The Ecofantasies of Mary Fairclough, Part 2: The Blue Tree (1960)

[This is the second of two blog posts on a genuinely lost writer-artist, Mary Fairclough, who seems to me to be a genuinely major practitioner. You can find the first blog-post here. The book described in this, the second part, could hardly be more relevant to our situation at this particular moment in the twenty-first century.]

Fairclough’s dustjacket for The Blue Tree, illustrating the ancient Iranian art of wrestling.

After finishing Little Dog and the Rainmakers, Mary Fairclough waited more than a decade before publishing her next novel. In the intervening years the Cold War tightened its grip on the world, and the United Nations found its ideals of international cooperation and respect for human rights on the verge of obliteration. As a result, perhaps, The Blue Tree is a much more complex book than its predecessors, and this may account for its disappearance from the collective memory of readers and book historians. Socialist-internationalist politics and a powerful green undercurrent tie it to its predecessors, Miskoo the Lucky and Little Dog and the Rainmakers. Its interwoven plot, however, featuring a vast array of characters from different classes, cultures and religions, marks a radical advance in literary technique, while its focus on a single setting – a small local space that gradually emerges as having economic, ecological and spiritual ties with every corner of the continent that holds it – sets it apart from the tales of long journeys at the centre of Fairclough’s earlier fictions. Journeys are still present, of course, but each one begins and ends in a small city-state on a plain surrounded by mountains. Fairclough’s mother urged her to ‘Do your best in your own little corner’, and Fairclough responded many years later with the crucial question, ‘where does one’s own corner end?’, not overturning but radically building on her mother’s philosophy.[1] The local is always and everywhere also the global, her words suggest, and The Blue Tree – a fiction for the United Nations, if ever there was one, though without any formal ties to that organization – provides the perfect illustration of her point.

It’s hard to say what age-group The Blue Tree is aimed at. Fairclough published it with her own illustrations, and this may have marked it out for many as a book for children. It contains Djinns and sorceresses, protective amulets and magical curses, and these too may have confirmed it as a fairy tale for younger readers. But it can also be read as a book that challenges the paradigm of adult fantasy set by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which had been published a few years previously, in 1954-5, but had not yet gained the level of global popularity it would achieve in the 1960s. Fairclough’s book is set not in Europe but Western Asia – specifically Mesopotamia, the ‘Land of the Two Rivers’ as it’s known in Greek and Arabic (p. 7) – a place where a rich diversity of peoples and cultures converge, exchange ideas and live together in cooperative interdependence. It concerns, not a journey across a little-known landscape, but a city seeking to throw off the shackles of oppression; not a picked band of questers, chosen by an unelected Council of the Wise for a secret mission, but a network of friends from different classes and cultures drawn together by similar needs, whose mutual affection helps them turn the tide of tyranny and fashion a brief but brilliant Golden Age for their interlinked communities. The outcome of the book hinges on, not a single grand gesture that liberates the world from the threat of spiritual annihilation – casting the Ring into the Crack of Doom – but the continuous, exhausting, satisfying process of maintaining a small society in good order, as far as possible under the historical circumstances. A Ring is present in Fairclough’s novel, but it’s a Ring that once belonged to a just, wise ruler, not a despot, and for most of the book it’s assumed to have been lost, an apt metaphor for the fragility of just governance in a world where powerful people see the powerless as animals, and animals as commodities without rights or feelings. In addition, Fairclough’s Ring is not singular; it is one of multiple tokens and talismans which bind one community to another in a network of trust and affection – as against the bonds of fear and sorcery that bind the subservient rings in Tolkien’s text to the One Ring that controls them. Like Tolkien’s, Fairclough’s novel is exquisitely plotted, with a design like the richest of Persian carpets (though Fairclough’s illustrations call to mind miniatures, not rugs). And it draws attention at every point to the complementarity of art, politics and the natural world: a subject clearly close to Fairclough’s heart throughout her lifetime. In this, it serves as a perfect summary of the qualities that define her as an artist ahead of her time.

Anonymous miniature, 1431: Majnun in the desert with wild animals, from The Hermitage, St Petersburg. Click for details.

The book is divided into three parts. The first and longest (Chapter 2; I count Chapter 1 as a prologue) tells the tale of the Wazir Barmek, a shepherd from the mountains who finds himself unexpectedly appointed first minister to the new Sultan of Kashkot, an imaginary city-state somewhere in the north of the so-called ‘island’ between the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates.[2] The Sultan is an indolent young man called Khalid, Barmek’s best friend since childhood, who has himself been elevated from mountain shepherd to head of state with equal suddenness. Abruptly transplanted by the hand of God from his upland village to the city, from herding sheep to herding people, Barmek is forced to seek support from as many people in Kashkot as he can manage to make his friends: from the merchant Ali Houssain, to whom he once sold fleeces, to Hafiz, the Librarian of the Royal Palace; from Daresh, the Captain of the Sultan’s Royal Guard, to the bandit-rebel Khalidad; from the young dam engineer Farhad to the misanthropic caravan-master Austa Muthanna. His efforts to create a more or less equitable society are opposed by the Sultan’s wife, a sorceress who uses magic to pervert the city and its occupants into tools in her scheme to install her dead father Douban, the former Wazir, as Kashkot’s absolute ruler. Her machinations come to a climax with the transformation of Barmek into a Ram and his banishment from the city. The Wazir’s disappearance leaves her with unchallenged control over the Sultan, whose lazy self-indulgence plunges the city-state into tyranny as the Sultaness tightens her grip on its unfortunate people.

The second part, shorter than the first (Chapters 3-7), tells the story of various individuals who find themselves in exile from Kashkot before and after Barmek’s transformation. Chief among them is Zeid, the young Prince of Kashkot, who flees the city to escape the Sultaness’s schemes to sacrifice him in a bid to restore her father to life through sorcery; and Barmek’s young daughter Saffiya, who flees from the Sultaness’s machinations with her mother, guiding her to safety in Barmek’s old home in the mountains before setting off on a lonely quest to find the lost Wazir. The paths of these two young exiles eventually lead them back to Kashkot, and it’s there that the third and final section of the book takes place (Chapter 8), as the various threads of the narrative combine to bring about the restoration of Barmek to human form, the fall of the Sultan and Sultaness, and the installation of Zeid and Saffiya as joint rulers of the city. Their placement on the Sultan’s throne marks the transformation of Kashkot into a kind of Utopia; but as with Fairclough’s other stories this effect is achieved only after a book-long struggle, and its stability is not guaranteed. By that stage in the novel we have learned too much about the historical forces ranged against all Utopias to believe that any one of them can last for ever.

My summary describes what could be called the human aspect of Fairclough’s plot; but running through the book is a second thematic strand, devoted to the troubled relationship between humans and animals. Fairclough’s Mesopotamia is dependent on beasts of many kinds, from the sheep tended by mountain shepherds like Barmek to the donkeys, mules and camels that make up the caravans that traverse the great trade routes across the whole of Asia. At the same time, many of the Mesopotamians despise the nonhuman creatures they rely on, especially the dogs who guard their sheep and homes from the depredations of wolves both real and metaphorical. There is a similar disdain among many of Kashkot’s citizens for the lower orders of human beings who keep their homes and businesses running. Like other city-states in medieval times, Kashkot relies on slaves as well as beasts for its essential needs, and treats enslaved humans with as little dignity as dogs, mules and donkeys.

The same attitude prevails among the inhabitants of the spiritual realm that forms the third thematic strand in Fairclough’s novel. The lower orders of spirits are enslaved and treated like beasts by their more powerful superiors, with some notable exceptions such as the legendary sorcerer King Solomon, who might have served as a model of decent governance were it not for his failure to abolish the practice of slavery altogether. The presence of enslaved people and abused animals throughout Fairclough’s narrative gives it a darker tone than either of her previous works of fiction, and ties it more closely, perhaps, to the dark times it was written in.

The Lord of the Rings, First Edition.

The Lord of the Rings draws largely on European sources, from Beowulf to the Icelandic sagas, from the romances of William Morris to the quirky fantastic narratives of the first half of the twentieth century. The Blue Tree takes inspiration from a very different set of texts. These include The Thousand and One Nights, the Persian epic the Shahnameh, and the work of the great Iranian poets, such as Sa’adi – whose uncompromising advice to rulers is effectively embodied in the words and deeds of the Wazir Barmek – or Nizami, whose epic treatment of the legendary lover Majnun is mentioned in relation to the Wazir’s forced separation from his wife and daughter (p. 109). The Thousand and One Nights provides a model for the book’s interwoven narratives and themes, which run through each of its three sections, while the Shahnameh appears in the text as ‘The Book of Kings’, which is slowly being embellished with sumptuous illustrations under the direction of Hafiz, the royal librarian. The folktales of the incomparable Mullah Nasruddin may well have fed into Fairclough’s confection, relying as they so often do on Nasruddin’s friendly proximity to animals, especially his beloved donkey, which he is said to have ridden backwards while dispensing witty words of wisdom. Animals feature prominently in Iranian art and literature, from miniatures depicting the insane lover Majnun being protected by wild beasts to rugs like the Wagner Garden Carpet in Glasgow. All but two of Fairclough’s thirteen illustrations for her novel – a frontispiece in colour, the rest black and white – feature animals or mythical creatures as well as humans, thereby pointing up the three narrative strains – human, beast and mythic – that run through the text.[3]

The Wagner Garden Carpet, from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow. Click for details.

Another source is the many legends of King Solomon, as collected in St John Seymour’s Tales of King Solomon (1924) and elsewhere. Solomon’s legend was perhaps best known to British readers of Fairclough’s generation from its presence in H. Ryder Haggard’s bestselling novel King Solomon’s Mines (1885). One can detect Haggard’s influence on The Blue Tree in the presence both of a hidden kingdom next to Kashkot – the tiny realm of Lamissar, ‘a warm, sleepy valley ringed round with high mountains, whose people mined rubies while their lords practised magic’[4] – and of a powerful sorceress with power over life and death, who is referred to not by her name but as ‘the Daughter of Douban’, just as Ayisha in Haggard’s She (1887) is known for the most part only as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Fairclough’s novel, however, comes across as a critique of Haggard rather than a homage to him. At the beginning, the mountain kingdom of Lamissar is joined with the city on the plain, Kashkot, through marriage, as the Lamissar-born sorceress, the Daughter of Douban, weds Barmek’s boyhood friend Khalid, the new Sultan of Kashkot. Lamissar, then, never exists in a state of mysterious seclusion, unlike Haggard’s Kukuanaland; it is tied to the world by multiple strands or channels, some of them literal, such as the canal that carries water from a waterfall in Lamissar to the Kashkot Plain. In addition, the Lamissar sorceress’s bid to become She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is successfully resisted, not by a pair of upper-class British adventurers, but by a diverse collection of rebels from all classes and cultures united by their friendship for Barmek. Instead of a colonial quest into a hidden kingdom at the heart of the colonised territories, Fairclough’s story concerns (among other things) certain residents of that hidden kingdom, who then become residents of the neighbouring city and exert their influence over it. Besides the scheming Daughter of Douban, these include her fellow Lamissar native Abu Misimir, a ‘serene and efficient’ steward who becomes one of Barmek’s closest friends and imparts to him the magic talisman, the Blue Tree of the title, which protects him against the sorceress’s machinations. The mines of Lamissar serve not to enrich its rulers, or some white adventurers who penetrate its secrets, but to meet the needs of the people of both kingdoms under Barmek’s wise governance. Fairclough’s anti-lost-world romance is a work of social inclusiveness and multiculturalism rather than a bid to romanticize the exploits of British colonists.

Indeed, the only mention of European people in the book is as a distant crusading menace. In the second part of the novel, male members of a nomadic Bedouin tribe, the Beni Hillal, set off to combat that menace in support of the legendary commander, Salah-ed-Din or Saladin (p. 152); and at this point their adoptive son, Prince Zeid, returns to Kashkot to fulfil his destiny, symbolically turning his face away from Europe and towards the complex ecology of Asia. Kashkot, then, represents the polar opposite of a colonial narrative, and its exclusion of English or even European elements affirms Fairclough’s repudiation of the imperialist aspects of her British heritage.

In support of this anti-imperialist agenda, it’s worth noting that The Blue Tree embraces an unparalleled richness of different cultures, none of which gains precedence over the rest. These cultures are encountered not one by one, as they are in Tolkien’s there-and-back-again narrative journey, but as interacting with one another at each stage of Fairclough’s novel, and as coming together to spark off a popular insurrection in its third and final section. Within Kashkot’s territory there are the tall, proud folk of the mountains among whom Barmek grew up, cut off from Kashkot by snows throughout the winter months and fiercely independent in their characteristics and customs; the people of Lamissar, whose Zoroastrian heritage survives in the magic they secretly practise; and the Gamru Khel, small, tough men and women who wear knives even in bed, and who subsist in the poorest part of Kashkot’s demesnes by mining and working iron. Representatives of each of these peoples live in the city, alongside Jewish merchants – represented by the wise and empathic Ben Ephraim – and folk from distant lands – like the so-called ‘Black Pearl’, whose African tribe is known for producing ‘very great warriors’ (p. 103). All Kashkot’s inhabitants, including the enslaved Lamissar steward Abu Misimir, Kalidad the leader of the Gamru Khel, Ben Ephraim the Jew and the African Black Pearl, are drawn into the network of friendship that surrounds Barmek. Beyond Kashkot’s borders we meet the nomadic Mongols, waiting patiently for the moment when they will rise up to build the greatest empire in the world; the intellectuals of Ispahan, a city ‘seething with scholars, mad for learning, [and] drunk with argument’ (p. 45); the Children of Han in distant China, represented by the Chinese engineer who teaches the young Kashkot nobleman Farhad how to build canals; the Beni Hillal Bedouins, with whom young Prince Zeid finds shelter in exile; and the Mongolian shaman, Kamut-Shann the Merry, whose reputation for wisdom and magic extends from the Arctic north ‘where the white falcons breed’ to the ‘roof of the world’ – the Himalayas – and beyond, into ‘Hindostan’ (p. 179). All these people, too, find a place in Barmek’s story, sometimes at two or three removes. The Beni Hillal tribe, for example, are connected to Barmek through their rescue and raising of Prince Zeid, who ends by marrying Safiya, the Wazir’s daughter. The Children of Han are linked to Barmek by inspiring Farhad to build his canals – Farhad being the Wazir’s young protégé and friend. Little Dog learned in his quest how four different human peoples in North America were interconnected, and how they interacted in diverse ways with beasts and the land. The Blue Tree incorporates multiple cultures and communities into its portrait of a single city, refusing to privilege any one perspective, in direct defiance of the British imperialist tradition.

 

Many of Fairclough’s cultures have a special relationship with particular animals. Barmek’s mountain people, for instance, are shepherds, and so have a high regard for dogs: ‘although the Prophet (may Allah bless him!) did not like them,’ Barmek observes, ‘I have known many excellent dogs’ (p. 39). The Mongolian herdsmen privilege their horses above most humans. The Beni Hillal favour camels, and pass on their affection for these unruly beasts to their adoptive child, young Prince Zeid. Unusually close relationships with animals feature prominently in another text from Fairclough’s time associated with Solomon: Konrad Lorenz’s bestselling book Er redete mit dem Vieh, den Vögeln und den Fischen (1949), translated into English in 1952 as King Solomon’s Ring. The book’s English title references the Ring or Seal of Solomon, which certain legends identify as the source of his magic powers, while others affirm it gave him the power to communicate with animals. Lorenz’s book describes his own attempts to communicate with birds and beasts while developing the theories of animal psychology that eventually led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize. Fairclough’s interest in Grey Owl could well have led her to read King Solomon’s Ring as a natural follow-up to Belaney’s account of his relationships with Canadian beavers (she could not have known, in the 1950s, of Lorenz’s membership of the Nazi party, nor of his early linkage of his theories to the pseudo-science of eugenics). The Ring of Solomon features in The Blue Tree, though more as a source of magic than as a means of translating animal languages. Unlike Miskoo the Lucky or Little Dog and the Rainmakers there are no talking animals in Fairclough’s last novel; communication with beasts is achieved only by careful and sympathetic observation, of the kind Lorenz advocated. But Fairclough’s Ring does represent a covenant or agreement between a monarch and his people, a promise on the part of the king to protect his subjects – among whom he numbers animals and spirits as well as human beings – from oppression by the powerful. And her story of the Ring, and of that other protective talisman, The Blue Tree, features human-animal relations throughout its length. The topic is not foregrounded as it is in Fairclough’s other narratives, but emerges in the end as a crucial theme – perhaps the central theme – of this work of art.

The novel opens with a reimagining of the story of Solomon’s Ring (Chapter 1, which serves as a prologue). King Solomon, here named as Hazrat Suleman, is flying around his kingdom on his magic carpet, which also carries representatives of his various subjects: humans, animals, birds and spirits. At each corner of his carpet stands one of these representatives – the Prince of Men, the Prince of Demons, the Prince of Beasts and the Prince of Birds – keeping it ‘steady’ and the world in equilibrium (p. 7). Suleman’s generous understanding of the term ‘subject’ arises from the fact that in his lifetime the world is bigger than it is today, ‘with room in it for other races besides the race of men’ (p. 7). Indeed, the first use of Suleman’s Ring we witness – the only use, in fact – is to protect a nonhuman being, a Djinn from the island of Zanzibar, off Africa, who is being pursued by a malevolent Peri or female spirit, who wishes to enslave him. The Djinn is not Suleman’s subject, but he is a jeweller of great skill, a manufacturer of works of art in metal like the Ring on Suleman’s finger; and the King, we are told, has great sympathy for artists under duress, being a ‘fine architect’ himself who has been forced to make ugly buildings at the behest of his many wives (p. 8). The Peri, on the other hand, has terrible taste in jewels – her bracelets and bangles make Suleman ‘wince’ when he sees them (p. 10) – and no interest in artistic or personal freedoms, since she wishes the Djinn to fashion jewels exclusively for her. Suleman agrees to protect the Djinn by sealing him up in a mountain cave for a thousand years, using his Ring as a magic key. By the end of this time, he hopes, the Peri will have ‘found another jeweller and forgotten you’ (p. 8). Unfortunately, however, the King reckons without two things: that he may lose the Ring, which he needs to release the Djinn, and that the Peri may have a long and vindictive memory. The occurrence of both these eventualities triggers Fairclough’s plot. But before saying more, we need to dwell for a moment on that opening fable.

Fairclough, King Suleman’s Magic Carpet. Note the four representatives of Suleman’s subjects standing by the king, and the Djinn in the foreground clinging to the edge of the carpet.

The tale of the loss of Suleman’s Ring is a parable of multicultural open-mindedness pitted against capitalistic self-centredness and greed. The focus of this opening story – an artist threatened with slavery –  sets the problem of making good art in a troubled and unequal world at the heart of the novel that follows. Suleman understands the artist-jeweller’s problem as his own responsibility, regardless of boundaries between nations, races, classes or indeed species. He does his best to resolve it, suitably enough with a work of art he possesses, the Ring: using jewellery to save a jeweller, so to speak. Not long afterwards, however, he loses the Ring that will release the imprisoned artist, an incident based on Arabic sources (according to one legend, Solomon’s Ring was stolen from him by the demon Asmodeus, who ruled in Solomon’s place for forty days while the King wandered the earth in rags, before being restored to his throne by the Ring’s recovery). As a result, the Djinn finds himself alone and in darkness for over a thousand years; an apt metaphor for the condition of art under oppressive regimes. Such art and its practitioners do not cease to exist; they are merely locked away and rendered inaccessible, waiting for the moment when conditions are right for their release. Suleman, too, is lost in this period, since he dies not long after he imprisons the Djinn, and with him dies the art of equitable governance. With him, too, dies the sense of the world as something more than the province of human beings, as well as the sense of one’s responsibilities as extending beyond the interests of one’s nation, city, species, class, or self. Fairclough’s book addresses all these losses and the attempt to recover them; and as an artist, she represents that recovery in terms of art.

Like the term ‘subject’ in Suleman’s lifetime, which has a wider compass than ours, Fairclough’s understanding of the term ‘art’ extends far beyond the work of self-identified ‘artists’. Among the craftspeople she celebrates in her novel are the Librarian, who spends his life working on a true history of his times to counter the sanitised official version; a canal engineer, who seeks to construct a water system to irrigate the Plain of Kashkot and bring much-needed water to the city; the Captain of the Guard and one of his guardsmen, who specialise in the arts of combat, including wrestling; a caravan master who is also an adept in the art of travel; two women (Barmek’s wife and mother) who practise the art of running a household; and many more. As Wazir of Kashkot, Barmek becomes patron and enabler of all these forms of art, showing as much appreciation for, say, the art of training horses or the art of wrestling as he does for the telling of tales and the weaving of carpets.[5]

Fairclough’s painting of Keynsham in Keynsham Library. My thanks to Tim Whyte, Keynsham Library Manager, for taking the photo. Click for details.

Fairclough’s own appreciation of the arts extended well beyond the conventional province of the art school graduate. A substantial painting she produced for Keynsham Library – which can still be seen there – embraces a range of specialist activities, from music and spinning to chocolate-making and playing with a ball. There is a portrait of the composer Handel, who is said to have gifted Keynsham church with a peal of bells in exchange for its organ; a cinema showing Walt Disney’s great animated feature, Bambi (1942); a workman manufacturing the brassware for which Keynsham was once famous; a huntsman on horseback chasing deer; a chocolate maker at Fry’s factory in Keynsham; a footballer and a cricket player; a soldier arm-in-arm with a dragon, which could represent the Keynsham Mummer’s play of Saint George, in which the saint is killed by a soldier called Slasher (although there is no Dragon in this version of George’s story);[6] a blacksmith shoeing a horse; and many industrial workers and farm labourers. All these people could be described as artists in their own practices, and Fairclough’s enshrining of them in a work of art unites them all under art’s umbrella, celebrating their craftsmanship just as Barmek celebrates and supports the craftsmanship of Kashkot’s diverse citizens.

Along the bottom of Fairclough’s Keynsham painting runs a series of animal paintings (badger, stoats, fox, rabbits, squirrel and otter), as if to confirm nonhuman beings as the roots or foundations of human life. Animals are scattered through the painting, too, including sheep in a field and on a boat. The sheep may remind us that the foundations of the Wazir Barmek’s success as a ruler lie in his skills as a mountain shepherd, an intermediary between humans and beasts. In his home village he is not a leader, but rather ‘one of those reliable people to whom other people leave all the work’ (p. 13), especially the work of looking after his indolent friend Khalid, the care of the community’s flocks, and selling fleeces in the Kashkot market. He knows the vagaries of the seasons, moving his flocks from high ground to low as winter turns to spring.  He knows the practical needs of his people: as he transports his fleeces to market he keeps going over the shopping list his community has given him, which includes salt, coffee, rice, and ‘a fine copper coffee-pot for my mother’ (p. 13). And he knows the needs of the mules that carry the fleeces. When a cheeky melon-seller pops his load of melons onto the lead mule’s back, hoping to cadge a free ride, Barmek tells him to transfer the melons to another beast because ‘This mule is loaded heavily enough’ (p. 15). When he reaches Kashkot and finds it buzzing with excitement at the prospect of the selection of a new Sultan after the death of the old one, Barmek again thinks first of his mules – ‘a string of restive mules […] not used to crowds’ (p. 16) – and makes sure they are soothed and watered while Khalid rushes off to enjoy the spectacle. Fairclough’s attention to the detail of Barmek’s work with animals tells us at once about the man’s personality; he takes less care for himself than for the needs of the people and creatures who depend on him, and his particular care for animals identifies him as humane as well as well-organised, two qualities that prove essential for his political career.

Fairclough: Barmek watches from a distance at the ceremony of the choosing of the Sultan. Note the drummers on black camels and the white horse bearing Khaled, the new Sultan. Click for details.

As I’ve already suggested, animals permeate The Blue Tree, and while this may not be obvious at once to Fairclough’s readers, Barmek proves unusually attentive to their presence. For instance, Barmek’s perception of the ceremony for selecting the new Sultan is entirely mediated through his response to the nonhuman beings involved. He notes how there is a horse at the centre of the ceremonial parade, and how ‘so glorious was the horse […] that although its bridle was purple and its headband set with rubies, yet they looked cheap upon it’ (p. 17). He notes too that the leading actor in the selection process – a Hawk whose choice of Sultan must by tradition be respected by Kashkot’s citizens – is a ‘slim small streak of a bird, white and lovely as the horse’ (p. 17). When the Hawk turns its head towards him, he promptly bows as though ‘to a small and terrible king’. Barmek’s values, the scene suggests, are based on his personal judgment of living creatures, not on conventional human priorities or hierarchies, and the creatures and people he values respond to Barmek’s qualities as he responds to theirs.

For Barmek, animals are foundational to his working life as well as to the political life of the city. His recognition of their importance is reflected in his treatment of them, just as his treatment of people reflects his recognition that every one of them forms an integral part of the community he belongs to; for instance, he has a fountain in the city constructed so that animals as well as people can drink from its waters (p. 110). His acknowledgement of the kinship between beasts and humans stems from the fact that he sees himself as no more than equal to the animals that serve him. His job as the new Wazir, the chief minister and effective ruler of the city (p. 20), represents a great sacrifice on his part – he would much rather go back to his life in the mountains, with sheep, mules and dogs; and this makes him effectively the Sultan’s indentured servant for the term of the Sultan’s life. In the end, in fact, it makes him the Sultan’s slave, since he is increasingly treated as a slave by the Sultaness, who first deprives him of wife and daughter by sending them into exile using her sorcery, then transforms Barmek himself into a speechless Ram. As a result, Barmek has a high regard for his fellow servants – who include animals like the Hawk, the white horse, and a ferocious stallion known as Blood-for-Breakfast (p. 98) – and for the enslaved human people who become his friends.

The new Sultan, Khaled, fights with the Wazir Douban, as he seeks to consolidate his hold on the throne. Note the vultures overhead, which Fairclough discusses in detail on p. 31.

Indeed, the Wazir ‘reads’ human beings as animals repeatedly. For him the Captain of the Guard, Daresh, resembles a dog, who worries at problems ‘like a dog with a burr in his tail’ (p. 22). So does the steward Abu Misimir, though he also has characteristics of a sheep (p. 39). Barmek’s friend the Khan of the Southern Marches has a close physical likeness to the eagles he hunts with (p. 51). The loyal guardsman Dhiab first recalls a dog (p. 60) and later a mule (p. 70); the Keeper of the Royal Treasury calls to mind a ‘tortoise in a cave’ (p. 66); Barmek’s wife Najla resembles ‘a duck on a swift current’ as she rides to her wedding (p. 82); and the warrior-brigand Kalidad has the reflexes of a feral cat (p. 91). All these people are Barmek’s allies, but his enemies too have nonhuman qualities. The carpet-seller Ibrahim, whose lack of talent as a maker of carpets leads him to despise and betray more talented people out of envy and self-interest, resembles a crow: one of those ‘crows that follow many ploughs, the makers of patch-work, taking an idea here and a colour there, a form of words, another man’s methods, and striving to make a new thing without power to create’ (p. 112). The analogy ties him to the unscrupulous crow Kahgahgengs in Little Dog and the Rainmakers, who thieves from his fellow animals and endangers children’s lives for his own amusement. The Daughter of Douban, meanwhile, shifts her animal nature as it suits her, sometimes recalling a ‘wicked cat’ (p. 36), at others a bat (p. 104), and ending her days as a bird in a cage (p. 105), suitably enough for a person who has specialised in caging others. Like Ibrahim, however, she most closely resembles Kahgahgengs the self-serving crow. When she contrives to send Barmek’s family into exile, Barmek forces her to observe them every day through her magic powers, like the wicked Queen in Snow White (1937), reporting back to him on their wellbeing, though she cannot tell him where they are or what they are doing (pp. 104-5; p. 167). In the same way, the Jossakeed of Lost Lake in Little Dog forced Kahgahgengs to keep an eye on Little Dog’s progress across the continent in search of rain, reporting every day on his wellbeing, though the crow too could not say where the boy was or what he was up to. As with Ibrahim, the Sorceress’s willingness to make other people her instruments ends by condemning her to becoming an instrument herself, a fate all the more terrible for her in that she has no concept of self-sacrifice for the common good, unlike Barmek and his friends.

Barmek, on the other hand, is concerned with the wellbeing of the whole community, not just himself and his family, and repeatedly finds common ground with his fellow citizens. At one key point in the novel, for instance, he makes friends with a dishevelled young man who resembles ‘a trapped, half-starved animal’ (p. 42) of the kind he might have encountered in the mountains. The Wazir is drawn to this young man when he sees a model the boy is making out of mud in the palace garden, which he recognises at once as a model of Kashkot and its territories, with a non-existent canal running through the middle. Barmek can ‘read’ the model, so to speak, thanks to his shepherd’s training (‘Every hillman has an eye for country, and having once seen a place can recognise it again, even from a different direction’, p. 42), just as he can ‘read’ the young man’s character thanks to his shepherd’s instinctive sympathy for ill-treated beasts. He ‘tames’ the wild young man, whose name is Farhad, by kindness, ‘moving and talking quietly as if he were dealing with a frightened animal’ (p. 43); and in the process learns that Farhad’s father was put to death by the former Wazir, after which the boy and his brothers sought to avenge themselves ‘like wolves on the world that had killed him’ (p. 47). For their insurrection against the corrupt old Sultan and his wicked minister, Farhad’s brothers were executed, while Farhad was made a slave for Douban’s amusement. The wolf analogy links him to the young warrior Steals-in-the-Snow in Little Dog, who likewise seeks revenge for the death of his family. Steals-in-the-Snow and his older brothers resemble ‘gaunt […] winter wolves’ or ‘lone wolves who have been turned out of the pack’ (Little Dog, pp. 92 and 100), and all of them meet a violent end. Farhad, on the other hand, finds safe haven with Barmek: he is embraced by the new Wazir, restored to freedom and given a useful job. In recompense, Barmek finds in Farhad an expert engineer, whose plan to supply Kashkot with fresh, clean water transforms the city and its environs, bringing new birds and crops to the area formerly known as the ‘Waste of Kashkot’ and ensuring that the Wazir can install his lifesaving fountains in the city streets. Barmek’s sensitivity to beasts and beast-like people, in other words, helps revolutionize Kashkot’s ecology, making it a byword for good land management in twelfth-century Asia.

Barmek’s future wife, Najla daughter of Daresh, watches as Barmek and Farhad ride by on their horses. Najla drops snow on Barmek’s head to draw his attention.

Before joining his brothers’ rebellion, Farhad learned his engineering skills in Ispahan (now Isfahan), an Iranian city ‘seething with scholars [and] drunk with argument’ (p. 45). Here he met a Chinese engineer, with whom he travelled for three years through Mesopotamia, studying the ancient canal systems that criss-cross the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The young man, then, embodies the pan-Asian connections between different human cultures that enable Kashkot to flourish. Another of Barmek’s unlikely friends, the caravan master Austa Muthanna, embodies the pan-Asian connections between human beings and animals. Indeed, animals are responsible for all pan-Asian connections, providing as they do the locomotive energy for the caravans that link Kashkot to Samarkand, Charchan and China (p. 72). Farhad and his Chinese teacher must join caravans to travel safely through Mesopotamia; the merchants of Kashkot, including Ben Ephraim, rely on caravans to send their goods to distant clients; and Austa Muthanna is the most trustworthy caravan master the merchants know of. He is hard on the human ‘riff-raff’ who travel with his caravans, but looks after his animals with the tenderness of a father, and ‘never, never, has he been known to lose one bale of merchandise entrusted to him’, Barmek learns (p. 73). Between them, Farhad and Austa Muthanna confirm Kashkot’s reliance both on its wider Asian context for its prosperity, and on its nonhuman associates to maintain ties with its distant collaborators.

But Austa Muthanna also confirms how far this urban civilization has gone from the easy interdependence between humans and beasts that characterised Fairclough’s first two works of fiction. Animals ‘afflicted of Allah and men’, such as dogs and donkeys, flock to Muthanna in their droves whenever he visits Kashkot, their injuries bearing witness to the violence with which they are handled (p. 72). Barmek sees the caravan master tending to their wounds and speaking to the ‘wolfish’ dogs of Kashkot ‘as to his friends, or his children, his voice rising and falling in a soothing growl’ (p. 75). This makes Muthanna the sole remaining custodian of the ability to communicate with animals that seemed to be common to all humans in Miskoo the Lucky and Little Dog. Muthanna’s own body testifies to equal ill-treatment at some undisclosed period in his past: ‘His face was […] evilly scarred, with one eyelid drooping, a long crooked nose and a bitter mouth’ (p. 75), and the only human associate he can bear is a disabled henchman whose face recalls that of a ‘wistful monkey’ (p. 75), making him ‘as like to an animal as might be’ (p. 76). Muthanna’s disgust for all other human company suggests that the abuse of beasts (and unfortunate human beings) is prevalent across the continent, every part of which he has visited in his travels. The Daughter of Douban’s propensity for diminishing people, as she sees it, by treating them as she treats animals – which is what made Farhad ‘wolfish’ – and the Peri’s delight in making them actual animals through her magic, would seem to be symptomatic of a wider breakdown in relations between human peoples and their nonhuman neighbours, of the kind Grey Owl exposed in the Canadian wilderness.

Barmek, looking out of the window, yearns for the mountains. Beside him is one of the Peri’s magic carpets, which will shortly change him into a Ram.

As one might expect, Barmek’s own understanding of animals allows him to gain the respect and trust of the misanthropic caravan master, and with it some of the insights he has gained from his travels. Being a close and impartial observer of the ebb and flow of the natural world, Muthanna lays claim to the role of a historical commentator like the Royal Librarian, Hafiz, who writes an accurate account of his times in secret while simultaneously preparing a doctored version for the eyes of his tyrannical master, Sultan Khalid. Muthanna is able to speak with authority from a number of positions unavailable to a scholar confined to his library: ‘as the Caravan-master, responsible for lives and merchandise; as the traveller whose eyes are open for the use of a lively and open mind; and as that sometimes terrible thing, the historian who sees the inescapable pattern reaching from the past into the future’ (p. 108). His most striking insights come from an inspection of the condition of the Asian grasslands, on which nomadic horse-herders graze their beasts and whose health or sickness determines their movements. ‘A great, torn, patched green cloak lies over the earth from the Land of the Bright Emperor to the lands of the Feranghis [the European foreigners]’ he tells Barmek, ‘the cloak of the grass’ (p. 108). ‘Out on the cloak of the grass,’ he goes on,

moving with the seasons, were villages, colonies, townships of felt-covered yurts, each owning some Khan as leader to whose war-banner they would rally. And round each cluster of yurts were the herds, the unbelievable herds of the horses, and where the grazing was, there the herds must go. […] For it is the grass, look you, nothing but the grass. Neither love of wealth nor hatred of their enemies will move those hordes, but grass for their horses. They ride into Bokhara and Samarkand, they sell hawks in learned Ispahan, and what do they see? Land that is wasted, for there are cities and gardens on it instead of grass. (pp. 108-9)

One day, Muthanna warns, the dwellers in yurts will decide to clear away these urban centres to make new grazing grounds for their animals; and on that day ‘Bokhara shall become a mud-heap and Thaikan a salt-lick and Ispahan a pile of skulls’ (p. 109). When Barmek thanks him for this warning, Muthanna laughs his laugh ‘like the scream of a peacock’ (p. 106) and reassures him this will not happen for generations. He has told Barmek the story only to comfort him with the thought that after his death the city he ruled will be swept aside, helplessly subject to the changing climate and its consequences. Muthanna has noted the sadness in Barmek’s face, born from the loss of his wife and daughter, and wishes to help him as best he can – including with a bag of pearls, which later supports the poor of Kashkot through a harsh winter, and the gift of another Ring, a ‘great carved emerald’ as green as the grasslands, which the Wazir keeps as a token of their friendship (p. 106). Barmek’s post-loss bitterness chimes with Muthanna’s, but both men find comfort in the knowledge that in the other they have found ‘faith and compassion and courage’ in a human being, and not solely ‘among the four-footed and the winged’ (p. 110). At this late moment in the first section of the novel, Barmek has come to recognise that such qualities are rare among humans and to treasure them all the more wherever he finds them.

The child Prince Zeid rides on a donkey as part of Austa Muthanna’s caravan. A dervish who was once King Suleman walks beside him and Muthanna can be seen in the distance.

The Daughter of Douban, meanwhile, deploys her magic skills not to complement the natural order but to supplant it. She aims to resuscitate her father, killed – or placed in a magical state of suspended animation – by Barmek’s arrow in the course of the fighting that followed Khalid’s selection as Sultan. After she marries Khalid, as part of her plot to install Douban on the Kashkot throne, her first work of enchantment is to make roses grow from pots in winter, their fragrance serving to confuse the senses of those who are exposed to it for any extended period:

from each briar sprang sprays of small green leaves, from each spray a stalk of golden buds, and each golden bud opened into a white velvety rose with a golden centre; and from the last rose to open flew a golden bee and lit on all the other nineteen briars in turn, so that each of them split and budded and blossomed, and the whole Palace was filled with their scent (p. 52).

These roses, the Sorceress claims, will bloom every day while Khalid lives, counting out the days till she can replace him with her resurrected father. They emit the scent of death, not life, and on the day of Khalid’s assassination their corrupting nature becomes apparent as they wither and stink while continuing to grow, ‘filling the Hall, reaching, spreading’, in mimicry of the Sultaness’s relentless quest for power (p. 191). Her second act of enchantment after her marriage is to fashion a Figure of wax and pierce it with pins, thereby wracking Barmek’s body with pain and making him lose a wrestling match in front of the assembled courtiers (p. 60). As a consequence of this incident, Barmek’s friend Abu Misimir gives into his keeping the talisman known as the Blue Tree, which protects him for the rest of his time as Wazir from the worst effects of the Sultaness’s sorcery (p. 64). The talisman confirms Barmek as the Daughter of Douban’s polar opposite, just as his possession of Muthanna’s green Ring identifies him as an ally of the so-called ‘Watcher of Grass’ (p. 108). By the end of the first section of Fairclough’s narrative, the opposing factions have been established and the stakes they play for have been identified. These are nothing less than opposing ways of relating to the environment, which the Sultaness would exploit for her own advantage, while the Wazir would render it hospitable for all his subjects, human and nonhuman alike. The next two sections of the novel trace the complex processes by which the Wazir’s vision emerges victorious from the conflict.

The child Saffiya leads her amnesiac mother towards the house of Barmek’s mother. One of the few pictures in the book with no animals in it.

Human-animal relationships are key to this unlikely victory. The Wazir’s transformation into a Ram is effected by the wicked Peri, as she seeks to impose her will on the children of men in open mockery of the equitable government of Hazrat Suleman, by turning people into what she sees as the nearest equivalent animal. But the Daughter of Douban and the Peri are clearly allies from the start, their green-painted eyes and pleasure in self-adornment and self-serving magics linking them long before we learn, in the third section of the novel, that they count each other as ‘kindred spirits’ (p. 168). Suleman, meanwhile, passes on his wisdom as ruler to Barmek (p. 38), who thereby becomes his successor in the art of just governance. This means that Barmek’s removal from power serves the interests of both Peri and Sultaness. His bestial transformation forms part of a larger scheme on the Peri’s part to transform representatives of four ‘races’ of men into beasts, in formal pastiche of the four strange beings that sat at the corners of Suleman’s carpet – the Prince of Men, the Prince of Demons, the Prince of Beasts and the Prince of Birds. She effects the transformations with her own form of magic carpet, commissioned from the crow-like carpet-weaver Ibrahim: four carpets, to be exact, each sporting a pattern as hideous as that of her jewels, with a closed eye at the centre (to signify the shutting down of the senses and the mind) and a swarm of black and red beetles all around (to signify the Peri’s perception of human beings as no better than insects). With these magic carpets the Peri hopes to entrap in animal form four individuals from the major human religions: the Christian monarch Richard the Lionheart; an anonymous man from Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist imperial China; a member of Suleman’s own Jewish nation; and of course the Muslim Wazir. Her plans go awry in several ways. Instead of Richard, the Sultan’s lost son Prince Zeid is accidentally transformed, Barmek goes missing after his transformation, and one of the carpets is seized by the Mongolian shaman Kamut-Shann. But the metamorphoses of Barmek into a Ram, Prince Zeid into a Camel and Ben Ephraim into a Monkey provide perfect working models of the demeaning philosophy of the Peri and the Sultaness, both of whom see their fellow human and nonhuman creatures as animated objects to be exploited for gain. In this they resemble the post-war profiteer and murderer Harry Lime, memorably played by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s movie The Third Man (1949), who sees his fellow men as no better than the insects they resemble when viewed from the summit of a Viennese Ferris wheel.

Ranged against these potent demeaners of living creatures are the individuals who cherish beings of other species.  Suleman, Barmek and Austa Muthanna are three of these, along with that lover of eagles, hawks and horses, the Khan of the Southern Marches. But the younger generation, too, includes its share of animal lovers. Prince Zeid, for instance, as a child on the run from the Sultaness, takes an injured donkey to Muthanna for treatment, thereby endearing himself to the caravan master as far as any human can. Muthanna responds by smuggling him out of Kashkot with his beasts of burden, but is later tempted to sell him in Baghdad for a bag of pearls – the same pearls he later presents to Barmek in partial compensation for his betrayal of Prince Zeid. The boy, meanwhile, is rescued from slavery by Muthanna’s beastlike henchman, Ahmed, who spirits him away to be adopted by the Bedouins; and it’s among the Bedouins that Zeid develops a deep knowledge of and affection for camels. Indeed, his love of camels leads to his transformation, as he seeks to lighten the load of a beast which is carrying one of the Peri’s magic carpets (p. 154). The carpet’s magic is unleashed as soon as he touches it, and Zeid becomes, for a while, one of the camels he loves, before being freed from camel form by a young woman who can see ‘human’ qualities in animals. Zeid’s narrative, in other words, is determined as much by his own and other people’s humaneness towards beasts as by the willingness of other humans to show humanity to a lost child – that is, to see themselves in him and to see him as one of themselves.

Prince Zeid after being raised as a Bedouin. One of his beloved camels can be seen in the background, as well as his adoptive sister.

The woman who restores Prince Zeid to human form is Saffiya, Barmek’s daughter. Saffiya shares with her father a lifelong affinity with nonhuman creatures, especially dogs. Driven from Kashkot with her mother Najla by the Sultaness, she finds her way to a haven in the mountains, where three dogs appoint themselves guardians for Najla, whose memory has been suppressed by the Sorceress’s magic. The three dog-guardians are joined in their task by the doglike wrestler-guardsman Dhiab, who was also banished from Kashkot by the Sultaness; and with these four highly qualified sentinels watching her mother, Saffiya feels free to set off alone to seek Zeid, with whom she forged an unbreakable bond in early childhood. In her wanderings she makes friends with a colony of Bats, the ‘leather-winged children of the night’ (p. 157), who first liberate her from the fortress of an assassin master, Hasan-i-Sabbah, then escort her to the cave where the Djinn is imprisoned – another nonhuman being with whom she bonds. One year later, the same Bats inform her of the transformation of Prince Zeid, which can only be reversed by someone who can recognise the victim and ‘without hesitation declare their love for him’ (p. 158); in other words, by someone capable of seeing beyond the surface ‘ugliness’ of a beast. The Bats lead Saffiya from the cave to a valley dominated by the statue of a human-nonhuman hybrid, a lama or sphinx that represents a dead monarch who combines the human virtues with the virtues of the beasts with which he is melded. The image unites ‘the powerful lion’s body, the great bird’s lifting wings, and the serene watching head of a man’ (p. 159), recalling the four Princes on Suleman’s carpet who took the shapes of a human, a more-than-human being, an eagle and a lion. The statue, then, could stand for Suleman, the dead king who still has a hand in human affairs; and it could also stand for Saffiya’s father Barmek, Suleman’s living representative. Studying the statue, Saffiya sees in it characteristics of the lost Wazir; and moments later she recognizes a passing Ram as Barmek himself, though she cannot make him human because that is a task for her mother. Soon afterwards, however, she recognizes a Camel as Prince Zeid, the young man she has been looking for; and she is able to humanize him at once. Like Zeid’s, then, her story is driven by her capacity to embrace human-nonhuman relations as an integral part of what makes her herself. In this, the second section of Fairclough’s narrative (Chapters 3 to 7), bats, camels, donkeys, lions, dogs and eagles combine with the efforts of human beings to bring Zeid and Saffiya together. And in the third and final section (Chapter 8), revolution itself becomes a matter of collaboration between human and nonhuman entities, making common cause against the forces of oppression.

The third section is also dominated by climate catastrophe, which here as in Little Dog and the Rainmakers has potentially disastrous consequences for humans and animals alike. Hafiz the Librarian remarks on the rainfall in every entry of his clandestine annals of this late period in the Sultan’s reign. He notes, too, the Sultan’s failure to respond to the dangers this rainfall embodies – the greatest danger being that the dam constructed by Farhad to feed his canals will burst and overwhelm the city. Farhad orders raw materials from distant lands to help shore up the structure, but the materials are commandeered for the Sultan’s purposes, and anyone who resists his orders to repurpose them gets tortured or killed. As a result, parallel with the mounting floodwaters runs the mounting resentment of the people, to which we are given access through the eyes and feelings of Barmek’s friends. One after the other these friends conclude that the Sultan himself must be killed: the Librarian Hafiz, whose knowledge of the Book of Kings is supplemented by eavesdropping on the dire goings-on in the royal palace; the Lamissari merchant Ali Houssain, who keeps tabs on the city’s failing economy; Farhad the canal engineer and former rebel; Kalidad, the chieftain of those knife-wielding ironworkers, the Gamru Khel; the blacksmith Mushtaq the Ironmaster, who is one of his relatives; and the caravan master Austa Muthanna, who finds himself caring for Kashkot because of the good Wazir, now lost, who once ruled it wisely. Each of these people except Hafiz have been linked in the past to some form of hostility against Kashkot’s rulers – and as a historian, Hafiz is intensely conscious of the causes and effects of this kind of hostility. While Barmek held power, the Wazir succeeded in uniting them in communal work on behalf of their fellow citizens; but in his absence they begin to realign themselves (still on behalf of their fellow citizens) as enemies of the Sultan. Flood and rebellion, then, threaten the land like aspects of each other; and Austa Muthanna links this sense of an imminent dual catastrophe to a second approaching crisis caused by the climate: the prophesied attack of the Mongol hordes, as their horses consume the resources of Asia’s grasslands and they begin to look elsewhere for pasturage. Muthanna is concerned that Kashkot will be destroyed alongside grander cities – Samarkand and Isfahan – in that human deluge; but the concern he feels for the little city state brings it hope even as he expresses it, in the shape of Muthanna’s one close human friend, whom we only meet in this final section, as he pours out to her his fears for Barmek’s kingdom.

Austa Muthanna with the shaman Kamut-Shann, whose animal guests include a fox cub and a fawn. Surrounding them are the horses which will change the course of world history.

That human is the Mongolian shaman Kamut-Shann the Merry. We first meet Kamut-Shann at her yurt in the company of an abandoned fawn and a wolf-cub – natural enemies united under her aegis, like the scriptural lion and lamb. Her appearance in the narrative signals the confluence of all the many narrative strands Fairclough has so far kept in play; in each case, these strands reach a point of crisis in this third section, and Kamut-Shann the Merry represents the hope that they may be resolved and their many characters and communities reconciled, as the wolf and fawn have been reconciled in the shade of her yurt. As a Mongol, Kamut-Shann is well aware of the imminent rising of the Mongol hordes, and she makes no promises that she can fend them off from Kashkot: after all, she tells Muthanna, ‘shall one woman and a [shamanic] drum turn aside the armies of Jenghis Khan?’ (p. 180). But she willingly gives her aid in the smaller conflict with the Sultan, the Sultaness, and their supernatural patroness, the Peri, and with Muthanna she begins the long journey from the grasslands where her yurt is pitched to the plain where the city stands. On the way they pick up members of Barmek’s household – Abu Misimir and the Black Pearl, Saffiya and her lover Prince Zeid – as well as a ‘small shimmering cloud’ of migrant butterflies, which spontaneously joins the growing pilgrimage in homage to the shaman (p. 186). The resolution of political crisis, Fairclough implies, cannot be achieved without reconciliation with the natural world, whose delicacy and energy is perfectly captured in the ‘small shimmering cloud’. And it cannot be achieved, she also implies, without paying attention to the politics of the household. Kamut-Shann’s nomadic existence – transferring her yurt from place to place, while her fame extends from polar regions to the Himalayas – makes the local global, while the presence in her household of wild animals as well as people extends the definition of the home far beyond the walls that enclose its traditional occupants. Kamut-Shann, in fact, embodies the ever-changing interface between humans, animals, the climate and the land, and her appearance at the point of crisis signifies the resurgence in Fairclough’s text of utopian possibility; a possibility based on a more inclusive philosophy than even Barmek embodied in the book’s first section.

Together, Muthanna and the shaman, Barmek’s family and his friends converge on Kashkot, bringing with them the potential for a Tolkienesque eucatastrophe – the sudden turn from certain disaster to unexpected joy, as expressed in Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. At this very moment, other strands of Fairclough’s narrative converge. First, the Captain of the Guards, Daresh – the first friend Barmek made in the palace after his appointment as Wazir – makes up his mind that his loyalty is to the people rather than the Sultan, and stabs Khaled to death at the foot of his throne. At the same moment, the small, fierce people known as the Gamru Khel – as famous for fighting as for working iron – attack the city, aiming to bring down the oppressor. At the same moment the climate crisis comes to a head. Farhad’s dam bursts its boundaries, unleashing its waters on the Plain of Kashkot. Daresh and the royal Guard, mounted on their horses, head for the dam; so too do the Gamru Khel. In a gesture of collective self-sacrifice Daresh, the Guard and their horses hurl themselves at the gap in the dam, staunching it with their dying bodies, while the Gamru Khel use their skills as engineers to consolidate the temporary repair. Self-sacrifice and artistry or craftsmanship combine to save the city, just as self-sacrifice and ritual artistry ended the drought in Little Dog.

So much for the human strand that plays its part in this final section (though the horses of the Guard play a crucial role in this strand, too). The animal strand follows, as Austa Muthanna enters Kashkot – riding, like the palace Guard, on a beloved horse – to deal with the Sultaness. He has been sent on ahead by Kamut-Shann to marshal the natural world as it exists within the city walls against the city’s oppressor. At his invitation, the despised dogs of Kashkot descend on the palace ‘like flood water’ to drag the Sultaness from her private chambers to the public square (p. 192), where she is caged like an abused animal in full view of the citizens and beasts she has persecuted. The day of her defeat becomes known as the Day of the Dogs, reversing the centuries of marginalization and abuse that have been visited on them by inscribing their species into the annals of history. Her reduction to the level at which she measured both beasts and disempowered humans coincides with the restoration of the final victim of the Peri’s magic to human form, as the merchant Ben Ephraim is recognised and embraced – despite the monkey shape into which the Peri changed him – by his nephew. Meanwhile the shaman, when she arrives, subjects the Daughter of Douban to the magic of the Peri’s carpets, allowing the sorcery which has so far served the Sultaness so well to transform her into the humiliating shape of a goose. Trapped by her own strategies in the shape of a being she has always considered base, the Sultaness is given her freedom by Kamut-Shann, liberated to fly wherever she wishes after leaving the city. But her own philosophy, which drives clear wedges between human and nonhuman, ruler and oppressed, ensures that she will never enjoy that freedom, unless by some revolutionary upheaval in her mind she can reconcile herself to a new, inclusive way of thinking.

Najla recognises her husband Barmek in the shape of a Ram. Her now elderly guard dogs can be seen in the foreground, while the one-eyed Guardsman Dhiab watches from above.

Meanwhile, the animal strand of the narrative comes full circle as the white Hawk flies twice to select a new Sultan to replace the old one, in obedience to the ritual function it fulfilled in the early pages of Fairclough’s novel. Before the revolution began, readers saw it land on the chest of the newly-restored Barmek (p. 166), whose wife Najla had earlier recognised him in the shape of a Ram, expressed her love for him, and dissolved the spell that held him, confirming as she did so that she had fully recovered her memory. We learn a few pages later that the Hawk left the palace when Muthanna set fire to it on the Day of the Dogs (p. 193). Barmek, in other words, plays no direct part in the revolution that brings down the Daughter of Douban – though the revolution might never have taken place without the friendships and alliances he forged. His principal gesture, in fact, is a repudiation of involvement in politics, as he gives up the position of Sultan bestowed on him by the Hawk and instead sends the bird flying towards Prince Zeid, the last Sultan’s son (p. 197). Zeid’s face is so like Khalid’s that at first Barmek takes him for Khalid himself, before realising that he is young and uncorrupted – a Khalid as he might have been under different circumstances. The Hawk, then, ends the book by correcting the false course it took in the opening pages, settling on Zeid and inaugurating a new era for Kashkot, an era in which Saffiya replaces the Daughter of Douban as Sultaness; an era when the Sultan is guided by his wife’s empathy for both human and nonhuman creatures. A bird and some dogs, along with the horses that carry Barmek, Mouthanna and the Guard, usher in Kashkot’s new era, just as a horse and a Hawk ushered in the old one.

The supernatural strand of the narrative, meanwhile, arrives at a state of eucatastrophe before ever Muthanna or Barmek reaches the city. Before entering Kashkot, Kamut-Shann stages a final showdown with the Peri, summoning the spirit to her with a whistle like the ones shepherds use to call their dogs (p. 186). There follows a fight between Peri and shaman (p. 187), a duel of magic that evokes the duel between Merlin and Madam Mim in T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (1938), or the Wizard Howl’s duel with the Witch of the Waste in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle (1986). Fairclough’s duel, however, is between two female practitioners of magic, not a male wizard and a female witch, a form of combat which invariably ends in the death of the woman. It is fought out in the form of beasts and other forces of nature – ‘waves of the sea, […] two fishes in a stream, two ants in the grass, two hawks in the sky’ (p. 187) – before the shaman brings it to an end by striking her opponent in the form of a thunderbolt, destroying her utterly. The Peri’s destruction unleashes a shower of tasteless jewellery, including the Ring she purloined many years before from Suleman; resurrected as an ascetic wandering Dervish, the King has been searching for this Ring for more than twenty years, and all the time it has been hidden up the Peri’s sleeve, reduced to an object as worthless and impotent as her bangles. With the Ring’s help the King is able at last to release the Djinn, though the prisoner has in fact been free to leave his cave for many years, ever since the waterfall that veiled its entrance was diverted from its course to feed Kashkot’s canals (pp. 155-6). The Djinn may yet refuse to leave, Kamut-Shann points out, from ingrained habit (p. 188); as the Daughter of Douban showed in her form as a goose, freedom is as much a state of mind as a physical condition.

Saffiya and Prince Zeid confront a small green beetle, next to the statue of a lama or sphinx.

The freedom state of mind can be summed up by a look at the beetles in Fairclough’s text. As we’ve seen, beetles feature prominently in the Peri’s malicious acts of magic, swarming out of each magic carpet she sends to an intended victim as if to convey the Peri’s contempt for bug-like mortals. But beetles also feature in a benevolent act of sorcery worked by Barmek’s mother, who provides Najla and Saffiya with magic necklaces to protect them from the Sultaness’s malice. Part of the process of making the necklaces involves throwing six beetles to six passing bats, who discard ‘bright shards’ of beetle shell as they consume them, which the Widow Zora then incorporates into the necklaces (p. 138). Long afterwards, a colony of Bats notices the necklace Saffiya wears, and stop her as she is about to jump from the window of a fortress to escape the attentions of its owner, the assassin Hasan-i-Sabbah. ‘We perceive,’ two of the Bats point out in chorus, ‘that you wear round your neck a blue thread bearing the shards of Beetles. You are therefore under our protection’ (p. 146); and they proceed to guide her to the Djinn’s cave, where Hasan cannot find her. A year later, just after she has rescued Prince Zeid from camel form, Saffiya sees the Prince looking fearful when he spots a passing beetle, associating the harmless insect with the magic that changed him. She at once scoops up the beetle and shows it to him, confronting his fear with a close-up view of the creature that terrifies him, but which most people barely notice. It is ‘Little and green as Paradise,’ she points out, ‘the same as the ones whose shards I wear around my neck’ (p. 160). Those shards, she adds, made the Bats befriend and free her. Meanwhile the beetle on her hand has feelings and an agenda of its own: ‘The beetle with an inquiring wave of its feelers, crawled from one hand to the other, and suddenly brisk, scuttled up a finger; finding nowhere to go, it snapped its wings open and zoomed upwards’. Zeid sums up the incident by wondering: ‘Do all fears become so small [and] without harm when one faces them?’ Close attention to any living creature, it would seem, confounds all attempts to make it Other – either as an instrument of oppression, a tiny monster, or nourishment for passing Bats. This series of encounters with representative specimens of Coleoptera, the largest of animal orders (comprising about a quarter of all known species) despite the tininess of its members, charts a progression from the warped perspective of the Sultaness to the loving attention applied to the natural world by the curious child, the naturalist or the artist.

The progression is a kind of magic, and sets itself up in opposition to the necromantic powers of wicked Sultanesses and other oppressors, embracing anarchistic equality between all beings instead of feudalism or any other form of hierarchy. Kamut-Shann describes this form of magic in conversation with Muthanna: ‘There is magic of the open sun and the grass growing, as well as of the darkened room and the reluctant dead’ (p. 186), she tells him, and adds that one day ‘men will grow out of the second, but it will be sorrow to them if they forget the first, for the one can fight the other and save them from the dark’. She goes on to illustrate the point by defeating the Peri, in a struggle that also illustrates the wholesome effects of living in collusion with the natural world. Kamut-Shann derives her power from this collusion, as she explains just before the duel: ‘I am she who drums in the spring, and the grouse drum also, and the wild geese fly up from the south. I am she who whistles in the autumn and the ptarmigan whistle and the fur of the ermine turns white and they play in the snow. I am the Friend of the Mares’ (p. 187). Her self-description does not elevate her above the land and its animal inhabitants, or the seasons they respond to; she claims no agency over the spring, merely that her drumming echoes the springtime drumming of the grouse and the geese’s wings, her whistling the whistling of the ptarmigan in autumn, and her transformative powers the power of the ermine as it changes colour to prepare for winter. Intimacy with nature’s transformations bestows a power superior to anything available to self-serving, solitary sorcerers – the collective, empathetic power that propels the Kashkot revolution.

The Captain of the Guards, Daresh, abandons the game of chess he was playing with the librarian Hafiz, having made up his mind to kill the Sultan.

In the course of the duel, Suleman’s Ring is restored to him, but its restoration has little impact on the narrative. As we’ve seen, the talisman is not even needed by this time to free the Djinn, whose prison has been unlocked by an accident of history rather than by any individual act of heroism or mercy. Other items of personal jewellery prove far more effective than the Ring in Fairclough’s narrative, but not one of them is effective by itself. The Blue Tree, for example – the protective talisman given to Barmek by Abu Misimir (p. 41) – works for many years to shield him from the Sultaness’s magic, but cannot shield him from the magic of the Peri. The Black Pearl gives Saffiya another amulet to shield her in exile from the dangers of the road, a so-called ‘Safety’ that takes the modest form of a black berry ‘worn on a string round her neck, which her mother gave her out of Africa’ (p. 103). But the Safety cannot rescue the girl from Hasan-i-Sabbah’s fortress; for this she needs the necklace of beetle shards given her by Barmek’s mother – as well as a ring given her by Hasan-i-Sabbah himself, which she keeps ‘to remember him by’ (p. 146), and which ensures the master of assassins does not send killers after her or her father in revenge for her escape. Hasan-i-Sabbah’s ring, too, loses its point once Saffiya has been reunited with Prince Zeid, so she buries it ceremoniously at the foot of the sphinx. The green ring given to Barmek by Austa Muthanna has no magic in it at all, but betokens a friendship between them which helps set off the Kashkot revolution; so it could be said to hold the promise of power through collective action, though Fairclough does not mention it again when the revolution happens. The pearls that Muthanna seeks to obtain by selling Prince Zeid into slavery turn out to have been intended as a present for Kamut-Shann (p. 180), but they never fulfil that purpose; instead they provide a seemingly miraculous delivery from hunger for the poor of Kashkot, when Muthanna gives them to Barmek in compensation for his wicked intentions towards the Prince. The silver headpiece made for Saffiya by the Djinn during her year-long stay in his cave has no function at all except to express his appreciation of her beauty (p. 158). Each of these items of jewellery serves as part of an organic network of friendships, intimacies and alliances, forming a great tree with many roots and branches which may well be what Fairclough is referring to in the title she gave her novel – the wholesome counterpart of the corrupting web of magic roses planted by the Daughter of Douban in the royal palace.

Each of these items of jewellery, too, can be seen as an expression of the function of good art. Most of the items I have listed are either kept hidden by their owners, in recognition of the need for secret relationships and clandestine promises to sustain communities in times of oppression, or accorded little value in the marketplace; in fact none of them even enters the marketplace apart from the pearls, which Muthanna sees as having been blemished by their role in his efforts to sell a young child into slavery. Their value derives instead from the people who present them as gifts: a descendant of great warriors, the Black Pearl, who is herself named after a jewel; a defender of abused animals, Austa Muthanna; a loyal household servant, Abu Misimir; a wise mother-in-law, mother and grandmother; an imprisoned craftsman, grateful for an unexpected friendship; and so on. As works of art they participate actively in the unfolding lives of their possessors, much as decorative illustrations participate in the unfolding of Fairclough’s interweaving plots. Fairclough’s novel itself, as a work of art, presents itself to its readers as an active intervention in their lives, offering hope for a new dream of the United Nations which enshrines the rights of the natural world alongside the rights of human beings of every class and culture. Jewellery in general, as an embodiment of craftsmanship, takes a central role in her narrative, not any single jewel such as Suleman’s Ring or Abu Misimir’s Tree.

The best way of understanding Fairclough’s book, in terms of her philosophy of art as I’ve just described it, is through its representations of the books in the royal library, the books written and embellished by Hafiz, the royal librarian. The finest of these books, in Hafiz’s opinion, is the Book of Kings, and this can be taken as a kind of miniature working model for the fictional city of Kashkot, Fairclough’s major achievement in fantastic world-building. Seeing Hafiz’s illustrated copy of the Book of Kings for the first time, Barmek is overwhelmed, describing it as a potent work of enchantment. ‘I think there is here a miracle,’ Barmek observes:

That you should be able to show an ignorant man such as I, not just people and horses, rocks and flowers, but – but the idea of these things together, making a new thing. For it seems to me that these pictures are not – not just the images of things in heaven and earth, such as the Prophet (on whom be the Blessing) forbade us to make, but something new in the world, something with its own laws. (p. 24)

This ‘new thing […] in the world’ is what the Wazir seeks to establish in Kashkot during his time as Wazir; though he only sees it fully embodied in the new Kashkot that rises from the ashes of the revolution, after he has given up the role of Wazir and returned to being a shepherd in the mountains (p. 200). Fairclough gestures towards this new Kashkot at the end of the book, but we never see it in any detail; after all, Utopia means nowhere, and has not yet been described to anyone’s perfect satisfaction.

If Utopia were to be described it would need a new form of writing, incorporating visual aids as well as words, much as Hafiz’s Book of Kings incorporates miniatures as aids to the understanding of its text. Hafiz finds it hard enough to record the utopian episode of the Kashkot Revolution, also known as the Day of the Dogs, in his history of the city. ‘How shall I describe these days?’ he asks himself:

In the simplest and purest words; in the most exquisite script, the ink powdered with gold-dust (I have a little left); leaving ample space and margin for adornment; all that is obvious. But – but what words, out of all the many upon the tongues of men? (p. 189).

The answer is given him by a young man who happens to have been recently selected as the new Sultan. This man directs him to write in a way that is ‘quite simple’; to give honour to the simple, ordinary people who collectively preserved Kashkot from inundation and tyranny; and to refrain from addressing the young man himself with unnecessary honorifics (‘could you not, sometimes, say to me simply, O Zeid?’, p. 191). History, then, is ideally written in collaboration, just as historical acts are collaboratively accomplished. History can never be utopian, since it remains bound by problematic conventions handed down from earlier epochs. The young man remains a Sultan, for all his dismissal of honorifics, and he neglects to mention the role of animals in the Day of the Dogs (though the name of that day implies that they will in fact get an honorable mention), or the role of a woman in defeating the Peri. But history can afford glimpses of possible utopias; and fiction too can afford these glimpses, as can works of visual art such as miniatures, jewellery, paintings, and woven carpets.

Works of art of this kind deserve to be treasured. Let’s treasure the remarkable art of Mary Fairclough.

Barmek wrestles with the Guardsman Dhiab. Barmek is the man with the red beard, who is clearly winning. Note the lions woven into the carpet, and the four officials, one at each corner, recalling the four beings on Suleman’s magic carpet.

APPENDIX

The Sons of Adam are limbs of each other
Having been created of one essence.
When the calamity of time afflicts one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others
Thou art unworthy to be called by the name of a man.

From Sa’adi, Gulistan (The Rose Garden) (1258), translated by Edward Rehatsek. The stanza is woven into a carpet gifted to the United Nations in 2005 by Mohammad Seirafian of Isfahan, which can be seen in the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

The carpet woven with the words of Sa’adi, on display at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

NOTES

[1] See my previous blog post, The Ecofantasies of Mary Fairclough, Part 1, note 2.

[2] Another name for Mesopotamia in Arabic is Al-jazira, meaning island or peninsula.

[3] Another likely influence is a novel by Betty Bouthoul (Betty Vera Helfenbein), Le Grand Maître des Assassins (1936), which introduced the European world to the legendary Master of Assassins Hasan-i-Sabbah, whose motto is ‘rien n’est vrai, tout est permis’ – nothing is true, everything is permitted, a phrase popularised by William S. Boroughs and the Assassin’s Creed video games. Hasan features in the second part of Fairclough’s novel when Safiya briefly becomes a houri in his Garden of Paradise, before escaping from his fortress with the help of some Bats (pp. 142-147).

[4] Fairclough, The Blue Tree (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., 1960), p. 11. All quotations are from this edition.

[5] Fairclough refers to wrestling as an art on p. 52 (‘There was one art, much loved in Kashkot’), and graces the dustcover of her novel with a picture of Barmek wrestling with his friend the Sultan. In this way she effectively joins the art of wrestling to the art of the miniature maker. She refers to wrestling in metaphors throughout the novel, in fact, making it an integral part of her fiction; see e.g. p. 157, ‘A wrestler’s shoulder may touch the ground once and twice, yet the last throw be his’. For a summary of Iranian wrestling in relation to politics and religion see Anon, ‘Wrestling in Iran: From Mysticism to Politics’, here [https://fanack.com/culture/sports-and-politics/wrestling-in-iran/]. Elsewhere, Barmek’s personal support of both craftspeople and artists is specifically mentioned: ‘There were in those days many artists and great craftsmen in Kashkot, for the Wazir revered them’ (p. 112).

[6] You can read the Christmas Play of Keynsham here.

The Ecofantasies of Mary Fairclough, Part 1: Miskoo the Lucky (1947) and Little Dog and the Rainmakers (1949).

[This is the first of two blog posts on a genuinely lost writer-artist, Mary Fairclough, who seems to me to be a genuinely major practitioner. The follow-up blog-post can be found here. I am grateful to the following for making it possible: Beth Whalley, Development Officer for the Sustainable Communities Directorate, Bath and North East Somerset Council; Tim Whyte, Keynsham Library Manager; and Richard Dyson, Chairman of the Keynsham and Saltford Local History Society. I feel as if I’ve forged a permanent link with Keynsham by embarking on this little project of recovery and hope.]

Mary Fairclough, Traveller Woman.

All lovers of bookshops have the same dream: to stumble across a book you didn’t know existed and find that it’s something special. For me, second-hand books have a particular fascination. An unknown book may light up a period of history – often, in my case, nineteenth- or twentieth-century history – and slightly redraw the map of the past you held in your head. A recent visit to the legendary Bookshop in Wigtown, which I’ve known since it was owned by the equally legendary John Carter, long before Wigtown was crowned Scotland’s Book Town, yielded a treasure: Mary Fairclough’s West Asian fantasy novel The Blue Tree (1960). I very nearly didn’t pick it up, distracted by more familiar titles on nearby shelves. Luckily, though, I glanced at a couple of rave reviews online before moving on (thank you Academe and L Mart!), and added it to my pile on the strength of these, though I hadn’t any great expectation of having the readers’ ravings confirmed when I started to read.

My copy of The Blue Tree, cover picture by Fairclough.

They were more than confirmed. I was utterly bowled over. The book changed the shape of my knowledge of fantasy in the mid-twentieth century, and introduced me to one of the finest author-illustrators of the period. I don’t know much about Mary Fairclough, but everything I do know adds to my respect for her.[1] It’s clearly time she was brought back into focus, not least because she is one of the great writers of eco-fantasy at a time well before the green movement began to gather momentum. My preliminary research suggests that she was a lifetime socialist, that her perspective was international, that she cared as much for beasts as for people (indeed she often refers to animals as people), and that she was infinitely curious about cultures and places not her own. They also suggest that she lived all her life in a small town near Bristol – Keynsham – where she co-founded the Keynsham and Saltford Local History Society; so she clearly had intensely local interests as well as international ones. I have no idea if she travelled in body, but a talk she gave in April 1989, at the age of 75, makes it clear that she travelled in mind. She cites the words of her mother, Rose Fairclough: ‘Do your best in your own little corner’, and asks the question: ‘where does one’s own corner end?’ The implied answer is nowhere. Fairclough’s talk also cites the words of La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibárruri, hero of the Spanish Civil War: ‘Better die on your feet than live on your knees’. For Fairclough these words invoke her time as a Bristol art student in the Depression, when locals from all over the world made their way to Spain to fight alongside Dolores in defence of Spain’s Republican government against the Falangist fascists. Fairclough may not have fought in Spain, but her whole career was spent making the international local by embracing other people’s local spaces and struggles as her own through the medium of her art.

Mary Fairclough, Native American Woman with Horses.

I’m not sure I can think of any other writer or artist who did this with such consistency. In the course of her seemingly secluded life – she never married, she never moved from Keynsham, where her grandfather owned a dye mill and her father worked as a clerk for the tobacco firm Wills and Co. – she made pictures of Roma women, Indigenous people of America, cattle drovers on the road to the Indian city of Varanasi/Benares, Malaysian schoolchildren, and a Japanese politician – and these are only the subjects I’ve stumbled across on random websites. She wrote and illustrated three books, the first featuring a friendship between an Inuit child and a Sámi family, the second a series of encounters between four different Indigenous American peoples, the third an invented country in Western Asia during the Golden Age of Islam, which serves as an imaginary meeting point for a dazzling diversity of global religions and communities. Each picture and each book gives evidence of careful research into the culture depicted; Fairclough clearly took considerable pains to adapt both her verbal and visual styles to her chosen material. At the same time, she does what she can to avoid falling into the pitfalls of a colonialist perspective. Each of her books involves little or no contact between the chosen culture and the peoples of Europe – indeed, her Native American novel takes place before first contact – thus imaginatively shutting out the dominant culture whose language she uses. Each makes use of terms from the chosen community’s language, forcing the British or American reader to learn and perhaps afterwards to seek further knowledge of the ideas, actions and customs these terms embody. No non-Indigenous reader has the right to judge if she succeeds in her aim of resisting colonialism; but the aim, I think, is clear, and confirms Fairclough as a key British practitioner of a fantasy that is truly international in its perspective – the very obverse of the Anglocentrism of much post-Tolkienian fantastic fiction in the Twentieth Century.

Mary Fairclough, illustration for The Road to Benares.

Her ecological concerns come across in the 1989 talk I mentioned earlier, a lunchtime address to the Rotary Club of Keynsham with the title ‘The Environment’.[2] The talk is as much concerned with phraseology as it is with ecopolitics. It begins with a rejection of the cant term ‘Doom and Gloom’, which was currently being used by reactionary politicians to dismiss the concerns of green campaigners: ‘It’s the sort of phrase that’s invaluable in elections if you can suggest that your opponent is indulging in it – rhythmic, catchy, sticks like a burr and somehow belittles the subject’. She goes on to point out the anxiety caused to politicians and voters when vague promises to address green issues confront calls to genuine action, because this involves ‘spending money – losing money – it will touch our sacred pockets’. Time, she insists, is running out, and compares the urgent need to address current concerns (she lists ‘Acid Rain, the Ozone Layer, the Rain Forests, the Greenhouse Effect’ among them, deliberately using the key ‘buzzwords’ of the contemporary green movement whose familiarity could be seen as making them seem less ‘real’) with the same urgency she had felt, along with other young people, to confront the rise of fascism in the 1930s. And she underlines the sense of time running out by bringing environmental concerns back home to Keynsham. She describes how Keynsham has been increasingly damaged in her lifetime as its population expanded. Without idealizing the past (the ‘orderly beauty’ of the village in her childhood was, she knows, based on the prevalence of ‘cheap labour’, just as the democratic system of ancient Athens was based on a tacit acceptance of slavery) she laments the loss of the care and beauty once manifested everywhere, adapting the lyrics of Pete Seeger’s anti-war song (1955), ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’, to the context of Keynsham’s lost treescape: ‘Where are all the orchards gone? Gone to car-parks, every one’. Change, she acknowledges, is essential to all living things, and ‘Being a living Place we had a necessity to change’, but it should be for something better, not for something worse, as has happened all too often to the architecture of Keynsham’s High Street:

[W]e have destroyed and continue to destroy small, unimportant but comely things, odd windows, doors – an entrance to an old stableyard that was still perfectly adequate when the stable became a garage, but it was demolished and the new entrance is an eyesore by any standard. (p. 33)

I love that phrase ‘small, unimportant but comely things’; the word ‘comely’ has a fine dignity, not overstating an object’s claim to be beautiful but insisting on its suitability for the needs and desires of its users. The same term could, I think, be used to describe the emphasis on attractive objects, places and customs in all three of her works of fiction. ‘Cumulatively,’ the talk goes on, ‘these things are part of the Environment of a small town and we should be wise to preserve them until we can put something better in their place’ (p. 34). Her talk, then, moves from the macro-economics of global climate change to the micro-economics of small-town geography, and similar sweeping conceptual or physical movements from the large to the small, and conversely from the small to the global, can be found throughout her writing. In Miskoo the Lucky (1947) a young boy makes his way across the polar regions from Canada or Greenland to Scandinavia and back again, without much idea of where he is going, but forging lasting emotional connections between these far-distant places as he goes. Little Dog and the Rainmakers (1949) sees a young Indigenous boy travel southwards through North America from Canada to New Mexico in search of a solution to a climate catastrophe that threatens all the continent’s inhabitants, human and nonhuman alike. And The Blue Tree takes a snapshot of inter-relations between all the countries and ecosystems in medieval Asia as it paints a picture of a tiny city-state, a kind of utopia. The success of all these endeavours depends not on parties or politicians but on inter-personal relationships, though these are solidly based on the material needs of the communities among which they take place. And The Blue Tree culminates in a collective effort by the whole city-state to avert yet another climate-driven catastrophe, the bursting of a dam. Like the books she wrote and illustrated, Fairclough’s 1989 talk is couched in simple, witty and slightly world-weary language (she adds at the end, since it is a lunchtime speech, ‘Gentlemen I hope I haven’t given you indigestion’, p. 33), but betrays a complex political consciousness, and a philosophy of the local as the global that had much to teach the listening ‘Gentlemen’, if they were able to hear it.

Mary Fairclough, Corn Stacks, 1937.

Interestingly, for someone who showed such respect in her work for other people and cultures, Fairclough’s interest in ecopolitics may have had links to a famous fake: a man who appropriated colonised cultures for his own purposes, albeit (from his own point of view) for the best of reasons. The author Grey Owl, who claimed Apache and Scottish ancestry, was in fact an Englishman from Hastings named Archibald Stansfeld Belaney. His books, films and broadcasts made him something of a global superstar in the 1930s; my grandmother owned a number of his books. Belaney spent many years working as a trapper in the forests of Canada, and his account of his conversion from trapper to conservationist, Pilgrims of the Wild (1935), ascribes his change of heart to the concerns of his second wife Anahareo, a Mohawk Iroquois who made him understand the destruction men of his trade were doing to the Canadian ecosystem. He also credits four beavers he raised with accelerating his conversion, dubbing himself, Anahareo and the animals the ‘Beaver People’ to stress the kinship between them. ‘The Beaver People’ became the title of the first film to feature Grey Owl (1928), and Pilgrims of the Wild could well have influenced Fairclough’s practice of calling animals ‘people’ in her books. Most of Belaney’s books became international bestsellers, their sales boosted by his hugely popular lecture tours as Grey Owl in Canada and Britain. Richard and David Attenborough were two of his early admirers; Richard made a movie about his life in 1999, with Pierce Brosnan playing Belaney. Fairclough seems to have been another. In the year of his inaugural tour of Britain, 1935, she made a black-and-white linocut print of ‘Grey Owl’ in his persona as an adopted Ojibwe, and two of her colour linocuts from the same period (‘Woman with Three Horses’ and ‘Bark Canoe’) draw on similar First Nations subject matter. As I’ve indicated, her fascination with the Indigenous people of North America endured; in 1949 she published her children’s novel Little Dog and the Rainmakers, whose action opens with a people who seem to be based on the Ojibwe, judging by the words and customs she describes, and goes on to draw on the languages and customs of Indigenous peoples elsewhere on the American continent. Her fascination with Indigenous communities is also present in her first self-authored picture book, Miskoo the Lucky (1947), which tells of the young Inuit boy who gets swept away by an iceberg, is rescued by some of his animal friends, and finds his way to Sápmi (formerly known to the British as Lapland), where he learns to live as an active member of a Sámi family. Each of these books has what might be called a green agenda, and throws light on the similar agenda that underlies Fairclough’s masterpiece, The Blue Tree. And the context of Miskoo the Lucky also suggests that her green sensibilities were honed by the experience of living through the Second World War.

Mary Fairclough, Grey Owl, 1935.

 

Making Your Luck in Miskoo the Lucky (1947)

In his final book, my late colleague Stephen Prickett – author of a seminal monograph on Victorian Fantasy – mentions Miskoo the Lucky as an example of the very different fates that befall different exemplars of fiction for children. ‘Who now remembers,’ Prickett asks, ‘Mary Fairclough’s Miskoo the Lucky, a beautifully illustrated book published to great critical acclaim in 1947?’.[3] Prickett clearly remembered it – perhaps he was given a copy as a child (my own copy was given to a boy by his father in 1948) – but he is right about the acclaim that greeted its publication, and he is right too about its subsequent disappearance from the collective memory. Fairclough’s picture book won the children’s section of the inaugural United Nations Literary Competition – with prize money of £10,000 – which was sponsored by the publishers Hutchinson’s in 1947. The existence of this competition seems to have dropped out of history along with the names of its winners, if its absence from the internet can be taken as evidence; I’d love to know more about it. The UN was founded in 1945, only two years before the book’s publication, with the objective of preventing future wars by maintaining ‘international peace and security’, developing ‘friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’, and achieving ‘international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion’, to quote from its first Charter (p. 3).[4] The judges of the UN Literary Competition seem to have recognised that Fairclough’s picture book spoke to these objectives; but Fairclough also introduced into the mix certain key green concepts that were absent from the UN Charter. For Fairclough, equal rights extended from human beings to their fellow creatures, and the need for ‘self-determination’ and ‘cooperation’ embraced ecosystems that take no account of national boundaries.

Mary Fairclough, Miskoo the Lucky (1947).

Miskoo the Lucky shares with the work of Grey Owl the conviction that a human life well lived needs to take full account of the needs of the nonhuman peoples who share our space. The little boy, Miskoo, acquires his nickname, ‘the Lucky’, after playing with a pair of polar bear cubs and meeting their mother; as the narrator observes wryly, ‘If you live in a country where there are Bears, and you get on well with Bears, you are lucky’ (p. 7), and Miskoo’s parents agree when he gets home that ‘he was very lucky indeed not to have been chewed up’ (p. 11). Miskoo’s good relations with bears builds on his good relations with his family’s dogs, who must be included in any account of his family, the narrator insists, because they pull the sledge on which the Inuit depend for transport in winter. The mother polar bear in turn makes little distinction between her own cubs and the cubs of an Inuit mother: she tells off Miskoo for ‘Wearing holes in those fine red Kamiks [i.e. traditional sealskin boots] your poor Ma must have spent no end of time on’ (p. 10). Later Miskoo’s knack of making friends with animals saves his life, when he gets himself stranded on a small iceberg and must rely on a series of beasts to push him ashore: first a seal called Arrk, then Worrug the Walrus, and finally a whale called Beluga, who carries Miskoo, Arrk and Worrug to the coast of Lapland (as Arrk calls it), where Miskoo spends some time with Aark’s family at the foot of a cliff. Taking leave of Miskoo, Beluga gives the boy some advice that might have come straight out of the books of Grey Owl:

‘You might remember one thing […] if you really want to be g[r]ateful. Your people eat whale-meat, which comes from my brothers and sisters; and they carve things out of tusks, which they get from Worrug’s brothers and sisters, and make clothes out of skins from Arrk’s brothers and sisters. Well, that’s all right. I eat Plankton, the little tiny creatures in the sea, and Worrug and Arrk eats [sic] fish […] Everything […] has to eat something, and usually somebody, and as I say, it’s all right, BUT NEVER TAKE MORE THAN YOU NEED.’ (pp. 31-32)

Miskoo takes this advice to heart. After scaling a cliff and tramping through a wood to reach a human family, he refuses their offer of more to eat than he really needs, mindful of the promise he made to Beluga (p. 62). Fairclough drives home the whale’s words about eating and being eaten on this occasion, too, with characteristic directness; the food on offer is a stew made from the ‘forty-second cousin’ of Kakil, a reindeer belonging to the Sámi family who cooked it (p. 62). The interrelatedness of human life with the many beings who share its space could hardly have been pointed up with greater honesty.

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo and his family, with wolves in background, dogs in foreground.

As a former trapper, Fairclough’s ecological mentor Grey Owl/Belaney came to recognise the damage being done to the wilderness he loved by the fur trade, and to regret his own part in the massacres of beaver populations in pursuit of needless profit, which left tracts of Canada’s wilderness bereft of the national animal. In Miskoo the Lucky the role of the predator who takes more than they need is assumed not by trappers but by wolves, the one animal species with which Miskoo’s father warns him not to make friends. ‘Wolves aren’t really animals,’ his father insists, ‘they’re just Bad Luck on four feet, with a lot of teeth’ (p. 14); and the picture that accompanies his words shows the wolves as disembodied heads menacing the Inuit family’s igloo, their severance from their bodies suggesting the severance of the wolves from the ecosystem that embraces all the Arctic’s other inhabitants. Later in the book, Miskoo and his new Sámi friend, a girl called Gullmag, are attacked by wolves while gathering wood, and are rescued by the animals they have befriended: a fox called Yipyap, a pair of reindeer (one of whom is Kakil), and an owl called Nyktia. Wolves, of course, have had a terrible press in fable and fiction, but their position in this book is carefully considered, in an artistic sense at least. Fairclough’s illustrations emphasize both the difference and the close resemblance between the wolves and those family members known as dogs. Gullmag’s family, which includes the reindeer, also includes an elderly dog called Yokk, too old to do anything much except guard against wolves at night. Yokk and the wolves are represented in Fairclough’s pictures in more or less identical ways, the sole exception being that her wolves have empty eyes, as if bereft of emotion and thought. The wolves’ destructive instincts can even turn against each other: when attacked by the owl and the reindeer they soon attack their fellow wolves, leaving only three of the pack alive; this makes them the obverse of a family like Miskoo’s or Gullmag’s, which survives on cooperation. Yet the wolves are the dogs’ alter-egos, and so also the alter-egos of those human beings who depend on dogs, since humans and dogs in this book are effectively kin. Distinctions between one category of animal and another are hard to make; the dog Yokk dislikes the fox Yipyap, who is a friend of Gullmag’s, because he sees him solely in terms of his kinship with wolves (he is ‘third cousin to a wolf’, as Yokk explains, p. 82), glossing over his own much closer kinship with the same species. Being part of a family and being its enemy is a matter not of blood but of behaviour, and it’s implied that a person can slip with disconcerting ease from the first category into the second, simply by ignoring the advice of Miskoo’s whale.

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo, Gullmag and Yokk watching a waterfall; Miskoo and Yokk rescue Gullmag.

In this story, then, a person makes their own luck, and making things in the proper way is part of that luck-making process: using animal parts only for what is needed, killing only as much as the body requires – whether for food, clothes or shelter – and eating only as much as will satisfy the stomach. Being ‘Bad Luck on four legs with a lot of teeth’ – the description of wolves first uttered by Miskoo’s father and later repeated by Gullmag’s uncle (p. 90) – is a matter of always making the wrong decisions, decisions based on greed. Like her mentor Grey Owl/Belaney, Fairclough clearly saw Indigenous ways of living as models for living well or luckily; and she fills her book with careful pictures of Indigenous practices based on a symbiotic relationship with the environment: the construction of an Inuit igloo from blocks of snow; the drying of fish on whalebone frames; cooking, eating and playing a drum in a Sámi ‘kawta’ or tent; lassoing a reindeer, milking it, making cheese from its milk, and curing the hide of its ‘forty-second cousin’ with birch bark; building a Sámi winter shelter. Grey Owl’s books, too, are full of drawings and photographs showing scenes and activities he presumed to be unfamiliar to his non-Indigenous readers in Canada and Britain. His drawings in Pilgrims of the Wild show two people paddling a birchbark canoe, storytelling in an Indigenous camp, various methods of trapping beaver, dragging sledges through a snowy forest, a beaver building its house.[5] Fairclough’s illustrations supplement her words by means of a visual narrative, equal in status with her prose; many of her pages show multiple actions on a single page, like a comic strip, and nearly all of them show interactions between human beings and animals, such as the series of illustrations of Miskoo climbing a cliff, in which he is supervised and encouraged by a gull called Waveglider (pp. 42-45). Together, complementary words and images reinforce her message of cooperation and equality between peoples, both human and nonhuman – a message that clearly appealed to the judges of the UN Literary Competition.

Mary Fairclough: Miskoo and Gullmag making things.

She goes further than the United Nations, however, in choosing as her focus two peoples who pay no attention to the boundaries between modern nations. The story ends with any such physical boundaries conclusively demolished, as its two families adopt a new way of life which involves seasonal travel to each other’s homelands. When winter makes it possible to travel overseas on a sleigh drawn by reindeer, Gullmag and her uncle take Miskoo home to his family, where old Yokk makes friends with Miskoo’s dogs, the reindeers make friends with Miskoo’s old friend the musk-ox, and Gullmag and her uncle become acquainted with Miskoo’s parents. And when the time comes to part again, the two families make every effort to ensure they will meet again:

Then they all said ‘Good-Bye’ rather sadly; but it wasn’t really good-bye for very long; for next Spring Miskoo’s Mother built herself an umiak, a boat a bit like the lost kayak, but big enough to take the whole family, dogs and all, and every Summer after that they all paddled down to Lapland for a holiday. And every Winter that it froze hard enough the others would come up over the ice to Farther-North-Still. (p. 110)

The new understanding between the two families, then, remakes the map of the world. Barriers are no longer marked by official borders but by the constantly changing contours of the pack ice, as it expands and contracts with the changing seasons. Hidden in Fairclough’s text is the quiet suggestion that the very existence of geographically demarcated Nations might need to be jettisoned if the dream of cooperation is to become a reality. And this is an idea she takes much further in her next two works of fiction.

Miskoo returns home to his family with the help of Gullmag and her Uncle Yorgen.

 

Sacrifice and Self-Interest in Little Dog and the Rainmakers (1949)

Miskoo the Lucky is presumably aimed at readers of around Miskoo’s age, five or six. Fairclough’s second book, Little Dog and the Rainmakers, has a target readership of perhaps nine or ten, and this gives it scope to elaborate Fairclough’s philosophy as represented in her prizewinning picture book. It is divided not into chapters but into four parts named after the four peoples among whom the child protagonist, Little Dog, lives: the Forest People, the Plains People, the Desert People and the Canyon People. Superficially these names apply to the Indigenous human peoples who inhabit four different environments in North America; but nonhuman peoples too are included in each category, most obviously the first – the Forest People – since Little Dog’s people acknowledge as equals the many other creatures that roam the wilderness where they live. Among these, we learn, are a family of Beavers, introduced to us at the beginning of the story on equal terms with Little Dog’s human family: the two families live at each end of ‘a very long, deep lake […] like a long shining mirror’, and each is guided by its own Chief, Ahmeek the Beaver and Hole-in-the-Sky the man (p. 6). A little later Fairclough refers to the former family as the ‘Beaver People’ in open homage to Grey Owl (p. 10); the homage is confirmed by Fairclough’s later assertion that they have ‘hands’ instead of paws (p. 33), an observation Grey Owl makes in Pilgrims of the Wild.[6] The forest also harbours Muskrats, Moose, Otters, Chipmunks, Crows, Bears and a great many more, their kinship with their human neighbours being cemented by the custom of Little Dog’s people of selecting (or having selected for them) a spirit animal as their personal totem at the point when they reach adulthood. Each of the other three Peoples on the continent embraces nonhuman creatures as well as humans. The Plains People are made up of Cougars, Horses and Buffalo as well as human tribes such as the Crow, the Dakota, the Osage and the Mandan; the Desert People include Antelopes, Rattlesnakes, Coyotes, Lobos (wolves) and Pack-Rats; and the Canyon People count Horses, Bears and Spirits or Salimapiyas along with humans among their number. As in Miskoo, the use of preliminary capitals elevates each nonhuman descriptor to the status of a human proper name.

My copy of Little Dog and the Rainmakers.

In the first part of the novel, the child protagonist Little Dog – whose name affirms his bond with animals, which is reinforced by his ability to understand their languages – undergoes a ritual solitary fasting and becomes a man, albeit a very small and young one. The process of becoming an adult among his people involves acquiring an animal totem, and while Little Dog hopes for something large and splendid, such as the Chief Moose, Mus-wa, he is instead awarded a creature more appropriate to his size: the Chief of the Chipmunks, known as the Great Big Chipmunk, who is still small enough to sit on Little Dog’s head. The names of our hero and his totem remind us that size is relative, and so too, it seems, is the question of which community one belongs to. An animal totem must accept its human charge as well as being accepted, and the Great Big Chipmunk’s acceptance is quickly followed by Little Dog’s induction into the full community of the animals, since he is at once invited to attend the Animal Council. The Council, we learn, has been called to assemble at the very same time as the Human Council, to discuss a problem that affects both communities equally: a cataclysmic drought. And when Little Dog volunteers to try to end this drought by seeking out a far-off human people who can make it rain – the Rainmakers of the title – his totem volunteers too, ensuring that the mission is a joint one between the human and animal communities. Great Big Chipmunk is not Little Dog’s sidekick or servant but his equal partner, and when they are later joined by another animal called Little Horse he too becomes an equal partner. Miskoo’s bond with animals is taken one step further in this book by the fact that Little Dog is accompanied on every step of his journey by animal companions, and by the human protagonist’s awareness that they form part of his own identity; without them he would not be Little Dog.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Animal Council.

The resolution of the climate disaster in this book, then, requires close cooperation between beasts and humans, and a willingness on the part of both communities to sacrifice their individual interests for the sake of everyone on the continent. The whole book demonstrates how such cooperation and sacrifice might work in practice. Little Dog is selected to seek out the Rainmakers by the Animal Council, which is advised by a human Jossakeed or shaman, the Jossakeed of Lost Lake (a Grey Owl substitute who has abandoned human companionship for a life among the beasts). The boy carries with him a bag of magical gifts for the far-off Rainmakers, all of which are provided by animals. The bag is intended to be exchanged for the gift of rain, but in the course of his travels Little Dog keeps encountering other people who need help from the magic gifts, and these people may be human or animal – Little Dog makes no distinction between them. One magic arrow made from a porcupine quill helps him rescue Little Horse from a puma; another saves the lives of two buffalo calves from marauding lobos; the enchanted stink of a skunk prevents the entire Buffalo nation from stampeding over a cliff to certain death; and a magic snakeskin cures a young human warrior who is dying from a venomous snake bite. In each case, Little Dog’s act of mercy brings him much-needed assistance on his arduous journey to the land of the Rainmakers. By the time he reaches that land, the bag is almost empty – but he would not have made it at all without giving up the gifts, and in any case it turns out that what the Rainmakers need from him is not a bag full of magic objects but the willing sacrifice of Little Dog himself in exchange for the gift of rain. The world Fairclough offers us is founded not on the accumulation of expensive possessions but the willing surrender of one’s own interests for the needs of the collective – a surrender predicated on the recognition that both sets of interests are finally the same.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and Little Horse ride with the buffalo. As usual, Great Big Chipmunk is on Little Dog’s head.

At each stage of his journey, Little Dog gets to witness the devastating effects of drought on animal cultures as well as human ones. The Great Plains contain both Dakota people, who migrate for miles in search of water, and vast herds of Buffalo who range from one dwindling water source to another, and who know full well that many of their number will die before the boy can procure the rain. The Desert harbours both the human community of the Secret Water, who jealously guard the resources of their hideout for themselves, and herds of pronghorn antelope who can only drink from the shrinking oases at risk of their lives. In both locations corpses and bones tell the tale of the many people of both kinds who have died of thirst. Meanwhile, at the end of the journey Little Dog finds that the water-rich Rainmaker people freely share their land with huge herds of horses, and their rainmaking skills with all who need them, human and animal alike, even at the risk of over-watering their own fields and orchards. Through these encounters Little Dog comes to an understanding that the needs of one community are best served by providing for the needs of all, and that self-interest to the exclusion of the interests of others must always prove self-destructive in the end.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and Little Horse ride with the pronghorn antelope.

At the same time, Little Dog keeps meeting people who have a very different philosophy. In his home country of the forests, the crow called Kahgahgengs is known as the Thief, always stealing food from others instead of finding it for himself (p. 23), always ready to torment the dying or to lead young children – such as Little Dog – into needless danger, presumably in hope of feeding on their corpses. Kahgahgengs is punished for his selfishness by being forced to serve others through the magic of the Jossakeed of Lost Lake; for the whole of Little Dog’s absence on his journey he must stay with the shaman of the human village and report the boy’s progress to him, remaining at his task until either Little Dog gets safely home again or ‘it is known that he is dead’ (p. 39). An equally self-centred and damaging person haunts the Mandan village where Little Dog stays when he is crossing the Great Plains. This is a ‘false Jossakeed’ known as Turtle (p. 70), who exploits the drought to terrorize the Mandan, stirring up hatred between them and other human peoples of the Plains and exiling joy and pleasure from the Mandan lodges. His defining characteristics are humourlessness, a love of violence (his leggings are ‘solidly fringed with scalps’, p. 64), self-interest – reflected in the protective shell of the creature his name invokes – and a facility for spreading fear wherever he goes. The oldest Jossakeed of the Mandan compares this sower of hate with a bird of ill omen like Kahgahgengs. ‘Many times,’ he reminds a gathering of his tribe,

‘have the birds of sorrow flown over this people; many times have we driven them away from us. Now they come thick again about our heads, as our corn dies in the dry ground, the river runs low, and the buffalo are far away. But this time […] the evil birds build their nests in our lodges.’ (p. 67)

Sure enough, the false Jossakeed carries a spear ‘tufted with crow-feathers’ (p. 64), confirming his kinship with Kahgahgengs. And the true shaman deals with him far more mercilessly than the Jossakeed of Lost Lake dealt with the crow: his warrior grandson drags Turtle outside the stockade, leaving him in a condition where the ‘buzzards are the only people who will trouble about [him] now’ (p. 71).

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and Little Horse approach the dwellings of the Mangan People.

The most intriguing of the self-serving peoples in the novel is a community which is never graced with a name, who inhabit a hidden valley in the desert because they have alienated all the other peoples who live nearby.[7] From Little Dog’s first encounter with this people they are associated with wolves, who in Miskoo were widely considered ‘Bad Luck on four feet’; and the transference of this concept from wolves to humans makes much better sense in Little Dog’s universe. Crossing the desert on the way to the Rainmakers’ mountain home, Little Dog comes across a young man dying from a snakebite, whose older brothers sit helplessly by, ‘as grim-looking as winter wolves’ in the face of their helplessness (p. 92). Little Dog wins their friendship by curing the sick man with the magic snakeskin from his pouch, but he quickly learns they have few other friends, having stolen ‘far more horses […] than so small a band could possibly need’ (p. 98), killed people ‘for the fun of it’ (p. 100), and kidnapped women, including a woman of the Rainmaker people. Stealing horses is a kind of game for many human peoples of the Plains, but the people of the Secret Water have taken the game to excess, violating the principle laid down by Beluga in Miskoo, ‘NEVER TAKE MORE THAN YOU NEED’. As a result they are ‘like lone wolves who have been turned out of the pack’ (p. 100) – a better characterization of a universal enemy than Miskoo’s blanket condemnation of wolves in general.[8] In Little Dog, however, even lone wolves can be looked on with compassion. The child protagonist genuinely likes the brash boy-warrior whose life he saves, and notices that his older brothers like Steals-in-the-Snow too, acting towards him ‘rather as a mother wolf with only one cub might’ (p. 97). When the young warrior falls victim to a retaliatory raid by the Rainmakers, Little Dog mourns him much as Huck Finn mourns his equally brash friend Buck when the boy gets shot in a family feud. The echo may well be a conscious one: in both cases the victim plunges into water at the fatal moment, and in both cases the child who witnesses the victim’s death – Little Dog or Huck – is haunted by posttraumatic flashbacks for a long time afterwards.[9] The young warrior’s plunge into the Secret Water his people have been keeping to themselves is particularly symbolic in the context of a drought. His disappearance into its depths, fighting furiously with his enemies, and his later re-emergence from it only to set out on a doomed quest to avenge the deaths of his brothers at the hands of the Rainmakers, underlines his total isolation from a world that has come together in a collective bid to bring the rain. Steals-in-the-Snow is as much a lone wolf in death as he was in life.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and the Secret Water People.

If crows and wolves are set apart from other people by their bad habits of taking more than they need and killing for fun, there is a smaller menace in Fairclough’s book which deserves to be set alongside them. A little later in their desert crossing Little Dog and his friends come across a Pack-Rat living in an abandoned human pueblo on top of a mesa (a table-shaped mountain); and the Rat, they learn, is obsessed with collecting objects he does not need. Among these objects are precious things that may have been stolen from human corpses; but the Pack-Rat steals something far more valuable from the companions, which is a quiver-full of magic corn that was given them by the Josakeed of Lost Lake to help them on their journey. The Pack-Rat maintains that this act of petty thievery is no more than a fair exchange – what he calls a ‘trade’ – since he leaves a few bits and pieces from his own collection in place of the corn; but his trick very nearly proves fatal for Little Dog and his friends. The last leg of their desert crossing turns out to be much harder and longer than expected, and without the magic corn starvation and thirst come close to killing them before it is over. Fairclough’s self-centred rodent foreshadows a time when the American continent will be wholly subjected to the dubious rules of trade, and when those rules will be stretched to breaking point in the interests of private gain, like the rules of the game of horse-thieving as played by the wolflike people of the Secret Water. In Little Dog, the Pack-Rat Pikawee is an exception among the many peoples who work together to end the drought; but adult readers may well suspect that he stands for the packs of capitalistic rats who later came to run the country at the expense of their fellow Americans.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog and his companions struggle through the desert after their corn has been stolen by Pikawee.

Diametrically opposed to the self-centred loners in the book – the lone Wolves, Crows and Pack-Rats – is the three-person band known as the Rainseekers, who sacrifice themselves for the collective. When Little Dog volunteers to travel across the continent to the Rainmakers he does so in a spirit of adventure rather than sacrifice: he is excited at the prospect of the journey, and ‘it would be FUN,’ he thinks, ‘to see that Rain-Dance!’ (p. 36). But Mus-Wah the Moose, who once saved Little Dog’s life, sees the journey in sacrificial terms: if successful, Mus-Wah thinks, the quest will wipe out the boy’s debt to himself, since he will have saved both the Moose Chief and all his people from certain death (p. 40). Little Horse, meanwhile, when they meet him, has already been nominated as a sacrifice by the Mandan people, having been driven out of the community with all their fears and misdemeanours symbolically loaded on his back like the scapegoat of the ancient Jews, in a last despairing bid to end the drought. Little Horse feels guilty, as a result, for being rescued from the claws of a puma, until Little Dog persuades him that he will make a better sacrifice of himself by helping the travellers reach the Rainmakers (p. 50). Little Dog helps Little Horse by using one of the magic gifts he carries in his bag, gifts intended to be offered to the Rainmakers in exchange for rain. Each time this happens in the book – each time a gift designed to help the collective gets used instead to save an individual life – could be considered a sacrificial act, since it jeopardizes Little Dog’s larger mission. The rightness of these smaller sacrifices, however, is confirmed at the end of his journey by the Rainmakers themselves, who take these little sacrifices as good reason to show generosity on their own part: ‘You did well to use the other gifts as you did,’ one of them reassures him, ‘and, Little Dog, as you helped others so we will try to help you’ (p. 138). Their judgement is endorsed by the fact that the only gift left at the end of the journey – one of the three magic quills put into the bag by Kahgi the Porcupine – plays a central role in the Rain-Dance ceremony. Ahool, the Spirit or Kachina of the Sun, uses the quill as an arrow shot from his bow towards the north, taking Little Dog and his two companions with it as well as the life-supporting rain, and so accomplishing the most crucial act of sacrifice in the whole adventure. Reciprocal gestures – gifts freely given, often to the detriment of the giver, which elicit equally generous gifts from the recipient – structure Little Dog’s journey from start to finish. This sets the shared values of the Rainseekers, the Rainmakers and the communities that rely on their mutual understanding directly at odds with the values of the ‘thieves’.

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Council of the Rainmakers.

The last and greatest sacrifice made by Little Dog is to offer his life in exchange for rain. Appropriately enough, this turns out to be a reciprocal gesture. The Rainmakers explain that once they have summoned the rain someone needs to volunteer to draw it away from their land, wearing a Kachina mask to mark them out as one of the Great Spirits and hence worthy to be followed; otherwise the rain will bring only destruction to the fertile southern farms (‘the beans [will] be washed from the ground, […] the corn [..] beaten down into the mud’, and the people will starve, p. 147), while the rain-starved lands of the north will remain in drought. Whoever undertakes this dangerous northward journey may not survive. At once Little Dog’s two best friends among the Rainmakers, Green Corn Woman and Root Digger, volunteer for the role. But they are interrupted by the Great Big Chipmunk, the only one of the three travelling companions who has not yet explicitly sacrificed himself. Green Corn Woman and Root Digger, he points out, are needed by their people. He, on the other hand, is a Totem, and hence already part of the spirit world; he does not think that posing as a Kachina or Spirit will kill him. In any case he is happy to undertake the journey north, bringing water to the continent, since that was always his intention: ‘Little Dog and I were sent here to fetch the Rain,’ he sums up, ‘and fetch it we will, if it drowns us!’ The speech balances the much shorter speech made by Little Dog near the start of the book, when he volunteered for the journey south at the Animal Council on the shores of Lost Lake. The Chipmunk’s speech takes place at a Council too, a human one in this case. Both the southward journey and the fulfilment of its object, then, are the result of collective decision making, and the collective includes both human and nonhuman people. The same sense of collective solidarity is expressed in the preparations made for the northward journey, as it was in the preparations for the journey south, which chiefly involved collecting magic items to put in Little Dog’s bag to trade with the Rainmakers. For the northward journey Little Dog is ritually dressed as a Puebloan person, while the Great Big Chipmunk is fitted with a Puebloan mask to symbolise his status as a Kachina or Great Spirit. At the same time they are enjoined to fix their minds on the places they know where the rain is needed: the Great Plains where the boy and the Chipmunk met Little Horse; the forests of Little Dog’s northern homeland (p. 158). They prepare for the sacrifice as perfect amalgams of the peoples who are helping them and the peoples who need their help, a completed circle that embraces all the inhabitants of the continent. Fairclough was at heart a designer, and her orchestration of the final journey accomplishes the design of her narrative aesthetically as well as morally, like the symbolic patterns made in different coloured sands that decorate the floor of the kiva or sacred underground room where the Rainmakers’ Council took place (p. 146).

Mary Fairclough: Little Dog at the Rainmaking Ceremony.

At the climax of the Rainmaking ceremony, when Ahool the Sun Kachina shoots the magic porcupine quill from his bow towards the north, the companions magically follow the arrow through the air in a movement that retraces and justifies every step of their southward journey. As they go, they catch glimpses of the various friends, human and nonhuman, who helped them on their way: the dying Buffalo on the prairies, the lodges of the Mandans, two young Cougars who helped them pass the Great Red-Pipe-Stone Quarry, a Bear who showed them the way across the river that separates the forests from the plains. Fairclough does not forget anyone of importance who gave the companions assistance, and in mentioning every helper she includes them all in the final gesture of fulfilment and mutual friendship. As a model for collective living, the last few pages of Little Dog and the Rainmakers can hardly be bettered, and mark the book as essential reading for young and old at a time of climate catastrophe like our own.

Mary Fairclough: Alders

Fairclough’s meticulous use of available scholarship on the indigenous peoples of the north American forests, the Great Plains and the Pueblos is reflected everywhere in her representations of the way they live: in her words, in her black-and-white ink drawings, and in the colourful, intricate linocuts interleaved with the verbal narrative. She is clearly fascinated in this book, as she was in Miskoo, by the material and spiritual processes by which people make conscious use of the lands they inhabit. This is evident in her account of the rites of passage to the status of warrior undergone by Little Dog and his older brother, in her description of the ceremonies of the Animal Council, in her account of another Council in an earth lodge of the Mandan, and in her evident enjoyment of Puebloan rituals of all kinds. Her explanation for the relative elaborateness of Puebloan ritual is deeply affectionate: the Pueblo People, she tells us,

living quietly on their high mesas, or down in their deep canyons, thinking as much of growing crops as of hunting animals, and only fighting if they really had to, had given a lot of time and attention to ceremonies, from beautiful elaborate ones for rain and corn-planting and so on, down to small kindly ones for making guests feel at home. They hated anyone to feel awkward or embarrassed. (pp. 136-137)

The combination of engagement, respect, affection and extensive research suggested by Fairclough’s verbal and pictorial narrative seems to me to embody a number of practices recommended by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward in their celebrated handbook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Seattle, WA: Aqueduct Press, 2005). This handbook draws on Shawl and Ward’s experience of teaching a course with the same title, and aims to consider ‘what works (and what doesn’t) when writing about characters of races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, religions, nationalities, and other traits and features different from your own’ (p. 4). As suggested by Shawl and Ward, Fairclough has clearly read, viewed and thought a good deal in an effort to achieve ‘authenticity’, as she understands it. She also claims to have listened to Native Americans – ‘I heard an Indian say once that only careless people have adventures when travelling’, she tells us (p. 40) – although one wonders whether the ‘Indian’ she mentions was in fact the interloper Grey Owl, addressing spectators on one of his lecture tours of Britain. In addition, her narrator stands respectfully outside the various cultures she describes (‘I heard an Indian say’) – something Nisi Shawl considers a useful strategy when writing about characters different from yourself: ‘When at all plausible, the best point of view from which to recount a transcultural tale is one that in some way mimics the tale-teller’s position vis-à-vis the culture: that of an alien’ (p. 89). If nothing else, Fairclough’s fascination with and desire to be respectful of the four Indigenous cultures she depicts shine through in every sentence. Her book, like the original charter of the United Nations, is based on the principle of cooperation between peoples, and that cooperation extends to Fairclough’s honouring of each distinct community she represents – even that of the outcasts of the desert, the lone wolves whose courageous cub, Steals-in-the-Snow, is mourned and honoured in his death by Little Dog.

Mary Fairclough: Glamorous Night

As with Miskoo the Lucky, however, nations do not exist in Little Dog’s world as they do in the world of the United Nations, as tracts of land arbitrarily divided by borders whose contours cannot be seen except on a map. Little Dog is given a map at one point by one of the Mandan men, but it doesn’t indicate any borders; it’s solely designed to help him find his way from waterhole to waterhole as he crosses the desert. In any case, the map is burned to ashes when the People of the Secret Water are attacked by the Puebloan Rainmakers; so he does not have it for much of the journey it was made for, crossing the desert. Fairclough’s American continent is divided not into geographically demarcated nations but into ecosystems: forests, deserts, mountains, plains; and the inhabitants of these four ecosystems are united by a great deal more than what divides them.

Mary Fairclough: Heavy Horses

In fact, space itself doesn’t operate in Fairclough’s first two books as it does in the world of her mostly Anglo readers. Both Miskoo the Lucky and Little Dog and the Rainmakers introduce their readers to systems of communication that overcome both spatial and cultural distance, as more modern forms of communication in her time – radio, telegraph, film, television – simply cannot. One such system is the presence in each book of a messenger with wings, a bird that can oversee and inform distant people of the progress of the protagonist on his epic journey. Miskoo’s journey from his homeland to the land of the Sámi is observed by Nyctia the great Snow Owl, and she makes sure that his family knows he is safe and well so that they will not fret during the short Arctic summer he spends with his new friends. Little Dog’s journey, too, is observed by a friendly bird, Kiniou the great War-Eagle, Chief of all Birds. It is also observed by Little Dog’s enemy, Kahgahgengs the Crow, who is forced by the Jossakeed of Lost Lake to report regularly and truthfully on Little Dog’s progress to the Jossakeed of Little Dog’s people, Man-Whose-Dreams-Are-True. This second communications system confirms the spiritual ties that bind the shamans of all peoples on the North American continent. The Jossakeed of Lost Lake is not known to Man-Whose-Dreams-Are-True, but they share the same understanding of natural magic, and this allows them to speak to each other wordlessly, even at a distance. The old Jossakeed of the Mangan People knows the Jossakeed of Long Lake from a meeting long ago, and willingly helps Little Dog to fulfil the mission which his fellow shaman set in motion. The shaman of the Puebloan People, who is also the Chief of the Desert People – Many Drums Speaking – specializes in making music that brings different peoples together, physically as well as emotionally, which is the supreme form of communication or ‘speaking’, as his name suggests. Even the shaman of the outcast People of the Secret Water, their singer and storyteller, tells the same stories as other shamans, though he uses different names. ‘All over the world’, the narrator tells us, ‘different people have different ideas about these things’ (p. 102); but ‘these things’ remain the same, and can be understood by those who listen carefully, no matter which people they belong to. Shamans of all Peoples speak the same language, tell the same stories, perform the same kinds of magic, and share the same understandings, and this mutual sharing across space and time far outstrips the dream of the United Nations in its potential for bringing people from diverse communities into cooperative syncopation.

Mary Fairclough: Janet in Red

Little Dog and the Rainmakers, then, is a United Nations book, like Miskoo the Lucky; indeed, it was published by the same publishers – Hutchinson’s – and its dustjacket includes an advertisement for the earlier book, reminding readers that it was ‘Hutchinson’s £10,000 United Nations Literary Competition Prize Winner’. Both books, however, go well beyond the United Nations in their inclusiveness, embracing entire ecosystems and discarding all artificial borders in their embracement of cooperation. The Blue Tree has a very different tone, but its inclusiveness is just as generous and striking. Its differences from and similarities with the other books will be the subject of the post that follows.

[The follow-up blog post can be found here.]

Little Dog and the Rainmakers, dustjacket, rear view

NOTES

[1] For example, she wrote the book for an opera, John Barleycorn, with music composed by Bruce Montgomery – aka the crime writer and science fiction afficionado Edmund Crispin…

[2] The full text of her talk can be found here.

[3] I found the quotation here.

[4] The 1945 edition of the UN Charter can be found here.

[5] His most lavishly illustrated book is a novel for children, The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People (1935), which again contains both drawings and photos. It can be found here.

[6] See Pilgrims of the Wild, chapter 2: ‘Their hands—one can call them nothing else—were nearly as effective as our own more perfect members would be, in the uses they were put to. They could pick up very small objects with them, manipulate sticks and stones, strike, push, and heave with them and they had a very firm grasp which it was difficult to disengage. When peeling a stick they used them both to twist the stem with supple wrist movements, while the teeth rapidly whittled off the succulent bark as it went by, much after the fashion of a lathe.’ Pilgrims can be found online at Project Gutenberg, here.

[7] It’s worth noting that they are not ‘the desert people’, who are called upon by the Rainmakers to help with the spell for summoning rain; the nameless people of the Secret Water occupy the desert by default, having been expelled from their original communities, whatever they were, for violating the rules of communal living as explained by Beluga. The name of Little Dog’s friend from the Secret Water people, Steals-in-the-Snow, suggests that they come from a much less arid setting than a desert.

[8] Elsewhere in the book we meet more community-minded representatives of lupine society, such as the Chief of the Wolves, a ‘grey slant-eyed shadow’ who licks the hand of Little Dog’s mother as they wait together for her son’s return (p. 171).

[9] See Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (London and New York: Everyman, 1977), p. 283: ‘I wished I hadn’t ever come ashore that night, to see such things. I ain’t ever going to get shut of them – lots of times I dream about them.’ Compare Little Dog, p. 113: ‘the Very Big Chipmunk was still glum, and Little Dog began remembering things again’.

Mollie Hunter, A Stranger Came Ashore (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garage roofed with a boat, Lerwick, Shetland

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Morland, The Press Gang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea and shore: Mousa, Shetland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mollie Hunter

  NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana Wynne Jones, The Magicians of Caprona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said, ‘What thing is that?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said, ‘Whats it afeart of?’

She said, ‘Its afeart of being beartht.’

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

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

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

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

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

The map of Inland

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

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

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

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

John Masefield, The Box of Delights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An illustration of The Box of Delights by Faith Jaques

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen Marshall, The Migration (2019)

[This post was inspired by a series of workshops called the What If Consortium, organised by the writers Helen Marshall and Kim Wilkins of the University of Queensland and involving scholars and writers from all over the world. The aim of the project is to explore the concept of Story Thinking, which uses creative writing methods drawn from speculative fiction to help transdisciplinary teams imagine and find solutions for complex problems collaboratively and effectively. In preparation for the workshops I read some of Helen’s work, for which she has won (among other things) a World Fantasy Award. I quickly found that her novel The Migration might be read as offering a fine example of Story Thinking in action. The post is intended as a contribution to the cogitations of the What If Consortium; and it’s also intended to form part of a case for fantasy as a genre that can contribute as much to real-world problem solving as science fiction can, despite the tendency to forget about it when the affordances of speculative fiction are under discussion. Or is ‘solving’ the right word? I prefer ‘resolution’, I think, which pays attention to the dialogic processes which are an essential feature of collaborative enterprises, and gestures towards music as a model rather than mathematics. Any good conference, classroom discussion, workshop series or in-depth conversation should have a close affinity with a concert, though I have to admit there’s not much about music in what follows…

Please be warned that there are numerous spoilers in this post.]

Oxford is the birthplace of fantasy. Charles Dodgson wrote his Alice books there, surreal dream worlds that helped define the distinctive art of the twentieth century. Tolkien and Lewis met there and formed the Inklings, a reading and talking group which played midwife to the most influential fantasies of modern times: The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956). These books were written by scholars and reflect their interests, from Dodgson’s fascination with sophistry and riddles to Tolkien’s delight in ancient Northern European cultures, whose material and literary remains survive only in serendipitous fragments – including riddles – and which he painstakingly embeds in a rich new context, making them whole in the ultimate fulfilment of a scholar’s dreams. Scholarship sits lightly on the pages of these seminal fantasies: in the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of the messengers Hatta and Haigha, in the prefatory matter to The Fellowship of the Ring, in the textbooks used by the tutor Doctor Cornelius to instruct the future monarch Prince Caspian of Narnia in behaviour fit for a king. Oxford, where Dodgson, Tolkien and Lewis lived, is a city redolent of magic as well as of scholarship, with bizarre grotesques sprouting from its towers and spires and turrets, hidden gardens revealing themselves through the keyholes of old locked doors, a thousand waterways teeming with wildlife forming a maze in and around its streets, which get regularly flooded in periods of bad weather. It has urban myths aplenty, from the Underground Cathedral of Saint Giles, which can be entered via the steps to a Victorian toilet near the Martyrs’ Memorial, to the rumoured discovery of well-dressed skeletons in an underground brook near Christ Church Meadows.[1] And the city spawns new myths weekly – at least, it was still doing so when I last visited in 2019.

No wonder, then, if Oxford has continued to generate beguiling fantasies since Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien set off on their final journeys to another world. Many of these fantasies touch on themes which Tolkien and Lewis chose to ignore: the past understood as a deadly curse relating to toxic masculinity, as in Joan Aiken’s The Shadow Guests (1980); colonialism in Oxford’s museums, as partly acknowledged by Penelope Lively in The House in Norham Gardens (1974); the exclusion of women from much of the university’s history, and the careful replication of the British class system in Oxford’s colleges, as mimicked in the alternative Oxford of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995). It was a stroke of genius, then, for Helen Marshall to set her weird novel The Migration in the city where modern fantasy had its birth, as she charts the progression of what could well be the death of fantasy. In The Migration all the elements I’ve listed combine to create a peculiarly modern narrative: from medieval scholarship (here a historian’s investigations into the science of the Black Death) to riddles (what is the mysterious ailment that is killing young people all over the world?) to myths, legends and fantastic stories, as the ailment sparks off wild rumours only marginally less bizarre than its possibly ancient causes and modern symptoms. Set all these elements against the backdrop of a world which is falling apart because of the climate catastrophe and you have a potent reinvention of Oxford fantasy, a love-letter to Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien which is also a rallying cry for a revolutionary new way of seeing the world, and an urgent warning to take collective action before it’s too late, if it isn’t already.

Marshall’s Oxford is seen through the eyes of a teenage stranger. For Sophie Perella from Toronto, the buildings, history and habits of Oxford are just as strange as the strange events breaking out all over the globe. She shares her foreignness with the boy Cosmo in Aiken’s The Shadow Guests, who is from Australia but whose name proclaims him a citizen of the planet; with the Ugandan scholar John Sempebwa in Lively’s The House in Norham Gardens, who mournfully teaches fourteen-year-old Oxford girl Clare Mayfield two or three things about British colonial history; with the young Greek refugee Anna in Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic (2016), whose first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war makes 1920s Oxford look like a different universe – until she learns it harbours horrors of its own. Oxford for them is already weird before weird things start happening to them. Apart from anything else, they are young and Oxford is old, an embodiment of the piled-up generations which helped to construct the dangerous world they now inhabit. Sophie’s youthfulness in Marshall’s book is constantly reaffirmed by the fact that it’s written in the present tense, a tense never used for fiction by Lewis, Tolkien or Carroll, a tense that stresses the unpredictable nature of the story we’re reading. Past tense tells us that someone at least comes out of the story alive, that what happened is safely over, done and dusted, gone but not forgotten. Present tense tells us that the narrative voice could be the voice of the dead, speaking perhaps out of the ruins not only of their own life but of the whole cultural system that produced them. It implies that what we’re reading about is going on right here and now, even as we read. It’s also the preferred tense of Young Adult fiction. For the young, almost anything they come across is a surprise, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes shocking. Present tense ensures that we, like the young, have no idea what will happen next or how it will end.

Death is present from the opening pages of Marshall’s novel, and with it a sense that the nature of death is one of the many things in the world we don’t have a grip on. In a brief prologue, Sophie recognises the domination of her life by death when she recalls her games of playing dead as a very young child. Sophie tells us she played these games ‘before I knew what dead meant – what it really meant’, she adds (p. 1); but the rest of the book is dedicated to erasing any certainties we might have had as to what really means. The word’s meaning remains elusive throughout the prologue. ‘By the time I was older,’ Sophie tells us, ‘I understood more of the way the world worked, but it still wasn’t real dead I was playing at. It was something else. Something mysterious and terrifying. Like kissing a boy for the first time’ (p. 2). When her younger sister Kira joins in the games of playing dead, Sophie finds it deeply uncomfortable to see her sprawled out lifeless beside her and tickles the child till she moves and giggles, breaking the spell. In this way the comfort of a faux recovery eases the terror of perceiving death as a final ending. But by the end of the prologue, death has got caught up with the idea of memory – traces in the mind of what came before – which itself threatens to lose its function, as Sophie’s recollections of her life in Toronto begin to fade in another enactment of the dying process. The prologue ends with a plaintive acknowledgement of open-endedness. As an older child, Sophie tells us, she thought of death as ‘the feeling of rest after a long journey’ (p. 8). But her journey from Toronto to Oxford did not bring her rest. As a result of what happened next, she goes on, she now thinks of death as a ‘doorway’ and doesn’t wish to know what’s on the other side (p. 8). Portals to Narnia can be read as doorways to death, as the many doorways in The Last Battle (1956) disturbingly drive home. The prologue informs us that Sophia’s doorway leads nowhere so comforting or stable as a land of instructive lions, articulate beavers and walking trees.

From the beginning, then, Marshall’s book announces its preoccupation with questions about which Lewis and Tolkien had strong convictions: with the destination, for example, of the individual human identity after the death of the body; or with the problem of how far the past impinges on the present, to what extent its traces retain some semblance of life, how far they remain entangled in and relevant to the struggles of the living. These questions acquire a personal urgency for Sophie when her sister Kira falls ill. The girl suffers from an unknown condition which is rapidly spreading, jumping from child to child, from youth to youth across the world with unnerving speed, like a coronavirus that singles out the young instead of the old (the novel was written, of course, before the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic). It’s this condition, called JI2, that sends Sophie’s family from Toronto to Oxford, where cutting-edge research is being carried out on treatments for it (the temptation to mention AstraZeneca is irresistible). Sophie, then, heads to Oxford in a quest for answers; but what she finds is only more questions, about the past as well as the present. The treatment, as it turns out, is not effective – at least, not effective in certain crucial respects. Sophie’s world has no more certainties in it, and none of its occupants has much in the way of faith: in religion, in their fellow humans, or indeed in science, which has claimed in the past to find sure means to avert disaster. All conventional terms and familiar concepts have been destabilized, and the city of Oxford itself is vulnerable, its network of waterways rendered treacherous by the increasing frequency of deadly storms and torrential rain.

The clash of past and present is everywhere in Sophie’s new life in Oxford. Cut off from the past – her father stayed behind in Toronto, as did her best friend Jaina – Sophie has to rebuild her network of relationships almost from scratch, beginning with Aunt Irene, an Oxford historian with whom she and her family are staying. Irene’s specialism in history is death: the Black Death, to be precise, which swept through the world in the Fourteenth Century, wiping out populations on a scale unequalled since. And Irene’s research has direct relevance to the new pandemic of youth. Traces of the same hormone have been found in the corpses of the Black Death’s victims and the victims of JI2. Could the fourteenth-century plague and JI2 have something in common? Certainly both have called into question previous certainties, faiths, and social structures; and as Sophie begins to assist her aunt with her research, she soon finds herself empathising with the terrified victims of the earlier infestation. Whether or not there is a scientific link between her time and that one, JI2 represents for Sophie a reawakening of the fourteenth-century plague, just as the calamitous weather of the twenty-first century represents a reawakening of nature in retributive fury at the accumulated centuries of human abuse. Even the weather of the fourteenth century, we learn, was correspondingly calamitous, and its extreme events may have triggered (so Sophie speculates) some momentous change in human DNA, as they have again.

St Bartlemas Chapel, Oxford

Aunt Irene’s college embodies (and in this book about changing bodies the word is apt) the collision of old and new to perfection. Anachronistically known as New College it is in fact very old, having been founded in the fourteenth century when the plague was at its height. Dedicated to the meeting of young and old – undergraduates seeking instruction from established scholars – it is also the explosive meeting point for the past pandemic and its modern equivalent. ‘Did you know,’ Aunt Irene asks Sophie, as if the teenager could somehow have acquired an older woman’s knowledge through her traumatic experiences of disease and migration, ‘Did you know that most of the quads in the College used to be burial pits for plague victims?’ (p. 47). There are, in fact, as Sophie realises, ‘bodies underneath us right now’, telling a story of an old calamity that might unlock the secrets of the new one. It’s from a base in New College that the young people of Oxford rise up in protest against the social restrictions that are being increasingly imposed on them as the pandemic spreads. At one point in the novel Sophie follows the New College students to a party in a graveyard, in defiance of the curfew. The graveyard belongs to a little chapel known as Saint Bartlemas, in East Oxford, where New College students often sought solace when the Black Death was raging, hoping for bodily regeneration through the intervention of the relics there, which included a piece of Saint Bartholomew’s skin (the saint was martyred by being flayed). At this chapel, where the students and scholars gathered annually in medieval times on May Day and Ascension Day, occurs a key moment in the conflict between the infected young and their censorious elders: a chaotic fight between police and undergraduates sparked off by an act of police violence. Several students die in the fight and one policeman. Later, it’s the records of one of the undergraduates who died that confirm for Sophie exactly what is happening to the diseased. A sympathetic doctor hands her the dead boy’s medical records, and Sophie’s reading of this archival document links up with her part-time researches for Aunt Irene to bring past and present fully alive with unprecedented clarity. Aunt Irene’s investigations into the Black Death and the deaths of modern university students place that ancient institution, New College, at the epicentre of the revolutions and evolutions of the twenty-first century.

But Marshall’s Oxford is a site of industrial as well as intellectual labour. There have been long-standing tensions between Town and Gown – between local inhabitants and the intellectuals who gravitate to the University from all over the world – and these tensions are invariably understood in terms of class. Sophie herself occupies a space between the two populations. She attends a private school for girls and lives in the house of an academic, but the boy she falls in love with is a local boy from a half-derelict working-class estate, whose previous girlfriend – also local, also working-class – was an Oxford student who died of JI2. Sophie’s ties to the Town have a geographical, emotional and architectural centre, just like her ties to the Gown or university. Her first trip with her academic Aunt is not to a medieval site – though there are plenty such visits at later points in the book – but to the neighbourhood of the former cement works at Shipton on Cherwell, where stands ‘a tower, at least a hundred feet tall, jutting into the sky’ (p. 13): the cement works chimney. Kira mistakes this at first for a castle, having been prepared by her mother back home in Toronto to expect an England full of castles. Aunt Irene promises to take her to see a proper castle – the one at nearby Warwick – but the cement works chimney has more in the way of history than any decaying military fortification. It’s an integral part, for instance, of Irene’s own past – the place where she met a man who was perhaps her lover, ‘a quarry engineer who sometimes did freelance work assessing dig sites for the School of Archaeology’ (p. 14). This half-forgotten love story invokes the many points of convergence between Town and Gown in Oxford’s history, their symbiotic relationship despite the tensions between them. And it invokes for Sophie the disruption of her personal history by the onset of the pandemic. In Toronto she had always assumed that her future would involve a university education. Uprooted from Canada at a time when the world is waking up to a new Black Death, accompanied by unprecedented storms and temperature changes, such comfortable expectations have quickly come to seem beyond the pale. As a result, the ruins of the cement works look more like the pictures she is painting in her mind of the world’s future, stripped of its human population, quickly reclaimed by vegetation, its soundscape dominated by the calls of birds – like the ‘fantastic noise’ made by a flock of starlings that suddenly materialises near the abandoned factory, twisting itself into ‘complicated patterns and ghostly shapes’ as if to sketch out an unreadable prediction of things to come (and the incident clearly invokes the Roman habit of reading omens in the flights of birds) (p. 16). But its resemblance to a ruined castle means that the chimney is also tied to the past, or to an imagined alternative past which is always invading the present in fantastic stories, as doors open into it from wardrobes or pictures, or figures from it come striding or stumbling into the modern landscape, as in the work of Susan Cooper. And it is a brave and impetuous act by Sophie herself that brings the chimney back to life, rendering it urgently relevant despite its derelict condition.

It’s to the chimney that Sophie decides to bring the corpse of her sister after she has died of JI2 – stealing her from the hospital mortuary and smuggling her out of the city in her Aunt’s requisitioned Renault. It’s in the chimney that the body undergoes a wonderfully unsettling metamorphosis, reminiscent at first of the pupa stage in an insect’s development. It’s at the chimney that Sophie gets to know the Town boy, Bryan, an amateur engineer who becomes her lover, just as an older engineer became Irene’s; and it’s there that she learns to let the transmuted Kira go, to stop trying to keep her as the child she once was, the child she is no longer. The chimney even becomes a kind of chute or birth canal leading from this life to the next, as the resurrected, changed and now airborne Kira batters her way like a giant moth towards the circle of light at its distant apex. Finally, the chimney is the place where Sophie and Bryan plot together to acquire for themselves the secret of flight, building a powered paraglider or paramotor with which they hope to make contact with the freshly-fledged dead, the youthful angels of the climate apocalypse, Kira among them. The chimney, then, like New College, is a brooding and birthing place where the future can be germinated from the seeds of now.

It’s the place, too, where the impossible happens, taking over from New College as the central site of Oxford fantasy. This new version of the impossible is forged from the kinds of technical ingredients largely ignored by the scholarly Inklings: a petrol engine, a foam seat fitted with recycled seatbelts, the ‘giant steel circle of welded pipes’ which forms the paramotor’s frame (p. 318) – a witty homage to Tolkien’s One Ring, with the chimney as its Barad-dûr. The paramotor becomes Sophie’s obsession, just as the Ring becomes Frodo’s, and a similar aura of destructiveness clings to it, reinforced by the fact that it’s powered by fossil fuels. But it’s also an emblem of something like hope out of despair. Aunt Irene considers this kind of hope – the hope of an afterlife, the hope of a new phase of evolution that might involve some kind of resurrection from the dead – as no more than ‘magical thinking’ (p. 304), an anachronistic state of mind which might have been suitable for the fourteenth-century victims of the Black Death, because of the different ‘conceptual schema’ by which they lived (p. 303), but has lost its validity since the Millennium. Sophie and Bryan, however, who grew up with an easy familiarity with the miracles of science and technology, see magical thinking as a blueprint for action. Bugs undergo astonishing changes every day, resurrecting themselves from the tomb of the chrysalis or pupa. The laws of physics keep being rewritten, as the impossible proves possible in each successive generation. Technology shows itself capable of replicating some of the bizarrest actions of the natural world – such as the flying technique of the bumble bee, as imitated by ‘Herr Cederberg’ in the short story by Karin Tidbeck.[2] And the cement works chimney might just be the channel or conduit which will take human thought and action, if not science and technology, to a whole new level.

Marshall’s book, then, has something interesting to say about the impulse to indulge ourselves in fantasy and the fantastic, the art of the impossible. What happens to Sophie in Oxford has been prepared for in her mind by her self-immersion in often old-fashioned fantasy texts. Her idea of England is shaped in Toronto by her reading of books posted to her by the Oxford-based scholar Aunt Irene: The Ladybird Book of British History, for instance (p. 3), or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (1965-77), which deals with modern children (modern, that is, in the 60s and 70s) who are precipitated into a sudden clash between old and new, the ordinary world and a magical otherworld, for enormous stakes (p. 3). Cooper wrote The Dark Is Rising in America, although she was born and raised in Britain, so the series represents the intersection between cultures that will feature throughout Marshall’s book. Sophie also reads The Chrysalids (1955) at school in Canada, a book about a post-apocalyptic America written by the British author John Wyndham, whose title hints at insectile metamorphoses of the kind that are happening again in Sophie’s England (p. 28). A few pages later we learn more about Sophie’s reading. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), which describes a woman’s breakdown in fantastic terms and anticipates the breakdown of Sophie’s mother at one point in the novel (which is in fact a breaking down and reconstruction of her assumptions, her ‘schemata’ as Aunt Irene might call them) (p. 30). Harry Potter, whose schooldays anticipate the bizarre educational experiences of the students of New College, including their cultural war against the older generation and its police. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), comforting in a way The Migration refuses to be, though Marshall’s book freely acknowledges the necessity of comfort reading and therapeutic storytelling (p. 39). Fairy tales about appalling family crises such as Hansel and Gretel (p. 40). Peter Pan (book version, 1911), about a boy who learns to fly exactly as Kira and Sophie do (p. 160). I’ve already hinted at the presence in the novel of the Narnia books (that reference to death as a portal in the prologue), and one element of those books features prominently in it: animals (in this case bugs or birds) who share their thoughts with human beings. The novel swarms, in fact, with fantasy references, and in each case the fantasy in question has direct application to Sophie’s situation, preparing her for the wonders and horrors of the world of now. Fantasy provides her with schemata for a time of radical, painful or appalling change, despite or perhaps precisely because of its roots in the past.

One of the great moments in Marshall’s novel occurs at the point when Sophie confronts her Aunt Irene with some searching questions about her attitude to history and its bearing on the present. Sophie is almost certain that the young people such as her sister who have died of JI2 live on after death as themselves in some discernible way. Aunt Irene has spent her life studying a Medieval civilisation that believed the same thing; but for her it is ‘dangerous… to think in that way’, since ‘magical thinking’ means ‘you might do something stupid’ (p. 303), such as throwing away your only chance at adult life in a suicidal leap of faith simply because you believe that something better might come after. Aunt Irene sustains her argument with scientific discourse, as she insists that Sophie’s hopes for her sister are ill-founded:

The structure of the human brain is delicate. It can’t survive the kind of trauma those bodies are going through. So whatever lives on, even if it’s biologically alive, it isn’t the same. Don’t you think I want to believe as well that something continues on? But that’s false hope, Sophie. It’s a trick. (p. 303)

Her case against a belief in resurrection is much the same as the case an atheist might make against the delusions of a passionate believer. Yet it also echoes the arguments of the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis when he expostulated against the visions of human evolution propounded by the visionary science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon. In Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and The Star Maker (1937), Lewis contended – books which describe the future history of humanity, covering thousands and even millions of years – the human body, mind and social order undergo changes so extreme that the new life forms these books describe can no longer accurately be called human. They have lost (Lewis thought) their soul. The fact that the same reasoning can be applied both by a believer and an unbeliever suggests that the territory each occupies is not as alien as one might think. In both cases, resistance to radical ideas and the different schemata that inform them can be a screen for deeply-rooted conservatism born of timidity: fear of difference, fear of revolution, fear of extreme corporeal change.

But Sophie has scientific reasoning on her side too. ‘That’s not how history works, though, is it?’ she argues (p. 304). ‘We don’t get to put things back to how they should be because it makes life easier to understand’. In any case, she adds, the past was as full of traumatic incidents as the present: ‘There isn’t safety in the way things were’. The Black Death is proof enough of that, or the massacres and migrations that have featured throughout human history. ‘So what if there’s an answer here,’ she concludes, ‘something radical and new’ about the changes undergone by the new plague’s victims?  Aunt Irene’s response to this unsettling suggestion may itself be conditioned by biology rather than reason. ‘Her eyes slide away from mine,’ Sophie observes; ‘For a moment I felt she almost grasped my line of thought but now she’s shifting away, her mind rejecting what I told her, antibodies pushing out a foreign bacterium’ (p. 305). The older woman is protecting herself against the unfamiliar, as people often do, not yet ready to ‘let it break through [her] defences, […] find a way to use it’. At the same time, Irene is a reader of fantasy and the fantastic, with Susan Cooper and John Wyndham on her shelves at home. She has not yet learned to accommodate the new, but that does not mean she never will. Like Sophie herself, Aunt Irene has been prepared for radical change by the kind of fiction she enjoys in her spare time.

Sophie’s scientific reasoning is akin to faith. As she prepares for her first desperate flight in the paramotor, the young woman recognises her half-baked plan to make some sort of contact in the sky with the newly-evolved survivors of JI2 as the definitive act of a true believer: ‘It is the only chance I have to see Kira again, even if it is a long shot. A leap of faith. I don’t know what comes next but I have to try’ (p. 319). She is spurred by the fact that she herself has now contracted JI2, which means she is already affiliated or committed to the metamorphosis her sister underwent before her. As the plague began to spread, the older generation started to think of the young as in some sense a different species, threatening the precious cultural inheritance they had hoped to pass down to their children and grandchildren; threatening, in fact, the survival of the world they thought they knew. For Sophie, by contrast, the infected young may carry the seeds of knowledge of the time to come, a wisdom she yearns for, as her name suggests. And sure enough, her desperate flight into the eye of a storm helps her gain that knowledge. In a lyrical passage, she finds Kira’s memories in her head along with her own, as well as Kira’s premonitions of the drowned world of the future, the world that will inevitably follow the melting of the polar icecaps and the onset of extreme weather incidents. It is a world for which the metamorphosed young will be fully adapted. The resurrected, airborne Kira ‘has been made for the storm – not just to survive, but to flourish in it. […] And the earth is passing away from me, the earth has hatched me. It’s hatched both of us. I can feel her closer now’ (p. 361). Myth enthusiasts may detect a reference here to the egg that hatched the twins Castor and Pollux and their sister Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen is a paradox, like the victims of JI2; she both brought about the fall of Troy and bequeathed to future generations the magnificent story of that fall, the ‘terrible beauty’ described by Yeats, somehow liberating as well as tragic.[3] Sophie’s leap of faith is both terrible and beautiful, committing her body, like that of her sister, to the next ‘gyre’ or cycle of the world’s existence.

The book ends as it began, with the act of playing dead; but in the final chapter Sophie’s childhood games are relayed to us through the memories of her mother, now newly recovered from the breakdown brought on by her younger daughter’s death. Like Sophie, Char has always been haunted by the potential link between playing dead and ‘actual’ death. Each time she found the child Sophie acting out her own mortality, a ‘terrible fear would come over me that this time, maybe it wasn’t just playing, maybe it was real’ (p. 379). But in this final chapter, Sophie’s death is no game. The paramotor (a trivial object designed for pleasure – a means of playing with death) has crashed to the ground on its maiden flight and broken her body, and Sophie herself is about to undergo the post-mortem metamorphosis of all JI2 victims. Fantasy has been revealed once again as mental preparation for traumas to come.

But for Marshall, fantasy is more than this; especially experimental fantasy, of the sort that refuses to tread the path of slavish imitation – like The Lord of the Rings, whose familiarity sometimes makes us lose sight of just how original Tolkien’s text was at the time of writing. Sophie herself embodies such experimental fantasy, having had an ‘aura of unpredictability’ since birth, in her mother’s eyes, arriving ten weeks before her due date with bluish skin, yet surviving against all odds in an incubator and emerging stronger for the ordeal. Unpredictable fantasy – the sort whose ending you cannot guess when you start reading – can help us understand and resist brutality of various kinds, as is hinted at in the name of the doctor who wishes to take Sophies corpse for experimental treatment in his lab (he is ‘Lane Ballard’, a clear allusion to the dark visions of the future hatched by the former trainee doctor, J. G. Ballard, in his so-called ‘space fiction’). But experimental fantasy also enables us to confront the impossible, inhabit it, make it our home. Magical thinking gave Char hope in her early days as a mother, as she waited to find out if her premature baby would emerge from the incubator dead or alive. ‘“Live,” I whispered as I looked at you behind the glass, “please, live”’ (p. 383). But, she adds in the present as she breathes the same words while waiting to see if her broken daughter will live or die, ‘it doesn’t always work like that, does it? Only in fairy tales does it work like that’. Baby Sophie obeyed the logic of fairy tales in her childhood – the ‘magical thinking’ they encourage; but the laws of chance, Char thinks, make it unlikely this will happen again.

Sure enough, teenage Sophie doesn’t live; or rather, she ‘really’ dies. But fairy tales can be as unpredictable as any other kind of fiction, especially if you turn to non-European storytelling traditions. An Egyptian fairy tale known to Char, which Sophie used to read to Kira, tells of a heron who rebuilt the world after the Deluge, the universal flood which is also described in the Old Testament and classical legend. This tale told by a child to her sister offers a model for seeing a way out of the climate crisis: a way that involves stepping sideways from one form of life – the dominant form of our time, the life of human beings under late capitalism – into another whose schemata are unfamiliar to us, as unfamiliar as the notion of a heron as the world’s creator. Sophie and Kira take that sideways step or leap, with trepidation and excitement. In tracing their transition to another schema, Marshall’s book refashions Oxford, the birthplace of the fantastic, as the birthplace of a new fantastic, better suited to our needs at a time of accelerated global change. Readers of all generations can learn from this refashioning.

NOTES

[1] Marshall alludes obliquely to both these myths in her novel. I leave it to you to spot the references!

[2] Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath (2012), pp. 41-44.

[3] See Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’, ‘Leda and the Swan’, ‘The Second Coming’, etc.

Magic Houses at a Time of Covid

Howl’s Moving Castle, from the Studio Ghibli Movie

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

The Domestic Roots of Fantasy

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

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

Tolkien’s own picture of Bilbo’s Hobbit Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexey Repolsky Illustration of Tom Thumb

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

Fantasy Houses and the Gothic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alasdair Gray’s mural at Hillhead Subway Station

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

Magic Houses in Victorian Children’s Fiction

The King of the Golden River, illustration by Richard Doyle

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

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

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

The King of the Golden River, illustration by Arthur Rackham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice in Wonderland, illustration by John Tenniel

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

Alice in Wonderland, from the movie by Jan Svenkmajer

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

Plural Magic Houses of the Twentieth Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portmeirion, Wales

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

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

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

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

Charles W. Stewart, Steerpike surveying Gormenghast

 

 

 

Imperialist Fantasy: Clifford Mills, Where the Rainbow Ends (1912)

This blog is called The City of Lost Books, and has concentrated on quite a few little-known texts in recent months: the fantastic novels of Margaret Irwin; the only novel by the modernist art critic Herbert Read; William Morris’s brilliant last romance The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Few books, however, can have been more justly neglected than Clifford Mills’s Where the Rainbow Ends (1912), and few books can have been more popular before they fell into oblivion. Based on a ‘fairy play’ co-written by Clifford Mills and John Reginald Owen (writing as John Ramsey) and first produced in 1911 with music by Roger Quilter, the book was a bestseller from its publication in 1912 to the 1950s. For forty years or so the play was as much a staple of Christmas in Britain as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), on which it was partly based. Princess Elizabeth went to see it at Christmas in 1937, when she was eleven. Being a blatant piece of British imperialist propaganda, however, it didn’t survive the sixties, and had more or less vanished from sight by the time I read the book version at the age of seven or eight, in my grandmother’s Salford flat in 1970.[1]

The book made a huge impression on me, not least because it made me profoundly uncomfortable. This was not because of its imperialist, militaristic propaganda – I was rather enthusiastic about things military at the age of seven – but because of its penchant for sadistic violence. Mills’s delight in subjecting her child protagonists to extreme mental and physical torments was obvious to me, and the deaths of her villains were unusually gruesome. Most dreadful of all, there was a boy in it who expressed his willingness to be transformed into a monster, in an episode that haunted my nightmares for several years. Another book I read at my grandmother’s flat was the Penguin translation of Homer’s Odyssey, its cover carefully protected with a transparent plastic dustjacket, and although that story too had people being magicked into beasts they didn’t consent to their transformation, and were in any case restored to human shape soon afterwards by the wily Odysseus. Mills’s doomed boy, by contrast, actively chooses his metamorphosis, and remains stubbornly committed to becoming a monster on the last occasion we see him. Through him Where the Rainbow Ends introduced me to a kind of fantasy I hadn’t encountered anywhere else, in which children’s behaviour could be as horribly punished as the wickedness of adults, and the bed you made for yourself was very much the one you lay in. Again, children had been punished with transformation in other books I knew, most notably Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who became a dragon because he refused to fit in. But Eustace learned his lesson in the process, whereas the boy in Where the Rainbow Ends learned nothing at all. This couldn’t happen, I thought, in books for children, and I dwelt on it with morbid fascination when Clifford Mills showed me that it could.

One of the things I liked about the book was that it did a good job of representing the pain of being separated from one’s family. The story begins with two middle-class English children who have lost their parents in a shipwreck six months before, and who are now being looked after by an abusive aunt and uncle, aided and abetted by a houseful of nasty servants, formerly the servants of the children’s beloved Cousin Matthew, also recently deceased. The children, Rosamond and Crispian, have been separated from their parents for several years – two in the case of Rosamond, four in Crispian’s – because the parents stayed behind in India when the children went to boarding school in England; it was on the journey from India to England that their Mother and Father were drowned. I can’t remember if I had yet gone to boarding school when I was staying at my Grandmother’s, but I certainly started a few weeks after turning seven, and the idea of long-term separation from one’s parents would have been familiar to me in any case from the fact that my older brother started there a year before I did. The British Empire, it seems, was built on the principle of separating children from their parents, and trained the children in question to respond by cultivating a sense of plucky independence underpinned by strict adherence to certain rules.

One such rule was the hackneyed notion that boys don’t cry, and Mills’s novel begins with Crispian breaking this rule, as I myself had done on many occasions. I appreciated this touch of honesty on the part of the author, though not the response of Crispian’s sister: Rosamond overhears him sobbing for their mother, and forces herself not to intervene for fear of shaming him (‘Boys’ tears, she told herself, were not to be seen – except by Mothers – sometimes’, p. 10).[2] Suddenly, however, she thinks of a way to cheer him up, which is by consulting a book Cousin Matthew used to read to them at bedtime. This is the ‘Rainbow Book’, and it is introduced into Mills’s story in the very first sentence: ‘Rosamond had suddenly remembered the “Rainbow Book”, and this is how it happened’ (p. 9). That sentence involves a double act of magic, first in adopting a tone which implies that everyone knows about the ‘Rainbow Book’, and secondly in giving that book the same title as the book we’re reading. The ‘Rainbow Book’ is Where the Rainbow Ends, and mentions a land where all lost loved ones can be found again; it also includes detailed instructions on how to get there. This made me think that perhaps the book by Clifford Mills called Where the Rainbow Ends might contain similar instructions; that it might in fact be some kind of guidebook. The title retains something of the glamour of this promise for me even now. And of course the book is meant as a guidebook, giving clear instructions on how to attain the pluck of its central characters, although one is unlikely to get much chance to show that pluck in a similar context.

One way of achieving pluck, Mills suggests, is to harbour suitable ambitions. In the case of middle-class boys like Crispian, the best ambition is to join the Navy and become an Admiral; in the case of girls like Rosamond it is to get married. Crispian’s ambition sets him apart from the wayward boys in Peter Pan who want to be pirates (remember how John is gently mocked for his imperialist sentiments?); he is clearly meant to be exactly the sort of material the British forces need as naval cadets and future officers. Rosamond, on the other hand, is pretty much like Wendy, but with an added spirit of adventure which makes her the motivating force behind all the book’s important moments. Not only is she the one who remembers the existence of the book called Where the Rainbow Ends, but she also decides to go and find the land described in it, then inspires her brother to come along as back-up. She later locates the magic carpet of Faith which will take them on their journey; and summoning the genie of the carpet is simple for her, since she has read The Arabian Nights. So is giving him instructions (though perhaps she has learned this from having had servants all her life); and when he offers each of the children two wishes, as genies do, she uses hers with impressive effectiveness. The first wish makes her Uncle and Aunt start their dinner all over again so that she and Crispian will have time to prepare for their travels. Her second wish summons Saint George to act as the children’s bodyguard on their adventure. Much later on, Rosamond thinks nothing of plunging into the Dragon Wood by herself to rescue a younger girl; and later still she is the one who thinks of the way to defeat the Dragon army, sewing the flag that will claim their Castle for England and summon Saint George (who has the unfortunate trait of being unable to appear anywhere except where the cross of Saint George is flying). This, then, is one of the book’s few redeeming features: it has a resourceful and active heroine, which makes it an excellent counterbalance gender-wise for Peter and Wendy, where most of the physical action is given over to Peter and Captain Hook. Along with C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and a few others, it’s one of the books that trained me as a child to accept a girl as principal protagonist, something my male friends and some of the books I read had a tendency to drum out of me.

I’ve mentioned the play Peter Pan a couple of times, as well as the novel that followed, Peter and Wendy, which was first published in 1911, the year before the novelization of Where the Rainbow Ends. The fact that the second novel followed so closely on the first is probably not a coincidence, since Mills’s play had followed the pattern of Peter Pan from the beginning, above all in its efforts to accommodate special effects and character types of the sort that Barrie’s play had made hugely popular with spectators of all ages. Peter Pan involves flying, of course, and Crispian, Rosamond and their two companions – Crispian’s school friend Jim Blunders and his little sister Betty, whom Crispian summons with his own two wishes – not only get to fly on Faith’s magic carpet but are later carried off to captivity (like Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz) by the winged henchmen of the principal villain. Peter Pan has a cheeky, wayward flying boy in a leading role, and his place is taken in Where the Rainbow Ends by the fairy Will o’the Wisp, who is in love with the Lake King’s Daughter and dances very nicely with her, but whose most important function is to inform the children’s parents that Rosamond and Crispian are on their way to rescue them. Peter Pan has pirates, where Mills’s play has dragons. Peter Pan has incompetent adults – Mr Darling and his dark double, James Hook – while Where the Rainbow’s End has villains who are both incompetent and sadistic, Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, neither of whom have Captain Hook’s redeeming qualities. The villains in both get eaten (more on that later). Peter Pan contains a dog called Nana, always played by a human actor; Where the Rainbow Ends has a lion cub called Cubby, also played by a human, who seems to subsist on a kind of tonic called Colonial Mixture, composed in ‘Equal parts of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Iron mixed with Indian and South African Steel’ (p. 19). The small print on the label also says that the tonic is ‘Poison to Traitors’ (p. 205), which means that when Uncle Joseph drinks it the effect is much like the effect on Tinkerbell of drinking Peter’s medicine in Barrie’s play. In other words, it’s fatal, and in Mills’s play there is no one to clap their hands and bring him back to life. So the play goes one better than Peter Pan in every department by ensuring that there are no ambiguities at all; the heroes are totally heroic, the villains utterly villainous (indeed it’s implied that the Dragon King is the devil himself), and the destruction of the villains is correspondingly spectacular and hideous. These differences help to point up the relative complexity of Barrie’s play, whose purported hero, Peter, is pompous and merciless, its villain conflicted, and their respective fates (from an adult’s point of view, at least) more or less equally painful.

What Mills’s play has which has no equivalent in Peter Pan is the patron saint of England, a certain Saint George, whose presence in it for forty years provided a role for the current male heart-throb of the English stage. Saint George has something of Aragorn’s modesty about him; when Rosamond wishes for him he first appears in the garb of a pilgrim, evoking that much-loved Christian romance The Pilgrim’s Progress, and informs the children he is rather out of fashion these days, having stopped fighting with Saint Denis of France some time ago and taken to galloping around instead ‘with my true brothers [the patron saints of] Scotland, Ireland, Wales and kindred kind beyond the seas’ (p. 71), doing deeds of valour for the needy colonies. Meanwhile he has been neglected at home, and is inclined to blame this on the honorific people have saddled him with, ‘Saint’, since ‘a halo is such a misty unsoldierly decoration’ (p. 72). Rosamond and the other children, however, find him ‘ripping’ (p. 67), and he wins their hearts by telling them the story of the Battle of Agincourt, a victory over the French which was actually sponsored by his friend Saint Crispian (Crispian’s namesake), but which Saint George observed from the sidelines with great interest. Saint George’s connection with Agincourt aligns him, of course, with Shakespeare’s King Henry V, who was given to yelling the names of Saint George and Saints Crispin and Crispian as he charged across the bloody fields of France. Mills has him talk Shakespearean English, too; he is constantly breaking into the rhythms of blank verse. ‘Dear English maid,’ he tells Rosamond as he prepares to leave in a flash of lightning (I don’t remember any lightning in Peter Pan!), ‘No foe of yours that is not foe of mine. No dangers yours that are not shared by me. No wrong of yours that I will not redress’ (p. 74). Heady stuff, when addressed to a girl of eleven or twelve, and guaranteed to supply her with a substantial dose of extra pluck. I found it thrilling, too, at the age of seven, though I don’t remember being filled with anything much like patriotism by Saint George’s flashy appearances and disappearances. I thought of him as a superhero, as no doubt did the many generations of boys who thrilled to the adventures of the patron saints in Richard Johnson’s perennial nursery classic, The Seven Champions of Christendom (1597).

Unfortunately, reviving Saint George and his red cross flag has had a tendency, historically speaking, to involve large doses of racism; and Mills’s novel is not exempt. Not for nothing does Saint George change Henry V’s battle cry from ‘God for Harry, England and Saint George’ to ‘God for George, England and the Right’ (p. 74). The genie, for instance, is ‘of Ethiopian darkness, but not at all repulsive looking’ (p. 51), while a French merchant called Bertrand who offers to buy the defunct Cousin Matthews’s effects is said to have a shrewd eye for a bargain because ‘his great-great-grandmother had been a Jewess’ (p. 79). Despite these racist throwaway remarks both the merchant and the genie are clearly meant to be attractive figures, though the genie’s principal charm is his obedience (he is the children’s ‘faithful friend’, p. 94), which is particularly unsettling when he refers to himself as a ‘slave’ (p. 51). Bertrand, on the other hand, is both gallant and courageous, and has nothing but contempt for the treachery to family and nation shown by Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda. His function in the play, in fact, is to point up their nastiness, since even his foreignness and suspect ancestry cannot blind him to their perfidy. The presence in the novel of these two characters amply confirms Mills’s quasi-fascistic views, as does her assumption that England’s glory depends exclusively on its military victories, ‘Crecy and Poictiers, […] Waterloo and Trafalgar’ (p. 224), and her certainty that the pirate-poet Sir Walter Raleigh was the ‘pattern of chivalry’ (p. 49) because he only sank Spanish ships. Her views on class are equally repugnant. The sole working-class character in the book, the page boy William, is an insufferable sneak who delights in taunting Crispian and Rosamond on their penniless state since the death of their parents. Sometimes it’s worth reminding oneself of fantasy’s potential to sow the seeds of fascism, and of how enthusiastically the British were capable of embracing fascistic ideas well before the rise of Nazism.

The literary virtues of Where the Rainbow Ends are of a piece with its moral and ideological vices. Foremost among these is its capacity for building dramatic tension in each of its three constituent parts. The first ‘act’ of the novel sees the children informed by their wicked Uncle and Aunt that their schooldays are over for lack of funds and that their beloved Cousin Matthew’s library will be sold to pay their bills, and with it the guidebook to ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ as well as the magic carpet that might have taken them there. It is then a race against time to use the carpet before Uncle Joseph, Aunt Matilda and the page boy William can hold them back. The second ‘act’ sees them confronting the dangers of Dragon Wood, their chief obstacle here being their friend little Betty Blunders, who is clearly designed to embody all the female failings Mills has banished from the lively personage of her heroine, Rosamond. Betty ignores the advice of the guidebook by entering Dragon Wood at nightfall in pursuit of the alluring Will o’the Wisp, just at the point when the monsters and beasts are waking up. Although she is quickly rescued by the boys, the presence of those beasts and monsters ensures that the rest of the night – and of the book’s second ‘act’ – is as full of terrors as a night can be. The third ‘act’ begins with the capture of the children by flying dragons and their incarceration in the Dragon King’s Castle, where they are due to be executed at any moment. Escape involves the rapid sewing of an English flag by Rosamond – who has had the good sense to bring along her sewing kit – and its hoisting by the boys on the Castle flagpole, a deed that brings Saint George to the rescue in the usual flash of lightning, with predictable results. The Dragon King is transfixed by the Saint’s doughty blade, and the rest of the dragons are hurled howling into a bottomless abyss, like Milton’s fallen angels. Fortunately at this point in the story not a single dragon seems to remember that it can fly, so they all perish. The way is therefore cleared for the children to press on to the place Where the Rainbow Ends, where Rosamond and Crispian’s parents are waiting, having survived their shipwreck after all. The children find their way to the correct location without any difficulty, despite having dropped their precious guidebook in the lake when the Dragons seized them. Their reunion with their parents is suitably moving, and caused seven-year-old me to break the injunction not to cry every time I read it.

Another redeeming feature of the novel (if it has any) is its clear sense that the British Empire is in steep decline. Saint George no longer lives on English soil, but spends his time overseas because the Colonies are more interested in him than his countrymen are. The older generation of English patriots are similarly located elsewhere, unable to make their way back from distant parts to their homeland; Rosamond’s parents Captain and Mrs Carey spend the whole novel loitering in ragged clothes on a distant shore, like Prospero and Miranda on their desert island, persecuted by a witch out of Macbeth and a fairy out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the unreliable Will o’the Wisp) as well as the constant threat of dragonish assaults straight out of Milton. Mrs Carey has even become a legend or fantasy herself, being referred to by Will as Mother Vera – Mother Truth – which effectively makes her Mother Carey, a sailor’s legend who is referred to by (among others) Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies (1862-3) and John Masefield in Salt Water Ballads (1902). England, then, is always elsewhere in this novel, a little like Narnia in the Narnian Chronicles, and its identity is always under threat of erasure. Captain and Mrs Carey have been replaced in the household by Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, who regard the English flag as ‘That Jingo bogey – that pretty bit of bunting – that child’s plaything’ (p. 119), and whose only concern is to cheat their nephew and niece out of their inheritance. Meanwhile the heraldic Lion of England is represented in this novel by a half-grown lion cub, Cubby, and the next generation of English human beings (as embodied in the page boy William and the indolent youth known only as the Slacker) threatens to follow the children’s uncle and aunt into self-obsession and indifference to the national interest.

The most striking representation of this tendency can be found in the Dragon Wood, a place where everything that is inimical to imperial orderliness resides. It is full of foreign beasts, a category from which Cubby is excluded despite being a lion (he is a specifically English lion, we are told (p. 18)). There is a black leopard which injures Crispian and Blunders, a pack of hyenas whose voices Crispian remembers from his time in India, and miscellaneous other carnivores. The Wood has supernatural creatures in it, too, including Will o’the Wisp, who is always ‘mislead[ing] night wanderers, laughing at their harm’, like Shakespeare’s Puck, and a bunch of nastier elves and gnomes who are given to pinching errant strangers black and blue like the false fairies in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Worse still, it is a place of metamorphosis, where a person’s identity is constantly on the verge of getting compromised. One of the trees in it was once a ‘high-born Dragon’ who dared to eat the Dragon King’s food and was punished for this by being transformed into a stump with arms, which is constantly hungry for the flesh of passers by. Another monster is the thing that gave me nightmares:

Out of the reeds a loathsome creature, half man, half worm was crawling, slowly dragging its flabby useless limbs along the ground. Its face was ashen, its worm-shaped head hairless. It had a great, gaping, loose-lipped mouth and its eyes, that were for ever turning restlessly from side to side, shone like arc lamps. Lamps they were indeed, that warned others of the deadly trail of slime it left as it crawled – slime that clogged the feet of those who encountered it [–] but to the creature itself they gave no light, for it was blind. Slowly it dragged itself from the marsh and entered the thicket while the boys stood transfixed with horror. (p. 171)

Crispian recognizes this creature, too – he calls it ‘a Slitherslime’ – and there is a dreadful revelation to come about it. After its disappearance into a thicket the two naval cadets meet another boy who seems to live in the Dragon Wood, unharmed by its monstrous denizens. The boy is English, and like Crispian and Blunders once set off to find a lost loved one – his sister – in the place Where the Rainbow Ends; but he got distracted by the pleasures of the Woods, where one can get endless supplies of tasty fruit, spend one’s time fishing in well-stocked trout streams, and watch the gnomes playing cricket (p. 177). Now he lives there in permanent indolence, protected by the toll he pays the Dragon King, which involves passing on to him unopened all the letters he gets from his mother (delivered by passing pilgrims on their way to Heart’s Content), and wearing on his breast the Dragon King’s crest in place of the cross of Saint George.

Worst of all, he is degenerating physically. Already ‘round-shouldered and walk[ing] with a slouch’, he has a ‘livid’ face (p. 172), and the end of this degenerative process, he tells Blunders, is to become the slug-like creature they have just encountered, which helpfully reappears to underline the horror of this fate just as the boy makes reference to it: ‘For a moment in hideous helplessness it turned its restless worm-like head with the blazing, sightless eyes towards the boys, then, with a horrible whimper of distress it slithered off into the marshes’ (p. 180). Horrified by this vision, Blunders automatically repeats Nelson’s famous slogan from the Battle of Trafalgar – ‘England expects every man to do his duty’ (p. 182) – and at once the Dragon Light that protects the indolent youth begins to grow dim. The boy promptly swears to stay in the Wood for ever, the Dragon Light rekindles, and away he flees through the trees ‘laughing and crying hysterically’ (p. 183), never to be seen again.

The curious thing about this episode is that it sets up an indolent version of England as the antithesis of the cadets’ beloved imperial power. The indolent youth – known as the Slacker – introduces himself as an English subject, enjoys peculiarly English pursuits such as fishing and cricket, and offers the cadets fruit that look ‘just like ordinary English apples’ (p. 179). The decay of England lurks in the inner spaces of English national identity, like a maggot in a healthy core, just as the Slacker’s sluggish future form is foreshadowed in the round-shouldered debility of his body; only a subtle shift of emphasis in one’s clichéd fantasies of the ideal English existence is needed for England to become a breeding ground of the Dragon’s minions. If being English is a fantasy, as its association here with Shakespeare’s plays, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Milton’s Paradise Lost suggests, then an alternative fantasy could easily supplant it, and this play is filled with alternative fantasies, many of them derived from the very same sources that supplied material for the fantasies of imperial England.

The nastiest of these fantasies by far are those of Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, which are both greedy and sadistic. At the beginning of the novel Aunt Matilda wears a ‘cruel smile’ as she tells Crispian he can no longer go to the naval college he has been attending, then forbids him to wear his cadet’s uniform the following day: ‘Aunt Matilda knew that this would hurt Cris. She knew that a naval boy loves his uniform, not so much for the look of it but because it is a uniform of noble traditions and a thing to live up to and be proud of and it did hurt Cris horribly to be told in that cold and heartless fashion not to wear it again’ (p. 30). Uncle Joseph is even worse. When he finds the children gone from his house on a quest to find their parents – which would deprive him of the family home he has feloniously inherited with the help of his expertise as a lawyer – he chases after them armed with a whip which he plans to use to ‘tickle them with for running away’, after tying their hands and feet with rope and gagging their ‘pretty mouths’ (pp. 122-3). Fortunately Saint George removes the whip from him before he can use it, but Uncle Joseph later succeeds in catching Rosamond, whereupon he ties her to the Enchanted Tree, gags her, and leaves her alone in the Dragon Wood to be eaten by hyenas. As he abandons her to her fate he can’t resist a final gloat: ‘“What a pity, isn’t it?” he said […] “Brother Crispian is in the wood and you can’t call to him to come and rescue you, and I’m afraid when he does pass this way you won’t be here, hyenas are so fond of little children”’ (p. 193). Later still the hyenas come after Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda instead, and the lawyer climbs a tree to escape their jaws, leaving his sister on the ground in her impractical evening gown to be devoured with ‘piercing […] shrieks’ (p. 202) – though fortunately off stage, both in the play and in the novel. He doesn’t escape his own fate long, however. Overcome with hunger he finds Cubby’s bottle of Colonial Mixture in his pocket and proceeds to drink the contents, having failed to read the small print on the label (‘Poison to Traitors’). He has no time to feel much more than the first pangs of this poison before the hyenas come back for him, having made short work of his sister’s bony body. Like the Slacker he is destroyed by what he consumes to sustain him, trapped into the very fate he sacrificed his family ties to evade.

Set up in opposition to Uncle Andrew’s fantasies of selfishness, torture and material gain, the fantasy of England restored to imperial glory is all about emotional reunions with lost relatives; as I said before, the final scene of the novel had a tendency to reduce my seven-year-old self to a tearstained wreck. There’s something disturbing, though, about this final vision, as well as about the story that leads up to it. This ending asserts that not only can the British Empire be buttressed by affectionate young patriots, but that death itself can be overcome; and this not in the form of a life to come but through resurrection in this world – or so it seems. The scene begins with a reunion between a nameless English mother and her lost ‘little one’ on the beach Where the Rainbow Ends. Carried to the blessed location by an English ship, then ferried ashore by the boast of ‘faith and Hope’, the woman suddenly sees her infant rushing towards her:

and, seeing the little one, sinks to her knees and with eyes that almost fear to believe looks into the little face she has for so long seen only in her dreams. Scarce daring to breathe, her yearning fingers glide over the golden curls to the white brow upon which they cluster. Wistfully her hungry gaze meets again the laughing look of dear blue eyes; she longs, yet fears to kiss the smiling roguish baby lips raised to hers, lest, as in those cruel dreams which so long have mocked her grief, she will wake to find her poor arms empty.

But upon the child’s face is no sorrow, no surprise. Closer it nestles into the dear, remembered arms.

‘Mummy,’ the little one coaxes, ‘Mummy darling – now – tell again the story of little ten toes.’ (p. 248)

The reunion is clearly not meant to be subjected to rigorous theological analysis, but the implication is, I think, that the mother in this scene is alive, that she has taken a journey analogous to that accomplished by Rosamond and Crispian in their quest to find their parents, and that when she has reached the place Where the Rainbow Ends she has been reunited with a child she had lost – presumably to death, since she has not seen it except in dreams for an extended period. What happens next? The last we see of the mother and child is an image of them running up the golden sands in jubilation; but a little later we witness the reunion of Rosamond and Crispian with their lost loved ones, Captain and Mrs Carey, on the same beach; and shortly afterwards all four surviving members of the Carey family are on Hope’s boat again, with the Blunders siblings, heading towards the English ship by which the Carey parents were earlier rescued from the Witch’s Cove where they were wrecked – a ship now ‘bound for England’ (p. 254). Moments later Saint George manifests himself at the stern of the boat, duly accompanied by the English national flag:

He was coming with them back to the dear land to which they were sailing; to fight once more the dragons that sought his country’s downfall – coming back, not to be lifeless stone in cold cathedral, but to live henceforth and for ever in the hearts of children of his race. (p. 255)

Of course, we are to understand that Captain and Mrs Carey were never really dead, they were merely shipwrecked on their way home from India; their deaths were a dreadful illusion which their children had been forced to live with for several months. But what of the nameless mother reunited with her dead child? The place Where the Rainbow Ends promises to restore ‘all lost loved ones’ to their relatives – that was the promise made by the book in the opening chapter. There was no mention there of the golden shore being in the afterlife, and in the final chapter there seems to be no prohibition on taking your recovered lost loved ones back to England along with the equally lost and recovered patron saint of England. The distinction between the saint in stone and the saint in living flesh reinforces the assumption; if you have sufficient faith in God and your country (which are here more or less the same thing, thanks to the happy accident of the country’s flag happening to be the emblem of the Christian faith), your lost loved ones will come back to life, whether they were dead or merely missing, and all will be well not just for a while but in fact ‘for ever’. That’s an irresponsibly massive pledge to make in a play for children. It also seems to make nonsense of an earlier passage in the novel where Uncle Joseph realizes he is about to die without benefit of patriotism, and hence alone:

Not one of a vast brotherhood who, though separated by continents, feels still bound and upheld by a thousand ties of national hopes and ambitions; not as the humblest patriot, who dying in a distant land, feels yet around and about him like a royal mantle those best traditions of his country he has given his life to uphold. (p. 204)

The final chapter holds out the possibility that those who die as part of the ‘vast brotherhood’ of patriots can be brought back from the dead. This investment of the nation with powers of resurrection beyond the divine is perhaps the most grandiose assertion about national identity I have ever encountered. God barely rates a mention in Where the Rainbow Ends; his place is almost entirely ceded to England, presumably because the name of God, like the title of saint, may be felt by many patriotic Englishmen to be no more than ‘a misty unsoldierly decoration’ (p. 72). The unsettling nature of Mills’s fantasy, then, is not just about its sadism; it’s also about the claims it makes on the reader’s world. Children reading a book like this are being encouraged to apply its assertions about the country Where the Rainbow Ends to their own ‘race’ in particular (there are no French, Jewish or African lost people, it seems, on the golden beach). They are being encouraged to think that the dead can be brought back to life through nationalistic fervour. It’s hardly inaccurate to describe a sentiment like this as fascistic, and to describe Mills’s book as engaging in a deeply irresponsible use of the strategies of fantasy.

Philip French once suggested in The Observer that the Christian writer C. S. Lewis might have been influenced by Where the Rainbow Ends when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).[3] Given what I’ve just said about the book’s theology, one might imagine this would be improbable; but in fact there’s every sign that the book had a strong influence on Lewis – but not, I think, on the first of the Narnian chronicles. Certainly there are a lion and four children in both Where the Rainbow Ends and The Lion, but I can’t see much more to link them apart from a common zeal for battle and the presence in both of a wicked witch. Much closer, though, is the link between Mills’s book and The Magician’s Nephew (1955). Both involve a quest for the recovery of a parent, taken on by a boy and girl with the help of friends. Both contain tempting apples (the Slacker offers one to the cadets, Digory is offered one by Queen Jadis) and moments of exhilarating flight, on a winged horse in Lewis’s novel, a magic carpet in Mills’s. The apple in The Magician’s Nephew gets replanted in England and so becomes the English apple which is mimicked by the Slacker’s fruit. Meanwhile Digory’s father is away in India, and makes his way home at the end of the story against all odds, like Captain and Mrs Carey. But the most obvious link between the books is the wicked uncle. Uncle Joseph lives with his sister, exactly like Lewis’s Uncle Andrew, although Uncle Andrew’s sister Letitia (Aunty Lettie) is much nicer (and tougher) than Aunt Matilda. Both uncles are tall and thin, and given to wearing top hats, which like the rest of their clothing get subjected to appalling wear and tear – Uncle Andrew’s by his adventures in company with Jadis, the witch-queen of Charn, and Uncle Joseph’s by his underground journey in company with the devilish Dragon-King, during which his garments are ‘considerably damaged’ by ‘sparks and lava dust’ (p. 115). Both uncles have a singular contempt for children (remember Uncle Andrew’s willingness to use Digory and Polly for his experiments in magic). Both have a commercial side to their personalities, with Uncle Joseph scheming to deprive his niece and nephew of their inheritance – ‘Riverdale and the fortune that accompanied it’ (p. 199) – while Uncle Andrew devises grander projects to do with the newly-created land of Narnia: ‘Bring a few scraps of old iron here, bury ’em, and up they come as brand new railway engines, battleships, anything you please. They’ll cost nothing, and I can sell ’em at full prices in England. I shall be a millionaire’ (p. 103).[4] Finally, both uncles meet their doom at the hands, or rather paws, of savage animals. As we’ve seen, Uncle Joseph is first poisoned by drinking the tonic of an English lion cub then eaten by hyenas; while Uncle Andrew is first frightened half to death by a fully-grown lion, then pursued across the Narnian landscape by a crowd of baying beasts, which he thinks are hungry for his blood. Andrew is lucky enough to be mistaken; his death is only symbolic, and being less wicked than his prototype he is allowed to repent of his wickedness and become ‘a nicer and less selfish old man than he had ever been before’ in the final pages of Lewis’s novel (p. 171). His transformation can be taken to begin at the moment when the animals plant him in the earth of Narnia, mistaking him for a kind of tree. Unlike Mills’s Enchanted Tree, which started out as a dragon and retains a dragon’s hunger, Uncle Andrew’s planting eventually bears fruit in repentance and personal reform, which he carries back with him from Narnia very much as Digory carries back the fruit that will heal his dying mother.

Uncle Andrew’s reprieve can be read as a kind of symbolic reprieve for Where the Rainbow Ends, which is transformed by Lewis from a piece of imperialist propaganda to a creation myth for an Edenic secondary world. Lewis’s concern in the Narnian chronicles with revitalizing religious faith in the Britain of the 1950s is balanced in The Magician’s Nephew by an anti-imperialist spirit which runs more or less counter to the politics of Mills’s play and book. Lewis pits the Empress Jadis of Charn and her minor-league disciple, Uncle Andrew, against the lion Aslan, who raises ordinary London Cabbies to the status of kings but insists on their remembering how to ‘use a spade and a plough and raise food out of the earth’ (p. 129) and how to treat their subjects as they would wish to be treated themselves. The newly-crowned King Frank is exclusively concerned with protecting Narnia against its enemies rather than expanding its borders – though the assumption that he deserves ‘natural’ authority over both talking animals and his wife, Queen Helen, will annoy most modern readers. Lewis endows his main female character, Polly, with something of Rosamond’s force of personality, though on the whole women are relegated to a secondary position in his narrative compared with that of Mills; even the quest for the healing apple is Digory’s rather than Polly’s, though elsewhere in Lewis’s work he was happy enough to include girls among his principal questers (Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Jill in The Silver Chair).

At the same time, here as elsewhere Lewis takes it for granted that the fantastic genre he writes in is in some sense a feminine one. Uncle Andrew has inherited what magic talents he has from his godmother, Mrs Lefay, whose name suggests an association both with fairy tales and Arthurian legend. She it was who bequeathed her godson a box from Atlantis containing dust from another world (Philip Pullman took note), which he uses to manufacture the rings that convey the child protagonists, Digory and Polly, to Charn and Narnia. Uncle Andrew, however, has learned nothing from this about the potency of female storytelling. When Digory points out that Mrs Le Fay’s gift suggests that ‘all the old fairy tales are more or less true’ (p. 28), and that one of the things that happens in fairy stories is that wicked people like Uncle Andrew get their come-uppance, his uncle retorts that such notions are no more than ‘Old wives’ tales’ and that Digory only believes them because he was ‘brought up among women’ (p. 29). One of the women Lewis himself got his ideas from was Clifford Mills, and this makes me wonder how many other better remembered writers owe a debt to her unsettling fantasy of death reversed, treason savagely punished, and imperial degeneration temporarily halted.

Where the Rainbow Ends has a place in the history of British fantasy, and I think it’s best not to forget it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. Fantasies can be damaging, it reminds us, as well as enriching; and even damaging fantasies can sometimes have unexpectedly enriching effects. Where the Rainbow Ends shaped me to a certain extent as well as Lewis, and it’s crucial to analyse that shaping process if we are not to be controlled by it. I can’t honestly, however, recommend that you read the book for yourself.

Notes

[1] Clifford Mills was Emilie Clifford (née Bennet, married Harold Mills Clifford in 1889), who adopted a variant of her husband’s name when writing. Besides Where the Rainbow Ends she wrote two other successful plays, The Basker (1916) and The Luck of the Navy (1919), both of which were performed on Broadway. The Luck of the Navy was filmed twice, in 1927 and 1938.

[2] Clifford Mills, Where the Rainbow Ends (London: Forgotten Books, 2015); all references are to this facsimile edition.

[3] Philip French, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – review’, The Observer, Sunday 11 December 2005.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (London etc.: William Collins and Sons, 1989). All references are to this edition.

Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 3: These Mortals (1925)

[This is the last of three posts on Margaret Irwin’s best-known works of the fantastic. The first can be found here, and the second here. Enjoy!]

Cover design by John Robert Monsell, Irwin’s husband

Irwin’s second novel, These Mortals (1925), is an adult revisionist fairy tale, one of the few I can think of from the 1920s. The same decade saw the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies (1922) and Bernard Sleigh’s The Gates of Horn (1926), both of which purport to describe genuine encounters with the fairy world, tapping into the contemporary passion for the occult which pervades Still She Wished for Company. These Mortals, by contrast, is an anti-occult novel. The focus of attention in it is the world of ordinary human beings as experienced by the protagonist, Melusine the enchanter’s daughter, who is half a fairy and has been raised by her father in an isolation permeated by his enchantments. For her, human behaviour is a source of strangeness and fear more potent than anything supernatural. The book’s achievement is its success in permitting its readers to share her perspective: that is, to acknowledge the perverse combination of delight and destructiveness, desire and self-obsession, which dominates ruling-class culture between the wars – and to be astonished at it, as Melusine is, as an oxymoron more extreme than anything to be found between the pages of the colourful fairy books of Andrew Lang.

If Melusine is delighted and appalled by human culture, ‘these mortals’ take no interest whatever in the occult except as a means of concealing the truth about themselves for purposes of self-advancement. We discover this very early in the narrative when the enchanter’s daughter is introduced to a Prince at the human court. As she approaches him she happens to mention – in all innocence – that she has met him once before, coming out of a brothel. At once the Prince’s mother ascribes this apparent ‘memory’ to the foreign lady’s occult gifts: ‘Our little friend,’ she insists, ‘has the strangest fancies. You have already seen Prince Pharamond in your dreams, my dear? I knew it. The moment I saw your eyes, I said to myself, “She is psychic”’ (p. 42). The use of fairy lore to excuse sexual misconduct recalls Richard Corbet’s famous poem ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’, which implies that monks and nuns in the Middle Ages exploited supernatural stories to cover up their sexual tracks – visible ‘On many a grassy plain’ in the form of the trampled areas known as fairy rings. The question of whether or not fairy tales are ‘true’, as Conan Doyle attempted to prove in The Coming of the Fairies, is less important in Irwin’s text than the far more urgent question of how facts can be suppressed. Like Still She Wished, in other words, her book concerns itself with what has been left out of history – with the events that take place between the official accounts of any given period – and in particular with the question of how and why such omissions have been engineered by the ruling classes.

Melusina

Irwin’s novel is based on the legend of Melusine, long associated with the noble House of Lusignan in France. The legend tells of a romance between a knight and a fairy and their subsequent marriage, which is governed by a strict prenuptial contract reminiscent of the one that governs the marriage of Cupid and Psyche in Greek myth. The knight must not visit Melusine’s bedchamber, especially when she is giving birth or bathing her babies; if he does she will instantly leave him. Inevitably the knight breaks the contract and Melusine departs, but at this point her story parts company with that of Psyche, in that there is no happy ending. After Melusine’s departure she is only ever heard of by the knight’s descendants on the eve of some dire calamity, screaming and howling her heart out as she flies around the roofs of the ancestral castle. At the centre of any novel based on this legend, then, is likely to be a warning about transitoriness. Any moment of pleasure it contains – marriage, sex, a family – will be followed by an inevitable sundering, and the prospects for a Tolkien-esque recovery – a return to the innocent days of romantic wonder and delight, as recorded in fairy tales and adventure stories – are not good.

The most distinctive feature of the Lusignan story is Melusine herself. Instead of legs the fairy has the tail of a fish or serpent, and her children are sometimes said to have inherited similar bodily deformities, as Irwin’s novel reminds us (p. 26). Melusine’s body tells us, in other words, that she inhabits two adjacent worlds – that she lives between them; and her difference from the mortals she calamitously consorts with is immediately obvious to anyone who looks at her. Irwin’s protagonist, also named Melusine, has no tail, but the mortals who come in contact with her know at once that there is something ‘fishy’ about her, and it is this difference that threatens to isolate her from them as completely and permanently as her ancestor.

The title of Irwin’s second novel, like her first, contains a literary allusion. The trickster-fairy Robin Goodfellow in Midsummer Night’s Dream utters the words ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be’ after watching the antics of two sets of unfaithful lovers and some amateur actors in a wood. The phrase from Shakespeare’s play, in other words, invokes dreams, magic, and infidelity, just as the ballad reference in Still She Wished invokes fear, loneliness and magic, the key components of the book that follows. ‘These mortals’ also invokes detachment from the human world – Puck is an outsider looking in – as well as active interference in it: not content to remain an ‘auditor’ or listener, Puck chooses to take a role in the performance of his lovers and amateur thespians, with chaotic results. The heroine of These Mortals does the same. She begins as a spectator, riding on moonbeams courtesy of her magic and examining the strange behaviour of mortal lovers from a distance; but she goes on to take a major part in the drama she has been enjoying, bringing confusion on herself and her fellow actors in the process.

Still She Wished, too, had a theatrical dimension; Irwin even turned it into a play in the 1950s. As mentioned in my last post, its three parts are headed with lines from a supernatural comedy by Robert Greene: the phrases ‘Time Is’, ‘Time Was’, ‘Time Has Been’, come from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590), in which they help to remind the reader how the transitory ‘two hours’ traffic’ of a stage performance can embody the transitory nature of life itself (blink and you’ll miss it, in effect they say). In addition, Lucian and Juliana have an obsession with the only piece of prose fiction written by the celebrated playwright William Congreve, and there are other references in the book to the Restoration period that spawned Congreve and other writers of cruel comedy: Lucian quotes Lord Rochester, for instance; Mr Daintree quotes Rochester’s friend Sir Charles Sedley; while Chidleigh is full of the disguises, love rivalries and witty banter that dominated the seventeenth-century stage. Meanwhile, Puck’s transition from spectator to performer gets repeated in the lives of Lucian, Jan and Juliana, who begin by watching the fascinating figures in their visions of past and future and end by chasing after them; and the confusion caused by this shift from viewing to performance ends in tragedy, for Lucian at least.

The threat of a tragic ending is present, in fact, in both books’ titles. Still She Wished refers to a ballad that ends in destruction, while the simple phrase These Mortals invokes the inevitability of death, and might remind us that violent death lurks in the background of Shakespeare’s Dream, especially in the scenes where Robin Goodfellow goads the lovers to hunt each other through the woods with weapons drawn. Both books are satires, like the best-known plays of the Restoration, and like many of those plays they set up situations that nearly bring about disaster. They hover between two worlds, like Melusine herself – the comic and the tragic – and as such conjure up the mood of the post-war period, when an appetite for light entertainment barely succeeded in distracting attention from the era of devastating violence that had just come to an end.

Prospero and Miranda by William Maw Egley

The two novels begin, however, in opposite places. Still She Wished opens in the mundane London of the 1920s, while These Mortals opens in a world suffused with magic, where Melusine passes her days with her enchanter father – named Aldebaran, after the star – like a second Miranda on her desert island. Like Miranda, too, she is given to wondering. She delights in abstruse knowledge of the kind her father delights to provide her with, though she also wishes to know about the things he chooses to leave out of her education. In her leisure time she goes on visits to the wonderful demesnes of mermaids and moon-maidens, and over time she has even gained the power to become a wonder herself, morphing into a moon-maiden on moonlit nights and travelling wherever the beams of the moon will take her. For Melusine, though, the greatest wonder of all is the world of ordinary mortals, whose bizarre arrangements for managing their affairs – ‘their municipal governments, their police and their drainage systems’ (p. 5) – have nothing in common with the fairy tale economy she grew up in. Thanks to a spell rashly given her by her father she sets sail in a boat made of a seashell and travels across the ocean (following the track of the moon on the waves, as is her wont) to a palace just like a building from the fairy tales (and therefore just like Chidleigh, which ‘might have imprisoned a princess in a fairy tale’, Irwin informs us). And here Melusine discovers, like Jan and Juliana before her, how very unlike a fairy tale human life can be.

She can’t say she wasn’t warned. Her enchanter father Aldebaran foreswore the human world, we’re told, because of dis-enchantment; above all, because of his discovery of the fact (well known to all the central characters of Still She Wished) that human beings are profoundly isolated. ‘All the intricacies of their laws, their societies, their towns, and their nations,’ he tells his daughter,

‘amount only to this: that each individual human being dreads solitude and tries to circumvent it. From the moment that you enter the world (should you ever have that misfortune), your immediate concern will be to find a companion, and when you have done so you will believe that you have found yourself. You will discover a hitherto unimagined interest and value in all your actions, thoughts and memories, since you think to share them with another. Only gradually will you discover that it is impossible to do this wholly; that speech often obscures and sometimes conceals our thoughts; that the fictitious contacts of the flesh give an ecstasy which is poignant chiefly in that it reminds us of the incommunicable solitude of our souls’ (p. 6).

Sure enough, this is exactly what happens to Melusine. The court she sails to in her magic boat turns out to be enmeshed in a web of magic ‘stronger than my father’s’ – a phrase that becomes a ballad-like refrain throughout the novel. In it, the appearance of friendship conceals causeless enmity and casual aggression; outward beauty hides inward ugliness; the term ‘love’ is a synonym for self-interest, which always ends in self-damage; simplicity masks extreme cunning, which has a worse effect on its owners than stupidity. And so the multitude of oxymorons that ‘obscure […] and conceal’ the thoughts of mortals expands into a constricting network which threatens to suffocate the palace’s inhabitants, and makes the joy of sharing ideas and bodily sensations quite impossible. Melusine’s first encounter with the court reveals to her that the courtiers’ pleasures make them angry: when she meets Prince Pharamond near the brothel he has a hangover, which has its usual bad effect on his good temper. Later she learns that their happiest memories make them sad (through her magic she summons up the Emperor’s most treasured recollection – an assignation with a farm girl – which merely reminds him how unhappy he is with his wife). She discovers that humans remain bound to each other by unbreakable chains even when they hate each other (the imperial marriage bed is a fermentation chamber of frustration and loathing); that they are incapable of transparency (a quality she learned from the moon-maidens along with their magic); and that their words have multiple meanings she cannot fathom. The human court, in fact, is a particularly noxious fantasy, filled with emotional impossibilities rather than physical ones, which is why court culture is indistinguishable from magic for Melusine, and why she finds it so dangerously alluring, despite all the destructive contradictions it is riddled with.

Melusine brings with her to the court three non-human friends: a cat, a snake and a raven, whose loyalty, intelligence and honesty – as well as the fact that there are three of them – underline their link to the animal companions of the fairy tale tradition. Melusine’s own loyalty is as unswerving as that of her three friends. She goes on admiring the Princess Blanchelys as a goddess, despite the successive acts of betrayal to which the Emperor’s daughter subjects her. She presents this goddess one by one with a series of gifts that get used against her: friendship, sympathy, advice, a magic spell to make men fall in love with its caster, and finally Melusine’s own appearance, handed over piecemeal (first her hair, then her complexion, then her eyes) in a succession of magical transactions which leave their former possessor drab to look at and inwardly despairing. The princess, meanwhile, uses Melusine’s gifts for selfish purposes, thus underlining the radical difference between them. No change, in fact, is worked by magic in this book; it merely serves to make individuals more themselves, and to underline the gap that separates Melusine from the mortals among whom she has been stranded. Spells prosthetically enhance the identity of those who practise them and of those on whom they are practised, so that as the princess gets more magical powers she desires more, just as she always has done with anything desirable. Meanwhile Melusine uses enchantment to make her animal companions more intensely catlike, snakelike, birdlike. With the spell that expanded her shell to the size of a boat she grows them each in succession to huge proportions, thus lending their qualities a power they don’t usually possess in a human context. This brings out the absence of these qualities from mortal affairs, and finally enables the beasts to free her from the various traps constructed by the human court to hem her in, helping her to find a fairy tale ending despite all the efforts of the courtiers to keep it from her. Unfortunately, there is no indication here that such an ending might be available to anyone else in the mortal world, apart from the one man she finds who takes the trouble to get to know her.

Melusine, like her three friends, is always freeing things from entrapment. She frees herself from her father’s protective influence when she sails away from him in her enchanted seashell. She uses the moon-maidens’ magic to disappear from the arms of annoying and dangerous ‘lovers’. She uses a spell to help a stag escape from the hounds at a royal hunt – though since she turns it successively into an otter and a seagull the animal is unimpressed by this act of kindness (like her three animal companions it sets great store by its personal integrity). She frees several mortals briefly from their self-obsession: the woodcutter’s daughter, who begins by exploiting her and ends by liking her; Prince Pharamond, who plans at first to rape her but in the end helps to reunite her with her mortal lover. This lover, King Garth, is a prisoner when she meets him, and she frees him from mental torment when she visits him in his cell. Later she frees herself from a room with no windows in an act of tricksterism worthy of Robin Goodfellow. And later still she ‘frees and enfranchises’ Garth’s baby from her womb, like Shakespeare’s Hermione before her. In the final chapter she liberates herself, King Garth and the baby from the imprisoning palace with the help of her animal companions. Each prison she enters is more formidable than the last, and each Houdini-like escape she effects is more impressive, since it defies ever steeper odds.

Joseph Holland as Theseus and Phoebe Russell as Hippolyta (1888)

The court, meanwhile, specializes in constructing traps; and the most ingenious of these traps is marriage. The Emperor and Empress are locked in a conjugal dungeon, and they seek to imprison their children, their subjects and their guests in similar bonds. Garth, for instance, is a foreign king who gets clapped in jail by imperial command when he refuses to marry the Emperor’s daughter. Melusine gets jailed herself when she is found in his cell, because her presence there might jeopardize the intended union. While in prison, Melusine finds herself courted by the Emperor’s son, Prince Pharamond, who has clearly inherited his parents’ propensity for coupling marriage with entrapment, since he is happy enough to press his suit when she cannot escape it. She gets imprisoned again on the wedding day of the Princess and King Garth. Among these mortals, in other words, a legal commitment to lifelong companionship effectively shackles husband and wife to one another in perpetuity, and shackles everyone around them in a perpetual state of non-interference with their unhappy union. One might be reminded of Theseus and Hippolita in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, locked into a forced marriage, as Theseus reminds his Amazonian spouse in the opening scene (‘Hippolita, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injury’), and seeking to impose another forced marriage on their subject Hermia, while having their marriage-bed blest in the final scene by the embodiments of marital disharmony, King Oberon and Queen Titania. At least in Shakespeare’s play a happy ending could be imposed on everyone involved with a judicious use of fairy magic. The happy ending of These Mortals is much more limited, overshadowed as it is by Aldebaran’s conviction of ‘the incommunicable solitude of our souls’.

In consequence of this conviction, Melusine’s father chooses aloofness as a better alternative to lifelong partnership. Unmarried, it would seem – we never find out the name of Melusine’s mother, though we must presume it was the Fairy of Lusignan or one of her relations – Aldebaran has withdrawn into the role of stargazer, as his name suggests, and teaches his daughter only inhuman things such as the higher mathematics, ‘so high that she could calculate how many peacock’s feathers, placed end to end, it would take to reach the moon’ (p. 1). At the court Melusine meets three more isolated spectators, who pride themselves as much on their detachment from court culture as their knowledge of it. There is the hunchbacked jester, whose body condemns him to non-participation in the sexual intrigues going on all round him, and who hates women as a result, though for a while he accepts the friendship of the enchanter’s daughter because of their common status as outsiders. There is Salacius, the defrocked priest, who is a cynic, misogynist and pimp, with a nasty hold on the feeble mind of Prince Pharamond. And there is Sir Diarmid, who from his name is clearly Irish (he describes his country as ‘a land of sorrows’ and speaks of the ‘Land of Heart’s Desire’ [p. 73], which is the title of a play by Yeats). Like Oscar Wilde, Sir Diarmid spends his time in satirizing the ruling classes of the powerful empire he has made his home. Of these three observers, Sir Diarmid is by far the most complex, in that he demonstrates the impossibility of the detachment he professes. Thanks to his presence at court he is a courtier, and as much responsible for the court’s narcissistic viciousness as any of the aristocrats he satirizes. Like the other two detached observers, the hunchback and Salacius, the chief target of his satire is women; he specializes in destroying them, or more precisely in helping them destroy themselves. And his own effeminacy, reflected in his fascination with beauty, taste and his own appearance, makes his commitment to damaging women the most perverse of the many acts of self-harm that pervade the novel.

The Irishman’s emblem is the mirror he keeps in his room, which Irwin describes in meticulous detail as Melusine studies it, unobserved, in her guise as a moon-maiden:

In another room, to the side of a single window, she saw seven candles, all tall but of different heights, burning before a beautiful mirror. They were as bright within the mirror as without it, so that there seemed a small army of pointed flames tapering upwards, each trying to out-top the others. The frame of the mirror was carved with festoons of painted fruit and flowers and it was supported at the base by Cupids, whose heads were turned to gaze upwards in rapture at the reflection in the mirror. This reflection was so still that Melusine had at first taken it for that of a life-size picture. But a slight upward movement of the head, improving the position, and a rearrangement of the fingers that rested lightly on the long and slender hip, showed her that it reflected no picture but that singularly elegant young man who had introduced himself to her that evening as Sir Diarmid. (pp. 30-1)

Dorian conceals his picture in Albert Lewin’s film version, 1945

The mirror evidently reflects Wilde’s famous picture of Dorian Gray, the enchanted portrait in his novel of 1890, which is also his fiercest yet most admiring attack on the English aristocracy. The seven competitive candles reflected in Sir Diarmid’s glass suggest that its purpose is to lampoon the competitive self-obsession of the ruling classes. At the same time the mirror reflects Sir Diarmid himself, exposing his commitment to and passion for himself. Sir Diarmid’s skill throughout the novel is to make women fall in love with him thanks to his reputation as the ‘glass’ of fashion, the initiator and terminator of all trends. Unlike that would-be trendsetter Saint Aumerle, his power is such that he can draw women into his room, like flies to a web, and make them look into his mirror of cupidity. What they see there, however, is not their own faces but Sir Diarmid’s, as Melusine learns when she watches a woman called Lady Valeria enter his chamber for an assignation:

[Melusine] watched, as she would watch the working of a spell, and saw how the down-dropped lashes of that lady’s eyes rested on her cheeks in two half-moons, saw how they trembled and raised themselves, slowly, inevitably, to the reflection, not of her own face, but of the young man who stood beside her and still held the veil behind her head. (pp. 31-2)

Sir Diarmid’s role as observer and satirical commentator, in other words, does not bring self-knowledge to its female subjects but hopeless desire; an enslavement to the male gaze, and the limited functions imposed on them by a playfully cruel patriarchy. When we meet Lady Valeria again later in the novel she has retreated from the court and become a nun, imprisoned in a religious life to which she is not committed – another form of unhappy marriage. The mark of her imprisonment is her conviction that the night she looked into Sir Diarmid’s mirror was the ‘supreme moment of her life’ (p. 91), which she could neither extend for more than a moment nor properly share with him. As a nun, she goes on unholily praying that it was also the ‘supreme moment’ of Sir Diarmid’s existence, something Melusine knows full well from her observations is not the case. Sir Diarmid, then, is not committed to inculcating any sort of awareness either in others or in himself; only to admiring his own powers as a seducer and taking sadistic pleasure in the pain of his victims. He is, in other words, a second Lucian, a representation of the breathtaking hypocrisy of claiming to be aloof, a satire against satire itself as a fundamentally conservative, patriarchal and redundant exercise.

Melusine, by contrast, is committed to sharing herself and her experiences with others – that metaphysical impossibility, as far as her father is concerned. She shares her sympathy with the hunted stag; she shares a sense of being marginalized and exiled with the hunchback and Sir Diarmid; she would have shared her jewel-encrusted shoes with Princess Blanchelys if she had not felt sure this would prove insulting to that godlike being – and she gives away the shoes not long afterwards to a more needy individual, when she exchanges clothes with a woodcutter’s daughter in order to get close to the Princess’s wedding. She gives her friendship to the Princess, and when that friendship is betrayed she gives the young woman her looks as a means of spending one last night with King Garth. In all these acts of sharing and giving, however, she never loses her sense of who she is. Once she is in love she remains in love and doesn’t waver despite her lover’s infidelity (though King Garth may be excused for this on the grounds of having been enchanted by one of Melusine’s own spells). Once she has given her friendship, too, she doesn’t withdraw it until her friend has definitively proved herself an enemy. Sharing and giving freely, loving loyally and forging lasting friendships, liberating others and herself repeatedly from all forms of entrapment – these are the qualities that make up the enchanter’s daughter. And these qualities bind her to her lover more securely than the imprisoning bonds of marriage.

Othello woos Desdemona, by Theodore Chasseriau

King Garth shares with Melusine both a love of freedom and a love of sharing. Like her he is a traveller from overseas – an outsider – and when they meet in the palace prison he woos her as Othello wooed Desdemona, by sharing tales with her of his past adventures on the boundless ocean. He delights in knowledge, as she does, and his adventures have taught him facts unknown to scholars confined in their libraries, which Melusine receives as ‘marvels greater than any she had learned before’ (p. 68). The King has proved by deduction, for instance, that the world is round, and has used this knowledge to sail with his companions ‘on and on towards the setting sun, until at last they came to a land of green vines and scarlet birds and men whose faces were the colour of burnished copper’ – the New World to which Jan and Donald planned to sail at the end of Still She Wished. He has discovered that the Arctic was once warm enough for elephants to live on, having ‘found a huge curled tusk embedded in the ice’, in a land where ‘rocks of ice as high as mountains had come floating over the sea, gleaming like sapphire and emerald’. In the same region he also learned that there is ‘no land uninhabitable nor sea unnavigable’. As he tells these stories, Melusine learns, among other things, that he shares her passion for sharing: ‘in the ring of his voice she heard his joy in remembered danger and hardship, shared equally with his crew, each bearing another’s burden with no respect to persons’ (p. 69). And as she listens, this love of shared danger gets shared with her: ‘She entered his world and knew his friends and found in their jovial comradeship and courage, their common endeavor, and curiosity to which the sea could set no limit, a charm deeper than any of her father’s’. At this point the enchanter’s scepticism about the possibility of true companionship based on mutual understanding stands on the brink of getting swept aside.

A traveller’s tales, of course, are traditionally unreliable, often told for the purpose of getting a free meal or winning a patron. This is why Desdemona’s father suspected the Moor of being a seducer, whose fantastic stories of ‘men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders’ (Act 1 Scene 3) are a form of witchcraft, a seductive spell sold to his daughter by a devious foreign salesman. But unlike Desdemona, Melusine shares with her foreign lover pleasures of an equally untrustworthy variety. She tells him stories of her visits to the moon-maidens in the nights of her girlhood; visits which may or may not have been dreams or fancies, but which have the material effect of lulling him to sleep (p. 54). She sings him songs that make the ‘roses on the upper earth’ bend their heads to listen, and fall ‘petal by petal through the dungeon grating in their desire to reach this fairy palace’ (p. 69). She performs for him seductive dances that cause the ‘dark confines’ of his prison to become ‘the boundless sea, and she the moonlight playing on its surface’ (an echo of The Winter’s Tale, in which Florizel tells Perdita that her movements are oceanic: ‘When you do dance, I wish you / A wave of the sea, that you might ever do / Nothing but that; move still, still so, / And own no other function’, Act 4 Scene 4). Their exchange is one of affection and desire of freedom freely given, of insubstantial things and visions which are nevertheless capable of affecting the bodies and minds of both recipients. It is an in-between thing, like the desires shared by the protagonists of Still She Wished: they meet under cover of darkness, after the business of the day has ended, in a cell whose occupants are always being forgotten by the officials whose task it is to feed and guard them. They open to each other the doors of their dreams – those inconsequential things – and escape from the official constraints of space and time completely, which is how Melusine forgets to keep track of the moon’s movement across the sky, doesn’t notice it setting, is unable to steal away on its beams, and gets caught by the guards at dawn. Their total participation in one another’s ‘world’ is confirmed by her forgetfulness and entrapment; but it is later also confirmed by the living child they conceive together, whose illegitimate birth both seals it as an unofficial, in-between individual and offers substantial proof of the real effects in the world of their conjoined imaginations, their insubstantial yet productive nocturnal exchanges.

King Garth shares his ability to share with Melusine’s animal companions. Like them, he is comfortable in his body: huge in size, he sports a leather cloak that resembles a hide, moves with speed and grace, and is despised as an inferior being by the haughty courtiers. ‘They thought that he did not notice their smiles,’ Irwin tells us, ‘but he did, though the only sign that he ever gave of it was to shift a little on his feet, swiftly and silently, a movement that somehow served to check his anger by reminding him how easy it would be, in one tremendous rush, to wreak it on these little clever foolish people’ (p. 132). At the same time, this restraint from vengeful action confirms the King’s liberation from the bonds of conventional masculinity. His role in Irwin’s narrative is not that of the heroic warrior he describes in his stories; instead he appears ‘as a prisoner, generally under enchantment, and frequently asleep; all of which [force] him to take a somewhat passive part in this story’ (p. 131). He is courted by Melusine in his cell – he does not do the courting, though he actively responds to her advances. Melusine repeatedly tries to save him, first from his prison cell, then from his marriage, so that when Garth finally turns to heroic action in the book’s final pages, his rescue of Melusine comes across as a reciprocal act, and one which can only be completed with her assistance; the final rescue is hers, when she grows the raven to giant size with her magic and they take to the skies. Their relationship, in other words, is companionable, the ‘jovial comradeship’ and ‘common endeavour’ Garth also shared with his male co-adventurers on his global travels.

Garth’s soporific state through much of the novel helps to strengthen his easy bond with the enchanter’s daughter. From the beginning of the book Melusine is associated with night and sleep, having midnight hair, a silver dress (the colour of moonbeams) and a belt or girdle of purple poppies. The poppy is the flower of sleep, of course, but it is also the flower of commemorative mourning, having been dedicated since 1921 – four years before the novel was published – to the sacrifice of the young men who died in the War (they are only sleeping, the poppies suggest, waiting to be woken when the need arises, like King Arthur). The control over sleep which these flowers symbolize enables Melusine to bring pleasant dreams to other people, especially men. She first shows this with the hunchback, then the Emperor, and finally King Garth, whose incarceration leaves him sleep-deprived, rendered insomniac by the ‘wishes and plans and regrets and fears and hot red rages’ which are all he has left after everything else has been taken from him. Neither the hunchback nor the Emperor is particularly grateful for the erotic fantasies Melusine brings them in their sleep, since they only serve to emphasize the absence of sex from their waking lives. King Garth, by contrast, welcomes the sleep she gives him and the waking pleasures it leads to. With the poppies from her belt she courts him, first freeing him from his insomnia, then approaching a little closer to his sleeping body each night, until she reaches the place where he lies, at which point he eventually wakes (with a little help from her animal companions) and they make love. Melusine marks the limits of each night’s progress with a single poppy, which King Garth preserves in a pouch as a memento of their courtship. The poppy, then, is the symbol of their wooing, as well as the symbol of heroic action – as embodied by Garth – and dreams, as embodied by her.

Like everything else of Melusine’s, however – her spells, her looks, her lover – the poppies get appropriated by the court. After putting Garth under the influence of Melusine’s magic, Princess Blanchelys finds the poppies in his pouch and uses them to put him to sleep for her own purposes: not to bring herself closer to Garth, which is the purpose Melusine used them for, but to get access to her lover Sir Diarmid, as she seeks to initiate an affair on the night of her wedding to the stranger king. As mentioned earlier, Melusine agrees to give Blanchelys her appearance in exchange for three nights with the Princess’s new husband; the Princess agrees, only to plunge the King into a deep sleep, through the poppies’ influence, which leaves him lying each night in stony unresponsiveness at Melusine’s side. While he sleeps, the Princess steals away to meet the Irish knight, whose admiration for Melusine’s looks is what persuaded Blanchelys that she could win him by taking possession of the foreign woman’s hair and eyes and complexion. Instead she finds herself in Sir Diarmid’s bedroom staring into a mirror, like Lady Valeria before her, having encountered at last in him – as he in her – a ‘conceit equal to my own’, as the Irishman puts it (p. 136).

In appropriating dreams and sleep for her own purposes, Blanchelys is treading in the footsteps of her imperial mother. The Empress’s first act on meeting Melusine was to take possession of her dreams, telling the enchanter’s daughter that she must have seen the Prince in her sleep the night before, not with her physical vision, and taking this non-existent nocturnal sign as evidence that the young couple must be destined for each other. For the Empress and her daughter, then, dreams are as functional as magic: tools to fulfil their own desires, and hence to annul them, since few desires can survive being ‘completely satisfied’ (Sir Diarmid’s phrase, p. 135). This mechanistic attitude transforms the victims of their schemes, too, into mechanisms. When the Princess casts a spell over King Garth – the love-spell Melusine gave her – he loses all his animal grace, becoming puppet-like where he was feline, weak where he was strong, unseeing where before his eyes were uncomfortably penetrating. When Melusine first meets the king after his enchantment, his eyes are ‘fastened’ on Blanchelys’s face ‘as by invisible cords’, rendered ‘blind’ by his fixation as he gives a ‘grave mechanical bow’ in response to her words (pp. 101-2). In response to these changes in him, Melusine changes too. She becomes lifeless and mechanical in appearance, drifting down the social scale (she exchanges clothes with a servant to get close to him) while simultaneously sinking into depression, until even the Emperor notices her physical decline: ‘as the figure advanced into the pool of yellow light beneath the lamp, he saw that her hair was not long and black like Melusine’s, nor of that peculiar gossamer fineness; it hung lank and dead and its colour was so nondescript that it looked more grey than anything else’ (pp. 125-6). Her lover shares this decline, as he shares in everything else of hers, lying prone in his marriage bed like a feature of the palace itself (‘He lay as still as a figure on a tomb and his face looked as though it were carved out of grey stone’, p. 126). This loss of the former suppleness and grace of the couple’s bodies brings the novel to its gloomiest moment, when they participate in the bondage suffered by the imperial husband and wife without the benefit of marriage, transformed into features of the building that has trapped them. Their bereavement of life also bereaves them of the shared life they engendered; the Empress orders Melusine’s baby removed from her cell and put up for adoption, clearing the way for her marriage to the would-be rapist, Prince Pharamond. There could hardly be a more devastating representation of the sterility of ruling-class conventions and priorities.

The final blow to Melusine’s identity comes when the court appropriates the darkness that has always been her medium. Her child having been abducted, she finds herself in an obscurity she finds ‘thick and horrible’, and seeks refuge in it as she always has before: ‘Yet because she had been accustomed to meet her lover in the darkness, she waited for an instant in a fantastic hope that his unseen hands would fall on her, that she would be lifted and clutched close against him and find herself at rest’ (p. 139). Instead she finds that the gloom of her cell is ‘empty’, deprived of the life that once filled it – her lover and her son – and taking on instead the texture of ‘palpable iron’, the medium of prisons and machines. The world she once commanded, the world of dreams and sleep and lovemaking, has been reduced to one of the court’s unyielding instruments or tools, confirming her father’s worst predictions about the consequences of entering the world and leaving Melusine, as she thinks, ‘alone in the darkness for ever’ (p. 140).

Meanwhile the Princess has been rejected by her lover Sir Diarmid and returned to her husband, the enchanted King Garth. Her arrival in his bedchamber, however, is mistimed; she gets there before he can be fed the potion containing Melusine’s stolen poppies, and as a result he is able to assess her for the first time in a wakeful state. At this point, of course, Blanchelys has taken on Melusine’s appearance, with black hair, white skin, green eyes, while remaining Blanchelys in terms of her personality, which means that everything she says is loaded with contradictory meanings. The first words she speaks to Garth are ‘I can now give you all that you desire’ (p. 140), and for the reader they ring hollow, since they are the exact words she spoke to her lover Sir Diarmid a few pages before (p. 135). The phrase is also ‘very awkward’, as she puts it, because she utters it to her husband – just as she uttered it to the Irishman – while wearing Melusine’s appearance, which implies that what both men most desire is in fact the enchanter’s daughter. In addition, the phrase implies that Blanchelys has not yet given her new husband ‘all that he desires’, despite the fact that it is three days since their wedding. And the courtly oxymorons pile up with every subsequent phrase she speaks. When she tells Garth ‘I am yours’ she still has two conflicting aspects – Melusine’s appearance and Blanchelys’s personality – which makes the phrase impossible to construe (which ‘I’ is she referring to?). When she tells him ‘I am your wife’, the question arises as to which woman she represents is Garth’s lifelong partner, his legitimate spouse. Recognizing the difficulty, the princess goes on to insist that she has only one identity, not two: ‘I am the Princess Blanchelys’; yet her need to stress her name suggests that the stable selfhood she claims is in fact uncertain. ‘In any case,’ she concludes, ‘I am your love’ (p. 141); and this phrase ‘wakes’ something in his mind: presumably a memory of his love which is not connected with Blanchelys but summoned up by the looks she wears. Her final claim – ‘I have not been false to you’ – may be true in the sense she means it – that is, technically she has not been false to her husband since she never slept with Sir Diarmid; but it’s undermined by all her other false statements. In response, then, King Garth can only pronounce her ‘the false bride’, since all the statements she has uttered to him have been duplicitous. And the last few pages of the book describe his return to action, as a fighting man (like the soldiers who died in the War) whose energies are directed at last not to the false values and selfish desires of the ruling classes but to the liberation of the oppressed, in the shape of his lover.

Viking Berserker Figures, 6th Century

King Garth’s ‘berserker’ rampage through the palace (p. 142), which sees him transformed at last into the Viking he resembles, with his giant stature, his outsized sword and his leather cloak, is presented by Irwin as a quest for memory – a memory that has been suppressed rather than preserved by the purloined commemorative poppies he was fed. Garth leaves the Princess in a bid to find the woman she resembles, ‘whose name he could not remember’ (p. 141), and meets as he searches other figures he cannot name: ‘he did not remember why he knew that face’, we learn as he sweeps past the Emperor, and ‘he did not remember why he hated that face’ (the Archbishop who married him), just as he has no recollection of Prince Pharamond, who fearfully directs him towards Melusine’s cell. When Garth finally finds the enchanter’s daughter she assumes he will not remember her because of her ruined appearance: ‘these are not the eyes you know’, she tells him (p. 142). But she is wrong; ‘this is the true bride’, he informs her, and the phrase finally restores a simple meaning to the words it contains, despite the fact that he and Melusine are not married. Past and present are unified in Garth’s recognition of his lover, and dead memory brought alive in the renewal of their affection.

After their reunion, the lovers no longer have any need of memory or commemoration. They escape from the palace on the raven, grown to giant size, and face the future, liberated from imprisonment by the past in the shape of constricting hierarchies, restrictive conventions, or immobilizing nostalgia. Their shared responsibility for the escape – Garth rescues Melusine from her prison, Melusine rescues Garth and the baby with the growing spell that makes the raven large enough to carry them all, along with the cat and the serpent – confirms that their joint ability to share in one another’s qualities and adventures has been restored. The positions they take up on the raven’s back confirm the equality between them: the courtly onlookers see ‘between its wings the King seated beside a woman who held something in her arms’ (p. 143). And the thing she holds, the child, confirms their concentration on the future rather than the past; a future that puts the prison of patriarchy, one might argue, firmly behind them. After all, the conception of the baby represents a ‘stranger magic than her father’s’ (p. 145), and a stronger magic too, since the enchanter was unable to find the secret of overcoming the condition of isolation he saw as the inevitable fate of the human race.

Memory recedes in the final section of Irwin’s novel. When Melusine mentions the enchantment that bound Garth to the princess the king replies, in puzzlement, ‘What enchantment?’ ‘What Princess’? (p. 144). Still She Wished dedicated itself to recovering the memory of an unknown woman of the eighteenth century – Juliana, whose name coincides with the heroine of Congreve’s novel Incognita, which means ‘the unknown woman’ – bringing her to life through an act of authorial conjuration, so that her memory enriches the life of the woman of the twentieth century who is her double, and who may be seen as fulfilling her predecessor’s lost potential. In These Mortals, by contrast, the past is a trap, just as patriarchal marriage is a trap. Lady Valeria expresses this best, after she has trapped herself in the habit of a nun. Having withdrawn from public life, she laments the lost ‘supreme moment’ in front of Sir Diarmid’s mirror when she thought herself at one with her Irish lover:

‘If I had only known […] how to keep our love there, at that supreme moment. But one does not know that the moment is there; and it passes, and it is only afterwards, at prayers, or while listening to the sweet singing of the nuns, that one knows. And by then it is too late; one cannot recall it except in memory, for the moment was lost, long, long ago’ (p. 91).

The statement provides an elegiac summary of many women’s experiences in the years after the Great War, when so many relationships had been cut short by slaughter, and when the possibility of new relationships (as Jan and her sisters comment in the opening pages of Still She Wished) seems to have been removed by a shortage of young men – and by the inadequacy of so many of the men who survived. For Lady Valeria, memory is the one way to keep hold of the lost moment of past love; a perception rendered bitter by the fact that her memory is a false one, recapturing a moment of apparent unity which the reader knows to be an illusion.

Melusine, by contrast, is for much of the book bereft of memory. At one point she expresses regret that her magic powers are limited because she has no access to her books, and cannot recollect the spells they hold: ‘“Alas,” said she, “none of my books are with me, and my dear father never allowed me to practise from memory. Ever since I happened to raise the many-headed hound of Hell, Cerberus, instead of Venus’ doves, he thought it better to avoid any possibility of mistake”’ (p. 109). Yet despite her limited powers of recall, Melusine accomplishes a wide range of effective enchantments in the narrative, from riding on moonbeams to transforming a stag into an otter and a seagull, presenting a friend with a love spell, and conferring her own appearance on another woman. On the one occasion when she does lapse into a state of nostalgic reminiscence, it is in prison, and her memories are torture to her, just as they were to her lover King Garth in his underground cell:

Now for the first time she knew herself to be alone, and now for the first time she despaired, beating her hands against the darkness until it became palpable iron, bruising and battering them against it, crying on the baby they had taken from her, crying on the Princess who had broken her promise, crying on her father who could not help her, crying on her lover who could not see her, crying that she was alone in the darkness for ever. (p. 140)

Alongside the prison of marriage as the court constructs it, in other words, exists a prison of memory, and to escape it, Irwin implies, involves putting memories aside and devoting oneself to action, honesty, equal companionship, and an unembarrassed delight in sharing the pleasures of body and mind.

If These Mortals adopts a different attitude to memory to Still She Wished, its attitude to the imagination and the fairy tales it engenders is remarkably similar. Sir Diarmid’s mirror reflects the nature of the court, which is to reenact fairy tale narratives while transforming them into mechanisms of torture and cultural traps. If Melusine embodies the liberating and efficacious joys of the imagination – its capacity to persuade us we can sweep through the sky on moonbeams, or escape from our cages on the backs of giant birds – her mirror image, Princess Blanchelys, embodies its capacity to restrict us, bind us, hem us in. This double vision of its own medium, the fairy tale genre, makes These Mortals a forerunner of the ironic fairy tales of Angela Carter, who found so much inspiration for her work in the great fantasy novels of the 1920s: Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget, which Carter described as a surrealist novel avant la lettre; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which finds echoes everywhere in Carter’s work. I don’t know if Carter knew Irwin’s experimental anti-fairy-tale, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did. And I’d like to urge Carter’s readers, too, to discover it.

Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 2: Still She Wished for Company (1924)

[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. This is the second of three posts on her best-known works of the fantastic. The first can be found here. Enjoy!]

Margaret Irwin, 27 July 1939

Margaret Irwin achieved lasting popularity as a writer of historical novels, in particular for her work in recovering the lives of remarkable women, using her imagination to bridge the gap of years: Mary Queen of Scots, Mrs Oliver Cromwell, Elizabeth I. Her first novel, however – Still She Wished for Company (1924)[1]– considers the relationship between past and present in a different way, through a romance that impossibly spans more than a century. It tells of a young woman of the 1770s, Juliana, who lives in a country house called Chidleigh, and who is hypnotically coerced by her elder brother Lucian into using her considerable powers as a medium to establish a relationship across time between himself and another young woman he has seen in his dreams. The dream-object of his desire turns out to be Rose Janet, known as Jan, a woman of the twentieth century with a fascination for the past, as embodied in a ‘Gentleman Unknown’ she sees in dreams and visions, and who in turn resembles Lucian. Before the connection between Jan and Lucian can be fully established, however, Lucian murders a former medium of his – a French Duke – and becomes a hunted man. But he retains his hypnotic hold over Juliana even in his absence, as he hides from the forces of the law in far-off London. As a result, her visions of the 1920s grow more intense and more frequent, until she stands in danger of getting lost in the space between the past and the future, her soul wandering for ever in quest of Lucian’s twentieth-century ideal woman.  Lucian takes the decision to return home and release her from bondage to him, an act that gets him killed; and at the end of the book we learn that Juliana later got married to a sensible neighbour, drifting back to the dull but happy life she had been leading at the start of the story.

Juliana, then – the go-between in this transhistorical romance – is a woman who lives quite literally between two people, serving as a channel or conduit for their mutual obsession. As the novel goes on, her journeys into the future – which somehow enable meetings between her brother and Juliana’s twentieth-century counterpart (the link between Jan and Juliana is reflected in the similarity of their names)[2]– mean that she spends more and more of her time in a kind of dream state: a condition of suspended animation whereby her mind leaves her body and voyages through time, until her final, most lengthy psychic voyage plunges her into a coma, hovering between life and death like the Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale, waiting for a Prince in the shape of her brother to set her free – though ironically it was this selfsame Prince who put her in the coma to begin with.

Jan, too, exists in a space between alternative states. She has had the advantage of a good education, which enabled her to get work and so to support her impoverished family. She has the freedom to choose a partner for herself instead of having one chosen for her (Juliana is not so free to choose, and spends part of the novel under threat of an arranged marriage to the French Duke). Jan can buy her own clothes, and gets letters from men in far-off places, Germany and India (pp. 23-4). On the other hand she loathes her job, and finds it so stressful that her fiancé is afraid it is making her ill. She cannot afford well-made shoes; she is restricted to moving around a few limited streets in London on an inadequate public transport system, despite her theoretical freedom of movement; and she feels that she is being pressurized into marrying a man she is not sure she loves. Her seeming liberty, in other words, is hemmed in on all sides by geographical, social and economic constraints, and she is caught between the limited opportunities of an eighteenth-century woman and the seemingly limitless possibilities available to twentieth-century middle-class men – making her an embodiment of the uncertain in-between status of women in the years before the universal franchise.

Lucian is also caught in a state of in-between-ness. Despised by his athletic younger brothers for not meeting their crude standards of masculinity; marked out as different by his appearance (he is slim, dark, and of moderate height, where the rest of the men in his family are pink-and-white giants); uninterested in the conversations and pastimes of his fellow aristocrats; he is nevertheless the male heir to the family title and estates with all the financial and social power that these bring with them. Foreign in appearance and by inclination (Paris is the only place that appeals to him in his own period), his name and birth ironically tie him to a family, place and time that he rejects. Like Jan and Juliana, then, he gets his chief pleasure from indulging in private fantasies, absenting himself in dreams and imaginings from a cultural context he finds inimical to his health, and yearning for a place and time he thinks will be more congenial, as embodied in Jan, the woman of the 1920s.

The in-between-ness of these three central characters is reflected in the novel’s plot. The bulk of the book is given over to a kind of lyrical mood music, wittily evoking the mundane details of family life in Chidleigh House while charting the steady growth of Lucian’s influence over Juliana and the concomitant doubling and redoubling of her visions of twentieth-century Chidleigh. Juliana’s visions of the 1920s show her everyday, commonplace events, the sorts of things that happen in between significant occasions such as marriages, births and funerals. Nothing spectacular happens in any of them, apart from the fact that they reinforce Juliana’s and Jan’s increasing certainty that they are being somehow granted access to each other’s lives in defiance of time. But a great deal is always on the verge of happening, so that Irwin’s novel could be said to exist on the brink of deeply disturbing, even diabolical events; the sorts of events that lurk in the background of ‘The Book’. At the same time the narrative occasionally conjures up a fairy tale atmosphere of total mutual contentment, as experienced by Juliana and Lucian when they are at their closest, by Jan and Lucian when they meet in dreams or through the mediating influence of Juliana’s transitions between periods, and by Jan and Juliana when they are most at ease with their earthly lovers – in Jan’s case a practical Scotsman called Donald, in Juliana’s her mature and protective neighbour, Mr Daintree. Both the diabolical and the fairytale elements in the book are in some sense timeless, familiar to successive generations through dreams and nightmares, or through poems, plays and well-known stories. By mixing together these different kinds of narrative – the brooding nocturnes of the Gothic, the pastoralism of the fairy story, the modern realistic romance in the Jan scenes, the novels of Jane Austen in the Juliana ones – Still She Wished for Company transforms itself into a kind of eclectic library of the kind we’ve already encountered in ‘The Book’; a library which both celebrates and warns against the transformative powers of the act of reading, and of the dreaming which it encourages and springs from.

Most of the action takes place in a single late eighteenth-century summer, its events largely unrecorded in the history books, featuring characters whose very names have been forgotten. Juliana’s whole family is said to have died out by 1800, and the novel opens with a wistful dedication by the author to Juliana herself, ‘since there is none now left to remember her’. But traces of the girl and her family survive, both in the pages of Juliana’s journal and in the narrator’s imaginative evocation of their personalities – largely based on the journal – as well as in the occasional ghostly presences detected at Chidleigh by the psychically sensitive in other epochs. One such sensitive soul is Jan, whose story frames the novel. Her mind is always drifting away from the drabness of the present in pursuit of congenial figures from the past: people in early modern paintings, such as the seventeenth-century portrait of the ‘Gentleman Unknown’; evasive ideal women in poems by Walter de la Mare and John Donne, or damned spirits and seductive demons in plays by Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe; and gradually these imagined figures become more real to her until she finds it hard at times to concentrate on her living contemporaries. Juliana, too, is sensitive, her sensitivity being expressed in her acute awareness of geographical spaces overlooked by other people – most notably the avenue of splendid trees that leads from the highway to the house at Chidleigh, whose changing appearance often gives her the strongest clue that she has transitioned between historical epochs. And since many of the things that happen in the novel are explicitly stated not to have been mentioned in her source text, Juliana’s journal, the narrator clearly shares Jan and Juliana’s capacity for transitioning between periods. Meanwhile the narrative helps us, the readers, to become as sensitive as these three women, and its many allusions to other texts suggest that this sensitivity is exactly what literature is designed to engender – in contrast to history, which is strictly concerned with what can be deduced from the material evidence. Literature, in fact, is an in-between medium, throwing light on gaps and occlusions in the official account, and this can make it an unnerving, even a dangerous experience as well as an enlightening one, in this novel as much as in ‘The Book’.

Juliana’s story is sandwiched both between opening and closing chapters from Jan’s point of view and between the two most significant revolutions of the eighteenth century. The summer of Juliana’s experiences as a medium is the ‘dull year of grace 1779’, when ‘nothing pretty or romantic ever happened’. Yet major events took place before and after that dull year: the American War of Independence in 1776, the French Revolution of 1789. Juliana, then, lives very much ‘between the wars’, and her unromantic life exists on the cusp of what could be called the most romantic event of all: the outbreak of the Romantic movement in literature and art. Juliana’s family, however, seems wholly oblivious to the revolution that has just taken place across the Atlantic, and the girl herself is half convinced that things will always stay the same, finding herself torn at times between the desire for radical change and a nostalgic yearning for stability; the latter embodied in her boisterous but profoundly conservative brothers George and Vesey, the former in her radical oldest brother Lucian, who arrives home unexpectedly from Paris at the beginning of the summer to take over the reins of the family estate. Juliana’s split personality encapsulates a cultural split acknowledged in Jane Austen’s novels, especially Sense and Sensibility (1811), where the two sisters Elinor and Marianne stand respectively for the ‘good sense’ cherished by the Enlightenment and the romantic privileging of emotion which has begun to take the literary world by storm. Juliana resembles a milder, more easily manipulated version of Marianne, the romantic sister, and like her ends up married to a much older, more sensible, but attractively sensitive man. Irwin’s prose style in this novel is a pastiche of Austen’s, and Chidleigh House is a direct descendant of an Austenian country estate: Darcy’s Pemberley, Sir Thomas Bertram’s Mansfield Park, and most obviously Mr Knightley’s part-medieval, part-Augustan Donwell Abbey in Austen’s favourite novel, Emma (1815).

Medmenham Abbey, where the Hellfire Club met

Juliana’s divided mind, however, is confronted by far stranger and more sinister forces than is Austen’s Marianne. Her brother Lucian invokes the connotations of Marianne and Elinor’s family name of Dashwood, which was also the name of the founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, Sir Francis Dashwood. Sir Francis is said to have set up the club – also known as the ‘Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe’ – as a means for wealthy men to satisfy their illegal appetites and hedonistic impulses. Lucian, too, is rumoured to have been the ‘chief and head’ of the Hellfire Club (p. 50), and to have made acquaintances in Paris whose aristocratic background and taste for illicit sexual activities link them to an even more notorious figure of the period: the Marquis de Sade. Indeed Juliana’s name invokes (among other things) the protagonists of two of de Sade’s novels, Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797), both of which were being championed by the continental Surrealists at the time of writing. Lucian’s name, meanwhile, summons up de Sade’s atheism, since the second-century writer Lucian of Samosata was notorious among literary historians as an atheist as well as a writer of satires and early science fiction. It also invokes the diabolism of the Hellfire Club, since ‘Lucian’ echoes ‘Lucifer’, just as the young man himself resembles conventional representations of Satan, with his foppish elegance and satyr’s eyebrows. The Master of Chidleigh plans to marry off Juliana to his former medium, the Duc de Saint Aumerle, and to use her before and after the marriage as his own ‘instrument’, his ‘delicate plaything’ – phrases that suggest incestuous erotic manipulation, as well as his willingness to exploit her visionary gifts to bring about a sexual union between himself and Jan. De Sade indulged in fantasies of abusive incest, and Juliana’s physical attraction to Lucian is implied by the fact that her brother is repeatedly set up in the novel as a rival for her respectable suitor, Mr Daintree – most notably when he confesses his jealousy at her tendency to ‘wander’ in her affections between himself and the older man (p. 151). The rivalry invokes the semi-incestuous love affair between Catherine Earnshaw and her adoptive brother Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847), though Lucian is a very different character from Heathcliff and the Berkshire landscape around Chidleigh has little in common with the Yorkshire Moors.

But Lucian is not represented solely as a demonic exploiter of his sister’s affection for him. His reciprocal liking for her makes him come to regret his use of her as a psychic plaything, and as the book goes on he considers her more and more instead as good company, an emotional and intellectual equal. ‘I think I am learning to prefer my sweet sister to any creature in the world’, he tells her at one point (p. 226), before spoiling the effect by reminding her that Jan is not ‘in the world’, since he has only ever seen her in his dreams. Lucian also stands in opposition to the dominant eighteenth-century models of masculinity, as embodied in his laddish brothers George and Vesey. Both men are constantly making misogynist remarks, drinking themselves stupid, sleeping around, and indulging in blood sports such as cockfighting and bull baiting. Their friend the local clergyman Dr Eden is of a similar stamp, interested only in self-gratification in the company of other men, while the brothers are mirror images of their father, who died of an apoplectic fit brought on by Lucian’s resistance to his will. Juliana’s suitor Mr Daintree, meanwhile, provides another contrast to the masculine norm – a gentler alternative to Lucian – in his genuine admiration for Juliana and his lack of interest in male companionship. At the same time he confesses to having developed an attraction to Juliana in her very early childhood, and his proposal to her when she is seventeen and he is in his thirties means that the distribution of power between them is heavily weighted in his favour. Moreover, his attraction to Juliana, like George and Vesey’s attraction to servant girls and lively noblewomen, is expressed in highly physical terms. He presents her with verses written by a notorious rake, Sir Charles Sedley, and alludes to the ‘exquisite […] pain’ given him by her smile as a six-year-old (p. 142). Lucian, by contrast, claims to see her as a ‘rebel and an adventuress’ (p. 80) as well as a beauty, and has a genuine psychological connection to her, which draws brother and sister together whenever they fix their attention on one another, no matter how far apart they happen to be at the time. Lucian may wish to take advantage of the power over Juliana that his position affords him, but he is also connected to her by their shared dreams, frustrated desires and mutual interests, and it is his awareness of this connection that drives him to free her from his power at the end of the novel.

Arthur Rackham, illustration for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The bond that links Lucian, Juliana and Jan is not so much a sexual one (though Lucian clearly has sexual designs on Jan) as the conviction that they were born at the wrong time. All three feel painfully aware that they are being suffocated by the conventions of the culture they inhabit; and all three are unusual in being able to gain first-hand experience of alternative cultures and personalities than the ones on offer in their lifetimes. This feeling of displacement, of exclusion from the life one should be living and of attraction to other possibilities, is beautifully invoked in the novel’s opening chapter, where groups of twentieth-century Londoners pause for a moment to gaze at a secluded ‘waterfall garden’ in Hyde Park, staring through railings at the ‘miniature lake just beyond their reach’ where ‘Pale yellow flags and rushes stood deep in the dark water, stirring very slightly now and then’ in response to a breeze (p. 1). Jan, too, stares at the inaccessible garden, but with the impression ‘that she was looking into a garden removed from her, not by a row of iron railings, but by an immeasurable distance. She wished that she were there’ (p. 2). The choice of Hyde Park for this inaccessible garden is surely no coincidence. J M Barrie’s Peter Pan spent his early years in Kensington Gardens, an enclosed space within the larger recreation ground, which makes Hyde Park the starting point for his famous rebellion against the tyranny of time. And Jan’s fancy about the garden’s ‘immeasurable distance’ from her has a fairy tale quality, like Peter’s adventures among the fairies of Kensington Gardens. Jan’s full name, for instance, chosen by her father ‘in a flight of fancy consequent on the reading of ballads’, is Rose Janet, which invokes the Border ballad of Tam Lin, whose heroine summons a fairy lover by plucking a rose and later rescues him from certain death at the hands of the Fairy Queen. (One of the stanzas in Burns’s version of the ballad goes ‘Why pu’s thou the rose, Janet, / Amang the groves sae green’; hence ‘Rose Janet’). For Jan, the world is full of glimpses of magical other worlds like the one afforded by the garden. A sudden downpour makes ‘fairy thimbles’ in the city streets, when ‘huge drops leap up from the pavements in a thousand tiny fountains’, prompting her to ask herself ‘Was this fairy rain?’ And as a child she was convinced that Blake’s famous poem ‘The Sick Rose’ was all about her (since she was then called Rose), and that whenever she fell ill an ‘invisible worm’ was winging its way through the darkness to wreak her destruction. These supernatural glimpses – sometimes ravishing, sometimes terrifying – stand in stark contrast to her drab but necessary day job, to the crowded bus she boards in the first chapter, which symbolically has no room for her, and to her practical lover, a Scottish architect called Donald. Her glimpses, like the secluded garden, exist in the spaces between officially productive zones: in breaks from work, in the city streets, on buses. And she finds echoes of them in the literature she is always quoting: a line from Donne (‘Tell me where all past times are’, as she misquotes it), a half-remembered set of phrases from Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Blake’s verses, two Border ballads, a recent poem by Walter de la Mare. She is familiar, too, with the work of Barrie, though she quotes (or rather Donald remembers her as quoting) from What Every Woman Knows, not Peter Pan (p. 11). What Every Woman Knows is a play about the unacknowledged influence of women on male success in public life, a concept which makes women themselves into in-between figures, overlooked yet secretly powerful fairy godmothers to many generations of male Cinderellas.

Juliana’s detachment from her time, meanwhile, is most often associated with another in-between space: the tree-lined avenue that leads to Chidleigh House. It’s her close attention to the details of this avenue and the parts of the house and grounds ignored by its other occupants (an ornamental bridge where she glimpses one of Chidleigh’s former owners, the boy king Edward VI; the arch which is all that remains from the days when the house was a medieval castle) that informs her whenever she makes a journey between epochs. Half way down the avenue of trees stands her former Nurse’s cottage, and whenever she travels to the twentieth century she finds that the cottage has disappeared and that the thoroughfare where it stood has become neglected. On one traumatic occasion she even learns that the modern owner of Chidleigh has begun to chop down the trees that line the avenue, having built a new driveway to the house and deeming the old approach redundant. For her, neglected and forgotten things emblematize her own neglected and forgotten status, and she longs to use her ability to move between times to preserve them and herself from oblivion.

Jan’s detachment from her time and place is fuelled by her fascination with books, a fascination which she shares with Juliana and Lucian. Lucian makes assignations with his sister in the Library at Chidleigh, where he puts her under hypnosis and sends her off through time and space in pursuit of Jan. When Jan first visits the Library in its twentieth-century form she recognizes it as a place she’s often visited in her dreams, where the schoolboy Lucian sat in resentful solitude and took revenge on his hostile brothers by conjuring up sadistic fantasies about them. All three young people in the book take delight in the same set of texts, and as we learn more about their reading habits it becomes clear that they are able to swap these texts with one another in defiance of logic, as if drawing them from the same set of timeless bookshelves. Jan’s misquotation of Donne’s poem ‘Go and Catch a Falling Star’ in the first chapter is later ‘explained’ by the fact that it comes from the version of the text best known to Lucian, ‘John Bell’s pocket edition of the Poets from Chaucer to Churchill’ (p. 163). Juliana, meanwhile, knows exactly who spoke the words which Jan half recalls from Robert Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590)– ‘Time Is, Time Was, Time Has Been’ (Jan thinks they were written by Francis Bacon) – and which in turn provide the titles for the three parts of Irwin’s novel. And at a sumptuous water party on the Thames Juliana finds herself somehow ‘remembering’ the lines from a Walter de la Mare poem that were earlier quoted by Jan: ‘But beauty vanishes, beauty passes, / However rare – rare it be’ (p. 139). Jan recollects these lines again when she visits Juliana’s tomb in the final chapter, completing the stanza as she does so:

But beauty vanishes, beauty passes,
However rare – rare it be.
And when I crumble, who will remember
This lady of the West Country? (p. 305)

The answer, it would seem, is poets, novelists, playwrights, artists and lovers, whose words and visions echo back and forth across history in anachronistic interchange.  Imaginative sympathy between people in time past and time to come dissolves the boundaries between periods, establishing a trans-historical ‘company’ or fellowship of like-minded people whose mutual affection and common interests provide a kind of compensation for the isolation imposed on them by an uncongenial present.

At the same time, seeking satisfaction in another period has its dangers. Lucian’s friends in Paris take as their role models Dr Faustus and Roger Bacon, both notorious magicians. Dr Faustus damned himself by dabbling in necromancy to summon up figures from the past, while Friar Bacon forged a brazen head capable of seeing into the future, thereby setting a precedent for Lucian’s exploitation of living people as his instruments or tools. The title of Irwin’s novel, too, invokes the deadly consequences of seeking companionship outside the realms of the living. The phrase ‘Still She Wished for Company’ comes from the chorus of another Border ballad, which tells of a lonely woman who sits spinning in her cottage and longs for fellowship so intensely that she summons up a sinister being from the beyond. Limb by limb, organ by organ the being assembles itself by the woman’s hearth until it is complete, whereupon it begins a conversation with its lonely summoner concerning the reasons for its appearance in her cottage. The ballad ends with the monster suddenly roaring at the woman it has come ‘FOR YOU’, presumably in a diabolical quest for her body and spirit. We don’t hear what happened next, but destruction of some sort is implied, just as it is for Juliana when she sinks into a coma under Lucian’s hypnotic influence. The novel as a whole, then, is presided over by the fear of perdition – damnation as well as loss and forgetting – though this is discreetly veiled by the comfortable-sounding phrase on its title page.

There is clear evidence in the narrative of the specific dangers of getting involved with Lucian in particular. His former medium, the Duc de Saint Aumerle, is a shell of a man, and there are strong indications that this is because of Lucian’s influence. As the young lord’s former ‘instrument’ in Paris – the clairvoyant whose powers he first sought to make use of to forge a link with Jan – the Duke’s behaviour and appearance suggest that he may also have been the Englishman’s lover, now cast off and diminished. Aumerle is yet further removed from eighteenth-century ideals of masculinity than Lucian: slighter, prettier, more garrulous, less active. He enjoys cards instead of blood sports, and spends most of the day tucked up in bed, humming tunelessly and working at his embroidery frame before dressing for dinner and coming downstairs to take over the household for the evening. His utter lack of interest in women is hinted at by Lucian’s insistence that his projected marriage to Juliana will be one of convenience, leaving her at ‘liberty’, as her brother puts it, to become an éminence grise at the French Court – and hence of great use to her manipulative sibling (p. 203). The Duke’s valet later confirms his master’s indifference to women. When Aumerle is killed, the Chidleigh household assumes he has been murdered in a quarrel over a girl, but the valet ‘refused to believe that his master would have taken the trouble to walk down to the summer-house for any girl on earth’ (p. 239, my emphasis). Meanwhile the Duke himself describes Lucian’s replacement of him with his sister as the substitution of a ‘young virgin, a pure child’ for a ‘dead instrument’ which has been ‘used till it withered’. The sexualized description of Juliana as a ‘virgin’ reinforces the impression one gets elsewhere in the text that she is in effect Lucian’s new lover, which in turn implies that the Duke was his old one. There may be another hint at this in the Duke’s title; Aumerle was one of the favourites of Shakespeare’s Richard II, a king often depicted in Irwin’s lifetime as a homosexual monarch who neglects his wife’s bed for affairs with men. As a gay man, Aumerle might be seen as another figure out of time, stranded in a world where homoerotic desire is criminalized and very conscious of himself as someone with interests and capabilities no one else is willing openly to share.

Joshua Reynolds, Cupid as a Link-Boy

(Lucian’s ambiguous sexuality, meanwhile, is hinted at by his attraction to Jan, with her gender-neutral name and appearance. When Juliana first describes Jan to Lucian he asks her ‘You are certain it was a girl?’ (p. 100), and Juliana acknowledges that ‘indeed she had an odd, boyish air’ (p. 101). And Lucian’s final glimpse of Jan from a London window represents her as a ‘slight, dark figure, not unlike that of a link-boy’ (p. 267). The Englishman’s transference of his erotic attention from the French Duke to this English gamine might be described as the substitution of an androgynous ‘pure child’ for a ‘withered instrument’.)

The Duke objectifies his sexual and social isolation in the cane he carries, which has a handle of his own design carved in the shape of a woman’s head. No one else, he claims, appreciates the artistry of this design of his, which will become fashionable, he predicts, in fifty years’ time. The sheer pettiness of this claim to genius – that he will be remembered after his death as the designer of a trendy walking stick – identifies the Duke as a marginal figure, drained of any claim to interest he may once have had except as a tool to be used for other people’s purposes. In fact, the offensiveness of the cane’s appearance – the woman’s head is said to be ‘Ethiopian’ – suggests that its inventor is behind the times, not ahead of them. The ‘Ethiopian’ motif embodies a perception of African people as commodities which was being challenged in the 1770s and 80s by abolitionists like Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano. And the Duke’s status as a French aristocrat identifies him with an entire class which is on the brink of extinction. His death – which occurs when he attacks Lucian in a bid to free himself and Juliana from the young man’s influence – anticipates the general massacre of the French aristocracy in the 1790s in the name of a ‘liberty’ far more wide-ranging than the kind Juliana’s marriage of convenience might have brought her; a calamitous historical event in which he never gets the chance to participate, and hence yet another sign of his diminution at the hands of his former lover.

The Duke, in fact, is himself an object, a pale counterpart of his Ethiopian cane. His face, we are told, resembles ‘a large white egg’ (p. 180), exquisitely shaped but perfectly blank, its porcelain surface confirming its inability to incubate new life. His presence at Chidleigh transforms the household (in Juliana’s eyes) into a collection of mindless automata, dancing mechanically to Lucian’s tunes like the puppets described by Wilde in some of his poems: ‘it occurred to her that all the figures in the great white and gold room were like dolls in some mechanical contrivance, that spoke and looked and bowed when moved by wires’ (p. 181).[3]And Jan and Juliana, too, stand in danger of absenting themselves into the blank anonymity of objects. When Jan’s fiancé sees her staring at the secluded garden in the first chapter he fears that her dreamy attraction to distant times and inaccessible places, which can mutate into ‘laughing disillusionment’ (p. 12), will leave her unable to form relationships with her contemporaries. Juliana’s coma very nearly cuts her off from life itself, confirming the worst forebodings of her fiancé Mr Daintree, who has grown increasingly anxious for her wellbeing as he keeps coming across her in a state of confusion or unconsciousness. Both women are seduced by the charms of Lucian, and risk being diminished or ‘withered’ by the force of his personality like Aumerle before them. At the same time, unlike Aumerle both women are also capable of enchanting Lucian in their turn, drawing him back from the verge of a suicidal rejection of the world he no longer finds delightful. And this capacity for reconnecting with life instead of rejecting or emptying it, of living intensely for the present moment despite their delight in other times and places, is what enables them finally to break the deadlock that threatens to trap them in limbo – either in the repetitive machinery of the everyday or in the void between past, present and future.

From the beginning of their relationship Jan is capable of influencing Lucian’s imagination, which has been deformed by his father’s and brothers’ incessant bullying. Lucian takes refuge from their cruelty in erotic fantasies like de Sade’s: his lonely days of his childhood in Chidleigh Library are spent indulging ‘gorgeous and horrible fancies’ of himself sitting on a ‘throne of carved ivory and gold, watching the tortures’ of his enemies, his ignorant tutor and abusive family (pp. 223-4). Into these fantasies Jan intrudes as a healing presence, transforming his nightmares into playful collaborations and in the process showing him a better, more democratic way of living. Each time she visits him in his dreams, he says, ‘She treated me as an equal companion in an enchanting game, where I had been accustomed to reign as sole despot of my semi-infernal kingdom’ (p. 225, my emphasis). He associates her with harmless fictions: with the heroine Incognita in Congreve’s only novel, whose actual name is Juliana, or with the fairy tales into which she playfully morphs his morbid fancies. With her he explores the streets of future London and visits the railed-off garden in Hyde Park. She provides the substance for his ‘impossible desires’, most notably when he sees her in the street outside his London house after his flight from Chidleigh; and she offers him hope of a new narrative, an escape route from the dead ends towards which his disaffection with his time is taking him.

Couple walking, by Thomas Gainsborough

Juliana, meanwhile, enables Lucian to enjoy the present as no one else can. This ability manifests itself most clearly in the night scene where they walk together on the terraces of Chidleigh House, ignoring outside claims on their attention (Juliana’s mother calling for her, Lucian’s schemes for Juliana’s future) as they concentrate on one another for what becomes a timeless moment. ‘They walked past the tall box hedge again,’ Irwin tells us. ‘Shadows stole out on the milky ground, of a bent head, ribbon at neck, of a head, turned up to meet it, under a high-piled tower of hair’ (p. 127). When Lucian tells Juliana at this point that her companionable silence has taken her ‘far away’ she answers, ‘No […] I am here and with you’. And she later notes the moment as one of perfect harmony between them:

They laughed together. She was deliciously happy, not so much because of the French duke whose name she had forgotten to ask, as because Lucian had never been quite so charmingly easy and friendly with her. (p. 154)

Later still, when Lucian returns from London to free her from his hypnotic influence over her, he urges his sister to enjoy the present as she did that night, forgetting the experiences he has made her undergo and concentrating instead on those ‘who love you and not to hurt’ (p. 276). In the process the past is wiped out, his power over her laid aside, and the here-and-now is placed at Juliana’s disposal. As a result, Lucian extends his own present, despite his imminent death and erasure from history as a disgraced peer: ‘You will not quite forget me,’ he insists, ‘no matter what else you forget’ (p. 277). Escape from the blankness of anonymity depends for Irwin on a recognition of equality which could be described as discovering the wished-for ‘company’ of the title, in spite of the unequal distribution of social and political resources in any given epoch. Juliana presumably finds another model of such ‘company’ in her husband Mr Daintree, whose epitaph, as read by Jan in the final chapter, speaks of his reluctance to go on living after her death – her companionship having become for him a necessary condition of life itself.

In the final chapter, Jan too finds herself reconciled to the present as a time of opportunity as well as frustration. Like Lucian, she has till this point been obsessed with her ideal partner, a literary composite assembled ‘chiefly from her casual glimpses in the library […] of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Congreve’s Valentine, Lovelace without his insatiable vanity; a man of easy ironic wit, assured composure impossible to ruffle, and yet of fancies as fantastic as her own’ (p. 19). Each of these literary influences is in some way damaging to women: La Rochefoucauld and Lord Chesterfield give cynical advice to naïve young people, Valentine from Love for Love and Lovelace from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa are rakes and libertines, while Lovelace is also a kidnapper and a rapist. Jan thinks to have found the embodiment of this ideal in Lucian, not least, perhaps, because she first sees him in a library, like the real-life model for the book-based lover of her dreams. But Lucian relinquishes his rakish designs on her when he releases Juliana from his power, and at this point Jan turns her attention to her living fiancé, the Scottish architect Donald Graeme. Donald is the ultimate modern man, both in his determination to promote himself through hard work and in his admiration for American architecture – qualities unlikely to endear him to a woman obsessed with the aristocracy, whose favourite building is Chidleigh House, a structure that ‘might have imprisoned a princess in a fairy tale’ (p. 287). In the final chapter, however, Donald reveals another side to his nature. When Jan tells him about her visions of the past he doesn’t dismiss them, instead accepting imagination as a necessary faculty which he shares with her thanks to his ambitious plans for the future: ‘Any servant girl who longs to be a duchess, anyone who has dreams of successful ambition, finds their chief happiness in something that doesn’t exist. All artists do. Perhaps most lovers do’ (p. 301). More importantly, he believes that what she saw in her dreams of Lucian was in some sense ‘real’, though it ‘doesn’t exist’ in the here and now. He has become convinced, he tells her, that she has second sight – the ability to see beyond the material present, a concept he knows about thanks to his Celtic roots (Jan awkwardly refers to him as ‘half highland’). This familiarity with the ‘impossible’ enables him to accept her fascination with ‘unreal people’, ‘nonsense’, ‘chimeras’, the ‘company of a dream’, as evidence of her affinity for the arts rather than madness. And this in turn invests Donald himself – despite his practicality – with the quality of a ‘shadow’ rather than a ‘living companion’ (p. 300), something that links him with Lucian, since the companionship between the Master of Chidleigh and his sister became associated with shadows during their walk on the Chidleigh terraces, when their images walked alongside them in a prefiguration of their future as dreams, ghosts, or characters in Irwin’s novel.

A woman with a ‘high-piled tower of hair’, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Donald, then, earns Jan’s affection by proving himself one of the select dream ‘company’ she has always been obsessed with; a suitable companion for herself, Juliana and Lucian, and more distantly for Mr Daintree, Juliana’s husband. Donald gets linked in particular with Lucian, becoming a kind of vessel for him, in much the same way as Juliana became a vessel for Jan. For much of the book the notion of one person being used by another, of becoming an involuntary vessel for someone else’s personality, is associated with the abuse of power – the kind of possession Irwin would later represent in Mr Corbett’s fascination with the Book. But in the last paragraph of the novel all four lovers are united in perfect equality, with Donald and Jan re-enacting the scene where Juliana walked with her brother on the terraces at Chidleigh:

They were walking by a box hedge as tall as themselves at the end of one of the grass terraces. Then they went slowly down the terrace, the moon behind them. Faint shadows stole out before them, and she, looking down at the milky ground, saw that they were the shadows of a hooped skirt and a sword, of a bent head, ribbon at neck, and a head upturned to meet it, under a high-piled tower of hair. (p. 307)

The scene is notable for the way it erases distinctions between the sexes – the man’s ribboned hair and sword perfectly balancing the woman’s skirt and tower of hair – while erasing the gaps between past and present, as the twentieth-century man and woman about to embark on the ultimate modern journey – from the Old World to the New – find themselves fused with their eighteenth-century precursors. In this way a novel about isolation and loneliness ends by asserting the possibility of a new community that dissolves all barriers by means of a rare and hard-won sympathy among its members.

It’s important to note, however, that this final fusion is not presented as another ideal. Lucian’s association with rakes and orgies, with devil worship and mesmerism, makes him a highly problematic ideal for either Jan or Juliana; while Jan’s fascination with fairy tale princesses waiting passively to be carried off by a lustful prince, or with aristocracy and the rigid class system on which it depends, or with literary rapists, abusers and misogynists, connects her fantasies with the worst tyrannies of the past. Irwin’s past is no better than her present, and her present is almost as problematic for women as the past, so that her characters have to cobble together a better world for themselves out of imaginative fusions of both. Meanwhile Donald’s respect for Jan, Lucian’s affection for Juliana, have to be won with difficulty from both men’s obsession with what they imagine to be better futures; futures which are shown by the end to have distracted them from the present as completely as the women were distracted from the here and now by their imaginative lives. Lucian’s distractions prove in the end as destructive to him as Mr Corbett’s did, while Juliana escapes annihilation as narrowly as did Mr Corbett’s young daughter.  The need for assembling a congenial company of men and women by travelling between periods suggests that such a company doesn’t yet exist, and Still She Wished for Company suggests that the emergence of the place and time for women isn’t yet in sight, either.

Notes

[1]All quotations are from Margaret Irwin, Still She Wished for Company (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935).

[2]Their names are linked through fiction too. Juliana shares her name with the heroine of William Congreve’s seventeenth-century novel Incognita, while Lucian takes to calling Jan ‘Incognita’ (p. 261), which is Juliana’s pseudonym in Congreve’s text.

[3]Compare Wilde’s ‘The Harlot’s House’: ‘Like wire-pulled automatons, / Slim silhouetted skeletons / Went sidling through the slow quadrille’ etc.

 

Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 1: ‘The Book’ (1930)

[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. Not much is known, it seems, about this popular historical novelist, but she’s a wonderful writer of fantasy and horror, and over the next few days I’ll be devoting three substantial posts to her best-known works of the fantastic. Enjoy!]

Margaret Irwin started to write books in the 1920s, a remarkable decade for women’s fantasy. Other authors who made a name for themselves in that decade included Stella Benson, Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elinor Wylie, all of whom wrote fantastic novels – Living Alone (1919), Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Lolly Willowes (1926) and The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925) – while May Sinclair published a collection of modernist ghost stories in 1923, and Virginia Woolf her most lushly fantastic experiment in prose, Orlando, in 1928. Even male writers took to representing women fantastically in the 1920s, from Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) to David Garnett in his wildly successful novella Lady into Fox (1922), David Lindsay in The Haunted Woman (1922), and Walter de la Mare in his celebrated faux-autobiography Memoirs of a Midget (1921), as well as his finest short story, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ (1922). The centrality of women to post-war fiction is hardly surprising, given both their unusual visibility during the conflict and the extension of the vote to women in 1918 and 1928 (though I should stress that most of the texts I’ve listed are more concerned with female invisibility than with the belated entrance of women into full citizenship). But why did so many writers choose to represent women’s experiences in fantastic fiction? Margaret Irwin’s first two novels were fantasies, and at the end of the decade she wrote the most anthologized of her short stories, a supernatural horror called ‘The Book’ (1930). These three texts might be said to provide a kind of answer to my question, and one that throws light on the other women’s fantasies I’ve listed.

The 1920s and 1930s have together come to be known as between the wars, as if they were defined by the cataclysmic acts of violence that hem them in, making them a no-man’s land without an identity or direction of its own. The dominant mode of Irwin’s fantasies is in-betweenness. Each story conveys a similar sense of waiting in a state of uneasy suspension to see if something that has just ended will complete its transformation into something else. The transformation hasn’t been fully accomplished by the end of the narrative, and the feeling you’re left with after reading is one of uncertainty, with the protagonist and hence the reader poised or held in prolonged suspension between alternative genres or modes of existence – different philosophies – without any clear sense of which of these, or which combination of these, might best be embraced in order to make sense of the time to come. This mood of suspension pervades all the most prominent female fantasies of the decade. Lolly Willowes ends with its protagonist uncertain about her future, despite her initiation into the powers and demonic connections of being a witch. Living Alone finishes with its desultory heroine wandering off to the United States, uncertain what she will do next. Lud-in-the-Mist leaves many of its female characters either dead or marginalized, despite the transformation of their country through a magical revolution; Orlando’s hero becomes a heroine half way through his unexpectedly extended lifespan, but her happiness at the end of the book is associated with her lifelong association with a quiet and prosperous country estate, out of the political and cultural limelight. Each of these books brings its women into direct contact with potent magical forces, but each also leaves them waiting, half hopeful but with a bass note of well-founded scepticism, for those energies to manifest themselves in genuine social change. And the sense of infinite promise mixed with doubt and even fear pervades the marvellous early narratives of Margaret Irwin.

The best known of Irwin’s fantasies is ‘The Book’, which I first came across in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s fine anthology The Weird (2011). The protagonist of the story is a man, but his in-between-ness, like that of the women in the books I’ve listed, is never in question. He is a modestly prosperous middle-class gentleman, with a reliable job, a wife, three children and a dog, and a house in which they all live in close and reasonably democratic proximity. The children in his house all have a voice, and the man’s ‘favourite’ is the youngest, eight-year-old Jean. The egalitarian tendencies of this family are embodied in its solitary set of bookshelves, which promiscuously mingles ancient and modern, male and female, adult’s and children’s texts in cheerful disorder:

The dining-room bookcase was the only considerable one in the house and held a careless unselected collection to suit all the tastes of the household, together with a few dull and obscure old theological books that had been left over from the sale of a learned uncle’s library. Cheap red novels, bought on railway stalls by Mrs Corbett, who thought a journey the only time to read, were thrust in like pert, undersized intruders among the respectable nineteenth-century works of culture, chastely bound in dark blue or green, which Mr Corbett had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days; beside these there swaggered the children’s large gaily bound story-books and collections of Fairy Tales in every colour.

This household, then, embodies the inter-war epoch which saw the vote finally extended to all British citizens of suitable age. Its bookshelves are available to all its members and represent many aspects of European culture, both elite and popular, from fairy tales and Latin poetry to railway novels and detective fiction (Mr Corbett was reading a detective novel in the story’s opening sentence, despite the fact that the ‘pert, undersized intruders’ of popular fiction are associated in the list with his less educated wife). The house is not excessively democratic, however; it is not revolutionary, like Soviet Russia. We learn a few pages later that the servants are assumed by their employers to be uninterested in reading: ‘The maid never touched the books’ Mr Corbett thinks (p. 184). And the books themselves speak to moments of ambition in Mr Corbett’s past. They contain a number of nineteenth-century volumes he ‘had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days’ and the theological tomes whose only function (since they are never read) must be to inform the world that Mr Corbett’s uncle was a Dean, a figure of some stature in the Church of England. It is one of these ancient books that gives Irwin’s text its title, apparently infecting Mr Corbett’s mind with a miasma of self-interest, intensifying those early ambitions into an all-consuming obsession with financial and intellectual self-advancement at the expense of everyone around him. I say ‘apparently’ here because his passion for self-promotion is hinted at, as we’ve seen, in the books he owns, and Irwin carefully refrains from allowing us to conclude with any certainty that the effects of the titular Book are supernatural. Here is another form of in-between-ness the narrative contains: the gradual corruption of Mr Corbett’s mind by ‘The Book’ can be as easily ascribed to his own character and upbringing as to supernatural causes, and the tale is a perfect example of Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘hesitation’ between supernatural and natural explanations of seemingly impossible occurrences – a hesitation which suggests that the world itself is somehow suspended between irreconcilable philosophical perspectives, materialist and spiritual, supposedly committed to the former while being unable to shake off the residual influence of the latter, even if only as a means of disclaiming responsibility for its own worst actions.

The Book itself is an in-between object. Its presence on the bookshelves can at first only be deduced from an absence: an unexplained gap between the usually densely-packed volumes, which acquires for Mr Corbett an ‘unnatural importance’ and begins to prey on his mind until it develops an unsettling resemblance to ‘a gap between the two front teeth of some grinning monster’. For Chaucer and his medieval contemporaries a gap between the two front teeth was a sign of lechery, and there’s no mistaking the association between Mr Corbett’s obsession with the Book and erotic desire – in particular pornography. Censorship has ensured that pornography constitutes an absence in many libraries. It has also ensured that obscene passages in nineteenth-century texts were sometimes printed in Latin, barring access to uneducated readers on the dubious assumption that only the well-schooled are disciplined enough to read such passages without succumbing to temptation. The Book, when Mr Corbett stumbles across it, turns out to be in Latin, and he is at first drawn to the illustrations rather than the text, since his linguistic skills are not the best. These illustrations invoke both sexual temptation and its possible consequence, childbirth: ‘an ugly woodcut of Adam and Eve with figures like bolsters and hair like dahlias, or a map of the Cosmos with Hell-mouth in the corner, belching forth demons’ (p. 186). When at last Mr Corbett decides to decipher the Latin with the help of his young son’s dictionary, he ‘steals’ into the schoolroom like a thief in the night ‘With a secret and guilty air which would have looked absurd to anyone who knew his harmless purpose’. The part of the book he reads with most attention is a passage that describes (as he thinks) ‘some horrible rite practised by a savage tribe of devil-worshippers’ – though he reflects extensively on it afterwards, ‘committing each detail to memory’ as if to preserve it for his own uses. And the guilt that accompanies his clandestine reading of the Book soon begins to extend itself to Mr Corbett’s dealings with his family. He begins to think they suspect him of some unspecified misconduct and becomes infuriated at their ‘low and bestial suspicions and heavy dullness of mind’. The second time he borrows the dictionary from his son he ‘thought the boy looked oddly at him and he cursed him in his heart for a suspicious young devil, though of what he should be suspicious he could not say’ (p. 187). By this stage in the story his family has become a ‘savage tribe’ with devilish suspicions or superstitions, whose language he no longer speaks and whose culture is a closed book to him. Mr Corbett has become a colonial intruder into his own household, and anyone familiar with the habits of colonists will have begun to expect the worst from his bids to penetrate the secret spaces of its other inhabitants.

Mr Corbett’s inability to say what his family might suspect him of can be taken as another significant gap in the narrative, a deliberate exclusion from it of something in him which Mr Corbett himself refuses to acknowledge. The nature of that unsaid something may be hinted at in the phrase ‘low and bestial suspicions’, sexual desire being often associated with wild animals as against civilized men. The same refusal to acknowledge his own half-suppressed desires is implied by his assumption that the outrageous passage he translates so carefully refers to some ritual performed by savages, as against the actions of a self-disciplined Englishman like himself.  Yet Mr Corbett has been having what are obliquely identified as sexual fantasies before ever he lays hands on the Book. The story begins with him falling into the habit of reading familiar books in perverse new ways, all of which can be seen as eroticized or sexual. Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop – its title suggesting the secrets that might be hidden in broad daylight in a packed emporium – becomes for him an index to its author’s sado-masochistic leanings: ‘Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering’. When he turns instead to the classical fiction of Walter Pater he concludes that ‘there is something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake’ (p. 184). Later he identifies Robert Louis Stevenson as another sadist, Treasure Island exhibiting ‘an invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality’ (p. 185). Perverse readings like these can also be readily practised, it turns out, on the books that formed the bedrock of Mr Corbett’s education. In his nightmares after reading Pater ‘the gods and heroes of classic fable acted deeds whose naked crime and shame [he] had never appreciated in Latin and Greek Unseens’, and he wakes ‘in a cold sweat from the spectacle of the ravished Philomel’s torn and bleeding tongue’ (p. 184). Latin itself, the mark of a high-class schooling eminently suitable for boys who are destined by birth to become leaders of men, has been contaminated by association with rape and other ‘naked crimes’ well before Mr Corbett first glances into the manuscript pages of the mysterious tome of the story’s title.

Meanwhile, Mr Corbett entertains the same suspicions of other family members as he suspects them of entertaining about him. When his son in turn suddenly becomes disgusted by a book he used to enjoy (‘Filthy stuff’, he calls it), Mr Corbett’s first assumption is that the boy has been reading a pornographic publication passed on to him by servants or other boys: ‘Mr Corbett was disturbed. Unpleasant housemaids and bad schoolfriends passed through his head, as he gravely asked his son how he had got hold of that book’. His suspicions prove groundless, however. The book the boy finds ‘filthy’ is an expurgated edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with all the obscene bits taken out – though of course in the original Swift’s misanthropic ‘cynicism’, as Mr Corbett calls it, is expressed in graphically corporeal terms. Before long Mr Corbett himself is echoing the boy’s reaction to Swift (and the irony of Swift having been another Dean is surely intentional). By this stage, for him all authors have become ‘filthy-minded’, from the sexually repressed Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to William Wordsworth with his unwholesome nature fetish, and all of them use literature to articulate ‘what they dared not express in their lives’. Literature itself points to a gap in public life, the gap from which the articulation of erotic arousal has been erased, and it is this gap that the Book of the story’s title comes exclusively to fill in Mr Corbett’s own existence.

As he gets to know the Book better he notices that it is unfinished. There are blank pages at the end, a gap where the perpetual process of learning to which the text pays verbal tribute has been cut short by the author’s death. As Mr Corbett painstakingly deciphers the Book’s contents he sees that these blank pages are being gradually filled with lines of new writing: instructions which permit him to satisfy his clandestine desires in the world beyond the text. At first these lines give him tips on good investments, glutting his appetite for wealth and status. Later, however, they move on to more obviously damaging suggestions, instructing him to kill the family dog and thus pandering to the sadistic pleasure in cruelty which he detected in Stevenson and Dickens. Inevitably the mysterious instructions that appear on the blank pages, which so conveniently chime in with Mr Corbett’s unspoken wishes, imply that he has started to write these wishes into the manuscript, embellishing his work of translation with unwholesome fantasies of his own. His belief that he must obey the lines’ instructions to the letter (if not, he is convinced that something dreadful will happen to him) invokes his respect for authority, as exemplified in his decision to keep his uncle’s books in the first place; and here we come to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story – its gender politics.

I suggested earlier that the Corbett household has a quasi-democratic air about it, as attested by its bookshelves, or by the fact that Mr Corbett and his wife share the same tastes in lowbrow reading. What Mr Corbett’s new reading habits exemplify, by contrast, is his frustrated wish for power. His perverse analyses of Dickens, Stevenson and the Book make him feel superior – first to his younger self, who he thinks did not read with the penetration he has acquired in his maturity; then to his wife and children, who strike him as dull and narrow-minded by comparison; and finally to his friends and professional colleagues, whose inability to profit from the Book’s financial tips makes him think of them as incompetent. Inevitably, perhaps, his sense of superiority has a gendered aspect. In the 1920s Latin formed an integral part of a middle-class boy’s education – and there is no indication in the story that the girls in his family have access to it. It’s the ancient language of the law, and Mr Corbett gives as his excuse for borrowing the dictionary his need to translate an old law case for professional purposes. And it’s the language of theology, associated with the late Dean’s library. Law and theology, like Latin, have traditionally been the exclusive province of men; in Irwin’s day this was only slowly changing. And in medieval times, when the Book was written, Latin was the language of the Bible, and of the male priests who had sole access to its contents. Indeed, the title of the short story could well be read as referring to the Good Book, and the mysterious Book itself with its pictures of Adam and Eve and the mouth of Hell could well be taken for an annotated copy of the Scriptures. In turning from detective fiction to what he thinks of as theology Mr Corbett is embracing authority, just as he is when he casts aside the demotic Dickens for the more socially elevated Pater.

Mr Corbett’s recourse to the Dean’s volumes, in other words, immerses him in a world where men’s activities are carefully segregated from those of women; a world from which the twentieth century was only just beginning to emerge in the two decades between the wars. The unhealthy miasma he detects in the vicinity of the bookshelves – exuded by the Dean’s library, and perhaps by the Book in particular – could be construed as the stink of the patriarchal past, when women were men’s chattels and it was the absolute prerogative of men to dispose of their offspring as they saw fit. The association of the Dean’s library with pornography points up the various abuses to which patriarchy gives rise – through its tendency to represent women and children as objects, through its privileging of individual male desires over the collective needs of the community, through its restriction of the arcane secrets of sexual knowledge to male eyes and hands. There’s a ghastly inevitability, then, about the fact that Mr Corbett’s perverse reading culminates in an assault on Jean, a female child. Philomela, after all, whose severed tongue Mr Corbett dreams of, was raped by a patriarch – her father, Tereus – and Mr Corbett’s final attack on his own daughter can be read as the consequence of an education designed to reinforce the historical linkage of patriarchal power with sexual violence.

The build-up to the attack is framed precisely in terms of the protection of privileged authority. By this point the Book has become for Mr Corbett ‘the source of ancient and secret power’, and the nightmares his daughter has begun to have about it suggest that she has somehow ‘acquired dangerous knowledge’ herself – perhaps by reading it, which would make her in his eyes a kind of heretic against his own divine status. She has teamed up with the family dog, he thinks absurdly, to conspire against his plans for universal domination; and the thought leads him to quote a line from the Good Book: ‘“All that are not with me are against me,” he repeated softly’. The words are derived from a sentence uttered by the divine son of a patriarchal God (‘He that is not with me is against me’, Matthew 12:30), and Mr Corbett’s easy appropriation of it for his own ends echoes, in effect, many generations of scriptural exegesis on behalf of male supremacy. In a similar spirit he decides to kill the child with a dose of rat poison no one knows he has – a particularly deadly form of secret knowledge, playing on the notion that his mind (like that of Dorian Gray) has been metaphorically ‘poisoned’ by a Book; his murder will be committed, like an act of God, by the unseen hand of a ‘secret power’. In these final paragraphs of the story Mr Corbett has become an activist on behalf of religion itself, which has acted since classical times in the service of male oppression.

In fact, to his credit, Mr Corbett withstands this last temptation. He doesn’t kill his daughter, but dies himself in her place, destroyed either by the shocking revelation that all his recent investments have collapsed (as some people believe) or by the pressure of a hand upon his windpipe (as the coroner’s report suggests). Was he killed by the Book’s disembodied servant, the demonic hand about which his daughter has been having so many nightmares? Or did he kill himself by his own hand, as the lawyers assert, somehow throttling himself to death to prevent himself becoming a similar servant of oppression? The notion that the hand that killed him might have been his own would seem far-fetched, if it weren’t for the fact that his hand has been associated throughout the story both with his reading of the Latin book and his carrying out of its instructions: ‘with his finger he traced out the words that had been written’; ‘He held onto the door handle [of his daughter’s bedroom], but his fingers seemed to have grown numb, for he could not turn it’ (p. 191). The story’s end, then, falls into a gap between two alternative theories of Mr Corbett’s death, and in doing so it defines the interwar period as a time in suspension between the immaterial preoccupations of the past and the material obsessions of the present; or else between the total dominance of the patriarchy, supported by an intensely patriarchal religion firmly rooted in the scriptures, and the ushering in of a new, egalitarian age in the wake of the universal franchise. It’s presumably up to the reader (as it was to Mr Corbett) to determine which.

Lynd Ward, illustration for William F. Harvey, ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’