Gerald Bullett, The Spanish Caravel (1927), reissued as The Happy Mariners (1935

One of my favourite illustrations in The Hobbit (1937) is Tolkien’s drawing of the three trolls, Tom, Bill and Bert, hiding behind trees as a dwarf approaches the fire they have built in a wood.[1] The wood stands, we’re told, in a disreputable country not far from the Misty Mountains, to which policemen and map-makers never go and where people have never even heard the name of the king. This is the location of Bilbo’s first adventure after leaving home and the first time he acts as a burglar; he has been hired in this capacity to help steal back the treasure of the dwarves, stolen long before by a dragon. It is also the first time the dwarves let themselves get caught by one of their enemies. Bilbo’s expertise as a burglar steadily grows as the adventure continues after this episode. The dwarves, on the other hand, don’t seem to learn anything at all from this first experience of captivity. They get caught again in the Misty Mountains by goblins, in Mirkwood by spiders, and in Mirkwood a second time by their tetchy old foes the Wood-Elves. On one occasion they are even caught in exactly the same way as they were by the trolls: they see firelight in the distance, assume correctly that where there’s fire there’s food, and hurry towards it without taking the most basic precautions, letting their stomachs do their thinking for them. Confusticate and bebother these unteachable dwarves, as Bilbo might well have put it.

This first episode in the hobbit’s adventures – the meeting with the trolls – contains in miniature all the rest. It involves fire, woods, mountains (at a distance), meetings with dangerous creatures, a bit of magic, a good deal of trickery, and some shenanigans with pockets (Bilbo tries to pick a troll’s pocket and gets caught because the purse he lifts is able to talk; pockets or pocketses also play a central role in his later meeting with Gollum). It even involves treasure, since Bilbo and the Dwarves afterwards find the trolls’ cave, which is full of food, gold, unpleasant smells and some useful swords. With the swords is the long, keen knife Bilbo christens ‘Sting’, which he uses to rescue the dwarves when they are caught by giant spiders in Mirkwood. In that later rescue he copies Gandalf’s trick of enraging his enemies with his voice while keeping himself hidden, which suggests again that the hobbit learns from his adventures. Thanks to his growing knowledge, Bilbo grows in stature as the novel progresses, reflecting the growing confidence of the novice reader who follows his journey to the Lonely Mountain (and back again, of course), as charted by Francis Spufford in The Child That Books Built.[2]

The illustration Tolkien drew for this adventure is dominated by trees: long boles in foreground and background, with a bright fire in the middle ground, slightly right of centre, from which smoke rises in baroque curls above stylised flames. There are very few branches visible; the trees are mostly shown as a cluster of trunks standing closely together. There are various items by the fire: the barrel from which the trolls have been serving out beer, a stone for sitting on (or is it a sack?), a jug, two bowls. In the foreground a dwarf with a hood approaches the fire. At least, Tolkien tells us in the text that the dwarves wore hoods, but this one wears something more like a hat as modelled by the dwarves in Disney’s Snow White (1937), which wasn’t released in the UK until 1938, the year after The Hobbit was first published.

From behind the tree trunks in the background three trolls peer out; they have prominent eyes and pointed ears set high on their heads, like the eyes and ears of cats. I remember thinking as a child that the trolls didn’t look much like the way I’d imagined them; too slim, their heads too large in proportion to their bodies, and the text never mentions those pointed ears.[3] The trees, on the other hand, were wonderful. The ones in the foreground are drawn in broken and unbroken white lines against a black background, while the ones behind are textured with white dots on black, reversing the black dots on white with which Tolkien decorates the ground around the fire; this mixture of line-work with pointillism gives the drawing tremendous energy. Three of the trees have vines curling up them, neatly echoing the curls of smoke rising from the fire. I also liked the way Tolkien put a triple border round the picture, just like an Edwardian picture frame, with the title displayed at the bottom as if on a plaque. This was something I tried to emulate in my own finished drawings at the age of seven or eight.

More recently I’ve been reading a novel for children by Gerald Bullett, The Spanish Caravel (1927), republished in 1935 as The Happy Mariners with illustrations by the celebrated artist and theatrical scholar C. Walter Hodges.[4] Bullett’s novel was well known in his lifetime; my 1956 edition tells me it had been reprinted three times, and the illustrations by Hodges are wonderful work, on a par with his much-loved illustrations for Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (1946). These days any reader will find the book offensive for its representation of Pacific Islanders as a horde of ‘comic’ cannibals who speak a nonsense language; the fact that those islanders are clearly intended to parody British childhood fantasies of adventure in far-off places modelled on imperialist stories tailored to middle-class boys does nothing to soften the racism. But the novel is also full of passages of beautiful prose – something Bullett was well known for in his lifetime. And its central character, a ten-year-old girl called Elizabeth Robinson, could be considered a curious example of British male attitudes to girls just before the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 – better known as the Universal Franchise – which finally granted women the vote on the same terms as men in the United Kingdom. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment.

Most importantly for my purposes in this blog post, however, one of Hodges’s illustrations looks remarkably like Tolkien’s drawing of the trolls. This is a picture titled ‘Night in the Forest’, on p. 119 of my edition, almost exactly halfway through the book. The parallels are striking. First, the trees: long boles in the foreground and background, with a bright fire in the middle ground, once again slightly right of centre, from which smoke rises in billows and curls more naturalistically depicted than in Tolkien’s drawing. Once again there are very few branches visible, and the trees are standing close together, rising from the bottom to the top of the picture like the bars of a cage. People, not objects, are visible by the fire, one sitting, one lying half raised on their arms; it’s hard to tell which of the four children in Bullett’s book they represent. In foreground and background, occupying the place of Tolkien’s dwarf and three trolls, are the shapes of big cats: eight cats in all, counting the one that’s only visible thanks to its glowing eyes in the dense shadows at the left in the foreground. In Bullett’s text the creatures are not specifically cats but ‘beasts of prey’ (p. 117); Hodges has chosen to interpret them as feline, which is interesting considering the feline appearance of Tolkien’s trolls, with their pointed ears and large, glowing eyes so unlike the description in his narrative. Hodges’s picture, like Tolkien’s, is given texture by the juxtaposition of white on black and black on white, with black predominating throughout, as you might expect in a night scene. Like Tolkien’s, the picture is surrounded by a frame of three parallel lines, and like Tolkien’s its title is given underneath, inscribed on what looks like a brass plaque. So many parallels, it seemed to me when I first saw the picture, could hardly be a coincidence, and I’m inclined to believe that still, though I have little concrete evidence to back this up.

In theory, of course, Tolkien could have read The Happy Mariners, and his youngest son Christopher and daughter Priscilla were of an age to enjoy the edition illustrated by Hodges, which came out in the year when Christopher turned eleven and Priscilla turned six. Bullett’s child protagonists are twelve, twins of ten-and-a-half, and seven, which tallies nicely with the ages of Christopher and Priscilla, as does the fact that there are three boys and a girl in the fictional family, which matches the composition of Tolkien’s actual one. Beyond this, Bullett’s novel has little in common with The Hobbit, apart from the fact that it includes a meeting with anthropophagic people, that is, people who eat other people (though the trolls in The Hobbit are not strictly cannibals, since they are clearly identified as a different species from the beings they eat). There’s much more in it, however, that aligns with the fiction of C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s best friend in the 1930s; again, I’ll have more to say about this later. Could Lewis, I wondered, have recommended the book to Tolkien, or vice versa? Sharing views on fiction, especially fiction with a fantastic aspect, was common practice among the Inklings, the informal literary circle that met at the Eagle and Child pub and elsewhere in Oxford throughout that decade, of which Lewis and Tolkien were the principal members.[5] Bullett is exactly the kind of writer who would have interested them, even if they might not have agreed with his ‘liberal socialist’ politics; he wrote Christian apologetics, among other things, and poetry of a slightly old-fashioned kind, the kind of which they might have approved. Moreover, one of the novels Bullett wrote in the 1930s was about Adam and Eve (Eden River, 1934), a mythic story Lewis took up nine years later in his second science fiction novel, Perelandra (1943); he might well have read Bullett’s story with attention. The Happy Mariners was another story that contained material potentially attractive to the Inklings, above all in its use of fantastic tropes and dreamscapes made real, as well as in its rich deployment of literary allusions.

In the opening chapter of Bullett’s book, the Robinson family is visited by a strange man who brings a gift for one of the children – Elizabeth – which turns out to be a ship in a bottle. The children take the ship to a pond in a brickfield (a site where bricks are made) and launch it in its glass container, then throw stones at the bottle to free the craft from bondage. As soon as the glass breaks the children find themselves at the edge of a high cliff, looking down on a full-scale version of the vessel floating in the sea beneath them. After managing to get on board, they learn that the ship is in fact a Spanish caravel which has been captured by a solitary English mariner, who wakes up after a sleep of three hundred and fifty years or so and helps them steer it across the ocean to an uninhabited island. The island closely resembles an island the children drew on a map at the beginning of the novel to provide a focus for their games. As they explore the place they find that all the details they included on the map are present, from a log cabin for shelter to a trail of footprints and a trove of buried treasure, which includes cake and a large stone sundial. Also present are some comic but threatening pirates and some comic but friendly Pacific Islanders, and the novel ends, after various adventures, with the defeat of the first and the bequeathal of the treasure to the second (with strict instructions to bury it again at a site of their choosing). The children then return home in the caravel. In the course of the journey the mariner who helped them sail it returns to his long sleep, and having got them safely home the ship returns to the size it was at the beginning of the story, ‘eight inches from prow to stern’ (p. 248). The novel, in other words, describes a there-and-back-again trajectory, which is the only other thing it has in common with The Hobbit.[6]

Bullett’s book holds many echoes of earlier fiction for children. The fact that there are four child protagonists – three boys and a girl – recalls the plural child protagonists of Edith Nesbit’s novels, and the magic that takes place in a claypit used for making bricks may remind us of the industrial sandpit in which Nesbit’s four children (not including the baby) discover the Psammead in Five Children and It (1902). Bullett’s frequent shifting of point-of-view between one child and another similarly recalls Five Children and It, as does the humorous tone of their frequent squabbling. The Elizabethan sailor awakened after long sleep recalls Nesbit’s rudely-awakened Psammead, a sand-fairy who grants the five children their wishes, all of which come true with awkward consequences unforeseen by the wisher; the sailor is much less grumpy than the sand-fairy, and the magic he and his ship unleash is less awkward in its effects, but the parallels are clear enough. The island, meanwhile, has much in common with the Neverland of J M Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (1911). Barrie tells us that the Neverland is based on the map of a child’s mind, which nearly always takes the shape of an island,

with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. (p. 73)[7]

The mixture of adventure story and fairy story in this description exactly matches Bullett’s ‘island of the map’. So too does the fact that Barrie’s Neverland has different contents depending on which child is dreaming it. ‘Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal’, Barrie tells us, so that John’s has a lagoon with flamingos flying over it, for instance, while Wendy’s has a ‘house of leaves deftly sewn together’ (p. 74). Bullett’s island, by contrast, is a response to the collective imaginations of the four children who drew the map on which it is based; but the different children each have specially tailored adventures on it. The youngest child, for instance, seven-year-old Martin, finds his way at night into a ‘Forest of Fairy Tales’ which none of the other children encounter (Chapter 14), though they get taken home in the end by a friendly cuckoo he met on this solitary adventure – remembered, perhaps, from Mrs Molesworth’s The Cuckoo Clock (1877). The island also contains elements from Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881-1883), most obviously in the siege of the log cabin by pirates, which invokes the siege of the stockade in the earlier novel (the eldest child, Rex, ‘had just been reading Treasure Island’ before the book begins, p. 2). The footprints leading to the treasure recall the famous footprint in Robinson Crusoe (1719), a book which is also invoked by the children’s surname; and the attack on the pirates by the Pacific Islanders recalls a similar attack in R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857), as do the many lavish descriptions of tropical vegetation. All these echoes of earlier fiction for children must be deliberate, I think, and suggest that Bullett read the map of children’s minds as dominated by their reading, supplemented by conversations with adults, especially their businessman father. Even the Elizabethan sailor, Phineas Dyke, comes from an episode in British history much read about by British children in the age of imperialism: the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Phineas’s awakening from long sleep summons up the many characters from history brought back to life by the fairy Robin Goodfellow in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and its sequel, Rewards and Fairies (1910), to tell their stories to two British children, just as Phineas tells the story of his capture of the real Spanish caravel to Bullett’s child protagonists. The Happy Mariners reads in fact like a journey through a library; the kind of journey recounted by Walter de la Mare in his first novel, Henry Brocken (1904), which tells of its protagonist’s travels in the ‘Rich, Strange, Scarce-Imaginable Regions of Romance’.

The originality of Bullett’s story derives from its passages of rich description, a series of dreamy set pieces which mark it out as a novel written after the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis.[8] Each of these passages is sensually vivid, but also self-evidently unrealistic, full of details that can’t be explained by conventional logic. Here, for instance, is Elizabeth’s first impression of life on the ship:

She had known every inch of the ship so well when the ship was in its bottle that she was filled with astonishment at finding everything a thousand times bigger. Here was the half-deck, higher by four feet than the other; here, on their swivels, were the two guns (faulcons, as Father had called them); and here was the cook’s galley. All was exactly as her father had shown her, and as she herself had seen when, with the ship in her hand, she had studied and admired its every part. The beams of the deck were slippery; two or three times she nearly lost her footing, and once only saved herself from falling by clutching at a gigantic coil of rope, rope thicker than her arm in a coil as tall as herself. The great lantern that swung and swayed half-way up the mizzen mast held her attention for a wondering moment. How did it come there, and who had lit it? Perhaps Rex had found it in the course of his explorations. The question did not occupy her for long, for she was enraptured with the taste – the salt and tarry taste – of this adventure; the sight of stars moving overhead; the feeling of the ship, like a live thing, under her; the rhythm and music of the ploughed sea; the sound of the canvas that was like the beating wings of a gigantic bird. She felt that she, like a queen, was riding the ship, and that the ship was riding the sea, and that the sea itself, with its myriads of leaping waves, was racing round the world. Speed and air, music and starshine, were  mixed in one glorious cup for her. (p. 54)

The passage mingles accurate marine vocabulary – half-deck, faulcons, cook’s galley, beams and so on – with elements of arrant fantasy, such as the sudden growth of an eight-inch model of a ship into a craft ‘a thousand times bigger’, or the fact that a lantern is somehow burning on the ship’s mizzen mast without having been lit by anyone (though there may be a rationale for this – ‘Perhaps Rex had found it’). Elizabeth’s attempts to rationalise the lantern get quickly subsumed by her enjoyment of the sensory richness of her adventure; it has a ‘salt and tarry taste’, the stars look as though they are moving along with the ship, the ship’s movements make it feel ‘like a live thing, under her’, the sea sounds like music, while the flapping of the sails sounds like the wings of a giant bird – everything around her is endowed with life by each of her senses in turn and together. Her intense sensory awareness convinces her that she can feel the sea itself ‘racing round the world’ – which it may well be, though the ability to sense that world-encompassing motion could be regarded as a supernatural gift. The passage ends with the idea that all her senses together contribute to her general delight, the ‘glorious cup’ from which she is drinking. Delight trumps conventional logic, then, on Elizabeth’s maiden voyage, despite (or because of) the promise of imminent danger held by the faulcons on their swivels.

Part of the dreamlike aspect of this passage derives from the fact that it’s written from the perspective of a young girl of the 1920s. Elizabeth’s delight in the ship stems from a fascination with maritime adventure which makes itself felt in the careful study she has made of the model gifted to her by a kindly-eyed sailor. The model’s release from its glass bottle and expansion to full size enables Elizabeth to realise her dreams of adventure, a dream stimulated, it would seem, by the books she has read – the books I’ve listed, some of which are directly referenced in the text. All these books are directed at boy readers rather than girls, but Elizabeth finds a way of reading against the grain to incorporate details from those books into her games with her siblings. For instance, she’s the one who draws the outline of the island on the children’s map, after a first abortive attempt by her younger brother; she’s also the one who first and most vividly brings the ship to imaginative life: ‘In fancy she sailed under a copper sky down a broad river that ran through the dark and sleeping forest; she saw panthers gliding among the trees, and monkeys leaping from branch to branch pelting each other with coconuts, and scarlet parrots that started screaming at her ship’s approach’ (p. 16); and it’s from her imaginings that her male siblings get inspiration: ‘Her brothers […] caught fire from her eyes’ (p. 19). She’s the one who succeeds in breaking the bottle with a well-cast stone, ‘though it is notorious that girls can’t throw straight’ (p. 23), and thereby wins the captaincy of the craft inside; and she knows more about that craft than the other children (‘“You seem to know a lot about this ship,” said Rex, almost complainingly. “You haven’t been on her before, have you?”’, p. 35). By the time we read the paragraph I’ve just cited, Elizabeth is both captain and ‘queen’ of a captured warship, leading her siblings on a quest to an unknown island of their own invention. She’s in a position, in other words, which outside this book she could only dream of, and her delight in riding the ship around the world is intensified, one might guess, by the fact that she could never enjoy these experiences under ordinary, non-magical circumstances.

At the same time, however, Elizabeth is constantly being relegated in Bullett’s novel to roles traditionally assigned to women under patriarchy: looking after her younger brother, cooking in the ship’s galley, being sent below when a storm blows up at sea while her brothers help man the vessel, sewing clothes in the log cabin and so on. Yet she is steering the ship when the children first encounter the pirates, takes an active part in the defence of the log cabin during the siege, and befriends the chief of the Pacific Islanders, thereby saving herself and her siblings from the evil designs of the buccaneers. Elizabeth, in fact, is a kind of in-between figure, both capable of acquitting herself well in situations formerly reserved for boys, and unable to free herself from the narrow range of roles available to young girls in her lifetime, above all as future wives and mothers. Elizabeth’s delight in the ship shows her to be willing and eager to embrace roles far beyond this narrow range, but she sometimes accepts the limitations imposed by men, as embodied by her oldest brother. That brother’s name – Rex, which is Latin for king – seems to identify him as more ‘naturally’ worthy of a leadership role than she is, despite her own name’s connection to a woman who famously had the ‘heart and stomach of a king’; and when the children land on the island Elizabeth soon hands over the captaincy to Rex. She occupies a liminal position, neither equal with her brothers (despite the promise of equality held out by the Equal Franchise Act of 1928) nor willing to accept her unequal status.

It’s for this reason, perhaps, that Elizabeth often seems most aware of the rules that govern the ‘salt and tarry’ adventure in which the children find themselves caught up. For instance, when the model ship first changes size she suggests, ‘Perhaps […] it was a big ship all the time, really. But we couldn’t see it. It was in the bottle, and the bottle was magic’ (p. 51). Later, when they discover the log cabin on the island in exactly the place they put it on the map, she suspects at once that it came into being when they imagined it:

‘Why, it might have been built yesterday,’ said Guy, ‘by the look of it.’
‘Perhaps it was,’ said Elizabeth thoughtfully.
‘What on earth do you mean?’
Elizabeth shook her head. ‘I don’t know.’ (p. 139)

Later still, she thinks she understands how and why Phineas unexpectedly vanished from the island and reappeared on board the caravel:

‘He belongs to the ship, don’t you see? He’s lived on her for three hundred years. It’s his home, and he’s helpless and kind of lost anywhere else. That’s why he came back, I’m sure. He just forgot all about us and went back to his old ship without quite knowing what he was doing. Like people walking in their sleep.’ (p. 242)

Elizabeth’s in-between state, not bound to the rules of ‘realistic’ adventure stories as her older brother is (the younger boys abide by different rules, as we’ll see), makes her at ‘home’ on the ship and the island, as he is not. She rarely gets worried or frightened, as the boys do, and finds herself able to sympathize both with the wicked pirate chief when they pick him up at sea and with the chief of the Pacific ‘cannibals’ when she finds him injured outside the cabin; in fact, her willingness to set aside convention to make friends with the latter ensures that their adventure gets a happy ending. Thanks to her experiences as a girl in a society dominated by men, she is acutely conscious from the start that the children are engaged in events that have little to do with the rules of physics or social conventions – though those rules and conventions are always at work behind the scenes. In the end it seems clear that the whole adventure could not have happened without Elizabeth’s involvement, and in this she is closely related to Barrie’s Wendy, for whom Neverland and all its adventures are engineered by Peter Pan; though Elizabeth’s greater agency is reflected in the fact that she engineers the island for herself by sketching out its contours in the opening chapter. That the adventure is predominantly Elizabeth’s is also suggested by the fate of the pirate chief, who has his head cut off by Phineas in single combat on the deck of the caravel, but spouts only sawdust from his injuries, making it clear that he cannot feel them and so no longer needs Elizabeth’s sympathy (which she bestowed on him freely on his earlier visit to the vessel). The sawdust conveys the fact that the whole adventure was only ever a brief holiday from ‘real life’, and that this interval of play – when living and breathing human beings can be filled with sawdust like a child’s dolls – will soon be over, giving way once again to the world we call ‘real’. Of all the children, Elizabeth seems most aware of the evanescence of the adventure, since she has most to lose by its coming to an end. She’s the first to note, after the pirate chief’s beheading, that they will likely be home in time for tea (p. 246); but she is also the last to leave the island, lingering as long as she can to say goodbye to her friend the chief of the Pacific Islanders (pp. 236-7). Her in-betweenness persists to the novel’s final page.

Interestingly, the boys in the story too exist in an in-between state, caught both between childhood and adulthood and between conventionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ attributes. The eldest boy, Rex, is the most maddeningly masculine of the three, constantly seeking to assert his greater knowledge and strength over those of his siblings. He addresses his youngest brother, Martin, as ‘my lamb’ (p. 6), telling him that ‘When you’re a bit older’ he’ll learn to fear pirates as well as yearn for them. On one occasion he calls his other brother Guy ‘my little man’, like a tiresome adult, while ‘thrusting two hands mannishly into his trouser pockets’ and giving ‘a scornful laugh that was very impressive’ (pp. 17-18). At the same time, Rex is not yet wholly given over to the patriarchy, since he is willing to cede his ‘natural’ place as leader from time to time by consenting to the best ideas of his brothers and sister: ‘That was the pleasant thing about Rex,’ Bullett tells us; ‘even though he was the eldest he was never above taking suggestions from the others’ (p. 6). His genial compliance derives, no doubt, from his secure position as presumptive leader of the Robinson children.

The youngest boy, meanwhile – Martin – lives equally in his imagination and the material world, being wholly devoted to his older sister, his cat Fandy, and a broken cuckoo clock he treats as a toy. Unlike Rex he is not yet fully aware of the distinctions between his dreams and desires and the reason-based universe adults expect him to inhabit; and this is best exemplified by his solo adventure in the ‘Forest of Fairy-Tales’ to which he finds his way on the island, where he meets a dwarf who offers him three wishes in time-honoured fashion (pp. 152-4). Martin has just passed a beautiful orange tree in the forest, and wishes for that; at once he finds it growing next to him, and his next wish is to be able to take it away with him when he goes home. The dwarf suggests he carry it away in a pot, but Martin is horrified: ‘But it won’t be the same in a pot!’, he cries in distress. The dwarf then offers him the forest as well, to keep the tree in its ideal context; Martin agrees at once, and his second wish is duly granted. After this, Martin pauses to consider his final wish. He would like, he says, to eat the oranges, but also doesn’t want to ‘spoil the tree’ by plucking them. Unfortunately the dwarf ignores the second part of his wish and plucks all the fruit, after which ‘The tree was bare; the oranges lay scattered on the ground’, and Martin finds himself ‘on the verge of tears’, realising that the tree he loved no longer exists in the state that made him fall in love with it. Martin’s desires, he learns, are unattainable in the ‘real’ world, something that’s made clear to him through his inability to formulate his wishes satisfactorily (shades here, again, of Five Children and It). In recompense the dwarf offers him one more wish – forgetfulness – and Martin at once forgets the lesson; perhaps Bullett thinks him too young, as yet, to have learned it. The youngest Robinson goes on to have other fairy-tale adventures that night – in a snow-bound village where he meets the cuckoo from his broken cuckoo-clock and Cinderella – and he tells his siblings all about them when he gets home; but he never again mentions the vexed conundrum of the orange tree.

All the same, there are hints elsewhere in the text that Martin is fully aware at times of the disconnect between his desires and the ‘actual’ world he lives in. When the children first come aboard the life-size ship, Martin quickly learns he may not be much help in its handling. ‘I’ve got a feeling I’m not going to like this trip very much,’ he tells his sister. ‘I wanted to help with the ship, but they said I was too little’ (p. 59). Soon afterwards he adds, ‘I think it would be rather nice to go home. You could come too, couldn’t you? They don’t want girls here, you know. As Rex said, this is a man’s job’ (pp. 59-60). Martin is, in fact, the only one of the brothers who directly recognises the convention that makes Elizabeth an unusual member of a ship’s crew, and he does so because he finds himself in the same position; unlike the older boys he cannot pretend to be a man. It takes all of Elizabeth’s ingenuity to persuade him that they can’t go home in the ship’s boat, rapidly explaining that ‘it was impossible, that she couldn’t row, that it would spoil the fun, that she must stay with her brothers, and that Martin was going to have the time of his life on the Resmiranda’ (p. 60). If Martin, at his young age, is tied to convention, Elizabeth has the wherewithal, here as elsewhere, to find imaginative ways around it.

Rex, then, is almost a maddening sort of man and Martin is very definitely a child; but the middle brother, Guy, is more ambiguous in his role. First, he is Elizabeth’s twin, and very fond of his sister – something that Rex finds it necessary to tease him about from time to time (‘real’ men, in Rex’s opinion, don’t side with girls in every family disagreement). His relative plumpness makes him less suited to the ‘male’ life of high adventure; when he slides down the rope that leads from the cliff-top to the newly life-size ship, his weight causes the rope to break and he falls into the sea, which means he is forced to spend the first few hours on board without his clothes as he waits for them to dry; a humiliating situation for any would-be mariner. His position in the family between his brothers and between a child and an adult comes across most clearly in the adventure he has on his own, when he decides to leave the log cabin to spy out the land without consulting his siblings. This comes straight after Martin’s solitary adventure, and we’re told that Guy is the only one of Martin’s siblings to fully believe in his adventures in the Forest of Fairy Tales, since in Guy’s opinion

This island […] was not an ordinary island; it seemed to be a place where things you thought of had a queer trick of coming true when you least expected it. And not only things you thought of, but things you half-thought of, things you had forgotten, and perhaps – who could say? – things that lay buried inside you under all the other thoughts. (p. 178).

This makes it sound as though the island releases things from your Freudian unconscious (or ‘subconscious’, as Bullett calls it in his essay Dreaming); and sure enough, Guy feels the pull of the unconscious on his own solitary adventure, much as Martin did in his encounter with the dwarf. As he hurries towards the highest point on the island he abruptly feels a strange inclination to take a detour towards a nearby spot where his dreams might come true, like Martin’s:

As he came closer, a warm breath of intoxicating scent floated up into his face, and phrases of distant music stole upon his senses. The leaves of all the trees began to quiver and glow, as though little lamps had been lit inside them; and the whole forest seemed to be singing, murmuring. At any moment something strange and delightful might happen, for near him, within hand’s touch, he was aware of another world, a world both inside and outside the forest that he saw, the sea that he remembered, and the home that he had left so long (it seemed) ago; and he felt that some trifling happy chance – a step, a movement, the flicker of an eyelash, or a single word if only it were the right word – might release him into that world. (p. 179)

This enchantment of Guy’s has much in common with Elizabeth’s feeling of sensory pleasure on the ship; each of Guy’s senses is caught in turn by the ‘other world’ that seeks to draw him to itself, from smell (‘scent’) and sound (‘music’) to sight (the ‘little lamps’ of the leaves) and touch (hand’s touch) – only taste is missing. The accumulation of these sense impressions brings with it the potential for delight of the kind embraced by Elizabeth (‘something strange and delightful might happen’), but Guy has a mission and, as a boy, suspects that what tempts him to abandon it must be wrong, running counter to the values boys and men are supposed to embrace. He therefore resists delight as Elizabeth did not, hurrying past the place of enchantment towards the hilltop where he hopes to be able to see all round the island. A second time he is tempted – this time by the sudden realisation that the treasure must be buried nearby, where they located it on the map – and this time he succumbs to temptation, digging for a while until his ‘conscience’ strikes him again and he hurries on to Look-out Hill (p. 180-1). Even here he finds himself revelling in the pleasure of seeing the island laid out below exactly as he and the other children conceived it, and realising that ‘it was the map itself come beautifully and marvellously true’ (p. 181). In the face of this beauty, the need to arm himself with ‘information of immense stragetical (or was it strategical?) importance’ (pp. 181-2) seems only supplementary to the pleasure of simply living in the present. For a while, in fact, he completely forgets his patriarchal role as the male scout on whom his family depends, enraptured by another assault on his senses, beginning with the ‘slow lazy rhythm’ of waves breaking on the shore:

Guy listened to this music crashing and echoing round the coast, and stared in delight, forgetful of danger, at the rippling water, which, though near at hand crested with tiny waves, in the distance seemed so smooth and blue that he could scarcely tell where the sea ended and sky began. (p. 182)

Throughout his adventure, then, Guy finds himself torn between the vision of the fairy tale forest afforded to Martin, the sensory delight afforded to Elizabeth, and his responsibility as the male protector of women and children, who must set aside visions and pleasures for practical ends. The sight of the approaching canoes of the Pacific Islanders recalls him to his position within the patriarchy, so that he starts taking practical measures – ‘he took bearings’ (p. 182) – in an effort to judge how far away they are and how much time he has to warn the others about them. Patriarchal values, however, have just as great a tendency to lapse into fantasy as a delight in one’s physical surroundings, or a conviction that another, more beautiful universe exists ‘both inside and outside the forest he saw’. As he watches the canoes Guy is seized by an impulse to attack them all by himself, like a rogue bull; but he comes back to earth with a bump when he suddenly realises that even ‘he and old Rex’ together ‘would be hard put to it to protect those youngsters’, Martin and Elizabeth – his twin sister being relegated to the status of youngster ‘by virtue of her sex’ (p. 183). He hurries back to the cabin, and after that all his various fantasies get swept away by the urgent need to defend their stronghold against both pirates and Pacific Islanders. During the siege, Elizabeth’s relative ‘youth’ too gets forgotten, and she takes up a musket with just as much confidence and skill as the boys.

Guy’s wavering between the values of the child Martin, his sister Elizabeth, and his older brother Rex, encapsulates the experience of reading The Happy Mariners, which slips easily between sophisticated descriptions of bodily responses to the sea and the island and passages of comic melodrama, like the absurd behaviour of the pirates Bill Murder and Nautical Tallboy in Chapter Twelve; between moments of life-and-death urgency, like Guy’s race to inform his siblings of the Islanders’ approach, and moments of outright fantasy, like the sudden arrival of the wooden cuckoo from Martin’s cuckoo clock at the exact moment when she is needed to transport the children from island to ship at the end of their island adventure. Bullett’s point, it would seem, is that all these ingredients play an active part in the lives of adults as well as of children; a view confirmed by the fact that the children are as much influenced in their thinking by their businessman father as they are by their reading. Claims that one or other set of values belongs exclusively to children or to adults, to boys or to girls, seem to be undermined by the shared nature of so many of the children’s experiences; though the novel also pays due attention to the pressure on boys and girls to adopt exclusively masculine or feminine habits, on children to ‘grow out of’ their weakness and imaginative playfulness, and on everyone to pay less attention to the delight of the moment than to the useful plans they ought to be making for the future. Bullett’s alertness to this pressure lends the novel an atmosphere of gentle mournfulness – the children must surely succumb to such pressure at some point – despite its seeming endorsement of bodily and imaginative pleasures over the demands of duty and convention.

Running through the novel is another theme to which Hodge’s picture, ‘Night in the Forest’, alerts us: cats. I mentioned before that Martin’s favourite companion, besides the wooden cuckoo in his cuckoo clock, is the cat Fandy; and somehow Fandy pervades the children’s adventures with his presence. He accompanies them on the visit to the pond in the brick field which opens the novel, sitting near them ‘languidly washing his face’ as they discuss the island in the pond that inspires their map. On the map, the island takes on the shape of a ‘crouching leopard’, so that all events within its confines could be said to exist within the confines of a feline body. The absence of the Fandy cat and the cuckoo clock from the ship (Martin drops the clock as he climbs on board) is what makes the youngest Robinson wish to go home (pp. 59-60), and the discovery that the cat is in fact on board is what decides him to stay (‘Martin was delighted to have Fandy with him again, and he said no more about wanting to go home’, p. 65) – in spite of the fact that Fandy gave them all a fright with his gleaming eyes in the dark of the hold (pp. 63-4). The loss of Fandy on the island makes Martin miserable again, and it’s in search of Fandy that he sets off on his journey into the Forest of Fairy Tales, where he finds the cat again in the house of Cinderella, as if the island had always been the cat’s home (or one of them). Later, when Bill Murder creeps into the log cabin and prepares to stab Guy, Fandy jumps on him ‘from his hiding-place in the shadows’ and scratches his face ‘quickly and furiously with all his sharp claws at once’, thus saving Guy’s life and perhaps the lives of the other children. After this the cat recedes into the background for a while, reappearing at the precise moment when the cuckoo arrives to carry them back to the ship, when Martin points him out sitting on the beach nearby, ‘unconcernedly washing his face’ (p. 240). On returning to the ship Fandy vanishes once more, before turning up in the final sentences of the novel, ‘busy washing his face’ again; as the narrator observes, ‘There never was a cleaner cat than Fandy’ (p. 248). Martin’s cat, then, frames the story in at least two senses: he appears at the beginning and the end, and his shape provides the ‘frame’ or outline for the island which lies at the heart of their adventures. In the course of the narrative, he keeps vanishing and reappearing, as if calling in question the laws of physics; and he is sometimes scary (as he is in the hold) and sometimes heroic (as he is in the log cabin), as unconcerned about being consistent as he is about being always present.

Which brings us back to Hodges’s illustration, ‘Night in the Forest’. The picture shows the children by a fire in the forest at night surrounded by wild animals, the same wild animals they earlier insisted should be present on their island of adventure. Long before night fell, they encountered similar animals in the jungle: ‘once a huge yellow beast sprang out of its hiding-place into their path, stood for an instant grinning and glaring at them and lashing its tail, and then loped off with an angry laugh’ (pp. 108-9). Rex claims that this beast is a hyena – presumably because of its laugh – but its capacity for springing out of hiding-places and its glaring eyes might remind us of Fandy. Elizabeth seeks to defuse the fears the hyena inspires by reminding the others they have made it up: ‘Of course we did say there’d be wild beasts, when we drew the map. So we’ve only ourselves to thank for it. But I hope they won’t be too wild’ (p. 109). But more beasts emerge after nightfall, when only Rex and Guy are awake, all of them definitely ‘too wild’: first a ‘sleek hissing snake’ (p. 116), then ‘distant shapes’ beyond the firelight, at one point distinguishable as ‘a prowling beast of prey, a spotted yellow thing, lithe and sinuous, baring its cruel fangs and sniffing the human scent’ (p. 117). This creature’s spots and sinuous body evoke a leopard, like the one that inspired the shape of the island, and the impression is reinforced later when the boys see ‘a huge black cat-like creature with blazing emerald eyes’ (p. 118) approaching the fire, which Rex fights off with a blazing branch in time-honoured hero fashion, like Mowgli fighting off Shere Khan. Hodges’s picture shows the beasts as lithe black cats, despite Bullett’s later reference to them as ‘howling’ (p. 121), and the feline ears he gives them reappear in Tolkien’s drawing of the trolls.

What Hodges’s picture does not show is how the beasts are finally dispersed. ‘Suddenly,’ Bullett tells us,

There was a stir among the beasts, a flicker of fear in the bright cruel eyes. A heavy pad-pad, a mighty earth-shaking roar, and into their midst leapt a huge lion. The boys, transfixed with fear, sat for one instant staring at the creature, saw it leap upon its prey and plunge its claws into the soft fur. What animal it had chosen they could not discern; they could only see that it was almost as big as the lion itself, and they gave a gasp of astonishment to see the lion, like a monstrous cat, take up the struggling creature in its jaws and carry it away without effort as though it had been a mouse. All the other animals had fled, and now the lion was gone, and it was unlikely, said Rex, that he would bother to visit them again. (p. 121)

The beasts that threaten the children, then, and the beast that scares them off, are both clearly modelled on cats, and hence on Fandy. Disappearing and reappearing throughout the text, sometimes as a terrifying threat, sometimes as a protective guardian, always implicitly present even when the narrator fails to mention him for many pages at a time, Martin’s animal companion embodies the workings of the unconscious better, perhaps, than any other component of the novel. Even the lion that saves the children remains ambiguous in its motives. After it leaves with ‘the struggling creature in its jaws’ Rex is not wholly sure it will not come back to eat them, too: ‘Even lions are afraid of fire’, he tells Guy reassuringly, but adds a qualification: ‘I expect’ (p. 121). The simple adventures undergone by the children, where goodies are goodies and baddies are baddies, hides another world in which the distinction is not so clear, in which lions are not simple allegories of imperial might or divine strength, love and wisdom.

The appearance of the lion in the forest, just after the moment pictured by Hodges in his illustration, is perhaps the episode in the book with clearest associations with the work of C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s allegorical representation of Christ (or Christ’s qualities) in the Narnia books is of course the great lion Aslan; and Aslan has a way of appearing and disappearing unexpectedly, leaving humans and sentient animals for long periods to fend for themselves; after all, he’s ‘not like a tame lion’, as Mr Beaver tells the child protagonists in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).[9] He’s also liable to reappear in different guises; for instance, in Prince Caspian (1951) he is at first invisible to all the child protagonists except Lucy, and in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) he manifests himself successively as a picture in a book (p. 133), an albatross (pp. 158-9) and a lamb (pp. 208-9).[10] Closest to Bullett’s cat theme is the version of Aslan in The Horse and his Boy (1954), which sees the great beast transform into several felines of different sizes, from the two or more lions who first bring Shasta and Aravis together (pp. 29-32) to the solitary lion who chases Shasta and Bree to the Hermit’s garden (pp. 128-9) or the friendly cat who comforts Shasta among the tombs (‘big and very solemn […] Its eyes made you think it knew secrets it would not tell’, p. 80).[11] In this, Lewis’s version of the Thousand and One Nights, Aslan is a recurrent but various presence, exactly as Fandy is in The Happy Mariners.

There are other echoes of Lewis’s work in Bullett’s novel. The ship that begins as a miniature version of itself anticipates Lewis’s ship the Dawn Treader, which the children in that book first encounter as a picture on a wall. That ship, too, becomes full size by magic after a destructive act, in this case a furious attack by a boy called Eustace. ‘I’ll smash the rotten thing,’ Eustace cries as he rushes at the picture (p. 14), but in doing so he hurls the child protagonists into the world of Narnia, just as Elizabeth’s well-cast stone, which breaks the bottle, hurls Bullett’s child protagonists into the world of their dreams. The island where dreams come true, meanwhile, finds an echo in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the protagonists come across a ‘Dark Island’ in which all dreams, including nightmares, are made real; something Lewis represents as the worst of horrors: ‘Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams – dreams, do you understand – come to life, become real. Not daydreams: dreams’ (p. 156); an idea the crew of the Dawn Treader find they cannot face. Guy’s wrestle with his conscience on the way to Look-Out Hill finds echoes in several Narnia books, in which children get tempted in various ways and either succumb to temptation or successfully resist it. Diggory in The Magician’s Nephew (1955), does both, first releasing an evil witch from an age-long enchantment, then successfully resisting her blandishments in a Narnian Garden of Eden.

Most strikingly of all, perhaps, Bullett’s young Martin learns in the Forest of Fairy Tales that the place resembles a series of boxes of the sort widely known as Chinese boxes. His friend Cinderella calls these boxes ‘Indian’, but explains what they are with helpful clarity:

‘It’s like those Indian boxes,’ she said, ‘all different sizes, one inside the other. The forest of firs was like the first box; inside that was the snow country; and inside the snow country was the little town of moonshine where I live. The funny thing is, that they get bigger instead of getting smaller. And the one in the middle is biggest of all.’ (p. 168)

The passage, of course, foreshadows the final Narnian chronicle, The Last Battle (1956), in which Lewis’s children find their way to a succession of new worlds, ‘world within world, Narnia within Narnia’, like an onion, ‘except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last’ (p. 181).[12] Once again, these echoes of Bullett’s novel in the work of Lewis seem to me more than coincidental, and I find myself suspecting that Tolkien’s friend may have known it better than Tolkien himself.

It seems to me too, however, that Bullett’s cats have very different connotations from Lewis’s Aslan. My suspicion is based on another work by Bullett, a collection of poems he published as an undergraduate at Cambridge under the title Mice and Other Poems (1921), only six years before the first version of The Happy Mariners. In his introduction to Mice and Other Poems, the critic and poet Arthur Quiller-Couch pointed out that many young men who had fought in the Great War turned to writing poetry, and that their verse – including the verse contained in ‘this pamphlet’ – often displays a not unnatural ‘bitterness of resentment’.[13] The first poem in Bullett’s collection both explains its title and manifests the ‘bitterness of resentment’ born from the horrors of industrialised warfare. Here it is:

Mice

I see the broken bodies of women and men,
Temples of God ruined; I see the claws
Of sinister Fate, from the reach of whose feline paws
Never are safe the bodies of women and men.

Almighty Cat, it sits on the Throne of the World,
With paw outstretched, grinning at us, the mice,
Who play our trivial games of virtue and vice,
And pray—to That which sits on the Throne of the World!

From our beginning till all is over and done,
Unwitting who watches, pursuing our personal ends,
Hither and thither we scamper… The paw descends;
The paw descends and all is over and done.

In this early poem, written during or soon after his experience of combat in the Great War, cats embody an indifferent Fate wholly unlike the stern but cheerful lion-god of the Narnian chronicles; the sort of Fate that could condone casual slaughter on an industrial scale. In his essay Dreaming Bullett directly associates this sort of nightmare-cat with army life, referring to a dream of his in which a ‘cat-faced demon […] dressed in military uniform with all his buttons hideously shining, leaped out of a boiled egg at the tap of my spoon and ordered me to stand to attention’ (p. 12). The presence of war lurks in the background of The Happy Mariners, too. Phineas Dyke, the Elizabethan sailor who wakes from long sleep aboard Elizabeth’s ship, is the only survivor of a naval action in which all his fellow combatants died, friends and enemies alike, leaving him in sole charge of the caravel. Sleep fell on him as soon as the action ended, and his extended period of unconsciousness could be read as a kind of self-induced coma, offering a welcome escape into dreams from the horrors of war at sea. The cats in the novel, more often friendly and protective than terrifying, could represent the sort of softening or mellowing which Arthur Quiller-Couch hopes will take place in the young soldier-poets who have endured so much. But their terrifying aspect lingers, and the belligerent tendencies of the three boys in Bullett’s novel may have added to the melancholy undertones of the novel, especially for an adult reader who remembered the massive loss of young male life (and female too, as ‘Mice’ reminds us) in Flanders and France. These boys are already shaping up to provide perfect cannon fodder for the next outbreak of global warfare in 1939.

But I’d like to end with a more cheerful thought on Hodge’s illustration, ‘Night in the Forest’. Bullett’s essay, Dreaming, intersects in several ways with his novel for children, most obviously in its various lyrical meditations on the possible ways of viewing dreams. In the first section of the essay, Bullett tells us about his childhood theory that every person consists in fact of two people, each of whom is awake when the other is asleep; consciousness and dreams, according to this theory, have equal value, which means that Elizabeth’s dream life as captain and queen is as valid as her waking life as a girl from suburbia. In the second section, Bullett suggests that a person’s dream life exists in seamless continuity with their waking life, both being made up of identical elements, memory and thought, but in different proportions, with organising thought being almost absent from dream, while by contrast organising thought dominates any act of conscious recollection. A daydream or reverie, for Bullett, inhabits a liminal place between waking and dreaming, and its essential quality, translated into visual terms, most closely resembles ‘that quivering glaze of heat, colourless and transparent, that we sometimes see in summertime rising liquidly from the dry ground’; while in terms of hearing it invokes ‘the warm hum – the very voice of magic – with which sun-saturated woods are filled at noon’ (p. 18). Lying in such woods under such conditions – on a hot day in summer, with the trees rendered ‘at once more bright and less solid than reality’ – a person may entertain ‘a long procession of fancies’, among others that what we take to be ‘real’ is in fact no more stable or rational than what we take to be imaginary. This perception, if applied to the dream- or play-world of the island – made up as it is of memories – and the ‘real’ world from which it offers an escape, would again suggest that neither is more real or concrete than the other, each being susceptible to conditions that render them ‘less solid than reality’; conditions that include the darkness of midnight as well as summertime heat ‘rising liquidly from the dry ground’ at noon.  Elizabeth’s experiences on the ship and the island, in other words, are as positively real and valid a component of her memory – and of the personality of which her memory forms an essential part – as any of the seemingly inflexible rules and reasons imposed on her by education and convention. Both are equally real, while at the same time both form part of the same ‘long procession of fancies’. The same is true of Martin’s experiences in the Fairy-Tale Forest, or of Guy’s delight in his senses as he hurries through the woods or stands on Look-Out Hill, exulting in the sight and sound of the waves breaking on the shore. There is hope, in other words, that Elizabeth and her brothers will emerge from the woods of their island more ‘equal’, at least in each other’s eyes, than they were when they first went in. Their shared experience there, which is as real as their time in the suburban house Hodges pictures at the beginning and end of Bullett’s narrative, makes them comrades in spite of the accidents of gender, age, or personal disposition.

To adopt another idea from C. S. Lewis – that of the Wood Between the World in The Magician’s Nephew, which is full of ponds (like the pond in the brick field where the Robinsons’ adventure started) that offer gateways into other worlds – the children may possibly emerge from the woods on the island into a world which is slightly better than the world that spawned the Great War. We know from history, of course, that they did not, and that the rise of Nazism and the Second World War were just around the corner. But the hope endured, given shape and legal form by the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. So when we look at Tolkien’s drawing of the trolls in the woods, we might think about Bullett’s woods as pictured by Hodges in The Happy Mariners, the woods of daydream in Bullett’s essay on Dreaming, and Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds; and we might take this ‘long procession of fancies’ as an invitation to go wandering in the woods of our own waking and sleeping dreams, from which we too might emerge with our hopes intact – and possibly even rendered a little more accessible.

NOTES

[1] My edition of The Hobbit is the 50th Anniversary edition (London and Sydney: Unwin Hyman, 1987), and the picture of the trolls can be found on p. 43.

[2] See Spufford, The Child That Books Built ( London: Faber and Faber, 2003), pp. 64-71.

[3] Spufford mentions the non-authoritative nature of Tolkien’s illustrations (for himself as a child) in The Child That Books Built, p. 71: ‘Illustrations – I decided – were limitations’. I felt the same way about some books but not about others; Pauline Baynes’s illustrations for the Narnia books, for instance, seemed to me of a piece with the text, and indispensable.

[4] All references in this post are to Bullett, The Happy Mariners, illustrated by C. Walter Hodges (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1956).

[5] See Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1982).

[6] There and Back Again is of course the subtitle of Tolkien’s novel.

[7] Quoted from Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[8] Bullett’s keen interest in and admiration for Freud are clearly evident in his essay Dreaming, published as a pamphlet in 1928, the year after The Spanish Caravel (The Happy Mariners). The complete pamphlet can be found here: https://archive.org/details/dli.ernet.470223/mode/2up.

[9] Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Puffin Books (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1959), p. 166.

[10] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Puffin Books (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965).

[11] Lewis, The Horse and His Boy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1959).

[12] Lewis, The Last Battle (London: The Bodley Head, 1958).

[13] References are to The Project Gutenberg eBook of Mice and Other Poems, transcribed from the Cambridge University Press edition of 1921.

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