The theme for Folklore Thursday this week is the folklore of our local places; and it coincides with the installation of three stained glass windows in the bay window of our flat in Glasgow’s West End. The windows are a family effort. My wife Kirsty thought of them, asked the makers of our windows if they were possible and made suggestions for details they might include. My grown-up children, Boo and Grace, designed two of the windows while I designed the third. And they represent local folklore in two ways: first because they reference Glasgow’s folklore by incorporating themes from a poem that’s become the city’s emblem; and secondly because they contain references to family folklore, that is, knowledge that only our family have and which we will read in the windows every time we look at them. It struck me, when I noticed Folklore Thursday’s theme, that the windows had something interesting to say about it, so I decided to write a blog post about them.
The poem, as all Glaswegians know, goes something like this:
Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam.
It refers to a series of miracles worked by Kentigern, patron saint of Glasgow, who acquired the name Mungo when he was ordained a priest at the Monastery of St Serf in the gorgeous town of Culross on the Firth of Forth. The bird was a robin, a pet of Mungo’s mentor, St Serf, which was killed by one of the young man’s fellow priests in training, who promptly laid the blame for its death on Mungo. Mungo took the bird in his hands and prayed, whereupon the robin came to life and flew to its master, chirping sweetly. The tree is usually depicted as an oak tree, though according to Glasgow City Council’s website it was originally a hazel. Mungo was left in charge of the fire in the monastery’s refectory or dining room, but he fell asleep and it went out – put out, it seems, by those malicious fellow seminarians. When he woke up Mungo took a bunch of hazel twigs in his hands, prayed over them until they burst into flames, and used them to rekindle the fire. The bell, it would seem, is just a bell, though it may have been given to St Mungo by the Pope. But the fish has a longer story. To quote the City Council’s website:
The fish with a ring in its mouth is a salmon and the ring was a present from Hydderch Hael, King of Cadzow, to his Queen Languoreth.
The Queen gave the ring to a knight and the King, suspecting an intrigue, took it from him while he slept during a hunting party and threw it into the River Clyde. On returning home, the King demanded the ring and threatened Languoreth with death if she could not produce it. The Queen appealed to the knight who, of course, could not help and then confessed to St Mungo who sent one of his monks to fish in the river, instructing him to bring back the first fish caught. This was done and St Mungo extracted the ring from its mouth. The scene is represented on the counter seal of Bishop Wyschard, made about 1271.
The story of the fish, with its link to the Clyde, presumably dates from St Mungo’s time in Glasgow, where he founded a church on the site now occupied by the Cathedral. The site of the city was chosen by a couple of oxen pulling a cart containing the corpse of a holy man named Fergus; Mungo instructed the obedient beasts to take the body wherever God told them to, and they duly made their way to the proper location. All this happened in the sixth century, but the stories of St Mungo are commemorated in the city’s crest, which it acquired in the nineteenth century.
Each of the windows in the bay window contains elements of St Mungo’s legend: a bird, a fish – though not with a ring in its mouth – a tree, a bell – and in Gracie’s window you can see all four. But these emblems share space with elements of family lore which only we four would recognise. Boo, for instance, tells me he was inspired by ‘the Kelvin walkway and urban wildlife/fay’ – the walkway being the path beside the River Kelvin which has been thronged with walkers since the first lockdown. For his bird he chose the heron we see so often at the weir near the ruins of the old Flint Mill, while the dark green strips on either side of the main picture contain dark creatures which may or may not be shadowy West End foxes, of the kind that used to live in the gloomy spaces under Hillhead Primary School on Gibson Street. The steeple in the distance invokes the steeples on the Great Western Road, one of which – the steeple of George Gilbert Scott’s Episcopalian Cathedral of St Mary – you can see from our bay window, though the one in the picture looks more like the steeple of Lansdowne Parish Church, now Webster’s Theatre and Bar, where Boo once worked in the Box Office. Boo also thought of the University steeple when he discussed it with me; and the rural landscape invoked for me our many trips to the hilly country north of the city. There’s a frog in a pane in the bottom left hand corner and a toad in the bottom right; Boo is always picking up frogs and toads, most recently I think in the wildlife garden at Glasgow Uni. The sun and the moon share the sky with the heron, and to me the sun looks like the shell of a whelk, of the kind Boo was always gathering on the seashore as a child. But the heron dominates, because the heron is ours, a personal family friend who stands on guard at the side of the weir, hoping no doubt to snap up one of the salmon you used to see leaping up it in spring – though I haven’t seen the salmon leaping for several years, and can only hope the tall grey knight isn’t going hungry.
My window, which is on the left as you face the bay from outside, has a robin in it as if in deference to Mungo. But it was Kirsty who asked me to put it there, because in our family robins have come to represent lost loved ones, who come back in the form of a bird to keep an eye on the children and friends they left behind. The bell is the bell of St Patrick, and as I was painting it I thought of the time not long after I first came to Glasgow when I cycled along the Forth and Clyde Canal till I came to a place whose name I didn’t know. Fortunately I met an old woman on the towpath and was able to ask her where I was; and she answered, like an old woman in a fairy tale, ‘You’re in Old Kilpatrick. You’ll always remember the name because it’s where St Patrick was born’. She was right, too: I’ve always remembered the name, and the association with St Patrick, and the old woman, and that bike ride in fine weather. The decorations round the edges of the window are based on the Book of Kells, which may or may not have been made on Iona; and as I drew them into the picture I remembered another picture I drew and painted long ago for a family friend, which showed St Patrick sitting under an old Irish cross with his favourite wolfhound lying beside him. That picture too had decorative themes from the Book of Kells, and the wolfhound in it was modeled on our dog Gelert, the largest and sweetest-natured dog I’ve known. The hill in the background is Dumgoyne in the Campsie Fells, up which I once walked carrying Boo in a backpack. And the strange yellow creature in the tree is a cat-bird fairy demon. I know you’ve heard about them, and now you know exactly what they look like, and where to look for them next time you’re standing by a twisted oak.
Gracie’s picture is the most allusive of all. It shows a flying fish, of course; and she chose this kind of fish to commemorate a family holiday in Mallorca, when we saw the miraculous airborne creatures skimming across the waves ahead of the boat that was taking us to a swimming spot in a secluded part of the island, where much smaller, sea-bound fishes nibbled our toes. The fish is surrounded by water because this is Gracie’s favourite element, and also the element of her Zodiac sign, Scorpio. Hidden in the middle panel at the bottom is the Angelic tune symbol from Cassandra Clare’s Shadow Hunter universe, of which the Mortal Instruments book series is one. Grace is a manic reader of thick tomes and enormous book series, and Cassandra Clare and Leigh Bardugo are just two of the writers she’s obsessed with. St Mungo’s signs are all over the place in her window, from the rings at the four corners – four of them plain, four of them with jewels – to the oak trees in the side panels, the bells and the stylised wings of birds. Oak trees, by the way, are personal things to us as well as to Glasgow; outside our window stand the only oak trees planted in the street, the last to get their leaves in spring, the last to lose them in autumn. When their leaves come out in a few weeks’ time you’ll be able to see real oak leaves dancing behind the painted ones.
I suppose the point I’m making in this post is that folklore of a quite specific kind is present in all cohabiting communities, and that we all have objects and pictures that evoke for us things that no one else could ever guess at. What we read, where we’ve been, the things that have happened to us, weave themselves together into stories which get told and retold down the years, until they get lost among fresh skeins of story woven by new generations. Old stories reappear among the new ones, as St Mungo’s does in our pictures, and lend continuity to the narratives we’re part of. And for us, the window painters, fantastic stories (fairy tales, the novels of Cassandra Clare, invented supernatural fauna, the lives of Celtic saints) infuse our local landscape with light, so that we see the fantastic through it, and the tiny details of tree and bird, fish and water, grow magical as a result, capable of coming to life in strange new ways at different times of the day or night.
The greatest miracle of our windows, though, is how they were constructed by a master craftsman using our paintings as a map or blueprint. That’s something only we and the glazier can really appreciate: the amount of trouble he took to select the right textures for the glass he was using in each panel, the thought he gave to the question of how to translate the texture of pen and ink or brushstroke to the glass’s surface, the little inventive touches like a piece of red glass stuck on behind to make the robin’s red breast, the oak leaves created by scraping away the paint from the side panels in Boo’s window. We got the measurements for the middle window slightly wrong, and the glazier had to find ways to make Gracie’s design fit the space precisely. His name is Colin Stevenson, of Stevenson Stained Glass, and he worked on the windows in the evenings from December to late March, after the working day was supposed to be over. The love he put into this process has made itself part of the story they tell, and we’ll think of it every time we look at them.
That’s our contribution to Folklore Thursday’s theme for 25 March 2021, folklore of local places.
[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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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’), 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.
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.
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). 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. 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.
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.
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.
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 sleptwith 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.
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 later ‘Book 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, the ‘Morte 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
The most sophisticated post-medieval treatment of this anti-meme occurs in Shakespeare’s most knotty play, Troilus and Cressida. Like TheFaerie 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 TheDestruction 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’. 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. 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). 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.
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)
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.
 Cooper, Romance, ch. 3: ‘Magic that doesn’t work’.
 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.
 ‘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.
 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.
 Spenser, Faerie Queene, I.i.1. All references are to this edition.
 See The Usurer’s Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London, 1994).
Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. French and Hale, p. 811, lines 33-5.
 The sketch is reproduced in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al., 2nd edn. (London, 2008), p. 89.
 All references to Troilus and Cressida are taken from Kenneth Palmer’s edition for the Arden Shakespeare (London, 1982).
 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.
[My father’s funeral took place last week, and I couldn’t go because of Covid.For a long time I hesitated over putting his eulogy on this blog; I wanted to mark his death in some way, to make some statement about it, but what I’d written felt too personal. In the end I decided to put it here after all, because my Dad was one of the people who gave me my love of books, SFF in particular. Ursula le Guin was one of his heroes, and without his love of her work I wouldn’t have discovered them as young as I did and they wouldn’t have shaped me. For this, as for everything else he did, I want to record my thanks and love.]
It’s hard to know how to make a eulogy for anyone, let alone your father. How to summarize a life in a few words – a life about which you only know fragments, each of which means a great deal to you but might not even feature in another person’s memory of him? Hirokazu Koreeda made a wonderful film in 1998 called After Life, about the place where people go when they’ve died, which is a dilapidated old school occupied by hard-working administrators, male and female, young and old, whose task it is to help the dead choose a single memory from their lives to take with them into whatever happens next. Just one memory, no more, no less. That’s something we could all do now, everyone who knew him: think of a single memory that encapsulates John Maslen from our point of view. But which?
A father’s children know a number of definite things about him: how it feels to hug him, the smell of his shirt, the texture of his hair, the look of his long, slim hands, the funny noises he makes in his sleep, the way he hums or mutters as he does things. They know how well he reads books aloud. Dad’s skill in reading the Tintin comics was legendary, and he made a brilliant Captain Haddock, which is why we were always nagging at him to grow a beard (he did, of course). They know his nasal laugh, and how much he likes laughing; he spent a lot of time in our company laughing, at least in my memory. We loved making him laugh. I remember once, at his flat in Brussels, I wrote a kind of radio play based on the epic poem Beowulf – we called it Beolamb – and we spent several days recording it, with my best friend Brook working with me on the special effects. We had to keep stopping the recording because we couldn’t stop laughing at Dad’s impression of Peter Sellers as the numskull Bluebottle on the Goon Show. This love of laughter was nothing new; as a boy his favourite book was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, and this embarrassed him at times on public transport because he couldn’t stop himself laughing aloud at the funny bits.
They know about his love of food. I may be wrong, but my impression is that if you read his diaries – and he always kept dairies, written in the tiny script he used for making his endless lists – my impression is that he wrote down everything he’d had to eat, every single day without exception. When someone came to interview him a few years back about the European Union’s negotiations with China in the 1970s, he was able to identify every meeting he’d had with the Chinese delegation from the record in his diaries of the meals he’d eaten with them in Chinese restaurants all over Brussels. Whenever he came to visit us from Belgium, and when he went home afterwards – sometimes taking a few of us with him as luggage – he would sit down in the dining area before the ferry left port and eat steadily throughout the crossing until it docked on the other side. That was his recipe, he said, for avoiding seasickness. Sometimes his love of food had unfortunate consequences. When I visited a Spanish village with him in 1980 we ate sucking pig at eleven, as the Spanish do, and lay in bed for most of the night with acute indigestion, groaning at each other like pigs ourselves. I’ve often suspected that his description of food in his diaries might be some sort of secret code, and that if we could read those entries properly every mention of Brussels sprouts would have a hidden meaning. If you want to know how to cook Brussels sprouts, by the way, here’s the recipe he gave me: boil them for exactly seven minutes in lightly salted water. When he cooked for himself in his Brussels flat he ate Brussels sprouts every night for weeks on end, with cold ham and reconstituted powdered mashed potatoes. Delicious!
His children know about his love of birds. I believe it was Mum who put him onto this hobby, as a way of getting him to take some exercise, and he took to it like a duck to water. His bird book, too – the Collins Field Guide to the Birds of the World, if I’m not mistaken – became a kind of diary; he entered all his sightings in it, and could tell you the exact dates he was in any country in the world by looking up the dates when he spotted a hornbill in Costa Rica, or a thick-knee in Sydney, or a hoopoe in Pedraza. Was there a code in the birds, I wonder? They were part of the language of his love of looking at things, of being a witness to beautiful landscapes, or works of art, or ancient buildings, or the battlefield at Waterloo. But the birds didn’t have to be fancy; just looking at them out of the back window of his house was enough. He would sit there happily for hours, crumbling stale bread between his fingers for the bird table, scanning trees and gardens to see if he could spot a jay or a bluetit. He always had a pair of binoculars with him. He was very much a looker, though he was a listener too; he loved classical music, and his Brussels flat was always full of it. He had a particular fondness for Mozart, baroque music of any kind, and the music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel – though I think he mainly liked Hummel because of his name.
His children know how he loves to read. Dad was always reading, and we read too, in his flat in Brussels and his house, often picking up the books from his bookshelves – Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ursula Le Guin, the Asterix books (he had all of them), the Tintin books (ditto), the Peanuts strips which he carefully cut out from a magazine called the Bulletin. In his turn he would read the books we’d brought in our luggage, finishing them off in only a day or two, far faster than we could. Almost any book would do, though he loved science fiction (Le Guin was a favourite) and novels set in ancient times (especially Mary Renault). He liked factual books about trees and history, and Michelin guidebooks, and The Economist, and ghost stories, especially real ones. There was a science fiction story he loved, in which an alien is accused of poisoning a human being and asks how he could possibly have known that the man’s pathetic digestive system couldn’t cope with a hearty meal of ‘wholesome polystyrenes’. That phrase delighted him, and he would often repeat it – ‘wholesome polystyrenes’ – especially when faced by an unusually disgusting dish in the canteen of the Berlaymont Building where he worked.
His children know about his love of languages, and how this shapes everything he does and the way he thinks. Dad started collecting languages in his childhood, and he went on doing it for most of his life. He could speak Russian fluently, and German, and French – though when he first started working in Brussels he spoke French like the seventeenth-century playwright Jean Racine. He spoke Polish well, and Spanish a little, and a bit of Mandarin. He also spoke Danish – of necessity, because he had Danish relatives through his wife, Lise – though he could never make himself understood by Lise’s aged mother. In fact he could turn his hand, or rather his tongue, to almost anything. When we went on holiday to the Adriatic Coast he learned Italian. With Lise he learned Flemish. Confronted by border guards in Yugoslavia in the 1950s he spoke Serbo-Croat. He helped Mum translate a novel by the Polish novelist Marian Pankowski, and write an article about the linguistic jokes in Karel Capek’s famous novel War with the Newts, which was written in Czech. He helped his friends among the Brazilian spiritists of Brussels to translate some of the key texts of their faith from Portuguese into French. When he read us the Moomin comics, he translated them spontaneously from Swedish into English – and I still remember my outrage when I learned to read for myself, and at once rushed off to read those comics, only to find that they were indecipherable, full of words and even letters that didn’t exist in English. Dad’s linguistic brilliance was enhanced by his understanding of the links between languages. He was fascinated by etymology: the history of words and the relations between them. He devised his own phonetic system for writing down words in obscure dialects; and he worked for most of his life on a kind of universal history of all the languages in the world, and how the links between one form of speech and another could be used to trace migrating populations across the planet, from prehistoric times to the present. He respected the speakers of every language in the world, and as a result he was, to the best of my knowledge, completely bereft of racism – something unusual in British diplomats of his generation, I think. For him, everyone in the world spoke a language, every language in the world was interesting, and he wanted to learn them all, and discover the cultures they reflected.
He also helped people rediscover their own languages. When he began to get frail, various people from different countries came to his house to help him with everyday routines. On one occasion he asked a Congolese nurse what language she had spoken in her childhood, and she told him where it came from and the name of the small community that spoke it. He went at once to one of his books and was able to show her a few sentences of her language printed in it, as recorded by a missionary long ago. She burst into tears; it was the first time she’d ever seen her language written down.
He showed me many things, one of which was how to admit when I don’t know something – a crucial skill for a scholar. I confess I haven’t always practised it as well as he did.
Has this been a eulogy? I haven’t said anything about his official life: his schooldays, his early training by military intelligence, his work as a diplomat, his work for the European Union. I haven’t talked about his parents, or his love of his wives – Elizabeth and Lise – or his children and their spouses, his grandchildren, relatives, friends. I’ve been trying to pick a memory of him to carry forward into whatever life may be coming next. We all have many memories to choose from; these are some of mine.
The single memory I’ve chosen is a simple one: lying on the sofa reading a book, while Dad sits and reads at the dining-room table. He smiles from time to time. I think he’s enjoying himself.
He was a modest, kind, funny, loving, learned man. This set of facts is embedded in every memory each of us has of him. That’s what his children, grandchildren and friends have taken from his life. It’s enough, I think.
This blog is called The City of Lost Books, and has concentrated on quite a few little-known texts in recent months: the fantastic novels of Margaret Irwin; the only novel by the modernist art critic Herbert Read; William Morris’s brilliant last romance The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Few books, however, can have been more justly neglected than Clifford Mills’s Where the Rainbow Ends (1912), and few books can have been more popular before they fell into oblivion. Based on a ‘fairy play’ co-written by Clifford Mills and John Reginald Owen (writing as John Ramsey) and first produced in 1911 with music by Roger Quilter, the book was a bestseller from its publication in 1912 to the 1950s. For forty years or so the play was as much a staple of Christmas in Britain as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), on which it was partly based. Princess Elizabeth went to see it at Christmas in 1937, when she was eleven. Being a blatant piece of British imperialist propaganda, however, it didn’t survive the sixties, and had more or less vanished from sight by the time I read the book version at the age of seven or eight, in my grandmother’s Salford flat in 1970.
The book made a huge impression on me, not least because it made me profoundly uncomfortable. This was not because of its imperialist, militaristic propaganda – I was rather enthusiastic about things military at the age of seven – but because of its penchant for sadistic violence. Mills’s delight in subjecting her child protagonists to extreme mental and physical torments was obvious to me, and the deaths of her villains were unusually gruesome. Most dreadful of all, there was a boy in it who expressed his willingness to be transformed into a monster, in an episode that haunted my nightmares for several years. Another book I read at my grandmother’s flat was the Penguin translation of Homer’s Odyssey, its cover carefully protected with a transparent plastic dustjacket, and although that story too had people being magicked into beasts they didn’t consent to their transformation, and were in any case restored to human shape soon afterwards by the wily Odysseus. Mills’s doomed boy, by contrast, actively chooses his metamorphosis, and remains stubbornly committed to becoming a monster on the last occasion we see him. Through him Where the Rainbow Ends introduced me to a kind of fantasy I hadn’t encountered anywhere else, in which children’s behaviour could be as horribly punished as the wickedness of adults, and the bed you made for yourself was very much the one you lay in. Again, children had been punished with transformation in other books I knew, most notably Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who became a dragon because he refused to fit in. But Eustace learned his lesson in the process, whereas the boy in Where the Rainbow Ends learned nothing at all. This couldn’t happen, I thought, in books for children, and I dwelt on it with morbid fascination when Clifford Mills showed me that it could.
One of the things I liked about the book was that it did a good job of representing the pain of being separated from one’s family. The story begins with two middle-class English children who have lost their parents in a shipwreck six months before, and who are now being looked after by an abusive aunt and uncle, aided and abetted by a houseful of nasty servants, formerly the servants of the children’s beloved Cousin Matthew, also recently deceased. The children, Rosamond and Crispian, have been separated from their parents for several years – two in the case of Rosamond, four in Crispian’s – because the parents stayed behind in India when the children went to boarding school in England; it was on the journey from India to England that their Mother and Father were drowned. I can’t remember if I had yet gone to boarding school when I was staying at my Grandmother’s, but I certainly started a few weeks after turning seven, and the idea of long-term separation from one’s parents would have been familiar to me in any case from the fact that my older brother started there a year before I did. The British Empire, it seems, was built on the principle of separating children from their parents, and trained the children in question to respond by cultivating a sense of plucky independence underpinned by strict adherence to certain rules.
One such rule was the hackneyed notion that boys don’t cry, and Mills’s novel begins with Crispian breaking this rule, as I myself had done on many occasions. I appreciated this touch of honesty on the part of the author, though not the response of Crispian’s sister: Rosamond overhears him sobbing for their mother, and forces herself not to intervene for fear of shaming him (‘Boys’ tears, she told herself, were not to be seen – except by Mothers – sometimes’, p. 10). Suddenly, however, she thinks of a way to cheer him up, which is by consulting a book Cousin Matthew used to read to them at bedtime. This is the ‘Rainbow Book’, and it is introduced into Mills’s story in the very first sentence: ‘Rosamond had suddenly remembered the “Rainbow Book”, and this is how it happened’ (p. 9). That sentence involves a double act of magic, first in adopting a tone which implies that everyone knows about the ‘Rainbow Book’, and secondly in giving that book the same title as the book we’re reading. The ‘Rainbow Book’ is Where the Rainbow Ends, and mentions a land where all lost loved ones can be found again; it also includes detailed instructions on how to get there. This made me think that perhaps the book by Clifford Mills called Where the Rainbow Ends might contain similar instructions; that it might in fact be some kind of guidebook. The title retains something of the glamour of this promise for me even now. And of course the book is meant as a guidebook, giving clear instructions on how to attain the pluck of its central characters, although one is unlikely to get much chance to show that pluck in a similar context.
One way of achieving pluck, Mills suggests, is to harbour suitable ambitions. In the case of middle-class boys like Crispian, the best ambition is to join the Navy and become an Admiral; in the case of girls like Rosamond it is to get married. Crispian’s ambition sets him apart from the wayward boys in Peter Pan who want to be pirates (remember how John is gently mocked for his imperialist sentiments?); he is clearly meant to be exactly the sort of material the British forces need as naval cadets and future officers. Rosamond, on the other hand, is pretty much like Wendy, but with an added spirit of adventure which makes her the motivating force behind all the book’s important moments. Not only is she the one who remembers the existence of the book called Where the Rainbow Ends, but she also decides to go and find the land described in it, then inspires her brother to come along as back-up. She later locates the magic carpet of Faith which will take them on their journey; and summoning the genie of the carpet is simple for her, since she has read The Arabian Nights. So is giving him instructions (though perhaps she has learned this from having had servants all her life); and when he offers each of the children two wishes, as genies do, she uses hers with impressive effectiveness. The first wish makes her Uncle and Aunt start their dinner all over again so that she and Crispian will have time to prepare for their travels. Her second wish summons Saint George to act as the children’s bodyguard on their adventure. Much later on, Rosamond thinks nothing of plunging into the Dragon Wood by herself to rescue a younger girl; and later still she is the one who thinks of the way to defeat the Dragon army, sewing the flag that will claim their Castle for England and summon Saint George (who has the unfortunate trait of being unable to appear anywhere except where the cross of Saint George is flying). This, then, is one of the book’s few redeeming features: it has a resourceful and active heroine, which makes it an excellent counterbalance gender-wise for Peter and Wendy, where most of the physical action is given over to Peter and Captain Hook. Along with C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and a few others, it’s one of the books that trained me as a child to accept a girl as principal protagonist, something my male friends and some of the books I read had a tendency to drum out of me.
I’ve mentioned the play Peter Pan a couple of times, as well as the novel that followed, Peter and Wendy, which was first published in 1911, the year before the novelization of Where the Rainbow Ends. The fact that the second novel followed so closely on the first is probably not a coincidence, since Mills’s play had followed the pattern of Peter Pan from the beginning, above all in its efforts to accommodate special effects and character types of the sort that Barrie’s play had made hugely popular with spectators of all ages. Peter Pan involves flying, of course, and Crispian, Rosamond and their two companions – Crispian’s school friend Jim Blunders and his little sister Betty, whom Crispian summons with his own two wishes – not only get to fly on Faith’s magic carpet but are later carried off to captivity (like Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz) by the winged henchmen of the principal villain. Peter Pan has a cheeky, wayward flying boy in a leading role, and his place is taken in Where the Rainbow Ends by the fairy Will o’the Wisp, who is in love with the Lake King’s Daughter and dances very nicely with her, but whose most important function is to inform the children’s parents that Rosamond and Crispian are on their way to rescue them. Peter Pan has pirates, where Mills’s play has dragons. Peter Pan has incompetent adults – Mr Darling and his dark double, James Hook – while Where the Rainbow’s End has villains who are both incompetent and sadistic, Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, neither of whom have Captain Hook’s redeeming qualities. The villains in both get eaten (more on that later). Peter Pan contains a dog called Nana, always played by a human actor; Where the Rainbow Ends has a lion cub called Cubby, also played by a human, who seems to subsist on a kind of tonic called Colonial Mixture, composed in ‘Equal parts of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Iron mixed with Indian and South African Steel’ (p. 19). The small print on the label also says that the tonic is ‘Poison to Traitors’ (p. 205), which means that when Uncle Joseph drinks it the effect is much like the effect on Tinkerbell of drinking Peter’s medicine in Barrie’s play. In other words, it’s fatal, and in Mills’s play there is no one to clap their hands and bring him back to life. So the play goes one better than Peter Pan in every department by ensuring that there are no ambiguities at all; the heroes are totally heroic, the villains utterly villainous (indeed it’s implied that the Dragon King is the devil himself), and the destruction of the villains is correspondingly spectacular and hideous. These differences help to point up the relative complexity of Barrie’s play, whose purported hero, Peter, is pompous and merciless, its villain conflicted, and their respective fates (from an adult’s point of view, at least) more or less equally painful.
What Mills’s play has which has no equivalent in Peter Pan is the patron saint of England, a certain Saint George, whose presence in it for forty years provided a role for the current male heart-throb of the English stage. Saint George has something of Aragorn’s modesty about him; when Rosamond wishes for him he first appears in the garb of a pilgrim, evoking that much-loved Christian romance The Pilgrim’s Progress, and informs the children he is rather out of fashion these days, having stopped fighting with Saint Denis of France some time ago and taken to galloping around instead ‘with my true brothers [the patron saints of] Scotland, Ireland, Wales and kindred kind beyond the seas’ (p. 71), doing deeds of valour for the needy colonies. Meanwhile he has been neglected at home, and is inclined to blame this on the honorific people have saddled him with, ‘Saint’, since ‘a halo is such a misty unsoldierly decoration’ (p. 72). Rosamond and the other children, however, find him ‘ripping’ (p. 67), and he wins their hearts by telling them the story of the Battle of Agincourt, a victory over the French which was actually sponsored by his friend Saint Crispian (Crispian’s namesake), but which Saint George observed from the sidelines with great interest. Saint George’s connection with Agincourt aligns him, of course, with Shakespeare’s King Henry V, who was given to yelling the names of Saint George and Saints Crispin and Crispian as he charged across the bloody fields of France. Mills has him talk Shakespearean English, too; he is constantly breaking into the rhythms of blank verse. ‘Dear English maid,’ he tells Rosamond as he prepares to leave in a flash of lightning (I don’t remember any lightning in Peter Pan!), ‘No foe of yours that is not foe of mine. No dangers yours that are not shared by me. No wrong of yours that I will not redress’ (p. 74). Heady stuff, when addressed to a girl of eleven or twelve, and guaranteed to supply her with a substantial dose of extra pluck. I found it thrilling, too, at the age of seven, though I don’t remember being filled with anything much like patriotism by Saint George’s flashy appearances and disappearances. I thought of him as a superhero, as no doubt did the many generations of boys who thrilled to the adventures of the patron saints in Richard Johnson’s perennial nursery classic, The Seven Champions of Christendom (1597).
Unfortunately, reviving Saint George and his red cross flag has had a tendency, historically speaking, to involve large doses of racism; and Mills’s novel is not exempt. Not for nothing does Saint George change Henry V’s battle cry from ‘God for Harry, England and Saint George’ to ‘God for George, England and the Right’ (p. 74). The genie, for instance, is ‘of Ethiopian darkness, but not at all repulsive looking’ (p. 51), while a French merchant called Bertrand who offers to buy the defunct Cousin Matthews’s effects is said to have a shrewd eye for a bargain because ‘his great-great-grandmother had been a Jewess’ (p. 79). Despite these racist throwaway remarks both the merchant and the genie are clearly meant to be attractive figures, though the genie’s principal charm is his obedience (he is the children’s ‘faithful friend’, p. 94), which is particularly unsettling when he refers to himself as a ‘slave’ (p. 51). Bertrand, on the other hand, is both gallant and courageous, and has nothing but contempt for the treachery to family and nation shown by Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda. His function in the play, in fact, is to point up their nastiness, since even his foreignness and suspect ancestry cannot blind him to their perfidy. The presence in the novel of these two characters amply confirms Mills’s quasi-fascistic views, as does her assumption that England’s glory depends exclusively on its military victories, ‘Crecy and Poictiers, […] Waterloo and Trafalgar’ (p. 224), and her certainty that the pirate-poet Sir Walter Raleigh was the ‘pattern of chivalry’ (p. 49) because he only sank Spanish ships. Her views on class are equally repugnant. The sole working-class character in the book, the page boy William, is an insufferable sneak who delights in taunting Crispian and Rosamond on their penniless state since the death of their parents. Sometimes it’s worth reminding oneself of fantasy’s potential to sow the seeds of fascism, and of how enthusiastically the British were capable of embracing fascistic ideas well before the rise of Nazism.
The literary virtues of Where the Rainbow Ends are of a piece with its moral and ideological vices. Foremost among these is its capacity for building dramatic tension in each of its three constituent parts. The first ‘act’ of the novel sees the children informed by their wicked Uncle and Aunt that their schooldays are over for lack of funds and that their beloved Cousin Matthew’s library will be sold to pay their bills, and with it the guidebook to ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ as well as the magic carpet that might have taken them there. It is then a race against time to use the carpet before Uncle Joseph, Aunt Matilda and the page boy William can hold them back. The second ‘act’ sees them confronting the dangers of Dragon Wood, their chief obstacle here being their friend little Betty Blunders, who is clearly designed to embody all the female failings Mills has banished from the lively personage of her heroine, Rosamond. Betty ignores the advice of the guidebook by entering Dragon Wood at nightfall in pursuit of the alluring Will o’the Wisp, just at the point when the monsters and beasts are waking up. Although she is quickly rescued by the boys, the presence of those beasts and monsters ensures that the rest of the night – and of the book’s second ‘act’ – is as full of terrors as a night can be. The third ‘act’ begins with the capture of the children by flying dragons and their incarceration in the Dragon King’s Castle, where they are due to be executed at any moment. Escape involves the rapid sewing of an English flag by Rosamond – who has had the good sense to bring along her sewing kit – and its hoisting by the boys on the Castle flagpole, a deed that brings Saint George to the rescue in the usual flash of lightning, with predictable results. The Dragon King is transfixed by the Saint’s doughty blade, and the rest of the dragons are hurled howling into a bottomless abyss, like Milton’s fallen angels. Fortunately at this point in the story not a single dragon seems to remember that it can fly, so they all perish. The way is therefore cleared for the children to press on to the place Where the Rainbow Ends, where Rosamond and Crispian’s parents are waiting, having survived their shipwreck after all. The children find their way to the correct location without any difficulty, despite having dropped their precious guidebook in the lake when the Dragons seized them. Their reunion with their parents is suitably moving, and caused seven-year-old me to break the injunction not to cry every time I read it.
Another redeeming feature of the novel (if it has any) is its clear sense that the British Empire is in steep decline. Saint George no longer lives on English soil, but spends his time overseas because the Colonies are more interested in him than his countrymen are. The older generation of English patriots are similarly located elsewhere, unable to make their way back from distant parts to their homeland; Rosamond’s parents Captain and Mrs Carey spend the whole novel loitering in ragged clothes on a distant shore, like Prospero and Miranda on their desert island, persecuted by a witch out of Macbeth and a fairy out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the unreliable Will o’the Wisp) as well as the constant threat of dragonish assaults straight out of Milton. Mrs Carey has even become a legend or fantasy herself, being referred to by Will as Mother Vera – Mother Truth – which effectively makes her Mother Carey, a sailor’s legend who is referred to by (among others) Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies (1862-3) and John Masefield in Salt Water Ballads (1902). England, then, is always elsewhere in this novel, a little like Narnia in the Narnian Chronicles, and its identity is always under threat of erasure. Captain and Mrs Carey have been replaced in the household by Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, who regard the English flag as ‘That Jingo bogey – that pretty bit of bunting – that child’s plaything’ (p. 119), and whose only concern is to cheat their nephew and niece out of their inheritance. Meanwhile the heraldic Lion of England is represented in this novel by a half-grown lion cub, Cubby, and the next generation of English human beings (as embodied in the page boy William and the indolent youth known only as the Slacker) threatens to follow the children’s uncle and aunt into self-obsession and indifference to the national interest.
The most striking representation of this tendency can be found in the Dragon Wood, a place where everything that is inimical to imperial orderliness resides. It is full of foreign beasts, a category from which Cubby is excluded despite being a lion (he is a specifically English lion, we are told (p. 18)). There is a black leopard which injures Crispian and Blunders, a pack of hyenas whose voices Crispian remembers from his time in India, and miscellaneous other carnivores. The Wood has supernatural creatures in it, too, including Will o’the Wisp, who is always ‘mislead[ing] night wanderers, laughing at their harm’, like Shakespeare’s Puck, and a bunch of nastier elves and gnomes who are given to pinching errant strangers black and blue like the false fairies in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Worse still, it is a place of metamorphosis, where a person’s identity is constantly on the verge of getting compromised. One of the trees in it was once a ‘high-born Dragon’ who dared to eat the Dragon King’s food and was punished for this by being transformed into a stump with arms, which is constantly hungry for the flesh of passers by. Another monster is the thing that gave me nightmares:
Out of the reeds a loathsome creature, half man, half worm was crawling, slowly dragging its flabby useless limbs along the ground. Its face was ashen, its worm-shaped head hairless. It had a great, gaping, loose-lipped mouth and its eyes, that were for ever turning restlessly from side to side, shone like arc lamps. Lamps they were indeed, that warned others of the deadly trail of slime it left as it crawled – slime that clogged the feet of those who encountered it [–] but to the creature itself they gave no light, for it was blind. Slowly it dragged itself from the marsh and entered the thicket while the boys stood transfixed with horror. (p. 171)
Crispian recognizes this creature, too – he calls it ‘a Slitherslime’ – and there is a dreadful revelation to come about it. After its disappearance into a thicket the two naval cadets meet another boy who seems to live in the Dragon Wood, unharmed by its monstrous denizens. The boy is English, and like Crispian and Blunders once set off to find a lost loved one – his sister – in the place Where the Rainbow Ends; but he got distracted by the pleasures of the Woods, where one can get endless supplies of tasty fruit, spend one’s time fishing in well-stocked trout streams, and watch the gnomes playing cricket (p. 177). Now he lives there in permanent indolence, protected by the toll he pays the Dragon King, which involves passing on to him unopened all the letters he gets from his mother (delivered by passing pilgrims on their way to Heart’s Content), and wearing on his breast the Dragon King’s crest in place of the cross of Saint George.
Worst of all, he is degenerating physically. Already ‘round-shouldered and walk[ing] with a slouch’, he has a ‘livid’ face (p. 172), and the end of this degenerative process, he tells Blunders, is to become the slug-like creature they have just encountered, which helpfully reappears to underline the horror of this fate just as the boy makes reference to it: ‘For a moment in hideous helplessness it turned its restless worm-like head with the blazing, sightless eyes towards the boys, then, with a horrible whimper of distress it slithered off into the marshes’ (p. 180). Horrified by this vision, Blunders automatically repeats Nelson’s famous slogan from the Battle of Trafalgar – ‘England expects every man to do his duty’ (p. 182) – and at once the Dragon Light that protects the indolent youth begins to grow dim. The boy promptly swears to stay in the Wood for ever, the Dragon Light rekindles, and away he flees through the trees ‘laughing and crying hysterically’ (p. 183), never to be seen again.
The curious thing about this episode is that it sets up an indolent version of England as the antithesis of the cadets’ beloved imperial power. The indolent youth – known as the Slacker – introduces himself as an English subject, enjoys peculiarly English pursuits such as fishing and cricket, and offers the cadets fruit that look ‘just like ordinary English apples’ (p. 179). The decay of England lurks in the inner spaces of English national identity, like a maggot in a healthy core, just as the Slacker’s sluggish future form is foreshadowed in the round-shouldered debility of his body; only a subtle shift of emphasis in one’s clichéd fantasies of the ideal English existence is needed for England to become a breeding ground of the Dragon’s minions. If being English is a fantasy, as its association here with Shakespeare’s plays, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Milton’s Paradise Lost suggests, then an alternative fantasy could easily supplant it, and this play is filled with alternative fantasies, many of them derived from the very same sources that supplied material for the fantasies of imperial England.
The nastiest of these fantasies by far are those of Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, which are both greedy and sadistic. At the beginning of the novel Aunt Matilda wears a ‘cruel smile’ as she tells Crispian he can no longer go to the naval college he has been attending, then forbids him to wear his cadet’s uniform the following day: ‘Aunt Matilda knew that this would hurt Cris. She knew that a naval boy loves his uniform, not so much for the look of it but because it is a uniform of noble traditions and a thing to live up to and be proud of and it did hurt Cris horribly to be told in that cold and heartless fashion not to wear it again’ (p. 30). Uncle Joseph is even worse. When he finds the children gone from his house on a quest to find their parents – which would deprive him of the family home he has feloniously inherited with the help of his expertise as a lawyer – he chases after them armed with a whip which he plans to use to ‘tickle them with for running away’, after tying their hands and feet with rope and gagging their ‘pretty mouths’ (pp. 122-3). Fortunately Saint George removes the whip from him before he can use it, but Uncle Joseph later succeeds in catching Rosamond, whereupon he ties her to the Enchanted Tree, gags her, and leaves her alone in the Dragon Wood to be eaten by hyenas. As he abandons her to her fate he can’t resist a final gloat: ‘“What a pity, isn’t it?” he said […] “Brother Crispian is in the wood and you can’t call to him to come and rescue you, and I’m afraid when he does pass this way you won’t be here, hyenas are so fond of little children”’ (p. 193). Later still the hyenas come after Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda instead, and the lawyer climbs a tree to escape their jaws, leaving his sister on the ground in her impractical evening gown to be devoured with ‘piercing […] shrieks’ (p. 202) – though fortunately off stage, both in the play and in the novel. He doesn’t escape his own fate long, however. Overcome with hunger he finds Cubby’s bottle of Colonial Mixture in his pocket and proceeds to drink the contents, having failed to read the small print on the label (‘Poison to Traitors’). He has no time to feel much more than the first pangs of this poison before the hyenas come back for him, having made short work of his sister’s bony body. Like the Slacker he is destroyed by what he consumes to sustain him, trapped into the very fate he sacrificed his family ties to evade.
Set up in opposition to Uncle Andrew’s fantasies of selfishness, torture and material gain, the fantasy of England restored to imperial glory is all about emotional reunions with lost relatives; as I said before, the final scene of the novel had a tendency to reduce my seven-year-old self to a tearstained wreck. There’s something disturbing, though, about this final vision, as well as about the story that leads up to it. This ending asserts that not only can the British Empire be buttressed by affectionate young patriots, but that death itself can be overcome; and this not in the form of a life to come but through resurrection in this world – or so it seems. The scene begins with a reunion between a nameless English mother and her lost ‘little one’ on the beach Where the Rainbow Ends. Carried to the blessed location by an English ship, then ferried ashore by the boast of ‘faith and Hope’, the woman suddenly sees her infant rushing towards her:
and, seeing the little one, sinks to her knees and with eyes that almost fear to believe looks into the little face she has for so long seen only in her dreams. Scarce daring to breathe, her yearning fingers glide over the golden curls to the white brow upon which they cluster. Wistfully her hungry gaze meets again the laughing look of dear blue eyes; she longs, yet fears to kiss the smiling roguish baby lips raised to hers, lest, as in those cruel dreams which so long have mocked her grief, she will wake to find her poor arms empty.
But upon the child’s face is no sorrow, no surprise. Closer it nestles into the dear, remembered arms.
‘Mummy,’ the little one coaxes, ‘Mummy darling – now – tell again the story of little ten toes.’ (p. 248)
The reunion is clearly not meant to be subjected to rigorous theological analysis, but the implication is, I think, that the mother in this scene is alive, that she has taken a journey analogous to that accomplished by Rosamond and Crispian in their quest to find their parents, and that when she has reached the place Where the Rainbow Ends she has been reunited with a child she had lost – presumably to death, since she has not seen it except in dreams for an extended period. What happens next? The last we see of the mother and child is an image of them running up the golden sands in jubilation; but a little later we witness the reunion of Rosamond and Crispian with their lost loved ones, Captain and Mrs Carey, on the same beach; and shortly afterwards all four surviving members of the Carey family are on Hope’s boat again, with the Blunders siblings, heading towards the English ship by which the Carey parents were earlier rescued from the Witch’s Cove where they were wrecked – a ship now ‘bound for England’ (p. 254). Moments later Saint George manifests himself at the stern of the boat, duly accompanied by the English national flag:
He was coming with them back to the dear land to which they were sailing; to fight once more the dragons that sought his country’s downfall – coming back, not to be lifeless stone in cold cathedral, but to live henceforth and for ever in the hearts of children of his race. (p. 255)
Of course, we are to understand that Captain and Mrs Carey were never really dead, they were merely shipwrecked on their way home from India; their deaths were a dreadful illusion which their children had been forced to live with for several months. But what of the nameless mother reunited with her dead child? The place Where the Rainbow Ends promises to restore ‘all lost loved ones’ to their relatives – that was the promise made by the book in the opening chapter. There was no mention there of the golden shore being in the afterlife, and in the final chapter there seems to be no prohibition on taking your recovered lost loved ones back to England along with the equally lost and recovered patron saint of England. The distinction between the saint in stone and the saint in living flesh reinforces the assumption; if you have sufficient faith in God and your country (which are here more or less the same thing, thanks to the happy accident of the country’s flag happening to be the emblem of the Christian faith), your lost loved ones will come back to life, whether they were dead or merely missing, and all will be well not just for a while but in fact ‘for ever’. That’s an irresponsibly massive pledge to make in a play for children. It also seems to make nonsense of an earlier passage in the novel where Uncle Joseph realizes he is about to die without benefit of patriotism, and hence alone:
Not one of a vast brotherhood who, though separated by continents, feels still bound and upheld by a thousand ties of national hopes and ambitions; not as the humblest patriot, who dying in a distant land, feels yet around and about him like a royal mantle those best traditions of his country he has given his life to uphold. (p. 204)
The final chapter holds out the possibility that those who die as part of the ‘vast brotherhood’ of patriots can be brought back from the dead. This investment of the nation with powers of resurrection beyond the divine is perhaps the most grandiose assertion about national identity I have ever encountered. God barely rates a mention in Where the Rainbow Ends; his place is almost entirely ceded to England, presumably because the name of God, like the title of saint, may be felt by many patriotic Englishmen to be no more than ‘a misty unsoldierly decoration’ (p. 72). The unsettling nature of Mills’s fantasy, then, is not just about its sadism; it’s also about the claims it makes on the reader’s world. Children reading a book like this are being encouraged to apply its assertions about the country Where the Rainbow Ends to their own ‘race’ in particular (there are no French, Jewish or African lost people, it seems, on the golden beach). They are being encouraged to think that the dead can be brought back to life through nationalistic fervour. It’s hardly inaccurate to describe a sentiment like this as fascistic, and to describe Mills’s book as engaging in a deeply irresponsible use of the strategies of fantasy.
Philip French once suggested in The Observer that the Christian writer C. S. Lewis might have been influenced by Where the Rainbow Ends when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). Given what I’ve just said about the book’s theology, one might imagine this would be improbable; but in fact there’s every sign that the book had a strong influence on Lewis – but not, I think, on the first of the Narnian chronicles. Certainly there are a lion and four children in both Where the Rainbow Ends and The Lion, but I can’t see much more to link them apart from a common zeal for battle and the presence in both of a wicked witch. Much closer, though, is the link between Mills’s book and The Magician’s Nephew (1955). Both involve a quest for the recovery of a parent, taken on by a boy and girl with the help of friends. Both contain tempting apples (the Slacker offers one to the cadets, Digory is offered one by Queen Jadis) and moments of exhilarating flight, on a winged horse in Lewis’s novel, a magic carpet in Mills’s. The apple in The Magician’s Nephew gets replanted in England and so becomes the English apple which is mimicked by the Slacker’s fruit. Meanwhile Digory’s father is away in India, and makes his way home at the end of the story against all odds, like Captain and Mrs Carey. But the most obvious link between the books is the wicked uncle. Uncle Joseph lives with his sister, exactly like Lewis’s Uncle Andrew, although Uncle Andrew’s sister Letitia (Aunty Lettie) is much nicer (and tougher) than Aunt Matilda. Both uncles are tall and thin, and given to wearing top hats, which like the rest of their clothing get subjected to appalling wear and tear – Uncle Andrew’s by his adventures in company with Jadis, the witch-queen of Charn, and Uncle Joseph’s by his underground journey in company with the devilish Dragon-King, during which his garments are ‘considerably damaged’ by ‘sparks and lava dust’ (p. 115). Both uncles have a singular contempt for children (remember Uncle Andrew’s willingness to use Digory and Polly for his experiments in magic). Both have a commercial side to their personalities, with Uncle Joseph scheming to deprive his niece and nephew of their inheritance – ‘Riverdale and the fortune that accompanied it’ (p. 199) – while Uncle Andrew devises grander projects to do with the newly-created land of Narnia: ‘Bring a few scraps of old iron here, bury ’em, and up they come as brand new railway engines, battleships, anything you please. They’ll cost nothing, and I can sell ’em at full prices in England. I shall be a millionaire’ (p. 103). Finally, both uncles meet their doom at the hands, or rather paws, of savage animals. As we’ve seen, Uncle Joseph is first poisoned by drinking the tonic of an English lion cub then eaten by hyenas; while Uncle Andrew is first frightened half to death by a fully-grown lion, then pursued across the Narnian landscape by a crowd of baying beasts, which he thinks are hungry for his blood. Andrew is lucky enough to be mistaken; his death is only symbolic, and being less wicked than his prototype he is allowed to repent of his wickedness and become ‘a nicer and less selfish old man than he had ever been before’ in the final pages of Lewis’s novel (p. 171). His transformation can be taken to begin at the moment when the animals plant him in the earth of Narnia, mistaking him for a kind of tree. Unlike Mills’s Enchanted Tree, which started out as a dragon and retains a dragon’s hunger, Uncle Andrew’s planting eventually bears fruit in repentance and personal reform, which he carries back with him from Narnia very much as Digory carries back the fruit that will heal his dying mother.
Uncle Andrew’s reprieve can be read as a kind of symbolic reprieve for Where the Rainbow Ends, which is transformed by Lewis from a piece of imperialist propaganda to a creation myth for an Edenic secondary world. Lewis’s concern in the Narnian chronicles with revitalizing religious faith in the Britain of the 1950s is balanced in The Magician’s Nephew by an anti-imperialist spirit which runs more or less counter to the politics of Mills’s play and book. Lewis pits the Empress Jadis of Charn and her minor-league disciple, Uncle Andrew, against the lion Aslan, who raises ordinary London Cabbies to the status of kings but insists on their remembering how to ‘use a spade and a plough and raise food out of the earth’ (p. 129) and how to treat their subjects as they would wish to be treated themselves. The newly-crowned King Frank is exclusively concerned with protecting Narnia against its enemies rather than expanding its borders – though the assumption that he deserves ‘natural’ authority over both talking animals and his wife, Queen Helen, will annoy most modern readers. Lewis endows his main female character, Polly, with something of Rosamond’s force of personality, though on the whole women are relegated to a secondary position in his narrative compared with that of Mills; even the quest for the healing apple is Digory’s rather than Polly’s, though elsewhere in Lewis’s work he was happy enough to include girls among his principal questers (Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Jill in The Silver Chair).
At the same time, here as elsewhere Lewis takes it for granted that the fantastic genre he writes in is in some sense a feminine one. Uncle Andrew has inherited what magic talents he has from his godmother, Mrs Lefay, whose name suggests an association both with fairy tales and Arthurian legend. She it was who bequeathed her godson a box from Atlantis containing dust from another world (Philip Pullman took note), which he uses to manufacture the rings that convey the child protagonists, Digory and Polly, to Charn and Narnia. Uncle Andrew, however, has learned nothing from this about the potency of female storytelling. When Digory points out that Mrs Le Fay’s gift suggests that ‘all the old fairy tales are more or less true’ (p. 28), and that one of the things that happens in fairy stories is that wicked people like Uncle Andrew get their come-uppance, his uncle retorts that such notions are no more than ‘Old wives’ tales’ and that Digory only believes them because he was ‘brought up among women’ (p. 29). One of the women Lewis himself got his ideas from was Clifford Mills, and this makes me wonder how many other better remembered writers owe a debt to her unsettling fantasy of death reversed, treason savagely punished, and imperial degeneration temporarily halted.
Where the Rainbow Ends has a place in the history of British fantasy, and I think it’s best not to forget it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. Fantasies can be damaging, it reminds us, as well as enriching; and even damaging fantasies can sometimes have unexpectedly enriching effects. Where the Rainbow Ends shaped me to a certain extent as well as Lewis, and it’s crucial to analyse that shaping process if we are not to be controlled by it. I can’t honestly, however, recommend that you read the book for yourself.
 Clifford Mills was Emilie Clifford (née Bennet, married Harold Mills Clifford in 1889), who adopted a variant of her husband’s name when writing. Besides Where the Rainbow Ends she wrote two other successful plays, The Basker (1916) and The Luck of the Navy (1919), both of which were performed on Broadway. The Luck of the Navy was filmed twice, in 1927 and 1938.
 Clifford Mills, Where the Rainbow Ends (London: Forgotten Books, 2015); all references are to this facsimile edition.
 Philip French, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – review’, The Observer, Sunday 11 December 2005.
 C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (London etc.: William Collins and Sons, 1989). All references are to this edition.
The beginning of this month marked the 80th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany, which took place at 11 am on Sunday 3 September 1939. Eleven years ago I published for the first time, in my edition of Mervyn Peake’s Collected Poems, a poem called ‘September 1939’. The poem is short and not particularly distinguished, but it’s attached to the story of a remarkable coincidence – one of several that took place while I was editing the collection. And the coincidence provides an insight into the artistic and political milieu inhabited by Peake in the 1930s. Here, then, is a post about September 1939, the month and the poem, along with a meditation on how a tiny seed of information can begin to effloresce into a full-grown theory about a writer-artist’s friendships, influences and political sympathies.
When I first came across the poem ‘September 1939’ it was in a battered old exercise book full of poems, many of which had never seen print, stowed in a battered old suitcase in the London flat of Peake’s eldest son, Sebastian. The suitcase, as I remember it, was crammed to bursting with manuscripts and typescripts, mostly drafts of Mervyn’s poems, plays and prose of all descriptions. When Sebastian laid it on the table in his living room and opened it up I felt like a pirate suddenly faced with a heap of treasure: tongue-tied, goggle-eyed, caught between the lust of a child confronted by the treasures of a toyshop, with birthday money clutched in its grubby fist, and the astonishment of an adult who has stopped hoping that the world holds surprises like this, yet finds himself in attendance at the fulfilment of a lifelong fantasy. I still feel something of that extraordinary sensation twelve or thirteen years after Sebastian shut the suitcase again and put it away.
I haven’t experienced anything quite like that before or since. Except once, when the internet worked a little magic for me.
Not long after finishing my edition of the Collected Poems and sending it off to Carcanet, at a loss for anything to do with my hands and mind after the white hot excitement of the editorial process, I found myself idly typing a few words from the poem ‘September 1939’ into the search engine of my computer.
I wasn’t really thinking as I did so. I have no idea what made me do it, in fact. The poem from which the words came had never been published before, so there could be no expectation at all of getting a hit. Except that I got one.
The line came up word for word as I had typed it.
I can’t now recall which line it was from the poem, but there it stood, the opening entry in the short list of results for my search terms. And when I clicked on the link I found that the whole poem had somehow been transcribed and put online. I may be remembering this wrong; it may have been only the first few lines of the poem that had been transcribed, while the rest could be read with some difficulty in a low-definition PDF on the webpage I had stumbled across. But the fact remains: there was the poem, and there was I, and once again the impossible had come to pass and the shape of the world had been subtly changed by an unexpected encounter.
The webpage on which I found the poem belonged to an online auctioneer, and the creator of the page had ascribed the poem to a man called Leslie Hurry – quite reasonably, since Hurry had incorporated the poem into a painting of his which had recently been sold. A quick search for Hurry’s name revealed that he was a painter and illustrator of considerable promise in the 1930s who later moved into theatre design at the instigation of the director, dancer and actor Robert Helpmann – most famous now as the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. At that time there were not many paintings of Hurry’s to be seen online – partly, it seems, because of a dispute over copyright; but in 2019, as I type these words, you can find a great many paintings, drawings and set designs by Hurry scattered across a range of different websites. One of his best-known paintings is ‘This Extraordinary Year, 1945’, which is on show in Tate Britain. It’s a picture that owes a lot to Blake, and that celebrates the end of World War Two and the election of a Labour Government. The painting I found with the poem in it was also concerned with a significant year, this time less auspicious: 1939. The two paintings, then, stand at the opening and closing moments of World War II, and the one I had just found online provided a kind of gateway or portal onto the dreadful time to come.
In fact, a gate or portal features in the painting. In the middle of what seems to be an ocean stand two white pillars side by side, which rise into blue plantlike growths gradually curving towards each other until they meet overhead to form a lintel. Each pillar has a door and two windows in it, giving it the appearance of a lighthouse or the turret of a medieval castle. Two long staircases approach each door, changing direction twice before they reach it. Between the pillars, through the gateway they form, you can see another ocean with a rock or island in it. There is something small and pale in front of the island-rock but I can’t make out what it is; it could be a boat, a whale, or another rock. The island-rock seems to have another tower on it – possibly two – but they are sketched in pen rather than fully painted.
Behind each of the two towers or pillars in the foreground there is what seems to be an upright, reddish rock, whose curve undergoes a very different metamorphosis from that of the pillars. The pillars grow upwards into cool blue plants or flowers. The rocks instead get extended below the gateway into a pair of clashing scimitar blades, which form another lintel under the doorway, this time painted red. The sea we are looking at through the doorway – or alternatively in a mirror, since the two lintels, above and below, could form the frame of a painting or looking glass – seems itself, as I said at the beginning, to be in the depths of another ocean, whose surface appears at the top of the painting, with the gateway underneath, as if immersed.
We’re looking into the depths, in other words, and the doorway or mirror we are looking through is threatening us. While the blue plants are thrusting upwards towards the lightest part of the sky, the blades are sweeping out towards the viewer. It looks as though they could cut us if we weren’t careful.
There is another island in the sea at the top of the painting, and in the lowering sky above the island Hurry has included what look like technical diagrams drawn in pen: a radio mast on the left, a flying machine above it whose wings recall the pages of an open book, a gun sight in the middle, a web of cables. The ocean at the top of the picture could represent the present, when such diagrams are widespread; or it could represent the consciousness. The portal, with its old-looking towers, could represent the past, or alternatively the subconscious, since it’s immersed in the depths. One thing is certain, though: the portal itself enacts two movements, one upwards towards new growth, the other downwards and outwards towards destruction. It’s a Janus-faced painting, even if the date it refers to is September rather than January. And the aggressive outward gesture of the blades suggests that theirs is the direction the world has chosen to take on this side of the picture – the side the viewer stands on.
As for the poem, as I’ve said, in the exercise book it was titled ‘September 1939’, and that’s the title I gave it in my edition. The painting, however, doesn’t give it a title at all. The lines are laid out differently, too, from the way they were in the exercise book:
This is the year of our Lord;
And nine hundred years
Once the blood was wine
And the flesh was broken
The men of the equal tread
Have come into their own
And the bayonets shine.
This is the year of our Lord;
And nine hundred years
It might be better, I think, if there were a break between ‘thirty-nine’ and ‘Once the blood was wine’, which would make the poem into a mirror image like the mirror image implied by the painting, with two stanzas of four lines framing two stanzas of three lines just as the portal frames the painting’s interior sea. The word ‘Once’ in this version doesn’t quite make sense, at least to me; the exercise book has ‘Since’ in its place. I love, though, the way the poem (and the picture) draws the eye to the three central lines: ‘The men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And the bayonets shine’. In the exercise book version this is slightly different: ‘And the men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And their bayonets shine’; but the extra repetition of ‘the’ in Hurry’s version (‘the bayonets’) makes the soldiers more impersonal, conjuring up the familiar newsreels of the 1930s showing lines of Nazi soldiers marching in mechanical triumph through Berlin and Poland. And these three lines represent the mid-point in what seems an inexorable movement throughout history, from the moment of Christ’s birth (‘the year of our Lord’) to his death (‘Once […] the flesh was broken’) and on to the present, when the ‘men of the equal tread / Have come into their own’, with bayonets as sharp as Hurry’s scimitars. Having read it, one can also see something bladelike about the metal-blue plants into which the towers have grown, something sinister about the conjunction of defensive towers, radar, flying machine and gun sight at the top of the painting. Hurry’s picture may indicate two alternative directions, one leading to peace and one to war, but with the declaration of war in September 1939 both directions might be seen as always having pointed to the same destination. The breaking of Christ’s flesh and the spilling of his blood pointed the way to the breaking of flesh and the spilling of blood at the mid point of the twentieth century. This was the only possible fruit, one might imagine, that could be produced by that particular sacrificial tree.
Hurry may well have decided that Peake’s poem resembles a set of double doors, which fits into the frame provided by Hurry’s illustration. The repeated four lines at the beginning and end form a verbal counterpart to the painting’s doorframe, while the two sets of three lines form a door each – the door relating to Christ and the door relating to the rise of Nazism. But another way of looking at the poem is as the representation of a fulcrum, the point on which a bar or seesaw balances. The fulcrum lies in the space between the lines ‘Like bread’ and ‘The men of the equal tread’, with Christ’s sacrifice occurring on one side of it, the Nazis on the other; what the poem says is that the world of 1939 has tipped towards the Nazis. Peake’s mind was much preoccupied with fulcrums in the late 1930s. A number of poems from the exercise book – which I’ve dated to 1939 at latest, since it contains sketches of Peake’s mother on her deathbed in October of that year, and no pictures at all of Sebastian, who was born in January 1940 – a number of poems in it speak of a sense of precarious balance, or more accurately of having reached a tipping point, beyond which lies an unknown and troubling future.
Three of these poems are short enough to quote in full. The first is ‘Balance’:
In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
Is always the long moment of decay.
This poem insists on the illusory nature of past and future, the turbulent present being the only moment that exists. Hurry’s painting could be read as a response to this sentiment too, with the clouds at the top representing either the ‘spent days’ of the past or the ‘prophet’s dream’ of the future, while the double door-posts – the two ambiguous towers divided between growth and destruction – symbolize the moment of ‘prime’, always engaged in the acts of furious self-destruction which make decay inevitable. A second poem speaks of Peake’s acute sense that it is his own life in particular that is in danger of ending just as it reaches the ‘prime’ of maturity:
O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
My days with hazards of futurity.
The landscape of this poem clearly resembles the rocky, sea-bound islands of the painting, while the diagrammatic drawings in Hurry’s painted sky might be seen as summoning up the ‘hazards of futurity’ in the blueprints they offer for flying machines and gun sights which might so easily be appropriated for military uses. The third poem commemorates another ominous moment in the ticking time-bomb which was the approach to the Second World War. Exactly one year before ‘September 1939’ Peake wrote a poem to mark the September Crisis of 1938, when the appeasers of Europe granted the Nazis free access to the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia:
Au Moulin Joyeux
September Crisis, 1938
Here with the bread
We tasted anguish; here
The wine was grief,
Swung from a thread.
Yet, while we stared
Blind at a shifting fulcrum,
While our loves
Loaded the bleedy scales
And when to laugh
Here with their burning flags
Of pride unfurled,
All women raised bright goblets to the world.
The poem opens with the image of bread and wine which recurs in ‘September 1938’. Here the eucharistic sacrifice doesn’t mark a long-past historic event but a process that has only just taken place, in a present which is no longer endlessly raging but rather grief-stricken at the betrayal that has just been perpetrated by the appeasers. The moment of crisis occurred, it seems, while the world was at a party, so that the party food – bread and wine – became suddenly and incongruously symbolic, the partygoers’ ‘loves’ – romantic or erotic – helped to weigh down the scales on the side that denotes war, while their laughter replicated the mockery of the onlookers at Christ’s crucifixion. But the poem ends in the present, not the past; a present in which the women at the party collectively raise a toast to the world which is about to be bathed in bloodshed, while their own ‘burning flags / Of pride’ fly in bright opposition to the military flags which have been raised as opposing standards by Europe’s armies. The women’s gesture of defiance insists on the unity of the world at the point when it is about to be divided; it insists, in fact, on the continuance of hope when all the men in the room are frozen into helplessness.
There is no equivalent of the defiant women in Hurry’s picture, but the unfurling blue vegetation at the top of the doorway could be seen as raising defiant flags of hope at the point when desolation threatens. Each poem I’ve just quoted, then, represents the world in the late 1930s as precariously poised on the brink of ‘precipice’, as ‘O Heart-beats’ puts it, caught at the point of plunging into the oceanic depths of a dark future. And Hurry’s islands, seas and rocky islands – held in a state of precarious calm before the stormy outbreak threatened by the gathering darkness overhead – show a remarkable consonance with Peake’s concerns in the late 1930s and the images he used repeatedly to express them . The rocky islands in particular speak to the recurring island imagery in Peake’s work, stimulated in part by his boyhood obsession with Treasure Island and reinforced by his lifelong fascination with the island of Sark, where he spent two years or so as a member of an artist’s colony in the early 30s, and to which he returned as often as he could in the years that followed.
One more poem of 1939 points the way towards Peake’s future artistic direction, as represented by the Gormenghast novels. Peake’s wife, Maeve Gilmore, tells us that this poem too was written to mark the outbreak of war; and its repetition of a word from the poem ‘Au Moulin Joyeux’ invites us to consider that word’s significance as an expression of what war meant to Peake.
We Are the Haunted People
We are the haunted people.
We, who guess blindly at the seed
Into the crimson caption,
The birth of that inflamed
Portentous placard that will lose its flavour
Within an hour,
The while the dark deeds move that gave the words
A bastard birth
And hour by hour
Bursts a new gentian flower
Of bitter savour.
We have no power… no power…
We are the haunted people,
The last loose tasselated fringe that flies
Into the dark of aeons from a dark
This poem represents the present not as a tipping-point but as an act of erasure, whereby the out-of-control if short-lived ‘gentian flower’ of propaganda – the ‘crimson caption’ and the ‘portentous placard’ – overwhelms the senses of the ‘haunted people’, leaving them unable to guess at the real ‘dark deeds’ that may underlie this sudden proliferation of false news. The adjective ‘haunted’ suggests the ‘haunted people’s’ attachment to the past, whose traces are being submerged beneath the militant outbreak of vegetation. A haunting implies the intrusion of the past on the present; but the past in question is a nebulous, fragmentary, frail affair – possessing the sort of evanescence or fragmentariness that is also evoked by the unfinished line ‘We have no power… no power…’
It’s the last three lines of the poem, however, that point the way to Peake’s later project, Gormenghast. In this conclusion the ‘haunted people’ themselves become apparitions, loosely attached like the tasselated fringe of an ancient gown to a sombre, aeon-long history, which is rapidly disappearing into obscurity just as an ancient building might disappear under the weight of ivy, bindweed or Virginia creeper. Hurry’s twin white towers are undergoing a similar transformation, though in their case the stone is becoming vegetation instead of being overwhelmed by it. In both cases, something enduring and dynastic – the towers, after all, look like castle turrets – is being replaced by something temporary; and the colour of the turret-plants is the same bright blue as the most common varieties of ‘gentian flower’. The idea of propaganda as a ‘bastard birth’ underlines the break with the past, since dynasties depend on continuity as enshrined in legitimate genealogies. Steerpike comes to mind: that interloper of uncertain origin who inveigles his way (through increasingly hazardous throws of the dice) into a position of power in the dark dynastic castle, assuming the gown of the Master of Ritual in the process, while dispensing his ideas in the form of what might be called ‘crimson captions’. The confrontation between past and present, figured as a collision between the dark, old and ritualistic and the callous, young, and functional, is exactly the clash worked out in the first two books of the Gormenghast sequence. Gormenghast, too, is described on several occasions – most notably in the flood that breaks out in the second novel of the sequence – as a stony island, its contours closely resembling the contours of Sark; so closely, indeed, that parts of the castle are even named after well-known features of the Channel Island. The doors and towers of Hurry’s painting, surrounded by sea and darkness, point the way towards Gormenghast with as much prescience as ‘We Are the Haunted People’, and both works of art – all the works of art I’ve discussed in detail here – identify the Gormenghast books as products of the war that broke out in September 1939, grotesque offshoots from that year’s bitter seed.
Peake saw drawing itself as a dynastic activity – even the drawings of rebels and iconoclasts, which define themselves as revolutionary by virtue of their opposition to established authorities and orthodox lines. He sketched out his conception of the dynasty or genealogy of drawing in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949):
We expect authority in a drawing. The authority which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain. The authority, as it were, of a chorus of voices; or of a prince, who with a line of kings for lineage can make no gesture that does not recall some royal ancestor. The repercussions of the dead disturb the page: an aeon of ghosts float by with charcoal in their hands. For tradition is the line that joins together the giant crests of a mountain range – that links the great rebels, while in the morasses of the valleys in between, the countless apes stare backwards as they squat like tired armies in the shade. But we expect, also, the authority of the single, isolated voice. That the body of a work is common heritage in no way drowns out the individual note. To work with pen and paper is in itself a common denominator from the outset. But it is the individual twist that haunts us.
The passage suggests we might read the ‘haunted people’ as artists, who are still conscious of the ‘dark of aeons’ which lies behind each mark they make on a page; a darkness that lends each mark resonance by waking comparisons with the ‘aeon’ of artistic ghosts who have made marks on paper before. In The Drawings of Mervyn Peake this very consciousness of their dynasty is what identifies certain artists as rebels, lifting themselves above the massed armies of ‘countless apes’ – the ‘men of the equal tread’, perhaps – to take command of the ‘giant crests’ of artistic and literary endeavour. And the quality that lifts them, Peake tells us, is a sense of balance:
Those threadbare terms ‘classic’, ‘romantic’, have little meaning when the finest examples of any master’s work are contemplated, for the first thing one finds is that they have that most magisterial of qualities, ‘equipoise’. They are compelling because they are not ‘classic’ and because they are not ‘romantic’. They are both and they are neither. They are balanced upon a razor’s edge between the passion and the intellect, between the compulsive and the architectonic. Out of this fusion there erupts that thing called ‘style’. […] The finest painters express themselves through their styles. It is as though they paint, draw, write, or compose with their own blood. Most artists work with other people’s blood. But sooner or later aesthetic theft shows its anaemic head.
From these remarks we get a sense of what the outbreak of war might have meant to an artist of the kind Peake admired. If the world has been taken over by the ‘men of the equal tread’ – armies with a determination not to mimic the past but to erase it altogether – then the possibility of making art itself stands in danger of being lost, as history is shunted aside in favour of propagandistic placards and fatuous catchphrases. A balance has been upset, not just between the dynastic past and a troubled future but between passion and intellect, the compulsive and the architectonic. Given the mechanistic equality of the armies’ tread one must presume it’s the intellect that has won out over the passions; that the artist-apes who work with other people’s blood have taken the place of the ‘masters’ who work with their own. Peake’s understanding of the outbreak of war as a struggle over the artist’s soul is perhaps most vividly represented in the series of propagandistic drawings he produced in 1940 to demonstrate his potential as a war artist – or perhaps as a designer of ‘portentous placards’ on behalf of the allies against Hitler. The series poses as a catalogue for ‘An Exhibition by the Artist, Adolf Hitler’, and its title is ‘The New Order’. Each picture in the catalogue has an academic title – awaking echoes of past pictures with similar titles – such as ‘Study of a Young Girl’, ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Dutch Interior’ and ‘Reclining Figure’; but each picture shows an atrocity perpetrated by Nazi forces in Europe: the young girl has been shot in the chest, the landscape is full of ruins and refugees, the Dutch Interior shows a young woman in the aftermath of a rape, and so on. The titles of the pictures, by invoking the art of peacetime, intensify the shock of the brutal images to which they have been attached. The visceral reactions viewers will have to these images make them romantic, in that they appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect; they clearly mimic the great series of etchings by Goya called ‘The Disasters of War’ (1810-1820). Classical thinking may underlie the orderly ranks of troops marching through Amsterdam and Paris in the year of this imaginary exhibition, but the extremes of horror their actions generate point up the radical detachment of classical from romantic values that has been engineered by Hitler’s New Order.
Going back to Leslie Hurry’s painting of September 1939, it’s clear from everything I’ve said so far that the artist had an intimate awareness of Peake’s imaginative vision, and that the picture he produced is a carefully executed reflection of the emotions and thoughts that underlay the poem it illustrates. The painting, then, shines light on a friendship, one which lasted for most of Peake’s life as a writer-artist. At the time it was painted, both artists were based in London, though Hurry moved to Thaxted in Essex later that year. Both artists became involved in the theatre at a formative moment in their careers; Peake designed costumes for a 1932 production of The Insect Play by the Capek brothers, and went on to write his own plays in the 1950s, while Hurry designed his first theatre set two years after painting the picture, in 1942, and went on to become a celebrated designer for the stage. Both men had a passion for Blake; ‘The Wonderful Year’ invokes one of Blake’s most celebrated pictures, ‘Glad Day’ (now known as ‘Albion Rose’), while Peake wrote a poem about the engraver-poet around the same time he wrote ‘September 1939’. And both artists have often been associated with the neo-romantic movement of the 1930s and 40s. The term ‘romantic’ is used of Hurry on the Tate’s website, while Peake refers to himself as a kind of romantic in a 1932 letter to his friend Gordon Smith: ‘I’ve decided to “be” a Romanticist in Painting, but am going to combine the guts of a Van Gogh with the design of a Puvis de Chavannes, and yet keep the suaveness of a Raphael running through stacks of corn that are yellower than yellow in the sunlight’ (pp. 47-8). Interestingly, Peake’s account of his brand of Romanticism is a fusion of Van Gogh’s passion, Puvis de Chavannes’s classical tendencies and the classically-inspired vibrancy of Raphael, one of the ‘royal ancestors’ of latter-day artist-princes. Balance between passion and intellect is clearly something he was aiming for even at this early stage of his artistic development.
But if Leslie Hurry was inspired by Romanticism, he was also strongly influenced by surrealism, the movement that found its way from France to Britain in the early 1930s and spawned the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, in London. Surrealism as a movement was notable for its refusal to be doctrinaire; its resistance to logical structures meant that giving a rationale for its activities was anathema to many of its practitioners, although the British art critic Herbert Read saw it as having affinities with revolutionary Romanticism. Read liked to call the movement ‘superrealism’ rather than surrealism, arguing that traditional realism was unable to take account of the vast proportion of human life which is devoted to dreams and unconscious impulses and that true realism must imitate dream images rather than the contours of the everyday. Surrealists sought to gain access to the unconscious by practising automatic drawing, and Hurry produced two books of automatic drawings in 1940-41 which earned him the title of ‘the ultra-surrealist’, despite his apparent non-involvement in the collective activities of the movement. The surrealist photographer Lee Miller made a portrait of him in 1943, his face reflected in a teapot alongside Miller herself and ‘an unknown man’. Surrealism was closely associated with the modernism of Miró and Picasso, the Apocalyptic Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, and the neo-romanticism of Paul Nash and David Jones – the latter of whom Peake drew in 1939, possibly as one of a series of portraits of famous people for the London Mercury. The painting, then, forges a link between Peake and all these movements, and helps bring out the surrealist overtones of some of Peake’s images – most notably the one on the dustjacket of his first book of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1941), which represents a bizarre conch in the foreground, incorporating a human eye and ear, with a figure in the background walking off into an ‘architectonic’ space like a younger version of the Ancient Mariner in Peake’s illustrations for that poem.
Peake’s association with Hurry continued after the war in their joint connection with Grey Walls Press. A book of Hurry’s Paintings and Drawings was published by the Press in 1950, one year after the Grey Walls Press edition of The Drawings of Mervyn Peake. Grey Walls Press was closely associated with the anarchist poets Alex Comfort and Henry Treece, as James Gifford has pointed out, and Peake’s introduction to his Drawings, with its celebration of rebellious individualism, can easily be read as having a strongly anarchist slant.
One of the things the friendship hints at, in fact, is that Peake may not have been as a-political as he’s often taken to be. Surrealism was closely allied with anarchism, as was neo-romanticism, and both anarchists and surrealists were actively involved in the struggles against fascism and Nazism in Spain and Germany. In his strangely hostile biography of Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, Malcolm Yorke insists that Peake and his wife, Maeve Gilmore, paid little attention to contemporary political events in their travels through Europe in 1937, despite the fact that their journey took them through Hitler’s Germany and brought them to Paris at the time when Picasso’s Guernica was on display there. The existence of Peake’s poems on the September Crisis of 1938 and the declaration of war in September 1939 shows that by that stage in his life, at least, he was intensely concerned with contemporary politics; and Hurry’s illustration to the latter indicates that Peake was happy for a Leftist to provide the imagery to go with his decidedly political text. Hurry’s own political position is suggested by his celebration of the Labour victory in 1945, and by the fact that Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry was published with an introduction by the Marxist poet Jack Lindsay. It may be that Peake was Hurry’s political fellow traveller, on some level at least, between 1939 and 1949.
And despite what Malcolm Yorke contends, Peake did pay attention to the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bombing of Guernica took place on 26 April, when the German air force laid waste to a Basque town, with heavy loss of civilian life, at the behest of the nationalist general Francisco Franco. In May of that year – a month or so after it was reported in Britain, most famously in The Times – Peake wrote the first of a number of poems about planes, its date being confirmed by the fact that he mentions Wales in the second line (he visited his mother’s homeland over the Whitsun period, which in 1937 fell on 15 and 16 May). The plane he describes is pregnant with menace:
The Metal Bird
Job’s eagle skids the thin sky still,
Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
The hawk hangs like an unloos’d bomb
And fills the circular sky with doom.
To-day across the meadow
There runs another shadow
Cast by a grizzlier bird that swings
Her body like a scythe, nor beats her wings,
A bloodless bird, whose mother was a man;
A painted bird of steel – a skeleton
That sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone,
And bears her sexless beauty to the town.
O hawk with naked eyes!
O bloody eagle circling the skies!
Our century has bred a newer beauty,
The metal bird from the cold factory.
Once again the poem charts the displacement of the past – embodied in Jove’s bird, the eagle (which has got fused here with the suffering Job of the Old Testament) and the ‘hawk with naked eyes’ – by a manmade military machine, whose metallic precision and coldly efficient destructiveness marks it out as a product of logic, as against romantic passion. The fact that this bird is flying ‘to the town’, along with the references to skeletons and screaming bones, might have linked it at once to Guernica in the minds of the poem’s first readers. The poem was published in the London Mercury in January 1938; and almost two years later, in November 1939, Peake published in The Listener another version of the same conceit, this time cast as a sonnet, ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’. In this version, the plane in question is certainly a bomber, ‘Whose metal womb is heavy with a cold / Foetus of bombs unborn, that, ere they rest / In death will revel in a birth of blood’. By 1939, however, when children were being evacuated from all the urban centres of Britain, the significance of these explosive foetuses would probably have struck much closer to home than Guernica.
Between these two versions of the same poem, however, Peake made his most direct poetic reference to the bombing of Guernica. This occurs in another sonnet, this one dedicated to the greatest Spanish painter of the sixteenth century:
They spire titanic bodies into heaven,
Tall Saints enswathed in a tempestuous flare
Of twisting draperies that coil through air,
Of dye incredible, from rapture woven,
And heads set steeply skywards, brittle-carven
Against the coiling clouds in regions rare;
Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere
A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven.
So drives the acid nail of coloured pain
Into our vulnerable wood, earth-rooted,
And sends the red sap racing through the trees
Where slugged it lay, now spun with visions looted
From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes
Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain.
Here again, as in all the poems we’ve been looking at in this post, the past finds itself utterly transformed by the present; not displaced or lost in darkness, this time, but given a terrible new significance that could never have been anticipated by a sixteenth-century painter, no matter how visionary. In the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the artist writes about how one’s perception of a well-known picture can be utterly transformed by increasing familiarity with the artistic tradition it springs from. ‘A particular man,’ he tells us, ‘can see only his own reflection’ as he studies any given painting or drawing; but ‘When he enriches his knowledge of pictures – in other words, when he becomes to that extent a slightly different man – he will see a slightly different picture, and so on, until the canvas or the drawing bears no relation to the work he stared at five years earlier. […] And so,’ he concludes, ‘before all work that is authoritative and vital there must be an inner adjustment: a willingness to change, in other words – to grow’. ‘El Greco’, by contrast, traces a different kind of transformation. In this poem, a familiar painting on a religious subject – ‘Tall saints […] from rapture woven’ – is suddenly overlaid with a modern significance. The curling clouds to which they lift their enraptured hands suddenly get filled with a strange new noise; they shrill, like the implied bomb in ‘The Metal Bird’ that ‘sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone’. This new ‘metal music’ shifts the scene to twentieth-century Guernica. The viewer feels a stab of ‘coloured pain’ at the association, as if a nail of sympathy has been driven home by the shared nationality of the painter and the bomb victims in the devastated town. The association wakens the sluggish viewer’s response to El Greco’s image into urgent new life. Instead of a religious theme the painting is ‘now spun with visions looted / From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes / Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain’. From being historical it has been made urgently topical, and from this moment on the painter’s works can never be looked at in the same light again.
Leslie Hurry’s painting ‘September 1939’ brings a moment of history to life. Plugged into the complex circuitry of Mervyn Peake’s artistic and literary context, it illuminates associations and links that had largely lain in darkness before its discovery: links with the political Left, with the British surrealists, with the major historical markers in the approach to the Second World War – Guernica, the September Crisis, the declaration of war, the evacuation of London. It points up the obsession with equilibrium and its loss that dominates Peake’s thoughts about art and human identity. And it provides a gate or doorway to new, more passionately topical readings of the Gormenghast sequence than the ones we’ve practised before. Read as a continuation, for instance, of his close encounters with surrealists as well as neo-romantics, with anarchists and experimentalists as well as with pillars of the British establishment, Gormenghast Castle starts to look less eccentrically isolated, more organically bound up with other artistic and political responses to the global conflicts of the twentieth century. I look forward to exploring these associations in greater detail.
Additional thoughts, April 2020.
At the time I wrote this post I’d somehow forgotten that Leslie Hurry also illustrated two poems of Peake’s that were published in the year this painting was made, 1939. These were ‘Watch, Here and Now’, first published in Pinpoints, May-June 1939, No.4, p. 25 (see Collected Poems, pp 42-3), and ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’ (see above), first printed in Eve’s Journal, July 1939, p. 48. Along with the newly discovered illustration discussed in this post these three examples confirm that Peake and Hurry were working together intensively for a while to combine Peake’s words with Hurry’s images. It’s interesting to note that two of the three poems refer to major current events; was this the sort of thing the two artists discussed together? When I get access to the published Hurry illustrations I hope to have something to say about them.
Another idea occurred to me this month which may be worth mentioning here: that the line ‘The men with the equal tread’ in Peake’s ‘September 1939’ may owe something to one of the epigrams in David Jones’s modernist masterpiece In Parenthesis, first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. The epigram is from a medieval Welsh epic, Y Gododdin, quoted throughout Jones’s own epic: ‘Men marched, they kept equal step… / Men marched, they had been nurtured together’ (In Parenthesis, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1963, p. xx). The link with Jones’s epigram, if there is one, suggests that Peake’s line ‘the men of the equal tread’ may refer to soldiers of all kinds, not just the Nazis. After all, Jones is careful to dedicate his poem both to his comrades-in-arms and to the German soldiers on the front line, ‘WHO SHARED OUR PAINS AGAINST WHOM WE FOUND OURSELVES BY MISADVENTURE’ (p. xvii). It’s worth mentioning too, perhaps, that on the title page of Part One of Jones’s work the Y Gododdin quote occurs alongside a quote from Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, ‘The many men so beautiful’. Peake drew a picture of Jones in 1937, as one of a series of portraits of major figures in the arts he published in The London Mercury; see The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, introd. Hilary Spurling (London and New York: Allison and Busby), p. 46, and G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 108. Another connection between the two artists is that both claimed Welsh ancestry (Peake through his Welsh mother – hence his Welsh Christian name) and both illustrated The Ancient Mariner, Jones in 1929, Peake in 1943.
 All references to Peake’s poems in this post are taken from my edition of his Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008). ‘September 1939’ is on p. 47.
 See Collected Poems, p. 1.
 Collected Poems, p. 65.
 Collected Poems, p. 52.
 Collected Poems, p. 43.
 For Peake’s fascination with islands see G. Peter Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.
 See Maeve Gilmore, A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, introd. Sebastian Peake (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 26.
 Collected Poems, p. 48.
 Mervyn Peake, Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin Press, 1974), p. 80.
 Writings and Drawings, p. 81.
 Several of these pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art, compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), pp. 66-69.
 ‘Blake’, Collected Poems, p. 63.
 See Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999).
 See James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2018), chapter 3, pp. 122-45.
 Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 80: ‘Somehow they managed to ignore all the very unromantic preparations for war which were going on all around them in Europe.’
 For Peake’s visit to Wales see G Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography(London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 112.
[This is the final post dedicated to the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic. It summarises the second part of the afternoon workshop at that event (for the first part see here), which responded to the question given above, with the aim of incorporating the group’s responses into our plans for a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. The post ends with a list of participants in the Symposium, to whom much thanks on behalf of the core Fantasy team at Glasgow: Dimitra Fimi, Rob Maslen, Matt Sangster and Rhys Williams.]
Once again the workshop divided itself into several small groups. Once again each group chose a different way to record its findings, through different coloured inks or different kinds of lists (though the mind-map technique fell out of use). This time the notes were briefer, and the bulk of the responses came in the form of single words or short phrases, which looked like headings or cues for more extended deliberation and debate. Many of the ideas in those lists were repeated several times, and of those not repeated, many could readily be subsumed under similar themes.
Among the most frequently repeated ideas was the notion of establishing a ‘good, user-friendly website’, which would enable us to share resources on an Open Access basis, as well as to advertise events and explain our purpose and history in an organized way. Such a website, someone pointed out in the discussion that followed the workshop, would necessitate a decent IT infrastructure and dedicated administrative support. One group suggested that the website be interactive, like the website for Archaeology Scotland; and the same group urged us to make the most of our Scottish location, drawing visitors to the website into the historical and cultural web of the Scottish fantastic, and pointing up the intimate link between fantasy and the Scottish landscape. This might be best achieved, the group suggested, through one of the projects mentioned at the workshop: a Fantasy Map of Scotland, which would assign specific fantasy texts to specific locations and so transform the process of moving from place to place into an exercise in traversing fantastic history. The website could host the Fantasy Map of Scotland and any blogs, podcasts or Open Access publications we chose to maintain. It could also tie into another project mentioned by several groups: an online journal, embracing creative fiction and non-fiction as well as academic writing (though I persist in thinking of academic writing too as creative at its best). And some groups felt the website might serve as a kind of virtual library, providing visitors with free e-copies of primary texts, criticism and theory, the last two categories perhaps being embedded in an annual anthology of the year’s best essays on fantasy and the fantastic.
For two groups in particular this prospective annual anthology would embody the notion of ‘expertise’ in fantasy, of a kind that doesn’t exist in such concentrated form elsewhere. A concentration of experts, these groups suggested, would enable the Centre to ‘lead on critical conversation’, demonstrating its sensitivity to what’s happening globally by (for instance) reporting on significant conferences or shadowing the major fantasy awards. (I think here of the way Adam Roberts has for many years offered us his own idiosyncratic and often scintillating reviews of contenders for the major SF prizes in successive blogs.) All groups agreed that the Centre’s expertise should be in creative work as well as academic writing and research; and its active engagement with the creative community, some suggested, could be ensured through (for instance) curating art exhibitions, commissioning new works, setting up writer-in-residence programmes, or staging short story competitions with attractive prizes. The latter suggestion could well have been stimulated by the tremendous success of the recent competition mounted by Gavin Miller and Anna McFarlane as part of the University of Glasgow’s Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Another area in which the Centre’s expertise might prove invaluable is education. Several groups suggested that we could organize visits to schools to discuss fantasy with students and teachers, taking a lead from the School of Education, whose MEd students already undertake placements at schools throughout Scotland, while several of them are simultaneously auditing Fantasy MLitt courses and participating in events. Education in technology was also mentioned as a priority; and our experts could offer themselves as mentors for creative writers as well as for scholars. The group that suggested this, however, ended on a note of caution. Mentorship, they warned, should ‘avoid didactic connotations’, concentrating on encouragement and practical support rather than prescriptive guidance. Expertise shouldn’t entail arrogance, in other words, and the proposed anthologies should clearly signal the Centre’s eagerness to learn from communities well beyond conventional academic circles: in particular the global community of fantasy fandom and the under-represented but crucial body of independent scholars.
It’s already becoming clear, I think, that all the groups saw the Centre as a means of enabling crossover activities and events, designed to draw together the academy, fantasy’s fan base and the creative and artistic communities. The idea of crossover extended itself for several groups to embrace other kinds of inclusivity and collaboration. One kind of inclusion involved literary genres. The Centre should dedicate itself, all agreed, to discussing and practising every form of fantasy: children’s and young adult, folk and fairy tales, theatre, oral storytelling, poetry, song lyrics, ballads printed and performed; and all these forms and more should be studied in all the world’s languages (translated where necessary) as well as in English. Another kind of inclusion involved academic interdisciplinarity. We should dedicate ourselves to asserting fantasy’s relevance to other disciplines, from philosophy, medicine, history and comparative literature to the sciences, theology, anthropology, geography and classical studies. We should have a focus on fantasy in multiple medias as well as on the migration of fantasy narratives and concepts from one medium to another: music, art, film, radio, plays, TV, comics and videogames; and the Centre should seek to create a space for the development of all these things in practice, not just as subjects for scholarly debate and analysis.
One group in particular saw inclusivity as a political process. This group’s first thoughts addressed the question of access. If we aim to be really inclusive, it reasoned, we need to make it possible for students to study at Glasgow whether or not they can afford the fees, wherever in the world they happen to come from. This means implementing a system of scholarships, or lowering tuition fees for deserving cases. The same group urged us to ensure that fewer straight white men ran things, in and beyond the Centre, and that fewer straight white men were represented on the syllabus; their rallying cry was ‘decolonize and diversify’. Unsurprisingly, this was also one of the groups that urged us to cultivate community engagement and activism, asking ourselves ‘how can our research into the unreal impact the real’? One means of extending our community might be to liaise with other Centres, such as the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York, or with good outside partners beyond the academy. Arts Emergency was mentioned, with its mission of helping young people overcome barriers to participation in higher education and the creative or cultural industries. So were the Glasgow Women’s Library, the Mitchell Library, the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust in Dumfries, and the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre, directed by Malcolm Knight and located in Glasgow’s Maryhill. We should collaborate, others suggested, with major festivals, such as Aye Write!, Celtic Connections, Cymera, the Edinburgh Fringe and Scotland Loves Anime. To be fair, many such collaborations are already taking place, but having an identity as a Centre (and better still, a budget to play with) would give our participation essential visibility, and enable us to consolidate and prolong our relationship with these organizations and festivals.
A huge number of events were suggested. Someone suggested an event with food in fantasy as its theme, and I had a vision of ponies serving a vegetarian meal mostly made up of bread and honey while walking around on their hind hooves (I was thinking of The Hobbit); or a recipe book offering fantasy-loving chefs the chance to experiment with different kinds of stew (again, see the entry ‘stew’ in Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land). Other events included storytelling, in schools and elsewhere, for therapeutic as well as pedagogic purposes; a story-reading and recording service, aimed at people who have trouble reading on the page; collaborating with museums and galleries (especially Glasgow’s own Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery) in putting on exhibitions of fantasy artifacts and artworks – the latter with a special focus on local artists; collaboratively developing a computer game; performances, including ballads, theatre, dance, opera, song (the AHRC-funded Modern Fairies project was mentioned as a successful model for collaboration with musicians and other artists, while an amateur theatre group of our own might bring fantasy plays to the community); monthly literary social gatherings, of the kind that already takes place in Edinburgh; a speaker series (which again we already have – though it could be better and more widely advertised, and take place on a more ambitious scale); more one-day symposiums like this one, each with a specific focus; and plentiful field trips. There was a particular preference in the case of field trips for walking, since many fantasy narratives (notably Tolkien) have walking at their heart. Dee Heddon’s ongoing series of projects on the relationship between walking and literature was mentioned, and I might also have draw attention to James Loxley’s explorations of literary walking at the University of Edinburgh. As I’ve already mentioned, several groups wanted us to establish a close connection with the landscape, which walking would serve well. The Centre should take people out of the University estate, they argued, freeing the practice and study of fantasy from the office and the classroom and connecting it with hills, buildings, woods, rivers, lochs, boglands and shorelines. The Fantasy Map of Scotland would work well in conjunction with walking; could the two be fused? Of course they could; it needs only time, imagination, hard work and a little money.
A financial motif emerged from the discussions of several groups. As well as the notion of providing scholarships or fee-waivers for needy students, it was pointed out that events always require a great deal of labour and that it’s all too easy to assume this will be freely offered by enthusiastic volunteers. One way to tackle this would be to establish paid internship programmes (as well as a squadron of ‘paid flying monkey minions’ for the Centre’s director, one group recommended). Another group said simply that the Centre should have its own ‘budget code’, though where the budget itself would come from wasn’t mentioned in the notes. In the open discussion that followed the workshop it was suggested that likely sources of funding might include sponsorship, bequests and crowdfunding. This explains the importance of the budget code; without it donations and award applications would be impossible, just as without Centre status accountability for any donations would be hard to ensure.
A budget would certainly be required for the accumulation of resources mentioned by several groups. Among these resources were books, of course – or rather, fantasy artifacts in general. A programme of strategic collecting needs to be implemented, bringing in novels, short stories, plays and theatrical recordings, films and film scripts, games, illustrations and other artworks and comics – as well as research materials of different kinds, ideally on the scale of the SF Foundation in Liverpool. Another resource mentioned several times was a dedicated physical space, including a community building or area for PGR students, a ‘children’s corner’, and a safe space or ‘sandpit’ (a real one, maybe?) in which to talk and engage in creative play. Two suggested resources I particularly appreciated were a shrine to Terry Pratchett and a monumental statue in honour of N K Jemisin, both presumably intended to function as a focus for meditation or secular worship. The chief resource, some groups insisted, would be a suitable team of fantasy specialists, and in this as in other things we’ve made a good start, with the appointments of Dimitra Fimi, Rhys Williams and Matt Sangster in the last three years.
After the end of the second workshop a discussion ensued, during which a spokesperson from each group reported on the group’s responses to the question ‘What should a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic do?’. Inevitably the discussion built on the groups’ conclusions, as if in response to the invitation implied by those lists of cues or headings. Some comments have been worked into my account of the groups’ annotations; but a few didn’t seem to fall into any of the categories I’ve identified, and several of these are well worth considering. It was suggested that the Centre should be outward-facing, but should have research at its heart (including the practice-based research of creative work). At the same time, however, it should cultivate enjoyment as its most crucial guiding principle (and I think this ties in with the widespread agreement among the delegates that fantasy is all about play). It should maintain contact with former Glasgow fantasy students as far as possible – in part to find out what becomes of graduates who choose to specialize in fantasy and the fantastic; what role does this concentration play in the career paths or ways of living they choose? This feeds into another suggestion, that we implement workshops aimed at career development for graduates working in the field (this is in fact something we’ve been thinking about for some time, and now that the MLitt programme has been running for almost four years we have some useful data to work with). Looking at the other end of the education process, it was pointed out that a stress on fantasy for children and young people might help to nurture new generations of scholars, writers and readers. Someone suggested we consider pooling our resources and teaching specialisms with other universities – again something we’ve been exploring; and someone else that we strengthen our support for international students, especially in Europe now that Brexit threatens to change our relationship with our European neighbours drastically. One of the best suggestions, I thought, was that we implement an award for the best work on fantasy by an independent scholar. Given the formidable contribution to both Fantasy and Science Fiction Studies of independent scholars like John Clute I can think of no field that owes more to that neglected but heroic vanguard of thinkers, and I’d love to find a way to put this award in place.
This is a highly ambitious list of desiderata; a list that smacks, some might say, of utopianism, in its original sense of a place that exists nowhere, a fantasy world which is finally impossible to bring into existence in the world we really inhabit. Each suggestion, however, came from the invited guests at the Symposium. Each was conceived in a mind or in a group of minds working together; so each already exists as a concept, and concepts (however bizarre or fanciful) have a way of transferring themselves from one medium to another, of stimulating action. One of the final contributions to the discussion was from Rhys Williams, who asked us to consider a further question on top of the ones that had structured the Symposium: how do you get involved? It’s a good question because it elicits many possible answers, most of which imply some specific action. What are the mechanics, the practical processes of involvement in building a Centre, and how do these processes differ depending on the conditions that affect each individual or group of people in the fantasy community (geography, economics, time, health and energy levels, skills, gender or sexuality, culture, socio-political point of view)? How do you get involved? One way is by taking part in this discussion, perhaps through comments on this blog post or through emails to one of its organizers (Dimitra Fimi, Matt Sangster, Rhys Williams or myself). But there will be kinds and methods of involvement none of us has yet thought of, in the Symposium or elsewhere.
We look forward to discovering them, with your help.
List of Participants in the Glasgow Symposium for Fantasy and the Fantastic
Mariana Rios Maldonado
Francesca Tristan Barbini
Theo Van Heijnsbergen
Aslı Bülbül Candaş
[This is the penultimate post reflecting on the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic. It summarises the thoughts of the afternoon workshop at that event, and together with the final post (forthcoming in a few days) points the way forward to the formation of a Glasgow Centre of Fantasy and the Fantastic. At the same time this particular post can stand on its own as a consideration of fantasy as a catalyst for action. Thanks to all the remarkable people whose thoughts fed into it.]
The Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic was conceived by my colleague Dimitra Fimi as a way of taking the first steps towards establishing a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. That would seem to be a clear statement of its objectives; but the terms I’ve just used deserve to be unpicked, and the desire itself, the desire to establish a Centre, needs to be explained. It’s not so easy to define fantasy, as many commentators have found. For me the word means the kind of fiction, the kind of films and paintings, music and TV shows and theatre and opera, even the kind of architecture I’m drawn to. I know it when I see it. I can feel its pull from inside the covers of a book I’ve picked off the shelves of a second-hand bookshop as I flick through the pages and spot some reference to magic, or an apparition, or a metamorphosis, or a country – preferably a world – that doesn’t exist. But not everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that all the things I’ve just listed are definitive of fantasy, and if we are to have a discussion on the topic, a conversation across disciplines and practices and cultures and art forms, we need to know what we’re talking about, have some sense that it is more or less the same thing.
A Centre, too, is an uncertain concept. Many Centres have no physical location at all (though a Centre for Fantasy should surely be located somewhere: in a forest or an abandoned building or on a threshold of some kind – a doorway, a railway tunnel, a piece of furniture – since place nearly always plays a crucial role in fantastic works of art). I know what I mean when I say ‘Centre’: it’s a term that pulls things to it much as fantasy pulls me, attracting people and funding and activities and resources; a term that insists on the existence of a community, however scattered and diverse, with a common objective, who will come together physically or virtually from time to time to share their knowledge, their experiences, their ‘arts’ (in the widest and most inventive sense of the word). But what a Centre is varies widely, even in the context of the University of Glasgow, and there is an astonishingly wide range of models for the way it might function and the things it might make happen.
To understand what a Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic might be and do, then, it was clearly necessary to hear from the community that could potentially make it up. So Dimitra applied to Arts Lab – the organization responsible for supporting research and researchers in the College of Arts at Glasgow – and obtained funding to bring together a representative cross-section of such a community: writers, artists, ecologists, IT experts, scientists, students, fans, academics from many disciplines, editors, publishers, activists, educators, theatre people, musicians, circus performers, witches, talking animals and mythical beasts of all stripes and hues. She invited them to a day-long meeting in the recently refurbished Kelvin Hall. And she asked them questions related to the ones I’ve just been asking: What does Fantasy do? How does it work? What should a Fantasy Centre do? But the format of the Symposium affected the delegates’ answers, so I should start by explaining what the format was.
In the morning, attendees who wished to speak (not all of them did) were asked to introduce themselves in a series of ten-minute presentations – so-called ‘lightning talks’ summing up their fantasy-related activities – so that everyone would know who they were dealing with. Then came lunch and mingling; and in the afternoon a workshop in two parts, one addressing the questions of what fantasy does and how it does it, the other considering the potential functions of our putative Centre. The day ended with a talk from one of the most significant thinkers and activists on the part of fantasy: the writer, artist, musician, editor, performer, mentor and catalyst Terri Windling. After all, who better than a polymath to bring together the concerns of the diverse community which met that day? Who better than this inspirational orator to send us out into the world determined to act on what we’d been discussing?
And afterwards? What would happen next? That’s where we are now: at the stage of drafting the application to the University of Glasgow for Centre status. But before we set about that task in earnest we thought it important to leave some record of what happened that day. We began that record with a series of blog posts from individual attendees – representative samples of what was said in the ‘lightning’ talks that morning (the first is here). And now comes a summary of the two-part afternoon workshop – a trickier thing altogether, since all we have to go on are the sometimes cryptic notes taken by volunteers from each of the smaller groups who discussed each topic in a huddled knot before sharing their findings with the Symposium at large.
How to convert these notes into something more or less coherent? Or is coherence precisely what we should avoid: a trap that seeks to impose shape and unity on something dynamic, rendering it lifeless, inauthentic, ineffectual? ‘We murder to dissect’, said Wordsworth, a saying that joins itself in my mind with Keats’s ‘Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold Philosophy?’ and Pope’s ‘Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?’ as three fine expressions of resistance to analysis (though the last is more about expending excessive effort on a thing of no consequence, which is equally applicable to a discussion of the fantastic). But analysis is what I do – making coherent and logical narratives as best I can out of knotty, perplexing or fragmentary texts – and I choose here to reduce the notes to a continuous story, risking as I do so falsifying the meaning of the note-takers, but also hoping to turn them into something of a blueprint for action.
Action, after all, was at the heart of the questions we asked at the workshop. We asked the delegates not ‘what is fantasy?’ but ‘what does it do, what is it for?’ and afterwards, ‘how does it do what it does?’ – all of which presuppose the concept’s essential dynamism, its continuous reinvention of itself and redirection of its energies. As I’ve indicated above, each workshop of forty-odd people was divided into groups of varying sizes, each with a designated annotator. Each annotator chose to record the group’s deliberations in a different way; with a mind map, placing the questions in the centre of the page with ideas raying outwards from them at the end of sinuously curving arrows; with neat lists of mostly single words running down the page from top to bottom; using bullet points or numbers and more or less complete sentences; with scattered phrases or terms peppering the paper, as darts pepper holes across a dartboard. They also used different inks – black, blue, red, green – and I found myself wondering if this was significant. The choice of layout certainly affected the way I read the notes, and this suggests it may have reflected different approaches to the discussion.
The first list I’m looking at now, for instance, made up of mostly single words, suggests that fantasy is for the following:
sense of wonder and beauty
inspiration for creative skills
My favourite entry here is ‘food – tastier’, a phrase that invokes the central role played by eating in fantasy narratives while heaping shame on the head of writers who can think of nothing more palatable than ‘stew’ to serve their characters (see Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land for the lashings of ‘stew’ that get consumed in the less inventive fantasy fictions).
The final term, meanwhile, ‘recovery’, summons up Tolkien’s notion (as expressed in his famous Essay on Fairy Stories) that fantasy helps us to regain the sense of encountering things for the very first time and giving them names. For him, recovery takes us back to the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; seeing the world afresh, discovering its contents, tasting them, so to speak, with an unjaded palate (which takes us back to food); and these experiences are linked to the genre’s invocation of a ‘sense of wonder and beauty’, one of the other entries in the list. ‘Wonder’ is, for me, a little different from recovery, because it doesn’t involve naming or even recognition. It’s the state of astonishment, of the temporary suspension of one’s intellectual assumptions and linguistic faculties in favour of raw emotion and intense curiosity, with which one encounters something wholly unexpected or utterly absorbing – something that takes one out of oneself; the moment before one attempts to categorize, name, or explain the thing encountered (though one can sometimes think, I believe, in a state of wonder). ‘Escapism’ could be said to be the impulse that leads one to seek out a state of wonder in the first place. It’s a turning away from everyday stresses, perplexities and dullnesses, and has often been seen as a way of evading responsibility – though Tolkien saw it as a liberation from oppression, a freeing of one’s mind from entrapments of various kinds, from presuppositions and rooted prejudices, from limiting narratives about the world and about oneself and one’s narrow range of socially prescribed obligations and duties. The phrase ‘role modeling’ was perhaps the most unusual entry in the list, for me; it made me think of how fantasy can provide alternative roles for readers to imagine their way into, to be inspired by, and I like the implication of diversity in the term, the suggestion that there are many more roles available to make models of besides that of Joseph Campbell’s monomythical male hero. A role model, too, implies action, even as a sense of wonder reminds us of the moment before action is taken, or as recovery gifts us with the possibility of thinking afresh about the terms on which we’ll base our actions. Given that fantasy is often said to be about retelling familiar stories, these terms insist that the process of making them new is the thing that matters; and as a quester after fantasy and the fantastic I have to concur. I have no interest in fantasies that simply retread old paths; there has to be something new about them, on the level of language or style, or on the level of concept, form or plot.
At the same time, in the answers provided by this first group in response to the second question, ‘What is fantasy for?’, the past loomed large:
Take you on a journey
‘Provide history’ and ‘Rewrite history’ head the list, followed by ‘Representation’ – perhaps an extension of the concept of role models, though with greater stress on what role models might be used to do – that is, to represent people and ideas which have not been adequately represented elsewhere or by other means. Then come ‘Explore fears/hopes/desires’, ‘Take you on a journey’, both of which insist on physical or metaphorical movement through time and space; while the final category, ‘Suspended reality’, seems to pick up on many people’s central assumption about fantasy: that it takes place in an environment where the ‘real’ world and its rules are being in some way held in abeyance. This might take us back to the way history was described in those first two entries, as something that needs to be ‘provided’, suggesting that it has not yet been ‘provided’ in the way that fantasy provides it; an idea which is reinforced by the second entry in the list, the statement that fantasy rewrites history, offers a different version of it, perhaps from a new perspective or with a different emphasis, which gives it a new trajectory or shape. Each of the entries on this list implies that fantasy deals with our world even as it alters it. Reality cannot be suspended without drawing attention to the reality or rules that have been set aside; history cannot be rewritten without invoking the familiar history from which it diverges. Fantasy is firmly rooted in the here and now even as it turns away to reimagine the past or take us to non-existent places.
The same group went on to indicate how fantasy achieves these things, and again the annotator chose to record the group’s findings in the form of a list. Again some of the entries entail familiar concepts, others less familiar ones:
address fundamental questions of human existence
transcend experience (lack of restriction by ‘normal’ rules)
viewing reality from outside
The phrase ‘uncanny valley’ refers to an idea first advanced by Masahiro Mori concerning a series of robots which are designed to resemble human beings to an ever increasing degree. The closer the resemblance between machine and human being, the more positive the human reaction to the machine becomes – that is, up to a certain point, when the closeness of the resemblance suddenly becomes unsettling and the human begins to find the robot deeply repulsive. This experience of revulsion continues until the robot is redesigned to resemble humans more closely still, when at a certain point human responses to the machine start to become more positive again. The period of revulsion at the robot’s imperfect duplication of human appearance is known as the ‘uncanny valley’, and explanations of the emotional response it provokes range from the idea that we find certain levels of resemblance threatening to our sense of identity, either as a person or as a species, to the association of ‘wrongness’ in a person’s looks with disease and the risk of infection. Once you know what uncanny valley is and where it lies, its position at the head of the list of answers to the question how does fantasy do what it does makes perfect sense. The ‘experiment’ which comes next on the list might involve various tests of the responses of writer and reader to imitations of the familiar world, with its ‘“normal” rules’ and authorized history, which vary from it to one degree or another, generating emotions that range from wonder and delight to fear and loathing, and underlining or generating the ‘moral quandaries’ or ‘fundamental questions’ which arise from, or are focused by, the variations they introduce (what would the possession of magic powers, for instance, do to an individual’s personality? How might the presence of those magic powers affect the structure of a community?). Each variation, once it becomes to some degree ‘naturalized’ to the writer or reader in the course of the narrative, can briefly give them the sense of viewing the real world ‘from outside’ as they emerge from the different world they’ve visited, and hence either of recovering that real world, in Tolkien’s sense, or of transforming it; this, at least, is what the final entry on the list suggests to me. It’s more complicated than making the other familiar, since fantasy often depends on retaining the sense of strangeness and newness from beginning to end; and it’s more complicated than estranging us from the world we live in, since fantasy also often depends on retaining that sense of nostalgic familiarity with which everyday scenes and actions are invested, even while sounding a note of otherness (the faery Note that haunts Nathaniel Chanticleer in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, the horns of Elfland heard by C S Lewis and W B Yeats). The list helps mark out the complications in each of its individual entries by juxtaposing them with other entries that affect or modify familiar concepts by their presence nearby.
Other groups came up with different ideas of what fantasy does and how it does it. The group whose thoughts were annotated in the form of a mind-map, for instance, seemed concerned to avoid the sort of hierarchy of importance that a list can imply; and accordingly it chose to resist being pinned down in terms of definitions and assumptions. For this group, one of fantasy’s functions was to ‘Make us ask: “what is fantasy?” and engage with “genre” as a concept’, and so to ‘engage with history/traditions/categorizations of fantasy’. These processes of self-contemplation are dynamic and continuous, so that the ‘inability to define [or delimit] fantasy is fantasy’, since the fantastic resists the state of closure or inertia which definition entails. The Mind Map Group also introduced a new concept which is only partly analogous to the notion of ‘experiment’ mentioned by the Group of Lists: that fantasy plays. The term ‘play’ implies trying things out in a light-hearted way, without overmuch concern for consequences; there may well be rules involved but these can be set aside or changed at the player’s whim. No one takes play excessively seriously, which means that it can turn attention to serous things without getting bogged down by them or by a single attitude to them. Play is always flexible, transformative, lighthearted – or better still, light (and I’m thinking here of Italo Calvino’s essay on lightness in Six Essays for the Next Millennium). These are qualities which the upholders of rules can sometimes find threatening, even dreadful – and play can go too far, turn sour, go bad, a possibility which is also often explored in fantastic narratives.
The Mind Map Group also insisted on the interactive nature of the act of reading fantasy. ‘Cultural differences influence reception’, it asserted, so that (for instance) what seems impossible to readers in the Netherlands might seem entirely possible for those in Argentina, Nigeria, Iceland or Japan. For this group, in fact, fantasy dissolves hard and fast distinctions or ‘boundaries’ of all kinds: between possibility and impossibility, reality and unreality, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the self and the other. At the same time, fantasy needs internal coherence; it ‘has to be real enough to immerse you. Fantastic worlds have RULES’, which enable them to test out ‘magic systems/social systems’ (and does the slash imply that magic systems are always a way of exploring social systems?). Asking how fantasy performs all these feats seems for this group to have elicited just one core idea – ‘Using fantastic mythos to do these things (e.g. dragons)’ – though this may well be because I’m misreading the mind-map.
Another group that used lists – though much messier ones, and expressed in terms of sentences or phrases rather than single terms – came up with more new concepts. Asked what fantasy does, the Messy Group replied, like the Group of Lists, that it’s an ‘exploratory tool’; and they added that while it can ‘reinforce the symbolism of mythology’ it can also engage ‘in salvage/détournement/appropriation (of past/myth/fairy tale/story etc.)’. So far so familiar. But for this group, one of fantasy’s primary functions is to ‘make communities’, through music and theatre (or like music and theatre, which are mostly communal activities). Another is to ‘enable the reader to live vicariously’ and hence potentially to ‘transform the reader’. The notion of transformation pointed the Messy Group towards another of fantasy’s functions, that of self-care – another meaning of ‘recovery’; and this was followed by a more sinister transformation: ‘sometimes you need spoons to make shivs’. For me this repurposing of a domestic tool suggested that the ordinary and everyday can provide the means for unexpected, violent action – perhaps as a way of escaping from prison (one of the functions Tolkien assigns to fairy stories in his famous essay) – and my thoughts turned to Michael de Larrabeiti’s YA fantasy series about class warfare in the 70s and 80s, The Borribles, whose protagonists often use shivs. But next on the list came a reference to ‘spoon theory,’ which gave the spoons a rather different significance. Spoon theory is a disability metaphor which refers to the ‘reduced amount of mental and physical energy available for activities of living and productive tasks as a result of disability or chronic illness’ (I’m adapting the Wikipedia entry). Spoons here are a way of metaphorically measuring that reduced amount of energy: each person is allotted only so many spoons in any given day, whose number will only be replenished when that person recharges, so to speak, by taking a rest, and as the group went on to indicate ‘there are only so many spoons to go around’ (and there’s a class connotation in this phrase: some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths, with the result that others are born with almost no spoons at all). In this way the group brought representations of class struggle, illness and disability into the discussion of fantasy’s functions. If fantasy is about transformation, and transformations are achieved through power, to emphasize the unequal distribution of power in your fantasy narrative can turn the fantasy genre itself into a tool for real social or political change. That’s something I’ll be pondering for quite some time, I think.
The Messy Group showed a special interest in the second question asked of the workshop: how does fantasy do things. As they responded to it the entries in their list got terser, though no less messy, at least in the way they were written down. Fantasy ‘changes the modality of sentences’ to achieve its effects (someone mentioned Samuel R Delany at this stage, and I thought of Delany’s statement that he is ‘forever delighted, then delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying, into seeing’). Fantasy, they went on, uses hesitation/deliberation, tricksterism, play, genre crunching, different media, ‘displacement to elsewhens’, and ‘nostalgic/archaic desiring’, which was for this group a way of ‘tracing origins’, taking things ‘back to their roots’. As an arsenal of literary tools to support its potential political applications that’s pretty formidable, though other groups added to it considerably, as we shall see.
A fourth group, whose note-taker favoured a red pen, chose to focus on the question of what fantasy does which can’t be done by other modes or mediums. ‘Why would someone use fantasy to do these things?’, the Red Pen Group inquired, and concluded that there might be different reasons for different audiences (and for different writers and artists too, of course). The answers grouped together under this heading included the notion that fantasy engages in ‘Historical thinking that isn’t history’, which ‘allows a kind of reflection that isn’t otherwise accessible’; that it ‘allows us to step outside to see in’; and that it ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world [about] history, gender, society’. In addition, fantasy ‘softens the grip of our rational minds, reconnecting with our bodies and imaginations and the irrational’; and offers ‘Consolation (distraction?) for impotence’, in politics and elsewhere. Most of these things, of course, could also be said of other genres. Other responses to the question of fantasy’s function offered by the Red Pen Group seemed more fantasy-specific. Among these were that it ‘reflects the structure of the world by abstracting away from inessentials’ – as realism does not; that it is iconogenic and mythopoeic, generating new raw material for our imagination to work on; and that it engages in a practice called ‘farfetching’ which involves ‘integrating distant or disparate ideas’ – a process that picks up on its interest in genre-crunching, as mentioned by one of the other groups, but also implies a great deal more. On reflection, these activities too are not unique to fantasy, apart perhaps from mythopoeia, the making of myths. Does this mean that nothing is, I wonder? If so, does it matter? I’ve sometimes thought that fantasy does what all fiction does, but more intensely, in a more exaggerated and self-aware fashion, since it calls attention to its status as fiction through the manifest impossibilities it peddles. Interestingly, however, neither this group nor any other had recourse to the term ‘impossible’ in their answers – though the idea that fantasy ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world’ comes interestingly close.
Looking through the responses from other groups adds further new responses to the question of what fantasy does. The group whose notes were peppered across the page (the Pepper Group, I’ll call them) proposed that fantasy is for ‘nothing and therefore everything’ – a phrase which I’d suggest comes very close to stating exactly what makes fantasy different, since the term ‘fantasy’ is so often used to refer to something so detached from reality that it has no value, and things of no value can do a great deal without being noticed (see under ‘play’ above). The Pepper Group also noted that fantasy ‘unites different storytelling traditions’, which is something a little different from genre crunching. I’m reading Charles de Lint’s Moonheart at the moment, which combines stories from European ‘Celtic’ cultures with stories from the cultures of the aboriginal peoples of North America, and this seems perfectly to illustrate the group’s perceptions, as does Tolkien’s fusion of Finnish and Old English material, or Lewis’s combination of Northern European and Mediterranean mythology. The question of the purpose of these combinations of different storytelling traditions, of what they do, is well worth asking; in the case of de Lint it’s to draw attention to the sometimes violent clash of cultures which is at the core of 1980s Canadian society, but as the Red Pen Group suggested there will be different answers in different contexts. The same group suggested that fantasy ‘brings dreams to life’ – which was implied by the Red Pen Group, though not explicitly stated – and that it is fundamentally intermedial, transferring its subject matter from one vehicle to another – from literature to video, comic, painting, game and song – just as Erasmus once said of the expert rhetorician, who ‘pours’ the same subject matter from one stylistic receptacle to the next, from verse to prose, from public speech to private letter to reported conversation between friends. The Pepper Group also suggested that fantasy is rhizomatic, meaning that it connects things in a non-hierarchical way – a philosophy better suited to representation by a mind-map or a peppering technique, perhaps, than by orderly lists. I’d be curious to test this notion of the rhizome or root-system as an organizational principle for fantasy at my leisure; it seems to me to apply quite well to the formal techniques of Terry Pratchett, or George R R Martin, or Ellen Kushner, each of whom uses multiple points of view to build their worlds with, though it may apply to other fantasy texts in ways I’ve not thought of (Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao suddenly comes to mind, a book that has no central character, not even the impresario of the title, but which structures itself around visits by different people to the various tents of Dr Lao’s cavalcade; or Ursula Le Guin’s utopian miscellany Always Coming Home).
The group that recorded its findings in bright green ink added ‘mental acrobatics’ to the notion of play, and confirmed fantasy’s interest in intertextuality and metafiction by aligning it with ‘postmodernism and stuff’. But the Green Ink Group also introduced the new idea of the absences or lacunae in fantasy narratives. Fantasy, the group suggested, supplies its consumers with unfinished landscapes, leaving ‘gaps’ in them that we’re not necessarily expected to fill. This led the group to the phrase explored by Marita Arvaniti in her recent blog post: ‘fantasy exists badly’. I wonder if this means that the holes or gaps in fantasy narratives – the logical leaps and glaring omissions with which they’re filled – make it essential for their readers to use their own active imaginations to make up for what’s left out? If so, then the statement that we’re not necessarily expected to ‘fill’ those gaps stands out in sharp relief. We notice and condone them, we assume that there’s something that explains them or occupies that space, but filling in lacunae implies a methodical response which is precisely the reverse of what many readers want from the fantastic. One could call these readers’ refusal to engage in the filling-in process a preference for mystification, ignorance or deliberate self-deception; but one could equally call it a willingness not to let speculation be held back by petty details, and a corresponding affection for radical difference and epic transformations, things that can only be achieved by setting aside the question of exactly how those transformations might be brought about. I’m reminded here of John Martin’s giant paintings of impossible scenes, whose different parts are cut loose from each other by vast abysses implied through patches of obscurity, or by juxtapositions in each picture of scenes on radically different scales whose relationship to one another is only ever implied, not made clear on the canvas. The disengagement of the various sections of each painting from one another is precisely what makes them so disorienting, so exhilarating to look at. I apologize to the group if this is not what they had in mind, but let my response to the phrase ‘fantasy exists badly’ stand as an indication – through the gap or lacuna it represents – of the fruitfulness of the concept.
The Green Ink Group was much concerned with tensions – between formula and freedom, between new and old – as well as with fantasy’s preoccupation with allusion and cross-reference. For them, fantasy is always in ‘conversation with other books and itself and the mythosphere’, the latter phrase invoking the constantly changing common pool of stories on which narrators draw. These ideas, too, support the idea that ‘fantasy exists badly’, since they imply that it is always drawing attention to its own artifice. The Green Ink Group summed up this tendency in an invented term, ‘intermetaparatextuality’, which speaks for itself; and its list concluded with the fine observations that fantasy ‘creates immersion in the face of artifice’ – that is, that we find ourselves absorbed in it even as we get startled into noting its references to other narratives of similar kinds, or its unsettling gaps – and that fantasy thus assists at ‘the birth of the reader’. This final point highlights the fact that the Green Ink Group was almost entirely concerned with the relationship between reader and fantasy text, since the reader plays an active role in shaping fantasy through her willingness to condone absences, recognize allusions, engage in conversations with the real world, yet to be immersed or re-immersed in what she’s reading all the same. There’s a challenge here to Tolkien’s idea, as expressed in his essay on Fairy Stories, that what he calls ‘secondary belief’ involves a total imaginative commitment on the part of the reader to the world created by the writer, for as long as she’s reading. If this were true, Terry Pratchett’s books would be fantastic failures, riddled as they are with allusions to the ‘real’ world we inhabit, many in the form of footnotes or extended pastiche. Pratchett is always playfully un-immersing us, yet the reader freely re-immerses herself in his secondary world on each occasion, like a dolphin sporting in the waves. It’s the quality of lightness that makes this possible, and lightness is also (ironically) a quality that Tolkien possesses in abundance, and which he embodies in the lighthearted personalities of his hobbits.
The final group laid out their answers in a numbered list – I think so as to key in their responses to ‘what does fantasy do?’ to their responses to ‘how does fantasy do it?’. Time ran out, however, before they could provide all the ‘hows’. Their ‘whats’ yielded the following insights: that fantasy ‘makes visible the invisible’ (an idea that draws on the roots of the term in the Greek verb phantazein, to make visible); and that fantasy concerns itself with mirrors, windows and doors. The ‘hows’ expanded on that second idea, explaining that fantasy offers an ‘invitation to a place that’s different from where we are’, enabling us to ‘leave our troubles behind’, and that in this new place we feel able to ‘control time and space’; as a writer obviously, but perhaps also as a reader, given our capacity to manage the gaps in space, time and narrative which the writer leaves. Going back to the ‘whats’, the group claimed that fantasy ‘both feeds and feeds on our creativity’ in what it described as a ‘vicious circle’. And if this ‘what’ unsettlingly invokes the Elder Brother’s definition of evil in Milton’s Comus, something ‘self-fed and self-consumed’, bringing this group’s idea of fantasy close to horror, the last entry in their list of ‘whats’ introduced a comic element. Fantasy, the group concluded, is for ‘educating parents’, which they explained in the ‘hows’ as taking place when parents read fantasy books ‘and see the effects [of these] on their children’. One such effect is to ‘turn readers into writers’, eager to enjoy that apparently absolute mastery over time and space available to sub-creators (as Tolkien calls them in his essay). Fantasy, the group suggested, is often the first stimulus towards making that transition, and this is not surprising given its nature as imaginative play, and hence its close alliance to the stories children tell themselves as they manoeuvre their toys or the contents of their minds.
Looking through the workshop’s responses to the questions ‘what is fantasy for?’ and ‘How does it do it’?, one thing struck me quite forcibly: that none of the groups chose to state in so many words that it is about inventing secondary worlds. The Group of Numbers came close, with their statement that it gives us entry through its imagined doors and windows to ‘a place that’s different from where we are’, while the claim by the Group of Lists that fantasy ‘transcends experience (lack of restriction by “normal” rules)’ and ‘views reality from outside’ implies an exodus from the world we live in, as does the Red Pen Group’s insistence that it ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world’. The Mind Map Group’s statement that ‘Fantastic worlds have RULES’ asserts the existence of secondary worlds, although that group did not choose to emphasize the process of making those worlds, and their statement was in any case a ‘how’ to supplement the initial observation that fantasy ‘has to be real enough to immerse you’. For all groups in the workshop, the question of what fantasy is for was firmly rooted in the world we live in. This is inevitable, of course, from one point of view: even when fantasy is entirely set in a world quite different from our own we can never gain access to that world except by means of terms we understand, terms that enable us to compare its strange contents with familiar things, and hence bring its strangeness into the compass of the known. But our groups were strikingly insistent on fantasy’s impact on our own world, its transformative effect on that world’s human inhabitants. Our questions – what does it do, what is it for, how does it work – invited such a bias, of course; but the result was a set of observations that did what we hoped: provided the basis for a template for action. And the second part of our workshop aimed to give a focus or context for that action by asking what a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic might accomplish – what transformations it could bring about, what journeys embark on, what strange fellowships and conjunctions conjure up. That will be the subject of the final blog post on the Symposium.
[Today I learned that the following article has appeared in the Leverhulme Trust’s Annual Review for 2018. I thought I should make it available here, too, for the record!]
Only in recent years has fantasy emerged as a focus for serious research at university level. For decades after Tolkien revolutionized the book market in the 1960s, fantastic fiction tended to be tacked onto science fiction studies as an embarrassing afterthought, an outsize relative given to wearing vintage clothes and breaking into song at every opportunity. Then Harry Potter burst onto the scene, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies took the box office by storm, and all at once it seemed irresponsible not to pay attention to the art of the impossible. What was attracting young people in such numbers to places and beings that never existed and never could exist? What cultural and political needs did fantasy fulfil? As academics began to ask these questions with increasing urgency, they found that a major scholar had been steadily building up a theoretical framework to help answer them, from his first monograph, The Fantastic Tradition in American Literature, to his seminal book Strategies of Fantasy, which identified the genre as a ‘fuzzy set’ with Tolkien’s works at the centre and a huge variety of imaginative narratives at the peripheries. Attebery also edited the foremost journal in the field, the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. Thanks in large measure to Attebery, fantasy was already embedded in the academy, ready to function as a vast new lens through which to examine our past, present and future.
This year, Attebery has come as Leverhulme Visiting Professor of Fantasy to the University of Glasgow, home of the world’s first graduate programme exclusively dedicated to the fantastic. He has given us five public lectures on subjects from fairy tales to fantasy’s take on global warming. He has taken part in discussions to found a Centre for Fantasy here in Glasgow. He has visited, or plans to visit, six other universities, from Dundee to Cambridge, where he is giving further lectures and workshops. He will deliver [has delivered!] the keynote address at our annual conference, GIFCon. And he’s been talking to young researchers, preparing the ground for the construction of a growing edifice of fantasy studies on this side of the Atlantic, as he did at home. Attebery is a builder as well as an analyst of imaginative worlds, and he is in the process of transforming the academic landscape in Scotland and beyond.
[The sixth blog post from the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic is by Noel Chidwick, Co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Editor of the Edinburgh-based magazine and hub of wider SFF activities Shoreline of Infinity (firstname.lastname@example.org, www.shorelineofinfinity.com). Thanks to him for supplying a post that opens up the discussion to widerhorizons…]
The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic is an exciting prospect, and as editor of Shoreline of Infinity SF magazine, it was a privilege to be involved in the Symposium and present our case.
Why Create a Science Fiction Magazine?
I’ve been a voracious reader and occasional writer of SF and fantasy since I was knee-high to an android goblin, and I’m partial to short fiction.
There really was only one science fiction magazine in the UK of note: Interzone. I’ve been a subscriber since it started, but when I read one issue I realised that all its story writers were from the USA.
In Scotland there had not been a science fiction magazine since Spectrum in 2003.
So where do UK science fiction writers submit their stories? Where do I get my fix of British short SF?
Shoreline of Infinity Science Fiction magazine began as an idea in Autumn 2014 when my co-founder Mark Toner and I mulled over this question.
We first met and became friends in the 1980s as astronomy postgrads at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, before we both moved into teaching in Further Education and building families. Since then, we have both built up a collection of skills, knowledge and interest to the point where we decided a science fiction magazine was the thing to do. Our children had moved on, we even had some time. The Nine Realms had converged.
We did some research, and we contacted a whole range of people – other SF readers, friends, writers, artists, bookshop owners – to see if our idea was worth pursuing, would anyone be interested in writing for it, reading it?
Oh yes, we were told.
We did the sums. We could fund it ourselves to get it started. We had the technical skills, so we built a website. I’ve co-edited a fanzine, a folk magazine and was a partner in a music indie press and I also taught graphic design and typesetting, so the editing was covered. Mark had become an artist and comic creator, so the artwork was covered.
What would our focus be? The title, Shoreline of Infinity, is perfect. It encapsulates exactly where the human race is: we’ve sauntered down to the beach, and now we’re peering out into the infinite and we’re wondering where the heck we go now – ideal fodder to feed the science fiction mind.
And we agreed, writers and artists must be paid. We could not pay pro rates, but we could pay something.
A Scottish Science Fiction Magazine?
This was every bit as important to us. Scotland is an outward reaching country, and a warm welcoming country. I can attest to the latter: I’ve lived here happily for 38 years.
The magazine must reflect that. We wanted writers from all over the world, both new and more well-known, and we wanted to make sure that Scottish writers were also well represented. We created a section of the magazine called SF Caledonia, where we explore the history of Scottish SF. I met up with journalist and writer Paul Cockburn, and he led me to a short SF story by John Buchan of all people. Meeting Paul over a green tea was one of the first of many meetings with a range of fascinating people who helped us on our way.
We opened for submissions in January 2015. Nothing happened for a week. Then we received our first story, Clean up on Deck Seven by Claire Simpson. We loved it. We relaxed slightly.
Over the coming weeks we received nearly two hundred submissions from all over the world – not bad for a cold start. We read every single one – including the ones set in US High Schools. We read them, waiting for SF to happen: alien abduction? Time Traveller? Zombie apocalypse? Nope. High School romance, every blooming one. We re-edited our submission webpage to read: “we want science fiction stories that are science fictional with elements of science fiction integral to the science fiction stories we want in this science fiction magazine.” It helped.
We contacted publishers who were more than obliging in sending us books for review. Charles Stross agreed to do an interview.
Our confidence grew. Mark put out a call for artists, and work began on illustrating the stories. Word got round: our Twitter and Facebook followers increased. We began to receive emails asking: can I help? Folk offered their copy editing skills. Monica Burns, a postgrad student, joined us as an artist who also had copy editing skills and an interest in historical Scottish SF – Monica was appointed as SF Caledonia editor. And along came Russell Jones, who joined us as as we were putting Issue 1 together. He helped us with story selection and editing. He was the first SF Poet I have met, and so he became Poetry Editor, and Multiverse – our SF poetry section – began in Issue 2. We found a Reviews Editor in Iain Maloney – a Scottish writer living in Japan. I ‘interviewed’ him over Skype one evening, and he was as delighted to join us as I was for him to become one of the Shoreline team.
As we approached publication day in July 2015 Russell asked what our plans were for launching Shoreline of Infinity. We hadn’t thought much about that: back room of a pub?
Russell took control. He booked a suitably atmospheric venue, Paradise Palms, and pulled in some of his performance poet chums and an actor, Debbie Cannon, to read a story from Issue 1. Mark and I play in a prog-folk band with a catalogue of SF songs, so we provided the music. Russell decided to be an alien.
We had a great night, sold some magazines, but the main question was: when was the next event?
In just nine months we had moved from an idea shared by a couple of friends looking for a new challenge in life, to a room full of excited SF fans wanting more.
Where Are We?
Shoreline of Infinity is read world wide. Although we still need to work on our readership numbers, it has attracted the award last year from the British Fantasy Society for best periodical, so we must be doing something right.
Our greatest achievement is the people who have joined us from far and wide to help us with the magazine and our other projects, and who volunteer their time and skills to help produce it.
This great bunch of folk have already created a lot under the Shoreline of Infinity umbrella. So far we have produced:
15 issues of the magazine
2 special issues
1 anthology of Shoreline stories
Multiverse, edited by Rachel Plummer and Russell Jones – an anthology of international science fiction poetry
Republished Starfield, edited by Duncan Lunan – a collection of iconic Scottish SF stories
Event Horizon: live monthly science fiction cabaret style events. Russell Jones directs and MCs these, and we have held Event Horizons for the Edinburgh Book Festival, Edinburgh Science Festival (twice) and for SF Conventions. We’ve run 42 Event Horizons to date.
Infinitesimals: audio dramas scripted performed and recorded from the original stories published in Shoreline of Infinity. Infinitesimals is headed up by Jonathan Whiteside and Debbie Cannon, and supported by a wonderful cast of Edinburgh actors.
Soundwave: our stunning new podcast, of readings, dramas, music and interviews. RJ Bayley joined us to produce and host this.
And we’re told we are one of the reasons why we have Scotland’s first sf, fantasy and horror festival of writing, Cymera, taking place in a month’s time.
Currently, we are working on building the Shoreline of Infinity Group. This is a cooperative for creatives who want to deploy Science Fiction and Fantasy to tell their stories in their chosen art forms. The idea is for them to work together to support each other’s projects either for themselves or under the banner of Shoreline of Infinity.
We began with just the idea of a quarterly SF magazine. Now we are talking on the Janice Forsyth show (okay, once) and last week we held a science fiction art exhibition at the Scottish Parliament with the aim of raising the profile of science fiction in Scotland.
Scotland’s roots are buried deep in its history, in its mythologies and in its stories. Scotland also has its eyes on the future: not one, but two proposed spaceports. We’re finally looking beyond the shoreline of infinity.
The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic is proposing to combine research with reaching out to the creative community. Hopefully Shoreline of Infinity can play a part working with the Centre to help connect with the wider world.
[The fifth blog post from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic 2019 is by Jen Porath, originally from Tecumseh, Michigan, and now completing a PhD on storytelling at the University of Glasgow. The other posts in the series can be found in the category ‘Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic 2019’.]
One definition of Fantasy is as follows: the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things. From the perspective of a storyteller this is a thrilling concept, as it brings the realm of the uncanny valley into sharp focus and brings the world of creativity along for the ride. It is our greatest tool, fantasy. It allows us to see the impossible and make it real in the realm of words, pictures, movies, and cartoons. It is both foundation and building material for all we need as creators of our worlds and has fostered and called forward a group of people who wish to see this idea of the impossible made real and grow. So, an offering from a storyteller to you, dear reader; a glimpse into the Symposium of Fantasy and the Fantastic.
The world gathered and the pause that followed hinted at magic, the wondrous, and the fantastic. Then time rolled forward, and the spell was cast as the first presenter took the stage. We were crowded into a room filled to the brim with people curious and wanting to engage, not knowing what would become of them or how they would be transformed by the end of the Symposium. But fear not, dear reader, for it was once said by J.R.R Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost”.
The assembly at the Fantasy and Fantastic Symposium consisted of Professors, Sci-Fi magazine Creators, Environmental Activists, Writers, Bards, Researchers and Students, who want to help foster, create, and share the world of Fantasy. Various cultures and backgrounds from around the globe, all gathered in Glasgow. It was a showcase for what could be accomplished if given the breathing room and a space to interact with those from within and outside of the academy. It was, from my point of view, a delight, and a warm and welcoming feeling to be embraced into this discussion so whole-heartedly.
The presentations given at the Symposium both celebrated and informed the gathering. The topics ranged from the environment to online resources to sexuality and its representation in Fantasy, giving us a brief glimpse of how the narrative in the genre has changed. If anything, this Symposium enforced the idea that the study and understanding of fantasy in academia, literature, and on a larger research scale is welcomed, and wonderfully embraced by people all over. Many were curious about a picturebook involving aliens and a cat. Nearly wordless, it was a perfect example of a storyteller’s delight.
This Symposium also connected people within the University of Glasgow. A teambuilding exercise took place after a break for lunch. The written idea of what is needed – what does fantasy mean to us, how does it act, what does it do, why is it needed – was debated in small groups. An interest in bringing new people into the fold, celebrating new authors and other branches of fantasy, was expressed. Inclusion and exchange were ideas brought up by many groups. The recognition of the need for accepting the world at large and bringing in those who are curious about fantasy was warming to hear. There is no need to hide in the shadows, lurking away from the public eye when it comes to the increasing passion to embrace the world of the fantastic. There was a general sense of needing to let others know that they are welcomed into this genre. Both students and professors had an amazing chance to exchange ideas, talk about their interests, and plan for future ideas. Our shared understanding of how to move forward with the collection of creative ideas to make something more will lead, we hope, to an archive to be drawn on for the teaching of fantasy and the fantastic.
When the sun started to set on the day, and the winds rolled low, esteemed author Terri Windling gave parting words in her Keynote speech, encouraging us to wonder, to cling to fantasy, to create and to build upon the world through our amazement at its wonders and through our embracing of its darkness. Having never outgrown the world of fantasy, Terri was able to deliver this message to us, her audience. As a storyteller myself, Terri’s words rang loud and clear. Her poise and grace, as she talked to us about what inspired her and how she became a writer, was profound.
As Jonathan Gottschall said, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories”. I firmly believe this applies to the Symposium and the future that will unfold from the collaborative creativity that came from it. And so, dear reader, what stories will you tell next? They can be fantastic, they can be sad, they can be grand, funny… whatever we wish, because we are storytellers. So, again: what stories will wetell next?