Cloud Palace

Stretched out in my seat in row 7, absorbed in my book,
I detected a tentative touch on the crook of my arm.
An old woman was sitting beside me; her scent was of herbs
And the light cotton tunic she wore was a riot of colour, pinks, yellows and greens.
I looked up, and she smiled, and she pointed, not saying a word;
Pointed out of the circular window and into the clouds.
She had the seat by the window, I one by the aisle;
In between, an unoccupied seat, a hiatus of calm.
Outside, the clouds stretched to a level horizon, unblemished and white,
Save where, at the limits of vision, a glittering gem
Nestled softly among the wide acres of featureless wool,
The bright sunlight awaking a flame in each facet and curve.
I leaned closer, inhaling the scent of the herbs as I peered
Through the glass of the window and screwed up my eyes in the sun.
And distinctly I saw it: a palace of marble and gold,
With roofs of a crystalline substance and windows of jet,
A tiara of bristling steeples, white, yellow and pink,
And a hundred and seventy flags all alive in the wind.
All around it the acres of cloudage extended, unstirred
By the breeze that made banners and oriflammes buckle and snap.
On the tip of one steeple an angel was perched with a horn,
A horn made of silver which flashed as she raised it and blew –
Though of course in our sealed-off compartment we heard not a sound.
From one window a figure leaned out, and I guessed, though I couldn’t be sure,
That her dress was a riot of colour and scented with herbs.
Did she wave to us? Maybe; she seemed to be smiling, at least;
There was movement, and some kind of gesture, of that I’m convinced,
And a message that flashed through the space between palace and plane.
For a minute we watched it together, the woman and I,
That palace of marble and gold in the nebulous heights.
Then a curtain of cloud swept across, and the palace was gone,
And we looked at each other, half dazed, in the brightness of space,
And nodded, and turned to our doings – her window, my book –
While a bird seemed to open its wings in our heads, in our chests,
And cry out in amazement at wonders unbidden, untold:
The new things you perceive when you briefly forget to be old,
The new friendships you form on a flight through the regions of gold.

 

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Summer Songs

MAYFLY

The little mayfly flew about
Until the mighty sun went out.
A minute more the mayfly flew –
And then the mayfly went out too.

 

MIDGES

Have you ever seen the midges
Dancing on a summer eve?
Tropic flowers, insect bowers
Form and grow and interweave.

Duck your head and flap your hands,
Close your eyes and groan;
Midges dance in happy bands
Many miles from home.

Midges bow, advance, and mingle,
Strains of music rise and fall,
Motes in moonshine on the shingle,
Silver-spangled insect ball.

Duck your head and swing your arms
On a highland beach;
Lose yourself in false alarms
And uncompleted speech.

In the shade beneath the beeches
Hovering throughout the day
Singing where the sunlight reaches
Lady midges mate and lay.

Duck your head and strike the air,
Kick your dainty legs;
Otherwise they’ll fill your hair
With tiny silver eggs!

 

SOLSTICE

On the longest day in the year
I danced on the lawn and sang
As the sun went down behind the trees,
‘Nothing is finite! All the world is God’s!’

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Celtic Fantasy and War: Patricia Lynch and William Croft Dickinson

[I started thinking about Celtic Fantasy in May, when Geraldine Parsons invited me to take part in a Round Table on the subject with herself and Thomas Clancy at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies here in Glasgow. The event is elegantly summarised by Megan Kasten here; but I went on thinking about Fantasy and Celticity, and turned my thoughts into a keynote for the CRSF Conference at the University of Liverpool last week. This, then, is the keynote, with thanks to Geraldine for getting me started on it and to Will Slocombe, Beata Gubacsi, Tom Kewin and the CRSF organising committee for the invitation to give it, and for making the conference such a supportive environment to deliver it in. I should also apologise profusely to the courteous Irish scholars who suffered in silence through my dreadful mispronunciations of their beautiful language. I should have asked Geraldine for lessons beforehand. I’ll know better next time.]

Cover Illustration by Pauline Baynes

In her recent book Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave 2017) Dimitra Fimi identifies what she calls the desire for ‘Celticity’ as rooted in myth: the fantasy of a sophisticated shared culture that once extended across much of Europe, and whose traces can still be found in the customs, character and conversation of the Welsh and Irish people and their diasporic relatives across the world. According to this myth, in ancient times Celtic culture differed from the culture of the Roman Empire in much the same way as modern Celts differ from the English and Anglo-American colonists who inherited the Roman imperial mantle: it was ‘spiritual, natural, emotional, artistic, rural, and timeless’, where the colonists favoured materialism, rationalism, and restraint, qualities perceived as underpinning the rapid spread of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The association of Celticity with emotion, spirit and nature aligns it with the literary genre now known as fantasy: the art of the impossible, which seeks to liberate itself from the Anglo-Roman espousal of rationalism by imagining people, events and things that violate the laws of physics or biology. The impulse to fantasy arose at a point when those laws were being systematically formulated by the Enlightenment, manifesting itself in the uncanny narratives of Gothic fiction, the dreamlands of Romantic poetry and the earthy tricksiness of the folk tale, and attaching itself to revolutionary and nationalist movements even as those movements appealed to reason as the basis for a reconstruction of stagnant old societies along radical new lines. Celtic fantasy found its most potent manifestation in the Irish literary revival, whose championing of medieval Irish literature and folktale supplied the soundtrack, so to speak, for the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence four years later. In Ireland, the dream of a Celtic past as expressed through stories helped, in its own small way, to spark a revolution. That’s more than can be said for most literary movements, and itself identifies Celtic fantasy, even in its humblest manifestations (the ballad, the folk tale, the bedtime story for children) as well worth thinking about.

Capital from The Book of Kells

In this post I’d like to focus on the question of how Celtic fantasy written for children engaged with politics in the decades before the subgenre really took off in the 1960s. My chosen texts have been left out of most accounts of the rise of Celtic fantasy, since they come too early to fit into the established timeline for the movement’s emergence. One of these novels is from Ireland, the other from Scotland, and both were written in times of crisis – though it’s hard to think of any decade of the twentieth century that wasn’t a time of crisis in one way or another. To be specific, both can be read as responses to war, and both concern themselves with the traces of war in the psychological, cultural and physical landscapes of the authors’ nations. They are Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey (1934) and William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944); and between them they provide a number of valuable insights into what Fimi might describe as the impulse to Celticity, in children’s fiction and elsewhere.

Both books bear a striking resemblance to the debut novel of the most celebrated writer of Celtic fantasy for children: Alan Garner, whose novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen came out in 1960, sixteen years after Borrobil. In all three books two children, a boy and a girl, find their way into the Celtic past, where they get caught up in events that have a profound effect on their country’s history. In each case they encounter one or more guides who help them understand the culture they find themselves in; in each case the Celtic past proves to be much more complex than they might have expected; and in each case their journey from past to present involves an intimate encounter with some striking geographical feature (Garner’s Alderley Edge, the prehistoric monuments of Dickinson’s Scotland, the Irish boglands in Lynch). Dickinson’s novel shares with Garner’s the detail that the young female protagonist carries with her into the past a talismanic stone, which plays a crucial role in ensuring the outcome of the narrative. In The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, too, talismanic objects get carried and exchanged between the Celtic otherworld and the everyday present, most notably a magic shamrock. And Lynch’s novel also shares with Weirdstone a sense of unease at certain implications of the confrontation it enacts between the Celtic past and the globalized present. It’s not necessary, I think, to assume that Garner had read the earlier novels, but they prove that Celtic fantasy was alive and well, and being used for serious purposes in children’s fiction, long before Colin and Susan first set eyes on the sleeping knights of Fundindelve.

Patricia Lynch

The first of my texts, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, emerged from a background of political activism. Its author threw in her lot at an early age with the conjoined struggles for women’s suffrage and a modern, independent, socialist Ireland. At eighteen she was sent as a correspondent by Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, The Women’s Dreadnought, to cover the Easter Rising of 1916. In 1922 she married the English historian Richard Fox, who had just returned from a visit to the newly-founded Soviet Union and who was building a formidable reputation as a radical thinker (in the later 1920s his books were published by the Hogarth Press). The couple moved to Dublin, where Fox wrote books about Irish women rebels (published the year after The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey), the Citizen Army, and two prominent members of the Labour movement in Ireland, Jim Larkin and James Connolly. Lynch meanwhile began to write children’s fiction, beginning with The Green Dragon in 1925, and becoming the most influential Irish writer for children of the twentieth century. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey is richly infused with the couple’s passion for international socialism, as well as with Lynch’s feminism, and with the conviction that both these movements had a natural affinity with Irish culture and history – that their roots reached deep into Irish soil, quite literally speaking given the book’s emphasis on the boglands of the West. It’s also interestingly choosy about the elements of ancient Irish culture that should be accommodated into twentieth-century Irish identity. Celticity, it suggests, must be mixed with a strong strain of modernity if Ireland is to fulfil its potential as an independent nation.

The Happy March from The Crock of Gold

Lynch’s debt to another Irish socialist fantasy writer is everywhere obvious in this novel. I’m thinking of James Stephens, whose The Crock of Gold (1912) harnessed ancient Irish myth in the services of a radical vision for an independent, egalitarian Ireland. Lynch’s child protagonists inhabit a landscape which, like Stephens’s, contains forceful women, tricky leprechauns, intelligent animals, travellers who abide by strict laws of their own and have a passion for stories, roads with a personality of their own, and figures from ancient Irish literature and legend. The brother of the novel’s heroine is even named Seamus, recalling the young boy from a series of celebrated stories by James Stephens published in 1915 as The Adventures of Seumas Beg (Seamus was also one of Stephens’s many pseudonyms). The Crock of Gold ends with an act of liberation in which the story’s heroine, Caitlin ni Murrachu, joins with the medieval hero Angus Og and the hosts of the Sidhe to free the Irish people from enslavement by capitalist imperialism. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey culminates in a more tentative vision that seeks to establish continuity between the Celtic past and a socialist Irish future in a gesture of reconciliation aimed at administering imaginative balm to the wounds inflicted by the Civil War of 1922-3. Lynch’s is an optimistic book but not a glib one, and provides a joyful antidote to the satirical revision of Stephens’s novel undertaken by Flann O’Brien in his bleak surrealist masterpiece The Third Policeman (c. 1940).

The political resonance of The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey can be best appreciated, I think, by turning to the report Lynch wrote for The Women’s Dreadnought about the Easter Rising. The report, ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’, was prefaced by some thoughts on Easter Week penned by Sylvia Pankhurst herself, who identifies the Celtic nations of the Western Archipelago as instinctively more progressive than their powerful neighbour, ‘slow-moving England […] who, with her strong vested interests and larger population, is always the predominant partner in the British Isles’. Pankhurst clearly sees what she calls ‘the Celtic temperament’ in the terms assigned by Fimi to Celticity: spiritual, emotional and artistic, concepts combined in her account of ‘the dream of so many ardent lovers of Ireland to make of her an independent paradise of free people, a little republic, famous, not for its brute strength, but for its happiness and culture, something unique in all the world’. Against this utopian dream Pankhurst sets the scenes of desolation reported from Dublin: not just the carnage caused by the savage military suppression of the Rising, but the desperate poverty of ‘tenement dwellings […] crowded with poor, ill-clad people’ which still stood as a physical rebuke to British rule in Ireland, and which were described in such vivid detail by James Stephens in his realist novel The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912). More significantly for Lynch’s development as a novelist, Pankhurst wrote of the plight of rural people in the West of Ireland, living in ‘hovels’ on ‘strips of undrained, stony ground’, earning a few shillings a week for making lace and with illiterate children ‘kept at home to help with this wretchedly paid work’ of lacemaking, whose returns were falling year on year despite government assurances to the contrary. Like most of Lynch’s novels, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey locates itself in rural Ireland, and involves the reconstruction of one such hovel along better principles thanks to an unexpected windfall provided by a grateful leprechaun. The woman who lives in the cottage makes lace to a standard her children are deeply proud of. The children help their parents with their work, but the young girl also reads about Irish history as if with the specific intention of reconstructing Ireland on the ruins of a sometimes heroic, sometimes catastrophic past, and eventually brings the past into the present, quite literally, in the form of a Celtic hero from her favourite history book. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey could almost have been written as a direct response to Pankhurst’s description of the appalling living and working conditions in rural Ireland that helped to provoke the Easter Rising.

Women of the Easter Rising

Lynch’s ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’ differs from the celebrated eyewitness account by James Stephens – The Insurrection in Dublin ­– in its concentration on women’s experiences. All the witnesses whose interviews Lynch reports are women, and her particular interest in the material impact of the conflict on the ‘women’s problem’ of running a household is everywhere obvious. The women she spoke to were predominantly working class: a ‘pale-faced, haggard-eyed waitress’, whose sweetheart is in prison facing execution; a charwoman whose home came under fire by the British army; another domestic servant whose two-roomed flat was blown up by the military; a girl whose brothers are fighting on opposite sides, one at the front in Fanders, the other in the Irish Volunteers; a woman who knows first aid and has tried to help, first a British soldier, then a dying ‘Sinn Feiner, barely 12 years old’, who was wounded in the head so that ‘his brains were showing’. The same first aider witnessed the meeting between a dying woman, whom she carried into a nursing home, and her injured young daughter. Elsewhere Lynch writes of a 15-year-old boy who was arrested for the crime of being ‘out walking’ with a non-combatant member of Sinn Fein. In Lynch’s Rising, women and children are the chief casualties of the chaos of what she represents as a civil conflict, with Irish citizens – sometimes members of the same family – on both sides.

James Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin blamed the Rising on a catastrophic failure of imagination on the part of the British: a refusal to see things from the Irish point of view or to try to understand the psychological impact of putting down the insurrection with extreme force. Lynch clearly shared his views. At the end of her report she speaks of the Irish capacity for remembering significant historical events – embodied in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey by young Eileen, who reads her history book so intensely that its characters come alive – and warns that the British actions in Dublin will not be forgotten. ‘Will the English government never learn?’ she concludes.

It can only suppress revolt by appealing to the imagination of the Irish. If not one leader had been shot, if clemency, toleration had been the order, the rebellion would indeed have been at an end. We cannot resist kindness, we can never endure oppression.

A heroic girl marrying her lover on the morning of his execution; a beautiful countess giving up the advantages of her position to live with the working people and if necessary to die with them; these strike the imagination of a race of poets and idealists.

For Lynch, central to the images of the Rising embedded in the Irish collective memory are representations of two women, Grace Gifford and Constance Markievicz, the latter of whom took active part in the fighting – a fact perhaps commemorated in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey when little Eileen gets caught up in the fighting between the Tuatha Dé Dannan and the Fir Bolg at the First Battle of Maighe Tuireadh. Eileen, however, is more concerned to avoid hurting anybody with her spear – apart from one aggressive boy she strikes in self-defence – than to use it in anger, and is instrumental in establishing peace between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg. Her experience of conflict in Celtic times is profoundly disturbing to her, like Lynch’s of the Insurrection, and it’s the peacetime accomplishments of the Tuatha Dé that she admires – the cities they build, the magic they weave – rather than their martial prowess.

The Magic Pool, illustration by Jack Yeats

Eileen, in fact, resists the narrative logic of Celtic literature and folktale as much as she embraces it. As in the folktales, her and Seamus’s kindness to animals is duly rewarded: the novel’s title commemorates their rescue of a beaten donkey, who turns out to have magical powers and takes them to a pool on the flat-topped mountain near their home where they can see anything they care to; but the children can’t agree on what they want to see in it, and its resources are never put to significant use. Later the children meet a leprechaun, which Seamus catches for the usual purpose of forcing him to surrender his crock of gold; but the boy lets him go again by mistake, and when Eileen befriends the leprechaun by finding and returning his shoemaking hammer this turns out to be of greater practical use than violence, since he both mends her shoes in return and supports the children in their later adventures. Subsequent encounters with the magical past are equally ambiguous about the value of traditional means of acquiring money, fame and power. When Seamus gets kidnapped by an eagle and enslaved by the Wise Woman of Youghal – who wants access to the magic enclosed in a four-leaved clover sent to the children by their beloved Aunt Una – Eileen has to rescue him in a toy plane, with somewhat inadequate assistance from the leprechaun, miscellaneous birds and beasts, and a pilot dressed all in silver. Eileen’s rescue, then, embodies both collectivism and a rather fragile version of modernity (the toy plane is flimsy, being made of cardboard, and the pilot eccentric and irascible), as against the imperialist symbolism of the eagle or the Wise Woman’s quest for an unshared, undemocratic power obtained through the shamrock, the symbol of Ireland past and to come. By this stage in the story, Lynch’s young protagonists have come to embody the struggle between competing versions of Irish identity, with Eileen the champion of a progressive model of relations between classes, genders, and the environment, while Seamus is constantly tempted to replicate the aggressive actions and selfish motives of his ancestors – though his affection for his sister always redeems him in the end.

Eileen’s possession of a toy plane should alert us to the way Lynch likes to reverse traditional gender expectations. Not only does this girl come to the rescue of her elder brother, but she does it with the help of a toy he would like to have owned himself (‘That’s what I wanted!’ he tells her when she carries it out of the shop). Later Seamus gets equally annoyed with his sister when she gets too caught up in her reading to play with her dolls, so that he has no excuse to join in with her games in direct contradiction of his stated belief that dolls are ‘silly, babyish things’ and that he is ‘surprised at Eileen bothering with them’. In any case, Eileen’s dolls don’t get used for conventional purposes: she never nurses or makes clothes for them, but pins ‘gay pieces of stuff around them, turning a Dutch doll into a gipsy, and a sailor into a Red Indian or a pirate’; she even allows her brother to stalk them with his bow and arrows so long as he never hits them. Clearly Eileen is as international in her outlook as Lynch herself was, and as addicted to roving either in real life or in her imagination (at one point in the novel she runs off to join the real-life gipsies, though she finds looking after their babies deeply disenchanting). She is no more entrapped in traditional household roles or ways of thinking than the characters in the books she reads are trapped in the past – or than her parents are trapped in a shoddy cottage (they rebuild their home from scratch at the end of chapter 3).

The past, then, is never sentimentalized in Lynch’s fiction – any more than the relationship between the brother and sister is sentimentalized (Eileen runs away to join the gipsies after squabbling with Seamus). Ireland past and present is a place of divided cultures, often at war with one another in words or deeds. People inhabit different dwellings depending on their work and culture: the tinkers live in the carts from which they sell their wares, Tim Quinlan the road-mender in his mobile shelter, Captain Cassidy on his barge, the gipsies in their immaculate caravans, the turf-cutter and his family in their cottage at the edge of the bog where the turf gets cut – and each of these dwellings is on the move, including the cottage, which gets rebuilt. The gipsies and the tinkers are at odds (‘When you go back to your own people,’ the Tinker Chief tells Eileen, ‘you’ll tell them how much better than the gipsies the tinkers are’), though Eileen at first finds both communities equally intimidating – just as she is terrified of being caught on the barge by Captain Cassidy, or in the fair by the showman who chases her when she releases one of his human exhibits. And when the children make their way into the past by magic, they find it full of rival peoples at once as alluring and intimidating, as foreign and familiar as the diverse communities of modern Ireland.

Finn

Their first encounter with the past features the hero Finn and the warriors of the Fianna, whom they meet on the same flat-topped mountain where the donkey showed them the magic pool. This encounter goes badly: Eileen makes a fool of herself by posing as a princess, and when Seamus asks to join the Fianna he is set a number of tasks he cannot possibly perform (‘If you were put in a hole with a shield and a stick,’ they tell him, ‘you must be able to defend yourself against nine warriors’). Keeping hold of the past, too, proves a problem for the modern visitors: solid objects such as trees and spears are always melting away and the whole scene eventually vanishes when Seamus disobeys an order. There’s a cultural and physical gap between the fabulous attainments of the past and the youthful exuberance of the present, and Seamus can only promise to practise hard at fighting, jumping and running in an effort to bridge it.

The second encounter with the Celtic past goes better, at least at first. One of the ancient inhabitants of Ireland escapes from Eileen’s history book and she makes friends with him, forging an alliance which is a mutual embracing of difference. The stone-age visitor, a ‘little dark man’, is mistaken at first by the girl’s contemporaries for a thieving vagrant – a tinker or a gipsy – before being captured and put on show as an African ‘savage’ who ‘eats raw meat and swallows lighted candles’. Eileen’s urge, then, to befriend him and hear him tell stories seems initially to be an extension of her unusual interest in strange cultures, as manifested elsewhere in her games of Red Indians and her flight to join the gipsies. But the apparent differences between Eileen and the little dark man mask a deeper kinship. When they magically enter the history book he escaped from she finds that he is in fact a hero of old Ireland named Sreng, which means, as she points out, that that they are effectively related: ‘You see, we all belong here just as you do, only we live in a different time’. Through the ages Ireland has nurtured a range of populations as physically and culturally diverse as that of the globe, and recognition of its diversity leads naturally to the sense of kinship with men and women of all races and classes which Eileen displays throughout the novel.

Sreng

At least, it should lead to such a sense of kinship. Instead, this second encounter with the Celtic past turns sour, much like the first. Sreng’s people the Fir Bolg prefer fighting to making friends, and one of the Fir Bolg boys takes violently against Eileen – symbolically enough, because she prevents him from killing the Salmon of Wisdom. Meanwhile the Fir Bolg Chief decides to wage war against a new wave of Celts who have arrived in Ireland: the Danaans, as Lynch calls them – the Tuatha Dé – who build cities of stone, wield lightweight metal weapons, and wear brightly-coloured clothes and intricate jewelry. The episode culminates in a battle involving three kinds of Irish people – the Fir Bolg, the Danaans and the two modern children – which ends not in heroic deeds (in the ancient texts Sreng strikes off the arm of Nuada, King of the Danaans) but chaos and confusion, much like the chaos of the Easter Rising as Lynch describes it. Eileen loses her spear and finds herself stranded behind enemy lines, where she ‘covered her eyes to shut out the sight of warriors cutting and stabbing, but […] could not shut her ears to the cries of pain and anger’. The Fir Bolg chief is killed, the aggressive boy traumatized, and the children flee with the wounded hero Sreng back to their own time, leaving ‘something of the present’ behind them in exchange (a pencil and a handkerchief, which they stuff into a hollow tree trunk). Impressive though the city of the Danaans was, when they set eyes again on the ‘whitewashed cabin at the edge of the bog […] in all the wonderful past they had not seen anything more lovely’. The Celtic past is not to be privileged, for Lynch, above the present and future; they are enmeshed in one another, and the most precious element of each is a commitment to the arts of peace.

Above all, the Celtic past doesn’t wield any cultural or moral authority over the present in Lynch’s novel. This is largely because its values – such as the celebration of martial prowess and the corresponding elevation of men over women in the social hierarchy – make it problematic as a model for modern life. Farah Mendlesohn has argued in Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) that the characters in ‘portal quest fantasies’ like this one – people who pass through a magical door or along an invisible road into an unfamiliar country – invariably require a guide to teach them how to behave and what to think about the things they’re seeing, such as Puck in Rewards and Fairies or Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For her, this makes the portal quest fantasy a fundamentally conservative genre. In a more recent book, Children’s Fantasy Literature (2016), she and Michael Levy summarize the 1930s as a decade of relative conservatism in children’s fiction, when protagonists must learn obedience at the hands of their adult instructors, and when fantasy novels are full of servile animated toys whose desire to please their owners reflects the dominant ideology of the mid-twentieth century. Lynch’s novel bucks both these trends. Eileen and Seamus have guides aplenty: the leprechaun, the ‘little dark man’ Sreng, a mysterious Man in Brown who comes over the bog following an ancient road and takes them to meet the Fianna. But none of these guides overawes them, and the youngsters are as often inclined to ignore their advice as they are to take it. Eileen treats Sreng and the Man in Brown as her equals, and Seamus strives to emulate them, seeing only his age as a bar to matching their accomplishments. The children’s sense of equality arises from the qualities that make them capable of forging friendships with random strangers – the birds, beasts, supernatural creatures and people they meet on their adventures. The young siblings are brave and curious, and they like to learn, whether new stories or new physical skills. In addition, they treat each other as equals, despite the difference in their ages and sexes. And the people they like best from Celtic culture are the ones who share their egalitarian values, such as the Man in Brown, who respects and rewards good men and women of all classes who give him food and shelter; or Sreng, who oversees the ceasefire between his people and the Danaans, and who later refuses to be the new chief of the Fir Bolg because, as he puts it, he prefers ‘wandering, seeing strange people and countries, making new friends’. He, like Eileen, is an internationalist, and his instinct for reconciliation is as urgently needed in post-Civil War Ireland as it was in the days of the warring Celts.

Reconciliation is also the theme of our second text, William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944). This is hardly surprising given that it was published at the height of World War Two. Its author was the longest-serving incumbent of the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, and the first Englishman to hold the post. A noted writer of ghost stories, he advanced the theory in his Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (1961) that the country’s fortunes were largely determined by its geography, a view that gets borne out in his debut novel.  Once again the story concerns a young brother and sister who find their way into the past, where they meet the jovial wizard of the title, whose constant cheerfulness, pointed hat with a feather in it, and habit of breaking into rhyme at every opportunity link him irresistibly to Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. It’s tempting to imagine Dickinson may have known about Bombadil, who first appeared in a song in the 1930s – after all, he and Tolkien were fellow professors as well as fellow veterans of the Great War, and there are numerous hints in Borrobil that Dickinson had read The Hobbit (1937). Borrobil, however, concerns itself not with Middle Earth – an alternative England – but what is clearly Scotland, and in particular with the way the struggles of the past have left indelible traces on the Scottish landscape. Dickinson first told the story to his two young daughters, and one gets the impression he did so to reassure them that wars had come and gone across the land through successive generations, leaving no lasting damage, only strange remains: villages on stilts in the middle of lakes, hills with mysterious rings around them, barrows, stone circles, brochs and castles. His version of the Celtic past is the solution to the riddle posed by these remains, as well as a promise that the war will pass like a bout of bad weather, leaving only stories of courage and trickery behind it, and a few archaeological wonders which need the stories to bring them alive.

A Digestive Biscuit

In fact, the novel represents war as a kind of ritual, the human equivalent of the war between the seasons as this was celebrated in the half-forgotten Celtic festival of Beltane. The young protagonists, Donald and Jean – whose names mark them out as Scottish – already have some awareness of the procession of the seasons. Their adventures begin at harvest time, when the fields are full of haystacks to play in, and it’s hinted that they may even have taken part in the harvest: we learn in the second paragraph that they have come to the part of the country where the story takes place on an ‘extra’ holiday, a phrase often used in wartime to mean breaks from school to help with farm work. At the same time there’s something odd about the seasons as they experience them. The Beltane festival took place in Spring, around the first of May, while the main hay harvest happens in July, so the presence of Beltane fires at harvest time is something of an anomaly. It would seem, though, to be a deliberate one on Dickinson’s part, because one of the children takes with him into the past three digestive biscuits with wheat sheaves stamped on them, which he gives to the king of a land that has been ravaged for decades by a monstrous dragon. The king takes the wheat sheaf symbol as a sign that the dragon will be defeated and that harvests will be possible again, as they have not for as long as the dragon held sway over the fields and hills. Donald and Jean, then, stand for the return of new life to a depopulated kingdom, and carry intimations of both spring and harvest with them. One wonders if the disruption of the seasons is an allusion on Dickinson’s part to the disruptions of war, which are also hinted at by the allusion to the ‘extra’ holiday – a break in the timetable of school and home life forced on the British population by the need to provide themselves with food.

The Mysterious Wood

The country they find themselves in – like Lewis’s Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a book that’s also set in wartime – has been as badly damaged as the one they’ve left behind. The country’s ageing king is confined to his castle and a single town, built in the middle of a lake for protection from the flightless dragon – like Tolkien’s Laketown; while another lord in the North part of the kingdom is sick, like the Fisher King, and cannot personally lead his people against the Norse invaders who threaten their homes and families. Time, then, is held in suspension in this damaged country; death or suspended animation has dominion over it, and its rulers are confined and powerless. The children, on the other hand, are full of unbounded youthful energy, exemplified in their decision to visit a wood at night at the beginning of the story, and by the stream of questions they fire at the wizard Borrobil when they meet him. Borrobil tells them that they have travelled to the past by dancing in the stone circle ‘with summer joy’ at a time of year when summer and winter, life and death are held in suspension, and that this show of liveliness is what has taken them back to the ‘dead’ times to witness the battle between the Kings of Summer and Winter – or of Life and Death – in person. They disrupted time by their actions at Beltane, and they go back in time to see time reassert itself over a land that has lost it.

Broch

Once you first notice it, it’s clear that the disruption or loss of time is a key theme in the book. The dragon’s presence has caught the land in a perpetual cycle, marked by combat between a human hero and the monster every seven years. The children also hear about another king of that country, King Eochaid, a kind of Ossian figure, who is condemned by the King of the Fairies to keep riding on his horse until a white dog jumps down from his arms – which it never does. When the hero Morac kills the dragon he gains the gift of second sight by touching its hide with his lips – the gift, that is, of intermittent visions of the future – and thereby signals the recommencement of chronological change. Later in the story the children enter the fairy kingdom itself under strict injunctions to accept no gifts there; the penalty for doing so is to stay underground for ‘seven years and seven days’, and we already know from the story of King Eochaid that ‘one day in the fairy kingdom is one hundred years in the land of men’. The children keep finding themselves in situations where they lose track of space and time – most notably when they are walking along enclosed paths on the approach to the wood on Beltane Eve at the beginning of the story, and again in the mountains on the way to a meeting with the giant Grugol, and when they are imprisoned in the castle of the sorcerer Sulig (‘Had they been imprisoned here for ever?’ Donald wonders). Each time their emergence from these enclosed spaces signals a return to normal time, a wholesale reorientation under the guidance of their mentor Borrobil, who may lose them occasionally but is always at hand to come to the rescue – independence and agency not being such an attractive option for young readers, perhaps, in the middle of a global war.

Crannog

The most significant form of time in the novel, however, is what might be called story time; the binding together of different elements into a continuous narrative. Borrobil is a storyteller, and always makes sure he has time to tell a story no matter how urgent the business he is caught up in. This is where the Celtic context of the narrative comes to the fore. Scotland has no coherent interrelated body of Celtic texts as Ireland has, and this absence is reflected in the fact that Dickinson never names Scotland as the setting of his novel: one has to infer this from various clues, such as the presence in the landscape of crannogs, standing stones, long barrows and especially brochs, and from the Pictish names ‘Brude’ and ‘Giric’, as well as of the Men of Orc, who are clearly connected to Orkney. Dickinson provides this connecting narrative, linking features of the landscape – Giric’s underground house, the hills with rings round them, fairy rings, standing stones and brochs – to a continuous tale that makes sense of every unexplained phenomenon one might encounter on a stroll through the highlands and islands. I suggested earlier that he treats each feature as a kind of riddle – as with the explanation of the crannog by the presence in the neighbourhood of a dragon who cannot fly or swim, or of the hills with rings as having been caused by the death throes of the same dragon, which had wrapped its tail around them – and this tendency is also reflected in the shorter tales that crop up throughout the narrative. These are full of actual riddles in rhyme (all of them solved by Borrobil) and ingenious ruses performed by tricksters to escape seemingly impossible situations. For much of its length, then, the novel substitutes verbal combat – by riddle or ruse – for armed trail by combat; and even the spear- and swordfights it contains, from the killings of the dragon to the defeat of the invading Norsemen – are won by cunning rather than force. Like Lynch, Dickinson delights in wit and laughter rather than bloodshed, and his invented version of Celtic Scotland is populated by tale-tellers, jokers, singers, punsters and riddle-makers, who use brains instead of armies to defeat their enemies.

Ringed Hillfort

Like Lynch, too, Dickinson peoples his Celtic era with multiple coexisting cultures, in accordance with his views of Celtic Scotland as a historian. Giric is a Pict, and his barrow-like home and fondness for ‘the old customs and the old ways’ identifies him as from a different background from that of his fellow Pict, King Brude. The Men of Orc with their brochs have a different culture from the crannog-building peoples of southern Scotland; the hills are occupied by fairies and the sea by the murderous Blue Men; and it’s never quite clear what culture Borrobil belongs to. Through this diverse landscape of conflicting beliefs and customs Donald and Jean wander, finding a welcome wherever they go and witnessing the defeat of aggressors and invaders of all kinds by their cunning companions. For Dickinson and Lynch, Celticity at its best is a union of heterogeneous peoples, who love the arts – which in Dickinson’s case include the arts of constructing houses and monuments – and especially the ancient art from which their books have been cobbled together, that of telling stories. In both novels, stories come alive and inhabit the same space as their youthful listeners and readers; and in both novels the Celtic connections of the stories link them intimately to the land, with its peat bogs, mountains, lochs and mysterious roadways. Stories bring people of all cultures and ages together, bring the past and present into conversation, hold out the promise of a better future. Few books illustrate this promise better than Borrobil and The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey.

 

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Comedy, Gender and Freedom of Speech in the Plays of Lyly and Marlowe

[I’ve recently been working with Dermot Cavanagh on a special issue of the Journal of the Northern Renaissance in honour of our friend Alison Thorne, who was forced by illness into early retirement. While writing the introduction to the issue I spent some time thinking about Alison’s remarkable academic career, and in particular a major conference she co-organised with Jenny Richards, ‘Renaissance Rhetoric, Gender and Politics’, at the University of Strathclyde, 24-25 April 2003. I gave a keynote at the conference which was never published, although the opening paragraph found a place in my book Shakespeare and Comedy in 2005. On reflection I thought this would be a good moment to publish it here, even if neither play under discussion is precisely fantastic. John Lyly’s Campaspe, at least, is something of a lost book, or at least a lost play, and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part 1 celebrates (or warns against) the political potency of the imagination. That’s fantastic enough for me this afternoon. Here it is, for Alison.]

Comedy in the 1580s was a genre under siege. The assault on the theatre, galvanized into new life by the erection of the first purpose-built playhouse in 1576, was in large part an assault on comedy. For writers of the anti-theatrical movement, playhouses provided a solid foothold in English soil for potential foreign invaders, while the comedies performed in them imported sophisticated and seductive foreign values into a culture that had once prided itself on its simplicity. Comedy softened and feminized the stern minds and muscular bodies of Englishmen in readiness for the imminent return of their wily Catholic colonists from across the water. Comedy was a virus, a debilitating contagion capable of spreading like wildfire from the playhouses on the city’s margins into the heart of the metropolis. And it was also an addiction. As the cleverest of the anti-theatrical writers put it: ‘in Comedies delight being moved with varietie of shewes, of eventes, of musicke, the longer we gaze, the more we crave, yea so forcible they are, that afterwards being but thought upon, they make us seeke for the like an other time’. For this writer – Stephen Gosson – cross-dressing and other comic violations of decorum represent ‘rebellion raysed against reason’ and the ‘lawes of God’. And there is only the shortest of steps between rebellion against God’s laws and insurrection against the state.

Invective against comedy in the 1570s and 80s freely deploys the vocabulary of violence. If the genre is ‘forcible’, rebelling against law and logic, then it must be suppressed by force. Playhouses must be demolished, and the laughter-loving players arrested and aggressively punished for fostering idleness and dissidence among the citizens of London. Yet comedy’s chief offence is that of spreading effeminacy: bringing men closer to women through the twin agencies of desire and disguise, part of a larger theatrical agenda of unsettling gender and class distinctions which will result, the polemicists insist, in the collapse of the English social order. The fusion of the discourse of violence with that of seduction, of ‘male’ aggression with ‘female’ allurement, in the anti-theatrical polemics of the period, is profoundly unsettling for a modern reader. But I’d like to suggest that it was also unsettling for sixteenth-century theatre-goers – writers, players and audiences – and that it had a profound effect on the way comedies got written in the decade before Shakespeare got started as a playwright.

I’d like to suggest, in fact, that the anti-theatrical movement helped to consolidate a tendency already prevalent among English playwrights: that of mixing the comic and the tragic modes for dramatic and political purposes. There were very few ‘pure’ comedies written in English before the late 1590s: ‘pure’, that is, in the technical sense that they dealt exclusively with matters of moderate importance and persons of middling fortunes, having nothing to do with high politics or exalted estates. But the impurity of English comedy was part of what made it both ‘forcible’ and seductive. Comedy, I shall argue, was seen in Elizabethan times as a space where people of the middling sort – people of the class to which the players themselves belonged, who had only limited access to the machinery of power in the Elizabethan state – could engage with matters of moment. It was a platform from which they could address representatives from the whole range of social classes who jostled each other in the streets of the city, and who were forced into still more intimate contact in the crowded space of the playhouse. Comedy was a forum for free speech: and the playwrights of the 1580s were seriously interested in the question of when and how far the licence to speak freely could be made available in a monarchy.

Apelles and Campaspe by Jodocus de Winghe (c. 1600)

I shall make my case by looking at two very different plays from the 1580s: John Lyly’s Campaspe and Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part 1. Despite their obvious differences – one is a comedy, the other a tragedy, one in prose, the other in verse, one written for the court, the other for public performance in a London playhouse – these plays have a lot in common. Each was the first piece written by a major playwright, and each set out to establish that playwright’s dramatic agenda. Both were hugely influential, both played sophisticated games with contemporary theories of the comic, and both are preoccupied to a greater or lesser extent with violence – especially violence against women. Above all, both are concerned to draw attention to their own innovative discourse, parading their distinctive new rhetorical techniques as exceptional instances of the many forms of free speech available to be exploited by educated commoners in the late sixteenth century. These plays, then, are courageous and radical dramatic experiments, whose achievements made possible the astonishing sophistication of Shakespearean comedy in the following decade. As if in direct response to Stephen Gosson’s anti-theatrical polemics – which Lyly, at least, knew well – they both acknowledge and celebrate the danger of getting involved with the theatre; and it’s only by recapturing that sense of danger that we’ll be able to do them justice today.

As Michael Pincombe has pointed out in his seminal book on Lyly’s plays, Campaspe is not a court comedy, though it was published as one by Edmund Blount in the 1630s. Lyly’s plays were not exclusively shown to a courtly audience. Before being presented to the queen they were first staged for an audience of citizens at the ‘private’ indoor theatre known as the Blackfriars playhouse – a more expensive venue than the ‘public’ open-air playhouses – on the pretext that they needed to be thoroughly rehearsed if they were to reach the proper standard for a court performance. And after both sets of performances were over, they were published and read voraciously by a public eager to gain an insight into the current fashions in language and drama among the aristocracy. These plays, then, had a multiple audience, and Lyly’s self-consciousness about his audiences is embodied in Campaspe by the forthright philosopher Diogenes, who combines the roles of clown, entertainer and teacher in a manner that enables him to move freely between very different social levels.

Diogenes and Alexander by Gaetano Gandolfi, 1792

Lyly’s Diogenes operates on two fronts. On the one hand he is a commoner who succeeds in criticizing a king without suffering for it – which is all the more remarkable since the monarch in question is Alexander the Great, famous both for his interest in philosophers and for his readiness to put them to death. On the other hand, Diogenes is a harsh critic of his fellow citizens in the Greek metropolis, Athens, whom he berates in the city market-place for their irresponsibility, moral turpitude, and willingness to encourage their king in his most damaging vices. The philosopher-clown’s unwavering determination to speak openly makes him the personification of libera vox, freedom of speech, as the rhetorician Thomas Wilson conceived it. ‘Freenesse of speache,’ Wilson writes, ‘is when we speake boldely, and without feare, even to the proudest of them, whatsoever we please, or have list to speake. Diogenes,’ he adds, ‘herein did excel, and feared no man when he sawe just cause to saie his mynde. This worlde wanteth suche as he was, and hath over many suche, as never honest man was, that is to say, flatterers, fawners, and southers of mennes saiynges’ (396-7). Far from being a fault, Diogenes’ refusal to honour persons, time or place is a sign of his integrity and courage, and his comic bluntness challenges Alexander to show equal integrity and courage by granting the philosopher a licence to speak as he pleases. The historical Alexander was thought by many to have been assassinated as a direct result of his efforts to silence his critics; as Sir Thomas Elyot put it in his Book Named The Governor, in the context of a detailed discussion of the Macedonian prince: ‘O what damage have ensued to princes and their realms where liberty of speech hath been restrained!’ (108). Lyly’s comedy offers his Elizabethan rulers the opportunity to redress a wrong committed by one of their most illustrious ancient predecessors.

Apelles and Campaspe by Willem van Haecht, c. 1630

Lyly may have created his Diogenes as a direct response to Stephen Gosson’s criticisms of the theatre, which he certainly knew. The fearless philosopher who stages instructive comic performances for all classes serves to demonstrate that a well-made, playful comedy can be as forthright in its denunciation of social corruption as any polemical pamphlet. But Lyly also incorporates into his play an artist who embodies everything Gosson decried in contemporary comedy: the painter Apelles, who is employed by Alexander to paint the woman he has fallen in love with, Campaspe, and who promptly falls in love with her himself. Gosson’s strictures on the obsession of early modern drama with erotic love would seem to be borne out both by Alexander’s love and by Apelles’: by Alexander’s because it distracts him from serious military endeavours, and by Apelles’ because it confirms Gosson’s suspicion that most art is exclusively preoccupied with gratifying the senses at the expense of reason. Indeed, one might argue that Lyly had no choice but to confirm Gosson’s suspicions if his play was to be read as a serious response to Gosson. If Diogenes’ role is to purge the comic space he inhabits from its vices, then in order for him to do this convincingly, Lyly must introduce these vices into his own dramatic production. The philosopher’s Gossonian hostility to erotic love would seem to be confirmed by a short scene in Act 5, where the prostitute Lais encourages the young men of Athens to ‘conquer worldes with great wordes: but stay at home, where in steede of Alarums you shall have daunces, for hot battelles with fierce menne, gentle Skirmishes with fayre womenne’. In response, Diogenes berates her as poisonous carrion; and in the next scene he communicates his misogyny to Alexander, thus preparing him for his eventual abandonment of his temporary role as lover and his return to the theatre of war.

Apelles painting Campaspe by Francesco Trevisani, 1721

But comedy itself is not corrupt in Campaspe as it is in Gosson’s polemic. On the contrary, it’s the king’s willingness to thrust himself ‘by head and shoulders’ into a comic milieu where he does not belong that is the chief cause of anxiety in Lyly’s comedy. Throughout the play, Alexander’s preoccupation with his base-born captive, Campaspe – a prize from his recent conquest of Thebes – is represented as a diversion from his proper business, which is the savage one of conquering other people’s kingdoms. The play represents a space of leisure time in the midst of frenetic military activity: as Alexander puts it in the third act, ‘recreation [is] necessary among so many assaults, bloudye wounds, intollerable troubles: give mee leave a litle, if not to sitte, yet to breath’. But the king’s intervention in the recreational world of comedy brings mortal terror to the practitioners of the arts of peace. He begins by planning to transform his court into a school of philosophy, like the King of Navarre in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. But when interviewing the Athenian philosophers for admission to his school he starts by reminding them of a philosopher who was executed for treason – Callisthenes – and warns them that such a scholar’s ‘treasons againste his prince shall not bee borne out with the reasons of his Phylosophy’. As a result, the philosophers hasten to transform themselves into courtly sycophants, adapting their doctrines to Alexander’s wishes – with the honourable exception of the philosopher-clown Diogenes. Later Alexander tries his hand at painting, and his tutor and love-rival, the painter Apelles, has to use all his tact to criticize his work without giving offence. When the monarch asks ‘how have I done heere?’ the artist replies ‘Like a king’, and Alexander at once takes the real point of what sounds like a compliment: ‘I thinke so: but nothing more unlike a Painter’. Lyly’s point seems to be that governing is an art, but that it does not give governors either the skill or the right to intervene in other arts. And the appeal for artistic freedom in Lyly’s play comes into sharpest focus when Alexander seeks to initiate himself in the art of love.

The king’s decision to fancy himself in love with Campaspe is an unmitigated disaster. For one thing, he thinks – like the Pagan gods he seeks to emulate – that his royal status permits him to do anything to satisfy his desire, since he arrogantly presumes that kingly ‘passions and thoughts do as far exceede others in extremitie, as their callings doe in Majestie’. The fact is, however, that love is an arena in which royal status is more of a hindrance than a help. As his friend Hephestion warns him – after carefully seeking permission to speak openly – a king may command a reluctant subject ‘to yeelde to luste by force; but to consent to love by feare, you cannot’. Campaspe herself later confirms the incompatibility of monarchs with romance: ‘They place affection by times, by pollicie, by appointment; if they frowne, who dares cal them unconstant? if bewray secretes, who will tearme them untrue? if fall to other loves, who trembles not, if he call them unfaithfull?’ Campaspe’s observations are couched in the language of self-censorship that permeates the play: every character except Diogenes spends the entire action engaged in elaborate efforts to avoid giving verbal offence to the irascible conqueror. The soldiers Clitus and Parmenio, for instance, take the view that the king’s love affair has feminized his people, much as Gosson held that the theatre had feminized the English people. As Parmenio puts it, ‘youthes that were woont to carry devises of victory in their shieldes, engrave now posies of love in their ringes: they that were accustomed on trotting horses to charge the enimy with a launce, now in easie coches ride up and downe to court Ladies; in steede of sword and target to hazard their lives, use pen and paper to paint their loves’. But the two soldiers never dare to express these thoughts openly, for reasons Parmenio explains earlier: ‘kinges… have long eares and stretched armes, in whose heades suspition is a proofe, and to be accused is to be condemned’. In other words, Alexander’s misplaced love makes him a tyrant in that he becomes deaf to the voices of his subjects. And it also makes Apelles a traitor for exercising the faculty he is best qualified to practise: the judgement of beauty.

Apelles painting Campaspe, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1740

One of Lyly’s favourite authors, Baldassare Castiglione, argued in his Book of the Courtier that Apelles was a better judge of Campaspe’s beauty than Alexander could ever be, and suggested that it was ‘perhaps also for this respect’ that the king ‘determined to bestow her upon him, that (in his mind) could know her more perfectly than he did’ (82). Castiglione also suggested that Campaspe probably felt aggrieved at being forced to exchange ‘so great a king for a painter’. But in Lyly’s play she reciprocates Apelles’ feelings, conscious that a man of her own class is a safer match for her than royalty, and convinced that the painter’s love ‘commeth from the heart, but Alexanders from the mouth’. Lyly’s Apelles certainly appreciates beauty: when Alexander asks him in Act 2 if he has yet finished his famous painting of the goddess of beauty, Venus, he replies ‘Not yet: Bewty is not so soone shadowed, whose perfection commeth not within the compasse either of cunning or of colour’. Later he tells Alexander that he will never finish painting Campaspe, ‘for alwayes in absolute bewtie there is somwhat above arte’. But Apelles is being over-modest; he does in fact finish painting Campaspe to his satisfaction, and thinks her portrait superior to Pygmalion’s image. But he is also driven, both by his desire to see her again and by his fear of revealing this desire to the king, to damage his own painting so that she will sit for him a second time. Lyly agrees with Gosson, then, as well as with Castiglione, that it is the business of art to enhance our appreciation of bodily beauty. But unlike Gosson he implies that this only becomes dangerous when the powerful begin to make unreasonable claims on the artist and his materials: when they profess, for instance, absolute power over the minds, bodies and emotions of their subjects, or when they presume to dictate the way art should be practised. Art is a middle-class activity – just as Apelles and his model Campaspe are middle-class lovers – and the interference of rulers in its affairs makes it as deformed as Apelles’ damaged painting.

Apelles painting Campaspe, by Joos van Winghe (1544–1603)

At the end of Lyly’s play Alexander comes at last to recognize these facts and to affirm his regal distance from, and mild disdain for, the emotional terrain which is part of the artist’s territory. From now on, he says, he will restrict himself to ‘using fancy as a foole to make him sport, or a minstrell to make him mery’. In saying so he claims to have achieved another conquest: as Hephestion admiringly tells him, ‘The conquering of Thebes was not so honourable as the subdueing of these thoughts’. But in fact Alexander has egregiously failed to master the various arts of peace at which he has tried his hand in the course of the action; and only a few lines earlier he has confessed that he ‘cannot subdue the affections of men, though he can conquer their countries’. Art and love, and above all the comedy or tragicomedy in which Lyly dealt with these topics, have been shown both to inhabit a space beyond the control of governors, and to be capable of probing the doings of the governing classes. To put it another way, in comedy the king, the player, and the acerbic social commentator are equals, as Alexander again confesses when he makes his famous remark about the philosopher-clown: ‘were I not Alexander, I wolde wishe to be Diogenes’.

This was a bold statement for Lyly to make in his first court comedy. Perhaps he felt impelled to make it because he was writing at the time when a court official had been given new powers over the censorship and regulation of the English stage. The official was the Master of the Revels, a post that Lyly seems at one time to have wanted for himself; and the Master appointed in 1581 was Edmund Tilney, who remained in charge of licensing plays for performance throughout most of Shakespeare’s career. If the new powers granted to Tilney represented the court’s attempt to impose its stamp on contemporary drama, then Lyly’s Campaspe might be seen as the dramatists’ defiant response: at once confirming and dismissing Gosson’s fears about contemporary comedy, defining the limits of Tilney’s censorial activities, and proclaiming the courage, independence and value of the voice of the middle-class dramatist as a restraining (but delightful) influence on both court and city.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Campaspe was one of the most influential plays of the 1580s, and that its influence went well beyond the ‘private’ theatre of the court and the Blackfriars playhouse. Lyly’s wittily outspoken drama straddling court and city gave Shakespeare and his immediate predecessors a model for the production of dramatic texts that could successfully negotiate both spheres. But Lyly’s range as a playwright was relatively limited, curtailed, no doubt, by his sense of his social position – as a gentleman born, a descendant of eminent educators, and a man who hoped for a reward at the queen’s hands which in fact never came. His humbler characters are for the most part oddly static, signalling, by their willingness to let events take their course, that they pose no real threat to royal authority (indeed, in one of his most celebrated plays – Endimion – the protagonist spends most of the play fast asleep). At the other end of the social scale, kings and queens in his plays always decide for themselves what to do about the situations in which they find themselves, and make it clear that they will always disregard their counsellors when their advice proves unpalatable. As we’ve seen, Campaspe self-consciously inhabits a space that is not the main sphere of political action: if it defines a privileged platform for comic free speech at court, it’s one that is decorously segregated from serious acts of government such as law-giving, war, or political debate. Although one gets the sense that Diogenes could intervene in these areas should he choose to do so, it’s equally plain that in this play, at least, he does not.

The Theatre playhouse, by C. Walter Hodges

The plays written for the new purpose-built public theatres, by contrast, insist on their political centrality. Although the playhouses themselves occupied only a limited and marginal geographical area – because of the hostility of the city authorities they had to be built in the suburbs of London – the plays performed in them cover a dizzying expanse of the world’s surface, as if to articulate the players’ triumphant sense of having finally colonized a plot of land in the name of drama. From the city of London itself, to which a number of plays in the 1580s presumptuously offer advice, to the vast fields of Europe, Africa and Asia, the fixed space of the stage showed itself able and willing imaginatively to take on the properties of the most powerful cities and states on earth at crucial moments in their history. From 1575, when the Theatre playhouse was erected in Shoreditch, Elizabethan drama increasingly declared its ambition to throw off the shackles of decorum and take the Globe as its subject. And this ambition was carried well beyond the walls of the theatre buildings by the touring versions of the plays that roamed the far-flung provinces of England and Europe.

Discarding restrictions of space inevitably also entailed discarding restrictions of time; and not just in the sense of flouting the dramatic unities favoured by followers of Aristotle. For the anti-theatrical lobby, the very existence of the playhouse buildings constituted a violation of the authorities’ bid to control urban space and time, whose regulation was always being disrupted by wayward servants and recalcitrant apprentices. The 1580s and 1590s witnessed a busy exchange of letters between the city authorities and the Privy Council of Elizabeth I, many of which are dominated by the topic of the players’ refusal to keep to the days of the week and times of the day for which they have been licensed. In this as in all things, complained the Mayor and Aldermen of the city, modern players run ‘Contrary to the rules and art prescribed for the makinge of Comedies eaven amonge the Heathen, who used them seldom and at certen sett tymes, and not all the year longe as our manner is’ (Chambers 322). Performances during working hours or on Sundays ‘draw apprentices and other servauntes from theire ordinary workes and all sortes of people from the resort unto sermons and other Christian exercises’; while performance ‘In the time of sicknes’ – during outbreaks of plague – helps to accelerate the spread of infection through the city streets. If Elizabethan comedies show something of an obsession with the notion of bad timing they are merely responding – on one level at least – to the stock prejudices of the anti-theatrical lobby concerning the flagrant disregard for proper time-keeping among players and their audiences.

Marlowe by anonymous

Geographical expansiveness is of course the hallmark of the drama of Christopher Marlowe, whose career began with the irruption onto the public stage of a would-be global conquistador still more bloody, uninhibited and eloquent than Alexander, Tamburlaine – who is also, and perhaps not coincidentally, surnamed ‘the Great’ in the title of Marlowe’s play. Marlowe was the greatest dramatic poet of time misspent, whose Tragical History of Doctor Faustus boldly violates all temporal and spatial restrictions on drama, only to confront its own chronological limitations in Faustus’ last soliloquy, every line of which represents a minute of his last hour. But Marlowe was also one of the boldest innovators in the field of comedy: his skilful provocation of horrified laughter at moments of high emotional tension was one of the most important dramatic techniques he bequeathed to Shakespeare. Instances of such laughter abound, whether provoked by the impish Barabas in The Jew of Malta, who gleefully poisons convents full of nuns, strangles friars, and tricks amorous young men into assassinating one another (‘brave sport!’) before being killed by one of his own murderous practical jokes; or by the Guise’s jocular stabbings of Protestants in The Massacre at Paris. In Marlowe’s plays this horrified laughter is not only not segregated from royalty; it is omnipresent in royal courts, where the misplaced humour of monarchs often proves as fatal to them as to their subjects. King Henry of France in The Massacre at Paris, for instance, cracks an obscene joke that goads the Guise into assassinating one of his royal favourites – the first in a chain of assassinations that ends with Henry’s death; while in Edward II the king and his lover Gaveston arouse the deadly resentment of Mortimer by making fun of his dress sense. ‘Whiles other walk below,’ Mortimer complains, the two men ‘From out a window laugh at such as we, / And flout our train, and jest at our attire. Uncle, ’tis this makes me impatient.’

Laughter in Marlowe’s plays, in other words, is an invaluable tool both for those who wish to seize power and for those who wish to assert the power they already possess; but it’s above all a litmus test of a person’s hold on power. Those who laugh at their enemies with impunity have their authority resoundingly confirmed; but those whose ill-judged laughter stings their enemies into successful retaliation find their ascendancy irretrievably damaged. Laughter and the responses it provokes unerringly seeks out the cracks and fissures in any given hierarchy and helps to prize them open. Shakespeare took full advantage of this principle in his dramatic explorations of English history; but it was Marlowe who gave the principle its most provocative demonstration, in his first play for the public stage, Tamburlaine 1.

From one point of view, Tamburlaine 1 can be read as a stupendous revision of Campaspe. Marlowe’s Scythian shepherd turned warrior is an over-inflated pastiche of Lyly’s Alexander, and this is nowhere more obvious than in his treatment of his captives. Lyly’s play takes place in the aftermath of Alexander’s conquest of Thebes, and opens by stressing the merciful treatment of his prisoners by the Macedonian monarch: ‘Thebes is rased, the people not racked, towers throwne down, bodies not thrust aside, a conquest without conflict, and a cruell warre in a milde peace’. As Michael Pincombe has shown, this account is profoundly unhistorical – the real sack of Thebes was remarkable for its ruthlessness – and in Tamburlaine Marlowe’s base-born barbarian dedicates himself systematically to violating the chivalric code followed by Lyly’s more ‘civil’ protagonist, as if to underscore the true workings of power in history.

Tamburlaine’s treatment of women prisoners, in particular, is the reverse of Alexander’s. It’s true that both men profess to have fallen in love with one of their female captives, and that in both plays they are said to have refrained from exercising the ancient prerogative of the male victor, which is to rape as well as to pillage (though it should be added that Campaspe lives in perpetual fear of rape, and that Tamburlaine is at one point accused of having raped Zenocrate – a claim he denies and she does not). But where Alexander was merciful to the painter Apelles when he too fell in love with Campaspe, Tamburlaine shows no mercy to his rivals, killing both Zenocrate’s Arabian fiancé and the noble who seeks to remind her of their betrothal. Where Alexander spares all his women captives without exception, Tamburlaine expresses his sense of Zenocrate’s uniqueness by killing or driving to suicide every other female prisoner he takes in the course of the play. Where Alexander finally shows himself superior to love’s force by giving Campaspe away, Tamburlaine expresses his command over love by keeping Zenocrate for himself in defiance of kings and emperors. Alexander’s courtesy to Campaspe is an instance of noblesse oblige, and ends with the pair’s due restoration to their proper social positions. The Scythian shepherd’s courtesy to his captive princess, by contrast, is a token of his conviction that nobility consists not in birth but in action – a conviction that the play triumphantly vindicates. Zenocrate did not exist in any of Marlowe’s possible sources; she seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of inviting comparisons with Campaspe, the best play that had so far been written for the English stage. That a play written for the public playhouse should have shown itself so much fiercer and bolder than its courtly predecessor must have struck Marlowe’s first audiences as a testament to the young playwright’s impudence as well as to his skill.

For all its tragicomic elements, Campaspe keeps itself within the bounds of comedy by practising a moderation which is articulated in the balanced clauses of Lyly’s prose style. Tamburlaine, on the other hand, is bursting at the seams with the language and action of excess, yet wittily refrains from fulfilling the tragic expectations it builds up. If Campaspe is a bold generic experiment, Tamburlaine is an outrageous one, and its experimental nature seems to have been recognized by its first publisher, Richard Jones. Jones first entered the play in the Stationer’s Register as one of ‘The twooe commicall discourses of TOMBERLEIN the Cithian shepparde’, and although he later published these as ‘the two tragical discourses of the Scythian shepherd Tamburlaine’, he seems to have done some pruning to make Marlowe’s plays as generically pure as he wanted them to be. In his epistle to the Gentlemen Readers he explains that he has left out ‘some fond and frivolous gestures’ because for these comic scenes ‘to be mixtured in print with such matter of worth, it would prove a great disgrace to so honourable and stately a history’. Yet even with these scenes left out – and the ‘fond and frivolous’ middle scenes of Dr Faustus might give us some idea of what they were like – Tamburlaine 1 remains mixed enough, generically speaking, to be described as a ‘great disgrace’ to history’s claims to be ‘honourable and stately’.

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine

The play’s tragicomic affiliations declare themselves on two levels: that of plot and that of language. On the level of plot, the play strays into comic territory because of its refusal to honour the tragic conventions it claims to respect (as the Prologue puts it, ‘View but his picture in this tragic glass / And then applaud his fortunes as you wish’). At each stage of the performance the Elizabethan audience, primed to expect the fall of great men as the proper subject of tragedy, would have been anticipating the sudden collapse of Tamburlaine’s inordinate enterprise: above all after the death of his principal prisoner Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks, when Zenocrate reads Bajazeth’s corpse as a sign that his captor Tamburlaine is about to suffer the same atrocious fate. But Tamburlaine 1 confounds all these expectations as gleefully as it builds them up. The successive deaths of the virgins of Damascus, Bajazeth, Zabena, the King of Arabia and the rest are followed not by the death of their destroyer but by his marriage celebrations, which he defers with admirable comic timing from the first act until the play’s last scene. The play closes with the Scythian thief standing among the corpses of his enemies, surrounded by the happy family he has worked so strenuously to create: Zenocrate, her father, and his brothers in arms, now newly made kings and ready to assist at Tamburlaine’s wedding. Far from showing how men’s fate resides in the grip of fortune, as tragedies were supposed to do, the play’s tragic ‘mirror’ finally sets up its protagonist as the ultimate showman, who controls every aspect of the performance in which he takes part, and who uses his last few speeches to convert the play’s bloody pageant into a nuptial masque as splendid as anything seen in the Elizabethan court. It’s entertaining to imagine the shocked delight such an ending would have instilled in its first spectators, and the baffled applause that may have followed.

On the level of language, the Prologue to Part 1 offers a foretaste of the fiercely competitive form of humour that dominates the Tamburlaine plays. By comparison with the ‘high astounding terms’ of its protagonist, the Prologue boasts, the language of other plays is no better than that used in the crudest form of comedy, the song-and-dance numbers or ‘jigs’ improvised by clowns at the end of each performance:

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.

Alongside his ‘high astounding terms’, Tamburlaine exploits laughter to put down his rivals – as the Prologue does – mocking them into submission and death. But in doing so he is merely the most successful player of a deadly game of mockery in which most of Marlowe’s characters participate; and the chief target for this cruel mirth is the class which is supposed to be wholly exempt from the indignities of comic treatment: royalty. Tamburlaine 1 opens with perhaps the most flagrant flouting of decorum in English stage history, the portrait of the clownish king Mycetes, who is openly derided by his subjects, then dethroned by them. According to the rules of rhetorical decorum, kings should speak more splendidly than anyone else, so that Mycetes’s opening lines – ‘Brother Cosroe, I find myself aggrieved, / Yet insufficient to express the same’ – would have struck a first-night audience as hilariously inappropriate. Mycetes’s brother Cosroe is the most derisory of his inferiors, undermining his authority at every opportunity with jokes at his expense – at one point he tells the king to ‘kiss’ his ‘royal seat’ – and contemptuously enlisting the common thief Tamburlaine to dethrone him and crown Cosroe in his place. But Tamburlaine knows vastly more than Cosroe about the power of laughter to reinforce and undermine authority, and applies this knowledge mercilessly at the expense of monarchs throughout his astonishing career.

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine

Both Tamburlaine plays culminate in scenes where kings are reduced to the status of comic entertainers. In the first, Tamburlaine declares that he and his followers made Cosroe king ‘only to make us sport,’ and will snatch his newly-won crown from him in the interests of pulling off a ‘pretty jest’. Later, the Emperor of Turkey is paraded in an iron cage and ritually mocked at mealtimes like a licensed fool (‘How now, Zenocrate, doth not the Turk and his wife make a goodly show at a banquet?’). In Tamburlaine 2 the kings of Trebizond, Soria, Natolia and Jerusalem are absurdly transformed into ‘pampered jades of Asia’, pulling Tamburlaine’s chariot with tongues bridled to stifle their curses. The Asian kings had meant, we learn, to make Tamburlaine and his followers ‘jesting pageants’ for their concubines, and are now become comic displays themselves, while ‘common soldiers jest with all their trulls’. Thus Tamburlaine turns the tables on monarchy, deploying its own potent weapon of ‘jesting’ against it, caging those who once had a monopoly on the use of cages, binding the tongues of those who once claimed absolute control over the tongues of their subjects. And in doing so he bears out all the direst predictions of the anti-theatrical lobby.

As we have seen, sixteenth-century theorists declared comedy to be the special province of the lower social classes, a rhetorical tool that could be exercised anywhere and at any time without special training. In consequence, many of these theorists warned against mingling the classes in comic performances for fear of destabilizing the distinctions between them. Comedy was fenced in with rules to guard against the spread of its characteristic rulelessness; anarchic though it was, there were fixed times and places when the comic could be unleashed, and proper audiences before whom it could be performed. But the base-born Tamburlaine, with his dazzling skill in formal rhetoric and his cruel sense of humour, makes a mockery of the constraints placed on the eloquence of the humbly born. His violent strain of comedy, flouting all regulations of persons, time or place, effortlessly bridging the artificial gulf that separates the classes, demolishes the claims of teachers and their aristocratic pupils to have a monopoly on the language of power. In Tamburlaine’s rhetoric, incitements to laughter seamlessly merge with the most highly-charged incitements to emotion or political action. The old moral interludes tended to separate the two registers by embodying them in different characters: the comic Vice was not the same person as the king, although he might occasionally share the stage with him. Campaspe, too, has two distinct modes, separating Alexander’s dialogues with philosophers and artists from the cheerful banter of the boys who serve them. Tamburlaine, by contrast, switches between the comic and the tragic within a few lines, or mixes the modes in a single speech. In one moment he is condemning the Virgins of Damascus to execution with a callous pun, instructing his lieutenant Techelles to ‘charge’ his cavalry to ‘charge’ the virgins with their phallic spears, thus acquainting them simultaneously with sex and death; in the next he has embarked on one of the most eloquent celebrations of beauty in Renaissance literature. As with all tyrants, his mood dictates that of his environment, and we can never be sure what mood he will be in from one sentence to the next. And as the anti-theatrical lobby predicted, this emotional volatility declares a kind of war both on Elizabethan generic theory and on the system of hereditary monarchy which it is supposed to underpin.

Tamburlaine’s cheekiest interventions in the war over the theatres occur when he appears to take Gosson’s side against poetry and the performing arts. The Scythian justifies the killing of the Virgins of Damascus, for instance, in terms that recall Gosson’s attack on the theatre and its capacity to feminize its male spectators. After asking his lieutenant whether they have been satisfactorily despatched he observes:

I will not spare these proud Egyptians,
Nor change my martial observations
For all the wealth of Gihon’s golden waves,
Or for the love of Venus, would she leave
The angry god of arms and lie with me.

Tamburlaine, in other words, sets himself against the ‘feminizing’ effects of sex and excess as vigorously as Gosson could desire. But he also takes Gosson’s praise for the militarism of Britain’s past to an abominably logical conclusion: the indiscriminate butchering of young women in the name of peremptory military ‘customs’. And in the second part he goes still further, butchering his own son (‘this effeminate brat’) for manifesting the ‘folly, sloth, and damned idleness’ which Gosson said had been instilled in young Englishmen by contemporary theatrical spectacle. The son in question, Calyphas, is a devotee of the comic arts of peace – sex and games – as against the tragic or epic arts of war, and his death fulfils Gosson’s ambition to expunge the invidious influence of comedy from the body of the land. Marlowe could hardly have launched a more scathing attack on the perverse notion of masculinity that informed the Elizabethan anti-theatrical prejudice than he does in the two Tamburlaine plays.

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine, Keith Randolph Smith as Techelles

But Tamburlaine also claims to have command over the comic, ‘feminine’ arts of peace as well as over the epic/tragic, ‘masculine’ arts of war. He makes this claim most clearly in the speech that follows the massacre of the Virgins of Damascus, where he claims to have created, in his capacity as director of the play’s action, the perfect conditions under which to appreciate the beauty of Zenocrate. It’s when weeping in distress for her country and her father, who are threatened by Tamburlaine, that she is at her most aesthetically pleasing – or in Tamburlaine’s terms, that she fights most fiercely with the Scythian’s ‘tempted thoughts’. This idea leads to a discussion of beauty which bears a close resemblance to Apelles’ meditations on the subject in Campaspe. The discussion begins with a direct quotation from Lyly’s second play, Sapho and Phao – ‘Fair is too foul an epithet for thee’ – and culminates with the statement that beauty is finally beyond representation by the verbal artistry of poets, since in it there is always ‘One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least, / Which into words no virtue can digest’. Lyly’s Apelles is in agreement concerning the limitations of art when copying beauty, since to do justice to Campaspe he must learn to paint ‘things unpossible for mine arte, but agreeable with my affections: deepe and hollowe sighes, sadde and melancholye thoughtes, wounds and slaughters of conceites, a life posting to death, a death galloping from life, a wavering constancie, an unsetled resolution, and what not, Apelles?’ As a warrior, however, Tamburlaine is able to realize Apelles’ metaphors of battle as a poet or painter is not. Half way through his speech, shocked by his own vulnerability to the ‘feminine’ emotions that he has hitherto abjured, he resorts for a moment to Gossonian misogyny:

But how unseemly is it for my sex,
My discipline of arms and chivalry,
My nature, and the terror of my name,
To harbour thoughts effeminate and faint!

But he at once changes his mind, and concludes that by admitting himself to be susceptible to desire while at the same time refusing to be distracted by it from his military purpose he shows himself superior to the ancient gods, whose appetite for sex was notorious. Desire brought the ancient gods down to earth ‘To feel the lovely warmth of shepherd’s flames’. Tamburlaine’s love, on the other hand, raises him from his lowly status as shepherd to a position high above the ancient gods, reversing the degrading effect of desire that Gosson had objected to so strongly throughout his polemical pamphlets. The Scythian’s ability to transcend his birth offers the ultimate proof that virtue, not heredity is the ‘sum of glory, / And fashions men with true nobility’. Lyly’s Alexander claimed to have conquered love but in fact left it to be enjoyed by the lower classes. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, by contrast, is right to claim a triumph over love as one of his conquests, since his response to Zenocrate serves as an illustration of his ability to transcend both class and genre. By loving fame, victory and Zenocrate with equal passion he finally destroys the distinction between the comic and the epic which Lyly’s Alexander sought to reinstate at the end of the earlier tragicomedy. He confirms the potential of Marlowe’s class – Marlowe was the son of a cobbler from Canterbury – to emulate his achievements in word and action, at least within the space of the playhouse. And Gosson was not the only one of Marlowe’s contemporaries to assume that what was represented in the playhouse had a direct effect on what went on beyond it. Taken together, Campaspe and Tamburlaine 1 show just how sophisticated the theory and practice of comedy, and of the interplay between the comic and other modes, had become by the 1580s. By bringing comedy into close contact with other genres or modes, especially tragedy, Lyly and Marlowe helped to intensify the power of the comic voice, making it a more incisive tool for anatomizing contemporary politics and culture. Lyly’s Campaspe confirms comedy’s role as a major forum for free speech available to educated commoners, which could address both court and city on political and social issues with equal confidence. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine confirmed the conviction of the anti-theatrical lobby that the comic could be exploited even by the unschooled under-classes as an adjunct to political agitation. In fact, both writers fulfil the potential of comedy as a significant weapon in the class conflict of the late sixteenth century: a conflict that had become more ferocious as schools and universities made themselves available to a wider range of social groups. Lyly and Marlowe were young men who had attended university, been given a rhetorical training which was explicitly designed to prepare them for participation in government, and then found themselves in limbo, with no certain job prospects and no clear notion of how best to make use of their training. Tragical comedy – or in Marlowe’s case, comical tragedy – gave them a space in which to articulate their frustrations, to convert them into a kind of action. And who knew how far the action instigated in a private or public playhouse might spread?

Tamburlaine’s Mausoleum, Samarkand. I visited in 1991.

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The Outer Circle

Eighteen years after leaving Old Earth I’ve made planetfall, and my ship has fallen silent.

Can you understand what that means to me? For the first time in eighteen years the cabin has ceased to throb to the pulse of the generators. Throughout my life I’ve been so accustomed to engine-noises that they have been my silence. Now one by one new silences are entering the cabin. I sit very still and listen as I’ve never done before.

The first thing I notice is the hum of the blood in my ears, very far away like a little lost astronaut singing in space. Behind the hum I hear the silence of the cabin, a small silence often interrupted by the creaking of my space-suit as I shift in the pilot’s chair. Beyond this small silence, beyond the red-hot hull of the ship I hear a larger silence, the hush of expectation after my rockets have blasted a pit in the soil of this wild planet. And behind that larger silence if I strain my ears and hold my breath I can detect the largest silence of all: the quiet of deep space, the endless noiselessness in which the occurrence of galaxies and nebulae are no more than the squeaks and scuffles of insects in an empty room.

Have you noticed the insects? With all our sprays and toxins we’ve never managed to kill them off. There’s an ant crawling over the instrument panel even as I talk. It must have accompanied me from the beginning of my journey, along with germs, fleas, microbes, perhaps even mice. This ship is a miniature world teeming with life, which I haven’t even thought about till now, when I’m about to leave it.

As you can guess, I’m talking to kill time. I’m trying to put off the moment when I must leave the ship.

My ship rests in the centre of the pit she has made, like a severed hand reclining on outspread fingers. Above her I’m intensely conscious of an absence. This planet has no armoured ceiling like the one that protects my own world from the stars. There is only a sky as blue as the ones in stories, and above that the vacuum through which I’ve fallen for so many years: layer upon layer of space, each layer retaining a discarded husk of my former self. And now I lack courage to enter the airlock and open the outer hatch.

The measure of civilization is the number of layers between a man and his confrontation with himself. By that measure I’m now a thousand times more savage than I was when I took off. Often in the last part of my journey I stood in front of the cabinet that contains the only mirror on board, never daring to open the door and inspect my face.

In the early days I made a point of meeting my own eyes each morning, knowing I would soon have other eyes to meet. Let me remind myself of what I saw when I first looked in the mirror. My head was almost spherical, with a few lank hairs decorating the scalp. My cheeks were two quivering fields of flesh, irrigated by a network of tiny veins. Little lost eyes half-buried in folds of fat peeped timidly from the shadow of my shapeless nose. A series of miniature mountain-ranges supported my chin. Yes, despite all my sufferings I retained a degree of the elegant obesity I possessed in the prime of my youth.

But as the pressures of travel began to show I became frightened of seeing myself. I wasn’t afraid of human contact as most men might have been; space quickly inured me to strange company. I was afraid because I was beginning to change. No, I must be specific; before I leave the ship I must strip off the last layer of civilization and tell the truth, no matter how it hurts. I’ve become emaciated. I’ve sat helpless in my seat as the light of unknown suns burned away the layers of corpulence, the hanging gardens, the orchards, the rich pastures of my body. I’ve watched in horror as my noble bulk shrivelled to bone and sinew. I’m sorry to use those obscene words, bone and sinew, but I want to stress the irony of it. Before I left old Earth I was the most respected body builder in my segment, I had won prizes for Weight Gain and Fat Cultivation, my digestive tracts were the subject of dissertations; even after I’d passed my prime the media as the very picture of an intergalactic hero. Yet here I am at the end of my quest, shrunk to the dimensions of a common rent-boy!

I’m thin!

I never knew what the word meant before. Oh, I’m no innocent, I’ve seen thin bodies in my time. When I was a kid we were always tampering with the school computer, switching programmes while the robo-tutor wasn’t looking so as to pass porno-pics of skeletal nudes from screen to screen. But never in my most fevered nightmares would I have imagined that I might one day be reminded of those living skeletons by looking at my own magnificent body. Never, never would I have believed that I myself could be thin.

I must stay calm. I’ll try to think of something positive. I’ll think about my heroism.

But am I really such a hero? Heroes perform grand, simple feats which everyone understands. Do you understand what I’m doing, you citizens of old Earth? All you know about my mission is what you’ve seen on the visiscreen; and how many of you are still capable of following a coherent sequence of visual signs? After a lifetime’s viewing all the average citizen sees on the screen is the dance of innumerable coloured dots. I’m afraid mankind no longer possesses the concept of reality.

I’ve often mulled over the details of my take-off, and they only add to my uncertainty about my heroism. You’ve seen the newsreels: I was given a hero’s farewell. Even now I love to remember it. The ship rests on the long disused launching-pad of the Middle Circle as if balancing the earth on its fingertips. Dignitaries and statesmen throng the tarmac; when I appear in the door of the Film Academy they wave their tiny arms and burst into feeble cheers. Flags snap, fireworks explode in torrents of shooting stars, cameras flash, a thousand synthesisers strike up a martial symphony. I waddle down miles of undulating carpet, showered at every step with honours (those little greasy cakes with which a hero is expected to cram his jaws until his stomach rebels and he throws up, saluting his rapturous audience with a stream of multicoloured vomit).

But details jar. A faint atmosphere of seediness pervades the event. On close inspection I see that the dignitaries aren’t real; they’re battered plastic models left over from the last local election, their cheers and waves operated by teams of hidden puppeteers. When I look carefully I can spot the puppeteers at a bank of keyboards behind the cameras on my right. The robots which bustle to serve cocktail canapés are rusty and the canapés covered in mould. By the time I reach the ship and turn for a final wave the carpet has already been rolled up. Beetles fall out of it and dust rises in clouds. Puppeteers, cameramen and producers stand around knee-deep in conversation, which the robots spread for them in quivering and aromatic gobbets. The artificial dignitaries remain fixed in mid-cheer, their eyes shining with the hope and joy inspired in humanity by my glorious mission. I suspect now that my send-off was only a low-budget production.

And was it really heroism that made me undertake the mission? Perhaps I have really retained an unhealthy adolescent obsession with thinness, as the tabloids were quick to insinuate. It’s true that I first heard of the Third World while watching an obscene programme about ‘slimming’, but I don’t usually indulge myself with such trash. I’d fallen asleep in front of the visiscreen after a heavy meal and the programme came up before I’d fully recovered consciousness. I watched in stupefaction for a few minutes as a cavalcade of dancers who had starved themselves for erotic effect capered across the screen, flaunting their ribs. After a while I realized that the presenter was no longer discussing the more tasteless methods of weight-loss. Instead he’d turned to another subject likely to appeal to his target audience of freaks and perverts: the discovery of a new world in another solar system, whose entire population was starving.

The idea of the Third World gripped me at once. The planet had been given its name by the tabloids, who had taken it from banned pornographic documentaries of the distant past, when an entire section of the earth’s population was kept undernourished for the titillation of the rich. Although I can’t stand the tabloids – I find them indigestible, and much prefer to munch my way through a good broadsheet – the name was well chosen, since the planet might easily have been lifted bodily from a roll of ancient film. It was entirely populated by skeletal savages whose livelihood still depended on the cycle of the seasons. I was entranced by descriptions of its jungles where real wild animals prowled, its oceans filled with living fish, its grasses cropped by innumerable herds and its grain harvest which shrivelled year after year under the pitiless heat of a genuine sun. I think my excitement stemmed from the sheer range of activity still available to the planet’s inhabitants; and I don’t just mean sexual activity. You see, I’m a romantic, a lover of solid old-fashioned adventure movies rather than the interminable soaps consumed by most of my friends; and sordid though it may seem, adventures are best undertaken by thin people. You may call me retrogressive, but I’ve always maintained that adventures lose their credibility when the hero weighs eight hundred pounds and possesses only rudimentary arms and legs. Adventures need limbs, and whatever else the people of the Third World lacked they possessed limbs of great length and mobility. I began to think of the Third World as a planet of adventure, a scented wilderness where every night was one of the Thousand and One Nights. I would fall asleep dreaming of a slender Third World Scheherezade, who sat cross-legged in my cubicle and unfolded endless interlocking stories, each one more labyrinthine than the last. I never dreamed I might one day be Sindbad.

While I was watching the programme I did not ask myself how its makers had come to hear of the Third World; I half suspected that the whole thing was merely a far-fetched erotic fantasy. But later I learned that the programme had been based on fact. A visitor had arrived from the planet only a few days before it was made. Images of him appeared on every channel – tastefully blurred so as not to shock the fastidious, for he was thinner than the most obsessive slimmer; and again and again we heard the tale of his arrival. Out of the void an unknown ship had burst, blasting its way through our derelict security systems. Its powerful rockets punched a hole in the Outer Circle and it landed with a terrible roar on the roof of the Film Academy. We heard how the hatch had opened and a limp figure had tumbled out, crawled a few metres, gasped a few words, collapsed and died. The words had been picked up by one of the Academy’s ubiquitous mikes, and these too we heard again and again: halting, harsh, incomprehensible. Interpreters told us that the visitor had appealed for food and technological aid for his starving people, and that he had offered his ship for the use of any volunteer who would undertake this mission of mercy. The ship could be inspected on a dozen different channels, dented and blackened by its interplanetary voyage.

To my surprise it haunted both my dreams and waking hours, that vessel in the likeness of an open hand, its fingers spread in supplication. I would spread my own chubby fingers to resemble it and lay them on the visiscreen, and the touch of the cold glass with the ship seemingly so close on the other side would send shudders through my flanks. For a while the rest of the world seemed as interested as I was. Celebrities appealed for volunteers to deliver the promised supplies; movies about glorious and mostly unsuccessful rescue attempts dominated the late-night slots; baseball caps with HAND AID on the front flooded the market. But very soon the ship was forgotten and the usual soaps and pornographic documentaries returned to the screen. I woke up one afternoon with a jerk, realizing that I hadn’t seen an image of the ship for days, and worse, that I’d stopped dreaming about it. My heart was beating wildly, nausea clung to the back of my throat, a sudden vision of the endless succession of days to come flashed before my mind’s eye. I was terrified that my dreams of adventure had vanished forever. That was when I decided to volunteer. No courage involved; just a dream I longed to recapture. No pride either, though that came later; simply a huge and shapeless fear like the one that grips me now. Perhaps huge and shapeless fear is the stuff heroes are made of.

I know now that I took the denizens of the Outer Circle by surprise. I know that they regarded the ship, the visitor, the message, as an eccentric joke, a brief alleviation of their all-encompassing boredom. They had given no instructions regarding the treatment of volunteers. In the absence of such instructions, I learned later, the World Computer took matters into its own hands. It devised a rigorous training programme which almost killed me before I set out. And it issued me with an invitation to visit the Outer Circle.

The Outer Circle! Largest and most exclusive of the Circles that imprison the withered Earth inside their vast revolving cage. What visions do the words conjure up in your mind? Perhaps you imagine golden halls paved with precious stones, trestle-tables groaning with roast meats and bursting fruits, all the infinite variety of tastes, smells and sensations that have long ago vanished from Old Earth. Perhaps you imagine pools of cool water where your bloated bodies can float in everlasting serenity, forgetful of the torments they suffered as you pumped them full of hyper-nutrients in your efforts to gain the weight required for promotion to the upper levels of society. But what do you really know about the Outer Circle? Nothing but what your dreams reveal to you.

The Outer Circle is the storehouse of the dreams of humanity, just as the Inner Circle is the repository of its foodstuffs and the Middle Circle the location of its automated administration, as well as of the fabled Film Academy. In ancient times the Earth was said to lie at the centre of a nest of concentric spheres. Each sphere was made of crystal, and each contributed its own musical note to the harmony of the cosmos. The outermost sphere was the sphere of fire, the Empyrean, Heaven. Only in Heaven could the spheres’ full symphony be heard, only here could the design of the whole be appreciated. Did the ancients have some premonition of the future? With unimaginable labour we have built the spheres they dreamed of. At their centre lies the Earth, our ravaged mother who century by century yields more of her exhausted substance to her children. And her children in their turn pour their substance into their dreams. All the painful cultivation of our bodies, all our ambitions, all our yearnings are directed towards one end: the hope that we might one day be chosen to ripen everlastingly in the light-filled chambers of the outer Circle. Those who are not chosen eventually die, and contribute their rich mould to the vegetable gardens of the Inner Circle. Those who are chosen – but I soon gained an insight into their fate.

I won’t describe the pain I felt when the tubes were first torn from my belly, mouth and anus – tubes that had been buried in my flesh from the moment my foetus took shape in its perspex flask. I’ll omit from this account the agony of my training, when the blubber threatened to tear itself from my frame, when the sweat poured from my pores in torrents. My sufferings were recorded; no doubt you’ve seen the documentary. Even the passage through the many levels between the Middle and the Outer Circles, a hundred cranes hoisting the battered ship (with me inside it) from level to level, was an excruciation of a sort; for I was aware that in the heat of the exercise my fat was melting from me like butter. I became terrified that when I confronted the denizens of the Outer Circle my appearance would disgust them. My terror shrivelled me still further. By the time the ship docked in one of the ruinous space-ports of Old Earth and I stepped out into the regions of which I had dreamed so long I was already no more than the palest shadow of my former self.

I said I stepped out, but in fact I tripped and fell out of the hatch. I rolled sweating down an interminable chute full of grit and dust. At the end of the chute I dropped onto a mattress covered in mould, bounced several times and lay still. It took all my courage to stand up and look about me.

A long dim chamber stretched away before me as far as the eye could see. The walls on either side were festooned with ducts and cables; some of these had snapped and were dropping slow showers of sparks or oily fluid to the floor. The floor wasn’t paved with crystal or precious stones; in fact I couldn’t see what it was paved with, it was so thick with dust, dead flies and broken tiles. Curtains of cobwebs trailed from the ceiling, where rows of naked light-bulbs stretched into the distance. Many of the bulbs were broken, and the rest dispensed a cold blue light which failed to penetrate the shadows at the room’s edges.

In the row down the middle of the chamber stood many large crystal spheres mounted on tarnished metal legs. The spheres emitted a continuous humming. Dust veiled the upper part of each globe and the crystal underneath was streaked where liquid from broken pipes or the droppings of bats had struck it. Inside the spheres I could make out the dim outlines of things that might be alive. Hesitantly and with what I hoped was reverence I approached the nearest sphere and polished the crystal with my glove, hoping to see more clearly what was inside. The action set off a faint ringing which mingled with the other harmonics in the chamber.

What I saw made me step back with a cry of horror. The thing inside was itself almost spherical: a grey, pulpy mass floating in some sort of liquid, like an ancient internal organ preserved in formaldehyde. Its surface was dimpled with little valleys and disfigured with purple-green blotches. I wouldn’t have been so sickened if I had thought the putrescent lump was dead. But in the middle of the lump, half-buried among folds of blubber, a single tiny eye looked out, full of intelligence and despair. And the eye had seen me.

Even now I don’t understand why this intelligent eye so frightened me, why my gorge still rises when I think of it. Wasn’t this the most highly developed human form I had ever encountered, the culmination of centuries of physical culture? Wasn’t this the body I had dreamt of possessing since childhood? I can only attribute my revulsion to the fact that I was already in the grip of the wasting disease that has consumed me ever since.

A shudder went through the lump and somehow I knew that it was about to speak. A click sounded somewhere overhead, followed by a hiss as long-silent speakers were activated. The voice when it came had a metallic weight that shook the floor, as though a hundred metal tongues had spoken at once. ‘Who are you?’ it said.

This was the last question I had expected. Surely the denizens of the Outer Circle, with their unlimited access to every untrodden info-retrieval corridor in the most ancient recesses of the World Computer – surely they must know perfectly well who I was? ‘You know who I am,’ I stammered. ‘You sent for me. I’m the volunteer who… er… volunteered for the mission.’

A short pause followed. ‘We remember the mission,’ said the voice or voices at last. ‘That was one of our best ideas of recent years. But there was no volunteer.’

In my confusion I became angry. ‘Of course there was!’ I said. ‘You appealed for one on the visiscreen, and I put myself forward. You sent me a letter of congratulation, one of the finest I ever tasted, and put me through a gruelling training programme. Then you invited me to come and meet you before I set out for the Third World. Don’t you remember?’

‘Did we appeal for a volunteer?’ mused the voice. The eye, at which I was still staring, vanished suddenly, as the lump furrowed what might have been its brow in thought. ‘Yes, I think we did. That was a good idea too. But the invitation was an error. There must be a fault in the World Computer’s communication circuits. You see, there was no volunteer.’

I took a step forward. ‘No volunteer?’ I cried. ‘Who am I, then?’

‘Precisely,’ said the voice with an air of self-satisfaction. ‘That’s just what we’d like to know. Who are you?’

I must have looked so shocked and desperate that the creatures in the glass jars took pity on me. The eye reopened and I fancied it looked kinder than before. ‘Let us explain,’ suggested the voice. ‘There could be no volunteer because we didn’t invent one. We are the inventors; inventing is our job, here in the Outer Circle. We are responsible for dreaming all the dreams, thinking all the thoughts, and scripting all the conversations of any significance that occur on any level of Old Earth. Nothing happens unless we make it happen. All human beings in all the circles beneath us are either the actors who shadow forth our ideas or the audience who absorb them. The mission exists because we made it up. But we didn’t invent a volunteer. Therefore there isn’t one. Have we made ourselves clear?’

Can you imagine the new horror that stole over me, the worst I had yet experienced? My self-confidence had already suffered several damaging blows, but I still thought myself a hero, even if a somewhat shrivelled one. Now abruptly the speakers assured me that I was merely an automaton, a puppet like the artificial dignitaries who had seen me off; and these – things – were my puppeteers! What I had thought to be the bravest deed of my life turned out to be an illusion, generated by a tiny maladjustment in the vast network of the World Computer: a glitch that permitted me to think for myself for a fraction of a second, long enough to answer a scripted call for help from an imaginary alien before sinking once more into the ocean of artificially generated dreams. The doubt still returns to me sometimes in my sleep, and with it the horror: am I really no more than a thought conceived by a blob floating in a sealed glass jar? My mind groped for evidence that the mission at least had not been an illusion. ‘The ship,’ I whispered. ‘The ship that brought me here. Surely the ship is real?’

‘We could easily have made it up,’ answered the voice. ‘But you’re right: the ship is real. It’s a relic of the distant past, a piece of flotsam washed up by the tides of space. Hundreds of similar odds and ends are orbiting Old Earth even as we speak, jostling the epidermis of the Outer Circle. Every so often something crashes onto the Earth’s roof: the outer surface of the Outer Circle is a litter of shattered satellites and broken spacecraft. Very few of these falls are dangerous. But now and then – once every hundred years or so – a falling wreck succeeds in punching a hole in the canopy and doing some serious damage.

‘That’s what happened a few weeks ago,’ it went on. ‘A particularly sturdy starship managed to smash a section of the Outer Circle adjoining this one; the accident destroyed some of our best thinkers. In tribute to the dead we decided to construct a story around the starship; we tell very good stories, here in the Outer Circle. That’s how we came up with our affecting little drama about the Third World. But we never intended anyone to take it seriously. There was no one inside the ship. There was no mission.’

I hardly registered the last few words. All the futile agony – all the humiliation of my training came back to me. But this was as nothing compared with the revelation that my dreams were no more than the fantasies of a fantasy. Strangely enough, it never occurred to me that the denizens of the Outer Circle might have been lying when they told me they invented the mission. One of the many absurd beliefs I entertained about the Outer Circle was that it was the abode of truth. Only sheer luck taught me otherwise.

In my agitation I had begun to stride up and down the chamber, struggling to recover a sense of my own identity. My footsteps ran ahead of me and behind me like a column of eager robots hurrying about their appointed tasks. I had completed one of my agitated marches and had turned to stride back the way I’d come when I caught sight of a glass case by the chamber wall – an elongated rectangular box, half-hidden by cobwebs. Acting on impulse – or guided by some cosmic puppeteer – I decided to inspect it more closely. In a few steps I’d reached the case and torn down the dusty veil that concealed its contents.

Inside stood a man: the tallest, thinnest man I’d ever seen. He wore a baggy atmosphere suit much like my own, tightly fastened at waist, wrists and ankles and open at the neck to reveal his scrawny chest. His skin had been blackened by the light of distant suns. Masses of black hair floated about his head in the preservative fluid, as if he drew webs of night behind him wherever he went. His dead eyes shone like stars in the darkness of his face. I recognized him at once from the visicreen, and knew beyond all doubt that he came from far away, that he had crossed infinite vastnesses to reach Old Earth.

‘The visitor!’ I cried, turning to face the spheres. ‘The stranger who came in the ship! You said it was empty!’

‘Did we say the ship was empty?’ the speakers asked sharply. ‘We don’t think we did. We said there was no-one inside the ship, and we were right. Look at him! Have you ever seen a more repulsive specimen? He clearly hadn’t eaten properly for months before he died; he’s nothing but bone and sinew. Perhaps he isn’t a man at all.’

‘He’s as much a man as I am!’ I shouted.

‘Precisely,’ replied the speakers. ‘But we haven’t yet established that you are a man. Which brings us back to our initial question. Who are you?’

Their circular arguments made my head spin, but by this time my rage succeeded in conquering my fear. A piece of half-rotten cloth had wrapped itself round one of my boots as I tramped. With no little difficulty I stooped and picked it up. ‘I’ll show you I’m a man,’ I said as I wrapped the cloth round my right gauntlet. Before the speakers could say another word I’d swung back my cloth-bound fist and hit the glass front of the case that held the stranger. The case exploded, spraying me with glass and liquid; you can still see the rips and stains in my space-suit where the splinters cut me. The stranger flopped forward and struck the ground at my feet. A sweet smell rose from his body, and I was violently sick on the floor beside him. Afterwards I noticed that I’d vomited out the last of the greasy cakes from my send-off.

Layer upon layer of echoes radiated from the shattered case, getting louder and louder till I thought my head would burst. I cowered by the corpse, trying to protect my ears with my bloody gloves. After a while the echoes subsided and I became aware of another sound, one that came from the speakers. The sound puzzled me until I recognized it for what it was: an antiquated form of accolade known as clapping, which you can still hear on the soundtracks of old sitcoms. The blobs had evidently enjoyed my little demonstration.

‘Well done!’ said the voices with metallic enthusiasm. ‘What a spontaneous gesture! What a masterful display of self-assertion! We see now that you are indeed a man. We must confess that we didn’t believe in you at first. You see, most of the visitors we have here are exquisite illusions, downloaded by the entertainment programmes of the World Computer. But the Computer could never have invented such a daring statement, such an act of raw aggression! You’ve given us material for many years of dreaming. Well done indeed!’

Behind the cobwebs near the ceiling hundreds of tiny visiscreens flickered on. Each screen replayed some detail of my act over and over from a hundred different angles. Again and again my fist swung at the glass; again and again the case exploded and the splinters tore through the fabric of my suit; again and again the corpse struck the floor at my feet. Shielding my eyes from the relentless barrage of images I groped my way past the spheres, looking for an exit from this chamber of horrors.

‘You may go now,’ the voices murmured sleepily. ‘Go back to your cubicle and get some rest. Put on a little weight. Stop taking violent exercise. We’ve recommended you for transfer to the Outer Circle as soon as you’re back in shape. It will give us the deepest pleasure to welcome you to our little community. We will be honoured for you to share our dreams. They are very well worth dreaming. You can’t imagine the visions… the sounds and the visions…’

I was standing once again in front of the sphere whose surface I had polished. The sad little eye that had examined me glittered as if with the ghost of a smile. Then it winked shut and vanished into the surrounding pulp.

Suddenly a deep weariness filled me, as if the sleep that permeated the chamber were contagious. My dreams had come true. I had won a place alongside the inhabitants of the Outer Circle, and could look forward to unending suspension in a crystal jar, rocked to sleep in the ocean of eternity by the celestial harmonies of the World Computer. Why shouldn’t I accept their offer? What more could I wish for?

Sometimes on my journey I’ve imagined that I did indeed accept the offer, that I never went back to the starship, never left the earth. I imagine that the entire journey has been a hallucination induced by a potent cocktail of drugs and electronic simulators. I imagine I’m about to wake up in that immense dusty chamber, that I’ll try to open my eyes and find I’ve only one dull eye to peer through, try to stretch and find that my limbs have vanished, that the most I can do is wriggle a vestigial toe or ripple the sea of blubber where my stomach once was. On these occasions I scream and thrash and pinch myself as I did in the chamber when I felt the lethargy of acquiescence creeping over me. Once I’ve convinced myself I’m awake, I calm my shattered nerves by replaying the details of my escape over and over in my head.

‘Wait!’ I cried as the lump closed its eye. ‘The mission was real! The stranger exists! The Third World needs our help!’ But the lump merely quivered and rotated on its axis as if to find a more comfortable position. Half-blind with apprehension I fumbled my way to a hatch marked EXIT. Behind me the chamber fell silent. But no, it didn’t fall silent; even as I squeezed myself into the chute that would return me to the ship my ears rang with the sounds that filled the room. The walls hummed, the speakers buzzed, the ghosts of the metallic voices chimed, and over all I could detect the distant boom of thunder from the shattered glass case, as the echoes spread in ever-widening circles into other chambers. Casting back one glance I saw the circles made by my feet in the dust of the floor. I imagine they are still there, the scribbled testimony of my last moments on Earth.

I reached the ship without incident. Activating the flight programme proved simple: I had only to lift a lid marked GO and lay my hand on the cool panel beneath. The ship blasted effortlessly through the frail doors that separate Old Earth from the chill of space.

In fact, I’ve often wondered why my escape was so easy. Perhaps the inhabitants of the Outer Circle had forgotten there’s a universe beyond Old Earth, and ordered their cybernetic police to seek me out among the corridors of the lower levels, where only the insects scurry. Perhaps they let me go because the force of my dreams threatened the stability of their world. Or perhaps, perhaps in their limblessness and the circularity of their thinking, my escape was their only way of extending a hand to their fellow creatures: a helping hand, an appealing hand, albeit a severed one. In that case my delusions of heroism aren’t so far-fetched after all.

I don’t believe that the dreams they dream in their jars can possibly match the visions of space. As soon as I left Old Earth the visions began. Forests rustled their leaves in the gaps between stars, and the stars themselves took human shapes. I was attacked by space pirates in the third week of my journey, but this may have been only the first of the complex illusions that crowded in on me as I entered the outer reaches of the Solar System. Scheherezade sat with me in my cabin. Asteroid storms became tiny fists pummelling the ship’s outer shell. A cloud of gas became a muslin-veiled woman whose breasts took a week to cross. Far off I saw star-children playing with comets among dark magnetic mountains. Often I was tempted to abandon my mission and join in their games, but I didn’t know how to change the ship’s course. Saffron-robed merchants offered me scarlet cakes which I couldn’t reach through the portholes; when I looked closer I saw that the cakes were planets rolling around a distant sun. most persistent of all these appearances, a tall thin man ran after me with suns on his belt, drawing jewelled webs of night behind him in his hair. Accompanied by this host, and feeling my mind and body assume a new identity at each stage of my journey, I’ve never felt closer to humanity than since I entered space.

As I’ve come closer to my destination the apparitions have grown rarer. I have the feeling I’m approaching the place where stories end and action begins. My feeling is strengthened by the increasing material evidence of man’s presence all around me. I’ve found ruined mines on planets and their moons. Broken satellites and derelict spacecraft have floated by, knots of twisted cables have obscured the starlight, cascades of broken glass have tinkled over the ship’s hull. My final descent onto the planet’s surface plunged me through seas of swirling debris. Once upon a time this planet must have supported a civilization as powerful as that of Old Earth. A lump of rock rushing past the porthole made me think of the lumps of flesh I had left behind, and I managed to convince myself that an eye was about to open in the rock and look at me. I completed my descent with my own eyes tightly shut.

There’s little more to say. The ant I’ve been watching all this time has reached the end of the instrument panel. Soon I’ll switch off the microphone in my space-suit. Off and on I’ve been talking into that microphone for eighteen years, never knowing if you could hear me back on Old Earth, and if you could hear me never knowing if you understood. But I’m certain that once I’ve stepped through the hatch I’ll truly have passed into regions beyond your understanding.

Before I do that I must open the cupboard door and look into the mirror. I’m standing in front of the cupboard now. My hand is reaching for the handle, then drawing back. The only way to do it is to take myself by surprise.

The door’s open.

And there’s the face I shall present to this new world. For a moment I thought the visions had returned and someone else was standing in the cabin with me. But when I turned my head to look, the head in the mirror turned too. Now, little by little, my reflection and I are getting to know each other. My hair has grown until it floats in a thick black mass round my head, as if I’ve drawn deep space down into the atmosphere of this planet. My skin has been scorched black by the light of nebulae. My eyes glitter in the darkness of the cabin. It’s a hungry face, seamed all over with wrinkles. It’s the face of the stranger I saw in the Outer Circle.

I’m no longer afraid to meet the stranger’s people. Once before I set him free with a blow of my fist. Now I free him again by entering the airlock and opening the outer hatch.

Beyond the crater in which my ship stands, a grove of trees has been uprroted by my rockets and tossed into a blackened and disorderly heap at the edge of a forest. Beside the heap I think I can see something moving, a creature walking upright on two legs. It might be a man, but my sight is so dimmed by the sun that I can’t be sure. But the man, if that’s what he is, doesn’t arrest my attention so much as the sky above his head. I squint up at it in amazement. When I first described this sky I called it blue, since that’s how it looked from inside the ship. But now I see I was wrong; blue is only the dominant colour in the bright triumphal stained-glass dome that covers the planet. Sunlight filtering through innumerable crystal shards, the microscopic splinters of a shattered civilization, creates jewelled arches of colour from horizon to horizon and lays an ever-shifting mosaic on the earth. The sight holds me spellbound and breathless, and I stare at the brilliant dome until something else is revealed to me. All over the sky spreads a network of silvery lines. After a while I see that this shining web is an immense construction of twisted girders which floats many miles above the planet’s surface. A little later I understand that the girders are all that remains of an Outer Circle like our own, a skeleton revolving in exquisite lifelessness above forests, plains and seas. My ship must have traced an intricate course through the girders as I sat with my eyes shut, thinking of Old Earth.

The man has walked forward and is standing in front of the ship, looking up to where I stand framed in the hatch. He is very tall and thin. Behind him a group of equally thin aborigines, bearded men, women with waist-long hair, children naked and scampering, have left their hiding-places among the trees and hover at the rim of the crater. After all my talking, all my puzzling, all my dreaming, now that the moment has come I can think of nothing to say.

Suddenly the man smiles and extends his hand palm upwards, fingers spread like the fingers of the ship. Without thinking I scramble down the ladder, reel across the little space that separates us and place my hand in his. I’m trembling as I do this, because this is the most intimate gesture I’ve ever made.

 

6, 865 words

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Inaugural Address for GIFCON 2017

[I gave a version of this address at the opening of GIFCON 2017 in March, and am publishing it here as a brief historical record of the activities that led up to that event. When I gave it I forgot to mention that I convene the Fantasy Masters Programme at the University of Glasgow, which led to some confusion. I’ve put that right in this introductory paragraph; and I’ve also added some missing acknowledgements to the original text.]

In September 2015, the first intrepid group of seven graduates arrived at the University of Glasgow to study on a new Masters Programme. Somehow, nobody quite knows how, the university had agreed to let them study for a Masters in Fantasy within its august premises – the first of its kind in the world, according to our dedicated team of researchers – and I’m not sure whether they had any idea what they were letting themselves in for.

Or maybe they did. They called themselves the Fantasy Canaries, after the small yellow birds taken by miners down the shaft to test for the presence of poisonous gasses. I imagine they wanted to give themselves a healthy dose of realism along with all the fantasy.

Logo designed by Kat Ward

Well, despite this name they seem to have enjoyed the experience. Just seven months down the line the same group of graduates had been joined by a keen team of doctoral students, and decided to apply for funding to set up the first major event in the programme’s history: the event that begins today, and is known as GIFCON.

We have had other events in our brief history. We have had a remarkable collection of visiting speakers: among them the novelists Arianne ‘Tex’ Thomson, Hal Duncan, Neil Williamson, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and Claire North, aka Cat Webb, aka Kate Griffin…

The Head of Books and Commissioning Editor with Rebellion Publishing, Ben Smith and Jon Oliver…

The SF author Adam Roberts, who entertained us at the 2016 Aye Write! Festival, and the novelist and short story writer Kirsty Logan, who took part in the University of Glasgow’s series of Creative Conversations…

…and the academics Professor Edward James and Dr Anna Vaninskaya.

We have twice held joint events with the School of Education, thanks to our much-loved colleagues Evelyn Arizpe and Maureen Farrell. At one of these, a mini conference called ‘Other Worlds and Story Worlds’, the novelist Julie Bertagna gave a keynote which was so well received by our graduates that they have invited her to speak again today.

We had an event with Louise Welsh and Stuart MacRae, who discussed their fantasy opera The Devil Inside with the director of Scottish Opera, Alex Rijdeek.

 We’ve been on field trips – most notably to Glasgow’s astonishing kinetic theatre, Sharmanka.

We’ve watched movies together in the Fantasy Film Club. We’ve had fun.

This year, we’ve also had published authors on the programme. There have been four book launches for our graduates since September 2016: the brilliant anniversary anthology of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, Thirty Years of Rain, to which our own Ruth Booth is a contributor; Oliver Langmead’s visionary novel Metronome; Caighlan Smith’s superb YA dystopian fiction Children of Icarus; and most recently a book of feminist cocktails co-written by two of the Fantasy Canaries, Laura Becherer and Cameo Marlatt, and wonderfully titled A Drink of One’s Own.

These successes, as well as the large uptake for the Creative Writing optional course led by Elizabeth Reeder in the second semester, resulted in the establishment of our first Fantasy at Glasgow Reading Party in a private room at the Dram Bar in Woodlands Road, where a large proportion of our students revealed themselves to be talented writers of novels, poems and short stories. The programme has become a blend of the creative and the academic, which was always its intention. This makes me proud.

Some of the Fantasy at Glasgow Readers at the Dram

But the event I’m proudest of by far is this one, GIFCON, because it was conceived, named, imagined and organized by a team of fantasy enthusiasts, scholars and practitioners who would never have met if we hadn’t started up the fantasy programme on that day in 2015.

In honour of their achievement, I’d like to make some acknowledgements.

The event was funded by a generous donation from the Graduate School of the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow. Warm thanks to them for all their support; above all to Adeline Callander, Brooke Gordon and Rhona Brown, who came to the rescue at moments of crisis.

Thanks to Liz Caldi for playing the piano with such panache.

Thanks to the dedicated team of organizers – and here I really mean dedicated. Some are doctoral students, from as far afield as Creative Writing, English Literature, the School of Education and the School of Engineering. Others are past and current students from the MLitt in Fantasy. In alphabetical order, the GIFCON committee are:

Laura Becherer, Helen Bleck, Ruth Booth, Thaleia Flessa, Lan Ma, Chris Lynch, and Dimitrios Xanthakis. Also involved in the committee at an early stage were Alex Atkin, Matteo Barbagallo and Ieuan Ledger.

Friends, you have gone above and beyond the call of duty – as one would expect from committed fantasists. I’m overawed by your commitment.

Finally, we’d like to thank the University Chaplain, the Reverend Stuart MacQuarrie, for allowing us to use this magnificent building for the conference plenaries. Thanks to him, we can start the proceedings in a place that has a decided air of Hogwarts about it.

That’s enough from me, I think. Over to you.

Let GIFCON begin.

Programme, designed by Dimitrios Xanthakis

 

 

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The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 3: The Pevensies

[This is the third part of a three-part blog post. The first part dealt with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second with Edmund’s, and this third part deals with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

The next interface between our world and Narnia involves all four children, and is this time triggered by the apparent segregation of child time – play time, so to speak – from the ‘official’ adult work schedule. The children enter the wardrobe together to avoid Mrs Macready, the housekeeper, as she entertains visitors – part of her duties as the Professor’s employee; she has told them to ‘keep out of the way whenever I’m taking a party over the house’, and they are in any case keen to avoid the fate of ‘trailing round with a crowd of strange grown-ups’. It seems to escape their attention that the ‘strange’ grown-ups in question are already bound up with the Pevensies – aligned with them, that is, in certain crucial ways. The adults have come to the house in quest of the ‘strange stories’ associated with the building: stories at least as strange, Lewis claims, as the chronicles of Narnia. In addition, two of the four children have already spent some time trailing around after extremely ‘strange grown-ups’ (both of them keen to show off their houses) in previous chapters, while the other two have sought out a more or less strange grown-up in this one: the Professor himself, who showed such unexpected (not to say ‘strange’) willingness to believe the unbelievable. Despite the emerging ‘rule’ in the later Narnia books that only children can enter Narnia, and that their visits will cease when they reach a certain age, Lewis is quite deliberately clear in this first volume about the continuities between their ‘impossible’ Narnian experiences and the ostensibly serious business of adulthood.

The ingenuity of Lewis’s account of this third entrance into Narnia lies in the apparently ‘collective’ point of view it adopts. The first two entrances were narrated from the perspective of two different individuals, and the radical difference between these two perspectives – as well as the way each perspective of the country in the wardrobe changed as it went along – may have led the reader to expect a considerable disparity between the experiences of all four children when they finally found themselves, in Lucy’s words, ‘all in it together’. Instead Lewis narrates the chapter as if from a consensual position – as if all four of the Pevensies were in agreement about what is happening to them and their attitude to it. Lewis repeatedly uses the term ‘everyone’ and its analogues to imply this solidarity among the siblings: ‘everyone asked her what was the matter’; ‘Everyone stopped; everyone stared at him’; ‘Everyone agreed to this’; ‘They were all still, wondering what to do next’, and so on. But it quickly emerges that this apparent consensus excludes Edmund. For one thing, the sentence ‘Everyone stopped; everyone stared at him’ marks the moment when Edmund’s brother and sisters realize he has been lying about not having been in Narnia before: three of the children are looking at the fourth with surprise and loathing. For another, this moment is followed by a muttered comment from Edmund that signals his exclusion of himself from what he sees as the intolerable smugness of their collectivity: ‘I’ll pay you all out for this, you pack of stuck-up, self-satisfied prigs’. Both before and after this moment of revelation, Edmund’s voice repeatedly sets itself in opposition to those of his siblings, reminding the reader in the process that he has good reason (as he thinks) to see things very differently from the way they do. As a result, the tendency of the other children to read their experience first as a game and then as a thrilling adventure is given an added dimension of seriousness, generated by the reader’s mounting sense of how easily the younger brother’s petty nastiness and contrariety might turn to something more destructive (we can hardly have forgotten Mr Tumnus’s fear of being turned into stone, or how near Edmund himself came to suffering the same fate).

From the beginning of chapter six, Edmund’s dissent is conveyed with admirable precision. When the children first find that there’s something physically ‘strange’ about the cupboard (it’s cold and damp and bristly) Edmund is the only one to suggest they simply leave it: ‘“Let’s get out,” said Edmund, “they’ve gone.”’ When they reach Mr Tumnus’s cave and find it trashed, it’s Edmund who has the first word: ‘This is a pretty good wash-out,’ he comments, ‘not much good coming here’ (and his disagreement with Lucy on what constitutes ‘goodness’ in Narnia lends an uneasy moral weight to the observation). It’s Edmund who spurns Lucy’s suggestion that they try to rescue the captured Tumnus: ‘A lot we could do […] when we haven’t even got anything to eat!’ And it’s Edmund who draws Peter aside at the end of the chapter to express his doubts about the robin they’re following: ‘We’re following a guide we know nothing about. […] Why shouldn’t it be leading us into a trap?’ Peter’s response is to call on his knowledge of stories as a guide to the behaviour of intelligent animals in magic adventures: ‘They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read’ – and Lewis would have known very well that robins have been associated with Christ (the red breast was traditionally stained by the blood of Christ) and with fairies (James Stephens identifies the robin as under the protection of leprechauns in The Crock of Gold, which Lewis liked well enough to replicate its ending in Prince Caspian). But Edmund again represents the contrary or resistant reader – much as Eustace does in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where he is the only one of the visitors to Narnia who has no knowledge of or interest in imaginative fiction. Edmund tells Peter, as he told Lucy, that the children have no idea whether they are taking the right ‘side’ in the Narnian conflict: ‘How do we know that the fauns are in the right and the Queen […] is in the wrong? We don’t really know anything about either.’ This is not wholly true, of course: the note they found at Tumnus’s vandalized cave was signed by one ‘Maugrim, Captain of the Secret Police’, and the mere existence of a Secret Police in the Second World War would for English readers have linked their employer, the Queen, to the Nazis and hence to ‘wrongness’. But Edmund backs up his claim with a couple of statements that can’t be denied, whatever Peter’s views on Narnian politics: that the children are lost, and that they still have nothing to eat (‘no chance of dinner either’ are the last words in the chapter). A chapter that opened, then, with Edmund as the sole dissenting voice amid a strong consensus ends with his voice as dominant. In the same way, his isolation, which was emphasized shortly after the children entered Narnia when he inadvertently revealed his knowledge of the country, ends with all the children isolated in a country none of them knows well at all – and where Lucy’s closest friend has just been arrested for ‘High Treason’. At the end, in fact, Edmund is in the strongest position of the four, since he at least knows where to find his only ally in Narnia, the woman who had Tumnus arrested. The chapter, then, performs yet again the reversal, or change of tone and emphasis, the reader experienced between the first two entries into Narnia, as well as within them. And in the process it demonstrates, better than any of the previous chapters, that the act we are engaged in as we follow the chapter – reading itself – is a serious business.

Chapter six, in fact, contains several points at which the act of reading is foregrounded; in particular, the act of reading in relation to the ‘real’ world of the reader. When the Pevensies decide, at Susan’s suggestion, to put on some of the fur coats in the wardrobe to protect themselves against the Narnian cold (after all, Susan points out, ‘it isn’t as if we wanted to take them out of the house; we shan’t even take them out of the wardrobe’), they at once take on a look of storybook heroes – kings and queens – in the oversized garments: ‘The coats were rather too big for them so that they came down to their heels and looked more like royal robes than coats when they put them on’. The robes anticipate, of course, their future status as ‘real’ kings and queens of Narnia; and they soon sense that the sort of make believe that in our world would be merely playful – such as dressing up – here takes on a new significance; that fictions here harbour truths or realities, just as the apparently fictional Narnia turned out to be an actual country. Noting their resemblance to Scott and Amundsen in their furs, as depicted in films and books, Lucy suggests they play at being Arctic explorers, but Peter at once rejects the suggestion because ‘This is going to be exciting enough without pretending’. Despite this, he proposes that they appoint Lucy their ‘leader’ as if in a game (‘follow my leader’ comes to mind) – another decision about which there is a general consensus which must exclude Edmund – and she at once suggests they visit Mr Tumnus. At this point the children are still in playful mood, not fully aware that they have left the territory of petty fabrications and small pleasures, of tea and cake and enchanting stories; and even their encounter with the Faun’s ruined cave doesn’t fully alert them to the seriousness of their situation. It’s only the discovery of a piece of written text among the ruins – the sinister note left by ‘Maugrim, Captain of the Secret Police’ – that alters their reading of Narnia, leaving them more susceptible to Edmund’s gloomy perspective on its beauties.

The formal language of the note is carefully calculated to effect this alteration. In a single sentence it declares that Tumnus has been arrested for crimes against ‘her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc.’; and the location of the note – nailed to the carpet in the middle of Tumnus’s sitting room – gives these words additional weight. It was in this room, after all, that Tumnus first told Lucy about ‘Queen’ Jadis, challenging the Witch’s right to the titles listed here and stressing the danger he was in from informants and spies. The note, then, provides additional evidence that stories come true in Narnia, even nasty ones (and one might again think of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the island where dreams come true also harbours nightmares). And it is Lucy – to whom the Faun told these Narnian stories – who first identifies the link between the note and the children who read it. The Pevensies’ first reaction to the text is a collective one: ‘The children stared at each other’, seeking support in their efforts to process the information it contains. Susan then proposes that they all go home, since Narnia no longer seems ‘fun’ or ‘particularly safe’ – language better suited to a game gone out of control than a land ruled over by a fascistic dictator. But Lucy vetoes the proposal on the strength of her recognition that they themselves are referred to in Maugrim’s message, and that they are therefore intertwined or bound up with the politics of Narnia, just as they were previously caught up in the politics of wartime Europe:

‘Oh, but we can’t, we can’t,’ said Lucy suddenly; ‘don’t you see? We can’t go home, not after this. It’s all on my account that the poor Faun has got into this trouble. He hid me from the Witch and showed me the way back. That’s what it means by comforting the Queen’s enemies and fraternizing with Humans. We simply must try to rescue him.’

What Lucy has seen, as Susan has not, is that Maugrim’s note contains direct references to Lucy herself, and that these textual references entail real-life consequences. Because he helped Lucy, and because helping her led to his arrest, the children owe the Faun a debt of gratitude by virtue of the rules of the very serious game called obligation.

At this point Lucy doesn’t know, of course, that the children are yet more deeply implicated in the arrest than they are through her debt to Tumnus. It was Edmund who revealed the Faun’s act of ‘High Treason’ to the Witch; and the reader is reminded of this fact by the scornful response of Edmund himself to Lucy’s insistence that they help her friend (‘A lot we could do’). Lucy’s reading of the note is countered by Edmund’s rejection of her proposal – and hence of her supposed leadership of the siblings – as unrealistic – that is, as still locked in the fantastic mode of a childish game. But by this time in the book we are well aware that Edmund has a shaky hold on the relationship between the ‘real’ and the imagined, the possible and the impossible, playfulness and bullying or abuse. Despite her misgivings, Susan accedes to Lucy’s plan a few lines later precisely because she finally recognizes they are no longer pretending: ‘I’ve a horrid feeling that Lu is right,’ she comments, invoking an attitude of reluctant and fearful acquiescence which is the very opposite of playful. And she agrees because she is following the rules of the kinds of stories in which obligations must be repaid – fairy tales, romances – as against the ‘realistic’ fiction to which Edmund’s comment appeals. The children continue to follow the rules of fairy tale and romance when they choose to follow a robin as the first step on the road to rescue. For them, the rules of games and stories are no different in kind – only in scale – from the rules that govern a decent person’s conduct in ‘real’ life, and they carry over their expertise in reading and game-playing into the task of achieving the impossible – of rescuing their friend against dreadful odds. It is Edmund’s unwillingness to commit to these rules – an unwillingness he has displayed since the book began – that makes him an unsatisfactory reader of the ‘real’ world of Narnia.

Clearly, then, the interface between our world and the secondary world that contains Narnia is something more complex than a series of entrances and exits through the portal of the wardrobe. The difference in attitude of those who pass through the portal is what drives the action of this first of the Narnia chronicles, and these attitudes are carried over from their attitudes to our own world – and in particular by their attitudes to games, which include the games of reading fiction and telling stories. Those who are willing to participate in games and stories as collective and active processes find themselves able to ‘read’ the land of Narnia positively; to seize the opportunities it affords, to revel in its pleasures, to interact with its friendly inhabitants, and to participate actively in liberating it from the despotism that suppresses its best identity. Those who refuse to participate in collective games, including stories, find themselves rapidly enlisted by the despotic self-styled Queen, and consequently read the landscape and every other Narnian they encounter as hostile. An enjoyment of playfulness, which embraces playful or imaginative fictions – fairy tales, romance and fantasy – has a serious role in preparing the enjoyer for what Lewis convincingly represents as resistance against a Nazi-like occupying government. Hostility to playfulness of this kind, on the other hand, is both symptomatic of and likely to reinforce an attraction to power games aimed at personal advancement, and to oppressive authority figures who adopt the same philosophy. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in other words, amounts to a defence of reading and writing fantasy, the most playful literary mode of all, in that it demands the most active imaginative engagement from its readers. Those who can believe ten impossible things before breakfast are better suited to placing themselves in ‘strange’ mindsets, and of resisting the temptation to empathize only with those who share their narrow view of what is ‘realistic’ or ‘real’, than those who mock imaginative games or fables.

The games played by the Pevensie children after their third and final entry to the country underscore the book’s commitment to the concept of playfulness, in both its good and bad manifestations. The most striking example of the difference between these forms of playfulness can be found in Edmund’s and his siblings’ responses to Aslan. The first mention of the lion’s name – in chapter seven, long before they meet him face to face – strikes each of them in different ways: Edmund feels only ‘a sensation of mysterious horror’, as if alone and unsupported, while the other three children respond as if to a game, a story or a work of art. Peter feels ‘brave and adventurous’, sensations suitable to the hero of a romance or to one of its readers. Susan responds like a listener to ‘some delightful strain of music’. Lucy gets ‘the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays’, a period of unrestricted play. Once again, Edmund is the outsider, and his next encounter with Aslan – or what he thinks is Aslan – confirms his continued resistance to collaborative play, as indicated by his horror. On seeing a stone lion in the Witch’s courtyard he assumes that it’s the beast whose name disturbed him earlier, petrified, as he hoped it would be, by the Witch’s wand. At once he does ‘something very silly and childish’ in revenge for the horror it inspired in him: he draws a moustache on its upper lip and a pair of spectacles on its eyes. What’s ‘childish’ for Lewis here is the assumption that you can make yourself feel big at another person’s expense by putting them down – that is, by mocking them. This isn’t real play, the novel insists, but the kind of bullying Edmund had earlier practised on his sister; and accordingly he discovers that he doesn’t ‘really get any fun’ out of it, because of the lion’s continuing look of dignity and power in the face of his unimaginative scrawlings. The wrongness of Edmund’s view of playing is underscored, of course, by the fact that the lion is not in fact Aslan; the boy continues to have little grasp of the distinction between what is real and what is imagined, despite – or rather because of – his by now well established tendency to scepticism.

‘Real’ playfulness, so to speak, is the province of Aslan, and is first figured in the unlikely person of Father Christmas. Mr Tumnus had told Lucy when he first met her that the Witch had banished Christmas, so that the arrival of its most familiar symbol in chapter ten is clearly Aslan’s doing; and while in our world Father Christmas has become a measure of the distinction between adults and children (children believe in him, adults don’t), in Narnia he is ‘so big, and so glad, and so real’ (my emphasis) that any ‘childish’ associations he may have are banished completely. To confirm his new connection with maturity he dispenses gifts which are emphatically real: ‘tools not toys’, as he puts it, a sword for Peter, a bow and an ivory hunting horn for Susan, a flask of magic potion for Lucy. All four items would be toys in twentieth-century England, but in Narnia they are in fact what in our world they only mimic: the practical means of active resistance against oppression. When the children first meet Aslan he encourages them to use two of these tools against the chief of the Secret Police who wrote the note they found in Tumnus’s cave, and in doing so they take another of the many steps from fiction and play to practical engagement with a tyrant. One of the first such steps, as we have seen, was the discovery and reading of Maugrim’s note; so that reading, too, progresses in this book from a pleasant pastime to a stimulus for action.

Aslan doesn’t lose his connection with play, however ‘real’ or ‘terrible’ he might seem in person; though he only fully manifests this connection after he has sacrificed his life for the traitor Edmund. Appropriately enough, the act of self-sacrifice begins with a display of bullying playfulness on the part of the Queen and her hideous entourage, as they subject the lion to a succession of humiliations designed to point up their triumph over him, their climactic victory in the long war game that has been going on between them. The awakening of Aslan from the sleep of death, however, brings a new form of playfulness of Narnia: the collaborative sort that enacts the terms of mutuality and egalitarianism by which it must be conducted. The lion’s first wakening is at once attached to the notion of realness: ‘Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh Aslan!’, cry the girls as they feel the evidence of his materiality in the warmth of his breath and the touch of his tongue. And the lion’s conquest of death quickly becomes what Lewis calls a ‘romp’ (there’s another at the end of Prince Caspian, modeled on the romp in the final chapter of The Crock of Gold). ‘Oh children, catch me if you can!’ Aslan calls, and the challenge triggers a delightful yet somewhat dangerous playground chase, which connects the large and the small, the potent and the petty in a sentence that quite deliberately links childishness with maturity and power: ‘It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind’. The three interfaces between our world and Narnia were all building up to this moment, when an imaginary enactment of a deadly game – that of hunting – succeeds in articulating the gigantic joke or trick the lion has played on his power-hungry enemies. Aslan returned from the dead because he knew old stories, and believed in them, better than the Witch did; and the celebration of his return is appropriately conducted in a communal, rule-bound activity (keep your paws velveted at all times and don’t outrun the weakest player), since play of this kind is the best model for the proper conduct of social practices.

The final interface with Narnia in the book comes at the end – as it does in all the Narnian chronicles but one – with the return to our world, in this case through the familiar medium of the wardrobe. In this case, too, the return reenacts the game played by the girls and Aslan on the lion’s revival. We have already heard from Tumnus about the ‘White Stag who would give you wishes if you caught him’, and since Narnia is the place where fantastic stories come true, it seems fitting that the subject of this particular story should enter the ‘real world’ of the narrative in its closing stages. The four children, now grown up, decide to hunt the Stag ‘with horns and hounds in the Western Woods’, in the process pointing you the continuity between childish games, fairy stories told to children, and the more dangerous games and equally challenging stories enjoyed by adults. By this stage in the story the adult protagonists also talk in the language of the literature three of them loved as children; even Edmund speaks as they do, having been naturalized to romance thanks to his reconciliation with his siblings. The effect is literally charming. A Victorian lamppost becomes for him ‘a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof’; and in the process an everyday object from Britain’s city streets is estranged or enchanted into a wonder – much as it was from the other direction when Lucy first saw it improbably planted in the middle of a snowy wood. The sight of the lamppost triggers memories in all four siblings, though for these heroes and heroines of romance it is our world rather than theirs that is the stuff of the fantastic imagination: ‘It runs in my mind’ Edmund tells the others, ‘that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream’. Not only does this make our own world fantastic, but it also gives a seriousness to dreams and the imagination that they aren’t often accorded: we, the readers, know this ‘dream of a dream’ to have a solid foundation, and can also predict that Lucy will be right when she tells her brothers and sister that going beyond the lamppost will lead to ‘strange adventures’. By this point in the story, too, ‘strangeness’ itself has become something to be treasured for the sake of its very unfamiliarity, the surprises it entails. The search for strange things is a ‘quest’, as Peter points out, and a quest is a ‘high matter’, like ‘feats of arms’ or ‘acts of justice’. The link between the imaginary and the important, the fantastic and the real, the playful and the deeply serious, has become central to the philosophy the children live by, a founding principal of the culture they inhabit and the language they speak. And the reader, by following the children on their journey from this world to the next and back again, have become acculturated to the same perspective, the same reading of ordinary and extraordinary people and objects.

The book ends by bequeathing this climate or culture to the world beyond its pages. The four children pass the lamppost and find themselves tumbling out of the wardrobe – in their old clothes, children once again, at the very moment when Mrs Macready and the visitors are moving past the doorway of the room where the wardrobe stands. The Professor, when they tell him his adventures, accepts the story readily as potential ‘fact’ – just as he accepted Lucy’s when nobody else did; and he proceeds to lay down the rules of the game they must play in future, the game of having been acculturated to Narnian mores while living in a world where the very existence of that land is an impossibility. They must not tell many other people about their adventures – must not even discuss them much among themselves – for fear (we might suppose) of disenchanting what they have experienced by the inadequacy of their verbal descriptions of it, or else perhaps of being ostracized, ridiculed, bullied, like immigrants from a despised community. It will be clear to them who can be told about Narnia without courting mockery: people who have undergone ‘adventures of the same sort themselves’. As with the ‘strange stories’ about the Professor’s house, the Professor’s confidence that there are indeed other people in our world who have had experiences as strange and wonderful as visiting Narnia suggests that the interface between the real and the fantastic is well established in the world of the reader, as well as in the book we are coming to the end of. And Lewis makes sure he casts the spell of this confidence into the environment beyond the book in the final sentence. ‘And that is the very end of the adventure of the wardrobe’, he tells us; ‘But if the Professor was right it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia’. The challenge of this final sentence lies in the potent word ‘if’. The conditional indicates that Lewis is affirming or asserting nothing, like the poets in Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry; instead he is inviting us to consider the implications of accepting that what we have been imagining may have some sort of substance, some direct and quantifiable impact on us and on the mental and physical places we occupy. The challenge is a bold one, and its boldness marks the remarkable contribution Lewis makes in the Narnian chronicles to the evolution of children’s fiction in the postwar years.

The term ‘if’ also points up the extent to which Lewis is reliant on his reader to construct his ambitious new bridge between the possible and the impossible, the real and the fantastic. One of the most astounding things about the Narnian chronicles, for an adult reader returning to it after long absence, is its sheer economy: the simple, crystalline and not-so-numerous sentences with which Lewis brings his imagined country to life. When I asked students in a class on The Silver Chair what had surprised and interested them about their re-reading of Narnia, many replied that they remembered the book as much longer and denser than they now found it: packed with material details, colour, and diverse incident, where on re-reading it seemed remarkably, even disappointingly slim and succinct. This is because Lewis asks us in his fantasy series to do the major legwork of world-building ourselves, as readers – to make Narnia our own. As I suggested earlier, we never really see the ‘real’ Narnia described by Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it’s the Witch’s version we spend most of our time in – except in the final chapter, whose title, ‘The Hunting of the White Stag’, indicates its focus on the exit from Narnia, not on its construction. The fullest description of the country comes in the brief account of the children’s coronation, which wittily invites the reader to participate in its imaginative composition:

The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And, oh, the cry of the sea-gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?

There’s nothing fantastic in this passage; instead it invokes what many of Lewis’s readers will be familiar with, a Northern seaside, and in the process calls on their collective memory to collaborate in composing the coronation scene. Having deftly sketched a place we may remember well, Lewis proceeds to enchant it by introducing the impossible, the things we can’t remember because they never happened: ‘And through the eastern door, which was wide open, came the voices of the mermen and mermaids swimming close to the shore and singing in honour of their new Kings and Queens’. Because these mer-voices are inserted into a real context so expertly conjured up, they are utterly convincing; and it’s perhaps inevitable (if we paused to reflect, on being asked to do so, at the end of the previous passage) that we will associate them with the ‘cry of the sea-gulls’, or at least allow the sea-gull voices imaginatively to mingle with the quasi-human ones, producing a new and strange combination that might well have a genuine impact on our next encounter with the sea. We are dignified with the status of co-authors; we participate fully in Lewis’s fictive game.

It’s perhaps worth pointing out something else about the Chronicles, which relates to gender – always a contentious subject in commentaries on Lewis’s writing. Another experience a modern reader will undergo when reading these books is that of discomfort, rising at times to real distaste, at the segregation of the sexes in Lewis’s universe; the most striking example in this first novel being Father Christmas’s paternalistic refusal to let Susan and Lucy take part in the final battle against the Witch. As he hands Susan her bow and hunting horn with one hand, the gift-giver takes them back, or restricts their use, with the other: ‘You must use the bow only in great need,’ he says, ‘for I do not mean you to fight in the battle’; and shortly afterwards he tells Lucy with infuriating glibness that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’. Women, then, have one set of roles in Narnia, and men another, and there would seem to be no interface between them; indeed, part of what marks out Jadis as evil may well be her readiness to take on masculine traits such as fighting, commanding, and political manoeuvring against her enemies. At the same time, it seems to me that there is a real attempt in this novel to achieve a kind of parity between the status of boys and girls as protagonists, and that this was something Lewis thought of as central to the fantasy tradition – however inadequately he may have succeeded in bringing it about.

The clue to this belief of Lewis’s about gender equality in fantasy lies in a statement he makes in his essay ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’, written soon after the publication of the first Narnia book in 1952.[1] Here he makes a clear distinction between fantasy fiction for children – he carefully chooses the genderless term – and realistic fiction specifically aimed at boys and girls – segregating the sexes much as the school system it so often describes segregated them in the 1950s. Admittedly, like most writers of his generation Lewis proceeds to refer to the reader of fantasy as if she were male (‘the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring’, while the boy reading the school story is unhappy because he cannot have what he desires – sporting prowess and universal popularity). But elsewhere he sets the ungendered fantasy reader against the boy who reads about, and yearns for, a success often specifically gendered as male in the 1950s: ‘In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven’. And once one has noticed this, it’s hard not to notice how scrupulously he divides his Narnian adventures between boys and girls. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, two boys and two girls enter Narnia, and it’s Lucy’s perspective that may well seem privileged to a reader thinking about the book in retrospect, since she’s the one who finds Narnia and whose understanding of Narnian politics is vindicated by the actions of the Witch. As a boy who grew up at a time when ‘boys’ books’ and ‘girls’ books’ were often very clearly demarcated – to my shame, I have to admit my youthful tendency to avoid reading books whose protagonists were female, perhaps as a result of having been educated in largely single-sex schools – it seems to me that the Narnia books may have had an important impact on my ability to empathize with girls, at least in fiction. Lewis’s efforts to treat boys and girls equally may have been flawed, and may also have been strongly influenced by the mixture of genders in earlier children’s fantasy – especially that of his favourite practitioner of the genre, Edith Nesbit. But his willingness to have his girls participate fully in the physical dangers and metaphysical wonders of high fantasy seems to me to have made a crucial contribution to the genre’s emergence in later years as a fruitful space for imagining gender parity.

I hesitate to suggest this, but I wonder too if Lewis’s decision to exclude Susan from the number of the Pevensies who are reunited in Narnia in the final book of the series may be explained by her excessive attachment to desires and activities gendered specifically female? The girls who do re-enter Narnia in The Last Battle are represented as capable of what might be called an interface between the genders – of wearing armour and fighting alongside the Narnian resistance, as Jill does with the aid of a bow and arrows much like Susan’s. By this stage in the series Father Christmas’s prohibition against women fighting in battles seems to have been forgotten; Jill kills several Calormene invaders without demur. Again, the girls from our world in all the Narnia books share a literary background with the boys; they don’t read exclusively male or female texts, but like Lucy know the ‘rules’ of fairy tale and fantasy just as well, or are just as ignorant of them (in Jill’s case), as any of the male protagonists. Lewis doesn’t offer us, I think, a boy protagonist with an equally flexible gender identity – unless it’s Shasta in The Horse and his Boy, a fisherman’s adopted son whose ignorance of all traditions of male heroics is problematically aligned with his upbringing among an Orientalized people – and this is unfortunate, to say the least. But he clearly means the fantasy tradition to be an ungendered one (it’s Prince Caspian’s nurse, for instance, who first tells him stories of the old ‘fantastic’ Narnia); and it’s this, I think, that makes Susan’s wholesale commitment to desires conventionally gendered as female a bar to her continued inclusion in the mixed company of Narnian adventurers. That’s hardly an excuse for her banishment from Lewis’s land of heart’s desire, of course; but it makes it, I think, just a little more interesting.

To conclude: I think its fascination with what I’ve called the interface between our world and the secondary world of the imagination is what distinguishes Lewis’s Narnia series from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Where Tolkien’s work is founded on an elaborate and continuing process of world-building, which has an existence independent of the books set in Middle Earth, Lewis is concerned instead with the collaborative process of imagining the impossible as it is necessarily shared between writers and readers of fantasy. This concern extends itself to other forms of interface: between childhood and adulthood, between male and female, between past, present and future, between human and animal, between Nordic and classical mythologies, even between good and evil, which he is so often said to set too simplistically at odds – the list could go on. I hope my over-detailed analysis will have shown that his apparently simple stylistic and narrative structures mask a really considerable moral and philosophical complexity. I hope, too, that it may prove a bit of an intellectual springboard to thinking about interfaces more widely in relation to fantastic fiction.

And with this wish, desiring reader, I bid you farewell.

NOTE

[1] C. S. Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1984), pp. 56-70.

 

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The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 2: Edmund

[This is the second part of a three-part blog post. The first part dealt with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second deals with Edmund’s, and the third will deal with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

The question of the reality of Lucy’s visit to Narnia – whether or not it ‘really’ happened – underpins the next interface with fantasy in Lewis’s narrative: Edmund’s visit. Partly as a result, this interface involves an exact reversal of Lucy’s experiences. Things happen back to front, as if in a mirror; and one reason for the reversal is that Edmund has already made up his mind before he enters the wardrobe that Lucy fabricated all her adventures. As a result, the world he finds on the other side is disturbing to him because it violates his sense of what is real, or perhaps of his own capacity to distinguish what is real from what is imagined. In addition, he feels as unable or unwilling to reverse his mental position in response to this disruption of his world view as Lucy earlier found it to pretend she was ‘playing at’ Narnia when she was not. Edmund necessarily sees Narnia through different eyes because the mind behind those eyes has different priorities, a different philosophy.

Another reason for Edmund’s different experience can be found in his mood when he enters the wardrobe: that is, in the kind of pleasure he is seeking as he passes through the mirrored door. Where Lucy was driven by Alice-like curiosity and a sensuous delight in the feel of fur, Edmund is driven by the desire to mock his sister for her inventions: ‘he wanted to go on teasing her about her imaginary country’. For him, this is a continuation of the power game he has been playing since Lucy first made her claims about entering Narnia; not a collaborative game, played by an agreed set of rules for a certain time, but a competition for supremacy in which there can only be one winner, whose victory isn’t temporary but permanent, establishing the victor once and for all as wholly superior to the defeated players. So it’s not surprising that Edmund is deeply disturbed by the loss of control he feels when he leaves his comfort zone. The discovery that the wardrobe does not in fact contain Lucy, that it is larger than he expected, that it sounds and feels unlike the interior of a piece of furniture, makes Edmund shiver – and, one presumes, not just with cold. There are two possible reasons for the fear suggested by his shivering. One is that he has been ‘unpleasant’ to Lucy about the things she seemed to have invented – so that she would have every right (according to his understanding as a player of power games) to be equally ‘unpleasant’ in response. The other, related reason is that the country he finds himself in is definitely not his. Lucy found it first, which makes it effectively hers from a colonialist perspective – from the perspective, that is, of a person who likes to stamp his authority on other people. It represents, in effect, a contest between them which she has won in emphatic fashion, thanks to his having been forced into the position of primary witness to her truthfulness. For both these reasons, Narnia can be taken as inimical to him. His state of mind is neatly summed up in the following sentence: ‘though he did not like to admit that he had been wrong, he also did not much like being alone in this strange, cold, quiet place’. The place is ‘strange’ because it once seemed impossible, and because its existence proves that he was mistaken in his assumptions about what was possible, which means he should logically rearrange his perceptions of the laws that govern the universe (as Todorov points out in his book on the fantastic). Both these things contribute to make Edmund ‘not much like’ the woods, and he seeks his sister’s company not so much to apologize as to make himself feel safer by getting together with someone who knows the ‘strange […] place’ better than he does.

It’s perhaps as a result of these selfish motives, in a kind of fairy tale logic of moral rather than scientific cause and effect, that when Edmund calls out for his sister what he gets instead is the self-styled Queen of Narnia, the White Witch. The Witch is the polar opposite (no pun intended) of Lucy’s Faun, and hence, to some extent at least, of Lucy herself. She is powerful, tall and arrogant, and she reacts to her meeting with a human stranger not with friendliness but sudden violence (‘she rose from her seat and looked Edmund full in the face, her eyes flaming; at the same moment she raised her wand’). Ironically, her physical appearance also ticks a number of boxes in the iconography of goodness. She arrives on a sledge with bells on it, drawn by reindeers, which invokes Christmas as inevitably as Tumnus’s packages. She is associated with whiteness, the colour of ‘good’ in conventional Western narratives: her reindeers and furs are white, and so is her face, which is ‘not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth’ (and here the rapid shift from snow to paper to icing-sugar has a wonderfully disconcerting effect, making her sound like an artificial confection, a spun-sugar sculpture or a table decoration for a high-class banquet). Tumnus, by contrast, was shaped and coloured like a conventional devil (red, with hooves, horns and a very un-goat-like tail); so that if we accept Lucy’s reading of the Faun as accurate (and her now evident ‘truthfulness’ invites us to do so) then the Witch’s reverse iconography should mean she must stand for something devilish.

The trajectory of Edmund’s meeting with the Witch, too, reverses that of Lucy’s meeting with Tumnus. As with the Faun, her mood undergoes a sudden change, but this time from rage to cunning, from violence to seduction, from command to conversation. She offers the boy food and drink after her change in mood – not before it, as Tumnus did – and the provisions she offers are yet further removed than those of Tumnus from the dreariness of wartime rationing: a hot drink magically made from snow; a box of that unobtainable sweetmeat, Turkish Delight. With food comes talk, as it did with Tumnus and Lucy; but the communication between Edmund and the Witch is all one way (‘she got him to tell her’ all about himself, and he never thinks to inquire about her habits and adventures – when she describes her house to him it is solely as a place he would take pleasure in). The Witch may promise to adopt Edmund as her son, and hence eventually as her equal, but the imbalance of their relationship is obvious from their verbal exchanges.

The most intriguing aspect of their conversation is the way it ends. The White Witch finishes not with a discussion of the speakers’ ‘real’ identity (Tumnus ended his talk with Lucy by revealing his status as the Witch’s spy) but a return to the world of children’s games – that is, of transient fictions – which has by this time been rendered problematic by the fact that Narnia was not a game or fiction, as well as by Edmund’s preference for power games or competitions over consensual playfulness. The Witch suggests that ‘it would be fun’ for Edmund to pretend he has never met her, and that he should save the information he has about the Witch’s house ‘as a surprise’ for his siblings when he brings them back to Narnia. The reason for this ‘game’, however, is a serious one; if Edmund mentions the Queen alarm bells might be rung in Lucy’s mind, because she will have heard ‘strange stories’ from Tumnus about her. Strange stories here are implied to be fictions, and unpleasant ones at that; but Edmund’s experience with the strange story of Narnia should suggest to him there is substance behind them. He might also have noticed that what the Witch is suggesting to him is not a bit of transient ‘fun’, a ‘surprise’ which is pleasurable for its own sake, but a functional lie, a verbal trap; if he does not play this particular game his siblings are unlikely to approach the Witch’s domicile. Edmund’s mind, however, is too preoccupied with another kind of pleasure (also a trap) – the enchanted Turkish Delight he craves to have more of – for him to notice the inconsistency between her claims that what he will be promulgating is a harmless fiction and the suggestion that this fiction is being devised to suppress another ‘fiction’, the possibly well-founded rumours that the Queen is harmful.

Edmund’s encounter with the Witch, then, raises questions not just about the borders between fiction and reality but about the function of games. A game that is not participated in by all its players with a similar purpose – to spend a set period of time in consensual, rule-bound activity – is not a game; Lucy’s experience showed this, as did Edmund’s teasing, which was a game for him but perceived as bullying by his sister. Gradually, in fact, Lewis is building up a sophisticated dialogue between terms that are often carelessly used, especially in the context of children’s activities. The notion that there is a clear dividing line between fiction and fact, the game world and the ‘serious’ world, is itself a convenient fiction; after all, games must of necessity make use of otherwise functional spaces and materials (including time), just as fictions must make use of words and concepts which are in other contexts ‘factual’. And Lewis is suggesting that the relationship goes further than this; that the conventions that govern games (everyone who plays them agrees to abide by the rules) and the conventions that govern fictions (the recipients of any story agree to take it to some degree as ‘fact’ for as long as it lasts) are directly connected to, and serve as serious preparation for, certain essential life skills. Edmund is not an accomplished player of consensual games, as his treatment of Lucy shows, so he is ill equipped to see when he is being played with against his consent; that is, when he is being manipulated. He isn’t clearly aware of the distinction between stories and lies – his teasing assumes that Lucy is lying rather than telling a story (though in fact she is telling the truth) – and so agrees to tell the Witch’s lies as if they were a story. Further: since he has been discomfited and (in his eyes) diminished by the revelation that Lucy’s story or ‘lie’ was in fact the truth, he chooses to adopt lies as his personal mode of discourse, instead of gaining a new alertness to the possibility of truths underlying apparent fictions (such as the strange stories about the Queen). The success of a story, as of a game, depends on a collective act of imaginative complicity between the teller and the listener; a lie depends instead on the consciousness of the liar that she or he possesses information unknown to his or her audience. The imbalance of power between the Witch and Edmund reflects Edmund’s preference for power imbalance in the world beyond the wardrobe, and the exchange between them is designed in all its details to perpetuate and intensify this imbalance of power.

Shortly after Edmund’s encounter with the Witch he meets Lucy on her way back from a second tea with Tumnus, and his sister at once anticipates the pleasure of shared storytelling as they tell their elder siblings about their visit to Narnia. ‘What fun it will be!’ she exclaims, and concludes that from now on ‘we’re all in it together’. True to his nature, however, Edmund at once sees an imbalance in the collective pleasure she anticipates. He ‘secretly thought it would not be as good fun for him as for her’, partly because he will have to admit he was wrong and thus publicly acknowledge his ‘loss’ of the earlier competition between himself and Lucy, and partly because he assumes the others will be on a different ‘side’ in the politics of Narnia than the one he has taken – that is, they will be against the Witch, making it more urgent and possibly harder for him to keep the secret of having met her. Games, then, have turned into something different for both children; a real-life companionate ‘adventure’ for Lucy (the word still has a smack of storytelling about it), and a competition for unprecedentedly high stakes for her brother.

When they re-emerge from the wardrobe, Edmund and Lucy find that the ‘game of hide-and-seek’ they had been playing before entering Narnia is still in full swing. But their attitude to the game has changed entirely, since they now know that there is something genuinely strange hidden in the wardrobe which was one of the hiding places in the game. The real is secreted in the playful, just as forms of truth are secreted in fiction; on this, at least, both the younger siblings should be able to agree, whatever their contradictory readings of the place they’ve just returned from. This makes it all the more shocking when Edmund decides that his best tactic both for preserving his self-esteem and hurting his sister is to pretend that he and Lucy have been playing a different game instead of experiencing a different reality: a game-within-a-game, so to speak, rather than an unsuspected truth-within-a-fiction. ‘Oh yes,’ he tells Peter and Susan, ‘Lucy and I have been playing – pretending that all her story about a country in the wardrobe is true. Just for fun, of course. There’s nothing there really’. The cruelty here is compounded by his redeployment of Lucy’s word ‘fun’, which for her involved collective pleasure in an astonishing discovery (‘What fun it will be!’). Peter improves things a little by coming to Lucy’s defence: he suggests that Edmund’s ‘game’ with Lucy is merely a continuation of his bullying, a malpractice rendered more serious by Peter’s increasing suspicion that his younger sister is ‘queer in the head’. Lucy, meanwhile, remains true to her insistence that her ‘story’ is real: she ‘stuck to her story’, as Lewis puts it, and it’s this development of the concept of story beyond the invented or imaginary – this seeming conviction of hers that stories can be true – that induces Peter and Susan to consult Professor Kirk on the matter.

The Professor’s response to their question (has Lucy gone bad or mad? Is she suffering from mental illness?) is to apply a kind of logic to it which Lewis particularly associates with the Scottish enlightenment tradition (think of the Scottish sceptic MacPhee in his unfinished novel The Dark Tower, who becomes an equally sceptical Irishman in That Hideous Strength; Professor Kirk’s name, like that of Mrs MacReady, helps to link him with Scotland). ‘There are only three possibilities,’ he tells them. ‘Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.’ The ‘logical’ position he takes here is unusual, in that it assumes that a known truth-teller should be believed even when the scenario she describes would seem to be ‘impossible’ by any conventional standards of assessment. In other words, the Professor is more concerned with the psychology of human beings than with the empirical evidence of the senses. For him, the question of Lucy’s personality – her attested tendency to tell the truth – is vastly more important than questions of precedent (such as: have countries ever been found in items of furniture in the past? Do fauns exist? etc.). From this point of view Narnia would seem to be a country of the mind, whose capacities, like those of the house he inhabits, are vastly more spacious – and vastly more interesting – than conventional empiricism or logic would tend to assume.

Lewis associates logic with Scottish culture, but Scotland also produced the visionary writer whose work Lewis most admired, George MacDonald. MacDonald’s books are full of no-nonsense characters – most of them old women – who treat encounters with the fantastic with the same intellectual rigour as any other aspect of human experience. Edmund’s attitude to games and fictions when he first enters Narnia indicates, among other things, his muddled thinking – his lack of the sort of intellectual and moral rigour cultivated by Professor Kirk and George MacDonald’s formidable grandmothers. By the end of the novel, by contrast, Edmund has become an exemplary thinker, someone who judges the evidence of the mind and senses with such rigour that he comes to be known as ‘Edmund the Just’. Edmund, then, is a complex, changeable character in a way that Lucy is not; and his name confirms his potential for opposite ways of thinking, and for undergoing opposite destinies or endings, just as Lucy’s confirms her singularity as a custodian of the singular light of truth.

Sam Troughton as Edmund in the 2014 National Theatre production dir. Sam Mendes

There was a real, historical Edmund the Just, a tenth-century King of England who obviously suggested the sobriquet to Lewis (among other things, this Edmund I made peace with the Scots: quite an achievement for an English king in the tenth century). But the other Edmund invoked by the name of Lewis’s child-traitor is the antagonist in King Lear, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester who betrays his brother in a fit of murderous playfulness, a betrayal that leads to the deaths of his father, his king, the king’s three daughters, and Edmund himself. Where Lucy’s name suggests a singular truth – a light shining in darkness – Edmund’s has several competing associations, and can be read in different lights depending on the situation he finds himself in. There could hardly be a better way of signaling Lewis’s conviction, everywhere apparent in the Narnian chronicles, of the urgent need for his readers to cultivate the skill of reading well.

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The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 1: Lucy

[This is the first part of a three-part blog post. The first part deals with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second with Edmund’s, and the third with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

Dust jacket of First Edition

The interface with fantasy in any narrative – the moment when the reader first encounters the particular version of the impossible with which the story will concern itself – both defines a text as fantasy and indicates the kind of fantasy it will be. It’s also frequently the most exhilarating moment in any fantastic story: the most surprising, the most idiosyncratic, the most memorable. Alice spotting a rabbit as it runs by pulling a watch out of its waistcoat pocket – and the burning curiosity with which she responds to this impossible action – sets the perversely logical tone of Carroll’s book of dreams. The moment when Nesbit’s five very ordinary children dig a fairy out of the sand in an abandoned gravel pit, only to discover that the fairy is precisely the opposite of the ones in books (wingless, hairy, with apelike hands, a spidery body and the retractable antennae of a snail), perfectly sums up the many reversals of the children’s expectations that will follow this discovery. The morning when young Will wakes up to find the world blanketed in snow and all his numerous family asleep and impossible to rouse – this is the essence of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, where magic brings solitude and coldly impersonal decisions as well as beauty and wonder. As I thought over the last few weeks about the phenomenon of the Narnia books, which compete with The Lord of the Rings for the title of most influential works of fantasy in the postwar years, it struck me that what sets Lewis’s work apart – not just the novel but the series as a whole – is its fascination with this moment of interface, the point at which the protagonist recognizes that they have left behind the physical and social rules of the fields they know. So exciting does Lewis find this moment of first encounter that he re-enacts it over and over again in the course of his series: most notably, perhaps, in the multiple pools that offer entrance to innumerable worlds in The Magician’s Nephew; in the door in the air at the end of Prince Caspian; in the picture that comes alive in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – followed by the many disembarkations on unknown island-worlds with which that book is filled; and in the plural encounters with successive layers of the Narnian universe in The Silver Chair, beginning with an entrance through a door in a wall reminiscent of Lewis’s favourite short story by H G Wells. The interface with fantasy is Lewis’s theme, and his abiding fascination with it is what makes his work distinctive.

If Lewis’s Narnian sequence is a fantasy of interfaces, then The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the most characteristic of the Narnia books, since it consists almost entirely of a series of entrances into and encounters with the impossible, the magical, the strange. The first of these entrances, I would suggest, is by way of the book’s title. I can still remember quite distinctly a time before I first read the novel, when I knew only what it said on the cover of the Puffin paperback edition, above a picture of two girls dancing with a lion (I suspect I was told the title instead of reading it; I was a late-ish reader and remain a slow one). The bizarre combination of a beast, a quasi-human figure of horror (I found witches terrifying throughout my childhood) and a grown-up item of furniture (I wasn’t sure what a ‘wardrobe’ was until someone explained) surprised me by its fusion of the exotically powerful, the supernatural and the mundane. No story I knew contained just these elements, or any combination like them, and I couldn’t wait to learn how the three mismatched terms were linked. Tolkien talks in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ about how the deployment of unexpected combinations of words can serve as an act of imaginative conjuration, and I think Lewis achieved this in his title (which owes something of its effect to Nesbit’s titles: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet).

The second entrance, encounter or interface is by way of the house to which the four children of the opening sentence are evacuated in the book’s first chapter. In Five Children and It Nesbit’s titular children arrive at a rural house from the city of London, and the building seems magical to them because it’s isolated from other buildings and because its grounds have no clear boundaries or enclosures. Their previous experience of domestic space has been urban and rule-bound (they’re not allowed to roam the city streets unsupervised), and the sudden emergence from urban regulation suggests that their new life will be governed by new criteria. We don’t know much about Lewis’s Pevensie children apart from the facts that they, too, live in London, and have been sent to the country (somewhere in Dorset, scholars tell us, though the description of the area, with its mountains, stags and eagles, makes it sound like Scotland) to escape the Blitz. They, too, relish the house because of the unaccustomed freedom of movement it offers (‘That old chap will let us do anything we like’ Peter enthuses); but whereas for Nesbit’s children this freedom takes them out and about (only one of their adventures is housebound), the Pevensies have their adventures inside the house, which Lewis transforms into quasi-magical terrain by making its topography both vast and mysterious. In the first chapter Peter points out that ‘It’s about ten minutes’ walk’ from their bedrooms to the dining-room with ‘any amount of stairs and passages between’, the vague terms ‘about’ and ‘any amount’ underscoring his unfamiliarity with the building’s layout. The youngest child Lucy finds this sense of vague expansiveness intimidating (‘the thought of all those long passages and rows of doors leading into empty rooms was beginning to make her feel a little creepy’). And closer acquaintance with the house only makes it more mysterious. While the first few doors the children open lead only into ‘spare bedrooms, as everyone had expected’, the later rooms they find prove more suggestive: ‘a very long room full of pictures’ with a suit of armour in it; ‘a room all hung with green, with a harp in the corner’, evoking the Irish legends from Lewis’s Belfast childhood; rooms lined with books, ‘most of them very old […] and some bigger than a Bible in a church’; a room containing only a wardrobe. Lewis carefully builds up the impression that the house is too large to know well, and that its rooms have stories in them, some of them written down or printed (and the comparison of some of these books to ‘a Bible in a church’ suggests that the words inside are in some sense potent). Later we learn that the house is so famous that sightseers come ‘from all over England’ to visit it, drawn by its association with different kinds of narratives:

It was the sort of house that is mentioned in guide books and even in histories; and well it might be, for all manner of stories were told about it, some of them even stranger than the one I am telling you now.

With extraordinary economy this sentence extends the building’s mystery in several directions. First, we learn that it’s connected with history – no mystery there, many ancient buildings have ancient origins. But in the next part of the sentence history segues into story, which implies fiction; and some of the ‘stories’ it conjures up are ‘even stranger’ than the story of four children entering a world of talking animals through a wardrobe. One begins to wonder if the Bible-sized books in its library may contain some of those other, ambiguously-fictional narratives; or if Edmund’s teasing questions to Lucy about whether she’s found any new countries in other cupboards around the building might have a grain of truth in them; or whether the suit of armour may have been used in the English Civil Wars, or in an Arthurian romance.

Shortly afterwards the narrator again implies that the house may have something literally magical about it. As all four children approach the wardrobe together for the first time he wonders whether ‘some magic in the house had come to life and was chasing them into Narnia’ – and though he never commits himself to this explanation it marks the continued growth of the building into something organic, something more than architectural. In fact, by this point in the novel the house has acquired a vitality that makes it seem like an extension of its owner, the hairy, rational, courteous and unexpectedly open-minded Professor Kirk. Like the Professor, it is full of possibilities, rendered more diverse by the fact that none of them are particularised or confirmed.[1] These possibilities are extended further still when Susan points out, on entering the wardrobe, that anything they find inside it might be said to be inside the house; and by the Faun Tumnus’s assumption that the place Lucy has come from is another country inside the room where she found the wardrobe. ‘Daughter of Eve’ he calls her, investing her in the process with a mythical status as exotic as his own, ‘from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe’. By these means Lewis brings our imaginations ‘to life’ through a series of hints relating to the house, preparing them like a good gardener for the more flamboyant impossibilities he introduces as the book goes on.

Pauline Baynes’s wardrobe, which has two doors and no mirror

The next three interfaces, of course, are the three entrances into Narnia by way of the wardrobe. First Lucy on her own, then Edmund and Lucy – though they effectively go separately – and finally all four Pevensie children step through the door with a looking-glass in it (a nod to Carroll?) and find themselves in another landscape, in another season, which turns out to be located in another world. So imaginatively potent, for Lewis, is this moment of transition from this world to the next that he makes us go through it three times, each time from a new perspective, which imbues each entrance with a different mood and meaning. One of the side effects of this threefold interface is that it leaves the young reader with the conviction that such encounters may not be unique – that they might in fact occur from time to time, though rarely, in ‘real’, non-literary life. This view is corroborated by the Professor’s logic, when he asks Peter and Susan whether they find Lucy a more credible witness than Edmund and goes on to suggest that if so, they should believe what she has told them about finding Narnia, no matter how incredible. An adult’s championing of the youngest Pevensie – especially when the adult has the grand title of ‘Professor’ – renders her and Edmund’s impossible experiences of Narnia distinctly plausible; and it’s perhaps for this reason that I worked so hard to convince myself as a boy that I, too, could find an entrance to Lewis’s invented country – though I suspect there were other elements to this desire for conviction, among others the strong association of Narnia with desire itself.

Lucy’s experience of the interface with Narnia can be understood as a series of mirrorings (remember the mirror in the wardrobe door, which Pauline Baynes doesn’t include in her illustrations). These mirrorings ensure that the transition between ‘our’ world and the ‘other’ one isn’t too sudden to feel convincing, and that the two worlds in some sense interpenetrate each other: there are things in one that occur in the other, though in a new relationship and with different connotations. One might think of George MacDonald’s observation in his novel Phantastes about how a room is rendered magical when seen in a mirror; it’s identical to the one you live in, but the reversal of the relations between the objects in it suggest the possibility that in the reflected world there has been a fundamental realignment of all the regulations that govern our quotidian existence.

Lucy’s entrance into Narnia is partly impelled, like Alice’s decision to follow the rabbit, by curiosity: first the modest curiosity as to whether or not the wardrobe door is locked, which is what makes Lucy stay behind when her siblings leave the room; and later the excited inquisitiveness as to the nature of the snowy wood to which the wardrobe leads her. The other impulse that takes her into the wardrobe is that of pleasure. In the wardrobe she finds fur coats, and since ‘There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur’ she at once steps in and rubs her face against them, going ‘further in’ (a phrase that acquires particular resonance in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle) to indulge her senses of touch and smell more fully. As she goes forward into the dark she first loses one of her senses – that of sight – quite naturally, because it’s dark; and she then fails to sense something she expects, which is the rough woodwork at the back of the wardrobe. Afterwards her sense of touch conveys to her something she expects – the crunching of mothballs under her feet – only to surprise her when she reaches down to touch them, since the crunchy substance is ‘soft and powdery and extremely cold’. Next the texture of the coats changes, to be replaced not with the expected wooden planks but with wood in another form, the prickly ‘branches of trees’. Her sense of sight returns to her, but as often happens when one has been in the dark her understanding of distance has been affected, and the light she sees appears to be much further away than ‘where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been’. As a result of these incremental alterations, it seems perfectly natural as well as surprising when Lucy finally realizes that she is standing ‘in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air’. The stress on many senses, not just one – and the stress on familiar, precisely-evoked sensations – is what makes the transition so utterly convincing.

Alongside sensation, Lewis also uses wordplay to link the new land Lucy discovers with the house she’s left. The first things she finds in Narnia – a wood full of fir trees, the whiteness of snow, the darkness of nighttime – are all perfectly consonant with the experience of playing, or falling asleep, in a dark wooden wardrobe full of fur coats and snow-white mothballs. Lewis has already shown us that Lucy is a little timid – she disliked the large unknown spaces of the Professor’s house – so it’s a stroke of genius to have her look back over her shoulder when she reaches the wood and see not only ‘the open doorway of the wardrobe’ between the trees behind her but even ‘a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out’. The empty rooms of Professor Kirk’s house had earlier frightened her, so it should come as no surprise that she quickly summons up courage to move forward through the much more crowded space of the Narnian wood in which she finds herself. Her discovery of an ordinary lamppost a few steps later – in the middle of wood, far from any discernible path – reassures her still further: it suggests modern industrial civilization, perhaps even the urban environment she knows best, where some helpful authority has made provision for the needs of citizens to find their way about at night. So again it’s hardly surprising that when a ‘very strange person’ steps out into the light of the lamppost Lucy should react not with fear but only intensified curiosity: especially since the ‘very strange person’ is much the same height as her, carries an umbrella, wears a ‘red woollen muffler’ that matches his skin, and is weighed down with what looks like his ‘Christmas shopping’. Umbrellas and mufflers are designed for protection, not assault, and anyone who has the generosity to buy Christmas presents for his friends can pose no threat (or so one might reason); and though this assumption may be simplistic (as indeed it proves to be) it seems to be corroborated by the faun’s exclamation of surprise when he first sees Lucy. ‘Goodness gracious me’ is hardly the phrase a devil might use, despite the stranger’s possession of horns and reddish skin, and serves to justify Lucy’s confidence in talking to him in the next chapter.

The series of mirrorings I mentioned earlier refers to the fact that the room can be seen behind Lucy after she’s moved out of it – a space rendered as magical as Narnia by its unexplained presence ‘between the dark tree-trunks’ – and by the Faun’s perfect equivalence to Lucy in terms of size. It continues with the rapid-fire questions the Faun poses to her, which suggests he is just as curious as she is, and by his readiness to take Spare Oom and War Drobe as geographical locations as exotic for him as Narnia is for her. Soon afterwards, Lucy’s belief that she should be getting ‘home’ to the Professor’s house is mirrored by the ‘homely’ picture painted by the Faun of its own habitation, where there is ‘a roaring fire – and toast – and sardines – and cake’. And the ‘dry, clean cave’ to which he takes her is much more child-sized and child-friendly – much more ‘homely’, in fact – than the rambling, many-doored mansion Lucy has left behind (there is only one door in the cave, which ‘must lead to Mr Tumnus’s bedroom’ – there is really nowhere else it can lead to). The Faun’s home is also better stocked with provisions than England is, given that Lucy’s England is at war and therefore subject to rationing (cakes would have been a rarity because of the shortage of eggs). Again, Mr Tumnus’s cave mirrors the world she’s left in its fondness for books and stories, especially strange ones: the books on its shelves refer to humanity as a possible fiction (Is Man a Myth? is one of the titles), and Tumnus himself is a fount of strange tales like the ones that have accumulated around the Professor’s house. Strangeness and familiarity are blended in the Faun’s cave, in fact, exactly as they were in the mansion, although in slightly different proportions.

At this point in Lucy’s adventure Lewis engineers a sudden change of mood. After telling his tales of midnight parties where Fauns dance with Nymphs, of milk-white stags which grant your wishes and of summer visits from the god Silenus, who makes the rivers run with wine instead of water, Tumnus abruptly reveals that such seasonal delights no longer take place and that Narnia itself has receded into the past, to be replaced by the perpetually snowbound country Lucy has discovered. The Faun then drops the bombshell (the wartime metaphor seems appropriate) that he himself is not what he appears to be – that he is a bad Faun, not a good one, and that his entertainment of Lucy has a hidden agenda: to lull her into a false sense of security and then hand her over to his paymistress, the wicked White Witch. This is a mirror-style reversal more extreme than any we’ve encountered so far, whereby apparent acts of friendliness become a mask for treason, a pleasant wood becomes suddenly sinister, snow becomes oppressive – it is now the sign of the Witch’s power – and the return journey to the lamppost becomes as full of anxiety (‘The whole wood is full of her spies,’ Tumnus tells Lucy) as before it was full of wonder. Even this reversal, however, mirrors a similar reversal in the world that Lucy has left. It might be said to resemble something we never actually witness in the novel: the sudden, unlooked-for recollection that the world is at war, which transforms the loveliness of the countryside into a fragile refuge from violence and forces one’s idealized imaginary homeland to recede into the distance – into the past and perhaps, though not certainly, the distant future – while the present becomes discoloured or warped by suspicion and fear.

Lucy’s experience of the interface with Narnia, then, contains in itself the possibility that the country can be read in different ways. But the change of mood also affirms that a ‘true’ reading of the evidence provided by the country is possible. By the time it takes place, a bond has been forged between Lucy and Mr Tumnus, a bond founded on a shared pleasure in food and stories and curiosity about strange cultures – pleasures it’s difficult to fake. So when Tumnus breaks down in tears and tells the girl that he is wicked she assumes that he is talking about some past misdemeanour on his part, and assures him that he cannot possibly be bad now because he is so sorry for what he has done. The revelation that his misdemeanour is in fact taking place now, at this very moment, and that the child he has been telling her about is not an element in a finished tale but Lucy herself, who is currently in danger from the Faun to whom she is speaking – this revelation shocks Lucy into terror (she turns ‘very white’). But her conviction that Tumnus is what he appears to be – a friend – helps to change the direction of the narrative once again. By being certain that he is ‘a very good Faun’ Lucy ensures that he behaves as one; while, conversely, Lucy’s own behaviour ensures that Tumnus realizes he could never betray an actual human child, no matter how easy such a betrayal might seem when the child was imaginary. There’s a sense here that behind the hall of mirrors that enabled the transition between the Professor’s house and Narnia – and between the possible and the impossible, which have been so richly twined together in the description of that transition – there is a common set of values, a shared recognition of the appropriate way to behave towards strangers, whether children or adults, migrants or evacuees, that transcends any fleeting consent one has given to other sorts of behaviour on the basis of fear or wilful self-delusion.

In other words, by this stage in the novel the question of what is real has come under scrutiny. The country Lucy comes from, England, is a land in crisis. So is the country she arrives in, Narnia. Both places, then, are in one sense not themselves – the ‘real’ England and the ‘real’ Narnia lie elsewhere, in a time of peace and prosperity that has long been absent and might not come again. Any hope that this double crisis will be resolved lies in behaving as though the moral values of the ‘real’ country remain intact during this period of absence. Lucy behaves in this way quite naturally, by assuming Tumnus is ‘good’ whatever crimes he may have committed in the Witch’s name. Tumnus’s ‘badness’, meanwhile, is the result of an act of imagination: he agreed to betray, in theory, what he thought of as an imaginary person – a human being, at a time when human beings have not been seen in Narnia for many centuries (hence the title of his book, Is Man a Myth?). But as soon as that imagined person proved to be real Tumnus realized he could never betray her without also betraying his sense of his own real self as (first and foremost) a decent person. In addition, his agreement to serve as the Witch’s spy was based on the threat she posed to his identity, his faunness, so to speak. If he fails to do her bidding she will cut off his horns, pluck out his beard, fuse his ‘beautiful cloven hoofs […] into horrid solid hoofs like a wretched horse’s’ – or worse still she will turn him to stone, a simulacrum of a living goat-man. On meeting the real girl Lucy, however, Tumnus realizes that his ‘real self’ is not the physical one with horns and beard and cloven hooves but the one who refuses to hurt children, who treats strangers with respect, and who seeks to help them at great risk to his own life. In doing these things Tumnus identifies himself as a ‘real’ Narnian, and brings closer the possibility of the ‘real’ Narnia being restored. If all of the White Witch’s spies go through the same process of self-realization her power will be diminished, and Narnia will re-emerge in some form at least from its long quiescence.

When Lucy returns to the Professor’s house after her time with Tumnus, the question of what’s real continues to trouble her. She tells her siblings about the visit to Narnia, and they at once assume that her story is impossible. This gives rise to three alternative interpretations of her narrative: first, that it’s a lie; secondly, that it’s a game – an activity with rules which we take part in for a certain period of time for the sake of a transient feeling of pleasure; and thirdly, that it’s a joke. All three siblings also decide that whichever one of these interpretations or readings of the story is correct, the lie or game or joke has gone on far beyond what is acceptable. Convention dictates that at one point a fiction be acknowledged for what it is – that the book be closed and ordinary life begin again – but Lucy stubbornly refuses to obey this convention even for the sake of a quiet life (she was a ‘very truthful girl and knew that she was really in the right’). On person’s game or joke or fiction, then, is another person’s reality; the dividing line between the imagined and the actual is permeable, and ‘realness’, as well as the conventions that determine its parameters, is a contested concept. Later, the older siblings Peter and Susan begin to wonder whether there is a fourth explanation for Lucy’s insistence on the truthfulness of her impossible story – not that it’s a game (her unhappiness puts paid to that idea) but that she believes she is telling the truth even though she is not; in other words, that she is suffering from some kind of mental illness. This is what drives them to discuss the problem with the Professor. But the fact that the reader has already been convinced, within the framework of the story, that Lucy has ‘really’ undergone the experiences she describes suggests that the limits of the possible are vastly greater than Peter and Susan are aware; and this suggestion is later corroborated both by the references to the even stranger stories associated with the house and by the Professor’s ready acceptance that Lucy is sane, and that therefore – in the absence of any evidence against it – her story should be believed. The game abruptly becomes potential fact, and the relationship between the elder siblings and the youngest shifts in consequence. Objects and people – Lucy, Susan, Peter, the mysterious wardrobe – subtly change places, in the process changing their signification.

It might be at this point in the story that the knowledgeable reader brings to mind the mythical connotations of Lucy’s name. Lucy comes from lux, the Latin for light, and the saint who originally owned the name became associated by the Catholic Church with the longest night in the year, a time when the memory of light, and the current location of its source, must have seemed (in the days before artificial lighting) as far away and inaccessible as an imaginary country. But even in the longest night of the year the sun is real, and the conviction that its light and warmth will at last return can be sustained by stories as well as memory. That’s the promise Lucy’s name brings with it, in conjunction with her story: that things unseen may be as real as things we can smell and touch, and that the impossible may perhaps be made possible through a concerted effort of the desiring imagination.

 

NOTE

[1] This is an effect that gets destroyed, I would imagine, or at least altered, if you read The Magician’s Nephew first in the Narnia sequence. Lewis seems in fact to have written it last.

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Top Ten Fantasy Titles

[Last semester my colleague Matt Sangster challenged me to list my top ten fantasy titles (or, to be precise, my top ten works of fantasy literature written in the English language in the twentieth century). I’ve tried this exercise before, and the list has radically changed each time I’ve compiled it in my head. Call this a snapshot, then, of my preferences at the time of asking (October 2016). If he’d asked me the same question this month the list would have been quite different…]

Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist (1926)

The oddest of fairy tales, in which the bourgeois citizens of a prosperous town express their fear of sex, death, the working classes, unruly women and disobedient children, by banishing all talk of such things from polite society. They also banish a hallucinogenic drug called Fairy Fruit. Forbidden things (which also include the priesthood and the aristocracy) are confined to a place they call ‘Fairyland’, beyond the country’s borders. Inevitably the borders can’t be policed, and all efforts at containing illegal people and objects fail. Gorgeous descriptions, extravagant names, and a murder mystery complete the picture. A snapshot of English life in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.

 

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (c. 1940, published 1966)

Written in a language like no other, this bizarre trip into the tormented interior of 1930s Ireland – which is a miniature working model of 1930s Europe – is so packed with invention, so chock-full of gags, so musical in its rhythms and so disturbing in its vision of the way the world ticks that there’s no describing it. The nameless narrator finds himself caught up in the clockwork mechanisms of the universe. Although from one point of view his experiences are hell, they are punctuated by moments of such heartbreaking beauty and hilarity that the book is like a piece of shot silk, as dark or light as your mood at the time of reading. Boxes within boxes have never seemed so explosively complicated. Bicycles have never seemed so erotic.

 

Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast (1950)

An architectural fantasy, whose chief character is a labyrinthine castle governed by rituals whose origins and purpose have been lost in the dusty corridors of time. At first the castle’s denizens are as isolated from each other as the castle is from the outside world. Gradually they come together in the face of the threat posed by Steerpike, an ambitious former kitchen boy who seeks to transform the building into a totalitarian state, or a playground, or a madhouse, depending on his mood. A matchless commentary on the various forms of dictatorship, internal and external, that dominated the middle years of the twentieth century.

 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-5)

I love this for the subtlety of the transition from the world of the hobbits – the comfortable Shire – to the world of the ancient epic heroes; for the effortless interplay between telling details (mushrooms, pocket handkerchiefs, Longbottom Leaf, stewed rabbit) and the sweep of a grand narrative; for the sense of increasing danger it generates from the first chapter; for Tolkien’s obvious delight in bringing the remote past into vibrant life. The book perfectly captures the precariousness of the mid-twentieth century, in which war and imperialist expansionism threatened to obliterate the past altogether.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

A perfectly constructed story, about a boy whose abusive and lonely childhood gives him a problem with women that almost turns him into a monster. The world he lives in, made up of islands, encourages an isolationism in its inhabitants that only adds to his loneliness. The dragons here are the best in fiction, with the possible exception of Tolkien’s Smaug. Le Guin’s delight in the sea that both separates and links her islands is as palpable as her fascination with the social and political causes of psychological damage, and the strange roads that lead to healing.

 

Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)

Lessing called this an experiment in autobiography, and it’s the perfect example of how fantasy can force us to rethink the terms by which we understand the world we live in. A city is undergoing radical changes, a breakdown in the social order which the protagonist observes uneasily through the window of her ground floor apartment. The causes of the breakdown are unclear, but it’s implied that they have their roots in the breakdown of relationships between men, women and children in the domestic environment, which the protagonist also sees played out in a kind of looking-glass world on the other side of her living room wall. The style has a magnificent awkwardness that admirably conveys the difficulty of making sense of things, and the inadequacy of conventional forms of expression as a means of doing so. The ending is as ambiguous as it is exhilarating.

 

Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980)

The best collection of fantastic stories of the twentieth century. Though many of these are science fiction rather than fantasy, Wolfe’s refusal to authorize any single version of the strange events he presents us with invests the whole collection with a magical atmosphere, as if we are witnessing successive acts in a ghost circus. You’ll have to read these stories again and again in an effort to work out what happens in them, and each reading will give you a different answer. Just like living through the 60s and 70s, those decades of change when the stories were written.

 

John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)

Another architectural fantasy, set in a house whose many facades make it seem like several houses occupying the same space. Over three or four generations, an American family struggles to come to terms with its close relationship with a supernatural community of half-seen beings – perhaps the fairies – who have made their homes in the house’s environs. The fairies become a metaphor for the many forms of estrangement and misunderstanding that afflict the small community called the family, as well as the larger communities of the city, the nation and the world. Re-reading it now I think of it as the ultimate threnody for the political and social possibilities of the 60s and 70s. The prose sings.

 

Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock (1984)

A children’s book for grown ups. A neglected young girl makes friends with a man who seems in thrall to the mysterious head of an extensive and powerful family. The girl and the man tell each other stories and the stories come true in unexpected ways. Based on two old Scottish ballads, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, this novel is remarkable for the way it traces the changing relationship between girl and man until both are adults and equals. It is also an extended commentary on the complex relationship between the life of the imagination and ‘real life’ – whatever that is – and how the former changes as we change, adapting itself to our needs at different stages of our development. And it has much to say about our false assumptions concerning the natures of adulthood and childishness.

 

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000)

A disgraced scientist sets himself up as the champion of justice and the saviour of a city. In fact he is the one who put the city in danger by releasing the Slake Moths, monstrous yet strangely attractive insects that feed on the dreams and memories of men and women, leaving them helpless, barely sentient. A brilliant meditation on the problem of mounting an effective resistance to global capitalism in an age when everything you eat, wear, study, think and dream is in some sense an integral part of the capitalist machine. Full of astounding composite creatures (cactus-people, insect-people, machine-people) whose awkward hybridity confirms the fact that we are all of us bizarre from other people’s perspectives, and that we are all of us to some extent implicated in other people’s atrocities (which means we are also honour bound to work against them).

 

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