Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. A Retrospective, Part 2

[This post contains material relating to the recent event at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, which took place on 24 November 2017. It also contains the quiz, with all the answers!]

Watching Laura Richmond doing Superhero Science

The Quiz

Visitors were asked to find the answers in the museum displays; the quizmaster extraordinary was Dahlia Porter. You too can try this on your next visit to The Hunterian Museum! Answers at the end of the post.

  1. Nathaniel Chanticleer from Hope Mirrlees’s novel Lud-in-the-Mist loved to read the epitaphs at his local cemetery. If he lived near the Antonine Wall, what names might he have read on the tombstones?
  2. When Victor Frankenstein travelled to the Orkneys to make the female creature, he would have needed instruments and body parts like those in William Hunter’s collections. What science did they both practice?
  3. William Hunter received this as a present from his students in 1761, but it could also be the prize for winning the tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. What is it?
  4. Look for the display of Hominids: Brains and Tools. According to the nineteenth-century theory of devolution, if Dr. Jekyll is Homo sapiens, what would that make Mr. Hyde?
  5. What kind of Harry Potter dragon might hatch from the “Time Capsule Dinosaur Eggs”?
  6. A Tasmanian relative of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary beast in Hound of the Baskervilles is lurking in the museum. What is its name?
  7. Scotland’s coins rival the Gringotts Wizarding Bank! Which coin features a fantastic beast that is also Scotland’s national animal?
  8. In Beatrix Potter’s children’s books, there is a character named Mrs. Tittlemouse. She is hiding somewhere in the museum tonight. What species is she?
  9. In Robert Burns’ poem ‘Tam o’Shanter,’ the witches come out of a church like wasps coming out of a byke. How many bykes are on display in the museum?
  10. Look for the museum’s collection of musical instruments: how many are related to the instrument Peter Pan played?

Bonus question: In the gemstone case, #60 could be a pun on the title of a gothic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which influenced Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. What is the name of the poem?

The Labels

These labels were placed on cases around in the entrance hall and main hall of the museum, each marked with the unicorn cartoon shown here (the cartoon was based on the beast sitting at the top of the seventeenth-century Lion and the Unicorn Staircase to the left of the Principal’s Lodging, The Square, University of Glasgow). Some labels relate to specific objects on display; others riffed on the museum’s contents in general. Take the list with you when you visit the museum, and recreate the experience!

At the Fantasy Science Station

Entrance Hall

Label 1, Centre Case: Doctors of Fantasy Scotland

This entrance hall pays homage to the museum’s founder, Dr William Hunter (1718-1783), who helped make the University of Glasgow one of the great centres for the study of medicine. Fittingly, Doctors feature largely in works of fantasy connected with Scotland:

Dr Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Created a female monster on an unnamed island in the Hebrides, as a partner for his earlier male creation, but destroyed her before she could be brought to life. (Mary Shelley stayed in Dundee before writing her Gothic masterpiece.)

Dr Henry Jekyll, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Used chemicals to transform himself into his evil alter-ego, Mr Hyde.

Dr Godwin Baxter, in Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (1992). Said to have reanimated a dead woman, Victoria Blessington, at his house in Park Circus near the University.

And then there’s Doctor Who…

Label 2, Centre Case: Doctor Who’s Scottish Connections

Did you know that Doctor Who studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, under Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery? There have been three Scottish Doctors (Sylvester McCoy, David Tennant, Peter Capaldi), as well as two Scottish companions, Jamie McCrimmon (played by Frazer Hines, who is English) and Amy Pond (played by Karen Gillan). The Doctor Who writer and producer Steven Moffat is a graduate of the University of Glasgow.

Label 3, Centre Case: Arthurian Scotland

The Arthurian legends have left traces in Scotland, both in placenames such as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and in stories and films. Arthur is said to be buried under the Eildon Hills and Merlin in Drumelzier, Tweedshire. Antoine Fuqua’s film King Arthur (2004), starring Clive Owen, represents Arthur as a Roman cavalry officer guarding Hadrian’s Wall against the Scottish Woads; Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: the Legend of the Sword (2017) was extensively filmed in Scotland; while Doune Castle in Stirlingshire featured as multiple castles in Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

Label 4, by the Firmus Altars: Worshipping Ancient Gods

These altars testify to the worship of diverse gods by Roman troops guarding the Antonine Wall. The most important study of comparative religion and mythology in the early twentieth century was The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890-1900), by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer. This influenced many great writers including W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Among the books it inspired was a celebrated historical fantasy by the Edinburgh-born writer Naomi Mitchison, The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), an epic meditation on religion, magic and politics in the ancient world.

Label 5, by the Burials at Shirva: Gravestones in Fantasy

These Roman gravestones might make us think about fantasies of the dead. The fairies are often associated with the dead, and J. M. Barrie may have had this in mind when he imagined Peter Pan leading the souls of dying children to the afterlife in Peter and Wendy (1911). A brilliant fantasy novel of the early twentieth century, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), has a hero called Nathaniel Chanticleer who spends much of his time in graveyards, and ends up chasing his runaway son to Fairyland. Fittingly, Hope Mirrlees’s name is inscribed on her family’s monument in one of the great graveyards of the world, the Necropolis next to Glasgow Cathedral.

Volunteers

Lobby between entrance hall and main hall

Label 6, on the statue of James Watt: James Watt’s Contribution to the Fantastic

Famously the inventor of the steam engine, whose use in the nineteenth century powered the literary genre known as Steampunk. Prominent practitioners now in Scotland include Christopher Priest (The Space Machine, 1976) and Elizabeth May (the Falconer trilogy, 2014 onwards).

At the Harry Potter Station

Main Hall

Label 7, by the Plesiosaur: The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

Sssnnnwhuffffll?
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
Zgra kra gka fok!
Grof grawff gahf?
Gombl mbl bl –
blm plm,
blm plm,
blm plm,
blp.

Edwin Morgan
from From Glasgow to Saturn (Carcanet, 1973)

Label 8, on the case displaying Gold from Scotland: Scottish Treasure more Precious than Gold

In the children’s fantasy The Treasure of the Isle of Mist (1919), by the noted classical scholar W. W. Tarn, the treasure of the title is a hoard of Spanish doubloons hidden in a cave. At the end of the story the heroine, Fiona, discovers that the thing she really treasures is the place where she lives: the Isle of Skye, which is the Isle of Mist in the title.

Fiona was modelled on Tarn’s daughter Otta, who grew up to become the celebrated folklorist Otta Swire. Her work on the folk tales of the Western Isles is much admired by Neil Gaiman.

Label 9, in the area marked Minerals – Gifts from the Underworld: The Underground Fairies of Scotland

Scotland is a land full of fairies, many of whom live underground. One of the most important sources of knowledge about them was a book written by Robert Kirk, seventeenth-century minister of Aberfoyle, and published as The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies in 1815 and 1893. Kirk died in 1692, and was said to have been taken under Doon Hill, the fairy hill near Aberfoyle, by the people he wrote of.

The hero of the Border Ballad ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ was seduced by the Queen of Elfland and taken by her under Eildon Hill, where he lived for a while before returning to mortal lands with the gift of prophecy. The ballad has influenced much modern fantasy, including Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1984) and Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer (1990).

Label 10, on the case marked Time Capsule Dinosaur Eggs Case: Dragon Eggs

Those who wish to know about the danger of meddling with Dragon Eggs like these need look no further than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), in which Hagrid acquires an egg which hatches into a black dragon with poisonous fangs called Norbert.

Label 11, on the case marked Hominids: Evolution and Devolution. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, the excitement sparked off by Darwin’s theory of evolution (most famously described in his book The Origin of Species) gave way to a fear of degeneration or devolution: evolution of humankind into more primitive forms. When the handsome and learned Dr Jekyll turns into the short, hairy, aggressive and lustful Mr Hyde, Victorian readers might have said he had devolved or degenerated.

Label 12, also on the case marked Hominids: The ‘cave-man in a lounge suit’: Professor Challenger in The Lost World (1912)

When the Scottish novelist Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World (the inspiration behind Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movies, which lends its name to the second movie in the series) he introduced to the world the scientist Professor Challenger, who closely resembles a ‘cave-man’ in his strength, hairiness and physical proportions. Which one of these looks most like him?

In The Lost World Professor Challenger finds a surviving population of dinosaurs on an inaccessible plateau in South America – along with ‘cave-men’ of an unidentified kind…

Label 13, on the case marked Rocks from Space: Sir Terry Pratchett and the Sword from Space

When the English Fantasy Writer Terry Pratchett was knighted he had a sword forged for himself out of metal from a meteorite like the ones in this case. He may have been thinking of the meteorite sword wielded by Alveric in Lord Dunsany’s celebrated novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924). The Scottish connection? Pratchett invented one of the most famous clans in fantasy literature, the Nac Mac Feegles, who first appeared in his novel The Wee Free Men (2003).

Label 14, on the Thylacine and Dire Wolf case: Winter Is Coming

The dire wolf, which is now extinct, was native to North America. However, in George R. R. Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire (1991 to the present; serialised for TV as Game of Thrones) it is native to what looks from the maps like an alternative version of the UK.

In the first book of the sequence, a litter of ‘direwolf’ puppies is adopted by the children of the Stark family, whose home bears an uncanny resemblance to Scotland. Indeed, Doune Castle near Stirling was filmed as the Starks’ home, Winterfell, for the pilot episode of the first series.

Label 15, in the Scotland’s Own Coinage Exhibition: Gringotts

Coins are connected in a number of ways with Scottish Fantasy.

The Edinburgh-based author J K Rowling invented the most famous bank in fantasy literature, Gringotts in Diagon Alley, which Harry Potter first encounters in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997).

Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Bottle Imp’ (1891), about a bottle that grants your wishes, features a plot whose denouement involves finding the coin of the lowest denomination in the South Pacific. Read it to discover the details!

W. W. Tarn’s The Treasure of the Isle of Mist (1919) begins with a hunt for Spanish doubloons on the Isle of Skye.

Label 16, on the Harvest Mouse Case: Beatrix Potter’s Scottish Holidays

Beatrix Potter, whose book The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1917) features a country mouse called Timmy Willy like the one who made the nest in this case, spent childhood holidays in the Birnam area, Perthshire (it was from Dunkeld that she sent the famous letter containing the story that would become The Tale of Peter Rabbit).

There she forged a close friendship with the Perthshire naturalist Charles McIntosh, which is the subject of a fine exhibition in the Birnam Institute Exhibition Centre and Garden, Station Road, Birnam, Perthshire.

Label 17, on the Bykes, Nests and Mounds Case: A Hive of Witches

In Robert Burns’s fantastic poem Tam o’ Shanter (1790) the unfortunate hero finds himself chased by a coven of witches who emerge from a ruined church like bees from a ‘byke’ or hive:

As bees bizz out wi’ angry fyke,
When plundering herds assail their byke;
[…] So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.

Label 18, on the Magpie and Nest case: The Nest of the Never Bird

This magpie’s nest reminded us of the nest of the Never Bird in J. M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (1911). The Never Bird’s nest can float, and she uses it to rescue Peter Pan when he is in danger of drowning after being marooned on a rock by Captain Hook.

Label 19, on the World Cultures Case, facing the First Contact Case: Scottish Fantasies of the South Seas

 The Hunterian contains many artefacts collected from the island nations of the South Seas. The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson went to live in Samoa in a bid to preserve his health, and there he wrote the great short story ‘The Bottle Imp’ (1891), which features a bottle with a curse on it and a Hawaiian protagonist named Keawe.

Louise Welsh wrote an opera version of ‘The Bottle Imp’, with Stuart MacRae, called ‘The Devil Inside’, premiered by Scottish Opera at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in January 2016.

Label 20, on the Lady Shepenhor case: Scottish Mummies

The story ‘Lot No. 249’, published by the Edinburgh-born author Arthur Conan Doyle in 1892, tells of an Oxford student who reanimates a mummy using ancient Egyptian magic and uses it to carry our assassinations for him. As the first story to feature a reanimated mummy as a predatory monster the tale had a lasting effect on the horror genre in the twentieth century.

An earlier mummy story by Conan Doyle, ‘The Ring of Thoth’, helped inspire the 1932 film The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff.

Label 21, on the Archaeology Uncovered case, facing the Archaeology case: Fantasies of Prehistoric Scotland

One of the finest fantasies of Prehistoric Scotland, as represented by this skull and by the weapons of stone, bronze and iron in the case behind it, is Borrobil (1944). Written by William Croft Dickinson, who held the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, it contains imaginative explanations for the presence of various archaeological remains in the Scottish landscape, including hill forts, crannogs, long barrows, standing stones and brochs. It also contains a wingless dragon with poisonous breath.

At the Special Collections Station

The Books

This is the list of books from Glasgow’s Special Collections displayed at the event. Each has associations with Fantasy Scotland, and the selection was made by MLitt student Lindsay Middleton, whose notes these are.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Occult Philosophy
London: Printed by R. W. for Gregory Moule,1650
Sp Coll Ferguson Ai-d.10

Argippa argued for the existence of three types of magic: Elemental, Celestial and Intellectual. Each, he believed, ultimately came from God, and could be used uncontroversially by Christians.

In Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley cites Agrippa as influencing Victor Frankenstein: ‘I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa… A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind’. Frankenstein then travels to Orkney to make his female monster, creating a connection between Agrippa’s text, fantasy and Scotland.

Coronatio Naturae [i.e. The Crowning of Nature]
1597 – 1602

MS Ferguson 208

This is a collection of 72 pen and watercolour illustrations with Latin descriptions. The ‘Crowning of Nature’ is a symbolic representation of the alchemical process, aimed at the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone. Here, a dragon is being used to demonstration the Multiplication and Fermentation stage of the process. This magical creature is well suited to illustrate the creation of one of history’s most important magical substances.

“Nicholas Flamel”, Livre des figures hierogliphiques
France: 18th century

MS Ferguson 17

This French manuscript includes a series of watercolour illustrations known as Nicholas Flamel’s Livre des figures hierogliphiques. Legend has it that the hieroglyphs were originally found in a mysterious text purchased by Flamel, a fourteenth century scribe and bookseller, which he spent his life thereafter decoding. By doing this he is said to have been able to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, famously described by J. K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as bestowing immortality on its user and allowing base metals to be turned to gold Unfortunately, the legend seems to date from several hundred years after the real Flamel was alive.

Robert Kirk: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies
London: David Nutt, 1893
Sp Coll Ferguson Al-c.54

Robert Kirk was the minister of Aberfoyle. His Secret Commonwealth, originally written in 1691, is an account of the fantastic creatures that apparently lived in the surrounding land. He roamed the hills around Aberfoyle, gathering accounts of fairyland and folklore from residents. This rare edition features a commentary by Andrew Lang, who was undoubtedly influenced by Kirk’s account of fairies. The first volume was originally published in 1815 thanks to the author Sir Walter Scott, another writer of great Scottish fantasy who was influenced by Kirk’s non-fiction study.

Andrew Lang: The Yellow Fairy Book
London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1906
Sp Coll RB 4913

Lang was a Scottish novelist, literary critic and poet. His series of twelve “coloured” fairy books bring together children’s fairy tales from around the world, from authors such as Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. With the help of his wife, Leonara Lang, he translated and adapted fairy tales to make them suitable for children, and his series is one of the most well renowned collections of fairy tales to date. This 1906 edition contains beautiful illustrations by H. J. Ford.

Bert Finkle and the Markee de Saw

The Songs

Kath Campbell sang the following ballads:

  • Tam Lin, as collected by Robbie Burns (Child no 39a)
  • The Knicht o’Archerdale (Child no 47)
  • King Orpheus (Child no 19)

Bert Finkle and the Markee de Saw performed the following songs:

  • Never Never Land, from the 1953 Disney movie, Peter Pan. Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Jule Styne
  • Heidenröslein. Lyrics by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, music by Franz Schubert
  • I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
  • The Land of Make Believe. Lyrics by Peter Sinfield, music by Andy Hill
  • Nacht und Träume. Lyrics by Matthäus von Collin, music by Franz Schubert

At the Games Station

The Answers

  1. Salaman and/or Verecunda
  2. Anatomy
  3. Tri-Wizard cup or Silver-gilt cup
  4. Homo erectusor Homo habilis
  5. Chinese Fireball
  6. Thylacine
  7. Unicorn coin #10
  8. Harvest Mouse
  9. Fifteen [bykes]
  10. Four [flutes]

Bonus answer: Christabel

 Photo Credit: all pictures of Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland are by Stuart Dyer and Oliver Rendle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. A Retrospective, Part 1

On Friday 24 November, between 7 and 10 pm, an event took place in The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland was conceived as a celebration of the links between Scotland and the fantastic, in close association with the magically diverse collections of The Hunterian. It was also dedicated to the idea of Scotland as fantasy: a place people dream of even if they’ve never been there, whose residents are equally given to dreaming about alternative versions of the land they live in. This blog post touches on some of the thoughts that emerged in relation to the project between early August, when we received news that we would be funded by Event Scotland (Scotland Winter Festivals) and the Being Human Festival, and the event itself in late November, close to St. Andrew’s Day.

The Event

Night at the Museum gives us the opportunity to enter The Hunterian after dark – when it’s at its most atmospheric – and stroll around with drinks in our hands, discovering what the exhibits look like when removed from the cold and rational light of day. The first of these events I went to was dedicated to Robbie Burns and the work of the university’s Burns Centre, and it enchanted me at once with its blend of performances on stage in the museum’s main hall, atmospheric lighting, and research stations or stalls arranged round the edges of the display areas, where you could talk to passionate researchers about the adventures they were having among archivists, librarians, performers, artists, craftspeople, scholars and Burns enthusiasts around the world. It occurred to me at once that Shawn Levy’s original Night at the Museum was a fantasy movie, and that as scholars of the fantastic we should surely be holding such an event ourselves. My colleagues Dahlia Porter and Matt Sangster agreed; and we quickly formed a fellowship with Moira Rankin of the University Library – where William Hunter’s books are held in Special Collections, on the vertiginously elevated top floor – and Ruth Fletcher of The Hunterian, whose astonishing energy, imagination and commitment made her the driving engine of our collaborative project. Together we talked over ideas for the shape and style of the inaugural Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. Together we put in bids for funding. Together we won it, and began to draw more and more conspirators into our circle.

Like the Burns themed Night at the Museum the event was to centre on three elements. Research stations, where the public could meet and talk with researchers whose work touched on the theme of the evening. Performances, where the theme would be brought alive by musicians and actors. And The Hunterian collection itself, which it would be our task to link both imaginatively and intellectually to fantasy and the fantastic. As part of the event we aimed to bring some books from Special Collections to display in a case alongside the permanent items in the main hall. I also liked the idea of having labels or signs throughout the museum, pointing up some of the many connections we could identify between the collection and the idea of fantasy in and of Scotland. Dahlia and Matt proposed we have a quiz or treasure hunt, which would send visitors scurrying from object to object making new connections between the exhibits and the books or stories or myths we had in mind. Costumed guides should be available in every part of the museum, helping to usher the visitors to the more neglected corners of the building. I wanted actors, too, who would appear in unexpected places (balconies, elevators, springing out from behind pillars, swinging on trapeses slung from the rafters) and recite speeches in character about their own particular Scottish fantasy connections. This last dream never quite came to fruition, but one day, who knows? We have a little treasure chest among us stored with ideas that we didn’t have space or time or personnel to try, all of which remain available for exploitation in some future exhibition, festival or happening…

The process of selecting the research stations was both carefully thought out and somewhat random. We knew, on the whole, the fields we wanted to see represented, which included archaeology, Celtic studies, classical culture, museum studies, theatre, film and TV, and art history. We were limited, however, both by the number of researchers who were willing and able to give up their time and by how many stations we could safely fit into the space available. In the end the stations selected themselves from the long wish list we’d assembled. By a kind of alchemy they took shape quite independently of what we had in mind, and the particular selection of research themes and fields imposed a shape or structure on the evening which was not in any sense of our making.

Kath Campbell performing ballads

The line-up of performers, too, was the result of a carefully compiled wish list and sheer good fortune. I was obsessed from the start with the idea of having a bit of the musical Brigadoon, about a Scottish village that only materializes every one hundred years, but the company we’d lined up to deliver this had to withdraw at the last moment. I wanted the Haydn settings of poems by Anne Hunter, wife of John Hunter, brother of the museum’s founder William, because two of these poems at least – ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ and ‘The Spirit’s Song’ – deal with fantastic themes; but we couldn’t find a singer able to perform them. We had better luck with other things on our wish list. Supernatural border ballads were a necessity – there’s simply no other aspect of Scottish culture that’s given rise to so many haunting fictions all over the world (think of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer, Sally Prue’s Cold Tom, Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock). My colleague Kirsteen McCue knew exactly who should deliver them, and put us in touch with Kath Campbell, a scholar of ballads and Romantic literature as well as a superlative singer. I knew from the start who I wanted for our final act: those long-term stars of the Glasgow Cabaret scene Bert Finkle and the Markee de Saw. Bert Finkle I was lucky enough to know already; he’s also known as Neil Williamson, author of speculative fiction, whose novel The Moon King blew me away when it came out in 2013, and who put me in touch with the remarkable group of writers known as the Glasgow SF Writers Circle (SF here stands for Strange Fiction), thus revealing to me the very heart of the fantastic in my home city. I couldn’t believe our luck when they agreed to put together a bespoke show for our event, inspired by that most seminal of Scottish fantasies, Peter Pan. Afterwards I went around for days with the last song sung by the Markee ringing in my ears: it was Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’, and I’d forgotten what an exquisite melody it had and how strange its lyrics were. I found out afterwards that the Markee works in the Gilchrist Postgraduate Club where I and my co-conspirators had been putting our heads together for so many weeks. Small world, and a decidedly weird one.

Alan Riach gets monstrous

The non-musical performances came about through serendipity. It was Moira Rankin who suggested we contact Professor Kevin O’Dell to ask if one of his Zombie Science team would put on a short show for us. We were lucky enough to find Laura Richmond available, goggles and all, and her dazzling Superhero Science son-et-lumiere thriller had her audience, young and old, completely mesmerised (I sat next to a child on the night who was rooting loudly for the villains throughout the performance). Later, our colleague Professor Alan Riach suggested he perform Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, which is written entirely in an unfamiliar dialect of monster-ese, of which Alan is surely the most authentic human speaker. Again, the crowd was mesmerised (perhaps that’s why the monster is inclined to sing rather than roar when she emerges from the icy depths – she attracts far bigger meals that way). These four performances were all we had time for; perhaps the last-minute withdrawal of one of the acts was a blessing in disguise, as my Grandmother would have said.

Photo by Martin Shields

The most crucial element of the event was the volunteers. I had a vision of masses of people in peculiar costumes swarming through the museum in a whirl of colour and prosthetic ears and noses – something close to the mayhem that made up the best scenes in Shawn Levy’s movie. For this we needed help from students: postgraduates past and present who have (for reasons of their own, like the jilted lovers and runaway criminals who join the French Foreign Legion) elected to take part in the MLitt in Fantasy at Glasgow, or else to embark on PhDs or DFAs in this strange field of scholarly and creative activity. Over the two-and-a-half years when the MLitt has been running I’ve come to know something important about Fantasy graduates: that you’ll never a find a more passionate, friendly, imaginative group of people to collaborate with in the length or breadth of the Deep Dark Forest – or anywhere else, in fact. I wasn’t disappointed. When I asked for volunteers to dress up in costume, staff some of our research stations, guide our guests around the building, many stepped forward from last year’s cohort, and many more from the intrepid crowd who joined us in September. From among their number we found ourselves an intern to work with Special Collections in identifying books for display; an experienced stage manager to liaise with the performers; a world-class Harry Potter expert; a team of creative writers several of whom were established authors, published and unpublished, before they joined the MLitt programme; and too many more to list here.

Our army of fantasy-focused helpers was joined by equally passionate researchers from a range of other disciplines: the School of Education, who brought with them specialist expertise in Scottish fantasy for children and an astonishing range of examples; comics fans from across the College of Arts; games enthusiasts who know everything it’s possible to know about the different varieties of fantasy-based playing environments (one of these was a Fantasy Mlitt graduate); lexicographers from the world-renowned Oxford Thesaurus project, whose playful approach to words brought out their latent magic; and specialists in sexual health, who encouraged our visitors to think fantastically about sexually transmitted diseases (I still covet one of the furry herpes-shaped creatures they doled out as prizes). An undergraduate ably stepped forward to lead the team of specialists in palaeontology who could explain the science of the Loch Ness monster (what kind of a creature could she reasonably be if one were to set aside for a moment one’s scepticism as to her longevity and her ability to thrive in those icy depths?). I’m still astonished at the energy and passion these researchers and volunteers showed as they entertained and informed our guests for three solid hours, in many cases without a moment’s rest.

The stage was set for our spectacular. As bonuses, the wonderful Louise Welsh – Professor of Creative Writing, novelist, activist, opera maker – agreed to cut the ribbon for our event, while further well-chosen and generous words were to be uttered by Sarah Churchwell, Director of the Being Human Festival, and Steph Sholten, Director of the Hunterian.

In the meantime, Dahlia, Matt and I were getting to know the museum.

The Museum

The Hunterian in the 1830s

The Hunterian Museum was the brainchild of the physician and collector William Hunter, who built up a huge collection of paintings, books and objects in the course of his lifetime. First opened in 1807, and housed in a specially constructed building off Glasgow’s High Street, this is the oldest public museum in Scotland and one of the oldest in the world, a worthy forerunner of the New York Met, the Pitt Rivers, the Smithsonian and the V & A. That first building was neoclassical, a model of rationalism worthy of the age that produced the great Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, who invented the modern system of cataloguing plants and animals, as well as the economist Adam Smith and the chemist and anatomist Joseph Black, both professors at the University of Glasgow. When the university moved from the High Street to the West End in 1870, Hunter’s collection got another purpose-built home, this time a neo-Gothic hall at the very heart of the new campus. Designed by George Gilbert Scott in a fairytale style he called Scottish Baronial, the hall sends out mixed messages, unleashing a torrent of dreams, quasi historical narratives and industrial-technological associations which make it something very far from a model of rationalism. In its role as a feudal dining hall it welcomes visitors to a feast of history, while gently impressing them with its aristocratic grandeur. This is an ancient house, it seems to say, and long connected with the ruling elite; you may also think of medieval churches if you look at the rose window high up in the east end. As a work of architectural engineering, on the other hand, it would have impressed its early visitors with its modernity. The university’s main building was one of the first in the world to be constructed round a riveted iron frame, and the ironwork is obvious both in the exposed steel girders visible as you climb the magnificent staircase towards the museum’s front entrance and in the soaring pillars that support the timber roof of the museum hall itself. Rooted in the past, we look to the future, this ironwork declares; who knows what that future will bring, but we have done our part to ensure that it will be built on solid foundations.

The Hunterian now

The iron, which comes from the foundries of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, and the blond sandstone cladding the hall, which comes from the nearby quarries at Bishopbriggs, link the new structure with the Scottish industrial landscape. From the front of the university’s main building you can look out across Kelvingrove Park towards the Clyde, which helped spread the products of these industries across the world. The details of the museum building – the rose window, the metal columns with their fancy capitals, the stained woodwork of the ceiling and banisters – these are imaginative, the whims of dreamers, albeit dreamers with a sound knowledge of architectural history and engineering. The quality of the materials from which it’s constructed, on the other hand, and the huge amount of work that’s gone into putting them together, suggest that they are products of a time when labour was cheap, and when labourers and their families had little prospect of taking advantage of the university education whose physical housing they had helped to build. Fairytales and facts, history and dreams, politics and extravagant imaginings are interdependent, and it’s incumbent on us to tell the story of the sometimes vexed relationship between these disparate elements, and to celebrate the fact that the premises which house The Hunterian are now accessible to a wider range of social classes than ever before.

The Fantastic

The best narratives I know about the politics of museums occur in fantasy or fantastic fiction: stories that contain one or more element which is avowedly impossible, an artifact with magical properties, a face-to-face encounter between a still-living past and an unsuspected future, the discovery of a portal in the archives leading to strange alternative dimensions. Such fantasies invoke the foreignness of the new context in which museum objects find themselves, the clash between the cultures and beliefs that shaped them and the new narratives to which they find themselves contributing. They conjure up the excitement of the unexpected discoveries to which the often random eclecticism of a museums’ displays are always giving rise. And they remind us that there has always been something supernatural about museums, since they were first dedicated in ancient Greece to the worship of the nine Muses, those mountain-dwelling goddesses of science, art and memory whose names and functions were always changing with the changing times.

Modern fantasy (as Jamie Williamson has recently argued) has its roots in the same antiquarianism that produced the first museums in Britain, including The Hunterian. Exploring the past led writers to speculate about it; reading about mythology inspired writers to develop mythologies of their own; gaps in the historical record prompted writers to tell stories to fill in the lacunae. It’s no surprise, then, if museums feature widely in fantastic narratives. Even the story of Middle Earth has its repositories for historically or artistically significant items. When Bilbo Baggins gets home from his adventures in The Hobbit (1937) he lends his beautiful mail shirt to the museum or Mathom-House at Michel Delving, though he later recovers it to set out on fresh adventures in The Lord of the Rings (1954-5). In taking it out again he fulfilled one of the objectives of fantasy and the fantastic: to breathe new life into old ideas and objects and stories by bringing them into conversation with the ideas and desires and problems of today. Long before that – measuring time by the chronology of the fantastic texts themselves, that is by their date of publication – the Time Traveller in H. G. Wells’s first science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895) learns much of what he learns about the far future by visiting what he calls the Palace of Green Porcelain, a giant museum encrusted in tiles like the real-life museum complex in South Kensington. Unfortunately the palace doesn’t have much to tell him because all the books in it and many of the specimens have fallen to pieces. When the Time Traveller reaches for a lever on one of the giant machines it shelters, he doesn’t trigger some unguessed-at technological process of the far future but instead wrenches it off to use as a weapon, a stone-age club, against the skulls of the cannibalistic Morlocks who seek to ambush him in the building’s depths. In this book, then, the museum has lost its ability to communicate, to unfold a coherent chronological narrative, apart from the one of loss and decay that can be deduced from its dilapidated condition. The episode has, of course, a political edge. The great museums of the world are designed tell a story – indeed, multiple stories, one of which concerns imperial conquest, the process that enabled such a vast array of remains and artefacts to be brought together and displayed so far from their places of origin. The Palace of Green Porcelain declares that the time of conquest is over, that even the story of the cultures that inflicted it on their neighbours will soon be forgotten, rendered illegible to later generations by the long, slow processes of atrophy and decay. The Time Traveller, as a representative of the imperialist age of Victorian Britain, is himself reduced to stone age status by the need to protect himself against his own descendants, whose desire to devour his body is read by him as barbarism – despite the decades and centuries of equally savage exploitation, the cannibalism, so to speak, of colonized cultures, of which his body and mind are themselves the products.

The Time Machine, then, makes a story out of the loss of the museum’s story. It reminds us that a museum is a time machine, whose objects transport us back to earlier epochs – but which also make nonsense of those objects by incorporating them into new settings where they are decidedly not at home, just as the Time Traveller is not at home among his children’s children’s children, the elf-like Eloi and goblin-esque Morlocks. The notion of the museum’s contents being reassembled into a new shape – something strange, ungainly, threatening – is taken up by China Miéville in his novel Kraken (2010), which includes a museum that has somehow transformed itself into an ungainly deity cobbled together from the contents of its storage facilities and the glass containers that preserve them. Here is its first appearance, as it rescues the protagonist – a museum curator called Billy – from a vicious attack by a London gang:

It was a skull on the top of a giant jar. A huge glass preserving bottle, of the type that Billy had for years been filling with preservative and animal dead. This one was nearly five feet high, full of flesh slough and clouding alcohol. On its glass lid was a shabby human skull liberated, Billy absolutely knew, from one of the cupboards of remains in the Natural History Museum. It snapped its teeth. Where the rim met the lid the flaring glass served as its shoulders, and the thing raised two fleshless taloned arms taken from bone boxes, humerus, ulna radius, clacking carpals and those sharpened phalanges.

The angel of memory.

The dishevelled and battered angel of memory mentioned in this last sentence, who strives vainly to bring order to the debris of the passing ages, is the invention of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who himself died making a bid for freedom in wartime Spain, one of countless victims of the Nazi rewriting of history through so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’. Benjamin speaks movingly in his writings of ‘the heaviness at heart, the acedia, which despairs of mastering the genuine historical picture, which so fleetingly flashes by’, and which is embodied in the figure of the angel constantly blown into the future while stubbornly facing a past which it can never reduce to order. In The Time Machine the museum is a passive monument to this futile endeavour. Miéville’s grotesque museum-angel is an angrier embodiment of the concept, murderously protecting its acolyte, the curator, from the mob of vicious London dandies which aims to ‘pick his brains’ for their own unpleasant purposes. Loosely flung together from disparate parts whose names suggest they may one day know the dignity of being reassembled into a full skeleton, yet enclosing in its glass bowels the decomposing organic matter Miéville unpleasantly refers to as ‘flesh slough’, this latter-day angel of memory is lethally effective, dismembering its barbaric enemies with the speed of a ninja. History may have been reduced to rubbish by neglect, incompleteness, and deliberate falsification, but it still has a potency which means we ignore it at our peril.

The Angel Islington by Chris Riddell

Scotland-leaning fantasists are no less seduced by the allure of the museum than their English counterparts. Neil Gaiman is not quite Scottish, although he has a house on the Isle of Skye; but the protagonist of his early novel Neverwhere (1996) is a young man from Scotland. His Scottishness allows him to read the City of London with fresh eyes: eyes that discern both the mysterious under-city of London Below, full of lost souls, forgotten myths and abandoned scraps of history, and the incremental takeover of London Above – the everyday London of the 1990s – by the super-wealthy, who display a haughty unconcern for the intricate ties that bind past to present, or one city-dweller to another across invisible barriers of class, race and culture. For Gaiman and his Scottish protagonist, Richard Mayhew, the British Museum is the central site of this takeover. At a central point in the novel Richard emerges with his friend Door from the labyrinth of London Below by way of an abandoned underground station called British Museum, to find himself in one of the museum’s outlying storerooms which is full of ‘junk’: misplaced or forgotten cultural artefacts whose detachment from their historical and cultural contexts robs them of meaning, despite the fact that this particular junk is ‘magnificent, rare, strange and expensive’. They make their way to a private viewing in the Museum proper, where a multi-millionaire is displaying his collection of angels in a room marked ‘Early English’ (no doubt a reference to Pope Gregory I’s exclamation on first seeing the beauty of the early inhabitants of the British Islands: non angli sed angeli, these are not Angles but angels). The multi-millionaire’s angel collection is remarkable both for its diversity and its disorganization, having been described by Time Out (Gaiman tells us) as ‘indiscriminate to the point of trashiness’. Like the contents of the storeroom it has been reduced by its lack of context to the status of expensive junk, emblematic of the chaos on which the angel of memory seeks vainly to impose any semblance of meaningful order. Later in the book another collector, the assassin Mr Croup, obtains a priceless figurine from the T’ang dynasty and promptly bites its head off; his respect for antique art is clearly no more exalted than his respect for human life, and in this he shares the attitude of the multi-millionaire, whose name – Mr Stockton – suggests his tendency to reduce the world in general to so much stock to be bought and sold for his own advantage. Mr Stockton’s acquisition of the ‘Early English Room’ for the launch of his angel exhibition suggests the displacement of history and public service in his native land, as embodied in the public museum, by the worship of personal profit. It may also be no coincidence that in Shakespeare’s time there was a coin called an angel, or that the contamination of angels by association with total self-interest turns out to play a pivotal role in the plot of Gaiman’s novel. We put in museums the objects our culture values, though by no means always in monetary terms. Gaiman’s London Above has largely forgotten the other things we value them for.

Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932)

Having said this, one of the angels in Mr Stockton’s exhibition is painted on a door which opens to let Richard Mayhew and his friend into a room containing a genuine angel – that is, a former occupant of heaven. Light pours though the door as it opens: the ancient portal retains its aura, despite having been marooned among a mass of inferior angel-themed artefacts. Museums in more solidly Scottish and Scotland-based fantasies are equally conscious of the magical properties of museums and the objects they contain, when seen in the right light by sympathetic observers. They also seem strongly inclined to follow Wells in drawing out the political aspect of museum collections. Arthur Conan Doyle’s atmospheric short story ‘The Ring of Thoth’ (1890), for instance, which inspired Karl Freund’s 1932 movie The Mummy, tells of a young student of Egyptology who visits the Louvre Museum for research purposes, where he meets an unusually long-lived Egyptian who has nothing but contempt for the efforts of colonial nations to piece together the narratives of his culture from surviving fragments: ‘Your knowledge of the subject is contemptible,’ he tells the unfortunate student, ‘Yet it is superior to that of many who make even greater pretensions’. The Egyptian reveals himself as Sosra, son of the chief priest of Osiris in the ancient temple of Abaras, who discovered the secret of a vastly extended life and was thus unfortunate enough to outlive the woman he loved by many centuries. Thanks to his insider knowledge Sosra is able to supply the full narrative that lies behind one of the female mummies in the Louvre’s collection – it is of course the body of his lost lover – while incidentally expressing his contempt for the European researchers who violate the sacred burial grounds of his ancestors (‘no Egyptian would ever stain his soul by moving even the outer case of a buried friend’). Conan Doyle is unable to resist touching on the distasteful racial theories of the late nineteenth century – Sosra insists on his difference from ‘the down-trodden race of slaves who now inhabit the Delta of the Nile’, and his physical similarity to the figures painted on ancient sarcophagi tends to confirm his claims – but his awareness that the museum context can occlude the stories of the peoples whose artefacts they conserve still resonates in the twenty-first century.

Closer to Glasgow, Lisa Tuttle’s novel The Silver Bough (2012) revolves around a museum-cum-library which harbours clues to the fairy past of a small West Highland community. Its dull inventories, unvisited storage rooms and neglected corners preserve traces of a magic which, once painstakingly recovered by a diligent librarian, brings the past to life and in the process helps to reinvigorate the small community where the museum is located. In terms of politics, the novel makes an eloquent plea for the value of rural museums and libraries, and its most fairy-tale element may be the sudden financial windfall (an apt metaphor for a novel that concerns itself with the history of apple orchards in Scotland) which brings new life to the museum building at the novel’s close.

Julie Bertagna’s Exodus (2002), meanwhile, brings us to the premises of The Hunterian itself, in a not-so-distant future when the world has been overwhelmed by rising sea levels. Perched on its hill overlooking Glasgow, the university main building and the museum it contains serve as a Noah’s Ark preserving the evidence of past human achievements, deprived of coherence, like the objects in Wells’s Palace, by the loss of historical knowledge that followed the cataclysmic floods of the post-human epoch. For the novel’s heroine, a teenager called Mara, the objects in the museum’s cases embody the infinite achievements of past generations, and the infinite possibilities wasted by their failure to conserve the earth for their descendants by preventing global warming:

Now Mara walks into a hall full of glass boxes. Inside each one is a vast assortment of objects, every kind of human invention. And suddenly she understands. These halls hold the golden names of long-gone people who dreamed up the visions that took humankind from wooden clubs to space telescopes, from bread-making to the building of cathedrals, from baked-clay vases to violins and oil painting, from brittle twig combs to the delicate mechanisms of compasses and thermometers, then to computers and cyberspace. And finally to cities in the sky.

Mara is walking through a history of dreams.

Note here how the present tense stresses the precariousness of the future in which the novel is set. The story unfolds from page to page with no certainty that there will be another future from which to look back on Mara’s adventures, a future such as would be implied by the use of the imperfect mode. Sure enough, the museum does not outlast the second book of Bertagna’s novel series (pardon the spoiler). But the dreams that it evokes continue to animate humanity’s survivors. In particular the life size model of an ancestor of modern human beings, homo habilus, gets carried away from its main hall by a child who represents the next phase in human evolution – a young girl with webbed toes and a preternatural ability to survive prolonged immersion in the rising seas. The model later makes landfall on the shores of Greenland, ready like its new owner to begin a new phase of existence in what was once the harshest of terrains, now transformed into an oasis. We wanted to include the model of homo habilus in our Night at the Museum as a tribute to Bertagna’s novel, but in the end it proved too difficult to move him from the museum’s storage facilities; he will have to wait for another opportunity to resume his former place among The Hunterian’s display cases – though one hopes this won’t be so drastic an occasion as the novel suggests.

The other fantasy I know of that roots itself in The Hunterian collection is Hal Duncan’s exuberantly experimental novel Vellum: The Book of All Hours (2005), which begins with a robbery in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections. One of the central characters smashes a glass case in the basement of the university library, where Special Collections was formerly housed, to seize the eponymous ancient volume, with the aim of escaping into its pages and discovering a world or succession of worlds without laws or borders, where the dreams, desires and nightmares of humankind can be worked out without restriction. The volume in question was written by the angel Metatron, and the thief himself is also an angel, as are most of the other major characters in the novel: members of a group called the Covenant, they are sworn to resist any attempt to seize authority on the part of a deity, past or present. The volume contains a map, like all good history books or fantasies; but this map begins with the familiar (a detailed blueprint of the library building) before spreading suddenly abroad into the infinitely strange and unexpected. And it unfolds for page after page; there is no sign that it will ever come to an end:

The Macromimicon. Was it then a book of maps, not of what was, but of what might have been, of a world that had taken a different course, with this village growing into a town instead of that one, this town burgeoning into a city instead of another? I turned another page. […] Strangely – in retrospect – it never occurred to me that this book might actually be nothing more than mere invention, a work of fancy: perhaps the accuracy of the blueprint of the library held that idea from my mind; perhaps it was the power of the old family legends engrained so deep within me. All I know is what I felt: a growing conviction that this book spoke somehow of a higher truth.

The novel Vellum is the product of many hours’ research in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections. It encompasses (among other things) the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna and her descent into the underworld, Aeschylus’s tragedy of defiance against the gods Prometheus Unbound, the Egyptian Book of the Dead (that beloved resource of the American experimental novelist William S Burroughs), Freud’s psychoanalytic narratives, and the myth of Metatron, the Recording Angel of Jewish mysticism. Each of these textual resources (at least, the original manuscripts and objects on which they are inscribed) is worthy to be housed in glass cases in the world’s finest museums. But Duncan’s book liberates them from all glass cases, as the thief liberates The Book of All Hours, in the process demolishing the constricting grand narratives that the great museums of the world were designed to propagate. In Duncan’s book, chaos and anarchy are not destructive but boundlessly creative, and this attitude, freely shared among the members of the Covenant, is finally able to free Benjamin’s angel of memory (as embodied in all the angels in the novel, with their different perspectives and interweaving narratives) from the authoritarian constraints of official records.

Photo by Martin Shields

This is one of the ‘higher truths’ we wanted to carry with us into Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. For the evening, we wanted to suggest alternative narratives for The Hunterian’s displays which would head our visitors off in new imaginative directions, some of which have been touched on in this little meditation on the museums of fantasy fiction. The dynamics of the evening – with no particular route mapped out through the museum’s displays; with many displays left untouched by our Fantasy Scotland labelling but (perhaps) rendered a little more mysterious by their proximity to labelled objects; with performances breaking out at odd moments (we did not provide a programme so as to avoid excessive crowding around the stage in the main hall); with random volunteers wandering among the exhibits and research stations, some costumed, some not – the dynamics of the evening allowed for every visitor’s experience to be subtly or even wildly different. (One child sat at the creative writing station all night long, brushing off all her parents’ attempts to draw her attention to other happenings while scrawling page after page of – what? We never found out.) So, the eighteenth-century Blackstone Chair, which has been used for several centuries to examine students in the humanities or classics, became for the evening a kind of sorting hat in the corner devoted to Harry Potter and fantasy for children; but the nearby skeleton of the False Killer Whale remained stubbornly itself. The Dire Wolf inevitably got recruited as an extra in George R. R. Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire, while its next door neighbour in the same glass case, the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger, kept its own counsel, moving mysteriously through the bush of its native island, half real, half legendary. The magpie’s nest became temporarily the nest of the Never Bird from Peter and Wendy, while Ferdinand Verbiest’s Chinese-language Map of the Whole World continued to show the world as it was in the seventeenth century, from a Chinese perspective, for purposes you would have to turn to history to find out. The Hunterian’s mummy, Lady Shepenhor, became the mummy of Sosra’s lover in Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Ring of Thoth’. Most of the Roman artefacts from the Antonine Wall just stood there, waiting for something to take place in the spaces between them.

We hope that as a result, Scotland as well as the Hunterian Museum has got just a little larger, a little stranger, a little more fantastic.

 

[In the second post on Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland we provide the quiz handed out on the night and the labels that decorated the museum’s cases.]

Photo Credits: all photos of Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland are by Stuart Dyer and Oliver Rendle

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Bedbound

One morning, Mr McGhee rolled over in bed and refused to get up.

‘Are you all right, love?’ asked his wife. She shook him a couple of times, then went to phone his work.

‘Tommy’s ill, I’m afraid,’ she said.

‘No I’m not,’ said Mr McGhee through the open door of the bedroom. ‘I’m just not getting up. I’m never getting out of bed again.’

And he didn’t.

***

As word spread about Mr McGhee’s decision he became something of a celebrity. A piece appeared in the local paper. A national magazine ran a feature on him. A TV crew came to film him where he lay among stacks of empty pizza-boxes and buckled beer-cans. The longer he stayed in bed the more elaborate and satisfying reasons he found for doing so.

‘It’s a good bed,’ he said. ‘My grandfather and great-grandfather were born in it. Most of our dreams are dreamt in bed, and sex is best between the sheets. It’s nicest to have breakfast in bed, or tea in bed while watching TV. If more people stayed in bed there wouldn’t be so much greed and violence in the world. I like my bed, and all the evidence suggests that my bed likes me.’

His neighbours regarded him as something of a hero. After he’d been in bed a year they threw him a party, to which the lord provost and most of the councillors were invited. A piper serenaded him outside his bedroom window, and the bedroom became an Aladdin’s cave of unlikely gifts: porcelain figures, footballs, garden furniture, and every kind of spare part for his car. There was a cake with a single candle, and a lot of cards wishing him either ‘Happy Anniversary’ or ‘Get Well Soon’.

His wife left him three months later.

***

For a while after that a volunteer came round with meals on wheels. Then the day came when the service was discontinued. ‘You’ll have to get up now, Mr McGhee,’ said the cheerful official who brought him the news. ‘The trouble is, you’re not an invalid, so you don’t qualify for government aid. There’s nothing we can do to help you. You’ll have to get up or starve.’

Mr McGhee warmly agreed with the official, and began to starve to death almost at once. As day followed day he got thinner and thinner, till one morning two of his neighbours wandered in and found that he seemed to have stopped breathing. When they moistened his lips with a little beer he revived and asked for a slice of toast. So they phoned the district councillor, and after a short debate, responsibility for feeding Mr McGhee was resumed by his former employers, the city council.

***

Five years later he was interviewed again by the same TV crew as before. He had stopped shaving and his beard had grown into a thick forest at one end of the rugged landscape of his continental quilt. The quilt had developed growths of its own: fungal blossoms and several varieties of moss that throve on a diet of rotting feathers and liquid secretions from his body.

‘Do you miss anything?’ they asked him. ‘Do you regret your decision? Don’t you think it’s irresponsible to stay in bed when there are so many people in the country with genuine disabilities?’

‘They have their reasons for staying in bed; I have mine,’ he answered sagely.

‘Don’t you feel like a sponger?’

‘Sometimes,’ he admitted. ‘But on the whole that’s balanced by the memory of what it was like before I started to sponge. I can live with the guilt, I think.’

***

After that people forgot about Mr McGhee and his gesture of defiance. The delivery of meals on wheels became erratic. His neighbours no longer visited. Only his wife came in from time to time with a bag of this or a basket of that, but she refused to do so regularly. ‘You made your decision, I made mine,’ she said, and Mr McGhee warmly agreed.

One morning he found he couldn’t sit up in bed. He lay flat on his back for three days and three nights till his wife dropped by. She took one look at him and phoned the doctor, a call that had been delayed by fifteen years.

‘Your husband has had a stroke, Mrs McGhee,’ said the doctor.

‘Not Mrs McGhee. Ms Winkelmeyer,’ said the ex Mrs McGhee. ‘He needs to be treated in this bed. He can’t be moved.’

‘That’s just as well,’ said the doctor. ‘These days we prefer to treat our patients at home. The hospital wards have all been converted to suites for private patients. I’ll send some nurses over.’

Several weeks passed before the nurses arrived, and in the meantime Ms Winkelmeyer cared for Mr McGhee with dispassionate assiduity. The nurses, when they came, were big burly men with hairy chests bursting out of their green cotton blouses. ‘How are we today?’ they said to Mr McGhee as if he had suddenly turned into a roomful of people. Then they helped him to move his limbs, to sit up in bed, to raise his arms and legs one by one and flex them. These movements caused him excruciating pain. ‘That’s very good,’ they said. ‘Tomorrow we’ll begin speech therapy.’ They left him looking grey with agony, trying to swallow a pill.

Next day, as promised, the nurses began speech therapy. ‘Talk,’ they said, and slapped his cheeks. He rolled his eyes and laboured with his tongue, but no matter how he tried he could only manage to let out a few feeble screams when they slapped him. ‘Very good,’ they said again. ‘We’re doing very well. Tomorrow we’ll try walking.’

Mr McGhee shook his head and Ms Winkelmeyer protested, but the nurses were firm. ‘We mustn’t be lazy,’ they insisted. ‘A walk will do us good.’

Next day they ordered Mr McGhee to stand up. When he shook his head, they seized him by his skinny arms and swung him round so that his little withered legs were dangling over the side of his great-grandfather’s bed. All at once he spoke to them clearly.

‘Nothing you can possibly do to me,’ he said, ‘will make me take one step.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ said the nurses, pulling him upright.

He gave a terrible shriek, and died.

‘Poor soul,’ they said as they laid him on his quilt. ‘Still, at least he’s now at rest.’

***

His funeral was attended by an enormous crowd. As it turned out, Mr McGhee had bought shares in the successful Dreamboat Mattress Company and become fabulously rich, though he had never seen fit to mention this to anyone. He left his fortune and his bed to his ex wife.

 

 

Picture credit: Unmade bed by Silvina Day

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Octavia Butler and the Impossibility of Slavery

[For Black History Month 2017]

At the heart of Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred is the question of writing. How to write truthfully, effectively, humanely, about past atrocities: atrocities on a scale that can’t be conceived of, involving crimes that can’t be atoned for and bodily and psychological impressions that can’t ever be fully recovered by the reader as lived experience? Her choice of fantasy as a means of asking these questions might seem perverse, especially because she made it at a point in the history of the genre – the mid-1970s – when it was chiefly associated with the secondary world fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. The success of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in the United States led to the launch of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series, and with this short-lived but influential imprint a publishing phenomenon was born, inventing a genealogy for itself and spawning a host of Tolkien imitations and original novels from the mid-1960s onwards. And indeed, the Ballantine series could well have played its part in Butler’s choice of form. Its daring reimagining of literary history, which involved recovering forgotten texts and nurturing new ones, each of which found startling new ways to consider the relationship between the imagined past and the haunted present, had much in common with her project. In addition, Kindred is refreshingly open about the need for professional authors to tap into commercial trends if they are to make a living from the pen: its protagonist is a professional writer of fiction like Butler herself. Writing as a source of income constantly forces its exponents into intensive negotiations with the complex freedoms and restrictions of the literary marketplace.

But in writing what she called a ‘grim fantasy’ Butler may also have been engaging with a number of specific fantasy tropes. For one thing, she was taking advantage of an ancient association between slavery and fantastic fiction, which stretches back to the works of Aesop and Plato, both of them slaves whose imaginative storytelling alternately won them fame and got them into trouble – in Aesop’s case even getting him killed, or so the ancient biography attached to his name suggests. Aesop made animals talk and act like human beings – or more accurately like a strange chimerical fusion of beasts and people – and his successors included the self-professed apologist for slavery Joel Chandler Harris, who from 1881 wrote the animal fables attributed to his nostalgic ex-slave Uncle Remus. These fables attained massive popularity at the turn of the twentieth century, opening the door to more fantastic tales along similar lines. Harris’s most distinguished successor was the African American writer Charles W Chesnutt, whose story collection The Conjure Woman (1899) brought distinctly unsettling overtones to its tales of magic on the slave plantations of the antebellum South. These tales were purportedly told to the author by another ex-slave, Uncle Julius; and Julius is a very different figure from Harris’s genial source. He tells each story as a way of seizing some advantage for himself – as when he claims that a building is haunted by the ghost of a slave who was magically transformed into the tree from which it was constructed, with the result that the building is handed over to Julius himself for use by the religious congregation of which he is a member. Uncle Julius, then, is a sort of Brer Rabbit trickster figure, not the amiable sub-relative of a rich white family which Uncle Remus is content to become. And Uncle Julius tells his tales to a fellow African American rather than to white folks, or to the governors who were served by his ancient forebear Aesop. His book marks the beginning of a new chapter in literature, anticipating the deployment of the fantastic as a means of giving a voice to the monstrous past (the term ‘monstrous’ is one of Uncle Julius’s favourites) by African American writers from the late twentieth century to the present.

Chesnutt’s story of the slave turned tree, ‘Po’ Sandy’, tells of desperation, heartache, and physical and mental agony. The aggressively overworked Sandy returns from his labours one day to find that his master has sold his wife. He then marries a woman called Tenie, only to be sent away soon afterwards to work on a distant plantation. In response, Tenie – a ‘conjure woman’ like the one in the title – turns him into a tree, at his own request, so that he can stay near her; but Sandy’s master has the tree chopped down and sawn into logs (with horrific sound effects) while she is away on her mistress’s business. Tenie goes mad in consequence. Uncle Julius’s acquisition of the haunted building, then, serves in his story as a small restitution for the torments of forced separation and bodily violence inflicted by a barbaric system. In this the tale is quite unlike Uncle Remus’s animal fables, which ascribe the acts of savagery they contain to a natural order that lies beyond the enchanted circle of the storyteller’s ersatz family: a community of generous whites and humble blacks who live in perfect harmony and whose innocence is embodied by the old man’s most regular listener, a little white boy of seven or eight. Whippings and beatings don’t occur in this happily mixed enclave, and there’s no reference to them having occurred in the antebellum past where the ex-slave spent most of his life; but they find expression in the acts of violence with which his animals threaten one another, and which from time to time get carried out in earnest – though only ever on the strong and cruel, not the weak and helpless.

One thing, however, unites Uncle Remus and Uncle Julius with their progenitor Aesop. For each of them narrative is a means to an end, a necessary form of persuasion, a way of making things happen in the immediate aftermath of the storytelling act – even if all that happens is that the little boy stops damaging Uncle Remus’s belongings and brings him cakes in exchange for more stories. Their tales are bound up with their lives in a practical way, just as the building Uncle Julius tells of is bound up with the suffering body of the man it was made from – or just as the tall tales told by Brer Rabbit serve to extricate him from potentially lethal entanglements. The ligatures that bind story to world are embodied in the ‘morals’ traditionally attached to Aesop’s fables, which are replaced in Chesnutt’s book by the successive revelations of what Uncle Julius wants from his listeners in return for each tale. And as we shall see, that sense of an almost physical connection between the world of the story and the world of its teller is shared by Kindred to an unnerving degree.

The links between slavery and the fantastic grew stronger after Butler wrote Kindred. The African American writer Samuel R Delany started his epic Return to Nevèrÿon series at the end of the 1970s, much of it concerned with a slave rebellion led by a Conan-esque barbarian miner called Gorgik. In the late 1980s Toni Morrison published Beloved, which tells of another haunting, this time of an ex-slave by the young daughter she killed to prevent her being returned to slavery. More recently, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) reimagined the famous escape route from South to North as a physical track cut through rock and earth at the cost of thousands of hours of voluntary labour, an imaginary monument to the countless hours of involuntary labour suffered by African Americans on the historical plantations. The remarkable diversity of these fantastic representations of slavery, their experimental restlessness, which manifests itself most clearly, perhaps, in the various forms and styles tried out in his series by Delany, presents us with one of the reasons why the genre or mode of fantasy is so well suited to this topic. Slavery is an unfinished story, and one that can never be finished, in part because it can never really be imagined – and hence never really started – by those who haven’t been subjected to it. Using fantasy to speak of atrocity is to acknowledge that we who have not undergone such things can only ever dream of them, and shouldn’t be tempted into believing we fully understand their appalling causes and damaging consequences.

There’s another point here about fantasy which isn’t embraced by the crudely collective ‘we’ of that last sentence. With very few exceptions, African Americans have little hope of tracing their ancestry further back than a few generations. The forced removal of African names, the replacement of ancestral languages with the words of the slave-owners, the imposition of bizarrely inappropriate sobriquets from classical history – Remus the murdered brother of the founder of Rome, Julius the conquering Caesar, Caesar in The Underground Railroad, whose name recalls the plantation name of the captive African prince in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko – all testify to the fact that a white man’s fantasy made hideously concrete underlies the whole structure of North American slavery, a pseudo-Mediterranean rival for the pseudo-Nordic fantasies made real by the Nazi state of the 1930s. This systematic extirpation of traceable historical records leaves only the imagination available as a means of recovering the intimate details of African American history; and fantasy is the most open and honest rhetorical stratagem for asserting the role of imagination in conjuring up this painstakingly obliterated past.

At the same time, fantasizing about that past brings responsibilities with it. Slavery happened – slavery happens – and any attempt to address it needs to take cognizance of the facts as they have come down to us. There are plenty of counter-examples. Too many fantasies represent slavery as an unscrutinized fact of life, an exotic part of the scenery to be dismissed as uninteresting as soon as noted, or offer too easy channels of escape for their fictional slaves, thus cheapening the appalling practical and psychological difficulties involved in any attempt to win freedom from a life of forced labour. A particularly noxious example of the representation of slavery as exotic fantasy is the series of Gor books by John Norman, which enjoyed some popularity in the 60s and 70s with their pornographic depictions of ‘naturally’ subservient women in the sort of post-decadent sword-and-sorcery setting that Delany mocks in his Nevèrÿon series. The original sword-and-sorcery tales published in the pulp magazines of the 1910s, 20s and 30s by writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are full of casual references to slavery not much less glibly eroticised than Norman’s piffling mimicries of these precursors. Less offensive, perhaps, but equally problematic are the representations of slavery as a state from which one can simply free oneself without major repercussions. The socialist William Morris can’t be accused of perpetrating this sort of myth in his romances of the 1890s. The heroine of his The Wood Beyond the World, for instance – one of several books by Morris published in Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series – is first encountered by the male protagonist as a slave and later frees herself and him with her magic; and she goes on to suffer what sounds very much like post-traumatic stress disorder in later life. Nevertheless, she and her female successors in his late romances attain prosperity and lasting happiness without the torment of losing husbands, friends and children who remain enslaved. And even their condition as slaves acquires a kind of exotic allure from its context in what is self-evidently a chivalric romance, whose ending is likely to be a happy one, whatever rough territory its characters may happen to traverse.

In Butler’s own lifetime, Ursula le Guin famously chose a dark-skinned man as protagonist of her Earthsea sequence – though she repeatedly saw him whitewashed in filmed adaptations of the novels – and the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore (1973), represents slavery in her world from the slave’s perspective. At one point one of the protagonists, the young Prince Arren, finds himself chained in the hold of a galley. But he spends only a few pages in captivity before the inevitable rescue by magic:

The fog glowed over the deck like the moon behind thin cloud, cold and radiant. The oarsmen sat like carved statues. Crewmen stood in the waist of the ship, their eyes shining a little. Alone on the port side stood a man, and it was from him that the light came, from the face, the hands, and staff that burned like molten silver.

The Archmage Ged takes Arren from the slave-ship with consummate ease, leaving the other slaves unbound; and it’s some time before Arren’s thoughts return to his fellow slaves, and the question of why Ged didn’t also take the slavers’ weapons from them when he loosed their captives’ bonds. Ged replies that he did not unarm the slavers or bind them because he refused to be made a slaver in his turn; but the more complicated question of how far a band of freed slaves might be able freely to choose what is to be done with their former owners, or what choices they might be forced to make in the complex process of regaining their liberty, are never addressed. It’s characteristic of le Guin’s restless urge to revise and rethink her projects from fresh perspectives that she twice returned to the topic of slavery and its effects on the mind and body, first in the story ‘The Finder’ in Tales from Earthsea (2001), then in the dazzling third volume of her post-millennial fantasy series Annals of the Western Shore (Powers, 2007), which is all about the after-effects of enslavement. But at the time Butler wrote Kindred there had as yet been no serious attempts in fantasy (as far as I know) to inhabit the mind and body of a slave, with the crucial exception of Chesnutt’s work and that brief passage of le Guin’s.

The trope Butler puts at the centre of her story, on the other hand – time travel – was a familiar one in both fantasy and science fiction. The best known early example of its use, H G Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), transported a white middle class protagonist into a slave state of the future, where infantilized human cattle provide food for their masters in return for a lifetime of creature comforts, and where the time traveller’s own imperialist aggression finds frequent outlets in his penchant for beating out the brains of the cannibalistic masters. There is an irony about Wells’s vision which Butler must have appreciated. At one point the time traveller speculates that the master race in this future time must be descended from the industrial working classes, wage slaves who have exacted a hideous evolutionary revenge on the ruling classes who benefited from their labour by feeding on them for many generations. If he is right, then slaves have merely replaced masters in an aeon-long cycle, and there is no prospect of the socialist liberation from this cycle of which Wells was dreaming at the time his book was published; freedom is a fantasy and varieties of slave state may be humanity’s ‘natural’ condition. The fear that history may indeed be cyclical finds a clear echo in Butler’s book, and the struggle to free oneself from its nightmare has never felt more urgent.

A later example of the time-travel sub-genre, Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970), is in effect a nostalgic tourist excursion into turn-of-the-century New York, its theme tune of ‘jingle bells’ conjuring up all the pleasures of old time sleigh-rides unsullied by the period’s attendant torments and inequities. Butler touches only once in her novel on this kind of time-travel tourism, when the protagonist’s white husband starts to consider how delightful it would be to travel west in the early nineteenth century and witness at first hand the white man’s conquest of central and western America:

‘This could be a great time to live in,’ Kevin said once. ‘I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it – go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the Old West mythology is true.’

‘West,’ I said bitterly. ‘That’s where they’re doing it to the Indians instead of the blacks!’

He looked at me strangely. He had been doing that a lot lately.

This exchange takes place when the narrator, Dana, has become uneasy about how straightforward she and her husband have found it to settle into their new life in the early nineteenth-century slave state of Maryland. ‘For drop-ins from another century,’ she comments immediately beforehand, ‘I thought we had had a remarkably easy time. And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease. The problematic nature of their ease is confirmed by Kevin’s enthusiastic allusion to the ‘building of the country’, a metaphor that elides the materiality of the building process: the slaughter of the land’s previous inhabitants, the forms of more or less forced labour involved in the physical construction of farms and buildings, the violence, racism and patriarchy that underlie the ‘Old West mythology’. Only a white man speaking from the privileged position of the slave-owning classes could use the metaphor so glibly, and the strange look Kevin gives Dana when she points out the perspective he has just adopted emphasizes the wedge he has inadvertently driven between them by failing to consider his utterance from her point of view. A single statement has made them strange or foreign to each other, and in the process pointed up what the novel has to say about the fantasy of a single unified ‘country’ on which the state of America has been founded.

Finney’s Time and Again represents its journey as a trip home to a less complicated and more humane period of American history – utterly blanking the racism and anti-feminism of turn-of-the century New York. Butler’s novel foregrounds the complexity of the term ‘home’ in its opening sentence: ‘I lost an arm on my last trip home’, it begins, and it’s not until some way into the book that the reader begins to appreciate the difficulty of ascertaining which ‘home’ she refers to. Does she mean the house in Altadena, California, into which she and her husband were moving at the time of her first experience of time travel? Or does she mean the slave-owner’s house in Maryland to which she is repeatedly transported, and which she and her husband problematically begin to think of as ‘home’ in the course of their adventures? The Maryland house is more tightly bound up with Dana’s family history than the Californian house is, and when Kevin too gets taken back in time and forced to live there for several years he has appalling difficulty in readjusting to the twentieth-century environment on his return. More drastically, Dana’s experience as a slave teaches her that she must find a home for herself in the slavers’ house if she is to survive there at all. Dragged repeatedly to it by the mysterious link between herself and the son of its owner, Rufus – whose unusual name recalls the black central character of James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), thus underlining the kinship between the white boy and the black narrator which is gestured at in Butler’s title – Dana needs to build lasting alliances with her fellow slaves as well as with the child as a means of protecting herself from the cultural isolation that would inevitably destroy her. Her recognition of the need to make herself at home, so to speak, also drives home to her the devastating consequences for slaves of being sold away from the home they have been born into – the fate of ‘Po’ Sandy’s’ first wife in Chesnutt’s story. Two such sales of slaves who leave family behind lead to deadly confrontations between Dana and Rufus, and the only clue she finds at the end of the novel as to the fate of the slaves she met in the previous century occurs in a list of slaves put up for sale on the death of their owner. Home, then, for a slave, is a place to be clung to and cultivated as well as to escape from, and the contradictions built into it are summed up in the way Dana’s arm gets bound up with the wall of her twentieth-century home at the beginning and end of the novel – both making her part of the building, like Chesnutt’s Sandy, and inflicting terrible pain.

Language, then – written or spoken – is the first source of difficulty for the writer of African American history. A casual reference to the building of a country can become an act of complicity with the slavery that made it possible. The word ‘home’, often seen as cognate with ‘nation’ or ‘country’, becomes loaded with unwelcome connotations. The same is true of the reference to kinship in Butler’s title. We have already seen how the plantations used familial titles to naturalise the possession of human beings: Uncle Remus, Uncle Julius, in this book Aunt Sarah. Unsettlingly, these titles sometimes identified concealed or even flagrant familial relationships between black slaves and their white owners. The most disturbing aspect of Dana’s journey into her family history, as she is hauled back in time by a series of crises in the life of one of her ancestors, is the discovery that she is related to the slave-owners as well as the slaves of the early nineteenth century. She finds this out because of the boy Rufus’s surname: an unusual one which has been inscribed in the list of her ancestors recorded in the only book handed down by her family, ‘a large Bible in an ornately carved, wooden chest’. Rufus Weylin is set down alongside Alice Weylin as parents of Hagar Weylin, the woman who bought that Bible and began that list; and as soon as Dana recognizes Rufus as her ancestor the nature of his connection with her family, as recorded in the list, becomes problematic. It is inscribed alongside the name of a black woman, Alice Greenwood, who is Rufus’s childhood friend; and when Dana begins to think about the eight-year-old Rufus and his potential future wife, she begins to find the familiar names fraught with unexpected difficulties: ‘Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage? And why hadn’t someone in my family mentioned that Rufus Weylin was white?’ In nineteenth-century Maryland the word ‘marriage’ as applied to a bond between a white man and a black woman – and marriage of some sort if implicit in the fact that Alice Greenwood has, in the list, assumed Rufus’s surname as well as her own – is barely possible. The plain words mask a story of rape, enslavement, abuse and eventual suicide in which Dana finds herself a player against her will; an inadvertent pimp, so to speak, between her ancestral parents; an accomplice to sexual violence. Home, marriage, kindred, family history – all the words that help to make Dana who she is are thrown into confusion, and the way she understands herself and her place in the world is radically changed as a result.

As it turns out, the family Bible also provides testimony (or a testament) to Dana’s link with another white inhabitant of the boy’s household: his mother, Margaret Weylin, a frustrated and abused woman who takes exception to Dana as soon as she meets her, in part at least because she can read so much better than she can, despite her inferior status as a domestic slave. Later in the book, when Margaret Weylin suffers a physical and mental breakdown, she conceives a passion for the scriptures and becomes reconciled to Dana, asking her to read from the Bible daily to her as if to cement the unwelcome connection between them by a still more unwelcome intimacy. In the process the good book becomes a mark of ownership; Dana has no choice but to read it when she’s ordered to do so. If words are difficult, slippery things when considered in relation to history, then so is the Word, the divine scripture that gave Margaret’s granddaughter Hagar her name. After all, Hagar was the slave of Abraham before she became his wife, and thus testifies to the complicity of the dominant American religion with the system of bondage in which she was born.

Many commentators have pointed out the plainness and lucidity of Butler’s prose style; but her narrative of tangled relationships and disconcerting connections makes every word complex. More than this, it invests every word with a devastating forcefulness by virtue of its deployment in a narrative that literally brings home the horrors of the past. The Bible, the Word of God, begins as a receptacle where the words that define Dana’s family are recorded. It becomes a token of the link between Dana and Margaret – a link that is defined both by their kinship and by their status as mistress and slave. And it ends as a vehicle for Dana’s grief when Alice Greenwood Weylin commits suicide to escape from her abusive relationship with Rufus, its words brought to life for the first time since her childhood by her new understanding of the pain they articulate:

The minister was literate. He held a Bible in his huge hands and read from Job and Ecclesiastes until I could hardly stand to listen. I had shrugged off my aunt and uncle’s strict Baptist teachings years before. But even now, especially now, the bitter melancholy words of Job could still reach me. ‘Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not…’

Reading Kindred is, then, a learning process, for us as for Dana. We learn to read the world afresh both through the act of reading it and through the effect of the many other acts of reading that fill its pages. Most remarkably, reading and writing in it become matters of life and death. Each time Dana finds herself hurled into the past by some mysterious agency whose nature we never find out, she is confronted by a situation in which Rufus’s life is in danger: he is drowning in a river, he has fallen from a tree, his room has caught fire, he is being beaten to death, he is dangerously sick or suicidal. Metaphorically speaking, she must read the situation as fast as she can in order to save him – and not just Rufus but her entire lineage as inscribed in the list, including herself, since she will not be born if the boy should die before he fathers Hagar.

Literal reading, too, and its corollary the study of words, gains a new urgency from Dana’s relationship with Rufus. When they first meet she begins to believe that she can educate him, that he can learn from her, acquiring some of the more enlightened attitudes of her generation and thus helping to alleviate some of the suffering he will otherwise inflict. She tries to dissuade him from using offensive terms for black people like herself; to teach him to read and thus open his mind to other ways of living; to encourage him to respect other African Americans as he respects her. But her efforts at pedagogy find themselves countered by an appalling alternative education, whose force makes itself increasingly felt with every visit. Like the slaves on his father’s plantation, the boy’s mind has been shaped by violence: his father’s violence to the slaves and him, as he was growing up; his own verbal violence to his mother Margaret; the acts of violence he is exposed to in the daily running of the plantation and the wider slaving community. Even what she reads him is full of images of slavery, like the Bible: Robinson Crusoe, which begins in a slave ship and ends with a relationship between Crusoe and Friday which looks very much like that of master to slave; Gulliver’s Travels, with its representation of the Yahoos as worthy slaves to the wiser Houyhnhms; The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the protagonist Christian seeks deliverance from the slavery of sin. And as well as teaching him – he is a very slow learner – Dana is forced, at her own slow pace, to learn from Rufus: to undergo a crash course in that violent alternative education that shapes him alongside her own. The final lesson she learns in this tough school is to take his life: to stab him with a knife she carries when he tries to rape her. Before meeting Rufus she could never have done this; and there are many occasions in the course of her visits when she fails to do it or resists the urge. By the end of the book, however, he has learned to write and she has learned to kill; the pen and the blade have discovered a kinship as toxic and ineradicable as Dana’s kinship with young Rufus and Alice, her other ancestor, whom he rapes, enslaves and finally drives to self-destruction.

Writing and reading, as practised by slaves in the nineteenth century, are acts of defiance. These skills give the captive power: the power to write their own destiny by recording their thoughts and reading the subversive thoughts of others, or by forging a pass that will help them escape to freedom. This power must be countered by the owners with another kind of writing: the marks on a human body of the slaver’s whip, which impart knowledge to their recipients, knowledge of the system in which they are trapped and a deep-seated sense of their own entrapment. Teaching a black boy to read earns Dana her first whipping, and as she receives it from the boy’s owner, Rufus’s father, he ‘curses and lectures’ like an angry schoolmaster. Dana faints under his lashes and is transported home to California; and by this time in the story we know that this only happens when she thinks she’ll die. Later, however, she learns more about whipping; it’s not such a crude or merciful measure as she thought at first. No intelligent owner, she finds, would kill a valuable slave with his blows if he can help it; and the discovery means that next time she’s whipped (after an attempted escape) she remains where she is, a slave in Maryland. The second whipping is embedded in the vocabulary of knowledge through pain, pitched directly against the vocabulary of learning. ‘Educated nigger don’t mean smart nigger, do it?’ says Rufus’s father, commenting on Dana’s ineffectual efforts to run away. ‘You’re going to get the cowhide,’ Rufus then tells her, ‘You know that’ – and at this point she realises that she ‘hadn’t known’, that the young man’s gentleness had led her to think he would let her off lightly. She knows more than she wants to, however, about the function of cowhide. As Rufus’s father beats her,

I tried to believe he was going to kill me. I said it aloud, screamed it, and the blows seemed to emphasize my words. He would kill me. Surely, he would kill me if I didn’t get away, save myself, go home!

It didn’t work. This was only punishment, and I knew it.

She has, in other words, learned her lesson; she has taken another step towards becoming a naturalised citizen of a slave state. Her literacy in the ways of violence keeps her away from her own time and place, preventing her from finding escape in the fear of death that would send her home, barring her from the art of writing by which she defined herself in modern California. One knowledge drives out or supplants another, and she spends the rest of the book seeking desperately to win back her identity as a writer, and with it what she increasingly identifies as her life.

In her own time, Dana’s talent for writing helps her forge a community: the miniature community of husband and wife and their potential offspring, the family of the future as against the family inscribed in the Bible and thus embedded in the past. Both she and her husband Kevin are professional writers, and their capacity for writing – and for the meticulous research which is everywhere apparent in Butler’s novel, the quest for truth in other writers’ texts – is both part of what draws them together in the first place and part of what enables them to imagine a future for themselves which departs from the cyclical entrapments of a traumatic history. The temerity of their decision to live by writing is signalled by the fact that they meet in a factory, where they are forced to work because they can’t make a living from their pens. The temerity of their decision to become partners in the 1970s is signalled by the fact that they are both disowned by their nearest relatives when they get together. But a living can be made from the pen with sufficient commitment, just as a new family can be formed by a meeting of minds and bodies against all odds. The new home into which they move is proof of this; they buy it together with the proceeds of Kevin’s most successful book. Living in it, though, once they have bought it, is not so easy. The fact that it’s Kevin who bought it – the straight white male in their relationship – suggests that it doesn’t yet belong to both of them equally when they move in. Kevin finds it hard to write there, even before the first time travelling episode. And it’s while unpacking books, the tools of their trade, that Dana first gets hurled into the past, as if to show that the words they use, the knowledge they draw on, the possibilities they imagine for the future, remain interwoven with unresolved issues from the past which must be confronted before the future can begin. In the course of her adventures, Dana’s marriage becomes a kind of utopia, the one possibility she clings to of a brighter future when her troubles and travels are over. The serious business of making it properly utopian, however, must be deferred till the time travel ends – and hence till after the end of Butler’s book.

Which brings us back to fantasy fiction, and why Butler chose it as the vehicle for her tale, as against the science fiction with which she made her name.

Fantasy is often defined as the literature of the impossible: a kind of writing that takes as its starting point an acceptance on the part of the reader that she will choose to believe, throughout the act of reading, in events, people, things and places that could never exist in past or present or the conceivable future. This is where it doffers from science fiction, which is concerned with the possible – or rather takes as its premise the possibility that what it describes might really take place at some point in the future, or might have done in an alternative version of the universe we know. Possibility versus impossibility; this is the difference between SF and the fantastic. There is just one impossible thing in Butler’s book: the series of unexplained events that take Dana back from her own time, the 1970s, to the early nineteenth century. The rest of the book is a model of realism; the kind of realism that stresses the material necessities and practical difficulties with which it confronts its characters. Dana is always asking herself how to take objects and clothing with her when she leaps through time, how to alleviate the bodily and psychological damage she suffers in her beatings, how to persuade Rufus to supress his desire for her and think instead about his responsibilities to his slaves and his children. She simply has no time to wonder how she keeps making those leaps; there are too many more important things to consider.

At the same time, she keeps coming up against the impossibilities of slavery. Her leaps through time are each caused by the fact that she believes she is about to die, having reached the limits of what the human body can endure. As those limits get more extended, as her body learns to endure greater punishment, she is confronted with different impossibilities – psychological ones; above all, how to reconcile herself to the increasing ease with which she is adapting to the intolerable conditions in which she finds herself. She begins to choose to return to her time by committing suicide, again and again, in dreadful anticipation of the eventual suicide of her body double, her ancestor Alice. Ease itself becomes a problem for her, as it does for Kevin when he returns from his one extended trip to Maryland. ‘Everything is so soft here,’ he tells Dana, ‘so easy. […] It’s good. Hell, I wouldn’t go back to some of the pestholes I’ve lived in for pay. But still…’ Concealed behind that final ellipsis is the thought that ease is difficult for him, an uneasy nostalgia for the titanic efforts required of him from day to day in the past he’s left behind for ever. That ellipsis, in fact, represents the terrible possibility that he might by now feel more at home in the days of the slave trade than in the days of the automobile and the electric oven.

Ease, in fact, is what finally drives Dana to kill Rufus in self-defence. The brilliance of Butler’s portrait of this slave-owner, abuser and rapist is how strangely attractive she makes him seem – largely, perhaps, because we’ve seen every detail of how he was made into what he is, but also because of his awkward fusion of kindness and cruelty, aggression and thwarted affection. At the point when he’s about to rape her Dana is suddenly struck by the fact that she could partially consent; that she could become his slave mistress, bear his children, integrate once and for all into his perverse pastiche of a loving family; after all, she is already ‘Aunt Dana’ to his son by Alice.:

He lay with his head on my shoulder, his left arm around me, his right hand holding my hand, and slowly, I realised how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this. So easy, in spite of all my talk. But it would be so hard to raise the knife, drive it into the flesh I had saved so many times. So hard to kill…

If the whip represents the pen of the slaver then the knife could be said to represent one of the pens available to the slave: a pen whose use involves automatic self-destruction, but which also writes freedom in death for those who choose to wield it. For Dana, imminent death is a key to life – it will take her ‘home’; yet killing remains the difficult option. When Kevin tried to persuade her it was necessary, back in California, he couldn’t even utter the word. The easy option is the happy ending, Tolkien’s eucatastrophe; a false reconciliation which is embodied in the parody of an affectionate embrace described in the passage. Dana’s decision to use the knife instead is not a triumph; it is, like Tenie’s decision to transform ‘Po’ Sandy’ into a tree, the counsel of desperation. It’s a refusal of something that had once seemed impossible, but has somehow made itself possible in the course of Dana’s adventures. It’s an acknowledgment that simple happy endings, too, are impossible, like utopias; they exist no place, and the best we can do to achieve them is to reject the grim alternatives when we have power to do so.

The end of Kindred is a series of ellipses, of gaps in the narrative. Dana never finds out the fate of most of her friends from the nineteenth century, never learns what became of her ancestors Hagar and Joe, Alice’s children by the rapist Rufus. At the end of the book, as at the beginning, she knows only their names, although she can conjecture some of the paths they might have taken on the long road to liberty. But her quest to bring them to life – through her dealings with Rufus, through her writing of the novel – have made the past immeasurably closer for her readers. Immeasurably closer, and a lot less easy.

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Autumn Lights

At nightfall when the cottage lights went on the street should have been plunged in an abysmal darkness; but where Mr Printon (being an educated man) knew the stars must be, although he had never seen a star, there was a palpitating red glow like the inside of a mouth. That glow throbbed to the distant city’s pulse, as did the constant moan of traffic as it bowled along the raised motorways that gripped the city in concrete coils. Mr Printon did not live in the city. He inhabited the town of Addenden, an urban satellite with a steadily expanding population towards whose prosperity, he flattered himself, he had made a not insignificant contribution. His office stood only three hundred and sixty-seven paces from his cottage gate, and between the door of the cottage and the door of the office Mr Printon led a life of such regularity it was a wonder there was not a trench from threshold to threshold.

Apart from twenty-seven pounds a week spent on cigarettes Mr Printon’s management of his domestic economy was irreproachable. He was a man of clean-cut principles, his suit well shaven, his chin faultlessly pressed, his bowler hat immaculately brushed and his hair set at a jaunty angle on his (though he said so himself) polished intellect. He kept to his daily timetable with a precision not to be measured with instruments. Passers-by were blinded by the shine from his shoes, and you might wound yourself on his pocket-handkerchief.

The reason for Mr Printon’s fastidiousness (if reason it could be called) lay in the walk to his office and his twice-weekly visit to the town shopping centre. It could be found in the fluttering of abandoned newspapers, insurance policies, travel brochures and miscellaneous refuse on the pavement; in the gurgle of oily water in the drains; in the smelly sludge that slimed the streets on rainy days; in the shrieks of despair or snatches of drunken bawling that scrabbled against his window at night; in the amorous wails of his neighbour’s cat; and above all, in the faceless passers-by reduced to a shabby anonymity by the murk that passed for weather in these prosperous parts. That was why when Mr Printon returned home every evening he enacted furtive rituals with tape-measures, weighing scales, pocket calculators and soap.

At eight o’clock each morning (after an hour’s careful grooming) he entered the kitchen with ceremonious solemnity. He switched on the kettle and the radio, boiled water in a pan for his breakfast egg, swallowed a glass of orange juice fortified with nine additional vitamins together with whatever tablets his doctor had prescribed, then settled down to read the newspaper over a cup of strong black coffee. In his opinion the government could do worse than take his household arrangements as a model for the running of the nation.

Consider, then, his consternation when he entered the kitchen one morning and found there was no egg. He stood for an indeterminate period staring into the recesses of the fridge as if he expected the egg to drop out of the freezer compartment with an icy cluck. Shaken, he reached for the orange juice – only to find that this was missing likewise. His brain gave out a hiss of bafflement tinged with anxiety, and it was only after several seconds that he realized he was listening to the white noise emitted by the radio. Then he turned to the sideboard and found to his relief that the coffee-jar was still half full. He brewed himself a cup of coffee, swallowed the aspirins he discovered in his pocket and settled down to search for an explanation in the newspaper.

Then he found himself searching for the newspaper.

He even opened the front door and peered out into the misty morning, but the mat had WELCOME on it and nothing else. That word, WELCOME, somehow disconcerted him, and he hurriedly closed the door. He was, he concluded, sickening for something, and accordingly strode to the medicine cupboard with a new sense of purpose, swallowed everything he found there, and began to feel genuinely queasy.

Now he realized that a new sound was buzzing in the hairs of his ears, having detached itself from the hiss of the radio. Little by little he heard voices in the confusion. He drew aside a corner of the hall curtain, and though the mist was pressing up against the glass he could tell that a crowd had gathered in the High Street and was heading towards his cottage. He had the absurd impression that they were coming to root him out with staves and scythes, as the Roman peasantry might have rooted out a fallen emperor. Fighting the nausea in his stomach he donned a raincoat, took his bowler hat and tightly rolled umbrella and stepped over WELCOME, the perennial concerned citizen, to find out what was going on.

The street lamps still glimmered at intervals through the mist. A light wind was blowing which would soon disperse the early morning vapours. As he stood by the cottage gate he soon made out the foremost figures hurrying towards him with the intentness of those who can feel their purpose rapidly slithering away. Mr Sanders the estate agent, Miss O’Toole the postmistress and a slender young man in a silk shirt were the first he recognized. Soon a host of faces known and unknown were milling about the newcomer, chattering in high, strained voices, rubbing the backs of their necks, shifting from foot to foot, staring up into the impenetrable blankness. The townspeople converged about Mr Printon’s bowler hat as about the entrance to a government building, finding comfort in his rigid collar and gold cuff-links.

‘O Mr Printon, thank God you’re safe!’

‘Mr Printon, have you heard? There’s been no food for a fortnight!’

‘We tried to hush things up, sir, to prevent unnecessary panic; but stocks in the shops are running very low.’

‘O Mr Sanders, I’m perishing with hunger already. I’d nothing but a slice of bread for my supper last night!’

‘Be calm, Miss O’Toole. Don’t fret yourselves, don’t fret yourselves!’ exclaimed Mr Printon in his most authoritative tones. ‘Everything is under control. No doubt it’s a strike, or a temporary side-effect of the spending cuts; they’ll soon have things back to normal.’

‘O Mr Printon, do you really think so?’

‘You don’t think it’s anything serious, then, Mr Printon? I can’t tell you what a relief that is.’

‘I’ve such a respect for Mr Printon’s judgement!’

‘Constable Mathers! Has no-one contacted the council yet?’

‘No, sir, the lines are dead. I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic, but perhaps it’s a terrorist attack?’

‘Mary mother of God and all the saints preserve us!’

‘What a ridiculous notion! Who’d attack Addenden?’

‘Complete waste of time. Much better bomb the city.’

‘Perhaps that’s what’s happened! Perhaps the city’s no longer there! O God, has anybody been to look?’

‘For heaven’s sake, calm yourselves!’ Mr Printon called over the rising hubbub. He lifted his umbrella and rapped the pavement sharply with the tip. A sudden hush fell. Mr Printon cleared his throat and felt himself rising to the occasion.

‘Listen here, townspeople. It won’t do a scrap of good panicking about it. Since we’ve no means of contacting the authorities by telephone, we must take the situation into our own hands. I’m sure we’ve got enough tinned and dried food between us to withstand a siege. All it needs is for one of us – a respectable, trusted member of the community – to go to the city and demand an explanation. There can’t be anything materially wrong or we’d have heard about it yesterday on the radio. Constable Mathers, you’re a man of sense; gather these good people in the village hall, organize hot drinks and refreshments; perhaps Mr Sanders will be so good as to entertain us with a song or two. I myself will take responsibility for delivering our grievances to the government.’

At this there was an outburst of scattered clapping and somebody raised a faint cheer. Mr Sanders swelled with pride to hear his vocal talent acknowledged; Miss O’Toole gazed at Mr Printon with unfeigned admiration; the motherly constable began to shepherd the villagers through the fog in the direction of the village hall, and Mr Printon was left alone by the cottage gate crowned with the hopes of his people.

Mr Printon’s bicycle was a machine that drew glances, if only because he rode it so seldom. It was painted black and glinted like a very slow meteor. Mr Printon put on an apron and polished it with a soft cloth every time he wheeled it out of the garden shed. He now pins up his trouser-cuffs with bicycle clips, presses his hat firmly over his brows and straddles the saddle. Declamatory trumpets sound in his head as he begins his stately progress up the High Street, past the entrance to the shopping centre, past the church, toiling up to the top of the little ecclesiastical hillock, then spins faster and faster into the basin of lingering darkness, leaving the morning, the mist and humanity in sunlight at the summit.

Oddly enough, although Mr Printon was in the habit of extolling the benefits of the country air he very rarely visited the open countryside because he suffered both from hayfever and a touch of agoraphobia. Moreover, he had a horror of insects, especially the kind that crawl up your trouser legs and get themselves hopelessly entangled in your hair, that flutter in your face and give you unsightly stings on the calves and forearms. His declaration that he would go to the city had been made on the assumption that he could bestride his bicycle and appear in the city centre with as much ease as he entered and left the bus, of which there were only two a day. He read financial newspapers on the bus journey, which meant that he had no idea what the land looked like between Addenden and the metropolis. He had a vague impression of neat farmhouses, lollipop trees and geometrical fields formed during his schooldays, when he had coloured in pictures of such things with felt tip pens, making sure not to go over the lines. So it was hardly surprising that he lost himself almost at once.

At first he concentrates on pedalling his bicycle. His pinstriped trousers pump up and down, his head juts forward between his shoulders as he peers intently ahead to avoid colliding with cars, curbs or trees. He sees no cars or curbs, but trees become more and more thickly crowded on either side, and the tarmac becomes more and more uneven until he begins to fear for his tyres. Riding his bicycle has always inspired him with a confidence far in excess of his skill on the road, no doubt because the only other vehicles he has used operate to timetables and one complains when they arrive late or at the wrong destination. The sun comes out overhead – as much as it ever comes out in these prosperous parts – transforming the permanent cloud canopy into a translucent sheet of light whose source is untraceable. To his distress, and in spite of the flickering shadows of the passing trees, Mr Printon begins to perspire. The road rises steeply before him and yes, it is now definitely no more than a track. But Mr Printon has no more thought of turning back than a railway train. Up and down pump his pinstriped trousers. His bicycle jolts over stones and he fears for his tyres.

About midday the track swerves to the right and is crossed by a sparkling brook. Before he can stop himself he has plunged his bicycle into the midst of the current, soaking his trousers to the knee. The bed of the stream is muddy so that half way across the wheels stick fast. Mr Printon’s balance was never of the best, and it is not easy at the best of times to remain upright on a stationary bicycle; he topples sideways with a cry of despair and a thunderous splash. Fortunately (for Mr Printon’s education doesn’t extend to swimming) the brook is no more than five inches deep. Nevertheless it takes several minutes of floundering and gasping before he has wrestled his conveyance and himself from the mud and caught his bowler hat, which has drifted several yards downstream. The lorry of his shoes is utterly extinguished, his hair disarrayed, his handkerchief’s razor edge blunted – and as for his suit! In an agony of frustration he hurls his cigarettes into the water. Then he resumes his journey. The thought of turning back still has not entered his head.

An hour or so later his pauses have become more frequent. The branches sweep low across his path, twigs stick in his hair. A branch has caught his bowler hat and whipped it out of reach; in vain he tries to knock it down or scramble up the offending tree – he has only torn his trousers and covered his jacket with blue-green mould. Silvery cobwebs are profuse in this neck of the woods; every time one brushes his skin he stops to feel for spiders, though he seldom finds one. He has taken off his raincoat so that when it starts to rain he gets drenched before he can unfasten the saddlebag. A while later he finds that the saddlebag has dropped off unnoticed. One of his shoes somehow gets jammed in the pedal and splits. When the wood turns to larches he is showered with brown needles that work their way under his shirt collar, down his back and into his socks. He has three punctures, one in each tyre and one in his hand where he crashed into a prickly spruce that sprang into his path. And now the path is scarcely visible, the twilight under the boughs is deepening. He cannot tell the time because his watch has stopped. At this point it occurs to him, with the clarity of revelation, that it might be wise to turn round, go home and take the bus.

In autumn the night can drop with appalling suddenness on the hills. Here, far from the city’s pulse, the darkness is utter. Here on rare occasions the cloud-canopy is ripped open, and through the hole one catches a glimpse of the spangled depths on which the earth spins like a bowler hat on a turbulent ocean. On this fleeting window a man may gaze to see himself reflected, or his eyes may pierce the shining surface to plumb infinity. Through this hole from time to time the night descends to pace the earth in awful nakedness. Mr Printon (whose mind retained a few scraps of classical reading) knew the tale of Actaeon, even if he couldn’t replace his inner tubes; but he had never before tonight seen Diana unveiled.

By this time on his journey there are two Mr Printons. One toils numbly along, dismounting from his bicycle, remounting whenever the trees thin out enough, losing his shoe in a muddy patch, losing his handkerchief, bumping into treetrunks, breathing heavily as he strains uphill, panting as he attempts to restrain his bicycle in its downward career. The other Mr Printon has wandered off in a different direction, is now striding sternly through the lobby of a government building to present his grievances to the prime minister in an elegant leather briefcase. Or eating rogan josh, a favourite dish, in a city restaurant. Or asking himself whether he ought not to be pushing his bicycle the other way, whether he might not soon strike a tarmac road where he might possibly catch a lift from a passing lorry, whether that is the hum of traffic he hears in the distance or merely the rushing of a woodland stream astonishingly like the one he came to grief in earlier. He finds himself perishing with thirst, so he kneels on the muddy bank and scoops up some of the water in his two cupped hands. It is icy cold and reminds him how chilly his numb counterpart must be, alone in the woods so far from human habitation. He even begins to pity that other self, as he sits by a warm fire behind drawn curtains sipping whisky, before he realizes with a start that he is once again on foot, having left his bicycle on the riverbank to rust and fall to pieces on its own. Only now does he begin to wonder whether a sheep has died and rotted upstream recently.

Suddenly he bursts out from among the trees. Both Mr Printons merge at once. He finds himself on a hilltop looking down into a moat of inky blackness. The trees rustle at his back. A road winds its comfortable way between verges of lush grass. The whole scene is awash with a light such as Mr Printon has never seen before. He is reminded of cottage lamps, kitchen neon, molten silver, dim street lights suspended poleless in the mist, the glowing arm of God as it pokes through the clouds in an apocalyptic painting. As he very rarely does, he raises his head and looks towards the sky. There, flanked by the ragged borders of brown industrial billows, licking the perpetual cloud canopy with cold fire, floats the moon in all her fullness. He has no way of knowing it, but this night is a particularly fine one, the moon particularly brilliant; his eye does not rest on her surface, it is sucked as through a tunnel into a core of brightness. Stars glimmer at the edges of his sight. His weary body falls away and he becomes all vision. The rustle of leaves becomes heavenly music. Flakes of brightness peel from the moon’s rim and spin down to lay soft wings on his face and chest. Unable to breathe he sinks to his pinstriped knees, and gazes, and gazes.

All at once he knew what he must do. He had found the source of light, the axis about which life whirled and eddied, formed and reformed like billows from an industrial chimney. He must tell Addenden. He must bring the townsfolk to this spot with ladders, or better still helicopters, and they must climb to the radiant gateway and enter the tunnel.

Summoning unknown reserves of strength he leapt to his feet and bounded down the slope towards the road. He seemed to know the direction of Addenden by instinct, without recourse to the points of the compass. Tattered garments flying, dust rising from the caked mud on his trousers, eyes gleaming, leaving his other shoe discarded by the wayside, he galloped over the mica-speckled tarmac with the stars reeling overhead. He could not have kept up such a pace for long, but he had described a vast circle though the course of the day and night and was now not far from his starting-point. His breath came in great gasps which lingered like a locomotive’s steam in his wake. Up hill and down dale he galloped, beneath the shade of the trees, out into full moonlight, down into inky hollows, up into glorious brilliance with fields of dew stretched out on either side. Here at last was the steeple, the church itself, he was lolloping past the doorway. A host of startled rooks leaped from a pine in the churchyard. Past the entrance to the shopping centre with those little dim lights the shopkeepers leave in forgotten corners for fear of thieves. Up the High Street shouting at the top of his voice, past his cottage gate towards the village hall. Heads poked out of lighted windows and he called that they were fragments, that all were scattered from a single blazing ball, that they must hurry and follow him home before the gates of heaven were obscured by an oily curtain. Doors opened, footsteps hurried after him. Before he reached the village hall, whose windows were a chain of orange links, he had an army of townsfolk at his heels brandishing brooms and rolling pins, cricket bats and kitchen knives.

He burst open the hall door and at once the building erupted in confusion. Women and children shrieked, men’s voices too turned shrill with rage and fear. Tables were overturned as people jumped to their feet. Crockery shattered on the floorboards, spattering the evening meal against the walls like the gore of Penelope’s suitors. Mr Sanders, who had been delivering a recital of music-hall songs from the little stage, leapt to one side and pulled the curtain down on himself, rail, cords and all. The pianist fell over backwards. Constable Mathers, who had a flock of children gathered round his knees wearing various items of his uniform, clutched at his helmet and truncheon making all the children scream. Into the midst of the chaos bounded Mr Printon, still pursued by the angry mob who were convinced he was a terrorist come to machine-gun their families. The families, meanwhile, were convinced that a foreign army had broken in. All sense of sanity was lost. People rolled on the floor covering their heads from the hail of bullets. Others trampled them and tripped over one another in an attempt to escape through the windows before the shooting started. Others surrendered loudly to everyone in sight, waving their hands in the air. It seemed the flimsily-constructed building must collapse at any moment, it groaned so at the seams.

Somewhere in this turmoil a battered figure dropped to its hands and knees, crawled beneath a table that was miraculously still erect, tangled with the table-cloth and pulled all the unbroken mugs and dishes to the floor. It left its jacket in the hands of a bellowing publican who declared that he had seized the assassin; left its trousers caught on a fallen umbrella stand; and finally reached the door wrapped in someone else’s fur coat like a baby in a blanket. The uproar was such that nobody noticed a single fur-clad figure slip out into the night and limp down the High Street the way it had come. The sky throbbed; the distant city moaned in its concrete coils. The figure stopped by Mr Printon’s cottage gate, fumbled with the latch and entered. The house was cold and empty, as if the owner had just died and there had been no time to drape the place in black. The figure left the front door ajar, passed through to the back and went out into the garden. An icy wind romped gleefully through the hall, puffing up newspapers, insurance policies, travel brochures and miscellaneous refuse from waste paper baskets. The figure returned from the garden shed carrying a ladder, swept through the house in its long fur gown and ran down the High Street with the ladder on its shoulder. Occasionally Mr Printon gave a little skip, as though his happiness might lift him off the ground and send him spiralling heavenwards with the last of the autumn leaves.

 

 

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Comedy Comes of Age in Shakespeare’s All’s Well

[I gave a version of this piece as a lecture at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2009, at the invitation of John Jowett. It’s pretty closely in dialogue with my book Shakespeare and Comedy (Arden, 2005), especially Chapter 3, ‘Lightness, Love and Death’ and the Afterword, ‘Comedy for a New Reign’. I’m putting it here because All’s Well is in effect a Lost Book among Shakespeare’s plays.]

Michael Denison as Bertram, Jill Dixon as Diana

‘All’s well that ends well’ was already an old saying in early modern England; the only non-biblical proverb to be used as a title for one of Shakespeare’s plays. The story on which the play is based was also old by the time he adapted it. It derives from Boccaccio’s tale ‘Giletta of Narbonna’ in The Decameron (c. 1350), as mediated through an English translation first published in Shakespeare’s infancy.[1] The sense of going back to the past to gain a new perspective on the present is pervasive in the play. In itself, this idea is nothing new; but Shakespeare’s understanding of how the past manifests itself in the present and comes into conflict with it is subtly different here than in any of his other works – subtly different, too, from anything by his contemporaries. Above all, he’s concerned with the changes undergone by language in each generation, and with the forms of discourse – proverbs, old stories, riddles, prophecies, jokes – which may be used to maintain a sense of continuity between one generation and another.

Kimberly Parker Green as Helena, James R. Winker as the King of France, Graham Hamilton as Bertram

To put it crudely: All’s Well That Ends Well – which is generally dated to the early days of the reign of James I, between 1603 and 1607 – dramatizes a conflict between two discourses or verbal attitudes. The attitude to language it presents as modern, and which it seeks to challenge, is an excessive reliance on what has come to be called the ‘cold light of reason’ – or simply ‘sense’; the notion that one can argue one’s way to the truth using the structures of formal logic, based on an understanding of the world that perceives it as always and everywhere the same, and that therefore fails to recognize its subjection to the transformative operations of time. The means by which the play mounts this challenge is by way of a variety of time-worn discourses which were branded by contemporary moralists folly or nonsense. The seriousness of this encounter between two conflicting philosophies of language is stressed by the quasi-legal structure of the play’s last act, in which an informal trial is staged at a point when one might expect a formal trial to have been set up. But the triumph of nonsense at the end of the play – its success in engineering a happy ending against all odds, in supplanting a legal sentence with what is in effect a punchline – makes it an endorsement of comedy, a genre that would seem to be directly at odds with the notion of trials, judgements or any other form of legislation. An ambiguous endorsement, to be sure; but then verbal comedy (as opposed to slapstick) has always thriven on ambiguity.

In a law-court, the proper and improper use of language may be a matter of life and death. And the fact that the quasi-trial in Act 5 of All’s Well does not take place in a law-court stresses the extent to which every verbal act is a risky business – the extent to which you take your life in your hands, put yourself on trial as it were, every time you open your mouth. I have argued elsewhere that Shakespeare’s comedies are pervaded by the notion that the word-play which is the medium of comedy is the riskiest business of all; and I would like to suggest here that the period of Shakespeare’s life when he’s most aware of the riskiness of the comic is just before and just after the accession of James I. Mock-trials occur with astonishing frequency in the plays of this period; trials in which men of power accuse, convict and sentence their inferiors – usually women – without giving them the benefit of a jury or a formal defence. The most extreme example of such a mock-trial is the final scene of Othello (c. 1603-4), in which Desdemona’s husband appoints himself her judge, jury and executioner. But Othello’s precursors include Claudio and Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598), who condemn Hero without listening to her plea of not guilty; Hamlet, who accepts as the only witness of Claudius’s guilt what might well be a ‘goblin damned’; Troilus, whose summary sentencing of Cressida has no interest in exonerating circumstances; and the Duke in Measure for Measure (c. 1604), who passes a series of arbitrary judgements on Isabella, Mariana, Angelo and Lucio in the play’s last scene. The implication of all these plays is that grammatical sentences may become quasi-legal sentences at a moment’s notice in the sophisticated discourse of the 1600s. And since the word ‘sentence’ could mean ‘proverb, saying, aphorism’ (from Latin sententia), the right use of proverbs as a means of swaying judgement – your own or other people’s – becomes a particularly urgent issue in this play ruled by a proverb.

Othello is the play of Shakespeare’s that most fully exploits the more sinister aspects of sententia, as well as of the quasi-legal sentence. Iago’s manipulation of Othello deploys well-known proverbs, which are supposed to articulate ancient wisdom, as a means to instigate prejudice – that is, pre-judgement, the bane of all efforts to set up an equitable trial. He persuades Othello to see Desdemona through the lens of the proverbial licentiousness of Venetian women, and tricks him into conforming with the proverbial stereotypes of ‘changeable’ Moor and jealous old husband, the commedia del arte Pantaloon with a murderous twist. And Iago does this by convincing Othello of Iago’s own simple honesty, as exemplified in a style of speech that’s liberally sprinkled with old sayings. As has been often pointed out, the success of Iago’s proverb-fuelled project would be comic if its consequences had not been so appalling.

Helena as pilgrim, by John William Wright

All’s Well inverts Othello. The play’s protagonist Helen is honest, deriving her honesty from her father – whereas Iago, as a Spanish stranger in Venice, has no known forebears to guarantee his honesty. Helen’s parents were poor but honest; but finding herself in a world where honesty is despised, she resorts to tricks that might be construed as dishonest, allying herself through word and action with the professional fool Lavatch (whose brazen honesty in telling harsh truths to his mistress often gets him into trouble) and the foolish professional soldier Parolles (whose brazen dishonesty gets him into trouble till he learns to be honest about it by becoming a professional fool).

The proverb that emblazons All’s Well, however, furnishes it with a title as unsettlingly knotty as any scheme Iago could come up with – as knotty as the play it introduces. It carries with it, for example, the notion that meaning in discourse is always deferred – that is, contingent on the passing of time; a notion Shakespeare was to play with at length in his late romances.   It implies, too, that this comedy is concerned with happy endings; though the phrase also incorporates the sense that all happiness has an ending. And it raises the question of what an ending is (many commentators have pointed out that the play’s conclusion, like that of Johnson’s Rasselas [1759], is one ‘in which nothing is concluded’). The end of one epoch, after all – such as the reign of Elizabeth, which also signaled the end of the Tudor dynasty – is the beginning of another – such as the reign of James I, which inaugurated the age of the Stuarts; a single life can span both epochs without changing significantly; the structure of the realm may not change a great deal between the end of one historical period and the beginning of another; measurements are always contingent, even the measurement of a life, which may not end when the quietus comes, as Hamlet reminds us. Until we can ascertain that an ending really has taken place, and agreed both what has ended and what the significance of that ending is, the proverb of the play’s title cannot come into play; it remains always a promise or possibility rather than an assertion, an illustration of the crassness of proverbs rather than a trusted piece of familiar wisdom passed down from one generation to the next.

But the play is not solely concerned with endings; it’s equally concerned with beginnings that may or may not be happy – a topic of keen interest to a nation at the beginning of a new century and a new reign. And the play’s attitude to the new epoch is quite different from that of Shakespeare’s other theatrical salute to the Stuart dynasty, Measure for Measure. Where the latter begins with a set of characters who nurture unrealistic expectations of protecting their absolute principles in a degenerate world, All’s Well that Ends Well introduces us to a set of men and women who are acutely conscious that they must deal with a flawed world on its own terms, and that they will probably not be able to protect their most cherished principles from becoming compromised by these worldly dealings as one age or period or fashion gives way to another. This is another implication of the title: that happy endings may be held to justify the means used to reach them, and that not all of these means may be good ones. But the title also invites us to consider from the beginning the question of what it means to be ‘well’, either physically or morally speaking. There’s a sense, then, both of resignation and of doubt about the title – of the conditional mode, as it were, the big ‘if’ that governs its proceedings – that perfectly suits it to the play it emblazons.

James R. Winker as the King of France, Kimberly Parker Green as Helena

Like Measure for Measure, the comedy has much to say about the difficulty of dialogue – and indeed it contains some of Shakespeare’s most complex and elusive poetic language. Verse is its medium, where prose was the dominant medium of Measure for Measure – especially in the second half of that play. And an astonishing proportion of the verse in All’s Well is rhymed. The play’s protagonist Helen uses rhyme repeatedly, and the formal closure rhyme gives to her lines imparts to many of them a proverbial feel, like that of the play’s title, as if she is quoting long-established, carefully formulated philosophical truths – drawing, perhaps, on the same store of ancient knowledge that formed the basis of her father’s reputation as a man of letters. ‘Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?’ she asks (1.1.212-3), and despite the uncertainty of the answer, the question becomes an assertion by virtue of the euphonic link it establishes between striving and desire. ‘He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister’ (2.1.135-6), she tells the King of France as she undertakes to cure him of a terminal illness, and the rhyme lends an authority to her verbal empowering of the weak that both testifies to her confidence and gives confidence to her hearers. The other great users of rhyme in the play are Helen’s adoptive mother, the superannuated Countess of Roussillon, and the aged King of France himself, whose cure she effects using a drug invented by her father, and who becomes a replacement father-figure to her. Helen’s, the Countess’s and the King’s rhymed exchanges make them sound as though they are singing to the same tune, as it were.   The King and Helen in particular establish a family resemblance in the scene where they first meet, as their speeches gradually get closer to each other in rhyme, in despite of reason – a contest between sound and sense, euphony and probability, which gets reignited by the King at the end of the play when he celebrates Helen’s return to his court with a tentative restatement of the play’s title: ‘All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’ (5.3.326-7, my emphasis). There’s a mutual understanding between Helen and the King that unites genders and generations through the medium of melodic utterance. Here, then, is yet another meaning of the title: that a conversation goes well when each of its metrical units ends (meetly and sweetly, as the King might say) in a rhyme. There’s clearly something contrived about such a claim; it cannot be said to be true in any obvious sense. But its very contrivedness stresses the extent to which this play is preoccupied with the elaborate engineering of a happy ending, against all odds, by all means necessary, regardless of improbabilities – or even impossibilities. Helen and the King acknowledge that they live in a universe that resists happy endings. They are determined nevertheless to achieve one, and the way they talk articulates that determination.

As with the Duke and Isabella in Measure for Measure, their plan to engineer happiness flies in the teeth of the ferociously anti-romantic environment they inhabit. Both Helen and the King are old-fashioned in their belief that happiness is a condition worth having – or even possible to have. The play is full of elderly people who lament the passing of old-time excellence and the ascendancy of a self-centred new generation. The Countess of Rossillion, who cannot countenance her son Bertram’s treatment of Helen; the elderly courtier Lafeu, who is disgusted that the young aristocrats of his time cannot appreciate Helen’s beauty and wit; the King, who in the first act wishes that he, like Bertram’s father, had not lived ‘to be the snuff / Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses / All but new things disdain’ (1.2.59-60) – all note the course of the world’s decline, its gradual loss of affection with each succeeding age. Helen allies herself with these nostalgic old folk both by her deployment of old knowledge – her use of her father’s medicine to cure the King – and by their adoption of her as their imaginative offspring. The Countess adopts her as her daughter in the first act, the King effectively adopts her in the second, and she substitutes herself for Lafeu’s daughter in the final act, when she reclaims Bertram’s hand just after he has contracted it to the old man’s child. By the end of the play, the base-born Helen has effectively forged a new lineage for herself, an ancestry that extends into the mists of French antiquity, linking her to the past as strongly as the ancient wisdom she inherited from her father.

Sir Thomas Elyot, by Hans Holbein

The nostalgic attachment to the past shared by Helen and her adoptive parents is not, then, a reactionary one. It seems to liberate them from reactionary class positions, making them prize a person’s words and actions more highly than her birth, in marked contrast to young men like Bertram, who do not understand that it’s necessary to inherit their ancestors’ ‘moral parts’ as well as their facial features (1.2.21). Early modern conduct manuals very often stress the notion that aristocracy was first bequeathed to certain families by common consent of the people, as a reward for their achievements. Perhaps the richest and most intriguing assertion of this view comes in Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Governor (1532) – a favourite book of Shakespeare’s. ‘In the beginning,’ Elyot tells us in his chapter on nobility,

when private possessions and dignity were given by the consent of the people, who then had all things in common, and equality in degree and condition, undoubtedly they gave the one and the other to him at whose virtue they marveled, and by whose labour and industry they received a common benefit, as of a common father that with equal affection loved them.[2]

It’s therefore necessary, Elyot asserts, for each new generation of nobles to reassert their nobility in action if they wish to retain their hereditary privileges; and Shakespeare’s King of France concurs. ‘Honours thrive,’ the King tells Bertram, ‘When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our fore-goers’ (2.3.133-5). Those nobles who fail to act nobly not only forego their right to the title they inherit, but show symptoms of a more general sickness in the world they inhabit. Elyot puts it like this:

Where virtue joined with great possessions or dignity hath long continued in the blood or house of a gentleman, as it were an inheritance, there nobility is most shown, and these noble men be most to be honoured; forasmuch as continuance in all thing that is good hath ever pre-eminence in praise and comparison. But yet shall it be necessary to advertize those persons, that do think nobility may in no wise be but only where men can avaunt them of ancient lineage, an ancient robe, or great possessions, at this day very noble men do suppose to be much error and folly. Whereof there is a familiar example, which we bear ever with us, for the blood in our bodies being in youth warm, pure, and lusty, it is the occasion of beauty, which is everywhere commended and loved; but if in age it be putrefied, it loseth his praise. And the gouts, carbuncles, cankers, leprosy, and other like sores and sicknesses, which do proceed of blood corrupted, be to all men detestable. (p. 104)

What this passage reveals is the fact that the past is the location of radical thought and action. It was as a result of a communal decision, a revolutionary rethinking of the problem of how best to live together, that people first established the institution of nobility. Elyot’s identification of nobility as having been granted to certain men by democratic agreement implies that it can be taken away just as easily (notice that resonant phrase ‘as it were an inheritance’ – Elyot denies that inheritance is ever either essential or automatic). The political implications of this position were taken up much later in the century in the notorious French treatise Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1579), by Philippe du Plessis Mornay and Hubert Languet, which argued that kings as well as nobles were originally elected by the people, and might be deselected – deposed – should their merits become subject to ‘degeneration’. And Elyot’s comparison of successive generations of nobles to the ageing of the human body implies something more: that later generations are in a sense older than those that went before them, since they are further removed from the vigorous, innovatory convictions that motivated the institution of nobility. The younger generation is therefore more vulnerable to the ravages of disease – to what he calls putrefaction – than the old. Bertram is sicker than the King of France, his body less responsive to Helen’s loveliness, his concern for the public weal, as Elyot calls it – for the wealth and/or wellness of the state (Elyot was an amateur physician as well as a politician) – almost non-existent. The notion that he is to be healed in the second half of the play, as the King was in the first, is a structuring principle of the comedy. And the play implies too that the world Bertram represents – the world occupied by the theatre audience – is as sick as he is, and needs restoring to health by similar means if it’s not to fall apart under the burden of its own decrepitude.

Sir Thomas Elyot was a lexicographer like Samuel Johnson. He authored the first Latin-English dictionary, and his Book Named the Governor is also a kind of lexicon, passionately committed to the belief that the right use of words, the respect for their etymology and proper deployment, is essential to the wholesomeness of any early modern society.[3] His chapter on nobility is more concerned with restoring that word to its proper signification in the here and now than it is with antiquarianism. All’s Well is similarly concerned with the use and misuse of words; and its title implies a similar reading of the world as having gone off track, as needing to return to where it started, to the common weal, which depends on a common or mutual understanding of what words mean – an understanding that has almost been lost, with disastrous political and social consequences.

The nostalgia of Helen and the old people of All’s Well is for a very distant past; perhaps even for the days before the nobility was founded, that golden age when the idea of nobleness mattered more than any social institution. They speak of the age when miracles occurred (as they do again in this play: the miracle of the King’s recovery, the miracle of Helen’s return from the dead to reclaim the hand of her husband); or when goddesses like Diana walked the earth (as she does in this play from Act Three, in the person of the mortal girl Diana). Above all, they speak of the days when words were inextricably linked with their simplest meanings, as Helen insists they are when she addresses people like Diana who share her integrity, or as the King says they were whenever Bertram’s father opened his mouth. ‘His honour,’ says the King of his dead friend, ‘Clock to itself, knew the true minute when / Exception bid him speak, and at this time / His tongue obeyed his hand’ (1.2.38-41). Words in those days were carefully weighed, sparingly spoken, sincerely meant; and once again, the King’s and Helen’s deployment of rhyme would seem to replicate the careful timing and placing of words that characterized this legendary epoch.

Of all the good qualities of the past, this exemplary use of language is the most difficult to recover in the present. The Countess’s desperate efforts to get Helen to confess her love for Bertram, the Countess’s son, are rendered necessary by the time they live in; a time when the tongue is hobbled by the knowledge that its owner’s best intentions may be wilfully misread, its most direct and honest utterances subject to misprision. ‘Only sin / And hellish obstinacy tie thy tongue,’ the Countess tells Helen, ‘That truth should be suspected’ (1.3.170-2); but she is wrong. Helen is merely concerned to defer her declaration of love until she knows she will be pardoned for it; that she will not be condemned out of hand for ambition in loving a man above her station, or brazenness in giving her desire expression. These days, Helen finds, well-meaning people must convey their thoughts in riddles if they wish to avoid instant misprision. She speaks ‘riddle-like’ to the Countess when she finally confesses her love for the Countess’s son (1.3.208); and in the final scene, her friend Diana speaks in riddles to the King in her efforts to explain the convoluted paths by which the play’s happy ending is being achieved. Riddling is the language of oracles, another of the ancient sources of knowledge that Helen resurrects. When she promises the King that she can cure him, she relies on the ‘help of heaven’ to substantiate her promise (2.1.151), just as the priestess did at the Delphic oracle when she begged Apollo for answers to his worshippers’ questions. The King is both amazed and impressed by Helen’s confidence: ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak,’ he tells her, ‘And what impossibility would slay / In common sense, sense saves another way’ (2.1.174-7). Her claims to occult knowledge, in other words, seem to him senseless, like the verses delivered by the Delphic oracle; yet in one way or another the ‘sense’ of the Delphic verses was always confirmed by the outcome of events, just as the sense of Helen’s riddles will assert itself before the play is done. The plot of All’s Well is an elaborate device to give substance to the latter-day oracular riddle spoken by Diana in the final scene: or to put it another way, to extract sense from a senseless world by uttering seeming nonsense.

Conleth Hill as Parolles, Michelle Terry as Helena

In the modern age, words are wayward, treacherous, suspicious, and must be circumvented by discovering a new discourse composed (perhaps) of riddles and rhymes. Yet even words as used in the modern age can serve to bring people together if cleverly used – like the wheelings and dealings of a crafty pimp. This is confirmed in All’s Well by the words and actions of Parolles; a braggart soldier who helps to lead Helen’s husband Bertram astray, but who also helps to bring him back to the wife he abandons; a pimp who lends his services in an effort to help Bertram commit adultery, but who ends instead by introducing the wayward husband to the deferred delights of his wedding night. As his name suggests (it means ‘words’ in French), Parolles embodies the way words are used in the here and now, the duplicitous ambiguity of latter-day discourse. Words lead people away from truth, just as Parolles encourages Bertram to be untrue to Helen; yet they also inadvertently restore truth to those who have lost it, as Parolles restores Bertram to his lost spouse. This verbal double action is present in everything Parolles says. In the first act, for instance, he delivers an oration to the virgin Helen on the uselessness of virginity (‘Loss of virginity is rational increase; and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost’, 1.1.117-9). Yet despite his obviously salacious motives in speaking thus (he wants to sleep with Helen himself), Helen is not insulted by Parolles’s oration. On the contrary, she finds it intriguing: it impels her to ask him what is (for her) the million dollar question: ‘How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?’ (1.1.141). Yet the same speech serves Bertram’s turn as well; the young man later parrots it when attempting to seduce Diana: ‘When you are dead, you should be such a one / As you are now, for you are cold and stern; / And now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got’ (4.2.7-10). Parolles, in other words, speaks both for the loyal Helen and for the disloyal Bertram. He gives voice to Helen’s desire, which she cannot easily voice herself without being condemned for it like her Homeric namesake; and he furnishes Bertram with the language of seduction, thus initiating the young man into the pleasures of sex – the first step on the way to reconciliation with his wife. This dual action of Parolles’s words is apparent, too, in the message he delivers to Helen from Bertram after their marriage, telling her that Bertram has left her for the theatre of war. For Parolles, this abandonment – which seems so disastrous to Helen’s adopted parents – is merely a deferral of the couple’s pleasure, an erotic technique (familiar to frequenters of brothels) for enhancing the ecstasy of their future love-making. Bertram’s departure, says Parolles, will ‘make the coming hour o’erflow with joy / And pleasure drown the brim’ (2.4.44-5). And despite the fact that Parolles doesn’t mean this – that at this point he doesn’t expect Bertram and Helen ever to meet again – this quasi-pornographic fantasy proves prophetic. The King’s last words before the play’s epilogue (‘The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’, 5.3.327) effectively repeat Parolles’s sentiment. Parolles, then, is a vehicle for truthful utterance – a servant, like Helen, of the gods, or of whatever forces lend structure to chaos, bring sense out of nonsense. The difference is that Helen is conscious that she has this function, whereas Parolles is not.

If Parolles acts as a kind of inadvertent soothsayer or prophet, then Helen and the older generation to which she allies herself sometimes act as pimps. When the old courtier Lafeu first leaves Helen alone with the King he compares himself to the most famous of pimps: ‘I am Cressid’s uncle, / That dare leave two together’ (2.1.96-7). His pimping has a positive effect: the King is cured, and Lafeu alludes to the King’s restored health in sexual terms: he is ‘Lustig, as the Dutchman says… he’s able to lead her a coranto’ (2.3.38-40). The newly cured King then acts as a pimp with Helen as his client: first parading his courtiers before her like whores in a brothel, then using threats to make her chosen partner, Bertram, accept her advances. The comparison of King to pimp may seem a trifle strained; but it does not seem so to Lafeu, who is disgusted by the young courtiers’ failure to respond to Helen as compliant whores should do: ‘An they were sons of mine I’d have them whipt; or I would send them to th’Turk to make eunuchs of’ (2.3.84-6). And the comparison occurs, too, to Bertram, who is appalled by the role reversal whereby a woman becomes the client and himself the sexual partner she chooses: ‘In such a business’ he says, ‘give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’ (2.3.105-6, my emphasis). Later in the play, Diana’s widowed mother uses the same word, ‘business’, to refer to pimping: she tells Helen that she is well brought up and therefore ‘Nothing acquainted with these businesses’ (3.7.5), such as that of getting a strange woman into bed with a man. But at this point Helen is urging the widow to act as a legitimate pimp between herself and Bertram, just as Lafeu and the King acted as legitimate pimps in the play’s second act. Bertram has fled to Italy without consummating his marriage to Helen, and Helen prostitutes herself with the aim of producing lawful effects from Bertram’s unlawful desires. In Italy, Bertram is attracted to Diana, the widow’s daughter, and makes an arrangement through Parolles to sleep with her; but Helen substitutes herself for Bertram in Diana’s bed, thus creating the context for yet another redemptive riddle. Her plot to sleep with Bertram, she says, ‘Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act; / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact’ (3.7.45-7). In a world where men react with horror to lawful sex and instead seek pleasure with unlawful partners, pimping, prostitution and the playing of sexual practical jokes may be legitimate practices, and dealing in double meanings may be the only way to circumvent more damaging forms of duplicity.

Jim DeVita as Parolles

Parolles is the presiding spirit of this decadent modern world, self-centred, dishonest, bombastic, morally hollow; and what happens to him demonstrates how this world can most effectively be dealt with. Parolles, like the duplicitous words invoked by his name, can be worked on to generate useful meanings. His particular brand of nonsense can be exploited to produce sense, just as the more elevated nonsense of prophecy can make sense when properly applied. In the fourth act Parolles is subjected to a terrifying practical joke that unleashes a torrent of verbiage from him. A band of his fellow soldiers, attached like him to the Florentine army, disguise themselves as members of the army with which Florence is at war. They capture Parolles, then interrogate him in a nonsensical made-up language cobbled together from fragments of European dialects ancient and modern. Under their interrogation and in terror of his life, Parolles regales them with a flood of truths and half-truths, treacherously telling them all he knows and more about the composition of the Florentine forces and the private lives of the Florentine generals. At the end of the dreadful interview the traitor’s eyes are unbound and he finds himself confronted with the men he has been betraying and traducing. And his exposure betrays not only Parolles but the man who took Parolles at his word, Bertram. The young man’s trust in the protestations of a fool who is so palpably untrustworthy suggests that he himself is not to be trusted. The interrogators find in Parolles’s pocket evidence of both his and Bertram’s unreliability: a letter from Parolles to Diana, urging her not to trust Bertram (‘After he scores, he never pays the score… He ne’er pays after-debts’, 4.3.208-210) and to transfer her favours to Parolles instead. Later, Parolles again betrays the truth about Bertram, inadvertently testifying to his attempted seduction of Diana at a crucial moment in the play’s last scene. Parolles, like Helen, makes sense out of nonsense if properly ‘found’.

The man who ‘finds’ Parolles’s dishonesty is old Lafeu (‘I have now found thee,’ he crows in Act Two, 2.3.203); and it’s Lafeu who employs him as a fool at the end of the play. The old courtier notes the danger of taking Parolles seriously – of lending excessive credence to the kinds of insubstantial words he represents. He tells Bertram that ‘there can be no kernel in this light nut’ and warns him to ‘trust him not in matter of heavy consequence’ (2.5.42-5). At the same time, Lafeu sees too that properly handled Parolles’s lightness can be wholesome. The Countess of Roussillon’s fool Lavatch urges him to find the fool in himself: ‘much fool may you find in you, even to the world’s pleasure and the increase of laughter’ (2.4.34-5); and it’s ‘to the increase of laughter’ that he is tricked into betraying what he knows about Bertram and the Florentine army, since the French lords who plan the prank do it ‘for the love of laughter’ (3.6.29). As a result of their exposure Parolles becomes an honest man – or rather, honestly dishonest, dedicating himself to a career in making people laugh with his blatant lies and petty treasons. From being a corrupting influence when given too much weight, he becomes an invigorating one when taken as what he is, the epitome of lightness. And this transformation of Parolles from heavy and corrupt to light and wholesome is masterminded by a man whose name allies him with light, an ennobled reincarnation of Measure for Measure’s Lucio, Parolles’s new master Lafeu.

Parolles the Captive, by Francis Wheatley

Lafeu specializes in well-timed humour, distinguishing the serious from the frivolous with a tact and sensitivity that recalls the King’s description of Bertram’s dead father. When introducing Helen to the King he begins by associating her with a chain of sexual allusions. ‘I have seen a medicine’ he says, ‘That’s able to breathe life into a stone… whose simple touch / Is powerful to araise King Pepin’ – Pepin being a long-dead ancestor of the French King’s whose name comically distorts the word ‘penis’ (2.1.71-5). But Lafeu goes on to testify seriously to Helen’s apparent worth, ‘If seriously I may convey my thoughts / In this my light deliverance’ (2.1.80-1). He thus becomes the first to warn of the ease with which women may be taken too lightly, the substance of their ‘light’ – that is, their knowledge, wit and wisdom – left unrecognized, to the detriment of all. Bertram’s mother the Countess of Roussillon is the next to see it. Instructing her steward to write to Bertram about Helen’s departure from France she tells him, ‘Let every word weigh heavy of her worth / That he does weigh too light’ (3.4.31-2). And the King is the last; speaking of Helen’s supposed death he tells Bertram that ‘Our rash faults / Make trivial price of serious things we have, / Not knowing them until we know their grave’ (5.3.60-2). Lafeu has helped to teach his elderly contemporaries the distinction between different forms of lightness; and at the end of the play he proposes to go on using Parolles as a tool for illustrating the distinction.

Bertram, by contrast, goes on devaluing women till the last possible moment. When Diana accuses him of seducing her in the final scene he dismisses her as a plaything, a disposable toy: she is ‘a fond and desp’rate creature / Whom sometime I have laugh’d with’ (5.3.177-8). No wonder, then, if women have recourse to light strategies to get justice from men of his generation. Helen poses as a ‘light’ woman, a whore, to get him back when he deserts her; and Diana has recourse to the ‘light’ or frivolous language of riddles to explain Bertram’s actions to the King (‘So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick’, 5.3.297). Diana’s jokes almost kill her; exasperated by their seeming senselessness, the King orders her to prison and adds that he will put her to death ‘within this hour’ if she cannot give him a more satisfactory account of herself (5.3.278). Luckily, Diana is able to provide a visual clue to the ‘meaning’ of her riddle by presenting the King with the living body of Helen, who was thought to be dead; a body that is also ‘quick’ with child, that is, pregnant by Bertram. There is substance to her quibbles, sense to her senselessness, as there is not to Bertram’s lying protestations of honour and fidelity. It is Bertram, not Diana or Helen, who is light – as hollow as the drum with which Parolles is repeatedly linked. And at the end of the play one cannot help but wonder if he can ever acquire the substance to keep his promise to Helen and ‘love her dearly, ever, ever dearly’ (5.3.310).

In an earlier French play by Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1594-5), words grew wings and flew away from meaning. The play’s repeated references to children and childishness reflected the immaturity of the witty courtiers who set its tone, and its unsatisfactory ending stressed the difficulty of reuniting what they had divided: sound and sense. All’s Well introduces us to another set of French courtiers many of whom are elderly, as if they have long ago completed the rigorous course of instruction imposed on Navarre and his companions by the youthful Queen of France. In All’s Well comedy comes of age, its destructiveness and its wholesomeness held in a delicate balance. Throughout the play, as has often been noted, there’s an emphasis on healing that reflects yet another meaning of the title: all’s well that ends in a state of health. And good comedy was said to be one of the most potent medicines of all, reviving and restoring its auditors through the healing influence of laughter. At the beginning of the play Helen wishes Bertram well as he leaves for the court of France, although she is uncertain that his departure will bring him wellness. ‘Tis pity,’ she tells Parolles,

That wishing well had not a body in’t
Which might be felt; that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends
And show what we alone must think, which never
Returns us thanks. (1.1.166-74)

In the rest of the play Helen does indeed give a body to her wishes and follow Bertram, like an embodiment of the base-born comic playwright, who gives body to his thoughts for the benefit of the highest as well as of the lowest social classes. She plays an audacious comic trick on him to marry him, and a yet more audacious prank to consummate their marriage; and she contrives a comic ending to their adventures in defiance of hatred, infidelity and death. She is a mistress, then, of the related arts of medicine and comedy; and her early success in healing the King permits us to hope that she will finally succeed in healing Bertram, too, despite all appearances to the contrary. After all, less plausible things have happened, both on and off the comic stage.

Kristin Villanueva as Helena, Timothy Douglas as the King of France

[1] William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1566-7), Volume 1.

[2] Sir Thomas Elyot, The Book Named the Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London and New York: Dent and Dutton, 1962), pp. 103-4.

[3] See my Elizabethan Fictions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 1, for more on Elyot’s The Governor as lexicon.

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Change in William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World

In her fine biography of William Morris Fiona McCarthy claims that his late romances are unlike anything else written in the nineteenth century.[1] One could just as easily say that they’re unlike anything else written at any time, including the post-Tolkienian fantasy fiction with which they’re so often compared. They articulate radical attitudes to women, class and sexual desire in an archaic prose that seems to anchor them in what is often taken to be the conservative past of the medieval romances. Their strange plots repeatedly turn romance conventions on their heads while seeming to conform to them; and they convey a dreamlike atmosphere, largely again through Morris’s prose style, which resembles his verse in its tendency to treat all incidents – crises and pastoral interludes, loving conversations, quarrels and apparitions – with the same fluid smoothness, seldom varying its rhythm whatever emotional terrain it traverses, much as a dream tends to inhabit the same mood throughout its length no matter what bizarreries or horrors it conjures up. Many incidents in them are never explained, and as a consequence the onus rests on the reader to decipher their significance, to an extent that simply isn’t true of many other contemporary narratives. George MacDonald wrote that he intended his own fairy tales to awaken something in their readers, not to direct them;[2] and the same statement might well have been made by Morris, whose interest in dreams was as intense as MacDonald’s, and whose romances helped to stir modern fantasy into wakefulness.[3]

The Wood Beyond the World (1894) is as strange and enigmatic as any of these late romances. It takes us on what seems to be a journey through the mind of its central character, Golden Walter, in which he finds himself playing a range of contradictory roles in a narrative whose form and content violate expectations in a number of crucial ways. An examination of its experimental features may help to debunk the still persistent perception of fantasy and romance as fundamentally reactionary genres. It may help, too, to point up the extent to which they can sometimes match modernism in their readiness to reinvent the past with an eye to the challenges of the present and future. The book’s form has political implications, and it’s these political implications that I want to tease out in the reading that follows.

Before setting out, though, it’s worth pausing to take note of the remarkable range of medieval and early modern prose romances to which Morris had access, thanks to the tireless labour of Victorian scholars. Stimulated in part by the international success of Walter Scott’s historical novels – Waverley, Ivanhoe, The Monastery and the rest – nineteenth-century scholars worked to put into print a huge amount of prose fiction from the sixteenth century and before which had been in many cases unavailable since early modern times, or never printed at all. Bibliophiles like Henry Huth, editors like F. J. Furnivall, Edmund Gosse and Alexander Grosart, book clubs like the Chetham Society, the Hunterian Club and the Roxburghe Club, and book series like the Globe editions, ensured that prosperous readers like Morris had access through mid-to-late Victorian libraries and bookshops to a wider range of old prose romances in English (Malory, Boccaccio, Bandello, Marguerite de Navarre, Lyly, Sidney, Lodge, Greene, Cervantes, Rabelais, and of course Anonymous) than at any other time in history. As a result he must have known the sheer diversity of the genre, its stylistic and formal inventiveness, its frequent refusal to follow pre-existent patterns, its preoccupation with topics neglected in official discourse – above all with women, desire, and desiring women – and its wayward way with historical and geographical fact, to an extent that would have been impossible for writers before him, apart from Scott and a few of his fellow antiquaries. Morris writes, in other words, free from the presuppositions about ‘chivalric’ romance that may have been entertained by many of his readers, but also intensely conscious of those presuppositions and prejudices. He plays with them even as he flouts them, and this knowing playfulness with accurate and inaccurate perceptions of the past is one of the characteristics he confers on the best examples of the fantasy tradition that followed him.

The title of The Wood Beyond the World helps to highlight the impression it gives of opening a door from one space – the everyday, mercantile, urban space in which it begins – into another: the enchanted wood where the bulk of the action takes place. ‘Wood’ and ‘world’ are so nearly homonyms that it’s easy to imagine one as being buried or concealed within the other (as C. S. Lewis did later in The Magician’s Nephew [1955]). This effect is intensified by the recurrent visions that trouble the protagonist, Golden Walter, taking him far away from the familiar surroundings of his place of origin, Langton on Holm (whose name punningly refers both to its homeliness and to its location, a holm being an island in a river – as well as to its dullness, since Langton invokes the German langweilig, boring). Three times Walter sees two women and a dwarf processing through the familiar everyday landscape; on one occasion, they seem to be leaving his father’s house moments after they have boarded ship and set sail for distant lands (p. 9).[4] Each time the threefold apparition ends by vanishing without a trace, and each vision intensifies his desire to track down the originals of the figures in it, despite his fear that they may have been illusions, the seductive symptoms of a catastrophic breakdown in his mental faculties. When the third occurrence of the vision is witnessed by his father’s matter-of-fact scrivener, Arnold, Walter is half convinced that it has substance, but even then will only concede that ‘there was at least something before my eyes which grew not out of mine own brain’ (p. 19). The question of whether what he sees is inside or outside his head – or of how far what he sees with his material eyes is affected by his mental state – continues to disturb his mind for much of the narrative, raising the question of what space the door through which the visions proceed might open into.

The behaviour of the visions doesn’t conform, then, to everyday notions of cause and effect, and so anticipates the degree to which Walter’s quest for the originals will operate in defiance of conventional narrative logic. Another way in which these visions anticipate this defiance is in the protagonist’s inability to decide which of the women fascinates him most: ‘For he said to himself that he desired not either of the twain; nay, he might not tell which of the twain, the maiden or the stately queen, were clearest to his eyes; but sore he desired to see both of them again, and to know what they were’ (p. 10). The contradiction in the young man’s thinking here – he tells himself he does not desire either woman, yet ‘sore he desired to see both of them again’ – predicts the continued confusion over identity (his own, as well as those of the two women) which will be a marked feature of his later adventures. Confused identity is a familiar romance motif, but it doesn’t generally manifest itself at the point when the romance hero first sights his future lover. On these occasions it’s expected that the knight will fall head over heels in love with a single woman, and that he will know full well from the first that it’s love or desire that draws him to her. Walter’s confusion may arise from two causes. The first is that he is no knight, and therefore presumably not subject to the usual rules of chivalric fiction. The second is that the mental state he finds himself in when he sees the visions is a singularly unromantic one, and that this sets him at odds from the outset with the narrative trajectory of traditional romance.

Walter’s situation at the beginning of the narrative is, in fact, a mass of contradictions. His nickname refers both to his current prosperity and to the long line of his prosperous forebears: his father ‘was of the Lineage of the Goldings, therefore was he called Bartholomew Golden, and his son Golden Walter’ (p. 2). But his gilded past and glittering present serve as a mask for an unhappy marriage to a wife whose barefaced adultery effectively puts him in two minds:

he hated her for her untruth and her hatred of him; yet would the sound of her voice, as she came and went in the house, make his heart beat; and the sight of her stirred desire within him, so that he longed for her to be sweet and kind with him, and deemed that, might it be so, he should forget all the evil gone by. (p. 2)

This sentence pits a bevy of romance conventions against each other. The young man loves a young woman who doesn’t love him back, so that disparate ages and inter-generational conflict are not a factor in their relationship as they so often are in stories. They are married, rather than barred from marriage either by circumstance or their elders; love and hate are fused in Walter’s attitude to his spouse; and while he would seem to have obtained his ending before his adventures begin, it’s anything but a happy one. Summarized like this it’s easy to see why the situation might give rise to the threefold vision that haunts him: two women who are equally desirable, one a slave, the other her mistress, attended by a malicious servant whose grotesque appearance differs from Walter’s beauty as much as his marriage differs from the public appearance it presents to the world, or from marital ideals in general as promulgated by fairy tale and sentimental fiction. Both Walter and the Dwarf are linked with the colour yellow (the former is ‘yellow-haired’ [p. 1], the latter ‘clad in a rich coat of yellow silk’ [p. 7]), as if the latter is the mirror image of Walter’s self-disgust at his failure as a husband and lover.[5] Walter later tracks the Dwarf and his companions to a far-off place called the ‘Golden House’ whose name echoes his own sobriquet, and whose magnificent appearance recalls the opulent life he led in Langton. The Dwarf carries a bow, which makes him a malevolent adult version of the childish love-god, Cupid. There is a second male lover at the Golden House who competes with Walter for the attentions of the two women of the vision, just as his wife’s lover had earlier competed with him for her affections. The central plot of the romance, then, represents a twisted double of Walter’s marriage situation, as if it has been deliberately offered to him as a nightmarish alternative model of human desire and its workings to set alongside the idealized versions of love and marriage offered by traditional forms of fiction.

But the Golden House is only one of a series of unsettling doubles that punctuate the narrative. The first of these – the first that Walter becomes aware of – is a pair of ships in the harbour at Langton. One is a vessel boarded by the threefold vision when Walter first sees it (pp. 6-8); the other is his father’s vessel, which Walter boards before setting out on a long sea-voyage intended to free him from his loveless union. As the second ship casts off, Walter notes how the sailors repeat with unnerving precision the routines already carried out on board the ship he noticed earlier:

it all seemed but the double of what the other ship had done; and he thought of it as if the twain were as beads strung on one string and led away by it into the same place, and thence to go in the like order, and so on again and again, and never to draw nigher to each other. (p. 11)

Doubling here becomes a metaphor for the repetitive nature of routine itself: the daily comings and goings in the household of wives, lovers and husbands, as mentioned in Chapter I (‘as she came and went in the house’ [p. 2]); the mercantile traffic that follows identical routes from land to land in quest of profit; the daily routine of the marketplace; the cycles of history, which repeat the same triumphs and tragedies in successive generations. Walter’s fear is that routine will undermine any effort on his part at escape or innovation – new encounters, the resolution of past difficulties, liberation from his hostile partner – and that the two ships will instead follow the same preordained trajectory for ever without any significant variation, much as his marriage has followed the same routine of hatred and renewed desire throughout its duration without any sign of rapprochement or reconciliation between the spouses.

The structure of the adventures that follow both reaffirms this anxiety and works against it, as Walter moves from one location to the next, at each point confronting the notion of preordination or predestined activity, but at each stage also breaking the cycle, freeing himself from the chain of repetition, and bringing about new chapters in his own story and (finally) in the history of the lands he moves through. The Wood Beyond the World doesn’t follow the there-and-back-again format of Tolkienian fantasy or classic medieval romance (in this it differs from its successor, The Well at the World’s End [1896]); and its refusal to do so can be read as a sign of its radical agenda, that is, of Morris’s determination to liberate his protagonist and readers from the reactionary view that a romance ending should always restore the status quo established at the beginning – or indeed that the future can be confidently predicted on the basis of the past, a foundational principle of conservatism as well as of the capitalist marketplace with which Walter’s family is affiliated.

The notion of predetermination is worth considering further, since it’s a concept that gets taken up by the later fantasy tradition, and one that’s cleverly problematized in Morris’s book. The repeated vision may suggest to the reader, on the basis of previous experience, that there is some sort of destiny or fate that links Walter with the women he keeps seeing. Walter, however, sees the vision as liberating him from his apparent destiny, which is to remain unhappily married and to follow in his father’s footsteps as a merchant and local dignitary. This becomes clear when he sees the vision for the third and final time, in the nameless city to which his vessel conveys him on his father’s business. Just before this third encounter he learns from his father’s scrivener that the old man has been killed by his wife’s relatives, the Reddings, in revenge for sending her home in disgrace after his son’s departure. The news at once prompts Walter to get ready for the voyage back to Langton, where he expects to ‘enter into the strife with the Reddings and quell them, or die else’ (p. 18) – that is, to carry on the feud for the foreseeable future, in an ugly variation on the routine he has so far been slave to. His duty seems clear, along with the two equally unattractive endings available to him: death at the hands of or victory over his father’s killers. But his third sighting of the women and the Dwarf negates his view that these are his only options. He yearns to follow the women instead, as a third way (like the third way shown to Thomas the Rhymer in the ballad) whose uncertain outcome will free him from the familial duties by which he feels bound. The archaic term ‘boun’ is used by Morris to describe the destination of the ships that conduct the business of the Langton merchants (p. 13), as if to stress the limitations of the mobility they seem to offer. Sure enough, the next stage of Walter’s liberation from his past can only come when his ship is driven off its ‘bounden’ course. Shortly after his departure for Langton, the new vessel in which he finds himself – again, symbolically, one of his father’s – becomes ‘unboun’, so to speak, from its route, when a sudden storm drives it to the shore of an unknown island. As it turns out, this is the country where the women and the Dwarf dwell in the Wood Beyond the World, a place beyond all known maps, and beyond reach, too, of the business transactions often referred to in medieval texts as worldly affairs (as against spiritual ones). Walter’s pursuit of the women, then, takes him away from his destiny, not towards a predestined or ‘bounden’ ending. It therefore seems entirely appropriate that the experiences he has with the women should defy expectation, literary or otherwise.

Before he reaches the Golden House, Walter’s arrival at the unknown island sets up another set of expectations that appears to bind him to a specific course of action. He and his ship’s company, which includes the scrivener Arnold, meet an old man who lives by himself on a farm in an otherwise unpopulated part of the unknown country. The man tells Walter how he ended up in this lonely state, and as he does so the young man becomes convinced that the route the old man took to his youthful adventures – through a gap or ‘rift’ in the nearby mountains – will also take him, Walter, to the women in his vision. The problem is that the old man deems his adventures to have brought about only ‘evil’ (p. 35), and to have set him on course for his eventual seclusion; he therefore does all he can to dissuade his young visitor from following the same course of action, and the prophetic terms he uses, together with the image we may still hold in our minds of the beads forever following each other along the same piece of string, make his forebodings plausible. As Walter sets out for the gap in the mountains, then, the reader may well assume that he is condemning himself to an ‘evil’ outcome, and perhaps to lifelong loneliness on the farm where he met the hermit. The reader is, however, given a number of clues that this is not in fact the case. For one thing the old man was a knight in his youth, as opposed to a bourgeois merchant, so that his destiny might be expected to be of a different kind from Walter’s (knights are destined to rule where merchants trade; errant knights may expect to end up on a preordained patch of land, while the fortunes of merchants fluctuate with the market, making their eventual destinies less certain). For another, the old man killed his predecessor on the farm before setting out on his journey, whereas Walter does not. In fact, the old man’s knightly status and his manner of acquiring his land would seem to be connected. In killing his predecessor the old man describes himself as succeeding to the dead man’s property ‘as though this were a lordly manor, with a fair castle thereon, and all well stocked and plenished’ (p. 34). Walter, by contrast, is un-lordly in his origins, non-violent in his habits and above all unconcerned with his inheritance, since his quest for the women diverts him from the legal process of succeeding his father in his ‘goodly house’ in Langton (p. 9), just as it involves parting company with his father’s legal representative, the scrivener Arnold. Morris has, however, planted in our minds the possibility of ‘evil’ presiding over Walter’s journey, and as a result the reader can’t be assured of the happy outcome of this romance until she’s reached the final page.

The gap in the mountains leads Walter, of course, to the titular Wood Beyond the World: an idealized setting redolent of fertility and wealth, presided over by the Golden House, a building ‘carved all about with knots and imagery’ which Walter considers ‘beyond compare of all the houses of the world’ (pp. 72-3). At the same time, the setting is dominated by ambiguities of many kinds. Walter approaches the House by way of a series of encounters: with the Dwarf, with the younger of the two women known as the Maid, and finally with the ruling Lady, whom he meets in the House itself with her current lover, a young man wearing a royal ‘chaplet of gems’ as a sign of his rank (though he looks in Walter’s eyes ‘nowise […] chieftain-like’ [p. 74], so that his appearance is itself contradictory). Each meeting feeds Walter with preconceptions about the meetings to come. The Dwarf, who occupies an ambiguous halfway house between human and animal (he even moves in a fusion of styles, ‘whiles walking upright […] whiles bounding and rolling like a ball […] whiles scuttling along on all-fours like an evil beast’ [p. 56]), convinces Walter that the Maid is a kind of monster (a ‘Wretch’ or ‘Thing’ [pp. 54-5]), whose hidden ‘knife’ may not be trusted. When he meets the Maid she fills him with anxiety first about the Dwarf, who becomes ‘that one’ (p. 60), a nameless monstrosity too horrible to be mentioned, and then about the Lady, whose identity seems somehow multiple: an ‘evil mistress’ who ‘by some creatures’ is ‘accounted for a god, and as a god is heried [worshipped]; and surely never god is crueller nor colder than she’ (p. 65). The encounter with the Lady and her royal lover suggests that the reference to her as being ‘accounted for a god’ may be the familiar hyperbole of Petrarchan love discourse; her coldness to Walter on his first arrival reads like a conventional game of desire as practised in the early modern romances of Lyly, Greene and Gascoigne, and it’s only the Maid’s words that suggest there may be something more sinister afoot. This perception is intensified if the reader remembers what Walter learned from the old man at the farm: that his neighbours, the stone age ‘Bear-folk’, worship a bloodthirsty female deity (p. 29) who demands human ‘blood-offerings’ from them (p. 40). The Lady, then, like the Dwarf and the Maid, may be mixed in the reader’s mind of compound elements, human, bestial and supernatural, and this mixture puts us perpetually in two minds as to which of these elements will become foregrounded in any given episode set in the Wood of ‘lies’, as the Maid calls it.

One can see by now why Morris, like his successor Tolkien, was averse to the notion that he might have written allegories (as McCarthy tells us, he reacted angrily when an editor suggested that The Wood was a socialist allegory of labour’s struggle with capitalism). Allegories such as Bunyan’s hugely popular Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) assigned singular, limited roles to each of their characters; the identities and moral standing of Worldly Wiseman, Little-Faith, Hopeful and the rest are obvious at once from their names. Walter’s meeting with the Maid, on the other hand, is all about uncertainty; not least, the Maid’s uncertainty as to Walter’s own nature, her uncertainty as to whether the Lady lured him to the Wood for some dark purpose, her cogitations as to how to proceed, and finally her uncertainty about what Walter will think of her if she succeeds in carrying out the plan she finally comes up with. The reader doesn’t share in all these uncertainties; by this stage of the narrative, for instance, we may well have decided that Walter is an upright citizen, exactly as Morris describes him in the opening paragraph (‘rather wiser than foolisher than young men are mostly wont; a valiant youth, and a kind’ [p. 1]). The Maid’s fears spring in part from her status as a slave, a condition of which we’re constantly reminded by references to the steel ring on her ankle: subject to the whims of a volatile mistress, unsure as to whether any given situation is an ingenious trap devised to remind her of her servitude. And one element of this trap consists of the Maid’s concerns about Walter’s potential attitude to her, conditioned as she assumes it is by romance conventions concerning female behaviour. Should she display excessive wisdom or courage – qualities associated with Walter’s character as a man in the opening pages – she fears that he may judge her to be as the Dwarf described her: a dangerous monster forever set apart from the rest of her sex, a kind of inverted Blessed Virgin. Walter does indeed doubt the Maid at various points in their subsequent adventures – not surprisingly, really, since he has only known her for a short time, and has already been betrayed once by a woman he loved. But then, he also begins to doubt himself, largely thanks to his ambivalent attitudes to the Maid and the Lady. Identities in the Wood seem not to be fixed, and it’s the complexity of the women’s roles there, in particular, that points up its refusal to be bound by allegorical or romance regulations.

The Maid lays out the rules of the game she will play – a deadly serious game of the sort played by slaves conspiring to win their freedom – when she first meets Walter. ‘Thou hast cast thy love,’ she tells him, ‘upon one [i.e. the Maid herself] who will be true to thee, whatsoever may befall; yet is she a guileful creature, and might not help it her life long [in other words, her cunning has been forced on her by lifelong captivity], and now for thy very sake must needs be more guileful now than ever before. And as for me, the guileful,’ she continues,

my love have I cast upon a lovely man, and one true and simple, and a stout-heart; but at such a pinch is he, that if he withstand all temptation, his withstanding may belike undo both him and me. Therefore swear we both of us, that by both of us shall all guile and all falling away be forgiven on the day when we shall be free to love each other as our hearts will. (pp. 69-70)

Such a speech spoken by a woman to a man is more or less unprecedented in the annals of romance, at least in my limited experience.[6] For medieval and early modern writers an admission of guile would invariably be tantamount to an admission of guilt, and the guileful woman would quickly betray her true colours by seeking to beguile or bamboozle her lover (as Lucilla does, for instance, in Lyly’s Euphues [1578]).[7] At the same time, the Maid also professes truthfulness in the sense of fidelity (she will ‘be true to thee, whatsoever may befall’), and so insists that a consistent set of values will underpin her deviousness. She then sets up a clear distinction between herself and Walter. He is ‘true and simple’ by nature, she says, but must cultivate deviousness if he is to survive; he must strategically give way to ‘temptation’ if either or both of them are not to be destroyed by the ‘evil mistress’. So far so Machiavellian; this might be Lady Macbeth enjoining her husband to ‘Look like th’innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it’, with the crucial difference that the Maid is enjoining Walter to seem duplicitous, even to be duplicitous, but to cultivate a secret simplicity in his intentions and commitments. This troubling advice comes hard on an earlier reversal of Walter’s preconceptions about romance behaviour, where the young man promised to deliver the Maid from her enslaving mistress and she retorted that ‘it is more like [i.e. more likely] that I shall deliver thee’ (p. 67). On their first encounter, in fact, the Maid seeks to instruct Walter in a new kind of narrative, where the knight is less effective in a crisis than the damsel in distress, where lying may be necessary rather than immoral, and where trust and forgiveness are bestowed with difficulty rather than with the ease that so often characterizes their attainment in chivalric romance. Walter is not a rapid learner; he promptly agrees with everything the Maid has said on the grounds that she is his ‘Hallow’ (p. 70), that is, his saint, which makes her sound dangerously perfect, in direct contradiction to everything she has just told him about herself. But the Maid has given him a key to interpreting or reading her subsequent actions which promises to convert him to her way of thinking, should he choose to accept it, before the story’s end.

Most strikingly, her advice closes with an insistence that both of these would-be lovers learn to cultivate a commitment to change rather than consistency if their relationship is to flourish. The Maid has learned to change guilefully in order to protect herself from the Lady’s cruelty. She can also change her own and other people’s physical appearance, which is a skill the Lady does not possess (perhaps she does not need it, being a slave-owner rather than a slave). Walter must learn to change (from simplicity to duplicity, from fidelity to promiscuity, from the assumption of male dominance to reliance on a woman) in order to protect himself and the Maid. And both must promise to change again, for one last time, when the need for changefulness is over. Her insistence ‘that by both of us shall all guile and all falling away be forgiven on the day when we shall be free to love each other as our hearts will’ could be taken as Morris’s manifesto: his romances recognize the need for compromise in adversity, acknowledging partial or apparent complicity with the dominant power as a necessary part of the struggle for freedom from it, as against the idealistic purism of traditional chivalric codes. At the same time, the original principles of chivalric romance remain important to him: fidelity (to those who are worthy of it), simplicity (a clear set of social and moral values underlying one’s actions), and devotion to truth (even when one is forced to lie in the interests of self-preservation). He wants his readers to recall traditional chivalric romance even as they recognize the various departures from it in his narrative. There’s an idealism here, in other words, concerning the possibility of keeping faith in the worst of circumstances, which the Maid is concerned to assert even as she spurns the kind of idealism based on arbitrarily-assigned gender roles that has dominated past narratives of this kind.

Sustaining this clandestine idealism proves as difficult as one might expect in the adventures that follow. Walter continually doubts the Maid’s fidelity, distrustful of her increasing intimacy with the King’s Son even as he self-consciously fulfills his own obligation to be physically intimate with the Lady. His relationship with the Maid is complicated by the fact that he finds the Lady equally attractive, as also by the fact that he is continually mistaking the one for the other, so that at times the only distinction between them seems to be the ring of steel on the Maid’s ankle which marks her out as the Lady’s property. Even when the Maid eventually frees them from the Lady’s power – by magically disguising the King’s Son as Walter and luring him to the site of an assignation, where the Lady kills him in a jealous rage after being tipped off by the Dwarf – Walter suspects her of excessive intelligence and courage (or deviousness and boldness), exactly as she predicted he would. Changing attitudes to gender prove as difficult in Morris’s romance world as they were in the actual struggle for women’s equality in which Morris took such a marked if problematic interest.[8]

The confusions of identity that occur in the Wood are exacerbated by the uncertainty as to how terms are used and phenomena explained. We’ve already noted how the term ‘yellow’ occurs in the descriptions both of Walter and of the Dwarf – that is, of the most ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’ male figures in the narrative – and how the sobriquet ‘golden’ applies at once to Walter, his father, and the enchanted House where Walter finds himself after abandoning his father’s ship. Similarly, the term ‘Enemy’ gets regularly applied to different inhabitants of the Wood, Maid, Dwarf and Lady; and its capitalized initial ‘E’ aligns it with the names denoting qualities in allegories like The Pilgrim’s Progress, as if to point up the danger of assuming a stable correspondence between signifier and signified. We’ve seen, too, how the origins of the visions Walter sees are never confirmed (were they sent by Lady, Maid, or some other influence?); so that it’s hardly surprising we never learn their purpose either (were they devised by the Lady to ensnare a new lover, by the Maid to procure a rescuer, by destiny to ensure that the story unfolds as it does?). Another incident that never gets explained is Walter’s killing of a lion on a hunting expedition with the Lady. Was the lion conjured up by the Lady as a test of Walter’s mettle? This would explain the fact that it is yellow, like her servant the Dwarf who shares so many of its properties, and that its body disappears, leaving no trace, after its killing. But if so, why does the Lady associate it with her Enemy (presumably the Maid), and react to its appearance with seeming terror? The Maid asserts that since the Lady is a liar her behaviour and words on this occasion cannot be trusted; but of course the Maid too is a mistress of false appearances, as her final plot against the Lady demonstrates. Finally, the Maid mistakes Walter for the King’s Son on at least one occasion, and the Lady mistakes him for her royal lover when she stabs the latter (using a knife of the kind the Maid carries about with her – as she claims, for purposes of self-defence and possibly suicide, though the Dwarf identifies it as the sign of the Maid’s monstrosity). The Lady commits suicide, in the end, just as the Maid proposed to do if her bid for freedom failed. Walter, meanwhile, ends up as a serial adulterer (he is successively unfaithful to his wife, the Maid and the Lady), a bigamist (he marries the Maid while still, apparently, married to his wife in Langholm), a voyeur (he is always spying on the Lady and the Maid, like the Dwarf he hates), a killer (he stabs the Dwarf to protect the Maid from his arrows), and a liar, and hence in some sense akin to the Lady, the Maid, the Dwarf and the King’s Son. The Wood, then, is a veritable labyrinth of resemblances and echoes, with each of its inhabitants repeatedly usurping the other’s role and partner in a dance of power that renders any notion of any one of them having a unique destiny, or preordained moral function, profoundly questionable.

It seems appropriate, then, that Walter’s moment of triumph in this romance is not an act of prowess (his killing of the Dwarf is a botched job at best, and he does little to rescue the Maid from her captivity) but instead an acceptance of his own complicity with the faults of which he suspects her. Having engineered the death of the Lady and the King’s Son, the Maid approaches the difficult task of explaining to Water what she has done – the chief difficulty being that she has behaved like the wicked witch of conventional romance – with hesitation; a hesitation that seems fully justified when Walter allows himself to half believe the Dwarf’s account of what has happened before he has even heard the Maid’s side of the story. It’s at this point, however, that Walter suddenly recalls the lesson in reading that the Maid taught him when they first met. The lesson involved pointing out to him how each of them must behave if they are to stand a chance of escaping from the Lady’s clutches; and how they must act in similar ways, and accept equal responsibility for their own and each other’s actions, if they are to have any chance of developing an adult relationship after their escape. Her lesson taught him, in fact, to rid himself of the double standards applied to men and women in fiction; and he shows he has learned the lesson when he affirms, as the Maid hesitates to speak freely to him, that he too has been guilty of any crimes she may confess in her account of the Lady’s death:

Yea, said he, and true it is that if thou hast slain, I have done no less, and if thou hast lied, even so have I; and if thou hast played the wanton, as I deem not that thou hast, I full surely have so done. So now thou shalt pardon me, and when thy spirit has come back to thee, thou shalt tell me thy tale in all friendship, and in all loving-kindness will I hearken the same. (pp. 157-8)

This statement of pardon before the Maid has told her tale certifies that Walter has learned to read in a new way, with an egalitarianism or ‘loving-kindness’ regarding gender (and ‘kindness’ suggests similarity or kinship in medieval English) that’s pretty much alien to the romance tradition, which tended to apply such different standards to men and women, especially in sexual matters [though this isn’t altogether true of Philip Sidney or Mary Wroth]. This is not to say that these standards have yet been fully naturalized either in Walter or in Morris’s readers. Morris is careful, for instance, to ensure that the Maid remains what her title suggests, a virgin, so as not to alienate his more conservative readers. But the passage, like the romance as a whole, also asserts the possibility of accepting an authoritative, cunning, powerful, active and passionately desiring female figure into the storytelling tradition, and in doing so paves the way for the yet more powerful women of Morris’s later romances, The Well at the World’s End and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897).[9]

Walter doesn’t remain entirely convinced by his own rhetoric of loving-kindness. His assertion of trust in the Maid is sorely strained when she later takes on the Lady’s former role as goddess of the Bear folk, and he fears that she will take the opportunity to have him sacrificed like previous visitors to the Bear country. Later a similar fear afflicts him when he is seized, stripped, washed and fed by the people of a city called Stark-wall, and again presumes that these are preparations for ritual murder to appease some sanguinary deity. As it turns out, however, both acts of sacrifice are averted thanks to the equal commitment of the Maid and Walter to changing things for the better. The Maid uses her power as a substitute goddess to dissuade the Bear folk from the practice of human sacrifice rather than to encourage it (though she also instructs them to enslave weak or sickly strangers instead of sacrificing them; the historical moment would not yet seem to have come for the total erasure of slavery). Similarly, Walter’s ordeal in Stark-wall turns out to be a test of his fitness to be crowned king – a test he passes with ease; and he immediately uses his newfound power to institute change, inviting the Maid to be crowned as his Queen while symbolically inviting her to choose the clothes in which she will be installed alongside him. Again the change he implements is not as radical as it might be; it seems clear that the Queen doesn’t wield the same authority in Stark-wall as her husband. But their personalities and experience ensure that they make a difference in the World beyond the Wood (as the Lady at one stage calls it), extending the principles of loving-kindness beyond the charmed circle of their marriage.

Walter’s legacy, like his reformation of Stark-wall, is finally limited. When he dies he leaves behind ‘no needy’ subjects, but the quasi-democratic practice whereby he was crowned king after emerging ‘poor and lonely from out of the Mountains’ (p. 250) is forgotten, to be replaced, one guesses, by patrilineal succession. And the Maid’s actions, too, leave an ambiguous legacy. The skills she taught the Bear folk in her capacity as their goddess – which include tillage as well as relative kindness to strangers – eventually give rise to warfare between them and their neighbours, the people of Stark-wall, though ‘that was a long while after the Maid had passed away’ (p. 250). And after her coronation she continues to suffer from what sounds like post traumatic stress disorder, since under certain circumstances ‘her heart waxed cold with fear, and it almost seemed to her that her Mistress was alive again, and that she was escaping from her and plotting against her once more’ (pp. 249-50). Like all the great socialist writers, Morris was no glib optimist; he harboured no illusion that the changes he advocated through his experimental ‘plotting’ would come into being any time soon, or that the damage inflicted by the past would leave no trace on the psychology of its victims and their descendants. Change, nevertheless, lay at the heart of his literary programme, and he had the vision to trace the roots of potential change in the language and artistry of the past, as a miner traces a vein of ore through the rock of bygone ages.

Morris’s attitude to change is perhaps best exemplified in The Wood Beyond the World in his attitude to religion. Medieval Catholicism is more prominent in this text than it became in his later romances; in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, for instance, it has more or less disappeared, as I recall, whereas in the Wood his characters are constantly invoking the name of God or the Blessed Virgin. At the same time religion is firmly rooted in human urges. We have seen how the Maid becomes Walter’s ‘Hallow’ or saint when he pledges his love to her; and later, one of the residents of Stark-wall predicts that her name will be hallowed in future generations ‘little less than they hallow the name of the Mother of God’ (p. 244). Yet only shortly before this scene she was associated with a harsher religion, that of the Bear folk, who had been instructed by her predecessor, the Lady, to sacrifice strangers to appease their goddess. And when Walter first encountered the people of Stark-wall he suspected them of practising the same religion: ‘Surely all this [ritual],’ he comments, ‘looks toward the knife and the altar for me’ (p. 229); an opinion that’s rendered plausible by an elderly citizen’s reference to the ‘God-folk’ they formerly worshipped (p. 233), who seem to be equivalent to their ‘Fathers’ or male ancestors (p. 235). Like the characters in his romance, then, Morris’s gods blend qualities traditionally associated with human beings, beasts and deities; they can be gentle and supportive or fatal to strangers; they can wield power with arbitrary violence or dispense blessings on their followers freely, as the Maid-goddess does on the Bear folk when she makes believe to bring them much-needed rain without recourse to the usual murderous rituals, or when she sends the people of Stark-wall to teach them husbandry. This combination of qualities is most disturbingly embodied in the Lady, who is referred to by the Dwarf as a creator (‘it is like that she made me, as she made the Bear men’ [p. 55]), and who veers between disdain for and erotic dalliance with her human subjects. For Morris, religions give rise to both purposeless violence and altruistic acts of generosity, and the way he mixes pagan and Christian elements in his story suggests that he holds this to be true of all religions, ancient and modern. As a result what might be termed missionary work, such as the Maid’s among the Bear-folk, doesn’t have an unambiguously positive effect on its recipients, and certainly not an enduring one. The measure of any given civilization, he implies, is the social and political impact of its religious beliefs, and these beliefs are generated by its living mortal citizens rather than by any external influence or pre-planned programme, divine or otherwise.

It’s hardly surprising, then, if religious language gradually dropped away from his romances as an irrelevance. His concern was with constructing earthly paradises, not heavenly ones, as the title of his most celebrated book of poems affirmed.[10] And paradise, like hell, inhabits people’s minds and bodies, as it inhabits the Maid’s body in the brief period of history when she inhabits Stark-wall. ‘It seemed to me as she went past,’ says one of the citizens at her coronation, ‘as though paradise had come anigh to our city, and that all the air breathed of it’ (p. 244). The Wood Beyond the World was also described as a paradise, though a deadly one that killed the wanderer who entered it without due caution. Distinguishing one kind of paradise from the other is a task Morris leaves to his readers; and his romance provides an invaluable guide to that difficult process.

[1] Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for our Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 634.

[2] George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ (1893), in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. U.C. Knoeplmacher (London: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 5-10. See especially pp. 9-10: ‘It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning […] If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it’.

[3] See e.g. his utopian dream-vision narrative The Dream of John Ball (1888).

[4] All quotations are taken from William Morris, The Wood Beyond the World (London etc.: Longmans, Green and Co., 1904).

[5] It’s important to note here, and to condemn, the racism and disability discrimination involved in Morris’s depiction of the Dwarf. In certain ways he was distinctly a white male able-bodied writer of his time.

[6] There may well be equivalent speeches in Sidney’s two highly sophisticated romances named Arcadia, the Old and the New (c.1580 and c. 1586), and in Mary Wroth’s Urania (1621).

[7] See my analysis of the duplicitous language of Lyly’s Euphues in Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 5.

[8] On Morris’s and the contemporary women’s movement see Ruth Kinna, ‘Socialist Fellowship and the Woman Question’, in Writing on the Image: Reading William Morris, ed. David Latham, (Toronto etc.: University of Toronto Press, 2007), chapter 13, pp. 183-96. See also the essays by Florence S. Boos and Jane Thomas in the same collection.

[9] For a fine analysis of Morris’s most powerful and complex romance heroine see Florence S. Boos, ‘The Water of the Wondrous Isles: Morris’s Socialist “New Woman” Romance’: http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/WaterWondrousIntro.html

[10] Morris’s major anthology poem The Earthly Paradise was published between 1868 and 1870.

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Little Ships

These days when she dreamed it was as if she were talking face to face with friends long dead, and when she woke she opened her eyes onto sepia tints inside a narrow frame, a dim imitation of her colourful dream world.

This morning she was startled from sleep by drawn-out howls from the direction of the High Street. They must have been very loud indeed, since few sounds penetrated the thick walls of the house now that the aeroplanes had gone and the airport fallen silent. She looked as if for the first time round her room: a high, spacious barn of a room divided down the middle by a thin partition, lit by a greenish deep-sea light that filtered through the vegetation pressing up against the window-panes in wild profusion. She had forgotten to draw the blinds again last night. You silly old fool, she told herself, you’re forgetting even the simplest things your mother taught you.

Each morning it was a tremendous effort to push back the bedclothes and swing her stick-thin legs over the edge of the bed, the first in a series of efforts which got steadily more tremendous as the day went by until she could permit herself to climb into bed again as the sun slipped behind the yews. She pushed her swollen feet into a pair of slippers and straightened the bedclothes carefully before shuffling off to light a fire in the kitchenette. She did this with the help of spills like the ones her nanny had taught her to twist out of sheets of tightly-folded newspaper. How lucky she had collected all those bundles of papers for the scouts to give to charity! And how lucky that John had fitted her kitchenette with a wood-burning stove and stocked the boiler-house with logs before he left for France! I’ve wood enough to last for years – more than enough to see me through to the day when John gets home on leave, she told herself as she did each morning.

The thought was a spur to send her in her wobbly stride to the side door with her plastic bucket. She must fetch water from the ditch before the day could properly begin! To do this she had to fight her way through the overgrown remains of her beloved herb-garden, shocks of heavily-scented rosemary and thyme slapping the hem of her floral dressing gown as she strode past (one of her daily efforts was the losing battle of stitching up the rents). The water in the ditch was a godsend, delivering clean, fresh water every day, even in the driest weather, even after weeks of rain had turned the rest of the streams and rivers in the area to muddy soup. She didn’t remember any water in the ditch before the evacuation, certainly nothing so clear and sweet as the stuff that ran beneath the ferns this morning. Perhaps she hadn’t looked.

She dipped the bucket, then pushed it firmly under till it held enough for two or three pots of tea and a superficial wash. Meanwhile she listened for more noises from the High Street; not in apprehension (she had lost her apprehension as a girl when she caught TB and almost died), but to hear if the owners of the voices were getting nearer, motivated only by the curiosity she brought to all things: the path of an ant across a wall, the movements of a robin among the hazel branches, the delicate footsteps taken by a deer as it cropped at the grass on the weedy lawn. She listened, too, to see if she would recognize any of the voices. She did not, of course – she never did – but there was always a chance that she might, and if that happened she would act at once, letting the bucket drop unnoticed from her hands and setting out in her wobbly stride round the front of the house towards the drive, arms raised in welcome, a smile ready on her face for the departed friends she had thought about each morning since they had left her…

The robin sat on the fence, as he had done for years past counting, and twittered remarks as she tipped her head to catch the sounds. Behind him the yews shook their skirts in disapproval and hissed, sending out little flurries of starlings to swirl and cheep for a while before settling down on their hidden perches. The howl rose again from the south, beyond the ruins of the Catholic church. A human howl: refugees must be on the move again through the village. No, it sounded as though they were chasing someone, which meant they were hunters, not refugees, with spears and clubs made from old scrap metal. She had seen them once through a skein of roses when she’d gone on a slow and painful scavenging expedition to the shops in search of scraps. God protect my John, she prayed in silence, and send him safely home from the front. The hunters had looked fearful, as much because of their obvious desperation as because of their snarling faces and bloodstained clothes.

She shuffled back to the house and over the remains of the carpet that was now growing patches of mould here and there no matter how hard she scrubbed. She set the kettle on the hob, then retired to the bathroom to put on her clothes. Button followed difficult button, each button a different colour because she hadn’t any matching ones left in her formerly well-stocked button-box. As her fingers fluttered about the fastenings her mind drifted off, searching among the quiet morning birdsong and the wavering sunlight that squeezed between honeysuckle-leaves at the tiny window, searching to regain the shining dream-path it had left. Dead relatives sat in the sitting room waiting for her to re-emerge and bring them a nice hot cup of tea. An old friend peered round the door. She could hear Mr Barnes as he pottered among the roses in the yard, tying the recalcitrant ones which dared to curve away from an upright posture with yards and yards of orange twine, lashing their stems to stakes three times their girth in the interests of maintaining the air of military discipline gone to seed which the yard had worn in the old days, before he left with the refugees.

At last the bottom button was done up and she had even pinned a brooch at her throat (a perilous task she set herself each morning to test the steadiness of her hands). Regally she strode from the bathroom to greet her guests. But the sitting room was empty. The photographs on the partition smiling at her apologetically from beaches, front doors and prams long turned to ashes in the hearth of time, the hearth of war. You haven’t written for so long, John, she told the painting over the bed (his eyes twinkled down at her from under his cap). Of course there’s hardly any leave in wartime, but surely after all your efforts they could spare you for a week or two, just to see your mother? Hasn’t Dunkirk happened yet? All those brave little ships and the sea as bright and calm as a picture postcard sold on the beach when she was the laughing black-eyed girl in one of the snaps beside the tallboy, throwing a ball to her husband-to-be, but her grandmother would hurry her past the naughtier postcards in case she should glimpse more naked flesh than was good for a child of fourteen. She allowed herself a secret smile. How could Nanny know about the time I kissed Jerry Tomkins behind the woodshed? His lips and tongue had surprised her with their excessive wetness – surprised her so much that she had drawn back and pulled out her hanky to wipe her mouth, all the while apologizing for her rudeness, she had enjoyed it, she really had, she’d just felt in danger of drowning in the tide of his saliva…

Faintly from the hall she heard the grandmother clock in her grandmother’s voice telling her it was twelve o’clock, time to start preparing lunch. She couldn’t stand here dreaming all day, there were things to be done, cleaning and mending to be completed if John weren’t to come home to find the place in confusion! She opened the back door of her bedroom and stepped into the passageway that gave her access to the rest of the house. Here the dogs had lived before they disappeared – who knew when or how. Perhaps they had left with Mr Barnes. Perhaps they had carried out their own evacuation and were now running free through the fields as dogs had done when she was a girl, before you needed leads and collars to constrict them as Mr Barnes constricted his runner beans and roses. At the end of the passage lay the storeroom, which had once been the kitchen proper with its many cupboards and its giant cast-iron stove. Here her friends from the village had piled up tins and crates and cartons full of supplies against her long wait for John’s return. Here were boxes of cream crackers to dip in her soup, tea, sugar, salt, flour, vinegar, and endless glass jars and metal containers, the flour now rancid, the crackers no longer crisp. She missed butter, of course, but there were still several jars of marmite to give the crackers flavour.

When she stood in the storage room doorway she liked to pretend she was going shopping; she had not gone shopping for months before the evacuation because of her feet. She loved the sense of boundless riches waiting on the shelves, treats and treasures as well as necessities, brought from far away through many dangers for her comfort, to spread on tea-time scones when friends and relatives paid a visit, or to brew on special occasions instead of normal tea. Brought on brave little ships like the ones at Dunkirk, sailing over a placid picture-postcard sea. She felt like a little ship herself as she grasped a tin of soup in one hand and a box of crackers in the other before turning, somewhat precariously, and striding back along the passage to her bedroom door.

Before she reached it, something made her pause at the back door of the building, turn the key in the lock and pull it open. As she did so, she remembered how Doctor Waters had always called this the House of Many Doors, because of the many odd passages, lobbies, landings and stairways leading from door to door at every level, each of them opening onto new vistas: bedrooms, storage cupboards, bathrooms, studies. She sometimes compared these doors to the ones in her mind, which opened and shut at a touch of her questing fingers, letting sunlight fall on a chest of drawers littered with photographs, perhaps, or a corner cabinet full of old china, some of it chipped in particular ways that recalled accidents or fits of temper which would have been long forgotten but for these commemorative flaws…

When she opened this particular door, the back one, she thought for a moment she had found her way to her dream-world, where friends, relatives and long-lost pets still lingered among the flowers and the apple-laden branches. The late roses were in bloom, a tangled screen of green and crimson that stretched across the bottom of the garden like an embroidered picture of the thorns that hid the palace of Sleeping Beauty, the place of dreams, the house of many doors. The flagstones were cracked and buckled into humps, and sprays of jagged weeds sprang out through the gaps between them. The little crab-apple was dead, its bony branches sticking up from among the briars that had choked it, and the once diminutive maple tree with its leaves of fire now soared ten feet above her head, casting shadows like cooling water across her face. Someone was standing on the flagstones by the gate: someone in ragged, colourful clothes whose left hand rested on the handle of an old-fashioned Silver Cross pram. Of course! How could she have forgotten? This was the day when Auntie Ida and baby Ruth were due to drop by for a cup of tea before the christening! She stepped forward with a social smile, both hands held out to greet the child and its timid mother.

The refugee who crouched among the weeds saw the door swing suddenly open to reveal a skeleton, a bony ghost with cloud-white hair and a gown of cobwebs. Its spider hands clutched a rusty tin and a battered box, talismanic gifts to trap a soul with. Its eyes glistened like dying oysters in their damaged shells. Its lips writhed as it lurched towards her. For a heartbeat the refugee trembled there on the broken flagstones, caught between the need to keep hold of the pram and the urge to flee. Then she gave the pram a shove – let the skeleton keep its rotten treasures! – let out a long-drawn howl of terror and scuttled sideways through the gate like a panicking crab. The skeleton staggered after her, waving its things and emitting the mews of a starving sea-bird. She could feel its breath on her calves as she sprinted down the drive.

By this time, of course, the old woman had seen that the visitor couldn’t possibly be Auntie Ida. For one thing, she had red hair where Ida’s was mousy. For another, she looked quite unlike the neat little figure stored away in the button-box of her memory. Her clothes were brilliant shreds of colour, she wore mismatched shoes, the pram had no baby in it, only oddments. When you got close you could see that her face was pale and worn, her eyes red-rimmed. Poor dear, she’s lost and alone, she thought, and stretched out her hands to soothe her, forgetting the tin of soup and the crackers. How strange I must have looked, she told herself later, waving those things as if I meant to clobber her with them! Why didn’t I speak? My throat was dry, that’s why; no sounds would come. I haven’t had my first cup of tea, I can never speak a word before I’ve had the first. She must have thought me mad or angry; no wonder she ran. The old woman’s shoulders slumped in disappointment at her inadequacy, her weakness, which had already lost her so many friends, so many members of her once extensive family: brothers, sisters, husbands, sons. You’re so weak, her mother had told her. Why can’t you learn? Why can’t you be strong?

In the pram, among other things, was a carriage clock the old woman remembered from long ago. Surely that clock had been upstairs? It had belonged to Uncle Freddie who was such a fine pianist; a conscious objector, he had joined the merchant navy when war broke out, his ship had gone down within a week in the North Atlantic. But his clock hadn’t stopped; they seldom do, in her experience, unlike their owners. She picked it up and placed it under her elbow where the crackers had been; she would take it inside and add it to her collection, her growing collection of forgotten clocks that beat so many different times. The grandmother clock, which announced each quarter hour in a querulous contralto. The alarm clock with her husband’s name scratched on the base with a pocket knife. The clock with the Donald Duck figure always pointing, pointing in delight, which had once stood on John’s bedside table in what they had grandly called the nursery, and now stood by hers, its beaming face anticipating the joy that would fill the house when he got home. The carriage clock could go in the sitting room where the guests were, so that they could admire the inscription: first prize in an international piano competition in Manchester, she forgot the name and date. She could check them now, of course, but that would involve some complicated juggling with the tin of soup and the box of crackers, she might drop the clock, and then who would mend it now that Mr Barnes had gone with his toolbox, his box of tricks as she used to call it, which had held so many nameless instruments large and small tangled up with yards and yards of orange twine? Nobody, that was who, not even one of the neighbours. There was nobody left. She would have to do it herself, if it was to be done, with her shaky fingers and her dimming vision.

She always switched on the radio at lunchtime just in case they had fixed one of the stations. What with so many voices and tunes in her head she could easily fill up the crackling void with entertainment: cricket commentaries from Old Trafford, Thought for the Day from her favourite Rabbi, the latest hopeful predictions from the Met Office, the latest accounts of the glorious rescue from Dunkirk. This afternoon, however, there was little of interest on her mental airwaves. The weathermen shook their heads uneasily and stayed tight-lipped. The captains of the little ships looked apprehensively at the sky, wondering if the Channel would stay quiet for the crossing. Strange clouds hung over the house – you could see them from the sitting room window: big blustery creatures which writhed when no wind shook the yew trees, which bulged with rain but refused to shed it, as if holding themselves back for a special occasion. Her memories grew dark and plaintive as shadows collected under the herbs, spinning their webs where the nut-tree stooped over the brimming ditch, gathering under the corner cabinet, behind the tallboy, on either side of the chest-of-drawers. Now she remembered the little squabbles, the loneliness of the sanatorium in the forest where she been sent to recover from her TB, all the absences in her life since the evacuation. ‘Now, now,’ she told herself sharply. ‘You asked to be left behind, remember? You wanted John to find everything in the village just as it was, before he left, before the fighting started.’ But things were not as they were, each passing day made this more obvious. There was mould on the carpet, cracks in the ceilings, moths in the curtains. And here the biggest cloud of all came roiling and writhing into her chest, the cloud she tried to scrub away when she scrubbed the carpet on her hands and knees. What if John had been left behind on the beach in France? What if he was now a prisoner, kicking his heels in a Nazi prison camp hemmed in with searchlights and barbed wire? Worse still: what if he were dead? But no, he couldn’t be; he hadn’t yet joined the swarm of ghosts who entered the room with the thickening shadows. She hardly dared glance in their direction now, lest she see his face among the rest. As always, though, she did dare in the end, steeling herself as the men must have steeled themselves before engaging the enemy. She looked, but there were only shadows, not a human face among them, no ghosts, no John. There was a flash at the window: a cat had leaped onto the sill outside and was rubbing its flank against the glass so that its fur flattened out in sprays of thistledown. She hobbled to the side door to let it in before the rain began – but the cat had gone, like the ghosts, and even the robin had disappeared from its usual perch among the hazel branches. Gone to find shelter, she supposed, and no wonder, the rain these days stung as it never had when she was young, you would need fur and feathers of steel to stay outside when the heavens opened…

As she stood in the doorway looking out, waiting for the sinister hiss of the rain as it swept its curtains round the house, she heard a rustling behind the fence, furtive movements like those of a fox or badger. A pair of grubby hands gripped the top of the fence and little Jerry Tomkins poked his head over, glancing backwards over his shoulder. He did not see her standing there, but she noted that his hair was full of twigs and tangled like the nearby bushes and that his shirt was several sizes too big. That shirt looked familiar, with its chequered pattern of of red and blue, its narrow collar, the badge on the pocket which said CND and had a kind of damaged cross on it, cross-bars slanted down as if they’d been snapped by malicious vandals. That was the insignia of John’s regiment, she knew it now though she hadn’t known it when he had first shown her. She had last seen that shirt, she thought, in John’s big wardrobe. All at once she knew this child wasn’t Jerry Tomkins: he was much too young and much too scrawny, as well as too filthy to be kissed, even behind a woodshed with your eyes closed and your fingers crossed in an act of defiance against your teachers, mother, nanny, the whole wretched system of proper behaviour. When he looked round his eyes were black with fear and hunger. She took a step towards him and called out: ‘Young man! Whose shirt is that? Not yours, I think. Give it back at once!’ At least, she tried to call, but all that came out was a feeble croak, and he had vanished before she’d finished the final sentence.

For perhaps half an hour she stood in the doorway listening for the sound of further movements behind the hiss of rain in the grass, the giggling of water in the ditch, the shushing of leaves. Every now and then flashes of lightning ripped the sky: sheet lightning that threw leaves and branches into sharp relief like a gigantic flashbulb on a box camera, fixing moments in black-and-white stillness to be stored away on some gargantuan chest-of-drawers stuffed with old chequered shirts and carriage clocks inscribed in honour of unknown regiments, forgotten triumphs. At last she stepped back and closed the door, pulled the cord that drew the curtains across it, stood in a darkness like the inside of a camera where images of light are stored among shadows. Darkness and lightning were not part of the world she had grown up in, a world of nightlights, glowing embers, lanterns, lamps; mellow luminescence and murmuring voices, gentle tunes. Time to light one of my precious candles, she decided. And time for tea.

Afternoon tea was her favourite ritual, her most ringing statement of defiance against the encroaching chaos of darkness and loss. She took the carefully ironed tablecloth from one drawer and a set of coasters from another, put the kettle on the hob, arranged the teapot, cups and saucers on a wooden tray. No milk, of course – she could not bring herself to use the powdered stuff they’d left in the store-room. She took as long over the arrangements as possible, smoothing the cloth till the ridges where it had been folded vanished, setting the coasters at regular intervals round the table, placing a vase she had earlier filled with sprays of lavender precisely at the table’s central point. Again she imagined expectant laughter as her guests watched her work. The rising patter of water poured from the kettle into the pot laughed with them across the years; she always smiled to hear it. Then somehow she managed to lift the tray, cups, pot and all, and walk with stately grace from the kitchen into the sitting room, head thrown back to show off the social smile which her friends knew concealed the warmth of her real affection for them…

But when she was seated in her upright chair she didn’t pour the tea, though it was brewed and her mouth was dry. Instead she folded her hands in her lap and gazed round the room with a troubled expression. On the wall, an embroidery faded with time whispered in floral script: ‘Dear Lord, I’m sailing on thy wide, wide sea; Please guard my little ship for me.’ It was signed in uneven stitches at the bottom: Ida Mather, 7 ½. Hadn’t she met Auntie Ida with her baby just this morning? Jerry Tomkins, too? Why hadn’t she invited them to tea? But no, there had been a scavenger woman dressed in rags and a little boy wearing one of John’s shirts, they had run away when she tried to approach them. ‘Am I really so frightening?’ she wondered aloud. ‘Me with my house of many doors and my hair untouched by a hairdresser’s hands for so many weeks?’ She struggled to recall what the strangers had looked like, but their faces were now the faces of Auntie Ida and Jerry Tomkins. ‘I can’t remember faces any more,’ she lamented, ‘not without photographs.’ Her dry old voice blew round the room like autumn leaves. She reached for a shawl that hung from the back of the upright chair and pulled it close around her shoulders, shivering. John had bought it for her, she had told him she always felt as though he were hugging her when she wore it. It didn’t warm her now.

She wondered where the girl – for she was only a girl, she saw that now – and the little boy had come from. Were they together? Perhaps they were from the village, perhaps they had known some of her relatives, some of her friends. But no, the village had been quite empty on the day she’d gone on her scavenging expedition to the High Street. She had seen the butcher’s and the sweet shop and the grocer’s all with shutters locked in place, the houses with broken windows and missing doors, the clothes spilled out across the pavement by the brutes who had swept through the village when the locals left. Or perhaps they hadn’t been brutes at all; perhaps they had been ordinary people like the girl and boy with nothing of their own, no pictures or memories, only an emptiness they must snatch what they could to fill. How ill-bred they must be, with no grown-ups to teach them manners! She pictured John as a little boy sitting at the table: ‘Sit up straight and keep your elbows by your sides. Don’t frown, it will give you wrinkles.’ And then his expression became the startled expression of the boy on the fence, legs straddling the borders of her world, eyes with nothing behind them meeting her own so full of pictures… Her zest for good manners vanished in an instant, it had only ever been a game to her in any case, a means of drawing the dance of laughter from two pairs of lips when there was nothing better to do. She reached out to clasp the child to her bony chest, but once again he evaded her fingers, ducking into the shadows with a kind of sideways twist that made her think of the games of tig she had played with her agile sisters in the days when they wore their hair in plaits, when nanny had brushed their hair each evening by the fire, a hundred strokes of the brush for every strand, till the sparks had flown and they had laughed to see how the fire had somehow leaped from hearth to head…

Tears had dampened her hands where they lay in her lap; she imagined them running down her cheeks like the rain that fed the water in her precious ditch. She thought about going to fetch a hanky from the chest of drawers. And then at last, as always happened at some point in the day, she ceased to think altogether. Her head stood empty, like an empty house. She stared into the darkness, person to person, the darkness of her mind answering the darkness of the room, a perfect mirror.

The minutes passed, the days, the years.

Outside, the howling started up once more. At first she thought it was the wind, or an air raid siren, but the howls quickly broke into scattered shrieks that surged along the road outside the house, past the Catholic church and the whispering yews towards Jenners Field and the woods and fields of the world beyond. Why in the world did they feel the need to make so much noise? But there had always been howling, now she thought about it. There had been howling during the war when the men came home in the little ships, leaving so many dead bodies in the shallows to be tossed about by the darkening tides. There had been howling when her husband left her, breaking his promise to let her die first, the first promise to her he had ever broken. There had even been howling when she kissed Jerry Tomkins behind the wood-shed: howling because they had fallen out afterwards, and because he had died in a motor-cycle accident before they could make it up. Each time her heart had given answering cries, weaker than the howls but no less piercing. Each time her heart had felt as if it would break, but of course it hadn’t, it had been left so strong by her childhood illnesses, her grown-up losses, the tremendous efforts, day to day, of her interminable old age.

At her back there was a sudden rustling outside the window: furtive movements like those of a fox or badger. She came back from the outer darkness and took her daytime place behind her eyes. She turned her head to listen. Someone’s legs brushed through the herbs; she imagined the scent of thyme and rosemary rising in clouds to the stranger’s nostrils. There came a breathless hush as someone tried to peer into the room between the curtains. ‘Should I snuff the candles?’ she asked herself. ‘Total blackout when Jerry comes.’ But no, she was much too old for such acts of caution. And besides, why give rein to fear when she was a cause of fear in others? If they catch sight of me they’ll run, she thought, like everyone else. Let the candles burn.

More rustling, urgent whispering, a cough. How many of them were there, she wondered vaguely. Could these be the long-awaited marauders with their spears and cudgels? God knew she had dreamed about them often enough, they were as familiar to her as the dead, she could see their faces when she closed her eyes, pale, drawn and fearful. Let them come in, then, if they must. There was room for them, as for so much else, in the house of many doors.

Rustle rustle, crunch crunch on last year’s hazelnuts. A hesitant tap on the side-door, so soft she would never have heard it if the wireless had been working. Quickly she raised her hands to the sides of her head to smooth her hair. If only there were time to give it a brush! Never mind, her guests were here; she must fetch more water from the ditch. She pushed aside the curtain, peered through the glass, but the streaks of rain gleamed in the candlelight and she could see nothing in the night beyond. John had made her promise not to open the door unless she’d looked first, and then to keep it on the chain – but what was point on a night like this? Someone had coughed; they might be ill; they might need her help. And what murderer taps so gently at the door? She pulled it wide and pulled herself erect, armed only with her smile.

There stood John, uniform in tatters. Blood smeared his cheeks as if the rain had pierced his skin, and he held one hand across his chest at an awkward angle. He stared at her slack-jawed, as if he had never seen her before. Auntie Ida and Jerry Tomkins crouched behind him, ready for flight.

So it had happened at last. She wasn’t fooled for even an instant; this wasn’t her John, just a memory of him overlaid on the living body of a passing stranger. She would never see John again, not in the flesh. He had joined her ghosts.

But this was no time to reflect on the discovery. These people were in trouble. She smiled and stepped aside, made what she hoped was a welcoming gesture, a kind of bow intended to show that they were welcome, that they should come in. ‘Hello, my dears,’ she said. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

Supported by the girl and child, the man stumbled over the threshold and stopped just inside, raising his head and opening his mouth as if to speak. Perhaps he thought he owed her an explanation, some sort of apology. Perhaps he wanted to give her news from beyond the village. But he was in no condition to stand there observing the civil niceties; he was wounded, trembling with exhaustion, like the children behind him. She reached out and touched his elbow, gestured to the couch. ‘Won’t you lie down? You look so tired. You must have come a long way. I’ll fetch you blankets. I’m so glad you’re here!’

The youngsters watched in silence as she covered him up, unwrapped the dirty cloth that swathed his injured hand, examined the wound that had almost split the palm in half. ‘We’ll need to clean this up,’ she told them calmly. ‘Would you fetch water for me? You’ll find the bucket in the kitchen, and the water’s in the ditch, you’ll have heard it running when you were at the window. I’ll fetch first aid and a bite to eat, I’m sure you’re starving. Hurry up, now, children! The sooner we have water the sooner we can have supper!’

They gave no sign of having heard her, just stared in solemn silence as she strode towards the door into the passage. Her step became stately under their gaze. As she shuffled along the passage towards the storeroom her head was whirling, though not with dreams. They could sleep upstairs. But no, it was better if they stayed together, they could bring down mattresses and lay them out on the bedroom floor, that was the warmest place in the house because of the stove in the adjoining kitchenette. She must sew the child’s torn shirt first thing in the morning – she no longer thought of it as John’s. This time she did not pause at the storeroom door; instead she loaded her frail arms with food and medicines, all she could carry, and headed back along the passage in a burst of speed that took her by surprise. She hadn’t walked so fast in years! Stranger still, her feet didn’t hurt her in the least! Or rather, she didn’t feel them hurting, her mind was too busy making plans for the days to come…

All the same, she did slow down when she reached the middle of the passage; she even stopped for a minute or two to catch her breath. Indeed, she had little choice; for the dogs had come snuffling round her feet and drumming the walls with their great thick tails, and little Jerry Tomkins was dragging in a lump of firewood bigger than himself. She glimpsed Auntie Ida dashing down the corridor that led to the front hall, off to fetch a mattress or some extra blankets. Outside she heard the howls being swept aside by a final gust of rain. And then even the rain ceased, and the night stretched out before her like an unbroken plane of water, the moon scarcely bobbing as it rode the waves.

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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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