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article-1252250-08578F66000005DC-683_468x312One day she came in to find him sitting at the computer, his face streaming with tears. ‘What on earth’s the matter?’ she asked, thinking he had got an e-mail to say that another of his friends was dead. ‘I’ve found the website for my memories,’ he said.

She looked, and saw sunlight spilling from the monitor, lighting up the tracks of his tears on his poorly-shaven cheeks. As her eyes adjusted to the screen’s brightness she glimpsed willows by a river, sunlight glinting on water, tiny insects dancing in the sunbeams, while peals of birdsong and distant bells poured out of the speakers. Everything was as clear and precise as a sudden recollection that catches you unawares when you’re busy with something else. Tears gathered in her eyes too; that kind of precision is reserved for memories of childhood and youth, and is in itself a trigger for nostalgia regardless of the thing remembered. Gently she stretched out her hand and moved and clicked the mouse so that the picture vanished from the screen. Then she shut down the computer.

He sat staring at the silent machine, the storm of his grief subsiding as she held him in her arms from behind. At last he stirred and turned to smile at her. ‘That was extraordinary,’ he said. ‘But why did you switch it off?’

She laughed. ‘I didn’t know the river with the willows,’ she said. ‘It must be something you remember from before we met. I suppose I was jealous, thinking you could grieve so much for the life you led then. Stop living in the past, my love! Now’s the time to be making memories we can share.’

‘But my darling,’ he said, and stood up, rubbing his eyes. The room was dark and empty, but when he ground the heels of his hands into his eyeballs the darkness was filled with sparks of light like tiny insects dancing.

A little later he went into the kitchen and made himself a pot of fresh coffee. Then he came back carrying a steaming, fragrant mug and turned on the computer again. ‘Memories we can share,’ he said, adjusting his glasses. He ran his eyes up and down the list of options, looking for a suitable search engine.

Fantasies of Complicity in the Second World War

This essay was first published in the Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature, ed. Adam Piette and Mark Rawlinson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 516-23.

PicassoGuernicaAfter the bombing of Guernica in April 1937, many novelists of the Left in Europe turned away from avant garde experiment and took to realism, shocked into reengaging with the material conditions that underpin mid-twentieth century culture – the ‘objective reality’ of the Marxist philosopher-critic Lukacs – by the casual obliteration of the Basque capital by a fleet of Nazi bombers.1 But this event seems also to have led to an explosion of fantastic narratives of unprecedented inventiveness and complexity, written by novelists of many political shades united only in their opposition to fascism. By ‘fantasy’ and the ‘fantastic’ here I mean literary texts that deal in the impossible, foregrounding their own violation of social, physical and technological codes or laws: a loose ragbag of fictions which embraces what we now call Utopias, Dystopias, works of science fiction, alternate histories, secondary world fantasies and magic realism. With the exception of the first, these categories had not yet been formally defined in the 1930s, nor had the distinctions between them yet taken on ‘overtones of that bitter opposition between high and mass culture crucial to the self-definition of high modernism’, as Fredric Jameson puts it.2 Perhaps as a result, writers of all backgrounds showed themselves willing to experiment freely with one or more of these genres or modes as a means of articulating the dreadful irruption of fantasy into the material world that was Nazism.

51gFydml8eL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_The notion of Nazism as realized fantasy – the embodiment of a patriarchal, militaristic nightmare – is directly expressed in Katharine Burdekin’s celebrated novel of 1937, Swastika Night.3 Set in a future Europe which has endured Nazi rule for 700 years, the novel describes a chance meeting between an Englishman called Alfred and a free-thinking German Knight, whose family has secretly preserved a heretical history book for many generations. The book demonstrates that the Nazi version of history is no more than an elaborate lie designed to bolster the related myths of Aryan racial supremacy, of martial prowess as the highest human value, and of the natural ascendancy of men over women. The Knight’s presentation of this book to Alfred both reverses and reinforces the Englishman’s entire world view. Alfred has long imagined himself to be intellectually equal or even ‘superior’ to many Germans he knows – a genetic impossibility according to Nazi doctrine – while dismissing his imaginings as puerile daydreams with no possible basis in fact. Now he realizes that this dismissive attitude to his own self-assessment is the product of conditioning: ‘Everything’s fantastic if it is out of the lines you’re brought up on’ (Burdekin 1940, p. 98). The Knight’s book reveals to him the validity of his own fantasies, the bankruptcy of the Nazi intellectual tradition, and the patent absurdity of the Nazi version of history, and this tallies with Alfred’s reading of the material evidence provided by archaeological remains he has found back home in England. The ruling elite are exposed as constructors of elaborate castles in the air, the lone fantasist as an impeccable logician.

Swastika_nightBurdekin’s imagined future – which is itself an impossible vision of how history could unfold, according to the preface to the second edition of the novel (published by the Left Book Club in 1940), since the contradictions of Nazism could never last so long (Burdekin 1940, p. 4) – shares with other fantastic novels of the 30s and 40s an unnerving willingness to acknowledge the complicity of its author’s gender and nation in the rise of Nazism. According to the Knight – whose name is von Hess – envy of the military might of the British Empire served as ‘one of the motive forces of German imperialism’ (Burdekin 1940, p. 78). And both British and German women acquiesced with enthusiasm in their own subjugation. They shaved their heads, the Knight claims, and made themselves ugly so as to bolster the case for Nazi misogyny, in the belief that catering to these anti-feminist fantasies will somehow strengthen their status as objects of male approval and desire. Of course, the opposite has happened, and by the time we meet Alfred and von Hess all male desire for women has long been eradicated, to be replaced by a form of homoerotic desire between men which is merely the corollary to their disgust with the female of the species. What convinces Alfred to accept the Knight’s heretical version of history is a photograph that reawakens the possibility of mutual desire between men and women: the image of a small, dark, paunchy Hitler (as opposed to the blond giant of myth) standing beside a tall, square-jawed figure which Alfred takes at first for a lovely boy, until the Knight tells him it is a girl, a being inconceivably far removed from the cowering shaven gnomes of Alfred’s experience. This restoration of women to desirability makes possible a future for them; Alfred ends the book with the vision of a world where his daughter can hope to exist as something better than a breeding animal whose sole function is the fabrication of boy soldiers for some always-deferred future war in Asia. For Burdekin, a Lesbian who felt unable to write freely about gender politics except under a male pseudonym (she published novels as Murray Constantine), imagining a better future for women may have seemed almost as revolutionary in 1930s Britain as it would have done in a Nazi Britain 700 years later.

n39413Burdekin is of course not alone among fantasy writers of the 30s and 40s in taking British complicity with fascism as her subject. She is also not alone in identifying the particular social group she belonged to (in this case, European women in general) as being specially implicated in this complicity. Before Guernica, the Permanent Secretary for the Irish Department of Education, Joseph O’Neill, wrote a novel about fascism in Britain called Land Under England (1935); and although his recognition of the British capacity to absorb totalitarian ideologies was informed by the experience of British imperialism in Ireland, his particular focus in painting a totalitarian state is his own specialist area, the education of the young.4 A young man retraces the steps of his long-lost father by descending into a hole near Hadrian’s Wall. He finds himself in an underground landscape lit by luminous fungi and infested by monsters – grotesque embodiments of the horrors that lurk in the human mind (O’Neill was a passionate Freudian). Further down, he discovers a race of human beings descended from the Roman soldiers who built the Wall. These people are still recognizably Roman in costume and technology, still locked into a militaristic ideology, but utterly removed from their ancestors in one remarkable way: they have raised the skill of mind-control to an astonishing new level. Every citizen has his or her mind telepathically shaped in childhood to the precise specifications of some designated occupation. Soldiers, labourers and craftspeople are trained up to be incapable of independent thought, while all the mental powers of the ruling elite are directed towards monitoring the psychological state of their slavish subjects. What drove these descendants of Romans to adopt this mental dictatorship was fear: an ungovernable fear of the monster-infested darkness, which drove many of their number to suicide before the techniques of mind control were brought to perfection. The novel’s narrator too experiences this fear, and finds himself on the verge of giving up his mind to the rulers of the underworld as his father has done before him, surrendering his individual will to the requirements of a collective war against the flesh-devouring beasts of the underworld, until the memory of his strong-minded mother and the sunlit world she inhabits provokes him to resist. In O’Neill’s novel, then, as in Burdekin’s, the idea of empowered women stimulates resistance to fascism, which is represented in both cases as a peculiarly aggressive manifestation of patriarchy – the next evolutionary phase, perhaps, of mid-twentieth century phallocentrism.

The underground Romans of Land Under England are clearly fascists – the fasces being a symbol of the ancient Roman republic, adapted for their purpose by the followers of Mussolini. But the Roman model also underlay the British Empire, a link enshrined in the centrality of Latin to the British private school system. For the Irishman O’Neill, the narrator’s father with his obsession with Rome stands for a pernicious obsession with ancient bloodlines among the British aristocracy; his family name is Julian and he traces his descent from the governors of Roman Britain. This obsession is kept in check by his bond with the narrator’s mother, whose Northern English family stands for technological innovation and industrial labour. But as soon as the conjugal bond is broken by the father’s departure to fight in the First World War – which he sees as a war in defence of Roman civilization against the forces of barbarism – the delicate balance between the father’s fantasies and the mother’s practicality is destroyed, so that it later seems natural for the father to throw in his lot with the subterranean warriors. At the end of the novel, the narrator’s now homicidal progenitor must be killed before the young man can return to the surface. As though assisting at a grotesque symbolic re-enactment of Ireland’s emancipation from its paternalistic British oppressors, the young man watches as his father flings himself into a crowd of toadlike carnivores, which ritualistically cut his throat. In the process, the older man’s veneration for imperial Rome is reduced to a suicidal commitment to violence, to patriarchy, to the assertion of his own physical and mental supremacy over all potential rivals. The father once dead, the young man is free to determine his own future, liberated from the nightmare of history – though conscious still of the lurking menace of an army of Roman automata beneath the wholesome English soil, ready to burst out and overwhelm the island if it can find a convenient exit.

md5302235610In describing his fantastic underground society, the educator O’Neill dwells on the agonizing educational processes of the underworld, as teachers ‘root up and destroy the deepest sources of those torrents of vitality’ in young children – curiosity and wakening intelligence – in order to mould them into components of an efficient military machine (132). The Welsh journalist and broadcaster Howell Davies, by contrast, writing under the unlikely pseudonym of ‘Andrew Marvell’, places his own trade of journalism at the centre of his novel of fascist Britain, Minimum Man (1938).5 This ‘story of the counter-revolution of nineteen seventy’ (Davies 1953, p. 5) tells of a reporter’s accidental discovery of a new phase in human evolution: a breed of men and women no more than a foot in height, naked and covered with fur, whose astonishing powers of mind and body enable them to initiate a coup that overthrows the fascist dictator of Britain and installs one of their number in his place. The reporter, a man called Swan, uses his professional skills and contacts first to ferret out information about the origins of this new species (they turn out to have been spontaneously conceived by a rural Welshwoman) and later to help coordinate their anti-fascist coup. But even as he does so he worries that he is merely replacing one dictatorship with another. The phrase ‘Minimum Man’ refers not just to the size of the new species but also to their willingness to strip down every question of morality and social organization to its most basic components – their freedom, that is, from the trammels of history. Uncooperative members of their breed are mercilessly slaughtered for the collective good. Human beings who threaten their safety are casually disposed of. Love is as unknown among them as monogamy. Unencumbered by taboos, they are both capable of imagining better ways to organize society – a miniature woman speculates at one point about the benefits of matriarchy (Davies 1953, p. 95) – and disconcertingly comfortable with their status as harbingers of the end of the human species. Although they throw in their lot with the anti-fascists, their confidence in their own superiority makes them sound fascistic. At the end of the novel the future under their regime is uncertain; but as one human woman puts it – an old partisan who has fought against the Nazis and the Franco regime – if they turn out to be as bad or worse than the dictator they have toppled, ‘I shall fight them… I will not be a slave’ (Davies 1953, p. 214).

82fe901a09b14a9c63d3987fa98a720fHowell Davies conceives, then, of a future quasi-fascistic dictatorship which is like him spawned in Wales, whose cause is aided and abetted by his own journalistic profession, and whose paramilitary coup is staged in the part of London where he lived, Highgate Hill, only yards from the cemetery where Marx is buried. Minimum Man sprang fully-fledged from Davies’s head, and is entwined with Davies’s cultural and intellectual environment, so that his complicity with its imagined conquest of Britain is both profound and complicated. But unlike their knowing creator, his miniature assassin-dictators have a disarming innocence about them: a bluntness of speech and a refusal to countenance the wickedness of human adults which suggest another explanation for his decision to make them the size of newborn infants. They are shocked and disgusted by the perverse social arrangements of the ancient world in which they find themselves; and their insistence on improving it makes them attractive as well as horrifying. This notion of a disturbing innocence in the adherents of fascism crops up quite often in the fantasies of the 30s and 40s. One of Burdekin’s main characters is Hermann, whose unquestioning acceptance of Nazi doctrine comes second only to his passionate love of the Englishman Alfred, and who is described by the Knight von Hess as ‘an innocent man’ despite the fact that he kills a young boy in the early pages of the novel (Burdekin 1940, p. 127). As it happens, his love for Alfred turns Hermann in the end into a passionate defender of Alfred’s one-man anti-fascist insurrection. But in Winifred Ashton’s anti-fascist fantasy The Arrogant History of White Ben (1939) – written under her penname Clemence Dane – the paradoxical innocence of the bloodstained protagonist undergoes no such redemptory volte-face.

UnknownWhite Ben is an ordinary scarecrow – accidentally brought to life by a little girl holding a mandrake – who goes on to become the fascist dictator of England. If this sounds an implausible premise, it is made convincing by the sheer intensity of Ashton’s descriptions of Ben and the countryside that makes him. Ben springs from the fertile English soil, and a litany of flower-names and tree-terms accompanies him on his road to power: morning-glory, mayweed, briony, horse chestnut, campion. He is constructed, too, from the old garments that clothe him: ‘a priest’s vestment, a soldier’s gauntlets and civilian mackintosh, a gentleman’s pleasure-hat’, and the operating-coat of a surgeon killed in the disastrous war of the nineteen-fifties (Ashton 1939, p. 20). ‘Men’s memories’, in fact, are ‘buttoned about him’. And as he marches towards London, gathering followers on the way from among the human debris left behind by the recent conflict, he accumulates a stock of phrases and attitudes from men and women of all classes, so that when he is in London perpetrating his atrocities both the aristocratic Lady Pont and the working-class butler Trelawney recognize their own language spilling from his turnip lips in justification of his crimes against humanity (Ashton 1939, pp. 348-9).

6382780-MBeing a scarecrow, the chief lessons Ben learns from his friends are lessons of fear and hatred, and his career, which begins as a crusade against crows, quickly becomes a massacre of people, since everyone thinks he uses the word ‘crows’ metaphorically. The hatreds of his friends become his hatreds; but unlike them he was assembled with the sole purpose of acting on his dislikes, and he has an uncanny gift for provoking his allies, too, to aggression: especially those acts of mutual self-destruction that are so often deployed by nascent military regimes, pitting friends against friends to consolidate their power. As a result, the love and hero-worship Ben excites in their hearts turn to bitterness and loathing, and he quickly finds himself isolated, a living tool that has been used by England’s new military governors and can now be dispensed with. But when he disappears at the story’s end, worn out by the weight of hatred and expectation that has been laid on his flimsy shoulders, his story is retold as myth. Monuments are erected to his memory, and the tale of his journey from birth to power is retold again and again by those who knew him, with a solemnity that belies the appalling preposterousness of its turnip-headed hero. He becomes once again a figurehead of militarism, the fantastic nature of his existence as a living scarecrow underscoring the vein of fantasy that feeds the fascistic rule of force.

Winifred Ashton was a playwright and screenwriter, and as one reads the Arrogant History it becomes clear that Ben’s career is made up of a series of performances. His awakening is described with the visual precision of a set of cinematic storyboards. The central section of the novel takes place in a country house, and the dialogue in it resembles that of a black comedy, something by Ashton’s good friend Noel Coward, directed in this case to the appalling ends of overthrowing a legitimate government and restarting a recently abandoned war. Ben is forever making speeches, and the fact that his words are not his own (he has picked up every phrase, crow-like, from scraps of other people’s conversation) reinforces his association with Ashton’s professional life among playhouses and film studios. We keep hearing his story in retrospect as having been performed in theatres and music halls – a device that both places a Brechtian distance between reader and narrative and brings the narrative closer to the world of Winifred Ashton. One can imagine her exclaiming when the scarecrow has grown bloodthirsty and bewildered, as Lady Pont exclaims at one point, ‘Oh Ben, Ben, don’t put it upon me!’ (Ashton 1939, p. 315). It’s as if Ashton wishes to feel in her bones, as it were, the truth of the book’s last sentence: that Ben is ‘no more than the wish fulfilment of a backward people, and that he personifies in their folk-lore the natural human instinct to maltreat the harmless and destroy the happy’ (Ashton 1939, p. 420). What was ‘natural’ for her was a sense of theatricality, and she had the courage to see how her own performer’s instinct could translate itself into the instrument of violent oppression.

These four now little-known fantasies demonstrate the extent to which anti-fascist writers of the Western Archipelago were prepared to figure fascism as emerging from the dark recesses of their own brains. Complicity with fascism among certain elements of British and Irish society in the 1930s is of course an attested fact; but there is something startling and, on reflection, impressive about these writers’ readiness to suggest that they cannot so easily exonerate themselves from some degree of participation in the circumstances that gave rise to the fascistic state of mind. Ashton refers several times in the Arrogant History to the psychologically and economically crippling terms imposed on Germany by its enemies at the end of the Great War; terms which planted and cultivated the seeds of resentment that sprang up as Nazism. O’Neill reminds us that every mind contains its monsters – the sources of reasonable or unreasoning terror – and that acquiescence in dictatorship can be a form of self-defence against those monsters. For Burdekin, fear of the other sex can dominate the unconscious of either gender, and Nazism is one means by which patriarchy may choose to express its gynophobic paranoia. And Davies, like O’Neill and Burdekin, sees fascism as springing from the desire to engineer a Darwinian evolution away from a condition of subservience to all these fears and paranoias. Once one has noticed this theme of complicity running through the obscurer fantastic novels of the 30s and 40s, one begins to see it everywhere in the work of better-known fantasy writers of the period. For a while, novels, novelists and Nazism were woven together in a horrible symbiotic knot, and it seems as if fantasy was a form or mode particularly well suited to undertake the controversial task of addressing this symbiosis.

15042-b-obrien_treti.straznikThe brilliant Irish humorist Brian O’Nolan, for example – better known as Flann O’Brien – wrote a novel in 1940 in which the two qualities for which he was most celebrated, wit and knowledge, find themselves fused into the components of a kind of Irish atom bomb, always on the verge of detonation.6 The unnamed protagonist of The Third Policeman murders an old man in order to fund his learned commentary on the mad philosopher de Selby. He then finds his way to a mysterious police station filled with mind-troubling inventions, where he is summarily convicted of the crime he has just committed, despite the total absence of any evidence against him. While awaiting execution he is shown around an underground facility which seems in some obscure way to control the fantastic world he has strayed into; his policemen friends must constantly fine-tune its arcane mechanisms to prevent the whole shebang from exploding and wiping out humanity. All this is told in scintillating comic prose like a more elaborate version of the anecdotes O’Nolan unfolded in his famous column for the Irish Times, the Cruiskeen Lawn. Europe, it would seem on the evidence of this novel, has got itself enmeshed in an appalling practical joke, which will not release its victims until its inexorable logic has been worked out – at the expense of their lives or their collective sanity.

3552261860_06935049d4_oAnother Irishman, the scholar C. S. Lewis, wrote a trio of science fiction novels between 1938 and 1945 as ‘propaganda’ for Christianity – competing with, yet also likening itself to, the other forms of indoctrination that occupied the printing press and airwaves at the time of writing. In a fragment of a fourth novel, The Dark Tower, composed between 1938 and 1940 but not printed till the 1970s, he imagines a parallel world of ‘Othertime’ which is rapidly approaching his own time and place: a world where horned dictators, served by a goose-stepping, brainwashed militia, occupy a tower which is a precise replica of the new library building at the University of Cambridge.7 This tower contains a library, like its English counterpart; but it is a library of atrocities, whose books record knowledge obtained through the torture and death of children. The threat that drives the book’s plot is that the tower and the Cambridge Library will converge, and that when they do their environments will combine, and England be enslaved by the horned dictators. Lewis had read Land Under England, and reacted to its horrible yet potent premise by transposing O’Neill’s fascistic automata into the heart of the community he loved most, that of the British intellectual elite.

Once_future_king_coverT. H. White, who spent the war years in Ireland as a conscientious objector, wrote most of his Arthurian fantasy sequence The Once and Future King (1958) in the 1930s and early 40s, reconfiguring the global conflict as a civil war in his heart’s homeland, medieval Britain.8 Mervyn Peake began the first of his Gormenghast books, Titus Groan (1946), while vainly seeking employment as a war artist, and made its protagonist a young man who is half-heroic and wholly power-hungry, a would-be dictator who poses in succession as artist, actor, clown, adventurer and ladykiller – very much like Peake himself.9 Finally, when Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien assembled the most influential work of modern fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, between 1938 and 1949, he began and ended it in a fictional Shire that closely resembles the country round his home town of Oxford.10 As the final volume of the sequence draws to a close its hobbit heroes return home to find that the Shire has been taken over by a quasi-fascistic government run by the former wizard Saruman. The hobbits’ journey through the war-torn lands of Middle Earth has, among its other purposes, that of preparing them for this eventuality and teaching them the appropriate response to it: namely, the extirpation of profiteering invaders, the naming and shaming of collaborators, and the demolition of the industrial architecture that has fouled their beloved rural environment. The particular journey of Tolkien’s principal hobbit, Frodo, had as its end the destruction of a Ring that conferred invisibility; and it is only when Frodo finds himself confronted with Saruman on his own doorstep that this invisibility stands exposed as (in part) a metaphor for the secret workings of complicity that can transform even the neighbourly Shire, in Frodo’s absence, into productive ground for totalitarianism.

In twenty-first century parlance, the word fantasy is often used to mean a form of wish-fulfilment, the conscious or unconscious fashioning of simulacra of the sometimes forbidden things we most desire. British and Irish fantasists of the mid-century showed their readers that what they most desired sometimes bore a disturbing resemblance to what they most loathed: innocently murderous scarecrows, sadistic rulers with poisonous phallic horns in the middle of their foreheads, paternalistic instructors with total control over the minds of their pupils, brilliant, athletic, handsome miniature replacements for the bloated and obsolescent human species. They tell a version of the history of the mind in the 1930s and 40s which could not have been told in any other way. It is time we paid attention to this version.



  1. For Lukacs on ‘objective reality’ see his History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Boston, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972). He applies the concept to literature in The Historical Novel (London: Merlin Press, 1989). For the view that modernist experiment peaks in the 1920s and tails off in the 1930s ‘largely because of the dogmatic influence of the Soviet enforcement of socialist realism’, see Jane Goldman, Modernism, 1910-1945: Image to Apocalypse (Basingstoke and Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 28ff. and 214ff.
  2. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London and New York: Verso, 2005), p. 5; but see the whole of chapter 5, ‘The Great Schism’, for a discussion of the relationship between Science Fiction, Utopia and fantasy. On definitions of fantasy see Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), chapter 2.
  3. For Burdekin’s reaction to fascism, and especially the impact on her of the bombing of Guernica, see Daphne Patai’s Afterword to Burdekin’s The End of This Day’s Business (New York: The Feminist Press, 1989). For introducing me to the works of Burdekin and Winifred Ashton I am grateful to my mother, Elizabeth Maslen, who discusses them in her important book Political and Social Issues in British Women’s Fiction, 1928-1968 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001).
  4. For O’Neill’s life and works see M. Kelly Lynch’s fine introduction to his last novel, The Black Shore, ed. Lynch (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000).
  5. For Davies’ life and work see Adrian Dannatt’s Foreword to Davies’s novel Congratulate the Devil, Library of Wales (Cardigan: Parthian, 2008).
  6. For O’Brien’s imagined complicity with the bombings of the 30s and 40s see R. W. Maslen, ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006), 84-104.
  7. For a detailed analysis of The Dark Tower and its relationship with O’Neill’s Land Under England see Robert W. Maslen, ‘Towards an Iconography of the Future: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists’, Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Asthetik, Band 18 (2000), 222-249.
  8. For a fuller account of Peake’s anxieties about complicity, see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), ed. R. W. Maslen, introduction; and R. W. Maslen, ‘Fantasies of War in Peake’s Uncollected Verse’, Peake Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23.



Constantine, Murray [Katharine Burdekin], Swastika Night, Left Book Club Edition (London: Victor Gollancz, 1940).

Dane, Clemence [Winifred Ashton], The Arrogant History of White Ben (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1939).

Lewis, C. S., The Dark Tower and Other Stories (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1987).

Marvell, Andrew [Howell Davies], Minimum Man (Worcester and London: The Science Fiction Book Club, 1953).

O’Brien, Flann [Brian O’Nolan], The Third Policeman (London: Flamingo, 1993).

O’Neill, Joseph, Land under England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987).

Peake, Mervyn, Titus Groan (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1946).

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Fellowship of the Ring (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954).

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Two Towers (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954).

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Return of the King (London: George Allen and Unwin,1955).

White, T. H., The Once and Future King (London: Collins, 1958).

White, T. H., The Sword in the Stone (London: Collins, 1938).

White, T. H., The Witch in the Wood (London: Collins, 1939).

White, T. H., The Ill-Made Knight (London: Collins, 1940).

White, T. H., The Book of Merlyn (Austin, TS and London: University of Texas Press, 1977).




Julie Bertagna, the Exodus Trilogy (2002-2011)

71-gaHrRwSLNot too surprisingly, literary fantasies of Glasgow are obsessed by the weather. Glasgow is a West Coast city which benefits from the warming influence of the Gulf Stream while enduring a high level of rainfall, as band after band of low pressure rolls in from the Atlantic, venting cataracts of water on the streets before passing on. The level of light in winter is low, as Alasdair Gray reminds us in his novel Lanark (1981), where a new arrival in an alternative Glasgow called Unthank spends much of his time in a futile quest for the missing sun. Gray’s Glasgow for much of his life was darker, of course, than Glasgow today – coal smoke from household fires and industrial chimneys had blackened the façades, and smogs settled over the city on a regular basis – but light continues to fascinate modern Glaswegians, thanks to the spectacular contrast between daylight hours in midsummer (when the sky never quite gets dark) and midwinter (when the sun sets not much after 3 in the afternoon). Neil Williamson’s Glassholm in The Moon King (2013) is literally tethered to the changing moon, and the moods of the city’s inhabitants are directly affected by its waxing and waning, as are the fabric of their houses and the local atmospheric conditions, which grow steadily more extreme as the full moon approaches. Williamson makes his alternative Glasgow an island, anticipating its eventual detachment from the rest of Scotland by rising seas as the polar icecaps melt. Kirsty Logan’s Glasgow has been totally submerged in The Gracekeepers (2015): the West of Scotland in that novel – and seemingly the rest of the world – has been reduced to a collection of islands, protected by their fiercely conservative occupants against incursions by travellers, pirates and refugees. But it’s in Julie Bertagna’s Exodus trilogy (2002-2011) that the weather truly takes charge, wiping out whole archipelagoes and transforming the city into a working, waterlogged model of the drastic social inequalities that obtain under late capitalism. Being a Young Adult series, the book places the fate of the rain- and wind-lashed survivors in the hands of two generations of intrepid teenagers; but the trilogy also considers the role of stories themselves in shaping the world and its changing weather to a greater extent than any of the other books I’ve mentioned.

zenith-by-julie-bertagnaThe Exodus trilogy is set in the future, 100 years from its date of publication, but Bertagna tells her story in the present tense, and it soon becomes apparent that this is a political as well as an aesthetic decision. The causes of the cataclysmic rise in the level of the world’s oceans are all around us as we read, and even as we’re caught up in the adventures of the young heroine of the first two books, Mara, we’re constantly reminded that her story is part of ours. The second volume, Zenith, even ends with a direct call to arms for its readers, informing them in a Q and A about a range of organizations they can join in the struggle to persuade the world’s governments to take climate change seriously. The effects of that climate change are most dramatically shown in the first book of the trilogy, Exodus, which opens with an island community battling the worst storms in living memory, whose ferocity forces them to stay indoors for weeks at a time, while the ocean eats away at the land they live on, consuming cliffs and fields and neighbouring islands with impartial greed. Mara’s frustration at her forced confinement is well evoked, as is the terror of hearing the sea as it chomps its way up the village street, and the shock of seeing the changes it has inflicted when it finally calms. The ocean continues to pose a threat when she leaves her island and finds her way to new communities: the shanty town of refugee boats that clings to the outer wall of the sky city, New Mungo, lashed by storms and the backwash from passing supply ships; the Netherworld of the Treenesters, whose wooded island is steadily sinking; the pirate city of Pomperoy, whose unexpected presence in mid ocean causes a collision which sparks off a war; the cliff city of Ilira, which exploits fog and darkness to wreck foreign vessels. In the second novel, Zenith, it’s the Arctic climate that dominates the narrative, with its winter night that lasts for weeks, turning water to stone and confining human beings to the shelter of caves and cliffside houses. The weather seems to have stabilized by the third novel, bringing with it the possibility of a new stability in the world’s communities; but the recollection of the turbulent weather of the first two books, and of the political struggles to which that turbulence gave rise, ensures that the reader is left under no illusion that this stability will be easy to maintain.

6742585The Exodus trilogy has been described as an epic, by Bertagna as well as her reviewers. The word is often used loosely, but here it’s appropriate, since the books have all the proper ingredients. The story begins in the middle, after the sea has risen. The roots of this latter-day deluge lie with us, the readers, while another segment of the story involved Mara’s heroic grandmother Mary, whose achievements in saving her people in the face of climatic disaster are often likened to hers. Mara’s adventures, meanwhile, recall those of Virgil’s Aeneas. Like him she leads her people from a place under siege towards the hope of a better future; and as with Aeneas this hope is underpinned by signs from supernatural forces. In her case these signs are inscribed in the surviving stone statues of a sunken city, some of which seem disconcertingly to share her features. Like Aeneas, Mara finds that the new lands to which her destiny takes her are already occupied by hostile peoples, and that she and her fellow exiles must fight for the right to share their territory (though not, as with Aeneas, to take it over). She spends the obligatory period in the underworld, like other epic heroes – two underworlds, in fact: first the shadowy Netherworld beneath the sky city of New Mungo, then (in the second novel, Zenith) the caves of Greenland. The funeral games in honour of Aeneas’s father Anchises have their equivalent in the games she plays among the decaying ruins of the internet, to which she gains access through a quasi-magical crystal ball, and which she knows as ‘the Weave’. And like the Aeneid, her story ends with a showdown, a time of conflict between rival peoples whose outcome will determine the nature of the new society she seeks to establish in the Arctic circle.

{19C8ADC8-EEBB-4735-95BB-E103DD4552AC}Img400In addition to these formal connections with epic, the trilogy also celebrates another art form in which the ancient epics are rooted: oral storytelling. The islanders at the beginning of Exodus pass the long storm season telling each other stories. Some of these are family histories (‘I’ve told you all the stories’ says the oldest islander, Tain, as he goes on to reveal new facts about Mara’s grandmother). Others are fairy tales, which help to stave off the terror of global catastrophe by placing fear at distance, through the power of that ancient incantation, Once upon a time. Mara’s little brother Corey combines the fairy tales she has told him in an effort to express his defiance of the weather: ‘Fee fi fo fum! Huff and puff and blow your house down! […] But the storm won’t get us, will it, Mara? Our house is made of stone.’ But there is a third kind of storytelling, closely related to these two, which is the art of telling the truth. This is the narrative art connected in old epics and tragedies with men and women who have a special relationship with the gods: prophets, heroes, victims, priests and legendary lovers. In Exodus Mara has the unenviable task of telling an inconvenient truth to her fellow islanders: that their only hope of survival is to leave their island and commit themselves to the uncertainties of exile. She succeeds in doing so with the help of evidence gathered from the Weave, which till then she has seen as a playground, a place without consequences in the real world of the island – just like stories themselves. It’s in the Weave that she finds the first clue to the existence of the legendary sky cities, which until that moment were no more than fairy tales, fabrications pandering to the islanders’ baseless dreams of eventual rescue. And it’s in the Weave that she establishes her first connection with the world beyond the island – once again through stories. Her first sight of the virtual equivalent of a sky city evokes in her mind the magical phrase that starts all stories, and it’s this phrase that draws the attention of a passing stranger:

She concentrates harder and the hazy vision resolves into a thick trunk of unimaginably colossal towers, topped by a ferocious geometry of networks and connections. […] The majestic towers look like something out of a fairy tale.

‘Once upon a time,’ Mara whispers, thrilling at the words that always began a story. ‘Once upon a time, in a time out of mind…’

[…] ‘Who are you?’ a voice demands out of the blue, sending jagged shock waves through the cyber haze. […] ‘Who are you? […] And what do you know about once upon a time?’

The stranger’s question is not an idle one. He is a cyberfox, the avatar of a boy called David Stone, who lives in New Mungo, a metropolis designed to protect its inhabitants by raising them on pillars high above the rising ocean. He and his fellow citizens have been denied access to certain essential truths about their past. They know nothing about the decision made by their ancestors to save a small portion of the world’s population at the expense of the rest; or about the continued existence outside the city walls of bands of starving boat people, who have no hope of gaining access to the life of luxury led by what are literally, in these novels, the upper classes. Under these circumstances, Once upon a time becomes a call to arms: knowing what happened in the past, when the cities were built – and knowing what’s happening outside them now, which is the result of what happened then – is the key to a revolution which may or may not overthrow the unjust world order. Telling the story of the abandoned millions becomes David’s lifelong task, just as it was Mara’s; in the third book of the trilogy we learn that he has fomented global rebellion, both within and beyond the cities, by telling stories. Some of these describe the way the world really is, narrating its past and present on the radio waves and planting historical facts like booby traps in the sky cities’ version of the internet, the Noos, to be discovered by his fellow citizens in their travels through cyberspace. Others are drawn from forgotten novels – Madame Bovary, War and Peace – and are designed to awaken the imaginations of potential rebels, to ignite their curiosity about their fellow citizens, about politics, gender, difference, class. All the forms of stories Bertagna incorporates into her epic, then, are intensely political; they are active, they do work in the world, they spark off rebellions large and small. In the course of reading the trilogy, stories become weapons as they were for John Milton and Doris Lessing, ‘alive and potent and fructifying’, capable of unsettling or giving strength to the minds that receive them.

But for Bertagna, as for Milton and Lessing, the process of telling stories is also a process of resisting the inherited stories that constrain or oppress us. Stone in this series – the substance from which cities are built, especially in Scotland – is both a promise and a prison. As I mentioned earlier, Mara’s destiny seems to be set in stone – she sees her image in the statues of Glasgow – and she spends much of her time in Exodus worrying over whether she is simply acting out a prewritten script, imposed on her by some invisible overlord, or acting for herself, in the best interests of the people she leads across the stormy ocean. David Stone, meanwhile, has had his destiny mapped out for him by his father, who expects him to inherit the reins of power in the elitist oligarchy he himself inherited from his father, the architect of the cities in the sky. David constructs a new identity for himself by changing his name; first to Fox, which refers to his cyberfox avatar which roams freely through the cyberspace of the Noos, and whose meeting with Mara first awakens him to the global injustice of which he is a part; then to the Midnight Storyteller, who narrates (among other things) the story of Mara’s adventures. He adopts these names in a bid to take control of his own story, to refuse the version of it told by his father and substitute the hope of change embodied by the young islander. Fox voices his motivation in becoming the Storyteller most clearly in the third book of the trilogy, where he changes his plans for the rebellion against the sky cities in an effort to track down and redeem his tyrannical parents: ‘I am the storyteller, he is thinking. I can tell this tale any way I want. I will not die.’ He does not succeed in ending the tale exactly as he wishes, but this is because he runs up against other people’s tales: that of his mother, for instance, who turns out to have a wholly unexpected backstory of her own. The moment when he discovers his mother’s narrative confirms for him that the world is made up of many stories, over which it is morally indefensible to seek to impose any kind of overall control. If Fox can change his story, others too can change the narratives of their lives and the movements they’re part of. Nothing – not even David Stone’s name – is set in stone. This is one of the hopeful statements made by the trilogy.

Names can be traps, though, if we’re not careful, and a tragic example of this is Fox’s young protégée Pandora. Her name – which is given her by Fox when he first finds her – evokes her confusion about the kind of story she is part of and the kind of future she wants for herself and others. At one point she thinks of herself as the heroine in a fairy tale romance, destined to marry her handsome rescuer – Fox himself; but she quickly learns that Fox regards her as a child, not a possible partner. Pandora also thinks of herself as human, but later learns that Fox thinks of her as a different species. Later still she imagines herself as a warrior princess preparing to seize power in New Mungo after the revolution, but afterwards discovers that Fox only intends her to be the guardian of the city, not its ruler. If Pandora is also a symbol of hope, like her mythical counterpart, it is hope for the people she liberates, not for herself. She is an anarchic resister of other people’s narratives, but she never quite finds a narrative of her own – at least, not within the confines of the trilogy. She represents, in fact, the dangers of an excessive reliance on old stories, such as traditional myths, fairy tales and romances, as well as the excitement of telling new ones. Their power can work to limit our thinking, and Bertagna is never simplistic in her celebration of the liberating power of fiction.

Glasgow in the 1950s

Other characters in the trilogy are more fortunate than Pandora, in that they succeed in finding new stories to tell about themselves, new tales to embody. This success is encapsulated – as it is with Fox – in their willingness to take charge of their names. At the beginning of the trilogy many of Mara’s fellow islanders have traditional names: Mara’s grandmother Mary, her mother Rosemary, her brother Corey, the fishermen Alex and Jamie. These names link them in an unbroken line of succession to their readers, many of whom have names like these, with their implied associations with family, religion, history, place. One exception is the old islander Tain, who is named both for an old Irish epic and for the silvered back of a mirror, and thus points simultaneously to past and present. Tain gives Mara a mirror in a box, as if enjoining her to see herself as she is rather than as others see her, and tells her stories about her heroic grandmother and the world that was. The old man’s name may also recall the Scots word Teind, which means tithe or tax, and is often used to denote the sacrifice of a life that must be made every seven or nine years in order for the fairies to retain their immortality. Later, however, when Mara arrives in the Netherworld beneath New Mungo, she finds it occupied by the Treenesters – descendants of the Glasgow working classes who were refused admission to the sky city – and that they have named themselves after parts of the drowned city: Gorbals, Broomielaw, Possil, Partick, Candleriggs, Clayslaps. Each evening they reinforce their connection to their lost home by gathering around a fire and shouting their names, which are also Glasgow’s, into the darkness. The Treenesters, then, have renamed themselves – Candleriggs was once called Lily – but remain attached to the stones of the past, implying an inflexibility that threatens to drown them if they stubbornly stick to the land they live on, which is sinking fast.

41upGfvEqVL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_Later in the story, by contrast, young people are always naming themselves, in defiant assertion of their right to tell their own stories. In Aurora, an abused girl in Ilira calls herself by the hopeful name of Candle, in defiance of her father’s insistence that she be Tartoq, the Iliran word for darkness. A young sea gypsy renames himself Pontifix, which means bridge builder or (more ominously) Pope. A wild boy changes his name from Wing, which is the name of Mara’s island, to Wolfscar, which better describes his appearance and allegiances. In the process the boy confirms the trajectory of the series, which is from an identification of people with fixed places – drowned islands, lost cities, non-existent nations – to an identification with other people, not always from the same community (Mara names her daughter Lily after Candleriggs). Mara’s own name does not change, but its meanings shift; at first she associates it with the Hebrew word for bitterness, but it is also the Gaelic word for the sea she makes her own, and evokes her grandmother’s name of Mary (Queen of Scots, Queen of Heaven) without repeating it. Even the names that don’t get changed in Bertagna’s trilogy are fluid, complex in their connections, and thus eminently suited to the complex characters to whom she gives them.

23main building glasgow_credit_david o hare
The Glasgow University Tower

Fluidity is the natural state of a world in deluge, and fluid is inimical to both books and buildings. One of the shocking aspects of Bertagna’s trilogy is the high ‘mortality rate’ (so to speak) for objects that are given a high cultural value in contemporary society: ancient architecture, museum and gallery artifacts, works of literature, science and history. Books get burned to keep people warm (shades of Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow), or lose pages, or get soaked (well, the world is covered in water) and become unreadable. Much-loved urban landmarks subside. I was struck by the buildings Bertagna chose to represent Glasgow: the medieval cathedral, which of course featured as a shelter for the homeless in Gray’s Lanark; the university building, especially its distinctive tower. Their dominance of the otherwise waterlogged Glasgow cityscape gives the book a fantastic air as opposed to a science fictional one – in ‘real life’ other buildings would presumably survive along with them, such as the magnificently brutalist Glasgow University Library, or the Piranesi-esque Royal Infirmary. But Bertagna chooses these ones for good reason: so that the abandonment of a great religious monument, and the collapse of Gilbert Scott’s baronial fantasia, can be measured against the fate of those who really embody the city: its citizens, whose needs are so often subordinated to those of the material cityscape. Seeing these attractive buildings and important books subjected to dreadful abuse in the trilogy is disturbing; but it’s more disturbing, perhaps, to find oneself more upset by their treatment than by that of the novels’ human population. Emmerich used that trick well in the New York library scenes from The Day after Tomorrow, as did the ending of Schaffner’s 1968 movie of The Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston famously stumbles across the Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the sand. The notion of the artist/reader/viewer’s complicity with the warped values they claim to resist is a repeated theme of radical writers such as Alasdair Gray and China Miéville. Works of art like Bertagna’s cannot help but be complicit with (for instance) global warming, or global capitalism, since they are part of the industrialized human culture that gave rise to both. And like it or not, readers too are complicit; we wear global warming in our clothes, we eat it, drink it, breathe it, and use it to style our hair. What these writers offer us instead is a means of examining our complicity rather than ignoring it altogether, as we usually do.

Glasgow Cathedral

Bertagna’s best examination of the issue of complicity comes at the point in Exodus when Mara finds herself effectively fighting off the desperate people who struggle to board her vessel as it sails away from the sky city towards what she hopes will be freedom. There are so many desperate boat people trying to board that she is afraid her ship will capsize; but even as she fights to save it she recognizes that she is repeating the worst atrocities of the citizens of New Mungo, who barred the bulk of the world’s population from their refuges because – quite simply – there wasn’t room for them in Paradise. Fluidity, then, extends from stories and names to morality in this series, and Mara finds herself unable wholly to condemn the actions of the world’s elite because she herself has repeated them. Indeed, her actions are morally more reprehensible than theirs, since unlike most of New Mungo’s occupants she knows herself to be a fellow migrant, having fled her island on the same sort of ‘refugee boats’ the would-be stowaways are trying to escape from. It’s a fine and startling moment in Bertagna’s narrative, and lingers with the reader as well as with Mara for the rest of the series.

Fluidity is also a characteristic of human relationships in this trilogy. If stories can be both destructive and constructive, so can affections. Bertagna’s books are full of rivalries in love – in particular, love triangles, like miniature versions of the trilogy itself. In the first book Mara meets the Treenester Broomielaw, who is loved with equal intensity by two men, Possil and Gorbals. Mara herself is loved in that novel by Rowan and Fox, while in the second book, Zenith, her posse of lovers grows more complex, as Rowan and Fox are joined by the gypsy, Tuck. Fox, meanwhile, is adored by Mara and Pandora, just as his grandfather Caledon – founder of New Mungo – is loved by two women, Lily/Candleriggs and Fox’s mother. Each of these sets of relationships represents a choice of paths or possibilities: alliances with one or other of the different communities that make up Bertagna’s postdiluvian world. Each of the single figures who finds him- or herself loved by two others represents a potential bridge between these communities; each rivalry could easily develop into a new alliance or a state of war. The threefold relationships could be taken to represent Bertagna’s refusal to see the world in binaries; the crude binaries of traditional marriage, of us and them, of good and evil. Her new story, in other words, is designed in its every element to offer a different kind of narrative to the ideological ones she has inherited.

The dominant images in the trilogy – at least, the ones I have noticed – are twofold. The first is a series of bridges – most of them broken in the first book, and some of them designed for the exclusive use of an elite. It would have been easy for Bertagna to give bridges wholly positive associations – as ways of connecting the world, mending broken communities, bringing hostile peoples or individuals together – but she rejects this kind of oversimplification. One gigantic, unfinished bridge in Exodus is being constructed by slaves for the sole benefit of the citizens of New Mungo. A web of bridges in Aurora is both a defence system and a deadly trap, despite its ingenuity and loveliness. Once again, then, physical bridges aren’t the point; it’s bridges between living people that need to be built before material bridges can be used for positive purposes.

The other set of images that sticks in the mind are the emblems that accompany each chapter heading, each emblem offering the reader an indication of the character whose point of view will dominate the chapter. In Exodus there are two such emblems: for Mara, a version of the symbol of the City of Glasgow (fish, bell, bird, tree); for David Stone/Fox, a fox’s head in a swirl of wind or water. In Zenith the emblems become more numerous: the North Star for Mara, representing the hope that guides her across the waves in her stolen ship; a moon for Tuck the gypsy, which stands for his favourite weapon, a scimitar; a stylized sun half obscured by clouds for Fox; the globe of the earth for scenes set in the virtual world of the Weave. In the world we inhabit, these elements work together for everyone’s benefit; in Bertagna’s they have all become detached from each other, and only tremendous effort can bridge the oceans that part them. The emblems that introduce each chapter in the final book, Aurora, show the places where each of the communities we’ve got to know have ended up. Again, the gaps between these places need to be bridged, their communities linked if the future of the world is to prove much better than its fractured present. The work of thinking about the relationship between the emblems – what they stand for, the implications of their separation from one another, how the points of view given in the chapters they introduce can be reconciled – is left to the reader, and we become collaborators in the business of assembling Bertagna’s future earth into a coherent whole. Cooperation is the positive reverse side of complicity, and there is no better emblem for cooperation than the unspoken imaginative contract between writer and reader, as they seek to make sense of relations between word and word, or word and image.

Julie Bertagna

Julie Bertagna was the keynote speaker at a recent conference at the University of Glasgow, co-organised by the conveners of the M.Ed in Children’s Literature and Literacies and the M.Litt in Fantasy. She’s a brilliant speaker, and one of the most interesting aspects of her talk concerned the way her trilogy has become a focus for discussion in schools around the UK in recent years. There’s never been a time when the issues it raises have been more pertinent – global warming, mass migration, the widening gap between rich and poor. She was also fascinating on the difficulty of getting ambitious books like these ones published in the context of the modern YA book market, dominated as it is by the hunt for the next million-seller. One way to ensure such books will continue to be published is to demand and read them. I hope this post will encourage you to do just that.