The Mouse Messiah


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say nothing, but I’m touched.

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

Good God! The sky!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the Death of Orpheus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

3 Puttenham, fol. 4.

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

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

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

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

8 Genesis, 2, 6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Devilled Kidneys

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Devilled kidneys,’ she said.


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

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


The Professor in Mistress Masham’s Repose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The trial scene in A Matter of Life and Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ancient Tales of Tom Thumbe in the olden time, have beene the onely revivers of drouzy age at midnight; old and young have with his Tales chim’d Mattens till the Cocks crow in the morning; Batchelors and Maides with his Tales have compassed the Christmas fire-blocke, till the Curfew Bell rings candle out; the old Shepheard and the young Plow boy after their dayes labour, have carold out a Tale of Tom Thumbe to make them merry with: and who but little Tom, hath made long nights seeme short, and heavy toyles easie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasies of Complicity in the Second World War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Julie Bertagna, the Exodus Trilogy

71-gaHrRwSLNot too surprisingly, literary fantasies of Glasgow are obsessed by the weather. Glasgow is a West Coast city which benefits from the warming influence of the Gulf Stream while enduring a high level of rainfall, as band after band of low pressure rolls in from the Atlantic, venting cataracts of water on the streets before passing on. The level of light in winter is low, as Alasdair Gray reminds us in his novel Lanark (1981), where a new arrival in an alternative Glasgow called Unthank spends much of his time in a futile quest for the missing sun. Gray’s Glasgow for much of his life was darker, of course, than Glasgow today – coal smoke from household fires and industrial chimneys had blackened the façades, and smogs settled over the city on a regular basis – but light continues to fascinate modern Glaswegians, thanks to the spectacular contrast between daylight hours in midsummer (when the sky never quite gets dark) and midwinter (when the sun sets not much after 3 in the afternoon). Neil Williamson’s Glassholm in The Moon King (2013) is literally tethered to the changing moon, and the moods of the city’s inhabitants are directly affected by its waxing and waning, as are the fabric of their houses and the local atmospheric conditions, which grow steadily more extreme as the full moon approaches. Williamson makes his alternative Glasgow an island, anticipating its eventual detachment from the rest of Scotland by rising seas as the polar icecaps melt. Kirsty Logan’s Glasgow has been totally submerged in The Gracekeepers (2015): the West of Scotland in that novel – and seemingly the rest of the world – has been reduced to a collection of islands, protected by their fiercely conservative occupants against incursions by travellers, pirates and refugees. But it’s in Julie Bertagna’s Exodus trilogy (2002-2011) that the weather truly takes charge, wiping out whole archipelagoes and transforming the city into a working, waterlogged model of the drastic social inequalities that obtain under late capitalism. Being a Young Adult series, the book places the fate of the rain- and wind-lashed survivors in the hands of two generations of intrepid teenagers; but the trilogy also considers the role of stories themselves in shaping the world and its changing weather to a greater extent than any of the other books I’ve mentioned.

zenith-by-julie-bertagnaThe Exodus trilogy is set in the future, 100 years from its date of publication, but Bertagna tells her story in the present tense, and it soon becomes apparent that this is a political as well as an aesthetic decision. The causes of the cataclysmic rise in the level of the world’s oceans are all around us as we read, and even as we’re caught up in the adventures of the young heroine of the first two books, Mara, we’re constantly reminded that her story is part of ours. The second volume, Zenith, even ends with a direct call to arms for its readers, informing them in a Q and A about a range of organizations they can join in the struggle to persuade the world’s governments to take climate change seriously. The effects of that climate change are most dramatically shown in the first book of the trilogy, Exodus, which opens with an island community battling the worst storms in living memory, whose ferocity forces them to stay indoors for weeks at a time, while the ocean eats away at the land they live on, consuming cliffs and fields and neighbouring islands with impartial greed. Mara’s frustration at her forced confinement is well evoked, as is the terror of hearing the sea as it chomps its way up the village street, and the shock of seeing the changes it has inflicted when it finally calms. The ocean continues to pose a threat when she leaves her island and finds her way to new communities: the shanty town of refugee boats that clings to the outer wall of the sky city, New Mungo, lashed by storms and the backwash from passing supply ships; the Netherworld of the Treenesters, whose wooded island is steadily sinking; the pirate city of Pomperoy, whose unexpected presence in mid ocean causes a collision which sparks off a war; the cliff city of Ilira, which exploits fog and darkness to wreck foreign vessels. In the second novel, Zenith, it’s the Arctic climate that dominates the narrative, with its winter night that lasts for weeks, turning water to stone and confining human beings to the shelter of caves and cliffside houses. The weather seems to have stabilized by the third novel, bringing with it the possibility of a new stability in the world’s communities; but the recollection of the turbulent weather of the first two books, and of the political struggles to which that turbulence gave rise, ensures that the reader is left under no illusion that this stability will be easy to maintain.

6742585The Exodus trilogy has been described as an epic, by Bertagna as well as her reviewers. The word is often used loosely, but here it’s appropriate, since the books have all the proper ingredients. The story begins in the middle, after the sea has risen. The roots of this latter-day deluge lie with us, the readers, while another segment of the story involved Mara’s heroic grandmother Mary, whose achievements in saving her people in the face of climatic disaster are often likened to hers. Mara’s adventures, meanwhile, recall those of Virgil’s Aeneas. Like him she leads her people from a place under siege towards the hope of a better future; and as with Aeneas this hope is underpinned by signs from supernatural forces. In her case these signs are inscribed in the surviving stone statues of a sunken city, some of which seem disconcertingly to share her features. Like Aeneas, Mara finds that the new lands to which her destiny takes her are already occupied by hostile peoples, and that she and her fellow exiles must fight for the right to share their territory (though not, as with Aeneas, to take it over). She spends the obligatory period in the underworld, like other epic heroes – two underworlds, in fact: first the shadowy Netherworld beneath the sky city of New Mungo, then (in the second novel, Zenith) the caves of Greenland. The funeral games in honour of Aeneas’s father Anchises have their equivalent in the games she plays among the decaying ruins of the internet, to which she gains access through a quasi-magical crystal ball, and which she knows as ‘the Weave’. And like the Aeneid, her story ends with a showdown, a time of conflict between rival peoples whose outcome will determine the nature of the new society she seeks to establish in the Arctic circle.

{19C8ADC8-EEBB-4735-95BB-E103DD4552AC}Img400In addition to these formal connections with epic, the trilogy also celebrates another art form in which the ancient epics are rooted: oral storytelling. The islanders at the beginning of Exodus pass the long storm season telling each other stories. Some of these are family histories (‘I’ve told you all the stories’ says the oldest islander, Tain, as he goes on to reveal new facts about Mara’s grandmother). Others are fairy tales, which help to stave off the terror of global catastrophe by placing fear at distance, through the power of that ancient incantation, Once upon a time. Mara’s little brother Corey combines the fairy tales she has told him in an effort to express his defiance of the weather: ‘Fee fi fo fum! Huff and puff and blow your house down! […] But the storm won’t get us, will it, Mara? Our house is made of stone.’ But there is a third kind of storytelling, closely related to these two, which is the art of telling the truth. This is the narrative art connected in old epics and tragedies with men and women who have a special relationship with the gods: prophets, heroes, victims, priests and legendary lovers. In Exodus Mara has the unenviable task of telling an inconvenient truth to her fellow islanders: that their only hope of survival is to leave their island and commit themselves to the uncertainties of exile. She succeeds in doing so with the help of evidence gathered from the Weave, which till then she has seen as a playground, a place without consequences in the real world of the island – just like stories themselves. It’s in the Weave that she finds the first clue to the existence of the legendary sky cities, which until that moment were no more than fairy tales, fabrications pandering to the islanders’ baseless dreams of eventual rescue. And it’s in the Weave that she establishes her first connection with the world beyond the island – once again through stories. Her first sight of the virtual equivalent of a sky city evokes in her mind the magical phrase that starts all stories, and it’s this phrase that draws the attention of a passing stranger:

She concentrates harder and the hazy vision resolves into a thick trunk of unimaginably colossal towers, topped by a ferocious geometry of networks and connections. […] The majestic towers look like something out of a fairy tale.

‘Once upon a time,’ Mara whispers, thrilling at the words that always began a story. ‘Once upon a time, in a time out of mind…’

[…] ‘Who are you?’ a voice demands out of the blue, sending jagged shock waves through the cyber haze. […] ‘Who are you? […] And what do you know about once upon a time?’

The stranger’s question is not an idle one. He is a cyberfox, the avatar of a boy called David Stone, who lives in New Mungo, a metropolis designed to protect its inhabitants by raising them on pillars high above the rising ocean. He and his fellow citizens have been denied access to certain essential truths about their past. They know nothing about the decision made by their ancestors to save a small portion of the world’s population at the expense of the rest; or about the continued existence outside the city walls of bands of starving boat people, who have no hope of gaining access to the life of luxury led by what are literally, in these novels, the upper classes. Under these circumstances, Once upon a time becomes a call to arms: knowing what happened in the past, when the cities were built – and knowing what’s happening outside them now, which is the result of what happened then – is the key to a revolution which may or may not overthrow the unjust world order. Telling the story of the abandoned millions becomes David’s lifelong task, just as it was Mara’s; in the third book of the trilogy we learn that he has fomented global rebellion, both within and beyond the cities, by telling stories. Some of these describe the way the world really is, narrating its past and present on the radio waves and planting historical facts like booby traps in the sky cities’ version of the internet, the Noos, to be discovered by his fellow citizens in their travels through cyberspace. Others are drawn from forgotten novels – Madame Bovary, War and Peace – and are designed to awaken the imaginations of potential rebels, to ignite their curiosity about their fellow citizens, about politics, gender, difference, class. All the forms of stories Bertagna incorporates into her epic, then, are intensely political; they are active, they do work in the world, they spark off rebellions large and small. In the course of reading the trilogy, stories become weapons as they were for John Milton and Doris Lessing, ‘alive and potent and fructifying’, capable of unsettling or giving strength to the minds that receive them.

But for Bertagna, as for Milton and Lessing, the process of telling stories is also a process of resisting the inherited stories that constrain or oppress us. Stone in this series – the substance from which cities are built, especially in Scotland – is both a promise and a prison. As I mentioned earlier, Mara’s destiny seems to be set in stone – she sees her image in the statues of Glasgow – and she spends much of her time in Exodus worrying over whether she is simply acting out a prewritten script, imposed on her by some invisible overlord, or acting for herself, in the best interests of the people she leads across the stormy ocean. David Stone, meanwhile, has had his destiny mapped out for him by his father, who expects him to inherit the reins of power in the elitist oligarchy he himself inherited from his father, the architect of the cities in the sky. David constructs a new identity for himself by changing his name; first to Fox, which refers to his cyberfox avatar which roams freely through the cyberspace of the Noos, and whose meeting with Mara first awakens him to the global injustice of which he is a part; then to the Midnight Storyteller, who narrates (among other things) the story of Mara’s adventures. He adopts these names in a bid to take control of his own story, to refuse the version of it told by his father and substitute the hope of change embodied by the young islander. Fox voices his motivation in becoming the Storyteller most clearly in the third book of the trilogy, where he changes his plans for the rebellion against the sky cities in an effort to track down and redeem his tyrannical parents: ‘I am the storyteller, he is thinking. I can tell this tale any way I want. I will not die.’ He does not succeed in ending the tale exactly as he wishes, but this is because he runs up against other people’s tales: that of his mother, for instance, who turns out to have a wholly unexpected backstory of her own. The moment when he discovers his mother’s narrative confirms for him that the world is made up of many stories, over which it is morally indefensible to seek to impose any kind of overall control. If Fox can change his story, others too can change the narratives of their lives and the movements they’re part of. Nothing – not even David Stone’s name – is set in stone. This is one of the hopeful statements made by the trilogy.

Names can be traps, though, if we’re not careful, and a tragic example of this is Fox’s young protégée Pandora. Her name – which is given her by Fox when he first finds her – evokes her confusion about the kind of story she is part of and the kind of future she wants for herself and others. At one point she thinks of herself as the heroine in a fairy tale romance, destined to marry her handsome rescuer – Fox himself; but she quickly learns that Fox regards her as a child, not a possible partner. Pandora also thinks of herself as human, but later learns that Fox thinks of her as a different species. Later still she imagines herself as a warrior princess preparing to seize power in New Mungo after the revolution, but afterwards discovers that Fox only intends her to be the guardian of the city, not its ruler. If Pandora is also a symbol of hope, like her mythical counterpart, it is hope for the people she liberates, not for herself. She is an anarchic resister of other people’s narratives, but she never quite finds a narrative of her own – at least, not within the confines of the trilogy. She represents, in fact, the dangers of an excessive reliance on old stories, such as traditional myths, fairy tales and romances, as well as the excitement of telling new ones. Their power can work to limit our thinking, and Bertagna is never simplistic in her celebration of the liberating power of fiction.


Glasgow in the 1950s

Other characters in the trilogy are more fortunate than Pandora, in that they succeed in finding new stories to tell about themselves, new tales to embody. This success is encapsulated – as it is with Fox – in their willingness to take charge of their names. At the beginning of the trilogy many of Mara’s fellow islanders have traditional names: Mara’s grandmother Mary, her mother Rosemary, her brother Corey, the fishermen Alex and Jamie. These names link them in an unbroken line of succession to their readers, many of whom have names like these, with their implied associations with family, religion, history, place. One exception is the old islander Tain, who is named both for an old Irish epic and for the silvered back of a mirror, and thus points simultaneously to past and present. Tain gives Mara a mirror in a box, as if enjoining her to see herself as she is rather than as others see her, and tells her stories about her heroic grandmother and the world that was. The old man’s name may also recall the Scots word Teind, which means tithe or tax, and is often used to denote the sacrifice of a life that must be made every seven or nine years in order for the fairies to retain their immortality. Later, however, when Mara arrives in the Netherworld beneath New Mungo, she finds it occupied by the Treenesters – descendants of the Glasgow working classes who were refused admission to the sky city – and that they have named themselves after parts of the drowned city: Gorbals, Broomielaw, Possil, Partick, Candleriggs, Clayslaps. Each evening they reinforce their connection to their lost home by gathering around a fire and shouting their names, which are also Glasgow’s, into the darkness. The Treenesters, then, have renamed themselves – Candleriggs was once called Lily – but remain attached to the stones of the past, implying an inflexibility that threatens to drown them if they stubbornly stick to the land they live on, which is sinking fast.

41upGfvEqVL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_Later in the story, by contrast, young people are always naming themselves, in defiant assertion of their right to tell their own stories. In Aurora, an abused girl in Ilira calls herself by the hopeful name of Candle, in defiance of her father’s insistence that she be Tartoq, the Iliran word for darkness. A young sea gypsy renames himself Pontifix, which means bridge builder or (more ominously) Pope. A wild boy changes his name from Wing, which is the name of Mara’s island, to Wolfscar, which better describes his appearance and allegiances. In the process the boy confirms the trajectory of the series, which is from an identification of people with fixed places – drowned islands, lost cities, non-existent nations – to an identification with other people, not always from the same community (Mara names her daughter Lily after Candleriggs). Mara’s own name does not change, but its meanings shift; at first she associates it with the Hebrew word for bitterness, but it is also the Gaelic word for the sea she makes her own, and evokes her grandmother’s name of Mary (Queen of Scots, Queen of Heaven) without repeating it. Even the names that don’t get changed in Bertagna’s trilogy are fluid, complex in their connections, and thus eminently suited to the complex characters to whom she gives them.

23main building glasgow_credit_david o hare

The Glasgow University Tower

Fluidity is the natural state of a world in deluge, and fluid is inimical to both books and buildings. One of the shocking aspects of Bertagna’s trilogy is the high ‘mortality rate’ (so to speak) for objects that are given a high cultural value in contemporary society: ancient architecture, museum and gallery artifacts, works of literature, science and history. Books get burned to keep people warm (shades of Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow), or lose pages, or get soaked (well, the world is covered in water) and become unreadable. Much-loved urban landmarks subside. I was struck by the buildings Bertagna chose to represent Glasgow: the medieval cathedral, which of course featured as a shelter for the homeless in Gray’s Lanark; the university building, especially its distinctive tower. Their dominance of the otherwise waterlogged Glasgow cityscape gives the book a fantastic air as opposed to a science fictional one – in ‘real life’ other buildings would presumably survive along with them, such as the magnificently brutalist Glasgow University Library, or the Piranesi-esque Royal Infirmary. But Bertagna chooses these ones for good reason: so that the abandonment of a great religious monument, and the collapse of Gilbert Scott’s baronial fantasia, can be measured against the fate of those who really embody the city: its citizens, whose needs are so often subordinated to those of the material cityscape. Seeing these attractive buildings and important books subjected to dreadful abuse in the trilogy is disturbing; but it’s more disturbing, perhaps, to find oneself more upset by their treatment than by that of the novels’ human population. Emmerich used that trick well in the New York library scenes from The Day after Tomorrow, as did the ending of Schaffner’s 1968 movie of The Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston famously stumbles across the Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the sand. The notion of the artist/reader/viewer’s complicity with the warped values they claim to resist is a repeated theme of radical writers such as Alasdair Gray and China Miéville. Works of art like Bertagna’s cannot help but be complicit with (for instance) global warming, or global capitalism, since they are part of the industrialized human culture that gave rise to both. And like it or not, readers too are complicit; we wear global warming in our clothes, we eat it, drink it, breathe it, and use it to style our hair. What these writers offer us instead is a means of examining our complicity rather than ignoring it altogether, as we usually do.


Glasgow Cathedral

Bertagna’s best examination of the issue of complicity comes at the point in Exodus when Mara finds herself effectively fighting off the desperate people who struggle to board her vessel as it sails away from the sky city towards what she hopes will be freedom. There are so many desperate boat people trying to board that she is afraid her ship will capsize; but even as she fights to save it she recognizes that she is repeating the worst atrocities of the citizens of New Mungo, who barred the bulk of the world’s population from their refuges because – quite simply – there wasn’t room for them in Paradise. Fluidity, then, extends from stories and names to morality in this series, and Mara finds herself unable wholly to condemn the actions of the world’s elite because she herself has repeated them. Indeed, her actions are morally more reprehensible than theirs, since unlike most of New Mungo’s occupants she knows herself to be a fellow migrant, having fled her island on the same sort of ‘refugee boats’ the would-be stowaways are trying to escape from. It’s a fine and startling moment in Bertagna’s narrative, and lingers with the reader as well as with Mara for the rest of the series.

Fluidity is also a characteristic of human relationships in this trilogy. If stories can be both destructive and constructive, so can affections. Bertagna’s books are full of rivalries in love – in particular, love triangles, like miniature versions of the trilogy itself. In the first book Mara meets the Treenester Broomielaw, who is loved with equal intensity by two men, Possil and Gorbals. Mara herself is loved in that novel by Rowan and Fox, while in the second book, Zenith, her posse of lovers grows more complex, as Rowan and Fox are joined by the gypsy, Tuck. Fox, meanwhile, is adored by Mara and Pandora, just as his grandfather Caledon – founder of New Mungo – is loved by two women, Lily/Candleriggs and Fox’s mother. Each of these sets of relationships represents a choice of paths or possibilities: alliances with one or other of the different communities that make up Bertagna’s postdiluvian world. Each of the single figures who finds him- or herself loved by two others represents a potential bridge between these communities; each rivalry could easily develop into a new alliance or a state of war. The threefold relationships could be taken to represent Bertagna’s refusal to see the world in binaries; the crude binaries of traditional marriage, of us and them, of good and evil. Her new story, in other words, is designed in its every element to offer a different kind of narrative to the ideological ones she has inherited.

The dominant images in the trilogy – at least, the ones I have noticed – are twofold. The first is a series of bridges – most of them broken in the first book, and some of them designed for the exclusive use of an elite. It would have been easy for Bertagna to give bridges wholly positive associations – as ways of connecting the world, mending broken communities, bringing hostile peoples or individuals together – but she rejects this kind of oversimplification. One gigantic, unfinished bridge in Exodus is being constructed by slaves for the sole benefit of the citizens of New Mungo. A web of bridges in Aurora is both a defence system and a deadly trap, despite its ingenuity and loveliness. Once again, then, physical bridges aren’t the point; it’s bridges between living people that need to be built before material bridges can be used for positive purposes.

The other set of images that sticks in the mind are the emblems that accompany each chapter heading, each emblem offering the reader an indication of the character whose point of view will dominate the chapter. In Exodus there are two such emblems: for Mara, a version of the symbol of the City of Glasgow (fish, bell, bird, tree); for David Stone/Fox, a fox’s head in a swirl of wind or water. In Zenith the emblems become more numerous: the North Star for Mara, representing the hope that guides her across the waves in her stolen ship; a moon for Tuck the gypsy, which stands for his favourite weapon, a scimitar; a stylized sun half obscured by clouds for Fox; the globe of the earth for scenes set in the virtual world of the Weave. In the world we inhabit, these elements work together for everyone’s benefit; in Bertagna’s they have all become detached from each other, and only tremendous effort can bridge the oceans that part them. The emblems that introduce each chapter in the final book, Aurora, show the places where each of the communities we’ve got to know have ended up. Again, the gaps between these places need to be bridged, their communities linked if the future of the world is to prove much better than its fractured present. The work of thinking about the relationship between the emblems – what they stand for, the implications of their separation from one another, how the points of view given in the chapters they introduce can be reconciled – is left to the reader, and we become collaborators in the business of assembling Bertagna’s future earth into a coherent whole. Cooperation is the positive reverse side of complicity, and there is no better emblem for cooperation than the unspoken imaginative contract between writer and reader, as they seek to make sense of relations between word and word, or word and image.


Julie Bertagna

Julie Bertagna was the keynote speaker at a recent conference at the University of Glasgow, co-organised by the conveners of the M.Ed in Children’s Literature and Literacies and the M.Litt in Fantasy. She’s a brilliant speaker, and one of the most interesting aspects of her talk concerned the way her trilogy has become a focus for discussion in schools around the UK in recent years. There’s never been a time when the issues it raises have been more pertinent – global warming, mass migration, the widening gap between rich and poor. She was also fascinating on the difficulty of getting ambitious books like these ones published in the context of the modern YA book market, dominated as it is by the hunt for the next million-seller. One way to ensure such books will continue to be published is to demand and read them. I hope this post will encourage you to do just that.



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Poetics of Loss: John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and British Fantasy in the 1920s

51Cljz3wlbL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The close of the Great War saw an astonishing eruption of fantasy fiction written in English; above all fiction by women, or fiction by men about women, as if the appalling loss of male life in Flanders had thrown the other sex into a strong and strange new light. These include some of the greatest fantasies of the twentieth century: Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), which tells of witches defending London against a German air raid; David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922), about a woman who spontaneously turns into a vixen and is hunted down by a pack of hounds; Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), about a community that decides its lord should marry an elfin bride, with drastic results; Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), about the uneasy relationship between the imaginary country of Dorimare and its nearest neighbour, Fairyland; Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926), about a put-upon spinster who abruptly moves to the country, meets the devil and becomes a witch; and most famously, perhaps, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), about a young man in the reign of Elizabeth I who unaccountably lives on for hundreds of years, becoming a woman in the process. In each of these books the strange, the magical, the incomprehensible manifests itself in an everyday environment, exposing the fact that the world is governed by laws unknown to governments or academies, and destabilizing that world by consequence, revolutionizing it, transforming it into a dream or work of art, breaking down habitual relationships between the sexes, opening up new possibilities of resistance to the expected and the controlled.

00037752-540x540It was in this context that John Masefield wrote what I think may be the finest children’s book in the English language, The Midnight Folk. It was published in 1927, after Lolly Willowes and Lud-in-the-Mist but before Orlando, and it seems to me to tell us a great deal about the impetus behind this eruption of postwar fantasy. All the books I’ve listed were written for adults, while Masefield’s was written for children; but it has a close familial tie to the loosely connected series of novels he started to publish after the war, and was first published in exactly the same format as the rest, so that it presents itself as equally available to readers of all ages. The hero, little Kay Harker, is clearly a relative of the titular hero of Masefield’s most successful adult novel, Sard Harker (1924), and the place he lives in is what Muriel Spark calls Masefield Country, a web of imaginary villages, towns and landmarks based on the Herefordshire where the poet grew up – a landscape that features in many of his books and poems. And The Midnight Folk also has close affinities with the fantasy novels I’ve listed. There’s a fox in it which recalls the fantastic-realist fox in Garnett’s novella, as well as Masefield’s own creation Reynard the Fox (1919); there’s an abundance of witches, as in Living Alone; there are haunting songs and half-buried memories, like the ones that disturb the burghers of Dorimare in Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist; the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the magical are permeable in it, as they are in The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and the chief antagonist of the novel, a governess who has a dual identity as the head of a coven of witches, has a name that simply must be meant to recall the best known writer on witchcraft in the 1920s, Sylvia Townsend Warner. The governess is called Sylvia Daisy Pouncer; and since the hero of the story is called Harker, it’s hard to imagine that Masefield hadn’t been listening or hearkening to the warning issued by a woman called Warner about devil-worshipping Pouncers in the English countryside. The Midnight Folk is an integral part of the landscape of postwar British fantasy fiction, and any observations we make about it may well throw light on the sparkling wave of magical texts on whose crest it rode.

01_boue_passPublished almost ten years after the end of the war, this nevertheless has the unmistakable air of a war book – a book born from a period of mass slaughter, which involves a quest for some sort of healing or recovery. It’s largely populated by women, children and animals, and many of the men in it are ghosts, afflicted by a profound melancholy brought on by their part in a calamitous loss – though here it’s the semi-symbolic loss of the treasure of Santa Barbara, otherwise known as the Harker treasure. There are ruins everywhere in Masefield’s narrative – ruined stables, sunken ships and towns, forgotten cellars – and all are haunted by memories of men who came to a premature end: smugglers, highwaymen, murderers, mutineers, Arthurian knights on hopeless missions. Kay, too, is a victim of loss, like Masefield himself: he has lost both parents, and the treasure he seeks throughout the narrative could be read as a metaphor for everything he lost with them. Among these things are his old toys known as the ‘Guards’ of his home, Seekings House. Thrown out by the governess because they might remind him of his dead parents, the Guards’ absence leaves the house open to noxious influences, notably witchcraft, and their sporadic appearances throughout the book – glimpsed by Kay in the course of other adventures – give them a mournful resemblance to the generation lost at Gallipoli and the Somme (places which Masefield visited in person). On one occasion, near the end of the book, the resemblance is striking: ‘They were going very slowly. Two of them carried lanterns, one of them had a coil of rope slung about his neck, all four were plastered with the rather pale clay of near the river’. When they sit down to rest, ‘one of them seemed to fall asleep at once’ while the others ‘were dazed stupid with tiredness and nodded forward as they sat’. It’s at this point that Kay recognizes his old toys Eduardo da Vinci and little Brown Bear, transformed by their labour into sappers left over from the work of digging trenches in Belgium – like the aged sappers encountered by the heroines of Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944), who have been steadily digging their way through Europe since 1914. Kay’s is a postwar world, and Masefield was intensely aware of the wounds that war inflicts on people and places, having served in the Red Cross as an orderly in 1915.

One of the most remarkable things about Masefield’s novel is its form. Like many of his novels it’s a work of continuous prose, not divided into chapters or even parts, which gives it something of the hallucinatory feeling of a consciousness drifting in and out of sleep. The lack of clear boundaries between blocks of prose (apart from the occasional gap to indicate a break in time) declares the book’s resistance to conventional social and literary categories. Like Kay, like Kay’s relative Sard Harker in the earlier novel, like Masefield himself, the book is interested in everything – all trades, all crafts, all modes of speech – and has little patience for class hierarchies, except insofar as these affect the language and behaviour of the astonishingly varied cast of people and animals that populate its pages. The story it tells is delivered through a range of different voices, from songs – the book is full of fine lyrics, as one would expect from a future poet laureate – to spoken utterances in different dialects: Sir Piney Trigger’s northernisms, his daughter’s piratical rhetoric, Abner Brown’s American English, the Rat’s sibilant, slavering discourse, Roper Bilges’s constant transformation of nouns into verbs – ‘I’ll rabbit them rabbits’ – and so on. Kay gathers clues to the whereabouts of the Harker treasure from Atlases, newspaper cuttings, notes scrawled in the back of a discarded book on gunnery, scratchings on the tin door of a broken lantern – objects he gathers from many sources in the course of his adventures. Each of these objects democratically contributes its share to the unfolding narrative, confirming Kay’s wisdom in seeking out knowledge by way of the pathways opened to him by his eclectic interests and wandering imaginings rather than through the drab routine of the school curriculum.

The book’s seamless weave also indicates its lack of interest in drawing clear distinctions between good and evil. Well, that’s not quite true; Kay and his friends in the book are well aware that they’re dealing with wicked people when they deal with Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, Abner Brown and the coven of witches. At one point Kay comes across a potion in Sylvia’s cupboard for turning little boys into Tom Tits, and fears this will be his fate as he continues to hunt the treasure which Sylvia Daisy is also tracking. But Kay and his friends are irresistibly drawn to wickedness; they find it charming, like Sylvia’s voice when she sings while playing the piano after Kay has gone to bed. When Nibbins the cat first wakes Kay at midnight and takes him to spy on the witches who have taken over his home, a song they sing nearly tempts the cat back to his former role as a witch’s familiar:

 Nibbins’s eyes gleamed with joy.

“I can’t resist this song,” he said, “I never could. It was this song, really, that got me into this way of life. […] it has nine times nine verses; but you ought to stay for some more Whoo-hoos. Doesn’t it give you the feel of the moon in the tree-tops: ‘Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl?’ Come along quietly.”

6a014e5fb9e8aa970c01bb0871e7b1970dSoon afterwards Kay and Nibbins are mounted on broomsticks and heading for a witch’s meet at Wicked Hill, and later in the book Kay becomes wholly witch, stealing a hat and cloak and mask from Sylvia’s cupboard and getting vital information, thanks to his disguise, from an enchanted brazen head which she has engaged to find the treasure. Some of the objects employed by the witches in their spells are explicitly good ones: a wishing basket Kay also steals from Sylvia can only be used ‘for good things’, Nibbins tells him, which means that the coven don’t use it much. And even the witches’ wicked spells have some good results, in spite of their intentions. On one occasion they summon up a series of spirits in the hall of Seekings House to guide them to the treasure, and among these is a young woman on a flying horse who resists their orders angrily. Shortly afterwards she appears at the window of Kay’s bedroom and carries him off on her horse to visit a wicked old bedridden woman, the inimitable Miss Piney Trigger or Susan Pricker, who smokes and drinks champagne and sings piratical songs as she drifts towards her end. Despite her impenitent wickedness, Miss Trigger or Pricker becomes one of Kay’s allies, both before and after her death; and so does the fox, Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot, who is addicted to singing nasty songs about eating rabbits, in ‘a most unpleasant voice’, while hanging up the skins of his many victims. One of Kay’s helpers, the odious Rat, even swaps sides in the novel’s sequel, The Box of Delights (1935), to no one’s surprise; he is clearly only interested in getting rewards for the help he gives, and will sell his soul for a rotten haggis even in The Midnight Folk – Kay is simply lucky that (thanks to the wishing basket) he can get one for him, thus cementing his temporary friendship. The corollary of being interested in a great range of things is to have sympathy with a great range of outlooks; and like Kay, Masefield finds it easy to sympathize with criminals and other wanderers from the straight and narrow. The end of the book confirms the ouroboran links between good and evil by bringing Kay a new governess: the woman on the flying horse, who seems to have forgotten her supernatural origins but is nevertheless as bound up with enchantment and witchcraft as Sylvia Daisy. Seekings remains a house of magic long after the coven has been kicked out of its doors.

William_Blake_-_Jerusalem,_Plate_1,_Frontispiece_-_Google_Art_ProjectAs well as Chaucer – whose Canterbury Tales was the inspiration behind Reynard the Fox, and whose vibrant animal personalities in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Parliament of Fowls lie behind Rollicum Bitem, Nibbins and the rest – Masefield was a huge admirer of the visionary poet William Blake, and wrote about him brilliantly. One of the things that fascinated him about Blake was his iconoclastic willingness to invert the moral structure of the Christian universe, making Satan the creator and abominating the adherents of inflexible moral systems. For Blake, Masefield tells us,

 codes of all kinds, religious, moral or legal, tend to benefit all minds that are creeping and compliant and to repress the resolute independent thinker, the real free soul, who has worth and is Godlike. And from this, he came to the thought that the eighteenth-century codes, of religious morality and law as well as of art and science, were bent anywhere on repressing impulse, instinct and energy, and that this is exactly what Caiaphas and Pilate in all lands do. From this, being an immoderate thinker, as poets often are, he came to exalt energy, instinct and impulse wherever he found them and soon decided that Satan had many Christian qualities and that current Christianity was often devil worship. [Recent Prose (1924)]

MDF_13539429982Masefield’s Sard Harker features a villain who poses as a priest but worships the devil, and who binds the hero and heroine at the novel’s climax, enslaving them physically just as Blake said men and women of his time were mentally enslaved by the mind-forged manacles of industrialism. The leading villain in The Midnight Folk, Sylvia Daisy, isn’t objectionable to Kay because of her witchcraft – or indeed because of her appearance: ‘big, handsome and with something of a flaunting manner, which turned into a flounce when she was put out’. Her wickedness consists instead in her sadistic fondness for codes and strictures: for ‘loathsome’ Latin irregular adjectives like acer, and for punishing Kay when he gets his pyjamas and slippers wet on secret nocturnal expeditions. It consists, too, in her hypocrisy: she is the one who has eaten the food that’s been stolen from the Seekings House larder, a crime she promises to investigate. She also claims to have imprisoned Blinky the owl so as to return him to Lady Crowmarsh, from whose estate she snatched him in a foiled attempt to find out what he knew about the Harker treasure. Imprisonment, robbery and ruthless interrogation are her stock in trade, but her nastiness consists in her glib self-exculpation for these activities. Kay’s allies, on the other hand, are always setting him free and indulging his impulses: taking him to visit the weather cocks on the church tower, distracting him from his homework with tales of piracy on the high seas, inviting him to leave the safety of a diving bell to swim with mermaids, encouraging him to ride on the bowsprit of a sailing ship or fly with rooks in the shape of a bat. Each of these adventures is also instructive: he learns about sunken cities, nefarious dealings on sea and on land, the best way of chopping off a knight’s head and the story of the treasure, which is itself (besides being an emblem of the losses he and his family have sustained) the perfect metaphor for the complex way the world is constituted – the many meanings it contains, the multiple signifieds for which each sign or object in it can stand.

The Harker treasure means different things to different people. For the church in Santa Barbara from which it came, it is a symbol of devotion, of the church’s commitment to establishing God’s city on earth – a notion that fascinated Masefield throughout his life; indeed, in Sard Harker the South American city of Santa Barbara becomes, for the protagonist, an embodiment of the heavenly city on earth, Blake’s Jerusalem. For Captain Harker, to whose care it was entrusted by the church at a time of revolution, the treasure symbolizes a promise he made and broke: to keep the precious objects safe in his ship, the Plunderer, and return them when the fighting was over. For Abner Brown it stands for wealth: ‘If we find it,’ he tells the witches, ‘the share of each one of us will be some thirty-five thousand pounds’. For the mermaids who come across it when the Plunderer sinks, the golden images of the saints are beautiful people, worthy inhabitants of the drowned golden city they show to Kay when he swims among them. For the farmer Old Man John who digs it out of the mud it’s a symbol of Catholic heresy, ‘sin-and-heathen idols’, and needs to be kept out of circulation in his cellar to protect men from covetice. There is no single grand narrative that contains or limits the treasure; it slips from meaning to meaning as it gets transferred from hand to hand, and the central struggle of the narrative is to impose the meaning on it that one particular interest group subscribes to.

This, at least, is the central struggle from the point of view of the witches and the ghost of Captain Harker. The former want it for themselves, the latter wants to make good his broken promise by restoring it to the church. For Kay, by contrast, the value of the treasure is its story, which gets pieced together as he listens or hearkens, taking on new implications as it gets taken up by each new storyteller in his or her peculiar dialect. By the end of the book the treasure has been enriched by his imaginative engagement with this host of storytellers, and no one version of it has supplanted the rest; if he returns it to the church this is in order to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion rather than because the church’s reading of it means more to him than the other versions. Kay’s indifference to the official church perspective is confirmed by his attitude to the church building where he is taken every Sunday (another example of Sylvia Daisy’s rank hypocrisy). For the adults present, the church is a place of worship; for Kay, who is ‘much too young to understand or follow the service’, it’s a set of stories he weaves from the material objects around him. He spends much of the service puzzling over an image in a stained glass window, which from a distance looks like a ‘yellow, lop-eared rabbit’ which he calls Bunkin, but from up close seems disappointingly to be ‘a hat with spikes’. For him the irregular stones on the church walls contain pictures of Henry VIII and a sailing ship, ‘which filled in a lot of time’, while the ‘chief pleasure’ is provided by the ‘carved and painted figures arranged along the wall-pieces of the chancel-roof’, about whose identity even adult scholars are uncertain. The 32 figures are divided up by certain experts into twelve apostles, seven cardinal virtues, nine worthies, and four archangels, with proper reverence for the ancient traditions of the medieval church; but for Kay during dreary sermons they become ‘the Condicote and Muck Zennor Rugby football teams (with an umpire each)’, or the Australian cricket eleven of 1882 facing the team of Cambridge University, or the start of the 1839 Grand National ‘with Mr Mason on Lottery, and Mr Martin, in his pink sleeves, on Paulina’. The church, then, is a space to be appropriated by the dreams and desires of those who enter it; at one point even the coven visits it, to see if they can get some clue about the treasure from Captain Harker’s monument. And the same is true of all the other major spaces in the novel.

bf4a8b86b0945f4bb5011ad6c5d90018Seekings House, for instance, accommodates the treasure seekings of the witches as well as of the dead Captain Harker and his little great grandson. Captain Harker’s ship, The Plunderer, changes its affiliations several times, beginning as the Captain’s vessel, being seized by the gunner Roper Bilges and his confederates for the treasure she contains, snatched from Bilges’s command by Twiney Pricker the sailmaker, then from him by the rest of the crew, and finally embraced by the mermaids as an underwater pleasure garden after her sinking. The ship’s name, in fact, anticipates her capacity for being appropriated or plundered by successive owners – just as the name of Seekings House affirms its restlessness, its refusal to settle into architectural or moral stability. Even Kay takes command of the Plunderer at one stage, when a model of his ancestor’s vessel drifts away from the wall of his bedroom and takes him on a night-time voyage to the place where her original sank – becoming in the process the model ship of a boy’s dreams, crewed by mice and stocked with improbable delicacies. Objects, then, as well as buildings, vessels, and people, change their uses and associations as the book goes on. A lost toboggan becomes a stairway to Kay’s underground lair; magic broomsticks and witches’ costumes serve two masters, Sylvia Daisy and Kay; even the object of Kay’s adventures gets transformed at one point, from a hunt for the Harker treasure to a quest for the treasure of Benjamin the Highwayman, who used to live in the ruined stables of Seekings House. The alternative functions of objects fascinated Masefield. The ship, for instance, in his poem Dauber (1912), is both a workplace for the sailors and a subject for the youthful artist of the poem’s title. Neither reading of the ship is privileged in the poem over the other; the artist takes his berth as a sailor in order to paint the ship he sails on as a workplace viewed from inside, by a sailor who is also a painter, one who knows the craft he paints. By the end of the narrative, Dauber has been accepted as a member of the crew by his fellow sailors, at the cost of his life; when he falls from the masthead during a storm he thinks it is another sailor who has fallen, and the mistake shows how far his perspective on the ship has changed. The crew never likes his paintings, but the story of Dauber is his legacy, the poem standing in for the body of work the young man never completed. For Masefield, then, as for his hero Blake, a work of art is a manifestation of energy, and the reduction of any person, object or word to a single meaning, to a fixed place in an ordered code, to one perspective or function, is anathema, the death of creativity and imaginative freedom.

hilder4It’s for this reason, maybe, that so many of Masefield’s great poems are narrative poems, and so many of his best novels adventure stories, of the kind mockingly referred to in the title of his novel ODTAA (1926), which stands for One Damn Thing After Another. The headlong energy of The Midnight Folk is provided by the adventure of hunting; the hunting of treasure, of course, but also of animals and, more disturbingly, people. Hunter and hunted change places regularly as the book goes on – just as they did in Sard Harker, where the hero tracks a kidnapped woman through the hallucinogenic landscape of South America, where he finds himself hunted in his turn by bandits and killers. In The Midnight Folk, Rollicum Bitem the fox hunts rabbits at one point and is hunted by gamekeepers and the coven at another. Twiney Pricker, who becomes Piney Trigger, hunts the treasure and is then hunted to his death by Abner Brown’s grandfather. Kay the treasure hunter finds himself hunted by the coven, and riding for his life (appropriately enough) on the fox’s back. One centrepiece of the book is a manhunt for the highwayman Benjamin, who is one of Kay’s heroes; the passage where Benjamin’s mare falls and breaks her back, prompting her master to give ‘a little cry, like he’d been shot through the heart’, is one of the most moving Masefield wrote. Benjamin too is a kind of fox; the place where his mare falls is a ‘big foxes’ lie […] all full of scrub and stubbed stuff’, and it’s inevitably here that the highwayman is captured. He is tried and hanged; but his story, too, is finished by Kay, who finds the watch he stole from the local squire and returns it to the squire’s descendants. In doing so he heals another wound: Sir Hassle Gassle is said to have mourned the loss of his watch ‘to his dying day’, so his descendant is delighted to get it back. In any case the watch did the highwayman no good, since he could not sell it, and in the end it killed him; so that like the Harker treasure, Benjamin’s treasure stands for failure, as well as for the excitement of the chase: the chase that led to Benjamin’s death, the hunt for the watch that led to its restoration.

by William Strang, etching, 1912

by William Strang, etching, 1912

Masefield was fascinated throughout his life by failure, and above all by failures that lead to unexpected triumph. His favourite stories, to judge by the frequency with which he returned to them, were the story of Arthur – whose light burned brightly in the dark ages before being extinguished in combat, and who crops up in a gorgeous episode of Kay’s adventures – and the tale of Troy, another heavenly city whose fall produced the greatest narrative poem in any language. One of Masefield’s finest sea stories is called Victorious Troy (1935), and concerns a ship dismasted in a typhoon which is safely brought to harbour under the command of a teenage boy. This ship becomes a work of art as Masefield tells its story, exactly as Dauber the painter bequeathed an unexpected work of art to the world when he fell to his death: the poem about him. As early as 1910 Masefield wrote a fine novel called Lost Endeavour, about a treasure hunt that ends in disappointment; and the year before The Midnight Folk he published one of his best-known poems, ‘The Rider at the Gate’ (1926), whose chorus ends ‘The house is falling, / The beaten men come into their own’. The theme of triumph emerging from failure is at the heart of The Midnight Folk, and it’s given particular poignancy by the lost generations of the First World War that would have haunted the minds of its first readers. Young Kay, with his Arthurian name which also conjures up the notion of keys that unlock doors – the door to the future among them – affirms the continuing vitality of his homeland through his interaction with every aspect of its past and present, every class and kind of its inhabitants, living and dead. He also bequeathed a new kind of children’s fiction on the world, in a book that influenced his successors far more than it has been given credit for. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to hunt it down.

[This was written for a Symposium in honour of Professor Marianne Thormählen of the University of Lund. I’m deeply grateful to Birgitta Berglund, Sara Håkansson and Kiki Lindell, who organised the Symposium, for inviting me to speak at it; and to Marianne for her friendship and support over many years.]

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