’ rather than claustrophobia, and fits him for future underground adventures in the course of The Hobbit. But Donald and Jean must call on their own resources as well as those of their allies to ensure their survival, and their introduction to narrow passages by way of the lane proves crucial to their ability to see their way through the other narrow passages and underground chambers that beset their journeys with Borrobil.

‘Some called it “Eldritch Wood”, others called it “Cauld Coven”, while others again called it “Hathaway Dark”‘

The darkness of the lane may also suggest the darkness of the forgotten past, above all the so-called Dark Ages of Britain’s own history, between the time when rising sea levels made it an island and the earliest tentative efforts at historiography. Dickinson does not, I think, use the phrase ‘Dark Ages’ in his own history of early Scotland, instead shedding light on the first human inhabitants of the landscape through the wordless script provided by leftover artefacts: prehistoric dwellings, tools and other objects unearthed from their long temporal journey underground. Borrobil himself is concerned with bringing light to darkness; this is the objective of all the adventures in which he takes part – the securing of a peaceful and fertile future – and he articulates his concern with intellectual as well as actual illumination when he first meets the children. After explaining the meaning of Beltane in terms that Donald and the reader both find puzzling – ‘Beltane means the end of the Black King’s rule and the beginning of the White King’s reign’ – he goes on to tell his young acquaintances: ‘[I]t’s very important to know these things. If you don’t know them you’ll never know where you are’ (p. 20). Sure enough, Borrobil’s knowledge of the landscape and customs of ancient Scotland proves invaluable time and again in the adventures that follow, just as an intimate knowledge of Britain’s geography and practices proved crucial to the island’s defence against the menace of Nazism. The Black King, we eventually learn, is an embodiment of Winter, while the White King represents Spring, and the inevitability of the Black King’s defeat is confirmed by the past; it has always happened in years gone by, so it will happen in the future too, no matter how slow and painful the process of winning victory. There could hardly be a more comforting conclusion to reach in a novel written in time of war.

Borrobil, by John Morton-Sale

In the course of this post I’ve mentioned several times the debt Dickinson owes to Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which was first published seven years earlier. One more debt is worth mentioning, first as evidence that Dickinson’s debt to The Hobbit is a self-conscious one, and secondly as another example of certain key differences between the texts. When Borrobil meets the children he bids them good morning, and tells them he is ‘at your service’ (p. 19) – a phrase any reader will recognise from the greetings given to Bilbo by the many Dwarves who come to visit his hobbit-hole in The Hobbit’s first chapter, ‘An Unexpected Party’. Soon afterwards, Borrobil and the children embark on a discussion of the phrase ‘good morning’ which recalls a similar discussion of the phrase by Bilbo and Gandalf. You’ll remember the exchange from The Hobbit well, I’m sure:

‘Good Morning!’ said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

‘What do you mean?’ he said. ‘Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?’

‘All of them at once,’ said Bilbo. (p. 14)

A little later, Bilbo uses the phrase to mean ‘goodbye’, and Gandalf tells him: ‘What a lot of things you do use Good morning for! […] Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off’ (p. 15). In Tolkien’s hands, an utterly conventional phrase becomes both a neat illustration of the convention-driven world of Bilbo and his fellow hobbits – none of whom will have any truck with those ‘Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things’ adventures (p. 14) – and a display of the adventures that lie concealed in the most conventional of phrases, in the form of double meanings and the possibility of talking at cross purposes. In Tolkien’s hands, in other words, ‘good morning’ becomes a riddle, and Adam Roberts has shown us how central the philosophy of riddling is to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.[10]

Jean, by John Morton-Sale

In Borrobil, by contrast, the phrase is uttered by the Gandalf figure – the children’s all-knowing guide through the ancient country to which they have been transported – and becomes an illustration of the distinction between their world and the world they have entered. When first uttered, in the mysterious woods to which the children have just travelled under cover of darkness – near the Beltane fires and the stone circle through which they have just danced – the conventional greeting has the transformative effects of a powerful spell:

‘Good morning,’ said a strange voice. And at the self-same moment the fires of burning pine-logs disappeared; the standing-stones seemed to become higher and more majestic; the ring itself seemed to become wider and more spacious; the night seemed to change to the half-light of dawn; and a fresh wind blew. (p. 17).

Borrobil confirms the spell-like nature of the phrase by uttering it three times (and though he says it once more, this seems to me to serve as a kind of summary, since he draws attention to the number of repetitions on each of its previous utterances – ‘for the second time’, ‘for the third time’ – and appears to the children after the third, marking the completion of the spell). Donald much later reflects on the series of threes that govern their magical journey throughout its length: ‘But what a queer world this was! Three riddles in verses. Now three verses to be completed. Three magic tests with Sulig. Yes! And three biscuits and nine standing-stones! […] Why was everything in threes?’ (p. 152). Three is, of course, an ancient magic number,[11] and though Dickinson never says this in so many words, the children recognise at once how the thrice repeated phrase ‘good morning’ seems not only to describe the state of the world but somehow to have brought it about:

‘I think I like you,’ confided Jean at last. ‘But why did you say “Good morning” when it must be quite late at night?’

‘Yes,’ added Donald, knowing that to talk about the weather was much the best way of beginning any conversation[,] ‘And why has the night suddenly changed and become like morning? It seems funny, somehow.’ (p. 19)

‘Good morning’ has here made morning – or something ‘like morning’ – and Borrobil answers the children by explaining that they themselves have made the spell that made morning through their own actions: by dancing through the stone circle on Beltane’s Eve ‘with summer joy’, which is ‘the most magic-making thing I know’ (p. 22). Their actions are ‘like telling the White King [of Summer] that he’s won already, or the Black King [of Winter] that he simply cannot win’. So the children themselves have brought the past to life, and will return from the world of the long-dead to the living present once the battle between the Black and White Kings has been achieved in the final chapter. That is why ‘the darkness of your night suddenly changed to the light of a past day’ (p. 22); and that is why Borrobil said ‘good morning’, since the words accommodate all the serendipities or good coincidences involved in what the children did. Quite apart from the fact, Borrobil adds, that it really is a good morning: ‘It looks like being a fine day. And Morac looks like having the sun with him when he fights the dragon’ (p. 22). Dickinson’s thoughts on ‘good morning’, in other words, take Tolkien’s thoughts on the phrase and expand them to encompass all the ebullience and optimism of the narrative that follows.

A revised version of Tolkien’s Andrew Lang lecture on fairy stories was published in Tree and Leaf (1964)

One might go further, and suggest that it makes of the novel a sort of spell to defeat the Nazis, and invites the children of Scotland to take an active part in completing the spell. And the other thing that phrase does, as I’ve suggested, is to indicate that Dickinson was paying direct homage to Tolkien in his own children’s novel – one of the earliest authors to do so. This is perhaps not too surprising given that he was writing a fairy story – with actual fairies in it at one stage – and that he had a close association with the University of Saint Andrews. I don’t know for sure if he was at Saint Andrews in 1939, the year that war broke out; but I think it quite possible that he had at least heard about Tolkien’s famous Andrew Lang lecture on fairy stories, given at the University on 8 March (Dickinson himself delivered the Andrew Lang lecture at Saint Andrews in 1951). An account of the lecture could have led him to Tolkien’s own fairy story; or maybe he had already read it to his children, Susan and Jane. Either way, his little book anticipates the explosion of Tolkienian fantasy in the 1960s, not least Alan Garner’s first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960). Written fourteen years before The Weirdstone, it’s high time this charming and deftly crafted novel was reinserted into the landscape of fantasy fiction.

NOTES

[1] William Croft Dickinson, Borrobil (Harmondsworth: Puffin Books, 1977), p. 21. All quotations are taken from this edition.

[2] For a detailed account of Dickinson’s life from an academic perspective see John Imrie, ‘William Croft Dickinson: A Memoir’, The Scottish Historical Review, vol. 42, no.133, Part 1 (April 1963), pp. 1-12.

[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit or There and Back Again, facsimile of the first edition (London: HarperCollins, 2016), p. 198. All quotations are from this edition.

[4] Borrobil points out, however, that this is not the only kind of dragon in existence: ‘all the dragons I have seen killed have all been killed in different ways, for every dragon is different from every other dragon, and no two dragons fight alike’ (Borrobil, p. 35).

[5] For Dickinson’s account of the major fortified places of Scotland see Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961), p. 6.

[6] Jennifer Westwood and Sophia Kingshill (eds.), The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to Scottish Legends (London: Random House Books, 2009), p. 257.

[7] Similar dragon-inspired names occur in Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham (1949). After taming the dragon Chrysophylax the titular farmer becomes known as ‘Lord of the Tame Worm, or shortly of Tame’ – which is Thame, not far from Oxford – while another town nearby, ‘where Giles and Chrysophylax first made acquaintance’, became known as Worminghall, pronounced ‘Wunnle’, based on Giles’s family name of Worming. See Farmer Giles of Ham (London: George Allan and Unwin and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), pp. 74 and 77.

[8] Westwood and Kingshill, The Lore of Scotland, p. 257.

[9] For the family crest see Eric Bryan, ‘Scotland’s Rival to St George and the Dragon’, Scottish Field.

[10] See Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[11] As a wise woman puts it in Hollie Hunter’s Shetland-set fantasy The Mermaid Summer (1988), ‘three is the number […] that is at the root of all magic’. The Mermaid Summer (London: Lions, 1990), p. 119.

Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness (1956), and the Nightmare of Complicity

[This piece was written for a conference, ‘Dark Fantasies: Aesthetics of the Nightmare in the 20th Century’, organised by Sheila Dickson and Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa, which took place at the Goethe Institut, Glasgow, on 11 and 12 May 2023. The conference marked the opening of an exhibition featuring the art of Caspar Walter Rauh and Frank Quitely, which is why the piece begins with a comparison of Peake and Rauh. Warm thanks to Sheila and Hans-Walter for inviting me to participate.]

Mervyn Peake, Strange Bird, n.d.

The British artist Mervyn Peake and the German artist Caspar Walter Rauh were born within a year of each other. The careers of both took off in the 1930s. Both entered into creative dialogue with contemporary movements such as Expressionism, Surrealism, New Romanticism and Fantastic Realism, without becoming fully attached to any of them. Both men’s careers were interrupted and profoundly reshaped by the Second World War, and the art of both has long been associated with fantasy and the fantastic. Both were fascinated by grotesque bodies marking the intersection between humans, beasts and trees; both illustrated the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm; both penned their own fantastic stories. Between them, in fact, they offer striking case studies relating to the emergence of fantasy and the fantastic in the verbal and visual arts as among the most resonant responses to the cataclysmic middle years of the Twentieth Century.

Caspar Walter Rauh, ‘Vogelmensch’ (1973)

For both men, the cataclysm found its birth in the human mind, and in Peake’s case, at least, in his own unconscious. His art exposes disturbing parallels between his lifelong creative impulses and the impulse to dominate or wreck the world, as manifested first in the career of Adolf Hitler and later in the threat of global nuclear war. I’d like to consider what I’ll call Peake’s fantasy of complicity in relation to his last masterpiece in prose, a ‘long short story’ called ‘Boy in Darkness’.[1] This novelette was first published in 1956 as one third of an anthology, Sometime, Never, reprinted the following year as ‘A Ballantine Science Fiction Classic’.[2] The other two contributors were William Golding and John Wyndham, whose novelettes, set respectively in ancient Rome and the time to come, make up the first and second parts of the collection under the headings ‘The Past’ and ‘The Future’. One might, then, have expected Peake’s text – the third and final part – to come under the heading ‘The Present’, but instead it was designated ‘The Dream’. Dreams pervade this little collection, from the transient vision of an alternative Roman history conjured up by a Greek inventor in Golding’s ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ to the dream of a near future with no men in it in Wyndham’s futuristic narrative ‘Consider Her Ways’.[3] The book as a whole is the product of a period infatuated with Freud, which recognised that sleep takes up a third of a person’s lifetime and sought to represent the pervasive influence of dreams on contemporary culture through all available media, from paint, fur and feathers to household appliances. For artists working in this period, the distinction between dream and wakefulness was barely valid, and a serious attention to dreams – and their dark siblings, nightmares – was an urgent necessity if the modern world was to be fully accounted for, and perhaps restored to some semblance of health.

There’s no direct indication in ‘Boy in Darkness’ that the Boy protagonist is asleep and dreaming, but the story begins with him throwing himself on his bed in a teenage huff, and a sense of nightmare suffuses the text from this point onwards. The source of the nightmare is the dissolution of boundaries: between dream and reality, childhood and adulthood, play and earnest, humans and beasts, past, present and future, and above all between good and evil, as defined by religious institutions, politicians and moral philosophers. All these boundaries had, of course, already been breached by the time Peake wrote his story, largely thanks to the First World War, which weakened or destroyed all the old grand narratives. But ‘Boy in Darkness’ addresses their dissolution with unique intensity, re-affirming the contemporary sense that life itself had become a dream, and demonstrating how rival forces were engaged in a struggle for possession of the modern dreamscape.

Mervyn Peake, sketch of Ithell Colquhoun (1939)

The contemporary movement in art most concerned with dreams was of course Surrealism, which sought access to the unconscious through automatic drawing, psychoanalysis, and close attention to the dream life of the artist. Peake’s links with Surrealism mostly came through association. His wife, the artist Maeve Gilmore, has been linked to the Surrealists by a recent exhibition of her work at Studio Voltaire, whose website compares her work to that of Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington and Ithell Colquhoun (Peake drew pencil sketches of Colquhoun in 1939).[4] One of Peake’s closest friends of the 1930s was the Surrealist painter and set designer Leslie Hurry, who illustrated three of his poems.[5] Another friend was Dylan Thomas, closely associated with Surrealism at the time, whose poetry had a powerful influence on Peake’s early verse. We don’t know if Peake visited the London International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, but given that he was teaching at the Westminster School of Art at the time it’s hard to imagine he didn’t. He could well have read the famous introduction, by the art critic Herbert Read, to the anthology that accompanied the exhibition, Surrealism (1936). And if he did, he might have found several things in it that resonated with his own concerns.

In his introduction Read argues for a close affinity between the Surrealist movement and a well-established fantastical strand of the English literary imagination, which includes ballads, the Gothic novels of Mary Shelley and Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, the Prophetic Books of Blake and the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.[6] Lovers of Peake will notice how closely this list aligns with his interests: he illustrated Coleridge’s ballad The Ancient Mariner, Stevenson’s Gothic novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Carroll’s Alice books, as well as writing a number of ballads, several novels and short stories with many Gothic features, a poem on Blake and a great deal of what he called ‘Nonsence’.[7] For Herbert Read, Surrealism was a form of Romantic art which, by taking account of the unconscious as well as the conscious life of human beings, achieves what he calls ‘super-realism’, as against the restricted ‘realism’ of much art and fiction.[8] Realism, Read argues, acknowledges only the conventions recognised by the conscious mind and so fails to represent the full range of human experience, as does the reason-and-rules-based approach known as ‘classicism’. Romantic surrealism, by contrast, maintains a constant tension between reason and the life of the unconstrained imagination as encountered in dreams. Read’s essay culminates in an account of the transformation of a dream he had into a (very bad) poem, as a means of demonstrating the techniques by which an unconscious experience can migrate into literary form. The poem in turn serves to confirm the fact that ‘In dialectical terms there is a continual state of opposition and interaction between the world of objective fact – the sensational and social world of active and economic existence – and the world of subjective fantasy’.[9] This opposition and interaction, Read goes on, ‘creates a state of disquietude, a lack of spiritual equilibrium, which it is the business of the artist to resolve’. Writing poems or stories based on dreams is one way of transacting this ‘business’, and to do justice to dreams artists must feel ‘unimpeded by the irrelevant standards of morality’ – morality being no more than a set of conventions or codes subject to change with each new generation.[10] Read’s essay, in other words, sets out radically to destabilize conventional notions of good and evil, identifying the fantastic art of the Surrealists as a crucial tool in that emancipatory process.

A more radical approach to dream, which did not seek to ‘resolve’ its contradictions, was published three years later by another of Peake’s friends, the poet Walter de la Mare. Angela Carter described de la Mare as a Surrealist, presumably on the grounds of his lifelong obsession with the oneiric;[11] and though he never joined this or any other movement, his mammoth introduction to his anthology Behold, This Dreamer! – published in the year the War broke out, 1939 – could have served as a field guide to dreams for Surrealist artists. For de la Mare the distinction between waking and sleeping is always uncertain. The border between the two states defies cartography, waking dreams are as common as sleeping ones, and what recollections in tranquillity we may have of dreams is only ever achieved in our waking moments, contaminating them with conscious thought. A section of his introduction is titled ‘Day-Dreams’ and concerns the phenomenon of ‘reverie’: a kind of waking sleep in which the mind spins subjective visions from what Read calls ‘objective fact’.[12] Peake famously entitled one chapter in his novel Titus Groan (1946) ‘The Reveries’, sinking his reader into the daydreams of his principal characters as if in response to de la Mare’s essay. Another section of the introduction to Behold, This Dreamer!, ‘Day-Life and Dream-Life’, asserts that waking experience is no more coherent than that of sleep. Reality, de la Mare points out, is made up of random elements – ‘the clump and clatter of a country horse and cart, the demoniac scream of a motor horn, the rumble of a distant train, the crowing of a cock, a maid polishing a brass door-handle, the barking of a distant dog’ – with no rational connection between them except for their simultaneous reception by a pair of human ears.[13] And he goes on to point out that we sometimes lose certainty as to whether we’re awake or asleep, selecting a recent international incident to drive home the point:

Few experiences […] can have exceeded in intensity and dread that of living through the recent European crisis[…]. Yet even then, on the brink of that abyss, how many of us must have paused, as I did myself for one moment, at the inward enquiry, ‘Is this a dream?’[14]

The reference here is to the September Crisis of 1938, when Britain and France sought to avert war with Germany by handing over part of Czechoslovakia in response to German aggression.[15] The logic for doing so – that it would ensure peace – was quickly shown to be no logic at all, and the appeasement of Hitler branded Britain and France as directly complicit with Nazi expansionism. The prospect of impending war awakened by the Crisis, then, is for de la Mare a real-life nightmare, and his response to this brutal intrusion of dreams into reality was to publish two successive anthologies – Behold, This Dreamer! and Love (1943), to the second of which Peake contributed a poem – that focussed on dreams rather than nightmares, intimacy rather than conflict. If the world was in the grip of a dream, these collections imply, perhaps the most committed of dreamers could somehow help to alter the kind of dream it was…

At the same time, de la Mare’s own dreams as reported in Behold, This Dreamer! are packed with acts of disturbing aggression and retribution. One dream involves his murder of an elderly woman and his vain attempts to conceal the crime by mopping up her blood. Startled by something, he spills the bucket of blood he has collected, allowing it to run all over the floor, while simultaneously the blood-red light of dawn spills in through the window like a premonition of the crime’s discovery (p.71). In another dream he imagines that the house where he committed the murder has been sold without his consent, meaning that someone will certainly find the corpse in the locked room where he left it (p. 72). In another he sees himself punished for the murder by being tortured on a machine with many wheels (p. 74); in still another he sits awaiting execution, then makes a sudden dash for freedom and is shot dead by a guard (p. 75). All the atrocities of the Twentieth Century seem to be visited on the poet in his sleep, marking him out as the man responsible for them and promising to track him down with the same closed circuit of elusive but deadly logic that trapped the nameless narrator of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (c. 1940), or the unfortunate Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial (1925, translated 1937).

Peake met de la Mare when he drew his portrait for the London Mercury in 1936 – the year of the International Surrealist Exhibition, and the year when Peake’s writing career began to take off. From 1937, Peake’s verse was widely published in magazines, and it was de la Mare’s encouragement that led him to submit his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941), to Chatto and Windus. Peake’s fascination with dreams was almost on a par with the older poet’s, and three at least of his published works take the form of dream visions: the short story ‘The Weird Journey’, first published in 1948; ‘Boy in Darkness’ (1956); and the children’s play ‘Noah’s Ark’, written in the 1950s. Interestingly, all three of these texts have religion at the core. In ‘The Weird Journey’ the protagonist falls ‘wide awake’ to find himself striding like a clockwork giant along a Dali-esque beach surrounded by multicoloured parrots, who carry books of the Old Testament in their beaks.[16] ‘Boy in Darkness’ contains a monstrous Lamb which is clearly a perversion of the Lamb of God, while in ‘Noah’s Ark’ a young child falls asleep to find himself in the story from Genesis, caught up in a conspiracy of carnivorous animals against Noah, the only person who can guide their vessel through the stormy seas of the scriptural Flood.[17] Peake grew up as the son of dissenting missionaries in China, and married a Catholic whose religion he found hard to stomach (as did Gilmore herself, eventually).[18] It’s not surprising, then, if his dream works vividly represent the actual or threatened dissolution of faith, from the dismembered Bible of ‘The Weird Journey’ to the suicidal plot to take over the ark in the children’s play. And ‘Boy in Darkness’ goes one step further, making the Boy himself complicit with faith’s dissolution, a double-dyed blasphemer against the oppressive faiths of his dreamworld, and thus a stand-in for the blasphemer-artist himself. If de la Mare’s dreams made him a murderer, Peake’s made his protagonist a god-killer, completing an artistic trajectory that began in his pirate fictions of the 1930s, around the time when he met de la Mare.

The symbiosis between art and violence was already present in Peake’s early novel fragment, Mr Slaughterboard (c. 1935), whose titular protagonist is a pirate captain who regularly kills off members of his crew ‘in the cause of artistry and to prove the inevitabilities of the illogical’.[19] A few years later, during the war, Peake drew a series of pictures designed to display his talents to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, from whom he sought employment. Titled ‘An Exhibition of the Artist Adolf Hitler: The New Order’, these consist of images with conventional academic titles – ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Sea-scape’, ‘Peasant Dance’, ‘Study of a Young Girl’ – each of which depicts a wartime atrocity.[20] The landscape shows refugees moving through a corpse-strewn city, the seascape a young woman adrift in water after her ship has been torpedoed, ‘Peasant Dance’ shows a man and woman dying in a hail of bullets, while the young girl has been shot in the chest. Most striking of all is ‘Self-Portrait’, which shows the artist Adolf Hitler staring at himself in horror, with haunted eyes, sweat beading his forehead, mouth compressed. He is presumably looking into a mirror as he draws his own likeness; but the artist who really drew him was of course Mervyn Peake, and the notion that the artist might see himself mirrored in Hitler is profoundly unsettling, as unsettling as the notion of wartime atrocities as a form of art. The conceit is lent a perverse wit by the fact that Hitler really was an aspiring artist, and the whole project raises a number of questions about the function of art in wartime; if to represent acts of violence, real or imagined, does this make the artist somehow complicit with those acts, like the appeasers who accepted the logic of Hitler’s violence by rewarding him for it? To draw a man like Hitler convincingly, wouldn’t one have to imagine oneself as his double, see things through his eyes, even if only for a moment? Did Peake’s own propensity for writing about art as violence, à la Mr Slaughterboard, predispose him to achieve this feat of identification? Presumably the War Artists’ Advisory Committee didn’t want the public pondering such questions, since the picture series was never published in his lifetime.

Mervyn Peake, ‘Self-Portrait’

But the concept of the violent artist continued to haunt him. The antihero of the first and second Titus novels, a young man called Steerpike, is an accomplished draftsman and actor whose technical skills are utterly divorced from any emotional investment in his art. What delights him, in fact, is mimicking the effects of art to worm his way into the trust of art’s admirers – and to make a horrible art of his own by accomplishing ingenious murders and getting away with it. As Peake informs us, ‘He could not sink himself. He was not the artist. He was the exact imitation of one’.[21] And the possibility of that ‘exact imitation’ – with no artist’s heart at the core of it – seems to rock Peake the artist with recurrent anxieties over his own status as creator. Was he in fact the artist, or was he merely the mimic, his art no more than a parasitic copy of the great artworks he admired? Was he unable to sink himself, to emotionally invest in his creations? Peake’s nightmare throughout his life is his coexistence with the artist’s double – indistinguishable from the true artist – whose skills are placed at the service of totalitarianism, i.e. of the shaping of life itself into an exact copy of the worst of nightmares, a cold, calculating, self-interested mind. At other, more stable times in history this vision of the artist-dictator might have seemed excessive; but at a time when the political reality surpassed the most appalling of dreams, the notion that there might be any such thing as ‘excess’ in politics may no longer have seemed entirely valid.

Mervyn Peake, ‘Steerpike’

Like the Titus books, ‘Boy in Darkness’ begins in the setting of Gormenghast Castle, a vast and ancient edifice which has been governed by nonsensical rituals for thousands of years – though the name of the castle is never mentioned in it, erased from the protagonist’s and reader’s minds like names themselves in Alice’s wood of forgetting. The rituals performed in the castle resemble a religion whose meaning has been leeched from it by the passage of time; but they derive an oppressive authority from their titanic architectural setting, a setting whose veneration lies at the core of each ritual. Stone itself is the object of worship in Gormenghast, and the bodies and minds of its mortal denizens are expected to mimic stoniness in their dedication to the singular functions laid down for them by long-dead zealots. In Titus Groan the bodies of the kitchen cleaners called the Grey Scrubbers seem to be morphing into stone, while the Earl of Groan’s personal servant, Flay, has kneecaps that resound at every step, as if succumbing to petrifaction.[22] Yet in ‘Boy in Darkness’, there is growth at the heart of this implacable structure. Tiny organisms sprout in abandoned cellars and lost staircases; creatures scamper with a ‘husky scuffling sound’ across the floors of abandoned halls;[23] and the central human figure in the Gormenghast hierarchy, the Earl of Gormenghast – the Boy himself, whose name, ‘Titus’, is never mentioned, like the name of the castle – stands on the cusp of maturation. In the novels Titus Groan and Gormenghast, change was deemed blasphemy by the castle’s rule-driven Masters of Ritual; but in ‘Boy in Darkness’ change suffuses both the castle and all its denizens, represented here by the hordes of excited, sweating children and dynamic riders who participate in the night of celebratory ‘high barbecue’ with which the story begins.[24] And as the narrative unfolds, change itself becomes the focus of a struggle over the soul of art and the artist, enacting the struggle over art’s position as the recorder and agent of change in the twentieth century.

The story divides itself into two distinct parts. In the first part, the young Earl rebels against the rigid structure of the castle hierarchy – a structure driven by arbitrary conventions, like Read’s notion of Classicism – by making up his mind to run away. The Boy’s rebellion could be taken to represent the insurgency of Romanticism against the regulations of the Enlightenment, and by fostering such rebellion – limited as it is – the castle could be said to nurture creativity; indeed, the sheer absurdity of its ceremonies makes them seem endlessly creative. In the second half of the story, the Boy flees from the familiar confines of the castle into a changeless wasteland: a post-apocalyptic Dead Zone littered with industrial remains, ruled over by a monstrous sentient Lamb addicted to change – or rather, to changing other people’s bodies, then trapping them in his unchanging service till the end of their days. The wasteland itself is a corpse, no longer useful as a healthy biosphere, or as the site for a farm or working mine, while the disused mine where the Lamb resides is littered with the bones of his worn-out slaves, whose transformation at the Lamb’s cold hands eventually kills them. In the first part of the story, the Boy of the title represents the creativity and vitality of childhood; he tells himself stories, then acts out those stories using himself as his principal player, escaping from the castle into the wilderness beyond in imitation of his reveries and sleeping dreams. In the second part, the Lamb is the heartless pseudo-artist of Peake’s nightmares, the ersatz changes he effects representing a calcification and compression of the human bodies he gets into his power. Once changed by him, none of his formerly human subjects can ever change again, and this changelessness, it’s implied, is what destroys them, militating against the life principle that sustains their flesh and blood.

The two parts of the story represent the past and the future, which converge on the dream of the present much as they did in the famous treatise by J W Dunne, An Experiment with Time (1927).[25] Dunne’s influential book argued that dreams consist in equal parts of fractured images of the past and the future, and he went on to devise a complex theory to account for the elements of precognition he detected in his own dreams; Peake’s friend and first editor, Graham Greene, was deeply interested in Dunne’s theories. The first part of the novelette, in which the Boy figures as a feudal lord in a Gothic castle, represents the past, while the second, set in a terminally damaged landscape full of evidence of lost technologies, represents the future – most obviously in the scientific ‘experiments’ conducted by the Lamb, whereby he transforms human beings into their closest animal equivalents (spiders, lions, goats, monkeys) in order to subject them to his own sadistic uses.[26] The Boy finds himself stranded between these two timelines, desperate to free himself from the oppressions of the feudal past, desperate to resist and overcome the oppressions of the technocratic future – an embodiment of the uneasy post-war present. But he also takes on aspects of both past and future. By rebelling against authoritarian ritual he upholds the decidedly modern philosophy of individual self-determination – a form of anarchy, of the kind with which Peake became partly aligned in the post-war years, as James Gifford has argued.[27] Meanwhile the Boy’s one-person ‘insurrection’ against Gormenghast echoes the revolts, protests and revolutions that have characterised the twentieth century, from the Russian Revolution to the General Strike to the independence movements in Ireland, India, Burma and the rest.[28] But he also incites the Lamb’s servants to rebellion using feudal ideas, promising them ‘golden thrones’ of their own to replace the Lamb’s quasi-ecclesiastical seat; and he deploys a tool from the mythic past – a long knife or sword – to destroy the Lamb at the story’s conclusion. Adrift in a nameless, history-less space – like the Boy stowaway in Peake’s play about Noah’s Ark – he has to construct his own personal narrative to escape the controlling narratives imposed on him against his will, and makes use of all available resources from past, present and future to steer himself to some form of resolution. In doing so he becomes contaminated by the sins both of his ancestors and his descendants, losing an ‘innocence’ that has been usurped by the sheep-shaped dictator of the industrial wasteland, and finally coming to embody the complex condition of the modern artist.[29]

Loss of innocence – that vexed term, with its Christian and Blakean connotations – lies at the centre of the narrative, along with a changing sense of how creativity operates in different contexts. In Freudian terms, the Boy stands on the threshold between the latency phase and the genital phase of a child’s development; his adventure begins on the evening of his fourteenth birthday. The traversing of that threshold is marked by the story’s transition from an unfocused fantasy of exploration in the opening paragraphs to the wielding of a phallic sword in the final showdown. At the beginning the Boy seeks refuge in an act of imaginative art while lying in bed: he studies a stain on the ceiling of his bedroom and transforms it in his mind’s eye into the map of an island fit for exploring, a pirate-infested zone of adventure reminiscent of Stevenson’s Treasure Island – Peake’s favourite reading as a boy, and a books he illustrated as an adult. But this purely imaginative process fails to satisfy him on this day of transition, and instead he chooses to enact adventure using his body as well as his mind, fleeing from the Castle into the rule-less wilderness beyond.

Here he finds many more stains, for the desert or wasteland beyond the wilderness is covered with toxic deposits:

Tinges of glaucous colour, now here, now there, appeared before his eyes. They lay thinly like snail-slime or glistened from the occasional stone or along a blade of grass or spread like a blush over the ground.

But a blush that was grey. A wet and slippery thing that moved hither and thither over the foreign ground.[30]

If the story is a dream, at this point it has become an erotic one, as signalled by the word ‘blush’: suffused with the shame Freud identified as a key sign of transition to the genital phase. Soon afterwards, the Boy encounters two male persons, half man half beast – Goat and Hyena – one of whom constantly employs the language of affection (‘my dear’, ‘my love’) and invites the Boy to stroke his mane (p. 40). This pair carries the Boy to a yet more disturbingly sexualized being in the form of the Lamb, who is both a human child – with a child’s plump hands – and an ancient predator of unfathomable malice, possessing a child’s shrill voice that articulates a murderous adult lust directed at the Boy. This being, too, lives in an environment rife with stains. The objects in the subterranean room he inhabits, lit by innumerable quasi-ecclesiastical candles and lamps, give off a ‘kind of vivid stain; almost as if the lit objects burnt – or gave out, rather than absorbed, the light’ (p. 57), like certain radioactive substances. Later the Lamb himself succumbs to spontaneous staining after touching the Boy’s face with an icy finger: ‘a kind of covetous and fiery rash spread out beneath the wool, so that the milk-white curls appeared to be curdled, in a blush from head to feet’ (p. 82). One reader of the novelette, Peake’s biographer Malcolm Yorke, found its transition from childhood fantasy to implied child sexual abuse by adults too disturbing to condone, especially if the story might have been intended for children.[31] But the anthology in which it first appeared makes it perfectly clear that it was aimed at adults, and that the story it tells is in effect the story of the end of ‘innocence’ in a far wider context than that of a single child’s slow growth to maturity, with all the dangers that entails.

Mervyn Peake, Boys in Masks

In any case, the Boy never sees himself as ‘innocent’. He begins the story in a rage brought on by the humiliations he has had to endure over the last two days, in the course of his birthday rituals. These include being presented with gifts which must at once be returned to the castle vaults; sitting for hours at the edge of a ‘gnat-haunted’ lake (p. 23); planting a tree without assistance, wearing a hat ‘like a dunce’s cap’ (p. 23); and sporting a necklace of rotting turkey feathers, which must again be returned in the morning to a pointless official called the ‘Hereditary Master of the Quills’ (p. 26). All these details resemble punishments rather than celebrations, and imply that the concepts of misdemeanour and punishment have little meaning in a castle that has lost all sense of proportionate cause and effect. The Boy’s mini-insurgency, meanwhile, though natural under the circumstances, represents for the denizens of Gormenghast a blasphemous revolt against the castle more or less equivalent to Satan’s revolt against his Maker. The link with Satan is strengthened by the fact that the Boy’s rebellion involves breaking promises: ‘Had he forgotten,’ the narrator wonders, ‘the pledges he had made as a child, and on a thousand subsequent occasions? The solemn oaths that bound him, with cords of allegiance, to his home[?]’ (p. 25). The parallel is undermined, a moment later, by its diminutive scale: the Earl proposes only to rebel for a single day (p. 25). But it’s immediately reinstated by a sudden outbreak of verbal blasphemy on the part of the young revolutionary: ‘Oh, damn the Castle! Damn the Laws! Damn everything!’ (p. 25). Uttered in his bed, between waking and sleep, the concept of sacrilege followed by damnation continues to resonate throughout the Boy’s nightmare, culminating in his encounter with a genuinely devilish being, the toxic Lamb. For instance, when the Boy flees from the castle he encounters a pack of strange dogs which help him to cross a river into the wasteland. The Boy sees their yellow eyes as ‘ineradicably wicked’, and the name of their species blasphemously inverts the word for God, yet the Boy identifies with them as a fellow living creature and sends up a ‘prayer of gladness’ for having met them (p. 36). Woven through the first half of the story, then, is the association of the Boy with transgression; while in the second half of the narrative he is increasingly aligned with the monstrous Lamb who is his purported enemy.

Indeed, the second part of the story mirrors the first, with an anticipated ceremony or ritual – to be accomplished when the two beast-men who serve the Lamb bring the Boy to their Master – followed by a second act of insurrection, whereby the Boy substitutes the Lamb for himself as victim in the sacrifice, then recrosses the river with the help of the dogs on his journey homewards. And there are further mirrorings in both parts. At one point in his castle bedroom the Boy catches sight of himself in a looking-glass, which prompts the first of his acts of rebellion, the tearing off and trampling of the turkey-feather necklace. And in the second part, the Boy seeks to gain power over the Lamb’s hybrid man-beast servants by mirroring the homoerotic language used by Goat. ‘What a mane!’ he tells Hyena admiringly: ‘How proud and arrogant are the hairs of it! With what a black, torrential surge do they break through your snow-white shirt’ (p. 51). A little later he mirrors the doctrine of the Lamb, promising the beast-men not only thrones but hordes of ‘slaves’ of the kind the Lamb created for himself when he fabricated man-beasts out of men (p. 88). In the process he transforms the man-beasts into potential mirrors both of the Lamb and of himself, awaking in them a thirst both for Lamb-like tyranny and for the ‘ulcer’ of Boy-like ‘insurrection’ (p. 88). Even the Boy’s failure fully to bring the man-beasts on side – they are too terrified of the Lamb to rise against him – means that, mirror-wise, the Lamb is unable to use the man-beasts for his own purposes, giving the Boy the chance to kill him with Hyena’s sword.

In the Hall of Mirrors which is ‘Boy in Darkness’, the Boy and the Lamb could be taken to represent rival aspects of the creative artist; aspects that overlap and converge at crucial moments. The Boy turns the stain on his ceiling into a piratical Treasure Island, complete with a wandering fly as the explorer he can identify with as he spins his stories – the explorer he embodies as he flees the castle (p. 25). Like Stevenson before him, he shows little awareness of the colonial heritage that forms the backdrop of all pirate adventures, all explorer stories; for him tropical islands are no more than exciting stage sets, only rendered more amusing by the presence of native peoples (branded ‘Indians’ or ‘cannibals’) or non-native but conveniently huntable wild goats. The Lamb, on the other hand, uses people and places rather than ceiling stains and flies as the raw material for his murderous art, like Peake’s artist-Hitler. He stains the once immaculate landscape over which he rules with his lust for dominion; and his two surviving works, Hyena and Goat, make explicit the colonial nature of his artistry. Goat, after all, serves as the staple diet of British castaways and naval frigates, while the hyena is the most despised of indigenous beasts in the colonised territories of Asia and Africa. The Lamb’s history contains hundreds of creatures such as these, metamorphosed into beast-men by his psychic powers; however, all but two have died before the Boy’s arrival, anticipating the long slow death of the British Empire to which Peake bore witness, as a son of missionaries and a product of the British boarding school system, designed as it is to churn out soldiers, entrepreneurs and administrators to control the colonies. The products of the Lamb’s artistry are mostly mockeries of creatures from British colonised territories: the debased ‘king of beasts’ or ‘golden cat’, the man-lion (pp. 69-70), the ‘delicate and nimble’ man-gazelle (p. 70), the ‘mantis-man’, the crocodile-man, and strangest of all the ‘inordinate fish that sang like a linnet’ – a denizen of the colonised field of human dreams. The Lamb himself is a travesty both of the Christian Lamb of God – seated on a throne worthy of a bishop or Pope, and finally sacrificed at the hands of the Boy – and of childhood ‘innocence’, rendered literally hollow by decades and centuries of merciless, self-serving artistry imposed on the bodies of others, whether children or enslaved adults. Even the Lamb’s fascination with making beast-men for his own amusement links him to boyhood adventure stories, such as H G Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) or Edgar Rice Boroughs’s The Monster Men (1913). The Boy of the story’s title – a lost soul like Wells’s Prendick or Burroughs’s Number Thirteen – meets the Lamb in darkness (that could be an alternative title for the novelette), and finds himself capable of both mimicking and destroying it. To destroy the Lamb he uses an instrument from the old imperialist romances – a sword – and so sets himself up as the artist-hero of his own narrative. But the interwovenness of the narratives of Lamb and Boy – for instance, in the way the Boy works on the minds of his beast-man captors, Hyena and Goat, as he seeks to gain some power to face up to the Lamb – renders them disturbingly reflective of each other. By the end of the story it’s easy enough to think of the Boy as some kind of hybrid child-beast, or Boy-Lamb, whose nature contains both the inventive freedom of childhood and the hunger for power of a fully-fledged dictator.

The narrative, as a result, embodies the dissolution of simplistic moral systems as discussed by Herbert Read in his introduction to Surrealism. It could be read as a commentary on Read’s account of the Surrealist’s contempt for such moral systems, which are only ever devised to uphold the interests of the powerful:

The Surrealist is opposed to current morality because he considers that it is rotten. He can have no respect for a code of ethics that tolerates extremes of poverty and riches; that wastes or deliberately destroys the products of the earth amidst a starving or undernourished people; that preaches a gospel of universal peace and wages aggressive war with all the appendages of horror and destruction which its evil genius can invent; that so distorts the sexual impulse that thousands of unsatisfied men and women go mad, millions waste their lives in unhappiness or poison their minds with hypocrisy. For such a morality […] the Surrealist has nothing but hatred and scorn (p. 86).

The Boy’s bid for power ends, in fact, with the refusal of any such system. When he kills the Lamb, the creature’s last remaining victims, Goat and Hyena, undergo a transformation into the humans they once were, losing the allegorical names which had pinned them into their beastly bodies and becoming ‘two ancient men’, one with a ‘sloping back’ no longer locked into the characteristics of the carrion eater he embodied throughout the story, the other with the ‘sideways shuffle’ that formerly marked the self-styled Capricorn or goat (p. 92). The ancient men do not become the Boy’s slaves or servants; they merely lead him out of the mine and part from him and each other ‘without a word’ (p. 92). In doing so, they dismantle what had threatened to become a horrible alternative Pilgrim’s Progress penned by the Lamb, whose characters can only ever signify the narrow range of qualities indicated by their names: Lamb, Goat, Hyena, Boy (or Monkey, as he nearly becomes). As a missionary’s son, one of Peake’s default adventure stories would have been Bunyan’s masterpiece, and a quotation from it provides the epigraph at the beginning of Titus Groan. Like ‘Boy in Darkness’ Bunyan’s book is ‘delivered under the similitude of a dream’, but its tightly controlled allegories have none of the waywardness of actual dreams, being governed by the ‘gospel-laws’ of a stern God.[32] At least, so Bunyan hopes, and expresses those hopes in his verse ‘Apology for his Book’; though the section of that ‘Apology’ selected by Peake to introduce Titus Groan suggests that the resultant allegory will have something Surreal about it (‘Dost thou love picking meat? Or wouldst thou see / A man i’th’clouds, and hear him speak to thee?’). The Boy’s return to the castle at the end of the story consigns the Lamb’s allegory to the realm of dream or nightmare, and makes of the Boy’s ancestral home, by contrast, an uneasy refuge.

Walter de la Mare thought of the European Crisis as a nightmare, in part, perhaps, because of the complicity with Nazism with which it stained British democracy. Peake’s nightmare, in ‘Boy in Darkness’, is a composite British artist who is complicit both with colonialism and with Nazism, both with the feudalism of the past and with the totalitarianism of the present and future. As a portrait of Peake’s moment in history, then, it’s as disturbing – and perhaps as enlightening – as anything else we have. Herbert Read might have called it a work of ‘super-realism’. It’s clearly, at least, a substantial work of art.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s poem The Sphinx

NOTES

[1] The term ‘long short story’ is applied to ‘Boy in Darkness’ by Maeve Gilmore in her foreword to the story, as reprinted in Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 17. All quotations are from this edition.

[2] Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination by William Golding, John Wyndham, Mervyn Peake (New York: Ballantine Books, 1962), front cover.

[3] In ‘Consider her Ways’ it’s taken by the first-person narrator – at least at first – as a literal dream: ‘I must still be in a suspended state,’ she tells herself, ‘very likely with concussion, and this was a dream, or hallucination’ (Sometime, Never, p. 68). The dream content of ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ is more complex, fabricated from its three central characters’ radically different perspectives on the world – one fanciful, one apparently practical but equally idealistic, one balanced between fancy and practicality – each held in suspension by the improbable encounter between the owners of those perspectives which the story relates.

[4] Studio Voltaire, Maeve Gilmore: https://studiovoltaire.org/whats-on/maeve-gilmore-2022/.

[5] Richard Warren’s account of Hurry sets him firmly in the context of the surrealists and neo-romantics: https://richardawarren.wordpress.com/tag/leslie-hurry/.

[6] Herbert Read (ed.), Surrealism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, n.d.), pp. 46-56.

[7] For Peake’s ‘Nonsence’ see the introduction to R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (eds.), Complete Nonsense, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), pp. 1-2.

[8] Read, Surrealism, p. 21. Peake describes himself as a ‘Romanticist in Painting’ in a letter to Gordon Smith; see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), p. 46.  See also James Gifford on Peake’s loose affiliation with New Romanticism, in Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2018), p. 122 ff.

[9] Read, Surrealism, p. 40.

[10] Read, Surrealism, p. 51.

[11] Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), introduction by Angela Carter.

[12] De la Mare’s interest in reverie goes back to the beginning of his career; he introduces a character called ‘Reverie’ into his chapters on The Pilgrim’s Progress in his first novel, Henry Brocken (1904). See de la Mare, Henry Brocken (London: W. Collins, n.d.), chapters IX and X.

[13] Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer! (London: Faber and Faber, 1939), p. 68.

[14] De la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer!, p. 69.

[15] See Peake’s poem, ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’, in Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 43, for the writer-artist’s reaction to the same events.

[16] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 95.

[17] For ‘Noah’s Ark’ see Mervyn Peake, Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 383-443.

[18] For Peake’s struggle with Catholicism see his poems ‘How Foreign to the Spirit’s Early Beauty’ and ‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to the Sapless Bole’, Collected Poems, ed. Maslen, pp. 39 and 61.

[19] Peake, Peake’s Progress, p. 71.

[20] The picture series has never been reproduced in its entirety; most of the pictures listed can be found in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), pp. 66-69. ‘Sea-scape’ can be found in Mervyn Peake, Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1974), p. 46.

[21] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 116.

[22] A similar process of petrifaction takes place in the closing part of Herbert Read’s only novel, The Green Child (1935). See Read, The Green Child (London: Grey Walls Press, 1945), pp. 124 ff.

[23] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 32.

[24] Peake, ‘Boy in Darkness’, p. 30.

[25] My edition is this one: J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

[26] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 59: ‘the experiments were without precedent.’

[27] See James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy, p. 122 ff.

[28] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 25: ‘Insurrection! It was indeed nothing less.’

[29] For the Lamb’s usurpation of innocence, see Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 79: ‘they heard a sound of bleating, so faint, so far away; it was like innocence or a strain of love from the pastures of sweet April.’

[30] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 37.

[31] See Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold. A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), pp. 257-8.

[32] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), pp. 3-11)

The Ambiguities of Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (2017)

[In the week when Loreen of Sweden won the Eurovision Song Contest, I’m putting up a post – quite coincidentally, of course – about one of the great Swedish writers of speculative fiction, Karin Tidbeck. This post marks the return to functionality of The City of Lost Books after a period offline caused by a bug in one of the University of Glasgow’s servers. The episode taught me about the precariousness of one’s online existence. Tidbeck taught me about the precariousness of human existence itself, as mediated by language. My thanks to Helen Marshall and Kim Wilkins, organisers of the What If Consortium sponsored by the University of Queensland, for introducing me to Tidbeck’s work.

The post contains many spoilers, so only read on if you’ve read Amatka or if you don’t mind spoilers too much!]


In an interview for BOMB Magazine, Karin Tidbeck mentions a familiar distinction between two kinds of writers: ‘There’s this concept of writers being either “plotters” or “pantsers”: plotting a story out before they start, or flying by the seat of their pants. I’m definitely a pantser’.[1] Both of Tidbeck’s novels emerged from a long period of gestation, taking the author by surprise as they underwent a slow transition from pupa stage (a collection of poems that became Amatka [2017], a set of linked short stories that became The Memory Theater [2021]) to full-blown novelistic butterflies.[2] Improvisation is clearly integral to Tidbeck’s writing process; and while this is true of many writers, in Tidbeck’s case it’s improvisation that has been honed by long practice in a highly specialised field of performance.

The prizewinning novelist and short story writer is also a participant in Nordic LARP – Live Action Role Play – for which they have been writing scenarios for most of their life. It’s no coincidence that their latest novel has a theatrical title, or that Amatka acknowledges an entire supporting cast of co-enablers in its composition: as Tidbeck puts it, for them ‘It truly takes a village; so many people have been helpful in the creation of this story’ (p. 217).[3] LARP performance, too, involves input from many equals who combine to generate a work of collective improvisation, as a cast of players act out roles based on a pre-agreed scenario, without an audience apart from the actors themselves. Its topics can be as lighthearted as a fantasy adventure set in another world or as serious as imagining yourself into the position of queer people in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, of Palestinians under occupation, or of a planet where your gender is determined by the time of day when you were born. LARP discloses the intellectual, emotional and psychological value of play, the politics of improvised performance, the performativity of social interaction, the possibility – indeed, the necessity – of cultivating mutual trust and mental flexibility no matter what your age, as a means of collectively reinventing the forgotten past and imagining a better future. To me, Nordic LARP sounds frightening as well as fascinating, and I’d love to try it. For Tidbeck, it may well be fundamental to the way they think. And this may in turn be key to understanding the unique experience offered by their extraordinary novel Amatka, and what it has to say to a world in Climate Catastrophe, led by leaders hellbent on preserving the status quo.

In 2021 I took part in an online workshop at which Tidbeck spoke with passion about Nordic LARP – one of a series of workshops organised by the What If Consortium, about which I’ve written elsewhere. In the same interview Tidbeck spoke about their fascination with learning languages – they speak six in all, and have translated their own work from Swedish to English and from English to Swedish in an exercise that clearly fascinates them as much as any other creative process.[4] Translation can resemble a live action roleplaying game, in that the restrictions it places upon you highlight the different possibilities available in different situations, the different available styles encourage you to see the world through different lenses, the different grammatical structures suggest different underlying philosophies for different linguistic communities. Tidbeck describes their own variety of written English as an invented composite dialect, made up in equal parts of the British English they learned at school and the American English which is ‘the language of MTV and the movies, and, later, science fiction paperbacks’.[5] As a speaker of British English, I notice the Americanisms in Tidbeck’s style, as I read, more than the British dialectical usages which are my native tongue. And for me these Americanisms work an unusual kind of magic. They superimpose a New World grammar on what seems an Old World story – its Old World-ness suggested both by the Slavic and Nordic names of its characters and by the echoes of European history in the society they inhabit. This effect is perfect for Amatka, which takes as its setting a colony or cluster of colonies established by people from the world we know (mostly Russians and Swedes, to judge by their names) in a nameless place whose location is never identified. The colonists fled to that world with the aim of establishing the ‘ideal society’ (p. 44); but the new place – the planned utopia – has an air of being worn out from the opening sentence of the narrative. Its social structure recalls that of other experiments in collective living such as Soviet Communism or the Marxist-Leninist communes of the 1960s and ’70s, and the story that unfolds there seems familiar from countless literary dystopias from We to A Clockwork Orange, 1984 or Kafka’s The Castle. For me, its New World language suggests a veneer of up-to-date modernity thinly applied to a system that unimaginatively echoes long-outmoded efforts to refashion the world along egalitarian lines through the imposition of increasingly authoritarian and inflexible rules, driven by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality. This mentality even extends to the clothing the colonists wear; none of the characters in Amatka wears garments that fit, and everything is designed for function rather than style: ‘She looked a little peculiar with the hat on; her hair stuck out from under the rim and the earflaps stood straight out. She pushed the hat back a little, tucked her hair in, and tied the flaps. That made it look a little better’ (p. 25). Clothing, in fact, plays a central role in the novel, just as costumes do when pooled and exchanged in a theatrical game among friends.[6]

If the names in the book are often Slavic, Tidbeck themself has suggested that their work has a loosely Nordic character, associating it through certain cultural markers with a cluster of countries in Northern Europe: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In an Afterword to their dazzling story collection Jagannath [2012] Tidbeck lists a few of these markers – a love of festive rituals, the idealization of the working class by the ‘intellectual left’, the soft Swedish dad, all of which find echoes in Amatka – while describing Nordic culture as at once profoundly susceptible to fantastic ways of thinking and unaccommodating when it comes to providing space for fantastic narratives in print. ‘One sensation peculiar to the Nordic culture of my upbringing,’ Tidbeck writes,

is that we really do live on the edge of fairy country. With a small population that’s mostly gathered in towns, vast stretches of countryside could contain any number of critters. Many folktales, and other stories I grew up with, such as the ones by Finno-Swedish author Tove Jansson, show reality as a thin veneer behind which strange creatures move.[7]

This is the North that’s familiar to me, a British reader who lived in Stockholm as a small child and inherited books, comics, pictures and objects from that epoch of my family’s history. It’s the North of the Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, whose The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (mentioned briefly in The Memory Theater) presents its readers with a folkloric map of Sweden packed with diminutive tomten, underwater cities, statues that come to life at night, giant butterflies, and articulate beasts and birds; of Astrid Lindgren, whose The Brothers Lionheart imagines a succession of Nordic worlds opening out from one another at the point of death, making each new world a link in a never-ending bracelet or chain; of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, set in a world where the dead watch the antics of the living as if in a paper theatre, while children with strange abilities watch the antics of both the living and the dead; or of Ali Abbasi’s movie Border, where customs officers on Sweden’s national borders themselves exist on a border between mortals and the hidden world of the trolls.[8] For Tidbeck, the borders between the human world and fairy country are rendered permeable by the metamorphic possibilities of language, which in turn react to and have a direct impact on the metamorphoses undergone by our bodies in response to emotion, diet, maturation, thought, curiosity, desire and fear. The thin veneer that exists in Nordic countries between the known and the unknown for her consists (among other things) of words, clothes and skin, all of them infinitely permeable surfaces hiding strangenesses unacknowledged by biologists or the compilers of dictionaries.

Amatka is set in a location on the other side of the veneer that separates our world from the strange, the unsettling, the potentially lethal. It’s a place where things are made with words in a very literal way, changing shape if the word that defines them is not regularly repeated aloud by their users, and preferably marked on them too with writing or a printed label. But this nameless place is hardly a conventional fairyland, Nordic or otherwise. It’s a colony committed to conformity, set in a landscape whose uniformity echoes the values of the colonists, with miles of uninhabited tundra interrupted by featureless bodies of water utterly bereft of the inventive fauna of the folktales. In this place improvisation is deemed to be highly dangerous, and childhood games that imaginatively transform one thing to another pose a very real risk of materially transforming the renamed objects into something new – or of reducing them instead to a semi-liquid, quasi-organic ‘gloop’, the primordial substance mined from the soil of this alien world to construct – well – more or less everything the colonists think they need. Metaphors are dangerous, too, since they can reshape the things they describe into something different, or else more gloop. In deference to this constraint on the inhabitants of their invented world, Tidbeck tells their narrative without recourse to metaphor, unfolding the adventures of the protagonist in pellucid prose whose refusal of ornament – once one notices it – takes on the virtuosic quality of an exercise in Oulipo, the French literary game that imposes apparently arbitrary restrictions on its practitioners such as writing an entire novel without the use of the verb ‘to be’. Tidbeck has explained that metaphors are barely used in Swedish, but their absence from Tidbeck’s English makes the language seem pared-down, reduced to essentials, a suitable instrument for a strictly regulated life lived on a frontier on the brink of the unknown – and on the brink of dissolution through the unregulated use of words.[9]

The plot of Amatka is simple. Vanja has been sent to the colony Amatka by the newly-founded private company she works for, which has asked her to assess demand among the colonists for new hygienic products to replace the mostly state-made hygienic resources they have used till now. Her work, then, is concerned with the treatment of human skin, that organic barrier between the colonists and their alien environment. Her researches find that the Amatkans are subject to many skin diseases and conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, symptomatic of their difficult relationship with the world they inhabit – or perhaps with the society they are part of, whose every waking moment is marked by the stress of maintaining the shape of the objects around them, from toothbrushes, suitcases and bedclothes to the contents of the factories or desks they work at (if they don’t keep naming them they turn to gloop). In the course of her work she falls in love with a citizen of Amatka, a medic called Nina, and decides to stay. At around the same time she unearths evidence of a resistance movement against the Central Committee of the colonies, the governing body based in her home colony of Essre to which all the Committees of the other colonies are finally answerable. Despite her love of the conformist Nina, Vanja finds herself steadily drawn into the resistance movement, largely through her friendship with Amatka’s librarian, a man called Evgen, and the poetry he invites her to read, the work of a colonist called Berols’ Anna. The novel closes with a revolution which involves the breakdown of the verbal tyranny that has governed the colonists’ lives, and a similar breakdown in the composition of their bodies, above all their skins, rendering them impossible to focus on, unbarricaded, unshielded, naked to the world. Something similar happens to language in the revolution, as it ceases to be policed and instead becomes creative and infinitely malleable, the verbal equivalent of the gloop that can be reshaped into anything you choose by those who dare to commit themselves to the idea of revolutionary reshaping.

The trajectory of the novel, then, is from rigidly rules-based organization to improvisation, from strict linguistic and social limitations to unrestricted verbal and social fecundity, from fear of the place in which the colonies are located to a passionate embrace of it, a quest to know it, to merge with and reinvent it, and in doing so to enter a new phase of evolution. The experience described may be not so very different from the experience of learning to improvise in a Nordic LARP community, starting out tentative and awkward, growing in confidence as the performance unfolds within the limitations of the pre-agreed plot. Alternatively, it resembles the philosophical shift that will be necessary to live in harmony with the environment – to discover, in fact, that we are the environment, and cannot segregate ourselves from it with an artificial barrier constructed from the languages of otherness, authority, human self-interest, mental discipline, technological control. In this novel, opening up to other people (falling in love, for instance, as Vanja does with Nina) is no different from opening up to our reliance on the intimidatingly strange material world of which we are part.

If Amatka is a narrative of social revolution, it is also a tale of (partial) psychological healing. The book opens with Vanja in a state of unacknowledged depression, having recently recovered from a medical problem that involved treatment, we later learn, in a fertility clinic. The roots of her depression are deep ones. Her father was arrested as a dangerous dissident when she was a child, having first made her his confidante when he indulged in whispered, alcohol-fueled rants against the system late at night, when the rest of the family were asleep in bed. Unhappy with her job, negligent in her verbal naming or ‘marking’ of her possessions – as a result of which she soon finds her toothbrush and her suitcase reduced to gloop – without a partner or close friend in her home town of Essre, dominated by her more conformist older sister, her ‘general disinterest’ can be measured by the amount of savings she has available to spend on warm clothes when she first arrives in Amatka (p. 25); up till now she has had nothing and nobody to spend her credits on. Her depressed state of mind reflects, for the reader, the depressed state of the colonies, cut off from the world they came from and equally cut off from the world they now inhabit.

This state of isolation and exile is brilliantly evoked in the novel’s opening chapter. Here we find Vanja taking the train journey from Essre to Amatka on board a train which embodies the colonists’ collective material and psychological condition. The passenger car in which she travels is full of bunks, having been ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’; but its generous capacity is pointless in a world where exploration has given way to a daily struggle for survival within the perimeters of established settlements (p. 3). Everything in it is strictly functional, from the ‘rigid and uncomfortable’ seats to the bland food provided in the pantry: ‘stew with a base of mycoprotein’, to be eaten cold from a can, root vegetables to be cut into chunks and eaten raw (pp. 3-4).  It has no windows, cutting the passengers off from the drab but somehow terrifying landscape through which it travels – partly to suppress their fear of it, partly because there is nothing to be seen outside in any case ‘except the empty steppe: billowing grass, some hillocks, and combes’ (p. 5). Most disturbingly of all, everyday objects in the carriage have their names written on them in ‘large and comforting letters: WASHBASIN, PANTRY, TABLE’, the labels loudly proclaiming the possibility, even the likelihood of their imminent disintegration (p. 4). Everything is utterly familiar and undifferentiated, yet the continuing existence of these familiar things cannot be taken for granted; the fear felt by the colonists is that the things they need will be taken away from them by irresponsible acts, or merely by forgetfulness, by neglect. One is reminded of the way that the presence of imagined objects needs to be constantly reaffirmed in a mime show or improvised scenario, the way they can disappear or lose shape if the performers fail to reinforce their presence by naming them repeatedly or shaping them often with their hands and bodily movements.

The colonists’ identities, too, are always on the verge of dissolution – Vanja’s more so, perhaps, than the rest, since she has little self-confidence, little certainty about where the system ends and her personality begins. The standardization of their names identifies them as little more than objects or functions in space and time. Vanja’s full name, for instance, ‘Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two’, starts with a fusion of her parents’ names (Britta and Lars), followed by a Slavic personal name, and ending with the name of her home colony and where she stands in the chronology of her parents’ offspring (she is their second child, hence ‘Two’).[10] Their bodies, too, are both grimly functional and neglected. When Vanja looks at herself in a mirror on the train she sees that she has lost weight since the last time she noticed her appearance, that ‘her belly no longer sagged from fat but from loose skin and flaccid musculature’ and that ‘her legs were no longer firm’; she has been reshaped, in fact, by the demands of her dull and sedentary job, so that her clothes no longer fit her (p. 5). Her skin no longer fits her either, with the result that to her own eyes she looks much older than she is, accelerating towards an annihilation as complete as that of an object reduced to the gloop of which it is made. We later learn that the records of individual citizens kept in the annals of the colonies are reduced to the minimum after their deaths in order to save paper: name, date of birth and death, profession, cause of death (p. 121). The functionality of the records surrounds the dead inhabitants of the colonies with a featureless waste of unrecorded time, as drably grey and uniform as the landscape surrounding the colonies.

Gradually, however, as the book goes on, we learn that Amatka and the other colonies can be seen as a form of Utopia. That, at least, is how the ruling Committee of each colony describes them and how their more conformist citizens understand them: a perfectly egalitarian community set up in opposition to unspecified but clearly inferior alternative ways of living, now lost in the wasteland of the unrecorded past. But it is a deeply ambiguous Utopia. Indeed, all utopias can be seen as ambiguous, since utopianism itself combines two contradictory impulses: towards radical change (from the material conditions under which the writer and their readers live) and towards total stasis (most Utopias are strictly policed to prevent transition to a less desirable state). Anyone with a preference for change will find themselves stifled by inertia, anyone rendered anxious by transitions will be maddened by the inevitable tendency of societies to mutate and slide into new shapes. All Utopias, then, are Dystopias for some, and Amatka’s Utopia is no exception, since any dissent is savagely punished and any form of eccentric behaviour can be interpreted as dissent. Like the original Utopia of Thomas More, each colony is organised on geometrical principles, with an administrative tower-block in the centre – the all-seeing watchtower of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon – and rings of residences, factories, plant houses and recreational facilities arranged around it, under its eye. The worst of punishments fits the crime for which it is most often exacted, loose or disruptive talk: it involves the surgical destruction of the speech centre in the brain, rendering the citizen inarticulate and hence incapable of participating in the life of the commune. One might call this poetic justice – irresponsible speech being rewarded with enforced silence – if it were not for the fact that enforced silence implies an incapacity for poetry of any kind, just or unjust.

So far so familiar; but Tidbeck is unusually dextrous at making her Utopia seem homely as well as intolerable. Its most loyal citizens can be affectionate, funny, compassionate, mutually supportive; its rebels are not motivated by hatred or anger so much as affection, compassion, mutual supportiveness, even a sense of humour, recognising as they do the sheer absurdity of trying to keep things stable in a world predicated on the need for metamorphosis (birth, growth, death, eating, drinking, successive sleep states, etc. etc.). Both sides, too – loyalists and rebels – are intensely conscious that they themselves have conspired to construct the oppressive Utopia from which some seek to be liberated, and that consensus or complicity is essential both for maintaining the commune as it is and for overthrowing it and installing a new order. The alternative Utopia of the rebels is closely related to the Utopia of the loyalists, being compounded of the same elements, the same desires and dreams and needs. The personalities involved in both sides are not crudely distinguished as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Some of the revolutionaries, like the sarcastic retired doctor Ulla who cohabits with Nina and Vanja in their communal dwelling, can be infuriating, while Nina’s commitment to the colonies is based in a sense of responsibility to other people’s welfare which has also (presumably) driven her to become a nurse, and which makes her deeply sympathetic to Vanja’s loneliness and depression, despite the opposite points on the political spectrum each of them occupies. Even at the point where Nina betrays Vanja to the ruling Committee near the end of the book, she does so in the conviction that the committee will do what’s best for Vanja as well as for the commune; it’s their merciless treatment of Vanja that finally pushes Nina into joining the revolution. For Nina, Vanja’s body is a utopian space; the visitor from Essre is in her eyes a ‘beauty’, despite Vanja’s own conviction of her ugliness and premature ageing, and despite Vanja’s attraction to the dissidence Nina fears (p. 96). By this means – by seeing her as beautiful – Nina instils fresh confidence in Vanja, a confidence that ironically helps to propel her into the arms of the revolution (to which Nina later follows her).

Other Amatkans, meanwhile, have little interest in either conformity or rebellion. Nina’s children by her housemate Ivar, for instance, have been separated from their parents since birth, raised like the rest of the commune’s children in the so-called ‘Children’s House’. They find it hard to get used to being with their parents each weekend, and spend much of their time staring at adults and clinging to one another as representatives of the sole community they really recognise. Ivar, meanwhile, who works in the commune’s subterranean mushroom farms despite his dislike of being underground, and who is unable to obtain a transfer to more congenial work in the Plant Houses, conforms even while he succumbs to acute depression. This isolates him from his fellow colonists, precisely thanks to the damage caused him by his willingness to conform. Ivar, then, is neither a heroic revolutionary – since he never rebels – nor a loyal colonist – since his eventual suicide is treated by the Committee as the ultimate betrayal, a permanent withdrawal of necessary labour from the struggling collective he was expected to preserve. For both Nina and Vanja, on the other hand, he is a beloved friend. Each of them recognises in him an aspect of themselves, despite their seemingly contradictory positions, and each appreciates him for what makes him himself: his love of strong coffee, his delight in making things grow, his tenderness toward the children he shares with Nina. There are no absolutes in Tidbeck’s commune, since there are no absolutes in the words, sentences and personalities from which it is constructed.

It is no surprise, then, that both colonists and revolutionaries share a love of poetry. The ‘wholesome fun’ enjoyed by the Amatkans at gatherings every Sevenday includes regular readings of poetry written by Berols’ Anna, who is revealed in the course of the narrative as the de facto leader of the revolution (p. 61, p. 159). Poems, of course, can be descriptive, and Anna’s poems meticulously describe the various Plant Houses or agricultural conservatories that form the outer circle of Amatka. When Vanja first reads them she finds they stabilize the mundane objects and actions they invoke, as all language should when responsibly uttered: ‘In Berols’ Anna’s poetry, all things became completely and self-evidently solid. The world gained consistency in the life cycle of plants, the sound of a rake in the soil. Breathing became easier’ (pp. 44-5). As Vanja grows in sympathy with the revolution, however, the same poems offer evidence of change as well as of stability – of becoming as well as of being: the plants are always growing and dying, the rake moves the soil, sound and breath dissolve in air. And some poems harbour double meanings thanks to the possibility of reading them ironically, like Berols’ Anna’s hymn in praise of the Central Committee (‘We thank them / for telling us/ What to do / what to do’), which Vanya assumes at once to be ‘sarcastic’ (p. 78). The novel’s readers, meanwhile, might understand the poems as doing both, making and unmaking as they are read or spoken. In them, revolution and reactionary conservatism are shown to spring from the same soil, the same impulses towards shaping a community and a home.

Colonists and revolutionaries also share a love of music. The wholesome fun of a Sevenday gathering involves singing and dancing as well as poetry recitals. Some of the singing is dedicated to preserving the shapes of things against the danger of change; this includes the ‘Marking Song’ taught to young children so that they can name the necessary objects they make use of every day, protecting those objects from disintegration into gloop. When the revolution finally breaks out, the revolutionaries sing a version of the same song, though with a different intent: an opening out of the song’s meaning rather than a closing down and consolidation of that meaning. What the revolutionaries sing is ‘something like “The Marking Song,” but the words were different; it was a song of making and unmaking, a song not of things that were, but that could be’ (p. 216). Indeed, music plays a key role in the revolutionary transformation of Amatka. At one point in the novel, after a minor falling-out with Nina, Vanja makes her way to the lake outside the commune – a lake that has already begun to manifest signs of the coming change, since it freezes each night at sunset and unfreezes with a sound of thunder at the break of dawn, in defiance of the laws of physics. As she sits on the shore of the lake, Vanja sees an old woman standing nearby, holding a long pipe half submerged in the water. When the water freezes, the woman lifts the end of the pipe to her lips and begins to play it like an alp-horn, effectively turning the frozen water into a musical instrument, a tuneful communication system summoning fellow revolutionaries to her aid. Later, pipes begin to manifest themselves in the ground beneath Amatka, in the form of a mysterious network of tunnels that extend into the tundra beyond the city limits. Noises are heard in the tunnels – voices, buzzing, thunder – and later from the vertical pipes that give access to those tunnels, and which sprout from the ground beyond the city in increasing numbers. The pipes wail and groan like the pipes of a church organ, as if the ground itself were singing, or as if an improvised musical instrument were finding voice for the very first time. In their interview with BOMB Magazine Tidbeck speaks of their legendary great-grandfather who had only five fingers but who nevertheless built ‘an organ out of a sofa’; an interest in improvisation was clearly an integral part of their family saga long before they discovered LARP. The elderly revolutionary Ulla, meanwhile, reminds us that pipes or tunnels may be used for ‘travel’ as well as for making sound (p. 132). Music may be a repetition and affirmation of what’s known and loved, or it may transport us to strange new territories, like the train that carried Vanja to Amatka. In Tidbeck’s world it does exactly both, and revolution arrives like a remembered experimental tune, heavy both with nostalgia and with the joy of the unexpected, the innovatory, the yet-to-be.

The family likeness between reaction and revolution is embodied in the spaces where both are fostered. When Vanja finally learns (of course from the conservative Nina) how the revolutionaries left the city under the leadership of the poet, Berols’ Anna, to set up a rival commune on the featureless tundra, she discovers that the habitation they made for themselves differed little from the design of the colonies they had abandoned: ‘It looked sort of like a colony – a ring of little houses and a commune office’ (p. 169, my emphasis). But the sky above this new commune is alive and full of lights, unlike the grey unchanging skies above the old one, while the walls are painted not with the appropriate noun (‘wall’, ‘window’, ‘door’, and so on, lending solidity to the objects they embellish) but with representations of things ‘not there’, transforming them into narratives rather than nouns (tales of utopia, the no-place, perhaps) (p. 170). Apartments, too, can be spaces of revolution or reaction. When Berols’ Anna fulfils her promise to free Amatka – that is, to fulfil its potential to remake itself along radical lines – she is accompanied on her march to the colony by the old woman Ulla, who formerly shared an apartment with a group of friends from across the political divide. Living together in that apartment were the idealist conformist Nina, the unhappy conformist Ivar, the would-be revolutionary Vanja, and Ulla herself, the fully-fledged insurrectionist. Within that apartment were hatched both plans for liberation and plans to betray the liberators to the Committee. Each physical space in the novel, then, is a theatre, full of possibilities, yet constrained by a set of rules. Each performance in each of those spaces depends on an interaction between the performers, as a sentence depends for its sense on the interaction between its grammatical parts. Rebels need conformists to define themselves against; conformists are equally dependent on rebels to understand for themselves what needs to be suppressed, expelled or resisted. And individuals mutate from conformist to rebel, as Vanja mutates in the course of the novel, emerging from her isolation, depression and atrophy into the catalyst and herald of a new era.

Organs themselves in Tidbeck’s work are, so to speak, organic, mutating from one function to another, militating against the laws of biology. The skin is a fine example. Berols’ Anna writes poems about the Plant Houses that form the outer ring of the concentric circles of buildings that comprise Amatka. Her interest, then, is in what could be called the ‘skin’ of the colony, the protective architectural membrane that protects its interior organs from the perceived threat of what lies beyond. Yet the Plant Houses are already mixed with the Other, since the plants they contain spring from the soil of an alien world. So it’s no surprise, when the revolution breaks out, to see one of the Houses bursting apart to release a ‘stream of furiously flapping greenery’, while another sprouts ‘six unsynchronized, rickety legs’ and trundles off across the steppes in a bid for freedom (p. 212). Meanwhile the mysterious tunnels under the colony – the arterial conduits that convey the bacterium of revolution from one part of the communal body to another – spontaneously mutate into Plant Houses full of semi-sentient ‘fruiting bodies’, which were once the colonists who maintained the underground mushroom farms (p. 214). And skin itself often ceases to be a membrane, announcing its identity with the earth and its products, or with the abject inner organs, even as its owners struggle to keep it contained and in good condition, moisturized, blemish-free and snugly clothed. The eczema suffered by the mushroom farmers turns their skin into fertile ground for fruiting bodies, like the caves where they tend their fungi. When the people imagine or speak the malleable earth of this new world into new bodies – such as imitation cats or fish, sketchy copies of the nonhuman creatures they left behind in the world they fled – the bodies in question differentiate themselves from their lost originals by failing to distinguish between skin and  flesh: their outer membrane envelops no bones, no veins, no organs, no brains, just undifferentiated gloop from head to toe, like living plasticine or clay (pp. 198-9). The earth of the colonies itself resembles either a membrane or an unprotected inner organ, instinct with life. When a neglected everyday object turns to gloop, the gloop feels somehow warm, alive and potent, capable of evolving into something – anything – under the right conditions (p. 175). Towards the end of the novel, Vanja even adopts a blob of gloop as a kind of pet, mutating it at will into useful everyday tools designed to further the revolution.

Yet the capacity for metamorphosis can be exploited for reactionary purposes as well as revolutionary ones. The past can be moulded by the Committee to erase narratives that threaten the integrity of the colonies; Berols’ Anna’s commune, which drew about a hundred colonists out of Amatka into the tundra, is reimagined by the Committee into a disaster which killed the colonists and their leader – thereby shutting down the narrative instead of opening it out, and putting an end to the possibilities of improvisation. The complexity of individual experience is retrospectively reinvented, thanks to the crudeness of the colonies’ records, into simple descriptors of life, job, death, and a set of dates. When the sensitive colonist Ivar discovers the hidden tunnels under the mushroom farm where he works, he is told that he is suffering from delusions; by erasing his account of the tunnels, reducing him to silence, the Committee hopes to wipe them out of existence – and will wipe him out of existence, too, if he persists in asserting the truth of his narrative. In the end, the contradiction between the Committee’s version and his own drives Ivar to wipe himself out of existence; and he accomplishes this by removing his outer membrane – his coat and shoes – and exposing his skin to the murderous cold of the freezing lake. Ivar’s suicide, in fact, represents his most radical act. He kills himself using a feature of the landscape which is impossible according to the laws of conventional physics, a lake that freezes and unfreezes nightly regardless of the prevailing air temperature or weather conditions. Ivar gives himself up to the new world, in other words, embracing it as the Committee will not. In response, the Committee erases even the barest record of Ivar’s life from its archives. But it cannot erase Ivar himself without erasing the community he was part of: his friend Nina, with whom he had children; the children themselves; his co-workers; the roommates who reacted to his story of the tunnels in different ways. In giving himself up to the world, Ivar shows the way to the revolutionaries, who eventually learn to become the place they find themselves in, as he did, giving themselves ‘to the world’ in a daring gesture of making and unmaking, hope and despair (p. 214).

Tidbeck’s dystopic Utopia, then, defines itself by its dangerous capacity to be two or more things at once, and in this it is closely related to the so-called ‘fairy country’ of European literature and folklore, despite its differences from familiar representations of that space. Tidbeck’s story collection Jagannath contains two stories set in that country, both of which were later incorporated or absorbed into The Memory Theatre. Both stories concern themselves with the human relationship with time, and in particular with our simultaneous desire to inhabit a world impervious to change and a world that is always changing. Time also, of course, has a central role in Amatka, not least as something that happens to one’s body (think of Vanja looking in the mirror, contemplating the way her own body has been altered by time and suffering, or her later contemplation of Ivar’s body, changed for ever by its period of suspension in the ‘frigid water’ of the lake [p. 154]). Bodies mark time, too, in both of the fairy stories in Jagannath. The first of them, ‘Augusta Prima’, tells us what happens to the body of an immortal being when she finds a watch.[11] Once the watch is set in motion it changes its formerly changeless finder, who starts to age, while at the same time she becomes aware of the wearisome changelessness of the garden where she lives, which has preserved her in an immutable state up to the point when the clock began to tick. The discovery, too, makes something clear about the politics of fairy land: that the disconnected shreds of time it does contain affect the working classes – the unfortunate changelings who are stolen, enslaved and tortured by their fairy masters – very differently from the masters themselves, who remain unchanged from one generation of servants to another. Fairy land, in other words, like many other places, is a utopia for its rulers and a dystopia for its workers, though here the distinction between them is not merely confirmed but reinforced by their different experiences of chronology. The stolen children are ritually slaughtered when they reach maturity, in a bid to expel even the memory of time and change from the paradisal garden; while the immortals wake each morning at the beginning of what is effectively the same day. The children live in a state of nervous anticipation, perpetually fearful of a sudden change that will wipe them out of existence; the masters live in endless ennui, driven insane by the knowledge that everything everywhere will always be the same, and that there is nothing more to existence than what they have. And a somewhat similar temporal structure rules in Amatka, though the elements of it are slightly different.

At the beginning of Amatka, when Vanja boards the train to the colony where the rest of the novel is set, we learn that something strange has happened to time in the course of her journey. Long journeys in this new world can sometimes cause machines to malfunction, and her wristwatch gets ‘stuck at one o’clock’ because ‘mechanical things sometimes didn’t behave like they should between the colonies’ (p. 5). We might think of the tricks performed by time on long-haul journeys, or in SF stories that feature Faster-than-light-speed travel, or of the warpings of mortal time experienced by voyagers to fairy land such as Oisín, or by fantasy adventurers like the Pevensies in the Narnian chronicles. At the same time, Vanja notes in the mirror the signs of passing time inscribed in her own body; movement goes on, despite the lack of precision instruments with which to measure it, and this is also true of Oisín, who finds that he has aged when he gets back from Faerie. Augusta Prima’s fairy garden has a similar effect on mechanisms: ‘Mechanical things usually fell apart as soon as they came into the gardens’ domain’ (p. 116), dismantled by the will to immortality embodied in the garden by its creators, just as time has been rendered meaningless in the colonies by the ruling Committee’s systematic erasure of the past. In both train and garden, however, chronometers are rendered unfamiliar by Tidbeck’s descriptions of them: Vanja’s watch is ‘the clock on her wrist’ or ‘the little clock’ (p. 5), which gives it an unusual weight and mass for its size and function, while Augusta Prima’s watch is a ‘little machine’ with ‘Three thin rods […] attached to the centre’, moving round the disc ‘in twitching movements’ and making a noise like the beat of a mouse’s heart (115). The mouse analogy, in a realm that has by this stage in the story shown a propensity for casual cruelty to small, powerless beings such as the changelings, makes the watch sound vulnerable; but the strangeness of these two watches gives them an imaginative power beyond the timepieces we know from our own experience. As a result, Augusta Prima proves more vulnerable still, becoming seized by a desire to ‘know’ about the mystery of time as embodied in the watch, and gradually succumbing to physical change as her knowledge grows.

Vanja too, on arriving at Amatka, becomes afflicted with the desire to know, in this case about the mystery of Amatka’s past – a past embodied in the train which caused her watch to stop (the train is ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’, but its ‘capacity was pointless’ in a world where such frontiers no longer exist [p. 3]). Vanja’s quest for knowledge leads her to another apparently damaged machine, a giant subterranean contraption whose intended function – as an agent or symptom of change – is as mysterious to her as the watch’s was to Augusta Prima (p. 149). Like the watch, Vanja’s underground machine changes its discoverer, and with her the colony whose past she has been investigating; her interest in it sets it in motion and its motion restores the tunnels to their role as agents of travel, transformation and trauma. A similar extension of Augusta Prima’s experience of time to the rest of the fairy country is implied in the short story ‘Aunts’, where the inhabitants of a fairy glasshouse or orangery find themselves changed by a fleeting visit from Augusta Prima, who clutches a round, metal, ticking object: clearly the watch.[12] Before this moment, the titular Aunts have existed as part of a perpetual cycle of birth, growth and death, sealed into the ecosphere of the glasshouse in perpetuity, self-fed and self-consumed. With the arrival of Augusta Prima and her watch the cycle is broken, and nobody knows what will happen next, either in the glasshouse or in the garden of which it seems to be the beating heart. Knowledge and time, then, are both creative and destructive, breaking down the composition of the objects and people caught up in their transactions, creating new possibilities from the breakdown, and triggering in the people who witness it either terror, delight, or both. And eternity too has a dual nature, locking its denizens into a happy circular dream, entrapping its victims in a recurring nightmare.

Knowledge, and the impulse to knowledge called curiosity, is a threat to the philosophy of stasis that governs both the fairy garden and the colonies. In the garden it is ‘common knowledge’ that time stands still, and that ‘Whenever one woke up, it was the same day as the day before’, a Groundhog Day of pleasure for the masters and torment for the children they have enslaved (p. 118). Augusta Prima’s sudden awareness that there may be other times and other ways of living gives her access to new knowledge which is far from ‘common’. Amatka too, as we’ve seen, is committed to repetition, since this is the only means of preserving its shape: ‘As morning comes,’ declares a poster in Nina’s bedroom, ‘we see and say: today’s the same as yesterday’ (p. 97). Vanja’s quest for knowledge about the past of the colony challenges this mantra repeatedly, as she discovers (for instance) that enormous chunks of the colony’s history have been strategically fabricated by its historians. If fairy country is a beautiful but dangerous illusion, kept in check by rule-based games such as parties and games of croquet, so too is Utopia, a collectively imagined space whose shape and extent is strenuously maintained by the policing of the inhabitants’ words and actions. It is kept in check by parties too, ‘games and organised play’ (p. 158) at each colony’s leisure centres, which ensure that even the citizen’s spare time is policed, observed and linguistically restricted. The key item of knowledge in both books is the recognition that the worlds in which they are set are no more than games, and that a player may choose to change the rules or leave the game altogether, although deciding to do so will put that player in mortal danger, according to the rules of the game they are choosing to leave.

The location of fairy country is notoriously uncertain; and the same is true of Utopia, whose name means ‘no-place’ or ‘placeless’. In Vanja’s world, the fact that the location of the colonies is unknown is one of the pieces of knowledge kept strictly hidden from the people by the Central Committee. Vanja’s father reveals it to her in her childhood in a whispered confession which gives the imparted knowledge both the delightful air of a bedtime story and disturbing connotations of child abuse, which is so often represented by the abuser as a shameful secret to be concealed from other members of the community. Lars’s whisperings to his daughter, in other words, are another of the ambiguous spaces with which this Utopia is filled. As Lars bends towards her in the dark, his beard tickling her cheek and his ‘whispered words’ smelling of alcohol, he imparts to her the explosive fact that ‘No one knows where we are. But we’re not allowed to say that’ (p. 39). At this point the reader finds themselves torn between the notion that he is imparting to her his inmost knowledge in a gesture of supreme parental trust, and the competing notion that such knowledge is too heavy a burden to be shared with a child; that this is, in fact, an irresponsible act on the part of a parent. Lars goes on to restate the fact of their placelessness as a bedtime story, like the most famous tale of that famously ambiguous tale-teller Lewis Carroll: ‘then he seemed to sober up and began to tell her a story about how people had found a hole in the world, and passed through, and ended up in this place. But where “this place” was, no one knew, not even the committee’ (p. 40). At this point Tidbeck seems to be reminding us that fairy stories, children’s stories, can serve as holes in the world through which we can glimpse the shapes of forbidden topics, though they withhold judgement as to whether or not a child might be harmed by such glimpses.

The link between Lars’s ‘hole in the world’ and Carroll’s famous rabbit hole forges another link to ‘Augusta Prima’, whose games of croquet on the lawns of the fairy garden – their chief aim being to break the heads of players and the enslaved children known as ‘pages’ – recalls the violent game of croquet in Alice in Wonderland, set in a garden which is metaphorically or potentially littered with severed heads. The tunnels that riddle the ground beneath Amatka recall the dream-maze threaded by Alice’s White Rabbit; the wayward workings of watches in Amatka and the fairy garden invoke the Mad Hatter’s squabble with time itself (since when, the Hatter tells us, Time ‘won’t do a thing I ask!’);[13] while the curiosity of both Vanja and Augusta Prima recalls the unflagging curiosity of Alice herself, who finds Wonderland and Looking-Class Country ‘curiouser and curiouser’ as she plunges deeper and deeper into their interiors. Amatka, in fact, is more Looking-Glass country than Wonderland. In the second Alice book it’s Humpty Dumpty who declares that any word can mean exactly what he wants it to mean (or in Amatkan terms, make exactly what he wants it to make), while the loss of Alice’s name in the Looking-Glass wood is invoked by the identikit names bestowed on the colonists, or the permanent loss of speech imposed on dissidents as punishment by the regime. Key to both Amatka and the Looking-Glass country is the question of who is dreaming the whole shebang: in Alice’s case, whether it’s the Red King, Alice herself, Lewis Carroll, or the reader, while in Amatka the choices are Vanja (who dreams often, and often cannot tell whether she is dreaming), or the Central Committee, or the colonists, or Tidbeck and the reader, or a strange fusion of all these. After all, the colonists’ ruling committees are elected by the colonists, while Tidbeck (like a good LARP player) allows themself to be ruled by both colonists and committees for as long as they are writing, as does the reader, for as long as they are turning the pages of Tidbeck’s book. So the novel can be read as a commentary on the acts of reading and writing (both of which ‘take a village’, according to the acknowledgments), which can in turn be used as analogies for the workings of power in any given society or culture. The clear allusions to Carroll’s Alice books underscore the centrality of reading and writing to the narrative, as do the many acts of reading and writing performed by Vanja herself, whether she is borrowing the works of Berols’ Anna from the colony’s library or reading and storing away the records of Amatka’s citizens in the archives.

The Alice books have often been described as nightmares rather than dreams, with Alice under constant threat of being beheaded, driven mad, or having her personality denied or eroded. But Lars’s story of the ‘hole in the world’ also gestures towards another great work of literature: Ursula le Guin’s utopian masterpiece Always Coming Home (1985). In this book – published just one year after the date of the most famous of dystopias, 1984 – Le Guin imagines a future version of California in which humans live in harmony with the land, in a manner that consciously recalls the lives of the native Californian peoples whose cultures were the lifetime preoccupation of the author’s anthropologist parents, Theodora and Alfred Kroeber. In one story in Always Coming Home, a member of this future utopian community, the Kesh, finds his way through a ‘hole in the air’ into the urban California of the 1980s, when the book was written.[14] He is horrified by the pollution, the absence of natural beauty, the noise and the bustle; but before he leaves, he spots one modern woman in the city crowd who is not like the place’s other inhabitants. Recognisably one of his own people – a woman of the Kesh long before the Kesh came into existence – she is conscious of her context as the others are not, stranded and isolated (it would seem) by having been born with an environmental outlook far in advance of her time. Many of Tidbeck’s short stories speak of similarly isolated individuals who find it hard to connect to their fellow humans; individuals who seem to have wandered through some hole in the world from some other place into our own. ‘Mom’ in ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ is one example; the titular ‘Rebecka’ is another; so are the two sisters in ‘Reindeer Mountain’ and the dead human stranger from whose waistcoat pocket Augusta Prima purloins the watch. ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ even contains an anticipatory echo of Vanja’s father: there are certain conditions, the narrator observes, that invoke for her the idea that there is something strange that exists very close to everyday reality, some location analogous to what Tidbeck calls the fairy country. ‘When I was little,’ the narrator observes,

I could sit for hours looking out the window. It could be because of a certain kind of music, or because it was dusk, or a certain slant of the light. There was a sensation in my chest, a churning. I couldn’t put words to it then. But it was a knowledge that there was something out there. That there was a hole in the world. And a longing to go there. (p. 24)

The passage is packed with experiences that get echoed in other Tidbeck stories: the weird ‘churning’ in the protagonist’s chest, which for Vanja in Amatka can represent the grinding of the gears of the machinery of desire, curiosity, or fear – all sensations closely related to one another in the effect they have on her body, and all of them invoked by her discovery of the mysterious machine in the tunnels beneath the colony. The word ‘knowledge’ is used in this passage as it is in Amatka, to signify the consciousness that there are things unknown, lacunae worth locating and confronting, not glossing over; things, in fact, that may never get taxonomized in the official historical or scientific records. There is ‘longing’, here, too, for things unknown, as there is in the novel; and this word is worth pausing over. At the end of the English edition of Jagannath Tidbeck lists a number of words they could not translate from Swedish, and one of these is ‘vemod’ (related, I guess, to the German Wehmut, and akin to the Japanese concept of natsukashii as Erika Hobart describes it here [https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200119-a-uniquely-japanese-take-on-nostalgia]). Of ‘vemod’ Tidbeck writes as follows: ‘think of it as a wistful sorrow about something that is over or a quiet longing for something else. As a friend of mine put it, “smiling through tears”’ (p. 155). I don’t know if vemod is the word used in the Swedish version of the passage from ‘Ove Lindström’ I just quoted, but the sensation Tidbeck describes here certainly ‘shines through’ her work in general, just as they claim it ‘shines through in much of our culture’. The woman in Le Guin’s story presumably feels it, that longing for ‘something else’ which has not yet come into being, but which is held in mind as wistfully and sorrowfully as something long past and irrecoverable.

Amatka also echoes another of Le Guin’s Utopias, her classic representation of anarchism The Dispossessed. The subtitle of that novel is ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’, and as we’ve seen, the title perfectly describes the colonies of Amatka.[15] Like Tidbeck’s novel, The Dispossessed is concerned with time that’s out of joint, and with a quest for knowledge, its protagonist being a physicist who wishes to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable principles of simultaneity and sequentiality – or to put it another way, of stasis and change. The anarchy of Anarres in The Dispossessed is both deeply attractive, in its commitment to absolute equality among its citizens, and riddled with corruption, like Amatka’s Central Committee. Words in The Dispossessed are always political: the colony speaks a tongue that was invented by its founders, intended to jettison possessive pronouns and hierarchical concepts, though certain words in it, such as the word for ‘egoizing’, can be used as tools of oppression by the more conservative colonists against those who seek knowledge they deem unnecessary, and therefore luxurious, wasteful, capitalistic.[16] In Amatka words are even more political, of course, shaping the world as they are spoken or inscribed. Its colonies are more communistic than anarchistic, reflecting Sweden’s long love-affair with socialism; several stories in Jagannath take place in ex-communes, such as ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, which is full of vemod for an ‘old schoolhouse’ rented out to a ‘bunch of hairy communists from the city’ (p. 17), or ‘Reindeer Mountain’, which revolves around a family home inhabited by six identical reclusive uncles, or ‘Brita’s Holiday Village’, about a tourist destination that never took off which becomes home to a bizarre egalitarian community – most unnervingly egalitarian, perhaps, in its attitude to incestuous inter-generational sex. As in Anarres, Amatka’s children are raised collectively, while love between parents and children is tolerated but discouraged as a distraction from the most responsible form of love, which is for the community. Love between adults, too, comes under pressure in Amatka, as it does in Anarres, where couples must accept postings to separate workplaces in response to the needs of the collective or risk being branded ‘egoists’. Vanja finds love with the woman who puts her up when she first comes to Amatka; but unlike Vanja, Nina is wholly committed to the idea that the colonies represent the best of all possible worlds, and this leads her to betray her lover for what she considers the best of motives. Ambiguity, for Tidbeck as for Le Guin, is where we live, and any political ideology struggles to accommodate this fact as it seeks to form a habitat for its principles. Poetry, music, drama and the visual arts offer spaces where ambiguity can be embraced, but these spaces are always being policed by ideologues with no tolerance of or interest in its ubiquitous presence in human experience. Ambiguity may be everywhere, but acknowledgement of it is rare and vulnerable, always on the verge of being snuffed out, though capable of reasserting itself through, for instance, double meanings, dreams or inexplicable events.

The most moving form of ambiguity in Tidbeck’s work is that of the committed radical who finds it difficult to accommodate their personal needs to their political convictions. The socialist loner; the anarchist who requires a consistent daily schedule for their mental wellbeing; the lover more committed to their chosen partner than to the collective they love – or vice versa; the innovator with a passion for the past; a number of Tidbeck’s protagonists fall into one or more of these categories, and in consequence fail to find a place for themselves in any human community. Or rather, they drift in and out of human communities, always gravitating towards the peripheries of group activities or discussions, afflicted by their ability to see things from a radically different perspective to the one on which the group agrees. In ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, ‘Mom’ spends a few years in a household of ‘starving activists’ but eventually wanders away, her reasons for staying and leaving equally opaque to friends and family. It is hinted that she may have ‘been through something difficult’ in the past – perhaps suffering at the hands of an abusive husband (Jagannath, p. 23) – but this doesn’t explain her disappearance from the place where she was welcomed and cherished. Similar rumours abound about great-grandmother Märet in ‘Reindeer Mountain’. On the one hand she may be one of the vittra, beings who look like humans ‘but taller and more handsome’, and who live inside mountains like the Irish Sidhe (Jagannath, p. 81); on the other she may have ‘had a hard life’ in some isolated human community, given her decision to ‘run away and never speak to her family again’ (p. 82). The protagonist of The Memory Theatre, a young girl called Dora, suffers from the after-effects of the abusive environment of the fairy gardens, where children are enslaved, abused and used as targets in violent games; yet she is not the same as the other children, both because of her parentage – part fairy, part vittra, which means she is taller and stronger than most – and because of her inclinations: she needs solitude as much as or more than company, and becomes distressed by excessive noise or action. Again, her needs may be ascribed either to her psychological make-up – it would be easy to place her somewhere on the autistic spectrum – or her supernatural origins, her literal roots in the stones and solitude of the Nordic mountains by way of her vittra ancestry. Tracing her needs to the supernatural liberates them from the discourse of (dis)ability, instead inviting attention to their specific attributes and their association with the nonhuman environment, the neglected wild spaces. At the end of her story, Dora chooses to return to those wild spaces despite her deep attachment to her adopted brother, Albin – a fellow victim of the gardens – and the eccentric company of supernatural players he elects to join, and of which she has briefly been a part. The dramatic cooperative known as the Memory Theatre is a true utopia for Albin, but for Dora its bustling, convivial atmosphere is in the end unbearable for more than a few months at a time. Becoming a stone among stones, a vittra among the calm and isolated vittras, is much more conducive to her true identity, the identity she was forced to jettison when she lived among the violent lords and ladies of fairy land.

Like Dora and perhaps Mom and Märet, Brilars’ Vanja is the victim of trauma: the trauma of her father’s arrest and murder for so-called crimes in which he implicated her as a child, and the trauma of having been forced to try to conceive children of her own which she did not want. Both forms of trauma set her apart from the community norm. Well-adjusted female colonists are expected to bear children – and to want to bear children – for the sake of the colony’s survival, while the crime for which her father was punished was that of privileging a quest for knowledge above the need to erase any knowledge that might harm the community – a crime Vanja too commits through her quest for Amatka’s past. Thanks to this double trauma she finds herself both inside and outside two social groups: that of the old colonies she was born into, and that of the revolutionary new colony established by Berols’ Anna on the mysterious steppes beyond the limits of the colonies. Vanja begins by behaving like a committed colonist, but becomes increasingly conscious of the damage sustained by individual colonists – such as her flatmate Ivar – thanks to the community’s unyielding stress on the needs of the collective over those of the individual. Like Le Guin’s maverick physicist Shevek in The Dispossessed, Vanja is a loner, unable to commit herself fully even to the tiny community of an apartment, or of a pair of lovers such as herself and Nina. She is always gravitating towards the outside of any given space in which she finds herself, aching for alternatives she doesn’t herself fully understand.

At the same time, Vanja is not wholly at one with the revolution she seeks to bring about.  Once Vanja has become conscious of the revolutionary movement in Amatka, she works tirelessly to bring it about; but the language of the revolutionaries, as spoken by Berols’ Anna when she finally meets her, confuses her. As Anna herself puts it, ‘The word… the language. Is too small’ (p. 195), unable to encompass the experience of absolute freedom, of being ‘everything’ in the new world beyond the colonies. Anna’s appearance as a revolutionary leader, too, makes her seem alien to Vanja – dazzling, more-than-human – while even her lover Nina, once she has joined the revolution, seems physically too much for her, as if ‘her body had become too small to contain her’ (p. 214). Instead of melding with one another, as some of the colonists do (a father, for instance, melds with the daughter he slapped, as if in homage to Vanja’s complex relationship with her own father), the lovers scorch each others’ lips when they kiss for the last time in the novel: ‘They burned. Blisters formed where their tongues met’ (p. 214). Even before this, the women’s relationship has often been painful, fraught with misunderstandings, punctuated by hurtful exchanges; the kiss may be taken as a metaphor for the nature of their love up until this moment. And at the point when the kiss takes place, Vanja’s tongue has already been disenfranchised from the post-revolutionary world. In punishment for her revolutionary activities, Amatka’s surgeons destroyed her speech centre, which means she will never make herself perfectly understood again, either to her lover or to the organic, sentient gloop out of which the new world will be sculpted. The blisters on her tongue, then, also represent her painful relationship with speech itself, with participatory communication, with membership of the community she has revolutionised. She has been stranded in the past, infantilized, condemned always to be the uncomprehending child who listens to her father’s urgent whispers in the dark. Even the expression of the revolutionaries’ love for her confirms this infantilization: ‘you will remain […] as you are, separate. But we will carry you. […] We will always carry you, little herald’ (p. 216). Few novels have an emotional high point as intense or multivalenced as this.

For me this is the great achievement of Tidbeck’s ambiguous Utopia: that it finds a way to comprehend, to celebrate and to mourn those revolutionaries who are constitutionally ill-fitted for participation in revolution. I suspect there are many such revolutionaries in the world: the fellow travellers who never joined the body of the revolutionary caravan, the non-party members who worked to further the party’s cause, while always uneasy about certain aspects of the doctrine it upheld; the communists who disliked communal living, the anarchists who yearned for order, the many, many partisans who only ever wanted peace and quiet. The actors in experimental theatre companies or LARP workshops whose passion for acting competes with their preference for self-effacement. Ambiguity can characterize one’s attitude to what one passionately believes in. Perhaps it always should. And there is no genre in which that idea could be better articulated than the weird hybrid of science fiction, fantasy, nonsense, fairy tale, surrealism and Live Action Role Play that comprises Amatka.

NOTES

[1] The interview can be found here.

[2] Tidbeck describes the process of writing Amatka in an interview for The Beat Blog, here. The process of writing The Memory Theatre is detailed in the BOMB magazine interview (see footnote 1).

[3] All quotations from Amatka are taken from the Vintage Books edition of 2017.

[4] ‘As for language, I have always been enamored with different languages and the musical sound of words. Language is what makes the world, it changes how we see the world; in the novel, language and sound are pure magic. I’ve studied six languages all in all, so the love for languages will always be threaded through my writing.’ https://bombmagazine.org/articles/karin-tidbeck-interviewed/

[5] Jagannath (New York: Vintage, 2018), ‘Afterword: Transposing Worlds’, p. 152. All quotes from Jagannath refer to this edition.

[6] Other clothes that don’t fit include the outsized medical overalls Vanja borrows from the hospital supplies (as her friend Nina comments, ‘The important thing is they’re not tight across your bottom. That could make lifting patients embarrassing’ [p. 48]). The dissident librarian Evgen meets Vanja at one point ‘buttoned into an enormous overcoat with a thick collar’ (p. 106), as if to hide his radical tendencies from hostile eyes, while surgically damaged political prisoners wear ‘torn and dirty overalls’, as if to reinforce their outcast status (p. 115). Ivar expresses his sense of having been betrayed by his community by removing his outer clothes and setting himself adrift in a freezing lake. Proximity to your friends, meanwhile, gets expressed in Amatka through intimacy with their clothing. After Ivar’s suicide his best friend Nina wears one of his sweaters and sleeps in his bed, face buried in his pillow (p. 162), thereby prolonging his presence in her life beyond his death; and before this Vanja finds solace when she is separated from her lover by ‘resting her nose on the sleeve of her sleep shirt’ and breathing in ‘the scent it had absorbed from Nina’ (p. 103). Clothes conceal and protect, in other words, but they also reinforce deep connections between their wearers.

[7] Jagannath, Afterword, p. 154.

[8] The mention of Lagerlöf’s novel can be found in The Memory Theater (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021) at p. 135.

[9] ‘The Swedish [version of Amatka] has no metaphors, or synonyms, or homonyms, because it’s not part of the Swedish language. Since they were “forbidden” in the book, I had to write them out of the [English] prose as well.’ (I may have misunderstood this statement of Tidbeck’s!) https://www.comicsbeat.com/sdcc-17-interview-author-karin-tidbeck-uncovers-the-dreamlike-storyline-of-amatka/.

[10] See the ‘Edict: Name Usage’, Amatka, p. 199.

[11] Jagannath, pp. 113-124.

[12] Jagannath, pp. 125-133.

[13] The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll (London: Chancellor Press, 1986), p. 69.

[14] Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home (London etc.: Grafton Books, 1988), p. 154.

[15] Ursula K. Le Guin, Hainish Novels and Stories, ed. Brian Attebery, The Library of America, 2 vols. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2017), vol. 1, p. 613.

[16] See Le Guin, Hainish Novels, vol 1, pp. 640-641.

Where Even Trees May Speak Their Minds: As You Like It

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve begun to deposit them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the third, and the topic seems appropriate for LGBTQI+ month here in the UK.]

Jack Laskey as Rosalind and Nadia Nadarajah as Celia in the 2009 Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s magical plays. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream the bulk of its action takes place in a forest; and like Prsopero’s island in The Tempest the forest can be what you will, assuming a different shape for each mortal that stumbles into it. The forest of the play, then, mimics the stage. It can suddenly shift location, becoming the English forest of Arden or the Belgian forest of Ardenne, freely mingling Mediterranean palms and olive trees with northern blackthorn and bramble, populating itself with European stags and Asiatic lionesses, English shepherds and Greek shepherdesses. In the forest you can dress as you like: girls as boys, Dukes as outlaws, courtiers as farmers, and everyone as a lover, however foolish, ugly, wicked, old, or cynical. The forest, then, is less like the world as it is than the world as it never can be. But it invokes too the desire to ‘Cleanse the foul body of the infected world’ beyond the limits of its magic circle, and for this reason this comedy has seemed to many commentators to be something much more substantial than a theatrical firework display or a sylvan love-feast.

The play begins in a land ruled by a tyrant, Duke Frederick, who has usurped the throne of his elder brother, and lives in paranoid fear of falling victim to a similar betrayal. In his dukedom free speech is impossible, as it sometimes was in the England of Elizabeth I: in 1599, for instance, when As You Like It was being written, the Bishops of the Church of England burned a number of offensive books in central London, including satires and erotic poems by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. Banishing Rosalind, the daughter of his elder brother, Duke Frederick tells his own daughter Celia not to ‘open […] thy lips’ to defend her, despite their friendship. In the previous scene one of his courtiers warns young Orlando that the Duke has taken an equally unreasonable dislike to him, but that the courtier dare not say so openly: ‘What he is indeed / More suits you to conceive than I to speak of’. Yet even in this oppressive atmosphere the Duke’s subjects dream of a ‘better world than this’, as the courtier puts it. Celia and Rosalind preserve their friendship despite the bad blood between their fathers; and everyone knows that the old Duke lives in the nearby forest ‘like the old Robin Hood of England’, where he ‘fleets the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world’. So it’s to the forest that Celia and Rosalind flee with the jester Touchstone after Rosalind’s banishment; and Orlando flees there too with his servant Adam, as if in a bid to find some sort of Eden in Arden, a place where the hand of tyranny cannot touch them.

John Edmund Buckley, Touchstone, Silvius and Phoebe (1864)

What they find in the forest is free speech, and a measure of egalitarianism. Exile has made the old Duke philosophical, and everyone in his vicinity may speak their minds, even the trees (he sees ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything’). Unlike Duke Frederick, Duke Senior encourages anti-authoritarian satire; he even has a pet satirist, the traveller Jaques, who tells him off for every act that smacks of despotism. Later the Duke takes equal pleasure in the impudent banter of a boy named Ganymede, who tells him he is as well-born as he is (which is true, since Ganymede is really Duke Senior’s runaway daughter Rosalind in disguise). He is equally disposed to like the jester Touchstone, whose patchwork costume or ‘motley’ grants him liberty to mock whom he pleases, regardless of rank. And these are only three of the free-speakers who populate the woods where the old Duke dwells. The shepherd Corin can hold his own against any courtier in defence of his profession; the shepherdess Audrey, the shepherd William and the hedge-priest Oliver Martext each possesses their dignity, despite the mockery of the ruling classes; and the shepherd Silvius is enlisted in the final act as spokesman for all the lovers in the play, whatever their station.

Arthur Hughes, Rosalind (1872-3)

But the most remarkable free speaker in the forest is the boy-girl Rosalind/Ganymede, who meets her lover Orlando, finds that he does not recognise her as the woman he dotes on, and initiates a game which changes the direction of the play. Since Orlando misses Rosalind, Ganymede ‘pretends’ to be her, seeking to disabuse him of the absurd fantasies about women that were common currency among Elizabethan males. The charm and wit with which he does so seems to spread the benign infection of love throughout the forest. The shepherdess Phoebe promptly falls for Ganymede, Celia for Orlando’s brother Oliver, and Touchstone for the bashful Audrey, while Silvius takes his old love for Phoebe to giddy new heights. As this happens, satire gives way to love as the dominant mode of the comedy. Love-songs take over from songs of betrayal and exile, and lovers become the most eloquent of the foresters, sweeping aside all social inequalities in their willingness to serve one another, and finally rendering the satirist Jaques redundant.

At the end of the play, Ganymede turns magician. Using a spell he learned from an imaginary wizard uncle – invented by Rosalind as a background for her male persona – he finds a way to join the play’s lovers together in a quadruple wedding by changing himself from boy to girl, from Ganymede to Rosalind, with the help of the great god Hymen. As he casts his spell, Duke Frederick wanders into the forest and sloughs off his tyranny like a serpent shedding its skin. Love conquers all, then, in this play, with an efficiency that satirists can only dream of. And at the end of the play, the newly feminized Rosalind turns to the audience and invites them to join the magic circle of love by applauding the actors’ efforts, spurred on by their liking for this boy-girl who has made herself attractive to all genders. It would be a hardened cynic indeed who did not respond to her invitation, and discover in the process that the free-speakers of Arden had subtly changed his/her/their outlook.

2022 Delacorte Theatre production, Central Park

Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark

The Hogsback, Sark. British commandos landed here twice in the Second World War.

[I’d like to start with a shout-out to Dr Taylor Driggers, whose work in general, and in particular his brilliant first book, Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature, Perspectives on Fantasy (London etc. : Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), opened my eyes to new dimensions of the fantastic. His book should be the first port of call for anyone looking at fantasy, queerness and Christianity.]

In my last post I wrote about my recent visit to the island of Sark, in a quest to understand Mervyn Peake’s fascination with this inhabited rock in the English Channel. As I wrote, an idea began to dawn on me, largely in response to Jane Norwich’s book about the Sark Art Group to which Peake belonged, Inspired by Sark (2022).[1] I wondered if he thought of Sark as representing an escape from the rules that bound him on the British mainland, in particular the rules that governed sexuality and gender. Sark as an escape of any kind, of course, was really a Sark of the imagination – a fantastical Sark – and I think this became very clear to him as he spent time on the island, first in the inter-war years when the Art Group briefly flourished as a hothouse of idealistic optimism, and later when he returned after the war to find the community changed by suffering and the landscape transformed by the impact of the German occupation. At the same time, Peake’s dream of an alternative Sark in which the rules of sexuality and gender were relaxed or re-examined remained with him, I think, and helped to shape his novels, not least the only novel he set on Sark itself, the quirkily disturbing Mr Pye. I should stress that this is conjecture, but it’s built on what I think are solid foundations, and this post will expose those foundations as best it can.

Hovering in the background as I write is John Donne’s famous Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1623). The most familiar part of this contemplative passage is, perhaps, the opening sentence: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main’. As a man of his time and of his own particular strand of education, Peake is likely to have known this piece well. He attended a school for the sons of missionaries, and was clearly fascinated by early modern literature, which finds echoes throughout his work, from the quasi-Jacobean blank verse spoken by Earl Sepulchrave in Titus Groan – and the quotation from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that opens it – to his experiments with the sonnet form (such as his early poem on the sixteenth-century painter El Greco) and the Elizabethan-style verse dramas he wrote in the 1950s.[2]

Sea Rocks near Creux Harbour, Sark

Meditation 17 runs like this:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I mentioned in my previous post that an early version of Mr Pye ends with the missionary’s death, and it seems to me that Donne’s meditation could fittingly be used to provide a commentary on that earlier ending. In that version of the novel, the missionary is driven from the island in the end, like James Whale’s creature in the movie Frankenstein (1931), as a monster and an outcast; but his death does not purge the islanders of their kinship with him, according to Donne’s text. Sark could easily be described as a clod washed out to sea from the continent of Europe, and Mr Pye could in turn be seen as an adopted ‘Son of Sark’, like Peake himself: a smaller clod, whose loss both diminishes the island, rendering it spiritually or at least emotionally bereft, and accentuates his involvement in it – the involvement it sought to undo by hounding him to the edge of a cliff and over it.[3] There is even a ‘manor’ on Sark, as in Donne’s Devotion: the Old Manoir which the Lords of Sark first made their home in the Sixteenth Century, though they no longer live there. If Meditation 17 helps to establish Mr Pye’s death in that early version as confirmation of his fellowship with the islanders, despite their hostility to him, then the disappearance of Mr Pye in the novel’s published state leaves the question of what to make of his kinship to the islanders completely open. Does it affirm his difference from them, or their unacknowledged need for him, since after his removal the island is left ‘suddenly empty, […] nothing but a long wasp-waisted rock’ off the coast of France?[4] Mr Pye’s loss diminishes Sark, and by extension all those who cannot contend with what Mr Pye represents. But what is that, exactly?

As my last blog post explained, Mr Pye arrives on Sark with the intention of converting the islanders to his personal religion: the religion of a pantheistic God he calls the Great Pal, who inheres in everything, from the storm at sea to the porridge at the breakfast table, from the ‘brook that sparkles in the Dixcart valley’ (a tree-filled combe that leads down to the beach close to the Peakes’ house on Mill Road) to the cigarette smoked by Mr Pye’s landlady and friend, the redoubtable Miss Dredger (p. 60). His mission, however, soon turns bizarre. His excessive virtue (or what he sees as his virtue) unexpectedly causes him to sprout a pair of wings, and in his efforts to rid himself of this embarrassment he turns to petty crime. This in turn has the effect of both shrinking the wings and making horns spring from his head; and it’s the horns that turn the islanders against him. The wings and the horns mark him out as different; but this physical difference can also be seen as a demonstration of his underlying links to the local community. He is not simply an angelic missionary, but also that benevolent being’s devilish equivalent, the colonial invader. He is, in fact, a human being, and the principal strangeness about him is his ability to demonstrate his human tendency to contradiction and paradox in a strikingly physical way.

Mr Pye on his way to Sark

From the moment he arrives on the island Mr Pye’s difference from the islanders is marked. Short, plump, urbane and urban, with glasses and a ‘sharp nose, not unlike the beak of a bird’ (p. 10), his appearance and comportment are identified at once by the ticket-sellers and ferry operators as having little resemblance to those of the locals, or indeed to most incomers or tourists. At the same time, he is very ordinary and unthreatening. His paunch accentuates his tendency to self-indulgence – overeating and perhaps inertia – while his smallness underscores his inability to do real harm, despite the fact that small, plump men have disrupted continents (think of Napoleon or Hitler, both of them posers of genuine historical threats to the Channel Islands; Sark is littered with Napoleonic cannons left over from the wars between Britain and France in the early nineteenth century, and Mr Pye sits on one of them late in the book to contemplate his relationship with the islanders). Mr Pye doesn’t look at all dangerous, and it’s only gradually that the Sarkese begin to convince themselves that he represents a danger to them, an invasive threat to their very existence, thanks both to his horns and his angelic-but-alien wings.

What is it, though, that marks out Mr Pye as different when he buys his ferry ticket at the start of the novel, well before anything supernatural attaches itself to him? His urbanity and urbaneness are surely not enough. Nor indeed are his comportment, speech or appearance, since we later learn that there are plenty of other English settlers on the island, as well as characters of equal eccentricity: from the young woman Tintagieu, who claims to have a dolly at home which must be put to bed whenever she doesn’t wish to accept an assignation, to Mrs Rice, who is ‘almost square’ and wears a bizarre straw hat (p. 99). The one thing that marks out Mr Pye as different at this point, it seems to me, is his unabashed campness. Mr Pye shows every sign of being gay, and would have been read as such, I think, by many of Peake’s readers when the book came out. His addiction to fruit-drops makes him ‘the Fruit Drop’ – that’s Tintagieu’s nickname for him – and ‘fruit’ in the 1950s, as now, was a term that could signify gayness. The missionary’s scrupulous care over his own appearance (he has ‘beautifully manicured’ hands, p. 8), his extravagant movements (‘Mr Pye […] joined his hands together beneath his chin, […] stood upon the tips of his toes, and breathed deeply’, p. 11), and his serene indifference to the sexual attractions of the most erotically charged woman on the island, Tintagieu – even when she walks past him naked at dead of night (p. 123ff.) – seem to confirm the assumption. He has a powerful effect on sailors, such as the ‘huge, sour-visaged, red-necked, sea-booted mariner’ of whom he makes a convert (pp. 76-77). He calls his God not father but ‘Pal’, the word a gay man of the 40s or 50s might have used for a lover (and a married woman on Sark, Dorothy La Trobe Bateman, is said to have called her own lover Trevor Blakemore her ‘Great Pal’ in a rather open euphemism).[5] Peake could scarcely have clustered together more signs of Mr Pye’s sexuality without endowing him with a partner of his own.[6]

Tintagieu (r) and the painter Thorpe (l)

One might speculate, in fact, that Tintagieu’s presence on Peake’s Sark is partly designed to draw attention to Mr Pye’s queer alterity. She is said to have slept with so many ‘visitors, residents and locals’ that she has become something of an ‘institution’, her diary so packed with assignations ‘that her inability to accept more than a fraction of the innumerable invitations that were tendered her […] had the paradoxical effect of giving her a reputation for a mad kind of chastity, a crazy, indecipherable coyness, among those who had but recently arrived’ (p. 109). After Mr Pye’s famous picnic, discussed in my previous post, she moves in with him and his landlady Miss Dredger, and eventually becomes his closest friend, the flamboyantly physical counterweight to his inordinate spirituality. There is never any question that he will sleep with her after she moves in; his love for her, as for Miss Dredger, is entirely ‘sexless’ (p. 52). But Tintagieu too, as we’ve seen, has a reputation for a strange kind of sexlessness or ‘chastity’. Like him she is plump, which suggests a shared overindulgence of their sensual appetites; like him she is repeatedly described as ‘innocent’, even childish (as I said earlier, she mentions her ‘dolly’ whenever she wishes to dodge a date she does not want, while Mr Pye’s figure resembles that of a toddler); and neither her innocence nor her chastity is presented as being in any way at odds with her sexual freedom. Both Mr Pye’s sexlessness and Tintagieu’s chastity might be taken to signify their freedom from the heteronormative rules that govern other islanders; a freedom they offer freely to the people of Sark, each in their own distinctive manner.

Mr Pye (l) and Miss George (r)

One of the ways of extending love practised by Mr Pye is to bring the people of Sark together in unexpected combinations. In the first part of the novel the missionary makes friends with two single women, Miss Dredger and Miss George, and invites them to share his home in the name of love (despite the fact that the home in question is in fact Miss Dredger’s). There are numerous indications that both women are queer, especially Miss Dredger, who presents as conventionally masculine, with her cigarettes, her angular appearance, and her quasi-military contempt for any sign of weakness or lack of backbone. Both women hate each other when Mr Pye first meets them, a situation which Miss Dredger describes to Miss George as a ‘long divorce’ (p. 66), but they are quickly reconciled under his paternalistic tutelage. Indeed they take part in a kind of vicarious courtship, which begins when Miss Dredger begins to dream, under Mr Pye’s influence (he has ‘laced her chicken soup with a strong sedative’), of ‘floating over Tunbridge Wells hand-in-hand with Miss George’ (p. 43). The courtship reaches a crescendo when the missionary kisses Miss George’s fingers and tells her the ‘romantic story’ of the stones on the rings she wears (p. 79), then comments on her loneliness and invites her to start ‘a new life of love and endeavour’ (p. 80) with Miss Dredger in her boarding house. After this the two women form a family of choice with Mr Pye, working together to prepare his legendary picnic at Derrible Bay and in the process becoming ‘integrate’, as he calls them – ‘magnificently integrate’ (p. 83) or involved.[7] Again there is nothing sexual about their integration, but the language of marriage used to describe it affirms its opposition to heteronormativity, its resistance to 1950s social and sexual conventions.

Not that sexual conventions are much cherished by the heterosexual inhabitants of the island. Tintagieu’s sexual profligacy necessarily reflects the profligacy of the Sarkese men, and Mr Pye notes less than half way through the novel that the islanders are perfectly capable of being as promiscuous as she is without admitting it. Having made a careful study of their collective habits, he informs them at the picnic, he has ‘watched, in microcosm, the “world and his wife” go by – and sometimes I have seen, unless I am mistaken, the world go by with someone else’s wife’ (pp. 103-4). Tintagieu’s behaviour is considered outrageous, but is as integral to island life as the distinctive rock from which she takes her name. Meanwhile, Mr Pye’s encouragement of universal love in place of competition or mutual hostility is merely a rigorous application of a principle supposedly central to the islanders’ religious convictions, but which is breached more often than it is observed by most of Sark’s inhabitants. Both Tintagieu and Mr Pye openly advocate things that are either hypocritically denied while being widely practised or hypocritically advocated without being practised at all. The behaviour of these two unconventional figures is in each case an open affirmation of Donne’s insistence that ‘no man is an island’, since everyone shares a more or less equal collection of follies and foibles, each of which requires the participation of their fellow human beings serving either as collaborators or as countervailing foils against which to measure it. Mr Pye’s mission, as he sees it, is to make the islanders understand the ties that bind them – their common humanity and the mutual affection this should encourage. He seeks, in fact, to bring them ‘true joy’ by binding them into the ‘cosmos of love’ (p. 43). But he ends by uniting them against himself as a threatening intruder, his difference from the islanders reinforced by a relapse on their part – partly inspired by Mr Pye’s own internalised theology, as represented by his unruly wings and horns – into the crudest kind of binarism, whereby the world is neatly divided into separate moral units, good and evil, with everyone naturally assuming that they themselves belong in the former category. He seeks to bring love to the island, and instead unites it in a collective outbreak of hate, the homophobic lynching of Mr Pye.

Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark, showing linocut by Alfred Waldron, ‘Actress’

It’s tempting to see this situation as a response to Peake’s experiences with the Sark Art Group in the 1930s. Jane Norwich’s book about the Group, Inspired by Sark, makes it clear how distinctive the artist’s colony must have seemed when its first representatives arrived on the island in 1933. When the newly-built and innovative Gallery building was opened in August of that year, the Guernsey Press announced dramatically that ‘Modernity has come to Sark’, an occasion of note at a time when the island still operated the last feudal system in the British Isles (Inspired by Sark, p. 27). The island’s feudal lord, the Dame of Sark, encouraged the enterprise, but was careful to insist that the building’s design was intended ‘to interfere as little as possible with Sark’s atmosphere of antiquity’ (p. 25). The young artists who displayed their work in the Gallery were not all of them experimental modernists, but they drew suspicion nonetheless from the more traditional Sarkese painters. The elderly landscape artist William Toplis, for instance, ‘frankly admitted that he did not like the modern school’, lumping modernists and the Sark Art Group together in a homogeneous unit – though he was happy to display his paintings alongside theirs when invited to do so (p. 28). Reviewers affirmed that the Group’s exhibitions embodied ‘a world where modernity is the very keynote’ (p. 43), a fact that provoked some reviewers to sarcasm: one summed up the second Group exhibition of 1934 as composed entirely of ‘modern’ pieces, ‘some ultra-modern, even that which has been described as futuristic; like its parallel in music it has its applauders. Certainly, much of the work is decidedly clever and none could be described as commonplace’ (p. 45, my emphasis). The various manifestos for the Group provided by its founders the Drakes, however, emphasized inclusivity rather than cleverness. The prospectus described it as a ‘non-profit-making cooperative’ (p. 16), which suggests an egalitarian Leftist but non-denominational perspective, and the St Ives painter Borlase Smart wrote after the first exhibition at the gallery that ‘The directors do not subscribe to any set theory or school of thought’ (p. 30). Instead, Smart insisted, ‘They are looking for work that has a constructive and integrating significance in modern life’ (p. 30, my emphasis). From the start the Group was more concerned with giving practical support to artists than with telling them what to make or how to make it, and with drawing in the local community rather than with re-educating them; and this emphasis on egalitarian practice as against theory, on the capacity to ‘integrate’ rather than to attach themselves to a specific method, school or philosophy, also reveals itself in Mr Pye’s religious mission to the island.

Eric and Lisel Drake on Sark

As modern, perhaps, as their paintings was the Sark Group’s attitude to sexuality. This could be described, in Mr Pye’s words about Miss Dredger and Miss George, as ‘magnificently integrate’, with a number of queer people joining the cooperative in the course of its brief existence. These included Ala Story, the Viennese gallery director responsible for getting the Sark Group’s work exhibited in London, who was a Lesbian, and Frank Coombs, the gay artist and architect who helped ensure the Sark Art Gallery building remained standing when he spotted flaws in its construction before the exhibition was due to open in 1933.[8] Most flamboyantly queer of all were the artist Alfred ‘Pip’ Waldron and his partner, Alex Gannon, who joined the Group from Birmingham in 1934. Waldron and Gannon, Norwich tells us, never concealed their status as a couple while on the island, and went on to run the Sark Art Group’s activities, first along with the newly appointed manager, Coombs, then by themselves after Coombs left to work with Story in London in 1935. Eric Drake seems to have cultivated a deliberate obtuseness as to his fellow Group members’ sexuality; in a letter to Peter Winnington he insisted that he ‘never tried to probe the relationship’ between Waldron and Gannon, and asserted that Coombs ‘fell for’ the island girl who provided the model for Tintagieu (and of course this is quite possible, despite Coombs’s later relationship with the art critic Eardley Knollys).[9] Overall, though, the Group’s attitude to the body was liberal. They swam naked together from Sark’s beaches, and Eric and Lisel liked to sunbathe naked too, to the surprise of the island postman. Peake seems to have been particularly liberal with his body, sending the same love poems (Malcolm Yorke tells us) to several island women at once, and getting found out pretty quickly.[10] He gained a reputation for painting landscapes in the nude, wearing only a sombrero as protection from the sun, and drew widespread attention with his Bohemian clothes, long hair and piratical earring.[11] Sometimes he wore a cape, like the artist Augustus John or Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. The same habit was later adopted by Mr Pye to conceal the growth of his wings (p. 172), and Mr Pye also took on Peake’s buccaneering aesthetic, donning a bandana ‘in true pirate fashion’ to conceal his horns (p. 205). It’s intriguing to note how Peake’s youthful fashion choices get associated in Mr Pye with the need for camouflage, implying the missionary’s involvement in a running conflict with the islanders’ proneness to suspicion of strangeness and strangers, which necessitates the strategic use of camouflage to protect its ‘commandos’ (Mr Pye’s rather unexpected word for his closest followers and friends) (p. 81).

The Sark Art Gallery

At one point in his time with the Sark Art Group, Peake fell in love with one of his fellow artists, the Bostonian Janice Thompson, and took her home to meet his parents – possibly to gain their approval for his engagement to her. Thompson found the meeting ‘uncomfortable and disappointing’, and went back to Boston not long after.[12] Peake returned to Sark with his hair cut short and his earring missing. Later, Thompson recalled her time on Sark as possessing a distinctive ‘climate’ of its own, making it an island of experiment and exploration circled by seas of drab conformity. From her perspective, as described in her poem ‘The Artists’, the Sark experience involved an attempt to open a succession of ‘entrances and escapes’ from all kinds of restriction with the help of ‘many keys’, an Alice in Wonderland-style abandonment of conventional logic in favour of a multi-faceted vision capable of comprehending ‘An instant’s multiplicity’ and of defining ‘with line and curve / The pride of rock, / The baleful earthen face’, as embodied in the Sark landscape.[13] For Thompson, leaving the island meant a retreat into cramped and sexless domestic spaces full of ‘mole faces’ and ‘threadbare hair’:

Having breathed deeply of too keen an air
We journeyed back to family parlors
Of gas-blue flames in suffocating rows.
A hand bewildered, faltering with a cup
To brush away a crumb
As grey, mole-faces peered from threadbare hair,
Not knowing from what climates we have come.[14]

Peake, too, wrote of Sark and its people as following a different drum, making it a place where ‘Life beat another rhythm’ like a heart quickened by desire:

Life beat another rhythm on that island
As old as her own birth.
We were the island people, and the earth
Sea, sky, and love, were Sark, and Sark, the earth
While round us moved the swarming of the sea.[15]

Both poems associate the island with a closeness to the earth – soil, rocks and the body of the planet itself – and with freedom from the suffocating constraints of the ordinary. It’s tempting to see this as a comment as much on the sexual liberation it afforded as on the artistic experiment to which it gave rise – as much on ‘love’ as on the work the artists did there.

Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature

Peake’s familiarity with the queer culture of the 1930s can be taken for granted, given the fact that he moved in artistic circles in the metropolis. One of his first exhibitions took place at the Black Cat Café in Old Compton Street, London, a well-known meeting place for rent boys and their clients, as Quentin Crisp informs us in his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968).[16] Crisp himself was a friend of Peake’s, who got to know him at one of the many cafés, eateries and bars Crisp frequented in the Second World War, the Bar-B-Q in Chelsea. It was during the war that Crisp acquired a reputation both for brilliant wit (he has been called the Oscar Wilde of the twentieth century) and for considerable personal courage, since he went on parading the streets of the metropolis in defiance of air raid sirens, flying shrapnel and the disapproval of air wardens. Peake illustrated Crisp’s satirical poem, All This and Bevis Too, in 1943, and later made fine illustrations for the poems of Oscar Wilde, using a Chinese brush his father brought back from Hong Kong. It would hardly be surprising, then, if Peake felt comfortable introducing gay characters into his fiction, and one character in the Gormenghast books, Doctor Prunesquallor, has been regularly read as queer. A sheet of drawings from the war years has been found recently which seems to show a love affair between an older and a younger male centaur, riffing on Peake’s depiction of centaurs in his poetry and elsewhere as epitomes of the exuberant male body. Most strikingly of all, his children’s story Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) depicts the evolution of a queer relationship between the titular pirate and a Yellow Creature he finds on a tropical island, whose rock formations mimic the distinctive contours of the Sarkese coastline. After capturing the Yellow Creature with the help of his crew, Captain Slaughterboard gradually loses interest in a pirate’s lifestyle and ends by marooning himself voluntarily with the Creature on the island where he found it, luxuriating in idleness and the Yellow Creature’s cooking. Various commentators have pointed out that the Yellow Creature’s face recalls Peake’s many portraits of his wife, Maeve Gilmore; but its body presents as male, and the pronouns Peake uses for it are either gender neutral (it) or masculine (he/him).[17] In one of the last pictures in the book the Creature seems to be cross-dressing, wearing a skirt while making a meal and smoking a distinctly piratical pipe. Peake is said to have enjoyed dressing up in Maeve’s clothing. The body, male or female, was a thing of beauty, and just as he felt comfortable drawing both male and female figures, so too he seems to have had little difficulty in recognising and accepting the various forms of desire that draw male and female bodies together, in whatever combination happens to answer their present needs. In Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, a tropical version of the Isle of Sark could be read as standing in for a paradise where queer relationships are acknowledged with the same reverence and affection as Peake’s marriage to Maeve.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Tropic’

Besides Crisp, another significant queer presence in Peake’s life was Alfred ‘Pip’ Waldron, his fellow artist in the Sark Art Group. It has been suggested at various times that Mr Pye may have been partly modelled on Waldron: Robjn Cantus speculates as much on his website, Inexpensive Progress (https://inexpensiveprogress.com/4728/alfred-waldron/), but the only evidence he gives is a quotation from Eric Drake, who writes of him that ‘he seemed to live in a world of fantasy that was private to him’.[18] Cantus probably took his speculation from Peter Winnington’s fine biography of Peake, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, which observes that ‘There may be another autobiographical element in Mr Pye’s odd characteristic of sucking his thumb, which recalls Pip Waldron’ (p. 240).[19] Winnington explains this observation in a footnote, where he quotes an unpublished letter from another Sark Group artist, Tony Bridge: ‘[Waldron] used to climb on to Brenda [Streatfield]’s lap (he was very small) and suck his thumb’ (p. 279). Both Winnington and Eric Drake suggest that this habit may have been a result of childhood trauma.[20] Not much more is known about Waldron and his ‘fantasy world’, beyond the fact that he attended the Birmingham Art School, that he and Alex Gannon moved to London after leaving Sark, and that they went on to live in Cheltenham till their deaths. Pip’s linocuts, though, tell us something about his world, and are worth pausing over, given the possible link between Pip and the equally diminutive Mr Pye.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Thou Shalt Not’

For me as for others, the art produced and shown by Waldron while on Sark can be read as a series of striking comments on British sexual politics in the early twentieth century. I saw reproductions of several linocuts by Waldron at the Visitor Centre on the island, and more have been published by Norwich in her book, one of which looks like an open comment on homophobia, as Norwich points out.[21] ‘Thou Shalt Not’ shows a naked man in the foreground raising his arms and shouting furiously at two more naked men, who flee into the shadows. Is he berating them for homoerotic activity, as the biblical title seems to suggest? If so, his gesture of remonstration looks distinctly ironic, since he could be interpreted as displaying his body to them in his fury; indeed, another reading might suggest he is angrily berating the men for their hypocrisy in rejecting the naked male body as a site of same-sex desire. A second linocut, ‘Masque’, shows a woman in a richly patterned dress holding a mask in front of her face with her right hand while looking out of the frame directly at the viewer; her left hand holds a cigarette and rests on a ribbon at her waist. A man and a woman stand in conversation behind her, like an embodiment of heteronormativity. Norwich sees in the woman’s face a resemblance to the Sapphic art director Ala Story, and the picture might be read as a comment on the necessity for Lesbian women to lead a double life – though the woman has no visible partner of any gender. ‘Tropic’ shows a naked young man sprawling backwards under a blazing sun, as if interpreting the tropics of the imagination described by Peake in his short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ – see my previous post – as a state of liberation from sexual judgments and inhibitions of all kinds.[22] ‘Ballet Moon and Cloud’ shows an apparently naked but extravagantly decorated young man holding the hand of a masked female dancer; they are dancing together, not so much as erotic partners as co-performers of femininity. ‘Festoon’ shows two women embracing in a heap of quasi-oriental clothing. Finally, one of Waldron’s most ambitious pictures, another linocut called ‘Husbands and Wives’, shows a group of women and a group of men (with one woman) by a pool, each group totally engrossed in their companions, nobody in either group showing any awareness of the adjacent party; indeed, the thick black trunk of what looks like a palm tree sets a natural barrier between the men and most of the women. Again, the foliage around them looks tropical; did Waldron’s fantasy life on Sark, like Peake’s in ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’, inhabit the tropics? In each case these linocuts may be read as depicting a world that is subject to the rules of heteronormativity, a world where the idea of husbands and wives takes precedence over alternative sexual relationships, even when those alternative relationships dominate the minds of the men and women in question; a world where homoerotic desire is accounted a sin, and where as a result men and women must of necessity be frequently alone if they are to luxuriate in those desires, even in their secret fantasies.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Husbands and Wives’

There is something visionary, it strikes me, about Waldron’s prints. They have a Blakean quality. The shouting man in ‘Thou Shalt Not’, for instance, recalls in his stance one of Blake’s most famous images, ‘Albion Rose’ (1794-1796), sometimes known as ‘The Dance of Albion’ or ‘Glad Day’, which shows a naked young man who stands facing the viewer, his arms and legs spread wide, his face joyful, beams of coloured light radiating from his head and torso. Blake’s print is a thing of glory, as its titles suggest, but the mood of Waldron’s is different. The man seems older, his body more gaunt, it turns away from the viewer as if in shame or anger, and instead of rays of coloured light it is framed in darkness. ‘Tropic’ is much more positive, with its blazing sun and luxuriating male body, taking advantage of solitude to enjoy itself freely; while ‘Husbands and Wives’ and ‘Masque’ seem to contemplate the needful hypocrisy to which the criminalization of queerness gives rise, the men and women in each picture conforming outwardly to heterosexual norms despite the fact that their interests and desires are so obviously at odds with them. Peake’s Mr Pye, like Waldron, is a Blakean visionary. The message he brings to Sark – as he tells the islanders again and again – concerns love for all, based on Donne’s understanding of the connectedness of all people, or on Blake’s of the connectedness of everything in the universe. Could he have taken up Waldron’s mission to make a statement about hypocrisy and small-mindedness to this isolated population? Could the novel, Mr Pye, chart a movement from potential island-wide unity – an embracing of human affection in all its manifestations – to the reinstatement of petty divisions, unfounded hostilities, and specifically homophobic violence? This would invest the hunting of Mr Pye at the end of the book with the disturbing connotations I’ve already touched on. But Quentin Crisp’s biography confirms that homophobic violence was widespread in London between the wars; and the death camps of Nazi Germany represented, among other things, the worst excesses to which such violence could extend.[23] What happens to Peake’s novel, then, if we read it using the queer lens provided by Pip Waldron’s linocuts and Crisp’s life writing?

William Blake, ‘The Dance of Albion’

Waldron’s most ambitious project was an illustrated edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, most famously translated by Edward Fitzgerald (the book was never published). The Rubaiyat was represented by Fitzgerald as a manifesto for religious scepticism, with the poet enjoining his lover to forgo bodily restraint in favour of a hedonistic embracing of food, drink and sex while the opportunity presents itself – the old carpe diem theme. In one of the images from Waldron’s sequence, Omar Khayyam 2 (see end of post), four women mourn over the dead body of a young man – who has a wound in his side reminiscent of the wound inflicted on Christ’s crucified body by a soldier’s spear – while in the background women embrace and chase one another while young men stroll by with arms draped across each other’s shoulders. In another, Omar Khayyam 1 (see below), a masked young man and a woman dance surrounded by older spectators. Two of the spectators are naked, the third is clothed. One male spectator reads from a book, his right hand raised in the attitude of a preacher; another turns away from the dancers with his hands joined as if in prayer. These two are grouped together in the left foreground, as if both belong to the same hypocritical religious sect (hypocritical because the preaching spectator is suggestively unclothed and has his attention fixed on the dancers, while the kneeling spectator has positioned himself right in front of the theatrical floodlights, like another performer). On the right side of the picture a person with a scythe (I think a man, though I’m not certain) gazes at the dancers’ performance with what looks like rapt appreciation. He is smiling and touching his chin as if in thought. Is this scythe-person Death, and is s/he pleased that the dancers are acknowledging his/her imminence by seizing the day? Death’s traditional hood is pushed back to expose not only a living human face but a healthy body, very different from the skeletal bodies favoured by Holbein in his series of woodcuts The Dance of Death. In conjunction with the biblical title of Thou Shalt Not – which echoes the opening phrase of the Ten Commandments – Waldron’s Khayyam project looks like a Blakean rejection of Christian sexual puritanism, because such puritanism invites imprecations and aggression against those who practise or advocate sex in its less acceptable forms (hence the young martyr in the foreground of Omar Khayyam 2). It could be read, indeed, as the work of a visionary atheist or agnostic, disgusted by the hypocrisy of latter-day Pharisees, who happily practise sexual infidelity (Mr Pye claims to have seen ‘the world go by with someone else’s wife’) while repudiating any form of illegal sex they claim not to practise.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Omar Khayyam 1’

Crisp’s biography, meanwhile, includes a number of intriguing references to religion. There is the fact that Crisp presents himself in his naïve youth as a self-styled ‘missionary’ for homosexuality, whose flamboyant self-display is designed to make a place in the world – and more particularly in London – for camp gay men. ‘My outlook was so limited’, he explains in his third chapter, ‘that I assumed all deviates were openly despised and rejected’ (p. 33). In response to this perception, he resolved to embark on a career of dramatic protest on behalf of ‘all deviates’, wearing makeup at a time when it was frowned upon even for women to wear it, growing his hair and fingernails long, and cultivating an exaggeratedly ‘feminine’ walk which drew the attention of passers-by more effectively than any words of protest he could utter (pp. 49-50). Such were his means of pursuing his mission, and he concentrated these activities not on the West End or Soho, where they would barely be noticed, but on the world beyond: ‘the rest of England was straightforward missionary country. It was densely populated by aborigines who had never heard of homosexuality and who, when they did, became frightened and angry. I went to work on them’ (p. 33). Later, Crisp tells us he took on a job as commercial artist not so much to earn money as from an ‘evangelical zeal’ to win from the heterosexual world ‘acceptance as a homosexual’ (p. 74). His religion was not Christian – he had ‘withdrawn [his] ambassadors’ from God’s ‘territory’ at the age of fifteen – but involved a generous extension of the key Christian concept of ‘love’, a word, he tells us, ‘about whose meaning there seemed to be some ambiguity’ (p. 119). ‘Often during this period of my life’, he writes,

to the embarrassment of my hearers, I claimed that my whole existence was love. I meant that I was trying never to close my hand against anyone – even the unlovable (in dealing with whom I was having a great deal of practice). I would have placed at anyone’s disposal my meagre resources of money or advice or concern. Sometimes I fancied that all the elements of a golden age of universal well-wishing were already known and would become instantly effective when […] some genius combined them in the right order. I was always delighted with the slightest break-through in this field. (p. 119)

Crisp’s objective, in other words, was to work towards the ushering-in of a new ‘golden age’ in human relationships, when human beings embraced one another regardless of sexuality, gender, appearance, class, and so on. He adds, a little later on, that owing to his extravagant sexual fantasies and enjoyment of auto-eroticism he had always found sexual acts with other people unsatisfactory, and as a consequence ‘had severed the connection between sex and love’ (p. 121). His love resembles Mr Pye’s in its sexlessness, although unlike Mr Pye he was perfectly happy to engage in sex when the opportunity arose.

Quentin Crisp photographed by Angus McBean (1941)

It was around this ‘period’ of Crisp’s life that he collaborated with Mervyn Peake on his pamphlet, All This and Bevin Too (1943), a satirical poem for which Peake drew the pictures.[24] The poem itself offers something of an insight into both men’s state of mind in the middle of the Second World War. It describes the frustrated efforts of a melancholy kangaroo to offer his services to the Zoo, where he finds himself repeatedly rejected as a conscript despite the many notices posted everywhere by the Zoo’s management insisting that kangaroos are urgently wanted. Crisp was rejected by the army on account of his open homosexuality, while for years Peake’s efforts to be taken on by the state-sponsored War Artist’s Commission were frustrated, while his own time as a conscript served only to demonstrate his utter unsuitability for the army, ending in a seemingly inevitable breakdown and discharge. The kangaroo, too, finds his place in the Zoo usurped by a horse, while he himself is trained in the equine art of pulling a cart – only to fail once again to be accepted by the Zoo after completing his training. The story would be a bleak one if it were not for the utopian community of friends who help the kangaroo in his efforts to get suitable employment. A monkey lends him a hat to improve his appearance, a cat helps him fill out an impenetrable employment form, and so many other people and animals support him that he throws them a slap-up feast in gratitude, using all available ration tokens. The feast goes magnificently, despite the fact that again one animal is masquerading as another (the lamb chop is made of horse meat; the war effort, in Crisp’s eyes, is predicated on the need for ersatz substitutes). The kangaroo ends as he started, unemployed and miserable (Crisp tells us he was suicidal after being rejected by the army, since he could see no prospect of employment for the rest of the war). But the sense that he’s still part of a supportive community is reinforced by his final exchange with the poet, presumably Crisp himself, which is recorded with obvious sympathy and enlists both Crisp and the reader in the utopian chosen family that sought to alleviate the kangaroo’s problems throughout the narrative. The golden age may not be imminent in Crisp’s poem, but there are signs of a definite ‘break-through in the field’. Peake’s situation, meanwhile, as an artist who had suffered a breakdown, was not much better than Crisp’s in 1943, though he had in fact found employment as a War Artist thanks to his friendship with the head of the War Artist’s Commission, Kenneth Clark. In his readiness to work alongside Crisp, Peake was part of Crisp’s support group, just as Crisp (who gave Peake wartime employment as an illustrator) was part of Peake’s.

It’s quite possible that Peake knew about Crisp’s ‘mission’ of spreading sexual tolerance and love; after all, Crisp himself acknowledges his delight in talking about himself in cafés and bars like the one in which he met the writer-artist. Not only does Mr Pye’s aim as a missionary who wishes to convert an island to a religion of love resemble Crisp’s, while his theatrical flamboyance echoes that of the controversial London character, but the role of Mr Pye’s own chosen family in supporting him against a hostile environment – Miss Dredger, Miss George (before he alienates her), the painter Thorpe and the girl Tintagieu – recalls that of the kangaroo in All This and Bevin Too. Mr Pye’s religious mission catches resonance, too, from Alfred Waldron’s pictorial campaign against Christian hypocrisy, while his smallness, his difference from the other islanders, and his habit of sucking his thumb align him with Waldron himself. Even Mr Pye’s supposed sexlessness finds a philosophical prop in Crisp’s statement that he had succeeded, by the time Peake met him, in separating sex from love. And Mr Pye’s arrogance – his lust for conquest, as expressed in his desire to convert a self-contained territory into the utopia or golden age of his heart’s desire, or in his insistence that he knows what’s best for Miss George – recalls Crisp’s confession at the end of his autobiography that ‘Power was what I craved most ravenously’, and that he ‘wanted dominion over others in order to redress the balance’; as partial recompense, that is, for the powerlessness to which he had been so often consigned by his ‘deviate’ status (p. 222).

Crisp’s autobiography, for all its occasional recourse to a religious vocabulary, resists the temptation to sum itself up with some sort of moral. ‘I know,’ he writes, ‘that on no account must I point a moral or trace a pattern through my past’; this is a sign of his subscription to the ‘modern manner’ (p. 220); and he adds, ‘I clearly see that my life was only an imprudent dash between the cradle and the tomb across open country and under fire’ (p. 220). Apart from anything else, the person who writes is ‘still changing – still in doubt’ (p. 222), which means that any retrospectively imposed moral or pattern will be necessarily incomplete. Mr Pye, too, invokes religious vocabulary, but ends by rejecting any attempt at a moral conclusion. The protagonist grows wings and horns in response to his good and evil actions – or what he perceives as his good and evil actions; his good actions are not always good, his evil actions in many cases barely worthy of the name. And as the book goes on, the moral associations with each bodily eruption grow steadily less certain. The appearance of Mr Pye’s wings coincides with a new sense of alienation from his God, as he ceases to be able to talk with Him – something he claims to have been able to do throughout his life. As a result, it also brings with it a sense of all-encompassing loneliness, of being cut off not only from the mortal friends to whom he is closest but from the spiritual conversation he formerly cherished, and hence from the evangelical narrative of which he felt himself to be part. In the days before the wings’ appearance, Miss George refused point blank to be made a symbol of Mr Pye’s faith; and her lowering down the chimney could be said to mark the failure of religious symbolism itself, a failure reinforced by the uncertain status of those ‘crisp, forceful little feathers’ on her tormentor’s back. Later Mr Pye himself refuses to become a symbol of his own religion, reluctant to display his wings to the world as a mark of God’s favour for fear of being treated like a circus freak (p. 137). In the process Mr Pye divorces himself from his lifelong mission or narrative or purpose for the very first time. The appearance of his wings, which might have been taken to confirm his saintly identity, instead makes him question that identity, and with it the narrative to which he has always sought to conform. But what is there to replace it, apart from the drab narrative of failure, exile and a lonely death?

Mr Pye in Camouflage

Mr Pye conceals his wings under a voluminous cape (p. 148), and when his horns begin to grow he hides them under a bandana (p. 205), a Basque beret (p. 209), and a Panama hat (p. 220). For a time, at least, he exists in a state of camouflage, his abnormal body hidden away from view, only his increasingly bizarre behaviour offering clues to the mental and physical anguish he is suffering. He closets himself repeatedly, locking himself in his room at Miss Dredger’s house to examine his growing wings, concealing himself in the island prison when the people of Sark turn against him. His closest friend, by the end of the novel, is Tintagieu, who is famous throughout the island as a rebel against the laws of sexual constraint. His closeness to Tintagieu at the end suggests that she somehow understands him, and Tintagieu’s chosen area of expertise suggests that she understands him because she sees his torment as in some way linked to sexual desire. Tintagieu’s body strains at the seams of her tight-fitting dress, just as Mr Pye’s wings and horns strain at the items he uses to bind them: cape, bandana, beret or hat. Tintagieu’s willingness to walk naked along the roads of Sark may even have given Mr Pye the courage, in the end, to bare himself, to display his horns to the islanders at the annual cattle show, come what may; he certainly approves of her nakedness when he sees her walking past his gate in the early morning (‘It is right,’ he tells her, ‘Absolutely right’, p. 123). And it is Tintagieu who seeks to reconcile him, after he bares himself, to her fellow islanders, insisting that his horns are no more threatening than the horns of the nearby cattle (p. 240). They belong to his body, and have no necessary symbolic significance. The Sarkese woman and Mr Pye, in other words, seek at the end against all hope to advance the golden world of tolerance and mutual affection advocated by Crisp, only to be met with the kind of violence Crisp encountered all too often on the streets of London.

There’s a curious moment at the culmination of the novel, as Mr Pye finds himself pursued by a mob of islanders baying for his blood, when the missionary draws a final, sharp distinction between his mysteriously sprouting body and the discourse of Christianity that might be used to explain it. Just as he is about to make his final leap from the precipitous Coupée, the missionary enters a state of unearthly calm. He sits ‘perfectly upright, yet perfectly relaxed’ on the seat of the carriage that carries him, then symbolically detaches himself from his God: ‘As the ground began to dip,’ Peake tells us, ‘he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his maker. “Oh, catch it if you care to,”, he cried, and he beat his wings in an earthless exultation’ (p. 253). The result is that it’s Mr Pye’s body only – his body and mind – that makes the great leap into space from the narrow isthmus that links Great Sark to Little Sark. This implies, perhaps, that the Christian narrative he has cleaved to so far has no place, as yet, for a body or mind like his. He does not, in response, reject the narrative altogether – he tosses his soul, after all, to the being he sees as his maker – but he recognises all the same that Christian theology cannot embrace his kind of difference at this point in its history. It’s noteworthy that he asks if the Great Pal might care to catch his soul, not if he can do so, as one might expect (‘catch me if you can’ being the phrase his last words seem to echo), and caring is, of course, another term for the ‘love’ Mr Pye has preached throughout his time on Sark (it shares the same root as ‘charity’, from Latin caritas, love). Like Quentin Crisp, in other words, Mr Pye seems to understand that the word ‘love’ as used by Christians is not yet capacious enough to include queer folk like himself. The recent controversy over same-sex marriage in the Anglican Church suggests that it still hasn’t found a way to achieve that capaciousness. Until it does, the queer community must find its own way to the ‘earthless exultation’ experienced by the little missionary.

Colin Moss, ‘Camouflaged Cooling-Towers’ (1943)

I’ve mentioned camouflage several times in the course of this post, and I want to end with some thoughts on camouflage in relation to art, and in particular the Sark Art Group. The Group didn’t last long; founded in 1933, all its main members had left the island by 1938, so that when Maeve Gilmore and her husband Peake arrived on Sark for a holiday in the summer of that year, ‘the gallery was closed and Eric Drake and his artists were nowhere to be seen’ (p. 66). During the war, as Norwich tells us, a remarkable number of the Group’s artists went to work with the Camouflage Directorate at Leamington Spa; these included Eric Drake, Pip Waldron, Guy Malet, Leon Underwood and about eight others. It’s satisfying to think of Waldron, with his passion for human masks, providing masks for inanimate objects in support of the Allied cause. The artists’ responsibilities included disguising airfields, storage sites, military vehicles, ships, factories and other industrial locations, as well as playing a major role in preparations for Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings) – making model tanks, among other things, to mislead the German forces. When, a few years after the war, Ralph Thomas filmed a war movie called Appointment with Venus (1951) on Sark – about a daring raid to snatch a prize cow called Venus from the island, under the nose of the occupying Nazis – the artist figure Lionel Fallaize, played by Kenneth More, is recruited to camouflage a cow to serve as stand-in for the bovine protagonist. It’s hard not to see this as a witty reference to the work of the Sark Art Group artists in the Second World War.

Kenneth More camouflaged as an artist in Appointment with Venus (1951), Sark in background

Quentin Crisp, too, contemplated offering his services to the Camouflage Directorate, but concluded that his gifts lay elsewhere: ‘My function was rather to render what was already clear blindingly obvious’ (p. 117). Crisp’s art is his body, which he decorates and parades about the streets in a bid to force the city population to recognise and acknowledge what they have always known: that there are queer people in the world and that they have a place in it, or rather many places, since the highly mobile Crisp became in effect one of the sights of London, like the Tower, the Theatre, the Galleries or Westminster Abbey – though unlike these, capable of being seen almost anywhere. His aesthetic armoury – long nails and hair, fabulous clothes, makeup – is the direct opposite of camouflage. The artist Thorpe in Mr Pye, by contrast, cannot make visible the inward vision he is occasionally vouchsafed; it remains concealed within, and his diatribes against the artistic establishment (it is dominated, he claims, by ‘the amateurs, the Philistines, the racketeers, the Jews, the snarling women and the raging queers to whom Soutine is “ever so pretty” and Rembrandt “ever s-so sweet”’, p. 184) only expose his own prejudices, his acute self-consciousness and inward shame at his own inadequacy, all of which make him stammer. He inveighs against ‘the Jews’ without showing any awareness that Chaïm Soutine – an artist he reverences – was Jewish, and died while hiding from the Nazis in occupied France. He inveighs against ‘snarling women’ in the presence of a woman, Tintagieu. And his comment about ‘raging queers’ overlooks the conspicuous queerness of Mr Pye, to whom he is speaking at the time. On the first occasion Thorpe mentioned Mr Pye to Tintagieu, the young woman had said she could tell him ‘some very queer things’ about the little stranger (p. 73); and the marks of queerness accumulate round him as the narrative goes on.

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye and Robin McCaffrey as ‘Tanty’ (Tintagieu) in the BBC series ‘Mr Pye’ (1986)

Some of Mr Pye’s ‘queer things’ are apparent from the very beginning, in his talk (‘the gayest quips and sallies’, p. 75) and his extravagant gestures. But when his body begins to manifest its queerness through wings and horns he at once has recourse, as we’ve seen, to the camouflage of clothing. In the end, though, Mr Pye decides to dispense with concealment. He dons garments of Crisp-like conspicuousness at Miss George’s funeral – a cape, a tropical suit (the tropics again!), a ‘lavender scarf of sensuous silk’, and a Panama hat he refuses to doff in respect for the dead (p. 172). He later tells the deputation of islanders who come to complain of his queer behaviour that he and they must be ‘visible’ to one another, adding that ‘If there is anyone here who is afraid to look me in the eyes – let him be gone’ (p. 194). And he finally exposes his horns for all to see in the aptest of places: the island cattle show. The horns themselves have an obvious sexual connotation, which is helpfully pointed up by one of the island boys, who tells a policeman that Mr Pye is nothing less than ‘old Horny Satan’ (p. 241). Ironically, the policemen sent from Guernsey to arrest him for his self-exposure are themselves entrapped by Tintagieu in her cottage, where ‘she had heated their blood and then locked them in’ (p. 242); in other words they are no less ‘Horny’ than the man they came to arrest. Mr Pye’s self-exposure exposes the islanders in all their hypocrisy, outing them, as Thorpe outs himself, as prey to a thousand prejudices, and thus rendering what was already clear, as Crisp puts it, ‘blindingly obvious’. Mr Pye, in other words, moves from confident self-display in his capacity as a missionary, to a desperate use of camouflage to conceal his otherness, to a courageous emergence from his carefully constructed closet.

In the process Mr Pye creates a work of art. His intention when he came to Sark, as he tells the islanders, was ‘upon a small canvas […] to complete a picture to its last brush-stroke’ (p. 198), and he went about his work with ‘meticulous artistry’ (p. 45). But by the end of the book he has become a work of art himself. His wings make him look like a cherub from a Raphael painting; his horns invoke a ‘superb piece of drawing’ accomplished with ‘two sweeps of a Chinese brush – spontaneous, fierce and inevitable’ (p. 225); while his last scene, as he dashes by night to his doom at the Coupée, conjures up images from the most lurid pictures of Gustave Doré or John Martin, or the movies of Fritz Lang and the great James Whale. He has moved, in fact, from the position of the optimistic artists of the Sark Art Group, who brought modernity to the Channel islands in the 1930s, to the position those artists adopted in support of the war effort – experimenting with different kinds of camouflage – and at last to the conspicuous bodily display of that artist-cum-missionary for the golden age of queer liberation, Quentin Crisp. In the process, Mr Pye comes to embody some of the most potent dreams and influences of imaginative artists in the mid-twentieth century. And his embodiment of those dreams and influences arises from the rich, strange web of associations flung out by the little book in which Peake caught him.

I hope that by tracing some of the strands of that strange web I have begun to make a case for its richness.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Omar Khayyam 2’

POSTCRIPT

It’s important to point out, I think, that Thorpe’s anti-Semitic remark about art being ‘in the hands of the Jews’ didn’t go unchallenged when Mr Pye came out in 1953. When Peake wrote to the screenwriter Norman Hudis asking for help in having the book made into a film, Hudis replied that he would do what he could, and that he liked the book, but that there was one thing in it that jarred:

I couldn’t understand why you found it necessary to put into Thorpe’s mouth the conviction that art is “in the hands of the Jews”. Apart from the fact that per se, this is not true, the context in which it is placed leads to an assumption that this would be an evil state of affairs. I am always disturbed to find this kind of statement in a book or story – especially as, in this case, it seems to have been introduced gratuitously. The remark is so casual that, especially in a book like “Mr Pye” – essentially unworldly for me – it stands out as the kind of thing which strengthens any existing prejudice in the reader and plants the horrid seed in minds which may be free of such prejudice.

(Letter of October 8 1953, Peake Archive, British Library)

Hudis makes  his point with admirable tact and firmness, and it’s clearly right; Thorpe’s comments run horribly against the grain of the book’s overall tone, and although I have suggested that they are meant to be taken as evidence of the artist’s rudeness and stupidity, to include them at all was a bad mistake under any circumstances; all the more so given Peake’s own deep admiration of Jewish artists such as Jacob Epstein, Mané Katz and Chaïm Soutine (for which, see my discussion here).

NOTES

[1] Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark: The Story of the Sark Art Group (Market Harborough: Matador, 2022).

[2] I’ve written about the various echoes in Peake’s poetry, many of them Elizabethan, in my introduction to his Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 10-11.

[3] For Peake as an honorary islander, see Stephen Foote’s little book Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer Publishing, 2019).

[4] Mervyn Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 254. All quotations are taken from this edition.

[5] See Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 21, 124, 164-5.

[6] The character from whom he derives his name – ‘Mr Pye’ in Agatha Christie’s novel The Moving Finger (1942) – is similarly coded as gay, being described as ‘an extremely ladylike plump little man’ who delights in his collection of Dresden shepherdesses. The Moving Finger, http://detective.gumer.info/anto/christie_25_2.pdf, p. 28.

[7] For a discussion of the ‘family of choice’ or chosen family, see Brian Heaphy, Jeffrey Weeks and Catherine Donovan, ‘Narratives of Care, Love and Commitment: AIDS/HIV and Non-Heterosexual Family Formations’, in Peter Aggleton, Peter Davies and Graham Hart (eds.), Families and Communities Responding to AIDS (London: UCL Press, 1999), pp. 67-82

[8] Ala Story was married to Neville V. O. Story in 1930, but her lifetime partner was Margaret Mallory; for her biography, see Norwich […], and Burcu Dogramaci, ‘Transmetropolitan Refernces in the Metromod Archive: Ala Story in London and New York’, Metromod 19.09.2021, which can be found here: https://metromod.net/2021/09/19/transmetropolitan-references-in-the-metromod-archive-ala-story-in-london-and-new-york/.  Frank Coombs, meanwhile, became the partner of the painter Eardley Knollys (see Norwich, p. 135) on his return to London from Sark.

[9] G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (Londond and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 85.

[10] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold: A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 65.

[11] For the sombrero rumour see Yorke, Mervyn Peake, p. 65.

[12] Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 39.

[13] Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 40.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 70.

[16] Strictly speaking the café was called ‘Au Chat Noir’, but Crisp tells us the boys on the game ‘were not putting up with any such nonsense’. The Naked Civil Servant (London etc.: Harper Perennial, 2007), pp. 27-8. For Peake’s exhibition, with two other artists, see G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, pp. 71-2.

[17] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 130.

[18] Cantus here seems to be quoting Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 85.

[19] See Mr Pye, p. 129: ‘She opened the door quietly, and there he was, curled up like a child, his thumb in his mouth and his sharp nose lying along the pillow’.

[20] Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 85.

[21] Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 38.

[22] ‘I Bought a Palm-Tree’ can be found in Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2011), pp. 103-109.

[23] See Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, p. 67ff.

[24] My copy was reprinted by the Mervyn Peake Society in 1978.