Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany, The Story of Mona Sheehy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phoenix Monument, Dublin

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

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

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

Cathleen Ni Houlihan on stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mullingar Asylum (St Loman’s Hospital)

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

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

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

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

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

Mercedes-Benz W 154, 1939

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

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

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

1939 advertisement

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

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

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

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

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

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

1939 advertisement

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

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

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

Slievenamon Mountain, Co. Tipperary

Books Cited

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany’s Irish Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunsany Castle, Co. Meath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books Cited

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946). Part 2: Drawings

Quest for Sita, p. 105

Understanding the text of Maurice Collis’s Quest for Sita as the work of an Irish nationalist enables one to read it in political terms (see the previous post for details). But what of the drawings that accompany Collis’s narrative? Peake’s association with Ireland came through his wife, Maeve Gilmore, whose father was an Irish Catholic doctor; but Peake’s politics were those of an artist, whose work is to represent the world with fidelity to his own artistic vision, in defiance of the many pressures – financial, cultural, personal, political – to adapt their style in response to the latest fashion or movement.[1] Could his drawings in Quest for Sita be understood as a commentary on the problem of this kind of fidelity to one’s vision in the 1940s, when illusions of many kinds, from propaganda to more insidious kinds of indoctrination, competed for attention with accurate representations of people, things, ideas and feelings as the artist saw them? Collis describes the pictures as ‘a quest of [Peake’s] own to show Sita to us’ (p. vii), and the impression this gives is that ‘showing’ Sita is a process fraught with difficulty.[2] The puzzling nature of Peake’s drawings confirms this impression, not least because it’s not easy to be sure what some of them show. Thinking about them may give a number of clues as to why he chose to offer them as puzzles rather than as a simple visual response to Collis’s text.

Mervyn Peake, Mr Hyde (1948)

As Peter Winnington has pointed out, Peake’s pictures diverge from Collis’s text on many occasions, some of them not even referring to an identifiable incident or character in the adjacent pages.[3] This can’t, I think, be said of his illustrations for other publications, all of which testify to a meticulous close reading of the texts they embellish. Peake explains why he reads so carefully in a talk on ‘Book Illustration’, first given for the BBC radio show ‘As I See It’ in 1947. After embarking on a study of the major illustrators, Peake tells us – the Englishmen Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Hogarth and Blake, the Frenchman Doré, the German Dürer and Goya, the Spaniard:

I began to realize that these men had more than a good eye, a good hand, a good brain. These qualities were not enough. Nor was their power as designers, as draughtsmen. Even passion was not enough. Nor was compassion, nor irony. All this they must have, but above all things there must be the power to be identified with author, character, and atmosphere, the power to slide into another man’s soul. A new and hectic art seemed to have been opened up to me; a new world.[4]

There is something unsettling about the italicized phrase with which this passage climaxes, the power to slide into another man’s soul; a hint at demonic possession that perhaps explains why so many of Peake’s finest illustrating projects involve dark magic, or the suspicion of magic – his images for Christina Hole’s Witchcraft in England (1945), for instance, or Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1948), or Dorothy Haynes’s Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1949). The unsettling tone is taken up by the phrase he uses to describe book illustration, a ‘hectic art’ – hectic often being used to describe out-of-control activity, especially the behaviour and appearance of a fever victim (sufferers from tuberculosis are often said to possess a ‘hectic beauty’). And Quest for Sita, in which a person may well be very different from what they appear – and identities are always available to be changed, as Ravana’s very nearly is by his admiration for his captive – makes the possibility of being possessed by someone else, sliding into another person’s soul, or being gripped by a fever of desire, uncomfortably real. Moreover, in the central portion of the book sliding into the ‘soul’ of the author is a complicated task, since the author is both the Irishman Maurice Collis and the Sanskrit poet Valmiki, from whose text he adapts his version of the Ramayana. It’s striking, then, that Peake chooses only to illustrate this central portion; the part of the text where magic is most active, illusions are omnipresent, and beings from the Three Worlds (earthly, divine, infernal) interact openly with one another, as they do not in the frame narrative. Peake is concerned solely with Swallow’s adventures as Sita, the dream sequence (as Collis presents it) when Swallow is occupying the body of the legendary princess. Sita’s body in this central section of the text is always under threat, in danger of being replaced with the body of Ravana’s sister, Surpanakha, in Rama’s bed, or of having Ravana replace Rama in her own. She is seized and subjected to successive spells of illusion and psychological coercion by the Demon King, his guards and his enchanters. Sita’s identity itself, in fact, is under siege – not just by Ravana but also by Rama, who disbelieves her assertions of her own constancy – while the identity of the demons who abduct her is even more unstable than hers. Peake’s drawings visualize this predicament, which explains why they are so unlike conventional illustrations.

Peake’s drawings are executed with exemplary control, as they had to be, given the simplicity of the drawing style he chose for them. Peter Winnington describes Peake’s three principal drawing styles in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art:

his illustrations […] fall into three groups. In the first […] the illustrations are based on a single line, drawn with pen and ink, that outlines or silhouettes objects, without recourse to shading or cross-hatching. […] The second group […] is characterized by cross-hatching. […] Works in the third group […] were executed with a brush rather than a pen.[5]

From ‘Just a Line’

The drawings in Quest for Sita fall into the first group: pen and ink work based on a single line unsupported by cross-hatching. And as Winnington points out, it’s among the most ‘spare and economical’ examples of this group, where the ‘continuous thin line endows the space that it encloses with an extraordinary sense of three-dimensional volume and weight’, so that the ‘figures have a sculpturesque fullness and roundness at the same time as an ethereal beauty’, but with ‘nothing of the cold perfection of marble’. Peake never in fact uses a single continuous line in the book – one can easily identify the places where the artist must have lifted his nib from the paper to execute a new line – but Winnington is right in saying that this is frequently the impression these drawings give. The restless curving movements of the pen, the sinuousness of the trail it leaves behind, endow the apparently continuous line of ink with a metamorphic quality which perfectly suits the tale of Sita’s abduction. A few years after completing this commission Peake expressed his delight in the metamorphic possibilities hidden in a continuous line of ink by producing sketches for a never-realized television cartoon called Just a Line (early 1950s), about a straight line that yearns to achieve the sorts of sculpturesque effects with which the Quest for Sita is filled. ‘Sometimes I feel quite frantic,’ the line exclaims at one point, ‘when I think what I might be’ – such as a ‘wonderful land full of strange shapes and sounds and peculiar creatures and broken statues’, perhaps Collis’s India.[6] Liberated from its straightness the line would be able to transform itself into anything it likes, from a tiny mouse to an imaginary landscape, and the impression of continuousness put across by Peake’s serpentine lines in Quest for Sita suggests that they could undergo just as many transformations at the will of the magician-artist. Each drawing can be understood as existing on the verge of becoming something else; and this impression is only enhanced by the reader’s uncertainty in many cases as to what exactly the images refer to in the text – if anything at all. This uncertainty transports the reader into the magic-filled world of the pre-Golden Age, so that we share Swallow’s uncertainty as to who she can trust, how she is to read the bodies that present themselves to her, and indeed, who she herself may be. The notion that each drawing may be controlled by a different personality in the text – sometimes Sita, often Ravana and his enchanters, sometimes perhaps even the great archer Rama, whose skills with another sort of line, his bowstring, are legendary – is reinforced by the thematic echoes that link picture to picture (extravagant headwear, the nudity of both male and female figures, the strange creatures they contain). Unlike the line in Peake’s projected cartoon, the line in these drawings is continually changing, and may be possessed by any number of souls at different points in the visual narrative.

Quest for Sita, p. 107

As I’ve just indicated, one of the ways in which Peake diverges from Collis’s text is to represent most of the male and female figures in the book as nudes, modeled sometimes on the sensuous nudes of Indian, Burmese or Indonesian sculpture in wood or stone (which Collis could have shown him), sometimes on the erotic line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, often on neither of these things. Each figure looks much like all the other figures of the same gender in the book, the women rounded and flexible, the men well muscled and angular, though some figures blur these gender distinctions, like the androgynous figure clutching a bird on p. 107. They have little or no context – only a little ground beneath their feet, sometimes supplemented with a few lines composing a background – to help us place them in the narrative. Stripped down to the basics, the figures wear headdresses whose extravagance is intensified by the blank spaces all around them and the nakedness of the figures they crown. Reminiscent of the towering royal headdress of South-East Asia known as the makuta, as I said in the previous post, none of these pieces is ever repeated between one picture and another. Each, then, could be taken to represent the current mood of its wearer: aggressive, sad and contemplative, sexually aroused, acquisitive, sly and so on. This is most vividly suggested by the claws that burgeon from Surpanakha’s crown as she performs her dance of seduction on p. 49, suggesting her predatory intentions towards the royal couple, or the daggers and pneumatic drill that spring from its apex when she takes on her monstrous true form on p. 51, just before launching her attack on Sita. The complicated ornamentation on these makutas suggests they are made from gold, which links them to the illusions that envelop Ravana’s gold-filled fortress of Lanka, and to Ravana’s vision of mortals, sprites and gods as so many expensive items to be added to his personal treasury. The sensuality of so many of the pictures, too, suggests that we are looking at them through the eyes of the Demon King; they represent, in other words, the dangers that beset Swallow in her role as Sita, and suggest the ease with which we, the reader-viewers, might have given in to the seductions she resists.

p. 45

This association of the drawings with the dangers posed by Ravana is first suggested by the very first picture we encounter in the book (not including the one on the dustjacket, the sketch of Sita stamped on the cloth-bound hard front cover of my edition, or the nude dancer on the title page). This first picture appears at the point in the narrative when Ravana’s presence is first revealed to Rama and Sita, two chapters after Swallow’s trance-transition to the Golden Age. The Chapter in which it appears is aptly called ‘The Apparition’, announcing the entrance of magic into the story in the person of Surpanakha; and the drawing shows an old man – presumably an anchorite – squeezing water out of his beard at the edge of a cliff, while looking nervously around as if to spot one of the demons who have been troubling his solitary existence since Rama and Sita came to live nearby (p. 45). The old man is fully dressed and wears an umbrella-like hat, and if the dampness of his beard is at first hard to account for – there is no suggestion in the text that the anchorites were unusually wet when the royal couple first met them – it may be explained by the words of the ‘ancient recluse’ who describes the recent depredations of Ravana’s demons:

Taking many forms, both of men and animals, they issue from the forest and haunt us incessantly. […] At dead of night their vast laughter bursts out when we are practicing our penances. Or flooding down they will foul our altars, which at dawn we find to be drenched with blood. (p. 46).

The wetness of the old man’s beard, in other words, may show the after-effect of the demons ‘flooding down’ on himself and his fellow recluses; the liquid he wrings out of it may be blood. As for the cliff, it may represent the precipice of danger at the edge of which the couple find themselves as the old man speaks. Many of the pictures that follow give the impression that we have fallen off this precipice and are leaping, dancing or tumbling through space. This impression is enhanced by the dynamic movement of the male and female figures in the book, who launch themselves through the air, balance on their hands on the backs of beasts, or fling themselves from their foaming steeds in ecstatic agony. Their bodies twist, their arms and legs gesticulate wildly, and they often seem off kilter, always on the verge of taking up a new position, a new life or a new identity. Peake’s series of drawings begins with the entrance of Ravana into the story, so that they seem to be ‘of Ravana’s party without knowing it’, to adapt the famous words of William Blake about John Milton.[7]

p. 67

The old man in that first picture has a creature near him, a diminutive lizard which is taking an obvious interest in the drops coming out of his beard. Many of the pictures contain birds and beasts, often looking on in surprise or curiosity, like this lizard. Again, these creatures have a source in Collis’s text, where they crop up from time to time to stare in amazement or consternation at the actions of gods, sprites, mortals and demons. During the battle between Ravana and the divine vulture Jatayus, the ‘sylvan deities of tree and stream and hill’ manifest themselves and utter cries of encouragement for the vulture (p. 68). Later Sita’s abduction is witnessed by a throng of forest animals, which follow the shadow of Ravana’s chariot in their various ways – ‘galloping, bounding, swinging, a-wing’ – spurred on by their sense that a ‘great wrong [is] being consummated’ (p. 72). Animals also play a major role in the story, of course, in the form of the warrior monkey Hanuman, his king Sugriva, and the vulture brothers Jatayus and Sampati. But these significant beasts, the ones with major roles, are often hard to identify in the drawings. The birds on pp. 67 and 69, for instance, whose pictures sit alongside Collis’s account of the fight between Ravana and Jatayus, have hooked beaks and decorative plumage, but seem not to be the vulture of the text, who is ‘divinely brave, divinely strong, and divinely beautiful’ (p. 66). Instead they are small, their expressions goofy.

p. 63

The animal on p. 63, meanwhile, seems clearly to represent one of the vampiric donkeys that draw Ravana’s chariot, according to Collis; it has protruding fangs, grotesquely puckered lips, and batwing ears, and the drawing of it is positioned very close to Collis’s description of the ‘asses with the faces of vampires’ (p. 64). But the animal’s tail is not much like that of a donkey (Peake could draw donkeys with great accuracy, having ridden one to school in his childhood). And the quadruped that appears a few pages later, in one of the two pictures that accompany the fight between Ravana and Jatayus (p. 67), looks very unlike the vampire ass of p. 63. It has a headdress made of something like coral, square teeth, strange pointed hooves, and an expression even more goofy than that of the bird perched on Sita’s wrist (if the woman in the picture is indeed Sita).

p. 69

The next picture shows a carnivore – perhaps a tiger – with a woman balancing upside down on its back, another small bird perched on her ankle (p. 69). By no stretch of the imagination can the picture be said to represent Sita struggling to free herself from Ravana’s grasp, as she does in the facing text; while the bird on her ankle can hardly be said to have ‘claws as large as pruning hooks’ (p. 68). It also looks rather different from the bird in the previous drawing, which may also be intended to represent Jatayus. What, then, does the picture on p. 69 stand for? The tiger may be some sort of embodiment of Ravana, but the gleeful expression of the woman on his back seems quite inappropriate for Sita, who should be watching for the outcome of the fight with some anxiety. We seem to be in the presence, then, of a visual fantasy in which the battle between Ravana, Jatayus and the vampire asses, as witnessed by Sita, is replayed as an erotic juggling act watched by an appreciative audience consisting of a charmingly decorated snake and a lizard with wings. Is this Ravana’s way of seeing the combat? Or are we in the alternative universe of Peake’s art, the ‘world’, as Collis described it, which is ‘pervaded by a mood unlike that of any writer or painter working today’, and where the fight has a different meaning from the one it has for Collis? We simply don’t know; the drawing is enigmatic.

p. 139

At times, then, Peake’s animal drawings can’t be linked with any confidence to particular details in Collis’s text; and this is most obvious in the case of the monkeys. The monkeys (if they are indeed all monkeys) change their appearance radically on at least three occasions. The most obviously simian figure in the book is the one on p. 143 (see end of post), which may be Hanuman with his bow and spear and elaborately ornamented sword. The short legs, long arms, mobile lips and small, closely-set eyes suggest an orang utan from Burma, while the foliage pouring from its helmet suggests the jungle where it feels at home. The picture on p. 139 may or may not represent Hanuman’s monarch, King Sugriva, because Collis describes him wearing a ‘fantastical battle-cap’ (p. 145), and the creature is certainly wearing the most fantastical of all the crazy bits of headgear in Peake’s illustrations. The crown has what looks like the capital of a stone column incorporated into it, surmounted by a kind of vase containing three hands, one of which supports a wheel, on top of which balances a vase with a single flower in it. But this monster could just as easily be a manifestation of Ravana, who is ten-headed but is always changing his appearance to conceal his decacephalic nature (decacephalic is one of Collis’s favourite words). The picture occurs alongside Rama’s account of how he saw Sita – or her double – lolling in Ravana’s lap before the final battle; so perhaps it represents the Demon King as Rama sees him. Its face might be that of a leonine baboon, and hence suitable for a monkey king; but it might just as easily be the face of a lion, perched on top of a humanoid body, the sort of hybrid shape Ravana might be expected to delight in. Again, we just don’t know.

p. 101

The third monkey image, if it is one, appears on p. 101. The monster in the picture, which has a naked woman crouching on its back, doesn’t look anything like a monkey or an ape – it’s more like a Chinese lion, tiger or dragon; but in my edition it sits alongside the part of the text where the captive Sita refuses to ride on Hanuman’s back to escape from Lanka, because she thinks that certain observers would find this mode of travel unseemly for a woman of her rank. I am tempted to think of it as a representation of what her husband Rama might think if Sita were to agree to escape in this way – an imaginative response, that is, to the words she uses to describe his potential reaction:

What will people think of me riding on a monkey? Will Rama be pleased to see me appear embracing such a mount as your Honour’s self? […] Rama would be glad to have me back, no doubt, but at the same time might condemn the manner of my return, flying over the sea and between the worlds, not like the wife for whom he mourns but like a wild thing, a witch or ghost (p. 100).

Certainly the woman in the picture looks decidedly wild, with her legs spread wide apart, her face smiling impishly, and a telltale skull embedded in her hat. The skull, too, appears to be smiling. And the monster she rides is smiling too, its lips bared in a grin that displays its blunt teeth and long curved tusks. Its six-pronged tail stands erect, perilously close to the woman’s haunches. My reading, then, makes some sort of sense, but the picture doesn’t support it by, for instance, showing the monster as in any way apelike. It’s a riddle, like all the other drawings in Peake’s part of the volume.

p. 131

Other animals in the pictures have no relation at all to anything in Collis’s text. The androgynous person on p. 107, for instance, has a lion ramping behind them, and occurs at a point in the text where the monkey Hanuman is running riot in Ravana’s palace. Is the lion an image of Hanuman’s ferocity? The woman on p. 131 is holding a grotesque sort of Pekinese dog, with tufts like sea anemones on its elbows. There’s no dog mentioned in the text. All in all, the birds and beasts have more in common with Swallow’s retrospective description of her adventures in the Golden Age than with any particular episode she took part in. As she tells the old man Ho after waking from her trance, ‘I saw birds, and dragonish persons who were birdlike, and beasts that were like birds, and birds that were like men’ (p. 147). The sentence might vaguely describe her various meetings with talking vultures and a flying monkey, but they also suggest a world in which people, beasts and spirits are always mixing, melding and changing appearance, as if in the throes of a particularly hectic fever dream.

p. 83

In this procession of uncertain images, the quest for Sita is a challenging one for the reader as well as the artist. The nudity of the women in the drawings does not accord with what we know about the princess, who bedecked herself with finery before her abduction. It’s possible that she lost these clothes in the course of the journey to Lanka, since at one point she flung her ‘yellow silk mantle’ to some monkeys in the hope that they would take it to Rama and show him which way she went. Alternatively, or in addition, Sita’s nudity may be intended to suggest her subjection to the predatory gaze of the Demon King and his monstrous cohorts. Certainly it aligns her with the female nudes in Collis’s text, all of whom are Ravana’s dancers, who ‘had a likeness to dryads, being clad only in gems and the sparkle of gems, as such nymphs are in dew-drops and mottled sun-light’ (p. 78). Some of Peake’s drawings correspond quite closely to Collis’s account of these dancers. They are ‘led by midgets and contortionists’, and Peake represents the dancers’ attendants in several images of Beardsley-esque dwarfs, some of them clutching the legs of women, and in two images of contortionists or acrobats (pp. 83 and 85). Some dancers wear ‘round their waists […] a belt of bells’, and here the distinction between them and Sita blurs still further. The dancer on p. 91 wears a belt that might well be made of bells; but so does the woman standing in front of a horse or ass in the drawing on p. 67, which is positioned alongside the textual description of Ravana’s fight with Jatayus. Most of the dancers have bodies that resemble Sita’s, though some are distinguished from the rest by the length of their claw-like fingernails. Their faces are often like hers, too: heart-shaped, with large, wide-set eyes, full lips and long lashes, like the face of Peake’s favourite model, his wife Maeve. As a result, it’s impossible to be certain in any given picture of a full-length female nude if we’re looking at Sita or one of the dancers. The problem is compounded by the fact that three pictures I’ve already discussed as possible representations of Sita have little connection to Collis’s text (pp. 67, 69 and 101). The hallucinatory quality of the drawings, in other words, is as evident in the human figures they contain as in their birds and animals. They float in a space or world adjacent to the verbal narrative, and only occasionally seem fully to converge with it.

p. 135

Most of the men in the drawings are as hard to identify as the women. There are a couple of exceptions, such as the image on p. 123, which self-evidently shows the beheading of Rama, since this is the only decollation mentioned in Collis’s text. To confirm the identification, the picture occurs on the page before Sita is shown her husband’s ‘freshly severed head’ (p. 124), so the reader is likely to make the connection between the dead man and Rama very soon after the picture has appeared. The head in the drawing, however, has no distinguishing features, and its identity is in any case rendered questionable by the fact that Rama has not in fact been beheaded; his decollation is a lie spread by Ravana’s enchanters. And other possible representations of Rama in Peake’s drawings are not so certain. It’s not clear, for instance, whether the archer shown in the drawing on p. 111 is the bowman Rama as described in Collis text on p. 110 (‘the most famous archer among the mortals’), or is instead one of Ravana’s soldiers, whose ‘bows are the strongest in the Three Worlds’ (p. 109). The bowman in the picture is mounted on a horse, whereas Rama and Ravana ride chariots in their final showdown – so the drawing might show a member of Ravana’s ‘cavalry’ (p. 111). The same uncertainty surrounds another archer, who appears on p. 135, standing in front of a horse. Could this be Rama, standing in front of one of the white horses that draw his chariot, as the text informs us (p. 134)? The cruelty of the man’s expression suggests he is not the prince; but if it’s Ravana, he’s disguised as a human or a god, since Ravana’s true form, as we know, has ten heads. More even than the women, it would seem, the men in the pictures are hard to name, because Ravana has spun his webs of enchantment round them in his bid to mislead Sita into infidelity.

p. 75

The men in Peake’s pictures are mostly naked, as I’ve already mentioned, like the women, and in the men’s case this nudity seems to emphasize their vulnerability: their capacity to be subdued by a woman’s qualities, like the Demon King Ravana, and to lose their grasp on the characteristics of patriarchal masculinity: strength, decisiveness, vigorous activity, control over women. The first man we meet in the drawings is the elderly anchorite, who is fully dressed but fearful, damp and threatened (p. 46). After this we are shown only women, until we reach Chapter 19, which describes the temptation of Sita in Ravana’s palace. Here suddenly a succession of men step onto the paper stage; and the order in which these drawings appear may be significant. The first picture shows a giant of a man who is carrying a tray as if it were laden with heavy objects, although the only thing on the tray is a pot with a solitary flower in it (p. 75). This was the picture, or something very like it, that impelled Collis to approach Peake to make the drawings for Quest for Sita; and here the man forms part of a parade of entertainers that follows Ravana as he comes to seduce his captive on the night after her arrival. Most of the parade is made up of dancers, but it closes with ‘a rout of dwarfs and buffoons, who pretended to carry yet other dainties, with show of effort supporting a dish on which was nothing but a stone or a common flower’ (p. 76). The man, then, is clearly a buffoon, his muscles straining for no purpose at all, symbolically demonstrating the emptiness of the show in which he takes part. The next men to appear in the drawings are a pair of male dwarfs who seem to be fighting over a single place between the legs of a female dancer. One eyes the other, brandishing a phallic snake and making a threatening gesture, as if preparing to shove him away from where he stands clutching the woman’s calf. A few pages later, another dwarf holds up a goofy bird while flouncing a tail between his own buttocks. When at last we get a drawing of the King of Demons, then – in Chapter 20, titled ‘Moonlight in the Park of Spring’ – he has been heralded by a series of satirical versions of maleness: the frightened hermit, the ridiculous muscle-man, the lecherous dwarfs. Men in Peake’s drawings are fragile, and seem to be striving to impose their will on women in a bid to convince themselves of their own forcefulness.

p. 89

Ravana is the other male figure who is easily identified among Peake’s images. Near the beginning of Chapter 20 Collis describes him in some detail, dressed in ‘a scarlet cloak, open in front, floating as he came like the foam of ambrosia, and sown with flowers’ (p. 88). The Demon King is ‘lustful and proud, elated with wine, and glorying in the night’; his face is ‘a mask’, like the masks of the goldfish in his pond (p. 88). But Sita resists him, and at the end of the chapter he is forced to replace her in his bed with one of his dancers, a former favourite who assures him that ‘You will get ill loving one who loves you not’ (p. 92). And Peake pictures him on p. 89 in such a way as to hint at his abject failure to subdue his captive. Gliding along ‘as though on an air current’ (as Collis puts it), his feet suspended above the ground, voluminous cloak thrown back to reveal his naked body, he appears weightless despite the power of his muscular frame beneath the cloak – the exact reverse of the strangely weighty flower we saw a few pages earlier. Muscular though he is, his body is hairless, as if to suggest that he has not yet achieved complete maturity. His face is fishlike, as if to stress the lack of thought going on behind it. His crown looks like a garden ornament. The male gaze may have shaped the bodies of the naked women we have seen in Peake’s drawings up to this point, but men themselves, it seems, are feeble, unable to exploit their power for any greater purpose than to please the eyes. They are decorative, not practical, and thus ill suited for the martial feats they are expected to engage in.

p. 133

As the parade of drawings goes on, the men in them get increasingly fragile. The series of drawings that represent the final fight between Ravana and Rama show men as always dangerously off balance, from the mounted bowman on p. 111, who seems to be sliding off a melting horse, to the beheaded warrior on p. 123, who has lost his body altogether, to the seeming delight of the ferocious mount that stands behind him. After this picture they begin to fall and die, pierced through by arrows, snarling in pain and rage as they writhe towards death. A rearing horse flings its furious rider into space, its mane and tail blazing (p. 127). A dying swordsman drops his fantastically ornate sword, its quillons fashioned in the shape of wings as if to confirm its intention to elude his grasp (p. 133). The man throws back his head in angry ecstasy as an arrow transfixes his chest. The arrow-pierced rider on p. 137 seems to have been mounted by his horse, in an ironic reversal of the hoped-for mounting of Sita by her abductor. The Demon King intended his seduction of the princess to culminate in a ritual, orgiastic penetration; instead he and his men are penetrated by his rival, and flap the air as they die with great limp hands.

Illustration for ‘The Craters’, in Shapes and Sounds (1942)

Ravana and his warriors are closely akin to many other men Peake drew in wartime: the young soldier who seems to die while involved in a homoerotic affair with a centaur, in a set of recently discovered sketches; the naked youths suspended in space which he used to illustrate his first collection of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1942); the Ancient Mariner, who throws out his chest in mute expectation that it will be struck by some supernatural arrow sent to avenge his piercing of the albatross. In Peake’s war drawings men tumble, slump, recline and sag, borne along like flotsam on the tides of a global conflict they cannot control. The tumbling, wounded men in Quest for Sita are located in the Second World War by their affinity with these vulnerable predecessors. They proclaim, too, their affinity with the men in Peake’s wartime novel, Titus Groan, who have been read as uniquely vulnerable by Matt Sangster in a revealing essay.[8]

p. 59

Peake, like Collis, seems to imply that the women in Sita’s story are more powerful in body and mind than the men who compete for their attention. They are also more closely attended to in his drawings, as in Collis’s narrative. In among the full-length images I’ve looked at so far, Peake presents us with a series of portraits, whose positioning in the text implies they show Sita. The first comes in Chapter 16, after the chapter where Sita sends Rama away from her in pursuit of the wonderful gazelle, followed closely by his brother Lakshmana. At this point in the narrative she is alone, and for the first time unsure of her behaviour: ‘With the departure of Lakshmana,’ Chapter 16 begins, ‘Sita remained bowed and weeping […] uncertain whether she had acted rightly or no’ (p. 58). The portrait on the page opposite (p. 59) doesn’t show her in this state; the woman in it is not weeping. Instead she looks sad and thoughtful, much as Sita does when Ravana sees her for the first time, in the chapter’s third paragraph. On hearing a sound outside, Collis tells us, Sita ‘raised her head’ and ‘overwhelmed with joy ran to the door’; but on seeing who it is (Ravana disguised as a religious mendicant) ‘She looked at him askance, grievously disappointed’, while the mendicant looks back ‘with open admiration’. This is no surprise, Collis tells us, because ‘in her court silks, jeweled and tyred, her lovely face reflecting like a mirror her troubled heart, she was a vision hardly imaginable at the door of the mountain retreat’ (p. 58). If the picture opposite shows Sita at this moment, in other words, she is being seen by the Demon King. But she is not seeing him; she looks through or beyond him, seeking her husband. The male gaze may seek to subjugate her face and body to its pleasure, but after the opening chapters of the Ramayana section of the novel, the man who interests her is always elsewhere. As she looks out of the page, he is behind the reader’s shoulder, so to speak. No other man can match him.

Ravana is Sita’s abductor and would-be seducer, and we might expect this to be reflected in how he sees her. At the same time, the Dark Angel’s gaze in Collis’s narrative begins to change him, subjecting him to the power of Sita’s personality, awaking in him an admiration of her inward qualities as well as her body. This split perception of Sita is well represented in Peake’s portraits. She is physically attractive in a conventional way, with large eyes, full lips, tilted eyebrows, curling lashes and a heart-shaped face. In several portraits she is nude or semi-clad, underscoring the Demon-King’s erotic obsession with her; and in all of them she is also ‘bejewelled and tyred’, sporting elaborate earrings and a version of the makuta or crown on her head (that, at least, is what I think Collis means by ‘tyred’, though the OED is not very helpful in supporting my reading of ‘tyre’ as a variant of ‘tiara’). In some drawings, including the first portrait, she wears make-up, with a tilaka or third eye painted between her eyebrows and floral patterns on her cheeks. But if she is represented as physically attractive, she is also represented as strong; her neck, in particular, is extraordinarily powerful, supporting her head on a pillar of muscle that defies the conventions of anatomy, as in this first example. Her expression is always serious in these portraits – whereas the women in the full-length pictures often look gleeful, ecstatic, or coquettish. The portraits are often placed in the first UK and US editions alongside moments in Collis’s text when Sita exerts her power. The first (p. 59) comes at the moment when Ravana begins to admire her; in it she looks at Ravana in disappointment, so that the reader as well as the Demon King is aware that he means nothing to her.

p. 97

The second (p. 97) comes at one of Sita’s weaker moments, when she confesses that she sent Rama after the gazelle on a ‘stupid whim’ (p. 96); but the confession confirms her power over her husband and his brother, and Sita’s expression in the drawing shows no remorse.

p. 113

The third portrait (p. 113) occurs when Ravana’s initial impression of Sita is replaced by ‘a new and more violent feeling’, which makes him aspire to achieve ‘paradise’ for her – to win a place in the world of the immortals – in defiance of his own demonic nature. In this portrait she is not looking at the viewer at all, her thoughts again being clearly occupied with something else.

p. 131

The fourth portrait (p. 131) comes at the point when Sita gains control of her Amazonian guards, who beg her to protect them against Rama’s allies, Hanuman’s army of warrior monkeys. In this picture Sita is holding the bizarre creature I mentioned earlier, some sort of fanged Pekinese. Her nails are long and pointed, like the nails of Surpanakha in Peake’s picture of her. She is looking away from the viewer, as well as the creature, and the impression she gives is that of a woman who can tame any monster without even thinking about it – which is exactly what happens in the text.

p. 141

The last portrait (p. 141) faces the moment in the story when Sita makes her solemn declaration that Rama was mistaken in thinking he had seen her on the final battlefield in Ravana’s chariot, ‘covering him with kisses’, as the Dark Angel sped towards his fatal final encounter with Sita’s husband (p. 140). The tilaka between her eyebrows looks as though it has burst into flame, and her eyebrows too are jagged, as if to indicate her anger at the accusation. Her makuta has a protective cloth attached to it behind, like the helmets worn by the male warriors in Peake’s drawings of them – most notably in the portrait of Ravana. She looks directly at the viewer, as if to confirm her words, and her neck is like a column or tower of flesh. This is the final image we are given of Sita, and it couldn’t be more obviously intended to leave us with the sense that she knows now exactly who she is, and intends us to know it too. In Peake’s terms we have slid into her soul, and are ready to return to the mortal world in the last three chapters, armed with a familiarity with this seminal figure in Indian myth that will enable us to look with new eyes on the countries and cultures in Asia that embraced it.

p. 137

Clearly my interpretations of Peake’s drawings are largely conjectural – stories I’ve made up about them, based on their location at certain points in Collis’s narrative. We have not been given a verbal commentary to help us read them, and other individuals will read them very differently from me. Our scrutiny of these drawings, in fact – our awareness of how they diverge in many details from the text they accompany – makes us collaborators in the business of bringing Sita back to life, the quest for Sita. We are writers and artists as well as readers. Between them, text and drawings ensure that the book is a creative process, since it’s for us to interpret the dialogue in progress between them. And Collis’s preface, with its acknowledgement of the constantly changing texture of the great stories, confirms that this is exactly what both artists – writer and illustrator – set out to do. Their theme was independence, and text and drawings perform that theme as well as any artwork I can think of.

p. 143

Notes

[1] Peake explains his philosophy of art in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (Grey Walls Press, 1949), reproduced in Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions, 1974), pp. 80-82.

[2] Maurice Collis, Quest for Sita (New York: The John Day Company, 1947). All references are to this edition.

[3] Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen Books, 2006), compiled Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, p. 107: ‘there are no captions to Mervyn Peake’s drawings, for (as here) they often do not correspond to a specific character or moment’. The picture mentioned is the one of the old man, the first drawing in the body of the text, discussed below.

[4] Quoted from Mervyn Peake: Oscar Wilde (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980), Foreword by Maeve Gilmore, p. 9.

[5] Winnington (ed.), Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, Chapter 7, pp. 101-103.

[6] See Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, ed. Gilmore and Johnson, pp. 93-96.

[7] ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.’ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), in The Poetical Works of William Blake, ed. John Sampson (London etc.: Oxford University Press, 1914), p. 249.

[8] Matthew Sangster, ‘Peake and Vulnerability’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington, introd. William Gray (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 105-116.

Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946). Part 1: Text

The first American edition (1947)

The work of Maurice Collis is well known in Myanmar (formerly Burma) but hardly at all in Europe or America, though he was once a celebrated author. Quest for Sita (1946) – his version of part of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana – is most famous in Britain for having been ‘illustrated’ by the writer-artist Mervyn Peake. Collis himself describes their partnership in the book’s preface as joint ‘quests’ to interpret Valmiki’s text, and the equal status of these quests is signaled on the dust jacket of the first US edition of 1947, which describes it as the work of ‘two master craftsmen’ and the pictures as ‘Drawings by Mervyn Peake’.[1] In his Preface to this edition Collis refers to the transformations undergone by the epic through the ages, whereby the story has been repeatedly modified in response to the new pressures exerted on it by the new experiences of successive generations. ‘Each writer,’ Collis tells us, ‘as he brought it to life again, tinged it with the colour of his own period and environment’, and he sees himself as following in this tradition. His aim, he says, was to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’, and his method ‘while preserving the main outlines of her history’ to ‘vivify it by passing it through his imagination, the course taken freely by his predecessors of Asia’ (p. vii). ‘The same,’ he concludes, ‘may be said of Mr Mervyn Peake, whose drawings are less illustrations of the text than a quest of his own to show Sita to us’. Quest for Sita, then, may be described as a joint venture that represents part of the ancient epic through the eyes of two European artists at a particular time in history. The artists may be from Europe, but for Collis they both participate in India’s commitment to the Sita legend, seeking to transplant it into a Western culture that has deliberately distanced itself from the culture and history of the subcontinent it has been exploiting for so many centuries.

Maurice Collis by Gérard Laenen

In this blog post and the next I will consider Quest for Sita as a collaborative artistic enterprise, rather than as a writer’s project which happens to have been embellished by an artist. In the process I hope to learn something about Collis’s neglected craftsmanship as a writer, while also learning how to think about the illustrator’s craft, which strikes me as having been equally neglected. I can’t think of a better book to use for the second of these purposes; first, because Quest for Sita contains haunting pictures which have been widely praised (though not often analysed) by both commentators and collectors; secondly, because the drawings seem to have a life of their own, quite distinct from the text; and thirdly because this is a book which has never been printed without its illustrations, so that Peake’s images seem to have been accepted as essential adjuncts of Collis’s prose. I should say at once that I didn’t at first expect to have as much to say as I do about Peake’s pictures; and there remains a lot more to say about them. To modify the old saying, a picture is worth much more than a thousand words, a truism that gives the lie to the usual perception of the relationship between word and image in book illustration, which tends to weight the collaboration very heavily in favour of the writer.

Abduction of Sita by Ravana, Prambanan temple, Central Java, ca. 900 CE

If Quest for Sita was a bid to bring the heroine of the Ramayana back to life, 1946 was a remarkable year in which to do it. Valmiki’s epic is revered and performed throughout the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia and China, and the whole of this region was in turmoil as the project took shape. According to Peter Winnington, Peake’s drawings were made ‘in the late summer and autumn of 1944’, while Collis’s text must have been written earlier.[2] Burma (Collis’s home of more than twenty years) was largely under Japanese occupation at the time, and the Burmese independence movement, which aimed to liberate the country from both Japanese and British rule, was at its height. Collis set his version of the story in China, also under partial Japanese occupation in 1944, and India, which was mobilizing huge numbers of troops against the Axis while continuing its own struggle for independence from the British. Peake’s drawings furnish the characters in the story with variations on the South-East Asian royal headdress known as makuta (magaik in Myanmar), linking the story back to Burma. The ‘colour of [the artists’] own period and environment’ pervades the project, in other words, and many of those colours are violent ones, well suited to a story of abduction, combat and rescue played out between gods, mortals, demons and monkeys in a landscape of mountains and magical islands.

Maurice Collis by Feliks Topolski

Maurice Collis was well placed to make the most of the Sita story in this context. He is often described as ‘British’ in accounts of him, but in fact he was an Irishman, the oldest of three brothers from Killiney, County Dublin. His father, a wealthy solicitor, sent him to Rugby School in England, and he joined the Indian Civil Service when he left university, settling in England after his retirement in 1934. All of this makes him sound like a thoroughgoing Unionist and a dedicated servant of Empire. But Collis was a nationalist sympathizer – allying himself to the Burmese as well as the Irish independence movements – and his behaviour as a magistrate in Rangoon got him in trouble for failing to toe the colonial line on several occasions. His book Trials in Burma (1937) describes three trials in particular where his judgments were at odds with those of the British expat community. In the first he failed to impose serious punishment for sedition on a well-known activist for Indian independence, Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, when he spoke publicly in Rangoon; in the second he reprimanded a British merchant for failing to administer first aid to a servant he had fatally injured; while in the third he sought to impose a prison sentence on a British army officer who had knocked down two Burmese women in his car. The sentence was overturned by the High Court and Collis was effectively demoted, being sent as an Excise Commissioner to the remote port of Myeik, where he went on researching Burmese and Chinese history and culture. After his retirement from the Civil Service he wrote many books – novels, histories and biographies – as well as three plays. Many of his titles confirm his continuing interest in the workings of imperialism, from an account of the Spanish invasion of the Americas, Cortés and Montezuma (1954), to a history of the first and second Opium Wars between Britain and China, Foreign Mud (1946). As an Irishman, he saw British activities in the Far East with the sceptical eye of an outsider; and his consciousness of this outsider status may have been intensified by the fact that publications by the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party were widely circulated in 1930s Burma, as a route map to liberation from British influence.[3]

A few more things are worth mentioning about Collis. First, he had a pair of remarkable brothers, John and Robert, the first of whom became a pioneering ecologist while the second worked as a doctor with the Red Cross during the Second World War, notably in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and later with cerebral palsy patients in Dublin, including the writer-artist Christy Brown. Robert could conceivably have met Mervyn Peake in 1945 when the artist entered Bergen-Belsen with the aim of recording it in pictures (a task Peake found impossible, as he explained in a poem).[4] Maurice Collis, meanwhile, had a lifelong interest in the visual arts; he wrote books about L. S. Lowry and Stanley Spencer, and took up painting himself at the age of 67. It was this interest in art that first brought him together with Peake. He reviewed one of Peake’s exhibitions in June 1944 and was so struck by one drawing in particular that he invited him to draw pictures for Quest for Sita.[5] The friendship between them lasted for the rest of Peake’s lifetime. When Peake won the Heinemann prize for Gormenghast and The Glassblowers in 1951 he asked Collis to go with him to the prize-giving ceremony, and Collis later penned an ‘introduction’ to one of Peake’s exhibition catalogues, in which he comments that ‘His world is pervaded by a mood unlike that of any writer or painter working today’. This unique ‘mood’ is what sets Peake’s pictures apart from Collis’s text in Quest for Sita, and Collis’s celebration, in his Preface, of the independence of Peake’s response to Sita suggests that it was achieved with the writer’s active encouragement.

Maurice Collis, Expulsion of the Foreign Devils

To describe Quest for Sita as a version of part of the Ramayana doesn’t do the book justice. It’s a narrative as much concerned with the international impact of the Ramayana as it is with the epic itself; and its stated intention to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’ endows Valmiki’s poem with the same kind of vibrant relevance to anti-colonialism in India, China and Burma as the Irish Revival had to the struggle for an independent Ireland. The book introduces the Ramayana to its Western readers in much the same way as James Stephens (another friend of Peake’s) had introduced British and American readers to the Irish literary heritage that underpinned the independence movement.[6] Quest may, in fact, have had a similar intention to Stephens’s retellings of Irish tales: to get the old stories into widespread circulation among populations that did not know them, and thus to lend those stories a symbolic and political reach they would not otherwise have had. And Collis underscores the unexpected link between the Indian and Irish contexts with the addition of a number of new episodes of his own, to supplement the new episodes added over time by his Asian forerunners.

In Collis’s book, the tale of Sita’s abduction by the ‘Dark Angel’ Ravana is set within a frame narrative that takes place near Chongqing City in Sichuan Province, China. A girl named Swallow, whose family are starving, is sold by her parents to a marriage broker, who plans to sell her on as a wife to any man willing to pay a good price. Swallow escapes from the broker’s clutches and is given shelter by the mysterious Sage of Wushan Mountain. The Sage believes he recognizes the girl from some former life, and she agrees to take part in an experiment whereby he sends her back in time, with the help of a meditation-induced trance or dream, to the period when they first knew each other. By this means the pair discover that they are reincarnations of the famous lovers Sita and Rama, having taken on their roles in a dream reenactment of the central portion of the Ramayana. When Swallow wakes from her dream at the end of the novel she learns that the Sage is also the son of the Emperor of China, banished from court after having been unfairly implicated in a plot against his father. The frame narrative ends with the Prince being reinstated as his father’s successor and returning with his new wife Swallow to the imperial court – though not before the girl has made sure that her parents and younger brothers will never starve again.

Pu Yi, the Last Emperor of China

The frame narrative isn’t set in any specific period in history, but it contains elements that would have been familiar to Chinese, Irish and Indian readers. The notion of a Chinese Emperor in exile might have called to mind the so-called Last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, who was deposed as a child in 1912 and later set up as puppet Emperor of Manchuria by the Japanese invaders. Royalty in exile was also a theme of Irish history, especially after the Anglo-Norman Invasion of the late 12th Century. Famine, meanwhile, was an abiding presence in British colonial history. The famine that drives Swallow’s family to offer her up for sale recalls both the Great Hunger triggered in Ireland by the potato blight of 1845-9, which was exacerbated by the refusal of the British government to intervene, and the famines that afflicted China in the nineteenth century, which were exacerbated by population expansion and the widespread use of opium. It was the British who forced the Chinese government into legalizing opium in the Opium Wars of 1839-60, as Collis explains in Foreign Mud (a book he published in the same year as Quest for Sita); so the British imperial authorities were complicit with disastrous famine events in China as well as in Ireland. The British were complicit too with famine in India, much closer to the time when Collis was writing. Churchill famously refused to relieve the food shortage in Bengal in 1943, resulting in around three million deaths. Collis makes no reference in Quest for Sita to the Irish, Chinese or Bengalese famines, but for readers who shared his anti-imperialist sentiments he would not have needed to.

Maurice Collis, Two Figures in a Garden

Famine drove the Chinese and the Irish to disperse across the world, where they often found themselves subject to racist abuse. Collis’s frame narrative works to counter such racism by elevating Swallow, the daughter of a starving Chinese farmer, to semi-divine status as the heroine Sita, before providing her with the most spectacular of fairy tale endings. The ending, in fact, represents the fulfilment of all her dreams – and from the start of the book Swallow is represented as an inveterate dreamer. In childhood she is always dreaming of Wushan Mountain, expecting some ‘Saint’ to come down from its slopes and whisk her away from her life of poverty. She later learns to her disappointment that Wushan is not the mountain it was, in terms of the sanctity of its occupants. An old man named Ho, who helps Swallow escape from the broker’s henchman, explains that the hermits living there now are very far from Saints, and that the mountain’s reputation has dwindled accordingly. Ho’s personality confirms his words, since his own claims to wisdom and holiness are decidedly suspect. He insists, for instance, that he has mastered magic in the course of his studies, but the only spell he ever casts is a feat of trickery whereby he changes Swallow into a boy by giving her male clothes, ‘a metamorphosis as complete,’ he adds, ‘as any that magic might have effected’ (p. 10). He then frightens away the broker’s henchman by telling him that the girl has transformed herself into a hare, which both suggests to the terrified henchman that she is a demon and proves, as Ho points out, ‘what excellent results may be obtained by blending the natural with the supernatural’ (p. 11). By this point in Collis’s story we may suspect that the world in which it takes place is one where spirituality and magic have been set aside in favour of pragmatism, as embodied in the sleight of hand that helps the poor survive in times of crisis.

But later Swallow finds that her dreams are not so far-fetched after all. Magic lurks everywhere in Collis’s novel, just beneath the surface of the present, woven through the fabric of the past. Swallow’s ‘metamorphosis’ into a boy is only the first of many episodes in which illusions play a major part, and each illusion conceals a reality more remarkable than the last, revelation opening out from revelation in a series of Chinese boxes. What seems at first, then, to be a story that highlights the slow decay of Chinese civilization over time, ends by insisting that the link between past glory and the suffering present is an active one, just as it was for the Irish literary revivalists in the days of British rule. One might see the book as an allegory for the work of looking closely into unfamiliar cultures before you judge them. The closer the European or American reader looks into the life of the starving girl we meet in the opening pages the more wonderful she appears, and the more remarkable the Chinese and Indian cultures that produced her.

Set of Chinese nesting boxes, c. 1930

Swallow herself resembles a set of Chinese boxes from the moment we first meet her, like the story in which she appears: one box hidden inside another in an endless series that continues to unpack itself until the end of the narrative. Despite her poverty at the beginning she is well educated, and can recite poetry to express her feelings (pp. 3-4), of the kind made popular in Britain after the Great War by the translations of Arthur Waley. She also feels ‘some hidden aspiration’ (p. 4) for better things even when she is hungry, the earliest clue to her mythical past and imperial future. The Chinese box analogy is reinforced when Ho brings her to meet his master, the Sage of Wushan Mountain, who gains from her face the impression of meeting again ‘one whom I had lost through my own fault in the mists of time’ (p. 22). After a time this impression recedes, but it continues to haunt the Sage’s mind as he gets to know her better. He describes it as ‘fantastical’, since she is only a ‘poor village girl in [a] blue cotton gown’, but nevertheless takes her on as his pupil, and increasingly sees resemblances in her not only to the person he first took her for but also to himself (talking to her is ‘like talking to oneself’, he begins to think [p. 23]). His desire to uncover her past identity is part of a drive to discover his own, since he senses they are closely linked; and Swallow in her turn senses that she knows him as well as herself, being convinced that he is ‘sane and wise’ despite their short acquaintance (p. 27). Her spiritual journey to the past, then, is a journey both into herself and into him, and takes her to a place where disguises and false appearances are everywhere, and where seeing through them is a necessary act of heroism. Collis’s stress on disguises and false appearances in his frame narrative, in other words, echoes a theme in the portion of the Ramayana he retells, and implies that knowledge – of the sort he himself acquired of Chinese and Burmese language, art and history – leads to the recognition of equality between previously unevenly matched elements: communities, individuals, genders, in the frame narrative; humans, gods, demons and animals, in the Ramayana.

Sita

At the same time, knowledge in this book is hard to obtain. The Sage’s doubts about Swallow’s past identity, which he tests by sending her back in time, later find an echo in Rama’s doubts about Sita’s loyalty, which he tests by subjecting her to trial by fire. Even the nature of the place and time Swallow travels back to in her trance is left uncertain. We are informed in the heading of chapter 10 that the period she enters is the ‘Golden Age’ of Hindu myth, but Rama’s brother Lakshana casts doubt on this designation (p. 44), and his doubts turn out to be justified. In the following chapter we learn how Rama was banished from his father’s court through the machinations of his wicked stepmother; and later his wife Sita, who went with him into the wilderness, is captured by the Demon King Ravana and taken to his island stronghold of Lanka – later Sri Lanka – from which Rama and his brother Lakshana must set her free. Lanka represents an illusory Golden Age in miniature, which substitutes lavish ornamentation and wild orgies for enlightenment and impartial justice. From a distance the island appears as ‘golden, glittering, bodied with green, rising from the foam’ of the Indian Ocean (p. 118). And it is full of gold. Ravana likes his monstrous followers to wear ‘gold coloured’ skin to hide their true forms (p. 76); he drinks from a gold chalice at his orgies (p. 78), and promises his Amazon warrior women beautiful youths with ‘dimpled golden skins’ as a reward for good service (p. 84). So obsessed with gold is Ravana, in fact, that at one point his prisoner Sita compares him to the ornamental carp in his palace pond:

Sita waited by the goldfish pond, watching the scarlet shapes as they glided under the white locus. The faces were as if masked, like masked dancers in a supernal drama, for the thought in their eyes was not of this world. Their orbs stared coldly, monstrously, like dragon-masks. To the little denizens of the water they seemed dreadful for all their splendour of gold. Such was Lanka, both gilt and demonic, with its shimmering sea and white battlements, its palace of women from all the heavens, and a dragon king of many metamorphoses. (p. 129)

Gold, then, is a suspect mineral in this version of ancient India, and it is for Rama and Sita to find a way to bring about a true Golden Age in place of Ravana’s false one. Sita herself points this out at one stage, when she recalls the miniature Golden Age the couple experienced in their hermitage before her abduction, but goes on to say that this too was not the real thing. ‘That the Golden Age be extended to all the earth,’ she tells her friend, the vulture Sampati, ‘Rama must fell Ravana’ and return to rule his father’s kingdom (p. 120). But this is hard to achieve, since the material gold of royal courts and marriage brokers – as against the spiritual gold of enlightenment – continues to exert its fascination on the young couple, and ends up by competing with spiritual gold throughout the middle portion of Collis’s text for control of their souls.

Maurice Collis’s house in Sittwe, Myanmar

Spiritual gold is much harder to acquire than material gold in Quest for Sita, and as easy to use as deceptive gilding for bad intentions. In the frame narrative, as we’ve seen, there has been a decline in Chinese sanctity in Swallow’s lifetime; but sanctity proves equally elusive in the age of Sita. From the start of the Ramayana section, the notion of holiness is used to put a gloss on political scheming. When Rama’s stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi, coerces his father into naming her son as heir to the realm in Rama’s place, she chooses to reinforce the king’s decision by sending Rama and Sita into exile, setting them up as religious solitaries in the ‘woods of the anchorites’ (p. 38). In token of their new pseudo-religious status the Queen has them clothed in the distinctive habits of the ‘anchorites of the forest mountains’ (p. 42); but this fails to conceal the couple’s true identity, since even dressed in these humble garments they remain ‘as beautiful as denizens of the Golden Age’. Ashamed of his weakness in acceding to Rama’s exile, the King then exposes his sense of the disparity between their high birth and their new role by urging them to carry various luxuries into the wilderness: servants, ladies, soldiers, gold, their favourite dishes. Rama refuses, desiring to prove himself a genuine anchorite, not a fake one, and thus to certify his obedience to his father. The King, however, sends a box of clothes and jewellery after them, so that Sita at least can dress like a princess, even in exile (p. 42). And predictably, this box of clothes and gold is the couple’s undoing. The events that lead to Sita’s kidnapping begin after she has opened the box of clothes to try on the dresses they contain. At once a wonderful gazelle trots out of the forest, whose distinctive markings – the colour of its hide ‘gold splashed with silver’, its rainbow tail like that of an exotic breed of goldfish (p. 54) – reveal its status as bait for unwary princes and princesses. It’s in pursuit of this goldfish-gazelle that Rama leaves his place by Sita’s side, swiftly followed by his brother Lakshmana, sent after him by Sita to rescue her husband from a seeming attack by ferocious demons. The Princess, then, is partly responsible for her own abduction, having been distracted from her religious duties by the sumptuous garments sent by the King. And this distraction could have been anticipated from the start of the central section of Quest for Sita. Not long before this episode, she and Rama were assuring each other, like the banished Duke Senior and his companions in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, that the wilderness is a better place than the royal palace. Rama told Sita that the ripples that embellished her wrists as she bathed in a pool provided ‘Livelier bracelets […] than ever [she] wore’ at the royal Court (p. 33); while Sita in turn assured her husband that the tree under which they were sitting resembled ‘the scented parasol they used to hold above us’ to mark their royal status. Despite their obedience to the King’s command, in other words, the couple kept seeing the royal court through the mountain landscape as if through a window, which suggests that their minds were not attuned to the life ascetic.

Dancer

Ravana seems to mock this failure to commit to a religious existence when he appears to Sita, soon after the episode of the gazelle, in the unlikely guise of a ‘religious mendicant’ (p. 58). This apparent monk keeps making inappropriate remarks about Sita’s beauty before revealing himself as the Demon King and whisking her off in his magic chariot. Once in Lanka, the religious mockery continues in the entertainments Ravana chooses for Sita’s amusement. At one point his dancer-sprites reenact the seduction of the saintly ‘anchorites of the Black Desert’, each dancer transforming herself from anchorite to seducer and back again to anchorite in ingenious imitation of the constant struggle between body and mind undergone by hermits:

That at certain moments a dancer in jewels and girdle, by force of expression, pose and some inner identification, took on sufficiently the appearance of an anchorite, wrestling against the very lasciviousness which her form represented, was far more potent in suggestion than if she had remained a temptress. To see the anchorites, each a naked sprite, writhing, staring, overcome and, turned pursuer, darting, leaping; and, at the moment of the leap, to see the sprite again, seductive and smiling; to see all this in the self-same dancer, was to be confused, nor to know whether the transformation was by art or magic, an imagined or a real metamorphosis. (p. 80)

This dance in fact replays the adventures of the royal anchorites, Sita and Rama, as an inner conflict. The couple’s dual identities both as prince and princess and as holy hermits set them radically at odds with themselves, a state of mind Ravana hopes to exploit as he seeks to lure them into his power, as he has lured many others before them.

Dancer

But there’s another side to the dance of the sprites, which predicts the eventual outcome of the continuing contest between Ravana and the royal couple. The dancers, we’re told, have ‘some inner identification’ with the anchorites they mimic, and this suggests that they too are undergoing some sort of identity crisis, torn between their ostensible work of seduction and a secret sympathy for the targets of their sensual assault. And as Sita’s captivity goes on she inflicts a similar identity crisis on her demonic captor, drawing him slowly but surely away from his lifelong obsession with lust and conquest towards a reluctant but growing delight in her inward beauty. As a result, by the time he confronts her rescuer, Rama, Ravana is no longer simply a demon; he has ambitions to transform himself into the ‘King of Heaven’, having been converted by Sita’s goodness ‘from a dark angel into a god of light’ (p. 115). He shares Sita’s state of being split between one kind of existence and another, but with this crucial distinction: neither kind of existence he courts is a legitimate one, since as a demon king he is prone to aggressive attacks on neighbouring kingdoms, while as Sita’s lover he seeks to supplant her lawful husband. Sita’s incongruous interest in royal clothes, by contrast, is an expression of her genuinely royal status, and anticipates the moment when that status will be restored. Sita is never at any point as divided as Ravana is, so that the likely end of their contest can be predicted from the start.

Surpanakha 1

The two-way struggle between Ravana and the royal couple over which shall convert or transform the other is set in motion by the very first meeting between their houses. The first member of Ravana’s household to visit Rama in his hermitage is Surpanakha, the Demon King’s sister, who approaches the prince with the clear intention of replacing Sita in his bed. At the same time, this intention triggers an inner conflict which reveals itself in constant changes to her appearance:

Staring at her face they saw that the features were not constant but fluctuating, as if formed of a mist or substance that ran together, so that now they saw a beautiful, now a hideous face, an expression languid and subtly smiling, or, again, horrific with starting orbs, a grimace so twisted that an eye would be carried to the middle of a cheek, a double face, or a face and the shadow of a face. (p. 47)

Surpanakha 2

Surpanakha’s weirdly mobile, Picasso-esque features (amusingly visualised in Peake’s second portrait of her, reproduced here as Surpanakha 2) provide an index to her uncertainty as to who she is and what she wants. On the one hand she wishes to take Rama back to Lanka, where as her husband he will regain the status he lost as anointed heir to a powerful monarch, though the monarch in question will be her brother. On the other hand, as Rama points out, this seeming restoration of the prince to his former status will in fact transform him utterly, since it will make him the successor of his father’s ‘opposite’, a Demon King. To become Surpanakha’s husband he will have to betray his true wife, Sita, and thus place himself ‘past reason’, succumbing to the permanent instability to which Surpanakha herself is subject, and so ceasing to be Rama, the man she desires. Lost in this maze of contradictions, Surpanakha quickly loses what stability of form she once possessed, launching into a frenzied ‘dance of enticement’ which merely exposes the lurking ‘shadow of her monstrous self’. And the dance concludes with a fierce attack on her rival, Sita, in ‘the full horror of her form’. The attack confirms her desire to supplant Sita as Rama’s wife, while at the same time revealing how incapable she is of filling that position, of becoming the wife whom Rama loves in his current identity as the unimpeachable Prince of Ayodhya. Her inward self is radically at odds with her seductive outward appearance, and she is finally unable to conceal the disparity between these component elements of her being. Rama’s brother Lakshmana wounds her as she attacks, and her defeat predicts (again) the defeat of her brother Ravana, destroyed by the man he wishes to replace in Sita’s affections, the man who, in the end, he wishes to be, in spite of his lifelong quest to become his ‘opposite’.

Ravana describes himself a number of times in the text as the Lord of the Three Worlds – that is, of Paradise, Earth and Hell, as Collis explains in his play Lord of the Three Worlds.[7] As we’ve seen, the Demon King supports his own claim to all three regions by transforming his island fortress into a false Paradise, and by seeking to impose his will on the earthly mortals Rama and Sita while maintaining control over his fellow demons in all their manifestations. But his island Paradise keeps revealing its hellish true colours – for instance in the pink-snouted crocodiles that lurk in its moats (p. 73) – and his own efforts to represent himself as a worthy rival for Prince Rama keep being undermined by his obvious preference for booze-fuelled orgies over faithful love. For all his continuing efforts to hide his real motives behind a veil of illusion he only succeeds in revealing his demonic nature more clearly as time goes on.

Hanuman and the Fish Princess, 19th-c. wayang kulit (shadow puppet figures) from Java

Meanwhile, Sita’s vision becomes increasingly piercing thanks to her affinity with the inhabitants of the true Paradise, as against Ravana’s fake one. This affinity reveals itself in her growing friendship with the animal messengers of the gods, the vulture brothers Jatayus and Sampati and the monkey Hanuman. When first abducted by Ravana, Sita finds her vision distorted by his powers of enchantment, because the white umbrellas that shade his chariot have the property of making her see with the eyes of her captor: ‘As she came beneath their shadow, it was like entering the portal of another world, for the [earthly] cottage was suddenly distant and less real, and the landscape of a different colour’ (pp. 65-6). But by the time she reaches Lanka she sees things more clearly, largely thanks to the intervention of the heavenly vulture, divine Jatayus (p. 53). Sita’s instant recognition of Jatayus when she first meets him, knowing him at once for an authentic denizen of Paradise (‘her instinct told her this was truly Jatayus’, p. 52), established the link between them long before Ravana came on the scene, and the link is confirmed when Jatayus is mortally wounded in the attempt to rescue her from her abductor. Even after his wounding Jatayus is able to set Rama on the right road to rescue Sita, so that his vision continues to work in her favour up to the moment of his death. After his demise his attachment to her is passed on to his brother Sampati, who performs the crucial office of reporting to her the real events of the final battle between Rama and Ravana, even as Ravana’s enchanters seek to persuade her that Rama is dead and Ravana victorious. Meanwhile Hanuman the warrior-monkey, who visits her while she is imprisoned on Lanka, adds to the birds’ clearness of vision a sometimes unsettling clarity of discourse. It is Hanuman who first informs Sita that she is to blame for her own abduction, as ‘It was Hanuman’s manner,’ Collis tells us, ‘to be a little blunt’ (p. 96) – not to say misogynistic, since he insists that her calamitous longing for the wonderful gazelle is merely an illustration of ‘the nature of women’, who ‘must have pretty pets and pretty presents, and continually urge their husbands to supply them with these’ (p. 96). Despite his anti-feminism, however, Hanuman shares the vulture brothers’ accurate perception of Sita’s loyalty, and defends her against the false testimony of Rama’s eyes – which seemed to see her embracing Ravana in his chariot – by affirming that he ‘sat and saw how she repulsed the demon’ (p. 144, my emphasis). In the end it is clearness of vision, rather than prowess on the battlefield, that proves the deciding factor in the combat between heroes and demons, and in Collis’s story it is women rather than men who chiefly possess it.

Sampati, a sculpture in Sanam Luang, Bangkok, Thailand

The vision of men is always being blurred by their expectations and desires. Ravana’s increasing recognition of Sita’s qualities, for example, combines with his desire to possess her as his wife to prevent him from seeing clearly that their marriage would destroy what he most admires about her – her integrity. Rama, meanwhile, has always loved Sita for her integrity, yet is easily deceived by Ravana into believing she has been unfaithful to him. Even after he has killed Ravana, he remains enthralled to the demon’s trickery long after Sita, Sampati and Hanuman have been released from it. This is not entirely Rama’s fault. Before embarking on the final battle, Ravana instructed his enchanters to trick Sita into putting on a ring engraved with his and Sita’s names ‘entwined in an everlasting knot’ (p. 125); and after the demon’s death Rama takes this ring as proof positive that she has turned against him. At the same time, Rama refuses to accept the testimony of the immortal vulture and the plain-speaking monkey that his wife is as he has always known her to be, unwavering in her commitment to her husband. Even when Sita chooses to undergo trial by fire to prove it, Rama sees the trial itself as evidence of her betrayal. In his eyes the flame through which she walks takes on ‘the form of a man’, who ‘leapt with her high into the air and disappeared’ (p. 145), thus enacting a second abduction. Sita, on the other hand, experiences the walk through fire as she has been taught to do by the anchorites of the mountains. For her, the flame is a kindly man who wraps her protectively in his cloak, and instead of suffering loss or blurring of vision, as Rama does at this point, she rises with the burning stranger – as if on the back of an immortal vulture – to a place from which she can see everything in the universe: ‘vast blue horizons, distances incalculable, as between star and star’ (p. 146). Her state of enlightenment brings with it a ‘sense of freedom’, and it’s with this liberating knowledge of her position in time and space that she wakes again as Swallow on Wushan mountain.

Lady Lavery as Cathleen Ni Houlihan by John Lavery

Collis’s decision to tell his tale from a woman’s perspective is another link between his book and his Irish background. Ireland was famously embodied by Yeats and Lady Gregory in their play Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902) as a homeless old woman, whose homelessness connotes the disenfranchised state of her country under British rule. The play ends with her transformation into a young girl, who departs from the household that sheltered her ‘with the walk of a queen’.[8] Swallow’s poverty and homelessness equate her with Cathleen, and she too turns out to possess qualities that make her worthy of royal status: beauty, but more importantly intelligence, which for the Sage of Wushan and his father, the Emperor of China, makes her a worthy wife for a prince, whatever her birth. Her elevation from poverty to queenship also parallels the life of Collis’s favourite figure from Burmese history, Queen Ma Saw, the protagonist both of his fantastic novel She Was a Queen (1937) and his play, Lord of the Three Worlds (1947). Ma Saw started life as a farmer’s daughter and ended as Chief Queen of Narathihapate, King of Burma. Her royal husband has much in common with King Ravana: headstrong and self-indulgent, he is prone to deadly rages and rash actions which can only be controlled by the sound advice and gentle persuasions of his Queen. Like Ravana, too, he dies when a foreign power invades his country. Ma Saw, who is never in the seat of power herself, although she is highly influential in affairs of state, withdraws into obscurity at the end of both play and novel, and her status in both cases aligns her with the status of Burma as Collis was writing, awaiting the moment of its liberation from forced marriage to Britain. Swallow, too, and her alter-ego Sita, could be seen as standing for the hope of independence in Burma and India, just as Cathleen stood for the dream of an independent Ireland. Her eventual assumption of an imperial title confirms the potential of both countries to assume an equal status with the global Empire that controlled them for so long.

Maurice Collis, Three Figures

In Collis’s hands, then, the abduction of Sita becomes a promise of liberation, both for his heroine and for the many Asian cultures that had welcomed her into their hearts. The end of his book represents a series of liberatory gestures, akin to the flinging open of the lids of many boxes. Sita escapes from Ravana through Rama’s victory, then frees herself from Rama’s suspicions by walking through fire, after which Swallow frees herself from Sita’s influence by casting off the trammels of sleep, then liberates herself from confinement to the Sage’s hermitage and finally makes herself independent of her parents by sending them a gift of money to support themselves for the rest of their lives. These gestures of independence recall the exultant ending of James Stephens’s nationalist fantasy The Crock of Gold, in which the imprisoned Irish people, from school children and clerks to prisoners and factory workers, find themselves liberated from their bonds in a triumphant ‘Happy March’, a parade or dance in which mortals and fairies join together to break the mental and physical shackles of their occupied country. Indian independence came in the year after Quest for Sita was published, 1947, and Burma’s in 1948. Quest for Sita remains a powerful statement of European solidarity with the movements that led to these enfranchisements. In my next blog post I’ll consider what, if anything, Peake’s drawings may contribute to that statement.

NOTES

[1] Maurice Collis, Quest for Sita (New York: The John Day Company, 1947). All references are to this edition.

[2] G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 202.

[3] ‘As Ba Maw points out, the writings of the Sinn Fein leaders were as eagerly studied in Burma as those of Lenin and Sun Yat Sen’. Louis Allen, War, Conflict and Security in Japan and Asia-Pacific, 1941-52 (Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2011), p. 12

[4] See Mervyn Peake, ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 133-4.

[5] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, pp. 201-2.

[6] I’m thinking here of Stephens’s Irish Fairy Tales (1920) and Deirdre (1923) as well as The Crock of Gold (1912).

[7] When Queen Sawlon sees that her husband, King Narathihapate, has assumed the style of ‘Lord of the Three Worlds’ in Act II she tells him: ‘That you should be invincible in this world, I can bear, for there is Paradise. But if in Paradise too you were Lord, where could I hide? Not even in Hell, for over that domain also would you lord it.’ The Lord of the Three Worlds (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), p. 55.

[8] Collected Plays of W B Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1963), p. 88.

Fantasy 1939: Science Fiction

Howell Davies/Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil; R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript

Sam Haile, Woman and Suspended Man (1939)

The 1930s saw a vast range of fantasy published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. But this is a claim that needs interrogation. What do we mean by fantasy in a decade before the term has come to denote a literary genre, before fantasy (invariably yoked up with science fiction) has acquired a section of its own on the shelves of bookshops? My series of blog posts marked ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ are an attempt to answer that question; and more importantly, they’re a bid to show that the question itself – what do we mean by fantasy? – played a central role in British and Irish fiction in the decade that saw the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Leonora Carrington, The Pomps of the Subsoil (1947)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the word ‘fantasy’ was widely used in criticism that decade. Herbert Read defined it in his book English Prose Style (1928), which kept being republished and revised throughout the 1930s and 40s, while J R R Tolkien subjected it to more extended scrutiny in his Andrew Lang lecture ‘On Fairy Stories’ in 1937. For Read, fantasy was a sustained work of ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – with the emphasis on the word sustained – concerning itself with ‘things which are concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, and developing its caprices in a scrupulously logical manner. Tolkien chose to define fantasy (which as a philologist he knew very well to have a wider range of meanings) as one aspect of the faculty that mediates between the imagination – the capacity to form mental images of things not actually present, as Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary put it – and the external world, or rather its human population. That is, it’s ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ (pp. 46-7), the ‘operative link’ between the imagination and its expression in a work of art. More specifically, it’s that aspect of this power or operative link which is concerned to generate ‘a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story’. Fantasy, for Tolkien, is the capacity to make works of art that convey a sense of ‘“unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to our Primary World), of freedom from the domination of “observed fact”, in short of the fantastic’ (p. 47). It’s the art of the impossible, in other words: art that flamboyantly violates the laws of physics, biology, geography, or space and time, where ‘art’ is being used in the old sense of a skill as well as the product of that skill. Taken in this inclusive but quite specific sense, fantasy fiction of the 1930s is quite astonishing in terms of the sheer diversity of its experiments, and suggests the extent to which the imaginations of writers were being troubled and transformed by the turbulent times they lived in, when world-wide recession, totalitarianism and the spread of conflict across the globe threatened to wipe out all traces of the past – and rewrite the terms on which people lived the present – in what must have looked something like a slow tsunami.

Michael Ayrton, Sleeper in Flight (1943)

Fantasy as the art of the impossible found itself in a strange position in that decade. All certainties about what was impossible, or conversely about what could be described (in Read’s terms) as ‘concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, were in dispute, caught up in the struggle between opposing philosophies and political positions. Tolkien expresses anxiety about the operations of the faculty called fantasy – ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ – in part because it could so easily serve the interests of falsification, in particular the falsification of history beloved of the fascists. This is why he stresses (a) the importance of incorporating the qualities of strangeness and wonder into the products of the fantasy, emphasizing its self-segregation from consensus reality; (b) the fairy tale’s subservience (as ‘sub-creation’) to the primary, substantial creative work of making planets, living creatures and so on, which is the exclusive province of God; and (c) the preservation of a rigorous sense of history in one’s treatment of it – even while he acknowledges that the history of fantasy’s most familiar literary product, the fairy tale, is next to impossible to write. This final point was a tricky one in the 1930s – I mean, the preservation of the rigorous historical perspective for which an etymologist or historian of words like Tolkien prided himself. In the between-war period the distinction between the primary world – whether or not one took it to have been intentionally created by a singular God – and the strangeness of what cannot and never could exist, was constantly being challenged in fantastic fiction, in an obvious and often deliberate reflection of the breakdown of political, social, economic, religious, philosophical and scientific certainties taking place in these two decades. A rigorous historical perspective – an account of the past or indeed the present based on the concrete evidence available, uncontaminated by baseless speculation – was not so easy to define or maintain under the circumstances.

Conroy Maddox, The Lesson (1938)

At the same time as societies were undergoing radical changes, the human mind was being revealed by psychoanalysts as a complex repository of conscious and unconscious fantasies, many of them concerned with exerting some level of control over people, actions, situations and sensations. For Freudians, fantasies were always interposing themselves between the individual’s mind and the world, determining how one interacted with one’s fellow human beings, so that what was ‘real’ was difficult to determine or access. This difficulty underpins many contemporary interpretations of the artistic movement known as surrealism, which took root in Britain in the 1930s. British surrealist apologists like Herbert Read insisted that the set of conventions known as ‘realism’ or mimesis could not properly take account of human experience in the world, since our unconscious desires, dreams and obsessions always direct the way we perceive or interact with our environment.[1] Surrealism, for Read, meant ‘super-realism’: going beyond the notion of objective reality, as befitted artists or creators realistic enough to know that fantasies invariably mediate between ourselves and the material spaces we inhabit, the objects and living creatures with which we interact. The word’s prominence in 1930s Britain, where a wide range of British and Irish artists joined artists from the continent in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, underlines the extent to which an awareness of fantasy as a faculty or a product of that faculty was helping to destabilize the very concept of the ‘real’.

One way of grasping the sheer diversity of fantasy literature in the 1930s is to take a snapshot of the fiction that might be termed ‘fantastic’ in any given year. For the purposes of this post and those that follow it I’ve chosen the year when war broke out between Britain and Germany, 1939, selecting a small number of texts from that year – many of which we would now see as belonging to different genres – that demonstrate a sustained engagement with ‘fantasy’ in one or more of the senses given above. Each post deals with a different kind of fantastic fiction: science fiction, Irish rural fantasy, children’s literature – though it doesn’t claim to deal with all examples of these kinds, even in the year under discussion.[2] Instead the books have been chosen because they speak to each other in some way, and because they collectively speak to the state of fantasy at the time of writing.

Two significant books we would now call science fiction came out that year, both of which have a clear association with fantasy and the fantastic. One was by Andrew Marvell: Congratulate the Devil, about a drug that gives its user power over other people’s minds, enabling him or her to realize the desire for absolute control which for anyone else must always remain a daydream. The other is by R C Sherriff: The Hopkins Manuscript, about the collision of the moon with the earth and the social chaos that ensues, as seen through the eyes of an Englishman living in rural Hampshire. Two experimental fantasies were also published: Clemence Dane’s little-known satire The Arrogant History of White Ben, about a scarecrow that becomes fascist dictator of Britain, and Flann O’Brien’s celebrated first novel At Swim-Two-Birds, about a medley of characters in a book who rebel against the tyranny of the author. I’ve written elsewhere about both Dane’s book and O’Brien’s, and introduce them here to give a sense of how Marvell’s and Sherriff’s novels share a number of features with other kinds of fantastic texts published at the same time. To begin with, three of the four books I’ve just listed were published under pseudonyms: Andrew Marvell was the Welsh editor and theatre critic Howell Davies, Clemence Dane the English novelist and playwright Winifred Ashton, while Flann O’Brien was the Irish civil servant Brian O’Nolan. The use of pseudonyms gives some sense of the constraints under which writers felt themselves to be practising their craft at this point in history. All four books concern abuses of power in the form of the dictatorships imposed by the author, the scarecrow and the British government in the books by O’Brien, Dane and Sherriff, as well as through mind control in Marvell’s novel. In all four novels a form of social breakdown takes place, and in every case this follows on from the rise of fascistic forces in the writer’s own country: O’Brien’s Ireland, Sherriff’s United Kingdom, Marvell’s Wales and England (as a Welshman he makes a clear distinction between them), and most grimly of all Dane’s Britain, where after the scarecrow takes control a growing number of social groups begin to be classified as ‘crows’ and condemned to death. All four novels localize the root causes of social and political calamity not in some overseas nation – Fascist Italy or Spain, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia – but in the fields, towns and cityscapes of home (even The Hopkins Manuscript does this, as we shall see). Clemence Dane’s totalitarian scarecrow, White Ben, is peculiarly British in his origins, constructed by a child and clothed in a random selection of garments that between them represent a cross-section of British society. He springs from the soil of England like the plant that grows in the field where he acquires sentience, and from which he takes his surname, campion. His dictatorship, then, is a British one, forged exclusively from British materials, tailored to British culture. He can stand for many of the adult fantasies written in the late 1930s in his disastrous transplantation of the fascistic dreams that were sweeping through continental Europe into the receptive ground of his native island.

Andrew Marvell’s Congratulate the Devil offers a particularly interesting perspective on the breakdown of boundaries between the fantastic and the real in contemporary Britain. The story tells of a young chemist, William Roper, who discovers a version of the drug mescal which enables him to take control of other people’s minds, and hence to realize his own private fantasies in the actual world (at least to some extent: the drug only works within a certain distance of its user). Roper is a man who bears a marked resemblance to the devil, both in his appearance – he has ‘two glistening lumps’ on his forehead like incipient horns – and his personality, since he loves playing malicious tricks on random strangers. He himself, then, is corporeally linked to the supernatural or impossible, and the drug gives him the chance to demolish the walls between the immaterial religious world whose chief antagonist he resembles and the material world he lives in. The comic possibilities of this demolition of boundaries are obvious, and Roper begins by using his new drug impishly, for his own amusement. He first feeds it to a dog, whose doggish mind then forces all human beings within range to behave like dogs, an episode described in something like the comic style of Lord Dunsany’s charming novella My talks with Dean Spanley (1936). Dunsany’s book is about a clergyman who keeps remembering his former life as a spaniel; it has nothing too serious about it (though there’s a drug involved: he only revisits his past lives when he drinks the Hungarian sweet wine Tokay). In Marvell’s novel, by contrast, Roper’s behaviour quickly transitions from the impish to the diabolical. He falls in love with an artist’s model and forces her to love him back by means of the drug; and from that point on, driven by his no-longer-repressed desires, the chemist’s powers get used for increasingly disturbing purposes: rape, murder, robbery, an incipient revolution. But it also becomes increasingly clear that the young man’s devilry is merely an extension of a range of diabolical activities that are already endemic in British society; that Britain itself, in fact – as a community and an institution – has a barely repressed unconscious which is always breaking through in acts of more or less authoritarian violence. Roper’s incipient horns are the physical manifestation of a widespread tendency throughout the nation he inhabits; and correspondingly, Roper’s adventures make the incipient horns of contemporary Britain clearly visible to Marvell’s readers.

Mervyn Peake, Rumpelstiltskin

For Marvell, the English language itself acknowledges the omnipresence of diabolical tendencies among its users. As you read the novel, count the incidence of diabolical terms such as ‘devil’, ‘hell’, ‘infernal’ and ‘damnation’ in the text, often in commonly used phrases whose submerged religious or moral sense is reawakened by their context: ‘’Old ’im, Sir, ’old the devil’ (p. 8); ‘I […] pelted down the lane as if the devil were at my heels’ (p. 117); ‘Women were the devil’ (p. 185); ‘What the devil is Mayfair running away from?’ (p. 258). Roper’s devilishness, then, is native both to Britain and its dominant language. So too is his coercive attitude to women. The model he desires, Anita, is a married woman, whose husband asserts his power over her through violence, which is effectively condoned by those who know her, since there is little recourse in British law for victims of domestic abuse. As the artist who paints Anita puts it, ‘There have been bruises, now and again, but she hasn’t said anything’ (p. 104) – presumably because nothing she says will make any difference. Roper’s exertion of power over Anita with the help of his drug is just another version of the male violence to which she is already subjected, thanks to the tacit acceptance in British society of the husband’s right to attack his wife whenever he chooses.

Leonora Carrington, The Pine Family (1940)

The relationship between Anita and her husband, then, is as much of a devil’s bargain as her relationship with Roper; and again this is pointed up in Marvell’s infernal references. When the narrator, Jim, first meets the husband, he asks: ‘What the devil do you want? Who are you?’ (p. 153), and the husband’s response exposes the hell of marriage for many wives. He wants to make a business deal with Roper, using the narrator as an intermediary and his wife as a bargaining chip; he knows Roper has been sleeping with Anita and insists on being paid not to divulge it, and when the narrator refuses, the husband beats her up ‘like a maniac’, as Roper puts it (p. 157). From one perspective, this is blackmail reinforced by assault; but from another it’s capitalism in action, as the husband implies when he describes himself and the narrator as ‘men of the world’ (p. 155). In other words, it’s a way of doing business that’s not just accepted but fiercely defended by governments and institutions all over the planet. And when Roper finally kills him – leaving Anita ‘free’, as Roper puts it, though not free to resist Roper’s wishes – the chemist insists it is not murder but justice, and that the narrator’s disapproval brands him a hypocrite (p. 160). Not acting to put a stop to the husband’s violence is more diabolical, Roper implies, than Roper’s own decision to end that violence through violence, so that Roper is in some respects less devilish than the Britain that condones misogynist abuse. By this stage it’s become clear, in fact, that the chemist’s devilish use of mind control – the fantastic impossibility at the heart of the novel – provides a kind of key to reveal the devilish forms of mind control already at work in British society, as well as the intricate hypocrisies – the ‘compunctions and evasions’, as Marvell puts it (p. 89) – that work to sustain them.

Mervyn Peake, Mr Hyde (1948)

As Roper implies, the narrator’s penchant for hypocrisy makes him not just a double for Roper but perhaps even his superior in the hierarchy of wickedness. Jim is a playboy, by his own admission. He claims to be studying the politics of labour in countries round the world, a useful project, one would have thought, at a time of global recession like the 1930s; but his ‘studies’ are merely an excuse for tourism and philandering, and his contributions to political thought or economic planning are non-existent. His identity, too, is almost non-existent. His name is Jim Starling, which suggests a flightiness, a penchant for imitating other people and a liking for bright shiny things without much awareness of their value. We don’t know a great deal about him or his family – and it’s implied that there is little to know – but we’re aware that his money is running out and that his days as a playboy are therefore numbered, thus effectively erasing his identity, since he is defined by his indecisiveness and self-indulgence, both of which are made possible by his fortune. His days themselves are numbered in any case, as we know from the opening sentence: ‘In seven days I shall be killed’, it announces, turning the tumbling pace of the novel into a sprightly gallop towards Jim’s death.

But Jim has already been effectively erased from the world of the book some time before this happens. From the beginning of the novel, his fate is indistinguishable from Roper’s, since he has no story outside of Roper’s story, and there is even a point at which Roper occupies Jim’s body with the help of his drug – when Jim becomes Roper, so to speak. Marvell makes it clear that this occupation is a form of rape; Jim insists, ‘I didn’t want him to do it’ (p. 88), and later tells him directly ‘I would rather not’ (p. 88), but Roper does it anyway, just as he later forces Anita to become his lover. As with Anita, too, Roper represents his violation of Jim as tantamount to an act of love: ‘It’s the kind of thing lovers long for: complete union with the beloved’ (p. 88) – though he adds with characteristic irony, ‘I don’t suppose it would be a healthy experience’. Oddly, though, it’s Roper who claims to feel violated by Jim as a result of their joint occupation of Jim’s body: ‘I think I shall always bear you a grudge for this rape’, he tells him afterwards (p. 90). His resentment stems from a number of sources. First, there is Jim’s stated unwillingness to describe the experience of sharing Roper’s identity, which both Roper and the reader might ascribe to Jim’s cowardice, his reluctance to expose the unsettling cynicism, resentment and lack of conscience he has found in Roper’s mind. Partly, too, the chemist’s resentment stems from his belated wish to preserve what he calls a ‘privacy of self’ (p. 90). Most disturbing of all for Roper, though, is the evidence Jim might provide of the instability of his own identity. During Roper’s occupation of Jim’s body, Jim sees clearly the distinction between himself and Roper: ‘I had never imagined that someone else could feel so different,’ he writes, ‘that his “being” should vary so profoundly from my “being”’ (p. 88); and he confirms that Roper’s personality has what he calls ‘weight’, or gravity, in stark opposition to his own vapid ‘lightness’. But his friend’s mind is also described as existing in some sort of ‘bondage’, exuding a sense ‘of being swathed round and of a desperate stretching against the bandages, as though he were buried alive’, of being in ‘constant strife’ – a phrase that neatly encapsulates the devil’s nature as the arch-fiend or universal enemy, trapped by his own opposition to the whole of creation. Shortly afterwards Jim describes him as ‘a bold, dark, striving spirit, constantly disintegrating and re-cohering’ (p. 89), like evil in Milton’s Comus.[3] Roper, then, like Jim himself, has no consistent being; he can’t distinguish himself from his own victims, and is as subject to coercive binding as anyone he binds with his drug. The breaking down of boundaries between minds, which is made possible by the drug, reveals the permeability of the boundaries between one identity and another, and hence perhaps the difficulty of assigning responsibility for any given action, of determining its moral status. No wonder, then, if Jim tells us that Roper’s brief possession of his body leaves him (and presumably Roper) with a powerful unease about what he calls the ‘mystery of personality’ (p. 88), as well as a ‘furtive sense of shame’, as if his refusal to describe Roper’s mind to its owner makes him responsible, in some sense, both for what Roper has done in the past and what he will do in future.

Mervyn Peake, Dr Jekyll (1948)

Sure enough, Jim condones Roper’s actions again and again in the book, first by failing to describe the state of Roper’s mind to him at this early stage in his addiction, then by repeatedly refusing to condemn them to his face, and finally by failing to report the murders he commits to the authorities – aiding and abetting him, in other words, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. His own unstable identity transforms him at times into a dead ringer for his more forceful friend, while his hypocrisy makes him as responsible for Roper’s actions as Roper himself; perhaps more so, since he could have brought them to an end more easily than Roper, given the chemist’s self-confessed condition as an ‘addict’ to his new drug (p. 114).

But Jim is not alone in his complicity with Roper’s actions. The book sees the chemist’s personal devilishness manifested in nearly every other character: from the police constable whose mind Roper makes use of to club an unfortunate servant to death with his truncheon (p. 135), to Jim’s elderly aunt, who shows an unseemly fascination with the details of the servant’s murder (p. 112); from Cousin Flo, an unmarried relative of Roper’s who gets hold of one of the pills and transforms a Vicar into the husband of her dreams (p. 144), to the narrator, who is accused by Roper of having designs on the pills himself (p. 138). When Jim insists that Roper give him the pills after the servant’s murder, Roper tells him that he is behaving just like Hitler: ‘with you they’d be safe,’ he observes ironically; ‘It sounds like Hitler’s argument for taking away the colonies’ (p. 138). Britain is filled, in fact, with little Hitlers, whose claims to benevolence are indistinguishable from the dictator’s desire to exercise absolute power. The pills do no more than underline this affinity between the outwardly good-natured English or Welsh citizen and the Nazi dictator of Germany, by giving some of them the means to incarnate their ‘secret desire […] for conquest and capitulation’ (p. 144).

Leslie Hurry, Café Bar (1946)

Despite Jim’s insistence that he is a playboy, then, with no serious political or intellectual commitments; despite the ‘lightness’ of his prose style as first-person narrator of Marvell’s book – full of short paragraphs, rapid-fire dialogue and swift transitions; Jim’s narrative is in the end a political one, as perhaps all narratives had to be in 1939. The political aspect of the book is revealed quite gradually, but comes to a head in the final pages, when the British government stands revealed as the worst of devils in that devilish nation. As the self-appointed watchdogs of global capitalism, the British authorities, it turns out, are willing to sacrifice any number of innocent citizens to protect its interests; and the people they destroy by violence include members of their own forces, policemen and soldiers. The irony is that these innocents are killed to put an end to a professedly benevolent revolution, involving the forcible spread of ‘human kindness’ through the agency of Roper’s friend, a saintly Welsh street singer called Bert who is the chemist’s polar opposite in terms of his moral proclivities. When Bert gets hold of the pills he is persuaded by Roper (for the young man’s private amusement) to conduct an experiment on the British public by forcing them through mind control to be relentlessly ‘kind’ to one another. Kindness, however – it turns out – is inimical to property laws, the hoarding of gold reserves by banks, and hierarchies of every kind; so the government cannot possibly accept its imposition on the populace. The book ends with a devastating artillery attack that kills Roper, Bert, policemen, soldiers and a host of bystanders. As Howell Davies, Andrew Marvell was a veteran of the Great War; so the termination of his novel with the indiscriminate shelling by his government of its own people, in a year when global conflict was about to break out for a second time in the author’s lifetime, makes bona fide devils of the British state.

George Frampton, Peter Pan statue, Kensington Gardens (1911)

The authorities’ erasure of Bert’s revolution also erases Bert and Roper from the annals of history. The clothes of the dictator-scarecrow in Clemence Dane’s The Arrogant History of White Ben transform their wearer into a living emblem of the past: ‘He had been garmented’, Dane writes, ‘with religion, diplomacy, the art of war, the art of healing; for he wore a priest’s vestment, a soldier’s gauntlets and civilian mackintosh; a gentleman’s pleasure-hat, a surgeon’s coat. […] [M]en’s memories were buttoned about him’ (p. 20). The fate of Marvell’s characters, by contrast, is to be remembered (if at all) as the cast of a novel, and hence to be written out of the historical record altogether. This process of writing them out begins at an early stage in the revolution, as the government carefully vets the newspaper coverage of its spread; and later one of the ‘journalists’ reporting on Bert’s movements turns out to be a government spy, whose information enables the shell attack on the Welshman and his followers to be accurately targeted. The only reliable account of what happened to Bert and Roper is to be found in the pages of the seemingly fantastical story told by Jim, which he writes down while staying in a tiny village in Wales – on the margins of history, so to speak – and arranges to be smuggled to Roper’s father after his death. The fact that we are reading this posthumous account in the form of a work of fantastic fiction suggests that the father chose to release it as a product of the imagination rather than of history, presumably to protect the contents from censorship. Indeed, the decision to release it as fantasy seems to be anticipated by the choice of setting for Bert’s last revolutionary headquarters: the tea-house in Kensington Gardens – now the Serpentine Gallery – located in a section of Hyde Park whose best-known associations are with that most influential of British fantasies, Peter Pan. Peter’s first literary appearance famously took place in Kensington Gardens, in J M Barrie’s The Little White Bird, and his statue by Sir George Frampton still stands on the other side of the water from the former café. In Congratulate the Devil, then, the fantastic and the historical are in constant dialogue or exchange, so that the distinction between them is at times more or less impossible to make.

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons (1934)

The disintegration of boundaries between fantasy and reality is for Marvell profoundly damaging. He reflects this formally by refusing to divide his novel into chapters, as (for instance) R C Sherriff did in The Hopkins Manuscript. As a result the comic episodes at the beginning, where humans behave like cheerful dogs, exist in a continuum with the much more troubling incidents that follow: the murder of one of those humans – the servant Dobbs; the bank robbery; Roper’s murder of Anita; the destruction of the teahouse by shelling. As we’ve seen, Roper’s mescal breaks down the boundaries between the imagination and material life; Bert’s conviction that human kindness provides the key to a better world, for instance, is described as one of his ‘fantasies’, and the pills let him put this fantasy into practice. But for powerful people – newspaper magnates, rich men, politicians – the world is already a ‘fine hot-pot of fact and fantasy’, which is how Roper describes the ‘inaccurate’ coverage of his killing of Dobbs in the national press (p. 130).

The bank robbery staged by Roper shortly after the murder demonstrates the central role played by fantasy in economics. With his pills he forces the bank manager to think of the money in his vaults as worth less than a pile of leaves: ‘Pieces of paper,’ he calls them, ‘silly little pieces of paper with pictures on them. Gentlemen, you are welcome to them. […] Take them all. […] Leave not a wrack behind’ (p. 125). As the banker expatiates on this new perspective, the notion that ‘pieces of paper with pictures on them’ should have some sort of intrinsic value becomes increasingly absurd; yet it’s in the interests of defending this absurdity that the British government bombs the tea-house in Kensington Gardens. In other words, Roper’s imposition of his fantasies through the operation of his new drug underlines the far more successful imposition of fantasies on human beings by the world’s businesses and the governments that serve them, a form of mind control that reduces people of all nations to helpless dupes.

Alfred Kubin, Caliban (1918)

The bank manager’s phrase, ‘Leave not a wrack behind’, comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s from the scene where the enchanter Prospero acknowledges the insubstantial nature of his magic, and aligns it with the insubstantial nature of the ‘great globe itself’, which will fade away at last and leave no trace of its passing. This is the first of two key references to The Tempest in Marvell’s novel. The second is Roper’s, when he contemplates what would have happened if the islander Caliban had got control of Prospero’s wand and used it to reshape the world around him (p. 152). Roper thinks of himself as a second Caliban: a misshapen, marginalized individual, enslaved by pointless conventions, who lusts after Anita just as Caliban lusted after Prospero’s daughter Miranda. At first the young chemist claims to have no interest in gaining Anita’s affections through the mind-controlling ‘magic’ of mescal, and insists that Caliban, too, would have been uninterested in forcing Miranda to love him. But Shakespeare’s play does not bear this out this assertion. Caliban did in fact try to rape Miranda – according to her father – and Roper follows in his footsteps. With the help of the drug he forces Anita to sleep with him, then when the effects wear off and she recoils from him in horror he strangles her in a paroxysm of rage, resentful of her inability to go on embodying his erotic daydreams without the drug’s intervention. In both play and novel, then, magic is the expression of the desire to shape the world in accordance with one’s fantasies, a project whose eventual failure is rendered inevitable by the incompatibility of one person’s fantasies with another’s – except in an impossible utopia, of the kind Marvell’s Bert or Shakespeare’s Gonzalo conjures up.

Ithell Colquhoun, Song of Songs (1933)

Roper’s willingness to ‘force’ Anita to service his desires is represented as devilish, but no more so than the world’s tendency to ‘force’ her to embody an androcentric vision of femininity. The young chemist first sees the girl in a painting executed by an artist named Joubert, who also happens to supply Roper with the drug which is the source of his problems. In the painting – presumably executed under the influence of the drug in question – Anita stands facing the viewer, naked, ‘hands turned towards us’, looking off into the distance at an indeterminate object (‘It might be a lover, it might be God’, p. 102). It is Roper who suggests a title for this picture: ‘the moment of truth’; but in fact, of course, it’s another fantasy, the image of a young girl as freely and willingly available for all men’s pleasure. The street singer Bert correctly identifies the painting as exploitative, but couches his objections to Anita’s nudity in the same possessive terms that the picture invites all men to use about her: ‘I don’t like you doing that’, he tells her (p. 103). Both Roper’s and Bert’s perceptions of Anita are based on the painting’s representation of her as somehow ‘made’ by and for the male viewer:

‘Look, you made me, here I am. I have nothing to hide. The beauty is yours, all yours.’ She seemed to be saying that, and glorying, too, that the beauty was there to bestow, utterly, without reservation. (p. 103)

Bert later liberates Anita from both Joubert’s and Roper’s influence, but in doing so places her in a setting that infantilizes her – a sweet shop – as does his refusal to acknowledge her adult desire for Bert himself. Later still, Roper murders Anita because she refuses to act out the role of ‘the beauty [that is] there to bestow, utterly, without reservation’ in life as she did in the painting. Both men, in fact, use the drug to ‘make’ or remake Anita as they wish her to be, just as the painter did, and both find themselves unable to cope when she insists on following her own desires and inclinations. In this they are the exact opposite of Roper’s father, a man who the chemist describes as the ‘only complete realist I know’, who ‘knows exactly what he wants from life, never asks more of it than it can give, and is always prepared to find that it gives less than he expects’ (p. 92). The father’s decision to release the narrative of Roper’s drug as a fantasy novel, as against a historical account, is ironically a more realistic choice than any made by the drug’s users, who persist in believing that the world can be reshaped by the transient influence of the magic it contains. Roper and Bert are fantasists, and their treatment of Anita underlines the tendency of fantasists in the 1930s to force their damaging dreams on the world, always asking ‘more of it than it can give’, and roused to rage, in Roper’s case – like Wilde’s version of Caliban – when it doesn’t mirror their dreams and expectations with servile faithfulness.

Oswald Mosley and the British Fascist Blackshirts (1936)

Ironically, Roper’s own death is brought about for a similar reason to his murder of the woman who obsessed him. Bert’s revolution, which Roper first suggests to him and then helps to orchestrate, exposes money and social inequality as manifestations of false consciousness; that is, as fantasies devised to keep the ruling elite in power. It is, in fact, an attempt on Roper’s part to return to the ‘realism’ he was taught by his father, and which he abandoned by treating Anita as an ideal; and as we’ve seen it proves insupportable to the government, which destroys him as he destroyed Anita. This would seem to be Roper’s intention from the beginning: a suicidal desire to atone for his killing of Anita with his own destruction, though as a devil-figure he inevitably brings down his friends Bert and Jim along with him. Roper knows very well how the revolution of kindness is likely to end. When Jim suggests at one point that the government is reluctant to fire on the revolutionaries because of the crowd of innocent people gathered round them, Roper asks him: ‘What do you think you’re up against, the Peace Pledge Union?’ (p. 256) – referring to the pacifists who opposed a military response to the Nazi threat. The real reason for the government’s reluctance, Roper insists, is that the revolutionaries are out of range of the army’s machine guns; and the bombing of the café confirms his suspicions, while also signaling to Marvell’s readers the end of the democratic dream of government as a beneficent force at the service of its electors. World leaders share the obsessive self-interest of other men, a self-interest that devours those who refuse to serve it as a cannibal devours other members of its own species. Roper himself describes his obsession with Anita as a kind of hunger: ‘Ever been hungry, really hungry?’ he asks Jim (pp. 195 and 200), as an analogy for his yearning for her body. This hunger finally consumes her, and it’s in response to this act of metaphorical cannibalism that Roper allows himself to be consumed in his turn by dying in a famous eating-house. Marvell’s novel finishes, in fact, by implying that the mind control imposed on individuals or populations by fascist populism is a form of anthropophagy, and that it is practised everywhere in Europe by governments determined to sustain themselves by consuming the citizens they govern. T H White had made a similar point just one year earlier in The Sword in the Stone (1938).

Bela Lugosi in Chandu the Magician (1932)

In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien’s unease with the power exerted by fantasy over its readers comes to a head in his discussion of the difference between Magic and Enchantment. Magic makes a change to the world we live in, he tells us, and ‘its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills’. Enchantment, on the other hand, is the art of sub-creation – of inventing new worlds as imaginative subsets of this one – and is ‘inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician’ (p. 53). But Enchantment too can be ‘perilous’, Tolkien warns (p. 53), because ‘Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil’ (p. 55). Congratulate the Devil is a book about Magic, in Tolkien’s terms, whose protagonists are as greedy for power as Tolkien’s Magician. But Tolkien also believes that Enchantment, as the human craft he calls Fantasy works it, can be abused to such an extent that we think our sub-created secondary worlds to be somehow real: ‘[Men] have made false gods out of other materials: their nations, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice’ (pp. 55-6). From this perspective, Congratulate the Devil is a work of Enchantment, and as such the product of Fantasy. It draws attention, as I’ve argued here, to the totalitarian abuses of Fantasy that pervaded Europe in the 1930s; and in the process it reminds its readers that they themselves might be worshipping deformed gods of their own invention – the Ropers of their minds.

How, I wonder, does Marvell imagine the effect of his book on its readers? Does he see it as practising mind control on us, experimentally forcing us to root for the devil, Roper, and to congratulate him in the end for the morbid entertainment he has afforded us? There’s a clue, perhaps, in the connection with Wilde I’ve already touched on in connection with Caliban. If Roper is Caliban, he will produce a dual effect on his readership, according to Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, since ‘The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass’, while ‘The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism’ – for which read deliberately unrealistic narratives, like modern fantasy – ‘is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass’. Roper as a representation of contemporary Britishness will make readers angry; Roper as an unrealistic character, with his devilish horn-stubs, will arouse readers’ contempt; though all the while readers will fail to note that they are as much Caliban as Roper is, if we take Wilde’s dicta seriously. Meanwhile the portrait of Anita can be seen as a version of the Picture of Dorian Gray, mirroring the faults of its painter (who worshipped a fake version of Anita just as Basil Hallward worshipped a fake version of Dorian) as well as its spectators (who expect all women to act as the model is made to act by the painter). Marvell’s readers are as much the painters and avid spectators of Anita’s portrait as Joubert and Roper are. Marvell’s position as author, meanwhile, is that of Roper’s father: the realist who expects nothing more from life than it can actually give him, since he unflinchingly demonstrates the likely outcome of giving credence to such deadly fantasies. His fantasy speaks unpalatable truths to power – and to the people who willingly lend unscrupulous authorities what power they have; though like Roper’s father he has no expectation that power or the people will pay attention to it. For Marvell, as for Auden (also writing in 1939), fantasy ‘makes nothing happen’ – though in flamboyant and sometimes spectacular fashion.

*****

I’ve suggested that Congratulate the Devil concerns itself in part with the erasure of unpalatable happenings from the pages of history; but Sherriff’s novel The Hopkins Manuscript contains yet more unsettling revelations about the unreliability of human accounts of the past. Once again the novel presents itself as a form of documentary evidence for events that might seem far-fetched to its readers. Here, however, those events took place at a time so long ago that it has become known as a second Dark Ages. The frame of the novel – like the frame of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – transports the reader to a point many centuries in the future, after the population of Europe has been wiped out, first by the devastating effects of the moon’s collision with the earth, then by conflict over ownership of the shattered remains of the satellite among rival European nations. Lunacy, in other words, is its subject, and the moon serves in it both as a deadly menace – a giant bomb – and as a potent metaphor for the capacity of human beings to set aside reason and self-preservation in the quest for power, or for the illusion of power, since all power is finally lost in Sherriff’s narrative, including the simple power to light a candle in the darkness (the book is written by the light of ‘feeble home-made lanterns’, p. 5). The imminent moon crash is the focus of the first two thirds of the novel; but as it turns out, the cataclysm proves eminently survivable. What destroys Europe is the madness of war, and the complex network of fantasies that bring this madness about, as both embodied and critiqued by Sherriff’s narrator, Edgar Hopkins: the man who gives the book its title and becomes the last lost voice of vanished Britain, ‘a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the gathering darkness’ (p. 3).

R C Sherriff

Sherriff’s choice of narrator is inspired. In the introduction, an unnamed historian from the future describes him damningly as ‘Edgar Hopkins […] a man of such unquenchable self-esteem and limited vision that his narrative becomes valueless to the scientist and historian’ (p. 1). He is, in other words, a fantasist, incapable of adjusting his perception of himself in the light of the catastrophe to which he is subjected – or so the historian claims, though the summary is not fair to him. In a number of ways, Hopkins is a perfect representative of British culture in the 1930s. As a middle-class white man who lives in the countryside, he is a type who is disproportionately represented among the protagonists of English literature – a representative of the fantasy Englishman who never existed – although his self-esteem has rarely been as devastatingly cut down to size as it is by Sherriff’s catastrophe. Despite his high opinion of himself, his marginal status is made obvious from the beginning, as well as his ordinariness (Sherriff’s first title for the book was An Ordinary Man). Retired very early from his job as a teacher (we learn at a late stage in the novel that he was bullied by his pupils, which explains his decision to withdraw his labour), and more interested in breeding chickens than in politics or astronomy, Hopkins becomes a member of the British Lunar Society pretty much by accident; yet he considers his membership of the society – and the early awareness it gives him of the problem with the moon – to mark him out as a person of consequence, specially selected by virtue of his intelligence, birth and education to be the custodian of secret information vouchsafed only to the cream of the British ruling classes. Sherriff brilliantly conveys the strain on Hopkins of maintaining this fantastic view of himself over the months that elapse between the revelation of the coming collision, at a private meeting of the Lunar Society, and the release of the news to the general public. At times during this period Hopkins succeeds in seeing himself as the elite guardian of what he calls The Secret. At others he teeters on the brink of madness, as he notes the horrible disparity between the everyday goings-on around him and the approaching annihilation of life on earth. Christmas brings out this disparity in drastic fashion. It’s a feast that centres on the fantastic, in the form of myths of universal brotherhood, Father Christmas on his sleigh, God’s love for all humanity and so on. It’s also a ritual which is annually repeated – or would be if the world were not about to come to an end. And it’s the yearly high point of consumer capitalism, when economic inequalities are both at their most pronounced and most assiduously occluded. As a result, the Christmas before the crash becomes for Hopkins an almost unbearably ironic pantomime, full of scenes he can’t help but contrast with the devastation that will shortly be unleashed. A family passing Hamley’s toyshop, for instance, ‘brimming with the best that life can give’, fills him with ‘impotent rage’ because ‘this monstrous thing could not happen in a world that harboured such people as these’ (p. 74). Hopkins’ idealized vision of the family, whom he imagines returning ‘to some quiet house in a tree-lined road’, is as palpable a fantasy, perhaps, as the idea that the moon won’t strike the earth, despite the science; and in harbouring it Hopkins displays his own ordinariness at the very point when he wishes to present himself as most elevated by his exclusive lunar knowledge.

Yet on the whole Hopkins manages to preserve his sense of being exceptional, largely by concentrating from day to day on his chicken-breeding – another irony, of course, since breeding prize chickens is hardly regarded even in rural populations as the most significant of occupations (with apologies to my Galloway cousin who breeds ducks). Even in his sense of exceptionalism, however, he is ordinary, since the British people seem largely to share his ability to see themselves as somehow special. In a passage that resonates strikingly with early British responses to Covid 19, Hopkins describes the threefold reaction of the country’s citizens when news of the lunar strike is finally released. For a substantial portion of the populace, he explains – the so-called ‘country gentlemen’ –

‘the moon business’ was all a scare. Nothing would happen, but if it did, it would happen in China where that sort of thing always happened. In their opinion, it would not affect England. Things like that did not happen in England. We should ‘muddle through’ as we always had done in other troubles. We had a Government with a strong majority and the police were equal to anything. (p. 113)

Another portion of the British people anticipates the moon’s arrival as a public spectacle, something to be witnessed from a safe distance and remembered for a lifetime, since they are convinced that the satellite will merely ‘graze’ the earth before glancing off again into space:

They were prepared to see the stately beech trees of Burgin Park come crashing down like nine-pins; they were ready for a deluge, a hurricane, a terrific blowing about of dustbin lids, and a very fine sight as the moon passed overhead almost within touching distance (p. 113).

This portion of the public is seduced each night, he tells us, by their own ‘fantastic imaginings’ (p. 114), which successfully divert their attention from the ‘huge, glittering ball’ of the moon itself. The third part of the British people – only about ‘one in ten’, as Hopkins calculates – are convinced that the world is indeed about to end, and either fall back on religious faith for comfort, as the village Vicar does, or collapse into a state of existential despair which is as fantastic (in Hopkins’s view) as the imaginings of the ‘moon will graze us’ party. The chief representative of these fatalists is the landlord of the local inn, Murgatroyd, whose vision of the end of the world ‘reeked of hearses, musty black plumes and grave-clothes […] the spade of the sexton – the toll of the bell – blackness – dirt -corruption’ (p. 115); a magnificently inappropriate set of images for encompassing universal destruction. Of course as readers of a first-person narrative we have no idea whether Hopkins’s account of Murgatroyd’s views on the crash is in any way accurate, though we are made aware that the ex-teacher dislikes the publican intensely, so it’s probably biased. Each of the three reactions listed here, in other words, as well as Hopkins’s account of them, is more or less an illusion; but then again, the concept of the end of the world is so extreme that it’s hard to envisage a way of describing it that did not fall back on delusions and fancies.

Paul Nash, Eclipse of Sunflower (1945)

This makes it seem particularly suitable for Sherriff to have set his story of the moon-crash in the context of what for many of his readers would have looked like a pastoral fantasy: a prosperous village in rural Hampshire several miles from the nearest town. Such a place is used to seeing itself as on the margins in the best of ways, mostly untroubled by the national and global events that loom so large in the metropolis. That this sense of existing on the margins is an illusion becomes increasingly clear as the book goes on, and the policies of central government begin to take effect in the rural community. First comes the order to build an underground shelter or ‘dug-out’ on village land, capable of holding the whole village. The reason initially given for constructing the dugout – issued before the moon crash has become general knowledge – is that war may soon break out between Britain and some nameless ‘foreign enemy’ (p. 63). This, of course, is an illusion, rather like the notion of national superiority entertained by some of the villagers; though a far greater illusion, as it turns out, is the idea that the dugout will protect its builders. The construction of the shelter does, however, serve a practical purpose: it gives the community something to work on in the weeks before the crash, and by drawing them more closely together than they have ever been before – a process which is made particularly clear by Hopkins’s situation, as he finds himself increasingly reluctant to leave the construction site for his lonely hilltop home after work each evening. The communal nature of the construction process similarly brings out the illusory nature of the social divides that separate the villagers in normal times. All the villagers must cooperate to finish the shelter, which makes it all the odder when Hopkins finds himself reluctant to share his Christian name with the working-class men and women who are working on it by his side; this in spite of the fact that the man in overall charge of the project is a working-class Welshman, Sapper Evans. The dugout is, in fact, both a fantasy and a focus for fantasies, and its fantastic nature is confirmed when it largely fails in its intended function. The moon’s collision with the earth opens up cracks in the walls, letting in seawater and drowning most of the occupants.

The teacher’s dependence on fantasy to sustain his picture of life in the English countryside, and of his own significance as the human race speeds towards extinction, is beautifully pointed up by his choice of reading in the final moments before the moon strikes. The night before, he reads The Wind in the Willows and ‘roamed again in the fragrant meadows with Badger, Mole and the immortal Toad’ (p. 175). On the day itself he begins by revisiting Huckleberry Finn, and in the final hour manages ‘to read, even to enjoy, the first chapter of Treasure Island’. Hopkins regresses to childhood at this time of crisis, setting aside religion and politics in favour of comfortable adventures removed from his own particular moment in history by time, geography and a lack of significant consequences for the events that unfold in the course of the narrative. Each book describes adventures with an all-male cast-list whose ends he knows, and which he regards, ironically enough under the circumstances, as somehow ‘immortal’. Toad’s battle with the working classes of the Wild Wood, Huck’s travels with the African American Jim, Jim Hawkins’s struggle against pirates on behalf of his middle-class friends, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, reassure him that the Britain he loves and the class and race relations it sustains will endure beyond the end of the world itself.

As Hopkins works on the dugout he does in the end begin to set aside some of his snobbery – most obviously in his admiration for the energetic, well-organised Evans. He also begins to emerge from self-inflicted loneliness, a loneliness imposed on him by his sense of aloof superiority to most of his village neighbours and shy inferiority to the local representatives of the ruling classes. The period after the calamity, when he effectively adopts the son and daughter of a local dignitary (tellingly based at The Manor House), reinforces his new sense of belonging. In the first place it gives him an ersatz family and a social status he has never felt before (their adoption of him makes him their replacement father, which means he is now in effect the Lord of the Manor); and in the second (ironically enough, in view of the first) it continues to erode the social divisions by which his life has been guided. The new society established in the two-year ‘Epoch of Recovery’ after the calamity has an Arcadian quality about it, reinforced by the fact that it fulfills Hopkins’s lifelong fantasies, through his effective rise in social status, his acquisition of two affectionate young companions, and the recognition by the entire neighbourhood of his unparalleled importance as a chicken breeder, along with his seeming immortalization in the name of a new breed of hen: the ‘Beadle-Hopkins pullets’. Hopkins is even convinced (despite ample evidence to the contrary, such as his own employment of two farm servants) that in this new order ‘Distinctions of class were gone for ever’, something he illustrates by his willingness to sit side by side with his social inferiors at a civic banquet: ‘I sat with Mrs Smithson, the wife of a plumber, and Miss Bingham of the drapery store, talking to them almost as if they were my equals’ (p. 273).

Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon (1902), still

At the same time the status of this two-year period as a continuing pipe dream is reinforced by the fact that is punctuated by a trip to the moon, which has landed in the Atlantic Ocean and become something of a tourist destination. A trip to the moon has traditionally been the term for an absurd impossibility, as Hugh Lofting recognized when he sent Doctor Dolittle there, mounted on a moth, in 1928;[4] and the British enthusiasm for indulging in moon tourism serves in this section of the novel as a metaphor for a peculiarly British capacity for social and political self-delusion. At the same time, the trip itself proves disappointing for Hopkins and his adoptive son and daughter. All they find on the shore of what was once the ocean is ‘what appeared to be the edge of an immense slag-heap of grey, broken slate stretching as far as we could see across the land and far into the distant sea like some gloomy, ghostly continent of primeval times’ (p. 249). The image resembles a post-industrial wasteland as well as a primordial desert, or else the landscape of a battlefield in Flanders, and its blankness also predicts the erasure of history that is to come; so it’s no surprise that Hopkins leave it with a sense of ‘indefinable dread: a haunting conviction that the terrors of its arrival were trivial beside the horrors that it held in store for us’ (p. 250). His premonition proves accurate; the moon turns out to be a storehouse of vast wealth in industrial and monetary terms, laden with gold, coal and other valuable minerals, which leads inevitably to a struggle over which nation has the primary claim to its resources. These industrial fantasies about moon-minerals lead, through the equally toxic fantasy of nationhood, to all-out war, in Britain’s case waged in the name of the most evanescent fantasy of all, the illusion of a continuing global Empire. The war itself ends with the annihilation of European culture and the obliteration of all traces of its past, with ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ as one of the few pieces of material evidence (thanks to its preservation in a Thermos flask) for British or even European identity. Hopkins, in other words, really does acquire a kind of immortality, and the name of the Hopkins-Beadle pullets really is remembered centuries after the breed first saw the light. His reference to the ‘immortal Toad’ in The Wind in the Willows becomes one of the last pieces of evidence for the existence of a literature in English, a fact whose irony is intensified by the fact that Toad embodies the toxic absurdity of the British class system. Hopkins’s private fantasies become the historical epitaph of the fantasy which is Britain.

It’s not too surprising, then, that one of the last scenes in the book takes place in that hub of the fantastic, Kensington Gardens, where Congratulate the Devil also ended. Here Hopkins discusses with an acquaintance, Professor Bransbury – who is said to resemble another character familiar to children, Robinson Crusoe – the invasion of Europe by the forces of an Iranian general called Selim. Selim and his Asian and African followers aim to erase all traces of ‘Western civilization’ from the world (p. 1), a project whose successful completion is confirmed by the description of a Europe bereft of history in the opening pages of the novel. Selim’s success is partly a consequence of in-fighting among nationalist European leaders such as Britain’s fascist prime minister, Jagger. But it also takes advantage of the fantasies made available by the lunar crash, which enables Selim to identify the moon as the ‘god of oppressed peoples’, who descended to earth in order ‘to destroy their hated white oppressors’ (p. 308). One fantasy, in other words, has effectively driven out another in a world dominated by the conviction that fantasies can be realized, made real: the world of the 30s, extrapolated into the 40s by Sherriff’s almost unbearably convincing little future history.

In the next blogpost on ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ I’ll be looking at Irish rural fantasy, considering what it tells us about the state of things in a country even more on the edge of Europe than its British neighbours; and later I’ll be looking at time in the children’s fantasies of 1939. A series of trips to the moon, so to speak, on the brink of war.

Charles Bittinger, Earth as seen from the moon, National Geographic (1930s)

Appendix: Abyssinia in The Hopkins Manuscript

It’s worth noting that the ‘Foreword’ to The Hopkins Manuscript is said to have been written by a scholar from Addis Ababa in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) at some point in the far future. At the time of the novel’s publication Abyssinia was under occupation by fascist Italy, having been invaded in 1936. The League of Nations failed to condemn the invasion, but a speech to the League of Nations by the Abyssinian Emperor in exile, Haile Selassie, became internationally celebrated as an outstanding example of anti-fascist oratory. Sherriff’s decision, then, to have his conquered, culturally bereft version of Europe studied by scholars from a country currently under occupation by European fascists was a carefully considered political gesture.

Notes

[1] See Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), Foreword.

[2] For example, under science fiction I could have included H G Wells’s The Holy Terror and Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer, and under children’s fantasy Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood.

[3] I’m thinking of this passage:

But evil on itself shall back recoil
And mix no more with goodness, when at last
Gather’d like scum, and settl’d to itself,
It shall be in eternal restless change
Self-fed, and self-consum’d (Comus, lines 593-7)

[4] The moon’s association with lunacy is also exploited in Eric Linklater’s wartime classic of children’s fantasy, The Wind on the Moon (1944). As a follower of H G Wells, Sherriff will have been familiar with The First Men in the Moon (1901), in which the insane aggression of humankind trumps the horrors of the Selenite dystopia found on the moon by the travellers of the title.

Editions Used

Howell Davies / Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil, The Library of Wales (Cardigan: Parthian Books, 2008)

R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript, Penguin Modern Classics (UK: Penguin Random House, 2018)

 

Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells

[This is a version of an essay I published a few years ago. For a fully annotated version see “Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman,” New Hibernia Review, vol. 10 no. 4 (Winter 2006), 84-104.]

During the approach to the Second World War Brian O’Nolan wrote two novels in English under the pen-name Flann O’Brien, both of which are closely connected with bombs. The first of these, At Swim-Two-Birds (published by Longman’s in 1939), sold few copies and got lukewarm reviews, so it could be said to have bombed. The following year Longman’s premises in London were destroyed by a real bomb, and with them the remaining stocks of O’Nolan’s book, and after that it more or less disappeared from public consciousness until it was reprinted in 1960. His second novel, The Third Policeman (finished in 1940), ends with a revelation that might be described as a bombshell. In the last pages of the book the narrator makes the shocking discovery that he has been blown to bits by a booby trap and that he’s telling his tale from beyond the grave. On being offered to the publishers, this novel did more than bomb: it was rejected, and didn’t see print until after O’Nolan’s death.

The link between these two bombs – the real one that destroyed the first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds and the fictitious one in The Third Policeman – may be a brittle one, but it seems to me worth forging. Setting them side by side helps to underscore two things about O’Nolan’s work: the extent to which it is bound up with violence, and the extent to which the imaginary violence it contains has a grounding in reality. The independent Ireland of which At Swim-Two-Birds is an ambiguous celebration was built on armed conflict, and by the time the novel was published that conflict was spreading rapidly through Europe. My contention here is that this novel and its successor express a response to the prospect of annihilation raised by the rapid approach of the Second World War. Everything in them tends to confirm the likelihood both of the outbreak of military aggression and of its cataclysmic effects; effects which may be summarized in the destructive capabilities of bombs, whether conventional – like the bomb that blew up the warehouse – or nuclear – like the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The processes of imagining, constructing and countenancing the use of bombs are carefully mimicked in the pages of these books, and mark them out as prominent examples of what might be called the comedy of cataclysm, of which Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr Strangelove (1964) is the most celebrated example.

O’Nolan’s consciousness that violence is the presiding genius of his time finds its most direct expression in the ruthlessness with which he kills off his narrators. Much of At Swim-Two-Birds concerns the efforts of the fictional characters in a novel to outwit and finally execute the writer who brought them together. And at the end of the book this cast of revolutionary characters – all of whom collaborate in writing part of the narrative they inhabit – is massacred at one fell swoop, when the pages that sustain their existence are burnt by the writer’s servant. In The Third Policeman the threat of death hangs over the narrator from near the beginning of the story, and at the end he finds that he has been dead since the moment he started to live in fear of death. Like Europe, then, both novels contain the seeds of their own destruction, which germinate and come to appalling fruition as the narrative unfolds. At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman re-enact the contemporary struggle to the death between dictatorship and democracy, and the outcome O’Nolan envisages – for both the real and the fictional struggle – is a catastrophic explosion.

At the same time, the people who inhabit these novels, whether despots or revolutionaries, are supremely civil individuals, always ready to come to terms with one another or to exchange elaborate compliments. The word “civil” is, indeed, among O’Nolan’s favourites, invoking as it does both the prospect of good company and the potential for an unexpected outbreak of genial civil war. The fictional insurgents in At Swim-Two-Birds are so uniformly courteous that one character in the novel who reads about them complains that he’s unable to tell them apart, condemning their “spiritual and physical identity” and claiming that “true dialogue is dependent on the conflict rather than the confluence of minds.” Strangely, though, it’s the confluence of minds that leads to violence in O’Nolan’s work. For him, people resemble certain chemical substances, which, while independently harmless, may when combined acquire the potential to wreak widespread devastation. This process of destructive combining comes to a head at the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, where the many civil conversations that fill the text culminate in the politest of exchanges between a devilish fairy called the Pooka MacPhellimey and a man called Trellis – the dictatorial author whose characters have mutinied against him. Tormented by the Pooka beyond endurance, Trellis is finally goaded into calling him a “black bastard,” to which the devil-fairy retorts: “The character of your colloquy is not harmonious […] and makes for barriers between the classes. Honey-words in torment, a growing urbanity against the sad extremities of human woe, that is the […] injunction I place upon your head.” From this moment Trellis is compelled to behave like a sweet-spoken saint in adversity, warmly congratulating his adversary on the inventiveness with which he smashes, mangles and bursts the unfortunate author’s limbs and organs. Here the confluence of characters proves agonizing, but it is marked by a verbal fluency that manufactures poetry from pain, wit from wounds, delight from disintegration. For O’Nolan as for Yeats, creation and destruction spring from the same roots, and honest writers of both real and fictional histories are forever condemned to pay horrified tribute to this paradox.

If civility is one characteristic of O’Nolan’s Ireland, another is its obsession with knowledge. The acquisition of – or rather, the appearance of possessing – arcane inside information is the supreme goal of every character he invents. In his celebrated column in the Irish Times, for instance, O’Nolan’s alter-ego Myles na gCopaleen veers from sharing his expertise in the field of steam transport to leading his mighty Research Bureau in its efforts to find new means of circumventing wartime shortages; from collaborating with Einstein in his researches to playing duets with the eminent violinist Fritz Kreisler; from drawing on his personal intimacy with Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova to intervening in the global economy through his directorship of the Myles na gCopaleen Banking Corporation. The knowledge he claims in each of these areas – like all the knowledge professed by O’Nolan’s creations – serves the ends, not of some spurious objective “truth” now discredited by Einstein’s theory of relativity, but of relentless self-promotion. Knowledge in O’Nolan’s work is only ever used to make its possessor look big. And it rarely if ever achieves this objective; partly, no doubt, because everyone is familiar with the rules by which the know-all or egg-head operates, and is thus forearmed against his grandiose pretensions.

In a nutshell, the rules are these:

• Facts, both historical and physical, may be freely distorted or invented, but must always be stated with absolute confidence, no matter how misplaced.
• Facts must be conveyed with the help of the most powerful rhetorical tools available. Details of these are given at intervals throughout At Swim-Two-Birds.
• The information thus conveyed must be entirely useless, and must do no good either to you or to anyone else. It must not advance your career, improve your health, or help you to win the philosophical compensation prize of getting to know yourself. Your information must, in fact, contribute nothing whatsoever to the well-being of humanity.
• On the contrary, your information should if possible kill you, or even damn you to perdition. The possession of it, after all, is very often the result of a Faustian pact, a declaration – implicit or explicit – of one’s willingness to sell one’s soul for worthless knowledge.

The Faustian strain in O’Nolan’s work came to the fore in his play Faustus Kelly (1943), in which a local politician teaches the devil that Irish public life is more authentically hellish than Hell itself, and that knowing how to operate in it is a task beyond even the Prince of Darkness. In The Third Policeman, too, Ireland is infernal, and the protagonist is sent there for his murderous zeal in the pursuit of learning. Knowledge is capable of producing the bombs that dismembered so many bodies in the Second World War; but before it does this devilish work it must demoralize the soul to the extent that it is able to condone the manufacture and use of bombs. And in the Ireland of the thirties and forties, O’Nolan tells us, this demoralizing process is exceptionally well advanced.

O’Nolan’s opus didn’t begin with this jaded view of the contemporary forms of knowledge. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, begins by treating knowledge with respect: in its opening pages, learning of all kinds figures as the chief weapon wielded by activists for democracy and civil rights in the struggle against tyranny. The novel’s protagonist is a student who is writing a novel about an older author (Trellis), who is also writing a novel, though of a very different kind from the one planned by the student. The story Trellis proposes to write will be a “salutary book to be read by all,” filled with smut in order to appeal to the modern reading public and populated only by villains; a book which will “show the terrible cancer of sin in its true light and act as a clarion-call to torn humanity.” Trellis’s view of sin is appallingly limited given the momentous times in which he’s writing, with fascism on the rise and global conflict just around the corner. He is horrified not by stories of massacres, invasions and civil war but “by the spate of sexual and other crimes recorded in recent times in the newspapers – particularly in those published on Saturday night.” And his scapegoats for these crimes are the motley cast of characters he assembles to participate in his “bad book”, all of whom have been stolen unacknowledged from the work of other writers. It is this process of being forced into an uncongenial role to satisfy the whim of an egotistical plagiarist that the characters object to, and that provokes them to insurrection. From one point of view, their rebellion resembles Ireland’s revolt against its self-styled English landlords; after all, Trellis is the proprietor of a pub called the Red Swan Hotel, so he is indisputably a landlord. But Trellis is also indisputably Irish, with parents from both North and South (“his father was a Galwayman, sober and industrious, tried and true in the service of his country. His mother was from far Fermanagh”). So even the rising he provokes is a form of plagiary, a pale imitation of the struggle for independence. In inventing it, O’Nolan – or his student persona – would seem to be making a point about the substitution of one form of despotism for another that has taken place since the achievement of independence. The new despotism is a petty one, dominated by the church and the policing it encourages: a policing to which Trellis is as much subject as the characters he exploits (his views on the “cancer of sin” have clearly been thrashed into him by the Christian Brothers). And for the student novelist who creates both Trellis and the rebel characters, the resolution to Ireland’s continued subjection to tyrants large and small lies in the revolutionizing of the novel form itself: a transformation of the genre into a treasure-house or storage-room for the many kinds of wisdom that are freely available to Irishmen of all classes.

Before beginning the story of Trellis, the student novelist draws up a manifesto for the modern novel that resembles the charter of a new nation, an idealistic declaration of independence for twentieth-century prose fiction:

The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic […] It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service […] The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

The reference to the exclusion of “persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature” smacks of elitism, and many of O’Nolan’s characters suffer from advanced cases of intellectual snobbery. But in practice the novel written by the student embraces popular culture with the same enthusiasm it shows for the classics of Irish literature. Its “wealth of references to existing works” accommodates fireside anecdote alongside old Irish storytelling, the American Western novel alongside the philosophical disputation, the poetry of the working man alongside lyrics relating to the ancient Irish kings. All classes of Irish society are represented in the student’s book. All are given work to do and rewarded – at least for a time – with “a decent standard of living.” And all classes of Irish society are shown to have their own peculiar branches of knowledge, to be raided at will by omnivorous youth in its quest for understanding and reconciliation.

Certain forms of knowledge are of common and obvious interest to all classes: among them the rituals associated with “intoxicating beverages and their strange intestinal chemistry,” together with their physical consequences (described in a tract by the Christian Brothers which the student author incorporates into his novel); or information pertaining to turf or track (the student also incorporates letters from a Newmarket man who delivers the goods on “cast-iron plungers”). But the respect of one class for knowledge associated with other classes is also evident throughout the narrative. The working class figures who populate the student’s novel, and who form the backbone of the revolutionary movement against the tyrannical landlord-author Trellis, show an enthusiastic appreciation for the story-telling skills of a character from a quite different tradition – Finn Mac Cool, a “hero of old Ireland.” And although the poet they most admire is the “Poet of the Pick” Jem Casey, author of a ballad with the stirring refrain A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN, Casey himself when he enters the narrative is a confirmed admirer of ancient Irish poetry. On meeting the mad king Sweeny Casey announces “By God I know a bloody poet when I hear one. Hands off the poets. I can write a verse myself and I respect the man that can do the same.”

The solidarity between ancient and modern Ireland and the literatures of both is expressed with still greater eloquence by another working class character from the student’s novel:

You can’t beat it, of course, said Shanahan with a reddening of the features, the real old stuff of the native land, you know, the stuff that brought scholars to our shores when your men on the other side were on the flat of their bellies before the calf of gold with a sheepskin around their man. It’s the stuff that put our country where she stands today, Mr Furriskey, and I’d have my tongue out of my head by the bloody roots before I’d be heard saying a word against it.

Here again the respect for knowledge “that brought scholars to our shores” is warmly and forcefully articulated; in the deep past, at least, knowledge was a matter for unqualified celebration. It’s no wonder that the revolutionary Shanahan delights in “the real old stuff of our native land” since what we see of it in the student’s novel is peculiarly democratic: churchmen and laymen, kings, witches, madmen and milkmaids engage in rhetorical or athletic competition without getting aggressive, and boast outrageously without giving offence. But Shanahan adds a qualification to his praise of old Irish poetry as it is practised and purveyed in modern times: “the man in the street, where does he come in? By God he doesn’t come in at all as far as I can see.” In the twentieth century, knowledge is hemmed in by elitism and by “barriers between the classes.” In the world the student inhabits – the world beyond the pages of his novel where he is reading for a degree at University College Dublin, like Stephen Dedalus – knowledge, and the competition between different kinds of knowledge, is in a permanent state of war, of which the Second World War is merely an aggravated symptom.

The student novelist’s uncle is a member of the lower middle classes who is deeply embroiled in the war of knowledge. Like Trellis, he’s a great purveyor of hackneyed wisdom: “A good degree is a very nice thing to have […] The old schoolmasters believed in the big stick […] For what is the love of God but the love of your neighbour? […] Doctoring and teaching, the two of them are marked out for special graces and blessings.” And like Trellis, the nature of his hackneyed wisdom identifies him as the product of a Catholic education, which serves to strengthen the church’s hegemony in Ireland. But he claims to have a stake in this hegemony: he has a “very special friend” in the Christian Brothers, and can pull strings to get the student-novelist’s friend into the order. And his claim to an insider’s knowledge of the Brothers is of a piece with his claim to an inside knowledge of his nephew’s private doings. “I know the studying you do in your bedroom,” he tells him, “Damn the studying you do in your bedroom […] Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all? […] O I know the game you are at above in your bedroom. I am not as stupid as I look, I’ll warrant you that.” For the sake of his own dignity – for the sake of his aspirations to the “self-determination” mentioned in the manifesto for the student’s novel – this lower-middle-class speaker has built up an impregnable defence system constructed largely from rhetoric. He is “Rat-brained, cunning, concerned-that-he-should-be-well-thought of. Abounding in pretence, deceit.” One might add: acutely conscious that there are areas of knowledge from which he has been systematically excluded, and which impart power to the initiated; eager that he should be thought to have “special” access to these areas. He knows what goes on when a student claims to be “studying,” and he knows the inner workings of the church hierarchy. He seeks additional stakes in ruling-class culture by joining an amateur operatic society that performs the work of those representative Imperial Englishmen, Gilbert and Sullivan. His part in their work requires that he wear a papier-maché replica of a policeman’s hat, marking him out as an eager mimic of Ireland’s former “landlords.” Not surprisingly, then, at the beginning of the novel the student-novelist sees him as the would-be tyrant of his household, an enemy determined to gain control over him by every means at the disposal of his devious rat brain.

But by the end the uncle has been reduced to the status of a comic entertainer – the stage Irishman who is O’Nolan’s pet hate and who hovers at the wings of every passage he writes. He is no longer the enemy; when the student passes his exams the uncle presents him with a second hand gold watch in token of his admission into the work schedule of the nation, of which the uncle himself is part. The enemy is the system that sets one class at odds with another in the same society, in the same family even, using knowledge as its instrument. The enemy, that is, is the class system, an import equally from England and from Rome. And by the end of At Swim-Two-Birds the malevolent machinery of that system stands poised and ready to consume the student-novelist and his reader as they reach the closing pages of the book.

The transmutation of knowledge-acquisition in At Swim-Two-Birds from an amicably democratic occupation to a power-struggle, a war, may be traced by glancing at the beginning and the end of the novel. In keeping with the manifesto’s statement that the modern novel should be a work of reference, a sort of encyclopaedia, At Swim-Two-Birds is interspersed with leaves from an actual encyclopaedia that stands in the student-novelist’s bedroom. It’s a Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences, published in forty buckskin volumes in 1854 by a “reputable Bath house for a guinea the volume.” The volumes “bore their years bravely,” we are told, and “retained in their interior the kindly seed of knowledge intact and without decay.” The Conspectus is a democratic project: it exists to make specialist information available to the curious general reader, regardless of social status or education. Accordingly, in the novel written by the student, knowledge would indeed seem at times to be both kindly and freely available. It is bestowed, for instance, in cornucopian abundance on the rebel characters when one of their number takes over Trellis’s narrative, so that they speak in tongues, as it were, on topics as diverse as the colloquial names for chemical elements, the camel’s inability to swim and the correct way to read your gas metre. But at the time they obtain this wealth of knowledge they are also engaged in less attractive pursuits; above all, in subjecting their author Trellis to unspeakable agonies through the disinterested agency of the Pooka MacPhellimey. And the Pooka, too, possesses an abundance of arcane knowledge, which he applies to Trellis with far-from-pleasant consequences:

A number of miracles were wrought as one and together […] Leaden-hard forked arteries ran speedily about his scalp, his eye-beads bled and the corrugations of boils and piteous tumuli which appeared upon the large of his back gave it the appearance of a valuable studded shield and could be ascertained on counting to be sixty-four in number […] In addition to his person, his room was also the subject of mutations unexplained by any purely physical hypothesis and not to be accounted for by mechanical devices relating to the manipulation of guy-ropes, pulley-blocks, or mechanical collapsible wallsteads of German manufacture, nor did the movements of the room conform to any known laws relating to the behaviour of projectiles as ascertained by a study of gravitation enforced by calculations based on the postulata of the science of ballistics […] A clock could be heard incessantly reciting the hours, a token that the free flight of time had also been interfered with; while the mumbling of the Pooka at his hell-prayers and the screaming of the sufferer, these were other noises perceptible to the practised ear.

Half a dozen academic discourses dependent on precision are at work in this passage: the Catholic theologian’s painstaking notation of miracles; the archaeologist’s eye, which appraises the author’s boil-encrusted back in the light of excavations of pre-Christian tumuli; the mathematician’s fondness for numbers and geometrical patterns; the engineer’s pleasure in mechanics and the physicist’s in disruptions in the space-time continuum; the poet’s delight in perfectly rhythmic speech. And all this in the service of quasi-inquisitorial excruciation. The possessor of knowledge, the Pooka, first appoints himself judge, prosecution, jury and executioner, then applies all the weight of his learning to the end of putting the screws on his chosen victim.

We have entered territory, in fact, which will be explored more thoroughly in The Third Policeman. The pattern is one we shall see repeated in an extraordinary range of O’Nolan’s writings. In the trial scene towards the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, for instance, the author Trellis is arraigned by a panel of judges who are his known enemies – the characters in his novel. The courtroom itself is a former music-hall which has been converted to a cinema and is now a bar, both legal and licensed (all the judges have pints of porter in their fists). These many functions for a single space should alert us to something else that is always happening in O’Nolan’s writing: people are always being judged and convicted in every social space in Ireland, from street to pub to church to schoolroom to bed-chamber. The conviction is always a foregone conclusion, and the laws of physics, of nature, of history, of the nation, and of the divinity will be freely transgressed in order to bring that conviction about. When you think about it, a conviction or legal sentence is a kind of punch-line, and all O’Nolan’s characters will violate any principle in order to end an anecdote with style. And the more you read O’Nolan, the more terrible this comic inevitability becomes. One is tempted to say that for him the comic narrative, the shaggy dog story, the anecdote with the devastating punch-line that unleashes a burst of agonized laughter, is the exact model for what was happening to Ireland and to Europe as the 1930s deteriorated into war.

In At Swim-Two-Birds the inevitable fate of the author is postponed by the act of fate we encountered earlier, when his servant Teresa burns the pages of his novel that give life to his antagonists, the characters who are about to sentence him to death. His legal sentence is commuted to a conversational sentence, a feeble bit of wordplay, which the battered author delivers when he has returned to his house and is following Teresa upstairs, observing the motion of her buttocks – decently concealed beneath her skirt – as he goes: “Ars est celare artem, muttered Trellis, doubtful as to whether he had made a pun.” As he returns to his bedroom the power structure reverts to its pre-revolutionary state, with the author supine on his bed manipulating his characters and fooling his readers as he has always done, a perfect imitation of the social hegemony at work, the art of its power foxily concealed from view. We have assisted at the birth of an encyclopaedia, a circle of knowledge, which has now been transformed from the promise of infinite freedom that it held at the beginning of the book to an elaborate trap. And this is the third characteristic O’Nolan ascribes to 1930s Ireland. Urbanity is the first; an obsession with knowledge is the second. The third is entrapment.

Trapped! You see a bore coming down the street – you make evasive manoeuvres – they are half-hearted ones because you know he has spotted you and is bearing down like a heat-seeking missile. And now you are subject to the anecdote: the unloading of a mass of worthless information with just one end – to astonish, to perplex, to invoke reluctant admiration, to establish the superiority of the bore regardless of all outward and visible signs of his commonplace condition. The punch-line is the sprung trap that awaits you at the end of the anecdote, the confirmation of the bore’s victory, and you will seek every means to identify its whereabouts and to shield yourself against its approach. Yet your efforts to protect yourself will always fail, because the bore holds all the cards, you cannot possibly second-guess the tortuous racking to which he will subject language, history, space and time in order to spring his surprise. The punch-line is the ultimate form of occult knowledge, and the best thief in the world is unable either to wrest the secret of it from the narrator who plans to deliver it – or to divert the narrator from his purpose of giving it vent.

This is especially the case with Keats and Chapman, protagonists of a series of shaggy dog stories O’Nolan unfolded in his daily column in the Irish Times. Each story culminates in one of Keats’s abominable puns, often achieved at the cost of appalling physical pain to some unfortunate innocent – usually his unhappy friend Chapman. On one occasion the schoolboy Chapman is glued to the back of his head teacher, solely in order that Keats can say “I like a man that sticks to his principals.” On another he is chewed and mashed by a steel rolling mill in the interests of allowing Keats to observe that he has “been through the mill.” On a third, a man suffers from intolerable adenoidal agonies after an amateur operation performed by Chapman, which leaves the patient with a surgical instrument embedded in his sinuses for more than a week, merely as a pretext for Keats to state at the end of it all: “He had it up his nose for you a long time.” In each of these episodes, elaborate, weighty machinery is set in motion, narratives of an epic length and complexity are unfolded (remember that Keats and Chapman are associated with an Irish epic, the works of Homer), and the material world is disjointed and stretched beyond the limits of its capacity, all in the interest of a jeu de mots the most appropriate response to which is a scream of derision or torment. In this sense, At Swim-Two-Birds is a Keats and Chapman anecdote, the victim of its violence being the author Trellis. Here for once the victim is allowed to have the punch-line (except of course that Trellis is the most tyrannical anecdotalist of all, the novelist, as well as the novel’s victim). But in most of O’Nolan’s anecdotes the victim of physical violence is made the helpless subject of the climactic pun: like the stranger who is murdered, dissolved in an acid bath, then drunk by Chapman cup by cup, solely in order that Keats’s friend might claim that he has drunk the fellow under the table.

Here the anecdote is relatively innocent, if nasty. But there are times when O’Nolan’s anecdotes are not just nasty but horrible, straying into uncharted regions of poor taste.

One example is the Keats and Chapman story where the unfortunate pair are caught in the blast of an American atomic bomb, whose most freakish effect is to “blow the backs off several humans, leaving them alive, conscious, and otherwise intact.” Keats is one of these unfortunates, and the ensuing search for his own missing part among heaps of bleeding backs while uttering terrible threats of vengeance is driven solely by O’Nolan’s need to vent himself of the final line: “‘I’m going to get my own back,’ Keats said savagely, turning over nearby fleshes.’” “Savagely” is just the right word: the comic has seldom got much closer than this to the monstrously mundane logic of the War Room (the anecdote was published in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

But perhaps the most calculatedly offensive of O’Nolan’s anecdotes is “The Martyr’s Crown,” a short story cited by Frank O’Connor as symptomatic of the degenerate state of Irish writing in the 1930s. In it the fight for independence, the heroic deeds of the Irish resistance and the sacrifices of the men and women who helped them in their struggle against the British are enlisted as components of a squalid tale narrated by the most outrageous of O’Nolan’s self-promoters. The narrator is a man called Toole, whose yearning to be an “insider” has reached unprecedented intensity, and who satisfies it by hailing eminent passers-by as if they were his closest friends, thus startling them into acknowledging his cheerful greetings despite the fact that they do not know him from Adam. Toole then turns to any given walking-companion who has witnessed the incident and proceeds to back up his claim to the passer-by’s acquaintance with some elaborate story concerning their mutual adventures. In one case, an elegant young man has the poise to ignore Toole’s greeting with a devastating display of frostiness, and Toole is stung into inventing an unusually elaborate story to explain the youth’s indifference. It’s a tale that includes a bloody ambush (once again featuring explosives – “a class of a home-made bomb that Bart used to make in his own kitchen”), a massacre of the British military (“there was no heads left on some of them”), and an Irishwoman who sleeps with a British captain to save the resistance fighters hiding in her house – all in the interest of providing Toole with the most explosive of punchlines. Of course the young man is proud, the anecdotalist declares triumphantly; too proud to acknowledge his humbler acquaintances. He is the offspring of the union between the patriotic Irishwoman and the British captain. “For seven hundred years,” Toole goes on, “thousands – no, I’ll make it millions – of Irish men and women have died for Ireland […] But that young man was born for Ireland. There was never anybody else like him. Why wouldn’t he be proud?” In “The Martyr’s Crown,” in other words, Ireland’s bloody history serves as raw material for an elaborate rhetorical scheme for fleeting self-promotion on the part of a nobody. The hopes and high ambitions entertained by the Irish freedom fighters have been reduced to this: and if O’Connor was disgusted by O’Nolan’s willingness to transform an epic struggle into a joke, this was clearly just the reaction O’Nolan was looking for. The apt response to Toole’s punchline is a shriek of mingled laughter and derision both shriller and more unnerving than anything elicited by the various lives of Keats and Chapman. And a more muted shriek might be an apt response to the collective political and economic disappointments suffered by the partitioned Irish people in the early years of independence.

All the characteristics of O’Nolan’s writing I’ve discussed so far find their funniest and most appalling manifestations in The Third Policeman. The book is an anecdote told by a bore – a nameless first-person narrator obsessed with the work of an insane philosopher called de Selby. And it’s populated by many additional raconteurs, each of whom is as willing as the narrator to twist the geometries of space, time, and reason in their efforts to arrive at the punch-line they desire. Unlike O’Nolan’s other texts, however, this anecdote goes on interminably beyond the punch-line, and is located in an infernal Ireland where every verbal coup is a body-blow, calling forth ever more horrified cries of astonishment on the part of the narrator, until he observes that such cries have become “almost a habit with me.” In this place as in all of O’Nolan’s Irelands people are constantly being judged and sentenced without due process (there is “no trial or preliminary proceedings, no caution administered and no hearing before a Commissioner of the Public Peace”). And the sentence passed on the narrator himself – as in At Swim-Two-Birds – is death. But here the irrational system that sentences the narrator to death has everyone in its grip. Everyone is either criminal or policeman or both, and is governed by an arcane set of rules which however arbitrary are finally inescapable, even if nobody knows them. Or rather, the rules are eminently escapable; they can always be circumvented, but only apparently and temporarily before reasserting themselves in the most unexpected and disturbing manner possible, like the pun at the end of a Keats and Chapman story. When the narrator hears in the middle of the book that he’s to be hanged for a murder nobody knows he has committed, he cries out in consternation: “Is this all a joke for entertainment purposes?” To this his accuser and would-be executioner, Sergeant Pluck, replies with warmth: “If you take it that way I will be indefinitely beholden to you.” The book as a whole is only a joke if it is taken that way – just as the outbreak of war may only be taken as a joke if you set aside your humanity and all your moral convictions. In this novel the fear of death is never alleviated, the inevitability of the death sentence never questioned; the narrator is locked into the ultimate tyranny, and the sense of entrapment his story generates is only intensified by the supreme civility with which all the characters behave towards one another, the sincerity with which they comfort their victims in the face of approaching doom.

The worst thing about this comic narrative is that it documents a self-imposed tyranny, a self-sprung trap. Like O’Nolan’s other protagonists the narrator is a seeker after knowledge for his own private advancement; and his quest to make his name through knowledge leads to murder. He kills an elderly man called Mathers for the sake of his money, which he needs to finance the publication of his definitive index to the works of de Selby. And this murder for the sake of knowledge precipitates him into the nightmare world of the three policemen of the title; an idyllic rural landscape dominated by a monstrously crooked police station, centre of operations for Sergeant Pluck and his strange and eloquent colleagues. The narrator goes to the station in his quest for Mathers’s vanished millions, voluntarily delivering himself into the hands of the law when he discovers that the cash is not where he expects to find it. The police, he thinks, will direct him to what he feels is his by right – even if his right to the old man’s cash was obtained through manslaughter. And as if in response to his distorted sense of values, he finds himself in a land where all laws are distorted – even the law of perspective; where a man’s own point of view shapes what he sees (hence the emphasis throughout on the eyes of the different characters); and where the unspoken first and second rules of wisdom that obtain in all of O’Nolan’s works have been adopted by the first policeman he meets as a universal guiding principle. “Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any,” Sergeant Pluck tells him, and “Turn everything you hear to your own advantage.” The latter rule is the narrator’s downfall. When Pluck’s superior, the angry Inspector O’Corky, appears at the station to ask why no action has been taken to find old Mathers’s murderer, Pluck instantly replies that the murderer has been apprehended and is currently awaiting execution. The narrator quickly realizes that he himself is the criminal in question; that he has been identified as the killer regardless of the absence of evidence against him, and that he is to be sacrificed for Pluck’s private purposes, summarily despatched to protect the sergeant from a petty reprimand. Pettiness, parochialism and egomania not only dominate this nightmare Ireland but kill people in it, as if to demonstrate the nation’s unwitting complicity in the atrocities being perpetrated elsewhere in Europe. And despite the arbitrariness of Pluck’s sentence, despite the cheerful despotism it springs from, the narrator can hardly deny in his soul that he thoroughly deserves it, and that he has sought it out with all the tenacity of a detective following the trail of clues he has left behind for his own incrimination.

This self-destructive urge in the narrator – the urge that takes him directly to a police station after he has committed a murder – is part of a tendency to self-destruction that seems inherent in every detail of O’Nolan’s narrative. The rich stock of knowledge it contains – the arcane knowledge purveyed by Policemen MacCruiskeen and Fox as well as by Sergeant Pluck and the narrator himself – tends towards one end only: a great big bang; and the novel itself may aptly be described as an infernal machine, a time-bomb that has already gone off by the time the reader discovers its nature. This aspect of the book is best considered by way of its treatment of boxes. The object for which the narrator commits his murder is a black metal cashbox containing the legendary fortune of old man Mathers. While the narrator is murdering Mathers with his spade, his accomplice Divney conceals the box in the old man’s house, and later sends the narrator to collect it from its hiding place. In the meantime Divney has replaced the cash with an explosive device, and we learn at the end of the novel that the cashbox blew up as soon as the narrator touched it, killing him and demolishing the building. As a result, most of the narrator’s adventures in the novel are posthumous ones. For the narrator, however, at the instant of detonation the cashbox simply disappears; and as far as he is concerned, his adventures are no more than an extended search for the object of his murderous desires. It’s therefore only fitting that from the moment of the cashbox’s disappearance the book should be filled with boxes like the one he’s obsessed with: from the nest of impossible containers constructed by Policeman MacCruiskeen – a pointless labour of love like the narrator’s index to the works of de Selby – to the black boxes with coloured wires coming out of them which MacCruiskeen uses to manufacture light out of noise; from the boxes of peat being cut out of the soil by labourers near the police station to the narrator’s many accounts of de Selby’s mysterious “water box” and MacCruiskeen’s inaudible music box with the knobs on. The brain is a box, as Sergeant Pluck reminds the narrator, and so is the coffin that is constructed to receive the narrator’s body after his execution. At one point the narrator finds himself locked in an “iron box” or elevator with a sixteen stone policeman, descending to an underground region where the obscure mechanisms that control the sunlit world above their heads appear to be located. This underground region, too, is full of boxes, from cubical compartments containing anything you ask for, to biscuit-boxes of indescribable shape and colour that tumble from a chute. And the majority of the boxes that fill the book are deadly. The boxes with coloured wires, for instance, which compress ordinary daytime sounds into electric light, are a disaster waiting to happen. Somewhere in their interiors lurks the dreadful noise of a quarry, a cacophony collected by the policemen during the previous summer as fuel for the dark winter evenings; and when this is compressed, MacCruiskeen tells the narrator, everyone in the vicinity will be blinded. The elevator will kill its occupants if they change weight at all during their subterranean visit. The nest of boxes will drive their contemplator mad if thought about for too long. And on the mantelpiece of MacCruiskeen’s room there is a little box that has already driven two men mad: they lost their wits when they examined its interior. Light-, heat- and sound- producing boxes in this novel are dangerously volatile containers – like the “box” that is the brain; and the whole novel trembles with the anticipation of their eventual detonation.

Over and above the boxes, the world the narrator finds himself in after his death is a peculiarly artificial one. Like the technologies and industries of the twentieth century it is driven by elaborate mechanisms: from parts of the human body, such as old man Mathers’ robotic eyes, or Policeman Fox’s face which is “red and gross as if gallons of hot thick blood had been pumped into it,” or Divney’s jaws, which “clicked a few times like a machine,” to the earth itself, which resembles a giant power-plant driven by subterranean engines. As the narrator approaches the entrance to the underground engine-room with Sergeant Pluck he observes that “The world rang in my ear like a great workshop. Sublime feats of mechanics and chemistry were evident on every side.” Metaphors of mechanism are everywhere; from the “mechanical task” the narrator sets himself of finding the black box, to the description of his response to an unexpected encounter with the reanimated corpse of the man he has murdered: “Words spilled out of me as if they were produced by machinery;” from Pluck’s description of the law as “an extremely intricate phenomenon,” to MacCruiskeen’s account of a retractable pencil as “an intricate article full of machinery and a Present from Southport.” And much of this machinery, like the boxes, is potentially deadly. On meeting a fellow murderer called Martin Finnucane early in the book, the narrator learns that life itself is “a queer contraption, very dangerous, a certain death-trap.” And that is just how it turns out for the narrator, who lives always on the verge of a cataclysm that has always already happened. The policemen in their station are constantly preoccupied with the difficult task of keeping the figures on some obscure device in the underground region poised in delicate equilibrium; should they fail in this task, the implication is, chaos will be unleashed and the world will end. As Sergeant Pluck prepares the scaffold for the narrator’s execution the young man watches him “patiently and politely arranging the mechanics of my death.” Later, when the narrator encounters Policeman Fox and learns that he invented the underground region as a ponderous prank, a practical joke at the expense of his colleagues, he loftily dismisses him as an oaf whose mind had been “fed upon adventure books of small boys, books in which every extravagance was mechanical and lethal and solely concerned with bringing about somebody’s death in the most elaborate way imaginable” – books, that is, like the Sexton Blake adventures O’Nolan himself may have written. But of course this is also a perfectly accurate description of the book in which the narrator finds himself. Any more elaborate literary mechanism for accomplishing death could hardly have been contrived by the most devious deviser of detective thrillers. And lethal mechanical extravagances were also of course a feature of the age of war in which The Third Policeman was composed.

O’Nolan’s novel is built into its time, entrapped by it, caught up in its interior workings. As many commentators have noted, the book is full of references to that most deadly and imaginatively stimulating of all energy sources, atomic energy. Sergeant Pluck expounds his own absurd atomic theory to the writer, which involves the exchange of atoms between the bodies of cyclists and the machines they ride, a process that fuses humans with the tools they have made to serve them. And later, Policeman MacCruiskeen discloses the existence of a substance called omnium, which is a fantastically potent version of sub-atomic matter. As MacCruiskeen puts it, “Omnium is the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the root of the kernel of everything and it is always the same,” and anyone who possesses omnium can do anything, transforming any kind of matter to an infinite range of new and astonishing shapes in a trice, on a moment’s whim. This is what Policeman Fox does when he fabricates the underground region out of a lump of omnium he finds in Mathers’s cashbox. Atomic theory and the theory of relativity – which destabilize the laws of time and space as radically as Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen do – are for many people the most “modern” of all forms of scientific knowledge; they were born with the twentieth century and dominated the military and political minds of that century from beginning to end. Both areas of knowledge seemed at the beginning of the century to hold the seed of utopian planetary transformations; both were involved in producing instead the most devastating of weapons, the atomic bomb (or as O’Nolan christened it in 1945, the “abombic tomb”). The presence of atomic theory in O’Nolan’s book, then, links the local crises of the newly-fledged Irish nation with the deepening global crisis at the end of the 1930s in a way that predicts the worst outcome for both. And there is no doubt that O’Nolan could have known about both the best and the worst contemporary predictions for the future as it would be shaped by human interference with the atom.

As early as 1914, H. G. Wells wrote a novel describing both the immense powers for utopian transformation inherent in the atom and the infinite potential for destruction it contained. The World Set Free gives an account of the first nuclear war, in which half-crazed aeronauts hurl bombs from the cockpits of their monoplanes and perish triumphantly in the ensuing conflagration. And a single passage from the beginning of Wells’s novel would have been enough, I think, to have conjured the genially monstrous minds of Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen from O’Nolan’s imagination. Here is the passage, from the speech of a Scottish professor named Rufus, an enthusiast for atomic energy:

we know now that the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and – lifeless – lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy. That is the most wonderful thing about all this work. A little while ago we thought of the atoms as we thought of bricks, as solid building material, as substantial matter, as unit masses of lifeless stuff, and behold! These bricks are boxes, treasure boxes, boxes full of the intensest force. This little bottle contains about a pint of uranium oxide; that is to say about fourteen ounces of the element uranium. It is worth about a pound. And in this bottle, ladies and gentlemen, in the atoms in this bottle slumbers at least as much energy as we could get by burning a hundred and sixty tons of coal. If at a word, in one instant I could suddenly release that energy here and now it would blow us and everything about us to fragments; if I could turn it into the machinery that lights this city, it could keep Edinburgh brightly lit for a week. But at present no man knows, no man has an inkling of how this little lump of stuff can be made to hasten the release of its store…

In The Third Policeman Rufus’ treasure boxes have become a black cashbox, the boxes that can light a city have been perfected, and boxes that release energy little by little exist side by side with boxes that demolish buildings in an explosive instant. Indeed, the passage helps to explain something puzzling about O’Nolan’s novel: which is why a story about death should hum and seethe as it does with the sheer overwhelming energy of the world, its teeming vitality, the life in its every particle. Life and death cohabit in O’Nolan’s Ireland, as they do in Rufus’ atoms, in terrifyingly unstable proximity, ready to set each other off in a vast explosion that will obliterate his little nation and the rest of Europe with it. And the little black boxes that contain these explosive elements are in the hands of madmen and obsessives.

The Third Policeman contains O’Nolan’s most potent bombshells, packed to the skin with comic and tragic elements in equal measure. It is, as I’ve said, an infernal machine, an incendiary device – or perhaps a diagram of the infernal machine that is Europe in the mid-twentieth century. At one point in the book, as he stands on the scaffold beside the writer he is about to hang, Sergeant Pluck tells a story about Ireland’s willingness to seek knowledge through violence. It concerns a man who visits the clouds in a balloon, and is almost lynched when he comes back because he refuses to answer questions about his visit. “That is a nice piece of law and order for you,” says Pluck, shaking his head over the narrowly-averted lynching: “a terrific indictment of democratic self-government, a beautiful commentary on Home Rule.” A little later we learn, in one of the novel’s anarchic footnotes, about the murderous proclivities of commentators on the philosopher-scientist de Selby – something we already know about from the actions of the novel’s protagonist. Exasperated by verbal attacks on his idol de Selby, one commentator – Hatchjaw – sets out for mainland Europe to confront the sage’s chief detractor, a “shadowy” German scholar named Kraus. Hatchjaw is armed, among other things, with “explosive chemicals and the unassembled components of several bombs, grenades and landmines” with which he plans to unleash a “cataclysm” to consume both the German and himself. In each case – the lynching and the cataclysm – violence is narrowly averted. But the point of O’Nolan’s narrative is that all the ingenious trickery and extravagant rhetoric in the world will not finally avert further violence when once it has been accepted and engaged in as a modus operandi – by an individual, a nation or a continent. And the novel’s punch-line involves the retrospective discovery that further violence has not been averted, despite all the twists and turns of the narrator in his efforts to stave it off…

O’Nolan could not have predicted exactly how knowledge-driven violence would manifest itself in the later years of the Second World War. Still less could he have predicted how misinformation and weapons of mass destruction would continue to dominate global politics in the twenty-first century. But if his writings of the 1930s and 40s are undoubtedly the products of an astute analysis of his own place and time, they nevertheless continue to have a shocking applicability to our own disordered decade, here in the 2010s. His jokes cannot be safely contained within the confines of his lifetime, any more than radioactive matter can be safely contained within the slender leaves of a comic novel. They – his jokes, that is – are still very much on us.

Towards an Iconography of the Twentieth Century: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists, Part 2

[This is the second part of an essay I published in the Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, Band 18, in 2000. I’ve revised it quite a bit.]

At first glance, the Stingingman looks like a complex fusion of elements from Lewis’s favourite science fiction novels. The single horn on his head links him to Stapledon’s Last Men, who possess a retractable cranial telescope which permits them to get closer to the stars in both a visual and a metaphysical sense (284-6). Stapledon and Lewis were both familiar with the inhabitants of David Lindsay’s Arcturus, each of whom espouses a different philosophy, and whose point of view (so to speak) manifests itself in the form of an additional organ in the middle of his or her forehead – a kind of plum with a cavity in it, or an extra eye, or an arrangement of eyes, or the vestigial remains of these.[1] The Stingingman’s horn permits him to control the minds of his victims as some of Lindsay’s mutant philosophers control the weaker minds of their followers.[2] But A Voyage to Arcturus is not the only contemporary novel to adopt mind-control as a plot device. Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935), which Lewis read when it first came out,[3] is an obvious allegory of the rise of Nazism, whose protagonist discovers a lost subterranean race of Romans living under Hadrian’s Wall. Like the people of Othertime, the Underworlders have ‘taken an entirely different road from our people on earth’ (O’Neill 93); where the Othertimers studied time to the exclusion of space, the Underworlders have studied the telepathic imposition of one individual’s will on another’s to the exclusion of technology. The citizens of Underworld are automata like the servants of the Stingingman, guided by the will of a Master of Knowledge as emotionless as Lewis’s horned dictator; and the automata in both worlds wear similar garments (O’Neill’s are ‘dressed merely in short kilts that fell from the waist to the knees’ (109), while the workers in the Tower are ‘dressed only in a sort of kilt’ (Tower 34)). The Underworlders, like the Othertimers, experiment on their children (O’Neill 160), and the bleak alternative worlds in both books testify to humanity’s ingenuity in constructing authentic replicas of hell. Lewis incorporated elements of Land Under England into both Perelandra and The Silver Chair;[4] he evidently found himself haunted by O’Neill’s nightmare of a totalitarian state embedded in the very soil of a professedly democratic nation.

The Stingingman, then, would seem (in part at least) to be an allegorical representation of military dictatorship – one of the symbols Lewis calls for in Spenser’s Images of Life as part of a twentieth-century iconography. This aspect of his figurative function is confirmed by the behaviour of the first young man he transfixes with his horn: the youth goes into convulsions, then begins ‘strutting with sharp, jerky movements, lifting his feet unnecessarily high and swinging his arms as if in time to the blaring swagger of some abominable march’ (Tower 35). His Cambridge observers would have recognized at once that he was mimicking the goose step from footage of Nazi military parades familiar to all watchers of newsreels in 1938. And the room where he performs these actions is crammed with other components of twentieth-century iconography. The walls, for instance, are covered with pictures of warring beetles – perverse travesties of the wall-decorations in Elizabethan public buildings; and it soon becomes clear that the whole Dark Tower is crawling with insects. The Stingingman pierces his victims ‘with a movement like the dart of a dragonfly’ (34) and acts ‘with the passionless precision of an insect or a machine’ (35); his assistants are bee-like ‘Drones’ (78) and his workers ‘rush at their tasks like ants’ (39). Scudamour even suspects that there are insects in the food (80). Again, we might guess that the entomological theme alludes to a work of contemporary science fiction: that it is a restatement of the version of alien life offered by Wells in The First Men in the Moon, which depicts the moon-dwellers or Selenites as a community of giant bugs governed by a vast disembodied brain. It was partly to combat this view of the alien as monstrous that Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet;[5] so there is a kind of witty inevitability about the Dark Tower’s transference of the insect theme from the lunar to the terrestrial sphere. It is men who aspire to make themselves monstrous through their elevation of the communal life above the rights of the individual; and if we did not recognize this as Lewis’s doctrine he helps us to do so by placing an idol in the Stingingman’s room, ‘an image in which a number of small human bodies culminate in a single large head’ (Tower 31). The statue parodically embodies Wells’s descriptions of the communal life in The Shape of Things to Come, where the human race has evolved into ‘one single organism of nearly two thousand five hundred million persons […] all members of one body’, and where ‘the history of life will pass into a new phase, a phase with a common consciousness and a common will’. The insect iconography of the Tower expresses, in fact, its rulers’ ambition to refashion the human race in the image of Wells’s future utopians, who for Lewis are no better than the Selenites. It is an ambition that links the scientific humanists with the Nazis in Lewis’s eyes, and he marks the uneasy synthesis of national and international socialism in the synthetic figure of the Stingingman, a peculiarly twentieth-century fusion of Victor Frankenstein and his tormented creature.

The total subservience of the individual to the community can be achieved, Lewis implies, only by erasing all that is valuable in human history, both collective and individual. The Stingingman, on his first appearance, is siting so still that it is ‘as if something had come down like the blade of a guillotine and cut short the Man’s whole history at a moment’ (Tower 32). He has become a machine, with a machine’s indifference to anything in the past not directly connected with its present function. Insects, too, resemble machines, as Lewis reminds us in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955): ‘Their angular limbs,’ he writes, ‘their jerky movements, their dry, metallic noises, all suggest either machines that have come to life or life degenerating into mechanism’ (13). The echo of the phrase ‘art jutting out into life, and life turning into art’ (Images 11) is unmistakable, and suggests that an entomological iconography of the sort we find in The Dark Tower would reverse the effects of the ‘healthy’ iconography of the Renaissance as Lewis saw it, dehumanizing and entrapping the minds of its observers instead of liberating them and giving them access to new forms of life. Insect iconography, then, is one of the perverse ‘doubles’ of things in this world with which Othertime is abundantly stocked. The Dark Tower itself is another such double, as is the double of Scudamour – with whom he accidentally swaps souls – and the double of his fiancée Camilla, whose appearance on screen provokes Scudamour’s attack on the chronoscope. These doubles, the Cambridge academics believe, not only resemble each other; they are made up of ‘the very same matter’ (Tower 59), and occupy the very same space in two different times. And it is the doubles that are drawing those times together, as one academic explains, through ‘a sort of gravitation. You see, if two times contained exactly the same distribution of matter, they would become simply the same time […] and if they contained some identical distributions they might approach’ (60). The rulers of the Dark Tower, as Scudamour learns from his Othertime history book, have formulated a similar theory of time attraction, and are working hard to get ‘within striking distance’ of twentieth-century England (90). They have built all sorts of replicas besides the Tower, and have already succeeded in swapping the souls of a little girl and her Othertime double, thus diabolically replicating the ancient folk motif of the changeling (90-1). Before long, no doubt, the Othertimers hope to have generated enough ‘time attraction’ or gravitational pull between the Dark Tower and its Cambridge equivalent to transport their society wholesale into Cambridgeshire. In this way they will escape the depredations of their enemies, the mysterious ‘White Riders’ who are closing in on the Tower. And once the chronic leap has been accomplished they will quickly find themselves to be as much at home with some aspects of modern terrestrial culture as Ransom found himself among the aliens of Mars and Venus.

But unknown to them, the Othertimers have already been colonized by things of this world more thoroughly, perhaps, than they could ever hope to colonize our own. Clues to this lie in their unwitting duplication of themes from ancient terrestrial literature and legend: the fairy tale of the changeling, for instance, or of Childe Roland, whose nineteenth-century adaptation – a famous poem by Browning – is in the Cambridge academics’ minds when they give the Dark Tower its name (27). I have already suggested, with reference to Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet, that the scientific humanists unconsciously find themselves, in Lewis’s fiction, involved in another story with which they are not familiar. Another way of putting it might be this: that they find their version of human history to occupy the same space and time as another, much older version, and that they themselves are simultaneously principal actors in both world dramas. Something similar might be said of the Stingingman and of the objects he has marshaled around him in his Tower. Without knowing it, he has duplicated matter from a field of literature very different from the future histories of scientific humanism; and one can only suspect that he is drawing towards himself a powerful iconography that will finally supplant his own. It is, of course, the Elizabethan iconography of Spenser’s Images of Life, and more specifically, it is the iconography of Spenser.

The Masque of Cupid by Walter Crane

Lewis’s critical readings of The Faerie Queene are as instructive for readers of Lewis’s fiction as they are for readers of Spenser. This is nowhere more obvious than in The Dark Tower, whose male protagonist bears the name of a Spenserian hero, Scudamour, and whose female lead, Camilla, was originally named ‘Ammeret’ after Scudamour’s lover.[6] The story of Scudamour and Amoret, which spans Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene, tells how Amoret was raised by Venus in the Garden of Adonis, how she was educated in the Temple of Venus, and how Scudamour ‘rescued’ her from the Temple, only to have her snatched from his side by the sadistic enchanter Busirane, who imprisoned her in his house and forced her to take part in a kind of clockwork ritual of torture, the Masque of Cupid. Alastair Fowler long ago pointed out the resemblance between the Stingingman’s room and the House of Busirane (Fowler 795); it is particularly evident in the menacing decorations that cover the wall in both places, and in the stately procession of beautiful victims through each chamber. And a glance at how Lewis read Spenser’s epic as a whole, and this episode in particular, throws a blaze of light on his unfinished novel.

Spenser’s Una

His first book of criticism, The Allegory of Love (1936), provides an especially detailed key to its iconographic methods. Here, for instance, Lewis describes Elizabethan allegory as the perfect literary form by which to represent the encounter between different worlds, whether physical or conceptual. It combines, he suggests, three apparently separate aspects of our mental lives in a single narrative: ‘the actual world’, the ‘world of religion’, and ‘a third world of myth and fancy’ (82). This is just what Lewis does in The Dark Tower, where the material world finds itself poised between two opposing grand narratives, that of scientific humanism and that of the Christian faith, together with their associated literary traditions. Gain, for Lewis Spenser’s world is more or less dualistic (Allegory 314-5). Good wars against evil in any given episode, and the eternal contest is encapsulated in a series of opposites which ranges itself around ‘such ultimate antitheses as Light and Darkness or Life and Death’ (313). The centrality of antitheses to Spenser’s text has been questioned by some of Lewis’s critics, but their centrality to The Dark Tower is unquestionable. The many ‘doubles’ in the novel echo the many pairs of antithetical characters Lewis identifies in The Faerie Queene: Una and Duessa, Venus and Acrasia, Britomart and Malecasta, the true and false Florimels. In the novel, too, night is pitched against day – the Dark Tower is seen mostly at night, while the Cambridge scholars discuss what they have observed in a usually sun-drenched garden – and this recalls Lewis’s statement in The Allegory of Love that ‘[n]ight is hardly ever mentioned by Spenser without aversion’, while ‘answering to this, in his descriptions of morning we have a never failing rapture’ (313). Finally, Lewis makes much of Spenser’s unequalled ability to portray good as attractively and cheerfully energetic, whereas ‘[h]is evils are all dead and dying things. Each of his deadly sins has a mortal disease’ (Allegory 315). The generalization describes Lewis’s portrayals of evil better than some of Spenser’s: his Stingingmen have a corpselike ‘yellowish pallor’ (Tower 50-1), the growth of a sting puts Scudamour’s double through the symptoms of a brain tumour, while one of the evils in That Hideous Strength, the severed head of Alcasan, is literally a dead thing.

Cambridge University Library

For Lewis, the chief antithesis in Spenser’s text is the struggle it enacts throughout its length between what he calls ‘Nature’ and ‘Artifice’ (Allegory 326ff.). The Bower of Bliss is a carefully fabricated trap, its delights wreathed in metallic ivy, while the untainted Garden of Adonis in the next book of the poem is the product of natural forces, is flowers and trees arranging themselves in patterns with ebullient spontaneity, its floral babies springing from the earth without horticultural assistance. The same antithesis, with similar exceptions, can be found in Lewis’s science fiction. Here, too, ‘the opposition of natural and artificial, naïve and sophisticated, genuine and spurious, meets us at every turn’ (Allegory 328). The island of the angelic Oyarsa in Out of the Silent Planet is a grove whose natural beauty is enhanced by the controlled artifice of a race of Martian craftspeople, the Pfifltriggi; in this it resembles Spenser’s Temple of Venus where art ‘is allowed only to supplement Nature, not to deceive or sophisticate as it does in the Bower of Bliss’ (Allegory 327). The Christian sanctuary St Anne’s in That Hideous Strength is surrounded by profusely fertile gardens, while its evil counterpart, Belbury, has grounds that resemble a ‘municipal cemetery’ (101). So too in The Dark Tower the forces of good have a ‘natural’ base, the Fellows’ garden where the academics recuperate after each hard stint of studying the horrors of Othertime: ‘always, as a background, that garden which, whether by starlight or sunlight, so often seemed our only link with sanity’ (37). The Tower itself, by contrast, is grotesquely described as a ‘work of art’ by the post-decadent aesthete Knellie (51), while the Stingingman is thought by his assistants and would-be successors to have achieved his sting by artificial means – they ‘spend nearly all their spare time in the laboratory, concocting every kind of nostrum which they think may produce the coveted deformity’ (78).

Of course, even in Lewis’s novels the natural and the artificial are not so easily distinguished as he might have wished. The difference between the gardens at St Anne’s and at Belbury, for instance, would seem to many readers to be no more than a matter of degree and of aesthetic judgement. But the relevance of the nature/artifice antithesis to Lewis’s contest with the scientific humanists I clear enough. The socialist visionaries of the 1930s made no secret of their willingness to deploy all the artificial techniques available to them, from aerospatial engineering to the radical modification of entire planetary ecosystems, in the struggle to achieve a harmonious and just community. Lewis’s ‘natural’ order defines itself by its opposition to their ambitiously unnatural programme, and above all to their blithely interventionist attitude to the human body. For Wells and Stapledon, physiological change marks the social and cultural progress of humanity. By the end of The Shape of Things to Come the citizen of the World State has transformed herself, as a by-product of the revolutions of intervening decades, into a ‘different animal’ from nineteenth-century man, ‘bigger and stronger, more clear-headed, with more self-control and more definitely related to his fellow creatures’ (Wells 411). Stapledon’s Neptunian humans, the titular Last Men, have evolved far more drastically over a longer period by means of strenuous genetic sculpture. A twentieth-century visitor would consider them bestial giants, some covered with fur or ‘mole-velvet’, others with skin of diverse hues ranging from bronze to ‘a translucent ashgreen’; their heads bristle with unfamiliar ‘excrescences’ including the telescopic stargazing horn (Stapledon 284). The sexual behaviour of these new human animals has changed as radically as their bodies. Wells’s twentieth-first-century utopians have abolished the institution of marriage as an unnecessary impediment to responsible intercourse, and have transferred the puritan impulse to a deep-rooted disapproval of capitalist enterprise (Wells 399); while Stapledon’s Neptunians gain their greatest philosophical insights through group sex, involving complicated couplings between representatives of the ‘many sub-sexes’ into which the ‘two ancient sexes’ have inexplicably proliferated (287). Many of these physiological and sexual changes, says Stapledon’s Neptunian narrator, ‘would doubtless revolt our [twentieth-century] visitor’ (284). They certainly revolted Lewis. For him they seem logical extensions of the forms of sexual ‘deviance’ that disgusted him in his own era – represented in The Dark Tower by the homosexual Knellie (who is also, for good measure, a voyeuristic sadist delighted by the Stingingman’s torture chamber), and by Scudamour’s emancipated fiancée Camilla, who was ‘so free to talk about the things her grandmother could not mention that Ransom once said he wondered if she were free to talk about anything else’ (Tower 76). Such figures violate what Lewis took to be the essential, timeless characteristics of human nature, and in particular of sex and gender; and it is against a specifically gendered version of the ‘unnatural’ that the full weight of the book’s Spenserian allegory is unleashed.

Britomart rescues Amoret from Busirane, by Henry Fuseli

If The Faerie Queene organizes itself, for Lewis, around the nature/artifice antithesis, its central episode – the one he returned to most often in his criticism – concerns the contrast between natural and unnatural sexuality. For him the tale of Scudamour and Amoret exemplifies the sexual antithesis in Spenser’s epic: it is an allegory of healthy and diseased sexuality, in which marriage is the only context for healthy physical union. As such it makes a neat conclusion for Lewis’s study of what he sees as the predominantly adulterous ‘courtly love’ tradition in The Allegory of Love, since he can present it as the moment when courtly love is finally superseded by a new sense of literary responsibility. Lewis’s view of medieval courtly love as a celebration of adultery has been challenged, like his views on Spenser’s antitheses, as a gross oversimplification of a complex cultural phenomenon. It certainly leads him to oversimplify what many critics regard as the most complex and ambivalent of Spenser’s meditations on sexuality, the Bower of Bliss episode in Book II of The Faerie Queene. Lewis reads this episode as Spenser’s hostile response to courtly adultery, ‘a picture, the most powerful ever painted, of the whole sexual nature in disease’ (Allegory 332); against it, he says, ‘we should set not only the Garden of Adonis, but the rapturous reunion of Scudamour and Amoret’ (Allegory 341). To put it simply, Spenser sees sex outside marriage as evil, and marital sex as the basis both for a stable patriarchal state and for a stable universe. Or so Lewis, rightly or wrongly, would have us believe.

Britomart and Malecasta

Lewis’s own Busirane, the Stingingman, is his effort to transplant the notion of ‘the whole sexual nature in disease’ into the twentieth century. The phallic appearance of the Stingingman’s horn is unmistakable: ‘It was hard and horny, but not like bone. It was red, like most of the things in a man, and apparently lubricated by some kind of saliva’ (Tower 33). This mocks the exalted metaphysical state of Stapledon’s Last Men, whose cranial horn and orgiastic grapplings help them to achieve harmony with the cosmos and with each other. In contrast to the blissfully communistic Last Men, however, the Stingingman derives a purely one-sided pleasure from his extra organ: when Scudamour takes over his body he finds himself ‘burdened with a horrible physical deformity from which horrible and, perhaps in the long run, irresistible desires would pour into his consciousness at every moment’ (64). Scudamour’s earthly fiancée Camilla suffers from a less physiological form of sexual self-centredness: ‘There would have been no difficulty,’ Lewis tells us, ‘about suggesting to her that she might become your mistress’, but ‘I do not think you would have succeeded unless you had offered very good security’ (76). Camilla’s penchant for infidelity makes her (along with Knellie) the terrestrial focus in the book of the diseased sexuality represented by the Stingingman; a sexuality which is also an abuse of the healthy, ‘natural’ power relations between men, or between men and women. A glance at That Hideous Strength helps to clarify the situation. In it the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments at Belbury, which hopes to remake the world in its own image, is a perverse scientific humanist ‘family’ (as its Deputy Director explains), whose members are an Italian ‘eunuch’, an asexual scientist, an impotent old man, and a sadistic lesbian who is also the Institute’s chief of police. The lesbian’s name – Fairy Hardcastle – associates her with another of the allegories of corrupt sexuality in The Faerie Queene, Malecasta, who tries to seduce the heroic warrior woman Britomart at the beginning of Book III (Allegory 340). Hardcastle’s virtuous opposite number, Jane Studdock, gives up her academic ambitions to be reunited with her husband at the end of the novel, in a scene that mimics the reunion of Amoret and Scudamour in the 1590 version of Spenser’s epic.[7] For much of the novel’s length Jane is in serious danger (from Lewis’s point of view) of becoming another Camilla: she yearns for independence and academic recognition, and has to be gently persuaded by the Forces of Good into the ‘natural’ wifely role, which is to be obedient and have babies. As a result of her eventual restoration to this ‘natural’ state, the twentieth-century equivalent of the marriage of Scudamour and Amoret – which had been deferred since Lewis left The Dark Tower unfinished – finally achieves what he would no doubt have considered a happy consummation.

All this is profoundly distasteful to most twenty-first century readers, and it’s impossible to read That Hideous Strength today (or its precursor, The Dark Tower) without feeling that Lewis himself had serious psychological issues when it came to both sexuality and gender. But it’s worth, I think, pausing to consider the philosophical basis of these issues. Lewis seems to have considered sex, like reading, as a kind of meeting-point between worlds, a hugely – indeed at times oppressively – significant iconographic process which draws together the spiritual and material aspects of our beings, so that this life and what he calls the ‘eternal’ interpenetrate and act on one another in every sexual encounter. This, at least, is what he suggests in a letter to a woman – an ex-student – written in 1940 soon after his abandonment of The Dark Tower:

Apparently, if Christianity is true, the mere fact of sexual intercourse sets up between human beings a relation wh. has, so to speak, transcendental repercussions – some eternal relation is established whether they like it or not. This sounds very odd. But is it? After all, if there is an eternal world and if our world is its manifestation, then you would expect bits of it to ‘stick through’ into ours. We are like children pulling the levers of a vast machine of which most is concealed. We see a few little wheels that buzz round on this side when we start it up – but what glorious or frightful processes we are initiating in there, we don’t know. That’s why it is so important to do what we’re told. (Letters 349)

The levers pulled by the sexually promiscuous Camilla in The Dark Tower have truly frightful repercussions. Her self-interest is one of the ‘little wheels’ that sets a ‘vast machine’ in motion. It draws towards our world, from the beyond, a world where the proper ‘Head’ of the human family – God – has been replaced by a monstrous mock-human Brain, whose aim is to develop itself and spread its influence at the expense of the wretched bodies and minds that serve it. As Lewis went on to explain in his letter, ‘if marriage is a permanent relation, intended to produce a kind of new organism (“the one flesh”) there must be a Head’ (Letters 349): he means, of course, that St Paul is right when he tells us that the husband is the ‘head’ of the household (1 Corinthians 11.3). The head of the Stingingman with its phallic outgrowth, the Big Brain lodged in its phallic tower, the Head of Alcasan in That Hideous Strength, all long for grotesque physical and mental unions which will produce tormented travesties of ‘the one flesh’, and they will disseminate themselves promiscuously from world to world like a virus in their efforts to achieve such unions. By imitating their quest for ‘unnatural’ authority, by rejecting the ‘Headship of Man’ and seeking a different sort of ‘good security’ in her sexual relations, Camilla opens a conduit for that virus, a kind of interface between Othertime and the 1930s by means of which the Othertime virus can swarm into our historical strand and make it one with the strand that contains the Stingingmen. Her behaviour, in fact, brings with it the threat of a global catastrophe as devastating as anything imagined by Haldane or Stapledon. As Lewis put it in his letter, ‘this sounds very odd’, and the analogy between sex and the instrument panel of a giant machine makes it sound odder still. If one took the analogy seriously one might well prefer homosexual relationships between men or women to the unfathomable terrors of the marriage bed; except that Lewis’s Christianity forbids these too. Sex begins to look like a minefield better skirted around than indulged in.

It’s hard to imagine that such an attitude to sexual activity could have anything but a deleterious impact on its possessor’s mental wellbeing. At the same time, distasteful as it is, the attitude can help to explain the extraordinary energy of Lewis’s imaginative writing. Actions in our world set off processes in the other world – the one where God is encountered face to face, as opposed to this one, where God is merely made manifest through analogies and metaphors. There are lots of other worlds analogous to our world, and these are the worlds of imaginative fiction – fictions like The Dark Tower and That Hideous Strength. Each fiction stands in more or less the same relation to God’s world as does our world – the world of the reader. This makes fiction as important as fact, because neither of them is the ‘real thing’; they are all shadows of a platonic ideal. At the same time, all these worlds – our own world and the various imaginative worlds we conjure up – have ‘levers’ sticking into them from God’s world, so that they actively participate in it. This is as true for the fictional worlds of science fiction and fantasy as it is for the world we live in, and Lewis’s own fiction reverberates with the conviction that this is true, based on his faith that the unseen world of God is what matters most of all, and that the human imagination is the best way of apprehending it. Writing fiction, then, is a hugely important activity for Lewis, and one that must be engaged in with an acute awareness of your responsibility to get it right. Luckily, there’s a guidebook for this activity: the Christian story as told in the Bible – which means that writing is for him by no means as scary as having sex, which doesn’t get detailed treatment in the Scriptures.

At its best – by which I mean in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra – Lewis’s science fiction leaves us with a sense of reading as an encounter between worlds, both dangerous and exhilarating, and of living as an extension of our reading. Sometimes, as in his characterizations of Camilla and Knellie, the interpenetration between books and life becomes unwieldy, even grotesque – especially if one reads Spenser, the Bible or the future histories of the 1930s as complex texts rather than simple ones. From time to time, however, Lewis brings books alive, in his fiction as in his criticism, and hurls his readers bodily into battles between the animated volumes with which he stocks his pages, enlisting us as subsidiary characters in his cosmic narrative – although we will not always be inclined to fight on the side he favours.

 

Bibliography

Crossley, Robert. ‘Olaf Stapledon and the Idea of Science Fiction.’ Modern Fiction Studies 32 (1986): 21-42.

Dunne, J. W. An Experiment with Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1958.

Fiedler, Lesley A. Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Fowler, Alistair. ‘The Aliens of Othertime.’ Times Literary Supplement, July 1, 1977: 795.

Haldane, J. B. S. Possible Worlds and Other Essays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1927.

Kegler, Karl. ‘Travels, Towers, Space and Time: Lewis’s The Dark Tower and its Correspondences.’ Inklings-Jahnrbuch 16 (1998): 119-137.

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Lewis, C. S. The Dark Tower (manuscript). MS. Eng. misc. c. 1109, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Lewis, C. S. The Dark Tower and Other Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Letters. Ed. W. H. Lewis, rev. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S., The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. Of This and Other Worlds. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1984.

Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. London: Pan Books, 1952.

Lewis, C. S. Perelandra [Voyage to Venus]. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Spenser’s Images of Life. Ed. Alistair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life. Glasgow: Fontana, 1959.

Lewis, C. S. That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962.

Lindsay, David. A Voyage to Arcturus. London: Sphere Books, 1980.

O’Neill, Joseph. Land Under England. Harmondswoth: Penguin Books, 1987.

Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963.

Wells, H. G. The Shape of Things to Come. London: Corgi Books, 1967.

 

Notes

[1] For Stapledon’s knowledge of Lindsay see Crossley, 33.

[2] See Lindsay, 101ff. See Kegler for a fuller discussion of Lewis’s debt to Lindsay in The Dark Tower.

[3] See Lewis, Letters to Arthur Greeves, 472 (letter dated 23 April 1935).

[4] In Perelandra Ransom’s subterranean duel with Weston resembles the son’s subterranean duel with his father at the end of O’Neill’s narrative, while the underground country entered by Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair has clear affinities with O’Neill’s Underworld.

[5] See, for instance, his remark in a conversation of 1962 with Brian Aldiss: ‘most of the earlier [science fiction] stories start from the […] assumption that we, the human race, are in the right, and everything else is ogres’ (Of This and Other Worlds 185). It’s worth pointing out that this is by no means the case in The First Men in the Moon, where the men of the title are at least as monstrous in their morals as the bugs. All the same, Ransom’s fear of the Martians as he travels to Mars is based on his reading of The First Men in the Moon, though it proves groundless when he meets them.

[6] See the Bodleian manuscript of The Dark Tower, fol. 24r: ‘Miss Ammeret was expected in a very few days’. Ammeret is a deliberate misspelling of Spenser’s Amoret, and I’m guessing that the replacement of the Latin for love, ‘amor’, with an echo of the French ‘amer’ or ‘bitter’ was Lewis’s comment on Camilla’s character.

[7] There are too many links to be mentioned here, but a close reading of the final chapters of That Hideous Strength alongside The Allegory of Love should make them clear enough.

Towards an Iconography of the Twentieth Century: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists, Part 1

[This is the first part of an essay I published in the Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, Band 18, in 2000. I’ve revised it slightly. Part 2 will follow.]

C. S. Lewis’s unfinished second novel, The Dark Tower (c. 1938-9), recasts the global crisis at the beginning of the Second World War as a battle of the books, a cosmic contest over the writing of twentieth-century history. Two different iconographies are at stake in Lewis’s text. The first is the iconography of what he called ‘scientific humanism’ (Letters 368) – as represented by the socialist future histories of J. B. S. Haldane, H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon – which embraces the radical changes brought about by the political, technological and cultural revolutions of the twentieth century. The second is the iconography of Renaissance Christian poetry, through which Lewis rejects these revolutions as manifestations of totalitarianism, and with which he seeks to supplant the scientific humanist iconographies. In The Dark Tower Lewis pitches these two literary modes against one another, ranging them about the grotesque figure of an automaton-dictator called the ‘Stingingman’, who has been spontaneously generated by the forces of modernity but whose physical characteristics make him equally at home in both iconographies. In charting the course of this battle Lewis offers us a vivid conservative vision of the struggle for control of the future in mid-century Europe.

Lewis mentions his battle with the ‘scientific humanists’ in a letter of 1939 describing the genesis of his first science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). ‘What set me about writing the book’, he explains,

Was the discovery that a pupil of mine took all that dream of interplanetary colonization quite seriously, and the realization that thousands of people, in one form or another depend on some hope of perpetuating and improving the human species for the whole meaning of the universe – that a ‘scientific’ hope of defeating death is a real rival to Christianity. At present, of course, the prospect of a war has rather dampened them. […] You will be both grieved and amused to learn that out of about sixty reviews, only two showed any knowledge that my idea of the fall of the Bent One was anything but a private invention of my own! But if only there were someone with a richer talent and more leisure, I believe this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of England: any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it. (Letters 321-2)

With minor variations Lewis reworks the themes of this letter in nearly every account he gives of his science fiction: the notion, for instance, that the socialist ‘hope of perpetuating and improving the human species’ by technological means represents a crude and highly dangerous pastiche of the Christian hope of an afterlife; that twentieth-century Christians are an embattled minority contending against ‘great ignorance’ – a tiny civilized community holding back the massed forces of barbarism; or that the weapons of the science-worshippers might profitably be used against them. Lewis’s exploitation of the radio for purposes of ‘evangelization’ was one practical result of this final conviction, reclaiming a small portion of the airwaves for Christian propaganda. Another was his effort, through his science fiction, to colonize the planets in the name of Christianity – or rather, to represent himself as a strenuous resister of the scientific project of ‘interplanetary colonization’. To understand the reasons for his resistance, and the path it took, we need to begin with a brief examination of the socialist colonialist enterprise as Lewis encountered it.

J B S Haldane

A succinct summary of the enterprise was provided in an essay by the biologist J. B. S. Haldane, ‘The Last Judgment’, from his book Possible Worlds (1927). The essay presents itself as an alternative vision of the end of the world to set alongside the visions offered by the major Western religions.[1] The problem with the Christian account of the Last Judgment, says Haldane, is the vast scale on which it is conceived. It seems to him improbable in the extreme that the actions of so diminutive a species as the human race should provoke an omnipotent creator into wiping out the ‘entire stellar system’, as happens in the Book of Revelation.[2] Instead Haldane proposes an end of the world – that is, of planet earth alone, not the solar system it is part of – on a much more modest scale; an Armageddon brought about by technology, whose disastrous effects on humanity may in turn be evaded, or at least deferred, by technological means. He postulates a time about forty billion years hence when human beings will have found the key to individual happiness – largely through the judicious manipulation of human biology known as eugenics – and when all the energy they need is supplied through the harnessing of the ‘tide-power’ of the world’s oceans. The effect of the ‘tide-machines’ is to disturb the orbit of the moon, and a crisis arises as that satellite drifts slowly closer to the earth and starts to show signs of breaking up. It becomes clear that the only chance of surviving the impending catastrophe is for the human race to abandon its home planet and launch itself into space.

At this point the work of the eugenicists changes as they begin to devote their research towards the task of refashioning the human body and mind to cope with the rigors of interplanetary travel. The instinctual drive to individual happiness is bred out of them, together with cognate emotions such as pride, a personal preference concerning the choice of sexual partners, and pity, ‘an unpleasant feeling aroused by the suffering of other individuals’ (Haldane 303). In their place the drive towards self-sacrifice for the collective good of the species – modeled on the selfless behaviour of the heroes and martyrs of history – is made the dominant characteristic of the race. Huge numbers of people sacrifice themselves in the effort to make the planet Venus habitable for humanity, an effort that also entails the eradication of all native life on the planet.

Once the exodus to Venus has been satisfactorily accomplished, the process of forging the species into a ‘super-organism or deity, possibly the only one in space-time’ is brought to fruition (Haldane 304). Telepathic communication enables all men and women to participate in a fully communal life. Plans are made for spreading the powers of the human super-organism throughout the galaxy, at the expense, where necessary, of other life forms. And after that, Haldane’s little parable concludes, ‘there are other galaxies’ (309). In this version of the future, humanity enjoys the prospect of occupying ‘eternity and infinity’ without assistance from non-human deities.

Haldane’s essay ends with a plea for new mythologies better suited to the needs of twentieth-century people than the old religions: capable of operating on the ‘new’ scales of time and space opened up by contemporary physics.[3] His appeal was brilliantly answered by the novelist-philosopher Olaf Stapledon in a dazzling sequence of speculative ‘future histories’ beginning with Last and First Men (1930), which traces the development of humankind across unimaginable distances of time and space, as the species leaps from planet to planet in a heroic bid to find a satisfactory way of living together and of achieving mental perfection. It was answered too by H. G. Wells, whose The Shape of Things to Come (1933) maps the evolution, across a much shorter time span, of a utopian World State, which starts out as a technocratic dictatorship and ends, like Haldane’s essay and Stapledon’s novel, in a quasi-religious vision. ‘The body of mankind,’ declares Wells’s historian of the future in a moment of Pauline rapture,

is now one single organism of nearly two thousand five hundred million persons. […] We are all members of one body. […] As […] the confluence of wills supersedes individual motives and loses its present factors of artificiality, the history of life will pass into a new phase, a phase with a common consciousness and a common will. […] And when that crest is attained what grandeur of life may not open out to Man! Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; nor hath it entered into the mind of man to conceive… For now we see as in a glass darkly… (425-6)

The quotations from St Paul here declare the ambition of the scientific humanists to write what is in effect a modern Bible, a new spiritual history of which the Bible itself is only an infinitesimal building block, one of several textual ‘glasses’ (mirrors) which have given the people of the past a distorted glimpse of the infinite possibilities available to the species. Haldane, Stapledon and Wells aspire to colonize not only the planets but the philosophical and religious texts that have helped to shape Western culture.

If the scientific humanists express (through mimicry and selective quotation) a qualified admiration for the Christian tradition, Lewis professes a similarly qualified admiration for the grand narratives of ‘Wellsianity’.[4] His science fiction novels freely acknowledge their debt to Wells and Stapledon, and in a paper delivered to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944 he speaks of having been ‘deeply moved’ by the heartbreaking beauty of the godless ‘world drama’ constructed by the socialist mythmakers.[5] But his project in his science fiction is the reverse of theirs: it is to rehabilitate ancient classical mythology and the Christian religion as still valid keys to the trajectories of past, present and future history. One might say that he colonizes the planets that had been seized as their territory by the socialists, but it would be more accurate in his terms to say that he reclaims them. In Out of the Silent Planet (1938) it is the visionary socialist scientist Weston who uses the vocabulary of imperialist aggression, while the Christian academic Ransom ‘goes native’, as Weston puts it (155); that is, he finds himself to be thoroughly at home in a universe which he finds he has been studying all his life. Lewis has him exclaim with pleasure as he examines a visual history of the universe sculpted by the Martians, ‘what an extraordinary coincidence […] that their mythology, like ours, associates some idea of the female with Venus’ (Silent Planet 129). Ransom discovers, in fact, that the iconography of the ancient world as reconfigured by Medieval and Renaissance Christian thinkers accurately represents the actual social, spatial and spiritual structure of the universe, and that Spenser and the Florentine Neoplatonists offer a more trustworthy account of human history than any ‘world drama’ concocted by modern scientists. As a result, each time Ransom returns to earth in between his adventures he lapses into a state of nostalgic yearning for the not-so-alien planets he has visited. They are his worlds, not the Wellsians’; he speaks their language, as Weston does not; and they represent the supreme affirmation of his lifelong work as a Cambridge philologist. In wandering the exotic landscapes of Mars and Venus he is wandering the pages of the old books he (or rather Lewis) loves, come alive and bursting with energy, and continuing to participate, now as when they were written, in the eternal cosmic struggle.

This is particularly clear when Ransom finds himself on Venus in the second of Lewis’s completed novels, Perelandra [aka Voyage to Venus] (1943). What he finds there is, on the one hand, a series of echoes of Stapledon – or rather, echoes of Stapledon’s echoes of Haldane, since Stapledon’s treatment of Venus in Last and First Men is clearly modeled on Haldane’s ‘The Last Judgment’. Here, as in Haldane, the first human act of interplanetary colonization is driven by the urge to preserve the species in the face of imminent extinction: the moon shows signs of colliding with the earth, and human biology is reengineered to make it capable of adapting to conditions on Venus (Stapledon 243ff.). An aggressive but intelligent native species – shaped something like a swordfish – is wiped out to make the transference possible; and many generations later, after another interplanetary leap and numerous physical and psychological changes, humanity achieves the capacity to think collectively as a quasi-divine ‘racial mind’ (Stapledon 299ff.). The Perelandra discovered by Lewis’s Ransom shares many characteristics with Stapledon’s Venus. The surface of both worlds is mostly ocean, and the ocean is pleasantly unsalted. Both atmospheres are subject to cataclysmic storms, and floating islands dot the storm-tossed waves, although in Stapledon’s Venus the islands are artificially constructed for the benefit of humanity, while in Lewis’s they are natural. Finally, both worlds are exposed to the threat of colonization. The physicist Weston arrives on Perelandra soon after Ransom and announces his allegiance to a Stapledonian philosophy: ‘To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race, is henceforth my mission’ (Perelandra 81-2).[6] The spirituality he advocates is the disembodied variety to which Haldane alludes at the end of ‘The Last Judgment’: ‘the emergence of a new kind of being which will bear the same relation to mind as do mind to life and life to matter’ (311-2). Haldane (and Stapledon after him) freely acknowledges the hostility that such visions of the future will arouse in even the most progressive twentieth-century thinkers (309-10); and Lewis’s hostility soon becomes vigorously apparent, as he brings the scientific humanist future histories into explosive contact with the Christian narrative.

In appearing on Perelandra at all, we learn, Weston has inadvertently thrown himself into a very old story of which the ‘new’ one he tells is no more than a feeble travesty. Venus is populated with the stuff of ancient myth: from obedient fish (benign counterparts of Stapledon’s aggressive swordfish), which carry men as a dolphin once carried the musician Arion, to mermaids, subterranean monarchies and dragons. Above all there is a new Adam and Eve, into whose tale all other mythologies have been incorporated, and in whose revised authorized version of Genesis Weston is to play the part of the satanic serpent. Soon after explaining his philosophy, Weston finds his body possessed by one of the characters (Satan) from the book he had planned to appropriate for his own ends, the Bible, and compelled to reenact the very myth that had been most decisively consigned to the realm of fantasy by the rise of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century – the theory which serves as the foundation of his commitment to the perpetual improvement of the human species, as it did of Stapledon’s. Weston’s ‘great ignorance’ of religious history (Lewis once accused Haldane of being as ignorant of history as Lewis was of science)[7] has left him vulnerable to a singularly nasty form of spiritual colonization. And the retribution for his ignorance is horribly enacted on the body he had hoped to discard: he is beaten to a pulp by Ransom in an extended fist-fight. It is difficult to imagine a more aggressive conclusion to what many readers might see as a merely academic, or bookish, quarrel.

But of course for Lewis the Bible is not just a book; it is the book, to which all others are no more than footnotes or polemical responses. Lewis’s science fiction is no fiction in the sense that a thriller or a chivalric romance is fiction; it participates in actual events on a more than cosmic scale that for him are taking place right here, right now, as he writes and as we read. We ourselves are part of the story they tell, which is a chapter in the ‘universal story’ described in Miracles (1947) of which ‘we are not, perhaps, very attentive readers’ (103). This conviction provides the driving force behind the extraordinarily vibrant descriptions of planetary and interplanetary life that unfold in paragraph after paragraph of the four science fiction novels: the invitations to feel the cosmic rays that permeate space or ‘heaven’ on Ransom’s journey to Mars, to taste the fruits he plucks on Perelandra, to wince as his open wounds adhere to the skin of the Perelandran fish he is riding, or to be overwhelmed by the most ancient of languages as it emerges ‘like castles’ from the mouth of Dimble in That Hideous Strength (228). All these are attempts to make us feel with our bodies a life that lies beyond the text – not just in the ‘other world’ of dreams or the imagination, but in the everyday world we inhabit and in the spiritual world that touches it at every point. The conviction that his writing is a contribution to living history is what renders Lewis’s writing iconographic.

In his last work of criticism, Spenser’s Images of Life (1967), Lewis defines iconography as the practice of making visual or verbal images which both describe and participate in the world outside the work of art: ‘art jutting out into life, and life turning into art’ (11). The Renaissance achieved this effect by incorporating a language of symbols embodying moral and psychological qualities into their public art: the decorations of public buildings, for instance; or the pageantry of tournaments, where real knights fought with one another in the context of an imaginary story; or masques, whose imaginative embodiments of aristocratic virtues were performed by real aristocrats. ‘Iconographical art,’ Lewis tells us,

was not a comment on life, so much as a continual statement of it – an accompaniment, rather than a criticism. Or, if you wish, life itself, in another mode. The planets (it said), the Virtues, the Vices, the Liberal Arts, the Worthies, are thus. If now we were to use a similar art, it would be full of figures symbolizing the atom, evolution, relativity, totalitarianism, democracy, and so on. (Images 11)

In his science fiction Lewis begins to flesh out a twentieth-century iconography of the sort he refers to in this final sentence. He achieves the iconographic effect of ‘art jutting out into life, and life turning into art’ (Images 11) by insisting that his readers are actively involved in the events he describes, as Weston is, whether they like it or not. In Out of the Silent Planet the angelic being Oyarsa tells Ransom, and in doing so tells the reader, that the events in the novel are part of the pageant of human history: ‘The year we are now in – but heavenly years are not as yours – has long been prophesied as a year of stirrings and high changes’ (166). Later the narrator Lewis tells us that these cosmic changes have overtaken his readers even before they began to read: ‘What neither of us foresaw was the rapid march of events which was to render the book out of date before it was published’ (180). An even more daring shift in narrative perspective occurs in The Dark Tower, when the narrator (again Lewis) suddenly reveals that the story will not have ended after the last page has been written. The Tower of the story’s title is still standing; ‘the things I am describing are not over and done with’ (32). Scudamour’s diagnosis of the relationship between his companions – a group of scholars gathered in Cambridge to witness an experiment – and the alternative world they are privileged to view by means of the experiment, is equally applicable to Lewis’s readers. There are, Sudamour says, ‘bits of our world in there, or bits of it out here among us’ (48). Lewis’s science fiction aspires to ‘jut out into life’ as obtrusively as an Elizabethan stage jutted into its audience.

In fact, the quasi-scientific premise at the centre of The Dark Tower derives from a twentieth-century text which suggests that the dividing line between ‘fiction’ and ‘real life’ is a good deal less clear-cut than much of our thinking tends to suggest. The scholars at Cambridge find themselves confronted with a ‘chronoscope’ (19), a device for seeing into other times – past, future, or concurrent with their own; and the inspiration for the chronoscope came, they are told, from a celebrated book by the aeronautical inventor J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (1927). Dunne’s book sets out to offer empirical evidence that future events may be ‘previsioned’ by the sleeping mind – that dreams are made up in approximately equal parts of memories of time past and foreshadowings of time to come – and furnishes a theory to account for such prevision. Both Stapledon and Wells made use of Dunne’s book in their future histories as a means of marking the difference between these narratives and the conventional novel. Last and First Men and The Shape of Things to Come present themselves as visions from another epoch, obtained through one of the feats of inverted remembering of which An Experiment with Time offers so many strange examples. Stapledon’s narrative purports to have been directly transmitted to the author’s brain by a future human inhabitant of the planet Neptune, as part of an immense scheme to educate the primitive earlier generations of humankind in the philosophical principles held dear by the Neptunians; while Wells’s text poses as the inadequate transcription of a book read in a dream by a man with the ominous name of Raven, who died before his transcriptions reached print.[8] In The Dark Tower, then, Lewis took over what he may have seen as the most ‘iconographic’ element of his rivals’ fictions: a chronic theory which proposed direct contact between the imaginative faculties and ‘real’ future events, between art and life, and which aimed to demonstrate the plausibility of the claims of the prophets, mystics, poets and dreamers who were the object of Lewis’s more than scholarly interest. Lewis’s, Wells’s and Stapledon’s fictions depend on a text – Dunne’s book – which roots their extravagant speculations in the mysterious common ground of the living human brain.

Reading, for Lewis, was as vivid a process as remembering. ‘I know,’ he wrote in 1940,

the geography of Tormance [in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus] better than that of Tellus [i.e. earth]. […] Though I saw the trenches before Arras I could not now lecture on them so tactically as on the Greek wall, and Scamander and the Scaean Gate. As a social historian I am sounder on Toad Hall and the Wild Wood or the cave-dwelling Selenites [in Wells’s the First Men in the Moon] or Hrothgar’s court [in Beowulf] […] than on London, Oxford, and Belfast. (Of This and Other Worlds 29)

Things to Come

The Dark Tower can be read, of course, as a speculative fiction concerning the nature of time, but we might also think of it as a meditation on the act of reading in the twentieth century. The location where the action begins – a scholar’s study in the University of Cambridge – is a space dedicated to reading, and although the chronoscope resembles a cinema projector rather than a book (it works by throwing moving images onto a screen, and the dominant image recalls the futuristic buildings of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) or William Cameron Menzies’s Things to Come (1936)), many of the pictures it shows have literary associations.[9] The Tower itself, as it appears on the screen, is a gloomy simulacrum of the recently completed tower of Cambridge University Library – a building Lewis abominated; and although the Othertime Tower is not a library, it contains a room full of books to which the story’s protagonist, the young scientist Scudamour, inevitably makes his way. Here he settles down, at the end of the surviving fragment, to read a history of the time into which he has plunged, and he is immersed in the business of reading when we leave him.

Scudamour enters the Othertime projected by the chronoscope through what might be called a spontaneous act of the readerly will – an accomplishment that a combative scholar like Lewis would no doubt have given his right arm to reproduce. Enraged by something he sees on the screen, Scudamour hurls himself at it, as if to engage in an ungainly academic wrestling-match with his demonic double in Othertime – the Stingingman – of the kind Lewis later took to its bloody conclusion in Perelandra. In the process he somehow swaps souls with the Stingingman, and finds himself in the alternative world he had reacted against so violently, trapped in another man’s body, his tongue constrained by another man’s language. It is tempting to see this as Lewis’s take on the readerly encounter with a disturbing but horrifically vigorous text – an encounter of the sort he describes with such passion in his essay ‘On Stories’.[10] For Lewis, certain ancient and modern adventure stories took on the quality of a lived experience – just as the inventor of the chronoscope in The Dark Tower suggests that certain memories of the past and future constitute direct encounters with other times. ‘On Stories’ indicates that in 1940 some at least of the stories uppermost in Lewis’s mind were scientific romances: Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus (1920), Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901) and The War of the Worlds (1897). These, indeed, are just three of the texts into which Scudamour rashly launches himself; his experiences in Othertime, for instance, closely resemble the adventures of Wells’s Time Traveller among the Eloi and the Morlocks. But the texts that really stir his soul to rage are the future histories of Stapledon and Wells.

The Dark Tower itself seems to have been plucked wholesale from an episode in Last and First Men – the same episode Lewis later used as the basis for his last work of science fiction, That Hideous Strength (1945). As the unfinished narrative unfolds we learn that the Tower houses a Big Brain, although we never get to meet it. The servants of the Brain – the Stingingman and his minions – are men and women reduced to the condition of automata. Readers of Stapledon’s text should recognize at once the society of the Fourth Men, a particularly grim stage in the evolution of the interplanetary human race. The Fourth Men are a community of giant brains, each housed in an artificial cranium in the form of a tower, a ‘roomy turret of ferro-concrete some forty feet in diameter’ (211). These ‘preposterous factories of the mind’ are serviced by the docile relics of the previous stage in human evolution, the Third Men, whose telepathic link to their masters suppresses their individuality and makes them ‘an army of […] perfect slaves’ (218). By entering the Dark Tower, then, Scudamour enters one of the gloomiest literary forecasts of the scientific humanists – much as Weston was later to enter the living world of Christian myth. And the longer he stays there the more deeply he becomes enmeshed in the scientific humanist vision. When he visits the room full of books and begins to read the history of Othertime he is duplicating the feat of the man called Raven in The Shape of Things to Come: studying an unfamiliar civilization in a text from another time. And the history he reads is once again an adaptation of a story told in Last and First Men. It concerns a culture as obsessed with the workings of time as our own is obsessed with the workings of space: and that culture is instantly recognizable as that of Stapledon’s Fifth Men, who ‘as a race […] were peculiarly fascinated by time’ (231), and whose researches are devoted to the exploration of cultures of the past by means of the mental time-travel pioneered by Dunne. Like Dunne, the scientists of Lewis’s Othertime convince themselves that dreams contain images of other times besides the past, and like Stapledon’s Fifth Men they are prepared to experiment on children to test their theory. Stapledon’s narrator shows the same horrific detachment from the effects of these experiments as does the Othertime historian; he states simply that ‘[t]he experience seemed to set up a progressive mental disintegration which produced first insanity, then paralysis, and, within a few months, death’ (239). The Dark Tower closely paraphrases this sentence: ‘The experiences of these children had very disagreeable effects, leading to extreme terror and finally to insanity, and most of those whom he used had to be destroyed before they reached maturity’ (Tower 89). And the ends to which the Othertime experiments tend – the achievement of a kind of immortality by leaping from time to time rather as Stapledon’s people leap from planet to planet – recall the vision of immortality vouchsafed to the Eighteenth and final variety of the human species in Last and First Men, for whom cosmic events recur in a never-ending cycle throughout eternity (305-6).

The scientist Scudamour finds himself as disgusted as Lewis by this kind of immortality: ‘I’d sooner go to a heaven of harps and angels like what they used to tell me about when I was a boy. […] I’d sooner have anything than go round and round that way like a rat in a bucket of water’ (Tower 88). His repugnance resembles the repugnance occasionally felt by the scientific humanists themselves at the future they had imagined. Haldane, for instance, expresses his personal distaste for the Venusian mentality he conjures up in ‘The Last Judgment’, where humans have become ‘mere components of a monstrous ant-heap’ (309-10). In Stapledon’s Last and First Men the merciless annihilation of the natives of Venus by a supposedly enlightened human race plunges all humankind into a state of collective depression that lasts for millennia (252-3). Wells’s Raven is unable to copy out the later stages of his dream-history of time to come, appalled – perhaps mentally unhinged – by the atrocities that will have been perpetrated in the struggle to bring about the utopian World State (Wells 331-4). For Lewis, of course, the distaste of the scientific humanists for their own workmanship is a natural reaction to its violation of the universal moral order; and in That Hideous Strength he explores the possibility that this repulsion might form the basis for the conversion of modern scientists from their atheism. The social scientist Mark Studdock begins his conversion during a visit to a repulsive room very like the one where Scudamour first encounters the Stingingman; and presumably Scudamour’s visit to the Dark Tower will end in a similar conversion. We must return to the Stingingman and his room, though, to understand the nature of the conversion Scudamour is to undergo.

[To be continued.]

 

Bibliography

Crossley, Robert. ‘Olaf Stapledon and the Idea of Science Fiction.’ Modern Fiction Studies 32 (1986): 21-42.

Dunne, J. W. An Experiment with Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1958.

Fiedler, Lesley A. Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Haldane, J. B. S. Possible Worlds and Other Essays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1927.

Kegler, Karl. ‘Travels, Towers, Space and Time: Lewis’s The Dark Tower and its Correspondences.’ Inklings-Jahnrbuch 16 (1998): 119-137.

Lewis, C. S. The Dark Tower and Other Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Letters. Ed. W. H. Lewis, rev. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. Of This and Other Worlds. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1984.

Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. London: Pan Books, 1952.

Lewis, C. S. Perelandra [Voyage to Venus]. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Spenser’s Images of Life. Ed. Alistair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Lewis, C. S. That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962.

Lindsay, David. A Voyage to Arcturus. London: Sphere Books, 1980.

Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963.

Wells, H. G. The Shape of Things to Come. London: Corgi Books, 1967.

 

Notes

[1] For Lewis’s response to Haldane’s essay see ‘A Reply to Professor Haldane’ (Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds 97-109).

[2] Revelation 20.11.

[3] See also Haldane’s essay ‘On Scales’ (1-6).

[4] The term ‘Wellsianity’ seems to have been invented by someone who attended a talk by Lewis, ‘Is Theology Poetry?’, given to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944 (They Asked for a Paper 154n).

[5] See They Asked for a Paper, 154-6, which offers Lewis’s version of the Wellsian ‘world drama’. I am grateful to my friend and colleague Donald Mackenzie for drawing this text to my attention.

[6] On the relation of this passage to Stapledon’s philosophy see Fiedler, 130-3).

[7] ‘My science is usually wrong. Why, yes. So is the Professor’s history’ (Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds 98).

[8] For Stapledon’s use of Dunne, see Fiedler, 58ff. Wells refers to Dunne in Things to Come, 16-17. For Dunne’s reply to Wells’s criticisms of his book see Dunne, 211-4.

[9] For Lewis’s possible debt to Metropolis see Kegler, 119-37.

[10] See Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds, 25-45. See also his essay ‘On Science Fiction’, ibid, 80-96, esp. 93.

The Magic Books of C. S. Lewis and H. G. Wells

Reading a book is an act of conjuration. When we open books we raise the dead to new life, jump across spectacular gaps in space and time, release into the atmosphere concepts and ambitions long forgotten, experience the griefs and joys of distant strangers. We are, in effect, doing the impossible. No wonder, then, if the literature of the impossible, fantasy – which represents people, things, events and places as they never were and never could be, which violates the laws of physics and biology – no wonder if fantasy is obsessed with acts of reading. No wonder, too, if it concerns itself in particular with the reading of books, those bundles of printed pages folded and bound together so that we can’t get access to them except through a deliberate act, a gesture as purposeful and ritualistic as casting a spell. Children’s fantasy is full of acts of book-reading which are also magic acts, and this is hardly surprising given that children still remember the painful but miraculous process of learning to associate marks on the page with things and people for the very first time. Gothic fiction, too, in which the supernatural breaks into the material world through ruins, forgotten doorways or neglected alleys, is obsessed with books as magic objects: perverse and sometimes poisonous rivals of the bibles, dictionaries, textbooks and encyclopedias that purvey the official version of the world to its more or less obedient denizens. Perhaps this is because the genre so often appeals to the childish amazement – not unmixed with horror – at how much more any given space contains than seems physically possible (a handbag, a drawer in a desk, a police box, a person’s mind), or at how attractive or repellent influences from one period, place or culture can insinuate themselves into another, both processes being best exemplified in the act of reading a book. I’d like, then, to think about what fantastic literature has to say about the experience of engaging with that strangest of human artifacts, the book, and what the book as magic object has to say about the act of reading. Above all, I’d like to consider how magic books in fantasy fiction address the question of the text’s relationship with the real, and of the choices we make in realizing – that is, making real – the fantastic things we read of.

Here, then, is a magic book in a novel for children by C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), the third in his fantasy sequence the Narnian Chronicles. A young girl finds this book in an empty house on a seemingly unpopulated island – though the island, like the one in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is full of noises, which makes the approach to this magic object decidedly unsettling. The situation has all the ingredients of Gothic fiction, but Lewis is careful to distance it from the Gothic by leavening those ingredients with a liberal dose of reassurance:

She went up to the desk and laid her hand on the book; her fingers tingled when she touched it as if it were full of electricity. She tried to open it but couldn’t at first; this, however, was only because it was fastened by two leaden clasps, and when she had undone these it opened easily enough. And what a book it was!

It was written, not printed; written in a clear, even hand, with thick downstrokes and thin upstrokes, very large, easier than print, and so beautiful that Lucy stared at it for a whole minute and forgot about reading it. The paper was crisp and smooth and a nice smell came from it; and in the margins, and round the big coloured capital letters at the beginning of each spell, there were pictures.[1]

There are points in this passage, I think, worth lingering over. First, the magic book emits some sort of ‘electric’ energy, as if unable to contain its power to connect to the world, to light it up in a literalization of the familiar metaphor embedded in the term enlightenment. Secondly, the book seems at first to be hard to open, so that the act of will involved in reading it is emphasized – the fact of reading as an active choice rather than a passive process. As it turns out, though, opening it is easy once Lucy has unfastened the ‘two leaden clasps’ that hold it shut – so those clasps are obviously not meant to keep its contents safe from prying eyes. And once the book is open there are a number of indications on its pages that it’s a benevolent space, not a threatening one. The writing is ‘clear’, as if to signal the writer’s intention to make things clear to those who read; it’s ‘easier than print’, which stresses the fact that this is a handwritten manuscript not mechanized type, the work of one writer working in solitude rather than a team of workers (writer, printer, typesetter, proofreader, distributor, bookseller and so on), possibly controlled by some censorious authority, such as must usually be involved in making and marketing a printed book. The script is so beautiful that simply looking at it is a pleasure. In fact, Lewis is careful to indicate that the book pleases all the senses: it feels good, smells good, and delights the vision with colourful pictures. This magic book, then, is decidedly an object in its own right, with a character independent of the meaning of the calligraphic characters it contains. By describing it in such detail Lewis emphasizes the interaction of the reader with the book as object; it inhabits the world of the reader as positively as the reader inhabits the world of the text when she starts to read. And the contents of the book show a similar stress on the interaction between text and reader, reader and text, since the effect reading has on the world is clearly represented in its pages.

When Lucy first starts to read this magic book she finds exactly what we might expect: a set of spells, one of which she has been sent to find. Spells are, of course, very specific examples of how reading affects the world beyond the book. If they are effective, the mere utterance of them changes things materially, so that illnesses are cured, the shapes of people, animals or objects transformed, one’s body transported to some new location. Spells are also things of mystery. Only a select few know how they operate, and these practitioners tend to keep this knowledge secret, set apart from the body of familiar knowledge which is accessible through conventional schooling. There is an air of danger about spells, since their use has so often been forbidden by authorities nervous of the power they might impart to their users, or fearful that they might function through the agency of malignant spirits. In other words, there is a social and political dimension to reading a spell, since the very fact of reading it aloud can radically alter the reader’s relationship to the society she lives in and the authorities that govern it.

Sure enough, as Lucy reads on she moves from an encounter with spells as simple agents of change to spells as dangerous social and political interventions. The first spells she finds are medical: magic for curing warts and toothache, each accompanied by vivid pictures (‘The picture of the man with toothache was so lifelike that it would have set your own teeth aching if you looked at it too long’, p. 130). Later in the book the pictures become ‘more real’, the narrator tells us (p. 131); more photographically accurate, that is, in their representation of their subjects; eventually even cinematic. At the same time they become more problematic in terms of the implied motives that drive people to use the spells they illustrate, more complicated in their depiction of the spells’ effects. As Lucy studies a spell to make the reader ‘beautiful […] beyond the lot of mortals’ (p. 131), she sees an exact double of herself drawn on the page beside the words of the incantation. Her double, ‘the other Lucy’, is pictured speaking the spell ‘with her mouth open and a rather terrible expression on her face’ (p. 132). In the next picture the ‘other Lucy’ has turned towards the ‘real Lucy’ and the two girls – the image on the page and the living, reading human being – are looking into each other’s eyes, with unsettling effect: ‘the real Lucy looked away after a few minutes because she was dazzled by the beauty of the other Lucy’ (p. 132). Note here how the beauty conferred by the spell obscures or dazzles the senses instead of clarifying them, in contrast to the ‘easy’ calligraphy of the magic book, the promise of enlightenment it seemed to offer. In a quick succession of images the real Lucy next sees the impact of this dazzling beauty on the world of Narnia. Tournaments are held in the other Lucy’s honour, swiftly succeeded by all-out war in which nations are ‘laid waste with the fury of the kings and dukes […] who fought for her favour’ (p. 132). In later pictures the other Lucy is back in England, standing beside her sister Susan ‘who had always been the beauty of the family’, but who is now dethroned from her perch and clearly envious of Lucy’s new attractiveness. The real Lucy is thrilled by this narrative, in which she becomes first the heroine of a story set in Narnia – albeit one that involves the reduction of the country to a wasteland – and then the new centre of attention in her place of origin, England. As a result, the real Lucy is just about to recite the spell and make these stories real (in both Narnia and England) when she is put off by the appearance on the page of the face of Aslan, lion-god of Narnia, whose growling puts the fear of God into her (quite literally) and makes her turn the page.

In the pages that contain the spell for more-than-mortal beauty, then, the magic book shows more than the words of the spell itself. It shows in its illustrations the results of the spell once uttered: war between nations, strife between sisters, a ‘terrible’ change of appearance in the spell’s utterer. And it also invites its reader to consider the question of what’s real. The Lucy in the book who speaks the spell ceases to be the ‘real Lucy’, splitting off from her and becoming her ‘other’, so that the ‘real Lucy’s’ desire to become her in spite of all she’s read is a desire to stop being ‘really’ herself. Becoming something other than ‘real’ in this sense brings about the destruction of a place she loves, the land of Narnia, which undergoes a change as radical as hers, becoming a zone of conflict rather than a space that favours friendship as it was before – between species, between beasts and humans, between supernatural beings and mortal creatures. Under the influence of her new loveliness, in fact, Narnia ceases to be really Narnia, and this is particularly devastating because in the Narnian chronicles a number of characters have tended to assume from time to time that the land of Narnia is not real at all – that it’s imaginary – whereas the ‘real Lucy’ has always been the fiercest champion of Narnia’s realness.

The change in Lucy, and the change in Narnia, if it were to occur as it does in the magic book, would be brought about by a change in values, whereby beauty matters more than affection (between people, nations, siblings, and worlds). Another word for affection is caring – etymologically linked to the Latin word caritas, the term used in the medieval church’s liturgy to translate the particular kind of love God has for his creation. That Lucy must cease to care if she is to say the spell is implied both by the fact that once the spell is cast ‘no one cares anything’ any more for her older sister Susan, and by the fact that when Lucy decides to utter it she says to herself, ‘I will say the spell […] I don’t care. I will’ (p. 132). The voluntary acquisition of spectacular beauty – beauty of the kind that sets you apart from other people, beauty ‘beyond the lot of mortals’ – involves the abandonment of the emotion, care, that binds one human being to another in a mutually supportive community. Breaking off attachments in this way is in some sense a rejection of the real, since there is no practical purpose to it: it’s an arbitrary act that does no one any good, least of all the person who performs it.

If, then, a spell in a book can make real an effect (dazzling beauty) that divorces its recipient from reality – from her values and affections, from any concern for the consequences of her actions, even from the evidence of her senses, since the beauty dazzles – then the act of reading can at times be as deadly as at other times it’s useful. I said at first that the magic book presents itself as a benevolent space, with its clear writing, its promise of enlightenment, the pleasant sensations it affords, the medical cures it offers; but the Gothic aspect of the book’s introduction into the narrative foregrounds the perils that also lurk between its pages. The spell for beauty embodies that danger: it is clearly and unambiguously designed to be damaging to its users. If the magic book has indeed been written for benevolent purposes, the only point of the spell’s inclusion among its contents must be to be rejected, to be left unread. It’s the reverse of the therapeutic spells that opened the volume: this particular text must remain trapped within the book’s covers, unscanned and therefore unrealized, an emblem of the divorce between the imaginary and the real, and of the necessity of knowing when to keep that divorce firmly in place. Some fantasies, like some spells, are best left unrealized. The imagination can be a calamitous faculty, especially when focused exclusively on the pleasure of the imaginist, and the spell would seem to have been placed in the volume as a test of the reader’s motives in engaging with the text within.

That the unreading of the spell is indeed its function is confirmed by the appearance of Aslan’s face in the middle of the page, like a prohibition, when Lucy tries to read it aloud. The face terrifies her, not because of its malevolence – as Mephistopheles might have terrified Faustus – but because of its anger, its disapproval, in connection with what it stands for. Aslan belongs to the world of Narnia, and represents everything Lucy desires in that world: ready communication with animals; the promise that bad things will eventually be sorted out, against all odds, by a strength greater than her own; the affirmation that the impossible may be possible after all, that stories may come true, and that play (like the games where we talk with normally inarticulate creatures or dance with predators) can be as serious as anything her society takes to be so. The impossible Aslan, the talking beast who was branded imaginary by (among others) Lucy’s sister Susan at various points in the earlier Narnian chronicles, yet was rendered real to Lucy’s readers by the vividness of Lewis’s descriptions of him, tells her not to read on. His realness, independent of the magic book (indeed he did not seem to be in the book when she first opened it), is confirmed by her prior knowledge of his personal traits: ‘she knew the expression on his face quite well’ (p. 133). Aslan is a being conjured up by books before The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and hence known to most ‘real’ readers, as well as to the ‘real’ Lucy, better than any other being the voyagers encounter. When we read about Lucy seeing him on the page, then, we know exactly what to think of him. We trust him as a reliable guide to what should and shouldn’t be done or read; that’s his function in both the Narnia books that came before this one, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and Prince Caspian (1951). He represents, in fact, a ‘right’ way of reading: to make real in our minds things that will change us for the better, be enshrined as part of our memory so that our way of seeing the world, of reading it, will be subtly modified.

C. S. Lewis, Reader

The suggestion that there is a ‘right’ way of acting and reading, and that Aslan stands for it, implies that the Narnian Lion God is coercive, a didactic tool in the hands of an author concerned to reshape his young readers’ minds with the spell of his prose. I don’t think Lewis would have seen things this way. Rather, I think he’d have seen his task (his own task as author, Aslan’s task as avatar for his version of Christ) as reminding readers of their own ‘real’ identities. The real Lucy’s temptation to speak the spell for beauty is something that both she and the reader knows would be a terrible mistake – after all, we have been shown the consequences, from the breakdown in family relationships to the outbreak of war. This awareness explains the ‘terrible’ expression on the face of the ‘other Lucy’ as she recites it: she does so in the full knowledge of what will come of it (she has presumably first read the same pages, showing the same consequences of the spell, as the ‘real’ Lucy is reading). Aslan’s appearance to the ‘real Lucy’ is therefore a reminder of what she already knows, of who she really is – not an imposition of a certain way of thinking by an outside authority. And she can ignore him, too, if she wishes. Seeing his face prevents her from reading out the spell for beauty, but she goes on to read another spell she should have left unread – a spell to find out what other people think of you – and in the process, we learn a few pages later, she loses one of her best friends. After she has uttered that second spell she sees an image of her friend bad-mouthing her to a school bully, and this changes Lucy’s view of the girl forever, despite her subsequent discovery that she didn’t really mean it, that she spoke only out of fear of being hurt by the bully if she said what she really thought. Lucy had to suppress part of herself in order to read aloud the spell to find out people’s thoughts; we know this because she spoke it ‘all in a hurry, for fear her mind would change’ (p. 133) – that is, because she prevented herself from thinking about the consequences of her action. And as it turns out, the spell doesn’t inform her what her friend really thinks of her, only what she pretends to think. It implants false knowledge in Lucy, and once implanted, it seems, she never manages to remove it – the false knowledge becomes real to her and permanently damages her relationship with that friend in the process.

Interestingly enough, the scene where her friend bad-mouths her takes place in our world rather than Narnia’s. In the magic book, the girl and the bully are shown sitting in the solidly familiar surroundings of a third class carriage on a train, and the scene is the most realistic one so far in the magic book: a moving picture like something from a film, with ‘telegraph posts flicking past’ the train window as Lucy watches. Our world, then, is a place where things that are not real can masquerade as realities, where what is asserted is not always true, where people can betray their real identities just as they can in books. Books, conversely, can be ‘realler’ than the ‘real’ world: think of how the Narnian Lion in the book stands for what Lucy really knows and is, while our own world stands for the way she and her friends may be coerced into suppressing or disguising their powers of thought.

Tree by Tolkien

Not long after damaging herself by speaking this spell, Lucy finds the spell she has been sent to find, ‘to make hidden things visible’, and reads it out as she was instructed. Rosemary Jackson tells us in her book Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion that the Latin word which lies at the root of the English term fantasy, phantasticus, means something like ‘to make visible or manifest’.[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis’s friend who wrote The Lord of the Rings, argues in his celebrated essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that the task of the author of fairy stories or fantasies is to realize an imagined world – to make it real by all the rhetorical tricks at his or her disposal.[3] Lewis, on the other hand, is keen to remind us that not everything real is visible (think of air, toothache, weight, music, abstract notions), and conversely that not everything we see is authentic. Fantasies and the desires that lie behind them can make things real as well as visible, while conversely real-life events and actions can distort our sense of what exists and what doesn’t. And Lewis shows this – renders it visible – by an event he places near the end of the chapter where Lucy reads the magic book.

After she has spoken the spell to make things visible, Lucy encounters Aslan himself, the ‘real’ one rather than the one on the page, who has been made visible like the island’s inhabitants by her incantation. Lucy is delighted to see him, and as she turns to greet him her own face becomes ‘almost as beautiful as that other Lucy’ in the magic book – though ‘of course’, Lewis adds, ‘she didn’t know it’ (p. 136, my emphasis). As soon as Aslan has been realized in the strange house, with all the qualities he embodies, so too is the beauty in the spell Lucy read about in the magic book – only here it’s ‘real’ beauty, in the sense that it’s something enjoyed not by Lucy (who is specifically stated not to be aware of her appearance at that moment – not to ‘know’ it) but by those who interact with her, by the community (in this case, the community of readers who have read this passage over the years since its publication). Her beauty is a collective pleasure, in other words, rather than a mark that distinguishes and thus segregates its owner from everyone else, as the ‘other’ Lucy’s beauty was. The real Lucy’s beauty also depends on the circumstances under which it manifests itself: the motives and emotions of which it is a sign, in this case love directed outwards towards others, caring love. And it depends on what its possessor does as well as what she feels. Lucy’s motives and emotions propel her towards the lion (‘she ran forward with a little cry of delight and with her arms stretched out’, p. 136), enacting the Latin word for movement, motus, which is at the root of both the words motive and emotion. Beauty, then, is not a fact but an act, a state of being, something alive and energetic – which can stop being beauty as soon as its possessor stops behaving beautifully. And in this book it’s rewarded with reciprocal movement in the shape of a lion’s embrace.

In the passage, accordingly, Aslan is described in terms that make him as vivid, tangible and caring as Lewis knows how:

And he was solid and real and warm and he let her kiss him and bury herself in his shining mane. And from the low, earthquake-like sound that came from inside him, Lucy even dared to think he was purring (p. 136)

As with the description of the magic book, Lewis ensures he appeals to most of the senses: sight (his mane is ‘shining’), touch (he is ‘solid’ and ‘warm’) and sound (his thunderous ‘purring’). Not only, then, does the spell make Aslan visible, it seems to make him concrete, give him mass. And once he has been realized like this he proceeds to make Lucy realize what she did earlier by uttering the spell to read people’s thoughts. He first calls it ‘eavesdropping’, which carries unpleasant connotations of the invasion of privacy, and then something less pleasant still, ‘spying’, which implies the clandestine surveillance of a person or community for hostile purposes – a word with strong emotional resonance in the aftermath of the Second World War. Afterwards he points out the inaccuracy of the information she gathered from this act of espionage; and Lucy at once tells him that despite its inaccuracy – despite the fact that she now knows the girl only said she didn’t like Lucy because she was afraid – Lucy will never be able to forget the apparent betrayal, and that their friendship will come to an end as a result. In other words, the ‘other’ or imagined friend has permanently replaced the ‘real’ friend in Lucy’s head, usurping what she ‘knows’ with bogus knowledge – becoming real in her head. Her awareness of this, and the loss that will come of it, indicates that she has started to think again, having suppressed her thought processes while she read the spell; but it also indicates how potent false knowledge is, and hence how potent certain acts of reading may be in damaging the reader. Lucy has become in part the other Lucy by deliberately reading the spell without thinking, and hence by undermining her own faculty of reason.

Lewis, then, has in this passage set up a complex dialogue between different kinds of realness and fantasy. Through his representation of a magic book which seems to occupy both the secondary world of Narnia and the ‘real’ world of 1950s England – the place and time where Lewis himself was writing – he has set in competition two versions of reality at least, and two versions of fantasy too. The book serves as a kind of portal or gateway opening on more than one location. It faces its reader with two alternative versions of the book’s imagined reader Lucy, one of which is ‘authentic’ in that it pays attention to what she really knows and believes, the other false in that it chooses to ignore what it knows, to discard the evidence of its senses, spurn its reason. Both Lucys are at once readers of the magic book and characters in the various narratives it contains, and both Lucys exist both in Narnia and in England. The effect of this is to suggest that realness is an internal phenomenon; that what a person (or group of people) honestly perceives or knows to be real is so, regardless of whether that realness is perceptible to anyone else. It also implies that we are capable of convincing ourselves that something is not real against our better judgement, simply because we desire it to be so. And Lewis indicates that we can’t be forced to really believe something, which makes sense: we can be forced to say we believe a thing but it’s hard to imagine a mind being changed by coercion (though Orwell succeeded in imagining this only a few years before the publication of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949]).

In other words, there are two kinds of fantasy as well as two kinds of reality: things we claim to exist when we know they don’t – because we desire them – and things we make up for the delight of imagining them, in full acknowledgment of their non-existence. The big difference between these two kinds of fantasy is, Tolkien suggests in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, a matter of power – or more exactly, power in this world, ‘domination of things and wills’.[4] For Tolkien, a stage magician pretends to make impossible things happen as a way of gaining power over his audience – by making them think him uniquely gifted, much as people think the ‘other Lucy’ gifted because of her beauty. The bully makes a weaker person state something they don’t believe for the pleasure of demonstrating his or her superior force. On the other hand, Tolkien insists, inventing an imaginary place exerts no power over anyone; in its ‘purity’, as he calls it, it’s a communal or collective experience, as pleasant to the writer as to the reader, and without a palpable design on either[5]. There is a problem with Tolkien’s logic here, since he himself suggests that reading about imaginary places does in fact exert power over the reader: it makes her delight more intensely in the real things and places with which she comes into contact, since it associates them with the excitements and pleasures of narrative; it changes her point of view, in other words, which is a pretty potent effect.[6] So too in Lewis’s chapter, Aslan has power over Lucy because she knows about him from previous encounters; the reader who has followed her adventures is able to ‘read’ what he stands for from having read about him in other books; the Lion could therefore be said to direct our interpretation of the chapter we’ve just scanned, or more accurately to be a rhetorical tool for directing our interpretation of it, a tool wielded by the writer for his own purposes. Lewis showed his awareness of this rhetorical or persuasive power in fiction early in his career as a novelist, when he told a Christian friend in a letter of 1939 that the ignorance of religion among contemporary readers meant that novels could work as highly effective propaganda for Christianity, ‘smuggling’ its doctrines or teachings into readers’ minds in disguised and simplified form and thus leading them by stealth towards what Lewis considered the truth.[7] He wrote in this way during the Second World War, when persuasive rhetoric was being deployed by both the Allied Forces and the Nazis in the service of very different ideologies. He would have been intensely conscious, then, that the methods he was suggesting (taking advantage of ignorance to spread contentious forms of knowledge) could be used in opposing ways, precisely as the knowledge in Lucy’s magic book could be deployed for either therapeutic or destructive purposes.

The Narnia books have sometimes been read as propaganda by readers hostile to Lewis’s outlook. Such readers might point out, among other things, that Lewis fails altogether in his account of the magic book to show any awareness that what people believe or know may change according to the period and culture they inhabit; for him what’s true and right is always and essentially true and right, regardless of the fluctuations of history, and he wants to make the reader believe so too. Change is, however, clearly visible to any twenty-first century reader in this chapter, both because there are no longer third class carriages on British trains, as in the scene from the magic book where Lucy’s friend bad-mouths her to a bully, and also because we may well find ourselves resisting certain aspects of Lewis’s narrative. We might object to Aslan’s apparent authoritarianism, for example, his quiet assumption that everything he says should be obeyed; or to Lewis’s assumption that girls like Lucy will be tempted by the offer of supreme beauty (rather than, say, political power) – a temptation to which he never subjects any of his male characters, unlike the children’s author he most admires, E. Nesbit;[8] or to the fact that the magician who owns the magic book has absolute authority over the inhabitants of his island. We might respond to these objections by arguing that Aslan is not in fact authoritarian, since (as I suggested earlier) he only reminds Lucy of what she already knows and leaves it to her to decide whether or not to stand by that knowledge; or that Lewis’s point about beauty is precisely that his contemporary culture drastically limits a girl’s sense of her own identity by placing it first and foremost among the values she should aspire to. We might also respond, more problematically, that the magician governs the island’s inhabitants because they are unable to govern themselves (as the magician himself affirms). This was the rationale of many British colonists for taking control of other people’s countries; and it’s famously the rationale of Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest for his enslavement of the native islanders Ariel and Caliban. Ariel couldn’t look after himself, Prospero insists, because he let himself get trapped in a tree by the ‘foul witch Sycorax’, while Caliban couldn’t read or talk when Prospero met him (at least, he couldn’t express himself in a language Prospero could understand).[9] Caliban wasn’t convinced by Prospero’s logic, and neither would most modern readers be. And Lewis’s magician shows his own unease about wielding power over his subjects by using Prospero’s phrase for it: ‘Sometimes, perhaps, I am a little impatient, waiting for the day when they can be governed by wisdom instead of this rough magic’ (p. 138). Prospero refers to ‘this rough magic’ when he’s about to give up his power at the end of the play,[10] and the use of the same phrase by Lewis’s magician implies that he too plans to give up his power when the time comes, just as the British were slowly handing back power to their colonies in the 1950s (though there’s some ambiguity here about whether being ‘governed by wisdom’ refers to the islanders’ own wisdom or someone else’s, and hence about whether they will in the end achieve self-determination). The magician is at least a little more democratic than the British: his magic book was used by the islanders to turn him invisible as well as themselves, and he must wait as patiently as they must to be freed by Lucy from that enchantment. Time, then, has affected Lewis’s rewriting of The Tempest, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it; he shows himself in it a man of the mid-twentieth century, not the seventeenth or indeed the twenty-first.

Whether or not we feel comfortable as contemporary readers with Lewis’s account of the book as a magic object, one thing’s for certain: he represents Lucy’s encounter with it, and with the fantasies it contains, as an immensely complex experience that affects her deeply. He presents it, in fact, as an adventure; something risky, even dangerous, which could result in damaging her irreparably as easily as it could result in enriching her mind.

It seems to me that books represented in fiction as magic objects very often embody the danger of reading: from The Monster Book of Monsters in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), which bites the hands of its unwary readers, to the titular compendium of spells and prophecies in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964), which stings the reader’s fingers like a nest of hornets when they handle it without permission; from the wizard Ogion’s magic book in Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), which releases shadows into the world to whisper at the reader menacingly from beside the door, to the book at the centre of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy (2003-2008), which absorbs readers into its imaginary world and releases characters from that world into this one, often at the command of unscrupulous criminals and tyrants. I’d like to end, though, by looking at a magic book directly linked to the one in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which embodies the dangers of reading from a rather different perspective.

The book can be found in H G Wells’s great short story ‘The Door in the Wall’ (1911), which was one of Lewis’s favourites and seems to have infiltrated every one of the Narnian chronicles.[11] It’s not a story specifically written for children, as the Narnian books are, but a story about childhood experience and its effect on our adult lives. In it, a young boy finds a mysterious green door in a wall in London and walks though it to find a vast and impossible garden, full of affectionate wild animals and friendly adults, containing a palace where children play delightful games in a state of total mutual trust and blissful timelessness. We never learn in the story whether this pastoral landscape ‘really’ exists or is a child’s daydream, conjured up by his loneliness, the death of his mother and his father’s neglect. The scene itself is something of a cliché, composed of familiar images from Victorian picture books and a vague memory of the passage in the Book of Isaiah which tells of a time when ‘The wolf […] shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them’.[12] What we do know is that the green door continues to haunt the boy throughout his life, appearing in different walls at decisive moments in his career as if to tempt him to walk through it, to choose the simple idyll it hides before the opportunity to meet up with a woman he loves, or to cast a crucial vote in parliament, or to take part in a conversation or interview that will result in some form of promotion. At the end of the story the boy, who has grown up and become a successful politician, is killed when he walks through a door in a temporary hoarding and falls into an excavation at a building site. The door he walks though is not green, which suggests that (if he opened it thinking it was, having finally succumbed to the temptation of returning to the garden) he must have been the victim of a delusion, a psychotic episode that brought his life to a premature end. The narrator, though, suspects that his end may not have been a sad one, and that for the dead man at least the door he opened led to the yearned-for companionship and stability that had eluded him throughout his lifetime. The mysterious portal that appears in different places irresistibly recalls the various portals that lead to the land of Narnia in Lewis’s sequence, and the link is confirmed by the fact that the scene it reveals is one where humans and wild animals interact with the kind of trust Lucy showed when she buried her face in Aslan’s mane.

What I’m interested in here, though, is the magic book which the young boy finds behind the door when he first enters the enchanted garden. The book is shown to him by a certain ‘dark woman’ he meets there, and when she opens its pages he sees that they contain not words but moving pictures, like the pictures that accompany the spell to know people’s thoughts in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The pictures show scenes from the little boy’s life so far, and he finds them as exciting as any performance by a stage magician. He urges the woman to turn the pages faster and faster until she reaches an image of the scene where he was about to enter the green door. The dark woman gently tries to prevent him turning this final page, but he insists, and when she yields he finds himself looking not at the garden but at himself in ‘a long grey street in West Kensington, in that chill hour of the afternoon before the lamps are lit’, alone and neglected once more.[13] ‘This was no page in a book’, we are told, ‘but harsh reality’; he is no longer reading about the long grey street but standing in it, and that street is metaphorically speaking where he lives for the rest of his life until the moment when he walks to his death through another portal.

The book held by the woman points up a number of things that might otherwise escape us in the rest of the story. First, her reluctance to let the child turn that final page, the one that takes him back to his original life, exactly parallels the child’s initial reluctance to enter the door, and occurs at the same point in the narrative. When the boy first finds the door he gets the sense that it would be ‘unwise or […] wrong of him – he could not tell which’ to give in to his desire to go through it (p. 108). He is simultaneously ‘drawn and repelled’ by it (p. 109), because he both yearns to enter and is quite certain that ‘his father would be very angry’ if he did. In the event, he does go through, but the sense remains that there are two sets of rules at war within Wells’s story: a set of rules imposed by the father – who is a lawyer and hence a custodian of society’s rules – and a set of rules attached to the garden, which concern such half-understood obligations as the need to keep it secret, and the need to come back soon after leaving it, despite all the pressure on him to concentrate on other things. The rules divide themselves into the laws of work and of the ‘serious’ things in life – such as love or a parent’s death – and the laws of games or play, which dominate the world beyond the door. Games exist in our world too, of course; but there’s a difference in the way they’re played. In the garden, the boy plays a game whose details he can’t remember afterwards no matter how intensely he yearns to play it again;[14] and later on there is a game he plays in the ‘real’ world which involves finding a new route to school each day.[15] The second of these games is played within strict limits of time and space set by the urgency of keeping to a schedule imposed by authority; it’s also solitary, a game the boy plays by himself. By contrast, the first is communal, its organization agreed upon by everyone rather than imposed by a singular authority from above, and timeless, in that he loses track of time while playing it, and is only drawn away by the prospect of reading the book held by the dark woman.

The magic book in Wells’s story represents something very different from the game played in the garden. It is read in only one direction – from front to back, page following page in strict progression, as if in imitation of the strict regulations that have governed the boy in his London upbringing. It’s made up of a series of separate scenes, each disconnected from the one before. The marvel of the book (the boy is said to ‘marvel’ as he looks at it) is that it contains ‘realities’, which is what draws his attention: images of things that have really happened to him in the past (p. 111). But there seems to be no story to it, no sense of an unfolding narrative whose progressive pressures and tensions keep him reading. He skips some pages as uninteresting; his reading, then, is not immersive as the game was. When the woman hesitates to turn that final page the boy cries, ‘And next?’ (p. 112) – but the following page is unconnected to its predecessors: instead, by some mysterious agency the picture of the London street it contains lifts him out of the story set in the garden and back into a world that has no coherent plot. And Wells is careful to give the impression that the boy’s life from this moment on is made up of fragments. There is a kind of structure to it called a ‘career’, but each episode in that career has no link to the one before, and even his love life is fragmentary. ‘Twice I have been in love’, he tells us (p. 118), and the narrator of the story alludes to a woman ‘who had loved him greatly’ (p. 107), but there is no way of telling if she was one of those he was in love with. The garden, by contrast, is identified specifically as a story by the boy’s father, who considers stories to be lies, breaches of the rules that govern his life on this side of the door. The child is given his ‘first whipping’ for telling the tale or lie or story of the garden, and he is forbidden to read other fictions: ‘Even my fairy-tale books were taken away from me for a time – because I was too “imaginative”. Eh! Yes, they did that! My father belonged to the old school’ (p. 113). The deployment of the term ‘old school’ here sets the fairy-tale books against the regulated system of education in the ‘real’ world, and the adjective ‘old’ makes that system sound outmoded, wearisome, drab.

H. G. Wells, Writer

In this short story, then, the magic book serves a different function from the one in Lewis’s novel. The magician’s book on the island was never less than absorbing, and while it contained only spells, some of these spells were also stories, both fantastic (the story of the other Lucy who was warred over by nations) and realistic (the story of the act of betrayal by Lucy’s friend). As spells, all of its contents had the potential to affect the world beyond the book’s covers. Wells’s magic book, on the other hand, contains only realism – or rather, realities; it represents what has been and what is, not what might be, and instead of affecting the world beyond it the book draws its readers in, extinguishing their delight and enclosing them in the ‘old school’, so to speak, of the everyday. Both books aim to confirm what the child reading them already knows, but where Lewis’s book appeals to the child’s intelligence and offers her a choice as to whether or not to act on what she thinks is rational and right, Wells’s suppresses thought and choice and imagination. After the boy has finished reading it and been returned to the everyday world, the garden he visited – and which he perceived as real – becomes in adult eyes a mere story, while the contents of the magic book become the only reality. Moreover, the notion of story itself – in the form of the boy’s reports of what he experienced in the garden – gets violently punished as a pernicious lie. Lewis’s magic book offers multiple different possibilities for action, while Wells’s offers only restrictions, and these very different characteristics are reflected in the fact that Lewis’s book is brightly-coloured while Wells’s is bleak and grey. Reading Lewis’s book leads directly to a happy encounter with Aslan, while refusing to read Wells’s volume leads to death – and a particularly mundane death at that, as if in punishment for rejecting the mundane. Wells’s book, then, represents the act of reading as a vehicle for the dominant ideology of his time, while Lewis’s represents it as an act of liberation from the limitations of the everyday.

But while their magic books work differently, there’s a close affinity between Wells and Lewis (as is confirmed by Lewis’s lifelong love of Wells’s science fiction) despite the seeming opposition between their political views. Wells, as a non-Christian socialist, might have perceived his narrative as a story of capitalism’s attempt to suppress the socialist dream: the dream of equality, of justice, of escape from the grind of work and from the arbitrary legislation designed to benefit powerful men like the boy’s father. But this dream contains Christian echoes. The boy thinks of the garden as a ‘sacred secret’, and Lewis would have found it easy to read it as a metaphor for his religion, a second Garden of Eden. Lewis’s liberating magic book, meanwhile, embodies the potential for damage contained in the self-serving deployment of liberty: the damage of oneself as well as of others, a damage of which Wells shows himself intensely conscious in his more ambiguous utopian writings.[16] Both writers pit the collective and communal against the capitalist quest for personal power. Both find themselves antagonistic to the perception of the material, the measurable, the economically saleable as the only form of realism, and champion instead the imagination as an emancipatory faculty closely allied to rational thought.

Both, too, consider fantasy – the invention of impossible stories – to be among the most exciting and absorbing activities of the human mind. As a result, for both writers fantasy is also dangerous: capable of deluding individuals, dividing families, triggering acts of verbal or physical violence, killing the fantasist. Its dangerous potency is what makes it fascinating. Its fascination is what makes it potentially deadly. This is the spell that draws us, they imply, each time we take a magic book down from our shelves. It seems to me, then, that the productive tension between the competing uses and forms of fantasy and reality, as exposed by the competing magic books of Lewis and Wells, deserves further thought.

NOTES

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 130

[2] Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), p. 13.

[3] ‘But if a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.’ J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 14.

[4] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, p. 53.

[5] ‘Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves’ (‘On Fairy-Stories’, p. 54). The phrase ‘palpable design’ comes, of course, from Keats’s letter to John Reynolds of 3 February 1818 (‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us’).

[6] ‘By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.’ ‘On Fairy-Stories’, p. 59.

[7] ‘I believe this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of England: any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.’ Letter to Sister Penelope, C.S.M.V., 9 July 1939. C. S. Lewis, Letters, ed. W. H. Lewis, rev. Walter Hooper (Glasgow: William Collins, 1988), p. 322.

[8] I’m thinking of the first chapter of Five Children and It (1902), in which all five children – boys and girls both – become ‘as beautiful as the day’, thanks to a wish made by one of the girls.

[9] The Tempest, 1.2.259 and 1.2.354-61.

[10] The Tempest, 5.1.50-1.

[11] For Lewis’s admiration of Wells, and its limitations, see R. W. Maslen, ‘Towards an Iconography of the Future: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists’, Inklings-Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, Band 18 (2000), pp. 222-49.

[12] Isaiah 11:6, King James Bible.

[13] ‘The Door in the Wall’, H. G. Wells, Selected Short Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 112.

[14] ‘I don’t remember the games we played. I never remembered. Afterwards, as a child, I spent long hours trying, even with tears, to recall the form of that happiness’ (p. 111).

[15] ‘It was the sort of game […] that every imaginative child plays all day. The idea was the discovery of a North-West Passage to school. The way to school was plain enough; the game consisted of finding some way that wasn’t plain’ (p. 114).

[16] I’m thinking here in particular of The Shape of Things to Come (1933), whose fictional author – a man called Philip Raven – is so horrified by the gap between the world of the early 1930s and the utopian world of the future, which he reads about in another magic book shown to him in a series of prophetic dreams, that he eventually commits suicide in order to avoid witnessing the violence that will bring utopia into being.

Celtic Fantasy and War: Patricia Lynch and William Croft Dickinson

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

Cover Illustration by Pauline Baynes

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

Capital from The Book of Kells

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

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

Patricia Lynch

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

The Happy March from The Crock of Gold

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

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

Women of the Easter Rising

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

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

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

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

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

The Magic Pool, illustration by Jack Yeats

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

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

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

Finn

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

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

Sreng

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

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

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

A Digestive Biscuit

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

The Mysterious Wood

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

Broch

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

Crannog

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

Ringed Hillfort

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