E. Nesbit, Five Children and It

il_fullxfull.369714374_fvnuAs a child I was disturbed by Nesbit’s books. I don’t know what disturbed me: perhaps the bewildering fusion of carefully observed everyday details and fantastic incidents, and the reckless way she played with conventions, from gender roles and class relations to the rules of fairy tales. It may have been her acute consciousness of the material consequences of impossible events: the necessity of having money and food to get through them, the likelihood of getting into trouble because of them, and the deeply-ingrained dirt they would leave on your clothes and hands. It was also, I think, a matter of tone. Reading her again I can see how I would have missed a lot of her jokes, and taken seriously things an adult reader would think of as witty, never quite knowing how to respond to any given sentence or situation. Yet as an adult one can also appreciate how she slides between emotional registers and literary tropes with effortless ease, never letting a reader of any age settle down in the comfortable knowledge that she knows where she is being taken. Perhaps this formal and stylistic flexibility is what’s made her so hugely influential, sparking the synapses of writers as different as John Masefield, Mary Norton, C. S. Lewis, Edward Eager, Nicholas Stuart Gray and Diana Wynne Jones. Her fusion and diffusion of literary tropes and genres made it possible for her stories to go off in any direction she chose, and these are invaluable qualities for a fantasy.

Five Children is about wish fulfilment, like Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or Stevenson’s ‘The Bottle Imp’; but unlike those stories it’s aimed at children, so that the disparity between what’s wished for and what’s obtained is exacerbated by the disparity between the social and economic rules that govern adults and children. This disparity is pointed up by the impossibility of telling any grown up at all about the fact that wishes are being granted, for obvious reasons (what adult apart from Conan Doyle believes in fairies?); a communication gap that remains in place throughout the novel, so that the unfortunate kids are never able to get advice of any kind from adults, not even the Psammead, who makes a point of not advising anyone. That’s an attractive subversion of the widespread tendency in contemporary children’s literature to moralize: if the truth only gets you into trouble then morals, too, are a matter of perspective. So is commercial value: the children wish for gold and can’t spend it, partly because they’re seen as too young to have any. And so is adulthood: they accidentally wish their baby brother grown up, and get a chance to see for themselves the childishness of adult behaviour. Size, too, is relative: when one of them grows to a giant’s dimensions he finds himself even more confined and restricted by the economics of his situation than he was before (he becomes a fairground attraction and ends the day almost crying of boredom). This is a brilliant comment on the confining lunacies kids are encouraged to accept as reasonable in their journey towards becoming active participants in the capitalist system. (And it’s nice to think that this episode was written very close to H G Wells’s brilliant take on giant children, The Food of the Gods, which uses size for even more explicitly political purposes, testifying to Wells’s lifelong fascination with the works of Swift…)

But besides this basic adult/child division there are also disparities in the rules that govern masters and those that bind servants, which get highlighted when the children wish for the servants not to be aware of any of the wishes they come up with – a condition that leads to a number of wonderfully absurd situations. Servants don’t dream, the children believe, except in the strictly regulated terms described in dream interpretation manuals; they simply follow routine unquestioningly. This conviction finds its most absurd expression in the episode when the kids wish for a castle under siege, and see the servants sitting in the courtyard feeding the baby as if nothing has happened. But the book also undermines their view of service repeatedly. In the absence of the children’s parents, servants in the middle-class household are the adults with whom they interact most closely – especially Martha; and Martha rescues them from bullies and the police, sees through their schemes with ease in every chapter, and eventually goes off to get married to one of the men they have encountered on their adventures with a forcefulness and independence that take them completely by surprise.

The episode that best explodes their theories about class difference doesn’t involve Martha. It’s the chapter where they inadvertently ask that their baby brother, the Lamb, be ‘wanted’ by everyone, which leads to his being kidnapped by an aristocratic lady in a carriage, immediately followed by a battle over him in her absence between the coachman and footman. There’s little distinction here between the effects of the lady’s desire for the child and that of her servants – except that the servants show some awareness of the child’s material needs, something the lady has no notion of and never mentions.

The same episode brings out the pervasiveness of racial prejudice in Victorian England. It ends with an alarming encounter with a group of gypsies, which seems at first to confirm every accusation that’s ever been leveled against travellers. The ‘ragged’ gypsy children make ‘dust-pies in the road’, the gypsies themselves have ‘dust-coloured’ hair, and the whole episode is permeated with an atmosphere of terror by memories of the age-old clichés about gypsies abducting children along with other kinds of private property. But the encounter only takes place after we’ve witnessed the equally determined efforts of an aristocratic household to abduct the Lamb; and it closes with a brusque dismissal of the anti-gypsy prejudice, as well as an odd little confirmation of an aspect of gypsy myth that ties them (alone of all adults) to the magical world of the Psammead. Like all the Psammead’s enchantments, the desire for the Lamb gets cut off at sunset; and at once the gypsies are astonished by the fierceness with which they’ve been striving to gain an additional toddler for their community, and distance themselves from the Lamb as fast as possible. Only one woman remains attached to him, though her attachment changes from a desire to possess him to simple good will. She sweeps aside anti-gypsy myth with admirable economy: ‘I don’t know what made us go for to behave so silly. Us gypsies don’t steal babies, whatever they may tell you when you’re naughty. We’ve enough of our own, mostly. But I’ve lost all mine.’ And she follows up this quiet revelation of tragedy by bestowing on the Lamb another wish: a Sleeping Beauty blessing, the stuff of fairy tales rather than racist horror stories. The alert reader will remember that such a blessing was what Jane thought they should ask from the Psammead at the beginning of the chapter, until Anthea pointed out that the creature’s gifts only last till sunset. So if the gypsy’s enchantment is effective, it will prove to be the most valuable gift the children have received in the course of their adventures.

Complications are what this story is all about: complicating simple assumptions, and demonstrating the knotty complications that tangle up every transaction at the turn of the twentieth century. One such complication is the theory of evolution and its consequences. The Psammead or Sand Fairy invokes evolution both in its appearance (it looks like a monkey with antennae) and its great antiquity: when it was young all you ever had to wish for was a Megatherium, because feasting on meat for a week or two was the height of anyone’s aspirations. The children, by contrast, live in an age when there are so many competing things to wish for that it’s inevitable any one wish will clash with a dozen other desirable things or situations. The complexity of this environment is for the Psammead a mark of the world’s decline; and the children’s adventures tend to support the creature’s opinion. Each of their wishes ends up by highlighting the problem of food – the Megatherium question – by making it difficult to get their dinner (i.e. lunch); and this forces them to conceive elaborate and sometimes disastrous schemes to feed themselves, as against the exhilarating hunts of the good old Neolithic era. A great example is the chapter where they wish for wings, which ought to render them angelic – except that angels don’t need feeding, according to Milton, and the children have to compromise their own angelic nature by convincing themselves it’s right to steal if it’s to stave off starvation. The chapter concludes with them imprisoned at the top of a church tower; most of their adventures, in fact, lead to some form of imprisonment, and in each case this could be taken as symbolic. The locked church tower could stand for the arbitrary restrictions imposed by religious doctrine; and this interpretation would seem to be supported by the final section of the chapter, where the vicar regales the children with moral thoughts on their misadventure which we, the readers, never get to hear. Meanwhile the gamekeeper who freed them from the tower praises their pluck for committing theft without ‘peaching’ on some presumed grown-up accomplice. This clash of values – vicar against gamekeeper, spiritual against secular, middle class against working class – points up a disconnect between the gamekeeper’s understanding of the material conditions under which the oppressed must operate and the lofty abstractions that sustain the rich. It’s clear that the children’s understanding of the world is much closer to the gamekeeper’s than the vicar’s – though the vicar’s wife is also closer to the keeper, since she’s concerned not with giving lectures but providing refreshments.

The complication of early twentieth-century existence means that everyone who negotiates the bifurcating paths and competing values of the everyday must possess certain qualities; and Nesbit’s characters tend to describe these qualities in terms of military strategy. This brings us, as all discussions of Nesbit bring us, to the question of gender. One of the brilliant things about her books is that they concern groups, not heroes: clusters of children whose dynamics constantly shift in response to changing situations, so that no one member of that group is ever dominant (though it should be said that Anthea is clearly the child whose perspective dominates in Five Children). Here the group is evenly divided between boys and girls, with the Lamb as an androgynous extra (he wears a dress, like all Victorian toddlers) and the Psammead as the androgynous catalyst for their adventures. And each child takes command of at least one chapter – except for Jane, who, as the youngest after the Lamb, never takes the lead after her disastrous wish on the very first day. If they’re an army, it’s a democratic one, a band of freedom fighters working to subvert the quasi-military discipline that’s being imposed on them by the society within which they operate.

Something I noticed this time round was the way the position of commander-in-chief is exchanged among Nesbit’s characters. When Cyril plots to steal food from the vicarage using their wings Jane exclaims admiringly, ‘How clever of you!’ and he answers with becoming modesty: ‘Not at all […] any born general – Napoleon or the Duke of Marlborough – would have seen it just the same as I did’. During the siege of their house, transformed to a castle, Robert ‘consented to be captain of the besieged force’; and when Anthea conspires to get the Lamb to safety in the episode with the miniature Indians ‘she could not help seeing that she had acted with the most far-seeing promptitude, just like a born general’. The last commander-in-chief is the children’s mother, who on her return from a protracted absence responds to a crisis in the ‘dashing and decided way’ of a ‘born general’, as Cyril points out. Two boys, a girls and a woman share the honours of the book’s generalship between them, and in the process subtly modify the reader’s understanding of what it is to be a general. To negotiate the bewildering demands, conflicting desires and unforeseen accidents of the everyday in the new century, Nesbit implies, takes the tricksiness, skill and pluck of a professional strategist. But in Nesbit’s world, even a general’s qualities can hardly prevent things spiraling out of control. That was a prophetic perception, coming as it did a decade and a half before the outbreak of global warfare.

Kirsty Logan, The Gracekeepers

51-ajQT1ggL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ursula K. le Guin created an archipelago – drew it first, then wrote about it – as a means of exploring what divides people from each other and how fractured parts can be made whole. Her wanderings through the map of Earthsea, from book to book, exposed a world of cultural differences between its inhabitants. Kirsty Logan’s archipelago in The Gracekeepers, by contrast, seems homogenous. Throughout her world there is a single entrenched division between island-dwelling ‘landlockers’ (who hold the keys to dry land and refuse to let non-landlockers near it) and seagoing ‘damplings’. The former never leave the earth, the latter set foot on solid ground with reluctance and difficulty. The same military vessels police land and sea; the same religious revivalists trawl the islands and waters for converts; apart from the revivalist cult, their faiths don’t vary much (the landlockers worship tree-gods, made bitter and vengeful by the loss of their habitat, while all the damplings bury their dead in maritime ‘graceyards’). The islands don’t have names: they are labeled like the outlying districts of London, North-East 19, South-East 11, North-West 22, as if they have been reduced to suburban uniformity. And though the climate of these islands seems to vary (the Southern ones grow pomegranates and bananas, the Northern specialize in animals) the impression is that they don’t cover a great area; or if they do, that the small amount of land they add up to – and the constant communication between them by means of merchants and messengers – has erased distinctions between them. The same attitude to gender, for instance, prevails from North to South: ‘as ever on the islands, the men and women were separate, with all the children on the women’s side’. There is too little earth left after the deluge to make extremes of difference possible. Everyone conforms.

Life is short, too, especially for damplings. The dangers of a seaborne existence are many, and deaths frequent; few adults live much past forty, and the rituals associated with death have become correspondingly formalized, the length of a family’s grieving process being determined by the number of days a caged bird called a ‘grace’ can live without being fed. The graces are kept by Gracekeepers: landlockers who live alone on islands so small they are almost boats. A Gracekeeper is an exile, cast out by an island’s people for some transgression large or small to spend her life in solitude serving the despised seafaring communities by burying their dead. In their solitude they commit many more transgressions – mostly small ones – safe from the prying eyes of their fellow islanders, unvisited by military men or revivalists. Existing in suspension between land and sea, the rules of either don’t much matter when you’re faced with daily evidence of how briefly they apply.

Everything has shrunk: the amount of land, the range of cultures, the length of a person’s life, the duration of grieving when a life ends. This is a book about smallness, full of small houses, small boats, small minds, small islands, small transgressions. Even the myths of the past have shrunk: a dilapidated circus boat is branded Excalibur, home to a small troupe of only thirteen individuals. One of its occupants calls herself Avalon, after the island where Excalibur was forged and Arthur went to recover from wounds sustained in his final battle. The name Arthur derives from a Celtic word for bear, or from the Greek Arcturus, ‘guardian of the bear’. The circus ringmaster is often likened to a bear, but he’s a depilated specimen with bad skin, burdened with an unfaithful wife and an ungrateful son, just like the original Arthur. Husband and wife address each other as ‘king’ and ‘queen’, but they only have ten subjects besides their son, and their demesnes get steadily smaller as the book goes on.

The ringmaster, known as Red Gold, has a rival for the title of bear guardian: the girl North, who dances or acts in the ring with a nameless bear, and who is destined, in Red Gold’s eyes, to marry his son and re-establish his family line among the landlockers. All the profits of the circus have been sunk in a house on an island where North and Red Gold’s son will live out their days, surrounded by children. North, meanwhile, dreams of the impossible. She is pregnant, and wishes only to keep her child, to keep her bear, to stay unmarried and to go on living in the circus. Red Gold’s dynastic pretensions imperil the baby and North’s place in the floating troupe; Avalon’s hatred of the bear puts its life at risk. North’s dreams are hardly transgressive, but the rigidity of Red Gold’s plans – and of the homogenous culture that dominates Logan’s global archipelago – means that for most of the book they seem inaccessible.

At the same time, she lives in a quasi-transgressive environment, like that of the Gracekeepers. The floating circus troupe ekes out a precarious existence by embodying the fantasies of rebellion and non-conformity the landlockers dare not practise. The acrobats – who pose as an incestuous brother and sister – execute terrifying leaps, soarings and plunges to demonstrate their mutual attraction, in defiance of gravity as well as the law. The equestrians balance on powerful moving animals like pretenders to royalty. The clowns mock the military – the most shocking of their acts, since the military of the archipelago is more or less all-powerful – or offer themselves up as scapegoats to the landlockers’ wrath, dressed as the capitalists whose greed is blamed for the inundation that shrank the world. Maypole dancers writhe in ribbons, performing promiscuity. And the girl North dances or cavorts with her bear, miming a cross-species sexuality which flies in the face of any recognized religion. The circus breaks the rules, and even its king and queen – the hot-tempered Red Gold who decides the programme and issues the orders, the dampling Avalon who dreams of becoming a landlocker – even they don’t conform, as the secret of Avalon’s own pregnancy reveals. Red Gold’s dream of settling his son and daughter-in-law in a cottage on dry land is a transgressive one, challenging the rigid division between land- and sea-dwellers that supposedly defines his world – just as he himself did when he chose to move from his original home on land to become a dampling.

The circus is not homogenous, either. Each member of the troupe has her or his agenda, from the clowns who yearn for anarchy to the self-absorbed boy Ainsel, Red Gold’s son, who dreams of ruling a kingdom on a wooden throne. The differences between the performers are emphasized by the fact that each group or act lives in a separate coracle, attached by chains to the circus boat Excalibur. And Logan neatly embodies their divisions by devoting separate chapters to each performer’s point of view. Even the clowns Cash, Dosh and Dough, Red Gold and the seemingly empty-headed Ainsel get their own chunks of narrative, so we can see at first hand how slant their aims are.

In fact, despite the cultural homogeneity of Logan’s archipelago its inhabitants are as divided from each other as the people of Le Guin’s Earthsea. The isolation of the banished Gracekeepers, who live each on a tiny island seeing nobody but the mourners who seek them out to perform the ritual of the dead, is shared by the landlockers and damplings we encounter in the other chapters, who sometimes yearn to make connections with friends, neighbours, lovers, but invariably fail to do so, or find those connections arbitrarily snapped by the force of circumstance – a sudden storm, a misunderstanding, a drastic mistake. The two central characters in the book, the circus dampling North and the Gracekeeper Callanish, are so obviously fellow spirits that the reader expects them to fall in love as soon as they meet. But they meet only twice, and fleetingly, before the end of the book – first as children and then as a Gracekeeper and her client; and for much of the narrative they can only dream about being together, not imagine it as possible. Judging from readers’ comments online this has been a problem for some of them, who wanted something more like a traditional romance. For me, though, it underscores the point of setting the story in an archipelago. A meeting of minds and bodies isn’t easy, such a geography tells us; it needs a good sense of direction, strength of will, and a generous helping of sheer luck to bring people together. Living separately, on the other hand, is a piece of cake. It’s unpleasant and inconvenient, but it doesn’t need effort, because protecting one’s own boat or island is simply a matter of repelling all boarders without troubling to consider things from their point of view.

North and Callanish represent a possible future for Logan’s island world, through their mutual association with the mysterious sea-people: webbed and gilled humanoids of the ocean whose sex is ambiguous, like seahorses. The circus people specialize in gender ambiguities, which links them, too, with the sea-people; but despite their regular performances of dissidence they are necessarily conformists, subject to policing by the military and locked from land by the customs of the islanders. North’s and Callanish’s attraction to each other and to the sea people breaches the boundaries of land and sea, overcomes rule and ritual, and points to a possibility of limitless movement which is also a feature of archipelago stories. Islands may be divided from each other by water, but they’re linked by it, too, and the image of a submerged city that recurs throughout the narrative – its bells tolled by currents – makes the sea into a potential three-dimensional living space rather than a wasteland. The ocean is linked to death; it kills damplings and terrifies landlockers; but the bells that ring beneath its surface, the people who emerge from it to impregnate human women, make it a source of life, pleasure and potential too. North and Callanish, when they finally converge, work out a new relationship with the sea which promises to serve as a model for communities of the future. The community they form is a tiny one, surrounded by enemies. But the fact that children like them are being born and raised on land and sea, against all the odds, suggests that they will eventually and inevitably inherit the land, the sea, and even the deep waters which are currently forbidden to human beings by biology as well as custom.

This is a novel about the world; but it’s also a novel about Scotland. Callanish is named for a village on Lewis famous for its ring of standing stones; her name makes one think of Logan’s islands as a vastly extended version of the Western Isles. The rigid rules that govern them recall the hackneyed view of island life as governed by an austere Calvinism – a view that neither does justice to the vibrant communities that inhabit them, nor to the rapid changes they have been undergoing for centuries, nor to the diversity of their history as represented by the stones. (The oversized ‘coracles’ in which the circus performers live recall another aspect of island history: the saints who sailed from Ireland to bring God’s word to the people of the far North West.) Other names in the book invoke other aspects of Scottishness: the boy Ainsel, for instance, has his narcissism exposed by the fact that his name means ‘my own self’ in Scots. Red Gold’s full name is Jarrow Stirling, dividing him between one border – the boundary between Highlands and Lowlands where the City of Stirling stands – and another, the Scottish borders (Jarrow is located in north-east England). North’s name insists on the northern orientation of the novel. In one sense, then, it’s a meditation on the state of the North today, the second such fantasy I’ve read in recent months – the other being Neil Williamson’s weird extravaganza The Moon King, set on an island whose annual social and political cycle is governed by the waxing and waning of the moon that’s tethered to the titular ruler’s palace. The connections between these two Scottish fantasies are fascinating, and surely not coincidental.

By this I don’t mean that Logan is indebted to Williamson – the time of a novel’s gestation makes this unlikely, and in any case the two books have very different tones. But the fact that both represent their imagined Northern civilizations as caught between change and rigidity, anarchy and dictatorship, conformity and rebellion, and that both adopt the idea of islands cut off by seas inhabited by sinister and alluring merpeople as a central premise, makes one see them as arising from a similar analysis of the current state of Scotland. Simultaneously inward and outward looking, servile and attracted to radicalism, rule-bound and endlessly inventive, passionate for self determination and afraid to take the political steps that might lead to independence, the inhabitants of Scotland find themselves haunted by mysterious forms of alternative life – represented in both novels by the people of the sea, whose very existence ridicules the notion of rigid borders and national identities – without knowing quite how to react to them beyond the usual human response to otherness: unthinking violence. Both books are not altogether complimentary to the nation that spawned them; after all, like everywhere else it’s got plenty of bigots, thugs, exploiters and narcissists. But both books also offer in the end an exhilarating vision of hope: of expanded horizons and the potential for a strong egalitarian community, whose new self-confidence will make it willing to explore the unknown as well as treasure the familiar. And both books make one quietly proud of the current state of Scottish fiction.

 

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin

PS220If ever there was a taproot text – in John Clute’s terms, a fantasy that branches out into a thousand other fantasies – this is it. From the moment when the Princess Irene runs off into the uninhabited regions of the ‘great old house’ she lives in – triggering memories of the exploration of the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the book rustles with the ghosts of books to come. The goblins of the title are precursors of Tolkien’s cheery goblins in The Hobbit, and of their nemesis, Gollum; the boy Curdie’s wanderings through the rocky labyrinth of the mines anticipate the astonishing journey through stone accomplished by Susan and Colin in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; the songs Curdie sings to intimidate the goblins share their doggerel rhythms with the songs sung by the elves in the Last Homely House, later Rivendell; Irene’s old-young great great grandmother, whose light guides lonely wanderers on the mountainside to safety, is the forebear of Galadriel and Aslan; the faith of Irene and Curdie’s scepticism predict the games of faith and scepticism played out in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The butler serving the goblins wine in the king’s cellar conjures up the drunken butler of the King of the Wood-Elves, again in The Hobbit. The bizarre domestic animals of the goblins, with their distorted bodies and eerily human faces, conjure up the murderous sphinxes in Dave McKean’s movie Mirrormask or the tormented toys of Toy Story. And in its meditations on class the book as a whole reads like a direct source of Wells’s The Time Machine, where the wealthy have become effete, mindless children and the working classes cannibalistic cave dwellers. But MacDonald’s morals are more sophisticated than those of most of his successors. His fairy tale is designed to shame his readers into rethinking their assumptions about class, race and gender, yet one always gets the sense that he includes himself in the ranks of those who need shaming. He doesn’t stand on an eminence dispensing wisdom to less enlightened inferiors; he shares the wisdom he’s been given by women – always women – wiser than himself.

The moral complexity of his book is clear from the moment he tells us about the goblins’ origins. These are not creatures who have been the way they are since the dawn of time; they are products of the Darwinian age, unlike Tolkien’s orcs but very much like Gollum. ‘There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there were different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws; and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country’. The goblins hold a very reasonable grudge against the descendants of those who ‘caused their expulsion’ from ‘their former possessions’. And they continue to evolve as the book goes on, beginning as comic weaklings, and growing increasingly menacing as their revenge matures towards fruition. Things don’t stay stable in MacDonald’s world, and the most unsettling thing about this instability is that his grotesque antagonists are so closely allied – physically, mentally, geographically – to his heroines and heroes.

The Goblins’ plot to seize the house where Irene lives is a plot to recover their own. Their desire to abduct Irene is a violent expression of the desire to reunite two communities that were violently separated. Humans made the goblins, and the proximity between the two species seems to be confirmed by Curdie’s obsession with them, and by the fact that his guiding thread at one point leads him straight into the arms of the goblin royal family. Even their distorted animals are terrifying because of their parodic humanity: ‘what increased [their] gruesomeness was that, from constant domestic, or indeed rather family association with the goblins, their countenances had grown in grotesque resemblance to the human’. MacDonald hints here that there has been interbreeding between goblins and animals, as we know there has been between humans and goblins (that’s why the goblin Queen has toes). In his post-Darwinian universe the grand hierarchy of species – the Great Chain of Being – no longer exists, and anyone can become anyone or anything else, given time, habit and inclination.

The structure of the book reinforces this idea of the potential for slippage between one condition and another. There are three principal families in the book: the princess’s dysfunctional family, in which the father is mostly absent and the mother dead; Curdie’s family, whose male members labour underground or work secretly after working hours to expose the plots of the goblins; and the goblin royal family. All three families are dominated by their women: the great great grandmother who watches over Irene; Curdie’s mother, who seems in effect to be the great great grandmother’s younger sibling; and the goblin Queen, who conspires to overthrow the other two families while concealing their close family resemblance by hiding her human toes inside a pair of granite shoes. Threads link the families: the cord or ‘clue’ Curdie uses to find his way to and from the maze of tunnels bored by the goblins, and which leads him to them time and again; the magical thread spun by Irene’s great great grandmother, which leads her first to Curdie and later to Curdie’s mother. The threads insist on the links that bind princess to miner, miner to goblin, goblin to princess.

The ruling classes and their servants struggle to contain the younger generation, twelve-year-old Curdie and eight-year-old Irene, in the places to which their class and age should properly restrict them. Irene is confined to her bed, Curdie cooped up in the mine, or in a locked room in the great house where the princess lives, or in a hole in the goblin palace. (The great house and the goblin palace don’t treat him very differently – he’s even shot by the princess’s guard, who think at first he’s a goblin, then a thief, unable to rid their minds of settled assumptions about the habits and intentions of the poor). The same urge to cabin, crib and confine – on the part of others, on the part of themselves – is what twisted the goblins’ bodies and minds into ‘gruesomeness’. But Curdie and Irene resist enclosure, running up and down the mountainside, scurrying through tunnels, staying up all night, making friends with unsuitable strangers. And in the end their energy breaks down the artificial barriers that divide the kingdom. Irene is found by Curdie in his mother’s arms; Curdie is invited by Irene’s father to share a communal meal in the great house, with the other miners, like long-lost relatives. By this time the nature of class has already been questioned by the narrator, who insists that ‘there is some ground for supposing that Curdie was not a miner only, but a prince as well’; just as the princess is, for Curdie’s mother, ‘a good girl […] and that’s more than being a princess’.

The book ends with a deluge which underscores the point. Curdie and Irene live in a seemingly solid landscape – the most solid imaginable, a land of mountains. But under and through and across the mountains, water flows. It menaces the miners, sustains the gardens of the great house, and forms an essential part of the goblins’ plots against their former rulers, as if the water were somehow an expression of the class system. But at the climax of the novel, when the goblins unleash what is intended to be a watery vengeance on the humans, the flood goes awry thanks to the miners’ intervention. Instead of overwhelming the mines as the goblins had hoped, the floodwaters sweep through their own tunnels – exposing their kinship to the miners in the process, as they are drowned by the very same element which is most feared by their fellow stone-workers. But the water also bursts out of crevices in the mountainside, and threatens to overwhelm both the miner’s cottage where Curdie lives and the great house of the princess. Both these structures are buildings, so both are vulnerable to the same physical threat to their foundations. The members of the princess’s household seek refuge with the miners’ families; and later it’s the miners who drain the great house so they can go home. When the house is drained it turns out to be full of goblin corpses, the symbolic remains of a rigid class system that has now (perhaps) been overthrown. The feast thrown for the miners by the King announces a new entente cordiale between the workers and the ruling classes, whereby both are respected by their opposite numbers and all deserving citizens are assumed to have princely blood.

But MacDonald doesn’t leave the goblins rigid and unchanging. The surviving goblins undergo another metamorphosis: ‘Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even the miners’. This process turns them into people ‘very much like the Scotch Brownies’; so they end the book as Scots, just like MacDonald. It’s typical of MacDonald to acknowledge his own kinship with the antagonist-victims of his narrative.

Fluid identities, then, are key to this book, as they were to Phantastes. And the most fluid of identities in the book belong to the women. Irene’s great great grandmother and Curdie’s mother don’t seem to be restricted to the class or time into which they were born. They aren’t rigid in their judgements of others. They don’t bully or patronize the children in their care when they fail to follow instructions. But they’re also concealed from sight, as if in acknowledgement that MacDonald’s culture wasn’t yet ready to accommodate them. The great great grandmother stays hidden in the attic, and cannot be seen even by Curdie until he too has learned to cultivate the flexibility she embodies – no other man sees her, except the King on one occasion. The mother stays hidden in the cottage. In the book’s final chapters it’s Curdie who is most active, plunging through flooded rivers, carrying Irene to safety, and riding the King’s own charger in a successful mission to save some horses from a flooded stable. It’s a reversal of the usual class structures of Victorian romance, but not of the gender structures that were challenged earlier in the novel – as when the Princess rescued Curdie from the goblin dungeon. MacDonald was a visionary and a radical; but he was not so much of a fantasist as all that.

George MacDonald’s Phantastes

Phantastes

George MacDonald’s Phantastes has always read to me like a journey into the heart of a Victorian house: the sort of journey experienced by the young heroine of his children’s book The Princess and the Goblin when she wanders through endless corridors full of doors till she finds the secret stairway leading to the forgotten room where her great great grandmother lives, surviving on pigeon’s eggs, air and wisdom. The middle-class Victorian house was insistently alive. Furniture was elaborately carved with foliage; cabinets full of pottery were displayed, often in the shapes of animals and people; cornices sprouted acanthus leaves and ceiling roses blossomed; book covers and frontispieces swarmed with flowers, beasts and trees. Phantastes opens with the unlocking of a desk in a study, whose interior turns out to contain a living being, a miniature woman of the kind you might find on a Victorian mantelpiece or casual table. A little later the narrator’s room, with its grass-like carpet, its foliage-carved table, its green marble washstand, morphs into the forest glade it was designed to resemble, like Max’s room in Where the Wild Things Are. The journey through Fairy Land that follows alternates between houses of different kinds – cottages, palaces, towers – and a pathless forest. But the forest is the kind of wilderness encountered in old romances, and calls books to mind rather than places, with its fairies, dryads, monsters and knights errant. Each chapter is headed by an epigram, duly attributed to its author; and the narrator’s adventures are punctuated by acts of reading, beginning with the fairy tale read to him by his little sister on the night before he opens the desk. In fact, the story never leaves the house in which it began, and the narrator keeps emerging from his adventures like a reader lifting his head from a book in which he has been immersed, to catch a fleeting glimpse of the life he led before he started reading – then plunging back into the story, where all the action that really matters to him is taking place.

One could say, in fact, that the story never leaves its narrator’s head – that it’s a kind of pre-modernist experiment in Woolfian stream of consciousness. As its title suggests, this book is the fantasy par excellence, because it concerns itself with the imagination, analysing its operations with the seriousness and concentration of a scientist. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene, where the word originates, ‘Phantastes’ is the part of the brain where the images collected by the senses are stored before being processed by the understanding and stowed away in the orderly cabinets of the memory. It’s an uneasy faculty, whose physical form is a gloomy young man with ‘hollow beetle browes’ and ‘sharpe staring eyes’ who claims to be able to foresee the future. The room he inhabits in the front part of the human head is painted with ‘infinite shapes of things’, including non-existent beasts like centaurs and hippodames (sea-horses); while the buzzing flies that fill it have a more worrying significance, since they represent:

…idle thoughts and fantasies,
Devices, dreames, opinions unsound,
Shewes, visions, sooth-sayes, and prophesies,
And all that fained is, as leasings, tales, and lies.

The linkage of fantasy or imagination with ‘lies’ and ‘opinions unsound’ articulates an anxiety about the imagination which is very specific to the period of the Reformation when Spenser was writing, when each religious faction saw this faculty as responsible for spawning the hordes of dangerous fictions that threatened to obscure and even obliterate the Gospel truth. Spenser’s House of Alma – the human body – is under siege by a ‘troublous rout’ who are associated both with the Catholic Irish, who resisted the Reformation, and with the troublesome flies that buzz around Phantastes’s chamber (the rout resembles a ‘swarme of Gnats at eventide’ rising out of the ‘fennes of Allan’). The imagination, then, spills out of its confines in the head and floods into religion, politics, social struggle. As well as receiving images the imagination bodies them forth (as Shakespeare put it), populating the world with the strange physical and philosophical fusions that bedeck its interior walls. It paints as well as being painted, colouring what its possessor sees until the absurdest propositions and most doubtful doctrines seem to be empirically demonstrable – objectively true. And all this without recourse to the more settled, rational portion of the brain, the understanding. No wonder Spenser and his contemporaries worried about its potential influence on religious doctrine and political dissidence.

Yet despite its suspicion of the imagination Spenser’s Faerie Queene is also a love song to it, as the Romantic poets recognized when they adopted variations of Spenser’s stanza form in place of the couplets beloved of the eighteenth-century poets. And MacDonald shares the Elizabethan poet’s view of the potential deadliness of the imagination, precisely because he finds it so infinitely seductive, and because he believes so strongly in its capacity to reshape the world by casting its own interior light upon it. When he first crosses the border into Fairyland the narrator discovers he has fairy blood, thanks to the empirical evidence of his vision. He can see fairies as only fairies can, both the pretty flower fairies of the Victorian decorative tradition and the hideously clawed tree-dwelling ogres of Gothic legend – both the benign woman of the beech tree and the vampiric woman of the alder. It’s his fairy vision, perhaps, that enables him to see the female ‘spirit of marble’ in a cave and release her from her prison, as a great sculptor might have done – in which case having fairy blood is equivalent to being a verbal or visual artist. But this vision can be distorted, as it is when he later releases a quasi-Jungian shadow from a cupboard, which interposes itself between his eyes and anything beautiful he encounters, rendering it ‘commonplace’ and ugly and encouraging him to damage it and drive it away. His vision’s capacity to shape the world, then, can operate in two directly opposite ways, that is, to beautify or defile it. The same is clearly true of art, for MacDonald – especially the verbal arts; and this is why he represents the act of reading in his novels as such an adventure.

Like The Faerie Queene, then, MacDonald’s narrative is full of beautiful visions and deadly traps, and it is difficult for the narrator to distinguish between them. This is not, however, true of MacDonald’s readers, who often have the horrible feeling that they could warn the young man against the dangers he is running into if he’d only listen. This is because the implied reader of Phantastes has been educated in the ways of romance, and above all of the fantastic romances of the middle ages and the early modern periods, which underwent so many reprintings in the nineteenth century. Romance writers like Spenser expected their audiences to take an active part in the narrative, identifying the nature of each new menace or potential ally through a host of clues embedded in the language of the poem or story. MacDonald’s implied reader knows exactly how to do this – and ironically so does the narrator, who is always recognizing retrospectively that he should never have fallen into what was in the end a thoroughly familiar act of folly. But the traps he springs on himself are as attractive to him as the elusive beauties he is always pursuing; it’s as if the possibility of the former is what makes the latter so alluring. Indeed he himself – MacDonald’s narrator – has two sides to him, as his name suggests, since ‘Anodos’ can mean (according to my rather dodgy source in Wikipedia) either ‘pathless’ or ‘ascent’.

In fact Anodos has more than two identities. If the structure of the book is like a nest of Chinese boxes – a mind within a book within a desk within a library within a house – then the narrator has a plurality of nested selves. He is both Anodos and Anodos’s shadow; but he’s also the Percival-like knight who has been disgraced, and who sets out to erase the stains of his disgrace through a lifetime of struggle. He reads about this knight at the beginning, in a cottage on the border of Fairyland, and keeps meeting him throughout the rest of the book, as if he is meeting his future self or some imagined alternative version of his current self, an alter ego. Again, Anodos is both the heroic young man in the last ‘act’ of the novel, one of three brethren who kill three monstrous giants, and the monstrous egoist who preens himself on this victory and sets out to capture and imprison weaker knights, like another giant, as further proof of his power. He is both the squire who humbly devotes himself to the service of Sir Percival in this final section and the youth who can clearly see the nature of a corrupt religion when the knight cannot, and gives up his life to destroy it. He ‘is’ effectively all the male characters in his story, in the same sense as a male reader or artist ‘is’ all the characters or shapes he conjures up.

It would be easy to conclude that all the female figures in the book are also constructs of the male reader-artist’s brain; but the book is dedicated, it seems to me, to the task of liberating them from him – of developing what may eventually turn out to be a grown-up relationship between the male narrator and the women he either meets or imagines. I suggested recently that William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End dedicates itself to creating a civilized relationship between men and women, as against the kind of hierarchical relationship between them privileged by Morris’s culture. The same could be said of Phantastes, since the narrator is again and again sent on his way by female potentates: the miniature woman he finds in his father’s desk (some kind of manifestation of Anodos’s dead mother?); the beech woman who is waiting to become a ‘real woman’, perhaps in the sense that she is waiting for the narrator to stop fetishizing women, making idols of them; and above all the great great grandmother figure he finds in a cottage on an island, who sends him out on successive adventures in an effort to shape him. As Iuean Ledger has pointed out to me, most of the readers in Phantastes are women, and we’ve already established that reading is for MacDonald an energetically active art. The evidence for this view of reading is in his tremendous essay on ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, where he says of his own stories: ‘It might be better that you should read your own meaning into [them]. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of [them]: your meaning may be superior to mine’. And the women in Phantastes are always reading their own meaning into things, to the consternation of the narrator, who cannot follow the operations of their intellects any more than he can follow the fiercely agile motion of their fleeing bodies.

He never succeeds in catching up with the marble woman he releases near the beginning of the story – I think because he never quite succeeds in thinking of her as anything other than his own creation, with the result that he is always looking for her in the wrong place. And the end of the story finds him alone, unpartnered, looking tentatively towards his future in England, but unsure as to whether he will be able to ‘translate the experience of my travels […] into common life’. The danger of the male imagination in this book is that it makes women what it wants them to be and cannot see what they are as independent beings. It also makes men into what they see themselves as being, which robs them of their own independence, their capacity for change. The real identities of men and women are multiple and mobile, and manifest themselves at odd moments throughout the narrative, as when the narrator encounters his alter egos (the shadow, Percival, the giant knight), and is thrown into confusion, no longer certain who he is. The constant shifting of a person’s identity is a recurring theme in MacDonald’s work: the impossibility of pinning a person down, of defining them without degrading them, is equally a concern of his celebrated story ‘The Golden Key’. But Phantastes is also about something else: the difficulty of achieving dialogue. And that brings us to the vexed question of MacDonald’s prose style.

It’s an awkward, knotty style, made up of many short clauses separated by far too many commas. There’s very little conversation in it (as Alice complains about the book she’s listening to at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland), which sometimes makes it hard to digest. But the absence of conversation also reinforces the impression one gets of inhabiting the inmost recesses of a person’s skull, peering out through the eyes without paying much attention to the evidence of the other senses, except sometimes for the hearing (MacDonald is a passionate lover of music). And the convolutions of each sentence reinforce the impression that MacDonald or his narrator is reporting back on inexplicable experiences he has really undergone, struggling to convey them with precision because they matter to him, although their meaning is elusive.

Here’s an example:

‘All this time, as I went on through the wood, I was haunted with the feeling that other shapes, more like my own in size and mien, were moving about at a little distance on all sides of me. But as yet I could discern none of them, although the moon was high enough to send a great many of her rays down between the trees, and these rays were unusually bright, and sight-giving, notwithstanding she was only a half-moon. I constantly imagined, however, that forms were visible in all directions except that to which my gaze was turned; and that they only became invisible, or resolved themselves into other woodland shapes, the moment my looks were directed towards them.’

The striking thing about this passage is all the buts, althoughs, notwithstandings, ors, and howevers with which it’s filled, as the narrator strives to explain to us the precise meteorological and luminescent conditions that make it surprising he couldn’t see anything precisely, or that what he saw when he did succeed in getting things into focus was nothing like what he had expected to see. The words ‘haunted’ and ‘imagined’ act here as lenses held up to the reader’s eyes in a kind of thought experiment, as a means of demonstrating how the state of a person’s mind affects their vision. MacDonald didn’t have to write like this; The Princess and the Goblin is a masterclass in stylistic clarity. It was only by using this style that he could give Phantastes its peculiar tone, which is that of a scientist trying to describe an experience for which all his training in logic and empiricism has not prepared him.

It’s satisfying, then, to think that the book was published the year before On the Origin of Species.

 

 

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz title page
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz title page

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of those books that has had a gigantic impact on twentieth-century culture without anyone quite knowing why. The impact comes as much from a specific filmed version as from the book ­- more so, probably -­ though as with Peter Pan the film in question emerges from a theatrical tradition initiated by the author. But the book itself was also phenomenally successful, and unlike Peter Pan seems to have been viewed with suspicion by critics and teachers. Ever since I first read it (aloud, to my daughter) I’ve wondered why I was told as a youngster that it wasn’t much good. There are a number of possible reasons: Baum’s explicit disavowal of instructive intentions (though Nesbit and Barrie disavowed these too); the fact that it’s a fantasy, completely fabricated by the author, without one foot in reality (Nesbit), a wryly sardonic tone (Nesbit, Barrie, Carroll), or impeccable scholarly credentials (Tolkien’s Hobbit); or that the central character is a young girl (though it shares this with Alice in Wonderland). Yet in spite of the opinions of experts, the book did so well that Baum gave up his many other enterprises to concentrate on entertaining children. And the basic story, as relayed in book, play or film, has continued to feed into American culture ever since. What has made it so Great and Powerful?

There’s a beautiful clarity about the book which is matched by Denslow’s original illustrations. The territories Dorothy travels through are colour coded (grey for Kansas, blue for the Munchkins, green for the Emerald City and so on), the successive encounters she has are neatly arranged each in its own chapter, and the style is amazingly economical: it made me think of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or the literary retellings of old fairy stories Baum mentions in his preface. There’s something almost geometrical about the way adventures come in threes or fours, as they do in fairy tales, and about how the story itself is constructed in two halves: a single journey to the Emerald City followed by two journeys away from it, first to the Wicked Witch of the West, then to the Good Witch of the South. This clarity and precision could be mistaken for crudeness and simplicity; but I don’t think it’s simplicity that we find in either version of the story, film or book.

There are three things people tend to remember about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and that get carried over into its adaptations. The first is Dorothy’s companions on her adventures; the second is the wizard; and the third is Dorothy herself, who is often dismissed as a cypher. (The Wicked Witch of the West is memorable too, but only in the film.) None of these would stay in the mind, I think, if they weren’t capable of eliciting a range of readings and emotional responses. The companions could be said to personify certain personality traits ­ intelligence, sensitivity, courage ­ like allegorical figures. But they themselves don’t believe they stand for these qualities, despite displaying them on many occasions before being ‘given’ them by Oz himself. And they’re a wonderfully improbable
trio: two simulacra and a talking animal. Each of them isn’t what he seems: the scarecrow isn’t a man, though he looks like one, and we’re reminded of his non-humanness repeatedly, since he doesn’t sleep or eat and can’t be harmed by events and creatures that threaten Dorothy. The same is true of the tin man, except that unlike the scarecrow he was once human, so that his most inhuman quality ­ the substance he’s made from ­ masks the fact that he knows what it is to be made of flesh and blood. The lion looks and sounds like the King of Beasts from Aesop’s Fables, but is full of self-doubt which means he is effectively no lion, since in Aesop the King of Beasts is defined by his confidence in his own power. At the same time, all three companions already possess the thing they think they lack. The scarecrow’s intelligence saves the travellers repeatedly; the tin man’s sensitivity constantly threatens to rust him; and the lion leaps over abysses and fights appalling monsters without a qualm. So they’re neither what they resemble nor what they think they are. The sense that they’re displaced, that they have no fixed identity any more than they have any fixed abode, is what makes them the ideal companions for a little girl far from home.

The second memorable element in the book is the Wizard, the charlatan or humbug who benignly terrifies his subjects into submission with ingenious displays of special effects. He’s the perfect monarch for the land that spawned the companions, since he’s even less what he seems than they are. In the book he seems to be many things in quick succession: a bodiless head, an angelic woman, a monster, an invisible presence, a raging bonfire, so that his resemblance to the shifty God of the Old Testament is obvious; he even tests the faith of his people by demanding a sacrifice, sending them to kill a Witch who has never been defeated. But he’s no God: just an ageing balloonist from Omaha, a salesman (like Baum himself) whose previous job was to announce to the world that the circus, that festival of trickery, skill and illusion, had come to town. As a salesman his gift is to change not things but people’s perceptions of them. He changes the colour of the Emerald City by making its citizens wear tinted glasses. He fills the scarecrow’s head with needles to show him he’s sharp, gives the tin man an ersatz heart to reassure him he possesses a real one, and doses the lion with Dutch courage to reinforce his bravery. And he bestows these gifts on the companions after they’ve exposed him as a charlatan. This shows how much his subjects want to be conned. He is the product as well as the orchestrator of their imaginations, and his subjects take every opportunity to thicken the air of mystery that surrounds him.

Outside the Emerald City, his rule is ineffectual. Anything that doesn’t respect his power can flourish in Oz: Wicked Witches, dangerous animals, carnivorous trees, narcotic flowers. He’s too benign to interfere with anyone who will not listen to his grand pronouncements or be seduced by his shows. But these are not personal failings ­- merely demonstrations of the extent to which he’s a construct of his people, who also construct themselves, as the companions testify.

Oz, in fact, is the ultimate democracy. Every ruler gets elected, with the exception of the despotic Witches, and all of them come from humble backgrounds (you can’t get much humbler than a man of straw and a walking tin can). There’s no individualism in the country; cooperation is the natural reaction to every problem. Even Oz and his subjects have to co-operate if his magic is to work. And as representatives of artificially segregated human traits, Dorothy’s three companions depend entirely on teamwork. As they encounter each new challenge they begin by determining which of their talents is required, and all are required with equal frequency, while their possessors show an equal willingness to sacrifice themselves for all the rest. And they’re as ready to rely on random passers-by as on each other: a stork and an army of mice are recruited to deal with problems for which they themselves are ill-equipped. In this they appeal to the communitarian impulse of fairy tales; few fairy tale heroes or heroines win through without a team of unlikely accomplices. They are aware of this, perhaps, because they themselves are such accomplices, the first of their kind to get rewarded for their services with kingdoms.

It’s not surprising, with this example in front of her, that when Dorothy gets separated from her companions she responds by showing all the qualities they represent. Her intelligence and affection emerge when she secretly feeds the lion, who is held captive by the Wicked Witch of the West, and her courageous defiance of the Witch ends in the Witch’s death. It’s also no surprise when at the end of the book the Good Witch of the South reveals that Dorothy, like her companions, has all along possessed what she thought she lacked: in her case, the means to get back to Kansas. She wears the magical silver slippers needed to get there; but she also desires to get there, which means that the grim one-roomed farmhouse with its joyless occupants who never smile or laugh was always a home to her, despite its greyness. In other words, she had what she thought she didn’t have in Kansas as well as in Oz.

So Dorothy, like her companions and the Wizard, both is and isn’t what she seems: a little girl lost, from a miserable background, with no special powers. She and Toto contribute to the Kansas farmhouse what it lacks: joy, life and colour; and the book’s ending confirms this when Toto barks ‘joyously’ as he runs towards the barn, and Aunt Em embraces Dorothy with an emotion we’ve not seen in her before: ‘My darling child!’ she cried, folding the little girl in her arms and covering her with kisses’. By the time this reunion takes place Kansas has in any case been imbued with colour by its constant presence in Dorothy’s mind throughout her adventures. Anywhere that’s longed for so passionately can’t be colourless. So Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry could be said to co-operate, like Dorothy’s companions, despite their apparent incongruity. Together they make a mutually supportive community, and the lack of any one of them affects the rest. Baum gave his book a moral, despite his claim to offer his readers ‘only entertainment’.

But it’s no triumphalist celebration of the individual’s victory over impossible odds. There’s something melancholic about the situation of all its main characters, and that melancholy lingers on at the end as they go their separate ways ­ albeit into new and welcoming communities. That’s the other thing that lingers after you’ve finished the novel, at least for me: its mournful tone, packed as it is with people who remain somehow displaced and unsure of themselves even after getting what they wished for. No wonder it inspired some decent music.