The Empire of Corpses by Ryotaro Makihara

tftf3ffsv3ctfopnyfaq The movie Empire of Corpses, which had its world premier outside Japan in the Glasgow Film Theatre on Sunday 11 October, had everything that attracts me to anime in insane profusion: a vast sprawling plot, an ornately beautiful cataclysm at its climax, an impenetrable philosophy which inexplicably roots itself in your mind for days afterwards, and a magnificent soundtrack. That these elements don’t really cohere – there are gaping plot holes which one can only ascribe, like the holes in Takashi Nakamura’s Tree of Palme or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, to the likelihood that it has been cut down from an even vaster and more insanely ambitious director’s edit – hardly diminishes its attractions. And it made me think quite hard about two things: the powers that drive the subgenre called Steampunk and the passionate love affair between anime and books.

The first of these is something many people have written about, but Makihara’s film drove it home to me: how well Steampunk is named, since the term for the genre incorporates the energy source of an era. Steam isn’t always, though, as central to the plot of a Steampunk narrative as it is in Steamboy, which is full of massive metal components being propelled at appalling forces in all directions by compressed superheated water vapour, to devastating effect on the London landscape. Indeed Adam Roberts’s novel Swiftly, which takes as its premise the notion that all the lands discovered by Jonathan Swift’s egomaniac traveller Lemuel Gulliver have been colonized by various global empires, contains no steam at all. Why invent the steam engine, after all, when you have Brobdingnagians to lift your heavy loads, Lilliputians to do your delicate work, and Houyhnhnms and Yahoos to stock your armies? The power that drives the British Empire in Roberts’s mid-nineteenth century is slavery, and the pattern of the enslavement of smaller species by larger ones – and of more or less organized rebellion against oppression – seems to be repeated throughout the physical universe.

In Empire of Corpses the empires of the world are powered by the dead. Soulless hordes of staggering zombies have replaced the working classes as the components of every industrial enterprise and imperial war machine on the planet. What has become of the actual working classes we aren’t told, but by the middle of the movie it seems distinctly probable that they have been turned into zombies before death, through the horribly aggressive method, depicted in the movie’s opening shots, of inserting an oversized syringe into the brainstem – thus overriding their personalities with an artificial compound of music and opium (a witty take on Marx’s famous conflation of religion with a hallucinogenic drug). The premise satisfies because it brings together a number of themes associated in viewers’ minds with the nineteenth century: decline of religious faith, religious and moral hypocrisy, alienation of labour, men conceived as mechanisms, a morbid fascination with mortality, an inhuman ruling class who preach the highest ideals (one especially ambitious proponent of zombyism insists that filling the world with walking dead will bring universal peace at last – an assertion it’s hard to deny). And the fact that the movie’s central character shares the imperialists’ obsession with reanimating corpses for what may well be entirely selfish motives is equally satisfying. John Watson – yes, that John Watson – is literally hell bent on restoring his dead friend Friday to life; and his exploitation of Friday’s zombiefied corpse as a servant, bodyguard and amanuensis while ostensibly working for his benefit makes a neat point about the ease with which selfless high ideals can mutate into a cover for self-interest – a situation Makihara implicitly extends to the whole of the British Empire (and every other imperial power) in this movie.

But Empire of Corpses also reminded me of anime’s love affair with books, and that’s what lingered in my mind after the end credits (which are well worth watching to the end – Japanese audiences, I’m told by my colleague Saeko Yazaki, consider it rude to leave the cinema before the screen goes blank). Not only is the film stocked with literary figures – John Watson, Friday from Robinson Crusoe, the brothers Karamazov, Captain Nemo (or at least his ship), Mary Shelley’s eloquent creature (as well as James Whale’s dumb one, who unaccountably makes an appearance towards the end) – but the plot is unabashedly literary in character. The quest throughout is to recover Victor Frankenstein’s lost notes, which are said to contain the secret for reanimating the soul as well as the body – thus enabling zombies to speak, as Friday cannot. The villain – James Bond’s M – aims to overwrite the minds of the intransigent subjects of the British Empire with a more docile model of consciousness; in other words, he’s more interested in soulless zombies than articulate creatures of the sort Frankenstein created. Watson, by contrast, hopes to find a way to overcome Friday’s muteness by having him write down everything that happens to him as the two of them traverse the globe in search of that earlier set of notes. Dead Friday, then, writes living Watson; M seeks to rewrite the imperial citizen as a docile animated corpse; Frankenstein’s creature seeks to rewrite the android woman with the consciousness of his uncreated bride – acts of writing, over-writing, co-writing and rewriting fill the plot, till one could be forgiven for losing track of the characters’ motives altogether.

All these acts of posthumous writing and rewriting are rendered poignant by the fact that this movie is an adaptation of the last novel by Satoshi Ito – Project Ito – who died of cancer while writing Empire of Corpses, leaving it to be finished by his friends. The clearly homoerotic relationship between Watson and Friday – which precedes his quasi-homoerotic relationship with Sherlock by a decade – looks like a passionate tribute to a much-loved writer by friends and fans, who are determined to continue his project in spite of his death (there are two more full-length animes planned, which will make this movie into the first part of a trilogy). Indeed, one could say that this bid to film Ito’s work is powered by his death, lent passion by it; the zombie empire in the film can be read as a metaphor for grief, which so easily becomes a struggle to keep a lost one’s memory alive, to defy death’s tyranny, to promote the words that are all that survive of a writer’s mind after her demise. Reading a dead writer’s words is an act of reanimation, and this film indulges in this particular form of Frankensteinian re-creation with flamboyant enthusiasm.

Of all forms of film, anime is perhaps the one that’s most obsessed with books. It’s not just a matter of the dozens of adaptations of novels with which it’s stocked, from Isao Takahata’s TV series Heidi, Girl of the Alps to Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty, from Satoshi Kon’s swansong Paprika, based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, to Nakamura’s post-apocalyptic versions of Pinocchio (A Tree of Palme) and Peter Pan (the TV series Fantastic Children). There are also the shows that dramatize the love of books itself, such as Koji Masunari’s OVA Read or Die (itself adapted from a series of light novels), featuring a bespectacled, shy librarian with superpowers that enable her to make anything out of paper, from full-size planes to bullet-proof shields; Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island, in which two young brothers are sustained through the Russian occupation of their island home by their passion for Kenji Miyazawa’s novel Night on the Galactic Railroad; or Yoshifumi Kondo’s masterpiece Whisper of the Heart, whose heroine finds herself drawn to a boy in her high school by their mutual love of reading. Hayao Miyazaki (who scripted Whisper and Arrietty) is famously literary in his inspirations: Treasure Island underlies Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, Andersen’s Little Mermaid haunts Ponyo, while the success of his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle added insult to injury when his son Goro enthusiastically mashed together the Earthsea books in the critically panned Tales from Earthsea (for which I have a not-so-sneaking admiration). The labour of drawing characters, backgrounds and successive frames by hand for animated movies seems to yoke them to other forms of visionary, labour-intensive activities such as those of the solitary novelist, the mangaka or the attentive reader.

Unknown

Reading and writing have never been more violent than in Empire of Corpses, nor so perversely erotic. I say ‘perversely’ because the central character has necrophiliac tendencies, which finally find an outlet in his willingness to embrace corpsedom himself (no spoilers here) to get close to his departed friend or lover. Is the film suggesting that reading books by dead authors (and Friday becomes a dead author by virtue of his note-taking) is, like orgasm, a kind of death? It certainly seems to suggest that encountering the past through books resembles a battle with enraged zombies – an idea which surely has some weight in these zombie-obsessed early decades of the twentieth century. The film’s greatest perversity, though, is the absence of female characters. The only prominent woman in it is an android with outsized breasts who spends half her time wielding a flamethrower and the other half flailing around in agony as Mary Shelley’s creature strives to convert her into a vehicle for the resurrected soul of his lost bride. There are some Victorian imperialist attitudes that aren’t worth reviving – and others that have shuffled on into the twenty-first century, gnashing their corpselike teeth in a vain attempt to fend off the forces of feminism. A shame that this film chooses in the end to align itself with the latter.

William Morris, The Well at the World’s End

And now I’ve finished the epic journey from Upmeads to Utterbol, as recounted in The Well at the World’s End.

UnknownFor a long time this was a book I shunned because of its style. I didn’t like what I took to be the fake medievalism of it, preferring T. H. White’s decision to modernize comprehensively, or Tolkien’s ingenious technique of seguing into medieval language by careful stages. But the language of fantasy has interested me for a while now, and the various revivals of early English in major fantasy texts – from William Hope Hodgson’s bizarre take on it in The Night Land, with its endless and inexplicable use of infinitives, to E. R. Eddison’s baroque mannerisms in The Worm Ouroboros – now seem to me to be an important part of their ingenuity and charm. Morris is an expert user of late Middle English, steeped in Chaucer and Malory (as his Kelmscott editions of those writers show), and one of the reasons he chose it for his romances may have been to make a point about how he was disrupting both Victorian and Medieval conventions as he wrote. For instance, he would have known that the second person singular, ‘thou’, was used in Medieval times to signify familiarity, and never for formally addressing one’s social superiors. So when woodsmen, bandits, shepherds, merchants and craftsmen persistently address Ralph of Upmeads as ‘thou’ they are asserting the dignity of their social positions by addressing him as an equal. And he would have known that Ralph’s habit of addressing men and women of all classes with the elaborate tropes of chivalric courtesy – along with his decision to marry a cross-dressing innkeeper’s daughter rather than a princess – signals his acquiescence with their egalitarian assumptions. At the same time, Morris’s use of outmoded language meant he could imitate certain Medieval attitudes to gender and sexuality rather than Victorian ones – Malorian attitudes in particular. As Helen Cooper has shown, Malory didn’t tend to condemn women for showing desire – witness the fair Maid of Astolat, or Lancelot’s lover Eleanor, or even Guinevere. That Morris recognised Malory’s interest in and sympathy for women is demonstrated by one of his earliest poems, ‘The Defence of Guenevere’, which takes a radically different view of Lancelot’s royal mistress than Tennyson did in The Idylls of the King. So the choice of Medieval language may have been partly intended to liberate Morris to write about desiring women without arousing the wrath or distaste of his contemporaries; and he seized this opportunity in The Well at the World’s End in a big way.

That’s what struck me this time I read it – I think because between this reading and the last I’d read Morris’s brilliant feminist fantasy, The Water of the Wondrous Isles. That book has a female protagonist – the first and last in epic fantasy before the work of Patricia McKillip in the early 70s, I think, though I’d be happy to be proved wrong (it partly depends on your definition of epic fantasy, of course). So I knew he was a champion of women’s empowerment, in theory at least, and that he could write magnificently about female desire. Re-reading the Well, I was bowled over by the centrality of women to it. In fact, for most of the romance the male protagonist, Ralph, does almost nothing of his own volition – he’s sent out on his quest by one woman, furthered in it by another, and enabled to complete it by a third, and he encounters numerous other remarkable women along the way. And Morris’s representation of them follows the path he trod in ‘The Defence of Guinevere’, making heroines of women who in other writers’ hands – writers of both sexes – in the 1890s would have been dismissed or condemned without a moment’s hesitation.

The first is Ralph’s ‘gossip’ or godmother: a merchant’s wife old enough to be his mother, gifted with second sight, and deeply in love with her godson – while fully conscious of the impossibility of that love being consummated, given the disparity between their ages (disparity of stations is barely mentioned), and the fact that she already has a loving husband. Her love for him is clearly sexual in nature, yet it is neither condemned not mocked by Ralph or the narrator. More remarkably still, the woman’s husband is fully aware of it, and doesn’t suffer from jealousy; instead he does everything in his power to satisfy his wife’s wish to spend time in Ralph’s company and to ensure the young man’s wellbeing. I can’t think of a three-way relationship quite like this in literature – let alone Victorian literature, which would tend to make the desiring older woman either comic or monstrous.

The second woman is even more remarkable as a heroine figure. She’s richly ambiguous, being adored by men and loathed by women – largely because women know that no man, including their lovers and partners, can resist her. Like the merchant’s wife she’s much older than Ralph and married to another man, but this doesn’t stop her choosing to become his lover. She has magical powers, has ruled as a queen and leads a band of outlaws like Robin Hood’s; she is also a kind of goddess figure to an isolated community, their ‘Lady of Abundance’ whose appearances are said to bring fertility to the land. She is loathed by many of the clergy, though many others desire her as much as their secular male counterparts. Each of these things individually would have earned her the name of a wicked enchantress in another narrative. In this one, she remains the presiding genius of the book, even after her death; the standard against which every other character is measured. One way in which she serves as such a standard is the extent to which she has been slandered and abused in the course of her long life; the impression one gets is that she has been driven to acts of violence and treachery by the violence and treachery of the men who surround her – so she is a living witness to the corruption of the violent, patriarchal world through which Ralph is travelling. But remarkably, she also becomes the architect of its transformation. Both before and after her death (sorry for the spoiler) she sets Ralph on the track to the Well, and to the relationship with a third woman that will make a decent man of him.

The third woman, the cross-dressing Ursula, could be said to be a safer alternative than the Lady of Abundance as a lifelong companion for Ralph to settle down with. Given that she is effectively bequeathed to Ralph by the dying Lady, one would expect her to be a feeble, conventional being, fit only to be rescued from frequent deadly perils and comforted in adversity. One would expect her to be dully chaste, bereft of desire except of the most decorous kind, and to be willing to submit to Ralph in every situation. In fact, she’s nothing of the kind. She dresses in armour, watches over the sleeping Ralph with her sword unsheathed, frees herself from the tyranny of Utterbol (Ralph never even gets there, despite his plan to free her), and saves Ralph’s life when they reach the terrible Dry Tree. After the couple drink from the Well she settles into a more conventional role – she is even rescued at one point by Ralph, though this rescue seems to be symbolically accomplished for the sole purpose of atoning for the fact that he earlier failed to rescue the Lady. But Ursula travels side by side with him as he returns to root out the would-be conquerors of Upmeads, refusing to stay in safety when he goes to war; and the equality of their partnership continues to be implied to the end of the book. She is also repeatedly mistaken for the Lady, which confirms that she is the inheritrix of the Lady’s powers – of active desire as well as of foresight.

The conclusion one reaches, after reading The Well at the World’s End, is that Morris wants his readers to understand that a society is only ever as civilized as the way it treats its women. The tyrannies Ralph encounters are defined as such by the women who live under them: the captive women in the Burg of the Four Friths, the merchant towns that collude with Ursula’s enslavement, the unhappy Queen of Utterbol and her devious maid Agatha, both of whom have had their personalities deformed by the aggressive patriarchal culture they find themselves in – a point driven home by the fact that both succeed in redeeming themselves when they’re freed from oppression. Women, Morris implies, deserve to share power with men in exactly the way that men deserve to share power with each other. The climactic battle of the book is fought not by a single mighty leader, as so many history books imply, but by an egalitarian army made up of farmers, shepherds and outlaws; Ralph barely lifts a finger in it. He is a catalyst, not an agent; and what he brings about is health, the healthy society that drinks, like Ursula, from the same Well as he does.

wwe

Of course, The Well at the World’s End was a big influence on Tolkien – like a lot of Morris’s work (The House of the Wulfings is often mentioned). Names echo across both books (Gandolf; Silverfax); and it’s structurally very close, with a There-and-Back-Again plot that closes with a Scouring of the Shire. But it’s also radically different from The Lord of the Rings because of the women who drive it, and because of its fascination with ambiguous, redeemable characters; there’s no equivalent here of a one-dimensional orc. And its There-and-Back-Again plot isn’t a return to the status quo, but a radical cleansing, a democratizing of the past as a blueprint for a better future. That’s why Morris had to write fantasy at the end of his life; because no society had ever quite succeeded in doing what he wanted it to do. And it’s interesting to consider whether some aspect of this radically democratizing impulse was retained in Tolkien’s post-Morrisian vision.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

willowes03Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926) is one of a trio of fantasy masterpieces written by British women in the 1920s (Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and this), in the run up to the universal franchise of 1928.

This is by far the least known of the three, but it shares the strangeness of the other two. In some ways, in fact, it’s the strangest of all, because of the way its strangeness creeps up on you. If you’re told it’s about a woman who becomes a witch, you may get the wrong impression: you may assume that it’s about exuberant rebellion, wild midnight dances, the exultation of passionate sexuality and occult powers, but it’s not like that at all. At the beginning Laura Willowes (the name Lolly is thrust on her as a badge of her spinsterhood, a suitable sobriquet for an ageing maiden aunt) assumes she’s part of an unchanging story, the comfortable quasi-aristocratic life in a large house at the turn of the twentieth century – a house to which she literally holds the keys. But the narrative changes: her father dies, a move takes place, she finds herself no longer the protagonist of her own quiet drama but a patronized nanny-figure, lady companion and family servant in her brother’s Bloomsbury household, inhabiting a world of urban polite society she despises, and cut off from the seasonal ebb and flow that delightfully shaped her early years. Her sudden decision to move to the countryside in her late forties – and the way her forties creep up on her in this book is brilliantly observed, as startling as the arrival of The Victorian Age in Woolf’s Orlando – is prompted less by rebellious feelings than by a not wholly understood urge for something very specific, a place, a name (the village she moves to is called Great Mop, itself illogical since there is no Little Mop that anyone’s heard of). And this urge, which doesn’t conform to any of the conventional narratives by which women of her time are expected to explain their motives, becomes the theme of the rest of the book.

Laura doesn’t make ‘friends’ in Great Mop, though she is charmed by the inhabitants. She doesn’t find it beautiful – some of the parts she spends most time in are decidedly ugly. She doesn’t fall in love – the one man she likes there is instantly forgotten as soon as she’s out of his company, and she finds his hens more interesting than he is, since carrying them makes her feel like that magical figure, the ‘henwife’, in old tales. Even when she makes the discovery that most of the inhabitants take part in a nightly Witch’s Sabbath, and is invited to take part, she fails to find that social event any more amusing than her brother’s Bloomsbury parties (though she’s temporarily attracted to some of the participants, which didn’t happen in London). Her powers as a witch don’t work conventionally – and it’s not a witch’s powers that interest her in any case, so much as the witch’s capacity to ignore or forget what others think of her. Finally, when she meets the Devil, patron of witches, her response to him is deeply ambiguous. After all, he’s a powerful male, and powerful men have been a nuisance to her – though she was clearly strongly attached to her powerful father. We’re left at the end of the book not entirely sure what to think of her situation. It’s precarious. She’s liberated in one sense, yet still bound to a male potentate; freed from limiting narratives apart from the most terrifyingly limiting narrative of all, that of the Devil’s right to take eventual possession of her immortal soul. She comforts herself with the thought that neither she nor the Devil have any idea what happens after death (how can he know, since he’s immortal?). But the sense of precariousness remains after you’ve read the final sentence.

One of the things I found fascinating about this book was Townsend Warner’s choice of the Devil as the presiding genius of Lolly Willowes’s ambiguous liberation. It would have been easy to choose Pan instead, and it’s clear that the Devil in this book is very Pan-like. On both occasions when she meets him he adopts the appearance of a rustic man, especially at home in the woods (and for him woods are everywhere: ‘Once a wood, always a wood’, he insists at one point, which explains for Laura the strange feelings she has sometimes got from certain places in the city). Pan was everywhere in fiction between about 1895 and the 1920s: sometimes terrifying (Machen’s The Great God Pan (1890-4)), sometimes unsettling (Forster’s ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904), Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912), Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan (1928)), sometimes comforting and cuddly (Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1908)); and he could be used to refer to what was otherwise inexpressible (Forster’s story was about the awakening of homosexual desire, while Stephens’s Pan helps a young woman to free herself from the Irish church’s contempt for the desiring body). But Pan belongs to a dead religion, and from this point of view was a safe figure, safely fantastic, safely impossible, and with an impeccably classical pedigree to justify his inclusion in a respectable middle- or upper-class narrative.

The Devil, on the other hand, is part of a narrative that still had a fierce hold on early twentieth-century British society. He is democratic, in that people of any background may be afraid of him. And he is scary even to non-believers, since the practitioners of Devil-worship have had a universally bad press. Laura’s decision (or is it even a decision? It seems to be thrust on her without her volition) to commit herself to him is therefore disturbing because we genuinely don’t know, as readers, what to make of it. Has she been trapped into making a terrible mistake? Will she free herself from her contract, and if she doesn’t, will she suffer the consequences? Townsend Warner clearly wanted these questions to live on in the reader’s mind after the book has ended, perhaps precisely because the question of women’s freedom and equality with men had not yet found an answer, and wouldn’t find it in 1928, despite the official declaration that they were free at last to participate in the democratic process. The Devil is in the details of such declarations, she might have said (whose definition of democracy were women being invited to collude with?). And it’s in the beautifully observed details of the book, especially of Laura’s always unconventional reactions to the things, events, and people she encounters, that its brilliance lies.

lolly willowes6

IMPORTANT NOTICE

Gnome%201Staff and students at the University of Glasgow may have observed that a certain amount of building work is taking place around the campus. Sometimes this has even interfered with our fantasy seminars. Yesterday, for instance, a haunting and semi-melodious series of whistles was heard outside my office window, interrupting our discussion of the works of James Stephens and Flann O’Brien as everyone secretly fingered their good luck talismans or made the sign to avert evil on the palm of their hidden right hand. These whistles proceeded, I believe, from the lips of a passing gnome (see right) who was carrying a mound of dwarf bread to the construction site (dwarf bread is of course more durable than most kinds of stone). She has been duly reprimanded.

I must apologize unreservedly for this unavoidable nuisance. The fact is that we are in the process of building a gigantic Fantasy Hub in the vicinity of the University Library, which entails (among other things) laying down elaborate networks of chymical piping connecting us up to the Wyrld Wyde Webbe, an arcane alternative internet service for connoisseurs of the impossible; hence the elaborate system of tunnels that are being dug beneath adjoining roads. We have also been digging Cavernous Vaults for storage (some spell books have to be preserved in giant lead casques inscribed with protective runes), while simultaneously laying foundations for the crenellated towers of the Hub, which will dwarf the brutalist pile of the library and complement the Gothic flamboyance of the main university building. No expenses have been spared in resurrecting Victorian architects to help lend an authentic air of neo-Gothicism to our construction – though I’m afraid some of the necromantic processes involved are very noisy.

Work is still at an early stage, and consultation of the Fantasy Community is important to us. If there are crucial elements that need to be incorporated into the hub, please let us know. We are not at liberty to disclose the plans we have at present, but if you come up with something we haven’t thought of we will openly acknowledge your innovation and make every effort to persuade the goblins, dwarves and elementals on our construction staff to build it into the edifice.

Thank you for your attention.

Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the Mist as Fantastic History

I wrote this piece for a Festschrift for Peter Conrad. I’m sure he won’t mind me posting it here, with affectionate thanks for the inspiration he’s given me down the years.

tumblr_mzlxx9IVKk1s6h2wzo1_500I’d like to write a book of the kind Peter Conrad writes: nimble, quizzical, funny, learned, surprising, audacious, drawing together a vast range of heterogeneous material, brimming with passion for literature, and saying something clear and precise about the world from which literature emerges, the artefacts, arts and actions with which it intersects. I’m conscious, of course, that this wish of mine may well remain what it is – a beautiful fantasy – and that if the book ever comes into being it will hardly merit even one of the adjectives I’ve used to describe it. All the same, I’d like to give the dream some substance here at least, in connection with Peter, who has given life to so many strange dreams.

My book, then, will be called A Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century, and will take as its premise the notion that the best way of writing about the century just past is through its fantasies: the literature that turns its back on what really happened, or might have happened, and focuses instead on what certainly did not happen and never could, foregrounding the impossibility of what it represents, its flamboyant violation of the laws of physics, biology, history, reason, economics, or any known earthly culture. This is because during that century more writers than ever before discovered that the fantastic was the only mode by which they could frame an adequate response to the cataclysmic events and transformations they had experienced or encountered. The passage from my non-existent book that follows presents Hope Mirrlees’s novel Lud-in-the Mist (1926) as a prime example of how fantastic fiction can write the moment of its composition with uncanny accuracy. In it, Mirrlees discovers a strange new voice that perfectly articulates the mood of the unsettled decade that followed the First World War; and by reading it we can lift the veil that obscures that time, learn something new about what we have lost and gained as we move steadily away from its complications.

Lud-in-the-Mist flamboyantly repudiates its writer’s historical moment, locating itself in a non-existent country called Dorimare which has undergone no industrial revolution, suffered no Great War, but remained an improbably stable bourgeois republic – an anti-monarchist Merry England whose interregnum has endured for two or three hundred years – since the revolution that ousted its final monarch, the ‘laughing demon of destructiveness’ Duke Aubrey. Dorimarite culture is ‘baroque’, that is, closely related to the culture of seventeenth-century Europe, when Richard Corbet wrote his celebrated ballad ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’ in nostalgic recognition that a new age of science had come into being: an age in which the machinery of the world was understood in radical new terms, so that the world itself began to operate differently, as John Crowley has shown us in his haunting sequence of alternative historical novels, Aegypt. At that point in time, the Dorimarites too said farewell to their fairies. Duke Aubrey fled to Fairyland, which borders Dorimare, and since then all contact with the fairies has been cut off, their names reduced to imprecations and insults, their staple diet – the fairy fruit that got slathered over the heroines of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ – banned as an illegal substance because of its unsettling effects on its consumers. Fairy fruit intensifies emotion: eating it in excess has ‘tragic results’, leading to ‘madness, suicide, orgiastic dances, and wild doings under the moon’. Even the mention of the stuff causes acute embarrassment to the placid, pragmatic burghers of Lud-in-the-Mist, the country’s capital. By banning it they congratulate themselves on having banished tragedy too from among their ranks, along with the excesses and illusions of all other forms of art. Freed from fairies and the narcotic consumables they traffic, the bourgeoisie of Lud-in-the Mist settle down to a life of comfortable and slightly self-mocking respectability, very much like the middle classes of 1920s England.

Except that like the middle classes of England, the Dorimarites are living a fantasy. Fairy artefacts are everywhere in Dorimare, as an anonymous antiquarian has the temerity to point out in a potted history of the country, which is burned by the censors as soon as printed. Fairy fruit continues to be smuggled over the border, and can be obtained by anyone who wants it; and the law that forbids it is a tissue of fabrications, alluding to the fruit as contraband fabric, a kind of silk, as if to symbolize the veil that the Luddite burghers have chosen to draw across their own eyes, a voluntary intensification of the mist from which their city takes its name. The chief deception to which they subject themselves is the belief that things don’t change. They encapsulate each other’s characters in oblique little inside jokes that get trotted out on each social occasion, as if to preserve the citizens in verbal amber, safe against the ravages of time. They practise annual rituals, such as parties to welcome the famous Moongrass cheeses every April, as if to impart regularity to the wayward seasons and guarantee their own continued prosperity. And when they die they have themselves buried in the Fields of Grammary, a picturesque urban cemetery whose stones eulogize the careers of the graves’ tenants in amusing epitaphs, reducing their long lives to a few short rows of carven platitudes much like the jokes of the burghers in their complacently self-effacing tone.

But the fantasies by which they live have a way of exposing what they are designed to conceal. The names and oaths of the Luddites – so the anonymous antiquarian assures them – derive from fairy originals; and if this embarrassing etymology may be suppressed by destroying the antiquarian’s potted history, the names remain: Pugwalker, Pyepowders, Mumchance, Gibberty, Leer; funny, suggestive, embarrassing to their owners, and highlighting for the twentieth-century reader the fictionality of what she’s reading, its silliness, its kinship to the realm of childish fantasy from which serious modern adults, like the Luddites, are so keen to divorce their activities. And although the ancient oaths of Dorimare may be controlled by a strict adherence to the conventions of good manners (although one of the commonest oaths in the book turns out to be a fairy password, opening doors to illegal secrets concealed behind hidden doors and old silk arrases); and if books can be burned by the hangman (although Mirrlees’ book contains its own etymological clue to the target of its satire in its title – King Lud was the founder of London, says Geoffrey of Monmouth – so that the resources available to the unknown antiquarian are clearly available to Mirrlees’s readers as well as the Luddites); there nevertheless remain the wordless languages spoken by the Silent People which figure so largely throughout the text, and which expose the relentless changes that suffuse the Luddites’ apparently stable universe – its interwovenness with death, desire, disease and the pervasive dread of some unidentifiable disaster – in ways that can never be suppressed.

The Silent People come in many guises. Fairies are the Silent People, and their banishment has made them yet more silent. But the dead too are the Silent People, and they refuse to be kept down or rendered dumb, whether by cosy epitaphs or other respectable methods of cleaning up history. They come back as decrepit labourers who can only speak in riddles, or as visions of the dead Duke Aubrey brought on by fairy fruit. A murdered farmer speaks by way of a pair of embroidered slippers, a set of old lawcourt records, a printed herbal and a herm; and his murder is exposed by a former Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist who has been declared ‘officially dead’ – the means by which the city corporation passes a motion of no confidence in its highest elected official – thus becoming one of the Silent People himself. And there are other kinds of Silent People too. Houses, for instance, which hide and yield so many family secrets. The working classes, who maintain an imaginative bond with the fairies long after the bourgeoisie have severed all ties with them, but whose insights into fairy business are never heard in official circles. Children, too, who must be seen and not heard, and who are therefore Silent People, at least in theory. Yet children keep bursting out with obscene or nonsensical exclamations throughout the novel; and they also keep bursting out of the bonds by which Luddite society seeks to restrain them. After eating fairy fruit, the pupils of Miss Crabapple’s Academy dance away to Fairyland, which for the Luddites is tantamount to dancing themselves to death. Young Ranulph Chanticleer evades the attentions of the chaperone set to guard him during a convalescent sojourn in the countryside, where the boy has been sent to recover from the effects of his own consumption of fairy fruit. He too runs away to Fairyland and death. And in both cases – those of the runaway girls and the convalescent boy – the loss of the children is regarded by the bulk of the Luddites as an embarrassment more than a catastrophe, an exacerbation of the young ones’ habitual rudeness in saying what should be left unsaid, and in changing persistently, unfazed by their elders’ commitment to perpetual stasis. Tragedy, after all, was banished along with the fairies, to be replaced by more mundane reactions to a loved one’s death, such as queasiness (one mother vomits repeatedly after her daughter’s departure) or blushing (the families of the Crabapple girls seem more disconcerted by the shameful cause of their disappearance than by the disappearance itself). To respond to the children’s elopement as one would to a tragedy would merely aggravate the disgrace they have brought on their families, not cathartically exclude it.

Unknown-3

But if children can be ignored, the countryside cannot, and neither can those little patches of countryside the Luddites tend within the city limits, their formal gardens. Both are filled with Silent People in the form of vegetation, whose seasonal cycles provide, with the changing moon, the favourite subject-matter of the vanished fairy artificers whose products survive throughout Dorimare in attics and forgotten corners. And the language of vegetation speaks out on every page of Mirrlees’s novel about the things the Luddite burghers wish to deny: change, desire, disgrace, betrayal, self-deception, approaching death. Trees, for example, remain silent or ‘dumb’ except for two great explosions of chromatic articulacy in spring and autumn, when the leaves come out (‘those of the birch are like a swarm of green bees, and those of the lime so transparent that they are stained black with the shadow of those above and beneath them’) and later decay. And in the early morning when flowers first emerge from the darkness, they announce the ubiquity of transience and illusion, stained as they are with ‘a yellow like that of primroses, a blue like that of certain wild periwinkles, colours so elusive that one suspects them to be due to some passing accident of light, and that, were one to pick the flower, it would prove to be pure white’. No wonder if after watching the slow revelation of these evasive plants – and noting that ‘a star was quenched with every flower that reappeared on earth’ – the adolescent Ranulph is seized with a sudden passion and runs off to Fairyland, where such things as transience, illusion and passion are, he thinks, unheard of. He wants to escape from ‘things happening,’ he tells his father, such as ‘summer and winter, and days and nights’. His wish to escape from these things by going to Fairyland, however, seems misguided; its people may be silent but they dedicate themselves to making things happen in the present and exposing the happenings of the past.  The proof is in the Fairy Fruit, whose consumption is what made him aware of the seasonal mutability that surrounds him.

Nathaniel Chanticleer, Ranulph’s father, shares the boy’s susceptibility to sudden passions. In his own adolescence he heard a Note accidentally struck on a fairy instrument, like Arthur Sullivan’s Lost Chord, and ever since has lived in a state of intense anxiety about the prospect of imminent change. It has generated in him, in fact, ‘a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed… as if he thought he had already lost what he was actually holding in his hands’. Nathaniel suffers, in fact, from what fantasy is often accused of over-indulging in its readers: continuous nostalgia, against which he braces himself by frequent visits to the cemetery, where he reads about the lives of dead citizens who have succeeded in evading catastrophe (if their epitaphs are to be believed) and now rest in peace. But Nathaniel cannot be comforted by false visions of the past; it’s nostalgia for the present that infects him. His nostalgia is in fact an acute form of realism, a consciousness that catastrophes have happened – the famine that killed the family of the labourer Diggory Carp, for instance, and drove him to suicide, or the murder of Farmer Gibberty – and may happen again. It’s this awareness that ensures he is well prepared for the great catastrophe of losing his son, and does not merely accept it, as the other Luddites accept the loss of their daughters. Instead he chases after the boy into Fairyland, another Orpheus chasing his Eurydice into the land of the dead.

When he gets there, he is confronted by two alternative visions of death. The first is the image of an eternal, changeless Dorimare, whose vegetation is frozen in enamelled perfection, like a painting of the way the burghers of Lud would like their land to be: a place where everything ‘had the serenity and stability of trees, the unchanging peace of pictures’. The second is a ‘black abyss’, a nothingness into which his son has plunged, and into which the father throws himself in a desperate bid to save him. In doing so he throws himself out of the text, as it were: that abyss exists in the reader’s world just as surely as it does in Dorimare. There have been few more convincing depictions in English fiction of a heroic resistance to fantasy, a refusal to immerse oneself in the narcotic dream to which the bourgeoisie have collectively capitulated. And it’s nostalgia, the sense of imminent loss, that gives Nathaniel the courage to stage that resistance, to confront the abyss, and to snatch something from it against all the odds: a child of his to grow to maturity and take his place when he faces death for the final time.

It’s also Nathaniel’s peculiar brand of nostalgia that enables him to stage a second revolution at the end of the novel, when he rides back from Fairyland in triumph with his rescued son, having previously liberated the Crabapple girls too from their captivity among the dead. The fairies march into Dorimare beside him, as does Duke Aubrey, triumphantly reclaiming the land that expelled them – although there are hints that the new regime may take a more democratic form than the old ones (fairy fruit, for instance, will be available to all; in the Dukes’ time it was food for the elite, and illegal in the time of the republic). Is this a reactionary revolution, a peculiarly English inversion of the events that took place in Russia less than a decade before the book’s publication? Hardly. The historical Luddites attacked the new mechanized looms that threatened their livelihoods, and it seems harsh to accuse them of conservatism. Mirrlees’s Luddites, on the other hand, the fat and prosperous citizens of Lud – she calls them Ludites as if to emphasize the ludic wit of the comparison – seek to destroy the hand-crafted tapestry of their own past in the interest of permanent prosperity (for themselves, that is, not the working classes they despise). Nathaniel’s revolution forces on them the recognition that the past is always with us, physically, emotionally, breaking through the flimsy screens and veils by which we strive to obscure it – just as the blood of a murdered man was once believed to burst out of his corpse when the murderer passes. And the humiliation of the bourgeoisie that this recognition entails opens the way for open dialogue between themselves and the Silent People they have tried to ignore: intermarriage with vagrants and workers, exchange of cultural artefacts such as songs, the legalization of narcotics, embracing the dead. Open dialogue of this kind seems a radical concept even now, so many decades after Mirrlees was writing.

130761_1We cannot repress our tragedies, our desires, our bouts of lunacy without doing ourselves serious harm – so Freud assures us. And even when we seek escape in literary fantasy, the sort of charming, whimsical fantasy this book embodies, we cannot long rid ourselves of the consciousness that we live at the edge of the abyss; especially when the fantasy ends with a quasi-Brechtian warning: ‘the Written Word is a Fairy […] speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice’. This Cretan paradox sweeps away the land of Dorimare in an instant, returning us to the moment when the book was written, less than ten years after the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Flu. No middle-class urban idyll, no matter how charming, could bury those historical maelstroms in genteel silence, or restore the world that followed it to pastoral stability. Lud-in-the-Mist is startling because of the directness with which it discloses these discomfiting facts to its reluctant readers, while seducing them with passages of unparalleled loveliness and subjecting them to occasional peals of derisory laughter. That’s why I shall choose it as the cornerstone of my fantastic history.