The Fantastical World of Mervyn Peake: Islands and Seas

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

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

Cover of first edition of Treasure Island illustrated by Peake.

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

Kuling, early 20th century

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

Peake, The Ancient Mariner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Treasure Island (1949)

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

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

clinging to the bowsprit of the Hispaniola…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apologies for the quality of this photo!

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

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

Apologies for this photo too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord of the Rings, First Edition.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

APPENDIX

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Fairclough, Traveller Woman.

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

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

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

Mary Fairclough, Native American Woman with Horses.

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

Mary Fairclough, illustration for The Road to Benares.

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

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

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

Mary Fairclough, Corn Stacks, 1937.

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

Mary Fairclough, Grey Owl, 1935.

 

Making Your Luck in Miskoo the Lucky (1947)

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

Mary Fairclough, Miskoo the Lucky (1947).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo and Gullmag making things.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

My copy of Little Dog and the Rainmakers.

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

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Animal Council.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and the Secret Water People.

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Rainmaking Ceremony.

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

Mary Fairclough: Alders

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

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

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

Mary Fairclough: Glamorous Night

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

Mary Fairclough: Heavy Horses

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

Mary Fairclough: Janet in Red

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

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

Little Dog and the Rainmakers, dustjacket, rear view

NOTES

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

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

[3] I found the quotation here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mollie Hunter, A Stranger Came Ashore (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garage roofed with a boat, Lerwick, Shetland

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Morland, The Press Gang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea and shore: Mousa, Shetland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mollie Hunter

  NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pauline Baynes’s illustrated cover, 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolkien’s own illustration of Lake-Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of the Giant Grugol, by John Morton-Sale

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

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

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

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

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

Borrobil, by John Morton-Sale

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

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

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

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

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

Jean, by John Morton-Sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark

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

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

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

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

Sea Rocks near Creux Harbour, Sark

Meditation 17 runs like this:

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

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

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

Mr Pye on his way to Sark

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

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

Tintagieu (r) and the painter Thorpe (l)

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

Mr Pye (l) and Miss George (r)

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

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

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

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

Eric and Lisel Drake on Sark

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

The Sark Art Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature

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

Alfred Waldron, ‘Tropic’

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

Alfred Waldron, ‘Thou Shalt Not’

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

Alfred Waldron, ‘Husbands and Wives’

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

William Blake, ‘The Dance of Albion’

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

Alfred Waldron, ‘Omar Khayyam 1’

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

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

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

Quentin Crisp photographed by Angus McBean (1941)

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

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

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

Mr Pye in Camouflage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alfred Waldron, ‘Omar Khayyam 2’

POSTCRIPT

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake on Sark

Mervyn Peake, Path through the Trees [Sark]
  1. ‘To Justify the Place’

In August this year I went to the Isle of Sark. The reason for the visit was simple: the writer-artist Mervyn Peake stayed on the island several times, and lived there twice, first from 1933 to 1935 as a member of an artist’s community now known as the Sark Art Group, then from 1946 to 1949 as the father of a family. Other visits included his honeymoon in 1938, a trip with his young sons to sort out the selling of his home in 1950, a holiday in 1953 and a period in 1957 when he was trying to finish the last of the Titus books, Titus Alone (1959), as he gradually succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease.[1] I’m writing a book about Mervyn Peake, and it seemed important to spend some time on the island that became his island: the country of his heart’s desire, whose presence reverberates through nearly all his written work and a great deal of his work as a visual artist.

Mervyn Peake, Self-portrait (1931)

Why was it important to go there, you ask? What can we learn from spending time in a place that figures so prominently in an artist’s imagination? Here’s the beginnings of an answer. Peake’s favourite book as a boy concerned an island – Treasure Island (1881-2) – and the book’s author, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a fine essay on romance which sets a sense of place at the heart of the genre.[2] ‘One thing in life calls for another,’ Stevenson tells us:

there is a fitness in events and places. The sight of a pleasant arbour puts it in our minds to sit there. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third early rising and long rambles through the dew. The effect of night, of any flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships, of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous desires and pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen; we know not what, yet we proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest hours of life fleet by us in this vain attendance on the genius of the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and perhaps ages back, to members of my race; when I was a child I tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try, just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story.

In his own novels, Peake gave us a place like no other: the colossal castle of Gormenghast, whose full dimensions can never be established, with walls like cliffs and rooftops like the tracts of a desert, honeycombed with forgotten corridors and dusty staircases, its main mass punctuated by abandoned courtyards and deserted chambers, lost attics, secluded towers and unlighted windows. His castle aches for occurrence, despite the law that governs its inhabitants, which states that nothing there must ever change. And in the course of the first two Titus novels something happens indeed ‘to justify the place’, as Stevenson puts it; most obviously, perhaps, the two great fights that break the stillness of the castle’s decaying vistas: first the combat between Flay and Swelter at the end of Titus Groan (1946), then the manhunt through the building for the upstart Steerpike at the end of Gormenghast (1950), which culminates in a duel between Steerpike and Titus, reluctant heir to the ancient pile and its incoherent rituals.

P J Lynch’s representation of Gormenghast

In Stevenson’s terms, then, Peake was a writer of romance, and the place of his imagination, Gormenghast Castle, is perhaps the ultimate example of the ‘fitness in events and places’ discussed in Stevenson’s essay. And it’s intimately bound up with the Isle of Sark. The stony bulk of the building recalls the stony bulk of the tiny landmass, rising from the ocean like the carcass of a whale. In the second Titus book, parts of the castle even acquire names associated with the island: the Countess of Groan lists the Coupée (‘the high knife-edge’), Little Sark, Gory and the Silver-Mines, as sections of the building to be searched in the hunt for Steerpike, while Peake’s description of these parts could serve as a description of Sark’s shoreline: ‘Great islands of sheer rock weather-pock’d with countless windows, like caves or the eyries of sea-eagles. Archipelagos of towers, gaunt-fisted things, with knuckled summits – and other towers so broken at their heads as to resemble pulpits, high and sinister; black rostrums for the tutelage of evil’ (p. 699).[3] To visit the island is to return to the source. If certain places seem to cry out for a tale that will do them justice, travelling to the places which spawned great fiction is a necessity for anyone seeking to unlock the riddles of that fiction; a kind of pilgrimage, if you will, to discover the pains and pleasures, the tortures and delights that prompted that spawning. Titus Groan begins, indeed, with a quotation from the ultimate novel of pilgrimage, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which would have been familiar to any child of nonconformist parents in the first half of the twentieth century:

Dost thou love picking meat? Or woulds’t thou see
A man in the clouds, and have him speak to thee?[4]

I would indeed like to see the visionary ‘man in the clouds’, Mervyn Peake, more clearly than I do, and attending to Sark may give new resonance to the voices he speaks with.

I only had a week for my visit, so my opportunity for deciphering the island’s riddles – and with them the riddles of Peake’s work – was severely restricted. This blogpost records a few of its results.

Map of Sark from https://www.sark.co.uk/map/
  1. Cliffs of Sark

What, then, of Sark’s ‘shape, its solidity, or outline, or texture’, as the object of our scrutiny? It lies just off the coast of Normandy, along with the rest of the Channel Islands. Its shape seen from above, as in a map, is well described by Stephen Foote in his invaluable little book Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (2019), which I took with me on my trip as a guidebook: ‘The island is made up of two parts – Big Sark and Little Sark – which are connected by a narrow isthmus, La Coupée, with steep rocky cliffs either side’.[5] From the sea it resembles a kind of mesa or plateau, like the one in Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912) where dinosaurs have survived into modern times alongside cave-dwelling humans. The Sark plateau is surrounded by cliffs two or three hundred feet high, which guard isolated beaches of stone or sand accessible only by precipitous paths winding down the cliff faces. Hidden among their skirts are innumerable caves, as well as two tidal rock pools named after Venus and Adonis, conjuring up images of pagan worship and erotic dalliance. The two harbours are reached through narrow tunnels drilled through the stone. Peake knew these cliffs very well; on a reconnaissance trip with Gordon Smith in 1932 he got stranded on one of them. Here’s Smith’s account of the incident:

I remember scrambling with Mervyn across a steep cliff-face, with the waves smashing hungrily below. Somehow we got out to a knife-edge of rock that stuck out at right-angles from the face, like the branch-gable of a house. This we both straddled, and found ourselves gazing a bit anxiously up at the main cliff, which went up vertically, a few inches away, for another thirty or forty feet. The only hold seemed to be a shallow depression about half-way up. Perched on the top of the cliff, overhanging the edge, was a boulder the size of a small cottage. I still do not know how we got up the face, though I remember getting first a knee and then a toe into the depression mentioned and reaching some sort of safety near the side of the boulder.

Mervyn also reached the top, but found himself on a tiny ledge just under the worst underhang of the boulder, with his arms clasping as much of its mass as he could compass. I edged towards him to help.

‘If you come near me I’ll bloody well kill you!’ he muttered desperately.

Finally, by some contortion, he managed to turn himself right round, which was no comfort at all: for he was now facing outwards, looking down over the sea far below, with his arms spreadeagled behind him. All I could do was stay still, and watch. After long, agonizing minutes he inched his way to safety.[6]

Cliffs of Sark

This passage recalls Steerpike’s vertiginous epic climb up the walls of Gormenghast towards a window in Titus Groan – though the climb in the novel is through thick ivy, the sort of ivy one sees clinging in many places to the cliffs of Sark. The distances involved are different; at one point Steerpike stops to rest in his climb and notes that ‘He was about midway between the ground two hundred feet below him and the window’, which makes the height of the castle wall over four hundred feet, one hundred feet higher than the highest of the island’s cliffs.[7] But the sensations aroused by wall and cliffs may well have been identical:

He could not know that he was nearing the window. Distance, even more than time, had ceased to have any meaning for him, but all at once he found that the leaves were thinning and that blotches of light lay pranked about him. He remembered having observed from below that the ivy had appeared to be less profuse and to lie closer to the wall as it neared the window. The hirsute branches were less dependable now and several had snapped at his weight, so that he was forced to keep to one of the main stems that clung dustily to the wall. Only a foot or two in depth, the ivy lay at his back partially shading him from the sun. A moment later and he was alone in the sunshine. It was difficult for his fingers to find purchase. Fighting to wedge them between the clinging branches and the wall he moved, inch by inch, upwards. It seemed to him that all his life he had been climbing. All his life he had been ill and tortured. All his life he had been terrified, and red shapes rolled. Hammers were beating and sweat poured into his eyes.[8]

The torment of the teenage climber, here, invokes exactly the sort of fierce desperation expressed by Peake in his threat to kill Gordon Smith. But Steerpike later grew adept in the art of negotiating the castle’s precipitous heights, swinging himself up and down on lengths of rope as he pursued his self-appointed trade as spy and assassin, and Peake, too, clearly acquired real confidence on the cliffs. Smith tells us that he accomplished another climb ‘with a young cormorant in each coat pocket pecking angrily at his armpits as he hung’.[9] Afterwards he kept one of the cormorants in his studio, where it ‘defecated all over his canvases’, in the words of Malcolm Yorke.[10] Just as the cormorant became acclimatised to human company, so Peake became what Stephen Foote calls a ‘Son of Sark’, naturalised to its strange and isolated landscape, as all his readers become naturalised to the strange and isolated landscapes of his imaginary castle.

Let’s take another few steps towards our own, more limited kind of naturalisation.

Creux Harbour, Sark. Picture of the harbour wall from Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye
  1. Geographies of Sark

Cliffs are the first feature of Sark you notice as you approach by boat from Saint Peter Port in Guernsey. We saw a dolphin on the crossing; the Peake family saw a school of porpoises.[11] We disembarked at one of the two harbours on the island, the Maseline Harbour, completed after the war and not yet in use when the Peakes lived there. The smaller of the two, Creux Harbour, was the one Mervyn knew best, and features prominently in his illustrations for his third novel, Mr Pye. A cove enclosed by a massive sea wall, it features a pebble beach surrounded by cliffs, a shallow cave, and not one but two tunnels cut through the rock from the road beyond, one leading to the harbour wall, the other, smaller tunnel leading down to the beach. Secret and secluded, it must have been the perfect introduction to the island when the ferry moored there. In Peake’s time visitors to the island could catch a horse and carriage up the steep slope that begins on the other side of the tunnels; in those days, as now, there were no cars on the island. Today the horse and carriage have been replaced by a tractor pulling a long trailer divided into seated sections, known as the Toast Rack because of its shape (the passengers are the toast). We chose instead to walk up the narrow path that winds alongside the road to the top of the hill through the thick vegetation that grows almost everywhere on Sark. Here it’s an exotic subtropical jungle, full of rhododendrons and other alien plants, but elsewhere it’s more of a maquis made up of blackthorn, hawthorn and bramble, the sort of scrubland through which partisans moved in Corsica. You get the best sense of this scrubland from L’Eperquerie Common at the North end of the island, where a maze of narrow paths has been hacked through the thick dwarf-forest, giving sudden access to viewpoints high above the gun-grey waters of the English Channel.

Mervyn Peake, ‘The Avenue, Sark’

At the top of the road from the harbour, after passing a pub on your left – the Bel Air Inn – you reach the crossroads called the Collinette (i.e. small hill or hillock). There, now as in Peake’s time, horses and carriages wait in a row to collect visitors for leisurely tours around the island. Straight ahead lies the main street of Sark, known as the Avenue. A fine painting of it by Peake called ‘The Avenue, Sark’ (1934) hangs in the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery, fully bearing out the words of a reporter at a Sark Art Group exhibition who said of Peake’s work that ‘the effect of light which he brings into his pictures makes them vivid, alive and interesting’.[12] That same Sark Art Group exhibition also included a lost picture of his, illustrating Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’ (1794): ‘a thing of dark trees, slumbrous shadows and wicked green light, with, as centrepiece, a vivid yellow tiger’.[13] There is something distinctly tigerish about the streaks of light and shade in ‘The Avenue, Sark’, though the centrepiece here is a woman in the sunlit distance, rendered spectral by the obscurity of her face.

Wind-sculpted tree, near L’Eperquerie

As the painting shows, the roads of Sark are left untarmacked, presumably to make them easy on the horses’ feet. They are now as Peake first saw them, shaded by sinuous pines and spreading oaks; but by the time he came to live here a second time, just after the war, all the trees along the sides of the road had been chopped down, leaving only the ‘great stub ends of the massacred trees’, as he puts it in Mr Pye.[14] Sark suffered badly under German occupation, occupiers and occupied alike, and the wood was needed as winter fuel, for heating as well as for cooking the islanders’ desperately short rations; I read about these tough conditions in an excellent exhibition at the Old Island Hall on the Rue de la Seigneurie.[15] The adjective ‘massacred’ reflects Peake’s deep affection for trees, and one wonders if he had this massacre in mind when he wrote this short poem in the 1940s:

If trees gushed blood
When they were felled
By meddling man,
And crimson welled

From every gash
His axe can give,
Would he forbear
And let them live?[16]

The absence, during his second long stay on Sark, of the pines and oaks he had carefully painted before the war, must have served as a constant reminder of the time of violence and privation that came between.

The Gallery, Sark (1933)

The Avenue and its westward extension, Mill Lane, features large in Peake’s Sark life. Just before the right hand turn to the Rue de la Seigneurie stands the Post Office, with its blue plaque commemorating Peake’s association with the island. The building was originally constructed in 1933 as the Sark Art Gallery; Peake helped in its construction when he became a founder-member of the Sark Art Group, and the arched room above the entrance was where Peake had his studio (a photo survives of him painting in it).[17] As originally built, following the designs of the Sark Art Group’s co-directors, Eric and Lisel Drake, the place brought a sense of Modernist flair to the tiny island, with its clean lines, all-round verandas, Art Deco spiral stairway, and ingenious use of natural lighting. These days it remains a very attractive shop, though all the features I’ve listed have long gone, apart from the studio above the entrance. Further along the Avenue you pass the old schoolhouse, now a visitor’s centre, with the little gaol next door. Peake describes the gaol in Mr Pye as ‘a pocket-size prison like a stone sea-chest’, and Mr Pye spends several hours hiding in it from a mob of islanders baying for his blood.[18] Further on, past the sixteenth-century Old Manoir where the first Lords of Sark had their home, you pass the Peake family’s house on your right, half way down Mill Lane. Originally called Le Chalet, after Peake’s time it was renamed Le Clos de Vin, and when I first saw it there was no name on the gate at all, which meant I took several days to identify the place with any certainty. Fortunately the exhibition in the Old Village Hall happened to mention the name change, and I found the sign for Le Clos de Vin lying on a bench in the driveway. The house was very large and shabby, painted white on the outside; it had two glass conservatories attached to the sides that faced the road, and the sagging front gate looks very much like the gate of Miss Dredger’s house as pictured in Mr Pye.[19] It also had an extensive lawn. More than this I couldn’t see, since I was too shy to go up to the front door, ring the doorbell and ask permission to look around. I’d have loved to find out if a palm tree can still be found in the grounds. Peake describes the process of acquiring this exotic specimen in his short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’, claiming that he brought it to Sark in a bid to make the island tropical. He had no illusions that the island would actually become tropical when the tree was planted; he wanted only to invoke ‘The tropics that one finds between the thick cardboard covers of dog-eared and thumb-marked story books. The tropics as one wants them, not as they are’.[20] It was his little contribution to the myth of Sark’s connection to piracy, a connection we’ll revisit very shortly.

Sark Prison

I was interested in the location of the house because it was so central, so very much (I thought) at the heart of island life. The Gallery – now the post office – was only a few hundred metres away, as were the two-roomed schoolhouse and the Anglican Church on La Seigneurie Road, which Peake also painted.[21] The shops of the Avenue were nearby, and the Island Hall, while the Methodist Church stands on a parallel road called the Rue du Sermon, not far from the island’s tiny parliament, the Chief Pleas, and the home of the island’s feudal lords, La Seigneurie. Connecting all these places is a network of tree-lined roads, along which bicycles bowl between carriages, pedestrians and tractors. If I’d pictured the place as a reclusive artist’s retreat I was quickly disabused of this notion; the Sark I saw was all a-bustle, often of course because of the hordes of summer tourists who came up on day-trips from the ferry, but also because of the vibrant local community. On the day we arrived, there was a cricket match on the pitch by the new Island Hall. I watched lazily, sipping a drink, as Sark got thrashed by Guernsey, and thought about how Peake had joined the island football team in the 1930s as keeper, despite the fact that he’d never played football before (his rugby skills, on the other hand, must have come in useful).[22] I saw posters for a performance by a local amateur theatre company, and remembered the theatrical performance given by the Sark Art Group as the monks who brought Christianity to Sark (Peake didn’t take part in the performance, since he’d left the Group by that time).[23] I drank in the garden of the Bel Air Inn amongst a swarm of chatty Sarkese, and remembered Peake’s paintings of Sark pub life, which included a drawing of a game of darts and several paintings of fishermen drinking.[24] He worked in the fields in the 1930s to make a living, and in the 1940s his two small sons took visitors round the island in a cart drawn by their elderly donkey, Judy. Peake and his family were gregarious, not reclusive, and Peake practised his art in the middle of the island community, just as he wrote, drew and painted in the middle of his family, not set apart from them in some private attic or outhouse. This may seem surprising, given that Gormenghast Castle is full of recluses; but it’s in the first of the Titus books that the loneliest castle dwellers can be found, a book that was largely written during Peake’s troubled period in the army from 1940-1942 – a period that ended in breakdown and hospitalization. The second novel, written on Sark, is full of communities, with Titus drifting among them in perpetual quest of a community of his own – a quest that continues in the picaresque journey of Titus Alone. If Peake and his family felt like outsiders on the island, they were outsiders in a busy society, not hermits like the exiled servant Flay in his cave, or the wild girl called The Thing swinging free and alone through the forests of Gormenghast Mountain.

The Window in the Rock

Peake’s novel set on the island, however – Mr Pye – contains acute loneliness as well as crowds, and it is perfectly possible to be lonely on Sark. During our visit we stayed at a relatively quiet location: a room in a new house off the Rue de la Seigneurie, close to several lonely sites that loomed large in Peake’s imagination. The first is the Window in the Rock – a square hole bored in the rockface two hundred feet above a stony shore, probably designed for hauling up goods from the beach below to the island plateau (we found a rusting winch nearby). Here the plump visitor to Sark, Mr Pye, stood beside his friend Miss Dredger as they contemplated the problem of his burgeoning wings, which seem to have sprouted in response to Mr Pye’s angelic nature, isolating him from the other inhabitants of the island. For once, at this point in the novel Mr Pye is prepared to see the wings not as a moral or social problem – to be combated by behaving badly in secret, which of course leads to an outgrowth of horns instead – but as a practical asset: ‘What a place to take off from,’ Mr Pye comments as they gaze down a ‘sheer wall of sickening rock’.[25] Peake’s illustration for this chapter shows the Window as the uneven border of an animated picture, with two contrasting figures framed by it – one plump, one thin – looking outwards, away from the viewer, outlined against what we know from the text is a dizzying drop, a leap into space, an opening onto the sky, the ocean, fierce life and sudden death. The notion of a picture as an opening onto vast unseen spaces is characteristic of Peake’s art, from the densely crosshatched illustrations to the Ancient Mariner to the gravity-defying supernatural beings of The Quest for Sita.[26] Mr Pye’s response to the view is not to consider its moral implications – a Hamletesque ‘to be or not to be’ prompted by the ethical dilemmas embodied in his wings and horns – but to think of the actions it might inspire, above all the action of taking flight, which implies a final acceptance of and faith in the feathered limbs he has been striving so hard to get rid of. Cliffs, of course, have that effect on some people – including me: an urge to get closer, to jump, to soar from one medium to the next, from earth to air, though for most of us the action of soaring can only ever be achieved in dreams. For Peake, the visionary shift from one medium to another could be achieved by a simple change of art form, from drawing to painting, from book illustration to writing in verse or prose for page or stage. Place prompted thoughts of action, just as it did for Stevenson in his essay on romance. Mr Pye’s response to the Window might almost be a response to the passage in which Stevenson considers the relationship between a person’s concern with conduct – with whether they have behaved, or will behave, rightly or wrongly – and their more practical concern with problems arising from their physical or social environment:

Now we are pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings. It would be hard to say which of these modes of satisfaction is the more effective, but the latter is surely the more constant. Conduct is three parts of life, they say; but I think they put it high. There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations; where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.

In the turbulent mid-twentieth century, one gets the sense that the urgent practical demands of dealing with one’s surroundings – of day-to-day survival, say on an island, under occupation or in the storms of winter in peacetime – vastly outweighed the ‘passionate slips and hesitations of conscience’ as a priority in most people’s lives; as no doubt it did in Stevenson’s, who was a consumptive under sentence of imminent death for most of his life. And ‘problems of the body’ feature largely in Mr Pye, not just in the matter of its unwanted excrescences – wings and horns – but in other ways I shall come to later. They are the source, in fact, of Mr Pye’s isolation, despite his ability to make friends with other outcasts.

Les Autelets

The other Peakean landmark close to our lodgings was a group of distinctive stone formations that rise from the sea in the next bay along from the Port du Moulin, above which the Window is sited. These are Les Autelets – the ‘little altars’: four crooked stacks of rock like giant wayward relatives of the standing stones at Stonehenge or Avebury, all of which can be accessed from the shore at low tide. Mr Pye and Miss Dredger looked down on them from the headland that contains the Window in the Rock. I couldn’t reach the top of that headland, which has been fenced off in obedience to the damaging laws of trespass that obtain throughout so much British territory (though not in Scotland); so I had to look at Les Autelets from the other side, standing on a path that led westwards through the bushes of L’Eperquerie Common, at the north end of the island. Mr Pye’s thoughts on these natural monuments combine the artist’s eye with the ‘practical intelligence’ mentioned by Stevenson. The largest stack in the group, the Grand Autelet, ‘isolated from the main cliffs and knee-deep in water’, is described by the narrator of Peake’s novel as a ‘natural effort at cubism’; but for Mr Pye it is ‘very abstract’, a resistance to representation of the world in mimetic or narrative terms.[27] Seeing it brings flying to his mind, as did the sickening drop on the other side of the Window. He thinks of

sailing away through the sweet, translucent air. Of stepping out over the edge of this precipitous headland and, like that gull, of being borne across the bay and the sea, and up into the sun, and down and up again, and away and away and then, perhaps, to return and to perch at last, who knows, on the back of the old Abstract.[28]

Scenery here prompts thoughts of action of a very specific kind: the sort of mythical action that can only be accomplished by a person who has wings, an Icarus flying to the sun, a Satan launching himself across Chaos towards the vulnerable earth – though without the moral implications of these legendary flights (Icarus teaches us not to aspire beyond our reach, Satan’s journey exemplifies the workings of diabolical Pride, but both figures remain fascinating and attractive despite their sins, as Breughel and Doré confirmed in their pictures of them). Mr Pye thinks he has lost his chance for such action, since he is working to shrink his wings through the wicked behaviour he has been practising in recent weeks. But the sight of Les Autelets brings back the possibilities of flight, not as part of a grandiose narrative, appropriated by priests for allegorical religious purposes like the flights of Icarus and Satan, but as an expression of his own inward ‘army of anonymous desires and pleasures’, a summation of Mr Pye himself. After landing on the Grand Autelet he imagines himself reaching into his pocket for a fruit drop – a characteristic gesture wholly specific to Mr Pye, who is known as the ‘Fruit Drop’ to the islanders. His imagined flight goes nowhere – neither to the sun nor to the heavens nor to some distant destination. Instead it doubles back on itself and deposits him at the very place he started out from, without an agenda beyond the satisfaction of his immediate cravings. It confirms his identity, independent of his self-proclaimed mission of converting the people of Sark to his religious way of thinking. It’s an act of self-liberation which must wait to be accomplished till the end of the book. And it’s also an act of insurrection against balance; a concept we’ll be coming back to, along with piracy.

The Seigneurie of Sark
  1. The Seigneurie of Sark

At the centre of the island, ideologically if not geographically speaking, is the Seigneurie, one of whose many roofs we could see from our bedroom window. It’s a strange fusion of buildings which include a sixteenth-century farmhouse, rebuilt and enlarged in more-or-less classical style in the seventeenth century, with a second and third house added on behind in the eighteenth century and further eccentric changes made in the nineteenth, including an ornate five-storey tower and an extravagant dovecote.[29] Each of the past four centuries, then, has seen the house expand, until it looks from most angles more like a village than a family home – or a miniature model for Gormenghast Castle, which organically grew over many centuries into the titanic fortress it is when we first see it in Titus Groan. The Seigneur who added the tower, the Reverend W. T. Collings, also made additions to the nearby parish church and built the tiny prison, extending his architectural reach well beyond the limits of the house’s grounds.

The Seigneurie Gardens

The glory of the Seigneurie, however, is its celebrated gardens, which are crammed with exotic flowers and bushes that bloom in all seasons, alive with bees, birds and butterflies. There is a maze of low-growing hedges with a tiny fortress in the middle, a circular lawn surrounded by trellises, further formal lawns in front of the old original facade, and down the hill a swampy pond with its own dishevelled island, a Sark for ducks. One can imagine the Head Gardener of Gormenghast, the monklike Pentecost, moving along the paths of the Seigneurie Garden in his leather cowl. Could his monkishness have drawn on stories of the performance by the Sark Art Group in May 1935, when the painter Tony Bridges impersonated the island’s patron saint, Saint Magloire, and the rest of the Group dressed up in religious robes? As I mentioned earlier, Peake wasn’t involved in that performance, having taken up a post earlier that year at Westminster School of Art, but there were plenty of photos, and the performance won the artists a prize for their costumes; he very likely knew all about it.[30] One of the buildings at La Seigneurie stood in for Saint Magloire’s chapel; today it houses an exhibition on the lords and ladies of Sark.

The Old Windmill, Sark

These days the Seigneurie looks serene; but it wasn’t always so. Just down the road from Le Chalet, where the Peakes lived, stands an abandoned windmill, whose sails were burned for firewood in the war and never replaced. This was at the centre of a small rebellion in that revolutionary epoch, the late eighteenth century. At the time the Seigneur had a monopoly on the use of the mill, as he also did on the breeding of dogs (Peake tells us in Mr Pye that no bitches were allowed on the island, and paints a verbal picture of the frustrated male dogs of Sark reduced to wrestling and moping in the sun by the absence of females).[31] The Sarkese at last became so fed up with the mill monopoly that they built a second mill on Little Sark; they were encouraged in their resistance to the Seigneur’s authority by the spread of Methodism, and built a Methodist church to rival the Anglican church, Saint Peter’s, as well as a second mill. The second church is still there, though the same minister now serves both. The second mill lies in ruins. Mr Pye has quite a bit to say about the fragmented state of Sark society – divided as it is between indigenous islanders, English incomers, and transient visitors, as well as by the usual feuds between close neighbours.[32] The divisions persist today along economic lines: one local shopkeeper told us the island is strangely split between millionaires and workers, with the Seigneurie placed presumably closer to the former than the latter. But it’s the millionaires who have made the biggest changes to Sark’s feudal system; the Barclay brothers, who built a hideous castle on nearby Brecquou Island, helped to instigate changes which have led to the vote being extended to all Sark’s population, not just the descendants of the sixteenth-century settlers from Jersey.

The plaque at the Coupée

In the Second World War the Seigneurie became the focus of negotiations between the occupying German forces and the islanders. At first relations were fairly cordial, and the lady of the island, Dame Sibyl Hathaway – who spoke German well – was able to secure certain concessions for the islanders, such as permission to take out fishing boats when the tide was favourable, instead of in strict compliance with a timetable set by the occupiers.[33] But the splits between the islanders were also exacerbated by the occupation. The Nazis made a sharp distinction between natives of the island and settlers from elsewhere, shipping out the non-natives to internment camps on the mainland, and eventually including the Dame’s American husband, Robert Hathaway, among the deportees. The war also brought tragedy to the Seigneurial family: the Dame’s eldest son was killed by a bomb in Liverpool. Relations with the occupiers deteriorated in 1942 when a group of British commandos landed on a headland called the Hogsback, killing three German soldiers and capturing a third; this led to restricted access to beaches, the laying of extensive minefields and an increase in deportations. The German commander and a four-year-old child were killed by mines in 1943, a second British commando raid was foiled by a minefield in the same year – two commandos killed and the rest wounded – and when the war ended, two German soldiers deployed as prisoners to clear the mines were also killed (Dame Sibyl ensured they were buried with full military honours). The most positive outcome of the war, perhaps, was the widening, paving and railing of the narrow isthmus known as the Coupée, which separates Big Sark from Little Sark. The German prisoners of war who did this work commemorated their feat of engineering with a plaque, which can still be seen at the crossing. Afterwards they made toys for all the children on the island – but their best gift was the upgraded Coupée, since before the upgrade, schoolchildren traversing the viaduct in high winds sometimes had to crawl to prevent themselves from being blown over the three-hundred-foot drops on either side.

Crossing the Coupée

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Peake once cycled across the Coupée, before it had railings, without touching the handlebars. The only hint of this I found when I looked just now came in his son Sebastian’s book, A Child of Bliss (1989), where he speaks of his father’s astounding feats of balance with undiminished admiration: ‘Riding on his bicycle, standing on the saddle or the handle bars, one foot on each, was another of his tricks, a hazardous one, as I found to my cost on trying to emulate it’.[34] No mention of the Coupée in that passage; perhaps I was thinking metaphorically. Wartime could be seen a hazardous isthmus bridging the gap between one era on the island and another, and Peake’s two long stays on Sark may have given him an unusual insight into the nature of the path that lay between.

Mervyn Peake, Self Portrait (1933)
  1. Piracy on Sark

If modern visitors find the tale of the German occupation endlessly fascinating, Peake’s own obsession with the island was partly triggered by its association with a very different kind of aggressor from the sea. Sark’s past is bound up with piracy – a fact commemorated by the T-shirts you can buy in one of the shops on the Avenue with the skull and crossbones on the front. The pirate Eustache the Monk, a trickster figure treated by one medieval French poet as a combination of Robin Hood and Reynard the Fox, used the island as a base in the thirteenth century, and by the early modern period it was again occupied by pirates; one of the obligations laid on the first Seigneur of Sark in the reign of Elizabeth I was to keep the place free from salt water thieves.[35] Peake may have known about Sark’s pirate connections before his first visit; on hearing that his former schoolmaster, Eric Drake, planned to set up an artist’s colony on the island, he wrote at once to Gordon Smith: ‘Isn’t it marvellous? Gosh! I’d give my soul to come. Pirates and octopi! O.K., Chief’.[36] The reference, of course, is thoroughly generic, and may only indicate a generalised association of islands with piracy based on Peake’s childhood love of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which he is said to have known by heart. But once he had joined the colony he could have learned very quickly that in Sark’s case the association is a historical one. And when he painted himself on Sark – a self-portrait in oil survives from 1933 – he is palpably piratical, with windswept hair, a collarless shirt, deep tan and insolent eyes.[37] Piracy was in Peake’s blood, and forged his first and strongest link with the easternmost Channel Island.

Illustration from Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, with Les Autelets in background

A number of Peake’s visual and verbal works connected to Sark have a pirate theme. His picture book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) sees the pirate captain of the title capture an androgynous Yellow Creature on an island whose rock formations closely resemble Les Autelets – although the rest of the island is tropical (‘The tropics as one wants them, not as they are’, Peake might have added). At the end of the book the captain retires with the Yellow Creature to another tropical island full of Sarkese rock formations. Much later, Peake’s fourth novel, Mr Pye (1953), transforms Sark itself into a pirate ship, a ‘strange, wasp-waisted ship of stone’ (p. 48) populated by a ‘crew’ that includes Miss Dredger, whom Mr Pye insists on calling ‘sailor’ throughout the novel, and who calls him ‘chief’ in return, as if he were a pirate chief in a Boy’s Own story (and his name, of course, contains the first syllable of both ‘piety’ and ‘pirate’). He even looks like a buccaneer later in the book, when he seeks to do evil in a desperate bid to rid himself of his wings. As horns begin to sprout on his forehead in response to his newfound wickedness, he seeks to hide them under a bandana, giving the effect of an ‘illustration of a pirate out of a story-book for infants’ – a story-book, in fact, just like Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor.[38] His campaign to convert the island to his faith resembles a piratical recruitment drive in a seaport, with the plump English visitor at one point reducing a ‘huge, sour-visaged, red-necked, sea-booted mariner’ into a human wreck – as well as a convert – with a few well-chosen words (p. 77). Another of his converts – the young woman Tintagieu – has hair that ‘flapped like a pirate’s flag’ (p. 111). By the end of the book Mr Pye has taken on the moral ambiguity associated with that greatest of pirates, Long John Silver, who is as attractive as he is terrifying. He is hounded across the island as an embodiment of the Devil, with a mob of islanders and policemen after him led by a man called George with the ‘huge voice’ and aggressive manners of a pirate (p. 238). George refers to his fellow manhunters as ‘lumps of stinking conger’ and tells them to ‘Get out your jack-knives’ (p. 246) for what promises to be a summary execution. Mr Pye hides for a while in that piratical ‘sea-chest’, the island prison. Pirate captains in stories are always on the verge of being usurped by their fellow buccaneers – a sailor called George Merry leads a mutiny against Long John Silver in Treasure Island; so Mr Pye’s position at the end of the novel only confirms his credentials as the self-styled ‘chief’ of the good ship Sark, at the epicentre of a confusion generated by his own abortive attempt to take control of the little island.

Jim takes aim

Pirates live their lives in a state of precarious balance on the constantly moving sea: think of Israel Hands swarming up the swaying mizzen mast towards young Jim in Treasure Island, a scene which Peake illustrated while living on Sark with two of his most memorable images. One shows Jim sprawling in the crow’s nest, pointing his flintlock pistols at the approaching pirate, who grips his dirk between his teeth as he climbs painfully towards him; Peake draws the mast at a slant as if to emphasize its radical instability. The other shows Israel Hands tumbling limply into the sea after Jim has shot him, all balance lost. Another sea-story told by Peake – an early poem called The Touch o’ the Ash (1929), about a murderous ship’s captain who kills one of his men, only to be hounded to death by the dead man’s ashes – culminates again in the mizzen mast of the vessel, where the captain waits in the crow’s nest, armed with a marlinspike, for the vengeful approaching spirit to claim his soul.[39] The captain is no pirate, but he behaves like one, flogging his men to the bone with a cat-o-nine-tails, stringing them to the bowsprit by their thumbs, or (in one case) flinging them into the ship’s furnace as punishment for insubordination. Like Israel Hands and Long John Silver, and like the plump little missionary-captain Mr Pye, he takes the risk of affiliating himself with the Devil, and it seems inevitable to Peake’s readers that the Devil will take him in the end. The Captain in The Touch o’the Ash has lost his sense of moral balance before the poem began, so that it also seems inevitable that his final confrontation with the vengeful spirit will take place fifty feet above deck, where nothing is stable.

The end of Israel Hands

Balance and imbalance play a prominent role in Peake’s thoughts on Sark, which should hardly surprise us, given the presence of ‘sheer wall[s] of sickening rock’ on every side. But what sort of balance did he have in mind? The question may not be answerable, in the end, but what follows is an attempt at a preliminary answer. Or rather answers, since just one solution to any riddle, it seems, won’t do.[40]

Jim boards the Hispaniola. Illustration from Treasure Island
  1. A Question of Balance

There are two major incidents in Mr Pye where the question of balance comes to the fore, both of them reliant on the peculiar geography of Sark with its cliffs and precipices.

The first occurs when the little missionary arranges for a disabled woman to be lowered by rope to the beach at Derrible Bay – the hard-to-access shoreline he has chosen as the location for a picnic to which he has invited all non-indigenous or ‘English’ islanders, for purposes of his own. The act of lowering the woman, Miss George, is intended to cement Mr Pye’s status as a worker of miracles, guided by God, and so consolidate his moral hold on the people of Sark. Miss George is heavy, but the lowering makes her seem light; she is thought of as mostly stationary, but the event gives her unexpected vertical mobility; she is treated on most occasions as the legitimate butt of a joke, but her role in Mr Pye’s performance is to serve as a kind of messenger or angel, the embodiment of his vision of universal kindness.

Derrible Bay at Low Tide

But the lowering is also an act of appalling cruelty, since Miss George is given no warning that it will happen, and would have objected furiously if she had been told in advance exactly how she would be granted access to the beach. Just how cruel an act it is can be best appreciated by visiting Derrible Bay, as we did ourselves the day after coming to the island. There’s a steep path down to the sea, dropping from level to level in zigzags, and at the bottom a formidable barrier of jumbled stones interposes itself between the final flight of steps and the soft white sands. There’s a fine large cave beside the beach – one of the possible models for Peake’s picture of Ben Gunn’s cave in his illustrations for Treasure Island – and beyond this, the place where Miss George undergoes her ordeal. These features – the stones and the place of the ordeal – explain why Peake chose Derrible Bay as the setting for his picnic. The stones both render the beach unusually difficult to reach and supply convenient hiding places for the indigenous islanders in Mr Pye who attend the picnic uninvited. And the location of the lowering – a geological feature of real distinction – gains additional resonance from the name of the Bay in which it is located: Derrible Bay, which is indeed most terrible for Miss George. The lowering-place is frightening in itself, but it is rendered still more frightening both by the name and by the gravity-defying action Mr Pye imposes on it. The missionary, in fact, forces Miss George to act out the event that fits the place, that justifies it, in Stevenson’s words, and there is something deeply unjust and therefore disturbing about how he makes this happen.

The Chimney at Derrible Bay

The formation is described as a ‘chimney’ in the novel, and Stephen Foote assumes that Peake is referring to a manmade industrial chimney of the kind that can still be seen at the ruins of the Silver Mine on Little Sark. As Foote points out, the Countess of Groan mentions the Silver Mine as a district in Gormenghast Castle (see above), and he suggests that Peake has ‘employed poetic licence to transpose the mine shaft from Little Sark for dramatic effect’.[41] In fact, however, Peake is referring to a geological chimney, and there’s a particularly fine example at Derrible Bay: a giant funnel of rock, rising two hundred feet or so from beach level to the level of the island plateau. Peake describes it with some care: ‘At the foot of the cliff in the northern elbow of the bay a natural archway led, not to a finite cave, but to a shaft that rose in gloomy darkness tinged with red, to where it drew breath, an irregular circle of breath, which from the base of the chimney, looking up, seemed no larger than a plate’ (p. 111). In advance of the picnic, Mr Pye leads Miss George through the ‘thorn bushes’ and ‘waist-high ferns’ of the Sarkese maquis to the ‘lip’ of the ‘murderous hole’ (p. 112) at the top of the shaft, where she is strapped into her favourite armchair before beginning her descent. A fine picture of the ‘murderous hole’ in question opens the novel’s Chapter 14 (p. 96). No one in the book, or reading it, is under any illusion that Miss George wishes to accomplish this feat of false flight – to be Mr Pye’s ‘exemplar’, as he calls her, or his human angel, since he has clad her in a white nightdress to symbolize chastity (p. 90). Mr Pye confirms his own awareness of Miss George’s terror when he describes her as his first ‘martyr’, and later insists to the islanders gathered on the beach below that her descent represents the overcoming of fear through ‘courage’ – despite the fact that it happens ‘not of her own will’ but because he himself has pronounced it ‘right’ that she should suffer (p. 117).

The opening of the chimney from below

It seems appropriate, then, that Miss George’s reluctant descent of the chimney should turn out to be a turning point in Mr Pye’s fortunes. As the descent begins, the islanders on the beach become aware of another phenomenon taking place nearby: the arrival of a whale’s rotting carcass at Derrible Bay, drifting in on the tide. The appalling stench of the corpse quickly drives the revellers away, leaving only Mr Pye and a few friends to witness the ersatz miracle of Miss George’s touchdown. The ruination of Mr Pye’s attempt to impose his vision on the gathered inhabitants of Sark signals the moment when the balance of the book begins to tip away from him, so to speak; when the equilibrium between good and evil in his body starts to favour evil. Up to this moment he has seemed something of a miracle-worker, capable of disarming powerful men and women by the sheer confidence with which he spreads the word of his own eccentric God. But Miss George’s reluctant feat of balance, as her weight counterposes the weight of the team of powerful men who grip the ropes that lower her chair, while her body maintains its precarious poise in the chair while dropping through the red-tinged darkness towards the sand – occurs at the point when Mr Pye loses control of his own bodily and spiritual equilibrium. The arrival of the whale upsets his plans, and suggests the presence of a force that runs counter to his neat narrative of sin and salvation. From this point on, Mr Pye’s confidence in his collusion with his private God – whom he dubs the ‘Great Pal’ – takes a serious hit, and he loses all certainty that he is engaged in a divinely-ordained mission to convert the islanders to his faith. In the process, he himself undergoes the ordeal he imposed on Miss George, and reveals himself for what he is: not a saint or godling, but a complex being who cannot be reduced to crude moral binaries.

The opening of the chimney from above. Illustration for Mr Pye

The chief mark of his loss of moral balance is the wings that grow from his back, which start to manifest themselves after the picnic at Derrible Bay. As an apparent sign from God of Mr Pye’s goodness, they also imply that his goodness has gone too far – that it has exceeded the reasonable limits set by the human body and mind, and has begun to be excessive, hypertrophied, oppressive, monstrous. Interestingly, their appearance causes a loss of balance in others as well as himself. When Miss George first glimpses his wings – through the keyhole of Mr Pye’s bedroom, the day after her ordeal (pp. 162-3) – she retreats in disarray, then loses her footing on the stairs and tumbles headlong to her death, confirming the murderous effects of fear and imbalance invoked by the chimney incident (and note how her ersatz flight down the chimney here becomes a fatal fall down a flight of stairs). Much later, when Mr Pye has aroused the hostility of the rest of the island and is galloping towards the Coupée in a horse and carriage, perfectly aware that he cannot escape but flapping his wings in a bid for freedom as he gallops, there are clear echoes of what happened to Miss George. In the first place – as we noted earlier – the ringleader of the posse that seeks to catch him is called George, or sometimes ‘Pawgy’ (as in Georgy Porgy). In the second, one of the lookouts stationed at the old windmill to watch for Mr Pye misses his footing on the building’s stone steps, falls, and ‘was dead before he reached the bottom’, like Miss George before him (p. 251). Mr Pye and his wings, meanwhile, recall Miss George the ersatz angel and her flapping nightgown. Everything points towards a climactic showdown at the cliff’s edge of the Coupée – another great geological feature of Sark, balancing the chimney – and to a showdown that must in some way atone for the Derrible debacle. So to the Coupée is where the last stage of our tour must take us.

La Coupée, Sark
  1. At the Coupée

In deference to Peake’s possibly mythical feat of crossing the Coupée by bike, we set out for that famous tourist attraction – images of which have brought visitors to Sark for a hundred years – on two hired bikes; mine even had the name of Peake inscribed on the frame. The best view of the Coupée, we found, could be obtained by turning aside at the highest point of the approach at the Big Sark end, where a footpath takes you up to a grassy prominence overlooking the isthmus, from which pictures may be taken almost as good as the tourist photos you’ll have seen throughout your trip. From the Coupée itself, meanwhile, you can look down three hundred feet on one side to the beach called La Grande Grève. This beach was partitioned during the war into separate areas for German officers, German soldiers and ordinary islanders, and later became a regular bathing-spot for Peake and his sons; Mr Pye kicks over children’s sandcastles here in his bid to shrink his wings by committing petty crimes. On the other side of the Coupée you have a view straight down the cliffs to the rocks below. It’s from here that Peake is supposed to have clambered down the precipice to rescue one or more baby cormorants (history is a little vague as to the numbers involved). Cycling across the narrow stone bridge is not permitted any longer, but even pushing your bike across gives a pretty good sense of how daring it would have been to ride across without using the handlebars in the days before railings were installed.

‘Peake Trail’

The Coupée provides a world-class setting for the climactic moment of a film or novel; and Stephen Foote has rightly introduced it, in his guide, with a passage Peake wrote about it near the end of Mr Pye, as the missionary determines to make it the destination of his final journey on Sark:[42]

‘The Coupée,’ whispered Mr Pye, and his mind flew back to that first night on Sark, when, in the storm he had stood on the narrow ridge and heard the waves thrashing the rocks three hundred feet below, and the wind beating on the face of the cliff.

He shut his eyes again and he could see in his imagination how the land narrowed: how Big Sark dwindled to the perilous isthmus: how it seemed as though two great forces were joined together by the Coupée as though it were the cord that joins the unborn child to its mother, or like that moment called life that links the dark domains of the womb and of the tomb. He knew that Tintagieu was right. He must make for that place – the wasp-like waist of the island he had come to save from itself. (p. 249)

In this passage, the narrow viaduct of stone surrounded by precipices becomes a metaphor for human life, rendered yet more perilous in Peake’s lifetime by the outbreak of World War Two and the Cold War that followed. One of his most powerful poems, ‘Grottoed Beneath Your Ribs Our Babe Lay Thriving’ (1940) – written in response to the birth of his son Sebastian and his wife Maeve’s act of childbirth – imagines Maeve’s body as a quasi-organic structure within which the child lay ‘Grottoed’ for nine months ‘Among the breathing rafters of sweet bone’, as if in a Sarkese cave or a Gormenghast attic.[43] Emerging from the womb, especially in wartime, involves a traumatic separation from this place of shelter, as if Little Sark had become divided from the ‘continent’ of the larger island by the severing of its umbilical cord (the Coupée, after all, is subject to erosion and will presumably one day be worn away altogether). At the point of severance, the poem suggests, the child-island must feel a little like the Island of Madagascar, as ‘the tides divide an [A]frica / Of love from his clay island, that the sighs / Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry’. At the same time, in the final stanza of his poem Peake insists that the bond between mother and child, continent and island, will remain as strong as ever after the separation. And the link forged in the poem between island and infant, continent and mother, explains why Mr Pye seeks out the Coupée for his final showdown.

Mr Pye seeks to establish a bond between the islanders reminiscent of the bond between mother and child, fusing them one to another despite the stretches of turbulent water (ideological, personal, social, political, cultural) that divide them. At the Derrible picnic he represents that mission as a preliminary stage in the erasure of the Cold War itself, a re-balancing, so to speak, of an unstable planet. ‘The whole world is unbalanced,’ he tells the picknickers, adding – with characteristic hubris – that ‘There are a few of us, a very few, who fight to keep it upright’ (p. 100). A military man at the picnic, Major Havershot – whose name affirms his predilection for solving problems by the bullet – would prefer to start the project of restoring balance by engaging with Russia rather than Sark, presumably by violence, given his name. But for the missionary ‘it is Sark that we are healing now, isn’t it? Not Russia. Russia can follow’ (p. 101). The West needs to examine itself before turning its gaze on others; only then can the process of healing be effective.

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye in the BBC TV series of 1986. Image from a tapestry in St Peter’s Church, Sark.

But the logic of this position demands that Mr Pye gaze at himself, too – which is more difficult than it sounds, given that the growth of his unwanted wings starts at his shoulder blades. If Sark must be rebalanced before the rest of the world can be addressed, the would-be balancer, Mr Pye, must be rebalanced first, his excessive piety – and his piratical zeal for taking over islands – supplanted by recognition of his humanity, the bond he has with the ordinary men and women he seeks to evangelize. His desperate dash for the Coupée at the end of the book – the waspish waist of the island where the womb is located, the umbilical cord that connects it with its offspring, Little Sark – symbolizes a return to the ties that bind him to the human race, from which his wings have threatened to banish him. Such, at least, would be the narrative trajectory of a conventional novel: it would close with Mr Pye’s recognition of his own humanity, obtained at the umbilicus or navel of the island, the part of the anatomy that graphically links us to our common ancestry. But Peake’s chosen ending is both wilder and more ambiguous. The novel closes with Mr Pye relinquishing all balance, divesting himself of links to pre-set narratives, and launching his body at last into the flight he contemplated earlier, when gazing at Les Autelets; committing himself, in fact, to his wings. It’s a celebration of vision, strangeness and difference rather than likeness, though the missionary’s very ordinary body, short and plump, seems to invite Peake’s readers to share his commitment to these same qualities – vision, strangeness and difference – however ordinary those readers may think themselves to be.

The loss of all balance on Mr Pye’s approach to the Coupée is made quite explicit, from the unbalancing of the watchman who falls down the old mill’s steps to the unbalancing of the carriage in which the missionary rides. As soon as Mr Pye sets off from his refuge in the island prison he finds himself off kilter: ‘turning dangerously upon two wheels [his carriage] headed up the hill past Rosebud cottage while Mr Pye, his wings beating at his sides, cried out encouragement to the black charger’ (p. 250). His disconnection from the human race is noted by the artist, Thorpe, who sees him in this final dash as a ‘seraph in striped trousers’ rather than a man (pp. 250-251). Dogs chasing the carriage lose their balance, ‘bowling one another over in the madness of the race’ (p. 251). Note how mental imbalance comes into play here too, a condition later reinforced by references to the ‘dementia’ of Mr Pye’s pursuers and Mr Pye’s own position ‘at the plunging spearhead of madness’ (p. 253).[44]

Turning into the ‘long Coupée road’ the carriage almost crashes again – it seems ‘impossible’ that it should not – but Mr Pye’s impossible wings ensure that balance is briefly restored (‘Mr Pye aloft in the driver’s seat threw out one of his wings to steady himself’). Miracles take place as more and more islanders join the chase: ‘Every carriage was miraculously filled with the pursuers’ (p. 252), and Mr Pye begins to resemble an ‘apparition’, something as yet unexplained which seems to defy rational analysis. Soon afterwards the chase becomes something equally irrational, a ‘dream’, while Mr Pye becomes a visionary or vision: when he looks backwards at his pursuers they are ‘dazzled as though a burning glass were trained upon them’ (pp. 252-3). The word ‘seraph’ implies an association with the divine, but Mr Pye discards conventional religious narratives or hierarchies when he divests himself of his soul: ‘As the ground began to dip he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his God’ (we never learn if this act of dismissal is metaphorical or actual) (p. 253). Divested in this way of his attachment to God, Mr Pye ends his headlong journey as a being without affiliations, without links to any story but his own, his unattached condition exemplified in his final grandiose gesture: being flung from the Coupée and taking to the air.

Crowds gather at the Coupée. Illustration from Mr Pye

Here’s how it happens:

There, all in a flash, was the Coupée curving like a white snake – but only for that one instant, for at the next the black horse, rearing in the shafts, veered to the right of the track and, catching the carriage wheel in the railing, tore it off the body and the next moment the carriage, losing balance, was toppled bodily over the rust-red rails. It tore them apart as it swayed monstrously and fell, dragging with it the black horse, so that together they plunged, a hideous conglomeration, down, down, down, vaulting horribly as they descended in giant arcs to the shingle far below. (p. 253).

The echo of Satan’s fall in Milton’s Paradise Lost is pretty clear – think of the famous lines from Book One, ‘With hideous ruin and combustion, down / To bottomless perdition’ – and there are distinctly Gothic overtones too, with the snake-like isthmus, the black horse and the ‘rust-red rails’, like a scene from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931), in which a coach and horses approach the vampire’s castle by way of an isthmus. But Mr Pye is spared the plunge. Hurled at the point of impact high into the air above the Grande Grève, he finds himself ‘about to fall like a stone’ – then abruptly remembers his extra limbs, watched by gulls and staring islanders. ‘They saw him begin to fall,’ Peake tells us, ‘but then they saw, as he fell, a movement of the wings and, all at once, they were stretched in a great span on either side so that the speed of his descent was checked, and he hung suspended’ (p. 254). No longer awkwardly stuck out to one side to counteract the veering of the carriage, here for the first time Mr Pye’s wings are extended in all their glory, equally and together, unconstrained by the folds of the Lugosi-esque cloak beneath which he has concealed them for much of the novel. Briefly the missionary looks both comic and fragile as he struggles to control them, combining in his person incongruous elements which have never been brought together like this before:

There was beauty in it, with those wings of dazzling whiteness that bore him to and fro as he tried to learn how best to manage them: and there was pathos – for he looked so solitary – adrift in the hollow air. And there was bathos also, for it seemed incongruous to see his city trousers and his small, black, gleaming shoes. (p. 254)

The moment of solitude is also, here, the moment when Mr Pye severs the umbilical cord that ties him to his mother earth, just as earlier he severed the ties that bound him to his heavenly father, God. His smallness at this moment makes him seem childish; but he soon acquires maturity and even grandeur, in spite of his city trousers: ‘the Islanders saw how he had already mastered his wings and was beginning to soar in slow arcs, and how he was now far out to sea and dwindling until he was only visible to those of keenest vision’. A vision is what he came to the island to impart, but by the end of the novel it has been supplanted with vision itself, the limited capacity for sight shared by all humanity. He has become a messenger for a new kind of religion, which involves flight which is free from the limits of creed or nation, and free from the excessive seriousness which accompanies fanaticism. I wonder if Mr Pye’s flight is among other things a comment on the lightness with which he went through life, the capacity to celebrate earth, sea and sky without being weighed down by the burden of their beauty. ‘I long to spring,’ Peake wrote in his early poem ‘Coloured Money’ (1937), ‘Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one / Farthing to weigh me down’, and this is how Mr Pye ends his career.[45] I mentioned the epigram to Titus Groan at the beginning of this essay, and at the end of it Mr Pye has become what the epigram refers to, a ‘man in the clouds’. The question is, is there anyone left behind who can replicate his flight to freedom?

The approach to Dracula’s castle, showing the isthmus, from Dracula (1931)

In a literal sense, of course, they can’t. The book ends with Mr Pye disappearing from even the keenest islander’s sight, leaving the island ‘suddenly empty […] nothing but a long wasp-waisted rock’: bereft of visions, and even of an artist capable of doing Stevensonian justice to its beauties (the painter named Thorpe who lives on the island is always losing his artistic vision at climactic moments). An early draft of Peake’s novel left the missionary dead, washed ashore not long after his flight like a storm-battered gull; an ending that suggested visions like his have no resting place in this world, like the Son of Man in the Bible (remember his dream of returning from his maiden flight to rest for a while on the Grand Autelet, sucking a fruit-drop).[46] But the ending as it stands leaves things open, rather like the ending of a book by H G Wells, who always leaves open questions in his wake to plant seeds in the minds of his readers: will the Martians return one day? Did the Time Traveller die in his last voyage? What would happen if the Food of the Gods were to keep on working on the living creatures of the earth without opposition? And so on. The last vision of Mr Pye – the sight of him disappearing into the distance on his impossible wings, wearing his shiny black shoes and city trousers – opens up the question of what he stood for. The exaltation of ordinariness, perhaps? His particular ‘ordinariness’ is distinctly middle class – he orders people about with the confidence of one born to it, and pays for things such as the Derrible picnic, or the expensive wine he favours, without blinking. But in the end he enfranchises himself from class as well as religion, launching himself from the cliff with a bathos which deflates all his previous pretensions as missionary, ‘chief’ or prophet.

His launching, too, atones for his one properly harmful act, the attempt to transform Miss George into an unwilling symbol of his beliefs (and the element of atonement would have been made yet clearer if Peake had retained the scene of Mr Pye’s death in the final version of the novel). It balances that act of cruel excess, so to speak, by making Mr Pye repeat it; and in the process confirms the Isle of Sark as a testing ground for balance of all kinds, where a foot put wrong, a lurch or veer too far in one direction or another, will fling one from a precipitous height onto the shingle, like the unfortunate black horse. It’s a site of precarity, which offers constant visual reminders, in the form of cliffs and the open ocean, of the fine line we tread between life and death, between kindness, cruelty and self-obsession, throughout our existence as an individual or species. In an age of extremes – the phrase Eric Hobsbaum uses to describe the Twentieth Century – this acknowledgement of precarity, and the need for some special sense of balance to help us cope with it, may have struck Peake as particularly urgent.[47]

Peake’s poetry shows the same concern with balance as his prose and his pictures, and the same sense that the world itself was unbalanced in his lifetime. Two short poems he wrote in about 1939 summarise this concern. ‘O Heart-Beats’ is the first:

O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
These dice
Endanger me,
And spice
My days with hazards of futurity.[48]

The second is called simply ‘Balance’, and reads very much like another attempt at the same idea:

In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
And prime
Is always the long moment of decay.[49]

Peake probably wrote these poems while he was waiting to be called up to join the army in the fight against Hitler, while at the same time hoping against hope he would first be selected to put his real talents to use as an official war artist (a hope that failed, at least until 1942). His life, his talents, his capacity for visionary work in both word and image, must have seemed infinitely precarious at that moment, crazily balanced on a fulcrum between hazardous play and imminent death and disintegration. After the war was over, this sense of imbalance did not dissipate. The fate of the world must have seemed yet more uncertain while the Russians and Americans were facing off on either side of the Atlantic, ‘filling the sky with their bombers’ like malignant birds – a ‘murmuration of Stalins’, as Mr Pye puts it (p. 101). Cut off in his mind from both past and future – the dispersing cloud of history, the insubstantial dream of what might or might not be to come – Peake came to see Sark as an emblem of the present, the long moment at which a person’s ‘prime’, or physical and artistic zenith, draws towards the ‘decay’ that awaits all mortal bodies. Its cliffs were his ‘edge of precipice’, and he spent his whole artistic life trying to work out how best to negotiate them.

Take the ferry to Sark, scramble down the path to Derrible Bay, stroll across the Coupée, dare to look out to sea through the Window in the Rock, look down on those little altars the Autelets, and you too may begin to see the island as a kind of emblem – though of what, precisely, I wouldn’t presume to suggest.

Mr Pye and Miss Dredger at the Window in the Rock

NOTES

[1] You can find mentions of all these trips but one, I think, in the two key biographies of Peake: Malcolm Yorke’s Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), and G. Peter Winnington’s Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, P.A.: Peter Owen, 2009), which supersedes Winnington’s Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (2000). For the Sark Art Group see Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark: The Story of the Sark Art Group, Who, What, When (Market Harborough: Matador, 2022).

[2] Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Gossip on Romance’, Longman’s Magazine, 1:1 (November 1882), pp. 69-79. Reprinted in Memories and Portraits (1887), pp. 247-74. For the full text visit the following link: http://rogers99.users.sonic.net/rls_gossip_on_romance.html

[3] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 699. All references are to this edition.

[4] Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 5.

[5] Stephen Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer Publishing, 2019), p. 5.

[6] Gordon Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), pp. 41-2.

[7] Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 83.

[8] Peake, Gormenghast Trilogy, pp. 84-85.

[9] Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir, p. 42.

[10] Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 64.

[11] Maeve Gilmore, A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, introduced by Sebastian Peake (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 66.

[12] Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 68.

[13] Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 68.

[14] Mervyn Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 14.

[15] A detailed account of Sark in wartime can be found in Sark – An Island Occupied (Sark: Sark Visitor Centre, 2020), which draws on research by Penny Prevel and ‘various members of staff at Sark Visitor Centre’ (p. 31).

[16] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 144.

[17] For the photo see Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 10.

[18] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 14.

[19] Stephen Foote points out that Le Chalet seems to have been the model for Miss Dredger’s house in Mr Pye; see Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 22, and for the gate, p. 56.

[20] Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 95.

[21] For Peake’s painting of St Peter’s Church see Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 49.

[22] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 58.

[23] See Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 56-58.

[24] For the pictures of Sarkese fishermen see Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), p. 44.

[25] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 188.

[26] For a discussion of the illustrations for Maurice Collis’s The Quest for Sita see my blogpost here: https://thecityoflostbooks.glasgow.ac.uk/maurice-collis-and-mervyn-peake-quest-for-sita-1946-part-1-text/

[27] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 187.

[28] Peake, Mr Pye, pp. 187-8.

[29] These details of La Seigneurie’s construction are taken from the house’s website: https://www.laseigneuriedesercq.uk/.

[30] For some of the surviving photos see Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 56, 57 and 58.

[31] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 14.

[32] See e.g. Peake, Mr Pye, p. 12, which refers to the ‘triple sandwich of island life’.

[33] See Sark – An Island Occupied (Sark: Sark Visitor Centre, 2020), p. 8.

[34] Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, p. 221.

[35] For Eustache or Eustace the Monk see https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/eustace-monk-holy-man-king-john-french-invasion-england/. The phrase ‘salt water thief’ comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act 5 scene 1.

[36] Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir, p. 44.

[37] The self-portraits can be found in Winnington (ed.), Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 160. Another self-portrait from 1931, when Peake was 20, can be found on p. 30, and makes him look even more piratical.

[38] Peake, Mr Pye, p. 205.

[39] The Touch o’the Ash can be found in Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 45-61.

[40] For the tendency (need?) for good riddles to have multiple answers see Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). The whole book makes the case, but Adams states it plainly on p. 51: ‘One notion I am setting myself against, here – I may as well be plain – is that any given riddle has one right or correct answer’.

[41] Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 59.

[42] Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 58.

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

[44] Perhaps the spear makes reference to one of Peake’s favourite poems, the anonymous ‘Tom o’Bedlam’, about a visionary madman, which contains the lines:

With a host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.

[45] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 23.

[46] I think Peter Winnington mentioned this to me, and even sent me the alternative ending; I’m looking for the reference but haven’t yet found it!

[47] Eric Hobsbaum, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 1995).

[48] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 52.

[49] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 65.

Fantasy and Puppetry: Diana Wynne Jones, Russell Hoban and John Masefield

[This blog post was inspired by the recent ‘Fantasy and Puppetry’ event hosted by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow, featuring Marita Arvaniti, Brian Froud, Wendy Froud, Howard Gayton, William Todd Jones, Mary Robinette Kowal and Terri Windling, with funding from the University of Glasgow’s Chancellor’s Fund, obtained by my wonderful colleague Dimitra Fimi. My warm thanks to all the participants for their stunning insights, to which I’ve hardly begun to do justice here. Special thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal for putting me on to the work of Steve Tillis.]


What is it about puppets that draws and horrifies us? Puppets are representations of human figures whose radical dissimilarity to human figures marks them out as grotesque imitations, always eerily distanced from what they purport to portray. Their workings are often visible, whether as rods or strings manipulating limbs, or the bony solidity of hands beneath the cloth of their bodies, or puppeteers alongside them on stage, manoeuvring heads and arms and legs with the attentive reverence of priests or undertakers. They are, then, the embodiment of control: control by authority, control by fate, control by our own desires, fears, instincts and diseases – control by anyone but themselves.

But they are also the embodiment of anarchy. Their unfeeling bodies make them impervious to damage, their seeming detachment from their puppeteers absolves them of responsibility, with the result that many puppets are violent things often subjected to violence. Most of the narratives about puppets I can think of involve acts of aggression: from the constant infighting of the friends Damon and Pythias in the puppet show that dominates the final act of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (1614) to the multiple murders that beset Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1883); from the self-destructive darkness that inhabits human puppets in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker (1980), to the forced reiterations of Mr Punch’s actions magically imposed on young children in Diana Wynne Jones’s book The Magicians of Caprona (also 1980), the ‘scrobbling’ and near murder of the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings in The Box of Delights (1935), or the revelations of dark family secrets imposed on a child by successive encounters with the puppet master, Mr Swatchet, in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s graphic novel The Tragical Comedy and Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch (1994). All these narratives are designed for children or have children in them, so that the darkness and violence they contain runs fiercely counter to the narrative of innocent childhood, which prescribes insipid pap as children’s entertainment in place of unsettling revelations. Puppets tell us that childhood is, like adulthood, full of shadows and damaging encounters, confirming our suspicion that the version of our young selves that is foisted on us by much children’s television is a falsification, a smiling puppet rendered increasingly sinister, as we grow, by its distance from our concussive daily lives.

Human but not human; controlled yet anarchic; violent and subjected to violence yet somehow amusing; puppets are full of paradoxes and contradictions, and this, for Steve Tillis, is the source of their ancient fascination. For Tillis, puppets of all kinds give rise to a kind of double-vision, and his definition of a puppet incorporates this fundamental doubleness:

the puppet is a theatrical figure, perceived by an audience to be an object, that is given design, movement, and frequently, speech, so that it fulfils the audience’s desire to imagine it as having life; by creating a double-vision of perception and imagination, the puppet pleasurably challenges the audience’s understanding of the relationship between objects and life.[1]

This double-vision whereby an object is seemingly endowed with life while at the same time remaining self-evidently an object explains the affinity puppets seem to have with the fantastic – an affinity which Tillis notes elsewhere in his book Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet, and which is borne out by the many fantasy movies that have given a central role to puppets.[2] Fantasy is the art of the impossible; objects endowed with life are an impossibility; so the union of fantasy with puppets seems an obvious artistic strategy. But Tillis’s placement of double-vision at the heart of the attraction of the puppet also has something crucial to say about fantasy as a mode or genre. Fantasy involves a similar double-vision. We read a fantasy text, or watch a fantasy film, in the knowledge that what we are reading about or seeing could never have happened in what we think of as ‘real life’; if it could, the film or book would not be fantasy. This awareness inhabits our minds all the time we are viewing or reading. Where Tolkien would have us totally immersed in the fantasy narrative as we read or watch, forgetful of the rules that govern the ‘real’ world we live in,[3] that immersion involves processes which we know very well as we watch or read have never happened and never will happen, such as a person turning invisible by putting on a ring, a person looking across a vast distance by peering into a stone, a tree coming alive and waxing lyrical about the ages it has lived through and the changes it has seen. The amazement with which the Hobbits confront such processes reminds us repeatedly of the fact they cannot take place in the world we live in; this is why they’re delightful. Reading about these things may make us look at gold rings and stones and trees in a new light – surrounding them with an aura of previously unimagined (im)possibilities, as Tolkien says it will in his essay on Fairy Stories – but it won’t lead us to expect that these objects will somehow really acquire the qualities Tolkien gave them; that we may find a ring to turn ourselves invisible, or a stone to see through, or a walking, talking tree. When we walk over downs and stroll through forests our imagination may fill them with barrow wights, Black Riders, Ents and elves, but we’ll always be conscious these are things of the imagination, no matter how keenly we may yearn for them to be real.[4]

The double-vision of perception and imagination, in other words, is not exclusive to puppets. It inheres in paintings, where the viewer can often see the brush-strokes laid on paper by a watercolour artist – even intuit the movements that laid down those brush-strokes – yet simultaneously recognise what they’re looking at as a landscape. It inheres in poetry and prose, where words on the page remain stubbornly present in front of our eyes even as we look through them into the worlds they conjure up. Fantasy, like puppets, stresses the disparity between the object we are looking at – the book, the painting, the screen – and the impossible forms of life with which it seems to have been imbued. The fantasy book or film or painting are theatres, like the puppet theatre, in which impossibilities are brought into being yet remain impossibilities, because if they weren’t we wouldn’t get the kick out of seeing the impossible brought to life that defines them as fantasy.

In the final chapter of his book, Tillis has a chapter entitled ‘Coda – Metaphor and the Puppet’ (pp. 159-169), in which he considers how the metaphors of puppets and puppetry have been used in a range of contexts. He is mostly concerned with marionettes – not glove puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets or Bunraku – and hence with the relationship between the puppet and the hidden, distant puppeteer, which he sees as embodying the awareness humans have of being at the beck and call of forces beyond our vision: divine forces, political forces, or the force of a powerful emotion such as love. In this blog post I’d like to consider three fantastic texts which deploy the metaphor of puppets in special ways, particularly as a way of playing with the double-vision Tillis writes of. All three of my examples contain representations of glove puppets rather than marionettes, which affects the terms of Tillis’s coda in certain fundamental ways (the glove puppet, for instance, is partly made of the puppeteer’s flesh and blood, as well as the wood and cloth of the head and body; the puppeteer may be in some sense distant, but they are also very much present and intimately bound up with the objects they manipulate). In all three cases, too, double-vision is central to the narrative in which the puppets appear; or rather double-, treble- and quadruple-vision, as the puppet metaphor introduces us to a world in which multiple layers of perception and imagination dominate our lives. These puppet narratives seem designed to defy our belief (our practical belief, that is, as evinced by our movements as we go about our activities) that we live in a rational universe, where the rules that govern what’s real, what’s imagined, and how effect will follow cause, are more or less known and more or less invariable. That’s what the last sentence of Tillis’s definition implies: ‘the puppet pleasurably challenges the audience’s understanding of the relationship between objects and life’. In the particular puppet stories I’ll be discussing, knowledge is precisely what’s being called into question by the prolonged encounter with an inanimate object which is also imagined to be alive, while remaining an object, against all the laws of biology and physics.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Magicians of Caprona

Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s book The Magicians of Caprona is all about contention, violence, and the kinds of knowledge and ignorance that enable acts of spontaneous aggression. She sets it in an alternative Italy that has never been unified, and is therefore made up of multiple city states whose competing interests break out from time to time in military conflict. Her book sees the neighbouring city states of Florence, Pisa and Siena invade the made-up city-state of Caprona, hoping to extend their respective territories at Capronan expense. This contention between countries is reflected in the hostilities that divide the two principal Capronan families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis. Each family possesses a stock of grievances and disparaging myths about its rivals, handed down from parent to child and growing more extravagant with each new iteration, until violence breaks out between them around the middle of the book in the form of a huge street brawl, rendered more terrible by the fact that it is waged by magic – the families in question being universally renowned specialists in fashioning spells.

Jones’s imagined world, in other words, is governed by imaginary boundaries: boundaries between those fantastic entities known as nations, between those porous entities known as families, between the commercial interests of businesses which trade in the same product – in this case, magic. These boundaries encourage conflict – war and brawling – and inhibit the sharing and verification of ideas and information – in other words, knowledge. At the same time, the book makes it clear that neither the boundaries nor the selective information that leads to conflict has any basis in material reality. All the geographical divisions between nation states mentioned in the book have long been removed, in our own world, by Italy’s nineteenth-century unification, while the reader knows that the two families are mistaken in thinking that each house has kidnapped a child from its rival, which is the ostensible cause of the street brawl. In other words, the plot of the book is based on double-visions engendered by self-absorption, delusion and prejudice, proposing their dominance of our daily lives and the destructive intransigence that maintains them.

Meanwhile, the book’s comic treatment of its two conflicts – between neighbouring nations, between neighbouring families – stirs up echoes of two well-known tragedies, one real, one imagined. The imagined tragedy is Shakespeare’s play about young love in the context of a feud between two Italian families, Romeo and Juliet. The real tragedy is the civil war between fascists and partisans in Nazi-occupied Italy towards the end of the Second World War, with all the atrocities that entailed. The book is founded, then, on a set of double-visions which gives its light-hearted story, full of cats and puppets and clever children, the darkest of undertones.

It’s hardly surprising, then, if the metaphor at the centre of Jones’s narrative should be that of the Punch and Judy show, a light-hearted take on the domestic or homegrown violence which breaches so many imaginary boundaries: between sexes (Punch and Judy), between adults and children (Punch, the Baby and the children in the audience), between legality and illegality (Punch and the Policeman), between life and death (Punch, the Ghost, the Devil), between the domestic and the public (Punch, Judy, the Policeman and the Hangman), between the stage and the world beyond the stage (Punch, Judy, the Baby and the audience), and so on. No wonder, too, if Jones is concerned to compound the double-vision produced by puppets in Tillis’s book – which is governed by perception and imagination, the perception of the puppet as an object, the imagination of that object as alive – by adding multiple further double-visions to it. I’ve mentioned the double-visions behind the book’s two central conflicts; but there is also a particular double-vision in it that challenges the boundaries conventionally imposed between adulthood and childhood. For instance, in this novel the traditional Punch and Judy show is a personal obsession of the Duke of Caprona, who is himself a living, breathing double-vision, a ‘large damp-faced man’ decked out like royalty (‘He was wearing a shiny silk suit with flashing gold buttons and glittering medals’) who responds to a street puppet show with as much enthusiasm as ‘the smallest boy there’ (p. 21).[5] He is also, as it happens, a puppet himself, in the metaphorical sense mentioned by Tillis in his coda. His wife, the Duchess, indulges his love of puppets in order to distract him from his royal duties, leaving her free to rule Caprona herself. It’s while the Duke is watching a Punch and Judy show at the palace that she declares war on Siena, Florence and Pisa in his name, triggering the invasion for her own dark purposes. And the same Punch and Judy show also effectively triggers the childish brawl between the two families that distracts them from the impending political crisis. It is the Duchess who kidnaps a child from each of the families, then spreads the rumour that each child was stolen by the other family, thus unleashing a potentially deadly Punch-and-Judy style fight between the two families in the city streets. Meanwhile the two kidnapped children are themselves transformed by magic into Punch and Judy puppets – the Duchess being a powerful sorceress whose magic powers exceed those of the Montanas and the Petrocchis combined. So the presence of the kidnapped children as puppet-performers in the Punch and Judy show watched by the Duke at the palace, at the very moment when war is being declared in the Duke’s name by the scheming Duchess, lends a further double-vision to the double-vision of the objects endowed with life as defined by Tillis. The show, designed for children, masks very adult political manoeuvres, while the children who take part in it find themselves deeply conscious, in a very adult way, that they are in mortal danger from an adult (the Duchess), while the principal member of the adult audience (the Duke) watches the show with all the insouciance of a child. There could hardly be a more complex troubling of the conventions that divide the adult world from the sphere supposedly occupied by children.

The Duke is not the only adult in the book to be consumed by childish obsessions. The head of the Montana family, too, resembles a child: ‘Old Niccolo’s face, and his eyes in it, were round and wondering as the latest baby’s’ (p. 16); while his son and heir Rinaldo strikes poses, harbours grudges, and ‘enlists’ the youngest members of the family as part of his secret gang, like an overgrown schoolboy (p. 166). Both men are content to believe the old lies about the Petrocchis, and to ignore the plentiful evidence that the Petrocchis had nothing to do with the Montana child’s kidnapping. Like the Duke they are therefore easily puppeteered by the Duchess into acting out their obsessions. Enraged by the kidnapping and certain they know who is responsible, Niccolo and Rinaldo spontaneously lead their family through Caprona towards the Petrocchi residence, unleashing a chaos of dangerous spells as they go without regard to the possible consequences. All Jones’s books, in fact, are full of adults who have not grown up, continuing to cleave to the stories, prejudices, resentments and obsessions of childhood without subjecting them to any kind of discipline or critical analysis. The division between adulthood and childhood is rendered permeable by her narratives, which are equally full of children who take on responsibility for themselves and their families, often with considerable success.

At a certain point in each book, these responsible children show themselves capable of moving on from a passive acceptance of the controls imposed on them by the simplistic narratives they inherit from their childish parents to a critical consciousness of those narratives’ simplicity. In many cases this is brought about by a kind of double-vision which enables them to separate one aspect of a person’s character from another, and hence to ‘clear [their] eyes’, as Jones puts it in the Magicians (p. 166). A case in point is Paolo Montana, the elder brother of one of the kidnapped children. Paolo’s moment of productive double-vision comes when Rinaldo, a ‘true Montana’ whom Paolo has always tried to mimic (p. 163), expresses callous indifference to the question of whether his father will die of a stroke he has recently suffered. ‘It’s about time the old idiot gave up anyway,’ Rinaldo scoffs; ‘I shall be one step closer to being head of the Casa Montana then’ (p. 165). At these words, things in Paolo’s head abruptly fall into a new perspective: ‘he tried to imagine Rinaldo doing the things Old Niccolo did. And as soon as he did, he saw Rinaldo was quite unsuitable. […] It was as if Rinaldo had said a powerful spell to clear Paolo’s eyes’ (pp. 165-6, my emphasis). Abruptly the boy understands the callous self-interest of Rinaldo, the will to power that motivates his heroic posturing – posturing which is itself based on the model of the theatrical brigand, a human puppet whose clichéd heroism is fatally compromised by a casual indifference to other people’s sufferings. From this moment onwards for Paolo, his older brother Rinaldo is always the spoilt, irresponsible eldest son, whose posturing no longer hides his bullying propensities.

Paolo’s kidnapped younger brother, meanwhile, whose name is Tonino, needs his own eyes cleared by acquisition of the distance provided by double-vision. He loves to read, an activity represented in most children’s fiction as an unqualified good. But in Tonino’s case his kidnapping is accomplished through a spell cast by a book he has been reading obsessively; and the book in question is a novel full of questionable nationalist heroics called The Boy Who Saved His Country. Tonino believes the story to have been sent to him as a present by the most highly educated member of his family, Uncle Umberto; and the boy’s conviction that it is precisely the kind of gift his uncle might have sent him suggests that its propagandistic content may indeed conform to the Montana family’s philosophy. We already know by the time the book appears that a ‘true Montana’ like Rinaldo will do anything to put down the Petrocchis, whether or not there is evidence that they are at fault for any given situation. Tonino’s outlook has been shaped by his family and his city as well as his reading, and having finished the book he at once sets out to map its story onto his home, Caprona.  The boy searches its streets for the strange blue house at which the protagonist’s adventures began, hoping to mimic the fictional boy’s heroism, just as his brother Paolo hoped to mimic the heroic posturing of Rinaldo. Thanks to his family, then, Tonino already has a propensity for confusing fiction with reality, and it’s by playing on this propensity that the Duchess is able to entrap him. His eventual discovery of a real blue house matching the fictional one in The Boy Who Saved His Country triggers the trap which is woven by magic into the fabric of the volume. Soon afterwards he finds himself imprisoned in the ducal palace, held alongside (horror of horrors!) a Petrocchi child, who turns out to have been entrapped by reading fiction in exactly the same way. Both children have to learn that the fantasies peddled by stories shouldn’t be uncritically confused with the day-to-day reality of family life; and it’s by being changed into puppets that this fact comes home to them, quite against the wishes of the sorceress who accomplished that transformation, the scheming Duchess.

Becoming a puppet gives Tonino and his fellow prisoner, Angelica Petrocchi, a terrifying insight into what it is to be controlled by an unscrupulous adult. The motivation for the change is never quite clear to them – they may have been ‘punished’ for an attempt to escape from their imprisonment, or simply transformed to give sadistic pleasure to the Duchess – but once changed, their knowledge of the story they are part of makes the situation far worse than if they had been acting out an unfamiliar narrative. Tonino is Punch, Angelica Judy, and as each new puppet character pops up from under the stage – Angelica-as-Judy, the Baby, the Policeman, the Hangman – the children are horribly aware of the fate that lies in store for it, yet wholly unable to prevent the unfolding suite of murders, as Mr Punch annihilates the entire cast-list one by one through a mixture of trickery and brute force, to the accompaniment of strident laughter.

Jones represents the children’s sense of entrapment by adding yet another layer of double-vision to the usual double-vision engendered by puppets. As Punch and Judy, each child can see the other’s dual nature in their puppet face:

Judy was coming along the stage holding the white rolled-up shape of the baby. Judy wore a blue nightdress and a blue cap. Her face was mauve, with a nose in it nearly as large and red as Tonino’s. But the eyes on either side of it were Angelica’s, alternately blinking and wide with terror. She blinked beseechingly at Tonino as she squawked, ‘I have to go out, Mr Punch. Mind you mind the baby!’ […]

‘What have you done with the baby?’ squawked Angelica. And she belaboured Tonino with the stick. It really hurt. It knocked him to his knees and went on bashing at him. Tonino […] tried to stay crouched on the floor. But it was no good. He was made to spring up, wrest the stick from Judy and beat Angelica with it. He could see the Duke laughing, and the courtiers smiling. The Duchess’s smile was very broad now, because, of course, Tonino was going to have to beat Angelica to death. (pp. 155-7)

Here the transformed Angelica and Tonino, trapped in cloth bodies and hard wooden heads, clearly recognise that they have a distinct identity from that of the puppets in whose forms they are enclosed – the kind of recognition they lacked when they imagined themselves as the heroes of the children’s book The Boy/Girl Who Saved Their Country. Angelica has a large red wooden nose, the nose of Judy, but the eyes that stare out on either side of it are her own, while Tonino finds himself ‘made to spring up’ (the phrase makes it sound as if the necessity is woven into the fibres of his puppet body), then ‘wrest the stick from Judy and beat Angelica with it’ – the sentence underlining his horror at and inward resistance to these enforced actions even as he performs them. The stick is described as Judy’s, the beaten body Angelica’s – two distinct entities – and the action is rendered more horrific by Tonino’s awareness that a child’s body feels the blows of the stick intensely (‘It really hurt’), even after the child has been changed into a thing of wood and cloth. Meanwhile the stick is not just Judy’s, Angelica’s or Punch’s; it has a will of its own: ‘It knocked him to his knees and went on bashing at him’. Jones’s prose perfectly captures, in other words, the multiple identities of a glove puppet, whose head and body clothe a living hand which directs their actions. The hand, meanwhile, serves a traditional, centuries-old story, embodied in the stick which cannot be restrained from its murderous ‘bashing’. Some of the elements of a puppet should in theory be able to operate independently of the others; the flesh-and-blood heads of the children inside the puppets, for instance, are deeply opposed to the story represented by the figures’ wooden heads, while the flesh-and-blood hand of the puppeteer has the agency to take that story in new directions. Yet with seeming inevitability the narrative repeats itself along the same old lines. From a position outside the story – the position of the spectators – the repetition might seem pleasurable, since none of the characters (except perhaps Mr Punch himself) knows what will happen next, and a sense of superiority is part of what makes a situation funny – especially when we’re conscious that no harm is being done (puppets don’t really feel pain). But Jones’s story positions the eyes of the child spectators within the puppets performing the action, so that their horrified knowledge of where the story is going is coupled with a still more horrifying sense of vulnerability (‘it really hurt’), as well as complicity – though it’s a complicity driven not by their own desires but the impossibility of escaping from the long tradition.

The situation I’ve just described can of course be read in political terms. It may invoke the moment when a child suddenly realizes that in looking at its elders – as represented by the Punch and Judy puppets – it may be looking at a horrible image of its future self, physically and mentally transformed by years of damage inflicted by inside and outside forces, and horribly incompatible with the heroic, successful or beautiful selves it has been promised in stories. The audience of royalty and courtiers, meanwhile, who laugh uproariously as Tonino and Angelica batter each other, might suggest the moment when a child first acquires a political consciousness and understands its personal helplessness in the face of indifference or even sadism on the part of the ruling classes. The Duchess with her ‘very broad’ smile need say nothing to make it clear how she relates to the children in terms of class. They can see from her expression that she knows exactly who they are, what has been done to them, how it will end, and that this only pleases her, is part of her plan, an image of what makes her a Duchess and them nothing more than her helpless lower-class subjects. The fact that the show is performed in front of a royal court helps to underscore the disparity between the comfortable fairy tales about themselves encouraged by the powerful and the oppressive truths these tales conceal.

But in fact, as Jones shows us, the kids are not without a power of their own. There are ways they can exploit the rules of the Punch and Judy show to resist their sneering puppet-master – as there always are in Jones’s books.[6]  Mr Punch, after all, is the master of breaking rules. He successively kills the Policeman, the Hangman, a Ghost and the Devil, the details varying according to the version of the show you happen to be playing; and it isn’t long before Tonino realises he can use this characteristic of his puppet character to undermine the Duchess. In order to control the show the Duchess must be ‘putting some of herself into all the puppets to make them work’ (p. 158). This means that to some extent she is the Policeman, the Hangman, the Devil and the rest, each of the instruments of power effectively drawing on some vital element in the puppet master who operates them. Her power over the puppets links her to the puppets, so that if Tonino-Punch can beat the other puppets he can beat the Duchess – physically as well as metaphorically. And he can beat them, because Punch always beats his enemies. The Duchess is as much the victim of the narrative she has chosen to be part of as the children are; and despite all her efforts to alter the outcome of the confrontation between Punch and the Hangman, it’s inevitably the Hangman who comes off worst in the end. Punch asks the Hangman repeatedly to show him how to put his head in the noose, and after several attempts to change the script the Hangman finally succumbs, puts the rope around his own neck, and is hanged himself by the irrepressible murderer – which damages the Duchess quite badly, thanks to the link between herself and the Hangman puppet. The Duchess may have thought this could not happen because her Punch and Judy puppets were mere children, and therefore self-evidently powerless; but one of the children was also Punch, and therefore self-evidently capable of subverting the script written by authority. The Duchess’s double-vision was not sufficiently advanced to let her recognise the consequences of her decision to take control of the Punch and Judy show, which is all about working against control.

Stories have rules, like states, Jones seems to suggest, but those rules can work both ways, asserting control over the would-be storyteller as much as over the story’s cast of actors. Another mistake the Duchess makes is to use her magic to bring both the rival families of Caprona under her control at once. By uniting Tonino and Angelica as her prisoners, forcing them to work together to escape her, she begins the process of undermining the two sets of familial stories or myths that have been handed down to the children of each family in lieu of knowledge. It doesn’t take long for Angelica and Tonino to realise that they have both been manipulated by their elders all their lives, as they exchange inherited ‘facts’ about the Montanas and the Petrucchis which turn out to be lies, all underpinned by their first-hand knowledge that they have both been kidnapped not by a rival family but by the Duchess. Their two separate perspectives combine to form a truthful double-vision of each other’s upbringing and of the myths on which it was founded.

Between them, too, they begin to read their situation in the light of a new story, dedicated not to conflict but cooperation. This is the story of the Angel of Caprona, a symbolic being who provides the two families with a spell to protect themselves against the White Devil that seeks to destroy the City of Caprona in each successive generation. Thanks to the children’s new alertness to the fact that one thing can also be another – their double-vision – they learn that the human-seeming Duchess is also the legendary White Devil, manifesting itself in a new form in their lifetimes as it has done in every earlier age or epoch. To defeat her, the children must combine the words of the spell of protection brought from Heaven by the Angel, only half of which is known to each of the families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis. The double-vision of the two families, who have described each other in grotesque terms to sustain their quarrel, must be symbolically fused by bringing together the two halves of the spell; and once this has happened the statue of the Angel on the dome of the Cathedral will come to life and defend the City (and it’s worth stressing here how the statue, once animated, becomes in this way an alternative ‘puppet’ to Punch and Judy). At the same time the White Devil will appear in her true form – a giant white rat – and be hunted down, in a final act of violence, by the cats of each family. Double-vision, in other words, need not be divisive. It can be shared, like all forms of knowledge, so that two people on opposing sides can learn together that the world is not the simplistic place they thought it was, composed only of trusty friends and implacable enemies; and this lesson once learned, their new, positive double-vision of each other can be shared in turn with the warring factions that brought them up.

With the end of the Duchess the invasion ends too, as the bewildered armies of Siena, Pisa and Florence return home after being somehow defeated by the Angel (we never learn the details). The Duchess’s favourite story, too, goes into abeyance at this point, as the narrative of Punch and Judy suddenly ceases to be relevant. At the climactic moment of her plot to destroy Caprona, all the members of both warring families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis, are turned into Punch and Judy puppets by the Duchess’s sorcery and imprisoned in the ducal palace, like Tonino and Angelica before them. The defeat of the White Devil restores them to human form, but in the meantime their transformation has humiliatingly confirmed their predilection for being manipulated, as Tonino and Angelica were in the puppet show before the Duke. As a result, both families quickly agree to abandon the habit of attacking one another on the slightest provocation, thus freeing themselves from the danger of succumbing to the power of puppet masters. The Duke, too, decides to abandon his obsession with Punch and Judy puppets; ‘Somehow I don’t fancy them like I used to’, he observes ruefully (p. 265). At this point the story of the Angel of Caprona – another object magically or imaginatively endowed with life – takes the place of Punch and Judy as the presiding narrative of the city and the novel. We can, then, choose the stories that govern us, Jones implies, at least to some extent.

But our choice of story will have a material effect on the way we see ourselves and each other. It must be made with care; and we must be equally careful not to let ourselves be subsumed or mastered by the narratives we have selected. Reading them with double-vision will help, keeping ourselves conscious of the fictionality of the stories we live by. An angel which is also a statue has less say over our choices than a plain angel. A Duchess who is also a giant rat can hardly make a bid for control of the country. Enemies who also have families just like ours are more difficult to see in simplistic terms; while we can hardly take ourselves over-seriously if we understand our own capacity for becoming objects, operated by strings, rods, slogans or cunning fingers. Puppets not only have a use in bringing stories to life, but they also have a use in reminding us that they are only stories. The double-vision they afford is a crucial one, and needs to be valued.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

If The Magicians of Caprona considers glove puppets as embodiments of our susceptibility to being possessed by malevolent powers, Hoban’s Riddley Walker presents us with a still more disturbing vision of how they might embody the human condition. In a South-East England of the distant future – after a worldwide nuclear holocaust that has wiped out much of the population and mutated many of the survivors – we find ourselves wandering across a blasted landscape described in an English language which has mutated into a broken down, worn-out dialect, haunted by unintended puns and echoes of ideas, people, beasts, desires and objects from earlier epochs. Words, here, harbour double-visions of multiple kinds, reminding us repeatedly of their composite nature – constructed both from letters arranged in an unfamiliar orthography and embedded fragments of other words – while pointing towards different fragmentary narratives and forms of knowledge that run concurrently through the novel. The verbal units that make up this futuristic dialect can be seen as puppets steered by puppet-masters who suffer from acute memory loss – and who are therefore themselves in a sense made up of fragments, a situation symbolised by the severed hand of a dead puppeteer which is discovered by the protagonist, Riddley Walker, inside the remains of a glove puppet he unearths near the start of the novel. Desperately guessing at connections between one part of a sentence and the next, between one historical period and another, and between one element of knowledge – science, religion or philosophy – and the crucial companion element that will ignite it into new significance, the many would-be puppet-masters of time to come plunge blindly forward towards an unknown end. Some of them, indeed, plunge forward in a state of literal blindness, as one would-be puppet-master loses his eyes by violence, while another was born with ‘no eyes nor no hoals for eyes’ in his pallid face (p. 72).[7] As a result of this outward and inward sightlessness their quest to move forward takes them only in circles, treading paths that have already been well worn by their ancestors, each circle centred on the ancient city of Canterbury, or ‘Cambry’ as it is known in Riddley’s lifetime. They are pilgrims condemned to repeat the trajectories of their forefathers over and over, Punch and Judies unable to free themselves from the murderous traditional narrative, so once again it’s hardly surprising to find Mr Punch himself at the heart of Hoban’s novel.

The multiple meanings spawned by the dialect of Hoban’s text are matched by the multiple rival factions that seek to dominate this damaged future, each of which is hard at work to recover the half-understood technologies of the past. Most of these factions are ironically convinced that recreating the nuclear bomb – or a less ambitious explosive such as gunpowder – holds the key to regaining the power that once put planes in the sky, light and heating into homes, and pictures and information into the metal brains of quasi-sentient machines. They seek, in other words, the power of destruction, thinking it the power of creation, and the most frightening thing about the book is its suggestion that they may well be right about the close connection between these two processes.

Stalking this blasted landscape is the half-remembered figure of Mr Punch, the embodiment of human resilience, human savagery, and human possession by ideas, dreams, feelings and obsessions not our own. A figure of Mr Punch is unearthed by twelve-year-old Riddley near the start of the narrative, and comes to embody in his mind the uneasy relationship between the post-apocalyptic present and the forgotten past. The chief characteristic of Mr Punch, for Hoban as for Wynne Jones, is possession. The puppet is possessed both by the puppeteer who seeks to make gains from his performances and by the violent story he is condemned to repeat through endless generations. His visible disability – the hump on his back – is understood by Riddley as a sign that Punch’s body has been deformed by radioactive fallout, while his violent life story (which Riddley learns from the puppeteer-politician Abel Goodparley) is being re-enacted on a larger scale in the book’s ‘real’ world, where the power-seeking factions descend from murderous local rivalry to the brink of all-out war. Possession locks Mr Punch into re-enacting his past again and again, and Mr Punch’s re-enactments confirm that the world is also locked into its habit of repeating past mistakes again and again till it self-destructs and the tortuous history begins once more.

The possessed interior of Mr Punch is destructively at odds with his colourful exterior. Inside is a living darkness full of fear and cunning, while the side he presents to the world is bright and crude – the disparity between the two qualities making him funny, at least in theory, at least for some. The inside is always on the verge of breaking out, of breaking into and breaking apart the already broken body that contains it (back to those broken-down words again, with meanings breaking through them in all directions). The same is true of Riddley Walker’s world, the world from which the body of Punch was accidentally dug up in a quest for the technological secrets of the past. The puppet body unearthed by Riddley at the dig signals the fact that the past has finally broken through into the present, and that the hidden darkness, fear and cunning which lurk in the human heart and mind have broken through into the light and colour of the shattered landscape, as one might expect they would in a place whose name has mutated over the centuries from ‘England’ to ‘Inland’, a land whose inhabitants are obsessed with looking inwards.

One of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for the Folio Society edition of Riddley Walker. ‘Sharna pax and get the poal.’

‘Looking inwards’, here, might mean seeking out one’s personal advantage in a bid to survive from day to day; or behaving parochially – in the interests of one’s local ‘crowd’, not anyone else’s; or examining one’s mind and body in a bid to understand one’s desires and instincts. Two sets of desires and instincts struggle for possession of the ‘inward’ parts of humankind in Hoban’s future. The first is the ‘first knowing’, the sort of knowledge humans share with animals: an inherited awareness of how to survive, and of the tragic inevitability of not surviving, giving rise to a sadness born of collective memory of family members and much-loved places repeatedly lost to disease or violence in a constant cycle from generation to generation. The second is ‘clevverness’, embodied in Mr Punch himself, as well as in his immortal enemy and twin Mr Clevver, aka Mr On The Levvil, aka the Devil. Clevverness is the constant quest for the upper hand, combined with the dangerous conviction that one’s head will supply it; this is the force that drives the factions on their explosive rival quests for power. These two forms of possession or inward action are in effect one, since they combine to urge the possessed – the human species or its subject members – on the same circular path that was trodden by their forebears. Clevverness cannot prevent this – and in Mr On the Levvil’s case may even wish to bring it about – and the First Knowing in us knows as much, though we suppress that knowledge as best we can. Riddley Walker, our protagonist, represents a fusion of Clevverness and First Knowing, reading riddles in the landscape and people around him, working out those riddles through ingenuity or by instinct or by accident, and walking them around the circuit he is doomed to tread, like his ancestors and contemporaries, till the answers fall into place (or don’t, as the case may be). For the most part, though, it’s the First Knowing that possesses him, giving him a special empathy with the anarchic wild dogs (the opposite of controlling gods) that roam the Inland landscape, for ever alienated from humankind by the memory of worldwide devastation.

The best representation in the book of First Knowing – the inherited, instinctual, dark knowledge we carry with us from birth – comes near the beginning in a conversation between Riddley Walker and the wise woman of his community, Lorna Elswint (Lorna implying loneliness, her surname suggesting a wind or spirit from elsewhere). Read in the light of Riddley’s later discovery of Mr Punch, the passage could equally be an account of the power of puppets, especially puppets of the glove variety, made from painted wood and colourful cloth and designed to fit the human hand, with the thumb and middle finger working the arms while the index finger nods the head. The passage is also a fine example of the broken-down dialect in which the novel is written, a suitable medium for a narrative about brokenness, forgetfulness, incomprehension, and the tendency to repeat ourselves inadvertently, without understanding:

Lorna said to me: ‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.’

I said, ‘What thing is that?’

She said, ‘Its some kynd of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it dont even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.’

I said, ‘If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.’

Lorna said, ‘Wel there is a millying and mor.’

I said, ‘Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?’

She said, ‘Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part. I dont think I took all that much noatis of it when I ben yung. Now Im old I noatis it mor. It dont realy like to put me on no mor. Every morning I can feal how its tiret of me and readying to throw me a way. Iwl tel you some thing Riddley and keap this in memberment. What ever it is we dont come naturel to it.’

I said, ‘Lorna I dont know what you mean.’

She said, ‘We aint a naturel part of it. We dint begin when it begun we dint begin where it begun. It ben here befor us nor I dont know what we are to it. May be weare jus only sickness and a feaver to it or boyls on the arse of it I dont know. Now lissen what Im going to tel you Riddley. It thinks us but it dont think like us. It dont think the way we think. Plus like I said befor its afeart.’

I said, ‘Whats it afeart of?’

She said, ‘Its afeart of being beartht.’

I said, ‘How can that be? You said it ben here befor us. If it ben here all this time it musve ben beartht some time.’

She said, ‘No it aint ben beartht it never does get beartht its all ways in the woom of things its all ways on the road.’ (pp. 6-7)

In this passage, the ‘thing’ inside us could be taken for our puppeteer, or the impulses that drive the puppeteer. But instead of a ‘clevver’ being with a self-serving agenda – the kind of being implied by the phrase ‘a puppet state’, authoritative, cunning and cruel, like the Duchess of Caprona – the being inside the human puppet is both childishly innocent and utterly inhuman. It has no identity, no words, no shape, no community, no hidden agenda. It isn’t an individual and it’s not a collective; it seems to have been split into multiple pieces by some past cataclysm – each piece lodged in a separate human person – and to be both lonely for the lost fragments of itself and terrified of assembling them, as if when assembled like the ingredients of a bomb it might go off, with devastating consequences. Like the hidden puppeteer it has no name, but its primary motivation is fear; above all, fear of itself, or of what might happen to itself and others if it comes together and gets ‘beartht’ or born. Hoban’s narrative gives numerous indications of the kind of happening that might ensue from such a reassembly and parturition. The nuclear catastrophe that destroyed humankind in the past seems to embody the sudden coming-together and emergence of that ‘thing’, released from the caging and sheltering womb by the quest for clevverness. A smaller-scale coming together and sudden emergence or birth takes place at the end of the novel, when one of the questing factions succeeds in detonating gunpowder, using ingredients of various kinds which have not been brought into explosive contact with each other for generations. In the process, the ‘thing’ is let loose again on the world, being born and killing, creating and destroying at one and the same time. And throughout the rest of the narrative, human beings and animals – dogs, boars, boys and men – find themselves torn to pieces and tossed aside as they first converge, then burst apart, like gloves or garments or bodies that can no longer contain what lies within. Being reassembled and born into the world, this dismantled ‘thing’ subjects itself and others to destruction of different magnitudes. The ‘woom’ or womb of creation is also the ‘WHAP’ of exploding ordnance (p. 188). No wonder the ‘thing’ is ‘Tremmering’ at the prospect of its own destructive creation.

In Riddley Walker, then, human beings are violent puppets; but puppets themselves also play a role. Puppet shows tour the scattered communities of the future, performed by the Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer of Inland’s government or Mincery, which is physically based on an island known as the Ram (the Isle of Thanet, with Ramsgate on it). The show is essentially government propaganda, informing the people of Inland about Mincery policy and urging their compliance. But the communities can answer back, and in doing so affect that policy. Each show is digested and reinterpreted for the local community by their own ‘connexion man’, a job that falls to Riddley Walker when his father, the old connexion man, is killed in an accident while working on a Mincery dig. Riddley ‘tels’ or makes connexions for his people, and in doing so has the potential to build resistance to unpopular directives from the Ram. He supplies them with a political double-vision, ensuring they never lose sight of the contingent nature of the policies acted out by the Mincery’s puppets.

The Ram’s puppet shows, in other words, have several checks on them to ensure they cannot work in a monologic or univocal way. Being delivered by puppets, all of them stock characters who get reused from show to show and from generation to generation, they are contained and controlled by certain conventions. The Ram’s shows have a backdrop of smoke and flames that reminds their audiences of the appalling consequences of wrong decisions. One of the characters is a figure called Eusa, a Punch-figure whose name recalls the two Cold War superpowers that brought about those consequences (USA, USSR). Another is Mr Clevver, with his pointy beard, his horns and his red complexion – an animated warning of the dangers of certain forms of knowledge, or of assuming one can control those dangers by ingenuity. The puppets are necessarily small, the ‘fit-up’ in which the show takes place is a portable, collapsible box, and the Mincery men who deliver the show are required to carry it around Inland themselves as if in ritual penitence for the events that reduced Inland to its current state. They are pilgrims, in other words, doing penance for past misdemeanours. And the show’s audience, as well as the connexion man, is actively involved in interpreting the Mincery’s performance, as well as in deciding whether or not to accept the connexion man’s exegetic reading of it, or ‘tel’. They are stridently vocal, as we see whenever Hoban describes a puppet performance. They are sometimes violent. Some nervous Pry Mincers and Wes Mincers, including Abel Goodparley and his sidekick Ernie Orfing, choose to protect themselves against potentially hostile audiences by being accompanied on their travels by a crowd of ‘hevvies’ from the Ram. Puppetry, in Hoban’s world, is an art that restricts the ambitions of the powerful and confers a degree of power on the people, who are rendered by it unruly co-performers as well as spectators, with a voice and unruly bodies of their own.

The map of Inland

It’s crucially, too, a mobile art, created by travellers, even when those travellers purport to be speaking for a government attached to a fixed location (the Ram). Travellers are vulnerable, dependent on the goodwill of the communities they pass through and trade with; in this case, the items for trade on offer being the entertainment and the knowledge or information supplied by the show. Riddley Walker takes place at a point in future history when the communities across Inland have become divided between travellers and ‘formers’ or farmers, who are increasingly enclosing land for their own private uses, encroaching on the space available to the groups who have chosen to continue with their mobile lifestyle. Formers are also implicitly conservative, dedicated to recovering former times. A shift of power is taking place, from travellers to formers, and the current Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer are keen to encourage the shift to a forming existence. But their tool for encouragement, the show, embodies travelling rather than forming; and the travelling community who watch it, if not the formers, are inclined to side with the travelling ethos figured by the puppets, rather than the policies preferred by the Mincery’s script.

Meanwhile the Mincery itself is not monologic; like a Punch and Judy show, it doesn’t speak with a single voice. Of course, the voices of puppets in such a show are all spoken by one person – the puppeteer – albeit in different ways, so that like Lorna Elswint’s hidden ‘thing’ the puppets are one as well as many. But a crucial mediator between the show and its audience is the front man or bottler, who in the old days would pass a leather bottle round the audience to collect their fees, and who in Riddley’s time does the ‘patter’ – encouraging Eusa to come up from inside the booth and begin his performance, then challenging him when the show goes in a direction he doesn’t approve of. Orfing is the front man or bottler, and hence also the ‘Shaddow Mincer’, ‘Wes Mincer’ or opposition leader in the Mincery, and he challenges the Pry Mincer Goodparley repeatedly in the first performance by the pair we witness. Later the two Mincers split up, in a witty allusion to the splitting of the atom to create nuclear fusion, and form separate factions in the quest for power. And later still Orfing joins Riddley as they develop a new show – based not on Eusa but on Punch and Judy – which is designed specifically to encourage the continuation of travelling, and of remembering the disastrous outcome of the last quest for geographically demarcated, hierarchically organised power on the part of their ancestors. Orfing becomes Riddley’s front man, continuing the tradition of questioning the monologic voice on behalf of the community, without robbing the community itself of its raucous multiple voices.

From the cover of Quentin Blake’s illustrated edition of Riddley Walker

For Hoban, in other words, a puppet show can be used for propaganda – like television, from which the twenty-first century public gets ‘tels’ from its powerful rulers – or as a work of art, with its own, less predictable ‘tels’, always wandering, refusing stability, taking its creators as much as its recipients by surprise, stirring up trouble, breaking up communities as well as forming them. At the end of the novel, Riddley and Orfing acquire a following through their performances: a mobile community of men, women and children, who choose to join them on their travels after each performance instead of continuing their lives as members of stable communities defined by ‘forms’ and ‘fentses’ (fences, the temporary defensive structures put up by travellers at their camp sites). This travelling troupe, possessed by the spirit of First Knowing and carrying the memory of the ambiguous Mr Punch, takes to the roads at a time of crisis, when the knowledge of how to make gunpowder has been unleashed on the world once more and violent power struggles have broken out of the shadows to which for a while they had been confined. Puppets have always been used for resistance and protest – most strikingly, perhaps, in the radical days of the 1960s and 70s, when political companies like Bread and Puppet (in New York City, then Vermont) or In the Heart of the Beast (in Minneapolis) sponsored performances and May Day processions in the USA, or in modern times when the refugee puppet Little Amal walked from the Syrian border to Glasgow for COP 26, the climate conference of 2021. For Hoban these political puppets have a supernatural or spiritual air about them, being driven by forces we and they do not understand: the winds of change, the wind from elsewhere (the ‘Elswint’), an instinctive alertness for imminent crisis. In Riddley Walker and his people he has created a potent image of the perennial potential of puppets to serve as a means of giving a voice to the unvoiced, the dis-voiced, the voiceless.

John Masefield, The Box of Delights

If Riddley’s puppet show is an unsettling work of political and spiritual art, written as prologue to the cyclical human performance of war, another puppet show that speaks to an approaching conflict is that of the Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, in John Masefield’s celebrated fantasy for children The Box of Delights (1935). Like Punch himself, old Cole is an ancient figure, reminiscent of the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman as portrayed by Eugène Sue and Richard Wagner. Masefield introduced him in a long poem of 1921, King Cole, as a flute-playing traveller whose magic revives the fortunes of a group of destitute circus performers by bringing royalty to watch their show. In the poem, King Cole is the resurrected figure of a legendary monarch commemorated in the nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole’, under whom England was properly merry – or at least that little corner of England ruled by him, the quasi-fictional ‘valley-land from Condicote to Thame’ in which Masefield sets most of his novels, a kindlier, smaller version of Hardy’s Wessex (p. 731).[8] After his death King Cole is granted the gift of wandering the country with his wooden flute, an ‘old, poor, wandering man, with glittering eyes’ who bestows blessings on the needy: ‘His piping feeds the starved and warms the cold, / It gives the beaten courage; to the lost / It brings back faith, that lodestar of the ghost’ (p. 731). As a performer who brings new courage and prosperity to performers, King Cole is a patron of art and artists, who specializes in celebrating the humblest forms of creativity. He says of the travelling circus people, ‘they serve the arts and love delight’ (p. 749), and transforms their painted waggons with his music into rich emblems of fertility: ‘And all the vans seemed grown with living leaves / And living flowers, the best September knows, / Moist poppies scarlet from the Hilcote sheaves, / Green-fingered bine that runs the barley-rows’ (p. 741). By the end of the poem the fragile love-relationships between members of the circus troupe have also been renewed. Returned from the dead as a genial green god, King Cole in turn revives, refreshes and regenerates the people of Masefield country and their dreams (hence the reference to poppies), giving him the same supernatural, quasi-ritualistic potency as Hoban’s puppets.

In The Box of Delights Masefield brings back King Cole again in the person of Cole Hawlings, still a wandering, poor old man with glittering eyes, but transformed in voice – he now speaks like a traveller rather than a monarch – and seemingly also more ancient than any King of England, since he has been travelling, he tells us, since before England even existed. As he explains to the book’s protagonist, young Kay Harker: ‘First there were pagan times; then there were in-between times; then there were Christian times; then there was another in-between time; then there was Oliver’s time; and then there was pudding time: but the time I liked best was just before the in-between time, what you might call Henry’s time’ (p. 46).[9] In this incarnation Cole is a Punch and Judy man, with a little dog called Toby; but the focus of his act is not so much on the puppets as on the visions he can conjure up with his performer’s magic: sometimes in the fire, sometimes from the wainscot of a living-room wall, sometimes in an ordinary picture (which becomes a portal, Mary Poppins style, when Cole needs to make a quick escape from his enemies), but most often through the little box of the novel’s title, which gives its user free access to the folkloric spaces of the past like a miniature time machine.

The Box of Delights is a kind of Puppet theatre or booth, and hence an embodiment of the artist’s ability to conjure up wonders in a little space with the most ordinary of ingredients: wood, paint and cloth, or words like Masefield’s, or a child’s imagination. The theatre can be carried even by a little man – Orfing in Riddley Walker is the porter of the Mincery’s booth despite his diminutive stature – and Cole Hawlings can lift it with ease when escaping by mule from his enemies into the drawing of a Swiss mountain: ‘he swung himself onto the mule, picked up the theatre with one hand, gathered the reins with the other, said, “Come, Toby,” and at once rode off with Toby trotting under the mule, out of the room, up the mountain path, up, up, up, till the path was nothing more than a line in the faded painting, that was so dark upon the wall’ (p. 61). The portable nature of the theatre explains and symbolises its resilience, its capacity to survive from generation to generation, evading censorship and litigation, and mutating from time to time to accommodate new social and political circumstances. It is a theatre for travellers, as Hoban confirmed in Riddley Walker; and as it travels the magic it contains can be unleashed and escape into its various surroundings, rendering them magical too. In this scene the drawing on the wall becomes another miniature theatre, and after Cole Hawlings has disappeared into the picture magical fragments continue to blow back into the room where it is hung from the mountain landscape he has brought alive: snowflakes that resolve themselves into ‘shapes of coloured paper’ and ‘little coloured balloons, in the shapes of cocks, horses, ships and aeroplanes’, each carrying a gift for one of the children in Kay’s house (p. 61). The puppet theatre is small and seemingly enclosed, but thanks to the interactions between the puppets, the audience, the bottler (where there is one) and the puppet-master’s little dog Toby, is always escaping from its confines and unleashing strangeness on the world. And every audience that witnesses a puppet performance takes a fragment of it home with them in their hearts and minds, to lend new strangeness to enclosed spaces like paintings, boxes, wainscots, wardrobes, and windows with curtains, throughout their lives to come.

The Box of Delights, being even smaller and more portable than a puppet theatre – though equally full of the visions and wonders which Cole Hawlings calls ‘plays’ (p. 47)[10] – comes to symbolise this capacity for survival from the deep past as strongly as the booth itself. And the theatre and its master are connected to the past from the very beginning of the story. The villainous Abner Brown – a foreigner of uncertain origins, possibly American, who wants to get hold of the Box for his own nefarious purposes – thinks of Cole Hawlings as the custodian of an ancient puppeteering tradition that goes back even further than Punch. ‘I am interested,’ he tells Kay’s cousin Little Maria,

‘in the various forms of the Punch and Judy show, and this man is the son, and grandson of Punch and Judy men, who were on the roads many years ago. This man is known to have several versions of the play which they played, and other versions still older, which are not played, and I do most earnestly want to meet him, and now he is off to this wild life of the roads in weather like this, where a touch of pneumonia, or a passing van, may wipe out his knowledge for ever.’ (p. 68)

Brown’s slightly sinister hint at the fragile mortality of the Punch and Judy man is belied by Cole’s own account of his long, long memory, which implies that he is more or less immortal. Abner’s concern for the old man’s welfare as he continues in the traveller tradition seems to mask a desire to see him confined to a fixed address, perhaps a workhouse or a Public Assistance Institution (the replacement for the workhouse in the 1930s). And Brown’s later insistence that Cole is no more than a reincarnation of the Catalan philosopher and alchemist Ramon Lully, Lull, or Llull (p. 265), serves a similar purpose: to fix him in a specific time and place, robbing him of his supernatural mystique. Cole himself never answers to the name ‘Lully’, and his memory of ‘pagan times’ suggests that if he is indeed Llull (who lived in the twelfth century) then Llull is a good deal more ancient than historians suspect; Lull, that is, may be Cole, rather than the other way round. Abner contends that Llull invented an elixir of life, and sought to trade it for the Box of Delights, which gave him mastery over time and space. If such a bargain had been successfully concluded this would help to explain Cole’s longevity, of course, while his possession of the Box – dug up by the Punch and Judy man many years after it was first lost – would help to explain his detailed knowledge of all those periods of history and prehistory; after all, the maker of the Box, Arnold of Todi, shows an equally detailed familiarity with the career of his greatest hero, Alexander the Great. But Cole’s own interest in the past is driven not by history but folklore. His Box transports its new possessor, Kay, to encounters with the pagan wood-spirit Herne the Hunter and a nameless Woman of the Oak-Tree, who has a wonderful way with animals of all species. These folkloric figures are as unconfined as the creatures that accompany them – squirrels, birds of every kind, and porpoises – and by giving Kay access to them, the Box identifies itself as a work of resistance to arbitrary boundaries and oppressive limitations.

Cole’s connection with Herne the Hunter and the Woman of the Oak-Tree marks him out, too, as a folkloric figure, not a historical one, closer to the nursery rhyme personality Old King Cole than the twelfth-century philosopher with whom Abner seeks to identify him. He embodies knowledge which is not that of ancient philosophers, elitist magic-workers or modern scientists, but of the popular, oral variety; a knowledge which is decaying in the current cycle of history, but may revive itself, as King Cole did in the poem, when the next cycle begins. Wielders of such knowledge, like Punch and Judy men and travellers, are now despised, but were not so in the past and may not be in the future: ‘Time was when we had power,’ Cole tells Kay Harker when he first meets him, ‘like the Sun, and could swing the Earth and the Moon, and now our old wheels are all running down and we are coming to our second childhood. […] Still, they say […] that it begins again, in the course of time’ (p. 20). Regardless of Abner’s stories about Cole as Ramon Llull and Arnold of Todi, the old man seems possessed of both command over space and time and immortality thanks to his folkloric knowledge what he calls ‘the secrets of my show’, which ‘aren’t to be had by these common ones’ (p. 20), meaning the wealthy, ruling class men and women who seek possession of them – though he shares his show freely with the those who don’t seek exclusive possession of it.

Abner’s desire to get hold of Cole, meanwhile, and to winkle his knowledge out of him by fair means or foul, marks him out as the polar opposite of the old man. Brown is a person with his own narrow, secretive, self-serving range of desires and obsessions; not a generous sharer of his art like the puppet master, who performs for every comer he encounters in his ‘wild life on the roads’, but a private collector, who keeps the things he collects (like the box of jewels he crows over at one point in the novel, a colder, stonier container than the Box of Delights) for his own delight and no one else’s. Brown, in fact, represents a menace from the past that has always been opposed to what Cole stands for: imaginative wonder, delight, and adventure freely shared with all. Brown is the leader of a band of ravening ‘wolves’, who have materialised in every epoch to which the Box gives Kay magical access. In each of these epochs these symbolic ‘wolves’ have hurled themselves against the protective fences of peace and art: not just as the ‘enormous wolves, with red eyes and gleaming teeth’ that attack Kay when the Box takes him into the Camp of the legendary King Arthur (p. 88), or clamour about the walls of the mythical City of Troy, which Kay also visits; but as the ‘other wolves’ who are in pursuit of the Box, the devious human kind that ‘magistrates don’t heed’ (p. 90). One of the reasons magistrates don’t heed this kind of wolf is that it so often takes the shape of establishment figures. Abner disguises himself as a clergyman – the head of a missionary training college – while his followers who kidnap Cole after he has passed the Box to Kay are at first assumed by the police to be officers from the local aerodrome, having a frolic. Abner’s gang has an enormous underground hideout which is mostly made up of prison cells; cars that can turn into planes and fly at great speed in absolute silence; criminal operations throughout the world, it seems; and an endless supply of weaponry. Abner himself, meanwhile, is an avid collector. He has his personal collection of jewels, a collection of enslaved supernatural servants – including a sullen Boy and a Brazen Head – and a collection of human prisoners, to which he adds as the novel goes on till the dungeons underneath his hideout are crammed full of them. His acquisitiveness marks him out as capitalistic, as well as socially elevated; but for all his high status the double-vision supplied by Cole identifies him as one of the wolves, readily visible to all despite the clerical sheep’s clothing he affects.

An illustration of The Box of Delights by Faith Jaques

Abner Brown shuts things down and locks people up; the Box opens things out and liberates people from bondage – first the castaway Arnold of Todi, who is rescued from a desert island through its agency, then the crowds of prisoners locked up by Abner Brown. Kay’s acquisition of the Box of Delights from Cole Hawlings renders Kay an apprentice puppet master, first drawn into the wonderful ‘plays’ the Box already contains, then empowered to produce original ‘plays’ with props of their own. And his plays are dedicated to liberty. In the final section of the book, Kay uses the Box to transport himself to Abner’s underground lair, where the cells are, and here Cole shows him how to make functional, liberatory art using the old man’s special brand of magic. Under Cole’s direction Kay makes drawings of creatures and objects that could help the prisoners break free from the cells in which Abner has locked them; drawings that come alive, as the drawing of the mountains came alive for Cole, and detach themselves from the fragile sheets of paper to which they were once confined. Here’s the moment when it begins to happen:

In fact, the drawings did stand out from the paper rather strangely. The light was concentrated on them; as [Kay] looked at them the horses seemed to be coming towards him out of the light, and, no, it was not seeming, they were moving; he saw the hoof casts flying and heard the rhythmical beat of hoofs. The horses were coming out of the picture, galloping fast, and becoming brighter and brighter. Then he saw that the light was partly fire from their eyes and manes, partly sparks from their hoofs. “They are real horses,” he cried. “Look.” (p. 378)

As with the moment when Cole Hawlings rides the mule into the picture of the mountains, the wonder of this passage is the double-vision it generates; the picture is as vividly present to the reader’s eye as the horses in it, and Kay’s joyful cry, “They are real horses,” serves only to remind us that they are also not real horses, since they are ‘coming out of the picture’, not out of a field or forest, and they have a light about them ordinary horses do not cast.

In The Box of Delights, then, large and small puppet theatres, the puppet master and his young apprentice, become emblems of art at its most liberating and exuberant. And although the end of the book has disappointed some, with its Alice in Wonderland consignment of Kay’s adventures to the land of dreams, Masefield ensures the boy wakes up in a railway carriage – making him a modern traveller, capable of going wherever the rails might take him – and with a strong appreciation of the dream in which he met Cole Hawlings (‘Have you had a nice dream?’ his governess asks him, and Kay replies ‘I have’, p. 418). His return to the ordinary world need not disenchant the story we’ve just been reading so much as re-enchant the ordinary. And the ordinary was in great need of re-enchantment in the year the book was published, 1935.

Abner Brown is a pleasingly hopeless villain, plotted against by his witchy wife, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, and her scheming lover the foxy-faced Charles, unable to retain the loyalty of his gang (purely on account of his own disloyalty), incapable even of getting satisfactory service from his supernatural servants, who resent him because he mistreats them every time he consults them. But the Wolves with whom he is associated are sometimes frightening, if only because they are everywhere, in all times and places, and always hungry. Perhaps, too, Masefield’s first readers of Kay’s age would have been aware that there were Wolves abroad as they read: the wolves of fascism, Stalinism, Nazism and the rest, whose presence in Europe would lead to another war almost as mythical as and vastly more cataclysmic than the Trojan wars or the wars waged by King Arthur, or even Alexander the Great. Under these conditions the smallness of puppets, who enact stories that endure from age to age in the face of conflict and calamity, and who come to life again and again despite the self-evident lifelessness of their wood, paint and cloth, can be comforting and even inspiring, as we look for ways to express our own opposition to the abuses of power. Diana Wynne Jones, Russell Hoban and John Masefield all seem to say so. We could do with some of their hopeful double-, treble- and quadruple visions right here and now, in the year of conflict 2022.

Notes

[1] Steve Tillis, Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet (New York etc.: Greenwood Pres, 1992), p. 65.

[2] See for example the quote from Michael R. Malkin on p. 37 of Tillis’s Toward an Aesthetic of the Puppet: ‘Puppetry has played a vital role in the development of what can be called the dramatic concept of the plausible impossible […] [This] is the link between the world of the real and the realm of pure fantasy […] It is this sense that puppetry represents a basic theatrical concept; it represents dramatic imagination in one of its most fluid forms’.

[3] See his discussion of ‘literary belief’ in the essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins 2001), pp. 37-8.

[4] As I write this, I remember the artist and puppet designer Brian Froud telling us how, when drawing our painting the Devon landscape, he seeks out the strange life that inhabits it – the life that’s somehow inside it, as the faeries of Ireland and Scotland are said to dwell inside the hills; and I wonder if I’m right. That wonder is exactly where the pleasure of fantasy lies. The status of what we ‘know’ is at stake here, and fantasy is often concerned to trouble our assumptions about ‘knowledge’ and ignorance, as I hope this post will go on to suggest.

 

[5] All references are to The Magicians of Caprona (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

[6] Tillis’s book includes a fascinating section on the way puppets have sometimes seemed to take control of their puppet masters; Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet, p. 33 ff.

[7] All references are to Riddley Walker (London: Picador, 1980).

[8] All references to ‘King Cole’ are taken from The Collected Poems of John Masefield (London: William Heinemann, 1923).

[9] All references are to John Masefield, The Box of Delights, or When the Wolves Were Running (London: William Heinemann, 1935).

[10] ‘And now, Master Harker and friends,’ he said, coming outside his stand, ‘now that I’ve played my play, I’ll play more than my Punch and my Judy, for a travelling man collects as he goes, or doesn’t he?’

Magic Houses at a Time of Covid

Howl’s Moving Castle, from the Studio Ghibli Movie

At a time of Covid, fantasy has provided a refuge for the housebound, a means of travelling vicariously to lands free from disease where social distancing is either entirely absent or a function of plot, not necessity. As we read in the beleaguered safety of our beds, or curled up under blankets on a shabby sofa, or stretched out on patches of grass between forbidding banks of Victorian tenement blocks, it would hardly be surprising if our attention had been drawn with unusual persistence to fantasy’s obsession with houses. This, then, is a wandering meditation on the magic houses of fantasy fiction, which begins with ordinary buildings made bizarre – interspersed with some very strange dwelling places indeed – and ends with a series of domiciles that succeed in domesticating the odd, the wayward and the impossible, recognizing these as in effect the conditions under which we have lived in the long decades since the Second World War. Brace yourselves. As the Wizard Howl observes in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle (which is where we end), ‘It should be hair-raising’.

The Domestic Roots of Fantasy

Fantasy fiction begins and ends with the domestic house, no matter how far it strays in between. The foundational epic of the modern fantasy tradition, The Lord of the Rings (1954-5), has its roots in a house buried in the ground, and this homely structure provides the epic’s preface or springboard – The Hobbit (1937) – with its much-loved opening paragraph:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Tolkien’s own picture of Bilbo’s Hobbit Hole

Here the hobbit’s underground dwelling invokes comfort, stability, security, a place of one’s own with literal roots, perhaps with a room of one’s own inside it to read or write in – the room, for instance, where Bilbo Baggins later writes his memoirs, which Tolkien imagines as blossoming into the book of family records from which The Lord of the Rings is taken. But a hobbit’s house is also a kind of adventure in itself, with its tunnel-shaped hall lined with circular doors leading to innumerable rooms, which by the end of the novel are reputed to be filled with treasure. All those doors make it a place for adventures to start from; each of them might serve as the portal for a different quest, and Bilbo’s own quest is full of equally magical houses, from the Last Homely House with its mischievous, diminutive elves – rebranded as Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings – to Beorn’s wooden hall at the edge of Mirkwood, outside whose doors and windows hosts of bears go snuffling at night, or the Wood King’s underground house in Mirkwood itself, or the cavernous halls of the dragon Smaug, which were once the halls of the Dwarf King Thorin Oakenshield and his ancestors, and which thus provide a disturbing illustration of how adventures can infiltrate and destroy the family home. Many of these houses are variations on the hobbit’s hole, fulfilling the promise of adventure hidden in its many unvisited rooms and subterranean location. Bilbo’s hole was invaded by dwarves in the opening chapter, and it continues to occupy his thoughts through all the chapters that follow, providing both a parallel and a contrast to the many houses he visits before his adventures end. That’s the key to the allure of fantasy: in most cases a house something like the place where the reader sits when she begins to read, and to which she returns after dipping her toe into the perilous streams that run through the forests of romance, remains central to the reading experience from start to finish. And fantasy’s acknowledgment of the house’s importance to the reader’s experience, with its strangenesses, its precariousness when disaster strikes, the dangers it contains as well as its attractions, has helped to make fantasy the genre of choice for the shielding citizens of the Covid crisis.

That other foundational epic of modern fantasy, C S Lewis’s sequence of Narnian chronicles (1950-56), also begins in a house which is both a comfort and an adventure: the old Professor’s home in the West of England. This building is ancient and interesting enough to warrant visits from curious sightseers, while also being filled with mysterious rooms containing suits of armour, libraries, or wardrobes made of wood from another dimension. Lewis tells us, O bliss! that there are masses of other stories to be told about the building, some of them even stranger than the one we are about to read, and the very fact that he does not hint at what these stories might be invests the house with an imaginative potency that confirms it as the starting place for unnumbered potential narratives: a Wood Between the Worlds to match the one in The Magician’s Nephew. Like Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, the Professor’s house is full of doors that might easily open onto alternative novels containing different universes, and there are books that quite deliberately mimic the experience of opening another one of these doors – such as James Treadwell’s Advent (2012), which takes as its central location a house in the West Country that bears a curious resemblance to the Professor’s residence at a later, more dilapidated stage of its long existence. Lewis’s own The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) – the third of the Narnian chronicles to be published – contains a house that shares the mood and mode of the Professor’s mansion, with mirrors, decorations and books in it that seem as quasi-sentient and portal-esque as the famous wardrobe. In it, Lucy engages in an act of reading that confirms the link between houses and books in fantasy fiction: houses are places to be read as well as to read in, and books are capacious annexes of the houses, flats or rented rooms we occupy.

Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton, based on The Turn of the Screw

Lewis and Tolkien share their interest in domestic settings with some of the crucial taproot texts of fantasy fiction. The Grimm brothers recognized the house as a site of storytelling when they dubbed their great collection of fairy stories the Household Tales for Children (Kinder- und Hausmärchen, 1812). William Morris’s late romances (1888-98) constructed themselves around a succession of strange houses, described with the kind of loving attention to detail one would expect from an interior designer, while Dickens consciously invoked the Grimms when he dubbed the magazine he founded Household Words (1850-8). In the days of the Grimms and Dickens and Morris, fantastic stories were a winter activity, the outcome of long hours of darkness confined to the house, crowded round a fire. Christmas, coming as it did just after the winter solstice, was story season. Many of these stories summoned up ghosts, as Henry James suggests in the opening sentence of his great novella The Turn of the Screw (1898): ‘The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child’. The rest of the book gives another example of a child being haunted or possessed – or rather two children, which gives an extra ‘turn of the screw’ to the delicious torment inflicted on the listener by the unrelated story mentioned in the opening sentence. And the screw is tightened further still by the setting of James’s ghost story largely in summer, with its apparitions manifesting themselves in glaring sunlight and in the expansive grounds of Bly House as much as among its twilit staircases, ponderous dining rooms and gloomy bedrooms. James extends the hauntings of Christmas through every season, suffusing every corner of the country house and its estate with their gruesome strangeness.

Dickens, of course, produced a series of Christmas fantasies, the most celebrated of which – A Christmas Carol (1843) – begins by bringing the house itself alive at the darkest time of year, in a grotesque pastiche of the new life promised by Christ’s nativity. When the knocker on Scrooge’s door metamorphoses into the face of his business partner, Jacob Marley – who is ‘dead as a doornail’, as the saying goes – it is just one example of the many moments in the book when inanimate objects acquire vitality. Indeed, Dickens’s energetic narrator is inclined to see life in all sorts of places where others don’t; such as in doornails (‘I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail’), or old sayings like this that have had the life leeched out of them by repetition. The whole of his book, then, becomes a competition between his tendency to bring things to life and Scrooge’s efforts to deaden and dull them. By the time Scrooge slams his door after seeing Marley’s face – waking echoes in every part of the building it serves, so that ‘Every room above, and every cask in the wine-merchant’s cellars below, appeared to have a separate peal of echoes of its own’ – Dickens has already animated a succession of other buildings, along with all the objects in them, to an extent that challenges the limitations of Scrooge’s narrow understanding of what’s possible. ‘Phantom’ houses have been glimpsed through the fog near Scrooge’s office, like supernumerary ghosts awaiting the protagonist’s trial and conversion. The bell in the church tower has peeped down ‘slily’ at Scrooge as he makes his way home, vibrating as though its bronze ‘teeth were chattering in its frozen head’. And the house that encloses Scrooge’s apartment has been described as so out-of-place in the yard it occupies that the narrator needs to give it a biographical back story to account for its presence there: ‘a lowering pile of [a] building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again’. Scrooge himself has no truck with such anthropomorphic antics as Dickens plays with the buildings and objects in this list. His medium, or so he imagines, is the deadness of doornails and the frostiness that brings about and attends the end of life: ‘He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas’. Yet Scrooge is mistaken, since his symbiotic relationship with the buildings he occupies – his office as well as his suite of rooms – seems to extend his chilly influence into the surrounding streets, like a malignant form of life. As a result, the conversion of Scrooge becomes a question of the conversion of an entire city, the City of London, where the vigorous good cheer of Scrooge’s nephew joins the narrator in a war of attrition against his uncle’s tendency to frosty immobility, seeking to unlock what the old man locks, to warm what he freezes, and to animate what he seeks to render lifeless.

Things and buildings support the narrator and nephew in their efforts by opening up and acquiring flexibility despite all Scrooge’s attempts to shut them down and make them rigid. Bolted and fastened doors give way before the Ghost of Christmas Present, who can accommodate his size to any dwelling in existence, so that he ‘stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a supernatural creature, as it was possible he could have done in any lofty hall’. In this the Ghost embodies the life of houses at Christmas time, which are always releasing and admitting new occupants as if their walls could expand, contract and dissolve at need. The festive permeability of buildings is enacted when the house fronts seem to disintegrate as Scrooge passes them in company with the Ghost, enabling the ill-matched pair to see ‘the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts of rooms’, as if through the hinged facade of a doll’s house. Scrooge’s conversion involves a similar architectural dissolution. As the novel goes on he finds that he can go everywhere, through doors and walls and windows like a genial spirit himself, in anticipation of his closing promise to live simultaneously in Times Past and Present and to Come, in defiance of the Victorian laws of physics. In the final pages of the book, ‘He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure’; and by the final paragraph he has become an embodiment not just of his own ‘good old city’ but of ‘any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world’. National and local boundaries cannot contain him any more than walls can – and the same can be said of Dickens’s story, which has burst out of the architecture of its pages and transformed itself into films and TV serials, inspired as much by the vivid original illustrations of John Leech as by Dickens’s words.

In freeing himself from the confinements of architecture, Ebenezer returns to the condition he inhabited in his boyhood when he first read fantastic stories, such as the tales from the Arabian Nights. The first image shown him by the Ghost of Christmas Past is that of the schoolhouse where he read them, ‘a large house, but one of broken fortunes; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their gates decayed’. Here in a ‘long, bare, melancholy room’, Ebenezer sees himself as a lonely boy being visited by different phantoms, whose presence makes the walls of the broken building melt away: ‘a man, in foreign garments […] stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood’. The man reveals himself as Ali Baba, and is swiftly followed by the medieval romance heroes Valentine and Orson, followed in their turn by Robinson Crusoe, Friday, and the desert island on which they were marooned. Stories animate the dead of winter, bringing a tropical or Orientalist warmth to dilapidated houses, and A Christmas Carol re-enacts this process for a Victorian readership by warming up the bodily tenement occupied by the old man’s chilly soul. Reading fantasy for Scrooge was salvation in his youth, and reading Scrooge’s adventures enables the reader to participate in his salvation. In the process the houses of London are saved too, and rendered integral parts of the salvific narrative.

Going back to the early modern birth of the fantastic – when a change of faith opened up the possibility of appropriating the imaginary of the supplanted Catholic religion – Richard Johnson, author of The History of Tom Thumb the Little (1621), opens his book with an invocation of the house as the location for similar reviving or regenerative stories:

The ancient Tales of Tom Thumbe in the olden time, have beene the onely revivers of drouzy age at midnight; old and young have with his Tales chim’d Mattens till the Cocks crow in the morning; Batchelors and Maides with his Tales have compassed the Christmas fire-blocke, till the Curfew Bell rings candle out; the old Shepheard and the young Plow boy after their dayes labour, have carold out a Tale of Tom Thumbe to make them merry with: and who but little Tom, hath made long nights seeme short, and heavy toyles easie?

Alexey Repolsky Illustration of Tom Thumb

Johnson’s marvelous opening paragraph, a rival to Tolkien’s in its evocativeness, invites us to concentrate on the odd community that inhabits many houses: old, middle-aged, young, workers and unemployed, married and single, whose diverse concerns must be somehow unified by the tales told round the ‘Christmas fire-blocke’. The selection of a tiny person for a hero is an obvious way to unite this diverse audience, because everyone has been tiny in their time, and tininess makes the sort of housebound existence that dominates the lives of the very young and the very old as exciting and dangerous as the adventures of the fit and strong beyond the building’s walls. Mary Norton understood this when she wrote The Borrowers (1952), which is set in a house occupied by a prosperous invalid and her housekeeper, and where a young boy, also an invalid, comes across a family of tiny people – the titular Borrowers – for whom the stairs are even harder to negotiate than they are for a normal-sized child with damaged lungs, or an elderly woman with arthritic limbs. Clocks, dressers, fireplaces, stairs and cabinets become in this book the site of perilous quests; floorboards for giants become ceilings for midgets; the garden and the fields beyond it become a limitless wilderness where predators roam. All through, there is a recognition of the way houses have been transformed by the recent war into unstable structures liable to instant demolition, hiding places for fugitives from unnamable terrors, decaying memorials to stable times long left behind. No wonder the book was so easily transferrable from one culture to another, being rewritten and reimagined as well as translated for the benefit of various countries shattered by conflict. In Japan (for instance) Norton’s book transformed itself into The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui in 1967, a book as haunted by the Second World War as its British counterpart; and the Studio Ghibli film adaptation of Norton’s novel, The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), transforms Norton’s English house once again, this time into a Japanese building left over from an earlier epoch, marooned by modernization in the selfsame suburb of Tokyo where Studio Ghibli is located. Similar suburbs provide the setting for the struggle between human lives and the lives of other, more fragile creatures in earlier Studio Ghibli movies, including Pom Poko (1994), where the other lives are those of tanuki or raccoon dogs, and Whisper of the Heart (1995), where the other lives are those of cats, cicadas and adolescents, the latter of whom occupy a border between the human and the non-human through the liveliness and flexibility of their imaginations. Raccoons, cats and adolescents populate The Secret World of Arrietty, too, converting the house and garden the Borrowers occupy into a junkyard each of whose elements can be put to an utterly different use from the one intended for it by its first makers. Even the doll’s house that was built for Borrowers by the elderly owner’s ancestors (a detail not present in the book) proves in the end not a dwelling-place for them but a much-needed catalyst for their departure from the building, as a human boy befriended by Arrietty transfers the tiny furniture from the doll’s house to the Borrowers’ refuge under the floorboards, and in doing so inadvertently reveals their hiding-place to the malicious housekeeper. A household kettle becomes the ship that aids their escape. Migrating populations, both human and animal, can find houses and their contents threatening, and the film ends with a dilemma, not having found a stable way for humans, Borrowers and wild animals to co-exist in the architecture of late capitalism.

Fantasy Houses and the Gothic

Raymond McGrath’s map of Malplaquet, drawn for Mistress Masham’s Repose

Fantasy could be said to have arisen at a time in history when the British became fascinated by domestic architecture. The early modern period, when Richard Johnson was writing his stories of Tom Thumb, was not particularly interested in the house as object – at least in literature. The human being rather than the human dwelling place was the focus of its interest, even if Edmund Spenser succeeded in reimagining the human body and brain as a mighty building in The Faerie Queene (his account of the House of Alma – the house of the soul – contains an early representation of the imagination itself in the form of Phantastes, a madman who bedaubs the walls of the house’s tower or head with images spawned by his own ravings). People enjoyed designing houses but don’t seem to have spent much time writing about them. Even the Country House poem, such as Marvell’s wonderfully weird ‘Upon Appleton House’ (1651), is more concerned with the estates it celebrates than with the buildings that preside over the surrounding fields, farms, forests and lakes (though Marvell’s poem does contain a memorable house that adapts itself to its owner as a turtle’s shell adapts itself to the growing reptile, its walls and ceilings expanding and contracting as the giant-spirited General Fairfax marches restlessly from room to room). The House of Solomon in Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) is more of an intellectual system than a habitation, while the houses in More’s Utopia (1516) – which provided Bacon with his model – are strictly functional, being transferred from one set of occupants to another at regular intervals, and so never invested with any distinctive aura or personality. Houses themselves began to be an object of imaginative attention in the eighteenth century, when reforms in farming led to radical changes in the structure of rural estates, while country people displaced by the same reforms crowded into cities, necessitating a radical shake-up of urban building practices. T. H. White paid charming homage to this epoch of experimental housing design in another post-war masterpiece, Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), where a small girl finds a colony of Lilliputians (or rather Blefuscans) on an island in the grounds of her ancestral home, a Palladian mansion called Malplaquet. Through them she learns how not to tyrannize over people smaller and weaker than herself, unlike the dictators of the 30s and 40s, or British landlords at the time of the agricultural revolution, or the girl’s grown-up guardians, who plot to steal Malplaquet from her for their own enrichment. Margaret Irwin paid similar homage to eighteenth-century housing innovations in her adult novel She Wished for Company (1924), in which a woman of the 1920s, alienated by the frenetic bustle of the modern metropolis, finds herself drawn back, both spiritually and physically, to the time when idealized homes were being constructed by the ruling classes as a model of the happy class relations they hoped to achieve in their private territories. Irwin identifies the end of this Palladian dream with the outbreak of the French Revolution; but in Britain it was the industrial revolution that exposed its fragility, its ghostly tendency to melt into air like the ‘cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces’ of Prospero’s island.

The industrial revolution quickly triggered a series of mass migrations, with cities expanding to ten or more times their former size in a matter of decades, and a radical rethinking of the basic nature of the house itself. New means had to be found to cram as many dwellings as possible into a limited area, and even greater ingenuity had to be applied to the question of providing these houses with adequate sewerage and other kinds of infrastructure. Social mobility brought vast sections of the population into proximity with strangers, disrupting ancient communities, creating new ones, and inspiring sometimes bizarre and unnerving efforts to render the expanding suburbs humane as well as habitable. The design of domestic buildings became increasingly inventive as the century wore on, and increasingly fanciful. By the 1890s the English suburbs were filled with terraced houses that wittily mimicked the styling of Elizabethan or Jacobean rural cottages or manor houses, as if in a bid to transplant the half imaginary, newly marginalized rural idyll into the urban centre of the British Empire. Social classes found themselves squeezed up against each other in adjacent streets. The middle classes aspired to associate themselves with the aristocracy, but also feared slipping swiftly down the social scale into poverty, and the geographical proximity of both alternatives in the shape of working-class and upper-class districts intensified their sense of being unsure of their own identity (does a ‘middle’ class, defined by its positioning between clearly defined upper and lower classes, in fact have any identity at all?). Their houses expressed both their aspirations and their fears, their fanciful prettiness or elegance pointing upwards towards the possibility of ascent to wealth and power, their identikit similarity indicating the likelihood of decline into anonymity. Victorian houses were oxymorons, announcing their link with a long, proud national past while at the same time self-evidently serving the purposes of the most rapid and radical set of social mutations in human history. They were fantasies, proclaiming an impossibly comfortable fusion of old and new, while actively drawing attention to the radical disparities between them.

This revolution in housing found literary expression in the Gothic mode, where domestic buildings are always dangerous, especially when imbued with recollections of an older, supposedly more stable social order. At the climax of the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), one wall of the titular fortress suddenly collapses to let in a giant, anticipating the total collapse of Edgar Allan Poe’s outmoded House of Usher (1839), along with the aristocratic way of life it represents. Otranto and Usher demonstrate how unwise it is to live in large, isolated, poorly-maintained ancient buildings, whose hidden cellars, unoccupied bedrooms and forgotten chambers provide the perfect setting for clandestine violence, and whose joists and lintels are no longer equal to the task of sustaining the weight of feudal history. The late Victorian Gothic story, meanwhile, takes particular aim at houses that have been rented or temporarily occupied by migrants. Dracula (1897) begins with a visit by an estate agent to an ancient, dilapidated castle in Transylvania, and the rest of the novel is dominated by the Count’s forlorn attempt to transfer his eccentric household to urban England, mirroring the urbanization of the industrial world and the opportunities this affords for illicit nocturnal feasting. Edith Nesbit’s ghost story ‘Man-Size in Marble’ (1887) opens with a couple’s lengthy search for a country residence which is ‘sanitary and picturesque’ as well as affordable (impossible combination!), and like most such searches for perfect real estate this one turns out to be doomed – though in a much more drastic way than is usual with house-hunting. Her first great children’s fantasy, Five Children and It (1902), similarly starts with a change of residence from city to country; indeed, many of her stories and novels open with a house move, with all the economic and social changes this entails. The Governess in The Turn of the Screw is a stranger in a country house, like Jane Eyre before her, and her inferiority complex when faced with the magnificence of Bly may help to explain the speed with which she comes to see its youngest occupants as haunted. Walter de la Mare’s ‘Out of the Deep’ ascribes appalling supernatural powers to a simple bell-pull in a newly inherited house, while Edith Wharton’s ‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell’ does something similar, this time from the point of view of a newly appointed servant.

At times of war, meanwhile, every house is a strange one; and Doris Lessing described the twentieth century in Shikasta (1979) as the Century of Destruction, when houses were visited by violence on an industrial scale. Elizabeth Bowen’s Second World War story collection The Demon Lover (1945) is full of buildings rendered unstable by bombing; in one story a bomb-blast hurls a home-owner into the past, while another sees the emergence of an alternative city from the bombed-out ruins of the metropolis as a whole, named ‘Mysterious Kor’ after the subterranean home of Rider Haggard’s immortal Ayesha in She and its sequel. Bowen’s story contains an echo of one of the great architectural ghost stories of the late Victorian period, Margaret Oliphant’s novella A Beleaguered City (1900), in which an entire city’s population become migrants, driven from their houses by the appalling presence there of the unseen dead – disembodied judges of the people’s inability to live well together in an urban context. In these last two stories, ‘Mysterious Kor’ and A Beleaguered City, the house opens out to encompass the city of which it is part, and the city becomes a representative of all modern cities, as London does in the final paragraphs of A Christmas Carol; so that we readers find ourselves connected to something larger, stranger and more unsettling through the simple act of sitting in our living room or bedroom, envisioning a boundary-dissolving strangeness we have never experienced except in our heads and hearts.

The metamorphosis of Victorian housing confirms that the domestic environment is an intensely political space. When H. G. Wells wanted to describe the Victorian social attitudes from which the twentieth-century petit bourgeoisie sought to liberate itself in his Edwardian novel Tono-bungay (1909), he used the model of a country house to sum up the entire class system. For Wells’s protagonist as a child, Bladesover House is ‘a little working-model—and not so very little either—of the whole world’, occupied by a population in which ‘every human being had a “place”’, and it’s only with adolescence that he comes to realize that the Bladesover ‘system’ of rigid class distinctions, as he calls it, has fallen into decay like the wizened old ladies who ruled the Bladesover estate in his youth. Yet class structures can long outlast the physical structures that once contained them. Wells’s Gothic science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895) anticipates the messing with time and space that would take place in twentieth-century physics, using the medium of the Time Traveller’s house as a way to embody the experience of moving forward through history at a rapidly accelerating speed:

As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. I supposed the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air. I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things.

Yet when his journey comes to an end, many thousands of years in the future, the architecture of the class system has consolidated itself at the expense of domestic architecture, with two distinct species inhabiting separate communal dwelling spaces, one above and one below ground, as belated embodiments of the working and ruling classes of the nineteenth century – though the subterranean working classes now have the upper hand. And the persistence of the Victorian class system is again embodied in houses in two of the great Gothic fantasy novels of the late twentieth century. In Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (1967), the insistently working-class toymaker Philip Flower takes a perverse revenge on the children of his middle-class brother by trapping them in a Victorian household that incorporates the toyshop of the title, where he seeks to transform the children into puppets or toys, submitting them to an oppressive patriarchal regime that rejects all the social developments that have taken place between the death of Queen Victoria and the mid-to-late 1960s, when the novel is set. And in Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (1992) a large Glasgow house in Park Circus gives shelter and a political education to a late Victorian working-class woman, who may or may not have been manually constructed, like the house she lives in, by a clever middle-class man with a gift for surgery. Bella Baxter or Victoria McCandless, as the woman is called at different times, undergoes an education in the nature of the class system at the hands of her mentor, Godwin Baxter, through the medium of a doll’s house, which must surely be a nod to Bladesover House in Tono-bungay:

See me open the hinged front door of this big doll’s house and fold it back. Look into all the rooms. […] The servants live mostly in the basement and attics: the coldest and most crowded floors with the smallest rooms. Their body heat, while they sleep, keeps their employers in the central floors more snug. […] Tell me, Bella, what the scullery-maid and the master’s daughter have in common, apart from their similar ages and bodies and this house.”

“Both are used by other people,” I said. “They are allowed to decide nothing for themselves.”

“You see?” cried Baxter delightedly. “You know that at once because you remember your early education. Never forget it, Bella. Most people in England, and Scotland too, are taught not to know it at all – are taught to be tools.” (pp. 262-3)

Alasdair Gray’s mural at Hillhead Subway Station

The doll’s house here embodies complicity, the problem Gray wrestled with throughout his career as a writer-artist. Whatever your politics (so the thinking goes), no matter how fiercely you uphold revolutionary principles, the building you live in has the shape and machinery of the class system built into it, as does the city that building occupies, its infrastructure depending on inequalities of pay and status which cannot be overthrown except by a radical reconstruction of the city itself and each of the houses it contains. Everyone who lives in a house, then, can be seen as complicit, despite themselves, in the economic and social system that brought that building into being, or that lets the building continue to function as a domestic mechanism. As a result, studying your house can be a means to understand the economic and social processes you live by – something Baxter demonstrates when he explains the design of the doll’s house to his student. And Alasdair Gray, too, took the notion of using houses as a means of education more seriously than most. Throughout his career he designed murals and mosaics that now bedeck buildings throughout Glasgow and the West of Scotland, from a private flat in West Prince’s Street, which houses his mural of the Book of Jonah, to the entrance of Hillhead Subway Station, the Oran Mor Bar on Byres Road, the Ubiquitous Chip Restaurant in Ashton Lane, and the café at Palacerigg Country Park. Each mural or mosaic tells a tale, for the most part a political one. Meanwhile his books are designed like murals or mosaics, with decorations from jacket to index, a typography devised by Alasdair himself, and a place on the shelves of many homes in Glasgow and elsewhere, from which they invoke the spirit of place by bearing his motto: ‘Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation’, or a better world, or a house that has been decorated in anticipation of both. Gray’s buildings and books invoke the spirit of that other great writer-designer, William Morris, and the species of practical political dreaming he invented.

Magic Houses in Victorian Children’s Fiction

The King of the Golden River, illustration by Richard Doyle

Poor Things and The Magic Toyshop pay homage to the Victorian Gothic tradition, invoking its continued domination of twentieth-century culture long after the regime that brought it into being has become redundant. Children’s literature – as Nesbit’s Five Children and It suggests – owes a great deal to the Gothic tradition in its attitude to houses. In their Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (2016), Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn rightly contend that Victorian fantasy fiction for children was obsessed with domestic architecture; but for them, houses are fundamentally safe spaces and their use is designed to contain and control the children whose adventures take place within their walls:

Perhaps the most striking aspect of mid to late nineteenth-century children’s fantasy is the degree to which the fantasies can seem contained and bounded. Furthermore this containment is presented as desirable. Colin Manlove argues that the character of British fairy tale gave to British children’s fantasy one of its major characteristics, domesticity […] ‘House-based action’ is a striking feature of nineteenth-century fantasy: it can be argued that even Never-Never Land is situated in the bedroom.

However, the eye-deceiving shiftiness of houses – their tendency to imply the presence of bounds and orders and systems which dissolve, collapse and reassert themselves under the pressure of changing times – is as present in fantasy fiction for children as it is in adult fantasy. John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River – first written in 1841 and published nine or ten years later – is a case in point. Despite being among the first ‘literary’ fairy tales written in English, Ruskin’s story is set in Germany, home of the Gothic, in a rural house much like the ones in the Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Like many Grimm households, this cottage is the locus of systemic abuse, where the youngest member of a family, twelve-year-old Gluck, is treated by his older brothers as an unwaged labourer or slave, controlled by the threat of violence. The house, meanwhile, is used as a tool to support the brothers’ obsession with accumulating wealth at the expense of their neighbours. Gluck is strictly forbidden to let strangers into the building when his brothers Schwartz and Hans are away from home, and he believes the pair will kill him if he disobeys. Its walls, doors and windows operate as impermeable barriers between the rich and the folk they feed on, obstructions to hospitality, giving and lending of all kinds. So when a diminutive, rain-soaked stranger taps on the front door seeking shelter, the boy has to inform him through the window that he can’t come in. And when Gluck finally relents and allows the stranger to share fire, food and shelter, his gesture is quickly reversed when Schwartz and Hans get home and tell the little man to go away. The man consents, but promises to visit again at midnight; and sure enough when the clock strikes twelve he reappears, mounted on a magical cloud of foam, having blown off the roof to effect his entrance. As it turns out, he is none other than the South West Wind, and his second appearance effectively demolishes the physical and verbal obstructions Fritz and Hans have erected to distinguish themselves from the world they see as hostile competition in their lifelong quest for capital.

The King of the Golden River, illustration by Arthur Rackham

The rest of the story dedicates itself to the further demolition of these obstructions, setting against the fortress-household of Schwartz and Hans the benign influence of the free-flowing wind and the mountain valley in which the house is situated. This is called the Valley of Treasure, formed by the passage of the Golden River, and both names conjure up hard objects made of precious metal, usually stored in windowless vaults protected by guards. But the valley’s treasure is its fertility, which is quickly blasted by the vengeful Wind, and the Golden River gets its name from the play of light on its rushing waters. The Wind dims the light, too, thus revealing to the brothers how their fortune relies not on rigid architectural structures but on wayward natural forces they can’t control. Their concern with material things is based on an arbitrary set of values, which is informed in turn by a certain way of seeing the world, and of interpreting what they see in very limited terms. Later, the three brothers – Hans, Schwartz and Gluck – are sent on a quest to restore their fortunes by the titular King of the Golden River, a kind of shape-changing elf; and the success of the youngest brother in this quest depends on the difference between the way he looks at things and the way his brothers see them. When they go up the valley to pour holy water in the Golden River, as the King instructs them, Hans and Schwartz are unable to fix their eyes on anything except their economic objective, despite the glorious alpine scenery they must pass through in order to reach it. Ruskin describes this scenery with the kind of meticulous precision he brought to his watercolour sketches of buildings and landscapes:

Level lines of dewy mist lay stretched along the valley, out of which rose the massy mountains, their lower cliffs in pale grey shadow, hardly distinguishable from the floating vapour but gradually ascending till they caught the sunlight, which ran in sharp touches of ruddy colour along the angular crags, and pierced, in long, level rays, through their fringes of spearlike pine. Far above shot up red, splintered masses of castellated rock, jagged and shivered into myriads of fantastic forms, with here and there a streak of sunlit snow traced down their chasms like a line of forked lightning; and far beyond and far above all these, fainter than the morning cloud but purer and changeless, slept, in the blue sky, the utmost peaks of the eternal snow.

The brothers’ indifference to these constantly changing effects of light on stone and snow extends to the presence in it of desperate people who need their help: an old man, a parched child, a dog dying of thirst, to whom they refuse even a drop of their holy water. Gluck’s responsiveness, on the other hand, to the effects of light on the mountains finds a correlative in his responsiveness to the material needs of the people he meets en route to the river. Ruskin effectively reverses in this story the concepts of substance – a term associated by capitalists with economic prosperity – and insubstantiality, pointing up the false human consciousness that bestows value on material possessions (such as real estate) while dismissing humans themselves as valueless. The materialism of Hans and Schwartz leads in the end to their being turned to unchanging stone by one of the people they neglected, the dying dog, who turns out to be the King of the Golden River in animal form; while the same dignitary ensures that Gluck’s name fulfils its promise of bringing him lasting happiness. Hans and Schwartz are reduced to the component materials of the house they made their fortress, while Gluck returns to live in the Valley of Treasure, restored to its former prosperity by the impact of his attitude to his fellow valley-dwellers, his benevolent way of seeing. Ruskin’s light tale, then, is designed to carry political weight as both a celebration and democratization of what he thought of as the proper artistic perspective, and the power of this perspective to drive social change, as the power of the Golden River drives the prosperity of the valley it waters. There couldn’t be a much more explicit illustration of Tolkien’s notion of recovery, the ability to see the natural world and its population in a fresh new light, as a child might see them. And there couldn’t be a much more lucid exposition of the political applications of that recovery, either, or a clearer foreshadowing of Ruskin’s account of the politics of the household in his socio-economic manifesto Unto This Last (1861).

The brother’s house in The King of the Golden River suffers a partial collapse because of its impractical rigidity, like the Castle of Otranto or the House of Usher. Other fairy tale houses of the period undergo more subtle forms of destabilization. Frances Browne’s much-reprinted fairy tale collection, Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856), for instance, concerns itself with the mobility of populations and its impact on domestic buildings and their occupants. A frame narrative tells of a little girl called Snowflower who lives with her Grandmother in a cottage that closely resembles the domestic buildings in Donegal, where Browne grew up and from which she migrated during the Hunger. It is a house that melds with the local fauna and flora to such an extent that there seems to be no barrier between the interior and the outside of the building, in sharp contrast to the house in Ruskin’s story:

[It was] a little cottage built of peat, and thatched with reeds, on the edge of a great forest; tall trees sheltered its back from the north wind; the mid-day sun made its front warm and cheerful; swallows built in the eaves; daisies grew thick at the door; but there were none in all that country poorer than Snowflower and her grandmother. A cat and two hens were all their live-stock: their bed was dry grass, and the only good piece of furniture in the cottage was a great arm-chair with wheels on its feet, a black velvet cushion, and many curious carvings of flowers and fawns on its dark oaken back.

This one ‘good piece of furniture’ turns out to be magic, and to be good in more ways than one: aesthetically attractive, useful and instructive, it tells marvellous stories about faraway places very different from Snowflower’s home. And it is also geographically mobile, like the population of rural Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century. When the Grandmother leaves the cottage to go on a long journey, and the food begins to run out, the chair magically transports Snowflower to the palace of King Winwealth where food is plentiful and shelter can be found, however grudgingly it’s offered. Here the little girl earns a living by instructing the chair to tell its stories to the King; and as story follows story through the collection, Snowflower is rewarded with a succession of promotions to better and better locations in the royal building: from a dusty corner in the worst kitchen to a pallet in the best kitchen, a bed in the servant’s hall, the housekeeper’s parlour, a ‘wainscot chamber’ and finally ‘one of the best chambers of the palace’. She is granted these rewards because each story reminds the King of the halcyon days of his youth, when he ruled alongside his intelligent and imaginative brother, Prince Wisewit. Each story, too, tells of traffic between cottages and royal palaces, between the houses of the peasantry and the houses of the governing classes; from ‘The Christmas Cuckoo’, in which two poor cobblers travel from a ‘hut built of clay and wattles’ to the king’s residence and back again, finding the hut a more congenial home than the palace (at least in times of prosperity); to ‘The Story of Merrymind’, in which a vagrant boy with a broken fiddle transforms an entire kingdom obsessed with constant labour and amassing huge profits, thanks to a chance encounter in a ruined cottage. Like Ruskin’s King of the Golden River ‘The Story of Merrymind’ celebrates the power of aesthetic participation – in this case, the performance of music and storytelling – to lighten the heavy business of work and change dreary or squalid buildings into pleasant homes. The inhabitants of the ruined cottage who help young Merrymind effect this change are the so-called ‘night-spinners’: ‘two fair maidens, all in white spinning on silver wheels, and singing together a blithe and pleasant tune like the larks on May-morning’. Light-hearted, light-clothed, high-spirited young women, their work and the ‘blithe’ music they sing to accompany it is considered of no worth by their profit-minded compatriots. But thanks to their song-driven spinning, the boy Merrymind gets golden strings for his violin; thanks to his violin the ruler of the work-obsessed country, Dame Dreary, learns to dance again; and thanks to her dancing the spell that kept the country in bondage to labour is broken, and the land itself restored to its original identity. It becomes a place where the night-spinners ‘spun golden threads by the hearth of every cottage’, where the people ‘wore homespun, and drank out of horn’ but ‘had merry times’, where ‘there were May-games, harvest-homes and Christmas cheer among them’, and ‘Shepherds piped on the hill-sides, reapers sang in the fields, and laughter came with the red firelight out of every house in the evening’. Attention to the marginalised economies of small buildings, with the industries they harbour such as spinning and smallhold farming, and the popular artistry they encourage such as storytelling and singing, keeps a country alive and well in a world increasingly given over to alienated labour. And Browne’s fiction implies in particular that her own country of Ireland could regain its lost national identity by paying the same close attention to its marginalised communities, and to its popular culture as embodied in her fairy stories.

The houses of Lewis Carroll are more fluid even than Browne’s cottages and palaces, and their fluidity derives from the changing bodies rather than the developing imaginations of their occupants. Radically detached from the social, political, religious or economic grand narratives to which other Victorian buildings pay tribute, they dedicate themselves instead to exacerbating the monstrous difficulty of accommodating a growing child’s body and mind within the architectural and ideological limits of a conventional middle-class home. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) opens with the representation of a book very unlike the novel itself, as young Alice’s older sister reads to her from a volume which seems to have been written from the exclusive perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator, unembellished by dialogue or decoration: ‘“and what is the use of a book,”’ Alice thinks to herself, ‘“without pictures or conversations [in it]?”’ As a result of the volume’s drab uniformity the girl’s attention strays from the rational route it’s expected to follow, and the rest of the novel can be read as an extended distraction from and commentary on the various official discourses which are supposed to shape her. Alice finds herself chasing a white rabbit down a hole which transforms itself into a vertical house, whose curved walls are ‘filled with cupboards and book-shelves’ with here and there among them ‘maps and pictures hung upon pegs’, in homage to the conventional techniques used to store the brain of a growing child with appropriate knowledge. But the circularity of the house’s walls, together with its uncertain depth, make any attempt to systematically organise this knowledge decidedly awkward – as does the difficulty of picking out any particular object from the shelves when one is falling rapidly past them.

Alice in Wonderland, illustration by John Tenniel

Carroll’s own mind tended to stray from the systematic method of developing and organizing narratives as represented by shelves and maps. In his prologue to Sylvie and Bruno (1889) he explains how his fanciful work, such as the ballad The Hunting of the Snark (1874-6), sprang from ‘random flashes of thought – as being suggested by the book one was reading, or struck out from the “flint” of one’s own mind by the “steel” of a friend’s conversation’. It also contains certain passages ‘which occurred in dreams, and which I cannot trace to any antecedent cause whatever’. The structure of the subterranean house in which Alice finds herself proves as unruly as Carroll’s procedure in assembling his narratives. The girl’s attempts to open and pass through one of its doors into a beautiful garden are constantly thwarted, while the interior spaces she wanders through exist in a state of constant flux, often thanks to her own repeated changes of size. The hall with the door to the garden in it gets suddenly filled with water when Alice grows to gigantic proportions and begins to cry. The white rabbit’s house (when she eventually finds it) shrinks to the size of a hutch as she grows again, and she has to put its architectural features to unusual uses, sticking her foot up the chimney and her arm out of the window in a quest for additional space. Later, the house of the Duchess to which the rabbit was hurrying when she first saw him turns out to be full not of aristocratic decorum but of pepper, broken crockery, and babies who refuse to keep the same shape from one moment to the next. Outside and inside flow together, as rabbit burrows become well-furnished wells, treacle wells become domestic houses, front halls become high seas, al fresco tea parties take place in perpetuity thanks to a broken watch, croquet parties happen near the seashore, and the seashore transforms itself first into a schoolroom and then a courthouse. Alice’s social role flows too, from schoolchild to maid to nanny to lady-in-waiting to schoolchild again to prisoner-in-the-dock. The constant fluctuation of houses, bodies and roles in the book is recorded in a giddily fluctuating language, where the meanings of words and the logic of sentences constantly intersect, hurling the reader from one train of associations to another. Most disturbingly of all, perhaps, every architectural, horticultural and linguistic space in the book plays its part in a judicial process which is wholly arbitrary, punctuated by shrill cries of ‘Off with his head’ or the barks of a terrier who plans to act as judge, jury and executioner for an unfortunate mouse.

Alice in Wonderland, from the movie by Jan Svenkmajer

In this narrative, then, the faculty of judgement, understanding or reason, as depicted by Spenser in the House of Alma, has been utterly overwhelmed by Phantastes, the untrammelled fancy, who has continued the process of breaking down the boundaries between the domestic house and the outside world which he began in The Faerie Queene. And yet the book is funny, coherent and compulsively readable despite its refusal to follow familiar patterns of cause and effect, or proposition, proof and conclusion. This is because its representation of the abrupt and bizarre transformations being imposed on the Victorian population, as embodied by Alice, through the combined agencies of industrialization and free market capitalism, is defused by the affectionate tribute it pays to its feisty heroine. Alice refuses to let herself be crushed by the various monsters she encounters – in marked contrast to the unfortunate teenager Conrad in The Castle of Otranto, who got himself crushed by a giant flying helmet. It’s a testament to Alice’s resilience that she is able to wake from her dream, at the end of the novel, quite unmarked (it seems) by the traumatic experiences to which she has been subjected. In the Alice books, a new generation in the shape of a young girl comes to understand fantasy as the medium she lives in – the stuff and substance of the Victorian epoch – and shows herself entirely capable of keeping herself afloat in it, as she kept herself afloat in the sea of tears.

Plural Magic Houses of the Twentieth Century

Alice’s experience with houses, as represented both in the mutating rooms and gardens of Alice in Wonderland and the house of mirrors in Through the Looking Glass, provides the template for the plural magic houses of the twentieth century. The most fascinating of modern fantastic houses embody the increasing mobility of twentieth-century populations, the increasingly rapid social changes taking place within and around them, and the ingenious techniques house-dwellers and house-designers have discovered for replicating Alice’s resilience in the face of these challenges. But where Scrooge, Dracula, Gluck, Alice and the rest often feel like strangers in the bizarre domestic spaces they inhabit, and their post-Victorian descendants – Melanie in The Magic Toyshop, Bella Baxter in Poor Things – share their unease in these unsettling enclosures, many residents of magic houses in the later twentieth century seem to have become somehow naturalised to the wayward structures that surround them.

Three examples will suffice to illustrate the strange plurality of these houses, their capacity to embody several identities at once, and the remarkable adaptability of their occupants. The first is the apartment in Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), from which the unnamed narrator watches closely as the city outside breaks down, filling with refugees, travellers, gangs, radical communes, and groups of aggressive feral children. Each change in the city outside finds its reflection within the narrator’s apartment walls, in her relationship with her cohabitants – a teenage girl called Emily and her pet, a strange yellow cat-dog by the name of Hugo. Emily teaches the narrator how to interact with the new societies springing up in rapid succession beyond her front door, while the narrator teaches Emily that older people can have a productive understanding of and scepticism about radical change, and Hugo teaches them both that they are animals, and so have needs very similar to his, no matter how grandiose their hopes and fears for the society they are part of. Furniture and household objects are requisitioned for new uses, new members of the household community come and go, the building that houses the apartment changes into a vertical city in itself, whose economy reproduces in miniature the new economy of barter, adaptation and recycling that has sprung up all over the decaying city as a whole. And meanwhile…

Julie Christie in David Gladwell’s movie of The Memoirs of a Survivor

Meanwhile, behind the walls of the narrator’s apartment another space begins to reveal itself, a space in which she sees reflected in alternative forms the personal, social and environmental crises taking place in the city and in her own household. Passing through the wall of her living room, at times she finds herself in rooms that reproduce the experiences of Emily and her mother in childhood and young adulthood, experiences that have conditioned Emily’s emotional response to the current social collapse, partly inhibiting her power to rise above the continual crisis of the day-to-day. At other times the narrator finds herself wandering through her living room wall into a wholly different set of rooms: rooms in which are played out in alternative terms – through games, images concrete and abstract, gardens, experimental architectural and artistic structures – scenarios that suggest alternative, healthier ways of living, utopian escape routes from the ecological and socio-political nightmare that is eating up the city from inside. The narrator’s work as a householder, a survivor intimately concerned with the nitty gritty of living from day to day, gives her the wherewithal to understand the utopian possibilities enshrined in these scenarios, so that in the end she can lead Emily, Hugo and the rest through the wall of her apartment towards the possibilities they represent. At this point, the dissolving mirror of Alice Through the Looking Glass becomes not a wayward reflection of the insanities of contemporary culture but a portal to a new kind of future, a migratory corridor to hope. And the seeds of this future have been planted by simple house-dwellers in our own timeline, cultivators of the friendships, observations, interactions, affections, careful thought and ingenious solutions that might one day bring such a future about, if we can find a way to break through the brick and plaster that hems us in.

The Memoirs of a Survivor is full of references to the children’s fantasies that have shaped so many voracious readers, from its obvious allusions to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to the presence in it of Emily’s boyfriend Gerald, who is both Peter Pan, with his gang of murderous Lost Boys, and the Pied Piper, who leads populations of unsuspecting children to potential destruction. The implication is, I think, that these children’s fantasies can have two alternative functions: to keep us trapped, through continual nostalgic return to their familiar contours, in a mindset of the sort Carter’s Philip Flower seeks to cultivate in the children in his Magic Toyshop, a condition of arrested development, of perpetual Victorian infancy, unable or unwilling to imagine better ways to exist than the ones that have been handed down to us; or to assure us that we can think outside the domestic box, somehow dream our way through innovations in our daily living to a worldwide state of collaboration and mutual support. Something similar can be said about John Crowley’s seminal fantasy Little, Big, or the Fairies’ Parliament (1981), which contains one of the most intriguing magic houses of the twentieth century, the house called Edgewood, which is a portal to fairyland, to Alice’s Wonderland, and to the new place radical reformers and revolutionaries dream of, which has its roots in the distant past.

Edgewood is the home of the Drinkwater family, constructed by the nineteenth-century architect John Drinkwater as a set of interlocking samples of the domestic styles he can offer potential customers. As a result, it is a house which is ‘all fronts’, designed ‘so people could come and look at it, from any side, and choose which kind of house they wanted; that’s why the inside is so crazy’. This is how the architect’s great-granddaughter, Daily Alice, explains the building to her future husband, Smoky Barnable, and when he expresses incomprehension she proceeds to show him what she means:

He looked where she pointed, along the back front. It was a severe, classical façade softened by ivy, its gray stone stained as though by dark tears; tall, arched windows; symmetrical detail he recognised as the classical Orders; rustications, columns, plinths. Someone was looking out one tall window with an air of melancholy. ‘Now come on.’ She led him by the hand along that front, and as they passed, it seemed to fold like scenery; what had looked flat became out-thrust; what stuck out folded in; pillars turned pilasters and disappeared. Like one of those ripply pictures children play with, where a face turns from grim to grin as you move it, the back front altered, and when they reached the opposite wall and turned to look back, the house became cheerful and mock-Tudor, with deep curling eaves and clustered chimneys like comic hats.

Inside this plural house whose ‘crazy’ interior combines all the different styles performed by its multiple façades, Drinkwater’s family lives through the alternative history they call the Tale, in which the things humans dream of awake or asleep are real and have a direct and indirect impact on politics, economics, society, culture. Daily Alice is the grown-up descendant of Carroll’s Alice, her height, quiet self-confidence and strength affirming her importance in a world that has not yet learned to recognise it. She and her family exist in communion with the fairies of Europe, who followed the Drinkwaters from the Old World to the New, enabling ancient narratives involving their ancestors to continue to work themselves out in their descendants’ words and actions. Here they found Edgewood, with its innovative fusion of familiar architectural elements into a new kind of complexity, the ideal centre from which to begin their secret invasion of the rational and mundane. From it other magical spaces emerge, such as Old Law Farm in the nearby city: an urban version of Edgewood, made of the space formed by a city block whose interior has been opened up to become a single communal space, within which an urban farm has been created, superintended by a helpful brownie and pervaded by supernatural manifestations.

Edgewood functions, too, as a looking-glass for those who seek to recognize the operation of myth and legend in modern times, so that when the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa returns, as legend says he will, he can be recognised by the Drinkwaters and their relations in the person of a modern politician known as the Tyrant, whose agenda seems to be to advance the fairies’ cause at the expense of the unsuspecting human inhabitants of the New World. Edgewood, in other words – and Old Law Farm, and any other outposts of its arcane aesthetic – dedicates itself to reading the world in multiple terms, from the terms provided by folk wisdom and ancestral beliefs to the arcane terms of the Tarot pack, astrology, and other forms of occult knowledge. For the Drinkwater family who built it, the world cannot be properly understood in the crude terms dictated by late capitalism or science. Alternative means of understanding it have been provided by books of magic, picture books, fairy tales, and even the history-cum-guidebook written by Edgewood’s builder, John Drinkwater, Architecture of Country Houses (1880). Only a comprehensive view of things provided by combining all these different forms of understanding can properly describe the patterns being created by everyday events. And the best means of achieving such a view is to inhabit the domestic space with due attention to its complexities: the way houses are able to accommodate multiple personalities with diverse interests, different kinds of imaginative energy, alternative historical perspectives (based on their different ages or their varying levels of awareness of their family’s past), rival aesthetic tastes, and so on. For Crowley, as for the Drinkwaters, a house can be the model for a new society, and the presence of Old Law Farm in the city – Edgewood’s outpost and double – affirms the possibility of extending this new society to entire urban and national communities.

The chief attraction of Edgewood is the absence from it of a patriarch or tyrant. John Drinkwater built it largely to the specifications of his clairvoyant wife, Violet Bramble, who could commune with the fairies while he could not. Variations on this couple’s relationship coexist through the lives of their descendants, some of whom see the world in material terms, some of whom are deeply familiar with the supernatural, but all of whom are willing to recognise and support the alternative perspectives of their spouses, children, friends and odd relations. The importance of the house to achieving this psychological cooperation is reinforced by some of its occupants’ interest in the early modern Art of Memory, which encouraged those who wished to remember certain things with absolute accuracy to map the contents of their minds onto the architecture of a familiar building, usually their home. All the Drinkwaters effectively use the same building as their Memory Mansion, the structure onto which they map their minds. The building is of course Edgewood, but each of them reads the building differently, and as a result the house is enriched, becoming the ultimate working model of happy coexistence in a modern world where such models are in short supply. Edgewood’s enrichment via the presence in it of so many forms of imaginative and intellectual eccentricity – marginalised thinking, which may be one way of accounting for the building’s name – means that when at last the Drinkwater family and their associates move on from the house, travelling into the depths of the fairyland they have helped to sustain into the twentieth century, the house takes on a mythical status. Buried in the heart of ever-expanding woodlands (Crowley’s America undergoes a collapse like Lessing’s Britain, and a similar reversion to wildness), its many lights blazing thanks to the efficiency of its occult lighting system, Edgewood becomes an enduring symbol of hope, a hope which gets clearly articulated in the many fantastic stories that spin themselves around it. But unlike most such myths:

It could be found. There it was: at the end of a neglected drive, in a soft rain, not what had been expected at all and however long-sought always come upon unexpectedly, for all its lights; sagging porch steps to go up, and a door to go in by. Small animals who thought the place theirs, long in possession, sharing only with the wind and the weather. On the floor of the library, by a certain chair, face down at a certain page, a heavy book spine-broken and warped by dampness. And many other rooms, their windows filled with the rainy gardens, the Park, the aged trees indifferent and only growing older. And then many doors to choose from, a juncture of corridors, each one leading away, each ending in a door that could be gone out by; evening falling early, and a forgetfulness with it, which way was the way in, which now the way out?

The house’s many corridors here deny the notion of forward progress; instead it celebrates the multidirectional mazes constructed by the meeting of many hearts and minds, the concept of community that so often gets lost in the face of geographical mobility and social change.

The third twentieth-century magic house can be found in Diana Wynne Jones’s novel for children Howl’s Moving Castle (1986). This is a house which in a number of ways is the opposite of Edgewood. Where Edgewood is larger on the inside than it is on the outside, like many magic houses, Howl’s Moving Castle is much smaller, its modest two-up two-down internal construction belying its forbidding external appearance as a wizard’s fortress, tall, black and grim. Where Edgewood is widely regarded as unique, the moving castle is unexpectedly ordinary, despite its magical properties; its life revolves around the daily rituals of cooking, cleaning, sleeping, arguing. Where Edgewood is old and full of close relatives whose story stretches back through generations, the castle has been recently constructed to shelter Howl and his extended family, whose component members – the old woman Sophie, the demon Calcifer, the apprentice Michael, and later a dog who is also a man – are connected not by a common ancestry but by common needs, many of them generated by their disconnection from their blood relatives. And where Edgewood is firmly rooted in a certain place – an estate on the edge of woods, not far from the City – the Moving Castle is always shifting from place to place, both literally, in that it can propel itself round the landscape by demonic magic, and metaphorically, in that its owner has many functions: as local magic-worker, king’s sorcerer, faithless lover, no-good brother, and so on. The castle contains the tools of each of these trades, has a magic front door that opens onto locations associated with each of them, and provides shelter from the consequences of Howl’s actions in each role. Like Edgewood, then, it is a complex space where many functions and narratives interpenetrate; yet it is a small and ordinary space in appearance, the kind of space a reader might really occupy, a proper domestic sphere, unlike most of the magic houses we have looked at till now.

What interests Diana Wynne Jones is the house as the starting point of all adventures – its domestic function as a catalyst as well as a material and emotional launching pad for social and political action. The events that take place in the Moving Castle’s modest front room drive all the action in the novel, from the threat posed to the land of Ingary – where the castle is mostly located – by a malicious sorceress called the Witch of the Waste, to the threat of war that is brewing in the background as the citizens of the country go about their daily business. Howl’s magic, which is involved in both these national crises, is rooted in his contract with the demon Calcifer, who occupies the house’s hearth and lends it the mobility that gives it its name. Also in the hearth, we learn in the end, resides Howl’s heart, which binds the contract, so that Howl’s emotional life – a whirlwind affair that involves successive romantic entanglements, multiple parallel jobs, and many complex relationships with his various friends and relations – has a direct effect both on conditions within the castle and in the land beyond. The novel’s protagonist Sophie, too – a young woman transformed into an old one by the jealous Witch’s curse – similarly has a direct effect on the wellbeing of the nation, by virtue of her instant impact on the guardian of Howl’s heart, the demon Calcifer, and on Howl himself. As the book goes on she finds herself having interviews with the King, fighting the Witch in the wasteland where her own castle is located, and stimulating Howl to put his magic to useful and attractive purposes – greening the desert, correcting the effects of curses, and fighting the Witch with the help of Sophie and the various allies she has attracted to the castle’s front room. Sophie sees herself as the embodiment of the Victorian view of the woman as the Angel of the House, tied to the hearth by bonds of duty as well as affection. Wynne Jones demonstrates that such a role is a massive one, linking its occupant by elaborate threads to almost every conceivable aspect of the world outside her home’s front door.

At the same time, Wynne Jones is interested in the extent to which these powers of the domestic house and its keeper – the person who keeps it running smoothly, so often a woman – have been occluded or hidden away by history, storytelling convention, language, and the trappings of social custom. The power of Howl’s Moving Castle is carefully concealed thanks to Howl’s determination to hide it; this is why the castle is always shifting from place to place, in a futile bid to evade responsibility by making it seem unconnected to any given location it settles in, its occupants unattached to any local or national population or concern. The same motive has led Howl to conceal the source of his magic, the heart that binds him to the demon Calcifer – and with it his genuine care and affection for his fellow creatures. As well as concealing the source of his power and his sense of duty and affection from others, Howl seeks to hide them from himself, by living like an adolescent in a building that he never bothers to clean, and by refusing to allow Sophie – when she arrives by chance at his front door and decides to move in as his cleaning lady – to come near his bedroom, with its thick patina of dust and its unruly swarms of spiders. Sophie shares Howl’s impulse to conceal her own powers, to hide her own feelings, to evade her responsibility for other people, despite the centrality of all these things to her personality and actions. Her transformation into an old woman is worked at first by a wicked Witch, but it merely confirms Sophie’s view of herself, and she reinforces it with increasing determination as the novel goes on – in the process transforming herself into a witch very nearly as powerful as the woman who changed her. Sophie’s strenuous evasion of herself is what makes the castle her natural home, the location where evasions can be most successfully carried out, thanks to its construction as Howl’s hideout and protective shield.

The nature of a house and its occupants can be disguised or altered by many other kinds of movement besides traversing the ground: by being tidied up or redecorated, for instance, or by having its contents shifted around, or even by being moved from one building to another (after all, the same household with the same possessions in two different buildings makes these in effect the selfsame building, for all the minor distinctions between them in terms of location and internal geography). Disguise, in fact, can become material change, and the castle is always moving in the sense that changes are always taking place within its walls: new occupants arriving in the shape of Calcifer, Michael, Sophie, the dog; new problems throwing its occupants into frenzied new activities; new moods covering its floors and walls with heaps of magic slime, the physical manifestation of Howl’s periodic bouts of depression. Putting on clothes can be a disguise – like the magic cloaks donned by Sophie and Michael when they leave the house, which transform them into a large red-bearded man and an ungainly horse. But clothes can also effect change, attracting people to their wearers, for example – as one of Howl’s enchanted suits can do – or in the case of seven-league boots, enabling the wearer to cover many miles at a single stride. And people can be disguised or changed by other people’s view of them. People can assume us to be what we are not, based on appearance combined with prejudice: an old woman instead of a young one, a wicked magician instead of a generous local benefactor, a scary scarecrow or a dumb dog instead of a decent human being, and so on; and we can respond to these perceptions of us by taking on some of the characteristics that have been assigned to us. In other words, we are all performing feats of magic every day, transforming ourselves and other people by every trick of the eye or mind we have at our disposal. And the house is the potent hub within which our capacity for magic germinates, and where its operations are at their most powerful.

Wynne Jones’s method for drawing attention to the magic potential of the house is by two gestures of estrangement, performed at the beginning and in the middle of her novel. To begin with, she sets her book in the land of Ingary, ‘where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist’, and where ‘it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three’, because in fairy tales the eldest child is always destined to fail, the youngest to succeed, if all three set out to seek their fortunes. This is the first gesture of estrangement: in Ingary fantasies are real and magic operates in the everyday. And it emerges that there are positives and negatives to living in a fantasy world like this – just as there are to living in the ‘real’ world of the reader. On the one hand, vast distances may be covered in an instant, thanks to those magic boots, and bodily limitations overcome with ease, thanks to that magic cloak. On the other hand, certain narrative rules (such as the rule of three) impose themselves like locks on the population, and it requires real ingenuity – and a lot of good luck – to work your way around them. The protagonist, Sophie, finds that her mind and body are cramped and distorted by her assumption that thanks to fairy tale logic she can never get anywhere as the eldest of three; so when the witch turns her into an old lady it seems only to fulfil a destiny she has already assumed to be hers: to age without noticing, and to achieve nothing in the process. Yet the limitations of being an old lady turn out to be not so extreme as Sophie expected. She can speak her mind freely, she doesn’t worry so much about what other people think, she is no longer afraid – or not as much and not as often – and she has certain powers she never suspected, above all the power of talking life into things, such as household objects, clothing, buildings, even people. As the book goes on, Sophie transforms the house she arrives at – the moving castle of the title – thanks to her energetic acting, thinking, dreaming and talking; and in the process she becomes a powerful sorceress herself, without even noticing the transformation. And she gradually accumulates a rich community of her own, an eccentric but affectionate composite family, an extensive network of friends, relations, contacts and allies. If magic in the land of Ingary is everyday, the everyday too is clearly magic, and astounding things can be accomplished within the confines of a modest building.

Portmeirion, Wales

The other gesture of estrangement is the unexpected appearance in the middle of the book of suburban Wales. One of the multiple locations to which the magic front door of the castle leads is the Welsh housing estate where Howl’s sister lives – part of the community where Howl was born and bred, and from which he departed for the magic land of Ingary, in defiance of his sister’s expectation that he take on a well-paid job and thus enhance his family’s wealth and reputation. This wholly conventional Welsh setting, ruled by expectations as strong as those of a fairy tale, is a magic place for Sophie Hatter when she visits it in the exact centre of the novel. Upstairs in the suburban house of Howl’s cross sister is a room where her son plays computer games with his friends, unconcerned by anything beyond the enchanted circle of their gaming:

Sophie was not even sure the two boys crouched over the various magic boxes on a big table by the window would have looked up even for an army with a brass band. The main magic box had a glass front like the one downstairs, but it seemed to be showing writing and diagrams more than pictures. All the boxes grew on long, floppy white stalks that appeared to be rooted in the wall at one side of the room.

Before he leaves the house, Howl gives his nephew a new game – presumably created in Ingary by magic – which reproduces the conditions surrounding Howl’s moving castle, and presumably bears some resemblance to the text-based game by Roberta Williams, ‘Wizard and the Princess’ (1980). As the boys start to play it, the opening text reads: ‘You are in an enchanted castle with four doors. Each opens on a different dimension. In Dimension One the castle is moving constantly and may arrive at a hazard at any time’. In Wales, in other words, life in the castle is a fantasy, something that does not and cannot exist except in a narrative fit for children, adolescents and adult dreamers. At the same time, certain residents of Ingary are Welsh. Howl is one of them (his original name is Howell), and another is a wizard called Suliman, his original name Sullivan having been rendered exotically oriental in a bid to make him seem more suitable to his new role (names, too, are agents of disguise and change in Wynne Jones’s novel). Meanwhile, the demon of the Witch of the Waste is hidden in Wales, in the shape of Miss Angorian, the local English teacher. Miss Angorian sets homework for Howl’s nephew which consists of an analysis of John Donne’s poem ‘Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star’. But the analysis is not easy, given Miss Angorian’s own straddling of different dimensions. In Wales the poem is nothing but a list of impossibilities: ‘Go and catch a falling star, / Get with child a mandrake root, / Tell me where all past years are, / Or who cleft the Devil’s foot’. In Ingary, by contrast, everything it describes can actually happen, so that its misogynistic climax – whereby Donne declares that it is just as impossible that a woman can be both faithful and attractive – must automatically be discredited. In Ingary the poem is also efficacious in another way, in that it serves as a curse on Howl, drawing him into the toils of the Witch of the Waste and leading to the showdown at the end of the novel, which unexpectedly takes place in the castle’s front room – the sort of location where English homework might be completed, and where the apprentice Michael carries out the homework assigned him by his teacher, Howl.

For Wynne Jones, in other words, the house or home is interpenetrated by wonders, which are constantly disrupting and overturning conventions and other forms of expectation. No one gifted with mobility need feel trapped in any house, since it is the beginning of every journey as well as its destination. No one need feel bored by being enclosed by its four solid walls, since alternative worlds can be imagined, constructed and interacted with inside their confines. The houses we live in are magical places, whether they’re in housing estates, on open moorland or above a hat shop – like the house from which Sophie sets out on her adventures and to which she returns when the moving castle is magically fused with it. Houses are strange spaces, always surprising us with the incidents, moods and activities they can accommodate. And houses are also political spaces, as every fantasy writer from Ruskin to Brown to Stoker to Crowley has never ceased to remind us. We should delight in them and nurture them as best we can, since they form an integral part of our identity. And we should ensure that decent housing is available to all – in this world as well as in the many dimensions of the fantastic.

Charles W. Stewart, Steerpike surveying Gormenghast

 

 

 

Stepping out of the Shadow: Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea (2006)

[My blog this year ends as it began, with anime. This essay was first published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, Vol. 37, no. 103 (Summer 2008), pp. 53-72. It was written in a white heat, as soon as the film came out in the UK. Ursula Le Guin didn’t like either the movie or my discussion of it, though she enjoyed the other essay I published in Foundation. Her dislike of the film was shared by many, but I still think it’s an honest movie with a fascinating relationship to its source material, both in Le Guin’s great story cycle and in anime.]

Tales from Earthsea was forged in a spirit of contention.[1]  Goro Miyazaki’s famous father Hayao made it clear that he did not want his son to direct it.[2]  Ursula K. Le Guin, on whose Earthsea books the film is based, expressed her disappointment with it on her website.[3]  And Japanese filmgoers – who made it the fourth highest-grossing movie of 2006 – found themselves fiercely divided as to its merits.[4]  Disagreement dogged the project from inception to release; and much of this disagreement seems to have sprung from the decision of Toshio Suzuki, president and chief producer of Studio Ghibli, to name Goro as its director, despite his total lack of experience or training in the art of film-making.

Miyazaki Goro

The film anticipates these divisions from its opening sequence.  The captain of a ship labouring in heavy seas appeals for help to his weatherworker, one of those trained wizards of Le Guin’s Earthsea whose power consists in learning the ‘true names’ of things and thus gaining a degree of control over them.  But the weatherworker’s powers desert him and he cannot calm the waves.  We are in a world where age-old certainties have crumbled and been replaced with an inner turmoil that keeps breaking out in bloodshed.  Soon afterwards, a pair of dragons fight to the death in territory not their own (they have flown farther East than ever before in living memory – a detail picked up from the third and fifth books of Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence).[5]  And in the following scene a boy kills his royal father for no reason.  Toppling to the palace floor, the dying king calls out his son’s name, Arren, as he dies.  Generation is at war with generation, and the only communication between them is a name thrown into the dark after the retreating footsteps of a teenage assassin: a name unattached to any visible body, as if to symbolize the predicament of Earthsea, where names have begun to lose their meanings.

The murder

For readers of Le Guin – and Le Guin herself – this unmotivated murder seems to be the most disturbing aspect of the film.  This is partly because it has no equivalent in the books (in The Farthest Shore Prince Arren leaves home with his father’s blessing);[6] and partly because we are never given the comfort of an explanation for it.  Our hope for an explanation reaches its height much later in the movie, when Arren discusses the murder with a girl called Therru.  Given that Therru’s parents abused and tried to kill her – a violent past she carries about with her in the visible form of a burn-mark across her face – she naturally assumes that the prince’s deed was an act of revenge for similar abuse.  But no: his father, Arren tells her, was a ‘great man’, whose qualities made the youngster feel inadequate (though he never claims that this is why he stabbed him).  Dissatisfied with this half-hearted effort to supply the prince with motivation, the audience casts about for a better way of accounting for the killing.  By the end of the film, for instance, we might assume the king’s assassination to be one more sign of the universal malaise brought to Earthsea by the deadly magic of the corrupt witch/wizard Kumo or Cob.  But Arren himself never seeks refuge from responsibility by claiming any such thing, and at the end of the film he sets off on the journey home to Enlad to face the consequences of what he has done: consequences we can only assume to be dire ones.  Debates about the film’s quality (as against the identity of its director) tend to centre on the question of why Goro Miyazaki chose to introduce the startling new element of parricide into Le Guin’s series, and on the extent to which viewers find themselves satisfied by any possible answers to this question.

Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin was clearly not satisfied by any explanation on offer.  For her, the excitement of the film was ‘maintained by violence, to a degree that I find to be deeply untrue to the spirit of the books’; and this reliance on violence to stimulate the audience’s attention is a widespread phenomenon in modern fantasy, ‘literary or governmental’, which offers ‘killing people’ as a solution to the ‘so-called war between good and evil’.[7]  She regrets that the reason for Arren’s initial act of violence is so belatedly and so tersely given, and concludes that ‘the darkness within us can’t be done away with by swinging a magic sword’, while lamenting the fact that in the film ‘evil has been comfortably externalized in a villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems’.  Interestingly, her objections to the movie are couched in terms of a malaise in the ‘real’ world not unlike the kind that pervades Goro Miyazaki’s Earthsea: a malaise in this case sustained by the propagandistic simplifications of the War on Terror, which is represented as a ‘war between good and evil’ where evil can be ‘comfortably externalized in a villain’ – Saddam or Osama – and ‘killed’ with every pseudo-magic weapon at the disposal of the Good Guys.[8]

Cob and Therru

Le Guin’s objections are understandable, but do the film less than justice.  For one thing, the level of violence it contains is no higher than that found in the Earthsea books.  Every violent act in the film has its equivalent in Le Guin’s series, with the sole exception of the killing of Arren’s father.[9]  In addition, the film-makers eschew simplicity as strenuously as she does, and seem to view physical assault with equal distaste.  The wizard Kumo/Cob is precisely not killed with a blow of Arren’s magic sword.  His identity as an arch self-deceiver is merely made manifest by the blow, as he loses his wizard’s staff and with it his ability to sustain his youthful appearance; but his strength remains undiminished by the loss.  Indeed, one might question whether Cob is actually ‘killed’ at all.  As he staggers towards the dragon Therru/Tehanu in his final moments, he clearly sees her as possessed of the eternal life he craves, since she has just revived from apparent death by strangulation.  He begs her to bestow that life on him, and she gives it him in a puff of breath.  But a dragon’s breath is made of fire; so he is destroyed by what he asked for.  The implication is that it’s his craving for an artificial extension of his earthly existence that kills him, rather than an act of violence on his enemies’ part.  And his death precisely does not ‘solve all problems’.  Arren must still return to Enlad to face trial for murder.  And before this happens, as the last few wordless scenes of the film remind us, the ploughing of a field must be completed and it must be sown with seed, or there will be no harvest.

Le Guin’s view of the film has some intriguing affinities with Goro’s account of his own early response to the Earthsea books.  He first came across them, he tells us in his blog, as a High School student in the early 80s, when he found himself identifying enthusiastically with the ambitious young wizard Ged of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), quite against the grain of the book’s insistence that Ged is a surly teenager who is himself responsible for calling up the Shadow he must confront at the climax of the narrative.[10]  Re-reading the book in his late thirties, Goro tells us, he found his sympathies changed.  Now he identified not with Ged but with the older generation, those patient sages who are always telling the boy to have patience, to do only what he must, to learn thoroughly the way things work before seeking to control them.  In other words, in the process of revisiting the Earthsea books Goro’s own mind became a site of generational conflict, where his younger self as reader existed in radical opposition to the readings of his older self.  And Goro went on to make his film the site of a similar conflict, capable both of being read as Le Guin reads it and mined for a subtler reading.

Young Prince Arren behaves at several points in the movie as if he were just the sort of brainless sword-wielding hero Le Guin takes him to be.  With reckless abandon he attacks a band of slavers who are about to rape Therru, declaring as he does so that ‘life is nothing to me’ – a position traditional romances might well acclaim in their protagonists.  Later, he thrusts himself in front of the farmer Tenar when she is confronted by the same thugs, attempting no doubt to shield her from harm as (male) heroes are always expected to shield women on such occasions.  Later still, he overcomes the thugs a third and final time before striking off Cob’s hand with a blow of his father’s sword – an action which in a conventional epic would signal the transference of patriarchal power from one generation to the next.  But the briefest reappraisal of these incidents demonstrates their undercutting of the tradition of patriarchal romance they invoke.  Having been rescued, Therru contemptuously dismisses Arren as a boy with a dangerous disregard for what she holds most precious: life and all its complex processes.  Tenar responds to Arren’s effort to shield her by thrusting herself in front of him: it is not for him, she implies, to decide whose life is worth saving and whose worth casting away.  And the climactic confrontation between Arren and Cob rapidly transforms itself into a confrontation between Therru and Cob, as Therru, like Tenar, interposes herself between the warring males.  While allowing Arren to go through the motions of heroism, Goro never permits his audience to relax with the notion of Arren as hero; and his chief means of ensuring that they never do so is to cast over him the shadow of his father’s death.

Arren’s mask

This shadow takes the form of a grotesque ‘mask’ of aggression that distorts the boy’s face at key moments in the narrative; an expression of gleeful malevolence as disturbing as it is unexpected.  This mask first appears when he attacks the thugs who attacked Therru, and its appearance reminds us that he is capable of atrocities quite as appalling as anything done by the slavers.  After all, he has killed the king.  The menace of Arren’s facial expression is driven home when the chief of the thugs threatens to cut the girl’s throat if the prince approaches: Arren tells him to go ahead, and his contempt for the girl’s life as well as his own terrifies the gang into beating a retreat, aware that they have lost their only bargaining chip against him – the assumption that he is more humane than they are.  Later, the expression returns to the boy’s face in the sequence where he assaults a second father-figure, Sparrowhawk (Haitaka), with a sword he has borrowed from a third, Cob.  Here it is clearly linked with the problematic patriarchal heritage he has grown up in, where a son’s independence must show itself through violence, and where the logical target of that violence is the father who stands in the way of his child’s development.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that the mask is absent when Arren engages in his final act of violence: the attack on Cob in defence of Sparrowhawk and Tenar.  After all, this time it was Therru who urged him to fight.  But it’s also hardly surprising if his violence should prove ineffectual.  By this stage in the narrative, assaults on father-figures have been shown to have nothing heroic about them, as each one in succession awakens echoes of that first, shocking act of parricide.  The last step in Arren’s redemption must not replicate the crime that put him in need of redemption in the first place.  Violence is Cob’s tool, and cannot logically be used to destroy what the wizard stands for.     

Horus, Prince of the Sun/Little Norse Prince

The young prince could be said, then, to represent a memory of the traditional hero; the remains of a simple form of narrative that concerns itself with what Le Guin calls ‘the so-called war between good and evil’, and that has been rendered obsolete by the sophisticated appropriation of its terms by unscrupulous politicians.  His status as a memory is confirmed by the style of the character drawing in Tales from Earthsea.  Le Guin felt that ‘the animation of this quickly made film… does not have the delicate accuracy of Totoro or the powerful and splendid richness of detail of Spirited Away’.[11]  But Goro’s rejection of ‘delicate accuracy’ and ‘richness of detail’ is no accident.  It stems from a stylistic decision he took in consultation with the animators: a decision to emulate the techniques of Japanese animation from before Hayao Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, as Goro explains in detail in his blog.[12]  The film’s characters have the stocky simplicity – most notably in the rendering of the legs and feet – of Goro’s favourite animé, The Little Norse Prince of 1968, directed by his father’s friend and collaborator Isao Takahata.[13]  It is as if the new director is announcing a return to first principles not unlike that advocated by the Victorian pre-Raphaelites, or the Modernists of the early twentieth century.[14]  To find a style of his own he must wind the clock back to Takahata’s first full-length feature, which was also the first animated movie to be made in Japan, and the first of many projects on which Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki worked together.  In The Little Norse Prince, as in Tales from Earthsea, humanity is threatened by a powerful demon-magician, whose spells disrupt the order of the seasons just as Cob’s interrupt the ploughing and sowing of the fields of Goro’s Earthsea.[15]  Scenes from the old film are echoed in the new: notably Arren’s encounter with ravenous wolf-like beasts, which recalls the Norse Prince’s running battles with the demon’s ‘grey wolves’ and has no equivalent in Le Guin’s series.  The affectionate relationship between humans and animals elsewhere in Goro’s film recalls the central role played by animal companions in Takahata’s; Goro’s investment of Cob with the power of flight might remind his viewers of the disconcerting aerial mobility of Takahata’s demon; and the dream-sequences in Goro’s film echo the expressionistic visionary scenes with which Takahata punctuates his narrative.  Arren himself is an older version of Horus/Hols, the young hero of The Little Norse Prince, with the same shock of black hair and perpetual frown.

The magic sword

Above all, the importance of Arren’s sword in Tales from Earthsea derives from Takahata’s narrative, not Le Guin’s.  Prince Horus/Hols pulls an old damaged sword from the shoulder of a giant, and spends most of the movie trying to find a way to re-forge it; and he only succeeds when the whole community of Northmen collaborates in its forging.  In Goro’s film, the wizard Sparrowhawk reminds Arren that his name means ‘Sword’, and the boy always carries his father’s sword with him (as indeed he does in The Farthest Shore).[16]  But the weapon was not handed to Goro’s Arren in a symbolic gesture of legitimate succession.  Instead we watch him snatch it from the dying king after he has stabbed him, and for most of the film he is unable to draw it from its scabbard.  At a moment of crisis in Cob’s castle, Therru urges him to unsheathe it in order to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar, who are about to be executed by Cob.  Arren responds with the hackneyed view that he is ‘not worthy’ to wield his father’s weapon, a sentiment Therru dismisses as the irrelevance it is, while she weeps over the scabbard in frustration at the prince’s self-imposed impotence.  Then abruptly she announces that she knows the boy’s ‘true name’: the name all inhabitants of Earthsea must keep secret from any but their most trusted friend, since knowledge of it puts them at the mercy of the knower.[17]  By speaking it, she releases him from his obsession with the stolen blade.  His real identity is not Arren, meaning sword, but Lebannen, a word that refers only to himself.  So it is fitting, once again, that the moment when he succeeds in drawing the weapon during the final confrontation with Cob should prove less than decisive in the struggle against the wizard; much less decisive than the fact that Therru is with him in that confrontation.  Arren and Therru combine to overcome the wizard, and as in The Little Norse Prince, by this stage the sword has come to symbolize not the handing down of paternal power but the coming together of people who were once divided.  It was Therru’s tear falling on the scabbard, we might imagine, that loosened it in its sheath and made it functional; and it is Therru’s passion for life that finishes the demolition of Cob which the sword began.

Dragons in the east

But the choice of a pre-Ghibli style for this movie may have another rationale besides a wish to pay homage to The Little Norse Prince.  The project of bringing Le Guin’s Earthsea books to the screen had been cherished by Goro’s father, Hayao, since before the studio’s foundation; in fact, since before he directed his second feature, Nausicaa (1984), whose success enabled him to launch the Ghibli studios.[18]  One can see what appealed to Hayao about the books.  The notion of the young wizard who spends his time, in the first book, struggling against his own shadowy alter-ego instead of an external enemy, could only delight a director who has consistently worked against the notion that evil can be ‘comfortably externalized in a villain’.  As early as Nausicaa, Hayao refused to demonize the giant bugs of the poisoned forest that threatens the survival of mankind; instead he traced the source of the forest’s threat to toxins unleashed by humans themselves.  And after Laputa: The Castle in the Sky (1986) there ceased to be any outright villains at all in Hayao’s films.  Again: the ‘balance’ that must be observed by wizards in the Earthsea books would appeal to a director whose ecological convictions form only part of a larger philosophy of maintaining social and psychological equilibrium among the inhabitants of a fragile environment (think of the urgent struggle, in Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke (1997), to find a modus vivendi between humans and the forest they fear but also need).  Again: the opportunities for representing flight offered by the Earthsea books would no doubt have enthused a director who is celebrated for the aerial sequences in his films.  From the hawks into which Sparrowhawk transforms himself in the first volume to the dragon that carries Sparrowhawk and Arren to Roke in the third, flying stands for a kind of freedom in the works of Le Guin, as it does in Hayao’s movies.  Even the fierce attack on the values of capitalism in The Farthest Shore perfectly matches Hayao’s political convictions, as does Le Guin’s respect for the worth of ordinary domestic and agricultural labour and her consistent opposition to violence.  The self-consciously old-fashioned style of Goro’s film pays indirect homage to the film Hayao might have made in the early 1980s, if he could have got the rights to what was then the Earthsea trilogy.

But Goro’s film could never have been anything like that unmade film of the 1980s; because by the time he took his seat in the director’s chair a lot more had happened to the Earthsea series than a change of perspective in Goro himself.  Three more Earthsea books had appeared in print, two of which (Tehanu  (1990) and The Other Wind (2002)) took up the story of Sparrowhawk and Arren where it left off at the end of The Farthest Shore (1973), while radically rewriting Earthsea.  In Tehanu Le Guin unleashed the full force of her anger on the patriarchy that she herself had permitted to take control of her imagined archipelago.  The first three books gave male wizards an absolute monopoly over ‘serious’ magic, relegating only petty forms of conjuring to the despised female witches.[19]  And women played only a peripheral role in the plots of the first and third novels; while even the heroine of the second, Tenar, only plays Ariadne to Sparrowhawk’s Theseus (or so some readers have assumed).  Furthermore, in addition to confronting Le Guin’s own imaginative injustices, Tehanu introduced the concept that human beings and dragons were once the same species, and that the great divorce between them occurred at a time when men and women chose to devote themselves to possessions – lands, knowledge, things that could be passed from one generation to another – while dragons grew wedded to wildness and freedom.[20]  The divorce between humans and dragons resembles the divorce between men’s and women’s social roles in a patriarchal culture: and Tehanu and the books that follow hold out hope that this divorce, like that between humans and dragons, may undergo some sort of metamorphosis – though nothing so glib as an undoing.  In the years, then, when Goro was changing as a reader of the first three Earthsea books, Le Guin was changing as a writer; so that nothing about the project of filming Earthsea could remain altogether faithful to his father’s vision.

Therru at sunset (1)

In 2006, even a film based on the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore, could hardly remain untouched by the backward-reaching shadow of the books that follow it.  Women could no longer remain peripheral, and Le Guin’s discoveries about dragons could scarcely be ignored.  The violence Goro does to the plots of the Earthsea sequence no more than matches the violence done by the sequence to itself.  How, for instance, could Sparrowhawk remain the saviour of Earthsea, as he was in that third novel, in a world where the traditional notion of male heroism has been so totally supplanted by the quieter heroism of women as it is in Tehanu?  Goro’s response to this problem is to bring a character from Tehanu – Tehanu herself, whose use-name is Therru – back in time to the events of The Farthest Shore, and to make her the same age as Arren in the earlier novel.  This enables Therru to confront and undermine Arren’s individualistic, violence-fuelled notion of his own heroism at each stage of the narrative, refusing ever to let him succumb to the narcissistic self-infatuation that drives Cob.

Therru and Tenar

But this is only one of many unsettling changes Goro makes to the chronology and geography of Earthsea.  Another is his transference of Tenar’s farm from Gont, the most frequently revisited of the islands of Earthsea in the novels, to Wathort, which Le Guin’s readers visit only in The Farthest Shore and whose inhabitants traffic in human flesh.  The effect of this is to destabilize Earthsea – to pluck it from the rock on which it was founded.  Gont is the place in which Le Guin’s sequence has its deepest roots, as she shows in her short story ‘The Bones of the Earth’, where an elderly wizard plunges into the ground to soothe the quaking roots of Gont Mountain.[21]  Le Guin set Tehanu on Gont because Gont was where the Earthsea stories began, and it was there that the mighty work of re-imagining that world must also start.  By shifting Tenar’s farm to Wathort, Goro sets it at the epicentre of Cob’s bid to unbalance Earthsea; and in the process he unsettles Le Guin’s universe, which is one of the things that unsettles lovers of her books as they watch the film.

Arren at the fountain

The third change Goro has made is to conflate the first and third books of Le Guin’s sequence so that the shadow that pursues Sparrowhawk in the first novel becomes the shadow of Prince Arren, Sparrowhawk’s companion in the third.  Goro’s shadow springs directly from Arren’s state of mind after he has murdered his father.  It first manifests itself as a sense of dread that seizes the prince on the night when he first meets Sparrowhawk.  The dread intensifies in Hort Town, when the boy sees a fountain take on the appearance of the dead king; and reaches its climax in a nightmare he suffers at the farm of Tenar, where Sparrowhawk turns into Arren’s father, then into a monstrous tar-covered replica of Arren himself.  On waking the boy decides to leave the farm, convinced that if he stays he will be visited once again by the rage that made him a parricide; and shortly afterwards he meets the doppelganger from his nightmare and flees from it in terror, certain of its malevolence.  The doppelganger’s eyes are hidden, much like those of Therru, who often conceals her eyes behind a protective fringe of hair; and Arren’s terror of it makes us anticipate something terrible if ever they should be revealed.  But when the shadow does push aside its fringe – at the point when it stoops over the boy’s body, after he has fled into a swamp and half drowned himself in an effort to escape – it reveals the large, vulnerable child’s eyes that are ubiquitous in early anime.  And when it speaks to Therru at the gate of Cob’s castle, the air of malevolence that formerly surrounded it dispels at once.  With gentle courtesy it explains its nature to her, identifying itself not with the rage that drove Arren to murder, but with the princely qualities he flung aside when he fled his father’s court.  Arren himself, in fact, is the shadow – as the dark clothes he wears throughout the film should tell us – while the brightly-clothed doppelganger from his dreams represents the bright possibilities he rejected.  And his double is alive in a way that Arren is not.  After speaking to Therru at the castle gate it embraces her like a lover and whispers Arren’s true name in her ear, before melting away as her face turns crimson with blushes.  At this stage in the film, it can approach Therru with a confidence and openness the prince can only dream of; but it also gives her the ammunition she needs (Arren’s true name) to free him from his self-made prison and recall him to full participation in the business of living.

Arren’s nightmare

The role of the doppelganger in the movie, then, is quite different from that of the shadow in A Wizard of Earthsea.  In the book, the creature is a non-being summoned by the adolescent Sparrowhawk from the land of the dead, in an arrogant and self-destructive gesture, as a demonstration of his skill in working magic.  It has a ‘blind unformed snout without lips or ears or eyes’, and it stands both for an ‘ancient darkness’ that seeks to engulf the wizard, and for the young man’s own worst aspect: his self-segregation from the community of Earthsea, his immaturity as a social animal.[22]  Sparrowhawk can only defeat it when he accepts help from someone else – his best friend Vetch; after which he can embrace the shadow like another friend, hugging it to him in dreadful intimacy and whispering its true name (his own) in its ear as he does so.  Goro’s shadow is not Le Guin’s, but it is just as carefully conceived.  His Arren has rejected the role that made him part of society, his role as a prince; and by rejecting that role he has rejected life of any kind, as he showed when he stabbed his father.  It is fitting, then, that his shadow should be a lively, colourful one, capable of bringing colour to Therru’s face.  And it is fitting, too, that Arren’s return to life should involve Therru as a mediator between his living self (the doppelganger) and its fearful, violent, self-segregating twin – the boy whose adventures we have followed throughout the film.

This change is in any case imposed on Goro by the backward-reaching shadow of Tehanu, which questions the terms on which Sparrowhawk pursues and defeats his shadow-self in A Wizard of Earthsea.  One of the steps Sparrowhawk takes towards his victory in the earlier novel is when he becomes sensitized to the beauty of a young farm-girl, Yarrow, whom he meets just before his climactic confrontation with ‘ancient darkness’.[23]  The implication is that he at last recognizes himself to be  part of a community – no isolated island, but an element in the interconnected archipelago of humanity – and so can permit himself to be emotionally drawn to a fellow human being for the first time in his life.  But in A Wizard of Earthsea this understanding can never bear fruit in a fully-fledged partnership, because Sparrowhawk is a wizard, and wizards, like priests, are celibate.  Only in Tehanu, after Sparrowhawk has lost his wizardly status, is he permitted to take a sexual partner – Tenar; and in the process the lost balance between the genders in Earthsea begins to be restored.  Therru in Goro’s film is in one sense another Yarrow, and Arren a Sparrowhawk who has the potential to form a permanent bond with the girl he loves, as Sparrowhawk could not.

Therru at sunset (2)

But Therru is more than Yarrow.  At the beginning of the movie, the old wizard Root reminds the King of Enlad that humans and dragons were once a single species; a fact that does not figure in the first three books of the Earthsea sequence.  And Goro’s Therru is closely linked with dragons.  Soon after the prince has rescued her from the slavers he falls asleep and dreams that a dragon is approaching from the sky.   We learn later that this is an aspect of Therru herself, who is a throwback to an earlier phase in the world’s history, a being as much dragon as girl.  Her dragon nature betrays itself in her temperament.  Goro’s dragons crackle with fire as if on the verge of disintegrating under its force, flecks of flame spilling from their mouths while their bodies undulate in the serpentine motions familiar from the river-dragon sequences in Spirited Away.  Therru too is fiery: her angry response, first to Arren’s rescue of her and later to his intrusion on her privacy at Tenar’s farm (‘Why are you here?’ she snaps, ‘to hurt me?’) is an apt emotional counterpart to the physical form she is capable of assuming.  And she makes, too, a perfect foil to the often sullen Arren, whose intervals of passivity (he passes out several times in the movie, and grows tired when he walks long distances or works on the farm) identify him as her opposite, as limp and frail as she is energetic.  Arren is in fact Therru’s shadow, so that the reunion of shadow and substance that occurs at the end, when he rides to safety from Cob’s collapsing castle cradled on the forearms of her dragon-self, represents the righting of an imbalance that has been obvious from the moment the youngsters met.

Arren and Sparrowhawk

Once Therru has been recognized as Arren’s inverted double, it soon becomes apparent that the film’s narrative is structured around a series of doubles or opposites.  Tenar is Sparrowhawk’s opposite, her blond hair and blue eyes identifying her as of a different ethnic group from the rest of the dark-haired, dark-skinned inhabitants of Earthsea – as she is in the books.  Her stability, cultivating the farm, contrasts with Sparrowhawk’s flightiness, associated throughout the film with the hawk from which he gets his use-name, and which appears in his company whenever he enters the narrative.  This flightiness manifests itself most amusingly when the Archmage gallops off in the middle of ploughing a field to fetch Arren’s sword from Hort Town; a mission Tenar rightly sees as having little point to it.  The Archmage, meanwhile, is the inverted double of Arren’s father.  His paternal relationship to the prince is driven home repeatedly, as he blends with the murdered king in Arren’s dreams, instructs the boy in a fatherly way about the ‘Balance’ on which Earthsea depends, rides to rescue him when he is in danger, and becomes the target of the boy’s aggression in Cob’s castle.  But he differs from Arren’s father in his sense of responsibility for his young protégé; a sense that tells him that he ought to stay close to the boy, even though (as his flightiness dictates) he is always leaving him.  On one occasion when he leaves Arren by himself in Hort Town, where he is captured by slavers, Sparrowhawk first rescues the boy, then apologizes for having put him in a position where he needed rescuing.  In contrast to this, Goro is careful to place Arren at an insurmountable distance from his father at the beginning of the film.  We see the King of Enlad marching through his palace surrounded by nobles and advisers, his attention fixed on affairs of state, while two women vainly seek to catch his attention.  When at last one of his advisers is persuaded to listen, the women tell him that the prince is missing.  At this point, Goro gives us a fleeting glimpse of a strong character who never appears in the books: Prince Arren’s mother.  The queen tells the women that the king is too busy to be troubled with the matter of his son’s disappearance, and that Arren is in any case of age to look after himself.  The royal family at the film’s opening, then, has no warmth at all, no mutual interest, no coherence; and it is this incoherence that presumably, by some dreadful logic, drives Arren to murder.    

Arren’s mother, like his father, has a double in the film.  The queen’s inverted double is Tenar, who gives up her bed to the sick boy after his rescue from the slavers, invites him to join her in her farm-work, and compliments him on his unexpected aptitude as a labourer.  Like the mother, she acknowledges Arren’s manhood (how good it is to have men about the place, she says, to help in the fields); but she does so by including him in her affairs, not by barring him from adult company.  And at moments of crisis – as when Cob’s henchmen burst in through the gates – she shows a protectiveness which Arren’s mother haughtily rejects.

Sparrowhawk and Tenar

In fact, the dysfunctional royal family as a whole has an inverted double in the awkward family group that begins to form at Tenar’s homestead.  This is a family of four, unrelated by blood or marriage, whose focus is the supper table.  After the arrival of Sparrowhawk and Arren at the farm, this table is a place of enforced and unwelcome proximity, where the youngsters Arren and Therru radiate mutual hostility while the substitute ‘parents’ Tenar and Sparrowhawk exchange uneasy glances.  But by the end of the movie the same table has become a place of celebration, concerned as much with laughter as with nourishment.  At one point in between these two contrasting supper scenes, Sparrowhawk tells Arren that human beings must learn with difficulty to do what wind and leaf and whale do naturally; and the whole film could be said to concern itself with the task of achieving a ‘natural’ domestic harmony at mealtimes.  The heroic scale of that task can be measured by recalling the state of the royal family at the start.

The fusion of two adults (Tenar and Sparrowhawk) and two teenagers (Therru and Arren) into a harmonious family unit also combines two more sets of doubles.  Therru, who is part dragon, quickly forms a bond with Sparrowhawk, whose name allies him to another creature of the air – a bird – and whose addiction to wandering identifies him as a lover of the freedom enjoyed by dragons.  Therru calls him ‘Hawk’ (‘Taka’) when she meets him; and later she sings a song about a hawk, in which she wishes for a companion who will understand and perhaps mitigate her loneliness.  Sparrowhawk would seem well suited to this role, if he could be persuaded to stick around long enough to assume it.  Arren, meanwhile, bonds with the farmer Tenar.  When Sparrowhawk takes off for the town, the boy stays behind to help with the ploughing, and it is at this point that Tenar recognizes him as a potential co-worker.  So the new family created at the end of the film joins together two freedom-lovers and two lovers of the land, symbolically healing the rift between humans and dragons, the beings of earth and air, which was explained by the old wizard Root in conversation with the King of Enlad.

Slave

There is another, easily overlooked double in the movie.  When he first enters Hort Town, Arren sees a slave-wagon going by, and when he glances in through the barred rear window he sees a youngster of indeterminate sex who looks just like him, forlornly awaiting his/her entry into a life of forced labour.  Later in the movie, when Cob’s henchman Hare (Usagi) has seized Arren and thrown him into an identical wagon, we glimpse the prince through the barred window at the rear of the wagon in a precise reiteration of the earlier scene.  The identical appearance of slave and captive prince suggests another function for the simplified character drawing selected by Goro.  The people in the film often bear a close resemblance to one another; and because of their physical resemblance it’s impossible to see Arren’s situation as unique.  At one point, indeed, Sparrowhawk insists in divesting the prince of the principal token of his uniqueness.  He buys him a cloak to cover up his princely clothes, and those clothes are later stolen from him by Hare and replaced with the sombre garments of a slave.  In an interview, Goro explained the thinking behind this homogenising of Arren and his people. ‘I didn’t want to make a fantasy with a main character who is just a prince,’ he pointed out.  ‘Arren is a prince but then he has a problem and that problem can be related to many young people in Japan…  In today’s Japan, the young people are being choked.  They don’t see hope in the future, life isn’t that beautiful anymore.  They feel… oppressed and that oppression comes from their own parents’.[24]  Arren and the anonymous slave are related; and both share with Therru a sense that their generation has been stifled and betrayed by the one before.  In Therru’s case and the slave’s, that betrayal is real enough: the first has been abused by her parents, the second deprived of liberty.  But Arren’s situation is closer to that of the young people of Goro’s Japan, in that he cannot define the exact nature of the oppression that has been visited on him.  The removal of this weight of oppression at the end of the film is symbolized once again through clothing: the new-made family sits by the fire sewing a new set of garments for the prince, garments suitable for farm-work or a journey.  Here at last Arren’s physical resemblance to his people accords with his situation and his state of mind, as he immerses himself in the healthy work of an ordinary subject, which can be carried out only with the support and respect of peers.              

Cob

Among all the proliferating doubles in this movie, the evil wizard Cob is the most profligate in the range of roles he duplicates or inverts.  His ability to do so is enhanced by his indeterminate gender; in the English version of the film he is voiced by a man, in the Japanese by a woman, and his Japanese name Kumo (which can mean ‘spider’, like the English word ‘cob’) is used both for men and women.  At one point or another Cob acts as a double for almost everyone in the narrative, insinuating himself into all the different social positions that might have been used to help integrate Arren into the communal life of Earthsea.  If the changing constitution of the supper table in the film suggests that life is about learning to work and play together in fruitful co-operation, Cob’s contradictory desire is to make himself the centre of all affections, the sole beneficiary of all labour.  His white, mask-like face identifies him as an actor, with the classical actor’s gift of taking on male or female roles at will.  At various points he substitutes himself for Arren’s shadow (he snatches the boy from the shadow’s grasp when he carries him to his castle); for Arren’s mother, tending the boy in his own bedchamber as Tenar did in hers; for his lover, stooping over the prince’s prone body to offer him pleasure in the form of a cup that stains his lips purple; and for his father, as he stands by Arren with proprietary arrogance, looking down on Sparrowhawk as if to note the Archmage’s reaction to his successful seduction of his adoptive son.  Cob can fly like a dragon or a hawk – like Therru or Sparrowhawk; yet he is also associated with a single fixed location, as Tenar is – his castle.  What he represents, then, is a pastiche of the Balance or Equilibrium, the reconciliation of many complementary qualities and functions that characterizes what is ‘well and rightly done’ in Sparrrowhawk’s philosophy.  He is everyone’s shadow, as the dragon-Therru recognizes at the end of the film when she dismisses him to the darkness he came from.  ‘Shadow’ she calls him, even as she snuffs him out in a blaze of light.[25]

Shipwrecks

Shadows have no substance of their own, and Cob’s existence is sustained by draining substance from every other inhabitant of Earthsea; a process so self-centred that it upsets all balance.   Goro, who is an architect as well as a landscape gardener, conceives this loss of balance in spatial terms, and depicts it in the many broken buildings that lie scattered through his movie.  We first meet Sparrowhawk as he moors his boat in a dilapidated harbour; and when he sets out on foot to seek the source of Earthsea’s sickness, he passes further ruins: the hulks of giant ships left high and dry on land; the empty shells of farms; the decayed and decadent city of Hort Town, whose inhabitants dwell in the shattered remains of what looks like an ancient Greek civilization.  At the entrance to Hort Town, a gigantic disintegrating gateway frames a market-place where slaves are bartered, as though liberty has been lost along with architectural coherence.  Later, Therru’s near rape takes place in a courtyard full of classical columns, where the masked henchmen of Cob – slave-traders in his service – seek to combine pleasure with the sickening business they live by, as they chase the girl between surviving fragments of a long-lost feat of structural engineering, hoping to violate her before they sell her.  All these ruins find their source and culmination in Cob’s castle, which is itself reduced to ruin in a series of spectacular collapses at the end of the film.  A spiral staircase falls away as Arren runs up a tower in pursuit of the fleeing wizard.  The summit of the tower is then demolished in an earthquake unleashed by Cob’s magic, concentric shock-waves tearing the stones apart so that Arren has to scrabble for purchase at the tower’s edge.  If Goro contrived to upset Le Guin’s admirers by destabilizing her Earthsea books, one wonders if he set out to destabilize himself in this climactic sequence, which is crammed with images of balance precariously maintained, perverse embodiments of an architect’s worst nightmare.

At one point Therru leaps from a flight of stairs to the top of a narrow wall.  She is steadied by Arren, but not before she has almost unbalanced the prince and knocked them both into the courtyard far below.  During the first fight between Arren and Cob, Sparrowhawk stands nearby, hands tied, at the edge of another precipitous drop – the mode of execution chosen for him by his shadowy alter-ego.  The second fight with Cob is more vertiginous still, as the top of the tower falls to pieces under the fighters’ feet.  And after Cob’s death, Arren deliberately abandons all balance and leaps from the tilting tower in the ultimate gesture of trust.  His conviction that Therru in her dragon-form will catch him before he hits the ground marks the final step of his restoration to inward balance: his acceptance that his equilibrium as a man can only be maintained by acknowledging his dependence on others.  Central to all this drama of balance and imbalance is the castle: a building designed to protect its occupant, to keep his enemies at bay and to intimidate his subjects.  Therru and Arren must find their way through this castle to rescue Sparrowhawk and Tenar – entering it (in Therru’s case) by an unguarded gate, proceeding through it by unorthodox routes, evading its points of weakness or collapse and finally abandoning it as they fly away together to a life beyond its gloomy confines.  Dismantling old frameworks – narratives or buildings – is not necessarily destructive, Goro implies; it may even be necessary.  But it is deeply disconcerting, and he is not afraid to show this in the most graphic terms imaginable.

Hort Town at sunset

If ruins stand for the loss of balance in Cob’s new order, the ultimate effect of that loss of balance is symbolized in the film by a succession of sunsets.  Goro has chosen a rich palette of colour with which to paint the landscapes of his movie, in contrast to the subtler tones favoured by Hayao in most of his films; and the raison d’etre for this palette is the sunsets which punctuate its narrative, harbingers of the total darkness into which Cob seeks to plunge Earthsea.  Sparrowhawk first meets Arren at close of day, and gives him shelter from the darkness by his fire.  Evening falls again after their arrival at Hort Town, where Arren falls asleep alone, watching the sunset on the harbour steps; this is where the slavers catch him.  It’s evening time, again, when he decides to leave Tenar’s farm and strike out on his own; the shadow finds him at sundown and chases him into the marsh, where he nearly drowns.  Sunset represents the moment of balance between night and day; and each of Goro’s sunsets – most notably the one Arren watches from Hort Town – occur in a setting where another binary is present: that of land and sea, which gives Le Guin’s and Goro’s worlds their names, and which gives the sunsets their magnificence.  Once sunsets begin to dominate this landscape at the expense of sunrises, Earthsea as a whole will lose its balance and be reduced to the foul black tarry substance that is always linked with Cob.

Arren and Therru at sunset

The same setting of land and sea provides the backdrop for the two most striking dawns in the film, both of which are viewed from Cob’s castle.  The first is the vision of sunrise granted to the two teenagers when Therru presents Arren with the gift of her true name, as she struggles to arouse him from his lethargy in time to rescue Sparrowhawk and Tenar.  As soon as she names herself as ‘Tehanu’, the walls of the castle fall away and the youngsters find themselves standing on a pinnacle beside the open sea, with the sun rising behind them.  As the sun rises, a dragon rises too: the dragon-self invoked by Therru’s true name, which flies up over the young couple, after which the walls of the castle suddenly close in again and they return to the urgent task in hand.  The scene echoes the dazzlingly-drawn moment earlier in the film when Sparrowhawk rescues Arren from the slavers’ wagon.  He does so in a blaze of light much like a dawn, and all forms of bondage melt away before his brightness.  And a similar scene is recalled by Tenar at her farm, when she tells Arren of the moment when Sparrowhawk rescued her from the tombs of Atuan (the movie makes it a one-sided rescue, although in Le Guin’s book the rescue is mutual – Sparrowhawk needs Tenar as much as she needs him).[26]  As Tenar recalls this incident, the screen dissolves into a whiteness that leads us to expect a re-enactment of the past; instead we are shown Sparrowhawk riding into town in his quest to find Arren’s lost sword.  The re-enactment of the rescue takes place much later, and involves the liberation of both Sparrowhawk and Tenar from Cob’s castle and the installation of a new generation at the centre of the story of Earthsea.

Sparrowhawk at Cob’s castle

Sparrowhawk is lured to Cob’s castle by the capture of Tenar, who remarks as she is shoved into the castle’s lowest dungeon that the place reminds her of Atuan; ‘so many memories’, she adds, invoking the sense of a lost but constantly resurfacing past with which the film is imbued.  Sparrowhawk duly comes for her, in another breathtaking juxtaposition of light and darkness: the sequence in which he rides through the night towards Cob’s castle with his staff blazing is one of the most memorable in the movie.  But his intended re-enactment of Tenar’s rescue never takes place.  Instead, the Archmage comes face to face with a murderous Arren, seduced by Cob into trying to kill his friend as he killed his father; and this encounter ends with Sparrowhawk imprisoned alongside the woman he meant to save.  All hope lies now with the younger generation: and their fulfilment of that hope takes place in the context of an actual sunrise, as prefigured by the vision they had when they exchanged true names.  Cob comments on the rising of the sun as he watches Therru rising from the dead after he has strangled her.  And when she gets to her feet amidst the wreckage of the castle tower, demolished by Cob in a bid to annihilate the youngsters who defy him; and when she changes into her dragon-self, again as the vision predicted; we might register, consciously or otherwise, that in destroying his own castle Cob has effectively completed the picture painted by the vision.  He himself has brought about the melting of the walls of his own tyranny.  His desperate attempts to hold back the course of time, to delay his own aging by adopting an immaculate mask – in contrast to the time-ravaged faces of Sparrowhawk and Therru, both of whom have been scarred by their histories – together with his efforts to enlist the next generation in defence of his position, when he caused Arren to fight Sparrowhawk; all his struggles have merely created the conditions for their termination.  His plot to seize sole power ends with him begging for assistance from the person in all Earthsea he most despises – the girl he left out of all his schemes.  And his collapse leaves the next generation free to fly clear of the oppressive ruins of his aborted future.

Only Yesterday, dir. Takahata Isao

Much of this imagery of solipsism supplanted by co-operation, of a selfish element in the older generation overthrown by a mutually supportive younger one, of a dysfunctional, distant family replaced by a new, affectionate familial community, has clearly been carefully thought through by Goro in his courageous struggle to achieve a style of his own in the face of his father’s astonishing artistic achievements.  It’s clear, too, that his vision of the perfect community owes much to Isao Takahata, whose hymns to agricultural solidarity – Only Yesterday (1991), Pom Poko (1994), the desperate efforts to find nourishment that dominate the waking lives of the child-heroes in The Grave of the Fireflies (1988) – had their origins in the humble strife-torn village defended by Hols/Horus in The Little Lost Prince.  Despite its initial hostility to him, Hols ends by forging the village into a community, much as Therru ends by transforming Tenar’s farm into a family homestead; and Goro’s repeated acknowledgement of Takahata’s influence invites his interested viewers to follow up the thematic and visual links between their works as I have done earlier in this essay.

The hazia pedlar

It’s trickier, though, to determine how far Goro might have intended the more disturbing transformations he has effected to his father’s cinematic legacy.  Although the drawing of the characters recalls the pre-Ghibli tradition of anime, many of the characters’ faces are strongly reminiscent of specific types in Miyazaki movies, as if Goro is keen to embed the history of his father’s work in his production.  At Hort Town, Arren meets a small warty man whose face is closely modelled on that of the amoral mercenary-monk in Princess Mononoke.  But whereas in that film the monk had the glamorous villain’s role of tracking down the Spirit of the Forest, in this film he is reduced to a drug-pusher, whose attempt to persuade Arren to sample his wares is foiled by Sparrowhawk – and who at once turns vicious in a way the monk never did.  Hare/Usagi, the leader of Cob’s henchmen, has a face that recalls a long line of comic villains in Hayao’s movies, from the despicable Count in The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) to the skyborne pirate family in Laputa and the bungling sky-pirates in Porco Rosso (1992).  In this film, however, the comic villain is a would-be rapist and a slave trader, terrorizing his men and the island’s population, while acting with grovelling subservience in the presence of his master.  As if to emphasize his degeneracy, he wears a helmet whose goggle-visor recalls the 1920s headgear worn by all the pilots in Porco Rosso; his cowardice looks all the more pronounced when compared to the dashing aerial antics of his predecessors.   His subordinates who drive the slave-wagon in which Arren is transported look like members of the pirate families in Hayao’s work; but their consent to the slave trade represents a level of villainy to which the pirates never descend.  The old women who visit Tenar at her farm to ask for medicine for a sick child bear some physical similarity to the strong old women who crop up everywhere in Hayao’s work, from the mother of the pirates in Laputa to the indomitable Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).  But in this film they have become sneaks and hypocrites, betraying Tenar to Hare in hope of financial gain, despite the fact that she has been supplying them with medicine free of charge.  In every case, the charming if sometimes unprincipled characters in Hayao’s oeuvre who are summoned up by the faces of Goro’s minor players find themselves diminished and darkened in Tales from Earthsea, condemned to play wholly despicable roles where in earlier Ghibli films they were always redeemable.  Obviously Goro’s world will require far more drastic remedial surgery than Hayao’s, if it is ever to regain the balance it has forfeited.

Cob’s eyes (1)

The most direct allusion to a specific Hayao character, or rather creature, comes at the end, when Cob loses his staff and with it the magical control of his body that sustained his youthful appearance.  Cob is at once devitalized, dragging himself up the steps of the castle with the painful laboriousness of old age, white-haired and round-shouldered.  One is reminded of the many moments of physical debility that afflicted young Arren throughout the film – his exhaustion and his fainting fits – and one imagines that these had their source in Cob’s pernicious influence over Earthsea.  But when Cob reaches the top of the tower a more drastic change comes over him.  His legs shrink and his arms extend until they are grotesquely long and boneless.  Proportioned like this, Cob resembles one of the flying robots in Laputa, charged with protecting the ancient skyborne castle of the movie’s title, which is both a deadly weapon and a heavenly garden.  These robots themselves began as weapons, capable of demolishing even the monstrous gunship that attempts to take charge of the Castle in the Sky; but some of them have achieved redemption, converting themselves to gardeners who tend the rich vegetation that has taken over the ruins of the aerial fortress.  The robotic Cob, by contrast, is concerned only with self-preservation.  His lack of eyes at this stage in the movie (a grotesque detail taken from The Farthest Shore) means that he is unable to see anything but what’s inside him – and that is emptiness, as we learn from the occasional close-up.  Where the robots existed to interact with others – even if in acts of aggression – Cob is incapable of doing so; and this makes him infantile in his final moments, cackling over the seeming death of Therru, begging whiningly for life from her when she revives.

Cob’s eyes (2)

Cob, then, becomes childish as the children in the movie grow up.  And the pain involved in the process of growing is powerfully evoked in the painful sight of well-loved characters from our filmgoing past – the lovable rogues and tender robots of the earlier Ghibli movies – diminished, darkened, humiliated and finally displaced at the moment when the new generation comes into its own.  In his final moments, Cob’s grotesque eyelessness recalls the moments in the film when we could not see the eyes of the youngsters: Arren and Therru, whose eyes are veiled by their hair when they feel angry or alienated, and Arren’s doppelganger, whose invisible eyes confirm Arren’s unwillingness to confront it rather than any inherent hostility in the doppelganger itself.  Each of these youngsters, however, can unveil their eyes when they choose to communicate.  Cob cannot; and this fixes him in a permanent state of adolescent egotism, a state which he seeks to impose on Arren too, and on the rest of Earthsea, from which the magic is draining away as it strives to rid itself of the responsibility and hurt that comes with adulthood.     

In his fusion of age and youth, then, as in other things, Cob is a distortion of the community of four that forms in the film’s last sequence.  Arren’s and Therru’s new family represents a fruitful combination of young and old, as against the wizard’s poisonous compound of immaturity and senility.  In the last few shots, the teenagers work shoulder to shoulder with Tenar and Sparrowhawk on the farm, sowing the new-ploughed land with seed, laughing together at supper, sitting in the evenings contentedly at work on the clothes and equipment Arren will need on his journey back to Enlad.  And when Arren goes to face the consequences of the murder he committed, he does not go alone.  Sparrowhawk goes with him as his advocate and guide; and they wear the clothes and equipment fashioned by their farming community in those evenings of contentment.  In Hayao’s films as well as Goro’s, families are things you work on.  Think of Chihiro in Spirited Away (2001), scrubbing at the floors of a witch’s Bathhouse so as to win back her parents; or Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbour Totoro (1988), labouring to make an old house ready to receive their sick mother, or setting out on the long journey to the hospital carrying the good food they think will cure her.  Goro has not broken Hayao’s world, any more than he has betrayed the imaginative vision of Ursula K. Le Guin.  He has chosen the difficult route of telling his tale from Earthsea rather differently from the way either of them would have told it.  But for those who are willing to look closely at what he has done both to Earthsea and to Ghibli, the prospect of further difficult films from Goro is a welcome one.

Arren faces Therru in dragon form

NOTES

1. Tales from Earthsea is known in Japanese as Gedo Senki.  The only version I could watch before writing this essay in October 2007 was the dubbed one released in the UK in 2007; names are therefore given as in the dubbed version, with Japanese equivalents in brackets.  I am grateful to Yushin Toda both for nourishing my enthusiasm for Japanese culture over the last couple of decades and for answering my questions as the essay reached its final draft.

2. On Goro Miyazaki’s relationship with his father see Animé News Network, ‘Taipei International Book Exhibition: Meet and Greet with Goro Miyazaki’, by Chih-Chieh Chang.

3. See Ursula K. Le Guin’s official website, ‘Gedo Senki: A First Response to “Gedo Senki”, the Earthsea film made by Goro Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli.  Written for my fans in Japan who are writing me about the movie, and for fans elsewhere who may be curious about it’   (www.ursulakleguin.com/GedoSenkiResponse.html, accessed 21. 9. 07).

4. On the success of Tales from Earthsea at the box office see the Wikipedia entry Tales from Earthsea, ‘Reaction and box office’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_from_Earthsea%28anime%29, accessed 21. 9. 07).  On the divisions over the film among Japanese audiences, see Ursula K. Le Guin’s official website, ‘Gedo Senki: Responses from Correspondents’ (www.ursulakleguin.com/GedoSenkiCorrespondents.html, accessed 21. 9. 07).   

5. See Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore, in The Earthsea Quartet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), p. 475; The Other Wind (London: Orion, 2002), p. 94 ff.

6. See Le Guin, The Farthest Shore, in The Earthsea Quartet, p. 324.

7. Le Guin, ‘A First Response to “Gedo Senki”’.

8. Interestingly, too, Goro speaks of his film as a response to a universal malaise among young people in Japan (I discuss this later in the essay).  See Peter van der Lugt, ‘Gedo Senki at Venice International Film Festival’, an interview with Goro Miyazaki on the website ‘GhibliWorld.com’ (www.ghibliworld.com/gedosenkiatviff2006.html, accessed 21. 9. 07).

9. Indeed, the defeat of Cob is a good deal more violent in The Farthest Shore than it is in Tales from Earthsea.  He is first ‘crushed and burned’ by the dying dragon Orm Embar, then crawls in this shattered state into the land of the dead, where he is attacked again and again by Arren with his sword (‘The blade made a great wound, severing Cob’s spine… a rage of loathing swelled up in Arren, a berserk fury, and swinging up the sword he struck again with it, a full terrible downward blow’).  Arren’s attack is as ineffectual in the book as it is in the film.  For Goro’s feelings on aggression, see his blog entry for 17th January 2006 (Goro Miyazaki’s Blog Translation, translated by Paul Barnier, The Hayao Miyazaki Web): ‘even for the purpose of defeating evil, I don’t want to make magic an instrument of violence’.

10. On Goro’s initial response to the Earthsea books, compared with his response on re-reading them, see his blog entries for 14th-22nd December 2005.

11. Le Guin, ‘A First Response to “Gedo Senki”’.

12. For a detailed discussion of this decision, see Goro’s blog entries for 27 February 2006-7 March 2006.

13. Goro tells us that The Little Norse Prince is his favourite animated movie in his interview with Peter van der Lugt, ‘Gedo Senki at Venice International Film Festival’.  The film is also known as Horus Prince of the Sun.  Goro discusses it often in his account of the ‘simple’ visual style of Tales from Earthsea: see his blog entries for 27 February-7 March 2006.

14. The analogy he makes is with the European neo-classicists of the eighteenth century; see his blog entry for 28 February 2006.

15. The version of Little Norse Prince discussed here was released on DVD by Optimum Asia in 2005.

16. For Le Guin’s description of the sword see The Farthest Shore, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 328-9.

17. Le Guin discusses names in general in A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 50-2; and names and friendship on pp. 70-1.  See also her early short story, ‘The Rule of Names’, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2 vols. (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp.82-93, and her late novella ‘Dragonfly’ in Tales from Earthsea (New York: Ace Books, 2002), pp. 209-79.

18. On Hayao Miyazaki’s long-term fascination with Earthsea, see for instance Kaleem Aftab, ‘A feud that animated Japanese film’, The Independent, August 10, 2007, at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20070810/ai_n19478963/pg_1, accessed 23. 9. 07.

19. See Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, p. 16: ‘There is a saying on Gont, Weak as woman’s magic, and there is another saying, Wicked as woman’s magic’.

20. See Le Guin, Tehanu, The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 488-93.

21. Le Guin, ‘The Bones of the Earth’, Tales from Earthsea, pp. 151-171.

22. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, p. 164.

23. See Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 143-152.

24. Peter van der Lugt, ‘Gedo Senki at Venice International Film Festival’.

25. In fact, the film makes it unclear whether the dragon-Tehanu burns Cob with its breath or whether he undergoes some sort of spontaneous combustion.  Once again, the violence of Cob’s death is not the point.

26. See Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan, in The Earthsea Quartet, pp. 272-3.