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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Celtic Fantasy and War: Patricia Lynch and William Croft Dickinson

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

Cover Illustration by Pauline Baynes

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

Capital from The Book of Kells

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

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

Patricia Lynch

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

The Happy March from The Crock of Gold

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

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

Women of the Easter Rising

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

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

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

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

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

The Magic Pool, illustration by Jack Yeats

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

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

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

Finn

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

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

Sreng

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

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

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

A Digestive Biscuit

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

The Mysterious Wood

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

Broch

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

Crannog

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

Ringed Hillfort

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diogenes and Alexander by Gaetano Gandolfi, 1792

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

Apelles and Campaspe by Willem van Haecht, c. 1630

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

Apelles painting Campaspe by Francesco Trevisani, 1721

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

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

Apelles painting Campaspe, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1740

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

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

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

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

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

The Theatre playhouse, by C. Walter Hodges

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

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

Marlowe by anonymous

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

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

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

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

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

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine

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

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

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

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

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine

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

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

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

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

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

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine, Keith Randolph Smith as Techelles

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

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

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

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

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The Outer Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m thin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The door’s open.

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

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

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

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

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

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