Celtic Fantasy and War: Patricia Lynch and William Croft Dickinson

[I started thinking about Celtic Fantasy in May, when Geraldine Parsons invited me to take part in a Round Table on the subject with herself and Thomas Clancy at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies here in Glasgow. The event is elegantly summarised by Megan Kasten here; but I went on thinking about Fantasy and Celticity, and turned my thoughts into a keynote for the CRSF Conference at the University of Liverpool last week. This, then, is the keynote, with thanks to Geraldine for getting me started on it and to Will Slocombe, Beata Gubacsi, Tom Kewin and the CRSF organising committee for the invitation to give it, and for making the conference such a supportive environment to deliver it in. I should also apologise profusely to the courteous Irish scholars who suffered in silence through my dreadful mispronunciations of their beautiful language. I should have asked Geraldine for lessons beforehand. I’ll know better next time.]

Cover Illustration by Pauline Baynes

In her recent book Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave 2017) Dimitra Fimi identifies what she calls the desire for ‘Celticity’ as rooted in myth: the fantasy of a sophisticated shared culture that once extended across much of Europe, and whose traces can still be found in the customs, character and conversation of the Welsh and Irish people and their diasporic relatives across the world. According to this myth, in ancient times Celtic culture differed from the culture of the Roman Empire in much the same way as modern Celts differ from the English and Anglo-American colonists who inherited the Roman imperial mantle: it was ‘spiritual, natural, emotional, artistic, rural, and timeless’, where the colonists favoured materialism, rationalism, and restraint, qualities perceived as underpinning the rapid spread of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The association of Celticity with emotion, spirit and nature aligns it with the literary genre now known as fantasy: the art of the impossible, which seeks to liberate itself from the Anglo-Roman espousal of rationalism by imagining people, events and things that violate the laws of physics or biology. The impulse to fantasy arose at a point when those laws were being systematically formulated by the Enlightenment, manifesting itself in the uncanny narratives of Gothic fiction, the dreamlands of Romantic poetry and the earthy tricksiness of the folk tale, and attaching itself to revolutionary and nationalist movements even as those movements appealed to reason as the basis for a reconstruction of stagnant old societies along radical new lines. Celtic fantasy found its most potent manifestation in the Irish literary revival, whose championing of medieval Irish literature and folktale supplied the soundtrack, so to speak, for the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence four years later. In Ireland, the dream of a Celtic past as expressed through stories helped, in its own small way, to spark a revolution. That’s more than can be said for most literary movements, and itself identifies Celtic fantasy, even in its humblest manifestations (the ballad, the folk tale, the bedtime story for children) as well worth thinking about.

Capital from The Book of Kells

In this post I’d like to focus on the question of how Celtic fantasy written for children engaged with politics in the decades before the subgenre really took off in the 1960s. My chosen texts have been left out of most accounts of the rise of Celtic fantasy, since they come too early to fit into the established timeline for the movement’s emergence. One of these novels is from Ireland, the other from Scotland, and both were written in times of crisis – though it’s hard to think of any decade of the twentieth century that wasn’t a time of crisis in one way or another. To be specific, both can be read as responses to war, and both concern themselves with the traces of war in the psychological, cultural and physical landscapes of the authors’ nations. They are Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey (1934) and William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944); and between them they provide a number of valuable insights into what Fimi might describe as the impulse to Celticity, in children’s fiction and elsewhere.

Both books bear a striking resemblance to the debut novel of the most celebrated writer of Celtic fantasy for children: Alan Garner, whose novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen came out in 1960, sixteen years after Borrobil. In all three books two children, a boy and a girl, find their way into the Celtic past, where they get caught up in events that have a profound effect on their country’s history. In each case they encounter one or more guides who help them understand the culture they find themselves in; in each case the Celtic past proves to be much more complex than they might have expected; and in each case their journey from past to present involves an intimate encounter with some striking geographical feature (Garner’s Alderley Edge, the prehistoric monuments of Dickinson’s Scotland, the Irish boglands in Lynch). Dickinson’s novel shares with Garner’s the detail that the young female protagonist carries with her into the past a talismanic stone, which plays a crucial role in ensuring the outcome of the narrative. In The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, too, talismanic objects get carried and exchanged between the Celtic otherworld and the everyday present, most notably a magic shamrock. And Lynch’s novel also shares with Weirdstone a sense of unease at certain implications of the confrontation it enacts between the Celtic past and the globalized present. It’s not necessary, I think, to assume that Garner had read the earlier novels, but they prove that Celtic fantasy was alive and well, and being used for serious purposes in children’s fiction, long before Colin and Susan first set eyes on the sleeping knights of Fundindelve.

Patricia Lynch

The first of my texts, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, emerged from a background of political activism. Its author threw in her lot at an early age with the conjoined struggles for women’s suffrage and a modern, independent, socialist Ireland. At eighteen she was sent as a correspondent by Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, The Women’s Dreadnought, to cover the Easter Rising of 1916. In 1922 she married the English historian Richard Fox, who had just returned from a visit to the newly-founded Soviet Union and who was building a formidable reputation as a radical thinker (in the later 1920s his books were published by the Hogarth Press). The couple moved to Dublin, where Fox wrote books about Irish women rebels (published the year after The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey), the Citizen Army, and two prominent members of the Labour movement in Ireland, Jim Larkin and James Connolly. Lynch meanwhile began to write children’s fiction, beginning with The Green Dragon in 1925, and becoming the most influential Irish writer for children of the twentieth century. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey is richly infused with the couple’s passion for international socialism, as well as with Lynch’s feminism, and with the conviction that both these movements had a natural affinity with Irish culture and history – that their roots reached deep into Irish soil, quite literally speaking given the book’s emphasis on the boglands of the West. It’s also interestingly choosy about the elements of ancient Irish culture that should be accommodated into twentieth-century Irish identity. Celticity, it suggests, must be mixed with a strong strain of modernity if Ireland is to fulfil its potential as an independent nation.

The Happy March from The Crock of Gold

Lynch’s debt to another Irish socialist fantasy writer is everywhere obvious in this novel. I’m thinking of James Stephens, whose The Crock of Gold (1912) harnessed ancient Irish myth in the services of a radical vision for an independent, egalitarian Ireland. Lynch’s child protagonists inhabit a landscape which, like Stephens’s, contains forceful women, tricky leprechauns, intelligent animals, travellers who abide by strict laws of their own and have a passion for stories, roads with a personality of their own, and figures from ancient Irish literature and legend. The brother of the novel’s heroine is even named Seamus, recalling the young boy from a delightful collection of poems by James Stephens published in 1915 as The Adventures of Seumas Beg (Seamus was also one of Stephens’s many pseudonyms). The Crock of Gold ends with an act of liberation in which the story’s heroine, Caitlin ni Murrachu, joins with the medieval hero Angus Og and the hosts of the Sidhe to free the Irish people from enslavement by capitalist imperialism. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey culminates in a more tentative vision that seeks to establish continuity between the Celtic past and a socialist Irish future in a gesture of reconciliation aimed at administering imaginative balm to the wounds inflicted by the Civil War of 1922-3. Lynch’s is an optimistic book but not a glib one, and provides a joyful antidote to the satirical revision of Stephens’s novel undertaken by Flann O’Brien in his bleak surrealist masterpiece The Third Policeman (c. 1940).

The political resonance of The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey can be best appreciated, I think, by turning to the report Lynch wrote for The Women’s Dreadnought about the Easter Rising. The report, ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’, was prefaced by some thoughts on Easter Week penned by Sylvia Pankhurst herself, who identifies the Celtic nations of the Western Archipelago as instinctively more progressive than their powerful neighbour, ‘slow-moving England […] who, with her strong vested interests and larger population, is always the predominant partner in the British Isles’. Pankhurst clearly sees what she calls ‘the Celtic temperament’ in the terms assigned by Fimi to Celticity: spiritual, emotional and artistic, concepts combined in her account of ‘the dream of so many ardent lovers of Ireland to make of her an independent paradise of free people, a little republic, famous, not for its brute strength, but for its happiness and culture, something unique in all the world’. Against this utopian dream Pankhurst sets the scenes of desolation reported from Dublin: not just the carnage caused by the savage military suppression of the Rising, but the desperate poverty of ‘tenement dwellings […] crowded with poor, ill-clad people’ which still stood as a physical rebuke to British rule in Ireland, and which were described in such vivid detail by James Stephens in his realist novel The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912). More significantly for Lynch’s development as a novelist, Pankhurst wrote of the plight of rural people in the West of Ireland, living in ‘hovels’ on ‘strips of undrained, stony ground’, earning a few shillings a week for making lace and with illiterate children ‘kept at home to help with this wretchedly paid work’ of lacemaking, whose returns were falling year on year despite government assurances to the contrary. Like most of Lynch’s novels, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey locates itself in rural Ireland, and involves the reconstruction of one such hovel along better principles thanks to an unexpected windfall provided by a grateful leprechaun. The woman who lives in the cottage makes lace to a standard her children are deeply proud of. The children help their parents with their work, but the young girl also reads about Irish history as if with the specific intention of reconstructing Ireland on the ruins of a sometimes heroic, sometimes catastrophic past, and eventually brings the past into the present, quite literally, in the form of a Celtic hero from her favourite history book. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey could almost have been written as a direct response to Pankhurst’s description of the appalling living and working conditions in rural Ireland that helped to provoke the Easter Rising.

Women of the Easter Rising

Lynch’s ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’ differs from the celebrated eyewitness account by James Stephens – The Insurrection in Dublin ­– in its concentration on women’s experiences. All the witnesses whose interviews Lynch reports are women, and her particular interest in the material impact of the conflict on the ‘women’s problem’ of running a household is everywhere obvious. The women she spoke to were predominantly working class: a ‘pale-faced, haggard-eyed waitress’, whose sweetheart is in prison facing execution; a charwoman whose home came under fire by the British army; another domestic servant whose two-roomed flat was blown up by the military; a girl whose brothers are fighting on opposite sides, one at the front in Fanders, the other in the Irish Volunteers; a woman who knows first aid and has tried to help, first a British soldier, then a dying ‘Sinn Feiner, barely 12 years old’, who was wounded in the head so that ‘his brains were showing’. The same first aider witnessed the meeting between a dying woman, whom she carried into a nursing home, and her injured young daughter. Elsewhere Lynch writes of a 15-year-old boy who was arrested for the crime of being ‘out walking’ with a non-combatant member of Sinn Fein. In Lynch’s Rising, women and children are the chief casualties of the chaos of what she represents as a civil conflict, with Irish citizens – sometimes members of the same family – on both sides.

James Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin blamed the Rising on a catastrophic failure of imagination on the part of the British: a refusal to see things from the Irish point of view or to try to understand the psychological impact of putting down the insurrection with extreme force. Lynch clearly shared his views. At the end of her report she speaks of the Irish capacity for remembering significant historical events – embodied in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey by young Eileen, who reads her history book so intensely that its characters come alive – and warns that the British actions in Dublin will not be forgotten. ‘Will the English government never learn?’ she concludes.

It can only suppress revolt by appealing to the imagination of the Irish. If not one leader had been shot, if clemency, toleration had been the order, the rebellion would indeed have been at an end. We cannot resist kindness, we can never endure oppression.

A heroic girl marrying her lover on the morning of his execution; a beautiful countess giving up the advantages of her position to live with the working people and if necessary to die with them; these strike the imagination of a race of poets and idealists.

For Lynch, central to the images of the Rising embedded in the Irish collective memory are representations of two women, Grace Gifford and Constance Markievicz, the latter of whom took active part in the fighting – a fact perhaps commemorated in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey when little Eileen gets caught up in the fighting between the Tuatha Dé Dannan and the Fir Bolg at the First Battle of Maighe Tuireadh. Eileen, however, is more concerned to avoid hurting anybody with her spear – apart from one aggressive boy she strikes in self-defence – than to use it in anger, and is instrumental in establishing peace between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg. Her experience of conflict in Celtic times is profoundly disturbing to her, like Lynch’s of the Insurrection, and it’s the peacetime accomplishments of the Tuatha Dé that she admires – the cities they build, the magic they weave – rather than their martial prowess.

The Magic Pool, illustration by Jack Yeats

Eileen, in fact, resists the narrative logic of Celtic literature and folktale as much as she embraces it. As in the folktales, her and Seamus’s kindness to animals is duly rewarded: the novel’s title commemorates their rescue of an abused donkey, who turns out to have magical powers and takes them to a pool on the flat-topped mountain near their home where they can see anything they care to; but the children can’t agree on what they want to see in it, and its resources are never put to significant use. Later the children meet a leprechaun, which Seamus catches for the usual purpose of forcing him to surrender his crock of gold; but the boy lets him go again by mistake, and when Eileen befriends the leprechaun by finding and returning his shoemaking hammer this turns out to be of greater practical use than violence, since he both mends her shoes in return and supports the children in their later adventures. Subsequent encounters with the magical past are equally ambiguous about the value of traditional means of acquiring money, fame and power. When Seamus gets kidnapped by an eagle and enslaved by the Wise Woman of Youghal – who wants access to the magic enclosed in a four-leaved clover sent to the children by their beloved Aunt Una – Eileen has to rescue him in a toy plane, with somewhat inadequate assistance from the leprechaun, miscellaneous birds and beasts, and a pilot dressed all in silver. Eileen’s rescue, then, embodies both collectivism and a rather fragile version of modernity (the toy plane is flimsy, being made of cardboard, and the pilot eccentric and irascible), as against the imperialist symbolism of the eagle or the Wise Woman’s quest for an unshared, undemocratic power obtained through the shamrock, the symbol of Ireland past and to come. By this stage in the story, Lynch’s young protagonists have come to embody the struggle between competing versions of Irish identity, with Eileen the champion of a progressive model of relations between classes, genders, and the environment, while Seamus is constantly tempted to replicate the aggressive actions and selfish motives of his ancestors – though his affection for his sister always redeems him in the end.

Eileen’s possession of a toy plane should alert us to the way Lynch likes to reverse traditional gender expectations. Not only does this girl come to the rescue of her elder brother, but she does it with the help of a toy he would like to have owned himself (‘That’s what I wanted!’ he tells her when she carries it out of the shop). Later Seamus gets equally annoyed with his sister when she gets too caught up in her reading to play with her dolls, so that he has no excuse to join in with her games in direct contradiction of his stated belief that dolls are ‘silly, babyish things’ and that he is ‘surprised at Eileen bothering with them’. In any case, Eileen’s dolls don’t get used for conventional purposes: she never nurses or makes clothes for them, but pins ‘gay pieces of stuff around them, turning a Dutch doll into a gipsy, and a sailor into a Red Indian or a pirate’; she even allows her brother to stalk them with his bow and arrows so long as he never hits them. Clearly Eileen is as international in her outlook as Lynch herself was, and as addicted to roving either in real life or in her imagination (at one point in the novel she runs off to join the real-life gipsies, though she finds looking after their babies deeply disenchanting). She is no more entrapped in traditional household roles or ways of thinking than the characters in the books she reads are trapped in the past – or than her parents are trapped in a shoddy cottage (they rebuild their home from scratch at the end of chapter 3).

The past, then, is never sentimentalized in Lynch’s fiction – any more than the relationship between the brother and sister is sentimentalized (Eileen runs away to join the gipsies after squabbling with Seamus). Ireland past and present is a place of divided cultures, often at war with one another in words or deeds. People inhabit different dwellings depending on their work and culture: the tinkers live in the carts from which they sell their wares, Tim Quinlan the road-mender in his mobile shelter, Captain Cassidy on his barge, the gipsies in their immaculate caravans, the turf-cutter and his family in their cottage at the edge of the bog where the turf gets cut – and each of these dwellings is on the move, including the cottage, which gets rebuilt. The gipsies and the tinkers are at odds (‘When you go back to your own people,’ the Tinker Chief tells Eileen, ‘you’ll tell them how much better than the gipsies the tinkers are’), though Eileen at first finds both communities equally intimidating – just as she is terrified of being caught on the barge by Captain Cassidy, or in the fair by the showman who chases her when she releases one of his human exhibits. And when the children make their way into the past by magic, they find it full of rival peoples at once as alluring and intimidating, as foreign and familiar as the diverse communities of modern Ireland.

Finn

Their first encounter with the past features the hero Finn and the warriors of the Fianna, whom they meet on the same flat-topped mountain where the donkey showed them the magic pool. This encounter goes badly: Eileen makes a fool of herself by posing as a princess, and when Seamus asks to join the Fianna he is set a number of tasks he cannot possibly perform (‘If you were put in a hole with a shield and a stick,’ they tell him, ‘you must be able to defend yourself against nine warriors’). Keeping hold of the past, too, proves a problem for the modern visitors: solid objects such as trees and spears are always melting away and the whole scene eventually vanishes when Seamus disobeys an order. There’s a cultural and physical gap between the fabulous attainments of the past and the youthful exuberance of the present, and Seamus can only promise to practise hard at fighting, jumping and running in an effort to bridge it.

The second encounter with the Celtic past goes better, at least at first. One of the ancient inhabitants of Ireland escapes from Eileen’s history book and she makes friends with him, forging an alliance which is a mutual embracing of difference. The stone-age visitor, a ‘little dark man’, is mistaken at first by the girl’s contemporaries for a thieving vagrant – a tinker or a gipsy – before being captured and put on show as an African ‘savage’ who ‘eats raw meat and swallows lighted candles’. Eileen’s urge, then, to befriend him and hear him tell stories seems initially to be an extension of her unusual interest in strange cultures, as manifested elsewhere in her games of Red Indians and her flight to join the gipsies. But the apparent differences between Eileen and the little dark man mask a deeper kinship. When they magically enter the history book he escaped from she finds that he is in fact a hero of old Ireland named Sreng, which means, as she points out, that that they are effectively related: ‘You see, we all belong here just as you do, only we live in a different time’. Through the ages Ireland has nurtured a range of populations as physically and culturally diverse as that of the globe, and recognition of its diversity leads naturally to the sense of kinship with men and women of all races and classes which Eileen displays throughout the novel.

Sreng

At least, it should lead to such a sense of kinship. Instead, this second encounter with the Celtic past turns sour, much like the first. Sreng’s people the Fir Bolg prefer fighting to making friends, and one of the Fir Bolg boys takes violently against Eileen – symbolically enough, because she prevents him from killing the Salmon of Wisdom. Meanwhile the Fir Bolg Chief decides to wage war against a new wave of Celts who have arrived in Ireland: the Danaans, as Lynch calls them – the Tuatha Dé – who build cities of stone, wield lightweight metal weapons, and wear brightly-coloured clothes and intricate jewelry. The episode culminates in a battle involving three kinds of Irish people – the Fir Bolg, the Danaans and the two modern children – which ends not in heroic deeds (in the ancient texts Sreng strikes off the arm of Nuada, King of the Danaans) but chaos and confusion, much like the chaos of the Easter Rising as Lynch describes it. Eileen loses her spear and finds herself stranded behind enemy lines, where she ‘covered her eyes to shut out the sight of warriors cutting and stabbing, but […] could not shut her ears to the cries of pain and anger’. The Fir Bolg chief is killed, the aggressive boy traumatized, and the children flee with the wounded hero Sreng back to their own time, leaving ‘something of the present’ behind them in exchange (a pencil and a handkerchief, which they stuff into a hollow tree trunk). Impressive though the city of the Danaans was, when they set eyes again on the ‘whitewashed cabin at the edge of the bog […] in all the wonderful past they had not seen anything more lovely’. The Celtic past is not to be privileged, for Lynch, above the present and future; they are enmeshed in one another, and the most precious element of each is a commitment to the arts of peace.

Above all, the Celtic past doesn’t wield any cultural or moral authority over the present in Lynch’s novel. This is largely because its values – such as the celebration of martial prowess and the corresponding elevation of men over women in the social hierarchy – make it problematic as a model for modern life. Farah Mendlesohn has argued in Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) that the characters in ‘portal quest fantasies’ like this one – people who pass through a magical door or along an invisible road into an unfamiliar country – invariably require a guide to teach them how to behave and what to think about the things they’re seeing, such as Puck in Rewards and Fairies or Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For her, this makes the portal quest fantasy a fundamentally conservative genre. In a more recent book, Children’s Fantasy Literature (2016), she and Michael Levy summarize the 1930s as a decade of relative conservatism in children’s fiction, when protagonists must learn obedience at the hands of their adult instructors, and when fantasy novels are full of servile animated toys whose desire to please their owners reflects the dominant ideology of the mid-twentieth century. Lynch’s novel bucks both these trends. Eileen and Seamus have guides aplenty: the leprechaun, the ‘little dark man’ Sreng, a mysterious Man in Brown who comes over the bog following an ancient road and takes them to meet the Fianna. But none of these guides overawes them, and the youngsters are as often inclined to ignore their advice as they are to take it. Eileen treats Sreng and the Man in Brown as her equals, and Seamus strives to emulate them, seeing only his age as a bar to matching their accomplishments. The children’s sense of equality arises from the qualities that make them capable of forging friendships with random strangers – the birds, beasts, supernatural creatures and people they meet on their adventures. The young siblings are brave and curious, and they like to learn, whether new stories or new physical skills. In addition, they treat each other as equals, despite the difference in their ages and sexes. And the people they like best from Celtic culture are the ones who share their egalitarian values, such as the Man in Brown, who respects and rewards good men and women of all classes who give him food and shelter; or Sreng, who oversees the ceasefire between his people and the Danaans, and who later refuses to be the new chief of the Fir Bolg because, as he puts it, he prefers ‘wandering, seeing strange people and countries, making new friends’. He, like Eileen, is an internationalist, and his instinct for reconciliation is as urgently needed in post-Civil War Ireland as it was in the days of the warring Celts.

Reconciliation is also the theme of our second text, William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944). This is hardly surprising given that it was published at the height of World War Two. Its author was the longest-serving incumbent of the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, and the first Englishman to hold the post. A noted writer of ghost stories, he advanced the theory in his Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (1961) that the country’s fortunes were largely determined by its geography, a view that gets borne out in his debut novel.  Once again the story concerns a young brother and sister who find their way into the past, where they meet the jovial wizard of the title, whose constant cheerfulness, pointed hat with a feather in it, and habit of breaking into rhyme at every opportunity link him irresistibly to Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. It’s tempting to imagine Dickinson may have known about Bombadil, who first appeared in a song in the 1930s – after all, he and Tolkien were fellow professors as well as fellow veterans of the Great War, and there are numerous hints in Borrobil that Dickinson had read The Hobbit (1937). Borrobil, however, concerns itself not with Middle Earth – an alternative England – but what is clearly Scotland, and in particular with the way the struggles of the past have left indelible traces on the Scottish landscape. Dickinson first told the story to his two young daughters, and one gets the impression he did so to reassure them that wars had come and gone across the land through successive generations, leaving no lasting damage, only strange remains: villages on stilts in the middle of lakes, hills with mysterious rings around them, barrows, stone circles, brochs and castles. His version of the Celtic past is the solution to the riddle posed by these remains, as well as a promise that the war will pass like a bout of bad weather, leaving only stories of courage and trickery behind it, and a few archaeological wonders which need the stories to bring them alive.

A Digestive Biscuit

In fact, the novel represents war as a kind of ritual, the human equivalent of the war between the seasons as this was celebrated in the half-forgotten Celtic festival of Beltane. The young protagonists, Donald and Jean – whose names mark them out as Scottish – already have some awareness of the procession of the seasons. Their adventures begin at harvest time, when the fields are full of haystacks to play in, and it’s hinted that they may even have taken part in the harvest: we learn in the second paragraph that they have come to the part of the country where the story takes place on an ‘extra’ holiday, a phrase often used in wartime to mean breaks from school to help with farm work. At the same time there’s something odd about the seasons as they experience them. The Beltane festival took place in Spring, around the first of May, while the main hay harvest happens in July, so the presence of Beltane fires at harvest time is something of an anomaly. It would seem, though, to be a deliberate one on Dickinson’s part, because one of the children takes with him into the past three digestive biscuits with wheat sheaves stamped on them, which he gives to the king of a land that has been ravaged for decades by a monstrous dragon. The king takes the wheat sheaf symbol as a sign that the dragon will be defeated and that harvests will be possible again, as they have not for as long as the dragon held sway over the fields and hills. Donald and Jean, then, stand for the return of new life to a depopulated kingdom, and carry intimations of both spring and harvest with them. One wonders if the disruption of the seasons is an allusion on Dickinson’s part to the disruptions of war, which are also hinted at by the allusion to the ‘extra’ holiday – a break in the timetable of school and home life forced on the British population by the need to provide themselves with food.

The Mysterious Wood

The country they find themselves in – like Lewis’s Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a book that’s also set in wartime – has been as badly damaged as the one they’ve left behind. The country’s ageing king is confined to his castle and a single town, built in the middle of a lake for protection from the flightless dragon – like Tolkien’s Laketown; while another lord in the North part of the kingdom is sick, like the Fisher King, and cannot personally lead his people against the Norse invaders who threaten their homes and families. Time, then, is held in suspension in this damaged country; death or suspended animation has dominion over it, and its rulers are confined and powerless. The children, on the other hand, are full of unbounded youthful energy, exemplified in their decision to visit a wood at night at the beginning of the story, and by the stream of questions they fire at the wizard Borrobil when they meet him. Borrobil tells them that they have travelled to the past by dancing in the stone circle ‘with summer joy’ at a time of year when summer and winter, life and death are held in suspension, and that this show of liveliness is what has taken them back to the ‘dead’ times to witness the battle between the Kings of Summer and Winter – or of Life and Death – in person. They disrupted time by their actions at Beltane, and they go back in time to see time reassert itself over a land that has lost it.

Broch

Once you first notice it, it’s clear that the disruption or loss of time is a key theme in the book. The dragon’s presence has caught the land in a perpetual cycle, marked by combat between a human hero and the monster every seven years. The children also hear about another king of that country, King Eochaid, a kind of Ossian figure, who is condemned by the King of the Fairies to keep riding on his horse until a white dog jumps down from his arms – which it never does. When the hero Morac kills the dragon he gains the gift of second sight by touching its hide with his lips – the gift, that is, of intermittent visions of the future – and thereby signals the recommencement of chronological change. Later in the story the children enter the fairy kingdom itself under strict injunctions to accept no gifts there; the penalty for doing so is to stay underground for ‘seven years and seven days’, and we already know from the story of King Eochaid that ‘one day in the fairy kingdom is one hundred years in the land of men’. The children keep finding themselves in situations where they lose track of space and time – most notably when they are walking along enclosed paths on the approach to the wood on Beltane Eve at the beginning of the story, and again in the mountains on the way to a meeting with the giant Grugol, and when they are imprisoned in the castle of the sorcerer Sulig (‘Had they been imprisoned here for ever?’ Donald wonders). Each time their emergence from these enclosed spaces signals a return to normal time, a wholesale reorientation under the guidance of their mentor Borrobil, who may lose them occasionally but is always at hand to come to the rescue – independence and agency not being such an attractive option for young readers, perhaps, in the middle of a global war.

Crannog

The most significant form of time in the novel, however, is what might be called story time; the binding together of different elements into a continuous narrative. Borrobil is a storyteller, and always makes sure he has time to tell a story no matter how urgent the business he is caught up in. This is where the Celtic context of the narrative comes to the fore. Scotland has no coherent interrelated body of Celtic texts as Ireland has, and this absence is reflected in the fact that Dickinson never names Scotland as the setting of his novel: one has to infer this from various clues, such as the presence in the landscape of crannogs, standing stones, long barrows and especially brochs, and from the Pictish names ‘Brude’ and ‘Giric’, as well as of the Men of Orc, who are clearly connected to Orkney. Dickinson provides this connecting narrative, linking features of the landscape – Giric’s underground house, the hills with rings round them, fairy rings, standing stones and brochs – to a continuous tale that makes sense of every unexplained phenomenon one might encounter on a stroll through the highlands and islands. I suggested earlier that he treats each feature as a kind of riddle – as with the explanation of the crannog by the presence in the neighbourhood of a dragon who cannot fly or swim, or of the hills with rings as having been caused by the death throes of the same dragon, which had wrapped its tail around them – and this tendency is also reflected in the shorter tales that crop up throughout the narrative. These are full of actual riddles in rhyme (all of them solved by Borrobil) and ingenious ruses performed by tricksters to escape seemingly impossible situations. For much of its length, then, the novel substitutes verbal combat – by riddle or ruse – for armed trail by combat; and even the spear- and swordfights it contains, from the killings of the dragon to the defeat of the invading Norsemen – are won by cunning rather than force. Like Lynch, Dickinson delights in wit and laughter rather than bloodshed, and his invented version of Celtic Scotland is populated by tale-tellers, jokers, singers, punsters and riddle-makers, who use brains instead of armies to defeat their enemies.

Ringed Hillfort

Like Lynch, too, Dickinson peoples his Celtic era with multiple coexisting cultures, in accordance with his views of Celtic Scotland as a historian. Giric is a Pict, and his barrow-like home and fondness for ‘the old customs and the old ways’ identifies him as from a different background from that of his fellow Pict, King Brude. The Men of Orc with their brochs have a different culture from the crannog-building peoples of southern Scotland; the hills are occupied by fairies and the sea by the murderous Blue Men; and it’s never quite clear what culture Borrobil belongs to. Through this diverse landscape of conflicting beliefs and customs Donald and Jean wander, finding a welcome wherever they go and witnessing the defeat of aggressors and invaders of all kinds by their cunning companions. For Dickinson and Lynch, Celticity at its best is a union of heterogeneous peoples, who love the arts – which in Dickinson’s case include the arts of constructing houses and monuments – and especially the ancient art from which their books have been cobbled together, that of telling stories. In both novels, stories come alive and inhabit the same space as their youthful listeners and readers; and in both novels the Celtic connections of the stories link them intimately to the land, with its peat bogs, mountains, lochs and mysterious roadways. Stories bring people of all cultures and ages together, draw the past and present into conversation, hold out the promise of a better future. Few books illustrate this promise better than Borrobil and The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey.

 

The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Part 3: The Pevensies

[This is the third part of a three-part blog post. The first part dealt with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second with Edmund’s, and this third part deals with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

The next interface between our world and Narnia involves all four children, and is this time triggered by the apparent segregation of child time – play time, so to speak – from the ‘official’ adult work schedule. The children enter the wardrobe together to avoid Mrs Macready, the housekeeper, as she entertains visitors – part of her duties as the Professor’s employee; she has told them to ‘keep out of the way whenever I’m taking a party over the house’, and they are in any case keen to avoid the fate of ‘trailing round with a crowd of strange grown-ups’. It seems to escape their attention that the ‘strange’ grown-ups in question are already bound up with the Pevensies – aligned with them, that is, in certain crucial ways. The adults have come to the house in quest of the ‘strange stories’ associated with the building: stories at least as strange, Lewis claims, as the chronicles of Narnia. In addition, two of the four children have already spent some time trailing around after extremely ‘strange grown-ups’ (both of them keen to show off their houses) in previous chapters, while the other two have sought out a more or less strange grown-up in this one: the Professor himself, who showed such unexpected (not to say ‘strange’) willingness to believe the unbelievable. Despite the emerging ‘rule’ in the later Narnia books that only children can enter Narnia, and that their visits will cease when they reach a certain age, Lewis is quite deliberately clear in this first volume about the continuities between their ‘impossible’ Narnian experiences and the ostensibly serious business of adulthood.

The ingenuity of Lewis’s account of this third entrance into Narnia lies in the apparently ‘collective’ point of view it adopts. The first two entrances were narrated from the perspective of two different individuals, and the radical difference between these two perspectives – as well as the way each perspective of the country in the wardrobe changed as it went along – may have led the reader to expect a considerable disparity between the experiences of all four children when they finally found themselves, in Lucy’s words, ‘all in it together’. Instead Lewis narrates the chapter as if from a consensual position – as if all four of the Pevensies were in agreement about what is happening to them and their attitude to it. Lewis repeatedly uses the term ‘everyone’ and its analogues to imply this solidarity among the siblings: ‘everyone asked her what was the matter’; ‘Everyone stopped; everyone stared at him’; ‘Everyone agreed to this’; ‘They were all still, wondering what to do next’, and so on. But it quickly emerges that this apparent consensus excludes Edmund. For one thing, the sentence ‘Everyone stopped; everyone stared at him’ marks the moment when Edmund’s brother and sisters realize he has been lying about not having been in Narnia before: three of the children are looking at the fourth with surprise and loathing. For another, this moment is followed by a muttered comment from Edmund that signals his exclusion of himself from what he sees as the intolerable smugness of their collectivity: ‘I’ll pay you all out for this, you pack of stuck-up, self-satisfied prigs’. Both before and after this moment of revelation, Edmund’s voice repeatedly sets itself in opposition to those of his siblings, reminding the reader in the process that he has good reason (as he thinks) to see things very differently from the way they do. As a result, the tendency of the other children to read their experience first as a game and then as a thrilling adventure is given an added dimension of seriousness, generated by the reader’s mounting sense of how easily the younger brother’s petty nastiness and contrariety might turn to something more destructive (we can hardly have forgotten Mr Tumnus’s fear of being turned into stone, or how near Edmund himself came to suffering the same fate).

From the beginning of chapter six, Edmund’s dissent is conveyed with admirable precision. When the children first find that there’s something physically ‘strange’ about the cupboard (it’s cold and damp and bristly) Edmund is the only one to suggest they simply leave it: ‘“Let’s get out,” said Edmund, “they’ve gone.”’ When they reach Mr Tumnus’s cave and find it trashed, it’s Edmund who has the first word: ‘This is a pretty good wash-out,’ he comments, ‘not much good coming here’ (and his disagreement with Lucy on what constitutes ‘goodness’ in Narnia lends an uneasy moral weight to the observation). It’s Edmund who spurns Lucy’s suggestion that they try to rescue the captured Tumnus: ‘A lot we could do […] when we haven’t even got anything to eat!’ And it’s Edmund who draws Peter aside at the end of the chapter to express his doubts about the robin they’re following: ‘We’re following a guide we know nothing about. […] Why shouldn’t it be leading us into a trap?’ Peter’s response is to call on his knowledge of stories as a guide to the behaviour of intelligent animals in magic adventures: ‘They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read’ – and Lewis would have known very well that robins have been associated with Christ (the red breast was traditionally stained by the blood of Christ) and with fairies (James Stephens identifies the robin as under the protection of leprechauns in The Crock of Gold, which Lewis liked well enough to replicate its ending in Prince Caspian). But Edmund again represents the contrary or resistant reader – much as Eustace does in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where he is the only one of the visitors to Narnia who has no knowledge of or interest in imaginative fiction. Edmund tells Peter, as he told Lucy, that the children have no idea whether they are taking the right ‘side’ in the Narnian conflict: ‘How do we know that the fauns are in the right and the Queen […] is in the wrong? We don’t really know anything about either.’ This is not wholly true, of course: the note they found at Tumnus’s vandalized cave was signed by one ‘Maugrim, Captain of the Secret Police’, and the mere existence of a Secret Police in the Second World War would for English readers have linked their employer, the Queen, to the Nazis and hence to ‘wrongness’. But Edmund backs up his claim with a couple of statements that can’t be denied, whatever Peter’s views on Narnian politics: that the children are lost, and that they still have nothing to eat (‘no chance of dinner either’ are the last words in the chapter). A chapter that opened, then, with Edmund as the sole dissenting voice amid a strong consensus ends with his voice as dominant. In the same way, his isolation, which was emphasized shortly after the children entered Narnia when he inadvertently revealed his knowledge of the country, ends with all the children isolated in a country none of them knows well at all – and where Lucy’s closest friend has just been arrested for ‘High Treason’. At the end, in fact, Edmund is in the strongest position of the four, since he at least knows where to find his only ally in Narnia, the woman who had Tumnus arrested. The chapter, then, performs yet again the reversal, or change of tone and emphasis, the reader experienced between the first two entries into Narnia, as well as within them. And in the process it demonstrates, better than any of the previous chapters, that the act we are engaged in as we follow the chapter – reading itself – is a serious business.

Chapter six, in fact, contains several points at which the act of reading is foregrounded; in particular, the act of reading in relation to the ‘real’ world of the reader. When the Pevensies decide, at Susan’s suggestion, to put on some of the fur coats in the wardrobe to protect themselves against the Narnian cold (after all, Susan points out, ‘it isn’t as if we wanted to take them out of the house; we shan’t even take them out of the wardrobe’), they at once take on a look of storybook heroes – kings and queens – in the oversized garments: ‘The coats were rather too big for them so that they came down to their heels and looked more like royal robes than coats when they put them on’. The robes anticipate, of course, their future status as ‘real’ kings and queens of Narnia; and they soon sense that the sort of make believe that in our world would be merely playful – such as dressing up – here takes on a new significance; that fictions here harbour truths or realities, just as the apparently fictional Narnia turned out to be an actual country. Noting their resemblance to Scott and Amundsen in their furs, as depicted in films and books, Lucy suggests they play at being Arctic explorers, but Peter at once rejects the suggestion because ‘This is going to be exciting enough without pretending’. Despite this, he proposes that they appoint Lucy their ‘leader’ as if in a game (‘follow my leader’ comes to mind) – another decision about which there is a general consensus which must exclude Edmund – and she at once suggests they visit Mr Tumnus. At this point the children are still in playful mood, not fully aware that they have left the territory of petty fabrications and small pleasures, of tea and cake and enchanting stories; and even their encounter with the Faun’s ruined cave doesn’t fully alert them to the seriousness of their situation. It’s only the discovery of a piece of written text among the ruins – the sinister note left by ‘Maugrim, Captain of the Secret Police’ – that alters their reading of Narnia, leaving them more susceptible to Edmund’s gloomy perspective on its beauties.

The formal language of the note is carefully calculated to effect this alteration. In a single sentence it declares that Tumnus has been arrested for crimes against ‘her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc.’; and the location of the note – nailed to the carpet in the middle of Tumnus’s sitting room – gives these words additional weight. It was in this room, after all, that Tumnus first told Lucy about ‘Queen’ Jadis, challenging the Witch’s right to the titles listed here and stressing the danger he was in from informants and spies. The note, then, provides additional evidence that stories come true in Narnia, even nasty ones (and one might again think of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the island where dreams come true also harbours nightmares). And it is Lucy – to whom the Faun told these Narnian stories – who first identifies the link between the note and the children who read it. The Pevensies’ first reaction to the text is a collective one: ‘The children stared at each other’, seeking support in their efforts to process the information it contains. Susan then proposes that they all go home, since Narnia no longer seems ‘fun’ or ‘particularly safe’ – language better suited to a game gone out of control than a land ruled over by a fascistic dictator. But Lucy vetoes the proposal on the strength of her recognition that they themselves are referred to in Maugrim’s message, and that they are therefore intertwined or bound up with the politics of Narnia, just as they were previously caught up in the politics of wartime Europe:

‘Oh, but we can’t, we can’t,’ said Lucy suddenly; ‘don’t you see? We can’t go home, not after this. It’s all on my account that the poor Faun has got into this trouble. He hid me from the Witch and showed me the way back. That’s what it means by comforting the Queen’s enemies and fraternizing with Humans. We simply must try to rescue him.’

What Lucy has seen, as Susan has not, is that Maugrim’s note contains direct references to Lucy herself, and that these textual references entail real-life consequences. Because he helped Lucy, and because helping her led to his arrest, the children owe the Faun a debt of gratitude by virtue of the rules of the very serious game called obligation.

At this point Lucy doesn’t know, of course, that the children are yet more deeply implicated in the arrest than they are through her debt to Tumnus. It was Edmund who revealed the Faun’s act of ‘High Treason’ to the Witch; and the reader is reminded of this fact by the scornful response of Edmund himself to Lucy’s insistence that they help her friend (‘A lot we could do’). Lucy’s reading of the note is countered by Edmund’s rejection of her proposal – and hence of her supposed leadership of the siblings – as unrealistic – that is, as still locked in the fantastic mode of a childish game. But by this time in the book we are well aware that Edmund has a shaky hold on the relationship between the ‘real’ and the imagined, the possible and the impossible, playfulness and bullying or abuse. Despite her misgivings, Susan accedes to Lucy’s plan a few lines later precisely because she finally recognizes they are no longer pretending: ‘I’ve a horrid feeling that Lu is right,’ she comments, invoking an attitude of reluctant and fearful acquiescence which is the very opposite of playful. And she agrees because she is following the rules of the kinds of stories in which obligations must be repaid – fairy tales, romances – as against the ‘realistic’ fiction to which Edmund’s comment appeals. The children continue to follow the rules of fairy tale and romance when they choose to follow a robin as the first step on the road to rescue. For them, the rules of games and stories are no different in kind – only in scale – from the rules that govern a decent person’s conduct in ‘real’ life, and they carry over their expertise in reading and game-playing into the task of achieving the impossible – of rescuing their friend against dreadful odds. It is Edmund’s unwillingness to commit to these rules – an unwillingness he has displayed since the book began – that makes him an unsatisfactory reader of the ‘real’ world of Narnia.

Clearly, then, the interface between our world and the secondary world that contains Narnia is something more complex than a series of entrances and exits through the portal of the wardrobe. The difference in attitude of those who pass through the portal is what drives the action of this first of the Narnia chronicles, and these attitudes are carried over from their attitudes to our own world – and in particular by their attitudes to games, which include the games of reading fiction and telling stories. Those who are willing to participate in games and stories as collective and active processes find themselves able to ‘read’ the land of Narnia positively; to seize the opportunities it affords, to revel in its pleasures, to interact with its friendly inhabitants, and to participate actively in liberating it from the despotism that suppresses its best identity. Those who refuse to participate in collective games, including stories, find themselves rapidly enlisted by the despotic self-styled Queen, and consequently read the landscape and every other Narnian they encounter as hostile. An enjoyment of playfulness, which embraces playful or imaginative fictions – fairy tales, romance and fantasy – has a serious role in preparing the enjoyer for what Lewis convincingly represents as resistance against a Nazi-like occupying government. Hostility to playfulness of this kind, on the other hand, is both symptomatic of and likely to reinforce an attraction to power games aimed at personal advancement, and to oppressive authority figures who adopt the same philosophy. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in other words, amounts to a defence of reading and writing fantasy, the most playful literary mode of all, in that it demands the most active imaginative engagement from its readers. Those who can believe ten impossible things before breakfast are better suited to placing themselves in ‘strange’ mindsets, and of resisting the temptation to empathize only with those who share their narrow view of what is ‘realistic’ or ‘real’, than those who mock imaginative games or fables.

The games played by the Pevensie children after their third and final entry to the country underscore the book’s commitment to the concept of playfulness, in both its good and bad manifestations. The most striking example of the difference between these forms of playfulness can be found in Edmund’s and his siblings’ responses to Aslan. The first mention of the lion’s name – in chapter seven, long before they meet him face to face – strikes each of them in different ways: Edmund feels only ‘a sensation of mysterious horror’, as if alone and unsupported, while the other three children respond as if to a game, a story or a work of art. Peter feels ‘brave and adventurous’, sensations suitable to the hero of a romance or to one of its readers. Susan responds like a listener to ‘some delightful strain of music’. Lucy gets ‘the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays’, a period of unrestricted play. Once again, Edmund is the outsider, and his next encounter with Aslan – or what he thinks is Aslan – confirms his continued resistance to collaborative play, as indicated by his horror. On seeing a stone lion in the Witch’s courtyard he assumes that it’s the beast whose name disturbed him earlier, petrified, as he hoped it would be, by the Witch’s wand. At once he does ‘something very silly and childish’ in revenge for the horror it inspired in him: he draws a moustache on its upper lip and a pair of spectacles on its eyes. What’s ‘childish’ for Lewis here is the assumption that you can make yourself feel big at another person’s expense by putting them down – that is, by mocking them. This isn’t real play, the novel insists, but the kind of bullying Edmund had earlier practised on his sister; and accordingly he discovers that he doesn’t ‘really get any fun’ out of it, because of the lion’s continuing look of dignity and power in the face of his unimaginative scrawlings. The wrongness of Edmund’s view of playing is underscored, of course, by the fact that the lion is not in fact Aslan; the boy continues to have little grasp of the distinction between what is real and what is imagined, despite – or rather because of – his by now well established tendency to scepticism.

‘Real’ playfulness, so to speak, is the province of Aslan, and is first figured in the unlikely person of Father Christmas. Mr Tumnus had told Lucy when he first met her that the Witch had banished Christmas, so that the arrival of its most familiar symbol in chapter ten is clearly Aslan’s doing; and while in our world Father Christmas has become a measure of the distinction between adults and children (children believe in him, adults don’t), in Narnia he is ‘so big, and so glad, and so real’ (my emphasis) that any ‘childish’ associations he may have are banished completely. To confirm his new connection with maturity he dispenses gifts which are emphatically real: ‘tools not toys’, as he puts it, a sword for Peter, a bow and an ivory hunting horn for Susan, a flask of magic potion for Lucy. All four items would be toys in twentieth-century England, but in Narnia they are in fact what in our world they only mimic: the practical means of active resistance against oppression. When the children first meet Aslan he encourages them to use two of these tools against the chief of the Secret Police who wrote the note they found in Tumnus’s cave, and in doing so they take another of the many steps from fiction and play to practical engagement with a tyrant. One of the first such steps, as we have seen, was the discovery and reading of Maugrim’s note; so that reading, too, progresses in this book from a pleasant pastime to a stimulus for action.

Aslan doesn’t lose his connection with play, however ‘real’ or ‘terrible’ he might seem in person; though he only fully manifests this connection after he has sacrificed his life for the traitor Edmund. Appropriately enough, the act of self-sacrifice begins with a display of bullying playfulness on the part of the Queen and her hideous entourage, as they subject the lion to a succession of humiliations designed to point up their triumph over him, their climactic victory in the long war game that has been going on between them. The awakening of Aslan from the sleep of death, however, brings a new form of playfulness of Narnia: the collaborative sort that enacts the terms of mutuality and egalitarianism by which it must be conducted. The lion’s first wakening is at once attached to the notion of realness: ‘Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh Aslan!’, cry the girls as they feel the evidence of his materiality in the warmth of his breath and the touch of his tongue. And the lion’s conquest of death quickly becomes what Lewis calls a ‘romp’ (there’s another at the end of Prince Caspian, modeled on the romp in the final chapter of The Crock of Gold). ‘Oh children, catch me if you can!’ Aslan calls, and the challenge triggers a delightful yet somewhat dangerous playground chase, which connects the large and the small, the potent and the petty in a sentence that quite deliberately links childishness with maturity and power: ‘It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind’. The three interfaces between our world and Narnia were all building up to this moment, when an imaginary enactment of a deadly game – that of hunting – succeeds in articulating the gigantic joke or trick the lion has played on his power-hungry enemies. Aslan returned from the dead because he knew old stories, and believed in them, better than the Witch did; and the celebration of his return is appropriately conducted in a communal, rule-bound activity (keep your paws velveted at all times and don’t outrun the weakest player), since play of this kind is the best model for the proper conduct of social practices.

The final interface with Narnia in the book comes at the end – as it does in all the Narnian chronicles but one – with the return to our world, in this case through the familiar medium of the wardrobe. In this case, too, the return reenacts the game played by the girls and Aslan on the lion’s revival. We have already heard from Tumnus about the ‘White Stag who would give you wishes if you caught him’, and since Narnia is the place where fantastic stories come true, it seems fitting that the subject of this particular story should enter the ‘real world’ of the narrative in its closing stages. The four children, now grown up, decide to hunt the Stag ‘with horns and hounds in the Western Woods’, in the process pointing you the continuity between childish games, fairy stories told to children, and the more dangerous games and equally challenging stories enjoyed by adults. By this stage in the story the adult protagonists also talk in the language of the literature three of them loved as children; even Edmund speaks as they do, having been naturalized to romance thanks to his reconciliation with his siblings. The effect is literally charming. A Victorian lamppost becomes for him ‘a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof’; and in the process an everyday object from Britain’s city streets is estranged or enchanted into a wonder – much as it was from the other direction when Lucy first saw it improbably planted in the middle of a snowy wood. The sight of the lamppost triggers memories in all four siblings, though for these heroes and heroines of romance it is our world rather than theirs that is the stuff of the fantastic imagination: ‘It runs in my mind’ Edmund tells the others, ‘that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream’. Not only does this make our own world fantastic, but it also gives a seriousness to dreams and the imagination that they aren’t often accorded: we, the readers, know this ‘dream of a dream’ to have a solid foundation, and can also predict that Lucy will be right when she tells her brothers and sister that going beyond the lamppost will lead to ‘strange adventures’. By this point in the story, too, ‘strangeness’ itself has become something to be treasured for the sake of its very unfamiliarity, the surprises it entails. The search for strange things is a ‘quest’, as Peter points out, and a quest is a ‘high matter’, like ‘feats of arms’ or ‘acts of justice’. The link between the imaginary and the important, the fantastic and the real, the playful and the deeply serious, has become central to the philosophy the children live by, a founding principal of the culture they inhabit and the language they speak. And the reader, by following the children on their journey from this world to the next and back again, have become acculturated to the same perspective, the same reading of ordinary and extraordinary people and objects.

The book ends by bequeathing this climate or culture to the world beyond its pages. The four children pass the lamppost and find themselves tumbling out of the wardrobe – in their old clothes, children once again, at the very moment when Mrs Macready and the visitors are moving past the doorway of the room where the wardrobe stands. The Professor, when they tell him his adventures, accepts the story readily as potential ‘fact’ – just as he accepted Lucy’s when nobody else did; and he proceeds to lay down the rules of the game they must play in future, the game of having been acculturated to Narnian mores while living in a world where the very existence of that land is an impossibility. They must not tell many other people about their adventures – must not even discuss them much among themselves – for fear (we might suppose) of disenchanting what they have experienced by the inadequacy of their verbal descriptions of it, or else perhaps of being ostracized, ridiculed, bullied, like immigrants from a despised community. It will be clear to them who can be told about Narnia without courting mockery: people who have undergone ‘adventures of the same sort themselves’. As with the ‘strange stories’ about the Professor’s house, the Professor’s confidence that there are indeed other people in our world who have had experiences as strange and wonderful as visiting Narnia suggests that the interface between the real and the fantastic is well established in the world of the reader, as well as in the book we are coming to the end of. And Lewis makes sure he casts the spell of this confidence into the environment beyond the book in the final sentence. ‘And that is the very end of the adventure of the wardrobe’, he tells us; ‘But if the Professor was right it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia’. The challenge of this final sentence lies in the potent word ‘if’. The conditional indicates that Lewis is affirming or asserting nothing, like the poets in Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry; instead he is inviting us to consider the implications of accepting that what we have been imagining may have some sort of substance, some direct and quantifiable impact on us and on the mental and physical places we occupy. The challenge is a bold one, and its boldness marks the remarkable contribution Lewis makes in the Narnian chronicles to the evolution of children’s fiction in the postwar years.

The term ‘if’ also points up the extent to which Lewis is reliant on his reader to construct his ambitious new bridge between the possible and the impossible, the real and the fantastic. One of the most astounding things about the Narnian chronicles, for an adult reader returning to it after long absence, is its sheer economy: the simple, crystalline and not-so-numerous sentences with which Lewis brings his imagined country to life. When I asked students in a class on The Silver Chair what had surprised and interested them about their re-reading of Narnia, many replied that they remembered the book as much longer and denser than they now found it: packed with material details, colour, and diverse incident, where on re-reading it seemed remarkably, even disappointingly slim and succinct. This is because Lewis asks us in his fantasy series to do the major legwork of world-building ourselves, as readers – to make Narnia our own. As I suggested earlier, we never really see the ‘real’ Narnia described by Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it’s the Witch’s version we spend most of our time in – except in the final chapter, whose title, ‘The Hunting of the White Stag’, indicates its focus on the exit from Narnia, not on its construction. The fullest description of the country comes in the brief account of the children’s coronation, which wittily invites the reader to participate in its imaginative composition:

The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And, oh, the cry of the sea-gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?

There’s nothing fantastic in this passage; instead it invokes what many of Lewis’s readers will be familiar with, a Northern seaside, and in the process calls on their collective memory to collaborate in composing the coronation scene. Having deftly sketched a place we may remember well, Lewis proceeds to enchant it by introducing the impossible, the things we can’t remember because they never happened: ‘And through the eastern door, which was wide open, came the voices of the mermen and mermaids swimming close to the shore and singing in honour of their new Kings and Queens’. Because these mer-voices are inserted into a real context so expertly conjured up, they are utterly convincing; and it’s perhaps inevitable (if we paused to reflect, on being asked to do so, at the end of the previous passage) that we will associate them with the ‘cry of the sea-gulls’, or at least allow the sea-gull voices imaginatively to mingle with the quasi-human ones, producing a new and strange combination that might well have a genuine impact on our next encounter with the sea. We are dignified with the status of co-authors; we participate fully in Lewis’s fictive game.

It’s perhaps worth pointing out something else about the Chronicles, which relates to gender – always a contentious subject in commentaries on Lewis’s writing. Another experience a modern reader will undergo when reading these books is that of discomfort, rising at times to real distaste, at the segregation of the sexes in Lewis’s universe; the most striking example in this first novel being Father Christmas’s paternalistic refusal to let Susan and Lucy take part in the final battle against the Witch. As he hands Susan her bow and hunting horn with one hand, the gift-giver takes them back, or restricts their use, with the other: ‘You must use the bow only in great need,’ he says, ‘for I do not mean you to fight in the battle’; and shortly afterwards he tells Lucy with infuriating glibness that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’. Women, then, have one set of roles in Narnia, and men another, and there would seem to be no interface between them; indeed, part of what marks out Jadis as evil may well be her readiness to take on masculine traits such as fighting, commanding, and political manoeuvring against her enemies. At the same time, it seems to me that there is a real attempt in this novel to achieve a kind of parity between the status of boys and girls as protagonists, and that this was something Lewis thought of as central to the fantasy tradition – however inadequately he may have succeeded in bringing it about.

The clue to this belief of Lewis’s about gender equality in fantasy lies in a statement he makes in his essay ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’, written soon after the publication of the first Narnia book in 1952.[1] Here he makes a clear distinction between fantasy fiction for children – he carefully chooses the genderless term – and realistic fiction specifically aimed at boys and girls – segregating the sexes much as the school system it so often describes segregated them in the 1950s. Admittedly, like most writers of his generation Lewis proceeds to refer to the reader of fantasy as if she were male (‘the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring’, while the boy reading the school story is unhappy because he cannot have what he desires – sporting prowess and universal popularity). But elsewhere he sets the ungendered fantasy reader against the boy who reads about, and yearns for, a success often specifically gendered as male in the 1950s: ‘In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven’. And once one has noticed this, it’s hard not to notice how scrupulously he divides his Narnian adventures between boys and girls. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, two boys and two girls enter Narnia, and it’s Lucy’s perspective that may well seem privileged to a reader thinking about the book in retrospect, since she’s the one who finds Narnia and whose understanding of Narnian politics is vindicated by the actions of the Witch. As a boy who grew up at a time when ‘boys’ books’ and ‘girls’ books’ were often very clearly demarcated – to my shame, I have to admit my youthful tendency to avoid reading books whose protagonists were female, perhaps as a result of having been educated in largely single-sex schools – it seems to me that the Narnia books may have had an important impact on my ability to empathize with girls, at least in fiction. Lewis’s efforts to treat boys and girls equally may have been flawed, and may also have been strongly influenced by the mixture of genders in earlier children’s fantasy – especially that of his favourite practitioner of the genre, Edith Nesbit. But his willingness to have his girls participate fully in the physical dangers and metaphysical wonders of high fantasy seems to me to have made a crucial contribution to the genre’s emergence in later years as a fruitful space for imagining gender parity.

I hesitate to suggest this, but I wonder too if Lewis’s decision to exclude Susan from the number of the Pevensies who are reunited in Narnia in the final book of the series may be explained by her excessive attachment to desires and activities gendered specifically female? The girls who do re-enter Narnia in The Last Battle are represented as capable of what might be called an interface between the genders – of wearing armour and fighting alongside the Narnian resistance, as Jill does with the aid of a bow and arrows much like Susan’s. By this stage in the series Father Christmas’s prohibition against women fighting in battles seems to have been forgotten; Jill kills several Calormene invaders without demur. Again, the girls from our world in all the Narnia books share a literary background with the boys; they don’t read exclusively male or female texts, but like Lucy know the ‘rules’ of fairy tale and fantasy just as well, or are just as ignorant of them (in Jill’s case), as any of the male protagonists. Lewis doesn’t offer us, I think, a boy protagonist with an equally flexible gender identity – unless it’s Shasta in The Horse and his Boy, a fisherman’s adopted son whose ignorance of all traditions of male heroics is problematically aligned with his upbringing among an Orientalized people – and this is unfortunate, to say the least. But he clearly means the fantasy tradition to be an ungendered one (it’s Prince Caspian’s nurse, for instance, who first tells him stories of the old ‘fantastic’ Narnia); and it’s this, I think, that makes Susan’s wholesale commitment to desires conventionally gendered as female a bar to her continued inclusion in the mixed company of Narnian adventurers. That’s hardly an excuse for her banishment from Lewis’s land of heart’s desire, of course; but it makes it, I think, just a little more interesting.

To conclude: I think its fascination with what I’ve called the interface between our world and the secondary world of the imagination is what distinguishes Lewis’s Narnia series from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Where Tolkien’s work is founded on an elaborate and continuing process of world-building, which has an existence independent of the books set in Middle Earth, Lewis is concerned instead with the collaborative process of imagining the impossible as it is necessarily shared between writers and readers of fantasy. This concern extends itself to other forms of interface: between childhood and adulthood, between male and female, between past, present and future, between human and animal, between Nordic and classical mythologies, even between good and evil, which he is so often said to set too simplistically at odds – the list could go on. I hope my over-detailed analysis will have shown that his apparently simple stylistic and narrative structures mask a really considerable moral and philosophical complexity. I hope, too, that it may prove a bit of an intellectual springboard to thinking about interfaces more widely in relation to fantastic fiction.

And with this wish, desiring reader, I bid you farewell.

NOTE

[1] C. S. Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1984), pp. 56-70.

 

The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Part 2: Edmund

[This is the second part of a three-part blog post. The first part dealt with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second deals with Edmund’s, and the third will deal with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

The question of the reality of Lucy’s visit to Narnia – whether or not it ‘really’ happened – underpins the next interface with fantasy in Lewis’s narrative: Edmund’s visit. Partly as a result, this interface involves an exact reversal of Lucy’s experiences. Things happen back to front, as if in a mirror; and one reason for the reversal is that Edmund has already made up his mind before he enters the wardrobe that Lucy fabricated all her adventures. As a result, the world he finds on the other side is disturbing to him because it violates his sense of what is real, or perhaps of his own capacity to distinguish what is real from what is imagined. In addition, he feels as unable or unwilling to reverse his mental position in response to this disruption of his world view as Lucy earlier found it to pretend she was ‘playing at’ Narnia when she was not. Edmund necessarily sees Narnia through different eyes because the mind behind those eyes has different priorities, a different philosophy.

Another reason for Edmund’s different experience can be found in his mood when he enters the wardrobe: that is, in the kind of pleasure he is seeking as he passes through the mirrored door. Where Lucy was driven by Alice-like curiosity and a sensuous delight in the feel of fur, Edmund is driven by the desire to mock his sister for her inventions: ‘he wanted to go on teasing her about her imaginary country’. For him, this is a continuation of the power game he has been playing since Lucy first made her claims about entering Narnia; not a collaborative game, played by an agreed set of rules for a certain time, but a competition for supremacy in which there can only be one winner, whose victory isn’t temporary but permanent, establishing the victor once and for all as wholly superior to the defeated players. So it’s not surprising that Edmund is deeply disturbed by the loss of control he feels when he leaves his comfort zone. The discovery that the wardrobe does not in fact contain Lucy, that it is larger than he expected, that it sounds and feels unlike the interior of a piece of furniture, makes Edmund shiver – and, one presumes, not just with cold. There are two possible reasons for the fear suggested by his shivering. One is that he has been ‘unpleasant’ to Lucy about the things she seemed to have invented – so that she would have every right (according to his understanding as a player of power games) to be equally ‘unpleasant’ in response. The other, related reason is that the country he finds himself in is definitely not his. Lucy found it first, which makes it effectively hers from a colonialist perspective – from the perspective, that is, of a person who likes to stamp his authority on other people. It represents, in effect, a contest between them which she has won in emphatic fashion, thanks to his having been forced into the position of primary witness to her truthfulness. For both these reasons, Narnia can be taken as inimical to him. His state of mind is neatly summed up in the following sentence: ‘though he did not like to admit that he had been wrong, he also did not much like being alone in this strange, cold, quiet place’. The place is ‘strange’ because it once seemed impossible, and because its existence proves that he was mistaken in his assumptions about what was possible, which means he should logically rearrange his perceptions of the laws that govern the universe (as Todorov points out in his book on the fantastic). Both these things contribute to make Edmund ‘not much like’ the woods, and he seeks his sister’s company not so much to apologize as to make himself feel safer by getting together with someone who knows the ‘strange […] place’ better than he does.

It’s perhaps as a result of these selfish motives, in a kind of fairy tale logic of moral rather than scientific cause and effect, that when Edmund calls out for his sister what he gets instead is the self-styled Queen of Narnia, the White Witch. The Witch is the polar opposite (no pun intended) of Lucy’s Faun, and hence, to some extent at least, of Lucy herself. She is powerful, tall and arrogant, and she reacts to her meeting with a human stranger not with friendliness but sudden violence (‘she rose from her seat and looked Edmund full in the face, her eyes flaming; at the same moment she raised her wand’). Ironically, her physical appearance also ticks a number of boxes in the iconography of goodness. She arrives on a sledge with bells on it, drawn by reindeers, which invokes Christmas as inevitably as Tumnus’s packages. She is associated with whiteness, the colour of ‘good’ in conventional Western narratives: her reindeers and furs are white, and so is her face, which is ‘not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth’ (and here the rapid shift from snow to paper to icing-sugar has a wonderfully disconcerting effect, making her sound like an artificial confection, a spun-sugar sculpture or a table decoration for a high-class banquet). Tumnus, by contrast, was shaped and coloured like a conventional devil (red, with hooves, horns and a very un-goat-like tail); so that if we accept Lucy’s reading of the Faun as accurate (and her now evident ‘truthfulness’ invites us to do so) then the Witch’s reverse iconography should mean she must stand for something devilish.

The trajectory of Edmund’s meeting with the Witch, too, reverses that of Lucy’s meeting with Tumnus. As with the Faun, her mood undergoes a sudden change, but this time from rage to cunning, from violence to seduction, from command to conversation. She offers the boy food and drink after her change in mood – not before it, as Tumnus did – and the provisions she offers are yet further removed than those of Tumnus from the dreariness of wartime rationing: a hot drink magically made from snow; a box of that unobtainable sweetmeat, Turkish Delight. With food comes talk, as it did with Tumnus and Lucy; but the communication between Edmund and the Witch is all one way (‘she got him to tell her’ all about himself, and he never thinks to inquire about her habits and adventures – when she describes her house to him it is solely as a place he would take pleasure in). The Witch may promise to adopt Edmund as her son, and hence eventually as her equal, but the imbalance of their relationship is obvious from their verbal exchanges.

The most intriguing aspect of their conversation is the way it ends. The White Witch finishes not with a discussion of the speakers’ ‘real’ identity (Tumnus ended his talk with Lucy by revealing his status as the Witch’s spy) but a return to the world of children’s games – that is, of transient fictions – which has by this time been rendered problematic by the fact that Narnia was not a game or fiction, as well as by Edmund’s preference for power games or competitions over consensual playfulness. The Witch suggests that ‘it would be fun’ for Edmund to pretend he has never met her, and that he should save the information he has about the Witch’s house ‘as a surprise’ for his siblings when he brings them back to Narnia. The reason for this ‘game’, however, is a serious one; if Edmund mentions the Queen alarm bells might be rung in Lucy’s mind, because she will have heard ‘strange stories’ from Tumnus about her. Strange stories here are implied to be fictions, and unpleasant ones at that; but Edmund’s experience with the strange story of Narnia should suggest to him there is substance behind them. He might also have noticed that what the Witch is suggesting to him is not a bit of transient ‘fun’, a ‘surprise’ which is pleasurable for its own sake, but a functional lie, a verbal trap; if he does not play this particular game his siblings are unlikely to approach the Witch’s domicile. Edmund’s mind, however, is too preoccupied with another kind of pleasure (also a trap) – the enchanted Turkish Delight he craves to have more of – for him to notice the inconsistency between her claims that what he will be promulgating is a harmless fiction and the suggestion that this fiction is being devised to suppress another ‘fiction’, the possibly well-founded rumours that the Queen is harmful.

Edmund’s encounter with the Witch, then, raises questions not just about the borders between fiction and reality but about the function of games. A game that is not participated in by all its players with a similar purpose – to spend a set period of time in consensual, rule-bound activity – is not a game; Lucy’s experience showed this, as did Edmund’s teasing, which was a game for him but perceived as bullying by his sister. Gradually, in fact, Lewis is building up a sophisticated dialogue between terms that are often carelessly used, especially in the context of children’s activities. The notion that there is a clear dividing line between fiction and fact, the game world and the ‘serious’ world, is itself a convenient fiction; after all, games must of necessity make use of otherwise functional spaces and materials (including time), just as fictions must make use of words and concepts which are in other contexts ‘factual’. And Lewis is suggesting that the relationship goes further than this; that the conventions that govern games (everyone who plays them agrees to abide by the rules) and the conventions that govern fictions (the recipients of any story agree to take it to some degree as ‘fact’ for as long as it lasts) are directly connected to, and serve as serious preparation for, certain essential life skills. Edmund is not an accomplished player of consensual games, as his treatment of Lucy shows, so he is ill equipped to see when he is being played with against his consent; that is, when he is being manipulated. He isn’t clearly aware of the distinction between stories and lies – his teasing assumes that Lucy is lying rather than telling a story (though in fact she is telling the truth) – and so agrees to tell the Witch’s lies as if they were a story. Further: since he has been discomfited and (in his eyes) diminished by the revelation that Lucy’s story or ‘lie’ was in fact the truth, he chooses to adopt lies as his personal mode of discourse, instead of gaining a new alertness to the possibility of truths underlying apparent fictions (such as the strange stories about the Queen). The success of a story, as of a game, depends on a collective act of imaginative complicity between the teller and the listener; a lie depends instead on the consciousness of the liar that she or he possesses information unknown to his or her audience. The imbalance of power between the Witch and Edmund reflects Edmund’s preference for power imbalance in the world beyond the wardrobe, and the exchange between them is designed in all its details to perpetuate and intensify this imbalance of power.

Shortly after Edmund’s encounter with the Witch he meets Lucy on her way back from a second tea with Tumnus, and his sister at once anticipates the pleasure of shared storytelling as they tell their elder siblings about their visit to Narnia. ‘What fun it will be!’ she exclaims, and concludes that from now on ‘we’re all in it together’. True to his nature, however, Edmund at once sees an imbalance in the collective pleasure she anticipates. He ‘secretly thought it would not be as good fun for him as for her’, partly because he will have to admit he was wrong and thus publicly acknowledge his ‘loss’ of the earlier competition between himself and Lucy, and partly because he assumes the others will be on a different ‘side’ in the politics of Narnia than the one he has taken – that is, they will be against the Witch, making it more urgent and possibly harder for him to keep the secret of having met her. Games, then, have turned into something different for both children; a real-life companionate ‘adventure’ for Lucy (the word still has a smack of storytelling about it), and a competition for unprecedentedly high stakes for her brother.

When they re-emerge from the wardrobe, Edmund and Lucy find that the ‘game of hide-and-seek’ they had been playing before entering Narnia is still in full swing. But their attitude to the game has changed entirely, since they now know that there is something genuinely strange hidden in the wardrobe which was one of the hiding places in the game. The real is secreted in the playful, just as forms of truth are secreted in fiction; on this, at least, both the younger siblings should be able to agree, whatever their contradictory readings of the place they’ve just returned from. This makes it all the more shocking when Edmund decides that his best tactic both for preserving his self-esteem and hurting his sister is to pretend that he and Lucy have been playing a different game instead of experiencing a different reality: a game-within-a-game, so to speak, rather than an unsuspected truth-within-a-fiction. ‘Oh yes,’ he tells Peter and Susan, ‘Lucy and I have been playing – pretending that all her story about a country in the wardrobe is true. Just for fun, of course. There’s nothing there really’. The cruelty here is compounded by his redeployment of Lucy’s word ‘fun’, which for her involved collective pleasure in an astonishing discovery (‘What fun it will be!’). Peter improves things a little by coming to Lucy’s defence: he suggests that Edmund’s ‘game’ with Lucy is merely a continuation of his bullying, a malpractice rendered more serious by Peter’s increasing suspicion that his younger sister is ‘queer in the head’. Lucy, meanwhile, remains true to her insistence that her ‘story’ is real: she ‘stuck to her story’, as Lewis puts it, and it’s this development of the concept of story beyond the invented or imaginary – this seeming conviction of hers that stories can be true – that induces Peter and Susan to consult Professor Kirk on the matter.

The Professor’s response to their question (has Lucy gone bad or mad? Is she suffering from mental illness?) is to apply a kind of logic to it which Lewis particularly associates with the Scottish enlightenment tradition (think of the Scottish sceptic MacPhee in his unfinished novel The Dark Tower, who becomes an equally sceptical Irishman in That Hideous Strength; Professor Kirk’s name, like that of Mrs MacReady, helps to link him with Scotland). ‘There are only three possibilities,’ he tells them. ‘Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.’ The ‘logical’ position he takes here is unusual, in that it assumes that a known truth-teller should be believed even when the scenario she describes would seem to be ‘impossible’ by any conventional standards of assessment. In other words, the Professor is more concerned with the psychology of human beings than with the empirical evidence of the senses. For him, the question of Lucy’s personality – her attested tendency to tell the truth – is vastly more important than questions of precedent (such as: have countries ever been found in items of furniture in the past? Do fauns exist? etc.). From this point of view Narnia would seem to be a country of the mind, whose capacities, like those of the house he inhabits, are vastly more spacious – and vastly more interesting – than conventional empiricism or logic would tend to assume.

Lewis associates logic with Scottish culture, but Scotland also produced the visionary writer whose work Lewis most admired, George MacDonald. MacDonald’s books are full of no-nonsense characters – most of them old women – who treat encounters with the fantastic with the same intellectual rigour as any other aspect of human experience. Edmund’s attitude to games and fictions when he first enters Narnia indicates, among other things, his muddled thinking – his lack of the sort of intellectual and moral rigour cultivated by Professor Kirk and George MacDonald’s formidable grandmothers. By the end of the novel, by contrast, Edmund has become an exemplary thinker, someone who judges the evidence of the mind and senses with such rigour that he comes to be known as ‘Edmund the Just’. Edmund, then, is a complex, changeable character in a way that Lucy is not; and his name confirms his potential for opposite ways of thinking, and for undergoing opposite destinies or endings, just as Lucy’s confirms her singularity as a custodian of the singular light of truth.

Sam Troughton as Edmund in the 2014 National Theatre production dir. Sam Mendes

There was a real, historical Edmund the Just, a tenth-century King of England who obviously suggested the sobriquet to Lewis (among other things, this Edmund I made peace with the Scots: quite an achievement for an English king in the tenth century). But the other Edmund invoked by the name of Lewis’s child-traitor is the antagonist in King Lear, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester who betrays his brother in a fit of murderous playfulness, a betrayal that leads to the deaths of his father, his king, the king’s three daughters, and Edmund himself. Where Lucy’s name suggests a singular truth – a light shining in darkness – Edmund’s has several competing associations, and can be read in different lights depending on the situation he finds himself in. There could hardly be a better way of signaling Lewis’s conviction, everywhere apparent in the Narnian chronicles, of the urgent need for his readers to cultivate the skill of reading well.

For the third post on Lewis’s Interfaces, see here.

The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Part 1: Lucy

[This is the first part of a three-part blog post. The first part deals with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second with Edmund’s, and the third with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

Dust jacket of First Edition

The interface with fantasy in any narrative – the moment when the reader first encounters the particular version of the impossible with which the story will concern itself – both defines a text as fantasy and indicates the kind of fantasy it will be. It’s also frequently the most exhilarating moment in any fantastic story: the most surprising, the most idiosyncratic, the most memorable. Alice spotting a rabbit as it runs by pulling a watch out of its waistcoat pocket – and the burning curiosity with which she responds to this impossible action – sets the perversely logical tone of Carroll’s book of dreams. The moment when Nesbit’s five very ordinary children dig a fairy out of the sand in an abandoned gravel pit, only to discover that the fairy is precisely the opposite of the ones in books (wingless, hairy, with apelike hands, a spidery body and the retractable antennae of a snail), perfectly sums up the many reversals of the children’s expectations that will follow this discovery. The morning when young Will wakes up to find the world blanketed in snow and all his numerous family asleep and impossible to rouse – this is the essence of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, where magic brings solitude and coldly impersonal decisions as well as beauty and wonder. As I thought over the last few weeks about the phenomenon of the Narnia books, which compete with The Lord of the Rings for the title of most influential works of fantasy in the postwar years, it struck me that what sets Lewis’s work apart – not just the novel but the series as a whole – is its fascination with this moment of interface, the point at which the protagonist recognizes that they have left behind the physical and social rules of the fields they know. So exciting does Lewis find this moment of first encounter that he re-enacts it over and over again in the course of his series: most notably, perhaps, in the multiple pools that offer entrance to innumerable worlds in The Magician’s Nephew; in the door in the air at the end of Prince Caspian; in the picture that comes alive in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – followed by the many disembarkations on unknown island-worlds with which that book is filled; and in the plural encounters with successive layers of the Narnian universe in The Silver Chair, beginning with an entrance through a door in a wall reminiscent of Lewis’s favourite short story by H G Wells. The interface with fantasy is Lewis’s theme, and his abiding fascination with it is what makes his work distinctive.

If Lewis’s Narnian sequence is a fantasy of interfaces, then The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the most characteristic of the Narnia books, since it consists almost entirely of a series of entrances into and encounters with the impossible, the magical, the strange. The first of these entrances, I would suggest, is by way of the book’s title. I can still remember quite distinctly a time before I first read the novel, when I knew only what it said on the cover of the Puffin paperback edition, above a picture of two girls dancing with a lion (I suspect I was told the title instead of reading it; I was a late-ish reader and remain a slow one). The bizarre combination of a beast, a quasi-human figure of horror (I found witches terrifying throughout my childhood) and a grown-up item of furniture (I wasn’t sure what a ‘wardrobe’ was until someone explained) surprised me by its fusion of the exotically powerful, the supernatural and the mundane. No story I knew contained just these elements, or any combination like them, and I couldn’t wait to learn how the three mismatched terms were linked. Tolkien talks in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ about how the deployment of unexpected combinations of words can serve as an act of imaginative conjuration, and I think Lewis achieved this in his title (which owes something of its effect to Nesbit’s titles: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet).

The second entrance, encounter or interface is by way of the house to which the four children of the opening sentence are evacuated in the book’s first chapter. In Five Children and It Nesbit’s titular children arrive at a rural house from the city of London, and the building seems magical to them because it’s isolated from other buildings and because its grounds have no clear boundaries or enclosures. Their previous experience of domestic space has been urban and rule-bound (they’re not allowed to roam the city streets unsupervised), and the sudden emergence from urban regulation suggests that their new life will be governed by new criteria. We don’t know much about Lewis’s Pevensie children apart from the facts that they, too, live in London, and have been sent to the country (somewhere in Dorset, scholars tell us, though the description of the area, with its mountains, stags and eagles, makes it sound like Scotland) to escape the Blitz. They, too, relish the house because of the unaccustomed freedom of movement it offers (‘That old chap will let us do anything we like’ Peter enthuses); but whereas for Nesbit’s children this freedom takes them out and about (only one of their adventures is housebound), the Pevensies have their adventures inside the house, which Lewis transforms into quasi-magical terrain by making its topography both vast and mysterious. In the first chapter Peter points out that ‘It’s about ten minutes’ walk’ from their bedrooms to the dining-room with ‘any amount of stairs and passages between’, the vague terms ‘about’ and ‘any amount’ underscoring his unfamiliarity with the building’s layout. The youngest child Lucy finds this sense of vague expansiveness intimidating (‘the thought of all those long passages and rows of doors leading into empty rooms was beginning to make her feel a little creepy’). And closer acquaintance with the house only makes it more mysterious. While the first few doors the children open lead only into ‘spare bedrooms, as everyone had expected’, the later rooms they find prove more suggestive: ‘a very long room full of pictures’ with a suit of armour in it; ‘a room all hung with green, with a harp in the corner’, evoking the Irish legends from Lewis’s Belfast childhood; rooms lined with books, ‘most of them very old […] and some bigger than a Bible in a church’; a room containing only a wardrobe. Lewis carefully builds up the impression that the house is too large to know well, and that its rooms have stories in them, some of them written down or printed (and the comparison of some of these books to ‘a Bible in a church’ suggests that the words inside are in some sense potent). Later we learn that the house is so famous that sightseers come ‘from all over England’ to visit it, drawn by its association with different kinds of narratives:

It was the sort of house that is mentioned in guide books and even in histories; and well it might be, for all manner of stories were told about it, some of them even stranger than the one I am telling you now.

With extraordinary economy this sentence extends the building’s mystery in several directions. First, we learn that it’s connected with history – no mystery there, many ancient buildings have ancient origins. But in the next part of the sentence history segues into story, which implies fiction; and some of the ‘stories’ it conjures up are ‘even stranger’ than the story of four children entering a world of talking animals through a wardrobe. One begins to wonder if the Bible-sized books in its library may contain some of those other, ambiguously-fictional narratives; or if Edmund’s teasing questions to Lucy about whether she’s found any new countries in other cupboards around the building might have a grain of truth in them; or whether the suit of armour may have been used in the English Civil Wars, or in an Arthurian romance.

Shortly afterwards the narrator again implies that the house may have something literally magical about it. As all four children approach the wardrobe together for the first time he wonders whether ‘some magic in the house had come to life and was chasing them into Narnia’ – and though he never commits himself to this explanation it marks the continued growth of the building into something organic, something more than architectural. In fact, by this point in the novel the house has acquired a vitality that makes it seem like an extension of its owner, the hairy, rational, courteous and unexpectedly open-minded Professor Kirk. Like the Professor, it is full of possibilities, rendered more diverse by the fact that none of them are particularised or confirmed.[1] These possibilities are extended further still when Susan points out, on entering the wardrobe, that anything they find inside it might be said to be inside the house; and by the Faun Tumnus’s assumption that the place Lucy has come from is another country inside the room where she found the wardrobe. ‘Daughter of Eve’ he calls her, investing her in the process with a mythical status as exotic as his own, ‘from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe’. By these means Lewis brings our imaginations ‘to life’ through a series of hints relating to the house, preparing them like a good gardener for the more flamboyant impossibilities he introduces as the book goes on.

Pauline Baynes’s wardrobe, which has two doors and no mirror

The next three interfaces, of course, are the three entrances into Narnia by way of the wardrobe. First Lucy on her own, then Edmund and Lucy – though they effectively go separately – and finally all four Pevensie children step through the door with a looking-glass in it (a nod to Carroll?) and find themselves in another landscape, in another season, which turns out to be located in another world. So imaginatively potent, for Lewis, is this moment of transition from this world to the next that he makes us go through it three times, each time from a new perspective, which imbues each entrance with a different mood and meaning. One of the side effects of this threefold interface is that it leaves the young reader with the conviction that such encounters may not be unique – that they might in fact occur from time to time, though rarely, in ‘real’, non-literary life. This view is corroborated by the Professor’s logic, when he asks Peter and Susan whether they find Lucy a more credible witness than Edmund and goes on to suggest that if so, they should believe what she has told them about finding Narnia, no matter how incredible. An adult’s championing of the youngest Pevensie – especially when the adult has the grand title of ‘Professor’ – renders her and Edmund’s impossible experiences of Narnia distinctly plausible; and it’s perhaps for this reason that I worked so hard to convince myself as a boy that I, too, could find an entrance to Lewis’s invented country – though I suspect there were other elements to this desire for conviction, among others the strong association of Narnia with desire itself.

Lucy’s experience of the interface with Narnia can be understood as a series of mirrorings (remember the mirror in the wardrobe door, which Pauline Baynes doesn’t include in her illustrations). These mirrorings ensure that the transition between ‘our’ world and the ‘other’ one isn’t too sudden to feel convincing, and that the two worlds in some sense interpenetrate each other: there are things in one that occur in the other, though in a new relationship and with different connotations. One might think of George MacDonald’s observation in his novel Phantastes about how a room is rendered magical when seen in a mirror; it’s identical to the one you live in, but the reversal of the relations between the objects in it suggest the possibility that in the reflected world there has been a fundamental realignment of all the regulations that govern our quotidian existence.

Lucy’s entrance into Narnia is partly impelled, like Alice’s decision to follow the rabbit, by curiosity: first the modest curiosity as to whether or not the wardrobe door is locked, which is what makes Lucy stay behind when her siblings leave the room; and later the excited inquisitiveness as to the nature of the snowy wood to which the wardrobe leads her. The other impulse that takes her into the wardrobe is that of pleasure. In the wardrobe she finds fur coats, and since ‘There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur’ she at once steps in and rubs her face against them, going ‘further in’ (a phrase that acquires particular resonance in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle) to indulge her senses of touch and smell more fully. As she goes forward into the dark she first loses one of her senses – that of sight – quite naturally, because it’s dark; and she then fails to sense something she expects, which is the rough woodwork at the back of the wardrobe. Afterwards her sense of touch conveys to her something she expects – the crunching of mothballs under her feet – only to surprise her when she reaches down to touch them, since the crunchy substance is ‘soft and powdery and extremely cold’. Next the texture of the coats changes, to be replaced not with the expected wooden planks but with wood in another form, the prickly ‘branches of trees’. Her sense of sight returns to her, but as often happens when one has been in the dark her understanding of distance has been affected, and the light she sees appears to be much further away than ‘where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been’. As a result of these incremental alterations, it seems perfectly natural as well as surprising when Lucy finally realizes that she is standing ‘in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air’. The stress on many senses, not just one – and the stress on familiar, precisely-evoked sensations – is what makes the transition so utterly convincing.

Alongside sensation, Lewis also uses wordplay to link the new land Lucy discovers with the house she’s left. The first things she finds in Narnia – a wood full of fir trees, the whiteness of snow, the darkness of nighttime – are all perfectly consonant with the experience of playing, or falling asleep, in a dark wooden wardrobe full of fur coats and snow-white mothballs. Lewis has already shown us that Lucy is a little timid – she disliked the large unknown spaces of the Professor’s house – so it’s a stroke of genius to have her look back over her shoulder when she reaches the wood and see not only ‘the open doorway of the wardrobe’ between the trees behind her but even ‘a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out’. The empty rooms of Professor Kirk’s house had earlier frightened her, so it should come as no surprise that she quickly summons up courage to move forward through the much more crowded space of the Narnian wood in which she finds herself. Her discovery of an ordinary lamppost a few steps later – in the middle of wood, far from any discernible path – reassures her still further: it suggests modern industrial civilization, perhaps even the urban environment she knows best, where some helpful authority has made provision for the needs of citizens to find their way about at night. So again it’s hardly surprising that when a ‘very strange person’ steps out into the light of the lamppost Lucy should react not with fear but only intensified curiosity: especially since the ‘very strange person’ is much the same height as her, carries an umbrella, wears a ‘red woollen muffler’ that matches his skin, and is weighed down with what looks like his ‘Christmas shopping’. Umbrellas and mufflers are designed for protection, not assault, and anyone who has the generosity to buy Christmas presents for his friends can pose no threat (or so one might reason); and though this assumption may be simplistic (as indeed it proves to be) it seems to be corroborated by the faun’s exclamation of surprise when he first sees Lucy. ‘Goodness gracious me’ is hardly the phrase a devil might use, despite the stranger’s possession of horns and reddish skin, and serves to justify Lucy’s confidence in talking to him in the next chapter.

The series of mirrorings I mentioned earlier refers to the fact that the room can be seen behind Lucy after she’s moved out of it – a space rendered as magical as Narnia by its unexplained presence ‘between the dark tree-trunks’ – and by the Faun’s perfect equivalence to Lucy in terms of size. It continues with the rapid-fire questions the Faun poses to her, which suggests he is just as curious as she is, and by his readiness to take Spare Oom and War Drobe as geographical locations as exotic for him as Narnia is for her. Soon afterwards, Lucy’s belief that she should be getting ‘home’ to the Professor’s house is mirrored by the ‘homely’ picture painted by the Faun of its own habitation, where there is ‘a roaring fire – and toast – and sardines – and cake’. And the ‘dry, clean cave’ to which he takes her is much more child-sized and child-friendly – much more ‘homely’, in fact – than the rambling, many-doored mansion Lucy has left behind (there is only one door in the cave, which ‘must lead to Mr Tumnus’s bedroom’ – there is really nowhere else it can lead to). The Faun’s home is also better stocked with provisions than England is, given that Lucy’s England is at war and therefore subject to rationing (cakes would have been a rarity because of the shortage of eggs). Again, Mr Tumnus’s cave mirrors the world she’s left in its fondness for books and stories, especially strange ones: the books on its shelves refer to humanity as a possible fiction (Is Man a Myth? is one of the titles), and Tumnus himself is a fount of strange tales like the ones that have accumulated around the Professor’s house. Strangeness and familiarity are blended in the Faun’s cave, in fact, exactly as they were in the mansion, although in slightly different proportions.

At this point in Lucy’s adventure Lewis engineers a sudden change of mood. After telling his tales of midnight parties where Fauns dance with Nymphs, of milk-white stags which grant your wishes and of summer visits from the god Silenus, who makes the rivers run with wine instead of water, Tumnus abruptly reveals that such seasonal delights no longer take place and that Narnia itself has receded into the past, to be replaced by the perpetually snowbound country Lucy has discovered. The Faun then drops the bombshell (the wartime metaphor seems appropriate) that he himself is not what he appears to be – that he is a bad Faun, not a good one, and that his entertainment of Lucy has a hidden agenda: to lull her into a false sense of security and then hand her over to his paymistress, the wicked White Witch. This is a mirror-style reversal more extreme than any we’ve encountered so far, whereby apparent acts of friendliness become a mask for treason, a pleasant wood becomes suddenly sinister, snow becomes oppressive – it is now the sign of the Witch’s power – and the return journey to the lamppost becomes as full of anxiety (‘The whole wood is full of her spies,’ Tumnus tells Lucy) as before it was full of wonder. Even this reversal, however, mirrors a similar reversal in the world that Lucy has left. It might be said to resemble something we never actually witness in the novel: the sudden, unlooked-for recollection that the world is at war, which transforms the loveliness of the countryside into a fragile refuge from violence and forces one’s idealized imaginary homeland to recede into the distance – into the past and perhaps, though not certainly, the distant future – while the present becomes discoloured or warped by suspicion and fear.

Lucy’s experience of the interface with Narnia, then, contains in itself the possibility that the country can be read in different ways. But the change of mood also affirms that a ‘true’ reading of the evidence provided by the country is possible. By the time it takes place, a bond has been forged between Lucy and Mr Tumnus, a bond founded on a shared pleasure in food and stories and curiosity about strange cultures – pleasures it’s difficult to fake. So when Tumnus breaks down in tears and tells the girl that he is wicked she assumes that he is talking about some past misdemeanour on his part, and assures him that he cannot possibly be bad now because he is so sorry for what he has done. The revelation that his misdemeanour is in fact taking place now, at this very moment, and that the child he has been telling her about is not an element in a finished tale but Lucy herself, who is currently in danger from the Faun to whom she is speaking – this revelation shocks Lucy into terror (she turns ‘very white’). But her conviction that Tumnus is what he appears to be – a friend – helps to change the direction of the narrative once again. By being certain that he is ‘a very good Faun’ Lucy ensures that he behaves as one; while, conversely, Lucy’s own behaviour ensures that Tumnus realizes he could never betray an actual human child, no matter how easy such a betrayal might seem when the child was imaginary. There’s a sense here that behind the hall of mirrors that enabled the transition between the Professor’s house and Narnia – and between the possible and the impossible, which have been so richly twined together in the description of that transition – there is a common set of values, a shared recognition of the appropriate way to behave towards strangers, whether children or adults, migrants or evacuees, that transcends any fleeting consent one has given to other sorts of behaviour on the basis of fear or wilful self-delusion.

In other words, by this stage in the novel the question of what is real has come under scrutiny. The country Lucy comes from, England, is a land in crisis. So is the country she arrives in, Narnia. Both places, then, are in one sense not themselves – the ‘real’ England and the ‘real’ Narnia lie elsewhere, in a time of peace and prosperity that has long been absent and might not come again. Any hope that this double crisis will be resolved lies in behaving as though the moral values of the ‘real’ country remain intact during this period of absence. Lucy behaves in this way quite naturally, by assuming Tumnus is ‘good’ whatever crimes he may have committed in the Witch’s name. Tumnus’s ‘badness’, meanwhile, is the result of an act of imagination: he agreed to betray, in theory, what he thought of as an imaginary person – a human being, at a time when human beings have not been seen in Narnia for many centuries (hence the title of his book, Is Man a Myth?). But as soon as that imagined person proved to be real Tumnus realized he could never betray her without also betraying his sense of his own real self as (first and foremost) a decent person. In addition, his agreement to serve as the Witch’s spy was based on the threat she posed to his identity, his faunness, so to speak. If he fails to do her bidding she will cut off his horns, pluck out his beard, fuse his ‘beautiful cloven hoofs […] into horrid solid hoofs like a wretched horse’s’ – or worse still she will turn him to stone, a simulacrum of a living goat-man. On meeting the real girl Lucy, however, Tumnus realizes that his ‘real self’ is not the physical one with horns and beard and cloven hooves but the one who refuses to hurt children, who treats strangers with respect, and who seeks to help them at great risk to his own life. In doing these things Tumnus identifies himself as a ‘real’ Narnian, and brings closer the possibility of the ‘real’ Narnia being restored. If all of the White Witch’s spies go through the same process of self-realization her power will be diminished, and Narnia will re-emerge in some form at least from its long quiescence.

When Lucy returns to the Professor’s house after her time with Tumnus, the question of what’s real continues to trouble her. She tells her siblings about the visit to Narnia, and they at once assume that her story is impossible. This gives rise to three alternative interpretations of her narrative: first, that it’s a lie; secondly, that it’s a game – an activity with rules which we take part in for a certain period of time for the sake of a transient feeling of pleasure; and thirdly, that it’s a joke. All three siblings also decide that whichever one of these interpretations or readings of the story is correct, the lie or game or joke has gone on far beyond what is acceptable. Convention dictates that at one point a fiction be acknowledged for what it is – that the book be closed and ordinary life begin again – but Lucy stubbornly refuses to obey this convention even for the sake of a quiet life (she was a ‘very truthful girl and knew that she was really in the right’). On person’s game or joke or fiction, then, is another person’s reality; the dividing line between the imagined and the actual is permeable, and ‘realness’, as well as the conventions that determine its parameters, is a contested concept. Later, the older siblings Peter and Susan begin to wonder whether there is a fourth explanation for Lucy’s insistence on the truthfulness of her impossible story – not that it’s a game (her unhappiness puts paid to that idea) but that she believes she is telling the truth even though she is not; in other words, that she is suffering from some kind of mental illness. This is what drives them to discuss the problem with the Professor. But the fact that the reader has already been convinced, within the framework of the story, that Lucy has ‘really’ undergone the experiences she describes suggests that the limits of the possible are vastly greater than Peter and Susan are aware; and this suggestion is later corroborated both by the references to the even stranger stories associated with the house and by the Professor’s ready acceptance that Lucy is sane, and that therefore – in the absence of any evidence against it – her story should be believed. The game abruptly becomes potential fact, and the relationship between the elder siblings and the youngest shifts in consequence. Objects and people – Lucy, Susan, Peter, the mysterious wardrobe – subtly change places, in the process changing their signification.

It might be at this point in the story that the knowledgeable reader brings to mind the mythical connotations of Lucy’s name. Lucy comes from lux, the Latin for light, and the saint who originally owned the name became associated by the Catholic Church with the longest night in the year, a time when the memory of light, and the current location of its source, must have seemed (in the days before artificial lighting) as far away and inaccessible as an imaginary country. But even in the longest night of the year the sun is real, and the conviction that its light and warmth will at last return can be sustained by stories as well as memory. That’s the promise Lucy’s name brings with it, in conjunction with her story: that things unseen may be as real as things we can smell and touch, and that the impossible may perhaps be made possible through a concerted effort of the desiring imagination.

For the second post on C.S. Lewis’s interfaces, see here.

 

NOTE

[1] This is an effect that gets destroyed, I would imagine, or at least altered, if you read The Magician’s Nephew first in the Narnia sequence. Lewis seems in fact to have written it last.

Frances Hardinge, Fly by Night (2005)

[This post contains many spoilers. Sorry.]

51yVWZqt8bL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Can we count as fantasy those texts in which nothing impossible actually happens? There are plenty of books in the fantasy section of my mental library about which this could be said: G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the Gormenghast books, many of the novels in Joan Aiken’s Wolves series, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Given the absence of impossibilities in these narratives – people turning into beetles, acts of magic, fairies, dragons, mythical beings with astounding powers – why do they persist in finding their way onto fantasy booklists? Why do I think of Frances Hardinge as a fantasy writer, despite the fact that her first novel, Fly by Night (2005), only violates the laws of physics once or twice, and then not to a degree significantly more startling than a conventional thriller?

In each of the cases I’ve listed the relationship with the fantastic is, I think, slightly different; but one thing all of them have in common is a knowing dialogue with other books of different degrees of implausibility. Chesterton is in conversation with detective fiction and the supernatural stories of the previous decade, such as Dorian Gray; Peake draws his inspiration from Dickens and the folklore of piracy; Aiken pays homage to Victorian melodrama; Kushner to the regency romances of Georgette Heyer and the swashbuckling adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas. These non-fantastic fantasies are books at two removes from what we think of as reality, and their flamboyant display of their own literariness makes it clear to their readers that they have no pretensions to mimetic realism except as a literary technique, a means of bringing alive a cast of invented characters in a clearly imaginary space. They are concerned to generate for a new readership some literary atmosphere which is particularly important for the writer – or rather, they seek to produce a new atmosphere out of that old one, an atmosphere that fuses the properties of an old literary genre with the urgent concerns of the present.

hardinge-xlarge_trans++1e7PqSjuVlPS9E5Sk9dVRSUvG1VjmqmGsf10Hf8vKfcFly by Night is unusual in that the texts it draws on have rarely been chosen as raw material for the construction of alternative universes. It’s also unusual, even among the fantasies mentioned above, in the degree to which its literariness is foregrounded. Literature – the world of littera or letters – is what it’s all about, and there are few novels that have played with concepts of literacy more wittily. Characters are read, written and printed with unceasing diligence throughout the narrative – at one point the heroine even finds herself stamped all over with printer’s ink – and the consequences of all these literary acts are as various as the people they happen to. Books, in this book, are the proverbial dragon’s teeth in Milton’s celebrated essay on censorship, Areopagitica: the seeds they sow spring up as armed men, and the urgent question that preoccupies Hardinge’s characters is whose side those armed men are on, whether or not their guns are loaded, and at whom they are prepared to shoot. Reading and writing are not, for Hardinge, an unqualified good. They can be instruments of torture, as when thieves are branded with the letter T, making their crimes indelible, their characters irrecoverable (and a character, too, is an act of writing). But reading and writing are always immensely powerful, and their power isn’t easy or even possible to control. That’s a good starting point for a book to take, I think, if it wishes to imprint itself on its reader’s imagination.

If there was ever a time when pens could kill, the early eighteenth century was it, when Pope, Swift, Addison and Steele waged war on the follies of humankind from the smoky interiors of coffee houses, when religion was a fiery theme and the British Empire was spreading its crimson tentacles across the globe, partly funded by the profits from the slave trade. This was also the period of enormous wigs, silly hats and ridiculous clothes worn mostly by men and women of the upper classes. What tends to get remembered from this time is the stuff of romance: the pirates who sailed the early eighteenth-century seas, the highwaymen who haunted its heaths, the plots being hatched by rebels of various stamps in its city streets, the battles fought by its generals. Hardinge’s secondary world, the Shattered or Fractured Realm, is evidently based on early eighteenth-century England, but her book is not concerned to romanticize it. Its only pirate is a barge captain with a fierce temper and a crooked wrist instead of a hook. Its only highwayman finds life on the open heath cataclysmically bad for his health, and the fame his exploits bring him profoundly inconvenient. Its principal rebel is a mild-mannered schoolteacher who has nothing further from his mind than insurrection; its only general an insane Duke who cheats when fighting a duel on behalf of his imaginary lovers. Hardinge’s topic is not so much romance as the processes by which romance is generated: in particular the printing press, whose output turns highwaymen into heroes, ordinary men into revolutionary masterminds, and piratical barge captains into corpses, thanks to the efforts of competing factions to take control of what the printing press produces.

Hardinge’s aim, in fact, is to make her readers think twice about the nature of the book they’re reading: the stuff it’s made of, print, paper, pages, font, words, letters, sentences, chapters, plots, and what these different things can accomplish for good and bad when brought together. And her means of doing this is to pick them apart, in much the same way that she picks apart eighteenth-century England by reducing it to its constituent elements in the Shattered Realm.

The name ‘Shattered Realm’ gets applied to Hardinge’s world in the book’s first chapter by Quillam Mye, a scholar whose work is banned and whose account of the country’s history left unfinished, so that it never gets printed. It’s an unofficial name, then, although it describes the country’s condition with perfect accuracy. And it’s a name that, like Quillam’s forbidden books and pamphlets, escapes from the limits of the written page and finds its way into public ownership, because it’s needed, because the people it describes require its lucid acknowledgement of their political and social situation. Like Dorimare in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, the Realm has undergone a revolution in which the monarchs were expelled, as in the English Civil War of 1645; and like Dorimare it has never undergone a Restoration, whereby the monarchs returned in triumph to resume their position at the head of state. As a result, the divisions between the religious and political beliefs of the Realm’s inhabitants are everywhere obvious. They worship different gods – saint-like figures called the Beloved, with bizarre names and peculiar functions, such as Goodman Palpitattle (He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns), Goodlady Prill (Protector of Pigs), Goodman Grenoble (He Who Keeps Knots out of Moustachios) and Goodman Sicklenose (He Who Lures the Shelled Fish into the Hungry Net). They give their allegiance to different claimants to the throne: King Prael, the ‘king across the Tosteroy Sea’, King Hazard, the ‘king across the Magora mountains’, the Twin Queens, the ‘monarchs beyond the Jottland foothills’. Workers in every trade belong to a different Guild; dwellers in adjacent districts wear distinctive clothing; members of different Guilds or with different beliefs frequent different coffee houses. Yet these diverse affiliations are not absolute ones. The inhabitants of the Realm seem perfectly comfortable with their differences, and the chief dangers in the book are posed by fanatics who want total unity: a unified religion, a plain understanding of right and wrong, a single ruler, one set of keys to all the kingdom’s doors, a censorship system that imposes identical restraints on all printed texts, and so on. In Hardinge’s Realm, centrism is pitched against eccentricity, conformity against the marginal, consistency against multiplicity, and the artificiality of imposing any uniform regime on a wildly diverse population is brought out by the crazy inventiveness of their names: Aramai Goshawk, Mabwick Toke, Eponymous Clent, Vocado Avourlace, Mosca Mye. The Shattered Realm owes its fragmentary nature to the splits between large and small segments of its populace, and the question of how to bind the nation together without losing the distinctiveness of its fragments is a vexed one, to which Hardinge offers no simple answer.

flybnbw
Mosca by Antonia Russell-Clark

The book, too, is a thing of fragments working together to solve a problem: how to find a place in the Realm for its diminutive heroine, twelve-year-old Mosca Mye. Each chapter takes for its title a letter of the alphabet which is linked to the aspect of the Realm it reveals to Mosca: ‘E is for Extortion’, ‘L is for Locksmith’, ‘S is for Sedition’, and so forth. The format of these chapter titles is that of old alphabets used to teach children their letters; but where conventional alphabets of this kind refer to simple everyday things (A is for Apple, B is for Bread, C is for Cat), Hardinge’s letters allude to the criminal underclass and the legal system that seeks to contain them. This is because Mosca herself is doomed from the start to consort with felons. Her father is an exile, sent to Chough from Mandelion for writing seditious tracts about the non-existence of the Beloved, the corruption of the powerful, and the universal necessity for freedom of expression. What’s more, her father taught her to read, which is another violation of convention in the Realm (considering her sex) and has thus invested her eyes with a power that renders her permanently suspect to the illiterate villagers among whom she grew up:

Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad. […] Mosca might as well have been the local witch in miniature.

Here Mosca, whose name means ‘fly’ in Italian, gets inextricably linked with the words she loves, which crawl around readers’ brains (so the Choughians think) and drive them mad like the constant buzzing of flies in a limited space. The villagers’ reaction to this danger is to deprive the girl of reading material. When her father dies they burn his books with the aim of restricting his daughter’s development as a reader. But the result of this act of censorship is precisely the opposite of what was intended. In response to the lack of books, the girl reads everything else instead: the arbitrary rules the villagers live by, the monotonous rigidity of their existence, the fascinating ways of passing strangers. Hardinge’s constant references to her ink-black eyes insist on their agency, the agency of a child who is always playing the old alphabet game of ‘I spy’ (and the chapter headings could also be taken as answers to the game as she plays it). Mosca picks out unremarked elements of her surroundings and uses them to her advantage in the competition she has been forced to take part in since her father’s death: the struggle for survival in a hostile environment. In the process she continues her father’s work of challenging other people to see what she sees, with drastic results, in the end, for the Realm itself.

710437Mosca is not just a reader; she’s a writer too. She carries with her a violent goose called Saracen, whose name identifies him as another outsider in the village that raised him – hence their strange alliance. Quillam Mye, as his name suggests, wrote his books with a quill, and the best writing quills are fashioned from the primary feathers of a goose or swan. Mosca, then, carries a living sheaf of quills on her adventures, quills with a will of their own and a belligerent energy that reduces armed men to quivering wrecks in any confrontation. The goose also embodies her resistance to the most deadly threat she faces on her travels: the Birdcatchers, religious fanatics whose name alludes to their obsession with restricting the free movement of minds and bodies, as expressed in their vicious practice of trapping birds, men, women and children in metal cages, then murdering them by starvation or burning. The Birdcatchers think of anyone who disagrees with them as heretics, and Saracen’s name connects him with the ultimate heresy, a different religion altogether. During their period of power in the Realm, the Birdcatchers took control of the printing presses and restricted what could be written to texts authorized by their church. Saracen’s quills can no more be controlled than Quillam’s pen, and Mosca’s alliance with him marks her out as a resister of religious intolerance as well as of censorship, like her father before her.

With Saracen’s help she finds her way into the underworld of the Realm, where she learns new words: the argot of the streets which is designed to befuddle the ignorant as surely as the professional jargon spoken by lawyers, doctors, clerics, politicians and poets. But her vigilant eyes ensure that she also picks up the words of the elite, startling strangers with her command of a vocabulary to which by rights she should have had no access. This little fly gets everywhere, like letters, those insectile scrawlings which can be used for the purposes of all classes, all plots, all tricksters with the nous to arrange them in different orders.

Letter by letter, she makes her way through the Shattered Realm, assembling her own unofficial version of the country, its past, its present, its possible futures. It’s a journey from rigidity to fluidity, from settled certainties to infinite possibilities, from being written to writing the world for herself with her own peculiar slant. At the beginning of the novel she is given a name that brands her forever as an affiliate of the least propitious of Beloveds, Palpitattle – the Realm’s equivalent of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies. Her father insists she be given this name because she was born on Palpitattle’s feast day, and children in the Realm are always named for their patron Beloved; despite his atheism, the historian considers accuracy to be sacrosanct and will not permit the infant’s nurse to change the record of her birth by half an hour to give her the advantage of a better title. From this moment her name allies her to unpalatable truths – after all, flies are a necessary element in any ecosystem, like the detritus they feed on.[1] But flies are not easily contained, and by the end of the book Mosca is making her own choices, all of which involve liberating words and people from unwelcome constraints. This liberation, too, is associated with the alphabet, since Hardinge makes sure the procession of letters in her chapter titles never reaches Z: the final chapter heading is ‘V for Verdict’, and in it Mosca passes judgement on the people of Realm, just as they have judged her, while heading off in a new direction, not dictated by the conventions of the classroom. Her new direction was predicted, like the start of her life, by her father, with his passion for truth: ‘True stories seldom have endings’, he tells her, thus ensuring she will finally settle for the life of a vagabond (V stands for that too), and eschew the happy ever after of romance.

BlackbirdInk fanart - Mosca and Saracen in Chough
Mosca and Saracen by Lesya Blackbirdink

The movement from restraint to liberation is embodied in water as well as in letters. The village of Chough is full of the sound of water thanks to its dreadful climate, but the limescale in the water ensures that everything immersed in it turns to stone. The connection with the mental rigidity of Chough’s occupants is obvious. So too is the fact that it’s the criminal underworld that takes best advantage of this rigidity, offering an escape route to the child who suffers most from the villagers’ petrifaction. An itinerant conman, Eponymous Clent, spins a web of yarns from their hopes and dreams, and is condemned to the stocks when his scams are exposed. Mosca’s first act of liberation is to set him free, and in the process to free herself, since he can act as her mentor on the unfamiliar highways through the Realm she intends to take. It’s Clent who introduces her to Jennifer Bessel, a former gang leader who now sells objects turned to stone by the waters of Chough. Jennifer’s trade shows how ordinary things can be turned to new uses with a bit of ingenuity. So too does the barge captain, Partridge, with whom Clent and she take passage to Mandelion. Partridge is smuggling statues of Beloveds stolen from shrines in the hold of his barge, with the aim of melting down the lead they contain to make bullets for a planned insurrection. Thanks to Clent, Bessel, Partridge and their fellow felons, the rigidity bestowed by the waters of Chough melts away to be replaced by fluidity – of words, scams, improvised falsehoods and imaginative circumventions of authority (including the Guild of Watermen, who serve as the river police). By the end of the book Mosca is utterly at home on the water – as well as with felons of all stamps – while two at least of her enemies have met their end by it.

She has also learned the fluidity that characterizes human affairs, in spite of all attempts to render them rigid and simple – that is, to divide people into simple categories of good or bad, orthodox or heretic, law-abiding citizen or hardened criminal, or to write them into the constricting clichés of romance. Everyone in Hardinge’s world has a back story which makes them capable of eliciting sympathy. Everyone is to some extent connected with everyone else, and Mosca’s assessment of every major character changes in the course of the narrative, sometimes more than once. So too does her assessment of herself. At different stages of her journey she thinks of herself in different terms, as she aligns herself first with one character or interest group and then with another. This fluidity of narrative and personality can be seen as an act of re-education of her readers on the part of the author: the invention of a new kind of writing, with Mosca and her unorthodox schooling as an avatar of the reader, learning day by day to translate her growing skills in literacy into a fresh understanding of the richly interwoven languages of Hardinge’s world and our own.

The chief architect of this education is the conman, Eponymous Clent, whose first name links him to the title of the book, thereby signaling the crucial role he plays in its plotting. The eponymous hero of any narrative is the one whose name appears on the title page, and Clent is a fly-by-night if ever there was one, whose lies keep landing him in trouble even as they propel the story he gets caught up in. Trouble is what stories thrive on; without it there would be no tension to hold our attention for page after page, no crisis to trace through its convolutions to resolution. Clent himself allies the art of the professional fibber and thief with the art of the wordsmith. When Mosca bluntly tells him what he does for a living – ‘You tell lies for money’ – he replies by spinning himself a cloak of artistic respectability which serves as a perfect smokescreen for his scams. ‘My child,’ he tells her,

you have a flawed grasp of the nature of myth-making. I am a poet and storyteller, a creator of ballads and sagas. Pray do not confuse the exercise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic.

Mosca sees at once that he is right, since he drew her to him in the first place with his language, the fire-new phrases he brought to rural Chough (mellifluous, mendacity) which she ‘stroked […] in her thoughts like the curved backs of cats’. At the same time she sees that she is right also: he may supply her with ‘Words, words, wonderful words’, but they are ‘lies too’, and it’s this linguistic duplicity that governs their relationship throughout the novel.

200px-FlyByNight-FrancesHardingeAfter the girl has freed him from the stocks, Clent employs her as his secretary – literally, the keeper of his secrets – despite his assumption that (as a country girl) she cannot read or write, and despite the fact that he has no intention of taking her into his confidence. But it’s through her unsuspected skill as a reader that she discovers his only secret: a letter that reveals his identity as a spy for the Guild of Stationers, the organization in charge of the printing and censorship of books – the organization with which her father worked before his exile. The discovery puts Clent in her power, as she had earlier put herself in Clent’s by revealing that she’d torched her uncle’s mill; but it also connects Clent in her mind with her dead father, that uncompromising advocate of truth who was sent into exile for his insistence that people be permitted to peddle lies in print, unmolested by censorship. It’s appropriate, then, that Clent and Mosca should turn to writing as a means of cementing their relationship, and that the writing in question should be as mutual as their knowledge of each other’s secrets. Clent draws up a contract with Mosca, a document that binds him as well as her, and which she co-authors. But if words are lies, then a contract written in words can never be binding, and Mosca quickly loses confidence in the document, reading Clent’s dialogue and behaviour in a sinister new light thanks to her newly-acquired belief that he hides a more terrible secret than spying – she thinks him a murderer, which makes his cheerful garrulity deeply sinister. Later she recovers her former opinion of him, as a self-interested but largely loyal rogue; but in the meantime it’s become clear how the same words and actions can be subjected to entirely different interpretations, a revelation that applies with even greater force to the other characters she encounters.

Lady Tamarind, for example – the first woman she meets on the road after Jennifer Bessel – embodies a mass of carefully calculated contradictions. On first appearance she puts herself across as a coolly detached but still romantic damsel in distress, a white-clad fairytale princess whose damaged coach is attacked by highwaymen, placing her in a situation from which she permits herself to be rescued by the eloquent Clent. But the unvarying whiteness of her clothing also marks her out as a blank page, unreadable to others, unwritten on and therefore unaffiliated, available to be filled with any text of her choice that might advance her Machiavellian interests. She is a master wordsmith, like Clent, but on a grander, less human scale. Her main motive for avoiding robbery is to keep possession of an illegal signet ring which she uses to forge letters from the Twin Queens to her brother the Duke – who is obsessed with the identical monarchs –thus manipulating him into acting as she pleases. She also wields a printing press which she uses to sow fear throughout the city, again in her own interests, and employs the word-loving urchin Mosca as her spy, exchanging notes with her through the medium of a feather: a quill planted in the ground as a memorial to the many victims of the fanatical Birdcatchers. For a while Mosca is as obsessed with her as the Duke is with his uninterested lovers; she dreams of serving her and even becoming her, a distant figure clothed in white as a symbol of her exemption from the common dirt that binds together the rest of the Realm. But Lady Tamarind is not content with mere detachment – with not being written; she seeks to write others, as her scripting of her brother’s non-existent correspondence with the Queens makes clear. In this, ironically enough, she resembles the brother she seeks to displace, whose obsession with a pair of perfect doubles prompts him to rebuild the city, bit by bit, in perfect and impractical symmetry, at the cost of demolished homes and mass unrest. Lady Tamarind’s immaculate clothes have an equivalent in the Duke’s concern with his own appearance: he possesses the largest collection of wigs in the Realm, and is followed everywhere by a servant carrying spares. If the different parts of the Realm have different styles of garment, the distinctive fashions of Lady Tamarind and her brother set them apart, identifying them as outsiders, like the ousted monarchs of the Realm, for ever above and beyond their subjects – and therefore irrelevant to them, despite all their efforts to write them (and the city’s geography) into submission.

tamarind01-c
Lady Tamarind by Tealin

Lady Tamarind is not, however, as detached from her people as she thinks. For one thing, she enlists Clent as well as Mosca as her spy after he rescues her from the highwaymen; and between them, Clent and Mosca seem to have connections with everyone else in the Shattered Realm. For another, the lady has servants and admirers, women of an inferior class who aspire to emulate her ‘look’ – and it’s one such act of emulation that leads Mosca to expose Lady Tamarind’s darkest secret: her control of the clandestine printing press with which she disseminates fear throughout the city for her own nefarious purposes. One of Tamarind’s maids sells a dress of hers – pure white, of course – which has been blemished in a distinctive way by contact with the press, and Mosca learns to ‘read’ the dress after finding the press and getting blemished with printer’s ink in a similar manner. In the process she exposes Tamarind as a liar far more deadly than Clent. Her fibs have led to imprisonment and danger of death for many, and her plans for the city include its seizure by the most deadly absolutists of them all, the Birdcatchers – who paradoxically see themselves as the unique custodians of truth, despite their alliance with the Duke’s mendacious sister. Where Clent wields words as tools in an elaborate and democratic competition, a game of ‘I spy’ in which everyone and anyone can join, Lady Tamarind’s words are designed to limit and suppress the words of others, to reduce them to a petrified silence, the oral equivalent of her pristine garments. This also sets her in opposition to Mosca’s father, whose controversial works are often mistaken for Birdcatcher propaganda, but who devoted his career to the fight for freedom of expression. Tamarind uses words as well as clothes to distinguish herself from others, to control them – and it’s Mosca’s awareness that words themselves, with their multiple meanings, can’t be controlled, that leads to the ultimate defeat of Tamarind’s plans, the frustration of her intended narrative.

The most prominent of Tamarind’s servants is Linden Kohlrabi, a young man so different from what he seems that his very name may not be his own – despite the taboo against changing your name in the Shattered Realm. His first meeting with Mosca entails an act of secrecy – he conceals her from a pursuer beneath his cloak – and this effectively defines their relationship as one of shared confidences, though of a very different kind than the confidences Mosca shares with Eponymous Clent. Mosca takes him for a replacement father, the association confirmed when he gifts her a pipe very like her father’s, which she had used – before she lost it – as an aid to thought. Kohlrabi meanwhile takes her as a copy of himself, an orphan whose father died for a cause – just as he reads her father’s works as confirmations of his own convictions as a lifelong member of the Birdcatcher cult. He is wrong, of course – Hardinge’s awareness of words’ duplicity makes this inevitable. Quillam Mye was never a Birdcatcher, he was a freethinker and a sceptic. And Mosca is not blindly loyal to her father, which makes her wholly unlike Linden. She used her father’s pipe to think for herself, not to share his thoughts; and in the process she followed his instructions not to let herself be told what to think by others, and thus not to subject herself to inward censorship. For this reason, it’s also inevitable that Mosca’s view of Kohlrabi will change, as will his of her, with tragic results. But the link forged between them ensures that neither finally sees the other as an enemy, despite Kohlrabi’s willingness, in the end, to take Mosca’s life.

Kohlrabi is a fundamentalist. He is willing to defend Lady Tamarind’s press by murder, because for him words must only ever be used to defend his faith, which is inherited, not self-discovered – handed down wholesale from his father, who he always took at his word. Given this, it is paradoxical that words themselves have little interest for him. It is their meaning that concerns him, and his certainty that this meaning can be conveyed by language without ambiguity or misunderstanding. When Mosca tells him, towards the end, that she knows he is a Birdcatcher, he dismisses the term as an empty signifier, scoffing that ‘the whole country is frightened of a word’, and adding that a word has never killed anyone – ironically enough, given his murder of Partridge to protect a printing press that was being used to foment civil war. He goes on to explain the Birdcatcher faith:

that there is something higher and better in this world than the dirt and darkness which surrounds us […] something pure, something so bright that its light could enchant everything else, like sunlight through a stained-glass window.

The man who makes this statement has blood on his hands and wishes to stain them with more. The conviction that things are see-through, that words or objects can be used as a means to gain access to some immutable truth, is the first step on the road to murder, itself the first step on the road to genocide. From this perspective it would be easy to persuade oneself that those who stand in the way of the light must be disposed of, and that the process of disposal is no more horrifying than the removal of dirt from a lens, the dispersal of darkness to illuminate a room. Mosca reponds to this conviction with the sentence she first applied to the conman Clent: ‘Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.’ The difference is that she now knows the difference between Clent’s lies and the lies of a killer. Clent’s lies spring from an entirely different perception of language; and Clent’s perception brings life and liberty, where Kohlrabi’s brings only death, petrifaction, and imprisonment in iron cages.

Kohlrabi, then, is Clent’s inverted double, just as Lady Tamarind is Mosca’s (though as we’ve seen, the relationship between these four is more complicated than this). Kohlrabi and Tamarind aim to take control of the story of their country, writing it into something rigid, colourless and lifeless. Clent, on the other hand, improvises his stories spontaneously, desperately, with no overarching plot or scheme at all; yet his word-spinning finally sparks an uprising that briefly unites all the disparate elements of the Realm against the Duke, the Lady and Kohlrabi’s Birdcatchers. To save Tamarind from the highwaymen, Clent writes a ballad about their leader, Captain Blythe, which turns him into a hero; this makes Blythe the obvious choice for leader of the rising. Clent later writes a letter to his employers, the Guild of Stationers, claiming that a harmless lawyer called Pertellis is a deadly radical, who runs the clandestine press which the Guild is attempting to shut down. In the process Clent makes of Pertellis another popular hero ideally suited to supply the theory behind Blythe’s insurrection (and the theory he provides consists of the writings of Quillam Mye in defence of free speech). Clent’s letter falls into the hands of the Guild of Locksmiths, bringing them together (through circuitous routes) with their bitter rivals, the Guild of Stationers, as well as Blythe, Pertellis and Clent, in a floating coffee-house full of radicals, the Laurel Bower. The name of the coffee house connects it with poetry, of which Clent is a professed practitioner. And thus the web of Clent’s ‘way with words’, as Mosca puts it, comes full circle, confirming him as the disheveled Virgil, so to speak, of Hardinge’s farcical epic, and as the unacknowledged catalyst of insurrection.

Clent, then, has a kind of weight despite his comic appearance – and I’m not just referring to his physical corpulence. At the beginning of the book Kohlrabi identified him as dangerous, and by the end it’s clear the young Birdcatcher was right, since it’s Clent and Mosca between them who bring him down. Words, then, when used in the anarchic but expert way Clent has with them, can make things happen, for all Kohlrabi’s contempt for them as weightless objects, window panes that let light through but have no substance. Farce and pastiche, too, of which Clent is also a practitioner, can make real things happen. The marriage house where Clent stays, for instance – a semi-legal site where people get tied in bands of holy matrimony when the church refuses to tie them – plays an integral part in the improvised plot that leads to the fall of Lady Tamarind and the Duke: it’s here that Kohlrabi frames Clent for Partridge’s murder, the act that leads in a roundabout way to Mosca’s discovery of the clandestine press. And for all the absurdity of the ceremonies conducted in it, for all the Whitehall farces it encourages and takes part in, the marriage house also stands for something real as well as a fantasy, a tissue of dreams. One of its denizens, the young wedding-cake-maker who becomes Mosca’s friend and ally, learns about love there, a discovery that acquires substance in her romance with a young apprentice. Romance, like words, like poetry, like friendship, like loyalty, like truth, can be a source of joy as well as of danger. Nothing in this book is just one thing, and the lightest, most casual deployment of words can form part of a movement, can bring down tyrannies or shore them up.

Frances-HardingeI suspect that this is where, for me, Hardinge’s first novel intersects with the fantastic. Fantasy is a genre that has been consistently marginalized as a form of entertainment, branded as merely popular, merely escapist – much like farce, or its barely respectable parent, comedy. Hardinge’s novel affiliates itself with marginal people and popular fantasies, broadly defined, of every stripe: ballads, thrillers, detective novels, romances, fairy tales, farces, pamphlets, religious cults. To bring all these ingredients together in a coherent plot is an act of ingenuity. To make that plot a serious one, with political weight, would seem impossible. This is what she achieves; and in doing so she affirms my conviction that the fantastic, for all its lightness, is where we live, and that we must pay close attention to it if we don’t want it either to dull our minds or to be stolen from us by the forces of darkness.

They exist, those forces. We have them in us as well as around us, like Clent and Mosca, who are spies as well as heroes, traitors as well as resisters of tyranny. Thanks to Hardinge’s marvelously light but intricate novels, we now have the means to see more clearly how those forces work. We had better read her books if we want to know how the farcical and quasi-fantastic political events of 2016 could possibly have happened.

 

Notes

[1] Choughs too feed on detritus, above all manure; hence the poor reputation these birds enjoyed in the time of Shakespeare. So the citizens of Chough are more closely related to Mosca than they might have liked.

Inward Exile in Frances Browne’s Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856)

190px-Frances_Browne_7Frances Browne (1816-1879) is a writer I’d like to know much more about. Born the daughter of the Postmaster of Stranorlar in Donegal, known in her lifetime as the ‘Blind Poetess of Ulster’, she made herself a voyager of the mind, who loved the works of Byron, Dante, Scott and Homer, and who traveled to Edinburgh and London at the height of the Famine to earn a living – and that of her family – by writing stories, essays, poems and reviews for magazines, as well as three novels. Her most famous work is Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856), a collection of fairy tales written after she came to London. This exists in two versions that I know of: a simplified edition containing four stories bound together by a simple frame narrative, which looks like a clumsy redaction for small children; and a more stylistically sophisticated version, with longer words, longer sentences and longer paragraphs, containing seven stories and a much expanded frame. To me the longer version reads as both a trenchant analysis of the state of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and an ambitious work of art. These claims might seem grandiose given the book’s modest length and its faithful adherence to the language and conventions of the Victorian fairy tale; but I hope to make a case for it in these notes.

5140362346_a27b7d731b_bIn a letter quoted at the beginning of her first book of poems, The Star of Attéghéi (1844), Browne goes into detail about her education: how she persuaded her siblings to read to her in return for doing their chores; how she learned the location of distant countries by tracing the map with her fingers, beginning in a place she knew well and asking a sighted helper to name the places her fingertips passed until they reached the country in question; how she devoured history books and newspaper reports in her thirst to know the world, and learned novels and poems by heart in her thirst to expand her imaginative horizons. The Star of Attéghéi is packed with evidence of these mental travels. The two most ambitious poems it contains are a national epic set in Circassia, which gives the book its title, and ‘The Vision of Schwartz’, which tells the story of the twelfth-century German alchemist who invented gunpowder and who is afforded visions, by a spirit, of its drastic impact on world history. Other poems follow emigrants into exile from their homes in Ireland, Arabia, Canaan, Egypt, France, and the lands of the Cherokee people; her lifelong interest in the subject may have arisen from the fact that her father was the local emigration officer for several shipping lines to America and Australia. Browne finds in countries far from home echoes of the sufferings of her own; her Circassian epic begins and ends with an appeal to the bards of Ireland to sing something similar about the quest for ‘glory, love and liberty’ in Irish history. At the same time, many of her poems are about isolation, featuring a succession of male and female Robinson Crusoes (the introduction tells us this was one of the books her parents owned, along with the travels of the Scottish explorer Mungo Parke). One gets the impression that loneliness was an experience Browne knew well, despite the size of the family she grew up in.

A striking example of Browne’s poetry of isolation is ‘The Australian Emigrant’, in which a young girl on a ship bound for Melbourne laments that she has never felt at home, not even in Ireland. The story has a verse frame in which the stage is set for the girl’s song, which is in a different metre and includes this stanza:

Oh! MAN may grieve to sever
From the hearth or from the soil, –
For still some hope, some right, was his,
Which lived through want and toil; –
The dwellers of the forest,
They mourn their leafy lair; –
But why should WOMAN weep her land?
She has no portion there.
Woe – woe for deeds of worth,
That were only paid with ill! –
For to her the homes of earth
Are the house of bondage, still!

Here the girl expresses her disenfranchisement in a verse form widely used in Presbyterian hymns of the sort familiar to Browne from her upbringing (rhymed ABCB, with lines one, two and four in trimeter and line three for the most part in tetrameter). Such hymns were widely sung in households as well as churches, and the form’s association with communal singing gives an ironic contrast with the poem’s subject: a sense of exclusion that culminates in the young girl’s death. The girl’s song expresses a concept which pervades Browne’s work: that of what might be called inward exile, whereby a person feels herself to have been effectively displaced or marginalized by their local community or family. The resulting sense of home as a house of bondage is felt by the protagonists of both sexes in most of the stories in Granny’s Wonderful Chair, and while ‘The Australian Emigrant’ associates the experience with women, it could also be read as a direct consequence of living in a colonized country, at a time when British imperialism offered as a solution to domestic slavery the opportunity to travel around the globe in any direction – without ever finding a final escape from the ideological clutches of a global Empire.

Frances-Browne-Grannys-Wonderful-Chair-ills-DAs a result of its focus on inward exile and the outward migrations to which it gives rise, Granny’s Wonderful Chair offers an interesting perspective on the tendency of Victorian children’s literature, as considered by Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn in Children’s Fantasy Literature, to focus on enclosed domestic spaces. Levy and Mendlesohn see this tendency as driven by the desire to protect children by containing their imaginative and intellectual wanderings within a safely limited environment. For Browne, by contrast, the domestic space is very far from safe. It’s the location of abuse, neglect, hunger and child labour, and indoctrinates its child inhabitants in the necessity for travel – much as Browne’s own upbringing taught her to value migration (though there is no evidence that she was either abused or neglected). Home is not home for her heroes and heroines, and most of them set out to seek their fortune in classic fairy tale fashion, their restlessness echoing that of the Irish people in the mid-nineteenth century, who emigrated in their millions in the face of hunger and oppression.

i088Like Browne’s first book of poems, then, Granny’s Wonderful Chair is a peripatetic miscellany; but unlike the earlier volume – and in classic fairy tale fashion – the start and end points of the travels it describes are never specified. Instead each story begins by locating itself at a certain point of the compass: north, east, south, west, and then again west, west and north, as if in deference to Browne’s bias towards her own origins in the far north west of Ireland. These compass bearings imply that the collection takes place within a clearly defined topography, like the island of Ireland divided into many small kingdoms; and the work of the various protagonists and their families in each story – spinning, weaving, cobbling, shepherding, pig-keeping, fishing, fiddling, and so on – would have been familiar to Irish readers from their local communities. The presence of fairies in the landscape also associates the land with Ireland (though one of the fairies has the name Robin Goodfellow, which may make him more English than Irish), and there are a number of other links I’ll touch on later. At the same time the namelessness of the land makes it universal, a land of the mind, so that the travels it contains could be inward as much as outward ones; and indeed many of the stories in the collection are concerned with inward matters: the healing of a broken state of mind, for instance, or the reuniting of divided families. Granny’s Wonderful Chair, then, shows everywhere Browne’s preoccupation with the psychological as well as the material causes of alienation, and with bringing the experience of the world to bear on the particular troubles of the Irish.

3e948ac74967f477f9575b60c24bb625If the main characters in Granny’s Wonderful Chair find their homes unhomely, its narratives are also full of authority figures who spend little time at home: absentee landlords like the Irish landowners lampooned by Maria Edgeworth in Castle Rackrent (1800). Interestingly, each of these absentees is represented as a much-loved figure whose return is yearned for rather than dreaded. The frame narrative, for instance, tells of a poverty-stricken girl called Snowflower whose grandmother sets off on her travels, leaving her alone with only a magic chair for company. Luckily the chair is capable of telling her stories and transporting her physically as well as mentally anywhere she chooses – a metaphor, perhaps, for the books and stories Browne encountered in her own childhood. Snowflower makes her way in the chair to the court of King Winwealth, whose country has gone to rack and ruin since the unexplained disappearance of another much-loved figure, the King’s brother Prince Wisewit. The chair regales King Winwealth with stories to take his mind off his melancholy on account of his brother’s departure; and one of these stories again tells of absenteeism. ‘The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’ concerns a pair of much-loved local lords who disappear from their estates, leaving their children and tenants to be abused by their grasping stewards. In each case the lost authority figures have been kept away for reasons beyond their control, and their eventual return is greeted with delight by dependants who have been badly treated by the lost lords’ substitutes.

Alongside these physical absentees, many of Browne’s stories tell of rulers who are inwardly absent, thanks to depression or dissatisfaction of some kind, and whose misery makes their subjects miserable – psychological absentee landlords, so to speak. King Winwealth is one, and another is the king in the chair’s first story, ‘who had lately fallen into ill-humour because a neighbouring princess, with seven islands for her dowry, would not marry his eldest son’. The king of the mer-people in the sixth story is similarly discontent because a fisherman will not marry one of his daughters, and because the young man also refuses to tempt other mortals into visiting the underwater kingdom, which thrives on riches purloined from humans and their ships. The seventh and final story, which concerns a boy called Merrymind with a magic fiddle, again tells of a land made wretched by its ruler: in this case a lady called Dame Dreary with a dress of a ‘dingy drab colour’, ‘iron-grey’ hair and a ‘sour and gloomy’ face, whose subjects work unremittingly from dawn to sunset, unable to take a break until the spell of gloom is lifted from their dismal despot. In these unhappy kingdoms cheerfulness is more valuable than gold: Snowflower’s uncomplaining good humour as she retires to the meanest rooms in King Winwealth’s palace after regaling the King with tales; the optimism of the cobbler in the first story, who is granted the gift of merriment by the ‘Christmas Cuckoo’ of the title, and uses it to cheer up another king; young Merrymind in the final story, whose name denotes his disposition, and who liberates Dame Dreary and her people from their collective depression with the help of his enchanted violin. Songs and stories are a partial remedy, at least, for the psychological condition that leads to inward exile; and both are set in opposition to the lust for personal gain that drives the stories’ antagonists.

14802668033_a4041a7a9dIn Browne’s world, then, art is effective – it does work in the world and helps to change it. The stories told by the chair cheer up both King Winwealth and his people, as well as bringing financial security to Snowflower (just as Browne’s first collection of poems brought financial support to her, in the form of a small pension awarded by Robert Peele). The art of conversation and the disbursement of good advice, as practised by the cobbler Spare in the chair’s first story, teach another king and his court to share in Spare’s magical gift of merriment. Merrymind’s fiddle brings ‘the sound of merriment’ to the whole of Dame Dreary’s valley and teaches its inhabitants how to enjoy themselves outside working hours. Each of these works of verbal and musical art have a similar effect to the Irish tradition of song as celebrated by Browne in her most famous poem, ‘Songs of Our Land’, first published in the Irish Penny Journal in 1841. In the poem, Irish songs are praised as a kind oral archive, a repository of suppressed cultural information which endures from generation to generation, in marked contrast to the ‘power and the splendour’ of imperial thrones that ‘pass away’ and are forgotten along with their occupants. For Browne, songs preserve among the Irish people the thoughts of their ‘poets and sages’, keeping alive the ‘spirit of freedom’ in times of servitude and destitution. They also impart the sense of a stable identity to ‘wanderers through distance and danger’: emigrants, in other words, like Snowflower, or the cobbler Spare, or the boy Fairyfoot in the fourth story, who finds his way to the hidden land of the fairies, or the fisherman who journeys to the merfolk’s kingdom, or Merrymind, who leaves his home because his family has no time for him – apart from his mother (his mother also happens to be the only person apart from himself with any confidence in the possibilities for future employment represented by his fiddle). Each of these protagonists has an artistic gift. Fairyfoot, for instance, is a passionate dancer, while the fisherman Civil who visits the merfolk has the gift of the gab, as he tells a captive mortal woman when she asks him to help her escape from the submarine kingdom: ‘Fair speeches brought me here,’ he points out, ‘and fair speeches may help me back, but be sure I will not go without you’. Evidently stories, good advice, dancing, eloquence and wordless musicianship have much the same effect on these heroes and those who meet them as the songs in Browne’s poem, giving them a sense of community in troubled times – supplying them, in fact, with a portable home in their state of inward or outward exile.

zpage063If the rulers who remain at home in these stories are invariably inward exiles, so too (as I’ve suggested) are the stories’ protagonists: the boys and girls who set out to seek their fortune, some of whom we’ve already encountered. Before setting out the bulk of these young people already feel profoundly alienated. Merrymind is mocked by his father and siblings for his attachment to a fiddle he at first cannot play. Fairyfoot is derided by his large-footed family for the dainty size of his feet. In ‘The Christmas Cuckoo’, the cobbler Spare finds himself successively isolated in different communities: first his brother abandons him for not being sufficiently prosperous; he’s then looked down upon at the royal court for continuing to wear shabby clothes, in spite of the wealth he has gained from the monarch’s patronage; the king then loses interest in him when he loses his magical ability to make him cheerful; and Spare only finds a place for himself when he returns to the humble cottage where he first encountered the Christmas Cuckoo, and where he showed his community spirit by feeding it through the winter until it was strong enough to take flight in early spring. The young heroine in ‘Childe Charity’ is despised by her relatives after her parents’ death, as are the children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles in the second story. If the ruling classes in each of these stories are disconnected from the lands they govern, their adult subjects and tenants are equally disconnected from their young dependants, showing no appreciation for the arts they practise or the generosity and good manners the children treasure.

zpage110The sense that the people of Browne’s alternative Ireland have lost their culture, and that it can be restored to them only with difficulty, is reinforced by the fact that entire races have gone into a kind of internal exile in the wildest parts of the country. Fairyfoot makes friends (as his name suggests he will) with the fairies, who live in hiding from other mortals because – as Robin Goodfellow tells him – ‘we and the people of this country have had no friendship ever since large feet came in fashion’. The abused children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles find their way to the woodland home of a mysterious replacement mother, Lady Greensleeves, who has similarly been forgotten by the rest of humankind, and who helps them because she is lonely and likes their company. A similarly green-clad figure is at the centre of ‘The Greedy Shepherd’: a mysterious old man with the power to turn sheep into wolves to set them free when they have been mistreated. Meanwhile the fairies in ‘The Story of Childe Charity’ have cut themselves off from mortals in direct response to their selfish behaviour: the young girl of the title is taken to Fairyland as a unique piece of evidence that there are ‘good people still to be found in these false and greedy times’. The most prominent fairy folk in the story of Merrymind are ‘two fair maidens, all in white spinning on silver wheels, and singing together a blithe and pleasant tune like the larks on May-morning’. Known as the Night Spinners, they have been segregated from human beings for ‘seven times seven years’, and although we are never directly told this it would seem that what kept them away was the capitalistic self-absorption of Dame Dreary and her subjects. When Merrymind shows his community spirit by gathering firewood to keep them warm, the Night Spinners reward him with golden strings for his broken instrument, and he proceeds to smash the spell of glumness over the land by playing the tunes he heard them singing. The effect of these tunes is similar to the effect of the ‘Happy March’ at the end of James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912) – a collective liberation from alienated labour; and it’s worth considering the following passage by Browne as a possible influence on Stephens’s famous vision of liberation at the end of that novel:

The men paused in their delving; the women stopped their scrubbing; the little children dropped their work; and every one stood still in their places while Merrymind and his fiddle passed on. When he came to the castle, the coopers cast down their tools in the court; the churning and cheese-making ceased in the banquet hall; the looms and spinning-wheels stopped in the principal chambers; and Dame Dreary’s distaff stood still in her hand […] That night the fairies danced on the hill-tops; and the night-spinners, with their silver wheels, were seen by every hearth, and no more in the deserted cottage.

James Stephens is also worth thinking about in relation to another theme of Browne’s: hunger. Browne left Ireland for Edinburgh at the time of the Great Hunger, and it’s hunger that drives young Snowflower to leave her grandmother’s cottage on the magic chair – indirectly leading her to great good fortune at the court of King Winwealth. The cobbler Spare’s continual cheerfulness in the face of hunger is what first draws a melancholy lord to him as he is ‘gathering watercresses at a meadow stream’ – bereft of any other food source, like King Sweeney. Later in the story, the sign that Spare’s brother Scrub has inherited the gift of merriment is his utter contentment in the face of near starvation: he and his wife live only on wild birds’ eggs and berries after he obtains the gift. The abused children of the lost ‘Lords of the Grey and White Castles’ have only a barley loaf and some sour milk ‘to serve them for breakfast, dinner, and supper’, and their search for their fathers leaves them hungrier still. But like other fairy tale protagonists, and unlike the other characters in Browne’s book, these children are under a strict injunction from Lady Greensleeves not to eat or drink anything that’s given them on their travels; and this advice saves them from falling under the spell of the malevolent fairy lord who enchanted their fathers by giving them enchanted wine. Their willingness to suffer hunger, in other words, saves them from enslavement. Childe Charity gains the good will of the fairies for giving an old woman her supper, saving for herself only the scrapings of the pots in her abusive family’s kitchen. Meanwhile, plenty to eat continues to be the sign of servitude or entrapment. The fisherman Civil is unhappy in the sea-people’s kingdom because there is no end there of ‘fun and feasting’ – he concludes that ‘Fishing would have been easier than those everlasting feasts’ – and meets a fellow mortal who has been trapped there for many years. Merrymind rejects the offer of food from a surly giant in favour of wandering free and hungry around Dame Dreary’s land. Stephens, too, identifies hunger as a mark of solidarity among the poor, and contrasts the unspoken code that all poor people on Irish roads must share whatever they have to eat with one another with the psychological torment suffered by the servants of capitalism, as represented by two disembodied voices speaking out of the darkness in a police cell. For Stephens, this code of sharing food provides a template for the simple, egalitarian laws that will govern a future Ireland, unshackled at last from its prosperous and selfish imperial neighbour. Browne’s book implies something similar – though its vision of Irish liberation isn’t in the end as optimistic as that of Stephens, not surprisingly, perhaps, given the suppression of the Young Irelander rebellion in 1848, and the temporary absence after that of an alternative independence movement.

i071Throughout Granny’s Wonderful Chair the notion of the restoration of Irish identity is invoked by many means. The absent, loved lords in several stories have as much in common with the idealized Irish kings of legend as with the absentee landlords satirized by Edgeworth. The hidden fairies, with whom a succession of protagonists achieve reconciliation, bear a family resemblance to the Sídhe. More importantly, Snowflower’s storytelling invests her with a place in King Winwealth’s palace and helps to draw a new community around her. For each story the chair narrates Snowflower finds herself rewarded with a new item of clothing, better sleeping quarters and nicer food; each time the king wishes to hear another story he sends a more exalted page to find her. By the final chapter she is fully clothed in fine new garments, while in the course of the chapter the King’s unpleasant wife Wantall and daughter Greedalind disappear for ever down a gold mine, to be replaced at the monarch’s side by the long-lost Prince Wisewit and Snowflower’s grandmother. Both Wisewit and the grandmother, Frostyface, are connected with the chair of the book’s title, which may stand for Irish culture as celebrated in Browne’s poem ‘Songs of Our Land’: the chair belongs to the former, while the latter turns out to have been the owner of the magical voice that told the stories, trapped in a velvet cushion by a malignant fairy. The name of the fairy, Fortunetta, associates her with money rather than good fortune – a lesser, more grasping kind of fortune than the other kind, as the diminutive implies. Wisewit is liberated from his imprisonment in the cushion, ironically enough, by the efforts of Winwealth’s money-grubbing wife and daughter to secure the gift of storytelling for themselves. There’s an allegory, here, of the Irish artist’s need to retain her imaginative independence from her paymasters, whose acquisitive impulse is dictated by a desire for personal gain rather than the needs of the wider community. And in Browne’s book, imaginative independence helps to build a happy nation. Snowflower’s personal good fortune brings good fortune to King Winwealth’s people, whose new-found prosperity is best exemplified, Browne suggests, by their new-found freedom of movement: on his return as his brother’s adviser Wisewit makes ‘a highway through the forest, that all good people might come and go there at their leisure’, while the malignant fairy Fortunetta leaves the country in an ill-tempered gesture of self-imposed exile: ‘finding that her reign was over in those parts, [she] set off on a journey round the world, and did not return in the time of this story’. It’s an attractive thought that travel should be for Browne as much the sign of happiness at the end of the book as it was of misery at the beginning.

But the happy ending of Granny’s Wonderful Chair is not allowed to stand. Having conjured up a happy, prosperous kingdom, Browne promptly erases it again, much as George MacDonald did with the happy kingdom ruled over by Princess Irene and her miner-husband in The Princess and Curdie. ‘Good boys and girls, who may chance to read [this book],’ Browne tells us,

that time is long ago. Great wars, work, and learning, have passed over the world since then, and altered all its fashions. Kings make no seven-day feasts for all comers now. Queens and princesses, however greedy, do not mine for gold. Chairs tell no tales. Wells work no wonders; and there are no such doings on hills and forests, for the fairies dance no more. Some say it was the hum of schools—some think it was the din of factories that frightened them; but nobody has been known to have seen them for many a year, except, it is said, one Hans Christian Andersen, in Denmark, whose tales of the fairies are so good that they must have been heard from the fairies themselves.

front1Wars, schools and factories are the machinery of Empire, and the noise they make, Browne suggests, is capable of drowning out the songs and tales of colonized nations. But they persist, and she has heard them through the hubbub, like her mentor Andersen. Like him she has made their magic available to new generations. And she is not a singular instance of the sort of person who can hear old stories handed down from ancient times; this is a collective capability, and has helped to generate in some of its possessors a political conviction. ‘There are people who believe,’ she tells us, that the spell which has again trapped Prince Wisewit in the form of a storytelling mouth, a common item of household furniture, can again be broken, and that when that happens ‘the prince will make all things right again, and bring back the fairy times to the world’. This ending, with its sudden shift of focus from the realm of literary fairy tales to the ‘real’ world of the reader, throws into relief the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist allegory that has been implicit throughout the book in the names of the characters. It links storytelling to revolution through the person of Prince Wisewit. It’s an opening out of the collection’s ending rather than a shutting down: a promise that the active art we have encountered in Browne’s stories may also have its effect outside the limits of her book. And it’s a promise that the stories she has told will continue to travel through time till what they describe – the return of the prince – becomes reality, and home is made homely at last for the Irish people.

W. W. Tarn, The Treasure of the Isle of Mist (1919)

UnknownHere’s a charming oddity: a children’s book published in 1919, written before the outbreak of the Great War by the celebrated classical scholar Sir William Woodthorpe Tarn for the entertainment of his only daughter. In later life his daughter became Otta Swire, the Hebridean folklorist, who lived in Orbost House near Dunvegan in the north of the Isle of Skye; and the novel features Otta herself under the name of Fiona, with her father as ‘the Student’ (her mother, Flora MacDonald, has unaccountably vanished from the family circle). Tarn writes in his introduction to the 1938 edition that he told the story to the fifteen-year-old Otta in the winter of 1913-14 when she was ill, and it’s the age of the story’s protagonist that sets it apart from other children’s fantasy literature of the period. It’s very specifically a book about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and as such is an early precursor of the young adult fiction that came into its own in the 1970s. It’s also a precursor of later children’s fantasy in several other ways worth mentioning.

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The Professor in Mistress Masham’s Repose

In the first place, it’s a learned book, two at least of whose characters are eccentric scholars with a taste for philosophy – something that links them with the two philosophers in James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912). The Student, who spends much of his time regaling his daughter Fiona with sage advice in the comfort of his reading room, also anticipates the scholarly gurus of later children’s fantasy: in particular the poverty-stricken Professor in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) – himself a reincarnation of White’s Merlin – and Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). His conversations with his fellow scholar, an entomologist whose scientific interests focus exclusively on ‘one particular family of coleoptera’ (47), unmistakably resemble the dialogue at cross purposes of Stephens’s Philosopher brothers:

the two would sit, one on either side of the fire, each smoking at a tremendous pace and talking hard on his own subject. Neither ever expected an answer from the other; neither ever got one. But they had silently established an unwritten law that when one had talked for three minutes by the clock on the mantelpiece he was to stop and let the other have a turn; and when at last they said good-night, each felt they had both had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. (48)

Crucially, too, like Stephens’s Philosophers, both men are thoroughly democratic in their quest for knowledge. The beetle scholar finds the most modest creepy crawly in creation fascinating, while the Student embraces everything in his conversation, from human evolution to the relationships between men and birds, from the grand wars and controversies of ancient history to the complex web of global myth and legend. His mind is a kind of living Golden Bough which sees connections between the stories and deeds of all people, whatever their apparent ‘primitiveness’ and whatever age they lived in. And it’s his impartial concern for insignificant people – indeed, his somewhat paternalistic sense of responsibility for them – that sets Tarn’s story in motion.

7389550-LThe story takes its origin from a moment in the Student’s youth – recollected in the book’s first chapter – when he altruistically defended a wandering hawker from an unprovoked attack by Bashi-bazouks – irregular Ottoman soldiers – in the town of Verria, in what is now Macedonia. While on the one hand this episode might be seen as an instance of anti-Turkish xenophobia, a typical Boy’s Own Paper exercise in imperialist machismo, on the other it could also be read as a courageous act of defiance against a colonial oppressor (Macedonia was part of the Ottoman empire), especially in view of the fact that the hawker’s race, class and nationality, like his age, remain a mystery. The Student’s defence of him, then, can serve as an instance of his innate humaneness and impartiality, the equivalent in action of his universal interest in the knowledge of all races and nations, and of his desire to communicate this knowledge impartially to the young of both genders, especially his daughter. And the sudden reappearance of the hawker at the beginning of the novel places this sense of democratic impartiality squarely at the centre of the narrative that follows.

The hawker is never named, but his identity as a magical wanderer between nations and epochs – he seems to be immortal – allies him not only with the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew but with those mysterious wanderers of later children’s fiction, the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlins in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) and ‘the Walker’ Hawkin in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973). I’ve pointed out elsewhere that the names of Hawlins and Hawkin link them; this book suggests that both names might take their origins from the hawker, whose name denotes his trade (at the beginning of the book he is selling buttons). Tarn’s wanderer might also be read as a figure for the migration of myth and folklore from one culture to another – or for the affinities between cultures embodied in the more or less identical myths and legends that have sprung up independently in different cultures across the globe. Tarn’s own interest in the links between seemingly disparate cultures found an outlet in his book on the relationship between ancient Greece and Asia, The Greeks in Bactria and India (1938), stimulated by his more celebrated work on the life and times of Alexander the Great. His hawker changes identity several times as the novel goes on, and in the process becomes a hinge connecting what Tarn calls ‘All the lost peoples and nations and languages’ of the world. As a result, of course, he also becomes associated with the dead, like Peter Pan (who is said at one point to lead children to whatever happens after death) or the fairies in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). And he thus becomes associated with Tarn’s and the Student’s learning, which concerns itself first and foremost with the dead – but seeks too to bring them alive by any means possible, in the case of The Treasure of the Isle of Mist through the medium of a fantasy or modern-day fairy story told to a decidedly modern girl.

Prince-Caspian-C.S.Lewis-bookplate-10-e1453974023829It’s Tarn’s concern with the links between cultures that connects his novel in yet another way with The Crock of Gold. The book combines classical with Celtic and other elements of myth and folklore, in a manner that anticipates Lewis’s exuberant fusion of elements in the Narnian chronicles. James Stephens introduced both Pan and Angus Og into his novel, and his fellow Irishman Lewis introduced both Bacchus and the knights, witches and werewolves of medieval romance in the second novel in the Narnia sequence, Prince Caspian (1951). Like Lewis, Tarn summons up the memory of Dryads and Naiads, the Grecian spirits of trees and the sea, in one episode of his novel, adding to these an Oread – the spirit of a mountain – whose heart is wakened, as the tree spirits are wakened in Prince Caspian, by the courage of a young girl. Unlike the novels of Stephens and Lewis, however, this is a book that’s deeply rooted in the specificities of an actual place and time. It’s very definitely set in and around Orbost House, as Tarn points out in his introduction, and these local associations were intensified in the 1938 edition by restoring the actual names to features of the island landscape to which he had given invented names in 1919. A major attraction of the book is its very accurate representation of the details of the Skye landscape in October, its flora and fauna, the constantly changing weather from which the island gets its name, the habits of its human and avian inhabitants. He delights in assigning birds and other creatures their Scottish names: ‘scart’ for a young cormorant, ‘solan’ for a gannet, ‘finner’ for a fin whale, ‘glede’ for a kite. These details, combined with the magical happenings which Tarn represents as native to the Hebridean context, link the novel to the folkloric narratives of place that proliferated in children’s fantasy after the Second World War – in particular the work of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. That some of these links with post-war fantasy might be attributed in part to Tarn’s influence is suggested by the fact that it was a popular book between the ’30s and ’50s, reprinted by Oxford University Press – which probably appreciated its scholarly content – at least three times in the period (it’s the 1959 edition in which I’ve read it).

Despite its links with later fiction, the book is decidedly of its period in certain respects. Its heroine embarks on a small-scale adventure of a very familiar kind in the first half of the twentieth century – a treasure hunt – with the rather unhelpful assistance of a younger boy known only as The Urchin; and though there are hints that this adventure is part of a larger story, and though it would have been easy for Tarn to have raised the stakes for which Fiona is playing, there’s little sense at any point that either she, the Urchin, their families or the culture they live in are in much danger; indeed at one point she becomes upset by the lack of concern her father shows over the Urchin’s sudden disappearance, an indifference on his part which assures the reader that the mystery will be soon explained. (For the ‘dramatic increase in the import of the adventures’ in children’s fantasy after the Second World War see Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), chapter 5, p. 102.) Fiona always has an adult guide of some sort in her adventures, her father being the chief of these; and Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn have demonstrated how universally such adult guides were provided for child adventurers in pre-war fantasy. The Student’s control over events is reinforced by the fact that he happens to be a landowner (albeit an impoverished one), with hereditary rights over much of the territory where Fiona stages her treasure hunt. More significantly, Fiona’s adventures are clearly informed every step of the way by her father’s passion (which is also Tarn’s) for ancient history, palaeography, natural history and philosophy. The hunt takes her into a fairy land possessing all the components which James Frazer or Jane Harrison would have expected. It culminates in a trial attended by all the vanished peoples the Student – Tarn himself – strove to resurrect through his research. And the trial involves an ethical question of the kind the ancient Greek philosophers would have relished, depending on a riddle straight out of folklore: what is the greatest treasure a human being could seek for? The answer we’re given is a scholar’s answer: the search itself. And having found it, Fiona also finds herself on the path to the kind of mythical/folkloric learning for which the girl she was based on, Otta Swire née Tarn, became famous.

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The trial scene in A Matter of Life and Death

The trial that culminates the story makes for an intriguing climax. It has a great deal in common with the trial at the climax of Powell and Pressburger’s best known movie, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), taking place as it does in a fairyland whose symbol is the flower of death – ‘the pallid asphodel whose home is in those other meadows where walk the pallid dead’ – and which is populated by the world’s dead (the movie deals with the trial of a British airman by spirits in the Second World War, and there is extensive reference in it to the medical effects of concussion, as there is in the book). The fairy witnesses present at the novel’s trial are both a motley throng to rival anything in a painting by Joseph Paton or Richard Dadd and a truly global assembly, which could only have been conjured out of the omnivorous mind of a true internationalist:

There were fairies of the Old Stone peoples, brave-eyed, clad in pelts of the sabre-tooth, bearing the blade-bones of bisons on which were carved pictures of the mammoth and the reindeer. Fairies from Egypt, clad in fine white linen with girdles and aquamarine, with fillets round their brows from which the golden uraeus lifted its snake’s head, bearing blossoms of the blue lotus. Fairies from Babylon, glowing in coats of scarlet or of many colours, their eyes deep with immemorial learning, bearing clay tablets on which were signs like the footprints of birds. […] Fairies of the Tuatha-dé, with all the youth of the world in their eyes, clad in robes of saffron, crowned with rowans and bearing harps. (118-9)

The casual learning employed in gathering this particular fairy host together fuses childhood dreams of fairyland with the dreams of scholars as Tarn describes them near the beginning of the novel. On meeting the Student the supernatural hawker tells him that as well as buttons he also peddles in dreams, but that he can do nothing for scholars because they already possess all the dreams a man could wish for: ‘You need no dreams, for your life is one. For you, the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’ (14). Instead, then, of offering the Student a gift from his pack, the hawker offers a gift to Fiona, whose fondness for the Student is the one great ‘justification’, as the hawker puts it, for her father’s existence. But by the end of the book the kind of magic offered by the hawker – the quest for a supernatural treasure – would seem to have been supplanted, for Fiona at least, by the equally potent magic of manuscripts, logical argument, the findings of modern science, and archaeological digs. Like the children in Lewis’s Narnia books, the protagonist of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and the mortal girls and boys of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Fiona realizes in the closing pages that she has got too old to fraternize with fairies. Instead she gains full and permanent imaginative access to the Island of Mists itself, which is the place she lives in, Skye – and all the historical, literary and scientific associations it brings with it. As the hawker tells her, in the course of her treasure hunt:

You have spoken face to face with bird and beast and with the beings who knew and loved the land before your race was. To-day you have the freedom of the island, and of all living things in it; they are your friends for ever. And to the dead in its graveyards you are kin. All that is there has passed into your blood, the old lost loves, the old impossible loyalties, the old forgotten heroisms and tendernesses; all these are yours; and yours are the songs that were sung long ago, and the tales which were told by the fireside; and the deeds of the men and women of old have become part of you. (148-9)

This invocation is a kind of spell bequeathing Fiona and the book’s young readers the magic of learning. It’s a learning that recognizes the link between the living land and the library book, affirmed in the novel by Fiona’s encounter in her garden with a philosophical yellow caterpillar whose close friend is a bookworm in the library of Orbost House. And it’s a learning that effortlessly associates Skye with Macedonia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Ireland – no parochial scholarship, in other words. As I mentioned earlier, the hawker said at the beginning that for scholars ‘the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’, and the book as it unfolds suggests that the ‘earth’ here should be taken both for the globe as a whole, with all its history, and for the local soil from which Fiona digs the caterpillar, and that the ‘treasure’ is as much woodcocks, finners and gledes as it is the knowledge of lost lives and literatures.

The signal that Fiona is well on the way to acquiring such learning and thus becoming a scholar like her father is her ability to ‘influence’ another young mind, in exactly the way her mind has been influenced by the Student’s historical knowledge and humane philosophy. At the climax of the trial she projects her mind into the Urchin’s and persuades him to make the right wish in response to an invitation from the fairies: the wish that his unpleasant Uncle Jeconiah, who is one of the accused, be acquitted and returned to his ordinary mortal existence, despite his earlier blithe disregard for the Urchin’s welfare. This altruistic wish, implanted in the Urchin’s mind by Fiona’s influence, is the precise opposite of what Jeconiah considers his philosophy: ‘do good to your friends and evil to those who stand in your way’ (49). Tarn tells us in the fourth chapter that ‘the philosophy of ethics took its rise, some twenty-two centuries ago, in a reaction against a similar rule’ (49), and Fiona’s rescue of Jeconiah in chapter seven embodies just this reaction. She and the Urchin put ethics into practice, and in the process identify themselves with Tarn’s vision of the vanished peoples of the earth who took ethical behaviour as their touchstone, in contrast to their intellectually and emotionally impoverished descendants in the approach to the First World War.

This is where the unexpected seriousness of the novel comes in. At the beginning the hawker asks the scholar, ‘What good do you and your inscriptions do, anyway?’ (15) – and the answer is that the Student has earned the love of his daughter. He has also earned her respect, to the extent that she absorbs his influence. And she in turn influences others: both the Urchin and Uncle Jeconiah, who is much chastened by his trial, show signs of her transformative power in their behaviour by the end of the novel. Learning, then, is in itself beneficial in Tarn’s eyes, though no doubt this depends on how it’s imparted – affection too is needed. On the other hand, it’s also limited in its impact on the world – and Tarn is too much of a philosopher not to see this. The effect on Uncle Jeconiah of his unexpected trip to fairyland, and of Fiona’s and his nephew’s rescue of him, is only temporary: ‘I expect that sort is incurable’ (141), the hawker comments as he watches the man’s wretched attempts to tell his nephew a fairy tale like the one we’ve just read. More poignantly, Fiona’s impact on the Urchin, too, would seem to be limited; and that’s a particularly painful thought when one thinks about the date when the story was first told, in the winter before the outbreak of the Great War.

curlew-flying01llThere are, in fact, three treasures referred to in the book’s title. One is the mysterious gift of the hawker, which turns out to be what he calls the freedom of the isle. Another is a hoard of doubloons, brought to Skye in a ship from the Spanish Armada wrecked on its coast. The first of these treasures is desired by Fiona; the second by the Urchin, inspired by the tales of pirates and British naval victories he has been raised on as a young imperial male. The Urchin decides that the second of these treasures belongs to him, and persuades the Student to sign it over to him should the doubloons be found in one of the caves on the Student’s land. And the boy plans to spend it on something quite incompatible with Fiona’s treasure: a gun. He will use the gun, he tells Fiona, to shoot curlews, and the girl is horrified at this proposition: ‘You little wretch,’ she retorts at once, ‘You won’t kill my curlews while I’m about’ (26). Later, when the Urchin disappears and she goes in quest of him, a living curlew puts in an appearance: ‘a grey bird with a long bill, who on hovering wings wheeled three times in the air above her and gave his full spring call, the most wonderful sound the hills ever hear’ (84). Here the bird is clearly associated both with fairyland (circling three times – the magic number; giving its spring call in October as a sign for Fiona) and with the island, in particular its hills. The Urchin’s murderous intent towards the curlews, then, pits him directly against his mentor, who follows birds instead of shooting them. So too does the Urchin’s habit of flinging stones at other birds (it’s his injuring of a shore lark with a stone that gets him abducted by the fairies, the birds’ protectors). Fiona’s influence is evident in the remorse he feels when he hurts the shore lark; but the question is, is ‘his sort incurable’, like his Uncle?

This, then, is the third treasure of the book’s title: the boy himself, for whom Fiona feels ‘responsible’ in his father’s absence. The Urchin and his Uncle are both in quest of the Spaniards’ treasure rather than the island’s, and the Uncle’s greed for it is a symptom of his materialist, self-serving philosophy – but what is the boy’s? Both the Urchin and his Uncle are put on trial by the fairies for crimes against the island – in the Uncle’s case those of ‘stealing a treasure and being a worthless character’ (128), which marks the distinction between the fairies’ sense of ‘worth’ or value and the values of capitalism; in the boy’s for wounding one of the island’s avian ‘lieges’ (125). In the course of the trial Fiona persuades the boy to forgo his desire for the Spanish treasure and wish instead for his Uncle’s acquittal. But once the Urchin has made his wish, which is in fact hers implanted into his mind by an act of telepathy, he is granted a wish of his own; and he wishes, as he did at the beginning of the novel, for the gun he would have bought with the treasure if he had found it. At the end of the book he is clutching the gun (bought for him, tellingly, by his Uncle) as he listens to the awkward fairy tale which is being related by Jeconiah in fulfilment of the terms of his release. As soon as the Urchin gets some cartridges, he tells the novice storyteller, ‘you won’t keep me here’ (140); in other words he’ll stop listening to stories and set off for the hills instead, looking for birds to shoot. Fiona’s influence, and that of the fairies – the myths and legends of times past – goes only so far and no farther. Given the date of the story’s composition – 1912-13, with the shadow of the guns of war hanging over Europe – the consequences of her lack of influence may well be tragic (the Urchin might well be of age to join up by 1918). Tarn would have been well aware of this by the time the book was published the year after the Great War ended.

The dreams of scholarship, then, for Tarn, are fragile and marginalized, like the island’s ecosystem. At the same time, they may have an effect. When the two mortals – the boy and his uncle – have been acquitted at the end of the trial, there follows a period of companionable peace between Fiona, the Urchin, the King of the Fairies, and the Counsel for the Defence, who is also the Fairy Chancellor; a peace that’s embodied in the act of storytelling:

And the two children sat at the King’s feet on the steps of beryl throne and watched the dancers; and the Chancellor sat between them, and held Fiona’s hand, and told them such stories as they had never heard before, till between laughter and tears they nearly fell off the steps of the throne, and the Chancellor laughed and cried with them for sheer joy of his own story-telling; and if there were three happier people in the world that night I do not know where they were. And the night itself passed away as a dream that men dream, and its hours seemed to them but as a few minutes – and then across the music and the dance cut the shrill scream of a peacock as he greeted the day […] and the beryl throne dissolved in mist, and the figure of the King above them, pointing, grew dim and huge, and spread and grew, a purple shadow that hung over them… and they were standing alone in the fairy ring on Brandersaig, under the purple sky, with the white mist wreathing itself about their feet, and the pale November dawn coming slowly up out of the sea. (136-7)

The concentration of terms associated with the island of mist in this passage – where fairyland dissolves into the Skye landscape, its King becomes the ‘purple sky/Skye’, and the vapour that features in the island’s name envelops the children – reinforces the link between the physical landscape and the trial of human ethics that has taken place within it. Fairyland here resembles a dream, evanescent and temporally disorienting; but so too does the island, which can change its appearance as readily as Fairyland can, and is equally full of wonders. So too do philosophy, history, literature – all the branches of human knowledge with which Fairyland has been identified. As long as Skye exists, then, as the embodiment of Tarn’s dream of scholarly peacefulness (and we might remember here that the story begins with the Student rescuing a stranger from soldiers with the help of an unloaded revolver), there is hope that the dream too can be recaptured and sustained, for a while at least, from time to time.

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Thanks are due to Professor Farah Mendlesohn for drawing my attention to Tarn’s book in her fine essay, ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy: Some Informal Thoughts’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 61-74.

Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction

9781107610293 In their new book Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn have provided a crucial road map to the rapidly expanding territory of children’s fantasy fiction from the nineteenth century to the present. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of an ‘introduction’ like this, in part because of its accessible prose – the book addresses itself to knowledgeable fans as much as to scholars – and in part because, as a survey, it cannot offer close analyses of texts, and the authors can’t allow their material to be constrained by some single overarching thesis. An overview of this material has not been available before, and part of the authors’ self-imposed remit is to ensure good coverage within the limits of a reasonable book length. Even in its own terms there may be difficulties: every reader will notice what to them seem significant omissions from the survey, and some will be inclined as a result to miss the value of the historical patterns being traced in each chapter, failing to notice how seamlessly absent texts can be woven into the story. It’s perhaps only on re-reading that one becomes aware of the book’s extraordinary usefulness, and only by asking some of the questions it doesn’t claim to answer that one begins to see how essential it will be to offering something like a full, coherent and rigorous response.

51Dd2evi4CL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The book is important for three reasons. First, it divides the evolution of children’s fiction into a series of carefully considered thematic and chronological units, giving future commentators a template against which to measure the historical and formal position of texts that interest them. As with Mendlesohn’s essential Rhetorics of Fantasy, that template isn’t meant to ‘account for’ the whole of the field – it’s a starting point for discussion – but now that we have it our engagement with the topic will have a shape and polemical thrust it didn’t have before.

Secondly, the book demonstrates how the parameters and function of children’s literature have changed since the inception of a substantial body of dedicated children’s fiction in the mid nineteenth century, and the role played by fantasy in shaping and responding to these changes. Simply put, Levy and Mendlesohn argue that the age range of the implied readership for children’s literature has gradually increased over the decades to embrace a substantial portion of what was previously classified as early adulthood. By the end of the 1990s Young Adult fiction had emerged as a distinct category within the genre, addressing a mostly middle-class readership which could expect to remain in some form of education or training – that is, subject to ‘an extended delay of full adulthood’, as the authors neatly put it – into its early twenties and beyond. The invention of Young Adult fiction is perhaps the most striking development in the genre in recent decades, and the reasons for its emergence are cogently addressed here. We’ll be arguing over them for years to come, but this book gives us a firm basis for our future arguments.

Thirdly, the book is the most inclusive I know of in terms of its coverage. It concerns itself with English language fiction, and with so-called ‘chapter books’ rather than picture books; but within these constraints it is more global in its reach than anything that’s come out previously, since it deals not only with the largest markets – the American and the British – but with the Antipodean and Canadian markets too, which have never before been so comprehensively embraced in a survey of the field. It also explains why readers in Chicago, Manchester, Wellington and Ottawa are unlikely to have read the same children’s fiction until very recently, and how changes in international trade rules have contributed to changes in our reading habits, including the opportunity to get access to some of the most significant titles from places previously under-represented in our local sales outlets. This particular change has not yet gone very far, despite the massive rise in online purchasing, and kids in Glasgow are still unlikely to read exactly the same texts as their counterparts in Detroit or Brisbane – for many good reasons; hence the value of a book like this, which awakens our awareness of the major texts we’ve missed.

lotr1The introduction sketches out the book’s plan with impressive clarity, and is worth revisiting when you’ve finished reading. The slow emergence of the assumption that fantasy was peculiarly suitable for children is charted in the first chapter, while the second examines the extraordinary outpouring of Victorian fairy tales and narratives of the impossible to the point where ‘the majority of that Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature that has survived is firmly in the fantastical vein’. Chapter three gives an account of the long, slow, difficult birth of fantasy fiction for children in the United States; chapter four returns to British fantasy between the wars; chapters five and six map ‘the changing landscape, social, political and literal, of post-war British and Commonwealth fantasy’; while chapter seven focuses on the work that emerged in the wake of the mass market publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This and the last two chapters, which consider the impact of the Harry Potter phenomenon on children’s fiction of the 1990s (chapter eight) and the two main strands of the new Young Adult fiction – paranormal romance and the ‘fantasy of bitterness and loss’ (chapter nine) – seem to me to be the most powerful in the book, moving with deft precision across what has become a gigantic field and picking out the most significant features of the genre’s expanding geography. There’s a passion present here, too, which builds on the more muted earlier chapters; it’s clear that the authors are genuinely excited by recent fantasy for young readers, and the final words of the introduction sum up this mood with admirable succinctness: ‘we as critics believe that this subgenre [the fantasy of bitterness and loss] includes much of the finest fantasy for any age group currently being written’. The book, then, describes a crescendo, and it’s nice to be told this at the start, so that we can anticipate its revelations of the full scope and stature of the work that’s emerging today, in our own lifetimes – a golden age of the fantastic if ever there was one.

eduardo-teixeira-coelho-tom-thumb-upside-down-1957_i-g-53-5397-amojg00zFrom the beginning, of course, there are assertions here that could be challenged; that’s in the nature of any survey. The statement in the introduction that before the eighteenth century children were taught from textbooks based on mimesis (p. 2) overlooks the centrality of Aesop’s fables to the school curriculum, and chapter one, on the rise of fantasy for children through the ages, omits one of the most influential of early modern school texts, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from consideration. It makes a good case, however, for the fact that texts like these would not have been read, by teachers at least, as what we now call fantasy. The Metamorphoses, for instance, was taught as a quasi-allegorical guide to ancient moral philosophy, science and history, a mode of reading strange tales in relation to the world which later encouraged John Bunyan to present his Christian allegorical romance The Pilgrim’s Progress as a blueprint for action, not an excursion into the fantastic. Again, the claim made in the introduction that folk tales about Robin Hood and Tom Thumb were ‘for the peasantry’ accepts at face value claims made in the texts themselves, and is belied by their ready availability both in expensive manuscript form and print, as well as by the abundant references to them in texts not directed at peasants. It’s also doubtful that they were intended solely for adults. Richard Johnson charmingly describes his The History of Tom Thumb (1621) as for all age groups, in a passage that associates the tiny hero with rural labourers who wouldn’t for the most part have had access to the printed pamphlet in which it occurs:

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?

The passage, together with the many references to folk tales in works of art intended for the educated elite – from Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale to Peele’s play The Old Wives’ Tale to the many sophisticated satires featuring the goblin Robin Goodfellow in the early 1590s – undermines Levy and Mendlesohn’s claim that ‘the raising of tales originally intended for the peasantry into fare for the court and for adults may well be a reaction to the civil wars that raged across Europe in the seventeenth century’. But in any case chapter one tells a much more complex story about the growing association between fairy tale and childhood. The point being made here is that there was a philosophical hostility to fantasy among pedagogues from early times, and that strong residues of that hostility remain to the present. The fashionable adoption of folk tales by the French court in the late seventeenth century will clearly have lent them, for some, a certain air of respectability; but the court was also the site of scandal, and fantasy’s taintedness was never wiped off by its popularity among the aristocracy.

OwlpussycatThe quest for a respectable fiction for children meant that ‘as we enter the nineteenth century both children’s literature and the fantastic were becoming shaped by ideologies of confinement: both were being restricted to the domestic sphere and to a narrow moral compass’ (25-6). At the same time, chapter two – which deals with ‘the realms of Victorian and Edwardian fancy’ – shows how the notion of a ‘ narrow moral compass’ could be stretched to accommodate unexpected areas, partly in response to the constant quest for new copy on the part of printers as they sought to satisfy the needs of the newly mechanized print industry. The punishment of bad behaviour paves the way for the horror story, while Carroll’s Alice tales and Lear’s nonsense verse can be seen as ‘subversive of the social order’, despite their purportedly ‘didactic’ aspects. Indeed, the notion of didacticism hardly seems applicable to these texts. Can one reasonably use it to characterize Carroll’s desire to ‘teach […] the absurdity of modern manners or the absurdity of chess’? And is it right to describe Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ as ‘filled with the accoutrements of morality, since the titular creatures run away to get married’, instead of living in sin? The example of Austen’s Lydia and Mr Wickham suggests that elopement, even for marriage, might not always be deemed a moral act – and what in any case should we make of the fact that these two creatures (unlike Lear’s Pelicans, but much like his Duck and Kangaroo, or his Dong with a Luminous Nose) are in quest of an inter-species union? The chapter, then, successfully exposes the difficulty of the terms ‘moral’ and ‘didactic’, since what’s deemed suitably moral or instructive for a child’s consumption varies so widely between one social group and another even within a single period. The issue remains pertinent today: J K Rowling’s portrayal of witchcraft in the impeccably moral Harry Potter series (1997 ff.) aroused the wrath of evangelical Christians, while Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995 ff.) found itself mired in controversy through its very moral desire to resist the outmoded conventions of Christian morality. The dystopian fantasies of the twenty-first century take the clash of moralities as their topic, pitting arbitrary state-sanctioned ‘morality’ against the difficult problem of reconciling loyalty to one’s peers and principles with the need for survival under a vicious totalitarian regime. Children’s fantasy has continued to be preoccupied with morals (even ‘deeply moral’, as Levy and Mendlesohn put it, p. 224) into the twenty-first century, though the ‘narrow compass’ of much (though by no means all) mid-Victorian children’s morality is now demonized rather than celebrated by sophisticated writers.

Coraline.DVDRip.XviD-ARROW.avi_005682766Chapter two also develops a second theme that resonates throughout the book: the tendency of British children’s fantasy, for the first period of its existence, to restrict its protagonists to the confines of the domestic environment – in contrast to the emphasis in American, Canadian and Australian fantasy on the great outdoors. The increasing Victorian and post-Victorian focus on the domestic (in contrast to the often itinerant traditional fairy tale) can be taken as driven by an authoritarian impulse to circumscribe and control the child’s intellectual, imaginative and emotional compass; but it can also be seen as an acknowledgment of the increasing centrality of the domestic space to the middle class reader’s life, as dwelling places morphed into complex machines to match the industrial engines that powered the British Empire, and as greater geographical and social mobility made the household rather than, say, the local church the focus of many children’s communities. As Levy and Mendlesohn point out, the geographical compass of British children’s fantasy expanded as the twentieth century wore on – partly in response to the greater responsibilities shouldered by children in the Second World War. But some fantasies continued to focus on the domestic, not out of social conservatism, but from a recognition that the household is invariably the starting point of both revolutions and state-sanctioned oppression. Many of the books in chapter eight, on ‘Harry Potter and children’s fantasy since the 1990s’, feature deeply unsettling domestic spaces, from the Gormenghast-like Crackpot Hall of Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora series to the unsettling houses in David Almond’s Skellig and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Magic Castle (1986) is perhaps the book that best exemplifies the political dynamism of domestic space: the magical dwelling of the title has doors that open onto every significant urban and rural landscape in the land of Ingary and beyond. In this it recalls the various many-doored dwellings of George MacDonald’s high Victorian fantasies, such as ‘The Golden Key’ (1867), which (among other things) insist on the complex bonds that link the dilapidated houses of the poor to the splendid mansions of the ruling classes. The domestic, then, is by no means always a safe haven or a bastion of reactionary sentiment; in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) it’s a place full of physical danger and class warfare; in Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) it accommodates history, whose conflicts and pressures are also embodied by the old people with whom children so often shared their domestic space until recent decades. By giving a geographical and historical shape to perceptions of the domestic in children’s fantasy Levy and Mendlesohn have opened up a still largely underexplored continent for further investigation.

Chapter three is particularly interesting for its account of the resistance to fantasy in the United States, and for its identification of the specific themes of American fantasy: independent, itinerant youngsters, like Dorothy or Stuart Little; the rejection of any sense of a ‘hereditary right to succeed’; a fascination with sensational narratives of the kind popularized by the British penny dreadfuls and American dime novels. L Frank Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard rightly get pride of place in the pre-war period, and the centrality of Burroughs and Howard alongside Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) helps to point up the presence of what we’d now called Young Adult fantasy from an early point in history (in Britain, too: Burroughs and Howard were partly influenced by British adventure story writers such as Rider Haggard). Welcome space is afforded in the chapter to the great James Thurber, though no mention is made of his astonishing prose style, which so clearly inspired later comic fantasy writers like Peter Beagle, William Goldman and Terry Pratchett. Style, in fact, is a topic that hasn’t yet been given enough attention in fantasy criticism and theory, and I can imagine a book on the changing stylistic features of children’s fantasy literature as providing the ideal supplement to this survey.[1]

Chapter four, on the interwar years, brings into sharp focus the sheer adventurousness and experimentalism of the period. The 20s and 30s sparked off one of the most dazzlingly inventive arrays of British children’s fantasy: among others, Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books, P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins sequence (Travers was Australian rather than British, but published in Britain), John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair and The Magic Faraway Tree, the story collections of Eleanor Farjeon and Walter de la Mare, T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Tolkien’s The Hobbit. This diversity presents, as Levy and Mendlesohn point out, ‘distinct problems’ for literary historians, since the writers of these texts share no ‘coherent sense of what fantasy should be’ – partly because there is very little critical-theoretical discussion of it at the time, apart from a couple of ‘very general’ essays by Lewis and Tolkien, both published in the 1940s. The aftermath of the Great War, in other words, saw fantasy for children, like fantasy for adults, respond to the breakdown of the old grand narratives that governed pre-war imperial culture by playing with a range of narrative techniques which bore abundant fruit in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s a hotbed of invention, an explosion of the imagination to match the explosive global catastrophes that framed it, and coherence under such conditions is the last thing we should expect or wish for from it. Naturally, Levy and Mendlesohn don’t consider all these experiments to have been equally successful. Masefield’s The Midnight Folk (1927), for instance, is for them ‘typical’ of the period’s attitude to animals, in that it makes them seem more like toys than believable beasts, treating them as exotic but faithful servants to the young protagonist, Kay Harker, as he embarks on a succession of ‘rambling’ adventures which end in the inevitable restoration of the old pre-war class system. White’s 1939 version of The Sword in the Stone is again, for them, rambling; not a fully-fledged novel but a set of loosely linked stories, which doesn’t engage deeply with fantasy because it’s too much preoccupied with the turbulence of contemporary politics (White’s later Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) gets a more sympathetic reading, despite its equally obvious political applications). Both these views are entirely reasonable, but seem to me to undervalue both books out of frustration with their intransigent refusal to assume the shape of a conventional novel.

Hobbit_coverThis said, there’s a superb analysis of The Hobbit (1937) at the end of the chapter, which expertly pins down its originality in the field by placing it in context. Levy and Mendlesohn note as major innovations its invention of ‘a world that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it’, as C S Lewis put it; the respect with which it treats its child readers by asking them to engage with ancient Nordic culture and mythology; its refusal to allow the protagonist’s paternalistic guide to accompany him throughout his adventures. The fact that Bilbo Baggins is an adult, despite his diminutive size, could be seen as summing up Tolkien’s respect for his young audience. His limitations, obsessions and fears are an adult’s, yet Tolkien assumes that children will understand them as well as – or better than – Bilbo himself does. One wonders if this breakdown of the earlier sharp distinction between child and adult – a crossing of boundaries which was further compounded by the fact that this novel, like The Sword in the Stone, became the first volume in an adult epic – could have been directly responsible for the emergence of a dedicated Young Adult market after the mass success of The Lord of the Rings in the 1970s.

18421378There is no chapter in the book on the fantasy of the Second World War. Instead the interwar period gets extended into the 1940s, embracing such texts as BB’s The Little Grey Men (1942), Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944), Mary Norton’s Bedknob and Broomstick books (1943 and 1945) and T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946). The war, however, casts its long shadow over the three chapters that follow, as fantasy took an awareness of ‘being a child in the world rather than a child at home’ as its subject, in response no doubt to the intensified awareness among children of politics, economics and the mechanisms of social action that war imposes. Levy and Mendlesohn also stress the important fact that the relative paucity of fantasy for adults in the period meant that ‘children’s fantasy drove innovation’. Chapter five includes a brilliant analysis of how C S Lewis’s Narnian chronicles can be taken to embody ‘what children’s fantasy was’ in the postwar period – above all in the high stakes that the adventures are played for. In these books for the first time the fate of nations and even worlds are placed in the hand of the child protagonists – and we are succinctly and convincingly shown how this development can be linked to the wartime roles with which children had become familiar: soldiers, nurses, spies, partisans, fifth columnists, the Home Guard – the list could easily be expanded. The destinarian slant in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) is evident in a range of the great fantasy sequences that followed the Narnia books, as is Lewis’s insistence in his books that there comes a moment when children must abandon magic for the very different technological and social operations of the modern world. Levy and Mendlesohn also point out how the trajectory of many post-Narnia sequences – including Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising (1965-77) and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (1964-68) – deprives the child protagonists of their older companion and guide at a crucial moment in their adventures. Lewis again showed the way to this moment of deprivation, as did Tolkien in The Hobbit, and the pattern is repeated in the most influential fantasies of the 1990s, Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The ‘bitter’ Young Adult fiction of the twenty-first century goes a step further and deprives many of its young protagonists of any responsible adult companion at all – while also abandoning the theme of destinarianism once and for all, in many cases. If Lewis’s child protagonists grow up, like Harry and Lyra, then the best fantastic narratives have also grown up over the last recent decades, moving beyond the tropes established by Lewis and subjecting children, perhaps for the first time, to the experience of genuinely not knowing whether or not the central character will survive – and if so, in what condition (think of the traumatised Catniss at the end of the Hunger Games trilogy).

The book is refreshingly clear about the continuing experimental diversity of fiction in the postwar years and into the present. Its coverage is astonishing; and it is also delightfully open about the fact that it cannot possibly cover everything: ‘wherever you are, wherever you are from, you will discover that a number of your favourite children’s fantasies are not discussed or done justice to in this volume, as there is simply too much to cover’ (p. 5). For myself I noted the absence of some important and influential fantasies, and can’t resist indulging the desire to mention some of them. What matters, however, is how easy it is to fit the missing books into Levy and Mendlesohn’s narrative. Here are some choice examples.

Rainbows-EndOne of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s favourite books, Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1857) by Frances Browne, is absent from Levy and Mendlesohn’s account of the shift in the nineteenth century from ‘actual’ fairy tales to invented ones; it might have served as a kind of missing link between the work of George MacDonald (whom she may have influenced), the early history of Irish fantasy (Browne was from Donegal), and Blyton’s Wishing Chair series of the 1930s.[2] Again, Levy and Mendlesohn’s list of children’s fantasy from the second decade of the twentieth century contains only one title – A A Milne’s Once on a Time (1917)[3] – but the most significant text of the time (in Britain at least) was the outrageously nationalistic and immensely popular Where the Rainbow Ends (1912) by Clifford Mills, which originated (like Peter Pan) as a play, performed very nearly every Christmas from 1911 to 1959, and attended with much ceremony by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1937.[4] The inclusion of this text alongside Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911), Noel Langley’s pantomime-esque Land of Green Ginger (1936) – which helped get him hired as one of the screenwriters for the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz – and the fairy tale novels of the playwright Nicholas Stuart Gray in the 1960s (the last of these appears fleetingly on p. 102), could have provided a fascinating sub-narrative concerning the highly productive relationship between children’s fantasy and the theatre. One of the earliest examples of the tendency of fantasy writers to ‘plunder the legendary archaeology of Britain’ in the post-war period was actually published in the war itself: it’s William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944), which clearly influenced both Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the figure of Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.[5]

Picture-7But for me, the most spectacular omissions in the book come in the 1960s: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) and Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child (1967), two of the texts that had the biggest impact on my own early interest in both reading and fantasy. For Diana Wynne Jones, The Phantom Tollbooth was a direct descendant of that seminal American portal quest narrative The Wizard of Oz, ‘but better’. I think it has closer affinities with James Thurber’s dazzling strain of comic fantasy driven by verbal fireworks, and with the allegorical fantasies of Bunyan, Kingsley and Lewis. The Mouse and his Child updates and drastically darkens the cosy toy and animal stories of the interwar period (as is often pointed out, Hoban was a decorated war veteran). It too has affinities with the fantasy of wordplay championed by Thurber, and anticipates Philip Pullman’s great short fables such as Clockwork (1996). A third absent book of the period is J. P. Martin’s Uncle (1964) and its sequels, recently championed by Neil Gaiman and reprinted by the New York Review Children’s Collection; this makes explicit the class conflict that underpins talking animal fantasies such as The Wind in the Willows, and anticipates Michael de Larabeiti’s more violent depiction of class warfare in the Borribles series (1976-86). It’s inevitable, of course, that as a child of the 60s it should be 60s books I find missing. What’s less inevitable is that all the titles I can think of should have been so much illuminated by Levy and Mendlesohn’s narrative. Their book is a major achievement, and we’ll all be using it for years to come.

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[1] Mendlesohn has made a crucial step towards examining the style or language of fantasy in an essay that deserves reading alongside Children’s Fantasy Literature: ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy’, in Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), pp. 61-74.

[2] See Colin Manlove, ‘George MacDonald and the Fairy Tales of Francis Paget and Frances Browne,’ North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies, Vol. 18 (1999), Article 3: http://digitalcommons.snc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1100&context=northwind.

[3] Mendlesohn mentions another text from the decade, W W Tarn’s The Treasure of the Isle of Mist, in ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy’, Miracle Enough, ed. Winnington, p. 66. She gives its date as 1919.

[4] See Valerie Gail Langfield, Roger Quilter 1877-1953: his Life, Times and Music, PhD thesis, University of Birmingham 2004, p. 39 ff., http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/1354/1/Langfield04PhD.pdf

[5] See Geraldine Pinch’s fine blog post on Borrobil at https://fantasyreads.wordpress.com/tag/british-folktales/.

Julie Bertagna, the Exodus Trilogy (2002-2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Glasgow in the 1950s

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

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

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The Glasgow University Tower

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

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Glasgow Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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Julie Bertagna

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

 

 

Poetics of Loss: John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and British Fantasy in the 1920s

51Cljz3wlbL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The close of the Great War saw an astonishing eruption of fantasy fiction written in English; above all fiction by women, or fiction by men about women, as if the appalling loss of male life in Flanders had thrown the other sex into a strong and strange new light. These include some of the greatest fantasies of the twentieth century: Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), which tells of witches defending London against a German air raid; David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922), about a woman who spontaneously turns into a vixen and is hunted down by a pack of hounds; Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), about a community that decides its lord should marry an elfin bride, with drastic results; Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), about the uneasy relationship between the imaginary country of Dorimare and its nearest neighbour, Fairyland; Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926), about a put-upon spinster who abruptly moves to the country, meets the devil and becomes a witch; and most famously, perhaps, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), about a young man in the reign of Elizabeth I who unaccountably lives on for hundreds of years, becoming a woman in the process. In each of these books the strange, the magical, the incomprehensible manifests itself in an everyday environment, exposing the fact that the world is governed by laws unknown to governments or academies, and destabilizing that world by consequence, revolutionizing it, transforming it into a dream or work of art, breaking down habitual relationships between the sexes, opening up new possibilities of resistance to the expected and the controlled.

00037752-540x540It was in this context that John Masefield wrote what I think may be the finest children’s book in the English language, The Midnight Folk. It was published in 1927, after Lolly Willowes and Lud-in-the-Mist but before Orlando, and it seems to me to tell us a great deal about the impetus behind this eruption of postwar fantasy. All the books I’ve listed were written for adults, while Masefield’s was written for children; but it has a close familial tie to the loosely connected series of novels he started to publish after the war, and was first published in exactly the same format as the rest, so that it presents itself as equally available to readers of all ages. The hero, little Kay Harker, is clearly a relative of the titular hero of Masefield’s most successful adult novel, Sard Harker (1924), and the place he lives in is what Muriel Spark calls Masefield Country, a web of imaginary villages, towns and landmarks based on the Herefordshire where the poet grew up – a landscape that features in many of his books and poems. And The Midnight Folk also has close affinities with the fantasy novels I’ve listed. There’s a fox in it which recalls the fantastic-realist fox in Garnett’s novella, as well as Masefield’s own creation Reynard the Fox (1919); there’s an abundance of witches, as in Living Alone; there are haunting songs and half-buried memories, like the ones that disturb the burghers of Dorimare in Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist; the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the magical are permeable in it, as they are in The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and the chief antagonist of the novel, a governess who has a dual identity as the head of a coven of witches, has a name that simply must be meant to recall the best known writer on witchcraft in the 1920s, Sylvia Townsend Warner. The governess is called Sylvia Daisy Pouncer; and since the hero of the story is called Harker, it’s hard to imagine that Masefield hadn’t been listening or hearkening to the warning issued by a woman called Warner about devil-worshipping Pouncers in the English countryside. The Midnight Folk is an integral part of the landscape of postwar British fantasy fiction, and any observations we make about it may well throw light on the sparkling wave of magical texts on whose crest it rode.

01_boue_passPublished almost ten years after the end of the war, this nevertheless has the unmistakable air of a war book – a book born from a period of mass slaughter, which involves a quest for some sort of healing or recovery. It’s largely populated by women, children and animals, and many of the men in it are ghosts, afflicted by a profound melancholy brought on by their part in a calamitous loss – though here it’s the semi-symbolic loss of the treasure of Santa Barbara, otherwise known as the Harker treasure. There are ruins everywhere in Masefield’s narrative – ruined stables, sunken ships and towns, forgotten cellars – and all are haunted by memories of men who came to a premature end: smugglers, highwaymen, murderers, mutineers, Arthurian knights on hopeless missions. Kay, too, is a victim of loss, like Masefield himself: he has lost both parents, and the treasure he seeks throughout the narrative could be read as a metaphor for everything he lost with them. Among these things are his old toys known as the ‘Guards’ of his home, Seekings House. Thrown out by the governess because they might remind him of his dead parents, the Guards’ absence leaves the house open to noxious influences, notably witchcraft, and their sporadic appearances throughout the book – glimpsed by Kay in the course of other adventures – give them a mournful resemblance to the generation lost at Gallipoli and the Somme (places which Masefield visited in person). On one occasion, near the end of the book, the resemblance is striking: ‘They were going very slowly. Two of them carried lanterns, one of them had a coil of rope slung about his neck, all four were plastered with the rather pale clay of near the river’. When they sit down to rest, ‘one of them seemed to fall asleep at once’ while the others ‘were dazed stupid with tiredness and nodded forward as they sat’. It’s at this point that Kay recognizes his old toys Eduardo da Vinci and little Brown Bear, transformed by their labour into sappers left over from the work of digging trenches in Belgium – like the aged sappers encountered by the heroines of Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944), who have been steadily digging their way through Europe since 1914. Kay’s is a postwar world, and Masefield was intensely aware of the wounds that war inflicts on people and places, having served in the Red Cross as an orderly in 1915.

One of the most remarkable things about Masefield’s novel is its form. Like many of his novels it’s a work of continuous prose, not divided into chapters or even parts, which gives it something of the hallucinatory feeling of a consciousness drifting in and out of sleep. The lack of clear boundaries between blocks of prose (apart from the occasional gap to indicate a break in time) declares the book’s resistance to conventional social and literary categories. Like Kay, like Kay’s relative Sard Harker in the earlier novel, like Masefield himself, the book is interested in everything – all trades, all crafts, all modes of speech – and has little patience for class hierarchies, except insofar as these affect the language and behaviour of the astonishingly varied cast of people and animals that populate its pages. The story it tells is delivered through a range of different voices, from songs – the book is full of fine lyrics, as one would expect from a future poet laureate – to spoken utterances in different dialects: Sir Piney Trigger’s northernisms, his daughter’s piratical rhetoric, Abner Brown’s American English, the Rat’s sibilant, slavering discourse, Roper Bilges’s constant transformation of nouns into verbs – ‘I’ll rabbit them rabbits’ – and so on. Kay gathers clues to the whereabouts of the Harker treasure from Atlases, newspaper cuttings, notes scrawled in the back of a discarded book on gunnery, scratchings on the tin door of a broken lantern – objects he gathers from many sources in the course of his adventures. Each of these objects democratically contributes its share to the unfolding narrative, confirming Kay’s wisdom in seeking out knowledge by way of the pathways opened to him by his eclectic interests and wandering imaginings rather than through the drab routine of the school curriculum.

The book’s seamless weave also indicates its lack of interest in drawing clear distinctions between good and evil. Well, that’s not quite true; Kay and his friends in the book are well aware that they’re dealing with wicked people when they deal with Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, Abner Brown and the coven of witches. At one point Kay comes across a potion in Sylvia’s cupboard for turning little boys into Tom Tits, and fears this will be his fate as he continues to hunt the treasure which Sylvia Daisy is also tracking. But Kay and his friends are irresistibly drawn to wickedness; they find it charming, like Sylvia’s voice when she sings while playing the piano after Kay has gone to bed. When Nibbins the cat first wakes Kay at midnight and takes him to spy on the witches who have taken over his home, a song they sing nearly tempts the cat back to his former role as a witch’s familiar:

 Nibbins’s eyes gleamed with joy.

“I can’t resist this song,” he said, “I never could. It was this song, really, that got me into this way of life. […] it has nine times nine verses; but you ought to stay for some more Whoo-hoos. Doesn’t it give you the feel of the moon in the tree-tops: ‘Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl?’ Come along quietly.”

6a014e5fb9e8aa970c01bb0871e7b1970dSoon afterwards Kay and Nibbins are mounted on broomsticks and heading for a witch’s meet at Wicked Hill, and later in the book Kay becomes wholly witch, stealing a hat and cloak and mask from Sylvia’s cupboard and getting vital information, thanks to his disguise, from an enchanted brazen head which she has engaged to find the treasure. Some of the objects employed by the witches in their spells are explicitly good ones: a wishing basket Kay also steals from Sylvia can only be used ‘for good things’, Nibbins tells him, which means that the coven don’t use it much. And even the witches’ wicked spells have some good results, in spite of their intentions. On one occasion they summon up a series of spirits in the hall of Seekings House to guide them to the treasure, and among these is a young woman on a flying horse who resists their orders angrily. Shortly afterwards she appears at the window of Kay’s bedroom and carries him off on her horse to visit a wicked old bedridden woman, the inimitable Miss Piney Trigger or Susan Pricker, who smokes and drinks champagne and sings piratical songs as she drifts towards her end. Despite her impenitent wickedness, Miss Trigger or Pricker becomes one of Kay’s allies, both before and after her death; and so does the fox, Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot, who is addicted to singing nasty songs about eating rabbits, in ‘a most unpleasant voice’, while hanging up the skins of his many victims. One of Kay’s helpers, the odious Rat, even swaps sides in the novel’s sequel, The Box of Delights (1935), to no one’s surprise; he is clearly only interested in getting rewards for the help he gives, and will sell his soul for a rotten haggis even in The Midnight Folk – Kay is simply lucky that (thanks to the wishing basket) he can get one for him, thus cementing his temporary friendship. The corollary of being interested in a great range of things is to have sympathy with a great range of outlooks; and like Kay, Masefield finds it easy to sympathize with criminals and other wanderers from the straight and narrow. The end of the book confirms the ouroboran links between good and evil by bringing Kay a new governess: the woman on the flying horse, who seems to have forgotten her supernatural origins but is nevertheless as bound up with enchantment and witchcraft as Sylvia Daisy. Seekings remains a house of magic long after the coven has been kicked out of its doors.

William_Blake_-_Jerusalem,_Plate_1,_Frontispiece_-_Google_Art_ProjectAs well as Chaucer – whose Canterbury Tales was the inspiration behind Reynard the Fox, and whose vibrant animal personalities in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Parliament of Fowls lie behind Rollicum Bitem, Nibbins and the rest – Masefield was a huge admirer of the visionary poet William Blake, and wrote about him brilliantly. One of the things that fascinated him about Blake was his iconoclastic willingness to invert the moral structure of the Christian universe, making Satan the creator and abominating the adherents of inflexible moral systems. For Blake, Masefield tells us,

 codes of all kinds, religious, moral or legal, tend to benefit all minds that are creeping and compliant and to repress the resolute independent thinker, the real free soul, who has worth and is Godlike. And from this, he came to the thought that the eighteenth-century codes, of religious morality and law as well as of art and science, were bent anywhere on repressing impulse, instinct and energy, and that this is exactly what Caiaphas and Pilate in all lands do. From this, being an immoderate thinker, as poets often are, he came to exalt energy, instinct and impulse wherever he found them and soon decided that Satan had many Christian qualities and that current Christianity was often devil worship. [Recent Prose (1924)]

MDF_13539429982Masefield’s Sard Harker features a villain who poses as a priest but worships the devil, and who binds the hero and heroine at the novel’s climax, enslaving them physically just as Blake said men and women of his time were mentally enslaved by the mind-forged manacles of industrialism. The leading villain in The Midnight Folk, Sylvia Daisy, isn’t objectionable to Kay because of her witchcraft – or indeed because of her appearance: ‘big, handsome and with something of a flaunting manner, which turned into a flounce when she was put out’. Her wickedness consists instead in her sadistic fondness for codes and strictures: for ‘loathsome’ Latin irregular adjectives like acer, and for punishing Kay when he gets his pyjamas and slippers wet on secret nocturnal expeditions. It consists, too, in her hypocrisy: she is the one who has eaten the food that’s been stolen from the Seekings House larder, a crime she promises to investigate. She also claims to have imprisoned Blinky the owl so as to return him to Lady Crowmarsh, from whose estate she snatched him in a foiled attempt to find out what he knew about the Harker treasure. Imprisonment, robbery and ruthless interrogation are her stock in trade, but her nastiness consists in her glib self-exculpation for these activities. Kay’s allies, on the other hand, are always setting him free and indulging his impulses: taking him to visit the weather cocks on the church tower, distracting him from his homework with tales of piracy on the high seas, inviting him to leave the safety of a diving bell to swim with mermaids, encouraging him to ride on the bowsprit of a sailing ship or fly with rooks in the shape of a bat. Each of these adventures is also instructive: he learns about sunken cities, nefarious dealings on sea and on land, the best way of chopping off a knight’s head and the story of the treasure, which is itself (besides being an emblem of the losses he and his family have sustained) the perfect metaphor for the complex way the world is constituted – the many meanings it contains, the multiple signifieds for which each sign or object in it can stand.

The Harker treasure means different things to different people. For the church in Santa Barbara from which it came, it is a symbol of devotion, of the church’s commitment to establishing God’s city on earth – a notion that fascinated Masefield throughout his life; indeed, in Sard Harker the South American city of Santa Barbara becomes, for the protagonist, an embodiment of the heavenly city on earth, Blake’s Jerusalem. For Captain Harker, to whose care it was entrusted by the church at a time of revolution, the treasure symbolizes a promise he made and broke: to keep the precious objects safe in his ship, the Plunderer, and return them when the fighting was over. For Abner Brown it stands for wealth: ‘If we find it,’ he tells the witches, ‘the share of each one of us will be some thirty-five thousand pounds’. For the mermaids who come across it when the Plunderer sinks, the golden images of the saints are beautiful people, worthy inhabitants of the drowned golden city they show to Kay when he swims among them. For the farmer Old Man John who digs it out of the mud it’s a symbol of Catholic heresy, ‘sin-and-heathen idols’, and needs to be kept out of circulation in his cellar to protect men from covetice. There is no single grand narrative that contains or limits the treasure; it slips from meaning to meaning as it gets transferred from hand to hand, and the central struggle of the narrative is to impose the meaning on it that one particular interest group subscribes to.

This, at least, is the central struggle from the point of view of the witches and the ghost of Captain Harker. The former want it for themselves, the latter wants to make good his broken promise by restoring it to the church. For Kay, by contrast, the value of the treasure is its story, which gets pieced together as he listens or hearkens, taking on new implications as it gets taken up by each new storyteller in his or her peculiar dialect. By the end of the book the treasure has been enriched by his imaginative engagement with this host of storytellers, and no one version of it has supplanted the rest; if he returns it to the church this is in order to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion rather than because the church’s reading of it means more to him than the other versions. Kay’s indifference to the official church perspective is confirmed by his attitude to the church building where he is taken every Sunday (another example of Sylvia Daisy’s rank hypocrisy). For the adults present, the church is a place of worship; for Kay, who is ‘much too young to understand or follow the service’, it’s a set of stories he weaves from the material objects around him. He spends much of the service puzzling over an image in a stained glass window, which from a distance looks like a ‘yellow, lop-eared rabbit’ which he calls Bunkin, but from up close seems disappointingly to be ‘a hat with spikes’. For him the irregular stones on the church walls contain pictures of Henry VIII and a sailing ship, ‘which filled in a lot of time’, while the ‘chief pleasure’ is provided by the ‘carved and painted figures arranged along the wall-pieces of the chancel-roof’, about whose identity even adult scholars are uncertain. The 32 figures are divided up by certain experts into twelve apostles, seven cardinal virtues, nine worthies, and four archangels, with proper reverence for the ancient traditions of the medieval church; but for Kay during dreary sermons they become ‘the Condicote and Muck Zennor Rugby football teams (with an umpire each)’, or the Australian cricket eleven of 1882 facing the team of Cambridge University, or the start of the 1839 Grand National ‘with Mr Mason on Lottery, and Mr Martin, in his pink sleeves, on Paulina’. The church, then, is a space to be appropriated by the dreams and desires of those who enter it; at one point even the coven visits it, to see if they can get some clue about the treasure from Captain Harker’s monument. And the same is true of all the other major spaces in the novel.

bf4a8b86b0945f4bb5011ad6c5d90018Seekings House, for instance, accommodates the treasure seekings of the witches as well as of the dead Captain Harker and his little great grandson. Captain Harker’s ship, The Plunderer, changes its affiliations several times, beginning as the Captain’s vessel, being seized by the gunner Roper Bilges and his confederates for the treasure she contains, snatched from Bilges’s command by Twiney Pricker the sailmaker, then from him by the rest of the crew, and finally embraced by the mermaids as an underwater pleasure garden after her sinking. The ship’s name, in fact, anticipates her capacity for being appropriated or plundered by successive owners – just as the name of Seekings House affirms its restlessness, its refusal to settle into architectural or moral stability. Even Kay takes command of the Plunderer at one stage, when a model of his ancestor’s vessel drifts away from the wall of his bedroom and takes him on a night-time voyage to the place where her original sank – becoming in the process the model ship of a boy’s dreams, crewed by mice and stocked with improbable delicacies. Objects, then, as well as buildings, vessels, and people, change their uses and associations as the book goes on. A lost toboggan becomes a stairway to Kay’s underground lair; magic broomsticks and witches’ costumes serve two masters, Sylvia Daisy and Kay; even the object of Kay’s adventures gets transformed at one point, from a hunt for the Harker treasure to a quest for the treasure of Benjamin the Highwayman, who used to live in the ruined stables of Seekings House. The alternative functions of objects fascinated Masefield. The ship, for instance, in his poem Dauber (1912), is both a workplace for the sailors and a subject for the youthful artist of the poem’s title. Neither reading of the ship is privileged in the poem over the other; the artist takes his berth as a sailor in order to paint the ship he sails on as a workplace viewed from inside, by a sailor who is also a painter, one who knows the craft he paints. By the end of the narrative, Dauber has been accepted as a member of the crew by his fellow sailors, at the cost of his life; when he falls from the masthead during a storm he thinks it is another sailor who has fallen, and the mistake shows how far his perspective on the ship has changed. The crew never likes his paintings, but the story of Dauber is his legacy, the poem standing in for the body of work the young man never completed. For Masefield, then, as for his hero Blake, a work of art is a manifestation of energy, and the reduction of any person, object or word to a single meaning, to a fixed place in an ordered code, to one perspective or function, is anathema, the death of creativity and imaginative freedom.

hilder4It’s for this reason, maybe, that so many of Masefield’s great poems are narrative poems, and so many of his best novels adventure stories, of the kind mockingly referred to in the title of his novel ODTAA (1926), which stands for One Damn Thing After Another. The headlong energy of The Midnight Folk is provided by the adventure of hunting; the hunting of treasure, of course, but also of animals and, more disturbingly, people. Hunter and hunted change places regularly as the book goes on – just as they did in Sard Harker, where the hero tracks a kidnapped woman through the hallucinogenic landscape of South America, where he finds himself hunted in his turn by bandits and killers. In The Midnight Folk, Rollicum Bitem the fox hunts rabbits at one point and is hunted by gamekeepers and the coven at another. Twiney Pricker, who becomes Piney Trigger, hunts the treasure and is then hunted to his death by Abner Brown’s grandfather. Kay the treasure hunter finds himself hunted by the coven, and riding for his life (appropriately enough) on the fox’s back. One centrepiece of the book is a manhunt for the highwayman Benjamin, who is one of Kay’s heroes; the passage where Benjamin’s mare falls and breaks her back, prompting her master to give ‘a little cry, like he’d been shot through the heart’, is one of the most moving Masefield wrote. Benjamin too is a kind of fox; the place where his mare falls is a ‘big foxes’ lie […] all full of scrub and stubbed stuff’, and it’s inevitably here that the highwayman is captured. He is tried and hanged; but his story, too, is finished by Kay, who finds the watch he stole from the local squire and returns it to the squire’s descendants. In doing so he heals another wound: Sir Hassle Gassle is said to have mourned the loss of his watch ‘to his dying day’, so his descendant is delighted to get it back. In any case the watch did the highwayman no good, since he could not sell it, and in the end it killed him; so that like the Harker treasure, Benjamin’s treasure stands for failure, as well as for the excitement of the chase: the chase that led to Benjamin’s death, the hunt for the watch that led to its restoration.

by William Strang, etching, 1912
by William Strang, etching, 1912

Masefield was fascinated throughout his life by failure, and above all by failures that lead to unexpected triumph. His favourite stories, to judge by the frequency with which he returned to them, were the story of Arthur – whose light burned brightly in the dark ages before being extinguished in combat, and who crops up in a gorgeous episode of Kay’s adventures – and the tale of Troy, another heavenly city whose fall produced the greatest narrative poem in any language. One of Masefield’s finest sea stories is called Victorious Troy (1935), and concerns a ship dismasted in a typhoon which is safely brought to harbour under the command of a teenage boy. This ship becomes a work of art as Masefield tells its story, exactly as Dauber the painter bequeathed an unexpected work of art to the world when he fell to his death: the poem about him. As early as 1910 Masefield wrote a fine novel called Lost Endeavour, about a treasure hunt that ends in disappointment; and the year before The Midnight Folk he published one of his best-known poems, ‘The Rider at the Gate’ (1926), whose chorus ends ‘The house is falling, / The beaten men come into their own’. The theme of triumph emerging from failure is at the heart of The Midnight Folk, and it’s given particular poignancy by the lost generations of the First World War that would have haunted the minds of its first readers. Young Kay, with his Arthurian name which also conjures up the notion of keys that unlock doors – the door to the future among them – affirms the continuing vitality of his homeland through his interaction with every aspect of its past and present, every class and kind of its inhabitants, living and dead. He also bequeathed a new kind of children’s fiction on the world, in a book that influenced his successors far more than it has been given credit for. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to hunt it down.

[This was written for a Symposium in honour of Professor Marianne Thormählen of the University of Lund. I’m very grateful to Birgitta Berglund, Sara Håkansson and Kiki Lindell, who organised the Symposium, for inviting me to speak at it; and to Marianne for her friendship and support over many years.]