Secrets of the Fantastic Short Story

tumblr_ni2qbhNsuY1rzim2co1_500What makes a great fantasy short story? I recently read six of them, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, and it struck me that they have a lot in common. All are what Farah Mendlesohn calls ‘intrusive fantasy’: narratives in which something impossible breaks through into the world we think we know. All are concerned with entrapment, which is a theme ideally suited to the narrow confines of short fiction. Several involve an element of hesitation on the part of the reader: are we facing the representation of a genuinely fantastic event or is the protagonist the victim of a delusion? Since illness features in all of them, the question of what’s real and what’s imagined is foregrounded in each narrative, though each of them treats that question in a different way.

These are the stories:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, 1892
Franz Kafka, ‘The Transformation’, 1915
Max Beerbohm, ‘Enoch Soames’, 1916
Walter de la Mare, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, 1922
D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’, 1926
Dorothy Haynes, ‘Changeling’, 1947

Five of these tales were written in the shadow of war. ‘The Transformation’ and ‘Enoch Soames’ took shape while war was raging in Europe, while de la Mare, Haynes and Lawrence composed their stories in the extended aftermath of global conflict. Yet none of them mentions war (with one exception: Bassett in ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ was Uncle Oscar’s batman or military servant, who got a gardening job with Oscar’s family after being invalided out of the army with a wounded foot); an odd omission, one might think, given how large it must have loomed in the lives of the writers. But then fantasy often makes a point of turning away from public events to explore what’s unsaid and unseen in official culture (as Rosemary Jackson puts it in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion). These texts address the wars fought on the domestic front, and much of what’s at stake in these vicious skirmishes concerns the things that are ignored or set aside, neglected, shunned or actively suppressed. Such suppressions are part of a cultural milieu that makes war possible; the fields of Flanders and the slowly decaying house in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ are woven out of the same fabric. The suggestion in these narratives of unseen malevolent or tormented presences could easily be taken for an acknowledgement of the close proximity, in time and space, of inexplicable slaughter.

the_yellow_wallpaper_by_kaitaro04011War thrives on secrets, and each of these stories has a secret at the heart of it. The convalescent narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has secrecy forced on her: her obsession with the wallpaper of the title is something she can’t share with others, and her inability to talk about it means she can confide it only to the pages we are reading, which she has been forbidden to write. Indeed, the wallpaper might be read as an extension of this clandestine process of putting pen to paper, with its grotesquely active lined pattern and the strange images that surface through the lines – funguses, strangled heads, a host of creeping women. The pattern also resembles bars, like the bars on the windows that identify the room where the narrator sleeps – the room with the paper in it – as a former nursery. These bars stand for a different secret: that of her husband, who infantilizes her by refusing to let her write or talk about her feelings, but who presents himself as a benefactor, a physician dedicated to ‘curing’ her of the curse of imagination by barring her from her creative pleasures and her stimulating friends.

Gregor in ‘The Transformation’ is his family’s dark secret, and each of the calamities in the narrative occurs when he emerges uninvited into the public rooms of the flat they live in. His predicament – he has turned into a giant beetle – also seems at times to stand for the reluctance of his bourgeois relatives to acknowledge the material processes (his labour and hard-won earnings) by which they have maintained their middle-class respectability. His work as a commercial traveller is the unacknowledged bug under the family floorboards.

Seaton’s Aunt is Seaton’s secret, in that he has no one he can talk to about her. He can’t articulate her strange tyranny over him, not even to the story’s largely unsympathetic narrator, because it’s not clear that there’s any way of describing exactly who she is or what she represents. His monstrous relative herself has any number of secrets, but only in the sense that she seems to exist on a different plane from anyone else, so that the hidden and unpleasant things she sees with such clarity make the ordinary world a matter of indifference to her – a point of view which is confirmed by her eventual descent into a strangely panoptic blindness.

Rocking Horse WinnerThe boy Paul in Lawrence’s story repeatedly urges his uncle to keep the secret of the fact that he can predict winners at the races by riding his rocking horse at a frenzied gallop. The larger secret of the story, though, is the fact that his mother thinks herself short of money, but cannot say so except to her children, because talking about one’s financial situation is impolite in middle class circles – as too is talking openly about depression or one’s own unhappy marriage.

peake-004Seven-year-old Moreen in ‘Changeling’, like Seaton or the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, has a secret in spite of all her efforts to make it public. She can’t persuade anyone to listen to her when she tells them she can see a witch outside her window, sitting astride a gargoyle on the church steeple. She isn’t listened to in Fairyland, either, when the witch comes through her window and carries her off to live among the Wee Folk. The fairies have had her brought to them as a plaything, and resent her persistent refusal to be playful. And no one listens to her when the witch takes her home again after a year of changing seasons among the little people, and she finds herself confronted as a child of eight with her grown-up replacement, the changeling of the title. The woman’s reaction to the little girl’s arrival on her doorstep is to send for the doctor, no doubt for psychological assessment and incarceration, perhaps in a disused nursery. The story closes with the misting over of the window through which Moreen first saw the witch – and through which she can still see her, older and more gnarled, at the end of the narrative. The misted glass obscures but does not erase the fact of the witch’s existence. In the same way, the story has sketched out the precise details of the wee folk (‘sharp as thorns and shrill as treble chanters’) and their country (‘Yellow leaves soaked sodden into the lake, and rain and frost raced each other over the brilliant berries’) so that they become part of the reader’s memories, despite the bleak mundaneness of the story’s ending.

220px-Enoch-soamesThe one narrative in the list without a secret is ‘Enoch Soames’. Indeed, the story is cruelly explicit about the facts of Soames’s case, which is that he yearns to be made immortal through his writing and instead finds himself made immortal by the writing of Max Beerbohm, whose short story is the only place where his name survives beyond his death. If there is a secret here, it’s the knowledge implicitly shared between Beerbohm and the reader that Soames is in fact no fiction, that this forgotten man really existed and is trapped somewhere, even now, in the devil’s clutches. The potency of this implied shared secret is attested by the desire of some readers to add to the puzzle set up by Beerbohm by staging in their turn an ‘actual’ visit of Soames to the Reading Room of the British Museum in the 1990s, at the exact time to which he was transported by the Devil in the story, and in the exact location where he searched in vain for evidence of his literary immortality. This imaginative extension of Beerbohm’s story into actual twentieth-century history is invited by the author, who fills his tale with references to real events and living people, and even introduces himself into the story as character as well as narrator. But it also represents what seems to me a widespread attitude to the best fantasy short stories: that they are the special secrets of their readers, making us into a cohort of initiates who have been collectively imprinted with their disturbing images and seduced by their strange intelligence, and who recognize each other by certain hallmarks when we meet in public places such as libraries, cafés and second hand bookshops.

MetamorphosisThe notion of private, solitary secrets (which ironically make a kind of secret family out of their initiates) has in most of these stories a social equivalent: a powerful clandestine community whose membership is often exclusively male, and which has its own ‘official’ secrets, its own specialized discourse, designed to exclude and diminish those who don’t know it. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ that community is the medical profession, to which the narrator’s brother and husband belong and into which women can only intrude if they are prepared to serve as acolytes – like the husband’s Sister, the capitalization of whose title marks her out as a hospital official. In ‘The Transformation’ there are several communities from which Gregor is excluded by virtue of his change: the workforce from whom he absents himself as a result of his condition, and from whose company he is barred at once – despite his conviction that he still speaks their language – because they can suddenly no longer understand a word he says. The family, whose notions of solidarity and mutual support he has violated by changing. The three bearded and identical gentlemen lodgers, who take advantage of his presence in the apartment to discharge themselves of the obligation to pay their rent. In ‘Enoch Soames’ the closed community is that of the artistic set of the decadent 1890s who both tolerate and scorn Enoch’s presence among them; and later the community of scholars in the 1990s, who turn him into a spectacle when he visits the British Museum of the future. Unlike Gregor, Enoch speaks the language of the group he longs to join – the decadent artists – with apparent fluency, but the words he uses are empty signifiers, and he continues to use them, and to imbibe the toxic fluid, absinthe, that marked out the artistic set from their contemporaries, long after the rest of that community has moved on to other discourses, other poisons. His scholarly labours, too, prove fruitless, because the only evidence of his existence in the British Museum turns out to be the story we’re reading, ‘Enoch Soames’, which turns him into a work of art. That, at least, is a kind of immortality, though for Enoch such immortality would be hell. He expected perpetual fame, but not as a verbal construct in someone else’s fiction; he planned to be remembered as a shining light, not as the apotheosis of dimness. Another open secret in the story, then, is that it’s Beerbohm rather than the Devil who has condemned his own protagonist to eternal torment.

In ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ the closed male community is that of the school. Running through the narrative – and standing out for a twenty-first century reader by virtue of its obsolescence – is the jargon of the Edwardian boarding school, which Seaton strives to use properly but repeatedly violates (he swears, for instance, which is forbidden by some unspoken agreement among his fellow pupils). Lawrence’s story inverts the situation: the boy Paul finds himself admitted into the brotherhood of the turf, speaks its jargon and gains its respect (with considerable winnings). But for Lawrence masculinity has been irretrievably damaged by the rise of capitalism, and by the apex of that rise, the mechanized war from which the world had just emerged. Paul’s mother dismisses her husband as ‘unlucky’ because his earnings aren’t enough to cover the costs of an upper middle class family. The gardener Bassett’s war injury has turned him into an object of charity, forcing him into companionship with a child rather than grown men. Young Paul struggles to find security by swearing his adult friends to silence about his many secrets; his perpetual mantra is the phrase ‘honour bright’, rendered ironic by the fact that the term ‘honour’ has been permanently tarnished by its overuse in the context of mass murder. The only successful man in the story is Uncle Oscar, who finds common ground with his nephew and his former batman by virtue of their common interest in the races. But he doesn’t come to visit when the child is dying, although he has enriched himself at Paul’s expense. And his belated words of sympathy for his dead nephew (‘poor devil, poor devil’) identify the boy as the unluckiest of the unlucky, a moral and economic reject who has never reached manhood. Uncle Oscar is the scourge of masculinity, not its epitome, and this is brought home to us by the fact that we never see him utter these words: it is his disembodied ‘voice’ that speaks them in the story’s closing lines, like the voice of a self-satisfied deity pronouncing its judgement from behind a screen of obscuring clouds.

In each of these stories, it’s the buildings inhabited by the central characters that both keep and reveal their secrets. Claustrophobic and insanitary, they conceal rooms that turn into prisons whose doors are locked by the inmates – as in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – or ‘echo and answer in […] a medley of infinite small stirrings and whisperings’, as in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, awakening in their hearers the dreadful awareness of the presence in them of a jailed community of the dead. The locking and opening of doors successively conceal and reveal the noxious presence in the Samsas’ apartment of their shameful insectile relative; while Paul’s house insistently urges on him the irresistible demands of capitalism: ‘the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a kind of ecstasy: “There must be more money! […] There must be more money!”’. Moreen’s home in ‘Changeling’ embodies her imprisonment as the possessor of a truth no one else will acknowledge: ‘The house […] had its windows misted over with damp, and there were lace curtains, and geraniums gasping for air against the panes’. In these stories buildings are strident in bearing witness to the crimes being perpetrated within their walls; and in each the passers-by seem unacquainted with their stony dialect, despite its clarity to the reader, who hears them stirring, whispering, trilling, screaming and gasping as they turn the pages.

Reading RoomOnce again it’s ‘Enoch Soames’ that seems to be the exception. No building dominates: it moves from the Café Royal to various Soho restaurants to the New English Art Club, and in each of these places Soames is the only constant, with his soft hat, his waterproof cape and his incurable dimness. The building everyone remembers from the story is the Reading Room at the British Museum, as seen by the protagonist in the future, and the most striking thing about this is its merciless predictability: its refusal to confirm Soames’s grandiose expectations of discovering his fame in its catalogue; its insistence on fulfilling everyone else’s assumptions about the shape of things to come. On Soames’s return from the future to which he has been sent by his Faustian contract with the devil, Beerbohm questions him as to the people he found there: ‘all of them – men and women alike – looking very well-cared-for? very Utopian? and smelling very strongly of carbolic? and all of them quite hairless?’ Soames’s assent to all these questions may, of course, be due to distraction – he has, after all, every reason to be distracted, since he has just sold his soul to the devil for a glimpse of a future that never took place. His only observation on the future Reading Room is that it is ‘Much as usual’; for him it is no more than a tool, an architectural search engine, and the behavior of the readers merely a nuisance to be ignored as far as possible. For us, on the other hand – the readers of Beerbohm’s story – that ordinariness, the mundanity of the middle desk, the Dictionary of National Biography and the card catalogue, are tools to engineer Soames’s tragedy. The bright light that floods the room from the windows in its famous dome are what mark the dank, ‘dim’ Soames as less than a ghost – a figment spawned by a satire, an image conjured up by words.

Enoch-soames-maxThis ghostliness he shares with the central characters in all the other stories. Each of them fades away as their stories unfold, ignored or forgotten by their closest relatives, their bodies giving way under the strain of sustaining their identity in the face of the impossible – which in each case includes the impossible expectations foisted on them by an inflexible society. The narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ exchanges places with the creeping women from behind the pattern, her trajectory round the nursery-bedroom walls carved out for her, in effect, by her husband’s restriction of her movements. Gregor Samsa’s health declines after his transformation thanks to his family’s shame at his appearance – a shame that takes physical form in the apple that lodges itself in the middle of his back, thrown at him by his irate father in an attempt to force him back into his room. A stronger reason for his decline, however, is his own shame at the trouble he’s causing: ‘His own opinion that he must disappear was if anything even firmer than his sister’s’. Seaton is first diminished then exterminated by his aunt’s contempt; but he is also snuffed out, so to speak, by the contempt of his only friend – the story’s narrator – who is willing, for simplicity’s sake, to accept the aunt’s low opinion of her nephew. Seaton grows incrementally weaker, yellower and more ‘foreign’-looking as the story goes on, until by the end the narrator realizes with a shock that his old schoolfellow had been dead to him for some years before his actual death, buried beneath the piled-up prejudices held against him by his fellow pupils as much as by his aunt’s lifelong certainty that he will soon be added to her ever-expanding collection of captive ghosts.

The boy Paul, meanwhile, like Miles in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, grows feverish under the strain of channeling supernatural forces – or of precociously striving to measure up to the demands and desires of greedy adults. The calling of the doctor at the end of ‘Changeling’ encourages us to predict an anonymous future for Moreen, hidden away in some institution for those whose tales are not worth hearing. She will be disappeared, like the other protagonists, leaving only this curtailed work of fiction as ambiguous evidence that anyone like her ever existed. The great short stories of the fantastic, then, tell the tales of the vanished, the lost, the spurned, the prematurely deceased. And the greatest secret they contain is the secret of who, exactly, was responsible for their disappearance from the pages of history, and for their ghostly resurrection in the pages of story, where what’s lost gets found, for a while, perhaps, depending on the whim of any passing reader.

James Treadwell, Anarchy

51dBbzOcTBL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In the first two novels of his Advent trilogy, James Treadwell engineers the transition from a world without magic to a world that’s full of it in rather different ways. His first novel, Advent (2012), unfolds in a corner of England that has remained untouched by new technologies. The old house at the centre of the narrative, Pendurra, maintains its connection with the past by spurning modern conveniences: it has no electricity, as if this were a condition imposed on the building’s inhabitants for their lifelong intimacy with more ancient sources of power. The nearby cottage where young Gavin finds himself after his journey to Cornwall has no phone. Instead, technological communications devices are replaced in the novel by other forms of communication: above all by various conversations at cross purposes, a brand of dialogue Treadwell handles with increasing wit and inventiveness as the book goes on. These exchanges slowly reveal to Gavin the fact that he shares what he thought of as his own peculiar, isolated weirdness with a whole hidden population of haunted people. Marina’s father, for instance, the Master of Pendurra: a seafarer whose absent-mindedness stems from his preoccupation with his long-lost mermaid. The self-appointed guardian of Pendurra, Caleb, who can sense each part of the house’s grounds as if it were an organ of his own body, and pays for his sensitivity to the land with his deeply rooted misanthropy. The local vicar who has lost his faith, but who keeps encountering impossible beings who are not his God. The ‘nutty professor’ who for some reason seems to know all about Gavin’s imaginary friend, Miss Grey. Even minor characters turn out to be as haunted as Gavin is, or more so. At one point the boy hitches a lift with a passing boatman, who turns out to have been searching for the old seafarer’s mermaid for years. The state of being strange is far more familiar – and far less comfortable – than conventional fantasies have allowed us to believe.

Both of the first two books, in fact, describe a steady trajectory from comfort to discomfort, from the familiar to the terrifying, only to discover that the terrifying is just on the other side of what we’ve always known, embedded in it, woven from the same materials. Pendurra may be a ‘typical’ setting for a fantasy, but we soon learn that it isn’t a charming, rambling edifice like T.H. White’s Malplaquet, or Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe, or the house of Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.[i] It’s scarily labyrinthine, impossible to heat, and all too easily co-opted into serving as the headquarters of a megalomaniac magician from early modern Germany. Even before this co-option, Treadwell enjoys recording Gavin’s discomfort when he finds that the bathroom is as uncompromisingly old-fashioned as the rest of the building. Absence of technology is delightful to contemplate from the warmth of a centrally-heated house, but a little frightening in practice, especially when the outside temperature falls below freezing and the roads get cut off by a sudden fall of snow. And if discomfort is represented in the first book by sub-freezing temperatures, the second drops those temperatures to Arctic levels, even as the time of year moves forward from winter to spring.

In tracing the shift from the familiar to the strange, Anarchy (2013) takes the opposite tack to Advent. Far from being cut off from the authorities by an antiquated communications set-up, like Gavin and Marina in Cornwall, the central character of the second novel embodies authority, and shows a corresponding relish for keeping things in order. But she is also a secret anarchist, like the policemen in G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Constable Marie-Archange Séverine Gaucelin-Maculloch, whose name identifies her as an awkward fusion of angelic superhero and rigid disciplinarian, of French Catholic faith and Scottish pragmatism, is not just a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police but a self-confessed techno-junky. She likes nothing better at the end of the day than to immerse herself in the internet, connecting with strangers, trawling through oceans of unmediated data in search of the unexpected, the desirable, the necessary. Her experience of the outbreak of magic in the modern world is largely mediated through machines: the voice of her girlfriend in Toronto impossibly coming through to her on the official police wavelength; the voices of the dead lamenting their own demise on a powerboat’s radio; cryptic messages flashing across her computer screen, telling her vous êtes ici as if to insist that, despite her isolation in a marginal island community, she remains an integral part of the web of seemingly disconnected events which are unfolding across the world as magic spreads. In Anarchy Treadwell shows himself an expert in the sheer spookiness of the new media, which are slowly but inexorably dismantling our social and mental structures by offering their users an anarchic plethora of sights and sounds, a multi-dimensional ocean teeming with unfamiliar forms of life that exist in the same ecosystem as ourselves, yet operate according to wholly different imperatives. Anarchy is where we already live, and our efforts to persuade ourselves we are somehow in control are as heroic as they are ridiculous.

Anarchy-Advent-Trilogy-James-TreadwellFor Treadwell, even old technology is spooky. Electricity and engines offer some of the strangest and scariest moments in the book, as when a young shaman switches off the lighthouses on the busiest stretch of the Canadian coast, or a god invites the girl Marina to contact the person she most wishes to speak to, living or dead, on a broken payphone, or a demon renders a boat’s engine inoperative without a word or a touch. Caught up in this global decommissioning of the objects she relies on, Marie-Archange Séverine embodies at once the helplessness, ignorance, resourcefulness and courage of the ordinary human being. Her nickname, Goose, is as telling as her Christian names and surname. It’s a handle that’s at once silly and haunting, conjuring up both mindless honking and the biennial miracle of long-haul migrations across uncharted wastelands. Goose, accordingly, has two sides to her personality: the lostness of the modern, transferred to a remote outpost where Skype is her only access to the family and lover she has left behind, unwilling to acknowledge the permanence of her migration by unpacking her things; and a passion for physical exercise, which drives her in her kayak towards the choppy waves beyond the bay, or propels her out of the door of her apartment on long, punishing runs. It’s her participation in both these worlds – the virtual and the corporeal – that makes her so attractively normal, in contrast to the alienated trilogy of youngsters in Advent. When she is unhappy she turns to her laptop, and loss of wifi access drives her to distraction. When things get out of hand she uses her strength rather than her intellect, ripping phone wires out of the wall, commandeering boats, barely restraining herself from punching a zombie. Her interaction with her colleague, the placid, hockey-addicted constable Jonas, is one of the novel’s chief pleasures, showcasing Treadwell’s easy control of different dialects, Séverine’s French Canadian clashing with Jonas’s First Nation idioms, as it does later with the British English of a corpse possessed, or the wonderfully unexpected Cornish dialect of a young castaway. These perfectly observed dialects in Anarchy bring home to us the strangeness of a world in which people can familiarize themselves with an unlimited range of linguistic varieties thanks to radio, satellites, movies, cable TV. Goose is a native of the global Babel, and her consequent deracination is one of the things that links her to her equally deracinated readers.

In the maelstrom caused by information overload, which transmutes itself as the book goes on into a maelstrom of information loss, physical exercise, for Goose, represents control; a control that has been denied her in other aspects of her life (her posting, for instance, to a small, indifferent community; her position as a woman in the testosterone-fuelled police force; her relationship with parents from irreconcilable cultures). Ironically, though, her unusual fitness and strength also represent her limitations. As things in the community around her spiral out of control she punishes her body more and more, discovering how much tougher and more enduring the Northern wilderness is than her efficiently muscled limbs. Treadwell’s charting of this process is meticulous: at each stage of the book he seems to invoke her encounter with the terrible alienness of the North with greater economy and precision, until her penultimate journey of the novel has her steering a boat through the night under the direction of a zombie, more intensely conscious of the sea and islands around her than she has ever been before because she is more totally at their mercy. At the same time, Treadwell traces her progress from an assumption of her own power and technical expertise (as an athlete, a cop, a techno-junky) to a reliance on intuition, the mysterious instinct for performing a certain action at a certain moment which most accurately embodies our quotidian relationship with the world. So many of our decisions are taken for no particular reason – or for reasons that seem sufficient at the time but have little to do with systematic logic – that to say that any person has an instinct for right action makes little sense. Definitions of rightness and wrongness depend on circumstances, on changing cultural values, which is why the supernatural creatures in Treadwell’s stories are so frightening, since their physical and emotional circumstances are so palpably different from ours. But the chief impression Goose exudes is that of integrity: a sense that she carries her values in her mind and body, held in a kind of wholeness that cannot be invaded by hostile outside forces. For all her confusion in the face of radical change, the reader knows that her mind and body will work to defend what she deems worth defending – the young, the vulnerable, the local community – even past the point of what is possible. And this is exactly what happens in Anarchy when Goose finally faces up to the irruption of magic into her world: she does the impossible, without drawing on special powers, without even using her expertise as a policewoman or an athlete. It’s an unexpected climax for a book that reads at times like a thriller, and all the more moving because of its unexpectedness.

16130506This notion that the impossible can be achieved by anyone is the magical thought that Treadwell’s second book leaves us with. Séverine is no hero, and she gets things wrong repeatedly, but she does the impossible anyway, and is therefore heroic, as ordinary people so often are. Further, her heroism goes unobserved, except in the end by her friend and colleague Jonas. No cameras film her bravest actions, because all cameras have ceased to function; no witnesses testify breathlessly to her courage, and their words are not recorded by reporters, since the newspapers and cable channels are defunct. She undergoes her climactic moment of suffering alone, as everyone does, without ever losing her commitment to the idea of community; and that’s something cameras, websites and newspapers can find it harder to convey than books.

Treadwell’s trilogy is, in fact, among other things a eulogy of reading. When Marina leaves her mansion for the first time she takes a book with her, as a guarantee that her journey will have a beginning, a middle and an end. The road she travels reminds her of a story: ‘It occurred to her,’ Treadwell tells us, ‘that it was actually quite like reading. When you opened a book, especially if you hadn’t read it before, you were somewhere else, somewhere you knew hardly anything about, wondering what would happen. Everything was strange and surprising’. For Marina, of course, it is stranger than for most of us since she knows so little; but the experience of reading the best fantasy is very much like hers, since the rules of it are at first unknown. At the same time, one unvarying rule is that books have endings, and that people do too. Séverine is no reader, but she becomes obsessed, as the novel unfolds, with the question of how stories and people end. Confronted by a demon, she asks it what became of a shipload of missing persons at an earlier stage of her narrative. ‘What happened on that ferry?’ she demands. ‘There were supposed to be eighty-plus people on that boat. Where did they go?’ ‘That would be more than eighty stories to tell,’ the demon answers, and goes on to remind her that ‘Everyone’s story ends in death’. But reading the end of a story does not kill the reader, and when Séverine’s moment of crisis comes she doesn’t believe she can die, telling herself endless fantastic tales about last-minute rescues and miraculous escapes, because she can’t quite divest herself of the conviction that she’s the witness of her own adventures rather than their protagonist, that she can close the book any time and turn her attention to something else. Fantasies are our salvation in the face of despair, and Treadwell insists on showing us exactly how they help and do not help both the naïve teenager and the self-reliant policewoman.

Treadwell’s fantasies, then, partly concern themselves with the boundaries between the fantastic and the real, and with demonstrating how fantastic fiction can make these boundaries as clear to its readers as any form of realism. This is because human beings are always fantasists, in part because of their reliance on promises and forecasts in the teeth of the evidence that the future may not bear any relationship to the remembered past, an assumption that comes under intolerable pressure in Treadwell’s narrative. One of the most ambitious of human promises concerns an afterlife, and it’s one particular version of the world on which this promise is predicated that gives rise to Treadwell’s wittiest allusion to postwar British fantasy. Roughly in the middle of Anarchy, a woman – Gavin’s stepmother – finds her way into a snow-filled valley that reminds her of Narnia. Entering it, she thinks, is ‘like walking into another world, folded secretly inside the real one, which had been ringed off from what used to be reality by the unnatural winter and the reports of monsters and marvels’. Appropriately, the valley is inhabited by a Christian missionary-cum-aid worker, who sees everything in terms of his faith, reading the extraordinary snowfall as a personal message to him from God, despite the random cruelty of its effects upon his neighbours. A latter-day C. S. Lewis, the man’s interpretation of the snow has evidently been placed there to mock the books that seek to bind fantasy to some systematic allegorical function, as Lewis tried to do in his Narnian chronicles (though the continuing power of those books derives, I suspect, from their refusal neatly to accommodate their intended function). By the end of this short episode the Christian has been exposed as the ultimate escapist, his ‘essential’ work for the people left stranded by the cataclysm nothing more than a means of blinding himself to the breakdown of his relationship with his family, who have sensibly fled the neighbourhood, leaving him to his pointless mission – pointless because the people he claims to be helping would have been better served by retreating to the camps set up by the government.

The woman who meets him continues on her way more or less untouched by the encounter. But not quite untouched; she has received essential sustenance and rest in his valley of illusions, and leaves it equipped with the supplies and information she needs to survive the next stage of her journey. Treadwell is not censorious about fantasists – after all, he is one of them – and there is generosity as well as cruelty in his treatment of this Lewis avatar. Rather, he is fascinated by the sheer variety of palpable fictions with which we protect ourselves, by the resilience of our conviction that they are not fictions, and by our ingenuity in replacing them with new imaginings when the vacuity of the old ones has been brutally exposed.

More surprisingly, perhaps, his trilogy is an intense evocation of the corporeal experience of inhabiting a particular time and place at a time of crisis. As such, it speaks to all of us, and deserves our attention.

[i] For Malplaquet see T. H. White, Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946); for Green Knowe, Lucy M. Boston, The Children of Green Knowe (1954) and its sequels.

THE RECENT WEATHER

Fantasy at Glasgow would like to apologize unreservedly for the recent weather in the West of Europe. The fact is that work on the new Fantasy Hub has intensified since our last report, and that a few weeks ago our digging activities woke an irascible weather goddess from her millennial slumbers under the Adam Smith building. Since then she has been hurling wave after wave of storms at the City of Glasgow, though we understand that the meteorological conditions have also affected adjoining areas. We are doing everything in our power – or rather, in the power of the powers we are capable of summoning up – to soothe her fury, and hope to be able to restore normal weather service in the near future.

Of course normal weather service in Glasgow isn’t anything to write home about, but we hope that eventually a patch of blue sky may be visible from time to time, at least. One day a week, perhaps. If we’re lucky.

Our team of witches, diviners, dowsers, druids and wind whistlers are working round the clock to placate the enraged divinity. Should you hear an eerie chanting while walking home from the campus, be assured that this is nothing more fearsome than the choir of sea nymphs we have recruited to soothe her shattered nerves with the charm of music. Should you bump into a wizened crone wielding a tree branch, be aware that this is a dowser and should not be disturbed on any account – she is doing her best to restore a reasonable measure of water to the city streets, and any sudden disturbance may well unleash her pent-up inner fluids. We apologize for the druids. What can we say? Always and everywhere, we apologize for the druids.

But what can I do, you ask, as an ordinary citizen? The best help you can give us is to stay at home by a roaring fire with a whisky clutched in your fist and a cat on your lap. This will show you are unaffected by the weather, or even enjoying it, and will take the edge off the goddess’s pleasure in tormenting us. If you do have to walk down the streets, try to skip and grin and look generally cheerful. This too will indicate pleasure in the current downpour and discourage the angry goddess in her efforts to make us miserable. Perhaps with enough discouragement she may be persuaded to desist. If you are a druid, however, please don’t try to look cheerful. Fierce warriors have fainted and eternal optimists committed suicide at the sight of a druid’s smile, and a druid skipping in his robes is simply insanitary.

Our most recent efforts have involved a relay of emeritus professors from the School of Decaying and Illegible Manuscripts lecturing the goddess from a window in Special Collections on their favourite textual cruxes. We are hopeful that this is having a positive effect; at 6.47 this morning she was seen to yawn and rub her eyes. Unfortunately when an irascible weather goddess yawns a hurricane ensues, but please be comforted, as you are whisked off over the rooftops, that the wind that’s blowing you away may prove to have been a prelude to quieter times to come. And should your brief journey through the air prove fatal, remember that the grave is a placid place whose inhabitants have very seldom been heard to complain about the damp.

From the Fantasy Hub Development Committee, then, to all who work at the University of Glasgow: be safe, stay dry, and try to look cheerful, unless you’re a druid. Oh yes: and buy loads of whisky.

[Please note that an alchemical photograph of the goddess is forthcoming; it is currently being developed in our Dark Room.]

James Treadwell, Advent

51r87c3q1ML._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_This is the first part of a review of James Treadwell’s fantasy sequence The Advent Trilogy. I’ve written two parts of the review and am not yet sure when the last part will be finished. I decided, though, that I should get these thoughts into circulation while they’re still reasonably fresh in my mind, because the ideas they’re playing with are ones I’d like to develop in other parts of this blog.

One of the characters in the first novel of Treadwell’s trilogy, Advent (2012), is a fey thirteen-year-old called Marina who has always lived in a state of artificial isolation. Ensconced in a Cornish mansion without running water or electricity, she knows so little about the world that she has hardly heard of China and doesn’t know the word for tractor, though she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of European myths and the botanical names of plants. Into the mansion stumbles Gavin, a boy of fifteen with an ill-kept secret: he has an ‘imaginary friend’ who has recently become his tormentor. This spectral presence is a woman he calls Miss Grey, and the torment springs from his unguarded references to her, for which he has been labelled – and labels himself – weird, different, probably disturbed. The third member of the youthful trio at the centre of the narrative is a Chinese-English twelve-year-old, Horace Jia, whose own big secret is that he spends his leisure time not playing computer games and football but visiting Marina in her hidden fastness, impressing her with his superior knowledge, honing his skills in moving through the tangled undergrowth of the woods like a hunter.   Three lonely adolescents who see themselves, or are seen by others, as in some sense distinctive or special. The scenario is familiar enough, though not the unsettling intensity with which Treadwell invokes their loneliness, the deep unhappiness their difference brings them.

The familiarity is deliberate. A number of myths underpin Treadwell’s trilogy: Troy, Faust, the Flying Dutchman, Ragnarok, the sexual exploits of the pagan gods, the folklore of the English countryside – combined in the sort of eclectic fusion we have come to expect from fantasy writing since the 1960s. But there are also frequent acts of homage to specific fantasies from post-war Britain. Advent opens with Gavin on a train to rural England, a situation that invites comparison with the opening of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), which so brilliantly alerts its readers to its own rootedness in the specificities of place by having them accompany the young protagonists on a railway journey to a very particular station in rural Cheshire. The destination of Gavin’s train is Cornwall, the setting of the first book in Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965); and when later in the novel Cornwall gets covered in a record-breaking fall of snow, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring the raucous calls of crows and the ancient quasi-pagan carols still sung in churches at Christmas, knowledgeable readers will instantly recall the freak snowfall that transforms the English landscape in the second book of Cooper’s series (The Dark is Rising, 1973).

From these indirect allusions to celebrated fantasies for children, and from the age of the principal characters in Advent, it might be assumed that Treadwell’s trilogy is meant for young readers, although it makes no concessions to such an audience in terms of vocabulary or incident. The publishers have reinforced the link with a young adult readership by issuing the sequel with a comparison to Philip Pullman on the cover – Pullman being a writer who writes for children but has famously enjoyed a global crossover success among adults. Such crossovers between different readerships have of course become common enough in the last two or three decades; but the idea that a fantasy with kids in it must be meant for kids – or indeed that fantasy itself is only fit for the young – forms part of a world view which Treadwell is seriously concerned to challenge.

The experience of having been shaped by a form of literature – and so a state of mind – that has been branded by one’s culture as marginal or of low social status is familiar to the kinds of readers who will seek out Treadwell’s books, drawn perhaps by the phrase ‘magic is rising’ on the cover of Advent, another evocation of Cooper. And that experience is also clearly central to Treadwell’s sequence, although it is transferred from the experience of reading fantasy to that of seeing the world in fantastic terms – in terms, that is, that run counter to the scientific and social systems which govern the communities we live in. Gavin’s visions of Miss Gray, who is invisible to everyone else, identify him (he thinks) as unique. Marina’s massive ignorance, like that of Miranda in The Tempest, gives her a perspective on the world that can be instantly discounted as unrealistic. Horace’s truancy from school to visit the fascinating recluse identifies him as out of sync with his peers. So does his ethnicity, since he’s the only Chinese kid in the school he attends. Each of these youngsters has been rendered solitary by their marginality.   And marginality extends to the books’ geography: the first novel is set in the West Country, at the edge of rural England, the second among the sparsely-populated islands of Western Canada. These are places where the roads run out, settlements beyond which the terrifying strangeness of untended nature begins: the Atlantic Ocean, the northern forests. Moreover, Treadwell’s central characters are not native to these peripheral locations, and several share the split cultures of the Chinese-English schoolboy. The protagonist of the second novel is half French Canadian, half Anglo, just as the First Nation people among whom she finds herself exist in a state of uneasy suspension between ancient religious and social affiliations and the pressures of colonial capitalism. Meanwhile Marina and, it emerges, Gavin have an even more radically split genealogy, their birthright straddling the incongruous elements of myth and the mundane. As a lonely teenager one couldn’t wish for a more satisfactory justification for one’s sense of not belonging.

But not belonging is a condition by no means confined to the young people in Treadwell’s novels. The old people in his trilogy are as isolated as the young: a ‘nutty professor’ who has resigned from her Oxford job (Treadwell 2012: 44); a reclusive hippy who busies herself with crystals and charting ley lines in a cottage without a phone; a retired seafarer who spends his life yearning for the sea-woman he has lost for ever. And the most ancient characters in the book are more isolated still.  The sixteenth-century magician Johann Faust, who casts his shadow across the trilogy, considers himself radically out of place in his own era, when the increasingly rationalistic population has turned its back on the magic arts he practises. And of course he is yet more out of place in the present day, to which his sorcery propels him. So too are the supernatural creatures he conjures up. The longer you read Advent, the more you come to realize that the lonely children in it are by no means unique or distinctive. Isolation is an all too familiar phenomenon, and one of the novel’s achievements is to show it spreading like a virus through South-West England, stranding more and more individuals in tenuous pockets of warmth surrounded by the menacing snow.

The loneliest person in Advent is the Trojan visionary Cassandra, whose shadow stretches yet further across time and space than that of Faust. Cursed by the god Apollo with the gift of telling truth about what’s to come, while mortals are cursed (or blessed, it’s not clear which) with the inability to believe her, she inhabits a linguistic space that sets her apart from all other users of language: free to communicate in any tongue she chooses, yet wholly unable to drive home her intended meaning. And Treadwell has intensified Cassandra’s legendary solitude by having her survive her murder by Clytemnestra and live on through successive ages till she re-encounters Faust, whom she first met when he used his magic to visit Troy (‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ he asks in Marlowe’s play; but in Treadwell’s book it’s Cassandra’s face, not Helen’s, that he notices). By the time of this re-encounter in the sixteenth century Cassandra’s identity has been lost in time, though her story is still recalled by scholars and poets as historical fact. By the twenty-first century her story, too, has been largely forgotten, or remembered only as a cultural curiosity, an emotive metaphor to be played on for artistic purposes, with no basis in empirical reality. And it’s as a metaphor that Treadwell uses her: a potent stand-in for fantastic fiction, and for those who are in its thrall.

Fantasy is the Cassandra of literary genres. It arises at the point in cultural history when belief has fallen away; it’s the literature of the impossible, whose effects depend on the reader’s consciousness that what they’re reading could never have taken place. In this it differs from ancient myth, which told tales of the gods people still believed in, and religion, which continues to inspire belief; even the most fanatical fantasy enthusiasts would have to admit that their role-playing games derive part of their charm from the certainty that they represent nothing that ever was or will be. At the same time, fantasy has something to say to those who read it – otherwise they wouldn’t bother. It tells some kind of truth to them, and they are often disappointed at the inability of non-enthusiasts to grasp this. Treadwell’s trilogy forces that fantastic truth on its readers; at first incrementally, as his characters begin to realize they are not as uniquely isolated as they thought; then in the form of a global cataclysm, to which the title of his second book points. It’s about the anarchy that would ensue if the fantastic mingled with what we take to be real, if the impossible irrupted into the rational. In this, his sequence is as witty as it’s disturbing, revelling in the discomfiture of the sensible adults who find that everything they assumed to be true has been inverted, that one set of rules they did not fully understand – those that govern technology – has been supplanted by another, about which they know nothing at all: the rules of magic. Even what some adults think they know about magic turns out to be – well – a fantasy. When Marina’s father fell in love with a mermaid and married her, he thought he remembered that stories with magic in them always ended in a certain comforting formula. But ‘happily ever after’ is a catchphrase from the period when the fairy tale was being infantilized, transferred from the family fireside to the middle-class nursery by Charles Perrault. The real supernatural beings who start to emerge from the past in Treadwell’s trilogy are both amusingly and horrifyingly different from the fairies of the nursery, and bring with them no guarantee of happy endings. Intensely physical, reeking with unfamiliar odours and bristling with lethal weapons – claws, teeth, thorns, verbal bargains – these beings defy us to believe that the virtual world in which we spend so much of our time is more real than they are, mock us with our misplaced confidence that we know what’s happening. The truth they bring with them is the fact of our collective ignorance, and this is why it’s so appropriate that children should inaugurate the trilogy, which reduces all its adult characters to a state of childish bewilderment.

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Treadwell’s books, then, are ambitious, making grand claims for the value of the medium they work in – a value that consists in its capacity to make us question certain kinds of knowledge. And they share this ambition with other works of fantasy and science fiction at the beginning of the new millennium. Over the last two or three decades, the fantastic has become encyclopaedic. As if driven by a millenarian urge to sum up what matters most to them, writers of both genres not only proselytize about the books and stories they love – name-checking them in prefaces and on their websites – but endeavour to rewrite them for a new age, affirming in the process their status as legitimate records of the state of things, ways of describing the world that cannot be discarded without depleting it. Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Adam Roberts (who does science fiction rather than fantasy): each of these writers seems to have set himself the task of reworking all the prose fiction, comics, films and albums that formed them, and of doing so in such a way as to insist on their urgent applicability to global politics and history, then and now, while retaining the strangeness, charm, anarchic inventiveness and humour that made serious-minded people dismiss these art forms as frivolous when Gaiman and company were growing up. Faced with the substance of these writers’ oeuvres, only the lazy-minded could continue to insist that fantasy is escapist or science fiction naïve. Confronted by such dazzling rethinkings of where naivety and escapism lie – for these writers, in the realm of the ‘real’ rather than the fantastic – even fantasy-haters may find their perspective changed, its polarities reversed as what they have always thought of as marginal gets transplanted into the centre, the genre they considered escapist points up their own escapist tendencies.

This reversal of polarities is exactly what happens to entire populations in Treadwell’s trilogy. In the British fantasies he references – Garner’s and Cooper’s novels for young readers – the young protagonists really are in some sense special or different. The hero of Cooper’s novel The Dark Is Rising, Will Stanton, discovers on his eleventh birthday that he’s one of the Old Ones, a secret organisation of immortals dedicated to combatting the malevolent plots of the book’s antagonists, the Dark, through the use of magic. Whenever an action involving the Old Ones takes place in the novel, the mortals in the vicinity get frozen in time, allowing those rare beings with a connection to the deep past to go about their mysterious business undisturbed. Alan Garner’s young protagonists in his celebrated fantastic novels from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to Red Shift (1973) have a special relationship with magic that sets them apart from the surrounding population, condemning them to loneliness and, in the later books, psychological damage. But Treadwell’s achievement is to co-opt entire communities – the world itself in the second volume – into the traumatic alteration of the rules that govern reality which is triggered by the unleashing of magic on ‘developed’ nations. And he does this by stages, so that the conversion of one kind of magic – the technological kind that gives us light at the flick of a switch and permits us to communicate instantaneously with the other side of the planet – into another kind, wherein monsters roam the landscape, people get possessed by spirits and the dead speak to the living through whatever instruments happen to be available – this shift appears to be the natural extension of a process that is already taking place in his readers’ lives.

To be continued…

Mervyn Peake and Trees

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Peake was a lover of trees. Some of the most famous pictures of him, taken when he was living on the island of Sark between 1946 and 1949, show him in communion with them: suspended in a copse of saplings holding a book; standing in a trance-like state on moorland with a branch like an antler clutched to his head. Like Hope Mirrlees’s Dr Endymion Leer he seems to have thought of human beings as existing in an intimate but troubled relationship with trees, sometimes rooting themselves to the spot in a temporary state of arborification, sometimes utterly at odds with the seasonal transformation of the deciduous woodlands. His 1939 poem ‘Autumn’ (one of two he wrote with this title) charts his own metamorphosis into a male Daphne, seduced into an arboreal condition by the peculiar fusion of stillness and movement, chill air and blazing colours that marks the approach of winter:

O now the cave-cold breath through me
Blows dank from every forest tree,
And suddenly my soul floats free,
And lo! I am a crimson tree.

From the same year, perhaps, and written in the same season, ‘The Sap of Sorrow Mounts this Rootless Tree’ commemorates instead Peake’s sense of alienation from his rooted neighbours, as he feels the ‘sap of sorrow’ rising in his body at the moment when the sap of the autumn trees is sinking earthwards:

My fingers like cold twigs unfoliaged
Stretch impotent for blossom, and my breast
Aches under pallid bark to be assuaged
With fruit and flower and to burn at rest.

‘The Torch’ describes an abrupt nocturnal encounter with the ‘ghostly tracery’ of a gigantic tree by torchlight – an experience Peake embraced; while ‘May 1940’ ironically congratulates the woods on having escaped the painful condition of sentience at a time of global conflict:

Be proud, slow trees. Be glad you stones and birds,
And you brown Arun river and all things
That thrive in silence through these hours of maytime –
Be glad you are not fashioned in God’s image.

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All these poems date from the first years of the war, when the post-romantic yearning to mimic the trees’ slowness and calm indifference must have seemed both as intense and as absurdly impracticable as it had ever been in history. So when I was editing Peake’s Collected Poems for Carcanet – setting the poems as far as possible in chronological order and thus transforming them into an erratic verse commentary on his life and turbulent times – it seemed natural to assume that his poem ‘With People, so with Trees’ was written at about the same time. Maeve Gilmore’s fine anthology of her husband’s works, Peake’s Progress, assigned it to 1940, and I had no other evidence for its date; so I accepted her dating, despite the fact that Peake’s Progress often assigned inaccurate years to poems I could date with some certainty on the basis of other evidence. Here is the poem in full, as it was printed in Peake’s prize-winning collection The Glassblowers (1950):

WITH PEOPLE, SO WITH TREES

With people, so with trees: where there are groups
Of either, men or trees, some will remain
Aloof while others cluster where one stoops
To breathe some dusky secret. Some complain

And some gesticulate and some are blind;
Some toss their heads above green towns; some freeze
For lack of love in copses of mankind;
Some laugh; some mourn; with people, so with trees.

This week, however, I was re-reading Peake’s second novel, Gormenghast, which was written largely in his three years living with his family on Sark, and was published in the same year as The Glassblowers. Enchanted by the sequence of self-contained episodes like miniature stage plays that make up the novel’s early chapters, I found myself reading about young Titus’s day and night of truancy on Gormenghast Mountain, and came across this passage at the beginning of Chapter Sixteen:

Far below Titus, like a gathering of people, stood a dozen spinneys. Between them the rough land glittered here and there where threads of water reflected the sky.

Out of this confusion of glinting water, brambles and squat thorn bushes, the clumps of trees arose with a peculiar authority.

To Titus they seemed curiously alive, these copses. For each copse appeared singularly unlike any other one, though they were about equal in size and were exclusively a blend of ash and sycamore.

But it was plain to see that whereas the nearest of these groups to Titus was in an irritable state, not one of the trees having anything to do with his neighbour, their heads turned away from one another, their shoulders shrugged, yet not a hundred feet away another spinney was in a condition of suspended excitement, as with the heads of its trees bowed together above some green and susurrous secret. Only one of the trees had raised its head a little. It was tilted on one side as though loth to miss any of the fluttering conversation at its shoulder. Titus shifted his gaze and noticed a copse where, drawn back, and turned away a little on their hips, twelve trees looked sideways at one who stood aloof. Its back was to them. There could be no doubt that, with its gaze directed from them it despised the group behind it.

There were the trees that huddled together as though they were cold or in fear. There were trees that gesticulated. There were those that seemed to support one of their number who appeared wounded. There were the arrogant groups, and the mournful, with their heads bowed: the exultant copses and those where every tree appeared to be asleep.

The landscape was alive, but so was Titus. They were only trees, after all: branches, roots and leaves. This was his day; there was no time to waste.

It’s pretty clear that this passage is closely related to the poem. They share not only a central idea (the link between human beings and trees) but a common vocabulary: people, copses, aloof, groups, gesticulate, secret, heads [] above [] green. Such a density of shared words and thoughts makes it likely, I think, that they were written at about the same time. The world’s foremost Peake expert, Peter Winnington, tells me that Peake was working on this particular chapter of Gormenghast between February and October 1948; so it seems reasonable to date the poem to that period too. It’s always satisfying to be able to pin a poem to a particular moment in a writer’s development, so that it becomes a kind of melodic, moving postcard from the past, a portal onto the dreams and passions of a specific day, month or year.

But the differences between the poem and the passage are as interesting as their similarities. The poem fuses the human and the arboreal so that the landscape constantly shifts between the urban and the sylvan, largely thanks to the pairing of terms in successive phrases: ‘people/trees’, ‘men/trees’, ‘green towns’, ‘copses of mankind’, ‘people/trees’. The passage from Gormenghast, by contrast, keeps a distance between the two life forms. The trees are carefully located in a mountain landscape populated by ‘brambles and squat thorn bushes’; they are of a specific height and a particular combination of species, ‘about equal in size and […] exclusively a blend of ash and sycamore’; and while they are clearly anthropomorphized they are never wholly fused with human beings as they are in the poem’s ‘copses of mankind’. Hence Titus’s ability to dismiss them at the end of the passage: for all their mimicry of action they are finally ‘only trees’ made up of ‘branches, roots and leaves’, not brains and active limbs, and his sense that there is an urgent need to move on (‘there was no time to waste’) confirms his radical (or deracinated) difference from them.

This divergence between tree and human is important in the novel’s context. At this point in the narrative, Titus is far away from home in an alien landscape, and the episode serves as one of several rites of passage in the book. I say ‘rites’ but am conscious of the irony, since each of these ‘rites’ places him further at odds with the castle’s stultifying dependence on ritual. Shortly after his encounter with the copses the boy undergoes a kind of second birth as he forces his way through a barrier of vegetation into a landscape that has never been touched by the castle’s shadow: ‘he fought the muscled branches, until the upper part of his body had forced a gap which he kept from re-closing with his aching shoulders’. On the other side of this gap he finds a ‘phantasmic gathering of ancient oaks’ somewhat like the tree Peake saw by torchlight, standing like ‘dappled gods’ on a ‘sea of golden moss’. For some reason this majestic arboreal landscape begins to frighten as well as fascinate him; and his fear and fascination intensify when he learns that the hidden oakwood has an inhabitant: a slender, barely human creature which ‘floated through the golden air like a feather, the slender arms along the sides of the gracile body, the head turned slightly away and inclined a little as though on a pillow of air’. The creature, which so closely resembles the many airborne, naked beings Peake sketched or paintpeake1ed throughout his life, turns out to be Titus’s foster sister; but she is also the first being he has met who lives ‘by other rules than those of Gormenghast’, and who ‘would no more think of bowing to the seventy-seventh Earl than would a bird, or the branch of a tree’. Half bird, half tree, she becomes for Titus an emblem of freedom from the stultifying rituals that bind his official life; and this association explains the simultaneous terror and joy he experiences in the woods where they first meet, embodying as they do the almost blasphemous concept of a world ungoverned by ancient ceremony.

But the passage with the copses does something else besides anticipate the imminent meeting between Titus and his feral sister. It encapsulates, too, the radical difference between the first Titus book, Titus Groan, and the second, Gormenghast. Titus Groan is a book about solitude, whose theme is the different solitary secret worlds inhabited by the denizens of the great ancestral castle of the House of Groan; worlds which are stealthily invaded by the young rebel Steerpike as he thrusts his way through the castle hierarchy in quest of power. Gormenghast, by contrast, is about communities and convergences: the professors of Gormenghast’s school, the ink-stained and hyperactive schoolboys who are their charges, the repressed but determined Irma Prunesquallor and her party, the gigantic Countess with her canopy of cats, who slowly metamorphoses into the monumental hub of the castle community. Titus Groan is about dust and stone; Gormenghast about the secretive flora and fauna that take root in the cracks and crannies of that vast edifice, defiantly proclaiming their kinship with the beasts and plants of the wilderness beyond. In addition, Titus Groan concerns the aristocracy and its servants, while Gormenghast opens with the discovery of a repressed middle class that suddenly manifests itself in the castle’s labyrinthine architecture. This middle class often moves in groups of two or more – a philosopher called ‘The Leader’ and his disciples, a doctor and his sister, a bevy of schoolteachers – yet they find it difficult to get along together; obscure rituals as implacable as the castle’s Book of Law prevent them from acting naturally in one another’s company. They are constrained by the strict hierarchy into which they were born, the rules that govern their professions and social function, the laws of good conduct, gender, age, and saving face. Yet get along together they do, by one means or another, and as the book unfolds the sense of a close-knit community in the castle grows until it has become something unified and organic, independent of though nurtured by the stones, which combines to hunt down the threat to its survival which Steerpike has become.

In the second Titus novel, the groups of the castle’s inhabitants are sometimes described in terms that closely resemble the passage about the copses. Consider this description of the professors, released from their pedagogic labours at the end of a summer’s day, liberated to take up attitudes of indolence without any concern for the strenuous if futile efforts to assert authority that dominate their hours in the classroom:

But for the most part, the professors stood in groups, or were seated on the lower steps of the stone flights, where they waited to take their turn at the ‘stile’. They were in no hurry. Here and there a savant could be seen lying stretched at full length along one of the steps or shelves of the stone stairs. Here and there a group would be squatting like aboriginals on their haunches, their gowns gathered about them. Some were in shadow, and very dark they looked – like bandits in a bad light; some were silhouetted against the hazy, golden swathes of the sun shafts; and some stood transfixed in the last rays as they streamed through the honeycombed roof.

There’s an incipient wildness about the professors at rest which makes them more like natives of the mountain landscape discovered by Titus than servants of the Groans. They squat ‘like aboriginals’, they look ‘dark’ in the shadows, they resemble brigands, they worship the sun. Their physical accomplishments are startling: one of them in the next paragraph is seen walking down the flight of steps on his hands. The chief professor, Bellgrove – who has just been made headmaster – looks like a lion, albeit a worn-out and ineffectual one, and sits among his colleagues in a similar attitude of relaxation, ‘his knees drawn up to his blue jaw, which they supported, star[ing] abstractedly at a group which stood out in silhouette against a swarm of golden motes’. These men are only fully themselves, it seems, when released from the daily ritual of the school. Certainly it’s only then that they are relaxedly a crowd, not an ill-assorted accumulation of misfits, as they are in the Masters’ Common Room. Their resemblance to the copses confirms the potential for some sort of liberation that lurks behind their gowns of office, and sometimes takes possession of those gowns as they rise like wings behind the professors when they break into a run.

The professor with the greatest potential for liberation, it seems, is Bellgrove; and he discovers this potential when he meets Titus after the boy’s night of truancy on Gormenghast Mountain. Titus is punished for his escapade with a week’s imprisonment in a building called the Lichen Fort; and it is here that he is visited by the free spirits of the castle: his rebellious elder sister, Lady Fuchsia; Dr Prunesquallor, with his manic laughter and equally manic imagination; and the Headmaster, who comes in his official capacity to see how his pupil is ‘getting along’. Face to face alone for the first time, Bellgrove and Titus come to a sudden understanding: neither needs to maintain the pretence of observing the conventions that normally govern relations between an elderly teacher and his pupil. Constrained at first by an ineradicable sense of his place (‘Words and gestures obey their own dictatorial, unimaginative laws; the ghastly ritual, that denies the spirit’), Bellgrove slowly comes to recognize that he and Titus occupy common ground, ‘a world apart, a secret place to which they alone had access’. By the end of the visit the two have settled down to play marbles together; and they are later joined in their game by Prunesquallor. The scene ends with the two adults transformed into jubilant animals, the ‘high trill’ of the Doctor’s laugh becoming ‘the cry of a hyena’, Bellgrove’s voice fulfilling the promise of his name by ‘belling forth’ like that of ‘an old and happy hound’. Titus has been the agent of this transformation; and one can’t help thinking he managed it by bringing back with him from the mountain some echo of the sublime indifference to ritual he found there in the shape of the bird-like, tree-like Thing.

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Peake wrote a lot more tree poems during his time on Sark: ‘If Trees Gushed Blood’; ‘What is That Noise in the Shaking Trees?’; ‘The Birch Saplings’, which compares a stand of saplings to ‘breastless girls’ and predicts that ‘their slenderness / Will wake no pity in the surging seasons […] No love in the totalitarian weather’. All three of these date to around 1946. But perhaps the most exuberant of his tree poems was probably written in the same year as ‘With People, so with Trees’:

CONCEIT

I heard a winter tree in song:
Its leaves were birds, a hundred strong;
When all at once it ceased to sing,
For every leaf had taken wing.

The joy and pain of the leaves’ winged liberation in this poem (the trees are denuded and silenced when the birds take flight) anticipates the joy and pain of Titus’s eventual escape from Gormenghast. The young earl’s flight involves the loss – along with the totalitarian law that has bound him since infancy – of everyone he loves: Bellgrove, Prunesquallor, Flay, Fuchsia. It also involves the loss of the prison where he once played games with his two adult visitors, where ‘the marbles crashed against one another, spun in their tracks, lodged shuddering in their squares, or skimmed the prison floor like shooting stars’. Gormenghast and the forests of Gormenghast Mountain are alive with such contradictions.