Night Scenes in Peake and Masefield

One of the most memorable moments in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1950) comes when the banished servant Flay returns to the castle in secret to continue his faithful vigil over its masters, the Groan family, and above all the young heir to the castle, Titus Groan. At one point in his nocturnal wanderings through abandoned halls and empty corridors, Flay comes across a ‘small cloistered quadrangle’ (p. 639), in the middle of which grows a thorn tree whose silhouette strikes him as strange.[1] Gradually, as the dawn begins to break, he begins to understand the reason for this strangeness. The tree conceals the figure of Steerpike, Gormenghast’s Master of Ritual and (in Flay’s view) the deadliest enemy of the House of Groan. Flay’s discovery of Steerpike leads first to Steerpike’s exposure as a murderer (he has hidden the skeletons of Titus’s two aunts in a forgotten room where he can gloat over them) and afterwards to Flay’s own death. The passage in which he finds him, then, is a turning point in the novel, and deserves to be quoted in full as a masterpiece of atmospheric writing.

Here it is:

In the centre of the quadrangle was a thorn tree, and [Flay’s] eyes turned to the pitchy silhouette of that part of it that cut across the yellow of the sunrise. His familiarity with the shape of the old tree caused him to stare more intently at the rough and branching stem. It seemed thicker than usual. He could only see with any clarity that portion of its bole that crossed the sunrise. It appeared to have changed its outline. It was as though something were leaning against it and adding a little to its bulk. He crouched so that still more of the unfamiliar shape came into view, for the upper part was criss-crossed with branches. As his vision was lowered and he commanded a clearer view beneath the overhanging boughs his muscles became tense for it seemed that against the livid strip of sky – which threw everything else both on the earth and in the air into yet richer blackness – it seemed – that against this livid strip the unfamiliar outline on the left of the stem was narrowing to something the shape of a neck. He got silently to his knee and then, lowering his head and lifting his eyes, he obtained an uninterrupted view of Steerpike’s profile. His body and the back of his head were glued together as though he and the tree had grown up as one thing from the ground.

And that was all there was. The universal darkness above and below. The horizontal stream of saffron yellow and, like a rough bridge that joined the upper darkness to the lower, the silhouette of the ragged thorn stem, with the profile of a face among the stems.

What was he doing there in the darkness alone and motionless? (pp. 639-640)

The genius of the passage lies in its use of light and dark to map the slow revelation of Steerpike’s presence. Piece by piece Flay assembles the puzzle, in the process transforming the familiar thorn into something uncanny – a tree with a human body growing out of it – so that the naming of Steerpike only adds to the young man’s unsettling qualities. For much of the passage the reader’s attention is engaged with the particular difficulties of examining the tree in the dimness of the quadrangle; everything else in Peake’s narrative is held in suspension, waiting until the significance or otherwise of this long, slow process of decipherment should be unveiled and the mechanism of plot be set in motion once again.

There are many such moments in Peake’s novel, moments that invite us to set aside the unfolding drama as we seek with one character or another to negotiate some specific aspect of the ever-changing landscape of Gormenghast Castle. In this passage, Steerpike is for a while no longer a villain – not even to Flay, the man who has reason to hate him most, since he was responsible for Flay’s exile. Nor is he the ex-kitchen boy who rose to be Master of Ritual. He is an enigma, detached from grand or petty narratives of all kinds, fascinating precisely by virtue of being, first, an unknown object spotted in the dark, then a hybrid of tree and man, ‘alone and motionless’, his thoughts more completely hidden than his body. For as long as the passage lasts, he and Flay exist only as rivals locked in a physical and psychological duel, Flay deriving an advantage from Steerpike’s ignorance of his presence, Steerpike deriving a greater advantage from his uncanny relationship to the tree and to the ‘universal darkness’ of the quadrangle and the castle it metonymically represents.[2] At each such moment in the novel, the characters involved become extensions of their setting, doing homage to Gormenghast’s quasi-sentient vastness by their total absorption in the immediate problems or wonders it presents them with. Each of these moments contributes another potent strand to the developing myth of the castle, while the characters themselves gain a mythic dimension thanks to their place within the titanic structure.

In this passage, Steerpike strikes Flay for the first time not as an intruder but as an indigenous denizen of the castle’s gloomy interstices, a being who springs from between its stones just as the tree does; this despite Flay’s conviction that the young man is a deep-dyed traitor to its ruling dynasty, which Flay continues to serve despite his banishment. The young man’s appearance of being wholly at home in the darkness of the quadrangle, and of being able to transform something familiar (the tree) into a tool to advance his hidden purposes, anticipates the final section of the novel, in which Steerpike wanders Gormenghast’s attics, roofscapes, cellars and staircases as at once an outcast and the castle’s deadly alternative monarch, the Arch-fiend of Peake’s secondary world. In that final section of the book, Steerpike’s unrivalled familiarity with the building’s topography gives him an unsettling advantage over his pursuers, the Groans, allowing him to reign unchallenged in spaces of the building to which its nominal rulers have never penetrated. The power this knowledge gives him is something he anticipates from the moment when his murder of the aunts has been discovered. At that point he makes the spontaneous decision to embrace the situation – that is, to relish his sudden fall and the terrifying aura with which it invests him, in a world where tradition elicits absolute obedience:

If it was no longer possible for him to wear, one day, the legitimate crown of Gormenghast, there was still the dark and terrible domain – the subterranean labyrinth – the lairs and warrens where, monarch of darkness like Satan himself, he could wear undisputed a crown no less imperial. (p. 658)

The echo of Milton’s celebrated line here, uttered by Satan in Paradise Lost – ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ – is unmistakable.[3] From this point onwards, Steerpike is ‘no less imperial’ than Titus himself or his formidable mother, the Countess Gertrude, having fulfilled his ambition to attain, in a sense, the castle’s crown; the fact that his is an illegitimate version of that crown only enhances his perverse enjoyment of it. The scene at the thorn tree, like a painting of the Tree of Life defiled by the presence of the human-headed Serpent, pre-empts this passionate embrace of perversity, when Steerpike becomes an embodiment of the fastness at the centre of Peake’s imaginative universe.

*****

First edition of Lost Endeavour, Frontispiece by Stephen Remi, showing Little Theo on the left and Charles Harding on the right.

I was reading one of John Masefield’s novels recently – a strange, visionary book called Lost Endeavour (1910) – when I came across a passage which seemed to me to foreshadow the passage with the thorn tree. It’s from one of Masefield’s intense set-pieces: a scene in which a small band of pirates finds itself surrounded by a war party of indigenous Americans on a hill in the wilderness at night. Knowing they are surrounded, and believing that the war party will attack at dawn, the pirates decide that one of their number must leave the hilltop to fetch water if they are to survive the night. An enslaved boy of sixteen whom they happen to have met, and who knows the land as none of the rest do, volunteers for the mission. On his way back from filling their water bottles at a stream, he sees something ahead of him which may or may not be a threat, or a place where a threat is hiding. This is where my next passage begins:

What was the black thing? Was it a thicket of briars, or a patch of sumach, or an Indian grave-heap? I could not be sure; and it was necessary that I should be sure. I lay down flat upon the ground, so as to get its upper edge, if it had one, defined against the stars and the comparative lightness of the lower heaven. Looking at it thus, with my head flat upon the ground, I thought it must be the bulk of a vast uprooted tree, probably much rotted and overgrown. That it was a tree was evident an instant later, when, in a puff of air, I caught the scent of wild honey from some crevice in its bark.

Now it was always my plan when alone in the woods to approach such places from the flank, and never directly from the front. One never knows what may be hiding on the further side. One might stir up a bee’s nest, or a honey-hunting bear, or a wild-cat, if one approaches an old log too rashly, and none of these three is polite when disturbed. And as I looked at this log, with a knop or swelling in its surface well defined against a star, something very slowly rose up from behind it, gradually hiding not only that star but several others. It rose up very slowly, so slowly that I knew that it could be no animal. As it rose it defined itself. Something stuck out from it at right angles. It was round, with something sticking out from it; it was something with eyes and a brain; it was looking at the ground where I lay. It was an Indian with eagle feathers in his hair. I got a sniff of his war-grease intermixed with the perfume of the honey. For an instant we stared at each other through the darkness. We were not five yards from each other. If we had made ‘long arms’ we might have touched. What was I to do now? Did he see me or did he not see me; and if he saw me, what was he going to do; and if he did not see me, how was I to get past the log while he was there? Did he see me? I concluded that he could not help it, since my face, in spite of my tan, was pretty white against the ground. But if he saw me he made no least sign, no least noise. He was like some great fungus thrust up suddenly from the log. He had the best cards; it was for him to call the game. (pp. 103-105).[4]

The parallels between this passage and Peake’s are worth considering in detail. First, the topography of the incidents they examine. Both incidents are shaped by their setting: the cloistered quadrangle, implicitly giving Flay a column to hide behind, or at least a shadowed border to hide in as he surveys the thorn tree; the steep hill with water at the bottom which places Charles below the tree trunk as he approaches it, giving him a greater disadvantage in relation to whatever it may conceal. Both take place at night, with the limitations on vision this imposes. Both passages involve the inspection of a tree, an inspection that requires a careful adjustment of position (Flay kneels and lowers his head, Charles lies on the ground) to make use of all available light (the yellow sunrise in Peake’s passage, the stars in Masefield’s). In both cases the risks involved in this inspection are considerable; the banished Flay, if noticed by a denizen of the castle, risks death, while Charles expects to be hurt or killed if the tree conceals any of the creatures he fears. In each case, the human being revealed by the inspection seems uncannily fused with a tree-bole – Steerpike as its extension, the nameless warrior as a fungal growth on its decaying surface. There’s therefore a fantastic atmosphere about both passages. At the beginning of each, the tree could harbour anything at all; by the end what it harbours has become strangely involved with the adjacent vegetation. In each case, too, the human being next to the tree seems by the end to have the initiative. Flay has no idea what Steerpike is doing in the quadrangle or what he might do next, while Charles Harding has no idea if the warrior has seen him or what he might do if he has. As a result Flay and Charles feel able only to react to, not act upon, the circumstances in which they find themselves. Power lies with the man they are watching, despite the fact that he is, or possibly may be, unaware that he is being watched.

Cowboy ambushed by native American warrior, by Stanley L. Wood, one of Peake’s favourite artists as a boy.

Having looked at the immediate practicalities of the situation in each case, we might consider, too, the point of view adopted in each passage within the context of the novel as a whole. Flay is an outcast from the castle, summarily banished by the Countess of Groan after a lifetime of faithful service. Charles Harding too is an exile and an outcast, having been enslaved in Britain at fourteen and sold in America, so that his common cause with the pirates – forced on him by circumstance – renders him subject by law to aggressive punitive measures. After Flay’s banishment he learns the ways of the woods, living in a cave like Stevenson’s Ben Gunn and discovering an aptitude for survival and a love of the natural environment. Charles, too, learns the ways of the woods, and describes himself as a woodsman, which is why he volunteers for the mission of fetching water; he knows full well the pirates would not last more than a few seconds in the wilderness he has made his home. Charles’s familiarity with this environment also gives him an appreciation for the skills of the native Americans, who know it so much better than he does. His status as an enslaved person, too, means that he does not look on the so-called ‘Indians’ from a wholly colonial perspective; they are free men, as he is not, their skills are greater than his, and in both ways they have him at an advantage. Their superiority is implied by the final sentence of the passage, in which the Indian behind the fallen tree is said to be holding ‘the best cards’, as if he and Charles were engaged in a game played for the highest stakes, with the Indian best placed to win. Masefield is careful, however, to show Charles as having in some measure adopted the perspective of the slaveowner who bought him, worrying about how his ‘master’ is coping without his help, worrying about the punishments he himself may face if he deserts his ‘owner’, and so on. Flay too takes the perspective of the ‘legitimate’ castle authorities, the House of Groan, even though it was they who sent him into exile without pausing a moment to consider his long and faithful service. In the previous novel, Titus Groan (1946), Flay worried constantly in exile about how his master, the old Earl who was Titus’s father, would manage without his services, and in the thorn tree scene he is actively engaged in acting on behalf of the Earl’s son, Titus. At the same time, he has a sense that Steerpike has real power over both himself and the House of Groan. In order to move around the castle freely, despite his banished status, Flay has made himself familiar with its obscurer corridors; but his observation of Steerpike reveals that the younger man has made an even more thorough study of the castle’s layout, though Flay’s hatred for Steerpike prevents him from admiring the extent of this knowledge.

Flay and Charles, in other words, are clearly instruments of a certain power structure founded on radical inequality between different perceived orders or categories of human being. Both also embody the weakness of this structure: Charles because of his admiration and partial understanding of the native Americans, Flay because of his evident fear of Steerpike as a force capable of toppling his ‘masters’. Flay and Charles inhabit unjust, inefficient hegemonies sustained by violence, and recognise the presence in their worlds of potent counter-forces (the ‘traitor’ Steerpike, the native American warriors) dedicated to damaging or destroying those hegemonies through their unrivalled mastery of a certain space (the castle, the wilderness). The primacy of that space in each passage – the quadrangle in the pre-dawn darkness, the hill at night – places the advantage in the court of those counter-forces. The quadrangle and the hill become locations in which imperial rule finds itself suspended, challenged, partly undermined, reflecting the historical moment when each writer was writing, at different stages in the long, slow decline of the British Empire.

This decline is driven by internal contradictions. We’ve noted how the scene involving Steerpike marks the beginning of his transition from authority figure within the hegemony – the Master of Ritual, with a powerful hold even over his putative ‘masters’, the House of Groan – to solitary outcast and devilish monarch of the castle’s tracts. Lost Endeavour, too, includes a character who begins with hugely overblown ambitions and ends (as its title suggests) by losing everything he has worked for. The leader of the pirates encountered by Charles is a Spanish sailor called Little Theo, whose name hints at his resemblance to – and later, his aspiration to become – a minor god (theos is ancient Greek for god). In England, Little Theo was Charles’s schoolmaster at a small school; his name was given him, half in mockery and half in admiration, by his pupils, in recognition that there is something powerful about him despite his short stature and humble occupation. Little Theo was enslaved at the same time as his pupil, and this experience – together with what happened after – is suspected by Charles to have driven him half mad. By the time Charles meets him again, not long before our passage, Little Theo has become convinced he is a kind of messiah for the indigenous peoples of the Americas – a figure foretold, he insists, in all New World mythologies. It’s this conviction, sustained by a series of ‘revelations’ that enable him to overcome a string of life-threatening situations, which drives him to become a pirate chief and later to abandon most of his fellow pirates as unworthy partners in his messianic mission. Inevitably – given the historical setting of the novel in the late seventeenth century, the so-called Golden Age of Piracy – this mission comes to nothing; after all, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history does not record a collective rising of indigenous American people behind a European leader. But the mission’s mere existence lends the narrative a quasi-anticolonial slant which is twisted and warped by the fact that the self-proclaimed rebel against Empire is both white and committed to seizing power for himself. The parallels with Steerpike, whose claims to set himself against the elitism of the Groans are effectively nullified by his ambition to rule Gormenghast in their place, are clear enough. So is the fact that both aspiring rulers find themselves undone by the contradictions in their stances. The worlds they inhabit – late seventeenth-century Britain and America, Gormenghast Castle – do not yet offer any serious alternative to the status quo. Steerpike and Little Theo pose as rebels against the powers-that-be, but can only envisage combatting those powers by replicating the inequalities that sparked off their rebellions. They are loners – Steerpike has no friends, Little Theo has contempt for his pirate companions – which makes them weak, despite their conviction of their own power (and Little Theo’s weakness is underlined by the fact that he finds himself powerless when attacked by the indigenous people he intends to rule; he is wounded in the dawn attack on the hill). Both, then, embody the contradictions of the power structures they seek to subvert.

To summarize what I’ve said so far: the greatness of the two long passages I’ve quoted springs from the intensity of their focus on one particular time and place in the unfolding narrative of which they are part. The moment in question constitutes a pause in the action, when for a while everything hangs in the balance. The time is circumscribed in each case by the approach of dawn, when the war party is expected to strike, when what hides beside the thorn tree will be fully revealed, and when Steerpike will have enough light to set off for his unknown destination. The topography of the setting is central to both passages. The ‘small cloistered quadrangle’ divides the night into dense, quasi-abstract patches of light and dark, while the thorn tree makes of Steerpike something weird, an amalgam of tree and man which reinforces the sense that he has some eerie biological connection to Gormenghast castle. The fallen log in the second passage is rendered intensely significant by the darkness of the hillside, which both conceals whatever is behind it and renders weird the slow, silent rising of the warrior from that concealment. In both cases, the inner life of the person next to the standing or fallen tree is just as obscure after his identity has been revealed as it was beforehand. This means that the person in question retains at the end a close association with the place described in the passage, and derives from that place a kind of power he would not otherwise have had. Place and person are fused for a while in these passages, and the implications of this fusion remain unknown as they draw to a close.

Robert Louis Stevenson, admired by both Masefield and Peake.

This laying aside of (nearly) all considerations but those of the immediate present puts me in mind of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous essay ‘A Gossip on Romance’, which seeks to explain his fascination with what we now call thrillers or adventure stories, as against novels of ‘character’, ‘drama’ or ‘thought’.[5] For Stevenson, reading a book should be an experience both ‘absorbing and voluptuous’, taking the reader ‘clean out of ourselves’ while reading, and afterwards leaving behind the ‘busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images’ which render the reader ‘incapable of sleep or of continuous thought’. For him, place is central to the best kind of action narrative packed with the sort of focussed, all-consuming passages he thirsts after. Such narratives intensify the haunting effect of certain places by supplying a plot full of ‘fit and striking incident’ that depends entirely on the specific characteristics of those places and could not be set anywhere else. While we are focused on each successive incident, we should be so preoccupied with place and its role in unfolding events that we set aside all considerations of morality; after all, Stevenson points out,

There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; […] where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.

Such narratives of circumstance and incident, then, involve a temporary suspension of the mind from active engagement with ethics, politics or philosophy. The only questions that matter for as long as they last are questions as to what may happen next and how it may unfold. This state of suspension bears some resemblance to the period of hesitation identified by Tzvetan Todorov as a key characteristic of the Fantastic in literature: a temporary uncertainty in the reader’s mind over whether the incidents we are reading about (in this case, seemingly impossible incidents) may be understood as actually happening in the world of the story, or as an illusion imposed on the protagonist by his mental state or by some trickery of the light or of another person.[6] The impossible incident is all that matters for the time being, and the multitude of possible explanations for it – together with the refusal to choose any one of those explanations for the time being – lends it an astonishing, vertiginous power over the mind of the reader. For Stevenson, as for Todorov, the period of suspension or hesitation is infinitely productive, allowing ‘whole vistas of secondary stories, besides the one in hand’ to radiate forth, ‘as they radiate from a striking particular in life’. Such a plenitude of possibility, for him, will make any reader ‘as happy as a reader has a right to be’.

The two passages I’ve set side by side offer Stevenson’s experience of suspension in ample measure. Both are intensely concerned with ‘problems of the body’ – indeed, they render the body itself problematic as Steerpike’s head and back seem to emerge from the tree and the warrior’s head becomes a fungal growth. Masefield’s involves what Stevenson terms ‘clean, open-air adventure’, and while Peake’s is nominally set indoors, the profusion of strange vistas, feral creatures and organic growths in Gormenghast castle give it the wildness of a series of undiscovered caves – though this wildness is not exactly ‘open-air’.  The passages also embody a specific quality in both Peake’s and Masefield’s narratives. In both, place is the focus, together with the time at which the protagonist and the reader come in contact with that place. During each successive incident or set-piece in both narratives – and there are many of them – a ‘vista’ of possibilities is generated, any one of which would provide a richly satisfying story; and the fact that there is for a while this vista renders the incident from which they might spring more potent than any one of those stories once it has started to be told. For that period of suspension, the reader’s imagination is wholly engaged, and the reader empowered, made equal partner with the writer and the protagonist, thanks to the prose on the printed page. That’s a political situation, I think, and helps explain why Peake’s novels have been so popular with politically sophisticated readers down the years, despite the apparent lack of specifically political elements in those novels. Masefield has not achieved the same level of popularity, but several of his books deserve to be much better known – not least Lost Endeavour, with its thrilling set pieces, its vivid evocation of place, and its knowingly troubled relationship to the imperialist world that gave it birth.

Lost Endeavour, specially bound first edition. The turbaned man on the front is Little Theo.

NOTES

[1] References are to The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992).

[2] The most celebrated reference to ‘universal darkness’ in literature comes from Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1727-1743), which describes the collapse of British culture and ends in a universal apocalypse presided over by stupidity, embodied by the goddess Dulness. The final lines run:

Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries all.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, line 42.

[4] Quoted from Lost Endeavour (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1910).

[5] ‘A Gossip on Romance’ can be found in full here: https://electricscotland.com/history/other/EssaysOfRLS09AGossipOnRomancePlusNotes.pdf

[6] See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 25.

The Fantastical World of Mervyn Peake: Islands and Seas

[This is the text of the talk I gave at the British Library on 24 February 2024. The talk was designed to accompany a mini-exhibition of the same title, itself designed to supplement the major exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination which came to a close that same weekend.

This explains why the post is so image-rich; I couldn’t make my case without the use of multiple pictures. Some of the images aren’t too good, since the recent cyber-assault on the British Library website meant they couldn’t send me files containing the images I needed. As a result I had to use photos from books I owned, and in two embarrassing cases, photos taken in the mini-exhibition itself. Please forgive the results!]

Cover of first edition of Treasure Island illustrated by Peake.

The writer-artist Mervyn Peake had a lifelong obsession with islands; G. Peter Winnington’s seminal monograph on Peake, The Voice of the Heart, includes a whole chapter about them.[1] Peake’s favourite book as a boy was Treasure Island (1883), and the place he kept returning to throughout his life was the Island of Sark, a one-time nest of pirates off the coast of Normandy. He first lived on Sark as a member of an artists’ commune in the 1930s, went back to live there with his family between 1946 and 1949, and visited several times in the 1950s.[2] Mervyn Peake’s most famous literary creation, Gormenghast Castle, is a building so vast that nobody can ever know it in its entirety; it’s landlocked, but Peake keeps comparing it to an island, cut off from history by its resistance to change, cut off from the outside world by its steadfast refusal to recognize that world’s existence. In the second of his three great Titus novels, Gormenghast (1950), it even becomes an actual island after a flood. His other works are filled with islands of one sort or another: from the pink island to which the pirate Captain Slaughterboard retreats with the love of his life, the Yellow Creature, in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939), to a floating lump of ice the size of Kent on which a nameless explorer and his companion, a ‘turtle-dog’ named Jackson, find themselves stranded in Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948); from the many strange and colourful islands Peake painted in the illustrations to his book of nonsense poetry, Rhymes Without Reason (1944), to the boat fraught with all the animals and people in the world in his play of the 1950s, Noah’s Ark. In this talk I’d like to suggest that his love of islands, and of the strange seas in which his islands are located, tells us something important about his love affair with Fantasy. In a number of ways, I think, both Mervyn Peake and many other people of his time were islanded – a word Peake used in his poetry; and their islanding found its most potent expression in the impossible worlds they conjured up, many of which feature in the Peake mini-Exhibition in this building.

Kuling, early 20th century

Peake was born in 1911, in a resort for missionaries called Kuling (now Guling) in Jiangxi Province, eastern China. He lived the first eleven years of his life in Tientsin, now Tianjin, in northern China, where his father, a missionary doctor, ran the MacKenzie Memorial Hospital.[3] In this port city the Treaty of Tientsin was signed in 1858, at the end of the Second Opium War, a conflict started by the British and French; the treaty opened several new Chinese ports to foreign trade, permitted Christian missionary work in China – of the kind Peake’s parents practised – and legalized the importing of Opium, which gave the British a crucial advantage in the Chinese market by literally addicting Chinese people to the products of the British Empire. The Peake family was effectively islanded in Tientsin, since they lived inside the hospital complex, a rectangular chunk of late Victorian Britain segregated from China by a protective wall. Peake’s Tientsin childhood was islanded from the rest of his life by what he calls a ‘misty sea of time’, so that he later felt ‘severed’ from it, since ‘the pictures in my mind seem not to be part of me, but are like some half-forgotten story in a book’, containing adventures that happened to an entirely different child.[4] Having spent several years of my childhood in Singapore I know what he means; the images I have of that part of my life are remarkably vivid and resonant, but stand out from the rest of my memories precisely because they have so little in common with anything that happened after I came to live in Britain. Peake coming to Britain from China at the age of eleven, in 1922, may have felt profoundly islanded from the bulk of the British population who had not been through these experiences – though he went to a boarding school full of similarly islanded children, Eltham College, which catered for the sons of missionaries like himself.

Peake, The Ancient Mariner

The book-like quality of Mervyn’s memories of China helps explain, I think, his willingness to turn to illustrating books in the Second World War – something that happened, he claimed, because he couldn’t get hold of paint after he had been drafted into the army. Many of the books he illustrated feature protagonists severed from the world they know: from the Baker, the Banker and the Billiard-player in Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark (1941) to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (1943), adrift in a ship full of corpses; from Carroll’s Alice books (1946) to Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1949), where an entire middle-class family finds itself stranded on an impossible island crammed full of beasts from all five continents.[5] Immersion in books like these tends to isolate the reader, especially the child who is capable of cutting themselves off from the world for as long as a story lasts. Peake describes this childhood reading experience with amazing intensity in a poem he wrote in 1942, when a nervous breakdown led to him being hospitalized in Southport. Patients at the hospital were distinguished from the general population by the distinctive sky-blue suits in which they were dressed. Here’s how he sums up his state of mind at this difficult time of personal isolation in the middle of the Second World War:

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.[6]

I love Peake’s comparison of the boy’s mind while reading to the mind of a swimmer caught in tropical breakers, his eyes squeezed shut against the salt water but still able to see the sun shining through the ‘naked jelly’ of the waves as a ‘vermilion ember’, reddened by the veins in his eyelids. The eyelids themselves are rendered ‘transparent’ by sunlight, and move or ‘rove’ in response to the movements of the eyeballs behind them. That’s a glorious image for the sensation of reading or remembering particularly vivid picture books, which spark an inner light that makes ordinary daylight into ‘an un-focused twilight’. That inner light, Peake tells us, is ‘fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’; fiercer, perhaps, because the images in illustrated stories are more focused than those conjured up by the unaided imagination. Peake’s retreat from the humiliating experience of being in Southport Hospital, and of leaving the hospital building to be paraded along the esplanade in a bright blue suit with an orange tie, was to retreat to this realm of exploding islands where his imagination could have free play, like the swimmer no longer constrained by the law of gravity. In fact he retreated to his own picture book quite literally in Southport. As therapy for his breakdown, the staff there encouraged him to write the later chapters of his first novel about Gormenghast Castle, Titus Groan (1946). Part of the process of composition involved drawing pictures of the major characters, some of which you can see in the Fantasy Exhibition next door.

Peake, illustration from The Swiss Family Robinson (c. 1949)

The final picture in the Peake mini-Exhibition, showing a boy from the Swiss Family Robinson lassoing a turtle from a raft amidst the foaming tropical seas (c. 1949), perfectly complements this account of the boy whose mind is shaped for the life of an island castaway by vivid pictures in books. It bursts with youthful energy, straining to escape the page’s rectangle. Notice how the curves of the turtle’s head and shell are echoed by the curves of the barrels and sail on the raft, how the raft and its users have been tilted to one side by the waves and the straining turtle, how the waves themselves are exploding into lacy shawls of foam while the boy who holds the rope hauls with all his might against the turtle’s direction of travel. The picture is dominated by the diagonal line of the taut rope that slashes across the middle and the two tilted right angles it strains between, the hard right angle of the mast and the soft right angle formed by the turtle’s neck; the hardness on the one side and the softness on the other show clearly who is going to win this tug of war. The brilliance of the tropical sunshine is conveyed by the shadows that conceal the boy’s eyes, the shadows on the upper rims of the barrels on the raft, the shadows on the underside of the turtle’s neck and flipper. Peake’s art was shaped by the work of an artist who specialised in illustrating action scenes like these in books for boys, Stanley L. Wood, and in early days he signed his pictures Mervyn L. Peake as if in homage to his idol.[7] Another favourite book of his, Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3) by J. Claverdon Wood – about pirates on the island of New Guinea – was illustrated by Stanley Wood, and Peake pays homage to Wood’s strenuously energetic pictures for the novel in a talk he gave on book illustration in the 1940s. This picture strikes me as one of Peake’s most Wood-like images.

Stanley L. Wood, Frontispiece to Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3)

Peake’s islanding, as I’ve described it, was not exclusive to himself. Throughout his life he gravitated to other people who had been islanded in one way or another. The Irish nationalist writer James Stephens, author of the Fantasy classic The Crock of Gold (1916), who emigrated to England after Irish independence because he was disappointed by the kind of country Ireland had become. Gordon Smith, Peake’s best friend, whose childhood had also been spent in northern China. The avant garde sculptor Jacob Epstein, an American Jew who suffered from British conservatism and antisemitism and whose work Peake defended in a poem.[8] The Eltham schoolmaster Eric Drake who founded the Sark Group of Artists in the 1930s, and who was another child of Chinese missionaries. The writer Maurice Collis, another Irishman, who found himself at odds with the British imperial project he was expected to uphold as a civil servant in Burma, and whose version of the Ramayana, The Quest for Sita, Peake illustrated in 1949;[9] and many more. Maeve Gilmore, Peake’s artist wife, was herself islanded, first by her strict Catholic upbringing, then by the many pressures on her as a woman artist and a mother of two in wartime, whose husband was first drafted into the army then invalided out of it. Peake describes Gilmore’s particular kind of islanding in one of his poems:

Always you are remote and islanded
In silences that so belie the ardent
Torrents that course beneath your gentle clay[.][10]

Only recently have the ‘ardent / Torrents’ of Gilmore’s creativity been heard and seen as they deserve to be, thanks to a major exhibition of her work at the Voltaire Gallery in 2022.

Peake, ‘Floating Islands on the Waves’ (c. 1928)

Countries, too, were in some sense islanded in Peake’s lifetime by seismic events that severed them from the past. China was severed from its long imperial history by the revolution of 1911, the year of Peake’s birth, which established the Chinese Republic. Britain was severed from its own imperial past by the trauma of the First World War, which lent urgency to the radical questioning of imperialist values that found expression in artistic movements between the wars, Surrealism, Vorticism, Cubism and the rest. Starting with Ireland, Maeve Gilmore’s father’s birthplace, the British dominions were breaking away like floes breaking off a Polar ice cap. The sense of having been cut off by these seismic breakages from the colonial past – like Arctic explorers stranded on one of those ice floes – is what gave rise, I think, to the genre of fantasy as it developed between the wars. The first picture in the mini-exhibition (c. 1928), which shows floating islands precariously balanced on heaving waves, encapsulates the experience of having been uprooted and come adrift which many people shared in the 20s and 30s. It invokes, as the notes suggest, Hokusai’s famous print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831);[11] but Hokusai’s picture is stabilized by the presence of Mount Fuji in the background. Peake’s seascape is all upheaval and turbulence, with no stable land in view; though its cartoonishness, the pastoral calmness of the floating islands and the single drop dripping off the crest of the biggest wave suggest that the young artist was untroubled, as yet, by the turbulent world he had inherited. There’s no indication that his islands have been colonised or subjected to missionary activity, and this may explain their pastoral appearance. The imagination could invent countries where the toxic inheritance of imperialism could be offloaded onto goblins or dragons, as it is in Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), which takes place in a world that’s fallen to pieces after some bygone quasi-mythical age of unity and prosperity, leaving a trail of islanded settlements in its wake.

Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831)

Peake’s own imagination inclined to piracy. Pirates can be seen as enemies of imperialism, though they can of course also serve as its parasites and stooges. They have a contempt for human laws, national and international, and a well-earned reputation for random acts of violence; but they’ve also been linked to anarchism, the political movement that rejects authority of all kinds. The seventeenth-century pirate Roberts drew up a celebrated set of egalitarian laws to be observed on the ships he commanded, while the most famous example of pirate anarchism on land is Libertalia, a democratic pirate republic set up on the Island of Madagascar by a Frenchman, Captain James Misson, in defiance of the Empires that were carving up the world between them at the time. The story of Captain Roberts is told in The General History of the Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe; Johnson’s account of Libertalia comes in the second volume (1725). Peake may well have known the General History, which is a source for his favourite novel, Treasure Island, and his interest in Madagascar may also have been piqued by the fact that his grandparents and uncle were missionaries there – that it was in some sense the ‘family island’.[12] In fact Peake uses Madagascar as a metaphor for the process of making a family, in a poem he wrote after the birth of his first child, Sebastian, in January 1940. Addressed to Maeve, the poem represents birth as a process of islanding for everyone who experiences it:

Grottoed beneath your ribs no longer, he,
Like madagascar broken from its mother,
Must feel the tides divide an africa
Of love from his clay island, that the sighs
Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry;
And though your ruthful breast allays his cries,
How vulnerable
He is when you release him, and how terrible
Is that wild strait which separates your bodies.[13]

By this point in Peake’s life, after the outbreak of the Second World War and having been called up for military service – he was awaiting mobilization as he wrote – the sea surrounding each human island has mutated into something much more ‘terrible’ than the comic-book waves of the first picture we looked at. And the island metaphor he chooses for his son – that of Madagascar – is associated with the precariousness of piracy as well as its anti-authoritarian credentials. Captain Misson’s pirate republic, Libertalia, is said to have been destroyed in an attack by Malagasy warriors; Misson himself drowned at sea a short time after. Captain Roberts was killed in a skirmish when struck in the throat by grapeshot. Piracy for Peake, as for many others, always had two aspects, the spirit of freedom, adventure, egalitarianism and loyalty on the one hand, the spirit of violence, random cruelty, treachery and imminent sudden death on the other. The strain between these two aspects of piracy is key to the power of Peake’s fantastic imagination, which rejects simplistic dualisms of good and evil while retaining a deep consciousness (as the son of a missionary must) that these dualisms govern many understandings of the way things work – including, at times, his own. Peake repeatedly represents himself as an uneasy double figure, made up of a ‘rebeller’ and a ‘conceder’, as he puts it in his wartime poem ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’ (1941) – a conceder being someone who concedes to or is complicit with the horrors being perpetrated in Europe.[14] He embodies these two aspects of himself in the figures of a cold angel and a fiery, sensuous centaur or devil – though these figures don’t neatly align with the notions of rebelling and conceding, or bad and good. He locates this ‘double cargo’, as he puts it, in a ship,

[…] half love,
And half, that rides
The self-same sea-groove with wild laugh
Across these fickle, these infested tides.[15]

That the ship is a pirate ship seems likely enough, given that it’s invoked by a writer-artist who dressed as a buccaneer in the 1930s (complete with earring) and whose obsession with pirates is still startlingly present in his late novels Mr Pye (1953), about an eccentric missionary on Sark who takes to wearing a piratical bandanna to conceal a pair of growing horns,[16] and Titus Alone (1959), in which the self-exiled Earl of Gormenghast becomes the unofficial leader of a loosely-knit anarchist rising against the authorities of a nameless state, seconded by a man called Muzzlehatch with a rudder nose and a one-time sailor called Anchor, both of whom have a pirate’s hatred for the law and its instruments.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Treasure Island (1949)

The dual nature of pirates, as deeply attractive emblems of adventure and resistance and as murderous salt-water thieves, was visible everywhere in the pirate books being published in the first half of the twentieth century, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates (1909) to John Masefield’s Lost Endeavour (1910), J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (2011), Under the Serpent’s Fang (1923), Gerald Bullett’s The Spanish Caravel (1927), Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck and Missee Lee (1932 and 1941), Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Eric Linklater’s The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949). These divide themselves broadly into texts that favour the pleasures and perils of piracy and texts that celebrate the victories of agents of the imperial law against piratical opponents. Often the same book does both. Treasure Island, for instance – the granddaddy of them all, along with R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857) – adopts the point of view of the order-loving upper and middle classes, embodied by the shipowner Squire Trelawney, the physician Dr Livesey, and the cabin-boy Jim Hawkins, a family friend of the Doctor’s. Trelawney and Livesey regard their quest for buried treasure as wholly legitimate, since any profits will go to themselves, members of the ruling elite. But Stevenson also represents their class enemy and rival in the treasure hunt, the sea-cook and pirate Long John Silver, as a deeply charming man, capable of drawing middle-class medics and upper-class shipowners into the web of his geniality as easily as he seduces his working-class shipmates into mutiny against them. To the Squire and the Doctor, Silver poses as a loyal member of the servant classes, well content with his station; to his fellow pirates he is a cunning, ruthless killer; but to everyone he is admirable, including the reader, who delights in his capacity to switch sides and personalities whenever it suits him. Even his willingness to murder people who resist his advances offers evidence of his astonishing energy, versatility and poise. When Silver kills the sailor Tom for refusing to join his mutiny he first seeks to sweet-talk him with honeyed words, then suddenly leaps away ‘with the speed and security of a trained gymnast’ and hurls his crutch to knock Tom down, charging after it ‘agile as a monkey, even without leg or crutch’ to bury his knife ‘up to the hilt in that defenceless body’.[17] Peake’s full-length picture of him in the mini-Exhibition (from 1947-1949) wonderfully invokes his seductiveness. He’s got a beautiful face, with heavy lids, prominent eyelashes and a fine head of curly hair, and he peers sideways out of the picture with a smile, suggesting his capacity to extend his influence well beyond his physical proximity. His powerful body is visible through his clothes, and there’s a general sense that he’s disorienting, conveyed both by the way his body tilts in two directions as he leans on his crutch (his leg, left arm and head tilt in one direction, his torso and right arm tilt in another), and by the shading in the background, whose lines begin to curve sideways as they rise from ground level, passing from the horizontal through an area of cross-hatching until they’re diagonal to the rectangular frame of the picture at the level of Silver’s head, so that everything seems in motion and off-balance.

Silver’s politics are interesting, too; it would be easy to see them as rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of rational democracy, as against the feudalism of the Squire. Silver abides by the Roberts code of piracy, being elected captain by his messmates, giving them the vote on key decisions, and assuring them that all will have an equal share in the buried treasure. The name he and his pirates give themselves – gentlemen of fortune – makes them equals, unlike the Squire and Doctor, who embrace the class distinction between themselves as gentry and the commoners who work for them. No wonder the hero of the book, Jim Hawkins, seems to fall in love with Silver, like Peake in his boyhood. Every picture of Jim in the exhibition has him tilted at all angles like Long John Silver: tossed on the waves in Ben Gunn’s coracle…

clinging to the bowsprit of the Hispaniola…

aiming his pistols at Israel Hands as he leans from the Hispaniola’s crow’s nest:

In each picture he comes closer to being a pirate, culminating in the moment when he runs his fingers through the treasure of Captain Flint in Ben Gunn’s cave:

The pirate Silver coveted that treasure, the former pirate Ben Gunn dug it up, the half pirate Jim Hawkins got a share of it; what really divides them? In Peake’s pictures, as in Stevenson’s book, Jim is tainted with Silver’s anarchism. John Silver is the embodiment of resistance to the authorities that frown on exploratory teenagers like Jim – though the pirate also claims to have plans to become a conventional gentleman, and even a member of parliament. Not too conventional, however. In an age when slavery was legal in the British Empire, Silver’s lover – who we never meet in the book – is Black. The sea-cook roves far more freely beyond the imperial frame, it’s implied, than most of his white British male contemporaries.

Map of the Three Principalities, as featured in The Dusky Birron (1929-31)

There’s a queer element to piracy, as anyone knows who’s followed the HBO series Our Flag Means Death. Peake seems well aware of this fact, and the two pirate books he wrote and illustrated – The Dusky Birron and Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor – attest to his awareness, whether or not he acknowledged it openly. The unpublished Dusky Birron (1929-31) was a project he developed with his friend Gordon Smith, and it has a distinctly Chinese quality, as the two authors drew imaginatively on their shared experiences of China. Smith wrote the words, Peake drew the pictures, and the book begins with a sailor man being marooned by pirates on a group of islands, whose monosyllabic names – Soz, Ho, Foon, Chee – bear a faint resemblance to Mandarin, which both Smith and Peake could speak. The first picture from the book in the exhibition shows a European ship sailing through a giant flooded forest, possibly the pirate ship that marooned the sailor…

while the second shows the pirates themselves, looking thoroughly European…

Apologies for the quality of this photo!

But the next two pictures show some very Chinese-looking rocks and mountains…

Lawrence Bristow-Smith, a former British diplomat in China, compares the rock where the Maranesa sits to the rock formations in traditional Chinese gardens, ‘slabs and blocks of stone assembled to form a fantastic, exaggerated landscape with water, paths, steps, bridges and carefully-planted shrubs and trees’.[18] The mountain scene, meanwhile…

Apologies for this photo too!

recalls the Chinese practice of shan shui hua, ‘mountain water art’, as exemplified by Huang Gongwang’s ‘The Remaining Mountain’:

…so that the place where the sailor man finds himself contains a variety of aesthetic elements assembled, like those Chinese gardens, into a ‘fantastic, exaggerated landscape’. In Gordon Smith’s account of the book, the sailor-man’s guide through this fantastic landscape is the Dusky Birron, a naked man with flowing hair and the beard of a prophet:

and the two companions spend most of the book looking for the ideal place to set up house together. They find it at last in Chee, the most laid-back island in the archipelago….

This is not, then, a story of colonisation but of companionship between people of different cultures, in a land full of exiles; the Maranesa, for example, comes from Borneo, but seems happy living in Soz alone on his ‘pointed stone’, as Smith’s words put it. The sailor, by contrast, finds a friend to share his life with, as his mentor and fellow adventurer. There’s a Chinese connection here, too, I think. Peake’s surviving notes for an unwritten book about China – sometimes conceived as an autobiography, sometimes a work of fiction – are full of such cross-cultural friendships, from the Chinese boy who lures a red-haired British boy from his bed into the world beyond the hospital compound, to the one-eyed Russian boy with no shoes whom Peake calls his ‘God’; from Peake’s friend Tony Liang, who ‘did drawings which were copies of Lawson… dogs and parrots and monkeys’ – probably Lawson Wood, who drew animals for The Boy’s Own Paper – to the Chinese boy befriended by a British girl called Laura on a winter’s journey across the mountains.[19] These relationships are full of the seduction of the unfamiliar, something that works both ways in the case of the boy with red hair, whose appearance marks him out as exotic to his Chinese guide.

That seduction turns boldly queer in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). The Captain sails his ship, the Black Tiger, between ‘little green islands’ on the ‘bright blue ocean’, accompanied by a crew of bizarre eccentrics clearly inspired by the crew who sailed with Captain Hook in Peter and Wendy.[20] Billy Bottle the bosun, for example, has arms so long that he can knock ashes out of his pipe without bending down; Hook’s shipmate Noodles has equally unusual arms, since his ‘hands were fixed on backwards’. Timothy Twitch is ‘the most elegant in battle, his left hand especially’, just as Hook’s shipmate Gentleman Starkey was ‘once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing’…

Slaughterboard’s shipmate whose portrait we see in the exhibition, Charlie Choke, ‘covered all over with dreadful drawings in blue ink’, is closely related to Hook’s shipmate Bill Jukes, ‘every inch of him tattooed’…

Slaughterboard seems immune to the charms of these men, even the elegant Timothy Twitch, but when he spots a Yellow Creature through his telescope he can’t resist its beauty…

That his attraction is erotic as well as aesthetic (he spends hours, we’re told, admiring the butter-yellow colour of the creature against the blue of the ocean) is implied by the fact that many commentators think Peake modelled its face on the face of his wife, Maeve Gilmore, who posed for him hundreds of times throughout their marriage; Maeve also features, if you look closely, among the tattoos on Charlie Choke’s left arm.[21] The creature’s gender is indeterminate – Peake sometimes gives it the pronoun ‘it’ and sometimes ‘he’ – as is its species, since its ears and bristly horns are not quite human. Slaughterboard’s first reaction to it is that of the colonial slave-trader or collector; he sends his men to catch it, then carries it off for his own amusement. On board his ship, too, he at first treats the Creature as an exotic object to be displayed to his fellow sailors, who quickly grow tired of being urged to admire it…

But as time goes by, the power dynamic begins to shift. One by one the crew is killed off until only the Captain and the Yellow Creature are left, and by this time they behave as equals: they dance and eat together…

…and the Captain begins to show an interest in the Yellow Creature’s home environment, the island where he found it, and eventually turns the ship in that direction. The book ends with the Captain and the Creature living together in married bliss; the Creature does the cooking, and they both enjoy the company of the other islanders, or lazily fishing for wonderfully strange fish from the island’s ornamental-looking piles of stones. As Peake’s son Fabian points out in his introduction to the 70th Anniversary edition, the pair of them seem to have found utopia. More specifically, they have found their Libertalia, complete with its stock of unprecedented fauna. The anthropologist David Graeber has recently argued, in his book Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia, that the roots of Libertalia lie in the fusion of pirate culture with the indigenous people of north-east Madagascar; just one of the many cultural fusions that have shaped the island’s history.[22] Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature duplicate this fusion, their gleeful rejection of apartheid or segregation placing them a million miles from the British imperial project. Or the German one, of course; the book was published in 1939, and the first edition was mostly destroyed in a German bombing raid.

The magic of Captain Slaughterboard is its refusal to embrace the sort of conventional moralising that dominated contemporary children’s narratives. The Captain exists outside the imperatives of Empire all the way; his initially colonial actions are a personal choice, and he seems free to dispense with colonialism whenever he feels like it. In J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Captain Hook is tormented by social anxieties, brought on both by his public-school education and by Peter Pan’s self-evident superiority as a pirate and an anarchist to himself. Stevenson’s Long John Silver is intensely conscious of the forces of the social hierarchy ranged against him – of the power of the ruling classes and the disastrous lack of discipline among his fellow pirates – which means he suspects from the start that things can’t possibly go his way. By contrast, Captain Slaughterboard rules his narrative ‘every inch’, as he rules his ship. There are no naval officers, squires or missionaries in his story, just the strangest of sea-wolves and the weirdest of creatures. Instead of moral trajectories, Peake’s book is full of limbs and torsos getting out of control, clothes flying in all directions, bursts of sea-spray, spurts of cannon-smoke or pipe-smoke, and a ship that expands and contracts like a living organ, its decks covered in writhing bodies, flapping swathes of canvas and unbalanced bottles of rum…

The Captain’s resistance to moral imperatives makes him wholly indifferent to the slaughter of his men – we never hear how they died, and he never mentions them again after their deaths. He only pays attention to the fascinating details of the Yellow Creature’s appearance – its delicate body, arms and legs, its enormous eyes, its long, drooping nose, which offer the perfect foil to his own massive body and hands, his button nose, his tiny eyes….

The Captain’s eyes look at everything with cunning; even when introduced by the Yellow Creature to its friends on the island he watches them slyly as if measuring their market value…

But his cunning consists in the recognition that the only treasure he needs is what gives him pleasure: his brightly-coloured lover and the seemingly infinite variety of creatures on the island and around its shores.

Peake: poster for the movie Black Magic, with Sidney Toler playing the detective Charlie Chan in ‘Yellowface’ (see the novel by R F Kuang)

Peake was familiar, of course, with the racist caricatures of Chinese culture that circulated between the wars, from the fictions of the so-called Yellow Peril – such as Sax Rohmer’s tales of Dr Fu Manchu – to the crude pastiches of China that featured in British pantomimes like Aladdin, or Albert Arlen’s play The Son of the Grand Eunuch (1937), for which Peake designed the costumes.[23] He also had friends like Maurice Collis who had a serious interest in South and East Asian art and history, and a father with similar interests who brought him brushes from Hong Kong after the war, giving him a chance to experiment seriously with Chinese painting techniques. Captain Slaughterboard embraces Peake’s childhood in China by representing a kind of queer marriage between formerly hostile cultures, as well as between Chinese and European schools of art. As a statement about its particular moment in British history – on the cusp of the Second World War, when the earth itself was tilting off balance – this picture book seems to me well worth revisiting in our own unbalanced times.

[For an account of pirate references in the Titus/Gormenghast books see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy’.]

NOTES

[1] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.

[2] For more on Peake and Sark see my blogposts ‘Mervyn Peake on Sark’ and ‘Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark’.

[3] The best account of Peake’s life is Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen Publishers, 2009).

[4] For Peake’s ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’ see Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 469-487.

[5] The dates given here are those of the first editions of Peake’s illustrated versions.

[6] For the full poem see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 120. For more on Peake’s Southport experience see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake at Southport’.

[7] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 56.

[8] See my blog post ‘Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake and Jacob Epstein’.

[9] See my two blog posts, ‘Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946)’, Part 1: Text and Part 2: Drawings.

[10] ‘Tides’, in Peake, Collected Poems, p. 129.

[11] See Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 36, which cites Peake’s friend Gordon Smith describing the Puy de Dôme near Clermont-Ferrand in France as ‘a most charming hummock, like a miniature Fujiyama’. Smith and Peake saw this ‘charming hummock on a French holiday together in 1930, two years after the date assigned to the picture, ‘Floating islands on the waves’. For a full account of the holiday see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), pp. 14-20.

[12] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart, p. 57, footnote 1: ‘it was the family island, so to speak’.

[13] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 78.

[14] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 93.

[15] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 94.

[16] See Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 205.

[17] Robert Louise Stevenson, Treasure Island, illustrated by Mervyn Peake (London: Methuen, 1976), pp. 96-97.

[18] Lawrence Bristow-Smith, ‘The Chinese Puzzle of Mervyn Peake’, Peake Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Winter 1993), pp. 37-39.

[19] Peake, ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’, Peake’s Progress, pp. 471, 474, 477-478, 483.

[20] All quotations are taken from Mervyn Peake, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 70th Anniversary Edition (London: Walker Books, 2009). This edition is not paginated.

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

[22] David Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (Dublin: Allen Lane, 2023).

[23] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 107.

Brian Stableford: A Memory, with Dragons

The name Brian Stableford is universally known among SF and Fantasy fans of my generation. Novelist, editor, critic, sociologist, scholar, translator, he came to represent the capacity of speculative fiction writers and commentators to extend their zone of interest right across the spectrum of written genres and adjacent media. His death a few days ago triggered a memory, and I thought I’d share it here.

In the 1980s, while writing my DPhil thesis on early modern prose fiction – the astonishing story of the invention of what became the modern novel – I got friendly with an Oxford-based musician who shared my passion for fantasy and science fiction in all their manifestations. Martin O’Cuthbert (aka MARTOC) was a punk singer-songwriter, known for his solo experiments in weird electronica, who I knew by his alternative name as a writer and editor, Warren Scott Morrow; tall, lanky, funny, melancholic, buzzing and bleeping with creative energy. Warren introduced me to Bowie’s Berlin period, we discussed all the SF movies and novels of the mid-eighties, and I joined the team that helped him realise one of his projects: to start a magazine.

The magazine in question was called Star Roots, and it only managed one issue, much of which was written by Warren himself. It included comic strips, music and book reviews, short stories (I supplied two), and an interview with Iain Banks, fascinating to read now as a snapshot of his mindset at this point in his career, just two novels into the Culture series – though I seem to remember that Warren was more of a fan of what he termed the ‘fantasy’ novels, especially The Bridge. All in all, the price of the issue bought you plenty of content, and if the presentation was amateurish and the writing uneven, Star Roots was by no means the worst of the magazines and fanzines getting churned out in that extraordinary decade.

It was generous of Banks to supply an interview for the new magazine; but more generous still of Brian Stableford to have presented Warren with a new short story, ‘The Dragons Yetzirah and Alziluth: How the Dragons Yetzirah and Alziluth Lost the Knowledge of a Million Lifetimes’. The story got pride of place on the cover, and Warren chose to place it first, as a guarantee of quality. A revised version was published by Necronomicon Press in Fables and Fantasies (1996), and by Borgo Press in Beyond the Colors of Darkness and Other Exotica (2009); but Warren published the Original Version. I drew the pictures, as part of my doomed attempt to launch a parallel career as an illustrator – I also drew the cover of one of Martin O’Cuthbert’s singles, Follow That Car – and the magazine version of the story is duly included in lists of Stableford’s works, voluminous and varied as they are.

It’s worth pausing over the story. It tells of two dragons, Yetzirah and Alziluth, who form a symbiotic relationship as they soar through space over the course of a million lifetimes. The lifetimes in question are their own, and ‘dragons’, as Stableford points out, ‘are by no means short-lived creatures’. When the time comes to die, each dragon lays a single egg, swallows it, then falls asleep, giving birth by being consumed in its unconscious state  by the ‘clone-child’ that has hatched in its belly. The task of the other dragon is to teach the child everything it knows.  By this means each successive generation of Yetzirahs and Alziluths accumulates more knowledge, garnered in the course of their peregrinations from star system to star system, from galaxy to galaxy, in pursuit of delicious new tastes afforded by ‘the excited light of exploding stars’.

Eventually, however, the dragons quarrel (for no good reason) and fight over the ‘most delicious radiations of a particularly tasteful supernova’. Yetzirah gives Alziluth a mortal wound, and despite all its subsequent efforts to save its companion’s life, Alziluth dies and Yetzirah finds itself alone. Less than a century later Yetzirah gives birth, but of course the newly-hatched Yetzirah has no one to teach it, to replenish and enhance its store of knowledge. As a result the new Yetzirah grows to adulthood in utter ignorance, ‘a mere animal wandering aimlessly in the void’. Whenever it meets with other creatures it falls on them and tears them to pieces, ‘though it did not need their flesh for meat’; and as it rends their bodies with teeth and claws it cries ‘bitter and anguished tears’, though it doesn’t know why.

That’s the story, and I apologise for retelling it in perfunctory fashion. The lyricism of the prose comes through in the fragments I have quoted, and I’m struck as I reread it now how carefully Stableford resisted gendering his dragons; this is both scientifically and politically appropriate, I think, ensuring that these beings can be held to represent us all. But the narrative of the story is a moving one, and it deserves to be remembered. Part of Stableford’s mission as a lover of science fiction was to ensure that the history of science fiction and fantasy be passed down, as far as possible, to new generations; he contributed many entries, for example, to the online Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (which contains a superb summary of his achievements by John Clute and David Pringle), and many of these relate to writers and works which would otherwise have been forgotten. His translation work from French to English ensured that monoglot English readers could expand their horizons to science fiction from another culture and a different period; and his jointly-authored histories of the future took advantage of science fiction’s capacity to take stock of huge swathes of time, from the deep past to unimaginably distant days to come. The notion, then, that all acts of remembrance are deeply precarious, would have resonated with him in a very personal way as a commentary on his own life of literary labour, as well as on the lives of his fellow labourers, past and future. A burst of temper, a sudden scrap, a mortal wound, and whole remembered worlds and histories are obliterated, as if in one of those tasteful supernovas consumed by the dragon companions, neither of whom has any real need to eat for nourishment – or indeed to fight or kill.

One of the key facts of Stableford’s story is that the dragons cannot be hurt or killed by any other species. If they are to be destroyed it must be by their own unaided efforts; no-one else can do the business. Just as they reproduce without assistance, so they destroy one another without assistance, through a random act of thoughtless rage. They need each other, not to reproduce, but to make and remake themselves; and to forget this is to forget all the knowledge accumulated over a million lifetimes. And it is so easy, even for dragons, to forget!

The act of forgetting collapses vast tracts of space and time into nothing at all, or less than nothing. This post is an act of remembrance for Brian, for Warren, for the acts of generosity and needless sharing that sustain all communities, from the symbiotic companions who travel the many dimensions of speculative fiction to the peoples, nations and social groups who live such fragile lives today. Let’s be generous to one another, as Brian was to the makers of Star Roots, those excited young people just setting out on their journey through the precarious wonders of this planet and the imaginary worlds it entertains.

[Revised versions of my Star Roots stories, ‘The Outer Circle’ and ‘Little Ships’, are available here and here.]

Template for Single Sleeve: Martin O’Cuthbert, Follow That Car

 

 

Sense and Nonsense in All’s Well That Ends Well

[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 fifth, from September 2011.]

Francis Wheatley, Helena, Bertram and the King of France (1793) [i.e. Bertram indicates his disdain for Helen], Folger Shakespeare Library
All’s Well That Ends Well is a riddle that begins with the title. As a proverb, as a piece of folklore, the phrase draws attention to the role played by ancestral wisdom in the plot (the heroine, Helen, uses her father’s knowledge of medicine to cure the King of a terminal illness). It informs us that the play is concerned with happy endings, which are a distinguishing feature of the comic genre; but it also implies that happy endings justify the means to bring them about, and that these means may not always be ethical, safe or funny. And it also invites us to consider what ‘wellness’ is, both morally and physically speaking. There’s an air of uncertainty about the title, then, that suits it to this troubled comedy, which seems to pose the question of whether comedy can be brought off at all in a culture as self-absorbed as that of early modern Europe.

The play has much to say about the difficulty of dialogue; indeed it contains some of Shakespeare’s trickiest poetic language, parts of it quite literally nonsense. Verse is its medium, and much of that verse is rhymed. Helen uses rhyme often, and this gives her lines a proverbial feel, like the title, as if she is voicing long-established certainties. ‘Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?’ she asks, and the question becomes an assertion by virtue of the euphonic link between striving and desire. ‘He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister’, she tells the King as she undertakes his cure, and the rhyme lends authority to her claim. The other great users of rhyme in the play are the Countess of Roussillon and the King himself; and their rhymed exchanges with Helen make all three sound as if they were singing from the same hymn-sheet. The King and Helen, in particular, understand each other perfectly as they rhyme in spite of reason – engaging in a melodious contest between sound and sense that gets revived by the King in the final act when he celebrates Helen’s return with a tentative restatement of the title: ‘All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’. Here, then, is yet another meaning of the title: that a conversation goes well when its metrical units end in rhyme. There’s clearly something contrived about this claim – it isn’t ‘true’ in any obvious sense. But its very contrivedness stresses the determination of the rhymers to stage a happy ending against all odds.

John Massey Wright, Helena and the Countess (c 1815), Folger Shakespeare Library

All’s Well is full of elderly people who lament the passing of old-time excellence: the Countess, the old courtier Lafeu, the clown, the King. Their nostalgia is for a very distant past, a golden age when miracles occurred (as they do again in this play: the miracles of the King’s recovery, of Helen’s seeming resurrection) and goddesses walked the earth (as they do again here, embodied by the girl Diana). Above all, they speak of the time when words were linked with their meanings, as Helen insists they are when she addresses Diana. But of all the good things of the past, this exemplary use of language is the hardest to recover. Words and meanings have grown so far apart that one must speak in riddles if one wishes to convey one’s meaning without risk of misunderstanding – what Shakespeare calls ‘misprision’. Helen speaks ‘riddle-like’ to the Countess when she confesses her love for Bertram; and in the final scene, Diana speaks in riddles to the King in her efforts to explain the convoluted paths by which a happy outcome is being accomplished. Riddles are the dialect of oracles, another ancient source of knowledge resurrected by Helen. When she promises the King that she can heal him, she invokes the ‘help of heaven’, just as the priestess did at Delphos when she begged Apollo for answers to his worshippers’ questions. The King is impressed by Helen’s confidence: ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak’, he tells her, ‘And what impossibility would slay / In common sense, sense saves another way’. Her claims to occult knowledge seem to him senseless, like the verses uttered by Apollo; yet the ‘sense’ of the Delphic verses was always confirmed by the outcome of events, just as the sense of Helen’s riddles will assert itself before the play is done. And Helen is only one of the characters in All’s Well to extract sense from a senseless world by uttering apparent nonsense.

Treacherous modern words are a kind of nonsense, but they can bring people together if properly handled, like the patter of a crafty pimp. This is confirmed by the example of Paroles: a braggart soldier who leads Helen’s husband Bertram astray, but who also helps him return to his wife. As his name suggests, Paroles embodies the way words work in the present, leading people away from truth, yet accidentally restoring truth to those who have lost it. This double action can be detected in almost everything he says. In the first act, for instance, he lectures the virgin Helen on the uselessness of virginity (‘there was never virgin got till virginity was lost’); yet despite his salacious motives (he wants to sleep with her himself), Helen is not so much offended by his logic as liberated by it, asking: ‘How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?’ The lecture later serves Bertram’s turn as well: the young man parrots Paroles when he courts Diana:

When you are dead, you should be such a one
As you are now, for you are cold and stern;
And now you should be as your mother was
When your sweet self was got.

Paroles, in other words, speaks both for Helen and disloyal Bertram. He gives voice to Helen’s desire, which she cannot easily voice herself; and he furnishes Bertram with the language of seduction, thus initiating him into the pleasures of sex – the first step on the road back to his wife. This dual action is apparent, too, in the message Paroles delivers to Helen after her marriage, explaining that Bertram has left for the Italian wars. Paroles describes this abandonment as a deferral of the couple’s pleasure, an erotic technique for enhancing their future love-making (it will ‘make the coming hour o’erflow with joy / And pleasure drown the brim’). And despite the fact that Paroles doesn’t mean it – he never expects the couple to meet again – his quasi-pornographic fantasy proves as prophetic as Helen’s promises to the King. The King’s last words before the epilogue (‘The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’) repeat Paroles’s sentiment. Paroles, then, like Helen, is a vehicle for truthful utterance; an inadvertent prophet, as Bertram points out when the braggart’s lies are finally exposed: ‘this counterfeit model has deceived me like a double-meaning prophesier’.

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Act 4, scene 3 of All’s Well that Ends Well (c 1860) [i.e. Paroles Exposed], Folger Shakespeare Library
If Paroles acts as a prophet, then Helen and the older generation sometimes act as pimps. When Lafeu leaves Helen alone with the King he compares himself to the greatest of go-betweens, Pandarus: ‘I am Cressid’s uncle, / That dare to leave two together’. The newly cured King then acts as a pimp with Helen as his client, parading his courtiers before her like rent-boys, then using threats to make Bertram accept her advances. Lafeu expresses his disgust at the courtiers’ failure to respond as compliant rent-boys should: ‘An they were sons of mine […] I would send them to th’Turk to make eunuchs of’. And Bertram is appalled by the role reversal whereby a woman becomes the client and himself the sex object: ‘In such a business’, he says, ‘give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’. Later, Diana’s widowed mother uses the same word, ‘business’, to refer to prostitution: she tells Helen that she is too well brought up to be ‘acquainted with these businesses’. At this point Helen is urging her to work as a madam on her behalf, so that she can substitute herself for Diana between Bertram’s sheets. Helen’s plot to sleep with her own unwilling husband inspires yet another redemptive riddle; she describes it as ‘wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act; / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact’. In a world where men react with horror to lawful sex and instead seek pleasure with unlawful partners, pimping, prostitution and the playing of sexual practical jokes may be legitimate practices, and dealing in double meanings may be the only way to circumvent more damaging forms of duplicity.

In this world Bertram finds himself bewildered. A snob, he cannot see why he should be forced to marry a woman beneath his station, whatever service she may have rendered to his monarch. Twice he finds himself pimped out, so to speak, against his will; once when the King gifts him to Helen, and once when Helen pays the widow to let her bed him in Diana’s place. He lies often, but where other people get away with it (even Paroles, whose lies become his stock-in-trade when he becomes a clown), Bertram’s untruths are always laid bare to humiliating scrutiny, until by the end of the play he has no choice but to become what everyone thinks he should be: a loyal husband to his lady. Everyone else in the play can adapt themselves to the ways of this fallen world; only Bertram cannot deal with it. But he is young, as the King and the Countess insist. We can hope at the end that he has learned from his experiences; just as we can hope that we too have learned from this remarkable piece of theatre, despite all the nonsense we ourselves get up to.

[For a more detailed account of All’s Well, see here.]

Michael Goodman, Helena and the King (1880) [i.e. Helen chooses a husband]

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.