This is the first part of a review of James Treadwell’s fantasy sequence The Advent Trilogy. I’ve written two parts of the review and am not yet sure when the third part will be finished. I decided, though, that I should get these thoughts into circulation while they’re still reasonably fresh in my mind, because the ideas they’re playing with are ones I’d like to develop in other parts of this blog.
One of the characters in the first novel of Treadwell’s trilogy, Advent (2012), is a fey thirteen-year-old called Marina who has always lived in a state of artificial isolation. Ensconced in a Cornish mansion without running water or electricity, she knows so little about the world that she has hardly heard of China and doesn’t know the word for tractor, though she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of European myths and the botanical names of plants. Into the mansion stumbles Gavin, a boy of fifteen with an ill-kept secret: he has an ‘imaginary friend’ who has recently become his tormentor. This spectral presence is a woman he calls Miss Grey, and the torment springs from his unguarded references to her, for which he has been labelled – and labels himself – weird, different, probably disturbed. The third member of the youthful trio at the centre of the narrative is a Chinese-English twelve-year-old, Horace Jia, whose own big secret is that he spends his leisure time not playing computer games and football but visiting Marina in her hidden fastness, impressing her with his superior knowledge, honing his skills in moving through the tangled undergrowth of the woods like a hunter. Three lonely adolescents who see themselves, or are seen by others, as in some sense distinctive or special. The scenario is familiar enough, though not the unsettling intensity with which Treadwell invokes their loneliness, the deep unhappiness their difference brings them.
The familiarity is deliberate. A number of myths underpin Treadwell’s trilogy: Troy, Faust, the Flying Dutchman, Ragnarok, the sexual exploits of the pagan gods, the folklore of the English countryside – combined in the sort of eclectic fusion we have come to expect from fantasy writing since the 1960s. But there are also frequent acts of homage to specific fantasies from post-war Britain. Advent opens with Gavin on a train to rural England, a situation that invites comparison with the opening of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), which so brilliantly alerts its readers to its own rootedness in the specificities of place by having them accompany the young protagonists on a railway journey to a very particular station in rural Cheshire. The destination of Gavin’s train is Cornwall, the setting of the first book in Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965); and when later in the novel Cornwall gets covered in a record-breaking fall of snow, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring the raucous calls of crows and the ancient quasi-pagan carols still sung in churches at Christmas, knowledgeable readers will instantly recall the freak snowfall that transforms the English landscape in the second book of Cooper’s series (The Dark is Rising, 1973).
From these indirect allusions to celebrated fantasies for children, and from the age of the principal characters in Advent, it might be assumed that Treadwell’s trilogy is meant for young readers, although it makes no concessions to such an audience in terms of vocabulary or incident. The publishers have reinforced the link with a young adult readership by issuing the sequel with a comparison to Philip Pullman on the cover – Pullman being a writer who writes for children but has famously enjoyed a global crossover success among adults. Such crossovers between different readerships have of course become common enough in the last two or three decades; but the idea that a fantasy with kids in it must be meant for kids – or indeed that fantasy itself is only fit for the young – forms part of a world view which Treadwell is seriously concerned to challenge.
The experience of having been shaped by a form of literature – and so a state of mind – that has been branded by one’s culture as marginal or of low social status is familiar to the kinds of readers who will seek out Treadwell’s books, drawn perhaps by the phrase ‘magic is rising’ on the cover of Advent, another evocation of Cooper. And that experience is also clearly central to Treadwell’s sequence, although it is transferred from the experience of reading fantasy to that of seeing the world in fantastic terms – in terms, that is, that run counter to the scientific and social systems which govern the communities we live in. Gavin’s visions of Miss Gray, who is invisible to everyone else, identify him (he thinks) as unique. Marina’s massive ignorance, like that of Miranda in The Tempest, gives her a perspective on the world that can be instantly discounted as unrealistic. Horace’s truancy from school to visit the fascinating recluse identifies him as out of sync with his peers. So does his ethnicity, since he’s the only Chinese kid in the school he attends. Each of these youngsters has been rendered solitary by their marginality. And marginality extends to the books’ geography: the first novel is set in the West Country, at the edge of rural England, the second among the sparsely-populated islands of Western Canada. These are places where the roads run out, settlements beyond which the terrifying strangeness of untended nature begins: the Atlantic Ocean, the northern forests. Moreover, Treadwell’s central characters are not native to these peripheral locations, and several share the split cultures of the Chinese-English schoolboy. The protagonist of the second novel is half French Canadian, half Anglo, just as the First Nation people among whom she finds herself exist in a state of uneasy suspension between ancient religious and social affiliations and the pressures of colonial capitalism. Meanwhile Marina and, it emerges, Gavin have an even more radically split genealogy, their birthright straddling the incongruous elements of myth and the mundane. As a lonely teenager one couldn’t wish for a more satisfactory justification for one’s sense of not belonging.
But not belonging is a condition by no means confined to the young people in Treadwell’s novels. The old people in his trilogy are as isolated as the young: a ‘nutty professor’ who has resigned from her Oxford job (Treadwell 2012: 44); a reclusive hippy who busies herself with crystals and charting ley lines in a cottage without a phone; a retired seafarer who spends his life yearning for the sea-woman he has lost for ever. And the most ancient characters in the book are more isolated still. The sixteenth-century magician Johann Faust, who casts his shadow across the trilogy, considers himself radically out of place in his own era, when the increasingly rationalistic population has turned its back on the magic arts he practises. And of course he is yet more out of place in the present day, to which his sorcery propels him. So too are the supernatural creatures he conjures up. The longer you read Advent, the more you come to realize that the lonely children in it are by no means unique or distinctive. Isolation is an all too familiar phenomenon, and one of the novel’s achievements is to show it spreading like a virus through South-West England, stranding more and more individuals in tenuous pockets of warmth surrounded by the menacing snow.
The loneliest person in Advent is the Trojan visionary Cassandra, whose shadow stretches yet further across time and space than that of Faust. Cursed by the god Apollo with the gift of telling truth about what’s to come, while mortals are cursed (or blessed, it’s not clear which) with the inability to believe her, she inhabits a linguistic space that sets her apart from all other users of language: free to communicate in any tongue she chooses, yet wholly unable to drive home her intended meaning. And Treadwell has intensified Cassandra’s legendary solitude by having her survive her murder by Clytemnestra and live on through successive ages till she re-encounters Faust, whom she first met when he used his magic to visit Troy (‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ he asks in Marlowe’s play; but in Treadwell’s book it’s Cassandra’s face, not Helen’s, that he notices). By the time of this re-encounter in the sixteenth century Cassandra’s identity has been lost in time, though her story is still recalled by scholars and poets as historical fact. By the twenty-first century her story, too, has been largely forgotten, or remembered only as a cultural curiosity, an emotive metaphor to be played on for artistic purposes, with no basis in empirical reality. And it’s as a metaphor that Treadwell uses her: a potent stand-in for fantastic fiction, and for those who are in its thrall.
Fantasy is the Cassandra of literary genres. It arises at the point in cultural history when belief has fallen away; it’s the literature of the impossible, whose effects depend on the reader’s consciousness that what they’re reading could never have taken place. In this it differs from ancient myth, which told tales of the gods people still believed in, and religion, which continues to inspire belief; even the most fanatical fantasy enthusiasts would have to admit that their role-playing games derive part of their charm from the certainty that they represent nothing that ever was or will be. At the same time, fantasy has something to say to those who read it – otherwise they wouldn’t bother. It tells some kind of truth to them, and they are often disappointed at the inability of non-enthusiasts to grasp this. Treadwell’s trilogy forces that fantastic truth on its readers; at first incrementally, as his characters begin to realize they are not as uniquely isolated as they thought; then in the form of a global cataclysm, to which the title of his second book points. It’s about the anarchy that would ensue if the fantastic mingled with what we take to be real, if the impossible irrupted into the rational. In this, his sequence is as witty as it’s disturbing, revelling in the discomfiture of the sensible adults who find that everything they assumed to be true has been inverted, that one set of rules they did not fully understand – those that govern technology – has been supplanted by another, about which they know nothing at all: the rules of magic. Even what some adults think they know about magic turns out to be – well – a fantasy. When Marina’s father fell in love with a mermaid and married her, he thought he remembered that stories with magic in them always ended in a certain comforting formula. But ‘happily ever after’ is a catchphrase from the period when the fairy tale was being infantilized, transferred from the family fireside to the middle-class nursery by Charles Perrault. The real supernatural beings who start to emerge from the past in Treadwell’s trilogy are both amusingly and horrifyingly different from the fairies of the nursery, and bring with them no guarantee of happy endings. Intensely physical, reeking with unfamiliar odours and bristling with lethal weapons – claws, teeth, thorns, verbal bargains – these beings defy us to believe that the virtual world in which we spend so much of our time is more real than they are, mock us with our misplaced confidence that we know what’s happening. The truth they bring with them is the fact of our collective ignorance, and this is why it’s so appropriate that children should inaugurate the trilogy, which reduces all its adult characters to a state of childish bewilderment.
Treadwell’s books, then, are ambitious, making grand claims for the value of the medium they work in – a value that consists in its capacity to make us question certain kinds of knowledge. And they share this ambition with other works of fantasy and science fiction at the beginning of the new millennium. Over the last two or three decades, the fantastic has become encyclopaedic. As if driven by a millenarian urge to sum up what matters most to them, writers of both genres not only proselytize about the books and stories they love – name-checking them in prefaces and on their websites – but endeavour to rewrite them for a new age, affirming in the process their status as legitimate records of the state of things, ways of describing the world that cannot be discarded without depleting it. Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Adam Roberts (who does science fiction rather than fantasy): each of these writers seems to have set himself the task of reworking all the prose fiction, comics, films and albums that formed them, and of doing so in such a way as to insist on their urgent applicability to global politics and history, then and now, while retaining the strangeness, charm, anarchic inventiveness and humour that made serious-minded people dismiss these art forms as frivolous when Gaiman and company were growing up. Faced with the substance of these writers’ oeuvres, only the lazy-minded could continue to insist that fantasy is escapist or science fiction naïve. Confronted by such dazzling rethinkings of where naivety and escapism lie – for these writers, in the realm of the ‘real’ rather than the fantastic – even fantasy-haters may find their perspective changed, its polarities reversed as what they have always thought of as marginal gets transplanted into the centre, the genre they considered escapist points up their own escapist tendencies.
This reversal of polarities is exactly what happens to entire populations in Treadwell’s trilogy. In the British fantasies he references – Garner’s and Cooper’s novels for young readers – the young protagonists really are in some sense special or different. The hero of Cooper’s novel The Dark Is Rising, Will Stanton, discovers on his eleventh birthday that he’s one of the Old Ones, a secret organisation of immortals dedicated to combatting the malevolent plots of the book’s antagonists, the Dark, through the use of magic. Whenever an action involving the Old Ones takes place in the novel, the mortals in the vicinity get frozen in time, allowing those rare beings with a connection to the deep past to go about their mysterious business undisturbed. Alan Garner’s young protagonists in his celebrated fantastic novels from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to Red Shift (1973) have a special relationship with magic that sets them apart from the surrounding population, condemning them to loneliness and, in the later books, psychological damage. But Treadwell’s achievement is to co-opt entire communities – the world itself in the second volume – into the traumatic alteration of the rules that govern reality which is triggered by the unleashing of magic on ‘developed’ nations. And he does this by stages, so that the conversion of one kind of magic – the technological kind that gives us light at the flick of a switch and permits us to communicate instantaneously with the other side of the planet – into another kind, wherein monsters roam the landscape, people get possessed by spirits and the dead speak to the living through whatever instruments happen to be available – this shift appears to be the natural extension of a process that is already taking place in his readers’ lives.