Inward Exile in Frances Browne’s Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856)

190px-Frances_Browne_7Frances Browne (1816-1879) is a writer I’d like to know much more about. Born the daughter of the Postmaster of Stranorlar in Donegal, known in her lifetime as the ‘Blind Poetess of Ulster’, she made herself a voyager of the mind, who loved the works of Byron, Dante, Scott and Homer, and who traveled to Edinburgh and London at the height of the Famine to earn a living – and that of her family – by writing stories, essays, poems and reviews for magazines, as well as three novels. Her most famous work is Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856), a collection of fairy tales written after she came to London. This exists in two versions that I know of: a simplified edition containing four stories bound together by a simple frame narrative, which looks like a clumsy redaction for small children; and a more stylistically sophisticated version, with longer words, longer sentences and longer paragraphs, containing seven stories and a much expanded frame. To me the longer version reads as both a trenchant analysis of the state of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and an ambitious work of art. These claims might seem grandiose given the book’s modest length and its faithful adherence to the language and conventions of the Victorian fairy tale; but I hope to make a case for it in these notes.

5140362346_a27b7d731b_bIn a letter quoted at the beginning of her first book of poems, The Star of Attéghéi (1844), Browne goes into detail about her education: how she persuaded her siblings to read to her in return for doing their chores; how she learned the location of distant countries by tracing the map with her fingers, beginning in a place she knew well and asking a sighted helper to name the places her fingertips passed until they reached the country in question; how she devoured history books and newspaper reports in her thirst to know the world, and learned novels and poems by heart in her thirst to expand her imaginative horizons. The Star of Attéghéi is packed with evidence of these mental travels. The two most ambitious poems it contains are a national epic set in Circassia, which gives the book its title, and ‘The Vision of Schwartz’, which tells the story of the twelfth-century German alchemist who invented gunpowder and who is afforded visions, by a spirit, of its drastic impact on world history. Other poems follow emigrants into exile from their homes in Ireland, Arabia, Canaan, Egypt, France, and the lands of the Cherokee people; her lifelong interest in the subject may have arisen from the fact that her father was the local emigration officer for several shipping lines to America and Australia. Browne finds in countries far from home echoes of the sufferings of her own; her Circassian epic begins and ends with an appeal to the bards of Ireland to sing something similar about the quest for ‘glory, love and liberty’ in Irish history. At the same time, many of her poems are about isolation, featuring a succession of male and female Robinson Crusoes (the introduction tells us this was one of the books her parents owned, along with the travels of the Scottish explorer Mungo Parke). One gets the impression that loneliness was an experience Browne knew well, despite the size of the family she grew up in.

A striking example of Browne’s poetry of isolation is ‘The Australian Emigrant’, in which a young girl on a ship bound for Melbourne laments that she has never felt at home, not even in Ireland. The story has a verse frame in which the stage is set for the girl’s song, which is in a different metre and includes this stanza:

Oh! MAN may grieve to sever
From the hearth or from the soil, –
For still some hope, some right, was his,
Which lived through want and toil; –
The dwellers of the forest,
They mourn their leafy lair; –
But why should WOMAN weep her land?
She has no portion there.
Woe – woe for deeds of worth,
That were only paid with ill! –
For to her the homes of earth
Are the house of bondage, still!

Here the girl expresses her disenfranchisement in a verse form widely used in Presbyterian hymns of the sort familiar to Browne from her upbringing (rhymed ABCB, with lines one, two and four in trimeter and line three for the most part in tetrameter). Such hymns were widely sung in households as well as churches, and the form’s association with communal singing gives an ironic contrast with the poem’s subject: a sense of exclusion that culminates in the young girl’s death. The girl’s song expresses a concept which pervades Browne’s work: that of what might be called inward exile, whereby a person feels herself to have been effectively displaced or marginalized by their local community or family. The resulting sense of home as a house of bondage is felt by the protagonists of both sexes in most of the stories in Granny’s Wonderful Chair, and while ‘The Australian Emigrant’ associates the experience with women, it could also be read as a direct consequence of living in a colonized country, at a time when British imperialism offered as a solution to domestic slavery the opportunity to travel around the globe in any direction – without ever finding a final escape from the ideological clutches of a global Empire.

Frances-Browne-Grannys-Wonderful-Chair-ills-DAs a result of its focus on inward exile and the outward migrations to which it gives rise, Granny’s Wonderful Chair offers an interesting perspective on the tendency of Victorian children’s literature, as considered by Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn in Children’s Fantasy Literature, to focus on enclosed domestic spaces. Levy and Mendlesohn see this tendency as driven by the desire to protect children by containing their imaginative and intellectual wanderings within a safely limited environment. For Browne, by contrast, the domestic space is very far from safe. It’s the location of abuse, neglect, hunger and child labour, and indoctrinates its child inhabitants in the necessity for travel – much as Browne’s own upbringing taught her to value migration (though there is no evidence that she was either abused or neglected). Home is not home for her heroes and heroines, and most of them set out to seek their fortune in classic fairy tale fashion, their restlessness echoing that of the Irish people in the mid-nineteenth century, who emigrated in their millions in the face of hunger and oppression.

i088Like Browne’s first book of poems, then, Granny’s Wonderful Chair is a peripatetic miscellany; but unlike the earlier volume – and in classic fairy tale fashion – the start and end points of the travels it describes are never specified. Instead each story begins by locating itself at a certain point of the compass: north, east, south, west, and then again west, west and north, as if in deference to Browne’s bias towards her own origins in the far north west of Ireland. These compass bearings imply that the collection takes place within a clearly defined topography, like the island of Ireland divided into many small kingdoms; and the work of the various protagonists and their families in each story – spinning, weaving, cobbling, shepherding, pig-keeping, fishing, fiddling, and so on – would have been familiar to Irish readers from their local communities. The presence of fairies in the landscape also associates the land with Ireland (though one of the fairies has the name Robin Goodfellow, which may make him more English than Irish), and there are a number of other links I’ll touch on later. At the same time the namelessness of the land makes it universal, a land of the mind, so that the travels it contains could be inward as much as outward ones; and indeed many of the stories in the collection are concerned with inward matters: the healing of a broken state of mind, for instance, or the reuniting of divided families. Granny’s Wonderful Chair, then, shows everywhere Browne’s preoccupation with the psychological as well as the material causes of alienation, and with bringing the experience of the world to bear on the particular troubles of the Irish.

3e948ac74967f477f9575b60c24bb625If the main characters in Granny’s Wonderful Chair find their homes unhomely, its narratives are also full of authority figures who spend little time at home: absentee landlords like the Irish landowners lampooned by Maria Edgeworth in Castle Rackrent (1800). Interestingly, each of these absentees is represented as a much-loved figure whose return is yearned for rather than dreaded. The frame narrative, for instance, tells of a poverty-stricken girl called Snowflower whose grandmother sets off on her travels, leaving her alone with only a magic chair for company. Luckily the chair is capable of telling her stories and transporting her physically as well as mentally anywhere she chooses – a metaphor, perhaps, for the books and stories Browne encountered in her own childhood. Snowflower makes her way in the chair to the court of King Winwealth, whose country has gone to rack and ruin since the unexplained disappearance of another much-loved figure, the King’s brother Prince Wisewit. The chair regales King Winwealth with stories to take his mind off his melancholy on account of his brother’s departure; and one of these stories again tells of absenteeism. ‘The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’ concerns a pair of much-loved local lords who disappear from their estates, leaving their children and tenants to be abused by their grasping stewards. In each case the lost authority figures have been kept away for reasons beyond their control, and their eventual return is greeted with delight by dependants who have been badly treated by the lost lords’ substitutes.

Alongside these physical absentees, many of Browne’s stories tell of rulers who are inwardly absent, thanks to depression or dissatisfaction of some kind, and whose misery makes their subjects miserable – psychological absentee landlords, so to speak. King Winwealth is one, and another is the king in the chair’s first story, ‘who had lately fallen into ill-humour because a neighbouring princess, with seven islands for her dowry, would not marry his eldest son’. The king of the mer-people in the sixth story is similarly discontent because a fisherman will not marry one of his daughters, and because the young man also refuses to tempt other mortals into visiting the underwater kingdom, which thrives on riches purloined from humans and their ships. The seventh and final story, which concerns a boy called Merrymind with a magic fiddle, again tells of a land made wretched by its ruler: in this case a lady called Dame Dreary with a dress of a ‘dingy drab colour’, ‘iron-grey’ hair and a ‘sour and gloomy’ face, whose subjects work unremittingly from dawn to sunset, unable to take a break until the spell of gloom is lifted from their dismal despot. In these unhappy kingdoms cheerfulness is more valuable than gold: Snowflower’s uncomplaining good humour as she retires to the meanest rooms in King Winwealth’s palace after regaling the King with tales; the optimism of the cobbler in the first story, who is granted the gift of merriment by the ‘Christmas Cuckoo’ of the title, and uses it to cheer up another king; young Merrymind in the final story, whose name denotes his disposition, and who liberates Dame Dreary and her people from their collective depression with the help of his enchanted violin. Songs and stories are a partial remedy, at least, for the psychological condition that leads to inward exile; and both are set in opposition to the lust for personal gain that drives the stories’ antagonists.

14802668033_a4041a7a9dIn Browne’s world, then, art is effective – it does work in the world and helps to change it. The stories told by the chair cheer up both King Winwealth and his people, as well as bringing financial security to Snowflower (just as Browne’s first collection of poems brought financial support to her, in the form of a small pension awarded by Robert Peele). The art of conversation and the disbursement of good advice, as practised by the cobbler Spare in the chair’s first story, teach another king and his court to share in Spare’s magical gift of merriment. Merrymind’s fiddle brings ‘the sound of merriment’ to the whole of Dame Dreary’s valley and teaches its inhabitants how to enjoy themselves outside working hours. Each of these works of verbal and musical art have a similar effect to the Irish tradition of song as celebrated by Browne in her most famous poem, ‘Songs of Our Land’, first published in the Irish Penny Journal in 1841. In the poem, Irish songs are praised as a kind oral archive, a repository of suppressed cultural information which endures from generation to generation, in marked contrast to the ‘power and the splendour’ of imperial thrones that ‘pass away’ and are forgotten along with their occupants. For Browne, songs preserve among the Irish people the thoughts of their ‘poets and sages’, keeping alive the ‘spirit of freedom’ in times of servitude and destitution. They also impart the sense of a stable identity to ‘wanderers through distance and danger’: emigrants, in other words, like Snowflower, or the cobbler Spare, or the boy Fairyfoot in the fourth story, who finds his way to the hidden land of the fairies, or the fisherman who journeys to the merfolk’s kingdom, or Merrymind, who leaves his home because his family has no time for him – apart from his mother (his mother also happens to be the only person apart from himself with any confidence in the possibilities for future employment represented by his fiddle). Each of these protagonists has an artistic gift. Fairyfoot, for instance, is a passionate dancer, while the fisherman Civil who visits the merfolk has the gift of the gab, as he tells a captive mortal woman when she asks him to help her escape from the submarine kingdom: ‘Fair speeches brought me here,’ he points out, ‘and fair speeches may help me back, but be sure I will not go without you’. Evidently stories, good advice, dancing, eloquence and wordless musicianship have much the same effect on these heroes and those who meet them as the songs in Browne’s poem, giving them a sense of community in troubled times – supplying them, in fact, with a portable home in their state of inward or outward exile.

zpage063If the rulers who remain at home in these stories are invariably inward exiles, so too (as I’ve suggested) are the stories’ protagonists: the boys and girls who set out to seek their fortune, some of whom we’ve already encountered. Before setting out the bulk of these young people already feel profoundly alienated. Merrymind is mocked by his father and siblings for his attachment to a fiddle he at first cannot play. Fairyfoot is derided by his large-footed family for the dainty size of his feet. In ‘The Christmas Cuckoo’, the cobbler Spare finds himself successively isolated in different communities: first his brother abandons him for not being sufficiently prosperous; he’s then looked down upon at the royal court for continuing to wear shabby clothes, in spite of the wealth he has gained from the monarch’s patronage; the king then loses interest in him when he loses his magical ability to make him cheerful; and Spare only finds a place for himself when he returns to the humble cottage where he first encountered the Christmas Cuckoo, and where he showed his community spirit by feeding it through the winter until it was strong enough to take flight in early spring. The young heroine in ‘Childe Charity’ is despised by her relatives after her parents’ death, as are the children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles in the second story. If the ruling classes in each of these stories are disconnected from the lands they govern, their adult subjects and tenants are equally disconnected from their young dependants, showing no appreciation for the arts they practise or the generosity and good manners the children treasure.

zpage110The sense that the people of Browne’s alternative Ireland have lost their culture, and that it can be restored to them only with difficulty, is reinforced by the fact that entire races have gone into a kind of internal exile in the wildest parts of the country. Fairyfoot makes friends (as his name suggests he will) with the fairies, who live in hiding from other mortals because – as Robin Goodfellow tells him – ‘we and the people of this country have had no friendship ever since large feet came in fashion’. The abused children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles find their way to the woodland home of a mysterious replacement mother, Lady Greensleeves, who has similarly been forgotten by the rest of humankind, and who helps them because she is lonely and likes their company. A similarly green-clad figure is at the centre of ‘The Greedy Shepherd’: a mysterious old man with the power to turn sheep into wolves to set them free when they have been mistreated. Meanwhile the fairies in ‘The Story of Childe Charity’ have cut themselves off from mortals in direct response to their selfish behaviour: the young girl of the title is taken to Fairyland as a unique piece of evidence that there are ‘good people still to be found in these false and greedy times’. The most prominent fairy folk in the story of Merrymind are ‘two fair maidens, all in white spinning on silver wheels, and singing together a blithe and pleasant tune like the larks on May-morning’. Known as the Night Spinners, they have been segregated from human beings for ‘seven times seven years’, and although we are never directly told this it would seem that what kept them away was the capitalistic self-absorption of Dame Dreary and her subjects. When Merrymind shows his community spirit by gathering firewood to keep them warm, the Night Spinners reward him with golden strings for his broken instrument, and he proceeds to smash the spell of glumness over the land by playing the tunes he heard them singing. The effect of these tunes is similar to the effect of the ‘Happy March’ at the end of James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912) – a collective liberation from alienated labour; and it’s worth considering the following passage by Browne as a possible influence on Stephens’s famous vision of liberation at the end of that novel:

The men paused in their delving; the women stopped their scrubbing; the little children dropped their work; and every one stood still in their places while Merrymind and his fiddle passed on. When he came to the castle, the coopers cast down their tools in the court; the churning and cheese-making ceased in the banquet hall; the looms and spinning-wheels stopped in the principal chambers; and Dame Dreary’s distaff stood still in her hand […] That night the fairies danced on the hill-tops; and the night-spinners, with their silver wheels, were seen by every hearth, and no more in the deserted cottage.

James Stephens is also worth thinking about in relation to another theme of Browne’s: hunger. Browne left Ireland for Edinburgh at the time of the Great Hunger, and it’s hunger that drives young Snowflower to leave her grandmother’s cottage on the magic chair – indirectly leading her to great good fortune at the court of King Winwealth. The cobbler Spare’s continual cheerfulness in the face of hunger is what first draws a melancholy lord to him as he is ‘gathering watercresses at a meadow stream’ – bereft of any other food source, like King Sweeney. Later in the story, the sign that Spare’s brother Scrub has inherited the gift of merriment is his utter contentment in the face of near starvation: he and his wife live only on wild birds’ eggs and berries after he obtains the gift. The abused children of the lost ‘Lords of the Grey and White Castles’ have only a barley loaf and some sour milk ‘to serve them for breakfast, dinner, and supper’, and their search for their fathers leaves them hungrier still. But like other fairy tale protagonists, and unlike the other characters in Browne’s book, these children are under a strict injunction from Lady Greensleeves not to eat or drink anything that’s given them on their travels; and this advice saves them from falling under the spell of the malevolent fairy lord who enchanted their fathers by giving them enchanted wine. Their willingness to suffer hunger, in other words, saves them from enslavement. Childe Charity gains the good will of the fairies for giving an old woman her supper, saving for herself only the scrapings of the pots in her abusive family’s kitchen. Meanwhile, plenty to eat continues to be the sign of servitude or entrapment. The fisherman Civil is unhappy in the sea-people’s kingdom because there is no end there of ‘fun and feasting’ – he concludes that ‘Fishing would have been easier than those everlasting feasts’ – and meets a fellow mortal who has been trapped there for many years. Merrymind rejects the offer of food from a surly giant in favour of wandering free and hungry around Dame Dreary’s land. Stephens, too, identifies hunger as a mark of solidarity among the poor, and contrasts the unspoken code that all poor people on Irish roads must share whatever they have to eat with one another with the psychological torment suffered by the servants of capitalism, as represented by two disembodied voices speaking out of the darkness in a police cell. For Stephens, this code of sharing food provides a template for the simple, egalitarian laws that will govern a future Ireland, unshackled at last from its prosperous and selfish imperial neighbour. Browne’s book implies something similar – though its vision of Irish liberation isn’t in the end as optimistic as that of Stephens, not surprisingly, perhaps, given the suppression of the Young Irelander rebellion in 1848, and the temporary absence after that of an alternative independence movement.

i071Throughout Granny’s Wonderful Chair the notion of the restoration of Irish identity is invoked by many means. The absent, loved lords in several stories have as much in common with the idealized Irish kings of legend as with the absentee landlords satirized by Edgeworth. The hidden fairies, with whom a succession of protagonists achieve reconciliation, bear a family resemblance to the Sídhe. More importantly, Snowflower’s storytelling invests her with a place in King Winwealth’s palace and helps to draw a new community around her. For each story the chair narrates Snowflower finds herself rewarded with a new item of clothing, better sleeping quarters and nicer food; each time the king wishes to hear another story he sends a more exalted page to find her. By the final chapter she is fully clothed in fine new garments, while in the course of the chapter the King’s unpleasant wife Wantall and daughter Greedalind disappear for ever down a gold mine, to be replaced at the monarch’s side by the long-lost Prince Wisewit and Snowflower’s grandmother. Both Wisewit and the grandmother, Frostyface, are connected with the chair of the book’s title, which may stand for Irish culture as celebrated in Browne’s poem ‘Songs of Our Land’: the chair belongs to the former, while the latter turns out to have been the owner of the magical voice that told the stories, trapped in a velvet cushion by a malignant fairy. The name of the fairy, Fortunetta, associates her with money rather than good fortune – a lesser, more grasping kind of fortune than the other kind, as the diminutive implies. Wisewit is liberated from his imprisonment in the cushion, ironically enough, by the efforts of Winwealth’s money-grubbing wife and daughter to secure the gift of storytelling for themselves. There’s an allegory, here, of the Irish artist’s need to retain her imaginative independence from her paymasters, whose acquisitive impulse is dictated by a desire for personal gain rather than the needs of the wider community. And in Browne’s book, imaginative independence helps to build a happy nation. Snowflower’s personal good fortune brings good fortune to King Winwealth’s people, whose new-found prosperity is best exemplified, Browne suggests, by their new-found freedom of movement: on his return as his brother’s adviser Wisewit makes ‘a highway through the forest, that all good people might come and go there at their leisure’, while the malignant fairy Fortunetta leaves the country in an ill-tempered gesture of self-imposed exile: ‘finding that her reign was over in those parts, [she] set off on a journey round the world, and did not return in the time of this story’. It’s an attractive thought that travel should be for Browne as much the sign of happiness at the end of the book as it was of misery at the beginning.

But the happy ending of Granny’s Wonderful Chair is not allowed to stand. Having conjured up a happy, prosperous kingdom, Browne promptly erases it again, much as George MacDonald did with the happy kingdom ruled over by Princess Irene and her miner-husband in The Princess and Curdie. ‘Good boys and girls, who may chance to read [this book],’ Browne tells us,

that time is long ago. Great wars, work, and learning, have passed over the world since then, and altered all its fashions. Kings make no seven-day feasts for all comers now. Queens and princesses, however greedy, do not mine for gold. Chairs tell no tales. Wells work no wonders; and there are no such doings on hills and forests, for the fairies dance no more. Some say it was the hum of schools—some think it was the din of factories that frightened them; but nobody has been known to have seen them for many a year, except, it is said, one Hans Christian Andersen, in Denmark, whose tales of the fairies are so good that they must have been heard from the fairies themselves.

front1Wars, schools and factories are the machinery of Empire, and the noise they make, Browne suggests, is capable of drowning out the songs and tales of colonized nations. But they persist, and she has heard them through the hubbub, like her mentor Andersen. Like him she has made their magic available to new generations. And she is not a singular instance of the sort of person who can hear old stories handed down from ancient times; this is a collective capability, and has helped to generate in some of its possessors a political conviction. ‘There are people who believe,’ she tells us, that the spell which has again trapped Prince Wisewit in the form of a storytelling mouth, a common item of household furniture, can again be broken, and that when that happens ‘the prince will make all things right again, and bring back the fairy times to the world’. This ending, with its sudden shift of focus from the realm of literary fairy tales to the ‘real’ world of the reader, throws into relief the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist allegory that has been implicit throughout the book in the names of the characters. It links storytelling to revolution through the person of Prince Wisewit. It’s an opening out of the collection’s ending rather than a shutting down: a promise that the active art we have encountered in Browne’s stories may also have its effect outside the limits of her book. And it’s a promise that the stories she has told will continue to travel through time till what they describe – the return of the prince – becomes reality, and home is made homely at last for the Irish people.

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Shakespeare’s Comic Imagination

a-midsummer-nights-dream-ht-greenThis post begins and ends with two comedies in which Shakespeare unleashed the full force of his imagination on the space of the stage: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Both of these plays have plots not directly derived from any known source; in this sense they are the fruits of his personal fancy. Both plays are richly stocked with supernatural beings, and as a result invoke a fear of the stage – and in particular theatrical comedy – which was a real and active force throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime. Both plays pit the self-centred imaginative visions of powerful men and women against what might be called the collective imagination of a community; the kind of collective imagination that makes theatre possible, as audiences accede to the players’ invitation to share their dreams, to help them populate the stage with beings from ancient history, or spirits, or the inhabitants of far-off countries, or of countries that don’t exist at all. I’d like to consider, in fact, Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the workings of the imagination in his comedies; and I’d suggest that the imagination itself is his topic in many of them, furnishing him with the material for their comic plots and drawing attention to the complex ways the imagination works in the actual communities of early modern England and Europe.

cell-doctrineWhat was the imagination, then, for an English playwright of the sixteenth century? It was the part of the mind that formed images of things not actually present; a faculty located in the front part of the brain just behind the eyes, where information from the five senses was gathered in chaotic profusion before being sorted by the understanding and stored away in the carefully catalogued archives of the memory, which lay in the capacious area at the back of the head. The imaginative space was closely associated with the faculty called wit or natural intelligence, which is responsible for banter, improvisation, trickery and other functions that don’t involved the deployment of the meticulous and scholarly understanding. The most vivid Elizabethan representation of the imagination comes in Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were printed in 1590, five years before the probable date of the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the second book the personification of the imaginative faculty is named as Phantastes, a gloomy young man with a ‘working Wit’, ‘bent hollow Beetle brows’ and ‘sharp staring eyes / That mad or foolish seem’d’, whose room is painted with bizarre and colourful images:

Some such as in the World were never yet,
Ne can devised be of mortal Wit:
Some daily seen, and knowen by their Names,
Such as in idle Fantasies do flit;
Infernal Hags, Centaurs, Fiends, Hippodames,
Apes, Lions, Eagles, Owls, Fools, Lovers, Children, Dames.

 The air of this room is full of flies, which annoy visitors by buzzing in their eyes and ears. These insects, the poet informs us, are

[…] idle Thoughts and Fantasies,
Devices, Dreams, Opinions unsound,
Shews, Visions, Soothsayes, and Prophecies;
And all that feigned is, as Leasings, Tales, and Lyes.

The picture Spenser gives us here perfectly embodies the profoundly ambiguous attitude early modern people had to the imagination. On the one hand, Phantastes or the fancy is one of the three seminal functions of the brain, especially useful for conjuring up images of the future and enabling a person to prepare herself to face it. On the other hand, the fancy is dangerous. Far from being playful and pleasant, Spenser depicts the man with a ‘working Wit’ as tormented by the ‘agonies’ of what we would now call depression, and this is because the mass of images by which he is surrounded have a political impact on him; they generate idle thoughts which in turn give rise to ‘opinions unsound’, ‘soothsayes, and prophecies’. Prophecies were widely associated in the sixteenth century with plots and insurrections, which were sometimes referred to as imaginations – rebellious actions undertaken on the basis of irresponsible conjecture or non-existent grievances; while ‘opinions unsound’ invokes religious heresy, which for Spenser could encompass anything from Catholicism to radical Protestantism, either of which could spawn rebellion. Spenser’s Phantastes, then, is a political troublemaker rather than an entertainer; making things up invariably leads to making trouble; and Spenser himself seems to have been tormented by a kind of double standard, impelled by his own teeming fancy to imagine the longest and strangest poem in the English language while profoundly distrustful of the imagination itself as a breeding-ground for the flies of religious and political dissent.

20140801_150544-21The early modern period shares Spenser’s double standard. It’s the most imaginative era of English (and Scottish) history in terms of architecture, internal decoration and clothing fashions as much as of poetry and drama; yet it’s also a period that spawned the most virulent attacks on the products of the imagination. One influential theorist of poetry, George Puttenham, drew a clear distinction between two different kinds of imagination: euphantasy, which is the ability to represent ‘the best, most comely and beautiful images or appearances of things to the soul and according to their very truth’; and phantasy or the phantastic, which generates non-existent things in the mind and thus breeds ‘Chimeras and monsters in man’s imaginations, and not only in his imaginations, but also in all his ordinary actions and life which ensues’. In other words, for Puttenham the job of the poet is to represent only what is or what has been – to write not just realistically but historically; whereas representing non-existent subjects in poetry is a sure path to monstrous action (and as a passionate royalist Puttenham would have seen any form of social dissent as more or less monstrous). The poet Sir Philip Sidney, by contrast, whose Apology for Poetry came into print around the time A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed (1595), identifies making things up as the defining function of poetry, which for him is a term that means fiction and can refer equally to verse, drama or prose. This means that the poet has a licence, in Sidney’s view, to be utopian (and More’s Utopia is one of the few texts by English writers he writes of with approval):

 Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.

For Sidney the liberation of the inventive wit from the chains of what exists, of crude hard fact, is to be celebrated rather than condemned, as is the poet’s capacity to act as a prophet, anticipating better modes of life than the ones that currently obtain on earth. The fiction maker’s free ‘ranging […] within the zodiac of his own wit’ – his refusal to be constrained within the limits of the real – makes him the ultimate resistance fighter against the forces of tyranny. Sidney and Puttenham stand at opposite political poles, although they view the capacity of the imagination to affect the world and its politics in very similar terms.

soldatopopAs you would expect, the early modern controversy over the imagination had a direct impact on the early modern theatre. For its opponents the stage was capable of awakening rebellious thoughts in the minds of spectators – especially the young; and such thoughts could range from sexual adventurousness to religious heresy to the seeds of political insurrection. The best of Elizabethan writers against the theatre, Stephen Gosson – who may well have been employed to write his polemics by the Lord Mayor of London – was particularly critical of actors for forsaking their true callings as trained craftsmen or tradesmen, as most of them were, to pursue an idle occupation: a shift from productive to non-productive labour which he saw as damaging to the society of which they were part:

 in a common weal, if private men be suffered to forsake their calling because they desire to walk gentlemanlike in satin and velvet, with a buckler at their heels, proportion is so broken, unity dissolved, harmony confounded, that the whole body must be dismembered and the prince or the head cannot choose but sicken.

For Gosson, ‘Plays are the inventions of the devil, the offerings of idolatry, the pomp of worldlings, the blossoms of vanity, the root of apostasy, the food of iniquity, riot and adultery’; and there were many Elizabethans who agreed with him, forming a vocal anti-theatrical lobby whose actions eventually brought about the closure of all playhouses in 1642. The players of course hit back at their detractors, mocking them on stage in plays and in the satirical song-and-dance routines known as jigs. It was partly in response to this controversy that the court office of the Master of the Revels – originally just the man who organised entertainments for the Queen, like Philostrate in the Dream – was in 1582 extended to include the censorship of plays. In fact, the Master of the Revels in Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, seems to have been responsible for preventing the performance of a play in which Shakespeare had a hand, Sir Thomas More, whose topic, ironically, was the writer of Utopia – the man held up by Sidney as the best English example of the freedom of the poet to oppose tyranny and imagine a better world. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries were imprisoned for falling foul of the regulations governing plays in the period, though Shakespeare wasn’t one of them. All the same, he remained interested throughout his life in the way the authorities seek to control their subjects’ imaginations, while imposing their own particular imaginative visions on the state and its inhabitants with all the tools at their disposal. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest in particular foreground this competition between the authoritarian and the communal imagination, and in the process evolve into manifestos for the playwright’s theory of the theatre at the beginning and end of his extraordinary career.

Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_JigBoth plays are comedies – most simply defined as plays that have a happy ending, and whose happy ending is never seriously in doubt on account of their prevailing tone, often described metaphorically (and punningly) as light. It’s no accident that Shakespeare’s two most vividly imaginative plays should have been comic. It’s comedies that drew the most vehement opposition from the anti-theatrical lobby; Stephen Gosson saw laughter as both infectious and addictive, leading those who experience it to seek more of the same and thus increasingly to relinquish control over their bodily functions and their moral and social responsibilities. For the early modern period comedy had two faces, just as the imagination did. On the one hand it was associated with physical and mental lightness, improvisation, trickery, disguise, wordplay, desire, laughter and youth – all things that can bring harmless pleasure to those who experience or witness them; they can even serve as medical therapy, as the comedy of The Taming of the Shrew is supposed to do for the ‘brainsick’ tinker Christopher Sly. On the other hand comedy evoked transgression, devilry, thievery, falsehood, sex, mental disorder and the corruption of the young. The association of the comic with devils and evil spirits, in particular, was actively encouraged by the players themselves. In the interludes or allegorical plays that dominated the stage in Shakespeare’s youth the devil figures, known as vices, were the main source of humour, being played by famous clowns and becoming so popular with audiences that some interludes were entirely populated by vices, the virtues having been evicted as intolerable bores. The presence of spirits in Dream and Tempest, then, could be seen both as a reference to this old theatrical tradition and as a deliberate and open provocation of the theatre haters. The very fact that these spirits are not represented as particularly devilish (although the idea of devilry is directly invoked in both plays) – that they are in fact attractive and sometimes funny – would have enraged the more morally rigid among Shakespeare’s enemies, an example of the playing with hellfire that theatrical comedy reveled in.

Annex - Cagney, James (A Midsummer Night's Dream)_03The Dream and The Tempest have spirits in them, then, but they also contain monsters: a man with an ass’s head and a native islander who is constantly referred to as deformed and monstrous. As we heard, for George Puttenham the imagination could conjure up monsters of all kinds if used to visualize things that don’t exist, made-up things. In both these plays, though, Shakespeare suggests that the real monsters are human beings: the tyrants who treat their subjects as slaves or playthings; the male lovers who treat their women as objects to be discarded at will; the parents who impose their will on their children regardless of the child’s desires or needs. And the imagination, fantasy or fancy, that faculty that conjures up images of things not actually present, is an integral part of all of us – a seminal function of the brain, which is always at work in everything we do, painting the world and the people around us in strange, vivid colours, making monsters out of ordinary beings, driving us to acts of astonishing kindness or dreadful atrocities. To frown on or dismiss the imagination, Shakespeare suggests, is to turn our backs on an integral part of ourselves – and such ill-considered negligence will always result in the imagination taking its revenge, as the clown Feste takes his revenge on the fun-hating steward Malvolio.

p03w4jphA Midsummer Night’s Dream embodies the ambiguous Elizabethan attitude to both comedy and the imagination in its title. It’s a self-consciously light piece of work (small objects and beings, for instance, are everywhere in it), which opens with an exchange between two besotted lovers who are planning their wedding. The lovers also happen to be a King and Queen; so we learn at the start that even monarchs can choose to be not-so-serious or even irresponsible, especially at midsummer, which was a time set aside for pleasure and play in the early modern calendar (it’s widely assumed that the Dream was first performed at Midsummer, just as Twelfth Night was first performed on the final evening of the Christmas holiday). Yet the play’s also set at night, when spirits and misdirections abound, and on a particular night associated with festivities and quasi-pagan rituals which were roundly condemned by the more serious-minded of the church authorities. The dream of the title was an ambiguous thing, too. For Elizabethans a dream could be comforting, something sent by God to soothe tormented minds, or it could delude and terrorize the people it visits, making them imagine scenarios of a sexually, politically, or psychologically disturbing nature. In dreams, Thomas Nashe reminds us in his pamphlet The Terrors of the Night (1594), the devils of hell do their most effective work in tempting mortals. And this ambiguity extends itself to the love between the two monarchs we meet in the play’s first scene. Theseus and Hippolyta have very different attitudes to their prospective marriage. I said they were besotted with each other, but it’s only Theseus who shows true signs of infatuation; for him the four days until their marriage at the new moon seems like a lifetime, whereas for Hippolyta the days will pass very quickly, which implies she’s not half so eager for the impending ceremony as her fiancé.

Hippolyta has good reason for not being eager. The wedding has been set for the first day of the new moon, and the moon reminds her of her days as an independent Queen of the Amazon warrior women, before Theseus came into her life. She compares the new moon of their wedding day to ‘a silver bow / New bent in heaven’, which resembles her own Amazonian bow (the Amazons were famous archers), or the bow of the goddess Diana to whom the warrior women committed their lives. Diana is the goddess of chastity, not erotic desire, so the reminder may well be a painful one; Hippolyta is giving up her culture by marrying a man, on the very day when the moon is at its smallest and least potent. Moreover, she’s engaged to Theseus because she is a prisoner of war, as Theseus reminds her. ‘Hippolyta,’ he says,

I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.

 Actually, the terms pomp, triumph and revelling – especially triumph – were linked in Elizabethan times with the celebration of military victories; and one might conjecture that Theseus’s marriage will double as a public display of the spoils of war, with Hippolyta the most splendid and valuable of these spoils. Marriage, then, in this first exchange of the play, is an unequal partnership between men and women, tainted by violence. And it’s notable that this has an effect on the imagination; the man and the woman involved imagine the next few nights (or predict the future, which for Spenser was a function of fancy) in starkly different terms, suggesting that their view of the world has been coloured, so to speak, by their different gender and experiences.

Theseus seeks to impose his view of the world on Hippolyta through the festivities he promises her – to make her feel good about her defeat and forced engagement. The same association of marriage with the forcible imposition of a man’s view of the world on a woman is made in the second part of this first scene, when old Egeus bursts in with his ‘complaint, / Against my child, my daughter Hermia’. In Egeus’s view, his daughter is guilty of having had her imagination captivated by a man he did not choose for her; Lysander stole her heart with the lightest of trifles, including poetry (‘verses of feigning love’) and useless objects (‘bracelets of thy hair, rings, gauds, conceits, / Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats’) – in the process ironically using these light things to make the deepest ‘impression of her fantasy’, as he puts it, indenting or shaping it in his own image. For Egeus, Hermia’s crime is that she refuses to recognize herself as his possession: ‘she is mine’, he insists, to be used as he sees fit, and above all to have her mind impressed with the images he chooses to put there – in particular the image of the young man he favours as her husband, Demetrius. And Theseus agrees with him. Hermia’s father, he tells her, is the one who effectively created her, like a god, and as a result she should consider herself as ‘a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it’ [my emphasis]. She has no rights over the images she entertains in her fancy – no right to acquire them for herself or let them shape her as she wishes; they are to be supplied by her father, and the punishment for taking back her fancy for her own purposes is to be subjected to violence – refusal to obey her father will result in death or imprisonment in a nunnery. Hippolyta would recognize the choice between unwanted ‘love’ and violence immediately; it’s notable that she doesn’t say a word throughout this exchange between the men and the recalcitrant daughter.

84690-004-D096CCF6Soon after the exchange, the ‘dream’ of the play’s title acquires a new set of associations. Hermia’s lover Lysander connects it with what he calls ‘true love’: reciprocal desire between two young adults, as against the arranged matches for economic or political purposes that were the norm for upper-class families in Shakespeare’s time. Speaking of their seemingly doomed attraction to each other, Lysander tells Hermia that mutual desire is made as evanescent and insubstantial as a dream by the culture that forbids it: ‘Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, / Brief as the lightning in the collied night’. The reference to lightning here also associates desire with lightness – both the brief flare of light in the dark and the notion of moral lightness which was attached to unauthorized erotic adventures in the period. The same notion is conjured up in Lysander’s lovely line ‘So quick bright things come to confusion’, where the word quick accommodates both the word’s modern meaning of swiftness (swift as lightning) and its older meaning of alive; true love is associated with death, the ultimate confusion of the living. It’s been argued by scholars that the Dream was written at around the same time as Romeo and Juliet, where the love between quick bright things ends in death and the darkness of a crypt. The Dream entertains the possibility of this ending for its lovers throughout its length, and although I think it’s never a serious possibility – the language and tone of the play are too consistently playful for this – Shakespeare makes sure we are always aware of it as the flip side of the kind of comedy to which he treats us.

midsummerThe first scene of the play, then, sets up the plot that follows, which is a struggle for control of the fancy or imagination. Throughout the play it’s the imagination of the men that proves both most fickle and most forceful. Men seem able to change the object of their affection – the woman by whom their imaginations have been impressed or printed – with unnerving ease; and they also seem prepared to back up their perceived claim to that beloved object with brute force, no matter how fresh their attraction to her may be, no matter how radically their new claim contradicts the claims to other women they’ve staked in the past. This theme is anticipated in the first scene, too, in the changed affections of Demetrius, who ‘won the soul’ of Helena but has now transferred his fancy to her best friend Hermia. Later, when they enter the forest, Demetrius threatens Helena with violence if she continues to follow him, and tells her she now repels him – appears, in other words, as an entirely different being in his imagination, although she has of course not changed physically at all. In this he follows the example of his monarch. Theseus was a byword in Elizabethan times for male infidelity thanks to his long catalogue of abandoned lovers, from Helen of Troy to Ariadne of Crete. Shakespeare’s Athens is a man’s world, and the women have good reason to know it. Men shape and reshape real, living women in their imaginations according to whim, and women have no control at all over how men perceive them.

1999 Stanley Tucci And Rupert Everett Star In The Movie "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream." (Photo By Getty Images)

In this play the forest, too, is a man’s world, despite its traditional association with female power. Diana is a forest goddess, the goddess of the chase as well as of chastity, and the fairy queen Titania is named after Diana; but Diana’s worshipper Hippolyta was entrapped by male force, and the same thing happens to her supernatural counterpart. Her husband Oberon acquires a love-potion that takes control of her imagination, and uses it not only to shape her female fancy but also to underline the shiftiness of the male fancy, by making both Demetrius and Lysander transfer their affections from one woman to another – the magic of the potion merely serving to reassert men’s tendency to reimagine women. Oberon’s potion is dropped not into his victim’s food or drink but into her eyes, altering the impression those organs convey to the common sense – that part of the brain where the imagination operates – so that

The next thing then she waking looks upon
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape)
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.

The fact that the potion always takes effect while its victim is asleep, implying that it realizes in the waking world the fanciful absurdities of dreams, confirms that its operation is on the imagination or fancy – as does Oberon’s statement that its operation will fill Titania ‘full of hateful fantasies’ (2.2). The flower love-in-idleness is a weapon aimed at the fancy, and Oberon’s willingness to use it suggests how far he wishes to take control of the imaginative world with which the audience is presented on the playhouse stage.

Titania’s enforced change of fancy enables Oberon to gratify his own propensity for switching his loyalties. He uses the potion to ‘make her render up her page to me’ – forcing her to give him a ‘little Indian boy’ in her care for whom he has conceived a fancy, and for whose sake he has been willing for months to sacrifice his relationship with his wife. Without the intervention of any potion, then, Oberon is like Theseus the embodiment of fickleness – something Titania reminds him of when they first meet in the play; and though he says the same of her (she fancies Theseus, he claims, though she denies it), it’s clear that he is keen to shape those around him to conform with his changing fancies to a degree that no woman in the play is ever accused of.

Elizabeth1EnglandMeanwhile, the attempts of women to avoid being shaped or trapped by the violent imaginations of men – especially powerful men – are conveyed through the background story of the flower whose juice yields the potion. Oberon first became aware of the plant’s properties when he saw Cupid shooting one of his arrows at a virgin queen – Elizabeth I, who may well have been in the audience when the play was first performed. Elizabeth’s Diana-like chastity was so great that Cupid’s arrow glanced aside from her impervious body and struck the flower instead, giving it the arrow’s own power to change people’s affections. Meanwhile Elizabeth walked on ‘In maiden meditation, fancy-free’. This could either mean that she was free from fancy altogether, or more probably (given Spenser’s assumption that fancy is an integral part of the human mind) that her fancy remained unimpressed and unimprisoned, ‘freely ranging only within the zodiac of [her] own wit’, as Sidney puts it, unbeholden to any more tyrannous male authority.

Tytania with little Indian boy.1Other women in the play protect themselves from male efforts to impose their imaginative visions on them by restricting themselves to female society. Once again, this is embodied in the story of Oberon and Titania. Titania cherishes the little Indian boy because he is the son of one of her ladies, a ‘votress of my order’ – which makes her sound like a member of a formal all-female community – with whom she shared jokes and imaginative games (they enjoyed comparing the woman’s pregnant belly to the sails of passing ships). The woman died in childbirth, and Titania loves the child for her sake. It’s in the same scene that Elizabeth is referred to as a ‘fair vestal’ – a priestess of Vesta, Roman goddess of the household, whose servants were all women – and thus effectively enlisted in another all-female community. A third all-female community – a very small one – was formed by Hermia and Helena before men’s love set them at odds. The two girls, bound together by ‘sisters’ vows’, shared a mutual imaginative vision as well as a mutual affection: both ‘chid the hasty-footed time / For parting us’ (and remember here that Theseus did not share his view of time with his supposed lover Hippolyta); and both worked together on their embroidery ‘like two artificial gods’, deities of craftsmanship such as Arachne the weaver, to create ‘one flower’ while singing ‘one song’ in ‘one key’, each of these (pictures and songs) being images, in their own way, of something not actually present. Women’s communities in this play share a mutual imaginative vision, whereas men seek to impress their imaginative visions by force on other people.

ctors-perform-a-tradition-005If women share a collective imaginative space, so too do the Athenian men of the lower orders: the craftsmen or mechanicals, who are of the same social class as the Elizabethan actors who played them. Bottom and his fellows are of course comic in their conviction that the imaginative space they create on stage will deeply impress their courtly audience – that the spectators will run the danger, in fact, of confusing stage illusion with reality. In this, the craftsman-players share the anxieties of the Elizabethan theatre-haters about the potentially deleterious effect of their stagecraft, and they seek to circumvent the problem by drawing up a kind of imaginative contract with their auditors: they will introduce themselves by their own names and explain the fact that they are only representing lions, lovers, moons, walls and so on. In doing so, of course, they shatter the illusion altogether; but they also enlist the support of their courtly audience, who recognize their good will and consent to participate in it. The play in the final act involves the active imaginative participation of both craftsmen and nobility; and it’s Theseus, of all people, who recognizes this. ‘The best in this kind are but shadows,’ he tells Hippolyta as she laments the actors’ incompetence, ‘and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them’; to which she replies, ‘It must be your imagination then, and not theirs’. But for the courtiers’ imaginations to work with the craftsmen, the craftsmen must first offer them material to work with. What we witness in the final act is the forging of a mutual imaginative space which stands in direct contrast to the colonizing male imagination of the play’s first half.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 24/05/2016 - Programme Name: A Midsummer Night's Dream - TX: n/a - Episode: A Midsummer Night's Dream (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, TUESDAY 24TH MAY, 2016* Bottom (MATT LUCAS) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Des Willie

The craftsmen-players, then, offer a splendid defence of the comic theatrical imagination. For one thing, their performance breaks down the hard-and-fast distinctions between men and women that obtain elsewhere in the play. Bottom is as eager to play the female lead in their tragical comedy as he is to play the male protagonist or the lion, and Francis Flute wows the audience with his female death scene. For another, the lovers in it are utterly besotted with one another, as the lovers in the rest of the play are not. For a third, Bottom himself may well have won the theatre audience’s respect by the time he appears as Pyramus in Act Five. Transformed by Puck into the ‘hateful fantasy’ demanded by Theseus as a tool for tormenting Titania, Bottom with this donkey’s head behaves quite unlike a conventional monster. No Minotaur to be killed by some passing Theseus, he treats Titania and her followers with a courtesy Oberon has not so far shown her, and shares her dreams as her husband does not, falling asleep in her arms after willingly accepting her distorted view of him as true (not so distorted, perhaps, if it’s based on his qualities rather than his appearance). Even after waking he retains the impression of his night with the fairy queen, describing it as a ‘most rare vision’ and describing it – albeit in muddled terms – in a sentence that echoes the New Testament: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was’. The confusion of the senses here might remind us that the impressions of all the senses are what the fancy works on, while the echo of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that God’s kingdom, too, which is what Paul describes in that famous passage, is a place not actually present. Our only access to that perfect place is through the imagination, and it’s the mechanicals, and chiefly Bottom, who give the best indication of how the imagination can be used to anticipate the kind of collective experience a believer might hope to have in the world to come.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, Stanley Tucci, 1999, TM & Copyright (c) Fox Searchlight. All rights reserved.

If the women and craftsmen in the play offer us glimpses of a collective or mutual imaginative space, as against the controlled imaginative space imposed on others by powerful men, we are also treated to glimpses of the delights and dangers of the wholly uncontrolled imagination through the tricks and errors of Robin Goodfellow. Robin is the spirit of wandering and hence of error (literally, erring or wandering), as we learn as soon as we meet him. When he meets a nameless fairy he asks her ‘whither wander you’, and she later points out that one of his traits is to ‘Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm’ – an accusation Robin confirms while identifying himself as yet another wanderer: ‘Thou speak’st aright, / I am that merry wanderer of the night’. Robin is also associated with laughter and hence with comedy; he’s a comedy of errors in himself, and his errors are what lead to the clash between the Athenian lovers in the central scene of the play, as he accidentally squeezes Oberon’s juice into the wrong man’s eyes. He embodies, in fact, all the properties of comedy: he’s associated with laughter, with lightness (flitting round the earth at impossible speeds), with improvisation, trickery, disguise, wordplay, and desire (he plays most of his tricks, it seems, on maidens and lovers); also with transgression, devilry, thievery, falsehood, sex, mental disorder and the corruption of the young. Misleading people and disseminating error are what devils do, of course, and at one point Puck even seems to think of himself as a devil, as he warns Oberon that the dawn is approaching and suggests that they retreat from the light along with the other ‘Damned spirits’ who fear cockcrow. The theatre haters would have agreed with the implication here that any supernatural being, even when depicted comically on stage, could only be a devil; but Oberon contradicts both Robin and them, insisting that ‘We are spirits of another sort’ and adding, ‘I with the morning’s love have oft made sport’. The implication here that Oberon might have had an affair with the goddess of the morning, Aurora, would be nicely enraging to the players’ enemies; but his insistence on the good intentions of these particular spirits – of himself and his fairy companions – is borne out by the final effects of Robin’s wandering. Puck may lead the young lovers astray in the woods; he may confuse their senses, so that branches and bushes become groping claws and hungry bears; but he also leads them out of the maze again, ensuring that ‘all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision’. His interference with the imagination is neither wholly controlled by his master Oberon, nor are its effects permanent – except in one case, since Demetrius’s eyes are never disabused of the impression, imparted by the flower’s juice, that Helena is an earthly goddess. This detail, too, could almost have been slipped into the play as a defence of the comic imagination; Demetrius’s continued enchantment is necessary if the play is to have a happy ending, and its good effects imply that any lingering imaginative impression left by comic theatre will be therapeutic rather than damaging to its spectators.

EperilsitodiSisisogno307457_2538893677725_830055400_nRobin is also associated with the community drama of the craftsmen, taking part in their performance both as auditor and actor (his main action, of course, is the spell that imposes an ass’s head on Bottom). In addition he’s a much more sympathetic Master of the Revels than Philostrate is. Philostrate is deeply reluctant to let the craftsmen entertain Theseus, but Robin enlists them at once as the main event in the entertainment he is staging for his own master, the King of Fairies. He is given the play’s epilogue too, which asks the audience to mend the play – to participate in shaping it, or reshaping what is wrong with it, like expert craftsmen – with their applause, the work of their hands (remember that Francis Flute is a bellows mender). It’s thanks to Puck, then, that the comedy ends by including Shakespeare’s spectators as an integral part of the collective imaginative space that has been forged or cobbled together in the final act. And it’s thanks to his interference that the lovers who were at first to have been impressed into the roles intended for them by Egeus and Theseus find themselves instead participating in the craftsmen’s show, along with Theseus and Hippolyta. Puck’s errors and improvisation, then, far from damaging anybody, save a woman’s life, and help to remind Theseus himself of the sheer attractiveness of an uncontrolled fancy.

The most famous speech about the imagination in the play – the most famous passage Shakespeare ever wrote about it – comes after the lovers have been found asleep in the forest, exhausted by their Puck-induced wanderings. When they wake from their sleep their dreams prove to have been therapeutic – to have healed them from damage and aggression; and it’s the spontaneous change of heart on Demetrius’s part, along with the strange story of the night’s proceedings, that prompts Theseus’s reflection on the nature of the fancy. ‘I never may believe / These antique fables, nor these fairy toys’, he tells Hippolyta, serenely unconscious of the fact that for the Elizabethan audience he himself is an ‘antique fable’. He goes on to set three kinds of people against the ‘cool reason’ he claims to champion – ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet’ – and again seems serenely unconscious of the fact that he himself is supposed to be a lover, and therefore one of the unreasonable people he has just listed. ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet,’ he tells his new wife,

Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
This is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to hell, from hell to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy:
Or, in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

devil_main_0For Theseus, then, the man who sees devils – ‘more devils than vast hell can hold’ – is a lunatic; that is, someone affected by the moon, whose constant changes were supposed in the sixteenth century to have a direct influence on the size and shape of the human brain. There are no devils in Shakespeare’s play, but the theatre haters would have seen them everywhere. Fairies, spirits, men with ass’s heads, Puck, even the pagan Theseus – all of these would have seemed devilish to the anti-theatrical lobby, who by seeing them in this way brand themselves as brainsick according to Theseus’s speech. They also identify themselves as close relatives of the ‘frantic’ lovers and playhouse poets they disapproved of, and just as deceived in their impressions of what they see; except that where lovers make something lovely out of something conventionally seen as ugly (‘Helen’s beauty’ from ‘a brow of Egypt’), the theatre haters make something monstrous out of nothing at all. The poet, too, employs his imagination in a positive way, giving a ‘local habitation and a name’ – substance, in other words, like the substantial bodies of the actors who speak the poet’s words – to a kind of ‘joy’ that didn’t exist before he thought of it (apprehending some joy he at once ‘comprehends some bringer of that joy’). Fear, on the other hand – such as the fear of bears or playhouses – is as insubstantial as the ‘joy’ given substance by the poets, and far less pleasant. Theseus, then, is well aware that the imagination can work in two ways, bringing fear or joy to its possessor; but both the joy and fear it generates are for him equally light and unbelievable – ‘fairy toys’, in other words. He articulates the ambivalent view of the imagination shared by many Elizabethans, but articulates it in such a way as to show that everyone shares this deceptive faculty, including himself, and that it’s both attractive and more or less harmless.

For Hippolyta, however, the imagination becomes something far more powerful than a ‘fairy toy’ when it is shared. Replying to her husband, she points out that the astonishing things told by the Athenian lovers about their night in their forest are strangely consistent, and that

[…] all their minds transfigur’d so together
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.

 Something significant, in other words, is generated when many people imagine the same, non-existent thing together. That thing becomes what Hippolyta calls a wonder – admirable means to be wondered at – and its strangeness, its newness, promises to reshape the world by shaping a group or community’s view of the world. The theatre haters claimed that plays, and particularly comedies, made things happen, and Hippolyta concurs. The difference is that for her they make things better – mend them, in the term Robin Goodfellow uses in his epilogue.

normalI said at the beginning that the imagination furnished Shakespeare with both the central topic and the plot of most of his comedies. It seems to me that the Dream is typical of Shakespeare’s comic process in the way it pits the controlling imaginations of powerful men against the collective imaginations of the rest of the cast; and the same conflict dominates the major comedies that followed this seminal play. Much Ado about Nothing, for instance, tells the story of how Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, conspires with his friends to shape the imagination of Benedick and Beatrice, making them see one another anew by making them believe each is secretly in love with the other. Don Pedro’s malevolent brother Don John then performs a similar trick on the prince himself, making him believe the innocent Hero has been unfaithful to her fiancé, his best friend Claudio. Don Pedro then teams up with Claudio to impress or impose their vision of Hero’s infidelity on everyone else, regardless of due process of law; and it’s only by another, positive counter-plot, whereby a group of Hero’s male and female friends team up to work collectively on Claudio’s imagination, that the situation is resolved. The high point of the counter-plot is Friar Francis’s description of how Claudio’s mind will be affected when he thinks Hero has died of grief as a result of his accusations against her:

When he shall hear she died upon his words,
Th’idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination,
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparell’d in more precious habit,
More moving, delicate, and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul
Than when she liv’d indeed. Then shall he mourn […]
And wish he had not so accused her –
No, though he thought his accusation true.

Notice the wonderful way the word ‘life’ weaves through this passage – ‘Th’idea of her life’ – ‘every lovely organ of her life’ – ‘full of life’ – ‘she liv’d indeed’; the imagination is a vitalizing instrument, bringing dead people back into the world in a better, lovelier form than when they left it, and healing the mourner in the process. Of course, Hero is not really dead, but it’s the collective conspiracy of her friends that first makes her seem so and then seems to bring her back to life, thus quasi-magically restoring life to the love affair that was broken by Don Pedro’s authoritarian imposition of his imagination on others.

84524361a3508653c48a790357a6b865The same combat between the authoritarian and the collective imaginations is present in a later play that brings a person back to life, The Winter’s Tale. At the beginning of the play Leontes finds himself imagining that Hermione’s verbal and physical playfulness is a sign of sexual misbehaviour; ‘Go play, boy, play,’ he tells their young son; ‘thy mother plays, and I / Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue / Will hiss me to my grave’. Convinced that what he has imagined is true and that she has slept with his friend Polixenes, he orders Polixenes’s death, Hermione’s trial, and his baby daughter’s exposure at sea, while forbidding his subjects to speak out on her behalf, and even overriding the unambiguous affirmation of her innocence by a divine oracle. Every aspect of communal life is in this way overthrown by his obsessive need to impress his vision on those around him. His rigid reimagining of his wife’s harmless playfulness puts an end to playfulness itself for sixteen years; and it’s only the return of laughter, unabashed desire, trickery and playfulness with the next generation that allows him and his kingdom to become a community once again. The signal of the return of the collective imagination is a wonder, of the kind Hippolyta noted in the strangely consistent tale told by the newly woken lovers. A statue of Hermione, the product of an artist’s imagination, comes to life in view of the whole cast, thus giving substance to an absurd ‘old tale’ (one of Theseus’s ‘antique fables’) in spite of either rigid law (which would forbid the magic that animates sculpture) or reason (which would deny the possibility of such a restoration). Leontes’s willingness to participate in this wonder, to believe in this old tale despite its apparent impossibility, marks his willingness to return to the collective life of which such tales are the ultimate symbol.

helen-mirren-as-prospera-the-tempest-still-frame-via-imdb-2Finally, the last of Shakespeare’s magical comedies, The Tempest, begins with a banished Duke impressing his imaginative vision on a ship and its crew, and ends with his acceptance that he is part of a collective imaginative life which cannot be governed by any human authority. In the course of the play the imagination spawns both utopias (think of Gonzalo’s dream of an ideal island) and conspiracies (Antonio urges Sebastian to murder his brother and take his place on the throne of Naples by saying: ‘My strong imagination sees a crown / Dropping upon thy head’). The play might take as its epigram the words of the catch sung by the intoxicated commoners Stephano and Trinculo, ‘Thought is free’. And Prospero himself begins to acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between the real and the imagined when he concludes that we are all, without exception, ‘such stuff / As dreams are made on’, and that ‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’. This famous speech is the first indication in the play that he sees himself as allied with the rest of humanity. And given that he is indeed human, his hope of orchestrating on the playhouse stage or the imaginary island a happy ending to the story of his life, composed by himself and obediently acted out by others, at this point seems an absurd one. If everything is the stuff of dreams, including Prospero, then the Duke cannot have a hope of keeping all the different imaginative threads of the world under his control, not even by magic. The final scene does indeed provide a happy ending, as Prospero’s daughter Miranda expresses her delight in the ‘brave new world’ of human wonders with which she finds herself surrounded – her new young husband chief among them. But in this final scene, too, the conspirators Sebastian and Antonio show no sign of repentance, and even Miranda’s naïve enthusiasm suggests her future life at Naples may be full of danger. The wild unpredictability of Robin Goodfellow’s imagination is present at the close of the play, as well as the collective imagination that knits together communities.

The play’s epilogue, however, reinforces the notion that the whole performance has been a collaborative effort. Prospero asks the audience to work their magic by clapping, thus releasing him from the imaginative spell that binds him to the island by announcing the close of the theatrical festivities. Authority is here set aside and collective fancy takes its place; a fancy that includes the hope for a better future, in heaven perhaps, or in an earthly state that favours mercy over retribution: ‘As you from crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free’. Spenser tells us in The Faerie Queene that Phantastes, the imaginative faculty, is about foreseeing possible futures. Shakespeare’s comic imagination foresees a range of social and emotional states which we might well wish to share – and which he invites us, in this epilogue, to help bring into being.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910

Further Reading

For lightness as a crucial element of Shakespearean comedy see R W Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London etc: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005). For Puck as a kind of devil see R W Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44 ( For the Utopian element in Shakespeare’s comedies see Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare’s Comedies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).





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The Mouse Messiah


…died since our ship touched down on this planet, eighteen days ago. The nature of the disease hasn’t been diagnosed: we know only that it occurs instantly on contact with the atmosphere, and that there’s no known cure. I’ve been confined to my quarters since nine this morning, when I re-entered the ship with a gash in my suit. If it really is a disease… to me it seems more like a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. I’m running a temperature that would have killed me hours ago, if it weren’t for the drugs.

Through the glass door of my cubicle the crew regard me with contempt. The accident need never have occurred if I hadn’t ignored our botanist’s advice and got too close to a sword-plant. But I was always the joke member of this expedition. After all, why should a priest have been assigned to a ship without Christians aboard, its destination a planet without intelligent life-forms? A bureaucratic slip at head office, perhaps; or a cruel prank played by some peevish atheist, who gigglingly transferred my name from one list to another without a thought for the years I would waste on this pointless mission. There’s no-one on the ship but miners, technicians, scientists, military personnel – every one of them a committed materialist, with a zealot’s passion for debunking the notion of transcendence. And there’s nothing on the planet at all. Just a wealth of newly-discovered minerals, which we shall mine, and a species of rodent, like rabbit-sized mice, which we shall of course exterminate as an accidental side effect of our mining operations. In my situation Saint Francis would have preached to the rodents, but we all wear helmets for fear of infection. Our helmets and suits are not decontaminated; we’re not afraid of infecting. Each time we step out of the air-lock we unleash a swarm of alien bacteria, enough to set off a thousand epidemics among the flora and fauna of this fragile ecosystem.

So the mice are doomed, unless some miracle interposes itself. But why should this concern us? We have our own body-count to fret over: the fact that three valuable crewmembers have died since touchdown, and that a fourth entirely useless crewmember is about to follow them. We’re already beginning to view this planet with hatred, and to treat its victims as traitors, feckless collaborators with an invisible army of hostile micro-organisms committed to wiping out all human life. The sooner we rid ourselves of both, the safer we shall feel.

So here I lie in this bare room, making the smooth walls bulge. This is a skill I’ve acquired since falling ill: I can alter my surroundings with a glance. The only ornament in my room, a crucifix, stretches and bleeds whenever my eyes light upon it. Tiny gaps between the panels on the floor expand and contract as my gaze sweeps across them. My hands lie inert on the sheets and my mind is mostly empty; but not for lack of power. Not at all! On the contrary: I’m afraid that if I move, say, my foot just a quarter of an inch I might punch a hole in the side of the ship, even as I buckle the walls with sight alone. And if a thought should cross my mind – a real thought, I mean, not this burbling stream of consciousness, this aimless interior chat – it might rend the walls of my understanding and scorch me with intolerable light. So I lie inert in this naked berth, sweating with the effort to contain my energies, trembling with force withheld.

The door shoots aside to admit the captain, a tall woman with hair so thick with product it looks enamelled. Her helmet flashes as she enters, almost detonated by my vision. At the press of a button a seat slides out of the wall; she sits. I struggle with the muscles round my mouth, not because I’m trying to speak, but to stop them wrenching my jaw into a mighty yawn that would swallow her helmet and all. I haven’t spoken to her more than a dozen times in the course of this expedition, intimidated by her height, her authority, the rigidity of her coiffure.

‘Any better, padre?’ she asks the wall. Inside her helmet she has formed a decision, like another chamber in her skull. With infinite gentleness I shake my head. The room leaps from side to side, shimmering with fear of my hidden strength.

‘You understand, of course, that I have no choice,’ she says harshly. ‘We can’t go back to the station with the plague on board. It’s simply too contagious. Doc reckons it could work its way through an unprotected human population within hours; through the race as a whole in the time it takes for the slowest of our ships to reach the Outer Reaches. Even as it is, we’re going to have to go through the most rigorous decontamination procedure in history before we can dock at the station. It’s my duty to begin that procedure now, before we leave this planet. I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay here, padre.’

No reaction. You can see from her face that she thinks I haven’t understood a word, that I lost her drift before she’d finished her final, punitive sentence. As she speaks, her harsh voice over the intercom above my pillow grows gentler, more thoughtful, as if trying to soften the cruelty of duty with its maternal inflections.

‘Is there anything I can do for you, Padre? Any messages you want me to take back to your friends, your family? We’ll leave you with supplies, of course. But is there something else you need?’

I say nothing, but I’m touched.

My mind is almost tempted out of hiding by the captain’s kindness. I can feel it pushing against its restraints, swelling, burgeoning, growing. Be careful! Once free of my skull it will continue to expand till it fills the ship, crushing furniture and people against the vessel’s inner membrane as it thrusts itself into every corner, eager to make the most of its fine new cranial cavity. With a violent effort I force it back into the skull’s narrow casement, commanding it to retreat like a swollen snail into its shell. For a while its tender horns explore the bony walls of its enclosure, probing for weaknesses, shoring up fragile areas with its mental secretions. I satisfy myself that my head is sound, that the bulk of my new-found power may be safely contained there. Then one by one I allow the horns to steal forth into the open.

Good God! The sky!

My mind gives a dreadful lurch, almost dissipating itself into the limitless acreage of heaven before I take hold of it again with a grip of iron. Its mollusc foot once anchored in my skull, I dare tentatively to look around, take stock of my situation.

I’m on a stretcher, and the stars jump from horizon to horizon with the stretcher’s motion. They are carrying me in a straight line from the ship to the place where they plan to maroon me. Apart from sword-plants, the planet supports little vegetation: only many-coloured lichens carpeting the rocks and patches of crawling fruit-vines bristling with spikes the length of nails. The heart-shaped fruits burst beneath my bearers’ boots, spattering their suits with bloody liquor. We are making for the highest point in the vicinity, a hollow mound of rock eaten away by the acid rain so that it’s pocked full of holes. From one angle it resembles a crumbling snail, from another a skull.

Now and then rodents trot from the shelter of the thorns and stare at us with alien eyes. We know nothing about these creatures. The only biologist on board is a botanist, who advises us on the dangers posed by sword-plants and refuses to waste his attention on the little quadrupeds. Once I tried to interest him in the question of why they like to stare at us with such apparent interest. I have a theory of my own, I said. Somewhere I’ve read that there was a species of rodent on earth called a groundhog, long extinct, which used to sit along the verges of highways absorbing vitamin D from sunshine through a kind of plate in the top of its head. Perhaps the rodents here absorb energy through their eyes, so that they’re literally drinking us in as they watch us crashing about the surface of their planet, fiddling with our equipment, clearing paths through the foliage, gesticulating at one another and shouting through our intercoms. That would be a nice thought, wouldn’t it, I said: that we’re giving them, as it were, a visual feast, even as we spread the germs that will eradicate their species? The botanist just glared at me and returned his attention to a lichen he was trying to chip away from a boulder. I suppose he thought my theory as stupid as my faith; but it comforts me now as they carry me past a row of staring rodents. What a sumptuous banquet they must be getting from the heat that radiates from my feverish body! It would be strange and pleasing if I should finally get a proper function only after I’ve been abandoned to die on an alien planet!

We reach the hollow mound by picking our way between crazier and crazier rock formations, some leaning so steeply that the stretcher-bearers hunch their shoulders in anticipation of an avalanche. Happily, though, we arrive unharmed at one of the skull’s decaying cavities. As we enter, the roof arches overhead like the roof of a mouth. The cave is deep, the floor uneven. They set me down in a corner, at such an angle that by the merest twist of the neck I can peep out of the cave-mouth and scan the twisted land beyond. By my right hand they place a plastic picnic hamper full of goodies. At least, that’s how I like to imagine it: stuffed to the brim with honey-roast ham, chicken drumsticks, pickles, cheeses, raspberries and cream, a dozen kinds of freshly-baked bread. In fact, of course, it contains only nutrition tablets, water tablets, and painkillers – enough of these to kill an ox. If I swallow the painkillers I shall be able to leave the other tablets for the next poor unfortunate to be marooned in this cave.

They place my battered old bible gently on the lid of the hamper. Then they gather round in awkward silence, hands clasped as if holding hats, heads bowed in a show of reverence they never managed at the daily act of worship. With the hint of a smile I raise two fingers in blessing, then inch them towards the bible on the hamper. I prod the spine, striving to open my lips and offer it as a gift. But the stretcher-bearers have gone; I must have taken longer than I intended.

My mind again retracts to wrestle with its power. This time I’m no longer a mollusc: I stand knee-deep in a pitch-black chamber full of echoes. Somewhere something flounders in the water, its splashes magnified by the high curved walls. Somehow I must reach that floundering thing before it drowns, discover its identity. A shower of acidic rain hisses down outside the cave, each drop raising a wisp of vapour where it hits the ground.
A flicker by the cave-mouth. A rodent sits there gazing at my face. Has it come to absorb another dose of my body’s warmth through its giant pupils? Another rabbit-mouse hops to its side; a third, a fourth. Dropping to all fours, the mice approach me paw by paw in a dance too complex to be followed by the uninitiated.

Now and then they sit up again and stare at me with alien eyes. Each time I find my thoughts distributed in dialogue.

RODENT: Are you sick?
MAN: I think so.
RODENT: So were many of our people.
MAN: What was their sickness?
RODENT: An epidemic brought by you, the creatures with two heads.
MAN: Aren’t you afraid I might infect you?
RODENT: Don’t be afraid. Our Queen is coming. She cures all disorders.

The conversation has gone this far before I know I’m neither dreaming nor delirious. Our speech isn’t made of words: it’s a mutual understanding. I hear the scrabble of claws on the rocky floor, the uneven sound of my breathing, but nothing else is audible over the intercom. An extraordinary warmth washes over me, an ecstasy of a wholly unfamiliar kind, as I bask in the sudden consciousness of full communion. We are speaking together without the use of tongues, rolling back the intervening ages since the fall of the Tower of Babel! After so long without speaking to anyone, the joy of this easy exchange is almost past bearing.

The first rodent has reached my boot and sniffs at it, nose a-quiver. I long to take off my glove and touch its fur, but fear that my hand will crush it into lifelessness.

MAN: Tell me about yourselves.
RODENT: We are the little dancers, we dance the star-dance among the piercing thorns. And you?

We believe, I’m about to say – some of us believe – that this lump of pallid flesh shares natures with infinity. But in my mind-vault I’ve finally reached the floundering thing and am struggling to lift it from the water, poor sodden mouse. It’s the magnitude of my next question, not the heightened power of my body and mind that dries up my tongue at the root. How share my faith with creatures who don’t share my humanity, to whom parables are nothing, comparisons mere confusion? Our minds have touched for an instant; but where on earth, or off it, can our souls connect?

Fever makes my head ache, but the pain in my heart is worse, because the love of those who have shared your skull is the deepest love of all. I remember the rodents’ Queen, the one who cures disorders. Perhaps one might draw a parallel from that?

MAN: Tell me about your Queen. What is her nature, what rooms does she inhabit?
RODENT: There is no telling, there is no knowing, there is only showing. She is here, she will give you comfort.

As we speak, more rodents gather at the cave-mouth looking in, then spill forward, more and more until the floor is crawling with rabbit-mice. Like the lichen on the tottering rocks they are all colours – purple, orange, emerald green, magenta – and they range in size from six inches to three feet. The multitude divides down the middle, leaving a gangway from the entrance to the soles of my boots. There’s no sound apart from the patter of claws, but the thoughts of this mighty gathering eddy and mingle like the voices of massed choirs. A light, sunshine I guess reflected from the steaming puddles outside, flashes from the cave-mouth. And now there’s a rodent scuttling down the passage as if on a sunbeam, a delicate white rabbit-mouse with a glint of gold on the top of her head, on the place where the groundhog absorbs the rays of the sun. Every mind in the assembly bows down low, every rodent’s nose touches the ground between its foreclaws in honour of their tiny Queen.

Again words lack. I know the Queen shares natures with infinity, that she travels through this many-coloured Gethsemane towards some rodent passion as terrible as Calvary. I know that there is pain in her heart as there is in mine, that ahead of her lies sorrow, torture, despair and death, and that she can see the path ahead with appalling clarity. Wherever there are empty chambers, chaos-filled caskets, lonely cubicles or vaults teeming with isolated lives – there you will find Golgotha, place of the skull. The pain in my body and mind is worse than ever. But her claw touches mine and the doors are flung wide open, every room and closet filled with light.

And once again I’m lying in my naked berth. The captain sits beside the bed, hands propping her forehead (she has taken off her helmet). Between her elbows rests my battered old bible, shut. There are stains on the cover where she has wept, each tear raising an invisible wisp of vapour where it struck the binding.

A smell of burning, traceable to the gun in her holster, pervades the room. I planned to maroon you, padre, she whispers, because I feared you. The heat you radiated scorched my cheek, as if something inside you had grown so huge it was seeping through every pore. So why did you stumble out from behind the crazy piles of rock, scaring me so badly that I pulled out my gun and shot you down at my feet? And then why did you bless me, padre, broken on the broken ground, and press your book like a treasure into my trembling glove?

On the wall the crucifix shivers as if under water. There were suddenly so many rodents, padre, rodents of every size and colour milling about our boots as we carried your corpse to the ship, bursting fruit at every step. And now my crew regard me through the glass door of the cubicle with undisguised contempt, because I’ve murdered you twice over – first by giving the order for you to be marooned, then by blasting a hole in your chest through which the last few fierce convulsions of your heart were clearly visible. Where are you now, padre? Can you hear me at all? Have you found a tongue large enough to speak with? Is there room enough in the universe to accommodate such a tongue?

From the swelling in my skull I fear I’ve caught a touch of your sickness. If sickness it is… I find it more a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. Four crewmembers have died since we touched down on this planet, nineteen days ago.

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Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the Death of Orpheus

DT2737Venus and Adonis (1593) is Shakespeare’s cheeky and disturbing contribution to the fierce contemporary debate over the function of poetry. The poem was his first published non-dramatic work, an opportunity for the young author to drop clues about his poetic agenda. Fourteen years previously, The Shepheards Calender (1579) had trumpeted Spenser’s pretensions to becoming the official Elizabethan poet laureate, with its echoes of Virgil carefully annotated in E.K.’s obsequious gloss. Shakespeare, by contrast, offered his patron a poem which couldn’t be placed in any of the traditional generic categories, and which incorporated its own sardonic commentary. He chose a topic that allied him, not with Virgil, the celebrant of Roman nationalism, but with a poet who was banished from Rome, Ovid. And in doing so, he announced his intention to participate in some of the hottest poetic controversies of the 1590s.

Just as Ovid wove together the stories of the Metamorphoses into a complex web, so Shakespeare weaves together several metamorphic fables to construct his own imaginative labyrinth. The most obvious subsidiary fables he makes use of are the stories of Narcissus and Hermaphroditus.1 But another narrative can be detected more subtly woven into the fabric of the poem: the story of Orpheus.

painting1In Ovid’s poem, it’s Orpheus who sings the tragedy of Venus and Adonis, before being torn apart by the Thracian women. But Shakespeare’s treatment of the story goes back to an earlier stage of Orpheus’s history, before his marriage to Eurydice. Shakespeare could have found an account of Orpheus’s early career in a number of places; but the place where the story cropped up most frequently was in contemporary defences of poetry. Apologists repeatedly used the Orpheus myth to argue that poets were responsible for the foundation of civilization itself. Perhaps the most elaborate account of the civilizing powers of poetry available to Shakespeare could be found in the third chapter of George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1589). Here Puttenham describes the state of anarchy that obtained ‘before any civil society was among men’, when humanity subsisted in a violent state of nature:

vagarant and di[s]persed like the wild beasts, lawlesse and naked, or verie ill clad, and of all good and necessarie provision for harbour or sustenance utterly unfurnished: so as they litle diffred for their maner of life, from the very brute beasts of the field.2

 It was the poets who rescued mankind from this bestial state, drawing people together into the first communities with their intoxicating utterances, and supplying these communities with the first politicians, the first lawgivers, the first official historians. Both Orpheus and Amphion are allegories of the early poets’ powers of speech. Amphion, who brought stones to life to build the walls of Thebes, represents the poet’s gift of ‘mollifying … hard and stonie hearts by his sweete and eloquent perswasion’; while Orpheus, who tamed wild beasts with his singing, represents the poetic orator who ‘by his discreete and wholsome lessons uttered in harmonie … brought the rude and savage people to a more ciuill and orderly life’.3 For apologists like Puttenham, eager to show that poetry could be subjected to the discipline of rules like any other social activity, Orpheus as the first administrator provided eloquent testimony to the fundamentally ‘civill and orderly’ functioning of the poetic art – to its qualifications as a supplement to other kinds of state policing.

Venus_and_Adonis_by_TitianShakespeare’s Venus and Adonis inhabit a landscape that closely resembles the wilderness colonized by Puttenham’s Amphion and Orpheus. Coleridge, the poem’s most sympathetic commentator, said that Shakespeare wrote his text ‘as if he were of another planet’.4 But it might equally be said that Shakespeare’s narrator writes the poem as if he were peering through the web of Elizabethan culture at another age, an age immeasurably distant from the sixteenth century but intimately bound up with it. Venus and Adonis live at a time before history has been subjected to what Puttenham calls the rules of art, before the ‘rude and savage’ condition of humanity has been rendered ‘civill and orderly’. A favourite Elizabethan metaphor for history was that of a mirror, in which the contours of present-day events could be traced, often with disturbing implications, in events of the past. Shakespeare’s narrative dissolves the glass that separates the violent pre-Orphic state of nature from the ‘civill’ world of Elizabethan social custom. In doing so it exposes the rudeness and savagery that Elizabethan culture strove to conceal under layers of allegory and rich brocade.

From one point of view, Venus and Adonis are completely Elizabethan. Adonis wears an Elizabethan bonnet, and his horse sports the rich trappings suitable for the mount of a young Elizabethan aristocrat. More importantly, Shakespeare’s narrator is a detached and worldly Elizabethan spectator who likes to flaunt his familiarity with the social and economic conditions of London life. He knows the legal scene, offering his opinions on the fee Venus’s ‘heart’s attorney’ ought to charge for its eloquent pleading (335).5 He knows the points of a good horse by the book, quoting almost verbatim from a contemporary riding manual when he describes Adonis’s palfrey.6 He knows the drama scene, at one point describing Venus’s actions as a dumbshow to which her tears act as an ineffectual chorus (359-60).

Above all, he is a cynic. Like other spectators in Shakespeare’s work, the narrator of Venus and Adonis finds his greatest delight in spectacles that involve cruelty, frustration, and especially violence. He’s the kind of spectator who takes pleasure in blood-sports like bear-baiting and hunting, and who can produce sophisticated commentaries on the pain these activities cause their participants, as Jacques comments on the wounded stag in As You Like It; who would rush with Rosalind to watch a wrestler breaking the necks of his challengers, or enthuse with Puck over the murderous violence he has stirred up between the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Venus and Adonis is the poetic equivalent of a blood sport, with the same indifference to the agony of its victims that Venus attributes to the hunters of the hare. The narrator is not interested in the feelings of his actors; he’s aroused only by the intellectual games he can play with those feelings, as when at the emotional climax of the poem, as Venus approaches the dead Adonis, he contemplates the effect of her eyes and tears ‘lending and borrowing’ from each other as if in an Elizabethan money-market (961). At times a note of overt sadism creeps into his text:

O what a sight it was, wistly to view
How she came stealing to the wayward boy!
To note the fighting conflict of her hue,
How white and red each other did destroy! (343-6, my emphasis)

To this jaded narrator, who confesses that conventional love language bores him (841-6), the only interesting relationship is a mutually destructive one. He may be sophisticated in the ways of court and city, but he is hardly ‘civill’.

A9180And his readers are implicated in his cynicism. When Venus tells Adonis he need not be ashamed to kiss her because nobody can see them (121-6), we, the invisible spectators, become voyeurs, sharing the narrator’s jokes as we ogle the couple. The narrator keeps reminding us of our complicity, with cries of ‘Look’ and ‘Lo’; and if at first this voyeurism seems no more than a harmless game, it soon becomes less comfortable, more openly an act of aggression committed on the actors.

Shakespeare’s text can be broadly divided into two halves. In the first half, Venus tries with increasing desperation to entice Adonis into sex. The language she uses is a giddyingly inventive display of familiar Petrarchan tropes. She bombards him with oxymorons involving hot ice, showers him with floral metaphors, launches into an extended variation on the old carpe diem theme, cracks the familiar puns about harts and deer, and interpolates a parodic passage where she inscribes herself as a Petrarchan mistress, the Laura of an inverted sonnet-sequence composed by Laura herself (139-50). Venus seems to have imaginative control over her own body, putting it through whatever changes she pleases, making it heavy enough to need trees to support it, then giving the violets she lies on the strength of trees (152). For all its desperation, the first half is energetic and hopeful, emphasising Adonis’s youth, Venus’s constantly self-renewing flesh, and the sexual pride of the courting horses, who inject new life into Venus’s own courtship just as she’s running out of ideas.

But at the centre of the poem comes a change of mood. Adonis announces that he intends to hunt the boar tomorrow. Venus collapses with the boy on top of her, and there follows what ought to be the sexual climax of Venus’s wooing. But all Venus gets from the encounter is frustration: ‘all is imaginary she doth prove’, the narrator tells us (597), and compares her frustration to that of the birds who tried to peck at Zeuxis’s temptingly painted grapes and found them to have no substance (601-4). After this the poem is wrapped in gathering gloom, a kind of post-coital lassitude rendered the gloomier because there has been no coitus. In the second half of the poem Venus speaks of fear, the fear of the boar and the terror of the hunted hare. Death, which has been a shadowy presence throughout the first half, becomes the tyrant of the second. Instead of urging Adonis to beget, Venus warns him that he will be murdering his own posterity if he fails to make love (757-60). The youthfulness which had been described in such vital terms in the first half, able to ‘drive infection from the dangerous year’ (508), suddenly finds itself subjected to more infections than it can hope to cure:

As burning fevers, agues pale and faint,
Life-poisoning pestilence and frenzies wood,
The marrow-eating sickness whose attaint
Disorder breeds by heating of the blood (739-42).

If, as scholars have argued, the poem was written while the London theatres were closed because of plague, Shakespeare could hardly have given contemporary readers a more shocking reminder of the powerlessness of poetic discourse.

Young-Hare-IAt the same time Venus loses control over her body. As she hurries through the woods after the sound of Adonis’s horn, her body is subjected to the intrusive gropings of bushes: ‘Some catch her by the neck, some kiss her face, / Some twine about her thigh to make her stay’ (872-3). The elaborate mythical structure she wove in the first half of the poem is abruptly unwoven. The second half is full of metaphors of unweaving; terrifying expansions of the oxymorons beloved of the Petrarchans. The hare ‘turns, and returns’ in the ‘labyrinth’ of its flight (704, 684). Later, Venus re-enacts the flight of the hare as she searches for Adonis (‘She treads the path that she untreads again’ [908]). Later still, in her efforts to persuade herself that Adonis is alive and well, she tells herself story after story, each one less convincing than the last: ‘Now she unweaves the web that she hath wrought’ (991). By this stage, the mysterious power of poetic eloquence and imagination as it was celebrated by the Elizabethan apologists has been laughed out of court. The process of telling stories has become no more than a trick to procrastinate the inevitable confirmation of misery, a meaningless incantation to keep off the encroaching dark.

adonisIn Venus and Adonis Shakespeare weaves and unweaves the poetic fantasies of his contemporaries. The best known English treatment of the Adonis myth before Shakespeare’s was the episode of the garden of Adonis in the Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were published in 1590. Expanding on a false etymology of Adonis’s name, Spenser depicts the garden as a pagan Eden, a ‘joyous Paradise’ constructed on the pattern of a female body, whose inexhaustible fertility nurtures flowers, throngs of babies and an unmutilated Adonis.7 In the first half of Shakespeare’s poem Venus struggles to create just such a poetic Eden out of the substance of Adonis’s body and her own. She tells him that he is the ‘field’s chief flower’ (8), and urges him to join her on a bank of flowers, an enchanted circle from which serpents and other vermin are banned. She then proceeds to transform her own flesh into a metaphorical Paradise. Her cheeks become gardens (65), she assures him that ‘My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow’ (141), and offers herself to him as a protective enclosure where he can shelter from the savage environment: ‘I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:/ Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale’ (231-2). But, as the central stanzas of the poem warn us, ‘all is imaginary she doth prove’. The landscape of the poem only ever becomes Edenic in the rhetoric of Venus. As the poem moves on, her rhetoric loses its persuasiveness, and a very different landscape emerges, a landscape which has more in common with Puttenham’s pre-Orphic wilderness than with Spenser’s idyll. Always present alongside Venus’s imaginary Eden, always encroaching on its borders, is a savage environment where the sun scorches exposed flesh, and where forests seethe with wild beasts. As this wilderness emerges, its climate gets less Edenic. In the first half, Venus compares Adonis’s breath to ‘heavenly moisture’, a dew like the one God used to water the plants before he invented rain (62-6).8 But the alternating weather conditions generated by the lovers’ bodies grow steadily less moderate, passing from rain to parching heat and back again to rain in a bewildering flurry of changes. In the second half of the poem these changes become wholly violent, hurrying through the ‘wild waves’ of the night (819) towards the tempest signalled by the ‘red morn’ of Adonis’s open mouth (453-6). The storm breaks during Venus’s search for the boy (‘Like a stormy day, now wind, now rain, / Sighs dry her tears, wind makes them wet again’ [965-6]), and her discovery of his body unleashes a climactic earthquake: ‘As when the wind imprison’d in the ground, / Struggling for passage, earth’s foundation shakes’ (1046-7). Where Puttenham’s Amphion brought stones to life with his poetry and used them to found a city, by the end of Shakespeare’s poem the earth itself has been shaken to the foundation. And Venus’s final prophecy bequeaths the same turbulent climate to future societies, whose sexual alliances will ‘bud, and be blasted in a breathing while’ (1141).

Antonio_Allegri,_called_Correggio_-_The_Abduction_of_Ganymede_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn the same way, the text reverses Orpheus’s transformation of ‘brute beasts’ into civilised human beings. Shakespeare’s works are full of animals, but not even King Lear has such a high proportion of beasts to humans as Venus and Adonis. The animals range from horse and hare to lions, tigers, bears and boars; and these beasts repeatedly swap characteristics with people. Adonis becomes a deer, a ‘dive-dapper’, a snarling wolf, while Venus changes into a vulture, a pregnant doe, a snail, a boar, a falcon, until the dividing line between humans and ‘beasts of the field’ becomes as imprecise as it was in Puttenham’s state of nature. Even as she promises to protect the boy from serpents, Venus transforms herself into the most terrifyingly voracious eagle the Elizabethans had ever read about, who ‘Tires with her beak on feathers, flesh and bone’ (56). This eagle either has not yet assumed its emblematic function as a royal bird, or else must act as emblem for a very violent and barbaric sort of royalty. Ascham, Gosson and others warned that erotic poetry subjected its readers to a Circean metamorphosis from humanity to bestiality. Shakespeare’s poem makes explicit what Ascham and Gosson imply: that the human body trembles on the borderline between beast and rational being.

At the same time, the closer one looks into the text, the more disruptively it seems to parody the posturings of contemporary apologists. Even the Latin motto Shakespeare prefixes to the poem is ironized by the narrative that follows it. In Marlowe’s translation the lines read:

Let base-conceited wits admire vile things:
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muse’s springs.9

Outside their context in Ovid’s Amores these lines sound like an arrogant repudiation of ‘inferior’ art (although in Ovid’s elegy they form part of a witty demolition of poetic hierarchies). But in Shakespeare’s poem Phoebus is only one of the aggressive inhabitants of the pre-Orphic wilderness. The first we see of him, he is blushing violently and breaking away from a weeping woman:

Even as the sun with purple-colour’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn. (1-2).

This sounds suspiciously like the aftermath of a rape, the same kind of sexual violence that leads the boar to gore Adonis at the end of the poem, or which generates Venus’s mutation into the eagle. When Apollo reappears a few stanzas later he’s as randy as ever, this time lusting after Venus, and prepared, without any of the misgivings that afflicted Phoebus in the Metamorphoses, to let Adonis guide his chariot like a second Phaethon, while he takes his pleasure for the second time that day (177-80). In this poem the classical patron of the poetic art is an irresponsible lecher.

The other gods are equally savage. The god of war spends his time in violent conquest, before being reduced to slavery in his turn by Venus (97-102). The moon goddess, who had so often stood in for Queen Elizabeth, proves as unstable as any of the others; in her jealousy of Adonis she bribes the destinies to make beauty ‘subject to the tyranny / Of mad mischances and much misery’ (737-8). No more gods are mentioned. There is no overruling authority, no Jove or Nature to make up for the demotion of the lesser gods; and Shakespeare’s ‘tyranny / Of mad mischances’ has none of the compensatory ‘eternity in mutability’ Spenser placed at the heart of the garden of Adonis.10 In place of the dignified Olympian structure implied by the poem’s Latin motto, the mocking narrator presides over a text that disintegrates into an unruly brawl. And his interpolations keep drawing unnerving parallels between this brawl and conditions in his own culture; a culture that constructed an elaborate mythology of its own stability, which Shakespeare’s alternative mythology systematically demolishes.

Shakespeare’s poem has no context. Few characters apart from Venus and Adonis themselves are given names. The genealogy of the protagonists is never mentioned, and the land they find themselves in is nameless, in marked contrast to Spenser’s Faerie land, or Lodge’s Isis, or Marlowe’s Sestos.11 The struggles in the text take place in a topographical and historical vacuum, outside the orderly records of Elizabethan classicists and chroniclers. Venus and Adonis are dislocated, in fact, from all the verbal conventions that give a semblance of structure to Elizabethan affairs. Even their conversations are incoherent, not so much acts of communication as a kind of verbal autoeroticism, ornate variations on guttural moans. They never really talk to one another. The only form of speech Venus is really interested in is her own minute register of the changes that take place in Adonis’s body, as it responds to arousal, to embarrassment, to violence; and the narrator with his rhapsodies over Venus’s body shares her limited interests. Venus hardly listens to Adonis; she shuts him up with kisses (48) or with wordplay (‘Speak, fair, but speak fair words, or else be mute’ [208]). When he does manage to get a word in edgeways, she first waxes eloquent about the sound of his voice, then faints dead away as he opens his mouth to speak again. In the second half of the poem the language of Venus loses all pretence of conveying meaning, as she quibbles with echoes which respond like ‘shrill-tongu’d tapsters’ (849), or stops to talk with one of Adonis’s dogs which ‘replies with howling’ (918).

173562c232235aba34d2abd0e3451212Running through this dissonant wilderness is a series of ‘speaking pictures’, the verbal evocations of the visual which Horace and Sidney identified as the poet’s chief source of persuasive power. Shakespeare’s recalcitrant speaking pictures rebel against the functions they performed in contemporary theory. At the centre of his narrative he sets a picture whose power is solely that of stressing its own uselessness: the trompe l’oeil painting of grapes, that at once arouses and frustrates the appetites of birds. Earlier in the poem, Venus accuses Adonis of being another such useless artefact, a ‘lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone, / Well-painted idol, image dull and dead’ (211-2). These two empty works of art mockingly enact the repressive uses poetry was put to in Elizabethan apologetics. The policing of sexual desire was one of these functions; Sidney’s exemplary speaking picture was a verbal portrait of Lucretia killing herself.12 Yet at the same time Sidney himself maintained that the advantage ‘speaking pictures’ had over other forms of discourse was that they stimulated emotions in their readers: whether appetite, like the painting of the grapes, or battle-lust, like the old song of Percy and Douglas in Sidney’s Apology, or sexual desire, like Venus’s statuesque Adonis. For the moralists, poetry was designed to regiment and frustrate the feelings it played on: to arouse emotion only to crush emotion.

Rearing-Horse-1483-98In contrast to these useless and frustrating speaking pictures, Shakespeare intersperses his text with very different verbal paintings. The extended descriptions of Adonis’s horse (259-324), the boar (615-72) and the hare (673-708) all refuse to perform the functions the apologists would have demanded of them. The description of the horse comes just at the point when Venus’s eloquence has failed her: ‘Now which way shall she turn? what shall she say?’ (253). At this moment of creative crisis Adonis’s horse snaps its reins and so lends a new energy to Venus’s poetic improvisations. The narrator invites us to compare the animal to an equestrian painting, an idealized re-presentation that possesses all the points an artist would choose ‘when a painter would surpass the life / In limning out a well-proportion’d steed’ (289-90). But this is no conventional Renaissance painting, gracefully instructive; it is the picture of something out of control, a beast that defies its master, crushes its bit, and gallops off in mad pursuit of a mare. Unlike Sidney’s speaking pictures, it forms no part of any pedagogic or political agenda: and the ‘moral’ Venus derives from it stresses the horse’s exuberant resistance to the constraints of morality.13

il-porcellino--florence-italy-boar-statue-gregory-dyerThe same is true of the boar. Commentators have repeatedly tried to read the boar as an allegory, whether of winter, of war, or of homosexual desire, but it resists moral or generic classifications. Venus recreates the boar verbally in order to scare Adonis from hunting it; but she succeeds only in scaring herself, with

The picture of an angry chafing boar,
Under whose sharp fangs on his back doth lie
An image like thyself, all stain’d with gore (662-4).

This vatic prediction is vouchsafed her, not by the Muses appealed to in the poem’s motto, but by fear and ‘dissentious jealousy’ (657), a form of imagination that cannot be trusted, since it ‘sometime true news, sometime false doth bring’ (658). And like Venus’s other speaking pictures, it has no effect on its audience whatever.

In fact, the deeper we plunge into the second half the more undisciplined and ineffectual Venus’s imagination becomes. Her inventiveness comes more and more to resemble the hapless cunning she ascribes to the hare, which designs a random ‘labyrinth’ in a vain attempt to elude its enemies. What Venus says of the hare is equally true of herself: ‘Danger deviseth shifts, wit waits on fear’ (690). The creative intelligence that Venus shares with the hare, the wit that ‘waits on fear’, has little in common with the semi-divine ‘erected wit’ that governs Sidney’s aristocratic poet.14 It is the wit of the poor, generating the same fantasies that inhabit the streets and taverns of Elizabethan London, as the similes in the text increasingly remind us. After Adonis has left her, Venus begins a conversation with Echo. The poet who converses with Echo was a favourite device used by courtly poets like Sidney; but Venus’s Echo is no courtier but a barman, who is well used to soothing the imaginative humours of ‘fantastic wits’ (850). Later, Venus’s fearful imaginings about Adonis’s fate are nothing nobler than a child’s nightmares – she describes them as ‘causeless fantasy, / And childish error’ (897-8). The predictions she makes when she sees Adonis’s hounds resemble the superstitious predictions made by ‘the world’s poor people’ when they see a comet (925-6). Venus started the poem as a strong-armed poet-queen rather like Puttenham’s Queen Elizabeth; but by mid-way through the second half she has lost all her mythical and cultural potency and become as helpless as the poorest of her subjects.

AN00575557_001_lShe herself stresses her own helplessness when she imaginatively evokes the ruler of this wilderness, as she approaches Adonis’s body. Where Spenser’s April eclogue concluded with a hymn to Eliza, the queen of the shepherds, safely inscribing the Shepheards Calender as a royalist tract, the highest authority in Shakespeare’s poem is a vague and menacing shadow, a force that has no identity at all: Death. Venus describes it twice over as she hurries towards Adonis’s corpse. At first, when she has convinced herself that the boy is dead, Death is a ‘Hard-favour’d tyrant’ who drinks the tears of his victims (931). Later, thinking Adonis might still be alive, she abruptly changes her tune; in an outburst of renewed hope and gratitude she ‘clepes him king of graves, and grave for kings, / Imperious supreme of all mortal things’ (995-6). Venus’s two contradictory versions of Death mimic the sycophantic carollings of court poets, whose celebrations of the sovereign waxed more lyrical as their hopes of preferment grew stronger. But like his treatments of the traditional royal emblems, the eagle, the sun, and Cynthia, Shakespeare’s treatment of the myth of monarchy itself has been drained of all glamour, all civility, reduced instead to the savagery of arbitrary power: a power that cannot create, only destroy.

In fact, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis enacts a process which is the precise obverse of the civilizing influence ascribed to poetry in Puttenham’s myth of Orpheus. If Venus and the narrator are Shakespeare’s poets, their words and actions expose the barbarity that lurks beneath the elegant surface of Elizabethan court culture. And the poem’s commentator recognizes this fact. As Venus composes her seductive poetry, Adonis acts as her surly critic, a disgruntled version of Spenser’s E.K., who fails miserably to respond to the force of poetic discourse. He tells her that her fictions are hackneyed and unprofitable (‘this idle theme, this bootless chat’ [422]). He informs her, as Ascham or Gosson might have done, that her eroticism is unwholesome for adolescents (524-8)); tries to cut short her endless story-telling (716); and finally launches into an extended attack on her ideological stance, made up of phrases that might have been culled from the works of the ‘poet-haters’. Her discourse is the song of a mermaid or siren, which incites its hearers to lust rather than rational love; her poetry is made up of ‘forged lies’ (804) and offensive to chaste ears. However redundant Adonis’s distinction between lust and love may be, it incorporates one insight which the poem bears out: that Venus’s poetry represents just one more effort to gain power, and that her wit fails to hide the fact that she serves a ‘hot tyrant’ who is potentially as destructive as Death (797). From the beginning of the poem, Venus was at her most savage when she came closest to getting what she wanted:

Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil,
And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage,
Planting oblivion, beating reason back,
Forgetting shame’s pure blush and honour’s wrack (555-8).

Where Orpheus tamed the bestial hearts of wild men, Venus urges a return to bestial action; where Puttenham’s early poets planted the artificial memory of history, Venus plants ‘oblivion’.

Venus is no Orpheus; but then, neither is the frigid Adonis. Standing over his corpse, Venus finds herself quite incapable of giving an accurate account of his death; far less of his life, which is much less verifiable. Like distorted glasses, her tears make his wounds look twice as bad as they are; she therefore seeks to console herself by mythologizing his biography. As she narrates her own version of his history she transforms him into a voiceless Orpheus, taming wild animals wherever he went. ‘To see his face the lion walked along / Behind some hedge, because he would not fear him’, she croons (1093-4), and we might be inclined to believe her, if we didn’t remember her terror when she found he was hunting ‘the blunt boar, rough bear, or lion proud’ (884). In Shakespeare’s text, myth is no allegory of actual events but a falsification of history, a consoling lie designed to conceal the ‘black Chaos’ that underlies the veneer of historical order.

Jean_Cousin_the_Elder,_Eva_Prima_PandoraThe implications of this go far beyond a critique of Elizabethan poetic theory. After all, Queen Elizabeth herself was to a great extent a construct of poetic mythmaking. It’s always tempting when confronted with a powerful queen in Elizabethan poetry to transform her into one of the many aspects of Elizabeth. The problem with Shakespeare’s Venus is that she seems to present the queen and sexual politics at court in such a darkly satirical light. Yet the more one looks at the poetry of the 1590s, with its blossoming of satire in verse and prose, the less unlikely such a reading looks. Two years before Shakespeare published his poem, the patriotic Spenser produced his most satirical collection of verse, the Complaints (1591). One of the poems in the collection, The Teares of the Muses, recounts a reversal of the civilizing process very like the descent into savagery enacted in Venus and Adonis. One after another the Muses complain that their verses have lost their potency and that the social structure is collapsing as a result. The one hope they have of reversing the process of degeneration is a queen called Pandora. Of course, officially speaking, the name Pandora as applied to Elizabeth could only invoke its most complimentary etymological derivation. But Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland shows that he knew the myth of Epimetheus very well, and was fully aware that Pandora did not bring civilization to early mankind, but ‘black Chaos’ (he doesn’t mention hope).15 Might he be insinuating that Elizabeth/Pandora is the cause of, as well as the potential solution to, the collapse of Elizabethan court culture?

By the 1590s, the rich poetic mythology that had been woven into Elizabethan culture, and which had looked so alluring at the time Spenser wrote the Shepheards Calender, seems to have begun to fray and fall apart. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis wittily charts that disintegration. And it ends with an echo of the myth that had been most closely identified with the reign of Elizabeth: that of Astraea. The English queen was said to be the reincarnation of Astraea, dedicated to restoring the Golden Age on Earth.16 But Shakespeare’s poem ends like the beginning of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with a disappointed and bitter goddess – no longer the goddess of justice, nor even effectively the goddess of love – retiring in disgust from a wilderness in which she no longer has a place.



1 For Shakespeare’s use of the fable of Hermaphroditus, see the Arden Edition of The Poems, ed. F.T. Prince (London: Methuen, 1960), Introduction and Appendix I. All references to Venus and Adonis are taken from this edition. For allusions to the fable of Narcissus, see Prince, p. 12, l. 157-62, and pp. 47-8, l. 829-52.

2 The Arte of English Poesie (London: Richard Field, 1589) fols. 3-4.

3 Puttenham, fol. 4.

4 The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1836), vol 2, p. 59.

5 ‘Her pleading hath deserv’d a better fee’. l. 609.

6 See Prince, p. 19, l. 295-8, fn.

7 The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton (New York and London: Longman, 1977), III vi 29-50; ‘joyous Paradize’, III vi 29.

8 Genesis, 2, 6.

9 The Complete Poems and Translations, ed. Stephen Orgel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), p. 135, l. 35-6.

10 Spenser’s Adonis is said to be ‘eterne in mutabilitie’. III vi 47.

11 A bank of the river Isis is the setting for Lodge’s Glaucus and Scilla (1589); Sestos is the setting for Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598). Both poems can be found in Elizabethan Minor Epics, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963).

12 See An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (London: Nelson, 1965), p. 102, l. 21-37.

13 ‘The sea hath bounds, but deep desire hath none;
Therefore no marvel though thy horse be gone.’ l. 389-90.

14 See Shepherd, p. 101, l. 14-24.

15 See A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. W. L. Renwick (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 2.

16 For an account of Elizabeth as Astraea and of Juvenal’s treatment of Astraea in his sixth satire, see Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Sussex: Harvester, 1983), Chapter 6.



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Devilled Kidneys

[Apologies to my Medievalist friends for the liberties I have taken here with history…]


A passer-by might have taken the pair, one with his broad-brimmed hat and sober garments, the other stiff and weathered as a signpost, for some allegorical gatekeeper setting a footsore pilgrim on his road.

‘Aye, master, we’ve our heretics in country parts same as in the city. Take Father Whiting now: as wicked an old sinner as you’d wish to meet in a summer’s day. Not a sentence he lets fall but begins and ends in the foulest heresy. Go you to Father Whiting, master, and you’ll count your pains well bestowed.’

The man in black stared at the peasant with hatred. In these days when heresy was punishable by burning such levity was intolerable. Briefly he wondered whether to sound out the man’s opinions on scripture, knowing that his own long experience could twist the cripple’s answers as vilely as his frame; but there was little to be gained from netting such small fry. Besides, he owed the man a debt of gratitude. This account of Father Whiting tallied in every detail with the intelligence gathered by the church authorities, and the peasant might come in useful at the trial. He dropped a groat into the cripple’s pouch and turned down the lane that had been indicated by the man’s knotty finger. The stranger walked swiftly, despite his limp.

It was a lane whose toils were as devious as an equivocator’s reasoning, he told himself, leading to a garden of paradisal fertility. The presbytery sprouted from the centre like a forbidden tree, concealing no doubt (all gardens held the same association in his mind) its serpent. Such a garden! Bored by botany as he was, the man in black saw in it every variety of flower, tree, herb or shrub he knew and more, flourishing in regulated profusion on either hand. Treading the pebbled path from gate to porch, he heard a burst of high-pitched laughter from an upper window. A patter of feet on a flight of steps, a babble in the hall, and a cascade of children spilled out of the open front door. They converged about his knees as if he were a long-expected visitor and drew him towards the threshold where a tiny woman stood beaming, her arms extended in welcome. Her face was narrow and pointed as that of a mouse; wrinkles radiated from the corners of her mouth like whiskers, and she let out a series of shrill squeaks as she ushered him into the house. In a moment he found himself seated in the kitchen by a blazing summer fire, looking about him in bewilderment (a sensation unfamiliar to the man in black).

The kitchen was dark and spacious, its ceiling criss-crossed by heavy beams, from which hung herbs, onions, pheasants, rabbits, kitchen implements and a large stuffed crow, spreading its tattered wings in simulated flight. A haunch of venison drooped from a metal spike an inch or two from the visitor’s nose. In one corner, a cask lay on its side in a wooden cradle, its vent stopped with a twist of cloth. Dark viscous liquid dripped from the cloth and splashed among the jugs and pots that crowded round the cradle’s feet. Against the wall stood a dresser crammed with pewter, glass and earthenware of every shape and size. A massive cauldron gurgled on the fire; steam gushed from it in gobbets. This was a place congenial to the visitor’s heart, for he loved hot rooms where meat was suspended from hooks.

A tabby cat curled its tail round the woman’s legs as she bustled to fill a jug with ale from the cask. Her hair, a grey mist, betrayed her age, but to the man in black she seemed oddly attractive in the fragrant twilight. ‘And where do you hail from, master?’ she sang out over the bobbing heads of the children. ‘A friend of Father Bernard’s, are you? Or a pilgrim on the road to the Holy Martyr’s tomb? There’s many and many a pilgrim passes through the village once the summer storms are past. Frogspawn and crowsfoot, children, we can’t hear ourselves breathe! Run along into the garden and catch me a dragonfly, won’t you? They haven’t a net,’ she explained as the children trooped out of the kitchen, ‘so that’ll keep them occupied till owl-light.’

When the room was still, the man in black accepted the ale and sipped noisily, shooting his eyes over the household treasures displayed on the dresser. The woman picked up the cat – which looked half as big as herself – and stroked it, her own gaze fixed upon the stranger. When the ale was finished he set the jug on the floor by his chair and stretched his boots across the hearthstone with a satisfied grunt. His cloak was bunched up like wings about his shoulders by the back of his chair. His restless eyes kept wandering to his hostess and darting away again.

‘The children,’ he observed to a fine pewter plate. ‘They belong to Father Whiting?’

‘Gracious, no,’ exclaimed the woman with a needle-sharp laugh. ‘They belong to the Lord. God forbid we should lay claim to the ownership of His children!’

The stranger stared at her a moment, then transferred his stare to a string of onions. ‘That is not what I meant,’ he said. ‘Who gave birth to them? And who is the father?’

The woman laughed again: her laugh was beginning to get on the stranger’s nerves. ‘Bless us, master, I quite mistook! You must think me very dizzy! Let me see now, the father. There’s Molly Wither’s children, the eldest not eight; I wouldn’t care to guess who the father might be. There’s Matty Moon’s daughters I mind when he’s away, and Billy Badger’s three boys; the fourth drowned in the beck. Bless us, Father Bernard has only seven of his own. Only seven, that’s it, with another on the way. Due in the fall, so Fanny Fireside tells me; and she ought to know, for she’s had nine already, and this’ll be the tenth if it lives!’

The man in black drew in his breath with a hiss and raised his eyes to the haunch of venison. ‘Seven, woman?’ he said between clenched teeth. ‘Did you say seven? Father Whiting is a priest of the Church of Rome!’

‘That he is, master, that he is,’ said the woman. ‘And he dearly loves the little children at his knees, just like our good Lord Jesus.’ She never ceased to stroke the tabby cat.

‘And you?’ inquired the stranger, his eyes now sliding down the poker. ‘What is your position in this household?’

‘The dear preserve us, master,’ cried the woman, her little black pupils drilling into him. ‘What position does any woman stand in to her husband?’

Here the man in black removed his hat, which he had refused to take off in the porch, and mopped his brow with a black silk handkerchief. ‘A husband,’ he repeated. ‘Do you know nothing of priestly vows? Does he?’

The woman smiled. ‘Father Bernard knows only his vows to God, master,’ she said.

The man in black revolved the hat in his hands as if inspecting the brim for dust. The priest, he thought, was clearly some sort of fanatic, one of those lollards who denied the authority of Mother Church. His eyes flicked to the woman and at once flicked back to a nail sticking out of the wall above the fireplace.

‘Tell me about the garden, will you?’ he said, with what he hoped was a friendly grin. ‘Where do the plants come from? They must have cost a pretty penny!’

‘How would a simple wench like me know where the plants come from, master?’ asked the woman, her fingers running through the cat’s fur from tail to neck. ‘I always tell the children that the seeds form wherever the sun weeps, but I don’t know the truth of the matter.’

‘Who tends the garden? Father Whiting? Where is he now?’

‘Baptising Sally Moleskin’s daughter, born out of wedlock Wednesday was a week.’

‘Baptising an illegitimate child without a dispensation? The bishop has expressly forbidden it.’ In his mounting excitement the stranger’s eyes darted from tongs to wood-basket, from wood-basket to kettle then back again to tongs. Here, truly, was a catch to weigh in with the heaviest! Before the judgement throne this priestly lunatic would condemn himself ten times over out of his own blasphemous mouth. The prize-money would be prodigious, the conflagration spectacular! Already he was formulating the indictment in his head, listening to the sentence as the Grand Inquisitor pronounced it, basking in the frightened glances of women and children as he approached the quaking heretic to minister the last rites by the light of the torches…

And the woman! Just a passing mention of her relationship with Father Whiting (the bishop wanted all such scandals smothered), an inventory of the contents of this kitchen, a thumbnail sketch of her appearance… trials for witchcraft always drew the crowds. Two such birds with one stone! Preferment beckoned surely this time. This was his lucky day!

And yet, and yet… she was certainly attractive. Although no youngster himself, he too knew the pangs of the flesh, and he was not ill-looking, he thought, in a gaunt kind of way. His eyes stroked the tabby’s fur along with her fingers. What a crowning achievement it would be if he could share her sheets while plotting her destruction! Finger by finger he pulled off his gloves, then rubbed his palms together.

‘My poor dear woman,’ he mumbled to the butter-churn. ‘You are in a sorry pickle, indeed you are.’

Her puzzled gaze made him squirm somewhat. ‘I, master?’ she said. ‘I’m the one as does the pickling hereabouts!’

He gave a nervous bark of laughter. ‘My poor dear woman, in yourself you are as innocent as the sucking babe. But you are fast becoming corrupted. You have no notion of Father Whiting’s wickedness. I must explain.’

‘Explain, master? I’m sure there’s no need to explain. There’s some things need no explaining.’

Once again his eyes made a bound to hers and away. In his fancy the air between them swam like the atmosphere over a fire. He started to twine one of his gloves round the other till they were locked in an inextricable embrace. His lips peeled back from his gums in another effort at a friendly smile. ‘Poor foolish creature,’ he murmured. ‘It is my wretched duty to shatter your illusions. This Father Whiting you so admire – this hedge-priest, this heretic – is an irredeemable scoundrel.’ The space between them tightened as he leaned towards her. ‘A scoundrel, and more than a scoundrel. He is a devil. He has broken every edict human and divine. He has married and begotten children in violation of his holy profession. He has expended money, time and labour on the cultivation of luxuries, which should have been devoted to the pastoral care of his flock. He has flagrantly disregarded the bishop’s edicts. And it would not surprise me if he were a poacher’ – gesturing at the pheasants and the venison – ‘or a practitioner of the Black Arts’ – with a gesture at the crow. ‘In conclusion, woman, Father Whiting is damned to everlasting torment. But this is not the sum of his malignancy. Alas, woman, his most unpardonable crime is this: that he has drawn your hapless self into the trains of his infernal schemes. He has ensnared your soul with lascivious blandishments, glutted your tender flesh with sensuous drafts and the dishes of venery. Unless you change your ways at once, my child, you will find yourself impaled on a spit by his side in the blackest pit of Purgatory. Do you understand your danger?’

He rose several inches in his chair as he spoke, and finally fixed her with a terrible glare, pinning her down as if with red-hot pokers. ‘Oh heavens, master,’ she whispered. ‘Is that so? What shall I do, master? How shall I be saved?’

The stranger held her in his gaze a moment longer, then released her with a shuddering sigh. She was well netted. He reached into the folds of his cloak and drew forth a scroll tied up with red ribbon. ‘You are a good woman at heart,’ he announced as he plucked at the knot with his nails, ‘and you have already taken the first step towards salvation. The second is almost as simple.’ The ribbon dropped to the floor and the scroll flew open in his hands. ‘I have here a precious document entrusted to me by my superiors. It is a simple declaration, nothing to be alarmed at, attesting to my conviction of your innocence. You need only sign along the dotted – but I forget, you do not write. A mark will do, and then I can guarantee your safety.’

He reached the scroll towards her. As her hand closed round it a shudder ran down his spine. She studied the legal script for several minutes with some intensity before he realized she was holding it upside down. He smirked to himself and fumbled once again among his garments.

‘Here is pen and ink. When you have completed the form I must ask you to accompany me to my residence for a short interrogation – you are familiar with church bureaucracy…’ The laughter of children filtered through the leaves at the kitchen window. ‘When the inquisition is over you shall never be troubled again.’

The woman perched on her stool, the scroll in one hand, the pen in the other. The late afternoon sun was screened by a hedge of yew so that the room lay thick with shadows. The cauldron bubbled and belched. A log fell in the fire sending up a flock of sparks. Solitary flames twirled on the tips of twigs, red-hot caverns roared amidst the geology of crumbling wood. A heavy odour clung about the stranger’s nostrils; his forehead glistened with perspiration. Truly the woman had a presence; the air fairly crackled with the electric charges that shot between them.

‘Well, master,’ she said, rising and crossing to the dresser (how catlike every movement!). ‘What a blessing it is that you troubled yourself to visit me in my wickedness! I might never have known I was treading the path to perpetual pain. How can a simple wench repay such kindness?’ A thousand answers jostled at his lips, but before he could speak she had turned to him holding a bowl. ‘Would you care for a drop of stew, sir? Nothing special, but Father Bernard loves it dearly.’

The stranger smirked and smirked. A libation – a thank-offering! And how charming that she should put her life in his hands along with a mess of pottage! ‘With all my heart,’ he said, rising likewise and moving towards the cauldron. As he bent over it, the fire cast shadows like horns from his bushy eyebrows.

‘It is always pleasing to encounter gratitude in my line of work,’ he went on. ‘Too often the instrument is mistaken for the instigator, the slave blamed for the caprices of his master, the effect condemned instead of the cause. You and I and Father Whiting are all of us no more than tools in the hand of that inscrutable craftswoman, Dame Fortune. What a delectable aroma!’ His nostrils dilated. ‘Mine is an unpleasant vocation, certainly, but the job must be done and a strong spirit is needed to do it. Yet to tell the truth, there are moments when it palls on me. Moments when I find myself seized with an irresistible passion for one of those I must betray – be it a frail young monk unable to combat heretical thoughts or a handsome woman like yourself – seized with a passion beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. A strange phenomenon, don’t you think?’ The bubbles bulged, swelled and popped like the turbulence in his stomach. ‘Tell me, woman, what is in the stew?’

At this point the woman, who was standing behind him, dropped the bowl so that it smashed to pieces on the floor. In the same movement she bent, seized the stranger by the heels and tipped him over the lip of the cauldron. Gravy slopped into the flames, hissing venomously. As he kicked, his boots flew off to reveal his cloven hooves, his tail disengaged itself from the sinking cloak. Fingers of steam groped up the chimney, fumbled the woman’s pointed features, poked among the fragments on the floor. She stirred the pottage twice before she replied.

‘Devilled kidneys,’ she said.


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W. W. Tarn, The Treasure of the Isle of Mist

UnknownHere’s a charming oddity: a children’s book published in 1919, written before the outbreak of the Great War by the celebrated classical scholar Sir William Woodthorpe Tarn for the entertainment of his only daughter. In later life his daughter became Otta Swire, the Hebridean folklorist, who lived in Orbost House near Dunvegan in the north of the Isle of Skye; and the novel features Otta herself under the name of Fiona, with her father as ‘the Student’ (her mother, Flora MacDonald, has unaccountably vanished from the family circle). Tarn writes in his introduction to the 1938 edition that he told the story to the fifteen-year-old Otta in the winter of 1913-14 when she was ill, and it’s the age of the story’s protagonist that sets it apart from other children’s fantasy literature of the period. It’s very specifically a book about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and as such is an early precursor of the young adult fiction that came into its own in the 1970s. It’s also a precursor of later children’s fantasy in several other ways worth mentioning.


The Professor in Mistress Masham’s Repose

In the first place, it’s a learned book, two at least of whose characters are eccentric scholars with a taste for philosophy – something that links them with the two philosophers in James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912). The Student, who spends much of his time regaling his daughter Fiona with sage advice in the comfort of his reading room, also anticipates the scholarly gurus of later children’s fantasy: in particular the poverty-stricken Professor in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) – himself a reincarnation of White’s Merlin – and Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). His conversations with his fellow scholar, an entomologist whose scientific interests focus exclusively on ‘one particular family of coleoptera’ (47), unmistakably resemble the dialogue at cross purposes of Stephens’s Philosopher brothers:

the two would sit, one on either side of the fire, each smoking at a tremendous pace and talking hard on his own subject. Neither ever expected an answer from the other; neither ever got one. But they had silently established an unwritten law that when one had talked for three minutes by the clock on the mantelpiece he was to stop and let the other have a turn; and when at last they said good-night, each felt they had both had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. (48)

Crucially, too, like Stephens’s Philosophers, both men are thoroughly democratic in their quest for knowledge. The beetle scholar finds the most modest creepy crawly in creation fascinating, while the Student embraces everything in his conversation, from human evolution to the relationships between men and birds, from the grand wars and controversies of ancient history to the complex web of global myth and legend. His mind is a kind of living Golden Bough which sees connections between the stories and deeds of all people, whatever their apparent ‘primitiveness’ and whatever age they lived in. And it’s his impartial concern for insignificant people – indeed, his somewhat paternalistic sense of responsibility for them – that sets Tarn’s story in motion.

7389550-LThe story takes its origin from a moment in the Student’s youth – recollected in the book’s first chapter – when he altruistically defended a wandering hawker from an unprovoked attack by Bashi-bazouks – irregular Ottoman soldiers – in the town of Verria, in what is now Macedonia. While on the one hand this episode might be seen as an instance of anti-Turkish xenophobia, a typical Boy’s Own Paper exercise in imperialist machismo, on the other it could also be read as a courageous act of defiance against a colonial oppressor (Macedonia was part of the Ottoman empire), especially in view of the fact that the hawker’s race, class and nationality, like his age, remain a mystery. The Student’s defence of him, then, can serve as an instance of his innate humaneness and impartiality, the equivalent in action of his universal interest in the knowledge of all races and nations, and of his desire to communicate this knowledge impartially to the young of both genders, especially his daughter. And the sudden reappearance of the hawker at the beginning of the novel places this sense of democratic impartiality squarely at the centre of the narrative that follows.

The hawker is never named, but his identity as a magical wanderer between nations and epochs – he seems to be immortal – allies him not only with the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew but with those mysterious wanderers of later children’s fiction, the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlins in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) and ‘the Walker’ Hawkin in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973). I’ve pointed out elsewhere that the names of Hawlins and Hawkin link them; this book suggests that both names might take their origins from the hawker, whose name denotes his trade (at the beginning of the book he is selling buttons). Tarn’s wanderer might also be read as a figure for the migration of myth and folklore from one culture to another – or for the affinities between cultures embodied in the more or less identical myths and legends that have sprung up independently in different cultures across the globe. Tarn’s own interest in the links between seemingly disparate cultures found an outlet in his book on the relationship between ancient Greece and Asia, The Greeks in Bactria and India (1938), stimulated by his more celebrated work on the life and times of Alexander the Great. His hawker changes identity several times as the novel goes on, and in the process becomes a hinge connecting what Tarn calls ‘All the lost peoples and nations and languages’ of the world. As a result, of course, he also becomes associated with the dead, like Peter Pan (who is said at one point to lead children to whatever happens after death) or the fairies in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). And he thus becomes associated with Tarn’s and the Student’s learning, which concerns itself first and foremost with the dead – but seeks too to bring them alive by any means possible, in the case of The Treasure of the Isle of Mist through the medium of a fantasy or modern-day fairy story told to a decidedly modern girl.

Prince-Caspian-C.S.Lewis-bookplate-10-e1453974023829It’s Tarn’s concern with the links between cultures that connects his novel in yet another way with The Crock of Gold. The book combines classical with Celtic and other elements of myth and folklore, in a manner that anticipates Lewis’s exuberant fusion of elements in the Narnian chronicles. James Stephens introduced both Pan and Angus Og into his novel, and his fellow Irishman Lewis introduced both Bacchus and the knights, witches and werewolves of medieval romance in the second novel in the Narnia sequence, Prince Caspian (1951). Like Lewis, Tarn summons up the memory of Dryads and Naiads, the Grecian spirits of trees and the sea, in one episode of his novel, adding to these an Oread – the spirit of a mountain – whose heart is wakened, as the tree spirits are wakened in Prince Caspian, by the courage of a young girl. Unlike the novels of Stephens and Lewis, however, this is a book that’s deeply rooted in the specificities of an actual place and time. It’s very definitely set in and around Orbost House, as Tarn points out in his introduction, and these local associations were intensified in the 1938 edition by restoring the actual names to features of the island landscape to which he had given invented names in 1919. A major attraction of the book is its very accurate representation of the details of the Skye landscape in October, its flora and fauna, the constantly changing weather from which the island gets its name, the habits of its human and avian inhabitants. He delights in assigning birds and other creatures their Scottish names: ‘scart’ for a young cormorant, ‘solan’ for a gannet, ‘finner’ for a fin whale, ‘glede’ for a kite. These details, combined with the magical happenings which Tarn represents as native to the Hebridean context, link the novel to the folkloric narratives of place that proliferated in children’s fantasy after the Second World War – in particular the work of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. That some of these links with post-war fantasy might be attributed in part to Tarn’s influence is suggested by the fact that it was a popular book between the ’30s and ’50s, reprinted by Oxford University Press – which probably appreciated its scholarly content – at least three times in the period (it’s the 1959 edition in which I’ve read it).

Despite its links with later fiction, the book is decidedly of its period in certain respects. Its heroine embarks on a small-scale adventure of a very familiar kind in the first half of the twentieth century – a treasure hunt – with the rather unhelpful assistance of a younger boy known only as The Urchin; and though there are hints that this adventure is part of a larger story, and though it would have been easy for Tarn to have raised the stakes for which Fiona is playing, there’s little sense at any point that either she, the Urchin, their families or the culture they live in are in much danger; indeed at one point she becomes upset by the lack of concern her father shows over the Urchin’s sudden disappearance, an indifference on his part which assures the reader that the mystery will be soon explained. (For the ‘dramatic increase in the import of the adventures’ in children’s fantasy after the Second World War see Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), chapter 5, p. 102.) Fiona always has an adult guide of some sort in her adventures, her father being the chief of these; and Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn have demonstrated how universally such adult guides were provided for child adventurers in pre-war fantasy. The Student’s control over events is reinforced by the fact that he happens to be a landowner (albeit an impoverished one), with hereditary rights over much of the territory where Fiona stages her treasure hunt. More significantly, Fiona’s adventures are clearly informed every step of the way by her father’s passion (which is also Tarn’s) for ancient history, palaeography, natural history and philosophy. The hunt takes her into a fairy land possessing all the components which James Frazer or Jane Harrison would have expected. It culminates in a trial attended by all the vanished peoples the Student – Tarn himself – strove to resurrect through his research. And the trial involves an ethical question of the kind the ancient Greek philosophers would have relished, depending on a riddle straight out of folklore: what is the greatest treasure a human being could seek for? The answer we’re given is a scholar’s answer: the search itself. And having found it, Fiona also finds herself on the path to the kind of mythical/folkloric learning for which the girl she was based on, Otta Swire née Tarn, became famous.


The trial scene in A Matter of Life and Death

The trial that culminates the story makes for an intriguing climax. It has a great deal in common with the trial at the climax of Powell and Pressburger’s best known movie, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), taking place as it does in a fairyland whose symbol is the flower of death – ‘the pallid asphodel whose home is in those other meadows where walk the pallid dead’ – and which is populated by the world’s dead (the movie deals with the trial of a British airman by spirits in the Second World War, and there is extensive reference in it to the medical effects of concussion, as there is in the book). The fairy witnesses present at the novel’s trial are both a motley throng to rival anything in a painting by Joseph Paton or Richard Dadd and a truly global assembly, which could only have been conjured out of the omnivorous mind of a true internationalist:

There were fairies of the Old Stone peoples, brave-eyed, clad in pelts of the sabre-tooth, bearing the blade-bones of bisons on which were carved pictures of the mammoth and the reindeer. Fairies from Egypt, clad in fine white linen with girdles and aquamarine, with fillets round their brows from which the golden uraeus lifted its snake’s head, bearing blossoms of the blue lotus. Fairies from Babylon, glowing in coats of scarlet or of many colours, their eyes deep with immemorial learning, bearing clay tablets on which were signs like the footprints of birds. […] Fairies of the Tuatha-dé, with all the youth of the world in their eyes, clad in robes of saffron, crowned with rowans and bearing harps. (118-9)

The casual learning employed in gathering this particular fairy host together fuses childhood dreams of fairyland with the dreams of scholars as Tarn describes them near the beginning of the novel. On meeting the Student the supernatural hawker tells him that as well as buttons he also peddles in dreams, but that he can do nothing for scholars because they already possess all the dreams a man could wish for: ‘You need no dreams, for your life is one. For you, the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’ (14). Instead, then, of offering the Student a gift from his pack, the hawker offers a gift to Fiona, whose fondness for the Student is the one great ‘justification’, as the hawker puts it, for her father’s existence. But by the end of the book the kind of magic offered by the hawker – the quest for a supernatural treasure – would seem to have supplanted, for Fiona at least, by the equally potent magic of manuscripts, logical argument, the findings of modern science, and archaeological digs. Like the children in Lewis’s Narnia books, the protagonist of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and the mortal girls and boys of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Fiona realizes in the closing pages that she has got too old to fraternize with fairies. Instead she gains full and permanent imaginative access to the Island of Mists itself, which is the place she lives in, Skye – and all the historical, literary and scientific associations it brings with it. As the hawker tells her, in the course of her treasure hunt:

You have spoken face to face with bird and beast and with the beings who knew and loved the land before your race was. To-day you have the freedom of the island, and of all living things in it; they are your friends for ever. And to the dead in its graveyards you are kin. All that is there has passed into your blood, the old lost loves, the old impossible loyalties, the old forgotten heroisms and tendernesses; all these are yours; and yours are the songs that were sung long ago, and the tales which were told by the fireside; and the deeds of the men and women of old have become part of you. (148-9)

This invocation is a kind of spell bequeathing Fiona and the book’s young readers the magic of learning. It’s a learning that recognizes the link between the living land and the library book, affirmed in the novel by Fiona’s encounter in her garden with a philosophical yellow caterpillar whose close friend is a bookworm in the library of Orbost House. And it’s a learning that effortlessly associates Skye with Macedonia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Ireland – no parochial scholarship, in other words. As I mentioned earlier, the hawker said at the beginning that for scholars ‘the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’, and book as it unfolds suggests that the ‘earth’ here should be taken both for the globe as a whole, with all its history, and for the local soil from which Fiona digs the caterpillar, and that the ‘treasure’ is as much woodcocks, finners and gledes as it is the knowledge of lost lives and literatures.

The signal that Fiona is well on the way to acquiring such learning and thus becoming a scholar like her father is her ability to ‘influence’ another young mind, in exactly the way her mind has been influenced by the Student’s historical knowledge and humane philosophy. At the climax of the trial she projects her mind into the Urchin’s and persuades him to make the right wish in response to an invitation from the fairies: the wish that his unpleasant Uncle Jeconiah, who is one of the accused, be acquitted and returned to his ordinary mortal existence, despite his earlier blithe disregard for the Urchin’s welfare. This altruistic wish, implanted in the Urchin’s mind by Fiona’s influence, is the precise opposite of what Jeconiah considers his philosophy: ‘do good to your friends and evil to those who stand in your way’ (49). Tarn tells us in the fourth chapter that ‘the philosophy of ethics took its rise, some twenty-two centuries ago, in a reaction against a similar rule’ (49), and Fiona’s rescue of Jeconiah in chapter seven embodies just this reaction. She and the Urchin put ethics into practice, and in the process identify themselves with Tarn’s vision of the vanished peoples of the earth who took ethical behaviour as their touchstone, in contrast to their intellectually and emotionally impoverished descendants in the approach to the First World War.

This is where the unexpected seriousness of the novel comes in. At the beginning the hawker asks the scholar, ‘What good do you and your inscriptions do, anyway?’ (15) – and the answer is that the Student has earned the love of his daughter. He has also earned her respect, to the extent that she absorbs his influence. And she in turn influences others: both the Urchin and Uncle Jeconiah, who is much chastened by his trial, show signs of her transformative power in their behaviour by the end of the novel. Learning, then, is in itself beneficial in Tarn’s eyes, though no doubt this depends on how it’s imparted – affection too is needed. On the other hand, it’s also limited in its impact on the world – and Tarn is too much of a philosopher not to see this. The effect on Uncle Jeconiah of his unexpected trip to fairyland, and of Fiona’s and his nephew’s rescue of him, is only temporary: ‘I expect that sort is incurable’ (141), the hawker comments as he watches the man’s wretched attempts to tell his nephew a fairy tale like the one we’ve just read. More poignantly, Fiona’s impact on the Urchin, too, would seem to be limited; and that’s a particularly painful thought when one thinks about the date when the story was first told, in the winter before the outbreak of the Great War.

curlew-flying01llThere are, in fact, three treasures referred to in the book’s title. One is the mysterious gift of the hawker, which turns out to be what he calls the freedom of the isle. Another is a hoard of doubloons, brought to Skye in a ship from the Spanish Armada wrecked on its coast. The first of these treasures is desired by Fiona; the second by the Urchin, inspired by the tales of pirates and British naval victories he has been raised on as a young imperial male. The Urchin decides that the second of these treasures belongs to him, and persuades the Student to sign it over to him should the doubloons be found in one of the caves on the Student’s land. And the boy plans to spend it on something quite incompatible with Fiona’s treasure: a gun. He will use the gun, he tells Fiona, to shoot curlews, and the girl is horrified at this proposition: ‘You little wretch,’ she retorts at once, ‘You won’t kill my curlews while I’m about’ (26). Later, when the Urchin disappears and she goes in quest of him, a living curlew puts in an appearance: ‘a grey bird with a long bill, who on hovering wings wheeled three times in the air above her and gave his full spring call, the most wonderful sound the hills ever hear’ (84). Here the bird is clearly associated both with fairyland (circling three times – the magic number; giving its spring call in October as a sign for Fiona) and with the island, in particular its hills. The Urchin’s murderous intent towards the curlews, then, pits him directly against his mentor, who follows birds instead of shooting them. So too does the Urchin’s habit of flinging stones at other birds (it’s his injuring of a shore lark with a stone that gets him abducted by the fairies, the birds’ protectors). Fiona’s influence is evident in the remorse he feels when he hurts the shore lark; but the question is, is ‘his sort incurable’, like his Uncle?

This, then, is the third treasure of the book’s title: the boy himself, for whom Fiona feels ‘responsible’ in his father’s absence. The Urchin and his Uncle are both in quest of the Spaniards’ treasure rather than the island’s, and the Uncle’s greed for it is a symptom of his materialist, self-serving philosophy – but what is the boy’s? Both the Urchin and his Uncle are put on trial by the fairies for crimes against the island – in the Uncle’s case those of ‘stealing a treasure and being a worthless character’ (128), which marks the distinction between the fairies’ sense of ‘worth’ or value and the values of capitalism; in the boy’s for wounding one of the island’s avian ‘lieges’ (125). In the course of the trial Fiona persuades the boy to forgo his desire for the Spanish treasure and wish instead for his Uncle’s acquittal. But once the Urchin has made his wish, which is in fact hers implanted into his mind by an act of telepathy, he is granted a wish of his own; and he wishes, as he did at the beginning of the novel, for the gun he would have bought with the treasure if he had found it. At the end of the book he is clutching the gun (bought for him, tellingly, by his Uncle) as he listens to the awkward fairy tale which is being related by Jeconiah in fulfilment of the terms of his release. As soon as the Urchin gets some cartridges, he tells the novice storyteller, ‘you won’t keep me here’ (140); in other words he’ll stop listening to stories and set off for the hills instead, looking for birds to shoot. Fiona’s influence, and that of the fairies – the myths and legends of times past – goes only so far and no farther. Given the date of the story’s composition – 1912-13, with the shadow of the guns of war hanging over Europe – the consequences of her lack of influence may well be tragic (the Urchin might well be of age to join up by 1918). Tarn would have been well aware of this by the time the book was published the year after the Great War ended.

The dreams of scholarship, then, for Tarn, are fragile and marginalized, like the island’s ecosystem. At the same time, they may have an effect. When the two mortals – the boy and his uncle – have been acquitted at the end of the trial, there follows a period of companionable peace between Fiona, the Urchin, the King of the Fairies, and the Counsel for the Defence, who is also the Fairy Chancellor; a peace that’s embodied in the act of storytelling:

And the two children sat at the King’s feet on the steps of beryl throne and watched the dancers; and the Chancellor sat between them, and held Fiona’s hand, and told them such stories as they had never heard before, till between laughter and tears they nearly fell off the steps of the throne, and the Chancellor laughed and cried with them for sheer joy of his own story-telling; and if there were three happier people in the world that night I do not know where they were. And the night itself passed away as a dream that men dream, and its hours seemed to them but as a few minutes – and then across the music and the dance cut the shrill scream of a peacock as he greeted the day […] and the beryl throne dissolved in mist, and the figure of the King above them, pointing, grew dim and huge, and spread and grew, a purple shadow that hung over them… and they were standing alone in the fairy ring on Brandersaig, under the purple sky, with the white mist wreathing itself about their feet, and the pale November dawn coming slowly up out of the sea. (136-7)

The concentration of terms associated with the island of mist in this passage – where fairyland dissolves into the Skye landscape, its King becomes the ‘purple sky/Skye’, and the vapour that features in the island’s name envelops the children – reinforces the link between the physical landscape and the trial of human ethics that has taken place within it. Fairyland here resembles a dream, evanescent and temporally disorienting; but so too does the island, which can change its appearance as readily as Fairyland can, and is equally full of wonders. So too do philosophy, history, literature – all the branches of human knowledge with which Fairyland has been identified. As long as Skye exists, then, as the embodiment of Tarn’s dream of scholarly peacefulness (and we might remember here that the story begins with the Student rescuing a stranger from soldiers with the help of an unloaded revolver), there is hope that the dream too can be recaptured and sustained, for a while at least, from time to time.


Thanks are due to Professor Farah Mendlesohn for drawing my attention to Tarn’s book in her fine essay, ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy: Some Informal Thoughts’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 61-74.

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Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

9780571315079Different readers have had different experiences of The Buried Giant (2015), some finding it too crude an allegory, others enraged by its refusal to tell a straight story, still others engrossed and moved by its account of married love and the slow re-emergence of a half-forgotten atrocity. That, of course, is the point of the novel. It’s not a single story but a set of competing versions of the past, like Kurosawa’s great movie Rashomon (1950), and the great set pieces of the book are ones where all the characters talk at cross purposes, their readings of events utterly and often comically at odds with one another, their belief systems incompatible. Even individuals question their own version of events, thanks to the mist of selective amnesia that provides the novel with its plot and central metaphor: they are unable to be sure whether what they believe now is in any way related to their past commitments, and claim ignorance as to whether or not they have betrayed their comrades, allies, loved ones or ideals at some point in their former lives, however certain they claim to be of their faiths and loyalties here and now. They are not even altogether sure that they have forgotten things – a situation that caused particular anxiety to James Woods, the book’s reviewer for the New Yorker. Woods expressed consternation that their amnesia is itself unreliable, and that at times they seem able to recover with ease memories they claim to have lost for ever only moments previously. But to complain that this situation doesn’t make for what you generally assume to be a satisfactory story is, I think, to fail altogether to understand what Ishiguro is doing to the notions of ‘story’, ‘history’, ‘myth’ and ‘fantasy’ in this most disturbing and touching of narratives.


Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950)

Everyone who’s read anything about the novel will know that it had a long and tortuous genesis. Ishiguro came up with the plot, he tells us, at an early stage, but took some time to settle in his mind whether to set it in Japan or Britain; it was a reading of that most ironic of Arthurian romances, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that helped him make up his mind. He wrote a first draft which was dismissed by his wife as a failure because of its lavish prose style; he then wrote a second in a completely different register. The novel once completed, he was worried that his more serious-minded readers would dismiss it as ‘fantasy’. All these things work in its favour, to my mind. The book imports the traumatic experience of Japanese history – and the way this has been represented in art, especially film – into the Matter of Britain. Everyone knows about the multiple traumas and atrocities buried in Japan’s past, but the British have been more assiduous in burying theirs, from massacres in Ireland and India to the invention of concentration camps in the Boer War. This book invites us to exhume them, by revising that most cherished of British myths, the story of Arthur, who is supposed to have united a divided Britain by humane means – though even Malory ascribed to him an imperialist impulse that took him on the rampage through France and Italy to Rome. The novel ironizes romance and heroism as vigorously as Gawain or Beowulf. Its prose style is deeply strange. And its uneasy deployment of the tropes of fantasy invites its readers, whether or not they are well versed in them, to reconsider their function in literature and culture past and present. I think we’ll look back on it as a major achievement, and one that speaks to the many revisions of myth that have been going on in recent decades.

don_quixote_in_the_mountains-1The book is as full of echoes as Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest. It begins in a grimmer version of a hobbit hole: a village of gloomy burrows, whose apparently genial communitarianism masks a propensity for bullying the weak which turns out to be a trait of just about everyone we meet in the story (the old couple we meet in the first pages have recently been robbed of their only candle, for no apparent reason, so that they have to live for the most part in the dark). A later incident, in which a Saxon warrior kills two ravaging ogres, recalls Beowulf’s killing of Grendel and his mother, while a visit to a monastery summons up the grotesquerie and ingenious misdirections of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. The Greek ferryman of the dead, Charon, crops up repeatedly, and talks about taking passengers across to an island that sounds much like Avalon. One of the most fascinating figures in the book, from the point of view of his literary ancestry, is the knight Sir Gawain. His abnormal height, his advanced age and his thinness might make us think of Don Quixote drawn by Honoré Daumier, as does his apparent confusion over which remarks directed at him he should take offence at and which he should embrace as well-deserved compliments on his outmoded fidelity to a long-lost ideal. His clumsiness, his solitude, his white hair, his initial appearance in a wood of forgetfulness, his bouts of yearning after inaccessible young girls, might bring to mind the White Knight in Through the Looking Glass, who is also a figure of his creator Lewis Carroll. His fighting technique, like that of the Saxon warrior, is pure Samurai – a single well-aimed, deadly stroke is his preferred method of dispatching opponents (think of Kyuzo’s terrifying efficiency in Seven Samurai, or Zatoichi’s in Takeshi Kitano’s version). The mysterious widows who torment him with reminders of his past dark deeds recall the ghostly old women of Japanese tradition, such as the witch in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or the periodic apparitions in Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress. Beckett is present in much of the action, as is The Blair Witch Project, Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Echoes of films, books, poems (the name Beatrice summons up Dante’s Divine Comedy) tug at the reader’s memory at every turn, exacerbating the sense that past and future tragedies are always on the verge of re-emerging from obscurity as the story unfolds. And the overlapping of these different narratives and traditions reinforce too our sense that no story is singular – all are interwoven, and every reader will trace a different set of influences through the novel, all of them subverted by Ishiguro’s ironic tone.

paleman-620x330When I say that characters in Ishiguro’s book – like his readers – read each incident differently, it should be stressed that this extends itself to the objects and creatures they see or which they signally fail to notice. Over and over again what they see differs: above all when it involves the supernatural or fantastic. The central characters, Axl and Beatrice, have poor eyesight, and often mistake things seen at a distance. For them the arm of an ogre, yanked off by the Saxon warrior Wistan, looks at first like an eyeless head, something like the Pale Man’s in Pan’s Labyrinth: ‘where the eyes, nose and mouth should have been there was only pimpled flesh, like that of a goose, with a few tufts of down-like hair on its cheeks’ (75-6). Only later does Axl realize that what he is looking at is not a head at all, ‘but a section of the shoulder and upper arm of some abnormally large, human-like creature’. Later, on an underground journey that recalls the visits of epic heroes to the Shades, Axl sees by candlelight the body of a dead bat where Beatrice sees the corpse of an abandoned baby. Axl entirely fails to spot the moment when Gawain slays the monster that lurks in this subterranean maze – he sees it run on after its death stroke but does not notice it has lost its head. Later still, Beatrice sees a distant row of soldiers in the mountains, which Axl takes for birds and the aged knight Sir Gawain for the tormenting widows who follow him everywhere. Looking down into a ditch, it takes Axl several minutes to distinguish the corpse of a goat from the body of the dying ogre that has been eating it: ‘Only then did he see that much of what initially he had taken to be of the dead goat belonged to a second creature entangled with it. That mound there was a shoulder; that a stiffened knee’ (288). Here again an ogre is presented to us as dismembered, but on this occasion its predicament elicits sympathy: Axl calls it ‘some poor ogre […] dying a slow death’ (289). Earlier, the boy Edwin saw three more seemingly dismembered ogres by a pond in a wood, one of them ‘crouching down on its knees and elbows at the water’s very edge, its head completely submerged’, so that ‘To a careless observer, [it] might have been a headless corpse’ (272). He too feels pity for them, as if his earlier abduction by ogres had given him an insight into their perspective, rendering them ‘human-like’ rather than monstrous. Meanwhile the warrior Wistan sees the partly submerged monsters by the pond as ancient trees, attributing Edwin’s view of them to a bout of delirium. Seeing things with distorted vision is, in fact, not just possible but highly likely in Ishiguro’s Britain – partly because of the physical condition of the land’s inhabitants. There are no corrective lenses for Axl’s eyes; Beatrice suffers from some nameless and possibly terminal affliction; Edwin has been wounded (though again, no one has a clear idea what by – a dragon, a cockatrice, an ogre?); Wistan is in a fever from wounds sustained in battle. As in Ishiguro’s previous novel, Never Let Me Go (2005), physical pain is a constant presence in the book’s landscape, serving to locate the appalling damage inflicted by tyranny and random violence in the inner organs of still-living victims. Everyone is journeying to a slow death, carrying mementoes of their mortality in their chests and bellies and sides, no matter how hard they seek to defend their minds from an awareness of its imminent approach.

The land partakes of the body’s sickness. The earth is full of slaughtered corpses, from the buried giant of the title to the remains of Saxon civilians slaughtered by Arthur’s knights in his final battle – no longer the heroic act of self sacrifice it was for Malory but a savage breach of promise, the deliberate violation of a carefully negotiated truce between enemies. Sir Gawain is reluctant to be buried anywhere but on top of a mountain for fear of the vengeful dead he might share the soil with. The Stygian tunnel through which Gawain, Edwin and the elderly couple travel is floored with bones. Christianity is less a religion than a means of distinguishing the Britons from the pagan Saxons; the Christians in the book have little confidence in God’s mercy, subjecting themselves to appalling torment as a means of anticipating the punishment he might mete out after their deaths, and only the pagan afterlife left behind by the departed Romans has any substance, manifesting itself in the ubiquitous figure of the ferryman. The land of chivalric romance is notoriously featureless, unlike the secondary worlds of epic fantasy, which are invariably given shape and substance by an accompanying map. Ishiguro’s Britain is closer to the former, with few names assigned to communities or features of the landscape – there’s a brief mention of Badon Hill at one point, but one cannot imagine a map being drawn of the land where it would feature. Place has come detached from place like the limbs of the ogre emerging from the mud in the ditch, entangled with the limbs of a goat.

Communities, too, have come apart in Ishiguro’s Britain. Families have been separated: Axl and Beatrice set out on their travels in a bid to find a son they may have driven off, or who may never have existed, and on their journey they encounter many more children who have been neglected, forgotten or betrayed. A little girl called Marta causes consternation in her village when she stays out after sunset; but before long the community gets distracted by something else, and by the time she gets safely home they have half forgotten she was ever missing. The boy Edwin seems at first to have a loving family, since his uncles muster the courage to attempt his rescue when he is abducted by ogres, but his relatives quickly turn on him when they think he has been infected by a vampiric bite from one of his abductors. Much later, Axl and Beatrice meet a young girl who has been abandoned by her parents, and who defends her younger brothers against another marauding ogre. The young generation have, in fact, become thoroughly at home in the cruel world they inhabit, and this acclimatization is part of what separates them from their elders. At one point the boy Edwin remembers meeting a teenage girl who has been tied up by her fellow travellers for their gratification. She is not particularly outraged by what has been done to her, and later when Edwin is in turn tied up and used as bait to attract the dragon he too takes it in his stride, expecting nothing better even from Wistan, the man he most admires. The little girl Marta is confident she will not get in trouble when she goes wandering, since she knows full well that her family will soon lose interest in looking for her, and like Edwin she can manage ogres: ‘I know how to hide from them,’ she tells Axl cheerfully (12). She shares, in fact, the attitude of Ishiguro’s narrator to monsters, as expressed in the opening pages: ‘One had to accept that every so often […] an ogre might carry off a child into the mist. The people of the day had to be philosophical about such outrages’ (3-4). Ogres are part of her community, like the humans who fear them, and both (as Edwin has learned long before we meet him in the narrative) can be equally deadly.


Ron Perlman in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986)

The most broken community in the novel is an isolated monastery in the mountains which occupies the site of a genocidal massacre. Religious communities are places of peace and contemplation, but Ishiguro goes to great pains (the phrase is apt) to show how they are also embedded in the landscape as well as the history of atrocity. His monastery is an elaborate physical and mental trap: Axl and Beatrice go there to get medical help for Beatrice’s ailment, but are betrayed by one of the monks into entering a monster’s lair, where he hopes they will be killed and eaten, and it’s implied that this happens regularly to the monks’ guests. The healer-monk whose advice they seek is himself dying from self-inflicted injuries sustained in penance for Arthur’s massacre of the Saxons. The monastery is an old Saxon fort which has been seized and turned to new uses by its British conquerors. The fort was designed not so much to protect the Saxons as to destroy the Britons in their moment of victory – like the young girl’s poisoned goat which kills the ogre even as the monster devours it. There are left-over booby traps in the repurposed fort, one of which is activated in an act of vengeance by the Saxon warrior Wistan; but the site itself seems to be destructive by virtue of its genocidal history, working on the consciences of its religious inhabitants until they subject themselves to Christ-like excruciations in a desperate bid to save their souls. In fact, as the novel goes on the imagery of sacrifice and betrayal proliferates in it, becoming in the end a pastiche of the Christian sacrifice to which the monks are ostensibly committed. Each sacrifice – of oneself, of one’s enemies, of one’s children, parents or partner – triggers further bloodshed, in a vicious cycle that predicts the continuing cycle of history from the so-called Dark Ages to the present.

9780307455796.jpeMy account of the book makes it sound unrelievedly grim, but it really isn’t, and this is largely thanks to the sometimes comic detachment of its style – a detachment that reinforces the sense that its characters can endure the monstrousness of their Dark Age situation precisely because of their wilful removal of themselves from the stark realities of past and present. Axl and Beatrice, Wistan, Gawain and the boy Edwin converse in an awkward succession of stilted politenesses, even when they are drastically at odds with one another; Axl calls his wife ‘princess’, and treats her like one, constantly striving to protect her from the pain and exhaustion their journey brings her, acquiescing to all her proposals even when they distress or hurt him. Wistan expresses unwavering hatred for the Britons who massacred his people and seeks to bequeath this hatred to young Edwin, his fellow Saxon; but he treats the Britons Axl and Beatrice with affection and respect, and behaves with ridiculous courtesy to Gawain even at the point when they’re about to spill each other’s guts. Edwin promises to hate all Britons when Wistan asks him to, but he clearly can’t see the point in it; the elderly British couple are his friends and so must be exempted from the blanket injunction, and if them, how many others? People, like ogres, can be liked and pitied even by those who seek their deaths – the young girl who poisons the ogre with her goat is afterwards sorry for what she has done and claims she didn’t intend it. Even the dragon is a pitiable creature, worn out by its hard life like Axl, Beatrice and Gawain; it must be killed, but it is also a victim, forced into spreading oblivion across the land by Merlin’s spells, and its would-be killers feel no resentment as they approach its ailing body to lop off its head. The elaborate verbal courtesy, then, that people extend to one another in Ishiguro’s Britain is not just a means to cover up their true feelings (whatever these may be – the novel suggests that human feelings are always conflicted). It also serves to manifest their genuine affection for one another despite all the cultural and historical pressures that combine to drive them apart. Courtesy endures even after the stark realities of the past have been unveiled thanks to the dragon’s death, and it’s this courtesy, like the unfailing courtesy of Gawain in the Green Knight, that one remembers afterwards, rendered all the more poignant by the savage setting in which it somehow survives.

Dante-Beatrice3The chief characteristic of the book’s style – especially the dialogue – is that it reads like a work in translation. It is clear and spare, stripped of rhetorical flourish and colloquial punchiness, and stripped too of dialectal elements specific to a certain class or locale or historical period – in marked contrast to the language of, say, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the Wakefield cycle, or Morris, or Tolkien. I was reminded as I read of the translations of Homer and Ovid I read as a child in the continuous prose of the Penguin Classics series, largely composed by its founder, the poet and scholar E V Rieu: a prose which reminded you at every moment that what you were encountering was at several removes from the original, yet which also miraculously seemed to convey certain crucial elements of that original in heroic defiance of the mists of time. Here is Ishiguro’s version of Rieu, in a passage from near the beginning where the elderly couple are striving to remember their departed son:

‘Some days I remember him clear enough,’ she said. ‘Then the next day it’s as if a veil’s fallen over his memory. But our son’s a fine and good man, I know that for sure.’

‘Why is he not with us here now, princess?’

‘I don’t know, Axel. It could be he quarreled with the elders and had to leave. I’ve asked around and there’s no one here remembers him. But he wouldn’t have done anything to bring shame on himself, I know for sure. Can you remember nothing of it yourself, Axl?’

‘When I was outside just now, doing my best to remember all I could in the stillness, many things came back to me. But I can’t remember our son, neither his face nor his voice, though sometimes I think I can see him when he was a small boy, and I’m leading him by the hand beside the riverbank, or when he was weeping one time and I was reaching out to comfort him. But what he looks like today, where he’s living, if he has a son of his own, I don’t remember at all. I was hoping you’d remember more, princess.’

‘He’s our son,’ Beatrice said. ‘So I can feel things about him, even when I don’t remember clearly. And I know he longs for us to leave this place and be living with him under his protection.’ (28-9)

The language here is formal, for all its occasional gestures towards the demotic (the contraction of ‘has’ in ‘as if a veil’s fallen across his memory’ is a classic bit of rather stiff translator’s colloquialism). There is no attempt at a lyrical rhythm. The vocabulary is simple and clear, as if selected by an adherent of the Campaign for Plain English – or deployed in a classroom by a teacher keen to ensure her charges can readily follow her words. Beatrice speaks of her son in platitudes: ‘our son’s a fine and good man, I know that for sure’, she tells Axl, awkwardly but confidently combining a claim to certainty (‘for sure’) with the vaguest of epithets (‘a fine and good man’), and she does the same twice more in this short passage: ‘he wouldn’t have done anything to bring shame on himself, I know for sure’; ‘He’s our son […] so I can feel things about him […] And I know he longs for us to leave this place’. Axl, meanwhile, remembers only gestures, detached from the markers of individuality, face and voice – the ‘things’ Beatrice repeatedly refers to. Both of them, then, represent their son in what are effectively verbal fragments, like the fragments of the ogre in the ditch. The most translation-like feature of the passage, perhaps, is its frequent use of the present continuous – a tense not so very often used in colloquial English: ‘sometimes […] I’m leading him by the hand […] or when he was weeping one time and I was reaching out to comfort him […] he longs for us to […] be living with him under his protection’. The overall effect is to suggest that Axl and Beatrice are constructing their son not from memories or instincts – however tenuous – but from what their culture generally assumes a good parent would think about his or her offspring: that he is ‘fine and good’, that he would never misbehave, that he wants them to be with him as a good son should. The continuous present indicates that their thoughts about him are not bound by time, as memories are, but permanent features of their mental landscape. Their courteous attitude to one another’s perspective (‘Can you remember nothing of it yourself, Axl?’ […] ‘I was hoping you’d remember more, princess’), suggests that they are keener to achieve consensus than to draw attention to some striking recollection of their own that might clash with their spouse’s. Axl and Beatrice are dedicated to holding things together, and the strange translator’s English they speak, treading a tightrope walker’s path between abysses of contention and contradiction, is their sole defence against the imminent collapse of all agreements among the inhabitants of the damaged Britain they wander.

aba9d2e714d6999f6a5617d948fa7b04At various points in the book the consensual translator’s language shows clear signs of the intense strain to which it’s being subjected by the old enmities, buried atrocities and conflicting emotions and loyalties it conceals. Sir Gawain, in particular, sometimes lapses into incoherence as he seeks to sustain his image as the solitary warrior dedicated to preserving his idealized monarch’s vision of universal peace at the cost of personal relationships:

I had a duty. Ha! And do I fear him now? Never, sir, never. I accuse you of nothing. That great law you brokered torn down in blood! Yet it held well for a time. Torn down in blood! Who blames us for it now? Do I fear youth? Is it youth alone can defeat an opponent? Let him come, let him come. Remember it, sir! (309)

The collapse of distinctions here – it’s hard to tell which ‘him’ or ‘you’ or ‘us’ is referred to in successive sentences – has the effect of conflating all the characters in the book, making them all equally the guilty parties and the victims of the cycle of violence in which they are caught. In this it replicates the way implements make their way from one person’s hands to another in Ishiguro’s novel. One hoe in particular – a farming tool consisting of a long pole with a downturned blade at one end – is at one point to be found in the hands of a young girl, who uses it to exact an appalling vengeance on the man who raped or murdered her mother and sisters (241): a vengeance so terrible that it shocks Sir Gawain and violates his sense of the girl as an innocent victim. Later in the book an identical hoe is seized by Axl as he fights to defend Beatrice against a swarm of pixies, tiny malevolent beings whose disturbing resemblance to young children serves utterly to compromise Axl’s apparent act of chivalry (263). The hoe, like the plain language used by Ishiguro’s characters, is no more than a tool, but the second time we encounter it this instrument has been contaminated by the previous encounter – hoes have become instruments of appalling sadism, and this association is impossible to shake off as Axl attacks the swarm of creatures whose ‘collective voices seemed to him to resemble the sound of children playing in the distance’ (263). At this point Axl, like the girl, is no longer identifiable as simply criminal or victim, aggressor or defender against aggression. The language of Gawain’s speech extends this moral confusion to everyone else in the novel – Wistan, Axl, Gawain, Edwin, the long-dead Arthur, and the young people (like the hoe-wielding girl) who can so readily accommodate themselves to the violent world King Arthur bequeathed to them. All have been cross-infected by association with atrocities, just as the boy Edwin was deemed to have been rendered ogreish by the bite he sustained from an ogre. I, you, we, he, she, they – all pronouns are in a similar position, interchangeable in any given sentence relating to guilt, shame, pain or sudden aggression.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, ca 1864-70.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70)

The one exception may be Axl’s wife Beatrice – though even she is to some extent compromised in Axl’s mind by one highly unreliable memory that surfaces towards the end of the narrative. Beatrice’s mission throughout is to recover the memories obscured by the mist, first by visiting her lost son and later by helping slay the dragon who gave rise to the mist of forgetfulness. Her conviction that Axl and she have nothing to fear from the return of memory is always touching, but the trajectory of the story tends to expose it as a comforting dream or fantasy, sprung from the fund of comforting fantasies by which people preserve their sense of order, love and justice. I suspect this is one of the reasons Ishiguro turned to fantasy in this novel: as a means of exploring the quotidian fantasies we cling to – chief of all, perhaps, the fantasy that we live in a civilized epoch, firmly founded on previous epochs of civilization – which are aided and abetted by the patterns of our everyday discourse.

The final chapter draws out this theme with consummate skill. Throughout the novel points of view have shifted from time to time – we see things successively from Axl’s, Edwin’s and Sir Gawain’s perspectives – but this is the first time we have been invited to see an episode from the perspective of a fourth individual – one of the Charon-like boatmen who have cropped up periodically since soon after the beginning of the narrative. It’s also the first time we have been given a first person narrator – apart from the anonymous first person narrator of the first chapter (are we meant to believe, then, that this is the boatman, that we are being addressed throughout the book by the ferryman of the dead?). In the last chapter, the elderly couple finally seem to be approaching the moment of their journey that Beatrice, in particular, has anticipated from the beginning, when they will be reunited with their long lost son. Beatrice is convinced the happy ending will soon take place and that the three of them will be permitted to cross to the island where her son lives and inhabit it for ever in blissful unity. The boatman’s perspective, however, gives us access to his intentions, which increasingly suggest that her hopes are misguided. His narrative is filled with expressions of pity for the couple, as if he is convinced they will soon be permanently parted – and that there’s nothing he can do about it, in spite of his agency in parting them. ‘I cannot lie and I have my duty’, he says at one point (348) as he directs them to the shack where their passage to the island on his boat will be arranged (in this book the island is a topographical emblem of isolation, as in Donne’s celebrate sermon – though Beatrice sees it as a site of recovery like the Avalon of Arthurian legend). The word ‘duty’ used here by the boatman has by this time been contaminated by Sir Gawain’s repeated use of it to denote the dubious responsibilities he was assigned by Ishiguro’s demythologized Arthur.

BAL11062 Charon and Psyche (oil on canvas) by Stanhope, John Roddam Spencer (1829-1908) oil on canvas 95.2x138.4 Private Collection Roy Miles Fine Paintings English, out of copyright

Axl, meanwhile, becomes increasingly – and as the reader know, rightly – suspicious of the boatman’s intentions, but continues to sustain Beatrice in her fantasy of a joyful conclusion to their adventures. Beatrice speaks of the boatman’s kindness with conviction, as she did of her son in the earlier passage: ‘He’s a good man and won’t let us down’ (360). Axl does not believe it – he has caught the boatman in one lie at least and is certain all his other promises too are lies; yet he chooses not to puncture his exhausted wife’s last dream; and to the last moment they spend together he sustains her fantasy, although he does not share it. The book ends with the old woman happy in her conviction that her future will be a loving one, and the old man wandering away from her, lonely in the dark.

The reader is left wondering which condition is better: Beatrice’s knowledge, which is really ignorance, or Axl’s, which the reader knows to be well founded. The question is not an easy one to answer. Beatrice leaves with the boatman, certain she will be reunited with Axl and her on on the other side. Axl leaves alone, certain that he has given his wife – at least for a time – the happy ending she longed for, in the only way available to him. His own unhappiness is assured – but so too is her happiness, however long it lasts. Axl asks a similar question of Beatrice not long before they part: ‘Could it be our love would never have grown so strong down the years had the mist not robbed us the way it did? Perhaps it allowed old wounds to heal’ (361). In the end he believes, as he has done since the beginning, that it is best to leave the mist of illusion in place – ironically enough, since it was the ignorant Beatrice who always insisted that it is better to remember every detail of a relationship than to lose even a single memory to time, however painful. Ishiguro leaves us to judge for ourselves which of these two perspectives we share. One thing, however, he leaves his sympathetic readers with little doubt of: the capacity of fantasy to represent the pain involved both in sustaining and dissipating the mists of illusion.

He also leaves us with a memory: that of the only true act of self-sacrifice in the novel. I said earlier that every sacrifice in the book triggers further bloodshed. From what we can see, this is not true of Axl’s – though it’s also not clear how far he had a choice in making his sacrifice, since the sense of its having been somehow predestined has been implanted in the reader by our earlier encounters with the boatman. Then again, the one event in all our lives which is predestined is the fact of death, and the parting with loved ones this entails – a parting considered in many religions to extend into the afterlife, where there will be no marriage or giving in marriage, as the Bible tells us. Axl’s parting from his wife, then, is both the most painful moment in the book and the most movingly memorable.

For me this makes it a moment of light in Ishiguro’s meditation on Dark Age darkness; though it’s a fading light, like the ‘low sun on the cove’ to which Axl moves in the final sentence. We should be grateful for it.


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Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction

9781107610293 In their new book Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn have provided a crucial road map to the rapidly expanding territory of children’s fantasy fiction from the nineteenth century to the present. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of an ‘introduction’ like this, in part because of its accessible prose – the book addresses itself to knowledgeable fans as much as to scholars – and in part because, as a survey, it cannot offer close analyses of texts, and the authors can’t allow their material to be constrained by some single overarching thesis. An overview of this material has not been available before, and part of the authors’ self-imposed remit is to ensure good coverage within the limits of a reasonable book length. Even in its own terms there may be difficulties: every reader will notice what to them seem significant omissions from the survey, and some will be inclined as a result to miss the value of the historical patterns being traced in each chapter, failing to notice how seamlessly absent texts can be woven into the story. It’s perhaps only on re-reading that one becomes aware of the book’s extraordinary usefulness, and only by asking some of the questions it doesn’t claim to answer that one begins to see how essential it will be to offering something like a full, coherent and rigorous response.

51Dd2evi4CL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The book is important for three reasons. First, it divides the evolution of children’s fiction into a series of carefully considered thematic and chronological units, giving future commentators a template against which to measure the historical and formal position of texts that interest them. As with Mendlesohn’s essential Rhetorics of Fantasy, that template isn’t meant to ‘account for’ the whole of the field – it’s a starting point for discussion – but now that we have it our engagement with the topic will have a shape and polemical thrust it didn’t have before.

Secondly, the book demonstrates how the parameters and function of children’s literature have changed since the inception of a substantial body of dedicated children’s fiction in the mid nineteenth century, and the role played by fantasy in shaping and responding to these changes. Simply put, Levy and Mendlesohn argue that the age range of the implied readership for children’s literature has gradually increased over the decades to embrace a substantial portion of what was previously classified as early adulthood. By the end of the 1990s Young Adult fiction had emerged as a distinct category within the genre, addressing a mostly middle-class readership which could expect to remain in some form of education or training – that is, subject to ‘an extended delay of full adulthood’, as the authors neatly put it – into its early twenties and beyond. The invention of Young Adult fiction is perhaps the most striking development in the genre in recent decades, and the reasons for its emergence are cogently addressed here. We’ll be arguing over them for years to come, but this book gives us a firm basis for our future arguments.

Thirdly, the book is the most inclusive I know of in terms of its coverage. It concerns itself with English language fiction, and with so-called ‘chapter books’ rather than picture books; but within these constraints it is more global in its reach than anything that’s come out previously, since it deals not only with the largest markets – the American and the British – but with the Antipodean and Canadian markets too, which have never before been so comprehensively embraced in a survey of the field. It also explains why readers in Chicago, Manchester, Wellington and Ottawa are unlikely to have read the same children’s fiction until very recently, and how changes in international trade rules have contributed to changes in our reading habits, including the opportunity to get access to some of the most significant titles from places previously under-represented in our local sales outlets. This particular change has not yet gone very far, despite the massive rise in online purchasing, and kids in Glasgow are still unlikely to read exactly the same texts as their counterparts in Detroit or Brisbane – for many good reasons; hence the value of a book like this, which awakens our awareness of the major texts we’ve missed.

lotr1The introduction sketches out the book’s plan with impressive clarity, and is worth revisiting when you’ve finished reading. The slow emergence of the assumption that fantasy was peculiarly suitable for children is charted in the first chapter, while the second examines the extraordinary outpouring of Victorian fairy tales and narratives of the impossible to the point where ‘the majority of that Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature that has survived is firmly in the fantastical vein’. Chapter three gives an account of the long, slow, difficult birth of fantasy fiction for children in the United States; chapter four returns to British fantasy between the wars; chapters five and six map ‘the changing landscape, social, political and literal, of post-war British and Commonwealth fantasy’; while chapter seven focuses on the work that emerged in the wake of the mass market publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This and the last two chapters, which consider the impact of the Harry Potter phenomenon on children’s fiction of the 1990s (chapter eight) and the two main strands of the new Young Adult fiction – paranormal romance and the ‘fantasy of bitterness and loss’ (chapter nine) – seem to me to be the most powerful in the book, moving with deft precision across what has become a gigantic field and picking out the most significant features of the genre’s expanding geography. There’s a passion present here, too, which builds on the more muted earlier chapters; it’s clear that the authors are genuinely excited by recent fantasy for young readers, and the final words of the introduction sum up this mood with admirable succinctness: ‘we as critics believe that this subgenre [the fantasy of bitterness and loss] includes much of the finest fantasy for any age group currently being written’. The book, then, describes a crescendo, and it’s nice to be told this at the start, so that we can anticipate its revelations of the full scope and stature of the work that’s emerging today, in our own lifetimes – a golden age of the fantastic if ever there was one.

eduardo-teixeira-coelho-tom-thumb-upside-down-1957_i-g-53-5397-amojg00zFrom the beginning, of course, there are assertions here that could be challenged; that’s in the nature of any survey. The statement in the introduction that before the eighteenth century children were taught from textbooks based on mimesis (p. 2) overlooks the centrality of Aesop’s fables to the school curriculum, and chapter one, on the rise of fantasy for children through the ages, omits one of the most influential of early modern school texts, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from consideration. It makes a good case, however, for the fact that texts like these would not have been read, by teachers at least, as what we now call fantasy. The Metamorphoses, for instance, was taught as a quasi-allegorical guide to ancient moral philosophy, science and history, a mode of reading strange tales in relation to the world which later encouraged John Bunyan to present his Christian allegorical romance The Pilgrim’s Progress as a blueprint for action, not an excursion into the fantastic. Again, the claim made in the introduction that folk tales about Robin Hood and Tom Thumb were ‘for the peasantry’ accepts at face value claims made in the texts themselves, and is belied by their ready availability both in expensive manuscript form and print, as well as by the abundant references to them in texts not directed at peasants. It’s also doubtful that they were intended solely for adults. Richard Johnson charmingly describes his The History of Tom Thumb (1621) as for all age groups, in a passage that associates the tiny hero with rural labourers who wouldn’t for the most part have had access to the printed pamphlet in which it occurs:

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?

The passage, together with the many references to folk tales in works of art intended for the educated elite – from Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale to Peele’s play The Old Wives’ Tale to the many sophisticated satires featuring the goblin Robin Goodfellow in the early 1590s – undermines Levy and Mendlesohn’s claim that ‘the raising of tales originally intended for the peasantry into fare for the court and for adults may well be a reaction to the civil wars that raged across Europe in the seventeenth century’. But in any case chapter one tells a much more complex story about the growing association between fairy tale and childhood. The point being made here is that there was a philosophical hostility to fantasy among pedagogues from early times, and that strong residues of that hostility remain to the present. The fashionable adoption of folk tales by the French court in the late seventeenth century will clearly have lent them, for some, a certain air of respectability; but the court was also the site of scandal, and fantasy’s taintedness was never wiped off by its popularity among the aristocracy.

OwlpussycatThe quest for a respectable fiction for children meant that ‘as we enter the nineteenth century both children’s literature and the fantastic were becoming shaped by ideologies of confinement: both were being restricted to the domestic sphere and to a narrow moral compass’ (25-6). At the same time, chapter two – which deals with ‘the realms of Victorian and Edwardian fancy’ – shows how the notion of a ‘ narrow moral compass’ could be stretched to accommodate unexpected areas, partly in response to the constant quest for new copy on the part of printers as they sought to satisfy the needs of the newly mechanized print industry. The punishment of bad behaviour paves the way for the horror story, while Carroll’s Alice tales and Lear’s nonsense verse can be seen as ‘subversive of the social order’, despite their purportedly ‘didactic’ aspects. Indeed, the notion of didacticism hardly seems applicable to these texts. Can one reasonably use it to characterize Carroll’s desire to ‘teach […] the absurdity of modern manners or the absurdity of chess’? And is it right to describe Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ as ‘filled with the accoutrements of morality, since the titular creatures run away to get married’, instead of living in sin? The example of Austen’s Lydia and Mr Wickham suggests that elopement, even for marriage, might not always be deemed a moral act – and what in any case should we make of the fact that these two creatures (unlike Lear’s Pelicans, but much like his Duck and Kangaroo, or his Dong with a Luminous Nose) are in quest of an inter-species union? The chapter, then, successfully exposes the difficulty of the terms ‘moral’ and ‘didactic’, since what’s deemed suitably moral or instructive for a child’s consumption varies so widely between one social group and another even within a single period. The issue remains pertinent today: J K Rowling’s portrayal of witchcraft in the impeccably moral Harry Potter series (1997 ff.) aroused the wrath of evangelical Christians, while Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995 ff.) found itself mired in controversy through its very moral desire to resist the outmoded conventions of Christian morality. The dystopian fantasies of the twenty-first century take the clash of moralities as their topic, pitting arbitrary state-sanctioned ‘morality’ against the difficult problem of reconciling loyalty to one’s peers and principles with the need for survival under a vicious totalitarian regime. Children’s fantasy has continued to be preoccupied with morals (even ‘deeply moral’, as Levy and Mendlesohn put it, p. 224) into the twenty-first century, though the ‘narrow compass’ of much (though by no means all) mid-Victorian children’s morality is now demonized rather than celebrated by sophisticated writers.

Coraline.DVDRip.XviD-ARROW.avi_005682766Chapter two also develops a second theme that resonates throughout the book: the tendency of British children’s fantasy, for the first period of its existence, to restrict its protagonists to the confines of the domestic environment – in contrast to the emphasis in American, Canadian and Australian fantasy on the great outdoors. The increasing Victorian and post-Victorian focus on the domestic (in contrast to the often itinerant traditional fairy tale) can be taken as driven by an authoritarian impulse to circumscribe and control the child’s intellectual, imaginative and emotional compass; but it can also be seen as an acknowledgment of the increasing centrality of the domestic space to the middle class reader’s life, as dwelling places morphed into complex machines to match the industrial engines that powered the British Empire, and as greater geographical and social mobility made the household rather than, say, the local church the focus of many children’s communities. As Levy and Mendlesohn point out, the geographical compass of British children’s fantasy expanded as the twentieth century wore on – partly in response to the greater responsibilities shouldered by children in the Second World War. But some fantasies continued to focus on the domestic, not out of social conservatism, but from a recognition that the household is invariably the starting point of both revolutions and state-sanctioned oppression. Many of the books in chapter eight, on ‘Harry Potter and children’s fantasy since the 1990s’, feature deeply unsettling domestic spaces, from the Gormenghast-like Crackpot Hall of Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora series to the unsettling houses in David Almond’s Skellig and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Magic Castle (1986) is perhaps the book that best exemplifies the political dynamism of domestic space: the magical dwelling of the title has doors that open onto every significant urban and rural landscape in the land of Ingary and beyond. In this it recalls the various many-doored dwellings of George MacDonald’s high Victorian fantasies, such as ‘The Golden Key’ (1867), which (among other things) insist on the complex bonds that link the dilapidated houses of the poor to the splendid mansions of the ruling classes. The domestic, then, is by no means always a safe haven or a bastion of reactionary sentiment; in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) it’s a place full of physical danger and class warfare; in Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) it accommodates history, whose conflicts and pressures are also embodied by the old people with whom children so often shared their domestic space until recent decades. By giving a geographical and historical shape to perceptions of the domestic in children’s fantasy Levy and Mendlesohn have opened up a still largely underexplored continent for further investigation.

Chapter three is particularly interesting for its account of the resistance to fantasy in the United States, and for its identification of the specific themes of American fantasy: independent, itinerant youngsters, like Dorothy or Stuart Little; the rejection of any sense of a ‘hereditary right to succeed’; a fascination with sensational narratives of the kind popularized by the British penny dreadfuls and American dime novels. L Frank Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard rightly get pride of place in the pre-war period, and the centrality of Burroughs and Howard alongside Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) helps to point up the presence of what we’d now called Young Adult fantasy from an early point in history (in Britain, too: Burroughs and Howard were partly influenced by British adventure story writers such as Rider Haggard). Welcome space is afforded in the chapter to the great James Thurber, though no mention is made of his astonishing prose style, which so clearly inspired later comic fantasy writers like Peter Beagle, William Goldman and Terry Pratchett. Style, in fact, is a topic that hasn’t yet been given enough attention in fantasy criticism and theory, and I can imagine a book on the changing stylistic features of children’s fantasy literature as providing the ideal supplement to this survey.[1]

Chapter four, on the interwar years, brings into sharp focus the sheer adventurousness and experimentalism of the period. The 20s and 30s sparked off one of the most dazzlingly inventive arrays of British children’s fantasy: among others, Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books, P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins sequence (Travers was Australian rather than British, but published in Britain), John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair and The Magic Faraway Tree, the story collections of Eleanor Farjeon and Walter de la Mare, T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Tolkien’s The Hobbit. This diversity presents, as Levy and Mendlesohn point out, ‘distinct problems’ for literary historians, since the writers of these texts share no ‘coherent sense of what fantasy should be’ – partly because there is very little critical-theoretical discussion of it at the time, apart from a couple of ‘very general’ essays by Lewis and Tolkien, both published in the 1940s. The aftermath of the Great War, in other words, saw fantasy for children, like fantasy for adults, respond to the breakdown of the old grand narratives that governed pre-war imperial culture by playing with a range of narrative techniques which bore abundant fruit in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s a hotbed of invention, an explosion of the imagination to match the explosive global catastrophes that framed it, and coherence under such conditions is the last thing we should expect or wish for from it. Naturally, Levy and Mendlesohn don’t consider all these experiments to have been equally successful. Masefield’s The Midnight Folk (1927), for instance, is for them ‘typical’ of the period’s attitude to animals, in that it makes them seem more like toys than believable beasts, treating them as exotic but faithful servants to the young protagonist, Kay Harker, as he embarks on a succession of ‘rambling’ adventures which end in the inevitable restoration of the old pre-war class system. White’s 1939 version of The Sword in the Stone is again, for them, rambling; not a fully-fledged novel but a set of loosely linked stories, which doesn’t engage deeply with fantasy because it’s too much preoccupied with the turbulence of contemporary politics (White’s later Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) gets a more sympathetic reading, despite its equally obvious political applications). Both these views are entirely reasonable, but seem to me to undervalue both books out of frustration with their intransigent refusal to assume the shape of a conventional novel.

Hobbit_coverThis said, there’s a superb analysis of The Hobbit (1937) at the end of the chapter, which expertly pins down its originality in the field by placing it in context. Levy and Mendlesohn note as major innovations its invention of ‘a world that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it’, as C S Lewis put it; the respect with which it treats its child readers by asking them to engage with ancient Nordic culture and mythology; its refusal to allow the protagonist’s paternalistic guide to accompany him throughout his adventures. The fact that Bilbo Baggins is an adult, despite his diminutive size, could be seen as summing up Tolkien’s respect for his young audience. His limitations, obsessions and fears are an adult’s, yet Tolkien assumes that children will understand them as well as – or better than – Bilbo himself does. One wonders if this breakdown of the earlier sharp distinction between child and adult – a crossing of boundaries which was further compounded by the fact that this novel, like The Sword in the Stone, became the first volume in an adult epic – could have been directly responsible for the emergence of a dedicated Young Adult market after the mass success of The Lord of the Rings in the 1970s.

18421378There is no chapter in the book on the fantasy of the Second World War. Instead the interwar period gets extended into the 1940s, embracing such texts as BB’s The Little Grey Men (1942), Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944), Mary Norton’s Bedknob and Broomstick books (1943 and 1945) and T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946). The war, however, casts its long shadow over the three chapters that follow, as fantasy took an awareness of ‘being a child in the world rather than a child at home’ as its subject, in response no doubt to the intensified awareness among children of politics, economics and the mechanisms of social action that war imposes. Levy and Mendlesohn also stress the important fact that the relative paucity of fantasy for adults in the period meant that ‘children’s fantasy drove innovation’. Chapter five includes a brilliant analysis of how C S Lewis’s Narnian chronicles can be taken to embody ‘what children’s fantasy was’ in the postwar period – above all in the high stakes that the adventures are played for. In these books for the first time the fate of nations and even worlds are placed in the hand of the child protagonists – and we are succinctly and convincingly shown how this development can be linked to the wartime roles with which children had become familiar: soldiers, nurses, spies, partisans, fifth columnists, the Home Guard – the list could easily be expanded. The destinarian slant in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) is evident in a range of the great fantasy sequences that followed the Narnia books, as is Lewis’s insistence in his books that there comes a moment when children must abandon magic for the very different technological and social operations of the modern world. Levy and Mendlesohn also point out how the trajectory of many post-Narnia sequences – including Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising (1965-77) and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (1964-68) – deprives the child protagonists of their older companion and guide at a crucial moment in their adventures. Lewis again showed the way to this moment of deprivation, as did Tolkien in The Hobbit, and the pattern is repeated in the most influential fantasies of the 1990s, Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The ‘bitter’ Young Adult fiction of the twenty-first century goes a step further and deprives many of its young protagonists of any responsible adult companion at all – while also abandoning the theme of destinarianism once and for all, in many cases. If Lewis’s child protagonists grow up, like Harry and Lyra, then the best fantastic narratives have also grown up over the last recent decades, moving beyond the tropes established by Lewis and subjecting children, perhaps for the first time, to the experience of genuinely not knowing whether or not the central character will survive – and if so, in what condition (think of the traumatised Catniss at the end of the Hunger Games trilogy).

The book is refreshingly clear about the continuing experimental diversity of fiction in the postwar years and into the present. Its coverage is astonishing; and it is also delightfully open about the fact that it cannot possibly cover everything: ‘wherever you are, wherever you are from, you will discover that a number of your favourite children’s fantasies are not discussed or done justice to in this volume, as there is simply too much to cover’ (p. 5). For myself I noted the absence of some important and influential fantasies, and can’t resist indulging the desire to mention some of them. What matters, however, is how easy it is to fit the missing books into Levy and Mendlesohn’s narrative. Here are some choice examples.

Rainbows-EndOne of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s favourite books, Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1857) by Frances Browne, is absent from Levy and Mendlesohn’s account of the shift in the nineteenth century from ‘actual’ fairy tales to invented ones; it might have served as a kind of missing link between the work of George MacDonald (whom she may have influenced), the early history of Irish fantasy (Browne was from Donegal), and Blyton’s Wishing Chair series of the 1930s.[2] Again, Levy and Mendlesohn’s list of children’s fantasy from the second decade of the twentieth century contains only one title – A A Milne’s Once on a Time (1917)[3] – but the most significant text of the time (in Britain at least) was the outrageously nationalistic and immensely popular Where the Rainbow Ends (1912) by Clifford Mills, which originated (like Peter Pan) as a play, performed very nearly every Christmas from 1911 to 1959, and attended with much ceremony by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1937.[4] The inclusion of this text alongside Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911), Noel Langley’s pantomime-esque Land of Green Ginger (1936) – which helped get him hired as one of the screenwriters for the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz – and the fairy tale novels of the playwright Nicholas Stuart Gray in the 1960s (the last of these appears fleetingly on p. 102), could have provided a fascinating sub-narrative concerning the highly productive relationship between children’s fantasy and the theatre. One of the earliest examples of the tendency of fantasy writers to ‘plunder the legendary archaeology of Britain’ in the post-war period was actually published in the war itself: it’s William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944), which clearly influenced both Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the figure of Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.[5]

Picture-7But for me, the most spectacular omissions in the book come in the 1960s: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) and Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child (1967), two of the texts that had the biggest impact on my own early interest in both reading and fantasy. For Diana Wynne Jones, The Phantom Tollbooth was a direct descendant of that seminal American portal quest narrative The Wizard of Oz, ‘but better’. I think it has closer affinities with James Thurber’s dazzling strain of comic fantasy driven by verbal fireworks, and with the allegorical fantasies of Bunyan, Kingsley and Lewis. The Mouse and his Child updates and drastically darkens the cosy toy and animal stories of the interwar period (as is often pointed out, Hoban was a decorated war veteran). It too has affinities with the fantasy of wordplay championed by Thurber, and anticipates Philip Pullman’s great short fables such as Clockwork (1996). A third absent book of the period is J. P. Martin’s Uncle (1964) and its sequels, recently championed by Neil Gaiman and reprinted by the New York Review Children’s Collection; this makes explicit the class conflict that underpins talking animal fantasies such as The Wind in the Willows, and anticipates Michael de Larabeiti’s more violent depiction of class warfare in the Borribles series (1976-86). It’s inevitable, of course, that as a child of the 60s it should be 60s books I find missing. What’s less inevitable is that all the titles I can think of should have been so much illuminated by Levy and Mendlesohn’s narrative. Their book is a major achievement, and we’ll all be using it for years to come.



[1] Mendlesohn has made a crucial step towards examining the style or language of fantasy in an essay that deserves reading alongside Children’s Fantasy Literature: ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy’, in Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), pp. 61-74.

[2] See Colin Manlove, ‘George MacDonald and the Fairy Tales of Francis Paget and Frances Browne,’ North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies, Vol. 18 (1999), Article 3:

[3] Mendlesohn mentions another text from the decade, W W Tarn’s The Treasure of the Isle of Mist, in ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy’, Miracle Enough, ed. Winnington, p. 66. She gives its date as 1919.

[4] See Valerie Gail Langfield, Roger Quilter 1877-1953: his Life, Times and Music, PhD thesis, University of Birmingham 2004, p. 39 ff.,

[5] See Geraldine Pinch’s fine blog post on Borrobil at

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article-1252250-08578F66000005DC-683_468x312One day she came in to find him sitting at the computer, his face streaming with tears. ‘What on earth’s the matter?’ she asked, thinking he had got an e-mail to say that another of his friends was dead. ‘I’ve found the website for my memories,’ he said.

She looked, and saw sunlight spilling from the monitor, lighting up the tracks of his tears on his poorly-shaven cheeks. As her eyes adjusted to the screen’s brightness she glimpsed willows by a river, sunlight glinting on water, tiny insects dancing in the sunbeams, while peals of birdsong and distant bells poured out of the speakers. Everything was as clear and precise as a sudden recollection that catches you unawares when you’re busy with something else. Tears gathered in her eyes too; that kind of precision is reserved for memories of childhood and youth, and is in itself a trigger for nostalgia regardless of the thing remembered. Gently she stretched out her hand and moved and clicked the mouse so that the picture vanished from the screen. Then she shut down the computer.

He sat staring at the silent machine, the storm of his grief subsiding as she held him in her arms from behind. At last he stirred and turned to smile at her. ‘That was extraordinary,’ he said. ‘But why did you switch it off?’

She laughed. ‘I didn’t know the river with the willows,’ she said. ‘It must be something you remember from before we met. I suppose I was jealous, thinking you could grieve so much for the life you led then. Stop living in the past, my love! Now’s the time to be making memories we can share.’

‘But my darling,’ he said, and stood up, rubbing his eyes. The room was dark and empty, but when he ground the heels of his hands into his eyeballs the darkness was filled with sparks of light like tiny insects dancing.

A little later he went into the kitchen and made himself a pot of fresh coffee. Then he came back carrying a steaming, fragrant mug and turned on the computer again. ‘Memories we can share,’ he said, adjusting his glasses. He ran his eyes up and down the list of options, looking for a suitable search engine.

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Fantasies of Complicity in the Second World War

This essay was first published in the Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature, ed. Adam Piette and Mark Rawlinson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 516-23.

PicassoGuernicaAfter the bombing of Guernica in April 1937, many novelists of the Left in Europe turned away from avant garde experiment and took to realism, shocked into reengaging with the material conditions that underpin mid-twentieth century culture – the ‘objective reality’ of the Marxist philosopher-critic Lukacs – by the casual obliteration of the Basque capital by a fleet of Nazi bombers.1 But this event seems also to have led to an explosion of fantastic narratives of unprecedented inventiveness and complexity, written by novelists of many political shades united only in their opposition to fascism. By ‘fantasy’ and the ‘fantastic’ here I mean literary texts that deal in the impossible, foregrounding their own violation of social, physical and technological codes or laws: a loose ragbag of fictions which embraces what we now call Utopias, Dystopias, works of science fiction, alternate histories, secondary world fantasies and magic realism. With the exception of the first, these categories had not yet been formally defined in the 1930s, nor had the distinctions between them yet taken on ‘overtones of that bitter opposition between high and mass culture crucial to the self-definition of high modernism’, as Fredric Jameson puts it.2 Perhaps as a result, writers of all backgrounds showed themselves willing to experiment freely with one or more of these genres or modes as a means of articulating the dreadful irruption of fantasy into the material world that was Nazism.

51gFydml8eL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_The notion of Nazism as realized fantasy – the embodiment of a patriarchal, militaristic nightmare – is directly expressed in Katharine Burdekin’s celebrated novel of 1937, Swastika Night.3 Set in a future Europe which has endured Nazi rule for 700 years, the novel describes a chance meeting between an Englishman called Alfred and a free-thinking German Knight, whose family has secretly preserved a heretical history book for many generations. The book demonstrates that the Nazi version of history is no more than an elaborate lie designed to bolster the related myths of Aryan racial supremacy, of martial prowess as the highest human value, and of the natural ascendancy of men over women. The Knight’s presentation of this book to Alfred both reverses and reinforces the Englishman’s entire world view. Alfred has long imagined himself to be intellectually equal or even ‘superior’ to many Germans he knows – a genetic impossibility according to Nazi doctrine – while dismissing his imaginings as puerile daydreams with no possible basis in fact. Now he realizes that this dismissive attitude to his own self-assessment is the product of conditioning: ‘Everything’s fantastic if it is out of the lines you’re brought up on’ (Burdekin 1940, p. 98). The Knight’s book reveals to him the validity of his own fantasies, the bankruptcy of the Nazi intellectual tradition, and the patent absurdity of the Nazi version of history, and this tallies with Alfred’s reading of the material evidence provided by archaeological remains he has found back home in England. The ruling elite are exposed as constructors of elaborate castles in the air, the lone fantasist as an impeccable logician.

Swastika_nightBurdekin’s imagined future – which is itself an impossible vision of how history could unfold, according to the preface to the second edition of the novel (published by the Left Book Club in 1940), since the contradictions of Nazism could never last so long (Burdekin 1940, p. 4) – shares with other fantastic novels of the 30s and 40s an unnerving willingness to acknowledge the complicity of its author’s gender and nation in the rise of Nazism. According to the Knight – whose name is von Hess – envy of the military might of the British Empire served as ‘one of the motive forces of German imperialism’ (Burdekin 1940, p. 78). And both British and German women acquiesced with enthusiasm in their own subjugation. They shaved their heads, the Knight claims, and made themselves ugly so as to bolster the case for Nazi misogyny, in the belief that catering to these anti-feminist fantasies will somehow strengthen their status as objects of male approval and desire. Of course, the opposite has happened, and by the time we meet Alfred and von Hess all male desire for women has long been eradicated, to be replaced by a form of homoerotic desire between men which is merely the corollary to their disgust with the female of the species. What convinces Alfred to accept the Knight’s heretical version of history is a photograph that reawakens the possibility of mutual desire between men and women: the image of a small, dark, paunchy Hitler (as opposed to the blond giant of myth) standing beside a tall, square-jawed figure which Alfred takes at first for a lovely boy, until the Knight tells him it is a girl, a being inconceivably far removed from the cowering shaven gnomes of Alfred’s experience. This restoration of women to desirability makes possible a future for them; Alfred ends the book with the vision of a world where his daughter can hope to exist as something better than a breeding animal whose sole function is the fabrication of boy soldiers for some always-deferred future war in Asia. For Burdekin, a Lesbian who felt unable to write freely about gender politics except under a male pseudonym (she published novels as Murray Constantine), imagining a better future for women may have seemed almost as revolutionary in 1930s Britain as it would have done in a Nazi Britain 700 years later.

n39413Burdekin is of course not alone among fantasy writers of the 30s and 40s in taking British complicity with fascism as her subject. She is also not alone in identifying the particular social group she belonged to (in this case, European women in general) as being specially implicated in this complicity. Before Guernica, the Permanent Secretary for the Irish Department of Education, Joseph O’Neill, wrote a novel about fascism in Britain called Land Under England (1935); and although his recognition of the British capacity to absorb totalitarian ideologies was informed by the experience of British imperialism in Ireland, his particular focus in painting a totalitarian state is his own specialist area, the education of the young.4 A young man retraces the steps of his long-lost father by descending into a hole near Hadrian’s Wall. He finds himself in an underground landscape lit by luminous fungi and infested by monsters – grotesque embodiments of the horrors that lurk in the human mind (O’Neill was a passionate Freudian). Further down, he discovers a race of human beings descended from the Roman soldiers who built the Wall. These people are still recognizably Roman in costume and technology, still locked into a militaristic ideology, but utterly removed from their ancestors in one remarkable way: they have raised the skill of mind-control to an astonishing new level. Every citizen has his or her mind telepathically shaped in childhood to the precise specifications of some designated occupation. Soldiers, labourers and craftspeople are trained up to be incapable of independent thought, while all the mental powers of the ruling elite are directed towards monitoring the psychological state of their slavish subjects. What drove these descendants of Romans to adopt this mental dictatorship was fear: an ungovernable fear of the monster-infested darkness, which drove many of their number to suicide before the techniques of mind control were brought to perfection. The novel’s narrator too experiences this fear, and finds himself on the verge of giving up his mind to the rulers of the underworld as his father has done before him, surrendering his individual will to the requirements of a collective war against the flesh-devouring beasts of the underworld, until the memory of his strong-minded mother and the sunlit world she inhabits provokes him to resist. In O’Neill’s novel, then, as in Burdekin’s, the idea of empowered women stimulates resistance to fascism, which is represented in both cases as a peculiarly aggressive manifestation of patriarchy – the next evolutionary phase, perhaps, of mid-twentieth century phallocentrism.

The underground Romans of Land Under England are clearly fascists – the fasces being a symbol of the ancient Roman republic, adapted for their purpose by the followers of Mussolini. But the Roman model also underlay the British Empire, a link enshrined in the centrality of Latin to the British private school system. For the Irishman O’Neill, the narrator’s father with his obsession with Rome stands for a pernicious obsession with ancient bloodlines among the British aristocracy; his family name is Julian and he traces his descent from the governors of Roman Britain. This obsession is kept in check by his bond with the narrator’s mother, whose Northern English family stands for technological innovation and industrial labour. But as soon as the conjugal bond is broken by the father’s departure to fight in the First World War – which he sees as a war in defence of Roman civilization against the forces of barbarism – the delicate balance between the father’s fantasies and the mother’s practicality is destroyed, so that it later seems natural for the father to throw in his lot with the subterranean warriors. At the end of the novel, the narrator’s now homicidal progenitor must be killed before the young man can return to the surface. As though assisting at a grotesque symbolic re-enactment of Ireland’s emancipation from its paternalistic British oppressors, the young man watches as his father flings himself into a crowd of toadlike carnivores, which ritualistically cut his throat. In the process, the older man’s veneration for imperial Rome is reduced to a suicidal commitment to violence, to patriarchy, to the assertion of his own physical and mental supremacy over all potential rivals. The father once dead, the young man is free to determine his own future, liberated from the nightmare of history – though conscious still of the lurking menace of an army of Roman automata beneath the wholesome English soil, ready to burst out and overwhelm the island if it can find a convenient exit.

md5302235610In describing his fantastic underground society, the educator O’Neill dwells on the agonizing educational processes of the underworld, as teachers ‘root up and destroy the deepest sources of those torrents of vitality’ in young children – curiosity and wakening intelligence – in order to mould them into components of an efficient military machine (132). The Welsh journalist and broadcaster Howell Davies, by contrast, writing under the unlikely pseudonym of ‘Andrew Marvell’, places his own trade of journalism at the centre of his novel of fascist Britain, Minimum Man (1938).5 This ‘story of the counter-revolution of nineteen seventy’ (Davies 1953, p. 5) tells of a reporter’s accidental discovery of a new phase in human evolution: a breed of men and women no more than a foot in height, naked and covered with fur, whose astonishing powers of mind and body enable them to initiate a coup that overthrows the fascist dictator of Britain and installs one of their number in his place. The reporter, a man called Swan, uses his professional skills and contacts first to ferret out information about the origins of this new species (they turn out to have been spontaneously conceived by a rural Welshwoman) and later to help coordinate their anti-fascist coup. But even as he does so he worries that he is merely replacing one dictatorship with another. The phrase ‘Minimum Man’ refers not just to the size of the new species but also to their willingness to strip down every question of morality and social organization to its most basic components – their freedom, that is, from the trammels of history. Uncooperative members of their breed are mercilessly slaughtered for the collective good. Human beings who threaten their safety are casually disposed of. Love is as unknown among them as monogamy. Unencumbered by taboos, they are both capable of imagining better ways to organize society – a miniature woman speculates at one point about the benefits of matriarchy (Davies 1953, p. 95) – and disconcertingly comfortable with their status as harbingers of the end of the human species. Although they throw in their lot with the anti-fascists, their confidence in their own superiority makes them sound fascistic. At the end of the novel the future under their regime is uncertain; but as one human woman puts it – an old partisan who has fought against the Nazis and the Franco regime – if they turn out to be as bad or worse than the dictator they have toppled, ‘I shall fight them… I will not be a slave’ (Davies 1953, p. 214).

82fe901a09b14a9c63d3987fa98a720fHowell Davies conceives, then, of a future quasi-fascistic dictatorship which is like him spawned in Wales, whose cause is aided and abetted by his own journalistic profession, and whose paramilitary coup is staged in the part of London where he lived, Highgate Hill, only yards from the cemetery where Marx is buried. Minimum Man sprang fully-fledged from Davies’s head, and is entwined with Davies’s cultural and intellectual environment, so that his complicity with its imagined conquest of Britain is both profound and complicated. But unlike their knowing creator, his miniature assassin-dictators have a disarming innocence about them: a bluntness of speech and a refusal to countenance the wickedness of human adults which suggest another explanation for his decision to make them the size of newborn infants. They are shocked and disgusted by the perverse social arrangements of the ancient world in which they find themselves; and their insistence on improving it makes them attractive as well as horrifying. This notion of a disturbing innocence in the adherents of fascism crops up quite often in the fantasies of the 30s and 40s. One of Burdekin’s main characters is Hermann, whose unquestioning acceptance of Nazi doctrine comes second only to his passionate love of the Englishman Alfred, and who is described by the Knight von Hess as ‘an innocent man’ despite the fact that he kills a young boy in the early pages of the novel (Burdekin 1940, p. 127). As it happens, his love for Alfred turns Hermann in the end into a passionate defender of Alfred’s one-man anti-fascist insurrection. But in Winifred Ashton’s anti-fascist fantasy The Arrogant History of White Ben (1939) – written under her penname Clemence Dane – the paradoxical innocence of the bloodstained protagonist undergoes no such redemptory volte-face.

UnknownWhite Ben is an ordinary scarecrow – accidentally brought to life by a little girl holding a mandrake – who goes on to become the fascist dictator of England. If this sounds an implausible premise, it is made convincing by the sheer intensity of Ashton’s descriptions of Ben and the countryside that makes him. Ben springs from the fertile English soil, and a litany of flower-names and tree-terms accompanies him on his road to power: morning-glory, mayweed, briony, horse chestnut, campion. He is constructed, too, from the old garments that clothe him: ‘a priest’s vestment, a soldier’s gauntlets and civilian mackintosh, a gentleman’s pleasure-hat’, and the operating-coat of a surgeon killed in the disastrous war of the nineteen-fifties (Ashton 1939, p. 20). ‘Men’s memories’, in fact, are ‘buttoned about him’. And as he marches towards London, gathering followers on the way from among the human debris left behind by the recent conflict, he accumulates a stock of phrases and attitudes from men and women of all classes, so that when he is in London perpetrating his atrocities both the aristocratic Lady Pont and the working-class butler Trelawney recognize their own language spilling from his turnip lips in justification of his crimes against humanity (Ashton 1939, pp. 348-9).

6382780-MBeing a scarecrow, the chief lessons Ben learns from his friends are lessons of fear and hatred, and his career, which begins as a crusade against crows, quickly becomes a massacre of people, since everyone thinks he uses the word ‘crows’ metaphorically. The hatreds of his friends become his hatreds; but unlike them he was assembled with the sole purpose of acting on his dislikes, and he has an uncanny gift for provoking his allies, too, to aggression: especially those acts of mutual self-destruction that are so often deployed by nascent military regimes, pitting friends against friends to consolidate their power. As a result, the love and hero-worship Ben excites in their hearts turn to bitterness and loathing, and he quickly finds himself isolated, a living tool that has been used by England’s new military governors and can now be dispensed with. But when he disappears at the story’s end, worn out by the weight of hatred and expectation that has been laid on his flimsy shoulders, his story is retold as myth. Monuments are erected to his memory, and the tale of his journey from birth to power is retold again and again by those who knew him, with a solemnity that belies the appalling preposterousness of its turnip-headed hero. He becomes once again a figurehead of militarism, the fantastic nature of his existence as a living scarecrow underscoring the vein of fantasy that feeds the fascistic rule of force.

Winifred Ashton was a playwright and screenwriter, and as one reads the Arrogant History it becomes clear that Ben’s career is made up of a series of performances. His awakening is described with the visual precision of a set of cinematic storyboards. The central section of the novel takes place in a country house, and the dialogue in it resembles that of a black comedy, something by Ashton’s good friend Noel Coward, directed in this case to the appalling ends of overthrowing a legitimate government and restarting a recently abandoned war. Ben is forever making speeches, and the fact that his words are not his own (he has picked up every phrase, crow-like, from scraps of other people’s conversation) reinforces his association with Ashton’s professional life among playhouses and film studios. We keep hearing his story in retrospect as having been performed in theatres and music halls – a device that both places a Brechtian distance between reader and narrative and brings the narrative closer to the world of Winifred Ashton. One can imagine her exclaiming when the scarecrow has grown bloodthirsty and bewildered, as Lady Pont exclaims at one point, ‘Oh Ben, Ben, don’t put it upon me!’ (Ashton 1939, p. 315). It’s as if Ashton wishes to feel in her bones, as it were, the truth of the book’s last sentence: that Ben is ‘no more than the wish fulfilment of a backward people, and that he personifies in their folk-lore the natural human instinct to maltreat the harmless and destroy the happy’ (Ashton 1939, p. 420). What was ‘natural’ for her was a sense of theatricality, and she had the courage to see how her own performer’s instinct could translate itself into the instrument of violent oppression.

These four now little-known fantasies demonstrate the extent to which anti-fascist writers of the Western Archipelago were prepared to figure fascism as emerging from the dark recesses of their own brains. Complicity with fascism among certain elements of British and Irish society in the 1930s is of course an attested fact; but there is something startling and, on reflection, impressive about these writers’ readiness to suggest that they cannot so easily exonerate themselves from some degree of participation in the circumstances that gave rise to the fascistic state of mind. Ashton refers several times in the Arrogant History to the psychologically and economically crippling terms imposed on Germany by its enemies at the end of the Great War; terms which planted and cultivated the seeds of resentment that sprang up as Nazism. O’Neill reminds us that every mind contains its monsters – the sources of reasonable or unreasoning terror – and that acquiescence in dictatorship can be a form of self-defence against those monsters. For Burdekin, fear of the other sex can dominate the unconscious of either gender, and Nazism is one means by which patriarchy may choose to express its gynophobic paranoia. And Davies, like O’Neill and Burdekin, sees fascism as springing from the desire to engineer a Darwinian evolution away from a condition of subservience to all these fears and paranoias. Once one has noticed this theme of complicity running through the obscurer fantastic novels of the 30s and 40s, one begins to see it everywhere in the work of better-known fantasy writers of the period. For a while, novels, novelists and Nazism were woven together in a horrible symbiotic knot, and it seems as if fantasy was a form or mode particularly well suited to undertake the controversial task of addressing this symbiosis.

15042-b-obrien_treti.straznikThe brilliant Irish humorist Brian O’Nolan, for example – better known as Flann O’Brien – wrote a novel in 1940 in which the two qualities for which he was most celebrated, wit and knowledge, find themselves fused into the components of a kind of Irish atom bomb, always on the verge of detonation.6 The unnamed protagonist of The Third Policeman murders an old man in order to fund his learned commentary on the mad philosopher de Selby. He then finds his way to a mysterious police station filled with mind-troubling inventions, where he is summarily convicted of the crime he has just committed, despite the total absence of any evidence against him. While awaiting execution he is shown around an underground facility which seems in some obscure way to control the fantastic world he has strayed into; his policemen friends must constantly fine-tune its arcane mechanisms to prevent the whole shebang from exploding and wiping out humanity. All this is told in scintillating comic prose like a more elaborate version of the anecdotes O’Nolan unfolded in his famous column for the Irish Times, the Cruiskeen Lawn. Europe, it would seem on the evidence of this novel, has got itself enmeshed in an appalling practical joke, which will not release its victims until its inexorable logic has been worked out – at the expense of their lives or their collective sanity.

3552261860_06935049d4_oAnother Irishman, the scholar C. S. Lewis, wrote a trio of science fiction novels between 1938 and 1945 as ‘propaganda’ for Christianity – competing with, yet also likening itself to, the other forms of indoctrination that occupied the printing press and airwaves at the time of writing. In a fragment of a fourth novel, The Dark Tower, composed between 1938 and 1940 but not printed till the 1970s, he imagines a parallel world of ‘Othertime’ which is rapidly approaching his own time and place: a world where horned dictators, served by a goose-stepping, brainwashed militia, occupy a tower which is a precise replica of the new library building at the University of Cambridge.7 This tower contains a library, like its English counterpart; but it is a library of atrocities, whose books record knowledge obtained through the torture and death of children. The threat that drives the book’s plot is that the tower and the Cambridge Library will converge, and that when they do their environments will combine, and England be enslaved by the horned dictators. Lewis had read Land Under England, and reacted to its horrible yet potent premise by transposing O’Neill’s fascistic automata into the heart of the community he loved most, that of the British intellectual elite.

Once_future_king_coverT. H. White, who spent the war years in Ireland as a conscientious objector, wrote most of his Arthurian fantasy sequence The Once and Future King (1958) in the 1930s and early 40s, reconfiguring the global conflict as a civil war in his heart’s homeland, medieval Britain.8 Mervyn Peake began the first of his Gormenghast books, Titus Groan (1946), while vainly seeking employment as a war artist, and made its protagonist a young man who is half-heroic and wholly power-hungry, a would-be dictator who poses in succession as artist, actor, clown, adventurer and ladykiller – very much like Peake himself.9 Finally, when Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien assembled the most influential work of modern fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, between 1938 and 1949, he began and ended it in a fictional Shire that closely resembles the country round his home town of Oxford.10 As the final volume of the sequence draws to a close its hobbit heroes return home to find that the Shire has been taken over by a quasi-fascistic government run by the former wizard Saruman. The hobbits’ journey through the war-torn lands of Middle Earth has, among its other purposes, that of preparing them for this eventuality and teaching them the appropriate response to it: namely, the extirpation of profiteering invaders, the naming and shaming of collaborators, and the demolition of the industrial architecture that has fouled their beloved rural environment. The particular journey of Tolkien’s principal hobbit, Frodo, had as its end the destruction of a Ring that conferred invisibility; and it is only when Frodo finds himself confronted with Saruman on his own doorstep that this invisibility stands exposed as (in part) a metaphor for the secret workings of complicity that can transform even the neighbourly Shire, in Frodo’s absence, into productive ground for totalitarianism.

In twenty-first century parlance, the word fantasy is often used to mean a form of wish-fulfilment, the conscious or unconscious fashioning of simulacra of the sometimes forbidden things we most desire. British and Irish fantasists of the mid-century showed their readers that what they most desired sometimes bore a disturbing resemblance to what they most loathed: innocently murderous scarecrows, sadistic rulers with poisonous phallic horns in the middle of their foreheads, paternalistic instructors with total control over the minds of their pupils, brilliant, athletic, handsome miniature replacements for the bloated and obsolescent human species. They tell a version of the history of the mind in the 1930s and 40s which could not have been told in any other way. It is time we paid attention to this version.



  1. For Lukacs on ‘objective reality’ see his History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Boston, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972). He applies the concept to literature in The Historical Novel (London: Merlin Press, 1989). For the view that modernist experiment peaks in the 1920s and tails off in the 1930s ‘largely because of the dogmatic influence of the Soviet enforcement of socialist realism’, see Jane Goldman, Modernism, 1910-1945: Image to Apocalypse (Basingstoke and Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 28ff. and 214ff.
  2. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London and New York: Verso, 2005), p. 5; but see the whole of chapter 5, ‘The Great Schism’, for a discussion of the relationship between Science Fiction, Utopia and fantasy. On definitions of fantasy see Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), chapter 2.
  3. For Burdekin’s reaction to fascism, and especially the impact on her of the bombing of Guernica, see Daphne Patai’s Afterword to Burdekin’s The End of This Day’s Business (New York: The Feminist Press, 1989). For introducing me to the works of Burdekin and Winifred Ashton I am grateful to my mother, Elizabeth Maslen, who discusses them in her important book Political and Social Issues in British Women’s Fiction, 1928-1968 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001).
  4. For O’Neill’s life and works see M. Kelly Lynch’s fine introduction to his last novel, The Black Shore, ed. Lynch (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000).
  5. For Davies’ life and work see Adrian Dannatt’s Foreword to Davies’s novel Congratulate the Devil, Library of Wales (Cardigan: Parthian, 2008).
  6. For O’Brien’s imagined complicity with the bombings of the 30s and 40s see R. W. Maslen, ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006), 84-104.
  7. For a detailed analysis of The Dark Tower and its relationship with O’Neill’s Land Under England see Robert W. Maslen, ‘Towards an Iconography of the Future: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists’, Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Asthetik, Band 18 (2000), 222-249.
  8. For a fuller account of Peake’s anxieties about complicity, see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), ed. R. W. Maslen, introduction; and R. W. Maslen, ‘Fantasies of War in Peake’s Uncollected Verse’, Peake Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23.



Constantine, Murray [Katharine Burdekin], Swastika Night, Left Book Club Edition (London: Victor Gollancz, 1940).

Dane, Clemence [Winifred Ashton], The Arrogant History of White Ben (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1939).

Lewis, C. S., The Dark Tower and Other Stories (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1987).

Marvell, Andrew [Howell Davies], Minimum Man (Worcester and London: The Science Fiction Book Club, 1953).

O’Brien, Flann [Brian O’Nolan], The Third Policeman (London: Flamingo, 1993).

O’Neill, Joseph, Land under England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987).

Peake, Mervyn, Titus Groan (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1946).

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Fellowship of the Ring (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954).

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Two Towers (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954).

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Return of the King (London: George Allen and Unwin,1955).

White, T. H., The Once and Future King (London: Collins, 1958).

White, T. H., The Sword in the Stone (London: Collins, 1938).

White, T. H., The Witch in the Wood (London: Collins, 1939).

White, T. H., The Ill-Made Knight (London: Collins, 1940).

White, T. H., The Book of Merlyn (Austin, TS and London: University of Texas Press, 1977).




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