Feeding Fantasy in The Image of Idleness (1556)

Early Modern Satyr

The 1550s is one of the richest periods for satire in English literary history; not perhaps in terms of quality, but in terms of the sheer inventiveness, energy and courage of the satirists who worked in that dangerous decade, when the reigning monarch changed twice and the religion with her.[1] If the prevalence of satire at the time isn’t widely known, this is perhaps because of the diversity of forms it assumed. Verse satire, for instance, included many imitations of the great medieval poem Piers Plowman, first published in 1550: most notably Thomas Churchyard’s controversial prophecy Davy Diker’s Dream (1552), which sparked off a flurry of aggressive ‘flytings’ from Churchyard’s fellow pamphleteers and was still remembered in the 1560s.[2] Later came William Baldwin’s elegiac satire The Funerals of King Edward the Sixth (1553); John Heywood’s ambitious animal fable The Spider and the Fly (1556); and the celebrated Horatian satires of Thomas Wyatt, printed for the first time in Tottel’s Miscellany (1557). Satirical drama included two outstanding interludes sometimes attributed to Nicholas Udall: the proto history play Respublica (1553) and the mock-classical comedy Jack Juggler (c. 1555). Most remarkably of all, a vein of satirical prose fiction emerged, inspired by the first English translations of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (1549) and More’s Utopia (1551): William Baldwin’s translation of the scurrilous anti-Catholic diatribe Wonderful News of the Death of Paul III (c. 1552), and his masterpiece, the Menippean satire Beware the Cat (1553; not published till 1570).[3] How many of the writings I’ve listed would now be called satires it’s hard to say; but every one of them exploits laughter to make a serious political point, and given the accepted derivation of the word ‘satire’ at the time from the Latin term for a mixed dish, a stew made up of many ingredients, it would seem wholly appropriate to apply the term to this eclectic diversity of forms and styles.

Image from Heywood’s The Spider and the Fly

Various though they are, all these satires share a common theme. Every one of them addresses social and economic problems and their solutions; and in most cases the imagination or ‘phantasy’ is taken to be the faculty responsible for social and economic abuse.[4] It’s the imagination that enables the vice Avarice and his cronies to adopt new, misleading names in Nicholas Udall’s interlude Respublica, and so to beguile the Lady Commonwealth into letting them take control of her affairs. It’s the imagination that, in Baldwin’s Funerals of King Edward the Sixth, gives the rich such inflated self-esteem that Death has difficulty in distinguishing King Edward’s palace from the palatial residences of his subjects as he seeks out the boy-king to punish him for the sins of his people. At one point in Heywood’s The Spider and the Fly a fly caught in a spider’s web swaps places with the spider in an attempt to understand his point of view as an aristocratic predator. They agree ‘to change places (each for the time) to imagine and set forth other’s part the best they can […] Wherein the fly anon is so allured to pride and ambition in occupying (for the while) the spider’s stately place, that he at last with an oath affirmeth that spiders are owners of all windows’ – that is, that the aristocracy has a God-given right to the possession of all the land in a commonwealth.[5] In the interlude Jack Juggler (c. mid-1550s), based on Plautus’s Amphitryon, the eponymous trickster uses violence to persuade a young page that he is not himself but some anonymous imposter, which prompts the epilogue to assert that powerful figures are capable of imposing their imaginations on the powerless. ‘Force, strength, power, and colorable subtlete,’ the epilogue tells us, ‘Dothe oppresse, debare, overcum, and defeate ryght,’ until the ‘poor semple innocent’ is forced to affirm that ‘the moune is made of a grene chese’, that ‘the croue is whight’, and that ‘he him selfe is into a nother body chaunged’.[6] Power in all these texts is a mind-altering drug, inducing in its possessor the condition of imaginative ‘vainglory’ or conceited self-delusion, which can be imposed on others by force, and which Marian writers take to be the presiding sin of the time.

Among the most sophisticated investigations of the power of the imagination, and the dominance of ‘vainglory’ or self-delusion, is a work of prose fiction first published in 1556, the anonymous Image of Idleness.[7] That this brilliant epistolary novel remains almost unknown can be ascribed to three causes. First there’s its anonymity, which remains one of the main reasons why fine literature gets forgotten.[8] Secondly there’s its uniqueness, since readers tend to assume a text can’t exist in a time and place where it has few analogues; with the notable exception of Beware the Cat, no other original works of prose fiction survive from the 1550s, and this means The Image of Idleness can’t easily be identified as part of a literary trend or movement. Finally, there’s the fact that it has only ever been edited once, in a journal, and that the edition in question badly needs updating.[9] The book also suffers from the fact that it can’t be easily categorized. The contents consist of a letter purportedly written by a man called Bawdin Bachelor to his married friend Walter Wedlock, in which Bawdin’s gives his views on the ‘art’ of marriage (as he calls it) undeterred by the fact that he has never had a wife. This long letter encloses several more letters written by Bachelor, mostly to the various women he could not persuade to marry him, though one letter gives an extended and very funny account of his failed attempt to seduce a widow on the road to Cornwall, and the last gives some bad advice to would-be adulterers. All these letters have been translated, we are told, from the Cornish language (there’s even a line of Cornish in the text) by a man called Oliver Oldwanton, and dedicated to his patron, Lady Lust.[10] These alliterative names, with the alliterative title, seem to indicate the text’s affiliation with the satirical tradition of Piers Plowman. But The Image of Idleness has more in common with humanist Menippean satire than with the medieval variety. The letters form what’s in effect a Lucianic dialogue – they are full of casual allusions to the pagan gods – and the rich vein of irony that runs through them is very much like Lucian’s.[11] It’s a mixed dish, containing elements of a philosophical treatise, a set of familiar epistles, and fabliau or scurrilous anecdote. So far so uncontentious; Flachmann too calls it a satire. But what’s it satirizing?

Flachmann’s introduction locates the text firmly in the misogynistic tradition of the querelle des femmes: a series of attacks on women (and a few defences of them) which began to circulate in the fifteenth century and continued unabated into the seventeenth. The Image of Idleness, though, can hardly be accused of misogyny, despite the many harsh words Bawdin has for women, because Bawdin himself, the marriage expert who’s never been married, is so patently an idiot. A more likely target for its satire is Catholicism; and this alone makes it a remarkable document, as the only surviving anti-Catholic satire to have been openly published in England in the reign of Mary I. There are many clues to this aspect of its agenda, such as the title, with its veiled allusion to the fondness for images which Protestants thought of as idolatry, and to the idleness of which Protestants accused the Catholic religious orders; and the dedication, which gives Lady Lust a confessor or ‘Penitencer’ called Friar Floisterer (a portmanteau term combining ‘cloisterer’ and ‘foist’ or cheat) (p. 21, lines 33-4), who answers to a devilish-sounding superior called the ‘Black Provincial’ (p. 21, line 36). In one of Bawdin’s anecdotes, a Princess goes on pilgrimage to Pygmalion’s ‘image of alabaster’ (p. 35, line 17), which has been restored to the state of a ‘blessed image’ after Pygmalion’s death (p. 35, line 25). This is a clear allusion to the cult of the blessed Virgin, which is also invoked by Bawdin’s repeated references to St Mary. And in the last part of his letter to Walter Wedlock, Bawdin abandons his marital ambitions and dedicates himself to chastity, a vocation scorned by Protestants which is evidently degraded by Bawdin’s supposed commitment to it.

Bawdin’s devotion to chastity is in any case a fiction. Much of the final section is given over to advising ‘Cupidian Knights’ (p. 64, line 39) on how best to get access to other men’s wives; and this advice includes perhaps the most direct reference to Catholicism in the book. The adulterous chivalric tradition, so often ascribed by Protestants to the lascivious imaginations of ‘idle’ monks, is here described as one of the ‘old rites and customs’ which should perhaps be abandoned in view of the coming of Christ: ‘New lords, new laws’, Bawdin tells his readers in a passing moment of self-doubt (p. 65, lines 33-34). Protestants referred to the Catholic confession as ‘Old Custom’ and Protestantism as ‘New Custom’; New Custom was, for example, the name of a play published in 1573 which makes specific reference to the persecution of Protestants under Queen Mary. Not only, then, is the book an anti-Catholic satire, but it ends with what’s in effect a call for conversion (‘New lords, new laws’), which if it had not been couched in such unexceptionable terms – that is, as a call for repentance from the vice of adulterous lust – would surely have got the printer, William Seres, in serious trouble. After all, he’d already been jailed for his religious views at the beginning of Mary’s reign.[12]

Image from William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat

But The Image of Idleness is not merely, or even chiefly, anti-Catholic. It’s a reformist text, in the sense that all the satires of the 1550s, Protestant or Catholic, can be called reformist. It describes a society in disarray, one whose belief systems are in chaos, a situation of which the confessional split is only one symptom. We might expect satirists of the period to attack people of the opposite confession, but the briefest of glances shows that they’re just as likely to attack their own. Davy Diker’s prophecy, for instance, proved controversial because of its exposure, from a Protestant perspective, of corruption at the highest level of the Edwardian Protestant government. Baldwin’s Funerals of King Edward VI ascribes the young king’s death to the unscrupulous self-promotion of his subjects. And the central character in Baldwin’s novel Beware the Cat, the scholar-priest Gregory Streamer, thinks of himself as Protestant but keeps letting slip his continued commitment to what Baldwin represents as the values of Catholicism: above all superstition and rampant self-interest, especially in matters of the flesh. So, too, in The Image of Idleness Bawdin Bachelor keeps exposing his confessional commitment to the ‘Old Custom’ of Catholicism, which he amusingly conflates with classical paganism. But his professed beliefs are less important than his ability to manipulate them to his own advantage; to convince himself, against his own better judgement, that what he wishes to be the case is in fact the case – to beguile himself, in fact, through a series of exercises in imaginative self-delusion. Bawdin is one of a series of figures in the satire of the 1550s who choose to believe whatever suits them, and who self-consciously, in all knowledge of what they are doing, work to justify their false beliefs by whatever devious rhetoric or sophistry lies to hand. This, then, is the central drive of the anonymous proto-novel: to expose the willingness of Tudor subjects to imagine themselves into new beliefs. The idle image of the title is a state of mind, and every character in the book is willing to confess that such imaginative idleness is a dangerous form of self-indulgence.

Oliver Oldwanton, for instance, who claims in the dedication to have translated Bawdin’s letters from the Cornish, confesses that he knew the job was not worth doing. Nevertheless, he went ahead with it, on the basis that ‘commonly most men be not soon persuaded to give over the thing that they are affectionated unto upon any surmise or report that the doing thereof should stand against the rule of good order’ (p. 18, lines 28-30). With some difficulty, then, the translator has ‘wrested common reason’ to persuade himself that the letters will be useful to powerful men as a needful break from serious affairs (pp. 18-19). And Bawdin too is adept at persuading himself of what he knows to be false. He is constantly weaving elaborate explanations for his repeated rejections at the hands of women: ‘For doubtless,’ he points out at one point, ‘this transitory life is entangled with so many kinds of misery, that unless a man will flatter himself with some kind of vain glory or, contrary to the lively eye of his reason, delight or rejoice in some one trifle or other, the calamity and unquietness thereof will so fret nature that none shall be able to live out half their natural course’ (p. 39, lines 5-11). So when Bawdin’s face is scorched bright red by an attack of the sweating sickness he takes it as a sign that he should return with new energy to his amorous adventures, as if his redness were a sign of renewed youth rather than disease. Accordingly he sets about courting several women at once, so that each time he is rejected he can ‘feed his fantasy with hope that the best is behind’ (p. 41, lines 7-8) – that is, that one of the women who has not yet spurned him may be a better catch. When a friend of his points out that the women don’t want him because he’s old and ugly, Bawdin retorts that such truthful utterances – however regularly identified in Renaissance texts as the badge of true friendship – are profoundly unfriendly, since ‘it should have been good policy for all men (in mine opinion) to dissemble and bear each one with the folly and faults of other’, and in addition for ‘every man […] to feed and flatter themselves with some kind of vanity or vainglory without having any respect for desert or not deserving’ (p. 44, lines 10-15). The term ‘vainglory’, in fact, recurs in letter after letter, along with deferential nods to the goddess Venus. And in each case men’s vainglory is achieved or sustained by some ‘crafty policy’, whereby they themselves or their prospective lovers are convinced of something that is ‘contrary to the lively eye of his reason’. As the final section of Bawdin’s letter points out, ‘Men are easily persuaded to believe the thing such as in their heart they covet it should be’ (p. 64, lines 37-8); and while Bawdin intends this to reassure adulterers that they can deceive any credulous husband, by this stage in the book the reader knows full well that the phrase is equally applicable to Bawdin Bachelor, who has exposed himself on every page as the ultimate fantasist.

He is not alone. The English Protestant statesman Thomas Wilson published his celebrated treatise The Arte of Rhetorique in 1553; and shortly afterwards he went into exile on Mary’s accession. Unwisely, perhaps, he chose to spend his exile in Rome, where he was imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition. When Mary died he returned to England, and three years later published the second edition of his Arte of Rhetorique (1560); and in it he greatly expanded the section of the treatise devoted to the rhetorical function of laughter. Every one of the new anecdotes he added involved some anti-Catholic gibe; and by this means one hopes that he exorcised some of the damage he sustained on the continent.

Image from Jack Juggler

But Wilson, like the author of The Image of Idleness, is not content to restrict himself to Catholicism as the object of his attack. For him as for the satirists the religious conflicts of the mid-sixteenth century are a symptom of a cultural condition; and his most detailed account of this condition occurs in his discussion of poetic fictions and their role in persuasive discourse. ‘The Poetes’, he writes, ‘were wisemen, and wished in hart the redresse of things, the which when for feare, they durst not openly rebuke, they did in colours painte them out, and tolde men by shadowes what they should doe in good sooth’.[13] The problem was, he adds, that in ancient times some of their hearers perversely adopted these ‘shadowed’ tales for factual narratives, setting up their heroes as pagan gods. ‘Wee Christians’, he goes on, have similar fables such as the legends of the saints, which were invented as instructive allegories but later adopted as factual histories by the church, whose leaders set up images of their protagonists in their churches as ‘laymen’s books’. Needless to say, Wilson does not approve. ‘God forbad by expresse worde’, he tells us, ‘to make any graven Image, and shall wee bee so bold to breake Gods will for a good intent, and call these Idolles laie mens bookes?’ (p. 197). For Wilson, then, the works of the imagination have been repeatedly commandeered by unscrupulous authorities, transforming ‘shadowes’ into graven images in support of their own agendas. Generation after generation have found themselves the victims of the perverted imagination; but the imagination may also be used, he tells us elsewhere, to resist this process.

It’s the imaginative use of irony that for Wilson is the best weapon against tyrannous authorities like the ones he encountered in Rome. One example is the figure of dissimulatio or ‘close jesting’, which he describes as follows:

When we jest closely, and with dissembling meanes grig our fellowe, when in words we speake one thing, and meane in heart an other thing, declaring either by our countenaunce, or by utteraunce, or by some other way, what our whole meaning is. As when we see one boasting himselfe, and vaine glorious, to hold him up with ye and nay, and ever to add more to that which he saieth (p. 184).

Wilson gives several instances of such ‘close jesting’, but none is more apt than the writings of Bawdin Bachelor, whose vainglorious folly grows more extravagant with every page he writes, and who exposes himself for what he is the more openly the more devious he tries to be. The Image of Idleness is an extended exercise in dissimulatio, whereby the man who seeks to beguile himself and others is used as a means of beguiling the authorities; of tricking them, that is, into allowing (permitting to be printed) a text that criticizes the state religion. At a time when other satirical texts were being disallowed, or kept safely locked away until a change of government brought their perspective back into favour, the dissimulatio deployed by the author of The Image of Idleness stands out for its success as well as its courage. For this and other reasons, the book deserves to be better known.

Pockmarked Old Woman’s Tofu. Bawdin Bachelor’s face is ravaged by disease; this dish evokes both his face and early modern satire, a spicy medley



[1] A fine account of the satire written in this period remains John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982). See also Tom Betteridge, Literature and Politics in the English Reformation (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004), chapters 2 and 3, and Mark Rankin, ‘Biblical Allusion and Argument in Luke Shepherd’s Verse Satires’, The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature 1485-1603, ed. Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), chapter 15.

[2] For Davy Diker’s Dream see my ‘William Baldwin and the Tudor Imagination’, The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, 1485-1603, ed. Pincombe and Shrank, chapter 17.

[3] See my ‘The Cat Got your Tongue: Pseudo-Translation, Conversion and Control in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat’, Translation and Literature, vol. 8, Part 1 (1999), pp. 3-27.

[4] For the early modern fantasy see Adrian Streete, Protestantism and Drama in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), chapter 4, ‘Perception and Fantasy in Early Modern Protestant Discourse’.

[5] John Heywood, The Spider and Fly, ed. John S. Farmer (London: Early English Drama Society, 1908), pp. 20-21.

[6] Marie Axton (ed.), Three Tudor Interludes: Thersites, Jacke Jugeler, Horestes (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982), p. 91.

[7] See Mike Pincombe, ‘The Date of The Image of Idleness’, Notes and Queries 239 (n.s. vol. 41) (March 1994), p. 24.

[8] I discuss its authorship in ‘William Baldwin and the Politics of Pseudo-Philosophy in Tudor Prose Fiction’, Studies in Philology, vol. 97 no. 1 (Winter 2000), pp. 29-60.

[9] Michael Flachmann (ed.), ‘The First Epistolary Novel: The Image of Idleness. Text, Introduction and Notes’, Studies in Philology 87 (1990), pp. 1-74.

[10] Mike Pincombe has identified the line as Cornish, but not yet published his transcription of it. See The Image of Idleness, ed. Flachmann, p. 35, lines 26-30: ‘Marsoyse thees duan Guisca ancorne Rog hatre arta – being expounded by the priests of that temple to this effect in English: If to wear the horn thou find thyself aggrieved, give him back again and thou shalt soon be eased’.

[11] On Tudor Lucianic satire see my ‘Magical Journeys in Sixteenth-Century Prose Fiction’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 41, no. 1 (2011), pp. 35-50.

[12] See Elizabeth Evenden, ‘William Seres’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/25094, accessed 29.05.18):

[13] Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique, ed. G. H. Mair, Tudor and Stuart Library (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), p. 195.

Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Semley’s Necklace’ and The Dispossessed

Hupa necklace, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

Last month I published a blog post about Ursula Le Guin’s relationship with her mother, Theodora Kroeber, which took as one of its central metaphors the notion of a necklace: an object that is simultaneously single and multiple, fixed in time and sequential. If you trace the beads or links with your fingers you can turn a necklace into a rosary or set of prayer beads, a tool for contemplation, and it becomes something that both exists all at once in the present moment and measures the passing of time, since the prayers or mantras you utter as you move from bead to bead take time to utter. As a rosary, though, it’s also timeless, since the experience of praying or meditating makes you lose track of time’s passing altogether. The metaphor of the necklace, I argued, has a central place both in Le Guin’s writing and her philosophy, especially in the first part of her career. What I didn’t mention in the post, however, was the transformation of the necklace metaphor that takes place in her most complex novel, The Dispossessed (1974). This transformation explains, I think, why the metaphor ceased to be of importance to her from that time forward. After writing that novel she had done all she could with necklaces, and moved on to develop other metaphors, such as the two kinds of spider’s web that lie at the heart of her fantasy novels The Farthest Shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990), or the dancing spirals of Always Coming Home (1985).

The necklace metaphor, I argued, may well derive from Theodora Kroeber’s book Ishi in Two Worlds (1962), about the last of the Yahi people of North California, a man called Ishi, who lived the final years of his life as an employee of the museum run by her husband, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. Theodora Kroeber describes the work of Ishi’s biographer as resembling that of an archaeologist who tries to string together an old necklace found in a dig:

There follows an account of all that is surely and truly known of him. What he believed and felt and did in the modern world and, earlier, in his own world are the bone beads of his story. The stringing of such of these beads as could be recovered onto a single strand has been my task. Surprisingly, the circle of his life’s necklace appears whole despite its many incompletions.[1]

The passage both illustrates the beautiful cadences of Kroeber’s prose, at times so like her daughter’s, and suggests why Le Guin would have been drawn to Ishi’s story: any talk of walking from one world to another was bound to appeal to an inventor of worlds. The metaphor, too, is interesting in its talk of life not as a chronological line but as a circle; and one wonders if this circularity was conjured up by the strangeness of Ishi’s appearance in modern California, when he ‘completed a trip,’ as Kroeber put it, ‘out of the Stone Age into the clang and glare of the Iron Age – a place of clocks and hours and a calendar; of money and labor and pay; of government and authority; of newspapers and business’ (p. 120). In making this trip Ishi became ‘a modern man, a city dweller with a street address’, and in the process showed both how the same historical period can contain inhabitants from different stages of technological development, and how so-called ‘primitive’ cultures are in fact just as rich and complex as ‘highly-developed’ ones – something Kroeber sought to stress repeatedly in her book, by comments like the one I’ve just quoted, in which she transforms Ishi from a Stone Age man to a modern city-dweller with a touch of her verbal wand.

Just a year after Kroeber published her biography Le Guin wrote her short story ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’ (1964, written 1963), reprinted as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ in her great short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1976). In between, the story had also appeared as the prologue to Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World (1966). The replacement of ‘dowry’ with ‘necklace’ in the title of the short story on its second printing is surely no accident: it draws attention to the object at the centre of the narrative, and so to the circular structure of the story, in which a woman from a ‘primitive’ culture on an obscure planet journeys to an interstellar museum on a spaceship travelling at near light speed, then returns home, only to discover that her friends have grown old, her child grown to adulthood and her husband died in her absence. The reason for her journey is that the economy of her people has been destroyed by the appearance from space of the ‘Starlords’ in their vessels, wielding weapons beyond the imagining of Semley’s people, and abruptly putting an end to the culture of warfare by which the rulers of her people have sustained themselves since time immemorial. As a result the rulers’ fortresses have been reduced to mouldering ruins; and in an attempt to revive the fortunes of the ruling-class family into which she has married, Semley goes in quest of the necklace of the title, a treasure passed down through generations by her ancestors before it was lost. She needs the necklace for her dowry and hopes that it will somehow restore the glories of the past to her diminished household. The necklace, then, represents a return to the past for Semley, and it involves a series of retrograde motions as she looks for it.

The first of these motions takes place when she mounts a windsteed – a giant flying cat – to look for the treasure. ‘Married women of the Angyar,’ the narrator tells us, ‘never rode for sport, and Semley had not been from Hallan since her marriage; so now, mounting the high saddle of a windsteed, she felt like a girl again, like the wild maiden she had been, riding half-broken steeds on the north wind over the fields of Kirien’ (p. 15).[2] Semley’s marriage, then, has involved a taming, a narrowing down of possibilities after the wild promise of her active girlhood, and she reverses this process as she returns to the activity of her youth. The second retrograde movement is to her father’s house, which she finds in a worse state than when she left it; and the third is to the mines of the dwarflike Clayfolk who made the necklace long ago, before her family acquired it. Meanwhile she is warned three times (as in a fairy tale) that her quest for the necklace is an act of folly, driven by false values: a desire for what she doesn’t have which prevents her from appreciating the value of what she has. Her friend Durossa tells her that she herself is more precious than gold, being ‘Semley who shines like a falling star, Semley whose husband loves no gold but the gold of her hair’ (p. 14). And the elf-like Fiia among whom she inquires after the necklace find value only in the gold they discover in the cycle of the seasons – as well as in Semley: ‘For us there is sunlight in warmyear, and in coldyear the remembrance of sunlight; the yellow fruit, the yellow leaves in end-season, the yellow hair of our lady of Kirien; no other gold’ (p. 17). The third and final warning is the ‘wheedling’ note that creeps into the voices of the Clayfolk as they invite her to enter their mines to seek the necklace – a note she ‘would not hear’ (p. 19) – and the unpleasant grins they display as they promise her she will return ‘very soon’ from her flight through space to fetch it. The Clayfolk, like Durossa and the Fiia, are obsessed by her golden hair, laying their ‘heavy grey hands’ on it in the spaceship until she rebels against this intimacy (p. 25). On the journey, deprived of light, she begins to yearn for its return, and faints with relief – or the pressure of gravity – when ‘the light flashed golden, at the window’ as she docks at the museum (p. 25). Circle after circle is offered to her as she looks for the circle of gold, each one illustrating the obsolescence of the thing she seeks, the impossibility of going back in time to the same spot as before, the relativity of time itself, which moves in different ways depending on where one places oneself to witness its passage. As the Clayfolk promise, her journey takes only one night – there are no days, after all, in space – and she returns home safely to her husband’s stronghold. She even meets herself there in the shape of her daughter Haldre, who ‘stood beside Durossa, gazing with steady eyes at this woman Semley who was her mother and her own age. Their age was the same, and their gold hair, and their beauty. Only Semley was a little taller, and wore the blue stone on her breast’ (p. 30). But Semley’s husband has gone, her dowry is therefore useless, and her home no longer a home but a ruin for her. She has come back from her interstellar journey, but found herself a stranger in her house, and runs away from it ‘like some wild thing escaping’ into obscurity, ironically becoming once again the ‘wild maiden she had been’ before her marriage. For Semley, the circle of her life was a trap, not an endless rediscovery of richness as the cycle of the seasons was for the Fiia. And her end becomes a lament for the victims who have been destroyed over so many generations and millennia by the encounter between cultures, by the clash between post-industrial technology and more ancient modes of living, between past and future.

‘Wild things’ like the tormented Semley of the story’s end cannot be contained between four walls. Ishi was described by some of the modern men who met him as a ‘wild Indian’. Ishi died of a disease caught from those modern men. The coexistence of different times or historical periods in a single world can be a toxic business. The modern man, Rocannon, who gives Semley the necklace when she comes to the interstellar museum, has no appreciation of her perspective on time despite his genuine interest in her, despite his recognition that she has a complex history to which he has no access. His colleague observes that the necklace must be of great value both to her and the Clayfolk, since they have given up so many years for the mission to fetch it – referring to the years they have sacrificed in order to travel so far at the speed of light. Rocannon’s response is unintentionally dismissive: ‘“Several years, no doubt,” said the hilfer, who was used to starjumping. “Not very far”’ (p. 27). But for Semley the distance is far enough to kill her. The distance between their perspectives, in other words, is Semley’s happiness, Semley’s family, Semley’s lifetime.

‘Semley’s Necklace’ is about a journey between the past, represented by Semley with her feudal values, and the future, in the form of the Starlords. A decade after writing this story Le Guin returned to the encounter between times, between historical periods; and when she did so she also returned to the necklace metaphor. The Dispossessed too is a circular story, describing the journey of the physicist Shevek from his home world of Anarres to its sister planet Urras and back again; a journey from a possible future for the human race (Anarres is an experiment in anarchism on a scale that has not yet been tried on Earth) to what for Shevek is the past (Urras is the planet from which his people, the Annaresti, originally set out to conduct their social experiment on Anarres), and then back to the future, the planet of Anarres where his personal journey started. For Le Guin’s first readers in the 1970s, on the other hand, Urras would have looked very much like the present, since the dominant capitalist culture on that planet is locked in a war of attrition with a socialist enemy, mirroring the political scene on the Earth they lived in – so that for them Shevek’s journey takes him from the future to the present and back again to the future. But past, present and future are all a matter of perspective; for an Einsteinian physicist they are relative, since all exist at once in the stupendously large object which is the space-time continuum. Relativism is in fact built into the novel’s structure, whose narrative famously alternates between chapters set on Anarres, which tell the story of Shevek’s life from his childhood to the moment when he decides to go to Urras, and chapters set on Urras, which tell of his experiences from the time he sets off for Urras to the time he returns to Anarres. Each set of chapters occurs at a different time in Shevek’s life, yet they are presented to us side by side, as if to illustrate the fact that time and space can be viewed as a single vast unchanging object if like Einstein, Minkowski and H G Wells one understands time or duration as the fourth dimension of space.

Although Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras and back again takes time for him, and so can be read as a single uninterrupted narrative, Anarres and Urras also coexist, although there is little communication between them – very much as Ishi and his family coexisted with what Kroeber calls ‘modern man’, although the two communities did not interact until the last five years of Ishi’s life. From one perspective, then, the past and the future coexist at the same time in Le Guin’s novel – although it is a matter of perspective as to which planet you see as representing which. For many of the inhabitants of Urras, Shevek and his fellow anarchists are primitives, wild men who understand little of the complexities of capitalist life. For Shevek, as I said before, Urras is his past – but when he visits the planet he discovers that the future exists there too: there are anarchists among the Urrasti, who are struggling to bring about an anarchist society on Urras in imitation of the one on Anarres. And he already knew when he came to Urras that there were representatives of the capitalist past on Anarres; it was because of the capitalistic impulses of some of his fellow physicists on Anarres that Shevek decided to travel to Urras to complete work on his major work, an attempt to unite the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity in physics. Urras, in other words, contains in itself the seeds of the anarchist future, while Anarres contains in itself the seeds of regression to the capitalist past. Shevek’s journey executes a circular movement which finds echoes in other potential circular movements taking place in the unfolding histories of the two worlds he inhabits.

As in ‘Semley’s Necklace’, then, there are circles within circles in The Dispossessed, and the fate of Anarres hangs delicately poised between regression to capitalism and the ‘infinite promise’ of a continued commitment to anarchist principles. This balance might have been represented as a necklace, and it very nearly is; but a necklace doesn’t convey the problem of keeping balance, or the constant motion that makes keeping balance necessary, although it neatly invokes the idea of the circle or cycle. As a result, Le Guin places at the centre of her novel a mobile instead of a necklace, which nevertheless carries within it a memory of the past in its resemblance to that item of jewellery.

The mobile in question is one of several which Shevek’s lifelong partner Takver brings with her when the couple move in together, on Anarres, for the first time. These mobiles represent an idea which lies at the centre of the novel: the idea of the promise or bond, the commitment to future fidelity, to going on living together as equals, which Shevek and Takver offer each other before they begin their cohabitation.[3] A promise is a verbal statement made in a narrow space of time which contains within it an implied succession of future actions; in the case of a connubial promise between two people it can be understood to bind both parties to one another for the rest of their lives. A commitment to anarchy could be seen as a similar promise; anarchy can only work if all parties involved in it commit themselves to lifelong observance of its principles; and keeping that promise is as difficult and worthwhile a thing as keeping an eye on the growing child which might or might not be the fruit of a lifelong partnership. As the Annaresti put it in the poem we hear repeatedly throughout the novel:

O child Anarchia, infinite promise
infinite carefulness
I listen, listen in the night
by the cradle deep as the night
is it well with the child (p. 86)


In this poem the child or promise is suspended precariously in the deep night like a planet. But the mobiles that symbolise the promise of lifelong commitment between Shevek and Takver have more in common, it seems, with entire solar systems than with single worlds; each mobile seems to resemble an orrery or mechanical model of planets in orbit round a sun, being made up of ‘complex concentric shapes made of wire, which moved and changed slowly and inwardly when suspended from the ceiling. [Takver] had made these with scrap wire and tools from the craft supply depot, and called them Occupations of Uninhabited Space’ (p. 156). These Occupations become a study aid for Shevek, hanging above his desk as he struggles to reconcile sequency – the notion that one moment in time follows another – with simultaneity, the notion that two different moments in time can occur simultaneously when looked at from the right perspective.[4] At this point in the narrative the ‘inward’ movement of the mobiles resembles the operations of the human body and brain rather than the planets moving round the sun: ‘The delicate concentric mobiles hanging at different levels overhead moved with the introverted precision, silence, mystery of the organs of the body or the processes of the reasoning mind’ (p. 160). A little later they come to stand for the coexistence of loving partners, but also of worlds running on parallel orbits in a solar system – the orrery once again: ‘“Why does it look so beautiful?”’ Takver asks as she looks with Shevek out of their apartment window at Urras, while above them ‘the Occupations of Uninhabited Space hung, dim’ (p. 161). The promise that binds the couple gives Shevek an insight into how different perspectives and timelines can coexist while involved in constant sequential change; this is because the promise is a verbal statement that reconciles the present and the future, and that retains its meaning as it recedes into the past. In these ways it is very much like one of the mobiles; but each mobile is also very much like the necklace invoked in Kroeber’s preface – both in its circular motion and in its multiple significations.

This resemblance is noticed later in the novel, appropriately enough, by the couple’s daughter Sadik, who is one of the fruits or consequences of their promise or bond. After a long absence from his partner and child, brought about by the need for all Annaresti to stave off a calamitous drought on their infertile planet, Shevek moves back into Takver’s room and unpacks his things. One of the objects he takes out of his case is a mobile, which, as he reveals it ‘with some mystery’ to his daughter, becomes momentarily as strange to the reader as to her, ‘a curious object which as it lay in the case appeared to consist of a series of flat loops of wire and a few glass beads’ (p. 268). At first the child thinks it’s a necklace – and we are told that an unsophisticated delight in jewellery is common in rural places (as opposed to ‘sophisticated’ urban centres) all over Anarres, where ‘the deep connection between the aesthetic and the acquisitive was simply not worried about’ (p, 268). The necklace here represents, among other things, the anxiety over whether possessing something not strictly necessary can lead to a habit of self-indulgent possessiveness; and by extension the necklace can also be taken to stand for the problem of promising fidelity in an anarchy, which can give rise to habits of possessiveness between the couple concerned. Both things – a necklace and a lifelong partnership – can seem old-fashioned, like the necklace being pieced together by an archaeologist in Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds – though Le Guin is insistent that this view is merely a matter of perspective, and that there are many Anarresti who do not share it. In the same way, the object Shevek removes from his suitcase is from one point of view a symbol of the past – of the time when he and Tavker sealed their lifelong bond; but it is also a symbol of his continuing fidelity to that bond, his unbroken faith.

But the object is not in fact a necklace, as the reader knows, though Sadik doesn’t. It’s something kinetic, not fixed, something that embraces both partners, not just one, something that is always changing in time while remaining the same:

‘No, look,’ her father said, and with solemnity and deftness raised the object by the thread that connected its several loops. Hanging from his hand it came alive, the loops turning freely, describing airy spheres one within the other, the glass beads catching the lamp-light.

‘Oh, beauty!’ the child said. ‘What is it?’ (p. 268)

Shevek doesn’t tell her what it is, perhaps because there’s no exact answer. It’s something her mother made, and it’s one of the Occupations of Uninhabited Space, and it’s a mobile, and it’s a form of beauty (as Sadik points out), and it’s a symbol, but it wouldn’t be possible to sum up all these aspects of the object to the satisfaction of a child. But when Takver promises to make another one for Sadik there are tears in her eyes. The mobile’s fragile representation of change and continuity, of sequency and simultaneity, summarizes something that affects her profoundly – the endurance of affect itself in despite of change. And this affect embraces the daughter as well as the parents, and so also promises (since she represents a new generation) to extend itself outwards in time to embrace the wider community of Anarres, and perhaps Urras, and perhaps much more.

As it transpires, Shevek doesn’t take the surviving Occupation of Uninhabited Space with him to Urras. In fact, the Occupation disappears (as far as I can find) after the chapter I’ve just cited, where the couple come together again after long absence, to be replaced with another mobile. A few chapters later – towards the end of the book, in the chapter where Shevek makes up his mind to go to Urras – we are introduced to this new thing, hanging over the heads of the physicist and the couple’s second child, their second living promise, a girl called Pilun:

Behind his head and the child’s, the single mobile hanging in this room oscillated slightly. It was a large piece made of wires pounded flat, so that edge-on they all but disappeared, making the ovals into which they were fashioned flicker at intervals, vanishing, as did, in certain lights, the two thin, clear bubbles of glass that moved with the oval wires in complexly interwoven ellipsoid orbits about the common centre, never quite meeting, never entirely parting. Takver called it the Inhabitation of Time. (p. 303)

This mobile is described in greater detail than any so far. The number of beads is specified: there are two, as there are two of Shevek and Takver. The term ‘orbit’ is used to described their simultaneous and complementary but separate movements, which makes them analogous to planets, perhaps Urras and Anarres. The effect of appearances and disappearances ‘in certain lights’ (‘lights’ is another term for ‘perspectives’) makes their relationship seem more tenuous than the motions of the earlier mobiles, as is appropriate for a moment in the novel when the couple are about to separate physically and occupy two different planets. But by this time in the novel we also know that their experiences on each planet will echo each other; in every alternate chapter set on one planet there are clear echoes or reflections of events in a contiguous chapter set on the other. From this point onwards, as we know, the couple will occupy the same sequence of time in different places, never touching but always complementary, always definitively in relation to one another. And they are not trapped in this condition; the fact that this is a new mobile means there is the possibility of a further mobile being fashioned from the same materials, in which the beads are poised in a different relationship. The mobile is a model of the novel we have just been reading, all of whose parts contribute to the motions, the double narrative orbits of the whole, all of whose ideas offer the possibility of further ideas to be sown and cultivated outside the orbits of the novel itself.

The word ‘Inhabitation’ as applied to this new mobile suggests that it represents, as a whole, the idea of home – a concept that’s utterly central to Le Guin’s thinking. Anarres is Shevek’s home – the place where he was born, the place where his partner and children live. But he also recognises Urras as home, the place all Anarresti originally came from, and where new prospective anarchists are still engaged in the political struggle that produced Anarres. The two worlds are complementary – neither can thrive without the other, in economic or physical terms. Remove one of these planets and the orbit of the other will be drastically and probably devastatingly altered. The mobile is a promise that the two places will cohabit, which is confirmed as it is made, since the two places do cohabit within a single solar system, a single home. So much for the name of the last mobile we meet in the novel. But what about those earlier mobiles, the Occupations of Uninhabited Space? What does Takver’s name for them signify?

One of the things it signifies, I think, is the refusal to colonize or be colonized. Ishi and his family refused to be colonized, choosing to live apart from and without commerce with the colonizers who occupied the Californian space around their desert home. The Anarresti likewise refuse to be colonized by the Urrasti, barring entry to and exit from their single spaceport to anyone but the most carefully vetted guests. And they themselves are not colonists of their planet; it was unoccupied when they came there, except by a temporary population of miners who were permitted to stay or leave as they thought fit. There are hardly any living species of any kind on its inhospitable surface apart from the Anarresti themselves. When they emigrated from Urras they occupied a space that was uninhabited, and brought with them an ideal that had been untried by their community, though no doubt an anarchism like theirs had been tried elsewhere in the vastness of the universe at some point. That ideal too, then, was an unoccupied space as far as they were concerned, and their move to Anarres was a promise to put it into practice; just as Shevek and Takver’s decision to move in together was a promise to put the hitherto unoccupied space of lifelong partnership into practice for the very first time – that is, for the first time in their lives, and from their perspective.

The two mobiles or sets of mobiles – the Inhabitation of Time and the Occupations of Uninhabited Space – come together in the final chapter of the novel, as Shevek returns to Anarres after solving his quest to reconcile the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity during his stay on Urras. The chapter opens with a return to the concept of the mobiles, which are descended from Kroeber’s necklace. First there are the two planets, Urras and Anarres, in complementary orbits:

Before they broke orbit, the view-ports were filled with the cloudy turquoise of Urras, immense and beautiful. But the ship turned, and the stars came into sight, and Anarres among them like a round bright rock: moving yet not moving, thrown by what hand, timelessly circling, creating time. (p. 314)

The reference to a rock being thrown takes us back to the beginning of the novel, when the child Shevek stumbled independently on one of Zeno’s paradoxes: if a stone is thrown at a tree it can never hit the tree because it will only ever cover half the distance to the tree, then half again, then half again – in which case how can contact ever be made?[5] Shevek’s career as a physicist was dedicated to solving that paradox, and by this final chapter we know he has solved it by the simplest of procedures: by assuming that the stone does make contact and working out a formula that explains this seemingly impossible occurrence. At the same time the reference in the passage to this rock revolving in a perpetual circle suggests time’s inescapable circularity, the fact that all things everywhere are occurring at once, simultaneously, when viewed from the right perspective. The irreconcilable paradox, in other words, remains even after Shevek has found a formula that seems to resolve it. This is why his formula permits instantaneous communication or contact between any two points in the universe, with the help of a device called an ansible which occurrs (like a premonition) in many of Le Guin’s science fiction novels written before she described its invention in The Dispossessed. All those points exist at the same time, as well as in sequence, and there are ways to communicate their equivalence, their contiguity, in spite of the distance and difference between them.

The ship on which Shevek is riding in this final chapter provides the second reference to a mobile. It’s an interstellar starship – one designed to cover impossible distances, and in the process to provide its occupants with that vast perspective that represents time as both sequential and simultaneous:

From the outside it was as bizarre and fragile-looking as a sculpture in glass and wire; it had no look of a ship, a vehicle, about it at all, not even a front and back end, for it never travelled through any atmosphere thicker than that of interplanetary space. Inside, it was as spacious and solid as a house. […] Its style had neither the opulence of Urras, nor the austerity of Anarres, but struck a balance, with the effortless grace of long practice. (pp. 314-5)

The designers of this ship, the Hainish people, are the most ancient human species in the universe, responsible for colonizing all the worlds where anthropoid peoples can be found. It is their extraordinary antiquity, the vastness of their recorded history, that gives them the perspective that sees the whole universe as their house or home; that takes no note of forward or backward motion because all directions have already been taken, at one time or many times in the past, by their ancestors – as they no doubt will be again at some point or many points in the infinite future. But their antiquity does not make the Hainish jaded. Change remains possible, infinite hope available for every individual Hainish person, for a reason as simple as Shevek’s solution to the problem of reconciling incompatible theories. One of the Hainish crewmembers explains this reason to Shevek:

‘My race is very old,’ Ketho said. ‘We have been civilised for a thousand millennia. We have histories of hundreds of those millennia. We have tried everything. Anarchism, with the rest. But I have not tried it. They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?’ (p. 318)

The statement might summon to our minds the mobile hanging above the head of Shevek’s second baby daughter as he prepared to leave for Urras – for the first time in his life, even if such departures have happened infinite times before and will happen again. In this passage Takver’s mobiles fulfil their promise, complete another orbit, and take their place in the reader’s mind as a message of hope for the worlds to come.

The Dispossessed ends, as Daniel Jaeckle has pointed out, on a note of uncertainty. Shevek faces the anger of some of his fellow anarchists on Anarres for what they see as his betrayal in going to Urras, and it’s perfectly possible that he and the hopeful Hainish crewmember will die at the spaceport. His legacy, though, is enshrined in Le Guin’s earlier books in the form of the ansible. His hopefulness, too, and the hopefulness of his Hainish fellow traveller, remains enshrined in the novel, to be revitalised each time we reread it. And the novel also offers a hopeful riposte, through slantwise references to that necklace, to the tragic stories of Ishi, as told by Kroeber, and of Semley, as communicated by Le Guin herself in her early short story. Reconciliation is always possible, Le Guin seems to say, in the fullness of time, even if we don’t live to witness it as individuals. Things are always being made new. By means of whatever wayward orbits, we are always coming home.


[1] Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), prefatory note.

[2] ‘Semley’s Necklace’, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2 vols. (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 9-30.

[3] There is a detailed and very beautiful account of the notion of a promise from an anarchist’s perspective in The Dispossessed (London: Grafton Books, 1975), Chapter Eight, p. 205.

[4] The clearest account I’ve found of Shevek’s physics is in Daniel P. Jaeckle, ‘Embodied anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed’, Utopian Studies, 20.1 (Winter 2009): p. 75 ff.

[5] See The Dispossessed, Chapter Two, p. 31.

Rumer Godden, The Dragon of Og

Rumer Godden by Jillian Edelstein, 1990 (National Portrait Gallery)

In 1978 Margaret Rumer Godden, author of many novels for adults and children including Black Narcissus (1939), The Doll’s House (1947) and The Diddakoi (1972), moved to the Dumfriesshire village of Moniaive to be near her daughter. Three years later she published this novel: a charming meditation on the experience of moving houses, a process she knew better than most, having moved between England and India since early childhood as well as flitting from London to Sussex and back again for much of her adult life. The central figure in the book, however, is not the house-mover but the creature that stayed at home: a Dragon who has lived in a pool in the Water of Milk since prehistoric times but finds himself unwillingly drawn into conflict with the new owner of Tundergarth Castle, an incomer who has no sympathy with the local legend that the Dragon brings luck to the community, being concerned solely with the financial losses he sustains through the Dragon’s habit of eating a bullock of his each month. The book traces the rise and eventual resolution of the feud between Lord and Dragon, a struggle that accentuates the divisions between members not only of the local community but of the lands of England and Scotland more generally, both in the twelfth century or so, when the book is set, and in Godden’s own lifetime.[1]

Nearly everyone in the book is an outsider of one sort or another: the Dragon, by virtue of being one of the last of his kind; the Lord of Tundergarth, Angus Og, because he has moved with his followers from the Highlands to the disputed country near the English Border; and Angus’s young wife Matilda, partly because she seems to be English (she shares a name with the first Queen of England and is said to have brought her horse from that country – see p. 18)[2] but chiefly because she has received an excellent education (she speaks French and knows about Anglo-Norman culture), yet finds herself surrounded by combative highlanders with nothing but contempt for the refinements she proposes to introduce into their lives. In addition, class conflict makes outsiders of the local people. Angus Og is fond of children, we’re told, but not the children of the indigenous cottars or cottagers, who are so filthy that they permanently put the Dragon off the notion of feasting on human flesh:

They usually ran about almost naked, not only in summer but in the bitter winter cold, so that their skins were like leather, thick and grimy; their hair was matted – it was never brushed – their eyes always red because, in the huts where they lived, the one room had no chimney so it was full of smoke from the hearth and cooking fires. Their noses were always running from the cold and they often had sores. (p. 14)

Angus’s disgust at these unkempt children is a little hypocritical given that his own dwelling-place, Tundergarth Castle, is no model of cleanliness and good order. Its interior is as dark and smoky as the single-roomed huts, the courtyard choked with the dung of beasts while the absence of privies or toilets means that the occupants relieve themselves by squatting against the walls. Angus Og’s arrival at the castle with his retinue is announced by an influx of dirt: the hooves of the cavalcade’s horses churn up the Water of Milk until it turns ‘murky, more like ale than milk’ (p. 19), and this sullying of the river heralds the transformation of Tundergarth from a feminized space (‘the Water of Milk’ conjures up maternal nurturing) to a site of masculine conflict (ale traditionally accompanies and triggers violence between men). This change is also signaled by Angus’s decision to change the castle’s name from Tundergarth (which means something like ‘the castle with a garden’) to Og, which means ‘young’ in Irish and Scottish Gaelic and hence might refer to the Lord’s infantile disposition, though the name also associates him with a popular comic strip from the Daily Record, as well as with one of Robert the Bruce’s staunchest allies and a succession of prize bulls[3]. Angus’s link with bulls (reinforced by his excessive concern for the loss of his bullocks) certainly identifies him as extravagantly male, and his domineering maleness helps to isolate him further from his wife, the cottars’ children and the Dragon.

The Dragon of Og is male, but he is feminized throughout the story – first by his long association with his mother, who raised and taught him, and later by his link with Matilda, the first human being he has seen who is as beautiful as he is. His home in the maternal Water of Milk and his fondness for flowers (he weeps when Matilda leaves him a nosegay as a gift when she first meets him), and for spontaneous displays of emotion, help to feminize him further. Angus Og, however, is inclined to treat him as a rival, like the chieftains he defeated in laying claim to the demesne of Tundergarth. He considers the Dragon’s consumption of the castle bullocks as an act of aggression and assumes that the creature can spout murderous flames, unaware that it is his own acts of hostility that have aroused the local legend to ignition for the first time in its life. At the same time Angus’s masculinity soon emerges as a performance rather than a stable identity. His warhorse and battle-axe are ineffectual against dragons, and he is forced to hire another outsider – the Norman knight Sir Robert le Douce – to kill the Dragon for him. And Robert turns out to have more in common with Matilda and the feminized Dragon than with Angus. He shares Matilda’s delight in beautiful clothes; his horse is ‘white as milk’ (p. 43), his pages have ‘short red velvet cloaks, feathered hats, and their hair was in curls’, and even his name identifies him as a milder alternative to the Robert the Bruce of Scottish history. ‘Douce’ means gentle or well-mannered, virtues supposedly shared by women and well-bred gentlemen, although Angus underlines the fictional nature of his own brand of masculinity by mistaking the word for ‘Deuce’ or devil (Robert the Devil was a legendary Norman firebrand who ended up as a saint) (p. 42). Angus, it is implied, despises Robert when he first meets him for his overtly feminine displays, despite the knight’s self-evident efficiency as a dragon-slayer, and refuses to pay him the agreed price for putting an end to the neighbourhood monster. In response Robert returns to the corpse of the dead Dragon and reverses the dragon-slaying process by putting the head and body of the creature back together again, so that it comes back to life. Dealing in life rather than death is another trait commonly associated with femininity. Another is cunning. Robert ensures that he is well paid for all his trouble by collecting the dragon’s blood, which is more precious than the gold he originally asked for: ‘it can cure blindness and other ills’, he tells his pages, ‘and it can dissolve gold’ (p. 49). If Robert is Angus’s rival there is no question about who comes out on top, economically speaking.

Angus’s enmity for the Dragon is based, in fact, on a false set of values; and the book demonstrates this rather neatly by almost bringing the highland chieftain to financial ruin. Even after the Dragon’s revival the Lord continues to refuse to give him bullocks; but Matilda’s efforts to feed him end up by costing far more than a bullock a month. The demesne’s cows are drained by the need to supply him with milk, all the honey from the hives is used up to make the mead that will keep him happy in the absence of meat, all the eggs are broken to provide the Dragon with possets, and the turnips that would keep the sheep alive through the winter are turned to mash for the Dragon’s meals. All the salmon and trout in the Water of Milk are cooked alive by the dragon’s rage when he finds himself deprived of beef. Angus’s meanness not only uses up his resources as a landowner but erases the distinction between the classes that meant so much to him; his servants the henwives and Donald McDonald, the castle seneschal or steward, rebel against him, while the cottars’ children feast on the salmon cooked by the Dragon’s rage as lavishly as Angus himself. The economy of a lord’s demesnes, it turns out, depends as much on mutual cooperation and respect as its ecology, and it’s Matilda who teaches him the importance of making the community happy, by her kindness to the cottar’s children as well as the Dragon.

Matilda’s distaste for her husband’s insanitary and dishonest practices – as well as her instinctive sympathy for the cottars’ children – marks her out as a migrant not just from another culture but another time. So too does her dislike of the male aggression that surrounds her, and her untiring labours to undermine it by peaceful means. She displays her solidarity with the high-born but gentle-hearted Norman knight by speaking to him in his own language, her solidarity with the cottars’ children by walking through the mud of the demesnes in bare feet, her solidarity with the dragon by her capacity for communicating with him without words as well as through their shared appreciation for beauty. Like the dragon, who enjoys the company of the squirrels and fishes who live in and around the Water of Milk, she has a gift for joining things together; and it’s she who teaches the Dragon not to despise his own relationship to the humblest creature on the planet, the lowly worm. ‘Don’t you dare despise a worm,’ she tells him. ‘Of course you are a dragon, but dragons come from worms, luckily for you. It was by the power of the worm in you that you could join up and live’ (p. 55). Mutual respect and collaborative living are what she stands for, although stranded as she is in the middle ages she never challenges the feudal system – only improves upon it, elevating it through practical measures to the idyllic condition it enjoys in fairy tales, though not in history.

There’s another aspect of Matilda that makes her modern before her time, and that’s her open sensuality – a trait she again shares with the Dragon. Godden wrote one of the most famously erotic books of the mid-twentieth century – transformed by Powell and Pressburger into a scandalous film starring Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron – Black Narcissus (1939), in which a sensual young woman called Kanchi is described (by another woman) as ‘a basket of fruit […] piled high and luscious and ready to eat. Though she looked shyly down, there was something steady and unabashed about her; the fruit was there to be eaten, she did not mean to let it rot’.[4] This unnerving association between desire and cannibalism unexpectedly crops up again in The Dragon of Og. The Dragon has a voyeuristic fondness for women’s legs, and though he would never dream of eating them he certainly describes them in culinary terms: ‘I wish they wouldn’t come and do their washing by the river,’ he complains, ‘especially when they turn their petticoats up. Their legs are so pink and white’ (p. 13). When the Dragon meets Matilda he takes delight in lifting her skirts with his breath to inspect her lower limbs, briefly transforming her into a medieval Marilyn Monroe, and she eventually asks him to stop since ‘My Lord would not like it’ (p. 29). The Dragon agrees, but continues to blow at her skirts from time to time on account of her legs: ‘They’re such dainties,’ he explains. The love of beauty shared by lady and dragon is in part an expression of their sensuality, and Matilda’s almost flirtatious relationship with the beast can be taken as an expression of her desire to acquaint Angus, too, with sensuality: a desire she also expresses by giving him his first soft pair of slippers to wear about the house. For Angus these are unseemly items for a man, but he delights in them, and when Matilda also plays to him on her harp he is briefly transformed into something closer to the creature: ‘as he sat in his great chair by the fire, he looked a different man with a smile in his eyes and a soft look on his face as he listened and pulled the ears of his favourite wolf-hound Brag, but gently, gently’ (p. 23). Gentleness is what she seeks in him – the kind of gentleness she finds in Sir Robert and the Dragon – and it’s implied that she eventually finds it. At one point in the book Matilda thinks about Angus’s fondness for children and decides that she must one day provide him with a ‘little Angus Og of his own, or a little Matilda’ (p. 28). By the end of the book the couple have had many Angus Ogs and Matildas, all of whom are buried in the churchyard along with their parents. Gentling has evidently taken place, desire has found its fulfilment, and the Castle where the couple lived is no longer a fortress, ‘only an ordinary house and where the bailey used to be there is a garden’ (p. 62), fulfilling the promise of the Castle’s pre-Angus name. Masculinity and femininity have been reconciled, at least in this little island in history, and Godden’s sometimes surprisingly realistic fairy tale has found its happy ending.

One last word, concerning Godden’s style. The notion of linking things together, binding what was separate, reconciling what was at odds, is beautifully conjured up by the sinuous length of Godden’s sentences and the profusion of interrelated ideas and images that jostle each other in her paragraphs. Let me end with an example, a paragraph that describes the moment when the angry Dragon heats up the Water of Milk and kills all the fish:

The good river water had cooked the fish, ‘To a turn,’ as Matilda said. The Castle steward managed to save a few for Matilda and Angus Og, but men, women and children were eating their fill; even the cottars, who had usually to be content with minnows or a bit of tough pike were eating lovely pink salmon flesh and learning the delicate taste of trout. Soon somebody brought down a barrel of ale, another of mead – it could be guessed that was at the orders of Lady Matilda. ‘As this has happened, let’s enjoy it,’ she said of the fish, and such a feast had never been known at Tundergarth, and, ‘God bless Og!’ shouted the people and, ‘Bless our Dragon!’ The Dragon had eaten a few of the salmon himself, though it was rather like eating his friends and, as his anger and his hunger were appeased, he had gone back to sleep, but, ‘I’ll have its blood for this,’ swore Angus Og. (p. 40)

The flow from one idea to the next in this paragraph perfectly conjures up the links that are gradually being built up between the Dragon, Matilda and the people of Tundergarth. The Dragon’s anger cooks the fish, the fish teach the locals a sensual delight in the ‘delicate taste’ of salmon and trout, Matilda takes advantage of the situation to throw an impromptu party, the Dragon’s wrath – which was aroused by hunger – is appeased by the fish he himself has cooked and eaten, and the whole sequence culminates in the possibility of reconciliation between the Dragon and Angus, as the people celebrate both as providers of the feast. The embedded morsels of dialogue in the passage suggest the way the situation is encouraging communication between people who have so far lived largely apart from one another. And the whole weight of the passage bears down on the off-key note that sounds at the end. Angus’s vow of revenge, coming as it does immediately after the reference to the Dragon’s guilt at eating the fish, his friends, sounds particularly jarring because Godden has the Lord refer to the Dragon as ‘it’, against his wife’s express request. In this way Godden cuts him off from his joyful people, from any hope of communication with the Dragon, and from Matilda. As Matilda weaves connections between members of the local community, Godden implies, Angus weaves death and dissent; there could hardly be a neater stylistic evocation of toxic masculinity.

Godden’s Scottish fairy tale, published three years after her move to Scotland, isn’t set in her new home town of Moniaive. Tundergarth is in Annandale, much closer to the English border. By choosing that location Godden was able more graphically to invoke the complex clash of cultures – Highland and Lowland, Anglo-Norman and Scots, upper and lower class, human and animal, male and female, sensuality and violence – that energize her tale. She chose her spot with care and expertise as a lifelong specialist in tales of collision. I hope this piece will draw some of its readers both to her little narrative and to the strange and beautiful country where it’s set.

Tundergarth Mains, the site of Tundergarth Castle. Note the graveyard in the foreground.



[1] The twelfth century date is suggested by the reference to King David on p. 27. This must be David I (1124-1153); David II reigned in the fourteenth century, long after knights stopped wearing chain mail and castles stopped being built on the motte and bailey principle, as Tundergarth Castle is in the book.

[2] All quotations are from Rumer Godden, The Dragon of Og (Magnet Books; London: Methuen, 1983). This is a truly dreadful edition, with many typos. Worst of all, it has made a terrible mess of Pauline Baynes’s magnificent illustrations for the first edition. All the gorgeous colour pictures I’ve reproduced in this blog post are left out, and the black-and-white illustrations have been chaotically scattered through the text in all the wrong places. Let’s hope there’s a better reprint based on the first edition soon.

[3] Godden explains these associations (though not the meaning of Og) in a prefatory note on p. 7.

[4] See Sarah Street, Black Narcissus, Turner Classic Movies: British Film Guide (Londonand New York: Tauris, 2005), p. 5.