Puck, Dreams and the Devil

[This article first appeared as ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’ in the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44, and was reprinted by Cengage Learning in Shakespearean Criticism, vol. 139 (2011). I put it here to sit alongside a number of other pieces on the early modern fantastic.]

Henry Fuseli, Robin Goodfellow

1.  Robin Goodfellow in Athens

In darkness, Nashe tells us in The Terrors of the Night (1594), mortals are more vulnerable to the machinations of the devil than they ever are by daylight.[1] Dreams and night visions weave Satan’s most cunning ‘nets of temptation’ (p. 210), and after sunset one’s eyes turn into magnifying glasses, so that ‘each mote… they make a monster, and every slight glimmering a giant’ (p. 239), multiplying the viewer’s proneness to delinquency and despair.  For the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, on the other hand – as represented by pamphleteers like Stephen Gosson, Phillip Stubbes and William Rankins – it’s drama rather than dreams that constitutes the Devil’s weapon of choice in the unceasing siege he lays to the human mind and spirit.  Plays, they claim, constitute an elaborate imaginative trap whereby Satan lulls the citizens of London into a false sense of security, then ambushes their souls through the unguarded portals of the senses.[2]  So when in about 1595 Shakespeare wrote a comedy called A Midsummer Night’s Dream and crammed it full of spirits, damned or otherwise, he was playing a witty game with the fears of Gosson and his fellow thespiphobes.[3]  What I shall argue here is that the game he played in the Dream was already in full swing among the pamphlets and printers’ shops of 1590s London, and that the appearance of Robin Goodfellow in the woods of Athens would instantly have alerted his first audiences to Shakespeare’s participation in it.

Puck’s presence in the Dream has long been something of a puzzle – whether acknowledged as such or simply ignored.  Classical creatures had found their way into the English landscape often enough in Elizabethan culture before Shakespeare started writing: the transformed Philomene had warbled in English woods in Gascoigne’s verse satire The Steel Glass (1576), Neptune had terrorized Humberside in John Lyly’s play Gallathea (c. 1588), the sea-god Glaucus had moped by the banks of the Thames in Thomas Lodge’s poem Scilla’s Metamorphosis (1589).  But Shakespeare’s transplanting of Robin Goodfellow to some woods near Athens was the first time (to my knowledge) that a figure from English folk legend had been relocated to the Mediterranean, and the implications of that relocation have not yet, I think, been fully worked out.  For one thing, as a peculiarly northern forest-dweller Robin may have had some effect on the relationship between night and day in his new, more southerly setting.  Nashe reminds us in The Terrors of the Night that nights are longer in the north, and especially in Iceland, where witches and wizards are plentiful and possess an enviable power over local weather-conditions (p. 223).  The Dream transplants those northern nights to Greece, curtailing daylight hours and extending the shortest night in the year to giant proportions.  Four days and four nights are supposed to have passed between the first and last scenes of the comedy, whereas the audience experiences only two – and has no idea which of those two is the midsummer night of the title.  Robin Goodfellow seems the obvious person to blame for this hypertrophied period of darkness, since he is associated in folk tradition with night, dreams, trickery and Devilish magic.  Moreover, he had an unusually high profile in print during the early 1590s, featuring everywhere as a spirit who transcends the normal boundaries of space, time, life and death.  It’s only by recovering this profile that we can hope to understand his function in Shakespeare’s ancient Greek extravaganza.

2. Puck in Print

For the Elizabethans, Robin possessed a strange double nature, as the embodiment both of English Catholic superstition in the past and of an innocent native cheerfulness that had been lost with the advent of continental sophistication in the present.[4] Reginald Scot paints him in the former light in The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), where he features as a bugbear whose ability to terrorize night-wandering papists has been stripped from him by Protestant rationalism: ‘Robin goodfellowe ceaseth now to be much feared, and poperie is sufficientlie discovered’ (sig. B2v).  The poet William Warner concurs with Scot. His Robin is a spirit who appears like an incubus to sleeping mortals, and in the fourteenth book of Warner’s digressive epic Albion’s England (published in 1606) Robin sits naked on the face of a dormant shepherd and laments the good old days of Mary’s reign, when English Catholics everywhere believed in him: ‘Was then a merrie world with us when Mary wore the Crowne, / And holy-water-sprinkle was beleevd to put us downe’.[5]  But Warner’s Robin is also a blunt teller of unwelcome truths to Protestants.  He goes on to utter a satirical invective against the various forms of hypocrisy prevalent in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, thus revealing himself to have as much of the satyr as of the demon about him.

This is hardly surprising, since by the time Warner painted this picture of him in 1606 Robin had long been associated with satire as well as with drama, dreams and devils.  Robin’s conversion into a satirist is in fact inextricably bound up with his theatrical associations.  In a pamphlet of 1590 called Tarlton’s News out of Purgatory the ghost of the late great comic actor Richard Tarlton appears to the anonymous author in a dream, and sooths his terror at this visitation by reassuring him that he is no devil, but a homely spirit like the noted goblin: ‘thinke mee to bee one of those Familiares Lares that were rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence, as Hob Thrust, Robin Goodfellowe and such like spirites (as they terme them of the buttry) famozed in everie olde wives Chronicle for their mad merry pranckes’ (p. 2).  As a substitute Robin, Tarlton links himself with Catholicism – but a Catholicism defused of the terrors of damnation with which it had been charged by Protestant dogma.  When the author asks the dead clown’s ghost how it has managed to visit the land of the living, given the Calvinist belief that ‘the soules of them which are departed… never returne into the world againe till the generall resurrection’ (pp. 2-3), Tarlton contemptuously dismisses Calvinist doctrine as unhealthily dualistic.  His spirit, like the spirit of Hamlet’s father, inhabits Purgatory, the third alternative to heaven and hell, vouched for by the great poet ‘Dant’ as well as by ‘our forefathers’ and ‘holy Bishops of Rome’ (p. 3) – hence its ability to return now and then to the earth’s surface. In this way the clown blithely sweeps aside decades of religious conflict; and he goes on to tell a string of stories under the aegis of a non-judgemental version of the afterlife which permits the free flow of merry tales between this world and the next, regardless of theology.  His stories may stink of sulphur but they are ‘rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence’; and in telling them he dismisses out of hand the didactic goody-goodies who saw all such stories – on stage or on the page – as works of Satan.

Tarlton’s News was ‘published’, according to its title-page, by an ‘old Companion’ of Tarlton’s, Robin Goodfellow – the spirit with which the ghost of Tarlton links itself.  It seems fitting, then, that when an anonymous ‘Cobbler’ wrote a story-collection of his own (The Cobbler of Canterbury (1590)), and prefaced it with a light-hearted attack on the shortcomings of Tarlton’s News, Robin Goodfellow should have penned a response to the cobbler’s preface, which was printed immediately after it in the first edition.  Here the goblin takes the cobbler’s objections to his publication as a sign of the times, when respect for good manners has been utterly eroded since the happy days when he was ‘so merry a spirit of the Butterie’, helping maids to grind malt and getting a ‘messe of Creame’ for his labour (sig. A4r).  The inhospitable spirit of Elizabethan England has driven Robin to a self-imposed exile in Purgatory along with his old friend Tarlton.  It has also made him devilishly vindictive, though not frighteningly so: he promises to ‘haunt’ the cobbler ‘in his sleepe, and after his olde merrie humour, so to playe the knave with the Cobler, that hee shall repent hee medled so farre beyond his latchet’ (sig. A4r).  Damnation and hauntings have here been reduced to pretexts for comic squabbling and trickery, quite bereft of the fear with which the established churches sought to invest them.

Robert Greene in his shroud

At this point in our story the immensely popular writer of romances and comedies Robert Greene gets mixed up with Puck’s Elizabethan biography.  Evidently a rumour went round that Greene had written The Cobbler of Canterbury, and to deny this rumour Greene wrote a pamphlet called Greene’s Vision (1592) in which he is visited in his sleep by the ghosts of Chaucer and Gower, who debate the merits and demerits of Greene’s prolific scribblings.[6] At the end of the dispute the spirit of King Solomon appears and elicits a promise from Greene that he will from henceforth devote himself to theology; and perhaps for this reason Greene did not publish the pamphlet in his lifetime, reluctant to commit himself to such a career-changing volte-face until he had exhausted the profitable vein of fiction he was still working at the end of his life.  When it did appear, the pamphlet reintroduced the fear of hell into the dialogue between pamphleteers, since it opened with a section where Greene articulates his  ‘trouble of minde’ in distinctly Faustian terms: ‘can the hideous mountaines hide me, can wealth redeeme sinne, can beautie countervaile my faults, or the whole world counterpoyse the balance of mine offences?’[7]  Greene’s fellow pamphleteer Barnaby Rich pounced on this hint at Greene’s posthumous fate, and described him in Greene’s News both from Heaven and Hell (1593) as wandering between Heaven and Hell in search of the happy third location, Purgatory, where he can escape damnation while retaining all the venial faults that made him so attractive a writer in his lifetime.  (On his journey he meets Dick Tarlton, who has now become Lucifer’s resident satirist-entertainer.)  The devil finally expels Greene’s ghost from hell at the request of the cony-catchers he exposed in his final pamphlets; and at this point Greene is transformed into a particularly aggressive incarnation of our old friend Robin Goodfellow, a spirit who troubles the nocturnal wanderings of living sinners.  ‘I woulde therefore wish my friendes,’ he declares, ‘to beware howe they walke late a nights, for I will bee the maddest Gobline, that ever used to walke in the moonshine’ (sig. H3r), haunting the sleep of women and persuading them to cuckold their husbands, infecting men of all occupations with the spirit of avarice so that they will do anything to amass wealth for their heirs, and urging lawyers, courtiers and clergymen to persevere in the corrupt practices already rife in their professions.  Robin has resumed his mantle as a night-dwelling satirist; but by now he trails in his wake the ghosts of clowns and popular authors, whose activities had been denounced as devilish by the theatre- and fiction-haters along with Robin himself.  The implication here as elsewhere is that the target of the moralists has been badly misjudged, and that they have wasted their energies in denouncing fictions and the makers of fictions, when in fact these are far more effective and energetic in attacking social abuses than they are.

For all his residence in a fictitious Catholic Purgatory, then, Robin Goodfellow was seen as mostly harmless by Shakespeare’s predecessors in popular print.  Indeed, he was represented as the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sharing with the common people of England the burden of an inequitable social and legal system, and endowed with gifts that enable him to expose these inequities.  In the anonymous pamphlet Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift (1593) he joins forces with the honest narrator Tell-troth to denounce the operations of jealousy or envy at every level of the English commonwealth.  Here he is characterised as ‘Robin good-fellow… who never did worse harme, then correct manners, and made diligent maides’ (sig. A2r), a kind of incorruptible agent for the discovery of hidden vices, who ‘could go invisible from his infancy’, is ‘subject to no inferiour power whatsoever’, and has ‘a generall priviledge to search every corner, and enter every castell to a good purpose’ (sig. A2r-A2v).  Robin’s affiliation with hell is explained as a consequence of this privilege, which means he can visit even the infernal regions without becoming contaminated by them, and use what he sees and hears there ‘to a good purpose’.  The insistence on his independence of all authority apart from nature’s is intriguing: it is the most explicit statement so far that Robin has become a figure for the legendary liberty of imaginative writers, a liberty invoked by the ghost of the executed poet Collingbourne in William Baldwin’s hugely influential collection of political poems, The Mirror for Magistrates (1559, 1563, etc.).[8]

Behind all these vision-pamphlets, in fact, the Mirror looms as a monumental presence, containing as it does the richest collection of posthumous first-person narratives in the English language.  Its versified stories of the decline and fall of great men and women throughout English history are narrated by the spirits of the dead, and its representation of the past is repeatedly linked to political and social abuses still current in the present.  Interestingly, too, it features a representation by a protestant poet of a Hell that is based on classical accounts of Hades (as it is in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589) and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift) and which is also explicitly linked to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.  This representation of Hell occurs in the celebrated ‘Induction’ to Thomas Sackville’s tragedy of the Duke of Buckingham, and is followed by a discussion of Purgatory among the protestant writers who have gathered to hear the narrative.  The Induction’s Hell, complains one writer, ‘savoreth so much of Purgatory… that the ignorant maye thereby be deceyved’ (fol. 137r) – presumably into thinking that Purgatory really exists.  But the chief editor of the Mirror, the printer-poet William Baldwin, disagrees.  In his poem, says Baldwin, Sackville has depicted not Hell or Purgatory but the grave, ‘wherin the dead bodies of al sortes of people do rest till tyme of the resurrection.  And in this sence is Hel taken often in the scriptures, and in the writynges of learned christians’ (fol. 137r).  A second listener goes further.  What does it matter if Sackville’s Hell resembles Purgatory, he says, since ‘it is a Poesie and no divinitye, and it is lawfull for poetes to fayne what they lyst, so it be appertinent to the matter’?  True enough, Baldwin replies, but such liberty has not always been accorded to poets; and he proceeds to read out the tragedy of Collingbourne, who was executed for writing satirical verse in the reign of Richard III, and whose ghost warns all poets to beware of speaking the truth about tyrants in an age that has grown ‘so fell and fearce / That vicious actes may not be toucht in verse’, and when ‘The Muses freedome, graunted them of olde, / Is barde, aye reasons treasons hye are helde’ (fol. 138r).  The tragedy closes with the heartfelt wish from its listeners that the warning it contains ‘may take suche place with the Magistrates, that they maye ratifie our olde freedome’ to speak openly in verse (fol. 146v).  Restoring this liberty will work for the ruling classes as much as for the common people in whose name the poet speaks, since rulers need to know what their subjects think of them if they are to defend themselves from popular insurrection and eventual dethronement.

The audience of Collingbourne’s tragedy speak with the heartfelt hopefulness of Protestants who have lived through persecution under a Catholic monarch and who hope for something better under her successor.  The first print-run of The Mirror for Magistrates was suppressed in the reign of Mary Tudor, and the 1563 edition from which I have been quoting couches its plea for poetic liberty in terms that are wittily designed to shock both radical protestants and Catholics alike – invoking the concept of Purgatory while at the same time dismissing it as a poetic fabrication – as if to test the Elizabethan reader’s capacity for greater tolerance.[9]  The references to Purgatory in the pamphlets of the 1590s seem to take up this notion of Purgatory as emblematic of the poet’s exemption from political or religious persecution, as does their frequent invocation of that figment of the superstitious Catholic imagination Robin Goodfellow.  Robin is a spirit of the buttery – that is, the bar or pub – rather than of the infernal regions, and his location in Purgatory indicates his temporary immunity from knee-jerk moral judgments based on over-rigid notions of right and wrong.

In the spirit of the other pamphlets we have touched on, Henry Chettle’s Kind-Heart’s Dream (1593) deploys its revenants to argue against simplistic views of the theatre and popular print.  Robin does not figure in it (though it addresses itself to ‘Gentlemen and good-fellowes’, sig. B1r), but the ghosts of both Tarlton and Robert Greene are summoned up, the latter appealing to Pierce Penniless – a pseudonym of Thomas Nashe – to defend his memory against the posthumous slanders of Gabriel Harvey, and the former defending the stage against its detractors while acknowledging the shortcomings of the modern theatre.[10]  ‘Mirth in seasonable time taken,’ the ghost of Tarlton avers, ‘is not forbidden by the austerest Sapients.  But indeed there is a time of mirth, and a time of mourning.  Which time having been by the Magistrates wisely observed, as well for the suppressing of Playes, as other pleasures: so likewise a time may come, when honest recreation shall have his former libertie’ (sig. C4r).  The latter sentence so closely echoes the discussion of Collingbourne’s tragedy in the Mirror that it is hard not to read it as a reminder of William Baldwin’s hope that liberty of speech will be restored to poets at last – even if only at the latter end of Elizabeth’s reign.  Greene and Tarlton, poets and players are ‘good fellows’ in two Elizabethan senses: good drinking companions (Kind-heart sees their apparitions while dozing in a tavern) and morally upright citizens who tackle vice wherever they see it.  And both wish the same punishment on all moralistic ‘maligners of honest mirth’: that is, ‘continuall melancholy’ (sig. C2v).

In Nashe’s Terrors of the Night – a pamphlet where spirits and devils are reduced to the size of dust particles so that ‘not a room in any man’s house but is pestered and close-packed with them’ (p. 212) – Don Lucifer himself, ‘their grand Capitano’, is described as having taken on the form of a ‘puritan’ with an aversion to shows and ceremonies of all kinds (p. 230).  In doing so he has ceased to be the cheerful entertainer he was of yore, when he ‘was wont to jest and sport with country people, and play the Goodfellow amongst kitchen-wenches’ (p. 231).  As a result of this transformation ‘there is no goodness in him but miserableness and covetousness’; he has shifted his allegiance to the camp of the theatre-haters and laughter-loathers, and the world is a poorer place.  Here again Robin represents a form of night mischief that is finally harmless, despite its devilish associations, and those who set themselves against it condemn both themselves and others to an unalleviated depression, the condition for which laughter was prescribed by early modern physicians.[11]   

Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow is the heir to all these Robins, Greenes, Tarltons and merry Devils.  Like his precursors he frequents the sleeping places of mortals, shaping what are in effect their dreams (all the lovers concur in retrospectively perceiving the business in the wood as dreamlike).  Like the Robin of Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift he can make himself invisible at will and go with impunity wherever he wishes in the globe or, presumably, out of it.  Tell-Troth’s Robin has the licence accorded to fools (and sometimes poets) to meddle with the doings of all classes, and Shakespeare’s Puck takes the role of Oberon’s fool, making and discovering fools wherever he turns up.  The merry tricks he plays are mentioned often in the pamphlets, and became the subject of a jest-book in the seventeenth century, Robin Goodfellow his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1628), filled with stories like the ones he tells the fairy on his first appearance in Act Two.  And his connection with fairies is taken for granted by nearly all the pamphleteers, as it is by Shakespeare.  Nashe, for instance, associates Robin with ‘elves, fairies, hobgoblins of our latter age’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210); and it is striking that Puck’s fairy friends in Shakespeare’s play have the capacity to shrink themselves to the size of Nashe’s mote-like devils.  Even Puck’s fondness for hemp, for stamping and for bellowing ‘Ho ho ho!’ is shared with the Robin of The Cobler of Caunterburie, whose catchphrase when provoked is ‘What Hemp and Hampe, here will I never more grinde nor stampe’ (sig. A4v).[12]  Clearly Shakespeare was deeply immersed in the recent literary as well as folkloric history of his ‘merry wanderer of the night’ (2.1.43), and knew how well the ground had been prepared for the rapprochement between popular superstition and sophisticated comedy by his precursors among the Elizabethan pamphleteers.   

 Shakespeare’s artfully managed rapprochement between popular superstition and romance, too, was prepared for by the pamphleteers we’ve glanced at.  Robin’s interest in lovers is first established in Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift, where he condemns greedy fathers for seeking to wed their daughters to wealthy men against their will, and catalogues the many forms of jealousy and fallings-out between sweethearts which occupy the central scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Tell-Troth ends with a general blessing bestowed by Robin on young lovers, which foreshadows Oberon’s blessing of Theseus’s household at the end of the Dream:

Their dalliaunce shall bee rewarded with darlings, whose sweete favoured faces, shall be continuall pledges of their faithfull kindnesse… Their encrease shalbe multiplied, their substance doubled and trebled till it come to aboundance… They shall adde so great a blessing to their store as time shall not take away the memory of them, nor fame suffer their antiquitye ever to die… Thus shall loves followers be thrise happy, and thus Robin goodfellowes well-willers, in imitating his care bee manifolde blessed (sig. F4v-F5r).

Oberon too promises that the issue created in the ‘bride beds’ of Theseus, Hippolyta and the rest will be ‘fortunate’, free from the ‘blots of nature’s hand’, and that the ‘couples three’ who engendered them will ‘Ever true in loving be’ (5.1.394-411); and Puck follows up this promise with a heartfelt appeal to his well-willers among the audience.  Shakespeare’s Puck shares, too, with Tell-Troth’s Robin a particular concern for the well-being of amorous women, as he shows when he mistakenly dismisses Lysander as ‘this lack-love, this kill-courtesy’ for his apparent spurning of Hermia (2.2.83).  The goblin, then, was associated with the defence of romance as well as of the stage at the point when Shakespeare introduced him into his Athenian love story.  He was also already seen as a link between English and classical myth, one of the Lares Familiares or household spirits transformed into an impudent English imp who lives in a classical-Purgatorial Hades, well before Shakespeare gave him a new home in the woods of ancient Greece;[13] and a half-demonic champion of laughter with a heart of gold, well before Shakespeare gave him the capacity both to laugh at and pity the mortal fools he spies on. 

Stanley Tucci as Puck

The combination of mischief-making with benevolence is shared by Shakespeare’s goblin with his namesakes in Tarlton’s News, The Cobbler of Canterbury and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift.  In Shakespeare’s play, it is Oberon who speaks most openly about this fusion of qualities, when he invokes the link between himself, his fellow spirits and the devil at the end of the third act, telling Robin to ‘overcast the night’ with ‘fog as black as Acheron’ (3.2.355-7) – one of the rivers in the classical underworld – and encouraging him to mimic the voices of Demetrius and Lysander as devils are said to mimic men’s voices in Nashe’s Terrors of the Night (3.2.360-3).[14] But when Robin tells him that this must be done swiftly before dawn sends ‘damned spirits’ back to their ‘wormy beds’ (no hint of Purgatory here), Oberon replies by dissociating himself and Robin utterly from souls who have ‘themselves exiled from light’.  ‘We are spirits of another sort’, he claims, and goes on to describe his delight in dallying with the morning sunshine like Apollo, the classical god of learning (3.2.378-93); and this assertion of benevolence is reinforced at the point when the fairies and Puck extend their benison to the sleeping lovers in the play’s last scene.  If plays resemble dreams, in this play they are evidently dreams that bring peace and health to those who experience them.

Having said this, the terror of damnation with which the theatre-haters had infected the playhouse is by no means absent from Shakespeare’s comedy.  When Robin Goodfellow turns ‘actor’, for instance, after witnessing the amateur theatrics of the craftsmen (3.1.75), he throws them into a superstitious panic by assuming a range of terrible forms: ‘Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn’ (3.1.106).  But the devilry he practises is finally harmless, like the merry pranks played by the demonic Vices of an earlier dramatic tradition, or the antics of the devilish satyr-spirits in the pamphlets of the 1590s.  And if it is both harmless and health-giving, the theatre-haters who saw it only as monstrous stand condemned for crude thinking, moral cowardice, and a lack of generosity.  After all, the craftsmen welcomed Bottom back into their midst when they saw he was no monster (4.2); whereas the theatre-haters at their most extreme could find no place in a civil commonwealth for comedy.[15] 

Mickey Rooney as Puck   

It is hardly surprising, then, if in the last lines of the play Robin himself should turn defender of the theatre, like Tarlton in Kind-Heart’s Dream.  Theseus lays the groundwork for this defence earlier in the scene when he teaches his contemptuous master of the revels Philostrate the proper way to respond to well-meant drama.  ‘Never anything can be amiss,’ he says, ‘When simpleness and duty tender it’ (5.1.82-3); and he goes on to explain how best to read incompetent performances where the actors stumble over their lines and fall silent, overawed by the grandeur of their audience.  ‘Trust me, sweet,’ he tells Titania,

Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome,
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity (5.1.99-105).

For Theseus, a courteous audience participates in a performance, reading into it the good will they would hope to find in all the works of the imagination.  A little later he characterizes this process of generous reading as a kind of amendment or emendation: ‘The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them’ (5.1.210-1).  It’s the word ‘amend’ that Puck takes up in his epilogue; a word that had long been associated with readerly generosity by Elizabethan readers.  Presenting their books to a potentially hostile public, some authors prefaced them with a gnomic challenge to their critics: ‘commend it, or amend it’; speak well of a work of art if you can’t improve on it.[16]  Robin Goodfellow presents his audience with a more genial offer from the playwright and actors who have entertained them.  ‘If we shadows have offended,’ he begins, ‘Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here, / While these visions did appear’ (5.1.414-7).  For Nashe, visions seen in sleep, like Robin, are mostly harmless; they seldom have prophetic significance, and in most cases signify little more than the quality or otherwise of the last meal you have eaten.[17]  Robin’s dream, too, is no more than a ‘weak and idle theme’, and its idleness is not threatening (5.1.418).  If it is pardoned, the players will ‘mend’ or improve their performance next time; if they escape the hissing of envious serpents among their spectators they ‘will make amends ere long’; and finally, generosity from their audience will strengthen the bond of imaginative friendship or amity among the citizens and their entertainers: ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends’ (5.1.421-9).  The theatre-haters insisted that the playwrights had failed to amend or reform their plays despite endless promises of amendment.[18]  Robin makes the process of amendment a general one, healing rifts and bridging gaps between friendly co-habitants of the linked spaces of playhouse and city, and exorcising the demons that had been introduced into those spaces by the serpentine hissing of ungenerous prudes.

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

3.  Robin Goodfellow and Bottom’s Dream

It’s perhaps worth mentioning one more way in which Shakespeare’s Robin both evokes and counters the anti-theatrical prejudice through interference with sleep.  His decision to replace Bottom’s head with the head of an ass, then obtrude him into the presence of the sleeping Titania, in whose arms he is afterwards lulled asleep to the strains of seductive music, is another knowing reference to the Tudor controversy over the beneficence or devilishness of drama.  As early as the 1540s, the schoolmaster-playwright John Redford introduced a scene into his moral interlude Wit and Science in which the schoolboy-hero Wit is danced into a state of exhaustion by a seductive female Vice, then lulled to drowsiness in her arms.  As he dozes, the Vice’s son Ignorance places his fool’s cap on Wit’s shoulders: a cap no doubt endowed with the usual pair of ass’s ears.  On waking, it is some time before Wit becomes aware of his transformation; and if ever Shakespeare saw a performance of Wit and Science or one of its variants, it seems unlikely he would have forgotten the peals of laughter that greeted Wit’s puzzlement at the reaction of those around him to his changed appearance.

The Vice who seduced Wit into this compromising somnolence was called Idleness, a term often used by the theatre-haters to designate the unproductive activities of players.  Her rival in the play is a Virtue called Honest Recreation – and again, this is the virtue defenders of the theatre liked to champion, insisting on the necessity for relaxing and instructive entertainment in the midst of one’s daily labour, and claiming that the theatre could provide such entertainment more fully than any other art-form.  Redford’s Honest Recreation has nothing but contempt for Idleness; but any attack of hers on the Vice is pre-empted by the Vice herself, who launches a devastating verbal assault on Honest Recreation that anticipates in its wording the polemic of the theatre-haters in the 1570s and 80s.  Honest Recreation, says Idleness, is nothing but a fake, a common player or mummer who uses the mask of virtue to cover her vices:

The dyvyll and hys dam can not devyse
More devlyshnes then by the doth ryse
Under the name of Honest Recreacion:
She, lo, bryngth in her abhominacion!
Mark her dawnsyng, her masking and mummyng.
Where more concupiscence then ther cummyng? [19]

Honest Recreation retaliates with an eloquent humanistic defence of leisure-time activities as a source of intellectual refreshment; but her thunder has been stolen, her name forever muddied, and she retires defeated as soon as she has said her piece, leaving Wit firmly entwined in the embrace of her demonic counterpart Idleness.  And here he was to be found, again and again, throughout the rest of the sixteenth century.  Two more versions of the story of Wit and Science were staged in the 1560s and 70s (The Marriage of Wit and Science and Francis Merbury’s The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom), each of which replayed the scene where Wit gets saddled with a fool’s cap in his sleep.  In the early 1580s a version of the play was acted called The Play of Playes and Pastimes, which responded to Stephen Gosson’s attack on the theatre by depicting Life lulled asleep by Honest Recreation herself – not by her vicious substitute – then entertained with Comedy when she wakes.20  And Redford’s play was reworked at least three more times in the following decade: once in The Cobbler’s Prophecy (c. 1590), a comedy by the celebrated clown Robert Wilson, where the god Mars is lulled asleep by Venus until startled into action by a comic cobbler; once in Anthony Munday’s Sir Thomas More (c. 1593), where More takes part in a performance of The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom; and once in the Inns of Court entertainment The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, whose entire plot is ultimately derived from Redford’s.  Shakespeare helped to revise Sir Thomas More for performance, perhaps in the early 1600s.  It seems beyond the bounds of possibility that he should not have known the plot, at least, of Wit and Science, and its affiliation with the theatrical controversy.  And read as another reworking of this plot, Bottom’s transformation tells us a good deal about his creator’s attitude to the theatre at this stage in his career.

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

Bottom the weaver is an actor – albeit a very bad one.  His designation as one of the ‘rude mechanicals’ – the phrase Robin applies to them (3.2.9) – associates him with the standard insult levelled at actors and non-university playwrights by two of the so-called University Wits of the 1580s, Greene and Nashe, both of whom saw acting as a ‘mechanical’ art, a non-intellectual exercise well suited to the offspring of craftsmen and tradesmen who practised it.[21]  So when Puck invests Bottom with the head of an ass it seems no more than he deserves, as an upstart crow who plans to raise his presumptuous voice in the presence of royalty against all the principles of classical decorum.

Yet the weaver responds to his predicament with astonishing dignity.   He refuses to be frightened by the insults levelled at him (he tells his fellow craftsmen that in accusing him of monstrosity they are merely exposing themselves as ‘ass-heads’ or fools, 3.1.111), and sings to keep up his courage.  His song acts like that of a mermaid or Siren on Titania’s senses; she becomes ‘enamoured of his note’ (3.1.131), much as audiences were said by the theatre-haters to be roused to lustful paroxysms by the melodic blandishments of the stage.  Yet when she declares her love for him he remains both rational and scrupulously courteous.  ‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that’, he tells her, and later denies her statement that he is ‘as wise as he is beautiful’ – he lays claim only to the pragmatic ‘wit’ he needs to ‘get out of this wood’ (3.1.135-42).  This practical or mechanical intelligence manifests itself, too, in his philosophy: ‘reason and love,’ he says, ‘keep little company together nowadays – the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends’ (3.1.136-9).  For him, the love that matters is the love that binds communities, the love between neighbours which he has clearly provoked among his own neighbours, the fellow craftsmen and actors who mourn his absence at the end of Act Four, just before he is miraculously restored to them.  Bottom is a fool only in that he voices popular wisdom, fails to take advantage of Titania’s infatuation for selfish ends, and refuses to modify his behaviour in the presence of power, as a sycophantic courtier would have done.  His deportment to Titania’s fairy servants is impeccable; and when Titania tells them to ‘Tie up my love’s tongue; bring him silently’ (3.1.191), it is not an injunction to restrain the ribaldry of an unruly clown, as it would have been in a Redfordian moral interlude, nor yet an act of ritual humiliation, as it would have been in a play by Robert Wilson, but a means of subduing him to her desire – a desire that is ultimately harmless, to herself, to him, and to their Elizabethan audience.

Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon and the Mermaid (with Puck)

The harmlessness of the piece of supernatural theatre Bottom finds himself caught up in is strongly asserted by Puck in the following scene.  When he describes the weaver’s transformation to Oberon, Robin laughs at the unnecessary terror of Bottom’s companions when faced with his metamorphosis: ‘Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears thus strong, / Made senseless things begin to do them wrong’ (3.2.27-8).  Later, unreasoning terror is mentioned again by Theseus, whose analysis of the workings of ‘strong imagination’ includes the transformation of inanimate harmless objects by panic: ‘in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush supposed a bear!’ (5.1.18-22).  Even the craftsmen are aware of the ease with which terror can be aroused by harmless things: they seek to defuse any fear that might be generated by their own theatrical performance by drawing attention to its theatricality, so that the lion in their play gives an elaborate and wholly unnecessary explanation of the principle of dramatic illusion to its courtly spectators.  Both the craftsmen’s very reasonable fear of Bottom, and their less reasonable fear that the ladies in their audience will fear them, are profoundly funny; and the implication is that the fear of the theatre evinced by its critics is not much less so.

Malice is simply absent from Robin’s actions, as it is from those of the well-intentioned craftsmen.  When Oberon rebukes him for administering the love-juice to the wrong lover, for instance, the goblin repeatedly insists that he ‘mistook’, although he is delighted by the outcome of his errors.  Once his cruel but harmless ‘sport’ is over, it assumes the status of ‘a dream and fruitless vision’ (3.2.371) for the Athenian lovers who were its victims; and Titania’s fleeting affair with Bottom – something mistaken on her part, not maliciously intended – also ends by being dismissed as ‘the fierce vexation of a dream’ (4.1.68).  Like Titania and the lovers, audiences will leave the theatre without having been adversely affected by what they saw there; restored to what Robin calls ‘True delight’ (3.2.455) – responsible pleasure, something the theatre-haters don’t seem able to imagine – in the things and people that are dear to them, they will return to waking life with nothing but an enhanced sense of its fragile beauty and comic unreasonableness.  And having left the stage, they will be no more tempted to engage in any over-critical analysis of their ‘most rare’ theatrical ‘vision’ than they would to analyse a dream after a feast (4.1.202).  If they sought to do so, they would show themselves to be asses, transformed to fools by the spectacle they have witnessed, just as those who take exception to satire transform themselves into satire’s targets by their over-sensitive response to its gibes.  

Arthur Rackham, Bottom

This, at least, is what Bottom implies when he wakes from the dramatic role of Titania’s lover in Act 4 scene 1.  ‘I have had a most rare vision,’ he says, and ‘Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream’ (4.1.202-4).  But he couches this observation in the language of theology, adding a somewhat jumbled but instantly recognizable version of Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was’ (4.1.207-10).  As we’ve seen, Robin Goodfellow and Dick Tarlton were not afraid to get themselves mixed up with theology, despite the bloody history of religious controversy throughout sixteenth-century Europe.  At the bottom of Bottom’s theatrical dream there may be a serious point about the working of the imagination at all levels of society.  After all, real dreams could, Nashe tells us, be heaven-sent ‘visions’ containing genuine prophecies, even if the bulk of them were nothing but outlets for the superfluous matter engendered by the human digestive system.[22]  Prophecies could provoke social change, insurrection, maybe even revolution; visions could start religions or spark off heresies; that’s why there was such careful legislation in England against men’s claims to be visionaries or prophets throughout the Tudor period.  Bottom awakes these controversial matters even as he dismisses them, just as Robin Goodfellow and his fairy companions evoke the demonic associations of drama even as they dismiss them.  The magic of the theatre, and its status as the space where human dreams and nightmares can be realized as nowhere else, remain as potent at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they were at the beginning.  And it’s partly thanks to Shakespeare’s clever predecessors, with all the goblins, ghosts, and visions they invoked on stage and printed page, that this is so.  The time has come to wake them from their long sleep, set them loose among us once again, and listen carefully to what they have to tell us.

Arthur Rackham, Puck

NOTES

  1. See Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions, in The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 209-210.  All references to The Terrors of the Night are taken from this edition.  An early version of this paper was given at the World Shakespeare Congress, Brisbane 2006, in a panel on early modern sleep organized by Garrett Sullivan and Evelyn Tribble.  I am very grateful to all the participants in the panel, especially Jeffrey Marsten and Rebecca Totaro.
  2. I have discussed the anti-theatrical prejudice in my book, Shakespeare and Comedy (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005), pp. 5-24 etc.  See also Jonas Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), and Laura Levine, Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-Theatricality, 1579-1642 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  3. My reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this paper develops my discussion of it in Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 141-154.  I am also indebted to Peter Holland’s introduction to his edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), and his essay ‘“The Interpretation of Dreams” in the Renaissance’, Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare, ed. Peter Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).  See also Derek Alwes, ‘Elizabethan Dreaming: Fictional Dreams from Gascoigne to Lodge’, in Framing Elizabethan Fictions: Contemporary Approaches to Early Modern Narrative Prose, ed. Constance C. Relihan (Kent, Ohio and London: Kent State University Press, 1996), 153-67.
  4. Accounts of Robin Goodfellow can be found in Katharine Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959) (see index); Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies (London: Lane, 1976), entries for Puck and Robin Goodfellow; Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London: Allen Lane, 2000), ch. 5; and Winfried Schleiner, ‘Imaginative Sources for Shakespeare’s Puck’, Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985), 65-8
  5. Albions England (1612), Anglistica and Americana (Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1971), p. 368.  The first four books of Warner’s epic were published in 1588; the 14th book, containing ‘A Tale of Robin-goodfellow’, first appeared in the 1606 edition.  See my ‘Myths Exploited: The Metamorphoses of Ovid in Early Elizabethan England’, Shakespeare’s Ovid, ed. A. B. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 27-8.
  6. For a fuller discussion of this text see my ‘Robert Greene and the Uses of Time’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Kirk Melnikoff and Edward Gieskes (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), ch. 8, pp.182-7.
  7. The Life and Complete Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 15 vols. (London and Aylesbury: privately printed, 1881-3), vol. 12, p. 207.
  8. For a detailed discussion of the place of the tragedy of Collingbourne in The Mirror for Magistrates see Andrew Hadfield, Literature, Politics and National Identity: Reformation to Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chapter 3.  All references are to the 1563 edition.
  9. For a print history of The Mirror for Magistrates see the introduction to Lily B. Campbell’s edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938).
  10. For a recent account of Gabriel Harvey’s posthumous attack on Robert Greene and Nashe’s response, see Ronald A. Tumelson II, ‘Robert Greene, “Author of Playes”’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Melnikoff and Gieskes, ch. 5.
  11. For the health-giving properties of laughter see my ‘The Afterlife of Andrew Borde’, Studies in Philology vol. 100 no. 4 (Fall 2003), pp. 463-92.
  12. The Cobbler’s Robin opens his epistle with ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’, the phrase Shakespeare’s Robin uses at 3.2.421.  Shakespeare’s Robin alludes to hemp at 3.1.72, and describes himself stamping to terrify Peter Quince and his fellow craftsmen at 3.2.25. 
  13. Nashe associates him with the Lares or ‘household Gods’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210), and Warner calls Robin a ‘breechlesse Larr’ in Albions England, p. 367.  See also Tarlton’s News Out of Purgatory, p. 2, quoted above.
  14. Nashe mentions the devil’s power of mimicry several times in The Terrors of the Night, but cf. ‘Those that catch birds imitate their voices; so will he imitate the voices of God’s vengeance, to bring us like birds into the net of eternal damnation’ (p. 211).
  15. Stephen Gosson takes this stance in his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582).  See Arthur F. Kinney, Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1974), introduction.
  16. For the phrase ‘Commend it, or amend it’ see e.g. the title-page of John Lyly’s Euphues and his England (1580).
  17. ‘From the unequal and repugnant mixture of contrarious meats… many of our mystic cogitations proceed; and even as fire maketh iron like itself, so the fiery inflammations of our liver or stomach transform our imaginations to their analogy and likeness’.  Nashe, Terrors of the Night, p. 233.
  18. For the theatre-haters’ rejection of the playwrights’ claims to have reformed their work, see my Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 11-12.
  19. John Redford, Wit and Science, in Tudor Interludes, ed. Peter Happé (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), pp.181-219, p. 196.
  20. For a summary of the plot of The Play of Plays, which demonstrates its indebtedness to the plot of Wit and Science, see Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Salzburg: Universitaet Salzburg, 1974), pp. 181-3.
  21. See Nashe’s statement that ‘everie mechanicall mate’ aspires to the status of a rhetorician because of the example set by ‘vainglorious tragoedians’; epistle ‘To the Gentlemen Students of both Universities’, printed with Greene’s romance Menaphon (1589), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 6, p. 9.  See also Greene’s romance Francescos Fortunes (1590), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 8, p. 132, where the players’ art is described as ‘a kind of mechanical labour’.
  22. The Terrors of the Night, p. 235.

Armour that doesn’t work: an anti-meme in medieval and Renaissance romance

[I wrote this essay for a Festschrift in honour of my DPhil supervisor, Professor Helen Cooper, Medieval into Renaissance: Essays for Helen Cooper, ed. Andrew King and Matthew Woodcock (Woodbridge and Rochester, NY: D S Brewer, 2016); you can find it on pp. 35-54. I place it here in Helen’s honour, with infinite thanks for her patience, scholarship, good humour and support through the difficult years of writing a doctorate.]

One of Helen Cooper’s finest essays concerns the function of magic that doesn’t work in medieval and Renaissance romance.[1] Bringing together her impish sense of humour, her astonishing range of reading and her infectious delight in tracing the mutations of genre in response to cultural change, the essay is a scholarly tour de force, perhaps the most memorable chapter in her celebrated monograph The English Romance in Time. It is particularly suggestive where it draws attention to the moments in medieval romance when the presence of magic serves to focus the reader’s attention on some peculiarly human quality: on selfless love, for instance, as when the imperiled teenage lovers Floris and Blancheflour compete over which of them will bestow on the other the magic ring which is said to preserve its owner’s life; or on stubborn courage, as when an anonymous lover in a tale by Marie de France refuses to drink the magic potion that would help him carry his beloved up a mountain, an act of heroic obstinacy that kills them both.[2] The chapter is not about a ‘meme’, Cooper explains – an idea or theme that survives from generation to generation, mutating in response to the changing pressures of the time. Instead it concerns what she calls a ‘meme that got out of hand’, that of the magical object.[3] All too easily magic can get boring, operating in too predictable a fashion, providing too easy an escape route from a tricky situation. The magic that doesn’t work revitalizes the magical narrative by introducing a crucial element of surprise, disorder, or emotional crisis; and as such it resists replication, since the whole point of it (when well used) is to unsettle the romance reader’s expectations.

Robert Addie as Mordred in Excalibur (1980)

I would like to consider in this essay another recurring theme that has given us some of the most striking passages in medieval and Renaissance romance: that of armour that doesn’t work. For a modern reader, armour is the ultimate emblem of chivalric romance, especially the full plate armour of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as fetishized in the paintings of John William Waterhouse, John Boorman’s film Excalibur, or the BBC TV series Merlin. For the late medieval reader, too, armour or harness that worked was romance incarnate. Someone in the fifteenth or sixteenth century wearing splendid harness instantly displayed his gender, his status, his affiliations (if he wore a coat armour, or if the steel itself bore heraldic devices), and his physical attributes (think of Henry VIII’s expanding girth as recorded in his successive sizes of battle dress). Armour stood for the chivalric code; praying over it was an integral part of a squire’s induction into knighthood.  What you wore in the Middle Ages was, in theory, who you were; and fine armour was at the very apex of the sartorial pyramid.[4]

Sir Galahad, by George Frederick Watts

For all these reasons – because it is so instantly readable in so many ways – armour can be a boring object in romance, especially when its bearer is vying for the position of Number One Knight, so to speak, in the chivalric standings. Under these conditions the armour bearer is like a machine, whose limited functions are always predictable and whose victory always assured. The ultimate example of an armour-bearing machine is of course Sir Galahad, who gallops through the landscape of Malory’s ‘Tale of the Sankgreal’ fulfilling prophesies left and right without any emotional engagement with the men and women he encounters. Galahad is the embodiment of spiritual commitment; he has no personality or history, and when all his deeds have been accomplished his soul is carried up to Heaven by a team of adoring angels, leaving little physical trace behind on the earth he barely touched.[5] In some ways, then, he is the worthy forebear of Spenser’s mechanical man Talus, the metallic dispenser of justice in Book V of The Faerie Queene who signals the poet’s uncomfortable commitment to the Tudor project of subjugating Ireland by force. Talus’s status as what can anachronistically be termed a self-propelled suit of armour conveniently sets him apart from human beings in such a way as to make that project seem (barely) defensible, since though devised by men it is executed by an agent without a soul. Nevertheless, the iron man’s association with the animated statues of Virgilius the Sorcerer or Cornelius Agrippa confirms his ambiguity as a representation of justice.  Virgilius derived his power from the devil and Marlowe assumed, in Doctor Faustus, that Agrippa too was in cahoots with the fiend.[6] Given that Talus is simply an allegorical machine, unsullied by magic, he can in theory be employed by Spenser’s knight of justice, Sir Artegal, without tainting his employer with infernal associations. But the memory of other moving statues would have been hard to shake off for an early modern reader. And there remains the fact that Talus is impossible to like, with his remorseless efficiency, his predictable reactions to every situation, and his utter indifference to the Christian quality of mercy.

This problem of the perfect knight as a soulless machine is brilliantly addressed by Italo Calvino in The Non-existent Knight (Il cavaliere inesistente, 1959), his sparkling tribute to Ariosto and Cervantes.[7] The book’s protagonist, a full-body harness that comes to life by an act of sheer will power, makes himself universally unpopular with his fellow paladins by his rigid adherence to the rules of military and chivalric good conduct. As the book proceeds, however, the knight’s increasing sensitivity to other people’s views of him makes him increasingly likeable, and his posse of followers – the fool Gurduloo, the idealistic female warrior Bradamante, the confused young squire Raimbaud – endow him by proxy with the flesh and emotions he lacks. He becomes the focus of their dreams and passions, the anchor of their identities, no longer merely a metal container for the regulations by which these dreams are rendered manageable by the authorities. Armour requires the flesh to make it move, both emotionally and physically speaking; and codes of conduct, however impractical, give direction to the undirected yearnings of the flesh. Calvino’s story beautifully captures the awkward symbiosis between the organic and the inorganic which is the late medieval and early modern knight.

Flesh, then, is the essential adjunct to the carapace of protective steel, as late Victorian painters such as Waterhouse acknowledged when they surrounded their gleaming knights with voluptuous temptresses. Men, of course, can display their fleshly qualities in romance by defeating powerful opponents without the benefit of armour; this is the homosocial equivalent of the amorous encounters, chaste or unchaste, with which romance women have been traditionally associated. A fine example of such an unarmed hero is the young Sir Perceval de Gallys in the Middle English metrical romance, whose lack of armour serves at first merely to underline his lack of education in chivalry.[8] Wearing only goatskins, young Perceval’s first heroic act is to transfix his father’s killer, a fully armoured knight, with a light Scottish throwing-spear, when the man is foolish enough to raise his visor. But Perceval is an adolescent at the time, and every reader knows from the old stories that he will soon acquire some armour and join his fellow knights at the Table Round. For Perceval, the acquisition of his harness from the slaughtered body of his enemy makes it an emblem of his power and skill, a natural extension of the unusual muscularity of his right arm and torso, his easy mastery over the objects and people he meets on his travels.  But I am concerned in this essay with the knights whose harness proves useless in one way or another after its acquisition; either because the adventure they are on cannot be achieved with the help of steel, or because they are caught without armour through trickery, neglect or betrayal, or because their armour provides inadequate protection – or even because their harness itself is a kind of trap. For these heroes, armour is a difficult affair, never at hand when you need it, not fulfilling its prescribed function when you have it, brittle, permeable or imprisoning rather than impervious, encumbering rather than enabling. And in the adventures they take part in, armour often becomes intriguing in its own right, for a variety of unpredictable reasons.

One twentieth-century embodiment of this difficult relationship to armour is King Pellinore in T. H. White’s novel The Sword in the Stone (1938). Pellinore is an errant knight who is perpetually engaged in the rather pointless pursuit of a friendly creature called the Questing Beast. When the future King Arthur, here known as the Wart, first encounters Pellinore, the boy quickly learns a great deal about the inconvenience of closed helmets for those who wear spectacles (the lenses get ‘completely fogged’[9]), and of armour generally. As the knight explains:

All this beastly amour takes hours to put on. When it is on it’s either frying or freezing, and it gets rusty. You have to sit up all night polishing the stuff. Oh, how Ay do wish Ay had a nice house of my own to live in, a house with beds in it and real pillows and sheets. […] [T]hen Ay would […] throw all this beastly armour out of the window, and let the beastly Beast go and chase itself, that Ay would.[10]

In this passage King Pellinore is a kind of human snail, whose metal shell serves as an uncomfortable substitute for the nice warm house he yearns for. His armour has little value as a means of defence, since the Questing Beast is far too friendly to attack him. Instead it tends to erase the distinction between its bearer and the animal world through which he wanders, exaggerating the limitations of the King’s body by fogging up his spectacles and fraying his temper to the extent that he keeps referring to his equipment as beastly. When the Questing Beast turns up a page or so later, the King’s animal passions get further excited and he promptly forgets the allure of sheets in the thrill of the chase. An unsuccessful fusion of animal unruliness and rigid artifice, of chaos and convention, White’s knight is a direct descendant of Carroll’s White Knight and Cervantes’s Quixote, both of whom are always damaging their elderly bodies precisely because they insist on wearing protective steel. For all three, the harness they wear underscores the limitations of the flesh it encases, as well as the eccentric relationship between that flesh and the code of conduct that the harness represents.

In this as in other ways, armour that doesn’t work has a similar function to magic that doesn’t work, as Cooper describes it. If full plate armour is a kind of meme in late chivalric romance – like the meme of the magic object – then the armour that doesn’t work is designed to circumvent the narrative problems posed by that meme; an ‘anti-meme’, in other words. The romance hero is nearly always one of the greatest fighters of his time, and in full armour his fighting prowess must necessarily render him as indestructible as the owner of an effective charm or talisman – and hence as dull, in terms of the narrative possibilities to which he gives rise. For such a knight to retain his stature as a combatant while engaging in properly perilous adventures, he must be stripped of his protective exoskeleton, deprived of the tools of his trade by one means or other – or those tools must be turned against him, like King Pellinore’s fog-inducing helmet. And the effect of this process of stripping down, deprivation or armorial recalcitrance is to draw attention to the fragile humanness of the romance’s male protagonist.

This may be the central difference between the magic that doesn’t work and the armour that doesn’t work. Cooper’s examples of non-functional magic (and she includes under this rubric magic that might well work but isn’t used, just as the present essay includes functional armour that gets left aside at crucial moments) often serve to demonstrate the spectacularly exceptional nature of the people who fail to use it. It is the exceptional strength of Floris and Blancheflour’s love that prompts a sympathetic king to urge their captor, the Admiral or Emir of Babylon, to spare them. In Marie de France’s tale, it is the refusal of the lover to drink the magic potion that exhibits the exceptional potency of his love, since love alone gives him strength to achieve what no other man has managed by carrying his lady unassisted up a mountain. Armour that doesn’t work, by contrast, tends to underscore the vulnerability of the person it fails, or who fails to wear it. For this reason it becomes one of the defining themes of the late chivalric tradition, when the best writers (Chaucer, Malory, Shakespeare) chose to produce ‘works designed to question their own generic assumptions’ in response to the ‘strong self-consciousness of a genre now passing into its fourth century’, as Cooper reminds us.[11]

These comments on late chivalric romance come from the final chapter of The English Romance in Time, ‘Unhappy Endings’, and armour that doesn’t work is strongly represented here among the romances that choose to resist the genre’s assumption that all its narratives must end well. But like magic that doesn’t work, non-functional armour can be comic too. Inevitably it is Chaucer who provides the best examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of this ‘anti-meme’ (Cooper was always pointing out to me in tutorials that Chaucer provides the best examples of almost anything before the late sixteenth century). In The Canterbury Tales, Sir Thopas exhibits his own and his narrator’s ignorance of the romance tradition by getting caught without his armour when he meets a giant. Any medieval reader would have known that an errant knight should be wearing armour when he seeks adventure, and that if he happens not to be wearing it he should defeat his antagonist regardless, as Perceval beats the Red Knight dressed only in goatskins. But for Chaucer’s narcissistic protagonist, wearing the wrong clothes for any given deed is inexcusable; he must hurry home to arm himself before he can even think of engaging in combat.  When he does so, it is in an elaborate metal and fabric confection which again violates romance conventions, both by its placement in the wrong part of the narrative (he should have armed himself at the beginning) and by the sheer weight of clichés that cluster round it (his coat armour is ‘whit as is a lilye flour’, his fine cypress spear ‘bodeth werre, and nothyng pees’, and so on).[12] The belatedness of Sir Thopas’s arming also confirms his inverted understanding of the chivalric code, which has already been signaled by his plan to marry an elven queen because no mortal woman is worthy of him. After reading this poem it is hard to imagine anyone taking another metrical romance entirely seriously.

At the tragic end of the spectrum, ‘The Knight’s Tale’ provides an example of a yet more radical inversion of the proper order of the chivalric romance narrative and the code to which it theoretically adheres; and it does so largely through the difficult relationship it sketches out between a man and his armour. Like a true romance hero, the protagonist Arcite defeats his friend and rival Palamon in combat, and the tournament in which he achieves this is stuffed to bursting with allusions to armour: from the frantic ‘devisynge of harneys’ that precedes the fighting (line 2496) to King Theseus’s prohibition of certain weapons from the contest itself  (‘ne polax, ne short knyf […] Ne short swerd, for to stoke with poynt bitynge’, lines 2544-6).  As it turns out, however, neither harness nor prohibition offers much protection to the contestants. ‘The helmes they tohewen and toshrede,’ the poet tells us with unnerving relish; ‘Out brest the blood with stierne stremes rede;/ With myghty maces the bones they tobreste’, and it is by the merest chance that no one dies in the melee (lines 2609-2611). When the tournament is over, Arcite takes off his helmet to salute the woman who inspired his triumph; and at once his horse falls over and fatally crushes him. The calamitous effect of this fall on Arcite’s flesh is described in lurid detail, as if to stress the limitations of his strong young body: ‘The pipes of his longes gonne to swelle,/ And every lacerte [muscle] in his brest adoun/ Is shent with venym and corrupcion’ (p. 44, lines 2752-2754).  In this narrative, then, armour and the rules that govern its use represent men’s feeble attempt to take control in a world full of insidious poisons, from the venom of corrupted wounds to the contagion of desire, from the disease of jealousy that sets the knights at odds to the poisonous rivalry of the gods who sponsor each combatant. Theseus does his best to re-impose a sense of order after Arcite’s accident, declaring the tournament a draw and delivering a speech that affirms the continuing stability of creation. But Arcite’s death was not in fact accidental. It was engineered by Venus (or rather by Saturn acting on her behalf), and intended to benefit Palamon, her devoted acolyte. Arcite, by contrast, was an acolyte of Mars, the god of war, who also happens to be Venus’s lover. So the pantheon of pagan gods would seem to be as violently competitive as the knights they sponsor, and as capable of circumventing regulations and breaking alliances. The armour that doesn’t work here serves to point up the limitations of the structures that bind us: above all the kind of structure represented by traditional stories and comforting fictions, the imaginative armour with which we defend to ourselves such slippery concepts as honour and friendship.

The works of Malory, too, offer fine examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of non-functioning armour. On the tragic side, there is the tale of the brothers Balin and Balan, who hack each other to death because each is wearing unfamiliar harness. The final section of ‘The Knight with the Two Swords’ begins with Balin accepting a shield from a stranger knight in place of his own, whereupon a mysterious damsel warns him that ‘ye have put yourself in grete daunger, for by your sheld ye shold have ben knowen’ (p. 56, lines 22-4).  His brother meets him shortly afterwards wearing unmarked red armour, and in the fight that follows both men dismantle each other plate by plate until ‘their hawberkes [were] unnailed, that naked they were on every syde’ (p. 57, lines 12-13).  Mortally wounded, Balan crawls to his brother and takes off his helmet; but he cannot recognize him at first because of the damage he himself inflicted in the battle: he ‘myght not knowe hym by the vysage, it was so ful hewen and bledde’ (p. 57, lines 22-3). As Cooper has argued, part of the power of this denouement springs from the fact that it forms part of a larger narrative with which the medieval reader was well acquainted – the Arthurian cycle – while the knights themselves have no idea what forces drive their fate.[13]  Throughout his adventures, the invincible Balin is helplessly propelled by the machinery of story, unwittingly setting up riddles, problems and conundrums that will only be resolved long after his death by the machine-man Galahad.  The armour that destroys him, then, embodies his entrapment in structures he cannot understand because of his limited vision – the restricted view you get from inside a closed helmet (think of Pellinore’s spectacles). The fact that he cannot recognize his brother, and that his brother cannot recognize him, sums up his condition as an ignorant tool of dispassionate supernatural forces – as represented at Balin’s burial by the sorcerer Merlin, who laughs sardonically as he makes further predictions about the tragic fate of Balin’s sword.

Sir Launcelot and the Witch Hellawes, by Aubrey Beardsley

Malory’s Lancelot, meanwhile, furnishes us with examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of the armour that doesn’t work. Of all the knights in Malory’s pantheon apart from Galahad, Lancelot stands in greatest danger of becoming boring, since he is the best knight in the world and we know in advance the likely outcome of every battle – and hence of every narrative – in which he is involved. For this reason Malory is careful to vary the scenes he selects for inclusion in the parts of his work he devotes to Lancelot; and an inordinate number of these episodes involve non-functional armour. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’ the hero is forced to don another man’s armour if he wants adventures; wearing his own means he is avoided like the plague. But some of his best adventures occur when he wears no armour at all. On one occasion, for instance, he finds a pavilion in the forest, lavishly prepared for the reception of a guest. In many romances such a discovery would signal the presence of the supernatural: the pavilion would belong to a fairy or enchantress, as in Sir Launfal, and Lancelot would have to deploy all his knightly self-control to resist the seductions of its owner. It seems only natural, then, to the reader, that on finding the tent he should remove his armour, lie down in the bed and go to sleep; this is what you do in enchanted pavilions. Later, the knight who owns the pavilion comes home and gets into bed. Finding Lancelot between his sheets and assuming him to be his lover, he ‘toke hym in his armys and began to kysse hym’, scratching the sleeping hero with his ‘rough berde’ (p. 153, lines 27-8).  This leads to a brief, fierce swordfight between the two warriors – presumably naked – during which Lancelot wounds the stranger ‘sore nyghe unto the deth’ (p. 153, line 33).  At this point, the men pause to explain themselves to each other. Lancelot then takes the stranger indoors to tend his injuries, and the knight’s lady arrives. The lady is naturally inclined to blame Lancelot for her husband’s injuries; but she soon comes up with a means for him to make amends. He must use his influence at court, she insists, to procure her man a place at the Round Table. In this way Lancelot’s nakedness leaves him exposed to the lady’s judicial expertise, to the extent that he must set aside the usual procedure for admitting knights to that exclusive company and offer a seat at the Round Table to an unproven stranger. What began as an encounter with potential enchantment ends not with a dazzling display of unmatchable swordsmanship but with an out-of-court settlement, a legal compromise; and in this way the episode exposes the absurdity both of chivalric convention and of the narrative traditions Lancelot lives by.

Later in the same book, Lancelot is tricked into removing his armour and climbing a tree to rescue a lady’s falcon. Once he is safely in his breeches and astride a branch, the lady’s husband leaps out of a bush ‘all armed’ (p. 169, line 44), and explains that this was all a plot to get Lancelot into a state of undress so as to enable him to be summarily dispatched. Lancelot disarms the knight with a stick and kills him with his own weapon; but the episode neatly illustrates one of the perils of being a romance hero, which is that the landscape gradually fills up with people who hold a grudge against you, and whose only hope of besting you is by trickery. As a hero you can only trust that your own wiles, or the wiles of some well-disposed passing damsel, will permit you to escape from the tricks to which these grudgers are prepared to resort. And in the last two books of Malory’s work, a deadly web composed of grudges and trickery binds together all the major episodes that feature armour that doesn’t work.

Herbert James Draper, Lancelot and Guinevere

Lancelot’s relationship with armour in these last two books becomes increasingly difficult, as if to emphasize the increasing difficulty of reconciling his duty to King Arthur with his devotion to Arthur’s wife. In the tale of the Fair Maid of Astolat, Lancelot plays his old trick of borrowing armour in order to participate in a tournament. But the armour fails him – he is pierced through the side by his cousin Bors while wearing it; and during his long period of convalescence, necessarily unclothed, his body attracts the devotion of his nurse, the Maid of the title. The borrowed armour has meanwhile got him into trouble with Guinevere, since to complete the disguise he wore a token on his helmet, a red sleeve lent him by the Maid. The sleeve misleads the Queen into thinking he has transferred his affections to another woman, while encouraging the Maid to believe he might eventually fall in love with her. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, Lancelot’s appropriation of Sir Kay’s armour had no serious consequences; it was a game, as were the fights he undertook while bearing it. In the last two books, games turn to earnest, and borrowing armour becomes a problem, which interweaves itself with the personal and political problems that accumulate around the adulterous couple.

Armour is yet more problematic in ‘The Knight of the Cart’. The villain here is a kind of anti-Lancelot, Sir Melliagaunt, who shares his alter ego’s obsession with Guinevere but none of the chivalric qualities by which he justifies that adulterous passion. The difference between the two men can be summed up by their attitudes to armour. Melliagaunt captures the Queen while she is out a-maying with some unarmed knights, who are seriously wounded trying to defend her against the villain’s armed retainers. Lancelot sets out to rescue her, but his horse is shot dead by Melliagaunt’s archers, and as a result his armour ceases to assist him and becomes a burden. He cannot get at the archers because it weighs him down, and when he tries to continue his journey he finds himself ‘sore acombird of hys armoure, hys shylde, and hys speare’ (p. 653, lines 41-2).  Worse still, when he finally arrives at Melliagaunt’s castle – travelling in the requisitioned transport of the title like a prisoner carted off to punishment – the villain refuses to fight him, throwing himself on Guinevere’s mercy. The Queen grants him her protection, and as a result all Lancelot’s skills, as embodied in his harness, are rendered useless. At the end of the first part of this story, Lancelot has been reduced to a state of helpless jealousy, all his efforts to act as the conventional romance hero having been thwarted either by his enemy or by his lover, neither of whom play by the rules a knight’s harness represents. There could be no more devastating exposure of the many chinks in Lancelot’s emotional and physical defences.

Ben Cross as Malagant in First Knight (1995)

Next Melliagaunt succeeds in underscoring the moral link between himself and Lancelot, thus breaking down any clear distinctions that might have been signalled by their different attitudes to armour. The night after arriving at Melliagaunt’s castle, Lancelot disarms himself and slips into Guinevere’s bed, leaving blood on her sheets from a minor injury to his hand. Melliagaunt finds the blood, and accuses Guinevere of infidelity with one of the unarmed knights who were wounded defending her. Lancelot’s discarding of his harness here endangers his knightly colleagues, and he seeks to make up for this lapse by resorting to the chivalric rules of engagement by which he has always lived: rules that require full body armour for their fulfillment. He challenges the villain to trial by combat, as if Lancelot remained the impregnable entity he has always been thanks to his hitherto unquestioned identity as a top romance hero. But God is the ultimate judge in any such trial, ensuring that the fighter with the best cause will emerge triumphant; and in this case, the hero is saddled with a cause which is decidedly questionable.  Guinevere has indeed committed adultery, as Melliagaunt asserts, and Lancelot is forced to equivocate in order to place himself on the side of justice. He therefore challenges his alter ego on the basis, not that Guinevere has not been unfaithful but that she has not slept with any of the knights who were wounded in her defence. This is a blatant prevarication, and its problematic moral status is reflected in the peculiar nature of the trial itself. After a brief bout of hand-to-hand fighting, Melliagaunt surrenders tamely to Lancelot, and chivalry dictates that his opponent must accept his surrender. But Guinevere signals to the hero that her accuser must die, and if Lancelot is to obey her he must once again find a way to circumvent the rules of the judicial game. He persuades Melliagaunt to fight on by offering to disarm his own head and left side to make the contest more even; and he kills the villain, of course, despite this handicap. But the half-armoured state in which he does so confirms his morally compromised position, his susceptibility to the corruption his opponent embraces.  And the disarming of his body on the left side in particular, where the heart is, may be taken to demonstrate the extent to which the desires of that body are undermining his role as a knight.  The whole adventure, in fact, foreshadows the part that will be played by armour in the final book, which tells how Lancelot’s adultery with Guinevere brings about the dissolution of the Round Table and the fall of Arthur.

In this last book, the ‘Morte Arthur’, it is the lack of armour that takes centre stage rather than its failure. When Lancelot is finally caught in flagrante delicto in Guinevere’s bedroom, he blames his resulting predicament on his unarmed state: ‘Alas,’ he complains, ‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad that I shulde be thus shamefully slayne, for lake of myne armour’ (p. 676, lines 24-5). The sentence recalls the wording of his earlier complaint when trapped up a tree in the story of the falcon: ‘Alas […] that ever a knyght sholde dey wepynles!’ (p. 170, line 17).  But on that occasion Lancelot could have been taken as a representative ‘knyght’, the equivalent of any romance hero trapped by treachery. In Guinevere’s room, by contrast, his situation is unique: he considers it only in the context of his private misfortunes (‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad’), and sees the situation as ‘shameful’ to himself, not to those who have trapped him. The contrast between the two laments underscores his increasing alienation both from honour or worship and from his fellow knights. He succeeds, of course, in escaping; but he does so by killing one of his comrades of the Round Table, Sir Colgrevaunce, then donning his armour and fighting his way to freedom. The echo here of the many past occasions on which Lancelot borrowed armour serves only to underscore the extent to which what was once a game has become a disaster. And a lack of armour plays a yet more tragic role in the events that unfold in the wake of this episode.

N. C. Wyeth, Lancelot rescues Guinevere

Another knight killed at the door of the Queen’s chamber is Sir Agravain, brother of Gawain, Lancelot’s best friend. It is a measure of Lancelot’s worth that Gawain does not resent his killing. Indeed, Malory fills these late books with loyal friends who refuse to begrudge the hero his unfortunate propensity for causing the deaths of those who love him: the faithful horse in ‘The Knight of the Cart’ which is shot full of arrows by Sir Melliagaunt’s archers, yet continues to follow its master with its guts hanging out; the Maid of Astolat, who dies for love of Lancelot, and her brother Lavayne, who understands why she chose to do so: ‘for sythen I saw first my lorde sir Launcelot I cowde never departe frome hym’ (p. 639, lines 13-14).  Gawain’s younger brother Gareth is another of these paragons of loyalty, who never forgets that Lancelot was the man who made him knight.  He switches to Lancelot’s side in ‘The Great Tournament’ and fights against his brothers on his mentor’s behalf; and when Arthur orders him to accompany Guinevere on her final journey to execution as an adulteress, he refuses to wear his ‘harneyse of warre’ as a token of solidarity with her absent lover (p. 683, line 41).  Inevitably Lancelot rides to her rescue; and inevitably Gareth is killed with his brother Gaheris in the confusion, ‘for they were unarmed and unwares’ (p. 684, line 26).  At this point in the story Lancelot is once again the most efficient of killing machines, as he was before things got complicated. But his repeated compromising of the chivalric code means that his mechanical efficiency is no longer simple. Instead of being deployed in the service of some good cause, his force gets visited on the vulnerable flesh of the men he loves. Even Guinevere suffers from its effects, since the enmity brought about by Gareth’s death – the falling out it occasions between Gawain and Lancelot – is responsible both for her husband’s downfall and for her penitent demise.

Lancelot himself claims it is the brothers’ missing armour that was responsible for their deaths. ‘God wolde,’ he says at one point, that Gareth and Gaheris ‘had ben armed […] for than had they ben on lyve’ (p. 695, lines 41-2).  He duly offers to make reparation by forgoing his warrior status, as embodied in his harness, and walking from end to end of the kingdom ‘in my shearte’, founding religious houses along the way to sing masses for the dead men’s souls (p. 696, line 14). But Gawain, too, has by this stage become machine-like – welded, so to speak, into his martial persona. War against Lancelot is the only reparation he will accept. And since everyone knows by now that Lancelot will be victorious in any conflict, the reader sees at once that this mechanical insistence on revenge will usher in the end of Arthur’s reign. Malory has reversed the machinery of the romance narrative so that it destroys its most efficient components, the iron-clad knights; and it is the armour that doesn’t work which is largely responsible for changing the function of the armour that does, from protective covering to engine of (self) destruction.

Interestingly, what brings about this major change in the function of armour is a change in the form of Malory’s evolving Arthurian narrative. Many of his earlier works consist of a succession of largely disconnected episodes, such as ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, with its errant structure neatly but loosely bound together by certain recurrent themes: the tricks Lancelot has to play to get a fight, the tricks played on him to render him vulnerable. But the episodes in the laterBook of Launcelot and Guinevere’ are woven together by tangled chains of cause and effect. The consequences of each episode get played out in the next; and the final book, theMorte Arthur’ itself, is more tightly woven still, with each tale emerging organically from its predecessor. It is as if armour can only remain impervious in episodic narratives. Where one adventure has few links to the next, the simplicity of armour’s function as an emblem of the knightly ideal can be sustained, or can readily be recovered when that function has been compromised. But where competing allegiances – to friend and lover, to King and Queen, to knightly honour and a jealous mistress – get carried over from one episode to the next, armour too becomes permeable. In Malory’s interlinked narratives, harness loses its singular purpose and becomes instead, in its uneasy relationship with the flesh it covers (or fails to cover), an increasingly sophisticated device for undermining its bearer’s pretensions to honour, for exposing the fissures and flaws in his logic, the anarchic passions he seeks to hide or suppress.

Gawain and the Green Knight, illustration from original manuscript

The most sophisticated medieval study of the armour that doesn’t work is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and here too it is the structure of the narrative that renders that armour problematic, as it accumulates associations through the successive sections or ‘fits’ of the poem. In the opening scene at Arthur’s court, where the mysterious Green Knight invites one of the king’s champions to strike off his head with an axe, the poet makes much of the stranger’s unarmed status: ‘Whe[th]er hade he no helme ne hawbergh nau[th]er,/ Ne no pysan ne no plate [th]at pented to armes’.  The Green Knight’s armourlessness is notable because he possesses a body so eminently suited to martial exploits (‘Hit semed as no mon my[gh]t/ Under his dynttez dry[gh]e’), and because the giant axe he carries underscores the violent nature of the strange game he proposes.[14] The relationship between flesh and steel, then, is implicitly foregrounded from the moment he rides into the court; and when Sir Gawain takes up his challenge, the blow he aims at the Green Knight’s neck constitutes perhaps the most graphic encounter between flesh and steel in English literature: ‘[th]e scharp of [th]e schalk schyndered [th]e bones,/ And schrank [th]ur[gh] [th]e schyire grece, and schade hit in twynne,/ [Th]at [th]e bit of [th]e broun stel bot on [th]e grounde’ (lines 424-6). And flesh and steel continue to dominate the poem. The Green Knight survives the blow, by supernatural means, and leaves the court; Gawain sets off to find him the following year, as the game dictates; and his journey begins, as in all proper romances (though not that of Sir Thopas), with a ritual arming, described in loving detail as the knight’s servants assemble his harness piece by piece around his torso, limbs and head. But even as this physical armour is assembled the reader is aware that it will prove useless, since the encounter Gawain has agreed to entails exposing his own ‘naked’ neck to the Green Knight’s axe. And that approaching moment of nakedness is recalled again and again throughout Gawain’s journey.

It is invoked in the physical rigours of his passage through wintry landscape, during which armour provides no protection against the cold: ‘Ner slayn wyth [th]e slete he sleped in his yrnes/ Mo ny[gh]tez [th]en innoghe in naked rokkez’ (my emphasis) (lines 729-30). It is recalled, too, in the Christmas game Gawain plays while staying at Bertilak’s castle. Each day Bertilak goes hunting while his guest remains at home, and at the end of the day they agree to exchange whatever they have obtained in their respective activities. This second contest, like the Green Knight’s, involves the conspicuous juxtaposition of flesh and steel: the lavish descriptions of Bertilak’s wife, who seeks to seduce her guest in her husband’s absence, being interlaced with passages that describe the mangling and butchering of animal flesh with steel on Bertilak’s hunting expeditions. And as the game goes on, the final encounter between flesh and steel at the Green Knight’s chapel draws steadily closer, until it hardly seems surprising when on his final day at the castle Gawain succumbs – not to the lady’s seduction, but to her offer of additional armour. The armour, however, is not metal, since we already know that metal is useless. Instead she offers him a girdle, whose virtue, she claims, is to protect its wearer so that ‘no ha[th]el vnder heuen tohewe hym [th]at my[gh]t,/ For he my[gh]t not be slayn for sly[gh]t vpon er[th]e’ (lines 1853-4). Gawain accepts the gift and does not declare it to Bertilak that evening, thus violating the terms of the game they have been playing; and next morning he ties it on over his harness like an extra layer of proofing. He never, however, wholly trusts in its protection – witness the flinch he gives when the Green Knight raises his axe. After all, the green girdle represents the love of the body, which is intimately connected through food, drink, desire and clothing with the beasts and growing plants in the world around it; and flesh is frail as grass, as the Bible reminds us.[15] The body’s frailty could not be better suggested than by the contrast between the soft silk girdle and the iron plates it binds, or between the fatty tissue of a man’s exposed neck and the steel blade that nicks it. The girdle confirms Gawain’s humanity, and as such it serves a similar purpose to the armour that doesn’t work which he is wearing, and which he knows full well will do him no good when he meets his enemy.

Michael Smith, Gawain and the Green Knight, linocut available for purchase

In tying on the girdle over his harness, as Cooper points out in The English Romance in Time, Gawain compromises the symbolic function of that armour in an effort to supplement its function as protection.[16] This symbolic function is indicated by the device he wears on his coat armour: a pentangle that stands for five interlinked virtues, each virtue possessing five aspects, together making up the combined qualities to which a knight is expected to aspire. In tying on the girdle, Cooper points out, Gawain obscures the ‘endeles knot’ of the pentangle with a lace which has two distinct ends (‘pendauntez’, line 2038) and which is also tied in a ‘knot’ (line 2376). As a man who knows he has an end – the death that awaits all mortals – Gawain shares with his readers the wish to defer it for as long as possible. He is not made of metal, and metal in any case has been inescapably connected with mortality throughout the poem. Most commentators agree with the Green Knight that Gawain’s love of life, as embodied in the girdle, makes him more, not less, attractive.[17]

Gawain’s useless armour, which gets trumped by a band of green silk, foreshadows the many varieties of non-functioning armour in the sixteenth century. Spenser, whose iron man Talus embodied the grimmer connotations of fully functional armour, opens The Faerie Queene with the portrait of a young knight whose ancient armour does not quite suit him, as if to alert us to the complex relationship between physical, spiritual and political struggle that the poem explores. In the first stanza we read about the ‘cruell markes of many a bloody fielde’ with which Redcrosse’s arms are covered, together with the paradox that ‘armes till that time did he never wield’; and Redcrosse certainly does not find it easy to acclimatize himself to his antique equipment.[18] At the half way point of the first book we find him cavorting with the sorceress Duessa, ‘Pourd out in loosnesse on the grassy grownd’ (I.vii.6), just at the moment when a ferocious giant happens by. Sir Thopas, too, met a giant when he was unarmed, but unlike Chaucer’s hero Redcrosse never gets time to dress for the occasion. ‘Ere he could his armour on him dight’ the knight finds himself the giant’s prisoner (I.vii.8), and has to be rescued by a better-furnished hero, Prince Arthur, whose worth is signaled by his ‘glitterand armour’ (I.vii.29). This hero, too, has something in common with Sir Thopas – he serves a fairy queen – but fortunately his excellent dress sense is better matched by his prowess and he slays the giant with ease (Sir Thopas never even gets close to his). The whole of Spenser’s poem, in fact, is populated by people whose outward garb bears a difficult relationship with their inward qualities, or lack of them, and by the time the reader meets Redcrosse’s rescuer Arthur she has become well used to scrutinizing the verbal and emblematic context of each character’s first appearance in the poem before passing judgement on them.

Redcrosse slaying the dragon, from the frontispiece to the first edition of The Faerie Queene

Even after his rescue by Arthur, who ought to have furnished him with a good example of a knight whose inward qualities match his harness, Redcrosse’s armour remains a problem to him. His climactic fight sees him face a dragon whose scales resemble a ‘plated cote of stele’ (I.xi.9), and whose weaponry (the fire he breathes, his claws, the stings in his tail) render armour a hindrance rather than a help to his antagonist. Finding himself ‘seard’ through his metal covering (I.xi.26), Redcrosse seeks to remove it and unlace his helmet.  Soon afterwards the monster pierces his shoulder with its stings, then grips his shield so fiercely he is forced to cut off its claw, which remains attached to the shield, much to the knight’s annoyance. In his ‘Letter to Ralegh’ Spenser explains that the ancient armour Redcrosse wears is the armour of Christ described by Saint Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18; but its emblematic associations (the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation) keep breaking down in this encounter, and the steel has to be reinforced with further injections of allegory – water from the well of life, balm from the tree of life – whose exact significance (baptism? Eucharist?) has never quite been settled. The intense pain Redcrosse endures in his battle with an enemy who is as well armoured as himself tends to overwhelm the allegorical function of his harness, and only the spiritual remedies applied to his scorched and damaged flesh can restore him to his symbolic identity as the champion of holiness.

Lorna Hutson has written brilliantly about how the feats of physical combat that had been central to medieval romance were displaced in many Tudor romances by verbal combat, in which the hero displays his prowess through eloquence rather than force.[19] It is for this reason, perhaps – the widespread emphasis on debate, and in particular the orator’s skill in arguing on both sides of any given question – that there are so many examples of armour that doesn’t work throughout the period: from the armour borne by Parthenia in Sidney’s New Arcadia, which she dons not to avenge her dead husband but to share his fate; to the borrowed armour worn by the hero to hide his identity in Robert Greene’s Gwydonius, which means that he nearly kills his own father in the romance’s climactic fight; or the poisoned helmet put on by Duke Brachiano in John Webster’s tragedy The White Devil. In each of these cases the tools of defence are transformed into agents of destruction – much as Redcrosse’s armour becomes a furnace when he fights the dragon.  The analogy with the way a skilful orator could deploy the same material to argue against a cause he had just been defending is irresistible.

Troilus, Cressida and Pandarus, Act 4 scene 2, by J. Coughlan

The most sophisticated post-medieval treatment of this anti-meme occurs in Shakespeare’s most knotty play, Troilus and Cressida. Like The Faerie Queene the play can be read as a response to Chaucer, though it also recalls the other English-language versions of the Trojan War that had circulated since the Middle Ages. By the sixteenth century Troy was best known, perhaps, as the focus of a conflict about which radically different accounts had been written, some biased towards the Greek perspective, others towards the Trojan. Debate, then, and many forms of falsification were inseparably attached to the Trojan myth, as we learn from the early fifteenth-century romance The Destruction of Troy: ‘sum poyetis full prist [th]at put hom [th]erto/ With fablis and falshed fayned [th]ere speche,/ And made more of [th]at mater [th]an hom maister were’.[20] And armour was the theme of one of the most celebrated debates of the conflict: the quarrel between Ulysses and Ajax over which of them should inherit the arms of Achilles, as described by Ovid in the thirteenth book of the Metamorphoses. Ulysses won those arms with his crafty tongue, a result that led to the suicide of Ajax; and in the process Ajax’s claim that Ulysses was dedicated to undermining his Greek comrades as much as his Trojan enemies was lent a large measure of credibility.

Shakespeare’s play is full of similar debates, between purported friends as well as deadly enemies. The Trojans squabble over whether they should continue to keep Helen from the Greeks; the Greeks contend over whether she is worth fighting for, and over how to maintain discipline in the ranks of the pan-Hellenic army. Caught up in these controversies, armour finally loses the chivalric connotations it possessed in romance, becoming instead a potent weapon in the war of words, fought out in a period of stalemate between the Greeks and Trojans when other forms of fighting have been temporarily suspended. Shakespeare punctuates this, one of his most verbally inventive plays, with allusions to armour, and these become increasingly contaminated by the anxieties and inconsistencies of the armour-bearers as the play wears on.

The performance opens with a ‘Prologue arm’d’, who delivers his speech clad in protective steel. His appearance may have resembled that of the actors illustrated in Henry Peacham’s near-contemporary sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus: a peculiar fusion of ancient and modern costume, with Elizabethan vambraces and legharness tacked on to Graeco-Roman cuirasses.[21] The Prologue’s harness is, however, no sign of heroism, as it was for Shakespeare’s Henry V when he wore it at Agincourt. Instead it betrays his lack of ‘confidence’ in the play itself, an uncertainty that stems in part from his ignorance about which side the audience will favour in this particular version of the Trojan war: ‘Like, or find fault,’ he tells us, ‘do as your pleasures are:/ Now good, or bad, ’tis but the chance of war’ (Prologue, 30-1).[22] In these lines, as in the play that follows, values have become contingent, the quality of ‘goodness’ being assigned to whichever side emerges victorious from the conflict, while ‘badness’ is used to brand their defeated enemies regardless of any merits they might have had. Under such circumstances, armour is a political weapon, a means of gaining the upper hand in the confusion of battle. Its links with knightly honour have been severed, and with them the romance presumption that a common code of conduct binds together the men who sport it.

Theo Ogundipe as Ajax and Daniel Hawksford as Hector in 2018 RSC production

The first scene of the play confirms the central part that will be played by armour in the action that follows. Angered, we learn, by a recent defeat at the hands of Ajax, the Trojan hero Hector has ‘chid’ his wife that morning and ‘struck his armourer’ before going to battle (1.2.6). His chiding of Andromache, taken together with the blow against a nameless technician, points to the culture of violence that underpins the Trojan claim to be waging war for the best of reasons: in defence of honour and the women they love. Helen may be the official cause of the Trojan War, but she is in reality no more than an excuse to engage in the testosterone-fueled grapplings that define a young man’s standing in a warrior culture. To drive the point home, Shakespeare later makes Hector use Andromache as an excuse for a return match against Ajax, offering to engage in single combat with any Greek who refuses to acknowledge her as ‘a lady wiser, fairer, truer,/ Than ever Greek did couple in his arms’ (1.3.274-5). The terms of this challenge effectively explode the Trojan claim that Helen is worth fighting for (if Hector is right, she is neither as ‘fair’ nor as ‘true’ as his Trojan wife). This fact, however, is mentioned by nobody; and this is because everyone knows full well that the claim for Andromache’s pre-eminence among women has been swiftly cooked up for the single purpose of restoring Hector’s pre-eminence among fighting men. The real motive for the single combat is made clear when Hector enters the Greek camp, as enemies on both sides eye up each others’ muscles and embrace with more than soldierly enthusiasm. Men are far more interested in their own masculinity than in the women they claim as prizes; and this fact is reflected in the tendency of that most masculine of costumes, armour, to get caught up in the rampant infidelities of its bearers.

Ulysses, for instance, deploys armour prominently in his bid to set his fellow Greeks against each other, while ostensibly inciting them to honourable action. When he informs the Greek commanders that Achilles and Patroclus have been undermining their authority among their men, he reinforces the claim by re-enacting one of the scenes Patroclus is supposed to have acted for Achilles’s pleasure: a mocking imitation of the aged warrior Nestor ‘Arming to answer in a night alarm’, where the coughing and spitting old man ‘with a palsy fumbling on his gorget/ Shake[s] in and out the rivet’ (1.3.171-5). Whether or not Ulysses is telling the truth about Patroclus, his performance in front of Nestor of Nestor’s own ineptitude with his armour is clearly more subversive of the old man’s authority than any performance that may have taken place in Achilles’s tent. Later, when Ulysses urges Achilles himself to return to military action after an extended hiatus, he tells him that only ‘Perseverance’ will maintain his heroic status in the public eye: ‘to have done is to hang/ Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail/ In monumental mockery’ (3.3.150-3). In saying so, Ulysses encourages Achilles to break his promise to the Trojan princess Polyxena, whom he loves, and who has made him swear he will not harm her fellow citizens. This is, then, another treacherous invocation of armour on Ulysses’ part. And when Achilles’s ‘rusty mail’ does indeed go to war, first enclosing the body of Patroclus (who dies in it), then on Achilles’s own body as he seeks revenge for Patroclus’s death, it is more a monument to his serial faithlessness than to his valour.  Achilles has betrayed Polyxena with his male lover Patroclus, betrayed the Greeks by making a promise to Polyxena, and betrayed Polyxena by going to war and breaking his promise. When he finally fights Hector in Act Five, the Greek hero is out of condition and unused to wearing armour or carrying weapons (‘my arms are out of use’, 5.6.16), and it is this that leads him to his final act of betrayal: to have the ‘unarm’d’ Hector slain by his men-at-arms, the Myrmidons, instead of fighting him hand to hand (5.8.9).

Hector, meanwhile, has a passion for armour that amounts to infidelity, not only to his wife Andromache but to the values he purports to be defending. In the central scene of the play, Act 3 scene 1 – our only extended encounter with Helen, the woman whose ‘worth’ is cited by both Greeks and Trojans as justification for their conflict – Paris exhorts his purloined lover to encourage Hector to keep fighting by indulging in a little erotic dalliance with his equipment:

Sweet Helen, I must woo you
To help unarm our Hector. His stubborn buckles,
With these your white enchanting fingers touch’d,
Shall more obey than to the edge of steel
Or force of Greekish sinews: you shall do more
Than all the island kings – disarm great Hector. (3.1.145-50)

Peter Paul Rubens, Achilles Kills Hector

Paris’s request links the act of disarming with a whole sequence of infidelities: Helen’s to her husband Menelaus; his own to Helen in encouraging her to seduce his brother; and Hector’s to Andromache in being aroused by Helen’s ‘white enchanting fingers’. Later, it is Hector’s armour that points up his forgetfulness of the value he earlier attached to his wife Andromache. When she begs him ‘Unarm, unarm, and do not fight today’ (5.3.3) – convinced by many omens that he will die if he ignores her warning – he threatens to ‘offend’ her, for the second time in the play, if she does not lay off (5.3.4). It seems appropriate, then, that armour should also prove his undoing. His last act of war is to pursue a weaponless soldier because he admires his harness (‘I like thy armour well’, 5.6.28). This is another mark of Hector’s inconsistency; he earlier told Troilus that he would never kill a helpless enemy because of his commitment to the rules of ‘fair play’. When he kills the fleeing soldier for the sake of his outer covering he describes him as a ‘putrefied core’ concealed in ‘goodly armour’ (5.8.1-2); and it is not entirely clear here whether he means that all mortal flesh is effectively putrid or that this soldier in particular was diseased, perhaps with syphilis, another mark of infidelity. There is certainly something rotten about Achilles’s actions when he catches Hector ‘unarm’d’ beside the victim’s body. The Greek hero orders his Myrmidons to kill him, which is bad enough; but he then dresses up the unequal contest in a garb of ‘fair play’, by ordering them to spread the word that Achilles killed the Trojan champion in equal combat: ‘On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain/ “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain”’ (5.8.13-14). In this scene the audience sees history being written; and it looks very much like a scam, fronted by the ‘goodly armour’ that conceals the cross-infected rottenness of the flesh within.

Shakespeare’s play completes the process of conceptually disengaging armour from its bearer and investing it with a grotesque life of its own; a process that had been steadily at work over the preceding two centuries. There are other manifestations of this process, some contemporary with this one, which would be worth holding up as exemplary representations of the complex relationship between human flesh and the rigid social, cultural and moral carapaces we don in a vain attempt to contain and define it. The most notable of these is the armour of Quixote. The inadequacy of this ancestral iron shell (most notably the various home-made helmets with which he seeks to complete it) reflects the weakness of the bearer’s ageing brain; but it also embodies his infectious delight in the imaginative glamour bestowed on the world by a romance sensibility, and his determination to invest the world with that glamour whatever the cost to his unguarded head. What is evident, however, is that armour that doesn’t work deserves the same close attention Cooper gave to non-functional magic; and that it has enabled equally startling transformations, down the years, of the romance tradition. It is time to polish up the rusty mail.[23]

John Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Notes

[1] Cooper, Romance, ch. 3: ‘Magic that doesn’t work’.

[2] Cooper, Romance, pp. 148-51.

[3] Cooper, Romance, p. 138.

[4] My knowledge of medieval armour depends largely on two sources: Claude Blair’s European Armour circa 1066 to circa 1700 (London, 1958); and the kindness of Dr Ralph Moffat, Curator of European Arms and Armour at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Warm thanks to Ralph for showing me round the museum’s remarkable collection and providing me with an invaluable reading list.

[5] ‘And so suddeynly departed hys soule to Jesu Cryste, and a grete multitude of angels bare hit up to hevyn evyn in the sight of hys two felowis’: Sir Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford, 1977), p. 607, lines 6-8. All references are to this edition.

[6] See [Anon.], Virgilius (Antwerp, 1518), sigs. A5v-A6v; Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, eds. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester and New York, 1993), A-Text, I. i. 102-168. For Agrippa’s moving statues, see Three Books of Occult Philosophy Written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, trans. J.F. (London, 1651), pp. 77-8.

[7] Italo Calvino, Our Ancestors, trans. Archibald Colquhoun (London, 1980), pp. 285-382.

[8] Sir Perceval of Galles, in Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. Walter Hoyt French and Charles Brockway Hale, 2 vols. (New York, 1930), 2: 530-603.

[9] T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone (London, 1959), p. 26.

[10] White, Sword in the Stone, p. 30.

[11] Cooper, Romance, p. 363.

[12] Sir Thopas, in Geoffrey Chaucer, Works, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1977), p. 166, lines 867 and 882. All references are to this edition.

[13] Cooper, Romance, pp. 367-9.

[14] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, 2nd edn., ed. Norman Davis (Oxford, 1979), lines 201-4. All references are to this edition.

[15] Isaiah 40:6 and 1 Peter 1:24.

[16] Cooper, Romance, p. 160.

[17] Cooper, Romance, p. 52.

[18] Spenser, Faerie Queene, I.i.1. All references are to this edition.

[19] See The Usurer’s Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London, 1994).

[20] Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. French and Hale, p. 811, lines 33-5.

[21] The sketch is reproduced in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al., 2nd edn. (London, 2008), p. 89.

[22] All references to Troilus and Cressida are taken from Kenneth Palmer’s edition for the Arden Shakespeare (London, 1982).

[23] My thanks to Matthew Woodcock for his comments on this essay. He asked me a number of excellent questions I have no space to answer here, among them ‘do you have a sense of when the “armour that doesn’t work” anti-meme develops’? The fact that Beowulf is the first example I can think of (the episode in which the hero’s specially-forged iron shield fails him in his fight against the dragon, of course, but more interestingly the whole notion that Beowulf has never managed to fight with weapons because they have always failed him) suggests to me that it is as old as armour itself.

Magic Houses at a Time of Covid

Howl’s Moving Castle, from the Studio Ghibli Movie

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

The Domestic Roots of Fantasy

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

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

Tolkien’s own picture of Bilbo’s Hobbit Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexey Repolsky Illustration of Tom Thumb

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

Fantasy Houses and the Gothic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alasdair Gray’s mural at Hillhead Subway Station

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

Magic Houses in Victorian Children’s Fiction

The King of the Golden River, illustration by Richard Doyle

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

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

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

The King of the Golden River, illustration by Arthur Rackham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice in Wonderland, illustration by John Tenniel

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

Alice in Wonderland, from the movie by Jan Svenkmajer

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

Plural Magic Houses of the Twentieth Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portmeirion, Wales

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

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

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

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

Charles W. Stewart, Steerpike surveying Gormenghast