The Dark Tower Triptych 2: Tree and Bird

Hector had been able to hear Roland coming for some time now. Or rather, he had been able to feel him coming, just as he would have heard him coming if he had been human.

Tremors shook the earth each time his brother swung his oversized sword and sent a head flying, followed two or three seconds later by the thump of a headless body on the stony ground. Hector’s roots detected the tremors and carried them up through his slender trunk into the branching channels of his thirsty brain. He’s coming, the wooden synapses whispered. He’s coming to save us, Roland the assassin, Childe Roland with the killer’s eyes and the heart of iron. Hector spread the roots of his toes, feeling for additional clues as to Roland’s whereabouts. He’s coming quickly.

The henwife. The child was approaching the henwife’s hut, and he was tired.

Alexander, now; Roland was surely no Alexander. The eldest brother had only got as far as the henwife’s hut before he gave in. The instructions had been unambiguous – kill everyone you meet in Elfland by chopping off her head – and Alexander had known full well what would be the consequences of failing to follow them. Not only had he heard the stories, he had told them himself in the winter evenings beside the fire, his harp trilling out the tunes that gave them life. But knowledge is one thing, action another. The henwife had undone Alexander, with her crinkled face the colour of fallen leaves and the quizzical look that came into her eyes when she finished giving directions and he raised his sword.

In retrospect it seemed inevitable. How could Alexander possibly kill the henwife, that inexhaustible fund of the songs and stories that filled his dreams? As soon kill his mother, his grandmother, the wizened old wives of the village – collective mothers to his father’s people – who taught him all he knew. As soon kill himself

And kill himself he did, at least as a storyteller and a musician. Now Alexander’s claws pinched Hector’s branches as the bard, now bird, hopped lugubriously through the thicket of his brother’s thoughts. Pinching was now his only language. He couldn’t speak or sing, only croak like a toad and dance his ungainly dance when the wind got up and Hector swayed. The elves were both cruel and cunning in the punishments they meted out for disobedience.

Hector, on the other hand – Hector the second brother – Hector was made of sterner stuff. He had killed the henwife, as he had killed the goatherd and the tinker and the tinker’s dog. He had killed the tinker’s dog when it barked at him, just to make sure, though the old man had never said anything about beheading dogs or birds or insects. After that Hector had made it all the way to the Dark Tower, blown the slug-horn, seen the girl running out. Even now he remembered the sense of exultation he had felt as she ran towards him, because he too knew the stories, knew from the start that he would have no chance in this one. The eldest brother sometimes prevailed, the youngest brother often, but the middle brother never, not in any version of the story he’d ever heard told. He had had no chance at all. Yet he had come. And here he was, the conditions fulfilled, the last test passed, his sister running towards him. Against all odds he had won her back. In his triumph he dropped his sword, stretched out his arms to catch her, laughed and cried. And even as the sword hit the ground he had felt the changes coming over him.

His boots split open, his toes burst wriggling out of them and started to burrow into the stony earth like eels burrowing into the carcass of a horse. His outspread arms forked and forked again, each bifurcation wrenching apart his bones and sinews. His head split, too, sending tender new twigs of thought in all directions. The last thing he saw as the bark spread over his eyes was the look of horror on his sister’s face as he exploded into vegetation. There had been plenty of days since then to remember that look, as he stood at the entrance to the Tower, a rowan tree rooted among the rocks with a useless raven hopping around among its leafless branches.

There had been plenty of time, too, to think about what he had done wrong.

Kill everyone you meet in Elfland, the old man had said. Not every elf, as Hector had assumed. Kill everyone you meet without exception. For Hector, Burd Ellen had after all never really been in Elfland – she had come here under duress, she belonged in the fields and woods of Daddy’s estate. That was his assumption, based on an understanding of the riddling words of bards and elves. But he had been wrong, for all his wiliness (he was the wiliest among the brothers, the middle brother nearly always was). And now…

Here came Roland, the youngest brother, a child of twelve, armed with the same instructions, those riddling words. He too didn’t stand a chance. For one thing, he was carrying the oldest sword, the blunt one from the back of the stables. His body and limbs were unprotected by cold iron, because there had been no armour in the house small enough to fit him. How to warn him? How to let him know? It couldn’t be done. A tree has no voice, or what voice it has is only ever borrowed – the hissing of leaves in a rising wind – and is in any case only available at certain times not of its choosing. No hope of warning there. But the bird? It’s a bird of omen, the raven, isn’t it? Could his brother give some sort of hint at the old man’s trickery? Could Alexander save Childe Roland, absent-minded, gullible old Alexander with the misty eyes?

From the feel of its claws, the raven was jumping up and down in agitation, croaking no doubt if Hector could have heard it. Flapping its wings as well, he shouldn’t wonder. He could see it in the twigs of his mind, jumping up and down, croaking. Pathetic. The boy wouldn’t see it in a month of Sundays. Childe Roland only ever had eyes for the task in hand, he couldn’t be distracted, that was part of his coldness. Nothing short of a peck on the ankle would get his attention, and then it was more than likely that the boy would strike, with deadly accuracy, at the raven’s head, with his big blunt sword, and Alexander would lose his life all over again.


There was nothing his brothers could do to help him.

And now the footsteps, pounding, pounding on the granite flags of the Dark Tower’s floor. Coming closer at frightening speed. Out into the open. He could feel her presence through his silvery bark, a kind of glow, like the touch of the sun on his woody skin in the afternoon. She had stopped in front of Childe Roland. The boy must be looking her up and down with his killer’s eyes.

The boy would strike.

And suddenly Hector had lost all doubt. The boy would strike, it was who he was, it was what he did. Childe Roland had known from the moment the old man issued his grim instructions what he must do, and he had known too that he could do it, that he alone of Ellen’s three brothers had the eyes, the arm, the steel-cold heart to complete the task. This was what the boy had been born for, after all: to make up for the fatal flaws of his elder siblings. Everything would be all right. The boy would strike, and the head would roll.

Hector held his breath, or would have held it if he’d been human. Instead he stood tall and slim and rigid, waiting for the blow.

And waiting still.

A thump. The ring of steel. In two or three seconds, the louder thump of the headless body on the stony ground…

But the second thump never came, and slowly it dawned on the waiting Hector that the weight and quality of that first thump did not in fact tally with the weight and quality of a person’s head. The boy hadn’t struck. Instead – it was obvious now – he had dropped the sword, the big blunt sword from the back of the stables. He had dropped it; and now another light thump sent reverberations through Hector’s roots.

Could it be possible? Had Roland dropped to his knees? Was he crying, for the first and only time in his life?

A wave of relief ran through Hector’s body, from the tips of his roots to the topmost twigs of his forking arms and his branching mind. A gust of warmth, a tremor like an earthquake, as if instead of the Dark Tower the slender rowan tree that had once been Hector, the second brother, were about to fall. Childe Roland had not struck. The boy was human after all.

And then a wave of cold, from roots to twigs and back to roots.

Childe Roland had not struck, and Burd Ellen was doomed.

There was no one left to save her. No one left to defend her person, body and soul, with a ring of steel. No armour, no swords, no warriors. His sister was finished, and her house was too.

A strong wind blew in from the west. It brought a spray of brackish rain tainted by the sea, and the cries of seabirds, cold and high and far, as if in mockery of human grief. The rowan bent before the wind, its grey bark darkening as the raindrops lashed it. For an hour or so it tossed back and forth, but it wasn’t uprooted. Rowans are resilient, despite the shallowness of their roots.

When the storm was over the tree grew still, and the three ravens on its branches cautiously relaxed their grip and began to look about them. They were getting hungry – they had no idea when they had last eaten – and it seemed to them that there was plenty of carrion nearby.

The Dark Tower Triptych 1: Childe and Burd

Roland lowered the slug-horn from his lips. The echoes from its blast were still bouncing off the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains as he took a double-handed grip on the sword that was much too heavy for him and braced himself to strike for one last time.

The thump of footsteps sounded from inside the cavernous entrance to the Dark Tower. He watched as the bare white feet came hurrying towards him. He could not bear to look at her face. If he looked at her face, as his brothers had, he would never be able to do what he had to do.

Already she was standing in front of him, chest heaving from her running, air spilling out of her mouth to warm his cheeks. ‘You came!’ she cried. ‘I knew you would! I knew –’

He took a tighter grip of the hilt of the sword and raised it with an effort. He had done this so many times in the last few hours that every joint in his arms and shoulders screamed in pain. He must look her in the eye before he struck the fatal blow; if he didn’t he couldn’t be sure it would be a clean one. He lifted his eyes. He held her gaze. He saw her expression of joy fade to puzzlement, then to alarm as the blade began its slow descent.

‘What – ’ she said, and then the thud came, followed by the spray of blood, which drenched him from head to foot as she toppled towards him.

Gasping, he lent on the blade and waited for the miracle to happen. He did not look at her body. He wasn’t sure what the process of regeneration would involve: whether the head would come crawling across the pebbles on sinewy feet, or whether it would bounce like Ellen’s ball toward the severed neck, still pumping out blood in a diminishing stream; and by what strange form of alchemical or vegetable coupling the separate strands and bones of the head and neck would knit themselves together. He didn’t want to know. The outcome was all that mattered: regeneration, the return of movement, jerky at first, then smooth. The sound of her voice, bubbling at first in the blood-choked windpipe, then spilling forth clear and loud as it had before.

He didn’t look. He waited, leaning on his sword, watching the crimson pool of blood as it spread towards his feet, feeling the blood drip from his nose and chin, noting how the landscape all round the Tower was stained as if with blood by the setting sun.

It had been a long day.

Someone coughed behind him.

‘So you did it,’ a voice remarked. ‘You followed my instructions. I’m amazed.’

Slowly he turned his head. The old man stood there, as he had before, his crooked hands still resting on the handle of his stick in exactly the pose Roland had adopted after striking off his sister’s head.

‘Amazed, and impressed,’ the old man went on. ‘None of your brothers could do it. That’s why they died. This is a land where instructions must be followed to the letter, and failing to follow them is always fatal. Well done, my child. Well done indeed.’ And he smiled as he turned to leave.

‘Wait,’ Roland cried, with a final effort. ‘It’s not over yet. Ellen – she needs to come back with me. That was the deal!’

The old man stopped, turned, raised an eyebrow. ‘That was the deal?’ he repeated. ‘How so?’

‘That was the deal,’ Roland said again, and felt a flush creep across his face in spite of the cold. ‘“When you come to Elfland, you must cut off the head of everyone you meet. Everyone, you hear? Man, woman or child. Do this and your quest will be successful. Fail to do it and you will die.” That’s what you said when I saw you before, on the Blasted Heath.’

The old man nodded. ‘Why yes, that’s what I said. “Do this and your quest will be successful.” And so it has. You’re alive, child, aren’t you? Your bones are not lying with the bones of your older brothers in the ash pit yonder?’

Roland turned to peer where the old man’s finger pointed, then wished he hadn’t. He felt sick and shaky. He dropped the sword and ran his hands through his blood-roped hair.

‘But Ellen,’ he said.

‘Is dead,’ the old man said. ‘You killed her, child. Look where she lies. How can she possibly come back with you now?’

A bird flapped suddenly on a nearby rock, and the noise drew Roland’s attention so that his eyes flicked to one side. When they flicked back again the old man had disappeared.

The mountains had lost their redness. They were now the colour of rock, like the Tower, the sky, and Roland’s hands. The bird gave a harsh despairing cry and took off, flapping in a zig zag path towards the nearest peak.

Roland picked up the sword and stumbled after it.

Towards an Iconography of the Twentieth Century: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists, Part 2

[This is the second part of an essay I published in the Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, Band 18, in 2000. I’ve revised it quite a bit.]

At first glance, the Stingingman looks like a complex fusion of elements from Lewis’s favourite science fiction novels. The single horn on his head links him to Stapledon’s Last Men, who possess a retractable cranial telescope which permits them to get closer to the stars in both a visual and a metaphysical sense (284-6). Stapledon and Lewis were both familiar with the inhabitants of David Lindsay’s Arcturus, each of whom espouses a different philosophy, and whose point of view (so to speak) manifests itself in the form of an additional organ in the middle of his or her forehead – a kind of plum with a cavity in it, or an extra eye, or an arrangement of eyes, or the vestigial remains of these.[1] The Stingingman’s horn permits him to control the minds of his victims as some of Lindsay’s mutant philosophers control the weaker minds of their followers.[2] But A Voyage to Arcturus is not the only contemporary novel to adopt mind-control as a plot device. Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935), which Lewis read when it first came out,[3] is an obvious allegory of the rise of Nazism, whose protagonist discovers a lost subterranean race of Romans living under Hadrian’s Wall. Like the people of Othertime, the Underworlders have ‘taken an entirely different road from our people on earth’ (O’Neill 93); where the Othertimers studied time to the exclusion of space, the Underworlders have studied the telepathic imposition of one individual’s will on another’s to the exclusion of technology. The citizens of Underworld are automata like the servants of the Stingingman, guided by the will of a Master of Knowledge as emotionless as Lewis’s horned dictator; and the automata in both worlds wear similar garments (O’Neill’s are ‘dressed merely in short kilts that fell from the waist to the knees’ (109), while the workers in the Tower are ‘dressed only in a sort of kilt’ (Tower 34)). The Underworlders, like the Othertimers, experiment on their children (O’Neill 160), and the bleak alternative worlds in both books testify to humanity’s ingenuity in constructing authentic replicas of hell. Lewis incorporated elements of Land Under England into both Perelandra and The Silver Chair;[4] he evidently found himself haunted by O’Neill’s nightmare of a totalitarian state embedded in the very soil of a professedly democratic nation.

The Stingingman, then, would seem (in part at least) to be an allegorical representation of military dictatorship – one of the symbols Lewis calls for in Spenser’s Images of Life as part of a twentieth-century iconography. This aspect of his figurative function is confirmed by the behaviour of the first young man he transfixes with his horn: the youth goes into convulsions, then begins ‘strutting with sharp, jerky movements, lifting his feet unnecessarily high and swinging his arms as if in time to the blaring swagger of some abominable march’ (Tower 35). His Cambridge observers would have recognized at once that he was mimicking the goose step from footage of Nazi military parades familiar to all watchers of newsreels in 1938. And the room where he performs these actions is crammed with other components of twentieth-century iconography. The walls, for instance, are covered with pictures of warring beetles – perverse travesties of the wall-decorations in Elizabethan public buildings; and it soon becomes clear that the whole Dark Tower is crawling with insects. The Stingingman pierces his victims ‘with a movement like the dart of a dragonfly’ (34) and acts ‘with the passionless precision of an insect or a machine’ (35); his assistants are bee-like ‘Drones’ (78) and his workers ‘rush at their tasks like ants’ (39). Scudamour even suspects that there are insects in the food (80). Again, we might guess that the entomological theme alludes to a work of contemporary science fiction: that it is a restatement of the version of alien life offered by Wells in The First Men in the Moon, which depicts the moon-dwellers or Selenites as a community of giant bugs governed by a vast disembodied brain. It was partly to combat this view of the alien as monstrous that Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet;[5] so there is a kind of witty inevitability about the Dark Tower’s transference of the insect theme from the lunar to the terrestrial sphere. It is men who aspire to make themselves monstrous through their elevation of the communal life above the rights of the individual; and if we did not recognize this as Lewis’s doctrine he helps us to do so by placing an idol in the Stingingman’s room, ‘an image in which a number of small human bodies culminate in a single large head’ (Tower 31). The statue parodically embodies Wells’s descriptions of the communal life in The Shape of Things to Come, where the human race has evolved into ‘one single organism of nearly two thousand five hundred million persons […] all members of one body’, and where ‘the history of life will pass into a new phase, a phase with a common consciousness and a common will’. The insect iconography of the Tower expresses, in fact, its rulers’ ambition to refashion the human race in the image of Wells’s future utopians, who for Lewis are no better than the Selenites. It is an ambition that links the scientific humanists with the Nazis in Lewis’s eyes, and he marks the uneasy synthesis of national and international socialism in the synthetic figure of the Stingingman, a peculiarly twentieth-century fusion of Victor Frankenstein and his tormented creature.

The total subservience of the individual to the community can be achieved, Lewis implies, only by erasing all that is valuable in human history, both collective and individual. The Stingingman, on his first appearance, is siting so still that it is ‘as if something had come down like the blade of a guillotine and cut short the Man’s whole history at a moment’ (Tower 32). He has become a machine, with a machine’s indifference to anything in the past not directly connected with its present function. Insects, too, resemble machines, as Lewis reminds us in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955): ‘Their angular limbs,’ he writes, ‘their jerky movements, their dry, metallic noises, all suggest either machines that have come to life or life degenerating into mechanism’ (13). The echo of the phrase ‘art jutting out into life, and life turning into art’ (Images 11) is unmistakable, and suggests that an entomological iconography of the sort we find in The Dark Tower would reverse the effects of the ‘healthy’ iconography of the Renaissance as Lewis saw it, dehumanizing and entrapping the minds of its observers instead of liberating them and giving them access to new forms of life. Insect iconography, then, is one of the perverse ‘doubles’ of things in this world with which Othertime is abundantly stocked. The Dark Tower itself is another such double, as is the double of Scudamour – with whom he accidentally swaps souls – and the double of his fiancée Camilla, whose appearance on screen provokes Scudamour’s attack on the chronoscope. These doubles, the Cambridge academics believe, not only resemble each other; they are made up of ‘the very same matter’ (Tower 59), and occupy the very same space in two different times. And it is the doubles that are drawing those times together, as one academic explains, through ‘a sort of gravitation. You see, if two times contained exactly the same distribution of matter, they would become simply the same time […] and if they contained some identical distributions they might approach’ (60). The rulers of the Dark Tower, as Scudamour learns from his Othertime history book, have formulated a similar theory of time attraction, and are working hard to get ‘within striking distance’ of twentieth-century England (90). They have built all sorts of replicas besides the Tower, and have already succeeded in swapping the souls of a little girl and her Othertime double, thus diabolically replicating the ancient folk motif of the changeling (90-1). Before long, no doubt, the Othertimers hope to have generated enough ‘time attraction’ or gravitational pull between the Dark Tower and its Cambridge equivalent to transport their society wholesale into Cambridgeshire. In this way they will escape the depredations of their enemies, the mysterious ‘White Riders’ who are closing in on the Tower. And once the chronic leap has been accomplished they will quickly find themselves to be as much at home with some aspects of modern terrestrial culture as Ransom found himself among the aliens of Mars and Venus.

But unknown to them, the Othertimers have already been colonized by things of this world more thoroughly, perhaps, than they could ever hope to colonize our own. Clues to this lie in their unwitting duplication of themes from ancient terrestrial literature and legend: the fairy tale of the changeling, for instance, or of Childe Roland, whose nineteenth-century adaptation – a famous poem by Browning – is in the Cambridge academics’ minds when they give the Dark Tower its name (27). I have already suggested, with reference to Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet, that the scientific humanists unconsciously find themselves, in Lewis’s fiction, involved in another story with which they are not familiar. Another way of putting it might be this: that they find their version of human history to occupy the same space and time as another, much older version, and that they themselves are simultaneously principal actors in both world dramas. Something similar might be said of the Stingingman and of the objects he has marshaled around him in his Tower. Without knowing it, he has duplicated matter from a field of literature very different from the future histories of scientific humanism; and one can only suspect that he is drawing towards himself a powerful iconography that will finally supplant his own. It is, of course, the Elizabethan iconography of Spenser’s Images of Life, and more specifically, it is the iconography of Spenser.

The Masque of Cupid by Walter Crane

Lewis’s critical readings of The Faerie Queene are as instructive for readers of Lewis’s fiction as they are for readers of Spenser. This is nowhere more obvious than in The Dark Tower, whose male protagonist bears the name of a Spenserian hero, Scudamour, and whose female lead, Camilla, was originally named ‘Ammeret’ after Scudamour’s lover.[6] The story of Scudamour and Amoret, which spans Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene, tells how Amoret was raised by Venus in the Garden of Adonis, how she was educated in the Temple of Venus, and how Scudamour ‘rescued’ her from the Temple, only to have her snatched from his side by the sadistic enchanter Busirane, who imprisoned her in his house and forced her to take part in a kind of clockwork ritual of torture, the Masque of Cupid. Alastair Fowler long ago pointed out the resemblance between the Stingingman’s room and the House of Busirane (Fowler 795); it is particularly evident in the menacing decorations that cover the wall in both places, and in the stately procession of beautiful victims through each chamber. And a glance at how Lewis read Spenser’s epic as a whole, and this episode in particular, throws a blaze of light on his unfinished novel.

Spenser’s Una

His first book of criticism, The Allegory of Love (1936), provides an especially detailed key to its iconographic methods. Here, for instance, Lewis describes Elizabethan allegory as the perfect literary form by which to represent the encounter between different worlds, whether physical or conceptual. It combines, he suggests, three apparently separate aspects of our mental lives in a single narrative: ‘the actual world’, the ‘world of religion’, and ‘a third world of myth and fancy’ (82). This is just what Lewis does in The Dark Tower, where the material world finds itself poised between two opposing grand narratives, that of scientific humanism and that of the Christian faith, together with their associated literary traditions. Gain, for Lewis Spenser’s world is more or less dualistic (Allegory 314-5). Good wars against evil in any given episode, and the eternal contest is encapsulated in a series of opposites which ranges itself around ‘such ultimate antitheses as Light and Darkness or Life and Death’ (313). The centrality of antitheses to Spenser’s text has been questioned by some of Lewis’s critics, but their centrality to The Dark Tower is unquestionable. The many ‘doubles’ in the novel echo the many pairs of antithetical characters Lewis identifies in The Faerie Queene: Una and Duessa, Venus and Acrasia, Britomart and Malecasta, the true and false Florimels. In the novel, too, night is pitched against day – the Dark Tower is seen mostly at night, while the Cambridge scholars discuss what they have observed in a usually sun-drenched garden – and this recalls Lewis’s statement in The Allegory of Love that ‘[n]ight is hardly ever mentioned by Spenser without aversion’, while ‘answering to this, in his descriptions of morning we have a never failing rapture’ (313). Finally, Lewis makes much of Spenser’s unequalled ability to portray good as attractively and cheerfully energetic, whereas ‘[h]is evils are all dead and dying things. Each of his deadly sins has a mortal disease’ (Allegory 315). The generalization describes Lewis’s portrayals of evil better than some of Spenser’s: his Stingingmen have a corpselike ‘yellowish pallor’ (Tower 50-1), the growth of a sting puts Scudamour’s double through the symptoms of a brain tumour, while one of the evils in That Hideous Strength, the severed head of Alcasan, is literally a dead thing.

Cambridge University Library

For Lewis, the chief antithesis in Spenser’s text is the struggle it enacts throughout its length between what he calls ‘Nature’ and ‘Artifice’ (Allegory 326ff.). The Bower of Bliss is a carefully fabricated trap, its delights wreathed in metallic ivy, while the untainted Garden of Adonis in the next book of the poem is the product of natural forces, is flowers and trees arranging themselves in patterns with ebullient spontaneity, its floral babies springing from the earth without horticultural assistance. The same antithesis, with similar exceptions, can be found in Lewis’s science fiction. Here, too, ‘the opposition of natural and artificial, naïve and sophisticated, genuine and spurious, meets us at every turn’ (Allegory 328). The island of the angelic Oyarsa in Out of the Silent Planet is a grove whose natural beauty is enhanced by the controlled artifice of a race of Martian craftspeople, the Pfifltriggi; in this it resembles Spenser’s Temple of Venus where art ‘is allowed only to supplement Nature, not to deceive or sophisticate as it does in the Bower of Bliss’ (Allegory 327). The Christian sanctuary St Anne’s in That Hideous Strength is surrounded by profusely fertile gardens, while its evil counterpart, Belbury, has grounds that resemble a ‘municipal cemetery’ (101). So too in The Dark Tower the forces of good have a ‘natural’ base, the Fellows’ garden where the academics recuperate after each hard stint of studying the horrors of Othertime: ‘always, as a background, that garden which, whether by starlight or sunlight, so often seemed our only link with sanity’ (37). The Tower itself, by contrast, is grotesquely described as a ‘work of art’ by the post-decadent aesthete Knellie (51), while the Stingingman is thought by his assistants and would-be successors to have achieved his sting by artificial means – they ‘spend nearly all their spare time in the laboratory, concocting every kind of nostrum which they think may produce the coveted deformity’ (78).

Of course, even in Lewis’s novels the natural and the artificial are not so easily distinguished as he might have wished. The difference between the gardens at St Anne’s and at Belbury, for instance, would seem to many readers to be no more than a matter of degree and of aesthetic judgement. But the relevance of the nature/artifice antithesis to Lewis’s contest with the scientific humanists I clear enough. The socialist visionaries of the 1930s made no secret of their willingness to deploy all the artificial techniques available to them, from aerospatial engineering to the radical modification of entire planetary ecosystems, in the struggle to achieve a harmonious and just community. Lewis’s ‘natural’ order defines itself by its opposition to their ambitiously unnatural programme, and above all to their blithely interventionist attitude to the human body. For Wells and Stapledon, physiological change marks the social and cultural progress of humanity. By the end of The Shape of Things to Come the citizen of the World State has transformed herself, as a by-product of the revolutions of intervening decades, into a ‘different animal’ from nineteenth-century man, ‘bigger and stronger, more clear-headed, with more self-control and more definitely related to his fellow creatures’ (Wells 411). Stapledon’s Neptunian humans, the titular Last Men, have evolved far more drastically over a longer period by means of strenuous genetic sculpture. A twentieth-century visitor would consider them bestial giants, some covered with fur or ‘mole-velvet’, others with skin of diverse hues ranging from bronze to ‘a translucent ashgreen’; their heads bristle with unfamiliar ‘excrescences’ including the telescopic stargazing horn (Stapledon 284). The sexual behaviour of these new human animals has changed as radically as their bodies. Wells’s twentieth-first-century utopians have abolished the institution of marriage as an unnecessary impediment to responsible intercourse, and have transferred the puritan impulse to a deep-rooted disapproval of capitalist enterprise (Wells 399); while Stapledon’s Neptunians gain their greatest philosophical insights through group sex, involving complicated couplings between representatives of the ‘many sub-sexes’ into which the ‘two ancient sexes’ have inexplicably proliferated (287). Many of these physiological and sexual changes, says Stapledon’s Neptunian narrator, ‘would doubtless revolt our [twentieth-century] visitor’ (284). They certainly revolted Lewis. For him they seem logical extensions of the forms of sexual ‘deviance’ that disgusted him in his own era – represented in The Dark Tower by the homosexual Knellie (who is also, for good measure, a voyeuristic sadist delighted by the Stingingman’s torture chamber), and by Scudamour’s emancipated fiancée Camilla, who was ‘so free to talk about the things her grandmother could not mention that Ransom once said he wondered if she were free to talk about anything else’ (Tower 76). Such figures violate what Lewis took to be the essential, timeless characteristics of human nature, and in particular of sex and gender; and it is against a specifically gendered version of the ‘unnatural’ that the full weight of the book’s Spenserian allegory is unleashed.

Britomart rescues Amoret from Busirane, by Henry Fuseli

If The Faerie Queene organizes itself, for Lewis, around the nature/artifice antithesis, its central episode – the one he returned to most often in his criticism – concerns the contrast between natural and unnatural sexuality. For him the tale of Scudamour and Amoret exemplifies the sexual antithesis in Spenser’s epic: it is an allegory of healthy and diseased sexuality, in which marriage is the only context for healthy physical union. As such it makes a neat conclusion for Lewis’s study of what he sees as the predominantly adulterous ‘courtly love’ tradition in The Allegory of Love, since he can present it as the moment when courtly love is finally superseded by a new sense of literary responsibility. Lewis’s view of medieval courtly love as a celebration of adultery has been challenged, like his views on Spenser’s antitheses, as a gross oversimplification of a complex cultural phenomenon. It certainly leads him to oversimplify what many critics regard as the most complex and ambivalent of Spenser’s meditations on sexuality, the Bower of Bliss episode in Book II of The Faerie Queene. Lewis reads this episode as Spenser’s hostile response to courtly adultery, ‘a picture, the most powerful ever painted, of the whole sexual nature in disease’ (Allegory 332); against it, he says, ‘we should set not only the Garden of Adonis, but the rapturous reunion of Scudamour and Amoret’ (Allegory 341). To put it simply, Spenser sees sex outside marriage as evil, and marital sex as the basis both for a stable patriarchal state and for a stable universe. Or so Lewis, rightly or wrongly, would have us believe.

Britomart and Malecasta

Lewis’s own Busirane, the Stingingman, is his effort to transplant the notion of ‘the whole sexual nature in disease’ into the twentieth century. The phallic appearance of the Stingingman’s horn is unmistakable: ‘It was hard and horny, but not like bone. It was red, like most of the things in a man, and apparently lubricated by some kind of saliva’ (Tower 33). This mocks the exalted metaphysical state of Stapledon’s Last Men, whose cranial horn and orgiastic grapplings help them to achieve harmony with the cosmos and with each other. In contrast to the blissfully communistic Last Men, however, the Stingingman derives a purely one-sided pleasure from his extra organ: when Scudamour takes over his body he finds himself ‘burdened with a horrible physical deformity from which horrible and, perhaps in the long run, irresistible desires would pour into his consciousness at every moment’ (64). Scudamour’s earthly fiancée Camilla suffers from a less physiological form of sexual self-centredness: ‘There would have been no difficulty,’ Lewis tells us, ‘about suggesting to her that she might become your mistress’, but ‘I do not think you would have succeeded unless you had offered very good security’ (76). Camilla’s penchant for infidelity makes her (along with Knellie) the terrestrial focus in the book of the diseased sexuality represented by the Stingingman; a sexuality which is also an abuse of the healthy, ‘natural’ power relations between men, or between men and women. A glance at That Hideous Strength helps to clarify the situation. In it the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments at Belbury, which hopes to remake the world in its own image, is a perverse scientific humanist ‘family’ (as its Deputy Director explains), whose members are an Italian ‘eunuch’, an asexual scientist, an impotent old man, and a sadistic lesbian who is also the Institute’s chief of police. The lesbian’s name – Fairy Hardcastle – associates her with another of the allegories of corrupt sexuality in The Faerie Queene, Malecasta, who tries to seduce the heroic warrior woman Britomart at the beginning of Book III (Allegory 340). Hardcastle’s virtuous opposite number, Jane Studdock, gives up her academic ambitions to be reunited with her husband at the end of the novel, in a scene that mimics the reunion of Amoret and Scudamour in the 1590 version of Spenser’s epic.[7] For much of the novel’s length Jane is in serious danger (from Lewis’s point of view) of becoming another Camilla: she yearns for independence and academic recognition, and has to be gently persuaded by the Forces of Good into the ‘natural’ wifely role, which is to be obedient and have babies. As a result of her eventual restoration to this ‘natural’ state, the twentieth-century equivalent of the marriage of Scudamour and Amoret – which had been deferred since Lewis left The Dark Tower unfinished – finally achieves what he would no doubt have considered a happy consummation.

All this is profoundly distasteful to most twenty-first century readers, and it’s impossible to read That Hideous Strength today (or its precursor, The Dark Tower) without feeling that Lewis himself had serious psychological issues when it came to both sexuality and gender. But it’s worth, I think, pausing to consider the philosophical basis of these issues. Lewis seems to have considered sex, like reading, as a kind of meeting-point between worlds, a hugely – indeed at times oppressively – significant iconographic process which draws together the spiritual and material aspects of our beings, so that this life and what he calls the ‘eternal’ interpenetrate and act on one another in every sexual encounter. This, at least, is what he suggests in a letter to a woman – an ex-student – written in 1940 soon after his abandonment of The Dark Tower:

Apparently, if Christianity is true, the mere fact of sexual intercourse sets up between human beings a relation wh. has, so to speak, transcendental repercussions – some eternal relation is established whether they like it or not. This sounds very odd. But is it? After all, if there is an eternal world and if our world is its manifestation, then you would expect bits of it to ‘stick through’ into ours. We are like children pulling the levers of a vast machine of which most is concealed. We see a few little wheels that buzz round on this side when we start it up – but what glorious or frightful processes we are initiating in there, we don’t know. That’s why it is so important to do what we’re told. (Letters 349)

The levers pulled by the sexually promiscuous Camilla in The Dark Tower have truly frightful repercussions. Her self-interest is one of the ‘little wheels’ that sets a ‘vast machine’ in motion. It draws towards our world, from the beyond, a world where the proper ‘Head’ of the human family – God – has been replaced by a monstrous mock-human Brain, whose aim is to develop itself and spread its influence at the expense of the wretched bodies and minds that serve it. As Lewis went on to explain in his letter, ‘if marriage is a permanent relation, intended to produce a kind of new organism (“the one flesh”) there must be a Head’ (Letters 349): he means, of course, that St Paul is right when he tells us that the husband is the ‘head’ of the household (1 Corinthians 11.3). The head of the Stingingman with its phallic outgrowth, the Big Brain lodged in its phallic tower, the Head of Alcasan in That Hideous Strength, all long for grotesque physical and mental unions which will produce tormented travesties of ‘the one flesh’, and they will disseminate themselves promiscuously from world to world like a virus in their efforts to achieve such unions. By imitating their quest for ‘unnatural’ authority, by rejecting the ‘Headship of Man’ and seeking a different sort of ‘good security’ in her sexual relations, Camilla opens a conduit for that virus, a kind of interface between Othertime and the 1930s by means of which the Othertime virus can swarm into our historical strand and make it one with the strand that contains the Stingingmen. Her behaviour, in fact, brings with it the threat of a global catastrophe as devastating as anything imagined by Haldane or Stapledon. As Lewis put it in his letter, ‘this sounds very odd’, and the analogy between sex and the instrument panel of a giant machine makes it sound odder still. If one took the analogy seriously one might well prefer homosexual relationships between men or women to the unfathomable terrors of the marriage bed; except that Lewis’s Christianity forbids these too. Sex begins to look like a minefield better skirted around than indulged in.

It’s hard to imagine that such an attitude to sexual activity could have anything but a deleterious impact on its possessor’s mental wellbeing. At the same time, distasteful as it is, the attitude can help to explain the extraordinary energy of Lewis’s imaginative writing. Actions in our world set off processes in the other world – the one where God is encountered face to face, as opposed to this one, where God is merely made manifest through analogies and metaphors. There are lots of other worlds analogous to our world, and these are the worlds of imaginative fiction – fictions like The Dark Tower and That Hideous Strength. Each fiction stands in more or less the same relation to God’s world as does our world – the world of the reader. This makes fiction as important as fact, because neither of them is the ‘real thing’; they are all shadows of a platonic ideal. At the same time, all these worlds – our own world and the various imaginative worlds we conjure up – have ‘levers’ sticking into them from God’s world, so that they actively participate in it. This is as true for the fictional worlds of science fiction and fantasy as it is for the world we live in, and Lewis’s own fiction reverberates with the conviction that this is true, based on his faith that the unseen world of God is what matters most of all, and that the human imagination is the best way of apprehending it. Writing fiction, then, is a hugely important activity for Lewis, and one that must be engaged in with an acute awareness of your responsibility to get it right. Luckily, there’s a guidebook for this activity: the Christian story as told in the Bible – which means that writing is for him by no means as scary as having sex, which doesn’t get detailed treatment in the Scriptures.

At its best – by which I mean in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra – Lewis’s science fiction leaves us with a sense of reading as an encounter between worlds, both dangerous and exhilarating, and of living as an extension of our reading. Sometimes, as in his characterizations of Camilla and Knellie, the interpenetration between books and life becomes unwieldy, even grotesque – especially if one reads Spenser, the Bible or the future histories of the 1930s as complex texts rather than simple ones. From time to time, however, Lewis brings books alive, in his fiction as in his criticism, and hurls his readers bodily into battles between the animated volumes with which he stocks his pages, enlisting us as subsidiary characters in his cosmic narrative – although we will not always be inclined to fight on the side he favours.



Crossley, Robert. ‘Olaf Stapledon and the Idea of Science Fiction.’ Modern Fiction Studies 32 (1986): 21-42.

Dunne, J. W. An Experiment with Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1958.

Fiedler, Lesley A. Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Fowler, Alistair. ‘The Aliens of Othertime.’ Times Literary Supplement, July 1, 1977: 795.

Haldane, J. B. S. Possible Worlds and Other Essays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1927.

Kegler, Karl. ‘Travels, Towers, Space and Time: Lewis’s The Dark Tower and its Correspondences.’ Inklings-Jahnrbuch 16 (1998): 119-137.

Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Lewis, C. S. The Dark Tower (manuscript). MS. Eng. misc. c. 1109, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Lewis, C. S. The Dark Tower and Other Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Letters. Ed. W. H. Lewis, rev. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S., The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. Of This and Other Worlds. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1984.

Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. London: Pan Books, 1952.

Lewis, C. S. Perelandra [Voyage to Venus]. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Spenser’s Images of Life. Ed. Alistair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life. Glasgow: Fontana, 1959.

Lewis, C. S. That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962.

Lindsay, David. A Voyage to Arcturus. London: Sphere Books, 1980.

O’Neill, Joseph. Land Under England. Harmondswoth: Penguin Books, 1987.

Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963.

Wells, H. G. The Shape of Things to Come. London: Corgi Books, 1967.



[1] For Stapledon’s knowledge of Lindsay see Crossley, 33.

[2] See Lindsay, 101ff. See Kegler for a fuller discussion of Lewis’s debt to Lindsay in The Dark Tower.

[3] See Lewis, Letters to Arthur Greeves, 472 (letter dated 23 April 1935).

[4] In Perelandra Ransom’s subterranean duel with Weston resembles the son’s subterranean duel with his father at the end of O’Neill’s narrative, while the underground country entered by Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair has clear affinities with O’Neill’s Underworld.

[5] See, for instance, his remark in a conversation of 1962 with Brian Aldiss: ‘most of the earlier [science fiction] stories start from the […] assumption that we, the human race, are in the right, and everything else is ogres’ (Of This and Other Worlds 185). It’s worth pointing out that this is by no means the case in The First Men in the Moon, where the men of the title are at least as monstrous in their morals as the bugs. All the same, Ransom’s fear of the Martians as he travels to Mars is based on his reading of The First Men in the Moon, though it proves groundless when he meets them.

[6] See the Bodleian manuscript of The Dark Tower, fol. 24r: ‘Miss Ammeret was expected in a very few days’. Ammeret is a deliberate misspelling of Spenser’s Amoret, and I’m guessing that the replacement of the Latin for love, ‘amor’, with an echo of the French ‘amer’ or ‘bitter’ was Lewis’s comment on Camilla’s character.

[7] There are too many links to be mentioned here, but a close reading of the final chapters of That Hideous Strength alongside The Allegory of Love should make them clear enough.

Towards an Iconography of the Twentieth Century: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists, Part 1

[This is the first part of an essay I published in the Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, Band 18, in 2000. I’ve revised it slightly. Part 2 will follow.]

C. S. Lewis’s unfinished second novel, The Dark Tower (c. 1938-9), recasts the global crisis at the beginning of the Second World War as a battle of the books, a cosmic contest over the writing of twentieth-century history. Two different iconographies are at stake in Lewis’s text. The first is the iconography of what he called ‘scientific humanism’ (Letters 368) – as represented by the socialist future histories of J. B. S. Haldane, H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon – which embraces the radical changes brought about by the political, technological and cultural revolutions of the twentieth century. The second is the iconography of Renaissance Christian poetry, through which Lewis rejects these revolutions as manifestations of totalitarianism, and with which he seeks to supplant the scientific humanist iconographies. In The Dark Tower Lewis pitches these two literary modes against one another, ranging them about the grotesque figure of an automaton-dictator called the ‘Stingingman’, who has been spontaneously generated by the forces of modernity but whose physical characteristics make him equally at home in both iconographies. In charting the course of this battle Lewis offers us a vivid conservative vision of the struggle for control of the future in mid-century Europe.

Lewis mentions his battle with the ‘scientific humanists’ in a letter of 1939 describing the genesis of his first science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). ‘What set me about writing the book’, he explains,

Was the discovery that a pupil of mine took all that dream of interplanetary colonization quite seriously, and the realization that thousands of people, in one form or another depend on some hope of perpetuating and improving the human species for the whole meaning of the universe – that a ‘scientific’ hope of defeating death is a real rival to Christianity. At present, of course, the prospect of a war has rather dampened them. […] You will be both grieved and amused to learn that out of about sixty reviews, only two showed any knowledge that my idea of the fall of the Bent One was anything but a private invention of my own! But if only there were someone with a richer talent and more leisure, I believe this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of England: any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it. (Letters 321-2)

With minor variations Lewis reworks the themes of this letter in nearly every account he gives of his science fiction: the notion, for instance, that the socialist ‘hope of perpetuating and improving the human species’ by technological means represents a crude and highly dangerous pastiche of the Christian hope of an afterlife; that twentieth-century Christians are an embattled minority contending against ‘great ignorance’ – a tiny civilized community holding back the massed forces of barbarism; or that the weapons of the science-worshippers might profitably be used against them. Lewis’s exploitation of the radio for purposes of ‘evangelization’ was one practical result of this final conviction, reclaiming a small portion of the airwaves for Christian propaganda. Another was his effort, through his science fiction, to colonize the planets in the name of Christianity – or rather, to represent himself as a strenuous resister of the scientific project of ‘interplanetary colonization’. To understand the reasons for his resistance, and the path it took, we need to begin with a brief examination of the socialist colonialist enterprise as Lewis encountered it.

J B S Haldane

A succinct summary of the enterprise was provided in an essay by the biologist J. B. S. Haldane, ‘The Last Judgment’, from his book Possible Worlds (1927). The essay presents itself as an alternative vision of the end of the world to set alongside the visions offered by the major Western religions.[1] The problem with the Christian account of the Last Judgment, says Haldane, is the vast scale on which it is conceived. It seems to him improbable in the extreme that the actions of so diminutive a species as the human race should provoke an omnipotent creator into wiping out the ‘entire stellar system’, as happens in the Book of Revelation.[2] Instead Haldane proposes an end of the world – that is, of planet earth alone, not the solar system it is part of – on a much more modest scale; an Armageddon brought about by technology, whose disastrous effects on humanity may in turn be evaded, or at least deferred, by technological means. He postulates a time about forty billion years hence when human beings will have found the key to individual happiness – largely through the judicious manipulation of human biology known as eugenics – and when all the energy they need is supplied through the harnessing of the ‘tide-power’ of the world’s oceans. The effect of the ‘tide-machines’ is to disturb the orbit of the moon, and a crisis arises as that satellite drifts slowly closer to the earth and starts to show signs of breaking up. It becomes clear that the only chance of surviving the impending catastrophe is for the human race to abandon its home planet and launch itself into space.

At this point the work of the eugenicists changes as they begin to devote their research towards the task of refashioning the human body and mind to cope with the rigors of interplanetary travel. The instinctual drive to individual happiness is bred out of them, together with cognate emotions such as pride, a personal preference concerning the choice of sexual partners, and pity, ‘an unpleasant feeling aroused by the suffering of other individuals’ (Haldane 303). In their place the drive towards self-sacrifice for the collective good of the species – modeled on the selfless behaviour of the heroes and martyrs of history – is made the dominant characteristic of the race. Huge numbers of people sacrifice themselves in the effort to make the planet Venus habitable for humanity, an effort that also entails the eradication of all native life on the planet.

Once the exodus to Venus has been satisfactorily accomplished, the process of forging the species into a ‘super-organism or deity, possibly the only one in space-time’ is brought to fruition (Haldane 304). Telepathic communication enables all men and women to participate in a fully communal life. Plans are made for spreading the powers of the human super-organism throughout the galaxy, at the expense, where necessary, of other life forms. And after that, Haldane’s little parable concludes, ‘there are other galaxies’ (309). In this version of the future, humanity enjoys the prospect of occupying ‘eternity and infinity’ without assistance from non-human deities.

Haldane’s essay ends with a plea for new mythologies better suited to the needs of twentieth-century people than the old religions: capable of operating on the ‘new’ scales of time and space opened up by contemporary physics.[3] His appeal was brilliantly answered by the novelist-philosopher Olaf Stapledon in a dazzling sequence of speculative ‘future histories’ beginning with Last and First Men (1930), which traces the development of humankind across unimaginable distances of time and space, as the species leaps from planet to planet in a heroic bid to find a satisfactory way of living together and of achieving mental perfection. It was answered too by H. G. Wells, whose The Shape of Things to Come (1933) maps the evolution, across a much shorter time span, of a utopian World State, which starts out as a technocratic dictatorship and ends, like Haldane’s essay and Stapledon’s novel, in a quasi-religious vision. ‘The body of mankind,’ declares Wells’s historian of the future in a moment of Pauline rapture,

is now one single organism of nearly two thousand five hundred million persons. […] We are all members of one body. […] As […] the confluence of wills supersedes individual motives and loses its present factors of artificiality, the history of life will pass into a new phase, a phase with a common consciousness and a common will. […] And when that crest is attained what grandeur of life may not open out to Man! Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; nor hath it entered into the mind of man to conceive… For now we see as in a glass darkly… (425-6)

The quotations from St Paul here declare the ambition of the scientific humanists to write what is in effect a modern Bible, a new spiritual history of which the Bible itself is only an infinitesimal building block, one of several textual ‘glasses’ (mirrors) which have given the people of the past a distorted glimpse of the infinite possibilities available to the species. Haldane, Stapledon and Wells aspire to colonize not only the planets but the philosophical and religious texts that have helped to shape Western culture.

If the scientific humanists express (through mimicry and selective quotation) a qualified admiration for the Christian tradition, Lewis professes a similarly qualified admiration for the grand narratives of ‘Wellsianity’.[4] His science fiction novels freely acknowledge their debt to Wells and Stapledon, and in a paper delivered to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944 he speaks of having been ‘deeply moved’ by the heartbreaking beauty of the godless ‘world drama’ constructed by the socialist mythmakers.[5] But his project in his science fiction is the reverse of theirs: it is to rehabilitate ancient classical mythology and the Christian religion as still valid keys to the trajectories of past, present and future history. One might say that he colonizes the planets that had been seized as their territory by the socialists, but it would be more accurate in his terms to say that he reclaims them. In Out of the Silent Planet (1938) it is the visionary socialist scientist Weston who uses the vocabulary of imperialist aggression, while the Christian academic Ransom ‘goes native’, as Weston puts it (155); that is, he finds himself to be thoroughly at home in a universe which he finds he has been studying all his life. Lewis has him exclaim with pleasure as he examines a visual history of the universe sculpted by the Martians, ‘what an extraordinary coincidence […] that their mythology, like ours, associates some idea of the female with Venus’ (Silent Planet 129). Ransom discovers, in fact, that the iconography of the ancient world as reconfigured by Medieval and Renaissance Christian thinkers accurately represents the actual social, spatial and spiritual structure of the universe, and that Spenser and the Florentine Neoplatonists offer a more trustworthy account of human history than any ‘world drama’ concocted by modern scientists. As a result, each time Ransom returns to earth in between his adventures he lapses into a state of nostalgic yearning for the not-so-alien planets he has visited. They are his worlds, not the Wellsians’; he speaks their language, as Weston does not; and they represent the supreme affirmation of his lifelong work as a Cambridge philologist. In wandering the exotic landscapes of Mars and Venus he is wandering the pages of the old books he (or rather Lewis) loves, come alive and bursting with energy, and continuing to participate, now as when they were written, in the eternal cosmic struggle.

This is particularly clear when Ransom finds himself on Venus in the second of Lewis’s completed novels, Perelandra [aka Voyage to Venus] (1943). What he finds there is, on the one hand, a series of echoes of Stapledon – or rather, echoes of Stapledon’s echoes of Haldane, since Stapledon’s treatment of Venus in Last and First Men is clearly modeled on Haldane’s ‘The Last Judgment’. Here, as in Haldane, the first human act of interplanetary colonization is driven by the urge to preserve the species in the face of imminent extinction: the moon shows signs of colliding with the earth, and human biology is reengineered to make it capable of adapting to conditions on Venus (Stapledon 243ff.). An aggressive but intelligent native species – shaped something like a swordfish – is wiped out to make the transference possible; and many generations later, after another interplanetary leap and numerous physical and psychological changes, humanity achieves the capacity to think collectively as a quasi-divine ‘racial mind’ (Stapledon 299ff.). The Perelandra discovered by Lewis’s Ransom shares many characteristics with Stapledon’s Venus. The surface of both worlds is mostly ocean, and the ocean is pleasantly unsalted. Both atmospheres are subject to cataclysmic storms, and floating islands dot the storm-tossed waves, although in Stapledon’s Venus the islands are artificially constructed for the benefit of humanity, while in Lewis’s they are natural. Finally, both worlds are exposed to the threat of colonization. The physicist Weston arrives on Perelandra soon after Ransom and announces his allegiance to a Stapledonian philosophy: ‘To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race, is henceforth my mission’ (Perelandra 81-2).[6] The spirituality he advocates is the disembodied variety to which Haldane alludes at the end of ‘The Last Judgment’: ‘the emergence of a new kind of being which will bear the same relation to mind as do mind to life and life to matter’ (311-2). Haldane (and Stapledon after him) freely acknowledges the hostility that such visions of the future will arouse in even the most progressive twentieth-century thinkers (309-10); and Lewis’s hostility soon becomes vigorously apparent, as he brings the scientific humanist future histories into explosive contact with the Christian narrative.

In appearing on Perelandra at all, we learn, Weston has inadvertently thrown himself into a very old story of which the ‘new’ one he tells is no more than a feeble travesty. Venus is populated with the stuff of ancient myth: from obedient fish (benign counterparts of Stapledon’s aggressive swordfish), which carry men as a dolphin once carried the musician Arion, to mermaids, subterranean monarchies and dragons. Above all there is a new Adam and Eve, into whose tale all other mythologies have been incorporated, and in whose revised authorized version of Genesis Weston is to play the part of the satanic serpent. Soon after explaining his philosophy, Weston finds his body possessed by one of the characters (Satan) from the book he had planned to appropriate for his own ends, the Bible, and compelled to reenact the very myth that had been most decisively consigned to the realm of fantasy by the rise of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century – the theory which serves as the foundation of his commitment to the perpetual improvement of the human species, as it did of Stapledon’s. Weston’s ‘great ignorance’ of religious history (Lewis once accused Haldane of being as ignorant of history as Lewis was of science)[7] has left him vulnerable to a singularly nasty form of spiritual colonization. And the retribution for his ignorance is horribly enacted on the body he had hoped to discard: he is beaten to a pulp by Ransom in an extended fist-fight. It is difficult to imagine a more aggressive conclusion to what many readers might see as a merely academic, or bookish, quarrel.

But of course for Lewis the Bible is not just a book; it is the book, to which all others are no more than footnotes or polemical responses. Lewis’s science fiction is no fiction in the sense that a thriller or a chivalric romance is fiction; it participates in actual events on a more than cosmic scale that for him are taking place right here, right now, as he writes and as we read. We ourselves are part of the story they tell, which is a chapter in the ‘universal story’ described in Miracles (1947) of which ‘we are not, perhaps, very attentive readers’ (103). This conviction provides the driving force behind the extraordinarily vibrant descriptions of planetary and interplanetary life that unfold in paragraph after paragraph of the four science fiction novels: the invitations to feel the cosmic rays that permeate space or ‘heaven’ on Ransom’s journey to Mars, to taste the fruits he plucks on Perelandra, to wince as his open wounds adhere to the skin of the Perelandran fish he is riding, or to be overwhelmed by the most ancient of languages as it emerges ‘like castles’ from the mouth of Dimble in That Hideous Strength (228). All these are attempts to make us feel with our bodies a life that lies beyond the text – not just in the ‘other world’ of dreams or the imagination, but in the everyday world we inhabit and in the spiritual world that touches it at every point. The conviction that his writing is a contribution to living history is what renders Lewis’s writing iconographic.

In his last work of criticism, Spenser’s Images of Life (1967), Lewis defines iconography as the practice of making visual or verbal images which both describe and participate in the world outside the work of art: ‘art jutting out into life, and life turning into art’ (11). The Renaissance achieved this effect by incorporating a language of symbols embodying moral and psychological qualities into their public art: the decorations of public buildings, for instance; or the pageantry of tournaments, where real knights fought with one another in the context of an imaginary story; or masques, whose imaginative embodiments of aristocratic virtues were performed by real aristocrats. ‘Iconographical art,’ Lewis tells us,

was not a comment on life, so much as a continual statement of it – an accompaniment, rather than a criticism. Or, if you wish, life itself, in another mode. The planets (it said), the Virtues, the Vices, the Liberal Arts, the Worthies, are thus. If now we were to use a similar art, it would be full of figures symbolizing the atom, evolution, relativity, totalitarianism, democracy, and so on. (Images 11)

In his science fiction Lewis begins to flesh out a twentieth-century iconography of the sort he refers to in this final sentence. He achieves the iconographic effect of ‘art jutting out into life, and life turning into art’ (Images 11) by insisting that his readers are actively involved in the events he describes, as Weston is, whether they like it or not. In Out of the Silent Planet the angelic being Oyarsa tells Ransom, and in doing so tells the reader, that the events in the novel are part of the pageant of human history: ‘The year we are now in – but heavenly years are not as yours – has long been prophesied as a year of stirrings and high changes’ (166). Later the narrator Lewis tells us that these cosmic changes have overtaken his readers even before they began to read: ‘What neither of us foresaw was the rapid march of events which was to render the book out of date before it was published’ (180). An even more daring shift in narrative perspective occurs in The Dark Tower, when the narrator (again Lewis) suddenly reveals that the story will not have ended after the last page has been written. The Tower of the story’s title is still standing; ‘the things I am describing are not over and done with’ (32). Scudamour’s diagnosis of the relationship between his companions – a group of scholars gathered in Cambridge to witness an experiment – and the alternative world they are privileged to view by means of the experiment, is equally applicable to Lewis’s readers. There are, Sudamour says, ‘bits of our world in there, or bits of it out here among us’ (48). Lewis’s science fiction aspires to ‘jut out into life’ as obtrusively as an Elizabethan stage jutted into its audience.

In fact, the quasi-scientific premise at the centre of The Dark Tower derives from a twentieth-century text which suggests that the dividing line between ‘fiction’ and ‘real life’ is a good deal less clear-cut than much of our thinking tends to suggest. The scholars at Cambridge find themselves confronted with a ‘chronoscope’ (19), a device for seeing into other times – past, future, or concurrent with their own; and the inspiration for the chronoscope came, they are told, from a celebrated book by the aeronautical inventor J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (1927). Dunne’s book sets out to offer empirical evidence that future events may be ‘previsioned’ by the sleeping mind – that dreams are made up in approximately equal parts of memories of time past and foreshadowings of time to come – and furnishes a theory to account for such prevision. Both Stapledon and Wells made use of Dunne’s book in their future histories as a means of marking the difference between these narratives and the conventional novel. Last and First Men and The Shape of Things to Come present themselves as visions from another epoch, obtained through one of the feats of inverted remembering of which An Experiment with Time offers so many strange examples. Stapledon’s narrative purports to have been directly transmitted to the author’s brain by a future human inhabitant of the planet Neptune, as part of an immense scheme to educate the primitive earlier generations of humankind in the philosophical principles held dear by the Neptunians; while Wells’s text poses as the inadequate transcription of a book read in a dream by a man with the ominous name of Raven, who died before his transcriptions reached print.[8] In The Dark Tower, then, Lewis took over what he may have seen as the most ‘iconographic’ element of his rivals’ fictions: a chronic theory which proposed direct contact between the imaginative faculties and ‘real’ future events, between art and life, and which aimed to demonstrate the plausibility of the claims of the prophets, mystics, poets and dreamers who were the object of Lewis’s more than scholarly interest. Lewis’s, Wells’s and Stapledon’s fictions depend on a text – Dunne’s book – which roots their extravagant speculations in the mysterious common ground of the living human brain.

Reading, for Lewis, was as vivid a process as remembering. ‘I know,’ he wrote in 1940,

the geography of Tormance [in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus] better than that of Tellus [i.e. earth]. […] Though I saw the trenches before Arras I could not now lecture on them so tactically as on the Greek wall, and Scamander and the Scaean Gate. As a social historian I am sounder on Toad Hall and the Wild Wood or the cave-dwelling Selenites [in Wells’s the First Men in the Moon] or Hrothgar’s court [in Beowulf] […] than on London, Oxford, and Belfast. (Of This and Other Worlds 29)

Things to Come

The Dark Tower can be read, of course, as a speculative fiction concerning the nature of time, but we might also think of it as a meditation on the act of reading in the twentieth century. The location where the action begins – a scholar’s study in the University of Cambridge – is a space dedicated to reading, and although the chronoscope resembles a cinema projector rather than a book (it works by throwing moving images onto a screen, and the dominant image recalls the futuristic buildings of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) or William Cameron Menzies’s Things to Come (1936)), many of the pictures it shows have literary associations.[9] The Tower itself, as it appears on the screen, is a gloomy simulacrum of the recently completed tower of Cambridge University Library – a building Lewis abominated; and although the Othertime Tower is not a library, it contains a room full of books to which the story’s protagonist, the young scientist Scudamour, inevitably makes his way. Here he settles down, at the end of the surviving fragment, to read a history of the time into which he has plunged, and he is immersed in the business of reading when we leave him.

Scudamour enters the Othertime projected by the chronoscope through what might be called a spontaneous act of the readerly will – an accomplishment that a combative scholar like Lewis would no doubt have given his right arm to reproduce. Enraged by something he sees on the screen, Scudamour hurls himself at it, as if to engage in an ungainly academic wrestling-match with his demonic double in Othertime – the Stingingman – of the kind Lewis later took to its bloody conclusion in Perelandra. In the process he somehow swaps souls with the Stingingman, and finds himself in the alternative world he had reacted against so violently, trapped in another man’s body, his tongue constrained by another man’s language. It is tempting to see this as Lewis’s take on the readerly encounter with a disturbing but horrifically vigorous text – an encounter of the sort he describes with such passion in his essay ‘On Stories’.[10] For Lewis, certain ancient and modern adventure stories took on the quality of a lived experience – just as the inventor of the chronoscope in The Dark Tower suggests that certain memories of the past and future constitute direct encounters with other times. ‘On Stories’ indicates that in 1940 some at least of the stories uppermost in Lewis’s mind were scientific romances: Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus (1920), Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901) and The War of the Worlds (1897). These, indeed, are just three of the texts into which Scudamour rashly launches himself; his experiences in Othertime, for instance, closely resemble the adventures of Wells’s Time Traveller among the Eloi and the Morlocks. But the texts that really stir his soul to rage are the future histories of Stapledon and Wells.

The Dark Tower itself seems to have been plucked wholesale from an episode in Last and First Men – the same episode Lewis later used as the basis for his last work of science fiction, That Hideous Strength (1945). As the unfinished narrative unfolds we learn that the Tower houses a Big Brain, although we never get to meet it. The servants of the Brain – the Stingingman and his minions – are men and women reduced to the condition of automata. Readers of Stapledon’s text should recognize at once the society of the Fourth Men, a particularly grim stage in the evolution of the interplanetary human race. The Fourth Men are a community of giant brains, each housed in an artificial cranium in the form of a tower, a ‘roomy turret of ferro-concrete some forty feet in diameter’ (211). These ‘preposterous factories of the mind’ are serviced by the docile relics of the previous stage in human evolution, the Third Men, whose telepathic link to their masters suppresses their individuality and makes them ‘an army of […] perfect slaves’ (218). By entering the Dark Tower, then, Scudamour enters one of the gloomiest literary forecasts of the scientific humanists – much as Weston was later to enter the living world of Christian myth. And the longer he stays there the more deeply he becomes enmeshed in the scientific humanist vision. When he visits the room full of books and begins to read the history of Othertime he is duplicating the feat of the man called Raven in The Shape of Things to Come: studying an unfamiliar civilization in a text from another time. And the history he reads is once again an adaptation of a story told in Last and First Men. It concerns a culture as obsessed with the workings of time as our own is obsessed with the workings of space: and that culture is instantly recognizable as that of Stapledon’s Fifth Men, who ‘as a race […] were peculiarly fascinated by time’ (231), and whose researches are devoted to the exploration of cultures of the past by means of the mental time-travel pioneered by Dunne. Like Dunne, the scientists of Lewis’s Othertime convince themselves that dreams contain images of other times besides the past, and like Stapledon’s Fifth Men they are prepared to experiment on children to test their theory. Stapledon’s narrator shows the same horrific detachment from the effects of these experiments as does the Othertime historian; he states simply that ‘[t]he experience seemed to set up a progressive mental disintegration which produced first insanity, then paralysis, and, within a few months, death’ (239). The Dark Tower closely paraphrases this sentence: ‘The experiences of these children had very disagreeable effects, leading to extreme terror and finally to insanity, and most of those whom he used had to be destroyed before they reached maturity’ (Tower 89). And the ends to which the Othertime experiments tend – the achievement of a kind of immortality by leaping from time to time rather as Stapledon’s people leap from planet to planet – recall the vision of immortality vouchsafed to the Eighteenth and final variety of the human species in Last and First Men, for whom cosmic events recur in a never-ending cycle throughout eternity (305-6).

The scientist Scudamour finds himself as disgusted as Lewis by this kind of immortality: ‘I’d sooner go to a heaven of harps and angels like what they used to tell me about when I was a boy. […] I’d sooner have anything than go round and round that way like a rat in a bucket of water’ (Tower 88). His repugnance resembles the repugnance occasionally felt by the scientific humanists themselves at the future they had imagined. Haldane, for instance, expresses his personal distaste for the Venusian mentality he conjures up in ‘The Last Judgment’, where humans have become ‘mere components of a monstrous ant-heap’ (309-10). In Stapledon’s Last and First Men the merciless annihilation of the natives of Venus by a supposedly enlightened human race plunges all humankind into a state of collective depression that lasts for millennia (252-3). Wells’s Raven is unable to copy out the later stages of his dream-history of time to come, appalled – perhaps mentally unhinged – by the atrocities that will have been perpetrated in the struggle to bring about the utopian World State (Wells 331-4). For Lewis, of course, the distaste of the scientific humanists for their own workmanship is a natural reaction to its violation of the universal moral order; and in That Hideous Strength he explores the possibility that this repulsion might form the basis for the conversion of modern scientists from their atheism. The social scientist Mark Studdock begins his conversion during a visit to a repulsive room very like the one where Scudamour first encounters the Stingingman; and presumably Scudamour’s visit to the Dark Tower will end in a similar conversion. We must return to the Stingingman and his room, though, to understand the nature of the conversion Scudamour is to undergo.

[To be continued.]



Crossley, Robert. ‘Olaf Stapledon and the Idea of Science Fiction.’ Modern Fiction Studies 32 (1986): 21-42.

Dunne, J. W. An Experiment with Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1958.

Fiedler, Lesley A. Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Haldane, J. B. S. Possible Worlds and Other Essays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1927.

Kegler, Karl. ‘Travels, Towers, Space and Time: Lewis’s The Dark Tower and its Correspondences.’ Inklings-Jahnrbuch 16 (1998): 119-137.

Lewis, C. S. The Dark Tower and Other Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Letters. Ed. W. H. Lewis, rev. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. Of This and Other Worlds. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1984.

Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. London: Pan Books, 1952.

Lewis, C. S. Perelandra [Voyage to Venus]. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Spenser’s Images of Life. Ed. Alistair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Lewis, C. S. That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962.

Lindsay, David. A Voyage to Arcturus. London: Sphere Books, 1980.

Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963.

Wells, H. G. The Shape of Things to Come. London: Corgi Books, 1967.



[1] For Lewis’s response to Haldane’s essay see ‘A Reply to Professor Haldane’ (Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds 97-109).

[2] Revelation 20.11.

[3] See also Haldane’s essay ‘On Scales’ (1-6).

[4] The term ‘Wellsianity’ seems to have been invented by someone who attended a talk by Lewis, ‘Is Theology Poetry?’, given to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944 (They Asked for a Paper 154n).

[5] See They Asked for a Paper, 154-6, which offers Lewis’s version of the Wellsian ‘world drama’. I am grateful to my friend and colleague Donald Mackenzie for drawing this text to my attention.

[6] On the relation of this passage to Stapledon’s philosophy see Fiedler, 130-3).

[7] ‘My science is usually wrong. Why, yes. So is the Professor’s history’ (Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds 98).

[8] For Stapledon’s use of Dunne, see Fiedler, 58ff. Wells refers to Dunne in Things to Come, 16-17. For Dunne’s reply to Wells’s criticisms of his book see Dunne, 211-4.

[9] For Lewis’s possible debt to Metropolis see Kegler, 119-37.

[10] See Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds, 25-45. See also his essay ‘On Science Fiction’, ibid, 80-96, esp. 93.


Dancing at the bottom of my string,
My tangled string, a merry little thing,
Merry because my wooden features smile,
Smile open-mouthed, as if about to sing,
Sing with delight, although the weather’s vile,
Vile because rain has polished both my cheeks
From an unnaturally lurid red
To shining apples in my wooden head,
My head that wobbles through the rainy weeks,
Weeks that have doubtless some mysterious use,
Use which the passers-by, on growing tired
Of hearing, drenched, a lonely puppet’s squeaks,
Have made of them when softly they retired,
Retired beneath a layer of autumn ooze,
Autumn which sets about discolouring
The leaves and I, weighting my feet with lead,
My feet which turn towards the winter gales,
Gales which will set me dancing on my head
And billow out my pinafores like sails –
I ought to be a sight to see in spring.


Naomi Novik, Uprooted

I came to this book after reading the Temeraire series, in which Naomi Novik introduced dragons into the Napoleonic wars in a radical reimagining of the naval action adventure genre: the Hornblower books by C. S. Forester or Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. In the first book of the series, His Majesty’s Dragon, early nineteenth-century warfare has been transformed by the presence of gigantic flying reptiles, whose human riders are imprinted on their hearts and minds at birth like a duck on a hatchling goose – or like the dragons in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern sequence, whose lifelong attachment to their riders constitutes an essential defensive weapon in the struggle to protect a planet from a deadly invasive species. Since McCaffrey’s time the notion of imprinting dragons and riding them has become a familiar fantasy trope, re-emerging in Pratchett’s Discworld series and Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon books, and Novik’s insertion of the practice into history successfully persuades its readers that dragonriding could always have existed, and that our past – and in particular women’s past – would have looked very different if it had.

Uprooted, too, has a Dragon in it, though in this case the mythical creature is a wizard who devotes his life, like the dragonriders of Pern, to protecting his homeland from an invasive species. The Dragon of Uprooted, then, is a Dragon only in name. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that his name neatly conveys the way its owner’s personality has been shaped by his protective function. The need to defend the realm – always vigilant, always aware that anyone he meets may be an assassin or a spy sent by the malignant entity known as the Wood – has prevented him from forging any close relationships. Instead he must labour away in scholarly seclusion to discover new ways of resisting the Wood’s insidious inroads into the human population: its contaminating spores, aggressive predators with infectious teeth and claws, stone-shattering roots and branches, and worst of all its agents in the guise of men and women, ordinary human beings who have been infected by its malevolence and whose unprepossessing outward appearance means that anyone you meet could well be one of them. In combating this range of enemies the wizard has grown a metaphorical armour of protective mental scales, and the possibility of anyone imprinting themselves on his heart or mind seems at the beginning of the novel to be remote.

At one point late in the narrative the association between the Dragon’s name and his elaborate strategies for self-defence are given shape in such a way as to suggest that his link with dragons is more than metaphorical. As the struggle with the Wood reaches its crisis the novel’s protagonist, a magically-gifted girl called Agnieszka, makes her way to the wizard’s room at the top of the lonely tower he has made his home. As she does so she finds her way barred by a monster. The carpet on the floor of the corridor that leads to the room is woven in the likeness of a dragon, and she must navigate its scaly body before she can reach the bedroom door. ‘I walked over one great ivory-clawed limb, over the sweep of pale golden wings veined in dark brown’, she tells us, and by the time she reaches the chamber the dragon-pattern has come fully alive beneath her feet: ‘The golden pattern turned back on itself, and a gleaming green eye looked up at me from a head filled with rows of silver teeth, waiting for anyone who didn’t know where to turn’ (p. 352). The dragon guards the wizard’s door from strangers or from seeming friends who don’t really know him, thus marking themselves out as potential foes. But by this stage in the book Agnieszka knows him very well indeed, and steps past the fearful sentinel with relative ease.

The wizard’s behaviour, too, is dragonish at the beginning of the book. In a reenactment of countless monster myths, Agnieszka’s village community sacrifices a girl to him every ten years in exchange for his protection against the Wood, and although he does not devour the girls he renders them unfit for continued human existence – at least, for existence as a woman in a medieval rural setting. They return to their families after ten years in the wizard’s tower forever tainted by the assumption that cohabitation with a single man must involve rape and disgrace, as well as by ideas above their station: most of them leave home a few weeks later to study for a degree at University. The wizard, then, combines the properties of the dragon he is named for and the armoured prince who traditionally defeats the dragon. Both prince and dragon are given to snatching young women from their families without consultation, though for rather different purposes – a meal or a rise in status, usually through marriage; and as an embodiment of both figures the wizard is almost as terrible to the local peasants as the infectious Wood. His longevity, too, makes him hard to deal with; he has lived in his tower for many generations, and as result finds it almost impossible to communicate with the human mayflies who are his vassals. In other words, at the beginning of the book the Dragon has all the traits of the Beast in the fairy story, a misanthropic recluse ripe for taming by Agnieszka’s Belle, an eligible Darcy ready to be captivated by Agnieszka’s Elizabeth Bennett.

In fact, however, the relationship between the Dragon and his latest sacrificial ‘victim’ turns out to be tangled up in the wider political troubles of the kingdom of Polnya, where the tale is set. The Dragon’s antisocial tendencies are symptomatic of a general breakdown in communication across the various communities that populate Novik’s alternative Poland. His preoccupation with the Wood has detached him from the power politics at work in the country’s capital, Kralia, as well as from the local villagers; and Kralian politics are dominated by the machinations of a prince even more socially dysfunctional than the wizard. Twenty years ago the Queen of the realm was abducted by the Wood, leaving her eight-year-old son in a state of trauma; and as Prince Marek grew to maturity all his energies became devoted to the hope of rescuing his mother from the clutch of the forest. This obsession alienates him from everyone around him, including his family (he sees his father and older brother as guilty of abandoning his mother to her fate), his soldiers (who are expendable) and other women (the pre-eminence of his mother reduces lesser female mortals to tools to be used and discarded at the prince’s whim). Meanwhile the nobles of Kralia focus their attention on the cutthroat competition for power, like plants competing for light in the depths of the jungle. Some align themselves with Marek, others with the King or with Marek’s older brother, while still others watch dispassionately from the sidelines to see how events play out, waiting to commit themselves to the faction that proves strongest. And all the while the hostile neighbouring kingdom, Rosya, hovers on the Polnyan border ready to pounce. What starts out, then, as a book about the relationship between two isolated individuals – the Dragon and Agnieszka, cooped up together in a lonely tower – quickly develops into a meditation on the various forms of isolation that split one section of society from another, pitting class against class, gender against gender, nation against nation in a pastiche of the Darwinian struggle for survival.

The expansion of the story’s focus from tower to city to kingdom illustrates the extent to which the metaphor of the Wood, which is pointed up in the novel’s title, also supplies its central plot device or narrative technique. The story is constantly twisting, turning and shooting out in new directions, and its language too is packed with vegetable references: tendrils, buds, vines, roots and thorny branches link each of its characters and episodes to the destructive Wood. Gradually too, as one reads, the forest’s role as the novel’s chief antagonist becomes increasingly unsettling. For one thing, the Wood seems so unambiguously evil, totally committed to erasing humanity and supplanting the species with a warped and murderous sylvan population made up of monsters, such as the puppet-like ‘walkers’ and giant green mantises, as well as twisted versions of more conventional birds and beasts, wolves, squirrels and crows. In its unrelenting hostility the Wood conjures up memories of the deadly forests of folklore: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and the impenetrable thicket of thorny rose-bushes that hemmed in the Sleeping Beauty. But in each of these stories there’s a more deadly danger lurking among the trees: a wolf, a witch, a wicked stepmother, resentful fairies. The notion of a wood as chief antagonist seems particularly disturbing at a time when thinking people everywhere have been made aware of the ravages inflicted on the ecosphere by the consuming self-interest of global capitalism. For readers of post-Tolkienian fantasy, woods have long been established as the last bastions of defence against the depredations of industry, fragile oases in a tortured landscape laid waste by toxic chemicals and mechanized logging. As a result, I found myself always waiting as I read for the moment when the novel’s war against the Wood would be exposed as misguided, an appalling mistake which could easily be averted by a simple change of perspective on the part of the fighters, an access of empathy on both sides that rendered fighting redundant. Instead, the savagery of the war grows more intense as the book goes on, beginning with individual beasts and people being hideously transformed by noxious spores, then burned in purging bonfires; escalating with the massacre of Prince Marek’s military expedition into the forest; and coming to a climax with the final siege of the Dragon’s tower by a merciless ‘Wood-queen’ and her minions, while Agnieszka and the Dragon rain down flames of destruction on them from the upper windows. The breathless pace of events, the raising of the stakes involved in each successive battle, mean that there’s little time for contemplating alternative approaches to the problem of dealing with the forest. There’s no Sleeping Beauty in Novik’s tale because there’s no time for prolonged sleeping, as crisis follows crisis and Agnieszka and the Dragon have to delve ever deeper into their knowledge of magic in order to repel the Wood’s advances on all fronts.

And that’s the second thing that’s disturbing about Novik’s Wood: everyone in the book is profoundly complicit with its actions in one way or another. The violence meted out against the Wood is as shocking as the violence it inflicts, and the mutuality of this violence is clearly something Novik is concerned to stress. She underlines the lack of distinction between both sides by the ease with which the forest takes possession of the minds and bodies of its human victims: the peasant Jerzy, transformed into a wild-eyed murderer by a toxic bite from one of his own infected cows; the monkish wizard Father Ballo, who mutates into a dog-headed cyclops after reading a book infused with the forest’s poisons; the Queen of Polnya, whose lengthy imprisonment in the depths of a ‘heart-tree’ turns her after her rescue into a genocidal ‘Wood-queen’. In each case, the Wood locks onto some damage already present in its victim’s mind, exploiting their psychological readiness to erupt in anger (Jerzy at his undeserved poverty, Father Ballo at the thought of any magical power that fails to conform to scholarly conventions, the Queen at having been trapped for twenty years in a tree trunk) in order to turn them against their fellow human beings exactly as the Wood has been turned against them by centuries of unprovoked aggression. In addition, every attack against the Wood gets appropriated by the Wood as basis for a counter-attack against its human enemies, so that assaults on the Wood become in effect acts of wilful self-harm. As a result of this destructive collusion, by the time we reach the siege of the Dragon’s tower there seems little chance of reconciliation between the warring forces. The forest is too deeply entwined with the human population to be ‘uprooted’ from their minds and bodies, yet too poisonous to cohabit with men and women without killing them. Humans and trees are locked together in an unending cycle of reciprocal violence, and Novik meticulously underlines the length and complexity of the cycle’s history.

History is a problematic concept in this novel. Contaminated by prejudice, myth and rumour, narratives of the past get handed down through generations without adequate scrutiny, reinforcing the hostilities of the present by adding to the confusion over who may or may not have been responsible for starting the war between Wood and people. Near the beginning we get the impression that the enchanted forest was originally a malignant invader from outside Polnya, a noxious foreign influence. Taking advantage of the continual conflict between the neighbouring countries Polnya and Rosya, Agnieszka tells us, ‘the Wood crept a little further into both realms every year, feeding on [human] deaths’ (p. 50). A little later, Agnieszka begins to discover the full extent of her people’s ignorance as to the historic roots of the human-forest hostilities. As she works under the Dragon’s tutelage to master a spell written in a strange script on an ancient manuscript, the girl begins to wonder about the origins of the script itself. The wizard informs her that it’s ‘Older than Polnya’, that it might indeed ‘be older than the Wood’, and that it was ‘here before this valley was ever settled’ by either Polnya or Rosya (p. 118). He goes on to assert that the people who invented the script arrived in the valley many thousands of years ago, and that afterwards ‘the Wood rolled over them, brought their fortresses low and laid their fields waste’. Agnieszka then asks him the inevitable question: ‘if the Wood wasn’t here when they first settled the valley, where did it come from?’ – and the Dragon admits that there are as many conflicting stories about the ‘rising of the Wood’ as there are inventive troubadours willing to sing them. A little later, when Agnieszka and the Dragon have made their way down to an ancient tomb at the base of the tower, the confusion over origins is further compounded. The Dragon tells Agnieszka that the builders of the tomb – which is covered in the same strange script as the ancient manuscript – either ‘woke the Wood, or made it’, and that ‘it destroyed them’. The obscurity of the Wood, then, has crept into the writing of the Wood’s history, obliterating all traces of its source or seed (much as the source of the river Spindle that flows through the forest is untraceable). Appropriately enough, the script that covers the tomb is described in floral terms: it resembles ‘tall flowering trees and vines curling over each other’. Later, the participation of the Wood in the act of writing gets confirmed when Agnieszka discovers a contaminated book in the Polnyan royal library, its penmanship capable of infecting the unwary reader at a glance; it’s this book that transforms the scholarly Father Ballo into a raging demon. Writing has no more claim to be authoritative or reasonable in Novik’s novel than folk tradition or court gossip; each is caught up in the same emotional and political turmoil that besets relations between individuals and nations in contemporary culture, and a pen-wielding scholar is as likely to succumb to violence as a warrior-prince or an embittered wife and mother.

As if to underscore the involvement of history in modern conflicts, the past gets materially caught up in the climactic battle between Wood and people, the siege of the tower. In a bid to protect the tower against assault by Prince Marek and his ally, the murderous Wood-queen, Agnieszka uses her magical powers to fashion the ground outside the building into a protective double wall. As she does so, pieces of history begin to protrude from the newly-formed earthworks: ‘there were broken pieces of carved blocks jutting from the dirt, the bones of the old lost tower. Ancient words were carved upon them in places, faint and nearly worn away, but still there to be felt even if not seen’ (p. 347). The tongues of the dead murmur from these fragments in a ‘chorus of deep voices’; and later the Dragon uses a necromantic incantation to bring the owners of these voices to life, co-opting their decomposing bodies in the desperate struggle against the Wood-queen. The legacy of the past lives on, then, in the siege of the tower, though in a warped and twisted fashion; and it soon emerges that this legacy forms an integral part of the timeworn fabric of the tower itself.

At the defining point of the siege, when Prince Marek and the Wood-queen have penetrated the tower’s defences and driven its defenders down to the ancient tomb at the building’s base, Agnieszka and the Dragon brace themselves for one last stand against the Wood among the traces of a ruined civilization. And it’s here that the ‘deep voices’ of history make themselves clearly heard for the first time, in response to a spell of summoning jointly uttered by Agnieszka and the Dragon. Most works of modern fantasy use the term ‘summoning’ to denote a spell that brings the dead to life, as the Dragon did earlier in the siege; that’s how the term is used, for instance, in the Earthsea sequence, where the Master Summoner of Roke specializes in calling up departed spirits to commune with the living. In Uprooted, by contrast, summoning is a quest for truth rather than resurrection; the art of finding out what really happened in the past and of tracing its current consequences. This quest for truth might at times be best achieved by interviewing ghosts; but it might equally be achieved by a careful diagnosis of past troubles that still afflict and motivate living beings – a kind of necromantic cognitive therapy. The Dragon explains this approach to summoning early in the novel when he and Agnieszka decide to use a summoning spell to cleanse one of Agnieszka’s friends, a girl called Kasia, from the Wood’s infections. Before deploying the spell, the wizard dismisses the notion of calling up spirits as ‘nothing but charlatanry’ (p. 133) (a view he has clearly set aside by the time of the siege). Summoning, the Dragon asserts, ‘does nothing so trivial’, though he finds its function hard to describe in lucid terms. Eventually he explains to Agnieszka that it concerns itself with ‘Truth’, and she considers this explanation both intriguing and incomprehensible: ‘I didn’t understand how you could summon truth, unless he meant seeing past something that was a lie’ (p. 134). As it turns out, seeing past a lie does indeed seem to be the point of summoning, which seeks clarity by examining things as wholes rather than from a partial perspective. This is why the spell is described as being so taxing for its casters (pp. 134-5): one can only cast it by reading out the entire book of summoning in one go, since omitting any part of a seamless whole must inevitably compromise one’s quest for truth. In addition, casting a spell of summoning is ideally a collaborative project. ‘I’ve seen it cast only once,’ the Dragon tells Agnieszka before they try it for the first time, and this was achieved ‘by three witches together, each having taught the next younger, passing the book from one to another to read. It almost killed them,’ he adds, ‘and they were by no means weak’ (p. 135). Collaboration and facing up to the truth are difficult matters, and the process of casting the spell to cure the infected Kasia shows why.

The incantation involves an uncompromising diagnosis of the state of mind of the spell’s casters as well as of the so-called patient. In order to recover her friend Kasia as she is, rather than as a shadow of her former self left behind by her exposure to the Wood, Agnieszka must acknowledge the negative aspects of their friendship as well as the positive ones:

I saw my own face reflected in her wide glassy eye, and my own secret jealousies, how I had wanted all her gifts […] I’d enjoyed a dream of being special and nursed a secret seed of envy against her […] She’d hated me for being safe, for being loved […] oh, I hadn’t even imagined that secret bitterness, as sour as spoiled milk. (pp. 140-2)

This act of reimagining Kasia in terms of her blemishes as well as her gifts – above all, in terms of the flawed relationship she shares with Agnieszka – succeeds in bringing her back, so to speak, from the past, restoring her to her former place as Agnieszka’s closest companion. And it also marks the first step on the road to rewriting the tangled history of the relationship between humans and the Wood.

The second step takes place at the siege of the tower, when Agnieszka and the Dragon work another summoning spell, in the same location as the first, but this time on the deadly Wood-queen. Up to this point in the novel summoning has been associated in Agnieszka’s experience with the recovery of lost friendship rather than with enmity – though as we’ve seen it has also revealed to her the fact that enmity (resentment, jealousy, ‘secret bitterness’) can play an unacknowledged role in one’s friendships. On this occasion Agnieszka decides to use the spell on her enemy the Wood-queen as a means of showing the Wood-queen’s allies, Prince Marek and his soldiers, that she has been possessed by the forest – that she is not, in fact, the friend they thought her. Instead, the two casters of the enchantment find themselves confronted with a replay of a crucial incident from the Wood-queen’s past, the incident that made her the enemy of humankind. The spell shows them that the tomb at the base of the tower, where both acts of summoning take place, was built for a king from the same ancient civilization that invented the floral script which covers it; a human king who loved the Wood-queen long ago and married her. But the tomb also had another, secret purpose: it was devised as a trap to hold the Wood-queen after her husband’s death. The reason for constructing this trap doesn’t emerge until some time later, when Agnieszka learns from the Wood itself that the king’s advisers didn’t approve of the match between their monarch and an immortal, non-human, immensely powerful being. But one thing becomes clear at once, as soon as the spell of summoning has been cast. The Wood’s predilection for trapping its enemies – for shutting them in the trunks of heart-trees and overwhelming their personalities with its desires and hatreds – was learned from human beings, whose hatred and suspicion led them to shut the Wood in a human tomb.

Something else emerges from the summoning at the siege; something that concerns the act of writing. The ancient script that covers the tomb, and which itself resembles a Wood with its ‘tall flowering trees and vines curling over each other’, conveys a double message. It is both a benevolent statement of blessing or farewell for the king’s long journey into the afterlife and a curse designed to imprison and destroy the dead man’s wife. Through Agnieszka’s eyes the reader witnesses the moment when the Wood-queen reads the script for the first time and understands the betrayal it articulates:

The letters around the sides [of the tomb] were catching the light, shining out, completing the long sentence from the stairs. She whirled, and I could read them with her: REMAIN ETERNAL, REST ETERNAL, NEVER MOVING, NEVER LEAVING, and they weren’t just a poem for the king’s rest. This wasn’t a tomb; this was a prison. A prison meant to hold her. […] They had quarried this room out of the roots of the mountains. She couldn’t get out. (p. 384)

In this passage, then, the written word is exposed as a two-edged sword, capable of comforting and cursing, of lying and conveying truths in the selfsame sentence. It partakes, that is, in the double nature of the war with the Wood, which is both a struggle against an alien menace and a self-destructive assault on the human beings who fight that menace. No wonder the Wood later chose to appropriate writing as a weapon in its own attack on the people who sought to destroy it; writing played an integral part in its betrayal, helping to transform it from loving spouse to avenging demon. Thanks to the duplicitous words written on the tomb, the Dragon’s statement that the ancient folk who invented the script and built the tower may have ‘made’ the Wood begins to make sense, and Agnieszka begins to understand that this particular thing of darkness must indeed be acknowledged as partly hers – or at least her people’s.

Agnieszka’s affinity with the Wood goes much further than their common experience of being shut up in the Dragon’s tower against their will. From the beginning of the novel she is associated with woodland, living at the edge of an ordinary forest – though close to the Wood – as the daughter of a woodcutter, and playing with Kasia among the trees on a daily basis (‘I never wanted to be anywhere inside when we could be running hand-in-hand beneath the branches’, p. 6). Her aptitude for magic, which is what prompts the Dragon to abduct her in the first place, has a close association with sylvan foraging: ‘I felt as though I was picking my way through a bit of the forest that I had never seen before, [with] another experienced gleaner somewhere ahead of me calling back to say, There are blueberries down on the northern slope, or Good mushrooms by the birches over here, or There’s an easy way through the brambles on the left’ (p. 92). And when she learns to combine her magic with the Dragon’s for the first time, she does so in a spell to create a growing thing, a rose:

[T]hen abruptly we had only a single rose, and it began to grow.

And not only the rose: vines were climbing up the bookshelves in every direction, twining themselves around ancient tomes and reaching out the window; the tall slender columns that made the arch of the doorway were lost among rising birches, spreading out long finger-branches; moss and violets were springing up across the floor, delicate ferns unfurling. (p. 95)

Much later, during the siege, the same effect of vegetation overwhelming the rigid structures of the Dragon’s tower is deployed by the Wood-queen as a weapon: ‘Thin wriggling shadows were climbing through every crack, narrow and quick as snakes: the squirming tendrils of vines and roots, crumbling wood and stone a they found ways inside’ (p. 375). But where Agnieszka’s vines embrace and transform the tower, softening and enhancing its rigid contours, the Wood-queen’s vines dismantle the building and dismember its occupants, ripping stones and limbs apart in a frenzy of retribution. The Wood-queen, too, operates uniquely on her own behalf – a fact that gets confirmed when she kills Prince Marek as soon as he seeks to contravene her will. Agnieszka, by contrast, works with and for others, casting spells in collaboration with her captor, embracing and appropriating the books in his library instead of using them to damage and destroy, directing her powers towards rescue and redemption rather than revenge. She is in effect a benevolent version of the Wood-queen, and the aim of her journey from village to tower, from tower to capital city then back again to tower and so finally to the village at the journey’s end, is to find a means of productive collaboration the Wood and its avatar, the Wood-queen – in effect, to work on the Wood-queen the same metamorphosis she works on the Dragon; to humanize her, and in the process to humanize too the humans who hate the forest.

Another trait Agnieszka shares with the Wood-queen is their mutual distrust of or unease with the authority of letters. Agnieszka finds formal written spells difficult to follow (something she also shares with Tenar in Ursula le Guin’s novel Tehanu). She can only put such spells to use by supplementing them with her own improvised magic, a magic based on domestic activities of small account to historians: cooking, cleaning, gathering food, singing restive children to sleep. The book she finds most useful in the Dragon’s library is the one the Dragon has dismissed as useless: a journal rather than a book of spells (though it has spells in it), written by a long-vanished woodland witch who shares a name with the legendary Slavic enchantress Baba Jaga. The volume corroborates Agnieszka’s preoccupation with collective action rather than with isolated contemplation, and the magic it contains refuses to shut itself away from communal practices as the Dragon does; each spell and incantation springs from some aspect of the village life with which Agnieszka is so familiar. That life is founded on principles of help freely exchanged: assisting one’s neighbours at harvest, lending and borrowing tools, caring for each other’s children, walking together in quest of herbs or mushrooms. The book’s everyday nature is confirmed by the fact that Agnieszka thinks of it as a journal rather than an instruction manual, a record of action effectively taken rather than a prescription for set words of power or ritual gestures.

Like the woman who wrote the journal, Agnieszka finds that her village roots make it easy for her to sympathize with other people, since mutual understanding is necessary for collective work. She is capable of forging bonds even with people like Prince Marek, who tries to rape her when they first meet, or the monster which was once Father Ballo and which she must destroy to save the inmates of the royal palace, or the soldiers of Prince Marek, who exert all their energies to kill her at the siege. She finds it possible to sympathize with her stand-offish abductor, the Dragon, despite the emotional armour he has assumed to seal himself off from approaches either friendly or hostile – to imprint him, in fact, as the Dragonriders of Pern imprinted their reptilian mounts. And she eventually finds herself able to bond with the Wood-queen, thanks to their mutual experience of merging themselves with others, sharing their own minds and feelings with the minds and feelings of strangers. The Wood-queen is the product of a process of forced merging between the Queen of Polnya and the Wood, one of many that take place in the so-called ‘heart-trees’: sentient plants whose mood sets the tone for the rest of the forest. For much of the book the mood of the heart-trees is bitter and vindictive, and the merging they practise – drawing their victims into their trunks and slowly erasing their personalities over time, replacing their wills with the heart-trees’ own – is wholly involuntary on the part of the people they absorb. This means that the walkers and other forest-dwellers who feed on their fruit are bitter and vindictive too, as are the heart-trees’ victims. The Wood’s habit of consuming other people’s personalities could be seen as the direct antithesis of Agnieszka’s wide-ranging sympathy for others; but it becomes clear towards the end of the book that a change of mood – a change of heart on the part of the forest – could transform its oppressive tendencies to a similar kind of reciprocity. After all, Agnieszka and the Wood-queen are made of the same basic ingredients, possess the same gifts, and are written of by Novik using similar language, despite the very different purposes they serve.

Sure enough, by the end of the narrative Agnieszka succeeds in forming a new community that embraces both the Dragon and the Wood, and that spreads its vines throughout the kingdom of Polnya in a benign inversion of the Wood’s campaign for dominance. Cooperation, collaboration, community, empathy, inclusion – all the things Polnya has greatest need of are second nature to Agnieszka, and the pattern of words associated with her make it both satisfying and seemingly inevitable that she should eventually make her home in the Wood itself – effectively becoming part of it – since she has effectively been part of it since the beginning. At this end point of the novel the imagery of plants and flowers entangling themselves with the structure and contents of a building turns out to have foreshadowed the way Agnieszka’s understanding of the Wood and its enemies will embrace and transform the familiar materials that make up Polnya – the same materials that for much of the story have been coopted for violent purposes, just as the young women of Agnieszka’s village have been coopted in the Dragon’s fight against an enemy betrayed by his ancestors.

Smok Wawelski

Agnieszka’s redemption of Polnya and its history could be described as an imaginative redemption of the history of Poland and the Baltic nations, the part of the world in which Naomi Novik’s family roots are so firmly planted. It’s clear enough from the beginning that the two kingdoms at the heart of the story, Polnya and Rusya, are fairy-tale versions of Poland and Russia. The details of Agnieszka’s village life will be familiar to all Poles (‘I ate a big bowl of sour zhurek with slices of boiled eggs floating, and a plateful of stewed cabbage and sausage, and then four blini full of sour cherries’, p. 434). Poland even has an authentic historical counterpart to Novik’s Dragon, Smok Wawelski the Dragon of Wawel, who lived underneath the castle that housed the Polish royal family and whose name may have contributed to the naming of Tolkien’s Smaug. Like nations elsewhere, the Baltic states have experienced their share of atrocities, and the theme of burning that runs through Novik’s novel summons up the worst of these: the Auschwitz complex and the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s. It invokes, too, another fiery holocaust that threw its shadow across the country for many generations: the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War. The distinctive tastes of Polish cooking, the rich traditions and artistic accomplishments of Polish artists, musicians, writers and thinkers, the democratic impulse that dominated long periods of Poland’s political past, coexist with parallel histories of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, misogyny, colonialism, slavery, class oppression and the various brands of despotism – all the usual suspects of European history – many of which find a place in Novik’s narrative. Yet despite all this, Novik’s fantasy imagines the possibility of foraging for the best things in Polish soil; not easily or simply, as I hope I’ve shown – the process of uprooting the past is too painful for that; but hidden away beneath its tangled trees, or among the village communities that find no place on the historical map, or in the hearts and minds of individual Poles, with their deep affection for the valleys that bred them, in spite of all the pain those valleys have witnessed.

Agnieszka’s eventual decision to settle among the heart-trees of the Wood is as hard-won as any ending in fantasy fiction. But it’s also a confident declaration of the possibility of staying in love with one’s roots, despite the corruptions and calamities that have been bound up in them, despite the difficulty of nurturing them inwardly back to health. And that’s just one of the many good reasons to read Uprooted.


Kark and Kerr, Part 2

Exactly two years later, the circus rolled into the town of Bogton St Mary in Devonshire, England. Crowds lined the narrow streets to watch the carts and horse-drawn vans parade to their destination, an open field by the river Bog, where a rival township quickly sprang up under the busy hands of the circus performers. A tall old woman wandered through this temporary town of wood and canvas, gazing at the bunting, admiring the fire-eaters and the girls on stilts, pausing to examine the side of the brightly-painted caravan where Fatima the Fearless promised to Ftudy your Future and report her Findings with Fidelity. The old woman was dressed in shimmering crinolines of brown and gold, and many of the passers-by were as much inclined to stare at her as at the denizens of the circus. Her nose was hooked, her cheekbones prominent, and her eyes – her eyes were the strangest thing about her. They were larger than most, and the yellow pupils, which seemed to have virtually effaced the whites, were flecked with what looked like pieces of mica.

Despite the lively interest with which she examined every detail of her surroundings, the woman strode about the circus grounds with the air of one who possesses a fixed purpose. She stood for some time before the banner which advertized the feats of Polly the performing horse. Then she stopped again in front of the large striped tent where the Flying Nardini Family would later demonstrate the difficult and dangerous art of the high trapeze as practised in Italy, furnished – so the painting suggested – with tiny wings like those of Raphael’s putti. She seemed about to enter the tent, but just at that moment a small girl carrying a bucket ducked out from under one of the flaps. The old woman took one look at the young Nardini’s costume – thick wrinkled tights, frilly pink bodice and wings of gauze – gave a snort of disgust and wandered on. She spared no more than a glance for the extravagant notice-board which lauded the many miraculous properties of Dr Jugg’s Universal Remedy and Beautifying Agent, to be sold at the door of his waggon for the bargain sum of five shillings the flask, but stopped once again in front of a crimson pavilion dedicated to the Miracles of Nature as collected and authenticated by Professor Petronius P. Pomaine, of the University of Pennsylvania.

An enormous signboard stood outside the professor’s pavilion listing the wonders to be found within: a two-headed lamb preserved in formaldehyde; a woman with horns; a duck-billed platypus with poisonous spurs on its webbed hind feet; the skeleton of a dragon slain by the Anatolian warrior known as St. George; a unicorn from Harappa which would lay its head in the lap of any virgin; a Patagonian giant; a Congolese pygmy. But her attention, it seemed, had been arrested by one wonder in particular: the Astonishing Bird Boy, listed among the lesser miracles of nature which did not warrant space for extended treatment on the crowded signboard. She leaned forward and tapped the words ‘Bird Boy’ as if expecting them to explain themselves. Then she nodded once and entered the pavilion.

Inside, the tent was gloomy and stank of urine and preservative fluid. The cages containing the exhibits were covered with awnings. A mournful-looking man with a receding chin and a huge moustache came up to the woman and asked what she wanted. ‘I am a representative of Dr Balthazar Buzzard,’ she replied, ‘and I have come to collect the exhibit known as the Bird Boy, in accordance with the agreement concluded between Dr Buzzard and Professor Petronius C. Pomaine by letter last week.’

‘Excuse me, madam’ said the mournful man in an accent that was meant to sound foreign, possibly Slavic. ‘I myself am Professor Pomaine. I know of no letter and no agreement.’

‘The arrangement, then, if you must be so particular. I have a brougham waiting for me on the Tavistock Road. I would be most grateful if we could finish this business with expedition, since I intend to catch the noon train from Biddlecombe to Truro. Please let me see the boy at once.’

‘Madam,’ said the mournful man, trying his best to look supercilious but looking only pained. ‘There must be some mistake. I have received no letter from Dr Buzzard. No arrangement has been made. The Bird Boy is one of the outstanding attractions in my scientific exhibition, and I cannot possibly consent to disappoint the public by letting him go. His arrival in Devon has been eagerly anticipated for many weeks. Should I dispose of him before we open this afternoon I shall be obliged to compensate the members of the public for their disappointment by offering them a partial reimbursement of their entry fees. I shall suffer material losses, Madam; very material losses. I am sure you understand my position.’

‘You are wrong, Professor Pomaine,’ said the old woman, opening the diamantine reticule she had been carrying in her left hand. ‘There has been no mistake and you will suffer no losses. I have here another letter from Dr Buzzard in which the arrangement I mentioned is described in full. I believe you will soon recall the drift of your correspondence, once you have reminded yourself of the sum offered by Dr Buzzard for the transference of the boy to his establishment.’

Professor Pomaine put on a pair of lozenge spectacles and peered through the gloom at the paper she held out to him. His mouth dropped open as he read the figure. ‘Ah yes,’ he said slowly. ‘I am beginning to remember this letter. A most agreeable man, Dr Buzzard, and one with a very shrewd head for business.’

‘You will remember, then, that I must see the boy before any money changes hands. And you will remember that Dr Buzzard has left it entirely at my discretion as to whether or not the transaction will take place as per the aforesaid correspondence. Now lead me to him, please, Professor. Time is short.’

Professor Pomaine’s mournful expression had now been replaced with an air of acute anxiety. ‘I promise you, madam, Dr Buzzard will not be disappointed,’ he blustered as he led the way between cloth-covered containers towards the darkest recesses of the tent. ‘The boy is authentic and quite unique. He was discovered by Latvian traders in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. I have cherished him like a son. It will break my heart to lose him. Unfortunately, however, he has not been in the best of spirits recently. A slight imbalance of the humours, I understand from the esteemed Dr Jugg, but it has altered his appearance, and not for the better. Not that he was ever a beauty, mark you! But now – that is – you will see for yourself.’

The Bird Boy sat hunched in the corner of his cage, his knees drawn up to his chest. He was naked and appallingly thin. His arms and what could be seen of his torso were covered with long dark feathers and scraps of down, worn away in patches to expose the dirty blue-grey of his skin. His legs, although covered in scabs, were those of an ordinary boy, but they terminated in what looked like claws. The strangest thing about him was his head. It was the head of a bird, covered with fine black feathers which had worn away here and there as they had on his body, and armed with a long, sharp beak. The eyes were closed; but when the old woman addressed him in an odd fluting language unknown to Professor Pomaine (who had lived most of his life in Islington) one eye suddenly opened wide and stared at her sideways for a minute or two before closing again just as suddenly.

‘This boy is dying, Professor Pomaine,’ the woman pronounced, after examining him for two or three minutes between the bars. ‘And what is more, I suspect he is a fake. I ought by rights to return to Truro and advise Dr Buzzard not to waste his money. But Dr Buzzard is a genuine scholar, unlike some I could mention, and I do not think he would take it kindly if I were to rob him of the pleasure of studying this sorry specimen for himself. I am prepared to offer you –’ and she named a sum less than half of that which had been mentioned in the letter. ‘Take it or leave it, sir. I cannot miss my train.’

Professor Pomaine wailed in protest and demanded more. The woman made as if to march out of the pavilion. The Professor relented, no doubt after a rapid calculation of the very much smaller amount he could expect to make on the boy’s dead body if, as seemed more than probable, the woman was right and he did not have long to live. A bargain was struck, the woman took a packet of coins from her reticule and the Professor rapidly counted its contents, then wrote out a receipt on a grubby ticket-stub which he produced from his waistcoat pocket. The woman promised to send a man to collect the boy at once. Professor Pomaine bowed her out of the pavilion and returned to counting the coins she had given him. His mournful look had been replaced with one of cautious optimism.

A few hours later the old woman sat on a plush velvet seat in a private railway carriage belonging to Dr Balthazar Buzzard, and watched as the Bird Boy was fed from a bottle by another old woman with crippled hands. As soon as the boy had finished drinking the women laid him on a carriage seat and watched as powerful convulsions stretched him out and doubled him up. Within an hour the last remaining feathers had fallen from his body, and by sunset his grotesque head had begun to buckle and bend as if under tremendous pressure. The carriage was shunted into a siding on Bodmin moor, a bath was drawn and dirt and feathers scrubbed from every crevice of his shuddering frame. By this time the boy was running a high fever. The women sat with him through the night, answering him in soft voices when he cried out in fear, or babbled in the fluting tongue of birds, or whispered scraps of nonsense. At daybreak he fell asleep. Dr Balthazar’s representative sent the other old woman to bed and settled down to read a book, kneeling on the floor beside the carriage seat where the boy lay stretched in corpselike stillness under a blanket. As she read, one of her hands rested on the boy’s exposed left foot, which no longer resembled a claw.

After an hour or two she glanced up and saw him staring at her with eyes now large and dark in an ashen face.

‘How are we feeling now?’ she asked.

‘Terrible. I hurt all over. How do you know my language?’

‘Never mind. I’ll tell you later. All you need know at present is that you are safe and that we are bound for Truro. You may call me Margaret. I am a specialist in the study of exotic birds, and I am very curious to know how a citizen of Lazarus came to be travelling with an English circus, trapped, it would seem, at a mid-way point between one phase of the Changes and the next.’

A violent shiver made the boy’s teeth rattle in his narrow head. ‘Where is Professor Pomaine?’

‘Far away. He will never trouble you again. As I told you, you are safe, and once you have recovered your strength you may go where you choose. Now tell me all about yourself – or rest, if you prefer. I have no wish to elicit information from you which you would rather keep secret.’

The boy grinned ruefully. ‘I’m not much good at keeping secrets. I guess that’s why I’m here. And I don’t remember much about Professor Pomaine, nor about the circus. I feel like I’ve been living a dream for years or centuries. No, not a dream, a nightmare…’

He stopped for a minute to study her face. But he seemed reassured by what he saw there, because he soon went on, and his voice grew stronger as he spoke.

‘You’re right, though, ma’am. I come from Lazarus. Didn’t like it much, though. My parents died when I was young and I had nothing left to keep me there. Nothing but my poor old Nan, and I think I killed her when I ran away from home. I wanted to become a bird, you see, like they did in stories. So… so I ran away to the woods, and Chew Chew betrayed me, and the hunters came with dogs to track me down, so I ran away again, and I think I Changed. I remember wind in my eyes and the ground below, and black wings beating – but perhaps I was only climbing a hill, or falling off a cliff, or sick, or mad. But I think I turned into a bird, and I think I flew – yes, flew – for a long, long time before they caught me.’

He lay for a moment staring at the book in the old woman’s hands, as if he thought it held the rest of his story. Then he shuddered and laid back on the seat. She thought he would go back to sleep without saying more, but after a while he spoke again, in his croaky voice that kept veering from high to low like a broken church organ.

‘Professor Pomaine says I was found by Latvian traders, and that I was still a bird when they found me, half dead with cold. He says they put me in a cage because they’d never seen a bird so large and strange with a human voice. Isn’t it odd, though, that they would cage me for sounding human? They took me to England because that’s the best place, the Professor says, to get money for freaks. By the time we got to Dover I was starting to look like a human being as well as sound like one, so they began to think I was some sort of devil. Some of them wanted to cut off my head and dump me in a ditch, others wanted to find a priest to exorcise me, but in the end they sold me for pennies to a man in Portsmouth who collected monsters.

‘The man’s name was Morrow, and he was more of a monster than anyone in his collection. He had a cabinet full of drugs which he liked to test on us to see what happened. He discovered that one of these drugs could stop me Changing; it froze my body in the shape of a bird, or a boy, or the half-and-half thing I was when you found me. I don’t know where he got it, but Dr Jugg says it can be used to stop buds from blooming into flowers, or caterpillars from turning into butterflies, or children from growing up. Professor Pomaine and Dr Jugg were friends of his. They helped him pay for his drugs by buying freaks from him to show at the circus. After Morrow had finished with me I was very ill, so Professor Pomaine was able to buy me for a knock-down price, along with the recipe for the drug that kept me as the Bird Boy.

‘I travelled with the circus for a long time, but I never got better from the things Morrow did to me. I hurt all the time, and the pain got worse. Dr Jugg used to give me the drug every Thursday morning. Funny, isn’t it? That was the very same day when Mrs Chakchak used to make us eat her disgusting stew. I expect her stew had a drug in it like Morrow’s. Who knows? Maybe he got his drug from Lazarus. I used to think about that when I was in my cage. I’d run all that way to get away from Mrs Chakchak, and here I was in a prison still worse than Lazarus, having the same foul substance forced down my throat in a rubber tube. I flew straight out of one cage into another. Perhaps all the world is just a mass of cages, cage after cage with prisoners on the inside looking out and keepers on the outside looking in. Only you can’t always be sure who is the prisoner and who the keeper. Professor Pomaine used to scream at night, I could hear him sometimes, screaming and screaming in his sleep like a rabbit in a trap…

‘And now here I am in another cage. I don’t know if I’m free, as you say, or if I’m a prisoner and you’re my keeper. I don’t know anything. I… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.’

The old woman smiled. ‘You’re right to be mistrustful,’ she observed. ‘And of course I was wrong to say you’re free. You’re as much a prisoner as I am, though no one but ourselves is ever likely to know it. I told you to call me Margaret, but you’ve spoken my proper name quite often in your fever. It’s Kerr.’

‘Kerr!’ cried Kark, sitting up suddenly so that the blanket fell away from him. ‘I thought…’

‘You thought I was dead,’ the woman finished for him. ‘But I am merely grown up and no longer Changing. You’ve told me your story; I must tell you mine.

‘I escaped from Lazarus much as you did, leaving my past behind me – together with a silver ankle-bracelet which I must have lost when feeding on a carcass in the mountains. But in every other respect our fortunes were different. Unlike you, I was lucky enough to return to human shape a long way from the haunts of men. For a while I lived alone on the Russian steppes, running down wild beasts and drinking water from snow-fed streams with a mind as fierce and featureless as a winter blizzard. After more than a year I wandered into a village, naked and hungry, having forgotten how to speak. The village schoolmaster took me under his wing. I found out later that he had heard of Lazarus, and that some of his forebears had been shape-shifters much like us; there are more of us, Kark, than we’ve been led to believe. He taught me his language; I told him of my sickness and metamorphosis; and slowly we began to piece together the story of the valley as your grandmother told it to you.

‘Like your grandmother, we came to the conclusion that the people of Lazarus were not sick, but possessed instead of a wonderful talent: the capacity to assume the form of birds at certain times of year – or perhaps in certain years, we cannot be sure since there has been no scientific study of such metamorphoses, at least in recent centuries. We decided that this capacity had been hidden from them by the Council, not so much for fear of reprisals from the outside world as to keep the population of the valley timid and tractable (my schoolmaster was an anarchist and had little faith in governments). We understood, too, that the stew must have contained a drug of the kind you’ve described, capable of suppressing the symptoms of the Changes. But my schoolmaster also realized that we did not possess this drug, and that I might undergo the Changes again at any moment. To protect me he must hide my nature from hostile scrutiny by removing me to a secret location. He therefore arranged that I should pay regular visits to his brother, a fur-trader who lived in a cabin many miles from the village, and who was fully apprised of my condition. These visits were meant to give me a pretext for leaving the community without arousing suspicion whenever the Changes showed signs of returning.

‘We were too naive, however. After a few such visits, gossip began to run rife in the village. It was said that I was mistress of both brothers and that I had seduced them into taking part in diabolical rituals. The best way to quash these rumours was for me to marry the fur-trader. I did so, and went to live with him in the forest. Every few years, when the Changes came over me, I fled away deep into the wilderness with my secret. For the rest of the time I behaved as an ordinary Russian housewife, except that I did not sleep with my husband and bore him no children. Instead I read all I could about ornithology in books and periodicals sent me by my schoolmaster, which he ordered from Moscow for my use whenever he could afford to do so. I was searching, endlessly searching for some clue as to who I was.

‘Then one day I read in one of the periodicals about a leading British naturalist, Mr Balthazar Buzzard – owner of the world’s most remarkable bird collection – who had advanced an absurd but intriguing theory. He argued that human beings and birds have a great deal more in common than had previously been supposed, and that there was even a possibility that at some remote point in the evolution of both races they had shared a common ancestry. The theory was only mentioned in the periodical in order to be derided, but it was the first hint I had seen anywhere of a scientific acknowledgement of my condition. I decided at once that I must meet Mr Buzzard. I packed my bag, took leave of my husband, and set off to visit my schoolmaster for the last time, and to discuss with him the best means of reaching England. He gave me the name of a correspondent of his in London who might put me up on my arrival, slipped into my hand a purse containing a few gold coins – half his worldly goods – and clasped around my neck a necklace that had once belonged to his mother. We parted with tears, exchanging many expressions of mutual esteem.

‘The journey to England was largely uneventful. A ship I boarded at Sebastopol sank, but not while I was aboard, and my bag was stolen in Naples, but by that time it was empty. Winter came and I had to take refuge in the mountains of northern Spain when the Changes overtook me. Here I was badly hurt by a fowling-piece, but recovered my human form in time to catch a ship from Lisbon to Flushing the following spring. I reached Truro safely, where I met Mr Buzzard, and found him to be quite as insane as the periodical had painted him, and hopelessly addicted to opium.

‘But he was very kind. As soon as he’d heard my story he offered me a post in his Institute of Esoteric Ornithology. I am now his private secretary and itinerant researcher. He has made me responsible for seeking out evidence in support of his theories about the link between men and birds. For years now this has been my principal occupation: hunting through archives, scientific journals, learned tomes and volumes of improbable fictions, as I did when I lived in a cabin in a Russian forest, searching, constantly searching for anything that might shed light on the history and habits of my people – the Bird People. It was in connection with this research that I heard of you, from a particular friend of Mr Buzzard’s, a man called Wells. And it was in the service of this research that I sought you out, as I have sought out many interesting specimens in the past to add to the more exotic sections of Mr Buzzard’s collection. The question now is: what is to be done with you?’

The boy lay still on the seat, looking weak and ill. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I can hardly believe that you’re really the Kerr I’ve heard so much about. You seem so different…’

‘You mean I’m older.’

‘No! I mean, yes; but there’s something more. You’re so much less… less wild than I thought you’d be. I always thought of Kerr as a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue… everything Nan said she was.’

‘She was. She still would be, if circumstances permitted. She is, in fact. One of the things you will learn about this world outside the valley is that for a woman like me to exist at all is a rebellion, an adventure, and an act of roguery all at once. How many female researchers do you think there are in the British Empire today? Your grandmother was right about me, as she was about everything else.’

‘You seem to know a lot about my Nan. Did you know her well, in Lazarus?’

‘Not well, no. She was some years younger than me, and when you’re a child a few short years make all the difference. I know her better now.’

At this point the second old woman entered from another part of the carriage. She gave a cry of delight when she saw Kark sitting up in bed, and fell to her knees beside him. It took him several seconds to recognize her, because her face had been scarred by frost, her back bent double with exhaustion, and her hands twisted into claws by arthritis. ‘Time hasn’t been kind to me,’ she said with a laugh that dismissed all time’s unkindness. ‘I wandered for many months in many cruel countries. But I have found a true friend, and I have found my grandson, and now at last the tide seems to be turning.’

There is more to tell, but little space to tell it in. This narrative is growing bulky enough already, and I am beginning to wonder if it will fit into the hiding place I have chosen for it. Besides, my poor old hand no longer writes as well as it did. Whatever the Mad Hatter said, a raven and a writing desk have little enough in common, and a pen sits uneasily in a hand shaped like a raven’s claw. I must bring my tale to a close, however unsatisfactory.

The three from Lazarus celebrated their meeting with more laughter, some tears and a great deal of talking. Kark slept again through the rest of that day and the following night, and when he woke they talked again, and little by little his strength returned. As he grew stronger, as the train moved west, the situation in which he found himself became clearer to him. Kerr had been right: he was not so free as he had seemed at first. From the moment of his recovery his life, like hers, would be regulated by drugs: the same drugs that had kept him trapped in the body of the Bird Boy, and that had formerly kept him locked in human shape throughout his life in the valley. He learned from Kerr that a modest traffic in these drugs had existed between the valley and the outside world for generations; a traffic that was strictly controlled by the inner circle of the Council of Lazarus, and whose profits bought certain special foodstuffs and a degree of protection for the people of the valley. By the merest good fortune a supply of the drugs had fallen into the possession of Balthazar Buzzard, who had apprised his new secretary of their properties as soon as he knew of her unusual predicament. She took them every week now – but not on Thursdays. Kark must take them regularly too, if he did not wish to run the risk of falling once again into the hands of men like Morrow, Jugg and Pomaine. From henceforth silence and secrecy would be his best protection, as they had been all his life. The difference was that they would now be self-imposed, and that he might drop them at will should he choose to subject himself once more to the perils that accompany the Changes.

But the drugs were not the only kind of constraint to which he was now subjected. All three of the former inhabitants of Lazarus felt a powerful urge to devote themselves to righting some of the wrongs they had suffered. Kark longed to track down Professor Pomaine so as to liberate his fellow prisoners before they succumbed to the despair and resignation that had so nearly killed the Bird Boy. He wanted to raid Morrow’s laboratory in Portsmouth and free the poor unfortunates who were the victims of his experiments. And he yearned, as did Kerr and his grandmother, to return to the valley of Lazarus. He wished to inform his afflicted people of their true natures, to expose the lies that had been told them by the Council, and to reveal to them the boundless world of possibilities that lay beyond the walls of their mountain prison, available to be entered in relative safety by those who had learned to manage the Changes with wisdom. But before he could begin to do any of these things he must find a way to earn his living.

Once again it was Balthazar Buzzard who came to the rescue. The celebrated ornithologist took to Kark as soon as he met him; a little twisted man with a look of constant hunger in his vast black eyes, he saw fulfilled in the former Bird Boy all his own dreams of the possibility of metamorphosis which had belonged, he thought, to his ancestors, and which had forever been denied him. He would follow Kark round his turreted mansion talking incessantly about the mechanics of flight, and offering him food or drink or toxic drugs of various kinds in the hopes of coaxing him into conversation about his life as a bird – conversation that might afford some clue as to how Mr Buzzard, too, might undergo the Changes. From time to time, in response to his generous patronage and frequent pleadings, Kark and Kerr would consent to stop taking the drugs for several weeks and Change for him themselves. On these occasions Mr Buzzard would send away his household staff and make up a bed in the famous glasshouse, where he would watch for hours, biting his fingers, as the pair of them wandered among the plants, their skins bristling with incipient plumage, their faces stretching and distorting as beaks began to form under the discoloured flesh. Nan, in turn, would watch Mr Buzzard, in case he should be tempted to put himself in danger by mimicking their behaviour, perhaps by climbing a tree and flinging himself from its branches, or by eating something ill suited to human digestive system. Nan was past the age for Changing and in any case had never enjoyed the sensation, which recalled for her the pains of childbirth – pains she had never forgotten, and which she likened to forcing one’s limbs out of their sockets through sheer strength of will.

Not long after Kark’s arrival at Buzzard Heights, Mr Buzzard offered him the position of Assistant Birdkeeper in the glasshouse. From then on he was responsible for the care of the exotic specimens that made their homes in its various habitats, and later for helping to add new specimens to the collection, taking over from the ageing Kerr as Mr Buzzard’s most trusted aide. It was an interesting job but a hard one, and not one from which he could afford to absent himself for more than a few days at a stretch. Not that he felt much inclined to leave behind the comforts of his new environment. He and Nan and the redoubtable Kerr spent most of their leisure time in a strange artificial leaf-filled world beneath the great glass domes, wandering among tree-ferns and sitting in the shade of orange groves and ornamental arbours, plotting the liberation of Lazarus, or recalling details of their travels, or mulling over their confused and contradictory impressions of their life as birds.

Days passed into months and months into years. Kark visited Portsmouth and found that all traces of Morrow had long since disappeared. Pomaine too seemed to have vanished into thin air; Kark suspected that he had dropped his professorial alias and retired with his fortune to his house in Islington. At last the three lost citizens of Lazarus performed a similar vanishing act. As is well known to historians, a mysterious gas escape wiped out the birds in Mr Buzzard’s collection in the winter of 1900. The day before the tragedy, the young man and the two old women who had tended the collection left the glasshouse from different exits and were never seen again. The press and the public were far too interested in the question of what had happened to Mr Buzzard to speculate as to the fate of his three employees. For a while the police took a desultory interest in their disappearance, but they soon abandoned the investigation. As an ambitious young police sergeant explained it later to the local paper, inquiries into their whereabouts were greeted by the local community with what could only be described as a ‘resounding silence’.

And now it is time to finish writing. Indeed, I would never have started if I had realized how foolish my story would look on paper. To begin with, there are so many coincidences involved in it – as many as in a bad Victorian adventure story. How in God’s name, for instance, did Kerr, Kark and his grandmother contrive to find their way to the South West corner of England, to the hospitable environment of Balthazar Buzzard’s glasshouse? And by what improbable routes did Morrow and Buzzard obtain their supplies of the drug that arrested the Changes? The valley itself, in my account, resembles an English valley in the Lake District more closely than a valley in the Urals – or so I presume, having forgotten anything I ever knew about that district of what is now the Soviet Union. The names of the valley’s residents make them sound like a bunch of talking animals from a pantomime. And as for the central premise of my narrative – that a certain subsection of the human species might be capable of changing into birds – well, you are twelve years old this week, young Karl, and this is 1967: you know as well as I do the sheer absurdity of that proposition.

Why, if there were even a grain of truth to it we would have to revise our entire notion of human history. We would have to look with fresh eyes on a whole range of myths, legends and fables, both ancient and modern – from the traditional depictions of angels in Western tradition to those of the Victorian flower fairies, from the Russian firebird to the Indonesian Garuda, from the phoenix to the Mesoamerican fathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and the lightning bird of the Xhosa… In short, the whole eccentric course of my researches, which has drawn on me the bemused derision of my academic colleagues, would need no further justification…

And I am tired of justifying myself. As tired as your great great grandmother was when she told me the equally foolish tale of Kerr with which my own story opened. That is why I have written this narrative down as I have, and as my ancestors did, in the guise of a harmless fiction. I was encouraged to do so by the fact that for a week now you have been off your food. Your mother says that you are deliberately starving yourself, out of some perverse desire, I suppose, to share my suffering, as I succumb to the final stages of the wasting disease that has extinguished my appetite. She is angry with me for being no more forceful in my efforts to encourage you to start eating again. My story will explain why I find it impossible to give you more than half-hearted encouragement.

I saw you, Karl, the other night, as you scurried to the bathroom in your flannel dressing gown. Your chest has thickened and your legs are as long and powerful as the legs of an ostrich. Believe me, boy, these early stages are the hardest. By the time you’re my age the notion of even the most cataclysmic physical Change will arouse in you the mingled terror and delight felt by every modern student when confronted with the prospect of revolution. The young people of the world are flying in their heads now, Karl, dreaming of liberties unimaginable to my generation. The tides are turning, as Nan would have said. Perhaps by the time you read this they will have turned.

An unusually large raven is tapping at my study window with its beak. Before I go to see what it wants I shall leave these sheets in their hiding place, together with a long brown feather bequeathed to me by my Nan. If you are reading them now you will know how cleverly they were hidden, and will spare a kind thought for your old grandpa, and for all those other lost lonely ones who never told their secrets.

Kark and Kerr, Part 1

Every Thursday Mrs Chakchak made one of her special stews and stood over the children with a ladle in her hand to make sure they ate every drop. If a boy or girl protested she would lash out with the ladle and rap them over the knuckles – once, twice, three times – telling them they were ungrateful little insects, and promising she would really give them something to cry about if they made another sound before emptying their bowls. Nobody got their knuckles rapped more often than Kark. Perhaps that’s why whenever he thinks of Mrs Chakchak’s stews he remembers them now as tasting mostly of salt.

When Kark was twelve years old he fell ill and lost his appetite. On Thursday Mrs Chakchak came and stood by his bed with a bowl of her stew. But the smell of it made him retch, and when she tried to spoon it into his mouth he vomited all over his Nan’s best linen.

Nan told Mrs Chakchak that the boy was clearly too sick to take his dose this Thursday. Mrs Chakchak said ‘Nonsense!’ (her favourite word), and the two old women started shouting at each other in high, querulous voices.

‘Sick or not, if he eats nothing else this week he must eat this!’ cried Mrs Chakchak.

‘It’s no use insisting,’ cried Nan. ‘For three days he hasn’t taken anything but water. Come now, Mrs Chakchak! It’ll do no harm if he misses his dose this once!’

‘It will do a great deal of harm, as you know very well. Remember what became of the Kerr child, who refused her dose three weeks running! We lost a good man in the search for her, and when they finally found her body there was nothing left but bones and a bit of skin! They had to identify the remains from the silver bracelet on her ankle!’

‘That was a different case and well you know it. The Kerr girl had something wrong with her glands; and besides, they didn’t keep a proper eye on her. I’m keeping an eye on Kark both night and day. He’s already getting better, bit by bit. By next week I’ve no doubt he’ll take a double helping of your stew and ask for a third. Now I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do today, Mrs Chakchak. What this boy needs is bed-rest, and it’s my job to make sure he gets it. Goodbye!’

‘This boy is an impudent dabchick, and what he needs is a good sound thrashing! I shall take up the matter with my fellow councillors!’ And Mrs Chakchak flounced out of the shack, splashing gobbets of evil-smelling liquid onto the floor at every step.

‘You mustn’t mind Mrs Chakchak, dear,’ said Nan. ‘She’s a well-meaning soul and was once a wise one. Fear and loneliness turn us all bad in the end. But you must do your best to get well enough to eat your stew next Thursday.’

Luckily the fever broke that evening, and Kark emptied his bowl three times the following week to please Nan and spite Mrs Chakchak. But he didn’t forget the shrill exchange at his bedside. Day and night he nagged at Nan till at last she agreed to explain what had happened to the girl named Kerr. ‘O very well,’ she said one evening, when she looked old and tired and seemed unable to get close enough to the fire to warm her bones. ‘I’ll tell you the story. It may even do you good, if it teaches you to eat what’s put in front of you. But don’t breathe a word to any of your friends. If the Council hears I’ve been talking about such things they’ll send me away from the valley to die of cold and hunger.’

Of course Kark promised faithfully. But even as he listened he forgot his promise, and began planning in his head how he would embellish the tale for his best friend Chew when he got the chance. He squatted down with Nan beside the fire and watched her rubbing together her knobbly hands as she talked, trying and trying to bring warmth to her aching knuckles.

‘You know, of course, that the stew is a kind of medicine,’ she began. ‘When you were small we told you it was good for you. You must eat it up, we said, if you want to grow big and strong. But later, when you were wise enough to understand what we were saying, we taught you something different: something we couldn’t mention earlier because it would have given you nightmares. For generations, we said, the people of Lazarus have suffered from a rare and dangerous illness, a congenital disorder unique to the men and women of our country. From time to time this disease breaks out of our bodies like a monstrous moth breaking out of its cocoon: splitting our skin, twisting our limbs, never failing to kill or cripple its victims. You must eat the stew, we told you, if you wish to stay alive. It’s not just a health-giving supplement; it’s the condition of our existence, as inseparably part of us as our limbs and inner organs.

‘From the moment you heard about this illness, Kark, you knew you were a prisoner. It’s because of this disease, we explained, that we live as we do, in this barren valley hemmed in by mountains. This is our place of quarantine, the island where we’ve been marooned. We were dragged here in chains by men in masks, and forbidden to leave on pain of death. Since then we’ve had little to do with the world beyond. We trade with the men in masks for things we need that the valley doesn’t yield us, spreading out skins and gemstones on blankets, then retreating behind a wall to watch them quarrelling over the pathetic portions of salt and spices they leave us in exchange. But we never go beyond the Seven Passes, never risk the wrath of our jailers. This valley is our prison and the stew is part of our penance for the crime of being sick. That’s how it’s been for thirteen generations, and that’s how it shall be till the end of time.

‘So long as we eat our stew, we’re told, we shall all stay healthy and be left in peace. But if ever any one of us forgets to take our dose – or refuses to take it – or pretends to take it then secretly spews it up – disaster will strike. The disease will burst from our bodies and spread the wings of its contagion from town to town; the Seven Passes will be sealed shut, and we’ll be left to die in solitude, cut off forever from the rest of mankind. Or worse: the men in masks will ride back into the valley, wrapped in protective cloth from head to foot, and kill us all, men, women and children, so as to stamp out the disease before it can infect their families. That’s why old Mrs Chakchak was so horrified when you wouldn’t eat. Poor dear, you mustn’t blame her. She really believes the stories, really thinks her revolting gunk is the key to our salvation.’ Nan laughed wryly and held her hands out to the fire. ‘Trouble is,’ she added, ‘there are as many stories as there are names, and as many explanations for both as there are blades of grass on the distant steppes. Tell me, child, have you learned how our valley got its name?’

Kark nodded. ‘Miss Rikikikik told us it was because of a man called Lazarus who rose from the dead. She said the people who came to the valley were so happy to get away from their troubles that it was as if they had died and been born again, so they named it Lazarus in memory of the man who came back to life. But Mrs Hoo says that’s not true. She says Lazarus was a poor man like us who never had enough to eat, and that he was only ever happy when he died. She says they called the valley Lazarus because the food here was so bad and there was so little of it. How can that be, Nan? Was the valley named after two different people? Or is Miss Rikikikik wrong? Or Mrs Hoo?’

‘People and places get names for many different reasons,’ Nan said. ‘And sometimes old names find new meanings. When I was a child my teacher taught me that the valley got its name not from a person but from a building. She said it came from two words, “lazar house”, which means a place where lepers are sent to live till their illness kills them. A lazar is a leper, and a leper is a man or woman who suffers from a disease called leprosy, which eats away at the flesh till there’s nothing left but a pile of bones. I’ve never seen a leper, but I’m so old and worn out that I sometimes feel like one.’

‘I bet that’s what happened to Kerr,’ cried Kark. ‘She was a leper, and one day she wandered away from home, and got lost in the mountains, and went round and round in circles till her flesh was all eaten away and there was nothing left but the bracelet on her ankle.’

‘Yes, perhaps that’s it,’ said Nan. ‘Perhaps she was a leper. Perhaps we’re all lepers, and the story of Kerr is just a way of making us feel better about ourselves. Like the story of Lazarus who rose from the dead, which is so very much more cheerful than the story of Lazarus who died of hunger.’

She fell silent, gazing into the flames; and it was all Kark could do to persuade her to go on with her story.

Kerr, it seemed, was a little scamp; a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue. (‘Very much like you,’ Nan added with a smile.) Like Kark she complained every Thursday when the bowl was put in front of her; like Kark she was always getting into trouble; and like Kark she got ill one day and refused to eat her stew, despite all the efforts of the woman who made it. But unlike Kark, having once refused her dose Kerr never took another. She would eat only fruit and water. Anything else, whether hidden in spoonfuls of apple pulp or forced between her clenched teeth by members of the Council, simply would not stay down. She got thinner and thinner and weaker and weaker with every passing day, and at the end of the third week her body began to change in other ways. Her skin broke out in pimples, her face became long and sharp with hunger, her legs were covered with flakes or scales of brittle skin, and her chest swelled to make room for the air she was always gasping. The wise old men and women of the valley gathered at her bedside and argued about what was wrong with her.

‘It’s her womanhood,’ said one. ‘She’s becoming a grown woman, and her glands can’t cope. Look at the length of her arms and legs, the joints of her fingers and toes, the girth of her chest. Parts of her body are growing very fast while other parts are wasting away to compensate for the vitamins she isn’t getting in her diet. As soon as she starts to eat normally these things will sort themselves out.’

‘I wish I could agree,’ said another with a sigh. ‘This looks to me like something worse than growing pains. Something very serious is happening to her skin. I would hesitate to diagnoze leprosy; but I see every indication here of a severe skin disorder, and I recommend that the girl be kept in the strictest isolation till time and a better diet have resolved the situation – one way or another.’

‘You’re both talking shit,’ snapped a high-ranking councillor. ‘You know very well what’s happening here, and it won’t do to pussy-foot around it any longer. The girl is going through the Changes. In a matter of days or weeks she will have Changed completely. We must convene an emergency meeting of the Council to decide what’s to be done.’

The wise men and women all drew in their breath at the mention of the Changes. Some of them thought they understood the word; others merely reacted to a term that had acquired an air of mystery from stories and songs they had heard in childhood. But by the time the councillor had ended his address to the emergency meeting, they all knew more than they had known before, and what they knew made them terribly afraid.

‘All of you have heard about the Changes,’ he said. ‘Songs are still being sung and stories told, even if you take them for nursery rhymes and fables. We in the Council have always hoped that these stories and songs would soon be forgotten, replaced by new ones full of comfort: stories with happy endings, songs to lift the heart and point to a brighter future. We put about the story of leprosy to hasten the process of forgetting; but we planned one day to replace that nasty tale with something nicer.

‘More than this, we began to hope for something better than stories.   We began to hope that the Changes had indeed stopped working their terrible magic on our bodies. We grew slack in administering the herbal treatments devised by our clever ancestors to keep the Changes at bay. Yet despite our slackness, nothing like this – like what has happened to Kerr – had happened in living memory. The Changes seemed to have become in reality what we’d laboured to make them in the minds of our people: a thing of the past. Very cautiously, we dared to believe that we in the valley were finally free from the curse that has shaped our history. In a few generations, we told ourselves, we shall leave the valley for good, and our children’s children shall live in the world of men in perfect safety.

‘Now, it seems, our hopes have been dashed. After only three weeks without her dose, a girl of the valley has begun to show signs of metamorphosis. Our curse has returned, and if the news gets out we may suffer appalling consequences. We shall be persecuted, isolated, put to the sword. We must see to it, then, that no word of her condition leaves this room. Silence is now, as it has always been, our best protection. I have every confidence in your secrecy. The people of Lazarus are skilled in the ways of silence – that’s why we are still alive. But those who have forgotten how to hold their tongues will find that the Council has not yet forgotten how to punish.

‘How to deal with the girl herself? We must be humane: that’s one of the conditions under which we aspire to recover our full humanity. I propose that our safest course is to put her in one of the bothies on the lower slopes of the mountains. The opinion of my wise friend must be spread about the homesteads: that she has contracted leprosy, and that nobody may come near her till every trace of infection has been cleansed from her limbs. We will place her under careful surveillance. With any luck she will quickly return to health without going any further along the road to metamorphosis. But if she does undergo the Changes we must think again. It will be very difficult to keep her condition quiet once the Changes have been allowed to run their course.

‘In the meantime, do not lose heart. It is quite possible that the situation is not as grave as it seems. We have every reason to suppose that our original diagnosis was correct, and that the people of the valley are no longer so susceptible to their ancient curse as once they were. It may well be that this is a freak occurrence – a final parting blow from the disorder that has dogged our destiny for so long. It may well be that nothing of this kind will ever happen again. For generations we have watched our fears subside and the promise of freedom flourish. If properly handled, we may look back on this incident in years to come as the last savage stroke from a dying monster before it and its kind are stamped out for ever.’

So Kerr was moved from her elder sister’s cottage to a bothy at the edge of the valley, and a guard was set to watch her. The councillor who had proposed this course of action visited her every day with other members of the Council to monitor the progress of her symptoms. They gave it as their opinion that the Changes, if they were to happen, would take place at the next full moon. They were wrong. They had worked so hard to erase all reference to what they called the Curse that they had forgotten how to recognize the tell-tale signs of its imminence. Added to this, the harvest was in full swing, and all the people of the valley were working from dawn till dusk to gather in the meagre crops and prepare their produce for the coming winter. The councillors were as busy as the rest, and no doubt their inspections were more perfunctory than they ought to have been. The guard appointed to watch the girl was an elderly councillor too weak to take part in the harvest. The woman swore she didn’t need much sleep, being old, and so could keep an eye on Kerr by night as well as by day. But she was lying; she spent the night and most of the day in bed with her eyes tight shut and her mouth wide open. So she took her little granddaughter to stay with her in the bothy, with strict instructions to wake her up if anyone approached. Each day she fell asleep before sunset and slept through to the following noon. She was fast asleep when the Changes came, and the only person who saw what happened was the wakeful granddaughter. ‘And that little girl,’ said Nan, ‘was me.’

‘She was you!’ cried Kark, amazed. ‘So you saw everything! What did you see?’

‘What did I see? I’ll tell you. I saw that the Changes were not a disease after all. I saw something that has stayed in my memory ever since, and which I’ve ached all my life to describe to my friends and family. Something that frightened me half to death and yet filled me with unbearable happiness, and which still fills me with fear and happiness whenever I think of it. What I saw made me hate and despise the Council forever, because of their secrets and lies, and because of the terrible things they threatened me with if I should ever let a hint of it pass my lips.

‘What did I see? I saw Kerr Change. One minute she was tossing and turning on a bed of bracken. The next she had thrown off the bedclothes and leapt into the middle of the floor, sweat streaming from her limbs as if her flesh was melting. Feathers sprang from her outstretched fingers. Her legs seemed to buckle and bend in the wrong direction, her horrible misshapen toes dug furrows in the dirt as they turned to claws. Her face seemed to split in two as her jaws stretched wide to let out an inhuman scream. When they shut at last they had become a beak. She turned her back on me and a bristling armoury of quills was forcing its way through her trembling shoulders. I screamed more loudly than she had, and she turned to stare at me with an eye that had turned bright yellow and lost its whites. Then she gave a second leap, and sprang straight out of a hole in the bothy roof. Nobody ever saw her again. Not as Kerr, at any rate, although some of us may have seen her as a bird.’

‘A bird!’ cried Kark. ‘Was she a bird-woman, then – a witch, like the ones in stories?’

‘She was,’ said Nan. ‘And so am I, and so are you, young man. This is what the Council has been trying to hide from us for so long. This is the disease from which we suffer. This is what we are. We’re not lepers. We’re not even ill. We are shape-shifters like the ones in the stories, and the stew we take each Thursday is no medicine but a drug designed to prevent us from becoming ourselves. We are the Bird People, and if we do not take our medicine we turn into birds when the Changes come, as Kerr did, and fly through the air like angels.’

‘But why?’ Kark asked, bewildered. ‘Why don’t they want us to turn into birds? Is it wrong?’

‘It’s very wrong. Wrong of the Council to hide our gifts from us. Wrong of those of us who know to keep quiet about it. Wrong of Mrs Chakchak to force her stinking stew on us without explaining what it’s for. And wrong that we have to live in fear of the Changeless Ones, the men in masks from beyond the valley who drove us out of the fertile lands because of their fear and ignorance. But I haven’t finished with the story of Kerr.

‘As soon as Kerr flew out through the roof, the little girl ran to wake her Nan, and the poor old woman began to shriek at the top of her voice. She had no idea what to make of the little girl’s story; she only knew that her charge had escaped and that the Council would punish her severely for her negligence. Then the door burst open and a man rushed in. It was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting. “What in God’s name was that?” he cried. “It was Kerr, sir,” said the little girl. “She’s turned into a bird,” and she held up a long brown feather for his inspection. He stood there in amazement, looking from feather to bed to the shrieking old woman, who had now begun to pull out her hair in handfuls. “So it has come to this,” he said at last, and left the shack without another word.

‘He went straight to the village and organized the fittest villagers into search-parties. “A giant bird has carried Kerr away,” he told them. “It flew down from the mountains, smashed a hole in the roof of the bothy and snatched her from her bed. We must find the bird and rescue the girl or avenge her death. Follow me!” But before he led the searchers to the mountains he sent certain trusted Councillors to watch the old woman and the little girl, and to keep them prisoners in the bothy till his return. The prisoners were not to speak about what they had seen, and not to have any visitors until they had been thoroughly examined by the Council.’

Their imprisonment, said Nan, lasted for three long months. When the old woman and her granddaughter had entered the shack to watch over Kerr, the valley had been sweltering in the thunderous dying days of late summer. By the time they left, November storms like savage birds had torn the leaves from the poor stunted trees of the valley orchards and the mountains were white with snow. The prisoners were never subjected to the threatened examination. For the first month the search parties combed the mountains in vain, finding no trace of Kerr or of the bird that had carried her off. The most energetic of the searchers was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting; and in the second month his energy killed him. He set out with two younger men to explore a cave in a cliff-face, and fell to his death as he struggled to swing himself into the cave mouth. In the third month a shepherd found the bones of Kerr, picked dry by scavengers, with the silver bracelet among them. The old woman and her granddaughter were released at once, with orders never to mention the lost girl again. The old woman found these orders easy enough to comply with. She had gone quite mad during her confinement, and died within a month of being released. The little girl kept her secret with more difficulty, but she kept it for many years.

‘And now,’ Nan added, ‘she has told it to her grandson. I can’t think what possessed her to speak out. Perhaps she has simply grown too old to keep her mouth shut. Perhaps she thinks that the truth should not be lost. Or perhaps she saw something of Kerr in the boy who refused to eat his stew. In any case, she hopes that the story will bring colour to her grandson’s dreams, as he lives out his life in this dreary mountain prison where we’ve shut ourselves up for no good reason. So that at least his dreams can escape from confinement, as hers have done each night since she saw a girl turn into a bird.

‘But there’s a price to pay for the knowledge I’ve given you. For your sake and mine you must never tell a soul, unless you trust him with your life, as I trust you. The councillor who died said one wise thing: that silence is our best protection. You should think very carefully before you forfeit the safety of silence. Remember this: by staying silent you will be protecting me as well as yourself. Now off to bed with you, and never let me hear another word about Kerr, or stew, or the Changes.’

Kark went to bed as he was told, but he could not sleep because his head was buzzing with the things Nan had told him. So he was one of the bird people! And if he didn’t eat Mrs Chakchak’s stew he would take to the air and fly like an angel! Ever since he had first heard stories of men and women who could change their bodies as ordinary people change their clothes he had yearned with all his heart to be one of them. And now his wishes had been granted, his dreams made flesh! Whatever Nan said, it was not enough for his dreams to remain just that: vivid pictures in his head, good for nothing but to while away the dreary valley winters. He did not think he would ever sleep again until he had found out whether he too could change as Kerr had changed, could share with her the adventure of the skies. But to find this out he would need help, and to get help he would have to betray his grandmother’s confidence.

As it happened, Kark had a friend called Chew Chew whom he would have trusted with his life. The very next day he was due to meet up with Chew Chew to plan a rabbit-hunting trip into the hills. Before Kark fell asleep he had begun to work out a scheme for testing the effects of not taking his dose, and by the time he woke next morning the scheme was fully formed in his head. They would go for the hunting trip as planned; but they would stay away just long enough to make folks at home uneasy. After a week or so Chew Chew would go back to the village and tell the villagers that he and Kark had got lost in the hills in fog, and that they had later lost each other. Meanwhile Kark would hide in a place they had found when they were children, in a lonely wooded corner of the valley. While search parties looked for Kark in the hills, Chew Chew would creep out of his parents’ house under cover of darkness and bring food to where Kark could collect it, together with information about where the searchers were planning to look in the days ahead. If nothing had happened to Kark after several weeks, he would return to the village with a story of some kind to explain his absence. If something did happen, on the other hand… somehow or other he would find a way to let Chew Chew know what had become of him.

Chew Chew was not as keen on the plan as Kark had expected. For one thing, it seemed to him that the most dangerous and least glamorous part of it fell to his share: something that was perfectly true, and hadn’t crossed Kark’s mind. Chew Chew’s parents were councillors and strict disciplinarians. They would react angrily to Chew Chew’s disappearance, and it would be hard for him to slip away after that, even under cover of darkness. It took all Kark’s eloquence to persuade his friend that he was getting a good deal out of the scheme. It was Kark who was acting the part of the human guinea-pig, and Chew Chew would eventually reap the reward of knowing the result of their experiment without having to undergo the Changes himself. Chew Chew finally agreed to do what Kark wanted, but he insisted that the experiment should last no longer than three weeks, and that he should deliver food to Kark no more than twice a week. ‘They’ll notice it’s gone from the storage bins, I know they will,’ he moaned, and Kark felt compelled to smuggle a lot of dried goods out of Nan’s inadequate winter supply so as to reduce the risk of his friend’s being exposed as a thief.

Even then Chew Chew complained all the way to the hills the following week. He complained about the weight of the blankets and clothes Kark had insisted they take with them. He complained about the weather, which drizzled as steadily as he did. He complained about the camp-site they had chosen, which turned out to be the only patch of marsh for miles around, and which reduced all their clothes and blankets to the colour and consistency of mud. Kark bullied him into staying away from the village for a week; but once Thursday had passed and they had missed their first dose of Mrs Chakchak’s concoction Kark almost began to regret that his friend had let himself be persuaded.

‘I feel so strange,’ moaned Chew Chew. ‘My skin burns all over and I’ve got a sore throat. What if your Nan was wrong and the stew is really a medicine to stop us falling ill? What if we get so ill in the next few days that I’m too weak to go home on Sunday?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you that a hot bath wouldn’t cure,’ Kark scoffed. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if you were infested with fleas by now. If you’d take a dip in the stream from time to time, like me, your skin would feel as soft as a feather bed.’

‘Me, swim!’ cried Chew Chew. ‘You must be crazy. That stream’s far too cold to swim in – you’ll catch pneumonia. And for God’s sake don’t talk about feathers. It’s you who wants to turn into a bird, not me. Every morning as soon as I wake up I have to feel myself all over to make sure I’ve not turned into a chicken or a goose. I wish I was at home. At least there I get to sleep on feathers instead of growing them.’

Chew Chew didn’t turn into a chicken, and at the week’s end he went home as they had planned. But he did not come back the following week, nor the week after that. In the meantime Kark made his way across the valley to the hole in the ground where he had meant to live out the course of the Changes. But he found that it had filled with water in the recent downpour, and instead he set up camp under an overhanging rock screened by bushes, which afforded him scant protection against the perishing autumn wind. From the top of the rock he watched as search-parties scoured the valley. Often he had to take cover when a party came too close; and once, when he was checking one of the snares he had set for rabbits, a hunter passed within inches of his nose, and he had to hold his breath until she was out of earshot. Every night he went to the hollow tree which Chew Chew and he had chosen for a meeting place; and every night he returned home angry and disappointed. But he did not think for a moment of abandoning his scheme. He had only to think of the triumph that would be written on Mrs Chakchak’s face as he humbly accepted her stew, or of the tears that would shine in Nan’s eyes as he confessed to his robberies, and his determination to stay where he was grew stronger.

As the days went by his body grew stronger. He hardly noticed how hard and long his legs were growing, or how thick his chest, or how sharp his jawbone. Indeed, he thought less and less after the first fortnight. Instead he concentrated on catching enough food to live on. He ran after deer with the aid of his increasingly powerful thighs. He watched for pigeons, bow in hand, with eyes that could now pick out every detail of the lichen on a rock many hundreds of yards away, and he patrolled his network of snares with the vigilance of a glutton. He no longer bothered to cook the meat he ate. At first he told himself that this was because it was too risky to light a fire, but after a few days he found himself relishing the gush of blood from a fresh kill as it ran down his gullet and settled warm in his stomach. And he also began to relish his anger. He was angry with Chew Chew for failing him; angry with the hunters for seeking to bring him home; angry with the Council for trying to rob him of the freedom he craved; and angry with the rain for running down the back of his neck. Anger gave him invisible wings when he hunted, and anger woke him with all his senses alert when a strange noise startled him awake in the dark.

Then one night, as he crouched in the hollow tree nursing his anger, he heard footsteps approaching. The fallen leaves made it sound as though an army were wading its way towards him through the drifts, but when he peered through a crack in the old oak’s trunk he saw only Chew Chew, stumbling and snivelling and calling a name which it took him several seconds to recognize as his own.

Kark stepped out of the oak at once and grabbed Chew Chew by the wrist. His friend gave a shriek and fell to his knees. ‘Who are you?’ he gasped. ‘It’s never Kark, is it?’

‘Of course it is,’ Kark snapped in his new hoarse voice. ‘But I’m the one who should be asking questions. Where in God’s name have you been? What happened to the supplies you promised you’d bring me? What’s going on down in the village? I ought to break your arm for leaving me alone like this.’

‘Please don’t hurt me!’ Chew Chew squealed. ‘We’re best friends, remember? It’s not my fault I couldn’t come earlier. My parents knew all about our plan. When I got home they shut me in the shed for thieving, and I had nothing to eat, and I was tired and sick, and I had to tell them – no, no, I never told them where you were hiding! But it was a stupid plan, Kark, it could never have worked, and you’ve got to come home with me now or – or they’ll hunt you with dogs!’

‘My Nan!’ Kark hissed. ‘You didn’t tell them anything about her, did you? Say you didn’t!’

‘I couldn’t help it! They wanted to know where you heard about the Changes, and they could tell when I was lying! But don’t worry, she’s all right! She said so when they drove her out of the village. She’s wanted to leave the valley all her life, only she never had the courage! She must be half way to the outside world by now, and she took plenty of food, and she seemed so pleased to be going!’

‘I’ll kill you for this,’ Kark snarled, clacking his teeth together. ‘How did you get away from the village? Were you followed?’

‘Don’t! Please don’t! It’s not my fault! They made me!’

As Chew Chew spoke, a branch shook behind him. Kark knew at once that several people must be hidden in the trees, waiting to see if Chew could persuade him to walk into their ambush. He let out a cry that was more like a croak than a word, flung Chew Chew to the ground and began to run.

The wood seemed to burst into life around him, hunters detaching themselves from branches and trunks like leaves torn away by an autumn gale. A wild excitement coursed through Kark’s body, and he leaped over streams and fallen trees as if he were flying. The pain of his running intensified with every leap, but this only gave him greater strength. With one last bound he broke free of the trees and found himself skimming over the heather of an open hillside. Sticks and stones rattled against the rocks and buried themselves in peat on either side. He tore off his few remaining clothes to help himself run faster. Balloons of air filled his agonized lungs and made him buoyant; he swept aside swathes of air with his arms like a swimmer; his feet barely touched the golden fronds of bracken that stretched out to catch him.

He looked back once to gauge the distance between himself and his nearest pursuer, and saw the pale faces of the hunters far below, their mouths gaping wide in astonishment, their spears and bows hanging forgotten in their hands. The hill had dropped away, he was falling into the star-filled sky, frantically flapping his arms in an effort to keep his balance. For a moment he felt giddy and terrified. Then he forgot his giddiness and terror, forgot everything but the roll and surge of the wind beneath his wings, the roar of it in his ears, the rush of it through his feathers.

[To be continued]

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 (, accessed 29.05.18):

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