Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and The Spider’s Palace (1931)

[I was introduced to A High Wind in Jamaica by my high school history teacher, Dick Woollett, in the late 1970s. This post is dedicated to him. Warning: it contains references to subjects readers may find upsetting.]

Two of my recent posts looked at Lord Dunsany’s Irish fiction, which is rarely considered fantasy. In them I argued that all three of the novels I discussed were directly preoccupied with the way the ‘real’ world is dominated by the fantasies of its inhabitants, and that they could therefore be said to address fantasy directly as an integral part of Irish life in the 1930s. This does not make them fantasies as we usually understand the term, of course, since nothing fantastic is said to have happened in them – apart from the rising of an Irish peat bog against its industrial exploiters in The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). But it suggests that the discussion of fantasy might benefit from being opened out a little, to reflect on the way the genre or mode exerts a gravitational pull on other kinds of narrative. The period between the wars is full of examples of ‘realist’ texts with fairy tales and fantasies embedded in them, as a means of identifying something crucial about contemporary culture and politics. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1935), with its riffs on the Arthurian legends, examines the impact on masculinity of the Great War and the rise of capitalism, as well as the flagging potency of Victorian ideas in the age of Modernity. Waugh’s novel takes its title from Eliot’s Modernist masterpiece The Waste Land (1922), which also embeds Arthurian legend – reduced to broken verbal fragments, emblems of the fragments left of old certainties after the War – in the English landscape, pointing forward to the successive engagements with Arthurian narratives by Tolkien (who planned for a while to retell those tales as a myth for modern England), T. H. White (in the series of novels that became The Once and Future King), Charles Williams (in his poetry sequence Taliessin Through Logres) and C. S. Lewis (in That Hideous Strength). Meanwhile, the first section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), ‘The Window’, centres on a mother reading a fairy tale to her son – the story of the Fisherman and his Wife, from the Household Tales of the brothers Grimm – which draws out the book’s concern with problems of communication between men and women as embodied in the Hebridean island where the action takes place, surrounded as it is by the severing sea. There’s a story to be told, I think, about the dialogue between the fantastic and the realistic at a time when fantasy was coming into its own as a distinct way of writing; and this story might help us account for the complex dialogue between the modes embedded in fantasy narratives of the 1950s, from The Lord of the Rings to the Narnian chronicles and the Borrowers books.

This post, too, is dedicated to a work of fiction that addresses the relationship between fantasy and the ‘real’ world: Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929). On the strength of his novel’s immense popularity between the wars, Hughes is often described as one of the most influential writers on childhood in the twentieth century. High Wind is said to have influenced Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) in its debunking of the Victorian cult of the child, its merciless dissection of the myth of childhood innocence. What isn’t often mentioned, though, is that Hughes also wrote fine fantastic stories for children, and that one collection of these stories, The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories (1931), came out just two years after High Wind was published. High Wind self-consciously adopts an adult perspective on children’s thoughts and actions, narrated as it is by a sardonic Victorian commentator. The Spider’s Palace gives us direct access to the children’s imaginative world, makes us natives of it, so to speak. Setting the books side by side paints an arresting picture, I think, of Hughes’s ambivalent attitude to fantasy as it manifests itself in two different age groups: young children and adults. For Hughes, fantasy dominates the lives of adults as well as children, and in both cases this domination can be playful, seductive and lethal. In saying so he marks the radical break that has taken place between his own lifetime, on this side of the Great War, and the supposedly halcyon days of the British Empire in the middle years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire throve on waking dreams of power, order, racism, class divisions and segregation between the sexes, and when the so-called Golden Age of children’s fiction was in full flood. But he also points the way to a recognition of how the invasion of the ‘real world’ by murderous fantasies like those of fascism, which was taking place as he wrote his book, had roots in the Victorian culture of his own country.

Anarchy

The Spider’s Palace is one of the oddest children’s books from a decade of often highly experimental children’s writing. The 1930s, after all, saw the publication of Mary Poppins (1934), The Hobbit (1937), The Sword in the Stone (1938), J. B. S. Haldane’s scientific extravaganza My Friend Mr. Leakey (1937), and the radical Irish fantasies of Patricia Lynch such as The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey (1934) and The Grey Goose of Kilnevin (1939); but each of these narratives is profoundly comforting in comparison with Hughes’s bizarre collection. Described in some editions as a book of ‘modern fairy stories’, the collection dedicates itself to undermining the reader’s sense that they know what fairy stories are. The style is the most fairy-story thing about them, as terse as the language used by Joseph Jacobs or Andrew Lang, a thousand miles from the lyrical flourishes of Hans Christian Andersen or George MacDonald. The narratives are anarchic; anything at all can happen in them, and there’s simply no knowing how a story will end. At the end of the decade, Tolkien argued that fairy stories need to close with a eucatastrophe, a sense of something having been satisfactorily completed – as invoked by the famous formula ‘they lived happily ever after’. When Hughes obliquely refers to that formula, it becomes a source of strangeness as intense as a surrealist painting. In one story, for instance, a prematurely aged gardener (who works so hard he only gets one hour’s sleep a night) decides to chase an equally aged rabbit out of his garden – as if a minor character from Alice in Wonderland had decided to rebel against the monarchist system by tracking down the royal herald and subjecting it to vigilante justice. The rabbit is too fast for him, so the gardener decides to taste some of the rose leaves it has been eating, instead of cultivating or painting the roses like the obedient gardeners in Alice. On eating the leaves he finds that they make him young again, which enables him to chase the rabbit all the way to its burrow, where it has imprisoned twenty or thirty white elephants, which the gardener liberates by strangling the rabbit. The story ends with a ‘happy ever after’ that goes like this:

Now that he had all these white elephants the gardener, of course, was rich, and didn’t have to work in the garden any more. Instead he had a small but comfortable house for himself, and a perfectly enormous stable for all the white elephants: and there they lived happily together for ever after: and this was the strange thing, that though when the rabbit had eaten the rose leaf it had only made him young for one night, when the gardener ate his it made him young for ever, so that he never grew old again at all. (p. 37)

Expensive and useless things, which is the traditional definition of a white elephant, define their possessors as wealthy – and in this story they seem to attract riches to them by simply existing; but the gardener seems as egalitarian in the use of his riches as Hughes is in choosing an elderly gardener as his protagonist, providing the animals and himself with homes that are strictly proportionate to their needs. The ‘strange thing’ in the story, however, is not the gardener’s decision to set up a household with thirty elephants, or the rabbit’s transformation in its final fight with the gardener into a monster with fiery eyes and teeth like a tiger’s, or even the rose’s rejuvenating qualities, but the fact that the rose leaves do not work in the same way for the gardener as they did for the rabbit: the rabbit was only made young for a night, but the man remained young for ever, ‘so that he never grew old […] at all’. That, of course, is the literal meaning of ‘they lived happily ever after’; but it takes Richard Hughes to make the formula strange again by allowing it to work for some people in his story world but not for others. Something like this happens in conventional fairy stories, too – the villain never gets to live happily ever after, the hero always does – but Hughes points up the disparity by having both hero and villain consume the same magical food, and experience different results from its consumption. An imaginative tale that breaks its own rules is utterly unlike the traditional magic tale, which explains exactly how a spell or magic object operates and makes sure that this is how it works from beginning to end. Hughes’s fairy tales are full of such instances of rules that get broken arbitrarily – and in doing so they transplant their readers to a far more dangerous imaginative zone than the one they are familiar with from the fairy tale collections of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The happy-ever-after gets broken more disturbingly in the story of the title, ‘The Spider’s Palace’. In it a little girl gets invited home by a friendly spider, awaking echoes in the reader’s mind of the story of Bluebeard (will she be murdered like a fly?), or Beauty and the Beast, or Cupid and Psyche. The Bluebeard analogy comes closest at first, since the spider’s airborne palace is wholly transparent apart from one room, into which the spider creeps for an hour each day. The girl enjoys her time there, playing in clouds which support her weight, taking pleasure in the spider’s company; but of course she is desperately curious to find out what he does in the hidden room; and when she hides in the room one day she sees him change into a handsome prince, a shape he retains throughout the hour of his concealment. Once the transformation has been witnessed the spell is broken, and from that moment the spider ceases to be a spider, his see-through residence becomes a conventional palace on the ground, and the little girl and the handsome prince go on living together as if nothing has happened. Neither the prince nor the girl, we’re told, ever mentions the change in their living conditions that has taken place. But this is no Tolkienian eucatastrophe. The girl goes on hankering after the days when she lived in an airborne, see-through palace, where she could play among the clouds and do what she liked. Living with a prince in a conventional palace is just no substitute for living with a spider in its magical web. In this story the traditional fairy tale loses its loveliness and an altogether stranger narrative takes its place. It is both a challenge to the usual assumptions about fairy tales – that the conventional forms of happiness they contain will appeal to their readers – and an accurate summary of the reader’s feelings at the end of the story of Beauty and the Beast, which is that life in an ordinary marriage (even a fairy tale one) is not a patch on life in an enchanted castle with a mournful, mysterious, possibly murderous monster (at least, in the context of a story).

Other stories in the collection add further twists to Hughes’s demolition of the Tolkienian eucatastrophe. A little girl who can travel down telephone lines escapes her unpleasant step-parents and gets herself adopted by a strange couple, who have phoned her house by mistake and so inadvertently granted her access to their home. But she tyrannizes over the couple, taking over room after room in their house until they have only an attic left to live in, and later forcing them to remove the roof so she can let off fireworks in her room. Luckily the couple have a friend with a magic rocket; the little girl sets the rocket off on Bonfire Night and it promptly carries her back to her neglectful step-parents, where she lives unhappily ever after on a diet of silence, tapioca pudding and cold mutton. The theme of awkward cohabitation within an unevenly divided domestic space is further developed in the story ‘Inhaling’, in which two small children are given a mysterious substance by a huge policeman. The substance has the property of making things grow to giant proportions, like the Food of the Gods in Wells’s novel, and the two children turn into giants when they pour it into their bath and inhale the steam. Meanwhile the steam also affects their nurse and their father to different extents, while their mother – who inhales nothing – remains the same size. As a result, the mismatched family has to construct a strange new house as experimental as anything by a modernist architect: ‘The nursery, of course, was enormous,’ Hughes explains, ‘Then came the study for their father, that was just about double size […] But the poor little mother had just an ordinary-size drawing-room and bedroom, and had to be ever so careful, when she went into the nursery, that the children didn’t tread on her’ (p. 120). The over-sized nurse, meanwhile, is simply sent away as an inconvenience. As a model of a domestic hierarchy the household is as disturbing as it is strange, and Hughes gives no hint that the situation will ever change. Magical restorations of things to their proper proportions don’t always happen in his fairy tale landscape, any more than they do in the ‘real’ world the child reader will inherit.

The collection ends with two of Hughes’s most unsettling non-happy-endings. In ‘The Old Queen’ the titular monarch is granted the gift of eternal life, but her beloved husband is not, with the result that after his death she is left in dreary solitude in her palace, ‘reigning and reigning’ for ever after without hope of closure (p. 145). And in the final story, a couple of teachers find themselves without a school and are reduced to teaching one another until a lost little girl turns up at their door and they adopt her as both pupil and daughter. The girl proves marvelously biddable except in the matter of getting out of the bath; so in the end one of the teachers flushes her down the plughole, which prompts the last few sentences in the book:

‘OH, what have you done,’ cried the schoolmaster. ‘You have lost our only child!’
‘I don’t care!’ said the schoolmistress in a stern voice. ‘She should have got out of the bath when she was TOLD!’ (p. 158)

The typographic eccentricities of the final sentence (in the original, the last two words are in italic fonts of increasing size) mimic the eccentricity of the story, which breaks free from the traditions of British children’s narratives by subjecting the disobedient child not to chastisement and repentance but to a dreadful and irreversible doom. In the process, the tale provides an unhappy ending to the collection as a whole, which begins in a very different mood. The opening story tells of a determined little girl who decides to go and live in a whale – like an impenitent Jonah – free from any controls at all; but the final story ends with the re-imposition of absolute adult control over a recalcitrant youngster. At the same time, the schoolmistress who punishes the little girl can be seen as anarchic in her impulses, meting out a wholly disproportionate punishment to her disobedient adoptive daughter, who merely acts on a perfectly natural preference to stay in the comfortable bathwater for a few minutes longer than her new mother deems appropriate. Adult order is as much an illusion in this collection as the fantasies conjured up by the wildest child’s imagination; and the fact that the book is not cast as a dream, unlike its most obvious model, Alice in Wonderland, gives it an air of radicalism, of having something to say about the nonsensical nature of accepted conventions, that Carroll’s great novel never quite aspired to.

Portmeirion

It’s perhaps for this reason that contemporary readers referred to the fables in Hughes’ collection as distinctively ‘modern’. The tales refuse to be bounded within the constraints of ordinary literature for the nursery, and refuse to suggest that the world they contain can be distinguished from the world beyond the book’s boundaries. Even the opening story segues very neatly from an everyday situation. An architect who has built a ‘model village’ in Wales (p. 9) – presumably Portmeirion – invites people everywhere to come and live in his country, and a little girl mistakes this for an invitation to live in whales, which is why she ends up moving into the belly of a seagoing mammal. Hughes does not differentiate between her eccentric choice of habitation (a whale) and the eccentric choice of habitation suggested by the architect (an Italianate model village on the Welsh coast). In the same way, the wild behaviour of the children in Hughes’s stories is not distinguished from the wild behaviour of the rabbit-wrestling, white-elephant-collecting, magic-rocket-owning adults. The Spider’s Palace was written before surrealism came to Britain, but its tacit acceptance of the domination of human culture by the riotous unconscious is entirely of a piece with the surrealist activities going on at the time in France.

Its politics, too, is at times as radical as that of the surrealists. Being a prince, a queen or a child does not guarantee its characters a happy ending, and cooks, maids, gardeners, farmers and poachers have as ready access to magic adventures as the youngest children of reigning monarchs. The most openly political story in the book is ‘The Glass-Ball Country’, which focuses on the political implications of ignoring limits and boundaries. A charcoal burner and his wife live in the almost inaccessible ruins of a castle on a cliff, where they shelter from the pointless wars being waged between the nations that surround them. At one point an elderly pedlar seeks shelter with them in the castle, and in their paranoia about discovery they almost kill him as a spy. Instead they reluctantly let him go free, and in return he gives them a glass ball as a present for their daughter. When a band of soldiers approaches the castle, threatening the charcoal-burner’s family with discovery and death, the little girl informs her parents that there is a country inside the glass ball, ‘only about an inch across’ (p. 60), where the family can hide from their military oppressors. They do so at once by reducing themselves to a suitable size, and live happily there for a while, until one of the soldiers decides to throw the ball from the castle window and watch it smash on the rocks below. The tiny country falls out of the globe and begins to grow, and as it grows the little girl invites a wounded soldier to take shelter with her family inside its expanding borders. The soldier soon reveals himself as the pedlar who gave her the ball, and explains that the land is called the Peace Country, a place where no citizen is permitted to fight. The Peace Country continues to expand, absorbing ‘farmers and other quiet people’ as it does so, and soon covers the whole of the ‘old warry country’, pushing its occupants into the ocean where they drown (p. 62). The charcoal burner and his wife are elected king and queen, while their daughter – now a princess – seeks out the soldier to be her husband as a way of sealing the happy ending, only to find that he has ‘disappeared for good’. The trajectory of this narrative is from confinement to liberation, from narrow limits to the removal of all unnecessary borders and constraints, a process orchestrated by a strange man who cannot be restricted to a single role (he is first a pedlar, then a soldier, then one of the ‘quiet people’, then an enigma) or time of life (he fluctuates between old age and youth). It provides a miniature working model – like the glass ball it describes – of a non-militaristic democratic community, whose exemption from the rules of physics and geography aligns it with anarchism. Anarchy here is liberating – just as elsewhere in the collection it is intimidating, allowing the spontaneous dissolution of restraints on the sometimes antisocial behaviour of children, adults and animals, such as rabbits, goats and spiders. The anarchist credentials of the collection are nowhere more evident than in its recognition that anarchy itself can be a force either for mutual support or for untrammeled Hobbesian brutality.

Performance

A High Wind in Jamaica pits the anarchy of childhood play against the most anarchic of adult communities, that of pirates. A group of white British children on their way to England from Jamaica – sent ‘home’ to prevent them being transformed into ‘savages’ by the joint influence of the tropics and emancipated Black slaves – gets accidentally abducted by pirates, and the story traces the relationship between these two sets of outlaws, ending with the execution of the entire pirate crew for a murder they did not commit. Innocence, then, is on trial in this narrative, as its original title (The Innocent Voyage) makes quite clear: the innocence of the children, the innocence of the pirates, both of which are problematic. The murder for which the buccaneers are executed was in fact committed by one of the children, but the pirates were certainly responsible for the accidental death of one child, the sexual assault of another, and the rape and attempted murder of a third. At the same time, the pirates are represented as in some ways more responsible and sympathetic in their treatment of the children than the respectable adults who had charge of them on land. Yet both pirates and respectable adults are united in their abhorrent treatment of the girl who is raped. The girl’s chief offence (it seems) is that she is adolescent, and therefore aware of sex and male violence in a way that the younger children are not; so she does not fit neatly into the categories of innocence and experience which govern the Victorian perception of childhood, and thus becomes an outcast both on the pirate ship and in the British society into which she is transplanted from her Caribbean birthplace. In this novel, the notion of innocence and experience, innocence and guilt, savagery and civilization, as simple binaries clearly distinguishable from one another by easily understood signs, is exposed as a pernicious fiction – even a fantasy, in that it cannot be safely applied to the complex business of existing in a stubbornly non-binary world.

Innocence, as a concept, tends to distract its loyal adherents from what is happening under their noses, and like The Spider’s Palace Hughes’s novel is designed to draw attention to the disparity between what’s expected or imagined by conventional minds and what ‘really’ takes place in both adult and childhood settings. The book explores a series of spaces that exist in the interstices between recognized structures or conceptual frameworks – the economy, class, gender, and especially race, as we shall see. Like the story collection it’s full of dwellings that get utterly transformed by the intransigent refusal of things to fit into the preconceived cultural shapes they are meant to occupy. A British house in Jamaica, with the delightfully Home Counties name of Ferndale, is abruptly torn to pieces by a violent hurricane on the same night that a half-tame cat called Tabby is torn to pieces by his wild cat-cousins. A pirate ship gets transformed into an elaborate playground-cum-circus by the children on board, then seamlessly transitions into a murder scene, much as a playground can imaginatively metamorphose into a scene of carnage or a circus into the setting for a horrific accident or a bloody assault by carnivores. The relative size or prominence of different characters in the book changes constantly, as different figures dominate a setting by becoming its focus, then recede into the background – sometimes disappearing entirely, as happens to the child called John when he falls to his death while watching a show and is at once expunged from the memory of his traumatized siblings. The land proves as unstable as the sea, with earthquakes and high winds shaking the ground and demolishing jungles. Victorian society conceives the world in terms of orderly hierarchies, clear divisions, architecturally rigid conceptual containers, all capable of being accommodated within the organized parameters of scientific, legal and philosophical discourses. The book’s world, by contrast – like the world of The Spider’s Palace – is in constant flux, and no philosophers or scientists exist who can make consistent sense of it.

This resistance to philosophical consistency or control is emphasized by the voice of Hughes’s narrator, who fades into and out of focus constantly, refusing ever to take up a stable position in relation to his characters or the events that overtake them. He identifies himself as Victorian in the opening chapter, where he tells us he hasn’t visited the Caribbean since 1860, ‘which is a long time ago now’ (p. 7); his text, then, is well out of date by the time High Wind was published in 1929. The phrase also implies that he is very old, since other comments in the text imply that he is still alive in the 1920s. The world-weary tone he adopts – together with his impatience for conventions he has too often seen flouted – confirms this impression. And his narrative style is torn between the stances of the 1860s and the 1920s. At times he seems to have the unimpeded spatial vision of the Victorian omniscient narrator, telling us exactly what the children’s parents are thinking, what the children are thinking, what the pirates are thinking, even when reporting incidents he could not possibly have had access to: as when John is the only child to catch a glimpse of an amateur operation on a ship’s monkey – an experience he could not possibly have conveyed to the narrator, since he dies a few pages later. At other times the narrator professes perfect ignorance, most often about the motives of the children in his story. He is dismissive of adult attempts to make sense of their actions and words, and freely confesses when he himself cannot explain why they do the opposite of what he might have anticipated. At one point he implies that there is simply ‘no means of knowing’ why children act as they do – why the youngest child Laura, for instance, conceives a passionate affection for the pirate Captain (pp. 99-100) – because adults have not yet learned to understand how a child’s mind works, caught as it is between the nascent consciousness of a human adult and the animal mind of a tiny baby: ‘babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind’ (p. 99). At the end of the novel the narrator withdraws completely from all his characters, becoming a detached observer who makes no claim to special knowledge about any of them, until in the final paragraph he loses sight even of his protagonist, the young girl Emily, professing himself quite unable to read ‘her deeper thoughts’ (p. 169), or even to distinguish her from the other children in the English boarding school where he leaves her. This fading out at the end balances the fading in that takes place at the beginning, where he describes the situation in Jamaica through a series of vignettes – the death of a pair of elderly plantation owners at the hands of former slaves, the gradual disintegration of the plantation buildings – then gradually homes in on the English family, the Bas-Thorntons, which will be his subject in the rest of the novel, as if his verbal picture of them will be just another vignette, or as if they are nothing more to him personally than the decaying buildings of the estate they live on. Overall, then, the narrator’s position is one of sceptical detachment, born from a recognition acquired over a long lifetime that most human ‘terms and categories’ are frankly inadequate as analytical instruments, knocked to pieces by (among other things) the publication of Darwin’s theory of Evolution in 1857, which smashed the biblical boundaries between humans and beasts.

The fluctuating world of the novel, whose terms and categories are always changing in response to changing circumstances, is underpinned by the references to stage performances with which it is filled. Each episode is cast as a piece of theatre: a pantomime (p. 61, p. 65), a peep-show (p. 68), a nativity-play (p. 69), a movie (p. 69), a religious ceremony (p. 122), a melodrama (pp. 23-4), a tragedy (p. 168) or a circus (p. 108). An earthquake witnessed by young Emily early in the novel takes place in a natural arena, a semi-circular bay called Exeter Rocks, and elicits an impromptu performance by the children who witness it: Emily breaks into a dance, John turns ‘head over heels on the damp sand, over and over in an elliptical course, till before he knew it he was in the water’ (p. 18). The attack of the wildcats on Tabby is played out before the children’s horrified eyes like a Roman gladiatorial combat, and Emily seeks to exorcise the horror of it from her mind by another kind of dramatic ‘performance’ (p. 25), retelling the tale of ‘her’ Earthquake to the ‘awed comments’ of an ‘imaginary English audience’. Meanwhile the hurricane destroying the house plays out as a ‘lightning-lit scene’ glimpsed through the ‘gaping frames’ of windows bereft of shutters – a melodrama seen through several proscenium arches. Mrs Thornton seeks to distract her children from it by reciting a poem by Walter Scott, the versified fairy tale The Lady of the Lake (p. 26). In each of these performances, however, the fourth wall of the theatre gets broken down. The children who witness the Earthquake are also in the middle of it, since the arena in which it happens ‘had no outside, it was solid world’ (p.17). The wildcats refuse to confine their murderous hunt for Tabby to the ‘lightning-lit scene’ of the garden, but burst through a skylight above the front door and land in the middle of the dining room table just as the family are settling down to dinner. The storm forces its way into the house, tearing shutters from windows and pictures from walls; while outside fairy tales get murderously enacted on members of the Thornton household, such as the nameless Black servant, a ‘fat old beldam’, who gets ‘blown clean away’ by the mounting wind, ‘bowling across fields and hedgerows like some one in a funny fairy-story, till she fetched up against a wall and was pinned there, unable to move’ (p. 26). We never find out if the ‘beldam’ survived being bowled like this, though we do know that another servant, Old Sam, has been killed by lightning, since his dead body is brought into the house by Mr Thornton. As the white man carries it in, the Black corpse becomes yet another spectacle; the children examine it in fascination, entranced by the old man’s limpness in death as compared with the arthritic stiffness of his limbs when he was alive. Like a circus audience they are ‘thrilled beyond measure’ by the unusual behaviour of his arms and legs (p. 24), and have no sense of him as a person whose life has just ended. By this time in their adventures, in fact, the distinction between performance and reality has fallen apart, with lethal consequences. And as the book goes on, those consequences get increasingly visited on the children.

The schooner from Alexander MacKendrick’s movie of the novel

The pirate schooner places the children at the centre of the performances rather than largely outside them. It makes them performers rather than spectators, in other words; and by the time this happens we should perhaps be conscious of the implications of this transition, since several performers – possibly the beldam, certainly Sam, the unfortunate Tabby and a sick ship’s monkey on the ship to England – have already been killed in shows like the ones the children now take part in. The schooner itself is a kind of performer, since it repeatedly masquerades as something it is not: an ordinary passenger ship full of attractive women, for instance, which is the pose it takes when it attacks the Clorinda, the ship that is carrying the children home; or a merchant ship called the Lizzie Green of Bristol, which is the guise it adopts when approaching a British steamship with the aim of persuading its reluctant captain to take the children off the pirates’ hands. And the captains of the vessels attacked by the schooner help to enhance its theatrical qualities. The pirates’ ship carries no guns, but the captains whose cargoes it purloins tend to reinvent it as a full-scale warship, capable of opening ‘ten or twelve disguised gun-ports’ and thereby unmasking ‘a whole broadside of artillery trained upon us’, as the master of the Clorinda puts it in his report to the children’s parents (p. 39). The behaviour of the pirates is also transformed in the report into the kind of casual brutality expected of marauders. The master asserts that they have murdered all the children in cold blood, and that he watched it happen; and this tendency to turn them into pantomime villains proves ultimately fatal to them in the arena of the courtroom.

Meanwhile the ship’s potential as a circus is first discovered by Emily’s brother John, who writes in a letter to his parents that he can ‘hang from the ratlines by my heels which the sailors say is very brave’ (p. 37). Later in the book he is killed by falling on his head from a height of forty feet, in the process neatly demonstrating the danger involved in hanging upside-down from the ratlines. John is an inveterate seeker after thrilling spectacles to witness as well as take part in: the operation on the gangrenous tail of the Clorinda’s monkey, for instance, which involves sailors plying the beast with rum until it’s so drunk it falls on its head and breaks its neck, in eerie anticipation of John’s demise; or the nativity play put on by a priest in the pirate town of Santa Lucia, which John also manages to be the only child to witness, burrowing through an excited crowd to reach his vantage point – then inadvertently completing the spectacle himself with his fatal dive. In between, John takes part in a spectacle mounted by the pirates when they auction off the goods taken from the Clorinda (he is the child who weighs the coffee offered for sale). This show begins as a ‘pantomime’ performed by the haughty Spanish-speaking dignitaries who come to view the goods on offer (p. 61), and the children are delighted when the mate of the schooner, Otto, decks them out in ‘fancy dress’ to join the performance (p. 63). But things later get unnerving as the adult actors consume a potent cocktail mixed by the pirate captain, Jonsen, until eventually there is ‘something a little nightmare-like in the whole scene’ (p. 67), and the children retreat from the drunken mob to the relative safety of the ship’s hold. In this incident the distinction between theatre and auditorium, performer and spectator blurs again, pointing the way to John’s terminal performance as actor-spectator. Later still, a circus spectacle completes the disintegration of the distinction between theatre and life, play and earnest. The pirates seize control of a ship full of circus animals and try to goad a couple of big cats into a fight for the children’s amusement. Eventually a tiger loses patience with Otto’s goading, and ‘Quicker than eye could see, it had cuffed him, rending half his face’ (p. 110). The first mate survives, none the worse for his ‘rending’; but the last performance he takes part in – the pirates’ trial for kidnapping, robbery and murder, avidly watched by the British public and the press – ends more drastically, largely as a result of a child’s dramatic departure from the prepared script she has been assigned, a spontaneous transition from an act of theatre to the articulation of inward trauma.

Each of these dramatic episodes summons up visions of the death of Tabby on the night when the high wind struck, a performance that ended in bloodshed and that reshaped Emily’s understanding of the world she lived in. As the book goes on, Emily finds herself increasingly conscious of her own affinity with poor Tabby: only half tamed, but deeply vulnerable to far wilder and more lethal forces than the ones she embodies. Her response is to defend herself by any means at her disposal, from telling herself stories to committing murder. One of the modern fairy tales in The Spider’s Palace provides an analogy for the various shifts she undergoes between passive audience and dynamic actor. It concerns a man with a bright green face who works in a circus and is horribly bullied by the circus owner, and who later teams up with a performing elephant and an engine driver to exact revenge. The story ends with the circus owner being magically transformed into a weird giraffe with the face of a man, then displayed to paying customers by his former victims, including the titular ‘Man with a Green Face’. ‘Everybody came to see him’, Hughes concludes,

and paid [a] whole shilling each; and they kept him in a cage. There were soon so many shillings that the man with the green face and the elephant and the engine driver got very rich indeed, and were ever so happy. (p. 45)

But the ending is not so happy, perhaps, for some of its readers. After all, it leaves them pretty much where it found them: in a world where performers are forced to take part in shows and where the happiness of one person is always obtained at the expense of another. A rich man with a green face who owns a slave is an authentic monster; conversely, a one-time bully trapped in a cage can be seen as a victim; and the grotesque institution of the circus freak show remains untouched by Hughes’s narrative, its function as a vehicle for justice hardly detracting from its nastiness or from the nastiness of the world that lets it exist. It’s a similar world to the one in which Emily finds herself, even if the physical laws that govern it – where some men have green faces and others can be turned into giraffes with human heads – seem very different.

At the end of the book, Emily herself becomes a performance, a stage show suffused with all the strangeness such shows can encompass. Her testimony is essential to the pirates’ wrongful conviction for murder, and she delivers much of it in the eerie sing-song tones of an amateur actor. But when she departs from the script written out for her by her lawyer she releases the dramatic potential that has been in her since her rescue. Her father sees this potential clearly before the trial; he thinks of her as ‘the stage of a great tragedy’ (the analogy coming naturally to him, since he works as a theatre critic), and while he pities her for what she has endured he would not have missed her performance in court ‘on any account’ (p. 168). Of course, actors in tragedies are never really the victims or perpetrators of the events they act out on stage, so the analogy does not in fact work for Emily. Her father is superimposing the tragedy on her body, so to speak, like a director organizing actors ahead of a show, or a puppet master investing his dolls with life. And when Emily departs from her script at the pirates’ trial, the audience – including her father – reads into her broken shrieks of horror (‘He was all lying in his blood… he was awful! He… he died, he said something and then he died’, p. 171) the hackneyed story they have in their heads: the pirates’ murderousness, the girl’s abuse, the children’s courage, all the ingredients of a Victorian melodrama. At the same time, like that of an actor Emily’s mind remains impenetrable to them despite her outburst, and their assumptions based on her shrieks are quite mistaken. The narrator knows this, and the father suspects it, half conscious that his view of her as tragic is no more than a symptom of his own ‘fantastic mind’ (p. 170). His knowledge that he has no real access to her thoughts and memories comes into focus when he admits, ‘with a sudden painful shock’, that he is in fact ‘afraid of her’ (p. 170). As a child subjected to experiences adults neither expect a child to suffer nor can really imagine her suffering, she poses a threat to the adult view of the world itself; and the theatrical metaphor can be seen as exposing the radical break between the way she acts and the way she thinks, or feels, or remembers, as well as the fantastic nature of most adult assumptions – about children, about pirates, or about the orderly, ethical, tranquil lives they themselves lead.

Edward Lear, illustration from The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World

The relationship between A High Wind in Jamaica and fantasy is in fact a close one. Fairy tales intrude on the narrative several times. We’ve already witnessed Scott’s fairytale poem The Lady of the Lake play a crucial role in distracting the children from the hurricane. On another occasion the cross-dressing Cuban men who help the buccaneers fool the crew of the Clorinda into letting them on board are referred to as ‘Fairies’ (p. 59), rendering them strange as well as lovely in the children’s eyes. Later still, Emily is wandering around the pirate ship ‘thinking vaguely about some bees and a fairy queen’ (p. 85) when she is suddenly struck by a recognition of her own identity as a separate person, a distinct individual; after which she at once returns to the bees and the fairy queen, perhaps with a new awareness of the relationship between the hive’s lonely leader (also a queen) and her many subjects. At various points in the narrative the children tell themselves and one another fantastic stories to divert their attention from things they can’t cope with. At other times their occasional outbursts of random behaviour take on all the traits of a nonsense narrative, like Alice in Wonderland or Edward Lear’s extraordinary Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World; and this randomness reflects their refusal on many occasions to acknowledge the cause-and-effect relationships between actions and their consequences – at least until the moment when Emily’s newly-acquired self-consciousness begins to change her attitude. Even then, however, she remains an enigma, like the stranger with the glass ball in The Spider’s Palace. A young woman on the steamship tries to get to know her, but when she dubs her a ‘Little Fairy-girl’ (p. 154) it’s not so much a piece of affectionate whimsy as an oblique acknowledgment of her oddness, the impenetrability of her mind, the possibility, even, that she is some sort of changeling, her conventional girl-nature switched on the pirate ship for something less comforting, less apparently familiar.

The strongest link in the book with fantasy, not surprisingly, is with a story that started out as a theatrical performance: J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Hughes’s narrator shares with Barrie’s narrator in the novel of the play, Peter and Wendy, a willingness to shatter myths of childhood; and Barrie’s protagonist, Peter Pan, has a lot in common with the Thornton children. Peter is always forgetting things as he transfers his attention to new interests, and sometimes his forgetfulness is almost fatal to other people – as when he is flying with the Darlings on the long journey to the Neverland and keeps disappearing to take part in other adventures, leaving his inexperienced companions literally hanging in mid-air. In the same way, Hughes’s children are always changing tack, both imaginatively and physically, and their forgetfulness is sometimes fatal: not so much when they forget about John after his death as when they forget, or even consciously set aside, the pirates’ instructions not to say anything to the passengers on the steamship about their abduction. Peter’s delight in killing is transferred to Hughes’s Edward, who is constantly enacting in his mind far bloodier adventures than those of the buccaneers among whom he lives. The Darling children and the Lost Boys, meanwhile, are always changing affiliations and swapping roles in their games on Peter’s island – becoming pirates, Indians, or feral children as the mood takes them; and Hughes’s children too are always discarding and resuming loyalties, as when Emily spontaneously decides that all men and boys are disgusting – which makes her confidentially inform her new female friend aboard the steamship about the abduction – or when Edward stops describing his adventures on the pirate ship as if he were one of the pirates and instead starts to tell them as if he had heroically resisted his abductors. There are major differences, meanwhile, between Hughes’s Emily and Barrie’s Wendy. Wendy is cloyingly maternal, and this quality is transferred in A High Wind to one of Emily’s younger siblings, Rachel, who is always making babies out of random objects, and whose motherly instincts very nearly kill her older sister, when she accidentally drops a heavy spike she has been nursing and it slashes through Emily’s calf as it falls to the deck (in the process producing useful evidence of the pirates’ brutality for the trial). Emily, by contrast, likes to imagine herself as a pirate, though she is increasingly concerned that this career path may be closed to her because of her sex (p. 117). She also gets increasingly concerned that real-life pirates are much less easily contained than the pirates of her dreams – something that gets driven home to her when Captain Jonsen, in a drunken haze, tries to assault her, prompting her to bite his thumb and make her escape, like Peter Pan evading Hook (though in Barrie’s book it is Hook who bites Peter Pan, p. 150). The discrepancies between Emily’s imaginings and the cold hard facts of the adult world align her with Peter, too, in her mounting resistance to maturation: ‘Why must she grow up?’ she asks herself, ‘Why couldn’t she leave her life always in other people’s keeping, to order as if it was no concern of hers?’ (p. 118). Admittedly, Peter is deeply opposed to being ‘ordered’, but so too is Emily, as it turns out. Her resistance to adult control is what finally kills the pirates, just as Peter’s tendency to resist any limitations placed on his pleasure in violent play ends up by destroying Captain Hook, whose status as the villain of the piece means he can never, in Peter’s world, be granted mercy.

The grown-up characters in Hughes’s novel, meanwhile, both pay homage to and mock the adult characters in Barrie’s narrative. In Peter and Wendy, Mrs Darling has an almost supernatural insight into her children’s minds, to the extent that she can even tidy up their mental landscapes after putting them to bed (pp. 72-3). Mrs Bas-Thornton, on the other hand, is constantly making wrong assumptions about her children; in fact she is ‘constitutionally incapable of telling one end of a child from the other’ (p. 30), the narrator claims. She is certain the children idolize her, when in fact they feel much closer to the doomed cat, Tabby. When parting with her offspring on the ship bound for England she is convinced that her eldest son is too full of grief to say goodbye: compared with his sister Emily, she tells her husband, ‘John is so much the more sensitive’, since he is clearly ‘too full to speak’ (p. 37) at the point of parting. The narrator, meanwhile, has already told us that John’s silence stems from his eagerness to get away and climb the rigging. Mr Bas-Thornton, meanwhile, is very much like Mr Darling, not least in his poor head for business. Mr Darling spends long hours trying to calculate whether he and his wife can afford to have children, but his conclusions have little bearing on the final decision (pp. 70-71); while Mr Bas-Thornton has ‘every accomplishment, except two: that of primogeniture, and that of making a living’ (p. 30). Like Mr Darling he feels a great deal but cannot express his emotions freely without compromising his manhood, which means that both men are always breaking out in fits of temper and making sarcastic comments, sometimes to their own embarrassment and chagrin. Hughes’s pirates, meanwhile, are promiscuously constructed from Barrie’s crew of assorted misfits. Captain Jonsen is an amalgam of Captain Hook and his shipmates; like the mild-mannered bosun Smee he is genial but dangerous, shuffling around in home-made slippers wringing his hands and whimpering a little at times of crisis (p. 66), but capable too of a drunken assault on a ten-year-old girl – just as Smee is capable of tying up Wendy while insisting he will release her if she promises to be his mother. Jonsen’s appearance has the grotesqueness of the rest of Hook’s associates, with a ‘sad, silly face, […] great spreading feet’ and a perpetual stoop, ‘as if always afraid of banging his head on something’ (p. 47). Most distinctive of all, he carries ‘the backs of his hands forward, like an orang-outang’, which recalls Hook’s shipmate Noodler, whose hands are ‘fixed on backwards’ (p. 114). Jonsen is full of cunning stratagems, like Hook himself, and like Hook’s they all go wrong, most spectacularly his plan to return the children to their parents without revealing his complicity in their abduction. Like Hook, again, his origins are respectable – he has served on English vessels and acquired the language before quietly drifting into illegal habits. As with Hook, conventions plague him and can be said to be his downfall; Hook becomes convinced at Eton that he can never possess gentlemanly ‘good form’ or even understand what it is (pp. 188-9), while Jonsen is killed, in effect, by the myth that pirates behave less like gentlemen than legitimate sailors, as represented by the master of the Clorinda, whose report on the children’s abduction is a tissue of lies from start to finish.

Jonsen could even be said to be plagued by a crocodile. The Bas-Thornton children are fascinated by reptiles: Emily collects lizards in Jamaica, and when she and her siblings arrive at port to board the Clorinda they hear that crocodiles have been sighted in the vicinity, and keep peering around the town in the hope of spotting one (p. 33). Much later, when taken on board the English steamship, Emily borrows a baby alligator from a boy named Harold. The alligator’s baby teeth are harmless, but it snaps at Emily’s finger just as she snapped at Jonsen’s, and when the pair of them stare at one another the narrator stresses the resemblance between beast and child, and the reptilian inscrutability of both:

What possible meaning could Emily find in such an eye? Yet she lay there, and stared, and stared: and the alligator stared too. If there had been an observer it might have given him a shiver to see them so – well, eye to eye like that. (p. 146).

Alligators, the narrator concludes, are ‘utterly untameable’ (p. 147), and so are young children. Barrie implies something similar in the famous last sentence of Peter and Wendy: Peter’s adventures will go on, he tells us, for ever, ‘as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless’ (p. 226). Emily’s fascination with the predatory reptile suggests that she shares its untameable heartlessness at some level; and although she does grow up, unlike Peter Pan, the radical difference she exemplifies between adults and children – Hughes seems to suggest – will always remain. Which is not a promising prospect for adults or children.

Race

Peter Pan is now recognized as a racist text, its hackneyed view of native Americans reaffirming the myths that sought to justify their oppression and erasure from history. High Wind, too, has racism at its core. The book’s central characters – a group of white British children – have imbibed racist assumptions from their infancy, and underpinning all their adventures is the contempt they have been taught to feel for Black Jamaicans. At the same time, as the book goes on they become increasingly identified with the African victims of the slave trade as well as its perpetrators. Violent episodes in the book point up the status of violence as the unacknowledged founding principle of the country that shaped them, and Hughes implies that this same violence continues to drive the British imperial machine decades after the purported ending of the slave trade. As the children mature – in particular the older girls, the teenager Margaret and ten-year-old Emily – their awareness of this fact increases, and they find themselves caught up in the cycle of violence and oppression, feeling it in and on their bodies just as Emily felt the Earthquake in her ears (‘a strange, rushing sound’, p. 17), her lungs (‘the children held their breath’, p. 18), her nervous system (‘things vibrated slightly’, p. 18) and her belly (afterwards Emily felt ‘like a child who has eaten too much even to be sick’, p. 21). The girls internalize British racism and imperialist violence in the course of the book, carrying it forward with them into adulthood, just as the heritage of Victorian colonialism gets carried forward into the time of the book’s composition, the second decade of the twentieth century.

The opening of the novel drifts across the landscape of Jamaica, noting the impact of emancipation on its geography (‘ruined slaves’ quarters, ruined sugar-grinding houses, ruined boiling houses’, p. 5) and its inhabitants (the narrator tells about the elderly white sisters, the old Miss Parkers, who were starved to death or possibly poisoned by their ‘three remaining faithful servants’, p. 5). Later, Black Jamaicans do their best to educate the Bas-Thornton children in aspects of African culture. Old Sam teaches them how to set snares for birds and tells them stories about the trickster-spider Anansi, which Emily remembers vividly later. The kids find out about duppies – vengeful spirits of the dead – a concept which they initially deride as a silly superstition, but which later returns to haunt them after the murder of the Dutch captain. On her tenth birthday Emily discovers a lost community of former slaves hidden in the jungle near her home. An elderly ex-slave tells her the history of the community, giving its name as Liberty Hill – a beacon of hope in a time of British tyranny; but Emily is interested only in the worship offered her by the community’s children, or what she takes as worship, though the narrator assures us they are not so much worshipping as vastly curious. Emily returns from this adventure confirmed in her conviction of her own importance: ‘Her heart bubbled up, she swelled with glory: and taking leave with the greatest condescension she trod all the long way home on veritable air’ (p. 13). The attitude that ranks Black families below white families and their pets is reflected in the Bas-Thornton children’s response to the deaths of several Black servants in the hurricane. The woman who gets blown away is merely comic, and even the death of Sam dwindles to nothing compared with the death of Tabby: as the narrator sums up, ‘there is, after all, a vast difference between a negro and a favourite cat’ (p. 29). The hurricane episode, in other words, underscores the endemic racism of the climate in which the children grew up, and sets itself against the sentimental vision of the relationship between Black adults and white children in a post-slavery setting in the hugely popular Uncle Remus books, which were still being read in vast numbers by British children between the wars.

As the book goes on, however, the children’s racism gets turned against them, much as the wild cats turn against Tabby, their half-tame relative – or as the children turn against the pirates in the final chapter. The process begins when the Bas-Thornton children are sent to meet another white family on the island, whose name – Fernandez – marks them out as not ‘purely’ Anglo-Saxon. The Fernandez family are Creoles, defined by the narrator as white families who have lived in the West Indies ‘for more than one generation’ (p. 13). They have been somehow contaminated by their long stay, the Bas-Thorntons believe: the children ‘would often run about barefoot like negroes’, and they have a governess ‘whose blood was possibly not pure’ as well as a ‘brown nurse’. The Fernandez child who most clearly suffers from the racist attitudes of the Thorntons is the girl Margaret, who at thirteen is three years older than Emily, and three years more knowledgeable, both about Jamaica and about the changing female body. Emily’s jealous contempt for this older girl is obvious from the moment they meet, when she is disgusted by Margaret’s finely-tuned sense of smell – another piece of evidence, as far as she is concerned, for her suspected racial ‘impurity’. Margaret can tell by smell that there is going to be an earthquake, and when the earthquake duly strikes shows little recognition of its massive impact on Emily’s feelings. Emily frames the older girl’s familiarity with earthquakes as a racialized sign of obtuseness: ‘How funny Creoles were! They didn’t seem to realize the difference it made to a person’s whole after-life to have been in an Earthquake’ (p. 20). She later associates it with Margaret’s ability to tell by smell which item in the family’s washing belongs to which family member. Ironically, Emily shares this ability – she can tell by smell, for instance, which towel belongs to her and which belongs to her older brother; but she doesn’t articulate such matters, and in her view ‘it just showed what sort of people Creoles were, to talk about Smell, in that open way’ (p. 19). Clearly the distinctions between the Bas-Thorntons and the Fernandez children are both minimal and vastly exaggerated by the British immigrants, in the interests of confirming their own sense of their superior position in Jamaica; a position which has been threatened both by the end of slavery and by their own financial precariousness, their uncertain position as middle-class landowners in a land that refuses to submit to their incompetent efforts to control it.

Margaret in the movie, played by Viviane Ventura

The racist perception of Margaret gets intensified on the pirate ship, where her Creole identity becomes mixed up in Emily’s mind with the older girl’s awareness of sex, and above all with her fear of rape. Non-Creole white people, Emily claimed, do not talk about bodily functions, and not talking becomes a prominent feature of the children’s life among the buccaneers – a way of imaginatively protecting themselves from danger by not mentioning it: not talking about a child’s death, not talking about sex, not talking too directly about the fact that the sailors on board might possibly be pirates (Emily tells the younger children they are in fact pilots, though she has only the vaguest notion of a pilot’s function). Margaret, by contrast, has the fear of rape in mind from the moment she sets foot on Captain Jonsen’s schooner. The girl’s awareness of erotic desire and its economics first emerges on the Clorinda when she notes the handsome appearance of Mr Bas-Thornton – come on board to see his children off – as well as his lack of money. When the children get transferred to the schooner, she is the only one aware of the sexual threat posed by their piratical captors. She sobs in the darkness of the fore-hold, and tells the others they are ‘too young to know’ why she is upset (p. 57) – but again not talking prevents her from stating exactly what they are too young to know. Later still, when the inebriated Captain Jonsen confirms her fears by entering the children’s quarters with rape in mind, Margaret alone has any inkling of what is going on. She turns as ‘yellow as cheese’ (as if to confirm her ‘racial difference’ from the other children), her eyes grow ‘large with terror’, and at that moment Emily remembers ‘how stupidly frightened Margaret had been the very first night on the schooner’ (p. 90). Afterwards, Emily finds her behaviour even more puzzling, as the older girl first seems ‘exaggeratedly frightened of all the men’, then takes to following them around like an affectionate dog, especially Otto, the first mate. She soon transfers all her possessions to the cabin Otto shares with Captain Jonsen, and from this moment her fate is sealed. She is no longer a ‘child’, and so no longer protected (however precariously) by the social obligation to support the weakest in the community. But she is also still somehow a child who has been ‘spoiled’ or rendered ‘impure’ by her sexual awareness. From this point in the book she ceases, in effect, to be part of the conversation between the pirates and the children. She loses her voice, both literally – in that she very seldom speaks – and symbolically – in that the pirates and later the law-abiding British rescuers of the children cease to listen to her. To save herself from rape she has ‘submitted’ to rape, thus ceasing to be ‘innocent’ in the eyes of the patriarchy, becoming instead invisible and inaudible, like a ghost; and nothing she says or does can restore her innocence.

This is largely a result of the consensual silence around what has happened to Margaret – that is, around the fact that she has now become Otto’s sexual partner or slave. The pirates never mention it, and neither do the children’s rescuers on the steamship, while both adult communities make it perfectly clear that they are always picturing for themselves the sordid details of this ‘debauchment’ – while always presuming that it was in some sense a willing act, that Margaret somehow ‘debauched’ or spoiled herself. Silence is also, of course, a widely practised response to the slave trade after abolition, a means of erasing all evidence of slavery from a country’s past in the interests of absolving its citizens from guilt: whether the silence of misnaming, such as describing the former slaves of the old white ladies who starved to death as ‘faithful servants’ (p. 5), or the silence of concealment, like the hiding of Liberty Hill in the heart of the jungle, or the silence of oblivion, like the silence that sidelines Sam from the children’s memories in favour of Tabby. The event that leads to the silencing of Margaret – Jonsen’s assault on Emily – is effectively described as if it, too, had been erased from history. The only episode in the novel that’s narrated in retrospect, out of its proper chronological position in the sequence of events that befall the Bas-Thornton children, it is placed immediately after the moment when Emily becomes self-conscious for the first time, as though her discovery of her independent mind and body were a direct result of the attack. The dawn of Emily’s self-awareness takes place at the beginning of Chapter 6 – pretty much in the middle of the novel – and is described as being ‘of considerable importance’ to her, occurring as it does after a period of time when things have apparently ‘ceased happening’, when Emily and the other children have simply ‘settled down […] to grow’. Only after gaining self-awareness does Emily recall the other event that happened recently, an event that an adult reader might well expect to have greater ‘importance’ in her mind, but which she has evidently suppressed. This is the moment, one week earlier, when the pirate Captain she worshipped betrayed her by coming down into the fore-hold and laying hands on her, lifting her chin and stroking her hair. That was when she bit him and made her escape, after which the other children refused to speak to her for several days, horrified by her unwarranted assault on their grown-up friend. Emily’s period of being sent to Coventry is only temporary, unlike Margaret’s; her ignorance of exactly what happened, of what the threat was to which she reacted, allows her to reintegrate herself quite quickly among her ignorant siblings. But it’s also the point in the book when she comes closest in her mind to the status of the slaves from whom she has been taught to consider herself entirely distinct – comes closest, in fact, to the historical facts that have been jettisoned by the culture that raised her.

The reason for Emily’s closer approach to the experience of slavery is the ongoing threat of violence exposed by Jonsen’s attack. The event in the fore-hold redefines the Captain in Emily’s mind as a deadly feral cat, a ‘waiting tiger’ rather than the bumbling be-slippered father-figure she has always thought him. In the process it reveals the endemic aggression that underpins not only the pirate’s trade but the wider culture inhabited by children, especially girls. As we’ve seen, Margaret was already aware of the presence of this aggression before the attack took place; and the teenager expresses this awareness in the tales she tells. Asked by the younger children for a story at bedtime, she conjures up a narrative more like a nightmare than a fairy tale,

A very stupid story about a princess who had lots and lots of clothes and was always beating her servant for making mistakes and shutting him up in a dark cupboard. The whole story, really had been nothing but clothes and beating, and Rachel had begged her to stop (p. 89).

‘Stupid’ though it may be, the tale proves prophetic. The attractive protagonist of fairy tale tradition, the princess, becomes a tyrant in it, and in the middle of the narrative the kindly Captain comes down the ladder with some other sailors, who are urging him to do something that fills his voice with ‘suppressed excitement’ – urging him, that is, to act the tyrant himself. Emily’s swift and violent response puts a stop to his actions; but all the same her world is turned upside down, her fairy tale existence transformed into something closer to Margaret’s house of horrors or the unpredictable tales of The Spider’s Palace. Biting the Captain makes her a ‘wicked girl’, one of her younger sisters tells her (p. 90) – though something tells Emily that the Captain too had been doing something ‘wicked’, which makes her own behaviour harder to judge. But the incident also changes the Captain’s attitude to Emily. The bite doesn’t lead to punishment or retribution; instead it fills Jonsen with remorse, so that for a long time – between his shame and Emily’s embarrassment – they cannot resume anything approaching friendly relations. The episode changes Margaret too, as we’ve seen – she becomes Otto’s silent, unacknowledged sexual partner; and about a week later it seems to effect a change in Emily herself. Part of her discovery of her own identity involves a new interest in her body: ‘The contact of her face and the warm bare hollow of her shoulder gave her a comfortable thrill, as if it were the caress of some kind friend’ (p. 86). The ‘thrill’ may seem ‘comfortable’ to her, but there’s an uncomfortable echo here, too, of Jonsen’s predatory touch in the fore-hold, which might also be described as the ‘caress of some kind friend’. Shortly afterwards, Emily’s awareness that she can decide things for herself without recourse to adult authority leads her to speculate that she might in fact be a kind of God. But the discovery of independence also brings fear. If her body is no longer organically connected to its surroundings – which can carry on without her when she is absent, as the life of the ship carries on without her when she’s aloft in the rigging – then when she comes down from the mast there might be ‘disasters’ waiting for her on deck, perhaps at the hands of stronger bodies like those of Otto and the Captain (p. 87). Being distinct from the other children makes her noticeable, and being noticeable puts her at risk; and when the narrator goes on to describe the attack in the fore-hold, we can see what has made her think so.

A little after the account of the attack, we learn how Emily now remembers her time in Jamaica. Suddenly the story of her life has become a sequence of connected events that provides a scenario for vivid nightmares. She recalls the Earthquake, and suddenly thinks it may have contributed to the collapse of the house at Ferndale. She recalls her visit to Liberty Hill ‘with a startling clearness’ (p. 95); but she also remembers the death of Tabby at the teeth and claws of his monstrous relatives. In her dreams, the wild cats become embodiments of the deep-seated fear of slaves experienced by slave-owners: they are ‘horrible black shapes’ which have ‘flown in through the fanlight and savaged [the tame cat] out into the bush’ (p. 95). Also in her dreams Tabby turns into Jonsen, staring at her ‘with the same horrible look on his face the captain had worn that time she bit his thumb’. Margaret, meanwhile, completes her transformation into the Black Jamaican she has always been associated with in the Bas-Thornton children’s minds. As Emily flees from Tabby down endless avenues of soaring cabbage-palms, ‘Margaret sat up an orange tree jeering at her, gone as black as a negro’. By this stage in her dream-life, the Captain’s attack has become for Emily a reenactment of the horrors of the British slave trade, with Emily the representative white girl against whom the former slaves seek retribution. Jonsen’s assault, then, leads not just to Emily’s self-recognition as an independent person but to a faint apprehension on her part of British atrocities in Jamaica; atrocities with which she has aligned herself by her treatment of Margaret.

As a result, Emily sees herself as both complicit with and potentially subject to the treatment she has always seen meted out to Black people in Jamaica. Her new sense of vulnerability gets confirmed when her leg is injured by a falling spike, accidentally dropped from the mast by her sister Rachel; and this in turn leads to her confinement in the ‘comfortable’ yet disturbing setting of the captain’s cabin. The cabin also happens to be the scene of Margaret’s rape, and hence the indirect cause of the older girl’s silencing and the mood of the crew that has turned against her ever since. This change of mood is exemplified when Jonsen carries the injured Emily into the cabin and snarls at the teenager ‘Get out!’ in a ‘low, brutal voice’ (p. 104). Margaret is mending clothes at the time, ‘humming softly and feeling deadly ill’, but the men show no interest in her illness, and when she disappears from the room the narrator can only proclaim his ignorance of her fate: ‘Heaven knows what hole [she] had been banished into’ (p. 105). This erasure of her experiences again aligns the teenager with the victims of the slave trade, and Margaret’s unwilling demonstration of what happens to a girl when she reaches puberty has already been preying on Emily’s unconscious. Then, soon after the younger girl’s instalment in the cabin, something happens that brings her fear of becoming a second Margaret to a crisis. The Dutch captain of a ship seized by the pirates is trussed up and left alone in the room with Emily, while the pirates set up a circus show on the captured vessel. The Dutchman is bound and helpless, but he resembles Jonsen to some extent – as a nautical ship’s master who is both funny and frightening in equal measure; and the fact that he’s a prisoner makes him somehow more of a threat than if he were free: ‘There is something much more frightening’, the narrator suggests, ‘about a man who is tied up than a man who is not tied up – I suppose it is the fear he might get loose’. A slave owner might well agree. Emily’s terror of the struggling captive contrasts with the pleasant feeling of power she felt as she approached the hidden Black community, Liberty Hill, on the day she turned ten. Entering the village behind a crowd of fleeing children, she felt ‘Encouraged by the comfortable feeling of inspiring fright’ (p. 12). In the cabin, by contrast, she herself is frightened, aware that the man on the floor may break his bonds, and that if he does he may prove as vindictive as Margaret was in her dream, as well as too strong for Emily to resist, even with her teeth. The scene becomes another ‘nightmare’ (p. 109), and Emily reacts for a second time with a burst of violence. Leaping from her bunk, she seizes a knife and stabs the captain ‘in a dozen places’ (p. 110). He dies under the horrified gazes of Emily and Margaret, who appears at this moment in the entrance to the room with her ‘dulled eyes staring out from her […] skull-like face’ (p. 111). Emily leaps back into bed and faints at once from the pain of her newly-opened wound. And soon afterwards it becomes clear that other old wounds have been newly opened by the murder: the wounds inflicted by the British slave trade.

The murder in the cabin, after all, has been the outcome of several forms of entrapment or bondage. In it, Emily is trapped in her bed by her injured leg, as well as by the subliminal fear of men that was planted in her by Jonsen’s betrayal. The Dutch captain is trapped on the floor by the ropes that bind him. Margaret is trapped in her role as the despised outsider, hovering in the entrance to the cabin, neither inside the room nor outside it, symbolically replicating her exclusion from both communities on the schooner – the adult community and that of the children. Emily’s violence, then, could be seen as springing from two causes: a desire to free herself from entrapment – entrapment by fear, entrapment by the risk of becoming Margaret – and a desire to stop the man she kills from gaining his freedom. Instead it entraps the pirates, who are doomed by it to atone with their lives for the crimes of the slave-trade, while also trapping Emily herself in the nightmare prison of her guilt.

‘The Slave Ship’ by Turner, representing the Zong massacre

Meanwhile, the two girls both suffer a further descent towards the condition of enslaved Black Africans in the earlier part of the Nineteenth Century. When the pirates discover Margaret at the scene of the murder, they assume at once that she is the murderer and toss her overboard in a fit of retribution, fear and disgust. The girl is only rescued by sheer chance when a passing boat, full of pirates who aren’t aware of the murder, finds her swimming in the ocean and returns her to the schooner, physically unharmed but emotionally traumatized. The episode recalls a number of notorious incidents in the history of the British slave trade, most notably the murder of more than 130 Africans by the crew of the slave ship Zong in 1781, who threw them overboard when the ship ran out of drinking water. After this, Margaret’s own erasure from history is complete, as adults increasingly assume (without much evidence) that she has been driven mad by her ordeal, and hence an unsafe witness of what happened on the schooner. Emily, meanwhile, takes refuge in telling stories as a means of blotting out the memory of murder; and the tales she tells are the ones she learned from Sam, the Black servant who died in the hurricane. ‘She could recall the Anansi stories Old Sam had told her,’ the narrator informs us, ‘and they often proved the point of departure for new ones of her own’ (p. 115). She recalls, too, the stories of duppies or vengeful spirits which she and her siblings had mocked when they first heard them in Jamaica. Her experience of violence makes the stories suddenly convincing, and she even catches herself ‘wondering what the Dutchman’s duppy would look like, all bloody, with its head turned backwards on its shoulders and clanking a chain’ (p. 115). But this kind of tale is of course less comforting than the trickster stories of Anansi, and she swiftly replaces them with an imperialist fairy tale in which she sits ‘on a golden throne in the remotest East’, as if in an Orientalist revision of the Thousand and One Nights. The narrator even refers to the Arabic classic, using it as an analogy for the endless stories the young girl conjures up in her bid to stave off nightmares (p. 114). But although the notion of occupying a throne may be pleasurable – a welcome return to the state of power she imagined for herself on her return from Liberty Hill – the situation of the storyteller Scheherazade is not so attractive, given that she told her tales as a means to stave off death. Emily’s nightmares accordingly come back with increasing frequency, and she responds by retreating from any kind of power, whether monarchic or simply adult, instead taking refuge in early childhood to the extent that any stranger who met her would have considered her, the narrator observes, ‘rather young for her age’ (p. 119). Despite this apparent immaturity, she is disturbing to Jonsen and Otto. She sings and shouts too loudly and too often, ‘like a larger, fiercer lark’ (p. 119), and the effect is presumably less like Shelleyan strains of unpremeditated art than the noise of a second madwoman on the schooner.

Jonsen’s disturbance at the girl’s behaviour may be partly at least the effect of guilt. Of course he is guilty of the attempted assault in the hold; but at other times, too, his actions bring him close to the caricature of the pirate captain from which he so assiduously seeks to dissociate himself. In one incident, soon after the murder, Captain Jonsen chases Emily’s younger brother Edward round the ship’s deck with an iron belaying-pin in hand, and is only prevented from doing him a fatal mischief by an unexpected display on the part of Edward’s sister Rachel (p. 122). Later, Jonsen tells Otto as a joke that he plans to murder all the children and drop them overboard (‘sew them up in little bags […] and put them over the side’, p. 137); and though he is chuckling as he says it, Otto half believes him, an assumption presumably based on the time when he and Jonsen threw the unfortunate Margaret into the sea. And all the time Jonsen harbours a terrible secret that gets mentioned only once, and with studied casualness, by the narrator. The pirate captain, it turns out, has first-hand experience of working on a slave ship – an illegal one, which was still shipping slaves after abolition. The sighting of a frigate recalls this time to his memory with sudden vividness: ‘He remembered another occasion, fifteen years before. The slaver of which he was then second mate was bowling along, the hatches down across her stinking cargo, all canvas spread, when right across the glittering path of the moon a frigate crossed, almost within gun-shot’ (p. 131). On that occasion the ship’s ‘stinking cargo’ had been men, women and children on their way from Africa to the Caribbean; this time it is abducted white children from Jamaica. Like the slaves, the children are stowed away in a hold as ‘hot as an oven’; and later in the book, when for reasons of his own the Captain again battens down the hatches, the heat makes the hold into a potentially lethal space, a latter-day ‘Black Hole’ (p. 135). The reference here is to the Black Hole of Calcutta, an incident when racial tension in British India led to the imprisoning of multiple British soldiers and Indian civilians in a cell meant for one or two prisoners, which resulted in the deaths of most of the incarcerated men and women. The phrase also recalls the narrator’s remark about Margaret’s new sleeping arrangements when banished from the cabin: ‘Heaven knows what hole [she] was banished to’ (p. 105). There are times, then, when the children’s experiences among the pirates explicitly echo major atrocities in British colonial history. And the echoes continue after their transference from the schooner to the British steamer. A British lady imagines the children on the pirate ship as being ‘Chained, probably, down in the darkness like blacks, with rats running over them, fed on bread and water’ (p. 151). For this white woman, even after abolition the natural place for ‘blacks’ is to be chained up in darkness, while the thought of white children being treated likewise is so appalling precisely because of the imagined difference between people from Britain and people from Africa. Representing their plight in these terms ensures that the lady continues to highlight the enduring presence of the British slave trade in British minds long after it has been expunged from British history books.

There’s no sign, however, that the slave trade ever gets mentioned in so many words by anyone in the book – no more than that the word ‘rape’ gets uttered in relation to Margaret. Shrouded in silence, slavery acquires the status of a childish fantasy – a nightmare or a fairy tale, the sort of thing that only happens in the Thousand and One Nights. Children, however, the narrator tells us, are supremely good at keeping secrets, despite adult assumptions that they are not: ‘A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection’ (p. 88). They know far more than adults give them credit for, and are far better at keeping their knowledge to themselves. Children, meanwhile, believe that adults are even better liars. As Emily contemplates Jonsen and Otto in the cabin, she thinks: ‘It would be so easy for adult things like them to dissemble to her. Suppose they really intended to kill her: they could so easily hide it’ (p. 118). The narrator is not so sure, believing that ‘Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail’ (p. 88). In fact, however, both adults and children fail and succeed with equal frequency to keep their secrets in Hughes’s novel. Emily spills out verbal evidence of her act of murder at the trial, but it isn’t properly heard; Margaret’s behaviour convinces her rescuers she has been raped, but this is not acted on; Captain Jonsen fails to keep his identity as a buccaneer under his hat, his scheme to get the children to say nothing about it falling apart with fatal rapidity. The slave trade, too, is both silenced – kept under hatches, like the slaves or the children in the schooner’s hold – and constantly issuing stark reminders of its enduring presence. The fairy story of British imperial history that keeps it suppressed, stressing only the role of Britain in its abolition, cannot be sustained in face of the evidence of persistent racist attitudes. In The Spider’s Palace, a little girl can attend a clandestine party thrown by mice in an upside-down palace, and return to her bed without being detected (‘no one heard her’, p. 106). In High Wind, fairy stories like the Anansi tales or the Thousand and One Nights are circumstantial proof of past atrocities and their survival in the storyteller’s imagination. Few white British writers of the twentieth century better illustrate these things than Richard Hughes.

Cooks

It’s worth ending, I think, with a few more thoughts on race in Hughes’s novel and story collection, with special reference to cooks. Almost the last word in High Wind uttered by anyone but the narrator is almost the first word uttered in the book by a Black character. When the pirates are led out to execution, it’s the ship’s cook who shows the greatest courage, according to a report Hughes quotes from The Times. Until now, the narrator has barely mentioned the cook except as the man who accidentally threw his whetstone overboard in a misguided attempt to rescue a pig, and on that occasion the colour of his skin was never mentioned. Suddenly, however, the Black sailor’s story comes to the fore in the final chapter, with an effect as startling as if Margaret had suddenly been invited to utter her opinion of her life at sea. In The Times’s account, the cook has eloquence and wisdom as well as courage, though neither can save him from execution – despite the fact that several other members of the crew were ‘reprieved and transported’ at the last minute. These are his words – translated, it’s implied, from his native Spanish:

We shall certainly end our lives in this place: nothing can save us. But in a few years we should die in any case. In a few years the judge who condemned us, all men now living, will be dead. You know that I die innocent: anything I have done, I was forced to do by the rest of you. But I am not sorry. I would rather die now, innocent, than in a few years perhaps guilty of some great sin. (p. 173)

The cook’s execution, this implies, can be described as the final murder in the book that can be ascribed to the toxic influence of the slave trade. He was effectively enslaved by the pirates, forced to work for them against his will, and his innocence has been noted by the law-abiding Britons working for a major newspaper, though not by the magistrate who condemned him. The other pirates, then, may be innocent of the murder for which they are hanged, but they are not innocent of practising slavery. The British legal system, too, is not innocent, being more guilty of murder than Jonsen, given that the Captain only attempted to execute Margaret. The passage reminds us, then, that innocence is an unstable term; but it also emphasizes the fact that criminal acts have long been practised by the British state, and that institutional racism is a major factor in such criminal acts. By 1929, seizing the opportunity to die with a clear conscience had never been trickier for white British subjects.

Mervyn Peake’s rendition of the sea cook, Long John Silver

In The Spider’s Palace, cooks are deeply implicated in the racism of 1920s British society. In the story ‘Nothing’, a cook chooses to conceal the fact that seven children living in a white middle-class household own a ‘dead Chinaman’ and a ‘live Chinaman’, in defiance of the wishes of the children’s parents. The denial of the existence of these possessions is referred to in the story’s title, and while the presence of two Chinese people in the list of the children’s playthings is clearly meant to be comic, their concealment by the cook – who ‘hid them under her apron, and when the father and mother were gone […] gave them back to the seven children’ (p. 67) – might invoke for a twenty-first century adult reader the concealment of racist incidents in British history from adult scrutiny, through their exclusion from the curriculum in schools and universities. In another story, ‘The Dark Child’, a boy who exudes darkness when he stands upright and brilliant light when he stands on his hands is saved from his condition by a resourceful cook, who mixes the darkness and light together in a bowl with a wooden spoon, thus rendering the child completely ‘ordinary’ (p. 22). The child is definitely not Black, the narrator tells us: ‘He wasn’t just black like a Negro, either: he was much blacker than that’ (p. 17). Indeed, he spreads darkness around him like a miasma, to the consternation of his relatives, and it’s implied that his restoration to ‘ordinariness’ involves a return to the condition of being a white middle-class schoolboy, a state that makes his family ‘pleased as pleased as pleased’ (p. 22). A twenty-first century reader of this story might well think about racism in white middle-class families, as exemplified in the covering up of interracial relationships and their offspring that took place in white households in the early twentieth century. The presence of a cook in both these stories that touch on race points towards the inside knowledge of private family affairs acquired by these working-class interlopers in middle-class homes, the kitchen servant in each case being privy to awkward racial facts that have been shunted aside or covered up – much like, in historical terms, the scandalous fact of British interference in the Chinese economy from the Opium Wars to the 1920s, or the widespread refusal in the same period to acknowledge Black citizens as fully British. It seems appropriate, then, that it’s a cook who ensures that the narrative of High Wind ends with a focus on race as well as gender. Of all people in the bourgeois household, the cook has the most unfettered access to the various ingredients that go into the occupants’ bodies. Hughes’s cooks also have unfettered access to the contents of middle-class minds. As a result, they are acutely conscious of the disconnect between the rules by which British society claims to live and the hidden prejudices and obsessions that really drive its actions. Hidden, often, in the basement of the family home – its ‘hold’, so to speak, or underground regions – kitchen servants gain a unique insight into what has been suppressed and silenced by their masters and mistresses. Hughes enjoins us to listen closely to what they have to say.

Richard Hughes

 

Editions

J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy, ed. Peter Hollindale, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (aka The Innocent Voyage) (St Albans: Triad/Panther Books, 1976).

Richard Hughes, The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974).

John Warner Maslen: a eulogy in books and languages

[My father’s funeral took place last week, and I couldn’t go because of Covid. For a long time I hesitated over putting his eulogy on this blog; I wanted to mark his death in some way, to make some statement about it, but what I’d written felt too personal. In the end I decided to put it here after all, because my Dad was one of the people who gave me my love of books, SFF in particular. Ursula le Guin was one of his heroes, and without his love of her work I wouldn’t have discovered them as young as I did and they wouldn’t have shaped me. For this, as for everything else he did, I want to record my thanks and love.]

It’s hard to know how to make a eulogy for anyone, let alone your father. How to summarize a life in a few words – a life about which you only know fragments, each of which means a great deal to you but might not even feature in another person’s memory of him? Hirokazu Koreeda made a wonderful film in 1998 called After Life, about the place where people go when they’ve died, which is a dilapidated old school occupied by hard-working administrators, male and female, young and old, whose task it is to help the dead choose a single memory from their lives to take with them into whatever happens next. Just one memory, no more, no less. That’s something we could all do now, everyone who knew him: think of a single memory that encapsulates John Maslen from our point of view. But which?

A father’s children know a number of definite things about him: how it feels to hug him, the smell of his shirt, the texture of his hair, the look of his long, slim hands, the funny noises he makes in his sleep, the way he hums or mutters as he does things. They know how well he reads books aloud. Dad’s skill in reading the Tintin comics was legendary, and he made a brilliant Captain Haddock, which is why we were always nagging at him to grow a beard (he did, of course). They know his nasal laugh, and how much he likes laughing; he spent a lot of time in our company laughing, at least in my memory. We loved making him laugh. I remember once, at his flat in Brussels, I wrote a kind of radio play based on the epic poem Beowulf – we called it Beolamb – and we spent several days recording it, with my best friend Brook working with me on the special effects. We had to keep stopping the recording because we couldn’t stop laughing at Dad’s impression of Peter Sellers as the numskull Bluebottle on the Goon Show. This love of laughter was nothing new; as a boy his favourite book was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, and this embarrassed him at times on public transport because he couldn’t stop himself laughing aloud at the funny bits.

They know about his love of food. I may be wrong, but my impression is that if you read his diaries – and he always kept dairies, written in the tiny script he used for making his endless lists – my impression is that he wrote down everything he’d had to eat, every single day without exception. When someone came to interview him a few years back about the European Union’s negotiations with China in the 1970s, he was able to identify every meeting he’d had with the Chinese delegation from the record in his diaries of the meals he’d eaten with them in Chinese restaurants all over Brussels. Whenever he came to visit us from Belgium, and when he went home afterwards – sometimes taking a few of us with him as luggage – he would sit down in the dining area before the ferry left port and eat steadily throughout the crossing until it docked on the other side. That was his recipe, he said, for avoiding seasickness. Sometimes his love of food had unfortunate consequences. When I visited a Spanish village with him in 1980 we ate sucking pig at eleven, as the Spanish do, and lay in bed for most of the night with acute indigestion, groaning at each other like pigs ourselves. I’ve often suspected that his description of food in his diaries might be some sort of secret code, and that if we could read those entries properly every mention of Brussels sprouts would have a hidden meaning. If you want to know how to cook Brussels sprouts, by the way, here’s the recipe he gave me: boil them for exactly seven minutes in lightly salted water. When he cooked for himself in his Brussels flat he ate Brussels sprouts every night for weeks on end, with cold ham and reconstituted powdered mashed potatoes. Delicious!

His children know about his love of birds. I believe it was Mum who put him onto this hobby, as a way of getting him to take some exercise, and he took to it like a duck to water. His bird book, too – the Collins Field Guide to the Birds of the World, if I’m not mistaken – became a kind of diary; he entered all his sightings in it, and could tell you the exact dates he was in any country in the world by looking up the dates when he spotted a hornbill in Costa Rica, or a thick-knee in Sydney, or a hoopoe in Pedraza. Was there a code in the birds, I wonder? They were part of the language of his love of looking at things, of being a witness to beautiful landscapes, or works of art, or ancient buildings, or the battlefield at Waterloo. But the birds didn’t have to be fancy; just looking at them out of the back window of his house was enough. He would sit there happily for hours, crumbling stale bread between his fingers for the bird table, scanning trees and gardens to see if he could spot a jay or a bluetit. He always had a pair of binoculars with him. He was very much a looker, though he was a listener too; he loved classical music, and his Brussels flat was always full of it. He had a particular fondness for Mozart, baroque music of any kind, and the music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel – though I think he mainly liked Hummel because of his name.

His children know how he loves to read. Dad was always reading, and we read too, in his flat in Brussels and his house, often picking up the books from his bookshelves – Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ursula Le Guin, the Asterix books (he had all of them), the Tintin books (ditto), the Peanuts strips which he carefully cut out from a magazine called the Bulletin. In his turn he would read the books we’d brought in our luggage, finishing them off in only a day or two, far faster than we could. Almost any book would do, though he loved science fiction (Le Guin was a favourite) and novels set in ancient times (especially Mary Renault). He liked factual books about trees and history, and Michelin guidebooks, and The Economist, and ghost stories, especially real ones. There was a science fiction story he loved, in which an alien is accused of poisoning a human being and asks how he could possibly have known that the man’s pathetic digestive system couldn’t cope with a hearty meal of ‘wholesome polystyrenes’. That phrase delighted him, and he would often repeat it – ‘wholesome polystyrenes’ – especially when faced by an unusually disgusting dish in the canteen of the Berlaymont Building where he worked.

His children know about his love of languages, and how this shapes everything he does and the way he thinks. Dad started collecting languages in his childhood, and he went on doing it for most of his life. He could speak Russian fluently, and German, and French – though when he first started working in Brussels he spoke French like the seventeenth-century playwright Jean Racine. He spoke Polish well, and Spanish a little, and a bit of Mandarin. He also spoke Danish – of necessity, because he had Danish relatives through his wife, Lise – though he could never make himself understood by Lise’s aged mother. In fact he could turn his hand, or rather his tongue, to almost anything. When we went on holiday to the Adriatic Coast he learned Italian. With Lise he learned Flemish. Confronted by border guards in Yugoslavia in the 1950s he spoke Serbo-Croat. He helped Mum translate a novel by the Polish novelist Marian Pankowski, and write an article about the linguistic jokes in Karel Capek’s famous novel War with the Newts, which was written in Czech. He helped his friends among the Brazilian spiritists of Brussels to translate some of the key texts of their faith from Portuguese into French. When he read us the Moomin comics, he translated them spontaneously from Swedish into English – and I still remember my outrage when I learned to read for myself, and at once rushed off to read those comics, only to find that they were indecipherable, full of words and even letters that didn’t exist in English. Dad’s linguistic brilliance was enhanced by his understanding of the links between languages. He was fascinated by etymology: the history of words and the relations between them. He devised his own phonetic system for writing down words in obscure dialects; and he worked for most of his life on a kind of universal history of all the languages in the world, and how the links between one form of speech and another could be used to trace migrating populations across the planet, from prehistoric times to the present. He respected the speakers of every language in the world, and as a result he was, to the best of my knowledge, completely bereft of racism – something unusual in British diplomats of his generation, I think. For him, everyone in the world spoke a language, every language in the world was interesting, and he wanted to learn them all, and discover the cultures they reflected.

He also helped people rediscover their own languages. When he began to get frail, various people from different countries came to his house to help him with everyday routines. On one occasion he asked a Congolese nurse what language she had spoken in her childhood, and she told him where it came from and the name of the small community that spoke it. He went at once to one of his books and was able to show her a few sentences of her language printed in it, as recorded by a missionary long ago. She burst into tears; it was the first time she’d ever seen her language written down.

He showed me many things, one of which was how to admit when I don’t know something – a crucial skill for a scholar. I confess I haven’t always practised it as well as he did.

Has this been a eulogy? I haven’t said anything about his official life: his schooldays, his early training by military intelligence, his work as a diplomat, his work for the European Union. I haven’t talked about his parents, or his love of his wives – Elizabeth and Lise – or his children and their spouses, his grandchildren, relatives, friends. I’ve been trying to pick a memory of him to carry forward into whatever life may be coming next. We all have many memories to choose from; these are some of mine.

The single memory I’ve chosen is a simple one: lying on the sofa reading a book, while Dad sits and reads at the dining-room table. He smiles from time to time. I think he’s enjoying himself.

He was a modest, kind, funny, loving, learned man. This set of facts is embedded in every memory each of us has of him. That’s what his children, grandchildren and friends have taken from his life. It’s enough, I think.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

 

A Brief History of Fantasy at Glasgow

[This is the script for a five-minute talk I gave at the launch of the Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic on 16 September 2020. Ellen Kushner gave the keynote, which was followed by a discussion panel featuring Brian Attebery, Terri Windling and myself.]

Kinuko Y. Kraft, Cover Illustration for Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer

Once upon a time there was a child who loved to read. He only read stories about things that could never happen, often set in lands or worlds that never existed, full of creatures unknown to science. He liked these stories because he was at boarding school and they took him far away from the life he led there, in dormitories and classrooms and corridors smelling of cabbage.

Maurice Sendak, Reading is fun!

As he got older he went on reading stories about impossible things, but he did it in secret, because such stories were for younger children. He found there were also stories for adults of this kind, often of great beauty and complexity, though people told him that this sort of story was less grown up than other kinds.

Don Quixote in his library, by Gustave Doré

When he grew up he wrote a doctoral thesis about stories written in the sixteenth century. This was considered a serious subject because the stories were old, but they carried him away to lands that felt as if they had been invented, full of magic, and strange creatures, and vivid pictures painted in delightful words. He got a job at Glasgow University.

Arthur Rackham, Illustration for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

Later still he went to America, where he was allowed to teach a course on the books he most liked reading, about things that never existed and never could exist. When he got back he set up a course exactly like that, for undergraduates. His friend Alice Jenkins suggested he set up a Masters programme to teach the books to graduate students and encourage the world to take them seriously.

Leonora Carrington, And then we saw the daughter of the Minotaur

People like him from all over the world came to study on the programme. He hadn’t realized how many people there were like him in the world: people who loved thinking about invented places and things and creatures and asking questions about them, such as why they had been invented, what needs they fulfilled at different times in history, and how they might shape the world we live in.

Pauline Baynes, Map of Middle-Earth

Glasgow University saw how many people were interested in impossible things and created more jobs in the area. He was joined by new companions from places far away and magical to him, such as Greece and Wales and the British Library. The fellowship of staff and students grew quietly from year to year.

Brothers Hildebrandt, An unexpected party

Together we invented new ways to share the pleasure of the impossible. Night at the Museum, where imaginary people and things took over the Hunterian Museum for an evening. Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, where more people were invited to join us and talk about books and films and comics and games. A conference for imagining climate change. Fantasy Reading Parties, where we could share the stories, scripts and poems we had written. Symposiums where we plotted events for the future.

Paul Lewin, The offering

Five years after the founding of the Glasgow Fantasy MLitt programme, here we are again, setting up a Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, designed to make it easier to share ideas and dreams about the impossible with everyone who cares to join in.

Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor Moon

Perhaps the impossible is not so impossible after all? Perhaps things can really be done with fantasy and the fantastic, and to the hearts and minds of people who enjoy such things? Perhaps fantasy and the fantastic can change the way we think of the world or the country or the town or the house we live in? Perhaps together we can build a future where the impossible becomes a template for the possible?

Remedios Varo, Creacion de las aves

Shall we find out?

Tove Jansson, Illustration for Moominland Midwinter

Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany, The Story of Mona Sheehy

[This is the second of two blog posts on Dunsany’s Irish Fiction; the first can be found here.]

Dunsany’s Irish novel of 1939, The Story of Mona Sheehy, is one of a pair, both of which can be read as Quixotic, like the earlier Chronicles of Rodriguez. The first of these is Rory and Bran (1936), about a teenage boy and his dog who are entrusted by the boy’s parents with the daunting task of driving a small herd of cattle to the local market without supervision. The boy is Rory and the dog is Bran, and their mission is rendered more challenging by the fact that the boy is widely regarded as having learning difficulties (his parents agonize for a long time over whether or not he has the ‘wits’ to get the cattle safe to Gurtnaroonagh, pp. 1-5). The narrator, however, is of a different opinion. He often celebrates Bran’s abilities, for instance, and never even mentions till the final chapter the fact that Bran is not a human being; so he clearly does not share the view of intelligence which scorns the idiosyncrasies of eccentric or unusual thinkers. And he makes it clear from the opening pages that Rory’s wits are not so much wanting as sharply focused. The boy is obsessed with the heroes of medieval romance, though his heroes are continental rather than Irish – Roland, Charlemagne, Don Quixote and Arthur of Britain; and he sets out on his adventures determined to prove a latter-day Quixote, with the dog Bran as his Sancho Panza. In this he succeeds, and in doing so offers a model of eccentric but effective dealings with the world to his fellow Irish citizens, a model designed to challenge the homogenizing processes that threaten to subdue 1930s culture to drab and sometimes deadly uniformity.

Ranged against Bran and Rory in their quest to get the cattle to market are a couple of tricksters, reminiscent of the fox and the cat in Collodi’s Pinocchio: a cheating jockey named Fagan and a combative traveller named the O’Harrigan. Between them, these men purloin the cattle from Rory several times and promptly lose them back to him again, often through the intervention of the resourceful Bran. On Rory’s side stands a nameless tinker or traveller, who claims to derive his powers from the moon and who takes the young man under his wing as a kind of apprentice, and a dreamy young girl named Oriana, whose name identifies her with the lover of the medieval hero Amadis de Gaul, so admired of Quixote. But Fagan and the O’Harrigan are as fantastical in their imaginings as Rory, Oriana and the moonstruck tinker. O’Harrigan, for instance, claims to be hereditary lord of a ruined castle overlooking a bog, which gives him in Rory’s eyes ‘an almost knightly status’ (p. 41); while Fagan supplies Rory with the colourful, quasi-medieval clothes of a jockey and an old horse to be his Rosinante, thereby exalting him to a ‘splendid position’ in his own eyes, if nobody else’s (p. 55). In addition, both men’s inability to derive any long-term benefit from their scams renders them as Quixotic as Dunsany’s young protagonist. Much more sinister is Rory’s Aunt Bridget, who plots to have the other-worldly Oriana committed to the Mullingar Asylum, a genuine institution in Dunsany’s own County Meath where certified lunatics could be shut away from the eyes of uneasy relatives. Shut away with them are their dreams, which resemble those conjured up by Rory’s reading: dreams woven from the Irish landscape and the Irish weather, just as Mrs Marlin’s dreams in The Curse of the Wise Woman were woven from the bog. In Rory’s eyes, his heroes Roland, Arthur and the rest are connected with the slopes of the local mountain, Slievenamona (as Dunsany writes it in this novel). The magic that invokes them is linked to the constantly changing light and the gradual or rapid changes that take place throughout the year in response to the changing seasons. Oriana’s imprisonment in Mullingar would in effect rob the landscape itself of the magic she sees in it, as does Rory. It’s appropriate, then, that she should be rescued on her way to the Asylum by Rory, still in his gorgeous jockey’s silks, and his fellow dreamers, the tinker, the jockey and the O’Harrigan, by this stage working together as a superpowered team like an Irish Avengers. The tinker is bound up with the landscape thanks to his belief that all roads are his property, as well as all rabbits, chickens, cows and clothes he may find by the wayside; while the O’Harrigan is part of the landscape thanks to his attachment to his ruined castle; and their collective rescue of Oriana represents a triumph for an imaginative commitment to the Irish countryside that stands in danger of being lost in the 1930s, consigned to the categories of the romantic, the useless and the impossible that blind the sceptic’s eye to the haunting loveliness of the fields, bogs, mountains and woods of rural Ireland.

Rory and Bran and The Story of Mona Sheehy are often described as ‘realistic’ novels, but a glance at a passage or two from either of them will undermine that assumption. Rory in the first is our hero, and for him the chivalric heroes he imagines are all around him. When he sets out from home for the first time as a drover they seem to fill his house: ‘He rose and dressed, and went downstairs reluctantly, for in the shadows all over his room there seemed to be lingering yet the shapes of paladins, shadows only themselves, but shadows with a brightness about them’ (p. 8). Shadows, of course, form part of the landscape too, and their mystery is an integral part of what gives a landscape or a building its attraction. Later, after being swindled by the jockey and the O’Harrigan, Rory settles down to sleep beside Bran on Sleivenamona, and finds himself in a dream conversation with the lord of the paladins himself, Charlemagne of France:

[I]n the brief sleep he got […] Charlemagne came to see him, and spoke to him gravely, his huge beard grey as the skirts of the clouds that touched Slievenamona, and told him not to trouble over the loss of money or cattle, the splendours of the hills (‘where we walk unseen,’ he said) and the splendours of Time, ‘where we walk in the sight of all men,’ being enough. (p. 108)

Charlemagne here can be dismissed as a figment, his beard woven out of the beard-like clouds Rory has been immersed in as he climbed the mountain; but the words he speaks are wise, and point up the close link between what is ‘unseen’ and what is plainly visible to ‘the sight of all men’, while highlighting the illusory and transient, cloudlike nature of possessions and riches. Material and immaterial things are set side by side, and the narrator invites the reader to consider, at least, the possibility of consenting to Charlemagne’s judgment that immaterial things or shadows are more worth having.

But it’s Rory’s encounter with the tinker that finally brings him into the orbit of a philosopher worthy of his personal vision. The tinker is from one point of view a madman, with his literally lunatic trust in the moon as a kind of generator for his waxing and waning energies. He plays on his fiddle tunes he claims to have learned at the fairy court, and he possesses a charm called the Stone of the Sea, a piece of glass in which he professes to read the future. Yet at the same time he is an acknowledged expert in the practical business of earning a living. He knows that predicting the future is a kind of sham, but knows too that folk of all kinds love to be fooled, and gives the Stone of the Sea to Rory – the certified fool – as a means of keeping himself alive when he is on the road, since the boy is clearly unsuited to the trade of drover. The tinker, then, nurtures Rory, and in the process nurtures the reader, who allows herself to be fooled for a time by Rory’s adventures, even as the adventures themselves chart the grey area between self-deception and belief.

Dunsany articulates the symbiotic relationship between imagined things and solid objects in a passage that gives a clear sense of Rory’s function, and of the tinker’s role in helping him fulfil it:

As Rory rode away he passed the tinker’s donkey, grazing the land that for the purposes of agricultural returns was always classified as bare mountain. Between him and the tinker, by the side of the road, [so] draped with a profusion of old clothing and bedding as to suggest a monument set up in those hills to Untidiness, Rory saw the donkey’s cart. One might have imagined upon it the figure of Untidiness herself, hidden by all those cloths and pieces of canvas that were her full regalia. Rory as he glanced at it imagined nothing; such tawdry subjects as that were not for him; the music of the tinker’s violin, the sight of the further peaks, all solemn at evening, the mist that closed high valleys against the eye and opened their golden gates to imagination, those were the things for Rory. To some extent he goes for us as an ambassador, from the world that is all around us to the world we should like to know more of; often losing himself on the way, and lost for good but for Bran; and yet a link of a sort between us and Roland. (pp. 120-1)

Advertisements for Rory and Bran and Up in the Hills, on the dustcover of Dunsany’s other ‘dog’ book, Dean Spanley

A range of visions combine in this passage. There is Rory with his dreams; there is the tinker and his material effects, the cart and the donkey; there is the sophisticated writer who comments on both; and there is the reader who, like the writer, can enjoy all these perspectives. Each of these visions is connected to the others by the rural space they occupy, with Rory moving through it like a tutelary spirit, enabling all four visions as he goes – his own, the tinker’s, the writer’s, ours. The landscape that contains him is defined as valueless by the documents pertaining to agricultural returns, which mark the place where we find ourselves as waste or liminal ground, a no-man’s-land standing idle between profitable patches. The tinker and his donkey make productive use of this unproductive zone, for grazing, for mending broken pans, for living in – and above all, perhaps, for appreciating, both at close quarters and at a distance (it’s a good place to enjoy ‘the sight of the further peaks’ in, as the tinker observes). The writer, meanwhile, makes use of the tinker’s cart as a source of material for his allegorical figure of Untidiness, a being that recalls the eighteenth-century passion for eccentric personifications, a passion shared by Dunsany in his earliest short stories where he used it to conjure up an ancient world full of exiled monarchs, lost cities and forgotten gods. Finally there is Rory, who is wholly committed to the world of dreams as shaped into stories by romance, where the ‘high valleys’ of the hills have ‘golden gates’ that equip them for the needs of high adventure. In ending with Rory’s vision, the passage traces a continuity between the mess of the tinker’s cart and the heroic deeds that preoccupy the boy; for Rory these deeds and their doers share the scene with him and us, and the scene is transfigured by them. Dunsany’s description of him as an ‘ambassador’ between different perspectives lends him a seriousness he does not possess in the eyes of Aunt Bridget, or of the strangers who pass him by in his ridiculous outfit, shakily perched on a half-dead horse. An ambassador’s status sets up Rory’s imagination as something that can co-exist, if properly respected, with the other perspectives, and can even be seen as the more exalted vision, the perspective that lends the whole scene a dignity it would not otherwise have.

Fantasy, then, in this mimetic novel, has what might be described as a material function. It makes things happen, unlike poetry – at least, unlike poetry as described in Auden’s three-part elegy on Dunsany’s friend Yeats, which was published in February 1939. Auden’s famously ambiguous statement occurs in the middle section of his elegy:

Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Auden’s poetry, as wielded by Yeats, here both ‘makes nothing happen’ and represents ‘a way of happening’ – which suggests that the nothing it spoke of earlier happens after all, in places overlooked by the executives, liminal places like rural valleys, raw towns and ‘ranches of isolation’. Dunsany’s fantasy has this in common with Auden’s poetry: its ambiguous effectiveness. Rory’s rescue of Oriana, for instance, does not ‘really’ happen, in the sense that it is a fictional episode invented by Dunsany, which is itself invested in the book with the glamour of romance by a teenage boy’s overactive imagination. But the rescue is brought to life by the writer’s account of it; and it is the first practical thing Rory does in the book which is an unqualified success, marking the moment when he discovers the trick of surviving, despite his dreams, in the rural valley where he was born. In addition, the episode involves chivalric heroism, in that four self-appointed knights errant (the tinker, the jockey, the trickster and the boy) successfully free a young woman from her draconian oppressors. And Rory’s eventual marriage to Oriana seals his tale as a chivalric romance, rather than a tragicomedy like that of his closest literary relative, Quixote. The couple then bequeath romance to future generations in the form of their children, one of whom (we’re told) ‘took a prominent part in Irish politics’ and had the distinction of getting a bill passed which identified the Phoenix – that ‘most national of Irish birds’ – as a protected species (pp. 320-1). The Irish imagination, in other words, as embodied in Rory, Oriana and their descendants, is alive and well in the institutions of the Free State, Dunsany suggests, thriving even in its highest executive body, the Dáil. And it makes things happen by leaving its mark on the landscape as well as the law.

The Phoenix Monument, Dublin

The Phoenix is not in fact the ‘most national of Irish birds’, though as Dunsany points out there have been monuments erected to it in Ireland – most notably the Phoenix Column in Dublin’s famous Phoenix Park. Ironically, the Phoenix Column was erected by an Englishman, the Earl of Chesterfield, and represents a name for the park that stems from a mishearing of the Irish ‘fionn uisce’, meaning ‘clear water’. Rory’s heroes, too, are for the most part not Irish – though when he has a vision of the drovers at Gurtnaroonagh as mythical heroes he sees Finn and Cuchulain among them (pp. 172 and 177). By mingling these Irish demi-gods with French, Spanish and British heroes (Rory thinks of Arthur as King of Little Britain, that is, Brittany) Dunsany frees the young man’s dreams from nationalist politics, attaching them instead to the material spaces and solid objects – constantly changing in Ireland’s weather – which furnish the needs of all political parties, regardless of their members’ conflicting visions of the nation’s future.

If Rory and Bran presents us with a quasi-fantastic, secluded Ireland beyond the reach of party politics, its companion piece, The Story of Mona Sheehy, puts that Ireland in dialogue with the other land of Dunsany’s dreams: England, where both books were originally published. Dunsany grew up at his family’s homes in Kent and London as well as County Meath. Kent provided him with the setting for his novel The Blessing of Pan (1928), in which he shut away part of the county in a permanent state of pagan preservation, shielded for ever from the toxic developments (as he saw them) of industrialization. The Story of Mona Sheehy, on the other hand, represents his dream Ireland as existing at the edge of the damaging dreams of free market capitalism, teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed by them, in a drastic reversal of the overwhelming of Erl by the dreams of Elfland. The quest of the novel is to find a way of coexisting with modernity without succumbing to it, of living in a world that acknowledges the metropolitan wonders of London while at the same time allowing rural Ireland to maintain its independence from the British capital, preserving the particular wonders of its culture and landscape against the depredations of social and technological change. Change takes place in it, of course, and is not represented as an unqualified evil, as it sometimes is in the work of Tolkien; but Dunsany protects his rural Irish community from the worst excesses of twentieth-century progress, preserving it in a kind of imaginative neutrality that anticipates Ireland’s real-life neutrality in the Second World War.

At the heart of the novel is a distinction between the idea of choice, which is the motor that drives the capitalist economy, and inclusivity, which Dunsany sees as the defining feature of his dream Ireland. Capitalism urges its subjects to make frequent selective decisions: between commodities, between homes and jobs, between winning and losing (in a horserace or a financial speculation), between high social status and obscurity. Dunsany’s dream Ireland, by contrast, is resistant to hard and fast choices, preferring to permit its inhabitants to harbour two or more points of view simultaneously and hold them in a delicate but stable equipoise as they go about their daily business. In 1939, such inclusivity was threatened on all sides, in Ireland as much as in totalitarian states elsewhere in Europe. As a result Dunsany’s book is in effect a political project, despite its explicit resistance to party politics, since it is concerned to stress what unifies his country, as against the divisive forces that could dismantle Irish culture (as he sees it) in perpetuity. In The Story of Mona Sheehy Ireland becomes a Quixotic nation, nurturing the dreams of its inhabitants in the face of unimaginative governments – including its own – and the looming threat of global war.

Cathleen Ni Houlihan on stage

Inclusivity in this book is exemplified by the young protagonist, who for the first time in Dunsany’s novels is a woman (or rather a teenage girl). Having a female protagonist could itself be seen as a political act on the part of an Irish writer in the 1930s, given that Ireland had been figured as female since at least the time of Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), the influential one-act play by Yeats and Lady Gregory. In the play, a wandering old woman is revealed as the personification of Ireland in the final scene. Her homelessness and frailty designates the state of the country under British rule, while her eventual transformation into a strong young girl ‘with the walk of a queen’ represents what the liberated country might eventually become. Mona Sheehy’s link with the Queen of the Shee, which is enshrined in her unusual surname, marks her out as a potential avatar for the regal younger version of Cathleen. She was even born around the time of the play’s first performance, since we are told that she turns sixteen in the year the Great War comes to an end.[1] At the same time, her link with the Shee marks her out as a threat to the community, since the Queen of those troublesome people can be as dangerous as she is beautiful, bringing ruin on persons or populations who invoke her name without due caution. Mona’s status as a source of both local pride and occasional terror confirms her as the embodiment of Ireland, and in particular of Ireland’s capacity for accommodating several contradictory points of view at once, the quality for which Dunsany most loves his imagined country.

Like Ireland, too, Mona’s identity is under debate from the day of her birth. Is she or is she not the descendant of a supernatural entity, as her name suggests? Her neighbours in the village of Athroonagh think she is, and for the most part she agrees with them. The narrator, meanwhile, knows she is not, and lays out the evidence against her fairy origins with exemplary thoroughness in the opening chapter. Yet he also clearly delights in the villagers’ readiness to accommodate fairies in their world view – against all the resources of reason and science – as a metaphor (among other things) for everything that can’t be measured or articulated. Throughout the book, belief in Mona’s supernatural origins competes with disbelief, in her mind and the minds of others, without either position winning a final victory. And although in the closing chapter her mortal birth seems to have been confirmed, there remains a lingering uncertainty over the sources of her beauty, so that the victory remains as ambiguous as Auden’s claim that poetry makes nothing happen. As one experienced traveller puts it on the final page: ‘I’ve seen such beauty before, but nowhere in this world’ (p. 334). As a result, the air of mystery about Mona is never dispelled, and can be bequeathed at the end of the book to her Irish descendants, a guarantee that they will go on accommodating multiple perspectives in the face of the laws of governments, scientists, lawyers and Church authorities in time to come.

Mona’s ambiguous origins stand at odds, in fact, with rigid rules of all kinds. The few details we are given about the circumstances of her birth point towards a trespass against the laws of the Church, in that she’s clearly illegitimate. But they also hint at a potential infringement of one of the more draconian laws passed by the contemporary Irish government: its right to censor printed texts, as asserted in the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929. Representing explicit sexual acts could get a book banned in 1930s Ireland, and Dunsany is surely playing a game with the censors’ prudishness in the prevarications over Mona’s conception that open the novel. The book begins with a question of sex, as two priests engage in an urgent debate over whether or not the five-year-old Mona is a ‘mortal child’ – in other words, whether she is human. In the opening sentence, the older priest asserts unequivocally that she is: ‘I never saw a more mortal child’ (p. 1), and he repeats the assertion in the final sentence of the book, at Mona’s wedding (p. 334). But in between, the joke is that this assertion can coexist in Ireland with a conviction that the girl could indeed be immortal, whatever the Church asserts or the priests conclude among themselves. And the priests’ concern with the child’s mortality or humanness seems in any case to erase from their minds the mortal sin committed at her conception – the sin that would have been of overriding concern to the government censors. Institutions may have rigid views about the boundaries of legitimacy, but mortals do not, and Mona’s presence in the Athroonagh community serves as a focus for all the ambiguities and plural standards its members embrace on a daily basis.

Indeed, the uncertainty surrounding Mona’s conception helps to cement her status as a representative or ‘ambassador’ for her community. No one knows for sure who her mother is – and even if she were confirmed to be the fairy queen the doubt would remain, since no one is entirely sure what a fairy is. As it happens there is also doubt over her father’s identity, the choice being between a peasant farmer called Dennis O’Flanagan and a self-serving upper-class entrepreneur called Peevers (and one might add to these two Father Kinnehy, the young parish priest of Athroonagh, who is her spiritual father). In the end, no choice is made as to which of these two paternities is more probable, and both men have a hand in her upbringing, which leads to a series of complications which cannot be resolved until Mona’s fate is finally placed in her own hands. The girl’s illegitimacy, then, implicates the whole of Athroonagh and its environs in her making, from the local dignitaries Lady Gurtrim and her husband to the gossips Mrs Ryan and Mrs O’Kelly, who assume a kind of authority over the child on behalf of the local community, the tinker couple who adopt her when she runs away from home, and the mysterious tramp who seems to have strange insights into the minds of both young Mona and Lady Gurtrim. Mona’s presence looms over her neighbours like the mountain Slieve-na-mona from which her first name was taken – the mountain that also happens to be the place of her conception. This means that the novel from beginning to end is dominated by an illicit act of sex, in defiance of the government ban on explicit treatment of this topic in Irish fiction. None of the events in it would have happened if Mona had been born within the pale of legitimacy. In other words, the book itself is illegitimate, and celebrates illegitimacy as a kind of counter to the various forms of tyranny that threaten to constrain the actions of Mona – and by extension of the local and national populations she represents – both in the novel and in the world of the 1930s.

Unlike the Irish censors or the higher Church authorities, the priests who discuss Mona’s birth in the opening chapter are flexible enough to recognize that there is more than one way of representing the act of sex. Refreshingly pragmatic about how their parishioners see the truth, they refuse in the end to take an absolutist stance on the question of Mona’s parentage. Having concluded that both her father and mother were human, they decide not to communicate this conclusion to their parishioners, for the simple reason that the people of Athroonagh would refuse to believe it if they did: ‘And it’s best for us not to be telling them things they would disbelieve,’ as the older priest puts it, because ‘You don’t know where they would stop’ (p. 2). The clergy, then, keep their opinions about Mona to themselves, in deference to the villagers’ reluctance to forfeit any one of their many rival and often contradictory convictions at the behest of those in charge. And the novel’s narrator takes a similar stance. Although he shares the priests’ opinion on the girl’s mortality, he also shares their understanding and sympathy for the villagers’ perspective. This is borne out by the bipartite structure of the opening chapter, which begins with the priests’ discussion of Mona’s parentage and goes on to describe the night of her conception. Just as the discussion ends inconclusively, despite the priests’ clear statement of their views, so too does the story of that night somehow end up simultaneously supporting both the view that Mona is mortal and the perception that there is something magical about her. This is because the narrator describes the facts with some precision, while at the same time investing them with a magical air that fully explains, even while it doesn’t endorse, the villagers’ conviction that supernatural forces were at work on the night in question. He gives us what he calls the ‘story’ of Mona’s birth (p. 2), and in the process places the telling of stories, and the various levels of belief invested in them, at the centre of this novel, which is itself a Story.

The Fairy Queen by Henry Fuseli, illustrating Spenser’s 16th-century Irish epic, The Faerie Queene

The atmosphere and location of the ‘story’ are wholly magical, however unmagical the processes involved. A local dignitary, Lady Gurtrim, is on her way home from an unsatisfactory ball, and is therefore dressed in her finest clothes, with a tiara on her head fit for a queen. She stops her coach on the slopes of Slieve-na-mona, a mountain traditionally linked to the fairies, and steps out for a moment to take the air. She dances dreamily on the slopes, enjoying the movement she did not get the chance to enjoy at the party, to which her dancing partner and adulterous lover, the contemptible Peevers, failed to show up. A local farmer chances by, takes her for the Queen of the Fairies, and proceeds to dance with her by starlight – after which they ‘dance’ together in a different way. Lady Gurtrim knows full well that the farmer believes her to be a fairy, and knows of course that the young man is mistaken; yet at the same time his mistake seems wholly reasonable to her, since ‘she was the daughter of a squireen in lonely hills in Kilkenny, and had never quite made out, from the various tales of her childhood, what actually haunted the hills and what did not’ (p. 5). She therefore plays the role of the Queen of the Fairies with the authenticity of someone who really believes there might be such a person. For the Church authorities, there are ordinary mortals and supernatural beings, but a person (apart from Christ) cannot be both. For governments, there are those who adhere to the laws and those who break them, but you can’t do both in the selfsame act. But for the priests and people of Athroonagh, a girl can somehow be both mortal and immortal, both illegitimate and of high ancestry, both a Christian child and a pagan, both magical and mundane, both on the margins of the community and at the centre of it; and it’s this capacity to sustain a simultaneous belief in two or more incompatible systems that makes these people so well worth celebrating at a time of dictatorship and mechanised conflict.

As it turns out, there are many ways in which the people of Athroonagh can sustain their existence in a liminal place between radically different worlds. If their priests can achieve a delicate balance between two incompatible convictions, so too can those bastions of the law the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. When interrogated several chapters later on Mona’s identity, the police sergeant at Athroonagh refuses to be drawn on ‘religion and politics’, but will still affirm that he has ‘seen strange things in the course of [his] duties’ (p. 79), which means that she may or may not be what people think she is: a child of the Shee. The sergeant’s views are at once endorsed by his traditional enemy, a passing tramp; and the postmistress adds that the existence of fairies may be a wonder, but so too is that scientific miracle the telegraph, ‘a thing that can talk from the ends of the earth’ (p. 80); and after its invention how can anyone question the validity of other kinds of miracles? The schoolmaster, meanwhile – whose task it is to instil immutable truths in his young charges, and who is instructed by the priest to treat Mona like an ordinary human being – is outraged by the daft pretence that has thus been forced upon him, since he considers it a ‘silly game […] to treat one who came of those mighty forces that roamed the mountain at night, and sometimes shrilled with great voices between the roof and the stars, as a common and mortal child’ (p. 19). As these instances of parallel convictions multiply, Athroonagh begins to look like the most capacious of receptacles for the conflicting paradoxes of twentieth-century existence, a receptacle rendered potent by its unlimited credulity – or to put it another way, by its unusually rich capacity for belief.

The local gamekeeper, too, finds himself torn between contradictory positions. His task is to police the boundaries between public land and private property, but when confronted by Mona Sheehy at twilight he finds himself unable to deny her access to the woods he guards. When she points out that last time they met in the woods he chased her home, he tells her:

‘Ah, sure I have my duty to do by day […] but I don’t forget the ancient powers for that, nor the children of them. And, begob, when the moon’s like that and the woods are still, sure Ireland isn’t any longer under the Government then. It’s under the power of Her Majesty that does be reigning behind Slieve-na-mona. Doesn’t even my dog know it?’ (p. 30).

The gamekeeper’s conflicted state of mind has a political dimension, as this speech suggests. One queen can displace another quite easily in his imagination, and his affiliation to political movements can change just as easily, despite his insistence that Mona needs to choose between being a mortal girl and the child of a fairy. ‘It’s either the top of Slieve-na-mona looking down on the centuries,’ he pronounces, ‘or else it’s our bits of houses and our human ways and the sins we sin and the hopes we have. It can’t be both’ (p. 31). But the choices available to the gamekeeper seem less fixed than this pronouncement tends to suggest, shifting in response to the time of day, the shifting seasons, the changing weather. ‘In that light and at that hour,’ Dunsany assures us,

he would himself have enlisted as one of the bodyguard of the Queen of the Shee, had he been asked to do so by any supernatural power coming from Slieve-na-Mona. And at another hour he would have joined the Fenians, and maybe died in prison for doing it. And in another light and at some other hour he might have enlisted in the Brigade of Guards, being the right height for them, and would have carried into old age tales of their battles as well as tales of the Shee.

At different times of day, Dunsany suggests, the convictions of the Fenians and those of the Unionists might take the upper hand in the gamekeeper’s personality, though both seem equally compatible with ‘tales of the Shee’. The borders set by political parties are always moving in Ireland, like the borders of Elfland in Dunsany’s most famous novel, and affiliates of opposing Irish parties have more that unites them than divides them in Dunsany’s fiction.

The borders of the country were shifting too, of course, around the time when the novel is set – 1919 to 1920 – and at the end of the novel the police sergeant, despite all his efforts to steer clear of religion and politics, is forced to hurry over the border to the newly-established Northern Ireland to avoid paying a heavy price for his membership of an imperialist police force. Making a choice of any kind, it would seem, gets you involved in politics, so that avoiding choices, too, could be a political decision, a means of steering carefully between the deadly shoals of opposing factions.

The borders between purportedly distinct populations of Athroonagh are highly permeable. The villagers live in a symbiotic relationship with the people who live without houses, the traveler or tinker community, who mend their pots, supply their gambling needs, and provide them with false coins when the need arises. The tinkers’ capacity for crossing borders and breaching limits is merely an extension of the villagers’ refusal to be contained within the boundaries of legitimacy. Property laws are largely irrelevant to the tinkers – except where it comes to donkeys (p. 139) – and they treat the whole of Ireland as their household, with all its contents available for them to use at their pleasure, including chickens, rabbits, cows and crops, regardless of legal ownership. The same is true (though to a lesser extent) of the villagers, which is why there’s a need for a gamekeeper in Athroonagh. And while the tinkers have no interest in property, they are also willing (Dunsany suggests) to stake an exclusive claim to the possession of certain individuals, such as Mona Sheehy once she has been cast out by the village community. The two populations may be distinguished by different customs, but they have more in common than either population is willing to concede, and the whole structure of Dunsany’s book has been devised to draw this out.

The tinkers’ criminal activities, too, are coterminous with the secret crimes of the villagers. In Rory and Bran the only tinker was a friendly visionary; but in Mona Sheehy Dunsany represents the tinker community as dangerously as well as delightfully anarchic. Murders, rapes and abductions can be committed among them with impunity, and they have an unsettling habit of stowing dead bodies in the false bottoms of their carts along with the other doubtfully legal goods they carry. Yet the tinkers’ relative lawlessness is never judged, either by the tinkers themselves, the people of Athroonagh or the narrator. This is partly because they exist on a continuum between the fantastic and the real, a mobile state of being that involves radical moral shifts as well as geographical ones; it’s inevitable, then, that they should share the dangerous aspects of the fairies they dream of, as well as their knowledge, musicality, charm, and appreciation of mortal beauty such as Mona’s. In addition, the tinkers’ crimes are committed with equal enthusiasm by the villagers. The gamekeeper’s son, young Peter, commits a murder for Mona’s sake, killing a tinker who plans to rape her; and Mona’s living body is disposed of repeatedly by other people than the tinkers in the course of the novel – from the villagers, who cast her out of the village as a danger to it, to Lady Gurtrim’s lover Peevers, who sends her to London for purposes of his own, to Mona’s ‘true’ father Dennis O’Flanagan and his sister, who forbid her to marry the young man she loves – without considering the girl’s own wishes. Like Mona herself, then, the tinkers could be said to represent the state of continuous fluctuation which is the atmosphere of Athroonagh, and Dunsany celebrates them because they represent the reverse of the rigid lines that separate state from state and right from wrong in the minds of less inclusive populations.

Like the gamekeeper at Athroonagh, the tinkers’ identity fluctuates depending on the time of day and their state of mind. As the wise woman tinker Mrs Joyce tells Mona at one point, the young men of her community can be ‘a bit wicked sometimes’, especially after one of them has killed another in a fight; and on such occasions the wickedness persists ‘until anything happens to make them forget about it’ (pp. 164-5). Even in this, though, they are little different from the villagers. After killing the tinker who wishes to rape Mona – bashing his head in with his shillelagh in a fair but illegal fight – the gamekeeper’s son, young Peter, flees to the hills for a while until the fuss about the death has died down, where he joins the IRA, ‘a band of young men that drilled at night […] and carried a rifle with them’ (p. 256). But he soon returns to his work as a gamekeeper’s assistant for a local landowner, Lord Harahanstown – presumably one of the members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy that the IRA has sworn to drive out. Peter’s political commitments change with the changing weather, as his father’s do, and his opinions about Mona – whom he loves and courts – change likewise as the weather changes, growing uneasy about her fairy blood when the day grows dark. Peter’s fight with the tinker, in other words, is governed by non-legalistic rules both parties abide by, and the tinkers are as careful to conceal the evidence of Peter’s act of murder as they were to conceal the murder committed by a member of their own community in a fight over Mona the night before.

The tinkers exist on a continuum of belief that runs between the fairies at one end and the police at the other, between anarchy and the long arm of the law; and they maintain an ambiguous understanding with the people at both ends of that continuum. The tinker Joyce, for instance, who takes in Mona when she runs away from Athroonagh, asks her to deliver a message to her mother, the Queen of the Fairies, apologising for his obtuseness in failing to understand her messages throughout his lifetime (pp. 48-50). He does his best to do the Queen’s will, he explains, but was left by his negligent mother with an imperfect knowledge of the many distinctive languages fairies speak. Meanwhile he and his fellow tinkers have their own distinctive way of talking to the police, a form of language designed to delay their investigations for as long as possible through repeated calls for clarification, before eventually sending them off in the wrong direction. The fairies, of course, must be similarly misdirected – no one must name them openly, for fear of attracting their attention (‘Will you not speak that name,’ Mrs Joyce tells Mona when she mentions her putative mother, ‘and bring bad luck down on the tinkers’, p. 140). But this in turn is an extension of the unwritten rules for conversation in Dunsany’s Ireland. Questions from anyone in that country will be met with prevarications, indicative of productive indecision or two-mindedness as much as of a desire to mislead. The tinkers’ discourse is riddled with circumlocutions: ‘I’m not saying they’re not right’ (p. 175), ‘I’m not saying you will’ (p. 49), ‘I’m not saying I saw either, nor I’m not saying I didn’t’ (p. 171), ‘I wouldn’t say it was […] nor I wouldn’t say it wasn’t’ (p. 185). And in using this roundabout way of speaking the tinkers simply take the ways of Athroonagh to a new level. The gamekeeper, for example, shares their liking for circuitous sentences: ‘I’m not saying who’s immortal and who’s not’, he tells his son with reference to Mona (p. 73), and does so ‘with an Irishman’s anxiety not to be definite’. Even the most opinionated villagers reserve the right to change their minds at a moment’s notice. The gossips Mrs Ryan and Mrs O’Kelly do so multiple times in the course of the novel, on one occasion pronouncing the doom that expels poor Mona from the village, on another affirming with equal certainty the rightness and necessity of her return; first denying her the right to marry Peter, then implicitly confirming that the same marriage is entirely appropriate by attending the wedding, and spending the ceremony in making careful comparisons with all the other weddings they have seen in their lifetimes, ‘drawing a moral from any differences that were observed’ (p. 333). Any statement made by the villagers or the tinkers, then, is constructed in such a way as to enable them to retract its assertions whenever necessary, in response to the changing contours of the political, social or emotional landscape.

Mullingar Asylum (St Loman’s Hospital)

The continuum of belief, supported by flexible forms of discourse, finds a counterpart in the invisible map of Ireland constructed by the movements of the tinkers around the country. In Rory and Bran, the madhouse at Mullingar was a destination reserved for tinkers who could no longer disguise their insane dependence on the moon, or young women who show too much faith in the wild romantic dreams of mad young men. In The Story of Mona Sheehy it has become a regular stop on the tinkers’ route from town to town – though it also remains an institution for the incarceration of crazy tramps (p. 263). The Joyces tell Mona that their annual wanderings take them ‘along the roads between Galway and Mullingar’ (p. 49), or ‘between Dublin and Mullingar’ (p. 50), naming points at the extreme West and East of Ireland in relation to the town that contains the asylum, roughly in the middle. Distances are variable – somewhere ‘not far’ might be a week away or more, as a donkey goes (p. 145), while the mysterious tramp who crops up periodically through the novel claims to have travelled through the whole world ‘and other places besides’ (p. 79). For the Joyces and the tramp, space is as relative as the truth, since the whole of the outdoors is their living room, the side of a road their kitchen, the ground their bed.

Science is present in Mona Sheehy as it is not in Rory and Bran, but Dunsany invests it with magical qualities, using similar techniques to the ones he used to enchant the night of Mona’s conception. Mona’s banishment from Athroonagh occurs on the night when she goes to the mountain to find her supernatural mother, which happens also to be the night when the Northern Lights appear in the sky. The villagers assume that these strange celestial lights are manifestations of her mother’s wrath, and drive Mona away to ensure that the consequences of that wrath will not be visited on their community. When the bishops hears of her banishment he sends the villagers a detailed scientific explanation of the meteorological conditions that produce the aurora borealis: ‘they are of the nature of an electrical meteor appearing most frequently in high latitudes in the form of luminous clouds, arches and rays, of which the latter sometimes meet at a point near the zenith’ (p. 158). But the bishop’s explanation itself becomes for the villagers a magic spell of tremendous power against the fairies: ‘Bits of that letter are quoted in Athroonagh to this day,’ Dunsany tells us, ‘and many a frightened man hearing steps behind him at night has muttered to himself “or in other words to the curves of the magnetic force,” and found that the sound of the steps would disappear’ (p. 159). Science has its place on the same continuum that links the fairies to the police, and a scientific publication can become a spell in Athroonagh as easy as blinking.

Mona’s earthly mother is linked with science, just as her supernatural mother is, in this case through her love of cars. The car is a machine whose movements are restricted by the narrow limits of the tarmacked roads along which it travels, as well as the capacities of its engine. Yet it too is invested with magic by the villagers and travellers it passes after dark:

And the hum of a large car disturbed the night, and the radiant light called more trees out of the darkness to show their midday greenery for a moment. The golden flood swept rapidly over the hedges and a huge car went by, and ashes and scraps of paper from the Joyces’ fire ran after it, and the light and the noise were swallowed up by the dark and silent night. It was Lady Gurtrim taking her great car to the coast. (p. 267)

For the Joyces who watch as the car sweeps by, it is as supernatural an event as Lady Gurtrim dancing in the moonlight seemed to the farmer Dennis O’Flanagan more than sixteen years before. At the same time, for Lady Gurtrim her machine is a strictly private obsession, something that cuts her off from the dreams and stories of her neighbours, and prevents her from participating in their generously inclusive systems of belief. She is as narrowly focused on her driving as her ‘great car’ is narrowly constrained and bounded by the road; when sitting at the wheel of her Grostyn-Dhobler she has no eyes or ears or thought for anything else. So it seems appropriate that her obsession with driving should bring about her death, since it divorces her from the community she is part of – the people of Athroonagh, her unacknowledged daughter, her kindly husband. Her car, in fact, cuts her off from life long before it kills her; it’s a symbol of her ‘selfish’ conduct (p. 284), as she acknowledges in the split second before she dies.

Mercedes-Benz W 154, 1939

In Rory and Bran, Lord Dunsany indulged himself in painting a picture of the class to which he belonged – the Irish aristocracy – as an extension of the country’s landscape and an integral part of its ancient culture. When travelling with the moon-worshipping tinker, Rory learns from him that a certain local landowner is a generous patron of travelling folk, and will provide them with a character reference with heartwarming ease. Sure enough, Rory obtains a reference from the baronet Sir Frank of Ardmona House, and uses it to beg a warm coat from Sir Frank’s near neighbour, the landlord Mr Percival, thereby confirming the symbiotic relationship between the ruling classes and the peasantry in rural Ireland before the Great War. In The Story of Mona Sheehy, by contrast, the aristocracy seems on the verge of extinction. The alienation of Lady Gurtrim from Lord Gurtrim means that they have no children, and since Lady Gurtrim never officially acknowledges her relationship to Mona, this means that when both have died they leave no heirs. The couple die separately, each in pursuit of their own hobby: Lord Gurtrim while hunting a fox to hounds, Lady Gurtrim while racing her car. Lord Gurtrim’s hobby is a communal one, since for Dunsany ‘love of the hunt is […] in the Irish blood, and to watch a fox-hunt is as natural to Irish people as to hear tales of the Shee’ (p. 114). His love of hunting, too, is connected in the chapter about his death with his fabled generosity, from which Mona hopes to benefit when she runs away from Athroonagh. He is clearly of a piece with Rory’s benefactor, Sir Frank, in Rory and Bran, because it is widely know that ‘no one in distress appealed in vain to Lord Gurtrim’ (p. 112). His death, then, could be read as a symbol of the end of an era, with Lady Gurtrim and her lover Peevers its cause: Lord Gurtrim thinks about Peevers as he dies, and describes him as a ‘Nasty little rat’ (p.119). Lady Gurtrim, on the other hand, is alone as she dies, and looks back on her life as a selfish one. Her death, however, makes ‘some amends’ for this selfishness (p. 284). While still officially in mourning for her husband, Lady Gurtrim drives her Grostyn-Dhobler to a race in England, and in the middle of the race a little girl runs out of the crowd in front of her car. Lady Gurtrim thinks for a moment that the foolish child deserves to die, then makes ‘The Choice’ which is referred to in the chapter’s title. The choice is a simple one: drive straight on, keeping to the road as her machine is designed to do, and kill the girl; or swerve aside to avoid the child, thus taking the car on a trajectory that will be fatal to its driver. In terms of the rules of the race and of Newtonian motion, the second choice does not exist; and its impossibility is signalled by the presence at the edge of the road of a containing parapet, a ‘cement balustrade that was imitating marble’ (pp. 283-4). But Lady Gurtrim takes it anyway, steering away from the only legitimate or regular course available to her. In the process she steers herself back into a sense of community, and at the same time into local mythology. As the car flashes past the astonished child it seems to her ‘wonderful’, and as it bursts through the parapet the Grostyn-Dobler takes on the appearance of a second meteorological apparition, a firework display on a par with the Northern Lights that shocked the village a few chapters earlier: ‘The balustrade of sham marble burst into dust, and the Grostyn-Dhobler, catching light at once, went over the tree-tops in one long stream of fire’ (p. 285). Lady Gurtrim thereby passes into legend – just as the hunt in which Lord Gurtrim died passes into legend (we are told) among the hunting community of the county. In the process, the aristocracy of Ireland passes into legend too, to be replaced, perhaps, by the born survivor: Lady Gurtrim’s lover Peevers, the ‘Nasty little rat’ who deserts every sinking ship he boards with shameless aplomb.

Race-goers having a picnic at the Galway Races, 1945. Photo by Francis Reiss

Peevers represents the extension of selfish principles to society as a whole, as embodied in free market capitalism, which is founded on providing an increasing number of choices to consumers while a diminishing number of providers stand to benefit from these choices. Choice itself, as Lady Gurtrim discovers in the end, involves shutting down certain possibilities for ever. So when Peevers encourages Mona to bet all her money on a horse at the Rathmoon races – as he does himself – she loses all of it, and so diminishes the range of choice available to her in terms of her life after leaving Athroonagh. Peevers himself, of course, has more money than she does, so that his own range of choices is hardly narrowed at all by his loss. His response to the loss illustrates the free market capitalist’s attitude to projects that fail: fault for the failure is anyone else’s but his own, and in this case it is that of the rider, which introduces a second act of choice: ‘a comparison between his own intelligence and the folly of a jockey’ (p. 203). Each choice Peevers offers in the book is similarly weighted in his favour and against the wellbeing of other choosers. When he suggests that Mona should go to London to work for an advertising company, presenting it as a choice, the suggestion brings a range of benefits for him: Lady Gurtrim will be impressed by his ability to deal with intransigent problems, such as how to provide for her illegitimate daughter without the need to acknowledge her, while the manager of the firm will be impressed by Peevers’s ability to ‘supply him with the kind of material for employment that he rather thought he wanted’ (p. 199). For Mona, however, it brings no benefits at all, however extravagantly Peevers talks up the likelihood that it will make her ‘a good deal of money’ (p. 198). Being underage, she has no choice over whether or not she goes to London; the decision is made for her by her rival fathers, Dennis O’Flanagan and Peevers, who in this case speak with one voice, as if to emphasize the choicelessness of the market system they are urging her to join. She is unhappy when she gets to London, and grows unhappier as time goes by. And London turns out to be a world where her range of choices grows progressively narrower, until she can find no escape at all from the maze-like circuit of its streets. The choice of goods in the city’s shop windows, the choice of company in its streets, the choice of destinations its stations offer to well-heeled travellers – all are closed to her owing to her poverty and inexperience. From the moment she arrives there, then, she begins to shrink, reduced from the queenly daughter of the Shee to an indigent worker trudging the route from work to lodgings, from lodgings to work from day to day without hope of change. The subtle changes of the Irish landscape have been barred to her, and she is reduced to seeking escape from her situation in a place where any escape is merely a route to another dead end.

1939 advertisement

The progressive narrowing of Mona’s choices is summed up by the culture of the firm she works for, the World Improvement Publicity Company. The aim of the firm is to invent for its customers needs they did not think they had, such as the overwhelming need for a new, expensive form of mustard, which is sprayed on your food in a fine transparent mist, as against the yellow, lumpy condiment everyone uses as things stand. The aim of the firm is first to present the spray-on mustard as a superior choice to the lumpy kind, then to ensure that in the end it is the only kind available, and that its manufacturers are the only people to benefit from it. The idea for the mustard comes from a man with the unfortunate name of Snerooth, the son of the firm’s owner, whose monopoly over the product gives him a monopoly over any profits it might bring. Snerooth seeks a similar monopoly over Mona, and when he proposes marriage to her he presents the proposal – like his mustard – as a choice which in the end is no choice at all. If she refuses, she will be condemned to work for the World Improvement Publicity Company for the rest of her life; if she takes it, he will possess her along with the rest of the company’s assets. Snerooth presents to Mona, in fact, a ready made destiny, whereby her life will continue to be shaped by insidious forces beyond her capacity to affect. In this he resembles the odious Peevers, who has a ‘strange desire for a reputation for being able to control destinies’ (p. 199), and who offers choices which are no choices to everyone he meets. For Snerooth and Peevers, money offers choice; but this choice turns out to be as illusory as the choices offered by advertising. The riches promised to Mona by Peevers turn out to be a salary so small that she will take years to build up the capital to do what she wants, go home to Ireland. And when she is left money by Lady Gurtrim in her will, her new wealth means she can finally go home, but once there she is forbidden to marry the man she loves – young Peter, the gamekeeper’s son – because he is now ‘beneath’ her, socially speaking. The mythical gold with which the streets of London are paved is in fact a gold that has no value, just as the mustard devised by Snerooth will have no flavour or colour or substance. Instead it forces on its users a destiny – a single path from which it’s impossible to turn aside – that is not worth having, the polar opposite of the freedom of the Irish roads.

Throughout the London section of the novel, the differences between the metropolis and Athroonagh are repeatedly brought home to us. As Mona travels to London, for instance, Ireland shows herself in her most attractive colours, putting herself in competitive dialogue with the gilded thoroughfares of the capital:

The gorse at the height of its glory beamed upon her. Almost it seems strange that Earth, which has so little gold, could send forth such an abundance of gorse: flowers planted upon a stratum of gold and nurtured by gold dust could not have been more yellow. Catkins shone from the willows and sometimes a blackthorn flashed; and kingcups, which she knew she was leaving, nearly brought tears to her eyes (p. 205).

Here the gold of the Irish countryside offers itself in generous abundance to every passer by, not restricting its loveliness to a small elite. There is no need for jealousy of its possession, as there is (for instance) among the girls at the London firm for Mona’s luck in catching the heart of the owner’s heir. Later, the ‘intrusiveness and the tirelessness’ of advertising in London, which drowns out the subtle, distinctive ‘message’ of the city, is contrasted with the cheerful invitations to passers-by offered up by the tinkers at the Rathmoon races, which attracted players to Mr Joyce’s roulette board ‘of their own accord’ – by a genuine choice (p. 213) – as against the spurious sense of need imposed by publicity. The restricted nature of London’s wealth is emphasized by the suspicious store detectives who police the shop windows, draining them of the seductive ‘magic’ Mona found in them at first, the only magic she found in the capital apart from its power of drawing people to it against their will. The smell of petrol replaces ‘the smell of the flowers that the wind blew over the fields of Athroonagh’ (p. 221), and the ‘sight of immensities’ such as Slieve-na-mona is narrowed down to occasional fleeting glimpses of the clouds:

Sometimes the sky would flash at her down a long street, showing her wandering clouds, and for a moment the world was again a world she was born to live in; and then she was once more under the steep houses, and a shadow fell on her spirit that was so easily shadowed. (p. 221).

Earlier in the book, shadows seen from the height of Slieve-na-mona represented the infinite possibilities of mystery embedded in the Irish landscape (‘she saw even in that broad daylight blue folds of the ground and dark ridges, and patches hidden by mist, which the child decided might well be haunted by the hosts of the people of legend’, p. 69). Shadow Ireland lay all around her, summoning to it the shadows of myth and legend that spoke to Rory. In London however, shadows are simply shadows, and Mona’s ability to talk and think about the ‘hosts of the people of legend’ is taken away (p. 228), leaving her a shadow of her former self. The streets, too, hemmed in by ‘steep houses’, contrast with the ‘wandering’ country lanes of Ireland, along which wayfarers pass with the insouciance of clouds. In this passage, Mona finds herself at the end of the road, her direction permanently fixed for her, in stark opposition to her unknown path of travel when she first set out from Athroonagh, without a destiny, a destination or even the vaguest plan of action, like a wandering knight in an old romance.

1939 advertisement

Her personality, too, is fixed in London, as it never was in Ireland, where she effectively changes her species as the novel goes on. As a daughter of the Shee she is seen by her fellow villagers as a phoenix, akin to the national bird of Ireland commemorated by the statue in Phoenix Park. As Lady Grutrim’s daughter, heir to twenty or forty thousand pounds depending on the whim of rumour, she becomes for the villagers a bird of paradise, a burst of bright feathers of the kind fine ladies put on their hats. In the final chapter of the book, when Peevers has succeeded in frittering away the fortune left her by Lady Gurtrim by investing it all in business prospects that fail – including the ersatz mustard of Snerooth – Mona is reduced, we’re told, to a ‘mere hen, which there was no reason now for grudging to Peter’ (pp. 329-30). At all times, though, she is a bird, and therefore akin to the blackbirds, cuckoos, swallows and thrushes that haunt the woods where she wanders with her young man, singing ‘of magic to her, and the fairy people, and the royal race of the Shee’ (p. 72). And her ability to transform herself by her own powers, and to be transformed into strange new shapes by events beyond her control, suggests that her destiny will not be determined or ordered for her in Athroonagh, as it seemed to be in London when the city consumed her.

The Story of Mona Sheehy offers its readers Lord Dunsany’s final thoughts on Ireland and fantasy before the outbreak of the Second World War. Like Rory and Bran it finds the ‘message’ of Ireland in the Irish countryside round Slieve-na- mona, and more specifically in Irish country roads, which link the country together in an elaborate network along which travellers and tinkers move with the freedom of birds. In doing so it attaches itself to the work of James Stephens, whose novels The Crock of Gold (1912) and The Demi-Gods (1914) concern themselves with the traveller’s life in Ireland, offering it up as a working model for the nation’s road to independence. This attachment – which would have been obvious to readers in the 30s, when the popularity of Stephens’s novels was at its height – suggests (I think) that in these two books Dunsany works out his own imaginative reconciliation with the idea of an independent Ireland, in defiance of his own political stance as a Conservative Unionist. Mona Sheehy in particular, which pictures Ireland on the cusp of the War of Independence, seems to celebrate Ireland’s imminent self-detachment from a destiny bound up with that of London. Mona’s return to Ireland and the loss of her fortune – which parallels the economic ruin predicted by many Unionists to be the inevitable consequence of Irish independence – permits the continuation of the ‘golden romance’ that surrounded her birth (p. 331); a romance that sets itself in opposition to the mineral gold so prized by capitalism, and is conserved not by banks but by the travellers who attend Mona’s marriage ceremony, playing ‘strange music suited well to the wedding of one, whose royal and elfin pretensions were remembered still by the tinkers’ (p. 333).

Ireland’s ‘message’, for Dunsany – its distinctive voice – comes from its commitment to dreams, those never-failing sources of the fantastic imagination. His way of dealing with dreams is what distinguishes Dunsany’s fantasy from Tolkien’s. Tolkien was interested in immersive fantasy, the kind that enables its reader to forget completely for a time the ‘real’ world she lives in. Dunsany’s fantasy after the Great War, by contrast, is always conscious of the ‘real’ world it holds at arm’s length. Rodriguez looks into it from his chronicles through an enchanter’s window; Alveric’s son Orion bequeaths enchantment to it in the form of a unicorn’s horn, which ends up in the real-world royal treasury of France; while in Dunsany’s Irish novels it is the substance through which the shadows of the impossible drift, never quite dispersing. Brian Attebery wrote in Strategies of Fantasy about the idea that fantasy exists on a continuum between two poles; one pole being the purest fantastic, which is dominated by impossible events and beings, such as Alice in Wonderland or the nonsense stories of Edward Lear; and the other being ‘purely’ realist texts such as Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, into which the fantastic or impossible only intrudes as dream or metaphor.[2] Dunsany’s fiction between the wars self-consciously slides along this continuum, celebrating the persistence of fantastic romance even while it acknowledges its fictionality. Rory and Bran and Mona Sheehy have no ‘really’ impossible events in them, unlike The Curse of the Wise Woman; but they concern themselves very seriously with belief in the impossible, and contain many characters who cannot rid themselves of the suspicion that the impossible happens, at particular times and in certain places. For Dunsany, the certainty that they do not is something that belongs to the sinister people who wish to profit from others, not share things with them. Such people exist in London and Ireland as well as in the fascist regimes of Italy, Germany and Spain. And the balancing act he achieves in keeping impossible things alive and free in the face of such restrictive opposition remains worth thinking about, I think.

Slievenamon Mountain, Co. Tipperary

Books Cited

Auden, W. H., The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986)

Dunsany, Lord, Rory and Bran (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1936)

Dunsany, Lord, The Story of Mona Sheehy (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1939)

Notes

[1] The novel can be dated pretty precisely from two statements: the first, that the four-year Great War has finished by the time the main action begins (p. 83); the second, that the year that followed her adventures involved ‘anxious months’ for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary – seen by nationalists as the instruments of British oppression (see p. 333) – thanks to the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence. At the same time, Dunsany insists that his book is ‘no history of the greater world, whose faith is in phosgene’ (p. 83) – that is, in a poisonous gas used as a weapon in World War I.

[2] Brian Attebery, Strategies of Fantasy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 2-4.

Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany’s Irish Fiction

[This is the first of two blog posts on Dunsany’s Irish Fiction. It follows on from my earlier post on Fantasy 1939: Science Fiction, and is followed by a post dedicated to Dunsany’s The Story of Mona Sheehy.]

Irish fantasy was as fertile as British fantasy between the wars, and in many cases as well known in Britain as in Ireland. This is partly because most of the major fantasy texts were published in or near London. Lord Dunsany’s fantasy novels of the 1920s, for example, were published in the British capital by the American publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and his Irish books – beginning with The Curse of the Wise Woman – by the British firm Heinemann, often bound in green cloth to advertise their Irish content. James Stephens migrated to London in 1925, where he gained great popularity as a broadcaster from 1937 onwards; most of his books were published by Macmillan. Eimar O’Duffy (who also migrated to London in 1925) published his satirical Cuanduine trilogy, King Goshawk and the Birds (1926), The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street (1928) and Asses in Clover (1933), with Macmillan and Putnam’s, while Flann O’Brien’s equally satirical At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) was published by Longman’s. Patricia Lynch’s novels of the 1930s were all published by Dent. There was, then, a constant exchange of fantastic ideas between Ireland and the United Kingdom, not to mention the European continent (where Joyce was based) and the United States (where Padraic Colum lived, though he was also in Paris in the early 30s). Irish fantasy fiction needed to take account of a readership in Ireland, Britain and the United States, not to mention France. And in 1939 – as Britain plunged into the Second World War while Ireland and the United States remained neutral – one imagines that it might have been read in very different ways in all three countries, and within each country, too, depending on the political stances of their readers.

For Irish readers, for instance, the dictatorial author Trellis in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds is a much more complex phenomenon than the many British dictators in contemporary fiction, from the Hitler-like Hillier in Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936) to the Mosley-esque Jagger in R C Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript (1939). This is because Trellis belongs to one of the ‘oppressed peoples’ championed by the Iranian conqueror of Europe, General Selim, at the end of Sherriff’s novel. As the native of a country that existed under foreign rule for many centuries, Trellis’s mistreatment of his characters – and his characters’ savage revenge on him, which involves protracted torture – spring from an experience of colonization which makes it impossible to describe him simply as a ‘home-grown tyrant’, as one might describe Hillier, Jagger, or Clemence Dane’s scarecrow-dictator White Ben. The unique status of Ireland among the islands of the Western Archipelago seems to be underscored by the fact that At Swim-Two-Birds is not exactly a fantasy, and is therefore rarely considered as such in histories of the genre, and yet is also hard to describe as anything else. The fantastic plot of the novel, in which characters in a work of fiction rebel against their author, can be read as a subplot of the realistic scenario that opens the novel, where a first-person narrator, a student at University College Dublin, begins to write an experimental novel with three distinct openings and three concurrent narratives. But as the book goes on the three narratives cross-fertilize, breaking down the generic and stylistic distinctions between them. The student writer is soon joined as ‘author’ of the novel first by the fictional author Dermot Trellis, then by Trellis’s illegitimate son (fathered on another fictional character), a young man called Orlick. And the novel ends – in the third of three conclusions to its three narrative threads – not with the ‘realistic’ narrative about the student but with an anecdote about a German fantasist, who like the student is strangely obsessed with the number three. The man’s obsession leads him to commit an unusual act of suicide in the final paragraph: ‘He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife good-bye, good-bye, good-bye’ (p. 218). The story of the suicidal German is offered to the reader as an explanation of Trellis’s conviction that the characters in his novel have rebelled against him; perhaps, the narrative voice at this point implies, Trellis was a victim of the same sort of delusion as the one that killed the German, that his life was wholly under control by forces he himself had put in motion. But the obsession with threes, and another personality trait of Trellis’s – the tendency to spend too much time in bed – is as characteristic of the student narrator as of his invented author-figure. And of course another writer – Flann O’Brien, himself a stand-in for the Irish civil servant Brian O’Nolan – is responsible for all the author figures in At Swim-Two-Birds. Fantasies, then – such as the conviction that a certain form of ritual behaviour will have a material effect on the universe – bleed not only into each other but into the substance of the world itself, and lead to suicidal acts of self-damage which by 1939 could be clearly seen to include the imminent outbreak of war in Europe. And the causal links that lead from one author figure to another – from O’Nolan to O’Brien to the student to Trellis to Orlick – can be seen as standing in for the complex links between Ireland, Britain and continental Europe, as well as America (among the cast of the novel is a posse of Dublin cowboys). Writing fiction, psychological delusions and political power are bound together in tangled chains of cause and effect, rendered yet more tangled by the student author’s willingness to practise plagiarism, lifting whole sections of his book from other people’s writings. The notion of the home-grown dictator, O’Nolan implies, is pretty much unsustainable for Irish writers of the period. Too many of the influences on an Irish dictator in the 1930s would have been absentees or foreigners of one sort or another; being home-grown is barely an option, and when it is, the notion of ‘home’ is in any case contaminated by colonialism.

Ireland’s relationship with fantasy itself was both rich and vexed. Yeats, for example, described the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, which was meant to restore Irish independence, as a collection of sleepwalkers who ‘dreamed and are dead’, and whose dreams effectively killed them. Yet veterans of the Easter Rising played a practical and very central role in the establishment of a fully independent Republic of Ireland in 1937, and included the first Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera. Two great Irish fantasy writers had a close relationship with the Rising’s leaders – James Stephens and Padraic Colum; and Stephens’s hugely popular The Crock of Gold (1912) is a kind of rallying cry for a peaceful version of the Insurrection in Dublin (as Stephens called the Easter Rising), providing a vision of a secular, socialist, liberal Ireland very different from the Free State when it came. Nowhere in Europe, then, was it clearer than in Ireland that national identity was a kind of fantasy, the product of a collective feat of the imagination. And nowhere was it clearer that such fantasies could be hijacked for their own purposes by competing political and economic interest groups, with sometimes devastating consequences in the real world.

Two versions of these competing dreams found expression in books of Irish fantasy published by British printers in 1939. These are The Story of Mona Sheehy, by Lord Dunsany, and The Grey Goose of Kilnevin, by Patricia Lynch. The writers of both books were present at the Easter Rising, with affiliations to different sides. Dunsany was a Captain in the British Army, who got shot and captured by the insurrectionists, while Lynch was a young reporter sympathetic to the nationalist cause, eager to put across women’s experience of the Rising in her report for the paper she worked for: The Worker’s Dreadnought, edited by the suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst. Dunsany’s and Lynch’s novels of 1939, then, between them provide an example of how the medium of fantastic fiction could be used to put forward different visions of Irish nationhood.

At the same time, the differences between the two novels are perhaps less obvious than their similarities. Both writers chose to set their books in rural Ireland, placing the Irish traveller community at its heart. Both chose to put forward a version of Ireland that’s to some extent at odds with the nation as it was at the end of the 30s. Both chose women (or rather girls) as their protagonists. And the debt both authors owe to the nationalist James Stephens – whose Crock of Gold also inspired Brian O’Nolan’s second novel, The Third Policeman (1940)[1] ­– confirms the status of Stephens’s novel as a taproot text for fantastic fiction in Ireland, regardless of one’s political position. I’ll be looking at Lynch’s book in a separate blog post, but mention it here to underscore the point that Dunsany’s Irish fantasies – often represented as uncomplicatedly conservative and unionist – have an affinity with the socialist fantasies of his Irish contemporaries, which confirms the strange position they hold in the history of Irish literature. This strange position may well account for the neglect they have fallen into, despite their obvious literary qualities (obvious, at least, to enthusiasts like me).

Dunsany’s politics was much more complicated than simple Unionism – though he remained a professed Conservative Unionist all his life.[2] In an earlier blog post I summed it up as follows:

He was a Unionist, but his family name of Plunkett was intimately associated with the nationalist cause. His uncle, the agricultural reformer Sir Horace Plunkett, began as a unionist but ended as a prominent advocate of Home Rule, while another of his close relatives, Joseph Plunkett, was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Dunsany’s friend the poet Francis Ledwidge was another nationalist, who wrote one of the most celebrated verse responses to the Rising, ‘Lament for the Poets’, which transforms the leaders – three of whom were poets like himself – into blackbirds whose songs have been extinguished for ever. Dunsany’s religious affiliations, too, were mixed. He was raised a Protestant, but many of his relatives were Catholic, including George Noble Plunkett, a Papal Count and the father of Joseph.

Dunsany Castle, Co. Meath

One suspects that it’s partly as a result of this mixed religious and political background that Dunsany largely steered clear of Irish subjects in the first half of his career, between 1900 and 1930 or so. When he did come to write fiction set in Ireland – beginning with The Curse of the Wise Woman in 1933 – his representation of the relationship between the Nationalist and Unionist positions was very carefully managed. It’s best summed up by the strangely symbiotic relationship between the protagonist of the Curse, Charles – the teenage son of an Irish peer, whose father is the target of an assassination attempt on the part of the nationalists – and the four IRA hitmen sent to kill Charles’s father, known as the ‘Duke’, at his family home. The boy earns the respect of the assassins when he first refuses to disclose the Duke’s whereabouts, then seeks to distract their attention by talking about the sport of shooting geese on the nearby boglands. A few weeks later, Charles hides the hitmen from the police, using the same method his father used to evade his assassins: a hidden passage in the house’s library. In return for this act of mercy one of the assassins chooses to die at the hands of his fellow nationalists rather than break his promise not to hunt the boy’s father down (p. 176), and decades later another of the assassins – now a ‘very prominent member of the Council of the League of Nations’ (p. 322) – secures an overseas ministerial post for Charles under the Irish Free State. The complex dance of give-and-take between the boy from an ambiguously unionist family and the four nationalists is conducted in a peculiarly Irish language of diplomacy, whereby nothing is said directly apart from the oaths taken by both parties at different times on a holy relic of the True Cross which is kept in Charles’s home (the boy swears he is telling the truth about his father’s location, the assassins later swear that they will not kill his father, and both keep their promises as best they can).

Dunsany gives us an example of the indirect discourse of Irish politics in an incident that occurs a few days after the Duke has been finally killed by assassins in Paris. At once the four hitmen send Charles a message to let him know they were not responsible. A little boy brings it to Charles, who asks:

‘Who is it from?’
‘They said you’d know,’ he answered.
‘But what were their names?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What’s the message?’
‘“It wasn’t us”,’ he said.
‘Was there anything more?’
‘They just said: “It wasn’t us,”’ the boy answered, and was gone over the wall. (p. 199)

The message, like many political messages in occupied Ireland, is carefully shrouded in obscurity, but its meaning is understood at once by the recipient – an understanding that cannot be shared by people outside the country. Master Charles, like Dunsany himself, is a schoolboy at Eton, where Irish pupils ‘come by the habit […] of avoiding talk in public about religion or politics’ – which means they talk very little of home, since ‘so much in Ireland comes under those two headings’ (p. 197). Even Charles’s favourite sport, the shooting of geese over the local boglands, gets mixed up with politics. One of the assassins gives him a tip on how best to shoot them, just as he’s leaving the house after failing to find the Duke. A goose, he tells him, ‘takes a long time to get his pace up. Don’t aim so much in front of a goose as you do at other birds’ (p. 15). And he adds, ominously: ‘if it ever comes to it, and God knows the world’s full of trouble, aim a foot in front of a man walking, at a hundred yards’. The advice is more pertinent to Dunsany’s political career than it is to Charles’s. During the Easter Rising Dunsany was wounded by a nationalist bullet, and pointed out in his autobiography that if the rifleman had known to ‘aim a foot in front of a man walking, at a hundred yards’ he would never have lived to tell the tale. To talk about Ireland is to talk about religion, politics, and family, all of which are woven together in complicated skeins. Hence Dunsany’s avoidance of writing fiction about his country before the thirties, and his care in writing about it when he did.

There’s another side to Ireland which Dunsany finds endlessly fascinating: its association with the imagination. But the imagination too is political in a country so long colonized; so that Dunsany laboured hard in the first half of his career to keep his imagination un-Irish (his literary models were classical literature, the Thousand and One Nights and the Authorized version of the Bible). The rare cases where he mentions Ireland represent the country as a land of dreams. In the fine short story ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, the narrator tells of his journey through exotic lands only visited in sleep: Kyph, Pir, Mandaroon, Perdóndaris, Nen, and the rest. All these places are chock-full of wonders, such as a city gate fashioned from the tooth of some giant carnivore; but when the narrator tells his fellow-travellers about his own country, ‘Ireland, which is of Europe’ (p. 264), they dismiss the two locations as excessively fanciful: ‘There are no such places,’ they tell him, ‘in all the land of dreams’. And the description of Ireland he gives at the end of the story places it firmly on the border of dreamland, like the Kingdom of Erl in his most famous book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924):

…and I to find my way by strange means back to those hazy fields that all poets know, wherein stand small mysterious cottages through whose windows, looking westwards, you may see the fields of men, and looking eastwards see glittering elfin mountains, tipped with snow, going range on range into the region of Myth, and beyond it into the kingdom of Fantasy, which pertain to the Lands of Dream. (p. 281)

The description of Ireland’s topography given here offers a clue to Dunsany’s technique when he wrote about the country in the 1930s. The distinction between Irish Myth, which is the stock-in-trade of the nationalist movement, and the adjoining Lands of Fantasy and Dream, is an important one. The lands surrounding the river Yann in Dunsany’s story are lands of Dream, with names conjured up by the writer’s fancy, not derived from any extant mythology, Irish or otherwise. Dunsany’s Irish novels, too, contain few references to specific literary and mythical stories of old Ireland; and when they do touch on them, ensure that they are largely kept apart from party politics, though not from religion.[3]

In The Curse of the Wise Woman, for example, there are two great visionaries, mother and son – Mrs Marlin and Marlin – who live together at the edge of the bog where the geese come in Spring. Both are worshippers of the bog and of the seasonal transformations that come over it as the year goes round. Both associate these transformations with distant dream countries; but each of their dreamlands is subtly different. For the son, the country in question is Tir-nan-Og, the mythical Irish Land of Youth across the Western sea, and he fears that his commitment to this pagan Paradise will finally damn his immortal soul in the eyes of the Church. Marlin’s political knowledge is sophisticated. He knows why the assassins targeted Charles’s father (the Duke had warned an ex-policeman about an IRA plot against his life, pp. 28-9), and can interpret the secret meaning that underlies the Duke’s coded letter to his son, where Charles himself cannot. But Marlin’s obsession with Tir-nan-Og is not political but personal, and the language he uses to describe it is entirely his own, as when he identifies the moon as a visitor from his dream country:

It comes up huge […] on the hills of Tir-nan-Og, rising up in the West as it sets here, and larger than the shield of the oldest giant, and brighter than we have seen it and full of music. And they hear its music in the Land of Youth. […] Not all the gold of the cities […] nor the gold that is still in the earth, can equal the glow of the blossoms of Tir-nan-Og when the orchards answer the moonlight. It’s for the Land of the Young that it’s shining. (p. 160)

For Mrs Marlin, meanwhile, the dream country evoked by the bog is her beloved Ireland, but an Ireland of the future, far removed from the country she now inhabits, and equally far removed from anything in old Irish literature. The language in which she speaks of it will be familiar to any reader of Dunsany’s early stories, such as ‘Idle Days on the Yann’. ‘There’ll be a day,’ she informs young Charles,

When Ireland’s ships, putting out from all our rivers, will crowd every sea. And they’ll see no grander ships in all their journeys. […] And the ambassadors from foreign lands, coming to greet us, will pass up our rivers and anchor under the walls of the Irish cities, and see their ships go dark from the shade of our towers and humble from the glow of our cities’ pride. And when they ask of our wealth and trade that we do with the other great nations of the world, our singers will tell them, coming down to the harbour’s edge with trumpets and gonfalons and telling the men of strange lands of Ireland’s glory. And the ambassadors will go back wistful into their own lands, telling what they have seen in the West, and all the nations will send costly gifts to welcome us, and to win from us treaties with far Indian kings (pp. 86-7).

So dedicated are mother and son to their own particular visions of a distant dreamland that in the end they sacrifice their lives for them, both vanishing into the bog and thus cutting themselves off along with their visions from the modern Ireland of the 1930s. Their disappearance, however, is not absolute. Both end up buried in the land they loved, and the implication is that their visions live on, partly in the memory of Charles, who is writing the story, and partly in the identity of modern Ireland, an idea that gets more fully explained in Dunsany’s later Irish novels.

Meanwhile The Curse of the Wise Woman carefully keeps the specifics of history at arm’s length. The dates of the events it relates remain uncertain; the narrator insists he is no good with calendars and has never kept a proper journal, though at one point he does inform us that the events he is describing took place around the time of the Siege of Khartoum (1885). Largely unmoored from the markers of chronology, the novel also unmoors itself from political partisanship, transforming nineteenth-century Ireland into a distant place like Tir-nan-Og, whose rivalries, tensions and deeds of violence have melted into the landscape with the establishment of the Free State. One should add, perhaps, that the protagonist of The Curse of the Wise Woman is Catholic, unlike Dunsany himself, so that his relationship with unionism is even more ambiguous than the writer’s, as I hinted earlier. Charles goes to an English school – Eton – and like his father is on good terms with the police, those embodiments of British imperialism (they supply him with a personal bodyguard after the assassins’ visit). Yet his faith is that of the nationalists, and he shares with the Marlins a deep respect for the old stories and myths that inspire their visions, to the extent that he shares Marlin’s fear of being drawn by them towards paganism and damnation. He represents a middle ground in Irish political identity, much as County Meath (where Dunsany Castle stands) occupies the middle ground in Ireland, its name being derived by the antiquarian Edmund Campion from the Latin ‘media’, meaning middle.[4]

All of Dunsany’s Irish novels (apart from one, Up in the Hills [1935], which I’m not discussing here) are set in the days before the Free State, and share with The Curse of the Wise Woman the sense that they inhabit a time now lost, disconnected from the present by major shifts in Irish culture. The most significant of these shifts is the embracing of capitalism, as represented in The Curse of the Wise Woman by the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate, which aims to exploit the resources of the bog on an industrial scale. The Syndicate’s plans for the bog – to bring ‘wheels and rails and machinery, and all the unnatural things that the factory was even then giving the world’, and use it to ‘Compress the turf [i.e. peat] by machinery and sell it as coal’ (pp. 211-2) – are designed to bring handsome profits to its shareholders through the wholesale destruction of the natural order. Against this form of destruction-for-profit stand the visions of Marlin and his mother. Mrs Marlin’s fabulously wealthy future Ireland is firmly rooted in the bog she adores and the rivers that feed it, its prosperity assured by a web of treaties with equally fabulous foreign powers, most of them associated with the fantastical Orient of the Thousand and One Nights which inspired so many of Dunsany’s early stories and plays. Mrs Marlin’s potent cursing of the Syndicate – the wise woman’s curse of the title – represents a triumph of the Irish imagination over the industrial capitalist menace, since it brings about the one fantastic incident in the novel, when the bog rises to overwhelm the wheels and cutting machines of Ireland’s ‘real’ future in the name of her imagined one. The curse itself aligns the wise woman’s vision with the natural world, as against the details of Irish mythology. She summons the wind, for instance, to her assistance, ‘with all the strength of the North and the might and splendor of winter’ (p. 306), the rain harvested from the ‘ancient ice of the mountains’ (p. 309), and the clouds which are the nameless ‘kings of the sky, proud riders’ (p. 309) – as against the legendary Irish kings. In summoning these elements she appeals to the weather conditions and seasonal processes that for many contemporary folklorists, as Tolkien points out, lay at the root of all myths.[5] And in the process Dunsany aligns his own fantasies – the fantasies invoked by Mrs Marlin in her vision of the glorious cities of future Ireland – with the natural processes that must be acknowledged and worked with by all political factions, ideologies, empires, no matter how different the convictions or cultures they embody.

In setting themselves against the self-styled financial pragmatists of the future, Mrs Marlin and her son can be seen as eccentric loners, representatives of nostalgia – though Marlin’s political knowhow makes him hard to dismiss as altogether out of touch. The overwhelming of the Syndicate’s machinery by the bog, on the other hand, suggests that the Marlins’ eccentricity is potent; it can make things happen. In fact, it’s one example among many of the efficacious eccentricity of Irish people in Dunsany’s Irish novels, and this stress on the triumph of the marginalized and mocked imagination makes these novels direct successors of the Quixotic novels Dunsany wrote in the 1920s. I suspect this emphasis on Quixotism in his work is a legacy of the Great War, springing from the widespread sense in the wake of that slaughter that governments had lost all respect, if they ever had any, for moral courage, courtesy, honesty and open-handedness. Dunsany’s fiction before the War did not feature Quixote figures, although there are mortals who defy Time and the gods in a number of narratives – most notably King Karnith Zo in ‘The Land of Time’ (1906), who leads an army against the country of the title and is wiped out with all his men by that country’s ruler, Time himself. The first of Dunsany’s genuine Quixotes is the young protagonist of his first novel, The Chronicles of Rodriguez (1922), who sets out on his adventures in search of a war because he hopes to win a castle in it, armed only with his father’s sword and supported by a Sancho Panza figure called Morano. But Rodriguez soon discovers that war is quite different from what it seemed in the old romances that shaped his character. At one point in the book, he is given a glimpse of past and future conflicts through the magic windows of an enchanter’s house, and sees the horrors of the fields of France which Dunsany witnessed at first hand:

Rodriguez lifted his eyes and glanced from city to city, to Albert, Bapaume, and Arras, his gaze moved over a plain with its harvest of desolation lying forlorn and ungathered, lit by the flashing clouds and the moon and peering rockets. He turned from the window and wept (p. 84).

Despite this vision of what’s ‘real’, the young man somehow preserves his romantic outlook on life, and retires at last to the castle of his dreams, a hidden fortress in a forest built for him by a band of Spanish Robin Hoods, who adopt him as their leader. In this way Rodriguez takes his place among the romantic visions of the past that inspired his own quixotic journey. The young man lives on with his lover in that fortress, located in a Shadow Valley whose name suggests it represents the secret spaces of the mind: the Freudian or Jungian unconscious, unacknowledged but hugely potent in the lives of later men and women. His glimpse of the Great War through the enchanter’s window makes him in some sense Dunsany’s contemporary, despite his anachronistic weapons and outlook; and his continuing presence in the shadows, as recorded in the Chronicles, identifies continuing Quixotism (a willingness to cleave to one’s romantic ideals in the teeth of mechanical, militaristic and totalitarian change) as a feature of the modern landscape as much as it was of early modern Spain.

Another Quixote figure of this period is Alveric in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), who persists in his quest for Elfland despite the growing scepticism of his travelling companions as to its existence, and whose faith is rewarded by the eventual merging of his country, Erl, with the elusive land of the Elves. Unlike Rodriguez, Alveric is considered mad by many who meet him, obsessed as he is with finding a place he may only have imagined. Mrs Marlin too is considered mad by the English workers of the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate, who in this assessment of her show themselves unfamiliar both with the workings of the Irish imagination and the attractions of Quixotism, which in Cervantes’s text too draws accusations of lunacy. If Rodriguez is innocent or ignorant on account of his youth – which puts him at risk of death at the hands of callous warlords – Alveric’s and Mrs Marlin’s insanity puts them at risk of being cast out from their communities, their visions forgotten, their histories erased. In Dunsany’s novels of the 1930s, Quixote figures get threatened with the madhouse, a location that excludes its inmates from participation in the life of the nation – like the cage in which Quixote is imprisoned at the end of Part One. But in each case Dunsany takes care to reintegrate them into modern Ireland, as Rodriguez was effectively reabsorbed into the landscape of Spain and Mrs Marlin into the landscape of the bog.

The Chronicles of Rodriguez is set in a fantastical Golden Age Spain, as is its successor The Charwoman’s Shadow (1926). The King of Elfland’s Daughter takes place in an alternative England, and like the Chronicles with its glimpse through the window into the future is linked with the annals of ‘actual’ history on just one occasion. The horn of a unicorn killed by Alveric’s hunter son, Orion, is said to have been presented by the Pope to King Francis of France in 1530, as recorded in the autobiography of the irascible goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (pp. 166-7). The games played in these three novels of the 1920s with the connections between the fantastic and the historical – a unicorn’s horn and the King of France, an enchanter’s house and the Great War – continue in the Irish novels of the 1930s, making of Dunsany’s Ireland a ‘Shadow Ireland’ reminiscent of the Shadow Valley where Rodriguez makes his home. And just as the Spain inhabited by Don Quixote – full of giants in need of slaying and knights available and willing to slay them – is a better, simpler world than the actual Golden Age Spain, with its imperial conquests, sordid wars and Inquisition, so Dunsany’s simple Ireland is clearly meant as a better world than the politically complex Ireland he grew up in. Yet the later Irish novels are also designed to draw his Shadow Ireland and modern Ireland closer together, in the spirit of The Curse of the Wise Woman, which aims to reconcile all shades of the nationalist and unionist parties through its explicit rejection of factionalism.

As I suggested, Mrs Marlin and her son in The Curse of the Wise Woman could be read as Quixote figures, who self-consciously turn away from the real in favour of the dreamlands they have constructed in their minds, based on the landscape they inhabit. In this they resemble Alveric in his wanderings in quest of Elfland, which take him through landscapes strangely littered with the lost toys and elusive memories of his childhood; and they also resemble Alveric in that despite their eccentricity they finally get what they desire from both their dreamlands. Marlin is preserved from damnation by giving himself up to the Land of Youth, as embodied in the bog; but Mrs Marlin’s triumph is more spectacular. The overwhelming of the industrial peat-cutting syndicate in response to her curse destroys her along with the machines she despises – both are swallowed up by the ancient peat. But something grander seems to take place as the bog rises, which is that two worlds are brought together, Mrs Marlin’s fantastic future Ireland and the Free State Ireland of the early 1930s. Her triumph resembles the climactic moment in The King of Elfland’s Daughter, when Elfland magically merges with Alveric’s homeland, the mortal land of Erl, giving to each the special properties of the other: the immemorial beauty and stasis of Elfland, the subtle changes wrought on Erl by the operations of time, seasons and weather. Mrs Marlin is buried underground by the peat she incites to destroy the work of her industrialist enemies; and in this she resembles the ancient Tuatha Dé Danann of Ireland, who were defeated by the iron-wielding Milesians from Spain at Tailtiu or Teltown in Dunsany’s own County Meath, and afterwards literally went underground, becoming the aes sídhe or hill-dwelling people known as the fairies. Dunsany makes very little of this alignment of the two Marlins with the Sidhe, but Charles tells us in the book’s last chapter that her memory eclipses in his mind the spectacular events that have overwhelmed the world since her death, including the Great War (‘four and a quarter years of [man’s] greatest violence’) and the invention of the radio (p. 319). She has become a powerful undercurrent in his personal history, and similar undercurrents form a major theme of Dunsany’s later Irish novels, imaginatively shaping Irish identity in defiance of the scorn of the imagination that dominates modern capitalist culture.

Books Cited

Dunsany, Lord, ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, Time and the Gods, Fantasy Masterworks (London: Gollancz, 2003)

Dunsany, Lord, The Chronicles of Don Rodriguez (London and New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1922)

Dunsany, Lord, The Curse of the Wise Woman (London: William Heinemann, 1933)

Dunsany, Lord, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (London and New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924)

O’Brien, Flann, At Swim-Two-Birds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983)

Notes

[1] See my essay ‘Fantastic Economies: James Stephens and Flann O’Brien’, Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority, ed. Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan and John McCourt (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), pp. 136-51. ISBN 978-1-78205-230-2.

[2] For a detailed analysis of Dunsany’s political position see Patrick Maume, ‘Dreams of Empire, Empire of Dreams: Lord Dunsany Plays the Game’, in S. T. Joshi (ed.), Critical Essays on Lord Dunsany (Lanham, Toronto and Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2013), pp. 53-71.

[3] The big exception here is Up in the Hills (1935), whose satire of the Irish Civil War is well analysed by Maume.

[4] See Richard Marsh, Meath Folk Tales (Dublin: The History Press, 2013), Introduction, p. 9.

[5] ‘At one time it was a dominant view that all such matter was derived from “nature-myths”. The Olympians were personifications of the sun, of dawn, of night, and so on, and all the stories told about them were originally myths (allegories would have been a better word) of the greater elemental changes and processes of nature’. ‘On Fairy-Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 23.

Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946). Part 2: Drawings

Quest for Sita, p. 105

Understanding the text of Maurice Collis’s Quest for Sita as the work of an Irish nationalist enables one to read it in political terms (see the previous post for details). But what of the drawings that accompany Collis’s narrative? Peake’s association with Ireland came through his wife, Maeve Gilmore, whose father was an Irish Catholic doctor; but Peake’s politics were those of an artist, whose work is to represent the world with fidelity to his own artistic vision, in defiance of the many pressures – financial, cultural, personal, political – to adapt their style in response to the latest fashion or movement.[1] Could his drawings in Quest for Sita be understood as a commentary on the problem of this kind of fidelity to one’s vision in the 1940s, when illusions of many kinds, from propaganda to more insidious kinds of indoctrination, competed for attention with accurate representations of people, things, ideas and feelings as the artist saw them? Collis describes the pictures as ‘a quest of [Peake’s] own to show Sita to us’ (p. vii), and the impression this gives is that ‘showing’ Sita is a process fraught with difficulty.[2] The puzzling nature of Peake’s drawings confirms this impression, not least because it’s not easy to be sure what some of them show. Thinking about them may give a number of clues as to why he chose to offer them as puzzles rather than as a simple visual response to Collis’s text.

Mervyn Peake, Mr Hyde (1948)

As Peter Winnington has pointed out, Peake’s pictures diverge from Collis’s text on many occasions, some of them not even referring to an identifiable incident or character in the adjacent pages.[3] This can’t, I think, be said of his illustrations for other publications, all of which testify to a meticulous close reading of the texts they embellish. Peake explains why he reads so carefully in a talk on ‘Book Illustration’, first given for the BBC radio show ‘As I See It’ in 1947. After embarking on a study of the major illustrators, Peake tells us – the Englishmen Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Hogarth and Blake, the Frenchman Doré, the German Dürer and Goya, the Spaniard:

I began to realize that these men had more than a good eye, a good hand, a good brain. These qualities were not enough. Nor was their power as designers, as draughtsmen. Even passion was not enough. Nor was compassion, nor irony. All this they must have, but above all things there must be the power to be identified with author, character, and atmosphere, the power to slide into another man’s soul. A new and hectic art seemed to have been opened up to me; a new world.[4]

There is something unsettling about the italicized phrase with which this passage climaxes, the power to slide into another man’s soul; a hint at demonic possession that perhaps explains why so many of Peake’s finest illustrating projects involve dark magic, or the suspicion of magic – his images for Christina Hole’s Witchcraft in England (1945), for instance, or Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1948), or Dorothy Haynes’s Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1949). The unsettling tone is taken up by the phrase he uses to describe book illustration, a ‘hectic art’ – hectic often being used to describe out-of-control activity, especially the behaviour and appearance of a fever victim (sufferers from tuberculosis are often said to possess a ‘hectic beauty’). And Quest for Sita, in which a person may well be very different from what they appear – and identities are always available to be changed, as Ravana’s very nearly is by his admiration for his captive – makes the possibility of being possessed by someone else, sliding into another person’s soul, or being gripped by a fever of desire, uncomfortably real. Moreover, in the central portion of the book sliding into the ‘soul’ of the author is a complicated task, since the author is both the Irishman Maurice Collis and the Sanskrit poet Valmiki, from whose text he adapts his version of the Ramayana. It’s striking, then, that Peake chooses only to illustrate this central portion; the part of the text where magic is most active, illusions are omnipresent, and beings from the Three Worlds (earthly, divine, infernal) interact openly with one another, as they do not in the frame narrative. Peake is concerned solely with Swallow’s adventures as Sita, the dream sequence (as Collis presents it) when Swallow is occupying the body of the legendary princess. Sita’s body in this central section of the text is always under threat, in danger of being replaced with the body of Ravana’s sister, Surpanakha, in Rama’s bed, or of having Ravana replace Rama in her own. She is seized and subjected to successive spells of illusion and psychological coercion by the Demon King, his guards and his enchanters. Sita’s identity itself, in fact, is under siege – not just by Ravana but also by Rama, who disbelieves her assertions of her own constancy – while the identity of the demons who abduct her is even more unstable than hers. Peake’s drawings visualize this predicament, which explains why they are so unlike conventional illustrations.

Peake’s drawings are executed with exemplary control, as they had to be, given the simplicity of the drawing style he chose for them. Peter Winnington describes Peake’s three principal drawing styles in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art:

his illustrations […] fall into three groups. In the first […] the illustrations are based on a single line, drawn with pen and ink, that outlines or silhouettes objects, without recourse to shading or cross-hatching. […] The second group […] is characterized by cross-hatching. […] Works in the third group […] were executed with a brush rather than a pen.[5]

From ‘Just a Line’

The drawings in Quest for Sita fall into the first group: pen and ink work based on a single line unsupported by cross-hatching. And as Winnington points out, it’s among the most ‘spare and economical’ examples of this group, where the ‘continuous thin line endows the space that it encloses with an extraordinary sense of three-dimensional volume and weight’, so that the ‘figures have a sculpturesque fullness and roundness at the same time as an ethereal beauty’, but with ‘nothing of the cold perfection of marble’. Peake never in fact uses a single continuous line in the book – one can easily identify the places where the artist must have lifted his nib from the paper to execute a new line – but Winnington is right in saying that this is frequently the impression these drawings give. The restless curving movements of the pen, the sinuousness of the trail it leaves behind, endow the apparently continuous line of ink with a metamorphic quality which perfectly suits the tale of Sita’s abduction. A few years after completing this commission Peake expressed his delight in the metamorphic possibilities hidden in a continuous line of ink by producing sketches for a never-realized television cartoon called Just a Line (early 1950s), about a straight line that yearns to achieve the sorts of sculpturesque effects with which the Quest for Sita is filled. ‘Sometimes I feel quite frantic,’ the line exclaims at one point, ‘when I think what I might be’ – such as a ‘wonderful land full of strange shapes and sounds and peculiar creatures and broken statues’, perhaps Collis’s India.[6] Liberated from its straightness the line would be able to transform itself into anything it likes, from a tiny mouse to an imaginary landscape, and the impression of continuousness put across by Peake’s serpentine lines in Quest for Sita suggests that they could undergo just as many transformations at the will of the magician-artist. Each drawing can be understood as existing on the verge of becoming something else; and this impression is only enhanced by the reader’s uncertainty in many cases as to what exactly the images refer to in the text – if anything at all. This uncertainty transports the reader into the magic-filled world of the pre-Golden Age, so that we share Swallow’s uncertainty as to who she can trust, how she is to read the bodies that present themselves to her, and indeed, who she herself may be. The notion that each drawing may be controlled by a different personality in the text – sometimes Sita, often Ravana and his enchanters, sometimes perhaps even the great archer Rama, whose skills with another sort of line, his bowstring, are legendary – is reinforced by the thematic echoes that link picture to picture (extravagant headwear, the nudity of both male and female figures, the strange creatures they contain). Unlike the line in Peake’s projected cartoon, the line in these drawings is continually changing, and may be possessed by any number of souls at different points in the visual narrative.

Quest for Sita, p. 107

As I’ve just indicated, one of the ways in which Peake diverges from Collis’s text is to represent most of the male and female figures in the book as nudes, modeled sometimes on the sensuous nudes of Indian, Burmese or Indonesian sculpture in wood or stone (which Collis could have shown him), sometimes on the erotic line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, often on neither of these things. Each figure looks much like all the other figures of the same gender in the book, the women rounded and flexible, the men well muscled and angular, though some figures blur these gender distinctions, like the androgynous figure clutching a bird on p. 107. They have little or no context – only a little ground beneath their feet, sometimes supplemented with a few lines composing a background – to help us place them in the narrative. Stripped down to the basics, the figures wear headdresses whose extravagance is intensified by the blank spaces all around them and the nakedness of the figures they crown. Reminiscent of the towering royal headdress of South-East Asia known as the makuta, as I said in the previous post, none of these pieces is ever repeated between one picture and another. Each, then, could be taken to represent the current mood of its wearer: aggressive, sad and contemplative, sexually aroused, acquisitive, sly and so on. This is most vividly suggested by the claws that burgeon from Surpanakha’s crown as she performs her dance of seduction on p. 49, suggesting her predatory intentions towards the royal couple, or the daggers and pneumatic drill that spring from its apex when she takes on her monstrous true form on p. 51, just before launching her attack on Sita. The complicated ornamentation on these makutas suggests they are made from gold, which links them to the illusions that envelop Ravana’s gold-filled fortress of Lanka, and to Ravana’s vision of mortals, sprites and gods as so many expensive items to be added to his personal treasury. The sensuality of so many of the pictures, too, suggests that we are looking at them through the eyes of the Demon King; they represent, in other words, the dangers that beset Swallow in her role as Sita, and suggest the ease with which we, the reader-viewers, might have given in to the seductions she resists.

p. 45

This association of the drawings with the dangers posed by Ravana is first suggested by the very first picture we encounter in the book (not including the one on the dustjacket, the sketch of Sita stamped on the cloth-bound hard front cover of my edition, or the nude dancer on the title page). This first picture appears at the point in the narrative when Ravana’s presence is first revealed to Rama and Sita, two chapters after Swallow’s trance-transition to the Golden Age. The Chapter in which it appears is aptly called ‘The Apparition’, announcing the entrance of magic into the story in the person of Surpanakha; and the drawing shows an old man – presumably an anchorite – squeezing water out of his beard at the edge of a cliff, while looking nervously around as if to spot one of the demons who have been troubling his solitary existence since Rama and Sita came to live nearby (p. 45). The old man is fully dressed and wears an umbrella-like hat, and if the dampness of his beard is at first hard to account for – there is no suggestion in the text that the anchorites were unusually wet when the royal couple first met them – it may be explained by the words of the ‘ancient recluse’ who describes the recent depredations of Ravana’s demons:

Taking many forms, both of men and animals, they issue from the forest and haunt us incessantly. […] At dead of night their vast laughter bursts out when we are practicing our penances. Or flooding down they will foul our altars, which at dawn we find to be drenched with blood. (p. 46).

The wetness of the old man’s beard, in other words, may show the after-effect of the demons ‘flooding down’ on himself and his fellow recluses; the liquid he wrings out of it may be blood. As for the cliff, it may represent the precipice of danger at the edge of which the couple find themselves as the old man speaks. Many of the pictures that follow give the impression that we have fallen off this precipice and are leaping, dancing or tumbling through space. This impression is enhanced by the dynamic movement of the male and female figures in the book, who launch themselves through the air, balance on their hands on the backs of beasts, or fling themselves from their foaming steeds in ecstatic agony. Their bodies twist, their arms and legs gesticulate wildly, and they often seem off kilter, always on the verge of taking up a new position, a new life or a new identity. Peake’s series of drawings begins with the entrance of Ravana into the story, so that they seem to be ‘of Ravana’s party without knowing it’, to adapt the famous words of William Blake about John Milton.[7]

p. 67

The old man in that first picture has a creature near him, a diminutive lizard which is taking an obvious interest in the drops coming out of his beard. Many of the pictures contain birds and beasts, often looking on in surprise or curiosity, like this lizard. Again, these creatures have a source in Collis’s text, where they crop up from time to time to stare in amazement or consternation at the actions of gods, sprites, mortals and demons. During the battle between Ravana and the divine vulture Jatayus, the ‘sylvan deities of tree and stream and hill’ manifest themselves and utter cries of encouragement for the vulture (p. 68). Later Sita’s abduction is witnessed by a throng of forest animals, which follow the shadow of Ravana’s chariot in their various ways – ‘galloping, bounding, swinging, a-wing’ – spurred on by their sense that a ‘great wrong [is] being consummated’ (p. 72). Animals also play a major role in the story, of course, in the form of the warrior monkey Hanuman, his king Sugriva, and the vulture brothers Jatayus and Sampati. But these significant beasts, the ones with major roles, are often hard to identify in the drawings. The birds on pp. 67 and 69, for instance, whose pictures sit alongside Collis’s account of the fight between Ravana and Jatayus, have hooked beaks and decorative plumage, but seem not to be the vulture of the text, who is ‘divinely brave, divinely strong, and divinely beautiful’ (p. 66). Instead they are small, their expressions goofy.

p. 63

The animal on p. 63, meanwhile, seems clearly to represent one of the vampiric donkeys that draw Ravana’s chariot, according to Collis; it has protruding fangs, grotesquely puckered lips, and batwing ears, and the drawing of it is positioned very close to Collis’s description of the ‘asses with the faces of vampires’ (p. 64). But the animal’s tail is not much like that of a donkey (Peake could draw donkeys with great accuracy, having ridden one to school in his childhood). And the quadruped that appears a few pages later, in one of the two pictures that accompany the fight between Ravana and Jatayus (p. 67), looks very unlike the vampire ass of p. 63. It has a headdress made of something like coral, square teeth, strange pointed hooves, and an expression even more goofy than that of the bird perched on Sita’s wrist (if the woman in the picture is indeed Sita).

p. 69

The next picture shows a carnivore – perhaps a tiger – with a woman balancing upside down on its back, another small bird perched on her ankle (p. 69). By no stretch of the imagination can the picture be said to represent Sita struggling to free herself from Ravana’s grasp, as she does in the facing text; while the bird on her ankle can hardly be said to have ‘claws as large as pruning hooks’ (p. 68). It also looks rather different from the bird in the previous drawing, which may also be intended to represent Jatayus. What, then, does the picture on p. 69 stand for? The tiger may be some sort of embodiment of Ravana, but the gleeful expression of the woman on his back seems quite inappropriate for Sita, who should be watching for the outcome of the fight with some anxiety. We seem to be in the presence, then, of a visual fantasy in which the battle between Ravana, Jatayus and the vampire asses, as witnessed by Sita, is replayed as an erotic juggling act watched by an appreciative audience consisting of a charmingly decorated snake and a lizard with wings. Is this Ravana’s way of seeing the combat? Or are we in the alternative universe of Peake’s art, the ‘world’, as Collis described it, which is ‘pervaded by a mood unlike that of any writer or painter working today’, and where the fight has a different meaning from the one it has for Collis? We simply don’t know; the drawing is enigmatic.

p. 139

At times, then, Peake’s animal drawings can’t be linked with any confidence to particular details in Collis’s text; and this is most obvious in the case of the monkeys. The monkeys (if they are indeed all monkeys) change their appearance radically on at least three occasions. The most obviously simian figure in the book is the one on p. 143 (see end of post), which may be Hanuman with his bow and spear and elaborately ornamented sword. The short legs, long arms, mobile lips and small, closely-set eyes suggest an orang utan from Burma, while the foliage pouring from its helmet suggests the jungle where it feels at home. The picture on p. 139 may or may not represent Hanuman’s monarch, King Sugriva, because Collis describes him wearing a ‘fantastical battle-cap’ (p. 145), and the creature is certainly wearing the most fantastical of all the crazy bits of headgear in Peake’s illustrations. The crown has what looks like the capital of a stone column incorporated into it, surmounted by a kind of vase containing three hands, one of which supports a wheel, on top of which balances a vase with a single flower in it. But this monster could just as easily be a manifestation of Ravana, who is ten-headed but is always changing his appearance to conceal his decacephalic nature (decacephalic is one of Collis’s favourite words). The picture occurs alongside Rama’s account of how he saw Sita – or her double – lolling in Ravana’s lap before the final battle; so perhaps it represents the Demon King as Rama sees him. Its face might be that of a leonine baboon, and hence suitable for a monkey king; but it might just as easily be the face of a lion, perched on top of a humanoid body, the sort of hybrid shape Ravana might be expected to delight in. Again, we just don’t know.

p. 101

The third monkey image, if it is one, appears on p. 101. The monster in the picture, which has a naked woman crouching on its back, doesn’t look anything like a monkey or an ape – it’s more like a Chinese lion, tiger or dragon; but in my edition it sits alongside the part of the text where the captive Sita refuses to ride on Hanuman’s back to escape from Lanka, because she thinks that certain observers would find this mode of travel unseemly for a woman of her rank. I am tempted to think of it as a representation of what her husband Rama might think if Sita were to agree to escape in this way – an imaginative response, that is, to the words she uses to describe his potential reaction:

What will people think of me riding on a monkey? Will Rama be pleased to see me appear embracing such a mount as your Honour’s self? […] Rama would be glad to have me back, no doubt, but at the same time might condemn the manner of my return, flying over the sea and between the worlds, not like the wife for whom he mourns but like a wild thing, a witch or ghost (p. 100).

Certainly the woman in the picture looks decidedly wild, with her legs spread wide apart, her face smiling impishly, and a telltale skull embedded in her hat. The skull, too, appears to be smiling. And the monster she rides is smiling too, its lips bared in a grin that displays its blunt teeth and long curved tusks. Its six-pronged tail stands erect, perilously close to the woman’s haunches. My reading, then, makes some sort of sense, but the picture doesn’t support it by, for instance, showing the monster as in any way apelike. It’s a riddle, like all the other drawings in Peake’s part of the volume.

p. 131

Other animals in the pictures have no relation at all to anything in Collis’s text. The androgynous person on p. 107, for instance, has a lion ramping behind them, and occurs at a point in the text where the monkey Hanuman is running riot in Ravana’s palace. Is the lion an image of Hanuman’s ferocity? The woman on p. 131 is holding a grotesque sort of Pekinese dog, with tufts like sea anemones on its elbows. There’s no dog mentioned in the text. All in all, the birds and beasts have more in common with Swallow’s retrospective description of her adventures in the Golden Age than with any particular episode she took part in. As she tells the old man Ho after waking from her trance, ‘I saw birds, and dragonish persons who were birdlike, and beasts that were like birds, and birds that were like men’ (p. 147). The sentence might vaguely describe her various meetings with talking vultures and a flying monkey, but they also suggest a world in which people, beasts and spirits are always mixing, melding and changing appearance, as if in the throes of a particularly hectic fever dream.

p. 83

In this procession of uncertain images, the quest for Sita is a challenging one for the reader as well as the artist. The nudity of the women in the drawings does not accord with what we know about the princess, who bedecked herself with finery before her abduction. It’s possible that she lost these clothes in the course of the journey to Lanka, since at one point she flung her ‘yellow silk mantle’ to some monkeys in the hope that they would take it to Rama and show him which way she went. Alternatively, or in addition, Sita’s nudity may be intended to suggest her subjection to the predatory gaze of the Demon King and his monstrous cohorts. Certainly it aligns her with the female nudes in Collis’s text, all of whom are Ravana’s dancers, who ‘had a likeness to dryads, being clad only in gems and the sparkle of gems, as such nymphs are in dew-drops and mottled sun-light’ (p. 78). Some of Peake’s drawings correspond quite closely to Collis’s account of these dancers. They are ‘led by midgets and contortionists’, and Peake represents the dancers’ attendants in several images of Beardsley-esque dwarfs, some of them clutching the legs of women, and in two images of contortionists or acrobats (pp. 83 and 85). Some dancers wear ‘round their waists […] a belt of bells’, and here the distinction between them and Sita blurs still further. The dancer on p. 91 wears a belt that might well be made of bells; but so does the woman standing in front of a horse or ass in the drawing on p. 67, which is positioned alongside the textual description of Ravana’s fight with Jatayus. Most of the dancers have bodies that resemble Sita’s, though some are distinguished from the rest by the length of their claw-like fingernails. Their faces are often like hers, too: heart-shaped, with large, wide-set eyes, full lips and long lashes, like the face of Peake’s favourite model, his wife Maeve. As a result, it’s impossible to be certain in any given picture of a full-length female nude if we’re looking at Sita or one of the dancers. The problem is compounded by the fact that three pictures I’ve already discussed as possible representations of Sita have little connection to Collis’s text (pp. 67, 69 and 101). The hallucinatory quality of the drawings, in other words, is as evident in the human figures they contain as in their birds and animals. They float in a space or world adjacent to the verbal narrative, and only occasionally seem fully to converge with it.

p. 135

Most of the men in the drawings are as hard to identify as the women. There are a couple of exceptions, such as the image on p. 123, which self-evidently shows the beheading of Rama, since this is the only decollation mentioned in Collis’s text. To confirm the identification, the picture occurs on the page before Sita is shown her husband’s ‘freshly severed head’ (p. 124), so the reader is likely to make the connection between the dead man and Rama very soon after the picture has appeared. The head in the drawing, however, has no distinguishing features, and its identity is in any case rendered questionable by the fact that Rama has not in fact been beheaded; his decollation is a lie spread by Ravana’s enchanters. And other possible representations of Rama in Peake’s drawings are not so certain. It’s not clear, for instance, whether the archer shown in the drawing on p. 111 is the bowman Rama as described in Collis text on p. 110 (‘the most famous archer among the mortals’), or is instead one of Ravana’s soldiers, whose ‘bows are the strongest in the Three Worlds’ (p. 109). The bowman in the picture is mounted on a horse, whereas Rama and Ravana ride chariots in their final showdown – so the drawing might show a member of Ravana’s ‘cavalry’ (p. 111). The same uncertainty surrounds another archer, who appears on p. 135, standing in front of a horse. Could this be Rama, standing in front of one of the white horses that draw his chariot, as the text informs us (p. 134)? The cruelty of the man’s expression suggests he is not the prince; but if it’s Ravana, he’s disguised as a human or a god, since Ravana’s true form, as we know, has ten heads. More even than the women, it would seem, the men in the pictures are hard to name, because Ravana has spun his webs of enchantment round them in his bid to mislead Sita into infidelity.

p. 75

The men in Peake’s pictures are mostly naked, as I’ve already mentioned, like the women, and in the men’s case this nudity seems to emphasize their vulnerability: their capacity to be subdued by a woman’s qualities, like the Demon King Ravana, and to lose their grasp on the characteristics of patriarchal masculinity: strength, decisiveness, vigorous activity, control over women. The first man we meet in the drawings is the elderly anchorite, who is fully dressed but fearful, damp and threatened (p. 46). After this we are shown only women, until we reach Chapter 19, which describes the temptation of Sita in Ravana’s palace. Here suddenly a succession of men step onto the paper stage; and the order in which these drawings appear may be significant. The first picture shows a giant of a man who is carrying a tray as if it were laden with heavy objects, although the only thing on the tray is a pot with a solitary flower in it (p. 75). This was the picture, or something very like it, that impelled Collis to approach Peake to make the drawings for Quest for Sita; and here the man forms part of a parade of entertainers that follows Ravana as he comes to seduce his captive on the night after her arrival. Most of the parade is made up of dancers, but it closes with ‘a rout of dwarfs and buffoons, who pretended to carry yet other dainties, with show of effort supporting a dish on which was nothing but a stone or a common flower’ (p. 76). The man, then, is clearly a buffoon, his muscles straining for no purpose at all, symbolically demonstrating the emptiness of the show in which he takes part. The next men to appear in the drawings are a pair of male dwarfs who seem to be fighting over a single place between the legs of a female dancer. One eyes the other, brandishing a phallic snake and making a threatening gesture, as if preparing to shove him away from where he stands clutching the woman’s calf. A few pages later, another dwarf holds up a goofy bird while flouncing a tail between his own buttocks. When at last we get a drawing of the King of Demons, then – in Chapter 20, titled ‘Moonlight in the Park of Spring’ – he has been heralded by a series of satirical versions of maleness: the frightened hermit, the ridiculous muscle-man, the lecherous dwarfs. Men in Peake’s drawings are fragile, and seem to be striving to impose their will on women in a bid to convince themselves of their own forcefulness.

p. 89

Ravana is the other male figure who is easily identified among Peake’s images. Near the beginning of Chapter 20 Collis describes him in some detail, dressed in ‘a scarlet cloak, open in front, floating as he came like the foam of ambrosia, and sown with flowers’ (p. 88). The Demon King is ‘lustful and proud, elated with wine, and glorying in the night’; his face is ‘a mask’, like the masks of the goldfish in his pond (p. 88). But Sita resists him, and at the end of the chapter he is forced to replace her in his bed with one of his dancers, a former favourite who assures him that ‘You will get ill loving one who loves you not’ (p. 92). And Peake pictures him on p. 89 in such a way as to hint at his abject failure to subdue his captive. Gliding along ‘as though on an air current’ (as Collis puts it), his feet suspended above the ground, voluminous cloak thrown back to reveal his naked body, he appears weightless despite the power of his muscular frame beneath the cloak – the exact reverse of the strangely weighty flower we saw a few pages earlier. Muscular though he is, his body is hairless, as if to suggest that he has not yet achieved complete maturity. His face is fishlike, as if to stress the lack of thought going on behind it. His crown looks like a garden ornament. The male gaze may have shaped the bodies of the naked women we have seen in Peake’s drawings up to this point, but men themselves, it seems, are feeble, unable to exploit their power for any greater purpose than to please the eyes. They are decorative, not practical, and thus ill suited for the martial feats they are expected to engage in.

p. 133

As the parade of drawings goes on, the men in them get increasingly fragile. The series of drawings that represent the final fight between Ravana and Rama show men as always dangerously off balance, from the mounted bowman on p. 111, who seems to be sliding off a melting horse, to the beheaded warrior on p. 123, who has lost his body altogether, to the seeming delight of the ferocious mount that stands behind him. After this picture they begin to fall and die, pierced through by arrows, snarling in pain and rage as they writhe towards death. A rearing horse flings its furious rider into space, its mane and tail blazing (p. 127). A dying swordsman drops his fantastically ornate sword, its quillons fashioned in the shape of wings as if to confirm its intention to elude his grasp (p. 133). The man throws back his head in angry ecstasy as an arrow transfixes his chest. The arrow-pierced rider on p. 137 seems to have been mounted by his horse, in an ironic reversal of the hoped-for mounting of Sita by her abductor. The Demon King intended his seduction of the princess to culminate in a ritual, orgiastic penetration; instead he and his men are penetrated by his rival, and flap the air as they die with great limp hands.

Illustration for ‘The Craters’, in Shapes and Sounds (1942)

Ravana and his warriors are closely akin to many other men Peake drew in wartime: the young soldier who seems to die while involved in a homoerotic affair with a centaur, in a set of recently discovered sketches; the naked youths suspended in space which he used to illustrate his first collection of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1942); the Ancient Mariner, who throws out his chest in mute expectation that it will be struck by some supernatural arrow sent to avenge his piercing of the albatross. In Peake’s war drawings men tumble, slump, recline and sag, borne along like flotsam on the tides of a global conflict they cannot control. The tumbling, wounded men in Quest for Sita are located in the Second World War by their affinity with these vulnerable predecessors. They proclaim, too, their affinity with the men in Peake’s wartime novel, Titus Groan, who have been read as uniquely vulnerable by Matt Sangster in a revealing essay.[8]

p. 59

Peake, like Collis, seems to imply that the women in Sita’s story are more powerful in body and mind than the men who compete for their attention. They are also more closely attended to in his drawings, as in Collis’s narrative. In among the full-length images I’ve looked at so far, Peake presents us with a series of portraits, whose positioning in the text implies they show Sita. The first comes in Chapter 16, after the chapter where Sita sends Rama away from her in pursuit of the wonderful gazelle, followed closely by his brother Lakshmana. At this point in the narrative she is alone, and for the first time unsure of her behaviour: ‘With the departure of Lakshmana,’ Chapter 16 begins, ‘Sita remained bowed and weeping […] uncertain whether she had acted rightly or no’ (p. 58). The portrait on the page opposite (p. 59) doesn’t show her in this state; the woman in it is not weeping. Instead she looks sad and thoughtful, much as Sita does when Ravana sees her for the first time, in the chapter’s third paragraph. On hearing a sound outside, Collis tells us, Sita ‘raised her head’ and ‘overwhelmed with joy ran to the door’; but on seeing who it is (Ravana disguised as a religious mendicant) ‘She looked at him askance, grievously disappointed’, while the mendicant looks back ‘with open admiration’. This is no surprise, Collis tells us, because ‘in her court silks, jeweled and tyred, her lovely face reflecting like a mirror her troubled heart, she was a vision hardly imaginable at the door of the mountain retreat’ (p. 58). If the picture opposite shows Sita at this moment, in other words, she is being seen by the Demon King. But she is not seeing him; she looks through or beyond him, seeking her husband. The male gaze may seek to subjugate her face and body to its pleasure, but after the opening chapters of the Ramayana section of the novel, the man who interests her is always elsewhere. As she looks out of the page, he is behind the reader’s shoulder, so to speak. No other man can match him.

Ravana is Sita’s abductor and would-be seducer, and we might expect this to be reflected in how he sees her. At the same time, the Dark Angel’s gaze in Collis’s narrative begins to change him, subjecting him to the power of Sita’s personality, awaking in him an admiration of her inward qualities as well as her body. This split perception of Sita is well represented in Peake’s portraits. She is physically attractive in a conventional way, with large eyes, full lips, tilted eyebrows, curling lashes and a heart-shaped face. In several portraits she is nude or semi-clad, underscoring the Demon-King’s erotic obsession with her; and in all of them she is also ‘bejewelled and tyred’, sporting elaborate earrings and a version of the makuta or crown on her head (that, at least, is what I think Collis means by ‘tyred’, though the OED is not very helpful in supporting my reading of ‘tyre’ as a variant of ‘tiara’). In some drawings, including the first portrait, she wears make-up, with a tilaka or third eye painted between her eyebrows and floral patterns on her cheeks. But if she is represented as physically attractive, she is also represented as strong; her neck, in particular, is extraordinarily powerful, supporting her head on a pillar of muscle that defies the conventions of anatomy, as in this first example. Her expression is always serious in these portraits – whereas the women in the full-length pictures often look gleeful, ecstatic, or coquettish. The portraits are often placed in the first UK and US editions alongside moments in Collis’s text when Sita exerts her power. The first (p. 59) comes at the moment when Ravana begins to admire her; in it she looks at Ravana in disappointment, so that the reader as well as the Demon King is aware that he means nothing to her.

p. 97

The second (p. 97) comes at one of Sita’s weaker moments, when she confesses that she sent Rama after the gazelle on a ‘stupid whim’ (p. 96); but the confession confirms her power over her husband and his brother, and Sita’s expression in the drawing shows no remorse.

p. 113

The third portrait (p. 113) occurs when Ravana’s initial impression of Sita is replaced by ‘a new and more violent feeling’, which makes him aspire to achieve ‘paradise’ for her – to win a place in the world of the immortals – in defiance of his own demonic nature. In this portrait she is not looking at the viewer at all, her thoughts again being clearly occupied with something else.

p. 131

The fourth portrait (p. 131) comes at the point when Sita gains control of her Amazonian guards, who beg her to protect them against Rama’s allies, Hanuman’s army of warrior monkeys. In this picture Sita is holding the bizarre creature I mentioned earlier, some sort of fanged Pekinese. Her nails are long and pointed, like the nails of Surpanakha in Peake’s picture of her. She is looking away from the viewer, as well as the creature, and the impression she gives is that of a woman who can tame any monster without even thinking about it – which is exactly what happens in the text.

p. 141

The last portrait (p. 141) faces the moment in the story when Sita makes her solemn declaration that Rama was mistaken in thinking he had seen her on the final battlefield in Ravana’s chariot, ‘covering him with kisses’, as the Dark Angel sped towards his fatal final encounter with Sita’s husband (p. 140). The tilaka between her eyebrows looks as though it has burst into flame, and her eyebrows too are jagged, as if to indicate her anger at the accusation. Her makuta has a protective cloth attached to it behind, like the helmets worn by the male warriors in Peake’s drawings of them – most notably in the portrait of Ravana. She looks directly at the viewer, as if to confirm her words, and her neck is like a column or tower of flesh. This is the final image we are given of Sita, and it couldn’t be more obviously intended to leave us with the sense that she knows now exactly who she is, and intends us to know it too. In Peake’s terms we have slid into her soul, and are ready to return to the mortal world in the last three chapters, armed with a familiarity with this seminal figure in Indian myth that will enable us to look with new eyes on the countries and cultures in Asia that embraced it.

p. 137

Clearly my interpretations of Peake’s drawings are largely conjectural – stories I’ve made up about them, based on their location at certain points in Collis’s narrative. We have not been given a verbal commentary to help us read them, and other individuals will read them very differently from me. Our scrutiny of these drawings, in fact – our awareness of how they diverge in many details from the text they accompany – makes us collaborators in the business of bringing Sita back to life, the quest for Sita. We are writers and artists as well as readers. Between them, text and drawings ensure that the book is a creative process, since it’s for us to interpret the dialogue in progress between them. And Collis’s preface, with its acknowledgement of the constantly changing texture of the great stories, confirms that this is exactly what both artists – writer and illustrator – set out to do. Their theme was independence, and text and drawings perform that theme as well as any artwork I can think of.

p. 143

Notes

[1] Peake explains his philosophy of art in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (Grey Walls Press, 1949), reproduced in Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions, 1974), pp. 80-82.

[2] Maurice Collis, Quest for Sita (New York: The John Day Company, 1947). All references are to this edition.

[3] Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen Books, 2006), compiled Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, p. 107: ‘there are no captions to Mervyn Peake’s drawings, for (as here) they often do not correspond to a specific character or moment’. The picture mentioned is the one of the old man, the first drawing in the body of the text, discussed below.

[4] Quoted from Mervyn Peake: Oscar Wilde (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980), Foreword by Maeve Gilmore, p. 9.

[5] Winnington (ed.), Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, Chapter 7, pp. 101-103.

[6] See Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, ed. Gilmore and Johnson, pp. 93-96.

[7] ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.’ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), in The Poetical Works of William Blake, ed. John Sampson (London etc.: Oxford University Press, 1914), p. 249.

[8] Matthew Sangster, ‘Peake and Vulnerability’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington, introd. William Gray (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 105-116.

Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946). Part 1: Text

The first American edition (1947)

The work of Maurice Collis is well known in Myanmar (formerly Burma) but hardly at all in Europe or America, though he was once a celebrated author. Quest for Sita (1946) – his version of part of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana – is most famous in Britain for having been ‘illustrated’ by the writer-artist Mervyn Peake. Collis himself describes their partnership in the book’s preface as joint ‘quests’ to interpret Valmiki’s text, and the equal status of these quests is signaled on the dust jacket of the first US edition of 1947, which describes it as the work of ‘two master craftsmen’ and the pictures as ‘Drawings by Mervyn Peake’.[1] In his Preface to this edition Collis refers to the transformations undergone by the epic through the ages, whereby the story has been repeatedly modified in response to the new pressures exerted on it by the new experiences of successive generations. ‘Each writer,’ Collis tells us, ‘as he brought it to life again, tinged it with the colour of his own period and environment’, and he sees himself as following in this tradition. His aim, he says, was to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’, and his method ‘while preserving the main outlines of her history’ to ‘vivify it by passing it through his imagination, the course taken freely by his predecessors of Asia’ (p. vii). ‘The same,’ he concludes, ‘may be said of Mr Mervyn Peake, whose drawings are less illustrations of the text than a quest of his own to show Sita to us’. Quest for Sita, then, may be described as a joint venture that represents part of the ancient epic through the eyes of two European artists at a particular time in history. The artists may be from Europe, but for Collis they both participate in India’s commitment to the Sita legend, seeking to transplant it into a Western culture that has deliberately distanced itself from the culture and history of the subcontinent it has been exploiting for so many centuries.

Maurice Collis by Gérard Laenen

In this blog post and the next I will consider Quest for Sita as a collaborative artistic enterprise, rather than as a writer’s project which happens to have been embellished by an artist. In the process I hope to learn something about Collis’s neglected craftsmanship as a writer, while also learning how to think about the illustrator’s craft, which strikes me as having been equally neglected. I can’t think of a better book to use for the second of these purposes; first, because Quest for Sita contains haunting pictures which have been widely praised (though not often analysed) by both commentators and collectors; secondly, because the drawings seem to have a life of their own, quite distinct from the text; and thirdly because this is a book which has never been printed without its illustrations, so that Peake’s images seem to have been accepted as essential adjuncts of Collis’s prose. I should say at once that I didn’t at first expect to have as much to say as I do about Peake’s pictures; and there remains a lot more to say about them. To modify the old saying, a picture is worth much more than a thousand words, a truism that gives the lie to the usual perception of the relationship between word and image in book illustration, which tends to weight the collaboration very heavily in favour of the writer.

Abduction of Sita by Ravana, Prambanan temple, Central Java, ca. 900 CE

If Quest for Sita was a bid to bring the heroine of the Ramayana back to life, 1946 was a remarkable year in which to do it. Valmiki’s epic is revered and performed throughout the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia and China, and the whole of this region was in turmoil as the project took shape. According to Peter Winnington, Peake’s drawings were made ‘in the late summer and autumn of 1944’, while Collis’s text must have been written earlier.[2] Burma (Collis’s home of more than twenty years) was largely under Japanese occupation at the time, and the Burmese independence movement, which aimed to liberate the country from both Japanese and British rule, was at its height. Collis set his version of the story in China, also under partial Japanese occupation in 1944, and India, which was mobilizing huge numbers of troops against the Axis while continuing its own struggle for independence from the British. Peake’s drawings furnish the characters in the story with variations on the South-East Asian royal headdress known as makuta (magaik in Myanmar), linking the story back to Burma. The ‘colour of [the artists’] own period and environment’ pervades the project, in other words, and many of those colours are violent ones, well suited to a story of abduction, combat and rescue played out between gods, mortals, demons and monkeys in a landscape of mountains and magical islands.

Maurice Collis by Feliks Topolski

Maurice Collis was well placed to make the most of the Sita story in this context. He is often described as ‘British’ in accounts of him, but in fact he was an Irishman, the oldest of three brothers from Killiney, County Dublin. His father, a wealthy solicitor, sent him to Rugby School in England, and he joined the Indian Civil Service when he left university, settling in England after his retirement in 1934. All of this makes him sound like a thoroughgoing Unionist and a dedicated servant of Empire. But Collis was a nationalist sympathizer – allying himself to the Burmese as well as the Irish independence movements – and his behaviour as a magistrate in Rangoon got him in trouble for failing to toe the colonial line on several occasions. His book Trials in Burma (1937) describes three trials in particular where his judgments were at odds with those of the British expat community. In the first he failed to impose serious punishment for sedition on a well-known activist for Indian independence, Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, when he spoke publicly in Rangoon; in the second he reprimanded a British merchant for failing to administer first aid to a servant he had fatally injured; while in the third he sought to impose a prison sentence on a British army officer who had knocked down two Burmese women in his car. The sentence was overturned by the High Court and Collis was effectively demoted, being sent as an Excise Commissioner to the remote port of Myeik, where he went on researching Burmese and Chinese history and culture. After his retirement from the Civil Service he wrote many books – novels, histories and biographies – as well as three plays. Many of his titles confirm his continuing interest in the workings of imperialism, from an account of the Spanish invasion of the Americas, Cortés and Montezuma (1954), to a history of the first and second Opium Wars between Britain and China, Foreign Mud (1946). As an Irishman, he saw British activities in the Far East with the sceptical eye of an outsider; and his consciousness of this outsider status may have been intensified by the fact that publications by the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party were widely circulated in 1930s Burma, as a route map to liberation from British influence.[3]

A few more things are worth mentioning about Collis. First, he had a pair of remarkable brothers, John and Robert, the first of whom became a pioneering ecologist while the second worked as a doctor with the Red Cross during the Second World War, notably in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and later with cerebral palsy patients in Dublin, including the writer-artist Christy Brown. Robert could conceivably have met Mervyn Peake in 1945 when the artist entered Bergen-Belsen with the aim of recording it in pictures (a task Peake found impossible, as he explained in a poem).[4] Maurice Collis, meanwhile, had a lifelong interest in the visual arts; he wrote books about L. S. Lowry and Stanley Spencer, and took up painting himself at the age of 67. It was this interest in art that first brought him together with Peake. He reviewed one of Peake’s exhibitions in June 1944 and was so struck by one drawing in particular that he invited him to draw pictures for Quest for Sita.[5] The friendship between them lasted for the rest of Peake’s lifetime. When Peake won the Heinemann prize for Gormenghast and The Glassblowers in 1951 he asked Collis to go with him to the prize-giving ceremony, and Collis later penned an ‘introduction’ to one of Peake’s exhibition catalogues, in which he comments that ‘His world is pervaded by a mood unlike that of any writer or painter working today’. This unique ‘mood’ is what sets Peake’s pictures apart from Collis’s text in Quest for Sita, and Collis’s celebration, in his Preface, of the independence of Peake’s response to Sita suggests that it was achieved with the writer’s active encouragement.

Maurice Collis, Expulsion of the Foreign Devils

To describe Quest for Sita as a version of part of the Ramayana doesn’t do the book justice. It’s a narrative as much concerned with the international impact of the Ramayana as it is with the epic itself; and its stated intention to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’ endows Valmiki’s poem with the same kind of vibrant relevance to anti-colonialism in India, China and Burma as the Irish Revival had to the struggle for an independent Ireland. The book introduces the Ramayana to its Western readers in much the same way as James Stephens (another friend of Peake’s) had introduced British and American readers to the Irish literary heritage that underpinned the independence movement.[6] Quest may, in fact, have had a similar intention to Stephens’s retellings of Irish tales: to get the old stories into widespread circulation among populations that did not know them, and thus to lend those stories a symbolic and political reach they would not otherwise have had. And Collis underscores the unexpected link between the Indian and Irish contexts with the addition of a number of new episodes of his own, to supplement the new episodes added over time by his Asian forerunners.

In Collis’s book, the tale of Sita’s abduction by the ‘Dark Angel’ Ravana is set within a frame narrative that takes place near Chongqing City in Sichuan Province, China. A girl named Swallow, whose family are starving, is sold by her parents to a marriage broker, who plans to sell her on as a wife to any man willing to pay a good price. Swallow escapes from the broker’s clutches and is given shelter by the mysterious Sage of Wushan Mountain. The Sage believes he recognizes the girl from some former life, and she agrees to take part in an experiment whereby he sends her back in time, with the help of a meditation-induced trance or dream, to the period when they first knew each other. By this means the pair discover that they are reincarnations of the famous lovers Sita and Rama, having taken on their roles in a dream reenactment of the central portion of the Ramayana. When Swallow wakes from her dream at the end of the novel she learns that the Sage is also the son of the Emperor of China, banished from court after having been unfairly implicated in a plot against his father. The frame narrative ends with the Prince being reinstated as his father’s successor and returning with his new wife Swallow to the imperial court – though not before the girl has made sure that her parents and younger brothers will never starve again.

Pu Yi, the Last Emperor of China

The frame narrative isn’t set in any specific period in history, but it contains elements that would have been familiar to Chinese, Irish and Indian readers. The notion of a Chinese Emperor in exile might have called to mind the so-called Last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, who was deposed as a child in 1912 and later set up as puppet Emperor of Manchuria by the Japanese invaders. Royalty in exile was also a theme of Irish history, especially after the Anglo-Norman Invasion of the late 12th Century. Famine, meanwhile, was an abiding presence in British colonial history. The famine that drives Swallow’s family to offer her up for sale recalls both the Great Hunger triggered in Ireland by the potato blight of 1845-9, which was exacerbated by the refusal of the British government to intervene, and the famines that afflicted China in the nineteenth century, which were exacerbated by population expansion and the widespread use of opium. It was the British who forced the Chinese government into legalizing opium in the Opium Wars of 1839-60, as Collis explains in Foreign Mud (a book he published in the same year as Quest for Sita); so the British imperial authorities were complicit with disastrous famine events in China as well as in Ireland. The British were complicit too with famine in India, much closer to the time when Collis was writing. Churchill famously refused to relieve the food shortage in Bengal in 1943, resulting in around three million deaths. Collis makes no reference in Quest for Sita to the Irish, Chinese or Bengalese famines, but for readers who shared his anti-imperialist sentiments he would not have needed to.

Maurice Collis, Two Figures in a Garden

Famine drove the Chinese and the Irish to disperse across the world, where they often found themselves subject to racist abuse. Collis’s frame narrative works to counter such racism by elevating Swallow, the daughter of a starving Chinese farmer, to semi-divine status as the heroine Sita, before providing her with the most spectacular of fairy tale endings. The ending, in fact, represents the fulfilment of all her dreams – and from the start of the book Swallow is represented as an inveterate dreamer. In childhood she is always dreaming of Wushan Mountain, expecting some ‘Saint’ to come down from its slopes and whisk her away from her life of poverty. She later learns to her disappointment that Wushan is not the mountain it was, in terms of the sanctity of its occupants. An old man named Ho, who helps Swallow escape from the broker’s henchman, explains that the hermits living there now are very far from Saints, and that the mountain’s reputation has dwindled accordingly. Ho’s personality confirms his words, since his own claims to wisdom and holiness are decidedly suspect. He insists, for instance, that he has mastered magic in the course of his studies, but the only spell he ever casts is a feat of trickery whereby he changes Swallow into a boy by giving her male clothes, ‘a metamorphosis as complete,’ he adds, ‘as any that magic might have effected’ (p. 10). He then frightens away the broker’s henchman by telling him that the girl has transformed herself into a hare, which both suggests to the terrified henchman that she is a demon and proves, as Ho points out, ‘what excellent results may be obtained by blending the natural with the supernatural’ (p. 11). By this point in Collis’s story we may suspect that the world in which it takes place is one where spirituality and magic have been set aside in favour of pragmatism, as embodied in the sleight of hand that helps the poor survive in times of crisis.

But later Swallow finds that her dreams are not so far-fetched after all. Magic lurks everywhere in Collis’s novel, just beneath the surface of the present, woven through the fabric of the past. Swallow’s ‘metamorphosis’ into a boy is only the first of many episodes in which illusions play a major part, and each illusion conceals a reality more remarkable than the last, revelation opening out from revelation in a series of Chinese boxes. What seems at first, then, to be a story that highlights the slow decay of Chinese civilization over time, ends by insisting that the link between past glory and the suffering present is an active one, just as it was for the Irish literary revivalists in the days of British rule. One might see the book as an allegory for the work of looking closely into unfamiliar cultures before you judge them. The closer the European or American reader looks into the life of the starving girl we meet in the opening pages the more wonderful she appears, and the more remarkable the Chinese and Indian cultures that produced her.

Set of Chinese nesting boxes, c. 1930

Swallow herself resembles a set of Chinese boxes from the moment we first meet her, like the story in which she appears: one box hidden inside another in an endless series that continues to unpack itself until the end of the narrative. Despite her poverty at the beginning she is well educated, and can recite poetry to express her feelings (pp. 3-4), of the kind made popular in Britain after the Great War by the translations of Arthur Waley. She also feels ‘some hidden aspiration’ (p. 4) for better things even when she is hungry, the earliest clue to her mythical past and imperial future. The Chinese box analogy is reinforced when Ho brings her to meet his master, the Sage of Wushan Mountain, who gains from her face the impression of meeting again ‘one whom I had lost through my own fault in the mists of time’ (p. 22). After a time this impression recedes, but it continues to haunt the Sage’s mind as he gets to know her better. He describes it as ‘fantastical’, since she is only a ‘poor village girl in [a] blue cotton gown’, but nevertheless takes her on as his pupil, and increasingly sees resemblances in her not only to the person he first took her for but also to himself (talking to her is ‘like talking to oneself’, he begins to think [p. 23]). His desire to uncover her past identity is part of a drive to discover his own, since he senses they are closely linked; and Swallow in her turn senses that she knows him as well as herself, being convinced that he is ‘sane and wise’ despite their short acquaintance (p. 27). Her spiritual journey to the past, then, is a journey both into herself and into him, and takes her to a place where disguises and false appearances are everywhere, and where seeing through them is a necessary act of heroism. Collis’s stress on disguises and false appearances in his frame narrative, in other words, echoes a theme in the portion of the Ramayana he retells, and implies that knowledge – of the sort he himself acquired of Chinese and Burmese language, art and history – leads to the recognition of equality between previously unevenly matched elements: communities, individuals, genders, in the frame narrative; humans, gods, demons and animals, in the Ramayana.

Sita

At the same time, knowledge in this book is hard to obtain. The Sage’s doubts about Swallow’s past identity, which he tests by sending her back in time, later find an echo in Rama’s doubts about Sita’s loyalty, which he tests by subjecting her to trial by fire. Even the nature of the place and time Swallow travels back to in her trance is left uncertain. We are informed in the heading of chapter 10 that the period she enters is the ‘Golden Age’ of Hindu myth, but Rama’s brother Lakshana casts doubt on this designation (p. 44), and his doubts turn out to be justified. In the following chapter we learn how Rama was banished from his father’s court through the machinations of his wicked stepmother; and later his wife Sita, who went with him into the wilderness, is captured by the Demon King Ravana and taken to his island stronghold of Lanka – later Sri Lanka – from which Rama and his brother Lakshana must set her free. Lanka represents an illusory Golden Age in miniature, which substitutes lavish ornamentation and wild orgies for enlightenment and impartial justice. From a distance the island appears as ‘golden, glittering, bodied with green, rising from the foam’ of the Indian Ocean (p. 118). And it is full of gold. Ravana likes his monstrous followers to wear ‘gold coloured’ skin to hide their true forms (p. 76); he drinks from a gold chalice at his orgies (p. 78), and promises his Amazon warrior women beautiful youths with ‘dimpled golden skins’ as a reward for good service (p. 84). So obsessed with gold is Ravana, in fact, that at one point his prisoner Sita compares him to the ornamental carp in his palace pond:

Sita waited by the goldfish pond, watching the scarlet shapes as they glided under the white locus. The faces were as if masked, like masked dancers in a supernal drama, for the thought in their eyes was not of this world. Their orbs stared coldly, monstrously, like dragon-masks. To the little denizens of the water they seemed dreadful for all their splendour of gold. Such was Lanka, both gilt and demonic, with its shimmering sea and white battlements, its palace of women from all the heavens, and a dragon king of many metamorphoses. (p. 129)

Gold, then, is a suspect mineral in this version of ancient India, and it is for Rama and Sita to find a way to bring about a true Golden Age in place of Ravana’s false one. Sita herself points this out at one stage, when she recalls the miniature Golden Age the couple experienced in their hermitage before her abduction, but goes on to say that this too was not the real thing. ‘That the Golden Age be extended to all the earth,’ she tells her friend, the vulture Sampati, ‘Rama must fell Ravana’ and return to rule his father’s kingdom (p. 120). But this is hard to achieve, since the material gold of royal courts and marriage brokers – as against the spiritual gold of enlightenment – continues to exert its fascination on the young couple, and ends up by competing with spiritual gold throughout the middle portion of Collis’s text for control of their souls.

Maurice Collis’s house in Sittwe, Myanmar

Spiritual gold is much harder to acquire than material gold in Quest for Sita, and as easy to use as deceptive gilding for bad intentions. In the frame narrative, as we’ve seen, there has been a decline in Chinese sanctity in Swallow’s lifetime; but sanctity proves equally elusive in the age of Sita. From the start of the Ramayana section, the notion of holiness is used to put a gloss on political scheming. When Rama’s stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi, coerces his father into naming her son as heir to the realm in Rama’s place, she chooses to reinforce the king’s decision by sending Rama and Sita into exile, setting them up as religious solitaries in the ‘woods of the anchorites’ (p. 38). In token of their new pseudo-religious status the Queen has them clothed in the distinctive habits of the ‘anchorites of the forest mountains’ (p. 42); but this fails to conceal the couple’s true identity, since even dressed in these humble garments they remain ‘as beautiful as denizens of the Golden Age’. Ashamed of his weakness in acceding to Rama’s exile, the King then exposes his sense of the disparity between their high birth and their new role by urging them to carry various luxuries into the wilderness: servants, ladies, soldiers, gold, their favourite dishes. Rama refuses, desiring to prove himself a genuine anchorite, not a fake one, and thus to certify his obedience to his father. The King, however, sends a box of clothes and jewellery after them, so that Sita at least can dress like a princess, even in exile (p. 42). And predictably, this box of clothes and gold is the couple’s undoing. The events that lead to Sita’s kidnapping begin after she has opened the box of clothes to try on the dresses they contain. At once a wonderful gazelle trots out of the forest, whose distinctive markings – the colour of its hide ‘gold splashed with silver’, its rainbow tail like that of an exotic breed of goldfish (p. 54) – reveal its status as bait for unwary princes and princesses. It’s in pursuit of this goldfish-gazelle that Rama leaves his place by Sita’s side, swiftly followed by his brother Lakshmana, sent after him by Sita to rescue her husband from a seeming attack by ferocious demons. The Princess, then, is partly responsible for her own abduction, having been distracted from her religious duties by the sumptuous garments sent by the King. And this distraction could have been anticipated from the start of the central section of Quest for Sita. Not long before this episode, she and Rama were assuring each other, like the banished Duke Senior and his companions in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, that the wilderness is a better place than the royal palace. Rama told Sita that the ripples that embellished her wrists as she bathed in a pool provided ‘Livelier bracelets […] than ever [she] wore’ at the royal Court (p. 33); while Sita in turn assured her husband that the tree under which they were sitting resembled ‘the scented parasol they used to hold above us’ to mark their royal status. Despite their obedience to the King’s command, in other words, the couple kept seeing the royal court through the mountain landscape as if through a window, which suggests that their minds were not attuned to the life ascetic.

Dancer

Ravana seems to mock this failure to commit to a religious existence when he appears to Sita, soon after the episode of the gazelle, in the unlikely guise of a ‘religious mendicant’ (p. 58). This apparent monk keeps making inappropriate remarks about Sita’s beauty before revealing himself as the Demon King and whisking her off in his magic chariot. Once in Lanka, the religious mockery continues in the entertainments Ravana chooses for Sita’s amusement. At one point his dancer-sprites reenact the seduction of the saintly ‘anchorites of the Black Desert’, each dancer transforming herself from anchorite to seducer and back again to anchorite in ingenious imitation of the constant struggle between body and mind undergone by hermits:

That at certain moments a dancer in jewels and girdle, by force of expression, pose and some inner identification, took on sufficiently the appearance of an anchorite, wrestling against the very lasciviousness which her form represented, was far more potent in suggestion than if she had remained a temptress. To see the anchorites, each a naked sprite, writhing, staring, overcome and, turned pursuer, darting, leaping; and, at the moment of the leap, to see the sprite again, seductive and smiling; to see all this in the self-same dancer, was to be confused, nor to know whether the transformation was by art or magic, an imagined or a real metamorphosis. (p. 80)

This dance in fact replays the adventures of the royal anchorites, Sita and Rama, as an inner conflict. The couple’s dual identities both as prince and princess and as holy hermits set them radically at odds with themselves, a state of mind Ravana hopes to exploit as he seeks to lure them into his power, as he has lured many others before them.

Dancer

But there’s another side to the dance of the sprites, which predicts the eventual outcome of the continuing contest between Ravana and the royal couple. The dancers, we’re told, have ‘some inner identification’ with the anchorites they mimic, and this suggests that they too are undergoing some sort of identity crisis, torn between their ostensible work of seduction and a secret sympathy for the targets of their sensual assault. And as Sita’s captivity goes on she inflicts a similar identity crisis on her demonic captor, drawing him slowly but surely away from his lifelong obsession with lust and conquest towards a reluctant but growing delight in her inward beauty. As a result, by the time he confronts her rescuer, Rama, Ravana is no longer simply a demon; he has ambitions to transform himself into the ‘King of Heaven’, having been converted by Sita’s goodness ‘from a dark angel into a god of light’ (p. 115). He shares Sita’s state of being split between one kind of existence and another, but with this crucial distinction: neither kind of existence he courts is a legitimate one, since as a demon king he is prone to aggressive attacks on neighbouring kingdoms, while as Sita’s lover he seeks to supplant her lawful husband. Sita’s incongruous interest in royal clothes, by contrast, is an expression of her genuinely royal status, and anticipates the moment when that status will be restored. Sita is never at any point as divided as Ravana is, so that the likely end of their contest can be predicted from the start.

Surpanakha 1

The two-way struggle between Ravana and the royal couple over which shall convert or transform the other is set in motion by the very first meeting between their houses. The first member of Ravana’s household to visit Rama in his hermitage is Surpanakha, the Demon King’s sister, who approaches the prince with the clear intention of replacing Sita in his bed. At the same time, this intention triggers an inner conflict which reveals itself in constant changes to her appearance:

Staring at her face they saw that the features were not constant but fluctuating, as if formed of a mist or substance that ran together, so that now they saw a beautiful, now a hideous face, an expression languid and subtly smiling, or, again, horrific with starting orbs, a grimace so twisted that an eye would be carried to the middle of a cheek, a double face, or a face and the shadow of a face. (p. 47)

Surpanakha 2

Surpanakha’s weirdly mobile, Picasso-esque features (amusingly visualised in Peake’s second portrait of her, reproduced here as Surpanakha 2) provide an index to her uncertainty as to who she is and what she wants. On the one hand she wishes to take Rama back to Lanka, where as her husband he will regain the status he lost as anointed heir to a powerful monarch, though the monarch in question will be her brother. On the other hand, as Rama points out, this seeming restoration of the prince to his former status will in fact transform him utterly, since it will make him the successor of his father’s ‘opposite’, a Demon King. To become Surpanakha’s husband he will have to betray his true wife, Sita, and thus place himself ‘past reason’, succumbing to the permanent instability to which Surpanakha herself is subject, and so ceasing to be Rama, the man she desires. Lost in this maze of contradictions, Surpanakha quickly loses what stability of form she once possessed, launching into a frenzied ‘dance of enticement’ which merely exposes the lurking ‘shadow of her monstrous self’. And the dance concludes with a fierce attack on her rival, Sita, in ‘the full horror of her form’. The attack confirms her desire to supplant Sita as Rama’s wife, while at the same time revealing how incapable she is of filling that position, of becoming the wife whom Rama loves in his current identity as the unimpeachable Prince of Ayodhya. Her inward self is radically at odds with her seductive outward appearance, and she is finally unable to conceal the disparity between these component elements of her being. Rama’s brother Lakshmana wounds her as she attacks, and her defeat predicts (again) the defeat of her brother Ravana, destroyed by the man he wishes to replace in Sita’s affections, the man who, in the end, he wishes to be, in spite of his lifelong quest to become his ‘opposite’.

Ravana describes himself a number of times in the text as the Lord of the Three Worlds – that is, of Paradise, Earth and Hell, as Collis explains in his play Lord of the Three Worlds.[7] As we’ve seen, the Demon King supports his own claim to all three regions by transforming his island fortress into a false Paradise, and by seeking to impose his will on the earthly mortals Rama and Sita while maintaining control over his fellow demons in all their manifestations. But his island Paradise keeps revealing its hellish true colours – for instance in the pink-snouted crocodiles that lurk in its moats (p. 73) – and his own efforts to represent himself as a worthy rival for Prince Rama keep being undermined by his obvious preference for booze-fuelled orgies over faithful love. For all his continuing efforts to hide his real motives behind a veil of illusion he only succeeds in revealing his demonic nature more clearly as time goes on.

Hanuman and the Fish Princess, 19th-c. wayang kulit (shadow puppet figures) from Java

Meanwhile, Sita’s vision becomes increasingly piercing thanks to her affinity with the inhabitants of the true Paradise, as against Ravana’s fake one. This affinity reveals itself in her growing friendship with the animal messengers of the gods, the vulture brothers Jatayus and Sampati and the monkey Hanuman. When first abducted by Ravana, Sita finds her vision distorted by his powers of enchantment, because the white umbrellas that shade his chariot have the property of making her see with the eyes of her captor: ‘As she came beneath their shadow, it was like entering the portal of another world, for the [earthly] cottage was suddenly distant and less real, and the landscape of a different colour’ (pp. 65-6). But by the time she reaches Lanka she sees things more clearly, largely thanks to the intervention of the heavenly vulture, divine Jatayus (p. 53). Sita’s instant recognition of Jatayus when she first meets him, knowing him at once for an authentic denizen of Paradise (‘her instinct told her this was truly Jatayus’, p. 52), established the link between them long before Ravana came on the scene, and the link is confirmed when Jatayus is mortally wounded in the attempt to rescue her from her abductor. Even after his wounding Jatayus is able to set Rama on the right road to rescue Sita, so that his vision continues to work in her favour up to the moment of his death. After his demise his attachment to her is passed on to his brother Sampati, who performs the crucial office of reporting to her the real events of the final battle between Rama and Ravana, even as Ravana’s enchanters seek to persuade her that Rama is dead and Ravana victorious. Meanwhile Hanuman the warrior-monkey, who visits her while she is imprisoned on Lanka, adds to the birds’ clearness of vision a sometimes unsettling clarity of discourse. It is Hanuman who first informs Sita that she is to blame for her own abduction, as ‘It was Hanuman’s manner,’ Collis tells us, ‘to be a little blunt’ (p. 96) – not to say misogynistic, since he insists that her calamitous longing for the wonderful gazelle is merely an illustration of ‘the nature of women’, who ‘must have pretty pets and pretty presents, and continually urge their husbands to supply them with these’ (p. 96). Despite his anti-feminism, however, Hanuman shares the vulture brothers’ accurate perception of Sita’s loyalty, and defends her against the false testimony of Rama’s eyes – which seemed to see her embracing Ravana in his chariot – by affirming that he ‘sat and saw how she repulsed the demon’ (p. 144, my emphasis). In the end it is clearness of vision, rather than prowess on the battlefield, that proves the deciding factor in the combat between heroes and demons, and in Collis’s story it is women rather than men who chiefly possess it.

Sampati, a sculpture in Sanam Luang, Bangkok, Thailand

The vision of men is always being blurred by their expectations and desires. Ravana’s increasing recognition of Sita’s qualities, for example, combines with his desire to possess her as his wife to prevent him from seeing clearly that their marriage would destroy what he most admires about her – her integrity. Rama, meanwhile, has always loved Sita for her integrity, yet is easily deceived by Ravana into believing she has been unfaithful to him. Even after he has killed Ravana, he remains enthralled to the demon’s trickery long after Sita, Sampati and Hanuman have been released from it. This is not entirely Rama’s fault. Before embarking on the final battle, Ravana instructed his enchanters to trick Sita into putting on a ring engraved with his and Sita’s names ‘entwined in an everlasting knot’ (p. 125); and after the demon’s death Rama takes this ring as proof positive that she has turned against him. At the same time, Rama refuses to accept the testimony of the immortal vulture and the plain-speaking monkey that his wife is as he has always known her to be, unwavering in her commitment to her husband. Even when Sita chooses to undergo trial by fire to prove it, Rama sees the trial itself as evidence of her betrayal. In his eyes the flame through which she walks takes on ‘the form of a man’, who ‘leapt with her high into the air and disappeared’ (p. 145), thus enacting a second abduction. Sita, on the other hand, experiences the walk through fire as she has been taught to do by the anchorites of the mountains. For her, the flame is a kindly man who wraps her protectively in his cloak, and instead of suffering loss or blurring of vision, as Rama does at this point, she rises with the burning stranger – as if on the back of an immortal vulture – to a place from which she can see everything in the universe: ‘vast blue horizons, distances incalculable, as between star and star’ (p. 146). Her state of enlightenment brings with it a ‘sense of freedom’, and it’s with this liberating knowledge of her position in time and space that she wakes again as Swallow on Wushan mountain.

Lady Lavery as Cathleen Ni Houlihan by John Lavery

Collis’s decision to tell his tale from a woman’s perspective is another link between his book and his Irish background. Ireland was famously embodied by Yeats and Lady Gregory in their play Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902) as a homeless old woman, whose homelessness connotes the disenfranchised state of her country under British rule. The play ends with her transformation into a young girl, who departs from the household that sheltered her ‘with the walk of a queen’.[8] Swallow’s poverty and homelessness equate her with Cathleen, and she too turns out to possess qualities that make her worthy of royal status: beauty, but more importantly intelligence, which for the Sage of Wushan and his father, the Emperor of China, makes her a worthy wife for a prince, whatever her birth. Her elevation from poverty to queenship also parallels the life of Collis’s favourite figure from Burmese history, Queen Ma Saw, the protagonist both of his fantastic novel She Was a Queen (1937) and his play, Lord of the Three Worlds (1947). Ma Saw started life as a farmer’s daughter and ended as Chief Queen of Narathihapate, King of Burma. Her royal husband has much in common with King Ravana: headstrong and self-indulgent, he is prone to deadly rages and rash actions which can only be controlled by the sound advice and gentle persuasions of his Queen. Like Ravana, too, he dies when a foreign power invades his country. Ma Saw, who is never in the seat of power herself, although she is highly influential in affairs of state, withdraws into obscurity at the end of both play and novel, and her status in both cases aligns her with the status of Burma as Collis was writing, awaiting the moment of its liberation from forced marriage to Britain. Swallow, too, and her alter-ego Sita, could be seen as standing for the hope of independence in Burma and India, just as Cathleen stood for the dream of an independent Ireland. Her eventual assumption of an imperial title confirms the potential of both countries to assume an equal status with the global Empire that controlled them for so long.

Maurice Collis, Three Figures

In Collis’s hands, then, the abduction of Sita becomes a promise of liberation, both for his heroine and for the many Asian cultures that had welcomed her into their hearts. The end of his book represents a series of liberatory gestures, akin to the flinging open of the lids of many boxes. Sita escapes from Ravana through Rama’s victory, then frees herself from Rama’s suspicions by walking through fire, after which Swallow frees herself from Sita’s influence by casting off the trammels of sleep, then liberates herself from confinement to the Sage’s hermitage and finally makes herself independent of her parents by sending them a gift of money to support themselves for the rest of their lives. These gestures of independence recall the exultant ending of James Stephens’s nationalist fantasy The Crock of Gold, in which the imprisoned Irish people, from school children and clerks to prisoners and factory workers, find themselves liberated from their bonds in a triumphant ‘Happy March’, a parade or dance in which mortals and fairies join together to break the mental and physical shackles of their occupied country. Indian independence came in the year after Quest for Sita was published, 1947, and Burma’s in 1948. Quest for Sita remains a powerful statement of European solidarity with the movements that led to these enfranchisements. In my next blog post I’ll consider what, if anything, Peake’s drawings may contribute to that statement.

NOTES

[1] Maurice Collis, Quest for Sita (New York: The John Day Company, 1947). All references are to this edition.

[2] G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 202.

[3] ‘As Ba Maw points out, the writings of the Sinn Fein leaders were as eagerly studied in Burma as those of Lenin and Sun Yat Sen’. Louis Allen, War, Conflict and Security in Japan and Asia-Pacific, 1941-52 (Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2011), p. 12

[4] See Mervyn Peake, ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 133-4.

[5] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, pp. 201-2.

[6] I’m thinking here of Stephens’s Irish Fairy Tales (1920) and Deirdre (1923) as well as The Crock of Gold (1912).

[7] When Queen Sawlon sees that her husband, King Narathihapate, has assumed the style of ‘Lord of the Three Worlds’ in Act II she tells him: ‘That you should be invincible in this world, I can bear, for there is Paradise. But if in Paradise too you were Lord, where could I hide? Not even in Hell, for over that domain also would you lord it.’ The Lord of the Three Worlds (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), p. 55.

[8] Collected Plays of W B Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1963), p. 88.

Mervyn Peake: The Poet of Gormenghast

[I’m working on several blog posts just now, but none are quite ready to post, so I’m putting this essay here as a placeholder. I gave it as a talk at the 2011 conference marking the centenary of Peake’s birth, ‘Mervyn Peake and the Fantasy Tradition’, held at the University of Chichester where Bill Gray had established the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy (now the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction). It afterwards appeared in G. Peter Winnington (ed.), Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013) – a collection that should be consulted by everyone interested in Peake. I’m putting it here so that all my essays on Peake can conveniently be found in one spot.]

Alan Lee, Gormenghast

Gormenghast is the creation of a poet. Peake’s prose is lyrical, playing with rhythm, sound and metaphor as a poem does, and lapsing at crucial moments into meter. During the fight in the Hall of Spiders in Titus Groan, to mark the narrative’s transition into epic, the prose is full of the rhythm of iambic pentameter, blank verse; and the Earl of Gormenghast, Sepulchrave, catches that rhythm in the broken snatches of speech he utters as he enters the Hall to bear witness to the combat, marking his own descent into the madness of a Shakespearean tragic hero. Again, in the final chapter of Titus Groan, blank verse points the way towards the rebellions and atrocities of the sequel, as if in imitation of the vatic verse of the Delphic oracle: ‘There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment’.[1] These are the rhythms of Peake’s serious verse, which always hovers on the edge of lapsing into the five-beat line of the Renaissance playwrights he loved so much, and whose cadences he mimicked so adroitly in his own play, The Wit to Woo, in the 1950s.[2]

But poetry itself is a marked feature of the Titus books, a crucial skein in the tapestry Peake weaves from the lives and stony structures that together make Gormenghast Castle. There’s a crucial difference, however, between the use of poems in the first and second books of the sequence. In Titus Groan, verse is the private language spoken by each character in the secluded alcove they think of as their ‘world’ (p. 53) – an architectural manifestation of their inner space. The young Fuchsia reads poems to herself in her hidden attic, where she escapes from the pressures of a life ruled by meaningless ritual. Her father Lord Sepulchrave reads the Martrovian Dramatists and the Sonian Poets in the dusty library which is his own retreat (234 and 251-2). And the youth Steerpike catches an insight into the function of verse as a private code when he comes across the castle Poet in his climb across Gormenghast’s deserted roofscape. The wedge-headed bard has poked his head out of a window and is reciting a poem, as he thinks, to the empty air; but as soon as he knows that someone has heard him, he withdraws his head at once and blocks up the window with random objects – among them books that may well contain further verses of the kind he loves (p. 100). In Titus Groan, then, verse is a secret indulgence, a form of self-defence – that is, defence of one’s private self; and this is hardly surprising, given that Peake wrote the first draft of the novel as a conscript in World War Two, his talents ignored, his companions mostly uncongenial. Scribbling his Gothic masterpiece, and poetry, was the one refuge he had from the meaningless ritual of life in the forces – something his doctors recognized when the pressure of army life landed him in a Southport hospital in 1942, and as part of his therapy he was allowed to go on writing his book.

In the second Titus book, by contrast, poetry has become an integral part of the castle’s official rituals – in other words, it has moved from the private to the public sphere. In Gormenghast, the professors at Titus’s school chant a poem about the castle stones, as long and shapeless as the building’s architecture (pp. 466-7). Poems are recited by performers at ritualistic masques (pp. 615-8), and at the end of the book the role of the Master of Ritual, responsible for reading out the prescribed activities assigned to each moment of each day, falls to the castle Poet, who has been reluctantly coerced out of solitude in response to the threat posed by the upstart Steerpike. In addition, poetry becomes a means of cementing intimacy in families or between couples – a role it didn’t have in Titus Groan. In the first draft of the second novel, the curator of the Hall of the Bright Carvings, Rottcodd, dreams about a lullaby his mother used to sing when he was young – the only verbal contact he has with another human being apart from the servant Flay in either book.[3] Later, Doctor Prunesquallor sings a lullaby about an Osseous ’Orse to his sister Irma (p. 393) – and in the radio play of the Titus sequence, Peake assigns even Nannie Slagg a lullaby to sing to the infant Titus).[4] Verses permeate the air of Gormenghast, so that in the second book Fuchsia’s penchant for writing poetry becomes a sign of her authentic attachment to the castle – an attachment she reinforces by letting the castle physician, her friend Doctor Prunesquallor, read a book of her poems in the privacy of his study (pp. 620-1). Conversely, Steerpike’s inability to appreciate poetry – he thinks it romantic drivel – marks him out as an interloper; something he recognizes with characteristic acuity, and seeks to disguise by writing Fuchsia poems of courtship (which we never get to read). In order to complete his conquest of Gormenghast and gain control over every aspect of its structure – from the intimate goings-on in private rooms to the immemorial rites that govern the denizens’ public lives – Steerpike must master the intricacies of verse. And his success in fashioning himself into an ersatz poet, despite his profound contempt for the art form – his success in becoming what he loathes, in other words – is part of what makes him so disturbingly attractive. He also becomes a perverse romantic hero, the kind of man whose exploits are suitable to be celebrated in metre. Fuchsia confirms this in the only poem of hers we are allowed to read:

How white and scarlet is that face,
Who knows, in some unusual place
The coloured heroes are alight
With faces made of red and white. (p. 621)

Even after badly burning himself while murdering the Master of Ritual Barquentine – an incident invoked here by the reference to his red-and-white facial scars, and by the word ‘alight’ – Steerpike remains a worthy subject for celebration in lyric, as well as in the heroic rhythms of Peake’s prose: the Miltonic, fire-damaged Satan of Peake’s ambiguous Gothic paradise.

Charles w. Stewart, The Dark Breakfast (Royal Academy of Arts)

The form of verse that dominates the castle is nonsense; and the question of why this should be is well worth asking.[5] Nonsense pervades the declamations and empty gestures of the castle rituals. These have been stripped of their original meaning, if they ever had one, by the passage of time, and serve only to humiliate those who observe them – not just the subjects but the dynastic rulers of Gormenghast. At the Dark Breakfast the Groan family must look on helplessly, like everyone else, as the Master of Ritual stamps up and down the breakfast table with his filthy stump and crutch, pulping the luxurious food into inedibility. At Titus’s Earling – his investment as Earl – the whole household must dress in sackcloth, while Titus himself must sport a white smock and a necklace of snails in the pouring rain. In this way the rituals reinforce the need for blind allegiance to what is effectively an enormous set of rambling tomes (somewhat akin to the Titus sequence itself), the Books of the Law; tomes that might stand, among other things, for the traditions of English literature – verse, drama, prose, the cadences of the King James Bible – which Peake so self-consciously followed and made his own. But the Books of the Law are literature divorced from its context, randomly perused in a private library like that of Sepulchrave. The centrality to the castle of such literature – of the letter, of what is inscribed – is reinforced at the time of the baby Titus’s christening, when he’s enclosed in a hollow tube formed by two bent-over leaves of the Book of Ritual, on which are written the blank verse lines appropriate to the occasion, many of them in blank verse, though not written out as such (p. 78). These lines enjoin his blind obedience to the book’s contents, the accumulated instructions penned by generations of despots obsessed (like Sepulchrave) with scribbling, reading and dreaming in isolation. And in their refusal to explain or justify their edicts, the blank verse lines on these pages are akin to nonsense. By reading and composing nonsense verse, then, the characters of the first novel proclaim not only their detachment from the castle – their yearning to find refuge from its patterns – but their deep connection to it. Even their solitude, their aching loneliness – most memorably articulated by the castle poet (‘Lingering is so very lonely / When one lingers all alone’, p. 99) – confirms their involvement in the castle community. To sum up: the Books of the Law are the private code of the Earls of Groan, the coloured book of nonsense by which they mark out the whole of Gormenghast as their private alcove, their suite of attics, their refuge. And this is an essential fact for Steerpike to grasp in his quest to seize power.

Like Gormenghast itself, the nonsense verse read and generated by the castle’s inmates makes no reference to any political, economic or historical framework beyond its limits; each – both verse and castle – is a kind of island cut off by the sea. Gormenghast is a landlocked island, as Peter Winnington has shown us.[6] A forest and a mountain cut it off from communication with the rest of humankind, and at the Earling Barquentine declares that Titus ‘will in letter and in spirit defend it in every way against the incursions of alien worlds’ (p. 358). The castle Poet describes its architecture as ‘the sharp archaic shore’ (p. 98), and at the end of the second book the building acquires an actual shoreline when the floodwaters rise until ‘this gaunt asylum’ becomes an island and Gormenghast is ‘marooned’ (p. 691). It does not seem surprising, then, that the nonsense verse in the Titus books is filled with seas, those vast empty spaces which are both barriers and aids to mobility. In an unpublished song he sings to the kitchen urchins in Titus Groan, the Chef Swelter yearns for a ‘shmall shea-worthy pashte-boat’[7] – perhaps a similar vessel to the ‘biscuit-ship’ full of weevils invoked by the castle Poet in another unpublished poem.[8] Fuchsia’s favourite nonsense verses tell the story of a ‘Frivolous Cake’ pursued across the sea by a lustful knife (pp. 158-9). A poem read by Steerpike in Fuchsia’s attic traces the steps of three old men as they take their path ‘To the purple sea’ (p. 106) – the same ocean, perhaps, that features in the lullaby sung to Rottcodd by his mother, beside which groves of rhubarb flourish.[9] The sea, in fact, seems bound up with nonsense verse in Peake’s imagination. The glorious colour illustrations for his collection of nonsense verse, Rhymes Without Reason (1944), ensure that the whole collection takes place in what looks like an archipelago, with water lapping at the edges of each poem. The sea is both beautiful and terrible, lonely and seductive, constricting (think of life on ship-board) and liberating, and thus provides a perfect equivalent for the bitter-sweet atmosphere of Gormenghast, whose grim battlements and stifling ceremonies inspire such passionate devotion from its denizens. And these qualities link both the castle and the sea to the work of the verbal or visual artist as Peake sees it: the artist who plies his trade in solitary communion with the object of his attention, his model – life or still life – to whom he commits himself, in whom he immerses himself utterly, oblivious to interference from beyond the intense magic circle of their mutual exchange.

To take command of Gormenghast, then, the upstart Steerpike must become an artist – a poet – but specifically a purveyor of nonsense. In doing so he will gain access to the most private spaces of the castle’s inhabitants: the secret attic where Fuchsia keeps her book of nonsense verse, her version of the brightly illustrated Rhymes Without Reason; the room where the Countess of Groan reads a nonsense fairy tale to her host of cats about a murderous Dwarf whose ears are fixed on backwards (p. 215); Sepulchrave’s library, with its shelves of verse and drama. And later, his deployment of nonsense gives Steerpike total control of the castle’s ceremonies: the chants and rhythmic declamations that bind the professors, the servants, the Earls themselves, to the archaic books of nonsensical laws of which Steerpike takes possession when he assumes the role of Master of Ritual after murdering Barquentine. It’s therefore appropriate that his rise up the ladder of power begins with his most intense encounter with nonsense. Arriving in Fuchsia’s attic after an epic climb across the castle’s roofs, he finds himself in a landscape cluttered with lumber from Peake’s nonsense verse: the leg of a stuffed giraffe (‘The Giraffe’), the portrait of a jaguar (‘The Jailor and the Jaguar’), a painting of a group of children playing with a viper (think of the snake poems: ‘A Languorous Life’, Uncle Jake from ‘Aunts and Uncles’), a great writhing root from Gormenghast Forest (‘The Hideous Root’). Here he stumbles across a picture book on a table, ‘a large hand-painted book that lay open where a few verses were opposed by a picture in purple and grey’ (p. 105), and finds himself caught in a peculiar limbo between different kinds of reality; a limbo that offers a valuable insight into the process that will propel him from his position at this moment – a half-starved runaway adolescent from the castle kitchens – to the apex of power in the ancient halls of Groan. For this reason it’s worth lingering over the scene.

Steerpike’s hunger and disorientation after his climb mean that he loses the ability to distinguish between the ‘imaginary’ landscape of the picture book and the ‘actual’ castle. As a result, he reads the poem as if he were Fuchsia, or the reader of Titus Groan – entranced, his habitual coldly analytical disbelief temporarily suspended:

It was to Steerpike in his unusual physical state as though that picture were the world, and that he, in some shadowy adjacent province, were glimpsing the reality.

He was the ghost, the purple-and-grey page was truth and actual fact.

Below him stood three men. They were dressed in grey, and purple flowers were in their dark confused locks. The landscape beyond them was desolate and was filled with old metal bridges, and they stood before it together upon the melancholy brow of a small hill. Their hands were exquisitely shaped and their bare feet also, and it seemed that they were listening to a strange music, for their eyes gazed out beyond the page and beyond the reach of Steerpike, and on beyond the hill of Gormenghast and the Twisted Woods.

Equally real to the boy at that moment were the grey-black simple letters that made up the words and the meaning of the verses on the opposite side of the page. The uncompromising visual starkness of all that lay on the table had for a moment caused him to forget his hunger, and although uninterested in poetry or pictures, Steerpike, in spite of himself, read with a curiously slow and deliberate concentration upon the white page of the three old men in their grey and purple world:

Simple, seldom and sad
We are;
Alone on the Halibut Hills
Afar,
With sweet mad Expressions
Of old
Strangely beautiful,
So we’re told
By the Creatures that Move
In the sky
And Die
On the night when the Dead Trees
Prance and Cry.

Sensitive, seldom, and sad –
Sensitive, seldom, and sad –

Simple, seldom and sad
Are we
When we take our path
To the purple sea –
With mad, sweet Expressions
Of Yore,
Strangely beautiful,
Yea, and More
On the Night of all Nights
When the sky
Streams by
In rags, while the Dead Trees
Prance and Die.

Sensitive, seldom, and sad –
Sensitive, seldom, and sad.

Steerpike noticed small thumb-marks on the margin of the page. They were as important to him as the poems or the picture. Everything was equally important because all had become so real now where all had been so blurred. His hand as it lay on the table was now his own. He had forgotten at once what the words meant, but the script was there, black and rounded. (pp. 105-6)

For a moment, then, while reading the poem, Steerpike finds himself removed from his usually utilitarian state of mind. He is always intensely observant, scanning each detail of each scene through which he passes, but not as an artist scans it: he wishes to retain every impression in case it will prove useful to him. At one point, for instance, he spots a swordstick in an abandoned armoury, and is fascinated by the air of treachery and cunning it exudes. He therefore goes back to fetch it when the chance arises. Steerpike sees everything in relation to himself; but in this passage he forgets himself for a passing moment, so that even his own hands look like someone else’s, and the three old men become the centre, himself the periphery. The men are as real as Gormenghast hill or the Twisted Woods, and occupy the same dimension, staring out of the page and beyond the reader, Steerpike, in quest of some unknown object or vision to which he has no access. Their seeming motivelessness, or the unguessable nature of their motives; their self-confessed madness; their communication with aerial Creatures unknown to science; their link with the aimless motion of storm-tossed trees; their simplicity, which proclaims the pointlessness of trying to extrapolate any orderly narrative from these ingredients – all these things make them precisely the kind of thing the kitchen boy would not normally give a second glance to. The extreme old age of the three men, their mad expressions, deprive them of any significant social function; just as the old metal bridges in the background of the picture, made of material which hints at an industrial past, no longer seem to lead anywhere, have become mere decorations in a painting. For a moment, here, Steerpike is at one with the world of nonsense verse, where the black and rounded script in which words are written, the music of their vowels and consonants, are as valuable as their meanings, and where function itself is secondary to the pleasures of sight, sound, mood and atmosphere.

But despite their determined uselessness in social and economic terms, the poem and the picture are or have been of some importance, it would seem, to somebody; important enough to lavish time and skill on. The picture is not merely printed but hand-painted, emphasizing the old men’s ‘exquisitely shaped’ hands and feet and the anthropomorphic contours of the small hill’s ‘melancholy brow’. It is no commercial production but a lovingly crafted artefact designed for the appreciation of a limited but passionate readership. The small thumbprints on the page show that it has been carefully studied by at least one enthusiastic reader. The fact that the pointlessness, the nonsense of the poem and picture have been taken so seriously – indeed, the poem is wholly serious in mood and tone, for all its irrationality – gives Steerpike a crucial clue to the nature of his castle environment, its implacable hostility to the rational notions of cause and effect to which he claims to adhere.

The castle is both self-absorbed and curiously selfless, like the artist. Everything in it is ‘equally important’, despite its rigid hierarchy and its economic inequalities, since everything in it is part of its identity as a castle. In Gormenghast, servants and impoverished artists from the mud huts beneath its walls can take part in tragedies, make themselves works of art, as Flay and Swelter do in their fight to the death in the Hall of Spiders, or as Rantel and Braigon do as they hack each other to pieces for the love of Keda. Steerpike signals his awareness of these facts, his intention to take possession of them, when he picks up an unfinished pear which Fuchsia left beside her book of poems and bites into it, using her bite-mark as purchase for his own teeth. Fuchsia took the pear to the attic not out of utilitarian hunger or need but as a means of intensifying the attic’s atmosphere – reinforcing its vitality, its centrality to her life, by the act of consuming food there (that’s why the fruit remained unfinished). Steerpike takes her decorative, unnecessary food and uses it to staunch his hunger – a hunger to take things to himself which extends to everything he looks at. For Fuchsia, then, the pear is one with the nonsense verse she loves – a pleasure rather than a function – while for Steerpike it is useful, a necessary meal. Fuchsia herself is akin to nonsense; she is not particularly useful to her family, being an adolescent girl who cannot inherit the Earldom, and her concerns are insular, disconnected from the mainland, as it were, of castle life; but Steerpike makes her useful to him as a crucial part of his improvised scheme for self-promotion. Steerpike, then, is a threat to nonsense, to what nonsense stands for – in Keatsian terms, art without a palpable design upon its recipients – and therefore a threat to Gormenghast and all its inhabitants.

What makes Steerpike so dangerous to Gormenghast is his ability to mimic the kind of nonsense art it nurtures with astonishing precision, and hence to appropriate that art to his own ends. On meeting Fuchsia, he first draws her attention to the things he has seen in his climb over the castle rooftops – above all, the senseless parts of it: the empty field of stone, where nobody goes and which therefore has no connection to the narrative of the castle; the horse and its foal swimming in a pool at the summit of a tower, which is manifestly impossible. Later he transforms himself for the girl’s benefit into an exact copy of a clown, the embodiment of nonsense, a performance of simplicity and bizarreness that has no function whatsoever except as a means of captivating her attention, of distracting her from Steerpike’s ruthlessly motivated cunning.

Not long after this oddly disturbing episode – disturbing because Steerpike remains utterly detached throughout it, having no interest in the clown or anything he represents – Fuchsia takes him to visit Doctor Prunesquallor. Here the boy is treated to the spectacle of genuine nonsense in full flight, sent soaring into the ether with every speech the doctor utters. Prunesquallor, like Steerpike, links the teenaged Fuchsia with a young horse; but for Prunesquallor the horse retains its identity even as he uses it as an analogy for her fusion of grace and awkwardness. ‘Fuchsia dear,’ he tells her as he presents her with a ruby,

‘you were so distraught as you ran like a wild pony away from your father and me; so distraught with your black mane and your big hungry eyes – that I said [to] myself: “It’s for Fuchsia,” although ponies don’t usually care much about such things.’ (p. 128).

Just as the ruby has no function in the doctor’s world except to make Fuchsia happy, so the wild pony he has conjured up effectively refuses to be restrained by its intended verbal function. If Fuchsia is like a pony, a pony is not like Fuchsia, since it has no interest in aesthetics or theatre as embodied in the blood-red stone. In Prunesquallor’s discourse, then, Fuchsia gets detached from what he says she resembles – she does not get trapped, even metaphorically, by his metaphor. Steerpike used his field of stones and his swimming horse to worm his way into Fuchsia’s imaginative universe for his own ends. Prunesquallor uses his stone and his pony to show Fuchsia herself, her sensitivity to colour and beauty, her unselfconscious energy, her need for what she has not been getting (hence her ‘big hungry eyes’) – above all, for liberty and affection. But Prunesquallor also offers her these things as of value in themselves, as being worthy of attention, simply as a lovely stone, a headstrong pony. The doctor’s nonsensical fantasias of punning rhetoric represent a form of successful yet undamaging resistance to the stifling rituals of the castle, a celebration of the opposite of ritual – love and freedom – both of which are rendered more lovely by the castle’s indifference to and confinement of its inhabitants.

By contrast, Steerpike’s methodical deployment of his observations of the castle, his mental inventory of the nonsense he encounters there, is a form of resistance which is utterly inimical to nonsense itself, utterly destructive to all those nonsensical characters who find refuge in the castle’s crevices, or who shelter beneath its walls in abject poverty. Steerpike, in fact, comes to represent – as the Titus series develops – everything that is inimical to the practice of making art, as Peake perceives it. He is the embodiment of self-interest, of the inability to commit oneself body and soul to what is outside oneself, whether it be a person, a community, a landscape or a still life. As such, the young man’s journey through the landscape of Gormenghast forms an analogy for the irruption into the privacy of Peake’s imagination of a succession of hostile ‘alien worlds’: Nazism, military life, commercialism and the ever-present need to earn a living through his art; war and the cold war; and the contempt of the artistic elite for the kind of art he made – the art of the fantastic, the nonsensical. For this reason, Steerpike’s relationship to the nonsense of Gormenghast – and in particular, perhaps, to its nonsense verse – is worth pursuing very much further than I have been able to in this essay.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike in the BBC production of Gormenghast (2000)

Notes

[1] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 367. All references are to this edition.

[2] For Peake’s ‘default metre’, see Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), introduction, p. 10.

[3] See Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), pp. 124-6 and note.

[4] Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 184.

[5] See Alice Mills, Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2005), chapter 4, and Vanessa Bonnet, ‘A World of Nonsense’, Peake Studies, vol. 12, no. 4 (April 2012), pp. 37-8.

[6] G. Peter Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3.

[7] Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 53.

[8] Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 156.

[9] Peake, Complete Nonsense, pp. 124-5.

Fantasy 1939: Science Fiction

Howell Davies/Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil; R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript

Sam Haile, Woman and Suspended Man (1939)

The 1930s saw a vast range of fantasy published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. But this is a claim that needs interrogation. What do we mean by fantasy in a decade before the term has come to denote a literary genre, before fantasy (invariably yoked up with science fiction) has acquired a section of its own on the shelves of bookshops? My series of blog posts marked ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ are an attempt to answer that question; and more importantly, they’re a bid to show that the question itself – what do we mean by fantasy? – played a central role in British and Irish fiction in the decade that saw the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Leonora Carrington, The Pomps of the Subsoil (1947)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the word ‘fantasy’ was widely used in criticism that decade. Herbert Read defined it in his book English Prose Style (1928), which kept being republished and revised throughout the 1930s and 40s, while J R R Tolkien subjected it to more extended scrutiny in his Andrew Lang lecture ‘On Fairy Stories’ in 1937. For Read, fantasy was a sustained work of ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – with the emphasis on the word sustained – concerning itself with ‘things which are concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, and developing its caprices in a scrupulously logical manner. Tolkien chose to define fantasy (which as a philologist he knew very well to have a wider range of meanings) as one aspect of the faculty that mediates between the imagination – the capacity to form mental images of things not actually present, as Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary put it – and the external world, or rather its human population. That is, it’s ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ (pp. 46-7), the ‘operative link’ between the imagination and its expression in a work of art. More specifically, it’s that aspect of this power or operative link which is concerned to generate ‘a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story’. Fantasy, for Tolkien, is the capacity to make works of art that convey a sense of ‘“unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to our Primary World), of freedom from the domination of “observed fact”, in short of the fantastic’ (p. 47). It’s the art of the impossible, in other words: art that flamboyantly violates the laws of physics, biology, geography, or space and time, where ‘art’ is being used in the old sense of a skill as well as the product of that skill. Taken in this inclusive but quite specific sense, fantasy fiction of the 1930s is quite astonishing in terms of the sheer diversity of its experiments, and suggests the extent to which the imaginations of writers were being troubled and transformed by the turbulent times they lived in, when world-wide recession, totalitarianism and the spread of conflict across the globe threatened to wipe out all traces of the past – and rewrite the terms on which people lived the present – in what must have looked something like a slow tsunami.

Michael Ayrton, Sleeper in Flight (1943)

Fantasy as the art of the impossible found itself in a strange position in that decade. All certainties about what was impossible, or conversely about what could be described (in Read’s terms) as ‘concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, were in dispute, caught up in the struggle between opposing philosophies and political positions. Tolkien expresses anxiety about the operations of the faculty called fantasy – ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ – in part because it could so easily serve the interests of falsification, in particular the falsification of history beloved of the fascists. This is why he stresses (a) the importance of incorporating the qualities of strangeness and wonder into the products of the fantasy, emphasizing its self-segregation from consensus reality; (b) the fairy tale’s subservience (as ‘sub-creation’) to the primary, substantial creative work of making planets, living creatures and so on, which is the exclusive province of God; and (c) the preservation of a rigorous sense of history in one’s treatment of it – even while he acknowledges that the history of fantasy’s most familiar literary product, the fairy tale, is next to impossible to write. This final point was a tricky one in the 1930s – I mean, the preservation of the rigorous historical perspective for which an etymologist or historian of words like Tolkien prided himself. In the between-war period the distinction between the primary world – whether or not one took it to have been intentionally created by a singular God – and the strangeness of what cannot and never could exist, was constantly being challenged in fantastic fiction, in an obvious and often deliberate reflection of the breakdown of political, social, economic, religious, philosophical and scientific certainties taking place in these two decades. A rigorous historical perspective – an account of the past or indeed the present based on the concrete evidence available, uncontaminated by baseless speculation – was not so easy to define or maintain under the circumstances.

Conroy Maddox, The Lesson (1938)

At the same time as societies were undergoing radical changes, the human mind was being revealed by psychoanalysts as a complex repository of conscious and unconscious fantasies, many of them concerned with exerting some level of control over people, actions, situations and sensations. For Freudians, fantasies were always interposing themselves between the individual’s mind and the world, determining how one interacted with one’s fellow human beings, so that what was ‘real’ was difficult to determine or access. This difficulty underpins many contemporary interpretations of the artistic movement known as surrealism, which took root in Britain in the 1930s. British surrealist apologists like Herbert Read insisted that the set of conventions known as ‘realism’ or mimesis could not properly take account of human experience in the world, since our unconscious desires, dreams and obsessions always direct the way we perceive or interact with our environment.[1] Surrealism, for Read, meant ‘super-realism’: going beyond the notion of objective reality, as befitted artists or creators realistic enough to know that fantasies invariably mediate between ourselves and the material spaces we inhabit, the objects and living creatures with which we interact. The word’s prominence in 1930s Britain, where a wide range of British and Irish artists joined artists from the continent in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, underlines the extent to which an awareness of fantasy as a faculty or a product of that faculty was helping to destabilize the very concept of the ‘real’.

One way of grasping the sheer diversity of fantasy literature in the 1930s is to take a snapshot of the fiction that might be termed ‘fantastic’ in any given year. For the purposes of this post and those that follow it I’ve chosen the year when war broke out between Britain and Germany, 1939, selecting a small number of texts from that year – many of which we would now see as belonging to different genres – that demonstrate a sustained engagement with ‘fantasy’ in one or more of the senses given above. Each post deals with a different kind of fantastic fiction: science fiction, Irish rural fantasy, children’s literature – though it doesn’t claim to deal with all examples of these kinds, even in the year under discussion.[2] Instead the books have been chosen because they speak to each other in some way, and because they collectively speak to the state of fantasy at the time of writing.

Two significant books we would now call science fiction came out that year, both of which have a clear association with fantasy and the fantastic. One was by Andrew Marvell: Congratulate the Devil, about a drug that gives its user power over other people’s minds, enabling him or her to realize the desire for absolute control which for anyone else must always remain a daydream. The other is by R C Sherriff: The Hopkins Manuscript, about the collision of the moon with the earth and the social chaos that ensues, as seen through the eyes of an Englishman living in rural Hampshire. Two experimental fantasies were also published: Clemence Dane’s little-known satire The Arrogant History of White Ben, about a scarecrow that becomes fascist dictator of Britain, and Flann O’Brien’s celebrated first novel At Swim-Two-Birds, about a medley of characters in a book who rebel against the tyranny of the author. I’ve written elsewhere about both Dane’s book and O’Brien’s, and introduce them here to give a sense of how Marvell’s and Sherriff’s novels share a number of features with other kinds of fantastic texts published at the same time. To begin with, three of the four books I’ve just listed were published under pseudonyms: Andrew Marvell was the Welsh editor and theatre critic Howell Davies, Clemence Dane the English novelist and playwright Winifred Ashton, while Flann O’Brien was the Irish civil servant Brian O’Nolan. The use of pseudonyms gives some sense of the constraints under which writers felt themselves to be practising their craft at this point in history. All four books concern abuses of power in the form of the dictatorships imposed by the author, the scarecrow and the British government in the books by O’Brien, Dane and Sherriff, as well as through mind control in Marvell’s novel. In all four novels a form of social breakdown takes place, and in every case this follows on from the rise of fascistic forces in the writer’s own country: O’Brien’s Ireland, Sherriff’s United Kingdom, Marvell’s Wales and England (as a Welshman he makes a clear distinction between them), and most grimly of all Dane’s Britain, where after the scarecrow takes control a growing number of social groups begin to be classified as ‘crows’ and condemned to death. All four novels localize the root causes of social and political calamity not in some overseas nation – Fascist Italy or Spain, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia – but in the fields, towns and cityscapes of home (even The Hopkins Manuscript does this, as we shall see). Clemence Dane’s totalitarian scarecrow, White Ben, is peculiarly British in his origins, constructed by a child and clothed in a random selection of garments that between them represent a cross-section of British society. He springs from the soil of England like the plant that grows in the field where he acquires sentience, and from which he takes his surname, campion. His dictatorship, then, is a British one, forged exclusively from British materials, tailored to British culture. He can stand for many of the adult fantasies written in the late 1930s in his disastrous transplantation of the fascistic dreams that were sweeping through continental Europe into the receptive ground of his native island.

Andrew Marvell’s Congratulate the Devil offers a particularly interesting perspective on the breakdown of boundaries between the fantastic and the real in contemporary Britain. The story tells of a young chemist, William Roper, who discovers a version of the drug mescal which enables him to take control of other people’s minds, and hence to realize his own private fantasies in the actual world (at least to some extent: the drug only works within a certain distance of its user). Roper is a man who bears a marked resemblance to the devil, both in his appearance – he has ‘two glistening lumps’ on his forehead like incipient horns – and his personality, since he loves playing malicious tricks on random strangers. He himself, then, is corporeally linked to the supernatural or impossible, and the drug gives him the chance to demolish the walls between the immaterial religious world whose chief antagonist he resembles and the material world he lives in. The comic possibilities of this demolition of boundaries are obvious, and Roper begins by using his new drug impishly, for his own amusement. He first feeds it to a dog, whose doggish mind then forces all human beings within range to behave like dogs, an episode described in something like the comic style of Lord Dunsany’s charming novella My talks with Dean Spanley (1936). Dunsany’s book is about a clergyman who keeps remembering his former life as a spaniel; it has nothing too serious about it (though there’s a drug involved: he only revisits his past lives when he drinks the Hungarian sweet wine Tokay). In Marvell’s novel, by contrast, Roper’s behaviour quickly transitions from the impish to the diabolical. He falls in love with an artist’s model and forces her to love him back by means of the drug; and from that point on, driven by his no-longer-repressed desires, the chemist’s powers get used for increasingly disturbing purposes: rape, murder, robbery, an incipient revolution. But it also becomes increasingly clear that the young man’s devilry is merely an extension of a range of diabolical activities that are already endemic in British society; that Britain itself, in fact – as a community and an institution – has a barely repressed unconscious which is always breaking through in acts of more or less authoritarian violence. Roper’s incipient horns are the physical manifestation of a widespread tendency throughout the nation he inhabits; and correspondingly, Roper’s adventures make the incipient horns of contemporary Britain clearly visible to Marvell’s readers.

Mervyn Peake, Rumpelstiltskin

For Marvell, the English language itself acknowledges the omnipresence of diabolical tendencies among its users. As you read the novel, count the incidence of diabolical terms such as ‘devil’, ‘hell’, ‘infernal’ and ‘damnation’ in the text, often in commonly used phrases whose submerged religious or moral sense is reawakened by their context: ‘’Old ’im, Sir, ’old the devil’ (p. 8); ‘I […] pelted down the lane as if the devil were at my heels’ (p. 117); ‘Women were the devil’ (p. 185); ‘What the devil is Mayfair running away from?’ (p. 258). Roper’s devilishness, then, is native both to Britain and its dominant language. So too is his coercive attitude to women. The model he desires, Anita, is a married woman, whose husband asserts his power over her through violence, which is effectively condoned by those who know her, since there is little recourse in British law for victims of domestic abuse. As the artist who paints Anita puts it, ‘There have been bruises, now and again, but she hasn’t said anything’ (p. 104) – presumably because nothing she says will make any difference. Roper’s exertion of power over Anita with the help of his drug is just another version of the male violence to which she is already subjected, thanks to the tacit acceptance in British society of the husband’s right to attack his wife whenever he chooses.

Leonora Carrington, The Pine Family (1940)

The relationship between Anita and her husband, then, is as much of a devil’s bargain as her relationship with Roper; and again this is pointed up in Marvell’s infernal references. When the narrator, Jim, first meets the husband, he asks: ‘What the devil do you want? Who are you?’ (p. 153), and the husband’s response exposes the hell of marriage for many wives. He wants to make a business deal with Roper, using the narrator as an intermediary and his wife as a bargaining chip; he knows Roper has been sleeping with Anita and insists on being paid not to divulge it, and when the narrator refuses, the husband beats her up ‘like a maniac’, as Roper puts it (p. 157). From one perspective, this is blackmail reinforced by assault; but from another it’s capitalism in action, as the husband implies when he describes himself and the narrator as ‘men of the world’ (p. 155). In other words, it’s a way of doing business that’s not just accepted but fiercely defended by governments and institutions all over the planet. And when Roper finally kills him – leaving Anita ‘free’, as Roper puts it, though not free to resist Roper’s wishes – the chemist insists it is not murder but justice, and that the narrator’s disapproval brands him a hypocrite (p. 160). Not acting to put a stop to the husband’s violence is more diabolical, Roper implies, than Roper’s own decision to end that violence through violence, so that Roper is in some respects less devilish than the Britain that condones misogynist abuse. By this stage it’s become clear, in fact, that the chemist’s devilish use of mind control – the fantastic impossibility at the heart of the novel – provides a kind of key to reveal the devilish forms of mind control already at work in British society, as well as the intricate hypocrisies – the ‘compunctions and evasions’, as Marvell puts it (p. 89) – that work to sustain them.

Mervyn Peake, Mr Hyde (1948)

As Roper implies, the narrator’s penchant for hypocrisy makes him not just a double for Roper but perhaps even his superior in the hierarchy of wickedness. Jim is a playboy, by his own admission. He claims to be studying the politics of labour in countries round the world, a useful project, one would have thought, at a time of global recession like the 1930s; but his ‘studies’ are merely an excuse for tourism and philandering, and his contributions to political thought or economic planning are non-existent. His identity, too, is almost non-existent. His name is Jim Starling, which suggests a flightiness, a penchant for imitating other people and a liking for bright shiny things without much awareness of their value. We don’t know a great deal about him or his family – and it’s implied that there is little to know – but we’re aware that his money is running out and that his days as a playboy are therefore numbered, thus effectively erasing his identity, since he is defined by his indecisiveness and self-indulgence, both of which are made possible by his fortune. His days themselves are numbered in any case, as we know from the opening sentence: ‘In seven days I shall be killed’, it announces, turning the tumbling pace of the novel into a sprightly gallop towards Jim’s death.

But Jim has already been effectively erased from the world of the book some time before this happens. From the beginning of the novel, his fate is indistinguishable from Roper’s, since he has no story outside of Roper’s story, and there is even a point at which Roper occupies Jim’s body with the help of his drug – when Jim becomes Roper, so to speak. Marvell makes it clear that this occupation is a form of rape; Jim insists, ‘I didn’t want him to do it’ (p. 88), and later tells him directly ‘I would rather not’ (p. 88), but Roper does it anyway, just as he later forces Anita to become his lover. As with Anita, too, Roper represents his violation of Jim as tantamount to an act of love: ‘It’s the kind of thing lovers long for: complete union with the beloved’ (p. 88) – though he adds with characteristic irony, ‘I don’t suppose it would be a healthy experience’. Oddly, though, it’s Roper who claims to feel violated by Jim as a result of their joint occupation of Jim’s body: ‘I think I shall always bear you a grudge for this rape’, he tells him afterwards (p. 90). His resentment stems from a number of sources. First, there is Jim’s stated unwillingness to describe the experience of sharing Roper’s identity, which both Roper and the reader might ascribe to Jim’s cowardice, his reluctance to expose the unsettling cynicism, resentment and lack of conscience he has found in Roper’s mind. Partly, too, the chemist’s resentment stems from his belated wish to preserve what he calls a ‘privacy of self’ (p. 90). Most disturbing of all for Roper, though, is the evidence Jim might provide of the instability of his own identity. During Roper’s occupation of Jim’s body, Jim sees clearly the distinction between himself and Roper: ‘I had never imagined that someone else could feel so different,’ he writes, ‘that his “being” should vary so profoundly from my “being”’ (p. 88); and he confirms that Roper’s personality has what he calls ‘weight’, or gravity, in stark opposition to his own vapid ‘lightness’. But his friend’s mind is also described as existing in some sort of ‘bondage’, exuding a sense ‘of being swathed round and of a desperate stretching against the bandages, as though he were buried alive’, of being in ‘constant strife’ – a phrase that neatly encapsulates the devil’s nature as the arch-fiend or universal enemy, trapped by his own opposition to the whole of creation. Shortly afterwards Jim describes him as ‘a bold, dark, striving spirit, constantly disintegrating and re-cohering’ (p. 89), like evil in Milton’s Comus.[3] Roper, then, like Jim himself, has no consistent being; he can’t distinguish himself from his own victims, and is as subject to coercive binding as anyone he binds with his drug. The breaking down of boundaries between minds, which is made possible by the drug, reveals the permeability of the boundaries between one identity and another, and hence perhaps the difficulty of assigning responsibility for any given action, of determining its moral status. No wonder, then, if Jim tells us that Roper’s brief possession of his body leaves him (and presumably Roper) with a powerful unease about what he calls the ‘mystery of personality’ (p. 88), as well as a ‘furtive sense of shame’, as if his refusal to describe Roper’s mind to its owner makes him responsible, in some sense, both for what Roper has done in the past and what he will do in future.

Mervyn Peake, Dr Jekyll (1948)

Sure enough, Jim condones Roper’s actions again and again in the book, first by failing to describe the state of Roper’s mind to him at this early stage in his addiction, then by repeatedly refusing to condemn them to his face, and finally by failing to report the murders he commits to the authorities – aiding and abetting him, in other words, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. His own unstable identity transforms him at times into a dead ringer for his more forceful friend, while his hypocrisy makes him as responsible for Roper’s actions as Roper himself; perhaps more so, since he could have brought them to an end more easily than Roper, given the chemist’s self-confessed condition as an ‘addict’ to his new drug (p. 114).

But Jim is not alone in his complicity with Roper’s actions. The book sees the chemist’s personal devilishness manifested in nearly every other character: from the police constable whose mind Roper makes use of to club an unfortunate servant to death with his truncheon (p. 135), to Jim’s elderly aunt, who shows an unseemly fascination with the details of the servant’s murder (p. 112); from Cousin Flo, an unmarried relative of Roper’s who gets hold of one of the pills and transforms a Vicar into the husband of her dreams (p. 144), to the narrator, who is accused by Roper of having designs on the pills himself (p. 138). When Jim insists that Roper give him the pills after the servant’s murder, Roper tells him that he is behaving just like Hitler: ‘with you they’d be safe,’ he observes ironically; ‘It sounds like Hitler’s argument for taking away the colonies’ (p. 138). Britain is filled, in fact, with little Hitlers, whose claims to benevolence are indistinguishable from the dictator’s desire to exercise absolute power. The pills do no more than underline this affinity between the outwardly good-natured English or Welsh citizen and the Nazi dictator of Germany, by giving some of them the means to incarnate their ‘secret desire […] for conquest and capitulation’ (p. 144).

Leslie Hurry, Café Bar (1946)

Despite Jim’s insistence that he is a playboy, then, with no serious political or intellectual commitments; despite the ‘lightness’ of his prose style as first-person narrator of Marvell’s book – full of short paragraphs, rapid-fire dialogue and swift transitions; Jim’s narrative is in the end a political one, as perhaps all narratives had to be in 1939. The political aspect of the book is revealed quite gradually, but comes to a head in the final pages, when the British government stands revealed as the worst of devils in that devilish nation. As the self-appointed watchdogs of global capitalism, the British authorities, it turns out, are willing to sacrifice any number of innocent citizens to protect its interests; and the people they destroy by violence include members of their own forces, policemen and soldiers. The irony is that these innocents are killed to put an end to a professedly benevolent revolution, involving the forcible spread of ‘human kindness’ through the agency of Roper’s friend, a saintly Welsh street singer called Bert who is the chemist’s polar opposite in terms of his moral proclivities. When Bert gets hold of the pills he is persuaded by Roper (for the young man’s private amusement) to conduct an experiment on the British public by forcing them through mind control to be relentlessly ‘kind’ to one another. Kindness, however – it turns out – is inimical to property laws, the hoarding of gold reserves by banks, and hierarchies of every kind; so the government cannot possibly accept its imposition on the populace. The book ends with a devastating artillery attack that kills Roper, Bert, policemen, soldiers and a host of bystanders. As Howell Davies, Andrew Marvell was a veteran of the Great War; so the termination of his novel with the indiscriminate shelling by his government of its own people, in a year when global conflict was about to break out for a second time in the author’s lifetime, makes bona fide devils of the British state.

George Frampton, Peter Pan statue, Kensington Gardens (1911)

The authorities’ erasure of Bert’s revolution also erases Bert and Roper from the annals of history. The clothes of the dictator-scarecrow in Clemence Dane’s The Arrogant History of White Ben transform their wearer into a living emblem of the past: ‘He had been garmented’, Dane writes, ‘with religion, diplomacy, the art of war, the art of healing; for he wore a priest’s vestment, a soldier’s gauntlets and civilian mackintosh; a gentleman’s pleasure-hat, a surgeon’s coat. […] [M]en’s memories were buttoned about him’ (p. 20). The fate of Marvell’s characters, by contrast, is to be remembered (if at all) as the cast of a novel, and hence to be written out of the historical record altogether. This process of writing them out begins at an early stage in the revolution, as the government carefully vets the newspaper coverage of its spread; and later one of the ‘journalists’ reporting on Bert’s movements turns out to be a government spy, whose information enables the shell attack on the Welshman and his followers to be accurately targeted. The only reliable account of what happened to Bert and Roper is to be found in the pages of the seemingly fantastical story told by Jim, which he writes down while staying in a tiny village in Wales – on the margins of history, so to speak – and arranges to be smuggled to Roper’s father after his death. The fact that we are reading this posthumous account in the form of a work of fantastic fiction suggests that the father chose to release it as a product of the imagination rather than of history, presumably to protect the contents from censorship. Indeed, the decision to release it as fantasy seems to be anticipated by the choice of setting for Bert’s last revolutionary headquarters: the tea-house in Kensington Gardens – now the Serpentine Gallery – located in a section of Hyde Park whose best-known associations are with that most influential of British fantasies, Peter Pan. Peter’s first literary appearance famously took place in Kensington Gardens, in J M Barrie’s The Little White Bird, and his statue by Sir George Frampton still stands on the other side of the water from the former café. In Congratulate the Devil, then, the fantastic and the historical are in constant dialogue or exchange, so that the distinction between them is at times more or less impossible to make.

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons (1934)

The disintegration of boundaries between fantasy and reality is for Marvell profoundly damaging. He reflects this formally by refusing to divide his novel into chapters, as (for instance) R C Sherriff did in The Hopkins Manuscript. As a result the comic episodes at the beginning, where humans behave like cheerful dogs, exist in a continuum with the much more troubling incidents that follow: the murder of one of those humans – the servant Dobbs; the bank robbery; Roper’s murder of Anita; the destruction of the teahouse by shelling. As we’ve seen, Roper’s mescal breaks down the boundaries between the imagination and material life; Bert’s conviction that human kindness provides the key to a better world, for instance, is described as one of his ‘fantasies’, and the pills let him put this fantasy into practice. But for powerful people – newspaper magnates, rich men, politicians – the world is already a ‘fine hot-pot of fact and fantasy’, which is how Roper describes the ‘inaccurate’ coverage of his killing of Dobbs in the national press (p. 130).

The bank robbery staged by Roper shortly after the murder demonstrates the central role played by fantasy in economics. With his pills he forces the bank manager to think of the money in his vaults as worth less than a pile of leaves: ‘Pieces of paper,’ he calls them, ‘silly little pieces of paper with pictures on them. Gentlemen, you are welcome to them. […] Take them all. […] Leave not a wrack behind’ (p. 125). As the banker expatiates on this new perspective, the notion that ‘pieces of paper with pictures on them’ should have some sort of intrinsic value becomes increasingly absurd; yet it’s in the interests of defending this absurdity that the British government bombs the tea-house in Kensington Gardens. In other words, Roper’s imposition of his fantasies through the operation of his new drug underlines the far more successful imposition of fantasies on human beings by the world’s businesses and the governments that serve them, a form of mind control that reduces people of all nations to helpless dupes.

Alfred Kubin, Caliban (1918)

The bank manager’s phrase, ‘Leave not a wrack behind’, comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s from the scene where the enchanter Prospero acknowledges the insubstantial nature of his magic, and aligns it with the insubstantial nature of the ‘great globe itself’, which will fade away at last and leave no trace of its passing. This is the first of two key references to The Tempest in Marvell’s novel. The second is Roper’s, when he contemplates what would have happened if the islander Caliban had got control of Prospero’s wand and used it to reshape the world around him (p. 152). Roper thinks of himself as a second Caliban: a misshapen, marginalized individual, enslaved by pointless conventions, who lusts after Anita just as Caliban lusted after Prospero’s daughter Miranda. At first the young chemist claims to have no interest in gaining Anita’s affections through the mind-controlling ‘magic’ of mescal, and insists that Caliban, too, would have been uninterested in forcing Miranda to love him. But Shakespeare’s play does not bear this out this assertion. Caliban did in fact try to rape Miranda – according to her father – and Roper follows in his footsteps. With the help of the drug he forces Anita to sleep with him, then when the effects wear off and she recoils from him in horror he strangles her in a paroxysm of rage, resentful of her inability to go on embodying his erotic daydreams without the drug’s intervention. In both play and novel, then, magic is the expression of the desire to shape the world in accordance with one’s fantasies, a project whose eventual failure is rendered inevitable by the incompatibility of one person’s fantasies with another’s – except in an impossible utopia, of the kind Marvell’s Bert or Shakespeare’s Gonzalo conjures up.

Ithell Colquhoun, Song of Songs (1933)

Roper’s willingness to ‘force’ Anita to service his desires is represented as devilish, but no more so than the world’s tendency to ‘force’ her to embody an androcentric vision of femininity. The young chemist first sees the girl in a painting executed by an artist named Joubert, who also happens to supply Roper with the drug which is the source of his problems. In the painting – presumably executed under the influence of the drug in question – Anita stands facing the viewer, naked, ‘hands turned towards us’, looking off into the distance at an indeterminate object (‘It might be a lover, it might be God’, p. 102). It is Roper who suggests a title for this picture: ‘the moment of truth’; but in fact, of course, it’s another fantasy, the image of a young girl as freely and willingly available for all men’s pleasure. The street singer Bert correctly identifies the painting as exploitative, but couches his objections to Anita’s nudity in the same possessive terms that the picture invites all men to use about her: ‘I don’t like you doing that’, he tells her (p. 103). Both Roper’s and Bert’s perceptions of Anita are based on the painting’s representation of her as somehow ‘made’ by and for the male viewer:

‘Look, you made me, here I am. I have nothing to hide. The beauty is yours, all yours.’ She seemed to be saying that, and glorying, too, that the beauty was there to bestow, utterly, without reservation. (p. 103)

Bert later liberates Anita from both Joubert’s and Roper’s influence, but in doing so places her in a setting that infantilizes her – a sweet shop – as does his refusal to acknowledge her adult desire for Bert himself. Later still, Roper murders Anita because she refuses to act out the role of ‘the beauty [that is] there to bestow, utterly, without reservation’ in life as she did in the painting. Both men, in fact, use the drug to ‘make’ or remake Anita as they wish her to be, just as the painter did, and both find themselves unable to cope when she insists on following her own desires and inclinations. In this they are the exact opposite of Roper’s father, a man who the chemist describes as the ‘only complete realist I know’, who ‘knows exactly what he wants from life, never asks more of it than it can give, and is always prepared to find that it gives less than he expects’ (p. 92). The father’s decision to release the narrative of Roper’s drug as a fantasy novel, as against a historical account, is ironically a more realistic choice than any made by the drug’s users, who persist in believing that the world can be reshaped by the transient influence of the magic it contains. Roper and Bert are fantasists, and their treatment of Anita underlines the tendency of fantasists in the 1930s to force their damaging dreams on the world, always asking ‘more of it than it can give’, and roused to rage, in Roper’s case – like Wilde’s version of Caliban – when it doesn’t mirror their dreams and expectations with servile faithfulness.

Oswald Mosley and the British Fascist Blackshirts (1936)

Ironically, Roper’s own death is brought about for a similar reason to his murder of the woman who obsessed him. Bert’s revolution, which Roper first suggests to him and then helps to orchestrate, exposes money and social inequality as manifestations of false consciousness; that is, as fantasies devised to keep the ruling elite in power. It is, in fact, an attempt on Roper’s part to return to the ‘realism’ he was taught by his father, and which he abandoned by treating Anita as an ideal; and as we’ve seen it proves insupportable to the government, which destroys him as he destroyed Anita. This would seem to be Roper’s intention from the beginning: a suicidal desire to atone for his killing of Anita with his own destruction, though as a devil-figure he inevitably brings down his friends Bert and Jim along with him. Roper knows very well how the revolution of kindness is likely to end. When Jim suggests at one point that the government is reluctant to fire on the revolutionaries because of the crowd of innocent people gathered round them, Roper asks him: ‘What do you think you’re up against, the Peace Pledge Union?’ (p. 256) – referring to the pacifists who opposed a military response to the Nazi threat. The real reason for the government’s reluctance, Roper insists, is that the revolutionaries are out of range of the army’s machine guns; and the bombing of the café confirms his suspicions, while also signaling to Marvell’s readers the end of the democratic dream of government as a beneficent force at the service of its electors. World leaders share the obsessive self-interest of other men, a self-interest that devours those who refuse to serve it as a cannibal devours other members of its own species. Roper himself describes his obsession with Anita as a kind of hunger: ‘Ever been hungry, really hungry?’ he asks Jim (pp. 195 and 200), as an analogy for his yearning for her body. This hunger finally consumes her, and it’s in response to this act of metaphorical cannibalism that Roper allows himself to be consumed in his turn by dying in a famous eating-house. Marvell’s novel finishes, in fact, by implying that the mind control imposed on individuals or populations by fascist populism is a form of anthropophagy, and that it is practised everywhere in Europe by governments determined to sustain themselves by consuming the citizens they govern. T H White had made a similar point just one year earlier in The Sword in the Stone (1938).

Bela Lugosi in Chandu the Magician (1932)

In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien’s unease with the power exerted by fantasy over its readers comes to a head in his discussion of the difference between Magic and Enchantment. Magic makes a change to the world we live in, he tells us, and ‘its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills’. Enchantment, on the other hand, is the art of sub-creation – of inventing new worlds as imaginative subsets of this one – and is ‘inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician’ (p. 53). But Enchantment too can be ‘perilous’, Tolkien warns (p. 53), because ‘Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil’ (p. 55). Congratulate the Devil is a book about Magic, in Tolkien’s terms, whose protagonists are as greedy for power as Tolkien’s Magician. But Tolkien also believes that Enchantment, as the human craft he calls Fantasy works it, can be abused to such an extent that we think our sub-created secondary worlds to be somehow real: ‘[Men] have made false gods out of other materials: their nations, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice’ (pp. 55-6). From this perspective, Congratulate the Devil is a work of Enchantment, and as such the product of Fantasy. It draws attention, as I’ve argued here, to the totalitarian abuses of Fantasy that pervaded Europe in the 1930s; and in the process it reminds its readers that they themselves might be worshipping deformed gods of their own invention – the Ropers of their minds.

How, I wonder, does Marvell imagine the effect of his book on its readers? Does he see it as practising mind control on us, experimentally forcing us to root for the devil, Roper, and to congratulate him in the end for the morbid entertainment he has afforded us? There’s a clue, perhaps, in the connection with Wilde I’ve already touched on in connection with Caliban. If Roper is Caliban, he will produce a dual effect on his readership, according to Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, since ‘The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass’, while ‘The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism’ – for which read deliberately unrealistic narratives, like modern fantasy – ‘is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass’. Roper as a representation of contemporary Britishness will make readers angry; Roper as an unrealistic character, with his devilish horn-stubs, will arouse readers’ contempt; though all the while readers will fail to note that they are as much Caliban as Roper is, if we take Wilde’s dicta seriously. Meanwhile the portrait of Anita can be seen as a version of the Picture of Dorian Gray, mirroring the faults of its painter (who worshipped a fake version of Anita just as Basil Hallward worshipped a fake version of Dorian) as well as its spectators (who expect all women to act as the model is made to act by the painter). Marvell’s readers are as much the painters and avid spectators of Anita’s portrait as Joubert and Roper are. Marvell’s position as author, meanwhile, is that of Roper’s father: the realist who expects nothing more from life than it can actually give him, since he unflinchingly demonstrates the likely outcome of giving credence to such deadly fantasies. His fantasy speaks unpalatable truths to power – and to the people who willingly lend unscrupulous authorities what power they have; though like Roper’s father he has no expectation that power or the people will pay attention to it. For Marvell, as for Auden (also writing in 1939), fantasy ‘makes nothing happen’ – though in flamboyant and sometimes spectacular fashion.

*****

I’ve suggested that Congratulate the Devil concerns itself in part with the erasure of unpalatable happenings from the pages of history; but Sherriff’s novel The Hopkins Manuscript contains yet more unsettling revelations about the unreliability of human accounts of the past. Once again the novel presents itself as a form of documentary evidence for events that might seem far-fetched to its readers. Here, however, those events took place at a time so long ago that it has become known as a second Dark Ages. The frame of the novel – like the frame of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – transports the reader to a point many centuries in the future, after the population of Europe has been wiped out, first by the devastating effects of the moon’s collision with the earth, then by conflict over ownership of the shattered remains of the satellite among rival European nations. Lunacy, in other words, is its subject, and the moon serves in it both as a deadly menace – a giant bomb – and as a potent metaphor for the capacity of human beings to set aside reason and self-preservation in the quest for power, or for the illusion of power, since all power is finally lost in Sherriff’s narrative, including the simple power to light a candle in the darkness (the book is written by the light of ‘feeble home-made lanterns’, p. 5). The imminent moon crash is the focus of the first two thirds of the novel; but as it turns out, the cataclysm proves eminently survivable. What destroys Europe is the madness of war, and the complex network of fantasies that bring this madness about, as both embodied and critiqued by Sherriff’s narrator, Edgar Hopkins: the man who gives the book its title and becomes the last lost voice of vanished Britain, ‘a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the gathering darkness’ (p. 3).

R C Sherriff

Sherriff’s choice of narrator is inspired. In the introduction, an unnamed historian from the future describes him damningly as ‘Edgar Hopkins […] a man of such unquenchable self-esteem and limited vision that his narrative becomes valueless to the scientist and historian’ (p. 1). He is, in other words, a fantasist, incapable of adjusting his perception of himself in the light of the catastrophe to which he is subjected – or so the historian claims, though the summary is not fair to him. In a number of ways, Hopkins is a perfect representative of British culture in the 1930s. As a middle-class white man who lives in the countryside, he is a type who is disproportionately represented among the protagonists of English literature – a representative of the fantasy Englishman who never existed – although his self-esteem has rarely been as devastatingly cut down to size as it is by Sherriff’s catastrophe. Despite his high opinion of himself, his marginal status is made obvious from the beginning, as well as his ordinariness (Sherriff’s first title for the book was An Ordinary Man). Retired very early from his job as a teacher (we learn at a late stage in the novel that he was bullied by his pupils, which explains his decision to withdraw his labour), and more interested in breeding chickens than in politics or astronomy, Hopkins becomes a member of the British Lunar Society pretty much by accident; yet he considers his membership of the society – and the early awareness it gives him of the problem with the moon – to mark him out as a person of consequence, specially selected by virtue of his intelligence, birth and education to be the custodian of secret information vouchsafed only to the cream of the British ruling classes. Sherriff brilliantly conveys the strain on Hopkins of maintaining this fantastic view of himself over the months that elapse between the revelation of the coming collision, at a private meeting of the Lunar Society, and the release of the news to the general public. At times during this period Hopkins succeeds in seeing himself as the elite guardian of what he calls The Secret. At others he teeters on the brink of madness, as he notes the horrible disparity between the everyday goings-on around him and the approaching annihilation of life on earth. Christmas brings out this disparity in drastic fashion. It’s a feast that centres on the fantastic, in the form of myths of universal brotherhood, Father Christmas on his sleigh, God’s love for all humanity and so on. It’s also a ritual which is annually repeated – or would be if the world were not about to come to an end. And it’s the yearly high point of consumer capitalism, when economic inequalities are both at their most pronounced and most assiduously occluded. As a result, the Christmas before the crash becomes for Hopkins an almost unbearably ironic pantomime, full of scenes he can’t help but contrast with the devastation that will shortly be unleashed. A family passing Hamley’s toyshop, for instance, ‘brimming with the best that life can give’, fills him with ‘impotent rage’ because ‘this monstrous thing could not happen in a world that harboured such people as these’ (p. 74). Hopkins’ idealized vision of the family, whom he imagines returning ‘to some quiet house in a tree-lined road’, is as palpable a fantasy, perhaps, as the idea that the moon won’t strike the earth, despite the science; and in harbouring it Hopkins displays his own ordinariness at the very point when he wishes to present himself as most elevated by his exclusive lunar knowledge.

Yet on the whole Hopkins manages to preserve his sense of being exceptional, largely by concentrating from day to day on his chicken-breeding – another irony, of course, since breeding prize chickens is hardly regarded even in rural populations as the most significant of occupations (with apologies to my Galloway cousin who breeds ducks). Even in his sense of exceptionalism, however, he is ordinary, since the British people seem largely to share his ability to see themselves as somehow special. In a passage that resonates strikingly with early British responses to Covid 19, Hopkins describes the threefold reaction of the country’s citizens when news of the lunar strike is finally released. For a substantial portion of the populace, he explains – the so-called ‘country gentlemen’ –

‘the moon business’ was all a scare. Nothing would happen, but if it did, it would happen in China where that sort of thing always happened. In their opinion, it would not affect England. Things like that did not happen in England. We should ‘muddle through’ as we always had done in other troubles. We had a Government with a strong majority and the police were equal to anything. (p. 113)

Another portion of the British people anticipates the moon’s arrival as a public spectacle, something to be witnessed from a safe distance and remembered for a lifetime, since they are convinced that the satellite will merely ‘graze’ the earth before glancing off again into space:

They were prepared to see the stately beech trees of Burgin Park come crashing down like nine-pins; they were ready for a deluge, a hurricane, a terrific blowing about of dustbin lids, and a very fine sight as the moon passed overhead almost within touching distance (p. 113).

This portion of the public is seduced each night, he tells us, by their own ‘fantastic imaginings’ (p. 114), which successfully divert their attention from the ‘huge, glittering ball’ of the moon itself. The third part of the British people – only about ‘one in ten’, as Hopkins calculates – are convinced that the world is indeed about to end, and either fall back on religious faith for comfort, as the village Vicar does, or collapse into a state of existential despair which is as fantastic (in Hopkins’s view) as the imaginings of the ‘moon will graze us’ party. The chief representative of these fatalists is the landlord of the local inn, Murgatroyd, whose vision of the end of the world ‘reeked of hearses, musty black plumes and grave-clothes […] the spade of the sexton – the toll of the bell – blackness – dirt -corruption’ (p. 115); a magnificently inappropriate set of images for encompassing universal destruction. Of course as readers of a first-person narrative we have no idea whether Hopkins’s account of Murgatroyd’s views on the crash is in any way accurate, though we are made aware that the ex-teacher dislikes the publican intensely, so it’s probably biased. Each of the three reactions listed here, in other words, as well as Hopkins’s account of them, is more or less an illusion; but then again, the concept of the end of the world is so extreme that it’s hard to envisage a way of describing it that did not fall back on delusions and fancies.

Paul Nash, Eclipse of Sunflower (1945)

This makes it seem particularly suitable for Sherriff to have set his story of the moon-crash in the context of what for many of his readers would have looked like a pastoral fantasy: a prosperous village in rural Hampshire several miles from the nearest town. Such a place is used to seeing itself as on the margins in the best of ways, mostly untroubled by the national and global events that loom so large in the metropolis. That this sense of existing on the margins is an illusion becomes increasingly clear as the book goes on, and the policies of central government begin to take effect in the rural community. First comes the order to build an underground shelter or ‘dug-out’ on village land, capable of holding the whole village. The reason initially given for constructing the dugout – issued before the moon crash has become general knowledge – is that war may soon break out between Britain and some nameless ‘foreign enemy’ (p. 63). This, of course, is an illusion, rather like the notion of national superiority entertained by some of the villagers; though a far greater illusion, as it turns out, is the idea that the dugout will protect its builders. The construction of the shelter does, however, serve a practical purpose: it gives the community something to work on in the weeks before the crash, and by drawing them more closely together than they have ever been before – a process which is made particularly clear by Hopkins’s situation, as he finds himself increasingly reluctant to leave the construction site for his lonely hilltop home after work each evening. The communal nature of the construction process similarly brings out the illusory nature of the social divides that separate the villagers in normal times. All the villagers must cooperate to finish the shelter, which makes it all the odder when Hopkins finds himself reluctant to share his Christian name with the working-class men and women who are working on it by his side; this in spite of the fact that the man in overall charge of the project is a working-class Welshman, Sapper Evans. The dugout is, in fact, both a fantasy and a focus for fantasies, and its fantastic nature is confirmed when it largely fails in its intended function. The moon’s collision with the earth opens up cracks in the walls, letting in seawater and drowning most of the occupants.

The teacher’s dependence on fantasy to sustain his picture of life in the English countryside, and of his own significance as the human race speeds towards extinction, is beautifully pointed up by his choice of reading in the final moments before the moon strikes. The night before, he reads The Wind in the Willows and ‘roamed again in the fragrant meadows with Badger, Mole and the immortal Toad’ (p. 175). On the day itself he begins by revisiting Huckleberry Finn, and in the final hour manages ‘to read, even to enjoy, the first chapter of Treasure Island’. Hopkins regresses to childhood at this time of crisis, setting aside religion and politics in favour of comfortable adventures removed from his own particular moment in history by time, geography and a lack of significant consequences for the events that unfold in the course of the narrative. Each book describes adventures with an all-male cast-list whose ends he knows, and which he regards, ironically enough under the circumstances, as somehow ‘immortal’. Toad’s battle with the working classes of the Wild Wood, Huck’s travels with the African American Jim, Jim Hawkins’s struggle against pirates on behalf of his middle-class friends, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, reassure him that the Britain he loves and the class and race relations it sustains will endure beyond the end of the world itself.

As Hopkins works on the dugout he does in the end begin to set aside some of his snobbery – most obviously in his admiration for the energetic, well-organised Evans. He also begins to emerge from self-inflicted loneliness, a loneliness imposed on him by his sense of aloof superiority to most of his village neighbours and shy inferiority to the local representatives of the ruling classes. The period after the calamity, when he effectively adopts the son and daughter of a local dignitary (tellingly based at The Manor House), reinforces his new sense of belonging. In the first place it gives him an ersatz family and a social status he has never felt before (their adoption of him makes him their replacement father, which means he is now in effect the Lord of the Manor); and in the second (ironically enough, in view of the first) it continues to erode the social divisions by which his life has been guided. The new society established in the two-year ‘Epoch of Recovery’ after the calamity has an Arcadian quality about it, reinforced by the fact that it fulfills Hopkins’s lifelong fantasies, through his effective rise in social status, his acquisition of two affectionate young companions, and the recognition by the entire neighbourhood of his unparalleled importance as a chicken breeder, along with his seeming immortalization in the name of a new breed of hen: the ‘Beadle-Hopkins pullets’. Hopkins is even convinced (despite ample evidence to the contrary, such as his own employment of two farm servants) that in this new order ‘Distinctions of class were gone for ever’, something he illustrates by his willingness to sit side by side with his social inferiors at a civic banquet: ‘I sat with Mrs Smithson, the wife of a plumber, and Miss Bingham of the drapery store, talking to them almost as if they were my equals’ (p. 273).

Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon (1902), still

At the same time the status of this two-year period as a continuing pipe dream is reinforced by the fact that is punctuated by a trip to the moon, which has landed in the Atlantic Ocean and become something of a tourist destination. A trip to the moon has traditionally been the term for an absurd impossibility, as Hugh Lofting recognized when he sent Doctor Dolittle there, mounted on a moth, in 1928;[4] and the British enthusiasm for indulging in moon tourism serves in this section of the novel as a metaphor for a peculiarly British capacity for social and political self-delusion. At the same time, the trip itself proves disappointing for Hopkins and his adoptive son and daughter. All they find on the shore of what was once the ocean is ‘what appeared to be the edge of an immense slag-heap of grey, broken slate stretching as far as we could see across the land and far into the distant sea like some gloomy, ghostly continent of primeval times’ (p. 249). The image resembles a post-industrial wasteland as well as a primordial desert, or else the landscape of a battlefield in Flanders, and its blankness also predicts the erasure of history that is to come; so it’s no surprise that Hopkins leave it with a sense of ‘indefinable dread: a haunting conviction that the terrors of its arrival were trivial beside the horrors that it held in store for us’ (p. 250). His premonition proves accurate; the moon turns out to be a storehouse of vast wealth in industrial and monetary terms, laden with gold, coal and other valuable minerals, which leads inevitably to a struggle over which nation has the primary claim to its resources. These industrial fantasies about moon-minerals lead, through the equally toxic fantasy of nationhood, to all-out war, in Britain’s case waged in the name of the most evanescent fantasy of all, the illusion of a continuing global Empire. The war itself ends with the annihilation of European culture and the obliteration of all traces of its past, with ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ as one of the few pieces of material evidence (thanks to its preservation in a Thermos flask) for British or even European identity. Hopkins, in other words, really does acquire a kind of immortality, and the name of the Hopkins-Beadle pullets really is remembered centuries after the breed first saw the light. His reference to the ‘immortal Toad’ in The Wind in the Willows becomes one of the last pieces of evidence for the existence of a literature in English, a fact whose irony is intensified by the fact that Toad embodies the toxic absurdity of the British class system. Hopkins’s private fantasies become the historical epitaph of the fantasy which is Britain.

It’s not too surprising, then, that one of the last scenes in the book takes place in that hub of the fantastic, Kensington Gardens, where Congratulate the Devil also ended. Here Hopkins discusses with an acquaintance, Professor Bransbury – who is said to resemble another character familiar to children, Robinson Crusoe – the invasion of Europe by the forces of an Iranian general called Selim. Selim and his Asian and African followers aim to erase all traces of ‘Western civilization’ from the world (p. 1), a project whose successful completion is confirmed by the description of a Europe bereft of history in the opening pages of the novel. Selim’s success is partly a consequence of in-fighting among nationalist European leaders such as Britain’s fascist prime minister, Jagger. But it also takes advantage of the fantasies made available by the lunar crash, which enables Selim to identify the moon as the ‘god of oppressed peoples’, who descended to earth in order ‘to destroy their hated white oppressors’ (p. 308). One fantasy, in other words, has effectively driven out another in a world dominated by the conviction that fantasies can be realized, made real: the world of the 30s, extrapolated into the 40s by Sherriff’s almost unbearably convincing little future history.

In the next blogpost on ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ I’ll be looking at Irish rural fantasy, considering what it tells us about the state of things in a country even more on the edge of Europe than its British neighbours; and later I’ll be looking at time in the children’s fantasies of 1939. A series of trips to the moon, so to speak, on the brink of war.

Charles Bittinger, Earth as seen from the moon, National Geographic (1930s)

Appendix: Abyssinia in The Hopkins Manuscript

It’s worth noting that the ‘Foreword’ to The Hopkins Manuscript is said to have been written by a scholar from Addis Ababa in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) at some point in the far future. At the time of the novel’s publication Abyssinia was under occupation by fascist Italy, having been invaded in 1936. The League of Nations failed to condemn the invasion, but a speech to the League of Nations by the Abyssinian Emperor in exile, Haile Selassie, became internationally celebrated as an outstanding example of anti-fascist oratory. Sherriff’s decision, then, to have his conquered, culturally bereft version of Europe studied by scholars from a country currently under occupation by European fascists was a carefully considered political gesture.

Notes

[1] See Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), Foreword.

[2] For example, under science fiction I could have included H G Wells’s The Holy Terror and Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer, and under children’s fantasy Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood.

[3] I’m thinking of this passage:

But evil on itself shall back recoil
And mix no more with goodness, when at last
Gather’d like scum, and settl’d to itself,
It shall be in eternal restless change
Self-fed, and self-consum’d (Comus, lines 593-7)

[4] The moon’s association with lunacy is also exploited in Eric Linklater’s wartime classic of children’s fantasy, The Wind on the Moon (1944). As a follower of H G Wells, Sherriff will have been familiar with The First Men in the Moon (1901), in which the insane aggression of humankind trumps the horrors of the Selenite dystopia found on the moon by the travellers of the title.

Editions Used

Howell Davies / Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil, The Library of Wales (Cardigan: Parthian Books, 2008)

R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript, Penguin Modern Classics (UK: Penguin Random House, 2018)

 

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