The Fantastical World of Mervyn Peake: Islands and Seas

[This is the text of the talk I gave at the British Library on 24 February 2024. The talk was designed to accompany a mini-exhibition of the same title, itself designed to supplement the major exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination which came to a close that same weekend.

This explains why the post is so image-rich; I couldn’t make my case without the use of multiple pictures. Some of the images aren’t too good, since the recent cyber-assault on the British Library website meant they couldn’t send me files containing the images I needed. As a result I had to use photos from books I owned, and in two embarrassing cases, photos taken in the mini-exhibition itself. Please forgive the results!]

Cover of first edition of Treasure Island illustrated by Peake.

The writer-artist Mervyn Peake had a lifelong obsession with islands; G. Peter Winnington’s seminal monograph on Peake, The Voice of the Heart, includes a whole chapter about them.[1] Peake’s favourite book as a boy was Treasure Island (1883), and the place he kept returning to throughout his life was the Island of Sark, a one-time nest of pirates off the coast of Normandy. He first lived on Sark as a member of an artists’ commune in the 1930s, went back to live there with his family between 1946 and 1949, and visited several times in the 1950s.[2] Mervyn Peake’s most famous literary creation, Gormenghast Castle, is a building so vast that nobody can ever know it in its entirety; it’s landlocked, but Peake keeps comparing it to an island, cut off from history by its resistance to change, cut off from the outside world by its steadfast refusal to recognize that world’s existence. In the second of his three great Titus novels, Gormenghast (1950), it even becomes an actual island after a flood. His other works are filled with islands of one sort or another: from the pink island to which the pirate Captain Slaughterboard retreats with the love of his life, the Yellow Creature, in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939), to a floating lump of ice the size of Kent on which a nameless explorer and his companion, a ‘turtle-dog’ named Jackson, find themselves stranded in Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948); from the many strange and colourful islands Peake painted in the illustrations to his book of nonsense poetry, Rhymes Without Reason (1944), to the boat fraught with all the animals and people in the world in his play of the 1950s, Noah’s Ark. In this talk I’d like to suggest that his love of islands, and of the strange seas in which his islands are located, tells us something important about his love affair with Fantasy. In a number of ways, I think, both Mervyn Peake and many other people of his time were islanded – a word Peake used in his poetry; and their islanding found its most potent expression in the impossible worlds they conjured up, many of which feature in the Peake mini-Exhibition in this building.

Kuling, early 20th century

Peake was born in 1911, in a resort for missionaries called Kuling (now Guling) in Jiangxi Province, eastern China. He lived the first eleven years of his life in Tientsin, now Tianjin, in northern China, where his father, a missionary doctor, ran the MacKenzie Memorial Hospital.[3] In this port city the Treaty of Tientsin was signed in 1858, at the end of the Second Opium War, a conflict started by the British and French; the treaty opened several new Chinese ports to foreign trade, permitted Christian missionary work in China – of the kind Peake’s parents practised – and legalized the importing of Opium, which gave the British a crucial advantage in the Chinese market by literally addicting Chinese people to the products of the British Empire. The Peake family was effectively islanded in Tientsin, since they lived inside the hospital complex, a rectangular chunk of late Victorian Britain segregated from China by a protective wall. Peake’s Tientsin childhood was islanded from the rest of his life by what he calls a ‘misty sea of time’, so that he later felt ‘severed’ from it, since ‘the pictures in my mind seem not to be part of me, but are like some half-forgotten story in a book’, containing adventures that happened to an entirely different child.[4] Having spent several years of my childhood in Singapore I know what he means; the images I have of that part of my life are remarkably vivid and resonant, but stand out from the rest of my memories precisely because they have so little in common with anything that happened after I came to live in Britain. Peake coming to Britain from China at the age of eleven, in 1922, may have felt profoundly islanded from the bulk of the British population who had not been through these experiences – though he went to a boarding school full of similarly islanded children, Eltham College, which catered for the sons of missionaries like himself.

Peake, The Ancient Mariner

The book-like quality of Mervyn’s memories of China helps explain, I think, his willingness to turn to illustrating books in the Second World War – something that happened, he claimed, because he couldn’t get hold of paint after he had been drafted into the army. Many of the books he illustrated feature protagonists severed from the world they know: from the Baker, the Banker and the Billiard-player in Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark (1941) to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (1943), adrift in a ship full of corpses; from Carroll’s Alice books (1946) to Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1949), where an entire middle-class family finds itself stranded on an impossible island crammed full of beasts from all five continents.[5] Immersion in books like these tends to isolate the reader, especially the child who is capable of cutting themselves off from the world for as long as a story lasts. Peake describes this childhood reading experience with amazing intensity in a poem he wrote in 1942, when a nervous breakdown led to him being hospitalized in Southport. Patients at the hospital were distinguished from the general population by the distinctive sky-blue suits in which they were dressed. Here’s how he sums up his state of mind at this difficult time of personal isolation in the middle of the Second World War:

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.[6]

I love Peake’s comparison of the boy’s mind while reading to the mind of a swimmer caught in tropical breakers, his eyes squeezed shut against the salt water but still able to see the sun shining through the ‘naked jelly’ of the waves as a ‘vermilion ember’, reddened by the veins in his eyelids. The eyelids themselves are rendered ‘transparent’ by sunlight, and move or ‘rove’ in response to the movements of the eyeballs behind them. That’s a glorious image for the sensation of reading or remembering particularly vivid picture books, which spark an inner light that makes ordinary daylight into ‘an un-focused twilight’. That inner light, Peake tells us, is ‘fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’; fiercer, perhaps, because the images in illustrated stories are more focused than those conjured up by the unaided imagination. Peake’s retreat from the humiliating experience of being in Southport Hospital, and of leaving the hospital building to be paraded along the esplanade in a bright blue suit with an orange tie, was to retreat to this realm of exploding islands where his imagination could have free play, like the swimmer no longer constrained by the law of gravity. In fact he retreated to his own picture book quite literally in Southport. As therapy for his breakdown, the staff there encouraged him to write the later chapters of his first novel about Gormenghast Castle, Titus Groan (1946). Part of the process of composition involved drawing pictures of the major characters, some of which you can see in the Fantasy Exhibition next door.

Peake, illustration from The Swiss Family Robinson (c. 1949)

The final picture in the Peake mini-Exhibition, showing a boy from the Swiss Family Robinson lassoing a turtle from a raft amidst the foaming tropical seas (c. 1949), perfectly complements this account of the boy whose mind is shaped for the life of an island castaway by vivid pictures in books. It bursts with youthful energy, straining to escape the page’s rectangle. Notice how the curves of the turtle’s head and shell are echoed by the curves of the barrels and sail on the raft, how the raft and its users have been tilted to one side by the waves and the straining turtle, how the waves themselves are exploding into lacy shawls of foam while the boy who holds the rope hauls with all his might against the turtle’s direction of travel. The picture is dominated by the diagonal line of the taut rope that slashes across the middle and the two tilted right angles it strains between, the hard right angle of the mast and the soft right angle formed by the turtle’s neck; the hardness on the one side and the softness on the other show clearly who is going to win this tug of war. The brilliance of the tropical sunshine is conveyed by the shadows that conceal the boy’s eyes, the shadows on the upper rims of the barrels on the raft, the shadows on the underside of the turtle’s neck and flipper. Peake’s art was shaped by the work of an artist who specialised in illustrating action scenes like these in books for boys, Stanley L. Wood, and in early days he signed his pictures Mervyn L. Peake as if in homage to his idol.[7] Another favourite book of his, Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3) by J. Claverdon Wood – about pirates on the island of New Guinea – was illustrated by Stanley Wood, and Peake pays homage to Wood’s strenuously energetic pictures for the novel in a talk he gave on book illustration in the 1940s. This picture strikes me as one of Peake’s most Wood-like images.

Stanley L. Wood, Frontispiece to Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3)

Peake’s islanding, as I’ve described it, was not exclusive to himself. Throughout his life he gravitated to other people who had been islanded in one way or another. The Irish nationalist writer James Stephens, author of the Fantasy classic The Crock of Gold (1916), who emigrated to England after Irish independence because he was disappointed by the kind of country Ireland had become. Gordon Smith, Peake’s best friend, whose childhood had also been spent in northern China. The avant garde sculptor Jacob Epstein, an American Jew who suffered from British conservatism and antisemitism and whose work Peake defended in a poem.[8] The Eltham schoolmaster Eric Drake who founded the Sark Group of Artists in the 1930s, and who was another child of Chinese missionaries. The writer Maurice Collis, another Irishman, who found himself at odds with the British imperial project he was expected to uphold as a civil servant in Burma, and whose version of the Ramayana, The Quest for Sita, Peake illustrated in 1949;[9] and many more. Maeve Gilmore, Peake’s artist wife, was herself islanded, first by her strict Catholic upbringing, then by the many pressures on her as a woman artist and a mother of two in wartime, whose husband was first drafted into the army then invalided out of it. Peake describes Gilmore’s particular kind of islanding in one of his poems:

Always you are remote and islanded
In silences that so belie the ardent
Torrents that course beneath your gentle clay[.][10]

Only recently have the ‘ardent / Torrents’ of Gilmore’s creativity been heard and seen as they deserve to be, thanks to a major exhibition of her work at the Voltaire Gallery in 2022.

Peake, ‘Floating Islands on the Waves’ (c. 1928)

Countries, too, were in some sense islanded in Peake’s lifetime by seismic events that severed them from the past. China was severed from its long imperial history by the revolution of 1911, the year of Peake’s birth, which established the Chinese Republic. Britain was severed from its own imperial past by the trauma of the First World War, which lent urgency to the radical questioning of imperialist values that found expression in artistic movements between the wars, Surrealism, Vorticism, Cubism and the rest. Starting with Ireland, Maeve Gilmore’s father’s birthplace, the British dominions were breaking away like floes breaking off a Polar ice cap. The sense of having been cut off by these seismic breakages from the colonial past – like Arctic explorers stranded on one of those ice floes – is what gave rise, I think, to the genre of fantasy as it developed between the wars. The first picture in the mini-exhibition (c. 1928), which shows floating islands precariously balanced on heaving waves, encapsulates the experience of having been uprooted and come adrift which many people shared in the 20s and 30s. It invokes, as the notes suggest, Hokusai’s famous print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831);[11] but Hokusai’s picture is stabilized by the presence of Mount Fuji in the background. Peake’s seascape is all upheaval and turbulence, with no stable land in view; though its cartoonishness, the pastoral calmness of the floating islands and the single drop dripping off the crest of the biggest wave suggest that the young artist was untroubled, as yet, by the turbulent world he had inherited. There’s no indication that his islands have been colonised or subjected to missionary activity, and this may explain their pastoral appearance. The imagination could invent countries where the toxic inheritance of imperialism could be offloaded onto goblins or dragons, as it is in Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), which takes place in a world that’s fallen to pieces after some bygone quasi-mythical age of unity and prosperity, leaving a trail of islanded settlements in its wake.

Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831)

Peake’s own imagination inclined to piracy. Pirates can be seen as enemies of imperialism, though they can of course also serve as its parasites and stooges. They have a contempt for human laws, national and international, and a well-earned reputation for random acts of violence; but they’ve also been linked to anarchism, the political movement that rejects authority of all kinds. The seventeenth-century pirate Roberts drew up a celebrated set of egalitarian laws to be observed on the ships he commanded, while the most famous example of pirate anarchism on land is Libertalia, a democratic pirate republic set up on the Island of Madagascar by a Frenchman, Captain James Misson, in defiance of the Empires that were carving up the world between them at the time. The story of Captain Roberts is told in The General History of the Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe; Johnson’s account of Libertalia comes in the second volume (1725). Peake may well have known the General History, which is a source for his favourite novel, Treasure Island, and his interest in Madagascar may also have been piqued by the fact that his grandparents and uncle were missionaries there – that it was in some sense the ‘family island’.[12] In fact Peake uses Madagascar as a metaphor for the process of making a family, in a poem he wrote after the birth of his first child, Sebastian, in January 1940. Addressed to Maeve, the poem represents birth as a process of islanding for everyone who experiences it:

Grottoed beneath your ribs no longer, he,
Like madagascar broken from its mother,
Must feel the tides divide an africa
Of love from his clay island, that the sighs
Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry;
And though your ruthful breast allays his cries,
How vulnerable
He is when you release him, and how terrible
Is that wild strait which separates your bodies.[13]

By this point in Peake’s life, after the outbreak of the Second World War and having been called up for military service – he was awaiting mobilization as he wrote – the sea surrounding each human island has mutated into something much more ‘terrible’ than the comic-book waves of the first picture we looked at. And the island metaphor he chooses for his son – that of Madagascar – is associated with the precariousness of piracy as well as its anti-authoritarian credentials. Captain Misson’s pirate republic, Libertalia, is said to have been destroyed in an attack by Malagasy warriors; Misson himself drowned at sea a short time after. Captain Roberts was killed in a skirmish when struck in the throat by grapeshot. Piracy for Peake, as for many others, always had two aspects, the spirit of freedom, adventure, egalitarianism and loyalty on the one hand, the spirit of violence, random cruelty, treachery and imminent sudden death on the other. The strain between these two aspects of piracy is key to the power of Peake’s fantastic imagination, which rejects simplistic dualisms of good and evil while retaining a deep consciousness (as the son of a missionary must) that these dualisms govern many understandings of the way things work – including, at times, his own. Peake repeatedly represents himself as an uneasy double figure, made up of a ‘rebeller’ and a ‘conceder’, as he puts it in his wartime poem ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’ (1941) – a conceder being someone who concedes to or is complicit with the horrors being perpetrated in Europe.[14] He embodies these two aspects of himself in the figures of a cold angel and a fiery, sensuous centaur or devil – though these figures don’t neatly align with the notions of rebelling and conceding, or bad and good. He locates this ‘double cargo’, as he puts it, in a ship,

[…] half love,
And half, that rides
The self-same sea-groove with wild laugh
Across these fickle, these infested tides.[15]

That the ship is a pirate ship seems likely enough, given that it’s invoked by a writer-artist who dressed as a buccaneer in the 1930s (complete with earring) and whose obsession with pirates is still startlingly present in his late novels Mr Pye (1953), about an eccentric missionary on Sark who takes to wearing a piratical bandanna to conceal a pair of growing horns,[16] and Titus Alone (1959), in which the self-exiled Earl of Gormenghast becomes the unofficial leader of a loosely-knit anarchist rising against the authorities of a nameless state, seconded by a man called Muzzlehatch with a rudder nose and a one-time sailor called Anchor, both of whom have a pirate’s hatred for the law and its instruments.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Treasure Island (1949)

The dual nature of pirates, as deeply attractive emblems of adventure and resistance and as murderous salt-water thieves, was visible everywhere in the pirate books being published in the first half of the twentieth century, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates (1909) to John Masefield’s Lost Endeavour (1910), J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (2011), Under the Serpent’s Fang (1923), Gerald Bullett’s The Spanish Caravel (1927), Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck and Missee Lee (1932 and 1941), Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Eric Linklater’s The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949). These divide themselves broadly into texts that favour the pleasures and perils of piracy and texts that celebrate the victories of agents of the imperial law against piratical opponents. Often the same book does both. Treasure Island, for instance – the granddaddy of them all, along with R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857) – adopts the point of view of the order-loving upper and middle classes, embodied by the shipowner Squire Trelawney, the physician Dr Livesey, and the cabin-boy Jim Hawkins, a family friend of the Doctor’s. Trelawney and Livesey regard their quest for buried treasure as wholly legitimate, since any profits will go to themselves, members of the ruling elite. But Stevenson also represents their class enemy and rival in the treasure hunt, the sea-cook and pirate Long John Silver, as a deeply charming man, capable of drawing middle-class medics and upper-class shipowners into the web of his geniality as easily as he seduces his working-class shipmates into mutiny against them. To the Squire and the Doctor, Silver poses as a loyal member of the servant classes, well content with his station; to his fellow pirates he is a cunning, ruthless killer; but to everyone he is admirable, including the reader, who delights in his capacity to switch sides and personalities whenever it suits him. Even his willingness to murder people who resist his advances offers evidence of his astonishing energy, versatility and poise. When Silver kills the sailor Tom for refusing to join his mutiny he first seeks to sweet-talk him with honeyed words, then suddenly leaps away ‘with the speed and security of a trained gymnast’ and hurls his crutch to knock Tom down, charging after it ‘agile as a monkey, even without leg or crutch’ to bury his knife ‘up to the hilt in that defenceless body’.[17] Peake’s full-length picture of him in the mini-Exhibition (from 1947-1949) wonderfully invokes his seductiveness. He’s got a beautiful face, with heavy lids, prominent eyelashes and a fine head of curly hair, and he peers sideways out of the picture with a smile, suggesting his capacity to extend his influence well beyond his physical proximity. His powerful body is visible through his clothes, and there’s a general sense that he’s disorienting, conveyed both by the way his body tilts in two directions as he leans on his crutch (his leg, left arm and head tilt in one direction, his torso and right arm tilt in another), and by the shading in the background, whose lines begin to curve sideways as they rise from ground level, passing from the horizontal through an area of cross-hatching until they’re diagonal to the rectangular frame of the picture at the level of Silver’s head, so that everything seems in motion and off-balance.

Silver’s politics are interesting, too; it would be easy to see them as rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of rational democracy, as against the feudalism of the Squire. Silver abides by the Roberts code of piracy, being elected captain by his messmates, giving them the vote on key decisions, and assuring them that all will have an equal share in the buried treasure. The name he and his pirates give themselves – gentlemen of fortune – makes them equals, unlike the Squire and Doctor, who embrace the class distinction between themselves as gentry and the commoners who work for them. No wonder the hero of the book, Jim Hawkins, seems to fall in love with Silver, like Peake in his boyhood. Every picture of Jim in the exhibition has him tilted at all angles like Long John Silver: tossed on the waves in Ben Gunn’s coracle…

clinging to the bowsprit of the Hispaniola…

aiming his pistols at Israel Hands as he leans from the Hispaniola’s crow’s nest:

In each picture he comes closer to being a pirate, culminating in the moment when he runs his fingers through the treasure of Captain Flint in Ben Gunn’s cave:

The pirate Silver coveted that treasure, the former pirate Ben Gunn dug it up, the half pirate Jim Hawkins got a share of it; what really divides them? In Peake’s pictures, as in Stevenson’s book, Jim is tainted with Silver’s anarchism. John Silver is the embodiment of resistance to the authorities that frown on exploratory teenagers like Jim – though the pirate also claims to have plans to become a conventional gentleman, and even a member of parliament. Not too conventional, however. In an age when slavery was legal in the British Empire, Silver’s lover – who we never meet in the book – is Black. The sea-cook roves far more freely beyond the imperial frame, it’s implied, than most of his white British male contemporaries.

Map of the Three Principalities, as featured in The Dusky Birron (1929-31)

There’s a queer element to piracy, as anyone knows who’s followed the HBO series Our Flag Means Death. Peake seems well aware of this fact, and the two pirate books he wrote and illustrated – The Dusky Birron and Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor – attest to his awareness, whether or not he acknowledged it openly. The unpublished Dusky Birron (1929-31) was a project he developed with his friend Gordon Smith, and it has a distinctly Chinese quality, as the two authors drew imaginatively on their shared experiences of China. Smith wrote the words, Peake drew the pictures, and the book begins with a sailor man being marooned by pirates on a group of islands, whose monosyllabic names – Soz, Ho, Foon, Chee – bear a faint resemblance to Mandarin, which both Smith and Peake could speak. The first picture from the book in the exhibition shows a European ship sailing through a giant flooded forest, possibly the pirate ship that marooned the sailor…

while the second shows the pirates themselves, looking thoroughly European…

Apologies for the quality of this photo!

But the next two pictures show some very Chinese-looking rocks and mountains…

Lawrence Bristow-Smith, a former British diplomat in China, compares the rock where the Maranesa sits to the rock formations in traditional Chinese gardens, ‘slabs and blocks of stone assembled to form a fantastic, exaggerated landscape with water, paths, steps, bridges and carefully-planted shrubs and trees’.[18] The mountain scene, meanwhile…

Apologies for this photo too!

recalls the Chinese practice of shan shui hua, ‘mountain water art’, as exemplified by Huang Gongwang’s ‘The Remaining Mountain’:

…so that the place where the sailor man finds himself contains a variety of aesthetic elements assembled, like those Chinese gardens, into a ‘fantastic, exaggerated landscape’. In Gordon Smith’s account of the book, the sailor-man’s guide through this fantastic landscape is the Dusky Birron, a naked man with flowing hair and the beard of a prophet:

and the two companions spend most of the book looking for the ideal place to set up house together. They find it at last in Chee, the most laid-back island in the archipelago….

This is not, then, a story of colonisation but of companionship between people of different cultures, in a land full of exiles; the Maranesa, for example, comes from Borneo, but seems happy living in Soz alone on his ‘pointed stone’, as Smith’s words put it. The sailor, by contrast, finds a friend to share his life with, as his mentor and fellow adventurer. There’s a Chinese connection here, too, I think. Peake’s surviving notes for an unwritten book about China – sometimes conceived as an autobiography, sometimes a work of fiction – are full of such cross-cultural friendships, from the Chinese boy who lures a red-haired British boy from his bed into the world beyond the hospital compound, to the one-eyed Russian boy with no shoes whom Peake calls his ‘God’; from Peake’s friend Tony Liang, who ‘did drawings which were copies of Lawson… dogs and parrots and monkeys’ – probably Lawson Wood, who drew animals for The Boy’s Own Paper – to the Chinese boy befriended by a British girl called Laura on a winter’s journey across the mountains.[19] These relationships are full of the seduction of the unfamiliar, something that works both ways in the case of the boy with red hair, whose appearance marks him out as exotic to his Chinese guide.

That seduction turns boldly queer in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). The Captain sails his ship, the Black Tiger, between ‘little green islands’ on the ‘bright blue ocean’, accompanied by a crew of bizarre eccentrics clearly inspired by the crew who sailed with Captain Hook in Peter and Wendy.[20] Billy Bottle the bosun, for example, has arms so long that he can knock ashes out of his pipe without bending down; Hook’s shipmate Noodles has equally unusual arms, since his ‘hands were fixed on backwards’. Timothy Twitch is ‘the most elegant in battle, his left hand especially’, just as Hook’s shipmate Gentleman Starkey was ‘once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing’…

Slaughterboard’s shipmate whose portrait we see in the exhibition, Charlie Choke, ‘covered all over with dreadful drawings in blue ink’, is closely related to Hook’s shipmate Bill Jukes, ‘every inch of him tattooed’…

Slaughterboard seems immune to the charms of these men, even the elegant Timothy Twitch, but when he spots a Yellow Creature through his telescope he can’t resist its beauty…

That his attraction is erotic as well as aesthetic (he spends hours, we’re told, admiring the butter-yellow colour of the creature against the blue of the ocean) is implied by the fact that many commentators think Peake modelled its face on the face of his wife, Maeve Gilmore, who posed for him hundreds of times throughout their marriage; Maeve also features, if you look closely, among the tattoos on Charlie Choke’s left arm.[21] The creature’s gender is indeterminate – Peake sometimes gives it the pronoun ‘it’ and sometimes ‘he’ – as is its species, since its ears and bristly horns are not quite human. Slaughterboard’s first reaction to it is that of the colonial slave-trader or collector; he sends his men to catch it, then carries it off for his own amusement. On board his ship, too, he at first treats the Creature as an exotic object to be displayed to his fellow sailors, who quickly grow tired of being urged to admire it…

But as time goes by, the power dynamic begins to shift. One by one the crew is killed off until only the Captain and the Yellow Creature are left, and by this time they behave as equals: they dance and eat together…

…and the Captain begins to show an interest in the Yellow Creature’s home environment, the island where he found it, and eventually turns the ship in that direction. The book ends with the Captain and the Creature living together in married bliss; the Creature does the cooking, and they both enjoy the company of the other islanders, or lazily fishing for wonderfully strange fish from the island’s ornamental-looking piles of stones. As Peake’s son Fabian points out in his introduction to the 70th Anniversary edition, the pair of them seem to have found utopia. More specifically, they have found their Libertalia, complete with its stock of unprecedented fauna. The anthropologist David Graeber has recently argued, in his book Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia, that the roots of Libertalia lie in the fusion of pirate culture with the indigenous people of north-east Madagascar; just one of the many cultural fusions that have shaped the island’s history.[22] Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature duplicate this fusion, their gleeful rejection of apartheid or segregation placing them a million miles from the British imperial project. Or the German one, of course; the book was published in 1939, and the first edition was mostly destroyed in a German bombing raid.

The magic of Captain Slaughterboard is its refusal to embrace the sort of conventional moralising that dominated contemporary children’s narratives. The Captain exists outside the imperatives of Empire all the way; his initially colonial actions are a personal choice, and he seems free to dispense with colonialism whenever he feels like it. In J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Captain Hook is tormented by social anxieties, brought on both by his public-school education and by Peter Pan’s self-evident superiority as a pirate and an anarchist to himself. Stevenson’s Long John Silver is intensely conscious of the forces of the social hierarchy ranged against him – of the power of the ruling classes and the disastrous lack of discipline among his fellow pirates – which means he suspects from the start that things can’t possibly go his way. By contrast, Captain Slaughterboard rules his narrative ‘every inch’, as he rules his ship. There are no naval officers, squires or missionaries in his story, just the strangest of sea-wolves and the weirdest of creatures. Instead of moral trajectories, Peake’s book is full of limbs and torsos getting out of control, clothes flying in all directions, bursts of sea-spray, spurts of cannon-smoke or pipe-smoke, and a ship that expands and contracts like a living organ, its decks covered in writhing bodies, flapping swathes of canvas and unbalanced bottles of rum…

The Captain’s resistance to moral imperatives makes him wholly indifferent to the slaughter of his men – we never hear how they died, and he never mentions them again after their deaths. He only pays attention to the fascinating details of the Yellow Creature’s appearance – its delicate body, arms and legs, its enormous eyes, its long, drooping nose, which offer the perfect foil to his own massive body and hands, his button nose, his tiny eyes….

The Captain’s eyes look at everything with cunning; even when introduced by the Yellow Creature to its friends on the island he watches them slyly as if measuring their market value…

But his cunning consists in the recognition that the only treasure he needs is what gives him pleasure: his brightly-coloured lover and the seemingly infinite variety of creatures on the island and around its shores.

Peake: poster for the movie Black Magic, with Sidney Toler playing the detective Charlie Chan in ‘Yellowface’ (see the novel by R F Kuang)

Peake was familiar, of course, with the racist caricatures of Chinese culture that circulated between the wars, from the fictions of the so-called Yellow Peril – such as Sax Rohmer’s tales of Dr Fu Manchu – to the crude pastiches of China that featured in British pantomimes like Aladdin, or Albert Arlen’s play The Son of the Grand Eunuch (1937), for which Peake designed the costumes.[23] He also had friends like Maurice Collis who had a serious interest in South and East Asian art and history, and a father with similar interests who brought him brushes from Hong Kong after the war, giving him a chance to experiment seriously with Chinese painting techniques. Captain Slaughterboard embraces Peake’s childhood in China by representing a kind of queer marriage between formerly hostile cultures, as well as between Chinese and European schools of art. As a statement about its particular moment in British history – on the cusp of the Second World War, when the earth itself was tilting off balance – this picture book seems to me well worth revisiting in our own unbalanced times.

[For an account of pirate references in the Titus/Gormenghast books see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy’.]

NOTES

[1] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.

[2] For more on Peake and Sark see my blogposts ‘Mervyn Peake on Sark’ and ‘Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark’.

[3] The best account of Peake’s life is Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen Publishers, 2009).

[4] For Peake’s ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’ see Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 469-487.

[5] The dates given here are those of the first editions of Peake’s illustrated versions.

[6] For the full poem see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 120. For more on Peake’s Southport experience see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake at Southport’.

[7] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 56.

[8] See my blog post ‘Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake and Jacob Epstein’.

[9] See my two blog posts, ‘Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946)’, Part 1: Text and Part 2: Drawings.

[10] ‘Tides’, in Peake, Collected Poems, p. 129.

[11] See Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 36, which cites Peake’s friend Gordon Smith describing the Puy de Dôme near Clermont-Ferrand in France as ‘a most charming hummock, like a miniature Fujiyama’. Smith and Peake saw this ‘charming hummock on a French holiday together in 1930, two years after the date assigned to the picture, ‘Floating islands on the waves’. For a full account of the holiday see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), pp. 14-20.

[12] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart, p. 57, footnote 1: ‘it was the family island, so to speak’.

[13] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 78.

[14] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 93.

[15] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 94.

[16] See Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 205.

[17] Robert Louise Stevenson, Treasure Island, illustrated by Mervyn Peake (London: Methuen, 1976), pp. 96-97.

[18] Lawrence Bristow-Smith, ‘The Chinese Puzzle of Mervyn Peake’, Peake Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Winter 1993), pp. 37-39.

[19] Peake, ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’, Peake’s Progress, pp. 471, 474, 477-478, 483.

[20] All quotations are taken from Mervyn Peake, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 70th Anniversary Edition (London: Walker Books, 2009). This edition is not paginated.

[21] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 130.

[22] David Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (Dublin: Allen Lane, 2023).

[23] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 107.

Macbeth: A Scottish Play?

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve been depositing them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the fourth, written before the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014.]

Henry Fuseli, Study for the Three Witches in Macbeth.

How Scottish is Macbeth? The answer, of course, is not at all. It’s a play written by an Englishman, performed in England, to an audience the bulk of whom would have been Englishmen – and Southerners at that. But the play is also evidence of Shakespeare’s intense interest in Scottish history; hardly surprising given his status as chief playwright for a company newly christened the King’s Men, patronized by King James VI of Scotland who had assumed the Scottish throne in 1603. And it’s evidence, too, of just how unsettling the rapprochement between these two nations, which had for centuries shared little but a  border and an intense mutual hatred, must have been for everyone involved.

Macbeth is about the near impossibility of holding a single kingdom together, or even of defining its limits: an impossibility that manifests itself in the dreadful trouble the play’s characters have in holding themselves together – that is, in keeping body and soul in one piece, or in reconciling their convictions with their actions, or in saying what they think. The threatened dismemberment of Scotland and its inhabitants in the play neatly parallels the religious, regional and factional divisions that had split the northern kingdom throughout the sixteenth century. And the Scottish royal family had felt the effects of these internal conflicts for generations before they were exacerbated by the Reformation. As Sir Charles Piggott pointed out to the English Parliament in 1606 – the year Macbeth was written and performed – the Scots ‘have not suffered above two kings to die in their beds, these 200 years’. The Stuarts had been subjected to a seemingly endless series of assassinations and massacres, more often at the hands of their own subjects than those of their English neighbours.

Fifteenth-century map of Scotland, drawn by the English spy John Hardyng. Note that it is cut off from England by the sea.

Ancient Scotland was no better, as Shakespeare would have seen as he browsed through Holinshed’s chronicle seeking plots for James’s entertainment. The kings who reigned before and after the eleventh-century monarch Macbeth met their ends in appallingly inventive ways: by poison, witchcraft, or (in one case) an elaborate trap involving a golden apple and hidden crossbows, whose quarrels were launched at Kenneth II ‘with great force and violence’ when the apple was touched. And the Scots had a habit of importing their violent ways into the neighbouring kingdom. The last Scottish monarch before James – his mother, Mary Queen of Scots – was accused of murdering James’s father (which led to her exile in England), then hatching a series of plots against her cousin Elizabeth I (which led to her execution). James himself had twice been kidnapped, in 1582 and 1600; and his experience of near shipwreck en route to collect his wife Anne of Denmark in 1587 left him certain that he had narrowly avoided murder by witchcraft. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, whereby disaffected Catholics planned to destroy James and the English Parliament in one devastating explosion, may have convinced some Englishmen that the Scots had transplanted their own particular version of political hell into English soil along with their monarch.

A whiff of sulphur accompanied the stench of gunpowder. Scotland seems to have been associated in England with the supernatural: partly perhaps because of the spooky ballads that spread through England from north of the Border (think of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer), and partly because of James VI’s own treatise on magic and witchcraft, Daemonologie (1597 and 1603), which insisted on the dangers they posed as fiercely as the Englishman Reginald Scot had insisted on their non-existence in his The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584).  The witches in Macbeth, whose agency is so hotly disputed (did they drive Macbeth to murder, or did they merely redirect a murderous tendency he already possessed?), cater for both the English and Scottish views of witchcraft. They introduce the theme of double-talk or equivocation – saying one thing and meaning another, or convincing yourself through chop-logic that it’s permissible to do the unforgivable – that pervades the play. For them, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, and their delight in reversing moral polarities infects Macbeth’s language, so that he can persuade himself that in a world where ‘nothing is but what is not’ he might get away with regicide. The witches’ later prophecies – that Macbeth cannot be killed by a man born of woman, that he will be safe till Burnam Wood comes to Dunsinane – are classic examples of equivocation: they sound impossible, yet prove accurate because of unforeseeable circumstances (Macbeth’s killer was born by Caesarean section; the wood is uprooted to be used as camouflage by the English army). The witches’ double-speak reflects both the treachery associated with Scotland by the English, and the merging of two cultures and two languages under James, which transformed the English court into a hotbed of mutual misunderstandings.

Marcus Gheeraerts, illustration from Holinshed’s Chronicle (1577) showing Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches.

The Scottish King’s inheritance of England had been anticipated for years, as the English panicked over the ageing Elizabeth’s refusal to name an heir. That period of anxiety has its aftershocks in Macbeth. Problems of succession had often been solved in Scotland by spates of blood-letting – as when Kenneth II murdered the heir to the throne, Prince Malcolm, to ensure that his own son wore the crown. Shakespeare’s Macbeth re-enacts all the atrocities perpetrated by Scots through history against inconvenient heirs. His massacre of MacDuff’s children stands in for his desire to massacre Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbane, Banquo’s heir Fleance, and with them the whole line of monarchs that descended from Banquo to James. Each time he thinks he has the kingdom and its succession under control a new child emerges to taunt him. Young Fleance escapes from the scene of his father’s murder, and his escape leaves Macbeth ‘bound in / To saucy doubts and fears’. Later the witches summon up two infant spirits to taunt Macbeth with the fact that his children will not succeed him. At the end of the play, a Scottish prince, Malcolm, defeats Macbeth at the head of an English army composed largely of ‘unrough youths’ – adolescents who have not yet started shaving. Children die at Macbeth’s hands only to be resurrected like a succession of vengeful ‘newborn babes / Striding the blast’.

The reign of the ‘boy Malcolm’ promises fresh new possibilities for the kingdoms that have combined to put him on the throne. The new king promises to make himself ‘even with’ his helpers of all ranks, thus anticipating a fair and equal partnership between Scottish ruler and subject, and between the erstwhile enemy nations. But the bloody head of Macbeth, dangling like a chunk of Scotland’s history from the fist of his killer MacDuff, undermines Malcolm’s self-assurance with a second promise: that the Stuart dynasty will continue to encounter more than its share of rebels and regicides – including, as we now know, the parliamentary decapitators of James’s son. Accompanied by omens like this, it’s no wonder that a hundred years would pass before the union of England and Scotland would be finally ratified.

Henry Fuseli, Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches.

[For more on Macbeth see my post ‘Wonders of the Northlands: Hamlet and Macbeth’, here.]

 

 

 

Mollie Hunter, A Stranger Came Ashore (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garage roofed with a boat, Lerwick, Shetland

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Morland, The Press Gang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea and shore: Mousa, Shetland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mollie Hunter

  NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pauline Baynes’s illustrated cover, 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolkien’s own illustration of Lake-Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of the Giant Grugol, by John Morton-Sale

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

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

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

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

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

Borrobil, by John Morton-Sale

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

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

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

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

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

Jean, by John Morton-Sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play Houses: Alasdair Gray, Poor Things (1992) and A History Maker (1994). Part 1

[This is my belated contribution to Gray Day 2022, which took place last Friday, 25 February. Today is World Book Day, which also seems appropriate, since Poor Things is an embodiment of the delight in books. What follows is the first of two posts; the second will appear later in March.]


The 1990s: a rich decade for fantasy, and a suitable subject for mixed metaphors. The new millennium, that phantom barrier between the twentieth century and an unforeseeable future, was flinging out a backwash of apocalyptic premonitions, from the Millennium Bug to the End of the Civilised World. The Cold War had abruptly come to an end, and the hunt for a new enemy of late capitalism was in full cry. Not surprisingly, fantasy literature stood on the brink of reinvigoration. His Dark Materials and Harry Potter were bubbling away in the soup of their creators’ brains. The New Weird was stirring its tentacles, and a league of brilliant women from Pamela Dean and Robin Hobb to Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Terry Windling and Jane Yolen were rapidly remaking the fantastic along new-old lines, while male fantasy authors too (Gregory Maguire, Geoff Ryman, Michael Swanwick as well as Pullman) found themselves reimagining the power dynamic between women, men and others in response. An end and a beginning: the 1990s.

As brilliant as any of these male authors was the Scottish writer-artist Alasdair Gray, who had made his name with the publication of Lanark in 1981. The 1990s saw the publication of his finest novel, Poor Things (1992), and a novella called A History Maker (1994), both of which could be described as science fiction. In the same decade he wrote the novels Something Leather (1990), McGrotty and Ludmilla (1990) and Mavis Belfrage (1996), and the short story collection Ten Tales Tall and True (1993). All these texts gave a prominent place to women, and to the sense that the experience of women at the end of the twentieth century was undergoing a transformation. Poor Things did this by examining the last two decades of the nineteenth century as a parallel moment in the history of women’s experiences, as well as of socialism and industrial capitalism. A History Maker did it by examining a moment of near-revolution against a worldwide matriarchy, two centuries or so in the future. Between them, the two books suggest a pair of parentheses bracketing the calamitous twentieth century – the Century of War, as Doris Lessing calls it in her SF novel Shikasta (1979). For Gray, women were stationed at the points of arrival and departure of the century, and throughout the century had always offered the best hope for a turn towards a better tomorrow.

A History Maker came out two years after Poor Things, and can be read as a witty appendix to that book. The novella feeds parasitically on the novel, replicating its form and some of its content while also performing ingenious acts of reversal and inversion on both. As if to reinforce the association with appendices, exactly a third of A History Maker is made up of notes and a postscript, parasitically feeding on the lifeblood of the ‘central’ narrative. Poor Things, too, has a hypertrophied paratext, its introduction, notes and postscript hollowing out the central narrative’s intestines from within, so to speak, like the segments of a hungry tapeworm. To understand A History Maker, then, we need to start with a consideration of Poor Things; while understanding Poor Things benefits from setting it alongside what might be loosely termed its sequel. Taken together, these books represent Gray’s meditation on the end of an era: the close of the twentieth century, the termination of the twentieth-century version of the socialist dream as embodied in the Soviet Union, the seeming lull after a period of global warfare which had extended from 1914 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Both books, too, are about parasitism of various kinds, above all in the form of complicity, and in particular the complicity to which all citizens of the First World are inevitably doomed by virtue of their location within an increasingly unbalanced global economy. So Poor Things is where I’ll begin in this post, before moving on in a second post to its neglected younger sibling. And afterwards I’ll move on again, to their status as representations of beginnings.

Poor Things consists of a series of backward glances, each provided by one of its myriad narrators and commentators. The central narrative, as written by the Public Health Officer Archibald McCandless, looks back on the events of the last decade of the nineteenth century from 1911, when he bequeaths his memoirs to his wife just before his death. McCandless’s memoirs are then ‘edited’ in 1990 or so, under the title Poor Things, by an irascible version of Alasdair Gray himself. Gray looks back in his introduction to the 1970s, when the manuscript was first ‘discovered’ by Michael Donnelly, co-curator with Elspeth King of the People’s Palace Museum in Glasgow. Along with the memoirs themselves, Gray reproduces a letter from Victoria McCandless, Archibald’s wife, written in 1914 when she first read them after the death of her husband in 1911. Gray also adds notes incorporating various documents such as a letter from 1945, in which Victoria celebrates the election of a Labour Government as the beginning of a new epoch of social justice in the United Kingdom. The novel, in other words, is an elaborate exercise in reminiscence, so that even the hopes and political ambitions articulated by the forward-thinking Victoria McCandless are strongly tinged with nostalgia for the more committed, less irony-tainted epoch in which her life began.

Irony, however, pervades the narrative, because these successive backward glances expose the past century of human existence as a complex tissue of fabrications. Victoria insists, for instance, that Archibald’s account of their first meeting and her subsequent adventures is not just fictional but fantastic, implying as it does that Victoria herself was assembled from parts of different human beings according to the ‘Frankenstein method’ by an eccentric surgeon called Godwin Baxter (p. 274). Archibald confected this alternative origin story for his busy wife, she suspects, both to grab her attention and to coerce her into co-authoring his book by issuing some sort of denial or correction, either in her thoughts or in a covering letter of the kind we are given by the editor before the notes. But the reader knows that Victoria’s vision of a socialist future – as expressed in her later letter of 1945 – is also a fantasy. Poor Things was first published in 1992, after twelve years of Tory rule during which social justice was for the most part conspicuous by its absence. And Victoria’s letter of 1914 shows that her socialist dreams were fantastic then, too, since she predicts that the Great War will be averted by the workers of Great Britain by means of a General Strike. Victoria’s first name, meanwhile, identifies her brand of socialism as a product of the nineteenth century, and the endurance of her and her name into the mid-century (she died, we’re told, soon after writing that letter about the election of the Labour government) symbolises the continuing legacy of Victorian cultural attitudes into the middle of the twentieth century – and beyond, thanks to the publication of the manuscript by its ‘editor’, Gray.

The batters of Poor Things, adorned with a thistle motif and a Gray proverb

Victorianism itself, meanwhile, is described by Victoria as an ornate fantasy, best understood through its embodiment in such ‘sham-gothic’ buildings as ‘the Scott Monument [in Edinburgh], Glasgow University, St. Pancras Station and the Houses of Parliament’ (p. 275). The ‘useless over-ornamentation’ of these buildings, she claims, ‘was paid for out of needlessly high profits: profits squeezed from the stunted lives of children, women and men working more than twelve hours a day, six days a week in NEEDLESSLY filthy factories; for by the nineteenth century we had the knowledge to make things cleanly’. And for Victoria, her husband’s memoir is as sham-gothic and hence as needless as any of these extravagant works of architecture. Archibald paid a high price for it to be printed in a single copy, illustrated with etchings by the well-known artist William Strang, so it is over-ornate and expensive. The first edition of Poor Things, too, with its dustjacket sporting mock reviews by made-up magazines and newspapers, its hardback covers or ‘batters’ stamped with a silver thistle motif and Gray’s personal motto, its typeface and page design both created by Gray himself, and its many illustrations, some of which have been purloined from Victorian publications while others are misattributed to Strang (in fact Gray did them), must have been hugely expensive for the publishers Bloomsbury to produce. Poor Things, then, looks backward in its ornate aesthetics and the economics that drive them, as well as in its narrative and commentary. The fictionalised memoir it contains is parasitic on the working classes, because Archibald’s late-life prosperity depended on their labour, which made possible the investments on which he drew to support his ‘idle, dreamy[,] fantastical’ middle-class existence, as Victoria tells us (pp. 251-2). And it is doubly parasitic on Victoria McCandless, whose life story Archibald falsified to produce his memoir, and whose notes Alasdair Gray purloined to create his book.

18 Park Circus, Glasgow

The Gothicism of Poor Things is of the domestic variety. It uses the household as a synecdoche for society, instead of the monumental public buildings listed by Victoria. In this it recalls the great Gothic novels of the period in which it’s set, from Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde (largely set in a doctor’s house) to Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray (set in a fashionable London townhouse with a large attic) and Dracula (which is all about real estate). It focuses on the house of the surgeon Godwin Baxter, 18 Park Circus, where he either builds a woman in his father’s private laboratory (p. 33) or nurses her back to health, depending on whose version of the story you choose to accept – Archibald’s or Victoria’s. Victoria tells us she grew up in needless poverty in a cramped apartment before marrying an abusive husband, fleeing from his London house and being offered shelter and support in the Glasgow mansion of the surgeon Godwin Baxter. Archibald tells us she committed suicide in the Clyde, when pregnant, and was afterwards restored to life through the grotesque process of implanting her unborn baby’s brain in her skull – the resulting adult/infant hybrid being christened Bella Baxter. In both versions of her life story, Godwin’s house provides Victoria/Bella with intellectual stimulus as well as shelter: through the personal example set by its various inhabitants, through the political and medical instruction it provides, and through its architectural and economic organisation. The medical instruction comes from Godwin’s knowledge, books, instruments and conversation, while the political and economic instruction is provided by a ‘big doll’s house’ modelled on the house itself, which is present in both Archibald’s (p. 28) and Victoria’s versions.

‘See me open the hinged front of this big doll’s house and fold it back,’ Godwin tells Victoria in her own version of her life story:

‘This is a type of house you will find by thousands in British cities, by hundreds in the towns, and tens in the villages. […] The servants live mostly in the basement and attics: the coldest and most crowded floors with the smallest rooms. Their body heat, while they sleep, keeps their employers in the central floors more snug. This little female doll in the kitchen is a scullery-maid who will also do rough laundry work, scrubbing and mangling the clothes. She will have plenty of hot water to use if her master or mistress is generous, and may not be overworked if the servants set over her are kind, but we live in an age when thrift and hard competition are proclaimed as the foundations of the state, so if she is meanly and cruelly used nobody will remark upon it. Now look into the parlour on the first floor. Here is a piano with another little female doll sitting at it. If her dress and hair-style were changed for the scullery-maid’s she might be the same girl, but that will not happen. She is probably trying to play Beethoven’s Für Elise without a wrong note – her parents want her one day to attract a rich husband who will use her as a social ornament and breeder of his children. Tell me, Bella, what the scullery-maid and the master’s daughter have in common, apart from their similar ages and bodies and this house.’

‘Both are used by other people,’ I said. ‘They are allowed to decide nothing for themselves.’ [pp. 262-3]

For Godwin, the house is a machine designed to replicate the Victorian class system. Its human inhabitants, represented by the models of the two young girls, have been slotted into their domestic places – each attached to an instrument they must master, the mangle and the piano – like components of the machine, their bodily energy contributing to the smooth functioning of the house and of the hegemony of which it is part. The scullery-maid is an integral part of the house’s heating and cleaning system, the piano-playing girl the inert guarantor of her class’s continued ascendancy. The girls represented by the dolls are as much ‘things’ as the dolls that portray them.

Bella/Victoria as the embodiment of Bella Caledonia, Bonnie Scotland

Victoria herself is often treated as a doll-like ‘thing’ in Poor Things. Her life is manipulated by her husband Archibald McCandless as grist for his fantastical mill. Even the words she utters are reported by him as half-understood fragments, representative of the gradual assembly of her mind over time after the swifter assembly of her body by the surgeon Baxter. Archibald accuses Baxter of constructing Victoria/Bella for his own sexual gratification (pp. 36-7), so she is twice a ‘thing’ from his point of view: as a woman driven to suicide by one man (her first husband), and as a patient intended as a plaything by another (Godwin). Archibald also hints that Baxter himself is a ‘thing’ constructed by his surgeon father, and that Bella/Victoria’s abusive first husband – when he shows up to claim her – is a ‘thing’ reassembled by surgeons after the multiple injuries sustained by his body in the course of his military career. Even Archibald is a ‘thing’, a self-made man who has been awkwardly put together from ill-fitting parts: a neglectful farm servant mother, an absent landowner father, clothes paid for by an unknown benefactor, a regional accent that sounds out of place in the gentlemen’s club of the medical faculty at the Victorian University of Glasgow. All the people in the book are ‘things’, their status as mostly damaged or defective mechanisms reinforced by the images from Gray’s Anatomy scattered through the text, each carefully placed at a point in the narrative when the portion of the body shown in the picture (nose, tongue, brain, genitals, pelvis) comes briefly to the fore in the narrative.

Illustration from Gray’s Anatomy in Poor Things

The thing-ness of Poor Thing’s characters – their resemblance to dolls – is compounded by their affinity with the people who for the most part play with dolls – young children. Nearly all retain childish traits, and nearly all have had damaging childhoods. This is most obvious in Archibald’s version of Bella/Victoria, a grown woman with the transplanted brain of her own baby, who greets everything and everybody with surprise, delight and curiosity. But her supposed maker Godwin Baxter, too, though vast and powerful in stature, resembles a baby in his physical proportions. When Archibald first meets him he notes this resemblance at once: ‘Despite the ogreish body he had the wide hopeful eyes, snub nose and mournful mouth of an anxious infant’ (p. 12); and when he later spots him at a distance on the hills he tells us: ‘I saw what seemed a two-year-old child with a tiny puppy approaching from the Cambuslang side’, which on closer approach turns out to be Baxter ‘accompanied by a huge Newfoundland dog’ (p. 16). His powerful voice has the shrillness of a baby’s, and the hand he holds out to Archibald in friendship is so unusual that Archibald cannot bear to shake it:

The hand I intended to grasp was not to so much square as cubical, nearly as thick as broad, with huge thick first knuckles from which the fingers tapered so steeply to babyish tips with rosy wee nails that they seemed conical. A cold grue went through me – I was unable to touch such a hand. [p. 25]

Baxter’s neglected childhood and lonely adulthood, as the illegitimate and ugly son of an eminent scientist, makes his mind childishly needy too, in its longing for an unprejudiced companion who will not be disconcerted by his strange appearance; this longing, perhaps, is what suggests to Archibald that he may be another Frankenstein’s creature, constructed in his father’s laboratory, then abandoned to the whims of the world. But Archibald, too, is childish in his quest for a father figure he never had (which he finds in Godwin) and a loving, powerful woman to replace his less than loving mother (whom he finds in Bella/Victoria). He is constantly harking back to his boyhood in rural Galloway. He ascribes his lack of sexual hang-ups, for instance, to growing up on a farm, and informs Victoria/Bella of his fighting prowess on the strength of having proved his courage ‘in the playground of Whauphill School’ (p. 63) (Whauphill being a tiny hamlet close to Wigtown). The dustjacket of the book’s first edition shows Archibald cuddling Bella, who is cuddling Godwin, who sits facing out of the picture, huge and implacable, with his baby’s hand planted on his knee: three children clinging together in the face of a hostile world.

Victoria/Bella’s abusive first husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington, is a child too. The offspring of abusive parents and an abusive education system, who continues to seek out abuse in the brothels of Europe as an anonymous masked client by the name of Monsieur Spankybot, who likes to pose ‘first […] as a baby, then as a little lad on his first night in a new boarding-school’ (p. 181). Even Victoria/Bella’s lover, Duncan Wedderburn – the man with whom she elopes to seek adventure and travel the world – is still devoted to his mother and the female servants who raised him, returning to them after the tour to resume his role as the spoiled child of the household. These men’s damaged childhoods are lodged inside them, unnurtured and underdeveloped, rendering them as fixed and helpless and eternally infantile as the dolls in the instructive doll’s house in Baxter’s living room. The doll theme continues in Victoria’s notes at the end of the book, where she describes the soldiers about to leave for the Great War as ‘young men marching in regular rows, each imitating the stiff movements of a clockwork doll’ (p. 253). Victoria herself claims to have been educated by nuns in a Swiss convent school ‘to be a rich man’s domestic toy’ (pp. 258-9) – though her subsequent education at Baxter’s hands has since liberated her from doll-like rigidity and silence. Stocked from end to end with dolls, Victorian Britain would seem to be populated by several generations of male and female citizens in various states of arrested development.

The continuing childishness of all these characters has the effect of stressing the importance of the home environment in fashioning a healthy adult mind and body. For Godwin Baxter, the need for good housing in wholesome surroundings is paramount. To Archibald he expresses the opinion that all social ills could be healed by three key elements: ‘Sunlight, cleanliness and exercise, McCandless! Fresh air, pure water, a good diet and clean roomy houses for everyone’ (p. 24). A little later he diagnoses the mental illness running rife in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the effect of ‘an epidemic brain fever which, like typhoid, was perhaps caused by seepings from the palace graveyard into the Elsinore water supply’, and goes on to explain how he would have treated it as the family’s physician:

I imagined myself entering the palace quite early in the drama with all the executive powers of an efficient public health officer. The main carriers of the disease (Claudius, Polonius and the obviously incurable Hamlet) would be quarantined in separate wards. A fresh water supply and efficient modern plumbing would soon set the Danish state right and Ophelia, seeing this gruff Scottish doctor pointing her people toward a clean and healthy future, would be powerless to withhold her love. (p. 40)

In Godwin’s version of Hamlet the diseases of the state, which originate in the Danish royal palace, could be eradicated at once by putting in place the infrastructure that makes pure water and clean houses available to everyone – an infrastructure of the kind installed in Glasgow in the 1850s, and commemorated by the erection of the Stewart Memorial Fountain in Kelvingrove Park immediately below Godwin’s dwelling in Park Circus, the place where Archibald first kisses Bella/Victoria. What Godwin omits, however, from his list of essentials for a nurturing home environment, is affection; the sort of affection he dreams of obtaining from Ophelia in this passage, and which he lavishes on and receives back from that other unfortunate drowned woman, Bella/Victoria. In both versions of her life story, affection in the domestic context is more crucial than cleanliness and shelter to her wellbeing, and it’s affection (or what she calls ‘cuddling’) that she positions at the centre of her medical philosophy when she trains as a doctor and puts her skills at the service of the city that (re)made her.

Thanks, in fact, to the domestic affection with which she is surrounded – the affection of Godwin’s many dogs as well as the people in his household – Bella/Victoria is the only person in the book whose inner childishness is allowed to grow to a healthy maturity, not stunted by neglect or arbitrary boundaries. In Archibald’s version of the narrative, the baby’s mind which has been surgically transplanted into her adult body develops rapidly under the tuition of the free-thinking Godwin (whose name, of course, recalls the great anarchist thinker, Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin). With his support, she encounters the world with fresh pleasure and bright new ideas at every stage of her preternaturally rapid mental maturation. In Victoria’s version, her complex childhood is what gives her an unusually clear understanding of how the world works, before Godwin’s affection (along with his schooling in medicine and politics) completes the process. This version of her life story tells how she was raised by a hard-working mother in a Manchester slum, then transplanted to a sumptuous house by her newly-wealthy father before being transplanted again to a Swiss convent school and afterwards to the London house of an ice-cold military husband. From London she escaped to the Glasgow house of the friendly surgeon who had treated her for sexual hysteria on her husband’s orders. By this time she had witnessed both extreme poverty and excessive wealth, both the community-based discipline of religious women and the martial discipline of aristocratic men, both the Manchester slums and the mountains of Switzerland, the elegant streets of central London and the splendid suburbs of industrial Glasgow. Five households made her – if you include the convent school – each with its economic and emotional peculiarities, most strikingly the profound interdependencies each entails between the house’s owners and their employees.

Each of Bella/Victoria’s households, in fact, fosters close sexual and cultural relations between social classes which are supposed to live in strict segregation from each other. Her father grows wealthy while leaving his wife to live in poverty, like a servant, before transferring her to a grand house in which she feels useless. There is a strong suggestion that the father has been having an affair with the housekeeper of that house, since she wears ‘a brighter dress than worn by housekeepers I met in later years’, as Victoria notes (p. 257), while her father observes that the woman has taught him ‘a few new tricks’ (p. 258). Later, Victoria’s soldier husband gets a young servant pregnant through the sexual attentions he denies his wife; while Godwin Baxter’s household includes another servant who had her master’s child: Godwin’s mother, Mrs Dinwiddie. As we’ve seen, Archibald is the child of a servant who slept with her master, while Duncan Wedderburn got his early erotic education at the hands of a servant in his household named Auld Jessy. If the female dolls of different classes in Godwin’s doll’s house can be readily exchanged for one another, they closely match the experiences of the women in Victoria/Bella’s households, the bulk of whom are treated by men like servants – providing labour for inadequate wages, no matter what their class. Victoria’s understanding of the class system stems from her position as a woman who has first-hand experience of its operation through the set-ups of the houses she has lived in, which served as real-life equivalents of the doll’s house.

When Godwin opens up the front of that doll’s house, then, he could be said to open up her world, much as an expert anatomist (like the author of Gray’s Anatomy, from which so many of the book’s illustrations have been purloined) opens up a corpse to show its inner workings. The beginning and end of Archibald’s narrative take place in Godwin’s ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’ in Park Circus (p. 22), in the West End of Glasgow. But the house also anchors the middle section of the narrative, which moves away from Glasgow but never leaves it behind.

More illustrations from Gray’s Anatomy in Poor Things

Bella/Victoria’s travels are described in two letters delivered to the Park Circus address, the first from her lover Duncan Wedderburn, the second from herself. The letters are opened and read aloud by Godwin to Archibald in Godwin’s living room, to which the narrative returns us often as the two readers exchange observations before moving on. The formal properties of these letters – some in verse, the rest in prose, distinguished visually from the rest of the novel by being printed in italics – mark them out as created objects or ‘things’ which will eventually find a place for themselves among Godwin’s domestic possessions. The middle part of Bella/Victoria’s letter is even reproduced in her handwriting, ‘printed by a photogravure process which exactly reproduces the blurring caused by tear stains, but does not show the pressure of pen strokes which often ripped right through the paper’ (p. 144). We are never allowed to forget the materiality of these epistolary travelogues, and their Glasgow roots, no matter how far from Glasgow their contents take us.

In fact, despite the global wanderings they chronicle, the contents of both letters are as Glaswegian as the location in which they are read. Wedderburn’s letter obsessively ascribes Bella/Victoria’s behaviour (she enjoys sex with him but has no interest in marrying him) to the devilish influence of her Glasgow mentor, Godwin Baxter (or ‘GOD-SWINE BOSH BACK-STAIR, BEAST OF THE BOTTOMLESS PIT’ as he inventively dubs him [p. 95]). This culminates in an elaborate list of parallels between Godwin, Bella, the Park Circus building they live in and the biblical Book of Revelation. Twice Wedderburn mentions theatrical performances he has seen in Glasgow, and throughout their travels he funds himself with money drawn from his Glasgow-based accounts, with the Scottish Widows and Orphans Company and the Clydesdale and North Scotland Bank. In Bella/Victoria’s letter, meanwhile, a betting shop in Germany reminds her of the Glasgow Stock Exchange, with its ‘fluted columns, cream and gold’ (p. 110). Later a ‘huge’ flight of steps in Odessa (made famous by The Battleship Potemkin) seems ‘very like the steps down to the West End Park near our house’ (p. 115), while Wedderburn splashing about in a ‘puddle’ of his winnings recalls ‘little Robbie Murdoch with a mud puddle’ (p. 121) – Robbie being the grandson of Godwin’s housekeeper. The journey as a whole reiterates the earlier stage of Bella/Victoria’s education when she toured the world with Godwin, visiting a selected set of tourist destinations with the aim of giving substance to his teachings in the front room at Park Circus. Every stage of her journey with Wedderburn, in other words, has close links to Godwin’s home.

The ‘huge’ flight of steps down to the West End Park (now Kelvingrove Park), Glasgow

At one point in the journey, the doll’s house model is briefly replaced by another, and for a while Godwin’s vision is threatened with less democratic ideas, presenting Bella/Victoria with a range of socio-political perspectives from which she must choose before she decides on her future course of action. On her cruise round the Mediterranean Bella/Victoria meets two ‘gentlemen’ who seek to supplement or correct the home-schooling Godwin gave her. The first is an American missionary-cum-government-spy called Dr Hooker, the second an English businessman-cum-government spy named Astley. Each seeks to convert her to his own way of thinking – Astley as a cynical Malthusian, who thinks that keeping large groups of people in poverty is the only way to keep the world in balance, Hooker as a Christian eugenicist who thinks the world should be run by what he terms the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ (p. 139). In the interests of demonstrating the inferiority of non-Anglo-Saxon peoples, Hooker invites the young woman to disembark with him at the port of Alexandria, where she will see for herself the decline of the once great Egyptian people and thereby learn the necessity for Anglo-Saxons to take charge of the global economy. Before disembarking, Bella/Victoria remembers her previous visit to Egypt under Godwin’s watchful eye: ‘When God took me to see the pyramids,’ she tells Hooker, ‘we left the hotel in the middle of a crowd’, but she did not see the people at the fringes of the crowd who were calling out for money (p. 142). This makes it clear that Godwin had been keen to shelter her from the most brutal facts of politics and economics; his teachings were suitable for the child in Bella’s brain, not the mature young woman she has rapidly become. At Alexandria the dolls in her mind are replaced with actual girls: she sits with Astley and Hooker on a hotel veranda ‘among well-dressed people like ourselves’ while a crowd of ‘nearly naked folk mostly children’ scramble for coins tossed by the wealthy on the dusty ground below the veranda, kept in order by men with whips (p. 173). Among the children is a pair who strike an instant chord in Bella/Victoria (and her tendency to resonate in sympathy with others is indicated by the name Godwin gave her, Bella, the bell – though the name has other resonances too, such as the bell of revolution, the Beauty to Godwin’s Beast, church bells, etc. etc.). The two children are ‘a thin little girl blind in one eye carrying a baby with a big head who was blind in both’ (pp. 173-4). Bella/Victoria takes them at once for her lost daughter and a young sibling, lost to their parents just as Bella/Victoria’s unborn child was lost to her. These Egyptian youngsters, in other words, are immediately identified by Bella/Victoria as citizens of Glasgow – miniature versions of herself and her lost baby – and she at once attempts to take them back to Glasgow with her, only to be prevented by Astley and Hooker on the grounds that they will not be allowed out of the port and onto the ship. The section of her letter reproduced by photogravure, with the ‘blurring caused by tear stains’ and the rips in the paper caused by the pressure of her pen strokes (p. 144), carries material evidence of her immediate reaction back to Glasgow, as a substitute for the children and her yearning to be of use to them.

Bella/Victoria’s letter reproduced by photogravure

Later, Astley points out that the scene in which Bella/Victoria saw the girl and baby might be substituted for the Glasgow doll’s house as a miniature model of capitalist society. In seeing it, he tells her, Bella/Victoria has

seen a working model of nearly every civilized nation. The people on the veranda were the owners and rulers – their inherited intelligence and wealth set them above everyone else. The crowd of beggars represented the jealous and incompetent majority, who were kept in their place by the whips of those on the ground between: the latter represented policemen and functionaries who keep society as it is. (pp. 175-6).

For Astley, this model is like the doll’s house in its inertia; there is no better practical structure to replace it with, though he scrupulously lists the alternative political movements Bella could join in her futile quest to change it, each with its own shortcomings, or so he claims. Then after finishing his list he offers her another doll’s house to play with – a real one. After listing the political choices available to her, he proposes marriage: ‘Marry me,’ he prompts, since

My country estate has a farm on it and a [whole] village – think of the power you will have. Besides caring for my children (who we will not send to public schools) you can bully me into improving the drains and lowering the rents of a whole community. I am offering you the chance to be as happy and good as an intelligent woman can be on this filthy planet. (p. 163).

Bella/Victoria refuses, on the grounds that he has merely offered her ‘the most cunning inducement to lead a wholly selfish life you could offer a woman’ (p. 164). Instead she commits herself to one of the political options he listed – Socialism, whose adherents aim ‘to tax the surplus of the rich and make laws to give everyone productive work in good conditions, along with good food, housing, education and health care’ (p. 161) – a vision pretty much consonant with Godwin’s. And having made this choice, she returns to Glasgow to take her place once again in the ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’ in Park Circus (p. 22), and transform it into a model for the Socialist state.

After all, the house is part way there already. In his medical career Godwin has treated factory workers and animals there for free, while he always uses the back door intended for servants as his preferred entrance (p. 26), and presents the former housekeeper Mrs Dinwiddie to strangers as his mother, despite the fact that she conceived him out of wedlock (he can afford to do this, Bella/Victoria points out, because of his private income). The social hierarchy, in other words, has been partly excluded from this building, though Godwin remains master there in legal terms. Godwin’s affection for and education of Bella/Victoria brought an end to his philanthropic activities, but on her return from Alexandria Bella kick-starts them again, first by demanding to return to Egypt to find and adopt the girl and infant. Godwin informs her that this is impractical, but that there are hundreds of equally destitute children in Glasgow’s East End. He brings home this fact, so to speak, by pointing out that the worst slums can be found on the spot where the nearby University once stood in the East End of the city – its move to the West End, on the next hill along from Park Circus, having been precisely designed to remove it from the dispiriting sight of crowded slums in the University’s back yard.

The ‘sham Gothic’ University of Glasgow, facing the Park

But Godwin also suggests that it is no good adopting children you cannot train to look after themselves in adulthood, and that before this can be done you must learn to look after yourself; the often tritely-used Victorian proverb ‘charity begins at home’ is recalled throughout this section of the novel. Bella/Victoria determines to train as a doctor, and it’s from 18 Park Circus that Godwin plots her difficult path to a medical degree at the University. It’s at 18 Park Circus, too, that he suggests the best role for her husband-to-be, Dr McCandless: he is to be a public health officer because there are ‘no better public benefactors than those who [strive] to make Glasgow better watered, drained and lit – better housed, in fact’ (p. 198). In fact, Victoria’s postscript tells us, Archibald held this role for only a year, after which he effectively became a househusband (Victoria even describes him as ‘a very good wife’ at one point [p. 303]), focusing his energies on improving his home, above all for the benefit of his children. Under his eye the house became what it was before – a place of practical learning – and the couple’s three sons were trained there in socialist principles, and treated to affectionate cuddles (by their father at least) till the age of ten. After this they were sent to Glasgow High School, where they came disastrously into contact with military training and imperialist propaganda.

The editor’s notes at the end of the book trace the future history of the house in Park Circus, in the process developing its significance as a representative part of society in the first half of the twentieth century. Its connection with Socialism continued, so the notes suggest, from the 1890s to the 1920s and 30s, when literary figures like H G Wells (with whom Bella/Victoria had a brief affair) and later Hugh MacDiarmid (with whom she didn’t) and political figures like the revolutionary socialist John Maclean were frequent visitors. The fortunes of the house were depleted by the amount of money Bella/Victoria poured into her clinic in the Cowcaddens, where working-class women and children could go for medical treatment and training, safe and sanitary childbirth, or abortions, paying only what they could afford. By the 1920s Bella/Victoria’s residential space in the Park Circus building was reduced to the basement, to which she moved her clinic after the Scottish medical establishment conspired to have the Cowcaddens clinic shut down. The rest of the house – no longer needed as a family home since the death of her three boys during and after the Great War – was let out, first to university students, then to artists and dancers, turning it from a medical and political hub into ‘one of several unofficial little arts centres flourishing in or near Sauchiehall Street’ during the Second World War (p. 315). In this way it embodies the successive processes of expansion and shrinkage to which the ambitions of British Socialism were subjected in the first half of the twentieth century, from the confines of a single building to the world, from the circuit of a city to the bounds of the United Kingdom, ending on the seeming fulfilment of those ambitions with the election of a Labour Government in 1945. Bella/Victoria hails this moment in a letter to MacDiarmid, while also describing the diminution of her own household to a single Newfoundland dog, and of her client list to a few children’s pets and a couple of hypochondriacs (p. 317). On this sweet-sour note the novel ends, as Bella/Victoria confidently predicts the emergence of a ‘worker’s co-operative nation’ that never came to pass. It’s a vision that will have seemed as improbable in the Tory-governed Britain of 1992, when the novel was published, as the suggestion put forward in the final paragraph that when she died Bella/Victoria’s brain was 66 and her body 92.

Drawing and plan of Park Circus, Glasgow, from Poor Things

Meanwhile the editor’s notes have also identified the house in Park Circus as a site of historical contention. The archivist Michael Donnelly who discovered Archibald’s manuscript uses it as evidence that Archibald’s story is a fabrication. While the manuscript describes the house as having a ‘narrow garden between high walls’, Donnelly’s visit to the building confirms ‘that the space between back entrance and coach-house is too small and sunken to have ever been more than a drying-yard’ (p. 280). The editor Gray, equally determined to prove the manuscript truthful, retorts that this only proves that the coach-house was erected at a later date. The historical-architectural bickering continues in a subsequent note, where the editor tells us Donnelly has shown him the architect’s plans for 18 Park Circus, which include the coach-house, and responds that the fact ‘an architect designed such a feature would not prevent it being built much later’ (p. 285). These different readings of the ‘gloomy terrace house’ transform it into a Frankenstein’s creature of a building, cobbled together in various shapes according to the desires and interests of those who ‘read’ it, a museum curator and a writer-artist, both involved in an imaginative engagement with the intersection of past and future, the known and the unknown, the hoped-for and the actual, the remembered and the forgotten.

Overlapping, too, in the space of the house is the playful utopian space conjured up by Archibald in his memoirs – where he, Godwin and Bella/Victoria cohabit ‘in perfect equality’, having undergone what Victoria calls an ‘equality of deprivation in their childhood (p. 274) – and the unequal space it becomes in Bella/Victoria’s postscript and the editor’s notes. The postscript is devastatingly honest about Bella/Victoria’s contempt for Archibald, for his series of useless self-published books (including a play about Burke and Hare, an epic poem about the Borders cannibal Sawney Bean, and a volume of childhood reminiscences), and for the state of dreamy idleness into which his medical career descended, leaving him a homebody unconcerned with anyone’s happiness but his own and his little family’s. The notes, meanwhile, expose Bella/Victoria’s own decline into obscurity, from being the first female graduate of the medical school at the University of Glasgow, with elevated Socialist convictions, to a solitary idealist whose entire family has predeceased her, dreaming of an impossible future in the narrow confines of a West End basement. Like Archibald’s career, Bella/Victoria’s could be said to go nowhere, side-tracked by idle dreams; and like Archibald she compensates for its increasing irrelevance by self-publishing a series of texts which have as little practical effect as any fantastic narrative.

The subject of Bella/Victoria’s self-published pamphlets is domesticity. After the Great War she is riddled with guilt for what she considers to be her part in the deaths of her sons, blaming herself for the relentless busy-ness that meant she gave little time to their emotional needs, and driving them by neglect into the service of the British Empire. She is convinced their deaths had their roots in her own behaviour, believing that she somehow managed to instil in the boys a sense of the profound contempt in which she held the male body and mind, and which she had imagined herself to be directing only at her husband. For her, their attraction to the military offered perfect proof of their self-disgust. To placate her sense of guilt, she publishes the last of her pamphlets under the title A Loving Economy – A Mother’s Recipe for the End of All National and Class Warfare. The word ‘economy’, as A History Maker reminds us, derives from the ‘Old Greek word for the art of keeping a home weatherproof and supplied with what the householders need’ (p. v). Bella/Victoria’s pamphlet extols the virtue of ‘cuddling’, which refers to the practice of a child sharing a bed with its parents, where ‘it will learn all about love-making and birth control by practical example’, and grow up ‘free of the Oedipus complex, penis envy and other diseases discovered or invented by Doctor Freud’ (p. 308). Contemporary reviews of the pamphlet – accusing Bella/Victoria of erotomania – force her to close her Cowcaddens clinic and retreat to the confines of the West End house. Most of the pamphlets remain undistributed and unread, like Archibald’s literary efforts. Victoria’s recommendation of a new household economy diminishes her influence largely to the circuits of her own household – where her childrearing had already proved ineffectual against the influence of imperialist propaganda. In the process she is effectively erased from a public history which is not yet ready to recognise how ‘private’ domestic practices may lie at the roots of all that is rotten in twentieth-century public life.

Equestrian statue of Lord Roberts near Park Circus, Glasgow. An inspiration for General Blessington?

At this point it’s worth returning to the concept of complicity. How we live, Gray’s novel suggests, on the smallest social scale – as single people, couples and families – makes us complicit in innumerable ways with the large-scale political failures and successes of the community we inhabit. We are made by our environment, yes, but we also make the environment that makes us and our children; our household economy interacts with the larger economy of our neighbourhood, nation and world. The novel traces the way Godwin’s household both reflects on the global economy as it is and offers hope for a new economy as it might be; several new economies, in fact, depending on which version of his household we choose to accept. Alongside his household there are others which reflect a desire to live quite differently, and whose influence can be clearly seen in the archives of history. The most interesting of these alternative households is that of Bella/Victoria’s first husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington, a great man of history – like the brilliant scientist Godwin Baxter – who has been removed from history, thanks to the disgrace of his suicide. Sir Aubrey is famous at the time of his death for acts of brutal destruction, having waged war on the enemies of British imperialism all over the Empire. As we learn more about him, however, it emerges that Sir Aubrey has been bred to wage war on himself; he is consumed with self-loathing, disgusted by his own body and its ill-managed desires, and correspondingly disgusted by the women to whom he feels attracted. His damaged limbs are a consequence of repeated efforts at self-destruction on the battlefield; his penchant for sado-masochism in brothels stems from the same impulse; while his ruined marriage is the result of an inbred contempt for the affections that bind one human being to another, and for the anatomies that propagate those affections. At the end of Archibald’s narrative occurs a scene in which Sir Aubrey seeks to snatch Bella/Victoria back from Godwin; the scene begins in Lansdowne Parish Church but quickly transfers to 18 Park Circus. It culminates in a chapter, titled ‘Blessington’s Last Stand’ (p. 234), in which Sir Aubrey barks out orders and wields a weapon as if on the battlefield, all in the living room of Godwin’s ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’, before being defeated by the powerful woman he seeks to control. At the moment of his defeat, Bella/Victoria snatches his pistol from him and aims it at his chest and Sir Aubrey bellows at her in a kind of ecstasy, ‘SHOOT! I ORDER YOU TO SHOOT!’ At this moment, Archibald tells us, ‘to my ears the order rang backward in history through Balaclava, Waterloo, Culloden and Blenheim to Agincourt and Crécy’ (p. 236). ‘This historical command and passionate plea,’ he goes on, ‘were so powerful that I imagined all the men killed in his battles rising from their graves to shoot him where he stood’ (p. 237). Sir Aubrey’s cry knits the field of battle to the living room carpet, just as Bella/Victoria’s pamphlet knits it to the bedroom by prescribing a capacious double bed as an antidote to war. History has its roots in the household, the space that for so many generations history did not acknowledge, the little space that makes us.

Page design for Poor Things, Chapter 22, with section of lost Who’s Who entry for General Blessington

As it happens, that historical figure General Blessington does not feature in British history. He was erased from Who’s Who after his suicide, either because he disgraced himself by this final act of unauthorised self-destruction (as against authorised self-destruction in military action) or because he had the temerity to die for personal reasons, for causes rooted in the household rather than the state. His disappearance from the history books renders his presence in Gray’s novel an irrelevance, and the book itself a luxury item, filled as it is with fantastically imagined things and people who do not feature in the factual narratives that bestow cultural capital on their readers. Godwin Baxter, Bella/Victoria, Archibald McCandless, all exist (imaginatively speaking) in the forgotten corners of the archives, as shadows at the edges of the old etchings with which the editor fills the last pages of the novel. Spending time and money on them would seem to be an act of reckless self-indulgence, on the part of both the reader and the writer-artist. The care and artistry that have been lavished on the hardback edition of the book – all that strictly unnecessary labour – render it more self-indulgent still, an item to be rejected by pragmatists: financiers, scientists, evangelists, politicians. Except that the book exposes the dreams and desires that suffuse economics, science, politics and evangelism, binding them together with our ungainly bodies and the material conditions of our lives, identifying them as the energies that drive us. It invites us to reconsider what history is, and how it relates to the fantastic. And that’s a story that gets continued in its fine appendix, A History Maker – the subject of a follow-up blog post in a few weeks’ time.

 

Stained Glass Windows in the West

Please click on each picture to get a better view!

The theme for Folklore Thursday this week is the folklore of our local places; and it coincides with the installation of three stained glass windows in the bay window of our flat in Glasgow’s West End. The windows are a family effort. My wife Kirsty thought of them, asked the makers of our windows if they were possible and made suggestions for details they might include. My grown-up children, Boo and Grace, designed two of the windows while I designed the third. And they represent local folklore in two ways: first because they reference Glasgow’s folklore by incorporating themes from a poem that’s become the city’s emblem; and secondly because they contain references to family folklore, that is, knowledge that only our family have and which we will read in the windows every time we look at them. It struck me, when I noticed Folklore Thursday’s theme, that the windows had something interesting to say about it, so I decided to write a blog post about them.

Glasgow City Crest

The poem, as all Glaswegians know, goes something like this:

Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam.

It refers to a series of miracles worked by Kentigern, patron saint of Glasgow, who acquired the name Mungo when he was ordained a priest at the Monastery of St Serf in the gorgeous town of Culross on the Firth of Forth. The bird was a robin, a pet of Mungo’s mentor, St Serf, which was killed by one of the young man’s fellow priests in training, who promptly laid the blame for its death on Mungo. Mungo took the bird in his hands and prayed, whereupon the robin came to life and flew to its master, chirping sweetly. The tree is usually depicted as an oak tree, though according to Glasgow City Council’s website it was originally a hazel. Mungo was left in charge of the fire in the monastery’s refectory or dining room, but he fell asleep and it went out – put out, it seems, by those malicious fellow seminarians. When he woke up Mungo took a bunch of hazel twigs in his hands, prayed over them until they burst into flames, and used them to rekindle the fire. The bell, it would seem, is just a bell, though it may have been given to St Mungo by the Pope. But the fish has a longer story. To quote the City Council’s website:

The fish with a ring in its mouth is a salmon and the ring was a present from Hydderch Hael, King of Cadzow, to his Queen Languoreth.

The Queen gave the ring to a knight and the King, suspecting an intrigue, took it from him while he slept during a hunting party and threw it into the River Clyde. On returning home, the King demanded the ring and threatened Languoreth with death if she could not produce it. The Queen appealed to the knight who, of course, could not help and then confessed to St Mungo who sent one of his monks to fish in the river, instructing him to bring back the first fish caught. This was done and St Mungo extracted the ring from its mouth. The scene is represented on the counter seal of Bishop Wyschard, made about 1271.

The story of the fish, with its link to the Clyde, presumably dates from St Mungo’s time in Glasgow, where he founded a church on the site now occupied by the Cathedral. The site of the city was chosen by a couple of oxen pulling a cart containing the corpse of a holy man named Fergus; Mungo instructed the obedient beasts to take the body wherever God told them to, and they duly made their way to the proper location. All this happened in the sixth century, but the stories of St Mungo are commemorated in the city’s crest, which it acquired in the nineteenth century.

Boo’s Window

Each of the windows in the bay window contains elements of St Mungo’s legend: a bird, a fish – though not with a ring in its mouth – a tree, a bell – and in Gracie’s window you can see all four. But these emblems share space with elements of family lore which only we four would recognise. Boo, for instance, tells me he was inspired by ‘the Kelvin walkway and urban wildlife/fay’ – the walkway being the path beside the River Kelvin which has been thronged with walkers since the first lockdown. For his bird he chose the heron we see so often at the weir near the ruins of the old Flint Mill, while the dark green strips on either side of the main picture contain dark creatures which may or may not be shadowy West End foxes, of the kind that used to live in the gloomy spaces under Hillhead Primary School on Gibson Street. The steeple in the distance invokes the steeples on the Great Western Road, one of which – the steeple of George Gilbert Scott’s Episcopalian Cathedral of St Mary – you can see from our bay window, though the one in the picture looks more like the steeple of Lansdowne Parish Church, now Webster’s Theatre and Bar, where Boo once worked in the Box Office. Boo also thought of the University steeple when he discussed it with me; and the rural landscape invoked for me our many trips to the hilly country north of the city. There’s a frog in a pane in the bottom left hand corner and a toad in the bottom right; Boo is always picking up frogs and toads, most recently I think in the wildlife garden at Glasgow Uni. The sun and the moon share the sky with the heron, and to me the sun looks like the shell of a whelk, of the kind Boo was always gathering on the seashore as a child. But the heron dominates, because the heron is ours, a personal family friend who stands on guard at the side of the weir, hoping no doubt to snap up one of the salmon you used to see leaping up it in spring – though I haven’t seen the salmon leaping for several years, and can only hope the tall grey knight isn’t going hungry.

My Window

My window, which is on the left as you face the bay from outside, has a robin in it as if in deference to Mungo. But it was Kirsty who asked me to put it there, because in our family robins have come to represent lost loved ones, who come back in the form of a bird to keep an eye on the children and friends they left behind. The bell is the bell of St Patrick, and as I was painting it I thought of the time not long after I first came to Glasgow when I cycled along the Forth and Clyde Canal till I came to a place whose name I didn’t know. Fortunately I met an old woman on the towpath and was able to ask her where I was; and she answered, like an old woman in a fairy tale, ‘You’re in Old Kilpatrick. You’ll always remember the name because it’s where St Patrick was born’. She was right, too: I’ve always remembered the name, and the association with St Patrick, and the old woman, and that bike ride in fine weather. The decorations round the edges of the window are based on the Book of Kells, which may or may not have been made on Iona; and as I drew them into the picture I remembered another picture I drew and painted long ago for a family friend, which showed St Patrick sitting under an old Irish cross with his favourite wolfhound lying beside him. That picture too had decorative themes from the Book of Kells, and the wolfhound in it was modeled on our dog Gelert, the largest and sweetest-natured dog I’ve known. The hill in the background is Dumgoyne in the Campsie Fells, up which I once walked carrying Boo in a backpack. And the strange yellow creature in the tree is a cat-bird fairy demon. I know you’ve heard about them, and now you know exactly what they look like, and where to look for them next time you’re standing by a twisted oak.

Gracie’s Window

Gracie’s picture is the most allusive of all. It shows a flying fish, of course; and she chose this kind of fish to commemorate a family holiday in Mallorca, when we saw the miraculous airborne creatures skimming across the waves ahead of the boat that was taking us to a swimming spot in a secluded part of the island, where much smaller, sea-bound fishes nibbled our toes. The fish is surrounded by water because this is Gracie’s favourite element, and also the element of her Zodiac sign, Scorpio. Hidden in the middle panel at the bottom is the Angelic tune symbol from Cassandra Clare’s Shadow Hunter universe, of which the Mortal Instruments book series is one. Grace is a manic reader of thick tomes and enormous book series, and Cassandra Clare and Leigh Bardugo are just two of the writers she’s obsessed with. St Mungo’s signs are all over the place in her window, from the rings at the four corners – four of them plain, four of them with jewels – to the oak trees in the side panels, the bells and the stylised wings of birds. Oak trees, by the way, are personal things to us as well as to Glasgow; outside our window stand the only oak trees planted in the street, the last to get their leaves in spring, the last to lose them in autumn. When their leaves come out in a few weeks’ time you’ll be able to see real oak leaves dancing behind the painted ones.

I suppose the point I’m making in this post is that folklore of a quite specific kind is present in all cohabiting communities, and that we all have objects and pictures that evoke for us things that no one else could ever guess at. What we read, where we’ve been, the things that have happened to us, weave themselves together into stories which get told and retold down the years, until they get lost among fresh skeins of story woven by new generations. Old stories reappear among the new ones, as St Mungo’s does in our pictures, and lend continuity to the narratives we’re part of. And for us, the window painters, fantastic stories (fairy tales, the novels of Cassandra Clare, invented supernatural fauna, the lives of Celtic saints) infuse our local landscape with light, so that we see the fantastic through it, and the tiny details of tree and bird, fish and water, grow magical as a result, capable of coming to life in strange new ways at different times of the day or night.

The greatest miracle of our windows, though, is how they were constructed by a master craftsman using our paintings as a map or blueprint. That’s something only we and the glazier can really appreciate: the amount of trouble he took to select the right textures for the glass he was using in each panel, the thought he gave to the question of how to translate the texture of pen and ink or brushstroke to the glass’s surface, the little inventive touches like a piece of red glass stuck on behind to make the robin’s red breast, the oak leaves created by scraping away the paint from the side panels in Boo’s window. We got the measurements for the middle window slightly wrong, and the glazier had to find ways to make Gracie’s design fit the space precisely. His name is Colin Stevenson, of Stevenson Stained Glass, and he worked on the windows in the evenings from December to late March, after the working day was supposed to be over. The love he put into this process has made itself part of the story they tell, and we’ll think of it every time we look at them.

That’s our contribution to Folklore Thursday’s theme for 25 March 2021, folklore of local places.

 

 

On Alasdair Gray

I knew Alasdair Gray. During his lifetime I was always aware that typing those words would one day come to seem momentous, like saying I knew William Blake or Ursula Le Guin. The seed of this momentousness was sown the moment I arrived in Glasgow and read his fantastic novel Lanark as a guide to the city. There could be no better guide, since it covers everything: Glasgow’s architecture and inhabitants, its place in the British Empire and hence the world, its place in the spiritual universe, the quality of its light, the various kinds of illnesses it suffers from (turning into a salamander being the least of them), and the fact that living there made one complicit with the conditions that cause its ills – as well as with the glories and wonders it is full of. Not long after my arrival at the University of Glasgow in 1992 I found myself teaching the novel of his I love most, Poor Things, which is about a woman who may or may not have been cobbled together, Frankenstein style, by an eccentric surgeon. The book made Glasgow into Frankenstein’s creature, and Scotland too, and the British Empire, and the world. Local things became universal in Gray’s writing, more explicitly than in the work of anyone else I can think of except James Joyce, and this made me proud to be a citizen of the city he lived in.

I met him through a mutual friend, the critic and poet Philip Hobsbaum, founder of a series of influential writer’s groups in Belfast, London and Glasgow. Alasdair was a regular visitor to his house in Oban Drive, and on one occasion he bought a drawing made by my daughter, who was in Primary School at the time. He paid her a pound for it, I think, and said it was an investment for the future, since she was bound to become a famous artist, and he could then sell it for a vast profit. In one gesture, the man summed himself up: a lifelong agitator for decent wages for artists and other workers; a visionary who was always looking to the future, not least in the way he pictured Scotland as an independent socialist republic; a warm and gentle human being who respected and spoke to everyone, though he also seemed profoundly shy. I say ‘seemed’ because his shyness didn’t make him shy away from (for example) public speaking at demonstrations or conversations with strangers, at least in my experience. That said, I didn’t speak to him as often or for as long as I would have liked to. I always felt I shouldn’t take up too many minutes of his astonishingly creative time.

One story I heard from the Hobsbaums, among many others, concerned Alasdair’s creation of one of his finest murals in the front room of Philip’s wife Rosemary, who then lived in West Prince’s Street, a slightly shabby address in Glasgow’s West End. Alasdair had been enjoying himself one evening, to the extent that he cut himself somehow without noticing and left a smear of blood on the living room wall. He liked the shape made by the blood, which resembled the body of a whale, and later came back with his paints and started to sketch out a gigantic mural depicting one of his favourite characters, the reluctant prophet Jonah who was swallowed by one of the great leviathans of the sea. He painted and painted for weeks until the mural was complete. A few years later, Rosemary sold the flat and moved somewhere else, and the new owner wallpapered over the mural. I can’t say I altogether blame them, because it did take up the whole of one wall of the main room in a small apartment, and it was hard to appreciate the picture as a whole because the room was too small to stand back from the painting far enough to see it entire. A few years after that another new owner removed the wallpaper and found the mural underneath, badly damaged by glue. She got in touch with Alasdair to say she’d found it, and Alasdair agreed to come and restore it, entirely free of charge. When the restoration was finished the owner made the painting available to be seen by the public for Doors Open Day, the date in September when the public are invited into private buildings throughout the UK to which they do not normally have access. I saw it then, was blown away by it, and was delighted when it found its way into that beautiful volume Alasdair Gray: A Life in Pictures (I’d give you the page number but the book is in my office at work, inaccessible because of the lockdown). Alasdair fought all his life to achieve fair play for workers, including artists like himself, but his generosity was boundless, and he could spend many hours of his precious time making art for little or nothing, as a gift, a promise, an uninvited prophetic vision.

Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre, University of Glasgow

A few years after meeting him I was lucky enough to work with Alasdair when he came to work at the University of Glasgow as Professor of Creative Writing. Actually the Professorship was another Frankenstein’s creature, having been cobbled together from three entities: the novelist James Kelman, the poet Tom Leonard, and Gray. They had grand designs, which the university was not in the end able to fulfil. One of them was to buy the former church on University Avenue which is now the Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre, and turn the building into a state-of-the-art centre for creative writing, equipped with the latest IT technology, film studios, performing spaces, etc. etc., and attended by around 20 hand-picked students every year, the best and brightest of applicants to the MLitt programme, as it was then. I don’t think the vision was altogether serious, in that nobody thought it could really happen, but it was an authentic representation of the place the arts should occupy in a healthy society from the Professors’ point of view. The most memorable moment of the Professors’ brief tenure as a trio, from my own point of view, was an Away Day in a certain Scottish rural village, organised by the then Head of English Literature, Susan Castillo, to make plans for the future of creative writing at Glasgow. It was attended by my friends Willy Maley and Adam Piette as well as Susan, and the three professors stayed with us in the big hotel that dominates the village. At one point during the proceedings we found ourselves in the village pub. The conversation carried on far into the night in front of the fire, with round after round arriving at the table and the visions of possible futures getting more elaborate and ambitious with every passing hour. I think the doors were locked at one point, but I can’t be sure. We reeled back to the hotel by starlight, and when I woke up in the morning the whole thing seemed to have been a dream; but it was one of those dreams you had in Alasdair’s company – and in Jim’s and Tom’s too – which contained the seeds of political action driven by the engine of the imagination. In Alasdair’s company you too had visions, and carried them home with you to nourish after your time with him was over.

I also remember Jim, Tom and Alasdair reading to students during an occupation. If you approached them to support you in what they considered an important cause they were always available, always committed, always able to find a way to use their art on your behalf.

On two occasions I myself approached Alasdair to ask his opinion of other writer-artists whose work I liked, and thought he might like too. The first was Alfred Kubin, the Austrian printmaker, illustrator and novelist, whose book The Other Side I’ve loved since being introduced to it by one of my university tutors, Christopher Butler. Alasdair took it away, read it carefully, and wrote me a note about it in his unique and beautiful handwriting. He didn’t like the novel, which seemed to him to be about a man who created a perfect replica of a town in the Austro-Hungarian empire for no better reason than a kind of misplaced nostalgia; the illustrations, too, he considered blurrily impressionistic, without style or focus. These are my words, not his; I still have the note, but that too is locked away in my office; when I can get back in there I’ll type it out in full below [no I won’t; I’ll make another blog post about it!]. The point is that he didn’t think much of art that didn’t engage with politics. An artist should be committed, the three professors told us often, and by that they meant as much committed to social transformation as to their art. Alasdair’s understanding of commitment was pretty broad, I think, but didn’t embrace the construction of what amounted to an imaginary theme-park for the perpetuation of inequalities.

The second time I approached him for comment on a writer-artist was when I went to look for him at the Òran Mór – the former church, now entertainment venue, where for many years he could be found working on his biggest and most ambitious mural – to ask if he would provide me with a quotation for the cover of my edition of the Collected Poems of Mervyn Peake. I found him at the bar, asked him my question, and watched him consider it carefully for several minutes. Eventually he gave his answer. No, he said, he couldn’t possibly provide an encomium for a writer-artist who did not dedicate his work to a worthwhile cause. And having issued this declaration of his own integrity – perhaps with slight reluctance – he suddenly burst into verse. He was quoting verbatim, from memory, a poem from Peake’s first novel, Titus Groan. I think this was the stanza, with its chorus:

In dark alcoves I have lingered
Conscious of dead dynasties.
I have lingered in blue cellars
And in hollow trunks of trees.
Many a traveller by moonlight
Passing by a winding stair
Or a cold and crumbling archway
Has been shocked to find me there.

I have longed for thee, my Only,
Hark! The footsteps of the Groan!
Lingering is so very lonely
When one lingers all alone.

Gray, it seemed, loved Mervyn Peake – or at least liked his work enough to memorize a poem from it (Edwin Morgan liked it too). I was enchanted, both by the refusal and by the revelation, and have never forgotten the experience of listening to Alasdair’s voice rising over the hubbub of conversation at the bar as he intoned the words he considered too frivolous to be written about, but by no means too frivolous to be internalised, to be made part of himself. From such contradictions geniuses are made.

Those are my words about Alasdair Gray, written on the inaugural Gray Day, when his friends and fans gather together to remember a remarkable creator – or maker, the word he would rather use. My memories may be faulty, but they’re mine, for what they’re worth, and you’re welcome to them.

Magic Houses at a Time of Covid

Howl’s Moving Castle, from the Studio Ghibli Movie

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

The Domestic Roots of Fantasy

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

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

Tolkien’s own picture of Bilbo’s Hobbit Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexey Repolsky Illustration of Tom Thumb

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

Fantasy Houses and the Gothic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alasdair Gray’s mural at Hillhead Subway Station

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

Magic Houses in Victorian Children’s Fiction

The King of the Golden River, illustration by Richard Doyle

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

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

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

The King of the Golden River, illustration by Arthur Rackham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice in Wonderland, illustration by John Tenniel

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

Alice in Wonderland, from the movie by Jan Svenkmajer

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

Plural Magic Houses of the Twentieth Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portmeirion, Wales

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

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

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

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

Charles W. Stewart, Steerpike surveying Gormenghast

 

 

 

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.

Naomi Mitchison, The Big House (1950)

In the year C. S. Lewis published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950, Naomi Mitchison published a very different fantasy novel for children. Unlike Lewis’s book, The Big House is intimately involved with its own particular time and place, and time and place play a central role in its complex plotting. Set in Argyllshire immediately after the Second World War, in a village called Port-na-Sgadan (‘The Port of the Herring’) which is clearly modeled on Mitchison’s home of Carradale, the novel updates and relocates the Border ballad of Tam Lin, transforming it into a multi-stranded political fable. Simply put, it tells the story of a girl called Susan – Su for short – who embarks on a quest to save a long-lost piper from the fairies. In the process Su learns a great deal about the Big House where she lives and its role in local and national history. More specifically, she learns about class struggle, and how the Big House is deeply implicated in the continuing war of attrition that has been waged by the aristocracy on the commoners over the course of many centuries. As it happens, she also learns a few things about how that war of attrition might be brought to an end; and it’s this final element of the novel that marks its most radical distinction from the Narnian chronicles.

Rescuing the piper from the fairies involves travelling back in time, first to the days of the piper’s early life in the Napoleonic Wars, then to the medieval period, when the Big House is markedly smaller than its twentieth-century equivalent. Su’s travelling companion on these journeys is a working-class boy called Winkie, and each journey places the two children, girl and boy, in radically different situations, figured in each case by their different relationships to the Big House. The four siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe experience Narnia in different ways because of their different personalities (though it’s implied that one of them, Edmund, has had his character somehow ruined by an experimental school he went to). For Mitchison, by contrast, difference is embedded in the class system, which is also bound up with national, regional and gender identities in a complex web of changing relationships which gives her novel a much subtler and darker flavour, so to speak, than the first entry in the Narnia sequence. Its subtlety and darkness explains, perhaps, why it’s less well known than Lewis’s series, but the book is well worth recovering, along with its feisty protagonist, Susan, who provides such a welcome contrast to the relative insipidity of her Narnian namesake.

Carradale House

The Big House falls into three parts or acts, each of which drives a deeper wedge between Su and her companion, Winkie. The first act takes place in the present day, just after the war, at a point in history when the class system has been loosened or at least unsettled by the pressures of global conflict. It also takes place at a time of year – Halloween – when all the social, cultural and supernatural forces that seethe beneath the surface of the local community tend to boil over, thanks to the old traditions observed by all classes in Port-na-Sgadan. The second act of the novel, set in the early nineteenth century, exposes the material roots of the class struggle that brought about the long-standing hostility between the inhabitants of the Big House and their poorer neighbours. The third act takes the children back to medieval times and underlines the arbitrariness of the class system by placing Su and Winkie in reverse positions. In this period Winkie unexpectedly finds himself in charge of the Big House as clan chief, while Su becomes dependent on his good will in her new role as an injured stranger, who happens to be under Winkie’s protection as his houseguest. The final chapter of the novel returns to the possibility of discovering alternative narratives within the dominant narratives of history which is where the book began. In the process it suggests that the relationship between Su and Winkie might mark the beginning of a new and better phase of class relations, or even the eventual end of class antagonism altogether.

Naomi Mitchison

The threefold structure neatly invokes the many sets of threes that dominate the traditional fairy tale, and we’re invited to consider this numerical significance by the novel’s playfulness with numbers – although the number seven is more closely aligned with the fairies in this book than the number three. Three is the charm, though, as they say, and Mitchison’s narrative (which is full of magic charms of one kind or another) seems to urge or charm its readership, through their sympathy with the personal charms of its two protagonists, into both understanding and breaking down some of the inequalities that divided British communities in the 1950s. If Lewis is concerned with the spiritual and imaginative wellbeing of his readers, Mitchison is more concerned with their material and political welfare. But she too introduces a spiritual dimension into her narrative thanks to the prominence in all three acts of religion and the pagan supernatural, in the shape of the Christian church and its old arch enemies: ‘Yon Ones’, as Winkie terms them, the fairies or good people. The coexistence of these antagonistic supernatural elements alongside the class antagonism that threatens Su and Winkie’s friendship suggests that Mitchison wishes to stress the presence in any given period of multiple narratives or versions of events; narratives that must be understood and reconciled before the foundations can be laid of a better social order.

As I said, the first act of the novel takes place at Halloween, and represents it as a time when the power relations in the children’s community are temporarily suspended (or turned ‘tapsalteery’, as Winkie puts it, p. 66). The mechanism of this suspension is the Scottish custom of ‘guising’ as practised in this remote part of Argyllshire. In Port-na-Sgadan on All Hallows’ Eve women dress up as men, men dress as women, and all revelers don a ‘false-face’ or facial disguise to conceal their identity. Under cover of this disguise, class hostility can either be temporarily set aside (since nobody knows the identity of the revelers) or given free play (for the exact same reason). As the book opens, Su has just been attacked and hurt by an anonymous group of older schoolmates ‘because she was from the Big House, and in times past the Big House had been hard and cruel to the fathers and grandfathers of the ones at the school, and kept them in fear and, maybe, put them out of their houses, but now the thing had turned round and they had revenged themselves’ (p. 10). Halloween, then, represents a kind of miniature social revolution – literally, a ‘turning round’, when girls can join with boys in acts of violence that would not normally be condoned by either sex (Su is usually only subjected to class hostility at school through ostracism, as we learn later). The notion of turning things round also suggests that Halloween is a season when conventional measurements of time are somehow suspended, as they are in all annual rituals, since such rituals imply that time is cyclical rather than linear, and hence that progress, revolution and reconciliation are equally unlikely ever to be accomplished. Su’s attackers are committed, in fact, to upholding a perpetual cycle of injury and revenge – of feuding, in other words – which repeats itself in all three parts of the novel, and against which Su and Winkie’s friendship stands as the sole hope of future amendment.

Carradale

The cyclical view of time invoked by the annual custom of guising in turn reminds us that Halloween is a season when other forces are at work besides class politics. It’s a significant date in the old church calendar, for one thing, being the day before the major feast of All Saint’s Day. And it’s also a significant date in the pagan year: Samhain, when fairies and the dead are said to roam abroad and when children in particular are vulnerable to supernatural influences (this may lie behind the custom of guising, concealing as it does the children’s identity from potential fairy kidnappers). Sure enough, on this particular Halloween Su and Winkie meet the walking dead in the form of the piper, Donald Ferguson, who was born in the early nineteenth century before being abducted by fairies and granted supernatural longevity in exchange for his freedom. Halloween is the time of year when the doors of Fairy Land stand open, and Donald has managed to slip through them – pipes and all – and make his way down to the village that was once his home. As he marches along he plays a tune to give himself courage and keeps an eye out for the church, where he hopes to gain sanctuary from ‘Yon Ones’ on premises held sacred by their religious antagonists. Instead Su and Winkie take him to the Big House and protect him from the Fairy Prince by barring the way to his hiding place with a family Bible. Later he and the children seek to know what to do next by choosing a text from the scriptures at random, one for each of them – three in all; and each text accurately predicts the experiences of its chooser in each of the three acts of the novel. All three acts mix pagan and Christian elements in a continuation of the narrative begun at Halloween, thus underscoring for the children the coexistence of different religious as well as political perspectives on each historical period they visit. It’s an ingenious plot structure, which enables Mitchison to offer her readers an understanding of the interwoven processes of history of the sort C S Lewis is simply not concerned to provide.

Caramel from Above

There is a clear crossover between the political and the supernatural narratives in Mitchison’s text. The abduction of the piper by the fairies, for instance, has a political dimension. Donald Ferguson is a working-class man, and his abductor is a Fairy Prince unwilling to free him from his bondage or enslavement in the fairy kingdom. Yet despite the danger he is in from his fairy pursuers, Donald is at first reluctant to enter the Big House when Su invites him. ‘I will not go the Big House’ he insists (p. 12), presumably because (like his kinsman Winkie) he will not feel welcome or safe in the local stronghold of the ruling classes. His reluctance is justified a page or two later when Su instinctively invites the Fairy Prince into the building as he comes looking for the piper, giving him access to the premises with a formal Gaelic welcome as if in unconscious acknowledgment of their affinity as fellow members of the governing elite (p. 17). It’s because of Winkie’s class background, too, that the boy is so much more au fait with supernatural goings-on in Port-na-Sgadan than Su is. From the moment he meets the piper he is convinced of the continuing presence there of ‘Yon Ones’, as Susan is not; and this may be as much because there is no electric lighting in his house as because his family is more inclined than hers to give credence to oral traditions (‘“It just can’t be true,’ said Su, ‘you know it can’t! It just doesn’t go with electric light!’”, p. 16). Winkie knows many things that don’t ‘go with electric light’. He knows, for instance, about the recent doings in Port-na-Sgadan of the tutelary guardian of the Big House, the Brounie; doings about which Su has never heard, since, as Winkie puts it, ‘“There is things that dinna get told to the Big House ones”’ (p. 30). Moreover, for Winkie the difference between the Brounie, which gives its supernatural assistance to anyone who needs it regardless of class, and the Fairy Prince, who expects unquestioning compliance from his social inferiors, is fundamentally a class difference. This class difference is present, too, in the different level of understanding of the fairies possessed by the travelling folk, the tinkers, as compared to the local working-class people like Winkie, who despise the traveller community. The young tinker Ian Townsley can play a tune on the pipes which makes the Fairy Prince disappear from the Big House kitchen in the first act of the narrative; while in the third and final act Su and Winkie get help from tinkers when they find themselves stranded on the road between past, present and future. Each distinct class – the ‘Big House ones’, the local working-class population and the travellers – has access to a different level of knowledge about Yon Ones, which is in inverse proportion to their access to educational opportunities and the benefits of technological progress, such as electric lighting.

Second World War Mine in Carradale

Running alongside the other narratives in the novel – the stories of the class struggle and of the struggle between Christianity and paganism – runs the narrative of the recently ended global conflict. The impact of the War is felt everywhere in the novel, most deeply, perhaps, in the changes that have taken place in the Big House of the title. Like the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the building has diminished in social stature over time, but unlike Lewis Mitchison is keen to stress the role played by war in this diminution. The resident family’s fortunes clearly took a downturn during the Blitz, which destroyed their London home and killed Su’s ‘London aunt’; and since then London has remained the centre of the mother’s activities, because she works at a Ministry (we never learn which one, just as we never find out what has happened to Su’s father). Power, then, has been sapped from the Big House by the concentration of the military, governmental and economic High Command in the southeast corner of the United Kingdom. The absence of servants in the Big House, apart from old Morag, can be attributed to the fact that ‘there’s a war on’ (p. 24) – or at least a peace which continues to be shaped by the demands of war. The war explains, in fact, why the Big House has lost its ruling class glamour. Its once splendid kitchen now serves only the blandest food – potatoes, oatmeal, herrings, milk (p. 18) – because of rationing, which continued in the UK well into the 1950s. The occupants of the house are evidently subject to the same restrictions and regulations as the rest of the population, with the result that the appearance of the piper raises urgent questions in Su’s mind as to where she will find him an official ration book. The war has turned the Big House into a minor component in a nation-wide military machine, and in the process its political significance and authority have receded into the past.

The other classes in the novel too have been affected by war. Many of the men in the village have served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who wear military issue kilts, and when Su first sees the kilted piper she thinks he might be one of them. Presumably the servants at the Big House have been called up for military service or other war work. The fairies, meanwhile, seem to know as much about the war as the human population. When the children enter the fairy kingdom under the Hill in the second act, an enchanted brazen head asks them a riddle whose answer is ‘a bomber’. Not long afterwards the protective spirit of the Big House, the ‘Brounie’, shows a remarkable skill in forging official documents such as ration books and identity cards. The most striking of these supernatural wartime references, though, is the series of spells cast by the Fairy Prince in his effort to reassert his power over the piper, which resemble bomb blasts like the one that destroyed Su’s London home:

Then the Prince lifted his hand, and everything began to shake like in an air raid when they are coming close and you are all on the floor waiting for the next one. And like the falling of a bomb something terrible and blinding seemed to happen, and Su was holding in her arms a coiling, wriggling mass of snakes, or one snake, and its head was looking at her, and it opened a fanged earth-smelling mouth (p. 89).

In this passage it becomes clear that the children in Mitchison’s narrative have undergone wartime experiences that more than prepare them for the perils and terrors they encounter in their dealings with ‘Yon Ones’. Su clings fiercely to the piper as he changes into a succession of terrifying forms, just as Janet clung to Tam Lin in the old ballad to free him from the power of the fairy queen, and we are told before the changes begin that the piper’s wife was unable to complete the same challenge when it was given her many decades earlier. Su’s success, despite her young age, can be explained by her seemingly first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live through an air raid. And this knowledge comes in useful again later in the narrative, when she and Winkie correctly answer the riddle posed by the brazen head: ‘What is the bird that flies but is dead, and the eggs that it lays flying hatch death?’ […] ‘We think it is a bomber’ (p. 74). The head seems profoundly disturbed by their familiarity with the hardware of destruction (‘Sorrow, sorrow on me!’ it cries, ‘Sorrow on yourselves! Children of middle earth, it is over much that you know’); but the children themselves take their wartime experiences very much for granted, like their experiences of injustice in the classroom or of hostility between social classes. C. S. Lewis didn’t see fit to explain why Peter found it so easy to face a wolf with a sword in his hand when he had no experience of hand-to-hand combat; the impression we get is that such exploits just come naturally to properly brought up boys. Mitchison is careful to underline where Su’s courage springs from.

The difference between Lewis’s and Mitchison’s positions with respect to the war finds its most striking expression at the point in each novel when the antagonist offers a child some luxury sweets. Lewis says nothing at all about the sheer level of temptation felt by Edmund when the White Witch offers him Turkish Delight, or about the reasons why he should have succumbed to this temptation at a time of rationing. When the Fairy Prince offers Su and Winkie chocolates, by contrast, in the hope of tempting them to reveal the piper’s whereabouts, their experience of the offering is considered in meticulous detail. Su thinks at first, from the look of the chocolate box, that the Prince is about to offer her a diamond necklace, something she would find easy to refuse. But the chocolates – which evoke pre-war Christmases, a time of plenty and affection as embodied in the London aunt who used to give similar chocolates to her nieces and nephews as Christmas presents, so that the candy invokes an emotional as well as a physical yearning – the chocolates are a much more attractive proposition. They are made, we are told, ‘with the very best chocolate […] and real butter and real almonds and walnuts and Brazil nuts and pistachio nuts, and real fruit and any amount of castor sugar, and not one bit of saccharine or soya flour or flavouring out of bottles’ (p. 18). Like Edmund’s Turkish Delight these ingredients come from far off lands – the term ‘Brazil nuts’ stresses the fact – and the reference at the end of the sentence to the artificial ingredients substituted for natural ones because of shortages serves to intensify the sense of their exoticism and costliness. Even the butter is luxurious, since we learn later in the book that a ration of butter lasts only for a few days of each week, so that ‘it’s always margarine’ by Friday (p. 26). So far so tempting; but Mitchison also stresses the subtly different levels of temptation felt by ruling-class Su and working-class Winkie. ‘[T]here were no sweeties like this in all Europe,’ she points out, ‘and never had been for Winkie, and never would be again for Su’ (p. 18). The children are only rescued from temptation by the sudden arrival of a party of guisers, which means that the chocolates turn abruptly to a ‘scatter of leaves’. There is no suggestion that Mitchison would have judged the children if they’d eaten the sweets, and Su is later quite open about the fact that if she were offered them again she would be more than ever tempted to take some (‘“I do hope they won’t try and give us sweeties again like last time,” said Su, and sighed’, p. 33). Lewis’s moral condemnation of Edmund is the easy judgment of the well-fed. Mitchison, on the other hand, is concerned to stress the genuine difficulty any child would face in refusing a gift like this in a postwar economy.

The division between the two children’s class experiences, as embodied in episode with the chocolates, gets exacerbated in the novel’s second act. Here they travel back in time to the early nineteenth century, in a quest to recover Su’s shadow – stolen from her by the Fairy Prince in retaliation for her successful defence of the piper against his spells. The Fairy Prince perhaps considers himself entitled to the shadow because of the class bond between himself and Su which was confirmed when she welcomed him into her family home; and the period to which the children travel quickly interposes the shadow of class antagonism between the two of them, even before they have properly begun their quest. They live apart in this period for several weeks, and by the time they meet again their divided lives as ruling-class girl and working-class boy have radically changed their bodies – especially Winkie’s. When Su puts her arm around the boy’s shoulders she finds he has grown appallingly thin, and this lends weight to his words when he tells her that since his arrival in this epoch he has always been hungry. As a result, when food is offered as temptation by the fairies for the second time a few pages later, Winkie finds it almost impossible to refuse the gift and has to be forcibly dragged away by his better-fed companion:

‘Do you know,’ said Su, in her best grown-up voice, ‘I am really not hungry just now.’

‘Winkie is hungry,’ said Winkie’s lovely partner. ‘Eat now! Do you think I would harm you, Winkie? Do you think it is in me to harm you?’ And she smiled at him.

Su snatched at his hands. ‘Don’t eat, Winkie. Remember!’ (p. 70)

In this way the different period intensifies the children’s consciousness of the material differences involved in living as members of different social classes, and this awareness also means that their friendship is tested to a new level. Even meeting is difficult for them, and their eventual reunion is only achieved thanks to Su’s returning memory of their friendship in the twentieth century, a friendship that would be next to impossible in the nineteenth.

The friendship between the Pevensie children too is severely tested, of course, in Lewis’s novel; first by Edmund’s decision not to corroborate Lucy’s claim to have visited Narnia, then much more seriously by Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings to the White Witch. But in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe no motive is given for this betrayal beyond the vague allusion to the school he went to; and there is no real reason for Edmund’s actions not to be forgiven and forgotten as soon as he changes his mind. Since the four Pevensies share the same class background it is accepted among them that forgiveness is more honourable than resentment – that it is gentlemanly, to use an ideologically loaded term. In any case Edmund is the brother of Peter, Susan and Lucy, and forgiveness between siblings is ‘natural’. The threatened enmity between Su and Winkie, on the other hand, is structurally embedded in the class system as it manifests itself in each of the societies they live in. It’s embedded in their bodies – especially Winkie’s, which grows stronger and more energetic in the medieval period, when he is Chief of his clan and master of the Big House, just as it grew weaker in the nineteenth century. It’s embedded, too, in their experience of work, a world with which Winkie is already familiar in the twentieth century, as the son of a fisherman, and which becomes a desperate struggle for survival for him in the Napoleonic era. Su, meanwhile, does not work in the 1940s, and experiences the early nineteenth century as a time of uninterrupted play. The medieval period, by contrast, is for her a time of physical and emotional suffering. Winkie shoots her in the arm with an arrow, thinking she is a swan, and she spends the rest of her time there as an outsider among his people, yearning for a return to the modern Big House where she felt at home. She is unable to join in the ‘bower crafts’ of the women in Winkie’s community, and her inability to find a place for herself through work adds to her impression that the medieval period is somehow ‘unreal’ and that her own time is the only one that has any substance. The segregated activities of class and sex drive a wedge between the novel’s protagonists which threatens their friendship by forcing them to confront the alien cultures in which they were raised, the alien perspectives on history from which they have emerged, and the distinct kinds of knowledge they possess in every epoch.

At the same time, their friendship keeps reasserting its reality in each period, reestablishing itself as materially present at the expense of new relationships they have formed. At one point in the second act Su has a talk about class with one of her Big House relatives – a girl called Elspeth – which suddenly reveals to her the distance that separates them in terms of their attitudes to working people. Elspeth considers it perfectly reasonable to punish a man for cutting down a tree on Big House property, while Su is horrified by the savagery of his punishment (he has been forcibly conscripted in the British army and dispatched to the wars). Afterwards Su is suddenly visited by a Gothic vision in which Elspeth and the other children whose room she shares have turned into corpses in a mausoleum:

She rolled round. Elspeth was asleep. And at that she began to think in a horror, that grew worse and worse, how from her own time all these people were dead, and Elspie there was a dead corpse, and Mysie and Helen and all, and here she was left alone with them and she could not bear it, and she slipped quickly out of bed. Here was the room that used to seem so nice and cosy with the glow of the fire and the white linen of the feather beds, and each bed tented with bright curtains into a soft cave for two yellow heads whispering over the day; it was frightening now, it was not properly there! (p. 45)

This sensation that she is experiencing a variety of false consciousness, expressed in the melodramatic terms of early nineteenth-century sensational novels such as Frankenstein or Melmoth the Wanderer, impels her to leave the Big House and meet up with Winkie. The boy then reveals to her the material conditions that have enabled her to live her comfortable life up to this point: the near starvation of his family, the violent suppression of their political ideas, the aggressive punishment of minor crimes to which they were driven by poverty. As he speaks it becomes increasingly clear that the class conflict they have experienced stands on the verge of escalating into full-scale civil war, and that the war being waged on Napoleon is an aspect of the same class conflict.

In the first act, Su rather patronizingly dismisses the ‘terrible great war’ against Napoleon, as the piper calls it, with the observation that her own time ‘had Hitler, who was much worse’ (p. 26). Her assumption is that the twentieth-century experience of war has been far more ‘terrible’ than the piper’s in every way. The piper, on the other hand, sees the Second World War as the continuation of a struggle that has carried on in every epoch: ‘It was always so,’ he observes resignedly. Su and Winkie’s visits to the past confirm both the savage nature of the conflict he mentioned and its continuity through successive generations. In the Napoleonic era, Winkie’s response to the prosecution of his cousin Dougie is to join with Dougie’s brother to give the magistrate a beating or ‘slashing’ of the kind handed out to Dougie before he was sentenced. As it turns out the magistrate involved is an uncle of Su’s in this period, and she must show solidarity with Winkie by joining him on the expedition of revenge against a member of her own family. Su watches as Winkie and his older cousin engage in an awkward and unsatisfactory brawl with the uncle, who is mounted and armed with a whip. Afterwards, she, Winkie and the cousin are chased through the night by the magistrate and his men in another act of retaliation, which will implicitly lead on to further retaliatory acts until the moment at the opening of the novel when Su herself will be attacked by her schoolmates for being descended from men like her magistrate uncle. These experiences are echoed in the third act of the novel when Winkie as chief of his clan is expected to carry on a blood feud with the neighbouring clan, killing a relative of the man who killed his father in a cycle of murder and counter-murder which lays the foundation, we are led to suppose, for the future acts of violence against class enemies which have blighted the lives of Winkie’s and Su’s families. The possibility of breaking out of this cycle of violence seems even more remote than the possibility of rescuing the piper from the fairies or retrieving Su’s shadow from beneath the fairy hill.

At the same time, Su’s growing experience of cyclical violence consolidates her determination to put an end to it. Near the beginning of the story, when the piper gives Winkie a sgian dubh or knife to use on his travels Su is envious of the possibilities for bloodshed it represents: ‘“Oh, you are lucky!”’ she tells him, ‘“You might really be able to kill someone!”’ (p. 34). By the time she and Winkie find their way to the fairy realm after the attack on the magistrate, however, she has changed her tune, and when the High King of the Fairies offers her a wish in place of her shadow, she tells him that her ambition in life is to be ‘someone who can stop wars happening’ (p. 77). In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Father Christmas tells Susan and Lucy that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’ and bars them from the final conflict with the White Witch. Su, by contrast, chooses to set herself against violence, and learns in the process that the struggle for peace and social justice will be just as hard as the path of war. As he tempts her to turn aside from her quest for her shadow the High King of the Fairies gives her a glimpse in a magic mirror of the difficulties such a struggle will involve:

and it seemed to her to be a terrible hard way, and many of them on it were dead or dying, in some cruel and senseless fashion. And at each side there were a thousand pitfalls and temptations, and the end was beyond sight […] and indeed it was more than she had in her at this time to look along it any more. (p. 77)

Later, she learns from the Big House Brounie that her counterpart in the Napoleonic period – the girl whose place she took when she travelled back from the twentieth century, an ancestor of hers – chose a similar path of social justice, and that after a life spent fighting for ‘every kind o’ reform […] in the end she died of a fever that came on her down Gorbals way nursing a poor woman body that had nae kin of her ain’ (p. 80). Running alongside the heritage of violence, then, that mars Su’s family history, there is a counter-tradition of reconciliation and social responsibility whose adherents are as heroic – and often as badly damaged by their heroic actions – as any warrior. This tradition is more or less absent from the Narnian chronicles, despite the presence of female characters among its protagonists, and its absence is made the more striking by its prominence in Mitchison’s novel.

The tradition of reconciliation is embodied from the opening pages of The Big House in the friendship between Su and Winkie. When Su is attacked by older children, some of whom seem to be Winkie’s relatives, the boy chooses to take her side against his family because he feels ‘terrible affronted’ by what has been done to her (p. 10). Later he urges her to replicate this gesture by witnessing his own assault on her magistrate uncle, thus distancing herself from her family in a display of solidarity with Winkie’s kin. Meanwhile there have been several hints that a new kind of bond exists between them; something stronger than friendship or solidarity. This bond is implicit in the very fact that they find themselves together at Halloween. Robert Burns’s poem ‘Halloween’ (1785) associates the season with pagan fertility charms: every Halloween custom it describes involves some trick or spell to find out who will be your ‘future conjugal yoke-fellow’, as Burns put it, either by picking kale stalks or pulling at a thread, or looking in a mirror while eating an apple, or sowing hemp-seed. These are Ayrshire customs, presumably, since Burns grew up near Ayr, but the customs invoked by Mitchison are just as focused on desire and the prospect of some future ‘yoke-fellow’. Cross-dressing draws the revelers’ attention to gender identity – the difference between male and female as established by custom and expressed in clothing – while their ‘false-faces’ invite guessing games about who is behind which mask, and by extension about whose company they are keeping. Winkie and Su join in these games even after they’ve met the piper:

Five people went by, grown-ups, all dressed and with false-faces and laughing. Susan and Winkie argued about who they were. Winkie was sure it was old Mrs. Macdonald from the smiddy’s skirt on the man of the party, and the one with the navy trousers and its head in a flour-bag was Betty who worked at the Manse. Su said no, it was young Mrs. Paterson. ‘It was Betty, right enough,’ said Winkie, ‘I knew her from the way she wiggled her behind.’

‘Well then, if it was Betty,’ said Su, ‘the man would have been Red Tom, and he isn’t that size.’

‘Betty hasna been going with Red Tom this month past,’ said Winkie, ‘she is after a slater from down the way.’ (pp. 13-14)

Part of the evening’s sport, then, is to decide who is ‘going with’ whom. Under the covers of the false-faces boys and girls, men and women can walk out with their chosen partners under a screen of anonymity, and the right guessing of who is walking out with whom serves to confirm the guesser’s knowledge of the local community. As an upper-class outsider Su finds this guessing game more difficult than Winkie; but the boy’s decision to come home with her that night, despite his unease in the Big House, allows the reader to make a good guess as to the strength of his feelings for her. And there are further hints later in the narrative. When the piper meets Winkie in the Napoleonic era and asks him ‘Where is your lassie?’ he causes the boy acute embarrassment, which Winkie expresses in terms that echo the description of his inner turmoil as he stood by Su after the attack: ‘myself feeling so affronted I could have bitten him’ (p. 54, my emphasis). The Brounie of the Big House, meanwhile, keeps referring to Su as Winkie’s lassie; and in the third act of the novel Winkie describes her in the same terms himself (‘I must seek my lassie’, p. 121), even going so far as to promise to marry her if she will stay with him in the medieval period (p. 158). Mitchison’s is a world in which children are not barred from an awareness of current or future attraction to each other. Lewis’s Pevensie siblings, on the other hand, are never put in the position of thinking positively about relations between the sexes, and the one sibling who does think about such things – Susan – is famously barred from a return to Narnia in the sequence’s final book. Lewis may have provided his children with serious adventures for high stakes, in recognition of the serious roles children had taken on in the Second World War, but he rarely contemplates the possibility that they might experience any form of mutual desire or attraction.

Su and Winkie’s relationship, by contrast, takes centre stage in Mitchison’s novel, anticipating the centrality of Lyra and Will’s relationship in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And like Lyra and Will’s relationship, it grows more intense as the book goes on, reaching its culmination in the third act. The act opens with the greatest test of their bond so far: Su has been sent away to boarding school in England, which both removes her from the hostile environment of the local state school and drives a new wedge between her and Winkie, ensuring that they don’t meet at all when she returns to the Big House for the vacation. But before this happens their bond has reached a new pitch of intensity. At the end of the second act Su saves the piper from the fairies for a second time, as Janet saved Tam Lin, by clinging to him as he goes through a range of magical changes into terrifying forms. But unlike Janet, Su emerges from this trial not with a lover but a baby; the last form the piper assumes is that of an infant, and an infant he remains after the fairies relinquish their claim on him. This alteration of the ballad is carefully considered, since the baby dominates the third act of the novel as an embodiment of the difficult but potentially transformative union of ruling-class and working-class culture that might spring from Su and Winkie’s alliance. The difficulty dominates at first. While Su warms to the baby at once, Winkie is deeply unsettled by the suggestion that he might take on the role of the child’s father, and accepts responsibility for him only when it appears that Donald will be raised as a Big House boy with no input at all from the working-class villagers. This is another affront to Winkie’s pride, since it involves making the infant piper a class traitor, a situation the boy finds intolerable: ‘“He isna to be just a Big House one!”’ (p. 97). It’s at this point that the baby assumes a new role as a promise for the future, confirming the connection between Su of the Big House and the fisherman’s son through a common concern for the child’s education:

‘I dinna want to be his father,’ said Winkie, ‘but when I have my own boat I want him to come wi’ me.’

‘But of course he is going to do that,’ said Su […] ‘and so am I. And it’s no good saying I’m only a girl, Winkie, because it won’t work with me. And after all, what Donald wanted was a home, and he may as well have that twice over. Yes, and he is going to play with the tinkers, and sit next to them at the school, Winkie. And you may as well make up your mind to it. (pp. 97-8)

The piper’s transformation into an infant, then, represents a new beginning for his fragmented Argyllshire community, uniting all the narrative strands in the book so far. As well as bringing Su and Winkie closer together Donald offers an opportunity to erode the arbitrary gendering of roles in the workplace and to erase the class hostility between dwellers in houses and the travellers. So when the child’s soul is stolen away in the final act, leaving a foul-mouthed changeling to possess his body, there is an implied threat to the whole community in the exchange. Mitchison’s solution to this threat is to weave the separate narrative strands of her story into single cloth, bringing together the Christian church and the fairies, the fairies and Su, the ‘Big House ones’ and the villagers, the tinkers and Winkie’s people, in a complementary warp and weft which can no longer be separated, and which together make up the concept of ‘home’. The fusion is anticipated in the baby, which has a home ‘twice over’ – in working-class Port-na-Sgadan and the Big House; and the novel’s concluding part can in fact be read as the forging of a home that meets the needs of all its inhabitants, as represented by the infant Donald.

The adventure begins on the night after the stealing of the baby’s soul, when Su wakes to find the Brounie in her room. The household spirit has sought her out to put things right by fetching the soul from the past, where it has been hidden, and once again this involves a journey into history. From the start this second journey involves a fusion of disparate elements, beginning with Christianity and paganism. To make the spell that will send Su back in time the Brounie draws a cross in the dust on the Big House floor, and it later uses the same mark to send Winkie on a separate journey. For the Brounie the cross functions as a potent magic symbol, capable of turning the girl into a time-travelling swan and hurling the boy from body to body across many centuries. But Winkie’s journey ends when he sees the same mark on the cover of a Christian Bible, on which he is being sworn in as the new Chief of his clan after his father’s murder. The medieval period he has arrived in has the rivalry between Christianity and the fairy people at its core; and when Su gets there shortly afterwards she learns from her friend Donaldina the tinker that the power of the Church functions to keep the power of the Fairy Hill at bay: ‘“They are aye taking the babies. They are aye putting their power on to folk for ill, or whiles for good. […] But when we are going to the church we have a bigger power and a stronger sign.”’ The two marks or crosses, then, seem to be at odds; except that the opposition between fairy and church is undermined by Su herself, who is transformed by the Brounie’s magic into a swan maiden, a kind of fairy queen, and whose moment of greatest power again fuses the pagan and Christian crosses into a ‘stronger sign’.

Part of Winkie’s duties as clan chief is to avenge his father’s murder on the neighbouring clan who carried it out. The opportunity for this comes when his foster brother brings one of the hostile clansmen to the Big House, now Winkie’s castle. Winkie prepares to carry out a summary execution; but before this can happen Su intervenes, and her intervention is accompanied by the reappearance of the Brounie’s cross in the hall of the castle: ‘a pattern of brightness came between herself and them, a pattern as huge as the hall, of a cross in the square, and the lines within the cross, and then the joining together of the lines through curves and loops’ (p. 132). Su enlists the pagan cross on behalf of her cause as she begs the boy to spare his enemy; and she finds an unexpected ally in the local priest, who backs up her plea for mercy with a text from the Scriptures, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (p. 133). The priest points out that this is not the first time he has cited the commandment in his efforts to end the feud, but that the clan has always persisted in cleaving instead to the ‘law of the old days’ – the law of retribution. Clearly a power from these same ‘old days’ – the swan maiden, with her pagan sign – was needed before the half-pagan men of the clan were able to hear the priest’s injunction. Later the swan maiden and the priest again join forces, this time to capture the Fairy Queen and compel her to reveal the hiding-place where Donald’s soul is stowed. On this occasion it’s the priest who seeks retribution, and as he prepares to destroy the Fairy Queen with holy water, Su again intervenes with a plea for mercy. Both her interventions prove successful; and as a result Su’s presence in the past turns out to have reconciled – for a time at least – the seemingly incompatible powers of Christianity and the pagan supernatural, combining them into a ‘stronger sign’ than either one of them would have been in isolation.

Carradale Church

Meanwhile Winkie’s position as elected chief of the clan, possessed of the fortified tower that stands where the Big House will later be situated, undermines the notion that social status is a matter of bloodline. His kinship with Su has in any case been established in the second act, when they wore the same tartan in the enchanted dance hall of the Fairy Hill. In the final act, for a while, their kinship seems to have been revoked by the Brounie’s magic – even though it was the Brounie who first pointed out the historical ties between them. Many of Winkie’s people, including the priest, are convinced that Su is not even human; after all, they first saw her as a swan, and even after her return to human form her quarters in the castle are often adrift with swan down. Winkie, however, insists on her humanity, and heroically keeps himself and Su together against all odds – above all, against his own interests. He brings her under his roof despite the suspicions harboured by the priest against her, agrees to spare his enemy at her request despite the demands of the feud, escorts her to the location of Donald’s soul despite his initial reluctance to go there, and finally agrees to give up his status as chief, with all the pleasures and privileges it entails, in order to help her get back to the twentieth century. In the process he cements the bond between them. As Su says to him after their return to Port-na-Sgadan, when he again expresses reluctance to enter the Big House with all her family in it, ‘Nobody else did what you did for me’ (p. 168) – in other words, he has brought himself closer to her than any of her relatives. In this final section of the book, then, as in the other sections, comradeship and humaneness outweigh the divisions that are always being imposed between classes, sexes, religions, cultures, families and neighbours. Mutual solidarity and affection win out over the material wealth that makes some people comfortable at the expense of others. It’s a far more complex ending than the one Lewis chose for his first Narnian book – a battle in which the antagonist is killed and all rights are wronged without any residual rancor or regret; then a role as monarchs for all four Pevensie children, a role that seems to have no impact whatsoever on their afterlives in the ‘real’ world of the reader. History is not so painlessly dismissed in Mitchison’s universe.

The last chapter of The Big House has the title ‘Times Within Times’, for what at first seems an obvious reason. In it, Su and Winkie meet a truck driver who is somehow also the prisoner Winkie freed at Su’s request. The driver is able to tell them what happened to the historical chief whose place Winkie took when he went back in time. Meanwhile Winkie and Su themselves embody times within times, since they remember all their adventures in the past, and plan to use these experiences to build their futures. Su intends to follow the difficult path taken by the ancestor whose body she briefly occupied, and work as a lifelong campaigner for peace. Winkie hopes to imitate the Chief whose place he filled. All three of these people in the final chapter – Su, the truck driver and Winkie – contain the past within their bodies, much as the Halloween revelers in the first chapter concealed beneath their masks at once their own personal identities and a link, through tradition, to the Halloween revelers that came before them. The difference is that Su and Winkie are concerned to change things rather than to keep them the same; and the truck driver – who was once a prisoner condemned to death and whose life they saved – represents that resolve as clearly as the baby’s soul they are carrying home with them.

In this book, then, Mitchison uses the past to build not a nostalgic dream of a golden time that never was but an aspiration for a better future. But she also insists that this better future must be built on a knowledge of times past – must contain those times within it, be in dialogue with them, so to speak – if it’s really to better them. The children who hold that knowledge embodied within them – having literally acted out the past using the limbs of their ancestors – find themselves better able to reshape the place where they live into a home fit for all its inhabitants, instead of just some of them. The potential for the Big House to be such a home has been signaled several times in the novel: when Su and Winkie defended the piper against the Fairy Prince in the Big House kitchen; when the Brounie revealed that it considered itself as much a protector of Su’s distant relatives in the village as of the actual residents in the building; and most of all when the piper gets a premonition, in the second act, that the Big House could be a ‘home’ to him as well as to Su. ‘It runs in my mind,’ he tells the children in a moment of vision that links him to bards before him, such as Thomas the Rhymer, ‘that there is a place for me at the Big House’; and he reinforces this premonition with a quotation from scriptures: ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions’ (p. 85). The verse is one of Christ’s most all-inclusive declarations, uttered just before his death, in which he reassures his disciples that there is room in heaven for all of them (John 14.2). Su at once takes Christ at his word by linking the saying to the fairies: ‘The [Fairy] Hill was full of mansions, too’, she tells the piper, and in doing so once again brings paganism and Christianity into a kind of imaginative union. And by the end of the book, when Su asks Winkie to come back to the Big House the next day – after the book has ended – the building seems to be about to fulfill its destiny of being a place with many mansions or homely locations in it. In the process it becomes a miniature model – like the lavish doll’s house Su enjoys in the Big House of the early nineteenth century – of the ideal community, nation or world, just as Su and Winkie become the world’s ideal future citizens.

It’s perhaps worth ending with a word or two about Mitchison’s style in this particular novel (she has as many styles, very nearly, as she wrote novels, essays and short stories). As may be obvious from the quotations I’ve given, she tells her tale in a flexible, often conversational, sometimes lyrical prose style that drifts in and out of Scots, and in and out of different varieties of Scots – historical and contemporary, middle and working class, old-fashioned and modern (for the 1950s) – in such a way as to invoke the diversity of class and culture which is its topic. It’s worth comparing this to Lewis’s style, which is dominated by an authoritative and implicitly adult controlling presence, and which does not vary much in the course of his narrative. Mitchison’s prose, like her plot, is less tightly controlled, more tumbling and prolix, at least on the surface, and her narrator is constantly being subsumed into the consciousness and (more importantly) the language of her two young heroes. This language, as well as its plot’s multi-stranded complexity, may explain why The Big House hasn’t achieved the international success of Lewis’s simpler chronicle; after all, not many readers outside Scotland will know the meaning of all the terms Mitchison uses. But the house of literature, like the house of memory, has many rooms in it, and I hope I’ve done enough to suggest that this fine book deserves a place in one of them.

NOTES

All references to The Big House are to the Canongate Kelpies paperback edition of 1987.

An excellent account of the novel can be found in Moira Burgess, Naomi Mitchison’s Early in OrcadiaThe Big House and Travel Light, Scotnotes No. 19 (Glasgow: ASLS, 2004).