WEATHER UPDATE: KELPIES BEYOND THE KELVIN

IMG_1734The inclement weather continues, despite the departure several weeks ago of the angry rain goddess unearthed in the course of our building works here in Glasgow. The unusual quantities of water in our streets have had some unexpected consequences, and we have asked a visiting professor from Thok, Professor Gumbrimipil, to advise people in the area of the appropriate precautions to take against them.

My thanks to the worthy professors, magisters and dominis of the University of Glasgow for permitting me to alert their colleagues, students and support staff to the deadly situation that has developed in the city streets over the last two months. In the Northern Territories of Australia, where I have spent some time on field trips and long vacations, a similar phenomenon has been reported with regard to salt water crocodiles. After heavy rain, deep ponds called billabongs form in places previously dry, and of course these newly-formed water holes are at first quite empty of wildlife with the exception of birds and the occasional drowned and rotting cane toad. If the rain should continue, however, larger animals will take advantage of the formation of new watercourses – rivers, burns and substantial streams – to travel into new territories. Under these circumstances casual human swimmers must take extra care: tempted by the heat into stripping off their clothes and leaping, Agutter-like, into the deep black waters of a previously uninhabited billabong, they may find their legs nipped off by a bull crocodile, or their head unceremoniously removed by a ravenous bunyip. Ascertaining the safety of deep black billabongs is of course difficult; the best method, my friends inform me, is to send your dog or your elderly relatives for a swim before you.

Much the same thing has been reported in recent weeks by observers of the usually clandestine supernatural community of the City of Glasgow. Families of water-sprites with needle-sharp teeth have been spotted undulating along the flooded sidestreets near George Square, their belongings wrapped in bundles made of black plastic refuse sacks, their foodstuff balanced on their slimy heads. Kelpies have been seen not only in their usual place, the River Kelvin, but in the Stewart Memorial Fountain, the boat pond in Queen’s Park, the artificial waterfall at Rouken Glen and the terracotta water feature outside the People’s Palace in Glasgow Green. Even some of the larger puddles in the Dumbarton Road have been seen to host small, brightly-coloured kelpies (a kelpie loses its distinctive rainbow colouring as it gets older). I do not need to tell you how dangerous this is for passing schoolchildren, who may be tempted to jump on a kelpie’s back in the mistaken belief that it is a timeworn fairground ride purloined by some prankster from the Scottish Exhibition Centre and dumped there for entertainment purposes. No Scot will be ignorant of the consequences of such rashness: a kelpie can drown a mortal in less than half an inch of liquid.

What to do under these circumstances? What to do to protect the young and vulnerable? A black umbrella is of course a useful ward against the shyer elementals – not so much because of the sharpness of its iron ferrule as because of its appearance, reminiscent as it is of the batty wings of the greater spotted bogle, the natural enemy of water sprites and kelpies in their highland habitat. But a fully-grown kelpie will not fear a black umbrella, and sterner measures will be needed. A camera flash can be used to blind them, or a LED torch if it is sufficiently powerful – but these are only temporary deterrents, and a mature kelpie will quickly recall that it possesses several sets of protective lids to combat bright lights of every intensity. Stamping and making loud noises is recommended by some experts, but I would not care to try this: noise can infuriate a water sprite in transit, and their teeth are needle sharp, as I think I’ve mentioned. Making faces (‘gurning’) is less than useless, notwithstanding the many erudite articles on this subject penned by my colleague Professor Bulbul.

No, the one sure defence against the water elementals is – to foul their water. This is easier said than done under the current meteorological conditions, when a constant supply of fresh clean water is pouring out of the clouds throughout the day. Even under ordinary circumstances the waterways around Glasgow are much cleaner than they were on my last visit in the early 1980s, when you could still see sizeable clumps of yellowish foam riding down the Kelvin and no fish had been spotted in the city salmon runs for generations. Fortunately, however, what we think of as contamination and what the common kelpie regards as a pollutant are two quite different things. The kelpie is fastidious when it comes to drink. Even the slightest tint of alcohol in its environs will send it scurrying for the nearest river bank, shaking the tendrils round its horsey nose in profound distress. Drink, ladies and gentlemen; drink is our bane and our redemption. Spirituous liquors in particular – anything above, say, 40% abv – are anathema to a water elemental. The addition of merely a few drops of the cheapest whisky to a medium-sized watercourse will have an astonishing effect on all varieties of undine, turning water sprites a deep purple with shock, curling the kelpies’ nose-tendrils into corkscrews and triggering harmless but debilitating seizures in any stray selkies or merpeople who happen to be in the vicinity. Drink must clean up Glasgow’s waterlogged streets in the twenty-first century, just as drink has so often been responsible for sullying that city’s streets – and indeed its global reputation – in times gone by. There could be no simpler solution to the current crisis – if only the Glaswegians were willing to accept its efficacy.

I discovered the undinacidal properties of alcohol quite by accident in 1983 and have been publishing papers on the subject ever since, as any respectable life scientist will tell you. But if that life scientist is an honest one, she will also tell you how my discoveries have been received by my fellow scientists. They were derided, ladies and gentlemen – laughed to scorn as humbug, a schoolgirl hoax, a blatant and irresponsible falsification of the available data. The most vehement deniers of my results have been, I am sorry to say, certain Scottish academics – citizens of the very nation that has most to gain from implementing my solution (if I may indulge in a small but apposite jeu-de-mots) to the current crisis, because of the extraordinarily high density of water elementals to be found there. The headlines in Scottish newspapers that greeted my first publication were sometimes insulting: ‘SPIRITS FOR SPIRITS, SAYS WHISKY-SOAKED SCIENTIST’ was the least of them; ‘BIOLOGIST SEEKS TO DESTROY THE SCOTTISH WHISKY INDUSTRY’, ‘IT’S THE ALCOHOL, STUPID’, ‘A BITTER GUMBRIMIPIL TO SWALLOW’ were other examples. The hostility of Scotland to my work has continued unabated to this day. To my shame I have sometimes wondered whether an excessive attachment to their national beverage might lie behind this irrational behaviour. Could it be that Scots are so addicted to their local aqua vitae that they will stop at nothing to suppress any intimation that it might be used for something more noble than its usual purpose: that is, to be poured in liberal doses down a person’s neck?

For this reason, I seized with eagerness on the invitation from the good directors of the Glasgow Fantasy Hub to compose this article. I felt that it represented my last, best hope of drawing the attention of at least some members of Glasgow’s academic community to the state of their waterways, and to the simple method I have identified of restoring them to a safe condition. Let this be a rallying cry to the staff and students of the university. Go forth in your tens and twenties, ladies and gentlemen of legal age, and purchase whisky – the better the whisky, I have found, the more devastating its effects on any aqueous supernatural body. Unscrew the top of the bottle, turn it upside down, and pour the contents without hesitation or regret into the nearest drain. Your children and grandchildren will thank you for it. Future generations will praise your sacrifice. Even your own livers will show their gratitude in a modest but noticeable way. I urge you to do this for your own sakes and for those of the vulnerable members of your community. And if you do not – well, don’t blame me for the consequences, that’s all I ask. Should you choose to go on drinking whisky rather than spraying it from hosepipes, watering cans and decanters into your local ponds and reservoirs – I won’t be held responsible. I have done what I can. Your destiny remains in your hands, and in the contents of the old oak barrels (formerly used for sherry or bourbon) stored in such astonishing quantities in your warehouses.

Slàinte mhath, as the water-sprites whisper to one another before sinking their needle-sharp teeth into the leg of an unwary traveller. Good health to Scotland, from its sincere well-wisher

Professor Abigail Gumbrimipil
State University of Thok

 

 

 

 

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising

UnknownChristmas is the time when fantasies break loose, invading spaces they don’t usually occupy: your living room, offices, public thoroughfares, rubbish bins, most of the screens of the local multiplex cinema. But the fantasies of Christmas aren’t always comforting. This was always a time for ghost stories, tales designed to convert the shiver of cold into the shiver of fear. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) is a Christmas story. And festive stories invariably present the feast as under siege, haunted like Scrooge by the possibility of losing touch with its cheer for ever under pressure from a clutch of enemies: the Mouse King in Hoffmann’s Nutcracker (1816), the Wolves in The Box of Delights (1935), the goblins and the Nazis in Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters (1920-1942), the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the vagaries of the market in The Mouse and his Child (1967). In all these cases the threat to Christmas can be traced, with a bit of imagination, to sources outside the text: the Napoleonic wars that turned all young men into passive instruments in other men’s hands, like nutcrackers; fear of poverty; the shadows of the First World War, the Second World War, the War in Vietnam. Susan Cooper’s novel The Dark is Rising (1973), however – the second instalment in the sequence of that title – is unusual in that it never gives the assault on Christmas a face. The main antagonist, the Rider, seems to have been casually thrown together to provide the forces of the Dark with a focus, but he’s never really threatening, never even really present in any convincing way. At one point he confronts the protagonist, Will Stanton, in the role of a decoy, distracting attention from the real source of the Dark’s assault on the house where Will is staying, which is always inside, always located in the person or thought you’ve invited into your house and into your mind. The most drastic manifestation of malevolence in the book is the cold, and it’s tempting to see this as an allusion to the Cold War that was raging at the time; after all, Will’s favourite brother Stephen is in the navy and therefore on the front line of the global standoff. But the Dark’s lack of a face is what sets this book apart, and to set a name on it is to diminish the narrative, to make it smaller and less strange than it is while you are reading.

file_20414_0_darkisrisingteaseI was unsettled by this book when I read it as a teenager. For me, Will Stanton lived in my house: a big 1930s former Telephone Exchange, made of brick with metal windows, in a Surrey village (in fact Will lives in Berkshire). There was a church nearby, like Will’s, where I sang in the choir; a local Jacobean manor; large dogs bounding around in the hallway sweeping precious objects off tables with their muscular tails; and so many members of the extended family present that it was easy to creep off and find a place to be on your own (in my case, usually to read a book like The Dark is Rising). I loved the heavy snowfall that envelops this familiar landscape at the beginning of the novel, transforming Will’s world into a suitable backdrop for magic, just as I’d seen the Surrey landscape transformed from time to time. I loved the use of rooks as agents of evil – they had always struck me as uncanny birds, and there were masses of them in the yews along Vicarage Road. I loved the metamorphosis of a modern English woodland into a vast medieval forest: my own district, the Weald of Surrey, could easily be taken for an unbroken forest when you looked out across the wooded landscape from Jenner’s Field, where we walked the dogs. And I loved the seamlessness of the regular shifts in the narrative from the familiar domestic magic of Christmas to the inconceivably ancient magic of the Old Ones. But the book made me uneasy all the same, unlike any of the other festive tales I’ve listed.

wpid-photo-7-dec-2012-1336The shifts in Cooper’s book between past and present, present and past, reminded me of the way John Masefield executes similar transitions in his novels for children. Indeed, while I was reading it this time round I noticed how deeply Cooper was indebted to the second of Masefield’s children’s books, The Box of Delights: from the catchphrase of her novel, ‘the Dark is rising’, which echoes Masefield’s (‘the Wolves are Running’), to the triggering of magic at the beginning by the presence of an old wanderer from another epoch; from the unseasonably snowy weather to the focus on songs and music throughout the narrative (an entire choir gets itself kidnapped in The Box of Delights). Masefield’s old wanderer is called Cole Hawlings, and he gives Kay an object that makes the boy and his family the target of repeated attacks by the forces of evil, led by the smooth-tongued Abner Brown. Cooper’s wanderer is called Hawkin – the echo must surely be intentional – and he too gives something to Will, an object that again makes Will and his family the target of repeated attacks. In both cases the object in question endows its young possessor with certain powers. Cole Hawlings is later kidnapped or ‘scrobbled’ by Brown’s gang, just as Will’s sister is ‘nobbled’ by the Dark in the final act of his adventure, to be used as a bargaining tool for the objects of power the boy has been collecting. And both books feature Herne the Hunter, that mythical figure – part man part stag – from Windsor Forest, whose most famous literary appearance is in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he is impersonated by that fat old con artist Sir John Falstaff. The big difference, though, is that Masefield’s novels are warm-hearted affairs, full of genial characters like the wicked old lady in The Midnight Folk (1927) who sings smugglers’ songs while quaffing rum in bed; or Kay’s cousin little Maria in The Box of Delights, who was expelled from three schools and owns a pair of revolvers with which ‘she shoots old electric light bulbs dangling from a clothes-line’. The Dark is Rising, by contrast, plunges Will into the cold: not just a bout of unseasonably bad weather, but a chilly supernatural community that seems to regard ordinary human beings as lesser creatures, to be sacrificed when necessary for what they consider the greater good. I found this idea unsettling, as I say, and it was only with this rereading that I’ve managed to put my finger on why.

The Old Ones are part of the problem. They’re a select club of seemingly immortal guardians of the Light which you cannot join by choice: choice is only involved, we are told, when you decide to betray them, as the mortal man Hawkin does, and as the Rider may have done at some point (although time doesn’t work in the same way for Old Ones like him). The man Hawkin is punished by being made to live on for centuries carrying a Sign which must be passed on to the last of the Old Ones – despite the fact that his betrayal arose from a situation beyond his control, when he was placed under more pressure than an ordinary man could bear. This brings out another troubling aspect of the Old Ones’ club: everything they say and do seems to have been preordained. Will has already always been ‘the Sign-Seeker’ when he first finds out he’s an Old One on his eleventh birthday. The inevitability of his role is consolidated by the fact that he’s the seventh son of a seventh son – always traditionally the most magical of situations to be born in. Yet he can make mistakes, and presumably fail in the quest he has been assigned: to collect six powerful Signs that will help the Old Ones in their struggle against the Dark. Each of the Signs manifests itself to him only after he has been tested, and the last of these tests involves the sacrifice of a member of his family: he must refuse to hand over the Signs in exchange for the life of his sister Mary. Without any choice of his own, then, Will is expected to transfer his loyalties, at the age of eleven, from his family to a weird cult from outside time, and in the process put his relatives in danger. In the process, too, he must learn to consider them inferior to himself. ‘Ordinary’ people have no part in the struggle between Light and Dark, and he must keep secrets from his family – even from his much-loved brother Paul, who suspects more than anyone else that something outlandish is going on in Will’s life. Worse still, Will must manipulate Paul like a puppet in order to save him. During one attack of the Dark he switches off Paul’s mind, leaving him ‘tranquil and empty, unaware’ as if in a coma. And when the attack is over he wipes his memory. That’s a terrible power to have – messing to that extent with people’s minds; and people who possess such a power are clearly dangerous; it wouldn’t take much to think of them as profoundly malevolent (as Hawkin does when he decides to betray the Old Ones). Cooper’s book has been called Manichean, in the sense that it sets Good and Evil against each other in equal struggle. But the two sides are not so easily distinguished; at least, they weren’t to my mind when I first encountered them as a teenager. I would have rejected them both, I thought, if I’d been in Will’s position.

The_Dark_Is_RisingThis was largely because of a particularly disturbing scene in the book that takes place on Christmas Day. The Dark attacks the parish church in the form of a storm of the mind, a psychological assault too powerful, we’re told, to be borne by ordinary mortals; yet the local rector tries to face it down with the power of prayer: ‘he stumbled a few paces nearer the church door, like a man struggling through waves in the sea, and leaning forward slightly made a sweeping sign of the Cross’. The watching Old Ones comment dispassionately on this useless act of defiance: ‘“Poor brave fellow,” said John Smith in the Old Speech. “This battle is not for his fighting. He is bound to think so, of course, being in his church”’. It’s an odd situation, I remember thinking, where ancient pagan magic is identified as operating independently of any religion. The rector later assumes it was the sign of the cross that repelled the Dark, but the Old Ones tell him he is wrong, because the protective Signs Will carries, each of which contains a cross, are much older than Christianity. As a teenage reader I thought it strange that any religion should be asked to consider its central tenets and symbols as relevant only to the historical period when they were formulated or took place; after all, medieval theologians found foreshadowings or ‘types’ of Christ everywhere in texts written before his birth. I think I also suspected that the separation of the forces of magic from the forces of religion leaves magic effectively unshackled from history itself, without any connection to ordinary people. In the days when magic was most widely practised it was inseparable from religion, as the historian Keith Thomas demonstrated in Religion and the Decline of Magic, published the year after The Dark is Rising. If Cooper’s magic isn’t religious, then it’s not related to the history of the world; it’s something separate, set apart, a narrative with which we have no intellectual or imaginative points of contact, practised by people who live among us but with whom we have no available means of communication.

That was what bewildered me, then: the sense of a supernatural community that was unshackled from the narrative of history. The Old Ones can move freely back and forth in time – sometimes without a conduit, sometimes by way of a pair of magic doors in the air like the one Aslan sets up at the end of Prince Caspian (1951). For this reason, the oldest of the Old Ones, Merriman Lyon, knows the future as well as he knows the past. He knows, for instance, what Will’s singing voice will sound like when it breaks: it ‘will be baritone,’ he comments at one point; ‘pleasant, but nothing special’. There’s a crushing weight of judgement here, as well as knowledge: Merriman has no doubt whatever that his assessment of Will’s future musical talent is correct. Would a mortal agree with him, I wondered? And what else does he know? Is everything in Will’s future life accessible to the Old Ones? If so, where does that leave the mental faculty after which the youngest of the Old Ones might have been named: free will? Nowhere, I suspected – and I still suspect this, though it doesn’t worry me now so much as assure me of the novel’s originality, its experimental daring, its willingness to risk alienating its readers.

The shocking length of the Old Ones’ perspective is brought home to us when Will finds the sign of stone in the wall of the church, soon after the episode with the rector:

The glowing thing came out of the wall easily from a break in the stucco where the Chiltern flints of the wall showed through. It lay on his palm: a circle, quartered by a cross. It had not been cut into that shape. Even through the light in it, Will could see the smooth roundness of the sides that told him this was a natural flint, grown in the Chiltern chalk fifteen million years ago.

To be part of a story this old is to have one’s past and future cut, or rather grown, in stone. Some of the other signs Will finds in the book touch human history: the sign of fire, for instance, has an Old English phrase on it meaning ‘Light had me made’; the signs of iron and bronze may or may not have been made by Wayland the Smith, who at least resembles a man. But the sign of wood seems to have grown inside the tree from which it’s taken: ‘There was no irregularity to it at all, as though it had never had any other shape than this’; and the sign of water, which comes to Will from the hand of a dead king, ‘is one of the oldest,’ Merriman tells him, ‘and the most powerful’. And there are additional signs all over the Berkshire landscape. Near the beginning of the novel, a hillside has the Old Ones’ symbol on it ‘cut through snow and turf into the chalk beneath the soil’; near the end, an island surrounded by water is divided in four by streams, making the Sign as if of its own volition. The story of the Old Ones is embedded in a past and present that has nothing to do with human beings, and as this becomes more obvious (a sign cut in a hillside is a human thing; an island spontaneously forming a familiar shape just isn’t) the notion of being an Old One becomes increasingly alien: almost Lovecraftian in its alienness, I’m tempted to say. These people show affection for one another, especially towards the end of the book. They show occasional concern for human beings: Merriman rescues Mary after Will has effectively given her up for the sake of the Signs. But the secret knowledge they share, absorbed from a magic book that gives them a hundred years’ experience in a few minutes, means that they occupy a different plane from ours – and there’s something desperately lonely in this thought, especially for the youngest of them, Will, who by the end of the book has only been an Old One, at least to his knowledge, for less than two weeks. He’s irrevocably changed by then. He speaks from time to time in a strange new voice, far removed from the vocabulary and content of a boy’s; there’s no indication that he’ll have any say about his future; and there’s no one in his family he can confide in. No wonder I was disconcerted by the novel’s ending, which leaves Will stranded like Robinson Crusoe on an alien shore.

DarkRising6Few novels, then, could be more accurately described as about the process of ‘coming of age’ (‘coming of extreme old age’ would be even more accurate). There are no formal rites for this process in many modern cultures, and Will’s father points this out near the beginning: ‘We should have some special kind of ceremony’, he suggests, to mark his youngest son’s arrival at ‘double-ones’. That ‘ceremony’ comes soon after in the form of a fall of snow; but the snow outstays its welcome, evolving from a Christmas card decoration or a child’s plaything to a country-wide menace. It’s snow that’s out of time, coming too thickly at the wrong time of year, staying too long, melting at last into a flood that’s as deadly as the cold was. And it helps to represent ‘coming of age’ as a fundamental shift in one’s perception of time. The child exists in a single temporal framework, concerned with the moment-to-moment gratification or frustration of her own desires and expectations. The adult recognizes countless claims on her time: the claims of the workplace, of family and friends of different ages, of government, the market, the changing body, learning, history, desire and so on. The Dark is Rising dramatizes the child’s encounter with this crazy congeries of time frames, in which one has to choose which time frame to prioritize at any given moment. It dramatizes too the fact that this is no real choice: that you find yourself all at once in a frantic race to get things done against the clock, without the leisure to consider which clock you’re following. It represents this, with terrible honesty, as a chilling encounter as well as an exhilarating one. And setting this moment of transition at Christmas was a stroke of genius: the time when emotional warmth clashes with the chill of fear or isolation; when elaborate plans get overthrown by unexpected reversals – of weather or of political or social crisis; when work and school come to a stop, and all generations with their different time frames converge in one place, so that time itself for a while goes haywire. All this at a time when the insanity of Cold War lay in the background, a shapeless fear in people’s minds, which surfaced from time to time in uncontrollable waves of fear, and whose antagonists couldn’t easily be sorted into good and bad, right and wrong. That’s a heady combination of temporal ingredients, and Cooper sets them against one another with the timing of a fine musician. One suspects that the prominence of music in the book is no accident, though most of the music in it seems to be performed solo, not as the polyphonic fusion of rhythms one might have expected.

I’m grateful to have had her complex book as part of my own coming of age in the 1970s.

Stella Benson, Living Alone

Stella BensonFantasy flourishes in wartime. Perhaps this is because it’s so clearly impossible to reconcile the orderly narratives of history, as taught in schools, newspapers and family anecdotes, with the mechanized slaughter of thousands in a chaos of bullets and shrapnel. Tolkien’s private mythology found fertile soil in the mud of the trenches. Lord Dunsany forged his post-war persona as a latter-day Don Quixote on the Front near Ypres, and perhaps also on the streets of Dublin, when he was wounded in the Easter Rising. And the feminist Stella Benson found a means of expressing her experiences as a worker on the Home Front in a remarkable novella, Living Alone (1919), which is more clearly a product of wartime than any other fantasy I can think of. Despite its willfully eccentric contents – an illiterate soldier who is also a wizard, a woman who keeps company with a cheeky East End Cupid, a boarding house for lonely people run by a witch, a magic battle fought on broomsticks over London – it gives an extraordinarily vivid account of the absurdities and frustrations of life in the metropolis during the Great War. It’s all there: rationing, the policing of the poor by charitable committees run by the middle and upper classes, ubiquitous propaganda, taking shelter in a church crypt during a bombing raid, middle-class women working the land, a policeman threatening to read the Riot Act to an unruly crowd. The presence of magic through all these events seems to represent a state of mind that’s easily acquired during wartime, combining a sense of incongruity, horror and profound disconnect in the face of state insanity dressed up as reason. But it also represents a celebration of the beauty that continues to flourish, against all odds, in the face of conflict, and which vaunts itself most strikingly in the cruelest month of the year, T.S. Eliot’s April, the month when the novel begins.

$(KGrHqZ,!nQE-)r!ncRbBPypIbH7Tg~~60_35Benson kept a detailed diary all her life, and her novels are said to be drawn in part from its pages. Living Alone certainly gives the impression of a prolonged self-analysis, coupled with precise observation of the minutiae of seasonal change in the capital. The central character, Sarah Brown, shares Benson’s initials, her proneness to pulmonary illness, her passion for dogs, her distaste for physical contact with her fellow human beings. She is self-effacing, at first not even being named as a member of the committee we meet in the opening chapter, and always convinced of her own incompetence and inability to participate, even in the magical events she is one of the few to witness. The committee, which is dedicated to the questionable task of instructing the poor in the art of saving, uses her as its general dogsbody because she is willing but not terribly efficient. She works the land but is too sick and weak to weed a row of beans. She falls in love but knows from the start that the man she loves will have no interest in her. This gives the novel an air of wistful cynicism, the tone of a tome which is all too aware that many of its readers will dismiss its contents as so much drivel. This is not least because the narrator, Stella Benson, shares Sarah’s self-effacing tendencies, dismissing her own book as not a ‘real’ one (‘This is not a real book’, the preface tells us), just as Sarah thinks herself not a ‘real woman’ because she can’t get interested in what other women think important: their bodies, clothes, marriage, money, romances featuring two or more persons, conversation. The witch’s boarding house after which the novel is named – the House of Living Alone – is likewise ‘not a real house’ to those who believe no self-respecting hostel could fail to charge a decent rent. Neither narrator nor protagonist will have an appreciable effect on the world, according to the two S.B.s. But in recording the things that have no appreciable effect – dancing in the garden, sitting on clouds, the aesthetic impact of atmospheric conditions, a journey on horseback through an Enchanted Forest – the book also conjures up an atmosphere of quiet resistance to the inflexible assumptions about ‘reality’ entertained by successful people, a resistance which has been practised through the ages by lonely and ailing adepts of the imagination.

after (Percy) Wyndham Lewis, lithograph, 1932
after (Percy) Wyndham Lewis, lithograph, 1932

When I read that Stella Benson was a suffragette and that this novel had witches in it, I imagined witchcraft as a metaphor for liberation, singing the pleasures of unhindered aerial acrobatics in the teeth of official opposition to female self-empowerment. I wasn’t far wrong. The witch, who has no name or origin, is always exposing the absurdity of the establishment figures she meets with her wide-eyed astonishment at their hypocrisies, and the passage where she dances on the lawn in the early morning is supremely lyrical. But Sarah Brown never makes friends with the witch – friendship is another of the things she cannot do well – and her efforts to protect her from a punitive law backfire at the end of the book, resulting in their permanent separation. Having access to magic in this novel is largely a recipe for isolation, and in this it’s a direct precursor to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s celebrated novel about witchcraft, Lolly Willowes (1926). Warner, too, expresses scepticism about women’s capacity to take advantage of their natural affinity for magic without being drawn back into the power schemes of men. Her protagonist, Laura, is well aware that her witch’s powers may have been granted to her by a male, the Devil himself, and remains wary of what he might demand of her in return. Laura’s attraction to witchcraft springs from her wish not to participate in the world prepared for women, the world of marriage, social visits and placid subservience. She likes the fact that witches live alone, deriving their energy from their dreams, their work, their animal companions; so Satan’s involvement in awaking her powers would be unwelcome even if it didn’t involve the perpetual damnation of her immortal soul.

Sarah Brown doesn’t get mixed up with Satan, largely because she remains an observer of magic throughout the novel, not a practitioner: a member of the ‘magically-inclined minority’ for whom the book is intended, to quote the preface, not ‘magic’ herself. As a result the book ends with a greater sense of loneliness and loss than Lolly Willowes, as Sarah begs the witch not to leave her friendless and ill on the shores of America, a land she sweepingly condemns as having been drained of magic by its citizens’ commitment to capitalism. Her self-imposed status as an outsider finds its ultimate expression in this ending, which strands her as an expatriate on hostile shores, like Benson herself, who spent the rest of her life abroad after leaving Britain at the end of the war.

0893768739e31d8e4fc642d6564bc495Sarah’s loneliness is the more pronounced because it’s not the only available state of being for the ‘magically-inclined’. A fellow lodger in the witch’s boarding house is a working-class woman, Peony, who has been haunted in recent years by an imaginary friend: a boy she calls Elbert, whose poor vision, perpetual youth and propensity for loosing his toy arrows in all directions identifies him as Cupid, child-god of desire. Like Cupid, the boy brings nothing but trouble. It’s Elbert who gets Peony sacked from her job on the assumption that he’s her illegitimate son, and who later brings her a lover called Richard, a soldier home on leave with a gift for magic. Richard’s presence in her life means that Peony will for ever be identified by charitable committees as an ‘unmarried wife’. A magic husband and a supernatural child, however, ensure that Peony will get a fairy tale happy ending. Men like Richard never get killed at the Front, she tells Sarah, and magic children never desert you, for all the periods of loneliness you suffer during their periods of absence. These periods of loneliness derive in part from doubt: at one point Peony begins to suspect that young Elbert is the Devil himself and flees from his riotous influence. Pretty soon, though, she succumbs again to his charm and makes peace with her well-founded fear that he will one day hurt her. The ‘hurt’ the boy brings her is unemployment and the status of a pariah – an unmarried wife. But she also escapes the fear that attaches itself to beloved males in wartime: that a boy will grow up to be conscripted, that a conscripted man will have his life cut short by a bullet. She ends the book scandalously ensconced at a place called Higgins Farm in Faery, ‘a fine place,’ as she points out, ‘for a boy such as Elbert to be born in’. So one person in the book, at least, gets an improbable happily ever after – though there is some doubt as to how permanent it is, given that at one point Sarah sees a castle that has been abandoned after the prince who owned it was conscripted.

The ‘everlasting boy’ Elbert, as a chapter heading dubs him, represents a singular characteristic of magic people in Benson’s world: their youth. For Benson (or her narrator) magic people are differentiated from everyone else by the fact that they have been born for the first time in this life, whereas everyone else has been born and reborn many times over, giving them a sense of wearisome overfamiliarity with the cruelties and contradictions of human culture. To magic people, by contrast, ‘magic alone is commonplace, everything else is unknown, unguessed, and undespised’. As a result they see and behave like children. The witch dances in the early morning ‘in a very far from grown-up way, rather like a baby that has thought of a new funny way of annoying its Nana’. The magic man Richard cannot strike a match on his trousers. Peony reverts to a state of childlike wonder when Elbert shows her Euston Station looking like a faery mountain, with the passengers in it like ‘the Little People they tell of, that lives inside ’ills, an’ on’y comes out under the moon’. When the witch is injured in hand-to-hand combat over London she chooses to heal herself in Kensington Gardens, where that other everlasting boy, Peter Pan, spent his infancy before emigrating to Neverland. Richard invites Sarah Brown to work at his faery farm on condition she agrees not to be ‘clever’, and instead lets herself surrender to the childish emotions of surprise and pleasure. Flying over those enchanted fields, even a warplane loses its sense of duty and turns childishly playful: ‘It leaps upon imaginary Boches, it stands upon its head and falls downward until the very butterflies take cover, it stands upon its tail and falls upward, it writes messages in a flowing hand across the sky and returns to cross the t’s’. Only after a prolonged display of skittishness does the plane abruptly recollect the ‘European war that gave it birth’ and return to its flightpath, cheered on by the faery farm workers.

Like the warplanes, Sarah Brown is no native of the fields of faery. She is too conscious of the distance that lies between herself and the young, fresh vision of the magic people, too racked by chest pains to let herself get carried away for long by beauty, love or laughter. As a result, she shares the committee’s consternation in the opening chapter when the witch decides to show them a glimpse of youth in its purest form: a ‘forgotten April’. The narrator, her namesake Benson, shares their consternation too:

Oh, let us flee from April! We are but swimmers in seas of words, we members of committees, and to the song of April there are no words. What do we know, and what does London know, after all these years of learning?

Old Mother London crouches, with her face buried in her hands; and she is walled in with her fogs and her loud noises, and over her head are the heavy beams of her dark roof, and she has the barred sun for a skylight, and winds that are but hideous draughts rush under her door. London knows much, and every moment she learns a new thing, but this she shall never learn – that the sun shines all day and the moon all night on the silver tiles of her dark house, and that the young months climb her walls, and run singing in and out between her chimneys…

Benson conjures up April several more times in the course of the novel – most notably when the witch dances barfeoot in the garden, or when Sarah is picking beans on the faery farm – but she never fails to remind her readers of the artifice of her acts of conjuration, insisting on its ‘not realness’ even as she makes it feel real with dazzling feats of verbal legerdemain. ‘This is a book of fine weather’, she tells us at one point, ‘a book written in Spring. I will not remember the winter and the rain’. Later she reminds us: ‘But no rain fell. Rain cannot fall in this book of fine weather’. Jerked out of our dream of reading, we’re reminded of the physical book we are holding in our hands, just as we are at the end of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist when she tells us that the written word is a will-o’-the-wisp which is not to be trusted. The finest weather in the book occurs in the Enchanted Forest:

Just as the sun upon a stormy day makes golden a moving and elusive acre in our human woods, so the night in the Enchanted Forest comes and goes like a ghost upon the sight of lovers of the night. For there you may step, unastonished, from the end of a day into its beginning; there the summer and the winter may dodge each other round one tree; there you may see at one glance a spring hoar frost and an autumn trembling of airs, a wild cherry tree blossoming beside a tawny maple.

But a few pages later Benson reminds us – even as Sarah thinks it – that the ‘Enchanted Forest is only an accumulation of dreams, and from every traveller through it it exacts toll in the shape of a dream. By way of receipt, to every traveller it gives a darling memory that neither death nor hell nor paradise can efface’. The Forest isn’t real, though it can live on in the mind more vividly than any real-life recollection. It’s been brought alive by an act of strenuous creation, and both Brown and Benson are keen to inform us of the imaginative labour that has gone into its devising.

A little later Richard tells Sarah, as they walk back to the ordinary world through the Enchanted Forest, another theory of magic to match the earlier one about magic people who are born for the first time. Like fantasy, he tells her, magic flourishes in wartime: ‘So gross and so impossible and so unmagic was [the war’s] cause, that magic, which had been virtually dead, rose again to meet it’. As a result there is now

more magic in the world than ever before. The soil of France is alive with it, and as for Belgium – when Belgium gets home at last she will find her desecrated house enchanted… And the same applies to all the thresholds in the world which fighting-men have crossed and will never cross again, except in the dreams of their friends. That sort of austere and secret magic, like a word known by all and spoken by none, is pretty nearly all that is left to keep the world alive now…

By this measure, Stella Benson’s unreal book is a real contribution to the war effort – even if she, like her double Sarah Brown, cannot make much of a physical contribution owing to illness. Her book keeps the world alive by giving names to dogs and suitcases and hot water bottles, by celebrating early morning dances and spring weather, by finding a place for Cupid in the anti-romantic mess of international conflict, and by setting up a boarding house for lonely people in a city that only has room for those of its citizens who serve the collective well-being as defined by an imperialist bureaucracy.

1926 witchvBut Stella Benson isn’t quite a believer in the realness and efficacy of magic. Her fantasy is fragile, a thing fashioned of words and learning, themselves alien to the kind of magic it describes (Richard is illiterate, the witch and the boy Elbert have no names). Her book is a form of compensation for not having magic, a conjuration of it, not the thing itself. And once you notice the fragility of wartime and post-war fantasy like hers, you can see it everywhere. Lord Dunsany’s most celebrated novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), contains a seeker after magic, Prince Alveric, whom the world thinks mad – and his apparent madness doesn’t in itself grant him access to the place he is seeking, Elfland. The protagonist of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Nathaniel Chanticleer, fears magic as much as he desires it, and is by no means contented when he finally succeeds in having his country overrun with fairies. As we’ve seen, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s heroine in Lolly Willowes (1926) has little confidence in her ability to practise witchcraft uninterfered with by men or devils. It’s only when we get to 1928 and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography that we finally get a hero or heroine who feels at home with the magic he or she gets mixed up in. The brutal logic of guns and bombs may have made magic rise again to meet it, as Richard claimed, but it left the ‘magically-inclined minority’ profoundly shaken.

This is not surprising, really, and Benson shows us why. At one point in Living Alone, during a bombing raid, the nameless witch finds herself sitting on a cloud beside a German witch who has been fighting to protect the bombers. She engages her in conversation, asking: ‘As one Crusader to another […] do you think it does much good in the war against Evil to drop bombs on people in their homes?’  But she never succeeds in convincing her fellow witch of the futility of urban bombing campaigns. The two women find it easy enough to communicate despite their linguistic differences, but they can’t get through to each other. Living alone must sometimes have felt like the universal human condition in 1919.

Luckily, things have changed in the twenty-first century.

The Erotics of Gormenghast

0156If Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan is about solitude, his second novel, Gormenghast, is about communities. But Gormenghast also contains sexual desire, as Titus Groan to a great extent does not. In it, all the would-be rebels against the tyranny of the castle’s ritual are driven by a yearning for physical consummation that was largely absent from the first Titus novel. Eroticism suffuses the air of the sprawling edifice like pollen in springtime. The Professors of Gormenghast School, some of whom haven’t seen a woman for forty years, find themselves galvanized all at once into various postures of grotesque seductiveness by the invitation to Irma Prunesquallor’s party. The party itself represents Irma’s rebellion against the rigid emotional and physical stasis she has cultivated for decades, embodied in the rock-hard bun at the back of her neck. It is her moment of radiance, when she first becomes aware of the ‘riot of her veins […] the wild thorn-throbs’ of burgeoning passion. Even the desiccated Barquentine, on the eve of his murder, remembers suddenly that he was once married, to a woman who expressed her misery with him by making paper boats, which she ‘sailed across the harbour of her lap or left stranded about the floor or on the rope matting of her bed […] a navy of grief and madness’ (570). He remembers, too, that she bore him a son, a boy whose ‘birthmark took up most of the face’ like a foreshadowing of the parti-coloured skin of Steerpike’s face after his burning. Barquentine has forgotten them because of a different lust, his quasi-erotic desire for the castle ritual over which he presides: ‘He loved it with a love as hot as his hate’ (568). But they are present in the book, whereas in Titus Groan we never learned how and with whom Sourdust fathered Barquentine, and the grapplings of Lady Gertrude and Lord Sepulchrave as they struggled to engender offspring are described as a duty and an embarrassment, to be given over as soon as the proper end has been accomplished.

Desire in Titus Groan was concentrated in Swelter, whose unctuous wooing of his kitchen boys was transmuted into a lust for Flay’s death, played out in a ballet of little cakelets; and in young Fuchsia, who found herself drawn to Steerpike by his peerless mimickry of the stuff of her dreams – action, romance and anarchic comedy as well as passion. In Gormenghast, it is everywhere, as if the castle itself has been aroused. Desire in the book has two poles, between which the globe of passion rotates from season to season. The first is the passion for the stones, most eloquently articulated by Barquentine, Lady Groan, and Flay the exile, as he lovingly maps the maze of the castle’s corridors in quest of its hidden enemies and their victims. The second pole of desire is the passion for the human body, which must find some kind of outlet among the stones’ unyielding matrix if the dynasty of the Groans is to continue. It’s appropriate, then, that the ritual of the castle sometimes offers a space for erotic display. The most explicit example of this is the poem recited at an annual ceremony by the castle Poet to Lady Gertrude and the assembled pupils and professors of the school. The poem is spoken aloud, in the words of the ceremony, because ‘poetry is the ritual of the heart, the voice of faith, the core of Gormenghast, the moon when it is red, the trumpet of the Groans’ (501). Verse here gets linked with love of the stones and Barquentine’s passion for ritual, but the Poet’s text itself is concerned with sex and plants, linking itself to the sinuous creepers that insinuate their tendrils into the castle’s mortar, the hairy embrace of the ivy where Steerpike hides at the end of the book, the thorns and weeds that promiscuously thrive in forgotten courtyards. In none of the editions of the novel is the poem given, but it exists in the manuscript now housed in the British Library: a surreal carpe diem celebration of the irrepressible desires of men, women and vegetation through the seasons:

So is it always when the hairfaced hedgerow
Whores with the sucking legions and the hips
Of autumn prick and parry at the bluebud […]
See! the red timepiece on a damsel’s cage
Ticks to the doomsday crack.[1]

In these lines the passion of the body is bound up with time – an entity the walls of Gormenghast barely acknowledge, or record only in layers of velvety dust, in rot and detritus, the opposite of the throbbings of the body; or in the pages of the book of ritual, which prescribe a duty to every hour and minute of the revolving year. It’s time that precipitates Irma into throwing her party, conscious that middle age is encroaching and that the soirée may represent her final chance to secure a partner. It’s time – forty years of cloistered bachelorhood – that reduces the unfortunate Professor Throd to a state of tumescent rigidity at the sight of Irma. And it’s time that links Titus’s fascination with the Thing to his nascent sexuality, transforming her from a fleeting spirit of the forest to a meticulously-observed, ungainly fusion of frog, bird and weasel, an astonishing blend of ugliness and beauty, rendered attractive by its contradictions as he watches her in the shelter of Flay’s cave.

Titus is absent from the ritual at which the Poet recites his verses because he has been drawn to the fertile chaos of the genuine vegetation that clothes Gormenghast mountain. Here he glimpses the Thing for the first time, the only girl of his age to appear in the book. In this first encounter she becomes for him the emblem of the freedom he craves: his foster sister, conceived out of wedlock; his social inferior, exempt from the cages of language thanks to her isolation, but capable of expressing her defiance of the castle with astounding eloquence; forbidden to him as a companion – sexual or otherwise – by every tenet in the castle’s laws. Above all, she is free from time as it is marked in the castle: the calendar of sterile gestures that succeed each other from year to year; the clock that ticks towards Titus’s exclusion from the company of boys his own age when he takes up his immemorial duties as the seventy-seventh earl. Before this happens, she once again interrupts an annual ritual – the ceremony of the Bright Carvings – by snatching away one of the wooden sculptures that has been designated for the fire. Titus follows her with his eyes as she skims away over the castle wall, then follows her with his body through the secret underground tunnel that leads to the mountain and Flay’s cave. Here he is again confronted by her defiance of time. Her interest in the sculpture lasts only minutes – she kicks it away as soon as she realizes she has made it her own. Her diminutive size suggests she has developed less than Titus over the years since he first saw her. And her premature death-by-lightning, dancing her defiance of him in a rainstorm, identifies her as the polar opposite of the immemorial stones of Titus’s heritage. Her death also internalizes her for him as the emblem of freedom, since it both liberates her from being possessed and limited by Titus (who is after all a representative of the castle, like it or not), and liberates him to pursue the promise she offers of self-sufficiency outside the castle’s perimeters. It makes her timeless, no longer the object of the cycles of his lust but a constant source of inspiration for escape from what was presented to him as his destiny.

The Thing is no mere sexual object; she’s been a rebel since birth. From the first she was defined by her community as the offspring of an illicit union, and as she grows older she expresses her disdain for this definition by stealing their most precious sculptures from under their noses. Her illegitimate status connects her to a poem Peake wrote about the sexual effects of war, when fear and opportunity combine to engender lust, resulting in more births out of wedlock than any comparable period of peacetime:

Sired under hedgerows, O
Myriad infants whom
War has engendered.
Sired in the midnight
Alley, O
Children of the world’s
Blackout, you
Are the theme of this,
A dedicated list
Of words my flowing heart cannot desist.[2]

Such unsanctioned babies, begotten in the crucible of crisis, represent a challenge to heredity as unsettling to the authorities as the presence of an armed enemy. Titus’s attraction to a bastard girl is yet more treacherous, representing as it does the urgency of his wish to sever his connection to the seat of the Groans and thus to end the line. He never consummates this attraction, even in the crisis of the thunderstorm that unleashes a flood on his ancestral home; but the Thing’s death by lightning soon after their encounter in the cave signals for him in any case the end of the line, an ending of life as casual and passionate as the coupling between Keda and her lover that first sparked her into existence. If illicit sex poses a threat to the establishment, which seeks to retain control over its subjects’ bodies, casual death is a rebellion yet more absolute, wresting the body wholly out of the world where such control is practised.

OW, RequiescatThe women in Peake’s novels succumb to casual death with unnerving frequency. Keda, the Thing and Fuchsia achieve exemption from the ritual of wedlock by being destroyed – the first voluntarily, the second by chance, the third by a mixture of chance and her own volition. There’s a huge problem, of course, with representing women as prone to premature death, and a greater problem with transforming the death by fire of one of them – the Thing – into an emblem of a boy’s transition into manhood, or his lust for liberty, or anything else. But the Thing is not just any of these things; she’s not so easy to pin down. For the Bright Carvers she is ‘a raven, a snake, [a] witch’ (579); for Titus she ‘might have been a faun or a tigress or a moth or a fish or a hawk or a marten’; she is a ‘frog, a snake, or a gazelle’ (683); she is ‘effrontery’, ‘disparity’ and ‘difference’ (677-8); above all she is ‘originality’ (682), meaning that she is sui generis, springing self-formed from the wilderness where her mother bore her and unbeholden to anyone else, least of all an earl. Her death by lightning confirms her quickness, her untouchability, her power. And if her end marks the earl’s maturity, it’s because it forces him to recognize he could never have had her, hereditary heir though he may be of a thousand acres of crumbling stone.

Steerpike-06This is a recognition Steerpike never really achieves: the knowledge that he’s not the centre, that he cannot have whatever he plans for, that there’s no such thing, in the end, as absolute mastery. If Gormenghast is a book full of sexual desire for the other, Steerpike is narcissistically self-obsessed – although he can play the part of a lover with consummate ease. As Titus matures with the changing seasons, Steerpike stays the same. Or rather he regresses, shocked out of the total control over mind and body which marked him out in Titus Groan by the disastrous miscalculation that almost kills him when he murders Barquentine. Barquentine’s dying embrace of Steerpike – an embrace of fire – grotesquely enacts the old man’s passion for the stones as he struggles to destroy the traitor who would take possession of them. But it can also be read as a peculiar act of love for the young man he has trained as his successor: after all, we have been told that Barquentine’s love for the castle was as fierce as his hate. The flaming embrace transforms the former kitchen boy into the image of the old man’s piebald son, and confers on Steerpike – albeit at Steerpike’s own behest – the onerous duty of performing the rituals which the son never assumed. And for a while after his recovery – a long while – Steerpike performs those rituals with meticulous precision, as if he has finally fallen under the spell of the unchanging stones.

Unnerved by his failure to kill the old man cleanly, Steerpike loses some of his composure, his supreme self-confidence. Unable to sustain his performance as Fuchsia’s would-be lover he lashes out at her and loses her trust. He needlessly returns to the scene of a past crime, visiting the corpses of the twin sisters he starved to death solely in order to dance and play on their ribs as if on a xylophone. He crows in triumph over their skeletons like Peter Pan, whose pipe-playing and propensity for random acts of violence he also shares. His playfulness gets him noticed and he becomes a fugitive, half pirate, half explorer, turning the corridors of the castle into the labyrinthian tracks of some desert island (that’s one of Peake’s adjectives: ‘labyrinthian’). The tools of his rebellion – penknife and catapult – are a schoolboy’s tools, and his lusts are also a schoolboy’s, dominated by the egotistic desire to take risks, to ‘strut and posture’ (742), to expose himself, to make lewd signs:

His lust was to stand naked upon the moonlit stage, with his arms stretched high, and his fingers spread, and with the warm fresh blood that soaked them sliding down his wrists, spiraling his arms and steaming in the cold air – to suddenly drop his hands like talons to his breast and tear it open to expose a heart like a black vegetable – and then, upon the crest of self-exposure, and the sweet glory of wickedness, to create some gesture of supreme defiance, lewd and rare; and then with the towers of Gormenghast about him, cheat the castle of its jealous right and die of his own evil in the moonbeams. (742)

CratersHe expresses this complicated lust in a second Peter Pan-like ‘blast of arrogance’ at the end of the novel, the ‘high-pitched, overweening cry of a fighting cock’ (743). And it’s this new miscalculation that kills him. If he had stabbed instead of crowing, Titus would have died; and that’s what would have happened if the encounter had taken place a little earlier in the novel. But by this stage in the narrative Steerpike has exchanged places, so to speak, with the young earl. The boy has matured as Steerpike has retreated into adolescence.

Titus’s maturity expresses itself in a desire for intimacy rather than self-display, for freedom rather than power, for someone else’s body rather than his own. His desire for disparity, for difference is what enables him to break free from Gormenghast, whereas Steerpike has remained narcissistically wedded to dreams about himself, his personal strength and energy, his accomplishments as an actor, his acerbic wit. Such dreams would have taken him nowhere, even if he had lived. Titus’s, on the other hand, take him out into the cold communities of Titus Alone.

Rosemary Jackson speaks of fantasy as the literature of desire. Gormenghast confirms her diagnosis of the genre, while drawing our attention to the pain and frustration of desire in an age of warfare, of habitual repression, of petty ceremony. Yet desire flourishes in the novel, in spite of or thanks to its repression, and finds unexpected outlets in the interstices of a severe and immobile social architecture. Eventually it is unleashed in the torrential rainstorm that kills the Thing, and the resulting flood releases the castle from the threat of Steerpike and Titus from the bounds of the castle at the same time. Peake understands that sexual freedom is as painful and dangerous as it’s ecstatic, and underlines that perception by having Titus weep as he rides ‘out of his world’. In doing so, Titus joins the ranks of the confused adolescents of the 1950s, who had no more idea than Peake’s young earl – or anyone else – of the world they were riding into.

[1] Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), p. 156.

[2] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 202.