Mollie Hunter, A Stranger Came Ashore (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garage roofed with a boat, Lerwick, Shetland

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Morland, The Press Gang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea and shore: Mousa, Shetland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mollie Hunter

  NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pauline Baynes’s illustrated cover, 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolkien’s own illustration of Lake-Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of the Giant Grugol, by John Morton-Sale

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

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

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

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

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

Borrobil, by John Morton-Sale

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

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

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

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

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

Jean, by John Morton-Sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Merry Wives of Windsor: A Commonwealth of Merriment

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve begun to deposit them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’. This is the second, on a play I left out of my book, Shakespeare and Comedy, because there wasn’t room to include it].

Falstaff with beaker, by Eduard von Grützner

‘Cry God for Falstaff, England and Saint George!’ For one scene only, in 2 Henry IV, we are given a glimpse of an England where Falstaff, not Harry, is king: a land engendered by the sheer force of the fat knight’s imagination. Throughout the play Falstaff’s disease-ridden body, grown cold with age and huge with self-indulgence, paradoxically generates wholesome hilarity, the healthiest of moods, which spreads from him like a benign virus until it erupts, near the end, in the cheeriest party in theatrical history. The party takes place on the eve of Harry’s coronation, and in it a man called Silence bursts into song; a servant is commended for being a good ‘husband’ to his master; Falstaff’s seedy follower Bardolph speaks like a monarch; a young page finds himself entertained by a judge with the same gusto as his elderly employer; and the company in general is urged to ‘Lack nothing’, to slough off their years of penury and feast instead on the fruits of Justice Shallow’s orchard. And the party ends with a promise that this genial mood will soon extend itself throughout the kingdom. When Falstaff hears of the old king’s death he declares ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’; his comrade Pistol salutes a happy future (‘welcome these pleasant days’); and for a few seconds we dare hope that this ragtag of ne’er-do-wells may be granted some small fragment of their wishes, if no more than a pittance with which to fund their ongoing revelry. Instead, Falstaff is discarded by his former protégé, the new-crowned monarch, and slinks off to die of disappointment. Few audiences have found it in their hearts to forgive Henry V for his dismissal, even when their heads insist that it’s in the best interests of the English economy.

But legend has it that another monarch – Elizabeth I – compensated for Henry’s bad sportsmanship by insisting that Falstaff be granted an imaginative kingdom of his own: a play in which he falls in love, thus confirming the physical fruitfulness of his laughter-engendering body. No-one knows if she really made this request, but if she did, Shakespeare did not quite comply with it. Falstaff could never truly be in love, except perhaps with Harry or Hal and the possibilities he represented; and an England, or rather a play, that was dominated by this monstrously self-centred anarchist would quickly collapse into nightmare. Nevertheless, The Merry Wives of Windsor makes concrete the merry England that is hinted at in Justice Shallow’s orchard; and it renders that fictional construct both stable and convincing by plucking it out of the hands of the aristocracy and gentry – the classes to which Falstaff and Shallow belong – and placing it firmly in the hands of the middle classes, to which Shakespeare belonged himself.

Falstaff disguised as Herne with Mrs Ford and Mrs Page, detail of painting by Robert Smirke

In doing so, Shakespeare lifts England out of the nightmare of history to which his plays had so far consigned it. Apart from the History Plays, The Merry Wives is the only play he set in his own country, and it’s firmly linked with the two parts of Henry IV both by the presence of Falstaff and by the fact that the impoverished gentleman Fenton once drank ‘with the wild Prince and Poins’. But Fenton’s link with the cast-list of the English chronicles – the Prince of Wales and his aristocratic companions – merely disqualifies him as a suitable match for a nicely-brought-up middle-class girl in the eyes of her parents. Throughout the Second Tetralogy the middle classes carefully exempted themselves from the epic narrative of the nation, paying their way out of military service and thus avoiding the slaughters and betrayals that bedeviled the ruling classes; and in The Merry Wives they firmly decline to be dragged back into those events by an ill-considered union. The events of ruling-class history are not just irrelevant to these people’s lives but obnoxious to them. Instead this play narrates the histories of ordinary men and women, history as it’s purveyed in the Tudor jest-books, whose so-called ‘merry tales’ full of pranks and japes are mimicked in the farcical situations with which it is filled: situations based, as nowhere else in Shakespeare’s works, on a mutual trust that never for a moment seems in any danger of breaking down.

The titular merry wives occupy an egalitarian rural space in which nearly everyone can participate with equal enthusiasm in plots to make, break, prevent or procure each other’s marriages. It’s a space where women rule the roost, hatching stratagems designed to show, as Mistress Page insists, that ‘Wives may be merry and yet honest too’, in contrast to the dishonest merriment of hereditary knights like Sir John. And it’s a space where jests do no harm, as all the characters repeatedly assure us. The Host’s deception of the physician, Doctor Caius, and Hugh Evans the parson, is devised not to hurt them but to prevent them from damaging each other in a duel. The wives’ deception of Falstaff aims to prevent him from hurting their husbands by committing adultery. Fenton’s tricking of Anne Page’s parents proves that he has laid aside his aristocratic wildness and committed himself to the stability of middle-class matrimony. As Parson Evans puts it, the play is driven by ‘fery honest knaveries’, and Master Page piously confirms this view: ‘God prosper our sport’. Moral disapproval of this sport – of the kind expressed by the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby – is as irrelevant here as the iron hand of the law, or civil war, or bloody revenge. And so rigorously are these oppressive considerations excluded from the action that it would be fair to describe The Merry Wives as Shakespeare’s only ‘pure’ comedy, the one play in his oeuvre that is unshadowed by the threat of death or the intimidating presence of rulers.

“Falstaff in the Washbasket” by Henry Fuseli

The egalitarianism of the play manifests itself in the fact that nearly everyone in it has at least one prank played upon them. Falstaff is tricked more often than anyone else, of course, and subjected to more painful physical abuse: half-drowned in a ditch, beaten in women’s clothes, pinched black and blue by children disguised as fairies. But he is never isolated in his comic sufferings, as he was in Henry IV; his humiliation is shared by. the bulk of the Windsor community. Master Ford, Master and Mistress Page, Slender, Sallow, Doctor Caius, the Host of the Garter Inn and Parson Evans, are all conned as comprehensively as he is, and he himself notes the multiplicity of quarries there are for the play’s pranksters: ‘When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased’. So if in this play Falstaff is toppled from the position of comic pre-eminence he enjoyed in Henry IV, his former absolute monarchy of wit is supplanted by a commonwealth of merriment, the model for a new anti-authoritarian England. In place of the crown of power and influence he hoped for in the ‘Henriad’, the fat knight is tricked into accepting a crown made of the antlers of a Windsor stag, ‘the fattest, I think, i’the forest’. And while the stag is the most lordly of English beasts, it’s also the chief ingredient of the ‘hot venison pasty’ Master Page serves to his guests in the first scene of the play, in token of perpetual amity. between them. In other words, Falstaff here becomes a wholly wholesome dish, his predatory sexual desires transmuted into a harmless fairy-tale, his bulk made the centre of an inclusive social circle. He is defused, in other words, but not deflated, and this cheerful metamorphosis is completed at the end of the final scene when Mistress Page invites him to ‘laugh his sport o’er by a country fire’ and enjoy, with his friends, ‘many, many merry days’.

In The Merry Wives merriness is vindicated, laughter liberated from slaughter, and the shadow of civil war dispersed from a land where everyone enjoys warmth and enough to eat. It’s not the land where the Elizabethans lived; but thanks to Falstaff and his friends they could go home from the performance nurturing the hope that one day it might be.

Serena Evans (Mistress Page), Christopher Benjamin (John Falstaff) and Sarah Woodward (Mistress Ford), in the Globe’s 2010 production

 

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.

Fantastic Economies: Flann O’Brien and James Stephens

[I’m deep in the marking season, so haven’t had time to finish the blog post I was working on this month. Instead I’m putting up an essay from a few years ago, adding to the discussions of Irish fantasy you can find elsewhere on this blog. The essay was published in Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), pp. 136-51, expertly edited by Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan and John McCourt. A Russian translation by Shasha Martynova is also available here, edited for Gorky by Maxim Nemtsov.

You can find more on James Stephens here, and on Flann O’Brien here.]

In this essay I shall argue that Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1940) is (among other things) a radical reimagining of one of the best-loved Irish novels of the twentieth century: James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912). In reworking Stephens’s quirky nationalist fantasy for a later generation, O’Brien arranges elements of the earlier novel into strange new forms adapted to the grim new social and political realities of the 1930s.  Stephens conceived his book as an imaginative act of resistance against the unholy alliance of the church and the British state, pitting mutually supportive poverty against the reactionary self-interest of the middle classes, the passionate body against the cultural and religious authorities who sought to suppress it, and predicting a brilliant future for an independent, egalitarian, quasi-pagan Irish nation. O’Brien reconceives the novel as an elaborate trap, in which Ireland, its people and its landscape wholeheartedly participate in the worldwide trend towards totalitarian authoritarianism and its inevitable outcome: self-destruction. The chief components of both novels are a pastoral, often lyric vision of the Irish countryside, a clutch of self-educated philosophers, a man condemned to death and some eccentric but threatening policemen. How and why such similar elements should have been recombined to produce such radically different texts, each of which issues an equally scathing assessment of the condition of Ireland at its own particular point in history, is the subject of this essay. [1]

O’Brien’s debt to Stephens has often been noted.  In 1966 an anonymous essayist argued in the Times Literary Supplement that O’Brien owed more to the ‘tradition of modern Irish fantasy and romance in which the definitive figure is James Stephens’ than to Joycean modernism (though there seems no good reason to choose between these debts, since Joyce and Stephens were friends).[2] Thirty years later, Keith Hopper pointed out that Sergeant Pluck is ‘a fictional composition of […] features borrowed from other texts (most notably James Stephens’s policemen in The Crock of Gold)’;[3] while Carol Taaffe has recently contended that the ‘nearest predecessor to O’Nolan’s fantasy was James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold’.[4]  None of these commentators took their perceptions much further; but the sheer frequency with which O’Brien’s debt to Stephens has been affirmed suggests that a close comparison is overdue. And Taaffe’s comments in particular open up a number of fruitful avenues of inquiry.

Scene from the Blue Raincoat Theatre production of The Third Policeman

For Taaffe, The Third Policeman is a ‘resolutely apolitical piece of nonsense’ (my emphasis), which reflects O’Brien’s ambiguous attitude to de Valera’s Ireland, caught between anger at and complicity with its oppressive paternalism towards its citizens.[5] It seems to me, though, that O’Brien’s evident fascination with The Crock of Gold could be read as the key to a decidedly political reading of The Third Policeman, which reinforces Shelly Brivic’s contention that an ‘insurrectionary attitude’ lurks beneath the surface of O’Brien’s masterpiece.[6] Neither The Crock of Gold nor James Stephens could be described as in any sense ‘apolitical’, embroiled as they were in the ferment of nationalist activism that preceded the outbreak of the First World War.[7]  O’Brien’s decision, then, to redraft Stephens’s book in the context of the nationalist ferment that preceded the Second can itself be seen as a political act.  That the political outlooks in question are so different can be ascribed to the different class backgrounds of the two writers, as well as to the times in which they wrote. And these differences emerge most clearly in the contrasting imaginative economies of their novels.

Stephens saw himself as having been shaped by the economic conditions of his upbringing.  In a fragment of autobiography he represents his early life in terms of a series of transitions from one social milieu to another:

The Dublin I was born to was poor and Protestant and athletic. While very young I extended my range and entered a Dublin that was poor and Catholic and Gaelic – a very wonderworld. Then as a young writer I further extended to a Dublin that was poor and artistic and political. Then I made a Dublin for myself, my Dublin.[8]

The recurring note throughout these transitions is one of poverty. Stephens was educated at the Meath Industrial School for Protestant Boys, for which he qualified by getting himself arrested for begging at the age of six.[9] He left school at sixteen to work for a pittance as a solicitor’s clerk, a life from which he was precariously set free by the success of his writing. Brian O’Nolan, by contrast, came from a Catholic middle-class background, took a Master’s degree in Irish literature at University College Dublin, and followed his father into the Civil Service.[10] His father’s early death left O’Nolan to support eleven siblings, but thanks to O’Nolan’s salary the family never experienced poverty. At the same time, as a native Irish speaker O’Nolan was intensely conscious of the quasi-mythical link that had been forged by scholars and patriots between economic deprivation and the Irish language. The association formed the basis of his satire An Béal Bocht (1941), where the purest Irish is spoken by starving peasants who are kept artificially segregated from modernity, by government decree, in a fantastic Gaeltacht.  Stephens and O’Nolan, then, had radically different experiences of poverty, but shared an intense awareness of the economic basis of relations between classes, between nations, between an author and his readers; and this awareness manifests itself on every page of their strangely linked masterpieces.

The dominant economy of The Crock of Gold is a romanticized version of the economics of the working classes, underpinned by the custom of gift exchange among the travellers who throng its rural highways.  Men and women in Stephens’s Ireland are always sharing bread, as well as advice and information, with random strangers they meet on the road. At one point the protagonist, an elderly Philosopher, generously shares his one small cake with seven large labourers, male and female, and is rewarded with the ‘larger part’ of a food parcel belonging to one of them.[11] Later, when he is hungry again, he meets a young boy who tells him ‘I am bringing you your dinner’ and spontaneously hands over another food parcel.[12] The generosity of strangers extends to the courtesies they exchange, verbal equivalents of the material gifts that sustain them on their travels. Having finished the meal donated to him by the boy the Philosopher tells his benefactor, ‘I want nothing more in the world […] except to talk with you’, and the two quickly discover there is ‘not so much difference’ between a child and an old man.[13] And each of these chance encounters – with the boy and with the labourers – concludes with the Philosopher giving the strangers important messages from the Irish god Angus Óg, which serve to bind together the community of the poor in a single purpose: the democratization of the reawakened Irish nation.

The Third Policeman, by contrast, is dominated by the economics of the middle classes, based on individual self-advancement, a paranoid concern to protect what they take to be their private property (though in this book property is for the most part theft and the concept of ownership problematic), and a penchant for aggressive competition in all their dealings. The verbal courtesies they exchange are as elaborate as those of Stephens’s travellers, but serve the function of a robber’s mask as they seek to con conversationalists out of their possessions and even their lives.  When the unnamed first person narrator meets a ‘poorly dressed’ stranger on the road his first reaction is to check that his wallet is safe, after which he decides to ‘talk to him genially and civilly’ in the hope of coaxing information out of him.[14] The stranger’s courteous replies to the narrator’s civility (‘More power to yourself’) lead inexorably to a threat of murder (‘Even if you have no money […] I will take your little life’), which is only averted by the discovery that both men possess an unusual feature in common – each has a wooden left leg.[15] Shortly afterwards the friendly welcome the narrator receives at the local police station rapidly transforms itself into another death threat, when he is arrested and condemned to be hanged for a crime of which there is no evidence that he is guilty.

Illustration by Jen O’Brien

In O’Brien’s world, too, information is guarded jealously as a source of power, not shared as it is in Stephens’s Ireland. Policeman Pluck’s second and third rules of wisdom – the only rules he follows that have nothing to do with bicycles – are ‘Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any’ and ‘Turn everything you hear to your own advantage’.[16] Meanwhile the driving motive for the narrator’s journey is a quest for gold to finance his pet project: the private printing of his otherwise unpublishable book on the unhinged philosopher de Selby, containing information of no conceivable value to anyone but a few scholarly authorities on the man himself – and to its author, of course, who hopes to join their exalted ranks by virtue of his volume. O’Brien’s inversion of Stephens’s economy could not be more complete, and the competition between individuals and social classes that underpins it – in contrast to the communal interests that dominate The Crock of Gold ­– can be summed up in the narrator’s contempt, as a would-be scholar, for the intellects of the men he meets (‘I decided now that he was a simple man and that I would have no difficulty in dealing with him exactly as I desired’), as he kills and lies his way towards the cashbox he requires to fund his project.[17]

Stephens composed The Crock of Gold in a ferment of political and personal optimism.  The year of its publication, 1912, saw the publication of the other two books that made his name: a quasi-realist novel, The Charwoman’s Daughter, and the poetry collection that cemented his reputation as one of the finest Irish poets of his generation, The Hill of Vision. The immediate success of these volumes prompted him to give up his job as a clerk, acquire an agent, and set off to seek his fortune in Paris.[18]  His plans for the future, as the title of his poetry collection suggests, were ambitious.  He shared the vision of an independent socialist Ireland with his friends and fellow poets Thomas MacDonagh and Patrick Pearce, both of whom died in the Easter Rising; and he dreamed of giving a suitable literary form to this vision by writing a multi-volume epic based on the Ulster Cycle, a work worthy of the richly creative and egalitarian society he expected Ireland to become. But the Free State turned out very different from the Ireland he had imagined, and he completed only fragments of this project. It is therefore his two celebrated prose works of 1912, along with his early lyrics, that best articulate his youthful ambitions for his country.

O’Nolan seems to have been thinking about Stephens a good deal around the time when he was writing The Third Policeman. In 1938 he wrote to the older novelist asking permission to translate The Crock of Gold into Irish; and as Taaffe points out, if this permission had been forthcoming the translation ‘would have been his next project after At Swim-Two-Birds’ – would have taken the place, in fact, of The Third Policeman in the chronology of O’Nolan’s major works.[19] Stephens’s refusal denied twentieth-century Irish literature what might have been one of its collaborative masterpieces; but it also enabled his fiction to undergo some unexpected mutations in the crucible of O’Nolan’s imagination.  In 1941, for instance, The Crock of Gold cropped up in Cruiskeen Lawn as one of the prized items on offer to wealthy customers of the Myles na cGopaleen ‘book handling’ service. In the de luxe version of this service, Myles’s team of so-called ‘master handlers’ undertake to upgrade your private book collection (for a suitable fee) by padding it out with classic volumes, their title pages inscribed with ‘forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work’, including an expression of esteem from ‘Your old friend, James Stephens’.[20] Stephens’s influence may also be detected ‘in the erudite dialogues of the Pooka and the Good Fairy’ in At Swim-Two-Birds, as Taaffe points out, which recall the dialogues between the Philosopher and his brother in The Crock of Gold;[21] and in the many bar-room rhetoricians of Cruiskeen Lawn, who resemble the sponging old gentleman-philosopher in Stephens’s story collection Here Are Ladies (1913).[22] It can be traced in O’Brien’s description of Sergeant Pluck, whose ‘violent red moustache […] shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal’,[23] evoking the red moustache of the equally huge policeman in The Charwoman’s Daughter, which ‘stood out above his lip like wire’ so that ‘One expected it to crackle when he touched it’.[24] Even the famous multiple personae O’Nolan adopted might remind us of Stephens’s many pen-names, from Tiny Tim to the Leprechaun, James Esse, Jacques and Seumas Beg.

In 1940, O’Nolan accomplished his most extended act of translation from the work of Stephens: The Third Policeman, which translates The Crock of Gold into terms directly applicable to the global situation at the beginning of a second Great War and at the end of the depression. The fact that this is a translation of a sort emerges most clearly in the plot of each novel, which links capitalist economics to the crime of murder. In both books the desire for capital leads to violence; but the route from cash to aggression is quite different in each case, and the relationship between capital, violence and Ireland differs too, in ways that summarize the different worlds in which the authors found themselves.

The plot of The Crock of Gold involves a stock of money, the crock of the title; but the coins it contains play only a marginal role in the lives of their owners. The Leprechauns of Gort na Cloca Mora have accumulated the cash as insurance against the greed of mortal men. As one of them explains, ‘a Leprecaun [sic] has to have a crock of gold so that if he’s captured by men folk he may be able to ransom himself’.[25]  Their traditional work as shoemakers, by contrast, participates in a non-monetary economy: it is remunerated in kind by mortals through the strict preservation of certain customs, such as leaving out a pan of milk for them on Tuesdays, removing one’s hat when faced with a dust-twirl, and observing a pact of non-aggression against their special bird, the robin redbreast.  The Leprechauns, then, inhabit a world where one economy is pitted against another, where the competitive thirst for accumulated capital which makes the crock necessary is set against a strategy of mutual co-operation within the working class community; and the climax of the novel sees an escalation of the conflict between these two economies, with very nearly fatal consequences for Stephens’s Philosopher.

The representatives of the capitalist economy in the novel are the policemen, called in by the Leprechauns in the course of a feud with one of their neighbours, Meehawl MacMurrachu, who stole their crock of gold on the Philosopher’s advice. In revenge, the Leprechauns frame the Philosopher for the murder of his brother; and the men who come to arrest him bring with them an alien set of values, characterised by a rigid sense of hierarchy and a propensity for violence. Where the rural people in the book’s community – mortals, gods and fairies alike – portion out their food and drink with scrupulous fairness, the policemen divide what they have according to rank, with the sergeant drinking whiskey and his subordinates milk.[26] Where the Philosopher bases his wisdom on the behaviour of birds, beasts and insects, on the assumption that all creatures were created equal – an attitude the book endorses by recording the thoughts of donkeys, cows and spiders – the policemen treat dumb animals with brutality, as if to confirm the brutal nature of their own social function. We hear of a policeman’s pet jackdaw whose tongue was split with a coin to make it talk, and which was accidentally trampled to death by its owner’s mother;[27] of a dog that got kicked for counting too long;[28] and of a cat that ate her kittens, about which Policeman Shawn informs us: ‘I killed it myself one day with a hammer for I couldn’t stand the smell it made, so I couldn’t’.[29] Soon after saying this, Policeman Shawn treats one of the Leprechauns with equal aggression. ‘Tell me where the money is or I’ll twist your neck off’, he warns, driven half mad by his lust for fairy gold; and later, ‘Tell me where the money is or I’ll kill you’.[30] The brutality of Stephens’s policemen is connected with money in an endless cycle of cause and effect. And when the Philosopher arrives at their barracks he discovers that the citizens they police, as represented by the prisoners in the cell, have been trapped in a similar cycle, body and mind.

Both prisoners were driven to crime by unfair dismissal from jobs in the city. The first was sacked for non-attendance owing to illness, the second summarily dismissed because of his age. Both men experience unemployment as a brutalising loss of identity, expressed in their exclusion from the system of verbal exchanges that define a community. When the Philosopher first enters the cell, neither man returns his greeting – the only time in the book when a courteous gesture is not reciprocated. The prisoners tell their stories in the dark without giving their names, so it is unclear which man is speaking. And the stories they tell identify inarticulacy as the first symptom of their exclusion from social and economic significance. The sickness of one prisoner manifests itself in an inability to write out words (like Stephens he is a clerk): ‘The end of a word seemed […] like the conclusion of an event – it was a surprising, isolated, individual thing, having no reference to anything else in the world’.[31] Here, the loss of a coherent written language is the cause of his dismissal from his job, while its effect is that speech too fails him. He stops talking to his wife, and eventually leaves his family without a word of explanation or farewell. For the second prisoner, too, the loss of his job is quickly followed by a loss of articulacy: ‘I did not allow my mind to think, but now and again a word swooped from immense distances through my brain, swinging like a comet across a sky and jarring terribly when it struck: “Sacked” was one word, “Old” was another word’.[32] When their income is taken away, each prisoner suffers the concomitant removal of the verbal grammar that binds one term to another, and of the social grammar that links one man to his neighbour or to his sense of his own identity in the past.

In the end, it is the improbable intervention of the fairies, gods and heroes of old Ireland that frees these prisoners from the cycle of economic and social exclusion to which they have been condemned. The hosts of the Shee rise up under the leadership of Angus Óg to liberate the Irish workers in a pagan insurrection. And the most striking characteristic of the insurrectionists is their unity-in-diversity, their ability to reconcile individualism with collectivism, exuberance with organisation, as expressed in a universal language:

For these people, though many, were one. Each spoke to the other as to himself, without reservation or subterfuge. They moved freely each in his personal whim, and they moved also with the unity of one being: for when they shouted to the Mother of the gods they shouted with one voice, and they bowed to her as one man bows. Through the many minds there went also one mind, correcting, commanding, so that in a moment the interchangeable and fluid became locked, and organic with a simultaneous understanding, a collective action – which was freedom.[33]

Stephens here represents the host of Angus Óg as practising a form of instantaneous communication, whereby they understand each other completely without discarding what makes them distinctive: precisely the obverse of the prisoners’ isolation and anonymity. And this language aspires to be uttered beyond the confines of Stephens’s narrative. The chapter in which the insurrection takes place is the only one with its own title, ‘The Happy March’, as if to ensure that its contents can be detached from the novel and deployed as the imaginative blueprint, or at least the incidental music, for an actual Irish insurrection of the kind that took place in 1916. Stephens’s book, in other words, opens up at the end, offering its contents as common currency to the Irish people in a generously inclusive gesture of the kind with which it is filled, in an attempt to liberate them by example from the prison of their colonised minds.[34]

Illustration by David and Edward O’Kane

O’Brien’s novel, by contrast, affirms the continued entrapment of the Irish people. It reverses the class positions of the police and the novel’s protagonist – the first-person narrator – forcing the reader to take the point of view of a petit bourgeois social climber, instead of that selfless if somewhat arrogant servant of the community, Stephens’s Philosopher. In contrast to the courteous and curious Philosopher, O’Brien’s narrator feels only disdain for those he thinks of as his social inferiors – including the police. He too is a philosopher, but a parasitic one who seeks to accumulate cultural capital by publishing a wholly derivative volume, an index to the works of the incoherent savant de Selby. And de Selby himself is the polar opposite of Stephens’s genial pedant: a solipsist who refuses to engage in dialogue with other thinkers, and who sees human existence not as a single organic entity but as a series of disconnected moments (‘a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief’),[35] each as detached from adjacent moments as he is from the rest of the human species. Where Stephens’s Philosopher draws on the collective wisdom of beasts, children and ordinary people to develop his theories, de Selby rejects any form of consensus: he ‘would question the most obvious realities and object even to things scientifically demonstrated’.[36] And his works conduct their readers not to enlightenment but bloodshed. In the last of many footnotes on de Selby in the novel we see one of his commentators set out with bombs and guns to kill his German rival because they disagree on how the great man’s writings are to be interpreted.[37] The link between this philosophy of exclusivity and obfuscation and the rise of Nazism is confirmed in an earlier footnote, where de Selby claims to be able to ‘state the physiological “group” of any person merely from a brief study of the letters of his name’ and avers that ‘Certain “groups” [are] universally “repugnant” to other “groups”’.[38] One race or family, then, gets segregated from another in de Selby’s thinking, just as one moment in time gets divorced from the next; so it is hardly surprising if the narrator of O’Brien’s novel, as the great man’s acolyte, finds himself increasingly alienated from other people in the course of the narrative, baffled by their discourse, convinced that his private interests are opposed to theirs, and prepared to kill to assert his own intellectual and economic superiority to those around him.[39]

Where Stephens locates his genial Philosopher in a gift exchange economy, O’Brien ensures that his narrator-philosopher is acutely conscious that he lives in a cutthroat capitalist environment. He knows (as does the reader) exactly how his research on de Selby is funded – through the farm and the failing pub he inherits from his parents – and how the income from these combined resources is not enough to fund the publication of his Index. He imagines the contents of the cashbox for which he kills old Mathers not as gold but as ‘Ten thousand pounds’ worth of negotiable securities’ such as stocks and bonds;[40] so that for all his claim to be absorbed in matters of the mind he knows the market intimately. And he plans to use these assets not for some collective benefit but to enhance his financial and social worth as an individual, despite the fact that neither the cashbox nor the book he has written is his own: the cashbox belongs to Mathers and the book is made up of quotations from other writers, since in it ‘the views of all known commentators on every aspect of the savant and his work had been collated’.[41] The only forms of interaction with the community he undertakes, in fact, are competitive, and even his conversation entails a constant jockeying for position, a quest for the upper hand that merely sinks him deeper and deeper into a self-imposed confinement of body and mind.

Illustration by Armando Veve

In O’Brien’s novel, as in Stephens’s, philosophers set out on journeys across an unspecified Irish landscape made up of rolling hills and bogland and populated by labourers, policemen, beasts and fantastical beings. But where Stephens’s Philosopher, true to his convictions, travels in order to put right the wrong he did when he gave poor advice to Meehawl MacMurrachu, O’Brien’s travels for personal profit. Where Stephens’s Philosopher encounters many women on his journey and engages in conversations with them about male-female companionship, O’Brien’s encounters only men, the closest he comes to female companionship being with an exquisitely-proportioned bicycle (designed for a man, with a cross bar), which he thinks of as utterly compliant – the ultimate patriarchal fantasy. Where Stephens’s Philosopher draws abundant conclusions from his experiences on his travels, changing his opinions on many subjects as he walks, O’Brien’s narrator constantly fantasizes about people and objects, and has a tendency to forget everything that has just happened. ‘If that watch of mine were found you would be welcome to it,’ he tells his departing soul at one point, to which his soul answers dryly, ‘But you have no watch’.[42]  This forgetfulness means he is incapable of reaping enlightenment from his adventures. In any case, with every step he moves further into a world powered by strange machines whose fabrication and functions defy analysis – such as the light boxes constructed by Policeman MacCruiskeen, or the mysterious engines tended by the police beneath the ground – and which therefore fail to illustrate any universal laws.

Illustration by Martin Herbert

On his journey to put right his mistake in misadvising Meehawl, Stephens’s Philosopher makes his way into caves where gods dwell. In the first cave he encounters the Greek god Pan, in the second Angus Óg, the Celtic god of youth; and each deity presents him with something of value. Pan gives him a pleasure in his senses, Angus makes him his messenger to mortals, investing him with a sociability he did not possess before, a consciousness of and a keen interest in his place in the wider community.  O’Brien’s philosopher, too, enters spaces like caves: an underground ‘eternity’ and a secret policeman’s barracks in a house’s walls; but in each he finds only policemen, personifications of an inescapable authority which is repudiated by the gods of Stephens, who ask only that mortals choose between them. Stephens’s Philosopher has to negotiate terrifying darkness and discomfort to reach Angus’s cave: ‘He could not see an inch in front, and so he went with his hands outstretched like a blind man who stumbles painfully along’.[43]  O’Brien’s narrator is similarly afflicted as he approaches the entrance to the underground eternity: ‘I […] followed the noisy Sergeant with blind faith till my strength was nearly gone, so that I reeled forward instead of walking and was defenceless against the brutality of the boughs’.[44] But in each of the cave-like spaces the narrator enters, the underground ‘eternity’ and the secret barracks, he discovers truths about himself which he never acknowledges – in marked contrast to Stephens’s protagonist, who not only recognizes the worth of what the gods show him but seeks to share this recognition with strangers on his way home.

What O’Brien’s narrator discovers in his two ‘caves’ is his own anonymity, which arises from his myopic obsession with accumulating financial and cultural capital. When he enters eternity in the wake of Sergeant Pluck he converts everything he sees into financial terms – in contrast with Stephens’s Philosopher, who converts what he sees into topics of conversation and quirky aphorisms. For the narrator, eternity is a giant cashbox full of ‘safe-deposits such as banks have’, ‘expensive-looking cabinets’ and ‘American cash registers’.[45] When he finds he can get what he wants there, he can only think of ordering a ‘solid block of gold weighing half a ton’, which he afterwards exchanges for a more practical quantity of valuables: ‘fifty cubes of solid gold each weighing one pound’ and ‘precious stones to the value of £200,000’.[46] As he warms to the task of exploiting his miraculous environment, the narrator acquires the accessories of the ultimate capitalist icon, a futuristic Hollywood gangster robbing a bank vault. Along with the valuables he orders a blue serge suit and a weapon capable of killing ‘any man or any million men who try at any time to take my life’, thus transforming himself into a feeble imitation of James Cagney – its feebleness confirmed by the fact that he forgets to ask for a bag to hold his loot (Sergeant Pluck obligingly gets him one ‘worth at least fifty guineas in the open market’).[47]  This excursion into cinematic fantasy confirms the link between his capitalist values and an early death; Cagney always dies young in his gangster movies. It confirms too the groundlessness of the narrator’s sense of superiority to the rustic police. No Hollywood gangster of the 30s or 40s was permitted to profit from his crimes, and it comes as no surprise when the policemen spring their trap, informing him that he cannot take any of his precious commodities back to the world above. And it also links him, almost incidentally, to the atrocities of global conflict. The weapon he orders can kill a million men as easily as one. The narrator’s glib way with numbers, in other words, permits him to gloss mass murder as self-preservation, yoking the capitalist mentality he represents to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Illustration by James Kenny

The second point in the novel where the narrator shows his true petit bourgeois colours comes at the end, when he finally meets the mysterious third policeman of the title. On learning that the cashbox he is looking for contains the substance omnium – the building-material from which anything and everything in the universe may be constructed – and on finding that Policeman Fox has confirmed his ownership of the box and its contents, the narrator launches into an extended series of fantasies about what he will do with it. While dismissing the pettiness of Policeman Fox’s deployment of the omnium (he uses it to make strawberry jam and to decorate his barracks), the narrator dreams of exploiting it to resolve the various more or less petty problems that have arisen in his own narrative, as related in the novel. And while each of his plans begin by sounding benevolent – giving John Divney ‘ten million pounds’ to make him go away, presenting ‘every poor labourer in the world’ with a golden bicycle – when he turns to thoughts of revenge on Sergeant Pluck his dreams mutate into nightmares.[48] Once again his thoughts revert to the underground eternity, where his hopes of enriching himself were raised and dashed, and he proceeds to convert this mysterious space in his imagination from an Aladdin’s cave to a sadist’s cellar, with ‘millions of diseased and decayed monsters clawing the inside latches of the ovens to open them and escape’ and ‘rats with horns walking upside down along the ceiling pipes trailing their leprous tails on the policemen’s heads’.[49] His grandiose projects are as limited as Policeman Fox’s little ones, and infinitely more damaging, since they are dedicated only to arranging time and space to his own private satisfaction.

Ironically, the narrator’s desire to differentiate himself from the other characters serves only to render him more anonymous – a tissue of financial and filmic clichés of the kind Myles na gCopaleen mocked in Cruiskeen Lawn. Many of Stephens’s characters, too, are anonymous, in that they are nameless. But while the namelessness of his two prisoners confirms their exclusion from social discourse, the namelessness of other people in The Crock of Gold (the Philosopher, the Thin Woman, the Leprechauns, the women, men and children met on the road) identifies them as representative: quasi-allegorical symbols of a vibrant nation that is moving towards a new collective identity.  The namelessness of the narrator in The Third Policeman confirms instead his biddable nature, his tendency to mutate into the person with whom he is currently in conversation, effectively losing himself in the process, to disastrous effect.  When working on de Selby the narrator imbibes the selfish, irascible, and amoral personality traits of his subject – with the result that he becomes capable of murder.  So, too, he becomes indistinguishable from his devious friend John Divney, locked together with him in a horrifying pastiche of Ciceronian amity whereby each is the other’s self, sharing bed and board while steadily winding each other up into an intense mutual hatred.[50]  When speaking to Martin Finnucane the narrator becomes the sworn brother of this one-legged murderer, without noticing the moral implications of their casual bonding.  And when conversing with Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen he adopts their stylistic eccentricities in his narrative as well as in his conversation.  Helplessly driven by the impulses of his chameleon disposition, the narrator mingles his personality with those of everyone else he meets, as if to confirm the tendency of Ireland and Europe in the 1930s to follow disastrous models and totalitarian authorities, large and small, with slavish admiration.

The narrator’s namelessness, then, is that of Stephens’s prisoners rather than his representative types. Unlike the prisoners, he is not excluded from conversation; but his most honest and satisfactory conversations are with himself, or rather with his soul, who has a name, Joe, and who is always on the verge of leaving him. Joe’s disembodied voice, speaking to the narrator in the gloom of old Mathers’s house as the narrator confronts the ghost of the man he murdered, might remind us of the disembodied voices of the prisoners who speak to the Philosopher out of the dark of the cell.  In that episode the Philosopher, too, found himself unsure of his identity for the first time in his experience as the boundaries of his mind began to dissolve: ‘The creatures of the dark invaded him, fantastic terrors were thronging on every side: they came from the darkness into his eyes and beyond into himself, so that his mind as well as his fancy was captured, and he knew he was, indeed, in gaol’.[51]  This sense of the encroaching dissolution or erasure of the self resonates throughout The Third Policemen, especially in moments of darkness: the stormy dawn before the narrator’s hanging, for example, or the terrible moment when he wakes from sleep to find himself blind, before recalling that his eyes were bound by Policeman McCruiskeen before he nodded off. The flip side of the narrator’s desire to distinguish himself from others is the fear of losing his identity altogether; a fear substantiated on the last page of the novel, where he finds himself recommencing all his adventures – having forgotten them first, as is his wont – in the company of one of his many doubles in the narrative, John Divney, as if there were no difference between him and his friend.

Most striking of O’Brien’s inversions of The Crock of Gold is what he does to the body.  As an athlete – he was a gymnast – Stephens sought in all his work to liberate the body from the constraints imposed on it by the churches, Catholic and Protestant alike.  Meehawl MacMurrachu’s daughter Caitilin spends most of the novel in a state of edenic nakedness, and although the Philosopher begins by disapproving he quickly reasons himself into acquiescence with her choice.  ‘If a person does not desire to be […] protected who will quarrel with an honourable liberty?’ he asks himself; ‘Decency is not clothing but Mind’.[52]  Soon afterwards he finds himself exulting for the first time in the energy of his own body: ‘Years had toppled from his shoulders. He left one pound of solid matter behind at every stride.  His very skin grew flexuous, and he found a pleasure in taking long steps such as he could not have accounted for by thought’.[53]  O’Brien’s characters, too, are defined by their bodies; but in the policemen’s case these are grotesquely, massively physical, always on the verge of heart attacks or seizures, brought on by their relentless consuming of candy and jam as well as excessive quantities of the stirabout that sustained the rural poor in The Crock of Gold.  The narrator, on the other hand, is small and skinny, like the Philosopher; but where the Philosopher’s emaciated frame testified to his hunger – the quality that brings the working classes together in solidarity when they share their meals[54] – the narrator’s thinness and feeble appetite demonstrates his radical disconnection from people and things.  The policemen’s delight in food serves only to awake his snobbish disgust, whether at the effect their greed has on their monstrous bodies or at their inability to extend their imaginations beyond the narrow confines of the relative merits of different sweeties, the tastiness of stirabout, or the possibility of making strawberry jam out of the most powerful substance in the universe.

All of O’Brien’s bodies are ill-constructed machines, whose capacity to harbour sympathy or affection has been compromised by the discoveries of science. Sergeant Pluck’s atomic theory depicts the world as a concatenation of samenesses, an arrangement of particles which merely get rearranged when a person dies, so that executing an acquaintance is no more problematic than devouring a bowlful of porridge.[55] The narrator’s leg is a symptom of this loss of affect in O’Brien’s universe.  At one point he is afraid its woodenness is spreading through his torso, just as the atoms of bicycles spread into the bottoms of their riders.  In The Crock of Gold, the goat-god Pan’s half-bestial body insists on the animal sensuality which is part of our heritage as human beings, and which enjoins us to delight in the sentient donkeys, cows, and flies with whom the Philosopher comes in contact.  But in The Third Policeman, John Divney’s innocent, cow-like eyes conceal a vicious disposition,[56] and human beings have more in common with machines than animals.  The Parish policed by Sergeant Pluck is populated with half-human, half-bicycle cyborgs, though none of these hybrids are as bereft of fellow-feeling as the narrator, who has become fused with de Selby’s books, his mind stocked, like de Selby’s pages, with useless inventions of no conceivable benefit to anyone but the ego of the inventor and his adoring commentators.  As a result of this fusion, the narrator’s substantial funds of pity are reserved for himself, and he sheds abundant tears over his own predicament.  The only close relationship he forges (if one discounts his friendship with Joe, who is an aspect of himself) is with a bicycle, which he converts into a fantasy of female acquiescence, a willing, voiceless servant that mechanically submits to his every whim.  Stephens’s collaborative Ireland has been left far behind, a vision that has been outpaced by the speed of scientific and technological progress, hurtling the world towards conflict.

Nowhere is the difference between the books more evident than in their endings. O’Brien’s version of Stephens’s ‘The Happy March’ involves an apparent liberation, in which the nameless narrator sails off into the night astride the Sergeant’s bicycle, a metal goddess in total harmony with her environment: ‘all the time she was under me in a flawless racing onwards, touching the road with the lightest touches, surefooted, straight and faultless, each of her metal bars like spear-shafts superbly cast by angels’.[57]  Together man and bicycle liberate themselves first from Sergeant Pluck’s barracks, then from the smaller police station presided over by Policeman Fox; and in the final section they even free Divney from the constraints of his grotesque mortal body, as if in imitation of Angus Óg’s liberation of the Irish workers in The Crock of Gold (‘Come away! come away! from the loom and the desk, from the shop where the carcasses are hung, from the place where raiment is sold and the place where it is sewn in darkness’).[58]  But this chain of liberations is an illusion. Unlike the Philosopher, the narrator and John Divney are guilty of the crimes for which they were incarcerated, and both are dead rather than exuberantly alive by the end of the novel, trapped for all time in the cyclical jail of their forward momentum. As a result, where Stephens ends his book not so much with a march – happy or otherwise – as with a dance (‘they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods’),[59] The Third Policeman ends with the narrator and Divney ‘marching’ in unison into Sergeant Pluck’s police station – the place from which the narrator ‘escaped’ only pages before. Their mechanical, quasi-military return to the barracks aligns the novel as a whole with those ‘adventure books’ mentioned by the narrator in his conversations with Policeman Fox ‘in which every extravagance was mechanical and lethal and solely concerned with bringing about somebody’s death in the most elaborate way imaginable’.[60] It would hardly have escaped O’Brien’s readers that Europe in 1940 could have been described in similar terms.

The comparison of the ‘metal bars’ of Sergeant Pluck’s winsome bicycle to the ‘spear-shafts superbly cast by angels’ recalls the spears flung down by stars in Blake’s revolutionary poem The Tyger, from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience.  James Stephens was a self-professed Blakean visionary,[61] who sought in his poetry to adapt the Londoner’s proto-socialist vision to the needs of an Irish insurrection (Insurrections was the title of his first collection).  Brian O’Nolan, on the other hand, was a Swiftian satirist, for whom experience had long blotted out the possibility of recapturing or even celebrating innocence.  But it is the memory of innocence, I would like to suggest – the beautifully crafted innocence of The Crock of Gold – that gives The Third Policeman its astonishing vitality and poignancy.  The two books should be read in tandem.

Bibliography

Anon.  ‘Tall Talk.’  The Times Literary Supplement, September 7 1967. 793.

Brivic, Shelly.  ‘The Third Policeman as Lacanian Deity: O’Brien’s Critique of Language and Subjectivity.’ New Hibernia Review, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 2012). 112-132.

Coyle, John.  ‘Flann O’Brien in the Devil Era.’ No Country for Old Men: Fresh Perspectives on Irish Literature, ed. Paddy Lyons and Alison O’Malley-Younger. London: Peter Lang, 2009). 69-85.

Cronin, Anthony.  No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien. London: Grafton, 1989.

Frankenberg, Lloyd (ed.).  James, Seumas and Jacques: Unpublished Writings of James Stephens. London: Macmillan and co., 1964.

Hopper, Keith.  Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist. Cork: Cork University Press, 1995.

Jeffares, A. Norman. ‘Introduction.’ The Poems of James Stephens, ed. Shirley Stevens Mulligan. Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Ltd., 2006. xi-xxxiv.

McFate, Patricia (ed.). Uncollected Prose of James Stephens. 2 vols. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1983.

Maslen, R. W.  ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman.New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006). 84-104.

O’Brien, Flann. The Best of Myles: A Selection from ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’.  London etc.: Paladin, 1990.

——————–.  The Third Policeman. The Complete Novels, introd. Keith Donohue. New York etc.: Everyman’s Library, 2007. 219-406.

Pyle, Hilary. James Stephens: His Work and an Account of his Life. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.

Stephens, James. Here Are Ladies. London: Macmillan, 1914 (f.p. October 1913).

——————–.  The Charwoman’s Daughter.  London: Macmillan and Co., 1912.

——————–.  The Crock of Gold. London: Macmillan and Co., 1928 (f.p. 1912).

Taaffe, Carol. Ireland Through the Looking Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate. Cork: Cork University Press, 2008.

Notes

[1] Warm thanks to Paul Fagan for detailed and incisive comments on the first draft of this essay, and to the participants in the Second International Flann O’Brien Conference in Rome, 2013, for their questions and suggestions.

[2] ‘Tall Talk’, The Times Literary Supplement, September 7 1967, p. 793. On Stephens’s relationship with Joyce see Hilary Pyle, James Stephens: His Work and an Account of his Life, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), pp. 114-5; the detailed account in Lloyd Frankenberg (ed.), James, Seumas and Jacques: Unpublished Writings of James Stephens (London: Macmillan and co., 1964), pp. xxiii-xxx; and Stephens’s own broadcasts on Joyce in the same book, pp. 147-62.

[3] Keith Hopper, Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), p. 126.

[4] Carol Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate (Cork: Cork University Press, 2008), p. 80.

[5] Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass, p. 65. For O’Nolan’s attitude to de Valera see also John Coyle, ‘Flann O’Brien in the Devil Era’, Paddy Lyons and Alison O’Malley-Younger (eds.), No Country for Old Men: Fresh Perspectives on Irish Literature (London: Peter Lang, 2009), pp. 69-85.

[6] Shelly Brivic, ‘The Third Policeman as Lacanian Deity: O’Brien’s Critique of Language and Subjectivity’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 112-132, p. 114.

[7] The best picture of Stephens’s politics is painted in the political essays reprinted in Patricia McFate (ed.), Uncollected Prose of James Stephens, 2 vols. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1983), vol. 1.

[8] Pyle, James Stephens, p. 3.

[9] Pyle, James Stephens, p. 5.

[10] See Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (London: Grafton, 1989).

[11] James Stephens, The Crock of Gold (London: Macmillan and Co., 1928; f.p. 1912), pp. 172-3.

[12] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 186.

[13] Stephens, Crock of Gold, pp. 187-9.

[14] Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, in The Complete Novels, introd. Keith Donohue (New York etc.: Everyman’s Library, 2007), pp. 256-7.

[15] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 257-60.

[16] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 272.

[17] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 268.

[18] See Pyle, James Stephens, Part One: Dublin – 1880-1925, pp. 3-107. See also A. Norman Jeffares, ‘Introduction’, The Poems of James Stephens, ed. Shirley Stevens Mulligan (Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Ltd., 2006), pp. xi-xxxiv.

[19] Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass, p. 80.

[20] See Flann O’Brien, The Best of Myles: A Selection from ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ (London etc.: Paladin, 1990), pp. 17-24.

[21] Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass, p. 80.

[22] Stephens, ‘There is a Tavern in the Town’, Here Are Ladies (London: Macmillan, 1914, f.p. October 1913), pp. 277-349.

[23] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 267.

[24] Stephens, The Charwoman’s Daughter (London: Macmillan and Co., 1912), p. 62.

[25] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 76.

[26] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 209.

[27] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 206.

[28] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 218.

[29] Stephens, Crock of Gold, pp. 219-20.

[30] Stephens, Crock of Gold, pp. 226-7.

[31] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 246.

[32] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 262.

[33] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 308.

[34] One writer who took advantage of the detachable quality of ‘The Happy March’ was C. S. Lewis, who adapted it in the final section of his second Narnia book, Prince Caspian (1951).

[35] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 263.

[36] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 265.

[37] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 373-6.

[38] O’Brien, Complete Works, p. 254, note 3.

[39] It is worth noting that one of de Selby’s commentators, le Fournier, seems to assign the philosopher a portion of blame for the outbreak of the First World War. See O’Brien, Complete Works, p. 246, note 4. For a fuller account of violence in The Third Policeman see my ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006), pp. 84-104.

[40] O’Brien, Complete Works, p. 251.

[41] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 229.

[42] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 368.

[43] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 140.

[44] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 335.

[45] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 339-40.

[46] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 343-4.

[47] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 344-5.

[48] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 394-5

[49] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 396.

[50] For Ciceronian amity see Cicero, ‘Laelius de amicitia’, Cicero in Twenty-Eight Volumes, vol. 20, De senectute, de amicitia, de divinatione, trans. W. A. Falconer, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and London: Heinemann, 1971), xxi. 80: ‘est enim is qui est tamquam alter idem’; ‘for he is, as it were, another self’.

[51] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 244.

[52] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 100.

[53] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 106.

[54] See Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 91: ‘Every person who is hungry is a good person, and every person who is not hungry is a bad person. It is better to be hungry than rich’.

[55] See O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 293ff.

[56] See O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 226: ‘[Divney] had a quiet civil face with eyes like cow’s eyes, brooding, brown, and patient’.

[57] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 380.

[58] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 311.

[59] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 312.

[60] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 395.

[61] See Pyle, James Stephens, Chapters 3 and 4 (pp. 31-76).

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Anarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portmeirion

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

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

Performance

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

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

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

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

The schooner from Alexander MacKendrick’s movie of the novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race

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

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

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

Margaret in the movie, played by Viviane Ventura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooks

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Hughes

 

Editions

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

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

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

Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany, The Story of Mona Sheehy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phoenix Monument, Dublin

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

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

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

Cathleen Ni Houlihan on stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mullingar Asylum (St Loman’s Hospital)

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

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

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

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

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

Mercedes-Benz W 154, 1939

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

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

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

1939 advertisement

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

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

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

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

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

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

1939 advertisement

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

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

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

Slievenamon Mountain, Co. Tipperary

Books Cited

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany’s Irish Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunsany Castle, Co. Meath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[More on Dunsany’s Irish Fiction here.]

Books Cited

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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