David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937): ‘a kind of space between’

Mervyn Peake, David Jones (1939)

I’ve been reading David Jones’s In Parenthesis lately, a book often referred to as a poem (though it’s largely in prose) written by a brilliant artist who illustrated Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner in 1929. I’m reading it as part of a project on Mervyn Peake, because Peake drew Jones’s portrait in January 1939, two years after In Parenthesis was published. I presume the portrait was commissioned by The London Mercury in response to the impact the book was having in literary circles. Prominent writers had praised Jones’s epic prose poem in fulsome terms, including W H Auden (whose portrait Peake also drew in the late 30s), Graham Greene (who selected Titus Groan for publication by Eyre and Spottiswoode), and Herbert Read, the theorist of surrealism and a veteran of the Great War like Jones himself, whose work Peake must have known well as a professional artist and teacher. I can hardly imagine, then, that Peake did not read Jones’s Anglo-Welsh prose epic. He was fascinated by poetry, by book illustration – he too illustrated The Ancient Mariner in 1943 – and by Welshness, thanks to his Welsh mother and his friendship with Dylan Thomas; and like everyone else in 1939, he lived in the shadow of war. He was later in the habit of reading books he illustrated with close attention; I don’t know if this practice extended to the books of men and women whose portraits he drew, but this seems likely. Of course it’s not fair to look at Jones’s work merely through the lens of my interest in Peake, but it seems to me that In Parenthesis has much to tell us about how the Great War helped shape the emergence of fantasy as an artistic mode or practice between the wars. Jones forms, then, part of the picture that includes Tolkien’s emerging The Lord of the Rings, Peake’s development as a fantasy writer as well as an artist, and a number of important fantasy texts I’ll be looking at in future blog posts. Reading In Parenthesis in relation to fantasy, then, may be worthwhile, and that’s what I want to try briefly here.

As I said, the book is often described as a poem, despite the fact that it’s written in prose. This may partly be because of T S Eliot’s championing of it, and because of Jones’s regular references to Eliot and other poets in his preface and throughout the text; but it’s mainly an acknowledgement of Jones’s scrupulous attention to the verbal medium he uses – its rhythms, its sounds, its punctuation, its layout on the page. It tells the story of eight months in the Great War, from December 1915 to July 1916 – a journey from the training of new recruits in the British army to their first major engagement, the attack on Mametz Wood in which Jones was injured. This chronology takes us from Christmastide to High Summer, from relative innocence to hard-won experience, from the largely familiar to the deeply strange, from the nature-oriented past to the mechanized future. It’s told in a kind of verbal collage made up of dialogue in English and Welsh, technical military language including numerous acronyms, painterly descriptive passages, quotations from literature and snatches of song. The dialogue brings together numerous dialects used by different classes in various localities – most often in London and Wales. The narrative is divided into seven parts, each of which has its own pace, rhythm and stylistic techniques, which have been selected to match the subject matter: training and travel, marching, arriving at the front by night, contemplating no-man’s land, the routine of army life, the eve of battle, the battle itself. By the end of the book a transformation has taken place – multiple transformations, in fact, which are too complex to summarize briefly, but which echo the fantastic metamorphoses and ungainly fusions that took place in fiction, art and poetry after the war.

David Jones, Frontispiece to In Parenthesis

The text’s point of view is mainly that of a private called John Ball. Ball is named for the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, who also appears in one of William Morris’s first socialist fictions, The Dream of John Ball (1888), where he embodies the brand of neo-medieval socialism Morris sought to articulate and promote. There is a link here to fantasy as well as politics, since Morris famously wrote a series of neo-medieval romances in the 1890s which strongly influenced Tolkien. Morris’s romances were widely read in the trenches, especially The Well at the World’s End (1896), with its deft mimicry of the prose of Thomas Malory and its vision of a largely egalitarian, meticulously reinvented Middle Ages. Jones had another reason, though, for admiring Morris. The Victorian designer-poet’s theories about the dignity of craftsmanship as embodied in medieval craftsmen’s guilds, and the importance of substituting these for the alienated labour of industrialism, strongly influenced Jones’s mentor the sculptor and designer Eric Gill, founder of the Catholic Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. It’s no surprise, then, if the point of view in the book is more collective than specific. The personal pronouns throughout the book are always changing their referent, so that ‘he’, for instance, can refer at different times to Private Ball, the German enemy, the sun (p. 59), or one of Ball’s comrades or superiors, while ‘she’ can mean a specific woman, or the moon (p. 27), or a ship’s figurehead (p. 51), or Ball’s rifle, or the spiritual embodiment of the wood where the final battle takes place. ‘They’ can be members of other units, distinguished from yours by the supposed cushiness of their living standards (p. 47); or else you and your comrades as you discover the alienness of your bodies after a poor night’s sleep (p. 63). The second person, ‘you’, meanwhile, gets used everywhere, drawing the reader into the narrative by weirdly investing her or him with the status of honorary veteran of a war they didn’t experience.

The most important feature of the book, however – at least from the point of view of understanding its relationship to fantasy – is its title. For Jones, the Great War took place as it were between brackets, separated by imaginary punctuation marks from every other experience he or anyone else involved had undergone. ‘This writing’, he tells us in the Preface,

is called “In Parenthesis” because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something; and because for us amateur soldiers […] the war itself was a parenthesis – how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18 – and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis. (p. xv)

The final part of this paragraph seems to extend the wartime experience to the whole of human life (‘our curious type of existence here’); but the text itself marks out the difference of wartime existence from other kinds in a number of ways. The process of reading it is much like entering an invented world of the kind Tolkien started to construct in the trenches; the language, in particular, is distinctive, punctuated by technical military terms which make it necessary for Jones to provide the ignorant reader with detailed notes, and the strangeness of war is constantly being associated with the impossible events and mythic resonances that have come to characterize the genre or mode now known as fantasy. And in the bracketed ‘space between’ that is the war, or the part of the war Jones chose as his subject, many more bracketed spaces occur: turnings aside, as the Preface puts it, ‘to do something’ distinctly different from the monotonous routines of army life. Each of these parentheses has its particular atmosphere and organization, so that it resembles what John Clute has called a ‘polder’ in fantasy fiction: a place where the rules are either subtly or radically different from the ones that govern the world in which the overall narrative takes place.

David Jones, The Mariners, from The Ancient Mariner

Jones prepares us in the Preface for the fantastic nature of what occurs between his book’s pages. ‘I think the day by day in the Waste Land,’ he writes, ‘the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it’ (p. x). He adds, with wonderful unexpectedness: ‘It was a place of enchantment’. Before heading over to France, he tells us, ‘The air was full of rumour, fantastic and credible’ (p. 14), so that the impossible is already starting to be accepted by soldiers as the binding condition of their future lives. Rumour here is the preliminary ritual that sets aside the charm or spell or invocation from ordinary transactions, like the resounding hand-claps that alert the Japanese gods to the prayers of the faithful. Later, as the soldiers disembark from their trucks not far from the front, they receive ‘in their nostrils an awareness and at all their sense-centres a perceiving of strange new things’ (p. 18): a sentence that makes wonderfully concrete the bodily process of encountering and absorbing strangeness. The landscape they find themselves in is a matter of wonder – sometimes, Private Ball discovers, because of its very ordinariness, its stubborn persistence in being at once quotidian and the theatre of unprecedented atrocities.[1] One of the things that make it strange is the shifting light- and sound-patterns caused by natural or man-made weather, which is always rendering the everyday transcendent. Ball ‘marveled’, we learn early on, ‘at these foreign clouds’ (p. 20); and later he witnesses a sunrise like a revelation, the emergence of something divine from behind the cloud-cover: ‘Behind them, beyond the brumous piling the last stars paled and twinkled fitfully, then faded altogether; this beautiful one, his cloud garments dyed, ruddy-flecked, fleecy stoled; the bright healer, climbing certainly the exact degrees to his meridian’ (p. 62). In the bizarre nocturnal of Part 3, lit by flares and gunfire – where the language of the narrative shifts abruptly towards radical modernistic fusions of disparate idea and sound and image, in its efforts to invoke the state of being half-asleep while striving to stay alert and watchful while on sentry duty – the transition to fantasy is made explicit: ‘his mess-mates sleeping like long-barrow sleepers, their dark arms at reach. Spell-sleepers, thrown about anyhow under the night. And this one’s bright brow turned against your boot leather, tranquil as a fer sidhe sleeper, under fairy tumuli, fair as Mac Og sleeping’ (p. 51). The soldiers here resemble the legendary sleepers under mounds – King Arthur and his knights, the Seven Sleepers and the rest – in that they are both fully armed and unconscious, buried alive, so to speak, in roughly-executed trenches, precariously suspended between life and death, their very capacity to sleep under such circumstances a miracle, sure proof of enchantment. At the end of the book, the dead remain for ever in this fairy state, having been invested as ‘secret princes under the trees’ by the mysterious Queen of the Woods, who chooses ‘twelve gentle-men’ from among them to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’ (p. 185). The implication is that the strangeness of the ‘Waste Land’ of war has in some sense persisted beyond its temporal boundaries, enacting the ‘ever after’ of conventional fairy stories through the continuing presence of the twelve chosen sleepers in the mind of the man who saw them, thanks to the alchemy of memory. His memories of the dead, however, are framed in the language of fantastic narratives: dream reportage, folk tales, neo-medieval romances, bedtime stories. Fantasy is what makes it possible to recall them without self-damage, and what lends their casual slaughter point and purpose, giving their abruptly terminated narratives shape. The fantastic references throughout In Parenthesis alert the reader to the fact that the narrative is not a memoir, but a means of making memory bearable, in the sense of being transferrable to new, better contexts where the horror of war can be transmuted into art.

David Jones, page from the manuscript of In Parenthesis

As I’ve already implied, the resemblance of the parenthetical ‘space between’ of war to the secondary world of high fantasy is partly achieved by the cultural difference of army life in wartime from the lives of ordinary citizens, whatever their trade. This cultural difference imposes a clear distinction between readers of the book who were there at the front with Jones and those who were not. The distinction is emphasized, as I suggested, by the necessity for notes. Old soldiers will not need them, at least not the notes explaining army terminology. In the same way, Welshmen won’t need the translations from Welsh, nor Londoners the interpretations of cockney rhyming slang – at least, they won’t need these if they belong to the working classes, or have lived and fought alongside them, as Jones did. This bracketing-off of the veterans, in particular the set of veterans Jones fought with – as well as of the different kinds and phases of veteranship (Jones informs us that some of the terms he uses in the book belong to specific phases in the War, falling into and out of use as the conflict wore on) – may be what’s being referred to in the final sentence: ‘the man who does not know this has not understood anything’ (p. 187). Non-combatants or even combatants who never saw the Somme cannot hope to share the weird knowledge Jones has to impart, and the strangeness of Jones’s patchwork style is designed to emphasize the impossibility of a stranger’s ever achieving comprehension.

David Jones, sleeping soldier (1915)

At the same time, Private Ball himself is quickly initiated into the alien culture of the front after first encountering it as an outsider. Arriving at the trenches he discovers a distinctive ‘folk-life’ embedded there, ‘a people, a culture already developed, already venerable and rooted’, and it’s only with time that he gets initiated as a full member of this order or community: ‘And you too are assimilated, you too are of this people – there will be an indelible characterization – you’ll tip-toe when they name the place’ (p. 49). The sentence emphasizes the exclusiveness of membership of this war-torn people, but its use of the second person also ensures that Ball’s own initiation is shared by the reader. This is not, then, an elitist text, despite its moments of obscurity and its use of unfamiliar cultural references – such as the early medieval Brittonic poem Y Gododdin, quotations from which open each of the seven sections, alongside the much better-known text Morte Darthur by the fifteenth-century soldier Sir Thomas Malory, which crops up everywhere. Jones laments, for instance, the fact that convention forbids him from using swearwords in the text, about which he says in the Preface: ‘The very repetition of them made them seem liturgical, certainly deprived them of malice, and occasionally when skillfully disposed, and used according to established but flexible tradition, gave a kind of significance, and even at moments a dignity, to our speech’ (p. xii). The demotic is elevated to liturgy by the stresses and strains of war, rendering socially ostracized discourse as precious as the language of the training ground, the law court or the parlour.

David Jones, Periscope

The democratic aspect of conflict is intensified by Jones’s acute awareness that every soldier at the front, whatever his background, is unique and therefore valuable in light of the particular cultural referents he contains, as it were in brackets, within his body. No one soldier is more unique and hence significant than anyone else, as the slippery pronouns demonstrate, and this radical egalitarianism cannot help but impose itself on Jones’s readers – re-acculturating us as we read until by the end we are forced to inhabit an egalitarian space, no matter what space we came from at the beginning. The rich specificity of each individual’s assemblage of experiences, cultures and histories is brought out with greatest force at the point of death, when the casual demolition of people we have come to know well in the course of the narrative – such as the young lieutenant Mr Jenkins, sinking to the ground with his revolver swinging from its pendulum like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166), or Private Wastebottom, who is killed waiting in the trenches for the last assault, yet ‘maintained correct alignment with the others, face down, and you could never have guessed’ (p. 158) – is set alongside the deaths of anonymous soldiers whose lives are briefly lit up, so to speak, by the names of the places and people that helped to make them: such as the German killed by Private Ball in the wood, who in dying ‘calls for Elsa, for Manuela / for the parish priest of Burkersdorf in Saxe Altenburg’ (p. 169). Conversely, one Welsh soldier’s death links him to the deaths of all soldiers everywhere, thanks to his being the namesake of the poet Aneirin who wrote Y Gododdin, the poem that provides In Parenthesis with its epigrams:

No one to care there for Aneirin Lewis spilled there
who worshipped his ancestors like a Chink
who sleeps in Arthur’s lap
who saw Olwen-trefoils some moonlighted night
on precarious slats at Festurbet,
on narrow foothold on le Plantin marsh –
more shaved he is to the bare bone than
Yspaddadan Penkawr.
Properly organized chemists can let make more riving power than ever Twrch Trwyth;
more blistered he is than painted Troy Towers
and unwholer, limb from limb, than any of them fallen at Catraeth
or on the seaboard-down, by Salisbury,
and no maker to contrive his funerary song. (p. 155)

Here Aneirin’s personality or personhood – most marked earlier in the narrative by his propensity for singing constantly under his breath, as if transforming the experiences we are reading into song – gets mixed in with those of earlier poetic memorialists of warfare. These include Shakespeare (in the reference to Arthur’s lap, mentioned as Falstaff’s final resting-place in Henry V); the writer of the Culhwch and Olwen section of the medieval Welsh anthology the Mabinogion; the Arthurian storytellers and poets from Nennius to Chrétien de Troyes; the many poets and dramatists who have written about Troy; and the fifteenth-century soldier-storyteller Malory, whose style is echoed in the phrase ‘let make’ and whose story of Arthur’s final battle on Salisbury Plain is referred to in the penultimate line. At the same time, Aneirin is elevated above and separated from these distinguished predecessors by the excessive destructiveness of his demolition. He is more ‘shaved […] to the bare bone’, more ‘blistered’ and rent ‘limb from limb’ then any soldier on the battlefield of Catraeth, where the tragic action of Y Gododdin takes place. Unlike his predecessors, too, after this horrible unmaking he has no poetic ‘maker to contrive his funerary song’ – he is not remade, so to speak, in verbal form. Not, at least, until Jones started writing; and the success of Jones’s exercise in commemoration depends on the reader’s participation in it, their willingness to subject themselves to the dreadful account of Aneirin’s dismemberment, to understand both where it connects with and where it is bracketed off from the past dismemberments Jones lists in this passage. The reader’s importance is acknowledged in the final broken paragraph of the book, from which I quoted earlier: ‘The geste says this and the man who was in the field… and who wrote the book… the man who does not know this has not understood anything’. Understanding is associated with the man who ‘wrote the book’, which makes the book we have just read a means of connecting us with the material reality of the ‘field’, through a combination of the act of writing, the act of reading, and the act of imagining – all of which take courage. Aneirin’s remaking is achieved through Jones’s connection of the field of the Somme with the field of Catraeth, which most of his readers will not have heard of before that too was remade, so to speak, in the epigrams and notes to In Parenthesis. Making Aneirin anew is possible, then, despite the radical dissimilarity of his death from those in the texts alluded to – the tales of Troy and Catraeth and Arthur – and despite the unfamiliarity of most readers with the time and place where it took place.

The most moving moment in the passage occurs when Jones conjures up an intimate detail of Aneirin’s life at the front line: the time when the soldier noticed a certain species of flower, a trefoil, despite his own precarious perch on moonlit slats in a trench under enemy observation. The flower had for Aneirin an association with a story from his homeland, that of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion: it is ‘Olwen-trefoil’ (my emphasis). So this perception on the part of Aneirin brings life, so to speak – imparts urgency and vividness – to a tiny fragment of Welsh culture; and this process of bringing a fragment of culture to life would have been lost to the world if Jones had not recorded it. The association between a fragile, easily-missed blossom and personal and cultural memory recalls the opening tale in Lord Dunsany’s story 1918 collection Tales of War, in which soldiers from a small Kentish village called Daleswood – all the grown men left in the community apart from the very old – expecting to be wiped out at any moment, seek some way to record what matters to them most about their village. They seek not to register their own names or the grand historical events they and their ancestors have taken part in, but the tiny everyday details which are crucial, in their opinion, to the place’s identity, and which will be lost for ever if none of them survive (the women of the village, they claim, have different priorities from the menfolk, and would choose to remember different things). But the men cannot agree on what those crucial details are; whether the foxgloves in the wood at the end of summer, or the time of year when they cut the hay with scythes, or the ‘valleys beyond the wood and the twilight on them’, or the ‘old village, with queer chimneys, of red brick, in the wood’. In the end they record on a lump of chalk only the sentiment: ‘Please, God, remember Daleswood just like it used to be’. As it transpires, the men survive; but the question of commemoration – of what’s worth preserving about a culture, a place, a person – remains; and the men’s sense that they lack the verbal means to perform the commemorative act, or even a consensus on what should be mentioned in their memorial, lingers on in the reader’s mind long after the story is finished and the men from the village are unexpectedly spared. The death of Aneirin is of course a tougher proposition. Salvaging the details of his death from Jones’s memory, with other wartime matters, was achieved at the expense of a nervous breakdown on the writer’s part, and the details Jones gives us about him are no more than fragments of the man who died. But they form part of a larger structure of great beauty, while being parenthetically bracketed off from the rest of the book by their specific application to a single soldier, now gone for ever. If it does not succeed in memorializing Aneirin adequately, the passage makes quite clear what has been lost by this inability to memorialize – just as Dunsany’s story makes quite clear what would have been lost if the men of Daleswood had died without being able to pass on their small observations of the village to their children and grandchildren.

The parentheses of Jones’s book, in other words, do not segregate his text from the understanding of its ‘lay’ readers – though that understanding will include, for most of them, the awareness that there is a clear distinction between the man ‘who was in the field’ and the man or woman who was not. Parentheses, in fact, are for Jones the condition we all inhabit, not just soldiers: ‘our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis’. Our lives are parenthetically bound in by non-life, before birth and after death, and war serves only to stress their parenthetical nature by means of its difference. The most startling example of a wartime parenthesis – the kind that accentuates parentheses of other kinds – comes in Part Seven, when the enemy artillery gets increasingly accurate in its aim at the British troops waiting in the trenches. As Private Ball stands motionless, listening and waiting, he observes – using one of those flexible pronouns that turn up everywhere, in this case denoting the enemy by way of the third person singular – how ‘He’s getting it more accurately and each salvo brackets more narrowly and a couple right in, just as “D” and “C” are forming for the second wave’ (p. 157). These are the salvos that annihilate Privates Wastebottom and Talacryn, in very different and individual ways: ‘Talacryn doesn’t take it like Wastebottom, he leaps up & says he’s dead, a-slither down the pale face – his limbs a-girandole at the bottom of the nullah [i.e. ravine or trench]’ (p. 158). Sandwiched between these murderous brackets, Private Ball finds the parenthesis of his life reduced to the fewer and fewer inexorable seconds before he finds himself within range of an enemy salvo; and his awareness of this extends his sense of time to encompass whole epochs: ‘Last minute drums its taut millennium out […] and seconds now our measuring-rods with no Duke Josue nor conniving God / to stay the Divisional Synchronization’ (p. 159). By the time he gets the command to go over the top, every second is a parenthesis packed full of stark terror, impotent denial of his own mortality, and a sense of the infinite preciousness of the tiniest temporal fraction of a man’s existence.

David Jones, rats shot in the trenches

The murderous bracketing of D and C companies by the double salvo can in turn be understood as an open parenthesis before the assault, for which the closing parenthesis for many will be death by violence. But this is just one of many temporal parentheses in the book. There is the opening bracket of the departure from England after training, bracketed at the other end of the war by the capitalized Big Ship that will ferry survivors home (p. 104). There is the parenthetical space of the night described in Part 3, with its own distinctive rules and visions and language; the night is bracketed by those wonderful passages in which Jones describes the slow departure of light and its equally slow return. There’s the parenthetical space of waiting between brief periods of action, the ‘King Pellam’s Laund’, No-Man’s Land or Wasteland of Part 4 – a location which is physically parenthetical, or unlike any other, in that it is stranded between the elements of earth and water (p. 88) and requires constant labour on the soldiers’ part to maintain its identity as solid land. The life led in this location by combatants on both sides aligns them with that parenthetical animal, the ‘rat of no-man’s land’ (p. 67); a parasite that exists in the interstitial spaces between the mapped regions inhabited by ‘real’ people and ‘real’ animals such as horses and mules. There’s the parenthetical space of Private Ball’s period of rest at the start of Part 6, in which he ties his own groundsheet to those of two comrades for extra comfort; a period that ends when one of the three is ordered away to act as a runner. This leads to the symbolic disengagement of the three groundsheets from one another, an act that gains significance from the friends’ awareness that their separation may well prove permanent: ‘such breakings-away and dissolving of comradeship and token of division are cause of great anguish when men sense how they stand so perilous and transitory in the world’ (p. 137). Private Ball’s meeting later that day with another two friends from different regiments takes place in a parenthesis which is grammatically as well as geographically distinct from their everyday lives: ‘These three seldom met except for very brief periods out of the line – at Brigade rest perhaps – or if some accident of billeting threw them near together. These three loved each other, but the routine of their lives made the chances of foregathering rare’ (p. 139). The final foregathering of the three is bracketed by intimations of mortality: the hammering of carpenters as they work to build coffins ahead of the assault (‘He wished they’d stop that hollow tap-tapping’, p. 139, my emphasis) and the parting shot of one of the friends: ‘don’t get nabbed tapping the Gen’ral’s wire – I’d hate to see you shot at dawn’ (p. 143, my emphasis). Each parenthesis, in other words, is a miniature reflection of the great parenthesis which is an individual lifetime, here all too often curtailed by the cold machinery of war.

David Jones, Christ mocked by soldiers

The military body itself in the book is a kind of parenthetical enclosure, clearly distinguished by virtue of its discomfort – and the forms of violence visited on it – from civilian bodies, as well as from its contents, the thoughts and feelings that make up personhood (‘feet following file friends, each his own thought-maze treading’, p. 37). At each stage of its army existence the body is defined as mechanism, the mind as something sensitive, soft and alien to the machine that encloses it, and Jones repeatedly invokes this awkward disparity between the component elements of a soldier’s self. As Private Ball marches, ‘his loaded body moved forward unchoosingly as part of a mechanism’ (p. 19), while his mind roams in other directions. As he wakes up each morning with other members of his platoon, ‘delicate mechanisms of nerve and sinew, grapple afresh, deal for another day’ (p. 61). As stress sets in before the final battle, the machine falters: ‘the sensibility of these instruments to register, / fails; / needle dithers disorientate. / The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers – you simply can’t take any more in’ (p. 156). Then at the point of death the machine runs down and comes to a stop: Mr Jenkins sags to the ground like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166); Private Talacryn’s ‘mechanism slackens, unfed’ (p. 158); their respective recollections, desires and sense impressions are lost irretrievably as their specific functions in the engine of war come to an end. In the last pages of the book, the body becomes increasingly fragmented: Private Lewis loses his limbs, Private Morgan his head (which ‘grins like the Cheshire cat / and full grimly’, p. 180), and Private Ball the use of his legs in a kind of industrial cataclysm, ‘as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker’ (p. 183). After the war, we’re told, injured men will learn to live without limbs and organs they once thought essential: ‘Give them glass eyes to see / and synthetic spare parts to walk in the Triumphs, without anyone feeling awkward’ (p. 176). The final scene finds us in a wood full of corpses, recumbent in a tree-made crypt where the body is finally liberated from the state of mechanization. The German dead – tall ‘strangers’ in ‘field-grey’ – resemble stone statues rather than broken engines:

Aisle-ways bunged-up between these columns rising,
these long strangers, under this vaulting stare upward,
for recumbent princes of his people.
Stone lords coiffed
long-skirted field-grey to straight fold
for a coat-armour
and for a cere-cloth, for men of renown:
Hardrada-corpse for Froggy sepulture. (p. 182)

The Welsh dead, by contrast, recall discarded clothing, their bodies reduced by war-damage to the condition of prehistoric bog-people or the occupants of Neolithic burial chambers:

And here and there and huddled over, death-halsed to these, a Picton-five-feet-four paragon for the Line, from Newcastle Emlyn or Talgarth in Brycheiniog, lying disordered like discarded garments or crumpled chin to shin-bone like a Lambourne find. (p. 182)[2]

Deprived of their mechanical rigidity, these resting bodies – some broken, some intact – remain as anonymous as memorials in churches or archaeological discoveries. But as the wounded Private Ball crawls through the wood where they lie he imagines a dryad figure ritually reaping their minds and memories as she selects from among the corpses heroes worthy to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’; and Jones’s own recording of this ritual reanimates the dead men by name and personality as a stone tomb or burial chamber never could.

Mervyn Peake, The Ancient Mariner

If the body is a parenthetical ‘space between’, so too is what might be called the War Time into which Jones plunges as he leaves the training ground and travels to France. He tells us in the Preface, ‘I suppose at no time did one so much live with a consciousness of the past, the very remote, and the more immediate and trivial past’ (p. xi); and this fascinating fusion of the remote past of communities and the trivial past of the individual sets the place of war apart from other places in terms of the way it measures time. Time is distorted by the actions of war. Sentry duty distends it, rendering the phosphorescent dial of the soldier’s watch spookily inadequate to the task of marking its passage. The moments before the assault make the soldier yearn to stop time altogether, or somehow to evade the specific period in which the assault will take place, set it apart from himself in a parenthesis where only other soldiers die (p. 158). Transitions from day to night and from night to day are often used to mark the passage of time when clocks or watches are unavailable, but In Parenthesis is filled with twilight moments when day and night are in contention with each other, and where space too seems to collapse:

With the coming dark, ground-mist creeps back to regain the hollow places; across the rare atmosphere you could hear the foreign men cough, and stamp with foreign feet. Things seen precisely just now lost exactness […] Your eyes begin to strain after escaping definitions. (p. 98)

The past, too, ceases to be distinguishable from the present, because the soldier inhabits a continuous War Time which (as the Preface pointed out) seems to exist as a dark undercurrent that is always present behind or alongside the organized timetable of Peace. This is why Jones keeps straying into the language of the war poets, Aneirin, Malory, Shakespeare, the Chanson de Roland; their literary representations of war are always occurring to Private Ball as accurate statements about the strange world he has entered, despite the major changes that have taken place between their times and his own. History is erased or rendered null by War Time because no one has learned from it; men are still marching out to die as they did in Y Gododdin, in which case what is the point of differentiating 600 AD from 1916? The erasure of history is another of the many equalizing processes at work in Jones’s text. Any man in the army can take part in it, from Private Dai Greatcoat – who delivers himself of a long formal boast that links himself to an endless line of fighters stretching back to Cain and the Trojan War (pp. 79-84) – to Private Donkin, whose personal history has brought him to France in a mission to avenge the atrocity whereby four of his brothers died at the front the year before (pp. 144-5); revenge being a process of balancing the books that effectively wipes the action you are avenging from the records, rendering it null and void. Outside War Time, killing is forbidden, or at least killing for personal reasons such as revenge. In War Time, every soldier finds himself exempt from such restrictions, encouraged to do things that would have got him imprisoned or hanged before he joined up – and which may still get him killed, imprisoned or maimed, as Private Donkin’s story shows. The clock of his life, in other words, has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis. Long before it winds down and stops, it has entered a ‘space between’ and given itself over to Salvador-Dali-style dissolution, as inadequate for the purpose of measuring the distance between one moment and the next as the luminous watch-dial of a bored or frightened sentry.

David Jones, Capel-y-ffin

The final parenthesis in the book incorporates all the others, and seals the link between Jones’s record of wartime and the other great literary records of wars gone by. It’s the parenthesis of the Wood which is the objective of the assault in Part 7, and which becomes the paradigm of woods and forests everywhere in literature, the ‘spaces between’ where adventures take place, magic lurks, and supernatural people and creatures live and move and have their being. Private Ball identifies the Wood as a place apart as early as Part 4, where he contemplates it from a distance while on sentry-duty, observing: ‘To the woods of all the world is this potency – to move the bowels of us’ (p. 66). Woods, he recalls, are at certain times of year a place of holiday, to which men come ‘in heart’s ease and school-free’ or ‘perplexedly with first loves’; or the perfect hiding-place for an ambush; or a refuge for the justly or unjustly persecuted and the lost. They are associated with exiled ‘sweet princes by malignant interests deprived’, like Shakespeare’s Duke Senior, parenthetically barred from his hereditary role; or madmen running wild from grief and pain, as Lancelot did when Guinevere rejected him, or Merlin in certain Arthurian traditions, as well as ‘broken men’ of other kinds. Private Ball or one of his comrades – it’s not clear which – becomes such a ‘broken man’ at the beginning of Part 7, as Jones himself did while writing the poem: ‘He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things’ (p. 153), in the prelude to the assault on the Wood where he knows most of his company will be slaughtered. Woods, then, are where men are unmade, in that they are dismantled body and mind; but they are also where makings begin. Here unmade men will find a maker to commemorate them, since makers in the sense of poets and storytellers love the woods, which occur everywhere in old romances, lyrics and laments. Woods, then, are a place of destruction and reconstruction. They’re also a kind of neutral ground in wartime. They occur, we’re told in Part 4, on the maps of army draughtsmen, one of whom

Made note on a blue-print of the significance of that grove as one of his [i.e. the enemy’s] strong-points; this wooded rise as the gate of their enemies, a door at whose splintered posts, Janus-wise emplacements shield an automatic fire (p. 66).

Woods are liminal, in other words, Janus-faced like the first month of the year, facing at once towards past and future, death and life, the Germans and the British, making themselves available to anyone with the guts to approach and seize them for the flag. In addition, the Wood in Part 7 serves both as a gate that closes the parentheses within which the action of In Parenthesis takes place and a gate that opens out from the book onto the postwar era when it was written and published. As a portal of both kinds, it gives the lie to the notion of parentheses as sealing off what they contain from ‘normal life’. The world was deeply affected by the Great War; cultures changed radically in response to it; afterwards, as after Covid 19, there was a ‘new normal’. Parentheses in fact are always permeable, like portals, and In Parenthesis enacts this permeability through the uncanny skill with which it conjures up for a postwar readership the between-space of War Time.

Edward Burne Jones, Panel from The Legend of Briar Rose

Through the wood, as I mentioned earlier, stalks the enigmatic Queen of the Woods – whether in earnest or as a figment of Private Ball’s imagination. Her careful selection from among the dead of a representative twelve to serve as her knights makes that sample too a kind of parenthesis, in that it stands outside the categories of class and nation imposed on ordinary individuals by custom. She chooses for inclusion in her company both German and British soldiers, both privates and officers, both men like gods and men who are nothing more than jokes to their companions. And like the mad Ophelia, exempt by virtue of her broken mind from the restrictions that govern the sane, she presents each with some suitable woodland plant as a token of their admission into the culture of the strange:

Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize.
She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high trees and the open down.
Some she gives white berries
some she gives brown
Emil has a curious crown it’s
made of golden saxifrage.
Fatty wears sweet-briar […]
For Balder she reaches high to fetch his
Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain – you’d hardly credit it.
She plaits torques of equal splendor for Mr Jenkins and Billy Crower.
Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod. (p. 185)

In this scene, reminiscent of an arts-and-crafts painting – a panel, perhaps, from Burne Jones’s Briar Rose series of panels – men of all ranks and origins combine in quasi-erotic intimacy. Twelve of them are selected, like twelve apostles for some vegetable Jesus, twelve members of an assessing jury, none differentiated in terms of rank or importance from his copesmate. Balder the beautiful, the Christ-like Norse god who was killed with a mistletoe sprig through Loki’s trickery, is set alongside the pauper Hansel, driven by hunger to the woods with his sister to be murdered by a stranger; the German Hansel locked in ‘serious embrace’ with the Welshman Gronwy, all enmity forgotten; the unpopular commissioned officer Lillywhite alongside Lieutenant Jenkins and Private Crower, all bound together by daisy-chains ‘of equal splendor’, confirming their equal status in the Wood Queen’s universe, which lies well away from the social and military hierarchies that govern the spaces outside the parentheses of war and madness (‘wood’ means madness in Shakespeare’s time, as Demetrius’s phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘wood within this wood’ – might remind us).

John Everett Millais, Ophelia

A ‘prize’ is something that bestows meaning and value on a person’s achievements. The Wood Queen’s awarding of prizes, with its richly pictorial quality, may remind the reader of Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia as well as Burne Jones’s Legend of Briar Rose; above all the famous painting by John Everett Millais of the drowning Ophelia in the stream, singing as she sinks, and John William Waterhouse’s image of her sitting bolt upright on the river-bank, bedecking her hair like a sacrificial calf before she throws herself into the murderous waters. Millais was one of the founding members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, while Waterhouse was one of its final generation of adherents, who worked alongside Burne-Jones and his good friend William Morris, whose guild socialism lived on in Eric Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. Jones’s creation of a post-pre-Raphaelite scene in these final moments of his book anticipates Gill’s attempt to carry forward the ideas of Morris and his predecessor Ruskin into the postwar era.

David Jones, Ancient Mariner with Albatross. He compares his rifle to the albatross in Part 7.

But the end of the book also seeks to leave the past behind, perhaps by ensuring it undergoes a suitably radical transformation in response to the transformative horror of the war years. The work of setting the war and all that brought it about behind him is accomplished by Jones in the section where Private Ball decides to leave his rifle behind in the Lady’s Wood, where he was wounded. The rifle is his lover – just as the ‘many men so beautiful’ who died embracing one another among the trees are also in a sense his lovers (p. xxi). He has been taught by his training to treat this thing of wood and metal, this fusion of the organic and the industrial, as a bride (‘cherish her, she’s your very own’, p. 183); and the process of abandoning the rifle-bride is announced and then accomplished before and after the Wood-Queen’s ritual selection of her own retinue of dead heroes. Left behind at the ‘gate of the wood’ (p. 186) under an oak tree, like the bodies of Ball’s mingled enemies and comrades (‘Lie still under the oak / next to the Jerry / and Sergeant Jerry Coke’, p. 187), the abandoned gun represents the leaving-behind of a period that has brought both terrible violence and terrible beauty, like Yeats’s Easter 1916. But a gate, as we’ve seen, is Janus-faced, a limen or threshold that admits people both ways, both out and in. It’s a permeable boundary. Jones or Ball imagines the rifle becoming a future archaeological find, to be plundered by bloody-minded tourists on the lookout for souvenirs of mass slaughter (‘a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas’, p. 186). And his account of the war experience ensures that it will be brought to life again, as his comrades will, each time a reader chooses to visit his pages. The gun that unmakes is remade, here, as a way to remake the dead, a tool as essential to the work of the maker as his pen.

In the preface to In Parenthesis, one of the transformations Jones imagines taking place in the wake of the war is the capacity to see the post-industrial world and its killing engines as stunningly beautiful – of giving guns and bombs and poison gas the romantic or magical associations of other murderous objects, such as swords and fires, or tarot cards, or landscapes like the plains of Troy or Salisbury or the hills of Catraeth. ‘It is not easy,’ he observes,

in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals – full though it may be of beauty. […] We who are of the same world of sense with the hairy ass and furry wolf and who presume to other and more radiant affinities, are finding it difficult, as yet, to recognize these creatures of chemicals as true extensions of ourselves, that we may feel for them a native affection, which alone can make them magical for us. It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old – candle-light, fire-light, Cups, Wands and Swords (p. xiv).

One of the techniques by which Jones turns his War Time into a ‘place of enchantment’ is through the practice of radical anachronism: the running together of old and new, past and present, to produce a synthesis which is both disturbing and wonderful (disturbing because wonderful, I could have written). The experiments he practised among the parentheses of In Parenthesis anticipate the experiments practised by fantasy writers after the war, when they invented radically anachronistic, parenthetical secondary worlds as a means of understanding the strange new fusions that surrounded them, whose novelty the Great War threw so violently into relief. Jones helps us to understand, I think, how far these seemingly distant fantastic spaces can be read as responses to the equally anachronistic spaces through which their writers moved, within which they worked. Lovers of fantasy, then, should embrace his epic with the same enthusiasm as the modernists embraced it on its first appearance.

David Jones, Everyman

Edition Used

Jones, David, In Parenthesis (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1978)

Notes

[1] ‘It was not that the look of the place was unfamiliar to you. It was at one to all appearances with what you knew already. […] That’s a very usual looking farm house. […] The day itself was what you’d expect of December’ (pp. 18-19).

[2] The Seven Barrows and the Long Barrow at Lambourn (spelt Lambourne here) are thought to have inspired Tolkien’s account of the Barrow Wights in The Fellowship of the Ring. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambourn

A Gothic Cathedral

I am known by the ungodly name of Captain Satan because of my habit of crawling through graveyards at midnight. My followers are grim-faced leather-sheathed alley-scuttlers with daggers stuck in their hats, iconoclasts for the mere love of vandalism. Together we are the strangest of God’s instruments.

I alone who am their leader carry the torch that sanctifies our destruction of graven images. At the head of each war-band God has set a leader who recognizes idols for the spawn of the corrupt imagination. Before crude stone carvings the ignorant burn incense as they once did before the flesh-devouring deities of tree and mountain. Everywhere villagers perform obscene rituals in honour of the Blessed Virgin, who has assumed the whoredom of the Earth Mother worshipped long ago by pagans in caves and glens, before the fields were ploughed and planted or the smoke-choked cities built. Black cats and billygoats are reverenced. We are the smelters of such golden calves.

Most ludicrous of all the Devil’s works are the monsters scrawled over every surface of old churches, the gargoyles and grotesques that leer from crevices, wriggle from buttresses, dribble water from the leads, insinuate themselves into the warp of the very sanctuary carpet. How could the craftsmen, often the saintliest of the congregation, prostitute their talents to the creation of such paragons of deformity? The serpent is subtle, but this crowns all.

Once I saw a painting by a Dutchman, an apocalypse swarming with creatures formed from helmets, knives and fragments from the charnelhouse, the wings and beaks of birds, musical instruments, the tails of fishes. Here and there lolled flaccid human bodies undergoing hideous tortures with expressions of bland serenity. The painting shook me to the very soul, for even as I gazed on those translucent flowers of colour blossoming in darkness, lit by the glare of distant fires, I realized that the fecundity of the painter’s imagination delighted my senses, elevated my inward eye to the pitch of sublimity. Every so often the painting blooms again before my inward eye like a spectral garden. Then because I cannot understand I must destroy.

I am feared by my followers as a ruthless executioner. From church to church I stalk with a hammer in one fist, in the other a chisel, my troupe of reprobates and zanies gamboling in my shadow. Beside my bulk they are evanescent as the shapes in the heart of a fire. They pass over many carvings out of weakness or neglect, awed by the alabaster features of a cherub, roused to laughter by the antics of an ape; but nothing escapes my vigilance. There is a rumour that my jaws hold tusks of stone that grind statues, relics and altarpieces to dust. My face is pitted with gunpowder from a thousand battles, my arms scarred in a crisscross pattern by flying splinters. I walk alone but am never lonely because angels attend my every step.

Yet last night I dreamed a dream that shines like a vein of ore in my daylight brain embedded. Whether I was awake or asleep I cannot tell. I lay in my tent on my campaign bed, swaddled in blankets, preparing as I do each night for oblivion to overwhelm me in a swift dark tide. All at once the night-time noises swelled like the notes of some sacrilegious organ, pressing against the sides of my canvas shelter. For a while I took no notice beyond pulling the blankets over my head, for I know full well that at night things grow large and strange; that is why lovers clutch each other at street corners under the moon, why drunkards toss and turn between the sheets, why sinners mutter incantations before the crucifix under cover of darkness (my God is indifferent to incantations). But instead of ebbing away the fear intensified, tightening its grip on my flesh till my limbs were cold and stiff as the limbs of a corpse. The fear sprang from a cacophony of unrelated sounds, each in itself innocuous: the tap of a sentry’s boots, the crackle of watch-fires, the rustle of leaves, the humming of wind in the rigid guy-ropes; but a horror huger than the sum of its parts took shape and stalked through the night towards my tent. I remained unmoving till the drums that warn of danger pounded away along with the blood-beat in my ears. The hammer lay on a stool beside my bed, underneath my breastplate and my breeches (for contrary to popular belief I remove both before retiring). As I measured the distance between my fist and the hammer’s shaft I felt the fear congeal into one amorphous mass and approach the mouth of the tent with uneven tread. The flap that hung loose across the entrance stirred a little, as if in a breeze, then slowly lifted.

Swiftly I thrust the blankets from my face and raised myself trembling on one elbow. The light of the watchfire filtered through the cloth by my left cheek, no doubt accentuating the chiseled grooves that frame my mouth, the pits and channels that deform my cheeks and forehead. Dread clung in sodden folds to my naked legs. When I spoke, my voice came out with the grating rasp of stone on stone:

‘Who’s there?’

No answer but a ripple in the darkness. As my eyes adjusted, little by little I began to distinguish an awful shape against the canvas. For many minutes I lay pinned to my flimsy bed, studying the aberration as its features emerged from the shadows one by one as if carved by some dreadful sculptor. Then all those features came together, and I leapt from my bed with a shriek of terror. The blankets wrapped themselves about my ankles, I ripped one in my efforts to break free. I forgot the hammer, forgot my brooding daylight immensity, flung myself shrieking at the back of the tent, scrabbling with my nails, burrowing through the coarse cloth into open air. I sensed the creature at my back and bolted wild-eyed into the forest, naked as a newborn, mindless as a beast, leaving my impregnable daytime bulk fast asleep on the mattress. My flesh was of a translucent whiteness: I saw my legs flash whitely beneath me as I leaped between the trees.

What frightened me most, I think – beyond the night, beyond the noises or the apparition – was my helplessness. When I was a child I had no governance over my nightmares; they seized me body and soul and had their will of me, plunging me fathoms deep in unsounded oceans of despair. But as I grew older I learned to wrest my dreams from the grip of the waves, steering each vision like a boat out of the stormy waters of calamity into the calm lagoon of rest. Now once more I was at the whim of those dreadful currents, my boat lost for ever, my body tumbling head over heels through the icy blackness, hands and feet outstretched in a desperate quest to find some purchase in the featureless abyss. When some faint awareness of my whereabouts returned, I found myself barreling through bushes, clumps of brambles, tangled weeds, the gargoyle-creature pounding at my heels. I could not wake myself from this nightmare, any more than I could divert it onto a kindlier trajectory. I could not change the shape of the thing that hurried after me, as I had learned to do with the monsters that had plagued me as a child. I did not try to do so – never so much as turned my head to look behind me, because I knew too well what I would see: a helmet with a knife stuck through the crown, fragments of decomposing limbs, the wing, perhaps the beak of a bird, a kettledrum belly with a fish’s tail, a hammer in one claw, in the other a chisel – the amalgam of cathedral demons, driven by the long-deferred desire to take revenge on their steel-clad torturer. Instead I ran, and felt the shape of my pursuer consolidating itself behind my back with every step.

To my shame I say it: in my fear I forgot to pray.

I cannot tell to what physical fastnesses I fled. The night plucked me from every sanctuary, tossed me from earth to heaven, from heaven to hell in a fine frenzy rolling, the demon snapping first at my head then at my legs. The trees stooped to snatch at my hair, which is as long as Absalom’s and gun-grey. The spiky grasses snagged my ankles, the stones splintered my toenails till my trail was marked with blood. At length when I sobbed with exhaustion I caught sight of the cathedral we had stripped the day before. Between the overhanging houses clustered round her skirts like mourning relatives I ran, my bare feet slapping at the cobbles, praying the west door would be open. Praying, did I say? Exhorting the door itself, I should have said, as a heretic exhorts a wooden idol. Prayer did not come into it; I had no room in my mind to spare for anything outside the compass of my headlong flight. And sure enough, in the studded wood of the great west door a little portal stood ajar. I plunged into God’s mansion with a thousand echoes scampering into the shadows ahead of me. Ranks of soaring pillars marched through the sonorous darkness. Puddles of moonshine gleamed at intervals on the floor. On either side, acres of empty space seemed to throb with the remembered warmth of prayers long past. From every recess peeped the featureless heads of statues we had mutilated. Eyeless and earless they watched me and listened to the echoes scattered by my footsteps.

I had paused in my flight. Outside the great west door my pursuer paused too; absurdly I imagined it crossing itself. For joyful moments I thought that it could not tread on sacred ground. My legs had begun to tremble with relief, I had started to subside towards the floor, when I heard it move towards the threshold. Another instant and it was inside the building. The sweet scent of decay brushed across the hairs inside my nostrils. Now I wept, ready to hurl myself in submission at its feet, as I used to do when my brothers chased me as a child and I knew I could run no further. I wanted to lie prostrate before it, invite it to dismember me as I had dismembered its offspring, anything to bring this chase to a quick conclusion. But I could not face the creature I’d tormented. Up the nave I reeled, silent organ-music roaring in my ears. A beadsman mumbling orisons in some side-chapel might have glimpsed my flying form as a shred of luminous gossamer chased by a comet, he might have fainted at the beauty of it.

And now above me reared the altarpiece; only twenty yards to go before I reached it, before I could embrace the Lord’s high table and be sure that nothing hellish could do me harm. My breath came in ragged heaves, I stumbled and fell on my hands and knees, jumped up and stumbled on with the icy impress of Portland stone upon my flesh. Is it seven steps, I wonder, from the level of the nave to the high altar? I have never known. I had surmounted two when I raised my eyes to look closer at the altarpiece. From every niche stared down a headless saint. The summit was ornamented with a row of angels, their instruments smashed in their hands, golden hair streaming from the yawning cavities where their faces had been. Darkness pounced on my soul and I turned in my turn to marble.

The cathedral grew very silent. Not in the highest corner of the roof the faintest whimper of a sleeping bat. The gold cross on the high altar glinted dully in a moonbeam. The Prince of Gargoyles waddled up behind me; the stench of its flesh consumed my faculties, its breath froze on the nape of my unprotected neck. But here comes the strangest moment of my nightmare: the smell was no longer repugnant to me. Indeed, if it is not heresy to believe that a sweet perfume attends the dying moments of a saintly man or woman then the scent can be no sweeter than the one that struck my nostrils as it passed.

And when the object of my terrors had gone by without raising its countenance and had knelt on the highest step before the altar, its ugliness bloomed in my heart like a flower. For minutes I gazed on the child of foulness and my soul was stirred with strange affection. At every street corner I had turned disgusted from this creature where it squatted with its begging bowl, dodged past it when it dogged my footsteps in my dreams, smashed its features in every sanctuary where they lay naked to mallet. Yet here it knelt, a thing with a soul on the highest step before the Lord’s high altar. A thing brighter than the angels, a companion that had attended my every stride though rewarded only with repulsion, indifference or fear.

Is it the moonlight that causes the cross to glow, or is Christ even now hallowing the darkest places of the mind? Suddenly the cathedral was filled with heavenly radiance, the shout of trumpets, the roar of voices, bells swinging in a bronze arc from heaven to heaven. The thunder of a million ragged wings ascending towards God’s throne. The light that streamed from the stained glass windows painted the stone robes of the mutilated saints in a million hues. My gargoyle was scrambling up the altar screen towards an empty niche between Saint Anthony and Saint Francis. I rose from the ground and flew along the nave, my naked toes just skimming the cold smooth surface of the flagstones, out of the little portal in the great west door, between the stooping houses, over the woods to the tent that held my slumbering daytime bulk. The cathedral receded into a flaming casket, from which shot a sunbeam that seared the lining of my eyes.

Today on the pretext of inspecting our handiwork I returned to the cathedral. My breastplate gleamed as I strode between the pillars, hat in hand, drawing hostile stares from the worshippers; they know me for what I am. I would have run with as much terror if I had been followed by an angel.

The gargoyle was still squatting in its niche. I could tell its neighbour was Saint Anthony because of the long-nosed pig that rooted at his feet. Come to think of it, my gargoyle’s nose had something swinish about it too. How wonderful that a chisel like mine should be capable of transforming inorganic stone to the likeness of living tissue! How wonderful, indeed, to be alive and breathing inside this living, breathing building, this work of many hands!

The beadsman in his side chapel must have thought I was deep in prayer as I stood unmoving before the altar, lost in amazement.

Aspects of Troy in Early English and Italian Erotic Fiction

[Before the onset of Corvid 19 I was due to give a talk at the University of Pisa today. In lieu of that talk I thought I’d put up this essay I wrote a few years back, which touches on the relationship between Italy and England in the sixteenth century. It hasn’t yet been published, and I have no idea if it ever will be, so I’m making it available here, from Scotland to Italy with love.

Behind this post is the astonishing story of the Sienese nobleman Enea Silvio Piccolomini of Corsignano, later Pope Pius II, who found himself in my country, Scotland, in 1435, fathered a child here, and made his way back to Italy through England in disguise, because England and Italy were at war. He was nearly shipwrecked on the coast of Scotland and promised to walk barefoot to the nearest shrine of Our Lady if he survived; as a result of this promise, rashly made in a Scottish winter, he got frostbite in his feet and walked with a limp for the rest of his days. So he left a child in Scotland and Scotland left a limp with him. He nearly got slaughtered by Border rievers on his way south, and was hugely impressed by York Minster when he visited; he described it as walled with coloured glass. He was also much impressed by the beauty of Scottish women, though he thought Scottish men were barbaric. Later, he was the last Pope to be involved in a crusade – in fact he died on the way to the Holy Land, after which the crusade was sensibly cancelled. Besides being the only Pope I know of to have fathered a child in Scotland, he was apparently the only Pope to have written an autobiography while in office (the Commentaries), and certainly the only one to have written a work of erotic fiction (though the latter happened before his election to the papacy). This post is about that work of fiction: a Europe-wide bestseller called de duobus amantibus (The Two Lovers), and its possible influence on the early English novel.]

Corsignano, later renamed Pienza after its most famous son, Pope Pius II
  1. A Lost Golden Age of Tudor Fiction

Along with William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (c. 1553), George Gascoigne’s Adventures Passed by Master F.J. (1573) is the work of Tudor prose fiction or ‘novelistic discourse’ whose reputation has undergone the most radical transformation in recent years.[1] A lot of work has been done to trace Gascoigne’s influence on his English successors, but the question of where his proto-novel came from remains something of a puzzle. The Adventures is sometimes talked about as if it sprang fully-formed from its author’s head, spontaneously generated by a combination of quick wit and good fortune (which is just the impression Gascoigne meant it to give). The first purpose of this blog post is to show that this is not in fact the case; and the second is to argue for the largely unacknowledged complexity of the novelistic milieu of the 1560s and early 70s from which it emerged. Gascoigne had many different models of prose fiction available to him when he started writing the Adventures, and one model in particular, I shall argue, suggests the extraordinary sophistication of the humanist tradition of erotic novella-writing on which he drew.[2]

Gascoigne’s Miscellany A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573), which includes The Adventures Passed by Master F.J.

Of the possible influences on Gascoigne’s text, Geoffrey Chaucer’s long poem Troilus and Criseyde (mid-1380s) has rightly been given pride of place, along with its Italian source, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato (1345-50). The 1573 version of the Adventures opens with a homage to Chaucer, and the direct links between the climactic bedroom scenes in the poem and the novella have been noted.[3] Gascoigne also acknowledged the impact of the Italian short story writer Matteo Bandello when he revised the Adventures in 1575, disguising his rewrite as a translation from the salacious ‘riding-tales’ of a non-existent author called ‘Bartello’ whose name clearly echoes that of his real-life counterpart from Piedmont.[4] It is becoming increasingly clear, too, that Gascoigne wrote his proto-novel in the wake of a series of sophisticated English fictions: a native pre-novelistic tradition whose practitioners show a keen awareness of their English precursors in the field. The belated publication of Beware the Cat in 1570 may well have inspired him.[5] So might one or more of the many editions of the anonymous novella The Image of Idleness (c. 1556), whose epistolary form and wittily erotic content could have given him many hints.[6] William Bullein’s experimental novella-cum-textbook A Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence (1564), which influenced Nashe, might have suggested some of the pseudo-medical goings-on in the Adventures; and Gascoigne’s interest in questioni d’amore could have been sharpened by Edmund Tilney’s attractive garden-set novella The Flower of Friendship (1568), as well as by Henry Grantham’s 1566 translation of Boccaccio’s Filocolo.[7] Indeed, if one takes translations and reprints into account as well as original compositions, the 1560s could be seen as a golden age of prose fiction in English, making available to the aficionado a wider range of novelle, merry tales and imaginative dialogues than at any time in the country’s history before that decade.[8]

In this blog post, though, I shall argue that one of Gascoigne’s main inspirations, both for his proto-novel and for the delight in quick-wittedness that drives it, was a little-known book by the fifteenth-century diplomat Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II: the Historia de duobus amantibus (1444), translated into English as The Goodli History of the Ladye Lucres of Scene and of her Lover Eurialus – or more simply, Eurialus and Lucrece.[9] Piccolomini’s Latin narrative was much better known in sixteenth-century Europe than Chaucer’s Troilus, and proved as popular in England as in Gascoigne’s other stamping-ground, the Netherlands, where the first translation into English was made. John Coyle has described it with disarming accuracy as the best pornographic novel ever written by a future pope.[10] At the centre of Piccolomini’s narrative, I shall argue – as at the centre of Gascoigne’s – is a preoccupation with literary depictions of the Trojan War (Virgil’s, Ovid’s, Boccaccio’s, and in Gascoigne’s case Chaucer’s): and its playful toying with this theme helps to point up its preoccupation with the moral, political and social paradoxes beloved of the humanist movement. In Gascoigne’s and Piccolomini’s novelle the Trojan War becomes internalized in a pair of adulterous early modern lovers at a time of relative peace, a process that highlights the religious and cultural fissures that threatened to tear Europe apart in both men’s lifetimes. As with Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s versions of the Troilus story, the war also comes to stand for the social and moral hypocrisies that underlie religious conflicts. It’s this internalizing of Troy that I shall explore in this post, as indicative of the transference from Italy to England of an interest in what I’ll call the politics of the mind which found its best expression in prose fiction.

I shall begin with a brief account of Piccolomini’s literary career, and move on to a close comparison of his and Gascoigne’s masterpieces before returning to the Trojan theme of my title. In the process I hope to show that de duobus amantibus deserves to be thought of, alongside the Adventures, as one of the seeds whose long germination culminated in the rise of the novel in late seventeenth-century England.

  1. The Seductive Stranger
Pope Pius II (formerly Enea Silvio Piccolomini)

The neo-Latin novella de duobus amantibus, written by a little man on the make, Enea Silvio Piccolomini (his surname means ‘wee man’, as he often reminds us), is a minor work of genius, a breath of Tuscan fresh air from the middle of the fifteenth century.[11] One of the most widely disseminated and often-translated narratives of the early modern period – a Europe-wide bestseller for 250 years – which was translated four times into English in Tudor times alone, it has nevertheless failed to get more than a passing mention in histories of English fiction. Yet the briefest glance makes it clear that here is a major point of origin for that remarkable series of Elizabethan proto-novels written in the 1570s and 80s, which began with Gascoigne’s own mini-masterpiece, The Adventures of Master F.J., and went on to include George Pettie’s Petite Pallace of Pleasure (1576), John Lyly’s two Euphues books (1578 and 1580), Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (written c. 1580-6, published 1590) and the astonishing outpouring of fictions in the 1580s and early 90s by Robert Greene. Not only may Piccolomini’s text have served as Gascoigne’s inspiration; it may also have fed its influence directly into the work of his successors, as its second Elizabethan translator William Braunche seems to have recognized in 1596 when he transformed the relatively plain style of the original into the highly-patterned prose of Lyly, Sidney and Greene.[12]

One of Piccolomini’s lifelong preoccupations, emerging in both his religious and literary writings throughout his career, was to expose a form of hypocrisy that lay at the heart of European civilization: the refusal to acknowledge the role played by the body in human affairs – the failure, that is, to accommodate humankind’s full humanity. In this he is a true humanist; a rhetorician and a poet rather than a logician or a philosopher. But he is an astonishingly daring and outspoken humanist, whose daring paid off to the extent that despite working through much of his career as a servant of the chief challengers of papal authority, the reformist Council of Basel, he successfully switched allegiance in mid-career and went on to become Pope. His switch of allegiance is seen by some as a career move, one of the supreme examples in the fifteenth century of unprincipled self-advancement; but he insisted that his transformation from agitator for ecclesiastical reform with a hyperactive sex drive to chaste clerical crusader for the papal supremacy was not so much a schizophrenic change of personality as a well-timed and appropriate shift in emphasis.[13] His choice of the name ‘Pius’ as his papal sobriquet alludes to Virgil’s identification of the protagonist of the Aeneid as pious Aeneas (Piccolomini’s forename Enea is the Italian form of Aeneas, legendary founder of the Italian nation). So when Pope Pius II urges his flock in a celebrated proclamation to ‘reject Aeneas; accept Pius’ he is asking them to recognize that he is the same man he was in his youth, but that his priorities have changed, as is expected of an intelligent man in the later stages of his life.[14]

This notion of humankind as an unruly composite, whose bodily needs must be met as well as its mental and spiritual requirements, can be found everywhere in Piccolomini’s writings. His influential treatise on the education of boys the ‘Art of Rhetoric’ stresses the training of the body as forcefully as the training of the mind, the value of poetry as well as the necessity to ingest philosophy, the crucial importance of using theory as a blueprint for practice.[15] As one might expect, the treatise has nothing to say about sex, since it was composed as a letter to a 10-year-old princeling, and Enea was a priest by the time he wrote it. But an equally famous letter to a teenage prince, Sigismund of Tyrol – written before Enea found his ecclesiastical vocation – suggests that sex can in fact form an integral part of a young man’s physical, intellectual and moral development.[16] When young Sigismund asked him to draft a love-letter to instruct him in the art of seduction, Piccolomini explained his motivation in acceding to the request in scrupulous detail. Given that desire is a ‘condition of human life’, he argues, sexual exploits should be undertaken in youth rather than old age, ‘since […] age is inept in love’. Echoing Andreas Capellanus and the school of courtly love he helped to found, he claims that ‘the custom of love… excites the sluggish virtues of youth’, encouraging young men to extraordinary feats of arms, letters and friendship, and enabling them to know ‘good and evil’ and ‘the stratagems of the world’. And he closes the letter with an unusual twist on a familiar literary trope. Writers of the Renaissance are forever urging their readers to treat their texts as bees treat gardens, shunning unwholesome weeds and drawing nectar only from the sweetest literary flowers – or else extracting goodness from weeds and flowers equally. But Piccolomini’s metaphorical gardens are not texts but the bodies of women: ‘as the bees sip honey from flowers, so you should learn virtue from the blandishments of Venus’. This identifies the female body, and the sexual adventures young men might experience with women, as a kind of book or library from which virtue can be extracted as effectively as – more effectively than? – from the tomes of the philosophers. This is a position that gets taken up by some of the most sophisticated English writers of early modern prose fiction, most strikingly John Lyly, as I suggested long ago in my book Elizabethan Fictions (1997).

Pinturicchio: Piccolomini in Scotland, Piccolomini Library, Siena

Piccolomini’s own life, as unfolded in his collected epistles and his autobiography, the Commentaries, gave a perfect practical demonstration of his conviction that sexual adventures have an integral role to play in the development of a fully rounded human being. He fathered two illegitimate children that we know of: one in Scotland, where he was as impressed by the beauty of the Scottish women as by the barbarity of the Scottish men, and one in Strasbourg, with an English or Breton woman named Elizabeth. The Scottish child died in infancy, but Elizabeth’s son seems to have survived a little longer, since Enea wrote a letter to his father asking him to receive the boy into his household.[17] What is striking about this letter is the extent to which he defends his behaviour in literary terms. He begins by describing himself as ‘Aeneas Sylvius, poet’ – a title he used throughout this phase of his career, after being crowned laureate by Frederick III in 1442 – and nearly all the examples it deploys are drawn from the works of poets or fiction writers. When he wants to point out that his father, too, slept around in his youth, he quotes the story of Tancred and Ghismonda from Boccaccio’s great anthology the Decameron (c. 1348-53): ‘you begot no son of stone or iron, being flesh yourself’ (Enea’s own fictional lover Eurialus later uses the same quotation to defend his adulterous desire for Lucrece).[18] A few lines later, Piccolomini uses a different tale from the Decameron, to flesh out the details of his liaison with Elizabeth. Having asked her to leave her bedroom door unlatched and been twice refused, he tells his father that ‘I remembered Zima the Florentine’. This is Boccaccio’s story of a dandy who contrives to arrange a tryst with a woman sworn by her husband to silence, by appointing himself her ventriloquist, speaking her words for her, and setting up a nocturnal meeting, an arrangement with which she silently concurs by following his instructions to the letter. Enea chose to assume that despite Elizabeth’s show of reluctance she too would follow his instructions, which were delivered in the same way Zima delivered his; and when that night he made his way to her room, sure enough he found the door unlatched, whereupon they proceeded to conceive a son together. Enea’s sexual adventure, in other words, was modelled on that of a Boccaccian hero, Zima the dandy, and he uses the words of a Boccaccian heroine, Ghismonda, to defend it. Poetry, then, in Sidney’s sense of ‘fiction’ in verse or prose, for him offers practical help to desperate lovers. And in Piccolomini’s universe all men and women are to a greater or lesser extent lovers, often quite desperate ones. So those who disapprove of erotic fictions or the actions they encourage are no better, Enea claims, than the ‘hypocrite’ who ‘says that he knows no fault in himself’, in defiance of Christian doctrine (1 John 1:8).

Eloquence itself, in fact – the essential skill of a secretary, as he says in one of his letters, and an art whose supreme exponent is the poet[19] – is closely associated with illicit desire by Piccolomini. His attraction to Elizabeth began, he claims, with an admiration for her linguistic skills. For one thing, she spoke his language, Tuscan; for another, Enea ‘delight[ed] in women’s jests’, a field in which ‘she excelled’, reminding him of Cleopatra’s seduction of Ceasar and Antony with her playfully seductive use of language.[20] Her eloquence, in fact, bred eloquence in him. Inspired by his attraction to her, he quickly persuaded himself by analogy with great men – Moses, Aristotle, and certain notable Christians – to pursue his interest in her. For Enea, then, three major philosophical traditions of the world (the Jewish, the ancient Greek and the Christian) agreed in recognizing both the power of the sexual urge and its significant place in the make-up of the great public speakers and policy-makers. And even as Pius II, Piccolomini continued to think of rhetoric in sexual terms. In the famous ‘retraction bull’ he wrote to exonerate himself for defending the controversial Council of Basel[21] – an official pronouncement composed to prevent any of his earlier writings from bringing ‘scandal’ to his pontificate – Pius speaks of his old letters and pamphlets as the product of a youthful passion for articulacy: a passion which produces illegitimate texts as readily as a young lover produces illegitimate offspring. ‘Our writings pleased us,’ he confesses, ‘in the manner of poets who love their poems like sons’.[22] The sentence neatly identifies his pro-Basel polemics as works of poetry or fiction, while showing an amused tolerance for the ease with which a clever man may be seduced by the music of his own utterances.

Pinturicchio: Piccolomini being crowned poet laureate, Piccolomini Library, Siena

1444 was an annus mirabilis for Enea the poet. Having been crowned laureate two years earlier by the Emperor Frederick III, he confirmed the validity of the title by penning a trio of compositions: an epistolary satire on the misery of a courtier’s life (De curialium miseriis), a version of which George Gascoigne could have read in Alexander Barclay’s celebrated Eclogues (c. 1520);[23] a scandalous Plautine comedy called Chrysis, about love between priests and prostitutes in a brothel;[24] and his most widely-read work, De duobus amantibus. All three texts identify Enea as a detached, witty and sometimes acerbic commentator on contemporary European life, a tone made easier for him to adopt by the Emperor Frederick’s policy of maintaining a neutral stance in the conflict between the Anti-pope Felix V (who was elected by the Council of Basel) and Pope Eugenius IV (whom the Council opposed). And the play and the novella identify illicit sexual liaisons as the ultimate testing ground for the pervasive culture of sexual hypocrisy that possessed fifteenth-century Europe. They identify, too, exuberant speech as the peculiar province of lovers, who wield it honestly in the service of dishonest love, and in the process show up the degree to which eloquence has been commandeered for vastly more destructive purposes elsewhere in the world they inhabit.

Pinturicchio: Piccolomini leaves for the Council of Basel

Gascoigne could not have known Chrysis, since the play was lost from the time of its composition to the twentieth century; but it is interesting to note that Enea’s novella was penned by a practitioner of neo-classical comedy, just as Gascoigne’s Adventures sprang from the imagination of the translator of another Italian comedy, Ariosto’s I Suppositi, Englished by Gascoigne as Supposes (meaning something like ‘assumptions’).[25] And Chrysis can help us to interpret de duobus amantibus. Emily O’Brien has recently shown how Enea’s play satirizes the fifteenth-century fashion for Neo-Stoic philosophy: the intellectual tradition that rejects passion in favour of an idealized and unattainable rationalism.[26] In addition, Enea transplants the Grecian setting of his comedy to the political hotbed of Basel in the 1440s, identifying its characters with real-life participants in the struggle between he Anti-pope Felix and Pope Eugenius, and having the young man Charinus allude to the conflict between the pontiffs only to dismiss it as irrelevant to the concerns of non-politicians. ‘There are some gentlemen of the toga,’ Charinus observes,

who say there is some kind of awful dissension between pontiffs. For my part, I keep in mind that saying of the wise: that useless worries are best put behind you. Just as chickens who are destined to be slaughtered tomorrow fight amongst themselves for feed in the henhouse, so men contend for empire when they have no idea how long they’ll be permitted to hold it. If I’m going to give up something, I’d sooner give up an empire than my dinner (IV.164-74).

Accordingly, the characters in Enea’s play have little interest in virtue, as either the popes or the Stoic philosophers defined it. His lecherous priests consider their celibate status as the perfect excuse for evading the legal trap of matrimony and indulging in a perpetual round of free love. They resolve to punish their prostitute lovers not for sinning but for sleeping with other men besides themselves. And the prostitutes teach the priests in return a lesson not in celibacy but mutual affection, showing a warmth for their clerical lovers – despite their promiscuity – that scuppers the men’s plans to abuse the women for being as unfaithful as they themselves are. Overhearing the prostitutes profess their love for them near the end, the priests conclude that ‘it’s we who have been wicked and they good’ (XVIII.778); and the play closes with a reconciliation between whores and clerics which is celebrated with ‘three jugs of the best vintage wine’ (XVIII.802), as well as the applause of Enea’s male audience.

Pinturicchio: Piccolomini leaving for the Council of Basel, detail

When another male character, then, tells us in the epilogue that the play’s moral is that ‘you should work hard to be virtuous, stay away from courtesans, pimps, parasites, and wild parties,’ and that ‘Virtue excels all things, and the virtuous man lacks for nothing’ (XVIII.807-812), we could be forgiven for assuming that he has completely missed the point. The word virtue has been appropriated by popes and politicians, and like the squabbles of politicians has little to do with what makes relationships work between ordinary men and women of flesh and blood. It seems likely, too, that the moral is a joke at the expense of the moralized versions of Terence’s often raunchy comedies that formed a staple of the medieval school curriculum. Unlike the philosopher, the schoolmaster or the power-hungry pontiff, the poet knows all about the emotional machinery that drives the households and daily activities of common people, and can discover a complex web of alternative virtues being practised there which do not involve an actual or presumed withdrawal from either hard work, hard play or a bit of hard core fornication.

All of which brings us to Enea’s masterpiece de duobus amantibus, one of the models, I suggest, for The Adventures Passed by Master F.J. A brief summary of what the two texts have in common can serve as a starting point for the comparison.

  1. Divided Loyalties
Euryalus sends his first letter to Lucretia

Enea’s novella, de duobus amantibus, was written not much more than a year before he accomplished his spectacular political volte-ace, switching his professional role from apologist for the anti-papal Council of Basel to propagandist for the papacy. This imminent change of allegiance is signalled by the fact that it’s a book about divided loyalties. It concerns a German man, who finds his career as an official in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor at odds with his love-life, and a faithfully married woman of Siena, who finds herself in love with the German – a man who is not her husband – and transfers her affections to him without compromising her wholehearted commitment to the principle of loyalty to one’s lover. It is hard to imagine anyone who was not in Enea’s complicated position, or something like it, writing such a richly duplicitous text, which identifies certain intransigent problems at the heart of Christian morality and exposes them in painful detail through what is ostensibly the lightest kind of romance – the prose equivalent of a classical comedy.

Gascoigne’s proto-novel The Adventures Passed by Master F.J., too, is a story of divided loyalties. A young man from the South of England, the titular F.J., comes to stay with a Northern friend in his castle and initiates an affair with his friend’s wife, Elinor. Another woman in the castle, Frances, detects the affair and signals her attraction and loyalty to F.J. by showing him that she knows what he is up to, yet refraining from exposing his adultery. Instead she seeks to win him for herself with a mixture of witty banter, amorous fables, and hints about Elinor’s congenital promiscuity. F.J. finds himself attracted to both women, but cannot commit himself to Frances because (as in Capestranus’ treatise De amore) the allure of illicit, hard-won love proves far too intense to be surrendered for legitimate affection. Gascoigne, like Piccolomini, stood accused in his lifetime of a taste for sexual and political intrigue: he was indicted and acquitted as both a bigamist and a traitor, and his verse outside the Adventures celebrates and repents of adultery (real or imagined) with equal fervour. And if he did not switch his political allegiance in mid career as Enea did, his failure to find steady employment necessitated an equally developed capacity to change objectives and allegiances at a moment’s notice, a talent for spontaneous improvisation which is invoked by the word adventures’ in the title of his novella.[27]

Gascoigne presents his work to Elizabeth I, representing himself as a laureate poet

To live at adventure’ in the sixteenth century was to live from day to day, seizing whatever chances or adventures fell in your path and resisting all attempts to confine you within the bounds of duty, obligation or (by extension) morality. Gascoigne’s well-attested delight in weaving his own reputation as an unruly adventurer into the plots of his various fictions could well have made Enea’s ingenious interweaving of autobiography and poetic invention singularly attractive to him. So too might Enea’s ambiguous recantation, when he transformed himself from Enea/Aeneas to Pius without ever quite rejecting the political and sexual exploits of his youth. Gillian Austen has made a thorough case for the ambiguity of Gascoigne’s many gestures of repentance in the last years of his life.[28] Where Enea cut off the sins of his youth in one clean gesture when he took the cloth (though he remained willing to recall the sins of his youth in ample detail in his autobiographical writings), Gascoigne carefully tailored each of his later texts to its intended recipients, switching with disconcerting ease between stern recantations of his youthful folly and continued dabblings in erotic poetry. He might well have seen Enea as something of a fellow spirit, with his pragmatic juggling of the claims of body and soul, the variety of his literary output, and his reputation as a man of sexual, political and even military action.[29]

The first formal link between Enea’s and Gascoigne’s novelle is that both are contained within the framework of a letter, and that both are packed with epistolary exchanges between their central characters. This formal choice is hardly surprising in Enea, since he was one of the most respected letter-writers of the early modern period; and Gascoigne’s extensive use of the form may owe as much to Piccolomini as to the anonymous author of the first English piece of epistolary prose fiction The Image of Idleness (1556), which kept being reprinted throughout the first half of Elizabeth’s reign.[30] De duobus amantibus first appeared in a letter to the humanist Mariano Sozzini, and was frequently printed in the sixteenth century with this and another letter as explanatory prefaces; and although the Tudor translations of Enea’s text omit these epistles, Gascoigne’s considerable skills as a linguist could have given him ready access to them in Latin, by way of the various Italian, French and German editions circulating in his lifetime.[31] Enea’s prefatory epistles foreshadow the celebrated letters from HW and GT that preface Gascoigne’s Adventures in the book where it first appears, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573). The first of Enea’s letters as they are printed, to a German friend named Caspar Schlick, lets slip the fact that de duobus may be a roman à clef, and that Schlick has much in common with Eurialus. It thus anticipates the hints at a true-life scandal that run through Gascoigne’s Adventures, and to which Gascoigne alludes in the revised 1575 version of his novella, the Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire.[32] But Enea’s first epistle also resembles the letter from Gascoigne’s HW in the challenge it presents to orthodox morality, and in the way it sets the tone for the tale to come.

The bulk of the epistle to Schlick consists of an extravagant mock eulogy of that ‘very little Person’ Mariano Sozzini, who should have been surnamed ‘wee man’, Enea tells us – like Piccolomini himself – on account of his diminutive size.[33] Despite his small stature, Enea showers Sozzini with praise: he is ‘as great a Philosopher as Plato; in Geometry equal to Boetius; in Arithmetic to Macrobius’; he ‘paints like another Apelles’, carves like the legendary sculptor Praxiteles, and so on. Nobody, of course – let alone a little body like Sozzini – could possibly encompass all these qualities. And even if he did, the letter goes on to point out that even the best of men has some blemish that lets him down. Plagarensis, Enea observes, became enraged that his ass could not bear as many offspring at one birth as his sow; Gomicius thought he had fallen pregnant because he let his wife get on top when they were making love; and Sozzini, too, has his blemish. He is addicted to sex; and since Enea owes him a favour, the writer has duly obeyed the little man’s request to write him a pornographic novella to indulge his proclivities. But the letter ends by claiming, as Sidney did in his Apology for Poetry (1595), that a love of love is hardly a fault. ‘He who never was in Love,’ Enea declares, ‘is either a Stone or a Beast’, and any attempt to deny this would be hypocrisy. Human frailty in matters of desire is an intransigent ‘Truth’, and this frailty deserves due recognition from poets like himself.

Eurialus and Lucretia in bed, from the only illustrated printed edition, by Piero Pacini, c. 1500

The second epistle prefacing Enea’s novella, which is addressed to Sozzini himself, is equally witty at the expense of po-faced moralists. It begins by pointing out that Sozzini is fifty and Enea nearly forty, and that it would therefore seem inappropriate for either of them to show much interest in erotic writing. But Enea adds that Sozzini’s continued ‘Proneness to Amour’ protects him from ageing, and therefore promises that he will ‘rouze all the amorous Spirits of this grey headed Lover’ in the ensuing story. So when the letter closes by claiming that the tale of Eurialus and Lucrece gives a ‘warning to Youth, to avoid such Criminal Amours’ as the lovers indulged in, the rest of the epistle forbids us to take this seriously. Enea undercuts the moral of his narrative by placing it in a context where its obsolescence is palpable. And this process of setting up apparent moral judgements only to explode them in the next sentence – and perhaps reinstate them the sentence after – will become familiar as we read on. It is not a device that Gascoigne mimics directly; but he could have learned a lot, I think, from Enea’s willingness to play continually with set notions of right and wrong.

Piccolomini’s two prefatory epistles prepare us for one aspect of the story that follows: its playfully ironic tone, which undercuts the exalted pretensions of the courtly love tradition, laughs at Petrarchan idealism, and mocks the chivalric code as depicted in conventional romances. The Emperor’s court in the novella is a place where playfulness is endemic: the Emperor himself is both lover and joker, who delights in teasing Eurialus about his attraction to a married woman. At the same time, a strand of seriousness runs through the narrative, which comes to the fore in its final pages. Unlike the Emperor, Eurialus cannot afford to treat his affair with Lucretia as a joke; if he does, his career will suffer. The material conditions of fifteenth-century life dictate that a courtier cannot laugh freely at the things his master laughs at. And a married woman cannot afford to laugh at the things a male courtier might find amusing. Enea keeps reminding us of these incompatibilities, as if to draw our attention to the real social issues that get obscured by talk of moral idealism and the apparatus of conventional romance.

Gascoigne and the Queen, from his The Noble Art of Venerie

Again, it is the philosophy rather than the details of this constant play between light and darkness, the comic and the deeply serious that Gascoigne could have learned from. Gascoigne’s Adventures shares with de duobus an ability to veer between moods at a moment’s notice, and he makes repeated changes of tone and sensibility a defining feature of the relationship between his lovers. There is, however, one occasion when Master F.J., like Eurialus, learns the danger of telling jokes about infidelity in the context of royal courts. One of his poems celebrating his adulterous affair finds its way to the ears of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers, who take offence at his claim to have got a monopoly on beauty now that he has got Elinor as his mistress (Pigman 176.22-31). Not much is made of the courtiers’ displeasure with F.J.’s boasting and its possible consequences. But the effect of its being mentioned is to stress the provincialism of F.J.’s affair, and to remind us that it would have had quite different personal and political repercussions if it had been prosecuted a little closer to the seat of power. Juxtaposed with the household of the Queen herself, F.J.’s hubristic comparisons of Elinor to a range of mythical deities and monarchs might have looked uncomfortably like treason. And the episode also demonstrates how easy it is for provincial doings to find their way to the cultural centre, however discreetly they may seem to be conducted. Enea’s text could well have laid the foundation for this perception of Gascoigne’s, given the atmosphere of increasing paranoia about the possibility of detection that pervades the Sienese narrative.

  1. Women Versus Men

Like the Adventures, then, de duobus is a duplicitous or two-faced text, remarkable for its clear-eyed recognition of the torments as well as the delights of an illicit relationship. This tension is of course familiar from the literature of courtly love, but both Piccolomini and Gascoigne are astonishingly skilful in sustaining it; and they manage this feat, I think, through the complexity of their female characters. Gascoigne supplies his readers with two clever heroines: an adulterous wife called Elinor and her free-spirited but faithful sister (or sister-in-law) Frances, who between them test F.J.’s intelligence in the context of a three-way attraction. Enea, by contrast, gives his readers a single heroine, Lucrece/Lucretia, who seems to have been designed specifically to confound anti-feminist preconceptions about desiring women. Neither Gascoigne’s Frances nor Enea’s Lucretia permits readers the satisfaction of passing easy judgement on her actions. And part of what forbids such a judgement is the link both stories forge between the dilemma these women find themselves in and the greatest of all stories about adultery: the myth of Troy.

Gascoigne’s The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting. Hunting was often used as a metaphor for erotic adventuring

The first of the links with Troy is that both novelle describe an affair between a married woman and a foreigner, reminiscent of the relationship between the Trojan Prince Paris and the Greek Queen Helen. In this they run counter to the best-known contemporary versions of a Trojan love story, Boccaccio’s Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, in which Cressida is a widow and Troilus her fellow Trojan. Enea’s and Gascoigne’s lovers have more in common with Paris and Helen, whose affair sparked off the Trojan war, than with the much less politically explosive relationship between Troilus and Cressida. Gascoigne stresses the parallel by naming his heroine Elinor, which gets changed to ‘Helen’ in one of F.J.’s poems (Pigman 175.21-177.24), while Enea gives his heroine a husband called Menelaus and a brother-in-law called Agamemnon, while repeatedly associating his hero with Trojans such as Memnus and Paris. Intriguingly, though, both writers mix up their lovers with Troilus and Cressida too. Enea’s hero Eurialus, for instance, has a go-between called Pandalus, while Master F.J. becomes a member of ‘Troylus sect’ (Pigman 189.5) when he gets jealous of Elinor. The double parallel with Helen/Paris and Cressida/Troilus identifies both couples as simultaneously enemies and friends as well as lovers – a paradox Gascoigne recognizes when he has F.J. refer to Elinor as his ‘friendly enemy’.[34] It also marks them out as subject to a higher dispensation, the helpless playthings of politicians whose agendas run counter to their own. Eurialus’s imperial overlord, the Holy Roman Emperor, governs his fate just as Priam governs that of Troilus, while F.J.’s hidden rival for Elinor’s love, the so-called ‘secretary’, turns out to be a far more potent ghost-writer of Elinor’s affairs than he is, a Homer or an Ovid where F.J. is just a clever schoolboy with too much pride in his own compositions. And the use of Troy as an analogy for these two affairs suggests that each set of lovers is in some sense doomed from the start. They are retreading old ground filled with the ruins of lost civilizations, and the location of this ground in Siena and England suggests that the tensions and contradictions that led to the fall of Troy are somehow replicated at the level of the town and even the household in early modern Europe.

In the 1573 version of the Adventures, Gascoigne associates F.J. with another character from the Trojan war, a figure who makes explicit the link between ancient Troy and early modern England. At the point when F.J. finally succeeds in arranging a secret liaison with his lover Elinor – in a deserted corridor of the castle at night – the narrator invites his male reader to share his imaginative complicity with the act of adultery that follows:

But why hold I so long discourse in discribing the joyes which (for lacke of like experience) I cannot set out to the ful? Were it not that I knowe to whom I write, I would the more beware what I write. F.J. was a man, and neither of us are sencelesse, and therfore I shold slaunder him, (over and besides a greater obloquie to the whole genealogie of Enaeas) if I should imagine that of tender hart he would forbeare to expresse hir more tender limbes against the hard floore (Pigman 168.11-18).

This passage is a wonderful example of the moral ambiguity of the 1573 Adventures (it was omitted from the cleaned-up 1575 version). It begins by implying the inexperience of the narrator, who has never undergone the pleasures he wishes us to picture. His inexperience becomes gullibility in the second sentence, where he claims to know the identity of his reader (‘I knowe to whom I write’): a reference to the fact that the whole narrative is supposed to have been contained in a private letter from the narrator G.T. to his friend H.W. – who promptly betrayed his friend by disobeying his instructions to keep it private and sending it to a printer to be published (Pigman 141.1-142.37). Any reader of the novella who is not H.W. is a beneficiary of this act of betrayal, and therefore complicit with it; in other words, betrayal is spread from person to person like an infection by the printed text we are reading. Yet treason is already endemic in the English people, because they trace their ‘genealogie’ to the arch-traitor Aeneas, whose grandson Brutus founded the island nation, according to Tudor legend. Gascoigne could have referred, if he wished, to ‘the genealogie of Brutus’ – and indeed this was the more usual formulation. But Aeneas’ treachery was proverbial, condemned in the Trojan histories of Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis as well as by the woman he abandoned, Dido Queen of Carthage, in Ovid’s Heroides.[35] By tracing F.J. and the male reader to a common ancestor – the legendary founder of Rome – Gascoigne makes them brothers in brutishness, capable of abandoning any pretence at a ‘tender hart’ and crushing the ‘more tender limbes’ of women without a moment’s reflection. And it is tempting to see the shadow of another womanizing Aeneas/Enea behind the allusion to Virgil’s ambiguous hero.

Gascoigne and the Queen as hunters

F.J.’s treacherous, Aeneas-like nature is confirmed soon afterwards in Gascoigne’s second set of extended references to the Trojan war. F.J. composes several poems or songs to celebrate his betrayal of his friend, Elinor’s husband; and one or more of these songs exposes the young man’s adultery as well as his hubris to the world at large. But the verses also expose him to the suspicion of Elinor, who suspects they were first written about some other lover of his, although F.J. later swears that he changed the name Elinor to Helen in one of the poems because ‘he toke it all for one name, or at least he never red of any Elinor such matter as might sound worthy like commendation for beautie’ (Pigman 177.13-15). The narrator tangles himself into fantastic knots of speculation at this point as to whether Elinor was right, and the Helen of the poem was someone different. Rumour has it, we learn, that F.J. did once have an affair with a woman called Helen; but she was not worth writing poems about, and besides the style of the poem suggests that it was written long before he met her, and besides it is clearly a sensible policy to adapt the same poem for use in more than one relationship. By the end of the passage, poetry has become the versatile tool or pimp of serial adulterers, a stalking horse (or Trojan horse) whose general purpose is always sexual and specific purpose always obscure. ‘Well[,] by whom he wrote it I know not,’ the passage ends:

but once I am sure that he wrote it, for he is no borrower of inventions, and this is al that I meane to prove, as one that sende you his verses by stealth, and do him double wrong, to disclose unto any man the secrete causes why they were devised, but this for your delight I do adventure (Pigman 177.24-29).

In other words, nothing about the poem is clear except that it can readily be adapted to treachery – such as the treachery we are condoning by reading F.J.’s poems, adventurously purloined from him for our voyeuristic pleasure. The one set of values the narrator seems to celebrate is the technical accomplishment of the poet: and he gives F.J. special praise for the originality of his compositions, ‘for he is no borrower of inventions’. But even this seeming ‘fact’ about F.J.’s originality proves uncertain; the next poem we read is a translation from the Italian, and therefore a ‘borrowed invention’. Lyrics are like so many Helens, available to be poached from one situation or language and deployed for erotic purposes in another; no wonder, then, if Elinor regards their male composer with equal distrust, and subjects the poet F.J. to the same cavalier treatment as his poems promise her. Like her namesake Helen, whose first experience of love was with that serial abandoner of women Theseus (as F.J.’s lyric about her reminds us (Pigman 176.9-10)), or like Criseyde in Chaucer’s poem, Elinor inhabits an environment where women are used by men as sexual playthings and political pawns, and under the circumstances it is hard to blame her for acting at all times in her own best interests, as she does when she swaps F.J. for another lover later in the story.

F.J.’s Helen poem marks him out as a betrayer, although he continues to pose throughout the narrative as if he were the soul of amorous integrity. Enea’s male lover Eurialus is also a betrayer, abandoning Lucretia so as not to compromise his political future. Here, then, is another way in which Gascoigne’s narrative has more in common with de duobus amantibus than with Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer’s innocent Troilus has had no experience of love before he falls for Criseyde, whose widowhood teaches her to be far more wary of the sudden twists and turns of fortune than her lover has yet learned to be. There is an element of Troilus’s innocence in both Eurialus and F.J., but it is the heartless, self-serving innocence of a young man who thinks the pose of courtly lover is a game, and has no idea how much they will damage themselves and others with their infidelities. And once one has recognized this first set of family resemblances between the two texts – Enea’s and Gascoigne’s – a number of others present themselves, binding the books together in intriguing ways.

A hunting party, from The Noble Art of Venerie

Both pairs of lovers are defined in their narratives as being at once foreign to each other and fellow citizens of the same emotional nation. The German Eurialus tells the Italian Lucretia: ‘call me no straunger, I pray the, for I am rathere of thys contrye, than he that is borne heare, sythens hee is but by chaunce, and I by myne own choyse’ (Morrall 16.27-29). Later, of course, his foreignness reasserts itself, as he decides to throw in his lot with Emperor Sigismund rather than his lover, and abandons Lucretia as Aeneas abandoned Dido – or as that other Aeneas, Piccolomini, abandoned his women in Scotland and Strasbourg. F.J. and Elinor, too, begin by assuming that they share a common language: the discourse of continental courtship, whose French, Italian and Spanish lexicon litters their conversation, covertly signalling their willingness to subscribe to continental amorous practices, of which adultery was supposed to be one. In one sentence F.J. gives Elinor a French congé or greeting accompanied by the Spanish gesture of kissing the hand (Bezo las manos), and the cod-Spanish gesture of a kiss on the lips described in the cod-Spanish phrase zuccado dez labros, before reciting a poem in the Italian form of a Terza sequenza (Pigman 149.31-34). The Babel of different languages anticipates the inevitable breakdown in communication, when the lovers’ foreignness to each other reasserts itself as it did in Enea’s novella. F.J. loses track of Elinor’s meaning and avenges himself by raping her; and Elinor at once avenges herself in turn by transferring her affections to another man. The frail city of their relationship, built on the slenderest of foundations, collapses and leaves no trace – like Babel or the City of Troy. In all versions of the Trojan legend the city betrays itself. Without Paris’s ruinous affair with Helen, and Troy’s condoning of it, the war with Greece would never have started; without the city’s rash acceptance of the wooden horse its towers would not have fallen; and in many versions it is the Trojan Aeneas who is responsible for persuading his fellow countrymen to bring the horse inside the city walls. By their allusions to the Trojan war, both Piccolomini and Gascoigne put betrayal at the heart of their stories – and at the heart, I would suggest, of the cultures they inhabit.

Both texts reinforce this theme of self-betrayal by replacing a war between two separate peoples, the Trojans and the Greeks, with what is effectively a civil war. The states where the action of the novelle takes place are in each case enjoying a fragile peace between bouts of conflict. Eurialus comes to Siena in the train of Emperor Sigismund, who is often at war (as Eurialus tells Lucretia) but pays his visit to the city en route to a diplomatic mission in Rome; while the Southerner F.J. arrives in the North parts of England not long after the Northern Rebellion of 1569, when the Catholic lords of the North of England rose against the Protestant settlement that had been imposed on them by the South, as part of the ongoing religious struggle between Reformers and Counter-Reformers.[36] But despite the official lull in hostilities in both texts, conflict continues: between adulterers and husbands; between the lip-service paid to laws and customs in Renaissance Europe and the passionate, wit-fuelled relationship pursued by the lovers in defiance of both; between the literary conventions of courtly love or chivalric romance invoked by the adulterers on the one hand, and their repeated violation of those conventions on the other. And the potential for violence in these conflicts is signalled by the conspicuous presence of swords in sexual encounters. Master F.J. carries a sword to his first assignation with Elinor, on the bare floorboards of the gallery. Eurialus too carries his sword to his first assignation with Lucretia. Their love-making is interrupted by her husband, which condemns Eurialus to an hour or two of cowering in a closet; and when he later recalls the episode, swords figure prominently in his recollection: ‘though I hadde escaped [her husband’s] handes because hee hadde no weapon, and I hadde a sweard by my syde, yet hadde he a man wyth hym, and weapons honge at hande uppon the wall, and there was many servauntes in the house […] and I shoulde have ben handled accordynge’ (Morrall 25.13-18). So war in these narratives is no mere metaphor (although it is that too, especially in the Adventures). There are physical dangers involved, and phallic weapons can end up damaging their bearers, as well as the women they are supposedly intended to protect. Swords, like penises, have divided loyalties, and unsheathing them can lead to a host of unpredictable consequences.

Eurialus’ inner torment, both while he is locked in the closet and afterwards when reflecting on his predicament, dramatizes a central conflict in both narratives: the internal war of attrition between the male lover’s contradictory attitudes to his mistress. Throughout the text Eurialus careers between emotional extremes: delighted celebration of the wonderful sex he is enjoying and outbreaks of lacerating self-disgust in which he berates himself for falling prey to the wiles of women. Gascoigne’s protagonist too gets trapped in mental turmoil – the self-inflicted excruciation of jealousy – which leads him half way through the story to mistrust the elusive word-games with Elinor he has so far relished, and to re-read the letters she has sent him as products of duplicity rather than affection. This agonized reinvention of himself and her leads to his rape of Elinor, a rape that is linked with their earlier liaison in the corridor by being described in terms of a sword attack: ‘he drewe uppon his new professed enimie, and… thrust hir through both hands, and etc.’ (Pigman 198.19-21). Violence in the civil war of these two narratives springs from an interior split or fragmentation in men which inflicts appalling damage on women’s bodies.

The roof of the Piccolomini Library, Siena

Both texts stress the inwardness of the affairs they describe – their origin and growth in the enclosed space of the lovers’ minds and bodies – by careful concentration on the physical details of the buildings where they take place. Gascoigne’s Elinor knows of secret passages between her bedchamber and his, and we quickly become familiar with the ambience of the bedchambers themselves, where F.J. languishes in a jealous fever and Elinor holds court. In the same way, we build up a vivid picture of the streets and buildings that surround Lucretia’s house in de duobus, and learn much about the marital bedroom where she and Eurialus make love. The effect of all this architectural and mental inwardness is a mounting sense of claustrophobia, which culminates in the failure of either affair to escape from the confines of the house where it got started. In each case, it is the woman who stays trapped in the building at the end of the story, unlike her Greek and Trojan counterparts, as if to confirm her continued subjection to the laws and customs she has dared to challenge. Both stories, then, imply that the conditions which gave rise to their own particular Trojan War remain in place after the affair has fizzled out, and that the conflict will carry on into successive generations. Notwithstanding the passions that have been aroused in Siena and Northern England, the European household and the rules that are presumed to govern it remain unchanged, and the emergence of further labyrinthine secret histories – post-Trojan histories – like the ones we have witnessed seems inevitable.

  1. Names and Naming
Titian, Tarquin and Lucretia

Lucretia’s name in de duobus amantibus promises exactly this. It is an inspired choice of name and a deeply unsettling one. It means that hovering over Enea’s heroine is the shadow of rape – the rape that is carried out in Gascoigne’s story – and a corresponding problematization of the early modern anti-feminist tradition of laying the blame for any sexual act, consensual or otherwise, squarely on the woman, who must therefore pay the price for it. Lucretia shares her name with a founder of Rome as distinguished as Enea’s namesake: the woman whose rape set off a revolution, leading to the collapse of the Roman monarchy and the foundation of the republic. She is physically beautiful, described in loving detail by a seemingly besotted narrator; and like Elinor and her sister Frances she is amusing and intelligent as well (‘Who would then leave to love,’ Eurialus cries, ‘when he seeth suche wit and learning in his maystres?’, Morrall 15.35-6). But despite this perilous fusion of beauty and intelligence with powerful desire, Enea never once lets her integrity be questioned. Whenever Eurialus gets frightened or frustrated by his affair, he lapses into the commonplaces of fifteenth-century misogyny; but he always finds his anti-feminism demolished by the unarguable fact that Lucretia lends no fuel to it.

Her fusion of bodily and mental perfection remains as marked at the end of the tale as it was in this lyrical passage near the beginning:

Her mouth small and comely, her lyppes of corall colour, handsom to byte on, her small tethe, wel set in order, semed Cristal through which the quivering tonge dyd send furth (not wordes) but moost pleasant armony. What shall I shewe the beautye of her chynne, or the whytenesse of her necke? Nothynge was in that bodye not too bee praysed[. A]s the outwarde aparaunces shewed token of that that was inwarde, no man beheld her that dyd not envy her husbande[. S]he was in speche as the fame is, the mother of Graccus was, or the doughter of Hortentius. Nothynge was more sweter, nor soberer than her talcke. She pretended not (as dothe many) honestye by hevy countenance: but with mery vysage, shewed her sobernes, not fearefull, nor over heardye: but under drede of shame, she caryed in a womans hart (Morrall 3.35-4.10).

It is only after agonized self-interrogation and a lengthy correspondence that this paragon of loyalty transfers her allegiance from her husband to a German stranger; and once the transference has been completed, her ‘honestye’ and ‘sobernes’ remain unshakeable. This deeply honest form of dishonesty – a carefully considered change of mind as complete as the change of the physical object of her desire – is a state few early modern English poets could allow their women to inhabit. Gascoigne had to split his heroine in two in order to present women from as complex a perspective as Piccolomini did, while Lyly and Greene never tried anything so controversial. I wonder whether, in creating such a heroine and calling her Lucretia, Enea aimed to stage a revolution in the attitudes of his contemporaries to desire itself? If so, the attempt was a failure of heroic proportions. But I suspect he knew his attempt would fail, and was determined only that it should fail heroically.

I.W., the suicide of Lucretia, c. 1525

The most complex use of Lucretia’s name occurs in the final letter of the narrative, in which Eurialus explains why he has to leave her, and why he cannot take her with him. It’s her name, he insists, that has prompted both these acts of seeming betrayal, which he presents as being in her own interest. ‘Thou knowest thou art maryed into a noble familye,’ he says, ‘and haste the name of a ryght beautyful and chaste Lady’ (Morrall 38.2-3); and the English phrase used by the translator neatly collapses the distinction between two meanings of the word ‘name’: designation and reputation. The latter meaning is taken up when he suggests another name that might become linked with hers if she should elope with him: ‘Lo,’ the world would say, ‘Lucres that was called more chast then the wyfe of Brutus, and better than Penelope, foloweth an adulterer […[ it is not Lucres, but […] Medea that folowed Jason’ (Morrall 38.8-12). He concludes by insisting that his abandonment of her will preserve her as the living image of the woman her name commemorates. ‘Another lover peraventure wolde otherwyse counsel the,’ he writes, ‘and desyre the to ronne thy way, that he myghte abuse the as long as he myght, nothynge regardynge what shulde befall of it, whyle he myght satisfye hys appetite[;] but he were no true lover that wolde regarde rather his own lust, than thy fame’ (Morrall 38.26-31). The image he presents of this alternative lover, dragging her like a camp-follower round the battlefields of Europe as he follows in the train of the Emperor, reminds us of what he claims not to be: Diomedes seducing Cressida, Tarquin raping Collatinus’ wife. By invoking these examples, however, he glosses over his own resemblance to the Jason who abandoned Medea. And he also inadvertently betrays his excessive respect for fame and fortune, which he demonstrates by pursuing his political ambitions at the expense of his devotion to Lucretia. Earlier, he persuaded a relative of her husband’s – Pandalus – to act as messenger between them by offering him an earldom. Here Eurialus shows that he shares Pandalus’s preference for position over personal loyalty. The Emperor made Eurialus ‘ryche and of great power,’ he points out, ‘and I cannot departe from hym without the losse of my state, so that if I shulde leave hym, I coulde not convenientlye entertayne the’ (Morrall 38.17-19). The mixture here of genuine concern for Lucretia and deep self-interest, of the exalted vocabulary of courtly love and the double-speak of hypocrisy, renders it as complex a piece of prose as anything written in the following century. Eurialus’s dishonest play on his lover’s name also anticipates Master F.J.’s equally dishonest games with the names ‘Elinor’ and ‘Ellen’.

Aeneas and Dido in a cave (5th century). Aeneas deserted Dido after becoming her lover

One of the things this letter and its aftermath show us is how far Enea’s text works to subvert its reader’s expectations. If Lucretia is never condemned by Piccolomini, neither is Eurialus. He leaves her like a traitor, but is never the same again, psychologically speaking; he is grief-stricken ever after. Having refused to carry her off on this occasion, he tries and fails to find an opportunity to run off with her later. And their final meeting causes such physical torment to both parties that all doubts of Eurialus’s continuing desire for Lucretia are banished: ‘one love and one mynde was in two devyded, and the harte suffred particion. Parte of the mynde wente and part remayned and all the sences were disperpled and playned too departe from theyr owne selfe’ (Morrall 39.33-6). Body and soul, reason and emotion are damaged by the lovers’ parting, and it’s easy to see this as a comment on Piccolomini’s culture, which can see no way to reconcile the needs of the flesh with those of the mind and spirit, the pursuit of a career with the satisfaction of desire. Enea and his protagonists inhabit a radically divided community, and its unification could only ever have been effected by drastic collective action – an ethical revolution – to accommodate the needs of the body alongside the demands of the sacred and secular authorities.

The moral complexity of Enea’s narrative may well have been one of the things English readers prized about it. The 1553 English translator tones down or omits the rare moments of moral commentary that occur in the Latin. Instead he tacks on a few verses at the end which stress not the immorality of the affair but the agonies it inflicted:

Love is no plesur, but a pain perdurable
And the end is deth which is most lamentable
Therfore ere thou be chayned with suche care
By others peryls, take hede and beware (Morrall 41.5-8).

One might be reminded of the apparently ‘moral’ conclusion of Gascoigne’s revised Adventures of 1575, in which a woman dies as a result of the lovers’ affair – though the woman who dies is Elinor’s blameless sister-in-law Frances, not the unfaithful Elinor, while the latter goes on to live ‘long in the continuance of hir acustomed change’ (Pigman 215.29-216.16 note). The death of Frances is as bereft of moral purpose as her rejection by F.J. was in the first version, and serves, like Lucretia’s death in de duobus amantibus, to satirize the early modern tendency to equate literary value with the delivery of simplistic moral lessons, without much concern for their relevance to the difficult world inhabited by the reader.

Throughout both versions of Gascoigne’s Adventures, in fact, Frances behaves like an Elizabethan successor to Enea’s Lucretia, making plain her desire for F.J. at every opportunity while never eliciting a word of condemnation from the narrator for her witty acknowledgement of her own attraction to him. Indeed, Frances’ nickname for F.J. – she dubs him her ‘Trust’ – echoes one of Lucretia’s letters, in which she identifies Eurialus (with equal irony) as ‘my onelye truste’ (Morrall 37.24). Perhaps Gascoigne’s killing off of Frances in his revised version was intended to strengthen her resemblance to Enea’s heroine. One might even consider Frances to have been as selfishly and casually abandoned as Lucretia was. After all, F.J. seems at one point to confirm his status as Frances’s lover and champion: when Frances dubs him her ‘Trust’ he names her his ‘Hope’ as if exchanging verbal tokens or emblems with her, thus sealing his status as her chivalric champion, perhaps even her betrothed. But although F.J. and Frances continue to address each other by these affectionate nicknames, the relationship they imply never comes to fruition – F.J. and Frances never become a couple – and ironically, all because of F.J.’s misplaced insistence that he is loyal to Elinor, despite the fact that he raped her. As in de duobus amantibus, in other words, notions of loyalty and betrayal, friendship and enmity, sexual promiscuity, sexual violence and sexual fidelity, are challenged and problematized at every stage of the Adventures, just as they are in the most interesting stories to have emerged from the myth of Troy.

As I’ve said before, it’s in the tone and moral complexity of his novella rather than its details that Gascoigne most clearly betrays his debt to the subtle mind of Piccolomini. Both men were citizens of a new Troy of intelligent, articulate, playful and destructive desire: a lovely, doomed city that never was and never could be, but whose contours they dared to superimpose on the map of their own particular time and nation. And it would seem to me well worthwhile to go on tracing the contours of that shared imaginative cityscape in more detail than I can manage here.

Statue of Pope Pius II, Pienza Cathedral

NOTES

[1] For the use of the phrase ‘novelistic discourse’ to describe early modern prose fiction see Constance Relihan, Fashioning Authority: The Development of Elizabethan Novelistic Discourse (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994), introduction. Throughout the paper I use the term ‘novella’ to describe prose fiction by Piccolomini and Gascoigne, but I do so loosely, meaning both to distinguish the kinds of narrative they wrote from the modern novel and to acknowledge its place in the prehistory of that genre.

[2] My thanks to Gillian Austen for inviting me to give a version of this essay as a paper at the Gascoigne Seminar at Lincoln College, Oxford, in September 2009.

[3] For the homage to Chaucer see George Gascoigne, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, ed. G.W. Pigman III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 143, lines 25-31. All references are to this edition, henceforth cited as Pigman. Pigman gives parallels between the Adventures and Troilus and Criseyde on p. 555.

[4] For the Bartello reference see Pigman, p. 140, lines 1-2, note.

[5] For the publication history of Beware the Cat see Beware the Cat: The First English Novel, ed. William Ringler and Michael Flachmann (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1988), introduction.

[6] For the publication history of The Image of Idleness see ‘The First English Epistolary Novel: The Image of Idleness. Text, Introduction and Notes’, ed. Michael Flachmann, SP, 87 (1990), pp. 1-74, introduction.

[7] See R.W. Maslen, ‘The Healing Dialogues of Dr Bullein’, YES 38.1 and 38.2 (2008), pp. 119-35, and R.W. Maslen, ‘Edmund Tilney’, Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 136, Sixteenth-century Nondramatic Writers (Detroit, Washington, D.C. and London: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1994), 326-9. For Grantham’s translation see STC 3180-3182.

[8] For translations of the 1560s see the entries on prose fiction in The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English, Volume 2: 1550-1660, ed. Gordon Braden, R.M. Cummings and Stuart Gillespie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[9] See E.J. Morrall, ‘Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pius II, Historia de duobus amantibus: The early editions and the English translation printed by John Day’, The Library, 16.3 (1996), 216-29, and Piccolomini (Pius II, The Goodli History of the Lady Lucres of Scene and of her Lover Eurialus, EETS 308 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), introduction. All references are to this edition, henceforth cited as Morrall.

[10] John Coyle of the University of Glasgow, in conversation.

[11] For Piccolomini’s jokey explanation of the meaning of his surname see Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius: Selected Letters of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II), introd. and trans. Thomas Izbicki, Gerald Christianson and Philip Krey (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006), pp. 9-10. He repeats the joke about his surname in his letters to his father and to Mariano Sozzini discussed below.

[12] Braunche’s 1596 translation is The most excellent historie, of Euryalus and Lucresia, STC 19974.

[13] See Cecilia M. Ady, Pius II: The Humanist Pope (London: Methuen, 1913), and Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, introduction. For Piccolomini’s own retrospective account of his apostasy see Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, letter 69.

[14] For the proclamation see Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, entry 78 (pp. 392-406); the phrase occurs on p. 396.

[15] See Albert Baca, ‘The “Art of Rhetoric” of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’, Western Journal of Communication 34.1 (Winter 1970), pp. 9-16; and Piccolomini, De liberorum educatione (The Education of Boys) in Humanist Educational Treatises, ed. And trans. Craig W. Kallendorf, The I Tatti Renaissance Library (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), introduction and pp.126-259.

[16] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, Letter 38, pp. 180-1.

[17] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, Letter 30, pp. 159-62.

[18] The editors of Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius do not note the phrase ‘you begot no son of stone’ as a quotation from Boccaccio, but E.J. Morrall cites the source in his edition of Piccolomini’s novella: see Morrall, p. 30, lines 7-8, note.

[19] The letter is cited in Benedikt Konrad Vollmann, ‘ENKYKLIOS PAIDEIA in the work of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’, in Pius II: ‘El Piu Expeditivo Pontifice’, ed. Zweder von Martels and Arjo Vanderjagt (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003), pp. 10-11.

[20] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, p. 161.

[21] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, pp. 392-406.

[22] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, p. 399, my emphasis.

[23] See The Eclogues of Alexander Barclay from the Original Edition of John Cawood, ed. Beatrice White, EETS 175 (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), introduction.

[24] Reprinted in Humanist Comedies, ed. and trans. Gary R. Grund, The I Tatti Renaissance Library (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 284-347. All references are to this edition.

[25] The first version of Sidney’s Arcadia, the Old Arcadia, was divided into five acts like a comedy, and the same five-act structure has been traced in Lyly’s Euphues books; a number of works of early prose fiction, in other words, acknowledge their own affinity with classical theatre.

[26] Emily O’Brien, ‘Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’s Chrysis: Prurient Pastime – or Something More?’, MLN 124.1 (January 2009), pp. 111-36.

[27] For the most up-to-date account of Gascoigne’s life see Gillian Austen, George Gascoigne (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2008), ‘The Literary Career of George Gascoigne: An Introduction’, pp. 1-21. For the term ‘adventures’ in Gascoigne’s novella see R.W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), ch. 3, ‘George Gascoigne and the Fiction of Failure’.

[28] Austen, George Gascoigne, pp. 14-21.

[29] The military aspect of Piccolomini’s career can be summarized by the fact that Pope Pius II died on an abortive crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the Turks.

[30] For Piccolomini as letter-writer see Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, introduction. For Gascoigne’s debt to The Image of Idleness see R.W. Maslen, ‘The Image of Idleness in the Reign of Elizabeth I’, ELN 41.3 (March 2004), pp. 11-23.

[31] See E.J. Morrall’s article, ‘The Early Editions’, and the introduction to his edition of Eurialus and Lucrece.

[32] The autobiographical elements of the Adventures are discussed in Pigman, p. 550. For his possible allusions to a scandal involving the Earl of Leicester see Cyndia Susan Clegg, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), ch. 5, pp. 103-22.

[33] References to the prefatory epistles are taken from their first translation into English, The History of the Amours of Count Schlick, Chancellor to the Emperor Sigismund, and a Young Lady of Quality of Sienna (London, 1708). All references are to this edition, which is unpaginated in the relevant section.

[34] See Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions, p. 134ff.

[35] For Aeneas as traitor see James Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution, The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 2: 1350-1547 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), ch. 3, especially pp. 79-80 and 87-88.

[36] See Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions, p. 133.

The Dark Tower 3: Burd

[This is the third and last of three variations on the old fairy tale of Childe Roland and Burd Ellen, and should be read after the other two. The first variation can be found here, the second here.]

Burd Ellen squatted barefoot on the cold stone floor, ears straining to catch the sound of a human footstep.

The King and the Queen were talking to her all the time now, sometimes in an urgent whisper, sometimes in short sharp barks like the sound of a fox on a winter’s night. Sometimes their voices rose to a high-pitched screeching and she had to turn her head aside and cover one ear to listen for the footstep with the other. All she had heard for a long time now was the sound of the wind in the stone-flagged passage, the scrape of twigs across the stones of the outside wall.

She kept her head turned away from the King, with his bright inhuman eyes staring out from inside a thick white tangled nest of hair, and the Queen, with her translucent leaf-green flesh and twiggy fingers. Each of them squatted at the entrance to a burrow, over there at the base of the wall that faced the entrance, and whenever she looked towards them they began to gesture at her with their eyes, their fingers, their sinuous tongues. She thought they were squatting, at least. All she could see of them were their heads and arms and shoulders, scattered with earth, dead leaves caught up in the hair and eyebrows. They could just as easily have been standing upright in the burrows, hips wedged between the rocks that formed the foundation of the Tower.

There were three burrows in all: the King’s burrow on the left, the Queen’s on the right, and a third burrow in the middle, a dense black hole, its edges fringed with thin fine roots, the peripheral roots, perhaps, of the jungle of withered ivy that cushioned the curving outer walls of the funnel-shaped building. Three burrows or tunnels, leading where? Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, as the Priest in the village might claim? The man’s house, the woman’s house, the place that was neither? She could not tell. All she knew was that the middle burrow was waiting for her, and that one day she would give in to the elfin gestures and the high, fierce barks and deafening screeches, and crawl on her hands and knees to that root-fringed hole, helpless as a rabbit crawling to the jaws of a hungry fox.

She was thinking furiously. There must be another way out.

What was it the old women had said, she with the coat of brindled feathers and the short sharp nose like a bantam’s beak? ‘They will come for you with steel through the Elfin hills, one by one they will come, the eldest first. Every man or woman or child they meet must be slain on sight with the steel they hold. Their heads must be struck off and their bodies left on the ground to rot, untouched by human hand. No word must be uttered on the journey, no food eaten. If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free. If not, you must stay among us in the Elfin hills for seven long years, till the time for the teind comes round and the stream runs dry.’

Till the time for the teind comes round, she thought: the tax paid by the elves to hell, in exchange for an eternity of play. I have been the teind all my life, she thought, at my father the Baron’s house as well as in Elfland: the tax paid as part of a game I had no part in. There must be a way out, as there was from my father’s house when the elves came calling.

Some time later, squatting on stone in her clammy dress with her dew-moist hair hanging round her shoulders, the thought came to her: it’s in the words, of course, the words she spoke. It’s always in the riddling words, the good way out, if you can hear it.

But instead of the riddling words the clang of steel came to her ears, so alien a sound in this world of stone and air and water that she sprang to her feet as if pulled by wires. As she listened, it occurred to her that she had heard this sound before, here in this Tower, carried in through the passage of stone from the world beyond. She stood there a moment, thinking still. How many times had she heard it? Once? Twice? Thrice? If three times, they had all come for her, and not one had passed the test.

That did not bear thinking about. It was time to stop her thinking.

With a kind of spasm she came to life and began to run. She ran down the stone-flagged passage, feet slapping the uneven flagstones, cold cutting her feet like knives, and out into the blazing brightness of early evening. It was always early evening here, the time before the dark overwhelmed the senses and the streams ran dry.

*****

He stood there, the youngest boy, leaning on his sword. His chest heaved with the effort of his journey, his damp brown hair was plastered across his forehead. His always too-serious face, with its brooding brows and glittering eyes, lit up when he caught sight of her, and he let his sword droop till it clanged against a stone.

‘I came for you, Ellen!’ he cried ecstatically. ‘I killed them all and I came for you! We can go home!’

Beside him, a rowan tree stretched anguished arms towards the sky as if in supplication, and a crow on one of its branches gave a croak.

Ellen knew what they were saying. The task is undone, boy, you should not have spoken before it was finished; you will die. But what had the henwife said, exactly? ‘No word must be uttered on the journey, no food swallowed.’ If he did not stir from where he stood – if he took not another step towards her – then his journey might be over and he might have the right to speak at will. ‘Stay where you are!’ she cried, and held up both her hands in an urgent gesture. He swayed a little, either for weariness or from an impulse to run on. But he stayed rooted to the spot, as she’d hoped he would. He had never been one for embraces, her little brother. He stood there swaying like the tree, and spoke again in a low hoarse whisper.

‘Come on, Ellen,’ he said. ‘We should go home. Mum and Dad are waiting.’

A flurry of barks broke out behind her, sharp and fierce, and a gust of musk assailed her nose. The King and Queen were waiting too, and growing anxious: the little chicken they had caught was flexing its wings. She listened, but she heard no footsteps from the Tower; they too were rooted to the spot, waiting for her answer. What must she say? ‘If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free’ – so the henwife said. Follow what instructions, exactly? And what is free? Certainly not the return of a girl to the granite house she had run away from. Then what else?

She stood there staring at her brother, face to face, both damp and desperate, both poised on the brink of unknown action. She studied his face, as if looking there for the response he needed her to give. She saw the desperation in it: a desperation hatched with the boy at birth, which had grown with him as he grew, and of which this particular desperation, the desperation of a rescue so nearly accomplished and yet so easily brought to grief, could only ever be the first of many more forms of desperation if she came with him, if they made it home. She looked at the child as if in a mirror, and began to wonder who it was who must rescue whom.

All at once the answer came to her. A weight of stone seemed to lift itself from her narrow shoulders.

She smiled and took a step towards him. Now she was standing within the ring of steel, the circuit that would be described if he lifted his sword and swung it round in a deadly arc.

‘It’s all right, Roland,’ she reassured him. ‘We can go home. But first you need to chop off my head.’

The boy’s weariness was such that it took three or four seconds for her meaning to sink in. She watched as it became clear to him: first the horror blooming in his eyes like a great black rose; then the fuller understanding, the denial, the shock of acceptance. ‘If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free’. He had not yet followed the instructions to the letter; he had not yet struck off the head of every man or woman or child he had met in Elfland, not yet left every severed corpse on the stony ground. But surely, his eyes began to plead, surely those words could only refer to the things called elves? Elf men, elf women, elf children, we call them by those names no matter how monstrous their proportions, no matter how twisted their twiggy limbs. But no, the words were clear, the instructions issued by the wicked old man on the Blasted Heath. Every man or woman or child, the man had said, just like the henwife. The same instructions from different lips. And now from hers.

She tried to help him by smiling confidently. She even craned her neck a little as if to show him where to strike. But she trembled as she did so, and she could feel the colour draining from her cheeks as the stream ran dry. The barks from the Tower were strident now, beseeching, urgent, and a hole in the ground seemed a pleasant prospect compared with the parting of her flesh by the whistling steel. Yet still she smiled and nodded and trembled, doing her best to make the trembling seem the response of a coatless body to the mountain breeze, doing her best to make the smile seem bright and real. The hills were growing greyer, in any case, and she could hardly see her brother’s eyes. Perhaps he could not see her trembling or her smile? Perhaps if he could he did not care? He was a strange and distant boy, and though she had always thought his distance sprang from the loveless house he lived in, perhaps he really did not care for her, despite the flush of rare delight that had crossed his face when she left the Tower…

All at once he gave a sob – the first she had heard from him – and raised the sword.

For a long time the blade hung motionless in the air.

She studied it from the corner of her eye, even as she continued to smile with confidence at its bearer, even as she told herself it was best to look straight at Roland, not at the instrument of death he held aloft in his shaking hands.

His eyes were glittering still, she noticed. Was it the glitter of grief and fear, or of ill-concealed delight in the act of killing? She could not tell. She peered through the dusk with sudden urgency to see which it was – and as a result she never noticed when the sword began to trace the arc of its downward swing.

*****

The Dark Tower loomed in the early evening light. The hills that surrounded it were tall and grey and featureless, no brighter on the one side than the other, you could never have said which way was west. There was nothing else in the stony valley where the building stood; no trees, no gorse, no heather, not a blade of grass. A cold wind blew between the hills, but for the longest time there was no one there to feel it.

Three young ravens sat on a boulder by the entrance. From time to time they shuffled closer to each other, casting nervous glances at the blackness of the doorway. They seemed apprehensive that something might come out of it, but more apprehensive still to sit further off, out of harm’s way. The wind ruffled the thick dark feathers on their necks, and they lifted their feet one at a time to give them respite from the chill of the boulder’s surface. They seemed to be waiting, but not to know what they were waiting for.

A shriek broke out from the sky above the hills directly in front of them. The birds looked up.

Dropping out of the sky, cutting lazy circuits through the air like a swinging blade, a fourth bird flew down towards them, wings spread wide. Its primary feathers groped at the sky like giant fingers, its hooked beak yawned to release another passionless shriek. With a thump it landed beside the rock, scattering pebbles: a buzzard with a great barred chest, disheveled plumage, huge brown eyes. A pair of bells jangled at its legs as it struck the ground, and the ravens could see the soft leather straps that attached each bell to one of its ankles. For a while it stood there preening, lifting first one wing then the other towards its beak and combing through the feathers with scrupulous attention, bells jangling all the while. Then it stopped preening and simply stood, looking round itself with interest, though it barely spared a glance for the nervous ravens.

The wind blew. The buzzard stood. The ravens watched, as if for a signal.

All at once the buzzard spread its wings and flew to the Tower. Without pausing it flew through the entrance into darkness, its wingtips skimming the granite jambs as it swept by. The ravens followed one by one, each letting out a plaintive croak before it flung itself into the dark as if into the sea. Now the valley was still and empty once again; but the building boomed and clattered and throbbed with the beat of eight strong wings, and a series of screeches broke through the roof, like the sound of a birdbone whistle being blown by a fool on the Blasted Heath.

Inside the Tower a violent storm had broken out. The King and Queen were screeching and groping for the birds with twiggy fingers. The birds were battering at them with their wings, slashing with their beaks, tumbling over one another in their frantic efforts to find a good way out.

The smallest raven landed on the flagstones near the hole between King and Queen. It stepped uneasily towards the hole, one eye fixed on the screeching monarchs, the other on its wheeling, tumbling siblings as they bounced off the walls of the upright cylinder of stone. But it had no eye to watch the buzzard, and just as it reached the fringe of roots and gathered itself for a final hop – the hop that would take it down, down, down, perhaps to Elfland – the buzzard seized it by the ribs and dragged it clear.

The raven croaked and writhed and flapped in the buzzard’s grip, but the raptor would not let it go. Up and up they spiraled, towards the ragged eye of light in the Dark Tower’s roof. With a final beat of its wings the buzzard surged into the waning light of day. The dimness inside the Tower grew dimmer still as the struggling pair passed through the gap, then dimmed twice more as the other two ravens followed, croaking. A final screech flew after them as they rose above the Tower. Then silence fell, and the ruin lay lifeless as the valley in which it stood.

High above the place where the Tower had been, the smallest raven squirmed itself free from the buzzard’s claws and fluttered away. The other two ravens flew alongside it, croaking comfort. The buzzard wheeled.

Below the four great birds, a sea of trees tossed in the wind, and heather shook its stubby branches on the purple hills.

The sun shone from the leaves, the blossoms, the rocks, the clouds, the streams, the birds.

Nicholas Stuart Gray, Down in the Cellar (1961)

Nicholas Stuart Gray is a name which is mostly missing from histories of children’s literature, but which rouses strong passions in those who admire his work. He started out as a respected children’s playwright, his first play being performed in 1949, and worked on many productions throughout the 50s and 60s with his close friend the stage designer Joan Jefferson Farjeon. The plays are all based on fairy tales, though they also include a version of the great medieval fairy poem Gawain and the Green Knight. Not much is known about his private life apart from the fact that he describes himself in blurbs as a ‘Highlander’, that some of his books are set in Sussex and Devon, and that he went on cycling holidays with Joan Jefferson Farjeon in Provence. I discovered him by chance in the early 80s when a friend lent me a copy of his first novel, Over the Hills to Fabylon (1954), about a magical moving city ruled by a paranoid monarch (think Howl’s Moving Castle with a cast of thousands). After this my grandmother took to buying me his books one by one for birthdays and Christmases: The Seventh Swan (1962), The Stone Cage (1963), Mainly in Moonlight (1963), The Apple-Stone (1965), Grimbold’s Other World (1965), and my favourite, Down in the Cellar (1961), magnificently illustrated by Edward Ardizzone.[1] There are several more I haven’t read, and it’s time the whole oeuvre was brought back into print to delight and move new generations. I’m not the only one to think so. This blog post stems from a rereading of Down in the Cellar after Gray’s name was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Gaiman, which led to an outpouring of praise for him from Ellen Kushner, Katherine Langrish, Garth Nix and Terri Windling, among many others. That’s a roll call that should make publishers sit up and take note; and I hope a few words about Down in the Cellar will add fuel to the flame.

Gray’s book is an unsettling fusion of disparate elements that locate it precisely in the time and place of its composition. The plot is misleadingly simple. Four young siblings – Bruce, Julia, Andrew and Deirdre Jefferson, who share their family name with Joan Jefferson Farjeon – are staying in their uncle’s rambling Rectory in the South Downs when they find an injured man in a disused cave. The man tells them he is on the run, and they decide to hide him in a half-forgotten cellar of the Rectory, which they happen to have stumbled across a few days earlier. Having hidden him in the cellar and done their best to tend his wounds, the children suddenly find themselves under siege by a range of threatening forces: from the Rector’s stern but affectionate housekeeper, Old Mim – who is afraid the cellars have rats in them and wants to call in the ratcatchers, like Mrs Driver in The Borrowers (1952) – to the local police, who are on the lookout for a runaway whistleblower; from a conspiracy of unpleasant grown ups who belong to the ‘Spinners and Weavers Club’ – clearly a witch’s coven – to the sinister, barely-visible ‘Green Lantern people’ who infest the hills and fields around the Rectory. All these forces show a keen and unwelcome interest in the cellar and its occupant, while the stranger himself gets increasingly ill as the book goes on, his condition worsening despite the best efforts of Bruce, the eldest Jefferson, who plans to be a doctor or a vet when he grows up ‘Depending on which examination is the easiest’ (p. 9). The novel, in other words, mixes together elements from the Scottish Border Ballads, horror stories and spy thrillers (two of the people tracking Stephen are foreign agents who want to assassinate him for betraying state secrets), as well as children’s fantasy fiction of the sort popularized by Edith Nesbit in the 1900s. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over the narrative in the form of the cave, which was constructed as a shelter to protect the villagers from German flying bombs; while the atmosphere of paranoia generated by the search for the injured man, led as it is by policemen and assassins, locates the action in the decades-long stand-off between superpowers which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This modern political context competes for centre stage in the book with a legendary past embodied in the ‘old Roman Camp’ (a prehistoric barrow frequented by the Green Lantern people) and an ancient fairy hill which once stood where now the Rectory stands, and whose entrance may still be concealed in a wall of the cellar. This fusion of ancient and modern narratives, none of which is fully articulated – the Cold War is never mentioned, the words ‘fairy’ or ‘Sidhe’ (i.e. people of the hills) are never uttered – gives the whole story an air of uneasy mystery. At no stage are we offered a full explanation for what is happening in the narrative, or how the competing strands of it fit together, and this refusal to elucidate is what makes the book so strange, with a strangeness that speaks to the uneasy historical moment when it first saw print.

The four Jeffersons

This is a crosshatch novel, in other words – to borrow John Clute’s term from the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. The word was repurposed by China Miéville in The City and the City (2009) to describe districts claimed by two or more competing cultures or political authorities at the same time. As I’ve suggested, the first sort of crosshatching one can see in the novel is the literary variety. It’s indebted to a range of authors for specific elements in its make-up: Edith Nesbit for the first person narrative from the point of view of a child protagonist; C. S. Lewis for the rambling house where the children stay with an elderly scholar, the village Rector; John Buchan for the spy story element, which comes to the fore when the children are pursued through the night by a pair of grim-faced labourers, clearly assassins in disguise; and John Masefield for the Spinners and Weavers Club, led by the silky Mr Atkinson, which closely resembles the coven led by Abner Brown in The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935). The crosshatching of time, meanwhile, in the novel – which fuses the unimaginably ancient with the historical and the modern – is foregrounded by the chronologically ambiguous spaces in which the action unfolds. The bomb shelter, for instance, keeps slipping between time periods in the children’s imagination as they approach and enter it. Julia is afraid to go in because it was constructed ‘ages back, and things might have come to live there since’ (p. 29). Andrew suggests that its inhabitants might be troglodytes or ‘cave-men’, and when Bruce claims that the shelter could have made quite a pleasant modern refuge if well stocked with ‘oil-stoves and […] people’, his brother points out that ‘the cave-men would have lit huge fires and roasted bears for their dinner’ (p. 31), and speculates that the person hiding there might be a ‘left-over cave-man […] drawing bison on the wall’ (p. 31). For the youngest Jefferson, Deirdre, the location has an emotional and supernatural resonance rather than a historical one, as the place where ‘Sad people’ come when they need to cry (p. 30). The strange young man they find in an inner chamber of this shelter resembles by turns a Dickensian ‘escaped convict’ (p. 36), a ‘hunted Cavalier, or a Jacobite in hiding’ (p. 37) – like someone from the work of Captain Marryat or Buchan – and a supernatural being, when he gives a laugh ‘of the sort a ghost would make, if it wasn’t trying to be frightening’ (p. 40). The liminal status of the cave perfectly suits the liminal status of the young man hiding in it, who is stranded between different ideologies (as we deduce later), different countries, and different realms of possibility – that is, between the everyday, the world of espionage and the supernatural, the last of these being in the end the only space available to him as a means of escape from his predicament. He is also caught between the living and the dead, since his younger sister (we later learn) is dead – killed in a car crash – yet he keeps mistaking Deirdre for her. This explains his status as simultaneously one of the ‘Sad people’, who make their way to the cave as a place of mourning, and a kind of ghost suspended between a lost past and an impossible future. Neither healthily stable nor unquestionably doomed to imminent termination, his life is precarious, and might be cut short at any moment either at the hands of the various enemies who are looking for him or by the fever that takes hold as his injury worsens. The fever is a perfect metaphor for his precarious situation and unstable identity, and it worsens as that precariousness and instability grow more intense.

Discovering the cellar

Crosshatched spaces like the cave keep cropping up throughout the novel. There is the cellar of the title, the ‘dark and cobwebbed underworld’ (p. 7) where the children act out games across time and space – Boadicea against the Romans, King Solomon’s Mines, the Babes in the Wood, representing history, adventure romance and fairy tale respectively, all blended and blurred together in the subterranean twilight – and where they later hide the young man, Stephen. The cellar occupies the space where once there was a hill – ‘It was supposed to be a magic one, with sort of people living inside it, and things’ (p. 86) – which was then dug out to make a sandpit and afterwards leveled to provide foundations for the Rectory, that pillar of the eighteenth-century establishment. In former times the cellar served as a storage place for horse’s harness, sacks, wine and other necessities, but by the time the children find it there is nothing left there of any value apart from abandoned odds and ends they use in their games. The nearby village is another liminal space, divided between very old houses like the chemist’s, ‘with its beams showing among the narrow, pink bricks’ (p. 137), and new buildings like the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe, which is a crude pastiche of an older structure: ‘This building also had beams showing, but they were quite new, and rather obvious as they were stained black against the white-washed wall of the front’ (p. 140). The fakeness of the Tea-Shoppe means the children don’t ‘care for it’ much, and also makes it the ideal meeting place for the Spinners and Weavers Club, whose harmless hobbies serve as a front for their machinations against the fugitive, Stephen. A third crosshatched place is the Roman Camp or mound, which is equally associated with the practical Romans and the elusive Green Lantern people. This is a ‘hump like a gigantic mole-hill’ (p. 163), under which the youngest Jefferson is imprisoned at one point by its supernatural occupants, and where the members of the Spinners and Weavers Club converge to barter with the three older Jefferson children for her release. The mound’s joint connection with the Romans and the ahistorical fairies is rendered confusing by the actions of the Spinners and Weavers as they gather round it. As the eldest Jefferson, Bruce, points out, his younger sister ‘said they wove circles and spells. I knew nothing about spells… who does? […] But these people were certainly weaving circles’. The link between magical and physical weaving sets the boy’s thoughts ‘whirling’ or spinning in his head (p. 167), making it hard to focus on the problem of how to win back his imprisoned sister from the mound that impossibly contains her. Is rational thought or a spell the appropriate instrument for her salvation – or should one try a combination of the two? Crossing a Cold War thriller with a fairy story makes the answer uncertain, especially for Bruce, who does not believe in fairies, yet finds himself faced with what seems incontrovertible evidence that they have stolen away his sister.

The solution to Bruce’s dilemma comes from an unexpected quarter: a pair of young and irritating children, Robin and Karen Meddings, who inhabit the most radically crosshatched building in the village. If the Jeffersons find the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe repulsive for its fakery, the Old Forge is more repulsive still, as Bruce explains:

It’s all got up with wrought-iron gates, and lanterns, plaster doves on the roof, and… believe it or not… a plaster deer on the lawn! […] Where the blacksmith used to have his furnace, they have an anvil standing in the fireplace. And the room is packed to bursting with warming-pans, and horse-brasses, and candlesticks wired for electric light, and a wheel hung from the ceiling for more electric light. It’s like a tea-shoppe. We were only asked in once. Julia says we shouldn’t have laughed. Honestly, we didn’t do it loudly, I thought. (p. 23)

The Meddings children who live in this mocked-up Forge are, for Bruce, as fake as their home’s interior décor. They are always simpering and deferring to one another, behaviour that conceals the fact that they are no more angelic at heart than ‘normal’ children like the Jeffersons:

It’s not as though they really meant it. They only do this act when anyone’s watching. I saw Robin once snatch a sweet from his sister, just as she was putting it in her mouth. And she screamed and kicked him. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it was normal. Then they saw me, and started bowing and smirking to each other sickeningly. They may grow out of it. (p. 24)

Bruce’s distaste for the Meddings children’s hypocrisy, as he sees it, makes him treat them ‘’orribly’ (as Robin puts it) whenever he meets them. At one point Robin and Karen have the misfortune to show up at a point when tensions are at their highest – with the cellar under siege by its enemies – and Bruce lets off steam with a fierce tirade against the youngsters as if they embodied all the sinister forces ranged against him in one small package: ‘“Silly brats!” I shouted at them. “Dotty idiots! Showing-off asses! Don’t stand there staring, in front of your silly house. ‘Old Forge’, indeed! It’s an old forgery!’ (p. 135). On this occasion Bruce only succeeds in upsetting his own siblings as well as the Meddingses, making it one of his many moments of physical and social clumsiness in the narrative. Indeed, his resentment of the Meddings children may well stem from the fact that they seem at ease in an adult social context which he finds completely unfathomable, and which he is always failing to negotiate owing to the difficulty he has in concealing his feelings or finding words to convey his meaning.

In the chemist’s shop

At the same time, his association of Robin and Karen with Stephen’s enemies is hardly surprising, since all of them are adepts in the art of concealment. Not only does the Spinners and Weavers Club meet in a Tea Shoppe that closely resembles the Old Forge in its faux-medieval aesthetic, but the Spinners and Weavers themselves are past masters in the art of interweaving truth and falsehood, just like the Meddings children as Bruce sees them. When Bruce meets the Club’s leader, for instance – Mr Atkinson – he at once gets caught up in a complex web of lies and half-truths. Yes, Mr Atkinson is an old university ‘friend’ of the Rector’s, as he claims, but the word ‘friend’ is a misnomer, since the Rector later confesses ‘I didn’t like him very much’ (p. 90). Yes, Mr Atkinson has been given permission to sketch in the parish church, but he can’t be sketching a ‘crusader’s tomb’, as he insists (p. 82), because there isn’t one. The old man keeps addressing Bruce as ‘little boy’, which is both true and false, since Bruce is indeed young, but has no conception of himself as ‘little’ and so feels humiliated by the description. And Bruce does indeed have a ‘secret’, as Mr Atkinson insinuates (p. 81) – he is hiding Stephen – but the old man has secrets too, and the lie about the crusader’s tomb suggests that he will not willingly part with them. The same mixture of truth and falsehood characterizes the other members of the Club. The woman in the chemist’s shop, for instance, is really the sister of the chemist, as she claims, but she is also as ‘nasty’ as he is nice, and seems all too eager to weigh the Jeffersons ‘on a long hook’ – a metaphor with a potentially ‘gruesome double meaning’ (p. 139) – and to supply them with her own home-made and possibly lethal ‘tonic’ in place of their usual medicine. One member of the Club at the Tea Shoppe has her hair dyed blue as if in token of her fakery, while another has ‘what looked to me like a hundred huge false teeth’ (pp. 140-1), and owns a dog that may well be a wolf. In addition, the members of the Club are somehow linked to the ‘so-called labourers’ working at the church (p. 141). Their motives in tracking down Stephen are unclear, but the unclearness itself is of a piece with the disparity between their semi-respectable, everyday appearances and the obvious malice of their hidden agenda.

Bruce, Mr Atkinson, Old Mim

The whole world through which the Jeffersons move is in fact packed with menacing double meanings and false appearances. This leads Bruce a number of times into mistaking friends as enemies: Old Stanley the poacher, for instance, whom he identifies at first as one of Stephen’s pursuers (p. 63) but later finds to be a useful ally against them; or Lady Ariadne Hodgson, whose deep voice and unfriendly appearance make the children think of her as a ‘witch’ (p. 126), but who makes peace with them by giving them a box of toffees, which she cannot eat herself because of her false teeth (so that she too is revealed as a confusing mixture of the fake and the authentic). Robin and Karen Meddings, too, are transformed into friends from their initial status as diminutive enemies. Yet like Old Stanley and Lady Ariadne, the Meddings kids retain their dual nature as a fusion of the true and the false, the real and the imagined, and their transformation could be said to entail a belated recognition on the part of the Jeffersons that they themselves inhabit a context composed in equal parts of dreams and logic, facts and falsehoods.

The Spinners and Weavers at the Roman mound

The transformation of the Meddingses takes place on the night when Deirdre, the youngest of the Jeffersons, gets imprisoned in the crosshatched space of the Roman mound. Taunted by Deirdre’s captors (the Green Lantern people) and their allies (the old men and women of the Spinners and Weavers Club), the three older Jeffersons find themselves on the verge of surrendering Stephen to his pursuers in exchange for the little girl’s safety. At this precise moment they hear footsteps approaching through the darkness, which make the Spinners and Weavers vanish. Bruce at once seeks a ‘reason’ for the coven’s disappearance, and his sister Julia suggests that the footsteps may belong to that embodiment of authenticity and ordinariness, the housekeeper Old Mim. Instead they belong to the Meddings children, embodiments of middle-class ‘forgery’, who are walking up the hill holding hands in the ‘phony’ way Bruce finds so disgusting, and carrying a gift he thinks irrelevant: ‘a big, and very rusty horse-shoe, all covered with mud’ (p. 169). All three of the older Jeffersons, frantic with worry, unite to shoo these kids away and reject their gift; but they are wrong to do so, as Robin insists. The horseshoe is physical proof that the Old Forge and its inhabitants are not in fact the products of fakeness:

‘It’s one the blacksmith made […] We dug it up in the garden this afternoon, when we were planting a chocolate. In our garden. So ’tisn’t all forgery and that, either! This is proper iron, what a proper blacksmith made.’ (p. 169)

The horseshoe shows that the Old Forge is a ‘proper place where a proper blacksmith made proper iron and things’; the name of the house has a meaning just as authentic as that of the Rectory where the children are staying. And the gift is authentically useful to the Jeffersons. Being made of iron and twisted into the familiar U of the horseshoe, with its age-old connotations of protection and good luck, it proves highly effective in the bewildering nocturnal world in which the siblings find themselves stranded. Andrew Jefferson suddenly has the idea of embedding it in the mound as a kind of padlock, thereby imprisoning Deirdre’s gaolers – who like other members of the fairy community cannot pass cold iron – and enabling Andrew to demand his sister’s release in exchange for their freedom. Like the Meddingses themselves, whose presence drove away the Spinners and Weavers, the Meddingses’ gift subdues the powers of Deirdre’s captors, confirming the younger children’s participation in the Jeffersons’ adventures, despite all of Bruce’s attempts to keep them at arm’s length and to claim that the supernatural events going on all round him have a perfectly rational explanation.

Tending to Stephen

In the process, the enduring presence of magic underneath the Sussex landscape is confirmed – the resistance of its ancient charms to all the rapid changes of recent decades. The disused shelter, the forgotten cellar, the Roman mound, even the gnome-ridden garden of the Old Forge each retain an active link to still potent traces of the past, despite the patina of newness that covers them. Indeed, the shelter and the Old Forge could be described as acts of homage to the past, an acknowledgment of its continuing potency framed in terms of the kitsch and the obsolete. The Forge’s plaster gnomes have an ambiguously ‘real’ equivalent in the living gnomes mentioned at one point by Bruce’s younger sister: ‘Deirdre said she didn’t mind gnomes, but she didn’t like the lantern-men who’d gone over the hills, looking and looking’ (p. 65). And as the supernatural hunters and seekers converge on Stephen’s hiding place in the cellar, ‘looking and looking’, Bruce’s desperate efforts to keep things rational prove increasingly ineffective, until he is forced to enlist the Meddingses in the struggle against Stephen’s enemies. After all, Robin and Karen come from a background that freely accommodates the impossible: gnomes and fairies, magic rituals, the resurgence of the past, the power of cold iron. Their parents are ‘artistic’, despite their affection for warming-pans and horse-brasses: the mother is a TV scriptwriter, the father an actor, and both are therefore adult participants in the same imaginative games enjoyed by the Rectory children (p. 22). And the Meddings children themselves mean well, despite their mannerisms and the intrusiveness of their efforts to win the approval of the Jeffersons.

Meaning, in fact, is a central theme of Gray’s novel; in particular, the way meanings change in different contexts. This theme is pointed up by a stylistic quirk of the first person narrative voice, which is that of Bruce, the oldest of the Jefferson siblings. The Jeffersons could be said to inhabit a crosshatched space of their own, whose function in the narrative shifts repeatedly in response to changing situations, and who therefore provide an ideal vehicle for thinking about the complex process of making meaning in the 1960s. Their surname, as I mentioned earlier, recalls the ‘professional name’ of Gray’s good friend Joan Jefferson Farjeon, which she adopted to underline her descent from a celebrated dynasty of American actors. The Jefferson children, too, are inveterate actors, transforming the cellar they find into a private stage sealed off from the rest of the Rectory by a symbolic curtain. Their days are passed in a blend of the imagined and the real quite as complicated as anything they encounter in the outside world, and for them the cellar embodies that potent mixture, changing its significance with each new game they play, from the heathland of Ancient Britain to a fairy tale forest to King Solomon’s mines, depending on which of them is in charge of their activities. Bruce’s voice as narrator mimics the voice of Oswald Bastable, narrator of Edith Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers and its sequels. Like Oswald, Bruce is an eldest brother with multiple siblings, though Gray adjusts the number to take account of the diminishing size of the average family in the 1960s. Where Oswald is one of six, Bruce is one of only four – two boys, two girls – and is older than his twin sister Julia by just half an hour, which suggests another adjustment in terms of equality between the sexes (although he draws heavily on his male privilege to assume the role of ‘masterful leader’ on most occasions). The characters of these four children are carefully differentiated: Julia is the aspiring novelist with the novelist’s capacity for imaginative empathy; her younger brother Andrew is a passionate reader of non-fiction and decidedly ‘clever’, though imaginative too, as his trick with the horseshoe shows; while five-year-old Deirdre, saddled with a name from Irish mythology, is inevitably a seer, inclined to imagine ‘too much’, as we learn towards the end of the story (p. 200), and vulnerable as a result to the machinations of the Green Lantern people she alone can visualize with absolute clarity.

Bruce meets a bull

Bruce, meanwhile, is a literalist, or so he claims. He keeps insisting he has no imagination – although he willingly joins in with his siblings’ games – and his ambition to become a doctor underlines his concern with the practical needs of the mind and body. His literalism expresses itself in his prose style, which is full of comic clarifications aimed at removing ambiguity from his declarations, but managing only to draw attention to the sometimes bizarre alternative constructions that could be put on his words. From the beginning to the end of the narrative he works to elucidate his meaning, repeatedly using the phrase ‘I mean’ whenever he thinks a word or phrase may be ambiguous: ‘The cellar ran all about under the Rectory. It hadn’t been used for years. The cellar, I mean’ (p. 7); ‘we dropped it… the book, I mean… and it got trodden in with the cider’ (p. 12); ‘This turned out to control the milking-machine, in some obscure way. The switch, I mean’ (p. 14); ‘We’d found some candle-ends in a tin box down there. In the cellar, I mean. […] I took a box of matches from the bathroom, leaving twopence in its place. Just for a start, that was. The matches, I mean’ (p. 17). In most cases here the clarifying phrase ‘I mean’ serves to point up the chaotic situations the children get themselves into: the book of instructions for making cider getting mixed up with the cider itself, the confusion over the function of the switch for the milking-machine, the complex self-justification rendered necessary by an act of minor theft from the Rectory’s stores. Their activities defy all Bruce’s attempts to reduce them to grammatical and rational order – to bring the uncontrollable, so to speak, under verbal control.

The Jeffersons with their uncle, the Rector

In the same way, the eldest Jefferson is always seeking to find rational explanations for things, assigning new, mundane meanings to them as new evidence emerges, but invariably reaching a point where conventional reasoning fails to account for what’s going on. When strange lights begin to appear in the cellar – Deirdre says they come from the gates of the fairy hill – his reasoning becomes fragmented and frantic: ‘There had to be a reasonable explanation for it all. Otherwise one might be forced to believe in Spoilers, and witches, and suchlike. Which was impossible. So there must be the explanation. The trouble was, I couldn’t think of one’ (p. 105). The bewildering events at the Roman mound challenge his logic still further. As the children make their way home after rescuing Deirdre, Bruce observes that ‘No one said any more about the lantern-men for the time being. To my great relief, as I could think of very little to say that made any sense’ (p. 174). Barred from the belief in the impossible that his three siblings increasingly share, his sense of incomprehension grows until the final chapter, ‘The Gate’, when the entrance to the fairy hill is finally opened in the cellar. Here all three of his siblings are able to see that something magical is taking place, but Bruce cannot, since he has been vouchsafed only transient glimpses of the supernatural throughout the narrative. To the end of the story he continues to insist that ‘It was all imagination’ (p. 197) despite the accumulation of evidence to the contrary. When his brother Andrew tells him ‘The cellar’s full of sunlight’, he can only answer: ‘Well, it wasn’t. Not that I could see’, and add: ‘I felt for a moment that I was going mad, rather than the others’. This from the boy who observed in the opening chapter that he might need to become a ‘brain specialist’ to take account of the imaginative eccentricities of his two youngest siblings, who may both be ‘mad’ (p. 9). In the final chapter, in fact, he recognizes that it may be his own senses that are faulty rather than theirs: ‘If I was really the only one who had seen nothing special, then perhaps I was duller than the rest… which was sad, but quite possible’ (p. 196). In the course of the story the boundaries of the possible have grown permeable, and Bruce’s certainty about his position – as rationalist, as the eldest and as the most ‘masterful’ member of his family (p. 62) – has been shaken to the roots.

Stephen in the cellar

The shaking of Bruce’s rationalism is in fact quite literal; he is constantly getting knocks on the head in the course of his adventures, rendering him temporarily disoriented and subject to visual disturbances. His first encounter with the cellar is a violent one: suspended upside down inside a cupboard, he is pushed by Andrew, falls (presumably on his head) and rolls down ‘about ten steps’ into the hidden room. Later the children set up a booby-trap to deter unwelcome visitors, and Bruce promptly forgets it is there, falling down the stairs a second time and being hit on the head with a broom (again by Andrew) at the bottom (‘Things went rather dim for a while’, he comments wryly, p.99). Later still, in a neighbour’s barn, Bruce bangs his head ‘so hard on a beam that it rang like a bell. My head, I mean’ (p. 149); and when the Spinners and Weavers Club converge on the children by the Roman mound he trips over a hummock and falls flat on his face, which prompts Mr Atkinson to comment: ‘Poor little boy […] it’s bumped its poor head, and now it’s all muddled’ (p. 165). This adds to Bruce’s difficulties in distinguishing between the real and the illusory: ‘My head was spinning. I suppose I’d banged it just once too often that night. Even now I can’t be quite sure how much of all this really happened, and how much I imagined. I may have been dreaming, though I was not asleep’ (p. 165). In response to all these knocks, the inside of Bruce’s head becomes a crosshatched space, its contents muddled to the extent that memories can no longer be disentangled from waking dreams.

At the same time, the distinction between the imagined and the real, the dreamed and the remembered, keeps getting blurred even outside Bruce’s head as the book goes on. For one thing, the children’s games keep turning real. Deirdre is constantly telling adults about their clandestine adventures, and although she is never believed – her stories are variously described as ‘horrible inventions’ (p. 160) and wild ‘fantasies’ (p. 175) – her elder siblings are always on tenterhooks in case she lets slip something too believable about the all-too-material runaway Stephen. At one point, seeking to distract their enemies’ attention from the cellar where Stephen is hiding, the children pack a suitcase full of fake medical supplies and set out across country, drawing the two fake labourers after them towards a neighbouring farm. Here the classic children’s game of doctors and nurses becomes a component part of a genuine crisis: the Jeffersons are in fact genuinely tending to a sick fugitive, and only the location of the man and the supplies they carry are illusions. The Roman mound is the focus of a real adventure when Deirdre is trapped underneath it, but it’s also a reminder of the games the children played in the cellar earlier, which involved Romans and Britons, with Bruce inevitably playing a rational Roman while Julia stood in for the impetuous British queen, Boadicea. Not long afterwards the stuff of games is repurposed again as the children prepare to repel Stephen’s massed ‘enemies’ from the cellar. The dustbin-lids and rusty scythe-blades they used as Roman and British weapons in Chapter 2 get recalled and reused in Chapter 13, when Bruce describes them as ‘the weapons of happier days’ and adds forlornly, ‘We didn’t really think they would be much use’ (p. 192). The horseshoe brought to them by the Meddings children changes from an element in a game – Robin and Karen were burying a chocolate when they found it – into a key part of Deirdre’s rescue from the mound. Later the Jeffersons recall the power of cold iron when pondering ways to protect the Rectory, placing iron objects in all the windows and doors to repel the Lantern people. Repeatedly, objects and concepts that were first given new meaning by their involvement in imagined scenarios acquire a serious, even urgent function in the decidedly unplayful context of the hunt for and defence of the fugitive.

Bruce and Julia Jefferson face the police

As the process of ‘realising’ the imaginary goes on, both of the older Jefferson siblings, Bruce and Julia, feel increasingly stressed by the mounting complexity of the situation. This is one of the ways Gray’s novel differs from some analogous work by his contemporaries, such as Alan Garner’s debut novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), which was published the year before. In that book, the child protagonists Colin and Susan are left more or less unscathed by their adventures. The svart alfar or Dark Elves, the terrible journey through the mines, even the death of their friend, the dwarf Durathror, at the hands of the Morrigan – none of these incidents seems to have got much emotional purchase on their psychologies (though the psychological effects of mixing with magic get much more intense in Garner’s later novels). Down in the Cellar, by contrast, leaves one with the sense that Bruce’s mental health, and that of his twin sister, is genuinely suffering as they struggle to manage a state of affairs that would have challenged the psychological equilibrium of any adult. Bruce’s fierce diatribe against the Meddings children is a symptom of this mental stress, which reaches its climax when he bursts into tears under interrogation by the Chief Constable, Mr Wheatley, who has come in person to lead the search for the missing man. ‘Everyone was amazed,’ Bruce says at this point, ‘including me. But I couldn’t help it, it just happened’; and in response, the police and his family members ‘stared at me in horror, while I stood with my mouth open, and tears running into it, hiccupping and sobbing for breath’ (p. 186). Yet Bruce’s siblings mistake this torrent of emotion for a cunning ruse, another bit of playacting designed to disrupt Mr Wheatley’s investigations. Afterwards Andrew asks admiringly, ‘How on earth did you do it? They were real tears!’, and Julia admits ‘I didn’t honestly think Bruce had it in him’; while Bruce himself decides to say no more about ‘the reasons for my break-down’ (p. 187). One good reason for this reticence, perhaps, is that his breakdown springs from the breakdown of reason itself; first, in that his own reasons for protecting the fugitive may not stand up to police scrutiny, and secondly because the events since Stephen entered their lives have been so confusing. Bruce’s outburst is allowed to stand for what his siblings think it: another game that has suddenly been saddled with a serious purpose.

The opening of the gate into the hill

One could read Gray’s novel as what’s glibly called a ‘coming-of-age’ story, as if children grew to adulthood at some definable moment in their lives, or as if maturity itself were something stable. The book suggests instead that the process is complicated, since responsibility emerges from within the context of childhood play, while play and serious adult concerns have the same ingredients. But there’s something else that might be read into Gray’s narrative of transition. Bruce’s isolation at the end, as the only unimaginative Jefferson, is intensified by the fact that he alone of the four siblings is blessed or cursed with the ability to remember Stephen and all they went through to hide and defend him. The three younger children are asked to forget the strange young man by the Lady of the Hill, as she leads him away through the hidden gates to her underground kingdom. The least imaginative Jefferson, Bruce, is left with a memory of Stephen’s face, now indistinguishable from a private dream since none of his siblings shares it. By the final page of the novel the two youngest children have already switched their attention to other things: Deirdre declares that when she gets older she may marry Robin, the older Meddings child, while Andrew adds: ‘Come to that, I may decide to marry Karen’ (p. 203). Bruce, by contrast, recalls specific details of Stephen’s appearance: ‘I remembered Uncle’s old dressing-gown that Stephen had taken with him. And the heap of chalk-stained clothes he’d left behind’ (p. 203). For Bruce, in fact, Stephen himself is always physically interesting, indeed attractive, as well as mysterious. When he first sees the fugitive he describes him as ‘a handsome sort of person, though unshaven and grimy, and all smeared with chalk’ (p. 35). Later on, when tending to him in the cellar, Bruce thinks that Stephen may be complimenting him on his own appearance: ‘How kind you are, and how beautiful’, the sick man murmurs (p. 109), and the startled Stephen thinks to himself, ‘I hoped I was fairly kind, but no one would describe me as more than average good-looking’. On another occasion Bruce is struck for a second time by the stranger’s good looks; now he has grown a beard, he observes, ‘He looked like an actor in Shakespeare or something. Actually, it suited him. It was rather romantic. As he was asleep and couldn’t hear, I said this to Andrew. And he agreed’ (p. 180). Bruce seeks reassurance from his brother that his perception of Stephen’s appearance is accurate, and duly records that his brother agrees, as if to exonerate himself from the charge of paying too much attention to what a man looks like. Then towards the end, when the Hill-Lady finally comes to take Stephen to safety, Bruce is still more impressed by the young man’s beauty: ‘He was much handsomer than anyone we’d imagined from stories’ (p. 200). Stephen, in other words, has drifted in Bruce’s mind from being a figure out of fiction, to the author or actor of fictions, to a real, live human being, whose face is better than anything he could have conjured up in his childhood imaginings. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that the young man’s departure has such an acute effect on Gray’s narrator. As Stephen limps out of the underground room where the siblings have tended him, ‘A sort of grief came over me in a wave’, Bruce tells us (p. 200), and Stephen stops and looks at him as if in response. What Stephen says at this point is an observation that might well have come from a man addressing a young male admirer on parting, at a time in history when same-sex desire was effectively outlawed. ‘You mustn’t mind, Bruce,’ he tells him; ‘It’s not easy to see a thing through, when you aren’t sure what it is you’re seeing’. In the 50s and early 60s same-sex desire might well be something a growing child could not be certain he was seeing or feeling, a state of mind that was wholly unacknowledged in his education or family life. As he passes from the cellar into the hill, Stephen leaves Bruce with a story he can never tell in full, at least with any expectation of understanding, a story he does not fully understand himself, and part of that story may well be what first attracted him to Stephen. Gray’s fairy tale, in other words – like the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Andersen, four of which provided themes for plays by Gray – could stand in for the experience of first discovering yourself to be gay in early adolescence.

Gray’s other fiction lends support to this reading. His first short story collection, for instance – Mainly in Moonlight (1965) – is full of stories of young men who are rejected by their communities and find a new place for themselves in an all-male household. The first story, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentices’, involves a boy called Martin rescuing another boy called Avenel and bringing him back to live with him in the house of his male teacher, Alain. ‘The Hunting of the Dragon’ involves another rescue of a boy by another boy, after which the rescuer, Prince Michael, feels comfortable with his own identity for the first time in his life. ‘According to Tradition’ tells of a pair of princely brothers the younger of whom ends up as the married king of his country, while the elder chooses to defy tradition and go live with the fairies – led by a handsome witch-king – because he ‘could never be at home’ living by the conventions of ‘mortal men’ (p. 104). ‘The Lady’s Quest’ tells of a prince who hates the convention that only men are allowed to embark on dangerous quests. His sister Alexa tells him that ‘you would make a better girl than I do’, he tells one of his father’s soldiers that his men are ‘lovely’ (p. 119), and his best friend Gregory is ‘not quite at home in the company of ladies’ (p. 125). The story culminates with the two young men being rescued by Alexa, and though Gray hints that both have become fascinated by the women they have met in the course of their adventures, there is no indication that either boy intends to do more with this new interest than learn at last ‘to be at ease in the company of ladies’ (p. 129). Very few of Gray’s fairy tales end in marriage; many are about young men who feel deeply out of place in the world they were born into. In one of the most poignant stories, ‘The Star Beast’, an intelligent creature of uncertain gender from another world – its hands are ‘slender, long-fingered, with the fine nails of a girl’, its body ‘like that of a boy – a half-grown lad – though it was as tall as a man’ (p. 71) – is mistreated until it starts to behave like what it has been called by all the people it meets: an abused animal. Both Bruce and Stephen of Down in the Cellar fit easily into this collection of displaced boys and men.

The novel ends with Bruce hearing a sound in the cellar that reminds him of some lines from the Scottish Border Ballad Tam Lin: ‘About the mid-hour of the night / They heard the bridles ring’ (p. 203). The sound, so clearly out of place under the Rectory, offers one final confirmation that it was indeed the ‘Hill-Lady’ who took Stephen into the hill before erasing all memory of him from those who saw him, apart from Bruce. The displacement of the ballad from Scotland to the Sussex Downs, alongside the displacement of the sound from the open air to an enclosed cellar, emphasizes the theme of displacement that runs through the novel; and this displacement is invoked by a number of references to Scotland throughout – from Bruce’s name, which invokes the Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, or Andrew’s, which he shares with Scotland’s patron saint (Deirdre’s name, by contrast, is Irish), to Julie’s observation to the police that the fugitive ‘is probably in the north of Scotland by this time’ (p. 78). The children themselves are displaced, in that they are outsiders from London in a Sussex village, while their parents are on the other side of the planet, in New Zealand. Stephen comes from an unnamed country where a different language is spoken; he can clearly never go back there, and as the novel goes on it becomes clear that there is also no place for him in England. For most of his life Gray was a Scot in England, and the cultural crosshatching he practises in Down in the Cellar, as well as the sense of alienation that fills it, may well have been deeply familiar to him.

As a version of Tam Lin, Gray’s novel does not run ‘According to Tradition’ any more than his other fairy tales tend to. The handsome Tam Lin had to be rescued from the fairy queen to save him from the fate of serving as a human sacrifice to Hell – the famous fairy ‘teind’. The rescue involved great courage on the part of his earthly lover, Janet, who clung to him as he changed shape into a variety of wild animals, as well as a burning coal and a naked man, never letting go until the spell that bound him was finally broken. One of the stories in Mainly in Moonlight, ‘A Letter to My Love’, culminates in an ordeal very like Janet’s, where a young woman clings to the body of a man in need of rescue as it changes from lizard to woodlouse, from slug to lump of ice (pp. 68-69). Stephen, by contrast, must be given over to the Hill-Lady if he is to survive. ‘Poor Bruce’ must let go of him instead of clinging on, give him up instead of winning him, and can expect ‘no sort of reward’ for all his struggles on the stranger’s behalf, all the mental and physical pain he has undergone for him. Tam Lin in all its versions is about a difficult romance, from Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1984) to Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991) and Sally Prue’s Cold Tom (2002). Romance is the lifeblood of the story, and Bruce’s sense of loss at the close of the novel – the ‘sort of grief’ that ‘came over me in a wave’ (p. 200)– suggests an emerging awareness that he is being bereaved of the romance that he identified with Stephen from the moment of his discovery in a disused cave.

Among other things, Down in the Cellar is a story about finding that the mind is a strange and complex organ, and about how words, places, communities and relationships participate in its complexity. In it, the imaginative and the rational exist in partnership, memory and fantasy cohabit, new desires transform the world, the body affects the mind and the mind the body, while the lightness of games is always giving way to the heavy weight of responsibility, which in turn reveals an unsuspected affinity with childhood play. It’s a fine example of the way fantasy for children responds to the particular challenges of political and social history. And it’s an argument in itself, I think, for reprinting Gray’s fiction for children.

Note

[1] Gray’s other illustrators included Joan Jefferson Farjeon, Charles W Stewart (who also worked in theatre design), Charles Keeping and himself.

Fantasy Brussels 2: Schuiten and Peeters, Les Cités obscures

If you really want to immerse yourself in fantasy Brussels, you can’t do better than read its comics, and above all the work of Schuiten and Peeters. You should discover, if you can, not just the Cités obscures series but their many side-projects too, which include exhibitions designed to create the illusion that there are portals, openings or passages between our world and certain parallel universes, of which the ‘Continent obscure’ is the most complex and best known.[1] The Continent is a kind of alternative Europe, permanently devoted, it seems, to the architecture and technology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interestingly the Continent seems to exclude any version of Britain, as if Schuiten and Peeters were already anticipating Brexit from the moment they started the Obscure project in the early 80s. But if London, Birmingham and Edinburgh are absent from their parallel universe, the place is simply teeming with versions of Brussels: from the art nouveau monster-city Samaris in the first volume of the series, which draws unsuspecting travellers inside its walls to feed on their personalities like a vast carnivorous plant, to the City of Urbicande, which gets taken over by a three-dimensional grid of giant poles or girders, made up of ever-expanding cubes which eventually construct a kind of pyramid over the city, like the pyramid Poelaert wanted to build on the highest point of his Palais de Justice. The buildings of Samaris are no more than frail facades, which invokes the ‘façade retention’ technique of Brusselisation, while the network of Urbicande can be read as a working model of a faceless bureaucracy that has failed to tailor itself to the needs of actual urban environments – the Brexiteer’s version of the European Union. But the growing grid can also be seen as liberating, since it constantly forms new passages between one place and another as it grows, temporarily connecting the prosperous south bank of the city to the impoverished north bank in defiance of the wishes of the totalitarian city council. There are, in other words, at least two perspectives on it, just as there are on the EU’s vision of a unified Europe.[2]

La Tour is set in a version of Pieter Breughel’s two famous paintings of the Tower of Babel[3] – a structure so vast that it may never be completed, where maintenance workers live like parasites in desolate forgotten corners of the building, striving to preserve them against the decay that is setting in before the process of construction has come to an end. Breughel painted his Tower in Antwerp but died in Brussels, where the bulk of his greatest masterpieces were executed. Brüsel concerns itself with the difficulties of the owner of a flower-shop, Constant Abeels, as he struggles to relaunch his business at a time when the City of Brüsel is itself being restructured on an epic scale in response to constantly changing instructions from a corrupt developer, Freddy de Vrouw. Meanwhile the city is falling prey to Kafkaesque bureaucracy – which makes one suspect a punning reference to Terry Gilliam’s great dystopic assault on bureaucracy, Brazil, in the album’s title – as well as a rising tide of polluted water, the very element which the city planners aimed to suppress by paving over the river Senne. As love letters to the European capital, these two albums are as fascinated by its failings as by the overweening vision that continues to test its resources to the limit, and to lift the hearts and minds of its devotees.

Another work, La musée Desombres – comprising a booklet and CD, which I haven’t yet managed to get hold of – is about a museum in our own world whose exhibits look like ordinary paintings by the artist Augustin Desombres, but actually serve as passages to the Continent. The way these passages work is explained in the album L’enfant penchée, one of whose plotlines features Desombres making his way from his dilapidated studio-museum in northern France to the Obscure universe, where he becomes the lover of Mary von Rathen. There’s nothing particularly Brussels-like about the Desombres story apart from the notion that a museum could serve as a conduit between alternative universes, which is surely what the citizens of Brussels believe, else why devote so much money, thought and time to their construction? As the series unfolds it becomes clear that many such conduits or passages exist, and that this may explain the significant overlaps between the culture of the Continent and our own. It may be the resemblances between architecturally unique structures on both worlds that make them suitable to serve as passages. Given their anachronistic purposes, museum buildings are particularly complex and resonant examples of urban architecture, which is presumably why a museum-rich environment like Brussels has so many parallels in the world of Brüsel.

Indeed, there is something akin to a museum in the organization of several albums in the series.[4] Many Franco-Belgian BDs privilege the writer rather than the artist, in that the writer produces the story and the artist illustrates it. With the Cités obscures, by contrast, it’s often the pictures that come first, with the writer producing narratives in response to the artist’s images, much as a museum curator produces a verbal narrative to forge a coherent relationship between objects that have ended up side by side in the museum building, often through historical accident rather than design. Some of the most effective albums in the series were developed this way. L’archiviste started out as a projected collection of posters to be published by Casterman for sale on an individual basis. Converted into an album, it became an account of research carried out by an isolated archivist, perhaps in our world, into a random set of images pertaining to the world of Urbicande and Samaris. This transforms the poster series into a kind of two-dimensional display cabinet, its contents curated by the archivist as he struggles to make sense of the images and compile a report on them for his superiors. Le guide des Cités masquerades as a Lonely Planet-style guidebook to Schuiten and Peeters’s parallel universe, its accounts of the societies, structures and notable personages to be found there helping to supplement the stories told in more conventional albums. It began as a pair of articles for a literary magazine, Les saisons, but ended up as a full-scale Baedeker, transforming the cities it describes into an open-air museum to be rambled through by imaginative tourists. Souvenirs de l’éternel présent is based on Schuiten’s sketches for a planned movie to be directed by Raoul Servais in the 1980s, while La route d’Armilia started life in a commission to create a comic in Danish containing representations of an Obscure version of Copenhagen, which had to be finished in time for the opening of an exhibition of Schuiten and Peeters’s work in the Danish capital. The album also incorporates images from other projects, including posters for a glazier, a watchmaker and a Wagner festival. The constraints imposed on these narratives by the initial circumstances of their production means that they are full of startling unexplained images. A woman clinging desperately to her vacuum cleaner as she dangles over an unfathomable gulf in Brüsel (is she really the star of a commercial, as one witness claims, or is she in deadly danger, as her expression leads us to believe?). Four explorers approaching a shining crystalline mountain (‘Qui peuvent-ils être? Que cherchent-ils?’),[5] with a garden enclosed in a natural glasshouse at the summit. A city full of towers, the tops of which morph into baroque sculptures of naked men and women, their anatomies pierced by windows much as the monumental woman in Salvador Dali’s ‘The Burning Giraffe’ is pierced by drawers. An empty artist’s studio with no artist in it, full of paintings whose central images have been ripped from the canvas by some violent censor. Decontextualized, as unattached to any narrative as an anonymous artwork given to a gallery or an ancient artefact of unknown provenance found in the storerooms of a museum, each of these images exists in a kind of suspension or limbo, available to be read and reread in any way that suits the reader. The subjects of these pictures – buildings, vehicles, machines – have lost all connection to the conditions under which they were fabricated or the purpose for which they were first intended by their makers, and they share this lack of context with many buildings in modern cities, which get repurposed – like the Horta buildings in Brussels – or awkwardly juxtaposed with newer buildings. We must invent our own narratives to account for such juxtapositions, just as Peeters must invent a narrative in each album to account for the wayward juxtapositions in Schuiten’s pictures. The reader’s efforts at supplementary storytelling may be assisted by seemingly authoritative handbooks, like Le guide des Cités, or newspaper articles as in the album L’Echo des Cités – which is made up of pages from the most significant inter-urban news outlet of the Continent – or history books, like the forbidden volume found by the child Aimé in Souvenirs de l’éternel présent, which describes the cataclysm that reduced the City of Taxandria to the graveyard of architectural fragments it has become. But guidebooks, articles and history must in turn be augmented or given life by the imaginations of their diverse readers, which invariably run aslant to one another, since they were formed in response to different pressures and conflicting desires.

One of Schuiten and Peeters’s recurring protagonists, Mary von Rathen, encapsulates this obliqueness or perversity in our various responses to the worlds we encounter. At eleven years old, Mary is struck down by a mysterious ailment after a fairground ride, a condition that leaves her walking at a permanent angle to the ground, 45 degrees aslant from the upright that governs every other person’s posture on the planet. As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that she is in fact subject to the gravitational pull of a different planet or sphere, and it takes the rest of the album to restore her to a sense of equilibrium within her native world, the Continent. As a result of this ailment Mary becomes an attraction in a circus: Laetitia the tightrope walker, whose balancing skills are rendered astonishing by the 45 degree angle at which she perches on her cable. Fundamentally at odds with her fellow human beings, dismissed by nearly every adult she encounters as a troublemaker, freak or fraud, her personality quickly becomes as perverse as her posture; after all, she is a young girl in a patriarchal culture modelled on the Europe of the fin-de-siècle, and it’s only by contradicting everyone she meets that she is able to pursue her desired trajectory towards an explanation and perhaps a solution to her gravitational problem. Aided and abetted by fellow marginals and outcasts – the journalist Stanislas Sainclair, who as a dwarf has only with difficulty escaped being branded as a ‘freak’, like Mary herself; the aged inventor-scientist Axel Wappendorp, whose real achievements don’t prevent many of his countrymen from dismissing him as a madman; the artist Augustin Desombres, whose paintings are responsible for upsetting the equilibrium of the Continent as a whole, and of Mary in particular, by forging imaginative connections between his native Europe and the parallel world she lives in – Mary eventually recovers her balance, and grows up to be a famous visionary and activist, briefly restoring social, economic and political stability to the industrial city of Mylos where she was born. A slant perspective here becomes the basis for non-violent revolutionary action, and Mary joins the ranks of enigmatic women who have provided the radical counterbalance to bureaucratic authoritarianism since the beginning of the series: Sophie in La fièvre d’Urbicande, Milena in La Tour, Tina Tonero in Brüsel, Hella in La route d’Armilia, Minna in L’ombre d’un homme and all the rest. All of these rebellious women are outsiders in the quasi-imperialist architectural fantasies of the Continent, invariably reduced to symbols, tools or erotic objects by the men who meet them, or banished completely from the city streets, as happens in Taxandria. Mary and her sisters confirm that one person’s Paradise is another’s Inferno, a saying that could apply just as well to the unified Europe of the European Union as to the fragmented alternative Europe of Alaxis, Xhystos and Pâhry.

One album in the series strikes me as saying something especially pertinent to Brexit, invoking as it does the symbiotic relationship between the underlying problems and visionary possibilities of a united Europe. Superficially, La route d’Armilia tells a simple story. A young boy is entrusted with the formidable task of carrying a crucial ‘formula’ to the City of Armilia at the North Pole. Without this formula the Continent is out of balance in some fundamental way: weather conditions are getting more extreme, communications systems are breaking down, compasses are going haywire and those who rely on them are getting hopelessly lost as a result. The formula must be carried as quickly as possible to the North Pole using the fastest conveyance in existence – an airship or zeppelin – in order that the machine there that governs the planet’s equilibrium may be recalibrated and order restored. The airship’s mission is not too urgent, however, to permit the occasional digression on the way. As it traverses the north-west corner of the Continent from its starting point in Mylos to København, and from there across the Arctic wastes to its destination, the airship’s captain is prepared to turn aside from time to time to offer help to a stranded vehicle, or to allow his passengers a better view of the cities over which they pass. The journey provides, in fact, a rich mixture of adventures and wonder, like the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne on which it is modelled: from the discovery in the hull of a young stowaway called Hella, who becomes the boy’s fast friend, to an encounter with a giant land-cruiser, which has lost its way owing to the disruption of its instruments by the problem at Armilia; from an outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel just as the zeppelin is passing overhead, to the loss of the document containing the precious formula, and foul weather in Polar regions – again produced (it seems) by the problem at Armilia – which smothers the zeppelin in ice from stem to stern and almost causes it to crash. Through portholes in the cabin the two children watch in awe as the Obscure Cities glide majestically by, their hypertrophied buildings dwarfing the dirigible, which steers between them as between the peaks of the Himalayas. Its progress is described through the diary of Ferdinand, the boy, and records his rising panic as he realises, after losing the document containing the formula, that he cannot recall the words of the formula itself. Hella, meanwhile, boosts his confidence with sound advice and unflagging cheerfulness, as enthused by every wonder on the journey as Ferdinand himself. The improbable climax of their trip is a hurried visit to København, where the quirkily beautiful towers of real-life Copenhagen have been expanded to many times their actual size and number, and where the famous Tivoli gardens are dominated by a roller-coaster twice the height of the highest buildings in New York. On the way there, they pass over Bayreuth – a city whose streets empty themselves completely whenever an opera is performed – and Brüsel, whose buildings make the skyscrapers of Chicago look like toys. This is Europe as a scattering of upwardly mobile city states, multiple polders whose swarms of flying machines inspired by the inventions of the fin-de-siècle artist Albert Robida. Between these urban centres the landscape is more North American than European, with desert dominating the territory between Mylos and Muhka, forests and mountains between Brüsel and København, and icy waters and mountains north of that. There is little agriculture in sight – apart from a field full of sheep at the aerodrome where the airship commences its journey – and no connecting roads or railways. The Continent here is exclusively devoted to adventure and wonder, with no space in it that doesn’t do service to these two urges.

p. 7

In fact, the single-minded dedication of the Continent to the fulfilment of Ferdinand’s adolescent fantasies begins to look increasingly suspicious as we read on. When the airship first takes off, the boy expresses the hope that the sheep he can see from the porthole, which are utterly unfazed by the silent rise of the giant dirigible, will not set the tone for the rest of the voyage: ‘J’espérais un peu plus de sensations. Pourvu que ce voyage ne soit pas trop tranquille!’ (p. 7).[6] Sure enough, pleasing or frightening things happen at every stage, as if in response to the premonition he expresses shortly afterwards: ‘Ah, comme je sens que ce voyage va me plaire’ (p. 11).[7] In fact, La route d’Armilia makes no secret of its own artificial nature. The pages of Ferdinand’s journal are penned in a neat italic script, with hand-drawn images carefully arranged around them for maximum decorative effect and emotional impact. It is embellished with attractive motifs: the tiny circular sections of map that announce the airship’s arrival in each new city – Porentruy, Muhka, Calvani, Genova; the narrow strips of landscape-drawing that occur on almost every page. A brief study of these strips confirms that they’re frequently repeated. One image of a desert landscape appears many times between pp. 7 and 25, an image of forested hills recurs between pp. 28 and 45, while a single picture of icy mountains and waters shows up again and again between p. 47 and the final page. The repeated images are, of course, a neat way of suggesting that the zeppelin is moving across vast geographical spaces, but they also suggest a certain lack of interest in minor details of the Continent, perhaps even an ignorance of them on the part of the journal’s author. What matters to Ferdinand are the highlights of his voyage, which occur with remarkable frequency. He visits three cities, for instance, in just one day, the 27th May, and makes no comment at all on what he sees between them. It’s as if the map of the journey provided on p. 10 has been compressed in certain places to ensure a regular provision of excitement en route to the North Pole.

The discovery of Hella

Other aspects of the narrative reinforce the impression that things are being arranged for Ferdinand’s benefit. The girl Hella, for instance, shows up very early in the journey as if in response to a child’s desire for someone his own age with whom to share his enthusiasms. There seem to be no other passengers on the airship, no supervising adult to help the boy discharge his crucial duty of delivering the formula. Like the young protagonists of many children’s adventure stories, Ferdinand is unencumbered by parents, having been entrusted with his mission by an absent ‘uncle’ who seems to have absolute faith in his nephew’s capacities. Smaller details are even more strikingly arranged for Ferdinand’s convenience. He has bunk beds in his cabin, for instance – as we learn on p. 46 – as if the captain has anticipated from the start the need for a second child to be berthed alongside Ferdinand, in the kind of bed young people like best. The menu on p. 11, which illustrates ‘les nourritures délicieuses’ served in the airship’s dining room,[8] is decidedly childish: chicken and chips for the main course, three different kinds of dessert – including chocolate cake and banana split – while the only drinks available are ‘Colibri Orange’ and ‘Zeppo Cola’. Tasty meals continue to provide significant highlights in Ferdinand’s account until the final page, when he and Hella are showered by the grateful inhabitants of Armilia with ‘nourritures merveilleuses et […] machines inconnues’,[9] as if it were Christmas. Meanwhile there is a strong element of play about the journey. When Ferdinand loses the document containing the formula and seeks to dredge up its contents from the depths of his memory, every new phrase he comes up with reads like a crossword clue, a riddle or a piece of nonsense: ‘LE SINISTRE ARLEQUIN MANGE TOUS LES MIDIS UNE TONNE DE LIMAÇONS’; ‘TAQUINE TANTE ADÈLE SOUS LE LIT DU MAÇON’; ‘MIDI VIENT DE SONNER: CHARLES QUINT DANS LA TENTE A LIMÉ SON MINISTRE’; while the formula itself, once retrieved, sounds just as playfully inconsequential as these alternatives (‘À QUINTE LA SINISTRE, À MIDI LA DÉTENTE, SONNE LE LIMAÇON’, pp. 59-60).[10] The very notion of entrusting the formula to a child suggests a playfulness about the airship adventure which is radically at odds with its apparent significance for the safety of the Continent.

Armilia

At the same time, there are darker elements to the story, hints that some sinister force may be at work to foil Ferdinand’s mission – as suggested by the presence of the word ‘sinistre’ in two versions of the formula. Early on, the boy’s sleep is disturbed by a nightmare in which the hull of the dirigible opens up to reveal an armillary sphere (pp. 12-13): a representation of the workings of time in space which occurs many times in Schuiten’s artwork, and on which the City of Armilia seems to be modelled, as we learn when the expedition finally reaches its destination. In the boy’s nightmare, the many circles and rings around the sphere in the zeppelin’s hull revolve with ‘une folle energie’,[11] as Ferdinand calls it. All at once they grind to a halt, unleashing a flurry of sheets of paper: ‘On aurait dit les pages d’un livre s’ils n’avaient été entièrement blanches’.[12] The sheets quickly cover the sphere, turning it white, and Ferdinand wakes up drenched in sweat as if half smothered by the paper avalanche. Next day he finds the stowaway Hella cowering in the hull of the airship, where the sphere hung in his nightmare. She tells him she has escaped from the factory in Mylos where the canvas that covers the hull was fabricated, and Ferdinand is horrified to learn that the airship was constructed with child labour (‘Quoi? Une enfant de votre âge employée dans les fabriques[!]’, p. 17).[13] He takes her to his heart at once as a fellow sufferer from bad dreams: ‘votre cauchemar est terminée,’ he tells her, ‘Désormais, vous êtes mon invitée à bord de cet appareil’ (p. 17).[14] But later the connection between Hella and nightmares gets reasserted, when after another restless night (‘J’ai mal dormi’, p. 24),[15] he is suddenly struck by the idea that the stowaway might be a spy, employed by some unknown enemy ‘pour me ravir la formule’.[16] In a panic he conceals the document containing the formula in the hull of the ship – the third item so far to be hidden there. Not long afterwards Hella accuses him of mistrusting her, and to prove her wrong he hurries to fetch the document from its hiding place; but to his horror it has disappeared. Ferdinand starts to reassure his friend that he can remember the formula in any case, having learned it by heart; but ‘les mots, soudain, se sont étranglés dans ma gorge’ (p. 35),[17] as he realises he has forgotten it completely. This is a cue for further nightmares:

La nuit, les mots se sont mis à danser dans ma tête comme des farfadets malfaisants. Ils couraient en tous sens, sautaient, grimaçaient, ricanaient; ils glissaient comme des ombres, échangeaient leurs habits, se cachaient sous des masques (p. 37).[18]

The sense of play that dominates the journal is here transformed into a piece of carnivalesque puppet theatre staged by some demonic descendant of the Belgian puppet-master Toone. For the first time the heroic adventure of which Ferdinand has made himself hero begins to look as if it might end badly, the smooth arc of its trajectory disrupted by the malicious twirling of sinister marionettes.

At this point the significance of those blank pages in the zeppelin’s hull gets a little clearer. If the boy’s memory remains a blank, the whole journey he is recording becomes futile, its purpose lost, and he might as well stop writing. From now on, nightmares begin to invade the children’s waking hours. As the zeppelin enters Arctic regions, Ferdinand and Hella are aroused from sleep when the vessel suddenly tilts in a gust of wind, unbalanced by the weight of ice that covers it. Later the boy’s efforts to recall the formula wake him a second time, startling everyone with his shouts, and he is forced to pretend that he has had ‘un simple cauchemar’ (p. 51).[19] As conditions in the cabin deteriorate, hunger, cold and lack of sleep ensure that these ‘simple’ nightmares spread to other members of the expedition in the form of mirages: the steward thinks he can see horsemen on the icepack below the vessel, the helmsman thinks they are flying over a desert. Alternative narratives threaten to disrupt the story of Ferdinand’s mission, until by the end of the journey the blank pages from his nightmare could stand for the possibility of writing anything on the blank pages of the world, since there is no structure to the universe, however strenuously one might struggle to impose an imaginative shape on its shapelessness, coherent rules on its primordial chaos. By this stage the constant disruptions to the airship’s voyage seem to enact the disruption of the Continent by the breakdown of the Armilian machine.

Final page

Yet in the album’s final pages all these nightmares and metaphysical torments get swept aside in a few swift strokes. On arrival at Armilia, Ferdinand is about to confess the loss of the formula to the city’s chief scientist, Professor Pym, when Hella suddenly hands the boy the missing document and he is able to read it aloud to Pym as his uncle intended. Hella later explains that she purloined the document as a ‘blague’ or joke, because she found Ferdinand too serious, too confident that he alone could save Armilia and the world. By concealing the paper from him she has made the journey a true collaboration between them; by restoring it she has reinstated playfulness as the mission’s dominant mode. Hella’s action confirms what Ferdinand once suspected – that she is not to be trusted; but it also identifies her as the perfect playmate, a trickster who performs practical jokes on her friend to ensure that his journey is everything he wsihes it to be, full of incident, danger and difficulty as well as of wonder. The potential complexity of the boy’s conspiracy theory has been rendered childishly ‘simple’, which is how Hella describes the motivation for her joke; the sinister has been rendered amusing. And when Ferdinand begins to complain about Hella’s behaviour, the girl closes the album by shouting another version of the formula, this time a clarion call to replace what is sinister with ringing laughter: ‘QUITTE CET AIR SINISTRE! DIS, L’AMI, DÉTENDS-TOI ET RIONS SANS FAÇON!’[20] In doing so she identifies herself as a bearer of her own formula, which celebrates the triumph of play over the rigidity of proverbs, inflexible rules and rote learning. Indeed, her playful philosophy seems to be shared by the Obscure Continent itself, since Professor Pym has to imaginatively decode the riddling formula delivered to him by Ferdinand before it can be used to fix the damaged mechanism of Armilia (p. 60). Her trick on Ferdinand is entirely in the spirit of the universe he seeks to save – at least in the journal’s version of that universe – which suggests that she herself is in some sense the formula he needs to restore its equilibrium.

Opening page

By the time this happens, however, the album’s readers are well aware that the playful plot in which Hella plays a part masks another, grimmer plot from which she is excluded, and which runs parallel to Ferdinand’s adventures in the airship. This second narrative is delivered in a style much closer to that of the conventional BD: a series of panels designed to be read from left to right, with dialogue conveyed in speech bubbles (there are no speech bubbles in Ferdinand’s journal). It kicks off in the first two pages of the album, where a pair of factory inspectors walk through a titanic industrial complex talking about a recent downturn in productivity, and promising to trace the source of the downturn as soon as possible. Ferdinand’s journal begins on p. 7 – effectively the third page of the album – with no indication as to how it might relate to the men’s discussion. From time to time, however, a return to the visual style of the opening pages reminds us of the unfinished factory plotline. At the bottom of p. 23, for instance, three consecutive panels show us a child in a strange kind of helmet, who is drawing a sketch of the land cruiser encountered by Ferdinand in the six previous pages. Who is the child in the helmet, we ask ourselves, and how does he know about the other boy’s mission? On p. 42, two more panels with speech bubbles show the factory inspectors for a second time: one of them says he has finally found the source of the downturn, while reaching for a handle fixed to the lid of a metal pod. These two panels interrupt Ferdinand’s narrative, cutting across the middle of a page of his journal, but they are quickly swept aside by the magnificent vista of København as viewed from the airship that takes up the opposite page, and then forgotten in the whirl of exciting events that follows. All at once Ferdinand announces in his journal that his adventures have been interrupted for a second time. ‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’ he writes, and then inexplicably, ‘Vite!’ (p. 53).[21] Turning the page, the reader is confronted by the longest sequence of BD panels yet, all set in the factory. A speech bubble in the first panel announces ‘on le tient’ – ‘we’ve got him’. In the second we see the helmeted child from p. 23, crouching inside a metal pod whose lid has just been opened. The two inspectors glare down at him, pointing out to each other the cables he has disconnected to give himself light to read by. Scattered round him is a heap of books, and the inspectors express outrage at the thought of a worker reading fiction on company time. One inspector strikes the boy with one of the ‘bouquins’ (‘how do you like books now?’, he asks him viciously), then hurls the lot into a nearby furnace. At this point, the perspective of the panels opens out to show the boy as just one of a row of helmeted children in identical pods, each linked to the production line by a couple of cables at the back of his helmet. Under his helmet every child has additional cables embedded in his skull; we learn this on p. 54, when the boy’s helmet is knocked off by the book as it strikes his head. Disconnected from these cables the children will die, or so they believe: another child named Anton proudly explains as much when questioned by the inspectors. ‘Nous avons besoin des machines comme ils ont besoin de nous,’ he recites with a vacuous grin. ‘Si nous cessons de travailler, elles s’arrêtent et si elles s’arrêtent, nous mourons’ (p. 56).[22] Anton, at least, remembers exactly what he has been taught by rote, trotting out the correct answer at the precise point in the other plotline when Ferdinand is most anxious about having forgotten his own instructions. And the words he parrots reflect a philosophy of work which is the polar opposite of the philosophy of play embodied by Hella in the journal.

Friedrich discovered

At the same time, there are clear parallels between the factory plotline and Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia. In both plotlines something has gone wrong in the day-to-day functioning of a mechanised process: in the factory the production line has some sort of glitch, while the world itself is off kilter in the journal, due to the malfunction of a ‘machine inconnue’ based at the North Pole. Child workers are involved in both plotlines, with one child in each – Hella and the boy in the pod – showing a remarkable ability to imagine themselves into the positions of the moneyed classes to which they have presumably never had access. In both narratives a child forgets certain critical instructions: the rote lesson or the formula. And at the centre of both plotlines is the airship – though we have no way of knowing this in the factory plotline before the last few pages. In the final BD section we see the two inspectors walking away from the pods that house the child workers, congratulating each other on how they have handled the miscreant, the boy who reads (pp. 62-3). As the men leave the factory, the largest panel on p. 63 finally reveals what’s under construction there: an airship like the one in the journal. The inspectors agree that such a product ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’;[23] and the exact nature of those sacrifices is visible all round them as they walk, in the rows of adult factory workers – skulls sprouting cables like the skulls of the children we saw earlier – whose withered faces testify to the premature aging brought on by lifelong imprisonment at their stations. Here is another link between the plotlines. Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia, too, involves certain sacrifices – the voluntary sacrifices of the romance hero, hunger, cold and fear – while the factory workers are unwilling sacrifices to industrialism, plugged into the production line without hope of release. Ferdinand’s adventure, in other words, touches on the workers’ lives in the factory at numerous points; but where the factory is a prison, the journal gives its child protagonist freedom and space, and where the factory workers seem wholly passive – and permanently alienated from the product of their labour, the zeppelin – the child protagonist has agency in abundance, and enjoys the dirigible as a privileged guest.

Friedrich the writer-artist

In fact, however, the factory workers are not wholly passive. One worker has acquired a degree of agency against all odds, and this agency suggests another link between the plotlines: their shared concern with secrecy and playfulness – or more precisely with the clandestine plot as a means of finding space for liberating play. Not long before we learn what the factory is making, we find out that the child worker who likes to read is also writing the journal, and that his name is Friedrich. His clandestine work of creation runs parallel with the factory’s production of luxury goods denied to workers like himself. And the inspectors never find this out; to the end of the book it remains a secret between the album’s reader and the writer-artist in his pod. As we’ve seen, just before the inspectors open the pod the word ‘Vite!’ appears in the journal, and we later deduce that this signals the moment when Friedrich conceals what he has been writing. As soon as the pod is closed again, the boy takes the unfinished journal from its hiding place and goes on writing. Ferdinand’s adventures, in other words, are permitted to continue, in defiance of Friedrich’s near exposure as a creative spirit – a young rival to the inventor Axel Wappendorp, or the authors whose books he owns. Between the opening and closing of his pod, Friedrich has made another involuntary sacrifice – his books have been burned; but his own manuscript survives unscathed, and as a result the dirigible can proceed on its way to Armilia, and the story of the formula can achieve a satisfactory ending. If Ferdinand was a hero, Friedrich is doubly so, for both resisting oppression and imaginatively conjuring up Ferdinand and Hella as his unfettered alter egos.

Friedrich’s secret writing activities provide one more point of contact between the factory narrative and the journal plotline, while also suggesting another interpretation of Ferdinand’s nightmare of the armillary sphere in the airship’s hull. The whole journal is composed under threat of discovery by the inspectors; so the writing process it involves is effectively a spy story, much like the one that has Hella as its heroine. And the blank pages that smothered the sphere represent the possibility that this writing process will be cut short before it’s complete; that its time line will be arrested, just as the movement of the sphere was stopped by the paper storm. Friedrich incorporates this fear into Ferdinand’s journal in the first words he writes after the burning of his printed books: ‘Après ces nouvelles épreuves, plus cruelles encore que les précédents, je retrouve ces notes que j’ai craint de ne jamais pouvoir reprendre’ (p. 58).[24] At this point he mentions the various mirages suffered by the airship’s half-frozen crew, but he concludes by expressing hope that the story will achieve closure all the same: ‘Tous, nous sentons que nous allons bientôt toucher au but et ce sentiment nous redonne du courage’ (p. 58).[25] And his optimism proves well founded. When Ferdinand’s story comes to an end, it marks Friedrich’s triumph over the inspectors, and the implication is that this triumph also comes at the cost of further glitches in production, since the inspectors have never succeeded in identifying the source of the downturn they mentioned at the beginning – his writing activities, in other words. The mission of Ferdinand and Hella, which he has invented, can be read as a parable of the liberating power of writing, and as such it serves as both a metaphorical and literal act of sabotage against the oppression of industrial capitalism.

Friedrich’s triumph through the completion of his writing project is anticipated at the very moment of the inspectors’ interruption of his creative labours. As the two men prepare to leave the factory building on p. 57, satisfied that they have terrorised the recalcitrant worker into submission, the BD format of the factory plotline finds itself invaded for the first time by the journal narrative. Just as Friedrich closes his pod – supposedly to resume his duties – a BD panel shows a narrow strip of cloudy sky. In the next panel Friedrich pulls out the journal from where it was hidden in his overalls, and in the next the airship appears among the clouds. Friedrich begins to write, and in the final panel at the bottom of the page the airship is nearer. By this time the implication is that the inspectors and the factory have been supplanted in Friedrich’s mind by Ferdinand’s mission. The reader presumes that the following page will continue the journey to Armilia, which is indeed what happens. And the same supplanting of the factory plotline by the plotline of the journal occurs in the last three pages of the album. On pp. 62-3, we see the inspectors leaving the factory, delighted by their success in putting Friedrich in his place. But on the final page – p. 64 – all restrictions on Friedrich’s imagination have been lifted. Not only has Armilia been repaired and the balance of the world recovered, but the airship has been refuelled and reequipped for the homeward journey, so that its young passengers, reconciled, can set off on new adventures unrecorded by any later albums in the Obscure series. The creative process, in other words, remains alive and fructifying at the end, unbounded by the factory structure, or the album’s two plots, or even the meticulous planning of Schuiten and Peeters. The possibilities available to it are as unconstrained as the imaginations that developed the ‘machines inconnues’ and the soaring buildings of the Obscure Continent, or the dreams of the reader after the reading process is over.

Final page (again!)

The trajectory of the album from constriction to liberation, from dictatorship to playfulness, can be traced in its visual representation of the sky. Entirely obscured by smoke in the opening pages, partly hidden by clouds in the BD strips on p. 57, by the final page it has been swept clear of clouds altogether, showing cloudlessly blue above the airship as the vessel takes off from the Arctic wastes with the Continent made freely available to its newly refurbished engines. In Ferdinand’s journal (Friedrich’s manuscript), weather conditions were at first affected by the dysfunction of the strange machine located at Armilia. The correction of this meteorological imbalance in Friedrich’s story would seem to involve the effective erasure of the factory that barred him, along with the rest of its workers, from sight of the sky, and the handing-over of the factory’s products to the wage-slaves who helped to shape them.

The crossovers between the two plotlines of La route d’Armilia invite us to ask another question. How far is Friedrich’s story, about Ferdinand’s journey to the North Pole, a work of fiction or a record of something that in some sense ‘really’ happened? The books Friedrich has in his pod, and from which he presumably derives inspiration for his own composition, represent a mixture of genres, from science fiction (Jules Verne’s Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras) to autobiography (Souvenirs d’un explorateur by the Polar adventurer Roald Amundsen), from fairy tale to Gothic short story (Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Karen Blixen’s Winter’s Tales). Odder still, all these books come from our world; even the works of fiction, in other words, are ‘real’, in the sense that they are not the products of Obscure authors. And one of the books is Brüsel, an album from the same series as La route d’Armilia. In the Continent, Brüsel is presumably a work of non-fiction, like Amundsen’s Souvenirs in our own universe. The books, then, could be seen either as evidence of the existence of passages between our world and the Continent, or as passages in themselves, allowing us access between one kind of ‘reality’ and another. Their presence in Friedrich’s pod is from one point of view an anomaly: how could a child worker have acquired them? How could he even have learned to read? But it is also evidence of the power of books throughout the Obscure series to crop up in places where they are least expected, and to have an impact well beyond what might be expected wherever they happen to crop up. The burning of the books by the inspectors, in other words, is no guarantee that they will cease to affect the environment into which they were impossibly introduced; and their continued presence is in fact implied by Friedrich’s continuing story. His character Ferdinand, after all, is named after two heroes of Jules Verne’s, the Arctic explorer Captain Hatteras and the aeronaut Robur from Robur the Conqueror (the boy’s full name is Ferdinand Robur Hatteras, p. 16) – just as the name of Ferdinand’s contact in Armilia, Pym, recalls the name of another fictional explorer from our world, Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. The fiction found in Friedrich’s pod, in other words, continues to bear fruit, and attract new fiction to itself, after it is burned (Poe’s novel is not among the volumes mentioned by the inspectors when they confiscate Friedrich’s library). The mere existence of a book in one dimension makes it available, perhaps, in others. And this implies that Friedrich’s liberation through his writing – a work of fiction – may be in some sense, or some dimension, ‘real’.

p. 23

Its reality is obliquely implied, in fact, by Schuiten’s artwork. On p. 23, where we first see Friedrich working on the journal, Schuiten shows us the boy’s sketch of the land cruiser designed by Axel Wappendorp, with the airship overhead. Both the land cruiser and the airship are crudely drawn, as one might expect from a child of Friedrich’s age, though the boy’s handwriting is identical to the hand we have been reading as we followed the journal. In the panel that shows Friedrich’s sketch we are also shown the illustration he is copying from an unnamed book, which shows the land cruiser almost exactly as Schuiten drew it on p. 19, except that the illustration is in black and white, whereas Schuiten’s picture is in colour. The panel that shows Friedrich working on the journal, in other words, suggests the existence of three or four different levels of ‘reality’ on which his story operates. On one level, there is Friedrich’s reality, in which the volume from which he copies his picture of the land cruiser offers him an accurate representation of a real machine designed by the real inventor Wappendorp. On the second level there is Friedrich’s invented narrative in the journal, which is presumably inspired by the books he has been reading. On the third level there is Schuiten and Peeters’s version of Friedrich’s work, which converts his childish images into a more ‘realistic’ style, while conserving the exact appearance and wording of his written script. All these levels of reality are equally real – or equally fictional – from the point of view of the album’s reader, though we might be inclined to privilege one level of reality as more ‘real’ than another within the fictional universe. But this privileging of one level of reality over another is called into question by the care Schuiten has taken to represent the boy’s story about the land cruiser in ‘realistic’ terms – far more realistic than the picture the boy draws in his pod. The implication would seem to be either that Schuiten is representing Ferdinand’s adventures as Friedrich visualises them, or that he is representing them the way they ‘really’ happened, as Friedrich cannot, owing to his youth and lack of technical expertise as an illustrator. If the latter is the case, then Friedrich is a visionary or medium rather than a novelist. Another possibility exists – that the boy has been copying out Ferdinand’s adventures from some historical account not mentioned by the inspectors – but this does not explain the overlaps between Ferdinand’s story and the story of Friedrich, especially the point when Ferdinand anticipates the arrival of the inspectors themselves (‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’, p. 53). The whole album, in other words, continually plays with questions of what’s real and what is fabricated. And Schuiten and Peeters continue to play on these fine distinctions between fact and fiction, the real and the fantastic, in later volumes of the Obscure series, sometimes with specific reference to Ferdinand’s adventures.

In Le guide des Cités, for instance, the story of Ferdinand and Hella is implied to be a myth or a work of fiction which may or may not have some basis in fact. The tale presumably forms the basis of an opera mentioned under the entry for the composer Dieter Dennis/Didier Denis, Les enfants d’Armilia (p. 154). Meanwhile the entry for Armilia in a later edition of the guide mentions that there is some uncertainty among historians as to whether or not a boy named Ferdinand Hatteras was really responsible for correcting the malfunction of the Armilian machine at the time of the worldwide crisis it brought about. The latter entry seems to confirm that certain details La route d’Armilia are deemed to be ‘true’ in the archives of the Obscure universe: Armilia did, it seems, break down at one point, and the consequences of its malfunction affected the Continent in its entirety. The album L’archiviste, meanwhile, concerns itself with the way legends and myths of the kind that Ferdinand’s adventures represent can have material effects. The archivist’s official task in this book is to demonstrate once and for all that the Obscure Continent, whose existence is mentioned in numerous baffling references throughout his archives, properly belongs to the section he works in – the section devoted to myths and legends. In other words, the archivist has been instructed to prove that the Continent doesn’t exist. Instead he finds himself increasingly convinced that it is in some sense real, and says as much in his report, which results in his dismissal. The album ends with his clandestine return to his old office, where he sits waiting for what he knows will happen next: the arrival of representatives from the Continent to take him away to the place he now sees as his spiritual home. At this point the archivist has become one of the inhabitants of the Obscure Continent by virtue of being represented in one of the volumes of the series; he has been absorbed into the archive he was studying, just as Ferdinand is absorbed into the archives of the Continent after Freidrich has invented him and Schuiten has drawn him. Like La route d’Armilia, then, L’archiviste provides testimony to the potency of reading, writing and drawing in the Obscure universe; and this potency is confirmed in a number of other albums. In L’Echo des Cités, for example, a young orphan – younger even than Friedrich – mysteriously learns to read, and is inspired by a book to organize a pilgrimage of children from his orphanage to an inter-urban book fair, the City of Books, which takes place near Brüsel. The same album records the miraculous rescue of ‘Les naufragés du Battista’ – the castaways from the vessel Battista – by the appearance of a titanic library in the open ocean; here they are able to disembark and wait in safety for the arrival of a relief expedition from the Continent. The fact that this expedition is led by a fictional character from a book in our world – Michel Ardan, the protagonist of Verne’s novel De la Terre à la Lune (1865) – and that the castaways themselves are from a ship named after a legendary figure – Giovanni Battista, protagonist of La Tour – who is himself named after a historical Italian illustrator, Giovanni Battista Piranesi – illustrates the complex interplay between books and ‘real life’ that permeates these volumes. The situation is rendered more complex still by the fact that the newspaper in which these events are reported, L’Echo des Cités, has begun to acquire a reputation for inaccuracy by the time the reports appear. Its editor, Stanislas Sainclair, is said to be something of a fantasist, and his paper is eventually shut down to be replaced by a more reliable organ, edited by Michel Ardan, who supports his reportage with photographic evidence (Ardan himself is a celebrated photographer, formerly employed by Sainclair, who supplied snapshots both of the ‘naufragés du Battista’ and the titanic library where they fetched up). However, Ardan himself is a work of fiction, which leaves us back where we started. Is there no egress from this Borgesian labyrinth?

There is not, of course, and this is precisely the point of the Obscure series. Throughout the series, the question of what’s real and what’s fantastic is a question of power, and each album subjects the power of determining between them to playful questioning. The designation of certain things as fictional – as frauds, fabrications or distractions from the ‘real’ – is a way of asserting the authority of the designating parties. Calling Mary von Rathen a fraud because of her disability, which means she walks at a 45-degree angle to the ground, is a way to suppress her and dismiss what she represents: an anomaly that renders questionable all the assumptions of the Continent’s scientists and technicians and of the politicians who rely on their services. Dismissing Friedrich’s books as ‘saletés’ – filth – is a way to keep Friedrich and the other child workers in their places. Identifying Sainclair as a fantasist enables one to supplant his version of the world with something better tailored to the interests of rival editors, ambitious politicians, urban developers, or all three. Meanwhile, telling the stories of people like Mary von Rathen, Stanislas Sainclair, Constant Abeels, Friedrich, Hella and others whose narratives have been suppressed or sidelined is a means of fulfilling the remit of fantasy as Rosemary Jackson sees it: of expressing ‘the unsaid and the unseen of culture’, and identifying the ‘reality’ of the powerful as fundamentally fantastic.[26] One might argue that every album in the Obscure series sets the fantasies of the authorities at odds with the fantasies of small-time rebels and resistance fighters, but this doesn’t adequately summarize the forces at work within them. A return to La route d’Armilia will help us to paint a more convincing picture.

Like every album in Les Cités obscures, La route d’Armilia involves a play-off between three opposed yet complementary forces – like three orbital paths around an armillary sphere – each of which is equally dependent on the technological and architectural resources of the Continent. The first force is that of the powerful, as embodied in the owners of the factory and their inspectors, who aim to take absolute control of these resources for their own exalted purposes. This in turn involves taking absolute control of the populace, shutting them in, setting them to work under rigidly constrained conditions, diminishing and anonymising them, terrorising them, and erasing anomalies from their ranks, such as Friedrich, the boy in the pod. For the exploiters other people are no more than puppets, suspended from cables rather than strings, and they justify their exploitation of these mindless automata by characterising themselves as visionaries, whose projects will bring enormous benefits, at least to the powerful, and therefore ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’ (p. 62), albeit on the part of the puppets, not themselves. Examples of these quasi-fascistic exploiters include the authoritarian members of the ‘Commission des hautes instances’ of Urbicande, the developer Freddy de Vrouw of Brüsel, and the nationalistic maréchal Radisic of Sodrovnie in La frontière invisible.

Ferdinand and Hella

The second force at work in the Continent is made up of creative open minds, like those of the child worker Friedrich, the children of Armilia Ferdinand and Hella, the inventor Axel Wappendorf, the leaning girl Mary von Rathen, the flower seller Abeel Constants, the adventurer Michel Ardan, and the editor Stanislas Sainclair, whose dream is to present all the cities on the Continent to one another in all their strangeness and wayward glory. Dedicated to embracing a world which is out of kilter, adapting themselves to its ebb and flow through the qualities of balance, play and heavier-than-air flight, and concerned to improve the lives of ordinary citizens by all means possible, these creative minds delight in disruption even as they struggle to harness it for the widest possible benefit. Champions of liberty as against the tendency of their cultures to privilege coercion and confinement, anomalies are for them opportunities to exercise and expand their imaginations rather than impose their philosophies on the world by force majeur. These men, women and children, too, are visionaries, and for this reason they are susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous visionaries of the first order discussed above. Freddy de Vrouw for a while takes Constant Abeels under his wing; Mary von Rathen finds herself controlled by a succession of men before taking her fate into her own hands; the brilliant ‘urbatecht’ Eugen Robick is an employee of Urbicande’s Commission before he breaks free of their oppressive influence; Axel Wappendorf depends on wealthy, unscrupulous officials and entrepreneurs to bring his inventions into existence, and so on. The figures who embody this second, creative force are not too effective as revolutionaries – although they regularly get caught up in revolutions and rebellions – but their receptive delight in the properties of the strange world they inhabit sets them frequently at odds with the capitalist, industrial and military masters of the Cities they live in.

Brüsel in catastrophic bloom

The third force at work in the Continent is the most interesting: it’s the force of spontaneous change, as represented by the disruption of time and weather brought about by the broken machine at Armilia, the unexplained outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel, the dreams and nightmares that plague the passengers and crew of the airship as they approach the North Pole. In every album some similar crisis occurs, a phenomenon that has no bearing on the plots of the powerful or the projects of lonely visionaries or rabble-rousing radicals – a change of rules that alters the nature of the particular urban polder in which it takes place. The growth of the network or grid of Urbicande has no human source or explanation. The rise of the waters of the Senne in Brüsel defies all the efforts of the powerful to suppress it, while it both disrupts and abets the machinations of insurrectionists and visionaries. A sudden outbreak of stones and sand in the Brüsel of La théorie du grain de sable is as unsettling for Mary von Rathen and Constant Abeels as for the city authorities (the difference being that Mary, Constant and their friends learn to embrace the disruption where the authorities strive against it). Each of these crises emphasizes the autonomy of the Obscure Cities themselves, as organic phenomena whose sheer scale and ambition overwhelms every attempt to take control of them, while at the same time spurring the puniest of human beings into herculean struggles to respond appropriately – with respect and courage and imaginative ardour – to their unparalleled size and beauty. The European Union is something like this: a project that began with a dream of economic cooperation, which would encourage cooperation on political, philosophical and artistic levels, and ended by developing into an organic entity (no longer a project) which cannot finally be contained, controlled or properly measured, and may indeed be all the stronger and more delightful for this loss of containment, control and measure; a dream that sometimes morphs into a vision or a nightmare; an architect’s model that reduces human beings to tiny, semi-translucent sketches, yet liberates them to think in terms of vast, navigable spaces and endless journeys, their very tininess and translucency capable of extending their capabilities beyond all previous limitations.

The United Kingdom has shut itself off from this mysterious and absurd region of possibilities, transforming itself into a magically fenced-off polder that resists the playful to-and-fro that characterized its relationships with other European polders between 1973 and 2020. But passages exist that will bring us back to the games we used to play with them, either through the workings of our imaginations or in some other way we might consider more ‘real’. We can look for these passages in Brussels, city of comics, museums, fantasists and migrants. We can send for others via the internet, in the form of the albums of Schuiten and Peeters. Or we can dream them up for ourselves, and playfully open new passages to Brüsel, Mylos and Armilia from the precarious safety of our own front rooms. And after those passages have been opened, who knows what new friendships and imaginative networks might be formed?

København

 

NOTES

[1] Accounts of some of these exhibitions can be found in the volume Voyages en Utopie (see list below).

[2] The appendices of my edition of La fièvre d’Urbicande (see list below) offer a range of further readings, none of them comprehensive.

[3] It’s also inspired by the architectural engravings of Piranesi, as was made clear by the exhibition ‘Rêves de pierres’ in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in 1999 and later in the Musée Fesch, Ajaccio, between October 2000 and the end of January 2001. See Voyages en Utopie, p. 25.

[4] This is a point made by Thierry Groensteen in his article ‘La Légende des Cités’, on the website dedicated to the Cités obscures, Alta Plana. Groensteen points out that some albums in the Obscure series bear a closer resemblance to a ‘catalogue muséographique’ than to a conventional BD. https://www.altaplana.be/en/dossiers/neuviemeart/la-legende-des-cites

[5] Who can they be? What are they looking for?

[6] I’d been hoping for more in the way of sensation from this journey. Let’s hope it isn’t too quiet!

[7] Oh boy, I can tell this journey’s going to blow me away!

[8] Delicious dishes.

[9] Wonderful food and strange machines

[10] AT NOON EACH DAY THE SINISTER HARLEQUIN EATS A TON OF LIMAÇONS; TEASING AUNT ADÈLE UNDER THE BUILDER’S BED; THE CLOCK HAS STRUCK MIDDAY: CHARLES THE FIFTH HAS FILED HIS MINISTER IN HIS TENT; SINISTER AT THE FIFTH POSITION, A TRUCE AT NOON, SOUND THE LIMAÇON.

[11] A crazy energy.

[12] You’d have said they were the pages of a book if they hadn’t been completely blank.

[13] What? A kid of your age, working in a factory?

[14] Your nightmare’s over, [Hella]. From now on you’ll be my guest on board this aircraft.

[15] I slept badly.

[16] To steal the formula from me.

[17] Suddenly the words got stuck in my throat.

[18] At night the words took to dancing in my head like mischievous imps. They ran in all directions, jumped, grimaced, sniggered; they slid like shadows, swapped clothes, hid themselves behind masks.

[19] Just a nightmare.

[20] Enough with this gloomy posturing! Relax, will you, and have a laugh!

[21] But… what’s that noise? Hurry!

[22] We need the machines the way they need us. If we stop working they will stop, and if they stop we’ll die.

[23] Is well worth a few sacrifices.

[24] In the wake of these new trials, so much worse than any we have yet endured, I resume these notes, to which I feared I would never return.

[25] We all had the feeling that we are close to the end of our journey, and this premonition restored our courage to us.

[26] See Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), p. 4.

 

EDITIONS USED

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La Tour (Casterman, 1987)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Les murailles de Samaris (Casterman, 1988)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La route d’Armilia (Casterman, 1988)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La fièvre d’Urbicande (Casterman, 1992)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Brüsel (Casterman, 1992)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, L’enfant penchée (Casterman, 1996)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, L’ombre d’un homme (Casterman, 1999)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Voyages en Utopie (Casterman, 2000)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, L’archiviste (Casterman, 2000)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, L’Echo des Cités (Casterman, 2001)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Le guide des Cités (Casterman, 2002)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La frontière invisible, tome 1 (Casterman, 2002)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La frontière invisible, tome 2 (Casterman, 2004)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La théorie du grain de sable, tome 1 (Casterman, 2007)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La théorie du grain de sable, tome 2 (Casterman, 2008)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Souvenirs de l’Éternel Présent (Casterman, 2009)

Fantasy Brussels 1: Comics and Museums

Brussels: Grand Place with Maison du Roi or Broodhuis

As the UK bids farewell to the European Union I find my thoughts turning to fantasy on the European continent, and in particular to the most fantastic city on that continent, Brussels. This is a kind of polder in Belgium, as John Clute defined the word in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Derived from the Old Dutch term for ‘a tract of low-lying land reclaimed from a body of water and generally surrounded by dykes’, Clute takes ‘polder’ to mean an ‘enclave […] of toughened Reality, demarcated by boundaries from the surrounding world’. The boundaries need to be maintained by powerful magic wielded by some figure who recognises the need to keep them in place. ‘A polder, in other words,’ Clute sums up, ‘is an active Microcosm, armed against the potential Wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time’. There could hardly be a better word for Brussels, in its capacity either as imaginary capital of Europe – set up to oppose the Wrongness of totalitarianism, corruption and international conflict – or as a cultural centre, protector of artistic innovators and eccentrics from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Horta and Magritte. The figure maintaining the integrity of Brussels through magic remains obscure, but the magic is there for sure, as well as the notion of the city as a focus of anachronisms, a meeting place between multiple strands of history and the very modern social and economic problems it works haltingly to resolve.

The Belgian Revolution (1830) by Gustaf Wappers (1834)

Brussels is a linguistic as well as a cultural polder: a French-speaking capital city stranded in the middle of Flemish-speaking territory. Different rules apply here. Spatially it’s confusing, with its jumble of ancient, decrepit, out-of-date, modernist, postmodern and ultra-modern buildings, many of them highly eccentric, all locked inside a labyrinth of streets, both cobbled and tarmacked, to which no map provides an adequate key. It’s here that the Belgian Revolution started in 1830, the only political coup ever to have been triggered in an opera house. The work that got it going, La muette de Portici (‘The Mute Girl of Portici’), by Daniel Auber and Germain Delavigne – whose lead, bizarrely for an opera, is a voiceless woman performed by a dancer – is often described as the first Grand Opera, and the people of Brussels were so inspired by it that they rose against their Dutch oppressors and established the Kingdom of Belgium as an independent state in emulation of its central characters. The eccentricity that transformed Grand Opera into Revolution continues to mark the people of Brussels to this day, and a quick glance around the city will confirm its omnipresence there, embodied in the bizarre architectural structures and peculiar statues with which it is so well stocked.

The Museum of Musical Instruments, designed by Paul Saintenoy (1899)

Its eccentricity is also embodied in the extraordinary diversity of strange museums in the capital. There is no other city in the world that has half so many museums per capita (that’s a claim I’ve just invented, but I bet it’s true). From the Museum of Beer to the Museums of Freemasonry, Jazz, Chocolate, Clocks, Trams, Musical Instruments, Lace, and Fantastic Art, each of these institutions embodies an obsession, and many are housed in buildings which are themselves museum pieces (the Museum of Musical Instruments is a great example). The monumental Musée des Beaux-Arts near the royal palace, with its unparalleled collection of Flemish masters, was immortalised in an Auden poem [link]; he summed it up as the place where Icarus can be found, the boy who fell from the sky while everyone else went quietly about their business. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen in Brussels. The city has been an artistic as well as a commercial centre for many centuries, providing a generous home for movements such as Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Expressionism and Surrealism, and between them the museums testify to the sheer oddness of the creative gestures the Bruxellois have found most congenial. Some museums also testify to its violent past: the Museum of Central Africa, for instance, full of traces of the Belgian atrocities in the Congo which underpin Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces in the Parc du Cinquentenaire, which when I last saw it was crammed with German helmets from the Second World War with bullet holes in them, mute reminders of the importance of the project of a unified Europe. Perhaps the strangest of the museums is the Wiertz Museum, dedicated to a painter of vast lurid pictures which he left to the state on condition they be displayed for ever in his majestic studio. Wiertz’s subjects include the body of Patroclus being torn apart as the Trojans and Greeks fight over it, a cholera victim who has been accidentally buried alive clawing his way out of his coffin, a half-naked man blowing his brains out with a pistol, and a young woman smirking at an undead skeleton. There is hope that Wiertz himself might one day become a museum exhibit; his body was embalmed according to Egyptian custom and stored safely in an underground vault.

The Berlaymont Building (1963-9), designed by Lucien De Vestel, in 1974, when I first knew it

I came to know Brussels in the early 1970s when my father went to work there as an official in the European Commission. He lived in a high rise just down the road from the Berlaymont building, many storeys above the street and accessible only by a small lift or many flights of narrow stairs; when he moved there, the larger items of furniture he owned had to be hauled in through the sitting room window. The kitchen of this flat had a chute with a metal flap on it through which you could post your rubbish, which went crashing down from storey to storey till it came to rest in a noxious refuse bin in the subterranean basement. If you visited the basement to take out rubbish that didn’t fit in the chute you had to dare the automatic lights, which turned off after several seconds leaving you stranded in the dark; you then had to grope your way to one of the switches, which glowed like the eyes of Morlocks in the George Pal movie of The Time Machine, and activate the lights again – for a few seconds, until they switched themselves off and plunged you once more in abysmal darkness. When we children stayed with my father we went to the Berlaymont every weekday for lunch, being introduced to such typically Belgian delicacies as ‘filet américain’ (a plateful of raw mince) and roast chicory wrapped in ham and doused in a thick cheese sauce. There were no Brussels sprouts in Brussels back in those days, which broke my father’s heart because he loved them more than any other vegetable; just chicory in unimaginable quantities. The most remarkable thing about the Berlaymont canteen in the 1970s was that it was the only place in the country where you could get a truly terrible meal. On special occasions we would go out to a proper restaurant such as Chez Léon, near the celebrated Grand Place or central square, to eat moules frites – mussels with chips – which is the Belgian national dish, the shellfish in question being doused in every kind of sauce you can possibly imagine and many you can’t. You can’t talk about Brussels, in fact, without talking about food and drink. The food there is as various and eccentric as the architecture, and somehow perfectly adapted to it, as full of curlicues and flourishes as the Maison du Roi in the Grand Place: a confection of Gothic revival balconies and images which houses the Brussels City Museum and is also known as the Broodhuis or Bread Hall, though it looks more like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake than a conventional loaf of bread. You see? Food and buildings exist in a symbiotic relationship chez les Belges.

François Schuiten’s version of the Palais de Justice as Poelart intended it, with a pyramid instead of a dome

On successive stays in Brussels I fell in love with some of the city’s bizarrer architectural manifestations, such as the futuristic Atomium (1958), constructed in the shape of an iron crystal – and extremely dilapidated when I first visited it – and Joseph Poelart’s Palais de Justice (1866-1883), the largest building constructed in the nineteenth century, which is essentially a monstrous portico with no rooms attached to it (though there are some very impressive staircases both inside and out). Some claim that Orson Welles wanted to shoot his version of Kafka’s The Trial among its halls and corridors, while Poelart himself is said to have gone mad while building it – just as the architect of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is said to have been driven to distraction by the discovery that his masterpiece had been constructed back to front, throwing himself off one of the building’s many towers in a fit of pique. At an early age I also became aware of the practice of ‘Brusselization’, which involves buying fine old buildings and allowing them to decay until they are completely irreparable, then tearing them down and building something hideous in their place. When I first went to Brussels the city was full of these carefully neglected ruins, which lent the streets an air of melancholy, as if some calamitous architectural disease were eating away at its vital organs. The effect was enhanced by the mania for preserving historical façades while tearing down the buildings they once fronted. The many ornate frontages with nothing behind them except scaffolding and gaping brick-fringed holes in the Belgian soil added to the impression that Brussels was a kind of conspiracy, a front for something deeply suspicious and possibly inhuman which was working towards the universal destruction of mankind.

Toone Puppet Theatre, bar area

Conspiracy theories like to portray human beings as helpless sentient puppets manipulated by monstrous unseen hands; and Brussels has a hidden gem ideally suited to the tastes of inveterate seekers-out of Rosicrucian plots and anarchistic machinations. This is the Toone puppet theatre, a tiny, shadowy cave tucked away in an inner courtyard off one of the narrow medieval streets that worm the vicinity of the Grand Place. The theatre doubles as a bar draped with superannuated puppets, like corpses in a painting by the manic Belgian etcher and painter James Ensor. It has been in existence since its foundation by Antoine ‘Toone’ Genty in about 1830. Disturbingly, all the puppet masters since have adopted the name of Toone, as if they were clones of their great precursor, carved by him out of wood and brought to life by some perverse blue fairy; or a succession of boy apprentices carefully trained in the supernatural art of bringing life to inanimate objects, each of whom got possessed by the spirit of Genty at a certain point in his professional development. One memorable Toone production I saw in my teenage years involved Lucretia Borgia’s murderous attempts to set herself up as ‘Papesse’ – a female Pope much addicted to poisoning her rivals. Another was a particularly violent version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, all acted in the Brussels dialect, a unique fusion of Flemish and French which ends up sounding very much like English. The Toone Theatre is yet another polder within the larger polder of Brussels, its inhabitants dusty people made of wood, cloth, wire and string, with unsettling painted eyes. It’s a museum too, of course, as well as a bar and theatre. I think perhaps every building in Brussels is also a museum. And a bar. And possibly a theatre too, now I come to think of it.

Rouge Cloître, with one of its fishponds

When my father moved to Auderghem, a former forest village in the south east of the city, we spent many afternoons among the etiolated trees of the Forêt de Soignes, where charcoal burners and hunters once plied their trades and where the tracks of deer can still be traced after each fresh fall of snow. Our favourite spot was a former monastery called Rouge Cloître: a cluster of buildings surrounded by woods, within whose precincts a succession of excellent restaurants and cafés have been set up over the years, none of which have lasted more than three or four seasons. One modest café there only ever served quiches, but they were the finest quiches in the whole of creation. Parokeets flew screeching through the nearby branches, Siberian chipmunks whisked along the tops of the crumbling walls, while huge carp surfaced in the ancient fishponds, some of them attached to the fishing lines of the many anglers who crowded the banks. When in town I drank at the famous bar À la mort subite – Sudden Death – near the city centre, an ornately decorated chamber thronged with indifferent lounging cats. There and elsewhere I discovered the astonishing diversity of Belgian beers, from Gueuze, Kriek and Hoegaarden to the much more potent abbey brews, blond, dark and russet. The abbey connection suggests that beer is something of a religion in that part of Europe. There’s a Scottish connection, too; when I moved to Glasgow in 1992 I learned that Scottish beer was more highly regarded in Brussels than in Scotland, and that at least one variety – Gordon’s Highland Scotch Ale – was still being brewed exclusively for the Belgian market in Edinburgh (production was transferred to Belgium after the millennium). I have never been to the Beer Museum, but I’ll wager it’s full of astonishing facts like this one.

Les Archers, the first Thorgal album I owned

All these details give some sense of the eccentricity of a city whose best-known symbol is a little boy having a pee, who gets dressed up in a different costume for every day of the year (there’s a museum for his costumes, of course: the ‘Garderobe Manneken Pis’). But I promised to talk about Brussels and fantasy, and for me the epitome of fantasy in Brussels has always been the comics. By comics I mean, of course, the bandes dessinées or BDs of the Franco-Belgian school, known to francophone commentators as the ‘ninth art’ (the eighth is television; I forget the rest). My father’s flat near the Berlaymont Building was crammed with BDs, and later so was his house in Auderghem. He had all the Tintin books, mostly in French with a few English titles thrown in; he also had the whole of Asterix, an Enki Bilal, some Lucky Lukes, and more. I read everything dozens of times, poring over the relationship between words and pictures, the transition from panel to panel, the colour schemes, and slowly discovering new puns, allusions and even plotlines as the years went by and my French improved. After a few years I began to collect BDs of my own: most notably Thorgal le Viking, by the Polish artist Grzegorz Rosinski and the prolific Belgian scenario-writer Jean van Hamme, and the Cités obscures series by the Belgian artist François Schuiten and the French novelist and scholar Benoît Peeters. My taste in comics was largely determined by my taste in drawing styles. I loved pictures I could study for hours on end and return to again and again, stumbling across new details and more ingenious juxtapositions, or simply marvelling at the skill that had been lavished on each panel, page or double spread. Such were the drawings of the French artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, which led me to his masterpiece L’Incal, scripted by the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Brazilian writer-artist Leo drew me to his series Les mondes d’Aldébaran with his careful representations of peculiar alien animals, each of which is sufficiently close to some terrestrial life-form to disturb and amuse in equal measure. Régis Loisel’s flamboyant penmanship made me enamoured of La quête de l’oiseau du temps, scripted by Serge Le Tendre, while the rich textures and three-dimensional solidity of Juan Díaz Canales’s anthropomorphic dogs, goats, polar bears and rhinoceroses led me to the neo-noir adventures of the feline private eye Blacksad, written by Canales’s fellow Spaniard Juanjo Guarnido. Recent discoveries are the Valérian books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (I was alerted to these, of course, by Luc Besson’s film), the Orbital series by Serge Pellé and Sylvain Runberg, and Sillage by Jean-David Morvan and Philippe Buchet. The ten-volume Décalogue, conceived by Frank Giroud and drawn by several artists, delighted me by setting the first of its volumes in Glasgow, so that I had the pleasure of seeing the buildings I knew best magically embedded in the panels of a Franco-Belgian comic. I collected volumes or ‘tomes’ of BDs each time I went to Brussels to visit my father, often in the local Carrefour supermarket, sometimes in the Museum of Comics near the Grand Place – more accurately, the Centre Belge de la bande dessinée.

Museum of Comics, Brussels, designed by Victor Horta,

The Comics Museum is housed in a former department store designed by Victor Horta, so one could say that the BD industry has been built into the landscape of the city, entwined with the vegetable inventiveness of Belgian Art Nouveau. Another of Horta’s buildings houses material relating to the comics of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters; this is La Maison Autrique, which contains a permanent display of Schuiten’s pictures honouring the Horta legacy. The Maison plays a central role in one of the final albums of the Cités obscures series, La théorie du grain de sable. Museums occur, in fact, with remarkable frequency in Franco-Belgian comics. Captain Haddock’s house, Moulinsart or Marlinspike, is effectively a museum stocked with family heirlooms going back many centuries, standing shoulder to shoulder with mementoes of the Captain’s travels with his young friend Tintin. So is Professor Tarragon’s house in Les sept boules de cristal, its contents based on research carried out among the Incan holdings of the Cinquentenaire Museum in Brussels. There is an actual museum in L’oreille cassée, and many more in Edgar P. Jacobs’s Blake and Mortimer series and Jacques Tardi’s Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec. Schuiten and Peeters’s Mémoirs de l’éternel présent includes a museum dedicated to forbidden things, mostly clocks and timepieces whose very existence suggests that the City of Taxandria hasn’t always existed in the eternal present, as its government insists. Bande dessinée, in other words, is as besotted with miscellaneous collections of displaced antiquities, forgotten or rejected customs and extravagant artworks as the city which is the BD’s spiritual home. The strange juxtapositions accidentally achieved in the display cabinets of scholarly collections are the stock-in-trade of the ninth art, and it’s with juxtapositions that my next blog post on Fantasy Brussels, dedicated to the comics of Schuiten and Peeters, will be concerned.

[To be continued.]

The Museum of Comics as represented by François Schuiten in La route d’Armilia
La Maison Autrique

Fantasies of War in the Poetry of Mervyn Peake

[This essay was first published in Peake Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23, and can also be found online here, beautifully typeset by Peter Winnington. Among other things, it’s a supplement to my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems.]

Wartime sketch

Mervyn Peake was pre-eminently a war poet. Of course not all his poems concern themselves directly with armed conflict, but the condition of warfare infects the tissue of his major verse, shaping and distorting it whatever its primary subject. He began to publish poems in 1937, during the long approach to the Second World War, each step of which they record, from the bombing of Guernica to the September Crisis; and he wrote the bulk of his verse between 1939 and 1945.[1] Even his post-war poems continue to worry away at the themes and traumas of his wartime experiences. How could it be otherwise, when he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942 after two fruitless years in the army, and later witnessed the aftermath of war in France and Germany, above all at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp? Like many who lived through it he internalized the global crisis, making it part of his inward landscape. He may even have laboured at times under the horrible illusion that the war had sprung fully-fledged from his imagination, like a monstrous version of the winged horse that springs from the floor of a station concourse in his poem ‘Victoria Station. 6.58 p.m.’.[2] It is this possibility I would like to look at here, with the help of a few fragments of poetry I was not able to include in my edition of his Collected Poems.

From The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949)

Peake’s imagination, after all, could be a fearsome place. From the beginning to the end of his writing career it preoccupied itself with violence, to the extent that artistic creation and physical aggression seem at times to be locked together in an intimate symbiotic relation ship inside his head. The relationship may be encapsulated in the duel scene between two rival lovers in Titus Groan, where the men, both sculptors, hack away at each other’s naked bodies in a knife-fight that parodies the process of carving a work of art from a block of wood.[3] Peake wrote this fight during the war, when it might be thought his imagination was unusually concerned with bloodshed. But one of Peake’s earliest surviving poems, a long Masefield-inspired narrative called ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ (1929), constructs a story from an act of still more horrible brutality.[4] In it, a tyrannical ship’s captain flings an old sailor into the furnace of his vessel, in grotesque anticipation of the Nazi atrocities. The old sailor has his revenge; through a titanic act of posthumous will-power he makes a new body from the ashes of his old one, and visits the captain three times at night, killing him on the third visit after driving him insane. Clearly then, from the start of his career Peake was willing to make poetry from violence; aggression was part of his imaginative make-up. One wonders whether this had anything to do with his childhood experiences in China. He was born in 1911 during a savage civil war, which his father recorded in a series of graphic photographs; and as he grew up, his father’s work as a missionary doctor brought Peake into close proximity with pain and death. From an early age he watched him perform surgery, including amputations, and saw long lines of maimed or diseased patients entering and emerging from his clinic.[5] Did these youthful encounters with dismemberment and debility haunt his dreams, reconstituting themselves from the material made available by war, as the old dead sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ repeatedly reconstitutes his body from the grey dust which is all that remains of him after his death?

Sketch

Certainly hauntings of one kind or another are a recurrent motif in Peake’s writing. A poem of 1939, ‘We Are the Haunted People’, figures the helpless lookers-on at the outbreak of war as visited by the shadows of ‘dark deeds’ on the continent – deeds that sow the horribly fertile seeds of propaganda and destruction. Then in Titus Groan (1946), the young earl’s father Lord Sepulchrave is a perpetually haunted soul, his brain thronged with imaginary owls, which eventually merge with the real owls in the Tower of Flints who tear him apart when he brings them Swelter’s corpse to feed on. And towards the end of his working life, Peake represents himself as troubled with apparitions just as terrible as the ones that killed Sepulchrave and the tyrannical captain. A manuscript of Titus Alone from the early 50s contains this fragment:[6]

Out of cloud the face emerges
Every night before I sleep
It is pale as when cold surges
Burn like frost upon the deep
It is pale this head of horror
Save for where its chin shines red
With the blood

The ghostly head, like the ashen body of the old sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’, is linked with the ‘cold surges’ of the sea; and it would seem that the nightmare recurred with increasing frequency as Peake’s final illness took a grip of him. After his hospitalization in 1958 he wrote the poem ‘Heads Float About Me’, in which phantoms float about the corridors of Holloway hospital terrifying Peake, while being ‘haunted’ themselves by ‘solitary sorrows’.[7] And the most frightening thing about these disembodied heads is that they ‘deny the nightmare / That they should be’. They are real, not just a nightmare; or else they embody something real, ‘the horror / Of truth, of this intrinsic truth / Drifting, ah God, along the corridors / Of the world.’ Since childhood Peake had known the worst of nightmares to be true, not merely fiction; and his experiences in the Second World War drove home ‘this intrinsic truth’ with terrible force.

Recently discovered sketch (c. 1940), with centaurs and soldiers

Two previously unknown drafts of poems he wrote about the Blitz during or shortly after the War give powerful, though quite different insights into the interaction between Peake’s fantastic imagination and the fantastic works of art being shockingly produced by global conflict. The first reminds us of something that Peake was intensely aware of: until he visited Bergen-Belsen in 1945, war’s atrocities were some thing he could only imagine, as he studied the astonishing shapes it left in the urban landscape – the visible marks both of its terrible impact and of its absence, the fact that he has missed the moment when that impact took place. His poems ‘The Shapes’, ‘London 1941’ and ‘The Craters’ (all published in his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941)) scrutinize the contours war leaves behind – the mournful beauty of shattered buildings, the emotional impact of the gaping pits and quarries dug by bombs; but for the events that produced them he had to turn to black-and-white newsreels and the colourful pictures furnished by his own imagination. And finding a way to imagine these events responsibly – to disengage them from what might be seen as his predisposition to glamorize violence, to revel in horror, and to delight in extremes of physical suffering for their own sake – was something, I suggest, that he found difficult. The two new drafts offer an insight into his difficulties.

The first of the drafts, ‘I was not there’, is a sketch for a poem first published in his prizewinning 1950 collection The Glassblowers and reprinted in Selected Poems (1975) and Peake’s Progress (1980). In all its published forms the title is ‘When Tiger-Men Sat their Mercurial Coursers’. And it was always printed without its final verse, so that nobody till now has known it had anything to do with the war. Indeed in Peake’s Progress it appears in a section called ‘Other Worlds’, as if to reinforce its nostalgic escapism. In one of his poetry notebooks, however – tentatively dated to around 1946, though many of the verses it contains were written earlier[8] – the poem is given a different title, and a fourth stanza, which fuses the other worldly with the experiences of the Blitz which Peake never lived at first hand:

I Was Not There

When Tiger-men sat their mercurial coursers,
Hauled into granite arches the proud fibre
Of head and throat, sank spurs, and trod on air
I was not there.

When clamorous Centaurs thundered to the rain-pools,
Shattered with their fierce hooves the silent mirrors,
When glittering drops clung to their beards and hair,
I was not there.

When through a blood-dark dawn a man with antlers
Cried and throughout the day the echoes suffered
His agony, and died in evening air
I was not there.

Even when Paul’s voluminous dome reflected
The apple-green and lilac fires; or swelling
Like an enormous Ethiopian breast, raw crimson
Weltered behind its rare
Sweep of plumbed midnight – when the air was madness,
When water shot like blood from serpent hoses,
And excellence was wrested from a nightmare
I was not there.

In this version, the notion of absence – of missing things – is enshrined in the title, whereas the title of the printed version laid emphasis on the visions Peake could conjure up so vividly despite never having seen them. And in ‘I Was Not There’, the central lack or loss is trans formed from a simple threnody for unwitnessed moments to a complex meditation on the relationship between the imaginary and the imagined, two spheres that get fused in Peake’s dreamscapes (and dreams are specifically evoked in the penultimate line). It’s worth reminding oneself here that much of Peake’s war was a time of frustration, as the young conscript was shunted from one army training camp to another in a quest to find some military role for him, while his appeals to have his real talents turned to good use through employment as a war artist were repeatedly turned down. Exclusion from the centre of things here extends from the source of his imaginative energy – the horses and man-horses which figure everywhere in his poems and pictures, and from which his conscription diverted him so fruitlessly – to the dazzling vision of St Paul’s Cathedral under bombardment, miraculously intact among the ruins of the City of London. The poet’s absence becomes an exclusion from ecstasy, both homoerotic and heterosexual, and one might detect in the poem at once the rage of the artist denied access to his art, the intense sexual frustration which is an integral component of military service, and the psychological disturbance generated by war’s perverse conversion of erotic energies and male bonding rituals into integral components of the military machine.

Illustration to a poem by Oscar Wilde

The first three stanzas record scenes of gigantic masculine energy. Each is marked by violence: the restraining of a horse as the rider hauls its head and throat into a semblance of architectural rigidity; the shattering of the peace of a mirror-like pool; the death (as it seems) of an antlered man, whose agony gives new voice and feeling to the old metaphor of the ‘blood-dark dawn’. Each stanza records the encounter between disparate elements: in the first, man and horse, concrete and air; in the second, centaur and water, clamorous thunder and silence; in the third, the antlered man and the air to which his suffering transmits itself. But the previously unknown fourth stanza is much more shocking. The disparate elements – the lights of the blazing city and the cathedral’s racialized darkness; the breast-like dome and the phallic hoses – are fused with more drastic violence than in any of the first three verses. The ‘raw crimson’ of the sky sounds like a wound, and the hoses like severed arteries, hideous pastiches of male and female genitalia. The wresting of excellence from a nightmare makes the agonized sexual act recorded here sound as though it has been forced on its participants, so that the work of art Peake imagines being created by the Blitz is also an act of violation, a dual rape. The stanza makes explicit what is only implicit in the first three stanzas – that the male energies being described there are erotic ones, which culminate in the orgasmic roar of a rutting stag, and that the sexual acts they describe are aggressive. The extent of that aggression is intensified by that fourth stanza, and rendered unnerving by the introduction both of an implied woman and of a racial dimension into the picture. The myth or legend of the first three stanzas thus becomes contaminated, forced to align itself with the abominable motives behind aerial bombardment.

‘Mother and Child’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Work by the Artist Adolf Hitler (1940)

Many works of art produced in wartime, perhaps, have this sense of being the products of force or compulsion. One thinks of Peake’s well known poem about a Belsen inmate, which is filled with guilt about the cold artist’s eye he brings to the business of sketching the death agonies of a young girl, with a view to working it up into a great finished painting at some future date.[9] The fourth stanza of ‘I Was Not There’ is in some ways worse than this, in that its celebration of the ‘excellence’ of the fire-surrounded dome seems guilt-free. The fact that three clearly fantastical scenes have preceded it liberates the poet from the severe judgement to which he subjected himself at Belsen. Regretting that one was not present at the death of a legendary stag-man is unproblematic; regretting one’s absence from a real-life inferno is not; and it’s not clear from that fourth stanza whether the poet is ready to acknowledge the difference. It would be interesting to know if it was Peake himself or someone else who decided he should cut it when the poem went to press.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

The second of our two drafts comes from an early version of Peake’s long narrative poem, The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, a revision of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which Peake famously illustrated) written on Sark in about 1947.[10] I suggest in my introduction to the Collected Poems that this is the work in which Peake finally laid what he called his ‘war-ghosts’ to rest, sloughing off his sense of complicity with the global atrocities being perpetrated as he laboured to produce his art.[11] He achieved this exorcism, I think, by having the beauty of the Blitz witnessed by two innocents: a new-born baby (albeit an infant possessed of astonishing powers and unexpected knowledge), and the sailor who finds it in a gutter after a bomb has killed its mother. The innocence of these two witnesses is reinforced by the fact that both are denizens of a different element from the one in which they find themselves. The sailor is a figure from the maritime adventure stories Peake loved as a boy; his language makes him sound like a combination of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, the teenager and the murderously avuncular pirate, both of whom are badly out of their depth in wartime London. Cut off by fire from his beloved water, the sailor is confronted by real scenes more savagely absurd than anything in Stevenson’s fiction. And the baby, too, hails from the sea: the sailor calls it ‘little fish’, and when it suddenly gains a voice it reveals that it has shared many of his nautical experiences in previous lives. Together the pair reinvent the burning city as a scene from their seafaring past, turning blazing buildings into ships, flames into sea-flowers and red-hot ashes into the wide red mouths of figureheads. The baby’s comradeship gives the sailor courage to face his death, and by the time the ballad ends the ghastly beauty of the ruined metropolis has been retrospectively brought under control, tamed, as it were, by being harnessed to children’s fictions, without having its impact softened or diminished in the process.

Yet there is something missing from the poem: a specific absence at its core that becomes glaringly obvious once it’s been pointed out. As the pair take shelter in a shattered church, the sailor mounts the pulpit and announces that he is going to tell the baby a story. ‘Now listen to me while I sing you a tale,’ he announces, and goes on:

For the things I’ve forgotten for many a year
Are shouldering into my mind,
Of the time when my heart was a wave that heaved
To the gale of my sea-mad mind.

The infant at first seems keen to hear the narrative, but soon afterwards remembers that it has got plenty of sea-memories of its own, and asks instead to join him in a song. The early draft of the poem formerly held in the Bodleian Library, however, shows that the sailor did at one point begin to tell his tale; and it also shows why the full tale never got told. Here is the relevant section of the draft.

We had been at sea for a month or more
With the rich black coal below
But the storms had swept the bridge away
And the ship was a sheet of snow.

And the shining engines were red with rust
And the winter water lay
In mucky pools all over the coal
In the hold of our ship that day –

And there was no wind, and there was no warmth
And there was no water or food,
And our anchor was plunged in the freezing sea
As deep in the snow we stood.

The masts were gone and all was gone
But a thick white layer of snow
Like a poultice laid from end to end
With the two black dots to show

Where the last two men alive stood stiff
At the side of the ice-bound rail,
When out of the sea with a splash and a shout
Came a thing with a bright green tail.

Its cheeks were red as a sunset fierce,
And its hair streamed out behind
In a tangle of jet-black weed and its eyes
Were as yellow as lemon-rind.

Then up it lifted its great big head
From out of the murky sea
And opened the great salt merman curve
[Of] his mouth that was big as three.

‘And are you the crew of this ship of snow
That has so molested me
By dropping of your anchor at the door of my cave
At the bottom of the winter sea?

‘You have dropped your anchor across my door
And my wife is trapped inside
With our five blue chicks that are crying out their hearts
For a taste of the morning tide.’

Then the two stiff men cried, ‘Sorry we are
To have so disturbed your home,
But our captain it was who ordered us
To lower our anchor down.’

And our captain is dead and the crew is dead
And we are the last to go,
And we have no strength for to work the crank
And to haul back the anchor now.

‘We’re as frozen up as the engines are
And as cold as the ice on the rail.
But where O where did you get that hair
And that beautiful bright green tail?’

The merman he heaved himself aboard
And he swished the decks with his tail
And the white snow flew up into the air
And over the frozen rail.

‘Now I’ll answer you this and many things more,’
He said, ‘but I first must know,
With your arms so weak, what the deuce can be done
About the anchor that you’ve plunged below?’

His cheeks shone red and his yellow eyes
Were as bright as sovereigns in his head.
‘There’s only one thing can be done about this,
So listen to my words,’ he said.

‘You’ll never get home, and you’ll never find food
And you’ll have no strength to stir,
And you’ll freeze to death by the afternoon
If you go on standing here.

‘You must dive with me through the cold black sea
To my cave where your anchor stands,
And there you must marry a mermaid chill
With little white fins for hands.

‘And there you must marry a mermaid sweet
With a tail as long as your arm.
O it’s then you’ll have the strength for to move away
Your anchor from

And the rest is missing. By this point Peake must have known very well that his readers will have forgotten the Blitz, the baby and the sailor, as they mull over the problem of the trap the sailors find them selves in, and meditate, perhaps, on the relationship between this story and the old song ‘O ’twas in the broad Atlantic’. Peake has written himself into a dead end, and he dealt with it in the most sensible way he could: by stopping and going back to take up his tale at the point where the false trail began.

Long John Silver

This wasn’t the first time Peake had written himself into a hole, and on one occasion the hole had been very like this one. His unfinished early novel Mr Slaughterboard comes to a halt with another ship jammed in mid-ocean, impaled this time on a needle of rock improbably rising to within a few feet of the surface miles from the nearest shore.[12] The most notable feature of this ship, the Conger Eel, is its magnificent library, the Room of Books, where the Captain pores over the volumes he loves in the company of his eyeless servant Smear, and wonders what it would be like to add his own name to the illustrious register of dead authors. The closest he comes to doing so is by casually butchering his men, killing them off singly and in batches in the name of what he calls ‘art’. His brutality is unpleasant, but not especially disturbing, because it’s so obviously divorced from the world beyond the pages of Peake’s fiction. Smear’s eyelessness confirms his own and the captain’s determined self-segregation from the concerns and moral systems that govern other communities. As Peake puts it, ‘They formed their own Universe. Untouched by the workings of other minds, solely dependent upon themselves, they formed a cosmos of existence, a reality that moved and thought between the sea and the sky’. The marooning of the ship enables them to achieve their highest ambition: to be disconnected for ever from all inhabited countries, free to dedicate themselves to the workings of their own mental cosmos without reference to anybody else’s; and the Captain celebrates the moment with another bout of aesthetically-motivated slaughter. And this final orgy of killing again fails to disturb the reader because of the grotesqueness of the crew they slaughter, whose physical peculiarities mark them out as denizens of the Room of Books, like the Captain and Mr Smear.

‘Self Portrait’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Works by the Artist Adolf Hitler (c. 1940)

But by the time he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, it was not so easy for Peake to justify casual slaughter in his writings, and the notion of aesthetically-motivated murder had become deeply disturbing. This shift in perspective was given visual expression in a series of pictures he drew in 1940, as a means of advertizing his skills to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. The series purports to be a portfolio of pictures by the artist Adolf Hitler, and has as its frontispiece Hitler’s self-portrait, staring in horror out of the page at what was presumably once a mirror – but is now the reader, who seems to have been made complicit with the dictator’s crimes by becoming the focus of his gaze. At the time Peake drew this series he had not yet seen the horrors of war at first hand, and had to rely on reports and his own imagination to flesh them out. But he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb after witnessing the aftermath of atrocities on French, German and British soil, and the relationship between his wild imaginings and the world they obliquely reflected had undergone a radical change. No longer motivated primarily by a yearning to be absorbed into the world of books, his habitual use of the fantastic possessed a new urgency that fills the later pages of his novel Titus Groan. The merman fragment offers an opportunity to consider the nature of that urgency.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

Mr Slaughterboard’s ship and its occupants are things of fiction, which get transfixed in the course of a sea story that moves with seeming inevitability towards this goal. The story of the merman, by contrast, is dredged up from the sailor’s memory by what seems its polar opposite: the devastated London cityscape through which he wanders. The elements of fire and water have already become perversely fused for the sailor a few stanzas earlier, as the burning streets reassemble themselves into a bright pageant playing out his personal history: ‘And the ships of brick and the ships of stone / And the charcoal ships lurched by / While his footsteps clashed on the frozen waves / That shone to the scarlet sky.’ It is this pageant of fire and water, heat and cold that triggers his recollection of the merman incident, and he narrates it to the baby as a means of explaining the specific resonance that the London flames have struck in him, the particular ‘frozen waves’ he has in mind.

It’s clear enough why he sees these two traumatic moments of his life as related. The extremes of physical suffering produced by both environments – the Arctic seas and the wartime conflagration – are the same. In both cases, the miraculous emergence of a living person from a dead world is the same (the talking baby and the merman), suggesting against all likelihood that extremes of temperature may provide a congenial habitat for intelligent beings. And in both cases the being in question offers the sailor an uncanny escape route from what’s clearly an inescapable situation. In fact, both baby and merman can be read as the hallucinations of a dying mind, as it struggles to find an alternative to the intolerable inevitability of death. As the cold or heat becomes too intense to bear, the sailor discovers in each forbidding zone a native inhabitant, whose physical attributes – nakedness in the baby’s case, brilliant hues in the merman’s – proclaim their indifference to the flame or frost that is killing the sailor. This is a very different use of fantasy from Mr Slaughterboard’s exuberant self-indulgence; its escapism is a psychological necessity rather than a piece of adolescent whimsy, and the quest to find some sort of moral explanation, or even absolution, for the unjustified torment to which its protagonists are subjected, starkly contrasts with Mr Slaughterboard’s tormenting and slaughtering of his crew, which invites no moral justification at all.

‘Coming Up to Scratch’, from Figures of Speech (1954)

The merman story is sung in a church ‘To the tune of a bleeding hymn’; its impulse is religious, and marks religion in this context as a story that’s built from memory and fantasy, and from the desperation that fuses the two. The sailors in the narrative are frozen stiff until they are indistinguishable from the frozen vessel on which they’re stranded. There’s clearly no way out of their predicament except through death; and it’s in this extreme situation that a manifestation of the fantastic emerges godlike from the waves, adding the brilliance of oil colour – Peake’s painterly palette of greens, reds and yellows – to the whites, blacks and greys of the Arctic seascape. The merman also brings with him, godlike, both an accusation of guilt and a promise of forgiveness. Those who suffer invariably convince themselves that they deserve to suffer, so as to preserve some sense of the crude but safe moral coordinates with which they have been raised; and the merman brings a rationale for the sailors’ suffering in the form of a crime they have committed. The ship’s anchor has trapped his wife and children in their underwater cave, and the sailors will not be released from their torment until the anchor is raised again, the door of the cave opened and the family set free. Like Adam and Eve, or like conscripts accused of a crime against humanity, the sailors respond by transferring responsibility for their actions to a higher authority. It was the ship’s captain who ordered the anchor to be lowered, and the captain is now inaccessible, cut off from retribution, like most of his crew, by death. Like Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity, too, the sailors are incapable of atoning for their inadvertent crime under their own steam, as it were; they lack the strength to raise the anchor. Having confessed and sought to exonerate themselves, the men wait for divine judgement.

The merman’s judgement comes in the form of a solution to their impasse: they are to wed themselves to the elements that are killing them. First they must plunge into the inhospitable sea, then bind themselves by nuptial contract to an alien being: a ‘mermaid chill / With little white fins for hands’. Having performed this dual act of self-negation they will, he claims, gain the strength to raise the anchor, as if sexual and contractual union with a hostile environment has made everything within it easy for them. The merman anticipates their naturalization in the Arctic wastes in the fragment’s final stanza, where the once chilly mermaid is described as ‘sweet’, and her most alien feature – her tail – is measured against the familiar length of a sailor’s upper limb. In this way the fusion with ice and steel that was killing the sailors at the beginning of the extract is replaced by a marriage with cold black water and fishiness, that will inject them by some undisclosed means with the merman’s virile energy. Religion becomes the process of accepting – or rather of actively, passionately embracing – the causes of pain and destruction that you are too frail to fight. And it becomes, too, a fantasy, a dream born from desire, whose resistance to the remorselessness of wartime logic offers the only satisfactory solution to a problem insoluble by any other means.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

But the merman isn’t necessary to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, as Peake recognized when he chose to stop writing about him. The sailor in wartime London has already found a god before he begins to tell this story – a miniature god which gently points out that it contains within itself all the sailor’s memories, desires and dreams – and this is the baby. While the sailor is gearing up to tell the merman story in the ruined church, the baby suddenly manifests its superhuman powers for the first time, responding to the sailor’s offer to narrate with a shrill cry of assent, then levitating in front of the pulpit, ‘Where it hovered with its hands clenched tight at its breast’ just next to an open Bible, like a latter-day version of Robert Southwell’s Burning Babe. The moment is a natural next stage in a process that began with the miracle of the baby’s discovery – when the sound of its heart in the midst of destruction astonished and awed the sailor. This miracle was reinforced by the sailor’s perception that the child is absurdly, insanely out of place (‘All bare and cold in that gutter of gold / You had no cause to be, / No more than it’s right for the likes of you / To be born in this century’); and led at last to his decision, after entering the church, to ‘worship’ the child for its ‘brand-new look’, its ‘fists like a brace of anemones’, and the miraculous ‘ticker’ it keeps in its fragile chest. The baby, then, provides an emblem of war’s absurdity, the incongruous juxtapositions it generates, and the fantasies that are the only apt response to these. And the comfort it dispenses is quite different from, and more imaginatively satisfying than, the strange sub-oceanic marriage offered by the sea-god as a solution to the sailor’s woes.

For one thing, the child refuses to adopt a position of judgement over the sailor – or of superiority to him – as the merman does. It refers to him as ‘sailor, saviour’, as if sharing its divinity with the dying man. Despite his scepticism, it extends to him the promise that he will share its ability to regenerate after death; and it gives him the benefit of its awareness that appalling events like the Blitz are nothing new, that they have precedents in history, and that therefore the sailor need not be erased from the earth with the disintegration of his body under the impact of the last flying bomb; after all, the baby is proof of this, with its new wrinkled arms and its astonishing memory for adventures, seascapes and people it has encountered in previous lives. Its only advantage over him, in fact, is that it remembers having ‘seen it all before’, and can therefore give him words of counsel as he drifts bleeding and blistered, with lacerated feet and unrecognizable face, towards his own particular death.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

More importantly, perhaps (and this is a comfort Peake needed as much as his Stevensonian seafarer) it reassures him that his fantasies – the visions of miracles which Peake always associated with his heart – have as much validity as a response to the world, and above all to the World War, as any historical, philosophical or political narrative lodged in the archives at the British Library or the Imperial War Museum. ‘For, sailor,’ it says, ‘there’s nothing that is not true, / If it’s true to your heart and mine, / From a unicorn to a flying bomb, / From a wound to a glass of wine’. It’s the sailor’s imagination, after all, that first made the baby’s environment bearable for it, as he showed it ‘the coloured lights’ of the burning city, ‘And the golden shoals of the falling stones / And the scarlet of the streets’ – thus making loveliness out of horror. It’s the sailor’s imagination which permits him to conceive of a loving afterlife, and to believe in the love he has found in this one, despite the fact that ‘There is no proof’, rationally speaking, of either. And it’s his imagination that gives the sailor his final, joyful vision, which transmutes the urban devastation into a maritime adventure far more dazzling than the merman narrative:

‘The masts are bright with silver light,
The decks are black with grass
And the bay’s so smooth that I can see
The blood beneath the glass.

‘And here’s a child, and there’s a child
Running across the bay.
They laugh and shout, “Look out! look out!
We haven’t long to stay!”

‘And here’s a man who somersaults
Across the mid-mast air.
The long-shore flames leap out to sea
And drag him by the hair.

‘And the guns that shine with oil and wine
Are smothered in sea-flowers deep,
And in the throat of every gun
A mermaid lies asleep.

‘And the figurehead with mouth so red
Is drinking up the sea…
O little babe, why won’t you leap
Aboard, and sail with me?’

So the mer-people do find a place in The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, after all, nestled in the mouths of cannons in an imaginary warship. And Peake’s wayward imagination, too, finds a role for itself with relation to the war. What may have made the War Artists’ Advisory Committee so reluctant to employ him was a perception that his work was better suited to conveying the unreal than recording ‘facts’.[13] The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, including the unprinted fragment about the merman, demonstrates the vital relationship between the material conditions of war and the fantasies to which it gives rise. Peake’s fantasies are composed of searing frost and scorching fire, of metal, stone, coal, glass, and all the matter that makes up a bomb or the destruction it causes. And they are anchored, above all, in the body, in its bones and internal organs, its flesh, skin, limbs and bowels. His position as artist can be summarized in one more unpublished fragment from the early 50s:[14]

Neither a sage nor plowboy dumb, I stand
A marvel and a clod in either hand
And in my breast a vacillating heart

Without Peake’s solid clods and marvels, fused together by his vacillating heart, our picture of what it was like to live through the calamitous nineteen-forties would lack one vital and little-explored dimension. The fragments unearthed here, with the evidence they give of the extent to which even Peake’s most extravagant fantasies are bound up with war and its aftermath, suggest that further exploration of fantastic writing in wartime would be well worth undertaking – no matter how inhospitable the land- and seascapes into which that exploration might take us.[16]

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

NOTES

[1] Approximate dates for Peake’s poems are given in my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008).

[2] Collected Poems, p. 165.

[3] See Peake, Titus Groan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 281-85 (‘Knives in the Moon’).

[4] For‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ see Peake’s Progress, ed. Maeve Gilmore, corrected by G. Peter Winnington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 45-61.

[5] See G. Peter Winnington, Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (London: Peter Owen, 2000), pp. 38-39, which gives an account of operations witnessed by Mervyn as a boy in China; also Malcolm Yorke, A Life of Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), pp. 24-26.

[6] UCL MS Add. 234, Box 4 (iv), sig. 32r. At the time of writing the manuscript was on loan to the library of University College London; it now forms part of the Peake Archive in the British Library.

[7] ‘Heads Float About Me’ can be found in Collected Poems, pp. 214-5.

[8] For details of the 1946 notebook – now in the Peake Archive at the British Library – see Peake’s Collected Poems, Introduction. ‘I Was Not There’ occurs on p. 14 of Notebook 2 (as I call it in my notes), and is typed.

[9] The Belsen poem is ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, pp. 133-4.

[10] The full text of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is given in Collected Poems, pp. 178-201. The manuscript from which I took the text of the merman fragment was at the time on loan to the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Bod. Dep. Peake 5, fol. 33v-34v); it’s now in the Peake Archive in the British Library. I have added some punctuation. The rest of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is quoted from Collected Poems.

[11] See ‘They Move with Me, My War-Ghosts’, published in Peake’s first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941); also in Collected Poems, pp. 93-94.

[12] Mr Slaughterboard can be found in Peake’s Progress, pp. 63-94.

[13] Twelve of the 25 pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, pp. 66-69. An account of the series can be found on p. 65.

[14] Writing to Peake about his prospects of becoming a war artist, Sir Kenneth Clark observed that on the whole he seemed to be ‘much better away from facts’ (18th October 1940). Peake’s attempts to adapt his ‘non-factual’ artistic talents to the needs of the War Artists’ Committee – first by painting surreal representations of the Blitz, then by offering his services for the production of propaganda – can be traced through his (as yet unpublished) correspondence with Clark.

[15] The fragment was formerly held in UCLMS Add. 2.34, Box 4 (ii), fol. 30v, and is now in the Peake Archive. This contains an earlier draft of Titus Alone than the one in Box 4 (i), which gives as its earliest date December 1.

[16] Quite a bit has been written about fantasy in wartime since this was written; see for example Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic in the Second World War: Dark London (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Concept Art for Laputa: Castle in the SkyAs the first post of 2020 I’m providing here a link to a podcast I did with the Fantasy/Animation project last year. The project is the brainchild of Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant; warm thanks to them both for inviting me to participate. While you’re at their website take a look around at all the other wonderful podcasts they’ve made available!

I chose to talk about Laputa because at the time I thought it was my favourite film by Studio Ghibli. I change my mind about this every so often, but Laputa will always be up there in the top five.

Imperialist Fantasy: Clifford Mills, Where the Rainbow Ends (1912)

This blog is called The City of Lost Books, and has concentrated on quite a few little-known texts in recent months: the fantastic novels of Margaret Irwin; the only novel by the modernist art critic Herbert Read; William Morris’s brilliant last romance The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Few books, however, can have been more justly neglected than Clifford Mills’s Where the Rainbow Ends (1912), and few books can have been more popular before they fell into oblivion. Based on a ‘fairy play’ co-written by Clifford Mills and John Reginald Owen (writing as John Ramsey) and first produced in 1911 with music by Roger Quilter, the book was a bestseller from its publication in 1912 to the 1950s. For forty years or so the play was as much a staple of Christmas in Britain as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), on which it was partly based. Princess Elizabeth went to see it at Christmas in 1937, when she was eleven. Being a blatant piece of British imperialist propaganda, however, it didn’t survive the sixties, and had more or less vanished from sight by the time I read the book version at the age of seven or eight, in my grandmother’s Salford flat in 1970.[1]

The book made a huge impression on me, not least because it made me profoundly uncomfortable. This was not because of its imperialist, militaristic propaganda – I was rather enthusiastic about things military at the age of seven – but because of its penchant for sadistic violence. Mills’s delight in subjecting her child protagonists to extreme mental and physical torments was obvious to me, and the deaths of her villains were unusually gruesome. Most dreadful of all, there was a boy in it who expressed his willingness to be transformed into a monster, in an episode that haunted my nightmares for several years. Another book I read at my grandmother’s flat was the Penguin translation of Homer’s Odyssey, its cover carefully protected with a transparent plastic dustjacket, and although that story too had people being magicked into beasts they didn’t consent to their transformation, and were in any case restored to human shape soon afterwards by the wily Odysseus. Mills’s doomed boy, by contrast, actively chooses his metamorphosis, and remains stubbornly committed to becoming a monster on the last occasion we see him. Through him Where the Rainbow Ends introduced me to a kind of fantasy I hadn’t encountered anywhere else, in which children’s behaviour could be as horribly punished as the wickedness of adults, and the bed you made for yourself was very much the one you lay in. Again, children had been punished with transformation in other books I knew, most notably Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who became a dragon because he refused to fit in. But Eustace learned his lesson in the process, whereas the boy in Where the Rainbow Ends learned nothing at all. This couldn’t happen, I thought, in books for children, and I dwelt on it with morbid fascination when Clifford Mills showed me that it could.

One of the things I liked about the book was that it did a good job of representing the pain of being separated from one’s family. The story begins with two middle-class English children who have lost their parents in a shipwreck six months before, and who are now being looked after by an abusive aunt and uncle, aided and abetted by a houseful of nasty servants, formerly the servants of the children’s beloved Cousin Matthew, also recently deceased. The children, Rosamond and Crispian, have been separated from their parents for several years – two in the case of Rosamond, four in Crispian’s – because the parents stayed behind in India when the children went to boarding school in England; it was on the journey from India to England that their Mother and Father were drowned. I can’t remember if I had yet gone to boarding school when I was staying at my Grandmother’s, but I certainly started a few weeks after turning seven, and the idea of long-term separation from one’s parents would have been familiar to me in any case from the fact that my older brother started there a year before I did. The British Empire, it seems, was built on the principle of separating children from their parents, and trained the children in question to respond by cultivating a sense of plucky independence underpinned by strict adherence to certain rules.

One such rule was the hackneyed notion that boys don’t cry, and Mills’s novel begins with Crispian breaking this rule, as I myself had done on many occasions. I appreciated this touch of honesty on the part of the author, though not the response of Crispian’s sister: Rosamond overhears him sobbing for their mother, and forces herself not to intervene for fear of shaming him (‘Boys’ tears, she told herself, were not to be seen – except by Mothers – sometimes’, p. 10).[2] Suddenly, however, she thinks of a way to cheer him up, which is by consulting a book Cousin Matthew used to read to them at bedtime. This is the ‘Rainbow Book’, and it is introduced into Mills’s story in the very first sentence: ‘Rosamond had suddenly remembered the “Rainbow Book”, and this is how it happened’ (p. 9). That sentence involves a double act of magic, first in adopting a tone which implies that everyone knows about the ‘Rainbow Book’, and secondly in giving that book the same title as the book we’re reading. The ‘Rainbow Book’ is Where the Rainbow Ends, and mentions a land where all lost loved ones can be found again; it also includes detailed instructions on how to get there. This made me think that perhaps the book by Clifford Mills called Where the Rainbow Ends might contain similar instructions; that it might in fact be some kind of guidebook. The title retains something of the glamour of this promise for me even now. And of course the book is meant as a guidebook, giving clear instructions on how to attain the pluck of its central characters, although one is unlikely to get much chance to show that pluck in a similar context.

One way of achieving pluck, Mills suggests, is to harbour suitable ambitions. In the case of middle-class boys like Crispian, the best ambition is to join the Navy and become an Admiral; in the case of girls like Rosamond it is to get married. Crispian’s ambition sets him apart from the wayward boys in Peter Pan who want to be pirates (remember how John is gently mocked for his imperialist sentiments?); he is clearly meant to be exactly the sort of material the British forces need as naval cadets and future officers. Rosamond, on the other hand, is pretty much like Wendy, but with an added spirit of adventure which makes her the motivating force behind all the book’s important moments. Not only is she the one who remembers the existence of the book called Where the Rainbow Ends, but she also decides to go and find the land described in it, then inspires her brother to come along as back-up. She later locates the magic carpet of Faith which will take them on their journey; and summoning the genie of the carpet is simple for her, since she has read The Arabian Nights. So is giving him instructions (though perhaps she has learned this from having had servants all her life); and when he offers each of the children two wishes, as genies do, she uses hers with impressive effectiveness. The first wish makes her Uncle and Aunt start their dinner all over again so that she and Crispian will have time to prepare for their travels. Her second wish summons Saint George to act as the children’s bodyguard on their adventure. Much later on, Rosamond thinks nothing of plunging into the Dragon Wood by herself to rescue a younger girl; and later still she is the one who thinks of the way to defeat the Dragon army, sewing the flag that will claim their Castle for England and summon Saint George (who has the unfortunate trait of being unable to appear anywhere except where the cross of Saint George is flying). This, then, is one of the book’s few redeeming features: it has a resourceful and active heroine, which makes it an excellent counterbalance gender-wise for Peter and Wendy, where most of the physical action is given over to Peter and Captain Hook. Along with C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and a few others, it’s one of the books that trained me as a child to accept a girl as principal protagonist, something my male friends and some of the books I read had a tendency to drum out of me.

I’ve mentioned the play Peter Pan a couple of times, as well as the novel that followed, Peter and Wendy, which was first published in 1911, the year before the novelization of Where the Rainbow Ends. The fact that the second novel followed so closely on the first is probably not a coincidence, since Mills’s play had followed the pattern of Peter Pan from the beginning, above all in its efforts to accommodate special effects and character types of the sort that Barrie’s play had made hugely popular with spectators of all ages. Peter Pan involves flying, of course, and Crispian, Rosamond and their two companions – Crispian’s school friend Jim Blunders and his little sister Betty, whom Crispian summons with his own two wishes – not only get to fly on Faith’s magic carpet but are later carried off to captivity (like Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz) by the winged henchmen of the principal villain. Peter Pan has a cheeky, wayward flying boy in a leading role, and his place is taken in Where the Rainbow Ends by the fairy Will o’the Wisp, who is in love with the Lake King’s Daughter and dances very nicely with her, but whose most important function is to inform the children’s parents that Rosamond and Crispian are on their way to rescue them. Peter Pan has pirates, where Mills’s play has dragons. Peter Pan has incompetent adults – Mr Darling and his dark double, James Hook – while Where the Rainbow’s End has villains who are both incompetent and sadistic, Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, neither of whom have Captain Hook’s redeeming qualities. The villains in both get eaten (more on that later). Peter Pan contains a dog called Nana, always played by a human actor; Where the Rainbow Ends has a lion cub called Cubby, also played by a human, who seems to subsist on a kind of tonic called Colonial Mixture, composed in ‘Equal parts of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Iron mixed with Indian and South African Steel’ (p. 19). The small print on the label also says that the tonic is ‘Poison to Traitors’ (p. 205), which means that when Uncle Joseph drinks it the effect is much like the effect on Tinkerbell of drinking Peter’s medicine in Barrie’s play. In other words, it’s fatal, and in Mills’s play there is no one to clap their hands and bring him back to life. So the play goes one better than Peter Pan in every department by ensuring that there are no ambiguities at all; the heroes are totally heroic, the villains utterly villainous (indeed it’s implied that the Dragon King is the devil himself), and the destruction of the villains is correspondingly spectacular and hideous. These differences help to point up the relative complexity of Barrie’s play, whose purported hero, Peter, is pompous and merciless, its villain conflicted, and their respective fates (from an adult’s point of view, at least) more or less equally painful.

What Mills’s play has which has no equivalent in Peter Pan is the patron saint of England, a certain Saint George, whose presence in it for forty years provided a role for the current male heart-throb of the English stage. Saint George has something of Aragorn’s modesty about him; when Rosamond wishes for him he first appears in the garb of a pilgrim, evoking that much-loved Christian romance The Pilgrim’s Progress, and informs the children he is rather out of fashion these days, having stopped fighting with Saint Denis of France some time ago and taken to galloping around instead ‘with my true brothers [the patron saints of] Scotland, Ireland, Wales and kindred kind beyond the seas’ (p. 71), doing deeds of valour for the needy colonies. Meanwhile he has been neglected at home, and is inclined to blame this on the honorific people have saddled him with, ‘Saint’, since ‘a halo is such a misty unsoldierly decoration’ (p. 72). Rosamond and the other children, however, find him ‘ripping’ (p. 67), and he wins their hearts by telling them the story of the Battle of Agincourt, a victory over the French which was actually sponsored by his friend Saint Crispian (Crispian’s namesake), but which Saint George observed from the sidelines with great interest. Saint George’s connection with Agincourt aligns him, of course, with Shakespeare’s King Henry V, who was given to yelling the names of Saint George and Saints Crispin and Crispian as he charged across the bloody fields of France. Mills has him talk Shakespearean English, too; he is constantly breaking into the rhythms of blank verse. ‘Dear English maid,’ he tells Rosamond as he prepares to leave in a flash of lightning (I don’t remember any lightning in Peter Pan!), ‘No foe of yours that is not foe of mine. No dangers yours that are not shared by me. No wrong of yours that I will not redress’ (p. 74). Heady stuff, when addressed to a girl of eleven or twelve, and guaranteed to supply her with a substantial dose of extra pluck. I found it thrilling, too, at the age of seven, though I don’t remember being filled with anything much like patriotism by Saint George’s flashy appearances and disappearances. I thought of him as a superhero, as no doubt did the many generations of boys who thrilled to the adventures of the patron saints in Richard Johnson’s perennial nursery classic, The Seven Champions of Christendom (1597).

Unfortunately, reviving Saint George and his red cross flag has had a tendency, historically speaking, to involve large doses of racism; and Mills’s novel is not exempt. Not for nothing does Saint George change Henry V’s battle cry from ‘God for Harry, England and Saint George’ to ‘God for George, England and the Right’ (p. 74). The genie, for instance, is ‘of Ethiopian darkness, but not at all repulsive looking’ (p. 51), while a French merchant called Bertrand who offers to buy the defunct Cousin Matthews’s effects is said to have a shrewd eye for a bargain because ‘his great-great-grandmother had been a Jewess’ (p. 79). Despite these racist throwaway remarks both the merchant and the genie are clearly meant to be attractive figures, though the genie’s principal charm is his obedience (he is the children’s ‘faithful friend’, p. 94), which is particularly unsettling when he refers to himself as a ‘slave’ (p. 51). Bertrand, on the other hand, is both gallant and courageous, and has nothing but contempt for the treachery to family and nation shown by Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda. His function in the play, in fact, is to point up their nastiness, since even his foreignness and suspect ancestry cannot blind him to their perfidy. The presence in the novel of these two characters amply confirms Mills’s quasi-fascistic views, as does her assumption that England’s glory depends exclusively on its military victories, ‘Crecy and Poictiers, […] Waterloo and Trafalgar’ (p. 224), and her certainty that the pirate-poet Sir Walter Raleigh was the ‘pattern of chivalry’ (p. 49) because he only sank Spanish ships. Her views on class are equally repugnant. The sole working-class character in the book, the page boy William, is an insufferable sneak who delights in taunting Crispian and Rosamond on their penniless state since the death of their parents. Sometimes it’s worth reminding oneself of fantasy’s potential to sow the seeds of fascism, and of how enthusiastically the British were capable of embracing fascistic ideas well before the rise of Nazism.

The literary virtues of Where the Rainbow Ends are of a piece with its moral and ideological vices. Foremost among these is its capacity for building dramatic tension in each of its three constituent parts. The first ‘act’ of the novel sees the children informed by their wicked Uncle and Aunt that their schooldays are over for lack of funds and that their beloved Cousin Matthew’s library will be sold to pay their bills, and with it the guidebook to ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ as well as the magic carpet that might have taken them there. It is then a race against time to use the carpet before Uncle Joseph, Aunt Matilda and the page boy William can hold them back. The second ‘act’ sees them confronting the dangers of Dragon Wood, their chief obstacle here being their friend little Betty Blunders, who is clearly designed to embody all the female failings Mills has banished from the lively personage of her heroine, Rosamond. Betty ignores the advice of the guidebook by entering Dragon Wood at nightfall in pursuit of the alluring Will o’the Wisp, just at the point when the monsters and beasts are waking up. Although she is quickly rescued by the boys, the presence of those beasts and monsters ensures that the rest of the night – and of the book’s second ‘act’ – is as full of terrors as a night can be. The third ‘act’ begins with the capture of the children by flying dragons and their incarceration in the Dragon King’s Castle, where they are due to be executed at any moment. Escape involves the rapid sewing of an English flag by Rosamond – who has had the good sense to bring along her sewing kit – and its hoisting by the boys on the Castle flagpole, a deed that brings Saint George to the rescue in the usual flash of lightning, with predictable results. The Dragon King is transfixed by the Saint’s doughty blade, and the rest of the dragons are hurled howling into a bottomless abyss, like Milton’s fallen angels. Fortunately at this point in the story not a single dragon seems to remember that it can fly, so they all perish. The way is therefore cleared for the children to press on to the place Where the Rainbow Ends, where Rosamond and Crispian’s parents are waiting, having survived their shipwreck after all. The children find their way to the correct location without any difficulty, despite having dropped their precious guidebook in the lake when the Dragons seized them. Their reunion with their parents is suitably moving, and caused seven-year-old me to break the injunction not to cry every time I read it.

Another redeeming feature of the novel (if it has any) is its clear sense that the British Empire is in steep decline. Saint George no longer lives on English soil, but spends his time overseas because the Colonies are more interested in him than his countrymen are. The older generation of English patriots are similarly located elsewhere, unable to make their way back from distant parts to their homeland; Rosamond’s parents Captain and Mrs Carey spend the whole novel loitering in ragged clothes on a distant shore, like Prospero and Miranda on their desert island, persecuted by a witch out of Macbeth and a fairy out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the unreliable Will o’the Wisp) as well as the constant threat of dragonish assaults straight out of Milton. Mrs Carey has even become a legend or fantasy herself, being referred to by Will as Mother Vera – Mother Truth – which effectively makes her Mother Carey, a sailor’s legend who is referred to by (among others) Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies (1862-3) and John Masefield in Salt Water Ballads (1902). England, then, is always elsewhere in this novel, a little like Narnia in the Narnian Chronicles, and its identity is always under threat of erasure. Captain and Mrs Carey have been replaced in the household by Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, who regard the English flag as ‘That Jingo bogey – that pretty bit of bunting – that child’s plaything’ (p. 119), and whose only concern is to cheat their nephew and niece out of their inheritance. Meanwhile the heraldic Lion of England is represented in this novel by a half-grown lion cub, Cubby, and the next generation of English human beings (as embodied in the page boy William and the indolent youth known only as the Slacker) threatens to follow the children’s uncle and aunt into self-obsession and indifference to the national interest.

The most striking representation of this tendency can be found in the Dragon Wood, a place where everything that is inimical to imperial orderliness resides. It is full of foreign beasts, a category from which Cubby is excluded despite being a lion (he is a specifically English lion, we are told (p. 18)). There is a black leopard which injures Crispian and Blunders, a pack of hyenas whose voices Crispian remembers from his time in India, and miscellaneous other carnivores. The Wood has supernatural creatures in it, too, including Will o’the Wisp, who is always ‘mislead[ing] night wanderers, laughing at their harm’, like Shakespeare’s Puck, and a bunch of nastier elves and gnomes who are given to pinching errant strangers black and blue like the false fairies in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Worse still, it is a place of metamorphosis, where a person’s identity is constantly on the verge of getting compromised. One of the trees in it was once a ‘high-born Dragon’ who dared to eat the Dragon King’s food and was punished for this by being transformed into a stump with arms, which is constantly hungry for the flesh of passers by. Another monster is the thing that gave me nightmares:

Out of the reeds a loathsome creature, half man, half worm was crawling, slowly dragging its flabby useless limbs along the ground. Its face was ashen, its worm-shaped head hairless. It had a great, gaping, loose-lipped mouth and its eyes, that were for ever turning restlessly from side to side, shone like arc lamps. Lamps they were indeed, that warned others of the deadly trail of slime it left as it crawled – slime that clogged the feet of those who encountered it [–] but to the creature itself they gave no light, for it was blind. Slowly it dragged itself from the marsh and entered the thicket while the boys stood transfixed with horror. (p. 171)

Crispian recognizes this creature, too – he calls it ‘a Slitherslime’ – and there is a dreadful revelation to come about it. After its disappearance into a thicket the two naval cadets meet another boy who seems to live in the Dragon Wood, unharmed by its monstrous denizens. The boy is English, and like Crispian and Blunders once set off to find a lost loved one – his sister – in the place Where the Rainbow Ends; but he got distracted by the pleasures of the Woods, where one can get endless supplies of tasty fruit, spend one’s time fishing in well-stocked trout streams, and watch the gnomes playing cricket (p. 177). Now he lives there in permanent indolence, protected by the toll he pays the Dragon King, which involves passing on to him unopened all the letters he gets from his mother (delivered by passing pilgrims on their way to Heart’s Content), and wearing on his breast the Dragon King’s crest in place of the cross of Saint George.

Worst of all, he is degenerating physically. Already ‘round-shouldered and walk[ing] with a slouch’, he has a ‘livid’ face (p. 172), and the end of this degenerative process, he tells Blunders, is to become the slug-like creature they have just encountered, which helpfully reappears to underline the horror of this fate just as the boy makes reference to it: ‘For a moment in hideous helplessness it turned its restless worm-like head with the blazing, sightless eyes towards the boys, then, with a horrible whimper of distress it slithered off into the marshes’ (p. 180). Horrified by this vision, Blunders automatically repeats Nelson’s famous slogan from the Battle of Trafalgar – ‘England expects every man to do his duty’ (p. 182) – and at once the Dragon Light that protects the indolent youth begins to grow dim. The boy promptly swears to stay in the Wood for ever, the Dragon Light rekindles, and away he flees through the trees ‘laughing and crying hysterically’ (p. 183), never to be seen again.

The curious thing about this episode is that it sets up an indolent version of England as the antithesis of the cadets’ beloved imperial power. The indolent youth – known as the Slacker – introduces himself as an English subject, enjoys peculiarly English pursuits such as fishing and cricket, and offers the cadets fruit that look ‘just like ordinary English apples’ (p. 179). The decay of England lurks in the inner spaces of English national identity, like a maggot in a healthy core, just as the Slacker’s sluggish future form is foreshadowed in the round-shouldered debility of his body; only a subtle shift of emphasis in one’s clichéd fantasies of the ideal English existence is needed for England to become a breeding ground of the Dragon’s minions. If being English is a fantasy, as its association here with Shakespeare’s plays, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Milton’s Paradise Lost suggests, then an alternative fantasy could easily supplant it, and this play is filled with alternative fantasies, many of them derived from the very same sources that supplied material for the fantasies of imperial England.

The nastiest of these fantasies by far are those of Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, which are both greedy and sadistic. At the beginning of the novel Aunt Matilda wears a ‘cruel smile’ as she tells Crispian he can no longer go to the naval college he has been attending, then forbids him to wear his cadet’s uniform the following day: ‘Aunt Matilda knew that this would hurt Cris. She knew that a naval boy loves his uniform, not so much for the look of it but because it is a uniform of noble traditions and a thing to live up to and be proud of and it did hurt Cris horribly to be told in that cold and heartless fashion not to wear it again’ (p. 30). Uncle Joseph is even worse. When he finds the children gone from his house on a quest to find their parents – which would deprive him of the family home he has feloniously inherited with the help of his expertise as a lawyer – he chases after them armed with a whip which he plans to use to ‘tickle them with for running away’, after tying their hands and feet with rope and gagging their ‘pretty mouths’ (pp. 122-3). Fortunately Saint George removes the whip from him before he can use it, but Uncle Joseph later succeeds in catching Rosamond, whereupon he ties her to the Enchanted Tree, gags her, and leaves her alone in the Dragon Wood to be eaten by hyenas. As he abandons her to her fate he can’t resist a final gloat: ‘“What a pity, isn’t it?” he said […] “Brother Crispian is in the wood and you can’t call to him to come and rescue you, and I’m afraid when he does pass this way you won’t be here, hyenas are so fond of little children”’ (p. 193). Later still the hyenas come after Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda instead, and the lawyer climbs a tree to escape their jaws, leaving his sister on the ground in her impractical evening gown to be devoured with ‘piercing […] shrieks’ (p. 202) – though fortunately off stage, both in the play and in the novel. He doesn’t escape his own fate long, however. Overcome with hunger he finds Cubby’s bottle of Colonial Mixture in his pocket and proceeds to drink the contents, having failed to read the small print on the label (‘Poison to Traitors’). He has no time to feel much more than the first pangs of this poison before the hyenas come back for him, having made short work of his sister’s bony body. Like the Slacker he is destroyed by what he consumes to sustain him, trapped into the very fate he sacrificed his family ties to evade.

Set up in opposition to Uncle Andrew’s fantasies of selfishness, torture and material gain, the fantasy of England restored to imperial glory is all about emotional reunions with lost relatives; as I said before, the final scene of the novel had a tendency to reduce my seven-year-old self to a tearstained wreck. There’s something disturbing, though, about this final vision, as well as about the story that leads up to it. This ending asserts that not only can the British Empire be buttressed by affectionate young patriots, but that death itself can be overcome; and this not in the form of a life to come but through resurrection in this world – or so it seems. The scene begins with a reunion between a nameless English mother and her lost ‘little one’ on the beach Where the Rainbow Ends. Carried to the blessed location by an English ship, then ferried ashore by the boast of ‘faith and Hope’, the woman suddenly sees her infant rushing towards her:

and, seeing the little one, sinks to her knees and with eyes that almost fear to believe looks into the little face she has for so long seen only in her dreams. Scarce daring to breathe, her yearning fingers glide over the golden curls to the white brow upon which they cluster. Wistfully her hungry gaze meets again the laughing look of dear blue eyes; she longs, yet fears to kiss the smiling roguish baby lips raised to hers, lest, as in those cruel dreams which so long have mocked her grief, she will wake to find her poor arms empty.

But upon the child’s face is no sorrow, no surprise. Closer it nestles into the dear, remembered arms.

‘Mummy,’ the little one coaxes, ‘Mummy darling – now – tell again the story of little ten toes.’ (p. 248)

The reunion is clearly not meant to be subjected to rigorous theological analysis, but the implication is, I think, that the mother in this scene is alive, that she has taken a journey analogous to that accomplished by Rosamond and Crispian in their quest to find their parents, and that when she has reached the place Where the Rainbow Ends she has been reunited with a child she had lost – presumably to death, since she has not seen it except in dreams for an extended period. What happens next? The last we see of the mother and child is an image of them running up the golden sands in jubilation; but a little later we witness the reunion of Rosamond and Crispian with their lost loved ones, Captain and Mrs Carey, on the same beach; and shortly afterwards all four surviving members of the Carey family are on Hope’s boat again, with the Blunders siblings, heading towards the English ship by which the Carey parents were earlier rescued from the Witch’s Cove where they were wrecked – a ship now ‘bound for England’ (p. 254). Moments later Saint George manifests himself at the stern of the boat, duly accompanied by the English national flag:

He was coming with them back to the dear land to which they were sailing; to fight once more the dragons that sought his country’s downfall – coming back, not to be lifeless stone in cold cathedral, but to live henceforth and for ever in the hearts of children of his race. (p. 255)

Of course, we are to understand that Captain and Mrs Carey were never really dead, they were merely shipwrecked on their way home from India; their deaths were a dreadful illusion which their children had been forced to live with for several months. But what of the nameless mother reunited with her dead child? The place Where the Rainbow Ends promises to restore ‘all lost loved ones’ to their relatives – that was the promise made by the book in the opening chapter. There was no mention there of the golden shore being in the afterlife, and in the final chapter there seems to be no prohibition on taking your recovered lost loved ones back to England along with the equally lost and recovered patron saint of England. The distinction between the saint in stone and the saint in living flesh reinforces the assumption; if you have sufficient faith in God and your country (which are here more or less the same thing, thanks to the happy accident of the country’s flag happening to be the emblem of the Christian faith), your lost loved ones will come back to life, whether they were dead or merely missing, and all will be well not just for a while but in fact ‘for ever’. That’s an irresponsibly massive pledge to make in a play for children. It also seems to make nonsense of an earlier passage in the novel where Uncle Joseph realizes he is about to die without benefit of patriotism, and hence alone:

Not one of a vast brotherhood who, though separated by continents, feels still bound and upheld by a thousand ties of national hopes and ambitions; not as the humblest patriot, who dying in a distant land, feels yet around and about him like a royal mantle those best traditions of his country he has given his life to uphold. (p. 204)

The final chapter holds out the possibility that those who die as part of the ‘vast brotherhood’ of patriots can be brought back from the dead. This investment of the nation with powers of resurrection beyond the divine is perhaps the most grandiose assertion about national identity I have ever encountered. God barely rates a mention in Where the Rainbow Ends; his place is almost entirely ceded to England, presumably because the name of God, like the title of saint, may be felt by many patriotic Englishmen to be no more than ‘a misty unsoldierly decoration’ (p. 72). The unsettling nature of Mills’s fantasy, then, is not just about its sadism; it’s also about the claims it makes on the reader’s world. Children reading a book like this are being encouraged to apply its assertions about the country Where the Rainbow Ends to their own ‘race’ in particular (there are no French, Jewish or African lost people, it seems, on the golden beach). They are being encouraged to think that the dead can be brought back to life through nationalistic fervour. It’s hardly inaccurate to describe a sentiment like this as fascistic, and to describe Mills’s book as engaging in a deeply irresponsible use of the strategies of fantasy.

Philip French once suggested in The Observer that the Christian writer C. S. Lewis might have been influenced by Where the Rainbow Ends when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).[3] Given what I’ve just said about the book’s theology, one might imagine this would be improbable; but in fact there’s every sign that the book had a strong influence on Lewis – but not, I think, on the first of the Narnian chronicles. Certainly there are a lion and four children in both Where the Rainbow Ends and The Lion, but I can’t see much more to link them apart from a common zeal for battle and the presence in both of a wicked witch. Much closer, though, is the link between Mills’s book and The Magician’s Nephew (1955). Both involve a quest for the recovery of a parent, taken on by a boy and girl with the help of friends. Both contain tempting apples (the Slacker offers one to the cadets, Digory is offered one by Queen Jadis) and moments of exhilarating flight, on a winged horse in Lewis’s novel, a magic carpet in Mills’s. The apple in The Magician’s Nephew gets replanted in England and so becomes the English apple which is mimicked by the Slacker’s fruit. Meanwhile Digory’s father is away in India, and makes his way home at the end of the story against all odds, like Captain and Mrs Carey. But the most obvious link between the books is the wicked uncle. Uncle Joseph lives with his sister, exactly like Lewis’s Uncle Andrew, although Uncle Andrew’s sister Letitia (Aunty Lettie) is much nicer (and tougher) than Aunt Matilda. Both uncles are tall and thin, and given to wearing top hats, which like the rest of their clothing get subjected to appalling wear and tear – Uncle Andrew’s by his adventures in company with Jadis, the witch-queen of Charn, and Uncle Joseph’s by his underground journey in company with the devilish Dragon-King, during which his garments are ‘considerably damaged’ by ‘sparks and lava dust’ (p. 115). Both uncles have a singular contempt for children (remember Uncle Andrew’s willingness to use Digory and Polly for his experiments in magic). Both have a commercial side to their personalities, with Uncle Joseph scheming to deprive his niece and nephew of their inheritance – ‘Riverdale and the fortune that accompanied it’ (p. 199) – while Uncle Andrew devises grander projects to do with the newly-created land of Narnia: ‘Bring a few scraps of old iron here, bury ’em, and up they come as brand new railway engines, battleships, anything you please. They’ll cost nothing, and I can sell ’em at full prices in England. I shall be a millionaire’ (p. 103).[4] Finally, both uncles meet their doom at the hands, or rather paws, of savage animals. As we’ve seen, Uncle Joseph is first poisoned by drinking the tonic of an English lion cub then eaten by hyenas; while Uncle Andrew is first frightened half to death by a fully-grown lion, then pursued across the Narnian landscape by a crowd of baying beasts, which he thinks are hungry for his blood. Andrew is lucky enough to be mistaken; his death is only symbolic, and being less wicked than his prototype he is allowed to repent of his wickedness and become ‘a nicer and less selfish old man than he had ever been before’ in the final pages of Lewis’s novel (p. 171). His transformation can be taken to begin at the moment when the animals plant him in the earth of Narnia, mistaking him for a kind of tree. Unlike Mills’s Enchanted Tree, which started out as a dragon and retains a dragon’s hunger, Uncle Andrew’s planting eventually bears fruit in repentance and personal reform, which he carries back with him from Narnia very much as Digory carries back the fruit that will heal his dying mother.

Uncle Andrew’s reprieve can be read as a kind of symbolic reprieve for Where the Rainbow Ends, which is transformed by Lewis from a piece of imperialist propaganda to a creation myth for an Edenic secondary world. Lewis’s concern in the Narnian chronicles with revitalizing religious faith in the Britain of the 1950s is balanced in The Magician’s Nephew by an anti-imperialist spirit which runs more or less counter to the politics of Mills’s play and book. Lewis pits the Empress Jadis of Charn and her minor-league disciple, Uncle Andrew, against the lion Aslan, who raises ordinary London Cabbies to the status of kings but insists on their remembering how to ‘use a spade and a plough and raise food out of the earth’ (p. 129) and how to treat their subjects as they would wish to be treated themselves. The newly-crowned King Frank is exclusively concerned with protecting Narnia against its enemies rather than expanding its borders – though the assumption that he deserves ‘natural’ authority over both talking animals and his wife, Queen Helen, will annoy most modern readers. Lewis endows his main female character, Polly, with something of Rosamond’s force of personality, though on the whole women are relegated to a secondary position in his narrative compared with that of Mills; even the quest for the healing apple is Digory’s rather than Polly’s, though elsewhere in Lewis’s work he was happy enough to include girls among his principal questers (Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Jill in The Silver Chair).

At the same time, here as elsewhere Lewis takes it for granted that the fantastic genre he writes in is in some sense a feminine one. Uncle Andrew has inherited what magic talents he has from his godmother, Mrs Lefay, whose name suggests an association both with fairy tales and Arthurian legend. She it was who bequeathed her godson a box from Atlantis containing dust from another world (Philip Pullman took note), which he uses to manufacture the rings that convey the child protagonists, Digory and Polly, to Charn and Narnia. Uncle Andrew, however, has learned nothing from this about the potency of female storytelling. When Digory points out that Mrs Le Fay’s gift suggests that ‘all the old fairy tales are more or less true’ (p. 28), and that one of the things that happens in fairy stories is that wicked people like Uncle Andrew get their come-uppance, his uncle retorts that such notions are no more than ‘Old wives’ tales’ and that Digory only believes them because he was ‘brought up among women’ (p. 29). One of the women Lewis himself got his ideas from was Clifford Mills, and this makes me wonder how many other better remembered writers owe a debt to her unsettling fantasy of death reversed, treason savagely punished, and imperial degeneration temporarily halted.

Where the Rainbow Ends has a place in the history of British fantasy, and I think it’s best not to forget it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. Fantasies can be damaging, it reminds us, as well as enriching; and even damaging fantasies can sometimes have unexpectedly enriching effects. Where the Rainbow Ends shaped me to a certain extent as well as Lewis, and it’s crucial to analyse that shaping process if we are not to be controlled by it. I can’t honestly, however, recommend that you read the book for yourself.

Notes

[1] Clifford Mills was Emilie Clifford (née Bennet, married Harold Mills Clifford in 1889), who adopted a variant of her husband’s name when writing. Besides Where the Rainbow Ends she wrote two other successful plays, The Basker (1916) and The Luck of the Navy (1919), both of which were performed on Broadway. The Luck of the Navy was filmed twice, in 1927 and 1938.

[2] Clifford Mills, Where the Rainbow Ends (London: Forgotten Books, 2015); all references are to this facsimile edition.

[3] Philip French, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – review’, The Observer, Sunday 11 December 2005.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (London etc.: William Collins and Sons, 1989). All references are to this edition.