The theme for Folklore Thursday this week is the folklore of our local places; and it coincides with the installation of three stained glass windows in the bay window of our flat in Glasgow’s West End. The windows are a family effort. My wife Kirsty thought of them, asked the makers of our windows if they were possible and made suggestions for details they might include. My grown-up children, Boo and Grace, designed two of the windows while I designed the third. And they represent local folklore in two ways: first because they reference Glasgow’s folklore by incorporating themes from a poem that’s become the city’s emblem; and secondly because they contain references to family folklore, that is, knowledge that only our family have and which we will read in the windows every time we look at them. It struck me, when I noticed Folklore Thursday’s theme, that the windows had something interesting to say about it, so I decided to write a blog post about them.
The poem, as all Glaswegians know, goes something like this:
Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam.
It refers to a series of miracles worked by Kentigern, patron saint of Glasgow, who acquired the name Mungo when he was ordained a priest at the Monastery of St Serf in the gorgeous town of Culross on the Firth of Forth. The bird was a robin, a pet of Mungo’s mentor, St Serf, which was killed by one of the young man’s fellow priests in training, who promptly laid the blame for its death on Mungo. Mungo took the bird in his hands and prayed, whereupon the robin came to life and flew to its master, chirping sweetly. The tree is usually depicted as an oak tree, though according to Glasgow City Council’s website it was originally a hazel. Mungo was left in charge of the fire in the monastery’s refectory or dining room, but he fell asleep and it went out – put out, it seems, by those malicious fellow seminarians. When he woke up Mungo took a bunch of hazel twigs in his hands, prayed over them until they burst into flames, and used them to rekindle the fire. The bell, it would seem, is just a bell, though it may have been given to St Mungo by the Pope. But the fish has a longer story. To quote the City Council’s website:
The fish with a ring in its mouth is a salmon and the ring was a present from Hydderch Hael, King of Cadzow, to his Queen Languoreth.
The Queen gave the ring to a knight and the King, suspecting an intrigue, took it from him while he slept during a hunting party and threw it into the River Clyde. On returning home, the King demanded the ring and threatened Languoreth with death if she could not produce it. The Queen appealed to the knight who, of course, could not help and then confessed to St Mungo who sent one of his monks to fish in the river, instructing him to bring back the first fish caught. This was done and St Mungo extracted the ring from its mouth. The scene is represented on the counter seal of Bishop Wyschard, made about 1271.
The story of the fish, with its link to the Clyde, presumably dates from St Mungo’s time in Glasgow, where he founded a church on the site now occupied by the Cathedral. The site of the city was chosen by a couple of oxen pulling a cart containing the corpse of a holy man named Fergus; Mungo instructed the obedient beasts to take the body wherever God told them to, and they duly made their way to the proper location. All this happened in the sixth century, but the stories of St Mungo are commemorated in the city’s crest, which it acquired in the nineteenth century.
Each of the windows in the bay window contains elements of St Mungo’s legend: a bird, a fish – though not with a ring in its mouth – a tree, a bell – and in Gracie’s window you can see all four. But these emblems share space with elements of family lore which only we four would recognise. Boo, for instance, tells me he was inspired by ‘the Kelvin walkway and urban wildlife/fay’ – the walkway being the path beside the River Kelvin which has been thronged with walkers since the first lockdown. For his bird he chose the heron we see so often at the weir near the ruins of the old Flint Mill, while the dark green strips on either side of the main picture contain dark creatures which may or may not be shadowy West End foxes, of the kind that used to live in the gloomy spaces under Hillhead Primary School on Gibson Street. The steeple in the distance invokes the steeples on the Great Western Road, one of which – the steeple of George Gilbert Scott’s Episcopalian Cathedral of St Mary – you can see from our bay window, though the one in the picture looks more like the steeple of Lansdowne Parish Church, now Webster’s Theatre and Bar, where Boo once worked in the Box Office. Boo also thought of the University steeple when he discussed it with me; and the rural landscape invoked for me our many trips to the hilly country north of the city. There’s a frog in a pane in the bottom left hand corner and a toad in the bottom right; Boo is always picking up frogs and toads, most recently I think in the wildlife garden at Glasgow Uni. The sun and the moon share the sky with the heron, and to me the sun looks like the shell of a whelk, of the kind Boo was always gathering on the seashore as a child. But the heron dominates, because the heron is ours, a personal family friend who stands on guard at the side of the weir, hoping no doubt to snap up one of the salmon you used to see leaping up it in spring – though I haven’t seen the salmon leaping for several years, and can only hope the tall grey knight isn’t going hungry.
My window, which is on the left as you face the bay from outside, has a robin in it as if in deference to Mungo. But it was Kirsty who asked me to put it there, because in our family robins have come to represent lost loved ones, who come back in the form of a bird to keep an eye on the children and friends they left behind. The bell is the bell of St Patrick, and as I was painting it I thought of the time not long after I first came to Glasgow when I cycled along the Forth and Clyde Canal till I came to a place whose name I didn’t know. Fortunately I met an old woman on the towpath and was able to ask her where I was; and she answered, like an old woman in a fairy tale, ‘You’re in Old Kilpatrick. You’ll always remember the name because it’s where St Patrick was born’. She was right, too: I’ve always remembered the name, and the association with St Patrick, and the old woman, and that bike ride in fine weather. The decorations round the edges of the window are based on the Book of Kells, which may or may not have been made on Iona; and as I drew them into the picture I remembered another picture I drew and painted long ago for a family friend, which showed St Patrick sitting under an old Irish cross with his favourite wolfhound lying beside him. That picture too had decorative themes from the Book of Kells, and the wolfhound in it was modeled on our dog Gelert, the largest and sweetest-natured dog I’ve known. The hill in the background is Dumgoyne in the Campsie Fells, up which I once walked carrying Boo in a backpack. And the strange yellow creature in the tree is a cat-bird fairy demon. I know you’ve heard about them, and now you know exactly what they look like, and where to look for them next time you’re standing by a twisted oak.
Gracie’s picture is the most allusive of all. It shows a flying fish, of course; and she chose this kind of fish to commemorate a family holiday in Mallorca, when we saw the miraculous airborne creatures skimming across the waves ahead of the boat that was taking us to a swimming spot in a secluded part of the island, where much smaller, sea-bound fishes nibbled our toes. The fish is surrounded by water because this is Gracie’s favourite element, and also the element of her Zodiac sign, Scorpio. Hidden in the middle panel at the bottom is the Angelic tune symbol from Cassandra Clare’s Shadow Hunter universe, of which the Mortal Instruments book series is one. Grace is a manic reader of thick tomes and enormous book series, and Cassandra Clare and Leigh Bardugo are just two of the writers she’s obsessed with. St Mungo’s signs are all over the place in her window, from the rings at the four corners – four of them plain, four of them with jewels – to the oak trees in the side panels, the bells and the stylised wings of birds. Oak trees, by the way, are personal things to us as well as to Glasgow; outside our window stand the only oak trees planted in the street, the last to get their leaves in spring, the last to lose them in autumn. When their leaves come out in a few weeks’ time you’ll be able to see real oak leaves dancing behind the painted ones.
I suppose the point I’m making in this post is that folklore of a quite specific kind is present in all cohabiting communities, and that we all have objects and pictures that evoke for us things that no one else could ever guess at. What we read, where we’ve been, the things that have happened to us, weave themselves together into stories which get told and retold down the years, until they get lost among fresh skeins of story woven by new generations. Old stories reappear among the new ones, as St Mungo’s does in our pictures, and lend continuity to the narratives we’re part of. And for us, the window painters, fantastic stories (fairy tales, the novels of Cassandra Clare, invented supernatural fauna, the lives of Celtic saints) infuse our local landscape with light, so that we see the fantastic through it, and the tiny details of tree and bird, fish and water, grow magical as a result, capable of coming to life in strange new ways at different times of the day or night.
The greatest miracle of our windows, though, is how they were constructed by a master craftsman using our paintings as a map or blueprint. That’s something only we and the glazier can really appreciate: the amount of trouble he took to select the right textures for the glass he was using in each panel, the thought he gave to the question of how to translate the texture of pen and ink or brushstroke to the glass’s surface, the little inventive touches like a piece of red glass stuck on behind to make the robin’s red breast, the oak leaves created by scraping away the paint from the side panels in Boo’s window. We got the measurements for the middle window slightly wrong, and the glazier had to find ways to make Gracie’s design fit the space precisely. His name is Colin Stevenson, of Stevenson Stained Glass, and he worked on the windows in the evenings from December to late March, after the working day was supposed to be over. The love he put into this process has made itself part of the story they tell, and we’ll think of it every time we look at them.
That’s our contribution to Folklore Thursday’s theme for 25 March 2021, folklore of local places.
I 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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)
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
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 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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. 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. This 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.
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.
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 there 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.
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.
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 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Gray’s other illustrators included Joan Jefferson Farjeon, Charles W Stewart (who also worked in theatre design), Charles Keeping and himself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Orcadia, The Big House and Travel Light, Scotnotes No. 19 (Glasgow: ASLS, 2004).
[This post contains material relating to the recent event at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, which took place on 24 November 2017. It also contains the quiz, with all the answers!]
Visitors were asked to find the answers in the museum displays; the quizmaster extraordinary was Dahlia Porter. You too can try this on your next visit to The Hunterian Museum! Answers at the end of the post.
Nathaniel Chanticleer from Hope Mirrlees’s novel Lud-in-the-Mist loved to read the epitaphs at his local cemetery. If he lived near the Antonine Wall, what names might he have read on the tombstones?
When Victor Frankenstein travelled to the Orkneys to make the female creature, he would have needed instruments and body parts like those in William Hunter’s collections. What science did they both practice?
William Hunter received this as a present from his students in 1761, but it could also be the prize for winning the tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. What is it?
Look for the display of Hominids: Brains and Tools. According to the nineteenth-century theory of devolution, if Dr. Jekyll is Homo sapiens, what would that make Mr. Hyde?
What kind of Harry Potter dragon might hatch from the “Time Capsule Dinosaur Eggs”?
A Tasmanian relative of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary beast in Hound of the Baskervilles is lurking in the museum. What is its name?
Scotland’s coins rival the Gringotts Wizarding Bank! Which coin features a fantastic beast that is also Scotland’s national animal?
In Beatrix Potter’s children’s books, there is a character named Mrs. Tittlemouse. She is hiding somewhere in the museum tonight. What species is she?
In Robert Burns’ poem ‘Tam o’Shanter,’ the witches come out of a church like wasps coming out of a byke. How many bykes are on display in the museum?
Look for the museum’s collection of musical instruments: how many are related to the instrument Peter Pan played?
Bonus question: In the gemstone case, #60 could be a pun on the title of a gothic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which influenced Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. What is the name of the poem?
These labels were placed on cases around in the entrance hall and main hall of the museum, each marked with the unicorn cartoon shown here (the cartoon was based on the beast sitting at the top of the seventeenth-century Lion and the Unicorn Staircase to the left of the Principal’s Lodging, The Square, University of Glasgow). Some labels relate to specific objects on display; others riffed on the museum’s contents in general. Take the list with you when you visit the museum, and recreate the experience!
Label 1, Centre Case: Doctors of Fantasy Scotland
This entrance hall pays homage to the museum’s founder, Dr William Hunter (1718-1783), who helped make the University of Glasgow one of the great centres for the study of medicine. Fittingly, Doctors feature largely in works of fantasy connected with Scotland:
Dr Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Created a female monster on an unnamed island in the Hebrides, as a partner for his earlier male creation, but destroyed her before she could be brought to life. (Mary Shelley stayed in Dundee before writing her Gothic masterpiece.)
Dr Henry Jekyll, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Used chemicals to transform himself into his evil alter-ego, Mr Hyde.
Dr Godwin Baxter, in Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (1992). Said to have reanimated a dead woman, Victoria Blessington, at his house in Park Circus near the University.
And then there’s Doctor Who…
Label 2, Centre Case: Doctor Who’s Scottish Connections
Did you know that Doctor Who studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, under Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery? There have been three Scottish Doctors (Sylvester McCoy, David Tennant, Peter Capaldi), as well as two Scottish companions, Jamie McCrimmon (played by Frazer Hines, who is English) and Amy Pond (played by Karen Gillan). The Doctor Who writer and producer Steven Moffat is a graduate of the University of Glasgow.
Label 3, Centre Case: Arthurian Scotland
The Arthurian legends have left traces in Scotland, both in placenames such as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and in stories and films. Arthur is said to be buried under the Eildon Hills and Merlin in Drumelzier, Tweedshire. Antoine Fuqua’s film King Arthur (2004), starring Clive Owen, represents Arthur as a Roman cavalry officer guarding Hadrian’s Wall against the Scottish Woads; Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: the Legend of the Sword (2017) was extensively filmed in Scotland; while Doune Castle in Stirlingshire featured as multiple castles in Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
Label 4, by the Firmus Altars: Worshipping Ancient Gods
These altars testify to the worship of diverse gods by Roman troops guarding the Antonine Wall. The most important study of comparative religion and mythology in the early twentieth century was The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890-1900), by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer. This influenced many great writers including W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Among the books it inspired was a celebrated historical fantasy by the Edinburgh-born writer Naomi Mitchison, The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), an epic meditation on religion, magic and politics in the ancient world.
Label 5, by the Burials at Shirva: Gravestones in Fantasy
These Roman gravestones might make us think about fantasies of the dead. The fairies are often associated with the dead, and J. M. Barrie may have had this in mind when he imagined Peter Pan leading the souls of dying children to the afterlife in Peter and Wendy (1911). A brilliant fantasy novel of the early twentieth century, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), has a hero called Nathaniel Chanticleer who spends much of his time in graveyards, and ends up chasing his runaway son to Fairyland. Fittingly, Hope Mirrlees’s name is inscribed on her family’s monument in one of the great graveyards of the world, the Necropolis next to Glasgow Cathedral.
Lobby between entrance hall and main hall
Label 6, on the statue of James Watt: James Watt’s Contribution to the Fantastic
Famously the inventor of the steam engine, whose use in the nineteenth century powered the literary genre known as Steampunk. Prominent practitioners now in Scotland include Christopher Priest (The Space Machine, 1976) and Elizabeth May (the Falconer trilogy, 2014 onwards).
Label 7, by the Plesiosaur: The Loch Ness Monster’s Song
from From Glasgow to Saturn (Carcanet, 1973)
Label 8, on the case displaying Gold from Scotland: Scottish Treasure more Precious than Gold
In the children’s fantasy The Treasure of the Isle of Mist (1919), by the noted classical scholar W. W. Tarn, the treasure of the title is a hoard of Spanish doubloons hidden in a cave. At the end of the story the heroine, Fiona, discovers that the thing she really treasures is the place where she lives: the Isle of Skye, which is the Isle of Mist in the title.
Fiona was modelled on Tarn’s daughter Otta, who grew up to become the celebrated folklorist Otta Swire. Her work on the folk tales of the Western Isles is much admired by Neil Gaiman.
Label 9, in the area marked Minerals – Gifts from the Underworld: The Underground Fairies of Scotland
Scotland is a land full of fairies, many of whom live underground. One of the most important sources of knowledge about them was a book written by Robert Kirk, seventeenth-century minister of Aberfoyle, and published as The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies in 1815 and 1893. Kirk died in 1692, and was said to have been taken under Doon Hill, the fairy hill near Aberfoyle, by the people he wrote of.
The hero of the Border Ballad ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ was seduced by the Queen of Elfland and taken by her under Eildon Hill, where he lived for a while before returning to mortal lands with the gift of prophecy. The ballad has influenced much modern fantasy, including Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1984) and Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer (1990).
Label 10, on the case marked Time Capsule Dinosaur Eggs Case: Dragon Eggs
Those who wish to know about the danger of meddling with Dragon Eggs like these need look no further than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), in which Hagrid acquires an egg which hatches into a black dragon with poisonous fangs called Norbert.
Label 11, on the case marked Hominids: Evolution and Devolution. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).
Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, the excitement sparked off by Darwin’s theory of evolution (most famously described in his book The Origin of Species) gave way to a fear of degeneration or devolution: evolution of humankind into more primitive forms. When the handsome and learned Dr Jekyll turns into the short, hairy, aggressive and lustful Mr Hyde, Victorian readers might have said he had devolved or degenerated.
Label 12, also on the case marked Hominids: The ‘cave-man in a lounge suit’: Professor Challenger in The Lost World (1912)
When the Scottish novelist Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World (the inspiration behind Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movies, which lends its name to the second movie in the series) he introduced to the world the scientist Professor Challenger, who closely resembles a ‘cave-man’ in his strength, hairiness and physical proportions. Which one of these looks most like him?
In The Lost World Professor Challenger finds a surviving population of dinosaurs on an inaccessible plateau in South America – along with ‘cave-men’ of an unidentified kind…
Label 13, on the case marked Rocks from Space: Sir Terry Pratchett and the Sword from Space
When the English Fantasy Writer Terry Pratchett was knighted he had a sword forged for himself out of metal from a meteorite like the ones in this case. He may have been thinking of the meteorite sword wielded by Alveric in Lord Dunsany’s celebrated novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924). The Scottish connection? Pratchett invented one of the most famous clans in fantasy literature, the Nac Mac Feegles, who first appeared in his novel The Wee Free Men (2003).
Label 14, on the Thylacine and Dire Wolf case: Winter Is Coming
The dire wolf, which is now extinct, was native to North America. However, in George R. R. Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire (1991 to the present; serialised for TV as Game of Thrones) it is native to what looks from the maps like an alternative version of the UK.
In the first book of the sequence, a litter of ‘direwolf’ puppies is adopted by the children of the Stark family, whose home bears an uncanny resemblance to Scotland. Indeed, Doune Castle near Stirling was filmed as the Starks’ home, Winterfell, for the pilot episode of the first series.
Label 15, in the Scotland’s Own Coinage Exhibition: Gringotts
Coins are connected in a number of ways with Scottish Fantasy.
The Edinburgh-based author J K Rowling invented the most famous bank in fantasy literature, Gringotts in Diagon Alley, which Harry Potter first encounters in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997).
Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Bottle Imp’ (1891), about a bottle that grants your wishes, features a plot whose denouement involves finding the coin of the lowest denomination in the South Pacific. Read it to discover the details!
W. W. Tarn’s The Treasure of the Isle of Mist (1919) begins with a hunt for Spanish doubloons on the Isle of Skye.
Label 16, on the Harvest Mouse Case: Beatrix Potter’s Scottish Holidays
Beatrix Potter, whose book The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1917) features a country mouse called Timmy Willy like the one who made the nest in this case, spent childhood holidays in the Birnam area, Perthshire (it was from Dunkeld that she sent the famous letter containing the story that would become The Tale of Peter Rabbit).
There she forged a close friendship with the Perthshire naturalist Charles McIntosh, which is the subject of a fine exhibition in the Birnam Institute Exhibition Centre and Garden, Station Road, Birnam, Perthshire.
Label 17, on the Bykes, Nests and Mounds Case: A Hive of Witches
As bees bizz out wi’ angry fyke,
When plundering herds assail their byke;
[…] So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.
Label 18, on the Magpie and Nest case: The Nest of the Never Bird
This magpie’s nest reminded us of the nest of the Never Bird in J. M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (1911). The Never Bird’s nest can float, and she uses it to rescue Peter Pan when he is in danger of drowning after being marooned on a rock by Captain Hook.
Label 19, on the World Cultures Case, facing the First Contact Case: Scottish Fantasies of the South Seas
The Hunterian contains many artefacts collected from the island nations of the South Seas. The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson went to live in Samoa in a bid to preserve his health, and there he wrote the great short story ‘The Bottle Imp’ (1891), which features a bottle with a curse on it and a Hawaiian protagonist named Keawe.
Louise Welsh wrote an opera version of ‘The Bottle Imp’, with Stuart MacRae, called ‘The Devil Inside’, premiered by Scottish Opera at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in January 2016.
Label 20, on the Lady Shepenhor case: Scottish Mummies
The story ‘Lot No. 249’, published by the Edinburgh-born author Arthur Conan Doyle in 1892, tells of an Oxford student who reanimates a mummy using ancient Egyptian magic and uses it to carry our assassinations for him. As the first story to feature a reanimated mummy as a predatory monster the tale had a lasting effect on the horror genre in the twentieth century.
An earlier mummy story by Conan Doyle, ‘The Ring of Thoth’, helped inspire the 1932 film The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff.
Label 21, on the Archaeology Uncovered case, facing the Archaeology case: Fantasies of Prehistoric Scotland
One of the finest fantasies of Prehistoric Scotland, as represented by this skull and by the weapons of stone, bronze and iron in the case behind it, is Borrobil (1944). Written by William Croft Dickinson, who held the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, it contains imaginative explanations for the presence of various archaeological remains in the Scottish landscape, including hill forts, crannogs, long barrows, standing stones and brochs. It also contains a wingless dragon with poisonous breath.
This is the list of books from Glasgow’s Special Collections displayed at the event. Each has associations with Fantasy Scotland, and the selection was made by MLitt student Lindsay Middleton, whose notes these are.
Argippa argued for the existence of three types of magic: Elemental, Celestial and Intellectual. Each, he believed, ultimately came from God, and could be used uncontroversially by Christians.
In Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley cites Agrippa as influencing Victor Frankenstein: ‘I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa… A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind’. Frankenstein then travels to Orkney to make his female monster, creating a connection between Agrippa’s text, fantasy and Scotland.
Coronatio Naturae [i.e. The Crowning of Nature]
1597 – 1602 MS Ferguson 208
This is a collection of 72 pen and watercolour illustrations with Latin descriptions. The ‘Crowning of Nature’ is a symbolic representation of the alchemical process, aimed at the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone. Here, a dragon is being used to demonstration the Multiplication and Fermentation stage of the process. This magical creature is well suited to illustrate the creation of one of history’s most important magical substances.
“Nicholas Flamel”, Livre des figures hierogliphiques
France: 18th century MS Ferguson 17
This French manuscript includes a series of watercolour illustrations known as Nicholas Flamel’s Livre des figures hierogliphiques. Legend has it that the hieroglyphs were originally found in a mysterious text purchased by Flamel, a fourteenth century scribe and bookseller, which he spent his life thereafter decoding. By doing this he is said to have been able to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, famously described by J. K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as bestowing immortality on its user and allowing base metals to be turned to gold Unfortunately, the legend seems to date from several hundred years after the real Flamel was alive.
Robert Kirk: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies London: David Nutt, 1893 Sp Coll Ferguson Al-c.54
Robert Kirk was the minister of Aberfoyle. His Secret Commonwealth, originally written in 1691, is an account of the fantastic creatures that apparently lived in the surrounding land. He roamed the hills around Aberfoyle, gathering accounts of fairyland and folklore from residents. This rare edition features a commentary by Andrew Lang, who was undoubtedly influenced by Kirk’s account of fairies. The first volume was originally published in 1815 thanks to the author Sir Walter Scott, another writer of great Scottish fantasy who was influenced by Kirk’s non-fiction study.
Andrew Lang: The Yellow Fairy Book London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1906 Sp Coll RB 4913
Lang was a Scottish novelist, literary critic and poet. His series of twelve “coloured” fairy books bring together children’s fairy tales from around the world, from authors such as Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. With the help of his wife, Leonara Lang, he translated and adapted fairy tales to make them suitable for children, and his series is one of the most well renowned collections of fairy tales to date. This 1906 edition contains beautiful illustrations by H. J. Ford.
Kath Campbell sang the following ballads:
Tam Lin, as collected by Robbie Burns (Child no 39a)
The Knicht o’Archerdale (Child no 47)
King Orpheus (Child no 19)
Bert Finkle and the Markee de Saw performed the following songs:
Never Never Land, from the 1953 Disney movie, Peter Pan. Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Jule Styne
Heidenröslein. Lyrics by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, music by Franz Schubert
I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
The Land of Make Believe. Lyrics by Peter Sinfield, music by Andy Hill
Nacht und Träume. Lyrics by Matthäus von Collin, music by Franz Schubert
Salaman and/or Verecunda
Tri-Wizard cup or Silver-gilt cup
Homo erectusor Homo habilis
Unicorn coin #10
Bonus answer: Christabel
Photo Credit: all pictures of Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland are by Stuart Dyer and Oliver Rendle
On Friday 24 November, between 7 and 10 pm, an event took place in The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland was conceived as a celebration of the links between Scotland and the fantastic, in close association with the magically diverse collections of The Hunterian. It was also dedicated to the idea of Scotland as fantasy: a place people dream of even if they’ve never been there, whose residents are equally given to dreaming about alternative versions of the land they live in. This blog post touches on some of the thoughts that emerged in relation to the project between early August, when we received news that we would be funded by Event Scotland (Scotland Winter Festivals) and the Being Human Festival, and the event itself in late November, close to St. Andrew’s Day.
Night at the Museum gives us the opportunity to enter The Hunterian after dark – when it’s at its most atmospheric – and stroll around with drinks in our hands, discovering what the exhibits look like when removed from the cold and rational light of day. The first of these events I went to was dedicated to Robbie Burns and the work of the university’s Burns Centre, and it enchanted me at once with its blend of performances on stage in the museum’s main hall, atmospheric lighting, and research stations or stalls arranged round the edges of the display areas, where you could talk to passionate researchers about the adventures they were having among archivists, librarians, performers, artists, craftspeople, scholars and Burns enthusiasts around the world. It occurred to me at once that Shawn Levy’s original Night at the Museum was a fantasy movie, and that as scholars of the fantastic we should surely be holding such an event ourselves. My colleagues Dahlia Porter and Matt Sangster agreed; and we quickly formed a fellowship with Moira Rankin of the University Library – where William Hunter’s books are held in Special Collections, on the vertiginously elevated top floor – and Ruth Fletcher of The Hunterian, whose astonishing energy, imagination and commitment made her the driving engine of our collaborative project. Together we talked over ideas for the shape and style of the inaugural Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. Together we put in bids for funding. Together we won it, and began to draw more and more conspirators into our circle.
Like the Burns themed Night at the Museum the event was to centre on three elements. Research stations, where the public could meet and talk with researchers whose work touched on the theme of the evening. Performances, where the theme would be brought alive by musicians and actors. And The Hunterian collection itself, which it would be our task to link both imaginatively and intellectually to fantasy and the fantastic. As part of the event we aimed to bring some books from Special Collections to display in a case alongside the permanent items in the main hall. I also liked the idea of having labels or signs throughout the museum, pointing up some of the many connections we could identify between the collection and the idea of fantasy in and of Scotland. Dahlia and Matt proposed we have a quiz or treasure hunt, which would send visitors scurrying from object to object making new connections between the exhibits and the books or stories or myths we had in mind. Costumed guides should be available in every part of the museum, helping to usher the visitors to the more neglected corners of the building. I wanted actors, too, who would appear in unexpected places (balconies, elevators, springing out from behind pillars, swinging on trapeses slung from the rafters) and recite speeches in character about their own particular Scottish fantasy connections. This last dream never quite came to fruition, but one day, who knows? We have a little treasure chest among us stored with ideas that we didn’t have space or time or personnel to try, all of which remain available for exploitation in some future exhibition, festival or happening…
The process of selecting the research stations was both carefully thought out and somewhat random. We knew, on the whole, the fields we wanted to see represented, which included archaeology, Celtic studies, classical culture, museum studies, theatre, film and TV, and art history. We were limited, however, both by the number of researchers who were willing and able to give up their time and by how many stations we could safely fit into the space available. In the end the stations selected themselves from the long wish list we’d assembled. By a kind of alchemy they took shape quite independently of what we had in mind, and the particular selection of research themes and fields imposed a shape or structure on the evening which was not in any sense of our making.
The line-up of performers, too, was the result of a carefully compiled wish list and sheer good fortune. I was obsessed from the start with the idea of having a bit of the musical Brigadoon, about a Scottish village that only materializes every one hundred years, but the company we’d lined up to deliver this had to withdraw at the last moment. I wanted the Haydn settings of poems by Anne Hunter, wife of John Hunter, brother of the museum’s founder William, because two of these poems at least – ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ and ‘The Spirit’s Song’ – deal with fantastic themes; but we couldn’t find a singer able to perform them. We had better luck with other things on our wish list. Supernatural border ballads were a necessity – there’s simply no other aspect of Scottish culture that’s given rise to so many haunting fictions all over the world (think of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer, Sally Prue’s Cold Tom, Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock). My colleague Kirsteen McCue knew exactly who should deliver them, and put us in touch with Kath Campbell, a scholar of ballads and Romantic literature as well as a superlative singer. I knew from the start who I wanted for our final act: those long-term stars of the Glasgow Cabaret scene Bert Finkle and the Markee de Saw. Bert Finkle I was lucky enough to know already; he’s also known as Neil Williamson, author of speculative fiction, whose novel The Moon King blew me away when it came out in 2013, and who put me in touch with the remarkable group of writers known as the Glasgow SF Writers Circle (SF here stands for Strange Fiction), thus revealing to me the very heart of the fantastic in my home city. I couldn’t believe our luck when they agreed to put together a bespoke show for our event, inspired by that most seminal of Scottish fantasies, Peter Pan. Afterwards I went around for days with the last song sung by the Markee ringing in my ears: it was Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’, and I’d forgotten what an exquisite melody it had and how strange its lyrics were. I found out afterwards that the Markee works in the Gilchrist Postgraduate Club where I and my co-conspirators had been putting our heads together for so many weeks. Small world, and a decidedly weird one.
The non-musical performances came about through serendipity. It was Moira Rankin who suggested we contact Professor Kevin O’Dell to ask if one of his Zombie Science team would put on a short show for us. We were lucky enough to find Laura Richmond available, goggles and all, and her dazzling Superhero Science son-et-lumiere thriller had her audience, young and old, completely mesmerised (I sat next to a child on the night who was rooting loudly for the villains throughout the performance). Later, our colleague Professor Alan Riach suggested he perform Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, which is written entirely in an unfamiliar dialect of monster-ese, of which Alan is surely the most authentic human speaker. Again, the crowd was mesmerised (perhaps that’s why the monster is inclined to sing rather than roar when she emerges from the icy depths – she attracts far bigger meals that way). These four performances were all we had time for; perhaps the last-minute withdrawal of one of the acts was a blessing in disguise, as my Grandmother would have said.
The most crucial element of the event was the volunteers. I had a vision of masses of people in peculiar costumes swarming through the museum in a whirl of colour and prosthetic ears and noses – something close to the mayhem that made up the best scenes in Shawn Levy’s movie. For this we needed help from students: postgraduates past and present who have (for reasons of their own, like the jilted lovers and runaway criminals who join the French Foreign Legion) elected to take part in the MLitt in Fantasy at Glasgow, or else to embark on PhDs or DFAs in this strange field of scholarly and creative activity. Over the two-and-a-half years when the MLitt has been running I’ve come to know something important about Fantasy graduates: that you’ll never a find a more passionate, friendly, imaginative group of people to collaborate with in the length or breadth of the Deep Dark Forest – or anywhere else, in fact. I wasn’t disappointed. When I asked for volunteers to dress up in costume, staff some of our research stations, guide our guests around the building, many stepped forward from last year’s cohort, and many more from the intrepid crowd who joined us in September. From among their number we found ourselves an intern to work with Special Collections in identifying books for display; an experienced stage manager to liaise with the performers; a world-class Harry Potter expert; a team of creative writers several of whom were established authors, published and unpublished, before they joined the MLitt programme; and too many more to list here.
Our army of fantasy-focused helpers was joined by equally passionate researchers from a range of other disciplines: the School of Education, who brought with them specialist expertise in Scottish fantasy for children and an astonishing range of examples; comics fans from across the College of Arts; games enthusiasts who know everything it’s possible to know about the different varieties of fantasy-based playing environments (one of these was a Fantasy Mlitt graduate); lexicographers from the world-renowned Oxford Thesaurus project, whose playful approach to words brought out their latent magic; and specialists in sexual health, who encouraged our visitors to think fantastically about sexually transmitted diseases (I still covet one of the furry herpes-shaped creatures they doled out as prizes). An undergraduate ably stepped forward to lead the team of specialists in palaeontology who could explain the science of the Loch Ness monster (what kind of a creature could she reasonably be if one were to set aside for a moment one’s scepticism as to her longevity and her ability to thrive in those icy depths?). I’m still astonished at the energy and passion these researchers and volunteers showed as they entertained and informed our guests for three solid hours, in many cases without a moment’s rest.
The stage was set for our spectacular. As bonuses, the wonderful Louise Welsh – Professor of Creative Writing, novelist, activist, opera maker – agreed to cut the ribbon for our event, while further well-chosen and generous words were to be uttered by Sarah Churchwell, Director of the Being Human Festival, and Steph Sholten, Director of the Hunterian.
In the meantime, Dahlia, Matt and I were getting to know the museum.
The Hunterian Museum was the brainchild of the physician and collector William Hunter, who built up a huge collection of paintings, books and objects in the course of his lifetime. First opened in 1807, and housed in a specially constructed building off Glasgow’s High Street, this is the oldest public museum in Scotland and one of the oldest in the world, a worthy forerunner of the New York Met, the Pitt Rivers, the Smithsonian and the V & A. That first building was neoclassical, a model of rationalism worthy of the age that produced the great Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, who invented the modern system of cataloguing plants and animals, as well as the economist Adam Smith and the chemist and anatomist Joseph Black, both professors at the University of Glasgow. When the university moved from the High Street to the West End in 1870, Hunter’s collection got another purpose-built home, this time a neo-Gothic hall at the very heart of the new campus. Designed by George Gilbert Scott in a fairytale style he called Scottish Baronial, the hall sends out mixed messages, unleashing a torrent of dreams, quasi historical narratives and industrial-technological associations which make it something very far from a model of rationalism. In its role as a feudal dining hall it welcomes visitors to a feast of history, while gently impressing them with its aristocratic grandeur. This is an ancient house, it seems to say, and long connected with the ruling elite; you may also think of medieval churches if you look at the rose window high up in the east end. As a work of architectural engineering, on the other hand, it would have impressed its early visitors with its modernity. The university’s main building was one of the first in the world to be constructed round a riveted iron frame, and the ironwork is obvious both in the exposed steel girders visible as you climb the magnificent staircase towards the museum’s front entrance and in the soaring pillars that support the timber roof of the museum hall itself. Rooted in the past, we look to the future, this ironwork declares; who knows what that future will bring, but we have done our part to ensure that it will be built on solid foundations.
The iron, which comes from the foundries of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, and the blond sandstone cladding the hall, which comes from the nearby quarries at Bishopbriggs, link the new structure with the Scottish industrial landscape. From the front of the university’s main building you can look out across Kelvingrove Park towards the Clyde, which helped spread the products of these industries across the world. The details of the museum building – the rose window, the metal columns with their fancy capitals, the stained woodwork of the ceiling and banisters – these are imaginative, the whims of dreamers, albeit dreamers with a sound knowledge of architectural history and engineering. The quality of the materials from which it’s constructed, on the other hand, and the huge amount of work that’s gone into putting them together, suggest that they are products of a time when labour was cheap, and when labourers and their families had little prospect of taking advantage of the university education whose physical housing they had helped to build. Fairytales and facts, history and dreams, politics and extravagant imaginings are interdependent, and it’s incumbent on us to tell the story of the sometimes vexed relationship between these disparate elements, and to celebrate the fact that the premises which house The Hunterian are now accessible to a wider range of social classes than ever before.
The best narratives I know about the politics of museums occur in fantasy or fantastic fiction: stories that contain one or more element which is avowedly impossible, an artifact with magical properties, a face-to-face encounter between a still-living past and an unsuspected future, the discovery of a portal in the archives leading to strange alternative dimensions. Such fantasies invoke the foreignness of the new context in which museum objects find themselves, the clash between the cultures and beliefs that shaped them and the new narratives to which they find themselves contributing. They conjure up the excitement of the unexpected discoveries to which the often random eclecticism of a museums’ displays are always giving rise. And they remind us that there has always been something supernatural about museums, since they were first dedicated in ancient Greece to the worship of the nine Muses, those mountain-dwelling goddesses of science, art and memory whose names and functions were always changing with the changing times.
Modern fantasy (as Jamie Williamson has recently argued) has its roots in the same antiquarianism that produced the first museums in Britain, including The Hunterian. Exploring the past led writers to speculate about it; reading about mythology inspired writers to develop mythologies of their own; gaps in the historical record prompted writers to tell stories to fill in the lacunae. It’s no surprise, then, if museums feature widely in fantastic narratives. Even the story of Middle Earth has its repositories for historically or artistically significant items. When Bilbo Baggins gets home from his adventures in The Hobbit (1937) he lends his beautiful mail shirt to the museum or Mathom-House at Michel Delving, though he later recovers it to set out on fresh adventures in The Lord of the Rings (1954-5). In taking it out again he fulfilled one of the objectives of fantasy and the fantastic: to breathe new life into old ideas and objects and stories by bringing them into conversation with the ideas and desires and problems of today. Long before that – measuring time by the chronology of the fantastic texts themselves, that is by their date of publication – the Time Traveller in H. G. Wells’s first science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895) learns much of what he learns about the far future by visiting what he calls the Palace of Green Porcelain, a giant museum encrusted in tiles like the real-life museum complex in South Kensington. Unfortunately the palace doesn’t have much to tell him because all the books in it and many of the specimens have fallen to pieces. When the Time Traveller reaches for a lever on one of the giant machines it shelters, he doesn’t trigger some unguessed-at technological process of the far future but instead wrenches it off to use as a weapon, a stone-age club, against the skulls of the cannibalistic Morlocks who seek to ambush him in the building’s depths. In this book, then, the museum has lost its ability to communicate, to unfold a coherent chronological narrative, apart from the one of loss and decay that can be deduced from its dilapidated condition. The episode has, of course, a political edge. The great museums of the world are designed tell a story – indeed, multiple stories, one of which concerns imperial conquest, the process that enabled such a vast array of remains and artefacts to be brought together and displayed so far from their places of origin. The Palace of Green Porcelain declares that the time of conquest is over, that even the story of the cultures that inflicted it on their neighbours will soon be forgotten, rendered illegible to later generations by the long, slow processes of atrophy and decay. The Time Traveller, as a representative of the imperialist age of Victorian Britain, is himself reduced to stone age status by the need to protect himself against his own descendants, whose desire to devour his body is read by him as barbarism – despite the decades and centuries of equally savage exploitation, the cannibalism, so to speak, of colonized cultures, of which his body and mind are themselves the products.
The Time Machine, then, makes a story out of the loss of the museum’s story. It reminds us that a museum is a time machine, whose objects transport us back to earlier epochs – but which also make nonsense of those objects by incorporating them into new settings where they are decidedly not at home, just as the Time Traveller is not at home among his children’s children’s children, the elf-like Eloi and goblin-esque Morlocks. The notion of the museum’s contents being reassembled into a new shape – something strange, ungainly, threatening – is taken up by China Miéville in his novel Kraken (2010), which includes a museum that has somehow transformed itself into an ungainly deity cobbled together from the contents of its storage facilities and the glass containers that preserve them. Here is its first appearance, as it rescues the protagonist – a museum curator called Billy – from a vicious attack by a London gang:
It was a skull on the top of a giant jar. A huge glass preserving bottle, of the type that Billy had for years been filling with preservative and animal dead. This one was nearly five feet high, full of flesh slough and clouding alcohol. On its glass lid was a shabby human skull liberated, Billy absolutely knew, from one of the cupboards of remains in the Natural History Museum. It snapped its teeth. Where the rim met the lid the flaring glass served as its shoulders, and the thing raised two fleshless taloned arms taken from bone boxes, humerus, ulna radius, clacking carpals and those sharpened phalanges.
The angel of memory.
The dishevelled and battered angel of memory mentioned in this last sentence, who strives vainly to bring order to the debris of the passing ages, is the invention of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who himself died making a bid for freedom in wartime Spain, one of countless victims of the Nazi rewriting of history through so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’. Benjamin speaks movingly in his writings of ‘the heaviness at heart, the acedia, which despairs of mastering the genuine historical picture, which so fleetingly flashes by’, and which is embodied in the figure of the angel constantly blown into the future while stubbornly facing a past which it can never reduce to order. In The Time Machine the museum is a passive monument to this futile endeavour. Miéville’s grotesque museum-angel is an angrier embodiment of the concept, murderously protecting its acolyte, the curator, from the mob of vicious London dandies which aims to ‘pick his brains’ for their own unpleasant purposes. Loosely flung together from disparate parts whose names suggest they may one day know the dignity of being reassembled into a full skeleton, yet enclosing in its glass bowels the decomposing organic matter Miéville unpleasantly refers to as ‘flesh slough’, this latter-day angel of memory is lethally effective, dismembering its barbaric enemies with the speed of a ninja. History may have been reduced to rubbish by neglect, incompleteness, and deliberate falsification, but it still has a potency which means we ignore it at our peril.
Scotland-leaning fantasists are no less seduced by the allure of the museum than their English counterparts. Neil Gaiman is not quite Scottish, although he has a house on the Isle of Skye; but the protagonist of his early novel Neverwhere (1996) is a young man from Scotland. His Scottishness allows him to read the City of London with fresh eyes: eyes that discern both the mysterious under-city of London Below, full of lost souls, forgotten myths and abandoned scraps of history, and the incremental takeover of London Above – the everyday London of the 1990s – by the super-wealthy, who display a haughty unconcern for the intricate ties that bind past to present, or one city-dweller to another across invisible barriers of class, race and culture. For Gaiman and his Scottish protagonist, Richard Mayhew, the British Museum is the central site of this takeover. At a central point in the novel Richard emerges with his friend Door from the labyrinth of London Below by way of an abandoned underground station called British Museum, to find himself in one of the museum’s outlying storerooms which is full of ‘junk’: misplaced or forgotten cultural artefacts whose detachment from their historical and cultural contexts robs them of meaning, despite the fact that this particular junk is ‘magnificent, rare, strange and expensive’. They make their way to a private viewing in the Museum proper, where a multi-millionaire is displaying his collection of angels in a room marked ‘Early English’ (no doubt a reference to Pope Gregory I’s exclamation on first seeing the beauty of the early inhabitants of the British Islands: non angli sed angeli, these are not Angles but angels). The multi-millionaire’s angel collection is remarkable both for its diversity and its disorganization, having been described by Time Out (Gaiman tells us) as ‘indiscriminate to the point of trashiness’. Like the contents of the storeroom it has been reduced by its lack of context to the status of expensive junk, emblematic of the chaos on which the angel of memory seeks vainly to impose any semblance of meaningful order. Later in the book another collector, the assassin Mr Croup, obtains a priceless figurine from the T’ang dynasty and promptly bites its head off; his respect for antique art is clearly no more exalted than his respect for human life, and in this he shares the attitude of the multi-millionaire, whose name – Mr Stockton – suggests his tendency to reduce the world in general to so much stock to be bought and sold for his own advantage. Mr Stockton’s acquisition of the ‘Early English Room’ for the launch of his angel exhibition suggests the displacement of history and public service in his native land, as embodied in the public museum, by the worship of personal profit. It may also be no coincidence that in Shakespeare’s time there was a coin called an angel, or that the contamination of angels by association with total self-interest turns out to play a pivotal role in the plot of Gaiman’s novel. We put in museums the objects our culture values, though by no means always in monetary terms. Gaiman’s London Above has largely forgotten the other things we value them for.
Having said this, one of the angels in Mr Stockton’s exhibition is painted on a door which opens to let Richard Mayhew and his friend into a room containing a genuine angel – that is, a former occupant of heaven. Light pours though the door as it opens: the ancient portal retains its aura, despite having been marooned among a mass of inferior angel-themed artefacts. Museums in more solidly Scottish and Scotland-based fantasies are equally conscious of the magical properties of museums and the objects they contain, when seen in the right light by sympathetic observers. They also seem strongly inclined to follow Wells in drawing out the political aspect of museum collections. Arthur Conan Doyle’s atmospheric short story ‘The Ring of Thoth’ (1890), for instance, which inspired Karl Freund’s 1932 movie The Mummy, tells of a young student of Egyptology who visits the Louvre Museum for research purposes, where he meets an unusually long-lived Egyptian who has nothing but contempt for the efforts of colonial nations to piece together the narratives of his culture from surviving fragments: ‘Your knowledge of the subject is contemptible,’ he tells the unfortunate student, ‘Yet it is superior to that of many who make even greater pretensions’. The Egyptian reveals himself as Sosra, son of the chief priest of Osiris in the ancient temple of Abaras, who discovered the secret of a vastly extended life and was thus unfortunate enough to outlive the woman he loved by many centuries. Thanks to his insider knowledge Sosra is able to supply the full narrative that lies behind one of the female mummies in the Louvre’s collection – it is of course the body of his lost lover – while incidentally expressing his contempt for the European researchers who violate the sacred burial grounds of his ancestors (‘no Egyptian would ever stain his soul by moving even the outer case of a buried friend’). Conan Doyle is unable to resist touching on the distasteful racial theories of the late nineteenth century – Sosra insists on his difference from ‘the down-trodden race of slaves who now inhabit the Delta of the Nile’, and his physical similarity to the figures painted on ancient sarcophagi tends to confirm his claims – but his awareness that the museum context can occlude the stories of the peoples whose artefacts they conserve still resonates in the twenty-first century.
Closer to Glasgow, Lisa Tuttle’s novel The Silver Bough (2012) revolves around a museum-cum-library which harbours clues to the fairy past of a small West Highland community. Its dull inventories, unvisited storage rooms and neglected corners preserve traces of a magic which, once painstakingly recovered by a diligent librarian, brings the past to life and in the process helps to reinvigorate the small community where the museum is located. In terms of politics, the novel makes an eloquent plea for the value of rural museums and libraries, and its most fairy-tale element may be the sudden financial windfall (an apt metaphor for a novel that concerns itself with the history of apple orchards in Scotland) which brings new life to the museum building at the novel’s close.
Julie Bertagna’s Exodus (2002), meanwhile, brings us to the premises of The Hunterian itself, in a not-so-distant future when the world has been overwhelmed by rising sea levels. Perched on its hill overlooking Glasgow, the university main building and the museum it contains serve as a Noah’s Ark preserving the evidence of past human achievements, deprived of coherence, like the objects in Wells’s Palace, by the loss of historical knowledge that followed the cataclysmic floods of the post-human epoch. For the novel’s heroine, a teenager called Mara, the objects in the museum’s cases embody the infinite achievements of past generations, and the infinite possibilities wasted by their failure to conserve the earth for their descendants by preventing global warming:
Now Mara walks into a hall full of glass boxes. Inside each one is a vast assortment of objects, every kind of human invention. And suddenly she understands. These halls hold the golden names of long-gone people who dreamed up the visions that took humankind from wooden clubs to space telescopes, from bread-making to the building of cathedrals, from baked-clay vases to violins and oil painting, from brittle twig combs to the delicate mechanisms of compasses and thermometers, then to computers and cyberspace. And finally to cities in the sky.
Mara is walking through a history of dreams.
Note here how the present tense stresses the precariousness of the future in which the novel is set. The story unfolds from page to page with no certainty that there will be another future from which to look back on Mara’s adventures, a future such as would be implied by the use of the imperfect mode. Sure enough, the museum does not outlast the second book of Bertagna’s novel series (pardon the spoiler). But the dreams that it evokes continue to animate humanity’s survivors. In particular the life size model of an ancestor of modern human beings, homo habilus, gets carried away from its main hall by a child who represents the next phase in human evolution – a young girl with webbed toes and a preternatural ability to survive prolonged immersion in the rising seas. The model later makes landfall on the shores of Greenland, ready like its new owner to begin a new phase of existence in what was once the harshest of terrains, now transformed into an oasis. We wanted to include the model of homo habilus in our Night at the Museum as a tribute to Bertagna’s novel, but in the end it proved too difficult to move him from the museum’s storage facilities; he will have to wait for another opportunity to resume his former place among The Hunterian’s display cases – though one hopes this won’t be so drastic an occasion as the novel suggests.
The other fantasy I know of that roots itself in The Hunterian collection is Hal Duncan’s exuberantly experimental novel Vellum: The Book of All Hours (2005), which begins with a robbery in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections. One of the central characters smashes a glass case in the basement of the university library, where Special Collections was formerly housed, to seize the eponymous ancient volume, with the aim of escaping into its pages and discovering a world or succession of worlds without laws or borders, where the dreams, desires and nightmares of humankind can be worked out without restriction. The volume in question was written by the angel Metatron, and the thief himself is also an angel, as are most of the other major characters in the novel: members of a group called the Covenant, they are sworn to resist any attempt to seize authority on the part of a deity, past or present. The volume contains a map, like all good history books or fantasies; but this map begins with the familiar (a detailed blueprint of the library building) before spreading suddenly abroad into the infinitely strange and unexpected. And it unfolds for page after page; there is no sign that it will ever come to an end:
The Macromimicon. Was it then a book of maps, not of what was, but of what might have been, of a world that had taken a different course, with this village growing into a town instead of that one, this town burgeoning into a city instead of another? I turned another page. […] Strangely – in retrospect – it never occurred to me that this book might actually be nothing more than mere invention, a work of fancy: perhaps the accuracy of the blueprint of the library held that idea from my mind; perhaps it was the power of the old family legends engrained so deep within me. All I know is what I felt: a growing conviction that this book spoke somehow of a higher truth.
The novel Vellum is the product of many hours’ research in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections. It encompasses (among other things) the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna and her descent into the underworld, Aeschylus’s tragedy of defiance against the gods Prometheus Unbound, the Egyptian Book of the Dead (that beloved resource of the American experimental novelist William S Burroughs), Freud’s psychoanalytic narratives, and the myth of Metatron, the Recording Angel of Jewish mysticism. Each of these textual resources (at least, the original manuscripts and objects on which they are inscribed) is worthy to be housed in glass cases in the world’s finest museums. But Duncan’s book liberates them from all glass cases, as the thief liberates The Book of All Hours, in the process demolishing the constricting grand narratives that the great museums of the world were designed to propagate. In Duncan’s book, chaos and anarchy are not destructive but boundlessly creative, and this attitude, freely shared among the members of the Covenant, is finally able to free Benjamin’s angel of memory (as embodied in all the angels in the novel, with their different perspectives and interweaving narratives) from the authoritarian constraints of official records.
This is one of the ‘higher truths’ we wanted to carry with us into Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. For the evening, we wanted to suggest alternative narratives for The Hunterian’s displays which would head our visitors off in new imaginative directions, some of which have been touched on in this little meditation on the museums of fantasy fiction. The dynamics of the evening – with no particular route mapped out through the museum’s displays; with many displays left untouched by our Fantasy Scotland labelling but (perhaps) rendered a little more mysterious by their proximity to labelled objects; with performances breaking out at odd moments (we did not provide a programme so as to avoid excessive crowding around the stage in the main hall); with random volunteers wandering among the exhibits and research stations, some costumed, some not – the dynamics of the evening allowed for every visitor’s experience to be subtly or even wildly different. (One child sat at the creative writing station all night long, brushing off all her parents’ attempts to draw her attention to other happenings while scrawling page after page of – what? We never found out.) So, the eighteenth-century Blackstone Chair, which has been used for several centuries to examine students in the humanities or classics, became for the evening a kind of sorting hat in the corner devoted to Harry Potter and fantasy for children; but the nearby skeleton of the False Killer Whale remained stubbornly itself. The Dire Wolf inevitably got recruited as an extra in George R. R. Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire, while its next door neighbour in the same glass case, the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger, kept its own counsel, moving mysteriously through the bush of its native island, half real, half legendary. The magpie’s nest became temporarily the nest of the Never Bird from Peter and Wendy, while Ferdinand Verbiest’s Chinese-language Map of the Whole World continued to show the world as it was in the seventeenth century, from a Chinese perspective, for purposes you would have to turn to history to find out. The Hunterian’s mummy, Lady Shepenhor, became the mummy of Sosra’s lover in Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Ring of Thoth’. Most of the Roman artefacts from the Antonine Wall just stood there, waiting for something to take place in the spaces between them.
We hope that as a result, Scotland as well as the Hunterian Museum has got just a little larger, a little stranger, a little more fantastic.
[In the second post on Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland we provide the quiz handed out on the night and the labels that decorated the museum’s cases.]
Photo Credits: all photos of Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland are by Stuart Dyer and Oliver Rendle
[I started thinking about Celtic Fantasy in May, when Geraldine Parsons invited me to take part in a Round Table on the subject with herself and Thomas Clancy at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies here in Glasgow. The event is elegantly summarised by Megan Kasten here; but I went on thinking about Fantasy and Celticity, and turned my thoughts into a keynote for the CRSF Conference at the University of Liverpool last week. This, then, is the keynote, with thanks to Geraldine for getting me started on it and to Will Slocombe, Beata Gubacsi, Tom Kewin and the CRSF organising committee for the invitation to give it, and for making the conference such a supportive environment to deliver it in. I should also apologise profusely to the courteous Irish scholars who suffered in silence through my dreadful mispronunciations of their beautiful language. I should have asked Geraldine for lessons beforehand. I’ll know better next time.]
In her recent book Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave 2017) Dimitra Fimi identifies what she calls the desire for ‘Celticity’ as rooted in myth: the fantasy of a sophisticated shared culture that once extended across much of Europe, and whose traces can still be found in the customs, character and conversation of the Welsh and Irish people and their diasporic relatives across the world. According to this myth, in ancient times Celtic culture differed from the culture of the Roman Empire in much the same way as modern Celts differ from the English and Anglo-American colonists who inherited the Roman imperial mantle: it was ‘spiritual, natural, emotional, artistic, rural, and timeless’, where the colonists favoured materialism, rationalism, and restraint, qualities perceived as underpinning the rapid spread of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The association of Celticity with emotion, spirit and nature aligns it with the literary genre now known as fantasy: the art of the impossible, which seeks to liberate itself from the Anglo-Roman espousal of rationalism by imagining people, events and things that violate the laws of physics or biology. The impulse to fantasy arose at a point when those laws were being systematically formulated by the Enlightenment, manifesting itself in the uncanny narratives of Gothic fiction, the dreamlands of Romantic poetry and the earthy tricksiness of the folk tale, and attaching itself to revolutionary and nationalist movements even as those movements appealed to reason as the basis for a reconstruction of stagnant old societies along radical new lines. Celtic fantasy found its most potent manifestation in the Irish literary revival, whose championing of medieval Irish literature and folktale supplied the soundtrack, so to speak, for the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence four years later. In Ireland, the dream of a Celtic past as expressed through stories helped, in its own small way, to spark a revolution. That’s more than can be said for most literary movements, and itself identifies Celtic fantasy, even in its humblest manifestations (the ballad, the folk tale, the bedtime story for children) as well worth thinking about.
In this post I’d like to focus on the question of how Celtic fantasy written for children engaged with politics in the decades before the subgenre really took off in the 1960s. My chosen texts have been left out of most accounts of the rise of Celtic fantasy, since they come too early to fit into the established timeline for the movement’s emergence. One of these novels is from Ireland, the other from Scotland, and both were written in times of crisis – though it’s hard to think of any decade of the twentieth century that wasn’t a time of crisis in one way or another. To be specific, both can be read as responses to war, and both concern themselves with the traces of war in the psychological, cultural and physical landscapes of the authors’ nations. They are Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey (1934) and William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944); and between them they provide a number of valuable insights into what Fimi might describe as the impulse to Celticity, in children’s fiction and elsewhere.
Both books bear a striking resemblance to the debut novel of the most celebrated writer of Celtic fantasy for children: Alan Garner, whose novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen came out in 1960, sixteen years after Borrobil. In all three books two children, a boy and a girl, find their way into the Celtic past, where they get caught up in events that have a profound effect on their country’s history. In each case they encounter one or more guides who help them understand the culture they find themselves in; in each case the Celtic past proves to be much more complex than they might have expected; and in each case their journey from past to present involves an intimate encounter with some striking geographical feature (Garner’s Alderley Edge, the prehistoric monuments of Dickinson’s Scotland, the Irish boglands in Lynch). Dickinson’s novel shares with Garner’s the detail that the young female protagonist carries with her into the past a talismanic stone, which plays a crucial role in ensuring the outcome of the narrative. In The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, too, talismanic objects get carried and exchanged between the Celtic otherworld and the everyday present, most notably a magic shamrock. And Lynch’s novel also shares with Weirdstone a sense of unease at certain implications of the confrontation it enacts between the Celtic past and the globalized present. It’s not necessary, I think, to assume that Garner had read the earlier novels, but they prove that Celtic fantasy was alive and well, and being used for serious purposes in children’s fiction, long before Colin and Susan first set eyes on the sleeping knights of Fundindelve.
The first of my texts, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, emerged from a background of political activism. Its author threw in her lot at an early age with the conjoined struggles for women’s suffrage and a modern, independent, socialist Ireland. At eighteen she was sent as a correspondent by Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, TheWomen’s Dreadnought, to cover the Easter Rising of 1916. In 1922 she married the English historian Richard Fox, who had just returned from a visit to the newly-founded Soviet Union and who was building a formidable reputation as a radical thinker (in the later 1920s his books were published by the Hogarth Press). The couple moved to Dublin, where Fox wrote books about Irish women rebels (published the year after The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey), the Citizen Army, and two prominent members of the Labour movement in Ireland, Jim Larkin and James Connolly. Lynch meanwhile began to write children’s fiction, beginning with The Green Dragon in 1925, and becoming the most influential Irish writer for children of the twentieth century. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey is richly infused with the couple’s passion for international socialism, as well as with Lynch’s feminism, and with the conviction that both these movements had a natural affinity with Irish culture and history – that their roots reached deep into Irish soil, quite literally speaking given the book’s emphasis on the boglands of the West. It’s also interestingly choosy about the elements of ancient Irish culture that should be accommodated into twentieth-century Irish identity. Celticity, it suggests, must be mixed with a strong strain of modernity if Ireland is to fulfil its potential as an independent nation.
Lynch’s debt to another Irish socialist fantasy writer is everywhere obvious in this novel. I’m thinking of James Stephens, whose The Crock of Gold (1912) harnessed ancient Irish myth in the services of a radical vision for an independent, egalitarian Ireland. Lynch’s child protagonists inhabit a landscape which, like Stephens’s, contains forceful women, tricky leprechauns, intelligent animals, travellers who abide by strict laws of their own and have a passion for stories, roads with a personality of their own, and figures from ancient Irish literature and legend. The brother of the novel’s heroine is even named Seamus, recalling the young boy from a delightful collection of poems by James Stephens published in 1915 as The Adventures of Seumas Beg (Seamus was also one of Stephens’s many pseudonyms). The Crock of Gold ends with an act of liberation in which the story’s heroine, Caitlin ni Murrachu, joins with the medieval hero Angus Og and the hosts of the Sidhe to free the Irish people from enslavement by capitalist imperialism. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey culminates in a more tentative vision that seeks to establish continuity between the Celtic past and a socialist Irish future in a gesture of reconciliation aimed at administering imaginative balm to the wounds inflicted by the Civil War of 1922-3. Lynch’s is an optimistic book but not a glib one, and provides a joyful antidote to the satirical revision of Stephens’s novel undertaken by Flann O’Brien in his bleak surrealist masterpiece The Third Policeman (c. 1940).
The political resonance of The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey can be best appreciated, I think, by turning to the report Lynch wrote for The Women’s Dreadnought about the Easter Rising. The report, ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’, was prefaced by some thoughts on Easter Week penned by Sylvia Pankhurst herself, who identifies the Celtic nations of the Western Archipelago as instinctively more progressive than their powerful neighbour, ‘slow-moving England […] who, with her strong vested interests and larger population, is always the predominant partner in the British Isles’. Pankhurst clearly sees what she calls ‘the Celtic temperament’ in the terms assigned by Fimi to Celticity: spiritual, emotional and artistic, concepts combined in her account of ‘the dream of so many ardent lovers of Ireland to make of her an independent paradise of free people, a little republic, famous, not for its brute strength, but for its happiness and culture, something unique in all the world’. Against this utopian dream Pankhurst sets the scenes of desolation reported from Dublin: not just the carnage caused by the savage military suppression of the Rising, but the desperate poverty of ‘tenement dwellings […] crowded with poor, ill-clad people’ which still stood as a physical rebuke to British rule in Ireland, and which were described in such vivid detail by James Stephens in his realist novel The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912). More significantly for Lynch’s development as a novelist, Pankhurst wrote of the plight of rural people in the West of Ireland, living in ‘hovels’ on ‘strips of undrained, stony ground’, earning a few shillings a week for making lace and with illiterate children ‘kept at home to help with this wretchedly paid work’ of lacemaking, whose returns were falling year on year despite government assurances to the contrary. Like most of Lynch’s novels, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey locates itself in rural Ireland, and involves the reconstruction of one such hovel along better principles thanks to an unexpected windfall provided by a grateful leprechaun. The woman who lives in the cottage makes lace to a standard her children are deeply proud of. The children help their parents with their work, but the young girl also reads about Irish history as if with the specific intention of reconstructing Ireland on the ruins of a sometimes heroic, sometimes catastrophic past, and eventually brings the past into the present, quite literally, in the form of a Celtic hero from her favourite history book. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey could almost have been written as a direct response to Pankhurst’s description of the appalling living and working conditions in rural Ireland that helped to provoke the Easter Rising.
Lynch’s ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’ differs from the celebrated eyewitness account by James Stephens – The Insurrection in Dublin – in its concentration on women’s experiences. All the witnesses whose interviews Lynch reports are women, and her particular interest in the material impact of the conflict on the ‘women’s problem’ of running a household is everywhere obvious. The women she spoke to were predominantly working class: a ‘pale-faced, haggard-eyed waitress’, whose sweetheart is in prison facing execution; a charwoman whose home came under fire by the British army; another domestic servant whose two-roomed flat was blown up by the military; a girl whose brothers are fighting on opposite sides, one at the front in Fanders, the other in the Irish Volunteers; a woman who knows first aid and has tried to help, first a British soldier, then a dying ‘Sinn Feiner, barely 12 years old’, who was wounded in the head so that ‘his brains were showing’. The same first aider witnessed the meeting between a dying woman, whom she carried into a nursing home, and her injured young daughter. Elsewhere Lynch writes of a 15-year-old boy who was arrested for the crime of being ‘out walking’ with a non-combatant member of Sinn Fein. In Lynch’s Rising, women and children are the chief casualties of the chaos of what she represents as a civil conflict, with Irish citizens – sometimes members of the same family – on both sides.
James Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin blamed the Rising on a catastrophic failure of imagination on the part of the British: a refusal to see things from the Irish point of view or to try to understand the psychological impact of putting down the insurrection with extreme force. Lynch clearly shared his views. At the end of her report she speaks of the Irish capacity for remembering significant historical events – embodied in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey by young Eileen, who reads her history book so intensely that its characters come alive – and warns that the British actions in Dublin will not be forgotten. ‘Will the English government never learn?’ she concludes.
It can only suppress revolt by appealing to the imagination of the Irish. If not one leader had been shot, if clemency, toleration had been the order, the rebellion would indeed have been at an end. We cannot resist kindness, we can never endure oppression.
A heroic girl marrying her lover on the morning of his execution; a beautiful countess giving up the advantages of her position to live with the working people and if necessary to die with them; these strike the imagination of a race of poets and idealists.
For Lynch, central to the images of the Rising embedded in the Irish collective memory are representations of two women, Grace Gifford and Constance Markievicz, the latter of whom took active part in the fighting – a fact perhaps commemorated in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey when little Eileen gets caught up in the fighting between the Tuatha Dé Dannan and the Fir Bolg at the First Battle of Maighe Tuireadh. Eileen, however, is more concerned to avoid hurting anybody with her spear – apart from one aggressive boy she strikes in self-defence – than to use it in anger, and is instrumental in establishing peace between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg. Her experience of conflict in Celtic times is profoundly disturbing to her, like Lynch’s of the Insurrection, and it’s the peacetime accomplishments of the Tuatha Dé that she admires – the cities they build, the magic they weave – rather than their martial prowess.
Eileen, in fact, resists the narrative logic of Celtic literature and folktale as much as she embraces it. As in the folktales, her and Seamus’s kindness to animals is duly rewarded: the novel’s title commemorates their rescue of an abused donkey, who turns out to have magical powers and takes them to a pool on the flat-topped mountain near their home where they can see anything they care to; but the children can’t agree on what they want to see in it, and its resources are never put to significant use. Later the children meet a leprechaun, which Seamus catches for the usual purpose of forcing him to surrender his crock of gold; but the boy lets him go again by mistake, and when Eileen befriends the leprechaun by finding and returning his shoemaking hammer this turns out to be of greater practical use than violence, since he both mends her shoes in return and supports the children in their later adventures. Subsequent encounters with the magical past are equally ambiguous about the value of traditional means of acquiring money, fame and power. When Seamus gets kidnapped by an eagle and enslaved by the Wise Woman of Youghal – who wants access to the magic enclosed in a four-leaved clover sent to the children by their beloved Aunt Una – Eileen has to rescue him in a toy plane, with somewhat inadequate assistance from the leprechaun, miscellaneous birds and beasts, and a pilot dressed all in silver. Eileen’s rescue, then, embodies both collectivism and a rather fragile version of modernity (the toy plane is flimsy, being made of cardboard, and the pilot eccentric and irascible), as against the imperialist symbolism of the eagle or the Wise Woman’s quest for an unshared, undemocratic power obtained through the shamrock, the symbol of Ireland past and to come. By this stage in the story, Lynch’s young protagonists have come to embody the struggle between competing versions of Irish identity, with Eileen the champion of a progressive model of relations between classes, genders, and the environment, while Seamus is constantly tempted to replicate the aggressive actions and selfish motives of his ancestors – though his affection for his sister always redeems him in the end.
Eileen’s possession of a toy plane should alert us to the way Lynch likes to reverse traditional gender expectations. Not only does this girl come to the rescue of her elder brother, but she does it with the help of a toy he would like to have owned himself (‘That’s what I wanted!’ he tells her when she carries it out of the shop). Later Seamus gets equally annoyed with his sister when she gets too caught up in her reading to play with her dolls, so that he has no excuse to join in with her games in direct contradiction of his stated belief that dolls are ‘silly, babyish things’ and that he is ‘surprised at Eileen bothering with them’. In any case, Eileen’s dolls don’t get used for conventional purposes: she never nurses or makes clothes for them, but pins ‘gay pieces of stuff around them, turning a Dutch doll into a gipsy, and a sailor into a Red Indian or a pirate’; she even allows her brother to stalk them with his bow and arrows so long as he never hits them. Clearly Eileen is as international in her outlook as Lynch herself was, and as addicted to roving either in real life or in her imagination (at one point in the novel she runs off to join the real-life gipsies, though she finds looking after their babies deeply disenchanting). She is no more entrapped in traditional household roles or ways of thinking than the characters in the books she reads are trapped in the past – or than her parents are trapped in a shoddy cottage (they rebuild their home from scratch at the end of chapter 3).
The past, then, is never sentimentalized in Lynch’s fiction – any more than the relationship between the brother and sister is sentimentalized (Eileen runs away to join the gipsies after squabbling with Seamus). Ireland past and present is a place of divided cultures, often at war with one another in words or deeds. People inhabit different dwellings depending on their work and culture: the tinkers live in the carts from which they sell their wares, Tim Quinlan the road-mender in his mobile shelter, Captain Cassidy on his barge, the gipsies in their immaculate caravans, the turf-cutter and his family in their cottage at the edge of the bog where the turf gets cut – and each of these dwellings is on the move, including the cottage, which gets rebuilt. The gipsies and the tinkers are at odds (‘When you go back to your own people,’ the Tinker Chief tells Eileen, ‘you’ll tell them how much better than the gipsies the tinkers are’), though Eileen at first finds both communities equally intimidating – just as she is terrified of being caught on the barge by Captain Cassidy, or in the fair by the showman who chases her when she releases one of his human exhibits. And when the children make their way into the past by magic, they find it full of rival peoples at once as alluring and intimidating, as foreign and familiar as the diverse communities of modern Ireland.
Their first encounter with the past features the hero Finn and the warriors of the Fianna, whom they meet on the same flat-topped mountain where the donkey showed them the magic pool. This encounter goes badly: Eileen makes a fool of herself by posing as a princess, and when Seamus asks to join the Fianna he is set a number of tasks he cannot possibly perform (‘If you were put in a hole with a shield and a stick,’ they tell him, ‘you must be able to defend yourself against nine warriors’). Keeping hold of the past, too, proves a problem for the modern visitors: solid objects such as trees and spears are always melting away and the whole scene eventually vanishes when Seamus disobeys an order. There’s a cultural and physical gap between the fabulous attainments of the past and the youthful exuberance of the present, and Seamus can only promise to practise hard at fighting, jumping and running in an effort to bridge it.
The second encounter with the Celtic past goes better, at least at first. One of the ancient inhabitants of Ireland escapes from Eileen’s history book and she makes friends with him, forging an alliance which is a mutual embracing of difference. The stone-age visitor, a ‘little dark man’, is mistaken at first by the girl’s contemporaries for a thieving vagrant – a tinker or a gipsy – before being captured and put on show as an African ‘savage’ who ‘eats raw meat and swallows lighted candles’. Eileen’s urge, then, to befriend him and hear him tell stories seems initially to be an extension of her unusual interest in strange cultures, as manifested elsewhere in her games of Red Indians and her flight to join the gipsies. But the apparent differences between Eileen and the little dark man mask a deeper kinship. When they magically enter the history book he escaped from she finds that he is in fact a hero of old Ireland named Sreng, which means, as she points out, that that they are effectively related: ‘You see, we all belong here just as you do, only we live in a different time’. Through the ages Ireland has nurtured a range of populations as physically and culturally diverse as that of the globe, and recognition of its diversity leads naturally to the sense of kinship with men and women of all races and classes which Eileen displays throughout the novel.
At least, it should lead to such a sense of kinship. Instead, this second encounter with the Celtic past turns sour, much like the first. Sreng’s people the Fir Bolg prefer fighting to making friends, and one of the Fir Bolg boys takes violently against Eileen – symbolically enough, because she prevents him from killing the Salmon of Wisdom. Meanwhile the Fir Bolg Chief decides to wage war against a new wave of Celts who have arrived in Ireland: the Danaans, as Lynch calls them – the Tuatha Dé – who build cities of stone, wield lightweight metal weapons, and wear brightly-coloured clothes and intricate jewelry. The episode culminates in a battle involving three kinds of Irish people – the Fir Bolg, the Danaans and the two modern children – which ends not in heroic deeds (in the ancient texts Sreng strikes off the arm of Nuada, King of the Danaans) but chaos and confusion, much like the chaos of the Easter Rising as Lynch describes it. Eileen loses her spear and finds herself stranded behind enemy lines, where she ‘covered her eyes to shut out the sight of warriors cutting and stabbing, but […] could not shut her ears to the cries of pain and anger’. The Fir Bolg chief is killed, the aggressive boy traumatized, and the children flee with the wounded hero Sreng back to their own time, leaving ‘something of the present’ behind them in exchange (a pencil and a handkerchief, which they stuff into a hollow tree trunk). Impressive though the city of the Danaans was, when they set eyes again on the ‘whitewashed cabin at the edge of the bog […] in all the wonderful past they had not seen anything more lovely’. The Celtic past is not to be privileged, for Lynch, above the present and future; they are enmeshed in one another, and the most precious element of each is a commitment to the arts of peace.
Above all, the Celtic past doesn’t wield any cultural or moral authority over the present in Lynch’s novel. This is largely because its values – such as the celebration of martial prowess and the corresponding elevation of men over women in the social hierarchy – make it problematic as a model for modern life. Farah Mendlesohn has argued in Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) that the characters in ‘portal quest fantasies’ like this one – people who pass through a magical door or along an invisible road into an unfamiliar country – invariably require a guide to teach them how to behave and what to think about the things they’re seeing, such as Puck in Rewards and Fairies or Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For her, this makes the portal quest fantasy a fundamentally conservative genre. In a more recent book, Children’s Fantasy Literature (2016), she and Michael Levy summarize the 1930s as a decade of relative conservatism in children’s fiction, when protagonists must learn obedience at the hands of their adult instructors, and when fantasy novels are full of servile animated toys whose desire to please their owners reflects the dominant ideology of the mid-twentieth century. Lynch’s novel bucks both these trends. Eileen and Seamus have guides aplenty: the leprechaun, the ‘little dark man’ Sreng, a mysterious Man in Brown who comes over the bog following an ancient road and takes them to meet the Fianna. But none of these guides overawes them, and the youngsters are as often inclined to ignore their advice as they are to take it. Eileen treats Sreng and the Man in Brown as her equals, and Seamus strives to emulate them, seeing only his age as a bar to matching their accomplishments. The children’s sense of equality arises from the qualities that make them capable of forging friendships with random strangers – the birds, beasts, supernatural creatures and people they meet on their adventures. The young siblings are brave and curious, and they like to learn, whether new stories or new physical skills. In addition, they treat each other as equals, despite the difference in their ages and sexes. And the people they like best from Celtic culture are the ones who share their egalitarian values, such as the Man in Brown, who respects and rewards good men and women of all classes who give him food and shelter; or Sreng, who oversees the ceasefire between his people and the Danaans, and who later refuses to be the new chief of the Fir Bolg because, as he puts it, he prefers ‘wandering, seeing strange people and countries, making new friends’. He, like Eileen, is an internationalist, and his instinct for reconciliation is as urgently needed in post-Civil War Ireland as it was in the days of the warring Celts.
Reconciliation is also the theme of our second text, William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944). This is hardly surprising given that it was published at the height of World War Two. Its author was the longest-serving incumbent of the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, and the first Englishman to hold the post. A noted writer of ghost stories, he advanced the theory in his Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (1961) that the country’s fortunes were largely determined by its geography, a view that gets borne out in his debut novel. Once again the story concerns a young brother and sister who find their way into the past, where they meet the jovial wizard of the title, whose constant cheerfulness, pointed hat with a feather in it, and habit of breaking into rhyme at every opportunity link him irresistibly to Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. It’s tempting to imagine Dickinson may have known about Bombadil, who first appeared in a song in the 1930s – after all, he and Tolkien were fellow professors as well as fellow veterans of the Great War, and there are numerous hints in Borrobil that Dickinson had read The Hobbit (1937). Borrobil, however, concerns itself not with Middle Earth – an alternative England – but what is clearly Scotland, and in particular with the way the struggles of the past have left indelible traces on the Scottish landscape. Dickinson first told the story to his two young daughters, and one gets the impression he did so to reassure them that wars had come and gone across the land through successive generations, leaving no lasting damage, only strange remains: villages on stilts in the middle of lakes, hills with mysterious rings around them, barrows, stone circles, brochs and castles. His version of the Celtic past is the solution to the riddle posed by these remains, as well as a promise that the war will pass like a bout of bad weather, leaving only stories of courage and trickery behind it, and a few archaeological wonders which need the stories to bring them alive.
In fact, the novel represents war as a kind of ritual, the human equivalent of the war between the seasons as this was celebrated in the half-forgotten Celtic festival of Beltane. The young protagonists, Donald and Jean – whose names mark them out as Scottish – already have some awareness of the procession of the seasons. Their adventures begin at harvest time, when the fields are full of haystacks to play in, and it’s hinted that they may even have taken part in the harvest: we learn in the second paragraph that they have come to the part of the country where the story takes place on an ‘extra’ holiday, a phrase often used in wartime to mean breaks from school to help with farm work. At the same time there’s something odd about the seasons as they experience them. The Beltane festival took place in Spring, around the first of May, while the main hay harvest happens in July, so the presence of Beltane fires at harvest time is something of an anomaly. It would seem, though, to be a deliberate one on Dickinson’s part, because one of the children takes with him into the past three digestive biscuits with wheat sheaves stamped on them, which he gives to the king of a land that has been ravaged for decades by a monstrous dragon. The king takes the wheat sheaf symbol as a sign that the dragon will be defeated and that harvests will be possible again, as they have not for as long as the dragon held sway over the fields and hills. Donald and Jean, then, stand for the return of new life to a depopulated kingdom, and carry intimations of both spring and harvest with them. One wonders if the disruption of the seasons is an allusion on Dickinson’s part to the disruptions of war, which are also hinted at by the allusion to the ‘extra’ holiday – a break in the timetable of school and home life forced on the British population by the need to provide themselves with food.
The country they find themselves in – like Lewis’s Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a book that’s also set in wartime – has been as badly damaged as the one they’ve left behind. The country’s ageing king is confined to his castle and a single town, built in the middle of a lake for protection from the flightless dragon – like Tolkien’s Laketown; while another lord in the North part of the kingdom is sick, like the Fisher King, and cannot personally lead his people against the Norse invaders who threaten their homes and families. Time, then, is held in suspension in this damaged country; death or suspended animation has dominion over it, and its rulers are confined and powerless. The children, on the other hand, are full of unbounded youthful energy, exemplified in their decision to visit a wood at night at the beginning of the story, and by the stream of questions they fire at the wizard Borrobil when they meet him. Borrobil tells them that they have travelled to the past by dancing in the stone circle ‘with summer joy’ at a time of year when summer and winter, life and death are held in suspension, and that this show of liveliness is what has taken them back to the ‘dead’ times to witness the battle between the Kings of Summer and Winter – or of Life and Death – in person. They disrupted time by their actions at Beltane, and they go back in time to see time reassert itself over a land that has lost it.
Once you first notice it, it’s clear that the disruption or loss of time is a key theme in the book. The dragon’s presence has caught the land in a perpetual cycle, marked by combat between a human hero and the monster every seven years. The children also hear about another king of that country, King Eochaid, a kind of Ossian figure, who is condemned by the King of the Fairies to keep riding on his horse until a white dog jumps down from his arms – which it never does. When the hero Morac kills the dragon he gains the gift of second sight by touching its hide with his lips – the gift, that is, of intermittent visions of the future – and thereby signals the recommencement of chronological change. Later in the story the children enter the fairy kingdom itself under strict injunctions to accept no gifts there; the penalty for doing so is to stay underground for ‘seven years and seven days’, and we already know from the story of King Eochaid that ‘one day in the fairy kingdom is one hundred years in the land of men’. The children keep finding themselves in situations where they lose track of space and time – most notably when they are walking along enclosed paths on the approach to the wood on Beltane Eve at the beginning of the story, and again in the mountains on the way to a meeting with the giant Grugol, and when they are imprisoned in the castle of the sorcerer Sulig (‘Had they been imprisoned here for ever?’ Donald wonders). Each time their emergence from these enclosed spaces signals a return to normal time, a wholesale reorientation under the guidance of their mentor Borrobil, who may lose them occasionally but is always at hand to come to the rescue – independence and agency not being such an attractive option for young readers, perhaps, in the middle of a global war.
The most significant form of time in the novel, however, is what might be called story time; the binding together of different elements into a continuous narrative. Borrobil is a storyteller, and always makes sure he has time to tell a story no matter how urgent the business he is caught up in. This is where the Celtic context of the narrative comes to the fore. Scotland has no coherent interrelated body of Celtic texts as Ireland has, and this absence is reflected in the fact that Dickinson never names Scotland as the setting of his novel: one has to infer this from various clues, such as the presence in the landscape of crannogs, standing stones, long barrows and especially brochs, and from the Pictish names ‘Brude’ and ‘Giric’, as well as of the Men of Orc, who are clearly connected to Orkney. Dickinson provides this connecting narrative, linking features of the landscape – Giric’s underground house, the hills with rings round them, fairy rings, standing stones and brochs – to a continuous tale that makes sense of every unexplained phenomenon one might encounter on a stroll through the highlands and islands. I suggested earlier that he treats each feature as a kind of riddle – as with the explanation of the crannog by the presence in the neighbourhood of a dragon who cannot fly or swim, or of the hills with rings as having been caused by the death throes of the same dragon, which had wrapped its tail around them – and this tendency is also reflected in the shorter tales that crop up throughout the narrative. These are full of actual riddles in rhyme (all of them solved by Borrobil) and ingenious ruses performed by tricksters to escape seemingly impossible situations. For much of its length, then, the novel substitutes verbal combat – by riddle or ruse – for armed trail by combat; and even the spear- and swordfights it contains, from the killings of the dragon to the defeat of the invading Norsemen – are won by cunning rather than force. Like Lynch, Dickinson delights in wit and laughter rather than bloodshed, and his invented version of Celtic Scotland is populated by tale-tellers, jokers, singers, punsters and riddle-makers, who use brains instead of armies to defeat their enemies.
Like Lynch, too, Dickinson peoples his Celtic era with multiple coexisting cultures, in accordance with his views of Celtic Scotland as a historian. Giric is a Pict, and his barrow-like home and fondness for ‘the old customs and the old ways’ identifies him as from a different background from that of his fellow Pict, King Brude. The Men of Orc with their brochs have a different culture from the crannog-building peoples of southern Scotland; the hills are occupied by fairies and the sea by the murderous Blue Men; and it’s never quite clear what culture Borrobil belongs to. Through this diverse landscape of conflicting beliefs and customs Donald and Jean wander, finding a welcome wherever they go and witnessing the defeat of aggressors and invaders of all kinds by their cunning companions. For Dickinson and Lynch, Celticity at its best is a union of heterogeneous peoples, who love the arts – which in Dickinson’s case include the arts of constructing houses and monuments – and especially the ancient art from which their books have been cobbled together, that of telling stories. In both novels, stories come alive and inhabit the same space as their youthful listeners and readers; and in both novels the Celtic connections of the stories link them intimately to the land, with its peat bogs, mountains, lochs and mysterious roadways. Stories bring people of all cultures and ages together, draw the past and present into conversation, hold out the promise of a better future. Few books illustrate this promise better than Borrobil and The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey.
[I gave a version of this address at the opening of GIFCon 2017 in March, and am publishing it here as a brief historical record of the activities that led up to that event. When I gave it I forgot to mention that I convene the Fantasy Masters Programme at the University of Glasgow, which led to some confusion. I’ve put that right in this introductory paragraph; and I’ve also added some missing acknowledgements to the original text.]
In September 2015, the first intrepid group of seven graduates arrived at the University of Glasgow to study on a new Masters Programme. Somehow, nobody quite knows how, the university had agreed to let them study for a Masters in Fantasy within its august premises – the first of its kind in the world, according to our dedicated team of researchers – and I’m not sure whether they had any idea what they were letting themselves in for.
Or maybe they did. They called themselves the Fantasy Canaries, after the small yellow birds taken by miners down the shaft to test for the presence of poisonous gasses. I imagine they wanted to give themselves a healthy dose of realism along with all the fantasy.
Well, despite this name they seem to have enjoyed the experience. Just seven months down the line the same group of graduates had been joined by a keen team of doctoral students, and decided to apply for funding to set up the first major event in the programme’s history: the event that begins today, and is known as GIFCON.
We have had other events in our brief history. We have had a remarkable collection of visiting speakers: among them the novelists Arianne ‘Tex’ Thomson, Hal Duncan, Neil Williamson, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and Claire North, aka Cat Webb, aka Kate Griffin…
The Head of Books and Commissioning Editor with Rebellion Publishing, Ben Smith and Jon Oliver…
The SF author Adam Roberts, who entertained us at the 2016 Aye Write! Festival, and the novelist and short story writer Kirsty Logan, who took part in the University of Glasgow’s series of Creative Conversations…
…and the academics Professor Edward James and Dr Anna Vaninskaya.
We have twice held joint events with the School of Education, thanks to our much-loved colleagues Evelyn Arizpe and Maureen Farrell. At one of these, a mini conference called ‘Other Worlds and Story Worlds’, the novelist Julie Bertagna gave a keynote which was so well received by our graduates that they have invited her to speak again today.
We had an event with Louise Welsh and Stuart MacRae, who discussed their fantasy opera The Devil Inside with the director of Scottish Opera, Alex Rijdeek.
We’ve been on field trips – most notably to Glasgow’s astonishing kinetic theatre, Sharmanka.
We’ve watched movies together in the Fantasy Film Club. We’ve had fun.
This year, we’ve also had published authors on the programme. There have been four book launches for our graduates since September 2016: the brilliant anniversary anthology of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, Thirty Years of Rain, to which our own Ruth Booth is a contributor; Oliver Langmead’s visionary novel Metronome; Caighlan Smith’s superb YA dystopian fiction Children of Icarus; and most recently a book of feminist cocktails co-written by two of the Fantasy Canaries, Laura Becherer and Cameo Marlatt, and wonderfully titled A Drink of One’s Own.
These successes, as well as the large uptake for the Creative Writing optional course led by Elizabeth Reeder in the second semester, resulted in the establishment of our first Fantasy at Glasgow Reading Party in a private room at the Dram Bar in Woodlands Road, where a large proportion of our students revealed themselves to be talented writers of novels, poems and short stories. The programme has become a blend of the creative and the academic, which was always its intention. This makes me proud.
But the event I’m proudest of by far is this one, GIFCon, because it was conceived, named, imagined and organized by a team of fantasy enthusiasts, scholars and practitioners who would never have met if we hadn’t started up the fantasy programme on that day in 2015.
In honour of their achievement, I’d like to make some acknowledgements.
The event was funded by a generous donation from the Graduate School of the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow. Warm thanks to them for all their support; above all to Adeline Callander, Brooke Gordon and Rhona Brown, who came to the rescue at moments of crisis.
Thanks to Liz Caldi for playing the piano with such panache.
Thanks to the dedicated team of organizers – and here I really mean dedicated. Some are doctoral students, from as far afield as Creative Writing, English Literature, the School of Education and the School of Engineering. Others are past and current students from the MLitt in Fantasy. In alphabetical order, the GIFCON committee are:
Laura Becherer, Helen Bleck, Ruth Booth, Thaleia Flessa, Lan Ma, Chris Lynch, and Dimitrios Xanthakis. Also involved in the committee at an early stage were Alex Atkin, Matteo Barbagallo and Ieuan Ledger.
Friends, you have gone above and beyond the call of duty – as one would expect from committed fantasists. I’m overawed by your commitment.
Finally, we’d like to thank the University Chaplain, the Reverend Stuart MacQuarrie, for allowing us to use this magnificent building for the conference plenaries. Thanks to him, we can start the proceedings in a place that has a decided air of Hogwarts about it.
Here’s a charming oddity: a children’s book published in 1919, written before the outbreak of the Great War by the celebrated classical scholar Sir William Woodthorpe Tarn for the entertainment of his only daughter. In later life his daughter became Otta Swire, the Hebridean folklorist, who lived in Orbost House near Dunvegan in the north of the Isle of Skye; and the novel features Otta herself under the name of Fiona, with her father as ‘the Student’ (her mother, Flora MacDonald, has unaccountably vanished from the family circle). Tarn writes in his introduction to the 1938 edition that he told the story to the fifteen-year-old Otta in the winter of 1913-14 when she was ill, and it’s the age of the story’s protagonist that sets it apart from other children’s fantasy literature of the period. It’s very specifically a book about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and as such is an early precursor of the young adult fiction that came into its own in the 1970s. It’s also a precursor of later children’s fantasy in several other ways worth mentioning.
In the first place, it’s a learned book, two at least of whose characters are eccentric scholars with a taste for philosophy – something that links them with the two philosophers in James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912). The Student, who spends much of his time regaling his daughter Fiona with sage advice in the comfort of his reading room, also anticipates the scholarly gurus of later children’s fantasy: in particular the poverty-stricken Professor in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) – himself a reincarnation of White’s Merlin – and Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). His conversations with his fellow scholar, an entomologist whose scientific interests focus exclusively on ‘one particular family of coleoptera’ (47), unmistakably resemble the dialogue at cross purposes of Stephens’s Philosopher brothers:
the two would sit, one on either side of the fire, each smoking at a tremendous pace and talking hard on his own subject. Neither ever expected an answer from the other; neither ever got one. But they had silently established an unwritten law that when one had talked for three minutes by the clock on the mantelpiece he was to stop and let the other have a turn; and when at last they said good-night, each felt they had both had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. (48)
Crucially, too, like Stephens’s Philosophers, both men are thoroughly democratic in their quest for knowledge. The beetle scholar finds the most modest creepy crawly in creation fascinating, while the Student embraces everything in his conversation, from human evolution to the relationships between men and birds, from the grand wars and controversies of ancient history to the complex web of global myth and legend. His mind is a kind of living Golden Bough which sees connections between the stories and deeds of all people, whatever their apparent ‘primitiveness’ and whatever age they lived in. And it’s his impartial concern for insignificant people – indeed, his somewhat paternalistic sense of responsibility for them – that sets Tarn’s story in motion.
The story takes its origin from a moment in the Student’s youth – recollected in the book’s first chapter – when he altruistically defended a wandering hawker from an unprovoked attack by Bashi-bazouks – irregular Ottoman soldiers – in the town of Verria, in what is now Macedonia. While on the one hand this episode might be seen as an instance of anti-Turkish xenophobia, a typical Boy’s Own Paper exercise in imperialist machismo, on the other it could also be read as a courageous act of defiance against a colonial oppressor (Macedonia was part of the Ottoman empire), especially in view of the fact that the hawker’s race, class and nationality, like his age, remain a mystery. The Student’s defence of him, then, can serve as an instance of his innate humaneness and impartiality, the equivalent in action of his universal interest in the knowledge of all races and nations, and of his desire to communicate this knowledge impartially to the young of both genders, especially his daughter. And the sudden reappearance of the hawker at the beginning of the novel places this sense of democratic impartiality squarely at the centre of the narrative that follows.
The hawker is never named, but his identity as a magical wanderer between nations and epochs – he seems to be immortal – allies him not only with the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew but with those mysterious wanderers of later children’s fiction, the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlins in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) and ‘the Walker’ Hawkin in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973). I’ve pointed out elsewhere that the names of Hawlins and Hawkin link them; this book suggests that both names might take their origins from the hawker, whose name denotes his trade (at the beginning of the book he is selling buttons). Tarn’s wanderer might also be read as a figure for the migration of myth and folklore from one culture to another – or for the affinities between cultures embodied in the more or less identical myths and legends that have sprung up independently in different cultures across the globe. Tarn’s own interest in the links between seemingly disparate cultures found an outlet in his book on the relationship between ancient Greece and Asia, The Greeks in Bactria and India (1938), stimulated by his more celebrated work on the life and times of Alexander the Great. His hawker changes identity several times as the novel goes on, and in the process becomes a hinge connecting what Tarn calls ‘All the lost peoples and nations and languages’ of the world. As a result, of course, he also becomes associated with the dead, like Peter Pan (who is said at one point to lead children to whatever happens after death) or the fairies in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). And he thus becomes associated with Tarn’s and the Student’s learning, which concerns itself first and foremost with the dead – but seeks too to bring them alive by any means possible, in the case of The Treasure of the Isle of Mist through the medium of a fantasy or modern-day fairy story told to a decidedly modern girl.
It’s Tarn’s concern with the links between cultures that connects his novel in yet another way with The Crock of Gold. The book combines classical with Celtic and other elements of myth and folklore, in a manner that anticipates Lewis’s exuberant fusion of elements in the Narnian chronicles. James Stephens introduced both Pan and Angus Og into his novel, and his fellow Irishman Lewis introduced both Bacchus and the knights, witches and werewolves of medieval romance in the second novel in the Narnia sequence, Prince Caspian (1951). Like Lewis, Tarn summons up the memory of Dryads and Naiads, the Grecian spirits of trees and the sea, in one episode of his novel, adding to these an Oread – the spirit of a mountain – whose heart is wakened, as the tree spirits are wakened in Prince Caspian, by the courage of a young girl. Unlike the novels of Stephens and Lewis, however, this is a book that’s deeply rooted in the specificities of an actual place and time. It’s very definitely set in and around Orbost House, as Tarn points out in his introduction, and these local associations were intensified in the 1938 edition by restoring the actual names to features of the island landscape to which he had given invented names in 1919. A major attraction of the book is its very accurate representation of the details of the Skye landscape in October, its flora and fauna, the constantly changing weather from which the island gets its name, the habits of its human and avian inhabitants. He delights in assigning birds and other creatures their Scottish names: ‘scart’ for a young cormorant, ‘solan’ for a gannet, ‘finner’ for a fin whale, ‘glede’ for a kite. These details, combined with the magical happenings which Tarn represents as native to the Hebridean context, link the novel to the folkloric narratives of place that proliferated in children’s fantasy after the Second World War – in particular the work of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. That some of these links with post-war fantasy might be attributed in part to Tarn’s influence is suggested by the fact that it was a popular book between the ’30s and ’50s, reprinted by Oxford University Press – which probably appreciated its scholarly content – at least three times in the period (it’s the 1959 edition in which I’ve read it).
Despite its links with later fiction, the book is decidedly of its period in certain respects. Its heroine embarks on a small-scale adventure of a very familiar kind in the first half of the twentieth century – a treasure hunt – with the rather unhelpful assistance of a younger boy known only as The Urchin; and though there are hints that this adventure is part of a larger story, and though it would have been easy for Tarn to have raised the stakes for which Fiona is playing, there’s little sense at any point that either she, the Urchin, their families or the culture they live in are in much danger; indeed at one point she becomes upset by the lack of concern her father shows over the Urchin’s sudden disappearance, an indifference on his part which assures the reader that the mystery will be soon explained. (For the ‘dramatic increase in the import of the adventures’ in children’s fantasy after the Second World War see Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), chapter 5, p. 102.) Fiona always has an adult guide of some sort in her adventures, her father being the chief of these; and Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn have demonstrated how universally such adult guides were provided for child adventurers in pre-war fantasy. The Student’s control over events is reinforced by the fact that he happens to be a landowner (albeit an impoverished one), with hereditary rights over much of the territory where Fiona stages her treasure hunt. More significantly, Fiona’s adventures are clearly informed every step of the way by her father’s passion (which is also Tarn’s) for ancient history, palaeography, natural history and philosophy. The hunt takes her into a fairy land possessing all the components which James Frazer or Jane Harrison would have expected. It culminates in a trial attended by all the vanished peoples the Student – Tarn himself – strove to resurrect through his research. And the trial involves an ethical question of the kind the ancient Greek philosophers would have relished, depending on a riddle straight out of folklore: what is the greatest treasure a human being could seek for? The answer we’re given is a scholar’s answer: the search itself. And having found it, Fiona also finds herself on the path to the kind of mythical/folkloric learning for which the girl she was based on, Otta Swire née Tarn, became famous.
The trial that culminates the story makes for an intriguing climax. It has a great deal in common with the trial at the climax of Powell and Pressburger’s best known movie, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), taking place as it does in a fairyland whose symbol is the flower of death – ‘the pallid asphodel whose home is in those other meadows where walk the pallid dead’ – and which is populated by the world’s dead (the movie deals with the trial of a British airman by spirits in the Second World War, and there is extensive reference in it to the medical effects of concussion, as there is in the book). The fairy witnesses present at the novel’s trial are both a motley throng to rival anything in a painting by Joseph Paton or Richard Dadd and a truly global assembly, which could only have been conjured out of the omnivorous mind of a true internationalist:
There were fairies of the Old Stone peoples, brave-eyed, clad in pelts of the sabre-tooth, bearing the blade-bones of bisons on which were carved pictures of the mammoth and the reindeer. Fairies from Egypt, clad in fine white linen with girdles and aquamarine, with fillets round their brows from which the golden uraeus lifted its snake’s head, bearing blossoms of the blue lotus. Fairies from Babylon, glowing in coats of scarlet or of many colours, their eyes deep with immemorial learning, bearing clay tablets on which were signs like the footprints of birds. […] Fairies of the Tuatha-dé, with all the youth of the world in their eyes, clad in robes of saffron, crowned with rowans and bearing harps. (118-9)
The casual learning employed in gathering this particular fairy host together fuses childhood dreams of fairyland with the dreams of scholars as Tarn describes them near the beginning of the novel. On meeting the Student the supernatural hawker tells him that as well as buttons he also peddles in dreams, but that he can do nothing for scholars because they already possess all the dreams a man could wish for: ‘You need no dreams, for your life is one. For you, the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’ (14). Instead, then, of offering the Student a gift from his pack, the hawker offers a gift to Fiona, whose fondness for the Student is the one great ‘justification’, as the hawker puts it, for her father’s existence. But by the end of the book the kind of magic offered by the hawker – the quest for a supernatural treasure – would seem to have been supplanted, for Fiona at least, by the equally potent magic of manuscripts, logical argument, the findings of modern science, and archaeological digs. Like the children in Lewis’s Narnia books, the protagonist of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and the mortal girls and boys of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Fiona realizes in the closing pages that she has got too old to fraternize with fairies. Instead she gains full and permanent imaginative access to the Island of Mists itself, which is the place she lives in, Skye – and all the historical, literary and scientific associations it brings with it. As the hawker tells her, in the course of her treasure hunt:
You have spoken face to face with bird and beast and with the beings who knew and loved the land before your race was. To-day you have the freedom of the island, and of all living things in it; they are your friends for ever. And to the dead in its graveyards you are kin. All that is there has passed into your blood, the old lost loves, the old impossible loyalties, the old forgotten heroisms and tendernesses; all these are yours; and yours are the songs that were sung long ago, and the tales which were told by the fireside; and the deeds of the men and women of old have become part of you. (148-9)
This invocation is a kind of spell bequeathing Fiona and the book’s young readers the magic of learning. It’s a learning that recognizes the link between the living land and the library book, affirmed in the novel by Fiona’s encounter in her garden with a philosophical yellow caterpillar whose close friend is a bookworm in the library of Orbost House. And it’s a learning that effortlessly associates Skye with Macedonia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Ireland – no parochial scholarship, in other words. As I mentioned earlier, the hawker said at the beginning that for scholars ‘the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’, and the book as it unfolds suggests that the ‘earth’ here should be taken both for the globe as a whole, with all its history, and for the local soil from which Fiona digs the caterpillar, and that the ‘treasure’ is as much woodcocks, finners and gledes as it is the knowledge of lost lives and literatures.
The signal that Fiona is well on the way to acquiring such learning and thus becoming a scholar like her father is her ability to ‘influence’ another young mind, in exactly the way her mind has been influenced by the Student’s historical knowledge and humane philosophy. At the climax of the trial she projects her mind into the Urchin’s and persuades him to make the right wish in response to an invitation from the fairies: the wish that his unpleasant Uncle Jeconiah, who is one of the accused, be acquitted and returned to his ordinary mortal existence, despite his earlier blithe disregard for the Urchin’s welfare. This altruistic wish, implanted in the Urchin’s mind by Fiona’s influence, is the precise opposite of what Jeconiah considers his philosophy: ‘do good to your friends and evil to those who stand in your way’ (49). Tarn tells us in the fourth chapter that ‘the philosophy of ethics took its rise, some twenty-two centuries ago, in a reaction against a similar rule’ (49), and Fiona’s rescue of Jeconiah in chapter seven embodies just this reaction. She and the Urchin put ethics into practice, and in the process identify themselves with Tarn’s vision of the vanished peoples of the earth who took ethical behaviour as their touchstone, in contrast to their intellectually and emotionally impoverished descendants in the approach to the First World War.
This is where the unexpected seriousness of the novel comes in. At the beginning the hawker asks the scholar, ‘What good do you and your inscriptions do, anyway?’ (15) – and the answer is that the Student has earned the love of his daughter. He has also earned her respect, to the extent that she absorbs his influence. And she in turn influences others: both the Urchin and Uncle Jeconiah, who is much chastened by his trial, show signs of her transformative power in their behaviour by the end of the novel. Learning, then, is in itself beneficial in Tarn’s eyes, though no doubt this depends on how it’s imparted – affection too is needed. On the other hand, it’s also limited in its impact on the world – and Tarn is too much of a philosopher not to see this. The effect on Uncle Jeconiah of his unexpected trip to fairyland, and of Fiona’s and his nephew’s rescue of him, is only temporary: ‘I expect that sort is incurable’ (141), the hawker comments as he watches the man’s wretched attempts to tell his nephew a fairy tale like the one we’ve just read. More poignantly, Fiona’s impact on the Urchin, too, would seem to be limited; and that’s a particularly painful thought when one thinks about the date when the story was first told, in the winter before the outbreak of the Great War.
There are, in fact, three treasures referred to in the book’s title. One is the mysterious gift of the hawker, which turns out to be what he calls the freedom of the isle. Another is a hoard of doubloons, brought to Skye in a ship from the Spanish Armada wrecked on its coast. The first of these treasures is desired by Fiona; the second by the Urchin, inspired by the tales of pirates and British naval victories he has been raised on as a young imperial male. The Urchin decides that the second of these treasures belongs to him, and persuades the Student to sign it over to him should the doubloons be found in one of the caves on the Student’s land. And the boy plans to spend it on something quite incompatible with Fiona’s treasure: a gun. He will use the gun, he tells Fiona, to shoot curlews, and the girl is horrified at this proposition: ‘You little wretch,’ she retorts at once, ‘You won’t kill my curlews while I’m about’ (26). Later, when the Urchin disappears and she goes in quest of him, a living curlew puts in an appearance: ‘a grey bird with a long bill, who on hovering wings wheeled three times in the air above her and gave his full spring call, the most wonderful sound the hills ever hear’ (84). Here the bird is clearly associated both with fairyland (circling three times – the magic number; giving its spring call in October as a sign for Fiona) and with the island, in particular its hills. The Urchin’s murderous intent towards the curlews, then, pits him directly against his mentor, who follows birds instead of shooting them. So too does the Urchin’s habit of flinging stones at other birds (it’s his injuring of a shore lark with a stone that gets him abducted by the fairies, the birds’ protectors). Fiona’s influence is evident in the remorse he feels when he hurts the shore lark; but the question is, is ‘his sort incurable’, like his Uncle?
This, then, is the third treasure of the book’s title: the boy himself, for whom Fiona feels ‘responsible’ in his father’s absence. The Urchin and his Uncle are both in quest of the Spaniards’ treasure rather than the island’s, and the Uncle’s greed for it is a symptom of his materialist, self-serving philosophy – but what is the boy’s? Both the Urchin and his Uncle are put on trial by the fairies for crimes against the island – in the Uncle’s case those of ‘stealing a treasure and being a worthless character’ (128), which marks the distinction between the fairies’ sense of ‘worth’ or value and the values of capitalism; in the boy’s for wounding one of the island’s avian ‘lieges’ (125). In the course of the trial Fiona persuades the boy to forgo his desire for the Spanish treasure and wish instead for his Uncle’s acquittal. But once the Urchin has made his wish, which is in fact hers implanted into his mind by an act of telepathy, he is granted a wish of his own; and he wishes, as he did at the beginning of the novel, for the gun he would have bought with the treasure if he had found it. At the end of the book he is clutching the gun (bought for him, tellingly, by his Uncle) as he listens to the awkward fairy tale which is being related by Jeconiah in fulfilment of the terms of his release. As soon as the Urchin gets some cartridges, he tells the novice storyteller, ‘you won’t keep me here’ (140); in other words he’ll stop listening to stories and set off for the hills instead, looking for birds to shoot. Fiona’s influence, and that of the fairies – the myths and legends of times past – goes only so far and no farther. Given the date of the story’s composition – 1912-13, with the shadow of the guns of war hanging over Europe – the consequences of her lack of influence may well be tragic (the Urchin might well be of age to join up by 1918). Tarn would have been well aware of this by the time the book was published the year after the Great War ended.
The dreams of scholarship, then, for Tarn, are fragile and marginalized, like the island’s ecosystem. At the same time, they may have an effect. When the two mortals – the boy and his uncle – have been acquitted at the end of the trial, there follows a period of companionable peace between Fiona, the Urchin, the King of the Fairies, and the Counsel for the Defence, who is also the Fairy Chancellor; a peace that’s embodied in the act of storytelling:
And the two children sat at the King’s feet on the steps of beryl throne and watched the dancers; and the Chancellor sat between them, and held Fiona’s hand, and told them such stories as they had never heard before, till between laughter and tears they nearly fell off the steps of the throne, and the Chancellor laughed and cried with them for sheer joy of his own story-telling; and if there were three happier people in the world that night I do not know where they were. And the night itself passed away as a dream that men dream, and its hours seemed to them but as a few minutes – and then across the music and the dance cut the shrill scream of a peacock as he greeted the day […] and the beryl throne dissolved in mist, and the figure of the King above them, pointing, grew dim and huge, and spread and grew, a purple shadow that hung over them… and they were standing alone in the fairy ring on Brandersaig, under the purple sky, with the white mist wreathing itself about their feet, and the pale November dawn coming slowly up out of the sea. (136-7)
The concentration of terms associated with the island of mist in this passage – where fairyland dissolves into the Skye landscape, its King becomes the ‘purple sky/Skye’, and the vapour that features in the island’s name envelops the children – reinforces the link between the physical landscape and the trial of human ethics that has taken place within it. Fairyland here resembles a dream, evanescent and temporally disorienting; but so too does the island, which can change its appearance as readily as Fairyland can, and is equally full of wonders. So too do philosophy, history, literature – all the branches of human knowledge with which Fairyland has been identified. As long as Skye exists, then, as the embodiment of Tarn’s dream of scholarly peacefulness (and we might remember here that the story begins with the Student rescuing a stranger from soldiers with the help of an unloaded revolver), there is hope that the dream too can be recaptured and sustained, for a while at least, from time to time.
Thanks are due to Professor Farah Mendlesohn for drawing my attention to Tarn’s book in her fine essay, ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy: Some Informal Thoughts’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 61-74.