Night Scenes in Peake and Masefield

One of the most memorable moments in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1950) comes when the banished servant Flay returns to the castle in secret to continue his faithful vigil over its masters, the Groan family, and above all the young heir to the castle, Titus Groan. At one point in his nocturnal wanderings through abandoned halls and empty corridors, Flay comes across a ‘small cloistered quadrangle’ (p. 639), in the middle of which grows a thorn tree whose silhouette strikes him as strange.[1] Gradually, as the dawn begins to break, he begins to understand the reason for this strangeness. The tree conceals the figure of Steerpike, Gormenghast’s Master of Ritual and (in Flay’s view) the deadliest enemy of the House of Groan. Flay’s discovery of Steerpike leads first to Steerpike’s exposure as a murderer (he has hidden the skeletons of Titus’s two aunts in a forgotten room where he can gloat over them) and afterwards to Flay’s own death. The passage in which he finds him, then, is a turning point in the novel, and deserves to be quoted in full as a masterpiece of atmospheric writing.

Here it is:

In the centre of the quadrangle was a thorn tree, and [Flay’s] eyes turned to the pitchy silhouette of that part of it that cut across the yellow of the sunrise. His familiarity with the shape of the old tree caused him to stare more intently at the rough and branching stem. It seemed thicker than usual. He could only see with any clarity that portion of its bole that crossed the sunrise. It appeared to have changed its outline. It was as though something were leaning against it and adding a little to its bulk. He crouched so that still more of the unfamiliar shape came into view, for the upper part was criss-crossed with branches. As his vision was lowered and he commanded a clearer view beneath the overhanging boughs his muscles became tense for it seemed that against the livid strip of sky – which threw everything else both on the earth and in the air into yet richer blackness – it seemed – that against this livid strip the unfamiliar outline on the left of the stem was narrowing to something the shape of a neck. He got silently to his knee and then, lowering his head and lifting his eyes, he obtained an uninterrupted view of Steerpike’s profile. His body and the back of his head were glued together as though he and the tree had grown up as one thing from the ground.

And that was all there was. The universal darkness above and below. The horizontal stream of saffron yellow and, like a rough bridge that joined the upper darkness to the lower, the silhouette of the ragged thorn stem, with the profile of a face among the stems.

What was he doing there in the darkness alone and motionless? (pp. 639-640)

The genius of the passage lies in its use of light and dark to map the slow revelation of Steerpike’s presence. Piece by piece Flay assembles the puzzle, in the process transforming the familiar thorn into something uncanny – a tree with a human body growing out of it – so that the naming of Steerpike only adds to the young man’s unsettling qualities. For much of the passage the reader’s attention is engaged with the particular difficulties of examining the tree in the dimness of the quadrangle; everything else in Peake’s narrative is held in suspension, waiting until the significance or otherwise of this long, slow process of decipherment should be unveiled and the mechanism of plot be set in motion once again.

There are many such moments in Peake’s novel, moments that invite us to set aside the unfolding drama as we seek with one character or another to negotiate some specific aspect of the ever-changing landscape of Gormenghast Castle. In this passage, Steerpike is for a while no longer a villain – not even to Flay, the man who has reason to hate him most, since he was responsible for Flay’s exile. Nor is he the ex-kitchen boy who rose to be Master of Ritual. He is an enigma, detached from grand or petty narratives of all kinds, fascinating precisely by virtue of being, first, an unknown object spotted in the dark, then a hybrid of tree and man, ‘alone and motionless’, his thoughts more completely hidden than his body. For as long as the passage lasts, he and Flay exist only as rivals locked in a physical and psychological duel, Flay deriving an advantage from Steerpike’s ignorance of his presence, Steerpike deriving a greater advantage from his uncanny relationship to the tree and to the ‘universal darkness’ of the quadrangle and the castle it metonymically represents.[2] At each such moment in the novel, the characters involved become extensions of their setting, doing homage to Gormenghast’s quasi-sentient vastness by their total absorption in the immediate problems or wonders it presents them with. Each of these moments contributes another potent strand to the developing myth of the castle, while the characters themselves gain a mythic dimension thanks to their place within the titanic structure.

In this passage, Steerpike strikes Flay for the first time not as an intruder but as an indigenous denizen of the castle’s gloomy interstices, a being who springs from between its stones just as the tree does; this despite Flay’s conviction that the young man is a deep-dyed traitor to its ruling dynasty, which Flay continues to serve despite his banishment. The young man’s appearance of being wholly at home in the darkness of the quadrangle, and of being able to transform something familiar (the tree) into a tool to advance his hidden purposes, anticipates the final section of the novel, in which Steerpike wanders Gormenghast’s attics, roofscapes, cellars and staircases as at once an outcast and the castle’s deadly alternative monarch, the Arch-fiend of Peake’s secondary world. In that final section of the book, Steerpike’s unrivalled familiarity with the building’s topography gives him an unsettling advantage over his pursuers, the Groans, allowing him to reign unchallenged in spaces of the building to which its nominal rulers have never penetrated. The power this knowledge gives him is something he anticipates from the moment when his murder of the aunts has been discovered. At that point he makes the spontaneous decision to embrace the situation – that is, to relish his sudden fall and the terrifying aura with which it invests him, in a world where tradition elicits absolute obedience:

If it was no longer possible for him to wear, one day, the legitimate crown of Gormenghast, there was still the dark and terrible domain – the subterranean labyrinth – the lairs and warrens where, monarch of darkness like Satan himself, he could wear undisputed a crown no less imperial. (p. 658)

The echo of Milton’s celebrated line here, uttered by Satan in Paradise Lost – ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ – is unmistakable.[3] From this point onwards, Steerpike is ‘no less imperial’ than Titus himself or his formidable mother, the Countess Gertrude, having fulfilled his ambition to attain, in a sense, the castle’s crown; the fact that his is an illegitimate version of that crown only enhances his perverse enjoyment of it. The scene at the thorn tree, like a painting of the Tree of Life defiled by the presence of the human-headed Serpent, pre-empts this passionate embrace of perversity, when Steerpike becomes an embodiment of the fastness at the centre of Peake’s imaginative universe.

*****

First edition of Lost Endeavour, Frontispiece by Stephen Remi, showing Little Theo on the left and Charles Harding on the right.

I was reading one of John Masefield’s novels recently – a strange, visionary book called Lost Endeavour (1910) – when I came across a passage which seemed to me to foreshadow the passage with the thorn tree. It’s from one of Masefield’s intense set-pieces: a scene in which a small band of pirates finds itself surrounded by a war party of indigenous Americans on a hill in the wilderness at night. Knowing they are surrounded, and believing that the war party will attack at dawn, the pirates decide that one of their number must leave the hilltop to fetch water if they are to survive the night. An enslaved boy of sixteen whom they happen to have met, and who knows the land as none of the rest do, volunteers for the mission. On his way back from filling their water bottles at a stream, he sees something ahead of him which may or may not be a threat, or a place where a threat is hiding. This is where my next passage begins:

What was the black thing? Was it a thicket of briars, or a patch of sumach, or an Indian grave-heap? I could not be sure; and it was necessary that I should be sure. I lay down flat upon the ground, so as to get its upper edge, if it had one, defined against the stars and the comparative lightness of the lower heaven. Looking at it thus, with my head flat upon the ground, I thought it must be the bulk of a vast uprooted tree, probably much rotted and overgrown. That it was a tree was evident an instant later, when, in a puff of air, I caught the scent of wild honey from some crevice in its bark.

Now it was always my plan when alone in the woods to approach such places from the flank, and never directly from the front. One never knows what may be hiding on the further side. One might stir up a bee’s nest, or a honey-hunting bear, or a wild-cat, if one approaches an old log too rashly, and none of these three is polite when disturbed. And as I looked at this log, with a knop or swelling in its surface well defined against a star, something very slowly rose up from behind it, gradually hiding not only that star but several others. It rose up very slowly, so slowly that I knew that it could be no animal. As it rose it defined itself. Something stuck out from it at right angles. It was round, with something sticking out from it; it was something with eyes and a brain; it was looking at the ground where I lay. It was an Indian with eagle feathers in his hair. I got a sniff of his war-grease intermixed with the perfume of the honey. For an instant we stared at each other through the darkness. We were not five yards from each other. If we had made ‘long arms’ we might have touched. What was I to do now? Did he see me or did he not see me; and if he saw me, what was he going to do; and if he did not see me, how was I to get past the log while he was there? Did he see me? I concluded that he could not help it, since my face, in spite of my tan, was pretty white against the ground. But if he saw me he made no least sign, no least noise. He was like some great fungus thrust up suddenly from the log. He had the best cards; it was for him to call the game. (pp. 103-105).[4]

The parallels between this passage and Peake’s are worth considering in detail. First, the topography of the incidents they examine. Both incidents are shaped by their setting: the cloistered quadrangle, implicitly giving Flay a column to hide behind, or at least a shadowed border to hide in as he surveys the thorn tree; the steep hill with water at the bottom which places Charles below the tree trunk as he approaches it, giving him a greater disadvantage in relation to whatever it may conceal. Both take place at night, with the limitations on vision this imposes. Both passages involve the inspection of a tree, an inspection that requires a careful adjustment of position (Flay kneels and lowers his head, Charles lies on the ground) to make use of all available light (the yellow sunrise in Peake’s passage, the stars in Masefield’s). In both cases the risks involved in this inspection are considerable; the banished Flay, if noticed by a denizen of the castle, risks death, while Charles expects to be hurt or killed if the tree conceals any of the creatures he fears. In each case, the human being revealed by the inspection seems uncannily fused with a tree-bole – Steerpike as its extension, the nameless warrior as a fungal growth on its decaying surface. There’s therefore a fantastic atmosphere about both passages. At the beginning of each, the tree could harbour anything at all; by the end what it harbours has become strangely involved with the adjacent vegetation. In each case, too, the human being next to the tree seems by the end to have the initiative. Flay has no idea what Steerpike is doing in the quadrangle or what he might do next, while Charles Harding has no idea if the warrior has seen him or what he might do if he has. As a result Flay and Charles feel able only to react to, not act upon, the circumstances in which they find themselves. Power lies with the man they are watching, despite the fact that he is, or possibly may be, unaware that he is being watched.

Cowboy ambushed by native American warrior, by Stanley L. Wood, one of Peake’s favourite artists as a boy.

Having looked at the immediate practicalities of the situation in each case, we might consider, too, the point of view adopted in each passage within the context of the novel as a whole. Flay is an outcast from the castle, summarily banished by the Countess of Groan after a lifetime of faithful service. Charles Harding too is an exile and an outcast, having been enslaved in Britain at fourteen and sold in America, so that his common cause with the pirates – forced on him by circumstance – renders him subject by law to aggressive punitive measures. After Flay’s banishment he learns the ways of the woods, living in a cave like Stevenson’s Ben Gunn and discovering an aptitude for survival and a love of the natural environment. Charles, too, learns the ways of the woods, and describes himself as a woodsman, which is why he volunteers for the mission of fetching water; he knows full well the pirates would not last more than a few seconds in the wilderness he has made his home. Charles’s familiarity with this environment also gives him an appreciation for the skills of the native Americans, who know it so much better than he does. His status as an enslaved person, too, means that he does not look on the so-called ‘Indians’ from a wholly colonial perspective; they are free men, as he is not, their skills are greater than his, and in both ways they have him at an advantage. Their superiority is implied by the final sentence of the passage, in which the Indian behind the fallen tree is said to be holding ‘the best cards’, as if he and Charles were engaged in a game played for the highest stakes, with the Indian best placed to win. Masefield is careful, however, to show Charles as having in some measure adopted the perspective of the slaveowner who bought him, worrying about how his ‘master’ is coping without his help, worrying about the punishments he himself may face if he deserts his ‘owner’, and so on. Flay too takes the perspective of the ‘legitimate’ castle authorities, the House of Groan, even though it was they who sent him into exile without pausing a moment to consider his long and faithful service. In the previous novel, Titus Groan (1946), Flay worried constantly in exile about how his master, the old Earl who was Titus’s father, would manage without his services, and in the thorn tree scene he is actively engaged in acting on behalf of the Earl’s son, Titus. At the same time, he has a sense that Steerpike has real power over both himself and the House of Groan. In order to move around the castle freely, despite his banished status, Flay has made himself familiar with its obscurer corridors; but his observation of Steerpike reveals that the younger man has made an even more thorough study of the castle’s layout, though Flay’s hatred for Steerpike prevents him from admiring the extent of this knowledge.

Flay and Charles, in other words, are clearly instruments of a certain power structure founded on radical inequality between different perceived orders or categories of human being. Both also embody the weakness of this structure: Charles because of his admiration and partial understanding of the native Americans, Flay because of his evident fear of Steerpike as a force capable of toppling his ‘masters’. Flay and Charles inhabit unjust, inefficient hegemonies sustained by violence, and recognise the presence in their worlds of potent counter-forces (the ‘traitor’ Steerpike, the native American warriors) dedicated to damaging or destroying those hegemonies through their unrivalled mastery of a certain space (the castle, the wilderness). The primacy of that space in each passage – the quadrangle in the pre-dawn darkness, the hill at night – places the advantage in the court of those counter-forces. The quadrangle and the hill become locations in which imperial rule finds itself suspended, challenged, partly undermined, reflecting the historical moment when each writer was writing, at different stages in the long, slow decline of the British Empire.

This decline is driven by internal contradictions. We’ve noted how the scene involving Steerpike marks the beginning of his transition from authority figure within the hegemony – the Master of Ritual, with a powerful hold even over his putative ‘masters’, the House of Groan – to solitary outcast and devilish monarch of the castle’s tracts. Lost Endeavour, too, includes a character who begins with hugely overblown ambitions and ends (as its title suggests) by losing everything he has worked for. The leader of the pirates encountered by Charles is a Spanish sailor called Little Theo, whose name hints at his resemblance to – and later, his aspiration to become – a minor god (theos is ancient Greek for god). In England, Little Theo was Charles’s schoolmaster at a small school; his name was given him, half in mockery and half in admiration, by his pupils, in recognition that there is something powerful about him despite his short stature and humble occupation. Little Theo was enslaved at the same time as his pupil, and this experience – together with what happened after – is suspected by Charles to have driven him half mad. By the time Charles meets him again, not long before our passage, Little Theo has become convinced he is a kind of messiah for the indigenous peoples of the Americas – a figure foretold, he insists, in all New World mythologies. It’s this conviction, sustained by a series of ‘revelations’ that enable him to overcome a string of life-threatening situations, which drives him to become a pirate chief and later to abandon most of his fellow pirates as unworthy partners in his messianic mission. Inevitably – given the historical setting of the novel in the late seventeenth century, the so-called Golden Age of Piracy – this mission comes to nothing; after all, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history does not record a collective rising of indigenous American people behind a European leader. But the mission’s mere existence lends the narrative a quasi-anticolonial slant which is twisted and warped by the fact that the self-proclaimed rebel against Empire is both white and committed to seizing power for himself. The parallels with Steerpike, whose claims to set himself against the elitism of the Groans are effectively nullified by his ambition to rule Gormenghast in their place, are clear enough. So is the fact that both aspiring rulers find themselves undone by the contradictions in their stances. The worlds they inhabit – late seventeenth-century Britain and America, Gormenghast Castle – do not yet offer any serious alternative to the status quo. Steerpike and Little Theo pose as rebels against the powers-that-be, but can only envisage combatting those powers by replicating the inequalities that sparked off their rebellions. They are loners – Steerpike has no friends, Little Theo has contempt for his pirate companions – which makes them weak, despite their conviction of their own power (and Little Theo’s weakness is underlined by the fact that he finds himself powerless when attacked by the indigenous people he intends to rule; he is wounded in the dawn attack on the hill). Both, then, embody the contradictions of the power structures they seek to subvert.

To summarize what I’ve said so far: the greatness of the two long passages I’ve quoted springs from the intensity of their focus on one particular time and place in the unfolding narrative of which they are part. The moment in question constitutes a pause in the action, when for a while everything hangs in the balance. The time is circumscribed in each case by the approach of dawn, when the war party is expected to strike, when what hides beside the thorn tree will be fully revealed, and when Steerpike will have enough light to set off for his unknown destination. The topography of the setting is central to both passages. The ‘small cloistered quadrangle’ divides the night into dense, quasi-abstract patches of light and dark, while the thorn tree makes of Steerpike something weird, an amalgam of tree and man which reinforces the sense that he has some eerie biological connection to Gormenghast castle. The fallen log in the second passage is rendered intensely significant by the darkness of the hillside, which both conceals whatever is behind it and renders weird the slow, silent rising of the warrior from that concealment. In both cases, the inner life of the person next to the standing or fallen tree is just as obscure after his identity has been revealed as it was beforehand. This means that the person in question retains at the end a close association with the place described in the passage, and derives from that place a kind of power he would not otherwise have had. Place and person are fused for a while in these passages, and the implications of this fusion remain unknown as they draw to a close.

Robert Louis Stevenson, admired by both Masefield and Peake.

This laying aside of (nearly) all considerations but those of the immediate present puts me in mind of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous essay ‘A Gossip on Romance’, which seeks to explain his fascination with what we now call thrillers or adventure stories, as against novels of ‘character’, ‘drama’ or ‘thought’.[5] For Stevenson, reading a book should be an experience both ‘absorbing and voluptuous’, taking the reader ‘clean out of ourselves’ while reading, and afterwards leaving behind the ‘busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images’ which render the reader ‘incapable of sleep or of continuous thought’. For him, place is central to the best kind of action narrative packed with the sort of focussed, all-consuming passages he thirsts after. Such narratives intensify the haunting effect of certain places by supplying a plot full of ‘fit and striking incident’ that depends entirely on the specific characteristics of those places and could not be set anywhere else. While we are focused on each successive incident, we should be so preoccupied with place and its role in unfolding events that we set aside all considerations of morality; after all, Stevenson points out,

There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; […] where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.

Such narratives of circumstance and incident, then, involve a temporary suspension of the mind from active engagement with ethics, politics or philosophy. The only questions that matter for as long as they last are questions as to what may happen next and how it may unfold. This state of suspension bears some resemblance to the period of hesitation identified by Tzvetan Todorov as a key characteristic of the Fantastic in literature: a temporary uncertainty in the reader’s mind over whether the incidents we are reading about (in this case, seemingly impossible incidents) may be understood as actually happening in the world of the story, or as an illusion imposed on the protagonist by his mental state or by some trickery of the light or of another person.[6] The impossible incident is all that matters for the time being, and the multitude of possible explanations for it – together with the refusal to choose any one of those explanations for the time being – lends it an astonishing, vertiginous power over the mind of the reader. For Stevenson, as for Todorov, the period of suspension or hesitation is infinitely productive, allowing ‘whole vistas of secondary stories, besides the one in hand’ to radiate forth, ‘as they radiate from a striking particular in life’. Such a plenitude of possibility, for him, will make any reader ‘as happy as a reader has a right to be’.

The two passages I’ve set side by side offer Stevenson’s experience of suspension in ample measure. Both are intensely concerned with ‘problems of the body’ – indeed, they render the body itself problematic as Steerpike’s head and back seem to emerge from the tree and the warrior’s head becomes a fungal growth. Masefield’s involves what Stevenson terms ‘clean, open-air adventure’, and while Peake’s is nominally set indoors, the profusion of strange vistas, feral creatures and organic growths in Gormenghast castle give it the wildness of a series of undiscovered caves – though this wildness is not exactly ‘open-air’.  The passages also embody a specific quality in both Peake’s and Masefield’s narratives. In both, place is the focus, together with the time at which the protagonist and the reader come in contact with that place. During each successive incident or set-piece in both narratives – and there are many of them – a ‘vista’ of possibilities is generated, any one of which would provide a richly satisfying story; and the fact that there is for a while this vista renders the incident from which they might spring more potent than any one of those stories once it has started to be told. For that period of suspension, the reader’s imagination is wholly engaged, and the reader empowered, made equal partner with the writer and the protagonist, thanks to the prose on the printed page. That’s a political situation, I think, and helps explain why Peake’s novels have been so popular with politically sophisticated readers down the years, despite the apparent lack of specifically political elements in those novels. Masefield has not achieved the same level of popularity, but several of his books deserve to be much better known – not least Lost Endeavour, with its thrilling set pieces, its vivid evocation of place, and its knowingly troubled relationship to the imperialist world that gave it birth.

Lost Endeavour, specially bound first edition. The turbaned man on the front is Little Theo.

NOTES

[1] References are to The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992).

[2] The most celebrated reference to ‘universal darkness’ in literature comes from Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1727-1743), which describes the collapse of British culture and ends in a universal apocalypse presided over by stupidity, embodied by the goddess Dulness. The final lines run:

Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries all.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, line 42.

[4] Quoted from Lost Endeavour (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1910).

[5] ‘A Gossip on Romance’ can be found in full here: https://electricscotland.com/history/other/EssaysOfRLS09AGossipOnRomancePlusNotes.pdf

[6] See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 25.

Fantasy and Puppetry: Diana Wynne Jones, Russell Hoban and John Masefield

[This blog post was inspired by the recent ‘Fantasy and Puppetry’ event hosted by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow, featuring Marita Arvaniti, Brian Froud, Wendy Froud, Howard Gayton, William Todd Jones, Mary Robinette Kowal and Terri Windling, with funding from the University of Glasgow’s Chancellor’s Fund, obtained by my wonderful colleague Dimitra Fimi. My warm thanks to all the participants for their stunning insights, to which I’ve hardly begun to do justice here. Special thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal for putting me on to the work of Steve Tillis.]


What is it about puppets that draws and horrifies us? Puppets are representations of human figures whose radical dissimilarity to human figures marks them out as grotesque imitations, always eerily distanced from what they purport to portray. Their workings are often visible, whether as rods or strings manipulating limbs, or the bony solidity of hands beneath the cloth of their bodies, or puppeteers alongside them on stage, manoeuvring heads and arms and legs with the attentive reverence of priests or undertakers. They are, then, the embodiment of control: control by authority, control by fate, control by our own desires, fears, instincts and diseases – control by anyone but themselves.

But they are also the embodiment of anarchy. Their unfeeling bodies make them impervious to damage, their seeming detachment from their puppeteers absolves them of responsibility, with the result that many puppets are violent things often subjected to violence. Most of the narratives about puppets I can think of involve acts of aggression: from the constant infighting of the friends Damon and Pythias in the puppet show that dominates the final act of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (1614) to the multiple murders that beset Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1883); from the self-destructive darkness that inhabits human puppets in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker (1980), to the forced reiterations of Mr Punch’s actions magically imposed on young children in Diana Wynne Jones’s book The Magicians of Caprona (also 1980), the ‘scrobbling’ and near murder of the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings in The Box of Delights (1935), or the revelations of dark family secrets imposed on a child by successive encounters with the puppet master, Mr Swatchet, in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s graphic novel The Tragical Comedy and Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch (1994). All these narratives are designed for children or have children in them, so that the darkness and violence they contain runs fiercely counter to the narrative of innocent childhood, which prescribes insipid pap as children’s entertainment in place of unsettling revelations. Puppets tell us that childhood is, like adulthood, full of shadows and damaging encounters, confirming our suspicion that the version of our young selves that is foisted on us by much children’s television is a falsification, a smiling puppet rendered increasingly sinister, as we grow, by its distance from our concussive daily lives.

Human but not human; controlled yet anarchic; violent and subjected to violence yet somehow amusing; puppets are full of paradoxes and contradictions, and this, for Steve Tillis, is the source of their ancient fascination. For Tillis, puppets of all kinds give rise to a kind of double-vision, and his definition of a puppet incorporates this fundamental doubleness:

the puppet is a theatrical figure, perceived by an audience to be an object, that is given design, movement, and frequently, speech, so that it fulfils the audience’s desire to imagine it as having life; by creating a double-vision of perception and imagination, the puppet pleasurably challenges the audience’s understanding of the relationship between objects and life.[1]

This double-vision whereby an object is seemingly endowed with life while at the same time remaining self-evidently an object explains the affinity puppets seem to have with the fantastic – an affinity which Tillis notes elsewhere in his book Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet, and which is borne out by the many fantasy movies that have given a central role to puppets.[2] Fantasy is the art of the impossible; objects endowed with life are an impossibility; so the union of fantasy with puppets seems an obvious artistic strategy. But Tillis’s placement of double-vision at the heart of the attraction of the puppet also has something crucial to say about fantasy as a mode or genre. Fantasy involves a similar double-vision. We read a fantasy text, or watch a fantasy film, in the knowledge that what we are reading about or seeing could never have happened in what we think of as ‘real life’; if it could, the film or book would not be fantasy. This awareness inhabits our minds all the time we are viewing or reading. Where Tolkien would have us totally immersed in the fantasy narrative as we read or watch, forgetful of the rules that govern the ‘real’ world we live in,[3] that immersion involves processes which we know very well as we watch or read have never happened and never will happen, such as a person turning invisible by putting on a ring, a person looking across a vast distance by peering into a stone, a tree coming alive and waxing lyrical about the ages it has lived through and the changes it has seen. The amazement with which the Hobbits confront such processes reminds us repeatedly of the fact they cannot take place in the world we live in; this is why they’re delightful. Reading about these things may make us look at gold rings and stones and trees in a new light – surrounding them with an aura of previously unimagined (im)possibilities, as Tolkien says it will in his essay on Fairy Stories – but it won’t lead us to expect that these objects will somehow really acquire the qualities Tolkien gave them; that we may find a ring to turn ourselves invisible, or a stone to see through, or a walking, talking tree. When we walk over downs and stroll through forests our imagination may fill them with barrow wights, Black Riders, Ents and elves, but we’ll always be conscious these are things of the imagination, no matter how keenly we may yearn for them to be real.[4]

The double-vision of perception and imagination, in other words, is not exclusive to puppets. It inheres in paintings, where the viewer can often see the brush-strokes laid on paper by a watercolour artist – even intuit the movements that laid down those brush-strokes – yet simultaneously recognise what they’re looking at as a landscape. It inheres in poetry and prose, where words on the page remain stubbornly present in front of our eyes even as we look through them into the worlds they conjure up. Fantasy, like puppets, stresses the disparity between the object we are looking at – the book, the painting, the screen – and the impossible forms of life with which it seems to have been imbued. The fantasy book or film or painting are theatres, like the puppet theatre, in which impossibilities are brought into being yet remain impossibilities, because if they weren’t we wouldn’t get the kick out of seeing the impossible brought to life that defines them as fantasy.

In the final chapter of his book, Tillis has a chapter entitled ‘Coda – Metaphor and the Puppet’ (pp. 159-169), in which he considers how the metaphors of puppets and puppetry have been used in a range of contexts. He is mostly concerned with marionettes – not glove puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets or Bunraku – and hence with the relationship between the puppet and the hidden, distant puppeteer, which he sees as embodying the awareness humans have of being at the beck and call of forces beyond our vision: divine forces, political forces, or the force of a powerful emotion such as love. In this blog post I’d like to consider three fantastic texts which deploy the metaphor of puppets in special ways, particularly as a way of playing with the double-vision Tillis writes of. All three of my examples contain representations of glove puppets rather than marionettes, which affects the terms of Tillis’s coda in certain fundamental ways (the glove puppet, for instance, is partly made of the puppeteer’s flesh and blood, as well as the wood and cloth of the head and body; the puppeteer may be in some sense distant, but they are also very much present and intimately bound up with the objects they manipulate). In all three cases, too, double-vision is central to the narrative in which the puppets appear; or rather double-, treble- and quadruple-vision, as the puppet metaphor introduces us to a world in which multiple layers of perception and imagination dominate our lives. These puppet narratives seem designed to defy our belief (our practical belief, that is, as evinced by our movements as we go about our activities) that we live in a rational universe, where the rules that govern what’s real, what’s imagined, and how effect will follow cause, are more or less known and more or less invariable. That’s what the last sentence of Tillis’s definition implies: ‘the puppet pleasurably challenges the audience’s understanding of the relationship between objects and life’. In the particular puppet stories I’ll be discussing, knowledge is precisely what’s being called into question by the prolonged encounter with an inanimate object which is also imagined to be alive, while remaining an object, against all the laws of biology and physics.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Magicians of Caprona

Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s book The Magicians of Caprona is all about contention, violence, and the kinds of knowledge and ignorance that enable acts of spontaneous aggression. She sets it in an alternative Italy that has never been unified, and is therefore made up of multiple city states whose competing interests break out from time to time in military conflict. Her book sees the neighbouring city states of Florence, Pisa and Siena invade the made-up city-state of Caprona, hoping to extend their respective territories at Capronan expense. This contention between countries is reflected in the hostilities that divide the two principal Capronan families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis. Each family possesses a stock of grievances and disparaging myths about its rivals, handed down from parent to child and growing more extravagant with each new iteration, until violence breaks out between them around the middle of the book in the form of a huge street brawl, rendered more terrible by the fact that it is waged by magic – the families in question being universally renowned specialists in fashioning spells.

Jones’s imagined world, in other words, is governed by imaginary boundaries: boundaries between those fantastic entities known as nations, between those porous entities known as families, between the commercial interests of businesses which trade in the same product – in this case, magic. These boundaries encourage conflict – war and brawling – and inhibit the sharing and verification of ideas and information – in other words, knowledge. At the same time, the book makes it clear that neither the boundaries nor the selective information that leads to conflict has any basis in material reality. All the geographical divisions between nation states mentioned in the book have long been removed, in our own world, by Italy’s nineteenth-century unification, while the reader knows that the two families are mistaken in thinking that each house has kidnapped a child from its rival, which is the ostensible cause of the street brawl. In other words, the plot of the book is based on double-visions engendered by self-absorption, delusion and prejudice, proposing their dominance of our daily lives and the destructive intransigence that maintains them.

Meanwhile, the book’s comic treatment of its two conflicts – between neighbouring nations, between neighbouring families – stirs up echoes of two well-known tragedies, one real, one imagined. The imagined tragedy is Shakespeare’s play about young love in the context of a feud between two Italian families, Romeo and Juliet. The real tragedy is the civil war between fascists and partisans in Nazi-occupied Italy towards the end of the Second World War, with all the atrocities that entailed. The book is founded, then, on a set of double-visions which gives its light-hearted story, full of cats and puppets and clever children, the darkest of undertones.

It’s hardly surprising, then, if the metaphor at the centre of Jones’s narrative should be that of the Punch and Judy show, a light-hearted take on the domestic or homegrown violence which breaches so many imaginary boundaries: between sexes (Punch and Judy), between adults and children (Punch, the Baby and the children in the audience), between legality and illegality (Punch and the Policeman), between life and death (Punch, the Ghost, the Devil), between the domestic and the public (Punch, Judy, the Policeman and the Hangman), between the stage and the world beyond the stage (Punch, Judy, the Baby and the audience), and so on. No wonder, too, if Jones is concerned to compound the double-vision produced by puppets in Tillis’s book – which is governed by perception and imagination, the perception of the puppet as an object, the imagination of that object as alive – by adding multiple further double-visions to it. I’ve mentioned the double-visions behind the book’s two central conflicts; but there is also a particular double-vision in it that challenges the boundaries conventionally imposed between adulthood and childhood. For instance, in this novel the traditional Punch and Judy show is a personal obsession of the Duke of Caprona, who is himself a living, breathing double-vision, a ‘large damp-faced man’ decked out like royalty (‘He was wearing a shiny silk suit with flashing gold buttons and glittering medals’) who responds to a street puppet show with as much enthusiasm as ‘the smallest boy there’ (p. 21).[5] He is also, as it happens, a puppet himself, in the metaphorical sense mentioned by Tillis in his coda. His wife, the Duchess, indulges his love of puppets in order to distract him from his royal duties, leaving her free to rule Caprona herself. It’s while the Duke is watching a Punch and Judy show at the palace that she declares war on Siena, Florence and Pisa in his name, triggering the invasion for her own dark purposes. And the same Punch and Judy show also effectively triggers the childish brawl between the two families that distracts them from the impending political crisis. It is the Duchess who kidnaps a child from each of the families, then spreads the rumour that each child was stolen by the other family, thus unleashing a potentially deadly Punch-and-Judy style fight between the two families in the city streets. Meanwhile the two kidnapped children are themselves transformed by magic into Punch and Judy puppets – the Duchess being a powerful sorceress whose magic powers exceed those of the Montanas and the Petrocchis combined. So the presence of the kidnapped children as puppet-performers in the Punch and Judy show watched by the Duke at the palace, at the very moment when war is being declared in the Duke’s name by the scheming Duchess, lends a further double-vision to the double-vision of the objects endowed with life as defined by Tillis. The show, designed for children, masks very adult political manoeuvres, while the children who take part in it find themselves deeply conscious, in a very adult way, that they are in mortal danger from an adult (the Duchess), while the principal member of the adult audience (the Duke) watches the show with all the insouciance of a child. There could hardly be a more complex troubling of the conventions that divide the adult world from the sphere supposedly occupied by children.

The Duke is not the only adult in the book to be consumed by childish obsessions. The head of the Montana family, too, resembles a child: ‘Old Niccolo’s face, and his eyes in it, were round and wondering as the latest baby’s’ (p. 16); while his son and heir Rinaldo strikes poses, harbours grudges, and ‘enlists’ the youngest members of the family as part of his secret gang, like an overgrown schoolboy (p. 166). Both men are content to believe the old lies about the Petrocchis, and to ignore the plentiful evidence that the Petrocchis had nothing to do with the Montana child’s kidnapping. Like the Duke they are therefore easily puppeteered by the Duchess into acting out their obsessions. Enraged by the kidnapping and certain they know who is responsible, Niccolo and Rinaldo spontaneously lead their family through Caprona towards the Petrocchi residence, unleashing a chaos of dangerous spells as they go without regard to the possible consequences. All Jones’s books, in fact, are full of adults who have not grown up, continuing to cleave to the stories, prejudices, resentments and obsessions of childhood without subjecting them to any kind of discipline or critical analysis. The division between adulthood and childhood is rendered permeable by her narratives, which are equally full of children who take on responsibility for themselves and their families, often with considerable success.

At a certain point in each book, these responsible children show themselves capable of moving on from a passive acceptance of the controls imposed on them by the simplistic narratives they inherit from their childish parents to a critical consciousness of those narratives’ simplicity. In many cases this is brought about by a kind of double-vision which enables them to separate one aspect of a person’s character from another, and hence to ‘clear [their] eyes’, as Jones puts it in the Magicians (p. 166). A case in point is Paolo Montana, the elder brother of one of the kidnapped children. Paolo’s moment of productive double-vision comes when Rinaldo, a ‘true Montana’ whom Paolo has always tried to mimic (p. 163), expresses callous indifference to the question of whether his father will die of a stroke he has recently suffered. ‘It’s about time the old idiot gave up anyway,’ Rinaldo scoffs; ‘I shall be one step closer to being head of the Casa Montana then’ (p. 165). At these words, things in Paolo’s head abruptly fall into a new perspective: ‘he tried to imagine Rinaldo doing the things Old Niccolo did. And as soon as he did, he saw Rinaldo was quite unsuitable. […] It was as if Rinaldo had said a powerful spell to clear Paolo’s eyes’ (pp. 165-6, my emphasis). Abruptly the boy understands the callous self-interest of Rinaldo, the will to power that motivates his heroic posturing – posturing which is itself based on the model of the theatrical brigand, a human puppet whose clichéd heroism is fatally compromised by a casual indifference to other people’s sufferings. From this moment onwards for Paolo, his older brother Rinaldo is always the spoilt, irresponsible eldest son, whose posturing no longer hides his bullying propensities.

Paolo’s kidnapped younger brother, meanwhile, whose name is Tonino, needs his own eyes cleared by acquisition of the distance provided by double-vision. He loves to read, an activity represented in most children’s fiction as an unqualified good. But in Tonino’s case his kidnapping is accomplished through a spell cast by a book he has been reading obsessively; and the book in question is a novel full of questionable nationalist heroics called The Boy Who Saved His Country. Tonino believes the story to have been sent to him as a present by the most highly educated member of his family, Uncle Umberto; and the boy’s conviction that it is precisely the kind of gift his uncle might have sent him suggests that its propagandistic content may indeed conform to the Montana family’s philosophy. We already know by the time the book appears that a ‘true Montana’ like Rinaldo will do anything to put down the Petrocchis, whether or not there is evidence that they are at fault for any given situation. Tonino’s outlook has been shaped by his family and his city as well as his reading, and having finished the book he at once sets out to map its story onto his home, Caprona.  The boy searches its streets for the strange blue house at which the protagonist’s adventures began, hoping to mimic the fictional boy’s heroism, just as his brother Paolo hoped to mimic the heroic posturing of Rinaldo. Thanks to his family, then, Tonino already has a propensity for confusing fiction with reality, and it’s by playing on this propensity that the Duchess is able to entrap him. His eventual discovery of a real blue house matching the fictional one in The Boy Who Saved His Country triggers the trap which is woven by magic into the fabric of the volume. Soon afterwards he finds himself imprisoned in the ducal palace, held alongside (horror of horrors!) a Petrocchi child, who turns out to have been entrapped by reading fiction in exactly the same way. Both children have to learn that the fantasies peddled by stories shouldn’t be uncritically confused with the day-to-day reality of family life; and it’s by being changed into puppets that this fact comes home to them, quite against the wishes of the sorceress who accomplished that transformation, the scheming Duchess.

Becoming a puppet gives Tonino and his fellow prisoner, Angelica Petrocchi, a terrifying insight into what it is to be controlled by an unscrupulous adult. The motivation for the change is never quite clear to them – they may have been ‘punished’ for an attempt to escape from their imprisonment, or simply transformed to give sadistic pleasure to the Duchess – but once changed, their knowledge of the story they are part of makes the situation far worse than if they had been acting out an unfamiliar narrative. Tonino is Punch, Angelica Judy, and as each new puppet character pops up from under the stage – Angelica-as-Judy, the Baby, the Policeman, the Hangman – the children are horribly aware of the fate that lies in store for it, yet wholly unable to prevent the unfolding suite of murders, as Mr Punch annihilates the entire cast-list one by one through a mixture of trickery and brute force, to the accompaniment of strident laughter.

Jones represents the children’s sense of entrapment by adding yet another layer of double-vision to the usual double-vision engendered by puppets. As Punch and Judy, each child can see the other’s dual nature in their puppet face:

Judy was coming along the stage holding the white rolled-up shape of the baby. Judy wore a blue nightdress and a blue cap. Her face was mauve, with a nose in it nearly as large and red as Tonino’s. But the eyes on either side of it were Angelica’s, alternately blinking and wide with terror. She blinked beseechingly at Tonino as she squawked, ‘I have to go out, Mr Punch. Mind you mind the baby!’ […]

‘What have you done with the baby?’ squawked Angelica. And she belaboured Tonino with the stick. It really hurt. It knocked him to his knees and went on bashing at him. Tonino […] tried to stay crouched on the floor. But it was no good. He was made to spring up, wrest the stick from Judy and beat Angelica with it. He could see the Duke laughing, and the courtiers smiling. The Duchess’s smile was very broad now, because, of course, Tonino was going to have to beat Angelica to death. (pp. 155-7)

Here the transformed Angelica and Tonino, trapped in cloth bodies and hard wooden heads, clearly recognise that they have a distinct identity from that of the puppets in whose forms they are enclosed – the kind of recognition they lacked when they imagined themselves as the heroes of the children’s book The Boy/Girl Who Saved Their Country. Angelica has a large red wooden nose, the nose of Judy, but the eyes that stare out on either side of it are her own, while Tonino finds himself ‘made to spring up’ (the phrase makes it sound as if the necessity is woven into the fibres of his puppet body), then ‘wrest the stick from Judy and beat Angelica with it’ – the sentence underlining his horror at and inward resistance to these enforced actions even as he performs them. The stick is described as Judy’s, the beaten body Angelica’s – two distinct entities – and the action is rendered more horrific by Tonino’s awareness that a child’s body feels the blows of the stick intensely (‘It really hurt’), even after the child has been changed into a thing of wood and cloth. Meanwhile the stick is not just Judy’s, Angelica’s or Punch’s; it has a will of its own: ‘It knocked him to his knees and went on bashing at him’. Jones’s prose perfectly captures, in other words, the multiple identities of a glove puppet, whose head and body clothe a living hand which directs their actions. The hand, meanwhile, serves a traditional, centuries-old story, embodied in the stick which cannot be restrained from its murderous ‘bashing’. Some of the elements of a puppet should in theory be able to operate independently of the others; the flesh-and-blood heads of the children inside the puppets, for instance, are deeply opposed to the story represented by the figures’ wooden heads, while the flesh-and-blood hand of the puppeteer has the agency to take that story in new directions. Yet with seeming inevitability the narrative repeats itself along the same old lines. From a position outside the story – the position of the spectators – the repetition might seem pleasurable, since none of the characters (except perhaps Mr Punch himself) knows what will happen next, and a sense of superiority is part of what makes a situation funny – especially when we’re conscious that no harm is being done (puppets don’t really feel pain). But Jones’s story positions the eyes of the child spectators within the puppets performing the action, so that their horrified knowledge of where the story is going is coupled with a still more horrifying sense of vulnerability (‘it really hurt’), as well as complicity – though it’s a complicity driven not by their own desires but the impossibility of escaping from the long tradition.

The situation I’ve just described can of course be read in political terms. It may invoke the moment when a child suddenly realizes that in looking at its elders – as represented by the Punch and Judy puppets – it may be looking at a horrible image of its future self, physically and mentally transformed by years of damage inflicted by inside and outside forces, and horribly incompatible with the heroic, successful or beautiful selves it has been promised in stories. The audience of royalty and courtiers, meanwhile, who laugh uproariously as Tonino and Angelica batter each other, might suggest the moment when a child first acquires a political consciousness and understands its personal helplessness in the face of indifference or even sadism on the part of the ruling classes. The Duchess with her ‘very broad’ smile need say nothing to make it clear how she relates to the children in terms of class. They can see from her expression that she knows exactly who they are, what has been done to them, how it will end, and that this only pleases her, is part of her plan, an image of what makes her a Duchess and them nothing more than her helpless lower-class subjects. The fact that the show is performed in front of a royal court helps to underscore the disparity between the comfortable fairy tales about themselves encouraged by the powerful and the oppressive truths these tales conceal.

But in fact, as Jones shows us, the kids are not without a power of their own. There are ways they can exploit the rules of the Punch and Judy show to resist their sneering puppet-master – as there always are in Jones’s books.[6]  Mr Punch, after all, is the master of breaking rules. He successively kills the Policeman, the Hangman, a Ghost and the Devil, the details varying according to the version of the show you happen to be playing; and it isn’t long before Tonino realises he can use this characteristic of his puppet character to undermine the Duchess. In order to control the show the Duchess must be ‘putting some of herself into all the puppets to make them work’ (p. 158). This means that to some extent she is the Policeman, the Hangman, the Devil and the rest, each of the instruments of power effectively drawing on some vital element in the puppet master who operates them. Her power over the puppets links her to the puppets, so that if Tonino-Punch can beat the other puppets he can beat the Duchess – physically as well as metaphorically. And he can beat them, because Punch always beats his enemies. The Duchess is as much the victim of the narrative she has chosen to be part of as the children are; and despite all her efforts to alter the outcome of the confrontation between Punch and the Hangman, it’s inevitably the Hangman who comes off worst in the end. Punch asks the Hangman repeatedly to show him how to put his head in the noose, and after several attempts to change the script the Hangman finally succumbs, puts the rope around his own neck, and is hanged himself by the irrepressible murderer – which damages the Duchess quite badly, thanks to the link between herself and the Hangman puppet. The Duchess may have thought this could not happen because her Punch and Judy puppets were mere children, and therefore self-evidently powerless; but one of the children was also Punch, and therefore self-evidently capable of subverting the script written by authority. The Duchess’s double-vision was not sufficiently advanced to let her recognise the consequences of her decision to take control of the Punch and Judy show, which is all about working against control.

Stories have rules, like states, Jones seems to suggest, but those rules can work both ways, asserting control over the would-be storyteller as much as over the story’s cast of actors. Another mistake the Duchess makes is to use her magic to bring both the rival families of Caprona under her control at once. By uniting Tonino and Angelica as her prisoners, forcing them to work together to escape her, she begins the process of undermining the two sets of familial stories or myths that have been handed down to the children of each family in lieu of knowledge. It doesn’t take long for Angelica and Tonino to realise that they have both been manipulated by their elders all their lives, as they exchange inherited ‘facts’ about the Montanas and the Petrucchis which turn out to be lies, all underpinned by their first-hand knowledge that they have both been kidnapped not by a rival family but by the Duchess. Their two separate perspectives combine to form a truthful double-vision of each other’s upbringing and of the myths on which it was founded.

Between them, too, they begin to read their situation in the light of a new story, dedicated not to conflict but cooperation. This is the story of the Angel of Caprona, a symbolic being who provides the two families with a spell to protect themselves against the White Devil that seeks to destroy the City of Caprona in each successive generation. Thanks to the children’s new alertness to the fact that one thing can also be another – their double-vision – they learn that the human-seeming Duchess is also the legendary White Devil, manifesting itself in a new form in their lifetimes as it has done in every earlier age or epoch. To defeat her, the children must combine the words of the spell of protection brought from Heaven by the Angel, only half of which is known to each of the families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis. The double-vision of the two families, who have described each other in grotesque terms to sustain their quarrel, must be symbolically fused by bringing together the two halves of the spell; and once this has happened the statue of the Angel on the dome of the Cathedral will come to life and defend the City (and it’s worth stressing here how the statue, once animated, becomes in this way an alternative ‘puppet’ to Punch and Judy). At the same time the White Devil will appear in her true form – a giant white rat – and be hunted down, in a final act of violence, by the cats of each family. Double-vision, in other words, need not be divisive. It can be shared, like all forms of knowledge, so that two people on opposing sides can learn together that the world is not the simplistic place they thought it was, composed only of trusty friends and implacable enemies; and this lesson once learned, their new, positive double-vision of each other can be shared in turn with the warring factions that brought them up.

With the end of the Duchess the invasion ends too, as the bewildered armies of Siena, Pisa and Florence return home after being somehow defeated by the Angel (we never learn the details). The Duchess’s favourite story, too, goes into abeyance at this point, as the narrative of Punch and Judy suddenly ceases to be relevant. At the climactic moment of her plot to destroy Caprona, all the members of both warring families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis, are turned into Punch and Judy puppets by the Duchess’s sorcery and imprisoned in the ducal palace, like Tonino and Angelica before them. The defeat of the White Devil restores them to human form, but in the meantime their transformation has humiliatingly confirmed their predilection for being manipulated, as Tonino and Angelica were in the puppet show before the Duke. As a result, both families quickly agree to abandon the habit of attacking one another on the slightest provocation, thus freeing themselves from the danger of succumbing to the power of puppet masters. The Duke, too, decides to abandon his obsession with Punch and Judy puppets; ‘Somehow I don’t fancy them like I used to’, he observes ruefully (p. 265). At this point the story of the Angel of Caprona – another object magically or imaginatively endowed with life – takes the place of Punch and Judy as the presiding narrative of the city and the novel. We can, then, choose the stories that govern us, Jones implies, at least to some extent.

But our choice of story will have a material effect on the way we see ourselves and each other. It must be made with care; and we must be equally careful not to let ourselves be subsumed or mastered by the narratives we have selected. Reading them with double-vision will help, keeping ourselves conscious of the fictionality of the stories we live by. An angel which is also a statue has less say over our choices than a plain angel. A Duchess who is also a giant rat can hardly make a bid for control of the country. Enemies who also have families just like ours are more difficult to see in simplistic terms; while we can hardly take ourselves over-seriously if we understand our own capacity for becoming objects, operated by strings, rods, slogans or cunning fingers. Puppets not only have a use in bringing stories to life, but they also have a use in reminding us that they are only stories. The double-vision they afford is a crucial one, and needs to be valued.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

If The Magicians of Caprona considers glove puppets as embodiments of our susceptibility to being possessed by malevolent powers, Hoban’s Riddley Walker presents us with a still more disturbing vision of how they might embody the human condition. In a South-East England of the distant future – after a worldwide nuclear holocaust that has wiped out much of the population and mutated many of the survivors – we find ourselves wandering across a blasted landscape described in an English language which has mutated into a broken down, worn-out dialect, haunted by unintended puns and echoes of ideas, people, beasts, desires and objects from earlier epochs. Words, here, harbour double-visions of multiple kinds, reminding us repeatedly of their composite nature – constructed both from letters arranged in an unfamiliar orthography and embedded fragments of other words – while pointing towards different fragmentary narratives and forms of knowledge that run concurrently through the novel. The verbal units that make up this futuristic dialect can be seen as puppets steered by puppet-masters who suffer from acute memory loss – and who are therefore themselves in a sense made up of fragments, a situation symbolised by the severed hand of a dead puppeteer which is discovered by the protagonist, Riddley Walker, inside the remains of a glove puppet he unearths near the start of the novel. Desperately guessing at connections between one part of a sentence and the next, between one historical period and another, and between one element of knowledge – science, religion or philosophy – and the crucial companion element that will ignite it into new significance, the many would-be puppet-masters of time to come plunge blindly forward towards an unknown end. Some of them, indeed, plunge forward in a state of literal blindness, as one would-be puppet-master loses his eyes by violence, while another was born with ‘no eyes nor no hoals for eyes’ in his pallid face (p. 72).[7] As a result of this outward and inward sightlessness their quest to move forward takes them only in circles, treading paths that have already been well worn by their ancestors, each circle centred on the ancient city of Canterbury, or ‘Cambry’ as it is known in Riddley’s lifetime. They are pilgrims condemned to repeat the trajectories of their forefathers over and over, Punch and Judies unable to free themselves from the murderous traditional narrative, so once again it’s hardly surprising to find Mr Punch himself at the heart of Hoban’s novel.

The multiple meanings spawned by the dialect of Hoban’s text are matched by the multiple rival factions that seek to dominate this damaged future, each of which is hard at work to recover the half-understood technologies of the past. Most of these factions are ironically convinced that recreating the nuclear bomb – or a less ambitious explosive such as gunpowder – holds the key to regaining the power that once put planes in the sky, light and heating into homes, and pictures and information into the metal brains of quasi-sentient machines. They seek, in other words, the power of destruction, thinking it the power of creation, and the most frightening thing about the book is its suggestion that they may well be right about the close connection between these two processes.

Stalking this blasted landscape is the half-remembered figure of Mr Punch, the embodiment of human resilience, human savagery, and human possession by ideas, dreams, feelings and obsessions not our own. A figure of Mr Punch is unearthed by twelve-year-old Riddley near the start of the narrative, and comes to embody in his mind the uneasy relationship between the post-apocalyptic present and the forgotten past. The chief characteristic of Mr Punch, for Hoban as for Wynne Jones, is possession. The puppet is possessed both by the puppeteer who seeks to make gains from his performances and by the violent story he is condemned to repeat through endless generations. His visible disability – the hump on his back – is understood by Riddley as a sign that Punch’s body has been deformed by radioactive fallout, while his violent life story (which Riddley learns from the puppeteer-politician Abel Goodparley) is being re-enacted on a larger scale in the book’s ‘real’ world, where the power-seeking factions descend from murderous local rivalry to the brink of all-out war. Possession locks Mr Punch into re-enacting his past again and again, and Mr Punch’s re-enactments confirm that the world is also locked into its habit of repeating past mistakes again and again till it self-destructs and the tortuous history begins once more.

The possessed interior of Mr Punch is destructively at odds with his colourful exterior. Inside is a living darkness full of fear and cunning, while the side he presents to the world is bright and crude – the disparity between the two qualities making him funny, at least in theory, at least for some. The inside is always on the verge of breaking out, of breaking into and breaking apart the already broken body that contains it (back to those broken-down words again, with meanings breaking through them in all directions). The same is true of Riddley Walker’s world, the world from which the body of Punch was accidentally dug up in a quest for the technological secrets of the past. The puppet body unearthed by Riddley at the dig signals the fact that the past has finally broken through into the present, and that the hidden darkness, fear and cunning which lurk in the human heart and mind have broken through into the light and colour of the shattered landscape, as one might expect they would in a place whose name has mutated over the centuries from ‘England’ to ‘Inland’, a land whose inhabitants are obsessed with looking inwards.

One of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for the Folio Society edition of Riddley Walker. ‘Sharna pax and get the poal.’

‘Looking inwards’, here, might mean seeking out one’s personal advantage in a bid to survive from day to day; or behaving parochially – in the interests of one’s local ‘crowd’, not anyone else’s; or examining one’s mind and body in a bid to understand one’s desires and instincts. Two sets of desires and instincts struggle for possession of the ‘inward’ parts of humankind in Hoban’s future. The first is the ‘first knowing’, the sort of knowledge humans share with animals: an inherited awareness of how to survive, and of the tragic inevitability of not surviving, giving rise to a sadness born of collective memory of family members and much-loved places repeatedly lost to disease or violence in a constant cycle from generation to generation. The second is ‘clevverness’, embodied in Mr Punch himself, as well as in his immortal enemy and twin Mr Clevver, aka Mr On The Levvil, aka the Devil. Clevverness is the constant quest for the upper hand, combined with the dangerous conviction that one’s head will supply it; this is the force that drives the factions on their explosive rival quests for power. These two forms of possession or inward action are in effect one, since they combine to urge the possessed – the human species or its subject members – on the same circular path that was trodden by their forebears. Clevverness cannot prevent this – and in Mr On the Levvil’s case may even wish to bring it about – and the First Knowing in us knows as much, though we suppress that knowledge as best we can. Riddley Walker, our protagonist, represents a fusion of Clevverness and First Knowing, reading riddles in the landscape and people around him, working out those riddles through ingenuity or by instinct or by accident, and walking them around the circuit he is doomed to tread, like his ancestors and contemporaries, till the answers fall into place (or don’t, as the case may be). For the most part, though, it’s the First Knowing that possesses him, giving him a special empathy with the anarchic wild dogs (the opposite of controlling gods) that roam the Inland landscape, for ever alienated from humankind by the memory of worldwide devastation.

The best representation in the book of First Knowing – the inherited, instinctual, dark knowledge we carry with us from birth – comes near the beginning in a conversation between Riddley Walker and the wise woman of his community, Lorna Elswint (Lorna implying loneliness, her surname suggesting a wind or spirit from elsewhere). Read in the light of Riddley’s later discovery of Mr Punch, the passage could equally be an account of the power of puppets, especially puppets of the glove variety, made from painted wood and colourful cloth and designed to fit the human hand, with the thumb and middle finger working the arms while the index finger nods the head. The passage is also a fine example of the broken-down dialect in which the novel is written, a suitable medium for a narrative about brokenness, forgetfulness, incomprehension, and the tendency to repeat ourselves inadvertently, without understanding:

Lorna said to me: ‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.’

I said, ‘What thing is that?’

She said, ‘Its some kynd of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it dont even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.’

I said, ‘If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.’

Lorna said, ‘Wel there is a millying and mor.’

I said, ‘Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?’

She said, ‘Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part. I dont think I took all that much noatis of it when I ben yung. Now Im old I noatis it mor. It dont realy like to put me on no mor. Every morning I can feal how its tiret of me and readying to throw me a way. Iwl tel you some thing Riddley and keap this in memberment. What ever it is we dont come naturel to it.’

I said, ‘Lorna I dont know what you mean.’

She said, ‘We aint a naturel part of it. We dint begin when it begun we dint begin where it begun. It ben here befor us nor I dont know what we are to it. May be weare jus only sickness and a feaver to it or boyls on the arse of it I dont know. Now lissen what Im going to tel you Riddley. It thinks us but it dont think like us. It dont think the way we think. Plus like I said befor its afeart.’

I said, ‘Whats it afeart of?’

She said, ‘Its afeart of being beartht.’

I said, ‘How can that be? You said it ben here befor us. If it ben here all this time it musve ben beartht some time.’

She said, ‘No it aint ben beartht it never does get beartht its all ways in the woom of things its all ways on the road.’ (pp. 6-7)

In this passage, the ‘thing’ inside us could be taken for our puppeteer, or the impulses that drive the puppeteer. But instead of a ‘clevver’ being with a self-serving agenda – the kind of being implied by the phrase ‘a puppet state’, authoritative, cunning and cruel, like the Duchess of Caprona – the being inside the human puppet is both childishly innocent and utterly inhuman. It has no identity, no words, no shape, no community, no hidden agenda. It isn’t an individual and it’s not a collective; it seems to have been split into multiple pieces by some past cataclysm – each piece lodged in a separate human person – and to be both lonely for the lost fragments of itself and terrified of assembling them, as if when assembled like the ingredients of a bomb it might go off, with devastating consequences. Like the hidden puppeteer it has no name, but its primary motivation is fear; above all, fear of itself, or of what might happen to itself and others if it comes together and gets ‘beartht’ or born. Hoban’s narrative gives numerous indications of the kind of happening that might ensue from such a reassembly and parturition. The nuclear catastrophe that destroyed humankind in the past seems to embody the sudden coming-together and emergence of that ‘thing’, released from the caging and sheltering womb by the quest for clevverness. A smaller-scale coming together and sudden emergence or birth takes place at the end of the novel, when one of the questing factions succeeds in detonating gunpowder, using ingredients of various kinds which have not been brought into explosive contact with each other for generations. In the process, the ‘thing’ is let loose again on the world, being born and killing, creating and destroying at one and the same time. And throughout the rest of the narrative, human beings and animals – dogs, boars, boys and men – find themselves torn to pieces and tossed aside as they first converge, then burst apart, like gloves or garments or bodies that can no longer contain what lies within. Being reassembled and born into the world, this dismantled ‘thing’ subjects itself and others to destruction of different magnitudes. The ‘woom’ or womb of creation is also the ‘WHAP’ of exploding ordnance (p. 188). No wonder the ‘thing’ is ‘Tremmering’ at the prospect of its own destructive creation.

In Riddley Walker, then, human beings are violent puppets; but puppets themselves also play a role. Puppet shows tour the scattered communities of the future, performed by the Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer of Inland’s government or Mincery, which is physically based on an island known as the Ram (the Isle of Thanet, with Ramsgate on it). The show is essentially government propaganda, informing the people of Inland about Mincery policy and urging their compliance. But the communities can answer back, and in doing so affect that policy. Each show is digested and reinterpreted for the local community by their own ‘connexion man’, a job that falls to Riddley Walker when his father, the old connexion man, is killed in an accident while working on a Mincery dig. Riddley ‘tels’ or makes connexions for his people, and in doing so has the potential to build resistance to unpopular directives from the Ram. He supplies them with a political double-vision, ensuring they never lose sight of the contingent nature of the policies acted out by the Mincery’s puppets.

The Ram’s puppet shows, in other words, have several checks on them to ensure they cannot work in a monologic or univocal way. Being delivered by puppets, all of them stock characters who get reused from show to show and from generation to generation, they are contained and controlled by certain conventions. The Ram’s shows have a backdrop of smoke and flames that reminds their audiences of the appalling consequences of wrong decisions. One of the characters is a figure called Eusa, a Punch-figure whose name recalls the two Cold War superpowers that brought about those consequences (USA, USSR). Another is Mr Clevver, with his pointy beard, his horns and his red complexion – an animated warning of the dangers of certain forms of knowledge, or of assuming one can control those dangers by ingenuity. The puppets are necessarily small, the ‘fit-up’ in which the show takes place is a portable, collapsible box, and the Mincery men who deliver the show are required to carry it around Inland themselves as if in ritual penitence for the events that reduced Inland to its current state. They are pilgrims, in other words, doing penance for past misdemeanours. And the show’s audience, as well as the connexion man, is actively involved in interpreting the Mincery’s performance, as well as in deciding whether or not to accept the connexion man’s exegetic reading of it, or ‘tel’. They are stridently vocal, as we see whenever Hoban describes a puppet performance. They are sometimes violent. Some nervous Pry Mincers and Wes Mincers, including Abel Goodparley and his sidekick Ernie Orfing, choose to protect themselves against potentially hostile audiences by being accompanied on their travels by a crowd of ‘hevvies’ from the Ram. Puppetry, in Hoban’s world, is an art that restricts the ambitions of the powerful and confers a degree of power on the people, who are rendered by it unruly co-performers as well as spectators, with a voice and unruly bodies of their own.

The map of Inland

It’s crucially, too, a mobile art, created by travellers, even when those travellers purport to be speaking for a government attached to a fixed location (the Ram). Travellers are vulnerable, dependent on the goodwill of the communities they pass through and trade with; in this case, the items for trade on offer being the entertainment and the knowledge or information supplied by the show. Riddley Walker takes place at a point in future history when the communities across Inland have become divided between travellers and ‘formers’ or farmers, who are increasingly enclosing land for their own private uses, encroaching on the space available to the groups who have chosen to continue with their mobile lifestyle. Formers are also implicitly conservative, dedicated to recovering former times. A shift of power is taking place, from travellers to formers, and the current Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer are keen to encourage the shift to a forming existence. But their tool for encouragement, the show, embodies travelling rather than forming; and the travelling community who watch it, if not the formers, are inclined to side with the travelling ethos figured by the puppets, rather than the policies preferred by the Mincery’s script.

Meanwhile the Mincery itself is not monologic; like a Punch and Judy show, it doesn’t speak with a single voice. Of course, the voices of puppets in such a show are all spoken by one person – the puppeteer – albeit in different ways, so that like Lorna Elswint’s hidden ‘thing’ the puppets are one as well as many. But a crucial mediator between the show and its audience is the front man or bottler, who in the old days would pass a leather bottle round the audience to collect their fees, and who in Riddley’s time does the ‘patter’ – encouraging Eusa to come up from inside the booth and begin his performance, then challenging him when the show goes in a direction he doesn’t approve of. Orfing is the front man or bottler, and hence also the ‘Shaddow Mincer’, ‘Wes Mincer’ or opposition leader in the Mincery, and he challenges the Pry Mincer Goodparley repeatedly in the first performance by the pair we witness. Later the two Mincers split up, in a witty allusion to the splitting of the atom to create nuclear fusion, and form separate factions in the quest for power. And later still Orfing joins Riddley as they develop a new show – based not on Eusa but on Punch and Judy – which is designed specifically to encourage the continuation of travelling, and of remembering the disastrous outcome of the last quest for geographically demarcated, hierarchically organised power on the part of their ancestors. Orfing becomes Riddley’s front man, continuing the tradition of questioning the monologic voice on behalf of the community, without robbing the community itself of its raucous multiple voices.

From the cover of Quentin Blake’s illustrated edition of Riddley Walker

For Hoban, in other words, a puppet show can be used for propaganda – like television, from which the twenty-first century public gets ‘tels’ from its powerful rulers – or as a work of art, with its own, less predictable ‘tels’, always wandering, refusing stability, taking its creators as much as its recipients by surprise, stirring up trouble, breaking up communities as well as forming them. At the end of the novel, Riddley and Orfing acquire a following through their performances: a mobile community of men, women and children, who choose to join them on their travels after each performance instead of continuing their lives as members of stable communities defined by ‘forms’ and ‘fentses’ (fences, the temporary defensive structures put up by travellers at their camp sites). This travelling troupe, possessed by the spirit of First Knowing and carrying the memory of the ambiguous Mr Punch, takes to the roads at a time of crisis, when the knowledge of how to make gunpowder has been unleashed on the world once more and violent power struggles have broken out of the shadows to which for a while they had been confined. Puppets have always been used for resistance and protest – most strikingly, perhaps, in the radical days of the 1960s and 70s, when political companies like Bread and Puppet (in New York City, then Vermont) or In the Heart of the Beast (in Minneapolis) sponsored performances and May Day processions in the USA, or in modern times when the refugee puppet Little Amal walked from the Syrian border to Glasgow for COP 26, the climate conference of 2021. For Hoban these political puppets have a supernatural or spiritual air about them, being driven by forces we and they do not understand: the winds of change, the wind from elsewhere (the ‘Elswint’), an instinctive alertness for imminent crisis. In Riddley Walker and his people he has created a potent image of the perennial potential of puppets to serve as a means of giving a voice to the unvoiced, the dis-voiced, the voiceless.

John Masefield, The Box of Delights

If Riddley’s puppet show is an unsettling work of political and spiritual art, written as prologue to the cyclical human performance of war, another puppet show that speaks to an approaching conflict is that of the Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, in John Masefield’s celebrated fantasy for children The Box of Delights (1935). Like Punch himself, old Cole is an ancient figure, reminiscent of the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman as portrayed by Eugène Sue and Richard Wagner. Masefield introduced him in a long poem of 1921, King Cole, as a flute-playing traveller whose magic revives the fortunes of a group of destitute circus performers by bringing royalty to watch their show. In the poem, King Cole is the resurrected figure of a legendary monarch commemorated in the nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole’, under whom England was properly merry – or at least that little corner of England ruled by him, the quasi-fictional ‘valley-land from Condicote to Thame’ in which Masefield sets most of his novels, a kindlier, smaller version of Hardy’s Wessex (p. 731).[8] After his death King Cole is granted the gift of wandering the country with his wooden flute, an ‘old, poor, wandering man, with glittering eyes’ who bestows blessings on the needy: ‘His piping feeds the starved and warms the cold, / It gives the beaten courage; to the lost / It brings back faith, that lodestar of the ghost’ (p. 731). As a performer who brings new courage and prosperity to performers, King Cole is a patron of art and artists, who specializes in celebrating the humblest forms of creativity. He says of the travelling circus people, ‘they serve the arts and love delight’ (p. 749), and transforms their painted waggons with his music into rich emblems of fertility: ‘And all the vans seemed grown with living leaves / And living flowers, the best September knows, / Moist poppies scarlet from the Hilcote sheaves, / Green-fingered bine that runs the barley-rows’ (p. 741). By the end of the poem the fragile love-relationships between members of the circus troupe have also been renewed. Returned from the dead as a genial green god, King Cole in turn revives, refreshes and regenerates the people of Masefield country and their dreams (hence the reference to poppies), giving him the same supernatural, quasi-ritualistic potency as Hoban’s puppets.

In The Box of Delights Masefield brings back King Cole again in the person of Cole Hawlings, still a wandering, poor old man with glittering eyes, but transformed in voice – he now speaks like a traveller rather than a monarch – and seemingly also more ancient than any King of England, since he has been travelling, he tells us, since before England even existed. As he explains to the book’s protagonist, young Kay Harker: ‘First there were pagan times; then there were in-between times; then there were Christian times; then there was another in-between time; then there was Oliver’s time; and then there was pudding time: but the time I liked best was just before the in-between time, what you might call Henry’s time’ (p. 46).[9] In this incarnation Cole is a Punch and Judy man, with a little dog called Toby; but the focus of his act is not so much on the puppets as on the visions he can conjure up with his performer’s magic: sometimes in the fire, sometimes from the wainscot of a living-room wall, sometimes in an ordinary picture (which becomes a portal, Mary Poppins style, when Cole needs to make a quick escape from his enemies), but most often through the little box of the novel’s title, which gives its user free access to the folkloric spaces of the past like a miniature time machine.

The Box of Delights is a kind of Puppet theatre or booth, and hence an embodiment of the artist’s ability to conjure up wonders in a little space with the most ordinary of ingredients: wood, paint and cloth, or words like Masefield’s, or a child’s imagination. The theatre can be carried even by a little man – Orfing in Riddley Walker is the porter of the Mincery’s booth despite his diminutive stature – and Cole Hawlings can lift it with ease when escaping by mule from his enemies into the drawing of a Swiss mountain: ‘he swung himself onto the mule, picked up the theatre with one hand, gathered the reins with the other, said, “Come, Toby,” and at once rode off with Toby trotting under the mule, out of the room, up the mountain path, up, up, up, till the path was nothing more than a line in the faded painting, that was so dark upon the wall’ (p. 61). The portable nature of the theatre explains and symbolises its resilience, its capacity to survive from generation to generation, evading censorship and litigation, and mutating from time to time to accommodate new social and political circumstances. It is a theatre for travellers, as Hoban confirmed in Riddley Walker; and as it travels the magic it contains can be unleashed and escape into its various surroundings, rendering them magical too. In this scene the drawing on the wall becomes another miniature theatre, and after Cole Hawlings has disappeared into the picture magical fragments continue to blow back into the room where it is hung from the mountain landscape he has brought alive: snowflakes that resolve themselves into ‘shapes of coloured paper’ and ‘little coloured balloons, in the shapes of cocks, horses, ships and aeroplanes’, each carrying a gift for one of the children in Kay’s house (p. 61). The puppet theatre is small and seemingly enclosed, but thanks to the interactions between the puppets, the audience, the bottler (where there is one) and the puppet-master’s little dog Toby, is always escaping from its confines and unleashing strangeness on the world. And every audience that witnesses a puppet performance takes a fragment of it home with them in their hearts and minds, to lend new strangeness to enclosed spaces like paintings, boxes, wainscots, wardrobes, and windows with curtains, throughout their lives to come.

The Box of Delights, being even smaller and more portable than a puppet theatre – though equally full of the visions and wonders which Cole Hawlings calls ‘plays’ (p. 47)[10] – comes to symbolise this capacity for survival from the deep past as strongly as the booth itself. And the theatre and its master are connected to the past from the very beginning of the story. The villainous Abner Brown – a foreigner of uncertain origins, possibly American, who wants to get hold of the Box for his own nefarious purposes – thinks of Cole Hawlings as the custodian of an ancient puppeteering tradition that goes back even further than Punch. ‘I am interested,’ he tells Kay’s cousin Little Maria,

‘in the various forms of the Punch and Judy show, and this man is the son, and grandson of Punch and Judy men, who were on the roads many years ago. This man is known to have several versions of the play which they played, and other versions still older, which are not played, and I do most earnestly want to meet him, and now he is off to this wild life of the roads in weather like this, where a touch of pneumonia, or a passing van, may wipe out his knowledge for ever.’ (p. 68)

Brown’s slightly sinister hint at the fragile mortality of the Punch and Judy man is belied by Cole’s own account of his long, long memory, which implies that he is more or less immortal. Abner’s concern for the old man’s welfare as he continues in the traveller tradition seems to mask a desire to see him confined to a fixed address, perhaps a workhouse or a Public Assistance Institution (the replacement for the workhouse in the 1930s). And Brown’s later insistence that Cole is no more than a reincarnation of the Catalan philosopher and alchemist Ramon Lully, Lull, or Llull (p. 265), serves a similar purpose: to fix him in a specific time and place, robbing him of his supernatural mystique. Cole himself never answers to the name ‘Lully’, and his memory of ‘pagan times’ suggests that if he is indeed Llull (who lived in the twelfth century) then Llull is a good deal more ancient than historians suspect; Lull, that is, may be Cole, rather than the other way round. Abner contends that Llull invented an elixir of life, and sought to trade it for the Box of Delights, which gave him mastery over time and space. If such a bargain had been successfully concluded this would help to explain Cole’s longevity, of course, while his possession of the Box – dug up by the Punch and Judy man many years after it was first lost – would help to explain his detailed knowledge of all those periods of history and prehistory; after all, the maker of the Box, Arnold of Todi, shows an equally detailed familiarity with the career of his greatest hero, Alexander the Great. But Cole’s own interest in the past is driven not by history but folklore. His Box transports its new possessor, Kay, to encounters with the pagan wood-spirit Herne the Hunter and a nameless Woman of the Oak-Tree, who has a wonderful way with animals of all species. These folkloric figures are as unconfined as the creatures that accompany them – squirrels, birds of every kind, and porpoises – and by giving Kay access to them, the Box identifies itself as a work of resistance to arbitrary boundaries and oppressive limitations.

Cole’s connection with Herne the Hunter and the Woman of the Oak-Tree marks him out, too, as a folkloric figure, not a historical one, closer to the nursery rhyme personality Old King Cole than the twelfth-century philosopher with whom Abner seeks to identify him. He embodies knowledge which is not that of ancient philosophers, elitist magic-workers or modern scientists, but of the popular, oral variety; a knowledge which is decaying in the current cycle of history, but may revive itself, as King Cole did in the poem, when the next cycle begins. Wielders of such knowledge, like Punch and Judy men and travellers, are now despised, but were not so in the past and may not be in the future: ‘Time was when we had power,’ Cole tells Kay Harker when he first meets him, ‘like the Sun, and could swing the Earth and the Moon, and now our old wheels are all running down and we are coming to our second childhood. […] Still, they say […] that it begins again, in the course of time’ (p. 20). Regardless of Abner’s stories about Cole as Ramon Llull and Arnold of Todi, the old man seems possessed of both command over space and time and immortality thanks to his folkloric knowledge what he calls ‘the secrets of my show’, which ‘aren’t to be had by these common ones’ (p. 20), meaning the wealthy, ruling class men and women who seek possession of them – though he shares his show freely with the those who don’t seek exclusive possession of it.

Abner’s desire to get hold of Cole, meanwhile, and to winkle his knowledge out of him by fair means or foul, marks him out as the polar opposite of the old man. Brown is a person with his own narrow, secretive, self-serving range of desires and obsessions; not a generous sharer of his art like the puppet master, who performs for every comer he encounters in his ‘wild life on the roads’, but a private collector, who keeps the things he collects (like the box of jewels he crows over at one point in the novel, a colder, stonier container than the Box of Delights) for his own delight and no one else’s. Brown, in fact, represents a menace from the past that has always been opposed to what Cole stands for: imaginative wonder, delight, and adventure freely shared with all. Brown is the leader of a band of ravening ‘wolves’, who have materialised in every epoch to which the Box gives Kay magical access. In each of these epochs these symbolic ‘wolves’ have hurled themselves against the protective fences of peace and art: not just as the ‘enormous wolves, with red eyes and gleaming teeth’ that attack Kay when the Box takes him into the Camp of the legendary King Arthur (p. 88), or clamour about the walls of the mythical City of Troy, which Kay also visits; but as the ‘other wolves’ who are in pursuit of the Box, the devious human kind that ‘magistrates don’t heed’ (p. 90). One of the reasons magistrates don’t heed this kind of wolf is that it so often takes the shape of establishment figures. Abner disguises himself as a clergyman – the head of a missionary training college – while his followers who kidnap Cole after he has passed the Box to Kay are at first assumed by the police to be officers from the local aerodrome, having a frolic. Abner’s gang has an enormous underground hideout which is mostly made up of prison cells; cars that can turn into planes and fly at great speed in absolute silence; criminal operations throughout the world, it seems; and an endless supply of weaponry. Abner himself, meanwhile, is an avid collector. He has his personal collection of jewels, a collection of enslaved supernatural servants – including a sullen Boy and a Brazen Head – and a collection of human prisoners, to which he adds as the novel goes on till the dungeons underneath his hideout are crammed full of them. His acquisitiveness marks him out as capitalistic, as well as socially elevated; but for all his high status the double-vision supplied by Cole identifies him as one of the wolves, readily visible to all despite the clerical sheep’s clothing he affects.

An illustration of The Box of Delights by Faith Jaques

Abner Brown shuts things down and locks people up; the Box opens things out and liberates people from bondage – first the castaway Arnold of Todi, who is rescued from a desert island through its agency, then the crowds of prisoners locked up by Abner Brown. Kay’s acquisition of the Box of Delights from Cole Hawlings renders Kay an apprentice puppet master, first drawn into the wonderful ‘plays’ the Box already contains, then empowered to produce original ‘plays’ with props of their own. And his plays are dedicated to liberty. In the final section of the book, Kay uses the Box to transport himself to Abner’s underground lair, where the cells are, and here Cole shows him how to make functional, liberatory art using the old man’s special brand of magic. Under Cole’s direction Kay makes drawings of creatures and objects that could help the prisoners break free from the cells in which Abner has locked them; drawings that come alive, as the drawing of the mountains came alive for Cole, and detach themselves from the fragile sheets of paper to which they were once confined. Here’s the moment when it begins to happen:

In fact, the drawings did stand out from the paper rather strangely. The light was concentrated on them; as [Kay] looked at them the horses seemed to be coming towards him out of the light, and, no, it was not seeming, they were moving; he saw the hoof casts flying and heard the rhythmical beat of hoofs. The horses were coming out of the picture, galloping fast, and becoming brighter and brighter. Then he saw that the light was partly fire from their eyes and manes, partly sparks from their hoofs. “They are real horses,” he cried. “Look.” (p. 378)

As with the moment when Cole Hawlings rides the mule into the picture of the mountains, the wonder of this passage is the double-vision it generates; the picture is as vividly present to the reader’s eye as the horses in it, and Kay’s joyful cry, “They are real horses,” serves only to remind us that they are also not real horses, since they are ‘coming out of the picture’, not out of a field or forest, and they have a light about them ordinary horses do not cast.

In The Box of Delights, then, large and small puppet theatres, the puppet master and his young apprentice, become emblems of art at its most liberating and exuberant. And although the end of the book has disappointed some, with its Alice in Wonderland consignment of Kay’s adventures to the land of dreams, Masefield ensures the boy wakes up in a railway carriage – making him a modern traveller, capable of going wherever the rails might take him – and with a strong appreciation of the dream in which he met Cole Hawlings (‘Have you had a nice dream?’ his governess asks him, and Kay replies ‘I have’, p. 418). His return to the ordinary world need not disenchant the story we’ve just been reading so much as re-enchant the ordinary. And the ordinary was in great need of re-enchantment in the year the book was published, 1935.

Abner Brown is a pleasingly hopeless villain, plotted against by his witchy wife, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, and her scheming lover the foxy-faced Charles, unable to retain the loyalty of his gang (purely on account of his own disloyalty), incapable even of getting satisfactory service from his supernatural servants, who resent him because he mistreats them every time he consults them. But the Wolves with whom he is associated are sometimes frightening, if only because they are everywhere, in all times and places, and always hungry. Perhaps, too, Masefield’s first readers of Kay’s age would have been aware that there were Wolves abroad as they read: the wolves of fascism, Stalinism, Nazism and the rest, whose presence in Europe would lead to another war almost as mythical as and vastly more cataclysmic than the Trojan wars or the wars waged by King Arthur, or even Alexander the Great. Under these conditions the smallness of puppets, who enact stories that endure from age to age in the face of conflict and calamity, and who come to life again and again despite the self-evident lifelessness of their wood, paint and cloth, can be comforting and even inspiring, as we look for ways to express our own opposition to the abuses of power. Diana Wynne Jones, Russell Hoban and John Masefield all seem to say so. We could do with some of their hopeful double-, treble- and quadruple visions right here and now, in the year of conflict 2022.

Notes

[1] Steve Tillis, Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet (New York etc.: Greenwood Pres, 1992), p. 65.

[2] See for example the quote from Michael R. Malkin on p. 37 of Tillis’s Toward an Aesthetic of the Puppet: ‘Puppetry has played a vital role in the development of what can be called the dramatic concept of the plausible impossible […] [This] is the link between the world of the real and the realm of pure fantasy […] It is this sense that puppetry represents a basic theatrical concept; it represents dramatic imagination in one of its most fluid forms’.

[3] See his discussion of ‘literary belief’ in the essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins 2001), pp. 37-8.

[4] As I write this, I remember the artist and puppet designer Brian Froud telling us how, when drawing our painting the Devon landscape, he seeks out the strange life that inhabits it – the life that’s somehow inside it, as the faeries of Ireland and Scotland are said to dwell inside the hills; and I wonder if I’m right. That wonder is exactly where the pleasure of fantasy lies. The status of what we ‘know’ is at stake here, and fantasy is often concerned to trouble our assumptions about ‘knowledge’ and ignorance, as I hope this post will go on to suggest.

[5] All references are to The Magicians of Caprona (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

[6] Tillis’s book includes a fascinating section on the way puppets have sometimes seemed to take control of their puppet masters; Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet, p. 33 ff.

[7] All references are to Riddley Walker (London: Picador, 1980).

[8] All references to ‘King Cole’ are taken from The Collected Poems of John Masefield (London: William Heinemann, 1923).

[9] All references are to John Masefield, The Box of Delights, or When the Wolves Were Running (London: William Heinemann, 1935).

[10] ‘And now, Master Harker and friends,’ he said, coming outside his stand, ‘now that I’ve played my play, I’ll play more than my Punch and my Judy, for a travelling man collects as he goes, or doesn’t he?’

Nicholas Stuart Gray, Down in the Cellar (1961)

[Since I wrote this post, Claire M Jordan has made some extraordinary discoveries about Gray’s gender identity, which you can read about here. If I had known about these when I wrote my own post it would have been rather different; but I’ve decided to leave it as it is, while inviting you to consider how you might reframe it in the light of Jordan’s discoveries.]

Nicholas Stuart Gray is a name which is mostly missing from histories of children’s literature, but which rouses strong passions in those who admire his work. He started out as a respected children’s playwright, his first play being performed in 1949, and worked on many productions throughout the 50s and 60s with his close friend the stage designer Joan Jefferson Farjeon. The plays are all based on fairy tales, though they also include a version of the great medieval fairy poem Gawain and the Green Knight. Not much is known about his private life apart from the fact that he describes himself in blurbs as a ‘Highlander’, that some of his books are set in Sussex and Devon, and that he went on cycling holidays with Joan Jefferson Farjeon in Provence. I discovered him by chance in the early 80s when a friend lent me a copy of his first novel, Over the Hills to Fabylon (1954), about a magical moving city ruled by a paranoid monarch (think Howl’s Moving Castle with a cast of thousands). After this my grandmother took to buying me his books one by one for birthdays and Christmases: The Seventh Swan (1962), The Stone Cage (1963), Mainly in Moonlight (1963), The Apple-Stone (1965), Grimbold’s Other World (1965), and my favourite, Down in the Cellar (1961), magnificently illustrated by Edward Ardizzone.[1] There are several more I haven’t read, and it’s time the whole oeuvre was brought back into print to delight and move new generations. I’m not the only one to think so. This blog post stems from a rereading of Down in the Cellar after Gray’s name was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Gaiman, which led to an outpouring of praise for him from Ellen Kushner, Katherine Langrish, Garth Nix and Terri Windling, among many others. That’s a roll call that should make publishers sit up and take note; and I hope a few words about Down in the Cellar will add fuel to the flame.

Gray’s book is an unsettling fusion of disparate elements that locate it precisely in the time and place of its composition. The plot is misleadingly simple. Four young siblings – Bruce, Julia, Andrew and Deirdre Jefferson, who share their family name with Joan Jefferson Farjeon – are staying in their uncle’s rambling Rectory in the South Downs when they find an injured man in a disused cave. The man tells them he is on the run, and they decide to hide him in a half-forgotten cellar of the Rectory, which they happen to have stumbled across a few days earlier. Having hidden him in the cellar and done their best to tend his wounds, the children suddenly find themselves under siege by a range of threatening forces: from the Rector’s stern but affectionate housekeeper, Old Mim – who is afraid the cellars have rats in them and wants to call in the ratcatchers, like Mrs Driver in The Borrowers (1952) – to the local police, who are on the lookout for a runaway whistleblower; from a conspiracy of unpleasant grown ups who belong to the ‘Spinners and Weavers Club’ – clearly a witch’s coven – to the sinister, barely-visible ‘Green Lantern people’ who infest the hills and fields around the Rectory. All these forces show a keen and unwelcome interest in the cellar and its occupant, while the stranger himself gets increasingly ill as the book goes on, his condition worsening despite the best efforts of Bruce, the eldest Jefferson, who plans to be a doctor or a vet when he grows up ‘Depending on which examination is the easiest’ (p. 9). The novel, in other words, mixes together elements from the Scottish Border Ballads, horror stories and spy thrillers (two of the people tracking Stephen are foreign agents who want to assassinate him for betraying state secrets), as well as children’s fantasy fiction of the sort popularized by Edith Nesbit in the 1900s. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over the narrative in the form of the cave, which was constructed as a shelter to protect the villagers from German flying bombs; while the atmosphere of paranoia generated by the search for the injured man, led as it is by policemen and assassins, locates the action in the decades-long stand-off between superpowers which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This modern political context competes for centre stage in the book with a legendary past embodied in the ‘old Roman Camp’ (a prehistoric barrow frequented by the Green Lantern people) and an ancient fairy hill which once stood where now the Rectory stands, and whose entrance may still be concealed in a wall of the cellar. The fusion of ancient and modern narratives, none of which is fully articulated – the Cold War is never mentioned, the words ‘fairy’ or ‘Sidhe’ (i.e. people of the hills) are never uttered – gives the whole story an air of uneasy mystery. At no stage are we offered a full explanation for what is happening in the narrative, or how the competing strands of it fit together, and this refusal to elucidate is what makes the book so strange, with a strangeness that speaks to the uneasy historical moment when it first saw print.

The four Jeffersons

This is a crosshatch novel, in other words – to borrow John Clute’s term from the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. The word was repurposed by China Miéville in The City and the City (2009) to describe districts claimed by two or more competing cultures or political authorities at the same time. As I’ve suggested, the first sort of crosshatching one can see in the novel is the literary variety. It’s indebted to a range of authors for specific elements in its make-up: Edith Nesbit for the first person narrative from the point of view of a child protagonist; C. S. Lewis for the rambling house where the children stay with an elderly scholar, the village Rector; John Buchan for the spy story element, which comes to the fore when the children are pursued through the night by a pair of grim-faced labourers, clearly assassins in disguise; and John Masefield for the Spinners and Weavers Club, led by the silky Mr Atkinson, which closely resembles the coven led by Abner Brown in The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935). The crosshatching of time, meanwhile, in the novel – which fuses the unimaginably ancient with the historical and the modern – is foregrounded by the chronologically ambiguous spaces in which the action unfolds. The bomb shelter, for instance, keeps slipping between time periods in the children’s imagination as they approach and enter it. Julia is afraid to go in because it was constructed ‘ages back, and things might have come to live there since’ (p. 29). Andrew suggests that its inhabitants might be troglodytes or ‘cave-men’, and when Bruce claims that the shelter could have made quite a pleasant modern refuge if well stocked with ‘oil-stoves and […] people’, his brother points out that ‘the cave-men would have lit huge fires and roasted bears for their dinner’ (p. 31), and speculates that the person hiding there might be a ‘left-over cave-man […] drawing bison on the wall’ (p. 31). For the youngest Jefferson, Deirdre, the location has an emotional and supernatural resonance rather than a historical one, as the place where ‘Sad people’ come when they need to cry (p. 30). The strange young man they find in an inner chamber of this shelter resembles by turns a Dickensian ‘escaped convict’ (p. 36), a ‘hunted Cavalier, or a Jacobite in hiding’ (p. 37) – like someone from the work of Captain Marryat or Buchan – and a supernatural being, when he gives a laugh ‘of the sort a ghost would make, if it wasn’t trying to be frightening’ (p. 40). The liminal status of the cave perfectly suits the liminal status of the young man hiding in it, who is stranded between different ideologies (as we deduce later), different countries, and different realms of possibility – that is, between the everyday, the world of espionage and the supernatural, the last of these being in the end the only space available to him as a means of escape from his predicament. He is also caught between the living and the dead, since his younger sister (we later learn) is dead – killed in a car crash – yet he keeps mistaking Deirdre for her. This explains his status as simultaneously one of the ‘Sad people’, who make their way to the cave as a place of mourning, and a kind of ghost suspended between a lost past and an impossible future. Neither healthily stable nor unquestionably doomed to imminent termination, his life is precarious, and might be cut short at any moment either at the hands of the various enemies who are looking for him or by the fever that takes hold as his injury worsens. The fever is a perfect metaphor for his precarious situation and unstable identity, and it worsens as that precariousness and instability grow more intense.

Discovering the cellar

Crosshatched spaces like the cave keep cropping up throughout the novel. There is the cellar of the title, the ‘dark and cobwebbed underworld’ (p. 7) where the children act out games across time and space – Boadicea against the Romans, King Solomon’s Mines, the Babes in the Wood, representing history, adventure romance and fairy tale respectively, all blended and blurred together in the subterranean twilight – and where they later hide the young man, Stephen. The cellar occupies the space where once there was a hill – ‘It was supposed to be a magic one, with sort of people living inside it, and things’ (p. 86) – which was then dug out to make a sandpit and afterwards leveled to provide foundations for the Rectory, that pillar of the eighteenth-century establishment. In former times the cellar served as a storage place for horse’s harness, sacks, wine and other necessities, but by the time the children find it there is nothing left of any value apart from abandoned odds and ends they use in their games. The nearby village is another liminal space, divided between very old houses like the chemist’s, ‘with its beams showing among the narrow, pink bricks’ (p. 137), and new buildings like the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe, which is a crude pastiche of an older structure: ‘This building also had beams showing, but they were quite new, and rather obvious as they were stained black against the white-washed wall of the front’ (p. 140). The fakeness of the Tea-Shoppe means the children don’t ‘care for it’ much, and also makes it the ideal meeting place for the Spinners and Weavers Club, whose harmless hobbies serve as a front for their machinations against the fugitive, Stephen. A third crosshatched place is the Roman Camp or mound, which is equally associated with the practical Romans and the elusive Green Lantern people. This is a ‘hump like a gigantic mole-hill’ (p. 163), under which the youngest Jefferson is imprisoned at one point by its supernatural occupants, and where the members of the Spinners and Weavers Club converge to barter with the three older Jefferson children for her release. The mound’s joint connection with the Romans and the ahistorical fairies is rendered confusing by the actions of the Spinners and Weavers as they gather round it. As the eldest Jefferson, Bruce, points out, his younger sister ‘said they wove circles and spells. I knew nothing about spells… who does? […] But these people were certainly weaving circles’. The link between magical and physical weaving sets the boy’s thoughts ‘whirling’ or spinning in his head (p. 167), making it hard to focus on the problem of how to win back his imprisoned sister from the mound that impossibly contains her. Is rational thought or a spell the appropriate instrument for her salvation – or should one try a combination of the two? Crossing a Cold War thriller with a fairy story makes the answer uncertain, especially for Bruce, who does not believe in fairies, yet finds himself faced with what seems incontrovertible evidence that they have stolen away his sister.

The solution to Bruce’s dilemma comes from an unexpected quarter: a pair of young and irritating children, Robin and Karen Meddings, who inhabit the most radically crosshatched building in the village. If the Jeffersons find the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe repulsive for its fakery, the Old Forge is more repulsive still, as Bruce explains:

It’s all got up with wrought-iron gates, and lanterns, plaster doves on the roof, and… believe it or not… a plaster deer on the lawn! […] Where the blacksmith used to have his furnace, they have an anvil standing in the fireplace. And the room is packed to bursting with warming-pans, and horse-brasses, and candlesticks wired for electric light, and a wheel hung from the ceiling for more electric light. It’s like a tea-shoppe. We were only asked in once. Julia says we shouldn’t have laughed. Honestly, we didn’t do it loudly, I thought. (p. 23)

The Meddings children who live in this mocked-up Forge are, for Bruce, as fake as their home’s interior décor. They are always simpering and deferring to one another, behaviour that conceals the fact that they are no more angelic at heart than ‘normal’ children like the Jeffersons:

It’s not as though they really meant it. They only do this act when anyone’s watching. I saw Robin once snatch a sweet from his sister, just as she was putting it in her mouth. And she screamed and kicked him. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it was normal. Then they saw me, and started bowing and smirking to each other sickeningly. They may grow out of it. (p. 24)

Bruce’s distaste for the Meddings children’s hypocrisy, as he sees it, makes him treat them ‘’orribly’ (as Robin puts it) whenever he meets them. At one point Robin and Karen have the misfortune to show up at a point when tensions are at their highest – with the cellar under siege by its enemies – and Bruce lets off steam with a fierce tirade against the youngsters as if they embodied all the sinister forces ranged against him in one small package: ‘“Silly brats!” I shouted at them. “Dotty idiots! Showing-off asses! Don’t stand there staring, in front of your silly house. ‘Old Forge’, indeed! It’s an old forgery!’ (p. 135). On this occasion Bruce only succeeds in upsetting his own siblings as well as the Meddingses, making it one of his many moments of physical and social clumsiness in the narrative. Indeed, his resentment of the Meddings children may well stem from the fact that they seem at ease in an adult social context which he finds completely unfathomable, and which he is always failing to negotiate owing to the difficulty he has in concealing his feelings or finding words to convey his meaning.

In the chemist’s shop

At the same time, his association of Robin and Karen with Stephen’s enemies is hardly surprising, since all of them are adepts in the art of concealment. Not only does the Spinners and Weavers Club meet in a Tea Shoppe that closely resembles the Old Forge in its faux-medieval aesthetic, but the Spinners and Weavers themselves are past masters in the art of interweaving truth and falsehood, just like the Meddings children as Bruce sees them. When Bruce meets the Club’s leader, for instance – Mr Atkinson – he at once gets caught up in a complex web of lies and half-truths. Yes, Mr Atkinson is an old university ‘friend’ of the Rector’s, as he claims, but the word ‘friend’ is a misnomer, since the Rector later confesses ‘I didn’t like him very much’ (p. 90). Yes, Mr Atkinson has been given permission to sketch in the parish church, but he can’t be sketching a ‘crusader’s tomb’, as he insists (p. 82), because there isn’t one. The old man keeps addressing Bruce as ‘little boy’, which is both true and false, since Bruce is indeed young, but has no conception of himself as ‘little’ and so feels humiliated by the description. And Bruce does indeed have a ‘secret’, as Mr Atkinson insinuates (p. 81) – he is hiding Stephen – but the old man has secrets too, and the lie about the crusader’s tomb suggests that he will not willingly part with them. The same mixture of truth and falsehood characterizes the other members of the Club. The woman in the chemist’s shop, for instance, is really the sister of the chemist, as she claims, but she is also as ‘nasty’ as he is nice, and seems all too eager to weigh the Jeffersons ‘on a long hook’ – a metaphor with a potentially ‘gruesome double meaning’ (p. 139) – and to supply them with her own home-made and possibly lethal ‘tonic’ in place of their usual medicine. One member of the Club at the Tea Shoppe has her hair dyed blue as if in token of her fakery, while another has ‘what looked to me like a hundred huge false teeth’ (pp. 140-1), and owns a dog that may well be a wolf. In addition, the members of the Club are somehow linked to the ‘so-called labourers’ working at the church (p. 141). Their motives in tracking down Stephen are unclear, but the unclearness itself is of a piece with the disparity between their semi-respectable, everyday appearances and the obvious malice of their hidden agenda.

Bruce, Mr Atkinson, Old Mim

The whole world through which the Jeffersons move is in fact packed with menacing double meanings and false appearances. This leads Bruce a number of times into mistaking friends as enemies: Old Stanley the poacher, for instance, whom he identifies at first as one of Stephen’s pursuers (p. 63) but later finds to be a useful ally against them; or Lady Ariadne Hodgson, whose deep voice and unfriendly appearance make the children think of her as a ‘witch’ (p. 126), but who makes peace with them by giving them a box of toffees, which she cannot eat herself because of her false teeth (so that she too is revealed as a confusing mixture of the fake and the authentic). Robin and Karen Meddings, too, are transformed into friends from their initial status as diminutive enemies. Yet like Old Stanley and Lady Ariadne, the Meddings kids retain their dual nature as a fusion of the true and the false, the real and the imagined, and their transformation could be said to entail a belated recognition on the part of the Jeffersons that they themselves inhabit a context composed in equal parts of dreams and logic, facts and falsehoods.

The Spinners and Weavers at the Roman mound

The transformation of the Meddingses takes place on the night when Deirdre, the youngest of the Jeffersons, gets imprisoned in the crosshatched space of the Roman mound. Taunted by Deirdre’s captors (the Green Lantern people) and their allies (the old men and women of the Spinners and Weavers Club), the three older Jeffersons find themselves on the verge of surrendering Stephen to his pursuers in exchange for the little girl’s safety. At this precise moment they hear footsteps approaching through the darkness, which make the Spinners and Weavers vanish. Bruce at once seeks a ‘reason’ for the coven’s disappearance, and his sister Julia suggests that the footsteps may belong to that embodiment of authenticity and ordinariness, the housekeeper Old Mim. Instead they belong to the Meddings children, embodiments of middle-class ‘forgery’, who are walking up the hill holding hands in the ‘phony’ way Bruce finds so disgusting, and carrying a gift he thinks irrelevant: ‘a big, and very rusty horse-shoe, all covered with mud’ (p. 169). All three of the older Jeffersons, frantic with worry, unite to shoo these kids away and reject their gift; but they are wrong to do so, as Robin insists. The horseshoe is physical proof that the Old Forge and its inhabitants are not in fact the products of fakeness:

‘It’s one the blacksmith made […] We dug it up in the garden this afternoon, when we were planting a chocolate. In our garden. So ’tisn’t all forgery and that, either! This is proper iron, what a proper blacksmith made.’ (p. 169)

The horseshoe shows that the Old Forge is a ‘proper place where a proper blacksmith made proper iron and things’; the name of the house has a meaning just as authentic as that of the Rectory where the children are staying. And the gift is authentically useful to the Jeffersons. Being made of iron and twisted into the familiar U of the horseshoe, with its age-old connotations of protection and good luck, it proves highly effective in the bewildering nocturnal world in which the siblings find themselves stranded. Andrew Jefferson suddenly has the idea of embedding it in the mound as a kind of padlock, thereby imprisoning Deirdre’s gaolers – who like other members of the fairy community cannot pass cold iron – and enabling Andrew to demand his sister’s release in exchange for their freedom. Like the Meddingses themselves, whose presence drove away the Spinners and Weavers, the Meddingses’ gift subdues the powers of Deirdre’s captors, confirming the younger children’s participation in the Jeffersons’ adventures, despite all of Bruce’s attempts to keep them at arm’s length and to claim that the supernatural events going on all round him have a perfectly rational explanation.

Tending to Stephen

In the process, the enduring presence of magic underneath the Sussex landscape is confirmed – the resistance of its ancient charms to all the rapid changes of recent decades. The disused shelter, the forgotten cellar, the Roman mound, even the gnome-ridden garden of the Old Forge each retain an active link to still potent traces of the past, despite the patina of newness that covers them. Indeed, the shelter and the Old Forge could be described as acts of homage to the past, an acknowledgment of its continuing potency framed in terms of the kitsch and the obsolete. The Forge’s plaster gnomes have an ambiguously ‘real’ equivalent in the living gnomes mentioned at one point by Bruce’s younger sister: ‘Deirdre said she didn’t mind gnomes, but she didn’t like the lantern-men who’d gone over the hills, looking and looking’ (p. 65). And as the supernatural hunters and seekers converge on Stephen’s hiding place in the cellar, ‘looking and looking’, Bruce’s desperate efforts to keep things rational prove increasingly ineffective, until he is forced to enlist the Meddingses in the struggle against Stephen’s enemies. After all, Robin and Karen come from a background that freely accommodates the impossible: gnomes and fairies, magic rituals, the resurgence of the past, the power of cold iron. Their parents are ‘artistic’, despite their affection for warming-pans and horse-brasses: the mother is a TV scriptwriter, the father an actor, and both are therefore adult participants in the same imaginative games enjoyed by the Rectory children (p. 22). And the Meddings children themselves mean well, despite their mannerisms and the intrusiveness of their efforts to win the approval of the Jeffersons.

Meaning, in fact, is a central theme of Gray’s novel; in particular, the way meanings change in different contexts. This theme is pointed up by a stylistic quirk of the first person narrative voice, which is that of Bruce, the oldest of the Jefferson siblings. The Jeffersons could be said to inhabit a crosshatched space of their own, whose function in the narrative shifts repeatedly in response to changing situations, and who therefore provide an ideal vehicle for thinking about the complex process of making meaning in the 1960s. Their surname, as I mentioned earlier, recalls the ‘professional name’ of Gray’s good friend Joan Jefferson Farjeon, which she adopted to underline her descent from a celebrated dynasty of American actors. The Jefferson children, too, are inveterate actors, transforming the cellar they find into a private stage sealed off from the rest of the Rectory by a symbolic curtain. Their days are passed in a blend of the imagined and the real quite as complicated as anything they encounter in the outside world, and for them the cellar embodies that potent mixture, changing its significance with each new game they play, from the heathland of Ancient Britain to a fairy tale forest to King Solomon’s mines, depending on which of them is in charge of their activities. Bruce’s voice as narrator mimics the voice of Oswald Bastable, narrator of Edith Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers and its sequels. Like Oswald, Bruce is an eldest brother with multiple siblings, though Gray adjusts the number to take account of the diminishing size of the average family in the 1960s. Where Oswald is one of six, Bruce is one of only four – two boys, two girls – and is older than his twin sister Julia by just half an hour, which suggests another adjustment in terms of equality between the sexes (although he draws heavily on his male privilege to assume the role of ‘masterful leader’ on most occasions). The characters of these four children are carefully differentiated: Julia is the aspiring novelist with the novelist’s capacity for imaginative empathy; her younger brother Andrew is a passionate reader of non-fiction and decidedly ‘clever’, though imaginative too, as his trick with the horseshoe shows; while five-year-old Deirdre, saddled with a name from Irish mythology, is inevitably a seer, inclined to imagine ‘too much’, as we learn towards the end of the story (p. 200), and vulnerable as a result to the machinations of the Green Lantern people she alone can visualize with absolute clarity.

Bruce meets a bull

Bruce, meanwhile, is a literalist, or so he claims. He keeps insisting he has no imagination – although he willingly joins in with his siblings’ games – and his ambition to become a doctor underlines his concern with the practical needs of the mind and body. His literalism expresses itself in his prose style, which is full of comic clarifications aimed at removing ambiguity from his declarations, but managing only to draw attention to the sometimes bizarre alternative constructions that could be put on his words. From the beginning to the end of the narrative he works to elucidate his meaning, repeatedly using the phrase ‘I mean’ whenever he thinks a word or phrase may be ambiguous: ‘The cellar ran all about under the Rectory. It hadn’t been used for years. The cellar, I mean’ (p. 7); ‘we dropped it… the book, I mean… and it got trodden in with the cider’ (p. 12); ‘This turned out to control the milking-machine, in some obscure way. The switch, I mean’ (p. 14); ‘We’d found some candle-ends in a tin box down there. In the cellar, I mean. […] I took a box of matches from the bathroom, leaving twopence in its place. Just for a start, that was. The matches, I mean’ (p. 17). In most cases here the clarifying phrase ‘I mean’ serves to point up the chaotic situations the children get themselves into: the book of instructions for making cider getting mixed up with the cider itself, the confusion over the function of the switch for the milking-machine, the complex self-justification rendered necessary by an act of minor theft from the Rectory’s stores. Their activities defy all Bruce’s attempts to reduce them to grammatical and rational order – to bring the uncontrollable, so to speak, under verbal control.

The Jeffersons with their uncle, the Rector

In the same way, the eldest Jefferson is always seeking to find rational explanations for things, assigning new, mundane meanings to them as new evidence emerges, but invariably reaching a point where conventional reasoning fails to account for what’s going on. When strange lights begin to appear in the cellar – Deirdre says they come from the gates of the fairy hill – his reasoning becomes fragmented and frantic: ‘There had to be a reasonable explanation for it all. Otherwise one might be forced to believe in Spoilers, and witches, and suchlike. Which was impossible. So there must be the explanation. The trouble was, I couldn’t think of one’ (p. 105). The bewildering events at the Roman mound challenge his logic still further. As the children make their way home after rescuing Deirdre, Bruce observes that ‘No one said any more about the lantern-men for the time being. To my great relief, as I could think of very little to say that made any sense’ (p. 174). Barred from the belief in the impossible that his three siblings increasingly share, his sense of incomprehension grows until the final chapter, ‘The Gate’, when the entrance to the fairy hill is finally opened in the cellar. Here all three of his siblings are able to see that something magical is taking place, but Bruce cannot, since he has been vouchsafed only transient glimpses of the supernatural throughout the narrative. To the end of the story he continues to insist that ‘It was all imagination’ (p. 197) despite the accumulation of evidence to the contrary. When his brother Andrew tells him ‘The cellar’s full of sunlight’, he can only answer: ‘Well, it wasn’t. Not that I could see’, and add: ‘I felt for a moment that I was going mad, rather than the others’. This from the boy who observed in the opening chapter that he might need to become a ‘brain specialist’ to take account of the imaginative eccentricities of his two youngest siblings, who may both be ‘mad’ (p. 9). In the final chapter, in fact, he recognizes that it may be his own senses that are faulty rather than theirs: ‘If I was really the only one who had seen nothing special, then perhaps I was duller than the rest… which was sad, but quite possible’ (p. 196). In the course of the story the boundaries of the possible have grown permeable, and Bruce’s certainty about his position – as rationalist, as the eldest and as the most ‘masterful’ member of his family (p. 62) – has been shaken to the roots.

Stephen in the cellar

The shaking of Bruce’s rationalism is in fact quite literal; he is constantly getting knocks on the head in the course of his adventures, rendering him temporarily disoriented and subject to visual disturbances. His first encounter with the cellar is a violent one: suspended upside down inside a cupboard, he is pushed by Andrew, falls (presumably on his head) and rolls down ‘about ten steps’ into the hidden room. Later the children set up a booby-trap to deter unwelcome visitors, and Bruce promptly forgets it is there, falling down the stairs a second time and being hit on the head with a broom (again by Andrew) at the bottom (‘Things went rather dim for a while’, he comments wryly, p.99). Later still, in a neighbour’s barn, Bruce bangs his head ‘so hard on a beam that it rang like a bell. My head, I mean’ (p. 149); and when the Spinners and Weavers Club converge on the children by the Roman mound he trips over a hummock and falls flat on his face, which prompts Mr Atkinson to comment: ‘Poor little boy […] it’s bumped its poor head, and now it’s all muddled’ (p. 165). This adds to Bruce’s difficulties in distinguishing between the real and the illusory: ‘My head was spinning. I suppose I’d banged it just once too often that night. Even now I can’t be quite sure how much of all this really happened, and how much I imagined. I may have been dreaming, though I was not asleep’ (p. 165). In response to all these knocks, the inside of Bruce’s head becomes a crosshatched space, its contents muddled to the extent that memories can no longer be disentangled from waking dreams.

At the same time, the distinction between the imagined and the real, the dreamed and the remembered, keeps getting blurred even outside Bruce’s head as the book goes on. For one thing, the children’s games keep turning real. Deirdre is constantly telling adults about their clandestine adventures, and although she is never believed – her stories are variously described as ‘horrible inventions’ (p. 160) and wild ‘fantasies’ (p. 175) – her elder siblings are always on tenterhooks in case she lets slip something too believable about the all-too-material runaway Stephen. At one point, seeking to distract their enemies’ attention from the cellar where Stephen is hiding, the children pack a suitcase full of fake medical supplies and set out across country, drawing the two fake labourers after them towards a neighbouring farm. Here the classic children’s game of doctors and nurses becomes a component part of a genuine crisis: the Jeffersons are in fact genuinely tending to a sick fugitive, and only the location of the man and the supplies they carry are illusions. The Roman mound is the focus of a real adventure when Deirdre is trapped underneath it, but it’s also a reminder of the games the children played in the cellar earlier, which involved Romans and Britons, with Bruce inevitably playing a rational Roman while Julia stood in for the impetuous British queen, Boadicea. Not long afterwards the stuff of games is repurposed again as the children prepare to repel Stephen’s massed ‘enemies’ from the cellar. The dustbin-lids and rusty scythe-blades they used as Roman and British weapons in Chapter 2 get recalled and reused in Chapter 13, when Bruce describes them as ‘the weapons of happier days’ and adds forlornly, ‘We didn’t really think they would be much use’ (p. 192). The horseshoe brought to them by the Meddings children changes from an element in a game – Robin and Karen were burying a chocolate when they found it – into a key part of Deirdre’s rescue from the mound. Later the Jeffersons recall the power of cold iron when pondering ways to protect the Rectory, placing iron objects in all the windows and doors to repel the Lantern people. Repeatedly, objects and concepts that were first given new meaning by their involvement in imagined scenarios acquire a serious, even urgent function in the decidedly unplayful context of the hunt for and defence of the fugitive.

Bruce and Julia Jefferson face the police

As the process of ‘realising’ the imaginary goes on, both of the older Jefferson siblings, Bruce and Julia, feel increasingly stressed by the mounting complexity of the situation. This is one of the ways Gray’s novel differs from some analogous work by his contemporaries, such as Alan Garner’s debut novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), which was published the year before. In that book, the child protagonists Colin and Susan are left more or less unscathed by their adventures. The svart alfar or Dark Elves, the terrible journey through the mines, even the death of their friend, the dwarf Durathror, at the hands of the Morrigan – none of these incidents seems to have got much emotional purchase on their psychologies (though the psychological effects of mixing with magic get much more intense in Garner’s later novels). Down in the Cellar, by contrast, leaves one with the sense that Bruce’s mental health, and that of his twin sister, is genuinely suffering as they struggle to manage a state of affairs that would have challenged the psychological equilibrium of any adult. Bruce’s fierce diatribe against the Meddings children is a symptom of this mental stress, which reaches its climax when he bursts into tears under interrogation by the Chief Constable, Mr Wheatley, who has come in person to lead the search for the missing man. ‘Everyone was amazed,’ Bruce says at this point, ‘including me. But I couldn’t help it, it just happened’; and in response, the police and his family members ‘stared at me in horror, while I stood with my mouth open, and tears running into it, hiccupping and sobbing for breath’ (p. 186). Yet Bruce’s siblings mistake this torrent of emotion for a cunning ruse, another bit of playacting designed to disrupt Mr Wheatley’s investigations. Afterwards Andrew asks admiringly, ‘How on earth did you do it? They were real tears!’, and Julia admits ‘I didn’t honestly think Bruce had it in him’; while Bruce himself decides to say no more about ‘the reasons for my break-down’ (p. 187). One good reason for this reticence, perhaps, is that his breakdown springs from the breakdown of reason itself; first, in that his own reasons for protecting the fugitive may not stand up to police scrutiny, and secondly because the events since Stephen entered their lives have been so confusing. Bruce’s outburst is allowed to stand for what his siblings think it: another game that has suddenly been saddled with a serious purpose.

The opening of the gate into the hill

One could read Gray’s novel as what’s glibly called a ‘coming-of-age’ story, as if children grew to adulthood at some definable moment in their lives, or as if maturity itself were something stable. The book suggests instead that the process is complicated, since responsibility emerges from within the context of childhood play, while play and serious adult concerns have the same ingredients. But there’s something else that might be read into Gray’s narrative of transition. Bruce’s isolation at the end, as the only unimaginative Jefferson, is intensified by the fact that he alone of the four siblings is blessed or cursed with the ability to remember Stephen and all they went through to hide and defend him. The three younger children are asked to forget the strange young man by the Lady of the Hill, as she leads him away through the hidden gates to her underground kingdom. The least imaginative Jefferson, Bruce, is left with a memory of Stephen’s face, now indistinguishable from a private dream since none of his siblings shares it. By the final page of the novel the two youngest children have already switched their attention to other things: Deirdre declares that when she gets older she may marry Robin, the older Meddings child, while Andrew adds: ‘Come to that, I may decide to marry Karen’ (p. 203). Bruce, by contrast, recalls specific details of Stephen’s appearance: ‘I remembered Uncle’s old dressing-gown that Stephen had taken with him. And the heap of chalk-stained clothes he’d left behind’ (p. 203). For Bruce, in fact, Stephen himself is always physically interesting, indeed attractive, as well as mysterious. When he first sees the fugitive he describes him as ‘a handsome sort of person, though unshaven and grimy, and all smeared with chalk’ (p. 35). Later on, when tending to him in the cellar, Bruce thinks that Stephen may be complimenting him on his own appearance: ‘How kind you are, and how beautiful’, the sick man murmurs (p. 109), and the startled Stephen thinks to himself, ‘I hoped I was fairly kind, but no one would describe me as more than average good-looking’. On another occasion Bruce is struck for a second time by the stranger’s good looks; now he has grown a beard, he observes, ‘He looked like an actor in Shakespeare or something. Actually, it suited him. It was rather romantic. As he was asleep and couldn’t hear, I said this to Andrew. And he agreed’ (p. 180). Bruce seeks reassurance from his brother that his perception of Stephen’s appearance is accurate, and duly records that his brother agrees, as if to exonerate himself from the charge of paying too much attention to what a man looks like. Then towards the end, when the Hill-Lady finally comes to take Stephen to safety, Bruce is still more impressed by the young man’s beauty: ‘He was much handsomer than anyone we’d imagined from stories’ (p. 200). Stephen, in other words, has drifted in Bruce’s mind from being a figure out of fiction, to the author or actor of fictions, to a real, live human being, whose face is better than anything he could have conjured up in his childhood imaginings. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that the young man’s departure has such an acute effect on Gray’s narrator. As Stephen limps out of the underground room where the siblings have tended him, ‘A sort of grief came over me in a wave’, Bruce tells us (p. 200), and Stephen stops and looks at him as if in response. What Stephen says at this point is an observation that might well have come from a man addressing a young male admirer on parting, at a time in history when same-sex desire was effectively outlawed. ‘You mustn’t mind, Bruce,’ he tells him; ‘It’s not easy to see a thing through, when you aren’t sure what it is you’re seeing’. In the 50s and early 60s same-sex desire might well be something a growing child could not be certain he was seeing or feeling, a state of mind that was wholly unacknowledged in his education or family life. As he passes from the cellar into the hill, Stephen leaves Bruce with a story he can never tell in full, at least with any expectation of understanding, a story he does not fully understand himself, and part of that story may well be what first attracted him to Stephen. Gray’s fairy tale, in other words – like the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Andersen, four of which provided themes for plays by Gray – could stand in for the experience of first discovering yourself to be gay in early adolescence.

Gray’s other fiction lends support to this reading. His first short story collection, for instance – Mainly in Moonlight (1965) – is full of stories of young men who are rejected by their communities and find a new place for themselves in an all-male household. The first story, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentices’, involves a boy called Martin rescuing another boy called Avenel and bringing him back to live with him in the house of his male teacher, Alain. ‘The Hunting of the Dragon’ involves another rescue of a boy by another boy, after which the rescuer, Prince Michael, feels comfortable with his own identity for the first time in his life. ‘According to Tradition’ tells of a pair of princely brothers the younger of whom ends up as the married king of his country, while the elder chooses to defy tradition and go live with the fairies – led by a handsome witch-king – because he ‘could never be at home’ living by the conventions of ‘mortal men’ (p. 104). ‘The Lady’s Quest’ tells of a prince who hates the convention that only men are allowed to embark on dangerous quests. His sister Alexa tells him that ‘you would make a better girl than I do’, he tells one of his father’s soldiers that his men are ‘lovely’ (p. 119), and his best friend Gregory is ‘not quite at home in the company of ladies’ (p. 125). The story culminates with the two young men being rescued by Alexa, and though Gray hints that both have become fascinated by the women they have met in the course of their adventures, there is no indication that either boy intends to do more with this new interest than learn at last ‘to be at ease in the company of ladies’ (p. 129). Very few of Gray’s fairy tales end in marriage; many are about young men who feel deeply out of place in the world they were born into. In one of the most poignant stories, ‘The Star Beast’, an intelligent creature of uncertain gender from another world – its hands are ‘slender, long-fingered, with the fine nails of a girl’, its body ‘like that of a boy – a half-grown lad – though it was as tall as a man’ (p. 71) – is mistreated until it starts to behave like what it has been called by all the people it meets: an abused animal. Both Bruce and Stephen of Down in the Cellar fit easily into this collection of displaced boys and men.

The novel ends with Bruce hearing a sound in the cellar that reminds him of some lines from the Scottish Border Ballad Tam Lin: ‘About the mid-hour of the night / They heard the bridles ring’ (p. 203). The sound, so clearly out of place under the Rectory, offers one final confirmation that it was indeed the ‘Hill-Lady’ who took Stephen into the hill before erasing all memory of him from those who saw him, apart from Bruce. The displacement of the ballad from Scotland to the Sussex Downs, alongside the displacement of the sound from the open air to an enclosed cellar, emphasizes the theme of displacement that runs through the novel; and this displacement is invoked by a number of references to Scotland throughout – from Bruce’s name, which invokes the Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, or Andrew’s, which he shares with Scotland’s patron saint (Deirdre’s name, by contrast, is Irish), to Julie’s observation to the police that the fugitive ‘is probably in the north of Scotland by this time’ (p. 78). The children themselves are displaced, in that they are outsiders from London in a Sussex village, while their parents are on the other side of the planet, in New Zealand. Stephen comes from an unnamed country where a different language is spoken; he can clearly never go back there, and as the novel goes on it becomes clear that there is also no place for him in England. For most of his life Gray was a Scot in England, and the cultural crosshatching he practises in Down in the Cellar, as well as the sense of alienation that fills it, may well have been deeply familiar to him.

As a version of Tam Lin, Gray’s novel does not run ‘According to Tradition’ any more than his other fairy tales tend to. The handsome Tam Lin had to be rescued from the fairy queen to save him from the fate of serving as a human sacrifice to Hell – the famous fairy ‘teind’. The rescue involved great courage on the part of his earthly lover, Janet, who clung to him as he changed shape into a variety of wild animals, as well as a burning coal and a naked man, never letting go until the spell that bound him was finally broken. One of the stories in Mainly in Moonlight, ‘A Letter to My Love’, culminates in an ordeal very like Janet’s, where a young woman clings to the body of a man in need of rescue as it changes from lizard to woodlouse, from slug to lump of ice (pp. 68-69). Stephen, by contrast, must be given over to the Hill-Lady if he is to survive. ‘Poor Bruce’ must let go of him instead of clinging on, give him up instead of winning him, and can expect ‘no sort of reward’ for all his struggles on the stranger’s behalf, all the mental and physical pain he has undergone for him. Tam Lin in all its versions is about a difficult romance, from Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1984) to Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991) and Sally Prue’s Cold Tom (2002). Romance is the lifeblood of the story, and Bruce’s sense of loss at the close of the novel – the ‘sort of grief’ that ‘came over me in a wave’ (p. 200)– suggests an emerging awareness that he is being bereaved of the romance that he identified with Stephen from the moment of his discovery in a disused cave.

Among other things, Down in the Cellar is a story about finding that the mind is a strange and complex organ, and about how words, places, communities and relationships participate in its complexity. In it, the imaginative and the rational exist in partnership, memory and fantasy cohabit, new desires transform the world, the body affects the mind and the mind the body, while the lightness of games is always giving way to the heavy weight of responsibility, which in turn reveals an unsuspected affinity with childhood play. It’s a fine example of the way fantasy for children responds to the particular challenges of political and social history. And it’s an argument in itself, I think, for reprinting Gray’s fiction for children.

NOTE

[1] Gray’s other illustrators included Joan Jefferson Farjeon, Charles W Stewart (who also worked in theatre design), Charles Keeping and himself.

The Surrealist Fantasy of Herbert Read, Part 2: The Green Child (1935)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, Grey Walls Press edition (1945)

[This is the second of two blog posts on Herbert Read, Fantasy and Surrealism. The first part, which concerns Read’s theory of Fantasy, can be found here.]

Herbert Read’s novel The Green Child (1935) can be described as an exercise in political detachment, charting the journey of an emergent anarchist into revolutionary disengagement from political and religious systems of all kinds. This journey towards disengagement is embodied in the novel’s eccentric structure. Constructed as three novels in one, its narrative transports the reader from a kind of fantastic autobiography in the first part – many details of which derive from Read’s recollections of his childhood in rural Yorkshire, as given in his memoir The Innocent Eye (1933) – to a South American utopia in the second, to a surrealist underground dreamscape in the third. Each part, as has often been pointed out, closes in death: the apparent death by drowning that ends the first part, the faked assassination of President Olivero that ends the second, the death by petrifaction that ends the third. The novel also opens with a death. Its first sentence announces ‘The death of President Olivero’, and the rest of the narrative can therefore be read as an afterlife experience – an invocation of the experience of dying, the point at which a person’s life is said to flash before their eyes. Admittedly we’re told in the first paragraph that Olivero ‘arranged his own assassination’, but the phrase is ambiguous enough to suggest that he could either have faked his own death or committed what is in effect assisted suicide.

If, then, we can think of the book as an extended account of death and the process of dying, we can also read it as a critique of the various versions of the afterlife offered by world religions and philosophies. Instead of achieving spiritual enlightenment, its protagonist finally accomplishes the total abandonment of both body and spirit; a condition to which he progresses by way of an increasingly intense scrutiny of material things and a growing appreciation of simplicity in people, politics and aesthetics, cognate developments that help him recognize the basically geometric principles that underpin the structure of the universe. The materialist religion or philosophy he embraces in the end could be seen as articulating a political as well as a philosophical position: that only in freeing ourselves from the grand narratives of history, religion and authoritarian politics can we achieve a just society or personal contentment. The book also implies, however, that freeing ourselves in this way is an option unavailable to us – unless by some great good fortune we should find ourselves living among the Green Children, safely hidden in a sealed-off subterranean civilization which has in effect rejected narrative altogether.

All three parts of the novel seem designed to illustrate fantasy ‘in the abstract’ as described in English Prose Style. They are, for instance, emancipated from time in that they occur out of chronological order, shifting from one timeline in part one (beginning in 1861) to an earlier timeline in part two (beginning in 1830 or so) and back again to the first timeline in the third of its three unequal sections. This emancipation from time is further emphasized by the fact that the narrator admits at one point that he has falsified all the dates in it ‘for reasons which will be obvious when this narrative has been read’ (p. 21) – the chief of these being that the protagonist kills a man in the opening section. The three parts are emancipated, too, from place, in that they encompass much of the known world and beyond, drifting from England in the first part to Poland, Spain, Argentina and the invented republic of Roncador in the second, to a nameless underground country in the third. The narrative voice changes too, from third person to first person and back again to third. Like the chapter on fantasy, then, The Green Child is always unsettling our expectations, refusing to let us relax into a familiar genre or a consistent set of narrative conventions.

Still following the various aspects of fantasy as described in English Prose Style, the first and third parts of The Green Child are ‘arbitrary’ in the sense that impossible things happen in them: a stream runs backwards, a man turns to stone. The middle narrative is more conventional, as one might expect given that it describes a community rather than the adventures of an individual; but this section too is in some sense arbitrary in its imitation of the picaresque ramblings of adventure romance, full of disconnected incidents, improbable coincidences, unlikely achievements – not least of these being the easy establishment of a happy society within a few years, in defiance of the rest of human experience. Finally, all three parts of the book are ‘objective’ in that they are deeply concerned with practicalities of various kinds; above all, with working out in meticulous detail the logical implications of the miscellaneous impossibilities and unlikelihoods they contain (the reason why the stream is flowing backwards, the logistics of the utopia described in part two, the supporting philosophy which justifies the man’s petrifaction in the final section). They are ‘objective’, too, in their resistance to a detailed account of the protagonist’s feelings; the book is about his actions and thoughts, not his emotions, even though the first and final parts describe his obsession with a woman. The book ends, indeed, with the total annihilation of emotion in the protagonist as he slowly turns to stone, ‘a consummation / Devoutly to be wished’ in Read’s universe. One gets the impression that the chief reason why turning to stone represents Read’s personal form of Nirvana is that it stands at the polar opposite of all spiritual systems; it can’t be aligned with any extant form of religion or philosophy, and so detaches the petrified protagonist once and for all from the encumbrances of nationalism, authoritarian internationalism and history that seemed to be embroiling most of humankind in the 1930s.

Sign showing the Green Children of Woolpit

The entire structure of the novel, with its repeated disruptions of continuity, could be said to spring from the presence in it of the Green Child who gives the book its title. In this it builds on the technique of the story Read identified as ‘the norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’: the Green Children of Woolpit, whose narrative (as we’ve seen) grew or accrued organically and quasi-logically from the central event it documented, the discovery of the Green Children themselves. The surviving ‘Green Child’ features in the first part of Read’s novel, while the second part lays out some of the reasons why she had such a powerful impact on the protagonist when he met her. The third part reveals the context that shaped her: the culture of the Green People whose influence takes the protagonist beyond his obsession with an isolated representative of their culture. The figure of the Green Child, I would suggest, embodies Read’s concept of fantasy: that is, ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ in the form of a concrete, dispassionately imagined object, here a person, which has been emancipated through circumstance ‘from the order of time and space’. And this reading of her seems to me to be supported by the frequent references to fantasy and the fantastic that punctuate the first section of the text in which she features.

These references are present from the book’s first page. At the beginning the protagonist, an Englishman known by the Spanish name of Olivero, finds himself drawn back to the village of his birth after long absence by what he calls ‘sentimental nostalgia’, an emotion that represents the place to him as ‘withdrawn [by time] to a fantastic distance, bright and exquisite and miniature, like a landscape seen through the wrong end of a telescope’ (p. 9, my emphasis). His home town, in fact, has acquired the quality of a fantasy, emancipated from space and time by the operations of space (that is, geographical distance) and time (that is, the lapse of years), though not yet freed from the emotional resonances that make him yearn to go back there. Later he describes the half-remembered village as ‘bright in its crystal setting’ (p. 10), anticipating the emphasis on crystals among the Green People in the third part of the novel, and notes how his yearning for it skews his sense of what is real, distracting him from the lands he travels through on his journey back from Roncador to England. Indeed, Olivero longs to emancipate himself from time altogether: ‘To escape from the sense of time, to live in the eternity of what he was accustomed to call “the divine essence of things” – that was his only desire’ (p. 10). Yet a return to the English landscape where his ‘personality had first been liberated’ threatens to restore to its location in space and time a scene that has been detached from space and time by his thirty years’ absence. Fortunately, however, his arrival in the village instead brings him face to face with the fantastic in concrete form, first in the shape of a river which runs in the opposite direction from the river he remembers from his youth – runs, in fact, uphill – and then in the shape of the Green Child he comes across as he seeks to trace the river to its source. These two fantastic elements are linked, and Olivero’s obsession with both – he is as determined to explain the phenomenon of the upward-flowing river as he is to crack the mystery of the Green Child’s origins – identifies him as a man who runs against the stream of human history, and whose return to the place that shaped him will never rid him of his revolutionary tendencies.

Felix Kelly, the village from The Green Child (1945)

The Green Child, it turns out, is pitted in this novel against the violence of power, technological, colonial and economic. The stream leads Olivero first to the mill where he grew up, which has since stopped functioning, then to a more modern, larger mill nearby, which he suspects of having some agency in changing the direction of the stream. Possessed of the mill is a man called Kneeshaw, a name Read used in a poem early in his career to describe a conscript who is maimed in the First World War – a cog, so to speak, in the violent machinery of the twentieth century. In The Green Child, too, Kneeshaw is associated with both violence and machinery. As a child, Kneeshaw was a pupil of Olivero in the village school, whose wanton destruction of a clockwork engine was the direct cause of Olivero’s abandonment of the teaching profession and departure from the village. As an adult, the object of Kneeshaw’s violent attentions is the Green Child, the mysterious girl with green skin who appeared with her brother in the village soon after Olivero’s departure. Kneeshaw later married her, with her guardian’s blessing, receiving with her from that guardian the money needed both to care for her and to modernize his mill. Kneeshaw’s lifelong devotion to the Green Child, then, is for him bound up with his lifelong devotion to the running of his modernized mill, and just as the mill is driven by the stream, so is Kneeshaw’s obsession with the Green Child driven by his desire to humanize her and hence make her wholly his – his machine, so to speak, as well as his possession. Given the Green Child’s greenness, which implies an association with nature, this linkage of her with machinery – nature’s opposite – might be expected to culminate in an outbreak of violence.

The green girl, meanwhile, cultivates an instinctive detachment from Kneeshaw which is directly opposed to his apparent desire to make her like himself. She refuses to sleep with him, eat the meat he brings her, or do productive work in his household. She also refuses to stop wandering round the countryside – not wantonly, like the original Green Child of Woolpit, but arbitrarily, without any perceptible purpose, mostly sticking to the banks of the similarly wandering and arbitrary stream. She is cold where Kneeshaw is hot, objective where he is subjective (her distaste for him is not personal, since she is equally detached from all living creatures) and random in her behaviour, where his behaviour is strictly functional. She is emancipated from time, in that she both ages much more slowly than an ordinary person and retains the childlike title by which she was known from the moment she wandered into the village. This sets her against the strictly time-bound schedule by which Kneeshaw’s business operates. It is hardly surprising, then, if as the marriage wears on Kneeshaw’s response to her intransigent strangeness becomes increasingly aggressive. He tries to lock her in an attic until she conforms, thinking that he will be able to force her to observe the timekeeping he lives by (instead she nearly dies, like a plant deprived of light and water). When Olivero comes across him he is attempting to force a cup of hot lamb’s blood between the Green Child’s teeth, convinced that this is the only way to give her strength enough to be of use to him. Kneeshaw’s instinctive association of the Green Child with the proverbially innocent and sacrificial lamb predicts the likely end result of what Read calls his ‘tormenting’ of her in the latter stages of their marriage (p. 33).

Felix Kelly, the Mill from The Green Child (1945), showing Olivero and Kneeshaw

Along with all their other differences, the couple are separated by their different levels of complexity. Divided as Kneeshaw is between the industrial machinery that makes him prosperous, the hot blood that gives him strength and his frustrated sexual desire for the strange woman he has married, along with a perverse veneration for her, he is a highly complex figure. Read describes him as the victim of ‘primitive instincts’, but insists that this is not the same as calling him simple; he compares Kneeshaw’s conflicting loyalties and desires to the ‘complicated taboos of savage races’, savagery here being as much aligned through Kneeshaw with the complexities of industrial engineering at the heart of the British Empire as it is with any of that Empire’s colonized territories. Kneeshaw represents, in fact, the machinery of imperialism, its dehumanizing effect on its human instruments, and the violence with which it imposes conformity with the customs and contradictions that sustain it. The Green Child, on the other hand, could be taken to stand for everything that must be suppressed to let the Empire flourish. Above all, she stands for simplicity, and as the book goes on the writer’s preference for what is simple over what is complex becomes increasingly apparent.

One aspect of the Green Child’s simplicity is her resistance to being tied down to any conventional narrative. Her physical coldness connects her with the upward-flowing river, and she prefers above all else to spend her time in its water, so that ‘without shame or hesitation [she] would throw off her frock and float like a mermaid, almost invisible, in the watery element’ (p. 31). This association with mermaids follows on from Read’s description of her fleeing from Kneeshaw’s embraces ‘as from a hot-breathed fawn’, which associates her with the unwilling nymphs of classical legend who prefer metamorphosis into trees or reeds to the aggressive attentions of male deities. Mermaids or sirens are traditionally promiscuous, while fleeing nymphs are chaste, so the two connections could be said to cancel each other out. Later Read describes her as walking like a ‘fairy’ (p. 43), and later still as possessing a ‘green naiad figure’ (p. 45) and a face as ‘radiant as an angel’s’ (p. 46), aligning her with multiple myths or legends in quick succession while confining her to none. In the same way, Read’s novel resists generic classification, as if infected by the Green Child’s elusiveness. The book could be read as an adventure story or romance with Olivero as its globetrotting hero; but the Green Child’s refusal to behave like a conventional heroine effectively cuts it off from this literary model. As a ‘child’, even in her thirties, she preexists any cultural associations, prejudices or implied conditioning, and we never witness her reaching maturity and so settling into a consistent role or character. She never speaks, although we are told she is capable of speech; she may understand what Olivero says to her but he can never be certain (‘she turned an unmoved and perhaps uncomprehending face towards him’, p. 43). In the third and final section of the novel the couple confirm their resistance to generic containment by losing interest in one another altogether, in defiance of romance convention. All the Green Child’s personal traits, in fact, link her with the whimsicality Read sees as integral to fantasy, and suggest that Olivero’s yearning for her – and Kneeshaw’s too – is a hankering after the qualities Read associates with the fantastic in his criticism.

She also seems to bring out the fantastic in the behaviour of her male admirers – even those who are most resistant to fantasy. When Olivero first sets eyes on her, helpless in the clutches of her powerful husband as he seeks to force hot blood into her mouth, he rushes to the rescue with the impetuousness of a romance hero, but his rescue soon becomes absurd. To reach her he must scramble through a half-open window, and he gets stuck half way, with ‘the upper half of his body outside the window, his legs waving wildly inside the room’ (p. 19). ‘This mishap,’ Read informs us, ‘which in any normal circumstances would have been merely comic, gave a still further fantastic turn to the scene of horror inside the room’ (p. 19, my emphasis). Later, Kneeshaw reveals himself, too, to have been affected by the fantastic when he relates to Olivero, despite his usual taciturnity, the story of his marriage. This unwonted eloquence comes to him because ‘tragedy’, as Read tells us, ‘drives us beyond natural behaviour, on to a level where imagination and phantasy rule’ (p. 25, my emphasis) – and fantasy, the product of the imaginative faculty, is described in English Prose Style as a mode of rhetoric or eloquent speech. Olivero, on the other hand, has been a devotee of fantasy since his youth. As a schoolmaster his favoured teaching technique was to dispense with formal learning and encourage his pupils to ‘become absorbed in […] fantasy’ (p. 23, my emphasis) – that is, in ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – through unsupervised play. This was his motivation in providing them with the clockwork train made by his father, just as Kneeshaw’s hostility to fantasy was expressed in his smashing of the toy engine. The two men’s attraction to the fantastic person of the Green Child stems, then, from opposite perspectives, one of which is determined to liberate fantasy from its entrapment in systems, the other committed to subjecting it to the systematic mode of operation it resists.

The clash between these two perspectives reaches its apex when Olivero leaves the mill, after freeing the Green Child from Kneeshaw’s clutches, and returns to his former occupation of studying the stream. Seeing a phenomenon he does not understand in the troubled water of the millpond – ‘a continual interweaving of irregular ribbons of water, gushing and spouting in every direction’, like an enactment of fantastic arbitrariness (p. 39) – he decides to deactivate the millwheel so as to study the water in an undisturbed state. Kneeshaw immediately notices that his mill has been rendered unproductive and hurries to reconnect the wheel to its machinery. In the process he discovers that Olivero is still lurking on his property and attacks him in the hope of destroying him, as he destroyed the engine thirty years before. Instead it’s Kneeshaw who is destroyed, drowned by Olivero with the help of his own reactivated millwheel (repurposed, in effect, as an inquisitorial instrument of torture) in a scene that recalls the linkage of technology with violence in the work of H G Wells: ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’, perhaps, in which a colonial subject electrocutes his overseer in an act of ritual sacrifice, or more fittingly ‘The Cone’, in which a jealous husband murders his wife’s lover by hurling him onto a red-hot piece of industrial machinery. The parallel with Wells’s ‘The Cone’ is reinforced by Kneeshaw’s stubborn refusal to die quickly; he resurfaces from the pond after his first dunking to stare with hatred at Olivero, his killer, just as the lover in Wells’s story continues to cling to the red-hot Cone like a bad conscience until his killer succeeds in knocking him off. Even the difference between the situations in the short story and the novel reinforces the link between them. Kneeshaw the industrialist is killed by his wife’s lover with the help of cold water, while Wells’s lover is killed by the industrialist husband using a rigid structure of hot steel. Symbolically, Kneeshaw’s killing completes the liberation of Olivero’s personality which began when the boy Kneeshaw smashed the toy engine, smashing with it Olivero’s attempts to use the school system to liberate children’s imaginations from the rigid structures of conventional learning. The killing liberates, too, the Green Child from Kneeshaw’s efforts to make her conform; afterwards she is free to follow the stream again, this time in Olivero’s company. It is in fact the first in a series of liberating sacrifices that take place in each successive section of the novel, each designed to free one or more people from the constraints that bar them from the radical indulgence of ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’.

Frontispiece from Lost Endeavour, first edition

If the first part of The Green Child is modeled on Read’s favourite fairy tale, the second serves as a pastiche of the sort of colonialist adventure story he might have enjoyed in his adolescence. It recounts in the first person – as narrated to the Green Child after her liberation – Olivero’s adventures after abandoning his life as a village teacher. The trajectory he traces from teacher to adventurer recalls John Masefield’s adventure novel Lost Endeavour (1910), in which a schoolmaster called Little Theo becomes first a pirate, then the prophesied king of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas. According to the prophecy that identifies him as king, Theo is supposed to lead his subjects to freedom from European imperialism; but his project ends in failure, as the novel’s title indicates. Olivero’s accidental recruitment as a South American political leader is far more successful, ending not in political failure but triumph tempered by personal dissatisfaction; but like Little Theo’s adventures it involves the championing by an Englishman of the rights of indigenous people, and in this it sets itself in opposition to one of Read’s other literary influences, the South American romances of the Argentinian-American writer W. H. Hudson, most famously the author of Green Mansions (1904). Hudson’s novel involves the discovery of a girl with strangely-coloured skin, Rima, who is the last survivor of a mysterious civilization somewhere in the mountains of Venezuela. Rima speaks Spanish but can also communicate in bird-like whistles, leap through the branches of gigantic trees, and make friends with the birds and beasts of the rainforest, like a female Mowgli or Tarzan. She is eventually burned to death as a demon by the more aggressive indigenous people who live in the jungle she has made her home. Hudson had a deep affection for the descendants of Spanish colonists in Argentina, Venezuela and modern Uruguay, but expressed nothing but contempt for the indigenous peoples they displaced – with the sole exception of Rima’s lost community, who he represents as a race apart, like the lost relatives of She-who-must-be-obeyed in Rider Haggard’s She. Read’s Olivero, by contrast, embraces the cause of those same indigenous people, who endear themselves to him chiefly (it seems) because of their simplicity – their willingness, that is, to be content with simple pleasures, which makes them uniquely suitable for moulding into the citizens of an ideal state. Read’s decision to have his English protagonist first liberate these ‘simple’ people from dictatorship and then govern them for twenty-five years as a democratically-elected dictator is of course offensive in the extreme from a postcolonial perspective; but read as commentary on the political situation in 1930s Europe – like More’s Utopia, which directly responds to the tyranny of the English monarch Henry VIII – its offensiveness can at least be contextualized, though hardly mitigated.

Where Read’s novel differs from the stories of colonial adventure he’d have read as a boy is in the steadfast refusal of the central character, Olivero, to associate himself with the country of his birth. This reluctance to subscribe to the discourse of nationalism manifests itself first in his friendship with the employer he works for in London after leaving his village in Yorkshire, a Polish Jew called Klein. Read describes Klein in terms that invoke the anti-Semitic stereotypes that were becoming increasingly prevalent in the 1930s: ‘There was something like a snake in his appearance – a squat reptile, a tortoise’ (p. 48). But if the snake comparison evokes both personal deviousness and the tendency of the Christian church to blame the Jews for everything from Adam’s Fall to Christ’s crucifixion, Klein quickly frees himself from those particular racist clichés. For one thing, he is not much good with money, and employs Olivero to manage his financial affairs. For another he is a generous and trusting employer, and sends Olivero off on the next stage of his adventures by handing him a large amount of gold to take to his mother and sisters in Poland, along with plenty of extra cash to take Olivero wherever he wants to go after that. Klein’s trust, in fact, enlists Olivero as an honorary member of his family – an adoptive son – reinforcing Olivero’s sense of sympathy with his employer’s ‘simple commercial mind’ (p. 50). At the same time, like many sons Olivero also finds himself at odds with his adoptive father’s values. He loathes the ‘dull unimaginative work’ he must do to earn his keep in Klein’s employment, and instead harbours hidden ‘fancies’ for ‘those countries and cities where the longest human experience had left the richest deposits of beauty and wisdom’ (p. 51). The word ‘deposits’ makes beauty and wisdom sound like subterranean veins of precious ore laid down over aeons, and links them not so much to specific societies as to long-term human habitation in the same spot, a process that results in a kind of crystalline abstraction of the qualities Olivero cherishes most. It’s in quest of this alternative treasure that he sets out on his travels, enacting the apparent arbitrariness of fantasy as he moves from place to place in search of ‘beauty and wisdom’.

The journey marks the young man’s final break from Englishness, and with it from the narrative that has shaped his life so far, emancipating him, in effect, from space and time. On arrival in Spain he finds himself arrested on suspicion of harbouring revolutionary sympathies, based on the books he has in his position – mostly written by thinkers who inspired or were inspired by the French revolution (Voltaire, Rousseau, Volney). Ironically his spell in prison brings him into contact with the very revolutionaries he is supposed to be aligned with; he learns fluent Spanish from them as well as practical politics, and is transformed in the process from Oliver to Olivero, from a local schoolmaster-turned-accountant to a fully-fledged internationalist, convinced that the simple principles of liberty, equality and fraternity deserve to form the basis of all societies, not just France. On release from prison Olivero finds himself en route to Buenos Ayres, where by a series of improbable coincidences he is mistaken by a revolutionary society for an expert in politics, whose experience will help topple the dictator of a small country, Roncador, and replace its corrupt regime with a just government. This Olivero duly does, in the process transforming Roncador into a version of the ideal republic imagined by Plato. By this stage in Read’s narrative Olivero is in effect another embodiment of fantasy, and the republic he establishes is a fantasy too, distinguished by its strict adherence to the principles laid down in English Prose Style.

Felix Kelly, Roncador Cathedral, from The Green Child (1945)

Like the Green Child in the first part of Read’s novel, Roncador is particularly notable for its simplicity and objectivity. Its inhabitants are ‘simple-minded’ (p. 98), unconcerned with anything beyond tending the land to the best of their abilities in the interest of keeping themselves and their families in a state of health and modest prosperity. The country they inhabit, too, is simple in the extreme. Roncador is situated on a plateau connected to the world by just one trade route, a river. It contains just one small city – also called Roncador – whose design is described as ‘simplicity itself’ (p. 72). The needs of this city and its citizens are few, and can therefore be supplied by a ‘simple economy’ (p. 105). With these ingredients Olivero succeeds in establishing a society governed in the simplest way, by himself alone, which he sees as a work of art on the basis that ‘A sense of order is the principle of government as well as of art’. In it, ‘Not only inanimate things – money, equipment, goods of every kind – but even human beings, are so much plastic material for creative design’; and if this sounds a trifle sinister it needs to be remembered that Olivero is elected as the new dictator of Roncador by democratic means, that his government regularly issues invitations to further elections (though nobody chooses to stand against him), and that he has no wish to improve his material situation, leading a life as simple as that of his subjects, and ‘aided by subordinates who had no ambitions of their own, and who were pleased to exercise obediently and with understanding the authority I delegated to them’ (p. 108). Roncador’s stability and breach from history emancipates it from time; its economic, cultural and geographical independence from its neighbours emancipates it from space; and its equal division of its time between rationally organized work and various kinds of play affirms its simultaneous commitment to both the ‘cold logic’ of Read’s fantasy and the arbitrariness it celebrates.

Three elements in Read’s Roncador narrative attest to its neat division between logic and ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’. The first of these elements is the personality of the Roncadorian soldier, General Santos, who helps Olivero accomplish his revolution. A saintly representative of his people (as his name and title suggest), General Santos is as committed to his family and the tending of his farm as he is to the military discipline by which he protects them and his country from outside threats. General Santos is descended from the Spanish colonists, but has married an indigenous woman, so that he balances the concerns and qualities of both cultures. His farm is both meticulously organized and filled with life and energy; the General and his wife have no fewer than nine human children, as well as a large extended family of hummingbirds, the creatures that enliven the landscape of Roncador throughout its length:

He opened the cages and they flew out with shrill little cries, fluttering round the General, who had furnished himself with quills filled with syrup, into which the hovering birds dipped their tongues. Others flew about his ears, hovered round his mouth, buzzed and fluttered about his head and hands. When tired of playing with them, he put the quills away; and then he gently waved his hands in the midst of them, at which signal they all returned to their respective cages. (p. 76)

The colourful and seemingly random spectacle of the hummingbirds ‘fluttering round the General’, as disciplined in their behaviour as they are chaotic in their movements, confirms the man’s equal dedication to the arts of playfulness and social order, whimsicality and logic; a dedication which ensures that after the revolution he immediately forswears all civic or military authority and retires to the confines of his farm for the rest of his days.

The second element is the assassination of the dictator. This is a necessary act of brutality, Olivero thinks, if a just republic is to be established; but its logical necessity must be tempered with an element of fantasy – ‘the fantasy of a natural event’, as he puts it (p. 80) – so as to render it impersonal, transforming it into an apparently random yet symbolically eloquent occasion, like the killing of Aeschylus by a turtle dropped on his head from an eagle’s claws, which was interpreted by the Greeks as a manifestation of the will of the gods. Olivero accomplishes the killing with the help of another soldier, ‘an Indian named Iturbide’, named after the real-life revolutionary who became Emperor Agustín I of Mexico. Planned to take place during a church festival, the assassination combines great skill with apparent arbitrariness. Iturbide agrees to take part in the ‘simple and innocent’ game (as Olivero calls it, p. 80) known as the sortija, which involves riding at full speed towards a ring suspended in a wooden frame and trying to pierce it with the point of a lance. His task is to miss the ring and pierce the Dictator, a seemingly random mishap which must be immediately followed by the imposition of order, as Major Santos leads his most trusted troops to arrest the Dictator’s officials and impose the laws of the new republic. Once again logic and reason mix with the arbitrariness of play to create a situation where free play is made available to all citizens by means of meticulous organization.

The third element that embodies the republic’s blend of rationality with caprice is the suppression of a band of violent marauders led by a man called General Vargas, four years after the revolution. Olivero treats the expedition against Vargas as an experiment to see how ‘men of imagination’ cope when the need for action arises; he theorizes that such men could do well because of their ability ‘to act as if death were a fantasy’ (p. 112). The most striking aspect of the expedition is its use of the river in the attack on Vargas’s forces; a gesture which combines the seeming logic of poetic justice – since the river is the most important commercial highway in Roncador, and Vargas represents a threat to its legitimate traffic – with the free-flowing, apparently arbitrary movement of water, which in the first part of the novel was specifically linked to the Green Child. Olivero’s forces position themselves with their guns in a pair of boats of the kind used for transporting goods; they then allow them to drift in the current, their clumsy ‘log-like’ movements concealing their carefully calculated purpose, until the guns come within range of the marauders’ camp. The attack is of course destructive, resulting in loss of life on both sides; yet it is also artistic, in that it is executed on a night of unusual beauty, and ends exactly as Olivero intended: ‘The forest behind us began to stir with life; a choir of birds filled the air with liquid or piercing notes; monkeys began to chatter in the overhanging branches’ (p. 113). It is presumably no coincidence that Olivero later arranges for his own ‘assassination’ and departure from Roncador to take place on a similar night, using the river as his path to freedom and a light canoe as his mode of transport.

Each of these three elements or episodes is marked by the resistance of its key actors to any cult of personality; and here as elsewhere Read offers us a model of objectivity, of resistance to nationalist rhetoric and unrestrained emotion. General Santos refuses to profit personally from the revolution; he is not the hero who brings it about (that honour is Iturbide’s), and he plays only a temporary role in the new republican government. Iturbide, too, is content to remain anonymous despite the heroic nature of his actions at the Festival; as soon as he has killed the Dictator he gets concealed from view by the General’s troops, and he never afterwards claims any credit for changing the course of his country’s history. The suppression of Vargas’s marauders is described by Olivero as a ‘brief and insignificant episode’, but results in Olivero’s becoming ‘for the citizens of Roncador the embodiment of their national glory’ (p. 117). But he quickly recedes again into relative obscurity, since his ‘public works […] had no such epic value’. The ‘stability and happiness of our state’, as Olivero puts it (p. 118), admits of no tension, no narrative development, no long-range spatial movement or complex plans; it is, in fact, wholly emancipated from the orders of time and space. The Roncadorians spend their days ‘peacefully going about their work in the estancias, or […] walking in the gardens, sitting in the shade of the fountains, everywhere mirthful and contented’ (p. 119). To stir such people to a renewed concern with narrative would be, he feels, to unleash unwarranted ‘conflict, […] anguish and agitation’ on them, since these are the ingredients narrative thrives on.

Olivero himself, however, is still psychologically committed to narrative, and so not as exempt from the orders of space and time as he might wish. He equates the timelessness of the republic with an irksome ‘flaccidity, a fatness of living, an ease and a torpor’ (p. 119), and yearns to go home to England, thus completing the circle of his own story. He also wishes to find out more about the Green Children who arrived in his village in the very year of his departure from it: ‘I longed to know,’ he admits, ‘how that mystery had been solved, what had become of them in the course of the years’ (p. 120). At this point he thinks of the children, it seems, in terms of that most linear of narratives, a detective novel – which, as Todorov points out, cannot be read out of order without destroying the tension that precedes the solution of the central mystery. Only his encounter with the Green Child herself, as narrated in the book’s first part, reveals to him the fact that there’s no ‘mystery’ about her; that she is what she is, a fantastic phenomenon without a solution.

Olivero himself acknowledges that his mind is responsible for his dissatisfaction with his stable republic. His ideas seek an outlet in action. They respond to ‘tension in circumstances’, and without the continual flow of new ideas brought about by tension he quickly succumbs to crushing boredom. The third part of Read’s fantasy involves a final attempt to escape from the tension of narrative, which in turn involves an escape from the mind itself. To do this Read exploits and reverses a number of narratives that were widely familiar in contemporary culture. The first is Plato’s narrative of the cave from The Republic, which seeks to account for the nature of reality; but where in Plato’s dialogue the inhabitants of the cave are victims of illusion, and reality (in the shape of the Ideals) exists elsewhere, Read’s cave – that is, the underground caverns from which the Green Children originally wandered – are themselves the Ideal. The second narrative he reverses is the discourse of Freudian psychoanalysis, which seeks to account for the nature of the mind. Another novel published in the same year as The Green Child, Joseph O’Neill’s SF classic Land Under England (1935), deals with caves in a more conventional manner. Here the horrors encountered by the protagonist on an underground journey represent a confrontation with the Freudian recesses of his own unconscious, where the id takes the form of deadly monsters, brainwashed soldiers and a maniacal father figure, all of them associated with the fascistic tendencies of British imperialism. Read’s subterranean realm, by contrast, is the location of logical materialism and egalitarian order. Its materialism stems from the fact that the inhabitants spend their lives surrounded by rock, and so take rock as their ideal, yearning for the day when their bodies will be hardened into rocklike solidity after death in a ritualistic reenactment of the crystallizing process that produces stalactites. Read’s subterranean utopia, in fact, involves escape from the torments of emotion, and in it fantasy, the capricious impulse to generate works of art, is only an occupation to beguile the time on the way to perpetual stasis. The transformation of humans into crystal that occurs at the end of this third section is an escape into the abstract, where the abstract represents the simple principles that underlie the vast complexity of the universe. It’s the crystallised corpses of the Green People themselves that turn out to be the ‘richest deposits of beauty and wisdom’ Olivero went in quest of on his worldwide travels.

First Edition of A Crystal Age

As well as the well-known narratives of Plato and Freud, the final section also represents Read’s final engagement with W H Hudson, whose influence was so pronounced in the first two sections. If the Green Child and Roncador are responses to Hudson’s South American romances, with the former a version of the wild girl Rima and the latter a fusion of Argentina in The Purple Land and Venezuela in Green Mansions, the third and final part is Read’s response to Hudson’s utopia, A Crystal Age (1887). A Crystal Age concentrates on the repeated misunderstandings that arise between a Victorian man called Smith, who is somehow hurled into the future by a landslide, and the dwellers in an idealized House where he finds shelter. The people of the House are totally dedicated to telling the truth, to the extent that it shines through them, so to speak, as if they were images in a living stained glass window. Indeed, the House itself is as full of exquisite stained glass as any building decorated by Morris and Company, its transparent surfaces providing a metaphor for its total integration with the ecosystem of which it is part. Its occupants, too, have a crystalline coolness about them. They are totally free from emotion; none experiences passion of any kind or takes a sexual partner, and indeed all are effectively sexless, like drones in a beehive, with the sole exception of the so-called Father and Mother of the House, who between them conceive all the House’s inhabitants. Inevitably, Hudson’s Victorian visitor falls in love with a girl of the future, Yoletta, whose ‘crystal nature’ cannot at first comprehend the meaning of his exclusive devotion to her, since erotic desire has long been forgotten by most of her people (p. 161). Although Yoletta slowly learns to return his devotion, the time traveller is so tormented by his unfulfilled yearning for her body that he eventually drinks a potion which he hopes will cure him of passion and make him a drone, like the other men in the community. Unfortunately he has misread the label on the bottle. The potion is in fact a poison, and he dies – ironically enough, soon after learning that the Mother of the House had intended him and Yoletta to take on the role of sexually-active Father and Mother after her death. This final and most tragic misunderstanding stresses the vast gap of time and culture that separates Hudson’s period from the Crystal Age of perfect harmony with beasts and people, and the evolutionary changes that will be necessary before a Victorian man could survive in such a state.

Olivero, however, is made from sterner stuff than Hudson’s visitor. Trained by his adventures to adapt himself to new conditions, he quickly and wholeheartedly embraces the customs of the Green People. His first entry into the caverns where they live contains all the ingredients of a conventional romance; as she sinks into the pool that leads to her ancestral caverns, the Green Child holds out her hand to him as if in gratitude and affection, and Olivero responds with ‘a cry of happiness, as if a secret joy had suddenly been revealed to him’ (p. 46). But the culture to which he finds himself admitted is even more crystalline than Hudson’s House, not least in its resistance to the organic palpitations of emotion. The walls of its caves are ‘of a crystalline formation’ (p. 126), and each is hung with rods or wind chimes made from crystal, the largest of which are stalactites carefully grown in workshops to give out harmonies in conjunction with the smaller rods suspended alongside them. For the inhabitants of the underground crystal halls, sex is a childish occupation, not taken any more seriously than swimming or other kinds of play, and they freely exchange partners in their youth, much to Olivero’s disgust: ‘He was angry and jealous when he saw [the Green Child, now known as] Siloën walking arm in arm with one of the youths, and hid his convulsed face when he saw her making love with others’ (p. 136). But he quickly becomes ashamed of these ‘terrestrial sentiments’, and moves on to higher levels in the Green People’s culture, whose relative importance is represented literally by their situation on higher and higher platforms in the cave system. First come the workshops where crystals are fashioned into musical chimes or abstract sculptures; then the level where the older men stroll endlessly together indulging in philosophical conversation – largely about rocks and crystals; and finally the level of solitary contemplation, where he spends his time in the company of a pet beetle – chosen, presumably, for its appearance as a being half organic, half inorganic, a kind of living mineral. Later still Olivero retires to a solitary cave, where he spends his time in meditation on the shape of some unusual crystals until death takes him. By this stage in the book conventional narrative, as marked by plot development, interaction between characters and dialogue, has been left behind, and Olivero has espoused wholeheartedly the Green People’s key philosophical principle: ‘Everything solidifies; that is the law of the universe’ (p. 144). His own eventual solidification – achieved by immersing his corpse in a mineral-rich pool or ‘petrifying-trough’ – also marks his final union with the Green Child, who dies at the exact same moment that he does and is immersed in the trough by his side. Instead of a sexual union the pair are unified as sculpture. The final sentences of the novel celebrate the couple’s conversion into art, as

these two who had been separated in life grew together in death, and became part of the same crystal harmony. The tresses of Siloën’s hair, floating in the liquid in which they were immersed, spread like a tracery of stone across Olivero’s breast, twined inextricably in the coral intricacy of his beard (p. 153).

Felix Kelly, the Caverns from The Green Child (1945), showing Siloën and Olivero

The conclusion of Read’s novel, then, represents one logical consequence of his definition of fantasy. Objectivity can be best achieved by becoming an object; so too can emancipation from the orders of space and time. Arbitrariness is present in this final section thanks to certain aspects of Olivero’s growth towards the selflessness of the contemplative hermit. The artificial crystals he studies in his lonely cave, for example, incorporate subtle deviations from the shapes of natural crystals, each deviation having been situated in it by a master craftsman, in the half-serious interest of discovering some new order outside the order of nature. ‘Such orders outside nature did not really exist’, according to Siloën’s people, ‘but it amused men to imagine that they did’ (p. 145, my emphasis). To this end the Green People’s artists love to test the ‘liberty’ or emancipation of the mind from nature’s order by exploring alternative orders through the art of ‘crystal formation’, enjoying ‘at one extreme the baroque fantasy of the cubic system, at the other extreme the classic simplicity of the hexagonal system’ (p. 138). The disinterested playfulness of this artistic activity, wholly unconnected to figurative design and hence to human history, wholly materialist in that we are told it is never theorized (Siloën’s people have no words for abstract concepts), places the final section of The Green Child as far beyond the nationalist and racist narratives of fascism as anything else being written in the 1930s.

The inhabitants of Read’s underground utopia live in the depths of the earth, for ever exempt from ‘terrestrial sentiments’ of the kind experienced by Kneeshaw in his courtship of the Green Child. The abusive relationship between that unhappily married couple illustrates what happens when such simple people come in contact with the complications and contradictions of the passion-ridden flesh. In that first section of Read’s novel the Green Child came across as supremely fleshly, without a hint of the mineral rigidity to which she finally aspires. Her body, for instance, responds with subtle changes of pigment to her every change of mood. Anger is marked by a ‘clouding of the translucent flesh’, joy by ‘an increased radiance of the flesh’, sorrow by ‘blanching’ (p. 35), while after a period of imprisonment ‘her flesh had turned from its green translucent colour to a waxen yellow, the colour of ripe golden plums’ (p. 34)). At this point her translucence is the only aspect of her that resembles crystal, and Kneeshaw’s first encounter with this translucence makes her sound like a soft-tissue version of the stained glass in A Crystal Age:

The Green Child was standing against the light of the kitchen window, peeling potatoes, and the light shone through her bare arms and fingers and her delicate neck, and her flesh was like flesh seen in a hand that shelters a candle against the air, or the radiance seen when we look at the sun through the fine web of shut eyelids. (p. 30).

Read’s representation of her here is designed to stress her vulnerability as well as her difference, and recalls Hudson’s description of the girl of the House, Yoletta, as possessed of a ‘crystal nature’. Everything the Green Child feels and thinks is visible, so that she barely needs to make use of ‘vocal or facial expression’ (p. 35). Yoletta, however, lived in her native environment, while Siloën is stranded among the machines and passions of aggressive strangers. As an expression of the predicament of a thinking person in what Eric Hobsbawm calls the ‘age of extremes’ there couldn’t be a much more potent metaphor. And as a solution to that predicament, the end of Read’s book is quietly tragic. It’s only by becoming something other than human that the problems of being human can be resolved. It’s only by forgoing the state of being organic that the ‘heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’ can be stilled. It’s only in a surrealist fantasy that utopia can be achieved. That’s what Read’s book implies, and what he may have found horribly confirmed by the events of the Spanish Civil War, which broke out only two short years after his book was published.

First Edition of Titus Groan

I promised in my last post to discuss how Mervyn Peake might be read as in some sense a follower of Herbert Read. There isn’t space to do that properly here. For now, it’s enough to point out that Peake found escape from his wartime predicament by turning to a place outside the orders of space and time – that immemorial castle, Gormenghast – whose residents are slowly merging with the stones they live among, and whose dedication to ‘fanciful invention’ is much more pronounced than Olivero’s. Those residents are materialists, like the Green People. Their religion is bound up with the walls that enclose them, they resist emotion, and their lives are recounted in a narrative which is barely at times a narrative at all, but everywhere ‘encumbered with odd inconsequential but startlingly vivid and concrete details’. Among these residents is a young woman called Fuchsia, who is startlingly different from the rest. She is passionate, devoted to the family and friends she loves, frustrated at her confinement in a house of rituals, besotted with storytelling, art and drama. She shows her emotions in every gesture, without recourse to words, which she finds difficult. And she is finally unable to reconcile these radical differences of hers with the largely indifferent, chilly and ritualistic building she inhabits, with its tendency to erupt in sudden violence, banishing rebels and revolutionaries from the shelter of its massive walls, as Read’s Olivero found himself banished from his village.

But Peake wrote that book in the Second World War, and needed much more space than Read to exorcise the radical strangeness of that context…

Mervyn Peake, sketch for the cover of Shapes and Sounds (1942)

BOOK LIST

James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: BLS Editions, 2018)

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (London: Michael Joseph, 1994)

W. H. Hudson, A Crystal Age, Fourth Impression (London: Duckworth, 1919), Preface (from 1906)

W. H. Hudson, South American Romances (The Purple Lane, Green Mansions, El Ombú and Other Stories) (London: Duckworth, 1930)

John Masefield, Lost Endeavour (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1910)

Joseph O’Neill, Land Under England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987)

Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992)

Herbert Read, English Prose Style, 7th Impression (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1942)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, introd. Graham Greene (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, illus. Felix Kelly (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1945)

W. W. Tarn, The Treasure of the Isle of Mist (1919)

UnknownHere’s a charming oddity: a children’s book published in 1919, written before the outbreak of the Great War by the celebrated classical scholar Sir William Woodthorpe Tarn for the entertainment of his only daughter. In later life his daughter became Otta Swire, the Hebridean folklorist, who lived in Orbost House near Dunvegan in the north of the Isle of Skye; and the novel features Otta herself under the name of Fiona, with her father as ‘the Student’ (her mother, Flora MacDonald, has unaccountably vanished from the family circle). Tarn writes in his introduction to the 1938 edition that he told the story to the fifteen-year-old Otta in the winter of 1913-14 when she was ill, and it’s the age of the story’s protagonist that sets it apart from other children’s fantasy literature of the period. It’s very specifically a book about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and as such is an early precursor of the young adult fiction that came into its own in the 1970s. It’s also a precursor of later children’s fantasy in several other ways worth mentioning.

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The Professor in Mistress Masham’s Repose

In the first place, it’s a learned book, two at least of whose characters are eccentric scholars with a taste for philosophy – something that links them with the two philosophers in James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912). The Student, who spends much of his time regaling his daughter Fiona with sage advice in the comfort of his reading room, also anticipates the scholarly gurus of later children’s fantasy: in particular the poverty-stricken Professor in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) – himself a reincarnation of White’s Merlin – and Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). His conversations with his fellow scholar, an entomologist whose scientific interests focus exclusively on ‘one particular family of coleoptera’ (47), unmistakably resemble the dialogue at cross purposes of Stephens’s Philosopher brothers:

the two would sit, one on either side of the fire, each smoking at a tremendous pace and talking hard on his own subject. Neither ever expected an answer from the other; neither ever got one. But they had silently established an unwritten law that when one had talked for three minutes by the clock on the mantelpiece he was to stop and let the other have a turn; and when at last they said good-night, each felt they had both had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. (48)

Crucially, too, like Stephens’s Philosophers, both men are thoroughly democratic in their quest for knowledge. The beetle scholar finds the most modest creepy crawly in creation fascinating, while the Student embraces everything in his conversation, from human evolution to the relationships between men and birds, from the grand wars and controversies of ancient history to the complex web of global myth and legend. His mind is a kind of living Golden Bough which sees connections between the stories and deeds of all people, whatever their apparent ‘primitiveness’ and whatever age they lived in. And it’s his impartial concern for insignificant people – indeed, his somewhat paternalistic sense of responsibility for them – that sets Tarn’s story in motion.

7389550-LThe story takes its origin from a moment in the Student’s youth – recollected in the book’s first chapter – when he altruistically defended a wandering hawker from an unprovoked attack by Bashi-bazouks – irregular Ottoman soldiers – in the town of Verria, in what is now Macedonia. While on the one hand this episode might be seen as an instance of anti-Turkish xenophobia, a typical Boy’s Own Paper exercise in imperialist machismo, on the other it could also be read as a courageous act of defiance against a colonial oppressor (Macedonia was part of the Ottoman empire), especially in view of the fact that the hawker’s race, class and nationality, like his age, remain a mystery. The Student’s defence of him, then, can serve as an instance of his innate humaneness and impartiality, the equivalent in action of his universal interest in the knowledge of all races and nations, and of his desire to communicate this knowledge impartially to the young of both genders, especially his daughter. And the sudden reappearance of the hawker at the beginning of the novel places this sense of democratic impartiality squarely at the centre of the narrative that follows.

The hawker is never named, but his identity as a magical wanderer between nations and epochs – he seems to be immortal – allies him not only with the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew but with those mysterious wanderers of later children’s fiction, the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlins in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) and ‘the Walker’ Hawkin in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973). I’ve pointed out elsewhere that the names of Hawlins and Hawkin link them; this book suggests that both names might take their origins from the hawker, whose name denotes his trade (at the beginning of the book he is selling buttons). Tarn’s wanderer might also be read as a figure for the migration of myth and folklore from one culture to another – or for the affinities between cultures embodied in the more or less identical myths and legends that have sprung up independently in different cultures across the globe. Tarn’s own interest in the links between seemingly disparate cultures found an outlet in his book on the relationship between ancient Greece and Asia, The Greeks in Bactria and India (1938), stimulated by his more celebrated work on the life and times of Alexander the Great. His hawker changes identity several times as the novel goes on, and in the process becomes a hinge connecting what Tarn calls ‘All the lost peoples and nations and languages’ of the world. As a result, of course, he also becomes associated with the dead, like Peter Pan (who is said at one point to lead children to whatever happens after death) or the fairies in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). And he thus becomes associated with Tarn’s and the Student’s learning, which concerns itself first and foremost with the dead – but seeks too to bring them alive by any means possible, in the case of The Treasure of the Isle of Mist through the medium of a fantasy or modern-day fairy story told to a decidedly modern girl.

Prince-Caspian-C.S.Lewis-bookplate-10-e1453974023829It’s Tarn’s concern with the links between cultures that connects his novel in yet another way with The Crock of Gold. The book combines classical with Celtic and other elements of myth and folklore, in a manner that anticipates Lewis’s exuberant fusion of elements in the Narnian chronicles. James Stephens introduced both Pan and Angus Og into his novel, and his fellow Irishman Lewis introduced both Bacchus and the knights, witches and werewolves of medieval romance in the second novel in the Narnia sequence, Prince Caspian (1951). Like Lewis, Tarn summons up the memory of Dryads and Naiads, the Grecian spirits of trees and the sea, in one episode of his novel, adding to these an Oread – the spirit of a mountain – whose heart is wakened, as the tree spirits are wakened in Prince Caspian, by the courage of a young girl. Unlike the novels of Stephens and Lewis, however, this is a book that’s deeply rooted in the specificities of an actual place and time. It’s very definitely set in and around Orbost House, as Tarn points out in his introduction, and these local associations were intensified in the 1938 edition by restoring the actual names to features of the island landscape to which he had given invented names in 1919. A major attraction of the book is its very accurate representation of the details of the Skye landscape in October, its flora and fauna, the constantly changing weather from which the island gets its name, the habits of its human and avian inhabitants. He delights in assigning birds and other creatures their Scottish names: ‘scart’ for a young cormorant, ‘solan’ for a gannet, ‘finner’ for a fin whale, ‘glede’ for a kite. These details, combined with the magical happenings which Tarn represents as native to the Hebridean context, link the novel to the folkloric narratives of place that proliferated in children’s fantasy after the Second World War – in particular the work of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. That some of these links with post-war fantasy might be attributed in part to Tarn’s influence is suggested by the fact that it was a popular book between the ’30s and ’50s, reprinted by Oxford University Press – which probably appreciated its scholarly content – at least three times in the period (it’s the 1959 edition in which I’ve read it).

Despite its links with later fiction, the book is decidedly of its period in certain respects. Its heroine embarks on a small-scale adventure of a very familiar kind in the first half of the twentieth century – a treasure hunt – with the rather unhelpful assistance of a younger boy known only as The Urchin; and though there are hints that this adventure is part of a larger story, and though it would have been easy for Tarn to have raised the stakes for which Fiona is playing, there’s little sense at any point that either she, the Urchin, their families or the culture they live in are in much danger; indeed at one point she becomes upset by the lack of concern her father shows over the Urchin’s sudden disappearance, an indifference on his part which assures the reader that the mystery will be soon explained. (For the ‘dramatic increase in the import of the adventures’ in children’s fantasy after the Second World War see Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), chapter 5, p. 102.) Fiona always has an adult guide of some sort in her adventures, her father being the chief of these; and Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn have demonstrated how universally such adult guides were provided for child adventurers in pre-war fantasy. The Student’s control over events is reinforced by the fact that he happens to be a landowner (albeit an impoverished one), with hereditary rights over much of the territory where Fiona stages her treasure hunt. More significantly, Fiona’s adventures are clearly informed every step of the way by her father’s passion (which is also Tarn’s) for ancient history, palaeography, natural history and philosophy. The hunt takes her into a fairy land possessing all the components which James Frazer or Jane Harrison would have expected. It culminates in a trial attended by all the vanished peoples the Student – Tarn himself – strove to resurrect through his research. And the trial involves an ethical question of the kind the ancient Greek philosophers would have relished, depending on a riddle straight out of folklore: what is the greatest treasure a human being could seek for? The answer we’re given is a scholar’s answer: the search itself. And having found it, Fiona also finds herself on the path to the kind of mythical/folkloric learning for which the girl she was based on, Otta Swire née Tarn, became famous.

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The trial scene in A Matter of Life and Death

The trial that culminates the story makes for an intriguing climax. It has a great deal in common with the trial at the climax of Powell and Pressburger’s best known movie, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), taking place as it does in a fairyland whose symbol is the flower of death – ‘the pallid asphodel whose home is in those other meadows where walk the pallid dead’ – and which is populated by the world’s dead (the movie deals with the trial of a British airman by spirits in the Second World War, and there is extensive reference in it to the medical effects of concussion, as there is in the book). The fairy witnesses present at the novel’s trial are both a motley throng to rival anything in a painting by Joseph Paton or Richard Dadd and a truly global assembly, which could only have been conjured out of the omnivorous mind of a true internationalist:

There were fairies of the Old Stone peoples, brave-eyed, clad in pelts of the sabre-tooth, bearing the blade-bones of bisons on which were carved pictures of the mammoth and the reindeer. Fairies from Egypt, clad in fine white linen with girdles and aquamarine, with fillets round their brows from which the golden uraeus lifted its snake’s head, bearing blossoms of the blue lotus. Fairies from Babylon, glowing in coats of scarlet or of many colours, their eyes deep with immemorial learning, bearing clay tablets on which were signs like the footprints of birds. […] Fairies of the Tuatha-dé, with all the youth of the world in their eyes, clad in robes of saffron, crowned with rowans and bearing harps. (118-9)

The casual learning employed in gathering this particular fairy host together fuses childhood dreams of fairyland with the dreams of scholars as Tarn describes them near the beginning of the novel. On meeting the Student the supernatural hawker tells him that as well as buttons he also peddles in dreams, but that he can do nothing for scholars because they already possess all the dreams a man could wish for: ‘You need no dreams, for your life is one. For you, the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’ (14). Instead, then, of offering the Student a gift from his pack, the hawker offers a gift to Fiona, whose fondness for the Student is the one great ‘justification’, as the hawker puts it, for her father’s existence. But by the end of the book the kind of magic offered by the hawker – the quest for a supernatural treasure – would seem to have been supplanted, for Fiona at least, by the equally potent magic of manuscripts, logical argument, the findings of modern science, and archaeological digs. Like the children in Lewis’s Narnia books, the protagonist of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and the mortal girls and boys of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Fiona realizes in the closing pages that she has got too old to fraternize with fairies. Instead she gains full and permanent imaginative access to the Island of Mists itself, which is the place she lives in, Skye – and all the historical, literary and scientific associations it brings with it. As the hawker tells her, in the course of her treasure hunt:

You have spoken face to face with bird and beast and with the beings who knew and loved the land before your race was. To-day you have the freedom of the island, and of all living things in it; they are your friends for ever. And to the dead in its graveyards you are kin. All that is there has passed into your blood, the old lost loves, the old impossible loyalties, the old forgotten heroisms and tendernesses; all these are yours; and yours are the songs that were sung long ago, and the tales which were told by the fireside; and the deeds of the men and women of old have become part of you. (148-9)

This invocation is a kind of spell bequeathing Fiona and the book’s young readers the magic of learning. It’s a learning that recognizes the link between the living land and the library book, affirmed in the novel by Fiona’s encounter in her garden with a philosophical yellow caterpillar whose close friend is a bookworm in the library of Orbost House. And it’s a learning that effortlessly associates Skye with Macedonia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Ireland – no parochial scholarship, in other words. As I mentioned earlier, the hawker said at the beginning that for scholars ‘the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’, and the book as it unfolds suggests that the ‘earth’ here should be taken both for the globe as a whole, with all its history, and for the local soil from which Fiona digs the caterpillar, and that the ‘treasure’ is as much woodcocks, finners and gledes as it is the knowledge of lost lives and literatures.

The signal that Fiona is well on the way to acquiring such learning and thus becoming a scholar like her father is her ability to ‘influence’ another young mind, in exactly the way her mind has been influenced by the Student’s historical knowledge and humane philosophy. At the climax of the trial she projects her mind into the Urchin’s and persuades him to make the right wish in response to an invitation from the fairies: the wish that his unpleasant Uncle Jeconiah, who is one of the accused, be acquitted and returned to his ordinary mortal existence, despite his earlier blithe disregard for the Urchin’s welfare. This altruistic wish, implanted in the Urchin’s mind by Fiona’s influence, is the precise opposite of what Jeconiah considers his philosophy: ‘do good to your friends and evil to those who stand in your way’ (49). Tarn tells us in the fourth chapter that ‘the philosophy of ethics took its rise, some twenty-two centuries ago, in a reaction against a similar rule’ (49), and Fiona’s rescue of Jeconiah in chapter seven embodies just this reaction. She and the Urchin put ethics into practice, and in the process identify themselves with Tarn’s vision of the vanished peoples of the earth who took ethical behaviour as their touchstone, in contrast to their intellectually and emotionally impoverished descendants in the approach to the First World War.

This is where the unexpected seriousness of the novel comes in. At the beginning the hawker asks the scholar, ‘What good do you and your inscriptions do, anyway?’ (15) – and the answer is that the Student has earned the love of his daughter. He has also earned her respect, to the extent that she absorbs his influence. And she in turn influences others: both the Urchin and Uncle Jeconiah, who is much chastened by his trial, show signs of her transformative power in their behaviour by the end of the novel. Learning, then, is in itself beneficial in Tarn’s eyes, though no doubt this depends on how it’s imparted – affection too is needed. On the other hand, it’s also limited in its impact on the world – and Tarn is too much of a philosopher not to see this. The effect on Uncle Jeconiah of his unexpected trip to fairyland, and of Fiona’s and his nephew’s rescue of him, is only temporary: ‘I expect that sort is incurable’ (141), the hawker comments as he watches the man’s wretched attempts to tell his nephew a fairy tale like the one we’ve just read. More poignantly, Fiona’s impact on the Urchin, too, would seem to be limited; and that’s a particularly painful thought when one thinks about the date when the story was first told, in the winter before the outbreak of the Great War.

curlew-flying01llThere are, in fact, three treasures referred to in the book’s title. One is the mysterious gift of the hawker, which turns out to be what he calls the freedom of the isle. Another is a hoard of doubloons, brought to Skye in a ship from the Spanish Armada wrecked on its coast. The first of these treasures is desired by Fiona; the second by the Urchin, inspired by the tales of pirates and British naval victories he has been raised on as a young imperial male. The Urchin decides that the second of these treasures belongs to him, and persuades the Student to sign it over to him should the doubloons be found in one of the caves on the Student’s land. And the boy plans to spend it on something quite incompatible with Fiona’s treasure: a gun. He will use the gun, he tells Fiona, to shoot curlews, and the girl is horrified at this proposition: ‘You little wretch,’ she retorts at once, ‘You won’t kill my curlews while I’m about’ (26). Later, when the Urchin disappears and she goes in quest of him, a living curlew puts in an appearance: ‘a grey bird with a long bill, who on hovering wings wheeled three times in the air above her and gave his full spring call, the most wonderful sound the hills ever hear’ (84). Here the bird is clearly associated both with fairyland (circling three times – the magic number; giving its spring call in October as a sign for Fiona) and with the island, in particular its hills. The Urchin’s murderous intent towards the curlews, then, pits him directly against his mentor, who follows birds instead of shooting them. So too does the Urchin’s habit of flinging stones at other birds (it’s his injuring of a shore lark with a stone that gets him abducted by the fairies, the birds’ protectors). Fiona’s influence is evident in the remorse he feels when he hurts the shore lark; but the question is, is ‘his sort incurable’, like his Uncle?

This, then, is the third treasure of the book’s title: the boy himself, for whom Fiona feels ‘responsible’ in his father’s absence. The Urchin and his Uncle are both in quest of the Spaniards’ treasure rather than the island’s, and the Uncle’s greed for it is a symptom of his materialist, self-serving philosophy – but what is the boy’s? Both the Urchin and his Uncle are put on trial by the fairies for crimes against the island – in the Uncle’s case those of ‘stealing a treasure and being a worthless character’ (128), which marks the distinction between the fairies’ sense of ‘worth’ or value and the values of capitalism; in the boy’s for wounding one of the island’s avian ‘lieges’ (125). In the course of the trial Fiona persuades the boy to forgo his desire for the Spanish treasure and wish instead for his Uncle’s acquittal. But once the Urchin has made his wish, which is in fact hers implanted into his mind by an act of telepathy, he is granted a wish of his own; and he wishes, as he did at the beginning of the novel, for the gun he would have bought with the treasure if he had found it. At the end of the book he is clutching the gun (bought for him, tellingly, by his Uncle) as he listens to the awkward fairy tale which is being related by Jeconiah in fulfilment of the terms of his release. As soon as the Urchin gets some cartridges, he tells the novice storyteller, ‘you won’t keep me here’ (140); in other words he’ll stop listening to stories and set off for the hills instead, looking for birds to shoot. Fiona’s influence, and that of the fairies – the myths and legends of times past – goes only so far and no farther. Given the date of the story’s composition – 1912-13, with the shadow of the guns of war hanging over Europe – the consequences of her lack of influence may well be tragic (the Urchin might well be of age to join up by 1918). Tarn would have been well aware of this by the time the book was published the year after the Great War ended.

The dreams of scholarship, then, for Tarn, are fragile and marginalized, like the island’s ecosystem. At the same time, they may have an effect. When the two mortals – the boy and his uncle – have been acquitted at the end of the trial, there follows a period of companionable peace between Fiona, the Urchin, the King of the Fairies, and the Counsel for the Defence, who is also the Fairy Chancellor; a peace that’s embodied in the act of storytelling:

And the two children sat at the King’s feet on the steps of beryl throne and watched the dancers; and the Chancellor sat between them, and held Fiona’s hand, and told them such stories as they had never heard before, till between laughter and tears they nearly fell off the steps of the throne, and the Chancellor laughed and cried with them for sheer joy of his own story-telling; and if there were three happier people in the world that night I do not know where they were. And the night itself passed away as a dream that men dream, and its hours seemed to them but as a few minutes – and then across the music and the dance cut the shrill scream of a peacock as he greeted the day […] and the beryl throne dissolved in mist, and the figure of the King above them, pointing, grew dim and huge, and spread and grew, a purple shadow that hung over them… and they were standing alone in the fairy ring on Brandersaig, under the purple sky, with the white mist wreathing itself about their feet, and the pale November dawn coming slowly up out of the sea. (136-7)

The concentration of terms associated with the island of mist in this passage – where fairyland dissolves into the Skye landscape, its King becomes the ‘purple sky/Skye’, and the vapour that features in the island’s name envelops the children – reinforces the link between the physical landscape and the trial of human ethics that has taken place within it. Fairyland here resembles a dream, evanescent and temporally disorienting; but so too does the island, which can change its appearance as readily as Fairyland can, and is equally full of wonders. So too do philosophy, history, literature – all the branches of human knowledge with which Fairyland has been identified. As long as Skye exists, then, as the embodiment of Tarn’s dream of scholarly peacefulness (and we might remember here that the story begins with the Student rescuing a stranger from soldiers with the help of an unloaded revolver), there is hope that the dream too can be recaptured and sustained, for a while at least, from time to time.

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Thanks are due to Professor Farah Mendlesohn for drawing my attention to Tarn’s book in her fine essay, ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy: Some Informal Thoughts’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 61-74.

Poetics of Loss: John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and British Fantasy in the 1920s

51Cljz3wlbL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The close of the Great War saw an astonishing eruption of fantasy fiction written in English; above all fiction by women, or fiction by men about women, as if the appalling loss of male life in Flanders had thrown the other sex into a strong and strange new light. These include some of the greatest fantasies of the twentieth century: Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), which tells of witches defending London against a German air raid; David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922), about a woman who spontaneously turns into a vixen and is hunted down by a pack of hounds; Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), about a community that decides its lord should marry an elfin bride, with drastic results; Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), about the uneasy relationship between the imaginary country of Dorimare and its nearest neighbour, Fairyland; Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926), about a put-upon spinster who abruptly moves to the country, meets the devil and becomes a witch; and most famously, perhaps, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), about a young man in the reign of Elizabeth I who unaccountably lives on for hundreds of years, becoming a woman in the process. In each of these books the strange, the magical, the incomprehensible manifests itself in an everyday environment, exposing the fact that the world is governed by laws unknown to governments or academies, and destabilizing that world by consequence, revolutionizing it, transforming it into a dream or work of art, breaking down habitual relationships between the sexes, opening up new possibilities of resistance to the expected and the controlled.

00037752-540x540It was in this context that John Masefield wrote what I think may be the finest children’s book in the English language, The Midnight Folk. It was published in 1927, after Lolly Willowes and Lud-in-the-Mist but before Orlando, and it seems to me to tell us a great deal about the impetus behind this eruption of postwar fantasy. All the books I’ve listed were written for adults, while Masefield’s was written for children; but it has a close familial tie to the loosely connected series of novels he started to publish after the war, and was first published in exactly the same format as the rest, so that it presents itself as equally available to readers of all ages. The hero, little Kay Harker, is clearly a relative of the titular hero of Masefield’s most successful adult novel, Sard Harker (1924), and the place he lives in is what Muriel Spark calls Masefield Country, a web of imaginary villages, towns and landmarks based on the Herefordshire where the poet grew up – a landscape that features in many of his books and poems. And The Midnight Folk also has close affinities with the fantasy novels I’ve listed. There’s a fox in it which recalls the fantastic-realist fox in Garnett’s novella, as well as Masefield’s own creation Reynard the Fox (1919); there’s an abundance of witches, as in Living Alone; there are haunting songs and half-buried memories, like the ones that disturb the burghers of Dorimare in Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist; the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the magical are permeable in it, as they are in The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and the chief antagonist of the novel, a governess who has a dual identity as the head of a coven of witches, has a name that simply must be meant to recall the best known writer on witchcraft in the 1920s, Sylvia Townsend Warner. The governess is called Sylvia Daisy Pouncer; and since the hero of the story is called Harker, it’s hard to imagine that Masefield hadn’t been listening or hearkening to the warning issued by a woman called Warner about devil-worshipping Pouncers in the English countryside. The Midnight Folk is an integral part of the landscape of postwar British fantasy fiction, and any observations we make about it may well throw light on the sparkling wave of magical texts on whose crest it rode.

01_boue_passPublished almost ten years after the end of the war, this nevertheless has the unmistakable air of a war book – a book born from a period of mass slaughter, which involves a quest for some sort of healing or recovery. It’s largely populated by women, children and animals, and many of the men in it are ghosts, afflicted by a profound melancholy brought on by their part in a calamitous loss – though here it’s the semi-symbolic loss of the treasure of Santa Barbara, otherwise known as the Harker treasure. There are ruins everywhere in Masefield’s narrative – ruined stables, sunken ships and towns, forgotten cellars – and all are haunted by memories of men who came to a premature end: smugglers, highwaymen, murderers, mutineers, Arthurian knights on hopeless missions. Kay, too, is a victim of loss, like Masefield himself: he has lost both parents, and the treasure he seeks throughout the narrative could be read as a metaphor for everything he lost with them. Among these things are his old toys known as the ‘Guards’ of his home, Seekings House. Thrown out by the governess because they might remind him of his dead parents, the Guards’ absence leaves the house open to noxious influences, notably witchcraft, and their sporadic appearances throughout the book – glimpsed by Kay in the course of other adventures – give them a mournful resemblance to the generation lost at Gallipoli and the Somme (places which Masefield visited in person). On one occasion, near the end of the book, the resemblance is striking: ‘They were going very slowly. Two of them carried lanterns, one of them had a coil of rope slung about his neck, all four were plastered with the rather pale clay of near the river’. When they sit down to rest, ‘one of them seemed to fall asleep at once’ while the others ‘were dazed stupid with tiredness and nodded forward as they sat’. It’s at this point that Kay recognizes his old toys Eduardo da Vinci and little Brown Bear, transformed by their labour into sappers left over from the work of digging trenches in Belgium – like the aged sappers encountered by the heroines of Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944), who have been steadily digging their way through Europe since 1914. Kay’s is a postwar world, and Masefield was intensely aware of the wounds that war inflicts on people and places, having served in the Red Cross as an orderly in 1915.

One of the most remarkable things about Masefield’s novel is its form. Like many of his novels it’s a work of continuous prose, not divided into chapters or even parts, which gives it something of the hallucinatory feeling of a consciousness drifting in and out of sleep. The lack of clear boundaries between blocks of prose (apart from the occasional gap to indicate a break in time) declares the book’s resistance to conventional social and literary categories. Like Kay, like Kay’s relative Sard Harker in the earlier novel, like Masefield himself, the book is interested in everything – all trades, all crafts, all modes of speech – and has little patience for class hierarchies, except insofar as these affect the language and behaviour of the astonishingly varied cast of people and animals that populate its pages. The story it tells is delivered through a range of different voices, from songs – the book is full of fine lyrics, as one would expect from a future poet laureate – to spoken utterances in different dialects: Sir Piney Trigger’s northernisms, his daughter’s piratical rhetoric, Abner Brown’s American English, the Rat’s sibilant, slavering discourse, Roper Bilges’s constant transformation of nouns into verbs – ‘I’ll rabbit them rabbits’ – and so on. Kay gathers clues to the whereabouts of the Harker treasure from Atlases, newspaper cuttings, notes scrawled in the back of a discarded book on gunnery, scratchings on the tin door of a broken lantern – objects he gathers from many sources in the course of his adventures. Each of these objects democratically contributes its share to the unfolding narrative, confirming Kay’s wisdom in seeking out knowledge by way of the pathways opened to him by his eclectic interests and wandering imaginings rather than through the drab routine of the school curriculum.

The book’s seamless weave also indicates its lack of interest in drawing clear distinctions between good and evil. Well, that’s not quite true; Kay and his friends in the book are well aware that they’re dealing with wicked people when they deal with Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, Abner Brown and the coven of witches. At one point Kay comes across a potion in Sylvia’s cupboard for turning little boys into Tom Tits, and fears this will be his fate as he continues to hunt the treasure which Sylvia Daisy is also tracking. But Kay and his friends are irresistibly drawn to wickedness; they find it charming, like Sylvia’s voice when she sings while playing the piano after Kay has gone to bed. When Nibbins the cat first wakes Kay at midnight and takes him to spy on the witches who have taken over his home, a song they sing nearly tempts the cat back to his former role as a witch’s familiar:

 Nibbins’s eyes gleamed with joy.

“I can’t resist this song,” he said, “I never could. It was this song, really, that got me into this way of life. […] it has nine times nine verses; but you ought to stay for some more Whoo-hoos. Doesn’t it give you the feel of the moon in the tree-tops: ‘Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl?’ Come along quietly.”

6a014e5fb9e8aa970c01bb0871e7b1970dSoon afterwards Kay and Nibbins are mounted on broomsticks and heading for a witch’s meet at Wicked Hill, and later in the book Kay becomes wholly witch, stealing a hat and cloak and mask from Sylvia’s cupboard and getting vital information, thanks to his disguise, from an enchanted brazen head which she has engaged to find the treasure. Some of the objects employed by the witches in their spells are explicitly good ones: a wishing basket Kay also steals from Sylvia can only be used ‘for good things’, Nibbins tells him, which means that the coven don’t use it much. And even the witches’ wicked spells have some good results, in spite of their intentions. On one occasion they summon up a series of spirits in the hall of Seekings House to guide them to the treasure, and among these is a young woman on a flying horse who resists their orders angrily. Shortly afterwards she appears at the window of Kay’s bedroom and carries him off on her horse to visit a wicked old bedridden woman, the inimitable Miss Piney Trigger or Susan Pricker, who smokes and drinks champagne and sings piratical songs as she drifts towards her end. Despite her impenitent wickedness, Miss Trigger or Pricker becomes one of Kay’s allies, both before and after her death; and so does the fox, Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot, who is addicted to singing nasty songs about eating rabbits, in ‘a most unpleasant voice’, while hanging up the skins of his many victims. One of Kay’s helpers, the odious Rat, even swaps sides in the novel’s sequel, The Box of Delights (1935), to no one’s surprise; he is clearly only interested in getting rewards for the help he gives, and will sell his soul for a rotten haggis even in The Midnight Folk – Kay is simply lucky that (thanks to the wishing basket) he can get one for him, thus cementing his temporary friendship. The corollary of being interested in a great range of things is to have sympathy with a great range of outlooks; and like Kay, Masefield finds it easy to sympathize with criminals and other wanderers from the straight and narrow. The end of the book confirms the ouroboran links between good and evil by bringing Kay a new governess: the woman on the flying horse, who seems to have forgotten her supernatural origins but is nevertheless as bound up with enchantment and witchcraft as Sylvia Daisy. Seekings remains a house of magic long after the coven has been kicked out of its doors.

William_Blake_-_Jerusalem,_Plate_1,_Frontispiece_-_Google_Art_ProjectAs well as Chaucer – whose Canterbury Tales was the inspiration behind Reynard the Fox, and whose vibrant animal personalities in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Parliament of Fowls lie behind Rollicum Bitem, Nibbins and the rest – Masefield was a huge admirer of the visionary poet William Blake, and wrote about him brilliantly. One of the things that fascinated him about Blake was his iconoclastic willingness to invert the moral structure of the Christian universe, making Satan the creator and abominating the adherents of inflexible moral systems. For Blake, Masefield tells us,

codes of all kinds, religious, moral or legal, tend to benefit all minds that are creeping and compliant and to repress the resolute independent thinker, the real free soul, who has worth and is Godlike. And from this, he came to the thought that the eighteenth-century codes, of religious morality and law as well as of art and science, were bent anywhere on repressing impulse, instinct and energy, and that this is exactly what Caiaphas and Pilate in all lands do. From this, being an immoderate thinker, as poets often are, he came to exalt energy, instinct and impulse wherever he found them and soon decided that Satan had many Christian qualities and that current Christianity was often devil worship. [Recent Prose (1924)]

MDF_13539429982Masefield’s Sard Harker features a villain who poses as a priest but worships the devil, and who binds the hero and heroine at the novel’s climax, enslaving them physically just as Blake said men and women of his time were mentally enslaved by the mind-forged manacles of industrialism. The leading villain in The Midnight Folk, Sylvia Daisy, isn’t objectionable to Kay because of her witchcraft – or indeed because of her appearance: ‘big, handsome and with something of a flaunting manner, which turned into a flounce when she was put out’. Her wickedness consists instead in her sadistic fondness for codes and strictures: for ‘loathsome’ Latin irregular adjectives like acer, and for punishing Kay when he gets his pyjamas and slippers wet on secret nocturnal expeditions. It consists, too, in her hypocrisy: she is the one who has eaten the food that’s been stolen from the Seekings House larder, a crime she promises to investigate. She also claims to have imprisoned Blinky the owl so as to return him to Lady Crowmarsh, from whose estate she snatched him in a foiled attempt to find out what he knew about the Harker treasure. Imprisonment, robbery and ruthless interrogation are her stock in trade, but her nastiness consists in her glib self-exculpation for these activities. Kay’s allies, on the other hand, are always setting him free and indulging his impulses: taking him to visit the weather cocks on the church tower, distracting him from his homework with tales of piracy on the high seas, inviting him to leave the safety of a diving bell to swim with mermaids, encouraging him to ride on the bowsprit of a sailing ship or fly with rooks in the shape of a bat. Each of these adventures is also instructive: he learns about sunken cities, nefarious dealings on sea and on land, the best way of chopping off a knight’s head and the story of the treasure, which is itself (besides being an emblem of the losses he and his family have sustained) the perfect metaphor for the complex way the world is constituted – the many meanings it contains, the multiple signifieds for which each sign or object in it can stand.

The Harker treasure means different things to different people. For the church in Santa Barbara from which it came, it is a symbol of devotion, of the church’s commitment to establishing God’s city on earth – a notion that fascinated Masefield throughout his life; indeed, in Sard Harker the South American city of Santa Barbara becomes, for the protagonist, an embodiment of the heavenly city on earth, Blake’s Jerusalem. For Captain Harker, to whose care it was entrusted by the church at a time of revolution, the treasure symbolizes a promise he made and broke: to keep the precious objects safe in his ship, the Plunderer, and return them when the fighting was over. For Abner Brown it stands for wealth: ‘If we find it,’ he tells the witches, ‘the share of each one of us will be some thirty-five thousand pounds’. For the mermaids who come across it when the Plunderer sinks, the golden images of the saints are beautiful people, worthy inhabitants of the drowned golden city they show to Kay when he swims among them. For the farmer Old Man John who digs it out of the mud it’s a symbol of Catholic heresy, ‘sin-and-heathen idols’, and needs to be kept out of circulation in his cellar to protect men from covetice. There is no single grand narrative that contains or limits the treasure; it slips from meaning to meaning as it gets transferred from hand to hand, and the central struggle of the narrative is to impose the meaning on it that one particular interest group subscribes to.

This, at least, is the central struggle from the point of view of the witches and the ghost of Captain Harker. The former want it for themselves, the latter wants to make good his broken promise by restoring it to the church. For Kay, by contrast, the value of the treasure is its story, which gets pieced together as he listens or hearkens, taking on new implications as it gets taken up by each new storyteller in his or her peculiar dialect. By the end of the book the treasure has been enriched by his imaginative engagement with this host of storytellers, and no one version of it has supplanted the rest; if he returns it to the church this is in order to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion rather than because the church’s reading of it means more to him than the other versions. Kay’s indifference to the official church perspective is confirmed by his attitude to the church building where he is taken every Sunday (another example of Sylvia Daisy’s rank hypocrisy). For the adults present, the church is a place of worship; for Kay, who is ‘much too young to understand or follow the service’, it’s a set of stories he weaves from the material objects around him. He spends much of the service puzzling over an image in a stained glass window, which from a distance looks like a ‘yellow, lop-eared rabbit’ which he calls Bunkin, but from up close seems disappointingly to be ‘a hat with spikes’. For him the irregular stones on the church walls contain pictures of Henry VIII and a sailing ship, ‘which filled in a lot of time’, while the ‘chief pleasure’ is provided by the ‘carved and painted figures arranged along the wall-pieces of the chancel-roof’, about whose identity even adult scholars are uncertain. The 32 figures are divided up by certain experts into twelve apostles, seven cardinal virtues, nine worthies, and four archangels, with proper reverence for the ancient traditions of the medieval church; but for Kay during dreary sermons they become ‘the Condicote and Muck Zennor Rugby football teams (with an umpire each)’, or the Australian cricket eleven of 1882 facing the team of Cambridge University, or the start of the 1839 Grand National ‘with Mr Mason on Lottery, and Mr Martin, in his pink sleeves, on Paulina’. The church, then, is a space to be appropriated by the dreams and desires of those who enter it; at one point even the coven visits it, to see if they can get some clue about the treasure from Captain Harker’s monument. And the same is true of all the other major spaces in the novel.

bf4a8b86b0945f4bb5011ad6c5d90018Seekings House, for instance, accommodates the treasure seekings of the witches as well as of the dead Captain Harker and his little great grandson. Captain Harker’s ship, The Plunderer, changes its affiliations several times, beginning as the Captain’s vessel, being seized by the gunner Roper Bilges and his confederates for the treasure she contains, snatched from Bilges’s command by Twiney Pricker the sailmaker, then from him by the rest of the crew, and finally embraced by the mermaids as an underwater pleasure garden after her sinking. The ship’s name, in fact, anticipates her capacity for being appropriated or plundered by successive owners – just as the name of Seekings House affirms its restlessness, its refusal to settle into architectural or moral stability. Even Kay takes command of the Plunderer at one stage, when a model of his ancestor’s vessel drifts away from the wall of his bedroom and takes him on a night-time voyage to the place where her original sank – becoming in the process the model ship of a boy’s dreams, crewed by mice and stocked with improbable delicacies. Objects, then, as well as buildings, vessels, and people, change their uses and associations as the book goes on. A lost toboggan becomes a stairway to Kay’s underground lair; magic broomsticks and witches’ costumes serve two masters, Sylvia Daisy and Kay; even the object of Kay’s adventures gets transformed at one point, from a hunt for the Harker treasure to a quest for the treasure of Benjamin the Highwayman, who used to live in the ruined stables of Seekings House. The alternative functions of objects fascinated Masefield. The ship, for instance, in his poem Dauber (1912), is both a workplace for the sailors and a subject for the youthful artist of the poem’s title. Neither reading of the ship is privileged in the poem over the other; the artist takes his berth as a sailor in order to paint the ship he sails on as a workplace viewed from inside, by a sailor who is also a painter, one who knows the craft he paints. By the end of the narrative, Dauber has been accepted as a member of the crew by his fellow sailors, at the cost of his life; when he falls from the masthead during a storm he thinks it is another sailor who has fallen, and the mistake shows how far his perspective on the ship has changed. The crew never likes his paintings, but the story of Dauber is his legacy, the poem standing in for the body of work the young man never completed. For Masefield, then, as for his hero Blake, a work of art is a manifestation of energy, and the reduction of any person, object or word to a single meaning, to a fixed place in an ordered code, to one perspective or function, is anathema, the death of creativity and imaginative freedom.

hilder4It’s for this reason, maybe, that so many of Masefield’s great poems are narrative poems, and so many of his best novels adventure stories, of the kind mockingly referred to in the title of his novel ODTAA (1926), which stands for One Damn Thing After Another. The headlong energy of The Midnight Folk is provided by the adventure of hunting; the hunting of treasure, of course, but also of animals and, more disturbingly, people. Hunter and hunted change places regularly as the book goes on – just as they did in Sard Harker, where the hero tracks a kidnapped woman through the hallucinogenic landscape of South America, where he finds himself hunted in his turn by bandits and killers. In The Midnight Folk, Rollicum Bitem the fox hunts rabbits at one point and is hunted by gamekeepers and the coven at another. Twiney Pricker, who becomes Piney Trigger, hunts the treasure and is then hunted to his death by Abner Brown’s grandfather. Kay the treasure hunter finds himself hunted by the coven, and riding for his life (appropriately enough) on the fox’s back. One centrepiece of the book is a manhunt for the highwayman Benjamin, who is one of Kay’s heroes; the passage where Benjamin’s mare falls and breaks her back, prompting her master to give ‘a little cry, like he’d been shot through the heart’, is one of the most moving Masefield wrote. Benjamin too is a kind of fox; the place where his mare falls is a ‘big foxes’ lie […] all full of scrub and stubbed stuff’, and it’s inevitably here that the highwayman is captured. He is tried and hanged; but his story, too, is finished by Kay, who finds the watch he stole from the local squire and returns it to the squire’s descendants. In doing so he heals another wound: Sir Hassle Gassle is said to have mourned the loss of his watch ‘to his dying day’, so his descendant is delighted to get it back. In any case the watch did the highwayman no good, since he could not sell it, and in the end it killed him; so that like the Harker treasure, Benjamin’s treasure stands for failure, as well as for the excitement of the chase: the chase that led to Benjamin’s death, the hunt for the watch that led to its restoration.

by William Strang, etching, 1912
by William Strang, etching, 1912

Masefield was fascinated throughout his life by failure, and above all by failures that lead to unexpected triumph. His favourite stories, to judge by the frequency with which he returned to them, were the story of Arthur – whose light burned brightly in the dark ages before being extinguished in combat, and who crops up in a gorgeous episode of Kay’s adventures – and the tale of Troy, another heavenly city whose fall produced the greatest narrative poem in any language. One of Masefield’s finest sea stories is called Victorious Troy (1935), and concerns a ship dismasted in a typhoon which is safely brought to harbour under the command of a teenage boy. This ship becomes a work of art as Masefield tells its story, exactly as Dauber the painter bequeathed an unexpected work of art to the world when he fell to his death: the poem about him. As early as 1910 Masefield wrote a fine novel called Lost Endeavour, about a treasure hunt that ends in disappointment; and the year before The Midnight Folk he published one of his best-known poems, ‘The Rider at the Gate’ (1926), whose chorus ends ‘The house is falling, / The beaten men come into their own’. The theme of triumph emerging from failure is at the heart of The Midnight Folk, and it’s given particular poignancy by the lost generations of the First World War that would have haunted the minds of its first readers. Young Kay, with his Arthurian name which also conjures up the notion of keys that unlock doors – the door to the future among them – affirms the continuing vitality of his homeland through his interaction with every aspect of its past and present, every class and kind of its inhabitants, living and dead. He also bequeathed a new kind of children’s fiction on the world, in a book that influenced his successors far more than it has been given credit for. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to hunt it down.

[This was written for a Symposium in honour of Professor Marianne Thormählen of the University of Lund. I’m very grateful to Birgitta Berglund, Sara Håkansson and Kiki Lindell, who organised the Symposium, for inviting me to speak at it; and to Marianne for her friendship and support over many years.]

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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