Synchrony in Howl’s Moving Castle

howl-moving-castle-1Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the would-be creator tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the conviction that adults can never really understand what makes their offspring tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them wholly redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.

One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades. The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists. So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider parent-child community. Sociologists have also investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation (that is, psychological and social synchrony) between members of a group, an army, church or organization. Less threateningly, perhaps, there have been studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between the generations. Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.

But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of the family or household may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to a household’s different inhabitants by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like to think about two texts that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between members of a household community while enabling them to work together. These are a celebrated children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1985) and the equally celebrated film adaptation of that novel by Hayao Miyazaki (2004). And it seems to me that these two works of art approach the problem of synchrony in rather different ways, as I’ll try to explain.

howls-moving-castleThe concern of Diana Wynne Jones with the complex chronology of domestic and other communities, where the time zones of the young, the middle aged and the old converge and clash, is evident throughout her work: from Seven Days of Luke (1975) and Dogsbody (1975), in which the lives of immortal beings (gods and stars) intersect with those of children, to The Homeward Bounders (1981), whose young protagonist finds himself ageing at a slower rate than his contemporaries, and Fire and Hemlock (1985), about the friendship between a young girl and a grown man, which changes as the girl gets older.[1] Wynne Jones’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle represents synchrony not merely as a prerequisite for the successful cohabitation of different generations within the same building or society, but as a psychological condition achieved with difficulty by individual men and women, aspects of whose personalities develop or mature at different rates, thus effectively establishing different time zones within a single mind and body. It’s this perception, among other things, that seems to have drawn Miyazaki to the novel, as permitting a new departure in his own lifelong exploration of temporal interfaces in domestic and social space.

Grandma-sophieThe protagonist of Wynne-Jones’s novel is a teenage girl, Sophie Hatter, who lets herself be seduced by the rules of fairy tale into believing that her destiny is predetermined by her position as the eldest daughter in a family. This conviction comes easily to her because she lives in the land of Ingary, ‘where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist’ – a land of fairy tale in action, where witches are as common as bakers.[2] Since she’s the eldest child, so the tales affirm, nothing interesting can ever happen to her: it’s always the youngest child who sets off on adventures and who gets the prize. In addition, her sole surviving parent is a stepmother, who Sophie assumes must therefore be tyrannous, if not wicked. As a result, Sophie’s lifelong entrapment in the family hat-making business (which she doesn’t enjoy) is for her as certain as if she’d already lived through it, and she behaves and dresses as if she were already the elderly spinster she expects to be. So when she’s transformed into a real old woman by a jealous witch, who has mistaken her for one of her attractive younger sisters, Sophie embraces her new condition with some enthusiasm. Before the transformation she was in effect an old woman trapped in a young girl’s body; after it she’s a young girl trapped in an old woman’s body; and since her life and story are now effectively over, she leaves the hat-making business and wanders out into the world to seek her fortune.

Sophie, in other words, is the victim of a particularly oppressive social form of synchrony – of ensuring that individuals know and retain their place within the community – which works hand in hand with ideology; synchrony as imposed on female children by the gender roles assigned to them by fairy tales and other narratives. Fortunately, however, the world – and the old women who play a vital part in it – proves to be very much more mobile than Sophie’s enslavement to fairy-tale convention leads her to expect. The delightful metaphor for this mobility is the Moving Castle of the title, and its erratic movements across Ingary can also be seen as standing for a more complex form of synchrony than the one that governs traditional fairy tales and hackneyed fantasies.

When she stumbles across the Moving Castle by accident, Sophie discovers in it a peculiar all-male household quite unlike the ‘conventional’ nuclear family (if such a thing exists, which Wynne Jones would have us doubt). It’s composed of the teenager Michael, an apprentice wizard; Calcifer, a stubborn but friendly fire-demon, whose magic keeps the Castle moving; and the wizard Howl himself, a dashing charmer whose one aim in life is to dodge the responsibility to which Sophie has always been a willing slave (hence Howl’s construction of this unusual mobile home). Including Sophie, these four householders span a tremendous age range, from the apprentice, who is fifteen, to the demon, who has lived for millennia. But they are none of them restricted in their movements by their apparent or actual age. In financial matters Michael behaves with a responsibility beyond his years, keeping some of the household money hidden from Howl to prevent him wasting it. Calcifer is as dependent on the other members of the household as an infant, confined to the Castle’s only hearth as a baby is confined to its cradle until somebody is willing to lift him out. Howl behaves like a spoiled adolescent, obsessed with his appearance and refusing to let Sophie clean his room. And Sophie, who makes herself Howl’s housekeeper because she can’t imagine herself as capable of anything else, becomes increasingly energetic as the novel goes on, despite her extreme old age: dashing across the landscape in seven-league boots, plotting to foil Howl’s various affairs, and rearranging the Castle so extensively that it eventually becomes her own home – quite literally, since Howl moves the building into the hat-shop at one point to avoid the unwanted attentions of the Witch of the Waste.

Age, then, in the Moving Castle, is no trap but a matter of attitude, and attitudes are always changing. Even the physical strength of the individual inhabitants’ bodies varies as much in response to hormones, cold germs and lashings of self-pity as to the motions of the heart (and Howl’s young heart is just as compromised, we learn in the end, as Sophie’s elderly organ). The movement of time determines nothing about a person’s character; it isn’t time that induces emotional or intellectual maturity, but successful interaction with other people, a capacity to adapt one’s personal needs to the demands of a community (and to resist those demands, of course, when they become oppressive). Household synchrony at its best, then, is for Wynne Jones a matter of careful and prolonged negotiation, enabling competing narratives and attitudes to achieve compatibility with one another, to co-exist – with frequent setbacks and digressions that prevent the negotiating process from becoming either consistent or linear. Her book is a celebration of domestic negotiation as a form of perpetual motion, like all her novels.

The identities of the Castle’s four eccentric tenants are as flexible as their ages. Michael disguises himself as a red-bearded man, or a horse, each time he leaves the building. Calcifer, in his capacity as (quite literally) the hearth of the Castle, changes the building’s appearance as well as its location with his demonic powers. Sophie successively takes on the roles of Howl’s assistant, his aunt, his mother, and (eventually) his partner, as the book goes on. And Howl has a different name and role in each community he visits. The Castle’s magical front door opens on a range of locations depending on the opener’s wishes: Kingsbury, Porthaven, Market Chipping, and (oddly) modern Wales; and in each place Howl has a distinct identity: as reluctant royal wizard, well-intentioned local magician, demonized ladykiller, and idle waster, all of them with alternative costumes and reputations as well as names. These conflicting roles of Howl’s converge and overlap in the interior of the Castle; and as a result the Castle provides an active illustration of the sheer dynamism of the domestic space to which Sophie has confined herself. All political and social action, all adventure, all identity originates in the creative melting-pot of the household, and the relationships between householders are forever mutating; responding to and influencing the mutations that take place in the world beyond. Nobody need be fixed, the Castle implies, in any role, whether by age, sex, birth, or any other factor – unless the community they inhabit, the household and the society it is part of, and above all their own state of mind, exert all their energy to imprison them in a single unchanging function. Nobody dominates the household, either. Control of the Moving Castle alternates between Howl and Sophie, with Michael and Calcifer taking the reins when the need arises. And the shape of the community inside it is always changing, as new members join the strange little family through Sophie’s influence. It’s a political as well as a temporal interface, a functional democracy, where the needs, pleasures and pains of old and new inhabitants succeed one another as the focus of attention according to the demands of the time.

424248_3164633998754_1352491418_3259108_263889306_nTo put an end to this condition of perpetual motion is the aim of Howl’s and Sophie’s arch-nemesis, the Witch of the Waste. Attended by a bevy of robotic page-boys, the Witch specializes in locking her victims into forms designed to limit their capacity for mobility and self-determination: a scarecrow, a dog, a skull, and of course the old woman Sophie. Each of her victims proves unexpectedly vigorous in resisting their containment; and each derives his or her vigour from Sophie’s boundless energy, which releases them one by one from their bondage through her capacity to ‘talk life’ into things – sticks, scarecrows, skulls, the dog’s inarticulate tongue – and transform them into dynamic components of her own and other people’s narratives or stories. The Witch needs only one more victim, Howl, to complete the construction of her ideal man: a crude puppet-being fashioned from parts of the complex actual people she has metamorphosed into objects or animals. She aims to set up her ideal puppet as King of Ingary – with the Witch as queen – transforming the land in the process into a barren desert bereft of material for the tales of which it should be composed, like the wasteland where she has built her own immobile fortress. Sophie’s resistance to the Witch is achieved through her ability to enable the Witch’s victims to work together as a community in spite of their differences, in spite of the instability of their personalities, in spite of their uncertainty about their individual identities. Her household is a domestic democracy rather than a monarchy.   And this notion of domestic democracy, or democratic domesticity, is another thing that seems to have attracted Miyazaki to the novel when he chose to adapt it for what was slated at the time as his final film, his swansong to the animation industry and the century in which he was born.

howlsMiyazaki’s movie has been described as less an adaptation than a reimagining, synchronizing the novelist’s concerns with the director’s through a series of daring shifts away from her storyline towards a set of themes that have engaged him for years. The problem of age remains at the centre of the narrative. Once again Sophie’s premature old age is balanced by Howl’s over-extended childhood, and the central problem is how to synchronize their ages, enabling them to cohabit in the Castle of the title. The problem could be said to represent the plight of an ageing film-maker as he seeks to engage the attention of much younger viewers – the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. But in addition, the two time zones that converge in each of Miyazaki’s central characters – youth and elderliness, adolescence and maturity – become symptomatic of a pervasive dualism that extends through every aspect of their environment. It’s with the nature and function of this dualism that the rest of this post will be concerned.

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Albert Robida’s Future
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Albert Robida’s Dreadnoughts

The principal dualism in the film is a socio-political one, concerning the two alternative futures towards which Ingary may be moving: as a bright, colourful, mutually supportive community dedicated to the arts of peace, or a dark, war-ravaged wasteland, the energies of whose inhabitants are synchronized in a collective drive towards destruction. Suspended between these possible future destinies, the Ingary of the film is an in-between place, drawing on sources in art and history that look two ways. The setting of the movie, for instance, is an alternative turn-of-the-century Europe, where a pastoral landscape of mountains and flower-strewn valleys is overshadowed by smoke-spewing industrial chimneys and half-monstrous, half-comic flying gunships. The model for this landscape is Alsace, the disputed border territory between France and Germany which found itself caught at the epicentre of two world wars.[3] The machines that move around this landscape – from flying kayaks to steam-driven trams and the bomb-filled gunship-zeppelins that patrol the skies – derive from the work of the visionary French artist Albert Robida (1848-1926), who became famous in the fin-de-siècle for his exuberant illustrations of technology as he imagined it would evolve in the coming century.[4] Every visual detail of the film, then, looks two ways, to war and peace, to the past and the future, so that the competition between ages fought out within Howl and Sophie serves as a miniature enactment of the competition over alternative destinies being fought out in the world around them. And the Moving Castle becomes an embodiment of all these dualisms, its erratic movements recalling the jerky progress of a turn-of-the-century nation (in the 1900s or 2000s) towards cataclysm or prosperity, towards life or death – or rather towards both, since the film’s audience is conscious that both will dominate the century they have just emerged from.

howls_moving_castle_battleships

Our first view of this building comes with the opening credits, and it’s a very different structure from the chimney-shaped fortress of the novel. Mounted on four metal chicken-legs, Miyazaki’s Castle resembles the hen-footed hut of Baba Yaga the Russian witch, an ambiguous figure who is either child-eater or magical helper depending on the storyteller’s whim; it points, then, to the centrality of ambiguous witches to the narrative. The surface of the Castle bristles with gun turrets and rural cottages, as if to point up the two opposite conditions towards which it may be moving, the military and the cosily domestic. The gun turrets embody Howl’s desire to defend himself from being drawn into war; but they also resemble the gun turrets of the ironclad dreadnoughts of Ingary’s navy, and thus point towards his possible enlistment as a secret weapon in the national defence force. And these ships have been part of the wizard’s life since early childhood. When Sophie visits the lakeside cottage where Howl spent his lonely vacations as a boy, she sees the model of a dreadnought on the table, reminding viewers of how boys are acculturated to play at war by the toys and games on offer. Howl’s Castle, then, fuses two influences from his upbringing, the isolated cottage and the ever-present warship, and Sophie’s adventures in housekeeping there have a direct influence on the direction in which the country, as well as the Castle and its occupants, is moving.

airships-howlThe first major change Miyazaki makes to the novel, then, is to place war at the heart of his film’s narrative, embodying its centrality in the eccentric mobile fortress. You might remember that the military is one of the areas in which sociologists have identified the extensive use of synchrony; by moving in concert, soldiers can be trained to subsume their interests to the interests of the group, even to the extent of sacrificing themselves so that collective actions can be successfully completed. One of the things you’ll notice in Miyazaki’s movie is the coordinated movements of the flying airships, with their flapping wings, and the fleets of human-faced bombs that drop out of their bellies. Clearly certain forms of synchrony encourage only conformity, and total conformity can be as disastrous to a community as total individualism. Some other form of synchrony must be found for the household, if it’s to become a successful centre for resistance to conformity with collective aggression.

Howls20Moving20Castle01065_from_we-The second change Miyazaki makes is to the villain of the story, who gets split in two, like everything else in the movie. The movie’s Witch of the Waste starts out as monstrous as she is in the book: a towering, fleshy presence who conjures Sophie into decrepitude in a spontaneous fit of jealousy. But she is soon supplanted by a much more devious enemy called Madame Suliman. Howl’s former tutor in the magic arts, Suliman deploys her formidable powers, ostensibly in the service of Ingary, as a combination of spymaster, bomber command and military general; and she is eager to secure her most promising pupil as her successor in all these capacities. Her character, then, combines aspects of Miss Pentstemmon (Howl’s kind old tutor in Wynne Jones’s novel), and the novel’s Witch of the Waste, who wishes to fix Howl in an unchanging form as her puppet husband. Like the Witch, Madame Suliman repeatedly tries to invade Howl’s domestic space – the Moving Castle – by a range of methods: direct assaults on the Castle doors by her servants, the blob men;[5] enlisting Sophie’s mother to deliver a magical spy-worm to the building; and above all, by drawing Howl deeper and deeper into armed conflict, on defensive raids from which he returns to domestic life with increasing difficulty, often still locked in the form of a monstrous flying demon he assumes when fighting. Howl’s repeated transformations make him more and more like the flocks of identical flying fortresses that threaten Ingary. Sophie’s challenge in the movie is to compete with Madame Suliman in the effort to synchronize her heart with Howl’s well-protected organ, which he has hidden in the hearth of the Castle for security, guarded by Calcifer. The two women stand for alternative versions of his destiny, his social role: as imperialist warmonger or affectionate family member, as obedient marcher in step with the military or as participant in the mutually supportive domestic community. And the richness of the film consists in its implicit acknowledgment that he could well end up as both.

08-howlsOne of the ways in which this perception is conveyed is through the refusal of the film to set up clearly demarcated opposing sides, of the kind Wynne Jones creates by installing the Witch of the Waste as Howl’s antagonist. Characters literally metamorphose into new shapes as the film goes on, taking on aspects of each other’s appearance and actions, and changing sides in a conflict whose causes and participants are never certain. The blob men who begin as henchmen of the Witch of the Waste seem to switch allegiance half way through, hiring themselves out to the more powerful sorceress, Madame Suliman, after her easy defeat of their first mistress in a showdown at the royal palace. Meanwhile, the defeated Witch becomes a member of the eccentric family circle that occupies Howl’s Castle – a kind of second Sophie, as if to acknowledge Sophie’s complicity with the spell with which the Witch aged her. So too does the asthmatic dog Heen, who starts out as Madame Suliman’s spy but ends as the playmate of Howl’s apprentice Merkl (a younger version of Wynne-Jones’s Michael). In Heen’s place, Sophie’s stepmother becomes Suliman’s spy, delivering the spy-worm to the Moving Castle under pretence of a family reunion with her long lost stepdaughter. Meanwhile another member of Howl’s household, the scarecrow Turnip, turns out in the end to have been an enchanted prince from the neighbouring country with which Ingary is at war. Enemies and friends, in the world of Miyazaki’s later movies, can be indistinguishable – which serves both to point up the painful futility of the conflicts that break out between them, and the possibility, against all odds, of bringing them at last into synchronistic alignment.

Witch's_henchmenThe most disturbing ambiguity of affiliation is that of the blob men. As the servants of Madame Suliman one might expect them to form part of Ingary’s army, and indeed when they attack the Castle they wear Ingarian military uniforms. But they also share a civilian uniform – of top hats, masks and tarry bodies – with the winged monsters who emerge from the bellies of the flying gun-ships as they attack Ingary. Madame Suliman, then, seems to be fighting on both sides of the conflict she presides over. For her it’s nothing but a game: the kind of war-game that might delight the young pages who surround her, each of them designed to look like Howl, as if to illustrate her desire to add him to her collection of pretty boys. Madame Suliman exposes her attitude to conflict at the end of the movie when she tells the pages, ‘Let’s put an end to this idiotic war’, implying that she could have done so at any point in the preceding action.[6] She is sinisterly playful, indulging a second childhood in old age as she conducts the affairs of the country from the comfort of a padded wheelchair in her flower-filled conservatory. Yet even Suliman cannot be dismissed as a mere monster; she is too humorous, too detached and too attractive to be so easily summarized, especially because it’s never entirely clear if all her machinations are actually causing damage to the people caught up in them. Her body, like Howl’s and Sophie’s, or like Ingary itself, is a space where different elements converge, each in turn becoming dominant as she wearies of the game she has been playing and moves on to a new one. So she too harbours the potential to be subsumed into a new model of domestic cohabitation.

21e63264e1ed9b48c5cf7c5b5e92a182War itself slips between identities as the film goes on, becoming sometimes a game, sometimes a hideous nightmare, in response to the changing moods of its conductors. At the beginning it’s a carnival, a form of collective play for the people of Ingary, whose lives are filled with toys: fancy hats from Sophie’s hat-shop, fancy cakes from the bakery where her sister works, national flags, charmingly silly steam-driven vehicles. It’s conducted by dashing soldiers in bright uniforms, post-adolescent show-offs who steer motorized kayaks around the sky like teenagers in sports cars. At the harbour, the civilians celebrate with childish enthusiasm the deployment of the national fleet. Sophie’s own stepmother adds to the air of flippant collusion with warfare by wearing a hat decorated with naval cannon in honour of the dreadnoughts. At first, then, war is full of light and colour; but it soon grows dark and violent, swallowed up in the bomb-torn night whose reds and blacks threaten by the end to dominate the movie’s palette. Lightness, then, and light, are capable of giving birth to heaviness and gloom; and in this war follows the trajectory along which Suliman is keen to steer her pupil Howl.[7]

tumblr_lk11muJQKe1qe0xgwo1_500From the beginning, Howl shares Suliman’s moral ambiguity. Rumour has it he devours the hearts of the girls he seduces; and although he first makes his appearance in a very different role – snatching the girl Sophie from the clutches of a pair of soldiers – even at that point he’s a source of danger, pursued by blob men who threaten Sophie more than the soldiers did. Not long after this, Sophie undergoes her transformation at the hands of the Witch, leaves home and joins Howl’s household as an elderly cleaner. But when she starts to clean up, she accidentally switches the blond and black hair dyes in his bathroom; and the transformation of Howl’s hair from blond to black signals his potential to transform himself from hero to villain, like a cowboy changing hats. This prospective switch of moral allegiance is foreshadowed by his reaction to the hair-dye incident. Howl goes into a titanic adolescent sulk, during which he generates both copious quantities of green slime, as in the novel, and a host of shadow-monsters closely resembling the blob men. This extravagant reaction, with its echoes of the sinister sorcery of the Witch and Suliman, is rendered more disturbing by the fact that immediately before this scene we witnessed Howl in action for the first time against the invading air force; an experience he seems to take far more lightly than Sophie’s assault on his cosmetics.

Howl.full.150241Howl’s lightness, then – his excessive concern for his appearance and the pleasures of flirtation – represents the flip side of his increasingly frequent forays into the darkness of war. If boys are the perfect recruits for a nation’s armies, Howl’s insistence on retaining his adolescent traits – his filthy, toy-strewn bedroom, from which he bars the cleaner Sophie; the ‘secret garden’ of his childhood, where his cottage retreat is hidden;[8] his love of fancy clothes – is what renders him vulnerable to Suliman’s efforts to draw him into her war games. The connection between his boyish lightness and his attraction to war is made most vividly when he shows Sophie the secret garden. At this point he looks much younger than he did earlier, gesturing towards flowers and mountains with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of childhood. But the appearance of a flying gunship prompts him to begin the change into a winged monster, smiling as he launches a magical attack on the gunship with one claw-like hand. The monster and the boy cohabit in Howl, both of them symptoms of his heartlessness – that is, his staunch defence of his emotional secrets, his carapace of bright insouciance, from external assault. If the literally light-hearted Calcifer guards Howl’s heart in the hearth of the Castle, safely hidden from intruders, it’s for Sophie to lend him the weight he needs to launch into a mature relationship.

o-oSophie, on the other hand, needs to achieve synchrony with Howl if she’s to escape the weight of self-inflicted reponsibility that binds her to an aged body. Their first meeting shows her what is missing from her life as a girl: the lightness Howl possesses in abundance. Wearing her trademark sober clothes and unflattering hat, she timidly skirts the carnival crowds as she crosses the city, dodging into shadowy back-streets to avoid the limelight. It’s in one of these alleys that Howl rescues her from the soldiers; and he later saves her from the blob men by launching them both into the air without the aid of wings, then walking with her, arm in arm, along an invisible pavement in the sky, visually acting out the light-heartedness of first love. After that, Sophie continues to see the airborne Howl as the carefree young man of this meeting, and works, as he grows darker and more monstrous, to align the chaotic interior of his Castle with the brightness of his first appearance. In the process she discovers lightness and colour in herself, which are reflected in the light and colour she brings to Howl’s shabby domicile – as well as in her increasingly frequent unconscious shifts from old age to youth. For a woman burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and wedded to the shadows, Sophie succeeds in bringing an abundance of brightness to the Castle’s gloomy interior. She smashes a hole in the wall with a flying kayak while escaping from Suliman’s troops, and inspires the wizard to shift the Castle to the many-windowed, sunlit hat-shop to keep his household safe. Her final transformation of the Castle, when she rebuilds it from scratch by removing Calcifer, with Howl’s heart, from the fortified hearth and carrying both outside, culminates in the reduction of the building to an open platform, its defences stripped away, its inhabitants exposed to the elements. And although this transformation begins at night, so that its implications are hidden by the mountain gloom that surrounds the platform, when the dawn comes it’s clear that Sophie’s housekeeping has finally exposed Howl and his remarkable family to the open scrutiny from which he has so sedulously been keeping them hidden.

1446593538-5260766be0110108a38b58383f966fe3The synchrony between Howl and Sophie reaches its culmination in the reconstructed Moving Castle of the final frames. Winging its way across an open sky, on flapping wings not so very dissimilar to the wings of the airborne gunships, the flying fortress is now dominated by cottages rather than gun-turrets, gardens rather than protective armour. It represents, then, Howl’s opening up of his childhood secret garden to a wider community, his entry into full socialization – an entry in which the rejuvenated Sophie fully participates. But the gun turrets still poke out of the castle roof, and though the flying gunships are heading home they have not been destroyed or dismantled. The difficulty of achieving synchrony in personal relationships – between generations of a family or different people in the same generation – is clearly equivalent here to the difficulty of achieving synchrony between rival nations: a harmonising of different interests to the mutual advantage of both parties.

Howl-5Flight has been rendered joyful rather than threatening in the final frames of Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl and Sophie face forward into the future from the bows of the Castle with the self-assurance of young lovers, whose relationship has been literally tested in the fire. But the future towards which they are facing – whether it’s the twentieth century, when the film is set, or the beginning of the new millennium, when the film was made – will surely share the synchronies of their relationship: its darkness as well as its light, its war as well as its peace, the premature ageing brought on by anxiety as well as the exuberance of childhood prolonged into maturity. And the Moving Castle remains a poignantly rickety structure in which to confront such a future.

[1] For a full account of Diana Wynne Jones’s recurrent themes, see Farah Mendlesohn, Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children’s Literature (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[2] Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (London: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 9.

[3] See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle (San Francisco: Viz, 2005), p. 12.

[4] For Robida, see The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 49.

[5] The term ‘blob men’ is used in The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 212 and elsewhere.

[6] The quotation is taken from the script of the film as translated by Jim Hubbert, The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 252.

[7] For an extended discussion of the concept of lightness (as against weight) in twentieth-century history, see Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (London: Penguin, 2009), Lecture 1, ‘Lightness’, pp. 3-29.

[8] The term ‘secret garden’, with its invocation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, is used in Hubbert’s translation of Miyazaki’s script. See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 240.

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

SwordstoneThis post should begin with an explanation. The version of The Sword in the Stone being discussed here is the first British edition, which differs from the first American edition mainly in the chapter about Robin Hood. It differs still more from the version that opens The Once and Future King, which incorporates two episodes from The Book of Merlyn (the final book of the sequence, posthumously published in 1977). That’s the reason many readers will find episodes discussed here that aren’t in the version they read. I’m still convinced that the first British edition is the best, but then that’s the one I read in my childhood…

MTE4MDAzNDEwMjQ2NDY5MTM0No writer before T H White, I think, had been so flamboyantly anachronistic in fantasy. The Sword in the Stone (1938) is rooted in anachronism, steeped in it, inhabits it as its element. The clash of periods is embodied in Merlyn, the ancient wizard, who not only lives backwards (like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass) – meaning he is a little confused as to the conventional order of events – but seems to have lived for hundreds of years, since he remembers all the major incidents and changes of fashion between White’s lifetime and the fifteenth century. But Merlyn represents only one small strand of the book’s enmeshed anachronisms. Another is the date in which it’s set. The technology described in the narrative is clearly that of the late medieval period, when Sir Thomas Malory wrote the Morte D’Arthur, despite the fact that the roots of the Arthurian legends are usually traced to around the fifth century. Robin Hood turns up in the guise of Robin Wood – a less outrageous anachronism, since the earliest surviving rhymes of Robin Hood are from the fifteenth century, when Malory was writing, though by the end of the following century he had been firmly relocated to the reign of King John (1166-1216). White’s sources, then – the works of Malory, the rhymes of Robin Hood, the educational tracts, technical manuals and natural histories he draws on – are as enthusiastically blind to what we’d now call historical accuracy as he is. They were reader-facing – primarily concerned with the tempestuous times their writers and their first readers inhabited, rather than with the often impossibly remote times when the events described took place. Malory’s Arthur resembles a participant in the English Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the noble Houses of Lancaster and York which was being waged in Malory’s lifetime. And White’s version is clearly the product of the late 1930s, when dictatorships were flourishing in Europe and the Second World War loomed on the horizon.

IMG_1832The pre-war period is most clearly alluded to in White’s own illustration to Chapter Nineteen of the first edition, where the giant Galapas has the Nazi swastika and the Soviet hammer-and-sickle embroidered on his clothes. White lived in an age of murderous bullies – Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mussolini – and he was not alone in using children’s fiction to combat their aggression. A few years later Eric Linklater penned a sort of wartime companion piece to The Sword in the Stone, The Wind on the Moon (1944), in which a pair of badly-behaved sisters rescue their father from a dungeon very like that of Galapas, where he has been incarcerated by a tyrant called Count Hulagu Bloot. Like White’s protagonist, the Wart, the sisters turn into animals (they spend most of the first part of the novel as kangaroos), and enlist beasts to help in the rescue – most notably a Golden Puma and a Greenland Falcon, who they meet in a local zoo. And as in The Sword in the Stone, the comparison between animals and humans elicited by this interspecies contact is not very flattering to the latter. When the girls-as-kangaroos admit to being children the Falcon thinks it’s brave of them to ‘admit such a lowly origin’; and both the Falcon and the Puma assume that as children they have little experience of ‘freedom’. In fact the girls, unlike the Wart, never know what it is to be animals, despite their transformation, because they never meet a real kangaroo, never learn how you see the world when you have a pair of powerful legs, a muscular tail, and no limits to your freedom of movement. Anarchic though they are in their behaviour (the title of Linklater’s book refers to their periodic bouts of naughtiness, which happen, their father says, whenever there’s a wind on the moon), they never really escape the condition of being young girls, with all its restrictions. Instead it’s the falcon and the puma who forego their freedom to help them in their quest to free their father, and one of whom pays a heavy price for giving its assistance.

SwrdStne-07The Wart’s transformations, by contrast, enable him to immerse himself in the state of being an animal; and his immersion is a form of technical as well as social, political and moral instruction. This is because White’s animals are first and foremost highly sophisticated pieces of technology. Each of them has a specialist function or set of functions, as is brought out in the episode where a scholarly badger explains to the Wart ‘why Man has become the master of all the animals’. Having created the embryos of all living creatures, God invites them to choose the tools that will be attached to their adult bodies, whereupon each species makes its selection at the eternal throne: ‘They were allowed two or three specialisations, so that some chose to use their arms as flying machines and their mouths as weapons, or crackers, or drillers, or spoons, while others selected to use their bodies as boats and their hands as oars’. Only Man chooses no accoutrements at all and remains a ‘naked tool’ all his life, though a user of tools; always having the potential to be something, never fully achieving that potential; ‘able,’ as God points out, ‘to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys’, like a half-made thing – though in compensation he is half of something astonishing, a deity. Having correctly guessed what God wanted when he allowed the embryos to choose – that is, acknowledgement that his creatures should be contented with the way he made them – Man is duly placed in charge of the rest of Creation. But the notion of beasts as technological marvels has already become clear in the course of White’s novel, and their specialisms don’t diminish them in White’s eyes; they are perfect, in their various kinds, as Man is not. Swimming as a small fish, Wart finds, is both an efficient and a tricky accomplishment. Flying as a bird is as hard as flying an aeroplane – which White could do, as he explains in his memoir England Have my Bones (1936) – and as delightful. Deploying the tools of a badger properly – the forks of its arms, the weapons of its mouth – needs experience and craftiness. Being a snake is technically easier than being (say) an owl (though it’s not that easy to know how venom works), but it also entails the learning of endless stories to fill one’s dreams in the months of hibernation, a by-product of the snake’s seasonal operating system. To be an animal involves no less ingenuity than to be a human being, though the ingenuity is of a different kind.

White’s use of anachronism does something similar for the Middle Ages to what his account of the technical difficulties of being a fish does for the beasts: it helps to shatter the sense of superiority the twentieth-century reader is apt to bring to his or her reading of old texts. White makes Malory our contemporary, just as the critic Jan Kott sought to do for Shakespeare. William Morris did something similar in his late romances, which show an admiration for the technology of the fifteenth century – in particular the making of clothes, a central theme in The Water of the Wondrous Isles – very like White’s. Morris’s romances, however, root themselves firmly in the past through their language, which expertly mimicks the language of Malory’s knights and ladies even while rendering them utopian, representatives of a perfection that never existed and has not yet been achieved. White loved his Malory as much as Morris did, but he wasn’t wedded to the past; as I said, he learned to fly as well as to hawk, and wrote well about both experiences (for the former see the fine passage on flying a helicopter in The Master (1957), chapter 22, for the latter see The Goshawk (1951)). His knowledge of new technology surfaces quite often in The Sword in the Stone, most particularly, perhaps, in the section where the Wart learns to fly as an owl. And he writes about the technology of the Middle Ages with the same care and attention as he does about the more modern problem of propelling yourself forwards and backwards underwater, another skill the Wart has to master, this time as a perch. Quite simply, he doesn’t give you a moment to consider the arts of jousting, hawking, or hunting any less complex than the art of landing a helicopter. His anachronism brings his middle ages alive, both as a location where real skill and artistry can flourish and as a place you can laugh about with pleasure rather than superiority. His knights, peasants and scholars may be funny but they can’t be mocked, because their lives are clearly quite as complex as the life of the twentieth- or twenty-first century reader.

merlin_lgAnimals and human beings live in a symbiotic relationship in The Sword in the Stone, best expressed in King Pellinore’s relationship with the Questing Beast. The Beast exists only to be hunted, and pines away when Pellinore decides to accept Sir Grummore Grummursum’s invitation to sleep in a feather bed for a while and forget his lifelong quest. The quest itself is not violent but playful; Pellinore’s attempts to catch the Beast are doomed to failure, not just because his tools are inadequate – he’s dressed in full plate armour that restricts his vision, his dog is better at tying him up in its lead than following a scent, the King himself knows very little of the art of hunting – but because the Beast itself is so good at hiding its tracks (it walks backwards, scuffs the ground with its tail, and performs a dozen other tricks to confuse its already confused pursuer). But the very inequality of this relationship – in which the Beast is so clearly the superior intelligence – is what makes it innocent, the ideal representation of the quest celebrated in so many chivalric romances. The knight rescues the Beast from the depths of despair by consenting to abandon his feather bed and return to the chase; the Beast reciprocates by rescuing the knight from the dungeon of the giant Galapas; and witnessing these things presents the Wart with a model for chivalry which will never be matched in all the history of the Knights of the Round Table which he later sets in motion.

More serious symbioses occur elsewhere: in the relationship between hawker and hawk, which explains the immense pride of Hob the austringer when the Wart succeeds in bringing home the errant goshawk, Cully; in the relationship between the professional huntsman Master Twyti and his dogs, so movingly demonstrated at the death of his favourite hound; in the appointment of a boy to live in Sir Ector’s kennels with the hounds; in Master Twyti’s passion for the humble hare, which he describes with as much admiration as if it had been the rarest of mythical creatures (and indeed it is mythical, since Master Twyti’s hares can change sex, ‘which […] no beast in the earth did except it’). This takes us to another point White makes about animals: that the medieval attitude to them was as intellectually challenging as our own scrupulous efforts at taxonomy and empirical observation. For medieval people beasts, like history books, were designed to be made respectful use of by human beings, for moral and philosophical purposes as well as for food. Scientific accuracy about their behaviour wasn’t important; what mattered was how they were read. White knew this from the medieval bestiaries (he translated one, magnificently, in 1954), where the panther’s ability to attract its prey with the sweetness of its breath was likened to Christ’s ability to draw humanity to him, while the beaver’s practice of biting off its testicles and flinging them at hunters became an exhortation to pious men to fling their sins at the devil as a means of discouraging him from his pursuit of their immortal souls. No matter that panthers don’t hunt with their breath, or beavers castrate themselves; the memorable strangeness is what matters, and the morals, often surprising, which that strangeness calls to mind. White even includes a scene in The Sword in the Stone where the local priest exerts all his intellectual energy to find a suitable moral to a story from that peculiar compendium the Gesta Romanorum, in which beasts and people alike become arcane books whose contents must be expounded by the learned for the benefit of their unlearned listeners, who could never have imagined how a white cow could stand for the Church or a pack of noisy dogs be a mob of slanderers. An actual bestiary makes its appearance in the second book of The Once and Future King, Queen of Air and Darkness (originally The Witch in the Wood, 1939), when the Orkney boys, Gawain, Gaheris and the rest, use its instructions to catch a unicorn. But those boys inhabit a world like ours, where the reading of animals such as the unicorn’s body is not practised, so they can’t think of anything to do with it once it’s caught but kill it and cut off its head. The deed foreshadows the loss of innocence that always threatens and finally destroys King Arthur’s Round Table. Later in the same book, King Pellinore accidentally beheads the boys’ father, King Lot of Orkney; and this innocent accident (the old knight was chasing the Questing Beast, as usual, and had nothing further from his mind than assassination) sparks off a feud that leads to his eventual murder, one of a series of murders by the Orkney brothers that escalates with horrible inevitability till it evolves into the final battle between King Arthur and the Orkney boys’ half-brother Mordred.

This brings us to the third theme that runs through The Sword in the Stone alongside exuberant anachronism and instructive animals. The theme is cannibalism: the process by which human beings convince themselves that it is acceptable to treat other human beings like beasts – but without the respect that’s due to beasts according to the medieval rules of the chase – and eat them for dinner. All the episodes in the book that don’t involve beasts contain cannibals: Madam Mim, who keeps boys and beasts in cages ready for the table; the Anthropophagi, who trap the two most animal-friendly humans in the book – the Dog Boy and the wild man, Wat – and plan to devour them; Galapas the giant, who keeps ‘several corpses of human beings hanging up in [his] game cupboards until they should be ready to eat’, and wants to wring a ransom out of another animal-friendly man, King Pellinore. In the version of The Sword in the Stone which he revised as the opening section of The Once and Future King, White abolished the Anthropophagi but replaced them with a witch, Queen Morgan Le Faye, who lives in a castle made of meat, apparently under the illusion that its malodorous walls and roofs will be as attractive to passing strangers as fragrant gingerbread. In The Queen of Air and Darkness Merlyn becomes a vegetarian – though with a lingering and guilty love of hawking – because all human carnivorousness, at least, has become for him a form of cannibalism. To know animals as Merlyn knows them is to find it impossible to eat them, as the Wart discovers when he meets one of the wizard’s pet hedgehogs in the form of a badger. Conversely, to kill men is effectively to be a cannibal; which means that White, like Merlyn and Arthur, found himself living surrounded by cannibals for much of his life.

6a00e54fcf73858834017d3cde93e0970c-800wiWhat this brings home is the sense of a fully-functioning holistic ecology that runs through The Sword in the Stone in all its versions. The anachronistic Middle Ages of the book – rooted as it is in historical sources – is a time when rules of courtesy and scrupulous good conduct govern the relationship between men and beasts, between men and women, between men and men. The later books of The Once and Future King expose the fragility of this ecology; but the Wart’s discovery of its principles in his childhood lays the foundations for his efforts to establish a similar ecology when he ascends to the throne as King Arthur, the king that was and will be. That title – The Once and Future King – identifies the element of utopianism in White’s book; the idea of a way of life from the past (the Wart’s childhood, a reimagined Middle Ages) that may furnish a model for the future, as it did for Morris. White’s, though, is a tragic utopianism, not the Good Place (eutopia) of Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) but the No Place of More’s bittersweet satire, rendered the more painful because of the affection in which we hold its protagonist after living with him through his education.

sword-stone-live-action-movie-disneyThe Wart represents a community – the birds, beasts, trees, stones and human friends he assembles in his adventures, whose imagined presence helps him draw the sword out of the stone at the end. He assembles this community in much the way that Merlyn assembled the assorted hedgehogs, mice, owls and assorted clutter in his cottage; or as Pellinore assembled the various materials – horse, dog, quarry, equipment – which he needed for a lifetime of questing. Arthur seeks to keep his community close by him when he becomes king, by inviting King Pellinore and Sir Ector to join his Round Table, and by opening a menagerie for the animals to retire to when they get old. But we know, and he learns, that he will never establish a similar community among his human subjects. The attempt, though, is worthwhile – as he says of his adventure with Galapas when he and Merlyn are about to be chopped to pieces by the giant dictator.

Mind you, Merlyn disagrees:

‘Good-bye,’ whispered the Wart. ‘It was worth it.’
‘Good-bye,’ said Merlyn. ‘I don’t think it was at all.’

Most readers of White, I suspect, will agree with the Wart. But then, most readers don’t live backwards.

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising (1973)

UnknownChristmas is the time when fantasies break loose, invading spaces they don’t usually occupy: your living room, offices, public thoroughfares, rubbish bins, most of the screens of the local multiplex cinema. But the fantasies of Christmas aren’t always comforting. This was always a time for ghost stories, tales designed to convert the shiver of cold into the shiver of fear. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) is a Christmas story. And festive stories invariably present the feast as under siege, haunted like Scrooge by the possibility of losing touch with its cheer for ever under pressure from a clutch of enemies: the Mouse King in Hoffmann’s Nutcracker (1816), the Wolves in The Box of Delights (1935), the goblins and the Nazis in Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters (1920-1942), the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the vagaries of the market in The Mouse and his Child (1967). In all these cases the threat to Christmas can be traced, with a bit of imagination, to sources outside the text: the Napoleonic wars that turned all young men into passive instruments in other men’s hands, like nutcrackers; fear of poverty; the shadows of the First World War, the Second World War, the War in Vietnam. Susan Cooper’s novel The Dark is Rising (1973), however – the second instalment in the sequence of that title – is unusual in that it never gives the assault on Christmas a face. The main antagonist, the Rider, seems to have been casually thrown together to provide the forces of the Dark with a focus, but he’s never really threatening, never even really present in any convincing way. At one point he confronts the protagonist, Will Stanton, in the role of a decoy, distracting attention from the real source of the Dark’s assault on the house where Will is staying, which is always inside, always located in the person or thought you’ve invited into your house and into your mind. The most drastic manifestation of malevolence in the book is the cold, and it’s tempting to see this as an allusion to the Cold War that was raging at the time; after all, Will’s favourite brother Stephen is in the navy and therefore on the front line of the global standoff. But the Dark’s lack of a face is what sets this book apart, and to set a name on it is to diminish the narrative, to make it smaller and less strange than it is while you are reading.

file_20414_0_darkisrisingteaseI was unsettled by this book when I read it as a teenager. For me, Will Stanton lived in my house: a big 1930s former Telephone Exchange, made of brick with metal windows, in a Surrey village (in fact Will lives in Berkshire). There was a church nearby, like Will’s, where I sang in the choir; a local Jacobean manor; large dogs bounding around in the hallway sweeping precious objects off tables with their muscular tails; and so many members of the extended family present that it was easy to creep off and find a place to be on your own (in my case, usually to read a book like The Dark is Rising). I loved the heavy snowfall that envelops this familiar landscape at the beginning of the novel, transforming Will’s world into a suitable backdrop for magic, just as I’d seen the Surrey landscape transformed from time to time. I loved the use of rooks as agents of evil – they had always struck me as uncanny birds, and there were masses of them in the yews along Vicarage Road. I loved the metamorphosis of a modern English woodland into a vast medieval forest: my own district, the Weald of Surrey, could easily be taken for an unbroken forest when you looked out across the wooded landscape from Jenner’s Field, where we walked the dogs. And I loved the seamlessness of the regular shifts in the narrative from the familiar domestic magic of Christmas to the inconceivably ancient magic of the Old Ones. But the book made me uneasy all the same, unlike any of the other festive tales I’ve listed.

wpid-photo-7-dec-2012-1336The shifts in Cooper’s book between past and present, present and past, reminded me of the way John Masefield executes similar transitions in his novels for children. Indeed, while I was reading it this time round I noticed how deeply Cooper was indebted to the second of Masefield’s children’s books, The Box of Delights: from the catchphrase of her novel, ‘the Dark is rising’, which echoes Masefield’s (‘the Wolves are Running’), to the triggering of magic at the beginning by the presence of an old wanderer from another epoch; from the unseasonably snowy weather to the focus on songs and music throughout the narrative (an entire choir gets itself kidnapped in The Box of Delights). Masefield’s old wanderer is called Cole Hawlings, and he gives Kay an object that makes the boy and his family the target of repeated attacks by the forces of evil, led by the smooth-tongued Abner Brown. Cooper’s wanderer is called Hawkin – the echo must surely be intentional – and he too gives something to Will, an object that again makes Will and his family the target of repeated attacks. In both cases the object in question endows its young possessor with certain powers. Cole Hawlings is later kidnapped or ‘scrobbled’ by Brown’s gang, just as Will’s sister is ‘nobbled’ by the Dark in the final act of his adventure, to be used as a bargaining tool for the objects of power the boy has been collecting. And both books feature Herne the Hunter, that mythical figure – part man part stag – from Windsor Forest, whose most famous literary appearance is in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he is impersonated by that fat old con artist Sir John Falstaff. The big difference, though, is that Masefield’s novels are warm-hearted affairs, full of genial characters like the wicked old lady in The Midnight Folk (1927) who sings smugglers’ songs while quaffing rum in bed; or Kay’s cousin little Maria in The Box of Delights, who was expelled from three schools and owns a pair of revolvers with which ‘she shoots old electric light bulbs dangling from a clothes-line’. The Dark is Rising, by contrast, plunges Will into the cold: not just a bout of unseasonably bad weather, but a chilly supernatural community that seems to regard ordinary human beings as lesser creatures, to be sacrificed when necessary for what they consider the greater good. I found this idea unsettling, as I say, and it was only with this rereading that I’ve managed to put my finger on why.

The Old Ones are part of the problem. They’re a select club of seemingly immortal guardians of the Light which you cannot join by choice: choice is only involved, we are told, when you decide to betray them, as the mortal man Hawkin does, and as the Rider may have done at some point (although time doesn’t work in the same way for Old Ones like him). The man Hawkin is punished by being made to live on for centuries carrying a Sign which must be passed on to the last of the Old Ones – despite the fact that his betrayal arose from a situation beyond his control, when he was placed under more pressure than an ordinary man could bear. This brings out another troubling aspect of the Old Ones’ club: everything they say and do seems to have been preordained. Will has already always been ‘the Sign-Seeker’ when he first finds out he’s an Old One on his eleventh birthday. The inevitability of his role is consolidated by the fact that he’s the seventh son of a seventh son – always traditionally the most magical of situations to be born in. Yet he can make mistakes, and presumably fail in the quest he has been assigned: to collect six powerful Signs that will help the Old Ones in their struggle against the Dark. Each of the Signs manifests itself to him only after he has been tested, and the last of these tests involves the sacrifice of a member of his family: he must refuse to hand over the Signs in exchange for the life of his sister Mary. Without any choice of his own, then, Will is expected to transfer his loyalties, at the age of eleven, from his family to a weird cult from outside time, and in the process put his relatives in danger. In the process, too, he must learn to consider them inferior to himself. ‘Ordinary’ people have no part in the struggle between Light and Dark, and he must keep secrets from his family – even from his much-loved brother Paul, who suspects more than anyone else that something outlandish is going on in Will’s life. Worse still, Will must manipulate Paul like a puppet in order to save him. During one attack of the Dark he switches off Paul’s mind, leaving him ‘tranquil and empty, unaware’ as if in a coma. And when the attack is over he wipes his memory. That’s a terrible power to have – messing to that extent with people’s minds; and people who possess such a power are clearly dangerous; it wouldn’t take much to think of them as profoundly malevolent (as Hawkin does when he decides to betray the Old Ones). Cooper’s book has been called Manichean, in the sense that it sets Good and Evil against each other in equal struggle. But the two sides are not so easily distinguished; at least, they weren’t to my mind when I first encountered them as a teenager. I would have rejected them both, I thought, if I’d been in Will’s position.

The_Dark_Is_RisingThis was largely because of a particularly disturbing scene in the book that takes place on Christmas Day. The Dark attacks the parish church in the form of a storm of the mind, a psychological assault too powerful, we’re told, to be borne by ordinary mortals; yet the local rector tries to face it down with the power of prayer: ‘he stumbled a few paces nearer the church door, like a man struggling through waves in the sea, and leaning forward slightly made a sweeping sign of the Cross’. The watching Old Ones comment dispassionately on this useless act of defiance: ‘“Poor brave fellow,” said John Smith in the Old Speech. “This battle is not for his fighting. He is bound to think so, of course, being in his church”’. It’s an odd situation, I remember thinking, where ancient pagan magic is identified as operating independently of any religion. The rector later assumes it was the sign of the cross that repelled the Dark, but the Old Ones tell him he is wrong, because the protective Signs Will carries, each of which contains a cross, are much older than Christianity. As a teenage reader I thought it strange that any religion should be asked to consider its central tenets and symbols as relevant only to the historical period when they were formulated or took place; after all, medieval theologians found foreshadowings or ‘types’ of Christ everywhere in texts written before his birth. I think I also suspected that the separation of the forces of magic from the forces of religion leaves magic effectively unshackled from history itself, without any connection to ordinary people. In the days when magic was most widely practised it was inseparable from religion, as the historian Keith Thomas demonstrated in Religion and the Decline of Magic, published the year after The Dark is Rising. If Cooper’s magic isn’t religious, then it’s not related to the history of the world; it’s something separate, set apart, a narrative with which we have no intellectual or imaginative points of contact, practised by people who live among us but with whom we have no available means of communication.

That was what bewildered me, then: the sense of a supernatural community that was unshackled from the narrative of history. The Old Ones can move freely back and forth in time – sometimes without a conduit, sometimes by way of a pair of magic doors in the air like the one Aslan sets up at the end of Prince Caspian (1951). For this reason, the oldest of the Old Ones, Merriman Lyon, knows the future as well as he knows the past. He knows, for instance, what Will’s singing voice will sound like when it breaks: it ‘will be baritone,’ he comments at one point; ‘pleasant, but nothing special’. There’s a crushing weight of judgement here, as well as knowledge: Merriman has no doubt whatever that his assessment of Will’s future musical talent is correct. Would a mortal agree with him, I wondered? And what else does he know? Is everything in Will’s future life accessible to the Old Ones? If so, where does that leave the mental faculty after which the youngest of the Old Ones might have been named: free will? Nowhere, I suspected – and I still suspect this, though it doesn’t worry me now so much as assure me of the novel’s originality, its experimental daring, its willingness to risk alienating its readers.

The shocking length of the Old Ones’ perspective is brought home to us when Will finds the sign of stone in the wall of the church, soon after the episode with the rector:

The glowing thing came out of the wall easily from a break in the stucco where the Chiltern flints of the wall showed through. It lay on his palm: a circle, quartered by a cross. It had not been cut into that shape. Even through the light in it, Will could see the smooth roundness of the sides that told him this was a natural flint, grown in the Chiltern chalk fifteen million years ago.

To be part of a story this old is to have one’s past and future cut, or rather grown, in stone. Some of the other signs Will finds in the book touch human history: the sign of fire, for instance, has an Old English phrase on it meaning ‘Light had me made’; the signs of iron and bronze may or may not have been made by Wayland the Smith, who at least resembles a man. But the sign of wood seems to have grown inside the tree from which it’s taken: ‘There was no irregularity to it at all, as though it had never had any other shape than this’; and the sign of water, which comes to Will from the hand of a dead king, ‘is one of the oldest,’ Merriman tells him, ‘and the most powerful’. And there are additional signs all over the Berkshire landscape. Near the beginning of the novel, a hillside has the Old Ones’ symbol on it ‘cut through snow and turf into the chalk beneath the soil’; near the end, an island surrounded by water is divided in four by streams, making the Sign as if of its own volition. The story of the Old Ones is embedded in a past and present that has nothing to do with human beings, and as this becomes more obvious (a sign cut in a hillside is a human thing; an island spontaneously forming a familiar shape just isn’t) the notion of being an Old One becomes increasingly alien: almost Lovecraftian in its alienness, I’m tempted to say. These people show affection for one another, especially towards the end of the book. They show occasional concern for human beings: Merriman rescues Mary after Will has effectively given her up for the sake of the Signs. But the secret knowledge they share, absorbed from a magic book that gives them a hundred years’ experience in a few minutes, means that they occupy a different plane from ours – and there’s something desperately lonely in this thought, especially for the youngest of them, Will, who by the end of the book has only been an Old One, at least to his knowledge, for less than two weeks. He’s irrevocably changed by then. He speaks from time to time in a strange new voice, far removed from the vocabulary and content of a boy’s; there’s no indication that he’ll have any say about his future; and there’s no one in his family he can confide in. No wonder I was disconcerted by the novel’s ending, which leaves Will stranded like Robinson Crusoe on an alien shore.

DarkRising6Few novels, then, could be more accurately described as about the process of ‘coming of age’ (‘coming of extreme old age’ would be even more accurate). There are no formal rites for this process in many modern cultures, and Will’s father points this out near the beginning: ‘We should have some special kind of ceremony’, he suggests, to mark his youngest son’s arrival at ‘double-ones’. That ‘ceremony’ comes soon after in the form of a fall of snow; but the snow outstays its welcome, evolving from a Christmas card decoration or a child’s plaything to a country-wide menace. It’s snow that’s out of time, coming too thickly at the wrong time of year, staying too long, melting at last into a flood that’s as deadly as the cold was. And it helps to represent ‘coming of age’ as a fundamental shift in one’s perception of time. The child exists in a single temporal framework, concerned with the moment-to-moment gratification or frustration of her own desires and expectations. The adult recognizes countless claims on her time: the claims of the workplace, of family and friends of different ages, of government, the market, the changing body, learning, history, desire and so on. The Dark is Rising dramatizes the child’s encounter with this crazy congeries of time frames, in which one has to choose which time frame to prioritize at any given moment. It dramatizes too the fact that this is no real choice: that you find yourself all at once in a frantic race to get things done against the clock, without the leisure to consider which clock you’re following. It represents this, with terrible honesty, as a chilling encounter as well as an exhilarating one. And setting this moment of transition at Christmas was a stroke of genius: the time when emotional warmth clashes with the chill of fear or isolation; when elaborate plans get overthrown by unexpected reversals – of weather or of political or social crisis; when work and school come to a stop, and all generations with their different time frames converge in one place, so that time itself for a while goes haywire. All this at a time when the insanity of Cold War lay in the background, a shapeless fear in people’s minds, which surfaced from time to time in uncontrollable waves of fear, and whose antagonists couldn’t easily be sorted into good and bad, right and wrong. That’s a heady combination of temporal ingredients, and Cooper sets them against one another with the timing of a fine musician. One suspects that the prominence of music in the book is no accident, though most of the music in it seems to be performed solo, not as the polyphonic fusion of rhythms one might have expected.

I’m grateful to have had her complex book as part of my own coming of age in the 1970s.

E. Nesbit, Five Children and It (1902)

il_fullxfull.369714374_fvnuAs a child I was disturbed by Nesbit’s books. I don’t know what disturbed me: perhaps the bewildering fusion of carefully observed everyday details and fantastic incidents, and the reckless way she played with conventions, from gender roles and class relations to the rules of fairy tales. It may have been her acute consciousness of the material consequences of impossible events: the necessity of having money and food to get through them, the likelihood of getting into trouble because of them, and the deeply-ingrained dirt they would leave on your clothes and hands. It was also, I think, a matter of tone. Reading her again I can see how I would have missed a lot of her jokes, and taken seriously things an adult reader would think of as witty, never quite knowing how to respond to any given sentence or situation. Yet as an adult one can also appreciate how she slides between emotional registers and literary tropes with effortless ease, never letting a reader of any age settle down in the comfortable knowledge that she knows where she is being taken. Perhaps this formal and stylistic flexibility is what’s made her so hugely influential, sparking the synapses of writers as different as John Masefield, Mary Norton, C. S. Lewis, Edward Eager, Nicholas Stuart Gray and Diana Wynne Jones. Her fusion and diffusion of literary tropes and genres made it possible for her stories to go off in any direction she chose, and these are invaluable qualities for a fantasy.

Five Children is about wish fulfilment, like Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or Stevenson’s ‘The Bottle Imp’; but unlike those stories it’s aimed at children, so that the disparity between what’s wished for and what’s obtained is exacerbated by the disparity between the social and economic rules that govern adults and children. This disparity is pointed up by the impossibility of telling any grown up at all about the fact that wishes are being granted, for obvious reasons (what adult apart from Conan Doyle believes in fairies?); a communication gap that remains in place throughout the novel, so that the unfortunate kids are never able to get advice of any kind from adults, not even the Psammead, who makes a point of not advising anyone. That’s an attractive subversion of the widespread tendency in contemporary children’s literature to moralize: if the truth only gets you into trouble then morals, too, are a matter of perspective. So is commercial value: the children wish for gold and can’t spend it, partly because they’re seen as too young to have any. And so is adulthood: they accidentally wish their baby brother grown up, and get a chance to see for themselves the childishness of adult behaviour. Size, too, is relative: when one of them grows to a giant’s dimensions he finds himself even more confined and restricted by the economics of his situation than he was before (he becomes a fairground attraction and ends the day almost crying of boredom). This is a brilliant comment on the confining lunacies kids are encouraged to accept as reasonable in their journey towards becoming active participants in the capitalist system. (And it’s nice to think that this episode was written very close to H G Wells’s brilliant take on giant children, The Food of the Gods, which uses size for even more explicitly political purposes, testifying to Wells’s lifelong fascination with the works of Swift…)

But besides this basic adult/child division there are also disparities in the rules that govern masters and those that bind servants, which get highlighted when the children wish for the servants not to be aware of any of the wishes they come up with – a condition that leads to a number of wonderfully absurd situations. Servants don’t dream, the children believe, except in the strictly regulated terms described in dream interpretation manuals; they simply follow routine unquestioningly. This conviction finds its most absurd expression in the episode when the kids wish for a castle under siege, and see the servants sitting in the courtyard feeding the baby as if nothing has happened. But the book also undermines their view of service repeatedly. In the absence of the children’s parents, servants in the middle-class household are the adults with whom they interact most closely – especially Martha; and Martha rescues them from bullies and the police, sees through their schemes with ease in every chapter, and eventually goes off to get married to one of the men they have encountered on their adventures with a forcefulness and independence that take them completely by surprise.

The episode that best explodes their theories about class difference doesn’t involve Martha. It’s the chapter where they inadvertently ask that their baby brother, the Lamb, be ‘wanted’ by everyone, which leads to his being kidnapped by an aristocratic lady in a carriage, immediately followed by a battle over him in her absence between the coachman and footman. There’s little distinction here between the effects of the lady’s desire for the child and that of her servants – except that the servants show some awareness of the child’s material needs, something the lady has no notion of and never mentions.

The same episode brings out the pervasiveness of racial prejudice in Victorian England. It ends with an alarming encounter with a group of gypsies, which seems at first to confirm every accusation that’s ever been leveled against travellers. The ‘ragged’ gypsy children make ‘dust-pies in the road’, the gypsies themselves have ‘dust-coloured’ hair, and the whole episode is permeated with an atmosphere of terror by memories of the age-old clichés about gypsies abducting children along with other kinds of private property. But the encounter only takes place after we’ve witnessed the equally determined efforts of an aristocratic household to abduct the Lamb; and it closes with a brusque dismissal of the anti-gypsy prejudice, as well as an odd little confirmation of an aspect of gypsy myth that ties them (alone of all adults) to the magical world of the Psammead. Like all the Psammead’s enchantments, the desire for the Lamb gets cut off at sunset; and at once the gypsies are astonished by the fierceness with which they’ve been striving to gain an additional toddler for their community, and distance themselves from the Lamb as fast as possible. Only one woman remains attached to him, though her attachment changes from a desire to possess him to simple good will. She sweeps aside anti-gypsy myth with admirable economy: ‘I don’t know what made us go for to behave so silly. Us gypsies don’t steal babies, whatever they may tell you when you’re naughty. We’ve enough of our own, mostly. But I’ve lost all mine.’ And she follows up this quiet revelation of tragedy by bestowing on the Lamb another wish: a Sleeping Beauty blessing, the stuff of fairy tales rather than racist horror stories. The alert reader will remember that such a blessing was what Jane thought they should ask from the Psammead at the beginning of the chapter, until Anthea pointed out that the creature’s gifts only last till sunset. So if the gypsy’s enchantment is effective, it will prove to be the most valuable gift the children have received in the course of their adventures.

Complications are what this story is all about: complicating simple assumptions, and demonstrating the knotty complications that tangle up every transaction at the turn of the twentieth century. One such complication is the theory of evolution and its consequences. The Psammead or Sand Fairy invokes evolution both in its appearance (it looks like a monkey with antennae) and its great antiquity: when it was young all you ever had to wish for was a Megatherium, because feasting on meat for a week or two was the height of anyone’s aspirations. The children, by contrast, live in an age when there are so many competing things to wish for that it’s inevitable any one wish will clash with a dozen other desirable things or situations. The complexity of this environment is for the Psammead a mark of the world’s decline; and the children’s adventures tend to support the creature’s opinion. Each of their wishes ends up by highlighting the problem of food – the Megatherium question – by making it difficult to get their dinner (i.e. lunch); and this forces them to conceive elaborate and sometimes disastrous schemes to feed themselves, as against the exhilarating hunts of the good old Neolithic era. A great example is the chapter where they wish for wings, which ought to render them angelic – except that angels don’t need feeding, according to Milton, and the children have to compromise their own angelic nature by convincing themselves it’s right to steal if it’s to stave off starvation. The chapter concludes with them imprisoned at the top of a church tower; most of their adventures, in fact, lead to some form of imprisonment, and in each case this could be taken as symbolic. The locked church tower could stand for the arbitrary restrictions imposed by religious doctrine; and this interpretation would seem to be supported by the final section of the chapter, where the vicar regales the children with moral thoughts on their misadventure which we, the readers, never get to hear. Meanwhile the gamekeeper who freed them from the tower praises their pluck for committing theft without ‘peaching’ on some presumed grown-up accomplice. This clash of values – vicar against gamekeeper, spiritual against secular, middle class against working class – points up a disconnect between the gamekeeper’s understanding of the material conditions under which the oppressed must operate and the lofty abstractions that sustain the rich. It’s clear that the children’s understanding of the world is much closer to the gamekeeper’s than the vicar’s – though the vicar’s wife is also closer to the keeper, since she’s concerned not with giving lectures but providing refreshments.

The complication of early twentieth-century existence means that everyone who negotiates the bifurcating paths and competing values of the everyday must possess certain qualities; and Nesbit’s characters tend to describe these qualities in terms of military strategy. This brings us, as all discussions of Nesbit bring us, to the question of gender. One of the brilliant things about her books is that they concern groups, not heroes: clusters of children whose dynamics constantly shift in response to changing situations, so that no one member of that group is ever dominant (though it should be said that Anthea is clearly the child whose perspective dominates in Five Children). Here the group is evenly divided between boys and girls, with the Lamb as an androgynous extra (he wears a dress, like all Victorian toddlers) and the Psammead as the androgynous catalyst for their adventures. And each child takes command of at least one chapter – except for Jane, who, as the youngest after the Lamb, never takes the lead after her disastrous wish on the very first day. If they’re an army, it’s a democratic one, a band of freedom fighters working to subvert the quasi-military discipline that’s being imposed on them by the society within which they operate.

Something I noticed this time round was the way the position of commander-in-chief is exchanged among Nesbit’s characters. When Cyril plots to steal food from the vicarage using their wings Jane exclaims admiringly, ‘How clever of you!’ and he answers with becoming modesty: ‘Not at all […] any born general – Napoleon or the Duke of Marlborough – would have seen it just the same as I did’. During the siege of their house, transformed to a castle, Robert ‘consented to be captain of the besieged force’; and when Anthea conspires to get the Lamb to safety in the episode with the miniature Indians ‘she could not help seeing that she had acted with the most far-seeing promptitude, just like a born general’. The last commander-in-chief is the children’s mother, who on her return from a protracted absence responds to a crisis in the ‘dashing and decided way’ of a ‘born general’, as Cyril points out. Two boys, a girls and a woman share the honours of the book’s generalship between them, and in the process subtly modify the reader’s understanding of what it is to be a general. To negotiate the bewildering demands, conflicting desires and unforeseen accidents of the everyday in the new century, Nesbit implies, takes the tricksiness, skill and pluck of a professional strategist. But in Nesbit’s world, even a general’s qualities can hardly prevent things spiraling out of control. That was a prophetic perception, coming as it did a decade and a half before the outbreak of global warfare.

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

PS220If ever there was a taproot text – in John Clute’s terms, a fantasy that branches out into a thousand other fantasies – this is it. From the moment when the Princess Irene runs off into the uninhabited regions of the ‘great old house’ she lives in – triggering memories of the exploration of the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the book rustles with the ghosts of books to come. The goblins of the title are precursors of Tolkien’s cheery goblins in The Hobbit, and of their nemesis, Gollum; the boy Curdie’s wanderings through the rocky labyrinth of the mines anticipate the astonishing journey through stone accomplished by Susan and Colin in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; the songs Curdie sings to intimidate the goblins share their doggerel rhythms with the songs sung by the elves in the Last Homely House, later Rivendell; Irene’s old-young great great grandmother, whose light guides lonely wanderers on the mountainside to safety, is the forebear of Galadriel and Aslan; the faith of Irene and Curdie’s scepticism predict the games of faith and scepticism played out in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The butler serving the goblins wine in the king’s cellar conjures up the drunken butler of the King of the Wood-Elves, again in The Hobbit. The bizarre domestic animals of the goblins, with their distorted bodies and eerily human faces, conjure up the murderous sphinxes in Dave McKean’s movie Mirrormask or the tormented toys of Toy Story. And in its meditations on class the book as a whole reads like a direct source of Wells’s The Time Machine, where the wealthy have become effete, mindless children and the working classes cannibalistic cave dwellers. But MacDonald’s morals are more sophisticated than those of most of his successors. His fairy tale is designed to shame his readers into rethinking their assumptions about class, race and gender, yet one always gets the sense that he includes himself in the ranks of those who need shaming. He doesn’t stand on an eminence dispensing wisdom to less enlightened inferiors; he shares the wisdom he’s been given by women – always women – wiser than himself.

The moral complexity of his book is clear from the moment he tells us about the goblins’ origins. These are not creatures who have been the way they are since the dawn of time; they are products of the Darwinian age, unlike Tolkien’s orcs but very much like Gollum. ‘There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there were different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws; and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country’. The goblins hold a very reasonable grudge against the descendants of those who ‘caused their expulsion’ from ‘their former possessions’. And they continue to evolve as the book goes on, beginning as comic weaklings, and growing increasingly menacing as their revenge matures towards fruition. Things don’t stay stable in MacDonald’s world, and the most unsettling thing about this instability is that his grotesque antagonists are so closely allied – physically, mentally, geographically – to his heroines and heroes.

The Goblins’ plot to seize the house where Irene lives is a plot to recover their own. Their desire to abduct Irene is a violent expression of the desire to reunite two communities that were violently separated. Humans made the goblins, and the proximity between the two species seems to be confirmed by Curdie’s obsession with them, and by the fact that his guiding thread at one point leads him straight into the arms of the goblin royal family. Even their distorted animals are terrifying because of their parodic humanity: ‘what increased [their] gruesomeness was that, from constant domestic, or indeed rather family association with the goblins, their countenances had grown in grotesque resemblance to the human’. MacDonald hints here that there has been interbreeding between goblins and animals, as we know there has been between humans and goblins (that’s why the goblin Queen has toes). In his post-Darwinian universe the grand hierarchy of species – the Great Chain of Being – no longer exists, and anyone can become anyone or anything else, given time, habit and inclination.

The structure of the book reinforces this idea of the potential for slippage between one condition and another. There are three principal families in the book: the princess’s dysfunctional family, in which the father is mostly absent and the mother dead; Curdie’s family, whose male members labour underground or work secretly after working hours to expose the plots of the goblins; and the goblin royal family. All three families are dominated by their women: the great great grandmother who watches over Irene; Curdie’s mother, who seems in effect to be the great great grandmother’s younger sibling; and the goblin Queen, who conspires to overthrow the other two families while concealing their close family resemblance by hiding her human toes inside a pair of granite shoes. Threads link the families: the cord or ‘clue’ Curdie uses to find his way to and from the maze of tunnels bored by the goblins, and which leads him to them time and again; the magical thread spun by Irene’s great great grandmother, which leads her first to Curdie and later to Curdie’s mother. The threads insist on the links that bind princess to miner, miner to goblin, goblin to princess.

The ruling classes and their servants struggle to contain the younger generation, twelve-year-old Curdie and eight-year-old Irene, in the places to which their class and age should properly restrict them. Irene is confined to her bed, Curdie cooped up in the mine, or in a locked room in the great house where the princess lives, or in a hole in the goblin palace. (The great house and the goblin palace don’t treat him very differently – he’s even shot by the princess’s guard, who think at first he’s a goblin, then a thief, unable to rid their minds of settled assumptions about the habits and intentions of the poor). The same urge to cabin, crib and confine – on the part of others, on the part of themselves – is what twisted the goblins’ bodies and minds into ‘gruesomeness’. But Curdie and Irene resist enclosure, running up and down the mountainside, scurrying through tunnels, staying up all night, making friends with unsuitable strangers. And in the end their energy breaks down the artificial barriers that divide the kingdom. Irene is found by Curdie in his mother’s arms; Curdie is invited by Irene’s father to share a communal meal in the great house, with the other miners, like long-lost relatives. By this time the nature of class has already been questioned by the narrator, who insists that ‘there is some ground for supposing that Curdie was not a miner only, but a prince as well’; just as the princess is, for Curdie’s mother, ‘a good girl […] and that’s more than being a princess’.

The book ends with a deluge which underscores the point. Curdie and Irene live in a seemingly solid landscape – the most solid imaginable, a land of mountains. But under and through and across the mountains, water flows. It menaces the miners, sustains the gardens of the great house, and forms an essential part of the goblins’ plots against their former rulers, as if the water were somehow an expression of the class system. But at the climax of the novel, when the goblins unleash what is intended to be a watery vengeance on the humans, the flood goes awry thanks to the miners’ intervention. Instead of overwhelming the mines as the goblins had hoped, the floodwaters sweep through their own tunnels – exposing their kinship to the miners in the process, as they are drowned by the very same element which is most feared by their fellow stone-workers. But the water also bursts out of crevices in the mountainside, and threatens to overwhelm both the miner’s cottage where Curdie lives and the great house of the princess. Both these structures are buildings, so both are vulnerable to the same physical threat to their foundations. The members of the princess’s household seek refuge with the miners’ families; and later it’s the miners who drain the great house so they can go home. When the house is drained it turns out to be full of goblin corpses, the symbolic remains of a rigid class system that has now (perhaps) been overthrown. The feast thrown for the miners by the King announces a new entente cordiale between the workers and the ruling classes, whereby both are respected by their opposite numbers and all deserving citizens are assumed to have princely blood.

But MacDonald doesn’t leave the goblins rigid and unchanging. The surviving goblins undergo another metamorphosis: ‘Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even the miners’. This process turns them into people ‘very much like the Scotch Brownies’; so they end the book as Scots, just like MacDonald. It’s typical of MacDonald to acknowledge his own kinship with the antagonist-victims of his narrative.

Fluid identities, then, are key to this book, as they were to Phantastes. And the most fluid of identities in the book belong to the women. Irene’s great great grandmother and Curdie’s mother don’t seem to be restricted to the class or time into which they were born. They aren’t rigid in their judgements of others. They don’t bully or patronize the children in their care when they fail to follow instructions. But they’re also concealed from sight, as if in acknowledgement that MacDonald’s culture wasn’t yet ready to accommodate them. The great great grandmother stays hidden in the attic, and cannot be seen even by Curdie until he too has learned to cultivate the flexibility she embodies – no other man sees her, except the King on one occasion. The mother stays hidden in the cottage. In the book’s final chapters it’s Curdie who is most active, plunging through flooded rivers, carrying Irene to safety, and riding the King’s own charger in a successful mission to save some horses from a flooded stable. It’s a reversal of the usual class structures of Victorian romance, but not of the gender structures that were challenged earlier in the novel – as when the Princess rescued Curdie from the goblin dungeon. MacDonald was a visionary and a radical; but he was not so much of a fantasist as all that.

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz title page
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz title page

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of those books that has had a gigantic impact on twentieth-century culture without anyone quite knowing why. The impact comes as much from a specific filmed version as from the book ­- more so, probably -­ though as with Peter Pan the film in question emerges from a theatrical tradition initiated by the author. But the book itself was also phenomenally successful, and unlike Peter Pan seems to have been viewed with suspicion by critics and teachers. Ever since I first read it (aloud, to my daughter) I’ve wondered why I was told as a youngster that it wasn’t much good. There are a number of possible reasons: Baum’s explicit disavowal of instructive intentions (though Nesbit and Barrie disavowed these too); the fact that it’s a fantasy, completely fabricated by the author, without one foot in reality (Nesbit), a wryly sardonic tone (Nesbit, Barrie, Carroll), or impeccable scholarly credentials (Tolkien’s Hobbit); or that the central character is a young girl (though it shares this with Alice in Wonderland). Yet in spite of the opinions of experts, the book did so well that Baum gave up his many other enterprises to concentrate on entertaining children. And the basic story, as relayed in book, play or film, has continued to feed into American culture ever since. What has made it so Great and Powerful?

There’s a beautiful clarity about the book which is matched by Denslow’s original illustrations. The territories Dorothy travels through are colour coded (grey for Kansas, blue for the Munchkins, green for the Emerald City and so on), the successive encounters she has are neatly arranged each in its own chapter, and the style is amazingly economical: it made me think of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or the literary retellings of old fairy stories Baum mentions in his preface. There’s something almost geometrical about the way adventures come in threes or fours, as they do in fairy tales, and about how the story itself is constructed in two halves: a single journey to the Emerald City followed by two journeys away from it, first to the Wicked Witch of the West, then to the Good Witch of the South. This clarity and precision could be mistaken for crudeness and simplicity; but I don’t think it’s simplicity that we find in either version of the story, film or book.

There are three things people tend to remember about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and that get carried over into its adaptations. The first is Dorothy’s companions on her adventures; the second is the wizard; and the third is Dorothy herself, who is often dismissed as a cypher. (The Wicked Witch of the West is memorable too, but only in the film.) None of these would stay in the mind, I think, if they weren’t capable of eliciting a range of readings and emotional responses. The companions could be said to personify certain personality traits ­ intelligence, sensitivity, courage ­ like allegorical figures. But they themselves don’t believe they stand for these qualities, despite displaying them on many occasions before being ‘given’ them by Oz himself. And they’re a wonderfully improbable trio: two simulacra and a talking animal. Each of them isn’t what he seems: the scarecrow isn’t a man, though he looks like one, and we’re reminded of his non-humanness repeatedly, since he doesn’t sleep or eat and can’t be harmed by events and creatures that threaten Dorothy. The same is true of the tin man, except that unlike the scarecrow he was once human, so that his most inhuman quality ­ the substance he’s made from ­ masks the fact that he knows what it is to be made of flesh and blood. The lion looks and sounds like the King of Beasts from Aesop’s Fables, but is full of self-doubt which means he is effectively no lion, since in Aesop the King of Beasts is defined by his confidence in his own power. At the same time, all three companions already possess the thing they think they lack. The scarecrow’s intelligence saves the travellers repeatedly; the tin man’s sensitivity constantly threatens to rust him; and the lion leaps over abysses and fights appalling monsters without a qualm. So they’re neither what they resemble nor what they think they are. The sense that they’re displaced, that they have no fixed identity any more than they have any fixed abode, is what makes them the ideal companions for a little girl far from home.

The second memorable element in the book is the Wizard, the charlatan or humbug who benignly terrifies his subjects into submission with ingenious displays of special effects. He’s the perfect monarch for the land that spawned the companions, since he’s even less what he seems than they are. In the book he seems to be many things in quick succession: a bodiless head, an angelic woman, a monster, an invisible presence, a raging bonfire, so that his resemblance to the shifty God of the Old Testament is obvious; he even tests the faith of his people by demanding a sacrifice, sending them to kill a Witch who has never been defeated. But he’s no God: just an ageing balloonist from Omaha, a salesman (like Baum himself) whose previous job was to announce to the world that the circus, that festival of trickery, skill and illusion, had come to town. As a salesman his gift is to change not things but people’s perceptions of them. He changes the colour of the Emerald City by making its citizens wear tinted glasses. He fills the scarecrow’s head with needles to show him he’s sharp, gives the tin man an ersatz heart to reassure him he possesses a real one, and doses the lion with Dutch courage to reinforce his bravery. And he bestows these gifts on the companions after they’ve exposed him as a charlatan. This shows how much his subjects want to be conned. He is the product as well as the orchestrator of their imaginations, and his subjects take every opportunity to thicken the air of mystery that surrounds him.

Outside the Emerald City, his rule is ineffectual. Anything that doesn’t respect his power can flourish in Oz: Wicked Witches, dangerous animals, carnivorous trees, narcotic flowers. He’s too benign to interfere with anyone who will not listen to his grand pronouncements or be seduced by his shows. But these are not personal failings ­- merely demonstrations of the extent to which he’s a construct of his people, who also construct themselves, as the companions testify.

Oz, in fact, is the ultimate democracy. Every ruler gets elected, with the exception of the despotic Witches, and all of them come from humble backgrounds (you can’t get much humbler than a man of straw and a walking tin can). There’s no individualism in the country; cooperation is the natural reaction to every problem. Even Oz and his subjects have to co-operate if his magic is to work. And as representatives of artificially segregated human traits, Dorothy’s three companions depend entirely on teamwork. As they encounter each new challenge they begin by determining which of their talents is required, and all are required with equal frequency, while their possessors show an equal willingness to sacrifice themselves for all the rest. And they’re as ready to rely on random passers-by as on each other: a stork and an army of mice are recruited to deal with problems for which they themselves are ill-equipped. In this they appeal to the communitarian impulse of fairy tales; few fairy tale heroes or heroines win through without a team of unlikely accomplices. They are aware of this, perhaps, because they themselves are such accomplices, the first of their kind to get rewarded for their services with kingdoms.

It’s not surprising, with this example in front of her, that when Dorothy gets separated from her companions she responds by showing all the qualities they represent. Her intelligence and affection emerge when she secretly feeds the lion, who is held captive by the Wicked Witch of the West, and her courageous defiance of the Witch ends in the Witch’s death. It’s also no surprise when at the end of the book the Good Witch of the South reveals that Dorothy, like her companions, has all along possessed what she thought she lacked: in her case, the means to get back to Kansas. She wears the magical silver slippers needed to get there; but she also desires to get there, which means that the grim one-roomed farmhouse with its joyless occupants who never smile or laugh was always a home to her, despite its greyness. In other words, she had what she thought she didn’t have in Kansas as well as in Oz.

So Dorothy, like her companions and the Wizard, both is and isn’t what she seems: a little girl lost, from a miserable background, with no special powers. She and Toto contribute to the Kansas farmhouse what it lacks: joy, life and colour; and the book’s ending confirms this when Toto barks ‘joyously’ as he runs towards the barn, and Aunt Em embraces Dorothy with an emotion we’ve not seen in her before: ‘My darling child!’ she cried, folding the little girl in her arms and covering her with kisses’. By the time this reunion takes place Kansas has in any case been imbued with colour by its constant presence in Dorothy’s mind throughout her adventures. Anywhere that’s longed for so passionately can’t be colourless. So Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry could be said to co-operate, like Dorothy’s companions, despite their apparent incongruity. Together they make a mutually supportive community, and the lack of any one of them affects the rest. Baum gave his book a moral, despite his claim to offer his readers ‘only entertainment’.

But it’s no triumphalist celebration of the individual’s victory over impossible odds. There’s something melancholic about the situation of all its main characters, and that melancholy lingers on at the end as they go their separate ways ­ albeit into new and welcoming communities. That’s the other thing that lingers after you’ve finished the novel, at least for me: its mournful tone, packed as it is with people who remain somehow displaced and unsure of themselves even after getting what they wished for. No wonder it inspired some decent music.