Shakespeare, ‘Tam o’Shanter’, and the Theatrical Works of Robert Burns

[This post doesn’t focus on fantasy – though it gets there in the end. I’m putting it up in honour of Burns Night, 25 January; and in response to this recent piece in The Times, which may have slightly over-sensationalised what I’ve been saying about the relationship between Burns and Shakespeare. It’s more or less the paper I gave at the Two Bards Conference on 16 January, which brought the two national poets together in an atmosphere of friendly revelry and rivalry. We had a fantastic day, thanks to all concerned: especially Gerry Carruthers, David Hopes, and whoever was responsible for making it snow while we were standing on Brig o’ Doon.]

230px-PG_1063Burns_NaysmithcropAs everyone knows, Burns was a passionate lover – of the stage. When a new Theatre was built in Dumfries in the 1790s he gave its actor manager, George Sutherland, his full support, and commissioned his friend Alexander Nasmyth (the man who painted his portrait) to design some scenery. He also wrote prologues for play productions at Dumfries both before and after the theatre was built, and these contain a number of clues to his theatrical tastes. One of them, written for a New Year’s Eve performance in 1789-90, offers the young men and women in the audience sage advice in the person of Father Time, in unmistakable tribute to The Winter’s Tale. Another, written for Mrs Sutherland’s Benefit night in March 1790, gives us a tantalizing vision of a potential canon of Scottish plays to rival Shakespeare’s. ‘Why is outlandish stuff sae meikle courted?’ the prologue asks; there’s ample material for comedy, at least, in Scotland, since ‘A knave and fool are plants of every soil’. But Burns waxes especially eloquent on the theatrical possibilities of topics from Scottish history:

Is there no daring Bard will rise and tell
How glorious Wallace stood, how hapless fell?
Where are the Muses fled that could produce
A drama worthy o’ the name o’ Bruce? […]
O, for a Shakespeare, or an Otway scene
To paint the lovely, hapless Scottish Queen!

FontenelleFor a moment, there, the alluring possibility of a dramatic works of Robert Burns raises its head. Wallace, we know, was a subject he loved, and Mary Queen of Scots could hardly fail to appeal, dying as she did at the hands of a ‘rival woman […] As able – and as cruel – as the Devil’. But it’s hard to think of Burns as a tragic playwright; and another of his prologues, written for the comic actress Louisa Fontenelle (pictured right), dismisses tragic subjects out of hand. The poem depicts Fontenelle approaching a famous poet with a request for a prologue, only to be told that he will only write on serious subjects, and is afraid she will not be able to cope with them:

‘Ma’am, let me tell you,’ quoth my man of rhymes,
‘I know your bent – these are no laughing times:
Can you – but, Miss, I own I have my fears –
Dissolve in pause, and sentimental tears?’

Theatre Royal DumfriesFontenelle at once rejects his services and ends the prologue by enjoining the audience to follow her example in preferring comedy to tears, sentimental or otherwise: ‘be merry, I advise; / And as we’re merry, may we still be wise!’. Merriment is Burns’s as well as Fontenelle’s forte, and if he’d turned his talents to the theatre it seems likely he would have excelled in comic rather than historical or tragic subjects.

shakespeareBut Shakespeare has shown us that history doesn’t need to be divorced from the comic, any more than tragedy does. The closing words of Fontenelle’s prologue invoke the comedy of Shakespeare’s that’s most closely associated with history, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which teaches that ‘Wives may be merry, and yet honest too’ (IV.ii). The star of the Merry Wives is, of course, Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s unruly companion in the two parts of Henry IV; and Burns had written a prologue for an Edinburgh production of the comedy in 1787. The Merry Wives therefore has the distinction of being the only known Shakespeare play to have been performed in Burns’s lifetime with Burns’s verses attached to it. And it’s my contention that the play continued to resonate in the poet’s mind long after that Edinburgh performance. I’d like to suggest, in fact, that a memory of the Merry Wives lies behind Burns’s favourite poem, Tam o’ Shanter (1790), and helps to lend that poem some of its distinctively theatrical qualities.

If Burns loved the stage, he could also be described as a dramatic poet. His lyrics often resemble miniature plays, as any singer can tell you: in part because they so often involve direct address to a specific listener, or invoke specific actions (think of ‘Ae fond kiss’ or the joining of hands in Auld Lang Syne), or paint vividly realized characters – from Holy Willy to Burns himself. For my money, though, there are two of his works that show us most clearly what we lost when he died without writing anything but prologues for the stage. The first is his cantata, ‘Love and Liberty’ or ‘The Jolly Beggars’ (c. 1785); and the second is Tam o’ Shanter. The cantata has often been compared to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, though there’s no hard evidence Burns knew it. It’s hard to believe he didn’t, however, since Gay’s work was probably the most successful play of the eighteenth century, and the one most calculated to appeal to Burns, both in subject matter and form. And as it happens, Louisa Fontenelle was famous for playing two roles in The Beggar’s Opera: Lucy, which she performed in Edinburgh in 1793, the year when Burns wrote his prologue for her; and Macheath himself in London a few years earlier, in a performance described by the Theatre Journal as ‘offensive to decency’.

Jolly Beggars‘Love and Liberty’, too, could be described as offensive to decency, with its serial lovers and sometimes explicit lyrics; but it seems to me that it has as much in common with Shakespeare as with Gay. Burns’s little company of homeless drinkers and singers meets in a tavern like the Boar’s Head in Shakespeare’s Cheapside, on a night that recalls the chill of winter invoked in one of Shakespeare’s most popular lyrics (compare ‘When lyart leaves bestrow the yird’ to ‘When icicles hang by the wall’, Love’s Labour’s Lost V.ii). The female innkeeper Poosie-Nansie takes on the role of the hostess of the Boar’s Head, Mistress Quickly, in Henry IV, and the company freely bandies about the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’, as Carol McGuirk has pointed out, despite their obvious contempt for law and sexual fidelity – very much like Falstaff’s gang of self-styled ‘minions of the moon’ (1 Henry IV, Act 1 scene 2).[1] A maimed soldier celebrates the ‘gallant game’ of war and swears to ‘clatter on my stumps’ to serve his country in time of need. His mistress describes him as a ‘hero’, the latest and best in a succession of fighting men she has loved and let go; while her pickpocket friend sings of living ‘like lords and ladies gay’ with her dead lover, the ‘gallant, braw John Highlandman’ who was hanged for breaking the ‘Lalland laws’ despite his unimpeachable adherence to those of his clan. John’s widow is comforted by a pygmy fiddler, who praises her ‘heaven o’ charms’ and promises her a pastoral life of picking over old bones and sunning themselves on dry stane dykes. But his wooing is cut short by a swaggering tinker, who threatens to ‘speet him like a pliver’ with his ‘roosty rapier’ if he doesn’t give her up. The fiddler comforts himself for the loss of the widow by raking ‘fore and aft’ the lover of a penniless poet, a ‘bard of no regard’ who nevertheless sings of his willingness to give women ‘my dearest bluid, to do them guid’ whenever the inclination takes him. The cantata closes with the verses Burns liked best in the sequence, a praise of the vagabond life with a utopian chorus that dismisses the establishment as a bunch of money-grabbing self-servers:

A fig for those by law protected,
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.

Maimed soldier‘Love and Liberty’, then, resembles an old-fashioned coronet or garland of verses in which the last line of one poem forms the first of the next.[2] The resemblance is not so much in form as in content, one lover giving place to another in successive songs, just as one gives way to another in the singers’ makeshift beds. Undaunted by this culture of unfaithfulness, the singers praise promiscuity as equivalent to political liberty, and drink as a bottomless source of artistic inspiration. In doing so they recall the quasi-utopian evocation of Merry England in Justice Shallow’s orchard (Henry IV Part 2), where Falstaff regales his friends with promises of riches and influence when his friend Prince Hal succeeds to the throne. In the Land of Plenty that follows Hal’s coronation, he tells them, thieves will no longer be hanged and cowards no longer questioned when they praise their own valour; justice will be in the hands of the lawbreakers, and loyalty to one’s criminal friends will be rewarded, not punished as it was in John Highlandman. The notion of a company of drinkers, thieves and promiscuous lovers as an alternative court is evoked by the presence in Burns’s company of stock characters from chivalric romance: soldiers, musicians, poets, amorous couples. Falstaff too holds mock court, donning a crown in Henry IV Part 1 as he acts the part of Prince Hal’s father (Act 2 scene 4), and Burns’s company seems to echo Falstaff’s. I’ve already mentioned the Poosie-Nansie/Mistress Quickly connection. The tinker – who is also a deserter – recalls the swaggerer Ancient Pistol, while the maimed soldier tells us he displays his wounds, presumably for money, exactly as Pistol plans to do in Henry V. The hanged Highlandman evokes the hanging of Hal’s old friends Bardolph and Nym for pillage in the same play, while the various unfaithful lovers might make us think of Falstaff’s unkept promises of marriage to Mistress Quickly. The sentimental reminiscences of the pickpocket and the poet mimic Justice Shallow’s false recollections of his own youthful gallantry in Henry IV Part 2. Even the final chorus, which questions whether the ruling classes have any reason to think themselves more virtuous than Poosie-Nansie’s clients, reminds us that Falstaff’s plots to gain power and influence in Prince Hal’s England have a bloodier counterpart in the martial plots of the nobility during the civil wars of the fifteenth century. The presence of Hotspur, that hot-headed northern rebel, can be detected behind the fiery attitudes of the soldiers, tinkers and poets of Burns’s sequence, and one wonders whether Hotspur’s alliance with one of Shakespeare’s few Scottish characters besides Macbeth – ‘yon sprightly Scot of Scots, Douglas’ (Henry IV Part One, Act 2 Scene 4) – was one of the things that drew Burns’s attention to the Henry IV plays – especially given the local interest in the Douglas family in Dumfries and Galloway.

Burns’s song sequence ‘Love and Liberty’, then, pays homage to Shakespeare’s Henriad, the Second Tetralogy. That the poet was interested in these plays is confirmed by his poem ‘A Dream’ (1786), written one year later, in which he compares the pleasure-loving Prince of Wales to Prince Hal, who idled away his youth with ‘funny, queer Sir John’. And four years later he produced his own version of Sir John in Tam o’Shanter, whose adventures at Alloway Kirk bear no little resemblance to Falstaff’s only supernatural adventure, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be set in England, and in a locality as specific as Burns’s Alloway. It features Falstaff and a number of his cronies from the history plays: Mistress Quickly, Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Justice Shallow, Master Slender – and tells of Falstaff’s attempted seduction of two married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, in the hope of financial gain. The women, who have no interest in the fat knight, subject him to successive humiliations before he’s finally discouraged; and it’s the last of these humiliations that’s called to mind by Tam o’ Shanter.

themerrywivesofwindsorI’ve described the Herne the Hunter episode as supernatural, but from the first we hear of it the tale’s supernatural dimension is clearly a sham. The incident is based on an ‘old tale’ told in Windsor Forest about the spirit or ghost of a hunter who haunts Herne’s oak in winter time, at midnight, wearing ‘great ragged horns’ like those of a stag; but only superstitious old folk tell this story ‘for a truth’, and intelligent people of the next generation don’t believe it (Act 4 Scene 4). Tam o’Shanter’s story, too, is full of food for scepticism. The product of long nights of hard drinking and a culture of extravagant tale-telling, the poem invites its readers to consider whether Tam’s encounter with the devil and a coven of witches might be a hallucination, engendered in Tam’s mind by a combination of booze, the dire warnings of his wife against late-night boozing, frustrated lust, and the dreadful fates of other legendary boozers. Burns’s poem pits what it calls ‘truth’ –that is, the tendency of topers to forget the ‘lang Scots miles’ that lie between the pub and their houses – against the ‘queerest stories’ of Tam’s friend Souter Johnnie, the ‘sage advices’ of Tam’s ‘sulky sullen dame’ against Tam’s own superstitious fear, as he sets off on the journey home, of the bogles, ‘ghaists and houlets’ who may lie in wait for him along the way. But unlike Shakespeare’s play, Tam o’Shanter finally vindicates the supernatural events it relates as another kind of ‘truth’ with a bit of hard evidence; evidence that identifies Burns’s poem, unlike Shakespeare’s play, as a work of Gothic, heroic and erotic fantasy, which frees itself in the end from the influence of its sources.

Like the incident in Alloway kirk, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives springs out of a culture of tale-telling and fear of the supernatural; and in it, as in Tam o’Shanter, tales and superstition are woven in with the tensions and conflicts of married life. If the party pooper in Tam’s world is his wife Kate, in the Merry Wives it’s the jealous husband Master Ford, who’s convinced his wife is having an affair with that ‘gross fat man’ Sir John Falstaff. Ford’s jealousy turns him into a kind of devil, as he himself confesses: ‘Amaimon sounds well,’ he says when he first succumbs to it; ‘Lucifer, well; Barbason, well; yet they are devils’ additions, the names of fiends. But Cuckold! Wittol! Cuckold! The devil himself hath not such a name’ (Act 2 Scene 2). And his acquisition of a cuckold’s horns links him not only to the devils he lists here but to the would-be adulterer, Sir John. He calls the fat knight an ‘Epicurean rascal’, that is, a sub-standard stag not worth the hunting; and he assumes he must be in league with the ‘devil’ to have frustrated all Ford’s attempts to catch him red handed. The jealous husband grows more superstitious, in fact, as his suspicions grow. His first search for Falstaff in his house is prompted by a dream, he tells his wife (‘I have dreamed tonight’, Act 3 Scene 3); and when he encounters the fat knight disguised as ‘the fat woman of Brentford’, he assumes at once that the woman is a witch as well as a bawd or madam. ‘She works by charms, by spells’, he insists, to ply her double trade, and he beats her soundly to exorcise her ‘daub’ry’ or magic (Act 4 Scene 2). In Shakespeare’s play, imagining adultery spawns other imaginings, immersing the jealous man in a maelstrom of groundless fear and loathing.

Herne the HunterSo the final plot laid by the merry wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, against Sir John Falstaff involves plunging him into the supernatural element to which his own adulterous plots have subjected Master Ford. By convincing Falstaff to dress up as Herne the Hunter – his antlers giving substance to his association with stags and devils – the wives turn him into an image of what he would have made Ford has his plots to cuckold him succeeded; and by having the neighbourhood boys and girls dress up as fairies and the priest as a ‘Welsh devil’ (Act 5 Scene 3) they ensure that the whole community is involved in the magical performance that exposes his adulterous designs. The whole set-up, in fact, looks very like Tam’s encounter with the magic population of Alloway. It takes place at midnight; it’s presided over by an evil spirit; it involves music and dancing (‘twenty glow-worms shall our lantern be / To guide our measure round about the tree’, Act 5 Scene 5); it has a hunting theme (hunting horns accompany Falstaff’s humiliation, just as Tam becomes the quarry when the witches give chase); and in theory it involves the chastening of a notorious wrong-doer (Falstaff or Tam). More strikingly still, the leading lady in each case has the same name. Mistress Page’s daughter Nan plays the fairy queen in The Merry Wives, while the best of the dancers in Alloway kirk is Nannie, the ‘Cutty-sark’ who drives Tam to shout out and reveal his presence. Much play is made of this leading woman’s clothes in both texts – Nan must be dressed in white or green so that she can be identified, despite her fairy disguise, by one or other of her suitors, while Nannie is famously dressed in the scanty clothes made for her in childhood by her grandmother, which makes her stand out from the other dancers. And both Nan and Nannie have outgrown the control of their elders; Nan in that she elopes with a man of her own choosing instead of the suitors chosen for her by her respective parents; Nannie by virtue of her presence at the midnight coven.

The plot links between poem and play, then, are self-evident; but it’s the ambiguous ‘moral’ of each text that most strikingly links them. Tam o’Shanter poses as a kind of parable, enjoining men like Tam to heed their wives’ advice, and to think hard before over-indulging in drink or the contemplation of cutty sarks. But the narrator is clearly in sympathy with his boozy protagonist, ready to shed his own ‘breeks’ like a shot for ‘ae blink’ of a ‘winsome wench’ like Nannie. The epic similes Burns attaches to Tam’s exploits elevate the man from local soak to classical hero. And a similar double standard governs Shakespeare’s comedy. Falstaff’s persecution by fairies is conceived by the merry wives as punishment for his treading of ‘sacred paths […] in shape so profane’ (Act 5 Scene 5) – in other words, for his lechery and greed. At the same time the assault on Falstaff serves as cover for a second plot, whereby a disreputable courtier named Fenton takes advantage of the general confusion to elope with his girlfriend, Nan. The young couple fool Nan’s parents, Master and Mistress Page, by getting married without their consent, and the parents are forced accept the marriage with good grace, conscious that their own tricks have exposed them to this trickery, their punishment of Falstaff’s desires opened up a space for the desires of the next generation. Falstaff closes the action by pointing out with satisfaction that he has not been the only quarry pursued by hunters on this night of wonders: ‘When night-dogs run,’ he concludes, ‘all sorts of deer are chased’. Horns have been distributed all round – and horns, of course, are associated with hunting as well as with cuckoldry. In this play, as in Burns’s poem, moral probity does not mean restraining desire or forgoing liberty. And it’s for this reason, I suspect, that Burns found himself drawn to it.

paint_2But there was another reason, perhaps, why Burns might have been attracted to The Merry Wives. I said earlier that the supernatural elements in the final scene were ‘clearly a sham’; but I’m not sure they come across that way on stage. In old editions, the performers who play the fairies are named as characters we’ve encountered in the course of the comedy: old friends such as the parson Sir Hugh Evans, the braggart soldier Pistol, the schoolboy William Ford, and Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar’s Head who can’t manage long words. Mistress Quickly is often identified as playing the role of the Queen of the Fairies in place of Nan, who is busy eloping with Master Fenton. But who could actually imagine Mistress Quickly managing that role without mangling it as thoroughly as the craftsmen mangle their roles in the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, which occurs at exactly the same point in that earlier fairy play of Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream? But she doesn’t. Instead, she speaks unstumblingly some highly complex verses with the genuine fairy flavour, commanding her fairy minions to bless Windsor castle and ‘scour’ its ceremonial accoutrements ‘With juice of balm and every precious flower’. The speech would have reminded the play’s first audiences of the moment in that earlier fairy play when Oberon and Titania pronounce a blessing over the sleeping forms of Theseus, Hippolyta and the young lovers, in a speech that ritualistically erases the bitterness of the squabbles and confusions that preceded it. Like this speech, the song Mistress Quickly sings as the Fairy Queen could be taken as a riposte to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, who chastised the London players as inciters of lust and other kinds of sensual excess.[3] This particular player, who takes the double role of a female spirit and the landlady of a pub, sings only of chastity (‘Foe on sinful fantasy! / Fie on lust and luxury!) – though she cannot prevent the young lovers from pursuing their fantasies, any more than Titania and Oberon could.

I said earlier, too, that ‘Tam o’Shanter’s story […] is full of food for skepticism’, since it occurs in an atmosphere of excessive drink and superstition. But the veracity of the poem is never questioned by its narrator, who seems to be besotted by Tam and his vision. And at the end of this mock epic, at the very point when the ‘moral’ is pointed up, we are reminded of the one extant piece of material proof that Tam’s experiences really took place. ‘Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed’, the narrator cries,

Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare.

117The reference is of course to the stump of poor Meg’s grey tail, which was seized by the vindictive Nannie as she galloped across the bridge and pulled off with such force that the horse was left with ‘scarce a stump’. The narrator turns the tailless horse into an eerie warning against self-indulgence; but her taillessness is also something else: a sure sign (within the world of the poem) that Tam’s vision was true, a vindication of the facts of his heroic escape, scot free, from a voyeuristic brush with the devil and his voluptuous accomplices. If we are to remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare it need not be as a deterrent from similar feats but an incitement to them: if Tam could take his pleasure as he did and get away with it so lightly, why not me? Shakespeare’s unexpectedly convincing fairies in The Merry Wives say something more didactic; but their celebration of chastity can also be read, like Tam o’Shanter, as a vindication of the world of sensual delight and imaginative exuberance – in this case, the world of the theatre. And the transformation of the drunken doyens of the Boar’s Head in Cheapside into a fairy ballet de corps could well have sparked off Burns’s poetic act of defiance against the puritanism of his own very different time and place.

 

Notes

[1] For the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’ see Carol McGuirk (ed.), Robert Burns: Selected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 221. On this page, too McGuirk says Burns had probably never read The Beggar’s Opera, but his friendship with Fontenelle makes it likely he was familiar with it one way or another.

[2] The most famous example of this form is Donne’s devotional sonnet sequence ‘La Corona’.

[3] For more on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a response to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical prejudice, see my essay ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44. It can be found here.

 

Secrets of the Fantastic Short Story

tumblr_ni2qbhNsuY1rzim2co1_500What makes a great fantasy short story? I recently read six of them, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, and it struck me that they have a lot in common. All are what Farah Mendlesohn calls ‘intrusive fantasy’: narratives in which something impossible breaks through into the world we think we know. All are concerned with entrapment, which is a theme ideally suited to the narrow confines of short fiction. Several involve an element of hesitation on the part of the reader: are we facing the representation of a genuinely fantastic event or is the protagonist the victim of a delusion? Since illness features in all of them, the question of what’s real and what’s imagined is foregrounded in each narrative, though each of them treats that question in a different way.

These are the stories:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, 1892
Franz Kafka, ‘The Transformation’, 1915
Max Beerbohm, ‘Enoch Soames’, 1916
Walter de la Mare, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, 1922
D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’, 1926
Dorothy Haynes, ‘Changeling’, 1947

Five of these tales were written in the shadow of war. ‘The Transformation’ and ‘Enoch Soames’ took shape while war was raging in Europe, while de la Mare, Haynes and Lawrence composed their stories in the extended aftermath of global conflict. Yet none of them mentions war (with one exception: Bassett in ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ was Uncle Oscar’s batman or military servant, who got a gardening job with Oscar’s family after being invalided out of the army with a wounded foot); an odd omission, one might think, given how large it must have loomed in the lives of the writers. But then fantasy often makes a point of turning away from public events to explore what’s unsaid and unseen in official culture (as Rosemary Jackson puts it in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion). These texts address the wars fought on the domestic front, and much of what’s at stake in these vicious skirmishes concerns the things that are ignored or set aside, neglected, shunned or actively suppressed. Such suppressions are part of a cultural milieu that makes war possible; the fields of Flanders and the slowly decaying house in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ are woven out of the same fabric. The suggestion in these narratives of unseen malevolent or tormented presences could easily be taken for an acknowledgement of the close proximity, in time and space, of inexplicable slaughter.

the_yellow_wallpaper_by_kaitaro04011War thrives on secrets, and each of these stories has a secret at the heart of it. The convalescent narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has secrecy forced on her: her obsession with the wallpaper of the title is something she can’t share with others, and her inability to talk about it means she can confide it only to the pages we are reading, which she has been forbidden to write. Indeed, the wallpaper might be read as an extension of this clandestine process of putting pen to paper, with its grotesquely active lined pattern and the strange images that surface through the lines – funguses, strangled heads, a host of creeping women. The pattern also resembles bars, like the bars on the windows that identify the room where the narrator sleeps – the room with the paper in it – as a former nursery. These bars stand for a different secret: that of her husband, who infantilizes her by refusing to let her write or talk about her feelings, but who presents himself as a benefactor, a physician dedicated to ‘curing’ her of the curse of imagination by barring her from her creative pleasures and her stimulating friends.

Gregor in ‘The Transformation’ is his family’s dark secret, and each of the calamities in the narrative occurs when he emerges uninvited into the public rooms of the flat they live in. His predicament – he has turned into a giant beetle – also seems at times to stand for the reluctance of his bourgeois relatives to acknowledge the material processes (his labour and hard-won earnings) by which they have maintained their middle-class respectability. His work as a commercial traveller is the unacknowledged bug under the family floorboards.

Seaton’s Aunt is Seaton’s secret, in that he has no one he can talk to about her. He can’t articulate her strange tyranny over him, not even to the story’s largely unsympathetic narrator, because it’s not clear that there’s any way of describing exactly who she is or what she represents. His monstrous relative herself has any number of secrets, but only in the sense that she seems to exist on a different plane from anyone else, so that the hidden and unpleasant things she sees with such clarity make the ordinary world a matter of indifference to her – a point of view which is confirmed by her eventual descent into a strangely panoptic blindness.

Rocking Horse WinnerThe boy Paul in Lawrence’s story repeatedly urges his uncle to keep the secret of the fact that he can predict winners at the races by riding his rocking horse at a frenzied gallop. The larger secret of the story, though, is the fact that his mother thinks herself short of money, but cannot say so except to her children, because talking about one’s financial situation is impolite in middle class circles – as too is talking openly about depression or one’s own unhappy marriage.

peake-004Seven-year-old Moreen in ‘Changeling’, like Seaton or the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, has a secret in spite of all her efforts to make it public. She can’t persuade anyone to listen to her when she tells them she can see a witch outside her window, sitting astride a gargoyle on the church steeple. She isn’t listened to in Fairyland, either, when the witch comes through her window and carries her off to live among the Wee Folk. The fairies have had her brought to them as a plaything, and resent her persistent refusal to be playful. And no one listens to her when the witch takes her home again after a year of changing seasons among the little people, and she finds herself confronted as a child of eight with her grown-up replacement, the changeling of the title. The woman’s reaction to the little girl’s arrival on her doorstep is to send for the doctor, no doubt for psychological assessment and incarceration, perhaps in a disused nursery. The story closes with the misting over of the window through which Moreen first saw the witch – and through which she can still see her, older and more gnarled, at the end of the narrative. The misted glass obscures but does not erase the fact of the witch’s existence. In the same way, the story has sketched out the precise details of the wee folk (‘sharp as thorns and shrill as treble chanters’) and their country (‘Yellow leaves soaked sodden into the lake, and rain and frost raced each other over the brilliant berries’) so that they become part of the reader’s memories, despite the bleak mundaneness of the story’s ending.

220px-Enoch-soamesThe one narrative in the list without a secret is ‘Enoch Soames’. Indeed, the story is cruelly explicit about the facts of Soames’s case, which is that he yearns to be made immortal through his writing and instead finds himself made immortal by the writing of Max Beerbohm, whose short story is the only place where his name survives beyond his death. If there is a secret here, it’s the knowledge implicitly shared between Beerbohm and the reader that Soames is in fact no fiction, that this forgotten man really existed and is trapped somewhere, even now, in the devil’s clutches. The potency of this implied shared secret is attested by the desire of some readers to add to the puzzle set up by Beerbohm by staging in their turn an ‘actual’ visit of Soames to the Reading Room of the British Museum in the 1990s, at the exact time to which he was transported by the Devil in the story, and in the exact location where he searched in vain for evidence of his literary immortality. This imaginative extension of Beerbohm’s story into actual twentieth-century history is invited by the author, who fills his tale with references to real events and living people, and even introduces himself into the story as character as well as narrator. But it also represents what seems to me a widespread attitude to the best fantasy short stories: that they are the special secrets of their readers, making us into a cohort of initiates who have been collectively imprinted with their disturbing images and seduced by their strange intelligence, and who recognize each other by certain hallmarks when we meet in public places such as libraries, cafés and second hand bookshops.

MetamorphosisThe notion of private, solitary secrets (which ironically make a kind of secret family out of their initiates) has in most of these stories a social equivalent: a powerful clandestine community whose membership is often exclusively male, and which has its own ‘official’ secrets, its own specialized discourse, designed to exclude and diminish those who don’t know it. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ that community is the medical profession, to which the narrator’s brother and husband belong and into which women can only intrude if they are prepared to serve as acolytes – like the husband’s Sister, the capitalization of whose title marks her out as a hospital official. In ‘The Transformation’ there are several communities from which Gregor is excluded by virtue of his change: the workforce from whom he absents himself as a result of his condition, and from whose company he is barred at once – despite his conviction that he still speaks their language – because they can suddenly no longer understand a word he says. The family, whose notions of solidarity and mutual support he has violated by changing. The three bearded and identical gentlemen lodgers, who take advantage of his presence in the apartment to discharge themselves of the obligation to pay their rent. In ‘Enoch Soames’ the closed community is that of the artistic set of the decadent 1890s who both tolerate and scorn Enoch’s presence among them; and later the community of scholars in the 1990s, who turn him into a spectacle when he visits the British Museum of the future. Unlike Gregor, Enoch speaks the language of the group he longs to join – the decadent artists – with apparent fluency, but the words he uses are empty signifiers, and he continues to use them, and to imbibe the toxic fluid, absinthe, that marked out the artistic set from their contemporaries, long after the rest of that community has moved on to other discourses, other poisons. His scholarly labours, too, prove fruitless, because the only evidence of his existence in the British Museum turns out to be the story we’re reading, ‘Enoch Soames’, which turns him into a work of art. That, at least, is a kind of immortality, though for Enoch such immortality would be hell. He expected perpetual fame, but not as a verbal construct in someone else’s fiction; he planned to be remembered as a shining light, not as the apotheosis of dimness. Another open secret in the story, then, is that it’s Beerbohm rather than the Devil who has condemned his own protagonist to eternal torment.

In ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ the closed male community is that of the school. Running through the narrative – and standing out for a twenty-first century reader by virtue of its obsolescence – is the jargon of the Edwardian boarding school, which Seaton strives to use properly but repeatedly violates (he swears, for instance, which is forbidden by some unspoken agreement among his fellow pupils). Lawrence’s story inverts the situation: the boy Paul finds himself admitted into the brotherhood of the turf, speaks its jargon and gains its respect (with considerable winnings). But for Lawrence masculinity has been irretrievably damaged by the rise of capitalism, and by the apex of that rise, the mechanized war from which the world had just emerged. Paul’s mother dismisses her husband as ‘unlucky’ because his earnings aren’t enough to cover the costs of an upper middle class family. The gardener Bassett’s war injury has turned him into an object of charity, forcing him into companionship with a child rather than grown men. Young Paul struggles to find security by swearing his adult friends to silence about his many secrets; his perpetual mantra is the phrase ‘honour bright’, rendered ironic by the fact that the term ‘honour’ has been permanently tarnished by its overuse in the context of mass murder. The only successful man in the story is Uncle Oscar, who finds common ground with his nephew and his former batman by virtue of their common interest in the races. But he doesn’t come to visit when the child is dying, although he has enriched himself at Paul’s expense. And his belated words of sympathy for his dead nephew (‘poor devil, poor devil’) identify the boy as the unluckiest of the unlucky, a moral and economic reject who has never reached manhood. Uncle Oscar is the scourge of masculinity, not its epitome, and this is brought home to us by the fact that we never see him utter these words: it is his disembodied ‘voice’ that speaks them in the story’s closing lines, like the voice of a self-satisfied deity pronouncing its judgement from behind a screen of obscuring clouds.

In each of these stories, it’s the buildings inhabited by the central characters that both keep and reveal their secrets. Claustrophobic and insanitary, they conceal rooms that turn into prisons whose doors are locked by the inmates – as in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – or ‘echo and answer in […] a medley of infinite small stirrings and whisperings’, as in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, awakening in their hearers the dreadful awareness of the presence in them of a jailed community of the dead. The locking and opening of doors successively conceal and reveal the noxious presence in the Samsas’ apartment of their shameful insectile relative; while Paul’s house insistently urges on him the irresistible demands of capitalism: ‘the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a kind of ecstasy: “There must be more money! […] There must be more money!”’. Moreen’s home in ‘Changeling’ embodies her imprisonment as the possessor of a truth no one else will acknowledge: ‘The house […] had its windows misted over with damp, and there were lace curtains, and geraniums gasping for air against the panes’. In these stories buildings are strident in bearing witness to the crimes being perpetrated within their walls; and in each the passers-by seem unacquainted with their stony dialect, despite its clarity to the reader, who hears them stirring, whispering, trilling, screaming and gasping as they turn the pages.

Reading RoomOnce again it’s ‘Enoch Soames’ that seems to be the exception. No building dominates: it moves from the Café Royal to various Soho restaurants to the New English Art Club, and in each of these places Soames is the only constant, with his soft hat, his waterproof cape and his incurable dimness. The building everyone remembers from the story is the Reading Room at the British Museum, as seen by the protagonist in the future, and the most striking thing about this is its merciless predictability: its refusal to confirm Soames’s grandiose expectations of discovering his fame in its catalogue; its insistence on fulfilling everyone else’s assumptions about the shape of things to come. On Soames’s return from the future to which he has been sent by his Faustian contract with the devil, Beerbohm questions him as to the people he found there: ‘all of them – men and women alike – looking very well-cared-for? very Utopian? and smelling very strongly of carbolic? and all of them quite hairless?’ Soames’s assent to all these questions may, of course, be due to distraction – he has, after all, every reason to be distracted, since he has just sold his soul to the devil for a glimpse of a future that never took place. His only observation on the future Reading Room is that it is ‘Much as usual’; for him it is no more than a tool, an architectural search engine, and the behavior of the readers merely a nuisance to be ignored as far as possible. For us, on the other hand – the readers of Beerbohm’s story – that ordinariness, the mundanity of the middle desk, the Dictionary of National Biography and the card catalogue, are tools to engineer Soames’s tragedy. The bright light that floods the room from the windows in its famous dome are what mark the dank, ‘dim’ Soames as less than a ghost – a figment spawned by a satire, an image conjured up by words.

Enoch-soames-maxThis ghostliness he shares with the central characters in all the other stories. Each of them fades away as their stories unfold, ignored or forgotten by their closest relatives, their bodies giving way under the strain of sustaining their identity in the face of the impossible – which in each case includes the impossible expectations foisted on them by an inflexible society. The narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ exchanges places with the creeping women from behind the pattern, her trajectory round the nursery-bedroom walls carved out for her, in effect, by her husband’s restriction of her movements. Gregor Samsa’s health declines after his transformation thanks to his family’s shame at his appearance – a shame that takes physical form in the apple that lodges itself in the middle of his back, thrown at him by his irate father in an attempt to force him back into his room. A stronger reason for his decline, however, is his own shame at the trouble he’s causing: ‘His own opinion that he must disappear was if anything even firmer than his sister’s’. Seaton is first diminished then exterminated by his aunt’s contempt; but he is also snuffed out, so to speak, by the contempt of his only friend – the story’s narrator – who is willing, for simplicity’s sake, to accept the aunt’s low opinion of her nephew. Seaton grows incrementally weaker, yellower and more ‘foreign’-looking as the story goes on, until by the end the narrator realizes with a shock that his old schoolfellow had been dead to him for some years before his actual death, buried beneath the piled-up prejudices held against him by his fellow pupils as much as by his aunt’s lifelong certainty that he will soon be added to her ever-expanding collection of captive ghosts.

The boy Paul, meanwhile, like Miles in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, grows feverish under the strain of channeling supernatural forces – or of precociously striving to measure up to the demands and desires of greedy adults. The calling of the doctor at the end of ‘Changeling’ encourages us to predict an anonymous future for Moreen, hidden away in some institution for those whose tales are not worth hearing. She will be disappeared, like the other protagonists, leaving only this curtailed work of fiction as ambiguous evidence that anyone like her ever existed. The great short stories of the fantastic, then, tell the tales of the vanished, the lost, the spurned, the prematurely deceased. And the greatest secret they contain is the secret of who, exactly, was responsible for their disappearance from the pages of history, and for their ghostly resurrection in the pages of story, where what’s lost gets found, for a while, perhaps, depending on the whim of any passing reader.

Kirsty Logan, The Gracekeepers (2015)

51-ajQT1ggL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ursula K. le Guin created an archipelago – drew it first, then wrote about it – as a means of exploring what divides people from each other and how fractured parts can be made whole. Her wanderings through the map of Earthsea, from book to book, exposed a world of cultural differences between its inhabitants. Kirsty Logan’s archipelago in The Gracekeepers, by contrast, seems homogenous. Throughout her world there is a single entrenched division between island-dwelling ‘landlockers’ (who hold the keys to dry land and refuse to let non-landlockers near it) and seagoing ‘damplings’. The former never leave the earth, the latter set foot on solid ground with reluctance and difficulty. The same military vessels police land and sea; the same religious revivalists trawl the islands and waters for converts; apart from the revivalist cult, their faiths don’t vary much (the landlockers worship tree-gods, made bitter and vengeful by the loss of their habitat, while all the damplings bury their dead in maritime ‘graceyards’). The islands don’t have names: they are labeled like the outlying districts of London, North-East 19, South-East 11, North-West 22, as if they have been reduced to suburban uniformity. And though the climate of these islands seems to vary (the Southern ones grow pomegranates and bananas, the Northern specialize in animals) the impression is that they don’t cover a great area; or if they do, that the small amount of land they add up to – and the constant communication between them by means of merchants and messengers – has erased distinctions between them. The same attitude to gender, for instance, prevails from North to South: ‘as ever on the islands, the men and women were separate, with all the children on the women’s side’. There is too little earth left after the deluge to make extremes of difference possible. Everyone conforms.

Life is short, too, especially for damplings. The dangers of a seaborne existence are many, and deaths frequent; few adults live much past forty, and the rituals associated with death have become correspondingly formalized, the length of a family’s grieving process being determined by the number of days a caged bird called a ‘grace’ can live without being fed. The graces are kept by Gracekeepers: landlockers who live alone on islands so small they are almost boats. A Gracekeeper is an exile, cast out by an island’s people for some transgression large or small to spend her life in solitude serving the despised seafaring communities by burying their dead. In their solitude they commit many more transgressions – mostly small ones – safe from the prying eyes of their fellow islanders, unvisited by military men or revivalists. Existing in suspension between land and sea, the rules of either don’t much matter when you’re faced with daily evidence of how briefly they apply.

Everything has shrunk: the amount of land, the range of cultures, the length of a person’s life, the duration of grieving when a life ends. This is a book about smallness, full of small houses, small boats, small minds, small islands, small transgressions. Even the myths of the past have shrunk: a dilapidated circus boat is branded Excalibur, home to a small troupe of only thirteen individuals. One of its occupants calls herself Avalon, after the island where Excalibur was forged and Arthur went to recover from wounds sustained in his final battle. The name Arthur derives from a Celtic word for bear, or from the Greek Arcturus, ‘guardian of the bear’. The circus ringmaster is often likened to a bear, but he’s a depilated specimen with bad skin, burdened with an unfaithful wife and an ungrateful son, just like the original Arthur. Husband and wife address each other as ‘king’ and ‘queen’, but they only have ten subjects besides their son, and their demesnes get steadily smaller as the book goes on.

The ringmaster, known as Red Gold, has a rival for the title of bear guardian: the girl North, who dances or acts in the ring with a nameless bear, and who is destined, in Red Gold’s eyes, to marry his son and re-establish his family line among the landlockers. All the profits of the circus have been sunk in a house on an island where North and Red Gold’s son will live out their days, surrounded by children. North, meanwhile, dreams of the impossible. She is pregnant, and wishes only to keep her child, to keep her bear, to stay unmarried and to go on living in the circus. Red Gold’s dynastic pretensions imperil the baby and North’s place in the floating troupe; Avalon’s hatred of the bear puts its life at risk. North’s dreams are hardly transgressive, but the rigidity of Red Gold’s plans – and of the homogenous culture that dominates Logan’s global archipelago – means that for most of the book they seem inaccessible.

At the same time, she lives in a quasi-transgressive environment, like that of the Gracekeepers. The floating circus troupe ekes out a precarious existence by embodying the fantasies of rebellion and non-conformity the landlockers dare not practise. The acrobats – who pose as an incestuous brother and sister – execute terrifying leaps, soarings and plunges to demonstrate their mutual attraction, in defiance of gravity as well as the law. The equestrians balance on powerful moving animals like pretenders to royalty. The clowns mock the military – the most shocking of their acts, since the military of the archipelago is more or less all-powerful – or offer themselves up as scapegoats to the landlockers’ wrath, dressed as the capitalists whose greed is blamed for the inundation that shrank the world. Maypole dancers writhe in ribbons, performing promiscuity. And the girl North dances or cavorts with her bear, miming a cross-species sexuality which flies in the face of any recognized religion. The circus breaks the rules, and even its king and queen – the hot-tempered Red Gold who decides the programme and issues the orders, the dampling Avalon who dreams of becoming a landlocker – even they don’t conform, as the secret of Avalon’s own pregnancy reveals. Red Gold’s dream of settling his son and daughter-in-law in a cottage on dry land is a transgressive one, challenging the rigid division between land- and sea-dwellers that supposedly defines his world – just as he himself did when he chose to move from his original home on land to become a dampling.

The circus is not homogenous, either. Each member of the troupe has her or his agenda, from the clowns who yearn for anarchy to the self-absorbed boy Ainsel, Red Gold’s son, who dreams of ruling a kingdom on a wooden throne. The differences between the performers are emphasized by the fact that each group or act lives in a separate coracle, attached by chains to the circus boat Excalibur. And Logan neatly embodies their divisions by devoting separate chapters to each performer’s point of view. Even the clowns Cash, Dosh and Dough, Red Gold and the seemingly empty-headed Ainsel get their own chunks of narrative, so we can see at first hand how slant their aims are.

In fact, despite the cultural homogeneity of Logan’s archipelago its inhabitants are as divided from each other as the people of Le Guin’s Earthsea. The isolation of the banished Gracekeepers, who live each on a tiny island seeing nobody but the mourners who seek them out to perform the ritual of the dead, is shared by the landlockers and damplings we encounter in the other chapters, who sometimes yearn to make connections with friends, neighbours, lovers, but invariably fail to do so, or find those connections arbitrarily snapped by the force of circumstance – a sudden storm, a misunderstanding, a drastic mistake. The two central characters in the book, the circus dampling North and the Gracekeeper Callanish, are so obviously fellow spirits that the reader expects them to fall in love as soon as they meet. But they meet only twice, and fleetingly, before the end of the book – first as children and then as a Gracekeeper and her client; and for much of the narrative they can only dream about being together, not imagine it as possible. Judging from readers’ comments online this has been a problem for some of them, who wanted something more like a traditional romance. For me, though, it underscores the point of setting the story in an archipelago. A meeting of minds and bodies isn’t easy, such a geography tells us; it needs a good sense of direction, strength of will, and a generous helping of sheer luck to bring people together. Living separately, on the other hand, is a piece of cake. It’s unpleasant and inconvenient, but it doesn’t need effort, because protecting one’s own boat or island is simply a matter of repelling all boarders without troubling to consider things from their point of view.

North and Callanish represent a possible future for Logan’s island world, through their mutual association with the mysterious sea-people: webbed and gilled humanoids of the ocean whose sex is ambiguous, like seahorses. The circus people specialize in gender ambiguities, which links them, too, with the sea-people; but despite their regular performances of dissidence they are necessarily conformists, subject to policing by the military and locked from land by the customs of the islanders. North’s and Callanish’s attraction to each other and to the sea people breaches the boundaries of land and sea, overcomes rule and ritual, and points to a possibility of limitless movement which is also a feature of archipelago stories. Islands may be divided from each other by water, but they’re linked by it, too, and the image of a submerged city that recurs throughout the narrative – its bells tolled by currents – makes the sea into a potential three-dimensional living space rather than a wasteland. The ocean is linked to death; it kills damplings and terrifies landlockers; but the bells that ring beneath its surface, the people who emerge from it to impregnate human women, make it a source of life, pleasure and potential too. North and Callanish, when they finally converge, work out a new relationship with the sea which promises to serve as a model for communities of the future. The community they form is a tiny one, surrounded by enemies. But the fact that children like them are being born and raised on land and sea, against all the odds, suggests that they will eventually and inevitably inherit the land, the sea, and even the deep waters which are currently forbidden to human beings by biology as well as custom.

This is a novel about the world; but it’s also a novel about Scotland. Callanish is named for a village on Lewis famous for its ring of standing stones; her name makes one think of Logan’s islands as a vastly extended version of the Western Isles. The rigid rules that govern them recall the hackneyed view of island life as governed by an austere Calvinism – a view that neither does justice to the vibrant communities that inhabit them, nor to the rapid changes they have been undergoing for centuries, nor to the diversity of their history as represented by the stones. (The oversized ‘coracles’ in which the circus performers live recall another aspect of island history: the saints who sailed from Ireland to bring God’s word to the people of the far North West.) Other names in the book invoke other aspects of Scottishness: the boy Ainsel, for instance, has his narcissism exposed by the fact that his name means ‘my own self’ in Scots. Red Gold’s full name is Jarrow Stirling, dividing him between one border – the boundary between Highlands and Lowlands where the City of Stirling stands – and another, the Scottish borders (Jarrow is located in north-east England). North’s name insists on the northern orientation of the novel. In one sense, then, it’s a meditation on the state of the North today, the second such fantasy I’ve read in recent months – the other being Neil Williamson’s weird extravaganza The Moon King, set on an island whose annual social and political cycle is governed by the waxing and waning of the moon that’s tethered to the titular ruler’s palace. The connections between these two Scottish fantasies are fascinating, and surely not coincidental.

By this I don’t mean that Logan is indebted to Williamson – the time of a novel’s gestation makes this unlikely, and in any case the two books have very different tones. But the fact that both represent their imagined Northern civilizations as caught between change and rigidity, anarchy and dictatorship, conformity and rebellion, and that both adopt the idea of islands cut off by seas inhabited by sinister and alluring merpeople as a central premise, makes one see them as arising from a similar analysis of the current state of Scotland. Simultaneously inward and outward looking, servile and attracted to radicalism, rule-bound and endlessly inventive, passionate for self determination and afraid to take the political steps that might lead to independence, the inhabitants of Scotland find themselves haunted by mysterious forms of alternative life – represented in both novels by the people of the sea, whose very existence ridicules the notion of rigid borders and national identities – without knowing quite how to react to them beyond the usual human response to otherness: unthinking violence. Both books are not altogether complimentary to the nation that spawned them; after all, like everywhere else it’s got plenty of bigots, thugs, exploiters and narcissists. But both books also offer in the end an exhilarating vision of hope: of expanded horizons and the potential for a strong egalitarian community, whose new self-confidence will make it willing to explore the unknown as well as treasure the familiar. And both books make one quietly proud of the current state of Scottish fiction.

 

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

PS220If ever there was a taproot text – in John Clute’s terms, a fantasy that branches out into a thousand other fantasies – this is it. From the moment when the Princess Irene runs off into the uninhabited regions of the ‘great old house’ she lives in – triggering memories of the exploration of the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the book rustles with the ghosts of books to come. The goblins of the title are precursors of Tolkien’s cheery goblins in The Hobbit, and of their nemesis, Gollum; the boy Curdie’s wanderings through the rocky labyrinth of the mines anticipate the astonishing journey through stone accomplished by Susan and Colin in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; the songs Curdie sings to intimidate the goblins share their doggerel rhythms with the songs sung by the elves in the Last Homely House, later Rivendell; Irene’s old-young great great grandmother, whose light guides lonely wanderers on the mountainside to safety, is the forebear of Galadriel and Aslan; the faith of Irene and Curdie’s scepticism predict the games of faith and scepticism played out in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The butler serving the goblins wine in the king’s cellar conjures up the drunken butler of the King of the Wood-Elves, again in The Hobbit. The bizarre domestic animals of the goblins, with their distorted bodies and eerily human faces, conjure up the murderous sphinxes in Dave McKean’s movie Mirrormask or the tormented toys of Toy Story. And in its meditations on class the book as a whole reads like a direct source of Wells’s The Time Machine, where the wealthy have become effete, mindless children and the working classes cannibalistic cave dwellers. But MacDonald’s morals are more sophisticated than those of most of his successors. His fairy tale is designed to shame his readers into rethinking their assumptions about class, race and gender, yet one always gets the sense that he includes himself in the ranks of those who need shaming. He doesn’t stand on an eminence dispensing wisdom to less enlightened inferiors; he shares the wisdom he’s been given by women – always women – wiser than himself.

The moral complexity of his book is clear from the moment he tells us about the goblins’ origins. These are not creatures who have been the way they are since the dawn of time; they are products of the Darwinian age, unlike Tolkien’s orcs but very much like Gollum. ‘There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there were different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws; and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country’. The goblins hold a very reasonable grudge against the descendants of those who ‘caused their expulsion’ from ‘their former possessions’. And they continue to evolve as the book goes on, beginning as comic weaklings, and growing increasingly menacing as their revenge matures towards fruition. Things don’t stay stable in MacDonald’s world, and the most unsettling thing about this instability is that his grotesque antagonists are so closely allied – physically, mentally, geographically – to his heroines and heroes.

The Goblins’ plot to seize the house where Irene lives is a plot to recover their own. Their desire to abduct Irene is a violent expression of the desire to reunite two communities that were violently separated. Humans made the goblins, and the proximity between the two species seems to be confirmed by Curdie’s obsession with them, and by the fact that his guiding thread at one point leads him straight into the arms of the goblin royal family. Even their distorted animals are terrifying because of their parodic humanity: ‘what increased [their] gruesomeness was that, from constant domestic, or indeed rather family association with the goblins, their countenances had grown in grotesque resemblance to the human’. MacDonald hints here that there has been interbreeding between goblins and animals, as we know there has been between humans and goblins (that’s why the goblin Queen has toes). In his post-Darwinian universe the grand hierarchy of species – the Great Chain of Being – no longer exists, and anyone can become anyone or anything else, given time, habit and inclination.

The structure of the book reinforces this idea of the potential for slippage between one condition and another. There are three principal families in the book: the princess’s dysfunctional family, in which the father is mostly absent and the mother dead; Curdie’s family, whose male members labour underground or work secretly after working hours to expose the plots of the goblins; and the goblin royal family. All three families are dominated by their women: the great great grandmother who watches over Irene; Curdie’s mother, who seems in effect to be the great great grandmother’s younger sibling; and the goblin Queen, who conspires to overthrow the other two families while concealing their close family resemblance by hiding her human toes inside a pair of granite shoes. Threads link the families: the cord or ‘clue’ Curdie uses to find his way to and from the maze of tunnels bored by the goblins, and which leads him to them time and again; the magical thread spun by Irene’s great great grandmother, which leads her first to Curdie and later to Curdie’s mother. The threads insist on the links that bind princess to miner, miner to goblin, goblin to princess.

The ruling classes and their servants struggle to contain the younger generation, twelve-year-old Curdie and eight-year-old Irene, in the places to which their class and age should properly restrict them. Irene is confined to her bed, Curdie cooped up in the mine, or in a locked room in the great house where the princess lives, or in a hole in the goblin palace. (The great house and the goblin palace don’t treat him very differently – he’s even shot by the princess’s guard, who think at first he’s a goblin, then a thief, unable to rid their minds of settled assumptions about the habits and intentions of the poor). The same urge to cabin, crib and confine – on the part of others, on the part of themselves – is what twisted the goblins’ bodies and minds into ‘gruesomeness’. But Curdie and Irene resist enclosure, running up and down the mountainside, scurrying through tunnels, staying up all night, making friends with unsuitable strangers. And in the end their energy breaks down the artificial barriers that divide the kingdom. Irene is found by Curdie in his mother’s arms; Curdie is invited by Irene’s father to share a communal meal in the great house, with the other miners, like long-lost relatives. By this time the nature of class has already been questioned by the narrator, who insists that ‘there is some ground for supposing that Curdie was not a miner only, but a prince as well’; just as the princess is, for Curdie’s mother, ‘a good girl […] and that’s more than being a princess’.

The book ends with a deluge which underscores the point. Curdie and Irene live in a seemingly solid landscape – the most solid imaginable, a land of mountains. But under and through and across the mountains, water flows. It menaces the miners, sustains the gardens of the great house, and forms an essential part of the goblins’ plots against their former rulers, as if the water were somehow an expression of the class system. But at the climax of the novel, when the goblins unleash what is intended to be a watery vengeance on the humans, the flood goes awry thanks to the miners’ intervention. Instead of overwhelming the mines as the goblins had hoped, the floodwaters sweep through their own tunnels – exposing their kinship to the miners in the process, as they are drowned by the very same element which is most feared by their fellow stone-workers. But the water also bursts out of crevices in the mountainside, and threatens to overwhelm both the miner’s cottage where Curdie lives and the great house of the princess. Both these structures are buildings, so both are vulnerable to the same physical threat to their foundations. The members of the princess’s household seek refuge with the miners’ families; and later it’s the miners who drain the great house so they can go home. When the house is drained it turns out to be full of goblin corpses, the symbolic remains of a rigid class system that has now (perhaps) been overthrown. The feast thrown for the miners by the King announces a new entente cordiale between the workers and the ruling classes, whereby both are respected by their opposite numbers and all deserving citizens are assumed to have princely blood.

But MacDonald doesn’t leave the goblins rigid and unchanging. The surviving goblins undergo another metamorphosis: ‘Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even the miners’. This process turns them into people ‘very much like the Scotch Brownies’; so they end the book as Scots, just like MacDonald. It’s typical of MacDonald to acknowledge his own kinship with the antagonist-victims of his narrative.

Fluid identities, then, are key to this book, as they were to Phantastes. And the most fluid of identities in the book belong to the women. Irene’s great great grandmother and Curdie’s mother don’t seem to be restricted to the class or time into which they were born. They aren’t rigid in their judgements of others. They don’t bully or patronize the children in their care when they fail to follow instructions. But they’re also concealed from sight, as if in acknowledgement that MacDonald’s culture wasn’t yet ready to accommodate them. The great great grandmother stays hidden in the attic, and cannot be seen even by Curdie until he too has learned to cultivate the flexibility she embodies – no other man sees her, except the King on one occasion. The mother stays hidden in the cottage. In the book’s final chapters it’s Curdie who is most active, plunging through flooded rivers, carrying Irene to safety, and riding the King’s own charger in a successful mission to save some horses from a flooded stable. It’s a reversal of the usual class structures of Victorian romance, but not of the gender structures that were challenged earlier in the novel – as when the Princess rescued Curdie from the goblin dungeon. MacDonald was a visionary and a radical; but he was not so much of a fantasist as all that.

George MacDonald, Phantastes (1858)

PhantastesGeorge MacDonald’s Phantastes has always read to me like a journey into the heart of a Victorian house: the sort of journey experienced by the young heroine of his children’s book The Princess and the Goblin when she wanders through endless corridors full of doors till she finds the secret stairway leading to the forgotten room where her great great grandmother lives, surviving on pigeon’s eggs, air and wisdom. The middle-class Victorian house was insistently alive. Furniture was elaborately carved with foliage; cabinets full of pottery were displayed, often in the shapes of animals and people; cornices sprouted acanthus leaves and ceiling roses blossomed; book covers and frontispieces swarmed with flowers, beasts and trees. Phantastes opens with the unlocking of a desk in a study, whose interior turns out to contain a living being, a miniature woman of the kind you might find on a Victorian mantelpiece or casual table. A little later the narrator’s room, with its grass-like carpet, its foliage-carved table, its green marble washstand, morphs into the forest glade it was designed to resemble, like Max’s room in Where the Wild Things Are. The journey through Fairy Land that follows alternates between houses of different kinds – cottages, palaces, towers – and a pathless forest. But the forest is the kind of wilderness encountered in old romances, and calls books to mind rather than places, with its fairies, dryads, monsters and knights errant. Each chapter is headed by an epigram, duly attributed to its author; and the narrator’s adventures are punctuated by acts of reading, beginning with the fairy tale read to him by his little sister on the night before he opens the desk. In fact, the story never leaves the house in which it began, and the narrator keeps emerging from his adventures like a reader lifting his head from a book in which he has been immersed, to catch a fleeting glimpse of the life he led before he started reading – then plunging back into the story, where all the action that really matters to him is taking place.

One could say, in fact, that the story never leaves its narrator’s head – that it’s a kind of pre-modernist experiment in Woolfian stream of consciousness. As its title suggests, this book is the fantasy par excellence, because it concerns itself with the imagination, analysing its operations with the seriousness and concentration of a scientist. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene, where the word originates, ‘Phantastes’ is the part of the brain where the images collected by the senses are stored before being processed by the understanding and stowed away in the orderly cabinets of the memory. It’s an uneasy faculty, whose physical form is a gloomy young man with ‘hollow beetle browes’ and ‘sharpe staring eyes’ who claims to be able to foresee the future. The room he inhabits in the front part of the human head is painted with ‘infinite shapes of things’, including non-existent beasts like centaurs and hippodames (sea-horses); while the buzzing flies that fill it have a more worrying significance, since they represent:

…idle thoughts and fantasies,
Devices, dreames, opinions unsound,
Shewes, visions, sooth-sayes, and prophesies,
And all that fained is, as leasings, tales, and lies.

The linkage of fantasy or imagination with ‘lies’ and ‘opinions unsound’ articulates an anxiety about the imagination which is very specific to the period of the Reformation when Spenser was writing, when each religious faction saw this faculty as responsible for spawning the hordes of dangerous fictions that threatened to obscure and even obliterate the Gospel truth. Spenser’s House of Alma – the human body – is under siege by a ‘troublous rout’ who are associated both with the Catholic Irish, who resisted the Reformation, and with the troublesome flies that buzz around Phantastes’s chamber (the rout resembles a ‘swarme of Gnats at eventide’ rising out of the ‘fennes of Allan’). The imagination, then, spills out of its confines in the head and floods into religion, politics, social struggle. As well as receiving images the imagination bodies them forth (as Shakespeare put it), populating the world with the strange physical and philosophical fusions that bedeck its interior walls. It paints as well as being painted, colouring what its possessor sees until the absurdest propositions and most doubtful doctrines seem to be empirically demonstrable – objectively true. And all this without recourse to the more settled, rational portion of the brain, the understanding. No wonder Spenser and his contemporaries worried about its potential influence on religious doctrine and political dissidence.

Yet despite its suspicion of the imagination Spenser’s Faerie Queene is also a love song to it, as the Romantic poets recognized when they adopted variations of Spenser’s stanza form in place of the couplets beloved of the eighteenth-century poets. And MacDonald shares the Elizabethan poet’s view of the potential deadliness of the imagination, precisely because he finds it so infinitely seductive, and because he believes so strongly in its capacity to reshape the world by casting its own interior light upon it. When he first crosses the border into Fairyland the narrator discovers he has fairy blood, thanks to the empirical evidence of his vision. He can see fairies as only fairies can, both the pretty flower fairies of the Victorian decorative tradition and the hideously clawed tree-dwelling ogres of Gothic legend – both the benign woman of the beech tree and the vampiric woman of the alder. It’s his fairy vision, perhaps, that enables him to see the female ‘spirit of marble’ in a cave and release her from her prison, as a great sculptor might have done – in which case having fairy blood is equivalent to being a verbal or visual artist. But this vision can be distorted, as it is when he later releases a quasi-Jungian shadow from a cupboard, which interposes itself between his eyes and anything beautiful he encounters, rendering it ‘commonplace’ and ugly and encouraging him to damage it and drive it away. His vision’s capacity to shape the world, then, can operate in two directly opposite ways, that is, to beautify or defile it. The same is clearly true of art, for MacDonald – especially the verbal arts; and this is why he represents the act of reading in his novels as such an adventure.

Like The Faerie Queene, then, MacDonald’s narrative is full of beautiful visions and deadly traps, and it is difficult for the narrator to distinguish between them. This is not, however, true of MacDonald’s readers, who often have the horrible feeling that they could warn the young man against the dangers he is running into if he’d only listen. This is because the implied reader of Phantastes has been educated in the ways of romance, and above all of the fantastic romances of the middle ages and the early modern periods, which underwent so many reprintings in the nineteenth century. Romance writers like Spenser expected their audiences to take an active part in the narrative, identifying the nature of each new menace or potential ally through a host of clues embedded in the language of the poem or story. MacDonald’s implied reader knows exactly how to do this – and ironically so does the narrator, who is always recognizing retrospectively that he should never have fallen into what was in the end a thoroughly familiar act of folly. But the traps he springs on himself are as attractive to him as the elusive beauties he is always pursuing; it’s as if the possibility of the former is what makes the latter so alluring. Indeed he himself – MacDonald’s narrator – has two sides to him, as his name suggests, since ‘Anodos’ can mean (according to my rather dodgy source in Wikipedia) either ‘pathless’ or ‘ascent’.

In fact Anodos has more than two identities. If the structure of the book is like a nest of Chinese boxes – a mind within a book within a desk within a library within a house – then the narrator has a plurality of nested selves. He is both Anodos and Anodos’s shadow; but he’s also the Percival-like knight who has been disgraced, and who sets out to erase the stains of his disgrace through a lifetime of struggle. He reads about this knight at the beginning, in a cottage on the border of Fairyland, and keeps meeting him throughout the rest of the book, as if he is meeting his future self or some imagined alternative version of his current self, an alter ego. Again, Anodos is both the heroic young man in the last ‘act’ of the novel, one of three brethren who kill three monstrous giants, and the monstrous egoist who preens himself on this victory and sets out to capture and imprison weaker knights, like another giant, as further proof of his power. He is both the squire who humbly devotes himself to the service of Sir Percival in this final section and the youth who can clearly see the nature of a corrupt religion when the knight cannot, and gives up his life to destroy it. He ‘is’ effectively all the male characters in his story, in the same sense as a male reader or artist ‘is’ all the characters or shapes he conjures up.

It would be easy to conclude that all the female figures in the book are also constructs of the male reader-artist’s brain; but the book is dedicated, it seems to me, to the task of liberating them from him – of developing what may eventually turn out to be a grown-up relationship between the male narrator and the women he either meets or imagines. I suggested recently that William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End dedicates itself to creating a civilized relationship between men and women, as against the kind of hierarchical relationship between them privileged by Morris’s culture. The same could be said of Phantastes, since the narrator is again and again sent on his way by female potentates: the miniature woman he finds in his father’s desk (some kind of manifestation of Anodos’s dead mother?); the beech woman who is waiting to become a ‘real woman’, perhaps in the sense that she is waiting for the narrator to stop fetishizing women, making idols of them; and above all the great great grandmother figure he finds in a cottage on an island, who sends him out on successive adventures in an effort to shape him. As Iuean Ledger has pointed out to me, most of the readers in Phantastes are women, and we’ve already established that reading is for MacDonald an energetically active art. The evidence for this view of reading is in his tremendous essay on ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, where he says of his own stories: ‘It might be better that you should read your own meaning into [them]. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of [them]: your meaning may be superior to mine’. And the women in Phantastes are always reading their own meaning into things, to the consternation of the narrator, who cannot follow the operations of their intellects any more than he can follow the fiercely agile motion of their fleeing bodies.

He never succeeds in catching up with the marble woman he releases near the beginning of the story – I think because he never quite succeeds in thinking of her as anything other than his own creation, with the result that he is always looking for her in the wrong place. And the end of the story finds him alone, unpartnered, looking tentatively towards his future in England, but unsure as to whether he will be able to ‘translate the experience of my travels […] into common life’. The danger of the male imagination in this book is that it makes women what it wants them to be and cannot see what they are as independent beings. It also makes men into what they see themselves as being, which robs them of their own independence, their capacity for change. The real identities of men and women are multiple and mobile, and manifest themselves at odd moments throughout the narrative, as when the narrator encounters his alter egos (the shadow, Percival, the giant knight), and is thrown into confusion, no longer certain who he is. The constant shifting of a person’s identity is a recurring theme in MacDonald’s work: the impossibility of pinning a person down, of defining them without degrading them, is equally a concern of his celebrated story ‘The Golden Key’. But Phantastes is also about something else: the difficulty of achieving dialogue. And that brings us to the vexed question of MacDonald’s prose style.

It’s an awkward, knotty style, made up of many short clauses separated by far too many commas. There’s very little conversation in it (as Alice complains about the book she’s listening to at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland), which sometimes makes it hard to digest. But the absence of conversation also reinforces the impression one gets of inhabiting the inmost recesses of a person’s skull, peering out through the eyes without paying much attention to the evidence of the other senses, except sometimes for the hearing (MacDonald is a passionate lover of music). And the convolutions of each sentence reinforce the impression that MacDonald or his narrator is reporting back on inexplicable experiences he has really undergone, struggling to convey them with precision because they matter to him, although their meaning is elusive.

Here’s an example:

‘All this time, as I went on through the wood, I was haunted with the feeling that other shapes, more like my own in size and mien, were moving about at a little distance on all sides of me. But as yet I could discern none of them, although the moon was high enough to send a great many of her rays down between the trees, and these rays were unusually bright, and sight-giving, notwithstanding she was only a half-moon. I constantly imagined, however, that forms were visible in all directions except that to which my gaze was turned; and that they only became invisible, or resolved themselves into other woodland shapes, the moment my looks were directed towards them.’

The striking thing about this passage is all the buts, althoughs, notwithstandings, ors, and howevers with which it’s filled, as the narrator strives to explain to us the precise meteorological and luminescent conditions that make it surprising he couldn’t see anything precisely, or that what he saw when he did succeed in getting things into focus was nothing like what he had expected to see. The words ‘haunted’ and ‘imagined’ act here as lenses held up to the reader’s eyes in a kind of thought experiment, as a means of demonstrating how the state of a person’s mind affects their vision. MacDonald didn’t have to write like this; The Princess and the Goblin is a masterclass in stylistic clarity. It was only by using this style that he could give Phantastes its peculiar tone, which is that of a scientist trying to describe an experience for which all his training in logic and empiricism has not prepared him.

It’s satisfying, then, to think that the book was published the year before On the Origin of Species.